Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 99

A cloister — Half English — New acquaintance — Mixed liquors — Turning Papist — Purposes of charity — Foreign religion — Melancholy — Elbowing and pushing — Outlandish sight — The figure — I don’t care for you — Merry-andrews — One good — Religion of my country — Fellow of spirit — A dispute — The next morning — Female doll — Proper dignity — Fetish country.

‘The day after our arrival,’ continued the postilion, ‘I was sent, under the guidance of a lackey of the place, with a letter, which the priest, when he left, had given us for a friend of his in the Eternal City. We went to a large house, and on ringing were admitted by a porter into a cloister, where I saw some ill-looking, shabby young fellows walking about, who spoke English to one another. To one of these the porter delivered the letter, and the young fellow, going away, presently returned and told me to follow him; he led me into a large room where, behind a table on which were various papers and a thing which they call, in that country, a crucifix, sat a man in a kind of priestly dress. The lad having opened the door for me, shut it behind me, and went away. The man behind the table was so engaged in reading the letter which I had brought, that at first he took no notice of me; he had red hair, a kind of half-English countenance, and was seemingly about five-and-thirty. After a little time he laid the letter down, appeared to consider a moment, and then opened his mouth with a strange laugh, not a loud laugh, for I heard nothing but a kind of hissing deep down the throat; all of a sudden, however, perceiving me, he gave a slight start, but, instantly recovering himself, he inquired in English concerning the health of the family, and where we lived: on my delivering him a card, he bade me inform my master and the ladies that in the course of the day he would do himself the honour of waiting upon them. He then arose and opened the door for me to depart. The man was perfectly civil and courteous, but I did not like that strange laugh of his after having read the letter. He was as good as his word, and that same day paid us a visit. It was now arranged that we should pass the winter in Rome — to my great annoyance, for I wished to return to my native land, being heartily tired of everything connected with Italy. I was not, however, without hope that our young master would shortly arrive, when I trusted that matters, as far as the family were concerned, would be put on a better footing. In a few days our new acquaintance, who, it seems, was a mongrel Englishman, had procured a house for our accommodation; it was large enough, but not near so pleasant as that we had at Naples, which was light and airy, with a large garden. This was a dark gloomy structure in a narrow street, with a frowning church beside it; it was not far from the place where our new friend lived, and its being so was probably the reason why he selected it. It was furnished partly with articles which we bought, and partly with those which we hired. We lived something in the same way as at Naples; but though I did not much like Naples, I yet liked it better than this place, which was so gloomy. Our new acquaintance made himself as agreeable as he could, conducting the ladies to churches and convents, and frequently passing the afternoon drinking with the governor, who was fond of a glass of brandy and water and a cigar, as the new acquaintance also was — no, I remember, he was fond of gin and water, and did not smoke. I don’t think he had so much influence over the young ladies as the other priest, which was, perhaps, owing to his not being so good-looking; but I am sure he had more influence with the governor, owing, doubtless, to his bearing him company in drinking mixed liquors, which the other priest did not do.

‘He was a strange fellow, that same new acquaintance of ours, and unlike all the priests I saw in that country, and I saw plenty of various nations; they were always upon their guard, and had their features and voice modulated; but this man was subject to fits of absence, during which he would frequently mutter to himself, then, though he was perfectly civil to everybody, as far as words went, I observed that he entertained a thorough contempt for most people, especially for those whom he was making dupes. I have observed him whilst drinking with our governor, when the old man’s head was turned, look at him with an air which seemed to say, “What a thundering old fool you are”; and at our young ladies, when their backs were turned, with a glance which said distinctly enough, “You precious pair of ninnyhammers”; and then his laugh — he had two kinds of laughs — one which you could hear, and another which you could only see. I have seen him laugh at our governor and the young ladies, when their heads were turned away, but I heard no sound. My mother had a sandy cat, which sometimes used to open its mouth wide with a mew which nobody could hear, and the silent laugh of that red-haired priest used to put me wonderfully in mind of the silent mew of my mother’s sandy-red cat. And then the other laugh, which you could hear; what a strange laugh that was, never loud, yes, I have heard it tolerably loud. He once passed near me, after having taken leave of a silly English fellow — a limping parson of the name of Platitude, who, they said, was thinking of turning Papist, and was much in his company; I was standing behind the pillar of a piazza, and as he passed he was laughing heartily. O he was a strange fellow, that same red-haired acquaintance of ours!

‘After we had been at Rome about six weeks our old friend the priest of Naples arrived, but without his subordinate, for whose services he now perhaps thought that he had no occasion. I believe he found matters in our family wearing almost as favourable an aspect as he could desire: with what he had previously taught them and shown them at Naples and elsewhere, and with what the red-haired confederate had taught them and shown them at Rome, the poor young ladies had become quite handmaids of superstition, so that they, especially the youngest, were prepared to bow down to anything, and kiss anything, however vile and ugly, provided a priest commanded them; and as for the old governor, what with the influence which his daughters exerted, and what with the ascendency which the red-haired man had obtained over him, he dared not say his purse, far less his soul, was his own. Only think of an Englishman not being master of his own purse! My acquaintance, the lady’s maid, assured me that, to her certain knowledge, he had disbursed to the red-haired man, for purposes of charity, as it was said, at least one thousand pounds during the five weeks we had been at Rome. She also told me that things would shortly be brought to a conclusion — and so indeed they were, though in a different manner from what she and I and some other people imagined; that there was to be a grand festival, and a mass, at which we were to be present, after which the family were to be presented to the Holy Father, for so those two priestly sharks had managed it; and then . . . she said she was certain that the two ladies, and perhaps the old governor, would forsake the religion of their native land, taking up with that of these foreign regions, for so my fellow-servant expressed it, and that perhaps attempts might be made to induce us poor English servants to take up with the foreign religion, that is herself and me, for as for our fellow-servant, the other maid, she wanted no inducing, being disposed body and soul to go over to it. Whereupon I swore with an oath that nothing should induce me to take up with the foreign religion; and the poor maid, my fellow-servant, bursting into tears, said that for her part she would die sooner than have anything to do with it; thereupon we shook hands and agreed to stand by and countenance one another: and moreover, provided our governors were fools enough to go over to the religion of these here foreigners, we would not wait to be asked to do the like, but leave them at once, and make the best of our way home, even if we were forced to beg on the road.

‘At last the day of the grand festival came, and we were all to go to the big church to hear the mass. Now it happened that for some time past I had been much afflicted with melancholy, especially when I got up of a morning, produced by the strange manner in which I saw things going on in our family; and to dispel it in some degree, I had been in the habit of taking a dram before breakfast. On the morning in question, feeling particularly low spirited when I thought of the foolish step our governor would probably take before evening, I took two drams before breakfast; and after breakfast, feeling my melancholy still continuing, I took another, which produced a slight effect upon my head, though I am convinced nobody observed it.

‘Away we drove to the big church; it was a dark misty day, I remember, and very cold, so that if anybody had noticed my being slightly in liquor, I could have excused myself by saying that I had merely taken a glass to fortify my constitution against the weather; and of one thing I am certain, which is, that such an excuse would have stood me in stead with our governor, who looked, I thought, as if he had taken one too; but I may be mistaken, and why should I notice him, seeing that he took no notice of me? so away we drove to the big church, to which all the population of the place appeared to be moving.

‘On arriving there we dismounted, and the two priests, who were with us, led the family in, whilst I followed at a little distance, but quickly lost them amidst the throng of people. I made my way, however, though in what direction I knew not, except it was one in which everybody seemed striving, and by dint of elbowing and pushing I at last got to a place which looked like the aisle of a cathedral, where the people stood in two rows, a space between being kept open by certain strangely-dressed men who moved up and down with rods in their hands; all were looking to the upper end of this place or aisle; and at the upper end, separated from the people by palings like those of an altar, sat in magnificent-looking stalls, on the right and the left, various wonderful — looking individuals in scarlet dresses. At the farther end was what appeared to be an altar, on the left hand was a pulpit, and on the right a stall higher than any of the rest, where was a figure whom I could scarcely see.

‘I can’t pretend to describe what I saw exactly, for my head, which was at first rather flurried, had become more so from the efforts which I had made to get through the crowd; also from certain singing, which proceeded from I know not where; and, above all, from the bursts of an organ, which were occasionally so loud that I thought the roof, which was painted with wondrous colours, would come toppling down on those below. So there stood I— a poor English servant — in that outlandish place, in the midst of that foreign crowd, looking at that outlandish sight, hearing those outlandish sounds, and occasionally glancing at our party, which, by this time, I distinguished at the opposite side to where I stood, but much nearer the place where the red figures sat. Yes, there stood our poor governor and the sweet young ladies, and I thought they never looked so handsome before; and close by them were the sharking priests, and not far from them was that idiotical parson Platitude, winking and grinning, and occasionally lifting up his hands as if in ecstasy at what he saw and heard, so that he drew upon himself the notice of the congregation.

‘And now an individual mounted the pulpit, and began to preach in a language which I did not understand, but which I believe to be Latin, addressing himself seemingly to the figure in the stall; and when he had ceased, there was more singing, more organ-playing, and then two men in robes brought forth two things which they held up; and then the people bowed their heads, and our poor governor bowed his head, and the sweet young ladies bowed their heads, and the sharking priests, whilst the idiotical parson Platitude tried to fling himself down; and then there were various evolutions withinside the pale, and the scarlet figures got up and sat down; and this kind of thing continued for some time. At length the figure which I had seen in the principal stall came forth and advanced towards the people; an awful figure he was, a huge old man with a sugar-loaf hat, with a sulphur-coloured dress, and holding a crook in his hand like that of a shepherd; and as he advanced the people fell on their knees, our poor old governor amongst them; the sweet young ladies, the sharking priests, the idiotical parson Platitude, all fell on their knees, and somebody or other tried to pull me on my knees; but by this time I had become outrageous; all that my poor brother used to tell me of the superstitions of the high Barbary shore rushed into my mind, and I thought they were acting them over here; above all, the idea that the sweet young ladies, to say nothing of my poor old governor, were, after the conclusion of all this mummery, going to deliver themselves up body and soul into the power of that horrid-looking old man, maddened me, and, rushing forward into the open space, I confronted the horrible-looking old figure with the sugar-loaf hat, the sulphur-coloured garments, and shepherd’s crook, and shaking my fist at his nose, I bellowed out in English —

‘“I don’t care for you, old Mumbo Jumbo, though you have fetish!”

‘I can scarcely tell you what occurred for some time. I have a dim recollection that hands were laid upon me, and that I struck out violently left and right. On coming to myself, I was seated on a stone bench in a large room, something like a guard-room, in the custody of certain fellows dressed like Merry-andrews; they were bluff, good-looking, wholesome fellows, very different from the sallow Italians: they were looking at me attentively, and occasionally talking to each other in a language which sounded very like the cracking of walnuts in the mouth, very different from cooing Italian. At last one of them asked me in Italian what had ailed me, to which I replied, in an incoherent manner, something about Mumbo Jumbo; whereupon the fellow, one of the bluffest of the lot, a jovial rosy-faced rascal, lifted up his right hand, placing it in such a manner that the lips were between the fore-finger and thumb, then lifting up his right foot and drawing back his head, he sucked in his breath with a hissing sound, as if to imitate one drinking a hearty draught, and then slapped me on the shoulder, saying something which sounded like goot wine, goot companion, whereupon they all laughed, exclaiming, ya, ya, goot companion. And now hurried into the room our poor old governor, with the red-haired priest. The first asked what could have induced me to behave in such a manner in such a place, to which I replied that I was not going to bow down to Mumbo Jumbo, whatever other people might do. Whereupon my master said he believed I was mad, and the priest said he believed I was drunk; to which I answered that I was neither so mad nor drunk but I could distinguish how the wind lay. Whereupon they left me, and in a little time I was told by the bluff-looking Merry-andrews I was at liberty to depart. I believe the priest, in order to please my governor, interceded for me in high quarters.

‘But one good resulted from this affair; there was no presentation of our family to the Holy Father, for old Mumbo was so frightened by my outrageous looks that he was laid up for a week, as I was afterwards informed.

‘I went home, and had scarcely been there half an hour when I was sent for by the governor, who again referred to the scene in church, said that he could not tolerate such scandalous behaviour, and that unless I promised to be more circumspect in future, he should be compelled to discharge me. I said that if he was scandalised at my behaviour in the church, I was more scandalised at all I saw going on in the family, which was governed by two rascally priests, who, not content with plundering him, appeared bent on hurrying the souls of us all to destruction; and that with respect to discharging me, he could do so that moment, as I wished to go. I believe his own reason told him that I was right, for he made no direct answer, but, after looking on the ground for some time, he told me to leave him. As he did not tell me to leave the house, I went to my room, intending to lie down for an hour or two; but scarcely was I there when the door opened, and in came the red-haired priest. He showed himself, as he always did, perfectly civil, asked me how I was, took a chair and sat down. After a hem or two he entered into a long conversation on the excellence of what he called the Catholic religion; told me that he hoped I would not set myself against the light, and likewise against my interest; for that the family were about to embrace the Catholic religion, and would make it worth my while to follow their example. I told him that the family might do what they pleased, but that I would never forsake the religion of my country for any consideration whatever; that I was nothing but a poor servant, but I was not to be bought by base gold. “I admire your honourable feelings,” said he, “you shall have no gold; and as I see you are a fellow of spirit, and do not like being a servant, for which I commend you, I can promise you something better. I have a good deal of influence in this place, and if you will not set your face against the light, but embrace the Catholic religion, I will undertake to make your fortune. You remember those fine fellows today who took you into custody, they are the guards of his Holiness. I have no doubt that I have interest enough to procure your enrolment amongst them.” “What,” said I, “become swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo up here! May I . . . ” — and here I swore — “if I do. The mere possibility of one of their children being swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo on the high Barbary shore has always been a source of heart-breaking to my poor parents. What, then, would they not undergo, if they knew for certain that their other child was swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo up here?” Thereupon he asked me, even as you did some time ago, what I meant by Mumbo Jumbo. And I told him all I had heard about the Mumbo Jumbo of the high Barbary shore; telling him that I had no doubt that the old fellow up here was his brother, or nearly related to him. The man with the red hair listened with the greatest attention to all I said, and when I had concluded, he got up, nodded to me, and moved to the door; ere he reached the door I saw his shoulders shaking, and as he closed it behind him I heard him distinctly laughing, to the tune of — he! he! he!

‘But now matters began to mend. That same evening my young master unexpectedly arrived. I believe he soon perceived that something extraordinary had been going on in the family. He was for some time closeted with the governor, with whom, I believe, he had a dispute; for my fellow-servant, the lady’s maid, informed me that she heard high words.

‘Rather late at night the young gentleman sent for me into his room, and asked me various questions with respect to what had been going on, and my behaviour in the church, of which he had heard something. I told him all I knew with respect to the intrigues of the two priests in the family, and gave him a circumstantial account of all that had occurred in the church; adding that, under similar circumstances, I was ready to play the same part over again. Instead of blaming me, he commended my behaviour, told me I was a fine fellow, and said he hoped that, if he wanted my assistance, I would stand by him: this I promised to do. Before I left him, he entreated me to inform him the very next time I saw the priests entering the house.

‘The next morning, as I was in the courtyard, where I had placed myself to watch, I saw the two enter and make their way up a private stair to the young ladies’ apartment; they were attended by a man dressed something like a priest, who bore a large box; I instantly ran to relate what I had seen to my young master. I found him shaving. “I will just finish what I am about,” said he, “and then wait upon these gentlemen.” He finished what he was about with great deliberation; then taking a horsewhip, and bidding me follow him, he proceeded at once to the door of his sisters’ apartment: finding it fastened, he burst it open at once with his foot and entered, followed by myself. There we beheld the two unfortunate young ladies down on their knees before a large female doll, dressed up, as usual, in rags and tinsel; the two priests were standing near, one on either side, with their hands uplifted, whilst the fellow who brought the trumpery stood a little way down the private stair, the door of which stood open; without a moment’s hesitation, my young master rushed forward, gave the image a cut or two with his horsewhip — then flying at the priests, he gave them a sound flogging, kicked them down the private stair, and spurned the man, box and image after them — then locking the door, he gave his sisters a fine sermon, in which he represented to them their folly in worshipping a silly wooden graven image, which, though it had eyes, could see not; though it had ears, could hear not; though it had hands, could not help itself; and though it had feet, could not move about unless it were carried. Oh, it was a fine sermon that my young master preached, and sorry I am that the Father of the Fetish, old Mumbo, did not hear it. The elder sister looked ashamed, but the youngest, who was very weak, did nothing but wring her hands, weep and bewail the injury which had been done to the dear image. The young man, however, without paying much regard to either of them, went to his father, with whom he had a long conversation, which terminated in the old governor giving orders for preparations to be made for the family’s leaving Rome and returning to England. I believe that the old governor was glad of his son’s arrival, and rejoiced at the idea of getting away from Italy, where he had been so plundered and imposed upon. The priests, however, made another attempt upon the poor young ladies. By the connivance of the female servant who was in their interest they found their way once more into their apartment, bringing with them the fetish image, whose body they partly stripped, exhibiting upon it certain sanguine marks which they had daubed upon it with red paint, but which they said were the result of the lashes which it had received from the horsewhip. The youngest girl believed all they said, and kissed and embraced the dear image; but the eldest, whose eyes had been opened by her brother, to whom she was much attached, behaved with proper dignity; for, going to the door, she called the female servant who had a respect for me, and in her presence reproached the two deceivers for their various impudent cheats, and especially for this their last attempt at imposition; adding that if they did not forthwith withdraw and rid her sister and herself of their presence, she would send word by her maid to her brother, who would presently take effectual means to expel them. They took the hint and departed, and we saw no more of them.

‘At the end of three days we departed from Rome, but the maid whom the priests had cajoled remained behind, and it is probable that the youngest of our ladies would have done the same thing if she could have had her own will, for she was continually raving about her image, and saying she should wish to live with it in a convent; but we watched the poor thing, and got her on board ship. Oh, glad was I to leave that fetish country and old Mumbo behind me!

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