Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 51

The one half-crown — Merit in patience — Cementer of friendship — Dreadful perplexity — The usual guttural — Armenian letters — Much indebted to you — Pure helplessness — Dumb people.

One morning on getting up I discovered that my whole worldly wealth was reduced to one half-crown — throughout that day I walked about in considerable distress of mind; it was now requisite that I should come to a speedy decision with respect to what I was to do; I had not many alternatives, and, before I had retired to rest on the night of the day in question, I had determined that I could do no better than accept the first proposal of the Armenian, and translate under his superintendence the Haik Esop into English.

I reflected, for I made a virtue of necessity, that, after all, such an employment would be an honest and honourable one; honest, inasmuch as by engaging in it I should do harm to nobody; honourable, inasmuch as it was a literary task, which not every one was capable of executing. it was not every one of the booksellers’ writers of London who was competent to translate the Haik Esop. I determined to accept the offer of the Armenian.

Once or twice the thought of what I might have to undergo in the translation from certain peculiarities of the Armenian’s temper almost unsettled me; but a mechanical diving of my hand into my pocket, and the feeling of the solitary half-crown, confirmed me; after all, this was a life of trial and tribulation, and I had read somewhere or other that there was much merit in patience, so I determined to hold fast in my resolution of accepting the offer of the Armenian.

But all of a sudden I remembered that the Armenian appeared to have altered his intentions towards me: he appeared no longer desirous that I should render the Haik Esop into English for the benefit of the stock-jobbers on Exchange, but rather that I should acquire the rudiments of doing business in the Armenian fashion, and accumulate a fortune, which would enable me to make a figure upon ‘Change with the best of the stock-jobbers. ‘Well,’ thought I, withdrawing my hand from my pocket, whither it had again mechanically dived, ‘after all, what would the world, what would this city, be without commerce? I believe the world, and particularly this city, would cut a very poor figure without commerce; and then there is something poetical in the idea of doing business after the Armenian fashion, dealing with dark-faced Lascars and Rabbins of the Sephardim. Yes, should the Armenian insist upon it, I will accept a seat at the desk, opposite the Moldavian clerk. I do not like the idea of cuffs similar to those the Armenian bestowed upon the Moldavian clerk; whatever merit there may be in patience, I do not think that my estimation of the merit of patience would be sufficient to induce me to remain quietly sitting under the infliction of cuffs. I think I should, in the event of his cuffing me, knock the Armenian down. Well, I think I have heard it said somewhere, that a knock-down blow is a great cementer of friendship; I think I have heard of two people being better friends than ever after the one had received from the other a knock-down blow.’

That night I dreamed I had acquired a colossal fortune, some four hundred thousand pounds, by the Armenian way of doing business, but suddenly awoke in dreadful perplexity as to how I should dispose of it.

About nine o’clock next morning I set off to the house of the Armenian; I had never called upon him so early before, and certainly never with a heart beating with so much eagerness; but the situation of my affairs had become very critical, and I thought that I ought to lose no time in informing the Armenian that I was at length perfectly willing either to translate the Haik Esop under his superintendence, or to accept a seat at the desk opposite to the Moldavian clerk, and acquire the secrets of Armenian commerce. With a quick step I entered the counting-room, where, notwithstanding the earliness of the hour, I found the clerk, busied as usual at his desk.

He had always appeared to me a singular being, this same Moldavian clerk. A person of fewer words could scarcely be conceived: provided his master were at home, he would, on my inquiring, nod his head; and, provided he were not, he would invariably reply with the monosyllable No, delivered in a strange guttural tone. On the present occasion, being full of eagerness and impatience, I was about to pass by him to the apartment above, without my usual inquiry, when he lifted his head from the ledger in which he was writing, and, laying down his pen, motioned to me with his forefinger, as if to arrest my progress; whereupon I stopped, and, with a palpitating heart, demanded whether the master of the house was at home. The Moldavian clerk replied with his usual guttural, and, opening his desk, ensconced his head therein.

‘It does not much matter,’ said I; ‘I suppose I shall find him at home after ‘Change; it does not much matter, I can return.’

I was turning away with the intention of leaving the room; at this moment, however, the head of the Moldavian clerk became visible, and I observed a letter in his hand, which he had inserted in the desk at the same time with his head; this he extended towards me, making at the same time a sidelong motion with his head, as much as to say that it contained something which interested me.

I took the letter, and the Moldavian clerk forthwith resumed his occupation. The back of the letter bore my name, written in Armenian characters; with a trembling hand I broke the seal, and, unfolding the letter, I beheld several lines also written in the letters of Mesroub, the Cadmus of the Armenians.

I stared at the lines, and at first could not make out a syllable of their meaning; at last, however, by continued staring, I discovered that, though the letters were Armenian, the words were English; in about ten minutes I had contrived to decipher the sense of the letter; it ran somewhat in this style:-

‘MY DEAR FRIEND— The words which you uttered in our last conversation have made a profound impression upon me; I have thought them over day and night, and have come to the conclusion that it is my bounden duty to attack the Persians. When these lines are delivered to you, I shall be on the route to Ararat. A mercantile speculation will be to the world the ostensible motive of my journey, and it is singular enough that one which offers considerable prospect of advantage has just presented itself on the confines of Persia. Think not, however, that motives of lucre would have been sufficiently powerful to tempt me to the East at the present moment. I may speculate, it is true, but I should scarcely have undertaken the journey but for your pungent words inciting me to attack the Persians. Doubt not that I will attack them on the first opportunity. I thank you heartily for putting me in mind of my duty. I have hitherto, to use your own words, been too fond of money-getting, like all my countrymen. I am much indebted to you; farewell! and may every prosperity await you.’

For some time after I had deciphered the epistle, I stood as if rooted to the floor. I felt stunned — my last hope was gone; presently a feeling arose in my mind — a feeling of self-reproach. Whom had I to blame but myself for the departure of the Armenian? Would he have ever thought of attacking the Persians had I not put the idea into his head? he had told me in his epistle that he was indebted to me for the idea. But for that, he might at the present moment have been in London, increasing his fortune by his usual methods, and I might be commencing under his auspices the translation of the Haik Esop, with the promise, no doubt, of a considerable remuneration for my trouble; or I might be taking a seat opposite the Moldavian clerk, and imbibing the first rudiments of doing business after the Armenian fashion, with the comfortable hope of realising, in a short time, a fortune of three or four hundred thousand pounds; but the Armenian was now gone, and farewell to the fine hopes I had founded upon him the day before. What was I to do? I looked wildly around, till my eyes rested on the Moldavian clerk, who was writing away in his ledger with particular vehemence. Not knowing well what to do or to say, I thought I might as well ask the Moldavian clerk when the Armenian had departed, and when he thought that he would return. It is true it mattered little to me when he departed, seeing that he was gone, and it was evident that he would not be back soon; but I knew not what to do, and in pure helplessness thought I might as well ask; so I went up to the Moldavian clerk, and asked him when the Armenian had departed, and whether he had been gone two days or three. Whereupon the Moldavian clerk, looking up from his ledger, made certain signs, which I could by no means understand. I stood astonished, but, presently recovering myself, inquired when he considered it probable that the master would return, and whether he thought it would be two months or — my tongue faltered — two years; whereupon the Moldavian clerk made more signs than before, and yet more unintelligible; as I persisted, however, he flung down his pen, and, putting his thumb into his mouth, moved it rapidly, causing the nail to sound against the lower jaw; whereupon I saw that he was dumb, and hurried away, for I had always entertained a horror of dumb people, having once heard my another say, when I was a child, that dumb people were half demoniacs, or little better.

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