Something like Aubrey’s Brief Lives, said I, not thinking much about it but wanting to be agreeable to Ellerman, who looked so poorly. He responded with a vigour I had not expected. He almost leapt where he stood.
That’s it! That’s absolutely it! Somebody like John Aubrey, who listens to everything, wonders about everything, scrawls down notes in a hurry without fussing over style. An academic magpie, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. This university needs an Aubrey. Oh, if only I were ten years younger!
Poor wretch, I thought, he is clinging to the life that is ebbing away, and he thinks he could find it in the brandy of gossip.
What are you waiting for, Darcourt? said McVarish. Ellerman has described you to the life. Academic magpie; no conscience about style. You’re the very man. You sit like a raven in your tower, looking down on the whole campus. Ellerman has given you a reason for being.
McVarish always reminds me of the fairy-tale about the girl out of whose mouth a toad leapt whenever she spoke. He could say more nasty things in ordinary conversation than anybody I have ever known, and he could make poor innocents like Ellerman accept them as wit. Ellerman was laughing now.
There you are, Darcourt! You’re a made man! The New Aubrey — that’s what you must be.
You could make a start with the Turd-Skinner, said McVarish. He must surely be the oddest fish even in this odd sea.
I don’t know who you’re talking about.
Surely you do! Professor Ozias Froats.
I never heard him called that.
You will, Darcourt, you will. Because that’s what he does, and that’s what he gets big grants to do, and now that university money is so closely watched there may be some questions about it. Then — oh, there are dozens to choose from. But you should get on as fast as possible with Francis Cornish. You’ve heard that he died last night?
I’m sorry to hear it, said Ellerman, who was particularly sorry now to hear of any death. What collections!
Accumulations, would perhaps be a better word. Great heaps of stuff and I don’t suppose he knew during his last years what he had. But I shall know. I’m his executor.
Ellerman was excited. Books, pictures, manuscripts, he said, his eyes glowing. I suppose the University is a great inheritor?
I shan’t know until I get the will. But it seems likely. And it should be a plum. A plum, said McVarish, making the word sound very ripe and juicy in his mouth.
You’re the executor? Sole executor? said Ellerman. I hope I’ll be around to see what happens. Poor man, he guessed it was unlikely.
So far as I know I’m the only one. We were very close. I’m looking forward to it, said McVarish, and they went on their way.
The day seemed less fine than before. Had Cornish made another will? For years I had been under the impression that I was his executor.
In the course of a few days I knew better. I was burying Cornish, as one of the three priests in the slap-up funeral we gave him in the handsome chapel of Spook. He had been a distinguished alumnus of the College of St. John and the Holy Ghost; he was not attached to any parish church; Spook expected that he would leave it a bundle. All good reasons for doing the thing in style.
I had liked Cornish. We shared an enthusiasm for ancient music, and I had advised him about some purchases of manuscripts in that area. But it would be foolish for me to pretend that we were intimates. He was an eccentric, and I think his sexual tastes were out of the common. He had some rum friends, one of whom was Urquhart McVarish. I had not been pleased when I got my copy of the will from the lawyers to find out that McVarish was indeed an executor, with myself, and that Clement Hollier was a third. Hollier was an understandable choice: a great medieval scholar with a world reputation as something out of the ordinary called a paleo-psychologist, which seemed to mean that by a lot of grubbing in old books and manuscripts he got close to the way people in the pre-Renaissance world really thought about themselves and the universe they knew. I had known him slightly when we were undergraduates at Spook, and we nodded when we met, but we had gone different ways. Hollier would be a good man to deal with a lot of Cornish’s stuff. But McVarish — why him?
Well, McVarish would not have a free hand, nor would Hollier nor I, because Cornish’s will appointed us not quite as executors, but as advisers and experts in carrying out the disposals and bequests of the collections of pictures, books, and manuscripts. The real executor was Cornish’s nephew, Arthur Cornish, a young business man, reputed to be able and rich, and we should all have to act under his direction. There he sat in the front pew, upright, apparently unmoved, and every inch a rich man of business and wholly unlike his uncle, the tall, shambling, shortsighted Francis whom we were burying.
As I sat in my stall in the chancel, I could see McVarish in the front pew, doing all the right things, standing, sitting, kneeling, and so forth, but doing them in a way that seemed to indicate that he was a great gentleman among superstitious and uncivilized people, and he must not be suspected of taking it seriously. While the Rector of Spook delivered a brief eulogy on Cornish, taking the best possible view of the departed one, McVarish’s face wore a smile that was positively mocking, as though to say that he knew of a thing or two that would spice up the eulogy beyond recognition. Not sexy, necessarily. Cornish had dealt extensively in pictures, including those of some of the best Canadian artists, and in the congregation I could see quite a few people whose throats he might be said to have cut, in a connoisseur-like way. Why had they turned up at these obsequies? The uncharitable thought crossed my mind that they might have come to be perfectly sure that Cornish was dead. Great collectors and great connoisseurs are not always nice people. Great benefactors, however, are invariably and unquestionably nice, and Cornish had left a bundle to Spook, though Spook was not officially aware of it. But I had tipped the wink to the Rector, and the Rector was showing gratitude in the only way college recipients of benefactions can do — by praying loud and long for the dead friend.
Quite medieval, really. However much science and educational theory and advanced thinking you pump into a college or a university, it always retains a strong hint of its medieval origins, and the fact that Spook was a New World college in a New World university made surprisingly little difference.
The faces of the congregation, which I could see so well from my place, had an almost medieval calm upon them, as they listened to the Rector’s very respectable prose. Except, of course, for McVarish’s knowing smirk. But I could see Hollier, who had not pushed himself into the front row, though he had a right to be there, and his thin, splendid features looked hawkish and solemn. Not far from him was a girl in whom I had found much to interest me, one Maria Magdalena Theotoky, who had come the day before to join my special class in New Testament Greek. Girls who want to work on that subject are usually older and more obviously given to the scholarly life than was Maria. She was beyond doubt a great beauty, though it was beauty of a kind not everybody would notice, or like, and which I suspected did not appeal greatly to her contemporaries. A calm, transfixing face, of the kind one sees in an ikon, or a mosaic portrait — it was oval in shape; the nose was long and aquiline; if she were not careful about her front teeth it would be a hook in middle age; her hair was a true black, the real raven’s-wing colour, with blue lights in it, but no hint of the dreadful shade that comes with dye. What was Maria doing at Cornish’s funeral? It was her eyes that startled you when you looked at her, because you could see some of the white below the iris, as well as above, and when she blinked — which she did not seem to do as often as most people — the lower lid moved upward as the upper lid moved down, and that is something you rarely see. Her eyes, fixed in what may have been devotion, startled me now. She had covered her head with a loose scarf, which most of the women in the chapel had not done, because they are modern, and set no store by St. Paul’s admonition on that subject. But what was she doing there?