The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Appendix XI

The Old Radical

‘This very dirty man, with his very dirty face,

Would do any dirty act, which would get him a place.’

Some time ago the writer was set upon by an old Radical and his wife; but before he relates the manner in which they set upon him, it will be as well to enter upon a few particulars tending to elucidate their reasons for doing so.

The writer had just entered into his eighteenth year, when he met at the table of a certain Anglo–Germanist 208 an individual apparently somewhat under thirty, of middle stature, a thin and weaselly figure, a sallow complexion, a certain obliquity of vision, and a large pair of spectacles. This person, who had lately come from abroad, and had published a volume of translations, 209 had attracted some slight notice in the literary world, and was looked upon as a kind of lion in a small provincial capital. After dinner he argued a great deal, spoke vehemently against the Church, and uttered the most desperate Radicalism that was perhaps ever heard, saying he hoped that in a short time there would not be a king or queen in Europe, and inveighing bitterly against the English aristocracy, and against the Duke of Wellington in particular, whom he said, if he himself was ever president of an English republic — an event which he seemed to think by no means improbable — he would hang for certain infamous acts of profligacy and bloodshed which he had perpetrated in Spain. Being informed that the writer was something of a philologist, to which character the individual in question laid great pretensions, he came and sat down by him, and talked about languages and literature. The writer, who was only a boy, was a little frightened at first, but, not wishing to appear a child of absolute ignorance, he summoned what little learning he had, and began to blunder out something about the Celtic languages and their literature, and asked the Lion who he conceived Finn Ma Coul to be? and whether he did not consider the ‘Ode to the Fox,’ by Red Rhys of Eryry, to be a masterpiece of pleasantry? Receiving no answer to these questions from the Lion, who, singular enough, would frequently, when the writer put a question to him, look across the table and flatly contradict some one who was talking to some other person, the writer dropped the Celtic languages and literature, and asked him whether he did not think it a funny thing that Temugin, generally called Genghis Khan, should have married the daughter of Prester John? 210 The Lion, after giving a side-glance at the writer through his left spectacle glass, seemed about to reply, but was unfortunately prevented, being seized with an irresistible impulse to contradict a respectable doctor of medicine, who was engaged in conversation with the master of the house at the upper and further end of the table, the writer being a poor ignorant lad, sitting, of course, at the bottom. The doctor, who had served in the Peninsula, having observed that Ferdinand the Seventh was not quite so bad as had been represented, the Lion vociferated that he was ten times worse, and that he hoped to see him and the Duke of Wellington hanged together. The doctor who, being a Welshman, was somewhat of a warm temper, growing rather red, said that at any rate he had been informed that Ferdinand the Seventh knew sometimes how to behave himself like a gentleman. This brought on a long dispute, which terminated rather abruptly. The Lion having observed that the doctor must not talk about Spanish matters with one who had visited every part of Spain, the doctor bowed, and said that he was right, for that he believed no people in general possessed such accurate information about countries as those who had travelled them as bagmen. On the Lion asking the doctor what he meant, the Welshman, whose under jaw began to move violently, replied that he meant what he said. Here the matter ended, for the Lion, turning from him, looked at the writer. The writer, imagining that his own conversation hitherto had been too trivial and commonplace for the Lion to consider it worth his while to take much notice of it, determined to assume a little higher ground, and after repeating a few verses of the Koran, and gabbling a little Arabic, asked the Lion what he considered to be the difference between the Hegira and the Christian era, adding that he thought the general computation was in error by about one year; and being a particularly modest person, chiefly he believes owing to his having been at school in Ireland, absolutely blushed at finding that the Lion returned not a word in answer. ‘What a wonderful individual I am seated by,’ thought he, ‘to whom Arabic seems a vulgar speech, and a question about the Hegira not worthy of an answer!’ not reflecting that as lions come from the Saharra, they have quite enough of Arabic at home, and that the question about the Hegira was rather mal a propos to one used to prey on the flesh of hadjis. ‘Now I only wish he would vouchsafe me a little of his learning,’ thought the boy to himself, and in this wish he was at last gratified, for the Lion, after asking him whether he was acquainted at all with the Sclavonian languages, and being informed that he was not, absolutely dumbfoundered him by a display of Sclavonian erudition.

Years rolled by — the writer was a good deal about, sometimes in London, sometimes in the country, sometimes abroad; in London he occasionally met the man of the spectacles, who was always very civil to him, and, indeed, cultivated his acquaintance. The writer thought it rather odd that, after he himself had become acquainted with the Sclavonian languages and literature, the man of the spectacles talked little or nothing about them. In a little time, however, the matter ceased to cause him the slightest surprise, for he had discovered a key to the mystery. In the meantime the man of the spectacles was busy enough; he speculated in commerce, failed, and paid his creditors twenty pennies in the pound; published translations, of which the public at length became heartily tired; having, indeed, got an inkling of the manner in which those translations were got up. He managed, however, to ride out many a storm, having one trusty sheet-anchor — Radicalism. This he turned to the best advantage — writing pamphlets and articles in reviews, all in the Radical interest, and for which he was paid out of the Radical fund; which articles and pamphlets, when Toryism seemed to reel on its last legs, exhibited a slight tendency to Whiggism. Nevertheless, his abhorrence of desertion of principle was so great in the time of the Duke of Wellington’s administration, that when S—— 211 left the Whigs and went over, he told the writer, who was about that time engaged with him in a literary undertaking, that the said S—— was a fellow with a character so infamous, that any honest man would rather that you should spit in his face than insult his ears with the mention of the name of S——.

The literary project having come to nothing — in which, by-the-by, the writer was to have all the labour, and his friend all the credit, provided any credit should accrue from it — the writer did not see the latter for some years, during which time considerable political changes took place; the Tories were driven from, and the Whigs placed in, office, both events being brought about by the Radicals coalescing with the Whigs, over whom they possessed great influence for the services which they had rendered. When the writer next visited his friend he found him very much altered; his opinions were by no means so exalted as they had been — he was not disposed even to be rancorous against the Duke of Wellington, saying that there were worse men than he, and giving him some credit as a general; a hankering after gentility seeming to pervade the whole family, father and sons, wife and daughters, all of whom talked about genteel diversions — gentility novels, and even seemed to look with favour on high Churchism, having in former years, to all appearance, been bigoted Dissenters. In a little time the writer went abroad, as, indeed, did his friend; not, however, like the writer, at his own expense, but at that of the country — the Whigs having given him a travelling appointment, which he held for some years, during which he is said to have received upwards of twelve thousand pounds of the money of the country, for services which will, perhaps, be found inscribed on certain tablets when another Astolfo shall visit the moon. This appointment, however, he lost on the Tories resuming power — when the writer found him almost as radical and patriotic as ever, just engaged in trying to get into Parliament, into which he got by the assistance of his Radical friends, who, in conjunction with the Whigs, were just getting up a crusade against the Tories, which they intended should be a conclusive one.

A little time after the publication of ‘The Bible in Spain,’ the Tories being still in power, this individual, full of the most disinterested friendship for the author, was particularly anxious that he should be presented with an official situation in a certain region a great many miles off. ‘You are the only person for that appointment,’ said he; ‘you understand a great deal about the country, and are better acquainted with the two languages spoken there than anyone in England. Now, I love my country, and have, moreover, a great regard for you, and as I am in Parliament, and have frequent opportunities of speaking to the Ministry, I shall take care to tell them how desirable it would be to secure your services. It is true they are Tories, but I think that even Tories would give up their habitual love of jobbery in a case like yours, and for once show themselves disposed to be honest men and gentlemen; indeed, I have no doubt they will, for having so deservedly an infamous character, they would be glad to get themselves a little credit by a presentation which could not possibly be traced to jobbery or favouritism.’ The writer begged his friend to give himself no trouble about the matter, as he was not desirous of the appointment, being in tolerably easy circumstances, and willing to take some rest after a life of labour. All, however, that he could say was of no use, his friend indignantly observing that the matter ought to be taken entirely out of his hands, and the appointment thrust upon him for the credit of the country. ‘But may not many people be far more worthy of the appointment than myself?’ said the writer. ‘Where?’ said the friendly Radical. ‘If you don’t get it it will be made a job of, given to the son of some steward, or, perhaps, to some quack who has done dirty work. I tell you what, I shall ask it for you, in spite of you; I shall, indeed!’ and his eyes flashed with friendly and patriotic fervour through the large pair of spectacles which he wore.

And, in fact, it would appear that the honest and friendly patriot put his threat into execution. ‘I have spoken,’ said he, ‘more than once to this and that individual in Parliament, and everybody seems to think that the appointment should be given to you. Nay, that you should be forced to accept it. I intend next to speak to Lord A——.’ 212 And so he did, at least, it would appear so. On the writer calling upon him one evening, about a week afterwards, in order to take leave of him, as the writer was about to take a long journey for the sake of his health, his friend no sooner saw him than he started up in a violent fit of agitation, and glancing about the room, in which there were several people, amongst others two Whig members of Parliament, said: ‘I am glad you are come, I was just speaking about you. This,’ said he, addressing the two members, ‘is so-and-so, the author of so-and-so, the well-known philologist; as I was telling you, I spoke to Lord A—— this day about him, and said that he ought forthwith to have the head appointment in ——; 213 and what did the fellow say? Why, that there was no necessity for such an appointment at all, and if there were, why — And then he hummed and ha’d. Yes,’ said he, looking at the writer, ‘he did, indeed. What a scandal! what an infamy! But I see how it will be, it will be a job. The place will be given to some son of a steward or to some quack, as I said before. Oh, these Tories! Well, if this does not make one —’ Here he stopped short, crunched his teeth, and looked the image of desperation.

Seeing the poor man in this distressed condition, the writer begged him to be comforted, and not to take the matter so much to heart; but the indignant Radical took the matter very much to heart, and refused all comfort whatsoever, bouncing about the room, and, whilst his spectacles flashed in the light of four spermaceti candles, exclaiming, ‘It will be a job — a Tory job! I see it all, I see it all, I see it all!’

And a job it proved, and a very pretty job, but no Tory job. Shortly afterwards the Tories were out, and the Whigs were in. From that time the writer heard not a word about the injustice done to the country in not presenting him with the appointment to ——; the Radical, however, was busy enough to obtain the appointment, not for the writer, but for himself, and eventually succeeded, partly through Radical influence, and partly through that of a certain Whig lord, for whom the Radical had done, on a particular occasion, work of a particular kind. So, though the place was given to a quack, and the whole affair a very pretty job, it was one in which the Tories had certainly no hand.

In the meanwhile, however, the friendly Radical did not drop the writer. Oh, no! On various occasions he obtained from the writer all the information he could about the country in question, and was particularly anxious to obtain from the writer, and eventually did obtain, a copy of a work 214 written in the court language of that country, edited by the writer — a language exceedingly difficult, which the writer, at the expense of a considerable portion of his eyesight, had acquired, at least as far as by the eyesight it could be acquired. What use the writer’s friend made of the knowledge he had gained from him, and what use he made of the book, the writer can only guess; but he has little doubt that when the question of sending a person to —— was mooted in a Parliamentary Committee — which it was at the instigation of the Radical supporters of the writer’s friend — the Radical, on being examined about the country, gave the information which he had obtained from the writer as his own, and flashed the book and its singular characters in the eyes of the Committee; and then, of course, his Radical friends would instantly say, ‘This is the man! there is no one like him. See what information he possesses; and see that book written by himself in the court language of Serendib. This is the only man to send there. What a glory, what a triumph it would be to Britain, to send out a man so deeply versed in the mysterious lore of —— as our illustrious countryman — a person who with his knowledge could beat with their own weapons the wise men of ——! Is such an opportunity to be lost? Oh, no! surely not! If it is it will be an eternal disgrace to England, and the world will see that Whigs are no better than Tories.’

Let no one think the writer uncharitable in these suppositions. The writer is only too well acquainted with the antecedents of the individual, to entertain much doubt that he would shrink from any such conduct, provided he thought that his temporal interest would be forwarded by it. The writer is aware of more than one instance in which he has passed off the literature of friendless young men for his own, after making them a slight pecuniary compensation, and deforming what was originally excellent by interpolations of his own. This was his especial practice with regard to translation, of which he would fain be esteemed the king. This Radical literato is slightly acquainted with four or five of the easier dialects of Europe, on the strength of which knowledge he would fain pass for a universal linguist, publishing translations of pieces originally written in various difficult languages; which translations, however, were either made by himself from literal renderings done for him into French or German, or had been made from the originals into English, by friendless young men, and then deformed by his alterations.

Well, the Radical got the appointment, and the writer certainly did not grudge it him. He, of course, was aware that his friend had behaved in a very base manner towards him, but he bore him no ill-will, and invariably when he heard him spoken against, which was frequently the case, took his part when no other person would; indeed, he could well afford to bear him no ill-will. He had never sought for the appointment, nor wished for it, nor, indeed, ever believed himself qualified for it. He was conscious, it is true, that he was not altogether unacquainted with the language and literature of the country with which the appointment was connected. He was likewise aware that he was not altogether deficient in courage and in propriety of behaviour. He knew that his appearance was not particularly against him; his face not being like that of a convicted pickpocket, nor his gait resembling that of a fox who has lost his tail; yet he never believed himself adapted for the appointment, being aware that he had no aptitude for the doing of dirty work, if called to do it, nor pliancy which would enable him to submit to scurvy treatment, whether he did dirty work or not — requisites, at the time of which he is speaking, indispensable in every British official; requisites, by-the-by, which his friend, the Radical, possessed in a high degree; but though he bore no ill-will towards his friend, his friend bore anything but good-will towards him; for from the moment that he had obtained the appointment for himself, his mind was filled with the most bitter malignity against the writer, and naturally enough; for no one ever yet behaved in a base manner towards another, without forthwith conceiving a mortal hatred against him. You wrong another, know yourself to have acted basely, and are enraged, not against yourself — for no one hates himself — but against the innocent cause of your baseness; reasoning very plausibly, ‘But for that fellow, I should never have been base; for had he not existed I could not have been so, at any rate against him;’ and this hatred is all the more bitter, when you reflect that you have been needlessly base.

Whilst the Tories are in power the writer’s friend, of his own accord, raves against the Tories because they do not give the writer a certain appointment, and makes, or says he makes, desperate exertions to make them do so; but no sooner are the Tories out, with whom he has no influence, and the Whigs in, with whom he, or rather his party, has influence, than he gets the place for himself, though, according to his own expressed opinion — an opinion with which the writer does not, and never did, concur — the writer was the only person competent to hold it. Now had he, without saying a word to the writer, or about the writer with respect to the employment, got the place for himself when he had an opportunity, knowing, as he very well knew, himself to be utterly unqualified for it, the transaction, though a piece of jobbery, would not have merited the title of a base transaction; as the matter stands, however, who can avoid calling the whole affair not only a piece of — come, come, out with the word — scoundrelism on the part of the writer’s friend, but a most curious piece of uncalled-for scoundrelism? and who, with any knowledge of fallen human nature, can wonder at the writer’s friend entertaining towards him a considerable portion of gall and malignity!

This feeling on the part of the writer’s friend was wonderfully increased by the appearance of Lavengro, many passages of which the Radical in his foreign appointment applied to himself and family — one or two of his children having gone over to Popery, the rest become members of Mr. Platitude’s chapel, and the minds of all being filled with ultra notions of gentility.

The writer, hearing that his old friend had returned to England, to apply, he believes, for an increase of salary, and for a title, called upon him, unwillingly, it is true, for he had no wish to see a person for whom, though he bore him no ill-will, he could not avoid feeling a considerable portion of contempt, the truth is, that his sole object in calling was to endeavour to get back a piece of literary property which his friend had obtained from him many years previously, and which, though he had frequently applied for it, he never could get back. Well, the writer called; he did not get his property, which, indeed, he had scarcely time to press for, being almost instantly attacked by his good friend and his wife — yes, it was then that the author was set upon by an old Radical and his wife — the wife, who looked the very image of shame and malignity, did not say much, it is true, but encouraged her husband in all he said. Both of their own accord introduced the subject of ‘Lavengro.’ The Radical called the writer a grumbler, just as if there had ever been a greater grumbler than himself until, by the means above described, he had obtained a place: he said that the book contained a melancholy view of human nature — just as if anybody could look in his face without having a melancholy view of human nature. On the writer quietly observing that the book contained an exposition of his principles, the pseudo-Radical replied, that he cared nothing for his principles — which was probably true, it not being likely that he would care for another person’s principles after having shown so thorough a disregard for his own. The writer said that the book, of course, would give offence to humbugs; the Radical then demanded whether he thought him a humbug? — the wretched wife was the Radical’s protection, even as he knew she would be; it was on her account that the writer did not kick his good friend; as it was, he looked at him in the face and thought to himself, ‘How is it possible I should think you a humbug, when only last night I was taking your part in a company in which everybody called you a humbug?’

The Radical, probably observing something in the writer’s eye which he did not like, became all on a sudden abjectly submissive, and, professing the highest admiration for the writer, begged him to visit him in his government; this the writer promised faithfully to do, and he takes the present opportunity of performing his promise.

This is one of the pseudo-Radical calumniators of ‘Lavengro’ and its author; were the writer on his death-bed he would lay his hand on his heart and say, that he does not believe that there is one trait of exaggeration in the portrait which he has drawn. This is one of the pseudo-Radical calumniators of ‘Lavengro’ and its author; and this is one of the genus, who, after having railed against jobbery for perhaps a quarter of a century, at present batten on large official salaries which they do not earn. England is a great country, and her interests require that she should have many a well-paid official both at home and abroad; but will England long continue a great country if the care of her interests both at home and abroad, is in many instances entrusted to beings like him described above, whose only recommendation for an official appointment was that he was deeply versed in the secrets of his party and of the Whigs?

Before he concludes, the writer will take the liberty of saying of ‘Lavengro’ that it is a book written for the express purpose of inculcating virtue, love of country, learning, manly pursuits, and genuine religion, for example, that of the Church of England, and for awakening a contempt for nonsense of every kind, and a hatred for priestcraft, more especially that of Rome.

And in conclusion, with respect to many passages of his book, in which he has expressed himself in terms neither measured nor mealy, he will beg leave to observe, in the words of a great poet, who lived a profligate life it is true, but who died a sincere penitent — thanks, after God, to good Bishop Burnet —

‘All this with indignation I have hurl’d

At the pretending part of this proud world,

Who, swollen with selfish vanity, devise

False freedoms, formal cheats, and holy lies,

Over their fellow fools to tyrannize.’


208 William Taylor of Norwich.

209 ‘Specimens of the Russian Poets,’ translated by John Bowring. 12mo., London, 1821.

210 A fact (G. B.).

211 Southey.

212 Aberdeen.

213 China.

214 Manchu New Testament.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51