"It cannot be done. People really would not stand it. I know because I have
tried."--Extract from an unpublished paper upon George Borrow and his writings.
Yes, I tried and my experience may interest other people. You must imagine,
then, that I am soaked in George Borrow, especially in his Lavengro and his
Romany Rye, that I have modelled both my thoughts, my speech and my style very
carefully upon those of the master, and that finally I set forth one summer day
actually to lead the life of which I had read. Behold me, then, upon the country
road which leads from the railway-station to the Sussex village of Swinehurst.
As I walked, I entertained myself by recollections of the founders of Sussex,
of Cerdic that mighty sea-rover, and of. Ella his son, said by the bard to be
taller by the length of a spear-head than the tallest of his fellows. I
mentioned the matter twice to peasants whom I met upon the road. One, a tallish
man with a freckled face, sidled past me and ran swiftly towards the station.
The other, a smaller and older man, stood entranced while I recited to him that
passage of the Saxon Chronicle which begins, "Then came Leija with longships
forty-four, and the fyrd went out against him." I was pointing out to him that
the Chronicle had been written partly by the monks of Saint Albans and
afterwards by those of Peterborough, but the fellow sprang suddenly over a gate
The village of Swinehurst is a straggling line of half-timbered houses of the
early English pattern. One of these houses stood, as I observed, somewhat taller
than the rest, and seeing by its appearance and by the sign which hung before it
that it was the village inn, I approached it, for indeed I had not broken my
fast since I had left London. A stoutish man, five foot eight perhaps in height,
with black coat and trousers of a greyish shade, stood outside, and to him I
talked in the fashion of the master.
"Why a rose and why a crown?" I asked as I pointed upwards.
He looked at me in a strange manner. The man's whole appearance was strange.
"Why not?" he answered, and shrank a little backwards.
"The sign of a king," said I.
"Surely," said he. "What else should we understand from a crown?"
"And which king?" I asked.
"You will excuse me," said he, and tried to pass. "Which king?" I repeated.
"How should I know?" he asked.
"You should know by the rose," said I, "which is the symbol of that
Tudor-ap-Tudor, who, coming from the mountains of Wales, yet seated his
posterity upon the English throne. Tudor," I continued, getting between the
stranger and the door of the inn, through which he appeared to be desirous of
passing, "was of the same blood as Owen Glendower, the famous chieftain, who is
by no means to be confused with Owen Gwynedd, the father of Madoc of the Sea, of
whom the bard made the famous cnylyn, which runs in the Welsh as follows:--"
I was about to repeat the famous stanza of Dafyddap-Gwilyn when the man, who
had looked very fixedly and strangely at me as I spoke, pushed past me and
entered the inn. "Truly," said I aloud, "it is surely Swinehurst to which I have
come, since the same means the grove of the hogs." So saying I followed the
fellow into the bar parlour, where I perceived him seated in a corner with a
large chair in front of him. Four persons of various degrees were drinking beer
at a central table, whilst a small man of active build, in a black, shiny suit,
which seemed to have seen much service, stood before the empty fireplace. Him I
took to be the landlord, and I asked him what I should have for my dinner.
He smiled, and said that he could not tell.
"But surely, my friend," said I, "you can tell me what is ready?"
"Even that I cannot do," he answered; "but I doubt not that the landlord can
inform us." On this he rang the bell, and a fellow answered, to whom I put the
"What would you have?" he asked.
I thought of the master, and I ordered a cold leg of pork to be washed down
with tea arid beer.
"Did you say tea aid beer?" asked the landlord. "I did."
"For twenty-five years have I been in business," said the landlord, "and
never before have I been asked for tea and beer."
"The gentleman is joking," said the man with the shining coat.
"Or else--" said the elderly man in the corner. "Or what, sir?" I asked.
"Nothing," said he--"nothing." There was something very strange in this man
in the corner--him to whom I had spoken of Dafydd-ap-Gwilyn.
"Then you are joking," said the landlord.
I asked him if he had read the works of my master, George Borrow. He said
that he had not. I told him that in those five volumes he would not, from cover
to cover, find one trace of any sort of a joke. He would also find that my
master drank tea and beer together. Now it happens that about tea I have read
nothing either in the sagas or in the bardic cnylynions, but, whilst the
landlord had departed to prepare my meal, I recitedto the company those
Icelandic stanzas which praise the beer of Gunnar, the long-haired son of Harold
the Bear. Then, lest the language should be unknown to some of them, I recited
my own translation, ending with the line--
"If the beer be small, then let the mug be large."
I then asked the company whether they went to church or to chapel. The
question surprised them, and especially the strange man in the corner, upon whom
I now fixed my eye. I had read his secret, and as I looked at him he tried to
shrink behind the clock-case.
"The church or the chapel?" I asked him.
"The church," he gasped.
"Which church?" I asked.
He shrank farther behind the clock. "I have never been so questioned," he cried.
I showed him that I knew his secret. "Rome was not built in a day," said I.
"He! He!" he cried. Then, as I turned away, he put his head from behind the
clock-case and tapped his forehead with his fore-finger. So also did the man
with the shiny coat, who stood before the empty fireplace.
Having eaten the cold leg of pork--where is there a better dish, save only
boiled mutton with capers?--and having drunk both the tea and the beer, I told
the company that such a meal had been called to box Harry by the master, who had
observed it to be in great favour with commercial gentlemen out of Liverpool.
With this information and a stanza or two from Lopez de Vega I left the Inn of
the Rose and Crown behind me, having first paid my reckoning. At the door the
landlord asked me for my name and address.
"And why?" I asked.
"Lest there should be inquiry for you," said the landlord.
"But why should they inquire for me?"
"Ah, who knows?" said the landlord, musing. And so I left him at the door of
the Inn of the Rose and Crown whence came, I observed, a great tumult of
laughter. "Assuredly," thought I, "Rome was not built in a day."
Having walked down the main street of Swinehurst, which, as I have observed,
consists of half-timbered buildings in the ancient style, I came out upon the
country road, and proceeded to look for those wayside adventures, which are,
according to the master, as thick as blackberries Tor those who seek them upon
an English highway. I had already received some boxing lessons before leaving
London, so it seemed to me that if I should chance to meet some traveller whose
size and age seemed such as to encourage the venture, I would ask him to strip
off his coat and settle any differences which we could find in the old English
fashion. I waited, therefore, by a stile for anyone who should chance to pass,
and it was while I stood there that the screaming horror came upon me, even as
it came upon the master in the dingle. I gripped the bar of the stile, which was
of good British oak. Oh, who can tell the terrors of the screaming horror! That
was what I thought as I grasped the oaken bar of the stile. Was it the beer--or
was it the tea? Or was it that the landlord was right and that other, the man
with the black, shiny coat, he who had answered the sign of the strange man in
the corner? But the master drank tea with beer. Yes, but the master also had the
screaming horror. All this I thought as I grasped the bar of British oak, which
was the top of the stile. Fora half an hour the horror was upon me. Then it
passed, and I was left feeling very weak and still grasping the oaken bar.
I had not moved from the stile, where I had been seized by the screaming
horror, when I heard the sound of steps behind me, and turning round I perceived
that a pathway led across the field upon the farther side of the stile. A woman
was coming towards me along this pathway, and it was evident to me that she was
one of those gipsy Rias, of whom the master has said so much. Looking beyond
her, I could see the smoke of a fire from a small dingle, which showed where her
tribe were camping. The woman herself was of a moderate height, neither tall nor
short, with a face which was much sunburned and freckled. I must confess that
she was not beautiful, but I do not think that anyone, save the master, has
found very beautiful women walking about upon the high-roads of England. Such as
she was I must make the best of her, and well I knew how to address her, for
many times had I admired the mixture of politeness and audacity which should be
used in such a case. Therefore, when the woman had come to the stile, I held out
my hand and helped her over.
"What says the Spanish poet Calderon?" said I. "I doubt not that you have
read the couplet which has been thus Englished:
Oh, maiden, may I humbly pray That I may help you on your way."
The woman blushed, but said nothing.
"Where," I asked, "are the Romany chals and the Romany chis?"
She turned her head away and was silent.
"Though I am a gorgio," said I, "I know something of the Romany lil," and to
prove it I sang the stanza--
"Coliko, coliko saulo wer Apopli to the farming ker Will wel and mang him
mullo, Will wel and mang his truppo."
The girl laughed, but said nothing. It appeared to me from her appearance
that she might be one of those who make a living at telling fortunes or
"dukkering," as the master calls it, at racecourses and other gatherings of the sort.
"Do you dukker?" I asked.
She slapped me on the arm. "Well, you are a pot of ginger!" said she.
I was pleased at the slap, for it put me in mind of the peerless Belle. "You
can use Long Melford," said I, an expression which, with the master, meant fighting.
Get along with your sauce "said she, and struck me again.
"You are a very fine young woman," said I, "and remind me of Grunelda, the
daughter of Hjalmar, who stole the golden bowl from the King of the Islands."
She seemed annoyed at this. "You keep a civil tongue, young man," said she.
"I meant no harm, Belle. I was but comparing you to one of whom the saga says
her eyes were like the shine of sun upon icebergs."
This seemed to please her, for she smiled. "My name ain't Belle," she said at last.
"What is your name?"
"The name of a queen," I said aloud.
"Go on," said the girl.
"Of Charles's queen," said I, "of whom Waller the poet (for the English also
have their poets, though in this respect far inferior to the Basques)--of whom,
I say, Waller the poet said:
"That she was Queen was the Creator's act, Belated man could but endorse the fact."
"I say!" cried the girl. "How you do go on!"
"So now," said I, "since I have shown you that you are a queen you will
surely give me a choomer "--this being a kiss in Romany talk.
"I'll give you one on the ear-hole," she cried.
"Then I will wrestle with you," said I. "If you should chance to put me down,
I will do penance by teaching you the Armenian alphabet--the very word alphabet,
as you will perceive, shows us that our letters came from Greece. If, on the
other hand, I should chance to put you down, you will give me a choomer."
I had got so far, and she was climbing the stile with some pretence of
getting away from me, when there came a van along the road, belonging, as I
discovered, to a baker in Swinehurst. The horse, which was of a brown colour,
was such as is bred in the New Forest, being somewhat under fifteen hands and of
a hairy, ill-kempt variety. As I know less than the master about horses, I will
say no more of this horse, save to repeat that its colour was brown--nor indeed
had the horse or the horse's colour anything to do with my narrative. I might
add, however, that it could either be taken as a small horse or as a large pony,
being somewhat tall for the one, but undersized for the other. I have now said
enough about this horse, which has nothing to do with my story, and I will turn
my attention to the driver.
This was a man with a broad, florid face and brown side-whiskers. He was of a
stout build and had rounded shoulders, with a small mole of a reddish colour
over his left eyebrow. His jacket was of velveteen, and he had large, iron-shod
boots, which were perched upon the splashboard in front of him. He pulled up the
van as he came up to the stile near which I was standing with the maiden who had
come from the dingle, and in a civil fashion he asked me if I could oblige him
with a light for his pipe. Then, as I drew a matchbox from my pocket, he threw
his reins over the splashboard, and removing his large, iron-shod boots he
descended on to the road. He was a burly man, but inclined to fat and scant of
breath. It seemed to me that it was a chance for one of those wayside boxing
adventures which were so common in the olden times. It was my intention that I
should fight the man, and that the maiden from the dingle standing by me should
tell me when to use my right or my left, as the case might be, picking me up
also in case I should be so unfortunate as to be knocked down by the man with
the iron-shod boots and the small mole of a reddish colour over his left eyebrow.
"Do you use Long Melford?" I asked.
He looked at me in some surprise, and said that any mixture was good enough for him.
"By Long Melford," said I, "I do not mean, as you seem to think, some form of
tobacco, but I mean that art and science of boxing which was held in such high
esteem by our ancestors, that some famous professors of it, such as the great
Gully, have been elected to the highest offices of the State. There were men of
the highest character amongst the bruisers of England, of whom I would
particularly mention Tom of Hereford, better known as Tom Spring, though his
father's name, as I have been given to understand, was Winter. This, however,
has nothing to do with the matter in hand, which is that you must fight me."
The man with the florid face seemed very much surprised at my words, so that
I cannot think that adventures of this sort were as common as I had been led by
the master to expect.
"Fight!" said he. "What about?"
"It is a good old English custom," said I, "by which we may determine which
is the better man."
"I've nothing against you," said he.
"Nor I against you," I answered. "So that we will fight for love, which was
an expression much used in olden days. It is narrated by Harold Sygvynson that
among the Danes it was usual to do so even with battle-axes, as is told in his
second set of runes. Therefore you will take off your coat and fight." As I
spoke, I stripped off my own.
The man's face was less florid than before. "I'm not going to fight," said he.
"Indeed you are," I answered, "and this young woman will doubtless do you the
service to hold your coat."
"You're clean balmy," said Henrietta.
"Besides," said I, "if you will not fight me for love, perhaps you will fight
me for this," and I held out a sovereign. "Will you hold his coat?" I said to Henrietta.
"I'll hold the thick 'un," said she.
"No, you don't," said the man, and put the sovereign into the pocket of his
trousers, which were of a corduroy material. "Now," said he, "what am I to do to earn this?"
"Fight," said I.
"How do you do it?" he asked.
"Put up your hands," I answered.
He put them up as I had said, and stood there in a sheepish manner with no
idea of anything further. It seemed to me that if I could make him angry he
would do better, so I knocked off his hat, which was black and hard, of the kind
which is called billy-cock.
"Heh, guv'nor!" he cried, "what are you up to?"
"That was to make you angry," said I.
"Well, I am angry," said he.
"Then here is your hat," said I, "and afterwards we shall fight."
I turned as I spoke to pick up his hat, which had rolled behind where I was
standing. As I stooped to reach it, I received such a blow that I could neither
rise erect nor yet sit down. This blow which I received as I stooped for his
billy-cock hat was not from his fist, but from his iron-shod boot, the same
which I had observed upon the splashboard. Being unable either to rise erect or
yet to sit down, I leaned upon the oaken bar of the stile and groaned loudly on
account of the pain of the blow which I had received. Even the screaming horror
had given me less pain than this blow from the iron-shod boot. When at last I
was able to stand erect, I found that the florid-faced man had driven away with
his cart, which could no longer be seen. The maiden from the dingle was standing
at the other side of the stile, and a ragged man was running across the field
from the direction of the fire.
"Why did you not warn me, Henrietta?" I asked.
"I hadn't time," said she. "Why were you such a chump as to turn your back on him like that?"
The ragged man had reached us, where I stood talking to Henrietta by the
stile. I will not try to write his conversation as he said it, because I have
observed that the master never condescends to dialect, but prefers by a word
introduced here and there to show the fashion of a man's speech. I will only say
that the man from the dingle spoke as did the Anglo-Saxons who were wont, as is
clearly shown by the venerable Bede, to call their leaders 'Enjist and 'Orsa,
two words which in their proper meaning signify a horse and a mare.
"What did he hit you for?" asked the man from the dingle. He was exceedingly
ragged, with a powerful frame, a lean brown face, and an oaken cudgel in his
hand. His voice was very hoarse and rough, as is the case with those who live in the open air.
"The bloke hit you," said he. "What did the bloke hit you for?"
"He asked him to," said Henrietta.
"Asked him to--asked him what?"
"Why, he asked him to hit him. Gave him a thick 'un to do it."
The ragged man seemed surprised. "See here, gov'nor," said he. "If you're
collectin', I could let you have one half-price."
"He took me unawares," said I.
"What else would the bloke do when you bashed his hat?" said the maiden from the dingle.
By this time I was able to straighten myself up by the aid of the oaken bar
which formed the top of the stile. Having quoted a few lines of the Chinese poet
Lo-tun-an to the effect that, however hard a knock might be, it might always
conceivably be harder, I looked about for my coat, but could by no means find it.
"Henrietta," I said, "what have you done with my coat?"
"Look here, gov'nor," said the man from the dingle, "not so much Henrietta,
if it's the same to you. This woman's my wife. Who are you to call her Henrietta?"
I assured the man from the dingle that I had meant no disrespect to his wife.
"I had thought she was a mort," said I; "but the ria of a Romany chal is always sacred to me."
"Clean balmy," said the woman.
"Some other day," said I, "I may visit you in your camp in the dingle and
read you the master's book about the Romanys."
"What's Romanys?" asked the man.
Myself. Romanys are gipsies.
The Man. We ain't gipsies.
Myself. What are you then?
The Man. We are hoppers.
Myself (to Henrietta). Then how did you understand all I have said to you about gipsies?
Henrietta. I didn't.
I again asked for my coat, but it was clear now that before offering to fight
the florid-faced man with the mole over his left eyebrow I must have hung my
coat upon the splashboard of his van. I therefore recited a verse from
Ferideddin-Atar, the Persian poet, which signifies that it is more important to
preserve your skin than your clothes, and bidding farewell to the man from the
dingle and his wife I returned into the old English village of Swinehurst, where
I was able to buy a secondhand coat, which enabled me to make my way to the
station, where I should start for London. I could not but remark with some
surprise that I was followed to the station by many of the villagers, together
with the man with the shiny coat, and that other, the strange man, he who had
slunk behind the clock-case. From time to time I turned and approached them,
hoping to fall into conversation with them; but as I did so they would break and
hasten down the road. Only the village constable came on, and he walked by my
side and listened while I told him the history of Hunyadi Janos and the events
which occurred during the wars between that hero, known also as Corvinus or the
crow-like, and Mahommed the second, he who captured Constantinople, better known
as Byzantium; before the Christian epoch. Together with the constable I entered
the station, and seating myself in a carriage I took paper from my pocket and I
began to write upon the paper all that had occurred to me, in order that I might
show that it was not easy in these days to follow the example of the master. As
I wrote, I heard the constable talk to the station-master, a stout, middle-sized
man with a red neck-tie, and tell him of my own adventures in the old English village of Swinehurst.
"He is a gentleman too," said the constable, "and I doubt not that he lives
in a big house in London town."
"A very big house if every man had his rights," said the station-master, and
waving his hand he signalled that the train should proceed.