The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks. Revised Edition (1966) by Robertson Davies

Defrauding me of sleep by dubious sleight,

I often wonder what the authors read

One half so rotten as the stuff they write.

Tomorrow I go back into the great world, which has managed to do admirably without me for a week: the strikers have struck just as noisily without me: the international politicians have arranged several deadlocks and disagreements although I was unable to help them; that Mighty Mendicant, the Government, has stretched out its beggar’s hand, whining piteously for a few hundred millions, although I was not by to encourage it. The world does so well without me, that I am moved to wish that I could do equally well without the world.



Sunday: My annual duel with my furnace has begun. Perhaps “duel” is not the right word, for it suggests a contest of lightning-like thrust and parry, and my fight with the furnace is much more like medieval jousting — a slow but hideously powerful and destructive combat. At present my aim is to keep a fire low enough to warm my house without dehydrating me and all my possessions; this I do by throttling the furnace, keeping all air from it, and treating it with ostentatious contempt, as though I did not care whether it went out or not. It retorts by belching its hot breath all through the house, cracking the surface of the furniture, and making the floors groan and pop in the night. There is a tank in my furnace into which I pour water every day, and the superstition is that water mingles with the hot air and produces a balmy climate all through my house. But in actual fact gremlins drink this water, and the mice in my cellar commit the Happy Despatch in it, and the air from the furnace is like the parching simoom of the East Indies. Frankly I hate furnaces, and would far rather have a big Quebec heater, upon which I could spit when I was disgusted with it. Spit on a furnace, and it doesn’t even hiss.

Monday: Whenever I win a bout with my furnace, it always retorts by producing a particularly large and dirty supply of ash. In twenty years, I suppose, furnaces like the one which I now harbour in my cellar will be antiques, and we shall look back laughingly at the era of the bi-weekly ash collection. But at present it is a stern reality. The ashes have to be taken out of the entrails of the furnace, sifted by hand, and then conveyed in tubs and buckets to the street. After I have done this, I look as though I had been working in a flour mill, and smell as though I had been travelling from Montreal to Toronto in a smoking car. It is enough to put me in a bad temper for a whole evening. . . Some day I am going to have a house heated by the rays of the sun in the most modern manner. Or perhaps I shall enjoy the luxury of a furnace man, and while he struggles and fights with the furnace, I shall sit upstairs dressed like Mr. Capitalistic Interests in a socialist cartoon, laughing and drinking cherry bounce, and shouting “More heat, more heat!” in a tyrannous voice. I have always thought that I should like to be a tyrant, but it costs money.

Tuesday: My furnace had its first ugly fit of the season today. When I opened its front door this morning for the usual health inspection, I noticed that it had a bad breath and a nasty, coated back-draft. However, it took its food without much complaint and I thought no more about it. By this evening, however, it had dyspepsia, and the usual cures did no good at all. So for the first time in the Furnace Season I sat up with it, coaxing its appetite from time to time with tiny shovelfuls of coke, a dainty which it much enjoys. I have grown so used to sitting in the cellar that I hardly notice it any more. But I must put a stronger globe in the light socket; the present one is too dim for pleasant reading. And I might knock up a bookshelf over the preserve cupboard to hold a few appropriate favourites such as Orpheus In Hades, The Light That Failed, The Sacred Flame, The Stoker, and, of course, Man vs. Machine.

Wednesday: This afternoon I tried to rake my lawn clear of leaves, but felt like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables, and soon gave it up. It would be easier to climb the trees in September and pick the leaves than to scrape them up from the ground, and I think that I shall do so next year. “What are you doing in that tree, Mr. Marchbanks?” the neighbours will cry, their suspicions aroused. “I am harvesting my leaves,” I shall reply, with pardonable superiority. After that, of course, everyone will take it up.

Thursday: To a concert this evening where a large number of gifted coughers were in splendid form. Coughing at concerts and theatres could be eliminated, of course, by making coughing an inexcusable indecency. The body is capable of a variety of offensive noises, some of which are permitted by public opinion, while others are forbidden and 99 people out of a hundred would rather burst than be guilty of them. Put coughing in that category and in a generation it would cease. If, instead of glaring at coughers, we turned our heads away from them, blushing for their shameful lack of self-control, they would soon stop their noise. If, when a cough burst out in company, we all spoke a little louder and more distinctly, as though to drown the shameful sound, coughers would think twice. If the word “cough” were to become a Forbidden Word, and if children were to have their mouths washed out with soap when they used it, the cough would cease to be a popular indulgence. Coughing would become a thing that rude little boys did, amid snickers of their companions, to annoy the teacher. Stamp the cough as a disgusting and indecent personal noise, and its knell is rung.

Friday: A friend who was interested in my observations on famous Last Words draws my attention to this passage in George Santayana’s Persons And Places: “On one of the many occasions when he (Santayana’s father) thought, or dreaded, that he might be on his deathbed, he felt a sudden desire for some boiled chicken, without in the least giving up his asseveration that he was dying; and as his deafness prevented him from properly modulating his voice, he cried out with a shout that resounded through the whole house: ‘La Uncion y la gallina!’ … which is to say ‘Extreme Unction and a Chicken’.” Undoubtedly these are noble Last Words, combining as they do a prudent regard for both worlds, but as the elder Santayana did not die on this occasion, they are not Last Words in the true sense. . . Very irritating Last Words would be, “I forgive you all,” which would leave one’s relatives in a condition of baffled and angry stupefaction. . . Charles I had a brilliant inspiration when, on the scaffold, he turned to the attendant bishop and said, “Remember, Juxon.” Since then hundreds of people have puzzled their brains as to what it was that Juxon was to remember. If it was an adjuration (very natural under the circumstances) to put Dog-Off in Cromwell’s soup, it is obvious that Juxon forgot, unforgivably.

Saturday: More furnace martyrdom; cold today, and the fire which I have nursed so lovingly was inadequate. I have kept it low, yet not dangerously low, and it refused to burn up when the need arose. So, in an unwise fit of temper, I gave it a severe poking, and went out for a couple of hours. When I came home again the thermometer was just at 90 degrees F. . . Set to work to bring the monster under control, opening all checks and even shovelling ashes through the fire door to quench the flames. I was afraid that the furnace would be consumed by its own heat, and suddenly subside in a mass of molten metal. … I have deceived myself about my furnace; I thought that I had the upper hand of it, and that its proud spirit was broken. But no! The Old Nick is as active in its iron bosom as ever. Some day I shall destroy that furnace or it will destroy me.

– XL –

Sunday: Was talking to an irate father whose little boy had recently joined the temperance movement. It appears that an agent of the temperance interests (it is known that they have all kinds of money at their command, because they are heavily subsidized by the soft drink cartel) had attracted a number of children into a church hall after school and had shown them movies of the inside of a drunkard’s stomach in Technicolor; this impressed the tots greatly, and after the temperance agent had plied them with chocolate milk, they all signed a pledge to taste not, touch not, nor yet smell of the cork, and received certificates establishing their membership in the Wee Wowsers’ Total Abstinence Fraternity. . . What annoyed this man was that this particular Wee Wowser had come home armed with the sword of the spirit, and had lectured him on the evils of beer; I gather that the Wee Wowser was told that what looked like soul-saving to him looked much like infant impudence to his father, and his membership in the Wee Wowsers terminated at that instant.

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