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

You are looking at my gold, she said to Hollier; this is my dowry-gold. I brought it to my marriage with Maria’s father. But it is mine. In case the marriage had not been a success, I would not have been poor. But it was a success. Oh, yes, a great success! We Laoutaro women are wonderful wives. Famous for it. This was said with what I can only call a leer, which embarrassed me horribly and I blushed. Then I was angry and blushed even more because I could see that both Hollier and Darcourt were looking at me, and I was playing the role of the modest maiden before possible husbands. Real Gypsy stuff.

God damn it to hell! Here was I, a modern girl in the New World, rigged up like a Gypsy, serving food at her mother’s table, simply because I had not the power to resist Mamusia. Or perhaps because my root was still greater than my crown. My root was assuring me, as I raged inwardly, that I was looking my best, and that it was because I was blushing. How much more complicated life is than the attainment of a Ph.D. would lead one to believe!

The meal was according to the plan Mamusia had observed in the restaurants of her girlhood and I think — indeed I know — it was an astonishment to our guests. Not all of it had been stolen. The wines, in particular, had been purchased, because in our part of the world all wines and spirits are a government monopoly, and stealing from the stores maintained by the Liquor Control Board is difficult even for such a talented booster as Mamusia. The government, which has its hand in everybody’s pocket, and its nose thrust deep into everybody’s glass, is careful of its own. So the heavy red wine and the Tokaji we drank had been purchased with real money, though in a store that was on the self-service principle Mamusia had been able to swipe a bottle of a pear liqueur, a Hubertus, and a couple of bottles of apricot Barack. So we were not ill supplied, for five people, not counting an occasional snort for the Portuguese, who needed encouragement.

We began with a lobster soup, stolen in the can by Mamusia and much improved by sherry and the thickest cream that could be bought. We then moved on to a rabbit pie, which was really excellent, and had been bought at a French patisserie. Our guests ate heartily of this unaccustomed dish, and I was glad, for it had cost a fortune. Perhaps they did not realize that a large stuffed carp was to follow, with a garlic sauce in which you could have stood a spoon, and a mélange of vegetables, so sophisticated that they hardly seemed to be vegetables at all. Darcourt’s brow showed some dampness by the time he had done justice to it.

Hollier, I was concerned to observe, was a noisy eater, and to seem to eat noisily when Yerko was at the table was to be noisy in demanding company. Hollier was a chomper, his jaws working up and down like pistons, and without seeming to be greedy he ate a great deal. Dear man, did he not get enough to eat in his lonely professorial life? Or had his mother, who was not far away from us, loaded him up with the turkey and plum pudding their sort of Canadian thought appropriate to Christmas? But he was of a Sheldonian type that can eat a great deal without putting on any flesh.

The carp was followed by a sorbet, a water-ice, served not as a sweet, to bring the meal to a close, but merely, as Mamusia said, to joke a little with our stomachs before getting on with the next serious course. This was a true gulyás-hus, again with a lot of garlic, and plentiful, because Mamusia thought it the really serious offering, the crown of the feast.

That was that, except for a fruit flan of apricots, with bran-died cream, and a Sachertorte, which Mamusia insisted every­one should try, because it recalled great days in Vienna, and gave therefore a cosmopolitan air to a meal which she insisted was otherwise truly Hungarian. And, of course, we all had to eat a piece of Darcourt’s cake.

The guests ate everything, drank the heavy, red wine, and moved on happily to the Tokaji.

Conversation had been animated all through the meal, and became much more animated as it drew towards its close. I was busy taking things to the kitchen, bringing things from the kitchen, and managing the Portuguese, whom I had some­what over-encouraged with drink. Her sighs and moans could have been overlooked, but as the meal wore on she began to talk animatedly to herself, and now and then opened the door to stare in, with groggy solemnity, to see how things were going.

Mamusia was very much the high-born hostess, as she under­stood the role, and wanted to talk to our guests about the University and what they did there. Darcourt’s work she could understand; he taught priests, like himself. He tried to explain that he was not a priest in quite the meaning of that word known to Mamusia and Yerko.

I am an Anglican, you see, he said at one point, and there­fore although I am unquestionably a priest, I suppose I might say I am a priest in a Pickwickian sense, if you know what I mean.

They did not know what he meant. But you love the Bebby Jesus? said Yerko.

Oh, yes indeed. Just as much, I assure you, as our brethren at Rome. Or, for that matter, in the Orthodox Church.

Hollier had, at his first visit, explained to Mamusia what his work was; he enlarged on that, without suggesting that he re­garded her as a cultural fossil, or a possessor of the Wild Mind. I look into the past, he said.

Oho, so do I! said Mamusia. All we Romany women can look into the past. Does it give you a pain? When I have looked backward sometimes I have a very bad pain in my women’s parts, if I may speak of such things. But we are not children here. Except for my daughter. Maria, go to the kitchen and see what Rosa is doing. Tell her if she chips one of those plates I will cut out her heart. Now, dear Hollier, you teach looking into the past. Do you teach that to my daughter, eh?

Maria is busy studying a remarkable man of past times, one François Rabelais. He was a great humorist, I suppose one might say.

What is that?

He was a man of great wisdom, but he expressed his wisdom in wild jokes and fantasies.

Jokes? Like riddles, you mean?

I suppose every joke is a riddle, because it says one thing and means another.

I know some good riddles, said Yerko. Mostly not riddles I could ask in front of the Bebby Jesus. But can you guess this one? Now listen good. What big, laughing fellow can go into the queen’s bedroom — yes even the Queen of England — without knocking on the door?

There was the usual embarrassing silence that always follows a riddle, while people pretend to search for the answer, but are really waiting for the asker to tell them.

You can’t guess? A big, laughing, hot fellow, he even maybe lets himself down on the queen’s bed and sees through her peignoir? Hey? — You don’t know such a fellow? — Oh, yes you do. — The Sun, that’s who! Ah, priest Simon, you thought I meant for dirty, eh? And Yerko laughed loudly and showed the inside of his mouth right back to the pillars of his throat, in enjoyment of his joke.

I know a better riddle than that, said Mamusia. Now pay attention to what I say, or you will never guess. — It is a thing, you understand? And this thing was made by a man who sold it to a man who didn’t want it; the man who used it didn’t know he was using it. Now, what is it? — Think very hard.

They thought very hard, or seemed to do so. Mamusia slapped the table emphatically and said, A coffin! — A good joke for a priest, eh?

You must tell me more Gypsy riddles, Madame, said Hollier; for me such things are like a wonderful long look into the far past. And everything that can be recovered from the past throws light on our time, and guides us towards the future.

Oh, we could tell secrets, said Yerko. Gypsies have lots of secrets. That’s what makes them so powerful. Look — I’ll tell you a Gypsy secret, worth a thousand dollars to anybody. Your dog gets into a fight see; both dogs trying to kill other dog — Rowf-rowf! Grrrrr! — you can’t get your dog away. Kick him! Pull his tail! No good! He wants to kill. So what you do? You lick the long finger good — make it good and wet — then you run up and you shove your finger up the arse-hole of one dog — not matter whether your dog or not. Shove up as far as you can. Wiggle it good. Dog surprised. What the hell! he think. He let go, and you kick him good so no more fight. — You got a good dog?

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