Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 37

My brother — Fits of crying — Mayor-elect — The committee — The Norman arch — A word of Greek — Church and State — At my own expense — If you please.

One morning I arose somewhat later than usual, having been occupied during the greater part of the night with my literary toil. On descending from my chamber into the sitting-room I found a person seated by the fire, whose glance was directed sideways to the table, on which were the usual preparations for my morning’s meal. Forthwith I gave a cry, and sprang forward to embrace the person; for the person by the fire, whose glance was directed to the table, was no one else than my brother.

‘And how are things going on at home?’ said I to my brother, after we had kissed and embraced. ‘How is my mother, and how is the dog?’

‘My mother, thank God, is tolerably well,’ said my brother, ‘but very much given to fits of crying. As for the dog, he is not so well; but we will talk more of these matters anon,’ said my brother, again glancing at the breakfast things: ‘I am very hungry, as you may suppose, after having travelled all night.’

Thereupon I exerted myself to the best of my ability to perform the duties of hospitality, and I made my brother welcome — I may say more than welcome; and, when the rage of my brother’s hunger was somewhat abated, we recommenced talking about the matters of our little family, and my brother told me much about my mother; he spoke of her fits of crying, but said that of late the said fits of crying had much diminished, and she appeared to be taking comfort; and, if I am not much mistaken, my brother told me that my mother had of late the Prayer-book frequently in her hand, and yet oftener the Bible.

We were silent for a time — at last I opened my mouth and mentioned the dog.

‘The dog,’ said my brother, ‘is, I am afraid, in a very poor way; ever since the death he has done nothing but pine and take on. A few months ago, you remember, he was as plump and fine as any dog in the town; but at present he is little more than skin and bone. Once we lost him for two days, and never expected to see him again, imagining that some mischance had befallen him; at length I found him — where do you think? Chancing to pass by the churchyard, I found him seated on the grave!’

‘Very strange,’ said I; ‘but let us talk of something else. It was very kind of you to come and see me.’

‘Oh, as for that matter, I did not come up to see you, though of course I am very glad to see you, having been rather anxious about you, like my mother, who has received only one letter from you since your departure. No, I did not come up on purpose to see you; but on quite a different account. You must know that the corporation of our town have lately elected a new mayor, a person of many qualifications — big and portly, with a voice like Boanerges; a religious man, the possessor of an immense pew; loyal, so much so that I once heard him say that he would at any time go three miles to hear any one sing “God save the King”; moreover, a giver of excellent dinners. Such is our present mayor; who, owing to his loyalty, his religion, and a little, perhaps, to his dinners, is a mighty favourite; so much so that the town is anxious to have his portrait painted in a superior style, so that remote posterity may know what kind of man he was, the colour of his hair, his air and gait. So a committee was formed some time ago, which is still sitting; that is, they dine with the mayor every day to talk over the subject. A few days since, to my great surprise, they made their appearance in my poor studio, and desired to be favoured with a sight of some of my paintings; well, I showed them some, and, after looking at them with great attention, they went aside and whispered. “He’ll do,” I heard one say; “Yes, he’ll do,” said another; and then they came to me, and one of them, a little man with a hump on his back, who is a watchmaker, assumed the office of spokesman, and made a long speech — (the old town has been always celebrated for orators) — in which he told me how much they had been pleased with my productions — (the old town has been always celebrated for its artistic taste) — and, what do you think? offered me the painting of the mayor’s portrait, and a hundred pounds for my trouble. Well, of course I was much surprised, and for a minute or two could scarcely speak; recovering myself, however, I made a speech, not so eloquent as that of the watchmaker of course, being not so accustomed to speaking; but not so bad either, taking everything into consideration, telling them how flattered I felt by the honour which they had conferred in proposing to me such an undertaking; expressing, however, my fears that I was not competent to the task, and concluding by saying what a pity it was that Crome was dead. “Crome,” said the little man, “Crome; yes, he was a clever man, a very clever man in his way; he was good at painting landscapes and farm-houses, but he would not do in the present instance were he alive. He had no conception of the heroic, sir. We want some person capable of representing our mayor striding under the Norman arch out of the cathedral.” At the mention of the heroic an idea came at once into my head. “Oh,” said I, “if you are in quest of the heroic, I am glad that you came to me; don’t mistake me,” I continued, “I do not mean to say that I could do justice to your subject, though I am fond of the heroic; but I can introduce you to a great master of the heroic, fully competent to do justice to your mayor. Not to me, therefore, be the painting of the picture given, but to a friend of mine, the great master of the heroic, to the best, the strongest, [Greek text]” I added, for, being amongst orators, I thought a word of Greek would tell.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘and what did the orators say?’

‘They gazed dubiously at me and at one another,’ said my brother; ‘at last the watchmaker asked me who this Mr. Christo was; adding, that he had never heard of such a person; that, from my recommendation of him, he had no doubt that he was a very clever man; but that they should like to know something more about him before giving the commission to him. That he had heard of Christie the great auctioneer, who was considered to be an excellent judge of pictures; but he supposed that I scarcely — Whereupon, interrupting the watchmaker, I told him that I alluded neither to Christo nor to Christie; but to the painter of Lazarus rising from the grave, a painter under whom I had myself studied during some months that I had spent in London, and to whom I was indebted for much connected with the heroic.

‘“I have heard of him,” said the watchmaker, “and his paintings too; but I am afraid that he is not exactly the gentleman by whom our mayor would wish to be painted. I have heard say that he is not a very good friend to Church and State. Come, young man,” he added, “it appears to me that you are too modest; I like your style of painting, so do we all, and — why should I mince the matter? — the money is to be collected in the town, why should it go into a stranger’s pocket, and be spent in London?”

‘Thereupon I made them a speech, in which I said that art had nothing to do with Church and State, at least with English Church and State, which had never encouraged it; and that, though Church and State were doubtless very fine things, a man might be a very good artist who cared not a straw for either. I then made use of some more Greek words, and told them how painting was one of the Nine Muses, and one of the most independent creatures alive, inspiring whom she pleased, and asking leave of nobody; that I should be quite unworthy of the favours of the Muse if, on the present occasion, I did not recommend them a man whom I considered to be a much greater master of the heroic than myself; and that, with regard to the money being spent in the city, I had no doubt that they would not weigh for a moment such a consideration against the chance of getting a true heroic picture for the city. I never talked so well in my life, and said so many flattering things to the hunchback and his friends, that at last they said that I should have my own way; and that if I pleased to go up to London, and bring down the painter of Lazarus to paint the mayor, I might; so they then bade me farewell, and I have come up to London.’

‘To put a hundred pounds into the hands of — ’

‘A better man than myself,’ said my brother, ‘of course.’

‘And have you come up at your own expense?’

‘Yes,’ said my brother, ‘I have come up at my own expense.’

I made no answer, but looked in my brother’s face. We then returned to the former subjects of conversation, talking of the dead, my mother, and the dog.

After some time my brother said, ‘I will now go to the painter, and communicate to him the business which has brought me to town; and, if you please, I will take you with me and introduce you to him.’ Having expressed my willingness, we descended into the street.

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