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

We were deep in October when Urky asked me to one of his parties. He gave a party every fortnight, usually for students and junior members of faculty, and there had been one famous one at which his hairdresser was the guest of honour; Urky’s hair was a quiffed and prinked wonder of silver, and there was a rumour that he wore a hair-net to bed. But I, who had long since had to admit that I possessed not a Shakespearean brow but a substan­tially bald head, had to be careful that Envy did not trip me up when I thought of that. This party was to include Hollier and myself, and was to have a Cornish flavour.

Indeed it did, for Arthur Cornish was there, the only non-academic present. We assembled pretty promptly at five, for the invitation, in Urky’s elegant Italic hand, had said Sherry — 5 to 7 and our university is great on punctuality. Of course it wasn’t sherry only; Scotch and gin were the favourites, but Urky liked the sherry business, as being more elegant than cocktails.

The apartment was a handsome one, and contained fine books on expensive shelves, and a few excellent pictures of a generally Renaissance character — Virgins and Saint Johns and a nude who looked rickety enough to be a Cranach but certainly wasn’t, and two or three nice pieces of old statuary. Be careful of Envy, I said to myself, because I like fine things, and have some, though not as good as these. There was an excellent bar on what must once have been an ambry in a small church, and a student friend was dispensing generous drinks from it. It was a splendid setting for Urky.

There he was, in the centre of the room, wearing a smoking-jacket or a dinner-jacket or whatever it was, in a beautiful bottle-green silk. Not for Urky, as for lesser Scots, the obvious tartan jacket. He scoffed at tartans as romantic humbug, virtually unheard of until Sir Walter Scott set the Scotch tourist industry on its feet. Urky liked to play the high-born Scot. His Scots speech was high-born too; just a touch of a Highland lilt and a slight roll on some of the r’s; no hint of the Robert Burns folk speech.

I was surprised to see Maria there. Urky had her by the arm, showing her a portrait above his mantel of a man in seventeenth-century lace cravat and a green coat the shade our host himself was wearing, whose nose was as long and whose face was as red as Urky’s own.

There you are, my dear, and surely a man after your own heart. My great forebear Sir Thomas Urquhart, first and still unquestionably the best translator of Rabelais. Hello, Simon, do you know Maria Theotoky? Precious on two counts, because she is a great beauty and a female Rabelaisian. They used to say that no decent woman could read Rabelais. Are you decent, Maria? I hope not.

I haven’t read the Urquhart translation, said Maria. I stick to the French.

But what you are missing! A great monument of scholarship and seventeenth-century English! And what rich neologisms! Slabberdegullion druggels, lubbardly louts, blockish grutnols, doddipol joltheads, lobdotterels, codshead loobies, ninny-hammer flycatchers, and other suchlike defamatory epithets! How on earth do we get along without them? You must read it! You must allow me to give you a copy. And is it true, Maria dear, that the thighs of a gentlewoman are always cool? Rabelais says so, and I am sure you know why he says it is so, but is it true?

I doubt if Rabelais knew much about gentlewomen, said Maria.

Probably not. But my ancestor did. He was a tremendous swell. Did you know that he is supposed to have died of ecstasy on hearing of the Restoration of his Sacred Majesty King Charles the Second?

I might give a guess about what kind of ecstasy it was, said Maria.

Oho, touche — touche. And for that you deserve a drink and perhaps you will achieve a measure of ecstasy yourself.

Maria turned away to the bar without waiting for Urky to steer her there. A self-possessed young person, clearly, and not impressed by Urky’s noisy, lickerish gallantry. I introduced her to Arthur Cornish, who was the stranger in this academic gather­ing, and he undertook to get her a drink. She asked for Campari. An unusual and rather expensive drink for a student. I took a more careful look at her clothes, although I don’t know much about such things.

Professor Agnes Marley approached me. You’ve heard about poor Ellerman? It won’t be long now, I’m afraid.

Really? I must go to see him. I’ll go tomorrow.

They won’t let him see any visitors.

I’m very sorry. There was something he said to me a few weeks ago — a suggestion. I’d like to tell him that I’m acting on it.

Perhaps if you spoke to his wife –?

Of course. That’s what I’ll do. I think he’d like to know.

Arthur Cornish, and Maria with him, joined us.

I see that Murray Brown has been taking a swipe at Uncle Frank, he said.

On what grounds?

Having so much money, and leaving so much of it to the University.

A million to Spook, I hear.

Oh, yes. But several millions spread around over other colleges and some of the faculties.

Well, what’s wrong with that?

The things that are always wrong with Murray Brown. Why should some have so much when others have so little? Why should a man be allowed to choose where his money goes without regard for where money is needed? Why should the University get anything apart from what the government chooses to give it, when it throws its money around on filth and nonsense? You know Murray; the friend of the plain people.

Murray Brown is what my great ancestor would have called a scurvy sneaksby, or perhaps simply a turdy-gut, said Urky, who had joined us.

Better not say turdy-gut, said Arthur. That’s one of Mur­ray’s beefs; he’s heard about some scientist in the University who works on human excrement, and he wants to know where the money is coming from to support such nastiness.

How does he know it’s nastiness? said Hollier.

He doesn’t, but he can make other people think so. He has tied it in with vivisection, which is another of his themes: torture, and now messing about with dirty things. Is this where our money is being spent? You know his line.

And where has he said all this?

At one of his political rallies; he’s getting to work early in preparation for the next election.

He must be talking about Ozy Froats, said Urky, with one of his sniggering laughs; Ozy has been playing with other people’s droppings for several years. A queer way for a once great foot­baller to spend his time. Or is it?

I thought science was what the demagogues liked, said Agnes Marley. They think they can discern some practicality in it. It’s usually the humanities they have their knives into.

Oh, he hasn’t neglected the humanities. He says some girl has been boasting that she is a virgin, and has been carrying water in a sieve to prove it. What the hell kind of university game is that, Murray asks, with what he would probably call justifiable heat.

Oh God, said Maria; he’s talking about me.

My dear Maria, said Urky, what have you been up to?

Just my job. I’m a teaching assistant, and one of my assign­ments is to lecture first-year engineers on the history of science and technology. Not easy work, because they don’t believe science has any history — it’s all here and now. So I have to make it really interesting. I was telling them about the Vestal Virgins, and how they could prove their virginity by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve. I challenged the handful of girls in my immense class of a hundred and forty to try it, and some of them were good sports and did — and couldn’t. Big laughs. Then I carried some water about twenty paces in a sieve without spilling a drop, and when they had Oohed and Ahed at that I invited them to examine the sieves. Of course mine was greased, which proved that the Vestal Virgins had a practical understanding of colloid chemistry. It went over very well, and now they are eating out of my hand. But I suppose some of them talked about it, and this man Murray Whatever picked it up.

Clever girl, said Arthur; but perhaps too clever.

Yes, said Agnes Marley, the first lesson of a teacher or a student should be, don’t be too clever unless you want to be in perpetual hot water.

But does it really work? said Urky. I’ll get a sieve from my kitchen, and we’ll try it.

Which he did, with a great deal of fuss, and smeared it with butter, and managed to get a very little water to stick to it, and made a mess on his carpet.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson