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

Indeed Tadeusz had been a father to him, advising him, seeing that his considerable earnings were properly invested, and lifting him as far up in the world of business as it was possible for him to go. That was not beyond the designing and model-making part of the manufacturing work, because Yerko could not direct anyone else, was hopeless at explaining things he could do easily, and was apt to take time off for week-long drunks.

Gypsies are not great drinkers as a rule, but when they do drink they are whole-hoggers, and without becoming a thorough­going dissolute boozer, Yerko was unreliable with anyone but Tadeusz. Mamusia tried to make the best of it by assuring my Father that this failing was much to be preferred to an unappeas­able appetite for women, but Tadeusz had to keep a tight rein on Yerko who, when drunk, was not unlike Brother Martin the bear — heavy, incalculable, and in need of much humouring. In his workroom Yerko had a still; he objected rigorously to paying government taxes to get feeble liquor, and he made his own plum brandy, which would have stunned a bull, or anybody but Yerko himself.

Yerko, I am going to show the bomari, said Mamusia, and although Yerko was astonished, he made no objection. He never contradicted his sister, though I have known him to hit her, and even to take a swipe at her with his coppersmith’s hammer.

Mamusia led Hollier to a heavy wooden door, which was of Yerko’s manufacture, and I do not think the cleverest safe-cracker could have opened it, so barred and locked was it. Yerko unfastened the locks — he believed in plenty of complex locks — and we walked into a room where there may once have been electric light, but where we now had to use candles, for all the wiring had been taken out.

It was not unusually big, and I think that in some earlier time in the life of the house it had been a wine-cellar. Now all the bins had been removed. What immediately seized you was the smell, which was not foul, but very strong, heavy, and warm; I can only describe it as a combination of wet wool and stable, but concentrated. All around the walls stood large, heavily ele­gant shapes; they were rounded, and seemed almost like mute human figures; in racks in the middle of the room were smaller versions of these man-sized cases, plump and gleaming. They gleamed because they were made of copper, and every inch bore the tiny impress of Yerko’s hammer, so that they twinkled and took the light in a manner that was almost jewel-like, but sub­dued. This was not the thin, cheap copper of the commercial jug or ornament, but the finest metal, very costly in the modern market. It seemed to be a cave of treasure.

Mamusia was putting on a show. These are the great ladies and gentlemen, she said, with a deep curtsy towards them. She waited for Hollier to take it in, to grow eager for more.

You want to know how it works, she said. But I cannot disturb these old noblemen in their beauty sleep. However, there is one here that was sealed only a week ago, and if I open her now and re-seal her, no great harm will be done, because she has at least six months to rest.

At her direction, Yerko took a knife and deftly broke the heavy wax seal at the uppermost end of one of the small copper vessels, lifted the lid — which took strength because it was a tight fit — and at once a powerful essence of the prevailing smell escaped. Inside, in a bed of what looked like dark-brown earth, lay a figure swathed in woollen cloth.

Real wool, carefully spun so that I know that not a thread of rubbish has been sneaked into it. This must be the proper lamb’s-wool, or it is not good.

She unwrapped the figure, which was bandaged at least six layers deep, and there we saw a violin.

The great lady is undressed for her sleep, said Mamusia, and indeed the violin had no bridge, no strings, no pegs, and looked very much like someone in déshabillé. You see that the sleep is coming on her; the varnish is already a little dulled, but she is breathing, she is sinking into her trance. In six months she will be wakened by me, her cunning servant, and I shall dress her again and she will go back to the world with her voice in perfect order.

Hollier put out his hand to touch the brown dust that sur­rounded the woollen cloth. Damp, he said.

Of course it is damp. And it is alive, too. Don’t you know what that is?

He sniffed at his fingers, but shook his head.

Horse dung, said Mamusia. The best; thoroughly rotted and sieved, and from horses in mighty health. This comes from a racing stable, and you wouldn’t believe what they make me pay for it. But the shit of old nags isn’t what I want. The very best is demanded for the very best. She’s a Bergonzi, this sleeper, she said, tapping the violin lightly. Ignorant people chatter about Strads, and Guarneris, and they are magnificent. I like a Bergonzi. But the best is a St. Petersburg Leman; that’s one over there, in her fourth month — or will be when the moon is new. They must be put to bed according to the moon, she said, cocking an eye at Hollier to see how he would take that.

And where do they come from, all these great ladies and gentlemen? he said, looking around the room, in which there were probably forty cases of various sizes.

From my friends the great artists, said Mamusia. I must not tell whose fiddles these are. But the great artists know me, and when they come here — and they all do come to this city, some­times every year — they bring me a fiddle that needs a rest, or has come down with some trouble of the voice. I have the skill and the love to make everything right. Because you see this asks for understanding that goes beyond anything the cleverest crafts­man can learn. And you must be a fiddler yourself, to test and judge. I am a very fine fiddler.

Who could doubt it? said Hollier. I hope that some day I may have the great honour of hearing you. It would be like listen­ing to the voice of the ages.

You may say that, said Mamusia, who was enjoying every instant of the courtly conversation. I have played on some of the noblest instruments in the world — because these are not just violins, you know, but violas, and those big fellows over there are the violoncellos, and those biggest of all are the big-burly-bumbles, the double basses, which have a way of going very gruff when they have to travel — and I can make them speak secrets like a doctor. The great player, oh yes, he makes them sing, but Oraga Laoutaro makes them whisper what is wrong, and then sing for joy when it is wrong no longer. — This room should not be open; Yerko, cover Madame until I can come back and put her to bed again.

Upstairs then, and after a tremendous exchange of compli­ments between Hollier and Mamusia, I drove him home in my little car.

What a success it had been! Well worth a few blows and a lot of cursing from Mamusia, for it had brought me near to Hollier again. I could feel his enthusiasm. But it was not directly for me.

I know you won’t be offended, Maria, he said, but your Mother is an extraordinary discovery, a living fossil. She might have come out of any age, from the nineteenth century in Hun­gary to anywhere in Europe for six or seven centuries back. That wonderful boasting! It refreshed me to hear her, because it was like Paracelsus himself, that very great man and emperor of boasters. And you remember what he said: Never hope to find wisdom at the high colleges alone — consult old women, Gypsies, magicians, wanderers, and all manner of peasant folk and ran­dom folk, and learn from them, for these have more knowledge about such things than all the high colleges.

What about Professor Froats? I said, with his search in the dung-heap for a jewel that he suspects may be there, but of whose nature he can hardly guess?

Yes, and if my old friend Ozy finds anything I shall borrow any part of it that can be bent to support my research on the Filth Therapy. What your Mother is doing is Filth Therapy at its highest — though to call that wonderful substance in which she buries the fiddles filth is to be victim to the stupidest modern prejudice. But I am inclined to think of Ozy as a latter-day alchemist; he seeks the all-conquering Stone of the Philosophers exactly where they said it must be sought, in the commonest, most neglected, most despised. — Please take me to see your Mother again. She enchants me. She has in the highest degree the kind of spirit that must not be called unsophisticated, but which is not bound by commonplaces. Call it the Wild Mind.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson