Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 5

The tent — Man and woman — Dark and swarthy — Manner of speaking — Bad money — Transfixed — Faltering tone — Little basket — High opinion — Plenty of good — Keeping guard — Tilted cart — Rubricals — Jasper — The right sort — The horseman of the lane — John Newton — The alarm — Gentle brothers.

One day it happened that, being on my rambles, I entered a green lane which I had never seen before; at first it was rather narrow, but as I advanced it became considerably wider; in the middle was a driftway with deep ruts, but right and left was a space carpeted with a sward of trefoil and clover; there was no lack of trees, chiefly ancient oaks, which, flinging out their arms from either side, nearly formed a canopy, and afforded a pleasing shelter from the rays of the sun, which was burning fiercely above. Suddenly a group of objects attracted my attention. Beneath one of the largest of the trees, upon the grass, was a kind of low tent or booth, from the top of which a thin smoke was curling; beside it stood a couple of light carts, whilst two or three lean horses or ponies were cropping the herbage which was growing nigh. Wondering to whom this odd tent could belong, I advanced till I was close before it, when I found that it consisted of two tilts, like those of waggons, placed upon the ground and fronting each other, connected behind by a sail or large piece of canvas which was but partially drawn across the top; upon the ground, in the intervening space, was a fire, over which, supported by a kind of iron crowbar, hung a caldron; my advance had been so noiseless as not to alarm the inmates, who consisted of a man and woman, who sat apart, one on each side of the fire; they were both busily employed — the man was carding plaited straw, whilst the woman seemed to be rubbing something with a white powder, some of which lay on a plate beside her; suddenly the man looked up, and, perceiving me, uttered a strange kind of cry, and the next moment both the woman and himself were on their feet and rushing out upon me.

I retreated a few steps, yet without turning to flee. I was not, however, without apprehension, which, indeed, the appearance of these two people was well calculated to inspire: the woman was a stout figure, seemingly between thirty and forty; she wore no cap, and her long hair fell on either side of her head like horse-tails half-way down her waist; her skin was dark and swarthy, like that of a toad, and the expression of her countenance was particularly evil; her arms were bare, and her bosom was but half concealed by a slight bodice, below which she wore a coarse petticoat, her only other article of dress. The man was somewhat younger, but of a figure equally wild; his frame was long and lathy, but his arms were remarkably short, his neck was rather bent, he squinted slightly, and his mouth was much awry; his complexion was dark, but, unlike that of the woman, was more ruddy than livid; there was a deep scar on his cheek, something like the impression of a halfpenny. The dress was quite in keeping with the figure: in his hat, which was slightly peaked, was stuck a peacock’s feather; over a waistcoat of hide, untanned and with the hair upon it, he wore a rough jerkin of russet hue; smallclothes of leather, which had probably once belonged to a soldier, but with which pipeclay did not seem to have come in contact for many a year, protected his lower man as far as the knee; his legs were cased in long stockings of blue worsted, and on his shoes he wore immense old-fashioned buckles.

Such were the two beings who now came rushing upon me; the man was rather in advance, brandishing a ladle in his hand.

‘So I have caught you at last,’ said he; ‘I’ll teach ye, you young highwayman, to come skulking about my properties!’

Young as I was, I remarked that his manner of speaking was different from that of any people with whom I had been in the habit of associating. It was quite as strange as his appearance, and yet it nothing resembled the foreign English which I had been in the habit of hearing through the palisades of the prison; he could scarcely be a foreigner.

‘Your properties!’ said I; ‘I am in the King’s Lane. Why did you put them there, if you did not wish them to be seen?’

‘On the spy,’ said the woman, ‘hey? I’ll drown him in the sludge in the toad-pond over the hedge.’

‘So we will,’ said the man, ‘drown him anon in the mud!’

‘Drown me, will you?’ said I; ‘I should like to see you! What’s all this about? Was it because I saw you with your hands full of straw plait, and my mother there — ’

‘Yes,’ said the woman; ‘what was I about?’

Myself. How should I know? Making bad money, perhaps!

And it will be as well here to observe, that at this time there was much bad money in circulation in the neighbourhood, generally supposed to be fabricated by the prisoners, so that this false coin and straw plait formed the standard subjects of conversation at Norman Cross.

‘I’ll strangle thee,’ said the beldame, dashing at me. ‘Bad money, is it?’

‘Leave him to me, wifelkin,’ said the man, interposing; ‘you shall now see how I’ll baste him down the lane.’

Myself. I tell you what, my chap, you had better put down that thing of yours; my father lies concealed within my tepid breast, and if to me you offer any harm or wrong, I’ll call him forth to help me with his forked tongue.

Man. What do you mean, ye Bengui’s bantling? I never heard such discourse in all my life: playman’s speech or Frenchman’s talk — which, I wonder? Your father! Tell the mumping villain that if he comes near my fire I’ll serve him out as I will you. Take that — Tiny Jesus! what have we got here? Oh, delicate Jesus! what is the matter with the child?

I had made a motion which the viper understood; and now, partly disengaging itself from my bosom, where it had lain perdu, it raised its head to a level with my face, and stared upon my enemy with its glittering eyes.

The man stood like one transfixed, and the ladle, with which he had aimed a blow at me, now hung in the air like the hand which held it; his mouth was extended, and his cheeks became of a pale yellow, save alone that place which bore the mark which I have already described, and this shone now portentously, like fire. He stood in this manner for some time; at last the ladle fell from his hand, and its falling appeared to rouse him from his stupor.

‘I say, wifelkin,’ said he, in a faltering tone, ‘did you ever see the like of this here?’

But the woman had retreated to the tent, from the entrance of which her loathly face was now thrust, with an expression partly of terror and partly of curiosity. After gazing some time longer at the viper and myself, the man stooped down and took up the ladle; then, as if somewhat more assured, he moved to the tent, where he entered into conversation with the beldame in a low voice. Of their discourse, though I could hear the greater part of it, I understood not a single word; and I wondered what it could be, for I knew by the sound that it was not French. At last the man, in a somewhat louder tone, appeared to put a question to the woman, who nodded her head affirmatively, and in a moment or two produced a small stool, which she delivered to him. He placed it on the ground, close by the door of the tent, first rubbing it with his sleeve, as if for the purpose of polishing its surface.

Man. Now, my precious little gentleman, do sit down here by the poor people’s tent; we wish to be civil in our slight way. Don’t be angry, and say no; but look kindly upon us, and satisfied, my precious little God Almighty.

Woman. Yes, my gorgeous angel, sit down by the poor bodies’ fire, and eat a sweetmeat. We want to ask you a question or two; only first put that serpent away.

Myself. I can sit down, and bid the serpent go to sleep, that’s easy enough; but as for eating a sweetmeat, how can I do that? I have not got one, and where am I to get it?

Woman. Never fear, my tiny tawny, we can give you one, such as you never ate, I daresay, however far you may have come from.

The serpent sank into its usual resting-place, and I sat down on the stool. The woman opened a box, and took out a strange little basket or hamper, not much larger than a man’s fist, and formed of a delicate kind of matting. It was sewed at the top; but, ripping it open with a knife, she held it to me, and I saw, to my surprise, that it contained candied fruits of a dark green hue, tempting enough to one of my age. ‘There, my tiny,’ said she; ‘taste, and tell me how you like them.’

‘Very much,’ said I; ‘where did you get them?’

The beldame leered upon me for a moment, then, nodding her head thrice, with a knowing look, said, ‘Who knows better than yourself, my tawny?’

Now, I knew nothing about the matter; but I saw that these strange people had conceived a very high opinion of the abilities of their visitor, which I was nothing loth to encourage. I therefore answered boldly, ‘Ah! who indeed!’

‘Certainly,’ said the man; ‘who should know better than yourself, or so well? And now, my tiny one, let me ask you one thing — you didn’t come to do us any harm?’

‘No,’ said I, ‘I had no dislike to you; though, if you were to meddle with me — ’

Man. Of course, my gorgeous, of course you would; and quite right too. Meddle with you! — what right have we? I should say, it would not be quite safe. I see how it is; you are one of them there; — and he bent his head towards his left shoulder.

Myself. Yes, I am one of them — for I thought he was alluding to the soldiers, — you had best mind what you are about, I can tell you.

Man. Don’t doubt we will for our own sake; Lord bless you, wifelkin, only think that we should see one of them there when we least thought about it. Well, I have heard of such things, though I never thought to see one; however, seeing is believing. Well! now you are come, and are not going to do us any mischief, I hope you will stay; you can do us plenty of good if you will.

Myself. What good could I do you?

Man. What good? plenty! Would you not bring us luck? I have heard say that one of them there always does, if it will but settle down. Stay with us, you shall have a tilted cart all to yourself if you like. We’ll make you our little God Almighty, and say our prayers to you every morning!

Myself. That would be nice; and, if you were to give me plenty of these things, I should have no objection. But what would my father say? I think he would hardly let me.

Man. Why not? he would be with you; and kindly would we treat him. Indeed, without your father you would be nothing at all.

Myself. That’s true; but I do not think he could be spared from his regiment. I have heard him say that they could do nothing without him.

Man. His regiment! What are you talking about? — what does the child mean?

Myself. What do I mean! — why, that my father is an officer-man at the barracks yonder, keeping guard over the French prisoners.

Man. Oh! then that sap is not your father?

Myself. What, the snake? Why, no! Did you think he was?

Man. To be sure we did. Didn’t you tell me so?

Myself. Why, yes; but who would have thought you would have believed it? It is a tame one. I hunt vipers, and tame them.

Man. O-h!

‘O-h!’ grunted the woman, ‘that’s it, is it?’

The man and woman, who during this conversation had resumed their former positions within the tent, looked at each other with a queer look of surprise, as if somewhat disconcerted at what they now heard. They then entered into discourse with each other in the same strange tongue which had already puzzled me. At length the man looked me in the face, and said, somewhat hesitatingly, ‘So you are not one of them there after all?’

Myself. One of them there? I don’t know what you mean.

Man. Why, we have been thinking you were a goblin — a devilkin! However, I see how it is: you are a sap-engro, a chap who catches snakes, and plays tricks with them! Well, it comes very nearly to the same thing; and if you please to list with us, and bear us pleasant company, we shall be glad of you. I’d take my oath upon it, that we might make a mort of money by you and that sap, and the tricks it could do; and, as you seem fly to everything, I shouldn’t wonder if you would make a prime hand at telling fortunes.

‘I shouldn’t wonder,’ said I.

Man. Of course. And you might still be our God Almighty, or at any rate our clergyman, so you should live in a tilted cart by yourself, and say prayers to us night and morning — to wifelkin here, and all our family; there’s plenty of us when we are all together: as I said before, you seem fly, I shouldn’t wonder if you could read?

‘Oh yes!’ said I, ‘I can read’; and, eager to display my accomplishments, I took my book out of my pocket, and, opening it at random, proceeded to read how a certain man, whilst wandering about a certain solitary island, entered a cave, the mouth of which was overgrown with brushwood, and how he was nearly frightened to death in that cave by something which he saw.

‘That will do,’ said the man; ‘that’s the kind of prayers for me and my family, aren’t they, wifelkin? I never heard more delicate prayers in all my life! Why, they beat the rubricals hollow! — and here comes my son Jasper. I say, Jasper, here’s a young sap-engro that can read, and is more fly than yourself. Shake hands with him; I wish ye to be two brothers.’

With a swift but stealthy pace Jasper came towards us from the farther part of the lane; on reaching the tent he stood still, and looked fixedly upon me as I sat upon the stool; I looked fixedly upon him. A queer look had Jasper; he was a lad of some twelve or thirteen years, with long arms, unlike the singular being who called himself his father; his complexion was ruddy, but his face was seamed, though it did not bear the peculiar scar which disfigured the countenance of the other; nor, though roguish enough, a certain evil expression which that of the other bore, and which the face of the woman possessed in a yet more remarkable degree. For the rest, he wore drab breeches, with certain strings at the knee, a rather gay waistcoat, and tolerably white shirt; under his arm he bore a mighty whip of whalebone with a brass knob, and upon his head was a hat without either top or brim.

‘There, Jasper! shake hands with the sap-engro.’

‘Can he box, father?’ said Jasper, surveying me rather contemptuously. ‘I should think not, he looks so puny and small.’

‘Hold your peace, fool!’ said the man; ‘he can do more than that — I tell you he’s fly: he carries a sap about, which would sting a ninny like you to dead.’

‘What, a sap-engro!’ said the boy, with a singular whine, and, stooping down, he leered curiously in my face, kindly, however, and then patted me on the head. ‘A sap-engro,’ he ejaculated; ‘lor!’

‘Yes, and one of the right sort,’ said the man; ‘I am glad we have met with him, he is going to list with us, and be our clergyman and God Almighty, ain’t you, my tawny?’

‘I don’t know,’ said I; ‘I must see what my father will say.’

‘Your father; bah!’ — but here he stopped, for a sound was heard like the rapid galloping of a horse, not loud and distinct as on a road, but dull and heavy as if upon a grass sward; nearer and nearer it came, and the man, starting up, rushed out of the tent, and looked around anxiously. I arose from the stool upon which I had been seated, and just at that moment, amidst a crashing of boughs and sticks, a man on horseback bounded over the hedge into the lane at a few yards’ distance from where we were: from the impetus of the leap the horse was nearly down on his knees; the rider, however, by dint of vigorous handling of the reins, prevented him from falling, and then rode up to the tent. ‘’Tis Nat,’ said the man; ‘what brings him here?’ The new-comer was a stout burly fellow, about the middle age; he had a savage determined look, and his face was nearly covered over with carbuncles; he wore a broad slouching hat, and was dressed in a gray coat, cut in a fashion which I afterwards learnt to be the genuine Newmarket cut, the skirts being exceedingly short; his waistcoat was of red plush, and he wore broad corduroy breeches and white top-boots. The steed which carried him was of iron gray, spirited and powerful, but covered with sweat and foam. The fellow glanced fiercely and suspiciously around, and said something to the man of the tent in a harsh and rapid voice. A short and hurried conversation ensued in the strange tongue. I could not take my eyes off this new-comer. Oh, that half-jockey, half-bruiser countenance, I never forgot it! More than fifteen years afterwards I found myself amidst a crowd before Newgate; a gallows was erected, and beneath it stood a criminal, a notorious malefactor. I recognised him at once; the horseman of the lane is now beneath the fatal tree, but nothing altered; still the same man; jerking his head to the right and left with the same fierce and under glance, just as if the affairs of this world had the same kind of interest to the last; gray coat of Newmarket cut, plush waistcoat, corduroys, and boots, nothing altered; but the head, alas! is bare, and so is the neck. Oh, crime and virtue, virtue and crime! — it was old John Newton, I think, who, when he saw a man going to be hanged, said, ‘There goes John Newton, but for the grace of God!’

But the lane, the lane, all was now in confusion in the lane; the man and woman were employed in striking the tents and in making hurried preparations for departure; the boy Jasper was putting the harness upon the ponies and attaching them to the carts; and, to increase the singularity of the scene, two or three wild-looking women and girls, in red cloaks and immense black beaver bonnets, came from I know not what direction, and, after exchanging a few words with the others, commenced with fierce and agitated gestures to assist them in their occupation. The rider meanwhile sat upon his horse, but evidently in a state of great impatience; he muttered curses between his teeth, spurred the animal furiously, and then reined it in, causing it to rear itself up nearly perpendicular. At last he said, ‘Curse ye for Romans, how slow ye are! well, it is no business of mine, stay here all day if you like; I have given ye warning, I am off to the big north road. However, before I go, you had better give me all you have of that.’

‘Truly spoken, Nat, my pal,’ said the man; ‘give it him, mother. There it is; now be off as soon as you please, and rid us of evil company.’

The woman had handed him two bags formed of stocking, half full of something heavy, which looked through them for all the world like money of some kind. The fellow, on receiving them, thrust them without ceremony into the pockets of his coat, and then, without a word of farewell salutation, departed at a tremendous rate, the hoofs of his horse thundering for a long time on the hard soil of the neighbouring road, till the sound finally died away in the distance. The strange people were not slow in completing their preparations, and then, flogging their animals terrifically, hurried away seemingly in the same direction.

The boy Jasper was last of the band. As he was following the rest, he stopped suddenly, and looked on the ground appearing to muse; then, turning round, he came up to me where I was standing, leered in my face, and then, thrusting out his hand, he said, ‘Good-bye, Sap, I daresay we shall meet again, remember we are brothers; two gentle brothers.’

Then whining forth, ‘What a sap-engro, lor!’ he gave me a parting leer, and hastened away.

I remained standing in the lane gazing after the retreating company. ‘A strange set of people,’ said I at last; ‘wonder who they can be?’

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