Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 12

A visit — Figure of a man — The dog of peace — The raw wound — The guardroom — Boy soldier — Person in authority — Never solitary — Clergyman and family — Still-hunting — Fairy man — Near sunset — Bagg — Left-handed hitter — Irish and supernatural — At Swanton Morley.

One morning I set out, designing to pay a visit to my brother at the place where he was detached; the distance was rather considerable, yet I hoped to be back by evening fall, for I was now a shrewd walker, thanks to constant practice. I set out early, and, directing my course towards the north, I had in less than two hours accomplished considerably more than half of the journey. The weather had at first been propitious: a slight frost had rendered the ground firm to the tread, and the skies were clear; but now a change came over the scene, the skies darkened, and a heavy snowstorm came on; the road then lay straight through a bog, and was bounded by a deep trench on both sides; I was making the best of my way, keeping as nearly as I could in the middle of the road, lest, blinded by the snow which was frequently borne into my eyes by the wind, I might fall into the dyke, when all at once I heard a shout to windward, and turning my eyes I saw the figure of a man, and what appeared to be an animal of some kind, coming across the bog with great speed, in the direction of myself; the nature of the ground seemed to offer but little impediment to these beings, both clearing the holes and abysses which lay in their way with surprising agility; the animal was, however, some slight way in advance, and, bounding over the dyke, appeared on the road just before me. It was a dog, of what species I cannot tell, never having seen the like before or since; the head was large and round; the ears so tiny as scarcely to be discernible; the eyes of a fiery red: in size it was rather small than large; and the coat, which was remarkably smooth, as white as the falling flakes. It placed itself directly in my path, and showing its teeth, and bristling its coat, appeared determined to prevent my progress. I had an ashen stick in my hand, with which I threatened it; this, however, only served to increase its fury; it rushed upon me, and I had the utmost difficulty to preserve myself from its fangs.

‘What are you doing with the dog, the fairy dog?’ said a man, who at this time likewise cleared the dyke at a bound.

He was a very tall man, rather well dressed as it should seem; his garments, however, were, like my own, so covered with snow that I could scarcely discern their quality.

‘What are ye doing with the dog of peace?’

‘I wish he would show himself one,’ said I; ‘I said nothing to him, but he placed himself in my road, and would not let me pass.’

‘Of course he would not be letting you till he knew where ye were going.’

‘He’s not much of a fairy,’ said I, ‘or he would know that without asking; tell him that I am going to see my brother.’

‘And who is your brother, little Sas?’

‘What my father is, a royal soldier.’

‘Oh, ye are going then to the detachment at —; by my shoul, I have a good mind to be spoiling your journey.’

‘You are doing that already,’ said I, ‘keeping me here talking about dogs and fairies; you had better go home and get some salve to cure that place over your eye; it’s catching cold you’ll be, in so much snow.’

On one side of the man’s forehead there was a raw and staring wound, as if from a recent and terrible blow.

‘Faith, then I’ll be going, but it’s taking you wid me I will be.’

‘And where will you take me?’

‘Why, then, to Ryan’s Castle, little Sas.’

‘You do not speak the language very correctly,’ said I; ‘it is not Sas you should call me — ’tis Sassannach,’ and forthwith I accompanied the word with a speech full of flowers of Irish rhetoric.

The man looked upon me for a moment, fixedly, then, bending his head towards his breast, he appeared to be undergoing a kind of convulsion, which was accompanied by a sound something resembling laughter; presently he looked at me, and there was a broad grin on his features.

‘By my shoul, it’s a thing of peace I’m thinking ye.’

But now with a whisking sound came running down the road a hare; it was nearly upon us before it perceived us; suddenly stopping short, however, it sprang into the bog on the right-hand side; after it amain bounded the dog of peace, followed by the man, but not until he had nodded to me a farewell salutation. In a few moments I lost sight of him amidst the snowflakes.

The weather was again clear and fine before I reached the place of detachment. It was a little wooden barrack, surrounded by a wall of the same material; a sentinel stood at the gate, I passed by him, and, entering the building, found myself in a rude kind of guardroom; several soldiers were lying asleep on a wooden couch at one end, others lounged on benches by the side of a turf fire. The tall sergeant stood before the fire, holding a cooking utensil in his left hand; on seeing me, he made the military salutation.

‘Is my brother here?’ said I, rather timidly, dreading to hear that he was out, perhaps for the day.

‘The ensign is in his room, sir,’ said Bagg, ‘I am now preparing his meal, which will presently be ready; you will find the ensign above stairs,’ and he pointed to a broken ladder which led to some place above.

And there I found him — the boy soldier — in a kind of upper loft, so low that I could touch with my hands the sooty rafters; the floor was of rough boards, through the joints of which you could see the gleam of the soldiers’ fire, and occasionally discern their figures as they moved about; in one corner was a camp bedstead, by the side of which hung the child’s sword, gorget, and sash; a deal table stood in the proximity of the rusty grate, where smoked and smouldered a pile of black turf from the bog, — a deal table without a piece of baize to cover it, yet fraught with things not devoid of interest: a Bible, given by a mother; the Odyssey, the Greek Odyssey; a flute, with broad silver keys; crayons, moreover, and water-colours; and a sketch of a wild prospect near, which, though but half finished, afforded ample proof of the excellence and skill of the boyish hand now occupied upon it.

Ah! he was a sweet being, that boy soldier, a plant of early promise, bidding fair to become in after time all that is great, good, and admirable. I have read of a remarkable Welshman, of whom it was said, when the grave closed over him, that he could frame a harp, and play it; build a ship, and sail it; compose an ode, and set it to music. A brave fellow that son of Wales — but I had once a brother who could do more and better than this, but the grave has closed over him, as over the gallant Welshman of yore; there are now but two that remember him — the one who bore him, and the being who was nurtured at the same breast. He was taken, and I was left! — Truly, the ways of Providence are inscrutable.

‘You seem to be very comfortable, John,’ said I, looking around the room and at the various objects which I have described above: ‘you have a good roof over your head, and have all your things about you.’

‘Yes, I am very comfortable, George, in many respects; I am, moreover, independent, and feel myself a man for the first time in my life — independent did I say? — that’s not the word, I am something much higher than that; here am I, not sixteen yet, a person in authority, like the centurion in the book there, with twenty Englishmen under me, worth a whole legion of his men, and that fine fellow Bagg to wait upon me, and take my orders. Oh! these last six weeks have passed like hours of heaven.’

‘But your time must frequently hang heavy on your hands; this is a strange wild place, and you must be very solitary?’

‘I am never solitary; I have, as you see, all my things about me, and there is plenty of company below stairs. Not that I mix with the soldiers; if I did, good-bye to my authority; but when I am alone I can hear all their discourse through the planks, and I often laugh to myself at the funny things they say.’

‘And have you any acquaintance here?’

‘The very best; much better than the Colonel and the rest, at their grand Templemore; I had never so many in my whole life before. One has just left me, a gentleman who lives at a distance across the bog; he comes to talk with me about Greek, and the Odyssey, for he is a very learned man, and understands the old Irish, and various other strange languages. He has had a dispute with Bagg. On hearing his name, he called him to him, and, after looking at him for some time with great curiosity, said that he was sure he was a Dane. Bagg, however, took the compliment in dudgeon, and said that he was no more a Dane than himself, but a true-born Englishman, and a sergeant of six years’ standing.’

‘And what other acquaintance have you?’

‘All kinds; the whole neighbourhood can’t make enough of me. Amongst others there’s the clergyman of the parish and his family; such a venerable old man, such fine sons and daughters! I am treated by them like a son and a brother — I might be always with them if I pleased; there’s one drawback, however, in going to see them; there’s a horrible creature in the house, a kind of tutor, whom they keep more from charity than anything else; he is a Papist and, they say, a priest; you should see him scowl sometimes at my red coat, for he hates the king, and not unfrequently, when the king’s health is drunk, curses him between his teeth. I once got up to strike him; but the youngest of the sisters, who is the handsomest, caught my arm and pointed to her forehead.’

‘And what does your duty consist of? Have you nothing else to do than pay visits and receive them?’

‘We do what is required of us, we guard this edifice, perform our evolutions, and help the excise; I am frequently called up in the dead of night to go to some wild place or other in quest of an illicit still; this last part of our duty is poor mean work, I don’t like it, nor more does Bagg; though without it we should not see much active service, for the neighbourhood is quiet; save the poor creatures with their stills, not a soul is stirring. ’Tis true there’s Jerry Grant.’

‘And who is Jerry Grant?’

‘Did you never hear of him? that’s strange, the whole country is talking about him; he is a kind of outlaw, rebel, or robber, all three I daresay; there’s a hundred pounds offered for his head.’

‘And where does he live?’

‘His proper home, they say, is in the Queen’s County, where he has a band, but he is a strange fellow, fond of wandering about by himself amidst the bogs and mountains, and living in the old castles; occasionally he quarters himself in the peasants’ houses, who let him do just what he pleases; he is free of his money, and often does them good turns, and can be good-humoured enough, so they don’t dislike him. Then he is what they call a fairy man, a person in league with fairies and spirits, and able to work much harm by supernatural means, on which account they hold him in great awe; he is, moreover, a mighty strong and tall fellow. Bagg has seen him.’

‘Has he?’

‘Yes! and felt him; he too is a strange one. A few days ago he was told that Grant had been seen hovering about an old castle some two miles off in the bog; so one afternoon what does he do but, without saying a word to me — for which, by the bye, I ought to put him under arrest, though what I should do without Bagg I have no idea whatever — what does he do but walk off to the castle, intending, as I suppose, to pay a visit to Jerry. He had some difficulty in getting there on account of the turf-holes in the bog, which he was not accustomed to; however, thither at last he got and went in. It was a strange lonesome place, he says, and he did not much like the look of it; however, in he went, and searched about from the bottom to the top and down again, but could find no one; he shouted and hallooed, but nobody answered, save the rooks and choughs, which started up in great numbers. “I have lost my trouble,” said Bagg, and left the castle. It was now late in the afternoon, near sunset, when about half-way over the bog he met a man — ’

‘And that man was — ’

‘Jerry Grant! there’s no doubt of it. Bagg says it was the most sudden thing in the world. He was moving along, making the best of his way, thinking of nothing at all save a public-house at Swanton Morley, which he intends to take when he gets home, and the regiment is disbanded — though I hope that will not be for some time yet: he had just leaped a turf-hole, and was moving on, when, at the distance of about six yards before him, he saw a fellow coming straight towards him. Bagg says that he stopped short, as suddenly as if he had heard the word halt, when marching at double quick time. It was quite a surprise, he says, and he can’t imagine how the fellow was so close upon him before he was aware. He was an immense tall fellow — Bagg thinks at least two inches taller than himself — very well dressed in a blue coat and buff breeches, for all the world like a squire when going out hunting. Bagg, however, saw at once that he had a roguish air, and he was on his guard in a moment. “Good-evening to ye, sodger,” says the fellow, stepping close up to Bagg, and staring him in the face. “Good-evening to you, sir! I hope you are well,” says Bagg. “You are looking after some one?” says the fellow. “Just so, sir,” says Bagg, and forthwith seized him by the collar; the man laughed, Bagg says it was such a strange awkward laugh. “Do you know whom you have got hold of, sodger?” said he. “I believe I do, sir,” said Bagg, “and in that belief will hold you fast in the name of King George and the quarter sessions”; the next moment he was sprawling with his heels in the air. Bagg says there was nothing remarkable in that; he was only flung by a kind of wrestling trick, which he could easily have baffled had he been aware of it. “You will not do that again, sir,” said he, as he got up and put himself on his guard. The fellow laughed again more strangely and awkwardly than before; then, bending his body and moving his head from one side to the other as a cat does before she springs, and crying out, “Here’s for ye, sodger!” he made a dart at Bagg, rushing in with his head foremost. “That will do, sir,” says Bagg, and, drawing himself back, he put in a left-handed blow with all the force of his body and arm, just over the fellow’s right eye — Bagg is a left-handed hitter, you must know — and it was a blow of that kind which won him his famous battle at Edinburgh with the big Highland sergeant. Bagg says that he was quite satisfied with the blow, more especially when he saw the fellow reel, fling out his arms, and fall to the ground. “And now, sir,” said he, “I’ll make bold to hand you over to the quarter sessions, and, if there is a hundred pounds for taking you, who has more right to it than myself?” So he went forward, but ere he could lay hold of his man the other was again on his legs, and was prepared to renew the combat. They grappled each other — Bagg says he had not much fear of the result, as he now felt himself the best man, the other seeming half-stunned with the blow — but just then there came on a blast, a horrible roaring wind bearing night upon its wings, snow, and sleet, and hail. Bagg says he had the fellow by the throat quite fast, as he thought, but suddenly he became bewildered, and knew not where he was; and the man seemed to melt away from his grasp, and the wind howled more and more, and the night poured down darker and darker; the snow and the sleet thicker and more blinding. “Lord have mercy upon us!” said Bagg.’

Myself. A strange adventure that; it is well that Bagg got home alive.

John. He says that the fight was a fair fight, and that the fling he got was a fair fling, the result of a common enough wrestling trick. But with respect to the storm, which rose up just in time to save the fellow, he is of opinion that it was not fair, but something Irish and supernatural.

Myself. I daresay he’s right. I have read of witchcraft in the Bible.

John. He wishes much to have one more encounter with the fellow; he says that on fair ground, and in fine weather, he has no doubt that he could master him, and hand him over to the quarter sessions. He says that a hundred pounds would be no bad thing to be disbanded upon; for he wishes to take an inn at Swanton Morley, keep a cock-pit, and live respectably.

Myself. He is quite right; and now kiss me, my darling brother, for I must go back through the bog to Templemore.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32