The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 35

The Leave-Taking — Spirit of the Hearth — What’s O’Clock

The next morning, having breakfasted with my old friend, I went into the stable to make the necessary preparations for my departure; there, with the assistance of a stable lad, I cleaned and caparisoned my horse, and then, returning into the house, I made the old female attendant such a present as I deemed would be some compensation for the trouble I had caused. Hearing that the old gentleman was in the study, I repaired to him. ‘I am come to take leave of you,’ said I, ‘and to thank you for all the hospitality which I have received at your hands.’ The eyes of the old man were fixed steadfastly on the inscription which I had found him studying on a former occasion. ‘At length,’ he murmured to himself. ‘I have it — I think I have it;’ and then, looking at me, he said: ‘So you are about to depart?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘my horse will be at the front door in a few minutes. I am glad, however, before I go, to find that you have mastered the inscription.’

‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘I believe I have mastered it. It seems to consist of some verses relating to the worship of the Spirit of the Hearth.’

‘What is the Spirit of the Hearth?’ said I.

‘One of the many demons which the Chinese worship,’ said the old man. ‘They do not worship one God, but many.’ And then the old man told me a great many highly-interesting particulars respecting the demon worship of the Chinese.

After the lapse of at least half an hour I said: ‘I must not linger here any longer, however willing. Horncastle is distant, and I wish to be there to-night. Pray can you inform me what’s o’clock?’

The old man, rising, looked towards the clock which hung on the side of the room at his left hand, on the farther side of the table at which he was seated.

‘I am rather short-sighted,’ said I, ‘and cannot distinguish the numbers at that distance.’

‘It is ten o’clock,’ said the old man; ‘I believe somewhat past.’

‘A quarter, perhaps?’

‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘a quarter, or —’

‘Or?’

‘Seven minutes, or ten minutes past ten.’

‘I do not understand you.’

‘Why, to tell you the truth,’ said the old man, with a smile, ‘there is one thing to the knowledge of which I could never exactly attain.’

‘Do you mean to say,’ said I, ‘that you do not know what’s o’clock?’

‘I can give a guess,’ said the old man, ‘to within a few minutes.’

‘But you cannot tell the exact moment?’

‘No,’ said the old man.

‘In the name of wonder,’ said I, ‘with that thing there on the wall continually ticking in your ear, how comes it that you do not know what’s o’clock?’

‘Why,’ said the old man, ‘I have contented myself with giving a tolerably good guess; to do more would have been too great trouble.’

‘But you have learnt Chinese,’ said I.

‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘I have learnt Chinese.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘I really would counsel you to learn to know what’s o’clock as soon as possible. Consider what a sad thing it would be to go out of the world not knowing what’s o’clock. A millionth part of the trouble required to learn Chinese would, if employed, infallibly teach you to know what’s o’clock.’

‘I had a motive for learning Chinese,’ said the old man, ‘the hope of appeasing the misery in my head. With respect to not knowing what’s o’clock, I cannot see anything particularly sad in the matter. A man may get through the world very creditably without knowing what’s o’clock. Yet, upon the whole, it is no bad thing to know what’s o’clock — you, of course, do? It would be too good a joke if two people were to be together, one knowing Armenian and the other Chinese, and neither knowing what’s o’clock. I’ll now see you off.’

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