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

What kind of claims?

Insinuating claims. I think he knows about us. About Maria and me.

Do you think she told him?

Unthinkable. But he smells things. And I find now that he’s seeing McVarish.

I sighed. It’s true as it’s horrible: one never regrets anything so profoundly as a kind action. We should have left him in the Society; they know a few things about penances that might have sorted him out.

What I can’t understand or forgive is the way he seems to be turning on me.

That’s his nature, Clem; he can’t bear to be under an obli­gation. He was always proud as Lucifer. When I think back to our student days, I’d say he was as Luciferian as a not very tall fellow with a messed-up face could be; we tend to think of Luci­fer as tall, dark, and handsome — fallen angel, you know. But if Parlabane was ever an angel it’s a kind unknown to me; just a very good student of philosophy with a special talent for the sceptical hypotyposis.

Mmmm. . .?

The brainy over-view or the chilling put-down or whatever you like. If you said something you thought was fine, and that meant a lot to you, he would immediately put it in a context that showed you up as a credulous boob, or a limited fellow who hadn’t read enough or thought enough. But he did it with such a grand sweep and such a light touch that you felt you had been illuminated.

Until you got sick of it.

Yes, until you gained enough self-confidence to know you couldn’t be completely wrong all of the time and that exposing things as cheats and shams or follies couldn’t do much for you. Scepticism ran wild in Parlabane.

Odd about scepticism, you know, Simon. I’ve known a few sceptical philosophers and with the exception of Parlabane they have all been quite ordinary people in the normal dealings of life. They pay their debts, have mortgages, educate their kids, google over their grandchildren, try to scrape together a competence precisely like the rest of the middle class. They come to terms with life. How do they square it with what they profess?

Horse sense, Clem, horse sense. It’s the saving of us all who live by the mind. We make a deal between what we can com­prehend intellectually and what we are in the world as we en­counter it. Only the geniuses and people with a kink try to escape, and even the geniuses often live by a thoroughly bourgeois morality. Why? Because it simplifies all the unessential things. One can’t always be improvising and seeing every triviality afresh. But Parlabane is a man with a kink.

Years ago plenty of people thought he was a genius.

I remember being one of them.

Do you think it was that wretched accident to his face that kinked him? Or his family? His mother, do you suppose?

Once I would have supposed all those things, but I don’t any longer. People triumph over worse families than his could have been, and do astonishing things with ruined bodies, and I’m sick to death of people squealing about their mothers. Everybody has to have a mother, and not everybody is going to draw the Grand Prize — whatever that may be. What’s a perfect mother? We hear too much about loving mothers making homosexuals, and neglectful mothers making crooks, and commonplace mothers stifling intelligence. The whole mother business needs radical re-examination.

You sound as if in a minute you were going to give me a lecture about Original Sin.

And why not? We’ve had psychology and we’ve had sociology and we’re still just where we were, for all practical purposes. Some of the harsh old theological notions of things are every bit as good, not because they really explain anything, but because at bottom they admit they can’t explain a lot of things, so they foist them off on God, who may be cruel and incalculable but at least He takes the guilt for a lot of human misery.

So you think there’s no explanation for Parlabane? For his failure to live up to expectation? For what he is now?

You’ve lived in a university longer than I have, Clem, and you’ve seen lots of splendidly promising young people disappear into mediocrity. We put too much value on a certain kind of examination-passing brain and a ready tongue.

In a minute you’ll be saying that character is more important than intelligence. I know several people of splendid character who haven’t got the wits of a hen.

Stop telling me what I’m going to say in a minute, Clem, and take a good look at yourself: certainly one of the most brilliant men in this university and a man of international reputation, and the first time you get into a tiny moral mess with a girl you become a complete simpleton.

You presume on your cloth to insult me.

Balls! I’m not wearing my cloth; I only put on the full rig on Sundays. Have another drink.

You don’t suppose, do you, that this discussion is degenerat­ing into mere whisky-talk?

Very likely. But before we sink below the surface, let me tell you what twenty years of the cloth, as you so old-fashionedly call it, have taught me. Intellectual endowment is a factor in a man’s fate, and so is character, and so is industry, and so is courage, but they can all go right down the drain without another factor that nobody likes to admit, and that’s sheer, bald-headed Luck.

I would have expected you to say God’s Saving Grace.

Certainly you can call it that if you like, and the way He sprinkles it around is beyond human comprehension. God’s a rum old joker, Clem, and we must never forget it.

He’s treated us well, wouldn’t you say, Simon? Here’s to the Rum Old Joker!

The Rum Old Joker! And long may he smile on us.


The laboratories of Professor Ozias Froats looked more than anything else like the kitchens of a first-rate hotel. Clean metal tables, sinks, an array of cabinets like big refrigerators, and a few instruments that looked as if they were concerned with very ac­curate calculations. I cannot say what I expected; by the time I visited him the hullabaloo stirred up by Murray Brown had so coloured the public conception of his work that I would not have been surprised if I had found Ozy in the sort of surround­ings one associates with the Mad Scientists in a bad movie.

Come on in, Simon. You don’t mind if I call you Simon, do you? Call me Ozy; you always did.

It was a name he had lifted from the joke-name of a rube undergraduate to the honoured pet-name of a first-rate foot­baller. In the great days when he and Boom-Boom Glazebrook were the stars of the University team the crowd used to sing a revised version of a song that had been popular years earlier —

Ozy Froats, and dozy doats

And little Lambsie divy —

and if he was injured in the game the cheerleaders, led by his own sweetheart, Peppy Peggy, brought him to his feet with the long, yearning cry, Come o-o-o-o-n Ozy! Come O-O-O-O-N OZY! But everybody knew that Ozy was a star in biology, as well as football, and a Very Big Man On Campus. What he had been doing since graduation, and a Rhodes Scholarship, only God and biologists knew, but the President had named him as another Ornament to the University. So I was glad he had not wholly forgotten me.

Murray Brown is giving you a rough time, Ozy.

Yes. You saw that there was a parade outside the Legislature yesterday. People wanting education grants cut. Some of the signs read, Get the Shit Out of Our Varsity . That meant me. I’m Murray’s great peeve.

Well, do you actually work with –?

Sure I do. And a very good thing, too. Time somebody got to grips with it. — God, people are so stupid.

They don’t understand, and they’re overtaxed and scared about inflation. The universities are always an easy mark. Cut the frills away from education. Teach students a trade so they can make a living. You can’t persuade most of the public that edu­cation and making a living aren’t the same thing. And when the public sees people happily doing what they like best and getting paid for it, they are envious, and want to put a stop to it. Fire the unprofitable professors. Education and religion are two sub­jects on which everybody considers himself an expert; everybody does what he calls using his common sense. — I suppose your work costs a lot of money?

Not as much as lots of things, but quite a bit. It isn’t public money, most of it. I get grants from foundations, and the National Research Council, and so forth, but the University backs me, and pays me, and I suppose I’m a natural scapegoat for people like Brown.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson