The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 22

The Singular Noise — Sleeping in a Meadow — The Book — Cure for Wakefulness — Literary Tea-Party — Poor Byron

I did not awake till rather late the next morning; and when I did, I felt considerable drowsiness, with a slight headache, which I was uncharitable enough to attribute to the mead which I had drank on the preceding day. After feeding my horse, and breakfasting, I proceeded on my wanderings. Nothing occurred worthy of relating till mid-day was considerably past, when I came to a pleasant valley, between two gentle hills. I had dismounted, in order to ease my horse, and was leading him along by the bridle, when, on my right, behind a bank in which some umbrageous ashes were growing, I heard a singular noise. I stopped short and listened, and presently said to myself, ‘Surely this is snoring, perhaps that of a hedgehog.’ On further consideration, however, I was convinced that the noise which I heard, and which certainly seemed to be snoring, could not possibly proceed from the nostrils of so small an animal, but must rather come from those of a giant, so loud and sonorous was it. About two or three yards further was a gate, partly open, to which I went, and peeping into the field, saw a man lying on some rich grass, under the shade of one of the ashes; he was snoring away at a great rate. Impelled by curiosity, I fastened the bridle of my horse to the gate, and went up to the man. He was a genteely-dressed individual, rather corpulent, with dark features, and seemingly about forty-five. He lay on his back, his hat slightly over his brow, and at his right hand lay an open book. So strenuously did he snore that the wind from his nostrils agitated, perceptibly, a fine cambric frill which he wore at his bosom. I gazed upon him for some time, expecting that he might awake; but he did not, but kept on snoring, his breast heaving convulsively. At last, the noise he made became so terrible, that I felt alarmed for his safety, imagining that a fit might seize him, and he lose his life whilst asleep. I therefore exclaimed, ‘Sir, sir, awake! you sleep overmuch.’ But my voice failed to rouse him, and he continued snoring as before; whereupon I touched him slightly with my riding wand, but failing to wake him, I touched him again more vigorously; whereupon he opened his eyes, and, probably imagining himself in a dream, closed them again. But I was determined to arouse him, and cried as loud as I could, ‘Sir, sir, pray sleep no more!’ He heard what I said, opened his eyes again, stared at me with a look of some consciousness, and, half raising himself upon his elbows, asked me what was the matter. ‘I beg your pardon,’ said I, ‘but I took the liberty of awaking you because you appeared to be much disturbed in your sleep — I was fearful, too, that you might catch a fever from sleeping under a tree.’ ‘I run no risk,’ said the man, ‘I often come and sleep here; and as for being disturbed in my sleep, I felt very comfortable; I wish you had not awoken me.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I beg your pardon once more. I assure you that what I did was with the best intention.’ ‘Oh! pray make no farther apology,’ said the individual, ‘I make no doubt that what you did was done kindly; but there’s an old proverb, to the effect, “that you should let sleeping dogs lie,”’ he added, with a smile. Then, getting up, and stretching himself with a yawn, he took up his book and said, ‘I have slept quite long enough, and it’s quite time for me to be going home.’ ‘Excuse my curiosity,’ said I, ‘if I inquire what may induce you to come and sleep in this meadow?’ ‘To tell you the truth,’ answered he, ‘I am a bad sleeper.’ ‘Pray pardon me,’ said I, ‘if I tell you that I never saw one sleep more heartily.’ ‘If I did so,’ said the individual, ‘I am beholden to this meadow and this book; but I am talking riddles, and will explain myself. I am the owner of a very pretty property, of which this valley forms part. Some years ago, however, up started a person who said the property was his; a lawsuit ensued, and I was on the brink of losing my all, when, most unexpectedly, the suit was determined in my favour. Owing, however, to the anxiety to which my mind had been subjected for years, my nerves had become terribly shaken; and no sooner was the trial terminated than sleep forsook my pillow. I sometimes passed nights without closing an eye; I took opiates, but they rather increased than alleviated my malady. About three weeks ago a friend of mine put this book into my hand, and advised me to take it every day to some pleasant part of my estate, and try and read a page or two, assuring me, if I did that I should infallibly fall asleep. I took his advice, and selecting this place, which I considered the pleasantest part of my property, I came, and lying down, commenced reading the book, and before finishing a page was in a dead slumber. Every day since then I have repeated the experiment, and every time with equal success. I am a single man, without any children; and yesterday I made my will, in which, in the event of my friend’s surviving me, I have left him all my fortune, in gratitude for his having procured for me the most invaluable of all blessings — sleep.’

‘Dear me,’ said I, ‘how very extraordinary! Do you think that your going to sleep is caused by the meadow or the book?’ ‘I suppose by both,’ said my new acquaintance, ‘acting in co-operation.’ ‘It may be so,’ said I; ‘the magic influence does certainly not proceed from the meadow alone; for since I have been here, I have not felt the slightest inclination to sleep. Does the book consist of prose or poetry?’ ‘It consists of poetry,’ said the individual. ‘Not Byron’s?’ said I. ‘Byron’s!’ repeated the individual, with a smile of contempt; ‘no, no; there is nothing narcotic in Byron’s poetry. I don’t like it. I used to read it, but it thrilled, agitated, and kept me awake. No, this is not Byron’s poetry, but the inimitable ——‘s 136 — mentioning a name which I had never heard till then. ‘Will you permit me to look at it?’ said I. ‘With pleasure,’ he answered, politely handing me the book. 137 I took the volume, and glanced over the contents. It was written in blank verse, and appeared to abound in descriptions of scenery; there was much mention of mountains, valleys, streams, and waterfalls, harebells and daffodils. These descriptions were interspersed with dialogues, which, though they proceeded from the mouths of pedlars and rustics, were of the most edifying description; mostly on subjects moral or metaphysical, and couched in the most gentlemanly and unexceptionable language, without the slightest mixture of vulgarity, coarseness, or pie-bald grammar. Such appeared to me to be the contents of the book; but before I could form a very clear idea of them, I found myself nodding, and a surprising desire to sleep coming over me. Rousing myself, however, by a strong effort, I closed the book, and, returning it to the owner, inquired of him, ‘Whether he had any motive in coming and lying down in the meadow, besides the wish of enjoying sleep?’ ‘None whatever,’ he replied; ‘indeed, I should be very glad not to be compelled to do so, always provided I could enjoy the blessing of sleep; for by lying down under trees, I may possibly catch the rheumatism, or be stung by serpents; and, moreover, in the rainy season and winter the thing will be impossible, unless I erect a tent, which will possibly destroy the charm.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘you need give yourself no farther trouble about coming here, as I am fully convinced that with this book in your hand, you may go to sleep anywhere, as your friend was doubtless aware, though he wished to interest your imagination for a time by persuading you to lie abroad; therefore, in future, whenever you feel disposed to sleep, try to read the book, and you will be sound asleep in a minute; the narcotic influence lies in the book, and not in the field.’ ‘I will follow your advice,’ said the individual, ‘and this very night take it with me to bed; though I hope in time to be able to sleep without it, my nerves being already much quieted from the slumbers I have enjoyed in this field.’ He then moved towards the gate, where we parted; he going one way, and I and my horse the other.

More than twenty years subsequent to this period, after much wandering about the world, returning to my native country, I was invited to a literary tea-party, where, the discourse turning upon poetry, I, in order to show that I was not more ignorant than my neighbours, began to talk about Byron, for whose writings I really entertained a considerable admiration, though I had no particular esteem for the man himself. At first I received no answer to what I said — the company merely surveying me with a kind of sleepy stare. At length a lady, about the age of forty, with a large wart on her face, observed, in a drawling tone, ‘That she had not read Byron — at least since her girlhood — and then only a few passages; but that the impression on her mind was, that his writings were of a highly objectionable character.’ ‘I also read a little of him in my boyhood,’ said a gentleman, about sixty, but who evidently, from his dress and demeanour, wished to appear about thirty, ‘but I highly disapproved of him; for, notwithstanding he was a nobleman, he is frequently very coarse, and very fond of raising emotion. Now emotion is what I dislike;’ drawling out the last syllable of the word dislike. ‘There is only one poet for me — the divine ——’; and then he mentioned a name which I had only once heard, and afterwards quite forgotten; the name mentioned by the snorer in the field. ‘Ah! there is no one like him!’ murmured some more of the company; ‘the poet of nature — of nature without its vulgarity.’ I wished very much to ask these people whether they were ever bad sleepers, and whether they had read the poet, so called, from a desire of being set to sleep. Within a few days, however, I learnt that it had of late become very fashionable and genteel to appear half asleep, and that one could exhibit no better mark of superfine breeding than by occasionally in company setting one’s ronchal organ in action. I then ceased to wonder at the popularity, which I found nearly universal, of ——‘s poetry; for, certainly in order to make one’s self appear sleepy in company, or occasionally to induce sleep, nothing could be more efficacious than a slight prelection of his poems. So, poor Byron, with his fire and emotion — to say nothing of his mouthings and coxcombry — was dethroned, as I had prophesied he would be more than twenty years before, on the day of his funeral, though I had little idea that his humiliation would have been brought about by one, whose sole strength consists in setting people to sleep. Well, all things are doomed to terminate in sleep. Before that termination, however, I will venture to prophesy that people will become a little more awake — snoring and yawning be a little less in fashion — and poor Byron be once more reinstated on his throne, though his rival will always stand a good chance of being worshipped by those whose ruined nerves are insensible to the narcotic powers of opium and morphine.

136 Wordsworth’s.

137 ‘The Excursion.’

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