Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 15

Monsieur Dante — Condemned musket — Sporting — Sweet rivulet — The Earl’s Home — The pool — The sonorous voice — What dost thou read? — Man of peace — Zohar and Mishna — Money-changers.

So I studied French and Italian under the tuition of the banished priest, to whose house I went regularly every evening to receive instruction. I made considerable progress in the acquisition of the two languages. I found the French by far the most difficult, chiefly on account of the accent, which my master himself possessed in no great purity, being a Norman by birth. The Italian was my favourite.

‘Vous serez un jour un grand philologue, mon cher,’ said the old man, on our arriving at the conclusion of Dante’s Hell.

‘I hope I shall be something better,’ said I, ‘before I die, or I shall have lived to little purpose.’

‘That’s true, my dear! philologist — one small poor dog. What would you wish to be?’

‘Many things sooner than that; for example, I would rather be like him who wrote this book.’

‘Quoi, Monsieur Dante? He was a vagabond, my dear, forced to fly from his country. No, my dear, if you would be like one poet, be like Monsieur Boileau; he is the poet.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘How, not think so? He wrote very respectable verses; lived and died much respected by everybody. T’other, one bad dog, forced to fly from his country — died with not enough to pay his undertaker.’

‘Were you not forced to flee from your country?’

‘That very true; but there is much difference between me and this Dante. He fled from country because he had one bad tongue which he shook at his betters. I fly because benefice gone, and head going; not on account of the badness of my tongue.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘you can return now; the Bourbons are restored.’

‘I find myself very well here; not bad country. Il est vrai que la France sera toujours la France; but all are dead there who knew me. I find myself very well here. Preach in popish chapel, teach schismatic, that is Protestant, child tongues and literature. I find myself very well; and why? Because I know how to govern my tongue; never call people hard names. Ma foi, il y a beaucoup de difference entre moi et ce sacre de Dante.’

Under this old man, who was well versed in the southern languages, besides studying French and Italian, I acquired some knowledge of Spanish. But I did not devote my time entirely to philology; I had other pursuits. I had not forgotten the roving life I had led in former days, nor its delights; neither was I formed by Nature to be a pallid indoor student. No, no! I was fond of other and, I say it boldly, better things than study. I had an attachment to the angle, ay, and to the gun likewise. In our house was a condemned musket, bearing somewhere on its lock, in rather antique characters, ‘Tower, 1746’; with this weapon I had already, in Ireland, performed some execution among the rooks and choughs, and it was now again destined to be a source of solace and amusement to me, in the winter season, especially on occasions of severe frost when birds abounded. Sallying forth with it at these times, far into the country, I seldom returned at night without a string of bullfinches, blackbirds, and linnets hanging in triumph round my neck. When I reflect on the immense quantity of powder and shot which I crammed down the muzzle of my uncouth fowling-piece, I am less surprised at the number of birds which I slaughtered than that I never blew my hands, face, and old honeycombed gun, it one and the same time, to pieces.

But the winter, alas! (I speak as a fowler) seldom lasts in England more than three or four months; so, during the rest of the year, when not occupied with my philological studies, I had to seek for other diversions. I have already given a hint that I was also addicted to the angle. Of course there is no comparison between the two pursuits, the rod and line seeming but very poor trumpery to one who has had the honour of carrying a noble firelock. There is a time, however, for all things; and we return to any favourite amusement with the greater zest, from being compelled to relinquish it for a season. So, if I shot birds in winter with my firelock, I caught fish in summer, or attempted so to do, with my angle. I was not quite so successful, it is true, with the latter as with the former; possibly because it afforded me less pleasure. It was, indeed, too much of a listless pastime to inspire me with any great interest. I not unfrequently fell into a doze, whilst sitting on the bank, and more than once let my rod drop from my hands into the water.

At some distance from the city, behind a range of hilly ground which rises towards the south-west, is a small river, the waters of which, after many meanderings, eventually enter the principal river of the district, and assist to swell the tide which it rolls down to the ocean. It is a sweet rivulet, and pleasant is it to trace its course from its spring-head, high up in the remote regions of Eastern Anglia, till it arrives in the valley behind yon rising ground; and pleasant is that valley, truly a goodly spot, but most lovely where yonder bridge crosses the little stream. Beneath its arch the waters rush garrulously into a blue pool, and are there stilled, for a time, for the pool is deep, and they appear to have sunk to sleep. Farther on, however, you hear their voice again, where they ripple gaily over yon gravelly shallow. On the left, the hill slopes gently down to the margin of the stream. On the right is a green level, a smiling meadow, grass of the richest decks the side of the slope; mighty trees also adorn it, giant elms, the nearest of which, when the sun is nigh its meridian, fling a broad shadow upon the face of the pool; through yon vista you catch a glimpse of the ancient brick of an old English hall. It has a stately look, that old building, indistinctly seen, as it is, among those umbrageous trees; you might almost suppose it an earl’s home; and such it was, or rather upon its site stood an earl’s home, in days of old, for there some old Kemp, some Sigurd or Thorkild, roaming in quest of a hearthstead, settled down in the gray old time, when Thor and Freya were yet gods, and Odin was a portentous name. Yon old hall is still called the Earl’s Home, though the hearth of Sigurd is now no more, and the bones of the old Kemp, and of Sigrith his dame, have been mouldering for a thousand years in some neighbouring knoll; perhaps yonder, where those tall Norwegian pines shoot up so boldly into the air. It is said that the old earl’s galley was once moored where is now that blue pool, for the waters of that valley were not always sweet; yon valley was once an arm of the sea, a salt lagoon, to which the war-barks of ‘Sigurd, in search of a home,’ found their way.

I was in the habit of spending many an hour on the banks of that rivulet, with my rod in my hand, and, when tired with angling, would stretch myself on the grass, and gaze upon the waters as they glided past, and not unfrequently, divesting myself of my dress, I would plunge into the deep pool which I have already mentioned, for I had long since learned to swim. And it came to pass that on one hot summer’s day, after bathing in the pool, I passed along the meadow till I came to a shallow part, and, wading over to the opposite side, I adjusted my dress, and commenced fishing in another pool, beside which was a small clump of hazels.

And there I sat upon the bank, at the bottom of the hill which slopes down from ‘the Earl’s home’; my float was on the waters, and my back was towards the old hall. I drew up many fish, small and great, which I took from off the hook mechanically, and flung upon the bank, for I was almost unconscious of what I was about, for my mind was not with my fish. I was thinking of my earlier years — of the Scottish crags and the heaths of Ireland — and sometimes my mind would dwell on my studies — on the sonorous stanzas of Dante, rising and falling like the waves of the sea — or would strive to remember a couplet or two of poor Monsieur Boileau.

‘Canst thou answer to thy conscience for pulling all those fish out of the water, and leaving them to gasp in the sun?’ said a voice, clear and sonorous as a bell.

I started, and looked round. Close behind me stood the tall figure of a man, dressed in raiment of quaint and singular fashion, but of goodly materials. He was in the prime and vigour of manhood; his features handsome and noble, but full of calmness and benevolence; at least I thought so, though they were somewhat shaded by a hat of finest beaver, with broad drooping eaves.

‘Surely that is a very cruel diversion in which thou indulgest, my young friend?’ he continued.

‘I am sorry for it, if it be, sir,’ said I, rising; ‘but I do not think it cruel to fish.’

‘What are thy reasons for not thinking so?’

‘Fishing is mentioned frequently in Scripture. Simon Peter was a fisherman.’

‘True; and Andrew and his brother. But thou forgettest: they did not follow fishing as a diversion, as I fear thou doest. — Thou readest the Scriptures?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘Sometimes? — not daily? — that is to be regretted. What profession dost thou make? — I mean to what religious denomination dost thou belong, my young friend.’

‘Church?’

‘It is a very good profession — there is much of Scripture contained in its liturgy. Dost thou read aught besides the Scriptures?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘What dost thou read besides?’

‘Greek, and Dante.’

‘Indeed! then thou hast the advantage over myself; I can only read the former. Well, I am rejoiced to find that thou hast other pursuits beside thy fishing. Dost thou know Hebrew?’

‘No.’

‘Thou shouldst study it. Why dost thou not undertake the study?’

‘I have no books.’

‘I will lend thee books, if thou wish to undertake the study. I live yonder at the hall, as perhaps thou knowest. I have a library there, in which are many curious books, both in Greek and Hebrew, which I will show to thee, whenever thou mayest find it convenient to come and see me. Farewell! I am glad to find that thou hast pursuits more satisfactory than thy cruel fishing.’

And the man of peace departed, and left me on the bank of the stream. Whether from the effect of his words, or from want of inclination to the sport, I know not, but from that day I became less and less a practitioner of that ‘cruel fishing.’ I rarely flung line and angle into the water, but I not unfrequently wandered by the banks of the pleasant rivulet. It seems singular to me, on reflection, that I never availed myself of his kind invitation. I say singular, for the extraordinary, under whatever form, had long had no slight interest for me; and I had discernment enough to perceive that yon was no common man. Yet I went not near him, certainly not from bashfulness or timidity, feelings to which I had long been an entire stranger. Am I to regret this? perhaps, for I might have learned both wisdom and righteousness from those calm, quiet lips, and my after-course might have been widely different. As it was, I fell in with other guess companions, from whom I received widely different impressions than those I might have derived from him. When many years had rolled on, long after I had attained manhood, and had seen and suffered much, and when our first interview had long since been effaced from the mind of the man of peace, I visited him in his venerable hall, and partook of the hospitality of his hearth. And there I saw his gentle partner and his fair children, and on the morrow he showed me the books of which he had spoken years before by the side of the stream. In the low quiet chamber, whose one window, shaded by a gigantic elm, looks down the slope towards the pleasant stream, he took from the shelf his learned books, Zohar and Mishna, Toldoth Jesu and Abarbenel. ‘I am fond of these studies,’ said he, ‘which, perhaps, is not to be wondered at, seeing that our people have been compared to the Jews. In one respect I confess we are similar to them; we are fond of getting money. I do not like this last author, this Abarbenel, the worse for having been a money-changer. I am a banker myself, as thou knowest.’

And would there were many like him, amidst the money-changers of princes! The hall of many an earl lacks the bounty, the palace of many a prelate the piety and learning, which adorn the quiet quaker’s home!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter15.html

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