Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 27

My father — Premature decay — The easy-chair — A few questions — So you told me — A difficult language — They can it Haik — Misused opportunities — Saul — Want of candour — Don’t weep — Heaven forgive me — Dated from Paris — I wish he were here — A father’s reminiscences — Farewell to vanities.

My father, as I have already informed the reader, had been endowed by nature with great corporeal strength; indeed, I have been assured that, at the period of his prime, his figure had denoted the possession of almost Herculean powers. The strongest forms, however, do not always endure the longest, the very excess of the noble and generous juices which they contain being the cause of their premature decay. But, be that as it may, the health of my father, some few years after his retirement from the service to the quiet of domestic life, underwent a considerable change; his constitution appeared to be breaking up; and he was subject to severe attacks from various disorders, with which, till then, he had been utterly unacquainted. He was, however, wont to rally, more or less, after his illnesses, and might still occasionally be seen taking his walk, with his cane in his hand, and accompanied by his dog, who sympathised entirely with him, pining as he pined, improving as he improved, and never leaving the house save in his company; and in this manner matters went on for a considerable time, no very great apprehension with respect to my father’s state being raised either in my mother’s breast or my own. But, about six months after the period at which I have arrived in my last chapter, it came to pass that my father experienced a severer attack than on any previous occasion.

He had the best medical advice; but it was easy to see, from the looks of his doctors, that they entertained but slight hopes of his recovery. His sufferings were great, yet he invariably bore them with unshaken fortitude. There was one thing remarkable connected with his illness; notwithstanding its severity, it never confined him to his bed. He was wont to sit in his little parlour, in his easy-chair, dressed in a faded regimental coat, his dog at his feet, who would occasionally lift his head from the hearth-rug on which he lay, and look his master wistfully in the face. And thus my father spent the greater part of his time, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in meditation, and sometimes in reading the Scriptures. I frequently sat with him, though, as I entertained a great awe for my father, I used to feel rather ill at ease, when, as sometimes happened, I found myself alone with him.

‘I wish to ask you a few questions,’ said he to me one day, after my mother had left the room.

‘I will answer anything you may please to ask me, my dear father.’

‘What have you been about lately?’

‘I have been occupied as usual, attending at the office at the appointed hours.’

‘And what do you there?’

‘Whatever I am ordered.’

‘And nothing else?’

‘Oh yes! sometimes I read a book.’

‘Connected with your profession?’

‘Not always; I have been lately reading Armenian — ’

‘What’s that?’

‘The language of a people whose country is a region on the other side of Asia Minor.’

‘Well!’

‘A region abounding with mountains.’

‘Well!’

‘Amongst which is Mount Ararat.’

‘Well!’

‘Upon which, as the Bible informs us, the ark rested.’

‘Well!’

‘It is the language of the people of those regions — ’

‘So you told me.’

‘And I have been reading the Bible in their language.’

‘Well!’

‘Or rather, I should say, in the ancient language of these people; from which I am told the modem Armenian differs considerably.’

‘Well!’

‘As much as the Italian from the Latin.’

‘Well!’

‘So I have been reading the Bible in ancient Armenian.’

‘You told me so before.’

‘I found it a highly difficult language.’

‘Yes.’

‘Differing widely from the languages in general with which I am acquainted.’

‘Yes.’

‘Exhibiting, however, some features in common with them.’

‘Yes.’

‘And sometimes agreeing remarkably in words with a certain strange wild speech with which I became acquainted — ’

‘Irish?’

‘No, father, not Irish — with which I became acquainted by the greatest chance in the world.’

‘Yes.’

‘But of which I need say nothing farther at present, and which I should not have mentioned but for that fact.’

‘Well!’

‘Which I consider remarkable.’

‘Yes.’

‘The Armenian is copious.’

‘Is it?’

‘With an alphabet of thirty-nine letters, but it is harsh and guttural.’

‘Yes.’

‘Like the language of most mountainous people — the Armenians call it Haik.’

‘Do they?’

‘And themselves, Haik, also; they are a remarkable people, and, though their original habitation is the Mountain of Ararat, they are to be found, like the Jews, all over the world.’

‘Well!’

‘Well, father, that’s all I can tell you about the Haiks, or Armenians.’

‘And what does it all amount to?’

‘Very little, father; indeed, there is very little known about the Armenians; their early history, in particular, is involved in considerable mystery.’

‘And, if you knew all that it was possible to know about them, to what would it amount? to what earthly purpose could you turn it? have you acquired any knowledge of your profession?’

‘Very little, father.’

‘Very little! Have you acquired all in your power?’

‘I can’t say that I have, father.’

‘And yet it was your duty to have done so. But I see how it is, you have shamefully misused your opportunities; you are like one who, sent into the field to labour, passes his time in flinging stones at the birds of heaven.’

‘I would scorn to fling a stone at a bird, father.’

‘You know what I mean, and all too well, and this attempt to evade deserved reproof by feigned simplicity is quite in character with your general behaviour. I have ever observed about you a want of frankness, which has distressed me; you never speak of what you are about, your hopes, or your projects, but cover yourself with mystery. I never knew till the present moment that you were acquainted with Armenian.’

‘Because you never asked me, father; there’s nothing to conceal in the matter — I will tell you in a moment how I came to learn Armenian. A lady whom I met at one of Mrs. — ‘s parties took a fancy to me, and has done me the honour to allow me to go and see her sometimes. She is the widow of a rich clergyman, and on her husband’s death came to this place to live, bringing her husband’s library with her: I soon found my way to it, and examined every book. Her husband must have been a learned man, for amongst much Greek and Hebrew I found several volumes in Armenian, or relating to the language.’

‘And why did you not tell me of this before?’

‘Because you never questioned me; but, I repeat, there is nothing to conceal in the matter. The lady took a fancy to me, and, being fond of the arts, drew my portrait; she said the expression of my countenance put her in mind of Alfieri’s Saul.’

‘And do you still visit her?’

‘No, she soon grew tired of me, and told people that she found me very stupid; she gave me the Armenian books, however.’

‘Saul,’ said my father, musingly, ‘Saul. I am afraid she was only too right there; he disobeyed the commands of his master, and brought down on his head the vengeance of Heaven — he became a maniac, prophesied, and flung weapons about him.’

‘He was, indeed, an awful character — I hope I shan’t turn out like him.’

‘God forbid!’ said my father, solemnly; ‘but in many respects you are headstrong and disobedient like him. I placed you in a profession, and besought you to make yourself master of it by giving it your undivided attention. This, however, you did not do, you know nothing of it, but tell me that you are acquainted with Armenian; but what I dislike most is your want of candour — you are my son, but I know little of your real history, you may know fifty things for what I am aware: you may know how to shoe a horse for what I am aware.’

‘Not only to shoe a horse, father, but to make horse-shoes.’

‘Perhaps so,’ said my father; ‘and it only serves to prove what I was just saying, that I know little about you.’

‘But you easily may, my dear father; I will tell you anything that you may wish to know — shall I inform you how I learnt to make horse-shoes?’

‘No,’ said my father; ‘as you kept it a secret so long, it may as well continue so still. Had you been a frank, open-hearted boy, like one I could name, you would have told me all about it of your own accord. But I now wish to ask you a serious question — what do you propose to do?’

‘To do, father?’

‘Yes! the time for which you were articled to your profession will soon be expired, and I shall be no more.’

‘Do not talk so, my dear father; I have no doubt that you will soon be better.’

‘Do not flatter yourself; I feel that my days are numbered, I am soon going to my rest, and I have need of rest, for I am weary. There, there, don’t weep! Tears will help me as little as they will you; you have not yet answered my question. Tell me what you intend to do?’

‘I really do not know what I shall do.’

‘The military pension which I enjoy will cease with my life. The property which I shall leave behind me will be barely sufficient for the maintenance of your mother respectably. I again ask you what you intend to do. Do you think you can support yourself by your Armenian or your other acquirements?’

‘Alas! I think little at all about it; but I suppose I must push into the world, and make a good fight, as becomes the son of him who fought Big Ben; if I can’t succeed, and am driven to the worst, it is but dying — ’

‘What do you mean by dying?’

‘Leaving the world; my loss would scarcely be felt. I have never held life in much value, and every one has a right to dispose as he thinks best of that which is his own.’

‘Ah! now I understand you; and well I know how and where you imbibed that horrible doctrine, and many similar ones which I have heard from your mouth; but I wish not to reproach you — I view in your conduct a punishment for my own sins, and I bow to the will of God. Few and evil have been my days upon the earth; little have I done to which I can look back with satisfaction. It is true I have served my king fifty years, and I have fought with — Heaven forgive me, what was I about to say! — but you mentioned the man’s name, and our minds willingly recall our ancient follies. Few and evil have been my days upon earth, I may say with Jacob of old, though I do not mean to say that my case is so hard as his; he had many undutiful children, whilst I have only —; but I will not reproach you. I have also like him a son to whom I can look with hope, who may yet preserve my name when I am gone, so let me be thankful; perhaps, after all, I have not lived in vain. Boy, when I am gone, look up to your brother, and may God bless you both! There, don’t weep; but take the Bible, and read me something about the old man and his children.’

My brother had now been absent for the space of three years. At first his letters had been frequent, and from them it appeared that he was following his profession in London with industry; they then became rather rare, and my father did not always communicate their contents. His last letter, however, had filled him and our whole little family with joy; it was dated from Paris, and the writer was evidently in high spirits. After describing in eloquent terms the beauties and gaieties of the French capital, he informed us how he had plenty of money, having copied a celebrated picture of one of the Italian masters for a Hungarian nobleman, for which he had received a large sum. ‘He wishes me to go with him to Italy,’ added he, ‘but I am fond of independence; and, if ever I visit old Rome, I will have no patrons near me to distract my attention.’ But six months had now elapsed from the date of this letter, and we had heard no further intelligence of my brother. My father’s complaint increased; the gout, his principal enemy, occasionally mounted high up in his system, and we had considerable difficulty in keeping it from the stomach, where it generally proves fatal. I now devoted almost the whole of my time to my father, on whom his faithful partner also lavished every attention and care. I read the Bible to him, which was his chief delight; and also occasionally such other books as I thought might prove entertaining to him. His spirits were generally rather depressed. The absence of my brother appeared to prey upon his mind. ‘I wish he were here,’ he would frequently exclaim; ‘I can’t imagine what can have become of him; I trust, however, he will arrive in time.’ He still sometimes rallied, and I took advantage of those moments of comparative ease to question him upon the events of his early life. My attentions to him had not passed unnoticed, and he was kind, fatherly, and unreserved. I had never known my father so entertaining as at these moments, when his life was but too evidently drawing to a close. I had no idea that he knew and had seen so much; my respect for him increased, and I looked upon him almost with admiration. His anecdotes were in general highly curious; some of them related to people in the highest stations, and to men whose names were closely connected with some of the brightest glories of our native land. He had frequently conversed — almost on terms of familiarity — with good old George. He had known the conqueror of Tippoo Saib; and was the friend of Townshend, who, when Wolfe fell, led the British grenadiers against the shrinking regiments of Montcalm. ‘Pity,’ he added, ‘that when old — old as I am now — he should have driven his own son mad by robbing him of his plighted bride; but so it was; he married his son’s bride. I saw him lead her to the altar; if ever there was an angelic countenance, it was that girl’s; she was almost too fair to be one of the daughters of women. Is there anything, boy, that you would wish to ask me? now is the time.’

‘Yes, father; there is one about whom I would fain question you.’

‘Who is it? shall I tell you about Elliot?’

‘No, father, not about Elliot; but pray don’t be angry; I should like to know something about Big Ben.’

‘You are a strange lad,’ said my father; ‘and, though of late I have begun to entertain a more favourable opinion than heretofore, there is still much about you that I do not understand. Why do you bring up that name? Don’t you know that it is one of my temptations: you wish to know something about him. Well! I will oblige you this once, and then farewell to such vanities — something about him. I will tell you — his — skin when he flung off his clothes — and he had a particular knack in doing so — his skin, when he bared his mighty chest and back for combat; and when he fought he stood, so. . . . if I remember right — his skin, I say, was brown and dusky as that of a toad. Oh me! I wish my elder son was here.’

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