Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 24

The alehouse-keeper — Compassion for the rich — Old English gentleman — How is this? — Madeira — The Greek Parr — Twenty languages — Whiter’s health — About the fight — A sporting gentleman — The flattened nose — Lend us that pightle — The surly nod.

‘Holloa, master! can you tell us where the fight is likely to be?’

Such were the words shouted out to me by a short thick fellow, in brown top-boots, and bareheaded, who stood, with his hands in his pockets, at the door of a country alehouse as I was passing by.

Now, as I knew nothing about the fight, and as the appearance of the man did not tempt me greatly to enter into conversation with him, I merely answered in the negative, and continued my way.

It was a fine lovely morning in May, the sun shone bright above, and the birds were carolling in the hedgerows. I was wont to be cheerful at such seasons, for, from my earliest recollection, sunshine and the song of birds have been dear to me; yet, about that period, I was not cheerful, my mind was not at rest; I was debating within myself, and the debate was dreary and unsatisfactory enough. I sighed, and turning my eyes upward, I ejaculated, ‘What is truth?’

But suddenly, by a violent effort breaking away from my meditations, I hastened forward; one mile, two miles, three miles were speedily left behind; and now I came to a grove of birch and other trees, and opening a gate I passed up a kind of avenue, and soon arriving before a large brick house, of rather antique appearance, knocked at the door.

In this house there lived a gentleman with whom I had business. He was said to be a genuine old English gentleman, and a man of considerable property; at this time, however, he wanted a thousand pounds, as gentlemen of considerable property every now and then do. I had brought him a thousand pounds in my pocket, for it is astonishing how many eager helpers the rich find, and with what compassion people look upon their distresses. He was said to have good wine in his cellar.

‘Is your master at home?’ said I, to a servant who appeared at the door.

‘His worship is at home, young man,’ said the servant, as he looked at my shoes, which bore evidence that I had come walking. ‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ he added, as he looked me in the face.

‘Ay, ay, servants,’ thought I, as I followed the man into the house, ‘always look people in the face when you open the door, and do so before you look at their shoes, or you may mistake the heir of a Prime Minister for a shopkeeper’s son.’

I found his worship a jolly, red-faced gentleman, of about fifty-five; he was dressed in a green coat, white corduroy breeches, and drab gaiters, and sat on an old-fashioned leather sofa, with two small, thoroughbred, black English terriers, one on each side of him. He had all the appearance of a genuine old English gentleman who kept good wine in his cellar.

‘Sir,’ said I, ‘I have brought you a thousand pounds’; and I said this after the servant had retired, and the two terriers had ceased the barking which is natural to all such dogs at the sight of a stranger.

And when the magistrate had received the money, and signed and returned a certain paper which I handed to him, he rubbed his hands, and looking very benignantly at me, exclaimed —

‘And now, young gentleman, that our business is over, perhaps you can tell me where the fight is to take place?’

‘I am sorry, sir,’ said I, ‘that I can’t inform you, but everybody seems to be anxious about it’; and then I told him what had occurred to me on the road with the alehouse-keeper.

‘I know him,’ said his worship; ‘he’s a tenant of mine, and a good fellow, somewhat too much in my debt though. But how is this, young gentleman, you look as if you had been walking; you did not come on foot?’

‘Yes, sir, I came on foot.’

‘On foot! why it is sixteen miles.’

‘I shan’t be tired when I have walked back.’

‘You can’t ride, I suppose?’

‘Better than I can walk.’

‘Then why do you walk?’

‘I have frequently to make journeys connected with my profession; sometimes I walk, sometimes I ride, just as the whim takes me.’

‘Will you take a glass of wine?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s right; what shall it be?’

‘Madeira!’

The magistrate gave a violent slap on his knee; ‘I like your taste,’ said he, ‘I am fond of a glass of Madeira myself, and can give you such a one as you will not drink every day; sit down, young gentleman, you shall have a glass of Madeira, and the best I have.’

Thereupon he got up, and, followed by his two terriers, walked slowly out of the room.

I looked round the room, and, seeing nothing which promised me much amusement, I sat down, and fell again into my former train of thought. ‘What is truth?’ said I.

‘Here it is,’ said the magistrate, returning at the end of a quarter of an hour, followed by the servant with a tray; ‘here’s the true thing, or I am no judge, far less a justice. It has been thirty years in my cellar last Christmas. There,’ said he to the servant, ‘put it down, and leave my young friend and me to ourselves. Now, what do you think of it?’

‘It is very good,’ said I.

‘Did you ever taste better Madeira?’

‘I never before tasted Madeira.’

‘Then you ask for a wine without knowing what it is?’

‘I ask for it, sir, that I may know what it is.’

‘Well, there is logic in that, as Parr would say; you have heard of Parr?’

‘Old Parr?’

‘Yes, old Parr, but not that Parr; you mean the English, I the Greek Parr, as people call him.’

‘I don’t know him.’

‘Perhaps not — rather too young for that, but were you of my age, you might have cause to know him, coming from where you do. He kept school there, I was his first scholar; he flogged Greek into me till I loved him — and he loved me: he came to see me last year, and sat in that chair; I honour Parr — he knows much, and is a sound man.’

‘Does he know the truth?’

‘Know the truth! he knows what’s good, from an oyster to an ostrich — he’s not only sound, but round.’

‘Suppose we drink his health?’

‘Thank you, boy: here’s Parr’s health, and Whiter’s.’

‘Who is Whiter?’

‘Don’t you know Whiter? I thought everybody knew Reverend Whiter the philologist, though I suppose you scarcely know what that means. A man fond of tongues and languages, quite out of your way — he understands some twenty; what do you say to that?’

‘Is he a sound man?’

‘Why, as to that, I scarcely know what to say: he has got queer notions in his head — wrote a book to prove that all words came originally from the earth — who knows? Words have roots, and roots live in the earth; but, upon the whole, I should not call him altogether a sound man, though he can talk Greek nearly as fast as Parr.’

‘Is he a round man?’

‘Ay, boy, rounder than Parr; I’ll sing you a song, if you like, which will let you into his character:-

‘Give me the haunch of a buck to eat, and to drink Madeira old, And a gentle wife to rest with, and in my arms to fold, An Arabic book to study, a Norfolk cob to ride, And a house to live in shaded with trees, and near to a river side; With such good things around me, and blessed with good health withal, Though I should live for a hundred years, for death I would not call.

Here’s to Whiter’s health — so you know nothing about the fight?’

‘No, sir; the truth is, that of late I have been very much occupied with various matters, otherwise I should, perhaps, have been able to afford you some information — boxing is a noble art.’

‘Can you box?’

‘A little.’

‘I tell you what, my boy; I honour you, and provided your education had been a little less limited, I should have been glad to see you here in company with Parr and Whiter; both can box. Boxing is, as you say, a noble art — a truly English art; may I never see the day when Englishmen shall feel ashamed of it, or blacklegs and blackguards bring it into disgrace. I am a magistrate, and, of course, cannot patronise the thing very openly, yet I sometimes see a prize fight: I saw the Game Chicken beat Gulley.’

‘Did you ever see Big Ben?’

‘No; why do you ask?’ But here we heard a noise, like that of a gig driving up to the door, which was immediately succeeded by a violent knocking and ringing, and after a little time the servant who had admitted me made his appearance in the room. ‘Sir,’ said he, with a certain eagerness of manner, ‘here are two gentlemen waiting to speak to you.’

‘Gentlemen waiting to speak to me! who are they?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ said the servant; ‘but they look like sporting gentlemen, and — and’ — here he hesitated; ‘from a word or two they dropped, I almost think that they come about the fight.’

‘About the fight!’ said the magistrate. ‘No; that can hardly be; however, you had better show them in.’

Heavy steps were now heard ascending the stairs, and the servant ushered two men into the apartment. Again there was a barking, but louder than that which had been directed against myself, for here were two intruders; both of them were remarkable-looking men, but to the foremost of them the most particular notice may well be accorded: he was a man somewhat under thirty, and nearly six feet in height. He was dressed in a blue coat, white corduroy breeches, fastened below the knee with small golden buttons; on his legs he wore white lamb’s-wool stockings, and on his feet shoes reaching to the ankles; round his neck was a handkerchief of the blue and bird’s eye pattern; he wore neither whiskers nor moustaches, and appeared not to delight in hair, that of his head, which was of a light brown, being closely cropped; the forehead was rather high, but somewhat narrow; the face neither broad nor sharp, perhaps rather sharp than broad; the nose was almost delicate; the eyes were gray, with an expression in which there was sternness blended with something approaching to feline; his complexion was exceedingly pale, relieved, however, by certain pock-marks, which here and there studded his countenance; his form was athletic, but lean; his arms long. In the whole appearance of the man there was a blending of the bluff and the sharp. You might have supposed him a bruiser; his dress was that of one in all its minutiae; something was wanting, however, in his manner — the quietness of the professional man; he rather looked like one performing the part — well — very well — but still performing a part. His companion! — there, indeed, was the bruiser — no mistake about him: a tall massive man, with a broad countenance and a flattened nose; dressed like a bruiser, but not like a bruiser going into the ring; he wore white-topped boots, and a loose brown jockey coat.

As the first advanced towards the table, behind which the magistrate sat, he doffed a white castor from his head, and made rather a genteel bow; looking at me, who sat somewhat on one side, he gave a kind of nod of recognition.

‘May I request to know who you are, gentlemen?’ said the magistrate.

‘Sir,’ said the man in a deep, but not unpleasant voice, ‘allow me to introduce to you my friend, Mr. — the celebrated pugilist’; and he motioned with his hand towards the massive man with the flattened nose.

‘And your own name, sir?’ said the magistrate.

‘My name is no matter,’ said the man; ‘were I to mention it to you, it would awaken within you no feeling of interest. It is neither Kean nor Belcher, and I have as yet done nothing to distinguish myself like either of those individuals, or even like my friend here. However, a time may come — we are not yet buried; and whensoever my hour arrives, I hope I shall prove myself equal to my destiny, however high —

‘Like bird that’s bred amongst the Helicons.’

And here a smile half theatrical passed over his features.

‘In what can I oblige you, sir?’ said the magistrate.

‘Well, sir; the soul of wit is brevity; we want a place for an approaching combat between my friend here and a brave from town. Passing by your broad acres this fine morning we saw a pightle, which we deemed would suit. Lend us that pightle, and receive our thanks; ‘twould be a favour, though not much to grant: we neither ask for Stonehenge nor for Tempe.’

My friend looked somewhat perplexed; after a moment, however, he said, with a firm but gentlemanly air, ‘Sir, I am sorry that I cannot comply with your request.’

‘Not comply!’ said the man, his brow becoming dark as midnight; and with a hoarse and savage tone, ‘Not comply! why not?’

‘It is impossible, sir; utterly impossible!’

‘Why so?’

‘I am not compelled to give my reasons to you, sir, nor to any man.’

‘Let me beg of you to alter your decision,’ said the man, in a tone of profound respect.

‘Utterly impossible, sir; I am a magistrate.’

‘Magistrate! then fare ye well, for a green-coated buffer and a Harmanbeck.’

‘Sir!’ said the magistrate, springing up with a face fiery with wrath.

But, with a surly nod to me, the man left the apartment; and in a moment more the heavy footsteps of himself and his companion were heard descending the staircase.

‘Who is that man?’ said my friend, turning towards me.

‘A sporting gentleman, well known in the place from which I come.’

‘He appeared to know you.’

‘I have occasionally put on the gloves with him.’

‘What is his name?’

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