The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 41

The Jockey’s Tale — Thieves’ Latin — Liberties with Coin — The Smasher in Prison — Old Fulcher — Every One Has His Gift — Fashion of the English

‘My grandfather was a shorter, and my father was a smasher; the one was scragg’d, and the other lagg’d.’

I here interrupted the jockey by observing that his discourse was, for the greater part, unintelligible to me.

‘I do not understand much English,’ said the Hungarian, who, having replenished and resumed his mighty pipe, was now smoking away; ‘but, by Isten, I believe it is the gibberish which that great ignorant Valther Scott puts into the mouth of the folks he calls gypsies.’

‘Something like it, I confess,’ said I, ‘though this sounds more genuine than his dialect, which he picked up out of the canting vocabulary at the end of the “English Rogue,” 166 a book which, however despised, was written by a remarkable genius. What do you call the speech you were using?’ said I, addressing myself to the jockey.

‘Latin,’ said the jockey, very coolly, ‘that is, that dialect of it which is used by the light-fingered gentry.’

‘He is right,’ said the Hungarian; ‘it is what the Germans call Roth–Welsch: they call it so because there are a great many Latin words in it, introduced by the priests, who, at the time of the Reformation, being too lazy to work, and too stupid to preach, joined the bands of thieves and robbers who prowled about the county. Italy, as you are aware, is called by the Germans Welschland, or the land of the Welschers; and I may add that Wallachia derives its name from a colony of Welschers which Trajan sent there. Welsch and Wallack being one and the same word, and tantamount to Latin.’

‘I dare say you are right,’ said I; ‘but why was Italy termed Welschland?’

‘I do not know,’ said the Hungarian.

‘Then I think I can tell you,’ said I; ‘it was called so because the original inhabitants were a Cimbric tribe, who were called Gwyltiad, that is, a race of wild people, living in coverts, who were of the same blood, and spoke the same language as the present inhabitants of Wales. Welsh seems merely a modification of Gwyltiad. Pray continue your history,’ said I to the jockey, ‘only please to do so in a language which we can understand, and first of all interpret the sentence with which you began it.’

‘I told you that my grandfather was a shorter,’ said the jockey, ‘by which is meant a gentleman who shortens or reduces the current coin of these realms, for which practice he was scragged, that is, hung by the scrag of the neck. And when I said that my father was a smasher, I meant one who passes forged notes, thereby doing his best to smash the Bank of England; by being lagg’d, I meant he was laid fast, that is, had a chain put round his leg and then transported.’

‘Your explanations are perfectly satisfactory,’ said I; ‘the three first words are metaphorical, and the fourth, lagg’d, is the old genuine Norse term, lagda, which signifies laid, whether in durance, or in bed has nothing to do with the matter. What you have told me confirms me in an opinion which I have long entertained, that thieves’ Latin is a strange mysterious speech, formed of metaphorical terms, and words derived from various ancient languages. Pray tell me, now, how the gentleman, your grandfather, contrived to shorten the coin of these realms?’

‘You shall hear,’ said the jockey; ‘but I have one thing to beg of you, which is, that when I have once begun my history you will not interrupt me with questions; I don’t like them, they stops one, and puts one out of one’s tale, and are not wanted. For anything which I think can’t be understood, I should myself explain, without being asked. My grandfather reduced or shortened the coin of this country by three processes. By aquafortis, by clipping, and by filing. Filing and clipping he employed in reducing all kinds of coin, whether gold or silver; but aquafortis he used merely in reducing gold coin, whether guineas, jacobuses, or Portugal pieces, otherwise called moidores, which were at one time as current as guineas. By laying a guinea in aquafortis for twelve hours he could filch from it to the value of ninepence, and by letting it remain there for twenty-four, to the value of eighteenpence, the aquafortis eating the gold away, and leaving it like a sediment in the vessel. He was generally satisfied with taking the value of ninepence from a guinea, of eighteenpence from a jacobus or moidore, or half-a-crown from a broad Spanish piece, whether he reduced them by aquafortis, filing, or clipping. From a five-shilling piece, which is called a bull in Latin, because it is round like a bull’s head, he would file or clip to the value of five-pence, and from lesser coin in proportion. He was connected with a numerous gang, or set, of people, who had given up their minds and talents entirely to shortening.’

Here I interrupted the jockey. ‘How singular,’ said I, ‘is the fall and debasement of words; you talk of a gang, or set of shorters; you are, perhaps, not aware that gang and set were, a thousand years ago, only connected with the great and Divine: they are ancient Norse words, which may be found in the heroic poems of the north, and in the Edda, a collection of mythologic and heroic songs. In these poems we read that such and such a king invaded Norway with a gang of heroes, or so and so — for example, Erik Bloodaxe — was admitted to the set of gods; but at present gang and set are merely applied to the vilest of the vile, and the lowest of the low. We say a gang of thieves and shorters, or a set of authors. How touching is this debasement of words in the course of time! It puts me in mind of the decay of old houses and names. I have known a Mortimer who was a hedger and ditcher, a Berners who was born in a workhouse, and a descendant of the De Burghs, who bore the falcon, mending old kettles, and making horse and pony shoes in a dingle.’

‘Odd enough,’ said the jockey; ‘but you were saying you knew one Berners — man or woman? I would ask.’

‘A woman,’ said I.

‘What might her Christian name be?’ said the jockey.

‘It is not to be mentioned lightly,’ said I, with a sigh.

‘I shouldn’t wonder if it were Isopel,’ said the jockey, with an arch glance of his one brilliant eye.

‘It was Isopel,’ said I. ‘Did you know Isopel Berners?’

‘Ay, and have reason to know her,’ said the jockey, putting his hand into his left waistcoat-pocket, as if to feel for something, ‘for she gave me what I believe few men could do — a most confounded wapping. But now, Mr. Romany Rye, I have again to tell you that I don’t like to be interrupted when I’m speaking, and to add that if you break in upon me a third time, you and I shall quarrel.’

‘Pray proceed with your story,’ said I; ‘I will not interrupt you again.’

‘Good!’ said the jockey. ‘Where was I? Oh, with a set of people who had given up their minds to shortening! Reducing the coin, though rather a lucrative, was a very dangerous, trade. Coin filed felt rough to the touch; coin clipped could be easily detected by the eye; and as for coin reduced by aquafortis, it was generally so discoloured that, unless a great deal of pains was used to polish it, people were apt to stare at it in a strange manner, and to say, “What have they been doing to this here gold?” My grandfather, as I said before, was connected with a gang of shorters, and sometimes shortened money, and at other times passed off what had been shortened by other gentry.

‘Passing off what had been shortened by others was his ruin; for once, in trying to pass off a broad piece which had been laid in aquafortis for four-and-twenty hours, and was very black, not having been properly rectified, he was stopped and searched, and other reduced coins being found about him and in his lodgings, he was committed to prison, tried, and executed. He was offered his life, provided he would betray his comrades, but he told the big-wigs, who wanted him to do so, that he would see them farther first, and died at Tyburn, amidst the cheers of the populace, leaving my grandmother and father, to whom he had always been a kind husband and parent — for, setting aside the crime for which he suffered, he was a moral man — leaving them, I say, to bewail his irreparable loss.

‘’Tis said that misfortune never comes alone; this is, however, not always the case. Shortly after my grandfather’s misfortune, as my grandmother and her son were living in great misery in Spitalfields, her only relation — a brother from whom she had been estranged some years, on account of her marriage with my grandfather, who had been in an inferior station to herself — died, leaving all his property to her and the child. This property consisted of a farm of about a hundred acres, with its stock and some money besides. My grandmother, who knew something of business, instantly went into the country, where she farmed the property for her own benefit and that of her son, to whom she gave an education suitable to a person in his condition, till he was old enough to manage the farm himself. Shortly after the young man came of age, my grandmother died, and my father, in about a year, married the daughter of a farmer, from whom he expected some little fortune, but who very much deceived him, becoming a bankrupt almost immediately after the marriage of his daughter, and himself and family going to the workhouse.

‘My mother, however, made my father an excellent wife; and if my father in the long run did not do well, it was no fault of hers. My father was not a bad man by nature, he was of an easy, generous temper — the most unfortunate temper, by-the-by, for success in this life that any person can be possessed of, as those who have it are almost sure to be made dupes of by the designing. But, though easy and generous, he was anything but a fool; he had a quick and witty tongue of his own when he chose to exert it, and woe be to those who insulted him openly, for there was not a better boxer in the whole country round. My parents were married several years before I came into the world, who was their first and only child. I may be called an unfortunate creature; I was born with this beam or scale on my left eye, which does not allow me to see with it; and though I can see tolerably sharply with the other, indeed more than most people can with both of theirs, it is a great misfortune not to have two eyes like other people. Moreover, setting aside the affair of my eye, I had a very ugly countenance; my mouth being slightly wrung aside, and my complexion rather swarthy. In fact, I looked so queer that the gossips and neighbours, when they first saw me, swore I was a changeling — perhaps it would have been well if I had never been born; for my poor father, who had been particularly anxious to have a son, no sooner saw me than he turned away, went to the neighbouring town, and did not return for two days. I am by no means certain that I was not the cause of his ruin, for till I came into the world he was fond of his home, and attended much to business, but afterwards he went frequently into company, and did not seem to care much about his affairs: he was, however, a kind man, and when his wife gave him advice never struck her, nor do I ever remember that he kicked me when I came in his way, or so much as cursed my ugly face, though it was easy to see that he didn’t over like me. When I was six years old I was sent to the village-school, where I was soon booked for a dunce, because the master found it impossible to teach me either to read or write. Before I had been at school two years, however, I had beaten boys four years older than myself, and could fling a stone with my left hand (for if I am right-eyed I am left-handed) higher and farther than any one in the parish. Moreover, no boy could equal me at riding, and no people ride so well or desperately as boys. I could ride a donkey — a thing far more difficult to ride than a horse — at full gallop over hedges and ditches, seated or rather floating upon his hinder part — so though anything but clever, as this here Romany Rye would say, I was yet able to do things which few other people could do. By the time I was ten my father’s affairs had got into a very desperate condition, for he had taken to gambling and horse-racing, and, being unsuccessful, had sold his stock, mortgaged his estate, and incurred very serious debts. The upshot was, that within a little time all he had was seized, himself imprisoned, and my mother and myself put into a cottage belonging to the parish, which, being very cold and damp, was the cause of her catching a fever, which speedily carried her off. I was then bound apprentice to a farmer, in whose service I underwent much coarse treatment, cold and hunger.

‘After lying in prison near two years, my father was liberated by an Act for the benefit of insolvent debtors; he was then lost sight of for some time, at last, however, he made his appearance in the neighbourhood dressed like a gentleman, and seemingly possessed of plenty of money. He came to see me, took me into a field, and asked me how I was getting on. I told him I was dreadfully used, and begged him to take me away with him; he refused, and told me to be satisfied with my condition, for that he could do nothing for me. I had a great love for my father, and likewise a great admiration for him on account of his character as a boxer, the only character which boys in general regard, so I wished much to be with him, independently of the dog’s life I was leading where I was; I therefore said if he would not take me with him, I would follow him; he replied that I must do no such thing, for that if I did, it would be my ruin. I asked him what he meant, but he made no reply, only saying that he would go and speak to the farmer. Then taking me with him he went to the farmer and in a very civil manner said that he understood I had not been very kindly treated by him, but he hoped that in future I should be used better. The farmer answered in a surly tone, that I had been only too well treated, for that I was a worthless young scoundrel; high words ensued, and the farmer, forgetting the kind of man he had to deal with, checked him with my grandsire’s misfortune, and said he deserved to be hanged like his father. In a moment my father knocked him down, and on his getting up gave him a terrible beating, then taking me by the hand he hastened away; as we were going down a lane he said we were now both done for: “I don’t care a straw for that, father,” said I, “provided I be with you.” My father took me to the neighbouring town, and going into the yard of a small inn, he ordered out a pony and light cart which belonged to him, then paying his bill, he told me to mount upon the seat, and getting up drove away like lightning; we drove for at least six hours without stopping, till we came to a cottage by the side of a heath; we put the pony and cart into a shed and went into the cottage, my father unlocking the door with a key which he took out of his pocket; there was nobody in the cottage when we arrived, but shortly after there came a man and woman, and then some more people, and by ten o’clock at night there were a dozen of us in the cottage. The people were companions of my father. My father began talking to them in Latin, but I did not understand much of the discourse, though I believe it was about myself, as their eyes were frequently turned to me. Some objections appeared to be made to what he said; however, all at last seemed to be settled, and we all sat down to some food. After that all the people got up and went away, with the exception of the woman, who remained with my father and me. The next day my father also departed, leaving me with the woman, telling me before he went that she would teach me some things which it behoved me to know. I remained with her in the cottage upwards of a week; several of those who had been there coming and going. The woman, after making me take an oath to be faithful, told me that the people whom I had seen were a gang who got their livelihood by passing forged notes, and that my father was a principal man amongst them, adding, that I must do my best to assist them. I was a poor ignorant child at that time, and I made no objection, thinking that whatever my father did must be right; the woman then gave me some instructions in the smasher’s dialect of the Latin language. I made great progress, because for the first time in my life, I paid great attention to my lessons. At last my father returned, and, after some conversation with the woman, took me away in his cart. I shall be very short about what happened to my father and myself during two years. My father did his best to smash the Bank of England by passing forged notes, and I did my best to assist him. We attended races and fairs in all kinds of disguises; my father was a first-rate hand at a disguise, and could appear of all ages from twenty to fourscore; he was, however, grabbed at last. He had said, as I have told you, that he should be my ruin, but I was the cause of his, and all owing to the misfortune of this here eye of mine. We came to this very place of Horncastle, where my father purchased two horses of a young man, paying for them with three forged notes, purporting to be Bank of Englanders of fifty pounds each, and got the young man to change another of the like amount; he at that time appeared as a respectable dealer, and I as his son, as I really was.

‘As soon as we had got the horses, we conveyed them to one of the places of call belonging to our gang, of which there were several. There they were delivered into the hands of one of our companions, who speedily sold them in a distant part of the country. The sum which they fetched — for the gang kept very regular accounts — formed an important item on the next day of sharing, of which there were twelve in the year. The young man, whom my father had paid for the horses with his smashing notes, was soon in trouble about them, and ran some risk, as I have heard, of being executed; but he bore a good character, told a plain story, and, above all, had friends, and was admitted to bail; to one of his friends he described my father and myself. This person happened to be at an inn in Yorkshire, where my father, disguised as a Quaker, attempted to pass a forged note. The note was shown to this individual, who pronounced it a forgery, it being exactly similar to those for which the young man had been in trouble, and which he had seen. My father, however, being supposed a respectable man, because he was dressed as a Quaker — the very reason, by-the-by, why anybody who knew aught of the Quakers would have suspected him to be a rogue — would have been let go, had I not made my appearance, dressed as his footboy. The friend of the young man looked at my eye, and seized hold of my father, who made a desperate resistance, I assisting him, as in duty bound. Being, however, overpowered by numbers, he bade me by a look, and a word or two in Latin, to make myself scarce. Though my heart was fit to break, I obeyed my father, who was speedily committed. I followed him to the county town in which he was lodged, where shortly after I saw him tried, convicted, and condemned. I then, having made friends with the jailor’s wife, visited him in his cell, where I found him very much cast down. He said, that my mother had appeared to him in a dream, and talked to him about a resurrection and Christ Jesus; there was a Bible before him, and he told me the chaplain had just been praying with him. He reproached himself much, saying, he was afraid he had been my ruin, by teaching me bad habits. I told him not to say any such thing, for that I had been the cause of his, owing to the misfortune of my eye. He begged me to give over all unlawful pursuits, saying, that if persisted in, they were sure of bringing a person to destruction. I advised him to try and make his escape; proposing, that when the turnkey came to let me out, he should knock him down, and fight his way out, offering to assist him; showing him a small saw, with which one of our companions, who was in the neighbourhood, had provided me, and with which he could have cut through his fetters in five minutes; but he told me he had no wish to escape, and was quite willing to die. I was rather hard at that time; I am not very soft now; and I felt rather ashamed of my father’s want of what I called spirit. He was not executed after all; for the chaplain, who was connected with a great family, stood his friend, and got his sentence commuted, as they call it, to transportation; and in order to make the matter easy, he induced my father to make some valuable disclosures with respect to the smasher’s system. I confess that I would have been hanged before I would have done so, after having reaped the profit of it; that is, I think so now, seated comfortably in my inn, with my bottle of champagne before me. He, however, did not show himself carrion; he would not betray his companions, who had behaved very handsomely to him, having given the son of a lord, a great barrister, not a hundred-pound forged bill, but a hundred hard guineas, to plead his cause, and another ten, to induce him, after pleading, to put his hand to his breast, and say, that, upon his honour, he believed the prisoner at the bar to be an honest and injured man. No: I am glad to be able to say, that my father did not show himself exactly carrion, though I could almost have wished he had let himself —. However, I am here with my bottle of champagne and the Romany Rye, and he was in his cell, with bread and water and the prison chaplain. He took an affectionate leave of me before he was sent away, giving me three out of five guineas, all the money he had left. He was a kind man, but not exactly fitted to fill my grandfather’s shoes. I afterwards learned that he died of fever, as he was being carried across the sea.

‘During the ‘sizes, I had made acquaintance with old Fulcher. I was in the town on my father’s account, and he was there on his son’s, who, having committed a small larceny, was in trouble. Young Fulcher, however, unlike my father, got off, though he did not give the son of a lord a hundred guineas to speak for him, and ten more to pledge his sacred honour for his honesty, but gave Counsellor P—— one-and-twenty shillings to defend him, who so frightened the principal evidence, a plain honest farming man, that he flatly contradicted what he had first said, and at last acknowledged himself to be all the rogues in the world, and, amongst other things, a perjured villain. Old Fulcher, before he left the town with his son — and here it will be well to say that he and his son left it in a kind of triumph, the base drummer of a militia regiment, to whom they had given half-a-crown, beating his drum before them — old Fulcher, I say, asked me to go and visit him, telling me where, at such a time, I might find him and his caravan and family; offering, if I thought fit, to teach me basket-making: so, after my father had been sent off, I went and found up old Fulcher, and became his apprentice in the basket-making line. I stayed with him till the time of his death, which happened in about three months, travelling about with him and his family, and living in green lanes, where we saw gypsies and trampers, and all kinds of strange characters. Old Fulcher, besides being an industrious basket-maker, was an out and out thief, as was also his son, and, indeed, every member of his family. They used to make baskets during the day, and thieve during a great part of the night. I had not been with them twelve hours, before old Fulcher told me that I must thieve as well as the rest. I demurred at first, for I remembered the fate of my father, and what he had told me about leaving off bad courses, but soon allowed myself to be over-persuaded; more especially as the first robbery I was asked to do was a fruit robbery. I was to go with young Fulcher, and steal some fine Morell cherries, which grew against a wall in a gentleman’s garden; so young Fulcher and I went and stole the cherries, one half of which we ate, and gave the rest to the old man, who sold them to a fruiterer ten miles off from the place where we had stolen them. The next night old Fulcher took me out with himself. He was a great thief, though in a small way. He used to say, that they were fools, who did not always manage to keep the rope below their shoulders, by which he meant, that it was not advisable to commit a robbery or do anything which could bring you to the gallows. He was all for petty larceny, and knew where to put his hand upon any little thing in England, which it was possible to steal. I submit it to the better judgment of the Romany Rye, who I see is a great hand for words and names, whether he ought not to have been called old Filcher, instead of Fulcher. I shan’t give a regular account of the larcenies which he committed during the short time I knew him, either alone by himself, or with me and his son. I shall merely relate the last.

‘A melancholy gentleman, who lived a very solitary life, had a large carp in a shady pond in a meadow close to his house: he was exceedingly fond of it, and used to feed it with his own hand, the creature being so tame that it would put its snout out of the water to be fed when it was whistled to; feeding and looking at his carp were the only pleasures the poor melancholy gentleman possessed. Old Fulcher — being in the neighbourhood, and having an order from a fishmonger for a large fish, which was wanted at a great city dinner, at which His Majesty was to be present — swore he would steal the carp, and asked me to go with him. I had heard of the gentleman’s fondness for his creature, and begged him to let it be, advising him to go and steal some other fish; but old Fulcher swore, and said he would have the carp, although its master should hang himself; I told him he might go by himself, but he took his son and stole the carp, which weighed seventeen pounds. Old Fulcher got thirty shillings for the carp, which I afterwards heard was much admired and relished by His Majesty. The master, however, of the carp, on losing his favourite, became more melancholy than ever, and in a little time hanged himself. “What’s sport for one, is death to another,” I once heard at the village-school read out of a copy-book.

‘This was the last larceny old Fulcher ever committed. He could keep his neck always out of the noose, but he could not always keep his leg out of the trap. A few nights after, having removed to a distance, he went to an osier car in order to steal some osiers for his basket-making, for he never bought any. I followed a little way behind. Old Fulcher had frequently stolen osiers out of the car, whilst in the neighbourhood, but during his absence the property, of which the car was part, had been let to a young gentleman, a great hand for preserving game. Old Fulcher had not got far into the car before he put his foot into a man-trap. Hearing old Fulcher shriek, I ran up, and found him in a dreadful condition. Putting a large stick which I carried into the jaws of the trap, I contrived to prize them open, and get old Fulcher’s leg out, but the leg was broken. So I ran to the caravan, and told young Fulcher of what had happened, and he and I went and helped his father home. A doctor was sent for, who said that it was necessary to take the leg off, but old Fulcher, being very much afraid of pain, said it should not be taken off, and the doctor went away, but after some days, old Fulcher becoming worse, ordered the doctor to be sent for, who came and took off his leg, but it was then too late, mortification had come on, and in a little time old Fulcher died.

‘Thus perished old Fulcher; he was succeeded in his business by his son, young Fulcher, who, immediately after the death of his father, was called old Fulcher, it being our English custom to call everybody old, as soon as their fathers are buried; young Fulcher — I mean he who had been called young, but was now old Fulcher — wanted me to go out and commit larcenies with him; but I told him that I would have nothing more to do with thieving, having seen the ill effects of it, and that I should leave them in the morning. Old Fulcher begged me to think better of it, and his mother joined with him. They offered, if I would stay, to give me Mary Fulcher as a mort, 167 till she and I were old enough to be regularly married, she being the daughter of the one, and the sister of the other. I liked the girl very well, for she had been always civil to me, and had a fair complexion and nice red hair, both of which I like, being a bit of a black myself; but I refused, being determined to see something more of the world than I could hope to do with the Fulchers, and, moreover, to live honestly, which I could never do along with them. So the next morning I left them: I was, as I said before, quite determined upon an honest livelihood, and I soon found one. He is a great fool who is ever dishonest in England. Any person who has any natural gift, and everybody has some natural gift, is sure of finding encouragement in this noble country of ours, provided he will but exhibit it. I had not walked more than three miles before I came to a wonderfully high church steeple, which stood close by the road; I looked at the steeple, and going to a heap of smooth pebbles which lay by the roadside, I took up some, and then went into the churchyard, and placing myself just below the tower, my right foot resting on a ledge, about two foot from the ground, I, with my left hand — being a left-handed person do you see — flung or chucked up a stone, which lighting on the top of the steeple, which was at least a hundred and fifty feet high, did there remain. After repeating this feat two or three times, I “hulled” up a stone, which went clean over the tower, and then one, my right foot still on the ledge, which rising at least five yards above the steeple, did fall down just at my feet. Without knowing it, I was showing off my gift to others besides myself, doing what, perhaps, not five men in England could do. Two men, who were passing by, stopped and looked at my proceedings, and when I had done flinging came into the churchyard, and, after paying me a compliment on what they had seen me do, proposed that I should join company with them; I asked them who they were, and they told me. The one was Hopping Ned, and the other Biting Giles. Both had their gifts, by which they got their livelihood; Ned could hop a hundred yards with any man in England, and Giles could lift up with his teeth any dresser or kitchen-table in the country, and, standing erect, hold it dangling in his jaws. There’s many a big oak table and dresser, in certain districts of England, which bear the marks of Giles’s teeth; and I make no doubt that, a hundred or two years hence, there’ll be strange stories about those marks, and that people will point them out as a proof that there were giants in bygone time, and that many a dentist will moralize on the decays which human teeth have undergone.

‘They wanted me to go about with them, and exhibit my gift occasionally, as they did theirs, promising that the money that was got by the exhibitions should be honestly divided. I consented, and we set off together, and that evening coming to a village, and putting up at the ale-house, all the grand folks of the village being there smoking their pipes, we contrived to introduce the subject of hopping — the upshot being that Ned hopped against the schoolmaster for a pound, and beat him hollow; shortly after, Giles, for a wager, took up the kitchen table in his jaws, though he had to pay a shilling to the landlady for the marks he left, whose grandchildren will perhaps get money by exhibiting them. As for myself, I did nothing that day, but the next, on which my companions did nothing, I showed off at hulling stones against a cripple, the crack man for stone throwing, of a small town, a few miles farther on. Bets were made to the tune of some pounds; I contrived to beat the cripple, and just contrived; for to do him justice I must acknowledge he was a first-rate hand at stones, though he had a game hip, and went sideways; his head, when he walked — if his movements could be called walking — not being above three feet above the ground. So we travelled, I and my companions, showing off our gifts, Giles and I occasionally for a gathering, but Ned never hopping unless against somebody for a wager. We lived honestly and comfortably, making no little money by our natural endowments, and were known over a great part of England as “Hopping Ned,” “Biting Giles,” and “Hull over the head Jack,” which was my name, it being the blackguard fashion of the English, do you see, to —’

Here I interrupted the jockey, ‘You may call it a blackguard fashion,’ said I, ‘and I dare say it is, or it would scarcely be English; but it is an immensely ancient one, and is handed down to us from our northern ancestry, especially the Danes, who were in the habit of giving people surnames, or rather nicknames, from some quality of body or mind, but generally from some disadvantageous peculiarity of feature; for there is no denying that the English, Norse, or whatever we may please to call them, are an envious depreciatory set of people, who not only give their poor comrades contemptuous surnames, but their great people also. They didn’t call you the matchless Hurler, because, by doing so, they would have paid you a compliment, but Hull over the head Jack, as much as to say that after all you were a scrub: so, in ancient time, instead of calling Regner the great conqueror, the Nation Tamer, they surnamed him Lodbrog, which signifies Rough or Hairy Breeks — lod or loddin signifying rough or hairy; and instead of complimenting Halgerdr, the wife of Gunnar of Hlitharend, the great champion of Iceland, upon her majestic presence, by calling her Halgerdr, the stately or tall; what must they do but term her Ha-brokr, or High Breeks, it being the fashion in old times for Northern ladies to wear breeks, or breeches, which English ladies of the present day never think of doing; and just, as of old, they called Halgerdr Long-breeks, so this very day a fellow of Horncastle called, in my hearing, our noble-looking Hungarian friend here, Long-stockings. Oh, I could give you a hundred instances, both ancient and modern, of this unseemly propensity of our illustrious race, though I will only trouble you with a few more ancient ones; they not only nicknamed Regner, but his sons also, who were all kings, and distinguished men: one, whose name was Biorn, they nicknamed Ironsides; another Sigurd, Snake in the Eye; another, White Sark, or White Shirt — I wonder they did not call him Dirty Shirt, and Ivarr, another, who was King of Northumberland, they called Beinlausi, or the Legless, because he was spindle-shanked, had no sap in his bones, and consequently no children. He was a great king, it is true, and very wise, nevertheless his blackguard countrymen, always averse, as their descendants are, to give credit to anybody, for any valuable quality or possession, must needs lay hold, do you see —’

But before I could say any more, the jockey, having laid down his pipe, rose, and having taken off his coat, advanced towards me.

166 The English rogue described in ‘The Life of Meriton Latroon,’ a witty extravagant [by Richard Head], 4 vols. London, 1665–80.

167 Mistress (cant).

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