Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 90

Buona sera — Rather apprehensive — The steep bank — Lovely virgin — Hospitality — Tory minister — Custom of the country — Sneering smile — Wandering Zigan — Gypsies’ cloaks — Certain faculty — Acute answer — Various ways — Addio — Best Hollands.

The man in black and myself stood opposite to each other for a minute or two in silence; I will not say that we confronted each other that time, for the man in black, after a furtive glance, did not look me in the face, but kept his eyes fixed apparently on the leaves of a bunch of ground-nuts which were growing at my feet. At length, looking around the dingle, he exclaimed, ‘Buona sera, I hope I don’t intrude.’

‘You have as much right here,’ said I, ‘as I or my companion; but you had no right to stand listening to our conversation.’

‘I was not listening,’ said the man, ‘I was hesitating whether to advance or retire; and if I heard some of your conversation, the fault was not mine.’

‘I do not see why you should have hesitated if your intentions were good,’ said I.

‘I think the kind of place in which I found myself might excuse some hesitation,’ said the man in black, looking around; ‘moreover, from what I had seen of your demeanour at the public-house, I was rather apprehensive that the reception I might experience at your hands might be more rough than agreeable.’

‘And what may have been your motive for coming to this place?’ said

1.

‘Per far visita a sua signoria, ecco il motivo.’

‘Why do you speak to me in that gibberish,’ said I; ‘do you think I understand it?’

‘It is not Armenian,’ said the man in black; ‘but it might serve, in a place like this, for the breathing of a little secret communication, were any common roadster near at hand. It would not do at Court, it is true, being the language of singing women, and the like; but we are not at Court — when we are, I can perhaps summon up a little indifferent Latin, if I have anything private to communicate to the learned Professor.’

And at the conclusion of this speech the man in black lifted up his head, and, for some moments, looked me in the face. The muscles of his own seemed to be slightly convulsed, and his mouth opened in a singular manner

‘I see,’ said I, ‘that for some time you were standing near me and my companion, in the mean act of listening.’

‘Not at all,’ said the man in black; ‘I heard from the steep bank above, that to which I have now alluded, whilst I was puzzling myself to find the path which leads to your retreat. I made, indeed, nearly the compass of the whole thicket before I found it.’

‘And how did you know that I was here?’ I demanded.

‘The landlord of the public-house, with whom I had some conversation concerning you, informed me that he had no doubt I should find you in this place, to which he gave me instructions not very clear. But, now I am here, I crave permission to remain a little time, in order that I may hold some communion with you.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘since you are come, you are welcome; please to step this way.’

Thereupon I conducted the man in black to the fireplace, where Belle was standing, who had risen from her stool on my springing up to go in quest of the stranger. The man in black looked at her with evident curiosity, then making her rather a graceful bow, ‘Lovely virgin,’ said he, stretching out his hand, ‘allow me to salute your fingers.’

‘I am not in the habit of shaking hands with strangers,’ said Belle.

‘I did not presume to request to shake hands with you,’ said the man in black, ‘I merely wished to be permitted to salute with my lips the extremity of your two forefingers.’

‘I never permit anything of the kind,’ said Belle; ‘ I do not approve of such unmanly ways, they are only befitting those who lurk in corners or behind trees, listening to the conversation of people who would fain be private.’

‘Do you take me for a listener then?’ said the man in black.

‘Ay, indeed I do,’ said Belle; ‘the young man may receive your excuses, and put confidence in them, if he please, but for my part I neither admit them nor believe them;’ and thereupon flinging her long hair back, which was hanging over her cheeks, she seated herself on her stool.

‘Come, Belle,’ said I, ‘I have bidden the gentleman welcome, I beseech you, therefore, to make him welcome; he is a stranger, where we are at home, therefore, even did we wish him away, we are bound to treat him kindly.’

‘That’s not English doctrine,’ said the man in black.

‘I thought the English prided themselves on their hospitality,’ said I.

‘They do so,’ said the man in black; ‘they are proud of showing hospitality to people above them, that is, to those who do not want it, but of the hospitality which you were now describing, and which is Arabian, they know nothing. No Englishman will tolerate another in his house, from whom he does not expect advantage of some kind, and to those from whom he does he can be civil enough. An Englishman thinks that, because he is in his own house, he has a right to be boorish and brutal to any one who is disagreeable to him, as all those are who are really in want of assistance. Should a hunted fugitive rush into an Englishman’s house, beseeching protection, and appealing to the master’s feelings of hospitality, the Englishman would knock him down in the passage.’

‘You are too general,’ said I, ‘in your strictures. Lord — the unpopular Tory minister, was once chased through the streets of London by a mob, and, being in danger of his life, took shelter in the shop of a Whig linen-draper, declaring his own unpopular name, and appealing to the linen-draper’s feelings of hospitality; whereupon the linen-draper, utterly forgetful of all party rancour, nobly responded to the appeal, and telling his wife to conduct his lordship upstairs, jumped over the counter, with his ell in his hand, and placing himself with half-a-dozen of his assistants at the door of his boutique, manfully confronted the mob, telling them that he would allow himself to be torn to a thousand pieces ere he would permit them to injure a hair of his lordship’s head: what do you think of that?’

‘He! he! he!’ tittered the man in black.

‘Well,’ said I, ‘I am afraid your own practice is not very different from that which you have been just now describing; you sided with the Radical in the public-house against me, as long as you thought him the most powerful, and then turned against him when you saw he was cowed. What have you to say to that?’

‘Oh, when one is in Rome, I mean England, one must do as they do in England; I was merely conforming to the custom of the country, he! he! but I beg your pardon here, as I did in the public-house. I made a mistake.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘we will drop the matter, but pray seat yourself on that stone, and I will sit down on the grass near you.’

The man in black, after proffering two or three excuses for occupying what he supposed to be my seat, sat down upon the stone, and I squatted down, gypsy-fashion, just opposite to him, Belle sitting on her stool at a slight distance on my right. After a time I addressed him thus: ‘Am I to reckon this a mere visit of ceremony? should it prove so, it will be, I believe, the first visit of the kind ever paid me.’

‘Will you permit me to ask,’ said the man in black — ‘the weather is very warm,’ said he, interrupting himself, and taking off his hat.

I now observed that he was partly bald, his red hair having died away from the fore part of his crown — his forehead was high, his eyebrows scanty, his eyes gray and sly, with a downward tendency, his nose was slightly aquiline, his mouth rather large — a kind of sneering smile played continually on his lips, his complexion was somewhat rubicund.

‘A bad countenance,’ said Belle, in the language of the roads, observing that my eyes were fixed on his face.

‘Does not my countenance please you, fair damsel?’ said the man in black, resuming his hat, and speaking in a peculiarly gentle voice.

‘How,’ said I, ‘do you understand the language of the roads?’

‘As little as I do Armenian,’ said the man in black; ‘but I understand look and tone.’

‘So do I, perhaps,’ retorted Belle; ‘and, to tell you the truth, I like your tone as little as your face.’

‘For shame,’ said I; ‘have you forgot what I was saying just now about the duties of hospitality? You have not yet answered my question,’ said I, addressing myself to the man, ‘with respect to your visit.’

‘Will you permit me to ask who you are?’

‘Do you see the place where I live?’ said I.

‘I do,’ said the man in black, looking around.

‘Do you know the name of this place?’

‘I was told it was Mumpers’ or Gypsies’ Dingle,’ said the man in black.

‘Good,’ said I; ‘and this forge and tent, what do they look like?’

‘Like the forge and tent of a wandering Zigan; I have seen the like in Italy.’

‘Good,’ said I; ‘they belong to me.’

‘Are you, then, a gypsy?’ said the man in black.

‘What else should I be?’

‘But you seem to have been acquainted with various individuals with whom I have likewise had acquaintance; and you have even alluded to matters, and even words, which have passed between me and them.’

‘Do you know how gypsies live?’ said I.

‘By hammering old iron, I believe, and telling fortunes.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘there’s my forge, and yonder is some iron, though not old, and by your own confession I am a soothsayer.’

‘But how did you come by your knowledge?’

‘Oh,’ said I, ‘if you want me to reveal the secrets of my trade, I have, of course, nothing further to say. Go to the scarlet dyer, and ask him how he dyes cloth.’

‘Why scarlet?’ said the man in black. ‘Is it because gypsies blush like scarlet?’

‘Gypsies never blush,’ said I; ‘but gypsies’ cloaks are scarlet.’

‘I should almost take you for a gypsy,’ said the man in black, ‘but for — ’

‘For what?’ said I.

‘But for that same lesson in Armenian, and your general knowledge of languages; as for your manners and appearance I will say nothing,’ said the man in black, with a titter.

‘And why should not a gypsy possess a knowledge of languages?’ said

1.

‘Because the gypsy race is perfectly illiterate,’ said the man in black; ‘they are possessed, it is true, of a knavish acuteness, and are particularly noted for giving subtle and evasive answers — and in your answers, I confess, you remind me of them; but that one of the race should acquire a learned language like the Armenian, and have a general knowledge of literature, is a thing che io non credo afatto.’

‘What do you take me for?’ said I.

‘Why,’ said the man in black, ‘I should consider you to be a philologist, who, for some purpose, has taken up a gypsy life; but I confess to you that your way of answering questions is far too acute for a philologist.’

‘And why should not a philologist be able to answer questions acutely?’ said I.

‘Because the philological race is the most stupid under heaven,’ said the man in black; ‘they are possessed, it is true, of a certain faculty for picking up words, and a memory for retaining them; but that any one of the sect should be able to give a rational answer, to say nothing of an acute one, on any subject — even though the subject were philology — is a thing of which I have no idea.’

‘But you found me giving a lesson in Armenian to this handmaid?’

‘I believe I did,’ said the man in black.

‘And you heard me give what you are disposed to call acute answers to the questions you asked me?’

‘I believe I did,’ said the man in black.

‘And would any one but a philologist think of giving a lesson in Armenian to a handmaid in a dingle?

‘I should think not,’ said the man in black.

‘Well, then, don’t you see that it is possible for a philologist to give not only a rational, but an acute answer?’

‘I really don’t know,’ said the man in black.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ said I.

‘Merely puzzled,’ said the man in black.

‘Puzzled?

‘Yes.’

‘Really puzzled?’

‘Yes.’

‘Remain so.’

‘Well,’ said the man in black, rising, ‘puzzled or not, I will no longer trespass upon your and this young lady’s retirement; only allow me, before I go, to apologise for my intrusion.’

‘No apology is necessary,’ said I; ‘will you please to take anything before you go? I think this young lady, at my request, would contrive to make you a cup of tea.’

‘Tea!’ said the man in black; ‘he! he! I don’t drink tea; I don’t like it — if, indeed, you had,’ and here he stopped.

‘There’s nothing like gin and water, is there?’ said I, ‘but I am sorry to say I have none.’

‘Gin and water,’ said the man in black, ‘how do you know that I am fond of gin and water?’

‘Did I not see you drinking some at the public-house?’

‘You did,’ said the man in black, ‘and I remember that, when I called for some you repeated my words — permit me to ask, is gin and water an unusual drink in England?’

‘It is not usually drunk cold, and with a lump of sugar,’ said I.

‘And did you know who I was by my calling for it so?’

‘Gypsies have various ways of obtaining information,’ said I.

‘With all your knowledge,’ said the man in black, ‘you do not appear to have known that I was coming to visit you?’

‘Gypsies do not pretend to know anything which relates to themselves,’ said I; ‘but I advise you, if you ever come again, to come openly.’

‘Have I your permission to come again?’ said the man in black.

‘Come when you please; this dingle is as free for you as me.’

‘I will visit you again,’ said the man in black — ‘till then, addio.’

‘Belle,’ said I, after the man in black had departed, ‘we did not treat that man very hospitably; he left us without having eaten or drunk at our expense.’

‘You offered him some tea,’ said Belle, ‘which, as it is mine, I should have grudged him, for I like him not.’

‘Our liking or disliking him had nothing to do with the matter, he was our visitor, and ought not to have been permitted to depart dry; living as we do in this desert, we ought always to be prepared to administer to the wants of our visitors. Belle, do you know where to procure any good Hollands?’

‘I think I do,’ said Belle, ‘but — ’

‘I will have no buts. Belle, I expect that with as little delay as possible you procure, at my expense, the best Hollands you can find.’

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