Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 67

Disturbed slumbers — The bed-post — Two wizards — What can I do? — Real library — The Rev. Mr. Platitude — Toleration to Dissenters — Paradox — Sword of St. Peter — Enemy to humbug — High principles — False concord — The damsel — What religion? — Further conversation — That would never do! — May you prosper.

During the greater part of that night my slumbers were disturbed by strange dreams. Amongst other things, I fancied that I was my host; my head appeared to be teeming with wild thoughts and imaginations, out of which I was endeavouring to frame a book. And now the book was finished and given to the world, and the world shouted; and all eyes were turned upon me, and I shrank from the eyes of the world. And, when I got into retired places, I touched various objects in order to baffle the evil chance. In short, during the whole night, I was acting over the story which I had heard before I went to bed.

At about eight o’clock I awoke. The storm had long since passed away, and the morning was bright and shining; my couch was so soft and luxurious that I felt loth to quit it, so I lay some time, my eyes wandering about the magnificent room to which fortune had conducted me in so singular a manner; at last I heaved a sigh; I was thinking of my own homeless condition, and imagining where I should find myself on the following morning. Unwilling, however, to indulge in melancholy thoughts, I sprang out of bed and proceeded to dress myself, and, whilst dressing, I felt an irresistible inclination to touch the bed-post.

I finished dressing and left the room, feeling compelled, however, as I left it, to touch the lintel of the door. Is it possible, thought I, that from what I have lately heard the long-forgotten influence should have possessed me again? but I will not give way to it; so I hurried downstairs, resisting as I went a certain inclination which I occasionally felt to touch the rail of the banister. I was presently upon the gravel walk before the house: it was indeed a glorious morning. I stood for some time observing the golden fish disporting in the waters of the pond, and then strolled about amongst the noble trees of the park; the beauty and freshness of the morning — for the air had been considerably cooled by the late storm — soon enabled me to cast away the gloomy ideas which had previously taken possession of my mind, and, after a stroll of about half an hour, I returned towards the house in high spirits. It is true that once I felt very much inclined to go and touch the leaves of a flowery shrub which I saw at some distance, and had even moved two or three paces towards it; but, bethinking myself, I manfully resisted the temptation. ‘Begone!’ I exclaimed, ‘ye sorceries, in which I formerly trusted — begone for ever vagaries which I had almost forgotten; good luck is not to be obtained, or bad averted, by magic touches; besides, two wizards in one parish would be too much, in all conscience.’

I returned to the house, and entered the library; breakfast was laid on the table, and my friend was standing before the portrait which I have already said hung above the mantelpiece; so intently was he occupied in gazing at it that he did not hear me enter, nor was aware of my presence till I advanced close to him and spoke, when he turned round and shook me by the hand.

‘What can possibly have induced you to hang up that portrait in your library? it is a staring likeness, it is true, but it appears to me a wretched daub.’

‘Daub as you call it,’ said my friend, smiling, ‘I would not part with it for the best piece of Rafael. For many a happy thought I am indebted to that picture — it is my principal source of inspiration; when my imagination flags, as of course it occasionally does, I stare upon those features, and forthwith strange ideas of fun and drollery begin to flow into my mind; these I round, amplify, or combine into goodly creations, and bring forth as I find an opportunity. It is true that I am occasionally tormented by the thought that, by doing this, I am committing plagiarism; though, in that case, all thoughts must be plagiarisms, all that we think being the result of what we hear, see, or feel. What can I do? I must derive my thoughts from some source or other; and, after all, it is better to plagiarise from the features of my landlord than from the works of Butler and Cervantes. My works, as you are aware, are of a serio-comic character. My neighbours are of opinion that I am a great reader, and so I am, but only of those features — my real library is that picture.’

‘But how did you obtain it?’ said I.

‘Some years ago a travelling painter came into this neighbourhood, and my jolly host, at the request of his wife, consented to sit for his portrait; she highly admired the picture, but she soon died, and then my fat friend, who is of an affectionate disposition, said he could not bear the sight of it, as it put him in mind of his poor wife. I purchased it of him for five pounds — I would not take five thousand for it; when you called that picture a daub, you did not see all the poetry of it.’

We sat down to breakfast; my entertainer appeared to be in much better spirits than on the preceding day; I did not observe him touch once; ere breakfast was over a servant entered — ‘The Reverend Mr. Platitude, sir,’ said he.

A shade of dissatisfaction came over the countenance of my host. ‘What does the silly pestilent fellow mean by coming here?’ said he, half to himself; ‘let him come in,’ said he to the servant.

The servant went out, and in a moment reappeared, introducing the Reverend Mr. Platitude. The Reverend Mr. Platitude, having what is vulgarly called a game leg, came shambling into the room; he was about thirty years of age, and about five feet three inches high; his face was of the colour of pepper, and nearly as rugged as a nutmeg-grater; his hair was black; with his eyes he squinted, and grinned with his lips, which were very much apart, disclosing two very irregular rows of teeth; he was dressed in the true Levitical fashion, in a suit of spotless black, and a neckerchief of spotless white.

The Reverend Mr. Platitude advanced winking and grinning to my entertainer, who received him politely but with evident coldness; nothing daunted, however, the Reverend Mr. Platitude took a seat by the table, and, being asked to take a cup of coffee, winked, grinned, and consented.

In company I am occasionally subject to fits of what is generally called absence; my mind takes flight and returns to former scenes, or presses forward into the future. One of these fits of absence came over me at this time — I looked at the Reverend Mr. Platitude for a moment, heard a word or two that proceeded from his mouth, and saying to myself, ‘You are no man for me,’ fell into a fit of musing — into the same train of thought as in the morning, no very pleasant one — I was thinking of the future.

I continued in my reverie for some time, and probably should have continued longer, had I not been suddenly aroused by the voice of Mr. Platitude raised to a very high key. ‘Yes, my dear sir,’ said he, ‘it is but too true; I have it on good authority — a gone church — a lost church — a ruined church — a demolished church is the Church of England. Toleration to Dissenters! — oh, monstrous!’

‘I suppose,’ said my host, ‘that the repeal of the Test Acts will be merely a precursor of the emancipation of the Papists?’

‘Of the Catholics,’ said the Reverend Mr. Platitude. ‘Ahem. There was a time, as I believe you are aware, my dear sir, when I was as much opposed to the emancipation of the Catholics as it was possible for any one to be; but I was prejudiced, my dear sir, labouring under a cloud of most unfortunate prejudice; but I thank my Maker I am so no longer. I have travelled, as you are aware. It is only by travelling that one can rub off prejudices; I think you will agree with me there. I am speaking to a traveller. I left behind all my prejudices in Italy. The Catholics are at least our fellow-Christians. I thank Heaven that I am no longer an enemy to Catholic emancipation.’

‘And yet you would not tolerate Dissenters?’

‘Dissenters, my dear sir; I hope you would not class such a set as the Dissenters with Catholics?’

‘Perhaps it would be unjust,’ said my host, ‘though to which of the two parties is another thing; but permit me to ask you a question: Does it not smack somewhat of paradox to talk of Catholics, whilst you admit there are Dissenters? If there are Dissenters, how should there be Catholics?’

‘It is not my fault that there are Dissenters,’ said the Reverend Mr. Platitude; ‘if I had my will I would neither admit there were any, nor permit any to be.’

‘Of course you would admit there were such as long as they existed; but how would you get rid of them?’

‘I would have the Church exert its authority.’

‘What do you mean by exerting its authority?’

‘I would not have the Church bear the sword in vain.’

‘What, the sword of St. Peter? You remember what the founder of the religion which you profess said about the sword, “He who striketh with it . . . “ I think those who have called themselves the Church have had enough of the sword. Two can play with the sword, Mr. Platitude. The Church of Rome tried the sword with the Lutherans: how did it fare with the Church of Rome? The Church of England tried the sword, Mr. Platitude, with the Puritans: how did it fare with Laud and Charles?’

‘Oh, as for the Church of England,’ said Mr. Platitude, ‘I have little to say. Thank God, I left all my Church of England prejudices in Italy. Had the Church of England known its true interests, it would long ago have sought a reconciliation with its illustrious mother. If the Church of England had not been in some degree a schismatic church, it would not have fared so ill at the time of which you are speaking; the rest of the Church would have come to its assistance. The Irish would have helped it, so would the French, so would the Portuguese. Disunion has always been the bane of the Church.’

Once more I fell into a reverie. My mind now reverted to the past; methought I was in a small comfortable room wainscoted with oak; I was seated on one side of a fireplace, close by a table on which were wine and fruit; on the other side of the fire sat a man in a plain suit of brown, with the hair combed back from his somewhat high forehead; he had a pipe in his mouth, which for some time he smoked gravely and placidly, without saying a word; at length, after drawing at the pipe for some time rather vigorously, he removed it from his mouth, and, emitting an accumulated cloud of smoke, he exclaimed in a slow and measured tone, ‘As I was telling you just now, my good chap, I have always been an enemy to humbug.’

When I awoke from my reverie the Reverend Mr. Platitude was quitting the apartment.

‘Who is that person?’ said I to my entertainer, as the door closed behind him.

‘Who is he?’ said my host; ‘why, the Reverend Mr. Platitude.’

‘Does he reside in this neighbourhood?’

‘He holds a living about three miles from here; his history, as far as I am acquainted with it, is as follows. His father was a respectable tanner in the neighbouring town, who, wishing to make his son a gentleman, sent him to college. Having never been at college myself, I cannot say whether he took the wisest course; I believe it is more easy to unmake than to make a gentleman; I have known many gentlemanly youths go to college, and return anything but what they went. Young Mr. Platitude did not go to college a gentleman, but neither did he return one: he went to college an ass, and returned a prig; to his original folly was superadded a vast quantity of conceit. He told his father that he had adopted high principles, and was determined to discountenance everything low and mean; advised him to eschew trade, and to purchase him a living. The old man retired from business, purchased his son a living, and shortly after died, leaving him what remained of his fortune. The first thing the Reverend Mr. Platitude did, after his father’s decease, was to send his mother and sister into Wales to live upon a small annuity, assigning as a reason that he was averse to anything low, and that they talked ungrammatically. Wishing to shine in the pulpit, he now preached high sermons, as he called them, interspersed with scraps of learning. His sermons did not, however, procure him much popularity; on the contrary, his church soon became nearly deserted, the greater part of his flock going over to certain dissenting preachers, who had shortly before made their appearance in the neighbourhood. Mr. Platitude was filled with wrath, and abused Dissenters in most unmeasured terms. Coming in contact with some of the preachers at a public meeting, he was rash enough to enter into argument with them. Poor Platitude! he had better have been quiet, he appeared like a child, a very infant, in their grasp; he attempted to take shelter under his college learning, but found, to his dismay, that his opponents knew more Greek and Latin than himself. These illiterate boors, as he had supposed them, caught him at once in a false concord, and Mr. Platitude had to slink home overwhelmed with shame. To avenge himself he applied to the ecclesiastical court, but was told that the Dissenters could not be put down by the present ecclesiastical law. He found the Church of England, to use his own expression, a poor, powerless, restricted Church. He now thought to improve his consequence by marriage, and made up to a rich and beautiful young lady in the neighbourhood; the damsel measured him from head to foot with a pair of very sharp eyes, dropped a curtsey, and refused him. Mr. Platitude, finding England a very stupid place, determined to travel; he went to Italy; how he passed his time there he knows best, to other people it is a matter of little importance. At the end of two years he returned with a real or assumed contempt for everything English, and especially for the Church to which he belongs, and out of which he is supported. He forthwith gave out that he had left behind him all his Church of England prejudices, and, as a proof thereof, spoke against sacerdotal wedlock and the toleration of schismatics. In an evil hour for myself he was introduced to me by a clergyman of my acquaintance, and from that time I have been pestered, as I was this morning, at least once a week. I seldom enter into any discussion with him, but fix my eyes on the portrait over the mantelpiece, and endeavour to conjure up some comic idea or situation, whilst he goes on talking tomfoolery by the hour about Church authority, schismatics, and the unlawfulness of sacerdotal wedlock; occasionally he brings with him a strange kind of being, whose acquaintance he says he made in Italy; I believe he is some sharking priest who has come over to proselytise and plunder. This being has some powers of conversation and some learning, but carries the countenance of an arch villain; Platitude is evidently his tool.’

‘Of what religion are you?’ said I to my host.

‘That of the Vicar of Wakefield — good, quiet, Church of England, which would live and let live, practises charity, and rails at no one; where the priest is the husband of one wife, takes care of his family and his parish — such is the religion for me, though I confess I have hitherto thought too little of religious matters. When, however, I have completed this plaguy work on which I am engaged, I hope to be able to devote more attention to them.’

After some further conversation, the subjects being, if I remember right, college education, priggism, church authority, tomfoolery, and the like, I rose and said to my host, ‘I must now leave you.’

‘Whither are you going?’

‘I do not know.’

‘Stay here, then — you shall be welcome as many days, months, and years as you please to stay.’

‘Do you think I would hang upon another man? No, not if he were Emperor of all the Chinas. I will now make my preparations, and then bid you farewell.’

I retired to my apartment and collected the handful of things which I carried with me on my travels.

‘I will walk a little way with you,’ said my friend on my return.

He walked with me to the park gate; neither of us said anything by the way. When we had come upon the road, I said, ‘Farewell now; I will not permit you to give yourself any further trouble on my account. Receive my best thanks for your kindness; before we part, however, I should wish to ask you a question. Do you think you shall ever grow tired of authorship?’

‘I have my fears,’ said my friend, advancing his hand to one of the iron bars of the gate.

‘Don’t touch,’ said I, ‘it is a bad habit. I have but one word to add: should you ever grow tired of authorship follow your first idea of getting into Parliament; you have words enough at command; perhaps you want manner and method; but, in that case, you must apply to a teacher, you must take lessons of a master of elocution.’

‘That would never do!’ said my host; ‘I know myself too well to think of applying for assistance to any one. Were I to become a parliamentary orator, I should wish to be an original one, even if not above mediocrity. What pleasure should I take in any speech I might make, however original as to thought, provided the gestures I employed and the very modulation of my voice were not my own? Take lessons, indeed! why, the fellow who taught me, the professor, might be standing in the gallery whilst I spoke; and, at the best parts of my speech, might say to himself, “That gesture is mine — that modulation is mine.” I could not bear the thought of such a thing.’

‘Farewell,’ said I, ‘and may you prosper. I have nothing more to say.’

I departed. At the distance of twenty yards I turned round suddenly; my friend was just withdrawing his finger from the bar of the gate.

‘He has been touching,’ said I, as I proceeded on my way; ‘I wonder what was the evil chance he wished to baffle.’

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