Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 95

Wooded retreat — Fresh shoes — Wood fire — Ash, when green — Queen of China — Cleverest people — Declensions — Armenian — Thunder — Deep olive — What do you mean? — Koul Adonai — The thick bushes — Wood pigeon — Old Gothe.

Nearly three days elapsed without anything of particular moment occurring. Belle drove the little cart containing her merchandise about the neighbourhood, returning to the dingle towards the evening. As for myself, I kept within my wooded retreat, working during the periods of her absence leisurely at my forge. Having observed that the quadruped which my companion drove was as much in need of shoes as my own had been some time previously, I had determined to provide it with a set, and during the aforesaid periods occupied myself in preparing them. As I was employed three mornings and afternoons about them, I am sure that the reader will agree that I worked leisurely, or rather, lazily. On the third day Belle arrived somewhat later than usual; I was lying on my back at the bottom of the dingle, employed in tossing up the shoes which I had produced, and catching them as they fell — some being always in the air mounting or descending, somewhat after the fashion of the waters of a fountain.

‘Why have you been absent so long?’ said I to Belle; ‘it must be long past four by the day.’

‘I have been almost killed by the heat,’ said Belle; ‘I was never out in a more sultry day — the poor donkey, too, could scarcely move along.’

‘He shall have fresh shoes,’ said I, continuing my exercise; ‘here they are quite ready; tomorrow I will tack them on.’

‘And why are you playing with them in that manner?’ said Belle.

‘Partly in triumph at having made them, and partly to show that I can do something besides making them; it is not every one who, after having made a set of horse-shoes, can keep them going up and down in the air, without letting one fall — ’

‘One has now fallen on your chin,’ said Belle.

‘And another on my cheek,’ said I, getting up; ‘it is time to discontinue the game, for the last shoe drew blood.’

Belle went to her own little encampment; and as for myself, after having flung the donkey’s shoes into my tent, I put some fresh wood on the fire, which was nearly out, and hung the kettle over it. I then issued forth from the dingle, and strolled round the wood that surrounded it; for a long time I was busied in meditation, looking at the ground, striking with my foot, half unconsciously, the tufts of grass and thistles that I met in my way. After some time, I lifted up my eyes to the sky, at first vacantly, and then with more attention, turning my head in all directions for a minute or two; after which I returned to the dingle. Isopel was seated near the fire, over which the kettle was now hung; she had changed her dress — no signs of the dust and fatigue of her late excursion remained; she had just added to the fire a small billet of wood, two or three of which I had left beside it; the fire cracked, and a sweet odour filled the dingle.

‘I am fond of sitting by a wood fire,’ said Belle, ‘when abroad, whether it be hot or cold; I love to see the flames dart out of the wood; but what kind is this, and where did you get it?’

‘It is ash,’ said I, ‘green ash. Somewhat less than a week ago, whilst I was wandering along the road by the side of a wood, I came to a place where some peasants were engaged in cutting up and clearing away a confused mass of fallen timber: a mighty aged oak had given way the night before, and in its fall had shivered some smaller trees; the upper part of the oak, and the fragments of the rest, lay across the road. I purchased, for a trifle, a bundle or two, and the wood on the fire is part of it — ash, green ash.’

‘That makes good the old rhyme,’ said Belle, ‘which I have heard sung by the old women in the great house:-

‘Ash, when green, Is fire for a queen.’

‘And on fairer form of queen ash fire never shone,’ said I, ‘than on thine, O beauteous queen of the dingle.’

‘I am half disposed to be angry with you, young man,’ said Belle.

‘And why not entirely?’ said I.

Belle made no reply.

‘Shall I tell you?’ I demanded. ‘You had no objection to the first part of the speech, but you did not like being called queen of the dingle. Well, if I had the power, I would make you queen of something better than the dingle — Queen of China. Come, let us have tea.’

‘Something less would content me,’ said Belle, sighing, as she rose to prepare our evening meal.

So we took tea together, Belle and I. ‘How delicious tea is after a hot summer’s day and a long walk,’ said she.

‘I daresay it is most refreshing then,’ said I; ‘but I have heard people say that they most enjoy it on a cold winter’s night, when the kettle is hissing on the fire, and their children playing on the hearth.’

Belle sighed. ‘Where does tea come from?’ she presently demanded.

‘From China,’ said I; ‘I just now mentioned it, and the mention of it put me in mind of tea.’

‘What kind of country is China?’

‘I know very little about it; all I know is, that it is a very large country far to the East, but scarcely large enough to contain its inhabitants, who are so numerous, that though China does not cover one-ninth part of the world, its inhabitants amount to one-third of the population of the world.’

‘And do they talk as we do?’

‘Oh no! I know nothing of their language; but I have heard that it is quite different from all others, and so difficult that none but the cleverest people amongst foreigners can master it, on which account, perhaps, only the French pretend to know anything about it.’

‘Are the French so very clever, then?’ said Belle.

‘They say there are no people like them, at least in Europe. But talking of Chinese reminds me that I have not for some time past given you a lesson in Armenian. The word for tea in Armenian is — by the bye what is the Armenian word for tea?’

‘That’s your affair, not mine,’ said Belle; ‘it seems hard that the master should ask the scholar.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘whatever the word may be in Armenian, it is a noun; and as we have never yet declined an Armenian noun together, we may as well take this opportunity of declining one. Belle, there are ten declensions in Armenian!

‘What’s a declension?’

‘The way of declining a noun.’

‘Then, in the civilest way imaginable, I decline the noun. Is that a declension?’

‘You should never play on words; to do so is low, vulgar, smelling of the pothouse, the workhouse. Belle, I insist on your declining an Armenian noun.’

‘I have done so already,’ said Belle.

‘If you go on in this way,’ said I, ‘I shall decline taking any more tea with you. Will you decline an Armenian noun?’

‘I don’t like the language,’ said Belle. ‘If you must teach me languages, why not teach me French or Chinese?’

‘I know nothing of Chinese; and as for French, none but a Frenchman is clever enough to speak it — to say nothing of teaching; no, we will stick to Armenian, unless, indeed, you would prefer Welsh!’

‘Welsh, I have heard, is vulgar,’ said Belle; ‘so, if I must learn one of the two, I will prefer Armenian, which I never heard of till you mentioned it to me; though, of the two, I really think Welsh sounds best.’

‘The Armenian noun,’ said I, ‘which I propose for your declension this night, is — which signifieth Master.’

‘I neither like the word nor the sound,’ said Belle.

‘I can’t help that,’ said I; ‘it is the word I choose: Master, with all its variations, being the first noun the sound of which I would have you learn from my lips. Come, let us begin —

‘A master. Of a master, etc. Repeat — ’

‘I am not much used to say the word,’ said Belle, ‘but to oblige you I will decline it as you wish’; and thereupon Belle declined Master in Armenian.

‘You have declined the noun very well,’ said I; ‘that is in the singular number; we will now go to the plural.’

‘What is the plural?’ said Belle.

‘That which implies more than one, for example, Masters; you shall now go through masters in Armenian.’

‘Never,’ said Belle, ‘never; it is bad to have one master, but more I would never bear, whether in Armenian or English.’

‘You do not understand,’ said I; ‘I merely want you to decline Masters in Armenian.’

‘I do decline them; I will have nothing to do with them, nor with master either; I was wrong to — What sound is that?’

‘I did not hear it, but I daresay it is thunder; in Armenian — ’

‘Never mind what it is in Armenian; but why do you think it is thunder?’

‘Ere I returned from my stroll, I looked up into the heavens, and by their appearance I judged that a storm was nigh at hand.’

‘And why did you not tell me so?’

‘You never asked me about the state of the atmosphere, and I am not in the habit of giving my opinion to people on any subject, unless questioned. But, setting that aside, can you blame me for not troubling you with forebodings about storm and tempest, which might have prevented the pleasure you promised yourself in drinking tea, or perhaps a lesson in Armenian, though you pretend to dislike the latter?’

‘My dislike is not pretended,’ said Belle; ‘I hate the sound of it, but I love my tea, and it was kind of you not to wish to cast a cloud over my little pleasures; the thunder came quite time enough to interrupt it without being anticipated — there is another peal — I will clear away, and see that my tent is in a condition to resist the storm; and I think you had better bestir yourself.’

Isopel departed, and I remained seated on my stone, as nothing belonging to myself required any particular attention; in about a quarter of an hour she returned, and seated herself upon her stool.

‘How dark the place is become since I left you,’ said she; ‘just as if night were just at hand.’

‘Look up at the sky,’ said I; ‘and you will not wonder; it is all of a deep olive. The wind is beginning to rise; hark how it moans among the branches, and see how their tops are bending; it brings dust on its wings — I felt some fall on my face; and what is this, a drop of rain?’

‘We shall have plenty anon,’ said Belle; ‘do you hear? it already begins to hiss upon the embers; that fire of ours will soon be extinguished.’

‘It is not probable that we shall want it,’ said I, ‘but we had better seek shelter: let us go into my tent.’

‘Go in,’ said Belle, ‘but you go in alone; as for me, I will seek my own.’

‘You are right,’ said I, ‘to be afraid of me; I have taught you to decline master in Armenian.’

‘You almost tempt me,’ said Belle, ‘to make you decline mistress in English.’

‘To make matters short,’ said I, ‘I decline a mistress.’

‘What do you mean?’ said Belle, angrily.

‘I have merely done what you wished me,’ said I, ‘and in your own style; there is no other way of declining anything in English, for in English there are no declensions.’

‘The rain is increasing,’ said Belle.

‘It is so,’ said I; ‘I shall go to my tent; you may come if you please; I do assure you I am not afraid of you.’

‘Nor I of you,’ said Belle; ‘so I will come. Why should I be afraid? I can take my own part; that is — ’

We went into the tent and sat down, and now the rain began to pour with vehemence. ‘I hope we shall not be flooded in this hollow,’ said I to Belle. ‘There is no fear of that,’ said Belle; ‘the wandering people, amongst other names, call it the dry hollow. I believe there is a passage somewhere or other by which the wet is carried off. There must be a cloud right above us, it is so dark. Oh! what a flash!’

‘And what a peal!’ said I; ‘that is what the Hebrews call Koul Adonai — the voice of the Lord. Are you afraid?’

‘No,’ said Belle, ‘I rather like to hear it.’

‘You are right,’ said I, ‘I am fond of the sound of thunder myself. There is nothing like it; Koul Adonai behadar: the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice, as the prayer-book version hath it.’

‘There is something awful in it,’ said Belle; ‘and then the lightning — the whole dingle is now in a blaze.’

‘“The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the thick bushes.” As you say, there is something awful in thunder.’

‘There are all kinds of noises above us,’ said Belle; ‘surely I heard the crashing of a tree?’

‘“The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedar trees,”’ said I, ‘but what you hear is caused by a convulsion of the air; during a thunder-storm there are occasionally all kinds of aerial noises. Ab Gwilym, who, next to King David, has best described a thunderstorm, speaks of these aerial noises in the following manner:-

‘Astonied now I stand at strains, As of ten thousand clanking chains; And once, methought that, overthrown, The welkin’s oaks came whelming down; Upon my head up starts my hair: Why hunt abroad the hounds of air? What cursed hag is screeching high, Whilst crash goes all her crockery?’

You would hardly believe, Belle, that though I offered at least ten thousand lines nearly as good as those to the booksellers in London, the simpletons were so blind to their interest, as to refuse purchasing them!’

‘I don’t wonder at it,’ said Belle, ‘especially if such dreadful expressions frequently occur as that towards the end; — surely that was the crash of a tree?’

‘Ah!’ said I, ‘there falls the cedar tree — I mean the sallow; one of the tall trees on the outside of the dingle has been snapped short.’

‘What a pity,’ said Belle, ‘that the fine old oak, which you saw the peasants cutting up, gave way the other night, when scarcely a breath of air was stirring; how much better to have fallen in a storm like this, the fiercest I remember.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said I; ‘after braving a thousand tempests, it was meeter for it to fall of itself than to be vanquished at last. But to return to Ab Gwilym’s poetry: he was above culling dainty words, and spoke boldly his mind on all subjects. Enraged with the thunder for parting him and Morfydd, he says, at the conclusion of his ode,

‘My curse, O Thunder, cling to thee, For parting my dear pearl and me!’

‘You and I shall part, that is, I shall go to my tent, if you persist in repeating from him. The man must have been a savage. A poor wood-pigeon has fallen dead.’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘there he lies, just outside the tent; often have I listened to his note when alone in this wilderness. So you do not like Ab Gwilym; what say you to old Gothe? —

‘Mist shrouds the night, and rack; Hear, in the woods, what an awful crack! Wildly the owls are flitting, Hark to the pillars splitting Of palaces verdant ever, The branches quiver and sever, The mighty stems are creaking, The poor roots breaking and shrieking, In wild mixt ruin down dashing, O’er one another they’re crashing; Whilst ‘midst the rocks so hoary Whirlwinds hurry and worry. Hear’st not, sister — ’

‘Hark!’ said Belle, ‘hark!’

‘Hear’st not, sister, a chorus Of voices —?’

‘No,’ said Belle, ‘but I hear a voice.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter95.html

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