Lavengro - The Scholar, The Gypsy, The Priest
by George Borrow
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'Away we drove to the big church; it was a dark misty day, I remember, and very cold, so that if anybody had noticed my being slightly in liquor, I could have excused myself by saying that I had merely taken a glass to fortify my constitution against the weather; and of one thing I am certain, which is, that such an excuse would have stood me in stead with our governor, who looked, I thought, as if he had taken one too; but I may be mistaken, and why should I notice him, seeing that he took no notice of me? so away we drove to the big church, to which all the population of the place appeared to be moving.

'On arriving there we dismounted, and the two priests, who were with us, led the family in, whilst I followed at a little distance, but quickly lost them amidst the throng of people. I made my way, however, though in what direction I knew not, except it was one in which everybody seemed striving, and by dint of elbowing and pushing I at last got to a place which looked like the aisle of a cathedral, where the people stood in two rows, a space between being kept open by certain strangely-dressed men who moved up and down with rods in their hands; all were looking to the upper end of this place or aisle; and at the upper end, separated from the people by palings like those of an altar, sat in magnificent-looking stalls, on the right and the left, various wonderful-looking individuals in scarlet dresses. At the farther end was what appeared to be an altar, on the left hand was a pulpit, and on the right a stall higher than any of the rest, where was a figure whom I could scarcely see.

'I can't pretend to describe what I saw exactly, for my head, which was at first rather flurried, had become more so from the efforts which I had made to get through the crowd; also from certain singing, which proceeded from I know not where; and, above all, from the bursts of an organ, which were occasionally so loud that I thought the roof, which was painted with wondrous colours, would come toppling down on those below. So there stood I—a poor English servant—in that outlandish place, in the midst of that foreign crowd, looking at that outlandish sight, hearing those outlandish sounds, and occasionally glancing at our party, which, by this time, I distinguished at the opposite side to where I stood, but much nearer the place where the red figures sat. Yes, there stood our poor governor and the sweet young ladies, and I thought they never looked so handsome before; and close by them were the sharking priests, and not far from them was that idiotical parson Platitude, winking and grinning, and occasionally lifting up his hands as if in ecstasy at what he saw and heard, so that he drew upon himself the notice of the congregation.

'And now an individual mounted the pulpit, and began to preach in a language which I did not understand, but which I believe to be Latin, addressing himself seemingly to the figure in the stall; and when he had ceased, there was more singing, more organ-playing, and then two men in robes brought forth two things which they held up; and then the people bowed their heads, and our poor governor bowed his head, and the sweet young ladies bowed their heads, and the sharking priests, whilst the idiotical parson Platitude tried to fling himself down; and then there were various evolutions withinside the pale, and the scarlet figures got up and sat down; and this kind of thing continued for some time. At length the figure which I had seen in the principal stall came forth and advanced towards the people; an awful figure he was, a huge old man with a sugar-loaf hat, with a sulphur-coloured dress, and holding a crook in his hand like that of a shepherd; and as he advanced the people fell on their knees, our poor old governor amongst them; the sweet young ladies, the sharking priests, the idiotical parson Platitude, all fell on their knees, and somebody or other tried to pull me on my knees; but by this time I had become outrageous; all that my poor brother used to tell me of the superstitions of the high Barbary shore rushed into my mind, and I thought they were acting them over here; above all, the idea that the sweet young ladies, to say nothing of my poor old governor, were, after the conclusion of all this mummery, going to deliver themselves up body and soul into the power of that horrid-looking old man, maddened me, and, rushing forward into the open space, I confronted the horrible-looking old figure with the sugar-loaf hat, the sulphur-coloured garments, and shepherd's crook, and shaking my fist at his nose, I bellowed out in English—

'"I don't care for you, old Mumbo Jumbo, though you have fetish!"

'I can scarcely tell you what occurred for some time. I have a dim recollection that hands were laid upon me, and that I struck out violently left and right. On coming to myself, I was seated on a stone bench in a large room, something like a guard-room, in the custody of certain fellows dressed like Merry-andrews; they were bluff, good-looking, wholesome fellows, very different from the sallow Italians: they were looking at me attentively, and occasionally talking to each other in a language which sounded very like the cracking of walnuts in the mouth, very different from cooing Italian. At last one of them asked me in Italian what had ailed me, to which I replied, in an incoherent manner, something about Mumbo Jumbo; whereupon the fellow, one of the bluffest of the lot, a jovial rosy-faced rascal, lifted up his right hand, placing it in such a manner that the lips were between the fore- finger and thumb, then lifting up his right foot and drawing back his head, he sucked in his breath with a hissing sound, as if to imitate one drinking a hearty draught, and then slapped me on the shoulder, saying something which sounded like goot wine, goot companion, whereupon they all laughed, exclaiming, ya, ya, goot companion. And now hurried into the room our poor old governor, with the red-haired priest. The first asked what could have induced me to behave in such a manner in such a place, to which I replied that I was not going to bow down to Mumbo Jumbo, whatever other people might do. Whereupon my master said he believed I was mad, and the priest said he believed I was drunk; to which I answered that I was neither so mad nor drunk but I could distinguish how the wind lay. Whereupon they left me, and in a little time I was told by the bluff-looking Merry-andrews I was at liberty to depart. I believe the priest, in order to please my governor, interceded for me in high quarters.

'But one good resulted from this affair; there was no presentation of our family to the Holy Father, for old Mumbo was so frightened by my outrageous looks that he was laid up for a week, as I was afterwards informed.

'I went home, and had scarcely been there half an hour when I was sent for by the governor, who again referred to the scene in church, said that he could not tolerate such scandalous behaviour, and that unless I promised to be more circumspect in future, he should be compelled to discharge me. I said that if he was scandalised at my behaviour in the church, I was more scandalised at all I saw going on in the family, which was governed by two rascally priests, who, not content with plundering him, appeared bent on hurrying the souls of us all to destruction; and that with respect to discharging me, he could do so that moment, as I wished to go. I believe his own reason told him that I was right, for he made no direct answer, but, after looking on the ground for some time, he told me to leave him. As he did not tell me to leave the house, I went to my room, intending to lie down for an hour or two; but scarcely was I there when the door opened, and in came the red-haired priest. He showed himself, as he always did, perfectly civil, asked me how I was, took a chair and sat down. After a hem or two he entered into a long conversation on the excellence of what he called the Catholic religion; told me that he hoped I would not set myself against the light, and likewise against my interest; for that the family were about to embrace the Catholic religion, and would make it worth my while to follow their example. I told him that the family might do what they pleased, but that I would never forsake the religion of my country for any consideration whatever; that I was nothing but a poor servant, but I was not to be bought by base gold. "I admire your honourable feelings," said he, "you shall have no gold; and as I see you are a fellow of spirit, and do not like being a servant, for which I commend you, I can promise you something better. I have a good deal of influence in this place, and if you will not set your face against the light, but embrace the Catholic religion, I will undertake to make your fortune. You remember those fine fellows to-day who took you into custody, they are the guards of his Holiness. I have no doubt that I have interest enough to procure your enrolment amongst them." "What," said I, "become swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo up here! May I . . ."—and here I swore—"if I do. The mere possibility of one of their children being swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo on the high Barbary shore has always been a source of heart-breaking to my poor parents. What, then, would they not undergo, if they knew for certain that their other child was swashbuckler to Mumbo Jumbo up here?" Thereupon he asked me, even as you did some time ago, what I meant by Mumbo Jumbo. And I told him all I had heard about the Mumbo Jumbo of the high Barbary shore; telling him that I had no doubt that the old fellow up here was his brother, or nearly related to him. The man with the red hair listened with the greatest attention to all I said, and when I had concluded, he got up, nodded to me, and moved to the door; ere he reached the door I saw his shoulders shaking, and as he closed it behind him I heard him distinctly laughing, to the tune of—he! he! he!

'But now matters began to mend. That same evening my young master unexpectedly arrived. I believe he soon perceived that something extraordinary had been going on in the family. He was for some time closeted with the governor, with whom, I believe, he had a dispute; for my fellow-servant, the lady's maid, informed me that she heard high words.

'Rather late at night the young gentleman sent for me into his room, and asked me various questions with respect to what had been going on, and my behaviour in the church, of which he had heard something. I told him all I knew with respect to the intrigues of the two priests in the family, and gave him a circumstantial account of all that had occurred in the church; adding that, under similar circumstances, I was ready to play the same part over again. Instead of blaming me, he commended my behaviour, told me I was a fine fellow, and said he hoped that, if he wanted my assistance, I would stand by him: this I promised to do. Before I left him, he entreated me to inform him the very next time I saw the priests entering the house.

'The next morning, as I was in the courtyard, where I had placed myself to watch, I saw the two enter and make their way up a private stair to the young ladies' apartment; they were attended by a man dressed something like a priest, who bore a large box; I instantly ran to relate what I had seen to my young master. I found him shaving. "I will just finish what I am about," said he, "and then wait upon these gentlemen." He finished what he was about with great deliberation; then taking a horsewhip, and bidding me follow him, he proceeded at once to the door of his sisters' apartment: finding it fastened, he burst it open at once with his foot and entered, followed by myself. There we beheld the two unfortunate young ladies down on their knees before a large female doll, dressed up, as usual, in rags and tinsel; the two priests were standing near, one on either side, with their hands uplifted, whilst the fellow who brought the trumpery stood a little way down the private stair, the door of which stood open; without a moment's hesitation, my young master rushed forward, gave the image a cut or two with his horsewhip—then flying at the priests, he gave them a sound flogging, kicked them down the private stair, and spurned the man, box and image after them—then locking the door, he gave his sisters a fine sermon, in which he represented to them their folly in worshipping a silly wooden graven image, which, though it had eyes, could see not; though it had ears, could hear not; though it had hands, could not help itself; and though it had feet, could not move about unless it were carried. Oh, it was a fine sermon that my young master preached, and sorry I am that the Father of the Fetish, old Mumbo, did not hear it. The elder sister looked ashamed, but the youngest, who was very weak, did nothing but wring her hands, weep and bewail the injury which had been done to the dear image. The young man, however, without paying much regard to either of them, went to his father, with whom he had a long conversation, which terminated in the old governor giving orders for preparations to be made for the family's leaving Rome and returning to England. I believe that the old governor was glad of his son's arrival, and rejoiced at the idea of getting away from Italy, where he had been so plundered and imposed upon. The priests, however, made another attempt upon the poor young ladies. By the connivance of the female servant who was in their interest they found their way once more into their apartment, bringing with them the fetish image, whose body they partly stripped, exhibiting upon it certain sanguine marks which they had daubed upon it with red paint, but which they said were the result of the lashes which it had received from the horsewhip. The youngest girl believed all they said, and kissed and embraced the dear image; but the eldest, whose eyes had been opened by her brother, to whom she was much attached, behaved with proper dignity; for, going to the door, she called the female servant who had a respect for me, and in her presence reproached the two deceivers for their various impudent cheats, and especially for this their last attempt at imposition; adding that if they did not forthwith withdraw and rid her sister and herself of their presence, she would send word by her maid to her brother, who would presently take effectual means to expel them. They took the hint and departed, and we saw no more of them.

'At the end of three days we departed from Rome, but the maid whom the priests had cajoled remained behind, and it is probable that the youngest of our ladies would have done the same thing if she could have had her own will, for she was continually raving about her image, and saying she should wish to live with it in a convent; but we watched the poor thing, and got her on board ship. Oh, glad was I to leave that fetish country and old Mumbo behind me!


Nothing but gloom—Sporting character—Gouty Tory—Servants' Club—Politics—Reformado footman—Peroration—Good-night.

'We arrived in England, and went to our country seat, but the peace and tranquillity of the family had been marred, and I no longer found my place the pleasant one which it had formerly been; there was nothing but gloom in the house, for the youngest daughter exhibited signs of lunacy, and was obliged to be kept under confinement. The next season I attended my master, his son, and eldest daughter to London, as I had previously done. There I left them, for hearing that a young baronet, an acquaintance of the family, wanted a servant, I applied for the place, with the consent of my masters, both of whom gave me a strong recommendation; and, being approved of, I went to live with him.

'My new master was what is called a sporting character, very fond of the turf, upon which he was not very fortunate. He was frequently very much in want of money, and my wages were anything but regularly paid; nevertheless, I liked him very much, for he treated me more like a friend than a domestic, continually consulting me as to his affairs. At length he was brought nearly to his last shifts, by backing the favourite at the Derby, which favourite turned out a regular brute, being found nowhere at the rush. Whereupon, he and I had a solemn consultation over fourteen glasses of brandy and water, and as many cigars—I mean, between us—as to what was to be done. He wished to start a coach, in which event he was to be driver, and I guard. He was quite competent to drive a coach, being a first-rate whip, and I daresay I should have made a first-rate guard; but, to start a coach requires money, and we neither of us believed that anybody would trust us with vehicles and horses, so that idea was laid aside. We then debated as to whether or not he should go into the Church; but to go into the Church—at any rate to become a dean or bishop, which would have been our aim—it is necessary for a man to possess some education; and my master, although he had been at the best school in England, that is, the most expensive, and also at College, was almost totally illiterate, so we let the Church scheme follow that of the coach. At last, bethinking me that he was tolerably glib at the tongue, as most people are who are addicted to the turf, also a great master of slang; remembering also that he had a crabbed old uncle, who had some borough interest, I proposed that he should get into the House, promising in one fortnight to qualify him to make a figure in it, by certain lessons which I would give him. He consented; and during the next fortnight I did little else than give him lessons in elocution, following to a tittle the method of the great professor, which I had picked up, listening behind the door. At the end of that period we paid a visit to his relation, an old gouty Tory, who at first received us very coolly. My master, however, by flattering a predilection of his for Billy Pitt, soon won his affections so much that he promised to bring him into Parliament; and in less than a month was as good as his word. My master, partly by his own qualifications, and partly by the assistance which he had derived, and still occasionally derived, from me, cut a wonderful figure in the House, and was speedily considered one of the most promising speakers; he was always a good hand at promising—he is at present, I believe, a Cabinet minister.

'But as he got up in the world he began to look down on me. I believe he was ashamed of the obligation under which he lay to me; and at last, requiring no further hints as to oratory from a poor servant like me, he took an opportunity of quarrelling with me and discharging me. However, as he had still some grace, he recommended me to a gentleman with whom, since he had attached himself to politics, he had formed an acquaintance, the editor of a grand Tory Review. I lost caste terribly amongst the servants for entering the service of a person connected with a profession so mean as literature; and it was proposed at the Servants' Club, in Park Lane, to eject me from that society. The proposition, however, was not carried into effect, and I was permitted to show myself among them, though few condescended to take much notice of me. My master was one of the best men in the world, but also one of the most sensitive. On his veracity being impugned by the editor of a newspaper, he called him out, and shot him through the arm. Though servants are seldom admirers of their masters, I was a great admirer of mine, and eager to follow his example. The day after the encounter, on my veracity being impugned by the servant of Lord C—- in something I said in praise of my master, I determined to call him out; so I went into another room and wrote a challenge. But whom should I send it by? Several servants to whom I applied refused to be the bearers of it; they said I had lost caste, and they could not think of going out with me. At length the servant of the Duke of B—- consented to take it; but he made me to understand that, though he went out with me, he did so merely because he despised the Whiggish principles of Lord C—-'s servant, and that if I thought he intended to associate with me I should be mistaken. Politics, I must tell you, at that time ran as high amongst the servants as the gentlemen, the servants, however, being almost invariably opposed to the politics of their respective masters, though both parties agreed in one point, the scouting of everything low and literary, though I think, of the two, the liberal or reform party were the most inveterate. So he took my challenge, which was accepted; we went out, Lord C—-'s servant being seconded by a reformado footman from the palace. We fired three times without effect; but this affair lost me my place; my master on hearing it forthwith discharged me; he was, as I have said before, very sensitive, and he said this duel of mine was a parody of his own. Being, however, one of the best men in the world, on his discharging me he made me a donation of twenty pounds.

'And it was well that he made me this present, for without it I should have been penniless, having contracted rather expensive habits during the time that I lived with the young baronet. I now determined to visit my parents, whom I had not seen for years. I found them in good health, and, after staying with them for two months, I returned again in the direction of town, walking, in order to see the country. On the second day of my journey, not being used to such fatigue, I fell ill at a great inn on the north road, and there I continued for some weeks till I recovered, but by that time my money was entirely spent. By living at the inn I had contracted an acquaintance with the master and the people, and become accustomed to inn life. As I thought that I might find some difficulty in procuring any desirable situation in London, owing to my late connection with literature, I determined to remain where I was, provided my services would be accepted. I offered them to the master, who, finding I knew something of horses, engaged me as a postilion. I have remained there since. You have now heard my story.

'Stay, you shan't say that I told my tale without a per—peroration. What shall it be? Oh, I remember something which will serve for one. As I was driving my chaise some weeks ago, I saw standing at the gate of an avenue, which led up to an old mansion, a figure which I thought I recognised. I looked at it attentively, and the figure, as I passed, looked at me; whether it remembered me I do not know, but I recognised the face it showed me full well.

'If it was not the identical face of the red-haired priest whom I had seen at Rome, may I catch cold!

'Young gentleman, I will now take a spell on your blanket—young lady, good-night.'


{5} 'In Cornwall are the best gentlemen.'—Corn. Prov.

{19} Norwegian ells—about eight feet.

{143} Klopstock.


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