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

To my astonishment, Mamusia nodded. Good sense indeed, she said.

Can I persuade you to talk to me about it?

I have to be careful; secrets are serious things.

I understand that perfectly. I assure you that I am not here as a snooper. You and I understand the importance of secrets, Madame Laoutaro.

Bring tea, Maria, said Mamusia, and I knew that much, per­haps everything, had been gained. This was Hollier at his best. His honesty and seriousness were persuasive, even to my sus­picious Mother. And her capacity to understand was far beyond what I had expected. Children often underestimate what their parents can grasp.

As I made the scalding strong tea which Mamusia wanted, and was more appropriate to this meeting than any merely social brew, I could hear her and Hollier talking together confiden­tially. In transcribing their conversation I shall not attempt to reproduce Mamusia’s version of English literally, because it would be wearisome to read and a waste of time. Besides, it would appear to diminish her dignity, which suffered not at all. When I returned, she was apparently putting Hollier on oath. Never, never to tell this for money; you understand?

Completely. I don’t work for money, Madame, though I have to have money to live.

No, no, you work to understand the world; the whole world, not just the world of little Here and little Now, and that means secrets, eh?

Not a doubt of it.

Secrets are the blood of life. Every big thing is a secret, even when you know it, because you never know all of it. If you can know everything about anything, it is not worth knowing.

Finely said, Madame.

Then swear: swear on your Mother’s grave.

She has no grave; she lives about a mile from here.

Then swear on her womb. Swear on the womb that bore you, and the breasts you sucked.

Hollier rose splendidly to this very un-Canadian request. I swear most solemnly by the womb that bore me, and the breasts that gave me suck, that I shall never reveal what you tell me for gain or for any unworthy reason, whatever it might do for me.

Maria, I think I heard Miss Gretser fall; there was a thump upstairs a minute ago. See that she is all right.

Damn! But much depended on my obedience, so off I went, and found Miss Gretser in as good a state as might be expected, lying on her bed with old Azor the poodle, eating stuffed dates, her favourite indulgence. When I returned something had hap­pened to solemnize the oath, but on what Hollier had sworn, apart from the organs of his Mother stipulated, I never knew. Mamusia settled herself on the sofa, prepared to talk.

My name, you see on the door outside, is Laoutaro; my hus­band, Niemcewicz-Theotoky, is dead, God rest him, and I have gone back to my family name. Why? Because it tells what I am. It means luthier; you understand luthier?

A maker of violins?

Maker, mender, lover, mother, bondwoman of violins and all the viol family. The Gypsies I come from held that work as their great craft, and every craft means secrets. It is men’s work, but my Father taught me because he sensed a special aptitude in me, and my brother Yerko wanted to be a smith — you know? — work in fine metals and especially copper in the best Gypsy style, and he was so good at it that it would have been a black sin to stop him. Besides, we luthiers needed him, for a reason you shall know in good time. I learned to be a luthier from my Father, who learned from his Father, and so back and back. We were the best. Listen to this — spit in my mouth if I lie — Ysaye never allowed anybody but my Grandfather to touch his violins — the great Eugene Ysaye. I learned everything.

A very great art, indeed.

To make violins, you mean? It’s more than that. It’s keeping violins alive. Who wants a new violin? A child. You make half-size and quarter-size for children, yes, but the big artist doesn’t want a new fiddle; he wants an old one. But old fiddles are like old people, they get cranky, and have to be coaxed, and sent to the spa, and have beauty treatments and all that.

Is repairing your chief work, then?

Repairing? Oh yes, I do that in the ordinary way. But it goes beyond repairing. It means resting; it means restoring youth. Do you know what a wolf is?

I doubt if I know the sense in which you use the word.

If you were a fiddler you’d fear the wolf. It’s the buzz or the howl that comes in one string when you are using another, and it can be caused by all kinds of little things — even a trifle of loose glue — and it is the devil to repair properly. Of course if you use plastic glues and such stuff, you can do a great deal, but you should repair a fine fiddle with the same sort of glue that was used by the maker, and it is no simple thing to find out what that glue was, because glues were carefully guarded secrets. But there’s another way to deal with a wolf, and that’s to put him in the bomari after you have patched him up. I’m not talking about cheap fiddles, you understand, but the fiddles made by the great masters. A Goffriller now, or a Bergonzi or anything from Marknenkirchen or Mirecourt or a good Banks needs to be ap­proached on the knees, if you want to coax it back to its true life.

And that is what the bomari does?

That is what the bomari does if you can find a bomari.

And the bomari is a kind of heat treatment — a form of cooking? Am I right?

How in the Devil’s name did you know that?

It is my profession to divine such things.

You must be a great wizard!

In the world in which you and I work, Madame Laoutaro, it would be stupid of me to deny what you have said. Magic is producing effects for which there seem to be no causes. But you and I also know that there is always a cause. So I shall explain my wizardry: I suspect — and you behave as if I were right — that bomari is a corruption, or a Romany form, of what is ordinarily called a bain-marie. You find one in every good kitchen; it is simple a water-bath to keep things warm that will curdle or be spoiled if they grow cool. But why is it called a bain-marie? Because tradition has it that it was invented by the second greatest Mary of all — Miriam the sister of Moses and a great sorceress. She died, it is said, of a kiss from God. We may take leave to doubt all that, though traditions should never be thrown aside without careful examination. It seems much more likely that the bain-marie was the invention of Maria Prophetissa, to whom books are attributed, and who was believed by Cornelius Agrippa to have been an historical person, even though she lived centuries before his time. She was the greatest of the women-alchemists, a formidable crew, I assure you. She was a Jewess, she discovered hydrochloric acid, and also the balneus mariae or bain-marie, one of the surviving alchemical instruments; even though it has been humbled and banished to the kitchen it still has a certain glory. So — from bain-marie to bomari — was I right?

Not entirely right, wizard, said Mamusia. You had better come and take a look.

We went down into the cellar of the house, which was where Yerko lived, and where Mamusia’s carefully hidden workroom was. Hers was not a noisy business, nor was Yerko’s, though now and then, faintly and musically, the clink of the copper­smith’s hammer might have been heard upstairs. Yerko’s forge was small; Gypsies do not use the big anvils and huge bellows of the blacksmith, because traditionally they must be able to carry their forges on their backs, and it is not the Gypsy style to carry any more weight than is necessary. In the workroom was the forge and Mamusia’s workbench, and Yerko himself, wear­ing his leather apron and tinkering with something small — a pin or a catch that one might have expected a jeweller to produce.

My Uncle Yerko, like Mamusia, had changed his way of life radically when Tadeusz died. While he worked as my Father’s junior and principal designer in the factory, he had borne some resemblance to a man of business, though he never looked at home in conventional clothes. But when Tadeusz died he too returned to his Gypsy ways, and gave up his pathetic attempt to be a New World man. How hard he had tried when first they came to Canada! He had even wanted to change his name so that he might become, as he thought, indistinguishable from his new countrymen. His name was Miya Laoutaro, and he wanted to translate it literally into Martin Luther; I do not think he ever understood why my Father forbade it, as being too extreme. Yerko was his pet name, his family name, and I never heard anybody call him Miya. When Tadeusz died he was as stricken as Mamusia; he would sit for hours, brooding and weeping, mur­muring from time to time, My good Father is dead.

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