Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 93

Another visit — A la Margutte — Clever man — Napoleon’s estimate — Another statue.

One evening Belle and myself received another visit from the man in black. After a little conversation of not much importance, I asked him whether he would not take some refreshment, assuring him that I was now in possession of some very excellent Hollands, which, with a glass, a jug of water, and a lump of sugar, was heartily at his service; he accepted my offer, and Belle going with a jug to the spring, from which she was in the habit of procuring water for tea, speedily returned with it full of the clear, delicious water of which I have already spoken. Having placed the jug by the side of the man in black, she brought him a glass and spoon, and a tea-cup, the latter containing various lumps of snowy-white sugar: in the meantime I had produced a bottle of the stronger liquid. The man in black helped himself to some water, and likewise to some Hollands, the proportion of water being about two-thirds; then adding a lump of sugar, he stirred the whole up, tasted it, and said that it was good.

‘This is one of the good things of life,’ he added, after a short pause.

‘What are the others?’ I demanded.

‘There is Malvoisia sack,’ said the man in black, ‘and partridge, and beccafico.’

‘And what do you say to high mass?’ said I.

‘High mass!’ said the man in black; ‘however,’ he continued, after a pause, ‘I will be frank with you; I came to be so; I may have heard high mass on a time, and said it too; but as for any predilection for it, I assure you I have no more than for a long High Church sermon.’

‘You speak a la Margutte,’ said I.

‘Margutte!’ said the man in black, musingly, ‘Margutte!’

‘You have read Pulci, I suppose?’ said I.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the man in black, laughing; ‘I remember.’

‘He might be rendered into English,’ said I, ‘something in this style:

‘To which Margutte answered with a sneer, I like the blue no better than the black, My faith consists alone in savoury cheer, In roasted capons, and in potent sack; But above all, in famous gin and clear, Which often lays the Briton on his back; With lump of sugar, and with lymph from well, I drink it, and defy the fiends of hell.’

‘He! he! he!’ said the man in black; ‘that is more than Mezzofante could have done for a stanza of Byron.’

‘A clever man,’ said I.

‘Who?’ said the man in black.

‘Mezzofante di Bologna.’

‘He! he! he!’ said the man in black; ‘now I know that you are not a gypsy, at least a soothsayer; no soothsayer would have said that — ’

‘Why,’ said I, ‘does he not understand five-and-twenty tongues?’

‘Oh yes,’ said the man in black; ‘and five-and-twenty added to them; but, he! he! he! it was principally from him, who is certainly the greatest of Philologists, that I formed my opinion of the sect.’

‘You ought to speak of him with more respect,’ said I; ‘I have heard say that he has done good service to your See.’

‘Oh yes,’ said the man in black; ‘he has done good service to our See, that is, in his way; when the neophytes of the Propaganda are to be examined in the several tongues in which they are destined to preach, he is appointed to question them, the questions being first written down for him, or else, he! he! he! — Of course you know Napoleon’s estimate of Mezzofante; he sent for the linguist from motives of curiosity, and after some discourse with him, told him that he might depart; then turning to some of his generals he observed, “Nous avons eu ici un exemple qu’un homme peut avoir beaucoup de paroles avec bien pen d’esprit.”’

‘You are ungrateful to him,’ said I; ‘well, perhaps, when he is dead and gone you will do him justice.’

‘True,’ said the man in black; ‘when he is dead and gone, we intend to erect him a statue of wood, on the left-hand side of the door of the Vatican library.’

‘Of wood?’ said I.

‘He was the son of a carpenter, you know,’ said the man in black; ‘the figure will be of wood for no other reason, I assure you; he! he!’

‘You should place another statue on the right.’

‘Perhaps we shall,’ said the man in black; ‘but we know of no one amongst the philologists of Italy, nor, indeed, of the other countries inhabited by the faithful, worthy to sit parallel in effigy with our illustrissimo; when, indeed, we have conquered these regions of the perfidious by bringing the inhabitants thereof to the true faith, I have no doubt that we shall be able to select one worthy to bear him company — one whose statue shall be placed on the right hand of the library, in testimony of our joy at his conversion; for, as you know, “There is more joy,” etc.’

‘Wood?’ said I.

‘I hope not,’ said the man in black; ‘no, if I be consulted as to the material for the statue, I should strongly recommend bronze.’

And when the man in black had said this, he emptied his second tumbler of its contents, and prepared himself another.

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