The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 32

The Morning After a Fall — The Teapot — Unpretending Hospitality — The Chinese Student

It might be about eight o’clock in the morning when I was awakened by the entrance of the old man. ‘How have you rested?’ said he, coming up to the bedside, and looking me in the face. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘and I feel much better, but I am still very sore.’ I surveyed him now for the first time with attention. He was dressed in a sober-coloured suit, and was apparently between sixty and seventy. In stature he was rather above the middle height, but with a slight stoop, his features were placid, and expressive of much benevolence, but, as it appeared to me, with rather a melancholy cast — as I gazed upon them, I felt ashamed that I should ever have conceived in my brain a vision like that of the preceding night, in which he appeared in so disadvantageous a light. At length he said, ‘It is now time for you to take some refreshment. I hear my old servant coming up with your breakfast.’ In a moment the elderly female entered with a tray, on which was some bread and butter, a teapot and cup. The cup was of common blue earthenware, but the pot was of china, curiously fashioned, and seemingly of great antiquity. The old man poured me out a cupful of tea, and then, with the assistance of the woman, raised me higher, and propped me up with pillows. I ate and drank; when the pot was emptied of its liquid (it did not contain much), I raised it up with my left hand to inspect it. The sides were covered with curious characters, seemingly hieroglyphics. After surveying them for some time, I replaced it upon the tray. ‘You seem fond of china,’ said I to the old man, after the servant had retired with the breakfast things, and I had returned to my former posture; ‘you have china on the mantelpiece, and that was a remarkable teapot out of which I have just been drinking.’

The old man fixed his eyes intently on me, and methought the expression of his countenance became yet more melancholy. ‘Yes,’ said he, at last, ‘I am fond of china — I have reason to be fond of china — but for china I should —’ and here he sighed again.

‘You value it for the quaintness and singularity of its form,’ said I; ‘it appears to be less adapted for real use than our own pottery.’

‘I care little about its form,’ said the old man; ‘I care for it simply on account of — However, why talk to you on a subject which can have no possible interest for you? I expect the surgeon here presently.’

‘I do not like that surgeon at all,’ said I. ‘How strangely he behaved last night, coming back, when I was just falling asleep, to ask me if I would sell my horse.’

The old man smiled. ‘He has but one failing,’ said he, ‘an itch for horse-dealing; but for that he might be a much richer man than he is; he is continually buying and exchanging horses, and generally finds himself a loser by his bargains: but he is a worthy creature, and skilful in his profession — it is well for you that you are under his care.’

The old man then left me, and in about an hour returned with the surgeon, who examined me and reported favourably as to my case. He spoke to me with kindness and feeling, and did not introduce the subject of the horse. I asked him whether he thought I should be in time for the fair. ‘I saw some people making their way thither today,’ said he; ‘the fair lasts three weeks, and it has just commenced. Yes, I think I may promise you that you will be in time for the very heat of it. In a few days you will be able to mount your saddle with your arm in a sling, but you must by no means appear with your arm in a sling at Horncastle, as people would think your horse had flung you, and that you wanted to dispose of him because he was a vicious brute. You must, by all means, drop the sling before you get to Horncastle.’

For three days I kept my apartment by the advice of the surgeon. I passed my time as I best could. Stretched on my bed, I either abandoned myself to reflection, or listened to the voices of the birds in the neighbouring garden. Sometimes, as I lay awake at night, I would endeavour to catch the tick of a clock, which methought sounded from some distant part of the house.

The old man visited me twice or thrice every day to inquire into my state. His words were few on these occasions, and he did not stay long. Yet his voice and his words were kind. What surprised me most in connection with this individual was, the delicacy of conduct which he exhibited in not letting a word proceed from his lips which could testify curiosity respecting who I was, or whence I came. All he knew of me was, that I had been flung from my horse on my way to a fair for the purpose of disposing of the animal; and that I was now his guest. I might be a common horse-dealer for what he knew, yet I was treated by him with all the attention which I could have expected had I been an alderman of Boston’s heir, and known to him as such. The county in which I am now, thought I at last, must be either extraordinarily devoted to hospitality, or this old host of mine must be an extraordinary individual. On the evening of the fourth day, feeling tired of my confinement, I put my clothes on in the best manner I could, and left the chamber. Descending a flight of stairs, I reached a kind of quadrangle, from which branched two or three passages; one of these I entered, which had a door at the farther end, and one on each side; the one to the left standing partly open, I entered it, and found myself in a middle-sized room with a large window, or rather glass-door, which looked into a garden, and which stood open. There was nothing remarkable in this room, except a large quantity of china. There was china on the mantelpiece — china on two tables, and a small beaufet, which stood opposite the glass-door, was covered with china — there were cups, teapots, and vases of various forms, and on all of them I observed characters — not a teapot, not a teacup, not a vase of whatever form or size, but appeared to possess hieroglyphics on some part or other. After surveying these articles for some time with no little interest, I passed into the garden, in which there were small parterres of flowers, and two or three trees, and which, where the house did not abut, was bounded by a wall. Turning to the right by a walk by the side of the house, I passed by a door — probably the one I had seen at the end of the passage — and arrived at another window similar to that through which I had come, and which also stood open. I was about to pass by it, when I heard the voice of my entertainer exclaiming, ‘Is that you? Pray come in.’

I entered the room, which seemed to be a counterpart of the one which I had just left. It was of the same size, had the same kind of furniture, and appeared to be equally well stocked with china; one prominent article it possessed, however, which the other room did not exhibit — namely, a clock, which, with its pendulum moving tick-a-tick, hung against the wall opposite to the door, the sight of which made me conclude that the sound which methought I had heard in the stillness of the night was not an imaginary one. There it hung on the wall, with its pendulum moving tick-a-tick. The old gentleman was seated in an easy chair a little way into the room, having the glass door on his right hand. On a table before him lay a large open volume, in which I observed Roman letters as well as characters. A few inches beyond the book on the table, covered all over with hieroglyphics, stood a china vase. The eyes of the old man were fixed upon it.

‘Sit down,’ said he, motioning me with his hand to a stool close by, but without taking his eyes from the vase. ‘I can’t make it out,’ said he, at last, removing his eyes from the vase, and leaning back on the chair —‘I can’t make it out.’

‘I wish I could assist you,’ said I.

‘Assist me,’ said the old man, looking at me, with a half smile.

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘but I don’t understand Chinese.’

‘I suppose not,’ said the old man, with another slight smile; ‘but — but —’

‘Pray proceed,’ said I.

‘I wished to ask you,’ said the old man, ‘how you knew that the characters on yon piece of crockery were Chinese; or, indeed, that there was such a language?’

‘I knew the crockery was china,’ said I, ‘and naturally enough supposed what was written upon it to be Chinese; as for there being such a language — the English have a language, the French have a language, and why not the Chinese?’

‘May I ask you a question?’

‘As many as you like.’

‘Do you know any language besides English?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I know a little of two or three.’

‘May I ask their names?’

‘Why not?’ said I. ‘I know a little French.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Yes, a little Welsh, and a little Haik.’

‘What is Haik?’

‘Armenian.’

‘I am glad to see you in my house,’ said the old man, shaking me by the hand; ‘how singular that one coming as you did should know Armenian!’

‘Not more singular,’ said I, ‘than that one living in such a place as this should know Chinese. How came you to acquire it?’

The old man looked at me, and sighed. ‘I beg pardon,’ said I, ‘for asking what is, perhaps, an impertinent question; I have not imitated your own delicacy; you have never asked me a question without first desiring permission, and here I have been days and nights in your house an intruder on your hospitality, and you have never so much as asked me who I am.’

‘In forbearing to do that,’ said the old man, ‘I merely obeyed the Chinese precept: “Ask no questions of a guest;” it is written on both sides of the teapot out of which you have had your tea.’

‘I wish I knew Chinese,’ said I. ‘Is it a difficult language to acquire?’

‘I have reason to think so,’ said the old man. ‘I have been occupied upon it five-and-thirty years, and I am still very imperfectly acquainted with it; at least, I frequently find upon my crockery sentences the meaning of which to me is very dark, though it is true these sentences are mostly verses, which are, of course, more difficult to understand than mere prose.’

‘Are your Chinese studies,’ said I, ‘confined to crockery literature?’

‘Entirely,’ said the old man; ‘I read nothing else.’

‘I have heard,’ said I, ‘that the Chinese have no letters, but that for every word they have a separate character — is it so?’

‘For every word they have a particular character,’ said the old man; ‘though, to prevent confusion, they have arranged their words under two hundred and fourteen what we should call radicals, but which they call keys. As we arrange all our words in a dictionary under twenty-four letters, so do they arrange all their words, or characters, under two hundred and fourteen radical signs; the simplest radicals being the first and the more complex the last.’

‘Does the Chinese resemble any of the European languages in words?’ said I.

‘I am scarcely competent to inform you,’ said the old man; ‘but I believe not.’

‘What does that character represent?’ said I, pointing to one on the vase.

‘A knife,’ said the old man; ‘that character is one of the simplest radicals or keys.’

‘And what is the sound of it?’ said I.

‘Tau,’ said the old man.

‘Tau!’ said I—‘tau!’

‘A strange word for a knife! is it not?’ said the old man.

‘Tawse!’ said I—‘tawse!’

‘What is tawse?’ said the old man.

‘You were never at school at Edinburgh, I suppose?’

‘Never,’ said the old man.

‘That accounts for your not knowing the meaning of tawse,’ said I; ‘had you received the rudiments of a classical education at the High School, you would have known the meaning of tawse full well. It is a leathern thong, with which refractory urchins are recalled to a sense of their duty by the dominie. Tau — tawse — how singular!’

‘I cannot see what the two words have in common, except a slight agreement in sound.’

‘You will see the connection,’ said I, ‘when I inform you that the thong, from the middle to the bottom, is cut or slit into two or three parts, from which slits or cuts, unless I am very much mistaken, it derives its name — tawse, a thong with slits or cuts, used for chastising disorderly urchins at the High School, from the French tailler, to cut; evidently connected with the Chinese tau, a knife — how very extraordinary!’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:18