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

Sounds like too much intellect and too little character.

Don’t be a Pharisee, Maria; it isn’t becoming either to your age or your beauty. You didn’t know him as I know him.

Yes, but this monk business!

He does that to spook Spook. And he was a monk. It was his latest attempt to find his place in life.

You mean he isn’t a monk now?

Legally, perhaps, but he went over the wall, and it wouldn’t be easy for him to climb back again. I had lost touch with him, but a few months ago I had a most pathetic letter saying how unhappy he was in the monastery — it was in the Midlands — and begging for help to get out. So I sent him some money. How could I do otherwise? It never entered my head that he would turn up here, and certainly not in that rig-out he wears. But I suppose it’s the only outfit he owns.

And is he going to stay forever?

The Bursar is getting restless. He doesn’t mind me having a guest overnight, now and then, but he spoke to me about Parlabane and said he couldn’t allow a squatter in the College, and he’d refuse to let Parlabane charge meals in Hall unless he had some assurance that he could pay his bill. Which he can’t, you see. So I shall have to do something.

I hope you won’t take him on as a permanent responsibility.

Ah, you hope that, do you Maria? And what right have you to hope for any such thing?

There was no answer to that one. I hadn’t expected Hollier to turn professor on me — not after the encounter on the sofa which had now become Parlabane’s bed. I had to climb down.

I’m sorry. But it’s not as if it were none of my business. You did say I was to work in your outer room. How can I do that with Parlabane sitting there all day knitting those interminable socks of his? And staring. He fidgets me till I can’t stand it.

Be patient a little longer. I haven’t forgotten you, or the work I want you to do. Try to understand Parlabane.

Then he stood up, and the talk was over. As he walked away I looked upward, and in the window of Hollier’s rooms — very high up, because Spook is nothing if not Gothic in effect — I saw Parlabane’s face looking down at us. He couldn’t possibly have heard, but he was laughing, and made a waggling gesture at me with his finger, as if he were saying, Naughty girl; naughty puss!


Try to understand him. All right. Up the stairs I went and before he could speak I said: Dr. Parlabane, could you have dinner with me tonight?

It would be an honour, Maria. But may I ask why this sudden invitation? Do I look as if I needed feeding up?

You pinched a big block of chocolate out of my briefcase yesterday. I thought you might be hungry.

And so I am. The Bursar is looking sour these days whenever I appear in Hall. He suspects I shall not be able to pay my bill, and he is right. We monks learn not to be sensitive about poverty.

Let’s meet downstairs at half past six.

I took him to a spaghetti joint that students frequent, called The Rude Plenty; he began with a hearty vegetable broth, then ate a mountain of spaghetti with meat sauce, and drank the whole of a flask of Chianti except for my single glass. He wolfed a lot of something made with custard, coconut shreds, and plum jam, and then made heavy inroads on a large piece of Gorgonzola that came to the table whole and was removed in a state of wreckage. He had two big cups of frothed coffee, and topped off with a Strega; I even stood him a fearful Italian cigar.

He was a fast, greedy eater and a notable belcher. He talked as he ate, giving a good view of whatever was in his mouth, plying me with questions that called for extended answers.

What are you doing these days, Maria? That’s to say, when you are not glaring at me as I knit my innocent, monkish long socks; we monks wear ’em long, you know, in case the robe should blow aside in the wind, and show a scandalous amount of middle-aged leg.

I’m getting on with the work that will eventually make me a Doctor of Philosophy.

Ah, that blessed degree that stamps us for life as creatures of guaranteed intellectual worth. But what’s your special study?

That’s rather complicated. I come under the general umbrella of Comparative Literature, but that’s a house of many mansions. Working with Professor Hollier I shall certainly do my thesis on something in his line.

Which isn’t just what I’d call Comparative Literature. Root­ing about in the kitchen-middens and trash-heaps of the Middle Ages. What was it he made his name with?

A definitive study of the establishment of the Church Calen­dar, by Dionysius Exiguus. A lot of it had been done before, but it was Hollier who showed why Dionysius reached his con­clusions — the popular belief and ancient custom that lay behind the finished work, and all that. It was what established him as a really great paleo-psychologist.

Have mercy, God! Is that some new kind of shrink?

You know it isn’t. It’s really digging into what people thought, in times when their thinking was a muddle of religion and folk-belief and rags of misunderstood classical learning, instead of being what it is today, which I suppose you’d have to call a muddle of materialism, and folk-belief, and rags of mis­understood scientific learning. Comp. Lit. gets mixed up with it because you have to know a lot of languages, but it spills over into the Centre for the Study of the History of Science and Tech­nology. Hollier is cross-appointed there, you know.

No, I didn’t know.

There’s a lot of talk about establishing an Institute of Ad­vanced Studies; he’d be very important there. It will come as soon as the university can get its hands on some money.

That may not be soon. Our fatherly government is growing restless about the big sums universities consume. It’s the people’s money, dear Maria, and don’t you ever forget it. And the people, those infallible judges of value, must have what they want, and what they think they want (because the politicians tell them so) is people who can fill useful jobs. Not remote chaps like Clem Hollier, who want to dig in the past. When you’ve achieved your Ph.D., what the hell good will you be to society?

That depends on what you call society. I might just manage to push away a cloud or two from what people are like now, by discovering what they’ve been at some time past.

Nobody is going to like you for that, sweetie. Never disturb ignorance. Ignorance is like a rare, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. Do you know who said that?

Oscar Wilde, wasn’t it?

Clever girl. It was dear, dead Oscar. By no means a fool when he didn’t pretend to be thinking, and just let his imagination run. But I thought you were doing something about Rabelais.

Yes — well, I’ve got to have a thesis topic, and Hollier has put me to work to get some notion of what Rabelais’s intellectual background was.

Old stuff, surely?

He thinks I might find a few new things, or take a new look at some old things. The Ph.D. thesis isn’t expected to be a thunderbolt from heaven, you know.

Certainly not. The world couldn’t stand so many thunder­bolts. You haven’t written anything yet?

I’m making preparations, I’ve got to bone up on New Testa­ment Greek; Rabelais was very keen on it. It was a big thing in his time.

Surely, with your name, you know some modern Greek?

No, but I know Classical Greek pretty well. And French and Spanish and Italian and German and of course Latin — the Golden, the Silver, and the awful kind they used in the Middle Ages.

You make me quite dizzy. How so many languages?

My father was very great on languages. He was a Pole, and he lived quite a while in Hungary. He made it a game, when I was a child. I don’t pretend to be perfect in those languages; I can’t write them very well but I can read and speak them well enough. It’s not difficult, if you have a knack.

Yes, if you have a knack.

When you know two or three, a lot of others just fall into place. People are afraid of languages.

But your cradle tongues are Polish and Hungarian? Any others?

One or two. Not important.

I certainly didn’t mean to tell him which unimportant lan­guage I spoke at home, when things grew hot. I hoped I had learned a lesson from my indiscretion when I told Hollier about the bomari. And I began to fear that if I were not careful, Parlabane might get that out of me. His curiosity was of a special intensity, and he bustled me in conversation so that I was apt to say more than I wanted to. Perhaps if I took the questioning out of his hands I could escape his prying? Therefore — You ask a lot of questions, but you can never tell anything. Who are you, Dr. Parlabane? You’re a Canadian, aren’t you?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson