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


All very well for Parlabane to advise me to come to terms with my root. He could not know, nor would he care, what my root was costing me at home, which I could not accept as some hidden cavern of feeling and inherited wisdom, but a rat’s-nest of duplicity and roguery, Gypsy-style. Mamusia was getting Yerko ready for one of his piratical descents on the innocent, credulous city of New York.

Those two had, as the phrase goes, a connection there, with one of the most highly reputed dealers in stringed instruments in that city — a dealer who had also a Paris house, with which the Laoutari had long been associated. Not only some of the finest string players in the world, but an army of lesser though still considerable folk — violinists in first-rate orchestras, and their colleagues who played the viola, the violoncello, and the double-bass, all of whom, from time to time, wanted an instru­ment for themselves, or for a pupil — came to this celebrated dealer for what they needed, and they accepted his word as truth.

I cannot name the name, for that would betray a secret which is not mine, and I do not suggest that the dealer was a crook. But the supply of fine instruments is not unlimited; there have not been hundreds of great luthiers in the eighteenth and nine­teenth centuries, and although there are some thousands of fine fiddles in existence, there are even more that seem just as good, or almost as good, that come from workshops like that of Mamusia and Yerko. So when the dealer said to a buyer: If you feel that this Nicolas Lupot is a little more expensive than you want to pay for a stand-by instrument, I have something here which is authentically of the Mirecourt School, but because we do not have a complete dossier on its former owners, we do not feel justified in asking quite so much for it. Probably some rich amateur has had it in his possession for a generation. It’s a beauty — and a bargain. And the player would try it, and probably take it away for a while to get used to it, and at last he would buy it.

I don’t pretend he didn’t get a good instrument, or that some parts of it had not at some time been fashioned at Mirecourt. But perhaps the scroll — that beautiful, suggestive, not very important part of a fiddle — had been carved by Yerko, eighteen months before, and it might be that the back, or even the belly, had been lovingly shaped by Mamusia from the beautiful silver fir, or the sycamore that she bought from piano-makers. The corner-blocks were almost certainly her work, however authentic the remainder might be. And every fiddle or viola or cello from the basement of One Hundred and Twenty Walnut Street in the city of Toronto had been re-varnished, with layer upon layer of the mixture which was a Laoutaro secret, made in the authentic old way with balsams and fossil amber that cost a lot of money and much ingenuity to secure. Oh, Mamusia and Yerko weren’t crooks, supplying cheap goods at high prices; by the time one of their fiddles had been through the bomari it was a fine instrument; it was made by piecing together portions of instruments that had come to grief in some way and so could be bought cheap, and rebuilt with new portions wherever they were needed. Wonders of ingenuity, but not precisely what they seemed.

Mamusia and Yerko were sellers of romance — the romance of antiquity. There are makers of violins living today, in un-romantic places like Chicago, who make excellent instruments, as good in every physical respect as the work of the great luthiers of the past. All these instruments lack is the romance of age. And although many fiddlers are cynical men, and some are no better than unionized artisans without any more of the artist in them than is necessary to keep a chair in the back row of a modest small-town symphony, they are susceptible to the charm of antiquity. The romance and the antiquity were what Yerko and Mamusia offered, and for which the great dealer charged handsomely, because he too understood the market value of romantic antiquity.

Why did it bother me? Because I had apprenticed myself to the hard trade of scholarship, which shrieks at the thought of a fake, and disgraces a man who, let us say, pretends to the existence of a Shakespeare Quarto that nobody else is able to find. If some­thing is not defensible on every count, it is suspect and probably worthless. A trumpery puritanism, surely? No, but impossible to reconcile with such romantic deceptions as the fine, ambiguous instruments that came from our basement.

For such journeys Yerko assembled what he always called the Kodaly String Quartet; the other three were musicians in some sort of moral or financial disarray who were glad to travel free to New York with him in a station-wagon with perhaps ten instruments which remained with the dealer; Yerko returned to Canada by a different port of entry, without his quartet, but with a good deal of rubbish — broken or dismembered in­struments — in the back of the car. Yerko, so large, so dark, long-haired, and melancholy in appearance, was a Customs officer’s idea of a musician. Part of the preparation for the journey was getting Yerko sobered up so that he could drive the car and strike bargains without coming to grief, and con­vincing him that if he went to a gambling-house and risked any of the money Mamusia would certainly search him out and make him sorry for it. The payments were in cash, and Yerko returned from New York with bundles of bills in the lining of his musician’s baggy black overcoat. The logic of my Mother and my Uncle was that Yerko was too conspicuous and too farcically musical in appearance to attract the wrong kind of attention.

This was the staple of their business. The perfectly honest work they did for some musicians of the highest rank did not pay so well, but it flattered them as luthiers, and gave them a valuable reputation among the people who provided romance and sound fiddles for the orchestras of North America.


Gypsies have a poor opinion of ill health, and nobody was per­mitted to ail in our house. Therefore, when I caught quite bad influenza I did what I could to conceal it. Mamusia supposed I had a cold, and there could be no thought of staying in my bed, that couch in the communal living-room; she insisted on her single treatment for all respiratory diseases — cloves of garlic shoved up the nose. It was disgusting, and made me feel worse, so I dragged myself to the University and took refuge in Hollier’s outer room, where I sat on the sofa when he was likely to appear, and lay on it when he was not, and was sorry for myself.

Why not? Had I not troubles? My home was a place of dis­comfort and moral duplicity, where I had not even a proper bed to lie in. (You are rich, fool; get yourself an apartment and turn your back on them. Yes, but that would hurt their feelings, and with all their dreadful tricks, I love them and to leave them would be to leave what Tadeusz would have expected me to cherish.) My infatuation with Hollier was wearing me out, because there was never any sign from him that our single physical union might be repeated or that he cared very much for me. (Then bring him to the point. Have you no feminine re­source? You are not of an age, nor is this a time in history for such shilly-shallying. Yes, but it shames me to think of thrusting myself on him. All right then, if you won’t put out a hand for food you must starve! But how would I do it? — There’s a woman in the window with her pants down! Shut up! Shut up! Stop singing! I’m singing from the root, Maria: what did you expect? Fairy bells? Oh God, this is Gretchen, listening to the Devil in the church! No, it’s your good friend Parlabane, Maria, but you are not worthy of such a friend: you are a simpering fool.) My academic work was hanging fire. I was pegging away at Rabelais, whose existing texts I now knew well, but I had been promised a splendid manuscript that would bring me just the kind of attention I needed — that would lift me above the world in which Mamusia and Yerko could disgrace me — and apart from that one reference to it in September Hollier had never said a single word about it further. (Ask him about it. I wouldn’t dare; he would just say that when he had anything further to tell, he would tell me.) I felt dreadful, I had a fever, my head felt as if it were stuffed with oily rags. (Take two aspirin and lie down.)

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