The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 21

An Adventure on the Roads — The Six Flint Stones — A Rural Scene — Mead — The Old Man and His Bees

I bent my course in the direction of the north, more induced by chance than any particular motive; all quarters of the world having about equal attractions for me. I was in high spirits at finding myself once more on horseback, and trotted gaily on, until the heat of the weather induced me to slacken my pace, more out of pity for my horse than because I felt any particular inconvenience from it — heat and cold being then, and still, matters of great indifference to me. What I thought of I scarcely know, save and except that I have a glimmering recollection that I felt some desire to meet with one of those adventures, which upon the roads of England are generally as plentiful as blackberries in autumn; and Fortune, who has generally been ready to gratify my inclinations, provided it cost her very little by so doing, was not slow in furnishing me with an adventure, perhaps as characteristic of the English roads as anything which could have happened.

I might have travelled about six miles, amongst cross-roads and lanes, when suddenly I found myself upon a broad and very dusty road, which seemed to lead due north. As I wended along this, I saw a man upon a donkey, riding towards me. The man was commonly dressed, with a broad felt hat on his head, and a kind of satchel on his back; he seemed to be in a mighty hurry, and was every now and then belabouring the donkey with a cudgel. The donkey, however, which was a fine large creature of the silver-grey species, did not appear to sympathize at all with its rider in his desire to get on, but kept its head turned back as much as possible, moving from one side of the road to the other, and not making much forward way. As I passed, being naturally of a very polite disposition, I gave the man the sele of the day, asking him, at the same time, why he beat the donkey; whereupon the fellow, eyeing me askance, told me to mind my own business, with the addition of something which I need not repeat. I had not proceeded a furlong before I saw seated on the dust by the wayside, close by a heap of stones, and with several flints before him, a respectable-looking old man, with a straw hat and a white smock, who was weeping bitterly.

‘What are you crying for, father?’ said I. ‘Have you come to any hurt?’ ‘Hurt enough,’ sobbed the old man, ‘I have been just tricked out of the best ass in England by a villain, who gave me nothing but these trash in return,’ pointing to the stones before him. ‘I really scarcely understand you,’ said I, ‘I wish you would explain yourself more clearly.’ ‘I was riding on my ass from market,’ said the old man, ‘when I met here a fellow with a sack on his back, who, after staring at the ass and me a moment or two, asked me if I would sell her. I told him that I could not think of selling her, as she was very useful to me, and though an animal, my true companion, whom I loved as much as if she were my wife and daughter. I then attempted to pass on, but the fellow stood before me, begging me to sell her; saying that he would give me anything for her, well, seeing that he persisted, I said at last that if I sold her, I must have six pounds for her, and I said so to get rid of him, for I saw that he was a shabby fellow, who had probably not six shillings in the world; but I had better have held my tongue,’ said the old man, crying more bitterly than before, ‘for the words were scarcely out of my mouth, when he said he would give me what I asked, and taking the sack from his back, he pulled out a steelyard, and going to the heap of stones there, he took up several of them and weighed them, then flinging them down before me, he said, “There are six pounds, neighbour; now, get off the ass, and hand her over to me.” Well, I sat like one dumbfoundered for a time, till at last I asked him what he meant? “What do I mean,” said he, “you old rascal, why I mean to claim my purchase,” and then he swore so awfully, that scarcely knowing what I did I got down, and he jumped on the animal and rode off as fast as he could.’ ‘I suppose he was the fellow,’ said I, ‘whom I just now met upon a fine grey ass, which he was beating with a cudgel.’ ‘I dare say he was,’ said the old man, ‘I saw him beating her as he rode away, and I thought I should have died.’ ‘I never heard such a story,’ said I; ‘well, do you mean to submit to such a piece of roguery quietly?’ ‘Oh, dear,’ said the old man, ‘what can I do? I am seventy-nine years of age; I am bad on my feet, and daren’t go after him.’ ‘Shall I go?’ said I; ‘the fellow is a thief, and any one has a right to stop him.’ ‘Oh, if you could but bring her again to me,’ said the old man, ‘I would bless you to my dying day; but have a care; I don’t know but after all the law may say that she is his lawful purchase. I asked six pounds for her, and he gave me six pounds.’ ‘Six flints you mean,’ said I; ‘no, no, the law is not quite so bad as that either; I know something about her, and am sure that she will never sanction such a quibble. At all events, I’ll ride after the fellow.’ Thereupon turning the horse round, I put him to his very best trot; I rode nearly a mile without obtaining a glimpse of the fellow, and was becoming apprehensive that he had escaped me by turning down some by-path, two or three of which I had passed. Suddenly, however, on the road making a slight turning, I perceived him right before me, moving at a tolerably swift pace, having by this time probably overcome the resistance of the animal. Putting my horse to a full gallop, I shouted at the top of my voice, ‘Get off that donkey, you rascal, and give her up to me, or I’ll ride you down.’ The fellow hearing the thunder of the horse’s hoofs behind him, drew up on one side of the road. ‘What do you want?’ said he, as I stopped my charger, now almost covered with sweat and foam, close beside him. ‘Do you want to rob me?’ ‘To rob you?’ said I. ‘No! but to take from you that ass, of which you have just robbed its owner.’ ‘I have robbed no man,’ said the fellow; ‘I just now purchased it fairly of its master, and the law will give it to me; he asked six pounds for it, and I gave him six pounds.’ ‘Six stones, you mean, you rascal,’ said I; ‘get down, or my horse shall be upon you in a moment;’ then with a motion of my reins, I caused the horse to rear, pressing his sides with my heels as if I intended to make him leap. ‘Stop,’ said the man, ‘I’ll get down, and then try if I can’t serve you out.’ He then got down, and confronted me with his cudgel; he was a horrible-looking fellow, and seemed prepared for anything. Scarcely, however, had he dismounted, when the donkey jerked the bridle out of his hand, and probably in revenge for the usage she had received, gave him a pair of tremendous kicks on the hip with her hinder legs, which overturned him, and then scampered down the road the way she had come. ‘Pretty treatment this,’ said the fellow, getting up without his cudgel, and holding his hand to his side, ‘I wish I may not be lamed for life.’ ‘And if you be,’ said I, ‘it would merely serve you right, you rascal, for trying to cheat a poor old man out of his property by quibbling at words.’ ‘Rascal!’ said the fellow, ‘you lie, I am no rascal; and as for quibbling with words — suppose I did! What then? All the first people does it! The newspapers does it! The gentlefolks that calls themselves the guides of the popular mind does it! I’m no ignoramus. I reads the newspapers, and knows what’s what.’ ‘You read them to some purpose,’ said I. ‘Well, if you are lamed for life, and unfitted for any active line — turn newspaper editor; I should say you are perfectly qualified, and this day’s adventure may be the foundation of your fortune,’ thereupon I turned round and rode off. The fellow followed me with a torrent of abuse. ‘Confound you!’ said he — yet that was not the expression either —‘I know you; you are one of the horse-patrol, come down into the country on leave to see your relations. Confound you, you and the like of you have knocked my business on the head near Lunnon, and I suppose we shall have you shortly in the country.’ ‘To the newspaper office,’ said I, ‘and fabricate falsehoods out of flint stones;’ then touching the horse with my heels, I trotted off, and coming to the place where I had seen the old man, I found him there, risen from the ground, and embracing his ass.

I told him that I was travelling down the road, and said, that if his way lay in the same direction as mine, he could do no better than accompany me for some distance, lest the fellow, who, for aught I knew, might be hovering nigh, might catch him alone, and again get his ass from him. After thanking me for my offer, which he said he would accept, he got upon his ass, and we proceeded together down the road. My new acquaintance said very little of his own accord; and when I asked him a question, answered rather incoherently. I heard him every now and then say, ‘Villain!’ to himself, after which he would pat the donkey’s neck, from which circumstance I concluded that his mind was occupied with his late adventure. After travelling about two miles, we reached a place where a drift-way on the right led from the great road; here my companion stopped, and on my asking him whether he was going any farther, he told me that the path to the right was the way to his home.

I was bidding him farewell, when he hemmed once or twice, and said, that as he did not live far off, he hoped that I would go with him and taste some of his mead. As I had never tasted mead, of which I had frequently read in the compositions of the Welsh bards, and, moreover, felt rather thirsty from the heat of the day, I told him that I should have great pleasure in attending him. Whereupon, turning off together, we proceeded about half a mile, sometimes between stone walls, and at other times hedges, till we reached a small hamlet, through which we passed, and presently came to a very pretty cottage, delightfully situated within a garden, surrounded by a hedge of woodbines. Opening a gate at one corner of the garden, he led the way to a large shed, which stood partly behind the cottage, which he said was his stable; thereupon he dismounted and led his donkey into the shed, which was without stalls, but had a long rack and manger. On one side he tied his donkey, after taking off her caparisons, and I followed his example, tying my horse at the other side with a rope halter which he gave me; he then asked me to come in and taste his mead, but I told him that I must attend to the comfort of my horse first, and forthwith, taking a whisp of straw, rubbed him carefully down. Then taking a pailful of clear water which stood in the shed, I allowed the horse to drink about half a pint; and then turning to the old man, who all the time had stood by looking at my proceedings, I asked him whether he had any oats? ‘I have all kinds of grain,’ he replied; and, going out, he presently returned with two measures, one a large and the other a small one, both filled with oats, mixed with a few beans, and handing the large one to me for the horse, he emptied the other before the donkey, who, before she began to despatch it, turned her nose to her master’s face, and fairly kissed him. Having given my horse his portion, I told the old man that I was ready to taste his mead as soon as he pleased, whereupon he ushered me into his cottage, where, making me sit down by a deal table in a neatly-sanded kitchen, he produced from an old-fashioned closet a bottle, holding about a quart, and a couple of cups, which might each contain about half a pint, then opening the bottle and filling the cups with a brown-coloured liquor, he handed one to me, and taking a seat opposite to me, he lifted the other, nodded, and saying to me —‘Health and welcome,’ placed it to his lips and drank.

‘Health and thanks,’ I replied; and being very thirsty, emptied my cup at a draught; I had scarcely done so, however, when I half repented. The mead was deliciously sweet and mellow, but appeared strong as brandy; my eyes reeled in my head, and my brain became slightly dizzy. ‘Mead is a strong drink,’ said the old man, as he looked at me, with a half smile on his, countenance. ‘This is, at any rate,’ said I, ‘so strong indeed, that I would not drink another cup for any consideration.’ ‘And I would not ask you,’ said the old man; ‘for, if you did, you would most probably be stupid all day, and wake next morning with a headache. Mead is a good drink, but woundily strong, especially to those who be not used to it, as I suppose you are not?’ ‘Where do you get it?’ said I. ‘I make it myself,’ said the old man, ‘from the honey which my bees make.’ ‘Have you many bees?’ I inquired. ‘A great many,’ said the old man. ‘And do you keep them,’ said I, ‘for the sake of making mead with their honey?’ ‘I keep them,’ he replied, ‘partly because I am fond of them, and partly for what they bring me in; they make me a great deal of honey, some of which I sell, and with a little I make me some mead to warm my poor heart with, or occasionally to treat a friend with like yourself.’ ‘And do you support yourself entirely by means of your bees?’ ‘No,’ said the old man; ‘I have a little bit of ground behind my house, which is my principal means of support.’ ‘And do you live alone?’ ‘Yes,’ said he; ‘with the exception of the bees and the donkey, I live quite alone.’ ‘And have you always lived alone?’ The old man emptied his cup, and his heart being warmed with the mead, he told me his history, which was simplicity itself. His father was a small yeoman, who, at his death had left him, his only child, the cottage, with a small piece of ground behind it, and on this little property he had lived ever since. About the age of twenty-five he had married an industrious young woman, by whom he had one daughter, who died before reaching years of womanhood. His wife, however, had survived her daughter many years, and had been a great comfort to him, assisting him in his rural occupations; but, about four years before the present period, he had lost her, since which time he had lived alone, making himself as comfortable as he could; cultivating his ground, with the help of a lad from the neighbouring village, attending to his bees, and occasionally riding his donkey to market, and hearing the word of God, which he said he was sorry he could not read, twice a week regularly at the parish church. Such was the old man’s tale.

When he had finished speaking, he led me behind his house, and showed me his little domain. It consisted of about two acres in admirable cultivation; a small portion of it formed a kitchen garden, whilst the rest was sown with four kinds of grain, wheat, barley, pease, and beans. The air was full of ambrosial sweets, resembling those proceeding from an orange grove; a place which, though I had never seen at that time, I since have. In the garden was the habitation of the bees, a long box, supported upon three oaken stumps. It was full of small round glass windows, and appeared to be divided into a great many compartments, much resembling drawers placed sideways. He told me that, as one compartment was filled, the bees left it for another, so that whenever he wanted honey, he could procure some without injuring the insects. Through the little round windows I could see several of the bees at work; hundreds were going in and out of the doors; hundreds were buzzing about on the flowers, the woodbines, and beans. As I looked around on the well-cultivated field, the garden, and the bees, I thought I had never before seen so rural and peaceful a scene.

When we returned to the cottage we again sat down, and I asked the old man whether he was not afraid to live alone. He told me that he was not, for that, upon the whole, his neighbours were very kind to him. I mentioned the fellow who had swindled him of his donkey upon the road. ‘That was no neighbour of mine,’ said the old man, ‘and, perhaps, I shall never see him again or his like.’ ‘It’s a dreadful thing,’ said I, ‘to have no other resource, when injured, than to shed tears on the road.’ ‘It is so,’ said the old man, ‘but God saw the tears of the old, and sent a helper.’ ‘Why did you not help yourself?’ said I. ‘Instead of getting off your ass, why did you not punch at the fellow, or at any rate use dreadful language, call him villain, and shout robbery?’ ‘Punch!’ said the old man, ‘shout! what, with these hands, and this voice — Lord, how, you run on! I am old, young chap, I am old!’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘it is a shameful thing to cry even when old.’ ‘You think so now,’ said the old man, ‘because you are young and strong; perhaps, when you are as old as I, you will not be ashamed to cry.’

Upon the whole I was rather pleased with the old man, and much with all about him. As evening drew nigh, I told him that I must proceed on my journey; whereupon he invited me to tarry with him during the night, telling me that he had a nice room and bed above at my service. I, however, declined; and bidding him farewell, mounted my horse, and departed. Regaining the road, I proceeded once more in the direction of the north; and, after a few hours, coming to a comfortable public-house, I stopped and put up for the night.

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