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

The comic turn of the funeral — and many a funeral boasts its clown — was John Parlabane, who was, I had heard, infesting Spook. He was in his monk’s robe at the funeral, mopping and mowing in the very Highest of High Anglican style. Not that I mind. At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, but Parlabane didn’t stop short at bowing; he positively cringed and crossed himself with that crumb-brushing movement which is supposed to show long custom and which he, born a Protestant of some unritualistic sect, grossly overdid. The scarred skin of his face — I remembered how and when he came by those scars — was com­posed in a sanctimonious leer that seemed meant to combine regret for the passing of a friend with ecstasy at the thought of the glory that friend was now enjoying.

I am an Anglican, and a priest, but sometimes I wish my co­religionists wouldn’t carry on so.

As a priest at this funeral I had my special duty. The Rector had asked me to speak the Committal, and then the choir sang: I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write: From hence­forth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the spirit, for they rest from their labours.

So Francis Cornish rested from his labours, though whether he had died in the Lord I can’t really say. Certainly he had laid labours upon me, for his estate was a big one and was reckoned not simply in money but in costly possessions, and I had to come to grips with it, and with Hollier — and with Urquhart McVarish.


Three days later the three of us sat in Arthur Cornish’s office in one of the big bank towers in the financial district, while he told us who was who and what was what. He was not uncivil, but his style was not what we were used to. We knew all about meetings where anxious deans fluttered and fussed to make sure that every shade of opinion was heard, and strangled decisive action in the slack, dusty ropes of academic scruple. Arthur Cor­nish knew what had to be done, and he expected us to do our parts quickly and efficiently.

Of course I am to look after all the business and financial side, he said. You gentlemen are appointed to attend to the proper disposal of Uncle Frank’s possessions — the works of art and that sort of stuff. It could turn out to be quite a big job. The things that have to be shipped and moved to new owners should be put in the hands of a reliable shipper, and I’ll give you the name of the firm I’ve chosen; they’ll take orders from you, countersigned by my secretary. She will help you in every way possible. I’d like to get it done as soon as you can manage it, because we want to get on with probate and the dispersal of legacies and gifts. So may I ask you to move as quickly as you can?

Professors do not like to be asked to move quickly, and particularly not by a man who is not yet thirty. They can move quickly, or so they imagine, but they don’t like to be bossed. We had no need to look at one another for Hollier, McVarish, and I to close ranks against this pushy youth. Hollier spoke.

Our first task must be to find out what has to be disposed of in the way of works of art, and ‘that sort of stuff’, to use your own phrase, Mr. Cornish.

I suppose there must be an inventory somewhere.

Now it was McVarish’s turn. Did you know your uncle well?

Not really. Saw him now and then.

You never visited his dwelling?

His home? No, never. Wasn’t asked.

I thought I had better put in a few words. I don’t think home is quite the word one would use for the place where Francis Cornish lived.

His apartment, then.

He had three apartments, I continued. They occupied a whole floor of the building, which he owned. And they are crammed from floor to ceiling with works of art — and that sort of stuff. And I didn’t say over-furnished: I said crammed.

Hollier resumed the job of putting the rich brat in his place. If you didn’t know your uncle, of course you cannot imagine how improbable it was that he possessed an inventory; he was not an inventory sort of man.

I see. A real old bachelor’s rat’s-nest. But I know I can depend on you to sort it out. Get help if you need it, to catalogue the contents. We must have a valuation, for probate. I suppose in aggregate it must be worth quite a lot. Any clerical assistance you need, lay it on and my secretary will countersign chits for necessary payments.

After a little more of this we left, passing through the office of the secretary who had countersigning powers (a middle-aged woman of professional charm) and through the office of the other secretaries who were younger and pattered away on muted, expensive machines, and past the uniformed man who guarded the portals — because the big doors really were portals.

I’ve never met anybody like that before, I said as we went down sixteen floors in the elevator.

I have, said McVarish. Did you notice the mahogany panel­ling? Veneer, I suppose, like young Cornish.

Not veneer, said Hollier. I tapped it to see. Not veneer. We must watch our step with that young man.

McVarish sniggered. Did you notice the pictures on his walls? Corporation taste. Provided by a decorator. Not his Uncle Frank’s sort of stuff.

I had looked at the pictures too, and McVarish was wrong. But we wanted to feel superior to the principal executor because we were a little in awe of him.


During the week that followed, Hollier, McVarish, and I met every afternoon at Francis Cornish’s three apartments. We had been given keys by the countersigning secretary. After five days had passed our situation seemed worse than we could have imagined and we did not know where to start on our job.

Cornish had lived in one of the apartments, and it had some suggestion of a human dwelling, though it was like an extremely untidy art dealer’s shop — which was one of the purposes to which he put it. Francis Cornish had done much in his lifetime to establish and gain recognition for good Canadian painters. He bought largely himself, but he also acted as an agent for painters who had not yet made a name. This meant that he kept some of their pictures in his apartment, and sold them when he could, remitting the price to the painter, and charging no dealer’s fee. That, at least, was the theory. In practice he acquired pictures from young painters, stacked them in his flat, forgot them or absent-mindedly lent them to people who liked them, and was surprised and hurt when an aggrieved painter made a fuss, or threatened a lawsuit.

There was no real guile in Francis Cornish, but there was no method in him either, and it was supposed that it was for this reason he had not taken a place in the family business, which had begun in his grandfather’s time as lumber and pulpwood, had grown substantially in his father’s time, and in the last twenty-five years had left lumber to become a very big bond and investment business. Arthur, the fourth generation, was now the head of the firm. Francis’s fortune, partly from a trust estab­lished by his father, and partly inherited from his mother, had made him a very rich man, able to indulge his taste for art patronage without thinking much about money.

He had seldom sold a picture for an artist, but when it became known that he had some of them for sale, other and more astute dealers sought out that artist, and in this haphazard way Cornish was a considerable figure in the dealer’s world. His taste was as sure as his business method was shaky.

Part of our problem was the accumulation, in apartment num­ber one, of a mass of pictures, drawings, and lithographs, as well as quite a lot of small sculpture, and we did not know if it belonged to Cornish, or to the artists themselves.

As if that were not enough, apartment number two was so full of pictures that it was necessary to edge through the door, and push into rooms where there was hardly space for one person to stand. This was his non-Canadian collection, some of which he had certainly not seen for twenty-five years. By groping amid the dust we could make out that almost every important name of the past fifty years was represented there, but to what extent, or in what period of the artist’s work, it was impossible to say, because moving one picture meant moving another, and in a short time no further movement was possible, and the searcher might find himself fenced in, at some distance from the door.

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