Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 81

At a funeral — Two days ago — Very coolly — Roman woman — Well and hearty — Somewhat dreary — Plum pudding — Roman fashion — Quite different — The dark lane — Beyond the time — Fine fellow — Such a struggle — Like a wild cat — Fair Play — Pleasant enough spot — No gloves.

So I turned back with Mr. Petulengro. We travelled for some time in silence; at last we fell into discourse. ‘You have been in Wales, Mr. Petulengro?’

‘Ay, truly, brother.’

‘What have you been doing there?’

‘Assisting at a funeral.’

‘At whose funeral?’

‘Mrs. Herne’s, brother.’

‘Is she dead, then?’

‘As a nail, brother.’

‘How did she die?’

‘By hanging, brother.’

‘I am lost in astonishment,’ said I; whereupon Mr. Petulengro, lifting his sinister leg over the neck of his steed, and adjusting himself sideways in the saddle, replied, with great deliberation, ‘Two days ago I happened to be at a fair not very far from here; I was all alone by myself, for our party were upwards of forty miles off, when who should come up but a chap that I knew, a relation, or rather a connection, of mine — one of those Hernes. “Aren’t you going to the funeral?” said he; and then, brother, there passed between him and me, in the way of questioning and answering, much the same as has just now passed between me and you; but when he mentioned hanging, I thought I could do no less than ask who hanged her, which you forgot to do. “Who hanged her?” said I; and then the man told me that she had done it herself; been her own hinjiri; and then I thought to myself what a sin and shame it would be if I did not go to the funeral, seeing that she was my own mother-inlaw. I would have brought my wife, and, indeed, the whole of our party, but there was no time for that; they were too far off, and the dead was to be buried early the next morning; so I went with the man, and he led me into Wales, where his party had lately retired, and when there, through many wild and desolate places to their encampment, and there I found the Hernes, and the dead body — the last laid out on a mattress, in a tent, dressed Romaneskoenaes in a red cloak, and big bonnet of black beaver. I must say for the Hernes that they took the matter very coolly; some were eating, others drinking, and some were talking about their small affairs; there was one, however, who did not take the matter so coolly, but took on enough for the whole family, sitting beside the dead woman, tearing her hair, and refusing to take either meat or drink; it was the child Leonora. I arrived at night-fall, and the burying was not to take place till the morning, which I was rather sorry for, as I am not very fond of them Hernes, who are not very fond of anybody. They never asked me to eat or drink, notwithstanding I had married into the family; one of them, however, came up and offered to fight me for five shillings; had it not been for them I should have come back as empty as I went — he didn’t stand up five minutes. Brother, I passed the night as well as I could, beneath a tree, for the tents were full, and not over clean; I slept little, and had my eyes about me, for I knew the kind of people I was among.

‘Early in the morning the funeral took place. The body was placed not in a coffin but on a bier, and carried not to a churchyard but to a deep dell close by; and there it was buried beneath a rock, dressed just as I have told you; and this was done by the bidding of Leonora, who had heard her bebee say that she wished to be buried, not in gorgious fashion, but like a Roman woman of the old blood, the kosko puro rati, brother. When it was over, and we had got back to the encampment, I prepared to be going. Before mounting my gry, however, I bethought me to ask what could have induced the dead woman to make away with herself — a thing so uncommon amongst Romanies; whereupon one squinted with his eyes, a second spirted saliver into the air, and a third said that he neither knew nor cared; she was a good riddance, having more than once been nearly the ruin of them all, from the quantity of brimstone she carried about her. One, however, I suppose rather ashamed of the way in which they had treated me, said at last that if I wanted to know all about the matter none could tell me better than the child, who was in all her secrets, and was not a little like her; so I looked about for the child, but could find her nowhere. At last the same man told me that he shouldn’t wonder if I found her at the grave; so I went back to the grave, and sure enough there I found the child Leonora, seated on the ground above the body, crying and taking on; so I spoke kindly to her, and said, “How came all this, Leonora? tell me all about it.” It was a long time before I could get any answer; at last she opened her mouth and spoke, and these were the words she said, “It was all along of your Pal”; and then she told me all about the matter — how Mrs. Herne could not abide you, which I knew before; and that she had sworn your destruction, which I did not know before. And then she told me how she found you living in the wood by yourself, and how you were enticed to eat a poisoned cake; and she told me many other things that you wot of, and she told me what perhaps you don’t wot, namely, that finding you had been removed, she, the child, had tracked you a long way, and found you at last well and hearty, and no ways affected by the poison, and heard you, as she stood concealed, disputing about religion with a Welsh Methody. Well, brother, she told me all this; and, moreover, that when Mrs. Herne heard of it, she said that a dream of hers had come to pass. I don’t know what it was, but something about herself, a tinker, and a dean; and then she added that it was all up with her, and that she must take a long journey. Well, brother, that same night Leonora, waking from her sleep in the tent where Mrs. Herne and she were wont to sleep, missed her bebee, and, becoming alarmed, went in search of her, and at last found her hanging from a branch; and when the child had got so far, she took on violently, and I could not get another word from her; so I left her, and here I am.’

‘And I am glad to see you, Mr. Petulengro; but this is sad news which you tell me about Mrs. Herne.’

‘Somewhat dreary, brother; yet, perhaps, after all, it is a good thing that she is removed; she carried so much Devil’s tinder about with her, as the man said.’

‘I am sorry for her,’ said I; ‘more especially as I am the cause of her death — though the innocent one.’

‘She could not bide you, brother, that’s certain; but that is no reason’ — said Mr. Petulengro, balancing himself upon the saddle — ‘that is no reason why she should prepare drow to take away your essence of life; and, when disappointed, to hang herself upon a tree: if she was dissatisfied with you, she might have flown at you, and scratched your face; or, if she did not judge herself your match, she might have put down five shillings for a turn-up between you and some one she thought could beat you — myself, for example — and so the matter might have ended comfortably; but she was always too fond of covert ways, drows, and brimstones. This is not the first poisoning affair she has been engaged in.’

‘You allude to drabbing bawlor.’

‘Bah!’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘there’s no harm in that. No, no! she has cast drows in her time for other guess things than bawlor; both Gorgios and Romans have tasted of them, and died. Did you never hear of the poisoned plum pudding?’

‘Never.’

‘Then I will tell you about it. It happened about six years ago, a few months after she had quitted us — she had gone first amongst her own people, as she called them; but there was another small party of Romans, with whom she soon became very intimate. It so happened that this small party got into trouble; whether it was about a horse or an ass, or passing bad money, no matter to you and me, who had no hand in the business; three or four of them were taken and lodged in-Castle, and amongst them was a woman; but the sherengro, or principal man of the party, and who it seems had most hand in the affair, was still at large. All of a sudden a rumour was spread abroad that the woman was about to play false, and to ‘peach the rest. Said the principal man, when he heard it, “If she does, I am nashkado.” Mrs. Herne was then on a visit to the party, and when she heard the principal man take on so, she said, “But I suppose you know what to do?” “I do not,” said he. “Then hir mi devlis,” said she, “you are a fool. But leave the matter to me, I know how to dispose of her in Roman fashion.” Why she wanted to interfere in the matter, brother, I don’t know, unless it was from pure brimstoneness of disposition — she had no hand in the matter which had brought the party into trouble — she was only on a visit, and it had happened before she came; but she was always ready to give dangerous advice. Well, brother, the principal man listened to what she had to say, and let her do what she would; and she made a pudding, a very nice one, no doubt — for, besides plums, she put in drows and all the Roman condiments that she knew of; and she gave it to the principal man, and the principal put it into a basket and directed it to the woman in-Castle, and the woman in the castle took it and — ’

‘Ate of it,’ said I; ‘just like my case!’

‘Quite different, brother; she took it, it is true, but instead of giving way to her appetite, as you might have done, she put it before the rest whom she was going to impeach; perhaps she wished to see how they liked it before she tasted it herself; and all the rest were poisoned, and one died, and there was a precious outcry, and the woman cried loudest of all; and she said, “It was my death was sought for; I know the man, and I’ll be revenged.” And then the Poknees spoke to her and said, “Where can we find him?” and she said, “I am awake to his motions; three weeks from hence, the night before the full moon, at such and such an hour, he will pass down such a lane with such a man.”’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘and what did the Poknees do?’

‘Do, brother! sent for a plastramengro from Bow Street, quite secretly, and told him what the woman had said; and the night before the full moon, the plastramengro went to the place which the juwa had pointed out, all alone, brother; and in order that he might not be too late, he went two hours before his time. I know the place well, brother, where the plastramengro placed himself behind a thick holly tree, at the end of a lane, where a gate leads into various fields, through which there is a path for carts and horses. The lane is called the dark lane by the Gorgios, being much shaded by trees. So the plastramengro placed himself in the dark lane behind the holly tree; it was a cold February night, dreary though; the wind blew in gusts, and the moon had not yet risen, and the plastramengro waited behind the tree till he was tired, and thought he might as well sit down; so he sat down, and was not long in falling to sleep, and there he slept for some hours; and when he awoke the moon had risen, and was shining bright, so that there was a kind of moonlight even in the dark lane; and the plastramengro pulled out his watch, and contrived to make out that it was just two hours beyond the time when the men should have passed by. Brother, I do not know what the plastramengro thought of himself, but I know, brother, what I should have thought of myself in his situation. I should have thought, brother, that I was a drowsy scoppelo, and that I had let the fellow pass by whilst I was sleeping behind a bush. As it turned out, however, his going to sleep did no harm, but quite the contrary: just as he was going away, he heard a gate slam in the direction of the fields, and then he heard the low stumping of horses, as if on soft ground, for the path in those fields is generally soft, and at that time it had been lately ploughed up. Well, brother, presently he saw two men on horseback coming towards the lane through the field behind the gate; the man who rode foremost was a tall big fellow, the very man he was in quest of; the other was a smaller chap, not so small either, but a light, wiry fellow, and a proper master of his hands when he sees occasion for using them. Well, brother, the foremost man came to the gate, reached at the hank, undid it, and rode through, holding it open for the other. Before, however, the other could follow into the lane, out bolted the plastramengro from behind the tree, kicked the gate to with his foot, and, seizing the big man on horse-back, “You are my prisoner,” said he. I am of opinion, brother, that the plastramengro, notwithstanding he went to sleep, must have been a regular fine fellow.’

‘I am entirely of your opinion,’ said I; ‘but what happened then?’

‘Why, brother, the Rommany chal, after he had somewhat recovered from his surprise, for it is rather uncomfortable to be laid hold of at night-time, and told you are a prisoner; more especially when you happen to have two or three things on your mind which, if proved against you, would carry you to the nashky, — the Rommany chal, I say, clubbed his whip, and aimed a blow at the plastramengro, which, if it had hit him on the skull, as was intended, would very likely have cracked it. The plastramengro, however, received it partly on his staff, so that it did him no particular damage. Whereupon, seeing what kind of customer he had to deal with, he dropped his staff and seized the chal with both his hands, who forthwith spurred his horse, hoping, by doing so, either to break away from him or fling him down; but it would not do — the plastramengro held on like a bull-dog, so that the Rommany chal, to escape being hauled to the ground, suddenly flung himself off the saddle, and then happened in that lane, close by the gate, such a struggle between those two — the chal and the runner — as I suppose will never happen again. But you must have heard of it; every one has heard of it; every one has heard of the fight between the Bow Street engro and the Rommany chal.’

‘I never heard of it till now.’

‘All England rung of it, brother. There never was a better match than between those two. The runner was somewhat the stronger of the two — all those engroes are strong fellows — and a great deal cooler, for all of that sort are wondrous cool people — he had, however, to do with one who knew full well how to take his own part. The chal fought the engro, brother, in the old Roman fashion. He bit, he kicked, and screamed like a wild cat of Benygant; casting foam from his mouth and fire from his eyes. Sometimes he was beneath the engro’s legs, and sometimes he was upon his shoulders. What the engro found the most difficult was to get a firm hold of the chal, for no sooner did he seize the chal by any part of his wearing apparel, than the chal either tore himself away, or contrived to slip out of it; so that in a little time the chal was three parts naked; and as for holding him by the body, it was out of the question, for he was as slippery as an eel. At last the engro seized the chal by the Belcher’s handkerchief, which he wore in a knot round his neck, and do whatever the chal could, he could not free himself; and when the engro saw that, it gave him fresh heart, no doubt: “It’s of no use,” said he; “you had better give in; hold out your hands for the darbies, or I will throttle you.”

‘And what did the other fellow do, who came with the chal?’ said I.

‘I sat still on my horse, brother.’

‘You!’ said I. ‘Were you the man?’

‘I was he, brother.’

‘And why did you not help your comrade?’

‘I have fought in the ring, brother.’

‘And what had fighting in the ring to do with fighting in the lane?’

‘You mean not fighting. A great deal, brother; it taught me to prize fair play. When I fought Staffordshire Dick, t’other side of London, I was alone, brother. Not a Rommany chal to back me, and he had all his brother pals about him; but they gave me fair play, brother; and I beat Staffordshire Dick, which I couldn’t have done had they put one finger on his side the scale; for he was as good a man as myself, or nearly so. Now, brother, had I but bent a finger in favour of the Rommany chal, the plastramengro would never have come alive out of the lane; but I did not, for I thought to myself fair play is a precious stone; so you see, brother — ’

‘That you are quite right, Mr. Petulengro, I see that clearly; and now, pray proceed with your narration; it is both moral and entertaining.’

But Mr. Petulengro did not proceed with his narration, neither did he proceed upon his way; he had stopped his horse, and his eyes were intently fixed on a broad strip of grass beneath some lofty trees, on the left side of the road. It was a pleasant enough spot, and seemed to invite wayfaring people, such as we were, to rest from the fatigues of the road, and the heat and vehemence of the sun. After examining it for a considerable time, Mr. Petulengro said, ‘I say, brother, that would be a nice place for a tussle!’

‘I daresay it would,’ said I, ‘if two people were inclined to fight.’

‘The ground is smooth,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘without holes or ruts, and the trees cast much shade. I don’t think, brother, that we could find a better place,’ said Mr. Petulengro, springing from his horse.

‘But you and I don’t want to fight!’

‘Speak for yourself, brother,’ said Mr. Petulengro. ‘However, I will tell you how the matter stands. There is a point at present between us. There can be no doubt that you are the cause of Mrs. Herne’s death, innocently, you will say, but still the cause. Now, I shouldn’t like it to be known that I went up and down the country with a pal who was the cause of my mother-inlaw’s death, that’s to say, unless he gave me satisfaction. Now, if I and my pal have a tussle, he gives me satisfaction; and, if he knocks my eyes out, which I know you can’t do, it makes no difference at all, he gives me satisfaction; and he who says to the contrary knows nothing of gypsy law, and is a dinelo into the bargain.’

‘But we have no gloves!’

‘Gloves!’ said Mr. Petulengro, contemptuously, ‘gloves! I tell you what, brother, I always thought you were a better hand at the gloves than the naked fist; and, to tell you the truth, besides taking satisfaction for Mrs. Herne’s death, I wish to see what you can do with your mawleys; so now is your time, brother, and this is your place, grass and shade, no ruts or holes; come on, brother, or I shall think you what I should not like to call you.’

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