The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 44

An Old Acquaintance

Leaving the church, I strolled through the fair, looking at the horses, listening to the chaffering of the buyers and sellers, and occasionally putting in a word of my own, which was not always received with much deference; suddenly, however, on a whisper arising that I was the young cove who had brought the wonderful horse to the fair which Jack Dale had bought for the foreigneering man, I found myself an object of the greatest attention; those who had before replied with stuff! and nonsense! to what I said, now listened with the greatest eagerness to any nonsense which I chose to utter, and I did not fail to utter a great deal; presently, however, becoming disgusted with the beings about me, I forced my way, not very civilly, through my crowd of admirers; and passing through an alley and a back street, at last reached an outskirt of the fair where no person appeared to know me. Here I stood, looking vacantly on what was going on, musing on the strange infatuation of my species, who judge of a person’s words, not from their intrinsic merit, but from the opinion — generally an erroneous one — which they have formed of the person. From this reverie I was roused by certain words which sounded near me, uttered in a strange tone, and in a strange cadence — the words were, ‘them that finds, wins; and them that can’t finds, loses.’ Turning my eyes in the direction from which the words proceeded, I saw six or seven people, apparently all countrymen, gathered round a person standing behind a tall white table of very small compass. ‘What,’ said I, ‘the thimble-engro of —— Fair here at Horncastle.’ Advancing nearer, however, I perceived that though the present person was a thimble-engro, 173 he was a very different one from my old acquaintance of —— Fair. 174 The present one was a fellow about half-a-foot taller than the other. He had a long, haggard, wild face, and was dressed in a kind of jacket, something like that of a soldier, with dirty hempen trousers, and with a foreign-looking peaked hat on his head. He spoke with an accent evidently Irish, and occasionally changed the usual thimble formula into ‘them that finds wins, and them that can’t — och sure! — they loses;’ saying also frequently ‘your honour’ instead of ‘my lord.’ I observed, on drawing nearer, that he handled the pea and thimble with some awkwardness, like that which might be expected from a novice in the trade. He contrived, however, to win several shillings, for he did not seem to play for gold, from ‘their honours.’ Awkward as he was, he evidently did his best, and never flung a chance away by permitting anyone to win. He had just won three shillings from a farmer, who, incensed at his loss, was calling him a confounded cheat, and saying that he would play no more, when up came my friend of the preceding day, Jack the jockey. This worthy, after looking at the thimble man a moment or two, with a peculiarly crafty glance, cried out, as he clapped down a shilling on the table, ‘I will stand you, old fellow!’ ‘Them that finds wins; and them that can’t — och, sure! — they loses,’ said the thimble man. The game commenced, and Jack took up the thimble without finding the pea; another shilling was produced, and lost in the same manner. ‘This is slow work,’ said Jack, banging down a guinea on the table: ‘can you cover that, old fellow?’ The man of the thimble looked at the gold, and then at him who produced it, and scratched his head. ‘Come, cover that, or I shall be off,’ said the jockey. ‘Och, sure, my lord! — no, I mean your honour — no, shure, your lordship,’ said the other, ‘if I covers it at all, it must be with silver, for divil a bit of gold have I by me.’ ‘Well, then, produce the value in silver,’ said the jockey, ‘and do it quickly, for I can’t be staying here all day.’ The thimble man hesitated, looked at Jack with a dubious look, then at the gold, and then scratched his head. There was now a laugh amongst the surrounders, which evidently nettled the fellow, who forthwith thrust his hand into his pocket, and pulling out all his silver treasure, just contrived to place the value of the guinea on the table. ‘Them that finds wins, and them that can’t finds — loses,’ interrupted Jack, lifting up a thimble, out of which rolled a pea. ‘There, Paddy, what do you think of that?’ said he, seizing the heap of silver with one hand, whilst he pocketed the guinea with the other. The thimble-engro stood for some time like one transfixed, his eyes glaring wildly, now at the table, and now at his successful customer; at last he said, ‘Arrah, sure, master! — no, I manes my lord — you are not going to ruin a poor boy!’ ‘Ruin you!’ said the other, ‘what! by winning a guinea’s change! a pretty small dodger you — if you have not sufficient capital, why do you engage in so deep a trade as thimbling? come, will you stand another game?’ ‘Och, sure, master, no! the twenty shillings and one which you have cheated me of were all I had in the world.’ ‘Cheated you,’ said Jack, ‘say that again and I will knock you down.’ ‘Arrah! sure master, you knows that the pea under the thimble was not mine; here is mine, master; now give me back my money!’ ‘A likely thing, said Jack; ‘no, no, I know a trick worth two or three of that; whether the pea was yours or mine, you will never have your twenty shillings and one again; and if I have ruined you, all the better; I’d gladly ruin all such villains as you, who ruin poor men with your dirty tricks, whom you would knock down and rob on the road if you had but courage: not that I mean to keep your shillings, with the exception of the two you cheated from me, which I’ll keep. A scramble, boys! a scramble!’ said he, flinging up all the silver into the air, with the exception of the two shillings; and a scramble there instantly was, between the rustics who had lost their money and the urchins who came running up; the poor thimble-engro tried likewise to have his share; but though he flung himself down, in order to join more effectually in the scramble, he was unable to obtain a single sixpence; and having in his rage given some of his fellow scramblers a cuff or two, he was set upon by the boys and country fellows, and compelled to make an inglorious retreat with his table, which had been flung down in the scuffle, and had one of its legs broken. As he retired, the rabble hooted, and Jack, holding up in derision the pea with which he had out-manoeuvred him, exclaimed, ‘I always carry this in my pocket in order to be a match for vagabonds like you.’

The tumult over, Jack gone, and the rabble dispersed, I followed the discomfited adventurer at a distance, who, leaving the town, went slowly on, carrying his dilapidated piece of furniture, till coming to an old wall by the roadside, he placed it on the ground, and sat down, seemingly in deep despondency, holding his thumb to his mouth. Going nearly up to him, I stood still, whereupon he looked up, and perceiving I was looking steadfastly at him, he said, in an angry tone, ‘Arrah! what for are you staring at me so? By my shoul, I think you are one of the thaives who are after robbing me. I think I saw you among them, and if I were only sure of it, I would take the liberty of trying to give you a big bating.’ ‘You have had enough of trying to give people a beating,’ said I; ‘you had better be taking your table to some skilful carpenter to get it repaired. He will do it for sixpence.’ ‘Divil a sixpence did you and your thaives leave me,’ said he; ‘and if you do not take yourself off, joy, I will be breaking your ugly head with the foot of it.’ ‘Arrah, Murtagh!’ said I, ‘would ye be breaking the head of your old friend and scholar, to whom you taught the blessed tongue of Oilien nan Naomha, in exchange for a pack of cards?’ Murtagh, for he it was, gazed at me for a moment with a bewildered look; then, with a gleam of intelligence in his eye, he said, ‘Shorsha! no, it can’t be — yes, by my faith it is!’ Then, springing up, and seizing me by the hand, he said, ‘Yes, by the powers, sure enough it is Shorsha agra! Arrah, Shorsha! where have you been this many a day? Sure, you are not one of the spalpeens who are after robbing me?’ ‘Not I,’ I replied, ‘but I saw all that happened. Come, you must not take matters so to heart; cheer up; such things will happen in connection with the trade you have taken up.’ ‘Sorrow befall the trade, and the thief who taught it me,’ said Murtagh; ‘and yet the trade is not a bad one, if I only knew more of it, and had some one to help and back me. Och! the idea of being cheated and bamboozled by that one-eyed thief in the horseman’s dress.’ ‘Let bygones be bygones, Murtagh,’ said I; ‘it is no use grieving for the past; sit down, and let us have a little pleasant gossip. Arrah, Murtagh! when I saw you sitting under the wall, with your thumb to your mouth, it brought to my mind tales which you used to tell me all about Finn-ma-Coul. You have not forgotten Finn-ma-Coul, Murtagh, and how he sucked wisdom out of his thumb.’ ‘Sorrow a bit have I forgot about him, Shorsha,’ said Murtagh, as we sat down together, ‘nor what you yourself told me about the snake. Arrah, Shorsha! what ye told me about the snake, bates anything I ever told you about Finn. Ochone, Shorsha! perhaps you will be telling me about the snake once more? I think the tale would do me good, and I have need of comfort, God knows, Ochone!’ Seeing Murtagh in such a distressed plight, I forthwith told him over again the tale of the snake, in precisely the same words as I have related it in the first part of this history. After which, I said, ‘Now, Murtagh, tit for tat; ye will be telling me one of the old stories of Finn-ma-Coul.’ ‘Och, Shorsha! I haven’t heart enough,’ said Murtagh. ‘Thank you for your tale, but it makes me weep; it brings to my mind Dungarvon times of old — I mean the times we were at school together.’ ‘Cheer up, man,’ said I, ‘and let’s have the story, and let it be about Ma–Coul and the salmon, and his thumb.’ 175 ‘Arrah, Shorsha! I can’t. Well, to oblige you, I’ll give it you. Well you know Ma–Coul was an exposed child, and came floating over the salt sea in a chest which was cast ashore at Veintry Bay. In the corner of that bay was a castle, where dwelt a giant and his wife, very respectable and decent people, and this giant, taking his morning walk along the bay, came to the place where the child had been cast ashore in his box. Well, the giant looked at the child, and being filled with compassion for his exposed state, took the child up in his box, and carried him home to his castle, where he and his wife, being dacent respectable people, as I telled ye before, fostered the child and took care of him, till he became old enough to go out to service and gain his livelihood, when they bound him out apprentice to another giant, who lived in a castle up the country, at some distance from the bay.

‘This giant, whose name was Darmod David Odeen, was not a respectable person at all, but a big old vagabond. He was twice the size of the other giant, who, though bigger than any man, was not a big giant; for, as there are great and small men, so there are great and small giants — I mean some are small when compared with the others. Well, Finn served this giant a considerable time, doing all kinds of hard and unreasonable service for him, and receiving all kinds of hard words, and many a hard knock and kick to boot — sorrow befall the ould vagabond who could thus ill-treat a helpless foundling. It chanced that one day the giant caught a salmon, near a salmon-leap upon his estate — for, though a big ould blackguard, he was a person of considerable landed property, and high sheriff for the county Cork. Well, the giant brings home the salmon by the gills, and delivers it to Finn, telling him to roast it for the giant’s dinner; “but take care, ye young blackguard,” he added, “that in roasting it — and I expect ye to roast it well — you do not let a blister come upon its nice satin skin, for if ye do, I will cut the head off your shoulders.” “Well,” thinks Finn, “this is a hard task; however, as I have done many hard tasks for him, I will try and do this too, though I was never set to do anything yet half so difficult.” So he prepared his fire, and put his gridiron upon it, and lays the salmon fairly and softly upon the gridiron, and then he roasts it, turning it from one side to the other just in the nick of time, before the soft satin skin could be blistered. However, on turning it over the eleventh time — and twelve would have settled the business — he found he had delayed a little bit of time too long in turning it over, and that there was a small, tiny blister on the soft outer skin. Well, Finn was in a mighty panic, remembering the threats of the ould giant; however, he did not lose heart, but clapped his thumb upon the blister in order to smooth it down. Now the salmon, Shorsha, was nearly done, and the flesh thoroughly hot, so Finn’s thumb was scalt, and he, clapping it to his mouth, sucked it, in order to draw out the pain, and in a moment — hubbuboo! — became imbued with all the wisdom of the world.’

Myself. Stop, Murtagh! stop!

Murtagh. All the witchcraft, Shorsha.

Myself. How wonderful!

Murtagh. Was it not, Shorsha? The salmon, do you see, was a fairy salmon.

Myself. What a strange coincidence.

Murtagh. A what, Shorsha!

Myself. Why that the very same tale should be told of Finn-ma-Coul, which is related of Sigurd Fafnisbane.

‘What thief was that, Shorsha?’

‘Thief! ’Tis true, he took the treasure of Fafnir. Sigurd was the hero of the North, Murtagh, even as Finn is the great Hero of Ireland. He, too, according to one account, was an exposed child, and came floating in a casket to a wild shore, where he was suckled by a hind, and afterwards found and fostered by Mimir, a fairy blacksmith; he, too, sucked wisdom from a burn. According to the Edda, he burnt his finger whilst feeling of the heart of Fafnir, which he was roasting, and putting it into his mouth in order to suck out the pain, became imbued with all the wisdom of the world, the knowledge of the language of birds, and what not. I have heard you tell the tale of Finn a dozen times in the blessed days of old, but its identity with the tale of Sigurd never occurred to me till now. It is true, when I knew you of old, I had never read the tale of Sigurd, and have since almost dismissed matters of Ireland from my mind; but as soon as you told me again about Finn’s burning his finger, the coincidence struck me. I say, Murtagh, the Irish owe much to the Danes —.’

‘Devil a bit, Shorsha, do they owe to the thaives, except many a bloody bating and plundering, which they never paid them back. Och, Shorsha! you, edicated in ould Ireland, to say that the Irish owes anything good to the plundering villains — the Siol Loughlin.’

‘They owe them half their traditions, Murtagh, and amongst others Finn-ma-Coul and the burnt finger; and if ever I publish the Loughlin songs, I’ll tell the world so.’

‘But, Shorsha, the world will never believe ye — to say nothing of the Irish part of it.’

‘Then the world, Murtagh — to say nothing of the Irish part of it — will be a fool, even as I have often thought it; the grand thing, Murtagh, is to be able to believe one’s self, and respect one’s self. How few whom the world believes believe and respect themselves.’

‘Och, Shorsha! shall I go on with the tale of Finn?’

‘I’d rather you should not, Murtagh; I know about it already.’

‘Then why did you bother me to tell it at first, Shorsha? Och, it was doing my ownself good, and making me forget my own sorrowful state, when ye interrupted me with your thaives of Danes! Och, Shorsha! let me tell you how Finn, by means of sucking his thumb, and the witchcraft he imbibed from it, contrived to pull off the arm of the ould wagabone, Darmod David Odeen, whilst shaking hands with him — for Finn could do no feat of strength without sucking his thumb, Shorsha, as Conan the Bald told the son of Oisin in the song which I used to sing ye in the Dungarvon times of old;’ and here Murtagh repeated certain Irish words to the following effect:

‘“O little the foolish words I heed,

O Oisin’s son, from thy lips which come;

No strength were in Finn for valorous deed,

Unless to the gristle he sucked his thumb.”’

‘Enough is as good as a feast, Murtagh; I am no longer in the cue for Finn. I would rather hear your own history. Now, tell us, man, all that has happened to ye since Dungarvon times of old?’

‘Och, Shorsha, it would be merely bringing all my sorrows back upon me!’

‘Well, if I know all your sorrows, perhaps I shall be able to find a help for them. I owe you much, Murtagh; you taught me Irish, and I will do all I can to help you.’

‘Why, then, Shorsha, I’ll tell ye my history. Here goes!’

173 Thimble-rigger.

174 Greenwich fair. See Introduction and ‘Lavengro,’ vol. ii., p. 22.

175 Borrow really heard this tale in Cornwall, from the guide Cronan, in January, 1854.

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