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

My forty feet of Literary Gut was not in the best of moods when Parlabane came; I had denied it a sweet at dinner. This sort of denial may be the path to Heaven for some people, but not for me; it makes me cranky.

Sim, you old darling? I’ve been neglecting you, and I’m ashamed. Do you want to beat Johnny? Three on each paddy with a hard, hard ruler?

I suppose he thought of this as taking up from where we had left off, twenty-five years ago. He had loved to prattle in this campy way, because he knew it made me laugh. But I had never played that game except on the surface; I had never been one of his boys , the student gang who called themselves Gentle­man’s Relish. I was interested in them — fascinated might be a better word — but I never wanted to join them in the intimacies that bound them together, whatever those may have been. That I never really knew, because although they talked a lot about homosexuality, most of them had, after graduation, married and settled into what looked like the uttermost bourgeois respect­ability, leavened by occasional divorce and remarriage. One was now on the Bench, and was addressed as My Lord by obsequious or mock-obsequious lawyers. I suppose that, like Parlabane him­self, they had played the field; one or two, I knew, had been on gusty terms with omnivorous Elsie Whistlecraft, who had thought of herself as a great hetaera, inducting the dewy young into the arts of love. A lot of young men try varied aspects of sex before they settle on the one that suits them best, which is usually the ordinary one. But I had been cautious, discreet, and probably craven, and I had never been one of Parlabane’s boys . But it had once tickled me to hear him talk as if I were.

A foolish state of mind, but who has not been foolish, one way or another? It would not do now, after a quarter of a century. I suppose I was austere.

Well, John, I had heard you were back, and I expected you’d come to see me some time.

I’ve left it inexcusably long. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, as we say in the trade. But here I am. I hear great things of you. Excellent books.

Not bad, I hope.

And a priest. Well — better get it over with; you can see from my habit that I’ve had a change of mind. I think I have you to thank for that, at least in part. During the past years, I’ve thought of you often, you know. Things you used to say kept recurring. You were wiser than I. And I turned to the Church at last.

You had a shot at being a monk. Let’s put it that way. But obviously it hasn’t worked.

Don’t be rough on me, Sim. I’ve had a rotten time. Every­thing seemed to go sour. Surely you aren’t surprised that I turned at last to the place where nothing can go sour.

Can’t it? Then what are you doing here?

You would understand, if anybody would. I entered the S.S.M. because I wanted to get away from all the things that had made my life a hell — the worst of which was my own self-will. Abandon self-will, I thought, and you may find peace, and with it salvation. If thou bear the Cross cheerfully, it will bear thee.

Thomas à Kempis – an unreliable guide for a man like you, John.

Really? I’d have thought he was very much your man.

He isn’t. Which is not to say I don’t pay him all proper respect. But he’s for the honest, you know, and you have never been quite honest. No, don’t interrupt, I’m not insulting you; but Thomas à Kempis’s kind of honesty is impossible for a man with as much subtlety as you have always possessed. Just as Thomas Aquinas was always too subtle a man to be a safe guide for you, because you blotted up his subtlety but kept your fingers crossed about his priciples.

Is that so? You seem to be a great authority about me.

Fair play; when we were younger you set up to be a great authority about me. — I gather you were not able to bear the Cross cheerfully, so you skipped out of the monastery.

You lent me the money for that. I can never be grateful enough.

Divide any gratitude you have between me and Clem Hollier. Unless there were others on your five-hundred-dollar campaign list.

You never thought a measly five hundred would do the job, did you?

That was certainly what your eloquent letter suggested.

Well, that’s water over the dam. I had to get out, by hook or crook.

An unfortunate choice of expression.

God, you’ve turned nasty! We are brothers in the Faith, surely. Haven’t you any charity?

I have thought a good deal about what charity is, John, and it isn’t being a patsy. Why did you have to get out of the Sacred Mission? Were they getting ready to throw you out?

No such luck! But they wouldn’t let me move towards be­coming a priest.

Funny thing! And why was that, pray tell?

You are slipping back into undergraduate irony. Look, I’ll level with you: have you ever been in one of those places?

A retreat or two when I was younger.

Could you face a lifetime of it? Listen, Sim, I won’t have you treating me as some nitwit penitent. I’m not knocking the Order; they gave me what I asked for, which was the Bread of Heaven. But I have to have a scrape of the butter and jam of the intellect on that Bread, or it chokes me! And listening to Father Prior’s homilies was like first-year philosophy, without any of the doubts given a fair chance. I have to have some play of intellect in my life, or I go mad! And I have to have some humour in life — not the simple-minded jokes the Provincial got off now and then when he was being chummy with the brothers, and not the infant-class dirty jokes some of the postulants whispered at recreation hour, to show that they had once been men of the world. I’ve got to have the big salutary humour that saves — like that bloody Rabelais I hear so much about these days. I have to have something to put some yeast into the unleavened Bread of Heaven. If they’d let me be a priest I could have brought some­thing useful to their service, but they wouldn’t have it, and I think their rejection was nothing but spite and envy!

Envy of your learning and intellect?


Perhaps that was part of it. Spite and envy are no less frequent behind the monastery wall than outside it, and you have an especially shameless mind that can’t disguise itself for the sake of people who are not so gifted. But what’s done is done. The question is, what do you do now?

I’m doing a little teaching.

In Continuing Studies.

They’re humbling me.

Lots of good people teach there.

But God damn it to hell, Sim, I’m not just ‘good people’! I’m the best damned philosopher this University has ever pro­duced and you know it.

Perhaps. You are also a hard man to get along with, and to fit into anything. Have you any other prospects?

Yes, but I need time.

And money, I’ll bet.

Could you see your way –?

What do you want to do?

I’m writing a book.

What about? Scepticism used to be your special thing.

No no; quite different. A novel.

I don’t suppose you are counting on it to produce much money?

Not for a while, of course.

Better try for a Canada Council grant; they back novelists.

Will you recommend me?

I recommend quite a few people every year; but I’m not known for literary taste. How do you know you can write a novel?

Because I have it all clear in my head! And it’s really extra­ordinary! A brilliant account of life as it used to be in this city — the underground life, that’s to say — but underlying it an analysis of the malaise of our time.

Great God!

Meaning what, precisely?

Meaning that roughly two-thirds of the first novels that people write are on that theme. Very few of them get published.

‘ Don’t be so ugly! You know me; you remember the things I used to write when we were students. With my mind —

That’s what I’m afraid of. Novels aren’t written with the mind.

With what, then?

Ask Ozy Froats; the forty-foot gut, he says. Look at you — a heavy mesomorphic element combined with substantial ectomorphy, but hardly any endomorphy at all. You’ve lived a terrible life, you’ve boozed and drugged and toughed around, and you’re still built like an athlete. I’ll bet you’ve got a miserable little gut. When did you last go to the w.c.?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson