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

Abuse cannot shake me. Now answer my question: isn’t a sense of honour a sufficient rule of conduct?


Why not?

Because it can be no bigger than the man — or woman, if you are going to be pernickety — who possesses it. And the honour of a fool, or a pygmy-in-spirit, or a redneck, or a High Tory, or a convinced democrat are all wholly different things and any one of them, under the right circumstances, could send you to the stake, or stop your wages, or just push you out into the cold. Honour is a matter of personal limitation. God is not.

Well, I’d rather be François Rabelais than one of your frozen sceptics, grabbing at God as a lifebelt in an Arctic sea.

All right; be anything you please. You are a romantic; Rabelais was a romantic. His nonsense suits your nonsense. If the lie of honour as a sole and sufficient guide to conduct suits you, well and good! You’ll end up with those English idiots who used to govern their lives by what is or is not cricket.

Come on, Parlabane, this is just hair-splitting and academic abuse. Don’t you make any allowance for quality of life? Isn’t the worth of what a man believes shown by what his belief makes of him? Wouldn’t you rather live nobly as François Rabelais than be stuck in the deep freeze of scepticism, won­dering when, and if, God is going to open the door of the fridge and thaw you out?

Rabelais didn’t live nobly. Most of his life he was on the run from people who were more accurate reasoners than he was.

He was a great writer, a broad and copious writer, a man of wide and hospitable mind.

Romanticism. Sheer romanticism. You are putting forward critical opinions as if they were facts.

O.K., you have beaten me at the academic game, but you haven’t changed my mind, and so I don’t admit that you’ve beaten me at the real game.

Which is?

Well, look at you and look at me. I’m delighted with what I’m doing, and I’ve never heard you say one pleasant or approv­ing thing about anything you’ve ever done, except for a single love-affair that turned out badly. So which of us is the winner?

You are a fool, Molly. A beautiful fool and you prattle your nonsense in such a lovely voice and with such an enchanting hint of a foreign accent that a young heterosexual like Arthur Cornish might take you for a genuine, solid-gold Aspasia.

So I am, or at any rate so I may be. You keep telling me that I am a woman, but you haven’t any idea what a woman is. Yours is a masculine mind, and I suppose it’s a pretty good one, though it doesn’t originate anything: my mind is feminine, and where yours delights in subtle distinctions it is all one colour, and my mind is in shades that shame the spectrum. I can’t beat you at your game, but I don’t think you can even guess what my game is.

Prettily put, but might I suggest that at present your game is romanticism — oh, not in any dismissive sense, but meaning a rich diffusion, and profusion, and —

Go on. Confusion. But only if I let you make the rules.

Please let me finish. I have told you that the crown of my tree is a scepticism that leaves nothing untouched but the wonder of God. But I have a root, to nourish my crown, and as usual the root is the contrary of the crown — the crown upside down, in the dark instead of in the light, working towards the depths instead of straining upward to the heights. And my root is romantic, Molly, and in the realm of romance you and I can meet and have the greatest sport together. Why do you think I am writing a novel? Sceptics don’t write novels.

Well, Brother John, from what I have learned about you I cannot imagine why you are writing a novel. You are talkative, but not I think imaginative; you are no romancer, no bard, no unfolder of marvels. I don’t know any novelists, but you seem an unlikely candidate for that sort of job.

My life has been a romance. My novel is my life, slightly disguised but not very much. I don’t need imagination: I have rich fact. I am writing about me and all the people I have met who are important to me, and about my ideas, and how they have changed. And I don’t mind telling you that when my novel appears there will be some red faces among those I have en­countered along the road. I am not writing to justify myself, but to put down the evidence about a remarkable spiritual adventure, so that the readers can judge for themselves. As they certainly will.

Are you going to let me read it?

When it appears I may give you a copy. You are not going to read it in manuscript. I am only permitting that to one or two friends whose literary judgement I trust. And you, with your taste for Rabelais, cannot expect to qualify. This will be a very serious book.

Thanks for those kind words.

Meanwhile, you can be of the greatest practical assistance. People don’t often think of it, but writing costs the writer a good deal of money, on the way. Can you see your way to letting me have fifty dollars for a few days?

My little notebook tells me that you already owe me two hundred and sixty-five dollars. You have a tidy mind, Brother John; you always borrow in multiples of five. Why do you think I can go on lending at this rate?

Because you have money, sweet child. Far more money than the run of students.

What makes you think so?

I am an observant man. The possession of money is hard to hide. But you have lots of it. — Maybe you get it from Hollier?

Get out!

But he didn’t get out, and I knew too much to get into a shoving-match with anybody as muscular as Parlabane, for even under that awful suit he looked an unusually strong man. He sat on the sofa grinning, and I turned stolidly to my work, and tried to ignore him.

Why had he said that? Surely Hollier had never said anything to him about our solitary and, it now seemed to me, meaningless and gratuitous encounter on that sofa? No; that was quite out­side Hollier’s character, even allowing for the awful complicity and loyalty among men where women are concerned.

I knew I was blushing, a trick I have never been able to control. Why? Anger, I suppose. As I sat writing and fiddling with papers, increasingly aware of Parlabane’s hypnotic stare, I heard his voice, very low and surprisingly sweet, singing the song I hate most in the world — the song with which girls used to torment me at school, after they had wormed out some­thing about my family:

Slumber on, my little Gypsy sweetheart

Wild little woodland dove;

Can you hear the song that tells you

All my heart’s true love?

That was the end. I put my head down on the table and sobbed. What a dirty fighter Parlabane was!

Why Maria, are you unwell? Does my little song touch some chord in you that you would rather keep silent? There, there, dear little heart, don’t weep so. I suppose you are wondering how I found out? Sheer intuition, my darling. I have it, you see, very strongly. It is part of my root, not of my crown. I can sniff out all sorts of things, simply by looking and listening and letting my roots feed my crown. If you’d rather I didn’t mention it, you can rely on me. Though, as you probably know, there are people who are curious about you, because you are so beautiful and so desirable to the kind of people who desire women. They torment me for information about you, because they think knowing about you is a step towards possessing you. Sometimes they make it hard for me to resist.

So he got his fifty dollars. He tucked it into an inner pocket and rose to go. Standing at the door he spoke again.

Don’t suppose I think you capable of anything so stupid and low as a desire to conceal your Gypsy blood, my very dear Molly. I am not so coarse in my perceptions as that. I think you are trying to suppress it because it is the opposite of what you are trying to be — the modern woman, the learned woman, the creature wholly of this age and this somewhat thin and sour civilization. You are not trying to conceal it; you are trying to tear it out. But you can’t, you know. My advice to you, my dear, is to let your root feed your crown.

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