The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 12

The Dingle at Night — The Two Sides of the Question — Roman Females — Filling The Kettle — The Dream — The Tall Figure

I descended to the bottom of the dingle. It was nearly involved in obscurity. To dissipate the feeling of melancholy which came over my mind, I resolved to kindle a fire; and having heaped dry sticks upon my hearth, and added a billet or two, I struck a light, and soon produced a blaze. Sitting down, I fixed my eyes upon the blaze, and soon fell into a deep meditation. I thought of the events of the day, the scene at church, and what I had heard at church, the danger of losing one’s soul, the doubts of Jasper Petulengro as to whether one had a soul. I thought over the various arguments which I had either heard, or which had come spontaneously to my mind, for or against the probability of a state of future existence. They appeared to me to be tolerably evenly balanced. I then thought that it was at all events taking the safest part to conclude that there was a soul. It would be a terrible thing, after having passed one’s life in the disbelief of the existence of a soul, to wake up after death a soul, and to find one’s self a lost soul. Yes, methought I would come to the conclusion that one has a soul. Choosing the safe side, however, appeared to me playing rather a dastardly part. I had never been an admirer of people who chose the safe side in everything; indeed I had always entertained a thorough contempt for them. Surely it would be showing more manhood to adopt the dangerous side, that of disbelief. I almost resolved to do so — but yet in a question of so much importance, I ought not to be guided by vanity. The question was not which was the safe, but the true side — yet how was I to know which was the true side? Then I thought of the Bible — which I had been reading in the morning — that spoke of the soul and a future state; but was the Bible true? I had heard learned and moral men say that it was true, but I had also heard learned and moral men say that it was not: how was I to decide? Still that balance of probabilities! If I could but see the way of truth, I would follow it, if necessary, upon hands and knees — on that I was determined; but I could not see it. Feeling my brain begin to turn round, I resolved to think of something else; and forthwith began to think of what had passed between Ursula and myself in our discourse beneath the hedge.

I mused deeply on what she had told me as to the virtue of the females of her race. How singular that virtue must be which was kept pure and immaculate by the possessor, whilst indulging in habits of falsehood and dishonesty! I had always thought the gypsy females extraordinary beings. I had often wondered at them, their dress, their manner of speaking, and, not least, at their names; but, until the present day, I had been unacquainted with the most extraordinary point connected with them. How came they possessed of this extraordinary virtue? Was it because they were thievish? I remembered that an ancient thief-taker, who had retired from his useful calling, and who frequently visited the office of my master at law, the respectable S—— 126 who had the management of his property — I remembered to have heard this worthy, with whom I occasionally held discourse, philosophic and profound, when he and I chanced to be alone together in the office, say that all first-rate thieves were sober, and of well-regulated morals, their bodily passions being kept in abeyance by their love of gain; but this axiom could scarcely hold good with respect to these women — however thievish they might be, they did care for something besides gain: they cared for their husbands. If they did thieve, they merely thieved for their husbands; and though, perhaps, some of them were vain, they merely prized their beauty because it gave them favour in the eyes of their husbands. Whatever the husbands were — and Jasper had almost insinuated that the males occasionally allowed themselves some latitude — they appeared to be as faithful to their husbands as the ancient Roman matrons were to theirs. Roman matrons! and, after all, might not these be in reality Roman matrons? They called themselves Romans; might not they be the descendants of the old Roman matrons? Might not they be of the same blood as Lucretia? And were not many of their strange names — Lucretia amongst the rest — handed down to them from old Rome? It is true their language was not that of old Rome; it was not, however, altogether different from it. After all, the ancient Romans might be a tribe of these people, who settled down and founded a village with the tilts of carts, which by degrees, and the influx of other people, became the grand city of the world. I liked the idea of the grand city of the world owing its origin to a people who had been in the habit of carrying their houses in their carts. Why, after all, should not the Romans of history be a branch of these Romans? There were several points of similarity between them; if Roman matrons were chaste, both men and women were thieves. Old Rome was the thief of the world; yet still there were difficulties to be removed before I could persuade myself that the old Romans and my Romans were identical; and in trying to remove these difficulties, I felt my brain once more beginning to turn, and in haste took up another subject of meditation, and that was the patteran, and what Ursula had told me about it.

I had always entertained a strange interest for that sign by which in their wanderings the Romanese gave to those of their people who came behind intimation as to the direction which they took; but it now inspired me with greater interest than ever — now that I had learnt that the proper meaning of it was the leaves of trees. I had, as I have said in my dialogue with Ursula, been very eager to learn the word for leaf in the Romanian language, but had never learnt it till this day; so patteran signified leaf, the leaf of a tree; and no one at present knew that but myself and Ursula, who had learnt it from Mrs. Herne, the last, it was said, of the old stock; and then I thought what strange people the gypsies must have been in the old time. They were sufficiently strange at present, but they must have been far stranger of old; they must have been a more peculiar people — their language must have been more perfect — and they must have had a greater stock of strange secrets. I almost wish that I had lived some two or three hundred years ago, that I might have observed these people when they were yet stranger than at present. I wondered whether I could have introduced myself to their company at that period, whether I should have been so fortunate as to meet such a strange, half-malicious, half good-humoured being as Jasper, who would have instructed me in the language, then more deserving of note than at present. What might I not have done with that language, had I known it in its purity? Why, I might have written books in it; yet those who spoke it would hardly have admitted me to their society at that period, when they kept more to themselves. Yet I thought that I might possibly have gained their confidence, and have wandered about with them, and learnt their language, and all their strange ways, and then — and then — and a sigh rose from the depth of my breast; for I began to think, ‘Supposing I had accomplished all this, what would have been the profit of it? and in what would all this wild gypsy dream have terminated?’

Then rose another sigh, yet more profound, for I began to think, ‘What was likely to be the profit of my present way of life; the living in dingles, making pony and donkey shoes, conversing with gypsy-women under hedges, and extracting from them their odd secrets?’ What was likely to be the profit of such a kind of life, even should it continue for a length of time? — a supposition not very probable, for I was earning nothing to support me, and the funds with which I had entered upon this life were gradually disappearing. I was living, it is true, not unpleasantly, enjoying the healthy air of heaven; but, upon the whole, was I not sadly misspending my time? Surely I was; and, as I looked back, it appeared to me that I had always been doing so. What had been the profit of the tongues which I had learnt? had they ever assisted me in the day of hunger? No, no! it appeared to me that I had always misspent my time, save in one instance, when by a desperate effort I had collected all the powers of my imagination, and written the Life of Joseph Sell; 127 but even when I wrote the life of Sell, was I not in a false position? Provided I had not misspent my time, would it have been necessary to make that effort, which, after all, had only enabled me to leave London, and wander about the country for a time? But could I, taking all circumstances into consideration, have done better than I had? With my peculiar temperament and ideas, could I have pursued with advantage the profession to which my respectable parents had endeavoured to bring me up? It appeared to me that I could not, and that the hand of necessity had guided me from my earliest years, until the present night in which I found myself seated in the dingle, staring on the brands of the fire. But ceasing to think of the past which, as irrecoverably gone, it was useless to regret, even were there cause to regret it, what should I do in future? Should I write another book like the Life of Joseph Sell; take it to London, and offer it to a publisher? But when I reflected on the grisly sufferings which I had undergone whilst engaged in writing the Life of Sell, I shrank from the idea of a similar attempt; moreover, I doubted whether I possessed the power to write a similar work — whether the materials for the life of another Sell lurked within the recesses of my brain? Had I not better become in reality what I had hitherto been merely playing at — a tinker or a gypsy? But I soon saw that I was not fitted to become either in reality. It was much more agreeable to play the gypsy or the tinker, than to become either in reality. I had seen enough of gypsying and tinkering to be convinced of that. All of a sudden the idea of tilling the soil came into my head; tilling the soil was a healthful and noble pursuit! but my idea of tilling the soil had no connection with Britain; for I could only expect to till the soil in Britain as a serf. I thought of tilling it in America, in which it was said there was plenty of wild, unclaimed land, of which any one, who chose to clear it of its trees, might take possession. I figured myself in America, in an immense forest, clearing the land destined, by my exertions, to become a fruitful and smiling plain. Methought I heard the crash of the huge trees as they fell beneath my axe; and then I bethought me that a man was intended to marry — I ought to marry; and if I married, where was I likely to be more happy as a husband and a father than in America, engaged in tilling the ground? I fancied myself in America, engaged in tilling the ground, assisted by an enormous progeny. Well, why not marry, and go and till the ground in America? I was young, and youth was the time to marry in, and to labour in. I had the use of all my faculties; my eyes, it is true, were rather dull from early study, and from writing the Life of Joseph Sell; but I could see tolerably well with them, and they were not bleared. I felt my arms, and thighs, and teeth — they were strong and sound enough; so now was the time to labour, to marry, eat strong flesh, and beget strong children — the power of doing all this would pass away with youth, which was terribly transitory. I bethought me that a time would come when my eyes would be bleared, and, perhaps, sightless; my arms and thighs strengthless and sapless; when my teeth would shake in my jaws, even supposing they did not drop out. No going a wooing then — no labouring — no eating strong flesh, and begetting lusty children then; and I bethought me how, when all this should be, I should bewail the days of my youth as misspent, provided I had not in them founded for myself a home, and begotten strong children to take care of me in the days when I could not take care of myself; and thinking of these things, I became sadder and sadder, and stared vacantly upon the fire till my eyes closed in a doze.

I continued dozing over the fire, until rousing myself I perceived that the brands were nearly consumed, and I thought of retiring for the night. I arose, and was about to enter my tent, when a thought struck me. ‘Suppose,’ thought I, ‘that Isopel Berners should return in the midst of the night, how dark and dreary would the dingle appear without a fire! truly, I will keep up the fire, and I will do more; I have no board to spread for her, but I will fill the kettle, and heat it, so that, if she comes, I may be able to welcome her with a cup of tea, for I know she loves tea.’ Thereupon, I piled more wood upon the fire, and soon succeeded in producing a better blaze than before; then, taking the kettle, I set out for the spring. On arriving at the mouth of the dingle, which fronted the east, I perceived that Charles’s wain was nearly opposite to it, high above in the heavens, by which I knew that the night was tolerably well advanced. The gypsy encampment lay before me; all was hushed and still within it, and its inmates appeared to be locked in slumber; as I advanced, however, the dogs, which were fastened outside the tents, growled and barked; but presently recognising me, they were again silent, some of them wagging their tails. As I drew near a particular tent, I heard a female voice say —‘Some one is coming!’ and, as I was about to pass it, the cloth which formed the door was suddenly lifted up, and a black head, and part of a huge naked body protruded. It was the head and upper part of the giant Tawno, who, according to the fashion of gypsy men, lay next the door, wrapped in his blanket; the blanket, had, however, fallen off, and the starlight shone clear on his athletic tawny body, and was reflected from his large staring eyes.

‘It is only I, Tawno,’ said I, ‘going to fill the kettle, as it is possible that Miss Berners may arrive this night.’ ‘Kos-ko,’ 128 drawled out Tawno, and replaced the curtain. ‘Good, do you call it?’ said the sharp voice of his wife; ‘there is no good in the matter; if that young chap were not living with the rawnee in the illegal and uncertificated line, he would not be getting up in the middle of the night to fill her kettles.’ Passing on, I proceeded to the spring, where I filled the kettle, and then returned to the dingle.

Placing the kettle upon the fire, I watched it till it began to boil; then removing it from the top of the brands, I placed it close beside the fire, and leaving it simmering, I retired to my tent, where, having taken off my shoes, and a few of my garments, I lay down on my palliasse, and was not long in falling asleep. I believe I slept soundly for some time, thinking and dreaming of nothing; suddenly, however, my sleep became disturbed, and the subject of the patterans began to occupy my brain. I imagined that I saw Ursula tracing her husband, Launcelot Lovell, by means of his patterans; I imagined that she had considerable difficulty in doing so; that she was occasionally interrupted by parish beadles and constables, who asked her whither she was travelling, to whom she gave various answers. Presently methought that, as she was passing by a farmyard, two fierce and savage dogs flew at her; I was in great trouble, I remember, and wished to assist her, but could not, for though I seemed to see her, I was still at a distance; and now it appeared that she had escaped from the dogs, and was proceeding with her cart along a gravelly path which traversed a wild moor; I could hear the wheels grating amidst sand and gravel. The next moment I was awake, and found myself silting up in my tent; there was a glimmer of light through the canvas caused by the fire. A feeling of dread came over me, which was perhaps natural on starting suddenly from one’s sleep in that wild lone place; I half imagined that someone was nigh the tent; the idea made me rather uncomfortable, and, to dissipate it, I lifted up the canvas of the door and peeped out, and, lo! I had an indistinct view of a tall figure standing by the tent. ‘Who is that?’ said I, whilst I felt my blood rush to my heart. ‘It is I,’ said the voice of Isopel Berners; ‘you little expected me, I dare say; well, sleep on, I do not wish to disturb you.’ ‘But I was expecting you,’ said I, recovering myself, ‘as you may see by the fire and the kettle. I will be with you in a moment.’

Putting on in haste the articles of dress which I had flung off, I came out of the tent, and addressing myself to Isopel, who was standing beside her cart, I said: ‘Just as I was about to retire to rest I thought it possible that you might come to-night, and got everything in readiness for you. Now, sit down by the fire whilst I lead the donkey and cart to the place where you stay; I will unharness the animal, and presently come and join you.’ ‘I need not trouble you,’ said Isopel; ‘I will go myself and see after my things.’ ‘We will go together,’ said I, ‘and then return and have some tea.’ Isopel made no objection, and in about half an hour we had arranged everything at her quarters. I then hastened and prepared tea. Presently Isopel rejoined me, bringing her stool; she had divested herself of her bonnet, and her hair fell over her shoulders; she sat down, and I poured out the beverage, handing her a cup. ‘Have you made a long journey to-night?’ said I. ‘A very long one,’ replied Belle, ‘I have come nearly twenty miles since six o’clock.’ ‘I believe I heard you coming in my sleep,’ said I; ‘did the dogs above bark at you?’ ‘Yes,’ said Isopel, ‘very violently; did you think of me in your sleep?’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘I was thinking of Ursula and something she had told me.’ ‘When and where was that?’ said Isopel. ‘Yesterday evening,’ said I, ‘beneath the dingle hedge.’ ‘Then you were talking with her beneath the hedge?’ ‘I was,’ said I, ‘but only upon gypsy matters. Do you know, Belle, that she has just been married to Sylvester, so you need not think that she and I—.’ ‘She and you are quite at liberty to sit where you please,’ said Isopel. ‘However, young man,’ she continued, dropping her tone, which she had slightly raised, ‘I believe what you said, that you were merely talking about gypsy matters, and also what you were going to say, if it was, as I suppose, that she and you had no particular acquaintance.’ Isopel was now silent for some time. ‘What are you thinking of?’ said I. ‘I was thinking,’ said Belle, ‘how exceedingly kind it was of you to get everything in readiness for me, though you did not know that I should come.’ ‘I had a presentiment that you would come,’ said I; ‘but you forget that I have prepared the kettle for you before, though it was true I was then certain that you would come.’ ‘I had not forgotten your doing so, young man,’ said Belle; ‘but I was beginning to think that you were utterly selfish, caring for nothing but the gratification of your own strange whims.’ ‘I am very fond of having my own way,’ said I, ‘but utterly selfish I am not, as I dare say I shall frequently prove to you. You will often find the kettle boiling when you come home.’ ‘Not heated by you,’ said Isopel with a sigh. ‘By whom else?’ said I; ‘surely you are not thinking of driving me away?’ ‘You have as much right here as myself,’ said Isopel, ‘as I have told you before; but I must be going myself.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘we can go together; to tell you the truth, I am rather tired of this place.’ ‘Our paths must be separate,’ said Belle. ‘Separate,’ said I, ‘what do you mean? I shan’t let you go alone, I shall go with you; and you know the road is as free to me as to you; besides, you can’t think of parting company with me, considering how much you would lose by doing so; remember that you scarcely know anything of the Armenian language; now, to learn Armenian from me would take you twenty years.’

Belle faintly smiled. ‘Come,’ said I, ‘take another cup of tea.’ Belle took another cup of tea, and yet another; we had some indifferent conversation, after which I arose and gave her donkey a considerable feed of corn. Belle thanked me, shook me by the hand, and then went to her own tabernacle, and I returned to mine.

126 Simpson, member of the firm of Simpson and Rackham, Norwich, where Borrow served his articles.

127 See pp. 88, 147, 164, and Introduction; ‘Lavengro,’ ii. 44, et seq.

128 Good.

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