Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 72

Desired effect — The three oaks — Winifred — Things of time — With God’s will — The preacher — Creature comforts — Croesaw — Welsh and English — Mayor of Chester.

The oil, which the strangers compelled me to take, produced the desired effect, though, during at least two hours, it was very doubtful whether or not my life would be saved. At the end of that period the man said that with the blessing of God he would answer for my life. He then demanded whether I thought I could bear to be removed from the place in which we were; ‘for I like it not,’ he continued, ‘as something within me tells me that it is not good for any of us to be here.’ I told him, as well as I was able, that I, too, should be glad to leave the place; whereupon, after collecting my things, he harnessed my pony, and, with the assistance of the woman, he contrived to place me in the cart; he then gave me a draught out of a small phial, and we set forward at a slow pace, the man walking by the side of the cart in which I lay. It is probable that the draught consisted of a strong opiate, for after swallowing it I fell into a deep slumber; on my awaking, I found that the shadows of night had enveloped the earth — we were still moving on. Shortly, however, after descending a declivity, we turned into a lane, at the entrance of which was a gate. This lane conducted to a meadow, through the middle of which ran a small brook; it stood between two rising grounds; that on the left, which was on the farther side of the water, was covered with wood, whilst the one on the right, which was not so high, was crowned with the white walls of what appeared to be a farmhouse.

Advancing along the meadow, we presently came to a place where grew three immense oaks, almost on the side of the brook, over which they flung their arms, so as to shade it as with a canopy; the ground beneath was bare of grass, and nearly as hard and smooth as the floor of a barn. Having led his own cart on one side of the midmost tree, and my own on the other, the stranger said to me, ‘This is the spot where my wife and myself generally tarry in the summer season, when we come into these parts. We are about to pass the night here. I suppose you will have no objection to do the same? Indeed, I do not see what else you could do under present circumstances.’ After receiving my answer, in which I, of course, expressed my readiness to assent to his proposal, he proceeded to unharness his horse, and, feeling myself much better, I got down, and began to make the necessary preparations for passing the night beneath the oak.

Whilst thus engaged, I felt myself touched on the shoulder, and, looking round, perceived the woman, whom the stranger called Winifred, standing close to me. The moon was shining brightly upon her, and I observed that she was very good-looking, with a composed yet cheerful expression of countenance; her dress was plain and primitive, very much resembling that of a Quaker. She held a straw bonnet in her hand. ‘I am glad to see thee moving about, young man,’ said she, in a soft, placid tone; ‘I could scarcely have expected it. Thou must be wondrous strong; many, after what thou hast suffered, would not have stood on their feet for weeks and months. What do I say? — Peter, my husband, who is skilled in medicine, just now told me that not one in five hundred would have survived what thou hast this day undergone; but allow me to ask thee one thing, Hast thou returned thanks to God for thy deliverance?’ I made no answer, and the woman, after a pause, said, ‘Excuse me, young man, but do you know anything of God?’ ‘Very little,’ I replied, ‘but I should say He must be a wondrous strong person, if He made all those big bright things up above there, to say nothing of the ground on which we stand, which bears beings like these oaks, each of which is fifty times as strong as myself, and will live twenty times as long.’ The woman was silent for some moments, and then said, ‘I scarcely know in what spirit thy words are uttered. If thou art serious, however, I would caution thee against supposing that the power of God is more manifested in these trees, or even in those bright stars above us, than in thyself — they are things of time, but thou art a being destined to an eternity; it depends upon thyself whether thy eternity shall be one of joy or sorrow.’

Here she was interrupted by the man, who exclaimed from the other side of the tree, ‘Winifred, it is getting late, you had better go up to the house on the hill to inform our friends of our arrival, or they will have retired for the night.’ ‘True,’ said Winifred, and forthwith wended her way to the house in question, returning shortly with another woman, whom the man, speaking in the same language which I had heard him first use, greeted by the name of Mary; the woman replied in the same tongue, but almost immediately said, in English, ‘We hoped to have heard you speak to-night, Peter, but we cannot expect that now, seeing that it is so late, owing to your having been detained by the way, as Winifred tells me; nothing remains for you to do now but to sup — tomorrow, with God’s will, we shall hear you.’ ‘And to-night, also, with God’s will, provided you be so disposed. Let those of your family come hither.’ ‘They will be hither presently,’ said Mary, ‘for knowing that thou art arrived, they will, of course, come and bid thee welcome.’ And scarcely had she spoke, when I beheld a party of people descending the moonlit side of the hill. They soon arrived at the place where we were; they might amount in all to twelve individuals. The principal person was a tall, athletic man, of about forty, dressed like a plain country farmer; this was, I soon found, the husband of Mary; the rest of the group consisted of the children of these two, and their domestic servants. One after another they all shook Peter by the hand, men and women, boys and girls, and expressed their joy at seeing him. After which he said, ‘Now, friends, if you please, I will speak a few words to you.’ A stool was then brought him from the cart, which he stepped on, and the people arranging themselves round him, some standing, some seated on the ground, he forthwith began to address them in a clear, distinct voice; and the subject of his discourse was the necessity, in all human beings, of a change of heart.

The preacher was better than his promise, for, instead of speaking a few words, he preached for at least three-quarters of an hour; none of the audience, however, showed the slightest symptom of weariness; on the contrary, the hope of each individual appeared to hang upon the words which proceeded from his mouth. At the conclusion of the sermon or discourse the whole assembly again shook Peter by the hand, and returned to their house, the mistress of the family saying, as she departed, ‘I shall soon be back, Peter; I go but to make arrangements for the supper of thyself and company’; and, in effect, she presently returned, attended by a young woman, who bore a tray in her hands. ‘Set it down, Jessy,’ said the mistress to the girl, ‘and then betake thyself to thy rest, I shall remain here for a little time to talk with my friends.’ The girl departed, and the preacher and the two females placed themselves on the ground about the tray. The man gave thanks, and himself and his wife appeared to be about to eat, when the latter suddenly placed her hand upon his arm, and said something to him in a low voice, whereupon he exclaimed, ‘Ay, truly, we were both forgetful’; and then getting up, he came towards me, who stood a little way off, leaning against the wheel of my cart; and, taking me by the hand, he said, ‘Pardon us, young man, we were both so engaged in our own creature-comforts, that we forgot thee, but it is not too late to repair our fault; wilt thou not join us, and taste our bread and milk?’ ‘I cannot eat,’ I replied, ‘but I think I could drink a little milk’; whereupon he led me to the rest, and seating me by his side, he poured some milk into a horn cup, saying, ‘“Croesaw.” That,’ added he, with a smile, ‘is Welsh for welcome.’

The fare upon the tray was of the simplest description, consisting of bread, cheese, milk, and curds. My two friends partook with a good appetite. ‘Mary,’ said the preacher, addressing himself to the woman of the house, ‘every time I come to visit thee, I find thee less inclined to speak Welsh. I suppose, in a little time, thou wilt entirely have forgotten it; hast thou taught it to any of thy children?’ ‘The two eldest understand a few words,’ said the woman, ‘but my husband does not wish them to learn it; he says sometimes, jocularly, that though it pleased him to marry a Welsh wife, it does not please him to have Welsh children. Who, I have heard him say, would be a Welshman, if he could be an Englishman?’ ‘I for one,’ said the preacher, somewhat hastily; ‘not to be king of all England would I give up my birthright as a Welshman. Your husband is an excellent person, Mary, but I am afraid he is somewhat prejudiced.’ ‘You do him justice, Peter, in saying that he is an excellent person,’ sail the woman; ‘as to being prejudiced, I scarcely know what to say, but he thinks that two languages in the same kingdom are almost as bad as two kings.’ ‘That’s no bad observation,’ said the preacher, ‘and it is generally the case; yet, thank God, the Welsh and English go on very well, side by side, and I hope will do so till the Almighty calls all men to their long account.’ ‘They jog on very well now,’ said the woman; ‘but I have heard my husband say that it was not always so, and that the Welsh, in old times, were a violent and ferocious people, for that once they hanged the mayor of Chester.’ ‘Ha, ha!’ said the preacher, and his eyes flashed in the moonlight; ‘he told you that, did he?’ ‘Yes,’ said Mary; ‘once, when the mayor of Chester, with some of his people, was present at one of the fairs over the border, a quarrel arose between the Welsh and the English, and the Welsh beat the English, and hanged the mayor.’ ‘Your husband is a clever man,’ said Peter, ‘and knows a great deal; did he tell you the name of the leader of the Welsh? No! then I will: the leader of the Welsh on that occasion was —. He was a powerful chieftain, and there was an old feud between him and the men of Chester. Afterwards, when two hundred of the men of Chester invaded his country to take revenge for their mayor, he enticed them into a tower, set fire to it, and burnt them all. That — was a very fine, noble — God forgive me, what was I about to say — a very bad, violent man; but, Mary, this is very carnal and unprofitable conversation, and in holding it we set a very bad example to the young man here — let us change the subject.’

They then began to talk on religious matters. At length Mary departed to her abode, and the preacher and his wife retired to their tilted cart.

‘Poor fellow, he seems to be almost brutally ignorant,’ said Peter, addressing his wife in their native language, after they had bidden me farewell for the night.

‘I am afraid he is,’ said Winifred, ‘yet my heart warms to the poor lad, he seems so forlorn.’

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