Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 25

Doubts — Wise king of Jerusalem — Let me see — A thousand years — Nothing new — The crowd — The hymn — Faith — Charles Wesley — There he stood — Farewell, brother — Death — Sun, moon, and stars — Wind on the heath.

There was one question which I was continually asking myself at this period, and which has more than once met the eyes of the reader who has followed me through the last chapter: ‘What is truth?’ I had involved myself imperceptibly in a dreary labyrinth of doubt, and, whichever way I turned, no reasonable prospect of extricating myself appeared. The means by which I had brought myself into this situation may be very briefly told; I had inquired into many matters, in order that I might become wise, and I had read and pondered over the words of the wise, so called, till I had made myself master of the sum of human wisdom; namely, that everything is enigmatical and that man is an enigma to himself; thence the cry of ‘What is truth?’ I had ceased to believe in the truth of that in which I had hitherto trusted, and yet could find nothing in which I could put any fixed or deliberate belief — I was, indeed, in a labyrinth! In what did I not doubt? With respect to crime and virtue I was in doubt; I doubted that the one was blamable and the other praiseworthy. Are not all things subjected to the law of necessity? Assuredly time and chance govern all things: Yet how can this be? alas!

Then there was myself; for what was I born? Are not all things born to be forgotten? That’s incomprehensible: yet is it not so? Those butterflies fall and are forgotten. In what is man better than a butterfly? All then is born to be forgotten. Ah! that was a pang indeed; ’tis at such a moment that a man wishes to die. The wise king of Jerusalem, who sat in his shady arbours beside his sunny fish-pools, saying so many fine things, wished to die, when he saw that not only all was vanity, but that he himself was vanity. Will a time come when all will be forgotten that now is beneath the sun? If so, of what profit is life?

In truth it was a sore vexation of spirit to me when I saw, as the wise man saw of old, that whatever I could hope to perform must necessarily be of very temporary duration; and if so, why do it? I said to myself, whatever name I can acquire, will it endure for eternity? scarcely so. A thousand years? Let me see! what have I done already? I have learnt Welsh, and have translated the songs of Ab Gwilym, some ten thousand lines, into English rhyme; I have also learnt Danish, and have rendered the old book of ballads cast by the tempest upon the beach into corresponding English metre. Good! have I done enough already to secure myself a reputation of a thousand years? No, no! certainly not; I have not the slightest ground for hoping that my translations from the Welsh and Danish will be read at the end of a thousand years. Well, but I am only eighteen, and I have not stated all that I have done; I have learnt many other tongues, and have acquired some knowledge even of Hebrew and Arabic. Should I go on in this way till I am forty, I must then be very learned; and perhaps, among other things, may have translated the Talmud, and some of the great works of the Arabians. Pooh! all this is mere learning and translation, and such will never secure immortality. Translation is at best an echo, and it must be a wonderful echo to be heard after the lapse of a thousand years. No! all I have already done, and all I may yet do in the same way, I may reckon as nothing — mere pastime; something else must be done. I must either write some grand original work, or conquer an empire; the one just as easy as the other. But am I competent to do either? Yes, I think I am, under favourable circumstances. Yes, I think I may promise myself a reputation of a thousand years, if I do but give myself the necessary trouble. Well! but what’s a thousand years after all, or twice a thousand years? Woe is me! I may just as well sit still.

‘Would I had never been born!’ I said to myself; and a thought would occasionally intrude: But was I ever born? Is not all that I see a lie — a deceitful phantom? Is there a world, and earth, and sky? Berkeley’s doctrine — Spinoza’s doctrine! Dear reader, I had at that time never read either Berkeley or Spinoza. I have still never read them; who are they, men of yesterday? ‘All is a lie — all a deceitful phantom,’ are old cries; they come naturally from the mouths of those who, casting aside that choicest shield against madness, simplicity, would fain be wise as God, and can only know that they are naked. This doubting in the ‘universal all’ is almost coeval with the human race: wisdom, so called, was early sought after. All is a lie — a deceitful phantom — was said when the world was yet young; its surface, save a scanty portion, yet untrodden by human foot, and when the great tortoise yet crawled about. All is a lie, was the doctrine of Buddh; and Buddh lived thirty centuries before the wise king of Jerusalem, who sat in his arbours, beside his sunny fish-pools, saying many fine things, and, amongst others, ‘There is nothing new under the sun!’

One day, whilst I bent my way to the heath of which I have spoken on a former occasion, at the foot of the hills which formed it I came to a place where a wagon was standing, but without horses, the shafts resting on the ground; there was a crowd about it, which extended half-way up the side of the neighbouring hill. The wagon was occupied by some half a dozen men; some sitting, others standing — they were dressed in sober-coloured habiliments of black or brown, cut in a plain and rather uncouth fashion, and partially white with dust; their hair was short, and seemed to have been smoothed down by the application of the hand; all were bareheaded — sitting or standing, all were bareheaded. One of them, a tall man, was speaking as I arrived; ere, however, I could distinguish what he was saying, he left off, and then there was a cry for a hymn ‘to the glory of God’ — that was the word. It was a strange-sounding hymn, as well it might be, for everybody joined in it: there were voices of all kinds, of men, of women, and of children — of those who could sing and of those who could not — a thousand voices all joined, and all joined heartily; no voice of all the multitude was silent save mine. The crowd consisted entirely of the lower classes, labourers and mechanics, and their wives and children — dusty people, unwashed people, people of no account whatever, and yet they did not look a mob. And when that hymn was over — and here let me observe that, strange as it sounded, I have recalled that hymn to mind, and it has seemed to tingle in my ears on occasions when all that pomp and art could do to enhance religious solemnity was being done — in the Sistine Chapel, what time the papal band was in full play, and the choicest choristers of Italy poured forth their mellowest tones in presence of Batuschca and his cardinals — on the ice of the Neva, what time the long train of stately priests, with their noble beards and their flowing robes of crimson and gold, with their ebony and ivory staves, stalked along, chanting their Sclavonian litanies in advance of the mighty Emperor of the North and his Priberjensky guard of giants, towards the orifice through which the river, running below in its swiftness, is to receive the baptismal lymph:— when the hymn was over, another man in the wagon proceeded to address the people; he was a much younger man than the last speaker; somewhat square built and about the middle height; his face was rather broad, but expressive of much intelligence, and with a peculiar calm and serious look; the accent in which he spoke indicated that he was not of these parts, but from some distant district. The subject of his address was faith, and how it could remove mountains. It was a plain address, without any attempt at ornament, and delivered in a tone which was neither loud nor vehement. The speaker was evidently not a practised one — once or twice he hesitated as if for words to express his meaning, but still he held on, talking of faith, and how it could remove mountains: ‘It is the only thing we want, brethren, in this world; if we have that, we are indeed rich, as it will enable us to do our duty under all circumstances, and to bear our lot, however hard it may be — and the lot of all mankind is hard — the lot of the poor is hard, brethren — and who knows more of the poor than I? — a poor man myself, and the son of a poor man: but are the rich better off? not so, brethren, for God is just. The rich have their trials too: I am not rich myself, but I have seen the rich with careworn countenances; I have also seen them in madhouses; from which you may learn, brethren, that the lot of all mankind is hard; that is, till we lay hold of faith, which makes us comfortable under all circumstances; whether we ride in gilded chariots or walk barefooted in quest of bread; whether we be ignorant, whether we be wise — for riches and poverty, ignorance and wisdom, brethren, each brings with it its peculiar temptations. Well, under all these troubles, the thing which I would recommend you to seek is one and the same — faith; faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who made us and allotted to each his station. Each has something to do, brethren. Do it, therefore, but always in faith; without faith we shall find ourselves sometimes at fault; but with faith never — for faith can remove the difficulty. It will teach us to love life, brethren, when life is becoming bitter, and to prize the blessings around us; for as every man has his cares, brethren, so has each man his blessings. It will likewise teach us not to love life over much, seeing that we must one day part with it. It will teach us to face death with resignation, and will preserve us from sinking amidst the swelling of the river Jordan.’

And when he had concluded his address, he said, ‘Let us sing a hymn, one composed by Master Charles Wesley — he was my countryman, brethren.

‘Jesus, I cast my soul on Thee, Mighty and merciful to save; Thou shalt to death go down with me, And lay me gently in the grave. This body then shall rest in hope, This body which the worms destroy; For Thou shalt surely raise me up To glorious life and endless joy.’

Farewell, preacher with the plain coat and the calm serious look! I saw thee once again, and that was lately — only the other day. It was near a fishing hamlet, by the sea-side, that I saw the preacher again. He stood on the top of a steep monticle, used by pilots as a look-out for vessels approaching that coast, a dangerous one, abounding in rocks and quick-sands. There he stood on the monticle, preaching to weather-worn fishermen and mariners gathered below upon the sand. ‘Who is he?’ said I to an old fisherman who stood beside me with a book of hymns in his hand; but the old man put his hand to his lips, and that was the only answer I received. Not a sound was heard but the voice of the preacher and the roaring of the waves; but the voice was heard loud above the roaring of the sea, for the preacher now spoke with power, and his voice was not that of one who hesitates. There he stood — no longer a young man, for his black locks were become gray, even like my own; but there was the intelligent face, and the calm serious look which had struck me of yore. There stood the preacher, one of those men — and, thank God, their number is not few — who, animated by the spirit of Christ, amidst much poverty, and, alas! much contempt, persist in carrying the light of the Gospel amidst the dark parishes of what, but for their instrumentality, would scarcely be Christian England. I would have waited till he had concluded, in order that I might speak to him, and endeavour to bring back the ancient scene to his recollection, but suddenly a man came hurrying towards the monticle, mounted on a speedy horse, and holding by the bridle one yet more speedy, and he whispered to me, ‘Why loiterest thou here? — knowest thou not all that is to be done before midnight?’ and he flung me the bridle; and I mounted on the horse of great speed, and I followed the other, who had already galloped off. And as I departed, I waved my hand to him on the monticle, and I shouted, ‘Farewell, brother! the seed came up at last, after a long period!’ and then I gave the speedy horse his way, and leaning over the shoulder of the galloping horse, I said, ‘Would that my life had been like his — even like that man’s!’

I now wandered along the heath, till I came to a place where, beside a thick furze, sat a man, his eyes fixed intently on the red ball of the setting sun.

‘That’s not you, Jasper?’

‘Indeed, brother!’

‘I’ve not seen you for years.’

‘How should you, brother?’

‘What brings you here?’

‘The fight, brother.’

‘Where are the tents?’

‘On the old spot, brother.’

‘Any news since we parted?’

‘Two deaths, brother.’

‘Who are dead, Jasper?’

‘Father and mother, brother.’

‘Where did they die?’

‘Where they were sent, brother.’

‘And Mrs. Herne?’

‘She’s alive, brother.’

‘Where is she now?’

‘In Yorkshire, brother.’

‘What is your opinion of death, Mr. Petulengro?’ said I, as I sat down beside him.

‘My opinion of death, brother, is much the same as that in the old song of Pharaoh, which I have heard my grandam sing —

Cana marel o manus chivios ande puv, Ta rovel pa leste o chavo ta romi.

When a man dies, he is cast into the earth, and his wife and child sorrow over him. If he has neither wife nor child, then his father and mother, I suppose; and if he is quite alone in the world, why, then, he is cast into the earth, and there is an end of the matter.’

‘And do you think that is the end of a man?’

‘There’s an end of him, brother, more’s the pity.’

‘Why do you say so?’

‘Life is sweet, brother.’

‘Do you think so?’

‘Think so! — There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?’

‘I would wish to die — ’

‘You talk like a gorgio — which is the same as talking like a fool — were you a Rommany Chal you would talk wiser. Wish to die, indeed! — A Rommany Chal would wish to live for ever!’

‘In sickness, Jasper?’

‘There’s the sun and stars, brother.’

‘In blindness, Jasper?’

‘There’s the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever. Dosta, we’ll now go to the tents and put on the gloves; and I’ll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive, brother!’

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