The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 45

Murtagh’s Tale

‘Well, Shorsha, about a year and a half after you left us — and a sorrowful hour for us it was when ye left us, losing, as we did, your funny stories of your snake — and the battles of your military — they sent me to Paris and Salamanca, in order to make a saggart of me.’

‘Pray excuse me,’ said I, ‘for interrupting you, but what kind of place is Salamanca?’

‘Divil a bit did I ever see of it, Shorsha!’

‘Then why did you say ye were sent there? Well, what kind of place is Paris. Not that I care much about Paris.’

‘Sorrow a bit did I ever see of either of them, Shorsha, for no one sent me to either. When we says at home a person is going to Paris and Salamanca, it manes that he is going abroad to study to be a saggart, whether he goes to them places or not. No, I never saw either — bad luck to them — I was shipped away from Cork up the straits to a place called Leghorn, from which I was sent to —— to a religious house, where I was to be instructed in saggarting till they had made me fit to cut a decent figure in Ireland. We had a long and tedious voyage, Shorsha; not so tedious, however, as it would have been had I been fool enough to lave your pack of cards behind me, as the thaif, my brother Dennis, wanted to persuade me to do, in older that he might play with them himself. With the cards I managed to have many a nice game with the sailors, winning from them ha’pennies and sixpences until the captain said that I was ruining his men, and keeping them from their duty; and, being a heretic and a Dutchman, swore that unless I gave over he would tie me up to the mast and give me a round dozen. This threat obliged me to be more on my guard, though I occasionally contrived to get a game at night, and to win sixpences and ha’pennies.

‘We reached Leghorn at last, and glad I was to leave the ship and the master, who gave me a kick as I was getting over the side, bad luck to the dirty heretic for kicking a son of the church, for I have always been a true son of the church, Shorsha, and never quarrelled with it unless it interfered with me in my playing at cards. I left Leghorn with certain muleteers, with whom I played at cards at the baiting houses, and who speedily won from me all the ha’pennies and sixpences I had won from the sailors. I got my money’s worth, however, for I learnt from the muleteers all kind of quaint tricks upon the cards, which I knew nothing of before; so I did not grudge them what they chated me of, and when we parted we did so in kindness on both sides. On getting to —— I was received into the religious house for Irishes. It was the Irish house, Shorsha, into which I was taken, for I do not wish ye to suppose that I was in the English religious house which there is in that city, in which a purty set are educated, and in which purty doings are going on if all tales be true.

‘In this Irish house I commenced my studies, learning to sing and to read the Latin prayers of the church. ‘Faith, Shorsha, many’s the sorrowful day I passed in that house learning the prayers and litanies, being half-starved, with no earthly diversion at all, at all; until I took the cards out of my chest and began instructing in card-playing the chum which I had with me in the cell; then I had plenty of diversion along with him during the times when I was not engaged in singing, and chanting, and saying the prayers of the church; there was, however, some drawback in playing with my chum, for though he was very clever in learning, divil a sixpence had he to play with, in which respect he was like myself, the master who taught him, who had lost all my money to the muleteers who taught me the tricks upon the cards; by degrees, however, it began to be noised about the religious house that Murtagh, from Hibrodary, 176 had a pack of cards with which he played with his chum in the cell; whereupon other scholars of the religious house came to me, some to be taught and others to play, so with some I played, and others I taught, but neither to those who could play, or to those who could not, did I teach the elegant tricks which I learnt from the muleteers. Well, the scholars came to me for the sake of the cards, and the porter and the cook of the religious house, who could both play very well, came also; at last I became tired of playing for nothing, so I borrowed a few bits of silver from the cook, and played against the porter, and by means of my tricks I won money from the porter, and then I paid the cook the bits of silver which I had borrowed of him; and played with him, and won a little of his money, which I let him win back again, as I had lived long enough in a religious house to know that it is dangerous to take money from the cook. In a little time, Shorsha, there was scarcely anything going on in the house but card-playing; the almoner played with me, and so did the sub-rector, and I won money from both; not too much, however, lest they should tell the rector, who had the character of a very austere man, and of being a bit of a saint; however, the thief of a porter, whose money I had won, informed the rector of what was going on, and one day the rector sent for me into his private apartment, and gave me so long and pious a lecture upon the heinous sin of card-playing, that I thought I should sink into the ground; after about half an hour’s inveighing against card-playing, he began to soften his tone, and with a long sigh told me that at one time of his life he had been a young man himself, and had occasionally used the cards; he then began to ask me some questions about card-playing, which questions I afterwards found were to pump from me what I knew about the science. After a time he asked me whether I had got my cards with me, and on my telling him I had, he expressed a wish to see them, whereupon I took the pack out of my pocket, and showed it to him; he looked at it very attentively, and at last, giving another deep sigh, he said, that though he was nearly weaned from the vanities of the world, he had still an inclination to see whether he had entirely lost the little skill which at one time he possessed. When I heard him speak in this manner, I told him that if his reverence was inclined for a game of cards, I should be very happy to play one with him; scarcely had I uttered these words than he gave a third sigh, and looked so very much like a saint that I was afraid he was going to excommunicate me. Nothing of the kind, however, for presently he gets up and locks the door, then sitting down at the table, he motioned me to do the same, which I did, and in five minutes there we were playing at cards, his reverence and myself.

‘I soon found that his reverence knew quite as much about card-playing as I did. Divil a trick was there connected with cards that his reverence did not seem awake to. As, however, we were not playing for money, this circumstance did not give me much uneasiness; so we played game after game for two hours, when his reverence, having business, told me I might go, so I took up my cards, made my obedience, and left him. The next day I had other games with him, and so on for a very long time, still playing for nothing. At last his reverence grew tired of playing for nothing, and proposed that we should play for money. Now I had no desire to play with his reverence for money, as I knew that doing so would bring on a quarrel. As long as we were playing for nothing, I could afford to let his reverence use what tricks he pleased; but if we played for money, I couldn’t do so. If he played his tricks, I must play mine, and use every advantage to save my money; and there was one I possessed which his reverence did not. The cards being my own, I had put some delicate little marks on the trump cards, just at the edges, so that when I dealt, by means of a little sleight of hand, I could deal myself any trump card I pleased. But I wished, as I said before, to have no dealings for money with his reverence, knowing that he was master in the house, and that he could lead me a dog of a life if I offended him, either by winning his money, or not letting him win mine. So I told him I had no money to play with, but the ould thief knew better; he knew that I was every day winning money from the scholars, and the sub-rector, and the other people of the house, and the ould thief had determined to let me go on in that way winning money, and then by means of his tricks, which he thought I dare not resent, to win from me all my earnings — in a word, Shorsha, to let me fill myself like a sponge, and then squeeze me for his own advantage. So he made me play with him, and in less than three days came on the quarrel; his reverence chated me, and I chated his reverence; the ould thaif knew every trick that I knew, and one or two more; but in daling out the cards I nicked his reverence; scarcely a trump did I ever give him, Shorsha, and won his money purty freely. Och, it was a purty quarrel! All the delicate names in the “Newgate Calendar,” if ye ever heard of such a book; all the hang-dog names in the Newgate histories, and the lives of Irish rogues, did we call each other — his reverence and I! Suddenly, however, putting out his hand, he seized the cards, saying, “I will examine these cards, ye cheating scoundrel! for I believe there are dirty marks on them, which ye have made in order to know the winning cards.” “Give me back my pack,” said I, “or m’anam on Dioul if I be not the death of ye!” His reverence, however, clapped the cards into his pocket, and made the best of his way to the door, I hanging upon him. He was a gross fat man, but, like most fat men, deadly strong, so he forced his way to the door, and opening it, flung himself out, with me still holding on him like a terrier dog on a big fat pig; then he shouts for help, and in a little time I was secured and thrust into a lock-up room, where I was left to myself. Here was a purty alteration. Yesterday I was the idol of the religious house, thought more on than his reverence, every one paying me court and wurtship, and wanting to play cards with me, and to learn my tricks, and fed, moreover, on the tidbits of the table; and today I was in a cell, nobody coming to look at me but the blackguard porter who had charge of me, my cards taken from me, and with nothing but bread and water to live upon. Time passed dreary enough for a month, at the end of which time his reverence came to me, leaving the porter just outside the door in older to come to his help should I be violent, and then he read me a very purty lecture on my conduct, saying I had turned the religious house topsy-turvy, and corrupted the scholars, and that I was the cheat of the world, for that on inspecting the pack he had discovered the dirty marks which I had made upon the trump cards for to know them by. He said a great deal more to me, which is not worth relating, and ended by telling me that he intended to let me out of confinement next day, but that if ever I misconducted myself any more, he would clap me in again for the rest of my life. I had a good mind to call him an ould thaif, but the hope of getting out made me hold my tongue, and the next day I was let out; and need enough I had to be let out, for what with being alone, and living on the bread and water, I was becoming frighted, or, as the doctors call it, narvous. But when I was out — oh, what a change I found in the religious house! no card-playing, for it had been forbidden to the scholars, and there was now nothing going on but reading and singing, divil a merry visage to be seen, but plenty of prim airs and graces; but the case of the scholars, though bad enough, was not half so bad as mine, for they could spake to each other, whereas I could not have a word of conversation, for the ould thaif of a rector had ordered them to send me to “Coventry,” telling them that I was a gambling cheat, with morals bad enough to corrupt a horse regiment; and whereas they were allowed to divert themselves with going out, I was kept reading and singing from morn till night. The only soul who was willing to exchange a word with me was the cook, and sometimes he and I had a little bit of discourse in a corner, and we condoled with each other, for he liked the change in the religious house almost as little as myself; but he told me that, for all the change below stairs, there was still card playing going on above, for that the ould thaif of a rector, and the sub rector, and the almoner played at cards together, and that the rector won money from the others — the almoner had told him so — and, moreover, that the rector was the thaif of the world, and had been a gambler in his youth, and had once been kicked out of a club house at Dublin for cheating at cards, and after that circumstance had apparently reformed and lived decently till the time when I came to the religious house with my pack, but that the sight of that had brought him back to his ould gambling. He told the cook, moreover, that the rector frequently went out at night to the houses of the great clergy and cheated at cards.

‘In this melancholy state, with respect to myself, things continued a long time, when suddenly there was a report that his Holiness the Pope intended to pay a visit to the religious house in order to examine into its state of discipline. When I heard this I was glad, for I determined, after the Pope had done what he had come to do, to fall upon my knees before him, and make a regular complaint of the treatment I had received, to tell him of the cheatings at cards of the rector, and to beg him to make the ould thaif give me back my pack again. So the day of the visit came, and his Holiness made his appearance with his attendants, and, having looked over the religious house, he went into the rector’s room with the rector, the sub-rector, and the almoner. I intended to have waited until his Holiness came out, but finding he stayed a long time, I thought I would e’en go in to him, so I went up to the door without anybody observing me — his attendants being walking about the corridor — and opening it I slipped in, and there what do you think I saw? Why, his Holiness the Pope, and his reverence the rector, and the sub-rector, and the almoner seated at cards; and the ould thaif of a rector was dealing out the cards which ye had given me, Shorsha, to his Holiness the Pope, the sub-rector, the almoner, and himself.’

In this part of his history I interrupted Murtagh, saying that I was afraid he was telling untruths, and that it was highly improbable that the Pope would leave the Vatican to play cards with Irish at their religious house, and that I was sure if on his, Murtagh’s authority, I were to tell the world so, the world would never believe it.

‘Then the world, Shorsha, would be a fool, even as you were just now saying you had frequently believed it to be; the grand thing, Shorsha, is to be able to believe one’s self; if ye can do that, it matters very little whether the world believes ye or no. But a purty thing for you and the world to stickle at the Pope’s playing at cards at a religious house of Irish; och! if I were to tell you and the world what the Pope has been sometimes at at the religious house of English thaives, I would excuse you and the world for turning up your eyes. However, I wish to say nothing against the Pope. I am a son of the Church, and if the Pope don’t interfere with my cards, divil a bit will I have to say against him; but I saw the Pope playing, or about to play, with the pack which had been taken from me, and when I told the Pope, the Pope did not —. Ye had better let me go on with my history, Shorsha; whither you or the world believe it or not, I am sure it is quite as true as your tale of the snake, or saying that Finn got his burnt finger from the thaives of Loughlin; and whatever you may say, I am sure the world will think so too.’

I apologized to Murtagh for interrupting him, and telling him that his history, whether true or not, was infinitely diverting, begged him to continue it.

176 Tipperary.

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