Samuel Marchbank’s Almanack by Robertson Davies

AGREEMENT WITH SATAN / A lady writes to me, unreasonably angry because I have let it be known that I dwelt within myself and peeped out at the world. “I know the kind of man you are,” she writes; “you are the kind who would agree with the lines —

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

And do you know who said that?” Yes, my dear madam, I know who said that: it was Satan, in Paradise Lost. And a remarkably intelligent and able fellow he was, too, and quite the best character Milton ever created. . . But I make no such vast claims for myself; I can make a hell of heaven but the other trick is too much for me.

VICTIM OF SCIENTIFIC COMFORT / Woke feeling like a piece of pemmican; my electric blanket had dried me out during the night. Two years ago a kind friend gave me this luxury, and I owe many a snug night to it, but from time to time I curse its remorseless efficiency. If it is cold when I go to bed I push the controller on the blanket up as high as it will go, and compose myself for slumber with a smile, knowing that nothing short of a new Ice Age can harm me. But sometimes the temperature changes sharply in the night, and after dreams that I am lost in the desert, where my dromedary has dropped dead from thirst, I awaken to find that it is thawing outside, and that I am in danger of bursting into flames. I then drag myself to the bathroom, fill the tub with water, and leap into it. There is a sizzle and a suck, and all the water has disappeared, but I am back to my normal size and wetness, and feel much better. But one of these times I shall not wake, and the cinder which will comprise my mortal remains will be buried in a pillbox.

Culled from the Apophthegms of Wizard Marchbanks

Beware of an optimism founded on superficial judgements: otherwise you will dismiss Death as Nature’s bounty toward the undertaking industry.

(April 21 to May 21)

Taurus is the sign of the Bull and those born under it should be of a powerful physique; if this is not so in your case, you should consult your physician, or ascertain if you have not been deceived about the date of your birth. You are of a lovably violent disposition, but those who have won your confidence can lead you by the nose. You would do well to have your voice trained, for many of the most admired singers were born under this sign. You are fortunate, if not subtle, in affairs of the heart, and you have a tendency to be fickle. Women born under Taurus are of a placid and gentle disposition, massive in physique, profoundly maternal and untroubled by intellectual conflict. The digestion of Taurians of both sexes is admirable, but they should beware of diseases of the foot or the mouth, which may be serious. You are, upon the whole, earthy, and in the present state of literature you could hardly do better than to try your hand at authorship.


Your lucky colours for dress and household decoration are pale blue, indigo, lemon yellow, black, dark brown and leaden gray. I know that this is terrible, but you can’t be lucky and becomingly dressed at the same time, so you had better make your choice. Your flowers are not much better; they are the trailing arbutus, the violet, hyacinth, daisy, cowslip and jonquil. Your stones are the moonstone, the opal, beryl, carnelian, sapphire and chrysolite. If you insist upon being lucky, I suggest that you adopt some profession which permits you to do your work entirely naked; failing that, you might confine your lucky colours to your undergarments, and do the best you can without flowers. Of your lucky stones the sapphire is unquestionably the luckiest, and if you achieve a good one, you will be so lucky that you might tempt fate in the matter of colour.

Health Hints for Those Born Under Taurus

You are very strong, except for possible weakness of the throat. You can minimize this danger by keeping your mouth shut. Because of the Bull strain in your astrological makeup, nobody will take it amiss if you breathe somewhat forcibly through your nose; it may even be taken for a sign of strong character. Male Taurians are advised to wear high collars, preferably starched: female Taurians should lay in a supply of scarves and fur neckpieces. Your lucky fur is mink, but do not for this reason refuse even luckier furs, such as sable.

Meditations at Random

DR. SHAKESPEARE / Received a curious pamphlet from a doctor in West Virginia; it was a reprint of a speech he made before the Section on Diseases of the Chest at the 99th Session of the American Medical Association in 1950, and is called “Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Chest Diseases.” In this strange work the good physician proves that Shakespeare knew that people had lungs, because he mentions them nineteen times. He also knew that there was such a thing as consumption and asthma, and one of his heroines (Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing) suffers from a cold in the head, so we must assume that Shakespeare knew that there was such a disease as a cold. All this seems to amaze the West Virginian doctor, and suggests to him that Shakespeare was a pretty smart fellow. But I can take this information calmly. Though I am no Shakespeare, I have long been acquainted with all these facts myself. People who are not poets are often astonished to find that poets know anything at all; they seem to think that poets are born stupid, and get worse as they grow older. But I have long recognized the fact that true poets are among the very few sane people in a mad world.

A FORGOTTEN COMPOSER / Looking through a song-book in a friend’s house today I came upon a ballad which was a great favourite with contraltos in my childhood; it was Three Fishers by John Fyke Hullah, with words by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. The moaning of the harbour bar in the song was trifling compared with the moaning of the large, hollow-voiced women who sang it at church concerts and “musical evenings.” Hullah was an odd man, who thought that he could devise an easier way of putting music on paper than the usual system of notes. He also composed an opera for which Charles Dickens wrote the libretto, a work which seems to have disappeared completely. That would be a curiosity, indeed, if it could be found. Hullah was the composer of O That We Two Were Maying, another favourite of my childhood, usually sung as a duet by a slate-pencil soprano and a fog-horn contralto; the audience always concurred heartily in their wish to be elsewhere.

VICTIM OF THE WEED / I was in conversation with a merry fellow who knew many odd scraps of history and told me that William McKinley, 25th President of the USA, died of a tobacco heart. “Surely he was assassinated by the anarchist, Leon Czolgosz?” said I. “Czolgosz shot him,” said he, “but McKinley lingered for some time, and when he died several papers of strong moral tendency said that if his heart had not been weakened by tobacco smoking, he would have pulled through. I was alive then, and I recall it well; you can’t imagine how powerful the anti-tobacco faction was in 1901.” He also told me that the name of the killer was pronounced Cholguss, and many wits at the time said he had been driven to madness, and his rash act, by a lifetime of hearing it mispronounced.

From My Archives

To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Marchbanks:

I am offering you $50, cash down, for your car. It is a good make, only two years old, has first-class tires and has plainly been well cared for. That is why I am offering you $50, instead of the $25 which is what a dealer would give you.

The fact is that Chanel, that skunk that has been hanging around Marchbanks Towers for years, has been living in the garage since you went away. It looks as though she had made a nest in the back seat, and last night she was badly frightened by my dog, Bowser, who happened to be snooping around.

Take it or leave it. $50. I say nothing of the shock to Bowser’s nerves, as you are a neighbour and I want to treat you decently.

Yours decently,

Dick Dandiprat.


To Samuel Marchbanks, ESQ.

Dear Mr. Marchbanks:

It occurs to me that now that you are in London you might look up some relatives of mine, the Mawworms. I have never met them myself, but in 1856 a half-sister of my grandmother, a Miss Eulalia Hawser, married Edmund Mawworm, who was considered to be a great catch. Since my family came to Canada, in 1888, the Hawsers and the Mawworms have rather lost touch, and I am anxious to renew the connection. I have a pair of gentlemen’s military brushes, upon the backs of which the Mawworm crest is engraved; unfortunately the bristles are quite worn away.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson