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

Monday: Woke this morning with a sense of sick shock, realizing that Christmas is near at hand and I have not done any shopping. Worried about this until at last I rushed out and made a tour of the shops, and was depressed to find how much stuff there was for sale which I would not give to a relative, let alone a friend. Decided finally that the hardware merchants had the nicest things, and bought an adze for my little nephew Gobemouche, a spokeshave for my brother Fairchild, a maul for my brother Hickathrift, and three files, a crow, two jemmies, four lock-picks and a dozen hickory axe-helves for other members of the Marchbanks tribe, as well as gift bottles of TNT for their wives. I toyed with the idea of giving them all panes of glass in handy sizes, but recalled the tendency of Christmas family gatherings to get out of hand, and broken glass can be nasty stuff, when one is doing Sir Roger de Coverley in one’s bare feet. Better be on the safe side, and stick to edged tools.

Tuesday: Alack the day! Christmas gifts are not what they were. Was looking through the diary of my uncle, the Rt. Rev. Hengist Marchbanks (who lived to be 96 and was Bishop of Baffinland when he died), and discovered that in December, 1845, when he was a lad of thirteen, he made his own presents. This is what he says: “Made dear Mama a trunk today, for I know that she wants one sorely. Cut down a sturdy oak this morning, and hollowed out the body of it with my adze; hewed the solid block into a charming lady’s travelling trunk. Slew and skinned a Shorthorn bull, which showed symptoms of mumps, and stretched the skin tightly over the wooden casing; it makes a truly handsome covering. Tomorrow I shall line the case with clean copies of The Christian Guardian, and my surprise for Mama will be complete. Am giving Papa the usual jug of corn whisky, which I drained from the bottom of the silo this evening. Tested it to make sure it was good, and fell into a profound swoon. Popped a few prunes into the jug, to give the liquor body.” Those were the days of really thoughtful, personal gifts.

Wednesday: Met a small boy today — a sinister child with a stern jaw and a brooding hot eye — who had just mailed his letter to Santa Claus. “I told him what my minimum demands were,” he said, “and I’m giving him till the 25th to come across — or else –” I blinked, and asked him to explain. He continued: “Claus has been in the driver’s seat too long; everybody has always lickspittled to him and made him think he’s a big-shot; well, the time has come for Organization; he thinks we can’t get along without him, but we’ll show him that he can’t get along without us; he expects a year’s good conduct for a few gew-gaws at Christmas; from now on there’ll have to be a Christmas every month, and a six-hour day for good conduct, with all statutory holidays and two weeks vacation in the summer; Claus has been exploiting us.” He marched off, and as he turned to give me a knowing leer he inadvertently fell down an open manhole. I watched it for a few minutes, but he did not reappear. Walked home slowly, thinking about Fate.

Thursday: I see that a rich fellow in the U.S.A. has bought a fine tapestry as a Christmas present for his wife. I like tapestries, and have thought of weaving a few myself, in the grand manner, but with modern subjects. For instance, Sigmund Freud, with his foot on the recumbent body of Santa Claus, holding aloft a volume of The American Journal of Psychiatry, from which streams forth a golden light, would make a very pretty tapestry, suitable for a dentist’s waiting room. Or a large piece depicting the inventor of the fountain pen meeting the inventor of the typewriter, and each of them scowling horribly at the other, would be suitable for a tycoon’s office, as would also a depiction of the inventor of the rubber hotwater bottle, shielding himself from the onslaught of the inventor of the electric pad, while plunging a dagger into the breast of the inventor of the china hotwater bottle (or “stone pig”). Or how would it be if I did a really immense tapestry, showing industrialists and union leaders dancing on the prone form if a Consumer, while in the background Inflation snatched them up to the skies, by the hair? It could be hung in the Union Station at Toronto, to take away that bare look it has.

Friday: A man asked me today if I had heard of the theory that the North American Indians are of partial Welsh descent, stemming from a pre-Leif-Erickson Cymric explorer? I have gone farther; I think I have proved the theory to be correct. About two years ago I chanced to meet an Indian in a woodland walk, and I facetiously addressed him thus:

MARCHBANKS: “Dyna gapel y Bedyddwyr, onid e?” (Translation: “Look you, are you not the son of Mrs. Jones the Gas?”)

INDIAN: “Nage, nage; dyna gapel y Methodistiad Calfi-naidd.” (Translation: “Indeed to goodness no! I am the love-child of Rev. Hopkin Hopkins.”)

MARCHBANKS: “Pie mae’r Ficerdy?” (Translation: “Pless my soul, whateffer! do you understand me?”)

INDIAN: “Dyna fe; dyna’r Ficer hefyd.” (Translation: “Yes indeed, whateffer.”)

MARCHBANKS: “Dyna deulu’r gof yn cerdded gyda mama modryba chwaer y crydd.” (Translation: “Then let us sit down here and refresh ourselves with elegant conversation.”)

INDIAN: (Speaking Indian for a change) “Golliwogagog, hoganogagog egganoggagog.” (Translation: “I am all agog.”)

In the course of conversation the Indian told me that his ancestors came to North America, inspired by the example of a Welshman named, I think, Jonel Oowis, who was reverenced as a god by the simple North Americans.

Saturday: Visited a friend this evening who had procured a bottle of a very special tonic called Noilly Prat; in the interest of temperance, we experimented to see how much of the tonic it was necessary to put with a jigger of gin in order to kill the horrid taste. After several tries we got the measurements exactly right. . . Driving home, passed through a small town where Saturday Night was in full swing. Farmers shouted conversation from buggy to buggy; their wives stood in the general store, gossiping and criticizing the goods; girls walked up and down the street, arm in arm, pretending not to notice the young men who leaned on door-posts, haw-hawing and passing remarks. It was all rather idyllic and rural, and reminded me of my far-off youth in Skunk’s Misery, before I was tarnished by the fetid breath of city life. I suppose everybody has these soft-headed spells, when they think it would be fun to live in a small town. They pass quickly, of course.

– L –

Sunday: A man was lecturing me on the benefits of deep breathing this evening. “Fresh air cleanses the bloodstream and keeps the mind alert,” he said, sucking in deep draughts of cigar smoke which undoubtedly polluted his bloodstream and fogged his brain. “When you’ve got pneumonia — gasping for breath — you pay a pretty penny for oxygen out of a tank; but all day, every day, the precious stuff is everywhere around you, begging to be breathed, and do you breathe it?” He puffed in my face, ferociously. “No, you don’t. You’re a shallow breather, a thorax-man, like millions of others. Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you.” I promised that I would never say he didn’t tell me, and felt rather guilty about the whole matter. Walking home, I breathed as deeply as I could for several blocks. It made me dizzy. I am a poor creature unworthy of the fresh air which Providence has lavished upon me.

Monday: My brother Fairchild has been having rather a difficult time with magic. Hoping to ingratiate himself with his children, he bought them some magic tricks, with which he thought that they might mystify their little friends. Having made this false step, he was soon involved in the appalling task of teaching the children to perform the tricks. Teaching a child to do even the simplest sleight-of-hand is like teaching a hippopotamus to embroider pillow-slips. The result of the whole mad scheme was tears, bad temper, and frustration for Fairchild. . . I sympathize with him. Once, in the bleak past, I cherished a desire to be a magician; I would have been quite content if I could have achieved the modest skill of, say, Thurston or Blackstone. I laboured before a mirror with coins, cards, eggs, handkerchiefs and billiard balls for weeks, my arms aching, until one bitter day when I came to my senses and admitted that nothing short of psycho-analysis and blood transfusions could make a conjuror of me. For the same reasons that I cannot carpenter shelves, fix leaky taps or tend a furnace, I was unable to pluck fifty quarters out of the air or pull a rabbit out of a hat.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson