Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 32

The tanner — The hotel — Drinking claret — London journal — New field — Commonplaceness — The three individuals — Botheration — Frank and ardent.

‘Tanner!’ said I musingly, as I left the bridge; ‘Tanner! what can the man who cures raw skins by means of a preparation of oak bark and other materials have to do with the name which these fakers, as they call themselves, bestow on the smallest silver coin in these dominions? Tanner! I can’t trace the connection between the man of bark and the silver coin, unless journeymen tanners are in the habit of working for sixpence a day. But I have it,’ I continued, flourishing my hat over my head, ‘tanner, in this instance, is not an English word.’ Is it not surprising that the language of Mr. Petulengro and of Tawno Chikno is continually coming to my assistance whenever I appear to be at a nonplus with respect to the derivation of crabbed words? I have made out crabbed words in AEschylus by means of the speech of Chikno and Petulengro, and even in my Biblical researches I have derived no slight assistance from it. It appears to be a kind of picklock, an open sesame, Tanner — Tawno! the one is but a modification of the other; they were originally identical, and have still much the same signification. Tanner, in the language of the apple-woman, meaneth the smallest of English silver coins; and Tawno, in the language of the Petulengres, though bestowed upon the biggest of the Romans, according to strict interpretation signifieth a little child.

So I left the bridge, retracing my steps for a considerable way, as I thought I had seen enough in the direction in which I had hitherto been wandering; I should say that I scarcely walked less than thirty miles about the big city on the day of my first arrival. Night came on, but still I was walking about, my eyes wide open, and admiring everything that presented itself to them. Everything was new to me, for everything is different in London from what it is elsewhere — the people, their language, the horses, the tout ensemble — even the stones of London are different from others — at least it appeared to me that I had never walked with the same case and facility on the flagstones of a country town as on those of London; so I continued roving about till night came on, and then the splendour of some of the shops particularly struck me. ‘A regular Arabian Nights entertainment!’ said I, as I looked into one on Cornhill, gorgeous with precious merchandise, and lighted up with lustres, the rays of which were reflected from a hundred mirrors.

But, notwithstanding the excellence of the London pavement, I began about nine o’clock to feel myself thoroughly tired; painfully and slowly did I drag my feet along. I also felt very much in want of some refreshment, and I remembered that since breakfast I had taken nothing. I was now in the Strand, and, glancing about, I perceived that I was close by an hotel, which bore over the door the somewhat remarkable name of Holy Lands. Without a moment’s hesitation I entered a well-lighted passage, and, turning to the left, I found myself in a well-lighted coffee-room, with a well-dressed and frizzled waiter before me, ‘Bring me some claret,’ said I, for I was rather faint than hungry, and I felt ashamed to give a humbler order to so well-dressed an individual. The waiter looked at me for a moment; then, making a low bow, he bustled off, and I sat myself down in the box nearest to the window. Presently the waiter returned, bearing beneath his left arm a long bottle, and between the fingers of his right hand two large purple glasses; placing the latter on the table, he produced a corkscrew, drew the cork in a twinkling, set the bottle down before me with a bang, and then, standing still, appeared to watch my movements. You think I don’t know how to drink a glass of claret, thought I to myself. I’ll soon show you how we drink claret where I come from; and, filling one of the glasses to the brim, I flickered it for a moment between my eyes and the lustre, and then held it to my nose; having given that organ full time to test the bouquet of the wine, I applied the glass to my lips, taking a large mouthful of the wine, which I swallowed slowly and by degrees, that the palate might likewise have an opportunity of performing its functions. A second mouthful I disposed of more summarily; then, placing the empty glass upon the table, I fixed my eyes upon the bottle, and said — nothing; whereupon the waiter, who had been observing the whole process with considerable attention, made me a bow yet more low than before, and, turning on his heel, retired with a smart chuck of his head, as much as to say, It is all right: the young man is used to claret.

And when the waiter had retired I took a second glass of the wine, which I found excellent; and, observing a newspaper lying near me, I took it up and began perusing it. It has been observed somewhere that people who are in the habit of reading newspapers every day are not unfrequently struck with the excellence of style and general talent which they display. Now, if that be the case, how must I have been surprised, who was reading a newspaper for the first time, and that one of the best of the London journals! Yes, strange as it may seem, it was nevertheless true that, up to the moment of which I am speaking, I had never read a newspaper of any description. I of course had frequently seen journals, and even handled them; but, as for reading them, what were they to me? I cared not for news. But here I was now with my claret before me, perusing, perhaps, the best of all the London journals; it was not the — and I was astonished: an entirely new field of literature appeared to be opened to my view. It was a discovery, but I confess rather an unpleasant one; for I said to myself, If literary talent is so very common in London, that the journals, things which, as their very name denotes, are ephemeral, are written in a style like the article I have been perusing, how can I hope to distinguish myself in this big town, when, for the life of me, I don’t think I could write anything half so clever as what I have been reading? And then I laid down the paper, and fell into deep musing; rousing myself from which, I took a glass of wine, and, pouring out another, began musing again. What I have been reading, thought I, is certainly very clever and very talented; but talent and cleverness I think I have heard some one say are very commonplace things, only fitted for everyday occasions. I question whether the man who wrote the book I saw this day on the bridge was a clever man; but, after all, was he not something much better? I don’t think he could have written this article, but then he wrote the book which I saw on the bridge. Then, if he could not have written the article on which I now hold my forefinger — and I do not believe he could — why should I feel discouraged at the consciousness that I, too, could not write it? I certainly could no more have written the article than he could; but then, like him, though I would not compare myself to the man who wrote the book I saw upon the bridge, I think I could — and here I emptied the glass of claret — write something better.

Thereupon I resumed the newspaper; and, as I was before struck with the fluency of style and the general talent which it displayed, I was now equally so with its commonplaceness and want of originality on every subject; and it was evident to me that, whatever advantage these newspaper-writers might have over me in some points, they had never studied the Welsh bards, translated Kaempe Viser, or been under the pupilage of Mr. Petulengro and Tawno Chikno.

And as I sat conning the newspaper three individuals entered the room, and seated themselves in the box at the farther end of which I was. They were all three very well dressed; two of them elderly gentlemen, the third a young man about my own age, or perhaps a year or two older: they called for coffee; and, after two or three observations, the two eldest commenced a conversation in French, which, however, though they spoke it fluently enough, I perceived at once was not their native language; the young man, however, took no part in their conversation, and when they addressed a portion to him, which indeed was but rarely, merely replied by a monosyllable. I have never been a listener, and I paid but little heed to their discourse, nor indeed to themselves; as I occasionally looked up, however, I could perceive that the features of the young man, who chanced to be seated exactly opposite to me, wore an air of constraint and vexation. This circumstance caused me to observe him more particularly than I otherwise should have done: his features were handsome and prepossessing; he had dark brown hair and a high-arched forehead. After the lapse of half an hour, the two elder individuals, having finished their coffee, called for the waiter, and then rose as if to depart, the young man, however, still remaining seated in the box. The others, having reached the door, turned round, and, finding that the youth did not follow them, one of them called to him with a tone of some authority; whereupon the young man rose, and, pronouncing half audibly the word ‘botheration,’ rose and followed them. I now observed that he was remarkably tall. All three left the house. In about ten minutes, finding nothing more worth reading in the newspaper, I laid it down, and though the claret was not yet exhausted, I was thinking of betaking myself to my lodgings, and was about to call the waiter, when I heard a step in the passage, and in another moment the tall young man entered the room, advanced to the same box, and, sitting down nearly opposite to me, again pronounced to himself, but more audibly than before, the same word.

‘A troublesome world this, sir,’ said I, looking at him.

‘Yes,’ said the young man, looking fixedly at me; ‘but I am afraid we bring most of our troubles on our own heads — at least I can say so of myself,’ he added, laughing. Then, after a pause, ‘I beg pardon,’ he said, ‘but am I not addressing one of my own country?’

‘Of what country are you?’ said I.

‘Ireland.’

‘I am not of your country, sir; but I have an infinite veneration for your country, as Strap said to the French soldier. Will you take a glass of wine?’

‘Ah, de tout mon coeur, as the parasite said to Gil Blas,’ cried the young man, laughing. ‘Here’s to our better acquaintance!’

And better acquainted we soon became; and I found that, in making the acquaintance of the young man, I had indeed made a valuable acquisition; he was accomplished, highly connected, and bore the name of Francis Ardry. Frank and ardent he was, and in a very little time had told me much that related to himself, and in return I communicated a general outline of my own history; he listened with profound attention, but laughed heartily when I told him some particulars of my visit in the morning to the publisher, whom he had frequently heard of.

We left the house together.

‘We shall soon see each other again,’ said he, as we separated at the door of my lodging.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter32.html

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