Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 22

Desire for novelty — Lives of the lawless — Countenances — Old yeoman and dame — We live near the sea — Uncouth-looking volume — The other condition — Draoitheac — A dilemma — The Antinomian — Lodowick Muggleton — Almost blind — Anders Vedel.

But to proceed with my own story: I now ceased all at once to take much pleasure in the pursuits which formerly interested me, I yawned over Ab Gwilym, even as I now in my mind’s eye perceive the reader yawning over the present pages. What was the cause of this? Constitutional lassitude, or a desire for novelty? Both it is probable had some influence in the matter, but I rather think that the latter feeling was predominant. The parting words of my brother had sunk into my mind. He had talked of travelling in strange regions and seeing strange and wonderful objects, and my imagination fell to work, and drew pictures of adventures wild and fantastic, and I thought what a fine thing it must be to travel, and I wished that my father would give me his blessing, and the same sum that he had given my brother, and bid me go forth into the world; always forgetting that I had neither talents nor energies at this period which would enable me to make any successful figure on its stage.

And then I again sought up the book which had so captivated me in my infancy, and I read it through; and I sought up others of a similar character, and in seeking for them I met books also of adventure, but by no means of a harmless description, lives of wicked and lawless men, Murray and Latroon — books of singular power, but of coarse and prurient imagination — books at one time highly in vogue; now deservedly forgotten, and most difficult to be found.

And when I had gone through these books, what was my state of mind? I had derived entertainment from their perusal, but they left me more listless and unsettled than before, and really knew not what to do to pass my time. My philological studies had become distasteful, and I had never taken any pleasure in the duties of my profession. I sat behind my desk in a state of torpor, my mind almost as blank as the paper before me, on which I rarely traced a line. It was always a relief to hear the bell ring, as it afforded me an opportunity of doing something which I was yet capable of doing, to rise and open the door and stare in the countenances of the visitors. All of a sudden I fell to studying countenances, and soon flattered myself that I had made considerable progress in the science.

‘There is no faith in countenances,’ said some Roman of old; ‘trust anything but a person’s countenance.’ ‘Not trust a man’s countenance?’ say some moderns, ‘why, it is the only thing in many people that we can trust; on which account they keep it most assiduously out of the way. Trust not a man’s words if you please, or you may come to very erroneous conclusions; but at all times place implicit confidence in a man’s countenance, in which there is no deceit; and of necessity there can be none. If people would but look each other more in the face, we should have less cause to complain of the deception of the world; nothing so easy as physiognomy nor so useful.’ Somewhat in this latter strain I thought at the time of which I am speaking. I am now older, and, let us hope, less presumptuous. It is true that in the course of my life I have scarcely ever had occasion to repent placing confidence in individuals whose countenances have prepossessed me in their favour; though to how many I may have been unjust, from whose countenances I may have drawn unfavourable conclusions, is another matter.

But it had been decreed by that Fate which governs our every action that I was soon to return to my old pursuits. It was written that I should not yet cease to be Lav-engro, though I had become, in my own opinion, a kind of Lavater. It is singular enough that my renewed ardour for philology seems to have been brought about indirectly by my physiognomical researches, in which had I not indulged, the event which I am about to relate, as far as connected with myself, might never have occurred. Amongst the various countenances which I admitted during the period of my answering the bell, there were two which particularly pleased me, and which belonged to an elderly yeoman and his wife, whom some little business had brought to our law sanctuary. I believe they experienced from me some kindness and attention, which won the old people’s hearts. So, one day, when their little business had been brought to a conclusion, and they chanced to be alone with me, who was seated as usual behind the deal desk in the outer room, the old man with some confusion began to tell me how grateful himself and dame felt for the many attentions I had shown them, and how desirous they were to make me some remuneration. ‘Of course,’ said the old man, ‘we must be cautious what we offer to so fine a young gentleman as yourself; we have, however, something we think will just suit the occasion, a strange kind of thing which people say is a book, though no one that my dame or myself have shown it to can make anything out of it; so as we are told that you are a fine young gentleman, who can read all the tongues of the earth and stars, as the Bible says, we thought, I and my dame, that it would be just the thing you would like and my dame has it now at the bottom of her basket.’

‘A book!’ said I, ‘how did you come by it?’

‘We live near the sea,’ said the old man; ‘so near that sometimes our thatch is wet with the spray; and it may now be a year ago that there was a fearful storm, and a ship was driven ashore during the night, and ere the morn was a complete wreck. When we got up at daylight, there were the poor shivering crew at our door; they were foreigners, red-haired men, whose speech we did not understand; but we took them in, and warmed them, and they remained with us three days; and when they went away they left behind them this thing, here it is, part of the contents of a box which was washed ashore.’

‘And did you learn who they were?’

‘Why, yes; they made us understand that they were Danes.’

Danes! thought I, Danes! and instantaneously, huge and grisly, appeared to rise up before my vision the skull of the old pirate Dane, even as I had seen it of yore in the pent-house of the ancient church to which, with my mother and my brother, I had wandered on the memorable summer eve.

And now the old man handed me the book; a strange and uncouth-looking volume enough. It was not very large, but instead of the usual covering was bound in wood, and was compressed with strong iron clasps. It was a printed book, but the pages were not of paper, but vellum, and the characters were black, and resembled those generally termed Gothic.

‘It is certainly a curious book,’ said I; ‘and I should like to have it, but I can’t think of taking it as a gift, I must give you an equivalent, I never take presents from anybody.’

The old man whispered with his dame and chuckled, and then turned his face to me, and said, with another chuckle, ‘Well, we have agreed about the price, but, maybe, you will not consent.’

‘I don’t know,’ said I; ‘what do you demand?’

‘Why, that you shake me by the hand, and hold out your cheek to my old dame, she has taken an affection to you.’

‘I shall be very glad to shake you by the hand,’ said I, ‘but as for the other condition, it requires consideration.’

‘No consideration at all,’ said the old man, with something like a sigh; ‘she thinks you like her son, our only child, that was lost twenty years ago in the waves of the North Sea.’

‘Oh, that alters the case altogether,’ said I, ‘and of course I can have no objection.’

And now at once I shook off my listlessness, to enable me to do which nothing could have happened more opportune than the above event. The Danes, the Danes! And was I at last to become acquainted, and in so singular a manner, with the speech of a people which had as far back as I could remember exercised the strongest influence over my imagination, as how should they not! — in infancy there was the summer-eve adventure, to which I often looked back, and always with a kind of strange interest with respect to those to whom such gigantic and wondrous bones could belong as I had seen on that occasion; and, more than this, I had been in Ireland, and there, under peculiar circumstances, this same interest was increased tenfold. I had mingled much whilst there with the genuine Irish — a wild but kind-hearted race, whose conversation was deeply imbued with traditionary lore, connected with the early history of their own romantic land, and from them I heard enough of the Danes, but nothing commonplace, for they never mentioned them but in terms which tallied well with my own preconceived ideas. For at an early period the Danes had invaded Ireland, and had subdued it, and, though eventually driven out, had left behind them an enduring remembrance in the minds of the people, who loved to speak of their strength and their stature, in evidence of which they would point to the ancient raths or mounds where the old Danes were buried, and where bones of extraordinary size were occasionally exhumed. And as the Danes surpassed other people in strength, so, according to my narrators, they also excelled all others in wisdom, or rather in Draoitheac, or magic, for they were powerful sorcerers, they said, compared with whom the fairy men of the present day knew nothing at all, at all; and, amongst other wonderful things, they knew how to make strong beer from the heather that grows upon the bogs. Little wonder if the interest, the mysterious interest, which I had early felt about the Danes, was increased tenfold by my sojourn in Ireland.

And now I had in my possession a Danish book, which, from its appearance, might be supposed to have belonged to the very old Danes indeed; but how was I to turn it to any account? I had the book, it is true, but I did not understand the language, and how was I to overcome that difficulty? hardly by poring over the book; yet I did pore over the book, daily and nightly, till my eyes were dim, and it appeared to me that every now and then I encountered words which I understood — English words, though strangely disguised; and I said to myself, Courage! English and Danish are cognate dialects, a time will come when I shall understand this Danish; and then I pored over the book again, but with all my poring I could not understand it; and then I became angry, and I bit my lips till the blood came; and I occasionally tore a handful from my hair, and flung it upon the floor, but that did not mend the matter, for still I did not understand the book, which, however, I began to see was written in rhyme — a circumstance rather difficult to discover at first, the arrangement of the lines not differing from that which is employed in prose; and its being written in rhyme made me only the more eager to understand it.

But I toiled in vain, for I had neither grammar nor dictionary of the language; and when I sought for them could procure neither; and I was much dispirited, till suddenly a bright thought came into my head, and I said, although I cannot obtain a dictionary or grammar, I can perhaps obtain a Bible in this language, and if I can procure a Bible, I can learn the language, for the Bible in every tongue contains the same thing, and I have only to compare the words of the Danish Bible with those of the English, and, if I persevere, I shall in time acquire the language of the Danes; and I was pleased with the thought, which I considered to be a bright one, and I no longer bit my lips, or tore my hair, but I took my hat, and, going forth, I flung my hat into the air.

And when my hat came down, I put it on my head and commenced running, directing my course to the house of the Antinomian preacher, who sold books, and whom I knew to have Bibles in various tongues amongst the number, and I arrived out of breath, and I found the Antinomian in his little library, dusting his books; and the Antinomian clergyman was a tall man of about seventy, who wore a hat with a broad brim and a shallow crown, and whose manner of speaking was exceedingly nasal; and when I saw him, I cried, out of breath, ‘Have you a Danish Bible?’ and he replied, ‘What do you want it for, friend?’ and I answered, ‘To learn Danish by’; ‘And maybe to learn thy duty,’ replied the Antinomian preacher. ‘Truly, I have it not, but, as you are a customer of mine, I will endeavour to procure you one, and I will write to that laudable society which men call the Bible Society, an unworthy member of which I am, and I hope by next week to procure what you desire.’

And when I heard these words of the old man, I was very glad, and my heart yearned towards him, and I would fain enter into conversation with him; and I said, ‘Why are you an Antinomian? For my part I would rather be a dog than belong to such a religion.’ ‘Nay, friend,’ said the Antinomian, ‘thou forejudgest us; know that those who call us Antinomians call us so despitefully, we do not acknowledge the designation.’ ‘Then you do not set all law at nought?’ said I. ‘Far be it from us,’ said the old man, ‘we only hope that, being sanctified by the Spirit from above, we have no need of the law to keep us in order. Did you ever hear tell of Lodowick Muggleton?’ ‘Not I.’ ‘That is strange; know then that he was the founder of our poor society, and after him we are frequently, though opprobriously, termed Muggletonians, for we are Christians. Here is his book, which, perhaps, you can do no better than purchase, you are fond of rare books, and this is both curious and rare; I will sell it cheap. Thank you, and now be gone, I will do all I can to procure the Bible.’

And in this manner I procured the Danish Bible, and I commenced my task; first of all, however, I locked up in a closet the volume which had excited my curiosity, saying, ‘Out of this closet thou comest not till I deem myself competent to read thee,’ and then I sat down in right earnest, comparing every line in the one version with the corresponding one in the other; and I passed entire nights in this manner, till I was almost blind, and the task was tedious enough at first, but I quailed not, and soon began to make progress: and at first I had a misgiving that the old book might not prove a Danish book, but was soon reassured by reading many words in the Bible which I remembered to have seen in the book; and then I went on right merrily, and I found that the language which I was studying was by no means a difficult one, and in less than a month I deemed myself able to read the book.

Anon, I took the book from the closet, and proceeded to make myself master of its contents; I had some difficulty, for the language of the book, though in the main the same as the language of the Bible, differed from it in some points, being apparently a more ancient dialect; by degrees, however, I overcame this difficulty, and I understood the contents of the book, and well did they correspond with all those ideas in which I had indulged connected with the Danes. For the book was a book of ballads, about the deeds of knights and champions, and men of huge stature; ballads which from time immemorial had been sung in the North, and which some two centuries before the time of which I am speaking had been collected by one Anders Vedel, who lived with a certain Tycho Brahe, and assisted him in making observations upon the heavenly bodies, at a place called Uranias Castle, on the little island of Hveen, in the Cattegat.

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