The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 34

The Old Man’s Story Continued — Misery in the Head — The Strange Marks — Tea-Dealer From London — Difficulties of the Chinese Language

After another pause the old man once more resumed his narration: ‘If ever there was a man perfectly miserable it was myself, after the loss of that cherished woman. I sat solitary in the house, in which I had hoped in her company to realize the choicest earthly happiness, a prey to the bitterest reflections; many people visited and endeavoured to console me — amongst them was the clergyman of the parish, who begged me to be resigned, and told me that it was good to be afflicted. I bowed my head, but I could not help thinking how easy it must be for those who feel no affliction, to bid others to be resigned, and to talk of the benefit resulting from sorrow; perhaps I should have paid more attention to his discourse than I did, provided he had been a person for whom it was possible to entertain much respect, but his own heart was known to be set on the things of this world.

‘Within a little time he had an opportunity, in his own case, of practising resignation, and of realizing the benefit of being afflicted. A merchant, to whom he had entrusted all his fortune, in the hope of a large interest, became suddenly a bankrupt, with scarcely any assets. I will not say that it was owing to this misfortune that the divine died within less than a month after its occurrence, but such was the fact. Amongst those who most frequently visited me was my friend the surgeon; he did not confine himself to the common topics of consolation, but endeavoured to impress upon me the necessity of rousing myself, advising me to occupy my mind with some pursuit, particularly recommending agriculture; but agriculture possessed no interest for me, nor, indeed, any pursuit within my reach; my hopes of happiness had been blighted, and what cared I for anything; so at last he thought it best to leave me to myself, hoping that time would bring with it consolation; and I remained solitary in my house, waited upon by a male and a female servant. Oh, what dreary moments I passed! My only amusement — and it was a sad one — was to look at the things which once belonged to my beloved, and which were now in my possession. Oh, how fondly would I dwell upon them! There were some books; I cared not for books, but these had belonged to my beloved. Oh, how fondly did I dwell on them! Then there was her hat and bonnet — oh, me, how fondly did I gaze upon them! and after looking at her things for hours, I would sit and ruminate on the happiness I had lost. How I execrated the moment I had gone to the fair to sell horses! “Would that I had never been at Horncastle to sell horses!” I would say; “I might at this moment have been enjoying the company of my beloved, leading a happy, quiet, easy life, but for that fatal expedition.” That thought worked on my brain, till my brain seemed to turn round.

‘One day I sat at the breakfast table gazing vacantly around me, my mind was in a state of inexpressible misery; there was a whirl in my brain, probably like that which people feel who are rapidly going mad; this increased to such a degree that I felt giddiness coming upon me. To abate this feeling I no longer permitted my eyes to wander about, but fixed them upon an object on the table, and continued gazing at it for several minutes without knowing what it was. At length the misery in my head was somewhat stilled, my lips moved, and I heard myself saying, “What odd marks!” I had fastened my eyes on the side of a teapot, and by keeping them fixed upon it, had become aware of a fact that had escaped my notice before — namely, that there were marks upon it. I kept my eyes fixed upon them, and repeated at intervals, “What strange marks!”— for I thought that looking upon the marks tended to abate the whirl in my head. I kept tracing the marks one after the other, and I observed that though they all bore a resemblance to each other, they were all to a certain extent different. The smallest portion possible of curious interest had been awakened within me, and, at last, I asked myself within my own mind, “What motive could induce people to put such odd marks on their crockery? They were not pictures, they were not letters. What motive could people have for putting them there?” At last I removed my eyes from the teapot, and thought for a few moments about the marks; presently, however, I felt the whirl returning; the marks became almost effaced from my mind, and I was beginning to revert to my miserable ruminations, when suddenly methought I heard a voice say, “The marks! the marks! cling to the marks! or —” So I fixed my eyes again upon the marks, inspecting them more attentively, if possible, than I had done before, and, at last, I came to the conclusion that they were not capricious or fanciful marks, but were arranged systematically. When I had gazed at them for a considerable time I turned the teapot round, and on the other side I observed marks of a similar kind, which I soon discovered were identical with the ones I had been observing. All the marks were something alike, but all somewhat different, and on comparing them with each other, I was struck with the frequent occurrence of a mark crossing an upright line, or projecting from it, now on the right, now on the left side, and I said to myself, “Why does this mark sometimes cross the upright line, and sometimes project?” and the more I thought on the matter the less did I feel of the misery in my head.

‘The things were at length removed, and I sat, as I had for some time past been wont to sit after my meals, silent and motionless; but in the present instance my mind was not entirely abandoned to the one mournful idea which had so long distressed it. It was, to a certain extent, occupied with the marks on the teapot; it is true that the mournful idea strove hard with the marks on the teapot for the mastery in my mind, and at last the painful idea drove the marks of the teapot out. They, however, would occasionally return and flit across my mind for a moment or two, and their coming was like a momentary relief from intense pain. I thought once or twice that I would have the teapot placed before me, that I might examine the marks at leisure, but I considered that it would be as well to defer the re-examination of the marks till the next morning. At that time I did not take tea of an evening. By deferring the examination thus, I had something to look forward to on the next morning. The day was a melancholy one, but it certainly was more tolerable to me than any of the others had been since the death of my beloved. As I lay awake that night I occasionally thought of the marks, and in my sleep methought I saw them upon the teapot vividly before me. On the morrow I examined the marks again. How singular they looked! Surely they must mean something, and if so, what could they mean? and at last I thought within myself whether it would be possible for me to make out what they meant. That day I felt more relief than on the preceding day, and towards night I walked a little about.

‘In about a week’s time I received a visit from my friend the surgeon. After a little discourse, he told me that he perceived I was better than when he had last seen me, and asked me what I had been about. I told him that I had been principally occupied in considering certain marks which I had found on a teapot, and wondering what they could mean. He smiled at first, but instantly assuming a serious look, he asked to see the teapot. I produced it, and after having surveyed the marks with attention, he observed that they were highly curious, and also wondered what they meant. “I strongly advise you,” said he, “to attempt to make them out, and also to take moderate exercise, and to see after your concerns.” I followed his advice. Every morning I studied the marks on the teapot, and in the course of the day took moderate exercise, and attended to little domestic matters, as became the master of a house.

‘I subsequently learned that the surgeon, in advising me to study the marks, and endeavour to make out their meaning, merely hoped that by means of them my mind might by degrees be diverted from the mournful idea on which it had so long brooded. He was a man well skilled in his profession, but had read and thought very little on matters unconnected with it. He had no idea that the marks had any particular signification, or were anything else but common and fortuitous ones. That I became at all acquainted with their nature was owing to a ludicrous circumstance which I will now relate.

‘One day, chancing to be at a neighbouring town, I was struck with the appearance of a shop recently established. It had an immense bow-window, and every part of it to which a brush could be applied was painted in a gaudy flaming style. Large bowls of green and black tea were placed upon certain chests, which stood at the window. I stopped to look at them; such a display, whatever it may be at the present time, being, at the period of which I am speaking, quite uncommon in a country town. The tea, whether black or green, was very shining and inviting, and the bowls, of which there were three, standing on as many chests, were very grand and foreign-looking. Two of these were white, with figures and trees painted upon them in blue; the other, which was the middlemost, had neither trees nor figures upon it, but, as I looked through the window, appeared to have on its sides the very same kind of marks which I had observed on the teapot at home; there were also marks on the tea-chests somewhat similar, but much larger, and, apparently, not executed with so much care. “Best teas direct from China,” said a voice close to my side, and looking round I saw a youngish man with a frizzled head, flat face, and an immensely wide mouth, standing in his shirt-sleeves by the door. “Direct from China,” said he. “Perhaps you will do me the favour to walk in and scent them?” “I do not want any tea,” said I; “I was only standing at the window examining those marks on the bowl and the chests. I have observed similar ones on a teapot at home.” “Pray walk in, sir,” said the young fellow, extending his mouth till it reached nearly from ear to ear —“pray walk in, and I shall be happy to give you any information respecting the manners and customs of the Chinese in my power.” Thereupon I followed him into his shop, where he began to harangue on the manners, customs, and peculiarities of the Chinese, especially their manner of preparing tea, not forgetting to tell me that the only genuine Chinese tea ever imported into England was to be found in his shop. “With respect to those marks,” said he, “on the bowl and the chests, they are nothing more nor less than Chinese writing expressing something, though what I can’t exactly tell you. Allow me to sell you this pound of tea,” he added, showing me a paper parcel. “On the envelope there is a printed account of the Chinese system of writing, extracted from authors of the most established reputation. These things I print, principally with the hope of in some degree removing the worse than Gothic ignorance prevalent amongst the natives of these parts. I am from London myself. With respect to all that relates to the Chinese real Imperial tea, I assure you, sir, that —” Well, to make short of what you doubtless consider a very tiresome story, I purchased the tea and carried it home. The tea proved imperially bad, but the paper envelope really contained some information on the Chinese language and writing, amounting to about as much as you gained from me the other day. On learning that the marks on the teapot expressed words, I felt my interest with respect to them considerably increased, and returned to the task of inspecting them with greater zeal than before, hoping, by continually looking at them, to be able eventually to understand their meaning, in which hope you may easily believe I was disappointed, though my desire to understand what they represented continued on the increase. In this dilemma I determined to apply again to the shopkeeper from whom I bought the tea. I found him in rather low spirits, his shirt-sleeves were soiled, and his hair was out of curl. On my inquiring how he got on, he informed me that he intended speedily to leave, having received little or no encouragement, the people in their Gothic ignorance preferring to deal with an old-fashioned shopkeeper over the way, who, so far from possessing any acquaintance with the polity and institutions of the Chinese, did not, he firmly believed, know that tea came from China. “You are come for some more, I suppose?” said he. On receiving an answer in the negative he looked somewhat blank, but when I added that I came to consult with him as to the means which I must take in order to acquire the Chinese language he brightened up. “You must get a grammar,” said he, rubbing his hands. “Have you not one?” said I. “No,” he replied, “but any bookseller can procure you one.” As I was taking my departure he told me that as he was about to leave the neighbourhood the bowl at the window which bore the inscription, besides some other pieces of porcelain of a similar description, were at my service, provided I chose to purchase them. I consented, and two or three days afterwards took from off his hands all the china in his possession which bore inscriptions, paying what he demanded. Had I waited till the sale of his effects, which occurred within a few weeks, I could probably have procured it for a fifth part of the sum which I paid, the other pieces realizing very little. I did not, however, grudge the poor fellow what he got from me, as I considered myself to be somewhat in his debt for the information he had afforded me.

‘As for the rest of my story, it may be briefly told. I followed the advice of the shopkeeper and applied to a bookseller, who wrote to his correspondent in London. After a long interval, I was informed that if I wished to learn Chinese I must do so through the medium of French, there being neither Chinese grammar nor dictionary in our language. I was at first very much disheartened. I determined, however, at last to gratify my desire of learning Chinese, even at the expense of learning French. I procured the books, and in order to qualify myself to turn them to account, took lessons in French from a little Swiss, the usher of a neighbouring boarding-school. I was very stupid in acquiring French; perseverance, however, enabled me to acquire a knowledge sufficient for the object I had in view. In about two years I began to study Chinese by myself through the medium of the French.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘and how did you get on with the study of Chinese?’

And then the old man proceeded to inform me how he got on with the study of Chinese, enumerating all the difficulties he had had to encounter, dilating upon his frequent despondency of mind, and occasionally his utter despair of ever mastering Chinese. He told me that more than once he had determined upon giving up the study, but then the misery in his head forthwith returned, to escape from which he had as often resumed it. It appeared, however, that ten years elapsed before he was able to use ten of the two hundred and fourteen keys which serve to undo the locks of Chinese writing.

‘And are you able at present to use the entire number?’ I demanded.

‘Yes,’ said the old man; ‘I can at present use the whole number. I know the key for every particular lock, though I frequently find the words unwilling to give way.’

‘Has nothing particular occurred to you,’ said I, ‘during the time that you have been prosecuting your studies?’

‘During the whole time in which I have been engaged in these studies,’ said the old man, ‘only one circumstance has occurred which requires any particular mention — the death of my old friend the surgeon, who was carried off suddenly by a fit of apoplexy. His death was a great shock to me, and for a time interrupted my studies. His son, however, who succeeded him, was very kind to me, and, in some degree, supplied his father’s place; and I gradually returned to my Chinese locks and keys.’

‘And in applying keys to the Chinese locks you employ your time?’

‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘in making out the inscriptions on the various pieces of porcelain, which I have at different times procured, I pass my time. The first inscription which I translated was that on the teapot of my beloved.’

‘And how many other pieces of porcelain may you have at present in your possession?’

‘About fifteen hundred.’

‘And how did you obtain them?’ I demanded.

‘Without much labour,’ said the old man, ‘in the neighbouring towns and villages — chiefly at auctions — of which, about twenty years ago, there were many in these parts.’

‘And may I ask your reasons for confining your studies entirely to the crockery literature of China, when you have all the rest at your disposal?’

‘The inscriptions enable me to pass my time,’ said the old man; ‘what more would the whole literature of China do?’

‘And from those inscriptions,’ said I, ‘what a book it is in your power to make, whenever so disposed! “Translations from the crockery literature of China.” Such a book would be sure to take. Even glorious John himself would not disdain to publish it.’

The old man smiled. ‘I have no desire for literary distinction,’ said he; ‘no ambition. My original wish was to pass my life in easy, quiet obscurity — with her whom I loved. I was disappointed in my wish; she was removed, who constituted my only felicity in this life: desolation came to my heart, and misery to my head. To escape from the latter I had recourse to Chinese. By degrees the misery left my head, but the desolation of heart yet remains.’

‘Be of good cheer,’ said I. ‘Through the instrumentality of this affliction you have learnt Chinese, and, in so doing, learnt to practise the duties of hospitality. Who but a man who could read Runes on a teapot, would have received an unfortunate wayfarer as you have received me?’

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘let us hope that all is for the best. I am by nature indolent, and, but for this affliction, should, perhaps, have hardly taken the trouble to do my duty to my fellow-creatures. I am very, very indolent,’ said he, slightly glancing towards the clock; ‘therefore let us hope that all is for the best. But, oh! these trials, they are very hard to bear.’

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