Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 86

At tea — Vapours — Isopel Berners — Softly and kindly — Sweet pretty creature — Bread and water — Two sailors — Truth and constancy — Very strangely.

In the evening of that same day the tall girl and I sat at tea by the fire, at the bottom of the dingle; the girl on a small stool, and myself, as usual, upon my stone.

The water which served for the tea had been taken from a spring of pellucid water in the neighbourhood, which I had not had the good fortune to discover, though it was well known to my companion, and to the wandering people who frequented the dingle.

‘This tea is very good,’ said I, ‘but I cannot enjoy it as much as if I were well: I feel very sadly.’

‘How else should you feel,’ said the girl, ‘after fighting with the Flaming Tinman? All I wonder at is that you can feel at all! As for the tea, it ought to be good, seeing that it cost me ten shillings a pound.’

‘That’s a great deal for a person in your station to pay.’

‘In my station! I’d have you to know, young man — however, I haven’t the heart to quarrel with you, you look so ill; and after all, it is a good sum for one to pay who travels the roads; but if I must have tea, I like to have the best; and tea I must have, for I am used to it, though I can’t help thinking that it sometimes fills my head with strange fancies — what some folks call vapours, making me weep and cry.’

‘Dear me,’ said I, ‘I should never have thought that one of your size and fierceness would weep and cry!’

‘My size and fierceness! I tell you what, young man, you are not over civil this evening; but you are ill, as I said before, and I shan’t take much notice of your language, at least for the present; as for my size, I am not so much bigger than yourself; and as for being fierce, you should be the last one to fling that at me. It is well for you that I can be fierce sometimes. If I hadn’t taken your part against Blazing Bosville, you wouldn’t be now taking tea with me.’

‘It is true that you struck me in the face first; but we’ll let that pass. So that man’s name is Bosville; what’s your own?’

‘Isopel Berners.’

‘How did you get that name?’

‘I say, young man, you seem fond of asking questions: will you have another cup of tea?’

‘I was just going to ask for another.’

‘Well, then, here it is, and much good may it do you; as for my name, I got it from my mother.’

‘Your mother’s name, then, was Isopel!’

‘Isopel Berners.’

‘But had you never a father?’

‘Yes, I had a father,’ said the girl, sighing, ‘but I don’t bear his name.’

‘Is it the fashion, then, in your country for children to bear their mother’s name?’

‘If you ask such questions, young man, I shall be angry with you. I have told you my name, and, whether my father’s or mother’s, I am not ashamed of it.’

‘It is a noble name.’

‘There you are right, young man. The chaplain in the great house where I was born told me it was a noble name; it was odd enough, he said, that the only three noble names in the county were to be found in the great house; mine was one; the other two were Devereux and Bohun.’

‘What do you mean by the great house?’

‘The workhouse.’

‘Is it possible that you were born there?’

‘Yes, young man; and as you now speak softly and kindly, I will tell you my whole tale. My father was an officer of the sea, and was killed at sea as he was coming home to marry my mother, Isopel Berners. He had been acquainted with her, and had left her; but after a few months he wrote her a letter, to say that he had no rest, and that he repented, and that as soon as his ship came to port he would do her all the reparation in his power. Well, young man, the very day before they reached port they met the enemy, and there was a fight, and my father was killed, after he had struck down six of the enemy’s crew on their own deck; for my father was a big man, as I have heard, and knew tolerably well how to use his hands, And when my mother heard the news, she became half distracted, and ran away into the fields and forests, totally neglecting her business, for she was a small milliner; and so she ran demented about the meads and forests for a long time, now sitting under a tree, and now by the side of a river — at last she flung herself into some water, and would have been drowned, had not some one been at hand and rescued her, whereupon she was conveyed to the great house, lest she should attempt to do herself farther mischief, for she had neither friends nor parents — and there she died three months after, having first brought me into the world. She was a sweet pretty creature, I’m told, but hardly fit for this world, being neither large, nor fierce, nor able to take her own part. So I was born and bred in the great house, where I learnt to read and sew, to fear God, and to take my own part. When I was fourteen I was put out to service to a small farmer and his wife, with whom, however, I did not stay long, for I was half-starved, and otherwise ill treated, especially by my mistress, who one day attempting to knock me down with a besom, I knocked her down with my fist, and went back to the great house.’

‘And how did they receive you in the great house?’

‘Not very kindly, young man — on the contrary, I was put into a dark room, where I was kept a fortnight on bread and water; I did not much care, however, being glad to have got back to the great house at any rate — the place where I was born, and where my poor mother died; and in the great house I continued two years longer, reading and sewing, fearing God, and taking my own part when necessary. At the end of the two years I was again put out to service, but this time to a rich farmer and his wife, with whom, however, I did not live long, less time, I believe, than with the poor ones, being obliged to leave for — ’

‘Knocking your mistress down?’

‘No, young man, knocking my master down, who conducted himself improperly towards me. This time I did not go back to the great house, having a misgiving that they would not receive me; so I turned my back to the great house where I was born, and where my poor mother died, and wandered for several days I know not whither, supporting myself on a few halfpence which I chanced to have in my pocket. It happened one day, as I sat under a hedge crying, having spent my last farthing, that a comfortable-looking elderly woman came up in a cart, and seeing the state in which I was, she stopped and asked what was the matter with me; I told her some part of my story, whereupon she said, ‘Cheer up, my dear; if you like, you shall go with me, and wait upon me.’ Of course I wanted little persuasion, so I got into the cart and went with her. She took me to London and various other places, and I soon found that she was a travelling woman, who went about the country with silks and linen. I was of great use to her, more especially in those places where we met evil company. Once, as we were coming from Dover, we were met by two sailors, who stopped our cart, and would have robbed and stripped us. ‘Let me get down,’ said I; so I got down, and fought with them both, till they turned round and ran away. Two years I lived with the old gentlewoman, who was very kind to me, almost as kind as a mother; at last she fell sick at a place in Lincolnshire, and after a few days died, leaving me her cart and stock in trade, praying me only to see her decently buried — which I did, giving her a funeral fit for a gentlewoman. After which I travelled the country — melancholy enough for want of company, but so far fortunate, that I could take my own part when anybody was uncivil to me. At last, passing through the valley of Todmorden, I formed the acquaintance of Blazing Bosville and his wife, with whom I occasionally took journeys for company’s sake, for it is melancholy to travel about alone, even when one can take one’s own part. I soon found they were evil people; but, upon the whole, they treated me civilly, and I sometimes lent them a little money, so that we got on tolerably well together. He and I, it is true, had once a dispute, and nearly came to blows; for once, when we were alone, he wanted me to marry him, promising, if I would, to turn off Grey Moll, or, if I liked it better, to make her wait upon me as a maid-servant; I never liked him much, but from that hour less than ever. Of the two, I believe Grey Moll to be the best, for she is at any rate true and faithful to him, and I like truth and constancy — don’t you, young man?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘they are very nice things. I feel very strangely.’

‘How do you feel, young man?

‘Very much afraid.’

‘Afraid, at what? At the Flaming Tinman? Don’t be afraid of him. He won’t come back, and if he did, he shouldn’t touch you in this state, I’d fight him for you; but he won’t come back, so you needn’t be afraid of him.’

‘I’m not afraid of the Flaming Tinman.’

‘What, then, are you afraid of?’

‘The evil one.’

‘The evil one!’ said the girl, ‘where is he?’

‘Coming upon me.’

‘Never heed,’ said the girl, ‘I’ll stand by you.’

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