The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 33

Convalescence — The Surgeon’s Bill — Letter of Recommendation — Commencement Of the Old Man’s History

Two days — three days passed away — and I still remained at the house of my hospitable entertainer: my bruised limb rapidly recovering the power of performing its functions. I passed my time agreeably enough, sometimes in my chamber, communing with my own thoughts; sometimes in the stable, attending to, and not unfrequently conversing with, my horse; and at mealtime — for I seldom saw him at any other — discoursing with the old gentleman, sometimes on the Chinese vocabulary, sometimes on Chinese syntax, and once or twice on English horseflesh; though on this latter subject, notwithstanding his descent from a race of horse traders, he did not enter with much alacrity. As a small requital for his kindness, I gave him one day, after dinner, unasked, a brief account of my history and pursuits. He listened with attention; and when it was concluded, thanked me for the confidence which I had reposed in him. ‘Such conduct,’ said he, ‘deserves a return. I will tell you my own history: it is brief, but may perhaps not prove uninteresting to you — though the relation of it will give me some pain.’ ‘Pray, then, do not recite it,’ said I. ‘Yes,’ said the old man, ‘I will tell you, for I wish you to know it.’ He was about to begin when he was interrupted by the arrival of the surgeon. The surgeon examined into the state of my bruised limb, and told me, what indeed I already well knew, that it was rapidly improving. ‘You will not even require a sling,’ said he, ‘to ride to Horncastle. When do you propose going?’ he demanded. ‘When do you think I may venture?’ I replied. ‘I think, if you are a tolerably good horseman, you may mount the day after tomorrow,’ answered the medical man. ‘By-the-by, are you acquainted with anybody at Horncastle?’ ‘With no living soul,’ I answered. ‘Then you would scarcely find stable room for your horse. But I am happy to be able to assist you. I have a friend there who keeps a small inn, and who, during the time of the fair, keeps a stall vacant for any quadruped I may bring, until he knows whether I am coming or not. I will give you a letter to him, and he will see after the accommodation of your horse. To-morrow I will pay you a farewell visit, and bring you the letter.’ ‘Thank you,’ said I; ‘and do not forget to bring your bill.’ The surgeon looked at the old man, who gave him a peculiar nod. ‘Oh!’ said he, in reply to me, ‘for the little service I have rendered you I require no remuneration. You are in my friend’s house, and he and I understand each other.’ ‘I never receive such favours,’ said I, ‘as you have rendered me, without remunerating them; therefore I shall expect your bill.’ ‘Oh! just as you please,’ said the surgeon; and, shaking me by the hand more warmly than he had hitherto done, he took his leave.

On the evening of the next day, the last which I spent with my kind entertainer, I sat at tea with him in a little summer-house in his garden, partially shaded by the boughs of a large fig-tree. The surgeon had shortly before paid me his farewell visit, and had brought me the letter of introduction to his friend at Horncastle, and also his bill, which I found anything but extravagant. After we had each respectively drank the contents of two cups — and it may not be amiss here to inform the reader that though I took cream with my tea, as I always do when I can procure that addition, the old man, like most people bred up in the country drank his without it — he thus addressed me: ‘I am, as I told you on the night of your accident, the son of a breeder of horses, a respectable and honest man. When I was about twenty he died, leaving me, his only child, a comfortable property, consisting of about two hundred acres of land and some fifteen hundred pounds in money. My mother had died about three years previously. I felt the death of my mother keenly, but that of my father less than was my duty; indeed, truth compels me to acknowledge that I scarcely regretted his death. The cause of this want of proper filial feeling was the opposition which I had experienced from him in an affair which deeply concerned me. I had formed an attachment for a young female in the neighbourhood, who, though poor, was of highly respectable birth, her father having been a curate of the Established Church. She was, at the time of which I am speaking, an orphan, having lost both her parents, and supported herself by keeping a small school. My attachment was returned, and we had pledged our vows, but my father, who could not reconcile himself to her lack of fortune, forbade our marriage in the most positive terms. He was wrong, for she was a fortune in herself — amiable and accomplished. Oh! I cannot tell you all she was’— and here the old man drew his hand across his eyes. ‘By the death of my father, the only obstacle to our happiness appeared to be removed. We agreed, therefore, that our marriage should take place within the course of a year; and I forthwith commenced enlarging my house and getting my affairs in order. Having been left in the easy circumstances which I have described, I determined to follow no business, but to pass my life in a strictly domestic manner, and to be very, very happy. Amongst other property derived from my father were several horses, which I disposed of in this neighbourhood, with the exception of two remarkably fine ones, which I determined to take to the next fair at Horncastle, the only place where I expected to be able to obtain what I considered to be their full value. At length the time arrived for the commencement of the fair, which was within three months of the period which my beloved and myself had fixed upon for the celebration of our nuptials. To the fair I went, a couple of trusty men following me with the horses. I soon found a purchaser for the animals, a portly, plausible person 158 of about forty, dressed in a blue riding coat, brown top boots, and leather breeches. There was a strange-looking urchin with him, attired in nearly similar fashion, with a beam in one of his eyes, who called him father. The man paid me for the purchase in bank-notes — three fifty-pound notes for the two horses. As we were about to take leave of each other, he suddenly produced another fifty-pound note, inquiring whether I could change it, complaining at the same time of the difficulty of procuring change in the fair. As I happened to have plenty of small money in my possession, and as I felt obliged to him for having purchased my horses at what I considered to be a good price, I informed him that I should be very happy to accommodate him; so I changed him the note, and he, having taken possession of the horses, went his way, and I myself returned home.

‘A month passed; during this time I paid away two of the notes which I had received at Horncastle from the dealer — one of them in my immediate neighbourhood, and the other at a town about fifteen miles distant, to which I had repaired for the purpose of purchasing some furniture. All things seemed to be going on most prosperously, and I felt quite happy, when one morning, as I was overlooking some workmen who were employed about my house, I was accosted by a constable, who informed me that he was sent to request my immediate appearance before a neighbouring bench of magistrates. Concluding that I was merely summoned on some unimportant business connected with the neighbourhood, I felt no surprise, and forthwith departed in company with the officer. The demeanour of the man upon the way struck me as somewhat singular. I had frequently spoken to him before, and had always found him civil and respectful, but he was now reserved and sullen, and replied to two or three questions which I put to him in anything but a courteous manner. On arriving at the place where the magistrates were sitting — an inn at a small town about two miles distant — I found a more than usual number of people assembled, who appeared to be conversing with considerable eagerness. At sight of me they became silent, but crowded after me as I followed the man into the magistrates’ room. There I found the tradesman to whom I had paid the note for the furniture, at the town fifteen miles off, in attendance, accompanied by an agent of the Bank of England; the former, it seems, had paid the note into a provincial bank, the proprietors of which, discovering it to be a forgery, had forthwith written up to the Bank of England, who had sent down their agent to investigate the matter. A third individual stood beside them — the person in my own immediate neighbourhood to whom I had paid the second note; this, by some means or other, before the coming down of the agent, had found its way to the same provincial bank, and also being pronounced a forgery, it had speedily been traced to the person to whom I had paid it. It was owing to the apparition of this second note that the agent had determined, without further inquiry, to cause me to be summoned before the rural tribunal.

‘In a few words the magistrates’ clerk gave me to understand the state of the case. I was filled with surprise and consternation. I knew myself to be perfectly innocent of any fraudulent intention, but at the time of which I am speaking it was a matter fraught with the greatest danger to be mixed up, however innocently, with the passing of false money. The law with respect to forgery was terribly severe, and the innocent as well as the guily occasionally suffered. Of this I was not altogether ignorant; unfortunately, however, in my transactions with the stranger, the idea of false notes being offered to me, and my being brought into trouble by means of them, never entered my mind. Recovering myself a little, I stated that the notes in question were two of three notes which I had received at Horncastle, for a pair of horses, which it was well known I had carried thither.

‘Thereupon, I produced from my pocket-book the third note, which was forthwith pronounced a forgery. I had scarcely produced the third note, when I remembered the one which I had changed for the Horncastle dealer, and with the remembrance came the almost certain conviction that it was also a forgery; I was tempted for a moment to produce it, and to explain the circumstances — would to God I had done so! — but shame at the idea of having been so wretchedly duped prevented me, and the opportunity was lost. I must confess that the agent of the bank behaved, upon the whole, in a very handsome manner; he said that as it was quite evident that I had disposed of certain horses at the fair, it was very possible that I might have received the notes in question in exchange for them, and that he was willing, as he had received a very excellent account of my general conduct, to press the matter no farther — that is, provided —. And here he stopped. Thereupon, one of the three magistrates, who were present, asked me whether I chanced to have any more of these spurious notes in my possession. He had certainly a right to ask the question, but there was something peculiar in his tone — insinuating suspicion. It is certainly difficult to judge of the motives which rule a person’s conduct, but I cannot help imagining that he was somewhat influenced in his behaviour on that occasion, which was anything but friendly, by my having refused to sell him the horses at a price less than that which I expected to get at the fair; be this as it may, the question filled me with embarrassment, and I bitterly repented not having at first been more explicit. Thereupon the magistrate, in the same kind of tone, demanded to see my pocket-book. I knew that to demur would be useless, and produced it, and forthwith amongst two or three small country notes, appeared the fourth which I had received from the Horncastle dealer. The agent, took it up and examined it with attention. “Well, is it a genuine note,” said the magistrate? “I am sorry to say that it is not,” said the agent; “it is a forgery, like the other three.” The magistrate shrugged his shoulders, as indeed did several people in the room. “A regular dealer in forged notes,” said a person close behind me; “who would have thought it?”

‘Seeing matters begin to look so serious, I aroused myself, and endeavoured to speak in my own behalf, giving a candid account of the manner in which I became possessed of the notes; but my explanation did not appear to meet much credit: the magistrate, to whom I have in particular alluded, asked, why I had not at once stated the fact of my having received a fourth note; and the agent, though in a very quiet tone, observed that he could not help thinking it somewhat strange that I should have changed a note of so much value for a perfect stranger, even supposing that he had purchased my horses, and had paid me their value in hard cash; and I noticed that he laid a particular emphasis on the last words. I might have observed that I was an inexperienced young man, who meaning no harm myself, suspected none in others, but I was confused, stunned, and my tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of my mouth. The men who had taken my horses to Horncastle, and for whom I had sent, as they lived close at hand, now arrived, but the evidence which they could give was anything but conclusive in my favour; they had seen me in company with an individual at Horncastle, to whom by my orders they had delivered certain horses, but they had seen no part of the money transaction; the fellow, whether from design or not, having taken me aside into a retired place, where he had paid me the three spurious notes, and induced me to change the fourth, which throughout the affair was what bore most materially against me. How matters might have terminated I do not know, I might have been committed to prison, and I might have been —. Just then, when I most needed a friend, and least expected to find one, for though amongst those present there were several who were my neighbours, and who had professed friendship for me, none of them when they saw that I needed support and encouragement came forward to yield me any, but, on the contrary, appeared by their looks to enjoy my terror and confusion — just then a friend entered the room in the person of the surgeon of the neighbourhood, the father of him who has attended you; he was not on very intimate terms with me, but he had occasionally spoken to me, and had attended my father in his dying illness, and chancing to hear that I was in trouble, he now hastened to assist me. After a short preamble, in which he apologized to the bench for interfering, he begged to be informed of the state of the case, whereupon the matter was laid before him in all its details. He was not slow in taking a fair view of it, and spoke well and eloquently in my behalf — insisting on the improbability that a person of my habits and position would be wilfully mixed up with a transaction like that of which it appeared I was suspected — adding, that as he was fully convinced of my innocence, he was ready to enter into any surety with respect to my appearance at any time to answer anything which might be laid to my charge. This last observation had particular effect, and as he was a person universally respected, both for his skill in his profession and his general demeanour, people began to think that a person in whom he took an interest could scarcely be concerned in anything criminal, and though my friend the magistrate — I call him so ironically — made two or three demurs, it was at last agreed between him and his brethren of the bench, that, for the present, I should be merely called upon to enter into my own recognizance for the sum of two hundred pounds, to appear whenever it should be deemed requisite to enter into any farther investigation of the matter.

‘So I was permitted to depart from the tribunal of petty justice without handcuffs, and uncollared by a constable; but people looked coldly and suspiciously upon me. The first thing I did was to hasten to the house of my beloved, in order to inform her of every circumstance attending the transaction. I found her, but how? A malicious female individual had hurried to her with a distorted tale, to the effect that I had been taken up as an utterer of forged notes; that an immense number had been found in my possession; that I was already committed, and that probably I should be executed. My affianced one tenderly loved me, and her constitution was delicate; fit succeeded fit, she broke a blood-vessel, and I found her deluged in blood; the surgeon had just been sent for; he came and afforded her every possible relief. I was distracted; he bade me have hope, but I observed he looked very grave.

‘By the skill of the surgeon, the poor girl was saved in the first instance from the arms of death, and for a few weeks she appeared to be rapidly recovering; by degrees, however, she became melancholy; a worm preyed upon her spirit; a slow fever took possession of her frame. I subsequently learned that the same malicious female, who had first carried to her an exaggerated account of the affair, and who was a distant relative of her own, frequently visited her, and did all in her power to excite her fears with respect to its eventual termination. Time passed on in a very wretched manner. Our friend the surgeon showing to us both every mark of kindness and attention.

‘It was owing to this excellent man that my innocence was eventually established. Having been called to a town on the borders of Yorkshire to a medical consultation, he chanced to be taking a glass of wine with the landlord of the inn at which he stopped, when the waiter brought in a note to be changed, saying, “That the Quaker gentleman who had been for some days in the house, and was about to depart, had sent it to be changed, in order that he might pay his bill.” The landlord took the note and looked at it. “A fifty-pound bill,” said he; “I don’t like changing bills of that amount, lest they should prove bad ones; however, as it comes from a Quaker gentleman, I suppose it is all right.” The mention of a fifty-pound note aroused the attention of my friend, and he requested to be permitted to look at it; he had scarcely seen it, when he was convinced that it was one of the same description as those which had brought me into trouble, as it corresponded with them in two particular features, which the agent of the bank had pointed out to him and others as evidence of their spuriousness. My friend, without a moment’s hesitation, informed the landlord that the note was a bad one, expressing at the time a great wish to see the Quaker gentleman who wanted to have it changed. “That you can easily do,” said the landlord, and forthwith conducted him into the common room, where he saw a respectable-looking man, dressed like a Quaker, and seemingly about sixty years of age.

‘My friend, after a short apology, showed him the note which he held in his hand, stating that he had no doubt it was a spurious one, and begged to be informed where he had taken it, adding, that a particular friend of his was at present in trouble, owing to his having taken similar notes from a stranger at Horncastle; but that he hoped that he, the Quaker, could give information, by means of which the guilty party, or parties, could be arrested. At the mention of Horncastle, it appeared to my friend that the Quaker gave a slight start. At the conclusion of this speech, however, he answered, with great tranquillity, that he had received it in the way of business at —— naming one of the principal towns in Yorkshire, from a very respectable person, whose name he was perfectly willing to communicate, and likewise his own, which he said was James, and that he was a merchant residing at Liverpool; that he would write to his friend at —— requesting him to make inquiries on the subject; that just at that moment he was in a hurry to depart, having some particular business at a town about ten miles off, to go to which he had bespoken a post-chaise of the landlord; that with respect to the note, it was doubtless a very disagreeable thing to have a suspicious one in his possession, but that it would make little difference to him, as he had plenty of other money, and thereupon he pulled out a purse, containing various other notes, and some gold, observing, “that his only motive for wishing to change the other note was a desire to be well provided with change;” and finally, that if they had any suspicion with respect to him, he was perfectly willing to leave the note in their possession till he should return, which he intended to do in about a fortnight. There was so much plausibility in the speech of the Quaker, and his appearance and behaviour were so perfectly respectable, that my friend felt almost ashamed of the suspicion which at first he had entertained of him, though, at the same time, he felt an unaccountable unwillingness to let the man depart without some farther interrogation. The landlord, however, who did not wish to disoblige one who had been, and might probably be again, a profitable customer, declared that he was perfectly satisfied; that he had no wish to detain the note, which he made no doubt the gentleman had received in the way of business, and that as the matter concerned him alone, he would leave it to him to make the necessary inquiries. “Just as you please, friend,” said the Quaker, pocketing the suspicious note, “I will now pay my bill.” Thereupon he discharged the bill with a five-pound note, which he begged the landlord to inspect carefully, and with two pieces of gold.

‘The landlord had just taken the money, receipted the bill, and was bowing to his customer, when the door opened, and a lad, dressed in a kind of grey livery, appeared, and informed the Quaker that the chaise was ready. “Is that boy your servant?” asked the surgeon. “He is, friend,” said the Quaker. “Hast thou any reason for asking me that question?” “And has he been long in your service?” “Several years,” replied the Quaker. “I took him into my house out of compassion, he being an orphan, but as the chaise is waiting, I will bid thee farewell.” “I am afraid I must stop your journey for the present,” said the surgeon; “that boy has exactly the same blemish in the eye which a boy had who was in company with the man at Horncastle, from whom my friend received the forged notes, and who there passed for his son.” “I know nothing about that,” said the Quaker, “but I am determined to be detained here no longer, after the satisfactory account which I have given as to the note’s coming into my possession.” He then attempted to leave the room, but my friend detained him, a struggle ensued, during which a wig which the Quaker wore fell off, whereupon he instantly appeared to lose some twenty years of his age. “Knock the fellow down, father,” said the boy, “I’ll help you.”

‘And, forsooth, the pretended Quaker took the boy’s advice, and knocked my friend down in a twinkling. The landlord, however, and waiter, seeing how matters stood, instantly laid hold of him; but there can be no doubt that he would have escaped from the whole three had not certain guests who were in the house, hearing the noise, rushed in, and helped to secure him. The boy was true to his word, assisting him to the best of his ability, flinging himself between the legs of his father’s assailants, causing several of them to stumble and fall. At length, the fellow was secured, and led before a magistrate; the boy, to whom he was heard to say something which nobody understood, and to whom, after the man’s capture, no one paid much attention, was no more seen.

‘The rest, as far as this man was concerned, may be told in a few words; nothing to criminate him was found on his person, but on his baggage being examined, a quantity of spurious notes were discovered. Much of his hardihood now forsook him, and in the hope of saving his life he made some very important disclosures; amongst other things, he confessed that it was he who had given me the notes in exchange for the horses, and also the note to be changed. He was subsequently tried on two indictments, in the second of which I appeared against him. He was condemned to die; but, in consideration of the disclosures he had made, his sentence was commuted to perpetual transportation.

‘My innocence was thus perfectly established before the eyes of the world, and all my friends hastened to congratulate me. There was one who congratulated me more than all the rest — it was my beloved one, but — but — she was dying —’

Here the old man drew his hand before his eyes and remained for some time without speaking; at length he removed his hand, and commenced again with a broken voice: ‘You will pardon me if I hurry over this part of my story; I am unable to dwell upon it. How dwell upon a period when I saw my only earthly treasure pine away gradually day by day, and knew that nothing could save her! She saw my agony, and did all she could to console me, saying that she was herself quite resigned. A little time before her death she expressed a wish that we should be united. I was too happy to comply with her request. We were united, I brought her to this house, where, in less than a week, she expired in my arms.’

158 See after, in the jockey’s tale, p. 252.

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