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

I decided to dare greatly. Is that why you keep me here? I asked.

Partly. But mostly because you’re much the best and most intellectually sympathetic student and assistant I’ve ever had.

Thank you. I’ll bring you some flowers.

They’d be welcome. I never get around to buying any myself.

What am I to make of that? One of the enchantments Hollier had for me was this quality of possessive indifference. He must know I worship him, but he never gives me a chance to prove it. Only that one time. God, who would want to be me? But perhaps, like Parlabane in the hospital, I should realize that it wasn’t the end of the world.

Hollier was obviously trying to put something together in his mind, before speaking. Now it came.

There are two things I want you to do for me, Maria.

Anything! Anything whatever! The Maenad in me was sub­dued now, and Patient Griselda was in total possession.

The first is that I want you to visit my old acquaintance Professor Froats. There’s a kinship between his work and mine that I want to test. You know about him — he’s rather too much in the news for the University’s comfort or his own, I expect. He works with human excrement — what is rejected, what is ac­counted of no worth to mankind — and in it I suppose he hopes to discover something that is of worth. You know I’ve been busy for months on the Filth Therapy of the Middle Ages, and of ancient times, and of the East. The Bedouin mother washes her newborn child in camel’s urine, or in her own; probably she doesn’t really know why but she follows custom. The modern biologist knows why; it’s a convenient protection against several sorts of infection. The nomad of the Middle East binds the rickety child’s legs in splints and bandages of ass’s dung, and in a few weeks the bent legs are straight. Doesn’t know why, but knows it works. The porter at Ploughwright, an Irishman, had that done to him by Irish Gypsies when he was three, and today his legs are as straight as mine. Filth Therapy was widespread; sometimes it was superstition and sometimes it worked. Flem­ing’s penicillin began as Filth Therapy, you know. Every wood­cutter knew that the muck off bad bread was the best thing for an axe wound. Salvation in dirt. Why? I suspect that Ozias Froats knows why.

It’s astonishingly similar to alchemy in basic principle — the recognition of what is of worth in that which is scorned by the unseeing. The alchemist’s long quest for the Stone, and the biblical stone which the builders refused becoming the headstone of the corner. Do you know the Scottish paraphrase —

That stone shall be chief corner-stone

Which builders did despise —

and the lapis angularis of the Alchemical Cross, and the stone of the filus macrocosmi which was Christ, the Wholly Good?

I know what you’ve written about all that.

Well, is Froats the scientist looking for the same thing, but by means which are not ours, and without any idea of what we are doing, while being on much the same track?

But that would be fantastic!

I’m very much afraid that is exactly what it would be. If I’m wrong, it’s fantastic speculation. If I’m right, it could just make things harder for poor old Ozy Froats if it became known. So we must keep our mouths shut. That’s why I want you to take it on. If I turned up in his labs Ozy would smell a rat; he’d know I was after something, and if I told him what it was he’d either be over-impressed or have a scientific fit — you know what terrible puritans scientists are about their work — no contamination by anything that can’t be submitted to experimental test, and all that — but you are able to approach him as a student. I’ve told him you are curious because of some work you are doing connected with the Renaissance. I mentioned Paracelsus. That’s all he knows, or should know.

Of course I’ll go to see him.

After hours; not when his students are around or they would prevent him from being enthusiastic. They’re all green to science and all Doubting Thomases — wouldn’t believe their grand­mothers had wrinkles if they couldn’t measure them with a micrometer. But in his inmost heart, Ozy is an enthusiast. So go some night after dinner. He’s always there till eleven, at least.

I’ll go as soon as possible. You said there were two things you wanted me to do?

Ah, well, yes I did. You don’t have to do the second if you’d rather not.

What a fool I am! I knew it must be something connected with our work. Perhaps something more about the manuscript he had spoken of at the beginning of term. But the crazed notion would rush into my mind that perhaps he wanted me to live with him, or go away for a weekend, or get married, or something it was least likely to be. But it was even unlikelier than any of those.

I’d be infinitely obliged if you could arrange to introduce me to your Mother.

The New Aubrey III

Ellerman’s funeral was a sad affair, which is not as silly as it sounds, because I have known funerals of well-loved or brave people which were buoyant. But this was a funeral without per­sonal quality or grace. Funeral homes are places that exist for convenience; to excuse families from straining small houses with a ceremony they cannot contain, and to excuse churches from burying people who had no inclination towards churches and did nothing whatever to sustain them. People are said to be drifting away from religion, but few of them drift so far that when they die there is not a call for some kind of religious ceremony. Is it because mankind is naturally religious, or simply because man­kind is naturally cautious? For whatever reason, we don’t like to part with a friend without some sort of show, and too often it is a poor show.

A parson of one of the sects which an advertising man would call a Smooth Blend read scriptural passages and prayers, and suggested that Ellerman had been a good fellow. Amen to that.

He had been a man who liked a touch of style, and he had been hospitable. This affair would have dismayed him; he would have wanted things done better. But how do you do better when no­body believes anything very firmly, and when the Canadian ineptitude for every kind of ceremony reduces the obsequies to mediocrity?

What would I have done if I had been in charge? I would have had Ellerman’s war medals, which were numerous and honour­able, on display, and I would have draped his doctor’s red gown and his hood over the coffin. These, as reminders of what he had been, of where his strengths had lain. But — Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither — so at the grave I would have stripped away these evidences of a life, and on the bare coffin I would have thrown earth, instead of the rose-leaves modern funeral directors think symbolic of the words Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; there is some­thing honest about hearing the clods rattling on the coffin lid. Ellerman had taught English Literature, and he was an expert on Browning; might not somebody have read some passages from A Grammarian’s Funeral? But such thoughts are idle; you are asking for theatricalism, Darcourt; grief must be meagre, and mean, and cheap — not in money, of course, but in expression and invention. Death, be not proud; neither the grinning skull nor the panoply of ceremonial, nor the heart-catching splendour of faith is welcome at a modern, middle-class city funeral; grief must be huddled away, as the Lowest Common Denominator of permissible emotion.

I wish I could have seen him near the last, to tell him that his notion of The New Aubrey had taken root in me, and thus, whatever his beliefs may have been, something of him should live, however humbly.

He drew a pretty good house; my professional eye put it at seventy-five, give or take a body, or so. No sign of McVarish, though he and Ellerman had been cronies. Urky ignores death, so far as possible. Professor Ozias Froats was there, to my sur­prise. I knew he had been brought up a Mennonite, but I would have supposed that a life given to science had leached all belief out of him in things unseen, of heights and depths immeasurable. I took my chance, as we stood outside the funeral home, to speak to him.

I hope all this nonsense in the papers isn’t bothering you, said I.

I wish I could say it wasn’t; they’re so unfair in what they say. Can’t be expected to understand, of course.

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