Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 53

Singular table — No money — Out of employ — My bonnet — We of the thimble — Good wages — Wisely resolved — Strangest way in the world — Fat gentleman — Not such another — First edition — Not very easy — Won’t close — Avella gorgio — Alarmed look.

Presently a man emerged from the tent, bearing before him a rather singular table; it appeared to be of white deal, was exceedingly small at the top, and with very long legs. At a few yards from the entrance he paused, and looked round, as if to decide on the direction which he should take; presently, his eye glancing on me as I lay upon the ground, he started, and appeared for a moment inclined to make off as quick as possible, table and all. In a moment, however, he seemed to recover assurance, and, coming up to the place where I was, the long legs of the table projecting before him, he cried, ‘Glad to see you here, my lord.’

‘Thank you,’ said I, ‘it’s a fine day.’

‘Very fine, my lord; will your lordship play? Them that finds, wins — them that don’t finds, loses.’

‘Play at what?’ said I.

‘Only at the thimble and pea, my lord.’

‘I never heard of such a game.’

‘Didn’t you? Well, I’ll soon teach you,’ said he, placing the table down. ‘All you have to do is to put a sovereign down on my table, and to find the pea, which I put under one of my thimbles. If you find it, — and it is easy enough to find it, — I give you a sovereign besides your own: for them that finds, wins.’

‘And them that don’t finds, loses,’ said I; ‘no, I don’t wish to play.’

‘Why not, my lord?’

‘Why, in the first place, I have no money.’

‘Oh, you have no money, that of course alters the case. If you have no money, you can’t play. Well, I suppose I must be seeing after my customers,’ said he, glancing over the plain.

‘Good-day,’ said I.

‘Good-day,’ said the man slowly, but without moving, and as if in reflection. After a moment or two, looking at me inquiringly, he added, ‘Out of employ?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘out of employ.’

The man measured me with his eye as I lay on the ground. At length he said, ‘May I speak a word or two to you, my lord?’

‘As many as you please,’ said I.

‘Then just come a little out of hearing, a little farther on the grass, if you please, my lord.’

‘Why do you call me my lord?’ said I, as I arose and followed him.

‘We of the thimble always calls our customers lords,’ said the man; ‘but I won’t call you such a foolish name any more; come along.’

The man walked along the plain till he came to the side of a dry pit, when, looking round to see that no one was nigh, he laid his table on the grass, and, sitting down with his legs over the side of the pit, he motioned me to do the same. ‘So you are in want of employ?’ said he, after I had sat down beside him.

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I am very much in want of employ.’

‘I think I can find you some.’

‘What kind?’ said I.

‘Why,’ said the man, ‘I think you would do to be my bonnet.’

‘Bonnet!’ said I, ‘what is that?’

‘Don’t you know? However, no wonder, as you had never heard of the thimble and pea game, but I will tell you. We of the game are very much exposed; folks when they have lost their money, as those who play with us mostly do, sometimes uses rough language, calls us cheats, and sometimes knocks our hats over our eyes; and what’s more, with a kick under our table, cause the top deals to fly off; this is the third table I have used this day, the other two being broken by uncivil customers: so we of the game generally like to have gentlemen go about with us to take our part, and encourage us, though pretending to know nothing about us; for example, when the customer says, “I’m cheated,” the bonnet must say, “No, you ain’t, it is all right”; or, when my hat is knocked over my eyes, the bonnet must square, and say, “I never saw the man before in all my life, but I won’t see him ill-used”; and so, when they kicks at the table, the bonnet must say, “I won’t see the table ill-used, such a nice table, too; besides, I want to play myself”; and then I would say to the bonnet, “Thank you, my lord, them that finds, wins”; and then the bonnet plays, and I lets the bonnet win.’

‘In a word,’ said I, ‘the bonnet means the man who covers you, even as the real bonnet covers the head.’

‘I just so,’ said the man; ‘I see you are awake, and would soon make a first-rate bonnet.’

‘Bonnet,’ said I, musingly; ‘bonnet; it is metaphorical.’

‘Is it?’ said the man.

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘like the cant words — ’

‘Bonnet is cant,’ said the man; ‘we of the thimble, as well as all cly-fakers and the like, understand cant, as, of course, must every bonnet; so, if you are employed by me, you had better learn it as soon as you can, that we may discourse together without being understood by every one. Besides covering his principal, a bonnet must have his eyes about him, for the trade of the pea, though a strictly honest one, is not altogether lawful; so it is the duty of the bonnet, if he sees the constable coming, to say, The gorgio’s welling.’

‘That is not cant,’ said I, ‘that is the language of the Rommany Chals.’

‘Do you know those people?’ said the man.

‘Perfectly,’ said I, ‘and their language too.’

‘I wish I did,’ said the man; ‘I would give ten pounds and more to know the language of the Rommany Chals. There’s some of it in the language of the pea and thimble; how it came there I don’t know, but so it is. I wish I knew it, but it is difficult. You’ll make a capital bonnet; shall we close?’

‘What would the wages be?’ I demanded.

‘Why, to a first-rate bonnet, as I think you would prove, I could afford to give from forty to fifty shillings a week.’

‘Is it possible?’ said I.

‘Good wages, ain’t they?’ said the man.

‘First-rate,’ said I; ‘bonneting is more profitable than reviewing.’

‘Anan?’ said the man.

‘Or translating; I don’t think the Armenian would have paid me at that rate for translating his Esop.’

‘Who is he?’ said the man.

‘Esop?’

‘No, I know what that is, Esop’s cant for a hunchback; but t’other?’

‘You should know,’ said I.

‘Never saw the man in all my life.’

‘Yes, you have,’ said I, ‘and felt him too; don’t you remember the individual from whom you took the pocket-book?’

‘Oh, that was he; well, the less said about that matter the better; I have left off that trade, and taken to this, which is a much better. Between ourselves, I am not sorry that I did not carry off that pocket-book; if I had, it might have encouraged me in the trade, in which had I remained, I might have been lagged, sent abroad, as I had been already imprisoned; so I determined to leave it off at all hazards, though I was hard up, not having a penny in the world.’

‘And wisely resolved,’ said I; ‘it was a bad and dangerous trade, I wonder you should ever have embraced it.’

‘It is all very well talking,’ said the man, ‘but there is a reason for everything; I am the son of a Jewess, by a military officer’ — and then the man told me his story. I shall not repeat the man’s story, it was a poor one, a vile one; at last he observed, ‘So that affair which you know of determined me to leave the filching trade, and take up with a more honest and safe one; so at last I thought of the pea and thimble, but I wanted funds, especially to pay for lessons at the hands of a master, for I knew little about it.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘how did you get over that difficulty?’

‘Why,’ said the man, ‘I thought I should never have got over it. What funds could I raise? I had nothing to sell; the few clothes I had I wanted, for we of the thimble must always appear decent, or nobody would come near us. I was at my wits’ ends; at last I got over my difficulty in the strangest way in the world.’

‘What was that?’

‘By an old thing which I had picked up some time before — a book.’

‘A book?’ said I.

‘Yes, which I had taken out of your lordship’s pocket one day as you were walking the streets in a great hurry. I thought it was a pocket-book at first, full of bank-notes, perhaps,’ continued he, laughing. ‘It was well for me, however, that it was not, for I should have soon spent the notes; as it was, I had flung the old thing down with an oath, as soon as I brought it home. When I was so hard up, however, after the affair with that friend of yours, I took it up one day, and thought I might make something by it to support myself a day with. Chance or something else led me into a grand shop; there was a man there who seemed to be the master, talking to a jolly, portly old gentleman, who seemed to be a country squire. Well, I went up to the first, and offered it for sale; he took the book, opened it at the title-page, and then all of a sudden his eyes glistened, and he showed it to the fat, jolly gentleman, and his eyes glistened too, and I heard him say “How singular!” and then the two talked together in a speech I didn’t understand — I rather thought it was French, at any rate it wasn’t cant; and presently the first asked me what I would take for the book. Now I am not altogether a fool, nor am I blind, and I had narrowly marked all that passed, and it came into my head that now was the time for making a man of myself, at any rate I could lose nothing by a little confidence; so I looked the man boldly in the face, and said, “I will have five guineas for that book, there ain’t such another in the whole world.” “Nonsense,” said the first man, “there are plenty of them, there have been nearly fifty editions, to my knowledge; I will give you five shillings.” “No,” said I, “I’ll not take it, for I don’t like to be cheated, so give me my book again”; and I attempted to take it away from the fat gentleman’s hand. “Stop,” said the younger man; “are you sure that you won’t take less?” “Not a farthing,” said I; which was not altogether true, but I said so. “Well,” said the fat gentleman, “I will give you what you ask”; and sure enough he presently gave me the money; so I made a bow, and was leaving the shop, when it came into my head that there was something odd in all this, and, as I had the money in my pocket, I turned back, and, making another bow, said, “May I be so bold as to ask why you gave me all this money for that ’ere dirty book? When I came into the shop, I should have been glad to get a shilling for it; but I saw you wanted it, and asked five guineas.” Then they looked at one another, and smiled, and shrugged up their shoulders. Then the first man, looking at me, said, “Friend, you have been a little too sharp for us; however, we can afford to forgive you, as my friend here has long been in quest of this particular book; there are plenty of editions, as I told you, and a common copy is not worth five shillings; but this is a first edition, and a copy of the first edition is worth its weight in gold.”’

‘So, after all, they outwitted you,’ I observed.

‘Clearly,’ said the man; ‘I might have got double the price, had I known the value; but I don’t care, much good may it do them, it has done me plenty. By means of it I have got into an honest, respectable trade, in which there’s little danger and plenty of profit, and got out of one which would have got me lagged, sooner or later.’

‘But,’ said I, ‘you ought to remember that the thing was not yours; you took it from me, who had been requested by a poor old apple-woman to exchange it for a Bible.’

‘Well,’ said the man, ‘did she ever get her Bible?’

‘Yes,’ said I, ‘she got her Bible.’

‘Then she has no cause to complain; and, as for you, chance or something else has sent you to me, that I may make you reasonable amends for any loss you may have had. Here am I ready to make you my bonnet, with forty or fifty shillings a week, which you say yourself are capital wages.’

‘I find no fault with the wages,’ said I, ‘but I don’t like the employ.’

‘Not like bonneting,’ said the man; ‘ah, I see, you would like to be principal; well, a time may come — those long white fingers of yours would just serve for the business.’

‘Is it a difficult one?’ I demanded.

‘Why, it is not very easy: two things are needful — natural talent, and constant practice; but I’ll show you a point or two connected with the game’; and, placing his table between his knees as he sat over the side of the pit, he produced three thimbles, and a small brown pellet, something resembling a pea. He moved the thimble and pellet about, now placing it to all appearance under one, and now under another; ‘Under which is it now?’ he said at last. ‘Under that,’ said I, pointing to the lowermost of the thimbles, which, as they stood, formed a kind of triangle. ‘No,’ said he, ‘it is not, but lift it up’; and, when I lifted up the thimble, the pellet, in truth, was not under it. ‘It was under none of them,’ said he, ‘it was pressed by my little finger against my palm’; and then he showed me how he did the trick, and asked me if the game was not a funny one; and, on my answering in the affirmative, he said, ‘I am glad you like it; come along and let us win some money.’

Thereupon, getting up, he placed the table before him, and was moving away; observing, however, that I did not stir, he asked me what I was staying for. ‘Merely for my own pleasure,’ said I; ‘I like sitting here very well.’ ‘Then you won’t close?’ said the man. ‘By no means,’ I replied; ‘your proposal does not suit me.’ ‘You may be principal in time,’ said the man. ‘That makes no difference,’ said I; and, sitting with my legs over the pit, I forthwith began to decline an Armenian noun. ‘That ain’t cant,’ said the man; ‘no, nor gypsy either. Well, if you won’t close, another will, I can’t lose any more time,’ and forthwith he departed.

And after I had declined four Armenian nouns, of different declensions, I rose from the side of the pit, and wandered about amongst the various groups of people scattered over the green. Presently I came to where the man of the thimbles was standing, with the table before him, and many people about him. ‘Them who finds, wins, and them who can’t find, loses,’ he cried. Various individuals tried to find the pellet, but all were unsuccessful, till at last considerable dissatisfaction was expressed, and the terms rogue and cheat were lavished upon him. ‘Never cheated anybody in all my life,’ he cried; and, observing me at hand, ‘didn’t I play fair, my lord?’ he inquired. But I made no answer. Presently some more played, and he permitted one or two to win, and the eagerness to play with him became greater. After I had looked on for some time, I was moving away: just then I perceived a short, thick personage, with a staff in his hand, advancing in a great hurry; whereupon, with a sudden impulse, I exclaimed —

Shoon thimble-engro; Avella gorgio.

The man, who was in the midst of his pea-and-thimble process, no sooner heard the last word of the distich than he turned an alarmed look in the direction of where I stood; then, glancing around, and perceiving the constable, he slipped forthwith his pellet and thimbles into his pocket, and, lifting up his table, he cried to the people about him, ‘Make way!’ and with a motion with his head to me, as if to follow him, he darted off with a swiftness which the short, pursy constable could by no means rival; and whither he went, or what became of him, I know not, inasmuch as I turned away in another direction.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter53.html

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