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

Patiently waiting! In my soul, perhaps, but the University does not pay people for patient waiting, and I had my classes to teach, my theologues to push towards ordination, and a muddle of committees and professional university groups to attend to. I was a busy academic, but I found time for what I hoped was spiritual growth.

My greatest handicap, I discovered, was a sense of humour. If Urquhart McVarish’s humour was irresponsibility and con­tempt for the rest of mankind, mine was a leaning towards topsy-turveydom, likely to stand things on their heads at inopportune moments. As a professor in a theological faculty I have some priestly duties and at Spook we are ritualists. I am in entire agreement with that. What did Yeats say? How else but in custom and ceremony are innocence and beauty born? But just when custom and ceremony should most incline me towards worship, I may have to contend with a fit of the giggles. Was that what ailed Lewis Carroll, I wonder? Religion and mathematics, two realms in which humour seems to be wholly out of place, drove him to write the Alice books. Christianity has no place for topsy-turveydom, little tolerance of humour. People have tried to assure me that St. Francis was rich in humour, but I don’t believe it. He was merry, perhaps, but that is something else. And there have been moments when I have wondered if St. Francis were not just the tiniest bit off his nut. Didn’t eat enough, which is not necessarily a path to holiness. How many visions of Eternity have been born of low blood-sugar? (This as I prepare a third piece of toast thickly spread with honey.) Indeed some measure of what might be called cynicism, but which could also be clarity of vision, tempered with charity, is an element in the Simon Darcourt I am trying to discover and set free. It was that which made it impossible for me not to take note that Urky McVarish’s picture of Sir Thomas Urquhart, looking so strikingly like himself, had been touched up to give precisely that impression. The green coat, the hair (a wig), and most of the face were original, but there had been some helpful work on the resemblance. When you looked at the picture sideways, under the light that shone so strongly on it, the over-painting could be plainly seen. I know a little about pictures.

Poor old Urky. I hadn’t liked the way he pestered the Theotoky girl about virginity, and gentlewomen’s thighs. I looked up the passage in my Rabelais in English: yes, the thighs were cool and moist because women were supposed to pee a bit at odd times (why, I wonder? they don’t seem to do it now) and because the sun never shone there, and they were cooled by farts. Nasty old Rabelais and nasty old Urky! But Maria was not to be disconcerted. Good for her!

What a pitiable bag of tricks Urky was! Could it be that his whole life was as false as his outward man?

Was this charitable thinking? Paul tells us that Charity is many things, but nowhere does he tell us that it is blind.

It would certainly be false to the real Simon Darcourt to leave Urky out of The New Aubrey. And it would be equally false not to seek out and say something friendly to the much-beset Profes­sor Ozias Froats, whom I once had known fairly well, in his great football days.

Second Paradise III

No, I cannot give any undertaking that I will not get drunk this time. Why are you so against a pleasing elevation of the spirits, Molly?

Because it isn’t pleasing. It’s noisy and tiresome and makes people stare.

What a middle-class attitude! I would have expected better from you, a scholar and a Rabelaisian. I expect you to have a scholarly freedom from vulgar prejudice, and a Rabelaisian’s breadth of spirit. Get drunk with me, and you won’t notice that the common horde is staring.

I hate drunkenness. I’ve seen too much of it.

Have you, indeed? There’s a revelation — the first one I have ever had from you, Molly. You’re a great girl for secrets.

Yes, I am.

It’s inhuman, and probably unhealthy. Unbutton a little, Molly. Tell me the story of your life.

I thought I was to hear the story of your life. A fair exchange. I pay for the dinner: you do the talking.

But I can’t talk into a void.

I’m not a void; I have a splendid memory for what I hear — better, really, than for what I read.

That’s interesting. Sounds like a peasant background.

Everybody has a peasant background, if you travel back in the right directions. I hate talking in a place like this. Too noisy.

Well, you brought me here. The Rude Plenty — a student beanery.

It’s quite a decent Italian restaurant. And it’s cheap for what you get.

Maria, that is gross! You invite a needy and wretched man to dinner — because that’s what we call ourselves in the Spook grace, remember, miseri homines et egentes — and you tell him to his face that it’s a cheap joint, implying that you could do better for somebody else. You are not a scholar and a gentleman, you are a female pedant and a cad.

Very likely. You can’t bounce me with abuse, Parlabane.

Brother John, if you please. Damn you, you are always so afraid somebody is going to bounce you, as you put it. What do you mean? Bounce you up and down on some yielding surface? What Rabelais calls the two-backed beast?

Oh shut up, you sound like Urky McVarish. Every man who can spell out the words picks up a few nasty expressions from the English Rabelais and tries them on women, and thinks he’s a real devil. It gives me a royal pain in the arse, if you want a Rabelaisian opinion. By bounce I mean men always want to disconcert women and put them at a disadvantage; bouncing is genial, patronizing bullying and I won’t put up with it.

You wound me more deeply than I can say.

No, I don’t. You’re a cultivated sponger, Brother John. But I don’t care. You’re interesting, and I’m happy to pay if you’ll talk. I call it a fair exchange. I’ve told you, I hate talking against noise.

Oh, this overbred passion for quiet! Totally unnatural. We are usually begotten with a certain amount of noise. For our first nine months we are carried in the womb in a positive hubbub — the loud tom-tom of the heart, the croaking and gurgling of the guts, which must sound like the noise of the rigging on a sailing-ship, and a mother’s loud laughter — can you imagine what that must be like to Little Nemo, lurching and heaving in his watery bottle while the diaphragm hops up and down? Why are children noisy? Because, literally, they’re bred to it. People find fault with their kids when they say they can do their homework better while the radio is playing, but the kids are simply trying to recover the primal racket in which they learned to be everything from a blob, to a fish, to a human creature. Silence is entirely a sophisticated, acquired taste. Silence is anti-human.

What do you want to eat?

Let’s start with a big go of shrimp. Frozen, undoubtedly, but as it’s the best you mean to do for me, let’s give ourselves up to third-class luxury. And lots of very hot sauce. To follow that, an omelette frittata with chicken stuffing. Then spaghetti, again; it was quite passable last time, but double the order, and I’m sure they can manage a more piquant sauce. Tell the chef to throw in a few extra peppers; my friend will pay. Then zabaglione, and don’t spare the booze in the mixture. We’ll top off with lots and lots of cheese; the goatiest and messiest you have, because I like my cheese opinionated. We’ll need at least a loaf of that crusty Italian bread, unsalted butter, some green stuff — a really good belch-lifting radish, if you have such a thing — and some garlic butter to rub on this and that, as we need it. Coffee nicely frothed. Now as for drink — God, what a list! Well, no use com­plaining; let’s have fiasco each of Orvieto and Chianti, and don’t chill the Orvieto, because God never intended that and I won’t be a party to it. And we’ll talk about Strega when things are a little further advanced. And make it quick.

The waitress cocked an eye at me, and I nodded.

I’ve ordered well, don’t you think? A good meal should be a performance; the Edwardians understood that. Their meals were a splendid form of theatre, like a play by Pinero, with skilful preparation, expectation, denouement, and satisfactory ending. The well-made play: the well-made meal. Drama one can eat. Then of course Shaw and Galsworthy came along and the theatre and the meals became high-minded: the plays were robbed of their delicious adulteries and the meals became messes of pond-weed, and a boiled egg if you were really stuffing yourself?

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