Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 47

New acquaintance — Wired cases — Bread and wine — Armenian colonies — Learning without money — What a language — The tide — Your foible — Learning of the Haiks — Old proverb — Pressing invitation.

Just as I was about to reply to the interrogation of my new-formed acquaintance, a man with a dusky countenance, probably one of the Lascars, or Mulattos, of whom the old woman had spoken, came up and whispered to him, and with this man he presently departed, not however before he had told me the place of his abode, and requested me to visit him.

After the lapse of a few days, I called at the house which he had indicated. It was situated in a dark and narrow street, in the heart of the City, at no great distance from the Bank. I entered a counting-room, in which a solitary clerk, with a foreign look, was writing. The stranger was not at home; returning the next day, however, I met him at the door as he was about to enter; he shook me warmly by the hand. ‘I am glad to see you,’ said he, ‘follow me, I was just thinking of you.’ He led me through the counting-room, to an apartment up a flight of stairs; before ascending, however, he looked into the book in which the foreign-visaged clerk was writing, and, seemingly not satisfied with the manner in which he was executing his task, he gave him two or three cuffs, telling him at the same time that he deserved crucifixion.

The apartment above stairs, to which he led me, was large, with three windows, which opened upon the street. The walls were hung with wired cases, apparently containing books. There was a table and two or three chairs; but the principal article of furniture was a long sofa, extending from the door by which we entered to the farther end of the apartment. Seating himself upon the sofa, my new acquaintance motioned to me to sit beside him, and then, looking me full in the face, repeated his former inquiry. ‘In the name of all that is wonderful, how came you to know aught of my language?’

‘There is nothing wonderful in that,’ said I; ‘we are at the commencement of a philological age, every one studies languages; that is, every one who is fit for nothing else; philology being the last resource of dulness and ennui, I have got a little in advance of the throng, by mastering the Armenian alphabet; but I foresee the time when every unmarriageable miss, and desperate blockhead, will likewise have acquired the letters of Mesroub, and will know the term for bread, in Armenian, and perhaps that for wine.’

‘Kini,’ said my companion; and that and the other word put me in mind of the duties of hospitality. ‘Will you eat bread and drink wine with me?’

‘Willingly,’ said I. Whereupon my companion, unlocking a closet, produced, on a silver salver, a loaf of bread, with a silver-handled knife, and wine in a silver flask, with cups of the same metal. ‘ I hope you like my fare,’ said he, after we had both eaten and drunk.

‘I like your bread,’ said I, ‘for it is stale; I like not your wine, it is sweet, and I hate sweet wine.’

‘It is wine of Cyprus,’ said my entertainer; and, when I found that it was wine of Cyprus, I tasted it again, and the second taste pleased me much better than the first, notwithstanding that I still thought it somewhat sweet. ‘So,’ said I, after a pause, looking at my companion, ‘you are an Armenian.’

‘Yes,’ said he, ‘an Armenian born in London, but not less an Armenian on that account. My father was a native of Ispahan, one of the celebrated Armenian colony which was established there shortly after the time of the dreadful hunger, which drove the children of Haik in swarms from their original country, and scattered them over most parts of the eastern and western world. In Ispahan he passed the greater portion of his life, following mercantile pursuits with considerable success. Certain enemies, however, having accused him to the despot of the place, of using seditious language, he was compelled to flee, leaving most of his property behind. Travelling in the direction of the west, he came at last to London, where he established himself, and where he eventually died, leaving behind a large property and myself, his only child, the fruit of a marriage with an Armenian Englishwoman, who did not survive my birth more than three months.’

The Armenian then proceeded to tell me that he had carried on the business of his father, which seemed to embrace most matters, from buying silks of Lascars, to speculating in the funds, and that he had considerably increased the property which his father had left him. He candidly confessed that he was wonderfully fond of gold, and said there was nothing like it for giving a person respectability and consideration in the world: to which assertion I made no answer, being not exactly prepared to contradict it.

And, when he had related to me his history, he expressed a desire to know something more of myself, whereupon I gave him the outline of my history, concluding with saying, ‘I am now a poor author, or rather philologist, upon the streets of London, possessed of many tongues, which I find of no use in the world.’

‘Learning without money is anything but desirable,’ said the Armenian, ‘as it unfits a man for humble occupations. It is true that it may occasionally beget him friends; I confess to you that your understanding something of my language weighs more with me than the service you rendered me in rescuing my pocket-book the other day from the claws of that scoundrel whom I yet hope to see hanged, if not crucified, notwithstanding there were in that pocket-book papers and documents of considerable value. Yes, that circumstance makes my heart warm towards you, for I am proud of my language — as I indeed well may be — what a language, noble and energetic! quite original, differing from all others both in words and structure.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said I; ‘many languages resemble the Armenian both in structure and words.’

‘For example?’ said the Armenian.

‘For example,’ said I, ‘the English.’

‘The English!’ said the Armenian; ‘show me one word in which the English resembles the Armenian.’

‘You walk on London Bridge,’ said I.

‘Yes,’ said the Armenian.

‘I saw you look over the balustrade the other morning.’

‘True,’ said the Armenian.

‘Well, what did you see rushing up through the arches with noise and foam?’

‘What was it?’ said the Armenian. ‘What was it? — you don’t mean the TIDE?’

‘Do I not?’ said I.

‘Well, what has the tide to do with the matter?’

‘Much,’ said I; ‘what is the tide?’

‘The ebb and flow of the sea,’ said the Armenian.

‘The sea itself; what is the Haik word for sea?’

The Armenian gave a strong gasp; then, nodding his head thrice, ‘You are right,’ said he, ‘the English word tide is the Armenian for sea; and now I begin to perceive that there are many English words which are Armenian; there is — and —; and there again in French, there is — and — derived from the Armenian. How strange, how singular — I thank you. It is a proud thing to see that the language of my race has had so much influence over the languages of the world.’

I saw that all that related to his race was the weak point of the Armenian. I did not flatter the Armenian with respect to his race or language. ‘An inconsiderable people,’ said I, ‘shrewd and industrious, but still an inconsiderable people. A language bold and expressive, and of some antiquity, derived, though perhaps not immediately, from some much older tongue. I do not think that the Armenian has had any influence over the formation of the languages of the world, I am not much indebted to the Armenian for the solution of any doubts; whereas to the language of Mr. Petulengro — ‘

‘I have heard you mention that name before,’ said the Armenian; ‘who is Mr. Petulengro?’

And then I told the Armenian who Mr. Petulengro was. The Armenian spoke contemptuously of Mr. Petulengro and his race. ‘Don’t speak contemptuously of Mr. Petulengro,’ said I, ‘nor of anything belonging to him. He is a dark mysterious personage; all connected with him is a mystery, especially his language; but I believe that his language is doomed to solve a great philological problem — Mr. Petulengo — ’

‘You appear agitated,’ said the Armenian; ‘take another glass of wine; you possess a great deal of philological knowledge, but it appears to me that the language of this Petulengro is your foible: but let us change the subject; I feel much interested in you, and would fain be of service to you. Can you cast accounts?’

I shook my head.

‘Keep books?’

‘I have an idea that I could write books,’ said I; ‘but, as to keeping them — ’ and here again I shook my head.

The Armenian was silent some time; all at once, glancing at one of the wire cases, with which, as I have already said, the walls of the room were hung, he asked me if I was well acquainted with the learning of the Haiks. ‘The books in these cases,’ said he, ‘contain the masterpieces of Haik learning.’

‘No,’ said I; ‘all I know of the learning of the Haiks is their translation of the Bible.’

‘You have never read Z-?’

‘No,’ said I, ‘I have never read Z-.’

‘I have a plan,’ said the Armenian; ‘I think I can employ you agreeably and profitably; I should like to see Z— in an English dress; you shall translate Z— If you can read the Scriptures in Armenian, you can translate Z-. He is our Esop, the most acute and clever of all our moral writers — his philosophy — ’

‘I will have nothing to do with him,’ said I.

‘Wherefore?’ said the Armenian.

‘There is an old proverb,’ said I, ‘“that a burnt child avoids the fire.” I have burnt my hands sufficiently with attempting to translate philosophy, to make me cautious of venturing upon it again’; and then I told the Armenian how I had been persuaded by the publisher to translate his philosophy into German, and what sorry thanks I had received; ‘And who knows,’ said I, ‘but the attempt to translate Armenian philosophy into English might he attended with yet more disagreeable consequences?’

The Armenian smiled. ‘You would find me very different from the publisher.’

‘In many points I have no doubt I should,’ I replied; ‘but at the present moment I feel like a bird which has escaped from a cage, and, though hungry, feels no disposition to return. Of what nation is the dark man below stairs, whom I saw writing at the desk?’

‘He is a Moldave,’ said the Armenian; ‘the dog (and here his eyes sparkled) deserves to be crucified, he is continually making mistakes.’

The Armenian again renewed his proposition about Z-, which I again refused, as I felt but little inclination to place myself beneath the jurisdiction of a person who was in the habit of cuffing those whom he employed, when they made mistakes. I presently took my departure; not, however, before I had received from the Armenian a pressing invitation to call upon him whenever I should feel disposed.

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