Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 68

Elastic step — Disconsolate party — Not the season — Mend your draught — Good ale — Crotchet — Hammer and tongs — Schoolmaster — True Eden life — Flaming Tinman — Twice my size — Hard at work — My poor wife — Grey Moll — A Bible — Half-and-half — What to do — Half inclined — In no time — On one condition — Don’t stare — Like the wind.

After walking some time, I found myself on the great road, at the same spot where I had turned aside the day before with my new-made acquaintance, in the direction of his house. I now continued my journey as before, towards the north. The weather, though beautiful, was much cooler than it had been for some time past; I walked at a great rate, with a springing and elastic step. In about two hours I came to where a kind of cottage stood a little way back from the road, with a huge oak before it, under the shade of which stood a little pony and a cart, which seemed to contain various articles. I was going past — when I saw scrawled over the door of the cottage, ‘Good beer sold here’; upon which, feeling myself all of a sudden very thirsty, I determined to go in and taste the beverage.

I entered a well-sanded kitchen, and seated myself on a bench, on one side of a long white table; the other side, which was nearest to the wall, was occupied by a party, or rather family, consisting of a grimy-looking man, somewhat under the middle size, dressed in faded velveteens, and wearing a leather apron — a rather pretty-looking woman, but sun-burnt, and meanly dressed, and two ragged children, a boy and girl, about four or five years old. The man sat with his eyes fixed upon the table, supporting his chin with both his hands; the woman, who was next him, sat quite still, save that occasionally she turned a glance upon her husband with eyes that appeared to have been lately crying. The children had none of the vivacity so general at their age. A more disconsolate family I had never seen; a mug, which, when filled, might contain half a pint, stood empty before them; a very disconsolate party indeed.

‘House!’ said I; ‘House!’ and then, as nobody appeared, I cried again as loud as I could, ‘House! do you hear me, House!’

‘What’s your pleasure, young man?’ said an elderly woman, who now made her appearance from a side apartment.

‘To taste your ale,’ said I.

‘How much?’ said the woman, stretching out her hand towards the empty mug upon the table.

‘The largest measure-full in your house,’ said I, putting back her hand gently. ‘This is not the season for half-pint mugs.’

‘As you will, young man,’ said the landlady; and presently brought in an earthen pitcher which might contain about three pints, and which foamed and frothed withal.

‘Will this pay for it?’ said I, putting down sixpence.

‘I have to return you a penny,’ said the landlady, putting her hand into her pocket.

‘I want no change,’ said I, flourishing my hand with an air.

‘As you please, young gentleman,’ said the landlady, and then, making a kind of curtsey, she again retired to the side apartment.

‘Here is your health, sir,’ said I to the grimy-looking man, as I raised the pitcher to my lips.

The tinker, for such I supposed him to be, without altering his posture, raised his eyes, looked at me for a moment, gave a slight nod, and then once more fixed his eyes upon the table. I took a draught of the ale, which I found excellent; ‘Won’t you drink?’ said I, holding the pitcher to the tinker.

The man again lifted up his eyes, looked at me, and then at the pitcher, and then at me again. I thought at one time that he was about to shake his head in sign of refusal; but no, he looked once more at the pitcher, and the temptation was too strong. Slowly removing his head from his arms, he took the pitcher, sighed, nodded, and drank a tolerable quantity, and then set the pitcher down before me upon the table.

‘You had better mend your draught,’ said I to the tinker; ‘it is a sad heart that never rejoices.’

‘That’s true,’ said the tinker, and again raising the pitcher to his lips, he mended his draught as I had bidden him, drinking a larger quantity than before.

‘Pass it to your wife,’ said I.

The poor woman took the pitcher from the man’s hand; before, however, raising it to her lips, she looked at the children. True mother’s heart, thought I to myself, and taking the half-pint mug, I made her fill it, and then held it to the children, causing each to take a draught. The woman wiped her eyes with the corner of her gown, before she raised the pitcher and drank to my health.

In about five minutes none of the family looked half so disconsolate as before, and the tinker and I were in deep discourse.

Oh, genial and gladdening is the power of good ale, the true and proper drink of Englishmen. He is not deserving of the name of Englishman who speaketh against ale, that is good ale, like that which has just made merry the hearts of this poor family; and yet there are beings, calling themselves Englishmen, who say that it is a sin to drink a cup of ale, and who, on coming to this passage will be tempted to fling down the book and exclaim, ‘The man is evidently a bad man, for behold, by his own confession, he is not only fond of ale himself, but is in the habit of tempting other people with it.’ Alas! alas! what a number of silly individuals there are in this world; I wonder what they would have had me do in this instance — given the afflicted family a cup of cold water? go to! They could have found water in the road, for there was a pellucid spring only a few yards distant from the house, as they were well aware — but they wanted not water; what should I have given them? meat and bread? go to! They were not hungry; there was stifled sobbing in their bosoms, and the first mouthful of strong meat would have choked them. What should I have given them? Money! what right had I to insult them by offering them money? Advice! words, words, words; friends, there is a time for everything; there is a time for a cup of cold water; there is a time for strong meat and bread; there is a time for advice, and there is a time for ale; and I have generally found that the time for advice is after a cup of ale. I do not say many cups; the tongue then speaketh more smoothly, and the ear listeneth more benignantly; but why do I attempt to reason with you? do I not know you for conceited creatures, with one idea — and that a foolish one; — a crotchet, for the sake of which ye would sacrifice anything, religion if required — country? There, fling down my book, I do not wish ye to walk any farther in my company, unless you cast your nonsense away, which ye will never do, for it is the breath of your nostrils; fling down my book, it was not written to support a crotchet, for know one thing, my good people, I have invariably been an enemy to humbug.

‘Well,’ said the tinker, after we had discoursed some time, ‘little thought, when I first saw you, that you were of my own trade.’

Myself. Nor am I, at least not exactly. There is not much difference, ’tis true, between a tinker and a smith.

Tinker. You are a whitesmith then?

Myself. Not I, I’d scorn to be anything so mean; no, friend, black’s the colour; I am a brother of the horse-shoe. Success to the hammer and tongs.

Tinker. Well, I shouldn’t have thought you had been a blacksmith by your hands.

Myself. I have seen them, however, as black as yours. The truth is, I have not worked for many a day.

Tinker. Where did you serve first?

Myself. In Ireland.

Tinker. That’s a good way off, isn’t it?

Myself. Not very far; over those mountains to the left, and the run of salt water that lies behind them, there’s Ireland.

Tinker. It’s a fine thing to be a scholar.

Myself. Not half so fine as to be a tinker.

Tinker. How you talk!

Myself. Nothing but the truth; what can be better than to be one’s own master? Now a tinker is his own master, a scholar is not. Let us suppose the best of scholars, a schoolmaster for example, for I suppose you will admit that no one can be higher in scholarship than a schoolmaster; do you call his a pleasant life? I don’t; we should call him a school-slave, rather than a schoolmaster. Only conceive him in blessed weather like this, in his close school, teaching children to write in copy-books, ‘Evil communication corrupts good manners,’ or ‘You cannot touch pitch without defilement,’ or to spell out of Abedariums, or to read out of Jack Smith, or Sandford and Merton. Only conceive him, I say, drudging in such guise from morning till night, without any rational enjoyment but to beat the children. Would you compare such a dog’s life as that with your own — the happiest under heaven — true Eden life, as the Germans would say, — pitching your tent under the pleasant hedgerows, listening to the song of the feathered tribes, collecting all the leaky kettles in the neighbourhood, soldering and joining, earning your honest bread by the wholesome sweat of your brow — making ten holes — hey, what’s this? what’s the man crying for?

Suddenly the tinker had covered his face with his hands, and begun to sob and moan like a man in the deepest distress; the breast of his wife was heaved with emotion; even the children were agitated, the youngest began to roar.

Myself. What’s the matter with you; what are you all crying about?

Tinker (uncovering his face). Lord, why to hear you talk; isn’t that enough to make anybody cry — even the poor babes? Yes, you said right, ’tis life in the garden of Eden — the tinker’s; I see so now that I’m about to give it up.

Myself. Give it up! you must not think of such a thing.

Tinker. No, I can’t bear to think of it, and yet I must; what’s to be done? How hard to be frightened to death, to be driven off the roads.

Myself. Who has driven you off the roads?

Tinker. Who! the Flaming Tinman.

Myself. Who is he?

Tinker. The biggest rogue in England, and the cruellest, or he wouldn’t have served me as he has done — I’ll tell you all about it. I was born upon the roads, and so was my father before me, and my mother too; and I worked with them as long as they lived, as a dutiful child, for I have nothing to reproach myself with on their account; and when my father died I took up the business, and went his beat, and supported my mother for the little time she lived; and when she died I married this young woman, who was not born upon the roads, but was a small tradesman’s daughter, at Gloster. She had a kindness for me, and, notwithstanding her friends were against the match, she married the poor tinker, and came to live with him upon the roads. Well, young man, for six or seven years I— as the happiest fellow breathing, living just the life you described just now — respected by everybody in this beat; when in an evil hour comes this Black Jack, this flaming tinman, into these parts, driven as they say out of Yorkshire — for no good you may be sure. Now there is no beat will support two tinkers, as you doubtless know; mine was a good one, but it would not support the flying tinker and myself, though if it would have supported twenty it would have been all the same to the flying villain, who’ll brook no one but himself; so he presently finds me out, and offers to fight me for the beat. Now, being bred upon the roads, I can fight a little, that is with anything like my match, but I was not going to fight him, who happens to be twice my size, and so I told him; whereupon he knocks me down, and would have done me farther mischief had not some men been nigh and prevented him; so he threatened to cut my throat, and went his way. Well, I did not like such usage at all, and was woundily frightened, and tried to keep as much out of his way as possible, going anywhere but where I thought I was likely to meet him; and sure enough for several months I contrived to keep out of his way. At last somebody told me that he was gone back to Yorkshire, whereupon I was glad at heart, and ventured to show myself, going here and there as I did before. Well, young man, it was yesterday that I and mine set ourselves down in a lane, about five miles from here, and lighted our fire, and had our dinner, and after dinner I sat down to mend three kettles and a frying pan which the people in the neighbourhood had given me to mend — for, as I told you before, I have a good connection, owing to my honesty. Well, as I sat there hard at work, happy as the day’s long, and thinking of anything but what was to happen, who should come up but this Black Jack, this king of the tinkers, rattling along in his cart, with his wife, that they call Grey Moll, by his side — for the villain has got a wife, and a maid-servant too; the last I never saw, but they that has, says that she is as big as a house, and young, and well to look at, which can’t be all said of Moll, who, though she’s big enough in all conscience, is neither young nor handsome. Well, no sooner does he see me and mine, than, giving the reins to Grey Moll, he springs out of his cart, and comes straight at me; not a word did he say, but on he comes straight at me like a wild bull. I am a quiet man, young fellow, but I saw now that quietness would be of no use, so I sprang up upon my legs, and being bred upon the roads, and able to fight a little, I squared as he came running in upon me, and had a round or two with him. Lord bless you, young man, it was like a fly fighting with an elephant — one of those big beasts the show-folks carry about. I had not a chance with the fellow, he knocked me here, he knocked me there, knocked me into the hedge, and knocked me out again. I was at my last shifts, and my poor wife saw it. Now my poor wife, though she is as gentle as a pigeon, has yet a spirit of her own, and though she wasn’t bred upon the roads, can scratch a little; so when she saw me at my last shifts, she flew at the villain — she couldn’t bear to see her partner murdered — and scratched the villain’s face. Lord bless you, young man, she had better have been quiet: Grey Moll no sooner saw what she was about, than, springing out of the cart, where she had sat all along perfectly quiet, save a little whooping and screeching to encourage her blade:— Grey Moll, I say (my flesh creeps when I think of it — for I am a kind husband, and love my poor wife) . . .

Myself. Take another draught of the ale; you look frightened, and it will do you good. Stout liquor makes stout heart, as the man says in the play.

Tinker. That’s true, young man; here’s to you — where was I? Grey Moll no sooner saw what my wife was about, than, springing out of the cart, she flew at my poor wife, clawed off her bonnet in a moment, and seized hold of her hair. Lord bless you, young man, my poor wife, in the hands of Grey Moll, was nothing better than a pigeon in the claws of a buzzard hawk, or I in the hands of the Flaming Tinman, which when I saw, my heart was fit to burst, and I determined to give up everything — everything to save my poor wife out of Grey Moll’s claws. ‘Hold!’ I shouted. ‘Hold, both of you — Jack, Moll. Hold, both of you, for God’s sake, and I’ll do what you will: give up trade, and business, connection, bread, and everything, never more travel the roads, and go down on my knees to you in the bargain.’ Well, this had some effect; Moll let go my wife, and the Blazing Tinman stopped for a moment; it was only for a moment, however, that he left off — all of a sudden he hit me a blow which sent me against a tree; and what did the villain then? why the flying villain seized me by the throat, and almost throttled me, roaring — what do you think, young man, that the flaming villain roared out?

Myself. I really don’t know — something horrible, I suppose.

Tinker. Horrible, indeed; you may well say horrible, young man; neither more nor less than the Bible — ‘A Bible, a Bible!’ roared the Blazing Tinman; and he pressed my throat so hard against the tree that my senses began to dwaul away — a Bible, a Bible, still ringing in my ears. Now, young man, my poor wife is a Christian woman, and, though she travels the roads, carries a Bible with her at the bottom of her sack, with which sometimes she teaches the children to read — it was the only thing she brought with her from the place of her kith and kin, save her own body and the clothes on her back; so my poor wife, half distracted, runs to her sack, pulls out the Bible, and puts it into the hand of the Blazing Tinman, who then thrusts the end of it into my mouth with such fury that it made my lips bleed, and broke short one of my teeth which happened to be decayed. ‘Swear,’ said he, ‘swear, you mumping villain, take your Bible oath that you will quit and give up the beat altogether, or I’ll — and then the hard-hearted villain made me swear by the Bible, and my own damnation, half-throttled as I was, to — to — I can’t go on —

Myself. Take another draught — stout liquor —

Tinker. I can’t, young man, my heart’s too full, and what’s more, the pitcher is empty.

Myself. And so he swore you, I suppose, on the Bible, to quit the roads?

Tinker. You are right, he did so, the gypsy villain.

Myself. Gypsy! Is he a gypsy?

Tinker. Not exactly; what they call a half-and-half. His father was a gypsy, and his mother, like mine, one who walked the roads.

Myself. Is he of the Smiths — the Petulengres?

Tinker. I say, young man, you know a thing or two; one would think, to hear you talk, you had been bred upon the roads. I thought none but those bred upon the roads knew anything of that name — Petulengres! No, not he, he fights the Petulengres whenever he meets them; he likes nobody but himself, and wants to be king of the roads. I believe he is a Boss, or a — at any rate he’s a bad one, as I know to my cost.

Myself. And what are you going to do?

Tinker. Do! you may well ask that; I don’t know what to do. My poor wife and I have been talking of that all the morning, over that half-pint mug of beer; we can’t determine on what’s to be done. All we know is, that we must quit the roads. The villain swore that the next time he saw us on the roads he’d cut all our throats, and seize our horse and bit of a cart that are now standing out there under the tree.

Myself. And what do you mean to do with your horse and cart?

Tinker. Another question! What shall we do with our cart and pony? they are of no use to us now. Stay on the roads I will not, both for my oath’s sake and my own. If we had a trifle of money, we were thinking of going to Bristol, where I might get up a little business, but we have none; our last three farthings we spent about the mug of beer.

Myself. But why don’t you sell your horse and cart?

Tinker. Sell them! and who would buy them, unless some one who wished to set up in my line; but there’s no beat, and what’s the use of the horse and cart and the few tools without the beat?

Myself. I’m half inclined to buy your cart and pony, and your beat too.

Tinker. You! How came you to think of such a thing?

Myself. Why, like yourself, I hardly know what to do. I want a home and work. As for a home, I suppose I can contrive to make a home out of your tent and cart; and as for work, I must learn to be a tinker, it would not be hard for one of my trade to learn to tinker; what better can I do? Would you have me go to Chester and work there now? I don’t like the thoughts of it. If I go to Chester and work there, I can’t be my own man; I must work under a master, and perhaps he and I should quarrel, and when I quarrel I am apt to hit folks, and those that hit folks are sometimes sent to prison; I don’t like the thought either of going to Chester or to Chester prison. What do you think I could earn at Chester?

Tinker. A matter of eleven shillings a week, if anybody would employ you, which I don’t think they would with those hands of yours. But whether they would or not, if you are of a quarrelsome nature you must not go to Chester; you would be in the castle in no time. I don’t know how to advise you. As for selling you my stock, I’d see you farther first, for your own sake.

Myself. Why?

Tinker. Why! you would get your head knocked off. Suppose you were to meet him?

Myself. Pooh, don’t be afraid on my account; if I were to meet him I could easily manage him one way or other. I know all kinds of strange words and names, and, as I told you before, I sometimes hit people when they put me out.

Here the tinker’s wife, who for some minutes past had been listening attentively to our discourse, interposed, saying, in a low soft tone: ‘I really don’t see, John, why you shouldn’t sell the young man the things, seeing that he wishes for them, and is so confident; you have told him plainly how matters stand, and if anything ill should befall him, people couldn’t lay the blame on you; but I don’t think any ill will befall him, and who knows but God has sent him to our assistance in time of need?’

‘I’ll hear of no such thing,’ said the tinker; ‘I have drunk at the young man’s expense, and though he says he’s quarrelsome, I would not wish to sit in pleasanter company. A pretty fellow I should be, now, if I were to let him follow his own will. If he once sets up on my beat, he’s a lost man, his ribs will be stove in, and his head knocked off his shoulders. There, you are crying, but you shan’t have your will though; I won’t be the young man’s destruction . . . If, indeed, I thought he could manage the tinker — but he never can; he says he can hit, but it’s no use hitting the tinker, — crying still! you are enough to drive one mad. I say, young man, I believe you understand a thing or two, just now you were talking of knowing hard words and names — I don’t wish to send you to your mischief — you say you know hard words and names; let us see. Only on one condition I’ll sell you the pony and things; as for the beat it’s gone, isn’t mine — sworn away by my own mouth. Tell me what’s my name; if you can’t, may I— ’

Myself. Don’t swear, it’s a bad habit, neither pleasant nor profitable. Your name is Slingsby — Jack Slingsby. There, don’t stare, there’s nothing in my telling you your name: I’ve been in these parts before, at least not very far from here. Ten years ago, when I was little more than a child, I was about twenty miles from here in a post-chaise, at the door of an inn, and as I looked from the window of the chaise, I saw you standing by a gutter, with a big tin ladle in your hand, and somebody called you Jack Slingsby. I never forget anything I hear or see; I can’t, I wish I could. So there’s nothing strange in my knowing your name; indeed, there’s nothing strange in anything, provided you examine it to the bottom. Now what am I to give you for the things?

I paid Slingsby five pounds ten shillings for his stock in trade, cart, and pony — purchased sundry provisions of the landlady, also a wagoner’s frock, which had belonged to a certain son of hers, deceased, gave my little animal a feed of corn, and prepared to depart.

‘God bless you, young man,’ said Slingsby, shaking me by the hand; ‘you are the best friend I’ve had for many a day: I have but one thing to tell you, Don’t cross that fellow’s path if you can help it; and stay — should the pony refuse to go, just touch him so, and he’ll fly like the wind.’

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