Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

From My Files

To Haubergeon Hydra, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Hydra:

I have been asked by several influential members of the Canadian Brotherhood of Snow Shovellers and Ploughmen to put their case to you as Pro. Tem. Sub-Re-Router of Labour, in order that you may draw it to the attention of the appropriate Minister. Here is our case in a nutshell:

(a) Some winters it snows a lot and we make money.

(b) Other winters it doesn’t snow much and we don’t make any money.

(c) We want a floor under snow. That is, in winter when the crop of snow is poor, we want the Government either to distribute false snow — salt, flour, Western wheat or something of that sort — so that we can shovel it and make money, or —

(d) We want the Government to pay us for shovelling snow that isn’t there, so we can make money.

You will see at once that this is in the latest economic trend and a good idea. See what you can do for us, like a good fellow, and some Christmas Santa may have something in his sack for a good Civil Servant.

Love and kisses from all us snowmen,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

My Dear Nephew:

Earlier this Summer your Uncle Gomeril and I observed our seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. You did not send a greeting card, for which abstention I thank you; we received several cards, all of a nauseating degree of sentimentality, bearing no conceivable relationship to the sort of domesticity your Uncle and I have waged during the past three-quarters of a century. You might, however, have sent a few flowers. Several people sent bouquets of what I learned as a girl to call “wind-flowers,” but what people now call “everlastings.” Whether this was intended as a delicate reference to the unusual durability of our match, or whether it was an ironical allusion to the hardy good health which we both enjoy I cannot determine.

We celebrated the occasion by visiting Niagara Falls for a few days, to rest and observe the great Natural Wonder. The Chamber of Commerce there offers a certificate of congratulation to all honeymoon couples, upon which appears a wish that their union may be as beautiful and enduring as the Falls itself. It occurred to me that the Falls is as much distinguished for its violence and its extreme dampness as for beauty and endurance, but as your Uncle and I completed our honeymoon and all that goes with it long ago this was a matter of merely academic concern to us.

We were, however, much affronted by the number of honeymooners who infested the place, wandering about hand in hand, wet smiles and goggling eyes proclaiming their condition for all the world to see. When your Uncle and I were married and went to the Shetlands on our wedding trip we took great pains to look like a married couple of several years standing.

Perhaps we were foolish so to do, but I think that our reticence was preferable to the mawkish displays of unfledged connubiality which we observed at N.F.

We visited, among other places, a restaurant maintained by the Provincial Government, at which a bottle of wine cost almost twice as much as it does in a liquor store, also maintained by the Provincial Government. Your Uncle commented upon this in his accustomed ringing tones, but of what avail is it to protest against official extortion? Complaining about a government is, as Holy Writ tersely phrases it, kicking against the pricks.

Your affectionate aunt-by-marriage,

Bathsheba Marchbanks.


To Genghis Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Cousin Genghis:

I am terribly sorry that I was unable to be present at the Gala Opening of your new pawnshop. I understand that it was a wonderful affair, and distinguished by your own special brand of hospitality. Water ran like water, I am told, and guests who had brought their own sandwiches were permitted to eat them on the premises.

Let me deal with your last letter, before bringing up anything else. No, I do not want any binoculars at specially reduced prices, nor am I in the market for the telescope which you offer cheap. I have never been able to see nearly as well through binoculars as through my own unassisted eyes. No doubt this is sheer optical obstinacy, but it is true. And I have never been able to see anything at all through a telescope.

This is not for lack of goodwill. I admire telescopes, and would love to clap one to my eye, sailor-fashion, while taking a walk in the country, or even when attending the ballet. But all a telescope does for me is to flatten my eyewinkers uncomfortably.

But I am in the market for a good concertina. Concertinas run in the Marchbanks family. Uncle Fortunatus plays one. I play one. And the other day I discovered our little niece Imoinda extracting the usual cow-stuck-in-a-swamp noises from a concertina which I discarded some years ago when I bought my super-Wheatstone. Can you find a nice instrument for Imoinda which some needy concertinist has hocked?

Your affectionate cousin,



To Miss Nancy Frisgig.

Charming Nancy:

I have been neglecting you shamefully; almost as shamefully as you have been neglecting me. But I write now to tell you of a discovery I have made which should be of interest to the whole female sex, and particularly to that part of it which, like yourself, is chiefly concerned with matters of fashion and allurement.

What is the greatest single beautifier available to womanhood? Is it a cream, or a top-dressing for the face, or a perfume which steals away the critical judgement of the beholder? No, poppet, it is shoes that fit.

How did I find this out? Well, yesterday I sat in a restaurant, munching a bowl of breakfast food — it was evening, but I practically live on breakfast food — when in came a young man with, obviously, his Best Girl. She was stylishly dressed; her hair was nicely arranged, and she wore a few gew-gaws which indicated that she came from a home of some wealth and possibly even of cultivation. But her face was the mask of a Gorgon.

They sat down near me, and immediately, under the table, I saw her kick off her shoes. And at once her face melted into that expression — half Madonna, half Aphrodite — which reduces the male to a jelly. Beauty suffused her as though the moon had sailed from behind a cloud. She ordered a steak at $6.50, and a peck of lobster and a Baked Alaska to go with it, and her escort did not even notice. It was worth it, he seemed to think, to be the companion of that girl.

Now, Nancy, if that girl means to make the most of her considerable gifts, she must either go barefoot, or get the shoes she needs. And so I say to all her sex.

Yours with warmest admiration down to the ankles,



To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Cousin:

I have your letter, and as someone left half a sheet of paper in the pawnshop yesterday when they were pledging their diamonds, I take my pen in hand at once to reply. You should not speak so lightly of the concertina, Cousin. Are you not aware that there is quite a little body of music composed especially for it? Tschaikowsky arranged his second orchestral suite so that it might be played on four concertinas. Molique wrote a concerto for the concertina, as well as a sonata for concertina and piano. Regondi, too, wrote a concerto for the instrument. Did you not know that the late Arthur Balfour was a most accomplished player, and a concertina was the solace of his idle hours during his time in Parliament? I shall get one for little Imoinda, of course, but I entreat you to see that the child realizes that she handles a sensitive instrument, and not a toy.

Your reproachful kinsman,

Genghis Marchbanks.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

I was reading an interesting book the other day about the worship of the Bull-god, Minos, in early Crete. It appears that the High Priest had a golden head, like that of a bull, which he wore over his own head when greeting visitors. He then removed it, and carried on conversation face to face. When he thought that the interview had gone on long enough or that he wanted his visitor to go, he put the bull’s head back on again, in sign that the talk was over.

Don’t you think that something of this kind could be worked out for people like myself, who never know how to bring an interview to a close? I don’t suppose a gold bull’s head would really do. It might seem a little eccentric and ostentatious. But a simple brass head, made in the shape of my own face, but stern and impassive, might be just the thing. Or, on second thoughts, better make it bronze. Brass has such a nasty smell, as anyone can learn by sniffing the bell of an old bugle.

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