Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 44

The old spot — A long history — Thou shalt not steal — No harm — Education — Necessity — Foam on your lip — Apples and pears — What will you read? — Metaphor — The fur cap — I don’t know him.

It was past midwinter, and I sat on London Bridge, in company with the old apple-woman: she had just returned to the other side of the bridge, to her place in the booth where I had originally found her. This she had done after frequent conversations with me; ‘she liked the old place best,’ she said, which she would never have left but for the terror which she experienced when the boys ran away with her book. So I sat with her at the old spot, one afternoon past midwinter, reading the book, of which I had by this time come to the last pages. I had observed that the old woman for some time past had shown much less anxiety about the book than she had been in the habit of doing. I was, however, not quite prepared for her offering to make me a present of it, which she did that afternoon; when, having finished it, I returned it to her, with many thanks for the pleasure and instruction I had derived from its perusal. ‘You may keep it, dear,’ said the old woman, with a sigh; ‘you may carry it to your lodging, and keep it for your own.’

Looking at the old woman with surprise, I exclaimed, ‘Is it possible that you are willing to part with the book which has been your source of comfort so long?’

Whereupon the old woman entered into a long history, from which I gathered that the book had become distasteful to her; she hardly ever opened it of late, she said, or if she did, it was only to shut it again; also, that other things which she had been fond of, though of a widely different kind, were now distasteful to her. Porter and beef-steaks were no longer grateful to her palate, her present diet chiefly consisting of tea, and bread and butter.

‘Ah,’ said I, ‘you have been ill, and when people are ill, they seldom like the things which give them pleasure when they are in health.’ I learned, moreover, that she slept little at night, and had all kinds of strange thoughts; that as she lay awake many things connected with her youth, which she had quite forgotten, came into her mind. There were certain words that came into her mind the night before the last, which were continually humming in her ears: I found that the words were, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’

On inquiring where she had first heard these words, I learned that she had read them at school, in a book called the primer; to this school she had been sent by her mother, who was a poor widow, and followed the trade of apple-selling in the very spot where her daughter followed it now. It seems that the mother was a very good kind of woman, but quite ignorant of letters, the benefit of which she was willing to procure for her child; and at the school the daughter learned to read, and subsequently experienced the pleasure and benefit of letters, in being able to read the book which she found in an obscure closet of her mother’s house, and which had been her principal companion and comfort for many years of her life.

But, as I have said before, she was now dissatisfied with the book, and with most other things in which she had taken pleasure; she dwelt much on the words, ‘Thou shalt not steal’; she had never stolen things herself, but then she had bought things which other people had stolen, and which she knew had been stolen; and her dear son had been a thief, which he perhaps would not have been but for the example which she set him in buying things from characters, as she called them, who associated with her.

On inquiring how she had become acquainted with these characters, I learned that times had gone hard with her; that she had married, but her husband had died after a long sickness, which had reduced them to great distress; that her fruit trade was not a profitable one, and that she had bought and sold things which had been stolen to support herself and her son. That for a long time she supposed there was no harm in doing so, as her book was full of entertaining tales of stealing; but she now thought that the book was a bad book, and that learning to read was a bad thing; her mother had never been able to read, but had died in peace, though poor.

So here was a woman who attributed the vices and follies of her life to being able to read; her mother, she said, who could not read, lived respectably, and died in peace; and what was the essential difference between the mother and daughter, save that the latter could read? But for her literature she might in all probability have lived respectably and honestly, like her mother, and might eventually have died in peace, which at present she could scarcely hope to do. Education had failed to produce any good in this poor woman; on the contrary, there could be little doubt that she had been injured by it. Then was education a bad thing? Rousseau was of opinion that it was; but Rousseau was a Frenchman, at least wrote in French, and I cared not the snap of my fingers for Rousseau. But education has certainly been of benefit in some instances; well, what did that prove, but that partiality existed in the management of the affairs of the world — if education was a benefit to some, why was it not a benefit to others? Could some avoid abusing it, any more than others could avoid turning it to a profitable account? I did not see how they could; this poor simple woman found a book in her mother’s closet; a book, which was a capital book for those who could turn it to the account for which it was intended; a book, from the perusal of which I felt myself wiser and better, but which was by no means suited to the intellect of this poor simple woman, who thought that it was written in praise of thieving; yet she found it, she read it, and — and — I felt myself getting into a maze; what is right, thought I? what is wrong? Do I exist? Does the world exist? if it does, every action is bound up with necessity.

‘Necessity!’ I exclaimed, and cracked my finger-joints.

‘Ah, it is a bad thing,’ said the old woman.

‘What is a bad thing?’ said I.

‘Why to be poor, dear.’

‘You talk like a fool,’ said I, ‘riches and poverty are only different forms of necessity.’

‘You should not call me a fool, dear; you should not call your own mother a fool.’

‘You are not my mother,’ said I.

‘Not your mother, dear? — no, no more I am; but your calling me fool put me in mind of my dear son, who often used to call me fool — and you just now looked as he sometimes did, with a blob of foam on your lip.’

‘After all, I don’t know that you are not my mother.’

‘Don’t you, dear? I’m glad of it; I wish you would make it out.’

‘How should I make it out? who can speak from his own knowledge as to the circumstances of his birth? Besides, before attempting to establish our relationship, it would be necessary to prove that such people exist.’

‘What people, dear?’

‘You and I.’

‘Lord, child, you are mad; that book has made you so.’

‘Don’t abuse it,’ said I; ‘the book is an excellent one, that is, provided it exists.’

‘I wish it did not,’ said the old woman; ‘but it shan’t long; I’ll burn it, or fling it into the river — the voices at night tell me to do so.’

‘Tell the voices,’ said I, ‘that they talk nonsense; the book, if it exists, is a good book, it contains a deep moral; have you read it all?’

‘All the funny parts, dear; all about taking things, and the manner it was done; as for the rest, I could not exactly make it out.’

‘Then the book is not to blame; I repeat that the book is a good book, and contains deep morality, always supposing that there is such a thing as morality, which is the same thing as supposing that there is anything at all.’

‘Anything at all! Why ain’t we here on this bridge, in my booth, with my stall and my — ’

‘Apples and pears, baked hot, you would say — I don’t know; all is a mystery, a deep question. It is a question, and probably always will be, whether there is a world, and consequently apples and pears; and, provided there be a world, whether that world be like an apple or a pear.’

‘Don’t talk so, dear.’

‘I won’t; we will suppose that we all exist — world, ourselves, apples, and pears: so you wish to get rid of the book?’

‘Yes, dear, I wish you would take it.’

‘I have read it, and have no farther use for it; I do not need books: in a little time, perhaps, I shall not have a place wherein to deposit myself, far less books.’

‘Then I will fling it into the river.’

‘Don’t do that; here, give it me. Now what shall I do with it? you were so fond of it.’

‘I am so no longer.’

‘But how will you pass your time; what will you read?’

‘I wish I had never learned to read, or, if I had, that I had only read the books I saw at school: the primer or the other.’

‘What was the other?’

‘I think they called it the Bible: all about God, and Job, and Jesus.’

‘Ah, I know it.’

‘You have read it; is it a nice book — all true?’

‘True, true — I don’t know what to say; but if the world be true, and not all a lie, a fiction, I don’t see why the Bible, as they call it, should not be true. By the bye, what do you call Bible in your tongue, or, indeed, book of any kind? as Bible merely means a book.’

‘What do I call the Bible in my language, dear?’

‘Yes, the language of those who bring you things.’

‘The language of those who DID, dear; they bring them now no longer. They call me fool, as you did, dear, just now; they call kissing the Bible, which means taking a false oath, smacking calf-skin.’

‘That’s metaphor,’ said I; ‘English, but metaphorical; what an odd language! So you would like to have a Bible, — shall I buy you one?’

‘I am poor, dear — no money since I left off the other trade.’

‘Well, then, I’ll buy you one.’

‘No, dear, no; you are poor, and may soon want the money; but if you can take me one conveniently on the sly, you know — I think you may, for, as it is a good book, I suppose there can be no harm in taking it.’

‘That will never do,’ said I, ‘more especially as I should be sure to be caught, not having made taking of things my trade; but I’ll tell you what I’ll do — try and exchange this book of yours for a Bible; who knows for what great things this same book of yours may serve?’

‘Well, dear,’ said the old woman, ‘do as you please; I should like to see the — what do you call it? — Bible, and to read it, as you seem to think it true.’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘seem; that is the way to express yourself in this maze of doubt — I seem to think — these apples and pears seem to be — and here seems to be a gentleman who wants to purchase either one or the other.’

A person had stopped before the apple-woman’s stall, and was glancing now at the fruit, now at the old woman and myself; he wore a blue mantle, and had a kind of fur cap on his head; he was somewhat above the middle stature; his features were keen, but rather hard; there was a slight obliquity in his vision. Selecting a small apple, he gave the old woman a penny; then, after looking at me scrutinisingly for a moment, he moved from the booth in the direction of Southwark.

‘Do you know who that man is?’ said I to the old woman.

‘No,’ said she, ‘except that he is one of my best customers: he frequently stops, takes an apple, and gives me a penny; his is the only piece of money I have taken this blessed day. I don’t know him, but he has once or twice sat down in the booth with two strange-looking men — Mulattos, or Lascars, I think they call them.’

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