Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 24

Cerrig y Drudion — The Landlady — Doctor Jones — Coll Gwynfa — The Italian — Men of Como — Disappointment — Weather — Glasses — Southey.

THE inn at Cerrig y Drudion was called the Lion — whether the white, black, red or green Lion, I do not know, though I am certain that it was a lion of some colour or other. It seemed as decent and respectable a hostelry as any traveller could wish, to refresh and repose himself in, after a walk of twenty miles. I entered a well-lighted passage, and from thence a well-lighted bar room, on the right hand, in which sat a stout, comely, elderly lady, dressed in silks and satins, with a cambric coif on her head, in company with a thin, elderly man with a hat on his head, dressed in a rather prim and precise manner. “Madam!” said I, bowing to the lady, “as I suppose you are the mistress of this establishment, I beg leave to inform you that I am an Englishman, walking through these regions, in order fully to enjoy their beauties and wonders. I have this day come from Llangollen, and being somewhat hungry and fatigued, hope I can be accommodated here with a dinner and a bed.”

“Sir!” said the lady, getting up and making me a profound curtsey, “I am, as you suppose, the mistress of this establishment, and am happy to say that I shall be able to accommodate you — pray sit down, sir;” she continued, handing me a chair, “you must indeed be tired, for Llangollen is a great way from here.”

I took the seat with thanks, and she resumed her own.

“Rather hot weather for walking, sir!” said the precise-looking gentleman.

“It is,” said I; “but as I can’t observe the country well without walking through it, I put up with the heat.”

“You exhibit a philosophic mind, sir,” said the precise-looking gentleman — “and a philosophic mind I hold in reverence.”

“Pray, sir,” said I, “have I the honour of addressing a member of the medical profession?”

“Sir,” said the precise-looking gentleman, getting up and making me a bow, “your question does honour to your powers of discrimination — a member of the medical profession I am, though an unworthy one.”

“Nay, nay, doctor,” said the landlady briskly; “say not so — every one knows that you are a credit to your profession — well would it be if there were many in it like you — unworthy? marry come up! I won’t hear such an expression.”

“I see,” said I, “that I have not only the honour of addressing a medical gentleman, but a doctor of medicine — however, I might have known as much by your language and deportment.”

With a yet lower bow than before he replied with something of a sigh, “No, sir, no, our kind landlady and the neighbourhood are in the habit of placing doctor before my name, but I have no title to it — I am not Doctor Jones, sir, but plain Geffery Jones at your service,” and thereupon with another bow he sat down.

“Do you reside here?” said I.

“Yes, sir, I reside here in the place of my birth — I have not always resided here — and I did not always expect to spend my latter days in a place of such obscurity, but, sir, misfortunes — misfortunes . . . ”

“Ah,” said I, “misfortunes! they pursue every one, more especially those whose virtues should exempt them from them. Well, sir, the consciousness of not having deserved them should be your consolation.”

“Sir,” said the doctor, taking off his hat, “you are infinitely kind.”

“You call this an obscure place,” said I— “can that be an obscure place which has produced a poet? I have long had a respect for Cerrig y Drudion because it gave birth to, and was the residence of a poet of considerable merit.”

“I was not aware of that fact,” said the doctor, “pray what was his name?”

“Peter Lewis,” said I; “he was a clergyman of Cerrig y Drudion about the middle of the last century, and amongst other things wrote a beautiful song called Cathl y Gair Mwys, or the melody of the ambiguous word.”

“Surely you do not understand Welsh?” said the doctor.

“I understand a little of it,” I replied.

“Will you allow me to speak to you in Welsh?” said the doctor.

“Certainly,” said I.

He spoke to me in Welsh, and I replied.

“Ha, ha,” said the landlady in English; “only think, doctor, of the gentleman understanding Welsh — we must mind what we say before him.”

“And are you an Englishman?” said the doctor.

“I am,” I replied.

“And how came you to learn it?”

“I am fond of languages,” said I, “and studied Welsh at an early period.”

“And you read Welsh poetry?”

“Oh yes.”

“How were you enabled to master its difficulties?”

“Chiefly by going through Owen Pugh’s version of ‘Paradise Lost’ twice, with the original by my side. He has introduced into that translation so many of the poetic terms of the old bards, that after twice going through it, there was little in Welsh poetry that I could not make out with a little pondering.”

“You pursued a very excellent plan, sir,” said the doctor, “a very excellent plan indeed. Owen Pugh!”

“Owen Pugh! The last of your very great men,” said I.

“You say right, sir,” said the doctor. “He was indeed our last great man — Ultimus Romanorum. I have myself read his work, which he called Coll Gwynfa, the Loss of the place of Bliss — an admirable translation, sir; highly poetical, and at the same time correct.”

“Did you know him?” said I.

“I had not the honour of his acquaintance,” said the doctor — “but, sir, I am happy to say that I have made yours.”

The landlady now began to talk to me about dinner, and presently went out to make preparations for that very important meal. I had a great deal of conversation with the doctor, whom I found a person of great and varied information, and one who had seen a vast deal of the world. He was giving me an account of an island in the West Indies, which he had visited, when a boy coming in, whispered into his ear; whereupon, getting up he said: “Sir, I am called away. I am a country surgeon, and of course an accoucheur. There is a lady who lives at some distance requiring my assistance. It is with grief I leave you so abruptly, but I hope that some time or other we shall meet again.” Then making me an exceedingly profound bow, he left the room, followed by the boy.

I dined upstairs in a very handsome drawing-room, communicating with a sleeping apartment. During dinner I was waited upon by the daughter of the landlady, a good-looking merry girl of twenty. After dinner I sat for some time thinking over the adventures of the day, then feeling rather lonely and not inclined to retire to rest, I went down to the bar, where I found the landlady seated with her daughter. I sat down with them and we were soon in conversation. We spoke of Doctor Jones — the landlady said that he had his little eccentricities, but was an excellent and learned man. Speaking of herself she said that she had three daughters, that the youngest was with her and that the two eldest kept the principal inn at Ruthyn. We occasionally spoke a little Welsh. At length the landlady said, “There is an Italian in the kitchen who can speak Welsh too. It’s odd the only two people not Welshmen I have ever known who could speak Welsh, for such you and he are, should be in my house at the same time.”

“Dear me,” said I; “I should like to see him.”

“That you can easily do,” said the girl; “I daresay he will be glad enough to come in if you invite him.”

“Pray take my compliments to him,” said I, “and tell him that I shall be glad of his company.”

The girl went out and presently returned with the Italian. He was a short, thick, strongly-built fellow of about thirty-seven, with a swarthy face, raven-black hair, high forehead, and dark deep eyes, full of intelligence and great determination. He was dressed in a velveteen coat, with broad lappets, red waistcoat, velveteen breeches, buttoning a little way below the knee; white stockings apparently of lamb’s-wool and high-lows.

“Buona sera?” said I.

“Buona sera, signore!” said the Italian.

“Will you have a glass of brandy and water?” said I in English.

“I never refuse a good offer,” said the Italian.

He sat down, and I ordered a glass of brandy and water for him and another for myself.

“Pray speak a little Italian to him,” said the good landlady to me. “I have heard a great deal about the beauty of that language, and should like to hear it spoken.”

“From the Lago di Como?” said I, trying to speak Italian.

“Si, signore! but how came you to think that I was from the Lake of Como?”

“Because,” said I, “when I was a ragazzo I knew many from the Lake of Como, who dressed much like yourself. They wandered about the country with boxes on their backs and weather-glasses in their hands, but had their head-quarters at N. where I lived.”

“Do you remember any of their names?” said the Italian.

“Giovanni Gestra and Luigi Pozzi,” I replied.

“I have seen Giovanni Gestra myself,” said the Italian, “and I have heard of Luigi Pozzi. Giovanni Gestra returned to the Lago — but no one knows what is become of Luigi Pozzi.”

“The last time I saw him,” said I, “was about eighteen years ago at Coruna in Spain; he was then in a sad drooping condition, and said he bitterly repented ever quitting N.”

“E con ragione,” said the Italian, “for there is no place like N. for doing business in the whole world. I myself have sold seventy pounds’ worth of weather-glasses at N. in one day. One of our people is living there now, who has done bene, molto bene.”

“That’s Rossi,” said I, “how is it that I did not mention him first? He is my excellent friend, and a finer, cleverer fellow never lived, nor a more honourable man. You may well say he has done well, for he is now the first jeweller in the place. The last time I was there I bought a diamond of him for my daughter Henrietta. Let us drink his health!”

“Willingly!” said the Italian. “He is the prince of the Milanese of England — the most successful of all, but I acknowledge the most deserving. Che viva.”

“I wish he would write his life,” said I; “a singular life it would be — he has been something besides a travelling merchant, and a jeweller. He was one of Buonaparte’s soldiers, and served in Spain, under Soult, along with John Gestra. He once told me that Soult was an old rascal, and stole all the fine pictures from the convents, at Salamanca. I believe he spoke with some degree of envy, for he is himself fond of pictures, and has dealt in them, and made hundreds by them. I question whether if in Soult’s place he would not have done the same. Well, however that may be, che viva.”

Here the landlady interposed, observing that she wished we would now speak English, for that she had quite enough of Italian, which she did not find near so pretty a language as she had expected.

“You must not judge of the sound of Italian from what proceeds from my mouth,” said I. “It is not my native language. I have had little practice in it, and only speak it very imperfectly.”

“Nor must you judge of Italian from what you have heard me speak,” said the man of Como; “I am not good at Italian, for the Milanese speak amongst themselves a kind of jargon, composed of many languages, and can only express themselves with difficulty in Italian. I have been doing my best to speak Italian, but should be glad now to speak English, which comes to me much more glibly.”

“Are there any books in your dialect, or jergo, as I believe you call it?” said I.

“I believe there are a few,” said the Italian.

“Do you know the word slandra?” said I.

“Who taught you that word?” said the Italian.

“Giovanni Gestra,” said I; “he was always using it.”

“Giovanni Gestra was a vulgar illiterate man,” said the Italian; “had he not been so he would not have used it. It is a vulgar word; Rossi would not have used it.”

“What is the meaning of it?” said the landlady eagerly.

“To roam about in a dissipated manner,” said I.

“Something more,” said the Italian. “It is considered a vulgar word even in jergo.”

“You speak English remarkably well,” said I; “have you been long in Britain?”

“I came over about four years ago,” said the Italian.

“On your own account?” said I.

“Not exactly, signore; my brother, who was in business in Liverpool, wrote to me to come over and assist him. I did so, but soon left him, and took a shop for myself at Denbigh, where, however, I did not stay long. At present I travel for an Italian house in London, spending the summer in Wales, and the winter in England.”

“And what do you sell?” said I.

“Weather-glasses, signore — pictures and little trinkets, such as the country people like.”

“Do you sell many weather-glasses in Wales?” said I.

“I do not, signore. The Welsh care not for weather-glasses; my principal customers for weather-glasses are the farmers of England.”

“I am told that you can speak Welsh,” said I; “is that true?”

“I have picked up a little of it, signore.”

“He can speak it very well,” said the landlady; “and glad should I be, sir, to hear you and him speak Welsh together.”

“So should I,” said the daughter who was seated nigh us, “nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hear two who are not Welshmen speaking Welsh together.”

“I would rather speak English,” said the Italian; “I speak a little Welsh, when my business leads me amongst people who speak no other language, but I see no necessity for speaking Welsh here.”

“It is a pity,” said I, “that so beautiful a country as Italy should not be better governed.”

“It is, signore,” said the Italian; “but let us hope that a time will speedily come when she will be so.”

“I don’t see any chance of it,” said I. “How will you proceed in order to bring about so desirable a result as the good government of Italy?”

“Why, signore, in the first place we must get rid of the Austrians.”

“You will not find it an easy matter,” said I, “to get rid of the Austrians; you tried to do so a little time ago, but miserably failed.”

“True, signore; but the next time we try perhaps the French will help us.”

“If the French help you to drive the Austrians from Italy,” said I, “you must become their servants. It is true you had better be the servants of the polished and chivalrous French, than of the brutal and barbarous Germans, but it is not pleasant to be a servant to anybody. However, I do not believe that you will ever get rid of the Austrians, even if the French assist you. The Pope for certain reasons of his own favours the Austrians, and will exert all the powers of priestcraft to keep them in Italy. Alas, alas, there is no hope for Italy! Italy, the most beautiful country in the world, the birth-place of the cleverest people, whose very pedlars can learn to speak Welsh, is not only enslaved, but destined always to remain enslaved.”

“Do not say so, signore,” said the Italian, with a kind of groan.

“But I do say so,” said I, “and what is more, one whose shoe-strings, were he alive, I should not he worthy to untie, one of your mighty ones, has said so. Did you ever hear of Vincenzio Filicaia?”

“I believe I have, signore; did he not write a sonnet on Italy?”

“He did,” said I; “would you like to hear it?

“Very much, signore.”

I repeated Filicaia’s glorious sonnet on Italy, and then asked him if he understood it.

“Only in part, signore; for it is composed in old Tuscan, in which I am not much versed. I believe I should comprehend it better if you were to say it in English.”

“Do say it in English,” said the landlady and her daughter: “we should so like to hear it in English.”

“I will repeat a translation,” said I, “which I made when a boy, which though far from good, has, I believe, in it something of the spirit of the original:-

“O Italy! on whom dark Destiny The dangerous gift of beauty did bestow, From whence thou hast that ample dower of wo, Which on thy front thou bear’st so visibly. Would thou hadst beauty less or strength more high, That more of fear, and less of love might show, He who now blasts him in thy beauty’s glow, Or woos thee with a zeal that makes thee die; Then down from Alp no more would torrents rage Of armed men, nor Gallic coursers hot In Po’s ensanguin’d tide their thirst assuage; Nor girt with iron, not thine own, I wot, Wouldst thou the fight by hands of strangers wage Victress or vanquish’d slavery still thy lot.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50