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- The Life of George Borrow - 3/90 -


wars. There were sixteen large buildings roofed with red tiles. Each group of four was surrounded by a palisade, whilst another palisade "lofty and of prodigious strength" surrounded the whole. At the time when the West Norfolk Militia arrived there were some six thousand prisoners, who, with their guards, constituted a considerable-sized township. From time to time fresh batches of captives arrived amid a storm of cheers and cries of "Vive L'Empereur!" These were the only incidents in the day's monotony, save when some prisoner strove to evade the hospitality of King George, and was shot for his ingratitude.

Captain Borrow rejoined his regiment at Norman C Cross, leaving his family to follow a few days later. At the time the country round Peterborough was under water owing to the recent heavy rains, and at one portion of the journey the whole party had to embark in a species of punt, which was towed by horses "up to the knees in water, and, on coming to blind pools and 'greedy depths,' were not unfrequently swimming." {11b} But they were all old campaigners and accepted such adventures as incidents of a soldier's life.

At Norman Cross George made the acquaintance of an old snake-catcher and herbalist, a circumstance which, insignificant in itself, was to exercise a considerable influence over his whole life. Frequently this curious pair were to be seen tramping the countryside together; a tall, quaint figure with fur cap and gaiters carrying a leathern bag of wriggling venom, and an eager child with eyes that now burned with interest and intelligence--and the talk of the two was the lore of the viper. When the snake-catcher passed out of the life of his young disciple, he left behind him as a present a tame and fangless viper, which George often carried with him on his walks. It was this well-meaning and inoffensive viper that turned aside the wrath of Gypsy Smith, {12a} and awakened in his heart a superstitious awe and veneration for the child, the Sap-engro, who might be a goblin, but who certainly would make a most admirable "clergyman and God Almighty," who read from a book that contained the kind of prayers particularly to his taste--perhaps the greatest encomium ever bestowed upon the immortal Robinson Crusoe. Thus it came about that George Borrow was proclaimed brother to the gypsy's son Ambrose, {12b} who as Jasper Petulengro figures so largely in Lavengro and The Romany Rye, and is credited with that exquisitely phrased pagan glorification of mere existence:

"Life is sweet, brother . . . There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise the wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?" {13a}

The Borrows were nomads, permitted by God and the king to tarry not over long in any one place. In the following July (1811) the West Norfolks proceeded to Colchester via Norfolk, after fifteen months of prison duty and straw-plait destroying. {13b} Captain Borrow betook himself to East Dereham again to seek for likely recruits. In the meantime George made his first acquaintance with that universal specific for success in life, for correctness of conduct, for soundness of principles--Lilly's Latin Grammar, which to learn by heart was to acquire a virtue that defied evil. The good old pedagogue who advocated Lilly's Latin Grammar as a remedy for all ills, would have traced George Borrow's eventual success in life entirely to the fact that within three years of the date that the solemn exhortation was pronounced the boy had learned Lilly by heart, although without in the least degree comprehending him.

Early in 1812 the regiment turned its head north, and by slow degrees, with occasional counter marchings, continued to progress towards Edinburgh, which was reached thirteen months later (6th April 1813). "With drums beating, colours flying, and a long train of baggage-waggons behind," {13c} the West Norfolk Militia wound its way up the hill to the Castle, the adjutant's family in a chaise forming part of the procession. There in barracks the regiment might rest itself after long and weary marches, and the two young sons of the adjutant be permitted to continue their studies at the High School, without the probability that the morrow would see them on the road to somewhere else.

Whilst at Edinburgh George met with his first experience of racial feeling, which, under uncongenial conditions, develops into race- hatred. He discovered that one English boy, when faced by a throng of young Scots patriots, had best be silent as to the virtues of his own race. He joined in and enjoyed the fights between the "Auld and the New Toon," and incidentally acquired a Scots accent that somewhat alarmed his loyal father, who had named him after the Hanoverian Georges. Proving himself a good fighter, he earned the praise of his Scots acquaintances, and a general invitation to assist them in their "bickers" with "thae New Toon blackguards."

He loved to climb and clamber over the rocks, peeping into "all manner of strange crypts, crannies, and recesses, where owls nestled and the weasel brought forth her young." He would go out on all-day excursions, enjoying the thrills of clambering up to what appeared to be inaccessible ledges, until eventually he became an expert cragsman. One day he came upon David Haggart {14a} sitting on the extreme verge of a precipice, "thinking of Willie Wallace."

For fifteen months the regiment remained at Edinburgh. In the spring of 1814 the waning star of Napoleon had, to all appearances, set, and he was on his way to his miniature kingdom, the Isle of Elba (28th April). Europe commenced to disband its huge armies, Great Britain among the rest. On 21st June the West Norfolks received orders to proceed to Norwich by ship via Leith and Great Yarmouth. The Government, relieved of all apprehension of an invasion, had time to think of the personal comfort of the country's defenders. With marked consideration, the orders provided that those who wished might march instead of embarking on the sea. Accordingly Captain Borrow and his family chose the land route. Arrived at Norwich, the regiment was formally disbanded amid great festivity. The officers, at the Maid's Head, the queen of East Anglian inns, and the men in the spacious market-place, drank to the king's health and peace. The regiment was formally mustered out on 19th July.

The Borrows took up their quarters at the Crown and Angel in St Stephen's Street, a thoroughfare that connects the main roads from Ipswich and Newmarket with the city. George, now eleven years old, had an opportunity of continuing his education at the Norwich Grammar School, whilst his brother proceeded to study drawing and painting with a "little dark man with brown coat . . . and top-boots, whose name will one day be considered the chief ornament of the old town," {15a} and whose works are to "rank among the proudest pictures of England,"--the Norwich painter, "Old Crome." {15b}

Whilst the two boys were thus occupied, Louis XVIII. was endeavouring to reorder his kingdom, and on a little island in the Mediterranean, Napoleon was preparing a bombshell that was to shatter the peace of Europe and send Captain Borrow hurrying hither and thither in search of the men who, a few months before, had left the colours, convinced that a generation of peace was before them.

On 1st March Napoleon was at Cannes; eighteen days later Louis XVIII. fled from Paris. Everywhere there were feverish preparations for war. John Borrow threw aside pencil and brush and was gazetted ensign in his father's regiment (29th May). Europe united against the unexpected and astonishing danger. By the time Captain Borrow had finished his task, however, the crisis was past, Waterloo had been won and Napoleon was on his way to St Helena.

By a happy inspiration it was decided to send the West Norfolks to Ireland, where "disturbances were apprehended" and private stills flourished. On 31st August the regiment, some eight hundred strong, sailed in two vessels from Harwich for Cork, the passage occupying eight days. The ship that carried the Borrows was old and crazy, constantly missing stays and shipping seas, until it seemed that only by a miracle she escaped "from being dashed upon the foreland."

After a few days' rest at Cork, the "city of contradictions," where wealth and filth jostled one another in the public highways and "boisterous shouts of laughter were heard on every side," the regiment marched off in two divisions for Clonmel in Tipperary. Walking beside his father, who was in command of the second division, and holding on to his stirrup-leather, George found a new country opening out before him. On one occasion, as they were passing through a village of low huts, "that seemed to be inhabited solely by women and children," he went up to an old beldam who sat spinning at the door of one of the hovels and asked for some water. She "appeared to consider for a moment, then tottering into her hut, presently reappeared with a small pipkin of milk, which she offered . . . with a trembling hand." When the lad tendered payment she declined the money, and patted his face, murmuring some unintelligible words. Obviously there was nothing in the boy's nature now that appeared strange to simple-minded folk. Probably the intercourse with other boys at Edinburgh and Norwich had been beneficial in its effect. Keenly interested in everything around him, George fell to speculating as to whether he could learn Irish and speak to the people in their own tongue.

At Clonmel the Borrows lodged with an Orangeman, who had run out of his house as the Adjutant rode by at the head of his men, and proceeded to welcome him with flowery volubility. On the advice of his host Captain Borrow sent George to a Protestant school, where he met the Irish boy Murtagh, who figures so largely in Lavengro and The Romany Rye. Murtagh settled any doubts that Borrow may have had as to his ability to acquire Erse, by teaching it to him in exchange for a pack of cards.

On 23rd December 1815 Ensign John Thomas Borrow was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he being then in his sixteenth year. In the following January, after only a few months' stay, the West Norfolks were moved on to Templemore. It was here that George learned to ride, and that without a saddle, and had awakened in him that "passion for the equine race" that never left him. {17a}

The nine months spent in Ireland left an indelible mark upon Borrow's imagination. In later life he repeatedly referred to his knowledge of the country, its people, and their language. In overcoming the difficulties of Erse, he had opened up for himself a larger prospect than was to be enjoyed by a traveller whose first word of greeting or enquiry is uttered in a hated tongue.

On 11th May 1816 the West Norfolk Militia was back again at Norwich. Peace was now finally restored to Europe, and every nation was far too impoverished, both as regards men and money, to nourish any schemes of aggression. Napoleon was safe at St Helena, under the eye of that instinctive gaoler, Sir Hudson Lowe. The army had completed its work and was being disbanded with all possible speed. The turn of the West Norfolk Militia came on 17th June, when they were formally mustered out for the second time within two years. Three years later their Adjutant was retired upon full-pay--eight shillings a day.


The Life of George Borrow - 3/90

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