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

So that was how I came to ask Professor Darcourt to dine with my family on Boxing Day. He turned rather an odd colour when I wound myself up to the point of speaking about it — a pink that started below his collar and worked up, as if some­body were filling a wineglass. I was terrified. Had he heard that my home was a Gypsy home? Was he afraid he would have to sit on the floor and eat baked hedgehog, which is all the gadje ever seem to know about gypsy food? When he said that yes, he would be delighted to come, I was hugely relieved, and as I left his seminar room I was surprised to find that he was still looking at me, and was pinker than ever. But he would do very nicely. He was near to Hollier in age, and he had lovely manners and dressed smartly for a stout man, and though he did not wear what Mamusia would have thought of as jewellery he had a natty little gold cross hanging from his watch-chain, which draped over what I assumed was the forty feet of literary gut Professor Froats had mentioned. Yes, Simon Darcourt would be just the thing.

A priest? said Mamusia when I told her. I must warn Yerko to guard his tongue.

You make sure Yerko is sober, said I.

Trust me, said Mamusia. Words I interpreted as generously as I could, but with reservation.


There was no need to warn Yerko to guard his tongue. He returned from New York heavy with concealed money, but light of heart, for he had found a god to worship, and the name of the god was Bebby Jesus. A friend had taken him to the Metropolitan Museum where, in the medieval section, a Nativity Play was being performed in celebration of the coming of Christmas. The friend thought that Yerko might be pleased by the medieval music, played on authentic old viols and some instruments of which one resembled the cimbalom, the gypsy dulcimer Yerko played like a master. But Yerko’s incalculable fancy had settled upon the drama, the Annunciation, the Virgin Birth, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Journey of the Magi. In official matters, Gypsies call themselves Catholics, but Yerko’s mind, uncluttered by education or conventional religion, was wide open to marvels; at the age of fifty-eight he was transfigured by his newly found belief in the Miraculous Child. Therefore he had purchased an elaborate crèche of carved and painted wood, and as soon as he came home he set to work with his great skill as a woodworker and craftsman to make it the most splendid thing of its kind his imagination could conceive. Nor was it anything less than splendid, though a little gaudy and bedizened, in the Gypsy style.

He set it up in our one living-room, already crammed with all the best pieces Mamusia and Tadeusz had spread through the big house when they occupied it all; the crèche dominated everything else. Yerko prayed in front of it, and never passed it without a low bow and a murmured greeting to Bebby Jesus who wore, when Yerko had finished his task of improvement, a superb little crown of beautifully worked copper and gold, and a robe of red velvet, made by Mamusia and decorated with tiny pearls.

I was not pleased with Bebby Jesus, who went contrary to what I hoped was my scholarly austerity of mind, my Rabelaisian disdain for superstition, and my yearning for — what? I suppose for some sort of Canadian conventionality, which keeps religion strictly in its place, where it must not be mocked but need not be heeded, either. What would our party guests make of this extraordinary shrine?

They thought it was magnificent. They arrived on our door­step together, though Hollier had walked and Darcourt travelled by taxi, and they made the somewhat too extravagant pro­testations of being glad to see each other that people do make around Christmas-time. Before I could take his coat Darcourt had dashed forward and stood in front of the crèche, lost in admiration.

I had warned Yerko that one of our guests was a priest, and, being Yerko, he assumed that it must be Hollier, who was the more austere in appearance.

Good father, he said, bowing deeply, I wish you all happi­ness at this Birthday of Bebby Jesus.

Oh, — ah quite so, Mr. Laoutaro, said Hollier, rather taken aback. I do not think he had heard Yerko speak on his first visit, and Yerko has a voice like someone speaking from a well of thick oil — a basso, profound and oleaginous.

But now Yerko had spied Darcourt’s gleaming clerical collar, and I feared for a moment that he was going to kiss his hand, peasant-style. That would have put the party off to a really bad start, from my point of view.

This is my Uncle Yerko, I said, stepping between them.

Darcourt had lots of social sense, and he knew that Mr. Laoutaro was all wrong. May I call you Yerko? he said, and you must call me Simon. Did you make this superb tableau? My dear Yerko, this brings us very close together. It is by far the loveliest thing I have seen this Christmas. He seemed to mean it. A taste for the Baroque I had not suspected in a medieval scholar, I suppose.

Dear Father Simon, said Yerko, bowing again, you make my heart very filled up. Is all for Bebby Jesus. And he cast a swimming eye at the crèche. And this all for Bebby Jesus, too, he said, gesturing at the dining-table.

I admit it was a wonder. Mamusia had unpacked treasures not seen since the death of Tadeusz, and the table could have appeared in a pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins as an altar to Gula, or Gluttony. On a tablecloth lumpy with lace was spread a complete service of that china prized by one group of connois­seurs called Royal Crown Derby, gaudy with blue and red and gold and in the extreme of Gypsy taste. Tadeusz had given it to Mamusia at a time when they had some notion of enter­taining at home, but it had never been used. There it was, plates resting upon larger service plates, and standing amid silver in the most highly wrought pattern Jensen had been able to devise. There was a positive forest-fire of candles burning in stands with many branches, and the flowers I had insisted on providing were already wilting in the heat.

It isn’t only the gadje who can do a thing well, Mamusia had said. If Darcourt had feared that he was to be given baked hedgehog, he must now be certain that he would eat it in such style as hedgehog had never known before.

Darcourt had brought a large and splendid Christmas cake, which he offered to Mamusia with ceremony. She took it with approval: such tribute from guests fitted well into her mid-European idea of hospitality. Hollier had no gift, but I was pleased to see him in a good, if impressed, suit of clothes.

There were no preliminaries. We sat down to eat at once. I had murmured about cocktails, but Mamusia was firm; such things had never appeared in any of the first-class Budapest restaurants in which she had played as a girl; Tadeusz had thought cocktails an American folly and not really high style, in the Polish mode; and so there were no cocktails. Of course Darcourt was asked to say grace, which he did in Greek, as the language most congruous with the Crown Derby, I suppose. Mamusia sat at the head of the table with Hollier on her left, and Darcourt on her right; Yerko sat at the other end. To my extreme annoyance I had been cast in the role of serving-wench, and though I had a place at table next to Darcourt I was not expected to sit in it often. I was to bring food from the kitchen, where an over-driven Portuguese, who asked double pay for working on a holiday, was in charge, ribbed and confined by Mamusia’s orders.

It becomes a daughter to serve the guests, Mamusia had said. And take care you smile and beg them to take more. Show yourself open-handed. This is to show your professor that you know how such things should be done. And wear a low dress. Gadjo men like to peep.

I know that gadjo men like to peep. But Gypsies do not much care if they peep or not. Gypsies are modest about legs, not about breasts, and I suppose Parlabane would have said that it was part of my root asserting itself that I had never been able to bother my head if men peeped down my front. This night I wore skirts to my ankles, as did Mamusia, but we both were pretty well to the fore in the matter of shoulders and bosom. I did not wear a kerchief, however, as Mamusia did. Nor did I wear any jewellery except for a chain or two and a few rings. But Mamusia was the most ornamented object, save for Bebby Jesus, in the room. She was hung with gold — real gold — and had large hoops in her ears and a necklace made of Maria Theresa thalers that must have weighed thirty ounces.

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