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

Isn’t that rather hard? I said.

No. You understand that I’m not talking village morality, but something that truly belongs to paleo-psychology. There are evil people; they’re not common, but they exist. It takes just as much energy to be evil as it does to be good and few people have energy for either course. But he has. There is a destroying demon in him, and he would drag you down, and then jeer at you because you had yielded to him. Watch your step, Maria.

I was startled to hear him say what I had been saying to myself ever since I woke. That was Hollier — a touch of the wizard. But one can’t just bow to the wizard as if one had no mind of one’s own. Not yet, at least.

I think he is rather pathetic.


He was telling me about his life.

Yes, he must have it nicely polished up by now.

Well, it’s not a happy story.

But amusingly told, I am sure.

Are you down on him because he’s Gay?

He’s a sodomite, if there’s anything gay about that. But that doesn’t make him evil, necessarily. So was Oscar Wilde, and a kinder, more generous man never walked in shoe leather. Evil isn’t what one does, it’s something one is that infects everything one does. He told you the whole thing, did he?

No, he didn’t. Most people when they set out on the story of their lives give you quite a passage about childhood; he began much later.

Then I’ll tell you a few things. I’ve known him since we were boys; at school together, and at summer camp together. Did he tell you what happened to his face?

No, and I didn’t get a chance to ask.

Well, it’s not much in the telling, but much in the conse­quence. One summer when I suppose we were fourteen, we were at camp, and Parlabane, who was always very good with his hands, was working at a repair on a canoe. He was under the direction of one of the counsellors, and everything seemed to be in order. But he had set a pot of glue on a flame to heat it, without putting it in a pan of water: what the counsellor was doing at that moment, God knows. It burst and covered his face with the boiling stuff. He was rushed to hospital near by, and some drastic action had to be taken, and on the whole a good job was done, for he was left with a scarred face, but still a face, and his eyes didn’t suffer as much as one might have feared. I went with him, and the camp people arranged for me to stay in the hospital because I was his best friend, and they wanted him to have a friend near by. When he wasn’t in the operating-room I sat by his bed and held his hand for three days.

All that time he was raging with anger, because his parents didn’t come. They could have made it in a few hours, and the camp people had been in touch, but nobody appeared. On the fourth day they turned up — mousy, ineffectual Father, and his Mother, who was quite another kettle of fish. She was big in city politics — Board of Education, and then an Alderman — and a very busy woman indeed, as she explained. She had come as soon as she could, but she couldn’t stay long. She was all affection, all charm, and, as I had cause to know, a really intelligent and capable person, but she was not rich in maternal concern.

The way Parlabane talked to her was so dreadful that I wanted to creep out of the room, but he wouldn’t release my hand. She was his Mother, and when he was suffering what was she doing? Labouring for the public good, and unable to set it aside for the private need.

She took it very well. Laughed gently and said, ‘Oh, come on, Johnny, it’s bad but it isn’t the end of the world, now, is it?’

Then he began to cry, and because of the injuries to his eyes, that was excruciatingly painful and soon crying became scream­ing, coming from the little hole they had left for his mouth in all the bandaging. It was just enough to admit a feeding-tube. When he spoke it was like a child speaking from a well, muffled and indistinct but terrible in meaning.

The little northern hospital was heavy with summer heat, because there was no air-conditioning in the wards; the bandages must have been insupportably hot, and the wounds sore, and the sedatives sickening to feel at work. The screaming brought a doc­tor with a syringe and soon John screamed no more, but Mrs. Parlabane never lost her composure.

‘You’ll stay with him, won’t you, Clement?’ she said to me, ‘because I really must get back to the City.’ And away she and the biddable husband went. I noticed that he reached out and patted John’s insensible hand before he left.

So that was it, and after a while the bandages came off, and the face you know was seen for the first time. He was no beauty before, but now he was like a man in a red mask, which has faded with time. I am sure Toronto plastic surgeons could have done a good deal for him in the years that followed, but the Parlabane family did nothing about it.

Didn’t make a fuss with the camp?

The people who owned the camp were friends; they didn’t want to injure them. John thought it a great injustice.

And that was what made him the way he is?

In part, I suppose. Certainly it did nothing to make him otherwise. He and his Mother were cat and dog after that. He called her The Bitch Goddess, after Henry James’s Bitch God­dess Success. She was a success, in her terms. He insisted she had deserted him when he most needed her; she said to me more than once that she had seen that everything was done that could be done, and she thought he was making a great deal of a mis­fortune that could happen to anyone. But that’s by the way — though I suppose it throws some light on him, and on her, of course. The fact that he could not bear to tell you — though I am sure he told you in affecting terms about his other great betrayal by that egotistical catamite Henry Loewi III, the Beauty of Princeton — shows how much it affected him.

I hope things may look up a little for him now. I’ve managed to get a job for him and he’s away at this minute arranging about it. Appleton, who does some lecturing in Extension, has broken his hip, and even when he gets back on the job he will have to lighten his load. So I have persuaded the director of that division to take Parlabane on to finish out the year; once a week on Basic Principles in Philosophy, and twice a week on Six Major Philosophical Texts.

That’s marvellous.

I’m afraid he doesn’t think so. Extension means teaching at night, and most of the people in the classes are middle-aged and opinionated; it won’t be the thrill of moulding the young, which is what he likes.

Rough on the young, I’d imagine.

His real teaching days are over, I fear. He has a good mind — used to have a fine mind — but he rambles and blathers too much. He wants me to take him on, you know.


Special research assistant.

But I’m your research assistant!

He’d be happy to supplant you. But don’t give it a thought; I won’t have it.

The snake!

Oh, that’s not the worst of him; that’s just his normal way of behaving. But there’s a limit to what I can, and will, do for him; I’ve got him a job, and that’s as far as it goes.

I think you’ve been wonderful to him.

He’s an old friend. And we don’t always choose our old friends, you know; sometimes we’re just landed with them. You know somebody for a few years, and you’re probably stuck with them for life. Sometimes you must do what you can.

Well, at least he’s out of here.

Don’t count on that. I’ll urge him to get a room somewhere, but he will have no campus office. He’ll be back to mooch books, and he’ll be back for you.

For me?

He fancies you, you know. Oh, yes; being a homosexual doesn’t matter. Just about all men need a woman in one way or another, unless they’re very strange indeed. Tormenting you refreshes him. And you shouldn’t underestimate the gratitude all men feel for women’s beauty. Men who truly don’t like flowers are very uncommon and men who don’t respond to a beautiful woman are even more uncommon. It’s not primarily sexual; it’s a lifting of the spirits beauty gives. He’ll be in to torment you, and tease you, and enrage you, but really to have a good, refreshing look at you.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson