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

John Parlabane, S.S.M.

It was a relief when the doctor came, examined the body and said unnecessarily that Parlabane was dead, and surprisingly that he couldn’t say why.

No sign of anything, he said; he’s dead because his heart has stopped beating, and that’s all I can put on the certificate. Cardiac arrest, which is what finishes us all really.

Any suggestion that it was self-induced? I asked.

None. That’s what I expected, you know, when you called me. But I can’t find a puncture or a mark or anything that would account for it. No sign of poison — you know, there’s usually something. He looks so pleased with himself, there can’t have been any distress at the end. I’d have expected suicide, frankly.

So would I, but I’m glad it isn’t so.

Yes, I guess it lets you off the hook, doesn’t it?

By which my old friend the doctor paid tribute to the widely held notion that clergymen of my persuasion are not permitted to say the burial service over suicides. In fact we are allowed great latitude, and charity usually wins the day.

So I did what was necessary, adding extra work to my Easter Sunday, which was already a busy day. There was a little un­seemly trouble with Mrs. Mustard, who didn’t want the body to be taken out of her house until her debt was paid. So I paid it, wondering how long she would have held out if I had allowed her to keep Parlabane in his present state. Poor woman, I sup­pose she led a dog’s life, and it made her disagreeable, which she mistook for being strong.

The following day, Easter Monday morning, I read the Burial Service for Parlabane at the chapel of St. James the Less, which is handy to the crematorium. As I waited to see if anyone would turn up, I reflected on what I was about to do. There I stood, in cassock, surplice, and scarf, the Professional Dispatcher. How much did I believe of what I was about to say? How much had Parlabane believed? The resurrection of the body, for instance? No use havering about that now; he had asked for it and he should have it. The Burial Service was noble — splendid music not to be examined like an insurance policy.

Besides myself only Hollier and Maria were present. The undertaker, misled by Parlabane’s robe into thinking him a priest, had placed the body with its head towards the altar, and I did not trouble to have the position changed. I had already ex­plained to the undertaker that the corpse did not really need underclothes; Parlabane had died naked under his robe, and that was the way I sent him to the flames; I did not want to court a reputation for eccentricity by asking for further revisions in what the undertaker thought was proper.

The atmosphere was understandably intimate, and at the appropriate moment in the service I said: This is where the priest usually says something about the person whose human shell is being sent on its way. But as we are few, and all friends of his, perhaps we might talk about him for a while. I think he was a man to be pitied, but he would have scorned pity; his spirit was defiant and proud. He asked for a Christian burial service, and that is why we are here. In a manner that was very much his own he professed a great feeling for the Christian faith but seemed to scorn most of the scriptures Christians are supposed to hold dear. It was as if faith and pride were at war in him: he knew nothing of humility. I confess I don’t know what to make of him; I think he despised me, and the last letter he wrote me was in a tone he meant to be jokey but was really contemptuous. My belief bids me forgive him, and I do; he asked for this service and it is out of the question for me to refuse it; but I wish I could honestly say that I had liked him.

He did everything in his power to make it impossible to like him, said Maria. In spite of all his smiles and caressing jokes and words of endearment, he was deeply contemptuous of every­one.

I liked him, said Hollier; but then, I knew him better than either of you. I suppose I looked on him as one of my cultural fossils; the day has gone when people feel that they can be un­ashamedly arrogant about superior intellect. We are hypocritical about that. He was quite open about it; he thought we were dullards and he certainly thought I was intellectually fraudulent. In this he was a throwback to the great days of Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa — yes, and of Rabelais — when people who knew a lot sneered elaborately at anybody they considered an intellectual inferior. There was something refreshing about him. Pity that novel of his was so bad; it was really one huge sneer from start to finish, whatever he may have thought about it.

He seems to have died believing that it would see publi­cation, I said. His last letter to me says his debts could be paid out of the advance from his publisher.

Don’t you believe it, said Hollier. He simply never admitted what he knew to be the truth — that he lived by sponging. And that reminds me, Simon, who’s paying the shot for this?

I suppose I am, I said.

No, no, said Hollier; I must put in for it. Why should you do it all?

Of course, said Maria; that’s the way it was while he was alive and it had better be the same to the end. He died owing me just under nine hundred dollars; another hundred won’t break me.

Oh it won’t be anything like that, I said; I arranged this on the cheapest terms. With the burial costs and what he owed his landlady, and odds and ends, I reckon it will run us each about — well, you’re closer than I thought, Maria; it will probably be more than two hundred apiece. — Oh, dear, this is very un­seemly. I meant that we should think seriously and kindly about him for a few minutes, and here we are haggling about his debts.

Serve him damned well right, said Hollier. If he is anywhere about, he’s laughing his head off.

He could have left Rabelais’s will, said Maria. ‘I owe much, I have nothing, the rest I leave to the poor,’ and she laughed.

Hollier and I caught the infection and we were laughing loudly when the undertaker’s man stuck his head into the chancel from the little room where he was lurking, and coughed. I knew the signal; Parlabane must be whisked off to the crematory before lunch.

Let us pray, said I.

Yes, said Hollier; and afterwards — the cleansing flames. More laughter. The undertaker’s man, though he had prob­ably seen some queer funerals, looked scandalized. I have never laughed my way through the Committal before, but I did so now. We met outside after I had seen the coffin on its way. There was no need for me to return for the burning.

I can’t think when I’ve enjoyed a funeral so much, said Hollier.

I feel a sense of relief, said Maria. I suppose I ought to be ashamed of it — but no, I don’t really suppose anything of the kind. I’m just relieved. He was getting to be an awful burden, and now it’s gone.

What about lunch? said I. Please let me take you. It was good of you to come.

Couldn’t think of it, said Hollier. After all, you made the arrangements and actually read the service. You’ve done enough.

I won’t go unless you let me pay, said Maria. If you want a reason, let’s say it’s because I’m happier than either of you that he’s gone. Gone forever.

So we agreed, and Maria, paid, and lunch stretched out until after three, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely at what we called Parlabane’s Wake. Driving to the University, where none of us had been earlier in the day, we noticed that the flag on the main campus was at half-staff. We did not bother to wonder why; a big university is always regretting the death of one of its worthies.

Second Paradise VI

February: Unquestionably crisis month in the University, and probably everywhere else in our Canadian winter. Crisis was raging all about me in Mamusia’s sitting-room where, for at least an hour, Hollier had been circling his obsession with Urquhart McVarish and the Gryphius MS without ever coming to grips with the realities of the matter. The room seemed darker even than five o’clock in February could explain. I kept my head low and watched, and watched, and feared, and feared.

Why don’t you say what you want, Hollier? Why don’t you speak what is in your mind? Do you think you can fool me? You talk and talk, but what you want shouts louder than what you say. Look here — you want to buy a curse from me. That’s what you want. No?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson