Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 63

Primitive habits — Rosy-faced damsel — A pleasant moment — Suit of black — The furtive glance — The mighty round — Degenerate times — The newspaper — The evil chance — I congratulate you.

‘Young gentleman,’ said the huge fat landlord, ‘you are come at the right time; dinner will be taken up in a few minutes, and such a dinner,’ he continued, rubbing his hands, ‘as you will not see every day in these times.’

‘I am hot and dusty,’ said I, ‘and should wish to cool my hands and face.’

‘Jenny!’ said the huge landlord, with the utmost gravity, ‘show the gentleman into number seven, that he may wash his hands and face.’

‘By no means,’ said I, ‘I am a person of primitive habits, and there is nothing like the pump in weather like this.’

‘Jenny,’ said the landlord, with the same gravity as before, ‘go with the young gentleman to the pump in the back kitchen, and take a clean towel along with you.’

Thereupon the rosy-faced clean-looking damsel went to a drawer, and producing a large, thick, but snowy white towel, she nodded to me to follow her; whereupon I followed Jenny through a long passage into the back kitchen.

And at the end of the back kitchen there stood a pump; and going to it I placed my hands beneath the spout, and said, ‘Pump, Jenny’; and Jenny incontinently, without laying down the towel, pumped with one hand, and I washed and cooled my heated hands.

And, when my hands were washed and cooled, I took off my neckcloth, and, unbuttoning my shirt collar, I placed my head beneath the spout of the pump, and I said unto Jenny, ‘Now, Jenny, lay down the towel, and pump for your life.’

Thereupon Jenny, placing the towel on a linen-horse, took the handle of the pump with both hands and pumped over my head as handmaid had never pumped before; so that the water poured in torrents from my head, my face, and my hair down upon the brick floor.

And, after the lapse of somewhat more than a minute, I called out with a half-strangled voice, ‘Hold, Jenny!’ and Jenny desisted. I stood for a few moments to recover my breath, then taking the towel which Jenny proffered, I dried composedly my hands and head, my face and hair; then, returning the towel to Jenny, I gave a deep sigh and said, ‘Surely this is one of the pleasant moments of life.’

Then, having set my dress to rights, and combed my hair with a pocket comb, I followed Jenny, who conducted me back through the long passage, and showed me into a neat sanded parlour on the ground-floor.

I sat down by a window which looked out upon the dusty street; presently in came the handmaid, and commenced laying the table-cloth. ‘Shall I spread the table for one, sir,’ said she, ‘or do you expect anybody to dine with you?’ ‘I can’t say that I expect anybody,’ said I, laughing inwardly to myself; ‘however, if you please you can lay for two, so that if any acquaintance of mine should chance to step in, he may find a knife and fork ready for him.’

So I sat by the window, sometimes looking out upon the dusty street, and now glancing at certain old-fashioned prints which adorned the wall over against me. I fell into a kind of doze, from which I was almost instantly awakened by the opening of the door. Dinner, thought I; and I sat upright in my chair. No; a man of the middle age, and rather above the middle height, dressed in a plain suit of black, made his appearance, and sat down in a chair at some distance from me, but near to the table, and appeared to be lost in thought.

‘The weather is very warm, sir,’ said I.

‘Very,’ said the stranger, laconically, looking at me for the first time.

‘Would you like to see the newspaper?’ said I, taking up one which lay upon the window seat.

‘I never read newspapers,’ said the stranger, ‘nor, indeed, — ’ Whatever it might be that he had intended to say he left unfinished. Suddenly he walked to the mantelpiece at the farther end of the room, before which he placed himself with his back towards me. There he remained motionless for some time; at length, raising his hand, he touched the corner of the mantelpiece with his finger, advanced towards the chair which he had left, and again seated himself.

‘Have you come far?’ said he, suddenly looking towards me, and speaking in a frank and open manner, which denoted a wish to enter into conversation. ‘You do not seem to be of this place.’

‘I come from some distance,’ said I; ‘indeed, I am walking for exercise, which I find as necessary to the mind as the body. I believe that by exercise people would escape much mental misery.’

Scarcely had I uttered these words when the stranger laid his hand, with seeming carelessness, upon the table, near one of the glasses; after a moment or two he touched the glass with his finger as if inadvertently, then, glancing furtively at me, he withdrew his hand and looked towards the window.

‘Are you from these parts?’ said I at last, with apparent carelessness.

‘From this vicinity,’ replied the stranger. ‘You think, then, that it is as easy to walk off the bad humours of the mind as of the body?’

‘I, at least, am walking in that hope,’ said I.

‘I wish you may be successful,’ said the stranger; and here he touched one of the forks which lay on the table near him.

Here the door, which was slightly ajar, was suddenly pushed open with some fracas, and in came the stout landlord, supporting with some difficulty an immense dish, in which was a mighty round mass of smoking meat garnished all round with vegetables; so high was the mass that it probably obstructed his view, for it was not until he had placed it upon the table that he appeared to observe the stranger; he almost started, and quite out of breath exclaimed, ‘God bless me, your honour; is your honour the acquaintance that the young gentleman was expecting?’

‘Is the young gentleman expecting an acquaintance?’ said the stranger.

There is nothing like putting a good face upon these matters, thought I to myself; and, getting up, I bowed to the unknown. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘when I told Jenny that she might lay the table-cloth for two, so that in the event of any acquaintance dropping in he might find a knife and fork ready for him, I was merely jocular, being an entire stranger in these parts, and expecting no one. Fortune, however, it would seem, has been unexpectedly kind to me; I flatter myself, sir, that since you have been in this room I have had the honour of making your acquaintance; and in the strength of that hope I humbly entreat you to honour me with your company to dinner, provided you have not already dined.’

The stranger laughed outright.

‘Sir,’ I continued, ‘the round of beef is a noble one, and seems exceedingly well boiled, and the landlord was just right when he said I should have such a dinner as is not seen every day. A round of beef, at any rate such a round of beef as this, is seldom seen smoking upon the table in these degenerate times. Allow me, sir,’ said I, observing that the stranger was about to speak, ‘allow me another remark. I think I saw you just now touch the fork; I venture to hail it as an omen that you will presently seize it, and apply it to its proper purpose, and its companion the knife also.’

The stranger changed colour, and gazed upon me in silence.

‘Do, sir,’ here put in the landlord; ‘do, sir, accept the young gentleman’s invitation. Your honour has of late been looking poorly, and the young gentleman is a funny young gentleman, and a clever young gentleman; and I think it will do your honour good to have a dinner’s chat with the young gentleman.’

‘It is not my dinner hour,’ said the stranger; ‘I dine considerably later; taking anything now would only discompose me; I shall, however, be most happy to sit down with the young gentleman; reach me that paper, and, when the young gentleman has satisfied his appetite, we may perhaps have a little chat together.’

The landlord handed the stranger the newspaper, and, bowing, retired with his maid Jenny. I helped myself to a portion of the smoking round, and commenced eating with no little appetite. The stranger appeared to be soon engrossed with the newspaper. We continued thus a considerable time — the one reading and the other dining. Chancing suddenly to cast my eyes upon the stranger, I saw his brow contract; he gave a slight stamp with his foot, and flung the newspaper to the ground, then stooping down he picked it up, first moving his forefinger along the floor, seemingly slightly scratching it with his nail.

‘Do you hope, sir,’ said I, ‘by that ceremony with the finger to preserve yourself from the evil chance?’

The stranger started; then, after looking at me for some time in silence, he said, ‘Is it possible that you —?’

‘Ay, ay,’ said I, helping myself to some more of the round; ‘I have touched myself in my younger days, both for the evil chance and the good. Can’t say, though, that I ever trusted much in the ceremony.’

The stranger made no reply, but appeared to be in deep thought; nothing farther passed between us until I had concluded the dinner, when I said to him, ‘I shall now be most happy, sir, to have the pleasure of your conversation over a pint of wine.’

The stranger rose; ‘No, my young friend,’ said he, smiling, ‘that would scarce be fair. It is my turn now — pray do me the favour to go home with me, and accept what hospitality my poor roof can offer; to tell you the truth, I wish to have some particular discourse with you which would hardly be possible in this place. As for wine, I can give you some much better than you can get here: the landlord is an excellent fellow, but he is an innkeeper after all. I am going out for a moment, and will send him in, so that you may settle your account; I trust you will not refuse me, I only live about two miles from here.’

I looked in the face of the stranger — it was a fine intelligent face, with a cast of melancholy in it. ‘Sir,’ said I, ‘I would go with you though you lived four miles instead of two.’

‘Who is that gentleman?’ said I to the landlord, after I had settled his bill; ‘I am going home with him.’

‘I wish I were going too,’ said the fat landlord, laying his hand upon his stomach. ‘Young gentleman, I shall be a loser by his honour’s taking you away; but, after all, the truth is the truth — there are few gentlemen in these parts like his honour, either for learning or welcoming his friends. Young gentleman, I congratulate you.’

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