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

It can’t do any permanent harm, surely.

It could, if I had to ease up to satisfy this guy Brown. His political advantage could cost me seven years of work that would have to be repeated if I had to reduce what I’m doing for a while.

I hadn’t expected him to be so down in the mouth. Years ago I had known him when he was a great football star; he had been temperamental then, and seemingly he still was so.

I’m sure it does as much good as harm, said I; ‘thousands of people must have been made aware of what you’re doing, and are interested. I’m interested myself. I don’t suppose you’d let me visit you some day?

To my astonishment he blossomed, and said: Any time. But come at night when I’m alone, or nearly alone. Then I’d be glad to show you my stuff and explain. It’s good of you to say you’re interested.

So it was quite easy. I could have a look at Ozy for The New Aubrey.


It wouldn’t be fair to Ozias Froats or to me to suggest that I was bagging him like a butterfly collector. That wasn’t the light in which I saw The New Aubrey. Of course poor Ellerman, who loved everything that was quaint in English Literature, had relished John Aubrey’s delightful style, and the mixture of shrewdness and naivety with which Aubrey recorded his ragbag of information about the great ones of his time. But I wasn’t interested in anything like that; undergraduates love to write such stuff for their literary magazines — The Diary of Our Own Mr. Pepys , and such arch concoctions. What I valued in Aubrey was the energy of his curiosity, his determination to find out whatever he could about people who interested him: that was the quality in him I would try to recapture.

It was not simple nosiness. It was a proper university project. Energy and curiosity are the lifeblood of universities; the desire to find out, to uncover, to dig deeper, to puzzle out obscurities, is the spirit of the university, and it is a channelling of that un­resting curiosity that holds mankind together. As for energy, only those who have never tried it for a week or two can suppose that the pursuit of knowledge does not demand a strength and determination, a resolve not to be beaten, that is a special kind of energy, and those who lack it or have it only in small store will never be scholars or teachers, because real teaching demands energy as well. To instruct calls for energy, and to remain almost silent, but watchful and helpful, while students instruct them­selves, calls for even greater energy. To see someone fall (which will teach him not to fall again) when a word from you would keep him on his feet but ignorant of an important danger, is one of the tasks of the teacher that calls for special energy, because holding in is more demanding than crying out.

It was curiosity and energy I brought to The New Aubrey, as a tribute to my University, of which it might not become aware until I was dead. I have done my share of scholarship — two pretty good books on New Testament Apocrypha, studies of some of the later gospels and apocalypses that didn’t make it into the ac­cepted canon of Holy Writ — and I was no longer under com­pulsion to justify myself in that way. So I was ready to give time and energy — and of course curiosity, of which I have an extra­ordinary endowment — to The New Aubrey. I was making a plan. I must have order in the work. The Old Aubrey is charming because it wholly lacks order, but The New Aubrey must not copy that.

I didn’t go to Ozy’s laboratories at once; I wanted to think about what I was seeking. Not a scientific appraisal, obviously, for I was incompetent for that and there would be plenty of appraisal from his colleagues and peers when his work became known. No, what I was after was the spirit of the man, the source of the energy that lay behind the work.

I was thinking on these lines one night a few days after Ellerman’s funeral when there came a tap on my door, and to my astonishment it was Hollier.

We have been on good but not close terms since our days together at Spook, when I had known him fairly well. We were not intimates then because I was in Classics, heading towards Theology (Spook likes its parsons to have some general edu­cation before they push towards ordination), and we met only in student societies. Since then we were friendly when we met, but we did not take pains to meet. This visit, I supposed, must be about the Cornish business. Hollier was no man to make a social call.

So it proved to be. After accepting a drink and fussing un­easily for perhaps five minutes on the general theme of our work, he came out with it.

There’s something that has been worrying me, but because it lies in your part of the executors’ work I haven’t liked to mention it. Have you found any catalogue of Cornish’s books and manuscripts?

He made two or three beginnings, and a few notes. He had no idea what cataloguing means.

Then you wouldn’t know if anything were missing?

I’d know if it related to his musical manuscripts, because he showed them to me often, and I have a good idea of what he possessed. Otherwise, not.

There’s one I know he had, because he acquired it last April, and I saw it one night at his place. He had bought a group of MSS for their calligraphy; they were contemporary copies of letters to and from the Papal Chancery of Paulin. You know he was interested in calligraphy in a learnedly amateurish way, and it was the writing rather than the content that had attracted him; it was a bundle from somebody’s collection, and the prize piece was a letter from Jacob ben Samuel Martino and it made a passing reference to Henry VIII’s divorce, on which you know Martino was one of the experts. There were corrections in Martino’s own hand. Otherwise the content was of no interest; just a pretty piece of writing. Good for a footnote, no more. McVarish was there, and he and Cornish gloated over that, and as they did I looked at some of the other stuff, and there was a leather portfolio — not a big one, about ten inches by seven, I suppose — with S.G. stamped on it in gold that had faded almost to nothing. Have you come across that?

No, but the Martino letter is present and correct. Very fine. And a group that goes with it, which presumably is what you saw.

Where do you suppose S.G. has got to?

I don’t know. I have never heard of it till this minute. What was it?

I’m not sure that I can tell you.

Well, my dear man, if you can’t tell me, how can I look for it? He may have put it in one of the other divisions — if those old cartons from the liquor store in which he stored his MSS can be called divisions. There is a very rough plan to be discerned in the muddle, but unless I know what this particular MS was about I wouldn’t have any idea where to look. Why are you interested?

I was trying to find out what it really was when McVarish came along and wanted to see it, and I couldn’t very well say no — not in another man’s house, about something that wasn’t mine — and I never got back to it. But certainly McVarish saw it, and I saw his eyes popping.

Had your eyes been popping?

I suppose so.

Come on, Clem, cut the scholarly reticence and tell me what it was.

I suppose there’s nothing else for it. It was one of the great, really great, lost manuscripts. I’m sure you know what some of those are.

They are very common in my field. In the nineteenth century some letters appeared from Pontius Pilate, describing the Cruci­fixion; they were in French on contemporary notepaper and a credulous rich peasant paid quite a lot for them; it was when the same crook tried to sell him Christ’s last letter to his Mother, written in purple ink, that the buyer began to smell a rat.

I wish you wouldn’t be facetious.

Perfectly true, I assure you. I know the kind of thing you mean: Henry Hudson’s lost diary; James Macpherson’s Journal about the composition of Ossian — that kind of thing. And stuff does turn up. Look at the big haul of Boswell papers, found in a trunk in an attic in Ireland. Was this something of that order?

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