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

I stopped in the porter’s lodge to see if there was any mail for Hollier; there is no postal delivery on Easter Monday, but the inter-college service in the university might have something from the weekend that had begun the previous Thursday.

Package for the Professor, Miss, said Fred the porter, and handed me an untidy bundle done up in brown paper, to which a letter was fastened with sticky tape. I recognized Parlabane’s ill-formed writing and saw that there was a scrawl of direction: Confidential: Letter before Package, Please.

More of the dreadful novel, said Hollier when I showed it to him. He threw it down on the table, I made tea, and we went on with our chat, which was all of Parlabane. At last Hollier said, Better see what that is, Maria. I suppose it’s an epilogue, or something of the kind. Poor man, he died full of hope about his book. We’ll have to decide what to do about it.

We’ve all done what we could, said Darcourt. The only thing we can do now is recover the typescript and get rid of it.

I had opened the letter. It seems awfully long, and it’s to both of us, I said to Hollier; do you want me to read it?

He nodded, and I began.

Dear Friends and Colleagues, Clem and Molly:

— As you will have guessed, it was I who gave his quietus to Urky McVarish.

Christ! said Hollier.

So that’s who the flag was at half-staff for, said Darcourt.

Does he mean it? He can’t mean murder?

Get on, Maria, get on!

— Not, I assure you, for the mere frivolous pleasure of disposing of a nuisance, but for purely practical reasons, as you shall see. It lay in Urky’s power to help me forward my career, by his death, and — a secondary but I assure you not a small consider­ation with me — to do some practical good to both of you and to bring you closer together. I cannot tell you how distressed I have been during the recent months to see Molly pining for you, Clem —

Pining? What’s he talking about, said Hollier.

I hurried on.

— while your mind was elsewhere, pondering deep consider­ations of scholarship, and hating Urky. But I hope my little plan will unite you forever. At this culminating hour of my life that gives me immense satisfaction. Fame for me, fame and wedded bliss for you; lucky Urky to have been able to make it all pos­sible.

This is getting to be embarrassing, I said. Perhaps you’ll take over the reading, Simon? I wish you would.

Darcourt took the letter from me.

— You knew that I was seeing a good deal of Urky during the months since Christmas, didn’t you? Maria once let something drop about me getting thick with him; she appeared to resent it. But really, Molly, you were so tight with your money I had to turn somewhere for the means of subsistence. I still owe you — whatever the trifling sum is — but you may strike it off your books, and think yourself well repaid by Parlabane, whom you used less generously than a beautiful girl should. Beautiful girls ought to be open-handed; parsimony ruins the complexion after a while. And you, Clem — you kept trying to get me rotten little jobs, but you would not move a finger to get my novel published. No faith in my genius — for now that I no longer have to keep up the pretence of modesty I must point out unequivocally that I am a genius, admitting at the same time that, like most geniuses, I am not an entirely nice fellow.

— I tried to get a living by honest means, and after that by means that seemed to present themselves most readily. Fatty Darcourt can tell you about that, if you are interested. Poor old Fatty didn’t think much of my novel either; and it may have been because he recognized himself in it: people are ungenerous about such things. So, as a creature of Renaissance spirit, I took a Renaissance path, and became a parasite.

— Parasite to Urquhart McVarish. I supplied him with flattery, an intelligent listener who was in no sense a rival, and certain services that he would have had trouble finding elsewhere.

— Why was I driven to assume this role, which seems distasteful to people like you whose cares are simple? Money, my dears; I had to have money. I am sure you were not entirely deceived by my explanation about the cost of having my novel fair-copied. No: I was being blackmailed. It was my ill luck to run into a fellow I had once known on the West Coast, who knew some­thing I thought I had left behind. He was not a blackmailer on the grand scale, but he was ugly and exigent. Earlier this evening I sent the police a note about him, which will cook his goose. I couldn’t have done that if I had intended to hang around and see the fun, gratifying though that would have been. But the thought warms me now.

— The police will not be surprised to hear from me. I have been doing a little work for them since before Christmas. A hint here, a hint there. But they pay badly. God, how mean everybody is about money!

— The paradox of money is that when you have lots of it you can manage life quite cheaply. Nothing so economical as being rich. But when you are on the rocks, it’s all hand to mouth and no peace of mind. So I had to work hard to keep afloat, begging, cadging, squealing to the cops, and slaving at the ill-requited profession of parasite to a parsimonious Scot.

— Urky, you see, had specialized needs that only someone like myself could be trusted to understand and supply. In our modern world, where there is so much bibble-babble about sexual preferences, people in general still seem to think that these must lie either in heterosexual capers or in one of the varieties of homosexuality. But Urky was, I suppose one must say, a nar­cissist; his fun was deeply personal and his fun-shop was his own mind and his own body, exclusively. I rumbled him at once. All that guff about my great ancestor, Sir Thomas Urquhart was not primarily to impress other people, but to provide the music to which his soul danced its solitary galliard. You have often heard it said of somebody that he loves himself? That was the simple truth about Urky. He was a pretty good scholar, Clem; that side of him was real enough, though it would not have suited you to admit it. But he was such a self-delighted ass that he got on the nerves of sterner egotists, like you.

— He needed somebody who would be wholly subservient, do his will without question, bring to the doing a dash of style and invention, and provide access to things he didn’t like to approach himself. I was just his man.

— There are more things in heaven and earth, my dears, than are dreamed of in your philosophy, or in mine when I was safe in the arms of the academic life. It was the jails and the addiction-cure hospitals that rounded out my experience, taught me how to find my way in the shadowy streets and to know at sight the people who hold the keys to inadmissible kinds of happiness. Really, I know when I look back on our association that Urky got a bargain in me, because he was very mean with money. Rather like you two. But he needed a parasite and I knew the role as a mere unilluminated groveller never could. I was well up in the literature of parasitism, and I could give to my ser­vitude the panache Urky wanted.

— He was mad on what he called his ‘ceremonies’. A sociologist would probably call them ‘role-playing’, but Urky had no use for sociologists or their lingo, which turns the spiciest adventure into an ill-written entry in a case-book. Urky liked to be able to explain a ceremony to his parasite, and then forget that he had ever done so; it was the parasite’s job to make the ceremony seem fresh, truthful, and inevitable.

— Shall I describe a Saturday night at Urky’s? I was up in the morning early because I had to be at the St. Lawrence Market betimes to buy the pick of the vegetables, find a nice piece of fish and something for an entree — brains, or sweetbreads or kid­neys to be done up in a special way, because Urky was fond of offals. Then up to Urky’s apartment (I had no key but he let me in with head averted — didn’t even say good morning) where I made preparations for the evening’s dinner (those offals take a lot of getting ready) and called a French patisserie to order a sweet. I picked up the sweet in the afternoon, bought flowers, opened wine, and did all the jobs that go towards making a first-rate little dinner, which somebody is going to demolish as if it were not a work of art. I was on me feet all day, as we domestics say.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson