Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 64

New acquaintance — Old French style — The portrait — Taciturnity — The evergreen tree — The dark hour — The flash — Ancestors — A fortunate man — A posthumous child — Antagonist ideas — The hawks — Flaws — The pony — Irresistible impulse — Favourable crisis — The topmost branch — Twenty feet — Heartily ashamed.

I found the stranger awaiting me at the door of the inn. ‘Like yourself, I am fond of walking,’ said he, ‘and when any little business calls me to this place I generally come on foot.’

We were soon out of the town, and in a very beautiful country. After proceeding some distance on the high-road, we turned off, and were presently in one of those mazes of lanes for which England is famous; the stranger at first seemed inclined to be taciturn; a few observations, however, which I made appeared to rouse him, and he soon exhibited not only considerable powers of conversation, but stores of information which surprised me. So pleased did I become with my new acquaintance that I soon ceased to pay the slightest attention either to place or distance. At length the stranger was silent, and I perceived that we had arrived at a handsome iron gate and a lodge; the stranger having rung a bell, the gate was opened by an old man, and we proceeded along a gravel path, which in about five minutes brought us to a large brick house, built something in the old French style, having a spacious lawn before it, and immediately in front a pond in which were golden fish, and in the middle a stone swan discharging quantities of water from its bill. We ascended a spacious flight of steps to the door, which was at once flung open, and two servants with powdered hair and in livery of blue plush came out and stood one on either side as we passed the threshold. We entered a large hall, and the stranger, taking me by the hand, welcomed me to his poor home, as he called it, and then gave orders to another servant, but out of livery, to show me to an apartment, and give me whatever assistance I might require in my toilet. Notwithstanding the plea as to primitive habits which I had lately made to my other host in the town, I offered no objection to this arrangement, but followed the bowing domestic to a spacious and airy chamber, where he rendered me all those little nameless offices which the somewhat neglected state of my dress required. When everything had been completed to my perfect satisfaction, he told me that if I pleased he would conduct me to the library, where dinner would be speedily served.

In the library I found a table laid for two; my host was not there, having as I supposed not been quite so speedy with his toilet as his guest. Left alone, I looked round the apartment with inquiring eyes; it was long and tolerably lofty, the walls from the top to the bottom were lined with cases containing books of all sizes and bindings; there was a globe or two, a couch, and an easy-chair. Statues and busts there were none, and only one painting, a portrait, that of my host, but not him of the mansion. Over the mantelpiece, the features staringly like, but so ridiculously exaggerated that they scarcely resembled those of a human being, daubed evidently by the hand of the commonest sign-artist, hung a half-length portrait of him of round of beef celebrity — my sturdy host of the town.

I had been in the library about ten minutes, amusing myself as I best could, when my friend entered; he seemed to have resumed his taciturnity — scarce a word escaped his lips till dinner was served, when he said, smiling, ‘I suppose it would be merely a compliment to ask you to partake?’

‘I don’t know,’ said I, seating myself; ‘your first course consists of troutlets, I am fond of troutlets, and I always like to be companionable.’

The dinner was excellent, though I did but little justice to it from the circumstance of having already dined; the stranger also, though without my excuse, partook but slightly of the good cheer; he still continued taciturn, and appeared lost in thought, and every attempt which I made to induce him to converse was signally unsuccessful.

And now dinner was removed, and we sat over our wine, and I remember that the wine was good, and fully justified the encomiums of my host of the town. Over the wine I made sure that my entertainer would have loosened the chain which seemed to tie his tongue — but no! I endeavoured to tempt him by various topics, and talked of geometry and the use of the globes, of the heavenly sphere, and the star Jupiter, which I said I had heard was a very large star, also of the evergreen tree, which, according to Olaus, stood of old before the heathen temple of Upsal, and which I affirmed was a yew — but no, nothing that I said could induce my entertainer to relax his taciturnity.

It grew dark, and I became uncomfortable. ‘I must presently be going,’ I at last exclaimed.

At these words he gave a sudden start; ‘Going,’ said he, ‘are you not my guest, and an honoured one?’

‘You know best,’ said I; ‘but I was apprehensive I was an intruder; to several of my questions you have returned no answer.’

‘Ten thousand pardons!’ he exclaimed, seizing me by the hand; ‘but you cannot go now, I have much to talk to you about — there is one thing in particular — ’

‘If it be the evergreen tree at Upsal,’ said I, interrupting him, ‘I hold it to have been a yew — what else? The evergreens of the south, as the old bishop observes, will not grow in the north, and a pine was unfitted for such a locality, being a vulgar tree. What else could it have been but the yew — the sacred yew which our ancestors were in the habit of planting in their churchyards? Moreover, I affirm it to have been the yew for the honour of the tree; for I love the yew, and had I home and land, I would have one growing before my front windows.’

‘You would do right, the yew is indeed a venerable tree, but it is not about the yew.’

‘The star Jupiter, perhaps?’

‘Nor the star Jupiter, nor its moons; an observation which escaped you at the inn has made a considerable impression upon me.’

‘But I really must take my departure,’ said I; ‘the dark hour is at hand.’

And as I uttered these latter words the stranger touched rapidly something which lay near him — I forget what it was. It was the first action of the kind which I had observed on his part since we sat down to table.

‘You allude to the evil chance,’ said I; ‘but it is getting both dark and late.’

‘I believe we are going to have a storm,’ said my friend, ‘but I really hope that you will give me your company for a day or two; I have, as I said before, much to talk to you about.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘I shall be most happy to be your guest for this night; I am ignorant of the country, and it is not pleasant to travel unknown paths by night — dear me, what a flash of lightning.’

It had become very dark; suddenly a blaze of sheet lightning illumed the room. By the momentary light I distinctly saw my host touch another object upon the table.

‘Will you allow me to ask you a question or two?’ said he at last.

‘As many as you please,’ said I; ‘but shall we not have lights?’

‘Not unless you particularly wish it,’ said my entertainer; ‘I rather like the dark, and though a storm is evidently at hand, neither thunder nor lightning has any terrors for me. It is other things I quake at — I should rather say ideas. Now permit me to ask you — ’

And then my entertainer asked me various questions, to all of which I answered unreservedly; he was then silent for some time, at last he exclaimed, ‘I should wish to tell you the history of my life — though not an adventurous one, I think it contains some things which will interest you.’

Without waiting for my reply he began. Amidst darkness and gloom, occasionally broken by flashes of lightning, the stranger related to me, as we sat at table in the library, his truly touching history.

‘Before proceeding to relate the events of my life, it will not be amiss to give you some account of my ancestors. My great-grandfather on the male side was a silk mercer, in Cheapside, who, when he died, left his son, who was his only child, a fortune of one hundred thousand pounds and a splendid business; the son, however, had no inclination for trade, the summit of his ambition was to be a country gentleman, to found a family, and to pass the remainder of his days in rural ease and dignity, and all this he managed to accomplish; he disposed of his business, purchased a beautiful and extensive estate for fourscore thousand pounds, built upon it the mansion to which I had the honour of welcoming you today, married the daughter of a neighbouring squire, who brought him a fortune of five thousand pounds, became a magistrate, and only wanted a son and heir to make him completely happy; this blessing, it is true, was for a long time denied him; it came, however, at last, as is usual, when least expected. His lady was brought to bed of my father, and then who so happy a man as my grandsire; he gave away two thousand pounds in charities, and in the joy of his heart made a speech at the next quarter sessions; the rest of his life was spent in ease, tranquillity, and rural dignity; he died of apoplexy on the day that my father came of age; perhaps it would be difficult to mention a man who in all respects was so fortunate as my grandfather: his death was sudden it is true, but I am not one of those who pray to be delivered from a sudden death.

‘I should not call my father a fortunate man; it is true that he had the advantage of a first-rate education; that he made the grand tour with a private tutor, as was the fashion at that time; that he came to a splendid fortune on the very day that he came of age; that for many years he tasted all the diversions of the capital that, at last determined to settle, he married the sister of a baronet, an amiable and accomplished lady, with a large fortune; that he had the best stud of hunters in the county, on which, during the season, he followed the fox gallantly; had he been a fortunate man he would never have cursed his fate, as he was frequently known to do; ten months after his marriage his horse fell upon him, and so injured him, that he expired in a few days in great agony. My grandfather was, indeed, a fortunate man; when he died he was followed to the grave by the tears of the poor — my father was not.

‘Two remarkable circumstances are connected with my birth — I am a posthumous child, and came into the world some weeks before the usual time, the shock which my mother experienced at my father’s death having brought on the pangs of premature labour; both my mother’s life and my own were at first despaired of; we both, however, survived the crisis. My mother loved me with the most passionate fondness, and I was brought up in this house under her own eye — I was never sent to school.

‘I have already told you that mine is not a tale of adventure; my life has not been one of action, but of wild imaginings and strange sensations; I was born with excessive sensibility, and that has been my bane. I have not been a fortunate man.

‘No one is fortunate unless he is happy, and it is impossible for a being constructed like myself to be happy for an hour, or even enjoy peace and tranquillity; most of our pleasures and pains are the effects of imagination, and wherever the sensibility is great, the imagination is great also. No sooner has my imagination raised up an image of pleasure, than it is sure to conjure up one of distress and gloom; these two antagonist ideas instantly commence a struggle in my mind, and the gloomy one generally, I may say invariably, prevails. How is it possible that I should be a happy man?

‘It has invariably been so with me from the earliest period that I can remember; the first playthings that were given me caused me for a few minutes excessive pleasure: they were pretty and glittering; presently, however, I became anxious and perplexed, I wished to know their history, how they were made, and what of — were the materials precious? I was not satisfied with their outward appearance. In less than an hour I had broken the playthings in an attempt to discover what they were made of.

‘When I was eight years of age my uncle the baronet, who was also my godfather, sent me a pair of Norway hawks, with directions for managing them; he was a great fowler. Oh, how rejoiced was I with the present which had been made me, my joy lasted for at least five minutes; I would let them breed, I would have a house of hawks; yes, that I would — but — and here came the unpleasant idea — suppose they were to flyaway, how very annoying! Ah, but, said hope, there’s little fear of that; feed them well and they will never fly away, or if they do they will come back, my uncle says so; so sunshine triumphed for a little time. Then the strangest of all doubts came into my head; I doubted the legality of my tenure of these hawks; how did I come by them? why, my uncle gave them to me, but how did they come into his possession? what right had he to them? after all, they might not be his to give. I passed a sleepless night. The next morning I found that the man who brought the hawks had not departed. “How came my uncle by these hawks?” I anxiously inquired. “They were sent to him from Norway, master, with another pair.” “And who sent them?” “That I don’t know, master, but I suppose his honour can tell you.” I was even thinking of scrawling a letter to my uncle to make inquiry on this point, but shame restrained me, and I likewise reflected that it would be impossible for him to give my mind entire satisfaction; it is true he could tell who sent him the hawks, but how was he to know how the hawks came into the possession of those who sent them to him, and by what right they possessed them or the parents of the hawks? In a word, I wanted a clear valid title, as lawyers would say, to my hawks, and I believe no title would have satisfied me that did not extend up to the time of the first hawk, that is, prior to Adam; and, could I have obtained such a title, I make no doubt that, young as I was, I should have suspected that it was full of flaws.

‘I was now disgusted with the hawks, and no wonder, seeing all the disquietude they had caused me; I soon totally neglected the poor birds, and they would have starved had not some of the servants taken compassion upon them and fed them. My uncle, soon hearing of my neglect, was angry, and took the birds away; he was a very good-natured man, however, and soon sent me a fine pony; at first I was charmed with the pony, soon, however, the same kind of thoughts arose which had disgusted me on a former occasion. How did my uncle become possessed of the pony? This question I asked him the first time I saw him. Oh, he had bought it of a gypsy, that I might learn to ride upon it. A gypsy; I had heard that gypsies were great thieves, and I instantly began to fear that the gypsy had stolen the pony, and it is probable that for this apprehension I had better grounds than for many others. I instantly ceased to set any value upon the pony, but for that reason, perhaps, I turned it to some account; I mounted it and rode it about, which I don’t think I should have done had I looked upon it as a secure possession. Had I looked upon my title as secure, I should have prized it so much, that I should scarcely have mounted it for fear of injuring the animal; but now, caring not a straw for it, I rode it most unmercifully, and soon became a capital rider. This was very selfish in me, and I tell the fact with shame. I was punished, however, as I deserved; the pony had a spirit of its own, and, moreover, it had belonged to gypsies; once, as I was riding it furiously over the lawn, applying both whip and spur, it suddenly lifted up its heels, and flung me at least five yards over its head. I received some desperate contusions, and was taken up for dead; it was many months before I perfectly recovered.

‘But it is time for me to come to the touching part of my story. There was one thing that I loved better than the choicest gift which could be bestowed upon me, better than life itself — my mother; — at length she became unwell, and the thought that I might possibly lose her now rushed into my mind for the first time; it was terrible, and caused me unspeakable misery, I may say horror. My mother became worse, and I was not allowed to enter her apartment, lest by my frantic exclamations of grief I might aggravate her disorder. I rested neither day nor night, but roamed about the house like one distracted. Suddenly I found myself doing that which even at the time struck me as being highly singular; I found myself touching particular objects that were near me, and to which my fingers seemed to be attracted by an irresistible impulse. It was now the table or the chair that I was compelled to touch; now the bell-rope; now the handle of the door; now I would touch the wall, and the next moment, stooping down, I would place the point of my finger upon the floor: and so I continued to do day after day; frequently I would struggle to resist the impulse, but invariably in vain. I have even rushed away from the object, but I was sure to return, the impulse was too strong to be resisted: I quickly hurried back, compelled by the feeling within me to touch the object. Now I need not tell you that what impelled me to these actions was the desire to prevent my mother’s death; whenever I touched any particular object, it was with the view of baffling the evil chance, as you would call it — in this instance my mother’s death.

‘A favourable crisis occurred in my mother’s complaint, and she recovered; this crisis took place about six o’clock in the morning; almost simultaneously with it there happened to myself a rather remarkable circumstance connected with the nervous feeling which was rioting in my system. I was lying in bed in a kind of uneasy doze, the only kind of rest which my anxiety on account of my mother permitted me at this time to take, when all at once I sprang up as if electrified; the mysterious impulse was upon me, and it urged me to go without delay, and climb a stately elm behind the house, and touch the topmost branch; otherwise — you know the rest — the evil chance would prevail. Accustomed for some time as I had been, under this impulse, to perform extravagant actions, I confess to you that the difficulty and peril of such a feat startled me; I reasoned against the feeling, and strove more strenuously than I had ever done before; I even made a solemn vow not to give way to the temptation, but I believe nothing less than chains, and those strong ones, could have restrained me. The demoniac influence, for I can call it nothing else, at length prevailed; it compelled me to rise, to dress myself, to descend the stairs, to unbolt the door, and to go forth; it drove me to the foot of the tree, and it compelled me to climb the trunk; this was a tremendous task, and I only accomplished it after repeated falls and trials. When I had got amongst the branches, I rested for a time, and then set about accomplishing the remainder of the ascent; this for some time was not so difficult, for I was now amongst the branches; as I approached the top, however, the difficulty became greater, and likewise the danger; but I was a light boy, and almost as nimble as a squirrel, and, moreover, the nervous feeling was within me, impelling me upward. It was only by means of a spring, however, that I was enabled to touch the top of the tree; I sprang, touched the top of the tree, and fell a distance of at least twenty feet, amongst the branches; had I fallen to the bottom I must have been killed, but I fell into the middle of the tree, and presently found myself astride upon one of the boughs; scratched and bruised all over, I reached the ground, and regained my chamber unobserved; I flung myself on my bed quite exhausted; presently they came to tell me that my mother was better — they found me in the state which I have described, and in a fever besides. The favourable crisis must have occurred just about the time that I performed the magic touch; it certainly was a curious coincidence, yet I was not weak enough, even though a child, to suppose that I had baffled the evil chance by my daring feat.

‘Indeed, all the time that I was performing these strange feats, I knew them to be highly absurd, yet the impulse to perform them was irresistible — a mysterious dread hanging over me till I had given way to it; even at that early period I frequently used to reason within myself as to what could be the cause of my propensity to touch, but of course I could come to no satisfactory conclusion respecting it; being heartily ashamed of the practice, I never spoke of it to any one, and was at all times highly solicitous that no one should observe my weakness.’

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