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

It is difficult to explain, Madame Laoutaro.

But not hard to understand. You want these letters, this book, whatever it is. This other fellow has it and he teases you because you can’t get it. You hate him. You want him out of your way. You want that book. You want him punished.

There are considerations of scholarship —

You’ve told me that. You think you can do whatever can be done with this book better than he can. But most of all, you want to be first with whatever that is. No?

Very bluntly put, I suppose that’s it.

Why not bluntly? Look: you come and you flatter me and tell me I’m a phuri dai, and you tell me this long story about this enemy who is making your life a hell, and you think I don’t know what you want? You talk about me becoming your col­league in a fascinating experiment. You mean you want me to be your cohani, who casts the evil spell. You talk about the Dark World and the — what’s the word — Chthonic Powers and all this professor-talk, but what you mean is Magic, isn’t it? Because you’re in a situation that can’t be dealt with in nice, fancy professor terms and you think maybe the black old stuff might serve you. But you’re scared to come right out and ask. Am I right?

I’m not a fool, Madame. I have spent twenty years circling round and round the sort of thing we are talking about now. I’ve examined it in the best and most objective way the scholarly world makes possible. But I haven’t swallowed it wholesale. My present problem turns my mind to it, of course, and you are right — I do want to invoke some special means of getting what I want, and if that brings harm to my professional rival, I sup­pose that is inevitable. But don’t talk to me of magic in simple terms. I know what it is: that’s to say, I know what I think it is. Magic — I hate the word because of what it has come to mean, but anyway — magic in the big sense can only happen where there is very strong feeling. You can’t set it going with a sceptical mind — with your fingers crossed, so to speak. You must desire, and you must believe. Have you any idea how hard that is for a man of my time and a man of my training and tem­perament? At the deepest level of your being you are living in the Middle Ages, and magic comes easily — I won’t say logically — to you. But for me it is a subject of a study, a psychological fact but not necessarily an objective fact. A thing some people have always believed but nobody has quite been able to prove. I have never had a chance to experiment with it personally because I have never had what is necessary — the desire and the belief.

But now, for the first time in my life — for the very first time — I want something desperately. I want that manuscript. I want it enough to go to great lengths to get it. I’ve wanted things before, things like distinctions in my professional work, but never like this.

Never wanted a woman?

Not as I want that manuscript. Not very much, I suppose, at all. That kind of thing has meant very little to me.

So the first great passion in your life has its roots in hatred and envy? Think, Hollier.

You simplify the whole thing in order to belittle me.

No. To make you face yourself. All right; you have the desire. But you can’t quite force yourself to admit you have the belief.

You don’t understand. My whole training is to suspend belief, to examine, to experiment, to try things out, to test them.

So, just for an experiment, you want a curse on your enemy.

I never spoke of a curse.

Not in words. But to my old-style ears, that inform my old-style mind, you don’t have to use the old-style word. You can’t say it because you want to leave yourself a way out; if it works, so — and if it doesn’t work, it was all Gypsy bunk anyway, and the great professor, the modern-style man, is still on top. Look; you want this book. Well, get somebody to steal it. I can put you on to a good, clever thief.

Yes; I’ve thought of that. But —

Yes — but if you stole it and then wrote about it, your enemy would know you stole it. No?

That had occurred to me.

Ho! Occurred to you! So let’s face the facts as you have al­ready faced them inside your heart, and as you won’t admit to me, or even admit straight out to yourself: if you are to have this book or whatever it is, and be safe to use it, the fellow who has it now must be dead. Are you prepared to wish somebody dead, professor?

Thousands of people wish somebody dead every day.

Yes, but do they really mean it? Would they do it if they could? So: why not get him murdered? I won’t find you a mur­derer, but Yerko might be able to tell you where to look.

Madame, I didn’t come here to hire thieves and murderers.

No, you are too clever; too modern. Suppose your murderer gets caught; they are often very clumsy, those fellows. He says, ‘The professor hired me,’ and you are in trouble. But if you are found out and say, ‘I hired an old Gypsy woman to curse him,’ the judge laughs and wags his finger at you for a big joker. You are a clever man, Hollier.

You are treating me like a fool.

Because I like you. You are too good a man to be acting like this. You’re lucky you have come to me. But why did you come?

At Christmas you read my fortune in the Tarot, and it has proved true. The obsession and the hatred of which you spoke have become terrible realities.

Making trouble for you and somebody near to you. Who is that?

I had forgotten that. I don’t know who it could be.

I do. My daughter Maria.

Oh yes; of course. Maria was to work with me on the manu­script, if I can get it.

That’s all about Maria?

Well, yes, it is. What else could there be?

God, Hollier, you are a fool. I remember your fortune well. Who is the Knave of Coins, the servant with a letter?

I don’t know. He hasn’t appeared yet. But the figure in your prediction that has brought me back to you is the Moon, the changeable woman, who speaks of danger. Who can that be but yourself? So naturally I turn to you for advice.

Did you look good at that card? The Moon, high in the sky, and she is both the Old Woman, the full moon, and the Virgin, the crescent moon, and neither of them is paying attention to the wolf and the dog who are down on the earth barking at the Moon: and at the bottom of the card, under the earth, do you remember, there is the Cancer, and that is the earth spirit that governs the dark side of all the Moon sees, and the Cancer is many bad things — revenge and hate and self-destruction. Because it devours, you see; that is why the devouring disease bears its name. When I see the Moon card coming up, I always know that something bad could happen because of revenge and devouring hate and that it could ruin the person I am talking to. Now listen to me, Hollier, because I am going to tell you some things you won’t like, but I hope I can help you by telling you the truth.

You have been hinting for more than an hour that as an experiment — just as a joke, just to see what happens — I might try one of those old Gypsy spells on your enemy. What old Gypsy spells? Do you know of any? You talk as if you knew much more about Gypsies than I do. I only know maybe a hundred Gypsies, and most of them are dead — killed by people like you who must always be modern and right. All that spell business is just to concentrate feeling.

But a curse? That needs the strongest feeling. Suppose I sell you a curse? I don’t hate your enemy; he is nothing to me. So to curse him I have to be very well in with — What? — if I am to escape without harm to myself. Because What? is very terrible. What? does not deal in the Sweet Justice of civilized man, but in Balance, which is not nearly so much concerned with man, and may seem terrible and evil to him. You understand me? When Balance decides the time has come to settle the scales awful things happen. Much of what we do not understand is Balance at work. We attract what we are, you know, Hollier; we always get the dog or the fiddle that is right for us, even though we may not like it, and if we are proud Balance may be rough in showing us how weak we are. And the Lord of Balance is What?, and if I call down a curse just for your benefit, believe me. Balance must be satisfied, or I shall be in deep trouble. I do not think I want to stretch my credit with What? to oblige you, Hollier. I do not want to call on What?, who lives down there in the darkness where Cancer dwells, and whose army is all the creatures of the dark, and the spirits of the suicides and all the terrible forces, to get an old book for you. And do you know what frightens me about this talk we are having? It is your frivolity in asking such a thing of me. You don’t know what you are doing. You have the shocking frivolity of the modern, educated mind.

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