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

Professor Lamotte was looking pale and patting his brow with a handkerchief, and I knew that Professor Burns must have trodden on his gouty foot. She was distressed, but It doesn’t matter in the least, said Lamotte, who is the perfection of courtesy.

Oh, but it does, said Roberta Burns, an argumenta­tive Scot, but a kind heart. Everything matters. The Universe is approximately fifteen billion years old, and I swear that in all that time, nothing has ever happened that has not mattered, has not contributed in some way to the totality. Would it relieve you to hit me fairly hard, just once? If so, may I suggest a clout over the ear? But Lamotte was regaining his colour, and tapped her ear playfully.

The Warden had heard this and called out, I heard you, Roberta, and I agree without reserve; everything matters. This is what gives vitality to the whole realm of ethical speculation.

The Warden has no talent for small talk, and the younger Fellows like to chaff him. Deloney broke in: Really Warden, you must admit the existence of the trivial, the wholly mean­ingless. Like the great dispute now raging in Celtic Studies. Have you heard?

The Warden had not heard, and Deloney continued: You know how they are always boozing — the real hard stuff, not the blood of the grape like our civilized selves. At one of their pow-wows last week Darragh Twomey was as tight as a drum, and asserted boldly that the Mabinogion was really an Irish epic, and the Welsh had stolen it and made a mess of it. Professor John Jenkin Jones took up the gauntlet, and it came to a fist-fight.

You don’t say so, said the Warden, pretending to be aghast.

That’s absolutely not true, Archy, Professor Penelope Raven said; she was circling the table looking for her place-card. Not a blow was struck; I was there, and I know.

Penny, you’re just defending them, said Deloney. Blows were exchanged. I have it on unimpeachable authority.

Not blows!

Pushing, then.

Perhaps some pushing.

And Twomey fell down.

He slipped. You’re making an epic of it.

Perhaps. But University violence is so trifling. One longs for something full-blooded. One wants a worthy motive. One must exaggerate or feel oneself a pygmy.

This is not the way a Guest Night is supposed to be conducted. When we are seated we converse politely to left and right, but with people like Deloney and Penny Raven there is a tendency to yell, and interfere in conversations to which they are not party. The Warden was looking woeful — his way of suggesting disapproval — and Penny turned to Aronson, and Deloney to Erzenberger and behaved themselves.

Isn’t it true that when you cut Irishmen open, four out of five have brass stomachs? Penny whispered.

Gyllenborg, a Swede, pondered for a moment, and said, That has not come within the range of my experience.

Hitzig said to Ludlow: What have you been doing today?

Reading the papers, said Ludlow, and I am tired of them. Every day a score of Chicken Lickens announce over their by­lines that the sky is falling.

Don’t tell me you are one of those who asks why the big news must always be bad news, said Hitzig. Mankind delights in mischief; always has, always will.

Yes, but the mischief is so repetitious, said the lawyer. No­body finds a variation on the old themes. As our friends down the way were complaining, crime is trivialized by its dowdiness. That’s why detective stories are popular; the crimes are always ingenious. Real crime is not ingenious; the same old story, again and again. If I wanted to commit a murder I should devise a truly novel murder weapon. I think I should go to my wife’s freezer, and take out a frozen loaf of bread. Have you looked at those? They are like large stones. You bash your victim — let’s say, your wife — with the frozen loaf, melt it out and eat it. The police seek in vain for the murder weapon. A novelty, you see?

They would discover you, said Hitzig, who knew a lot about Nietzsche, and was apt to be dismal; I think that notion has been tried.

Very likely, said Ludlow. But I should have added a novelty to the monotonous tale of Othello. I should go down in the annals of crime as the Loaf Murderer. Admittedly we live in a violent world, but my complaint is that the violence is unimaginative.

I gather that it is some time since violence has played much part in student life, said Mrs. Skeldergate to the Warden.

God be praised, said he. Though I think people exaggerated the violence there was; they spoke and wrote as though it were something wholly without precedent. But European universities are unceasingly violent, and the students are tirelessly political. History rings with the phrase ‘The students rioted in the streets’. Of course we treat our students much more humanely than the European universities have ever done. I have colleagues at the Sorbonne who boast that they have never spoken to a student except in the lecture-hall, and do not choose to know them personally. Quite unlike the English and American tradi­tion, as you know.

Then you don’t think the uproars really changed anything, Warden?

Oh, they did that, right enough. Our tradition of the relation­ship between student and professor had always been that of the aspirant towards the adept; part of the disturbances arose from a desire to change it to a consumer-retailer arrangement. That caught the public fancy too, you know, and consequently gov­ernments began to talk in the same way, if you will allow me to say so. ‘We shall require seven hundred head of engineers in the next five years, Professor; see to it, will you?’ — that sort of thing. ‘Don’t you think philosophy a frill in these stern times, Professor? Can’t you cut down your staff in that direction?’ Education for immediate effective consumption is more popular than ever, and nobody wants to think of the long term, or the intellectual tone of the nation.

Mrs. Skeldergate, to her dismay, had turned on a tap she could not shut off, and the Warden was in full spate. But she was an experienced listener, and there was no disturbance in her appearance of interest.

Professor Lamotte was still recouping his powers after the assault on his gouty foot, and he was startled when McVarish leaned across him and said to Professor Burns: Roberta, have I ever shown you my penis-bone?

Professor Burns, a zoologist, did not turn a hair. Have you truly got one? I know they used to be common, but it’s ages since I saw one.

Urky detached an object with a gold handle from his watch-chain and handed it to her. Eighteenth century; very fine.

Oh, what a beauty. Look, Professor Lamotte, it’s the penis-bone of a raccoon; very popular as toothpicks in an earlier day. And tailors used them for ripping out basting. Very nice, Urky. But I’ll bet you haven’t got a kangaroo-scrotum tobacco pouch; my brother sent me one from Australia.

Professor Lamotte regarded the penis-bone with distaste. Don’t you find it rather disagreeable? he said.

I don’t pick my teeth with it, said Urky; I just show it to ladies on social occasions.

You astonish me, said Lamotte.

Oh come off it, René; you — a Frenchman! Subtle wits like to refresh themselves with a whiff of mild indecency. La nostalgic de la boue and all that. Indecency and even filth — letting the hard-run intellect off the chain. Like Rabelais, you know.

I know Rabelais is very much your man, said Lamotte.

A family connection, said Urky; my ancestor, Sir Thomas Urquhart — the first and still the greatest translator of Rabelais into English.

Yes, he improved on Rabelais a good deal, said Lamotte. But Urky was insensitive to any irony but his own. He proceeded to inform Professor Burns about Sir Thomas Urquhart, with occa­sional gamy quotations.

As I prowled round the table, about my Vice-Warden’s busi­ness, Arthur Cornish, I was glad to see, was getting on well with Professor Aronson, the University’s big man on computer science. They were talking about Fortran, the language of formula and translation, in which Arthur, as a man deeply con­cerned with banking and investment, had a professional interest.

Do you think we ought to tackle Mrs. Skeldergate later about what is being said in the Legislature about poor Ozias Froats? said Penelope Raven to Gyllenborg. Really, they’ve got him all wrong. Not that I know anything about what he’s doing, but nobody could be such a fool as some of those idiots are pretending.

I wouldn’t, if I were you, said Gyllenborg. Remember our rule: never talk business or ask for favours on Guest Night. And I’ll add something: never attempt to explain science to people who want to misunderstand. Froats will be all right; the people who know have no misgivings about him. What’s going on in the Legislature is just democracy on the rampage; everybody having his uninformed say. Never explain things; my lifelong rule.

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