Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 20

Silver gray — Good word for everybody — A remarkable youth — Clients — Grades in society — The archdeacon — Reading the Bible.

‘I am afraid that I have not acted very wisely in putting this boy of ours to the law,’ said my father to my mother, as they sat together one summer evening in their little garden, beneath the shade of some tall poplars.

Yes, there sat my father in the garden chair which leaned against the wall of his quiet home, the haven in which he had sought rest, and, praise be to God, found it, after many a year of poorly-requited toil; there he sat, with locks of silver gray which set off so nobly his fine bold but benevolent face, his faithful consort at his side, and his trusty dog at his feet — an eccentric animal of the genuine regimental breed, who, born amongst red coats, had not yet become reconciled to those of any other hue, barking and tearing at them when they drew near the door, but testifying his fond reminiscence of the former by hospitable waggings of the tail whenever a uniform made its appearance — at present a very unfrequent occurrence.

‘I am afraid I have not done right in putting him to the law,’ said my father, resting his chin upon his gold-headed bamboo cane.

‘Why, what makes you think so?’ said my mother.

‘I have been taking my usual evening walk up the road, with the animal here,’ said my father; ‘and, as I walked along, I overtook the boy’s master, Mr. S-. We shook hands, and, after walking a little way farther, we turned back together, talking about this and that; the state of the country, the weather, and the dog, which he greatly admired; for he is a good-natured man, and has a good word for everybody, though the dog all but bit him when he attempted to coax his head; after the dog, we began talking about the boy; it was myself who introduced that subject: I thought it was a good opportunity to learn how he was getting on, so I asked what he thought of my son; he hesitated at first, seeming scarcely to know what to say; at length he came out with “Oh, a very extraordinary youth, a most remarkable youth indeed, captain!” “Indeed,” said I, “I am glad to hear it, but I hope you find him steady?” “Steady, steady,” said he, “why, yes, he’s steady, I cannot say that he is not steady.” “Come, come,” said I, beginning to be rather uneasy, “I see plainly that you are not altogether satisfied with him; I was afraid you would not be, for, though he is my own son, I am anything but blind to his imperfections; but do tell me what particular fault you have to find with him; and I will do my best to make him alter his conduct.” “No fault to find with him, captain, I assure you, no fault whatever; the youth is a remarkable youth, an extraordinary youth, only — ” As I told you before, Mr. S— is the best-natured man in the world, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that I could get him to say a single word to the disadvantage of the boy, for whom he seems to entertain a very great regard. At last I forced the truth from him, and grieved I was to hear it; though I must confess that I was somewhat prepared for it. It appears that the lad has a total want of discrimination.’

‘I don’t understand you,’ said my mother.

‘You can understand nothing that would seem for a moment to impugn the conduct of that child. I am not, however, so blind; want of discrimination was the word, and it both sounds well, and is expressive. It appears that, since he has been placed where is, he has been guilty of the grossest blunders; only the other day, Mr. S— told me, as he was engaged in close conversation with one of his principal clients, the boy came to tell him that a person wanted particularly to speak with him; and, on going out, he found a lamentable figure with one eye, who came to ask for charity; whom, nevertheless, the lad had ushered into a private room, and installed in an arm-chair, like a justice of the peace, instead of telling him to go about his business — now what did that show, but a total want of discrimination?’

‘I wish we may never have anything worse to reproach him with,’ said my mother.

‘I don’t know what worse we could reproach him with,’ said my father; ‘I mean of course as far as his profession is concerned; discrimination is the very keystone; if he treated all people alike, he would soon become a beggar himself; there are grades in society as well as in the army; and according to those grades we should fashion our behaviour, else there would instantly be an end of all order and discipline. I am afraid that the child is too condescending to his inferiors, whilst to his superiors he is apt to be unbending enough; I don’t believe that would do in the world; I am sure it would not in the army. He told me another anecdote with respect to his behaviour, which shocked me more than the other had done. It appears that his wife, who by the bye, is a very fine woman, and highly fashionable, gave him permission to ask the boy to tea one evening, for she is herself rather partial to the lad; there had been a great dinner party there that day, and there were a great many fashionable people, so the boy went and behaved very well and modestly for some time, and was rather noticed, till, unluckily, a very great gentleman, an archdeacon I think, put some questions to him, and, finding that he understood the languages, began talking to him about the classics. What do you think? the boy had the impertinence to say that the classics were much overvalued, and amongst other things that some horrid fellow or other, some Welshman I think (thank God it was not an Irishman), was a better poet than Ovid; the company were of course horrified; the archdeacon, who is seventy years of age, and has seven thousand a year, took snuff and turned away. Mrs. S— turned up her eyes, Mr. S-, however, told me with his usual good-nature (I suppose to spare my feelings) that he rather enjoyed the thing, and thought it a capital joke.’

‘I think so too,’ said my mother.

‘I do not,’ said my father; ‘that a boy of his years should entertain an opinion of his own — I mean one which militates against all established authority — is astounding; as well might a raw recruit pretend to offer an unfavourable opinion on the manual and platoon exercise; the idea is preposterous; the lad is too independent by half. I never yet knew one of an independent spirit get on in the army, the secret of success in the army is the spirit of subordination.’

‘Which is a poor spirit after all,’ said my mother; ‘but the child is not in the army.’

‘And it is well for him that he is not,’ said my father; ‘but you do not talk wisely, the world is a field of battle, and he who leaves the ranks, what can he expect but to be cut down? I call his present behaviour leaving the ranks, and going vapouring about without orders; his only chance lies in falling in again as quick as possible; does he think he can carry the day by himself? an opinion of his own at these years — I confess I am exceedingly uneasy about the lad.’

‘You make me uneasy too,’ said my mother; ‘but I really think you are too hard upon the child; he is not a bad child, after all, though not, perhaps, all you could wish him; he is always ready to read the Bible. Let us go in; he is in the room above us; at least he was two hours ago, I left him there bending over his books; I wonder what he has been doing all this time, it is now getting late; let us go in, and he shall read to us.’

‘I am getting old,’ said my father; ‘and I love to hear the Bible read to me, for my own sight is something dim; yet I do not wish the child to read to me this night, I cannot so soon forget what I have heard; but I hear my eldest son’s voice, he is now entering the gate; he shall read the Bible to us this night. What say you?’

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