I think we already are lovers.
I mean differently. Completely.
You mean a love affair? Going to bed and all that?
Is it out of the question?
No, but I think it would be a great mistake.
Oh, Maria, can you be sure? Look, you know what I am; I’m a clergyman. I’m not asking you to be my mistress. I think that would be shabby.
Well, I certainly couldn’t marry you!
You mean it’s utterly out of the question?
Ah. But I can’t make dishonourable proposals to you. don’t think it’s just prudery —
No, no; I really do understand. ‘You could not love me, dear, so much/Loved you not honour more.’
Not just honour. You can put it like that, but it’s something weightier than honour. I am a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedek; it binds me to live by certain inflexible rules. If I take you without giving you an oath before an altar it wouldn’t be long before I was something you would hate; I would be a renegade priest. Not a drunkard, or a lecher, or anything comparatively simple and perhaps forgivable, but an oath-breaker. Can you understand that?
Yes, I can understand it perfectly. You would have broken an oath to God.
Yes. You do understand it. Thank you, Maria.
I’m sure you will admit I’d cut a strange figure as the wife of a clergyman. And — forgive me for saying this — I don’t think it’s really a wife you want, Simon. You want someone to love. Can’t you love me without bringing in all these side-issues about marriage and going to bed and things that I don’t really think have any bearing on what we are talking about?
You certainly ask a lot! Don’t you know anything about men?
Not a great deal. But I think I know quite a lot about you.
As soon as I had said it I wished it unsaid, but the jealous spirit was too quick for me. You don’t know as much about me as you do about Hollier!
She turned pale, which made her skin an olive shade. Who told you about that? I don’t suppose I need to ask; he must have told you.
Maria! Maria, you must understand — it wasn’t like that! He wasn’t boasting or stupid; he was wretched and he told me because I am a priest, and I should never have given you a hint!
Is that true?
I swear it is true.
Then listen to me, because this is true. I love Hollier. I love him the way I love you — for the splendid thing you are, in your own world of splendid things. Like a fool I wanted him the way you are talking about, and whether it was because I wanted him or he wanted me I don’t know and never shall know, but it was a very great mistake. Because of that stupidity, which didn’t amount to a damn as an experience, I think I have put something between us that has almost lost him to me. Do you think I want to do that with you? Are all men such greedy fools that they think love only comes with that special favour?
The world thinks of it as the completion of love.
Then the world still has something important to learn. Simon, you called me Sophia: the Divine Wisdom, God’s partner and playmate in Creation. Now perhaps I am going to surprise you: I agree that I am Sophia to you, and I can be that for as long as you wish, but I must be my own human Maria-self as well, and if we go to bed it may be Sophia who lies down but it will certainly be Maria — and not the best of her — who gets up, and Sophia will be gone forever. And you, Simon dear, would come into bed as my Rebel Angel, but very soon you would be a stoutish Anglican parson, and a Rebel Angel no more.
A Rebel Angel?
You don’t mean to tell me that I can teach you something, after the very non-academic talk we have had? Oh, Simon, you must remember the Rebel Angels? They were real angels, Samahazai and Azazel, and they betrayed the secrets of Heaven to King Solomon, and God threw them out of Heaven. And did they mope and plot vengeance? Not they! They weren’t sore-headed egotists like Lucifer. Instead they gave mankind another push up the ladder, they came to earth and taught tongues, and healing and laws and hygiene — taught everything — and they were often special successes with ‘the daughters of men’. It’s a marvellous piece of apocrypha, and I would have expected you to know it, because surely it is the explanation of the origin of universities! God doesn’t come out of some of these stories in a very good light, does He? Job had to tell Him a few home truths about His injustice and caprice; the Rebel Angels showed Him that hiding all knowledge and wisdom and keeping it for Himself was dog-in-the-manger behaviour. I’ve taken it as proof that we’ll civilize God yet. So don’t, Simon dear, don’t rob me of my Rebel Angel by wanting to be an ordinary human lover, and I won’t rob you of Sophia. You and Hollier are my Rebel Angels, but as you are the first to be told, you may choose which one you will be: Samahazai or Azazel?
Samahazai, every time! Azazel is too zizzy.
We talked for another hour, but nothing was said that had not been said already in one way or another, and when we parted I did indeed kiss Maria, not as an ordinary lover or one who had been promised a marriage, but in a spirit I had never known before.
Since the dinner on Boxing Day I had drunk deep of Siren tears, and to my exultant delight that trial seemed to be over. I slept like a child and woke the next day immeasurably refreshed.
Hello? Hello — are you the Reverend Darcourt? Listen, it’s about this fella John Parlabane: he’s dead. Dead in bed with the light on. There’s a letter says to call you. So you’ll come, eh? Because something’s got to be done. I can’t be expected to deal with this kinda thing.
Thus Parlabane’s landlady, who sounded as if she belonged to the tradition of affronted, put-upon landladies, calling me shortly after six o’clock on the morning of Easter Sunday. Doctors and parish clergymen are old hands at emergencies, and know that rarely is anything so pressing that there is not time to dress properly, and drink a cup of instant coffee while doing so. Figures of authority should be composed when they arrive at the scene of whatever human mess awaits them. Parlabane’s boarding-house was not far from the University, and it was not long before I was listening to Mrs. Mustard’s excited, angry story as we trudged upstairs. She had risen early to go to seven o’clock church, had seen a light under his door, was always telling ’em they weren’t to waste current, knocked and couldn’t rouse him, so in she went, expecting to find him drunk as he so often was — him that tried to pass himself off as some kind of a brother — and there he was on the bed with what looked like a smile on his face and couldn’t be roused and was icy cold, and no, she hadn’t called a doctor, and she certainly didn’t want any trouble.
In the small, humble room, which Parlabane had managed to invest with a squalor that was not inherent in it, he lay on his narrow iron bed, dressed in his monk’s robe, his Monastic Diurnal clasped in his hands, looking well pleased with himself, but not smiling; the dead do not smile except under the embalmer’s expert hand. Propped on his table was a letter addressed to me, with my telephone number on the envelope.
Suicide, I thought. I cannot say that I reassured Mrs. Mustard, but I calmed her down as much as I could, and then telephoned a doctor whom Parlabane and I had both known as a college friend, and asked him to come. In twenty minutes or so he was with me, also fully clothed and smelling perceptibly of instant coffee. Oh, what a boon powdered coffee is to parsons and doctors!
While waiting, I had read the letter, having got rid of Mrs. Mustard by asking if she would be so good as to make some coffee — preferably not instant coffee, I said, so as to keep her out of the way for a while.
It was a characteristic Parlabane letter.
Dear Old Simon:
Sorry to let you in for this, but somebody must cope, and it is part of your profession, isn’t it? I really cannot expect too much of La Mustard, to whom I owe quite a bit of back rent. That, and other debts, may be discharged out of the advance of my novel, which ought to be coming along soon. You think not? Shame on you for a doubter! Meanwhile I do very deeply want a Christian burial service, so will you add that to a long list of favours — see Johnny safely into his beddy-bye as you sometimes did when we were young at Spook — though you would never take the risk of joining him there, you old fraidy-cat. . . God bless you, Sim — your brother in Xt.