The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 37

Horncastle Fair

It had been my intention to be up and doing early on the following morning, but my slumbers proved so profound, that I did not wake until about eight; on arising, I again found myself the sole occupant of the apartment, my more alert companion having probably risen at a much earlier hour. Having dressed myself, I descended, and going to the stable, found my horse under the hands of my friend the ostler, who was carefully rubbing him down. ‘There ain’t a better horse in the fair,’ said he to me, ‘and as you are one of us, and appear to be all right, I’ll give you a piece of advice — don’t take less than a hundred and fifty for him; if you mind your hits, you may get it, for I have known two hundred given in this fair for one no better, if so good.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘thank you for your advice, which I will take, and, if successful, will give you “summut” handsome.’ ‘Thank you,’ said the ostler; ‘and now let me ask whether you are up to all the ways of this here place?’ ‘I have never been here before,’ said I, ‘but I have a pair of tolerably sharp eyes in my head.’ ‘That I see you have,’ said the ostler, ‘but many a body, with as sharp a pair of eyes as yourn, has lost his horse in this fair, for want of having been here before. Therefore,’ said he, ‘I’ll give you a caution or two.’ Thereupon the ostler proceeded to give me at least half a dozen cautions, only two of which I shall relate to the reader: the first, not to stop to listen to what any chance customer might have to say; and the last — the one on which he appeared to lay most stress — by no manner of means to permit a Yorkshireman to get up into the saddle. ‘For,’ said he, ‘if you do, it is three to one that he rides off with the horse. He can’t help it. Trust a cat amongst cream, but never trust a Yorkshireman on the saddle of a good horse. By-the-by,’ he continued, ‘that saddle of yours is not a particularly good one, no more is the bridle. A shabby saddle and a bridle have more than once spoiled the sale of a good horse. I tell you what, as you seem a decent kind of a young chap, I’ll lend you a saddle and bridle of my master’s, almost bran new; he won’t object I know, as you are a friend of his, only you must not forget your promise to come down with summut handsome after you have sold the animal.’

After a slight breakfast I mounted the horse, which, decked out in his borrowed finery, really looked better by a large sum of money than on any former occasion. Making my way out of the yard of the inn, I was instantly in the principal street of the town, up and down which an immense number of horses were being exhibited, some led, and others with riders. ‘A wonderful small quantity of good horses in the fair this time!’ I heard a stout jockey-looking individual say, who was staring up the street with his side towards me. ‘Halloo, young fellow!’ said he, a few moments after I had passed, ‘whose horse is that? Stop! I want to look at him!’ Though confident that he was addressing himself to me, I took no notice, remembering the advice of the ostler, and proceeded up the street. My horse possessed a good walking step; but walking, as the reader knows, was not his best pace, which was the long trot, at which I could not well exercise him in the street, on account of the crowd of men and animals. However, as he walked along, I could easily perceive that he attracted no slight attention amongst those who, by their jockey dress and general appearance, I imagined to be connoisseurs. I heard various calls to stop, to none of which I paid the slightest attention. In a few minutes I found myself out of the town, when, turning round for the purpose of returning, I found I had been followed by several of the connoisseur-looking individuals, whom I had observed in the fair. ‘Now would be the time for a display,’ thought I; and looking around me I observed two five-barred gates, one on each side of the road, and fronting each other. Turning my horse’s head to one, I pressed my heels to his sides, loosened the reins, and gave an encouraging cry, whereupon the animal cleared the gate in a twinkling. Before he had advanced ten yards in the field to which the gate opened, I had turned him round, and again giving him cry and rein, I caused him to leap back again into the road, and still allowing him head, I made him leap the other gate; and forthwith turning him round, I caused him to leap once more into the road, where he stood proudly tossing his head, as much as to say, ‘What more?’ ‘A fine horse! a capital horse!’ said several of the connoisseurs. ‘What do you ask for him?’ ‘Too much for any of you to pay,’ said I. ‘A horse like this is intended for other kind of customers than any of you.’ ‘How do you know that?’ said one — the very same person whom I had heard complaining in the street of the paucity of good horses in the fair. ‘Come, let us know what you ask for him?’ ‘A hundred and fifty pounds!’ said I; ‘neither more nor less.’ ‘Do you call that a great price?’ said the man. ‘Why, I thought you would have asked double that amount! You do yourself injustice, young man.’ ‘Perhaps I do,’ said I; ‘but that’s my affair; I do not choose to take more.’ ‘I wish you would let me get into the saddle,’ said the man; ‘the horse knows you, and therefore shows to more advantage; but I should like to see how he would move under me, who am a stranger. Will you let me get into the saddle, young man?’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘I will not let you get into the saddle.’ ‘Why not?’ said the man. ‘Lest you should be a Yorkshireman,’ said I; ‘and should run away with the horse.’ ‘Yorkshire?’ said the man; ‘I am from Suffolk; silly Suffolk — so you need not be afraid of my running away with the horse.’ ‘Oh! if that’s the case,’ said I, ‘I should be afraid that the horse would run away with you; so I will by no means let you mount.’ ‘Will you let me look in his mouth?’ said the man. ‘If you please,’ said I; ‘but I tell you, he’s apt to bite.’ ‘He can scarcely be a worse bite than his master,’ said the man, looking into the horse’s mouth; ‘he’s four off. I say, young man, will you warrant this horse?’ ‘No,’ said I; ‘I never warrant horses; the horses that I ride can always warrant themselves.’ ‘I wish you would let me speak a word to you,’ said he. ‘Just come aside. It’s a nice horse,’ said he, in a half whisper, after I had ridden a few paces aside with him. ‘It’s a nice horse,’ said he, placing his hand upon the pommel of the saddle, and looking up in my face, ‘and I think I can find you a customer. If you would take a hundred, I think my lord would purchase it, for he has sent me about the fair to look him up a horse, by which he could hope to make a honest penny.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘and could he not make a honest penny, and yet give me the price I ask?’ ‘Why,’ said the go-between, ‘a hundred and fifty pounds is as much as the animal is worth, or nearly so; and my lord, do you see —’ ‘I see no reason at all,’ said I, ‘why I should sell the animal for less than he is worth, in order that his lordship may be benefited by him; so that if his lordship wants to make an honest penny, he must find some person who would consider the disadvantage of selling him a horse for less than it is worth, as counterbalanced by the honour of dealing with a lord, which I should never do; but I can’t be wasting my time here. I am going back to the —— where if you, or any person, are desirous of purchasing the horse, you must come within the next half-hour, or I shall probably not feel disposed to sell him at all.’ ‘Another word, young man,’ said the jockey; but without staying to hear what he had to say, I put the horse to his best trot, and re-entering the town, and threading my way as well as I could through the press, I returned to the yard of the inn, where, dismounting, I stood still, holding the horse by the bridle.

I had been standing in this manner about five minutes, when I saw the jockey enter the yard, accompanied by another individual. They advanced directly towards me. ‘Here is my lord come to look at the horse, young man,’ said the jockey. My lord, 159 as the jockey called him, was a tall figure of about five-and-thirty. He had on his head a hat somewhat rusty, and on his back a surtout of blue rather the worse for wear. His forehead, if not high, was exceedingly narrow; his eyes were brown, with a rat-like glare in them; the nose was rather long, and the mouth very wide; the cheek-bones high, and the cheeks, as to hue and consistency, exhibiting very much the appearance of a withered red apple; there was a gaunt expression of hunger in the whole countenance. He had scarcely glanced at the horse, when drawing in his cheeks, he thrust out his lips very much after the manner of a baboon, when he sees a piece of sugar held out towards him. ‘Is this horse yours?’ said he, suddenly turning towards me, with a kind of smirk. ‘It’s my horse,’ said I; ‘are you the person who wishes to make a honest penny by it?’ ‘How!’ said he, drawing up his head with a very consequential look, and speaking with a very haughty tone, ‘what do you mean?’ We looked at each other full in the face; after a few moments the muscles of the mouth of him of the hungry look began to move violently, the face was puckered into innumerable wrinkles, and the eyes became half closed. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘have you ever seen me before? I suppose you are asking yourself that question.’ ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said he, dropping his lofty look, and speaking in a very subdued and civil tone, ‘I have never had the honour of seeing you before, that is’— said he, slightly glancing at me again, and again moving the muscles of his mouth —‘no, I have never seen you before,’ he added, making me a low bow, ‘I have never had that pleasure; my business with you at present is to inquire the lowest price you are willing to take for this horse. My agent here informs me that you ask one hundred and fifty pounds, which I can’t think of giving; the horse is a showy horse, but look, my dear sir, he has a defect here, and there in his near fore-leg I observe something which looks very like a splint — yes, upon my credit,’ said he, touching the animal, ‘he has a splint, or something which will end in one. A hundred and fifty pounds, sir! What could have induced you ever to ask anything like that for this animal? I protest that, in my time, I have frequently bought a better for ——. Who are you, sir? I am in treaty for this horse,’ said he to a man who had come up whilst he was talking, and was now looking into the horse’s mouth. ‘Who am I?’ said the man, still looking into the horse’s mouth —‘who am I? his lordship asks me. Ah, I see, close on five,’ said he, releasing the horse’s jaws, and looking at me. This new comer was a thin, wiry-made individual, with wiry curling brown hair; his face was dark, and wore an arch and somewhat roguish expression; upon one of his eyes was a kind of speck or beam; he might be about forty, wore a green jockey coat, and held in his hand a black riding-whip, with a knob of silver wire. As I gazed upon his countenance it brought powerfully to my mind the face which, by the light of the candle, I had seen staring over me on the preceding night, when lying in bed and half asleep. Close beside him, and seemingly in his company, stood an exceedingly tall figure, that of a youth, seemingly about one-and-twenty, dressed in a handsome riding-dress, and wearing on his head a singular hat, green in colour, and with a very high peak. ‘What do you ask for this horse?’ said he of the green coat, winking at me with the eye which had a beam in it, whilst the other shone and sparkled like Mrs. Colonel W——‘s Golconda diamond. ‘Who are you, sir, I demand once more?’ said he of the hungry look. ‘Who am I? Why who should I be but Jack Dale, who buys horses for himself and other folk; I want one at present for this short young gentleman,’ said he, motioning with his finger to the gigantic youth. ‘Well, sir,’ said the other, ‘and what business have you to interfere between me and any purchase I may be disposed to make?’ ‘Well, then,’ said the other, ‘be quick and purchase the horse, or perhaps I may.’ ‘Do you think I am to be dictated to by a fellow of your description?’ said his lordship; ‘begone, or —’ ‘What do you ask for this horse?’ said the other to me, very coolly. ‘A hundred and fifty,’ said I. ‘I shouldn’t mind giving it you,’ said he. ‘You will do no such thing,’ said his lordship, speaking so fast that he almost stuttered. ‘Sir,’ said he to me, ‘I must give you what you ask. Symmonds, take possession of the animal for me,’ said he to the other jockey who attended him. ‘You will please to do no such thing without my consent,’ said I; ‘I have not sold him.’ ‘I have this moment told you that I will give you the price you demand,’ said his lordship, ‘is not that sufficient?’ ‘No,’ said I, ‘there is a proper manner of doing everything. Had you come forward in a manly and gentlemanly manner to purchase the horse, I should have been happy to sell him to you, but after all the fault you have found with him, I would not sell him to you at any price, so send your friend to find up another.’ ‘You behave in this manner, I suppose,’ said his lordship, ‘because this fellow has expressed a willingness to come to your terms. I would advise you to be cautious how you trust the animal in his hands; I think I have seen him before, and could tell you —’ ‘What can you tell of me?’ said the other, going up to him, ‘except that I have been a poor dicky-boy, 160 and that now I am a dealer in horses, and that my father was lagged? 161 that is all you could tell of me, and that I don’t mind telling myself; but there are two things they can’t say of me, they can’t say that I am either a coward, or a screw either, except so far as one who gets his bread by horses may be expected to be; and they can’t say of me that I ever ate up an ice which a young woman was waiting for, or that I ever backed out of a fight. Horse!’ said he, motioning with his finger tauntingly to the other, ‘what do you want with a horse, except to take the bread out of the mouth of a poor man — tomorrow is not the battle of Waterloo, so that you don’t want to back out of danger by pretending to have hurt yourself by falling from the creature’s back, my lord of the white feather — come, none of your fierce looks — I am not afraid of you.’ In fact, the other had assumed an expression of the deadliest malice, his teeth were clenched, his lips quivered and were quite pale; the rat-like eyes sparkled, and he made a half spring, a la rat, towards his adversary, who only laughed. Restraining himself, however, he suddenly turned to his understrapper, saying, ‘Symmonds, will you see me thus insulted? Go and trounce this scoundrel; you can, I know.’ ‘Symmonds trounce me!’ said the other, going up to the person addressed, and drawing his hand contemptuously over his face; ‘why I beat Symmonds in this very yard in one round three years ago, didn’t I, Symmonds?’ said he to the understrapper, who held down his head, muttering in a surly tone, ‘I didn’t come here to fight; let every one take his own part.’ ‘That’s right, Symmonds,’ said the other, ‘especially every one from whom there is nothing to be got. I would give you half-a crown for all the trouble you have had, provided I were not afraid that my Lord Plume there would get it from you as soon as you leave the yard together. Come, take yourselves both off; there’s nothing to be made here.’ Indeed, his lordship seemed to be of the same opinion, for after a further glance at the horse, a contemptuous look at me, and a scowl at the jockey, he turned on his heel, muttering something which sounded like fellows, and stalked out of the yard, followed by Symmonds.

‘And now, young man,’ said the jockey, or whatever he was, turning to me with an arch leer, ‘I suppose I may consider myself as the purchaser of this here animal, for the use and behoof of this young gentleman,’ making a sign with his head towards the tall young man by his side. ‘By no means,’ said I, ‘I am utterly unacquainted with either of you, and before parting with the horse I must be satisfied as to the respectability of the purchaser.’ ‘Oh! as to that matter,’ said he, ‘I have plenty of vouchers for my respectability about me;’ and, thrusting his hand into his bosom below his waistcoat, he drew out a large bundle of notes. ‘These are the kind of things,’ said he, ‘which vouch best for a man’s respectability.’ ‘Not always,’ said I; ‘indeed, sometimes these kind of things need vouchers for themselves.’ The man looked at me with a peculiar look. ‘Do you mean to say that these notes are not sufficient notes?’ said he, ‘because if you do I shall take the liberty of thinking that you are not over civil, and when I thinks a person is not over and above civil I sometimes takes off my coat; and when my coat is off —.’ ‘You sometimes knock people down,’ I added; ‘well, whether you knock me down or not, I beg leave to tell you that I am a stranger in this fair, and that I shall part with the horse to nobody who has no better guarantee for his respectability than a roll of bank-notes, which may be good or not for what I know, who am not a judge of such things.’ ‘Oh! if you are a stranger here,’ said the man, ‘as I believe you are, never having seen you here before except last night, when I think I saw you above stairs by the glimmer of a candle — I say, if you are a stranger, you are quite right to be cautious; queer things being done in this fair, as nobody knows better than myself,’ he added, with a leer; ‘but I suppose if the landlord of the house vouches for me and my notes, you will have no objection to part with the horse to me?’ ‘None whatever,’ said I, ‘and in the meantime the horse can return to the stable.’

Thereupon I delivered the horse to my friend the ostler. The landlord of the house, on being questioned by me as to the character and condition of my new acquaintance, informed me that he was a respectable horsedealer, and an intimate friend of his, whereupon the purchase was soon brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

159 See Introduction.

160 Donkey-boy.

161 Transported.

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