Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 94

Prerogative — Feeling of gratitude — A long history — Alliterative style — Advantageous specimen — Jesuit benefice — Not sufficient — Queen Stork’s tragedy — Good sense — Grandeur and gentility — Ironmonger’s daughter — Clan Mac–Sycophant — Lickspittles — A curiosity — Newspaper editors — Charles the Simple — High-flying ditty — Dissenters — Lower classes — Priestley’s house — Saxon ancestors — Austin — Renovating glass — Money — Quite original.

‘So you hope to bring these regions again beneath the banner of the Roman See?’ said I, after the man in black had prepared the beverage, and tasted it.

‘Hope!’ said the man in black; ‘how can we fail? Is not the Church of these regions going to lose its prerogative?’

‘Its prerogative?’

‘Yes; those who should be the guardians of the religion of England are about to grant Papists emancipation, and to remove the disabilities from Dissenters, which will allow the Holy Father to play his own game in England.’

On my inquiring how the Holy Father intended to play his game, the man in black gave me to understand that he intended for the present to cover the land with temples, in which the religion of Protestants would be continually scoffed at and reviled.

On my observing that such behaviour would savour strongly of ingratitude, the man in black gave me to understand that if I entertained the idea that the See of Rome was ever influenced in its actions by any feeling of gratitude I was much mistaken, assuring me that if the See of Rome in any encounter should chance to be disarmed, and its adversary, from a feeling of magnanimity, should restore the sword which had been knocked out of its hand, the See of Rome always endeavoured on the first opportunity to plunge the said sword into its adversary’s bosom; conduct which the man in black seemed to think was very wise, and which he assured me had already enabled it to get rid of a great many troublesome adversaries, and would, he had no doubt, enable it to get rid of a great many more.

On my attempting to argue against the propriety of such behaviour, the man in black cut the matter short by saying that if one party was a fool he saw no reason why the other should imitate it in its folly.

After musing a little while, I told him that emancipation had not yet passed through the legislature, and that perhaps it never would; reminding him that there was often many a slip between the cup and the lip; to which observation the man in black agreed, assuring me, however, that there was no doubt that emancipation would be carried, inasmuch as there was a very loud cry at present in the land — a cry of ‘tolerance,’ which had almost frightened the Government out of its wits; who, to get rid of the cry, was going to grant all that was asked in the way of toleration, instead of telling the people to ‘hold their nonsense,’ and cutting them down provided they continued bawling longer.

I questioned the man in black with respect to the origin of this cry; but he said, to trace it to its origin would require a long history; that, at any rate, such a cry was in existence, the chief raisers of it being certain of the nobility, called Whigs, who hoped by means of it to get into power, and to turn out certain ancient adversaries of theirs called Tories, who were for letting things remain in statu quo; that these Whigs were backed by a party amongst the people called Radicals, a specimen of whom I had seen in the public-house; a set of fellows who were always in the habit of bawling against those in place; ‘and so,’ he added, ‘by means of these parties, and the hubbub which the Papists and other smaller sects are making, a general emancipation will be carried, and the Church of England humbled, which is the principal thing which the See of Rome cares for.’

On my telling the man in black that I believed that, even among the high dignitaries of the English Church, there were many who wished to grant perfect freedom to religions of all descriptions, he said he was aware that such was the fact, and that such a wish was anything but wise, inasmuch as, if they had any regard for the religion they professed, they ought to stand by it through thick and thin, proclaiming it to be the only true one, and denouncing all others, in an alliterative style, as dangerous and damnable; whereas, by their present conduct, they were bringing their religion into contempt with the people at large, who would never continue long attached to a Church the ministers of which did not stand up for it, and likewise cause their own brethren, who had a clearer notion of things, to be ashamed of belonging to it. ‘I speak advisedly,’ said he, in continuation; ‘there is one Platitude.’

‘And I hope there is only one,’ said I; ‘you surely would not adduce the likes and dislikes of that poor silly fellow as the criterions of the opinions of any party?’

‘You know him,’ said the man in black, ‘nay, I heard you mention him in the public-house; the fellow is not very wise, I admit, but he has sense enough to know that, unless a Church can make people hold their tongues when it thinks fit, it is scarcely deserving the name of a Church; no, I think that the fellow is not such a very bad stick, and that upon the whole he is, or rather was, an advantageous specimen of the High Church English clergy, who, for the most part, so far from troubling their heads about persecuting people, only think of securing their tithes, eating their heavy dinners, puffing out their cheeks with importance on country justice benches, and occasionally exhibiting their conceited wives, hoyden daughters, and gawky sons at country balls, whereas Platitude — ’

‘Stop,’ said I; ‘you said in the public-house that the Church of England was a persecuting Church, and here in the dingle you have confessed that one section of it is willing to grant perfect freedom to the exercise of all religions, and the other only thinks of leading an easy life.’

‘Saying a thing in the public-house is a widely different thing from saying it in the dingle,’ said the man in black; ‘had the Church of England been a persecuting Church, it would not stand in the position in which it stands at present; it might, with its opportunities, have spread itself over the greater part of the world. I was about to observe that, instead of practising the indolent habits of his High Church brethren, Platitude would be working for his money, preaching the proper use of fire and faggot, or rather of the halter and the whipping-post, encouraging mobs to attack the houses of Dissenters, employing spies to collect the scandal of neighbourhoods, in order that he might use it for sacerdotal purposes, and, in fact, endeavouring to turn an English parish into something like a Jesuit benefice in the south of France.’

‘He tried that game,’ said I, ‘and the parish said “Pooh, pooh,” and, for the most part, went over to the Dissenters.’

‘Very true,’ said the man in black, taking a sip at his glass, ‘but why were the Dissenters allowed to preach? why were they not beaten on the lips till they spat out blood, with a dislodged tooth or two? Why, but because the authority of the Church of England has, by its own fault, become so circumscribed that Mr. Platitude was not able to send a host of beadles and sbirri to their chapel to bring them to reason, on which account Mr. Platitude is very properly ashamed of his Church, and is thinking of uniting himself with one which possesses more vigour and authority.’

‘It may have vigour and authority,’ said I, ‘in foreign lands, but in these kingdoms the day for practising its atrocities is gone by. It is at present almost below contempt, and is obliged to sue for grace in forma pauperis.’

‘Very true,’ said the man in black; ‘but let it once obtain emancipation, and it will cast its slough, put on its fine clothes, and make converts by thousands. ‘What a fine Church!’ they’ll say; ‘with what authority it speaks! no doubts, no hesitation, no sticking at trifles. What a contrast to the sleepy English Church! They’ll go over to it by millions, till it preponderates here over every other, when it will of course be voted the dominant one; and then — and then — ’ and here the man in black drank a considerable quantity of gin and water.

‘What then?’ said I.

‘What then?’ said the man in black, ‘why she will be true to herself. Let Dissenters, whether they be Church of England, as perhaps they may still call themselves, Methodist, or Presbyterian, presume to grumble, and there shall be bruising of lips in pulpits, tying up to whipping-posts, cutting off ears and noses — he! he! the farce of King Log has been acted long enough; the time for Queen Stork’s tragedy is drawing nigh’; and the man in black sipped his gin and water in a very exulting manner.

‘And this is the Church which, according to your assertion in the public-house, never persecutes?’

‘I have already given you an answer,’ said the man in black. ‘With respect to the matter of the public-house, it is one of the happy privileges of those who belong to my Church to deny in the public-house what they admit in the dingle; we have high warranty for such double speaking. Did not the foundation stone of our Church, Saint Peter, deny in the public-house what he had previously professed in the valley?’

‘And do you think,’ said I, ‘that the people of England, who have shown aversion to anything in the shape of intolerance, will permit such barbarities as you have described?’

‘Let them become Papists,’ said the man in black; ‘only let the majority become Papists, and you will see.’

‘They will never become so,’ said I; ‘the good sense of the people of England will never permit them to commit such an absurdity.’

‘The good sense of the people of England!’ said the man in black, filling himself another glass.

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘the good sense of not only the upper, but the middle and lower classes.’

‘And of what description of people are the upper class?’ said the man in black, putting a lump of sugar into his gin and water.

‘Very fine people,’ said I, ‘monstrously fine people; so, at least, they are generally believed to be.’

‘He! he!’ said the man in black; ‘only those think them so who don’t know them. The male part of the upper class are in youth a set of heartless profligates; in old age, a parcel of poor, shaking, nervous paillards. The female part, worthy to be the sisters and wives of such wretches — unmarried, full of cold vice, kept under by vanity and ambition, but which, after marriage, they seek not to restrain; in old age, abandoned to vapours and horrors; do you think that such beings will afford any obstacle to the progress of the Church in these regions, as soon as her movements are unfettered?’

‘I cannot give an opinion; I know nothing of them, except from a distance. But what think you of the middle classes?’

‘Their chief characteristic,’ said the man in black, ‘is a rage for grandeur and gentility; and that same rage makes us quite sure of them in the long run. Everything that’s lofty meets their unqualified approbation; whilst everything humble, or, as they call it, “low,” is scouted by them. They begin to have a vague idea that the religion which they have hitherto professed is low; at any rate, that it is not the religion of the mighty ones of the earth, of the great kings and emperors whose shoes they have a vast inclination to kiss, nor was used by the grand personages of whom they have read in their novels and romances, their Ivanhoes, their Marmions, and their Ladies of the Lake.’

‘Do you think that the writings of Scott have had any influence in modifying their religious opinions?’

‘Most certainly I do,’ said the man in black. ‘The writings of that man have made them greater fools than they were before. All their conversation now is about gallant knights, princesses, and cavaliers, with which his pages are stuffed — all of whom were Papists, or very High Church, which is nearly the same thing; and they are beginning to think that the religion of such nice sweet-scented gentry must be something very superfine. Why, I know at Birmingham the daughter of an ironmonger, who screeches to the piano the Lady of the Lake’s hymn to the Virgin Mary, always weeps when Mary Queen of Scots is mentioned, and fasts on the anniversary of the death of that very wise martyr, Charles the First. Why, I would engage to convert such an idiot to popery in a week, were it worth my trouble. O Cavaliere Gualtiero, avete fatto molto in favore della Santa Sede!’

‘If he has,’ said I, ‘he has done it unwittingly; I never heard before that he was a favourer of the popish delusion.’

‘Only in theory,’ said the man in black. ‘Trust any of the clan Mac–Sycophant for interfering openly and boldly in favour of any cause on which the sun does not shine benignantly. Popery is at present, as you say, suing for grace in these regions in forma pauperis; but let royalty once take it up, let old gouty George once patronise it, and I would consent to drink puddle-water if, the very next time the canny Scot was admitted to the royal symposium, he did not say, “By my faith, yere Majesty, I have always thought, at the bottom of my heart, that popery, as ill-scrapit tongues ca’ it, was a very grand religion; I shall be proud to follow your Majesty’s example in adopting it.”’

‘I doubt not,’ said I, ‘that both gouty George and his devoted servant will be mouldering in their tombs long before Royalty in England thinks about adopting popery.’

‘We can wait,’ said the man in black; ‘in these days of rampant gentility, there will be no want of kings nor of Scots about them.’

‘But not Walters,’ said I.

‘Our work has been already tolerably well done by one,’ said the man in black; ‘but if we wanted literature, we should never lack in these regions hosts of literary men of some kind or other to eulogise us, provided our religion were in the fashion, and our popish nobles chose — and they always do our bidding — to admit the canaille to their tables — their kitchen tables. As for literature in general,’ said he, ‘the Santa Sede is not particularly partial to it, it may be employed both ways. In Italy, in particular, it has discovered that literary men are not always disposed to be lickspittles.’

‘For example, Dante,’ said I.

‘Yes,’ said the man in black, ‘a dangerous personage; that poem of his cuts both ways; and then there was Pulci, that Morgante of his cuts both ways, or rather one way, and that sheer against us; and then there was Aretino, who dealt so hard with the poveri frati; all writers, at least Italian ones, are not lickspittles. And then in Spain, — ’tis true, Lope de Vega and Calderon were most inordinate lickspittles; the Principe Constante of the last is a curiosity in its way; and then the Mary Stuart of Lope; I think I shall recommend the perusal of that work to the Birmingham ironmonger’s daughter — she has been lately thinking of adding “a slight knowledge of the magneeficent language of the Peninsula” to the rest of her accomplishments, he! he! he! But then there was Cervantes, starving, but straight; he deals us some hard knocks in that second part of his Quixote. Then there were some of the writers of the picaresque novels. No, all literary men are not lickspittles, whether in Italy or Spain, or, indeed, upon the Continent; it is only in England that all — ’

‘Come,’ said I, ‘Mind what you are about to say of English literary men.’

‘Why should I mind?’ said the man in black, ‘there are no literary men here. I have heard of literary men living in garrets, but not in dingles, whatever philologists may do; I may, therefore, speak out freely. It is only in England that literary men are invariably lickspittles; on which account, perhaps, they are so despised, even by those who benefit by their dirty services. Look at your fashionable novel-writers, he! he! — and, above all, at your newspaper editors, ho! ho!’

‘You will, of course, except the editors of the — from your censure of the last class?’ said I.

‘Them!’ said the man in black; ‘why, they might serve as models in the dirty trade to all the rest who practise it. See how they bepraise their patrons, the grand Whig nobility, who hope, by raising the cry of liberalism and by putting themselves at the head of the populace, to come into power shortly. I don’t wish to be hard, at present, upon those Whigs,’ he continued, ‘for they are playing our game; but a time will come when, not wanting them, we will kick them to a considerable distance: and then, when toleration is no longer the cry, and the Whigs are no longer backed by the populace, see whether the editors of the — will stand by them; they will prove themselves as expert lickspittles of despotism as of liberalism. Don’t think they will always bespatter the Tories and Austria.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘I am sorry to find that you entertain so low an opinion of the spirit of English literary men; we will now return, if you please, to the subject of the middle classes; I think your strictures upon them in general are rather too sweeping — they are not altogether the foolish people which you have described. Look, for example, at that very powerful and numerous body the Dissenters, the descendants of those sturdy Patriots who hurled Charles the Simple from his throne.’

‘There are some sturdy fellows amongst them, I do not deny,’ said the man in black, ‘especially amongst the preachers, clever withal — two or three of that class nearly drove Mr. Platitude mad, as perhaps you are aware, but they are not very numerous; and the old sturdy sort of preachers are fast dropping off, and, as we observe with pleasure, are generally succeeded by frothy coxcombs, whom it would not be very difficult to gain over. But what we most rely upon as an instrument to bring the Dissenters over to us is the mania for gentility, which amongst them has of late become as great, and more ridiculous than amongst the middle classes belonging to the Church of England. All the plain and simple fashions of their forefathers they are either about to abandon, or have already done so. Look at the most part of their chapels — no longer modest brick edifices, situated in quiet and retired streets, but lunatic-looking erections, in what the simpletons call the modern Gothic taste, of Portland stone, with a cross upon the top, and the site generally the most conspicuous that can be found. And look at the manner in which they educate their children — I mean those that are wealthy. They do not even wish them to be Dissenters — “the sweet dears shall enjoy the advantages of good society, of which their parents were debarred.” So the girls are sent to tip-top boarding-schools, where amongst other trash they read Rokeby, and are taught to sing snatches from that high-flying ditty, the “Cavalier” —

‘Would you match the base Skippon, and Massey, and Brown, With the barons of England, who fight for the crown? —

he! he! their own names. Whilst the lads are sent to those hotbeds of pride and folly — colleges, whence they return with a greater contempt for everything “low,” and especially for their own pedigree, than they went with. I tell you, friend, the children of Dissenters, if not their parents, are going over to the Church, as you call it, and the Church is going over to Rome.’

‘I do not see the justice of that latter assertion at all,’ said I; ‘some of the Dissenters’ children may be coming over to the Church of England, and yet the Church of England be very far from going over to Rome.’

‘In the high road for it, I assure you,’ said the man in black; ‘part of it is going to abandon, the rest to lose their prerogative, and when a Church no longer retains its prerogative, it speedily loses its own respect, and that of others.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘if the higher classes have all the vices and follies which you represent, on which point I can say nothing, as I have never mixed with them; and even supposing the middle classes are the foolish beings you would fain make them, and which I do not believe them as a body to be, you would still find some resistance amongst the lower classes: I have a considerable respect for their good sense and independence of character; but pray let me hear your opinion of them.’

‘As for the lower classes,’ said the man in black, ‘I believe them to be the most brutal wretches in the world, the most addicted to foul feeding, foul language, and foul vices of every kind; wretches who have neither love for country, religion, nor anything save their own vile selves. You surely do not think that they would oppose a change of religion! why, there is not one of them but would hurrah for the Pope, or Mahomet, for the sake of a hearty gorge and a drunken bout, like those which they are treated with at election contests.’

‘Has your church any followers amongst them?’ said I.

‘Wherever there happens to be a Romish family of considerable possessions,’ said the man in black, ‘our church is sure to have followers of the lower class, who have come over in the hope of getting something in the shape of dole or donation. As, however, the Romish is not yet the dominant religion, and the clergy of the English establishment have some patronage to bestow, the churches are not quite deserted by the lower classes; yet, were the Romish to become the established religion, they would, to a certainty, all go over to it; you can scarcely imagine what a self-interested set they are — for example, the landlord of that public-house in which I first met you, having lost a sum of money upon a cock-fight, and his affairs in consequence being in a bad condition, is on the eve of coming over to us, in the hope that two old Popish females of property, whom I confess, will advance a sum of money to set him up again in the world.’

‘And what could have put such an idea into the poor fellow’s head?’ said I.

‘Oh, he and I have had some conversation upon the state of his affairs,’ said the man in black; ‘I think he might make a rather useful convert in these parts, provided things take a certain turn, as they doubtless will. It is no bad thing to have a fighting fellow, who keeps a public-house, belonging to one’s religion. He has been occasionally employed as a bully at elections by the Tory party, and he may serve us in the same capacity. The fellow comes of a good stock; I heard him say that his father headed the High Church mob who sacked and burnt Priestley’s house at Birmingham, towards the end of the last century.’

‘A disgraceful affair,’ said I.

‘What do you mean by a disgraceful affair?’ said the man in black. ‘I assure you that nothing has occurred for the last fifty years which has given the High Church party so much credit in the eyes of Rome as that, — we did not imagine that the fellows had so much energy. Had they followed up that affair by twenty others of a similar kind, they would by this time have had everything in their own power; but they did not, and, as a necessary consequence, they are reduced to almost nothing.’

‘I suppose,’ said I, ‘that your Church would have acted very differently in its place.’

‘It has always done so,’ said the man in black, coolly sipping. ‘Our Church has always armed the brute population against the genius and intellect of a country, provided that same intellect and genius were not willing to become its instruments and eulogists; and provided we once obtain a firm hold here again, we would not fail to do so. We would occasionally stuff the beastly rabble with horseflesh and bitter ale, and then halloo them on against all those who were obnoxious to us.’

‘Horseflesh and bitter ale!’ I replied.

‘Yes,’ said the man in black; ‘horseflesh and bitter ale — the favourite delicacies of their Saxon ancestors, who were always ready to do our bidding after a liberal allowance of such cheer. There is a tradition in our Church, that before the Northumbrian rabble, at the instigation of Austin, attacked and massacred the presbyterian monks of Bangor, they had been allowed a good gorge of horseflesh and bitter ale. He! he! he!’ continued the man in black, ‘what a fine spectacle to see such a mob, headed by a fellow like our friend the landlord, sack the house of another Priestley!’

‘Then you don’t deny that we have had a Priestley,’ said I, ‘and admit the possibility of our having another? You were lately observing that all English literary men were sycophants?’

‘Lickspittles,’ said the man in black; ‘yes, I admit that you have had a Priestley, but he was a Dissenter of the old class; you have had him, and perhaps may have another.’

‘Perhaps we may,’ said I. ‘But with respect to the lower classes, have you mixed much with them?’

‘I have mixed with all classes,’ said the man in black, ‘and with the lower not less than the upper and middle; they are much as I have described them; and of the three, the lower are the worst. I never knew one of them that possessed the slightest principle, no, not —. It is true, there was one fellow whom I once met, who —; but it is a long story, and the affair happened abroad. — I ought to know something of the English people,’ he continued, after a moment’s pause; ‘I have been many years amongst them, labouring in the cause of the Church.’

‘Your See must have had great confidence in your powers when it selected you to labour for it in these parts,’ said I.

‘They chose me,’ said the man in black, ‘principally because, being of British extraction and education, I could speak the English language and bear a glass of something strong. It is the opinion of my See that it would hardly do to send a missionary into a country like this who is not well versed in English — a country where, they think, so far from understanding any language besides his own, scarcely one individual in ten speaks his own intelligibly; or an ascetic person where, as they say, high and low, male and female, are, at some period of their lives, fond of a renovating glass, as it is styled — in other words, of tippling.’

‘Your See appears to entertain a very strange opinion of the English,’ said I.

‘Not altogether an unjust one,’ said the man in black, lifting the glass to his mouth.

‘Well,’ said I, ‘it is certainly very kind on its part to wish to bring back such a set of beings beneath its wing.’

‘Why, as to the kindness of my See,’ said the man in black, ‘I have not much to say; my See has generally in what it does a tolerably good motive; these heretics possess in plenty what my See has a great hankering for, and can turn to a good account — money!’

‘The Founder of the Christian religion cared nothing for money,’ said I.

‘What have we to do with what the Founder of the Christian religion cared for?’ said the man in black. ‘How could our temples be built and our priests supported without money? But you are unwise to reproach us with a desire of obtaining money; you forget that your own Church, if the Church of England be your own Church, as I suppose it is from the willingness which you displayed in the public-house to fight for it, is equally avaricious; look at your greedy Bishops and your corpulent Rectors — do they imitate Christ in His disregard for money? You might as well tell me that they imitate Christ in His meekness and humility.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘whatever their faults may be, you can’t say that they go to Rome for money.’

The man in black made no direct answer, but appeared by the motion of his lips to be repeating something to himself.

‘I see your glass is again empty,’ said I; ‘perhaps you will replenish it.’

The man in black arose from his seat, adjusted his habiliments, which were rather in disorder, and placed upon his head his hat, which he had laid aside; then, looking at me, who was still lying on the ground, he said — ‘I might, perhaps, take another glass, though I believe I have had quite as much as I can well bear; but I do not wish to hear you utter anything more this evening, after that last observation of yours — it is quite original; I will meditate upon it on my pillow this night, after having said an ave and a pater — go to Rome for money!’ He then made Belle a low bow, slightly motioned to me with his hand as if bidding farewell, and then left the dingle with rather uneven steps.

‘Go to Rome for money,’ I heard him say as he ascended the winding path, ‘he! he! he! Go to Rome for money, ho! ho! ho!’

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