It is a long jump from Samuel Pepys to George Borrow--from one pole of the human character to the other--and yet they are in contact on the shelf of my favourite authors. There is something wonderful, I think, about the land of Cornwall. That long peninsula extending out into the ocean has caught all sorts of strange floating things, and has held them there in isolation until they have woven themselves into the texture of the Cornish race. What is this strange strain which lurks down yonder and every now and then throws up a great man with singular un-English ways and features for all the world to marvel at? It is not Celtic, nor is it the dark old Iberian. Further and deeper lie the springs. Is it not Semitic, Phoenician, the roving men of Tyre, with noble Southern faces and Oriental imaginations, who have in far-off days forgotten their blue Mediterranean and settled on the granite shores of the Northern Sea?
Whence came the wonderful face and great personality of Henry Irving? How strong, how beautiful, how un-Saxon it was! I only know that his mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came the intense glowing imagination of the Brontes--so unlike the Miss-Austen-like calm of their predecessors? Again, I only know that their mother was a Cornish woman. Whence came this huge elfin creature, George Borrow, with his eagle head perched on his rocklike shoulders, brown-faced, white-headed, a king among men? Where did he get that remarkable face, those strange mental gifts, which place him by himself in literature? Once more, his father was a Cornishman. Yes, there is something strange, and weird, and great, lurking down yonder in the great peninsula which juts into the western sea. Borrow may, if he so pleases, call himself an East Anglian--"an English Englishman," as he loved to term it--but is it a coincidence that the one East Anglian born of Cornish blood was the one who showed these strange qualities? The birth was accidental. The qualities throw back to the twilight of the world.
There are some authors from whom I shrink because they are so voluminous that I feel that, do what I may, I can never hope to be well read in their works. Therefore, and very weakly, I avoid them altogether. There is Balzac, for example, with his hundred odd volumes. I am told that some of them are masterpieces and the rest pot-boilers, but that no one is agreed which is which. Such an author makes an undue claim upon the little span of mortal years. Because he asks too much one is inclined to give him nothing at all. Dumas, too! I stand on the edge of him, and look at that huge crop, and content myself with a sample here and there. But no one could raise this objection to Borrow. A month's reading--even for a leisurely reader--will master all that he has written. There are "Lavengro," "The Bible in Spain," "Romany Rye," and, finally, if you wish to go further, "Wild Wales." Only four books--not much to found a great reputation upon--but, then, there are no other four books quite like them in the language.
He was a very strange man, bigoted, prejudiced, obstinate, inclined to be sulky, as wayward as a man could be. So far his catalogue of qualities does not seem to pick him as a winner. But he had one great and rare gift. He preserved through all his days a sense of the great wonder and mystery of life--the child sense which is so quickly dulled. Not only did he retain it himself, but he was word-master enough to make other people hark back to it also. As he writes you cannot help seeing through his eyes, and nothing which his eyes saw or his ear heard was ever dull or commonplace. It was all strange, mystic, with some deeper meaning struggling always to the light. If he chronicled his conversation with a washer-woman there was something arresting in the words he said, something singular in her reply. If he met a man in a public-house one felt, after reading his account, that one would wish to know more of that man. If he approached a town he saw and made you see--not a collection of commonplace houses or frowsy streets, but something very strange and wonderful, the winding river, the noble bridge, the old castle, the shadows of the dead. Every human being, every object, was not so much a thing in itself, as a symbol and reminder of the past. He looked through a man at that which the man represented. Was his name Welsh? Then in an instant the individual is forgotten and he is off, dragging you in his train, to ancient Britons, intrusive Saxons, unheard-of bards, Owen Glendower, mountain raiders and a thousand fascinating things. Or is it a Danish name? He leaves the individual in all his modern commonplace while he flies off to huge skulls at Hythe (in parenthesis I may remark that I have examined the said skulls with some care, and they seemed to me to be rather below the human average), to Vikings, Berserkers, Varangians, Harald Haardraada, and the innate wickedness of the Pope. To Borrow all roads lead to Rome.
But, my word, what English the fellow could write! What an organ-roll he could get into his sentences! How nervous and vital and vivid it all is!
There is music in every line of it if you have been blessed with an ear for the music of prose. Take the chapter in "Lavengro" of how the screaming horror came upon his spirit when he was encamped in the Dingle. The man who wrote that has caught the true mantle of Bunyan and Defoe. And, observe the art of it, under all the simplicity--notice, for example, the curious weird effect produced by the studied repetition of the word "dingle" coming ever round and round like the master-note in a chime. Or take the passage about Britain towards the end of "The Bible in Spain." I hate quoting from these masterpieces, if only for the very selfish reason that my poor setting cannot afford to show up brilliants. None the less, cost what it may, let me transcribe that one noble piece of impassioned prose--
Or take the fight with the Flaming Tinman. It's too long for quotation--but read it, read every word of it. Where in the language can you find a stronger, more condensed and more restrained narrative? I have seen with my own eyes many a noble fight, more than one international battle, where the best of two great countries have been pitted against each other--yet the second-hand impression of Borrow's description leaves a more vivid remembrance upon my mind than any of them. This is the real witchcraft of letters.
"O England! long, long may it be ere the sun of thy glory sink beneath the wave of darkness! Though gloomy and portentous clouds are now gathering rapidly around thee, still, still may it please the Almighty to disperse them, and to grant thee a futurity longer in duration and still brighter in renown than thy past! Or, if thy doom be at hand, may that doom be a noble one, and worthy of her who has been styled the Old Queen of the waters! May thou sink, if thou dost sink, amidst blood and flame, with a mighty noise, causing more than one nation to participate in thy downfall! Of all fates, may it please the Lord to preserve thee from a disgraceful and a slow decay; becoming, ere extinct, a scorn and a mockery for those self-same foes who now, though they envy and abhor thee, still fear thee, nay even against their will, honour and respect thee.... Remove from thee the false prophets, who have seen vanity and divined lies; who have daubed thy wall with untempered mortar, that it may fall; who see visions of peace where there is no peace; who have strengthened the hands of the wicked, and made the heart of the righteous sad. Oh, do this, and fear not the result, for either shall thy end be a majestic and an enviable one; or God shall perpetuate thy reign upon the waters, thou Old Queen!"
He was a great fighter himself. He has left a secure reputation in other than literary circles--circles which would have been amazed to learn that he was a writer of books. With his natural advantages, his six foot three of height and his staglike agility, he could hardly fail to be formidable. But he was a scientific sparrer as well, though he had, I have been told, a curious sprawling fashion of his own. And how his heart was in it--how he loved the fighting men! You remember his thumb-nail sketches of his heroes. If you don't I must quote one, and if you do you will be glad to read it again--
Those are words from the heart. Long may it be before we lose the fighting blood which has come to us from of old! In a world of peace we shall at last be able to root it from our natures. In a world which is armed to the teeth it is the last and only guarantee of our future. Neither our numbers, nor our wealth, nor the waters which guard us can hold us safe if once the old iron passes from our spirit. Barbarous, perhaps--but there are possibilities for barbarism, and none in this wide world for effeminacy.
"There's Cribb, the Champion of England, and perhaps the best man in England; there he is, with his huge, massive figure, and face wonderfully like that of a lion. There is Belcher, the younger, not the mighty one, who is gone to his place, but the Teucer Belcher, the most scientific pugilist that ever entered a ring, only wanting strength to be I won't say what. He appears to walk before me now, as he did that evening, with his white hat, white great coat, thin genteel figure, springy step, and keen determined eye. Crosses him, what a contrast! Grim, savage Shelton, who has a civil word for nobody, and a hard blow for anybody. Hard! One blow given with the proper play of his athletic arm will unsense a giant. Yonder individual, who strolls about with his hands behind him, supporting his brown coat lappets, undersized, and who looks anything but what he is, is the king of the light-weights, so-called--Randall! The terrible Randall, who has Irish blood in his veins; not the better for that, nor the worse; and not far from him is his last antagonist, Ned Turner, who, though beaten by him, still thinks himself as good a man, in which he is, perhaps, right, for it was a near thing. But how shall I name them all? They were there by dozens, and all tremendous in their way. There was Bulldog Hudson, and fearless Scroggins, who beat the conqueror of Sam the Jew. There was Black Richmond--no, he was not there, but I knew him well; he was the most dangerous of blacks, even with a broken thigh. There was Purcell, who could never conquer until all seemed over with him. There was--what! shall I name thee last? Ay, why not? I believe that thou art the last of all that strong family still above the sod, where mayst thou long continue--true piece of English stuff--Tom of Bedford. Hail to thee, Tom of Bedford, or by whatever name it may please thee to be called, Spring or Winter! Hail to thee, six-foot Englishman of the brown eye, worthy to have carried a six-foot bow at Flodden, where England's yeomen triumphed over Scotland's King, his clans and chivalry. Hail to thee, last of English bruisers, after all the many victories which thou hast achieved--true English victories, unbought by yellow gold."
Borrow's views of literature and of literary men were curious. Publisher and brother author, he hated them with a fine comprehensive hatred. In all his books I cannot recall a word of commendation to any living writer, nor has he posthumous praise for those of the generation immediately preceding. Southey, indeed, he commends with what most would regard as exaggerated warmth, but for the rest he who lived when Dickens, Thackeray, and Tennyson were all in their glorious prime, looks fixedly past them at some obscure Dane or forgotten Welshman. The reason was, I expect, that his proud soul was bitterly wounded by his own early failures and slow recognition. He knew himself to be a chief in the clan, and when the clan heeded him not he withdrew in haughty disdain. Look at his proud, sensitive face and you hold the key to his life.
Harking back and talking of pugilism, I recall an incident which gave me pleasure. A friend of mine read a pugilistic novel called "Rodney Stone" to a famous Australian prize-fighter, stretched upon a bed of mortal sickness. The dying gladiator listened with intent interest but keen, professional criticism to the combats of the novel. The reader had got to the point where the young amateur fights the brutal Berks. Berks is winded, but holds his adversary off with a stiff left arm. The amateur's second in the story, an old prize-fighter, shouts some advice to him as to how to deal with the situation. "That's right. By --- he's got him!" yelled the stricken man in the bed. Who cares for critics after that?
You can see my own devotion to the ring in that trio of brown volumes which stand, appropriately enough, upon the flank of Borrow. They are the three volumes of "Pugilistica," given me years ago by my old friend, Robert Barr, a mine in which you can never pick for half an hour without striking it rich. Alas! for the horrible slang of those days, the vapid witless Corinthian talk, with its ogles and its fogles, its pointless jokes, its maddening habit of italicizing a word or two in every sentence. Even these stern and desperate encounters, fit sports for the men of Albuera and Waterloo, become dull and vulgar, in that dreadful jargon. You have to tum to Hazlitt's account of the encounter between the Gasman and the Bristol Bull, to feel the savage strength of it all. It is a hardened reader who does not wince even in print before that frightful right-hander which felled the giant, and left him in "red ruin" from eyebrow to jaw. But even if there be no Hazlitt present to describe such a combat it is a poor imagination which is not fired by the deeds of the humble heroes who lived once so vividly upon earth, and now only appeal to faithful ones in these little-read pages. They were picturesque creatures, men of great force of character and will, who reached the limits of human bravery and endurance. There is Jackson on the cover, gold upon brown, "gentleman Jackson," Jackson of the balustrade calf and the noble head, who wrote his name with an 88-pound weight dangling from his little finger.
Here is a pen-portrait of him by one who knew him well--
"I can see him now as I saw him in '84 walking down Holborn Hill, towards Smithfield. He had on a scarlet coat worked in gold at the buttonholes, ruffles and frill of fine lace, a small white stock, no collar (they were not then invented), a looped hat with a broad black band, buff knee-breeches and long silk strings, striped white silk stockings, pumps and paste buckles; his waistcoat was pale blue satin, sprigged with white. It was impossible to look on his fine ample chest, his noble shoulders, his waist (if anything too small), his large but not too large hips, his balustrade calf and beautifully turned but not over delicate ankle, his firm foot and peculiarly small hand, without thinking that nature had sent him on earth as a model. On he went at a good five miles and a half an hour, the envy of all men and the admiration of all women."Now, that is a discriminating portrait--a portrait which really helps you to see that which the writer sets out to describe. After reading it one can understand why even in reminiscent sporting descriptions of those old days, amid all the Tonis and Bills and Jacks, it is always Mr. John Jackson. He was the friend and instructor of Byron and of half the bloods in town. Jackson it was who, in the heat of combat, seized the Jew Mendoza by the hair, and so ensured that the pugs for ever afterwards should be a close-cropped race. Inside you see the square face of old Broughton, the supreme fighting man of the eighteenth century, the man whose humble ambition it was to begin with the pivot man of the Prussian Guard, and work his way through the regiment. He had a chronicler, the good Captain Godfrey, who has written some English which would take some beating. How about this passage?--
"He stops as regularly as the swordsman, and carries his blows truly in the line; he steps not back distrusting of himself, to stop a blow, and puddle in the return, with an arm unaided by his body, producing but fly-flap blows. No! Broughton steps boldly and firmly in, bids a welcome to the coming blow; receives it with his guardian arm; then, with a general summons of his swelling muscles, and his firm body seconding his arm, and supplying it with all its weight, pours the pile-driving force upon his man."One would like a little more from the gallant Captain. Poor Broughton! He fought once too often. "Why, damn you, you're beat!" cried the Royal Duke. "Not beat, your highness, but I can't see my man!" cried the blinded old hero. Alas, there is the tragedy of the ring as it is of life! The wave of youth surges ever upwards, and the wave that went before is swept sobbing on to the shingle. "Youth will be served," said the terse old pugs. But what so sad as the downfall of the old champion! Wise Tom Spring--Tom of Bedford, as Borrow calls him--had the wit to leave the ring unconquered in the prime of his fame. Cribb also stood out as a champion. But Broughton, Slack, Belcher, and the rest--their end was one common tragedy.
The latter days of the fighting men were often curious and unexpected, though as a rule they were short-lived, for the alternation of the excess of their normal existence and the asceticism of their training undermined their constitution. Their popularity among both men and women was their undoing, and the king of the ring went down at last before that deadliest of light-weights, the microbe of tubercle, or some equally fatal and perhaps less reputable bacillus. The crockiest of spectators had a better chance of life than the magnificent young athlete whom he had come to admire. Jem Belcher died at 30, Hooper at 31, Pearce, the Game Chicken, at 32, Turner at 35, Hudson at 38, Randall, the Nonpareil, at 34. Occasionally, when they did reach mature age, their lives took the strangest turns. Gully, as is well known, became a wealthy man, and Member for Pontefract in the Reform Parliament. Humphries developed into a successful coal merchant. Jack Martin became a convinced teetotaller and vegetarian. Jem Ward, the Black Diamond, developed considerable powers as an artist. Cribb, Spring, Langan, and many others, were successful publicans. Strangest of all, perhaps, was Broughton, who spent his old age haunting every sale of old pictures and bric-a-brac. One who saw him has recorded his impression of the silent old gentleman, clad in old-fashioned garb, with his catalogue in his hand--Broughton, once the terror of England, and now the harmless and gentle collector.
Many of them, as was but natural, died violent deaths, some by accident and a few by their own hands. No man of the first class ever died in the ring. The nearest approach to it was the singular and mournful fate which befell Simon Byrne, the brave Irishman, who had the misfortune to cause the death of his antagonist, Angus Mackay, and afterwards met his own end at the hands of Deaf Burke. Neither Byrne nor Mackay could, however, be said to be boxers of the very first rank. It certainly would appear, if we may argue from the prize-ring, that the human machine becomes more delicate and is more sensitive to jar or shock. In the early days a fatal end to a fight was exceedingly rare. Gradually such tragedies became rather more common, until now even with the gloves they have shocked us by their frequency, and we feel that the rude play of our forefathers is indeed too rough for a more highly organized generation. Still, it may help us to clear our minds of cant if we remember that within two or three years the hunting-field and the steeple-chase claim more victims than the prize-ring has done in two centuries.
Many of these men had served their country well with that strength and courage which brought them fame. Cribb was, if I mistake not, in the Royal Navy. So was the terrible dwarf Scroggins, all chest and shoulders, whose springing hits for many a year carried all before them until the canny Welshman, Ned Turner, stopped his career, only to be stopped in turn by the brilliant Irishman, Jack Randall. Shaw, who stood high among the heavy-weights, was cut to pieces by the French Cuirassiers in the first charge at Waterloo. The brutal Berks died greatly in the breach of Badajos. The lives of these men stood for something, and that was just the one supreme thing which the times called for--an unflinching endurance which could bear up against a world in arms. Look at Jem Belcher--beautiful, heroic Jem, a manlier Byron--but there, this is not an essay on the old prize-ring, and one man's lore is another man's bore. Let us pass those three low-down, unjustifiable, fascinating volumes, and on to nobler topics beyond!