Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 17

The tent — Pleasant discourse — I am Pharaoh — Shifting for one’s self — Horse-shoes — This is wonderful — Bless your wisdom — A pretty manoeuvre — Ill day to the Romans — My name is Herne — Singular people — An original speech — Word-master — Speaking Romanly.

We went to the farthest of the tents, which stood at a slight distance from the rest, and which exactly resembled the one which I have described on a former occasion; we went in and sat down one on each side of a small fire, which was smouldering on the ground, there was no one else in the tent but a tall tawny woman of middle age, who was busily knitting. ‘Brother,’ said Jasper, ‘I wish to hold some pleasant discourse with you.’

‘As much as you please,’ said I, ‘provided you can find anything pleasant to talk about.’

‘Never fear,’ said Jasper; ‘and first of all we will talk of yourself. Where have you been all this long time?’

‘Here and there,’ said I, ‘and far and near, going about with the soldiers; but there is no soldiering now, so we have sat down, father and family, in the town there.’

‘And do you still hunt snakes?’ said Jasper.

‘No,’ said I, ‘I have given up that long ago; I do better now: read books and learn languages.’

‘Well, I am sorry you have given up your snake-hunting, many’s the strange talk I have had with our people about your snake and yourself, and how you frightened my father and mother in the lane.’

‘And where are your father and mother?’

‘Where I shall never see them, brother; at least, I hope so.’

‘Not dead?’

‘No, not dead; they are bitchadey pawdel.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Sent across — banished.’

‘Ah! I understand; I am sorry for them. And so you are here alone?’

‘Not quite alone, brother.’

‘No, not alone; but with the rest — Tawno Chikno takes care of you.’

‘Takes care of me, brother!’

‘Yes, stands to you in the place of a father — keeps you out of harm’s way.’

‘What do you take me for, brother?’

‘For about three years older than myself.’

‘Perhaps; but you are of the Gorgios, and I am a Rommany Chal. Tawno Chikno take care of Jasper Petulengro!’

‘Is that your name?’

‘Don’t you like it?’

‘Very much, I never heard a sweeter; it is something like what you call me.’

‘The horse-shoe master and the snake-fellow, I am the first.’

‘Who gave you that name?’

‘Ask Pharaoh.’

‘I would, if he were here, but I do not see him.’

‘I am Pharaoh.’

‘Then you are a king.’

‘Chachipen Pal.’

‘I do not understand you.’

‘Where are your languages? You want two things, brother: mother sense, and gentle Rommany.’

‘What makes you think that I want sense?’

‘That, being so old, you can’t yet guide yourself!’

‘I can read Dante, Jasper.’

‘Anan, brother.’

‘I can charm snakes, Jasper.’

‘I know you can, brother.’

‘Yes, and horses too; bring me the most vicious in the land, if I whisper he’ll be tame.’

‘Then the more shame for you — a snake-fellow — a horse-witch — and a lil-reader — yet you can’t shift for yourself. I laugh at you, brother!’

‘Then you can shift for yourself?’

‘For myself and for others, brother.’

‘And what does Chikno?’

‘Sells me horses, when I bid him. Those horses on the chong were mine.’

‘And has he none of his own?’

‘Sometimes he has; but he is not so well off as myself. When my father and mother were bitchadey pawdel, which, to tell you the truth, they were for chiving wafodo dloovu, they left me all they had, which was not a little, and I became the head of our family, which was not a small one. I was not older than you when that happened; yet our people said they had never a better krallis to contrive and plan for them, and to keep them in order. And this is so well known that many Rommany Chals, not of our family, come and join themselves to us, living with us for a time, in order to better themselves, more especially those of the poorer sort, who have little of their own. Tawno is one of these.’

‘Is that fine fellow poor?’

‘One of the poorest, brother. Handsome as he is, he has not a horse of his own to ride on. Perhaps we may put it down to his wife, who cannot move about, being a cripple, as you saw.’

‘And you are what is called a Gypsy King?’

‘Ay, ay; a Rommany Kral.’

‘Are there other kings?’

‘Those who call themselves so; but the true Pharaoh is Petulengro.’

‘Did Pharaoh make horse-shoes?’

‘The first who ever did, brother.’

‘Pharaoh lived in Egypt.’

‘So did we once, brother.’

‘And you left it?’

‘My fathers did, brother.’

‘And why did they come here?’

‘They had their reasons, brother.’

‘And you are not English?’

‘We are not gorgios.’

‘And you have a language of your own?’

‘Avali.’

‘This is wonderful.’

‘Ha, ha!’ cried the woman, who had hitherto sat knitting, at the farther end of the tent, without saying a word, though not inattentive to our conversation, as I could perceive by certain glances which she occasionally cast upon us both. ‘Ha, ha!’ she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes, which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity, ‘It is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own? What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves? That’s just like you gorgios; you would have everybody stupid, single-tongued idiots, like yourselves. We are taken before the Poknees of the gav, myself and sister, to give an account of ourselves. So I says to my sister’s little boy, speaking Rommany, I says to the little boy who is with us, Run to my son Jasper, and the rest, and tell them to be off, there are hawks abroad. So the Poknees questions us, and lets us go, not being able to make anything of us; but, as we are going, he calls us back. “Good woman,” says the Poknees, “what was that I heard you say just now to the little boy?” “I was telling him, your worship, to go and see the time of day, and to save trouble, I said it in our language.” “Where did you get that language?” says the Poknees. “’Tis our own language, sir,” I tells him, “we did not steal it.” “Shall I tell you what it is, my good woman?” says the Poknees. “I would thank you, sir,” says I, “for ’tis often we are asked about it.” “Well, then,” says the Poknees, “it is no language at all, merely a made-up gibberish.” “Oh, bless your wisdom,” says I, with a curtsey, “you can tell us what our language is, without understanding it!” Another time we meet a parson. “Good woman,” says he, “what’s that you are talking? Is it broken language?” “Of course, your reverence,” says I, “we are broken people; give a shilling, your reverence, to the poor broken woman.” Oh, these gorgios! they grudge us our very language!’

‘She called you her son, Jasper?’

‘I am her son, brother.’

‘I thought you said your parents were — ’

‘Bitchadey pawdel; you thought right, brother. This is my wife’s mother.’

‘Then you are married, Jasper?’

‘Ay, truly; I am husband and father. You will see wife and chabo anon.’

‘Where are they now?’

‘In the gav, penning dukkerin.’

‘We were talking of language, Jasper?’

‘True, brother.’

‘Yours must be a rum one?’

‘’Tis called Rommany.’

‘I would gladly know it.’

‘You need it sorely.’

‘Would you teach it me?’

‘None sooner.’

‘Suppose we begin now?’

‘Suppose we do, brother.’

‘Not whilst I am here,’ said the woman, flinging her knitting down, and starting upon her feet; ‘not whilst I am here shall this gorgio learn Rommany. A pretty manoeuvre, truly; and what would be the end of it? I goes to the farming ker with my sister, to tell a fortune, and earn a few sixpences for the chabes. I sees a jolly pig in the yard, and I says to my sister, speaking Rommany, “Do so and so,” says I; which the farming man hearing, asks what we are talking about. “Nothing at all, master,” says I; “something about the weather”; when who should start up from behind a pale, where he has been listening, but this ugly gorgio, crying out, “They are after poisoning your pigs, neighbour!” so that we are glad to run, I and my sister, with perhaps the farm-engro shouting after us. Says my sister to me, when we have got fairly off, “How came that ugly one to know what you said to me?” Whereupon I answers, “It all comes of my son Jasper, who brings the gorgio to our fire, and must needs be teaching him.” “Who was fool there?” says my sister. “Who, indeed, but my son Jasper,” I answers. And here should I be a greater fool to sit still and suffer it; which I will not do. I do not like the look of him; he looks over-gorgeous. An ill day to the Romans when he masters Rommany; and, when I says that, I pens a true dukkerin.’

‘What do you call God, Jasper?’

‘You had better be jawing,’ said the woman, raising her voice to a terrible scream; ‘you had better be moving off, my gorgio; hang you for a keen one, sitting there by the fire, and stealing my language before my face. Do you know whom you have to deal with? Do you know that I am dangerous? My name is Herne, and I comes of the hairy ones!’

And a hairy one she looked! She wore her hair clubbed upon her head, fastened with many strings and ligatures; but now, tearing these off, her locks, originally jet black, but now partially grizzled with age, fell down on every side of her, covering her face and back as far down as her knees. No she-bear of Lapland ever looked more fierce and hairy than did that woman, as standing in the open part of the tent, with her head bent down, and her shoulders drawn up, seemingly about to precipitate herself upon me, she repeated, again and again, —

‘My name is Herne, and I comes of the hairy ones! — ’

‘I call God Duvel, brother.’

‘It sounds very like Devil.’

‘It doth, brother, it doth.’

‘And what do you call divine, I mean godly?’

‘Oh! I call that duvelskoe.’

‘I am thinking of something, Jasper.’

‘What are you thinking of, brother?’

‘Would it not be a rum thing if divine and devilish were originally one and the same word?’

‘It would, brother, it would — ’

. . .

From this time I had frequent interviews with Jasper, sometimes in his tent, sometimes on the heath, about which we would roam for hours, discoursing on various matters. Sometimes, mounted on one of his horses, of which he had several, I would accompany him to various fairs and markets in the neighbourhood, to which he went on his own affairs, or those of his tribe. I soon found that I had become acquainted with a most singular people, whose habits and pursuits awakened within me the highest interest. Of all connected with them, however, their language was doubtless that which exercised the greatest influence over my imagination. I had at first some suspicion that it would prove a mere made-up gibberish; but I was soon undeceived. Broken, corrupted, and half in ruins as it was, it was not long before I found that it was an original speech, far more so, indeed, than one or two others of high name and celebrity, which, up to that time, I had been in the habit of regarding with respect and veneration. Indeed many obscure points connected with the vocabulary of these languages, and to which neither classic nor modern lore afforded any clue, I thought I could now clear up by means of this strange broken tongue, spoken by people who dwelt amongst thickets and furze bushes, in tents as tawny as their faces, and whom the generality of mankind designated, and with much semblance of justice, as thieves and vagabonds. But where did this speech come from, and who were they who spoke it? These were questions which I could not solve, and which Jasper himself, when pressed, confessed his inability to answer. ‘But, whoever we be, brother,’ said he, ‘we are an old people, and not what folks in general imagine, broken gorgios; and, if we are not Egyptians, we are at any rate Rommany Chals!’

‘Rommany Chals! I should not wonder after all,’ said I, ‘that these people had something to do with the founding of Rome. Rome, it is said, was built by vagabonds, who knows but that some tribe of the kind settled down thereabouts, and called the town which they built after their name; but whence did they come originally? ah! there is the difficulty.’

But abandoning these questions, which at that time were far too profound for me, I went on studying the language, and at the same time the characters and manners of these strange people. My rapid progress in the former astonished, while it delighted, Jasper. ‘We’ll no longer call you Sap-engro, brother,’ said he; but rather Lav-engro, which in the language of the gorgios meaneth Word-master.’ ‘Nay, brother,’ said Tawno Chikno, with whom I had become very intimate, ‘you had better call him Cooro-mengro, I have put on THE GLOVES with him, and find him a pure fist-master; I like him for that, for I am a Cooro-mengro myself, and was born at Brummagem.’

‘I likes him for his modesty,’ said Mrs. Chikno; ‘I never hears any ill words come from his mouth, but, on the contrary, much sweet language. His talk is golden, and he has taught my eldest to say his prayers in Rommany, which my rover had never the grace to do.’ ‘He is the pal of my rom,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, who was a very handsome woman, ‘and therefore I likes him, and not the less for his being a rye; folks calls me high-minded, and perhaps I have reason to be so; before I married Pharaoh I had an offer from a lord — I likes the young rye, and, if he chooses to follow us, he shall have my sister. What say you, mother? should not the young rye have my sister Ursula?’

‘I am going to my people,’ said Mrs. Herne, placing a bundle upon a donkey, which was her own peculiar property; ‘I am going to Yorkshire, for I can stand this no longer. You say you like him: in that we differs; I hates the gorgio, and would like, speaking Romanly, to mix a little poison with his waters. And now go to Lundra, my children, I goes to Yorkshire. Take my blessing with ye, and a little bit of a gillie to cheer your hearts with when ye are weary. In all kinds of weather have we lived together; but now we are parted. I goes broken-hearted — I can’t keep you company; ye are no longer Rommany. To gain a bad brother, ye have lost a good mother.’

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