The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 46

Murtagh’s Story Continued — The Priest, Exorcist, and Thimble-Engro — How To Check a Rebellion

‘I was telling ye, Shorsha, when ye interrupted me, that I found the Pope, the rector, the sub-rector and the almoner seated at the table, the rector with my pack of cards in his hand, about to deal out to the Pope and the rest, not forgetting himself, for whom he intended all the trump-cards, no doubt. No sooner did they perceive me than they seemed taken all aback; but the rector, suddenly starting up with the cards in his hand, asked me what I did there, threatening to have me well disciplined if I did not go about my business. “I am come for my pack,” said I, “ye ould thaif, and to tell his Holiness how I have been treated by ye.” Then, going down on my knees before his Holiness, I said, “Arrah, now, your Holiness! will ye not see justice done to a poor boy who has been sadly misused? The pack of cards which that old ruffian has in his hand are my cards, which he has taken from me in order to chate with. Arrah! don’t play with him, your Holiness, for he’ll only chate ye — there are dirty marks upon the cards which bear the trumps, put there in order to know them by; and the ould thaif in daling out will give himself all the good cards, and chate ye of the last farthing in your pocket; so let them be taken from him, your Holiness, and given back to me; and order him to lave the room, and then if your Holiness be for an honest game, don’t think I’m the boy to baulk ye. I’ll take the ould ruffian’s place, and play with ye till evening, and all night besides, and divil an advantage will I take of the dirty marks, though I know them all, having placed them on the cards myself.” I was going on in this way when the ould thaif of a rector, flinging down the cards, made at me as if to kick me out of the room, whereupon I started up and said, “If ye are for kicking, sure two can play at that,” and then I kicked at his reverence, and his reverence at me, and there was a regular scrimmage between us, which frightened the Pope, who, getting up, said some words which I did not understand, but which the cook afterwards told me were, “English extravagance, and this is the second edition”; for it seems that a little time before his Holiness had been frightened in St. Peter’s Church by the servant of an English family, which those thaives of the English religious house had been endeavouring to bring over to the Catholic faith, and who didn’t approve of their being converted. Och! his Holiness did us all sore injustice to call us English, and to confound our house with the other; for however dirty our house might be, our house was a clane house compared with the English house, and we honest people compared with those English thaives. Well, his Holiness was frighted, and the almoner ran out, and brought in his Holiness’s attendants, and they laid hold of me, but I struggled hard, and said, “I will not go without my pack; arrah, your Holiness! make them give me back my pack, which Shorsha gave me in Dungarvon times of old,” but my struggles were of no use. I was pulled away and put in the ould dungeon, and his Holiness went away sore frighted, crossing himself much, and never returned again.

‘In the old dungeon I was fastened to the wall by a chain, and there I was disciplined once every other day for the first three weeks, and then I was left to myself, and my chain, and hunger; and there I sat in the dungeon, sometimes screeching, sometimes holloing, for I soon became frighted, having nothing in the cell to divert me. At last the cook found his way to me by stealth, and comforted me a little, bringing me tidbits out of the kitchen; and he visited me again and again — not often, however, for he dare only come when he could steal away the key from the custody of the thief of a porter. I was three years in the dungeon, and should have gone mad but for the cook, and his words of comfort, and his tidbits, and nice books which he brought me out of the library, which were the “Calendars of Newgate,” and the “Lives of Irish Rogues and Raparees,” the only English Books in the library. However, at the end of three years, the ould thaif of a rector, wishing to look at them books, missed them from the library, and made a perquisition about them, and the thaif of a porter said that he shouldn’t wonder if I had them, saying that he had once seen me reading; and then the rector came with others to my cell, and took my books from me, from under my straw, and asked me how I came by them; and on my refusal to tell, they disciplined me again till the blood ran down my back; and making some perquisition, they at last accused the cook of having carried the books to me, and the cook not denying, he was given warning to leave next day, but he left that night, and took me away with him; for he stole the key, and came to me and cut my chain through, and then he and I escaped from the religious house through a window — the cook with a bundle, containing what things he had. No sooner had we got out than the honest cook gave me a little bit of money and a loaf, and told me to follow a way which he pointed out, which he said would lead to the sea; and then, having embraced me after the Italian way, he left me, and I never saw him again. So I followed the way which the cook pointed out, and in two days reached a seaport called Chiviter Vik, 177 terribly foot-foundered, and there I met a sailor who spoke Irish, and who belonged to a vessel just ready to sail for France; and the sailor took me on board his vessel, and said I was his brother, and the captain gave me a passage to a place in France called Marseilles; and when I got there, the captain and sailor got a little money for me and a passport, and I travelled across the country towards a place they directed me to called Bayonne, from which, they said I might, perhaps, get to Ireland. Coming, however, to a place called Pau, all my money being gone, I enlisted into a regiment called the Army of the Faith, which was going into Spain, for the King of Spain had been dethroned and imprisoned by his own subjects, as perhaps you may have heard; and the King of France, who was his cousin, was sending an army to help him, under the command of his own son, whom the English called Prince Hilt, 178 because when he was told that he was appointed to the command, he clapped his hand on the hilt of his sword. So I enlisted into the regiment of the Faith, which was made up of Spaniards, many of them priests who had run out of Spain, and broken Germans, and foot-foundered Irish, like myself. It was said to be a blackguard regiment, that same regiment of the Faith; but, ‘faith, I saw nothing blackguardly going on in it, for ye would hardly reckon card-playing and dominoes, and pitch and toss blackguardly, and I saw nothing else going on in it. There was one thing in it which I disliked — the priests drawing their Spanish knives occasionally, when they lost their money. After we had been some time at Pau, the Army of the Faith was sent across the mountains into Spain, as the vanguard of the French; and no sooner did the Spaniards see the Faith than they made a dash at it, and the Faith ran away, myself along with it, and got behind the French army, which told it to keep there, and the Faith did so, and followed the French army, which soon scattered the Spaniards, and in the end placed the king on his throne again. When the war was over the Faith was disbanded; some of the foreigners, however, amongst whom I was one, were put into a Guard regiment, and there I continued for more than a year.

‘One day, being at a place called the Escurial, I took stock, as the tradesmen say, and found I possessed the sum of eighty dollars won by playing at cards; for though I could not play so well with the foreign cards as with the pack ye gave me, Shorsha, I had yet contrived to win money from the priests and soldiers of the Faith. Finding myself possessed of such a capital, I determined to leave the service and to make the best of my way to Ireland; so I deserted, but coming in an evil hour to a place they calls Torre Lodones, I found the priest playing at cards with his parishioners. The sight of the cards made me stop, and then, fool like, notwithstanding the treasure I had about me, I must wish to play, so not being able to speak their language I made signs to them to let me play, and the priest and his thaives consented willingly; so I sat down to cards with the priest and two of his parishioners, and in a little time had won plenty of their money, but I had better never have done any such a thing, for suddenly the priest and all his parishioners set upon me and bate me, and took from me all I had, and cast me out of the village more dead than alive. Och! it’s a bad village that, and if I had known what it was I would have avoided it, or run straight through it, though I saw all the card-playing in the world going on in it. There is a proverb about it, as I was afterwards told, old as the time of the Moors, which holds good to the present day — it is, that in Torre Lodones there are twenty-four housekeepers, and twenty-five thieves, maning that all the people are thaives, and the clergyman to boot, who is not reckoned a housekeeper; and troth I found the clergyman the greatest thaif of the lot. After being cast out of that village I travelled for nearly a month, subsisting by begging tolerably well, for though most of the Spaniards are thaives, they are rather charitable; but though charitable thaives they do not like their own being taken from them without leave being asked, as I found to my cost; for on my entering a garden near Seville, without leave, to take an orange, the labourer came running up and struck me to the ground with a hatchet, giving me a big wound in the arm. I fainted with loss of blood, and on my reviving I found myself in a hospital at Seville, to which the labourer and the people of the village had taken me. I should have died of starvation in that hospital had not some English people heard of me and come to see me; they tended me with food till I was cured, and then paid my passage on board a ship to London, to which place the ship carried me.

‘And now I was in London with five shillings in my pocket — all I had in the world — and that did not last for long; and when it was gone I begged in the streets, but I did not get much by that, except a month’s hard labour in the correction-house; and when I came out I knew not what to do, but thought I would take a walk in the country, for it was spring-time, and the weather was fine, so I took a walk about seven miles from London, and came to a place where a great fair was being held; and there I begged, but got nothing but a halfpenny, and was thinking of going farther, when I saw a man with a table, like that of mine, playing with thimbles, as you saw me. I looked at the play, and saw him win money and run away, and hunted by constables more than once. I kept following the man, and at last entered into conversation with him, and learning from him that he was in want of a companion to help him, I offered to help him if he would pay me; he looked at me from top to toe, and did not wish at first to have anything to do with me, as he said my appearance was against me. ‘Faith, Shorsha, he had better have looked at home, for his appearance was not much in his favour: he looked very much like a Jew, Shorsha. However, he at last agreed to take me to be his companion, or bonnet, as he called it; and I was to keep a look out and let him know when constables were coming, and to spake a good word for him occasionally, whilst he was chating folks with his thimbles and his pea. So I became his bonnet, and assisted him in the fair, and in many other fairs beside; but I did not like my occupation much, or, rather, my master, who, though not a big man, was a big thaif, and an unkind one, for do all I could I could never give him pleasure; and he was continually calling me fool and bogtrotter, and twitting me because I could not learn his thaives’ Latin, and discourse with him in it, and comparing me with another acquaintance, or bit of a pal of his, whom he said he had parted with in the fair, and of whom he was fond of saying all kinds of wonderful things, amongst others, that he knew the grammar of all tongues. At last, wearied with being twitted by him with not being able to learn his thaives’ Greek, I proposed that I should teach him Irish, that we should spake it together when we had anything to say in sacret. To that he consented willingly; but, och! a purty hand he made with Irish, ‘faith, not much better than did I with his thaives’ Hebrew. Then my turn came, and I twitted him nicely with dulness, and compared him with a pal that I had in ould Ireland, in Dungarvon times of yore, to whom I teached Irish, telling him that he was the broth of a boy, and not only knew the grammar of all human tongues, but the dialects of the snakes besides; in fact, I tould him all about your own sweet self, Shorsha, and many a dispute and quarrel had we together about our pals, which was the cleverest fellow, his or mine.

‘Well, after having been wid him about two months, I quitted him without noise, taking away one of his tables, and some peas and thimbles: and that I did with a safe conscience, for he paid me nothing, and was not over free with the meat and the drink, though I must say of him that he was a clever fellow, and perfect master of his trade, by which he made a power of money, and bating his not being able to learn Irish, and a certain Jewish lisp which he had, a great master of his tongue, of which he was very proud, so much so that he once told me that when he had saved a certain sum of money he meant to leave off the thimbling business, and enter Parliament, into which he said he could get at any time, through the interest of a friend of his, a Tory Peer, my Lord Whitefeather, with whom he said he had occasionally done business. With the table and other things which I had taken I commenced trade on my own account, having contrived to learn a few of his tricks. My only capital was the change for half-a-guinea, which he had once let fall, and which I picked up, which was all I could ever get from him, for it was impossible to stale any money from him, he was so awake, being up to all the tricks of thaives, having followed the diving trade, as he called it, for a considerable time. My wish was to make enough by my table to enable me to return with credit to ould Ireland, where I had no doubt of being able to get myself ordained as priest; and, in troth, notwithstanding I was a beginner, and without any companion to help me, I did tolerably well, getting my meat and drink, and increasing my small capital, till I came to this unlucky place of Horncastle, where I was utterly ruined by the thaif in the rider’s dress. And now, Shorsha, I am after telling you my history; perhaps you will now be telling me something about yourself?’

I told Murtagh all about myself that I deemed necessary to relate, and then asked him what he intended to do; he repeated that he was utterly ruined, and that he had no prospect before him but starving, or making away with himself. I inquired, ‘How much would take him to Ireland, and establish him there with credit?’ ‘Five pounds,’ he answered, adding, ‘but who in the world would be fool enough to lend me five pounds, unless it be yourself, Shorsha, who, may be, have not got it; for when you told me about yourself, you made no boast of the state of your affairs.’ ‘I am not very rich,’ I replied, ‘but I think I can accommodate you with what you want. I consider myself under great obligations to you, Murtagh; it was you who instructed me in the language of Oilein nan Naomha, which has been the foundation of all my acquisitions in philology; without you I should not be what I am — Lavengro! which signifies a philologist. Here is the money, Murtagh,’ said I, putting my hand into my pocket and taking out five pounds; ‘much good may it do you.’ He took the money, stared at it, and then at me. ‘And you mane to give me this, Shorsha?’ ‘It is not mine to give,’ said I; ‘it is yours.’ ‘And you give it me for the gratitude you bear me?’ ‘Yes,’ said I; ‘and for Dungarvon times of old.’ ‘Well, Shorsha,’ said he, ‘you are a broth of a boy, and I’ll take your benefaction — five pounds! Och, Jasus!’ He then put the money in his pocket, and springing up, waved his hat three times, uttering some old Irish cry; then, sitting down, he took my hand and said, ‘Sure, Shorsha, I’ll be going thither; and when I get there, it is turning over another leaf I will be; I have learnt a thing or two abroad; I will become a priest; that’s the trade, Shorsha! and I will cry out for repale; that’s the cry, Shorsha! and I’ll be a fool no longer.’ ‘And what will you do with your table?’ said I. ‘‘Faith, I’ll be taking it with me, Shorsha; and when I gets to Ireland I’ll get it mended, and I will keep it in the house which I shall have; and when I looks upon it, I will be thinking of all I have undergone.’ ‘You had better leave it behind you,’ said I; ‘if you take it with you you will, perhaps, take up the thimble trade again before you get to Ireland, and lose the money I am after giving you.’ ‘No fear of that, Shorsha; never will I play on that table again, Shorsha, till I get it mended, which shall not be till I am a priest, and have a house in which to place it.’

Murtagh and I then went into the town, where we had some refreshment together, and then parted on our several ways. I heard nothing of him for nearly a quarter of a century, when a person who knew him well, coming from Ireland, and staying at my humble house, told me a great deal about him. He reached Ireland in safety, soon reconciled himself with his Church and was ordained a priest; in the priestly office he acquitted himself in a way very satisfactory, upon the whole, to his superiors, having, as he frequently said, learned wisdom abroad. The Popish Church never fails to turn to account any particular gift which its servants may possess; and discovering soon that Murtagh was endowed with considerable manual dexterity — proof of which he frequently gave at cards, and at a singular game which he occasionally played with thimbles — it selected him as a very fit person to play the part of exorcist; and accordingly he travelled through a great part of Ireland, casting out devils from people possessed, which he afterwards exhibited, sometimes in the shape of rabbits, and occasionally birds and fish. There is a holy island in a lake in Ireland, to which the people resort at a particular season of the year. Here Murtagh frequently attended, and it was here that he performed a cure which will cause his name long to be remembered in Ireland, delivering a possessed woman of two demons, which he brandished aloft in his hands, in the shape of two large eels, and subsequently hurled into the lake, amidst the shouts of an enthusiastic multitude. Besides playing the part of an exorcist, he acted that of a politician with considerable success; he attached himself to the party of the sire of agitation —‘the man of paunch,’ and preached and halloed for repeal with the loudest and best, as long as repeal was the cry; as soon, however, as the Whigs attained the helm of Government, and the greater part of the loaves and fishes — more politely termed the patronage of Ireland — was placed in the disposition of the priesthood, the tone of Murtagh, like that of the rest of his brother saggarts, was considerably softened; he even went so far as to declare that politics were not altogether consistent with sacerdotal duty; and resuming his exorcisms, which he had for some time abandoned, he went to the Isle of Holiness, and delivered a possessed woman of six demons in the shape of white mice. He, however, again resumed the political mantle in the year 1848, during the short period of the rebellion of the so-called Young Irelanders. The priests, though they apparently sided with this party, did not approve of it, as it was chiefly formed of ardent young men, fond of what they termed liberty, and by no means admirers of priestly domination, being mostly Protestants. Just before the outbreak of this rebellion, it was determined between the priests and the —— that this party should be rendered comparatively innocuous by being deprived of the sinews of war — in other words, certain sums of money which they had raised for their enterprise. Murtagh was deemed the best qualified person in Ireland to be entrusted with the delicate office of getting their money from them. Having received his instructions, he invited the leaders to his parsonage amongst the mountains, under pretence of deliberating with them about what was to be done. They arrived there just before nightfall, dressed in red, yellow, and green, the colours so dear to enthusiastic Irishmen; Murtagh received them with great apparent cordiality, and entered into a long discourse with them, promising them the assistance of himself and order, and received from them a profusion of thanks. After a time Murtagh, observing, in a jocular tone, that consulting was dull work, proposed a game of cards, and the leaders, though somewhat surprised, he went to a closet, and taking out a pack of cards, laid it upon the table; it was a strange dirty pack, and exhibited every mark of having seen some very long service. On one of his guests making some remarks on the ‘ancientness’ of its appearance, Murtagh observed that there was a very wonderful history attached to that pack; it had been presented to him, he said, by a young gentleman, a disciple of his, to whom, in Dungarvon times of yore, he had taught the Irish language, and of whom he related some very extraordinary things; he added that he, Murtagh, had taken it to —— where it had once the happiness of being in the hands of the Holy Father; by a great misfortune, he did not say what, he had lost possession of it, and had returned without it, but had some time since recovered it; a nephew of his, who was being educated at —— for a priest, having found it in a nook of the college, and sent it to him.

Murtagh and the leaders then played various games with this pack, more especially one called by the initiated ‘blind hookey,’ the result being that at the end of about two hours the leaders found they had lost one-half of their funds; they now looked serious, and talked of leaving the house, but Murtagh begging them to stay supper, they consented. After supper, at which the guests drank rather freely, Murtagh said that, as he had not the least wish to win their money, he intended to give them their revenge; he would not play at cards with them, he added, but at a funny game of thimbles, at which they would be sure of winning back their own; then, going out, he brought in a table, tall and narrow, on which placing certain thimbles and a pea, he proposed that they should stake whatever they pleased on the almost certainty of finding the pea under the thimbles. The leaders, after some hesitation, consented, and were at first eminently successful winning back the greater part of what they had lost; after some time, however, Fortune, or, rather, Murtagh, turned against them, and then, instead of leaving off, they doubled and trebled their stakes, and continued doing so until they had lost nearly the whole of their funds. Quite furious, they now swore that Murtagh had cheated them, and insisted on having their property restored to them. Murtagh, without a word of reply, went to the door, and shouting into the passage something in Irish, the room was instantly filled with bogtrotters, each at least six feet high, with a stout shillealah in his hand. Murtagh, then turning to his guests, asked them what they meant by insulting an anointed priest; telling them that it was not for the likes of them to avenge the wrongs of Ireland. ‘I have been clane mistaken in the whole of ye,’ said he; ‘I supposed ye Irish, but have found to my sorrow that ye are nothing of the kind; purty fellows to pretend to be Irish, when there is not a word of Irish on the tongue of any of ye, divil a ha’porth; the illigant young gentleman to whom I taught Irish in Dungarvon times of old, though not born in Ireland, has more Irish in him than any ten of ye. He is the boy to avenge the wrongs of Ireland, if ever foreigner is to do it.’ Then, saying something to the bogtrotters, they instantly cleared the room of the young Irelanders, who retired sadly disconcerted; nevertheless, being very silly young fellows, they hoisted the standard of rebellion; few, however, joining them, partly because they had no money, and partly because the priests abused them with might and main, their rebellion ended in a lamentable manner, themselves being seized and tried, and though convicted, not deemed of sufficient importance to be sent to the scaffold, where they might have had the satisfaction of saying —

‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’

My visitor, after saying that of the money won Murtagh retained a considerable portion, that a part went to the hierarchy for what were called church purposes, and that the —— took the remainder, which it employed in establishing a newspaper, in which the private characters of the worthiest and most loyal Protestants in Ireland were traduced and vilified, concluded his account by observing that it was the common belief that Murtagh, having by his services, ecclesiastical and political, acquired the confidence of the priesthood and favour of the Government, would, on the first vacancy, be appointed to the high office of Popish Primate of Ireland.

177 Civita Vecchia.

178 The Duke d’Angouleme.

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