Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 16

Fair of horses — Looks of respect — The fast trotter — Pair of eyes — Strange men — Jasper, your pal — Force of blood — Young lady with diamonds — Not quite so beautiful.

I was standing on the castle hill in the midst of a fair of horses.

I have already had occasion to mention this castle. It is the remains of what was once a Norman stronghold, and is perched upon a round mound or monticle, in the midst of the old city. Steep is this mound and scarped, evidently by the hand of man; a deep gorge over which is flung a bridge, separates it, on the south, from a broad swell of open ground called ‘the hill’; of old the scene of many a tournament and feat of Norman chivalry, but now much used as a show-place for cattle, where those who buy and sell beeves and other beasts resort at stated periods.

So it came to pass that I stood upon this hill, observing a fair of horses.

The reader is already aware that I had long since conceived a passion for the equine race; a passion in which circumstances had of late not permitted me to indulge. I had no horses to ride, but I took pleasure in looking at them; and I had already attended more than one of these fairs: the present was lively enough, indeed horse fairs are seldom dull. There was shouting and whooping, neighing and braying; there was galloping and trotting; fellows with highlows and white stockings, and with many a string dangling from the knees of their tight breeches, were running desperately, holding horses by the halter, and in some cases dragging them along; there were long-tailed steeds and dock-tailed steeds of every degree and breed; there were droves of wild ponies, and long rows of sober cart horses; there were donkeys, and even mules: the last rare things to be seen in damp, misty England, for the mule pines in mud and rain, and thrives best with a hot sun above and a burning sand below. There were — oh, the gallant creatures! I hear their neigh upon the wind; there were — goodliest sight of all — certain enormous quadrupeds only seen to perfection in our native isle, led about by dapper grooms, their manes ribanded and their tails curiously clubbed and balled. Ha! ha! — how distinctly do they say, ha! ha!

An old man draws nigh, he is mounted on a lean pony, and he leads by the bridle one of these animals; nothing very remarkable about that creature, unless in being smaller than the rest and gentle, which they are not; he is not of the sightliest look; he is almost dun, and over one eye a thick film has gathered. But stay! there IS something remarkable about that horse, there is something in his action in which he differs from all the rest: as he advances, the clamour is hushed! all eyes are turned upon him — what looks of interest — of respect — and, what is this? people are taking off their hats — surely not to that steed! Yes, verily! men, especially old men, are taking off their hats to that one-eyed steed, and I hear more than one deep-drawn ah!

‘What horse is that?’ said I to a very old fellow, the counterpart of the old man on the pony, save that the last wore a faded suit of velveteen, and this one was dressed in a white frock.

‘The best in mother England,’ said the very old man, taking a knobbed stick from his mouth, and looking me in the face, at first carelessly, but presently with something like interest; ‘he is old like myself, but can still trot his twenty miles an hour. You won’t live long, my swain; tall and over-grown ones like thee never does; yet, if you should chance to reach my years, you may boast to thy great-grand-boys thou hast seen Marshland Shales.’

Amain I did for the horse what I would neither do for earl nor baron, doffed my hat; yes! I doffed my hat to the wondrous horse, the fast trotter, the best in mother England; and I too drew a deep ah! and repeated the words of the old fellows around. ‘Such a horse as this we shall never see again; a pity that he is so old.’

Now during all this time I had a kind of consciousness that I had been the object of some person’s observation; that eyes were fastened upon me from somewhere in the crowd. Sometimes I thought myself watched from before, sometimes from behind; and occasionally methought that, if I just turned my head to the right or left, I should meet a peering and inquiring glance; and indeed once or twice I did turn, expecting to see somebody whom I knew, yet always without success; though it appeared to me that I was but a moment too late, and that some one had just slipped away from the direction to which I turned, like the figure in a magic lanthorn. Once I was quite sure that there were a pair of eyes glaring over my right shoulder; my attention, however, was so fully occupied with the objects which I have attempted to describe, that I thought very little of this coming and going, this flitting and dodging of I knew not whom or what. It was, after all, a matter of sheer indifference to me who was looking at me. I could only wish whomsoever it might be to be more profitably employed; so I continued enjoying what I saw; and now there was a change in the scene, the wondrous old horse departed with his aged guardian; other objects of interest are at hand; two or three men on horseback are hurrying through the crowd, they are widely different in their appearance from the other people of the fair; not so much in dress, for they are clad something after the fashion of rustic jockeys, but in their look — no light-brown hair have they, no ruddy cheeks, no blue quiet glances belong to them; their features are dark, their locks long, black, and shining, and their eyes are wild; they are admirable horsemen, but they do not sit the saddle in the manner of common jockeys, they seem to float or hover upon it, like gulls upon the waves; two of them are mere striplings, but the third is a very tall man with a countenance heroically beautiful, but wild, wild, wild. As they rush along, the crowd give way on all sides, and now a kind of ring or circus is formed, within which the strange men exhibit their horsemanship, rushing past each other, in and out, after the manner of a reel, the tall man occasionally balancing himself upon the saddle, and standing erect on one foot. He had just regained his seat after the latter feat, and was about to push his horse to a gallop, when a figure started forward close from beside me, and laying his hand on his neck, and pulling him gently downward, appeared to whisper something into his ear; presently the tall man raised his head, and, scanning the crowd for a moment in the direction in which I was standing, fixed his eyes full upon me, and anon the countenance of the whisperer was turned, but only in part, and the side-glance of another pair of wild eyes was directed towards my face, but the entire visage of the big black man, half stooping as he was, was turned full upon mine.

But now, with a nod to the figure who had stopped him, and with another inquiring glance at myself, the big man once more put his steed into motion, and, after riding round the ring a few more times, darted through a lane in the crowd, and followed by his two companions disappeared, whereupon the figure who had whispered to him, and had subsequently remained in the middle of the space, came towards me, and, cracking a whip which he held in his hand so loudly that the report was nearly equal to that of a pocket pistol, he cried in a strange tone:

‘What! the sap-engro? Lor! the sap-engro upon the hill!’

‘I remember that word,’ said I, ‘and I almost think I remember you. You can’t be — ’

‘Jasper, your pal! Truth, and no lie, brother.’

‘It is strange that you should have known me,’ said I. ‘I am certain, but for the word you used, I should never have recognised you.’

‘Not so strange as you may think, brother; there is something in your face which would prevent people from forgetting you, even though they might wish it; and your face is not much altered since the time you wot of, though you are so much grown. I thought it was you, but to make sure I dodged about, inspecting you. I believe you felt me, though I never touched you; a sign, brother, that we are akin, that we are dui palor — two relations. Your blood beat when mine was near, as mine always does at the coming of a brother; and we became brothers in that lane.’

‘And where are you staying?’ said I; ‘in this town?’

‘Not in the town; the like of us don’t find it exactly wholesome to stay in towns, we keep abroad. But I have little to do here — come with me, and I’ll show you where we stay.’

We descended the hill in the direction of the north, and passing along the suburb reached the old Norman bridge, which we crossed; the chalk precipice, with the ruin on its top, was now before us; but turning to the left we walked swiftly along, and presently came to some rising ground, which ascending, we found ourselves upon a wild moor or heath.

‘You are one of them,’ said I, ‘whom people call — ’

‘Just so,’ said Jasper; ‘but never mind what people call us.’

‘And that tall handsome man on the hill, whom you whispered? I suppose he’s one of ye. What is his name?’

‘Tawno Chikno,’ said Jasper, ‘which means the small one; we call him such because he is the biggest man of all our nation. You say he is handsome, that is not the word, brother; he’s the beauty of the world. Women run wild at the sight of Tawno. An earl’s daughter, near London — a fine young lady with diamonds round her neck — fell in love with Tawno. I have seen that lass on a heath, as this may be, kneel down to Tawno, clasp his feet, begging to be his wife — or anything else — if she might go with him. But Tawno would have nothing to do with her: “I have a wife of my own,” said he, “a lawful rommany wife, whom I love better than the whole world, jealous though she sometimes be.”’

‘And is she very beautiful?’ said I.

‘Why, you know, brother, beauty is frequently a matter of taste; however, as you ask my opinion, I should say not quite so beautiful as himself.’

We had now arrived at a small valley between two hills, or downs, the sides of which were covered with furze; in the midst of this valley were various carts and low tents forming a rude kind of encampment; several dark children were playing about, who took no manner of notice of us. As we passed one of the tents, however, a canvas screen was lifted up, and a woman supported upon a crutch hobbled out. She was about the middle age, and, besides being lame, was bitterly ugly; she was very slovenly dressed, and on her swarthy features ill nature was most visibly stamped. She did not deign me a look, but, addressing Jasper in a tongue which I did not understand, appeared to put some eager questions to him.

‘He’s coming,’ said Jasper, and passed on. ‘Poor fellow,’ said he to me, ‘he has scarcely been gone an hour, and she’s jealous already. Well,’ he continued, ‘what do you think of her? you have seen her now, and can judge for yourself — that ’ere woman is Tawno Chikno’s wife!’

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32