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

Well, you seem to be going the whole Romany hog. Are you certain you need a marriage ceremony after all that?

Simon, how can you ask such a thing! Yes, we want our marriage to be blessed. We’re serious people. I am much more serious, much more real, for having accepted my Gypsy root.

I see. What about Arthur’s root?

Very extensive, apparently. He says he has a cellar full of dried roots.

When Arthur came he didn’t want to talk about his root; he seemed more inclined to lecture me about orthodoxy, of which he had an unexpectedly high opinion. The reason so many modern marriages break down, he informed me, was because people did not dare to set themselves a high enough standard; they went into marriage with one eye on all the escape-hatches, instead of accepting it as an advance from which there was no retreat.

I think he expected me to agree enthusiastically, but I didn’t. Nor did I contradict him; I have had too much experience of life to attempt to tell a really rich person anything. They are as bad as the young; they know it all. Arthur and Maria had agreed that they wanted no revised service as it appears in modern Prayer Books, and he brought along a handsome old volume dated 1706 with a portrait of Queen Anne, of all people, as a frontispiece, which was obviously from the possessions of the late Francis Cornish. I knew the form, of course, but felt I should take them through it, to make sure they knew what they were letting themselves in for, and sure enough they insisted on the inclusion of the passage in the Preamble which debars those who marry to satisfie mens carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts, that have no understanding . They wanted to be enjoined publicly to avoid fornication and Maria wanted to vow to obey, serve, love, honour and keep her husband; indeed in the order of service they wanted she would use the word obey — so hateful to the liberal young — twice, and when I questioned it she said that it seemed to her to be like the oath of loyalty to the monarch — which is another vow that most people are too modern to take seriously.

I would have resisted all this antiquarianism if they had not both been so touching in their delight that marriage was ordained for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other . This was plainly what they were looking for, and Arthur was eloquent about it. People don’t talk to one another nearly enough, he said. The sex-hobbyists go on tediously about their preoccupation without ever ad­mitting that it is bound to diminish as time passes. There are people who say that the altar of marriage is not the bed, but the kitchen stove, thereby turning it into a celebration of gluttony. But who ever talks about a lifelong, intimate friendship expressing itself in the broadest possible range of conversation? If people are really alive and alert it ought to go on and on, prolonging life because there is always something more to be said.

I used to think it was horrible to see couples in restaurants, simply eating and never saying a word to one another, said Maria, but I am beginning to know better. Maybe they don’t have to talk all the time to be in communication. Conversation in its true meaning isn’t all wagging the tongue; sometimes it is a deeply shared silence. But Arthur and I have never stopped talking since we decided to marry.

I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t got the legend of Eden all wrong, said Arthur. God threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden because they gained knowledge at the price of their innocence, and I think God was jealous. The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it — you recognize that, Simon?

One of the Gnostic Gospels, said I, a little nettled at being instructed in my own business by this young man.

The Gospel of Thomas, and very juicy stuff, said Arthur, who was in a condition to lecture the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope, if they needed any help. Adam and Eve had learned how to comprehend the Kingdom of the Father, and their descendants have been hard at it ever since. That’s what univer­sities are about, when they aren’t farting around with trivialities. Of course God was jealous; He was being asked to share some of His domain. I’ll bet Adam and Eve left the Garden laughing and happy with their bargain; they had exchanged a know-nothing innocence for infinite choice.

This was all very well, and a great improvement on what I usually meet with when I talk to young couples who are ap­proaching marriage. How dumb a lot of them are, poor dears; quite incapable of putting their expectations into words. They don’t even seem to comprehend what my function in the service is — not as somebody who publicly licenses them to sleep together and use the same towels, but as an intermediary between them, the suppliants, and Whatever It Is that hears their suppli­cation. But I had my reservations. These two were a little too articulate for my complete satisfaction. And I wanted to be satis­fied, for I still loved Maria deeply.

She knew that I was not easy in my mind, and before they went she said: What you told us in the first class I took with you is the motto for our marriage. You remember that passage from Augustine?

Conloqui et conridere. . .

Yes. ‘Conversations and jokes together, mutual rendering of good services, the reading together of sweetly phrased books, the sharing of nonsense and mutual attentions’. And the mutual attentions of course include sex. So you mustn’t look worried, Simon dear.

I would have had to be more than human not to worry. I was losing a greatly gifted pupil. I was losing a woman whom I had regarded, for a time, as the earthly embodiment of Sophia. Though I knew I could never possess her, I loved her still, and I was going to bind her to a man against whom I knew nothing that was not good, but who somehow bothered me.

I decided this was jealousy. I suppose the Rebel Angels were not above jealousy. It is an unpopular passion; people will con­fess with some degree of self-satisfaction that they are greedy, or have terrible tempers, or are close about money, but who admits to being jealous? It cannot easily be presented as a good quality with a dark complexion. But my job as a priest is to look human frailty in the face and call it by its right name. I was jealous of Arthur Cornish because he was going to be first in the heart of a woman I still loved. But as Maria had said, a Rebel Angel takes something of a woman’s innocence as he leads her towards a larger world and an ampler life, and it is not surprising if the man who has done that is jealous of the man who reaps the benefit. I could understand and value Maria as he never could, I was sure of that; but I was equally sure that Maria could never be mine except on the mythological plane she had herself explained. What ails you, Father Darcourt, is that you want to eat your cake and have it too; you want to be first with Maria, without paying the price of that position. All right, I understand. But it still hurts.

Why was I so withholding in my feelings about Arthur? It was because, although I had seen quite a lot of his crown, I knew nothing about his root except what might be inferred from his deep feeling for music. Maria seemed to have yielded to him completely; whatever she had said in the interview just closed had a — no, not a falsity, but a somewhat un-Marialike quality that spoke of Arthur. I had observed that in plenty of brides, but Maria was not to be judged as one of them.

All this orthodoxy — what could it lead to? In my experience the essentials of Christianity, rightly understood, may form the best possible foundation for a life and a marriage, but in the case of people of strongly intellectual bent these essentials need ex­tensive farcing out — I use the word as cooks do, to mean the extending and amplifying of a dish with other, complementary elements — if they are to prove enough. One cannot live on essences.

Young couples whom I interview before marriage are sincere in their faith, or pretend to a sincerity they think I expect, but I know that in the household they set up there will be other gods than the one God. The Romans talked of household gods, and they knew what they were talking about; in every home and every marriage there are the lesser gods, who sometimes swell to extraordinary size, and even when they are not consciously acknowledged they have great power. Every one of the house­hold gods has a dark side, a mischievous side, as when Pride disguises itself as self-respect, Anger as the possession of high standards of behaviour, or Lust as freedom of choice. Who would be the household gods under the Cornish roof?

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Categories: Davies, Robertson