Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 45

Bought and exchanged — Quite empty — A new firm — Bibles — Countenance of a lion — Clap of thunder — A truce with this — I have lost it — Clearly a right — Goddess of the Mint.

In pursuance of my promise to the old woman, I set about procuring her a Bible with all convenient speed, placing the book which she had intrusted to me for the purpose of exchange in my pocket. I went to several shops, and asked if Bibles were to be had: I found that there were plenty. When, however, I informed the people that I came to barter, they looked blank, and declined treating with me; saying that they did not do business in that way. At last I went into a shop over the window of which I saw written, ‘Books bought and exchanged’: there was a smartish young fellow in the shop, with black hair and whiskers; ‘You exchange?’ said I. ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘sometimes, but we prefer selling; what book do you want?’ ‘A Bible,’ said I. ‘Ah,’ said he, ‘there’s a great demand for Bibles just now; all kinds of people are become very pious of late,’ he added, grinning at me; ‘I am afraid I can’t do business with you, more especially as the master is not at home. What book have you brought?’ Taking the book out of my pocket, I placed it on the counter: the young fellow opened the book, and inspecting the title-page, burst into a loud laugh. ‘What do you laugh for?’ said I, angrily, and half clenching my fist. ‘Laugh!’ said the young fellow; ‘laugh! who could help laughing?’ ‘I could,’ said I; ‘I see nothing to laugh at; I want to exchange this book for a Bible.’ ‘You do?’ said the young fellow; ‘well, I daresay there are plenty who would be willing to exchange, that is, if they dared. I wish master were at home; but that would never do, either. Master’s a family man, the Bibles are not mine, and master being a family man, is sharp, and knows all his stock; I’d buy it of you, but, to tell you the truth, I am quite empty here,’ said he, pointing to his pocket, ‘so I am afraid we can’t deal.’

Whereupon, looking anxiously at the young man, ‘What am I to do?’ said I; ‘I really want a Bible.’

‘Can’t you buy one?’ said the young man; ‘have you no money?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I have some, but I am merely the agent of another; I came to exchange, not to buy; what am I to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said the young man, thoughtfully laying down the book on the counter; ‘I don’t know what you can do; I think you will find some difficulty in this bartering job, the trade are rather precise.’ All at once he laughed louder than before; suddenly stopping, however, he put on a very grave look. ‘Take my advice,’ said he; ‘there is a firm established in this neighbourhood which scarcely sells any books but Bibles; they are very rich, and pride themselves on selling their books at the lowest possible price; apply to them, who knows but what they will exchange with you?’

Thereupon I demanded with some eagerness of the young man the direction to the place where he thought it possible that I might effect the exchange — which direction the young fellow cheerfully gave me, and, as I turned away, had the civility to wish me success.

I had no difficulty in finding the house to which the young fellow directed me; it was a very large house, situated in a square; and upon the side of the house was written in large letters, ‘Bibles, and other religious books.’

At the door of the house were two or three tumbrils, in the act of being loaded with chests, very much resembling tea-chests; one of the chests falling down, burst, and out flew, not tea, but various books, in a neat, small size, and in neat leather covers; Bibles, said I, — Bibles, doubtless. I was not quite right, nor quite wrong; picking up one of the books, I looked at it for a moment, and found it to be the New Testament. ‘Come, young lad,’ said a man who stood by, in the dress of a porter, ‘put that book down, it is none of yours; if you want a book, go in and deal for one.’

Deal, thought I, deal, — the man seems to know what I am coming about, — and going in, I presently found myself in a very large room. Behind a counter two men stood with their backs to a splendid fire, warming themselves, for the weather was cold.

Of these men one was dressed in brown, and the other was dressed in black; both were tall men — he who was dressed in brown was thin, and had a particularly ill-natured countenance; the man dressed in black was bulky, his features were noble, but they were those of a lion.

‘What is your business, young man?’ said the precise personage, as I stood staring at him and his companion.

‘I want a Bible,’ said I.

‘What price, what size?’ said the precise-looking man.

‘As to size,’ said I, ‘I should like to have a large one — that is, if you can afford me one — I do not come to buy.’

‘Oh, friend,’ said the precise-looking man, ‘if you come here expecting to have a Bible for nothing, you are mistaken — we — ’

‘I would scorn to have a Bible for nothing,’ said I, ‘or anything else; I came not to beg, but to barter; there is no shame in that, especially in a country like this, where all folks barter.’

‘Oh, we don’t barter,’ said the precise man, ‘at least Bibles; you had better depart.’

‘Stay, brother,’ said the man with the countenance of a lion, ‘let us ask a few questions; this may be a very important case; perhaps the young man has had convictions.’

‘Not I,’ I exclaimed, ‘I am convinced of nothing, and with regard to the Bible — I don’t believe — ’

‘Hey!’ said the man with the lion countenance, and there he stopped. But with that ‘Hey’ the walls of the house seemed to shake, the windows rattled, and the porter whom I had seen in front of the house came running up the steps, and looked into the apartment through the glass of the door.

There was silence for about a minute — the same kind of silence which succeeds a clap of thunder.

At last the man with the lion countenance, who had kept his eyes fixed upon me, said calmly, ‘Were you about to say that you don’t believe in the Bible, young man?’

‘No more than in anything else,’ said I; ‘you were talking of convictions — I have no convictions. It is not easy to believe in the Bible till one is convinced that there is a Bible.’

‘He seems to be insane,’ said the prim-looking man; ‘we had better order the porter to turn him out.’

‘I am by no means certain,’ said I, ‘that the porter could turn me out; always provided there is a porter, and this system of ours be not a lie, and a dream.’

‘Come,’ said the lion-looking man, impatiently, ‘a truce with this nonsense. If the porter cannot turn you out, perhaps some other person can; but to the point — you want a Bible?’

‘I do,’ said I, ‘but not for myself; I was sent by another person to offer something in exchange for one.’

‘And who is that person?’

‘A poor old woman, who has had what you call convictions, — heard voices, or thought she heard them — I forgot to ask her whether they were loud ones.’

‘What has she sent to offer in exchange?’ said the man, without taking any notice of the concluding part of my speech.

‘A book,’ said I.

‘Let me see it.’

‘Nay, brother,’ said the precise man, ‘this will never do; if we once adopt the system of barter, we shall have all the holders of useless rubbish in the town applying to us.’

‘I wish to see what he has brought,’ said the other; ‘perhaps Baxter, or Jewell’s Apology, either of which would make a valuable addition to our collection. Well, young man, what’s the matter with you?’

I stood like one petrified; I had put my hand into my pocket — the book was gone.

‘What’s the matter?’ repeated the man with the lion countenance, in a voice very much resembling thunder.

‘I have it not — I have lost it!’

‘A pretty story, truly,’ said the precise-looking man, ‘lost it! You had better retire,’ said the other.

‘How shall I appear before the party who intrusted me with the book? She will certainly think that I have purloined it, notwithstanding all I can say; nor, indeed, can I blame her, — appearances are certainly against me.’

‘They are so — you had better retire.’

I moved towards the door. ‘Stay, young man, one word more; there is only one way of proceeding which would induce me to believe that you are sincere.’

‘What is that?’ said I, stopping and looking at him anxiously.

‘The purchase of a Bible.’

‘Purchase!’ said I, ‘purchase! I came not to purchase, but to barter; such was my instruction, and how can I barter if I have lost the book?’

The other made no answer, and turning away I made for the door; all of a sudden I started, and turning round, ‘Dear me,’ said I, ‘it has just come into my head, that if the book was lost by my negligence, as it must have been, I have clearly a right to make it good.’

No answer.

‘Yes,’ I repeated, ‘I have clearly a right to make it good; how glad I am! see the effect of a little reflection. I will purchase a Bible instantly, that is, if I have not lost — ’ and with considerable agitation I felt in my pocket.

The prim-looking man smiled: ‘I suppose,’ said he, ‘that he has lost his money as well as book.’

‘No,’ said I, ‘I have not’; and pulling out my hand I displayed no less a sum than three half-crowns.

‘Oh, noble goddess of the Mint!’ as Dame Charlotta Nordenflycht, the Swede, said a hundred and fifty years ago, ‘great is thy power; how energetically the possession of thee speaks in favour of man’s character!’

‘Only half-a-crown for this Bible?’ said I, putting down the money, ‘it is worth three’; and bowing to the man of the noble features, I departed with my purchase.

‘Queer customer,’ said the prim-looking man, as I was about to close the door — ‘don’t like him.’

‘Why, as to that, I scarcely know what to say,’ said he of the countenance of a lion.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter45.html

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