Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 29

The greeting — Queer figure — Cheer up — The cheerful fire — It will do — The sally forth — Trepidation — Let him come in.

‘One-and-ninepence, sir, or the things which you have brought with you will be taken away from you!’

Such were the first words which greeted my ears, one damp misty morning in March, as I dismounted from the top of a coach in the yard of a London inn.

I turned round, for I felt that the words were addressed to myself. Plenty of people were in the yard — porters, passengers, coachmen, hostlers, and others, who appeared to be intent on anything but myself, with the exception of one individual, whose business appeared to lie with me, and who now confronted me at the distance of about two yards.

I looked hard at the man — and a queer kind of individual he was to look at — a rakish figure, about thirty, and of the middle size, dressed in a coat smartly cut, but threadbare, very tight pantaloons of blue stuff, tied at the ankles, dirty white stockings and thin shoes, like those of a dancing-master; his features were not ugly, but rather haggard, and he appeared to owe his complexion less to nature than carmine; in fact, in every respect, a very queer figure.

‘One-and-ninepence, sir, or your things will be taken away from you!’ he said, in a kind of lisping tone, coming yet nearer to me.

I still remained staring fixedly at him, but never a word answered. Our eyes met; whereupon he suddenly lost the easy impudent air which he before wore. He glanced, for a moment, at my fist, which I had by this time clenched, and his features became yet more haggard; he faltered; a fresh ‘one-and-ninepence,’ which he was about to utter, died on his lips; he shrank back, disappeared behind a coach, and I saw no more of him.

‘One-and-ninepence, or my things will be taken away from me!’ said I to myself, musingly, as I followed the porter to whom I had delivered my scanty baggage; ‘am I to expect many of these greetings in the big world? Well, never mind! I think I know the counter-sign!’ And I clenched my fist yet harder than before.

So I followed the porter, through the streets of London, to a lodging which had been prepared for me by an acquaintance. The morning, as I have before said, was gloomy, and the streets through which I passed were dank and filthy; the people, also, looked dank and filthy; and so, probably, did I, for the night had been rainy, and I had come upwards of a hundred miles on the top of a coach; my heart had sunk within me, by the time we reached a dark narrow street, in which was the lodging.

‘Cheer up, young man,’ said the porter, ‘we shall have a fine afternoon!’

And presently I found myself in the lodging which had been prepared for me. It consisted of a small room, up two pair of stairs, in which I was to sit, and another still smaller above it, in which I was to sleep. I remember that I sat down, and looked disconsolate about me — everything seemed so cold and dingy. Yet how little is required to make a situation — however cheerless at first sight — cheerful and comfortable. The people of the house, who looked kindly upon me, lighted a fire in the dingy grate; and, then, what a change! — the dingy room seemed dingy no more! Oh the luxury of a cheerful fire after a chill night’s journey! I drew near to the blazing grate, rubbed my hands, and felt glad.

And, when I had warmed myself, I turned to the table, on which, by this time, the people of the house had placed my breakfast; and I ate and I drank; and, as I ate and drank, I mused within myself, and my eyes were frequently directed to a small green box, which constituted part of my luggage, and which, with the rest of my things, stood in one corner of the room, till at last, leaving my breakfast unfinished, I rose, and, going to the box, unlocked it, and took out two or three bundles of papers tied with red tape, and, placing them on the table, I resumed my seat and my breakfast, my eyes intently fixed upon the bundles of papers all the time.

And when I had drained the last cup of tea out of a dingy teapot, and ate the last slice of the dingy loaf, I untied one of the bundles, and proceeded to look over the papers, which were closely written over in a singular hand, and I read for some time, till at last I said to myself, ‘It will do.’ And then I looked at the other bundle for some time without untying it; and at last I said, ‘It will do also.’ And then I turned to the fire, and, putting my feet against the sides of the grate, I leaned back on my chair, and, with my eyes upon the fire, fell into deep thought.

And there I continued in thought before the fire, until my eyes closed, and I fell asleep; which was not to be wondered at, after the fatigue and cold which I had lately undergone on the coach-top; and, in my sleep, I imagined myself still there, amidst darkness and rain, hurrying now over wild heaths, and now along roads overhung with thick and umbrageous trees, and sometimes methought I heard the horn of the guard, and sometimes the voice of the coachman, now chiding, now encouraging his horses, as they toiled through the deep and miry ways. At length a tremendous crack of a whip saluted the tympanum of my ear, and I started up broad awake, nearly oversetting the chair on which I reclined — and lo! I was in the dingy room before the fire, which was by this time half extinguished. In my dream I had confounded the noise of the street with those of my night journey; the crack which had aroused me I soon found proceeded from the whip of a carter, who, with many oaths, was flogging his team below the window.

Looking at a clock which stood upon the mantelpiece, I perceived that it was past eleven; whereupon I said to myself, ‘I am wasting my time foolishly and unprofitably, forgetting that I am now in the big world, without anything to depend upon save my own exertions’; and then I adjusted my dress, and, locking up the bundle of papers which I had not read, I tied up the other, and, taking it under my arm, I went downstairs; and, after asking a question or two of the people of the house, I sallied forth into the street with a determined look, though at heart I felt somewhat timorous at the idea of venturing out alone into the mazes of the mighty city, of which I had heard much, but of which, of my own knowledge, I knew nothing.

I had, however, no great cause for anxiety in the present instance; I easily found my way to the place which I was in quest of — one of the many new squares on the northern side of the metropolis, and which was scarcely ten minutes’ walk from the street in which I had taken up my abode. Arriving before the door of a tolerably large house which bore a certain number, I stood still for a moment in a kind of trepidation, looking anxiously at the door; I then slowly passed on till I came to the end of the square, where I stood still, and pondered for a while. Suddenly, however, like one who has formed a resolution, I clenched my right hand, flinging my hat somewhat on one side, and, turning back with haste to the door before which I had stopped, I sprang up the steps, and gave a loud rap, ringing at the same time the bell of the area. After the lapse of a minute the door was opened by a maid-servant of no very cleanly or prepossessing appearance, of whom I demanded, in a tone of some hauteur, whether the master of the house was at home. Glancing for a moment at the white paper bundle beneath my arm, the handmaid made no reply in words, but, with a kind of toss of her head, flung the door open, standing on one side as if to let me enter. I did enter; and the hand-maid, having opened another door on the right hand, went in, and said something which I could not hear: after a considerable pause, however, I heard the voice of a man say, ‘Let him come in’; whereupon the handmaid, coming out, motioned me to enter, and, on my obeying, instantly closed the door behind me.

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