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

I was lying down, in a deep sleep and almost certainly with my mouth open, when Hollier returned one afternoon. I tried to leap up, and fell down. He helped me back to the sofa, felt my head and looked grave. I wept a few feeble tears and told him why I could not be ill at home.

I suppose you’re worried about your work, he said. You don’t know where you’re going, and that is my fault. I had expected to be able to talk to you about that manuscript before this, but the bloody thing has vanished. No, by God, it’s been stolen, and I know who has it.

This was exciting, and by the time he had told me about the Cornish bequests, and Professor Darcourt’s attempt to nail down Professor McVarish about the manuscript he had certainly borrowed, and McVarish’s unsatisfactory attitude towards the whole thing, I felt much better and was able to get up and make us some tea.

I had never seen Hollier in this mood before. I know that scoundrel has it, he kept saying; he’s hugging it to himself, like the dog in the manger he is. What in God’s name does he expect he can do with it?

I tried being the voice of reason. He’s a Renaissance historian, I said, so I suppose he wants to make something of it in his own line.

He’s the wrong kind of Renaissance historian! What does he know about the history of thought? He knows politics and he knows something about Renaissance art, but he hasn’t the slightest claim to be a cultural or intellectual historian, and I am, and I want that manuscript!

This was glorious! Hollier was angry and unreasonable; only once before, when first I told him about the bomari, had I seen him so excited. I didn’t care if he was talking rather foolishly. I liked it.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that eventually the manuscript must come to light because McVarish will write about it, and I’ll be able to ask to see it, and un­doubtedly expose a lot of his nonsense. You’re going to say that I should go to Arthur Cornish and demand a show-down. But what would young Cornish know about such things! No, no; I want that manuscript before anybody else has monkeyed with it. I told you I didn’t have time to look at those letters for more than a glance. But a glance is all it needed to show that they are written in Latin, of course, but Latin with plenty of what I suppose was quotation in Greek and several words in Hebrew, sticking out in those big, chunky, uncompromising Hebrew characters — and what do you suppose that means? I had an idea, but I thought I had better let him tell me. Cabbala — that’s what it could mean! Rabelais writing to Paracelsus about Cabbala. Perhaps he was deep in it; perhaps he scorned it; perhaps he was making inquiry. Perhaps he was one of that group who were trying to Christianize it. But what­ever it is, what could be more significant to uncover now? And that’s what I want to do — to discover and make known this group of letters as they should be made known, and not in some half-baked interpretation of McVarish’s.

I suppose they could be rather mild stuff. I mean, I hope they aren’t, but it could be.

Don’t be stupid! It wasn’t a time, you know, when one great scholar wrote to another to ask how his garden was coming along. It was dangerous; the letters could fall into the hands of repressive Church authorities and once again Rabelais’s name would have been mud. Must I remind you? Protestantism was the Communism of the time and Rabelais was too near to Protestantism for safety. But Cabbala could have put him in prison. Pushed far enough it could have meant death! The stake! Mild stuff! Really Maria, you disappoint me! Because I want to count you in on this, you know; when my commentary on those letters is printed, your name shall stand with mine, because I want you to do all the work in verifying the Greek and Hebrew quotations. More than that: the Stratagems shall be all yours, to translate and edit.

In scholarly terms this was fantastic generosity. If he had the letters I could have the historical commentary. Gorgeous!

Then he did a most uncharacteristic thing. He began to swear violently, and smashed his teacup on the floor; he snatched mine and broke it; he smashed the teapot. Then, shouting McVarish’s name over and over again he broke the wooden tray over the back of a chair and trampled on all the fragments of china, wood, and tea-leaves. His face was very dark with anger. Without a word to me he stamped into his inner room and locked the door. I had shrunk myself as small as possible on the sofa, for safety and the better to admire.

Not a word about love, though. I was almost ashamed to notice such a thing when big scholarly matters were in the air. I did notice, however. But Hollier was so furious with McVarish that he had no time for anything else.

None the less, this had been a display of feeling from Hollier; he had shown human concern, even if most of it was for himself. It was when his scholarly zeal was excited that Hollier became something more than the preoccupied, removed scholar which was the man he showed to the world. When I had first told him about the bomari he had done something extraordinary: both times he told me about the Gryphius MS he had been greatly stirred and this time he had flared into anger. On all three occasions he had been a different creature, younger, physi­cally alert, swept by passion into acts that were foreign to his usual self.

This was Hollier’s root, not his austere scholarly crown. From time to time I heard him shouting. Sometimes things I could understand like — And that blockhead wanted me to go to McVarish and tell him everything! Tell what? Who was the blockhead?

I cleaned up the mess, and was happy to do it. Hollier’s rage had cured my influenza.

Or almost cured it. When I went home that evening, Mamusia said: Your cold is gone, but you look white. I know what is wrong with you, my girl; you are in love. Your professor. How is he?

Never better, said I, thinking of the storm I had seen that afternoon.

A fine man. Very handsome. Has he made love to you?

No. I didn’t want to go into fine detail with Mamusia.

Ach, these gadje! Slow as snakes in autumn. I suppose there must be social occasions. They think a lot of social occasions. We must show you off to advantage. You must ask him here at Christmas.

We had quite a long argument about that. I was dubious about what Mamusia meant by social occasions; when Tadeusz was alive he and Mamusia never entertained anybody at home; they always took them to restaurants, to concerts or plays. The great change that had come over her since Tadeusz’s death had obliterated all that; she had never had friends among the gadjo business and professional Hungarians, and she had dropped all the acquaintances. But when Mamusia took an idea into her head it was not in my power to change her. A Christmas party now dominated her imagination, although, as a Gypsy, Christ­mas was not a great festival for her. I tried being outspoken.

I won’t let you ask him here to parade me like a Gypsy pony you want to sell. You don’t know how people like that behave.

So at my age I’m a fool? I will be as high and fine as any gadji lady — so slick a louse would slip off me. Parade you? Is that how it’s done, poshrat? Never! We shall do it like the great ladies of Vienna. We shall make him see he isn’t alone in desiring you.

Mamusia! He doesn’t desire me!

That’s what he thinks. He doesn’t know what he desires. You leave that to me. He’s the man I want for the father of my grandchildren, and it’s high time. We’ll make him jealous. You must ask another man.

What other man? Arthur Cornish? Arthur and I had been going out together fairly often, and were becoming real friends, but he had never made a move towards me, except to kiss me good night once or twice, which can’t be said to count. Arthur was the last man I wanted to introduce into Mamusia’s world.

She had been thinking. To make Hollier jealous, you must ask somebody who is his equal, or a little better than that. Some­body with prettier manners, better clothes, more jewellery. Another professor! Do you know another professor?

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