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- The Life of George Borrow - 6/90 -

society the place afforded." {33c} He was much impressed by Borrow's extraordinary memory and power of concentration. Speaking one day of the different degrees of intelligence in men he said:- "I cannot give you a better example to explain my meaning than my two pupils (there was another named Cooke, who was said to be 'a genius in his way'); what I tell Borrow once he ever remembers; whilst to the fellow Cooke I have to repeat the same thing twenty times, often without effect; and it is not from want of memory either, but he will never be a linguist." {33d}

To a correspondent Taylor wrote:-

"A Norwich young man is construing with me Schiller's Wilhelm Tell, with the view of translating it for the press. His name is George Henry Borrow, and he has learnt German with extraordinary rapidity; indeed, he has the gift of tongues, and, though not yet eighteen, understands twelve languages--English, Welsh, Erse, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; he would like to get into the Office for Foreign Affairs, but does not know how." {34a}

This was in 1821; two years later Borrow is said to have "translated with fidelity and elegance from twenty different languages." {34b} In spite of his later achievements in learning languages, it seems scarcely credible that he acquired eight separate languages in two years, although it must be remembered that with him the learning of a language was to be able to read it after a rather laborious fashion. Taylor, however, uses the words "facility and elegance."

In the autobiographical notes that Borrow supplied to Mr John Longe in 1862 there appears the following passage:-

"At the expiration of his clerkship he knew little of the law, but he was well versed in languages, being not only a good Greek and Latin scholar, but acquainted with French, Italian, Spanish, all the Celtic and Gothic dialects, and likewise with the peculiar language of the English Romany Chals or gypsies."

At William Taylor's table Borrow met "the most intellectual and talented men of Norwich, as also those of note who visited the city." {34c} Taylor was much interested in young men, into whose minds he did not hesitate to instil his own ideas, ideas that not only earned for him the name of "Godless Billy," but outraged his respectable fellow-citizens as much as did his intemperate habits. "His face was terribly bloated from drink, and he had a look as if his intellect was almost as much decayed as his body," wrote a contemporary. {35a} "Matters grew worse in his old age," says Harriet Martineau, "when his habits of intemperance kept him out of the sight of ladies, and he got round him a set of ignorant and conceited young men, who thought they could set the whole world right by their destructive propensities. One of his chief favourites was George Borrow." {35b} Borrow has given the following convincing picture of Taylor:

"Methought I was in a small, comfortable room wainscotted with oak; I was seated on one side of a fireplace, close by a table on which were wine and fruit; on the other side of the fire sat a man in a plain suit of brown, with the hair combed back from the somewhat high forehead; he had a pipe in his mouth, which for some time he smoked gravely and placidly, without saying a word; at length, after drawing at the pipe for some time rather vigorously, he removed it from his mouth, and emitting an accumulated cloud of smoke, he exclaimed in a slow and measured tone: 'As I was telling you just now, my good chap, I have always been an enemy of humbug.'" {35c}

William Taylor appears to have flattered "the harum-scarum young men" with whom he surrounded himself by talking to them as if they were his intellectual equals. He encouraged them to form their own opinions, in itself a thing scarcely likely to make him popular with either parents or guardians, least of all with discipline-loving Captain Borrow, who declined even to return the salute of his son's friend on the public highway.

Borrow now began to look to the future and speculate as to what his present life would lead to. His cogitations seem to have ended, almost invariably, in a gloomy mist of pessimism and despair--in other words, an attack of the "Horrors." If Mr Petulengro were encamped upon Mousehold, the antidote lay near to hand in his friend's pagan optimism; if, on the other hand, the tents of Egypt were pitched on other soil, there was no remedy, unless perhaps a prize-fight supplied the necessary stimulus to divert his thoughts from their melancholy trend.

Borrow met at the house of his tutor and friend, in July 1821, Dr Bowring {36a} (afterwards Sir John) at a dinner given in his honour. Bowring had recently published Specimen of Russian Poets, in recognition of which the Czar (Alexander I.) had presented him with a diamond ring. He had a considerable reputation as a linguist, which naturally attracted Borrow to him. Dr Bowring was told of Borrow's accomplishments, and during the evening took a seat beside him. Borrow confessed to being "a little frightened at first" of the distinguished man, whom he described as having "a thin weaselly figure, a sallow complexion, a certain obliquity of vision, and a large pair of spectacles." It would be dangerous to accept entirely the account that Borrow gives of the meeting, {36b} because when that was written he had come to hate and despise the man whom he had begun by regarding with such awe. Bowring appears to have ventilated his views with some freedom, and to have had a rather serious passage of arms with another guest whom he had rudely contradicted. It is very probable that Borrow's dislike of Bowring prompted him to exaggerate his account of what happened at Taylor's house that evening.

Whilst Borrow was industriously occupied in collecting vagabonds and imbibing the dangerous beliefs of William Taylor, there sat in an easy-chair in the small front-parlour of the little house in Willow Lane, in a faded regimental coat, a prematurely old man, whose frame still showed signs of the magnificent physique of his vigorous manhood. "Sometimes in prayer, sometimes in meditation, and sometimes in reading the Scriptures," with his dog beside him, Captain Thomas Borrow, now sixty-five, was preparing for the end that he felt to be approaching. He frequently meditated upon what was to become of his younger son George, who held his father in such awe as to feel ill at ease when alone with him.

One day the inevitable interrogation took place. "What do you propose to do?" and the equally inevitable reply followed, "I really do not know what I shall do." In the course of a somewhat lengthy cross-examination, Captain Borrow discovered that his son knew the Armenian tongue, for which he very cunningly strove to enlist his father's interest by telling him that in Armenia was Mount Ararat, whereon the ark rested. Captain Borrow also discovered that his son could not only shoe a horse, but also make the shoes; but, what was most important, he found that George had learned "very little" law. When asked if he thought he could support himself by Armenian or his "other acquirements," the younger man was not very hopeful, and horrified the old soldier by suggesting that if all else failed there was always suicide.

The dying man was thus left to yearn for the return of his elder son, in whom all his hopes lay centred. John appears to have been by no means dutiful to his parents in the matter of letters. For six months he left them unacquainted even with his address in Paris, where he was still copying Old Masters in the Louvre.

After their talk the father and younger son seem to have come to a better understanding. George would frequently read aloud from the Bible, whilst Captain Borrow would tell about his early life. His son "had no idea that he knew and had seen so much; my respect for him increased, and I looked upon him almost with admiration. His anecdotes were in general highly curious; some of them related to people in the highest stations, and to men whose names are closely connected with some of the brightest glories of our native land." {38a}

At last John arrived, apparently a little disillusioned with the world; but the coming of his favourite son produced no change for the better in Captain Borrow s health. He was content and happy that God had granted his wish. There remained nothing now to do but "to bless my little family and go." George learned "that it is possible to feel deeply and yet make no outward sign."

The end came on the morning of 28th February 1824. It was by a strange chance that the old man should die in the arms of his younger son, who had run down on hearing his mother's anguished screams. Borrow has given a dramatic account of his father's last moments:-

"At the dead hour of night, it might be about two, I was awakened from sleep by a cry which sounded from the room immediately below that in which I slept. I knew the cry, it was the cry of my mother, and I also knew its import; yet I made no effort to rise, for I was for the moment paralysed. Again the cry sounded, yet still I lay motionless--the stupidity of horror was upon me. A third time, and it was then that, by a violent effort bursting the spell which appeared to bind me, I sprang from the bed and rushed downstairs. My mother was running wildly about the room; she had awoke and found my father senseless in the bed by her side. I essayed to raise him, and after a few efforts supported him in the bed in a sitting posture. My brother now rushed in, and snatching a light that was burning, he held it to my father's face. 'The surgeon, the surgeon!' he cried; then dropping the light, he ran out of the room followed by my mother; I remained alone, supporting the senseless form of my father; the light had been extinguished by the fall, and an almost total darkness reigned in the room. The form pressed heavily against my bosom--at last methought it moved. Yes, I was right, there was a heaving of the breast, and then a gasping. Were those words which I heard? Yes, they were words, low and indistinct at first, and then audible. The mind of the dying man was reverting to former scenes. I heard him mention names which I had often heard him mention before. It was an awful moment; I felt stupified, but I still contrived to support my dying father. There was a pause, again my father spoke: I heard him speak of Minden, and of Meredith, the old Minden sergeant, and then he uttered another name, which at one period of his life was much on his lips, the name of--but this is a solemn moment! There was a deep gasp: I shook, and thought all was over; but I was mistaken--my father moved and revived for a moment; he supported himself in bed without my assistance. I make no doubt that for a moment he was perfectly sensible, and it was then that, clasping his hands, he uttered another name clearly, distinctly--it was the name of Christ. With that name upon his lips, the brave old soldier sank back upon my bosom, and, with his hands still clasped, yielded up his soul." {39a}


The Life of George Borrow - 6/90

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