Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies


One day Our Great National Hero, Sir John A. Macdonald, sat disconsolately in his lawyer’s office in Kingston. Try as he might, he could not get the Canadian provinces to confederate. They simply wouldn’t. As he sat, his eyes were attracted by a little spider which was trying to climb up a piece of string (or whatever that stuff is that spiders extrude so unpleasantly from their stomachs). He paid no attention, for spiders were then, as now, part of the standard furnishings of all lawyers’ offices in Canada.

Up the spider climbed, and down it fell. Sir John’s left eyelid twitched. Again the spider tried to climb the string, but again it fell with an arachnidal curse. And a third time it struggled up the string, and immediately set to work to gobble up a juicy fly.

Sir John was now fully awake. “By George!” he cried (referring to George Brown of the Toronto Globe, and thus uttering a terrible Conservative curse) “shall yonder foolish insect put me to shame? I too shall strive, and strive again, until there is a Federal Government in Canada, gobbling up the richest flies the land affords!” And hastily taking a drink of soda water (of which he was inordinately fond) he rushed out and confederated Canada in a twinkling.

Moral: Never sweep your office.


One day Sir Wilfrid Laurier sat by the hearth in his parents’ home, musing and pondering in French (though being completely bilingual, he could just as easily have done it in English). Beside him, on the hob, the kettle bubbled. “Etre, ou non être?” mused Sir Wilfrid; “Vest la question.” (This splendid line was later incorporated into the film of Hamlet, but it lost a great deal in translation). “Blubbety-blub!” mused the kettle, in kettle-language. “Qu’est-ce que c’est que vous avez dit?” asked Sir Wilfrid. “Bloop!” said the kettle.

In that instant Sir Wilfrid conceived the whole theory of the steam-engine, and would have built a railway to the Yukon if the Senate had not vetoed the idea.

Moral: The Senate should be reformed so as to consist entirely of the Cabinet.


The constant companions of the great and good Laura Secord were her cows. Indeed, it was a cow which overheard the American officers planning their wicked attack upon Colonel Fitzgibbon’s troops, and warned Laura. The story that she herself listened at the keyhole is a vicious canard. Being immovably upright, she could not stoop to a keyhole. One day she was entertaining a purse-proud friend who boasted immoderately of her riches and her articles of personal adornment. “And will you not show me your jewels, Mrs. Secord?” said she.

Smiling enigmatically Laura called her cows to her. She put her arms around each brown neck, drawing the wet noses close to her own. “These are my jewels,” said she, with well-nigh unbearable simplicity.

Moral: The cream of the cream can get along without diamonds, even of the first water.

There you have it Mr. Hydra. Fill our children up with that sort of thing, and in no time their patriotism will have surpassed even our most unreasonable expectations.

Yours for an aggressively Canadian Canada,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Honoured Sir:

On behalf of our client, Mr. Richard Dandiprat, we write to ask if it would not be possible to settle your difference with him in some amicable way which does not involve court procedure. Lawsuits among neighbours are to be avoided whenever possible, as we are sure you will agree. We learn to our amazement and chagrin that Mr. Dandiprat has written letters to you in which he virtually confesses that it was he who imprisoned a skunk in your car while you were abroad. This was indiscreet, but Mr. Dandiprat is a man of lovable and open nature and concealment is distasteful to him.

We venture to suggest that if you care to pay some small sum — we suggest $2,500 — to Mr. Dandiprat as recompense for all the mental distress which your threatened lawsuit has cost him, the matter can be closed with good will on both sides.

Yours in a spirit of neighbourly forgiveness,

Jasper Raven

(for Raven and Craven, Solicitors).


To Raven and Craven.


So, you are crawling, are you? Whining for mercy, eh? No, no, gentlemen, I intend to roast your client, Dandiprat, before the fire of enraged public opinion. To your roost, Raven! To your lair, Craven, lest you perish with Dandiprat in the whirlwind of my wrath!

Yours in triumph,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Honoured, Esteemed — nay, Beloved Sir:

Oh, Mr. Marchbanks, what a bitter tale I have to tell! Last Autumn, with Hallowe’en approaching, we sent two or three of our secretarial staff into the cellar to bring up the base-burner which heats our office in the Winter months. Hallowe’en is, as you know, a festival dear to the hearts of lawyers, and Mr. Jabez Mouseman loves to see the flames flickering behind the little mica windows in the stove when the great day dawns. The girls got the stove into the office, and with some difficulty they set it up, and fitted the stovepipes into the wall. But when it came time to light the fire, ah, then –. You know how impatient the old are, Mr. Marchbanks. My dear father, Mr. Jabez Mouseman, seized what he imagined to be some valueless material from a filing cabinet, and lit the fire. Unlucky fate guided his hand. It was your file, and all the evidence, so carefully piled up, and all the incriminating letters from Dandiprat are gone.

But the law is not without resource, sir. We shall rewrite all the documents, from memory, as soon as possible. We shall even provide facsimiles of the signatures. In the end the evidence will be better than ever. But for a law-term or two we shall be wise to allow the case to drift along without too much activity.

Yours in sorrow,

Mordecai Mouseman

(for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).

P.S.: The cost of restoring the evidence will add considerably to your legal expenditures, but Let Right Be Done is the motto of our firm.


To the Rev. Simon Goaste, B.D.

Dear Pastor Goaste:

In the course of your theological studies, did you ever run across anything which would give you a clue to the exact temperature of Hell? I find that among my friends there is a widespread notion that Hell will be hot. My own conviction is that it will be cold.

Frankly, if I had the management of Hell I should arrange for it to be a place where everybody had to sit on kitchen chairs, in a bad light, at a temperature of about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, reading the Canada Gazette. A few aeons of that would show sinners what was what.

Yours reflectively,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

Could you, offhand, name the most wronged group of men in Canada today? No, of course you couldn’t, but I, as Perpetual President of the Indignant Females (Canadian Division) will name it for you. Policemen!

Almost every word which is applied to the police in everyday life is a term of derision. Take “flatfoot” for instance. It is a patent misnomer. The Indignant Females have taken plaster impressions of the feet of over two thousand Canadian police, and a majority of them have feet which are slightly rounded on the sole; the completely flat foot, shaped like a brick, was found in little more than nine hundred cases. Nor is it true that policemen have unusually big feet; our investigations reveal that postmen have bigger feet, and that policemen compare favourably with bill collectors in this respect.

Yours indignantly,

(Mrs.) Kedijah Scissorbill.


To Amyas Pilgarlic, ESQ.

Dear Pil:

A man I know has been boasting in the public prints recently about the difficulties which he has encountered in opening oysters. I can only conclude that he has never acquired this knack. The way to open an oyster is to insert a chisel, or perhaps a small poker, into the imperceptible cranny at the sharp end of the oyster, and heave. With not much more trouble than would be found in opening the main vault of the Bank of England, the upper shell will stir a little, and it is at this point that your assistants should push heavy wooden wedges (oak, for choice) between the shells. Then blow cigarette smoke into the cracks and the oyster will sneeze, neatly blowing its top. No trick at all, once you are used to it, and in this way half a dozen oysters may be opened in an hour.

Lincoln said that he who cuts his own wood warms himself twice. Marchbanks says that he who opens his own oysters gives himself an appetite.

Did you know, by the way, that the great singer Adelina Patti (1843-1919) loved oysters, and used to sing so exquisitely after eating them that she would cause the most torpid audience to leap to its feet? This ability on her part suggested the name for that elegant confection, the Hoister Patti.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson