The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 11

Ursula’s Tale — The Patteran — The Deep Water — Second Husband

‘Brother,’ said Ursula, plucking a dandelion which grew at her feet, ‘I have always said that a more civil and pleasant-spoken person than yourself can’t be found. I have a great regard for you and your learning, and am willing to do you any pleasure in the way of words or conversation. Mine is not a very happy story, but as you wish to hear it, it is quite at your service. Launcelot Lovell made me an offer, as you call it, and we were married in Roman fashion; that is, we gave each other our right hands, and promised to be true to each other. We lived together two years, travelling sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with our relations; I bore him two children, both of which were still-born, partly, I believe, from the fatigue I underwent in running about the country telling dukkerin when I was not exactly in a state to do so, and partly from the kicks and blows which my husband, Launcelot, was in the habit of giving me every night, provided I came home with less than five shillings, which it is sometimes impossible to make in the country, provided no fair or merry-making is going on. At the end of two years my husband, Launcelot, whistled a horse from a farmer’s field, and sold it for forty pounds; and for that horse he was taken, put in prison, tried, and condemned to be sent to the other country for life. Two days before he was to be sent away, I got leave to see him in the prison, and in the presence of the turnkey I gave him a thin cake of gingerbread, in which there was a dainty saw which could cut through iron. I then took on wonderfully, turned my eyes inside out, fell down in a seeming fit, and was carried out of the prison. That same night my husband sawed his irons off, cut through the bars of his window, and dropping down a height of fifty feet, lighted on his legs, and came and joined me on a heath where I was camped alone. We were just getting things ready to be off, when we heard people coming, and sure enough they were runners after my husband, Launcelot Lovell; for his escape had been discovered within a quarter of an hour after he had got away. My husband, without bidding me farewell, set off at full speed, and they after him, but they could not take him, and so they came back and took me, and shook me, and threatened me, and had me before the poknees, 122 who shook his head at me, and threatened me in order to make me discover where my husband was, but I said I did not know, which was true enough, not that I would have told him if I had. So at last the poknees and the runners, 123 not being able to make anything out of me, were obliged to let me go, and I went in search of my husband. I wandered about with my cart for several days in the direction in which I saw him run off, with my eyes bent on the ground, but could see no marks of him; at last, coming to four cross roads, I saw my husband’s patteran.’

‘You saw your husband’s patteran?’ 124

‘Yes, brother. Do you know what patteran means?’

‘Of course, Ursula; the gypsy trail, the handful of grass which the gypsies strew in the roads as they travel, to give information to any of their companions who may be behind, as to the route they have taken. The gypsy patteran has always had a strange interest for me, Ursula.’

‘Like enough, brother; but what does patteran mean?’

‘Why, the gypsy trail, formed as I told you before.’

‘And you know nothing more about patteran, brother?’

‘Nothing at all, Ursula; do you?’

‘What’s the name for the leaf of a tree, brother?’

‘I don’t know,’ said I; ‘it’s odd enough that I have asked that question of a dozen Romany chals and chies, and they always told me that they did not know.’

‘No more they did, brother; there’s only one person in England that knows, and that’s myself — the name for a leaf is patteran. Now there are two that knows it — the other is yourself.’

‘Dear me, Ursula, how very strange! I am much obliged to you. I think I never saw you look so pretty as you do now; but who told you?’

‘My mother, Mrs. Herne, told it me one day, brother, when she was in a good humour, which she very seldom was, as no one has a better right to know than yourself, as she hated you mortally: it was one day when you had been asking our company what was the word for a leaf, and nobody could tell you, that she took me aside and told me, for she was in a good humour, and triumphed in seeing you balked. She told me the word for leaf was patteran, which our people use now for trail, having forgotten the true meaning. She said that the trail was called patteran, because the gypsies of old were in the habit of making the marks with the leaves and branches of the trees, placed in a certain manner. She said that nobody knew it but herself, who was one of the old sort, and begged me never to tell the word to any one but him I should marry, and to be particularly cautious never to let you know it, whom she hated. Well, brother, perhaps I have done wrong to tell you; but, as I said before, I likes you, and am always ready to do your pleasure in words and conversation; my mother, moreover, is dead and gone, and, poor thing, will never know anything about the matter. So, when I married, I told my husband about the patteran, and we were in the habit of making our private trail with leaves and branches of trees, which none of the other gypsy people did; so, when I saw my husband’s patteran, I knew it at once, and I followed it upwards of two hundred miles towards the north; and then I came to a deep, awful-looking water, with an overhanging bank, and on the bank I found the patteran, which directed me to proceed along the bank towards the east, and I followed my husband’s patteran towards the east; and before I had gone half a mile, I came to a place where I saw the bank had given way, and fallen into the deep water. Without paying much heed I passed on, and presently came to a public-house, not far from the water, and I entered the public-house to get a little beer, and perhaps to tell a dukkerin, for I saw a great many people about the door; and when I entered I found there was what they calls an inquest being held upon a body in that house, and the jury had just risen to go and look at the body, and being a woman, and having a curiosity, I thought I would go with them, and so I did; and no sooner did I see the body than I knew it to be my husband’s; it was much swelled and altered, but I knew it partly by the clothes and partly by a mark on the forehead, and I cried out, “It is my husband’s body,” and I fell down in a fit, and the fit that time, brother, was not a seeming one.’

‘Dear me,’ said I, ‘how terrible! but tell me, Ursula, how did your husband come by his death?’

‘The bank, overhanging the deep water, gave way under him, brother, and he was drowned; for, like most of our people, he could not swim, or only a little. The body, after it had been in the water a long time, came up of itself, and was found floating. Well, brother, when the people of the neighbourhood found that I was the wife of the drowned man, they were very kind to me, and made a subscription for me, with which, after having seen my husband buried, I returned the way I had come, till I met Jasper and his people, and with them I have travelled ever since: I was very melancholy for a long time, I assure you, brother; for the death of my husband preyed very much upon my mind.’

‘His death was certainly a very shocking one, Ursula; but, really, if he had died a natural one, you could scarcely have regretted it, for he appears to have treated you barbarously.’

‘Women must bear, brother; and, barring that he kicked and beat me, and drove me out to tell dukkerin when I could scarcely stand, he was not a bad husband. A man, by gypsy law, brother, is allowed to kick and beat his wife, and to bury her alive, if he thinks proper. I am a gypsy, and have nothing to say against the law.’

‘But what has Mikailia Chikno to say about it?’

‘She is a cripple, brother, the only cripple amongst the Roman people: so she is allowed to do and say as she pleases. Moreover, her husband does not think fit to kick or beat her, though it is my opinion she would like him all the better if he were occasionally to do so, and threaten to bury her alive; at any rate, she would treat him better, and respect him more.’

‘Your sister does not seem to stand much in awe of Jasper Petulengro, Ursula.’

‘Let the matters of my sister and Jasper Petulengro alone, brother; you must travel in their company some time before you can understand them; they are a strange two, up to all kind of chaffing: but two more regular Romans don’t breathe, and I’ll tell you, for your instruction, that there isn’t a better mare-breaker in England than Jasper Petulengro, if you can manage Miss Isopel Berners as well as —’

‘Isopel Berners,’ said I, ‘how came you to think of her?’

‘How should I but think of her, brother, living as she does with you in Mumper’s dingle, and travelling about with you; you will have, brother, more difficulty to manage her, than Jasper has to manage my sister Pakomovna. I should have mentioned her before, only I wanted to know what you had to say to me; and when we got into discourse, I forgot her. I say, brother, let me tell you your dukkerin, with respect to her, you will never —’

‘I want to hear no dukkerin, Ursula.’

‘Do let me tell you your dukkerin, brother, you will never manage —’

‘I want to hear no dukkerin, Ursula, in connection with Isopel Berners. Moreover, it is Sunday, we will change the subject; it is surprising to me that, after all you have undergone, you should still look so beautiful. I suppose you do not think of marrying again, Ursula?’

‘No, brother, one husband at a time is quite enough for any reasonable mort; especially such a good husband as I have got.’

‘Such a good husband! why, I thought you told me your husband was drowned?’

‘Yes, brother, my first husband was.’

‘And have you a second?’

‘To be sure, brother.’

‘And who is he? in the name of wonder.’

‘Who is he? Why Sylvester, to be sure.’

‘I do assure you, Ursula, that I feel disposed to be angry with you; such a handsome young woman as yourself to take up with such a nasty pepper-faced good-for-nothing —’

‘I won’t hear my husband abused, brother; so you had better say no more.’

‘Why, is he not the Lazarus of the gypsies? Has he a penny of his own, Ursula?’

‘Then the more his want, brother, of a clever chi like me to take care of him and his childer. I tell you what, brother, I will chore, if necessary, and tell dukkerin for Sylvester, if even so heavy as scarcely to be able to stand. You call him lazy; you would not think him lazy if you were in a ring with him; he is a proper man with his hands. Jasper is going to back him for twenty pounds against Slammocks of the Chong gav, the brother of Roarer and Bell-metal. He says he has no doubt that he will win.’

‘Well, if you like him, I, of course, can have no objection. Have you been long married?’

‘About a fortnight, brother; that dinner, the other day, when I sang the song, was given in celebration of the wedding.’

‘Were you married in a church, Ursula?’

‘We were not, brother; none but gorgios, cripples, and lubbenys, are ever married in a church; 125 we took each other’s words. Brother, I have been with you near three hours beneath this hedge. I will go to my husband.’

‘Does he know that you are here?’

‘He does, brother.’

‘And is he satisfied?’

‘Satisfied! of course. Lor’, you gorgies! Brother, I go to my husband and my house.’ And, thereupon, Ursula rose and departed.

After waiting a little time I also arose; it was now dark, and I thought I could do no better than betake myself to the dingle; at the entrance of it I found Mr. Petulengro. ‘Well, brother,’ said he, ‘what kind of conversation have you and Ursula had beneath the hedge?’

‘If you wished to hear what we were talking about, you should have come and sat down beside us; you knew where we were.’

‘Well, brother, I did much the same, for I went and sat down behind you.’

‘Behind the hedge, Jasper?’

‘Behind the hedge, brother.’

‘And heard all our conversation?’

‘Every word, brother; and a rum conversation it was.’

‘’Tis an old saying, Jasper, that listeners never hear any good of themselves; perhaps you heard the epithet that Ursula bestowed upon you.’

‘If, by epitaph, you mean that she called me a liar, I did, brother, and she was not much wrong, for I certainly do not always stick exactly to truth; you, however, have not much to complain of me.’

‘You deceived me about Ursula, giving me to understand she was not married.’

‘She was not married when I told you so, brother; that is, not to Sylvester; nor was I aware that she was going to marry him. I once thought you had a kind of regard for her, and I am sure she had as much for you as a Romany chi can have for a gorgio. I half expected to have heard you make love to her behind the hedge, but I begin to think you care for nothing in this world but old words and strange stories. Lor’, to take a young woman under a hedge, and talk to her as you did to Ursula; and yet you got everything out of her that you wanted, with your gammon about old Fulcher and Meridiana. You are a cunning one, brother.’

‘There you are mistaken, Jasper. I am not cunning. If people think I am, it is because, being made up of art themselves, simplicity of character is a puzzle to them. Your women are certainly extraordinary creatures, Jasper.’

‘Didn’t I say they were rum animals? Brother, we Romans shall always stick together as long as they stick fast to us.’

‘Do you think they always will, Jasper?’

‘Can’t say, brother; nothing lasts for ever. Romany chies are Romany chies still, though not exactly what they were sixty years ago. My wife, though a rum one, is not Mrs. Herne, brother. I think she is rather fond of Frenchmen and French discourse. I tell you what, brother, if ever gypsyism breaks up, it will be owing to our chies having been bitten by that mad puppy they calls gentility.’

122 Better pokonyes, ‘justice of the peace.’

123 Bow Street runners — Gy. prastermengre.

124 Better patrin; the use of this word in the proper sense of ‘leaf’ is not so rare among English gypsies.

125 Gypsies nowadays are generally married in church. They like the pomp.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:18