Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 62

The hostelry — Life uncertain — Open countenance — The grand point — Thank you, master — A hard mother — Poor dear! — Considerable odds — The better country — English fashion — Landlord-looking person.

And in the old city I remained two days, passing my time as I best could — inspecting the curiosities of the place, eating and drinking when I felt so disposed, which I frequently did, the digestive organs having assumed a tone to which for many months they had been strangers — enjoying at night balmy sleep in a large bed in a dusky room, at the end of a corridor, in a certain hostelry in which I had taken up my quarters — receiving from the people of the hostelry such civility and condescension as people who travel on foot with bundle and stick, but who nevertheless are perceived to be not altogether destitute of coin, are in the habit of receiving. On the third day, on a fine sunny afternoon, I departed from the city of the spire.

As I was passing through one of the suburbs, I saw, all on a sudden, a respectable-looking female fall down in a fit; several persons hastened to her assistance. ‘She is dead,’ said one. ‘No, she is not,’ said another. ‘I am afraid she is,’ said a third. ‘Life is very uncertain,’ said a fourth. ‘It is Mrs. — ’ said a fifth; ‘let us carry her to her own house.’ Not being able to render any assistance, I left the poor female in the hands of her townsfolk, and proceeded on my way. I had chosen a road in the direction of the north-west, it led over downs where corn was growing, but where neither tree nor hedge was to be seen; two or three hours’ walking brought me to a beautiful valley, abounding with trees of various kinds, with a delightful village at its farthest extremity; passing through it, I ascended a lofty acclivity, on the top of which I sat down on a bank, and, taking off my hat, permitted a breeze, which swept coolly and refreshingly over the downs, to dry my hair, dripping from the effects of exercise and the heat of the day.

And as I sat there, gazing now at the blue heavens, now at the downs before me, a man came along the road in the direction in which I had hitherto been proceeding: just opposite to me he stopped, and, looking at me, cried — ‘Am I right for London, master?’

He was dressed like a sailor, and appeared to be between twenty-five and thirty years of age — he had an open manly countenance, and there was a bold and fearless expression in his eye.

‘Yes,’ said I, in reply to his question; ‘this is one of the ways to London. Do you come from far?’

‘From — ’ said the man, naming a well-known seaport.

‘Is this the direct road to London from that place?’ I demanded.

‘No,’ said the man; ‘but I had to visit two or three other places on certain commissions I was intrusted with; amongst others to — where I had to take a small sum of money. I am rather tired, master; and, if you please, I will sit down beside you.’

‘You have as much right to sit down here as I have,’ said I; ‘the road is free for every one; as for sitting down beside me, you have the look of an honest man, and I have no objection to your company.’

‘Why, as for being honest, master,’ said the man, laughing and sitting down by me, ‘I haven’t much to say — many is the wild thing I have done when I was younger; however, what is done, is done. To learn, one must live, master; and I have lived long enough to learn the grand point of wisdom.’

‘What is that?’ said I.

‘That honesty is the best policy, master.’

‘You appear to be a sailor,’ said I, looking at his dress.

‘I was not bred a sailor,’ said the man, ‘though, when my foot is on the salt water, I can play the part — and play it well too. I am now from a long voyage.’

‘From America?’ said I.

‘Farther than that,’ said the man.

‘Have you any objection to tell me?’ said I.

‘From New South Wales,’ said the man, looking me full in the face.

‘Dear me,’ said I.

‘Why do you say “Dear me”?’ said the man.

‘It is a very long way off,’ said I.

‘Was that your reason for saying so?’ said the man.

‘Not exactly,’ said I.

‘No,’ said the man, with something of a bitter smile; ‘it was something else that made you say so; you were thinking of the convicts.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘what then — you are no convict.’

‘How do you know?’

‘You do not look like one.’

‘Thank you, master,’ said the man cheerfully; ‘and, to a certain extent, you are right — bygones are bygones — I am no longer what I was, nor ever will be again; the truth, however, is the truth — a convict I have been — a convict at Sydney Cove.’

‘And you have served out the period for which you were sentenced, and are now returned?’

‘As to serving out my sentence,’ replied the man, ‘I can’t say that I did; I was sentenced for fourteen years, and I was in Sydney Cove little more than half that time. The truth is that I did the Government a service. There was a conspiracy amongst some of the convicts to murder and destroy — I overheard and informed the Government; mind one thing, however, I was not concerned in it; those who got it up were no comrades of mine, but a bloody gang of villains. Well, the Government, in consideration of the service I had done them, remitted the remainder of my sentence; and some kind gentlemen interested themselves about me, gave me good books and good advice, and, being satisfied with my conduct, procured me employ in an exploring expedition, by which I earned money. In fact, the being sent to Sydney was the best thing that ever happened to me in all my life.’

‘And you have now returned to your native country. Longing to see home brought you from New South Wales.’

‘There you are mistaken,’ said the man. ‘Wish to see England again would never have brought me so far; for, to tell you the truth, master, England was a hard mother to me, as she has proved to many. No, a wish to see another kind of mother — a poor old woman, whose son I am — has brought me back.’

‘You have a mother, then?’ said I. ‘Does she reside in London?’

‘She used to live in London,’ said the man; ‘but I am afraid she is long since dead.’

‘How did she support herself?’ said I.

‘Support herself! with difficulty enough; she used to keep a small stall on London Bridge, where she sold fruit; I am afraid she is dead, and that she died perhaps in misery. She was a poor sinful creature; but I loved her, and she loved me. I came all the way back merely for the chance of seeing her.’

‘Did you ever write to her,’ said I, ‘or cause others to write to her?’

‘I wrote to her myself,’ said the man, ‘about two years ago; but I never received an answer. I learned to write very tolerably over there, by the assistance of the good people I spoke of. As for reading, I could do that very well before I went — my poor mother taught me to read, out of a book that she was very fond of; a strange book it was, I remember. Poor dear! — what I would give only to know that she is alive.’

‘Life is very uncertain,’ said I.

‘That is true,’ said the man, with a sigh.

‘We are here one moment, and gone the next,’ I continued. ‘As I passed through the streets of a neighbouring town, I saw a respectable woman drop down, and people said she was dead. Who knows but that she too had a son coming to see her from a distance, at that very time?’

‘Who knows, indeed?’ said the man. ‘Ah, I am afraid my mother is dead. Well, God’s will be done.’

‘However,’ said I, ‘I should not wonder at your finding your mother alive.’

‘You wouldn’t?’ said the man, looking at me wistfully.

‘I should not wonder at all,’ said I; ‘indeed, something within me seems to tell me you will; I should not much mind betting five shillings to fivepence that you will see your mother within a week. Now, friend, five shillings to fivepence — ’

‘Is very considerable odds,’ said the man, rubbing his hands; ‘sure you must have good reason to hope, when you are willing to give such odds.’

‘After all,’ said I, ‘it not unfrequently happens that those who lay the long odds lose. Let us hope, however. What do you mean to do in the event of finding your mother alive?’

‘I scarcely know,’ said the man; ‘I have frequently thought that if I found my mother alive I would attempt to persuade her to accompany me to the country which I have left — it is a better country for a man — that is, a free man — to live in than this; however, let me first find my mother — if I could only find my mother — ’

‘Farewell,’ said I, rising. ‘Go your way, and God go with you — I will go mine.’ ‘I have but one thing to ask you,’ said the man. ‘What is that?’ I inquired. ‘That you would drink with me before we part — you have done me so much good.’ ‘How should we drink?’ said I; ‘we are on the top of a hill where there is nothing to drink.’ ‘But there is a village below,’ said the man; ‘do let us drink before we part.’ ‘I have been through that village already,’ said I, ‘and I do not like turning back.’ ‘Ah,’ said the man, sorrowfully, ‘you will not drink with me because I told you I was — ‘ ‘You are quite mistaken,’ said I, ‘I would as soon drink with a convict as with a judge. I am by no means certain that, under the same circumstances, the judge would be one whit better than the convict. Come along! I will go back to oblige you. I have an odd sixpence in my pocket, which I will change that I may drink with you.’ So we went down the hill together to the village through which I had already passed, where, finding a public-house, we drank together in true English fashion, after which we parted, the sailor-looking man going his way and I mine.

After walking about a dozen miles, I came to a town, where I rested for the night. The next morning I set out again in the direction of the north-west. I continued journeying for four days, my daily journeys varying from twenty to twenty-five miles. During this time nothing occurred to me worthy of any especial notice. The weather was brilliant, and I rapidly improved both in strength and spirits. On the fifth day, about two o’clock, I arrived at a small town. Feeling hungry, I entered a decent-looking inn — within a kind of bar I saw a huge, fat, landlord-looking person, with a very pretty, smartly-dressed maiden. Addressing myself to the fat man, ‘House!’ said I, ‘house! Can I have dinner, house?’

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