The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 8

The Church — The Aristocratical Pew — Days of Yore — The Clergyman —‘In What Would a Man Be Profited?’

When two days had passed, Sunday came; I breakfasted by myself in the solitary dingle; and then, having set things a little to rights, I ascended to Mr. Petulengro’s encampment. I could hear church-bells ringing around in the distance, appearing to say, ‘Come to church, come to church,’ as clearly as it was possible for church-bells to say. I found Mr. Petulengro seated by the door of his tent, smoking his pipe, in rather an ungenteel undress. ‘Well, Jasper,’ said I, ‘are you ready to go to church; for if you are, I am ready to accompany you?’ ‘I am not ready, brother,’ said Mr. Petulengro, ‘nor is my wife; the church, too, to which we shall go is three miles off 91; so it is of no use to think of going there this morning, as the service would be three-quarters over before we got there; if, however, you are disposed to go in the afternoon, we are your people.’ Thereupon I returned to my dingle, where I passed several hours in conning the Welsh Bible, which the preacher, Peter Williams, had given me.

At last I gave over reading, took a slight refreshment, and was about to emerge from the dingle, when I heard the voice of Mr. Petulengro calling me. I went up again to the encampment, where I found Mr. Petulengro, his wife, and Tawno Chikno, ready to proceed to church. Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro were dressed in Roman fashion, though not in the full-blown manner in which they had paid their visit to Isopel and myself. Tawno had on a clean white slop, with a nearly new black beaver, with very broad rims, and the nap exceedingly long. As for myself, I was dressed in much the same manner as that in which I departed from London, having on, in honour of the day, a shirt perfectly clean, having washed one on purpose for the occasion, with my own hands, the day before, in the pond of tepid water in which the newts and efts were in the habit of taking their pleasure. We proceeded for upwards of a mile, by footpaths through meadows and corn-fields; we crossed various stiles; at last, passing over one, we found ourselves in a road, wending along which for a considerable distance, we at last came in sight of a church, the bells of which had been tolling distinctly in our ears for some time; before, however, we reached the church-yard the bells had ceased their melody. It was surrounded by lofty beech-trees of brilliant green foliage. We entered the gate, Mrs. Petulengro leading the way, and proceeded to a small door near the east end of the church. As we advanced, the sound of singing within the church rose upon our ears. Arrived at the small door, Mrs. Petulengro opened it and entered, followed by Tawno Chikno. I myself went last of all, following Mr. Petulengro, who, before I entered, turned round, and, with a significant nod, advised me to take care how I behaved. The part of the church which we had entered was the chancel; on one side stood a number of venerable old men — probably the neighbouring poor — and on the other a number of poor girls belonging to the village school, dressed in white gowns and straw bonnets, whom two elegant but simply dressed young women were superintending. Every voice seemed to be united in singing a certain anthem, which, notwithstanding it was written neither by Tate nor Brady, contains some of the sublimest words which were ever put together, not the worst of which are those which burst on our ears as we entered.

‘Every eye shall now behold Him,

Robed in dreadful majesty;

Those who set at nought and sold Him,

Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,

      Deeply wailing,

      Shall the true Messiah see.’

Still following Mrs. Petulengro, we proceeded down the chancel and along the aisle; notwithstanding the singing, I could distinctly hear as we passed many a voice whispering, ‘Here come the gypsies! here come the gypsies!’ I felt rather embarrassed, with a somewhat awkward doubt as to where we were to sit; none of the occupiers of the pews, who appeared to consist almost entirely of farmers, with their wives, sons and daughters, opened a door to admit us. Mrs. Petulengro, however, appeared to feel not the least embarrassment, but tripped along the aisle with the greatest nonchalance. We passed under the pulpit, in which stood the clergyman in his white surplice, and reached the middle of the church, where we were confronted by the sexton dressed in long blue coat, and holding in his hand a wand. This functionary motioned towards the lower end of the church, where were certain benches, partly occupied by poor people and boys. Mrs. Petulengro, however, with a toss of her head, directed her course to a magnificent pew, which was unoccupied, which she opened and entered, followed closely by Tawno Chikno, Mr. Petulengro, and myself. The sexton did not appear by any means to approve of the arrangement, and as I stood next the door laid his finger on my arm, as if to intimate that myself and companions must quit our aristocratical location. I said nothing, but directed my eyes to the clergyman, who uttered a short and expressive cough; the sexton looked at him for a moment, and then, bowing his head, closed the door — in a moment more the music ceased. I took up a Prayer-book, on which was engraved an earl’s coronet. The clergyman uttered, ‘I will arise and go to my father.’ England’s sublime liturgy had commenced.

Oh what feelings came over me on finding myself again in an edifice devoted to the religion of my country. I had not been in such a place I cannot tell for how long — certainly not for years; and now I had found my way there again, it appeared as if I had fallen asleep in the pew of the old church of pretty D——. 92 I had occasionally done so when a child, and had suddenly woke up. Yes, surely I had been asleep and had woken up; but, no! alas, no! I had not been asleep — at least not in the old church — if I had been asleep I had been walking in my sleep, struggling, striving, learning, and unlearning in my sleep. Years had rolled away whilst I had been asleep — ripe fruit had fallen, green fruit had come on whilst I had been asleep — how circumstances had altered, and above all myself, whilst I had been asleep. No, I had not been asleep in the old church! I was in a pew it is true, but not the pew of black leather, in which I sometimes fell asleep in days of yore, but in a strange pew; and then my companions, they were no longer those of days of yore. I was no longer with my respectable father and mother, and my dear brother, but with the gypsy cral 93 and his wife, and the gigantic Tawno, the Antinous of the dusky people. And what was I myself? No longer an innocent child, but a moody man, bearing in my face, as I knew well, the marks of my strivings and strugglings, of what I had learnt and unlearnt; nevertheless, the general aspect of things brought to my mind what I had felt and seen of yore. There was difference enough it is true, but still there was a similarity — at least I thought so — the church, the clergyman, and the clerk, differing in many respects from those of pretty D—— put me strangely in mind of them; and then the words! — by-the-by, was it not the magic of the words which brought the dear enchanting past so powerfully before the mind of Lavengro? for the words were the same sonorous words of high import which had first made an impression on his childish ear in the old church of pretty D——.

The liturgy was now over, during the reading of which my companions behaved in a most unexceptionable manner, sitting down and rising up when other people sat down and rose, and holding in their hands Prayer-books which they found in the pew, into which they stared intently, though I observed that, with the exception of Mrs. Petulengro, who knew how to read a little, they held the books by the top, and not the bottom, as is the usual way. The clergyman now ascended the pulpit, arrayed in his black gown. The congregation composed themselves to attention, as did also my companions, who fixed their eyes upon the clergyman with a certain strange immovable stare, which I believe to be peculiar to their race. The clergyman gave out his text, and began to preach. He was a tall, gentlemanly man, seemingly between fifty and sixty, with greyish hair; his features were very handsome, but with a somewhat melancholy cast: the tones of his voice were rich and noble, but also with somewhat of melancholy in them. The text which he gave out was the following one, ‘In what would a man be profited, provided he gained the whole world, and lost his own soul?’

And on this text the clergyman preached long and well: he did not read his sermon, but spoke it extempore; his doing so rather surprised and offended me at first; I was not used to such a style of preaching in a church devoted to the religion of my country. I compared it within my mind with the style of preaching used by the high-church rector in the old church of pretty D—— and I thought to myself it was very different, and being very different I did not like it, and I thought to myself how scandalized the people of D—— would have been had they heard it, and I figured to myself how indignant the high-church clerk would have been had any clergyman got up in the church of D—— and preached in such a manner. Did it not savour strongly of dissent, methodism, and similar low stuff? Surely it did; why the Methodist I had heard preach on the heath above the old city, preached in the same manner — at least he preached extempore; ay, and something like the present clergyman, for the Methodist spoke very zealously and with great feeling, and so did the present clergyman; so I, of course, felt rather offended with the clergyman for speaking with zeal and feeling. However, long before the sermon was over I forgot the offence which I had taken, and listened to the sermon with much admiration, for the eloquence and powerful reasoning with which it abounded.

Oh how eloquent he was when he talked of the inestimable value of a man’s soul, which he said endured for ever, whilst his body, as everyone knew, lasted at most for a very contemptible period of time; and how forcibly he reasoned on the folly of a man, who, for the sake of gaining the whole world — a thing, he said, which provided he gained he could only possess for a part of the time, during which his perishable body existed — should lose his soul, that is, cause that precious deathless portion of him to suffer indescribable misery time without end.

There was one part of his sermon which struck me in a very particular manner, he said: ‘That there were some people who gained something in return for their souls; if they did not get the whole world, they got a part of it — lands, wealth, honour, or renown; mere trifles, he allowed, in comparison with the value of a man’s soul, which is destined either to enjoy delight, or suffer tribulation time without end; but which, in the eyes of the worldly, had a certain value, and which afforded a certain pleasure and satisfaction. But there were also others who lost their souls and got nothing for them — neither lands, wealth, renown, nor consideration, who were poor outcasts, and despised by everybody. My friends,’ he added, ‘if the man is a fool who barters his soul for the whole world, what a fool he must be who barters his soul for nothing.’

The eyes of the clergyman, as he uttered these words, wandered around the whole congregation, and when he had concluded them, the eyes of the whole congregation were turned upon my companions and myself.

91 See Introduction.

92 East Dereham.

93 Better krallis, ‘king.’

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