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


Sunday: Lay abed this morning, reading dispersedly in several favourite books, and much comforted by my hot water bottle. When I was younger nothing would have persuaded me to confess that I used such an article, but one of the joys of increasing age is that one loses much of one’s shame. My hot water bottle is a saucy red job, with a delightfully smooth skin. I call it Abishag the Shunammite, and every Sunday School child will know why; infidels may find out by consulting the First Book of Kings, chapter one, verses one to four. A December Sunday morning would be unbearable without Abishag. Louis XIV, I once read, possessed 413 splendid beds, but I doubt if he got any more pleasure from them than I from my one humble but convenient couch. The only vexation that can assail me here is that the covers may be tucked in at the bottom in such a way that they do not reach my chin at the top. But a few spirited kicks soon correct that, and I am in my Earthly Paradise with A the S.

Monday: This Christmas shopping leads a man into the most alarming situations. Decided today to get a bottle of toilet water for my Great-Aunt Lettice, and sought out a shop which had a big display of unguents, balms, lotions, electuaries and the like. Asked for a bottle of scent, and a young woman with more curves than the Burma Road brought out two or three, and poured drops from them on her wrist and arm. Then to my horror she invited me to sniff them! I did so, tentatively. She rippled her muscles like a wrestler. “Young woman, have you any idea where this may lead?” I cried, but she smiled in an oblique manner and said that it was impossible to tell anything about perfume if it were not applied to flesh. I blushed to such a degree that I scorched a handkerchief in my hip pocket. . . At last, after what seemed ages, she sold me a bottle of something at four dollars a quarter ounce, which I fear Aunt Lettice will have to wear in the privacy of her own chamber, for if she ventured into a drawing room with it on she would immediately become the object of embarrassing attentions, and might have to make a run for shelter. I really wanted some lavender water, but this stuff is called Très Ooomph, and is guaranteed to rouse the dead.

Tuesday: Addressed Christmas cards tonight. There was a time when I used to hunt for the most suitable card for everyone on my list. I chose cards covered with lambs and reindeer for children, snow-scenes for friends who were wintering in Florida, High Church cards for friends of a ritualistic tendency, Low Church cards for evangelicals, Thick Church cards for those whose religion impressed me as a bit thick, cards with coaches and jolly drunken Englishmen on them for my jolly drunken American friends, and so forth. It was a lot of work, and I gave it up long ago. Now I buy my cards in large inexpensive bundles, and send them out in whatever order they happen to come. . . Like everybody else I am sending cards this year to people who sent me cards last year, but whom I forgot last year, and who will not send me cards this year. This desperate game goes on for decades, and there seems to be no way or stopping it. . . On several cards I put messages such as, “Why don’t you write?” or “Am writing soon,” which is a lie. I have no intention of writing them, but in an excess of Christmas spirit I pretend that serious illness, or the press of affairs, is the only thing which keeps me from sending them a long letter every week.

Wednesday: Was driving with a motorist today who nearly ran down several pedestrians who persisted in crossing streets against the traffic lights; he thought they did it on purpose, and I really think they were trying to commit suicide; some had a hopeless O-God-let-me-die look on their faces, while others wore the slack grin of idiocy. It seems to me that when people dearly want to die, motorists should be encouraged to assist them. . . This evening read in Nellie McClung’s autobiography that a properly licensed dog has the same right to use the street as a citizen. I am glad that citizens do not exercise their rights as freely as dogs do, however. . . Not long ago a clergyman said to me, apropos a scruffy dog he had with him, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if there were nothing but dogs? No wars, no racial discrimination, all friends.” Was so stunned by this idea that I said “Yes, indeed” before I knew what I was about. Hurried home and washed my mouth out with soap.

Thursday: Had a long talk with an insurance man today, and was fascinated by the skill with which he avoided talking about my death. This was a game we played between us. We never admitted for a moment that I was mortal, and would some day be one with Napoleon, Homer and Strangler Lewis. Instead we tried imagining what the world would be like if I, purely as a joke, withdrew from it and lolled for a time on a big pink cloud. When it was impossible to avoid the nasty matter completely, he would say: “Now just supposing for a moment that you are Out of The Picture, Mr. Marchbanks. . .” and then we would both smile, as though such a supposition was the most ridiculous thing in the world. But when he had gone I felt a gentle melancholy creep over me. Will I, as I am passing Out of The Picture — when, for instance, I am half hidden by the frame — derive vast spiritual comfort from the feeling that those who are remaining In The Picture are also on Easy Street? Ought I not to store up treasure in Heaven, where I may get at it when I and The Picture have finally parted company? Was so softened by these reflections that I patted a dog as I walked home, and was surprised at myself.

Friday: My Chinese laundryman, hearing that I have been unable to get any Rice Wine to burn on my Christmas pudding, turned up in my office today with a flagon of the precious distilment. “O brilliant-hued chrysanthemum of Eastern Ontario,” he said kotowing deeply, “this utterly contemptible one entreats you to accept his laughably inadequate tribute to your sublime genius; drink, O Marchbanks, and gladden the heart of your wash-worm.” I uncorked the bottle, and the room was filled with the heady bouquet of dragon’s bones. “This ineffectual trifler with the written word is choked by the copiousness of his thanks, O magical rehabilitator of world-weary underpants,” I replied, bowing graciously and pouring out a couple of glasses of the liquor; we drank, ceremoniously, and exchanged a few more polite observations. Before he left I reached into the bottom of my desk, and presented him with a pound of opium which I happened to have; he bit off a quid and chewed it with evident satisfaction as he put on three sweaters, two suits of pyjamas, a buffalo robe and a rain-cape, before leaving. It was what we Sinologues call “A three-coat cold day.”

Saturday: A few friends in this evening. Wanted to give them mint julep, though this is the wrong season for mint. But the scientific knowledge of a Marchbanks laughs at such trifling difficulties. Prepared the other ingredients, then brought down a bottle of Oil of Peppermint, which I sometimes take for indigestion: on the label it said “Adult dose: 5 to 30 drops,” so I put 30 drops in each glass, never having been one to skimp on hospitality. . . Guests looked rather strange, and showed a tendency to suck in air through their teeth. One, standing by the fire, belched suddenly with such force that his toupee fell into the grate and was badly scorched; his wife remarked sourly that at least it helped to kill the smell of humbugs. . . I drank my julep to the dregs, just to show them that it could be done. The only trouble with me is, I’m ahead of my time.

– XLIX –

Sunday: A small girl of my acquaintance sang me a Christmas carol which she had learned in school. It was the familiar one which begins:

Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen —

and I expressed my appreciation of her performance warmly. This was a mistake on my part, for she began to cross-examine me about the words. Why was Stephen feasting outside in the snow? If Stephen had enough food for a feast why didn’t he give some of it to the poor man who was gathering winter fuel, instead of leaving it all to King Wenceslas? I tried to explain that a Feast did not really mean a feast, and that Stephen was not really there, but I saw disbelief and scorn rising in her eyes. No wonder children think that all adults are crazy.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson