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CHAPTER I Captain Borrow of the West Norfolk Militia
 George Henry Borrow was born at Dumpling Green near East Dereham, Norfolk, on the 5th of July, 1803.  It pleased him to state on many an occasion that he was born at East Dereham.  
On an evening of July, in the year 18—, at East D—, a beautiful little town in a certain district of East Anglia, I first saw the light,
he writes in the opening lines of Lavengro, using almost the identical phraseology that we find in the opening lines of Goethe’s Wahrheit und Dichtung.  Here is a later memory of Dereham from Lavengro:
What it is at present I know not, for thirty years and more have elapsed since I last trod its streets.  It will scarcely have improved, for how could it be better than it was?  I love to think on thee, pretty, quiet D—, thou pattern of an English country town, with thy clean but narrow streets branching out from thy modest market-place, with their old-fashioned houses, with here and there a roof of venerable thatch1, with thy one half-aristocratic mansion2, where resided the Lady Bountiful—she, the generous and kind, who loved to visit the sick, leaning on her golden-headed cane3, while the sleek4 old footman walked at a respectful distance behind.  Pretty, quiet D—, with thy venerable church, in which moulder5 the mortal remains6 of England’s sweetest and most pious7 bard8.
Then follows an exquisite9 eulogy10 of the poet Cowper, which readers of Lavengro know full well.  Three years before p. 8Borrow was born William Cowper died in this very town, leaving behind him so rich a legacy11 of poetry and of prose, and moreover so fragrant12 a memory of a life in which humour and pathos13 played an equal part.  It was no small thing for a youth who aspired14 to any kind of renown15 to be born in the neighbourhood of the last resting-place of the author of The Task.
Yet Borrow was not actually born at East Dereham, but a mile and a half away, at the little hamlet of Dumpling Green, in what was then a glorious wilderness16 of common and furze bush, but is now a quiet landscape of fields and hedges.  You will find the home in which the author of Lavengro first saw the light without much difficulty.  It is a fair-sized farmhouse17, with a long low frontage separated from the road by a considerable strip of garden.  It suggests a prosperous yeoman class, and I have known farm-houses in East Anglia not one whit18 larger dignified19 by the name of “hall.”  Nearly opposite is a pond.  The trim hedges are a delight to us to-day, but you must cast your mind back to a century ago when they were entirely20 absent.  The house belonged to George Borrow’s maternal21 grandfather, Samuel Perfrement, who farmed the adjacent land at this time.  Samuel and Mary Perfrement had eight children, the third of whom, Ann, was born in 1772.
In February, 1793, Ann Perfrement, aged22 twenty-one, married Thomas Borrow, aged thirty-five, in the Parish Church of East Dereham, and of the two children that were born to them George Henry Borrow was the younger.  Thomas Borrow was the son of one John Borrow of St. Cleer in Cornwall, who died before this child was born, and is described by his grandson as the scion23 “of an ancient but reduced Cornish family, tracing descent from the de Burghs, and entitled to carry their arms.”
When Thomas Borrow was born the family were nothing more than small farmers, and Thomas Borrow and his brothers were working on the land in the intervals25 of attending the parish school.  At the age of eighteen Thomas was apprenticed26 to a maltster at Liskeard, and about this time he joined the local Militia27.  Tradition has it that his career as a maltster was cut short by his knocking his master down in a scrimmage.  The victor fled from the scene of his prowess, and enlisted28 as a private soldier in the Coldstream Guards.  p. 9This was in 1783, and in 1792 he was transferred to the West Norfolk Militia; hence his appearance at East Dereham, where, now a serjeant, his occupations for many a year were recruiting and drilling.  It is recorded that at a theatrical29 performance at East Dereham he first saw, presumably on the stage of the county-hall, his future wife—Ann Perfrement.  She was, it seems, engaged in a minor30 part in a travelling company, not, we may assume, altogether with the sanction of her father, who, in spite of his inheritance of French blood, doubtless shared the then very strong English prejudice against the stage.  However, Ann was one of eight children, and had, as we shall find in after years, no inconsiderable strength of character, and so may well at twenty years of age have decided31 upon a career for herself.  In any case we need not press too hard the Cornish and French origin of George Borrow to explain his wandering tendencies, nor need we wonder at the suggestion of Nathaniel Hawthorne, that he was “supposed to be of gypsy descent by the mother’s side.”  You have only to think of the father, whose work carried him from time to time to every corner of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of the mother with her reminiscence of life in a travelling theatrical company, to explain in no small measure the glorious vagabondage of George Borrow.
Behold32 then Thomas Borrow and Ann Perfrement as man and wife, he being thirty-five years of age, she twenty-one.  A roving, restless life was in front of the pair for many a day, the West Norfolk Militia being stationed in some eight or nine separate towns within the interval24 of ten years between Thomas Borrow’s marriage and his second son’s birth.  The first child, John Thomas Borrow, was born on the 15th April, 1801.  The second son, George Henry Borrow, the subject of this memoir33, was born in his grandfather’s house at Dumpling Green, East Dereham, his mother having found a natural refuge with her father while her husband was busily recruiting in Norfolk.  The two children passed with their parents from place to place, and in 1809 we find them once again in East Dereham.  From his son’s two books, Lavengro and Wild Wales, we can trace the father’s later wanderings until his final retirement34 to Norwich on a pension.  In 1810 the family were at Norman Cross in Huntingdonshire, when Captain Borrow had to assist in p. 10guarding the French prisoners of war; for it was the stirring epoch35 of the Napoleonic conflict, and within the temporary prison “six thousand French and other foreigners, followers36 of the Grand Corsican, were now immured37.”
What a strange appearance had those mighty38 casernes, with their blank blind walls, without windows, or grating, and their slanting39 roofs, out of which, through orifices where the tiles had been removed, would be protruded40 dozens of grim heads, feasting their prison-sick eyes on the wide expanse of country unfolded from that airy height.  Ah! there was much misery41 in those casernes; and from those roofs, doubtless, many a wistful look was turned in the direction of lovely France.  Much had the poor inmates42 to endure, and much to complain of, to the disgrace of England be it said—of England, in general so kind and bountiful.  Rations43 of carrion44 meat, and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away, were unworthy entertainment even for the most ruffian enemy, when helpless and a captive; and such, alas45! was the fare in those casernes.
But here we have only to do with Thomas Borrow, of whom we get many a quaint46 glimpse in Lavengro, our first and our last being concerned with him in the one quality that his son seems to have inherited, as the associate of a prize-fighter—Big Ben Brain.  Borrow records in his opening chapter that Ben Brain and his father met in Hyde Park probably in 1790, and that after an hour’s conflict “the champions shook hands and retired47, each having experienced quite enough of the other’s prowess.”  Borrow further relates that four months afterwards Brain “died in the arms of my father, who read to him the Bible in his last moments.”  More than once in his after years the old soldier seems to have had a shy pride in that early conflict, although the piety48 which seems to have come to him with the responsibilities of wife and children led him to count any recalling of the episode as a “temptation.”  When Borrow was about thirteen years of age, he overheard his father and mother discussing their two boys, the elder being the father’s favourite and George the mother’s:
“I will hear nothing against my first-born,” said my father, “even in the way of insinuation: he is my joy and pride; the very image of myself in my youthful days, long before I fought Big Ben, though perhaps not quite so tall or strong built.  As for the other, God bless the child!  I love him, I’m sure; but I must be blind not to see the difference between him and his brother.  Why, he has neither my hair nor my eyes; and then p. 11his countenance49! why, ’tis absolutely swarthy, God forgive me! I had almost said like that of a gypsy, but I have nothing to say against that; the boy is not to be blamed for the colour of his face, nor for his hair and eyes; but, then, his ways and manners!—I confess I do not like them, and that they give me no little uneasiness.” [11a]
Borrow throughout his narrative50 refers to his father as “a man of excellent common sense,” and he quotes the opinion of William Taylor, who had rather a bad reputation as a “freethinker” with all the church-going citizens of Norwich, with no little pride.  Borrow is of course the “young man” of the dialogue.  He was then eighteen years of age:
“Not so, not so,” said the young man eagerly; “before I knew you I knew nothing, and am still very ignorant; but of late my father’s health has been very much broken, and he requires attention; his spirits also have become low, which, to tell you the truth, he attributes to my misconduct.  He says that I have imbibed51 all kinds of strange notions and doctrines52, which will, in all probability, prove my ruin, both here and hereafter; which—which—”
“Ah!  I understand,” said the elder, with another calm whiff.  “I have always had a kind of respect for your father, for there is something remarkable53 in his appearance, something heroic, and I would fain have cultivated his acquaintance; the feeling, however, has not been reciprocated54.  I met him the other day, up the road, with his cane and dog, and saluted55 him; he did not return my salutation.”
“He has certain opinions of his own,” said the youth, “which are widely different from those which he has heard that you profess56.”
“I respect a man for entertaining an opinion of his own,” said the elderly individual.  “I hold certain opinions; but I should not respect an individual the more for adopting them.  All I wish for is tolerance57, which I myself endeavour to practise.  I have always loved the truth, and sought it; if I have not found it, the greater my misfortune.” [11b]
When Borrow is twenty years of age we have another glimpse of father and son, the father in his last illness, the son eager as usual to draw out his parent upon the one subject that appeals to his adventurous58 spirit, “I should like to know something about Big Ben,” he says:
“You are a strange lad,” said my father; “and though of late I have begun to entertain a more favourable59 opinion than heretofore, there is still much about you that I do not understand.  p. 12Why do you bring up that name?  Don’t you know that it is one of my temptations?  You wish to know something about him?  Well, I will oblige you this once, and then farewell to such vanities—something about him.  I will tell you—his—skin when he flung off his clothes—and he had a particular knack60 in doing so—his skin, when he bared his mighty chest and back for combat; and when he fought he stood, so if I remember right—his skin, I say, was brown and dusky as that of a toad61.  Oh me!  I wish my elder son was here!”
Concerning the career of Borrow’s father there seem to be no documents other than one contained in Lavengro, yet no Life of Borrow can possibly be complete that does not draw boldly upon the son’s priceless tributes.  And so we come now to the last scene in the career of the elder Borrow—his death-bed—which is also the last page of the first volume of Lavengro.  George Borrow’s brother has arrived from abroad.  The little house in Willow62 Lane, Norwich, contained the mother and her two sons sorrowfully awaiting the end, which came on 28th February, 1824.
At the dead hour of night—it might be about two—I was awakened63 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 bind64 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 posture65.  My brother now rushed in, and, snatching up 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 reigned66 in the room.  The form pressed heavily against my bosom67; at last methought it moved.  Yes, I was right; there was a heaving of the breast, and then a gasping69.  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 reverting70 to former scenes.  I heard him mention names which I had often heard him mention before.  It was an awful moment; I felt stupefied, but I still contrived71 to support my dying father.  There was a pause; again my father spoke72: I heard him speak of Minden, and of Meredith, the old Minden Serjeant, and then he uttered another name, which at one period p. 13of his life was much on his lips, the name of —; but this is a solemn moment!  There was a deep gasp68: 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 perfectly73 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.
Did Borrow’s father ever really fight Big Ben Brain or Bryan in Hyde Park, or is it all a fantasy of the artist’s imagining?  We shall never know.  Borrow called his Lavengro “An Autobiography” at one stage of its inception74, although he wished to repudiate75 the autobiographical nature of his story at another.  Dr. Knapp in his anxiety to prove that Borrow wrote his own memoirs76 in Lavengro and Romany Rye tells us that he had no creative faculty—an absurd proposition.  But I think we may accept the contest between Ben Brain and Thomas Borrow, and what a revelation of heredity that impressive death-bed scene may be counted.  Borrow on one occasion in later life declared that his favourite books were the Bible and the Newgate Calendar.  We know that he specialised on the Bible and Prize-Fighting in no ordinary fashion—and here we see his father on his death-bed struggling between the religious sentiments of his maturity77 and the one great worldly escapade of his early manhood.

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