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

I have a suggestion to make, I said. Our old friend Francis Cornish’s will says that his executors are to have something to remember him by, and we have been going on the assumption that he meant the three of us. But isn’t Arthur an executor? You mentioned a picture that took your eye the first day we met here, Arthur; it was a little sketch by Varley.

It was named for the Provincial Gallery, said Urky. Sorry, it’s spoken for.

Yes, I knew that, I said. There was no reason why Urky should be the only one to know best. But I’ve been told you’re a music enthusiast, Arthur. A collector of musical manuscripts, indeed. There are one or two things not spoken for that might interest you.

Arthur was flattered, as rich people often are when somebody remembers that they, too, are human and that not everything lies within their grasp. I fished out the envelope I had put handy, and his eyes gleamed when he saw a delicate and elegant four-page holograph of a song by Ravel, and a scrap of six or eight bars in the unmistakable strong hand of Schoenberg.

I’ll take these with the greatest pleasure, he said. And thanks very much for thinking of me. It had crossed my mind that I might choose something, but after my experience with the Varley I didn’t want to push.

Yes, but we knew him and liked him much better than when he cast longing eyes at the Varley. Arthur improved with know­ing.

If that finishes our business, I’d like to get along, I said. We’re expecting you at Ploughwright at six, and as I’m Vice-Warden I have some things to attend to.

I took up my Beerbohms, Hollier tucked two big volumes of Gesner under each arm, and McVarish, whose prize was heavy, asked the secretary to call him a taxi. To be charged, I had no doubt, to the Cornish estate.

I left Cornish’s spreading complex of apartments, where I had often cursed the work he had imposed on me, with regret. Emptying Aladdin’s Cave had been an adventure.


Being Vice-Warden was not heavy work, and I accepted it gladly because it ensured me a good set of rooms in the College; Plough­wright was for graduate students, a quiet and pleasant oasis in a busy University. On Guest Nights it was my job to see that things went well, guests properly looked after, and the food and wine as good as the College could manage. They cost us some­thing, these Guest Nights, but they perpetuated a tradition modern universities sometimes appear to have forgotten, the old tradition of scholarly hospitality. This was not food and drink provided so that people might meet to haggle and drive bargains, not the indigestive squalor of the working lunch , not the tedium of a symposium with a single topic of conversation, but a dinner held once a fortnight when the Fellows of the College asked some guests to eat and drink and make good cheer for no other reason than that this is one of civilization’s triumphs over bar­barism, of humane feeling over dusty scholasticism, an assertion that the scholar’s life is a good life. Ozy Froats had typed me as a man fond of ceremonies, and he was right; our Guest Nights were ceremonies, and I made it my special care to ensure that they were ceremonies in the best sense; that is to say, that people took part in them because they were irresistible, rather than merely inevitable.

Our guests on this November Friday night were Mrs. Skeldergate, who was a member of the Provincial Legislature at the head of a committee considering the financing of universities, and I had arranged that the others should be Hollier and Arthur Cornish — which meant the inclusion also of McVarish — as a small celebration of our completion of the work on the Cornish bequests. Arthur might well have asked us to dinner for this purpose, but I thought I would get in ahead of him; I dislike the idea that the richest person in a group must always pay the bill.

Apart from these, fourteen of the Fellows of Ploughwright attended this Guest Night, not including the Warden and myself. We were a coherent group, in spite of the divergence of our academic interests. There was Gyllenborg, who was notable in the Faculty of Medicine, Durdle and Deloney, who were in different branches of English, Elsa Czermak the economist, Hitzig and Boys, from Physiology and Physics, Stromwell, the medievalist, Ludlow from Law, Penelope Raven from Compara­tive Literature, Aronson the computer man, Roberta Burns the zoologist, Erzenberger and Lamotte from German and French, and Mukadassi, who was a visitor to the Department of East Asian Studies. With McVarish from History, Hollier from his ill-defined but much-discussed area of medievalism, Arthur Cornish from the world of money, the Warden who was a philo­sopher (his detractors said he would have been happier in a nineteenth-century university where the division of Moral Phil­osophy still existed), and myself as a classicist, we cast a pretty wide net of interests, and I hoped the conversation would be lively.

I was not alone in this. Urky McVarish took me by the arm as we came downstairs from Hall, to continue our dinner in the Senior Common Room, and murmured in my ear, in his most caressing voice — and Urky had a caressing voice when he wanted to use it.

Delightful, Simon, totally delightful. Do you know what it reminds me of? Of course you know my Rabelaisian enthusiasm — because of my great forebear. Well, it puts me in mind of that wonderful chapter about the country people at the feast where Gargantua is born, chatting and joking over their drinks. You remember how Sir Thomas translates the chapter-heading? — How they chirped over their cups; it’s been splendid in Hall, and the junior scholars are so charming, but I look forward to being in the S.C.R. where we shall hear the scholars chirping over their cups even more exuberantly.

He darted off to the men’s room. We allow an interval at this juncture in our Guest Nights for everybody to retire, to relieve themselves, rinse their false teeth if need be, and prepare for what is to follow. I know I am absurdly touchy about everything McVarish says, but I wished that he had not compared our pleasant College occasion to a Rabelaisian feast. True, we were going to sit down in a few minutes to nuts and wine and fruit, but chiefly to conversation. No need for Urky to talk as if it were a peasant booze-up as described by his favourite author. Still — Urky was not a fool; as Vice-Warden charged with the duty of ensuring that the decanters were replenished, that Elsa Czermak had her cigar and the gouty Lamotte his mineral water, I should have a freedom given to no one else to move around the table and hear how the scholars chirped over their cups.

Oh, how lovely this looks! said Mrs. Skeldergate, entering the Senior Common Room with the Warden. And how luxuri­ous!

Not really, said the Warden, who was sensitive on this point. And I assure you, not a penny of government money goes to pay for it; you are our guest, not that of the oppressed taxpayers.

But all this silver, said the government lady; it’s not what you think of in a college.

The Warden could not let the subject alone, and considering who the guest was, I don’t blame him. All gifts, said he; and you may take it from me that if everything on this table were sold at auction it wouldn’t bring enough to support the weekly costs of such a laboratory as that of — he groped for a name, because he didn’t know much about laboratories — as that of Professor Froats.

Mrs. Skeldergate had a politician’s tact. We’re all hoping for great things from Professor Froats; some new light on cancer, perhaps. She turned to her left, where Archy Deloney stood, and said, Who is that very handsome, rather careworn man near the top of the table?

Oh, that’s Clement Hollier, who rummages about in the ash-heaps of bygone thought. He is handsome, isn’t he? When the President called him an ornament of the University we didn’t quite know whether he meant his looks or his work. But care­worn. ‘A noble wreck in ruinous perfection’, as Byron says.

And that man who is helping people find their places? I know I met him, but I have a terrible memory for names.

Our Vice-Warden, Simon Darcourt. Poor old Simon is struggling with what Byron called his ‘oily dropsy’ — otherwise fat. A decent old thing. A parson, as you see.

Did Deloney care that I overheard? Did he intend that I should? Oily dropsy, indeed! The malice of these bony ectomorphs! The chances are good that I shall still be hearty when Archy Deloney is writhen with arthritis. Here’s to my forty feet of gut and all that goes with it!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson