The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

So I havered and temporized between the two claimants, and lost sleep, and sometimes wished I had the courage to do what I had a right to do, and put the whole mess in a fire. But those wonderful letters from the artists made me stay my hand.

What was all Cornish’s hoard of objects worth? Arthur Cor­nish had the easy job of dealing with the money, which could be reckoned up in terms tax-collectors and probate courts under­stood. The objects of art were quite another thing; the tax people wanted a sum to put here and there on pieces of paper which were important to them, if to nobody else. We could not appeal to insurance records; Cornish never insured anything. Why insure what is irreplaceable? I persuaded Hollier and McVarish, without difficulty, to let me call in the Toronto branch of Sotheby’s to make a valuation. But here again we ran into trouble. The valuers knew their stuff, and could tell us what the hoard might fetch, piece by piece, at auction if it were all cata­logued and offered in the right markets. A probate value was something different, because Arthur Cornish was firm in his determination not to have estate duties reckoned on present inflated values for objects of art. The fact that so much of the stuff was left to the public, in one way or another, did not make as much difference as Arthur thought it should.

It was weary work, and kept me from what I was paid by the university to do.


The principal excuse for my life, I suppose, is that I am a good teacher. But to teach my best I must have some peace of mind, because I do not simply dole out lectures I prepared long ago; I engage my classes, which are never large, in talk and discussion; every year the shape of the work is different, and the result is different, because as much depends on the quality of the students as depends on me. Cornish’s posthumous demands cost me too much in worry for me to teach at my best level.

I was particularly anxious to do so, because for the first time in some years I had an exceptional student, none other than the Maria Magdalena Theotoky whose presence I had taken note of at Cornish’s funeral. I asked her if she knew him, and she said no, but that Professor Hollier had said she might find herself greatly obliged to Cornish some day, and suggested that she attend. She seemed to be a special pet of Hollier’s, and that surprised me be­cause he was not a man to have much to do with his students out­side the classroom. I suppose that, like myself, he was drawn by her real scholarly appetite; she appeared to want knowledge for itself, and not because it could lead to a career. Theologically train­ed as I was, I wondered if she were one of the Scholarly Elect; I mean it as a joke, but only partly as a joke. As Calvin said that man­kind was divided between the Elect, chosen to be saved, and the Reprobate Remainder of mankind, so it seemed to me to be with knowledge; there were those who were born to it, and those who struggled to acquire it. With the Scholarly Elect one seems not so much to be teaching them as reminding them of something they already know; that was how it was with Maria, and she fascinated me.

Of course she was better prepared for New Testament Greek than students usually are; she knew Classical Greek well, and instead of treating the N.T. stuff as a degenerate language she saw it for what it was, a splendid ruin, like a Greek statue with the nose knocked off, the arms gone, the privy parts lost, but Greek nevertheless, and splendid in decay. A language, furthermore, that had been serviceable to St. Paul and the Four Evangelists, and capable of saying mighty things.

Why was she bothering with it? She said something about her studies in Rabelais, who knew Greek as both a priest and a humanist, at a time when the Church did not encourage Greek studies. Funny about that, I told the seminar; during the Renais­sance it was people outside the universities who really dug into the rediscovered classics; even Archimedes, who put forward no dis­turbing ideas, like Plato, but propounded some scientific discov­eries and the theory of the endless screw, was not studied by the academicians. This brought a laugh from my two ultramodern students who had been nurtured in our permissive age, and who probably thought that the endless screw, in their own interpreta­tion of the words, might be a path to enlightenment. But Maria knew what I was really talking about, which is that universities cannot be more universal than the people who teach, and the people who learn, within their walls. Those who can get beyond the fashionable learning of their day are few, and it looked as if she might be one of them. I believed myself to be a teacher who could guide her.

Dangerous to make pets of students, I reminded myself. But teaching Maria was like throwing a match into oil, and the others were like wet wood I was trying to blow into something like a fire. I was sorry that Cornish was claiming so much of my energy.

Sorry too because I had become enthusiastic about The New Aubrey. Poor Ellerman’s idea had raised a flame in me, and I wanted to fan it.

Just a few random notes about scholarly contemporaries — that was what he had suggested. But where to begin? It is easy to find eccentrics in universities if your notion of an eccentric is simply a fellow with some odd habits. But the true eccentric, the man who stands apart from the fashionable scholarship of his day and who may be the begetter of notable scholarship in the future, is a rarer bird. These are seldom the most popular figures, because they derive their energy from a source not understood by their contemporaries. Hollier, I had cause to believe, was such a man, and I must take advantage of the special opportunity Cor­nish had given me to study him. But the more spectacular eccentrics, the Species Dingbaticus as I had heard students call them, were attractive to me; I love a mountebank. And in Urquhart McVarish I had been brought close to a very fine mountebank indeed.

Not that he was short on scholarship. As a scholar in Renais­sance history he had a good reputation. But he was immodest about it; he is the only man of any respectability in the scholarly world whom I had ever heard refer to himself shamelessly as a great scholar . He had once been Chairman of the Centre for Renaissance Studies and for a time it seemed as if he would gain it an international reputation. He encouraged able students to work with him, but he would not interest himself in their efforts to stand on their own feet; he used them as skilled assistants, and they saw their chances of achieving the Ph.D. degree vanishing. Taxed with this, Urky replied blithely that anybody who had studied with him could go anywhere in the world and get an academic appointment on that qualification alone. No Ph.D. would be required, and anyhow it was a silly degree which manifest fools were granted every year. To be a McVarish man was a far, far better thing. The students didn’t believe it for the best of reasons — because it was untrue. So Urky had to be deposed, and the price was that he be raised to the small, highly paid group of Distinguished Professors, too fine for administra­tive work. Kicked upstairs.

In a university you cannot get rid of a tenured professor without an unholy row, and though academics love bickering they hate rows. It was widely agreed that the only way to get rid of Urky would be to murder him, and though the Dean may have toyed with that idea, he did not want to be caught. Anyhow, Urky was not a bad scholar. It was simply that he was intoler­able, and for some reason that is never accepted as an excuse for getting rid of anybody. So Urky became a Distinguished Profes­sor with light duties, a devoted secretary, and few students.

That did not content him. He took his transformation dourly, and developed what he called an awfu’ scunner to the Univer­sity; he ran it down in a jokey style that was all his own to his few favourites, who might also be called toadies, among the students. I heard a few of these scorning Cornish’s money bequest to Spook. A million dollars, they said disdainfully; what is it when you’ve invested it, in these days — a couple of mediocre professors, as if we needed any more mediocre pro­fessors. It was not hard to tell where that came from. Yes, I really must not fail to capture the essence of Urquhart McVarish.

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