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

I could have weathered it through, but I began to be hungry for another kind of life. The Society offered a good life, but that was precisely the trouble — it was so unremittingly good. I had known another world, and I became positively sick for the existentialist gloom, the malicious joy at the misfortunes of others, and the gallows-humour that gave zest to modern intel­lectual life outside the monastery. I was like a child who is given nothing but the most wholesome food; my soul yearned for unwholesome trash, to keep me somehow in balance.

So I sneaked a letter out with a visitor who had come for a retreat, and dear Clem sent me some money, and I went over the wall.

Just an expression; there was no wall. But one day at recrea­tion time I walked down the drive in a suit and a red wig out of the box of costumes the school used for Christmas theatricals. Monasteries don’t send out dogs after escapees. I am sure they were glad to be rid of me.

Then off with the wig and on with the robe, which I had providentially, if not quite honestly, brought with me. It smooths the path wonderfully. On the plane and back to the embraces of my Bounteous Mother, to dear old Spook. — Brraaaaaph! Excuse me if I appear to belch — Molly, may I just have the teeniest peep at that diamond you whipped out of sight so quickly?

No. It’s just like any other diamond.

Not in the least, my darling. How could it be like any other diamond when it is your diamond? You give it splendour; it is not in the power of any stone to give splendour to you.

We’d better go, now. I have some things to do before I go home.

Aha, she has a home! Beautiful Maria Magdalena of God’s Motherhood has a home! Where do you suppose it can be?

You don’t need to know.

She has a home and she has a diamond ring. And that ring is greatly privileged! You know old Burton — The Anatomy of Melancholy — contemporary of Shakespeare? He has something about a diamond ring that I memorized in my pre-monastery days, and which sometimes wickedly crept into my mind in Chapel; the Devil whispered it, one supposes. And it went like this: ‘A lover, in Calcagninus’ Apologues, wished with all his heart he were his mistress’s ring, to hear, embrace, see and do I know not what; O thou fool, quoth the ring, if thou wer’st in my room, thou shouldst hear, observe and see pudenda et poenitenda, that which would make thee loathe and hate her, yea, peradventure, all women for her sake.’ But the ring was a prissy fool, because it saw what the lover would have given his soul to see.

Come on, Brother John, this is foolish. Let’s be on our way.

No, no, not yet — you understand what I mean? There’s even a song about it. He sang loudly, pounding out the time on the table with the handle of a knife:

I wish I were a diamond ring

Upon my lady’s hand,

Upon my lady’s hand;

So every time she wiped her arse

I’d see the Promised Land

I’d see the Promised Land!

Come on; time for us to go now.

Don’t be so prim! Do you think I haven’t seen through you? You buy my story with a cheap meal and you sit there with a face like a hanging judge. And now you fuss and want to run away as if you’d never heard a dirty song in your whole life. And I bet you haven’t! I bet you don’t know a single dirty song, you stone-faced bitch —

I don’t know why I did it. No, that’s wrong — I do know. My ancestry forbids me to resist a challenge. Ancestry on both sides of my family. I was suddenly furious and disgusted with Parlabane. I threw back my head and in a loud voice — and I have a really loud voice, when I need it — I sang:

There’s a nigger in the alley with a hard-on,

‘Cause a woman in the window has her pants down —

and so on.

That caused a sensation. When Parlabane sang, the people at the other tables, most of whom were students, took care not to look. Shouting a rowdy song was within their range of what was permissible. But I had been really dirty. I had used an inexcus­able racist word. Nigger brought immediate hisses and shushes, and one young man rose to his feet, as though to address a grievance meeting. In no time the proprietor was at my elbow, lifting, urging, bustling me towards the door; he only permitted me time to pay the bill as we passed the cash-desk.

Not come back — not come back — not you nor priest, he said, in an angry mumble, because he hated trouble.

So there we were, thrown out of The Rude Plenty, and as I was not drunk, though I was aroused, I thought I ought to see Parlabane back to Spook.

My God, Molly, he said, as we stumbled along the street, where did you learn a song like that?

Where did Ophelia learn her dirty song? I said; overheard it, probably. Soldiers singing it in the courtyard as she sat at her window, knitting bedsocks for Polonius.

This put Shakespeare into his mind and he began to bellow, Sing me a bawdy song! Sing me a bawdy song to make my eyes red, and kept it up, as I struggled to keep him up.

A car passed with two of the University police in it; they hurried by with averted gaze, because trouble of any kind was the last thing they wanted to be involved in. But what had they seen? Parlabane in his robe, and me in a longish cloak, because it was a chilly autumn night, must have looked like a couple of drunken women brawling on the pavement. Suddenly he took a dislike to me, and beat me with his fists, but I have had a little experience in fighting and gave him a sobering wipe or two. At last I pushed him through the main gate of Spook, and put him in the hands of the porter, who looked as if these goings-on were becoming too much of a good thing.

As indeed they were.


Next morning I felt shaky and repentant. Not hung-over, because I never drink much, but aware of having behaved like a fool. I shouldn’t have sung that song about the nigger. Where had I picked it up? At my convent school, where girls sang songs they had learned from their brothers. I have a capacious memory for what I have heard, and dirty songs and limericks never leave me, when sometimes I have to grope for sober facts I have read. But I would not be bounced by Parlabane, and I have never hesitated to take a dare; neither my Mother nor my Father, very different as they were, would have wanted me to back down in the face of a challenge.

I got rid of the diamond ring — miserable object of female vanity and, much worse, of an unstudentlike affluence — and didn’t drive my little car to the University. Watch your step, Maria! Parlabane had done something that had a little unhinged me; he had awakened the Maenad in me, that spirit which any woman of any character keeps well suppressed, but shakes men badly when it is revealed. The Maenads, who tore Pentheus to bloody scraps and ate him, are not dead, just sleeping. But I don’t want to join the Political Maenads, the Women’s Lib sisterhood; I avoid them just as Parlabane said he avoided the Political Gays; they make a public cause of something too deep, too im­portant, for political, group action. My personal Maenad had escaped control, and I had wasted her terrible energy simply to get the better of a bullying, spoiled monk. Repent, Maria, and watch your step!

When I entered Hollier’s rooms, Parlabane was not there, but Hollier was.

I hear that you and Brother John had a gaudy night together, said he.

I could not think of anything to say, so I nodded my head, feeling not more than sixteen, and as if I were being rebuked again by Tadeusz.

Sit down, said Hollier; I want to talk to you. I want to warn you against Parlabane. I know that sounds extreme, and that you are perfectly capable of looking after yourself, and the rest of that nonsense. When I told you to try to understand him I had no idea you would go so far. But I mean precisely what I say: Parlabane is not a man you should become deeply involved with. Why? In the light of the work you and I share I don’t have to explain in modern terms; very old terms are quite sufficient and exact — Parlabane is an evil man, and evil is infectious, and you mustn’t catch the infection.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson