Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 52

Kind of stupor — Peace of God — Divine hand — Farewell, child — The fair — Massive edifice — Battered tars — Lost! lost! — Good-day, gentlemen.

Leaving the house of the Armenian, I strolled about for some time; almost mechanically my feet conducted me to London Bridge, to the booth in which stood the stall of the old apple-woman; the sound of her voice aroused me, as I sat in a kind of stupor on the stone bench beside her; she was inquiring what was the matter with me.

At first, I believe, I answered her very incoherently, for I observed alarm beginning to depict itself upon her countenance. Rousing myself, however, I in my turn put a few questions to her upon her present condition and prospects. The old woman’s countenance cleared up instantly; she informed me that she had never been more comfortable in her life; that her trade, her HONEST trade — laying an emphasis on the word honest — had increased of late wonderfully; that her health was better, and, above all, that she felt no fear and horror ‘here,’ laying her hand on her breast.

On my asking her whether she still heard voices in the night, she told me that she frequently did; but that the present were mild voices, sweet voices, encouraging voices, very different from the former ones; that a voice, only the night previous, had cried out about ‘the peace of God,’ in particularly sweet accents; a sentence which she remembered to have read in her early youth in the primer, but which she had clean forgotten till the voice the night before brought it to her recollection.

After a pause, the old woman said to me, ‘I believe, dear, that it is the blessed book you brought me which has wrought this goodly change. How glad I am now that I can read; but oh what a difference between the book you brought to me and the one you took away! I believe the one you brought is written by the finger of God, and the other by — ’

‘Don’t abuse the book,’ said I, ‘it is an excellent book for those who can understand it; it was not exactly suited to you, and perhaps it had been better that you had never read it — and yet, who knows? Peradventure, if you had not read that book, you would not have been fitted for the perusal of the one which you say is written by the finger of God’; and, pressing my hand to my head, I fell into a deep fit of musing. ‘What, after all,’ thought I, ‘if there should be more order and system in the working of the moral world than I have thought? Does there not seem in the present instance to be something like the working of a Divine hand? I could not conceive why this woman, better educated than her mother, should have been, as she certainly was, a worse character than her mother. Yet perhaps this woman may be better and happier than her mother ever was; perhaps she is so already — perhaps this world is not a wild, lying dream, as I have occasionally supposed it to be.’

But the thought of my own situation did not permit me to abandon myself much longer to these musings. I started up. ‘Where are you going, child?’ said the woman, anxiously. ‘I scarcely know,’ said I; ‘anywhere.’ ‘Then stay here, child,’ said she; ‘I have much to say to you.’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘I shall be better moving about’; and I was moving away, when it suddenly occurred to me that I might never see this woman again; and turning round I offered her my hand, and bade her good-bye. ‘Farewell, child,’ said the old woman, ‘and God bless you!’ I then moved along the bridge until I reached the Southwark side, and, still holding on my course, my mind again became quickly abstracted from all surrounding objects.

At length I found myself in a street or road, with terraces on either side, and seemingly of interminable length, leading, as it would appear, to the south-east. I was walking at a great rate — there were likewise a great number of people, also walking at a great rate; also carts and carriages driving at a great rate; and all — men, carts, and carriages — going in the selfsame direction, namely to the south-east. I stopped for a moment and deliberated whether or not I should proceed. What business had I in that direction? I could not say that I had any particular business in that direction, but what could I do were I to turn back? only walk about well-known streets; and, if I must walk, why not continue in the direction in which I was to see whither the road and its terraces led? I was ere in a terra incognita, and an unknown place had always some interest for me; moreover, I had a desire to know whither all this crowd was going, and for what purpose. I thought they could not be going far, as crowds seldom go far, especially at such a rate; so I walked on more lustily than before, passing group after group of the crowd, and almost vying in speed with some of the carriages, especially the hackney-coaches; and, by dint of walking at this rate, the terraces and houses becoming somewhat less frequent as I advanced, I reached in about three-quarters of an hour a kind of low dingy town, in the neighbourhood of the river; the streets were swarming with people, and I concluded, from the number of wild-beast shows, caravans, gingerbread stalls, and the like, that a fair was being held. Now, as I had always been partial to fairs, I felt glad that I had fallen in with the crowd which had conducted me to the present one, and, casting away as much as I was able all gloomy thoughts, I did my best to enter into the diversions of the fair; staring at the wonderful representations of animals on canvas hung up before the shows of wild beasts, which, by the bye, are frequently found much more worthy of admiration than the real beasts themselves; listening to the jokes of the merry-andrews from the platforms in front of the temporary theatres, or admiring the splendid tinsel dresses of the performers who thronged the stages in the intervals of the entertainments; and in this manner, occasionally gazing and occasionally listening, I passed through the town till I came in front of a large edifice looking full upon the majestic bosom of the Thames.

It was a massive stone edifice, built in an antique style, and black with age, with a broad esplanade between it and the river, on which, mixed with a few people from the fair, I observed moving about a great many individuals in quaint dresses of blue, with strange three-cornered hats on their heads; most of them were mutilated; this had a wooden leg — this wanted an arm; some had but one eye; and as I gazed upon the edifice, and the singular-looking individuals who moved before it, I guessed where I was. ‘I am at — ‘ said I; ‘these individuals are battered tars of Old England, and this edifice, once the favourite abode of Glorious Elizabeth, is the refuge which a grateful country has allotted to them. Here they can rest their weary bodies; at their ease talk over the actions in which they have been injured; and, with the tear of enthusiasm flowing from their eyes, boast how they have trod the deck of fame with Rodney, or Nelson, or others whose names stand emblazoned in the naval annals of their country.’

Turning to the right, I entered a park or wood consisting of enormous trees, occupying the foot, sides, and top of a hill which rose behind the town; there were multitudes of people among the trees, diverting themselves in various ways. Coming to the top of the hill, I was present’ y stopped by a lofty wall, along which I walked, till, coming to a small gate, I passed through, and found myself on an extensive green plain, on one side bounded in part by the wall of the park, and on the others, in the distance, by extensive ranges of houses; to the south-east was a lofty eminence, partially clothed with wood. The plain exhibited an animated scene, a kind of continuation of the fair below; there were multitudes of people upon it, many tents, and shows; there was also horse-racing, and much noise and shouting, the sun shining brightly overhead. After gazing at the horse-racing for a little time, feeling myself somewhat tired, I went up to one of the tents, and laid myself down on the grass. There was much noise in the tent. ‘Who will stand me?’ said a voice with a slight tendency to lisp. ‘Will you, my lord?’ ‘Yes,’ said another voice. Then there was a sound as of a piece of money banging on a table. ‘Lost! lost! lost!’ cried several voices; and then the banging down of the money, and the ‘lost! lost! lost!’ were frequently repeated; at last the second voice exclaimed, ‘I will try no more; you have cheated me.’ ‘Never cheated any one in my life, my lord — all fair — all chance. Them that finds, wins — them that can’t finds, loses. Anyone else try? Who’ll try? Will you, my lord?’ and then it appeared that some other lord tried, for I heard more money flung down. Then again the cry of ‘lost! lost!’ — then again the sound of money, and so on. Once or twice, but not more, I heard ‘Won! won!’ but the predominant cry was ‘Lost! lost!’ At last there was a considerable hubbub, and the words ‘Cheat!’ ‘Rogue!’ and ‘You filched away the pea!’ were used freely by more voices than one, to which the voice with the tendency to lisp replied, ‘Never filched a pea in my life; would scorn it. Always glad when folks wins; but, as those here don’t appear to be civil, not to wish to play any more, I shall take myself off with my table; so, good-day, gentlemen.’

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