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

Polite applause rose from the Mumbles and the Clackety-Clacks, who seemed a little subdued by what Hollier had said; probably they had expected the usual avuncular facetiousness that goes with such toasts. Then Arthur made a speech that did nothing to lighten the atmosphere. To marry, he said, was to take a hand in a dangerous game where the stakes are the highest — a fuller life or a life diminished and confined. It was a game for adult players.

The speeches of bridegrooms are usually awful, but I found this one particularly embarrassing.

When toasts were over, and it was time to go — for as priest I know that I should leave before anybody gets obviously drunk, and family quarrels or fist-fights occur — I went to take my leave of Maria.

Shall we see you again next term? I said, because I could think of nothing that was not banal.

I can’t be sure, just yet. I may take a year out to get used to being married. But I’ll be back. As Clem said, this is my home and you and he are my family. Thank you, thank you, dear Simon, for marrying me to Arthur, and thank you for the year past. I learned so much from you and Clem.

Very sweet of you to say so.

But then there came over the face of my Maria a look I had never seen on it before, a look of teasing and mischief. But I think I learned most from Parlabane, she said.

What could you have learned from that ruffian?

‘Be not another if thou canst be thyself’.

But you learned that from Paracelsus.

I read it in Paracelsus. But I learned it from Parlabane. He was a Rebel Angel too, Simon.

Hollier came away with me, and he seemed so desolate that I hesitated to leave him. Better go home and get some rest, I said.

I don’t want to go home.

I could understand that. The society of Hollier’s mother was not precisely what a man needs who has relinquished his love to another man. Time I spoke out.

Look Clem, there’s no use whatever in either of us feeling sorry for ourselves. We’ve had all of Maria that was coming to us, and we gave her all that our nature and circumstances allowed. Let’s not delight ourselves with the bitter-sweet pleasures of Renunciation. No ‘It is a far, far better thing I do –‘ for us. We must be ourselves and know ourselves for what we are: Rebel Angels, we hope, and not a couple of silly middle-aged professors boo-hooing about what could never have been.

But I was such a fool; I found out too late.

Clem, don’t spit on your luck. You think you have lost Maria; I think you are free of her. Remember your destiny that the phuri dai read for you at Christmas? The last card was Fortune, with her ever-turning wheel? It has turned in your favour, hasn’t it? You have the Gryphius Portfolio as soon as you and Maria can get together again. That’s your destiny, at your age and with your character. You’re not a Lover; you’re too much a Wizard. Now look here; go to your rooms and have a good afternoon’s rest, and come to dinner at Ploughwright at six o’clock sharp. It’s a Guest Night.

No, no, I’ll crowd your table.

Not a bit of it; a guest has dropped out at the last moment, so there’s a place which Fate has obviously cleared for you. Six o’clock for drinks. Sharp, mind. don’t keep the Warden waiting.


It was an especially genial Guest Night, because it was our last before the long summer break, and also because the calendar and a public holiday had intervened in such a way that it was our first following Easter. Downstairs, when the first part of dinner was over and the students had gone about their own affairs, all our regulars were present, and as well as Hollier, there were two other guests, George Northmore, who was a Judge of the Supreme Court of the province, and Benjamin Jubilei, from the University Library.

I wondered how long it would be before somebody brought up the murder of Urquhart McVarish, and who would do so; I had made a mental bet with myself that it would be Roberta Burns, and I won. Once again, for The New Aubrey, I give I some notion of how they chirped over their cups.

Poor old Urky. Don’t you remember him dining with us last autumn, and how proud he was of his penis-bone, poor devil? He tried to get a squeak out of me with that, but I was one too many for him; Urky simply had no idea what a tough nut an intelligent middle-aged woman can be.

He was an Oxonian of the old dispensation, said Penny Raven; thought women were lovely creatures whose sexual coals could be blown into warmth by raunchy academic chit-chat. Well, well; one down and a few score around this campus still to go.

Penny, that isn’t like you, said Lamotte.

No, no, Penny, said Deloney; the poor fellow is dead. Let’s not beat the bones of the vanquished.

Yes, said Hitzig, we’re not hyenas or biographers, to pee on the dead.

Okay. De mortuis nil nisi hokum, said the unrepentant Penny.

I was myself at Oxford at least as long ago as McVarish, said the Warden, and I have never thought meanly of women.

Oh, but you were Balliol, Warden. Always in the van. Urky was Magdalen — quite another bed of cryptorchids.

The Warden smirked; Oxford rivalries died hard in him.

I wonder what is to become of all his erotica, said Roberta Burns. He had a pornographic bootjack at his door that always interested me.

A pornographic b –! Lamotte was playing the innocent, as he loved to do with women.

Indeed. A naked woman rendered in brass, lying on her back with her legs astraddle. You put one foot on her face, forced the other into her crotch, and hoiked off your galosh. Practical enough, but offensive to my lingering female sensibilities.

I never know what people want with such nasty toys, said Lamotte. It has been my observation, over a long life, that a man’s possessions are a surer clue to his character than anything he does or says. If you know how to interpret the language of possessions. Lamotte looked as if he considered himself such a man.

All we’ll ever find in your cupboards are pieces of rare old china, said Deloney; and from what I hear, René, they don’t provide guarantees of a blameless taste.

What? What? We must hear about this, said Roberta. Lamotte was blushing.

René is reputed to have a fine collection of bourdaloues, said Deloney.

Being –?

Eighteenth-century china piss-pots for elegant ladies to slip under their skirts on long, cold coach journeys.

No, no, said Lamotte. Named for the Abbe Bourdalue who preached inordinately long sermons — extreme tests of human endurance. But who says this –?

Aha, wouldn’t you like to know? Are they really painted with naughty pictures?

As long as I keep on drinking mineral water while you are sipping port, it will be quite a while before you find out.

Minds that are too refined slip into grossness. Watch your step, René; we have our eyes on you.

Here it was Lamotte who smirked.

Do I hear you discussing the deep damnation of Urky McVarish’s taking-off? It was Durdle, shouting down the table, which the etiquette of the occasion forbade him to do.

Ah, the Pink Ribbon Murder, said Ludlow, the law don. What did you make of that, Judge?

I didn’t make much of it, said Mr. Justice Northmore. I read everything that appeared in all three papers, and the accounts were so muddled and contradictory that I couldn’t be sure of anything except that a professor had been murdered under somewhat imaginative circumstances. I wish it had come to trial, so we could have got to the bottom of it —

Roberta Burns snorted. The Warden raised his eyebrows.

So that we could have found out the truth about the ten feet of pink ribbon that were concealed in the rectum of the body. Now why would anybody want to do that?

There was talk in one of the confessions of ‘ceremonies’.

Yes, yes, Mr. Ludlow, but what ceremonies?

The full explanation of that was given only in the letter that reached the police, which I had an opportunity of examin­ing, said Ludlow. Something very complicated about Queen Anne.

Can we not talk of anything else? said the Warden.

Tell me later, Ludlow, hissed the Judge.

But the Warden’s mild plea could not stop the flow.

Deloney was querying Ludlow: Whatever became of the body?

McVarish’s body, do you mean? I suppose the police released it to the family, when they had found out whatever they could.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson