Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 98

An exordium — Fine ships — High Barbary captains — Free-born Englishmen — Monstrous figure — Swashbuckler — The grand coaches — The footmen — A travelling expedition — Black Jack — Nelson’s cannon — Pharaoh’s butler — A diligence — Two passengers — Sharking priest — Virgilio — Lessons in Italian — Two opinions — Holy Mary — Priestly confederates — Methodist chapel — Veturini — Some of our party — Like a sepulchre — All for themselves.

‘I am a poor postilion, as you see; yet, as I have seen a thing or two and heard a thing or two of what is going on in the world, perhaps what I have to tell you connected with myself may not prove altogether uninteresting. Now, my friends, this manner of opening a story is what the man who taught rhetoric would call a hex — hex — ‘

‘Exordium,’ said I.

‘Just so,’ said the postilion; ‘I treated you to a per — per — peroration some time ago, so that I have contrived to put the cart before the horse, as the Irish orators frequently do in the honourable House, in whose speeches, especially those who have taken lessons in rhetoric, the per — per — what’s the word? — frequently goes before the exordium.

‘I was born in the neighbouring county; my father was land-steward to a squire of about a thousand a year. My father had two sons, of whom I am the youngest by some years. My elder brother was of a spirited roving disposition, and for fear that he should turn out what is generally termed ungain, my father determined to send him to sea: so once upon a time, when my brother was about fifteen, he took him to the great seaport of the county, where he apprenticed him to a captain of one of the ships which trade to the high Barbary coast. Fine ships they were, I have heard say, more than thirty in number, and all belonging to a wonderful great gentleman, who had once been a parish boy, but had contrived to make an immense fortune by trading to that coast for gold-dust, ivory, and other strange articles; and for doing so, I mean for making a fortune, had been made a knight baronet. So my brother went to the high Barbary shore, on board the fine vessel, and in about a year returned and came to visit us; he repeated the voyage several times, always coming to see his parents on his return. Strange stories he used to tell us of what he had been witness to on the high Barbary coast, both off shore and on. He said that the fine vessel in which he sailed was nothing better than a painted hell; that the captain was a veritable fiend, whose grand delight was in tormenting his men, especially when they were sick, as they frequently were, there being always fever on the high Barbary coast; and that though the captain was occasionally sick himself, his being so made no difference, or rather it did make a difference, though for the worse, he being when sick always more inveterate and malignant than at other times. He said that once, when he himself was sick, his captain had pitched his face all over, which exploit was much applauded by the other high Barbary captains — all of whom, from what my brother said, appeared to be of much the same disposition as my brother’s captain, taking wonderful delight in tormenting the crews, and doing all manner of terrible things. My brother frequently said that nothing whatever prevented him from running away from his ship, and never returning, but the hope he entertained of one day being captain himself, and able to torment people in his turn, which he solemnly vowed he would do, as a kind of compensation for what he himself had undergone. And if things were going on in a strange way off the high Barbary shore amongst those who came there to trade, they were going on in a way yet stranger with the people who lived upon it.

‘Oh the strange ways of the black men who lived on that shore, of which my brother used to tell us at home — selling their sons, daughters, and servants for slaves, and the prisoners taken in battle, to the Spanish captains, to be carried to Havannah, and when there, sold at a profit, the idea of which, my brother said, went to the hearts of our own captains, who used to say what a hard thing it was that free-born Englishmen could not have a hand in the traffic, seeing that it was forbidden by the laws of their country; talking fondly of the good old times when their forefathers used to carry slaves to Jamaica and Barbadoes, realising immense profit, besides the pleasure of hearing their shrieks on the voyage; and then the superstitions of the blacks, which my brother used to talk of; their sharks’ teeth, their wisps of fowls’ feathers, their half-baked pots full of burnt bones, of which they used to make what they called fetish, and bow down to, and ask favours of, and then, perhaps, abuse and strike, provided the senseless rubbish did not give them what they asked for; and then, above all, Mumbo Jumbo, the grand fetish master, who lived somewhere in the woods, and who used to come out every now and then with his fetish companions; a monstrous figure, all wound round with leaves and branches, so as to be quite indistinguishable, and, seating himself on the high seat in the villages, receive homage from the people, and also gifts and offerings, the most valuable of which were pretty damsels, and then betake himself back again, with his followers, into the woods. Oh the tales that my brother used to tell us of the high Barbary shore! Poor fellow! what became of him I can’t say; the last time he came back from a voyage, he told us that his captain, as soon as he had brought his vessel to port and settled with his owner, drowned himself off the quay, in a fit of the horrors, which it seems high Barbary captains, after a certain number of years, are much subject to. After staying about a month with us, he went to sea again, with another captain; and, bad as the old one had been, it appears the new one was worse, for, unable to bear his treatment, my brother left his ship off the high Barbary shore, and ran away up the country. Some of his comrades, whom we afterwards saw, said that there were various reports about him on the shore; one that he had taken on with Mumbo Jumbo, and was serving him in his house in the woods, in the capacity of swashbuckler, or life-guardsman; another, that he was gone in quest of a mighty city in the heart of the negro country; another, that in swimming a stream he had been devoured by an alligator. Now, these two last reports were bad enough; the idea of their flesh and blood being bit asunder by a ravenous fish was sad enough to my poor parents; and not very comfortable was the thought of his sweltering over the hot sands in quest of the negro city; but the idea of their son, their eldest child, serving Mumbo Jumbo as swashbuckler was worst of all, and caused my poor parents to shed many a scalding tear.

‘I stayed at home with my parents until I was about eighteen, assisting my father in various ways. I then went to live at the Squire’s, partly as groom, partly as footman. After living in the country some time, I attended the family in a trip of six weeks which they made to London. Whilst there, happening to have some words with an old ill-tempered coachman, who had been for a great many years in the family, my master advised me to leave, offering to recommend me to a family of his acquaintance who were in need of a footman. I was glad to accept his offer, and in a few days went to my new place. My new master was one of the great gentry, a baronet in Parliament, and possessed of an estate of about twenty thousand a year; his family consisted of his lady, a son, a fine young man just coming of age, and two very sweet amiable daughters. I liked this place much better than my first, there was so much more pleasant noise and bustle — so much more grand company, and so many more opportunities of improving myself. Oh, how I liked to see the grand coaches drive up to the door, with the grand company; and though, amidst that company, there were some who did not look very grand, there were others, and not a few, who did. Some of the ladies quite captivated me; there was the Marchioness of — in particular. This young lady puts me much in mind of her; it is true, the Marchioness, as I saw her then, was about fifteen years older than this young gentlewoman is now, and not so tall by some inches, but she had the very same hair, and much the same neck and shoulders — no offence, I hope? And then some of the young gentlemen, with their cool, haughty, care-for-nothing looks, struck me as being very fine fellows. There was one in particular, whom I frequently used to stare at, not altogether unlike some one I have seen hereabouts — he had a slight cast in his eye, and . . . but I won’t enter into every particular. And then the footmen! Oh, how those footmen helped to improve me with their conversation. Many of them could converse much more glibly than their masters, and appeared to have much better taste. At any rate, they seldom approved of what their masters did. I remember being once with one in the gallery of the play-house, when something of Shakspeare’s was being performed: some one in the first tier of boxes was applauding very loudly. “That’s my fool of a governor,” said he; “he is weak enough to like Shakspeare — I don’t; — he’s so confoundedly low, but he won’t last long — going down. Shakspeare culminated” — I think that was the word — “culminated some time ago.”

‘And then the professor of elocution, of whom my governors used to take lessons, and of which lessons I had my share, by listening behind the door; but for that professor of elocution I should not be able to round my periods — an expression of his — in the manner I do.

‘After I had been three years at this place my mistress died. Her death, however, made no great alteration in my way of living, the family spending their winters in London, and their summers at their old seat in S— as before. At last, the young ladies, who had not yet got husbands, which was strange enough, seeing, as I told you before, they were very amiable, proposed to our governor a travelling expedition abroad. The old baronet consented, though young master was much against it, saying they would all be much better at home. As the girls persisted, however, he at last withdrew his opposition, and even promised to follow them as soon as his parliamentary duties would permit; for he was just got into Parliament, and, like most other young members, thought that nothing could be done in the House without him. So the old gentleman and the two young ladies set off, taking me with them, and a couple of ladies’ maids to wait upon them. First of all, we went to Paris, where we continued three months, the old baronet and the ladies going to see the various sights of the city and the neighbourhood, and I attending them. They soon got tired of sight-seeing, and of Paris too; and so did I. However, they still continued there, in order, I believe, that the young ladies might lay in a store of French finery. I should have passed my idle time at Paris, of which I had plenty after the sight-seeing was over, very unpleasantly, but for Black Jack. Eh! did you never hear of Black Jack? Ah! if you had ever been an English servant in Paris, you would have known Black Jack; not an English gentleman’s servant who has been at Paris for this last ten years but knows Black Jack and his ordinary. A strange fellow he was — of what country no one could exactly say — for as for judging from speech, that was impossible, Jack speaking all languages equally ill. Some said he came direct from Satan’s kitchen, and that when he gives up keeping ordinary, he will return there again, though the generally-received opinion at Paris was, that he was at one time butler to King Pharaoh; and that, after lying asleep for four thousand years in a place called the Kattycombs, he was awaked by the sound of Nelson’s cannon at the battle of the Nile, and going to the shore, took on with the admiral, and became, in course of time, ship steward; and that after Nelson’s death he was captured by the French, on board one of whose vessels he served in a somewhat similar capacity till the peace, when he came to Paris, and set up an ordinary for servants, sticking the name of Katcomb over the door, in allusion to the place where he had his long sleep. But, whatever his origin was, Jack kept his own counsel, and appeared to care nothing for what people said about him, or called him. Yes, I forgot, there was one name he would not be called, and that was “Portuguese.” I once saw Black Jack knock down a coachman, six foot high, who called him black-faced Portuguese. “Any name but dat, you shab,” said Black Jack, who was a little round fellow, of about five feet two; “I would not stand to be called Portuguese by Nelson himself.” Jack was rather fond of talking about Nelson, and hearing people talk about him, so that it is not improbable that he may have sailed with him; and with respect to his having been King Pharaoh’s butler, all I have to say is, I am not disposed to give the downright lie to the report. Jack was always ready to do a kind turn to a poor servant out of place, and has often been known to assist such as were in prison, which charitable disposition he perhaps acquired from having lost a good place himself, having seen the inside of a prison, and known the want of a meal’s victuals, all which trials King Pharaoh’s butler underwent, so he may have been that butler; at any rate, I have known positive conclusions come to on no better premisses, if indeed as good. As for the story of his coming direct from Satan’s kitchen, I place no confidence in it at all, as Black Jack had nothing of Satan about him but blackness, on which account he was called Black Jack. Nor am I disposed to give credit to a report that his hatred of the Portuguese arose from some ill treatment which he had once experienced when on shore, at Lisbon, from certain gentlewomen of the place, but rather conclude that it arose from an opinion he entertained that the Portuguese never paid their debts, one of the ambassadors of that nation, whose house he had served, having left Paris several thousand francs in his debt. This is all that I have to say about Black Jack, without whose funny jokes and good ordinary I should have passed my time in Paris in a very disconsolate manner.

‘After we had been at Paris between two and three months, we left it in the direction of Italy, which country the family had a great desire to see. After travelling a great many days in a thing which, though called a diligence, did not exhibit much diligence, we came to a great big town, seated around a nasty salt-water bason, connected by a narrow passage with the sea. Here we were to embark; and so we did as soon as possible, glad enough to get away — at least I was, and so I make no doubt were the rest, for such a place for bad smells I never was in. It seems all the drains and sewers of the place run into that same salt bason, voiding into it all their impurities, which, not being able to escape into the sea in any considerable quantity, owing to the narrowness of the entrance, there accumulate, filling the whole atmosphere with these same outrageous scents, on which account the town is a famous lodging-house of the plague. The ship in which we embarked was bound for a place in Italy called Naples, where we were to stay some time. The voyage was rather a lazy one, the ship not being moved by steam; for at the time of which I am speaking, some five years ago, steam-ships were not so plentiful as now. There were only two passengers in the grand cabin, where my governor and his daughters were, an Italian lady and a priest. Of the lady I have not much to say; she appeared to be a quiet respectable person enough, and after our arrival at Naples I neither saw nor heard anything more of her; but of the priest I shall have a good deal to say in the sequel (that, by the bye, is a word I learnt from the professor of rhetoric), and it would have been well for our family had they never met him.

‘On the third day of the voyage the priest came to me, who was rather unwell with sea-sickness, which he, of course, felt nothing of — that kind of people being never affected like others. He was a finish-looking man of about forty-five, but had something strange in his eyes, which I have since thought denoted that all was not right in a certain place called the heart. After a few words of condolence, in a broken kind of English, he asked me various questions about our family; and I, won by his seeming kindness, told him all I knew about them — of which communicativeness I afterwards very much repented. As soon as he had got out of me all he desired, he left me; and I observed that during the rest of the voyage he was wonderfully attentive to our governor, and yet more to the young ladies. Both, however, kept him rather at a distance; the young ladies were reserved, and once or twice I heard our governor cursing him between his teeth for a sharking priest. The priest, however, was not disconcerted, and continued his attentions, which in a little time produced an effect, so that, by the time we landed at Naples, our great folks had conceived a kind of liking for the man, and when they took their leave invited him to visit them, which he promised to do. We hired a grand house or palace at Naples; it belonged to a poor kind of prince, who was glad enough to let it to our governor, and also his servants and carriages; and glad enough were the poor servants, for they got from us what they never got from the prince — plenty of meat and money; and glad enough, I make no doubt, were the horses for the provender we gave them; and I daresay the coaches were not sorry to be cleaned and furbished up. Well, we went out and came in; going to see the sights, and returning. Amongst other things we saw was the burning mountain, and the tomb of a certain sorcerer called Virgilio, who made witch rhymes, by which he could raise the dead. Plenty of people came to see us, both English and Italians, and amongst the rest the priest. He did not come amongst the first, but allowed us to settle and become a little quiet before he showed himself; and after a day or two he paid us another visit, then another, till at last his visits were daily.

‘I did not like that Jack Priest; so I kept my eye upon all his motions. Lord! how that Jack Priest did curry favour with our governor and the two young ladies; and he curried, and curried, till he had got himself into favour with the governor, and more especially with the two young ladies, of whom their father was doatingly fond. At last the ladies took lessons in Italian of the priest, a language in which he was said to be a grand proficient, and of which they had hitherto known but very little; and from that time his influence over them, and consequently over the old governor, increased, till the tables were turned, and he no longer curried favour with them, but they with him — yes, as true as my leg aches, the young ladies curried, and the old governor curried favour with that same priest; when he was with them, they seemed almost to hang on his lips, that is, the young ladies; and as for the old governor, he never contradicted him, and when the fellow was absent, which, by the bye, was not often, it was, “Father so-and-so said this,” and “Father so-and-so said that”; “Father so — and-so thinks we should do so-and-so, or that we should not do so — and-so.” I at first thought that he must have given them something, some philtre or the like, but one of the English maid-servants, who had a kind of respect for me, and who saw much more behind the scenes than I did, informed me that he was continually instilling strange notions into their heads, striving, by every possible method, to make them despise the religion of their own land, and take up that of the foreign country in which they were. And sure enough, in a little time, the girls had altogether left off going to an English chapel, and were continually visiting places of Italian worship. The old governor, it is true, still went to his church, but he appeared to be hesitating between two opinions; and once, when he was at dinner, he said to two or three English friends that, since he had become better acquainted with it, he had conceived a much more favourable opinion of the Catholic religion than he had previously entertained. In a word, the priest ruled the house, and everything was done according to his will and pleasure; by degrees he persuaded the young ladies to drop their English acquaintances, whose place he supplied with Italians, chiefly females. My poor old governor would not have had a person to speak to — for he never could learn the language — but for two or three Englishmen who used to come occasionally and take a bottle with him in a summer-house, whose company he could not be persuaded to resign, notwithstanding the entreaties of his daughters, instigated by the priest, whose grand endeavour seemed to be to render the minds of all three foolish, for his own ends. And if he was busy above stairs with the governor, there was another busy below with us poor English servants, a kind of subordinate priest, a low Italian; as he could speak no language but his own, he was continually jabbering to us in that, and by hearing him the maids and myself contrived to pick up a good deal of the language, so that we understood most that was said, and could speak it very fairly; and the themes of his jabber were the beauty and virtues of one whom he called Holy Mary, and the power and grandeur of one whom he called the Holy Father; and he told us that we should shortly have an opportunity of seeing the Holy Father, who could do anything he liked with Holy Mary: in the meantime we had plenty of opportunities of seeing Holy Mary, for in every church, chapel, and convent to which we were taken, there was an image of Holy Mary, who, if the images were dressed at all in her fashion, must have been very fond of short petticoats and tinsel, and who, if those said figures at all resembled her in face, could scarcely have been half as handsome as either of my two fellow-servants, not to speak of the young ladies.

‘Now it happened that one of the female servants was much taken with what she saw and heard, and gave herself up entirely to the will of the subordinate, who had quite as much dominion over her as his superior had over the ladies; the other maid, however, the one who had a kind of respect for me, was not so easily besotted; she used to laugh at what she saw, and at what the fellow told her, and from her I learnt that amongst other things intended by these priestly confederates was robbery; she said that the poor old governor had already been persuaded by his daughters to put more than a thousand pounds into the superior priest’s hands for purposes of charity and religion, as was said, and that the subordinate one had already inveigled her fellow-servant out of every penny which she had saved from her wages, and had endeavoured likewise to obtain what money she herself had, but in vain. With respect to myself, the fellow shortly after made an attempt towards obtaining a hundred crowns, of which, by some means, he knew me to be in possession, telling me what a meritorious thing it was to give one’s superfluities for the purposes of religion. “That is true,” said I, “and if, after my return to my native country, I find I have anything which I don’t want myself, I will employ it in helping to build a Methodist chapel.”

‘By the time that the three months were expired for which we had hired the palace of the needy Prince, the old governor began to talk of returning to England, at least of leaving Italy. I believe he had become frightened at the calls which were continually being made upon him for money; for after all, you know, if there is a sensitive part of a man’s wearing apparel, it is his breeches pocket; but the young ladies could not think of leaving dear Italy and the dear priest; and then they had seen nothing of the country, they had only seen Naples; before leaving dear Italia they must see more of the country and the cities; above all, they must see a place which they called the Eternal City, or some similar nonsensical name; and they persisted so that the poor governor permitted them, as usual, to have their way; and it was decided what route they should take — that is, the priest was kind enough to decide for them, and was also kind enough to promise to go with them part of the route, as far as a place where there was a wonderful figure of Holy Mary, which the priest said it was highly necessary for them to see before visiting the Eternal City: so we left Naples in hired carriages, driven by fellows they call veturini, cheating, drunken dogs, I remember they were. Besides our own family there was the priest and his subordinate, and a couple of hired lackeys. We were several days upon the journey, travelling through a very wild country, which the ladies pretended to be delighted with, and which the governor cursed on account of the badness of the roads; and when we came to any particularly wild spot we used to stop, in order to enjoy the scenery, as the ladies said; and then we would spread a horse-cloth on the ground, and eat bread and cheese, and drink wine of the country. And some of the holes and corners in which we bivouacked, as the ladies called it, were something like this place where we are now, so that when I came down here it put me in mind of them. At last we arrived at the place where was the holy image.

‘We went to the house or chapel in which the holy image was kept — a frightful, ugly black figure of Holy Mary, dressed in her usual way; and after we had stared at the figure, and some of our party had bowed down to it, we were shown a great many things which were called holy relics, which consisted of thumb-nails, and fore-nails, and toe-nails, and hair, and teeth, and a feather or two, and a mighty thigh-bone, but whether of a man or a camel I can’t say; all of which things, I was told, if properly touched and handled, had mighty power to cure all kinds of disorders. And as we went from the holy house we saw a man in a state of great excitement: he was foaming at the mouth, and cursing the holy image and all its household, because, after he had worshipped it and made offerings to it, and besought it to assist him in a game of chance which he was about to play, it had left him in the lurch, allowing him to lose all his money. And when I thought of all the rubbish I had seen, and the purposes which it was applied to, in conjunction with the rage of the losing gamester at the deaf and dumb image, I could not help comparing the whole with what my poor brother used to tell me of the superstitious practices of the blacks on the high Barbary shore, and their occasional rage and fury at the things they worshipped; and I said to myself, If all this here doesn’t smell of fetish, may I smell fetid.

‘At this place the priest left us, returning to Naples with his subordinate, on some particular business I suppose. It was, however, agreed that he should visit us at the Holy City. We did not go direct to the Holy City, but bent our course to two or three other cities which the family were desirous of seeing; but as nothing occurred to us in these places of any particular interest, I shall take the liberty of passing them by in silence. At length we arrived at the Eternal City: an immense city it was, looking as if it had stood for a long time, and would stand for a long time still; compared with it, London would look like a mere assemblage of bee-skeps; however, give me the bee-skeps with their merry hum and bustle, and life and honey, rather than that huge town, which looked like a sepulchre, where there was no life, no busy hum, no bees, but a scanty sallow population, intermixed with black priests, white priests, gray priests; and though I don’t say there was no honey in the place, for I believe there was, I am ready to take my Bible oath that it was not made there, and that the priests kept it all for themselves.

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