Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

Yours in total disillusion,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Waghorn Wittol, ESQ.

Dear Mr.Wittol:

It was a pleasure to encounter you at the theatre, but where was Mrs. Wittol? I thought I saw her with another gentleman, but very likely I was mistaken. I was much impressed by the melodrama in which a man shared with his wife the secret of a murder, and in which his wife contrived his death by a clever device. But you know, Wittol, I think that there is an even more exciting melodrama to be written about married life. What about a play in which a man and his wife, discovering that they are boring each other, set out on a race as to which can bore the other to death first?

Think of the scenes which such a drama could contain! The great scene in which the wife tells her husband the plot of a movie she has seen: he falls asleep, coma seems about to supervene until, with a tremendous effort, he rouses himself and retorts with a description of his bridge game at the club, recalling each hand in detail; she tumbles forward in her chair, and is seen to reach for the cyanide bottle. But no! She still has some fight left in her, and begins to read a letter from her mother, who is shuffle-board champion of St. Petersburg, Fla. You see the plan? A tournament of boredom! Hollywood would jump at it, but I think the Little Theatres ought to have it first.

My regards to Mrs. Wittol, when next you see her.

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Chandos Fribble, ESQ.

Dear Fribble:

During the last few days I have received a horrifying number of invitations and supplications from people who want me to join or support something new. They all appear to want to create something which has never been known on earth before. But not me. I am sick of novelties — or what pass for novelties among easily-satisfied people. And for that reason I am organizing a one-man Society for the Resurrection and Preservation of Words which Have Been Permitted to Lapse into Unmerited Disuse. Let’s deal with something old, for a change.

There are many such words, and from time to time I may issue bulletins about them. But for the time being these will do:

(1) Huzza: an excellent word which has been dropped in favour of “hurrah.” But huzza has a nice, genteel air about it; it expresses enthusiasm, but not too much. It is the ideal word to use when, for instance, somebody suggests that you go for a good long tramp in the country, just as you have settled down for a nap in your chair. It is a good word to shout, in a well-controlled voice, when unpopular officials pass you in a procession. My typewriter ribbon has just broken, and luckily I have another, which I shall have to put in the machine myself, getting my hands dirty and abrading my temper. Huzza!

(2) Hosanna: another useful word of praise, expressing goodwill without overdoing it. It has hardly been used in ordinary speech since the following limerick was current, around 1905:

There was a young maiden named Anna

Who sang as a High Church soprana;

When she fell in the aisle

The Dean said with a smile,

“We have heard, now we see, your hosanna!”

(3) Heyday: the dictionary calls this “an exclamation of gaiety or surprise.” Yes, but not of ecstatic gaiety or complete surprise. This seems to me to be just the word to use when unwrapping a gift of handkerchiefs which looks precisely like handkerchiefs, which has been presented to you by somebody who always gives you handkerchiefs.

Words for the expression of limited emotion are not too common in our language. The three I have listed above should not be allowed to die, and so far as I am concerned, they shan’t.


Samuel Marchbanks.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

It is with a heavy heart, Mr. Marchbanks, sir, that I write to tell you that your lawsuit against Richard Dandiprat finally came to court on Tuesday last, and that you have lost it. It was a most unhappy chance that brought a case of such delicacy to the attention of the judge the day after his birthday. His Honour had obviously been keeping the festival in the great tradition, and as soon as he took his place on the bench it was plain that his mind was occupied with old, unhappy, far-off things. Our Mr. Cicero Forcemeat was also somewhat indisposed, having been called to the bar repeatedly the day before; the lustre of his eloquence was, shall we say, dimmed. Dandiprat’s lawyers, Craven and Raven, were in like case, and the court presented an hapless picture. Nobody could hear anybody else; everybody was drinking bromoseltzer; the janitor had neglected to turn on the heat. The trial occupied precisely seven and one-half minutes. The judge was annoyed that you were not present, and has fined you $100 for contempt of court. This, with the costs of the suit, will amount to a rather larger figure than you have probably anticipated. But without the Unforeseen, Mr. Marchbanks, life would be intolerable and the law would be an exact science, instead of the tantalizing jade that she is.

A complete statement is enclosed, and prompt payment will be appreciated by

Your most faithful,

Mordecai Mouseman

(for Mouseman, Mouseman and Forcemeat).


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Well, Sammy Old Pal:

The trial is now over, and no hard feelings, eh? All good pals as before. Drop in any time, and bring your own bottle with you. Like I say to the Little Woman — “No use getting mad at Marchbanks; it takes all kinds to make a world; so let’s be big about this thing, Goo-Ball, and forgive him for all the hard things he has thought about us; after all, like the fellow says, he’s probably an eight-ulcer man in a four-ulcer job.”

By the way, one day when you were out I borrowed your wheelbarrow, and it just came apart in my hands. You can have the pieces back any time, but you’d be better off to get a new one.

All the best for neighbourly relations,

Dick Dandiprat.


To Mervyn Noseigh, M.A.

Dear Mr. Noseigh:

Your last question is a humdinger. “When did you first decide to be a humorist; who were your chief humorous influences; how do you define humour?” — you ask, just like that.

I never decided to be a humorist; if I am one, I was born one, but I have never really given the matter much thought. I was once given a medal for humour, but it makes me nervous; I have tried to lose it, but I am too superstitious to throw it away. Men who bother their heads too much about being something particular — a Humorist, or a Philosopher, or a Social Being, or a Scientist, or a Humanist, or whatever — quickly cease to be men and become animated attitudes.

I suppose some of the humorists I have read have influenced me, because I think of them with affection, but never as people to be copied. I have read others, greatly praised as funny-men, who simply disgusted me. If I had to name a favourite, I suppose it would have to be Francois Rabelais, but I do not give him my whole heart; he had a golden touch with giants and pedants, but he thought ignobly of women.

Don’t you know what humour is? Universities redefine wit and satire every few years; surely it is time they nailed down humour for us? I don’t know what it is, though I suspect that it is an attribute of everything, and the substance of nothing, so if I had to define a sense of humour I would say it lay in the perception of shadows.

Sorry to be so disappointing,

Samuel Marchbanks.


To Mrs. Kedijah Scissorbill.


So you are astonished that a man of my apparent good sense should believe in astrology, are you? My good woman, if you knew more of my history, you would be astonished that my good sense is still apparent.

You have heard of the Wandering Jew, who roams the earth till Judgement Day? I am his cousin, the Wandering Celt, and my branch of the family is the elder. Therefore I have had a good deal of experience in belief:

In my early days I was invited by learned men to believe in the Triple Goddess, and a very good goddess she was. But when I was Christianized I was commanded to believe in a Trinity that was also a Unity, and a goddess who looked and behaved remarkably like my Triple Goddess, though I was assured she was somebody much more up-to-date and important. Then a man named Calvin demanded that I believe in Strength through Misery, and I did till a man named Wesley told me to believe in Personal Revelation and Ecstasy, and I did. During a brief spell in New England Emerson told me to believe in a Unity that had nothing to do with a Trinity, and was itself of doubtful existence, and I did. But then I was told by people calling themselves scientists to believe in Phrenology, Animal Magnetism, the Germ Theory, Psycho-Analysis, Sociology, Relativity, Atomic Energy, Space Travel, God-is-Dead, Quasars, Spiral Time and so many new faiths that I could not keep up with them, though I tried.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson