Lavengro, by George Borrow

Chapter 85

Free and independent — I don’t see why — Oats — A noise — Unwelcome visitors — What’s the matter? — Good-day to ye — The tall girl — Dovrefeld — Blow on the face — Civil enough — What’s this? — Vulgar woman — Hands off — Gasping for breath — Long Melford — A pretty manoeuvre — A long draught — Signs of animation — It won’t do — No malice — Bad people.

Two mornings after the period to which I have brought the reader in the preceding chapter, I sat by my fire at the bottom of the dingle; I had just breakfasted, and had finished the last morsel of food which I had brought with me to that solitude.

‘What shall I now do?’ said I to myself; ‘shall I continue here, or decamp? — this is a sad lonely spot — perhaps I had better quit it; but whither shall I go? the wide world is before me, but what can I do therein? I have been in the world already without much success. No, I had better remain here; the place is lonely, it is true, but here I am free and independent, and can do what I please; but I can’t remain here without food. Well, I will find my way to the nearest town, lay in a fresh supply of provision, and come back, turning my back upon the world, which has turned its back upon me. I don’t see why I should not write a little sometimes; I have pens and an ink-horn, and for a writing-desk I can place the Bible on my knee. I shouldn’t wonder if I could write a capital satire on the world on the back of that Bible; but, first of all, I must think of supplying myself with food.’

I rose up from the stone on which I was seated, determining to go to the nearest town, with my little horse and cart, and procure what I wanted. The nearest town, according to my best calculation, lay about five miles distant; I had no doubt, however, that, by using ordinary diligence, I should be back before evening. In order to go lighter, I determined to leave my tent standing as it was, and all the things which I had purchased of the tinker, just as they were. ‘I need not be apprehensive on their account,’ said I to myself; ‘nobody will come here to meddle with them — the great recommendation of this place is its perfect solitude — I daresay that I could live here six months without seeing a single human visage. I will now harness my little gry and be off to the town.’

At a whistle which I gave, the little gry, which was feeding on the bank near the uppermost part of the dingle, came running to me, for by this time he had become so accustomed to me that he would obey my call, for all the world as if he had been one of the canine species. ‘Now,’ said I to him, ‘we are going to the town to buy bread for myself and oats for you — I am in a hurry to be back; therefore I pray you to do your best, and to draw me and the cart to the town with all possible speed, and to bring us back; if you do your best, I promise you oats on your return. You know the meaning of oats, Ambrol?’ Ambrol whinnied as if to let me know that he understood me perfectly well, as indeed he well might, as I had never once fed him during the time that he had been in my possession without saying the word in question to him. Now, Ambrol, in the gypsy tongue, signifieth a pear.

So I caparisoned Ambrol, and then, going to the cart, I removed two or three things from it into the tent; I then lifted up the shafts, and was just going to call to the pony to come and be fastened to them, when I thought I heard a noise.

I stood stock still, supporting the shaft of the little cart in my hand, and bending the right side of my face slightly towards the ground, but I could hear nothing; the noise which I thought I had heard was not one of those sounds which I was accustomed to hear in that solitude — the note of a bird, or the rustling of a bough; it was — there I heard it again, a sound very much resembling the grating of a wheel amongst gravel. Could it proceed from the road? Oh no, the road was too far distant for me to hear the noise of anything moving along it. Again I listened, and now I distinctly heard the sound of wheels, which seemed to be approaching the dingle; nearer and nearer they drew, and presently the sound of wheels was blended with the murmur of voices. Anon I heard a boisterous shout, which seemed to proceed from the entrance of the dingle. ‘Here are folks at hand,’ said I, letting the shaft of the cart fall to the ground; ‘is it possible that they can be coming here?’ My doubts on that point, if I entertained any, were soon dispelled; the wheels, which had ceased moving for a moment or two, were once again in motion, and were now evidently moving down the winding path which led to my retreat. Leaving my cart, I came forward and placed myself near the entrance of the open space, with my eyes fixed on the path down which my unexpected, and I may say unwelcome, visitors were coming. Presently I heard a stamping or sliding, as if of a horse in some difficulty; then a loud curse, and the next moment appeared a man and a horse and cart; the former holding the head of the horse up to prevent him from falling, of which he was in danger, owing to the precipitous nature of the path. Whilst thus occupied, the head of the man was averted from me. When, however, he had reached the bottom of the descent, he turned his head, and perceiving me, as I stood bareheaded, without either coat or waistcoat, about two yards from him, he gave a sudden start, so violent that the backward motion of his hand had nearly flung the horse upon his haunches.

‘Why don’t you move forward?’ said a voice from behind, apparently that of a female; ‘you are stopping up the way, and we shall be all down upon one another’; and I saw the head of another horse overtopping the back of the cart.

‘Why don’t you move forward, Jack?’ said another voice, also a female, yet higher up the path.

The man stirred not, but remained staring at me in the posture which he had assumed on first perceiving me, his body very much drawn back, his left foot far in advance of his right, and with his right hand still grasping the halter of the horse, which gave way more and more, till it was clean down on its haunches.

‘What’s the matter?’ said the voice which I had last heard.

‘Get back with you, Belle, Moll,’ said the man, still staring at me; ‘here’s something not over canny or comfortable.’

‘What is it?’ said the same voice; ‘let me pass, Moll, and I’ll soon clear the way’; and I heard a kind of rushing down the path.

‘You need not be afraid,’ said I, addressing myself to the man, ‘I mean you no harm; I am a wanderer like yourself — come here to seek for shelter — you need not be afraid; I am a Roman chabo by matriculation — one of the right sort, and no mistake — Good-day to ye, brother; I bid ye welcome.’

The man eyed me suspiciously for a moment — then, turning to his horse with a loud curse, he pulled him up from his haunches, and led him and the cart farther down to one side of the dingle, muttering, as he passed me, ‘Afraid! Hm!’

I do not remember ever to have seen a more ruffianly-looking fellow; he was about six feet high, with an immensely athletic frame; his face was black and bluff, and sported an immense pair of whiskers, but with here and there a gray hair, for his age could not be much under fifty. He wore a faded blue frock-coat, corduroys, and highlows; on his black head was a kind of red nightcap, round his bull neck a Barcelona handkerchief — I did not like the look of the man at all.

‘Afraid!’ growled the fellow, proceeding to unharness his horse; ‘that was the word, I think.’

But other figures were now already upon the scene. Dashing past the other horse and cart, which by this time had reached the bottom of the pass, appeared an exceedingly tall woman, or rather girl, for she could scarcely have been above eighteen; she was dressed in a tight bodice and a blue stuff gown; hat, bonnet, or cap she had none, and her hair, which was flaxen, hung down on her shoulders unconfined; her complexion was fair, and her features handsome, with a determined but open expression — she was followed by another female, about forty, stout and vulgar-looking, at whom I scarcely glanced, my whole attention being absorbed by the tall girl.

‘What’s the matter, Jack?’ said the latter, looking at the man.

‘Only afraid, that’s all,’ said the man, still proceeding with his work.

‘Afraid at what — at that lad? why, he looks like a ghost — I would engage to thrash him with one hand.’

‘You might beat me with no hands at all,’ said I, ‘fair damsel, only by looking at me — I never saw such a face and figure, both regal — why, you look like Ingeborg, Queen of Norway; she had twelve brothers, you know, and could lick them all, though they were heroes:-

On Dovrefeld in Norway Were once together seen The twelve heroic brothers Of Ingeborg the queen.’

‘None of your chaffing, young fellow,’ said the tall girl, ‘or I will give you what shall make you wipe your face; be civil, or you will rue it.’

‘Well, perhaps I was a peg too high,’ said I; ‘I ask your pardon — here’s something a bit lower:-

As I was jawing to the gav yeck divvus I met on the drom miro Rommany chi — ’

None of your Rommany chies, young fellow,’ said the tall girl, looking more menacingly than before, and clenching her fist; ‘you had better be civil, I am none of your chies; and though I keep company with gypsies, or, to speak more proper, half-and-halfs, I would have you to know that I come of Christian blood and parents, and was born in the great house of Long Melford.’

‘I have no doubt,’ said I, ‘that it was a great house; judging from your size I shouldn’t wonder if you were born in a church.’

‘Stay, Belle,’ said the man, putting himself before the young virago, who was about to rush upon me, ‘my turn is first’ — then, advancing to me in a menacing attitude, he said, with a look of deep malignity, ‘“Afraid,” was the word, wasn’t it?’

‘It was,’ said I, ‘but I think I wronged you; I should have said, aghast; you exhibited every symptom of one labouring under uncontrollable fear.’

The fellow stared at me with a look of stupid ferocity, and appeared to be hesitating whether to strike or not: ere he could make up his mind, the tall girl started forward, crying, ‘He’s chaffing; let me at him’; and before I could put myself on my guard, she struck me a blow on the face which had nearly brought me to the ground.

‘Enough,’ said I, putting my hand to my cheek; ‘you have now performed your promise, and made me wipe my face: now be pacified, and tell me fairly the grounds of this quarrel.’

‘Grounds!’ said the fellow; ‘didn’t you say I was afraid; and if you hadn’t, who gave you leave to camp on my ground?’

‘Is it your ground?’ said I.

‘A pretty question,’ said the fellow; ‘as if all the world didn’t know that. Do you know who I am?’

‘I guess I do,’ said I; ‘unless I am much mistaken, you are he whom folks call the “Flaming Tinman.” To tell you the truth, I’m glad we have met, for I wished to see you. These are your two wives, I suppose; I greet them. There’s no harm done — there’s room enough here for all of us — we shall soon be good friends, I daresay; and when we are a little better acquainted, I’ll tell you my history.’

‘Well, if that doesn’t beat all!’ said the fellow.

‘I don’t think he’s chaffing now,’ said the girl, whose anger seemed to have subsided on a sudden; ‘the young man speaks civil enough.’

‘Civil!’ said the fellow, with an oath; ‘but that’s just like you; with you it is a blow, and all over. Civil! I suppose you would have him stay here, and get into all my secrets, and hear all I may have to say to my two morts.’

‘Two morts!’ said the girl, kindling up, ‘where are they? Speak for one, and no more. I am no mort of yours, whatever some one else may be. I tell you one thing, Black John, or Anselo, — for t’other ain’t your name, — the same thing I told the young man here, be civil, or you will rue it.’

The fellow looked at the girl furiously, but his glance soon quailed before hers; he withdrew his eyes, and cast them on my little horse, which was feeding amongst the trees. ‘What’s this?’ said he, rushing forward and seizing the animal. ‘Why, as I am alive, this is the horse of that mumping villain Slingsby.’

‘It’s his no longer; I bought it and paid for it.’

‘It’s mine now,’ said the fellow; ‘I swore I would seize it the next time I found it on my beat; ay, and beat the master too.’

‘I am not Slingsby.’

‘All’s one for that.’

‘You don’t say you will beat me?’

‘Afraid was the word.’

‘I’m sick and feeble.’

‘Hold up your fists.’

‘Won’t the horse satisfy you?’

‘Horse nor bellows either.’

‘No mercy, then?’

‘Here’s at you.’

‘Mind your eyes, Jack. There, you’ve got it. I thought so,’ shouted the girl, as the fellow staggered back from a sharp blow in the eye; ‘I thought he was chaffing at you all along.’

‘Never mind, Anselo. You know what to do — go in,’ said the vulgar woman, who had hitherto not spoken a word, but who now came forward with all the look of a fury; ‘go inapopli; you’ll smash ten like he.’

The Flaming Tinman took her advice, and came in bent on smashing, but stopped short on receiving a left-handed blow on the nose.

‘You’ll never beat the Flaming Tinman in that way,’ said the girl, looking at me doubtfully.

And so I began to think myself, when, in the twinkling of an eye, the Flaming Tinman, disengaging himself of his frock-coat, and dashing off his red night-cap, came rushing in more desperately than ever. To a flush hit which he received in the mouth he paid as little attention as a wild bull would have done; in a moment his arms were around me, and in another he had hurled me down, falling heavily upon me. The fellow’s strength appeared to be tremendous.

‘Pay him off now,’ said the vulgar woman. The Flaming Tinman made no reply, but, planting his knee on my breast, seized my throat with two huge horny hands. I gave myself up for dead, and probably should have been so in another minute but for the tall girl, who caught hold of the handkerchief which the fellow wore round his neck, with a grasp nearly as powerful us that with which he pressed my throat.

‘Do you call that fair play?’ said she.

‘Hands off, Belle,’ said the other woman; ‘do you call it fair play to interfere? hands off, or I’ll be down upon you myself.’

But Belle paid no heed to the injunction, and tugged so hard at the handkerchief that the Flaming Tinman was nearly throttled; suddenly relinquishing his hold of me, he started on his feet, and aimed a blow at my fair preserver, who avoided it, but said coolly:-

‘Finish t’other business first, and then I’m your woman whenever you like; but finish it fairly — no foul play when I’m by — I’ll be the boy’s second, and Moll can pick up you when he happens to knock you down.’

The battle during the next ten minutes raged with considerable fury, but it so happened that during this time I was never able to knock the Flaming Tinman down, but on the contrary received six knock-down blows myself. ‘I can never stand this,’ said I, as I sat on the knee of Belle, ‘I am afraid I must give in; the Flaming Tinman hits very hard,’ and I spat out a mouthful of blood.

‘Sure enough you’ll never beat the Flaming Tinman in the way you fight — it’s of no use flipping at the Flaming Tinman with your left hand; why don’t you use your right?’

‘Because I’m not handy with it,’ said I; and then getting up, I once more confronted the Flaming Tinman, and struck him six blows for his one, but they were all left-handed blows, and the blow which the Flaming Tinman gave me knocked me off my legs.

‘Now, will you use Long Melford?’ said Belle, picking me up.

‘I don’t know what you mean by Long Melford,’ said I, gasping for breath.

‘Why, this long right of yours,’ said Belle, feeling my right arm; ‘if you do, I shouldn’t wonder if you yet stand a chance.’ And now the Flaming Tinman was once more ready, much more ready than myself. I, however, rose from my second’s knee as well as my weakness would permit me. On he came, striking left and right, appearing almost as fresh as to wind and spirit as when he first commenced the combat, though his eyes were considerably swelled, and his nether lip was cut in two; on he came, striking left and right, and I did not like his blows at all, or even the wind of them, which was anything but agreeable, and I gave way before him. At last he aimed a blow which, had it taken full effect, would doubtless have ended the battle, but owing to his slipping, the fist only grazed my left shoulder, and came with terrific force against a tree, close to which I had been driven; before the Tinman could recover himself, I collected all my strength, and struck him beneath the ear, and then fell to the ground completely exhausted; and it so happened that the blow which I struck the Tinker beneath the ear was a right-handed blow.

‘Hurrah for Long Melford!’ I heard Belle exclaim; ‘there is nothing like Long Melford for shortness, all the world over.’ At these words I turned round my head as I lay, and perceived the Flaming Tinman stretched upon the ground apparently senseless. ‘He is dead,’ said the vulgar woman, as she vainly endeavoured to raise him up; ‘he is dead; the best man in all the north country, killed in this fashion, by a boy!’ Alarmed at these words, I made shift to get on my feet; and, with the assistance of the woman, placed my fallen adversary in a sitting posture. I put my hand to his heart, and felt a slight pulsation — ‘He’s not dead,’ said I, ‘only stunned; if he were let blood, he would recover presently.’ I produced a penknife which I had in my pocket, and, baring the arm of the Tinman, was about to make the necessary incision, when the woman gave me a violent blow, and, pushing me aside, exclaimed, ‘I’ll tear the eyes out of your head if you offer to touch him. Do you want to complete your work, and murder him outright, now he’s asleep? you have had enough of his blood already.’ ‘You are mad,’ said I, ‘I only seek to do him service. Well, if you won’t let him be blooded, fetch some water and fling it in his face, you know where the pit is.’

‘A pretty manoeuvre!’ said the woman; ‘leave my husband in the hands of you and that limmer, who has never been true to us — I should find him strangled or his throat cut when I came back.’ ‘Do you go,’ said I to the tall girl; ‘take the can and fetch some water from the pit.’ ‘You had better go yourself,’ said the girl, wiping a tear as she looked on the yet senseless form of the Tinker; ‘you had better go yourself, if you think water will do him good.’ I had by this time somewhat recovered my exhausted powers, and, taking the can, I bent my steps as fast as I could to the pit; arriving there, I lay down on the brink, took a long draught, and then plunged my head into the water; after which I filled the can, and bent my way back to the dingle. Before I could reach the path which led down into its depths, I had to pass some way along its side; I had arrived at a part immediately over the scene of the last encounter, where the bank, overgrown with trees, sloped precipitously down. Here I heard a loud sound of voices in the dingle; I stopped, and laying hold of a tree, leaned over the bank and listened. The two women appeared to be in hot dispute in the dingle. ‘It was all owing to you, you limmer,’ said the vulgar woman to the other; ‘had you not interfered, the old man would soon have settled the boy.’

‘I’m for fair play and Long Melford,’ said the other. ‘If your old man, as you call him, could have settled the boy fairly, he might for all I should have cared, but no foul work for me, and as for sticking the boy with our gulleys when he comes back, as you proposed, I am not so fond of your old man or you that I should oblige you in it, to my soul’s destruction.’ ‘Hold your tongue, or I’ll — ’ I listened no farther, but hastened as fast as I could to the dingle. My adversary had just begun to show signs of animation; the vulgar woman was still supporting him, and occasionally cast glances of anger at the tall girl, who was walking slowly up and down. I lost no time in dashing the greater part of the water into the Tinman’s face, whereupon he sneezed, moved his hands, and presently looked round him. At first his looks were dull and heavy, and without any intelligence at all; he soon, however, began to recollect himself, and to be conscious of his situation; he cast a scowling glance at me, then one of the deepest malignity at the tall girl, who was still walking about without taking much notice of what was going forward. At last he looked at his right hand, which had evidently suffered from the blow against the tree, and a half-stifled curse escaped his lips. The vulgar woman now said something to him in a low tone, whereupon he looked at her for a moment, and then got upon his legs. Again the vulgar woman said something to him; her looks were furious, and she appeared to be urging him on to attempt something. I observed that she had a clasped knife in her hand. The fellow remained standing for some time as if hesitating what to do; at last he looked at his hand, and, shaking his head, said something to the woman which I did not understand. The tall girl, however, appeared to overhear him, and, probably repeating his words, said, ‘No, it won’t do; you are right there; and now hear what I have to say, — let bygones be bygones, and let us all shake hands, and camp here, as the young man was saying just now.’ The man looked at her, and then, without any reply, went to his horse, which was lying down among the trees, and kicking it up, led it to the cart, to which he forthwith began to harness it. The other cart and horse had remained standing motionless during the whole affair which I have been recounting, at the bottom of the pass. The woman now took the horse by the head, and leading it with the cart into the open part of the dingle, turned both round, and then led them back, till the horse and cart had mounted a little way up the ascent; she then stood still and appeared to be expecting the man. During this proceeding Belle had stood looking on without saying anything; at last, perceiving that the man had harnessed his horse to the other cart, and that both he and the woman were about to take their departure, she said, ‘You are not going, are you?’ Receiving no answer, she continued: ‘I tell you what, both of you, Black John, and you Moll, his mort, this is not treating me over civilly, — however, I am ready to put up with it, and to go with you if you like, for I bear no malice. I’m sorry for what has happened, but you have only yourselves to thank for it. Now, shall I go with you, only tell me?’ The man made no manner of reply, but flogged his horse. The woman, however, whose passions were probably under less control, replied, with a screeching tone, ‘Stay where you are, you jade, and may the curse of Judas cling to you, — stay with the bit of a mullo whom you helped, and my only hope is that he may gulley you before he comes to be. . . . Have you with us, indeed! after what’s past! no, nor nothing belonging to you. Fetch down your mailia go-cart and live here with your chabo.’ She then whipped on the horse, and ascended the pass, followed by the man. The carts were light, and they were not long in ascending the winding path. I followed to see that they took their departure. Arriving at the top, I found near the entrance a small donkey-cart, which I concluded belonged to the girl. The tinker and his mort were already at some distance; I stood looking after them for a little time, then taking the donkey by the reins I led it with the cart to the bottom of the dingle. Arrived there, I found Belle seated on the stone by the fireplace. Her hair was all dishevelled, and she was in tears.

‘They were bad people,’ said she, ‘and I did not like them, but they were my only acquaintance in the wide world.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/borrow/george/lavengro/chapter85.html

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