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

I knew of the special bee in Maria’s bonnet; it was Honour, a concept she had seized from the work of François Rabelais, and made her own. Honour which was said to prompt people to virtuous action and hold them back from vice; was there a dark side to that god? Fruitless to speculate, but I could imagine Honour raising quite a lot of hell if it were to swell to a size where it darkened the face of the one God.


Maria’s marriage was, all things considered, a great success, though there were a few oddities. Standing at the altar, waiting for the bride, I could see her, at the back of Spook Chapel, slipping off her shoes, so that she was barefoot when she con­fronted me, though her long white wedding-gown concealed her feet most of the time. It made her a little shorter than I had ever seen her before, and although Arthur Cornish was not especially tall, he seemed to tower above her. He was handsomely and conventionally dressed; it was plain that his morning clothes were made for him and not hired. I have seen many a wedding given a decided list towards comedy when the groom wore badly fitting hired clothes, and was all too plainly ill at ease in his first stiff collar. (I think it a bad omen when the groom is the clown of the circus; it is usually the top hat that is the betrayer.) Arthur and his best man were impeccable. The best man was Geraint Powell, a rising young actor from the Stratford Festival, handsome, self-assured, and somewhat larger than life as actors tend to be on ceremonial occasions. Where, I wondered, had Arthur picked up such a friend, who was as near as our modern age allows to what used to be called a matinee idol.

The music, too, was impeccable and I suppose it was Arthur’s choice. It was strange to see Maria walking with the splendid poise of a barefoot Gypsy down that long aisle on the arm of Yerko, who padded like a huge bear, and made a great business of smiling through tears, which he clearly thought was the proper emotional tone for his role. Somewhere — God knows where — Yerko had found a purple Ascot stock, and it was pinned with a garnet like an egg.

Mamusia, in the first seat of the first pew on the bride’s side of the chapel, was a phuri dai in state attire, a complexity of skirts, gaudy petticoats, not less than three shawls, and her hair greased until she was like the God of Sion; her paths dropped fatness. No tears for Mamusia; matriarchal dignity was her role.

I had no eyes for anyone but Maria, when once she appeared, and as she drew near me the ache I felt changed to astonishment, for she was wearing the longest necklace I have ever seen. The Lord Mayor of a great city might have envied it. It was made of gold roundels at least two inches in diameter, stamped with the image of some horned beast; without rude peering I could not read the inscription on each piece, but I could make out a word that looked like Fyngoud . What was this? Some Scottish treasure? Mamusia’s Maria Theresa thalers, which she wore for the occasion, were nothing to this. To increase the resemblance to a mayoral chain it was pinned far out on her shoulders and quite a lot of it hung down her back, beneath her veil; if it had simply depended from her neck, like an ordinary necklace, it would have reached almost to her thighs.

There she was, my darling and my joy, standing beside the man to whom I was to marry her. Time to begin.

‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation’ (and what a crew they are — nobody but Mamusia on the bride’s side of the chapel, except Clement Hollier, who looked about as well pleased as I felt, and on the groom’s side a considerable group of people who could have been relatives, though some were probably board members and business associates) ‘to joyn together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony.’ Which I did, marvelling, not for the first time, how short the marriage service is, and how easy and inevitable the answers are, compared with the tedious rigmarole involved in a divorce. And at the end, in duty bound, I implored God to fill Maria and Arthur with spiritual benediction and grace, so that they might so live together in this life that in the world to come they might have life everlasting. I don’t think I have ever spoken those words with a stronger sense of ambiguity.

It was a morning wedding — the orthodox Arthur again — and afterwards there was a reception, or party, or whatever you like to call it, in one of the rooms Spook sometimes makes available for such affairs, a room of oaken academic solemnity. It was here that Mamusia held court, and was gracious in what she appeared to think an Old World Viennese style towards Arthur’s business friends, who all seemed to be called Mr. Mumble and Ms Clackety-Clack. Maria had set aside her veil for a kerchief tied in the married woman’s style. Yerko was rather drunk and extremely communicative.

You saw the necklace, Priest Simon? he said. What you think it worth, eh? You’ll never guess, so I’ll tell you. Warmly and boozily he whispered an astounding sum into my ear. I make it myself; took me a week working hours and hours every day. Now, this is the big thing; all that gold except the chains, which I made out of some personal gold left by her father, Tadeusz, was Maria’s purchase price! You know — what Arthur paid me, as her uncle, to marry her. Sounds funny, you say, but it is the Gypsy way and because Arthur is rich and a gadjo, he has to pay plenty. My sister and me, we are people of wealth, too, but an old custom is an old custom. That’s why we give it back, in the necklace. You saw those big pieces? A full ounce of gold, every one. Guess what they were; come on, guess. — Kruger-rands, that’s what they are. Pure gold and Maria has them for her own if anything goes wrong. Because these gadji, their money is all paper anyways and could go phtttt any day. What do you think of that for generosity, eh? What do you say to a family that gives back all of the purchase price?

I could only say that it seemed extremely open-handed. Hollier was listening; he said nothing and looked sour. But Yerko was not finished with me.

Tell me, Priest Simon, what kind church is this? I know you are a good priest — real priest, very strong in power — but I look everywhere and what do I see? Bebby Jesus? Nowhere! Not a picture, not a figure. Lots of old saints behind the altar, but not Bebby Jesus or his Mother. Doesn’t this church know who Bebby Jesus is?

Bebby Jesus is everywhere in our chapel, Yerko, don’t doubt it for a moment.

I didn’t see him. I like to see, then I believe. And Yerko padded off to get himself some more champagne, which he drank in gulps.

There you are, said I to Hollier. I think I agree with Yerko; we ought to make the evidences of faith more obvious in our churches. We’ve refined faith almost out of existence.

Nonsense, said Hollier. You don’t think anything of the sort. That sort of thing leads directly to plaster statuary of the most degraded kind. I’m hating all this, Sim. I loathe this self-conscious ethnicity — purchase price, and bare feet. In a few minutes we’ll all be dancing around shouting and spilling wine.

I thought that was just your thing, I said, the Wild Mind at work. Whoop-de-doo and unbuttoned carousing.

Not when it’s done simply for show. It’s like those rain-dances Indians are coaxed to do for visiting politicians.

He still looked unwell from his collapse, so I didn’t contradict him. But he felt what I was thinking.

Sorry, he said. I have to toast the bride, and making speeches always puts me in a bad state.

He needn’t have worried; the Mumbles and the Clackety-Clacks were real Canadian Wasps and unlikely to take off their shoes, or sing. Powell, the actor, was master of ceremonies, and in a few minutes he called for silence, so that Hollier might speak — which he did, with what I thought a degree of solemnity too severe for a wedding, though I was grateful for what he said.

Dear friends, this is a happy occasion, and I am particularly honoured at having been asked to propose the health of the bride. I do so with the deepest feeling of tenderness, for I love her as a teacher to whom she has been the most enriching and reward­ing of pupils. We teachers, you know, can only rise to our best when we have great students, and Maria has made me surpass myself and surprise myself, and what I have given to her — which I will not pretend with foolish modesty has been little — she has equalled with the encompassing warmth of her response. She is surrounded at this moment by her two families. Her mother and her uncle, who so clearly represent the splendid tradition of the East and of the past, and by Father Darcourt and myself, who are here as devoted servants of that other tradi­tion which she has claimed as her own and to which she has brought great gifts. One mother, the phuri dai, the Mother of the Earth, is splendidly present among us: but the other, the Alma Mater, the bounteous mother of the University and the whole great world of learning and speculative thought of which the University is a part, is all about us. With such a heritage it is almost superfluous to wish her happiness, but I do so from my heart, and wish her and her husband long life and every joy that the union of root and crown can bring. Those of you who know of Maria’s enthusiasm for Rabelais will understand why I wish her happiness in words for his: Vogue la galère — tout va bien!

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Categories: Davies, Robertson