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

More unpleasantness was avoided because the man from the lawyer’s office and the man from Sotheby’s arrived, and the secretary Cornish had put on the job, and shortly afterwards came Hollier and Arthur Cornish. Necessary business was com­pleted: the Sotheby representative swore that the valuation his firm had prepared was in conformity with modern estimates of such things; we three swore that we had carried out our duties to the best of our abilities, and that was that. It was all eyewash, really, because the only way to find the current value of Cornish’s art collections was to sell them, and our abilities as executors rested on Cornish’s opinion of us, rather than on any professional experience. But documents were necessary for probate, and we did what was necessary. The lawyer and the Sotheby man went away, and the moment came that we had all been waiting for.

Now gentlemen, what are you going to choose? said Arthur Cornish. He looked at McVarish, who was the oldest.

This, for me, said Urky going to a table in a far corner of the room and putting his hand on a bronze figure that stood with a huddle of similar pieces. But though similar, they were not of equal value. Urky had chosen the best, and why not?

It was a Venus; the Sotheby man had identified it as a Canova, and a good one.

I was grateful that Urky had in this way set the tone for Hollier and myself; what he had chosen was unquestionably valuable, but among Cornish’s treasures it was not conspicuous. There were obviously better things. It was a substantial, but not a grabby, choice.

Professor Hollier? said Arthur.

I knew how much Hollier hated having to reveal his choice. There was about it too much the air of the child who is taken into a candy-shop on its birthday and told to choose, under the eye of indulgent adults. For such a private man this was deeply distasteful. But he spoke up. These books, if nobody objects.

He had chosen the four volumes of Konrad Gesner’s Historia Animalium, a splendid piece of sixteenth-century book-making. Well done, Hollier, said Urky; The German Pliny — just your boy.

Professor Darcourt? said Arthur.

I suppose I disliked revealing my choice as much as Hollier, but there is no sense in being a fool about such things. When would such an opportunity come again? Never. So after some pretence of not knowing where to look, I laid on the table a brown paper folder containing two caricatures, elegantly drawn and palely coloured, that could have come from one hand only. Beerbohms! said Urky, darting forward. How sly of you, Simon! If I’d known there were any of those I might have changed my mind.

Not a very serious comment, but why did I feel that I should like to kill him?

Our choices made, we moved the things to a central table, and everybody had a look. The secretary asked us for descrip­tions that could be included in the information for the lawyers. She was a nice woman; I wished that she too could have some­thing. Arthur Cornish asked Hollier about Gesner, and Hollier was unwontedly communicative.

He was a Swiss, actually; not a German. An immensely learned man, but greatest as a botanist, I suppose. In these four volumes he brought together everything that was known about every animal that had been identified by scholars up to 1550. It is a treasure-house of fact and supposition, but it aims at being scientific. It’s not like those medieval bestiaries that deal simply in legend and old wives’ tales.

I thought old wives’ tales were your stock in trade, Hollier, said Urky.

The growth of scientific knowledge is my stock in trade, if that’s what you want to call it, said Hollier, without geniality.

Let’s see the Beerbohms, said Urky. Oh, marvellous! College Types; look at Magdalen, would you! What a swell! And Balliol, all bulging brow and intellectual pride; and Brasenose — huge shoulders and a head like a child’s! And Merton — my gosh, it’s a lovely little portrait of Max himself! — What’s the other one? The Old Self and the Young Self; Cosmo Gordon Long. What are they saying? Young Self: I really can’t decide whether to go on the Stage or into the Church. Both provide such oppor­tunities. . . Old Self: You made the right choice; the Church gave me a role in a real Abdication. Oh Simon, you old slyboots! That’s really valuable you know.

Of course it was valuable, but that wasn’t the point; it was authentic Max. How Ellerman would have loved it!

It won’t be sold, I said, perhaps more sharply than was wise. I’ll leave it as a treasure in my will.

Not to Spook, I hope, said Urky.

What a busybody the man was!

Arthur saw that I was being harried. He ran his hand appre­ciatively over the splendid back of the nude bronze. Very fine, he said.

Ah, but do you see what finally decided me? said Urky. Look at her. Doesn’t she remind you of anyone? Somebody we all four know?. . . Look closely. It’s Maria Magdalena Theotoky to the life.

There’s a resemblance, certainly, said Arthur.

Though we can’t — or I’d better say I can’t — answer for the whole figure, said Urky. Still, one can guess at what lies under modern clothes. Who was the model? Being Canova, it was prob­ably a lady from Napoleon’s court. He must have known her intimately. Observe the detail of the modelling.

The bronze Venus was about twenty-five inches tall; the figure was seated, one foot resting on the other knee, lovingly tying the laces of a sandal. What was unusual about it was that the vulva, which sculptors usually represent as an imperforate lump of flesh, was here realistically defined. It was not porno­graphic; it had the grace and the love of the female figure Canova knew so well how to impart to his statuary.

It is hard for me to be just to Urky. Certainly he appreciated the beauty of the figure, but there was a moist gleam in his eye that hinted at an erotic appreciation, as well. . . And why not, Darcourt, you miserable puritan? Is this some nineteenth-century nonsense about art banishing sensuality, or some twentieth-century nonsense about a human figure being no more than an arrangement of masses and planes? No, I didn’t like Urky’s attitude towards the Venus because he had linked it with a girl we knew, and whom Hollier knew especially well, and Urky was seeking to embarrass us. What I would have accepted without qualm from another man, I didn’t like at all when it came from Urky.

You agree that it looks like Maria, don’t you Hollier? he said.

I certainly agree that it looks like Maria, said Arthur, un­expectedly.

A stunner, isn’t she? said Urky to Arthur, but with his eye on Hollier. Tell me, just as a matter of interest, where would you place her in the Rushton Scale?

We all looked blank at this.

Surely you know it? Devised by W. A. H. Rushton, the great Cambridge mathematician? Well, it’s this way: Helen of Troy is accepted as the absolute in female beauty, and we have it on a poet’s authority that her face launched a thousand ships. But clearly face implies the whole woman. Therefore let us call a face that launches a thousand ships a Helen. But what is a face that launches only one ship? Obviously a millihelen. There must be a rating for all other faces between those two that have any pretension whatever to beauty. Consider Garbo; probably 750 millihelens, because although the face is exquisite, the figure is spare and the feet are big. Now Maria seems to me to be a wonder in every respect that I have had the pleasure of examin­ing, and her clothes are plainly not meant to conceal defects. So what do we say? I’d say 850 millihelens for Maria. Anybody bid higher? What do you say, Arthur?

I’d say she’s a friend of mine, and I don’t rate friends by mathematical computation, said Arthur.

Oh, Arthur, that’s very square! Never mention a lady’s name in the mess, eh?

Call it what you like, said Arthur. I just think there’s a difference between a statue and somebody I know personally.

And Vive la différence? said Urky.

Hollier was breathing audibly and I wondered what Urky knew — because if Urky knew anything at all, it was a certainty that the whole world would know it very soon, and in a form imposed on it by Urky’s disagreeable mind. But I did not see how, under the circumstances, Urky could know anything whatever about Hollier’s involvement with Maria. Nor did I see why I should care, but plainly I did care. I thought the time had come to change the subject. The secretary from Arthur’s office was looking unhappy; she sniffed a troublesome situation she did not understand.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson