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

I suppose I had worked for about two hours, getting my papers laid out, and books arranged on the big table, and my portable typewriter plugged in, when Parlabane came back, carrying a big, scabby leather suitcase that looked as if it had been bought in a Lost Luggage shop.

Don’t mind me, my dear. I shall be as quiet as a mouse. I’ll just tuck my box — don’t you think ‘box’ is the best name for an old case like this? — in this corner, right out of your way. Which he did, and settled himself again on the sofa, and began to read from a thick little black book, moving his lips but making no sound. More prayers, I supposed.

Excuse me, Dr. Parlabane; are you proposing to stay here for the morning?

For the morning, and for the afternoon, and this evening. The Bursar has no place for me, though he is kind enough to say I may eat in Hall. If that is really kind, which my recollection of Spook food makes me doubt.

But this is my workroom!

It is my honour to share it with you.

But you can’t! How can I possibly work with you around?

The scholar’s wish for complete privacy — how well I under­stand! But Charity, dear Molly, Charity! Where else can I go?

I’ll speak to Professor Hollier!

I’d think carefully before I did that. He might tell me to go; but then there is a chance — not a bad chance — that he might tell you to go to your carrel, or whatever they call those little cupboards where graduate students work. He and I are very old friends. Friends from a time before you were born, my dear.

I was furious, and speechless. I left, and hung around the Library until after lunch. Then I returned, deciding that I must try again. Parlabane was on the sofa, reading a file of papers from my table.

Welcome, welcome dear Molly! I knew you would come back. It is not in your heart to be angry for long. With your beautiful name — Maria, the Motherhood of God — you must be filled with understanding and forgiveness. But tell me why you have been making such careful study of that renegade monk François Rabelais? I’ve been peeping into your papers, you see. Rabelais is not the kind of company I expected to find you keeping.

Rabelais is one of the great misunderstood figures of the Reformation. He’s part of my special area of study.

How I hated myself for explaining! But Parlabane had a terrible trick of putting me on the defensive.

Ah, the Reformation, so called. What a fuss about very little! Was Rabelais truly one of those nasty, divisive reformers? Did he dig with the same foot as that pestilent fellow Luther?

He dug with the same foot as that admirable fellow Erasmus.

I see. But a dirty-minded man. And a great despiser of women, if I recollect properly, though it’s years since I read his blundering, coarse-fibred romance about the giants. But we mustn’t quarrel; we must live together in holy charity. I’ve seen dear Clem since last we talked, and he says it’s all right for me to stay. I wouldn’t fuss him about it if I were you. He seems to have great things on his mind.

So he’d won! I should never have left the room. He’d got to Hollier first. He was smiling a cat’s smile at me.

You must understand, my dear, that my case is a special one. Indeed, all my life, I’ve been a special case. But I have a solution for all our problems. Look at this room! The room of a medieval scholar if ever I saw one. Look at that object on the bookcase; alchemical — even I can see that. This is like an alchemist’s chamber in some quiet medieval university. And fully equipped! Here is the great scholar himself, Clement Hollier. And here are you, that inescapable necessity of the alchemist, his soror mystica, his scholarly girlfriend, to put it in modern terms. But what’s lacking? Of course, the famulus, the scholar’s intimate servant, devoted disciple, and unquestioning stooge. I nominate myself famulus in this little corner of the Middle Ages. You’ll be aston­ished at how handy I can be. Look, I’ve already rearranged the books in the bookcase, so that they make sense alphabetically.

Damn! I’d been meaning to do that myself. Hollier could never find what he wanted because he was so untidy. I wanted to cry. But I wouldn’t cry in front of Parlabane. He was going on.

I suppose this room is cleaned once a week? And by a woman Hollier has terrified so she daren’t touch or move anything? I’ll clean it every day so that it will be as clean — well, not as a new pin, but cleanish, which is the most a scholar will tolerate. Too much cleanliness is an enemy to creation, to speculative thought. And I’ll clean for you, dear Molly. I shall respect you as a famulus ought to respect his master’s soror mystica.

Will you respect me enough not to snoop through my papers?

Perhaps not as much as that. I like to know what’s going on. But whatever I find, dear girl, I shan’t betray you. I didn’t get where I am by blabbing all I know.

And where did he think he had got to? Shabby monk, his spectacles mended at the temple with electrician’s tape! The answer came at once: he had got into my special world, and had already taken much of it from me. I looked him squarely in the eye, but he was better at that game than I was, so very soon I was trotting down those winding stairs again, angry and hurt and puzzled about what I ought to do.

Damn! Damn! Damn!

The New Aubrey I

Autumn, to me the most congenial of seasons: the University, to me the most congenial of lives. In all my years as a student and later as a university teacher I have observed that university terms tend to begin on a fine day. As I walked down the avenue of maples that leads towards the University Bookstore I was as happy as I suppose it is in my nature to be; my nature tends towards happiness, or towards enthusiastic industry, which for me is the same thing.

Met Ellerman and one of the few men I really dislike, Urquhart McVarish. The cancer look on poor Ellerman’s face was far beyond what it was when last I saw him.

You’ve retired, yet here you are, on the first day of full term, on the old stamping-ground, said I. I thought you’d be off to the isles of Greece or somewhere, rejoicing in your freedom.

Ellerman smiled wistfully, and McVarish released one of the wheezes that pass with him as laughter. Surely you ought to know — you of all people, Father Darcourt — that the dog turns to his own vomit again, and the sow to her wallowing in the mire. And he wheezed again with self-delight.

Typical of McVarish: nasty to poor Ellerman, who was obviously deathly ill, and nasty to me for being a clergyman, which McVarish thinks no man in his right senses has any right to be.

I thought I’d like to see what the campus looks like when I am no longer a part of it, said Ellerman. And really, I thought I’d like to look at some young people. I’ve been used to them all my life.

Serious weakness, said Urky McVarish; never allow your­self to become hooked on youth. Green apples give you the belly­ache.

Wanting to see young people — I’ve observed it often in the dying. Women wanting to look at babies, and that sort of thing. Poor Ellerman. But he was going on.

Not just young people, Urky. Older people, too. The Univer­sity is such a splendid community, you know; every kind of creature here, and all exhibiting what they are so much more freely than if they were in business, or the law, or whatever. It ought to be recorded, you know. I’ve often thought of doing something myself, but I’m out of it now.

It is being recorded, said McVarish. Isn’t the University paying Doyle to write its history — given her three years off all other work, a budget, secretaries, assistants, whatever her greedy historian’s heart can desire. It’ll be three heavy volumes of un-illuminated crap, but who cares? It will be a history.

No, no it won’t; not what I mean at all, said Ellerman. I mean a vagarious history with all the odd ends and scraps in it that nobody ever thinks of recording but which are the real stuff of life. What people said informally, what they did when they were not on parade, all the gossip and rumour without the neces­sity to prove everything.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson