Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 30

The sinister glance — Excellent correspondent — Quite original — My system — A losing trade — Merit — Starting a Review — What have you got? — Stop! — Dairyman’s Daughter — Oxford principles — More conversation — How is this?

There were two individuals in the room in which I now found myself; it was a small study, surrounded with bookcases, the window looking out upon the square. Of these individuals he who appeared to be the principal stood with his back to the fireplace. He was a tall stout man, about sixty, dressed in a loose morning gown. The expression of his countenance would have been bluff but for a certain sinister glance, and his complexion might have been called rubicund but for a considerable tinge of bilious yellow. He eyed me askance as I entered. The other, a pale, shrivelled-looking person, sat at a table apparently engaged with an account-book; he took no manner of notice of me, never once lifting his eyes from the page before him.

‘Well, sir, what is your pleasure?’ said the big man, in a rough tone, as I stood there, looking at him wistfully — as well I might — for upon that man, at the time of which I am speaking, my principal, I may say my only, hopes rested.

‘Sir,’ said I, ‘my name is so-and-so, and I am the bearer of a letter to you from Mr. so-and-so, an old friend and correspondent of yours.’

The countenance of the big man instantly lost the suspicious and lowering expression which it had hitherto exhibited; he strode forward, and, seizing me by the hand, gave me a violent squeeze.

‘My dear sir,’ said he, ‘I am rejoiced to see you in London. I have been long anxious for the pleasure — we are old friends, though we have never before met. Taggart,’ said he to the man who sat at the desk, ‘this is our excellent correspondent, the friend and pupil of our other excellent correspondent.’

The pale, shrivelled-looking man slowly and deliberately raised his head from the account-book, and surveyed me for a moment or two; not the slightest emotion was observable in his countenance. It appeared to me, however, that I could detect a droll twinkle in his eye: his curiosity, if he had any, was soon gratified; he made me a kind of bow, pulled out a snuff-box, took a pinch of snuff, and again bent his head over the page.

‘And now, my dear sir,’ said the big man, ‘pray sit down, and tell me the cause of your visit. I hope you intend to remain here a day or two.’

‘More than that,’ said I, ‘I am come to take up my abode in London.’

‘Glad to hear it; and what have you been about of late? got anything which will suit me? Sir, I admire your style of writing, and your manner of thinking; and I am much obliged to my good friend and correspondent for sending me some of your productions. I inserted them all, and wished there had been more of them — quite original, sir, quite: took with the public, especially the essay about the non-existence of anything. I don’t exactly agree with you though; I have my own peculiar ideas about matter — as you know, of course, from the book I have published. Nevertheless, a very pretty piece of speculative philosophy — no such thing as matter — impossible that there should be — ex nihilo — what is the Greek? I have forgot — very pretty indeed; very original.’

‘I am afraid, sir, it was very wrong to write such trash, and yet more to allow it to be published.’

‘Trash! not at all; a very pretty piece of speculative philosophy; of course you were wrong in saying there is no world. The world must exist, to have the shape of a pear; and that the world is shaped like a pear, and not like an apple, as the fools of Oxford say, I have satisfactorily proved in my book. Now, if there were no world, what would become of my system? But what do you propose to do in London?’

‘Here is the letter, sir,’ said I, ‘of our good friend, which I have not yet given to you; I believe it will explain to you the circumstances under which I come.’

He took the letter, and perused it with attention. ‘Hem!’ said he, with a somewhat altered manner, ‘my friend tells me that you are come up to London with the view of turning your literary talents to account, and desires me to assist you in my capacity of publisher in bringing forth two or three works which you have prepared. My good friend is perhaps not aware that for some time past I have given up publishing — was obliged to do so — had many severe losses — do nothing at present in that line, save sending out the Magazine once a month; and, between ourselves, am thinking of disposing of that — wish to retire — high time at my age — so you see — ’

‘I am very sorry, sir, to hear that you cannot assist me’ (and I remember that I felt very nervous); ‘I had hoped — ’

‘A losing trade, I assure you, sir; literature is a drug. Taggart, what o’clock is?’

‘Well, sir!’ said I, rising, ‘as you cannot assist me, I will now take my leave; I thank you sincerely for your kind reception, and will trouble you no longer.’

‘Oh, don’t go. I wish to have some further conversation with you; and perhaps I may hit upon some plan to benefit you. I honour merit, and always make a point to encourage it when I can; but — Taggart, go to the bank, and tell them to dishonour the bill twelve months after date for thirty pounds which becomes due tomorrow. I am dissatisfied with that fellow who wrote the fairy tales, and intend to give him all the trouble in my power. Make haste.’

Taggart did not appear to be in any particular haste. First of all, he took a pinch of snuff, then, rising from his chair, slowly and deliberately drew his wig, for he wore a wig of a brown colour, rather more over his forehead than it had previously been, buttoned his coat, and, taking his hat, and an umbrella which stood in a corner, made me a low bow, and quitted the room.

‘Well, sir, where were we? Oh, I remember, we were talking about merit. Sir, I always wish to encourage merit, especially when it comes so highly recommended as in the present instance. Sir, my good friend and correspondent speaks of you in the highest terms. Sir, I honour my good friend, and have the highest respect for his opinion in all matters connected with literature — rather eccentric though. Sir, my good friend has done my periodical more good and more harm than all the rest of my correspondents. Sir, I shall never forget the sensation caused by the appearance of his article about a certain personage whom he proved — and I think satisfactorily — to have been a legionary soldier — rather startling, was it not? The S— of the world a common soldier, in a marching regiment — original, but startling; sir, I honour my good friend.’

‘So you have renounced publishing, sir,’ said I, ‘with the exception of the Magazine?’

‘Why, yes; except now and then, under the rose; the old coachman, you know, likes to hear the whip. Indeed, at the present moment, I am thinking of starting a Review on an entirely new and original principle; and it just struck me that you might be of high utility in the undertaking — what do you think of the matter?’

‘I should be happy, sir, to render you any assistance, but I am afraid the employment you propose requires other qualifications than I possess; however, I can make the essay. My chief intention in coming to London was to lay before the world what I had prepared; and I had hoped by your assistance — ’

‘Ah! I see, ambition! Ambition is a very pretty thing; but, sir, we must walk before we run, according to the old saying — what is that you have got under your arm?’

‘One of the works to which I was alluding; the one, indeed, which I am most anxious to lay before the world, as I hope to derive from it both profit and reputation.’

‘Indeed! what do you call it?’

‘Ancient songs of Denmark, heroic and romantic, translated by myself; with notes philological, critical, and historical.’

‘Then, sir, I assure you that your time and labour have been entirely flung away; nobody would read your ballads, if you were to give them to the world tomorrow.’

‘I am sure, sir, that you would say otherwise if you would permit me to read one to you’; and, without waiting for the answer of the big man, nor indeed so much as looking at him, to see whether he was inclined or not to hear me, I undid my manuscript, and, with a voice trembling with eagerness, I read to the following effect:—

Buckshank bold and Elfinstone, And more than I can mention here, They caused to be built so stout a ship, And unto Iceland they would steer.

They launched the ship upon the main, Which bellowed like a wrathful bear; Down to the bottom the vessel sank, A laidly Trold has dragged it there.

Down to the bottom sank young Roland, And round about he groped awhile; Until he found the path which led Unto the bower of Ellenlyle.

‘Stop!’ said the publisher; ‘very pretty indeed, and very original; beats Scott hollow, and Percy too: but, sir, the day for these things is gone by; nobody at present cares for Percy, nor for Scott either, save as a novelist; sorry to discourage merit, sir, but what can I do! What else have you got?’

‘The songs of Ab Gwilym, the Welsh bard, also translated by myself, with notes critical, philological, and historical.’

‘Pass on — what else?’

‘Nothing else,’ said I, folding up my manuscript with a sigh, ‘unless it be a romance in the German style; on which, I confess, I set very little value.’

‘Wild?’

‘Yes, sir, very wild.’

‘Like the Miller of the Black Valley?’

‘Yes, sir, very much like the Miller of the Black Valley.’

‘Well, that’s better,’ said the publisher; ‘and yet, I don’t know, I question whether any one at present cares for the miller himself. No, sir, the time for those things is also gone by; German, at present, is a drug; and, between ourselves, nobody has contributed to make it so more than my good friend and correspondent; — but, sir, I see you are a young gentleman of infinite merit, and I always wish to encourage merit. Don’t you think you could write a series of evangelical tales?’

‘Evangelical tales, sir?’

‘Yes, sir, evangelical novels.’

‘Something in the style of Herder?’

‘Herder is a drug, sir; nobody cares for Herder — thanks to my good friend. Sir, I have in yon drawer a hundred pages about Herder, which I dare not insert in my periodical; it would sink it, sir. No, sir, something in the style of the Dairyman’s Daughter.’

‘I never heard of the work till the present moment.’

‘Then, sir, procure it by all means. Sir, I could afford as much as ten pounds for a well-written tale in the style of the Dairyman’s Daughter; that is the kind of literature, sir, that sells at the present day! It is not the Miller of the Black Valley — no, sir, nor Herder either, that will suit the present taste; the evangelical body is becoming very strong, sir; the canting scoundrels — ’

‘But, sir, surely you would not pander to a scoundrelly taste?’

‘Then, sir, I must give up business altogether. Sir, I have a great respect for the goddess Reason — an infinite respect, sir; indeed, in my time, I have made a great many sacrifices for her; but, sir, I cannot altogether ruin myself for the goddess Reason. Sir, I am a friend to Liberty, as is well known; but I must also be a friend to my own family. It is with the view of providing for a son of mine that I am about to start the Review of which I was speaking. He has taken into his head to marry, sir, and I must do something for him, for he can do but little for himself. Well, sir, I am a friend to Liberty, as I said before, and likewise a friend to Reason; but I tell you frankly that the Review which I intend to get up under the rose, and present him with when it is established, will be conducted on Oxford principles.’

‘Orthodox principles, I suppose you mean, sir?’

‘I do, sir; I am no linguist, but I believe the words are synonymous.’

Much more conversation passed between us, and it was agreed that I should become a contributor to the Oxford Review. I stipulated, however, that, as I knew little of politics, and cared less, no other articles should be required from me than such as were connected with belles-lettres and philology; to this the big man readily assented. ‘Nothing will be required from you,’ said he, ‘but what you mention; and now and then, perhaps, a paper on metaphysics. You understand German, and perhaps it would be desirable that you should review Kant; and in a review of Kant, sir, you could introduce to advantage your peculiar notions about ex nihilo.’ He then reverted to the subject of the Dairyman’s Daughter, which I promised to take into consideration. As I was going away, he invited me to dine with him on the ensuing Sunday.

‘That’s a strange man!’ said I to myself, after I had left the house; ‘he is evidently very clever; but I cannot say that I like him much, with his Oxford Reviews and Dairyman’s Daughters. But what can I do? I am almost without a friend in the world. I wish I could find some one who would publish my ballads, or my songs of Ab Gwilym. In spite of what the big man says, I am convinced that, once published, they would bring me much fame and profit. But how is this? — what a beautiful sun! — the porter was right in saying that the day would clear up — I will now go to my dingy lodging, lock up my manuscripts, and then take a stroll about the big city.’

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