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

I had plenty of time to reflect on my trouble, for I had a whole evening with Mamusia, lying on my sofa and changing my poultice every half-hour or so, as she played her fiddle and occasionally sang.

She knew, in her cunning fashion, how irritating this was to me. I am an enthusiast for music, and I like it at its most sophisticated and intellectual; it is one of the few assurances of order in my confused world. But Mamusia’s music was the true Magyar Gypsy strain, lamenting, mourning, yowling, and sud­denly modulating into frenzied high spirits, the ringers sliding up the fingerboard in glissandi that seemed to be primitive screams of some sort of ecstasy that was never real to me. The Gypsy scale — minor third, augmented fourth, minor sixth, and major seventh — fretted my nerves; had not the diatonic scale sufficed for the noble ecstasy of J. S. Bach? I had to fight this music; its primitivism and sentimentality grated on everything the University meant to me; yet I knew it for an aspect of my inheritance that I could never root out, deny it though I might. Oh, I knew what was wrong with me, right enough; I wanted to be an intellectual, to escape from everything Mamusia and the generations of Kalderash behind her meant, and I knew I could do it only by the uttermost violence to myself. Even my agoniz­ing concern with Hollier, I sometimes suspected, was chiefly a wish to escape from my world into his. Is that love, or isn’t it?

Mamusia now turned to a kind of music that was deeply personal to herself; not the kind of thing she would ever, as a girl, have played in an officers’ mess, or to the diners in a fashionable restaurant. She called it the Bear Chant; it was the music Gypsy bear-leaders played or sang to their animals, but I think it was something older than that; to those Gypsies so long ago the bear was not only a valuable possession and money-spinner, but a companion and perhaps an object of reverence. Is it unbelievable? Notice how some people talk to their dogs and cats nowadays; the talk is usually the sentimentality they think appropriate to a not very dangerous animal. But how would one talk to a bear which could kill? How would one ask it for friendship? How would one invite its wisdom, which is so unlike the wisdom of a man, but not impenetrable by a man? This was what the Bear Chant seemed to be — music that moved slowly, with long interrogative pauses, and unusual demands on that low, guttural voice of the fiddle, which is so rarely heard in the kind of music I understand and enjoy. Croak — croak; tell me, Brother Martin, how is it with you? What do you see? What do you hear? And then: Grunt — grunt, Brother Martin (for all Gypsy bears are called Martin) says his profound say. Would she ever play that for Hollier? And — I knew nothing of his sensitivity to such things — would Hollier make anything of it?

Bring my wise man; what would he make of the house in which I lived?

It was a big house and a handsome house, in the heavy banker-like style that prevails in the most secure, most splen­didly tree-lined streets of the Rosedale district of Toronto. One Hundred and Twenty Walnut Street was not the handsomest, nor yet the simplest, of the houses to be found there. Solid brick, white-painted woodwork, impressively quoined at the corners; a few fine trees, well attended by professional tree-pruners and patchers; a good lawn, obviously planted by an expert, of fine grass without a weed to be seen. The very house, indeed, for a Polish engineer who had done well in the New World and wished to take the place in that world his money and ability and obvious respectability required. How proud Tadeusz had been of it, and how he had laughed gently when Mamusia said it was too big for a couple with one child, even with a housekeeper who lived in a flat all her own on the third floor. A good house, furnished with good things, and kept in the best of condition by contract cleaners and gardeners. And so it looked still to the passer-by.

Inside, however, there had been catastrophic changes. When Tadeusz died Mamusia had talked distractedly of selling it and looking for some hovel congruous with her widowed and finan­cially fallen state. But her brother Yerko had told her not to be a fool; she was sitting on a fortune. It was Yerko who remembered that when Tadeusz bought the house, it had possessed a rating at City Hall as an apartment and rooming-house; this had been granted because of some temporary necessity, during the war years, and had never been revoked, even though Tadeusz had required the whole thing for his own occupancy. The thing to do, said Yerko, was to restore the place to its former condition as an apartment and rooming-house, and make money from it. The gadje always wanted nice places to live.

I do not know what its former condition had been, but after Mamusia and Yerko had finished with it One Hundred and Twenty Walnut Street was surely one of the queerest warrens in a city noted for queer warrens. To save money, Yerko did much of the work himself; he could turn his hand to anything, and with a labourer to help him he turned Tadeusz’s beautiful, proud home into ten dwellings: the best apartment, consisting of a living-room, kitchen, and bedroom, and a sun porch, was Mamusia’s own. On the ground floor there were, in addition, two bachelor apartments of kennel-like darkness and inconvenience, one of which had no less than seven corners, after the cupboard-like kitchen facility and the doll’s bathroom had been created. These were rented to young men, Mr. Kolbenheyer and Mr. Vitrac; Kolbenheyer was skeletonic, and never spoke above a whisper; about Vitrac I had perpetual misgivings, because he looked like a man bent on suicide and his apartment would have been a perfect setting for a miserable departure.

On the middle floor, where once the bedrooms of Tadeusz and Mamusia and I had been, there was a one-bedroom apart­ment with its own bath, and a tiny kitchen, and a sitting-room which shared its only window with the kitchen, by an archi­tectural twist of Yerko’s that split a window down the middle. The queen of our lodgers, Mrs. Faiko, lived here, with her three cats. There were also on this floor three bed-sitters, which shared a kitchen and a bathroom; these were for Miss Gretser, Mrs. Nowaczynski, and Mrs. Schreyvogl, all old, who possessed among them four poodles and two cats. They had agreed among themselves that as they did not use the shower much (danger of being trapped in scalding water) they should keep the lower part of the shower booth filled with torn-up newspaper as a litter-box for the animals. They were supposed to clear it out now and then, but they were feeble and forgetful, so it was usually my job to attend to this. Miss Gretser, after all, was over eighty-seven and so far as anyone knew had not been out of the house in three years; Mrs. Nowaczynski kindly did her small shopping for her.

On the top floor were two single-room apartments, sharing a bathroom. These were occupied by Mr. Kostich, who was said to be associated somehow with a dry-cleaner’s business, and Mr. Home, who was a male nurse. Whenever Mamusia had occasion to mention this in his presence he would shout, Well, I sure’s hell ain’t a female nurse, and this made him the wit of the establishment.

In the basement was a very extensive five-room apartment, where my Uncle Yerko lived, and maintained his still, and Mamusia did some of her most important and secret work.

The decoration of all these flats and rooms had been under­taken by Yerko, who had cleverly picked up a job-lot of paint and wallpaper that nobody wanted to buy. The paper was blue, with large roses in a darker blue, a truly dreadful background for the array of family photographs and wedding pictures with which the old ladies ornamented their rooms. The paint, on the other hand, was pink. Not a faint pink or a shade of pink but pink. As Yerko worked on the decoration he had frequent recourse to the plum brandy of his own manufacture with which he supported his energies, and consequently none of the paper was quite straight on the wall, and there were large spatterings of paint on the floor. It was a drunken, debauched, raped house when this Gypsy pair finally began to accept lodgers, with a preference for those not too rich in gadjo cunning. The house stank; a stench all its own pervaded every corner. It was a threnody in the key of Cat minor, with a ground-bass of Old Dog, and modulations of old people, waning lives, and relinquished hopes.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson