The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 6

The Promised Visit — Roman Fashion — Wizard and Witch — Catching at Words — The Two Females — Dressing of Hair — The New Roads — Belle’s Altered Appearance — Herself Again

About mid-day Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro came to the dingle to pay the promised visit. Belle, at the time of their arrival, was in her tent, but I was at the fire-place, engaged in hammering part of the outer tire, or defence, which had come off from one of the wheels of my vehicle. On perceiving them I forthwith went to receive them. Mr. Petulengro was dressed in Roman 51 fashion, with a somewhat smartly-cut sporting-coat, the buttons of which were half-crowns — and a waistcoat, scarlet and black, the buttons of which were spaded half-guineas: his breeches were of a stuff half velveteen, half corduroy, the cords exceedingly broad. He had leggings of buff cloth, furred at the bottom; and upon his feet were highlows. Under his left arm was a long, black whalebone riding-whip, with a red lash, and an immense silver knob. Upon his head was a hat with a high peak, somewhat of the kind which the Spaniards call calane, so much in favour with the bravos of Seville and Madrid. Now, when I have added that Mr. Petulengro had on a very fine white holland shirt, I think I have described his array. Mrs. Petulengro — I beg pardon for not having spoken of her first — was also arrayed very much in the Roman fashion. Her hair, which was exceedingly black and lustrous, fell in braids on either side of her head. In her ears were rings, with long drops of gold. Round her neck was a string of what seemed very much like very large pearls, somewhat tarnished, however, and apparently of considerable antiquity. ‘Here we are, brother,’ said Mr. Petulengro —‘here we are, come to see you — wizard and witch, witch and wizard:

‘“There’s a chovahanee, and a chovahano,

The nav se len is Petulengro.”’ 52

‘Hold your tongue, sir,’ said Mrs. Petulengro; ‘you make me ashamed of you with your vulgar ditties. We are come a visiting now, and everything low should be left behind.’

‘True,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘why bring what’s low to the dingle, which is low enough already?’

‘What, are you a catcher at words?’ said I. ‘I thought that catching at words had been confined to the pot-house farmers and village witty bodies.’

‘All fools,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘catch at words, and very naturally, as by so doing they hope to prevent the possibility of rational conversation. Catching at words confined to pot-house farmers and village witty bodies! No, nor to Jasper Petulengro. Listen for an hour or two to the discourse of a set they call newspaper editors, and if you don’t go out and eat grass as a dog does when he is sick, I am no female woman. The young lord whose hand I refused when I took up with wise Jasper, once brought two of them to my mother’s tan, 53 when hankering after my company: they did nothing but carp at each other’s words, and a pretty hand they made of it. Ill-favoured dogs they were, and their attempts at what they called wit almost as unfortunate as their countenances.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘madam, we will drop all catchings and carpings for the present. Pray take your seat on this stool, whilst I go and announce to Miss Isopel Berners your arrival.’

Thereupon I went to Belle’s habitation, and informed her that Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro had paid us a visit of ceremony, and were awaiting her at the fire-place. ‘Pray go and tell them that I am busy,’ said Belle, who was engaged with her needle. ‘I do not feel disposed to take part in any such nonsense.’ ‘I shall do no such thing,’ said I, ‘and I insist upon your coming forthwith, and showing proper courtesy to your visitors. If you do not their feelings will be hurt, and you are aware that I cannot bear that people’s feelings should be outraged. Come this moment, or —’ ‘Or what?’ said Belle, half smiling. ‘I was about to say something in Armenian,’ said I. ‘Well,’ said Belle, laying down her work, ‘I will come.’ ‘Stay,’ said I, ‘your hair is hanging about your ears, and your dress is in disorder: you had better stay a minute or two to prepare yourself to appear before your visitors, who have come in their very best attire.’ ‘No,’ said Belle, ‘I will make no alteration in my appearance; you told me to come this moment, and you shall be obeyed.’

So Belle and I advanced towards our guests. As we drew nigh Mr. Petulengro took off his hat, and made a profound obeisance to Belle, whilst Mrs. Petulengro rose from the stool, and made a profound curtsey. Belle, who had flung her hair back over her shoulders, returned their salutations by bending her head, and after slightly glancing at Mr. Petulengro, fixed her large blue eyes full upon his wife. Both these females were very handsome — but how unlike! Belle fair, with blue eyes and flaxen hair, Mrs. Petulengro with olive complexion, eyes black, and hair dark — as dark could be. Belle, in demeanour calm and proud, the gypsy graceful, but full of movement and agitation. And then, how different were those two in stature! The head of the Romany rawnie scarcely ascended to the breast of Isopel Berners. I could see that Mrs. Petulengro gazed on Belle with unmixed admiration, so did her husband. ‘Well,’ said the latter, ‘one thing I will say, which is, that there is only one on earth worthy to stand up in front of this she, and that is the beauty of the world, as far as man flesh is concerned, Tawno Chikno; what a pity he did not come down!’

‘Tawno Chikno,’ 54 said Mrs. Petulengro, flaring up; ‘a pretty fellow he to stand up in front of this gentlewoman, a pity he didn’t come, quotha? not at all, the fellow is a sneak, afraid of his wife. He stand up against this rawnie! 55 why the look she has given me would knock the fellow down.’

‘It is easier to knock him down with a look than with a fist,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘that is, if the look comes from a woman, not that I am disposed to doubt that this female gentlewoman is able to knock him down either one way or the other. I have heard of her often enough, and have seen her once or twice, though not so near as now. Well, ma’am, my wife and I are come to pay our respects to you; we are both glad to find that you have left off keeping company with Flaming Bosville, 56 and have taken up with my pal; he is not very handsome, but a better —’

‘I take up with your pal, 57 as you call him; you had better mind what you say,’ said Isopel Berners, ‘I take up with nobody.’

‘I merely mean taking up your quarters with him,’ said Mr. Petulengro, ‘and I was only about to say a better fellow-lodger you cannot have, or a more instructive, especially if you have a desire to be inoculated with tongues, as he calls them. I wonder whether you and he have had any tongue-work already.’

‘Have you and your wife anything particular to say, if you have nothing but this kind of conversation I must leave you, as I am going to make a journey this afternoon, and should be getting ready.’

‘You must excuse my husband, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘he is not overburdened with understanding, and has said but one word of sense since he has been here, which was that we came to pay our respects to you. We have dressed ourselves in our best Roman way, in order to do honour to you; perhaps you do not like it, if so, I am sorry. I have no French clothes, madam, if I had any, madam, I would have come in them in order to do you more honour.’

‘I like to see you much better as you are,’ said Belle; ‘people should keep to their own fashions, and yours is very pretty.’

‘I am glad you are pleased to think it so, madam, it has been admired in the great city, it created what they call a sensation, and some of the great ladies — the court ladies, imitated it, else I should not appear in it so often as I am accustomed, for I am not very fond of what is Roman, having an imagination that what is Roman is ungenteel; in fact, I once heard the wife of a rich citizen say that gypsies were vulgar creatures. I should have taken her saying very much to heart, but for her improper pronunciation; she could not pronounce her words, madam, which we gypsies, as they call us, usually can, so I thought she was no very high purchase. You are very beautiful, madam, though you are not dressed as I could wish to see you, and your hair is hanging down in sad confusion; allow me to assist you in arranging your hair, madam; I will dress it for you in our fashion; I would fain see how your hair would look in our poor gypsy fashion: pray allow me, madam?’ and she took Belle by the hand.

‘I really can do no such thing,’ said Belle withdrawing her hand; ‘I thank you for coming to see me, but —’

‘Do allow me to officiate upon your hair, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘I should esteem your allowing me a great mark of condescension. You are very beautiful, madam, and I think you doubly so, because you are so fair; I have a great esteem for persons with fair complexions and hair; I have a less regard for people with dark hair and complexions, madam.’

‘Then why did you turn off the lord, and take up with me?’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘that same lord was fair enough all about him.’

‘People do when they are young and silly what they sometimes repent of when they are of riper years and understandings. I sometimes think that had I not been something of a simpleton, I might at this time be a great court lady. Now, madam,’ said she, again taking Belle by the hand, ‘do oblige me by allowing me to plait your hair a little?’

‘I have really a good mind to be angry with you,’ said Belle, giving Mrs. Petulengro a peculiar glance.

‘Do allow her to arrange your hair,’ said I, ‘she means no harm, and wishes to do you honour; do oblige her and me too, for I should like to see how your hair would look dressed in her fashion.’

‘You hear what the young rye says?’ said Mrs. Petulengro. ‘I am sure you will oblige the young rye, if not myself. Many people would be willing to oblige the young rye, if he would but ask them; but he is not in the habit of asking favours. He has a nose of his own, which he keeps tolerably exalted; he does not think small-beer of himself, madam; and all the time I have been with him, I never heard him ask a favour before; therefore, madam, I am sure you will oblige him. My sister Ursula would be very willing to oblige him in many things, but he will not ask her for anything, except for such a favour as a word, which is a poor favour after all. I don’t mean for her word; perhaps he will some day ask you for your word. If so —’

‘Why here you are, after railing at me for catching at words, catching at a word yourself,’ said Mr. Petulengro.

‘Hold your tongue, sir,’ said Mrs. Petulengro. ‘Don’t interrupt me in my discourse; if I caught at a word now, I am not in the habit of doing so. I am no conceited body; no newspaper Neddy; no pot-house witty person. I was about to say, madam, that if the young rye asks you at any time for your word, you will do as you deem convenient; but I am sure you will oblige him by allowing me to braid your hair.’

‘I shall not do it to oblige him,’ said Belle; ‘the young rye, as you call him, is nothing to me.’

‘Well, then, to oblige me,’ said Mrs. Petulengro; ‘do allow me to become your poor tire-woman.’

‘It is great nonsense,’ said Belle, reddening; ‘however, as you came to see me, and ask the matter as a particular favour to yourself —’

‘Thank you, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, leading Belle to the stool; ‘please to sit down here. Thank you; your hair is very beautiful, madam,’ she continued, as she proceeded to braid Belle’s hair; ‘so is your countenance. Should you ever go to the great city, among the grand folks, you would make a sensation, madam. I have made one myself, who am dark; the chi she is kauley, 58 which last word signifies black, which I am not, though rather dark. There’s no colour like white, madam; it’s so lasting, so genteel. Gentility will carry the day, madam, even with the young rye. He will ask words of the black lass, but beg the word of the fair.’

In the meantime Mr. Petulengro and myself entered into conversation. ‘Any news stirring, Mr. Petulengro?’ said I. ‘Have you heard anything of the great religious movements?’

‘Plenty,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘all the religious people, more especially the Evangelicals — those that go about distributing tracts — are very angry about the fight between Gentleman Cooper and White-headed Bob, 59 which they say ought not to have been permitted to take place; and then they are trying all they can to prevent the fight between the lion and the dogs, 60 which they say is a disgrace to a Christian country. Now, I can’t say that I have any quarrel with the religious party and the Evangelicals; they are always civil to me and mine, and frequently give us tracts, as they call them, which neither I nor mine can read; but I cannot say that I approve of any movements, religious or not, which have in aim to put down all life and manly sport in this here country.’

‘Anything else?’ said I.

‘People are becoming vastly sharp,’ said Mr. Petulengro; ‘and I am told that all the old-fashioned, good-tempered constables are going to be set aside, and a paid body of men to be established, who are not to permit a tramper or vagabond on the roads of England; — and talking of roads, puts me in mind of a strange story I heard two nights ago, whilst drinking some beer at a public-house, in company with my cousin Sylvester. I had asked Tawno to go, but his wife would not let him. Just opposite me, smoking their pipes, were a couple of men, something like engineers, and they were talking of a wonderful invention which was to make a wonderful alteration in England; inasmuch as it would set aside all the old roads, which in a little time would be ploughed up, and sowed with corn, and cause all England to be laid down with iron roads, on which people would go thundering along in vehicles, pushed forward by fire and smoke. Now, brother, when I heard this, I did not feel very comfortable; for I thought to myself, what a queer place such a road would be to pitch one’s tent upon, and how impossible it would be for one’s cattle to find a bite of grass upon it; and I thought likewise of the danger to which one’s family would be exposed of being run over and severely scorched by these same flying, fiery vehicles; so I made bold to say, that I hoped such an invention would never be countenanced, because it was likely to do a great deal of harm. Whereupon, one of the men, giving me a glance, said, without taking the pipe out of his mouth, that for his part, he sincerely hoped that it would take effect; and if it did no other good than stopping the rambles of gypsies, and other like scamps, it ought to be encouraged. Well, brother, feeling myself insulted, I put my hand into my pocket, in order to pull out money, intending to challenge him to fight for a five-shilling stake, but merely found sixpence, having left all my other money at the tent; which sixpence was just sufficient to pay for the beer which Sylvester and myself were drinking, of whom I couldn’t hope to borrow anything —“poor as Sylvester” being a by-word amongst us. So, not being able to back myself, I held my peace, and let the Gorgio 61 have it all his own way, who, after turning up his nose at me, went on discoursing about the said invention, saying what a fund of profit it would be to those who knew how to make use of it, and should have the laying down of the new roads, and the shoeing of England with iron. And after he had said this, and much more of the same kind, which I cannot remember, he and his companion got up and walked away; and presently I and Sylvester got up and walked to our camp; and there I lay down in my tent by the side of my wife, where I had an ugly dream of having camped upon an iron road; my tent being overturned by a flying vehicle; my wife’s leg injured; and all my affairs put into great confusion.’

‘Now, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘I have braided your hair in our fashion; you look very beautiful, madam; more beautiful, if possible, than before.’ Belle now rose, and came forward with her tire-woman. Mr. Petulengro was loud in his applause, but I said nothing, for I did not think Belle was improved in appearance by having submitted to the ministry of Mrs. Petulengro’s hand. Nature never intended Belle to appear as a gypsy; she had made her too proud and serious. A more proper part for her was that of a heroine, a queenly heroine — that of Theresa of Hungary, for example; or, better still, that of Brynhilda the Valkyrie, the beloved of Sigurd, the serpent-killer, who incurred the curse of Odin, because, in the tumult of spears, she sided with the young king, and doomed the old warrior to die, to whom Odin had promised victory.

Belle looked at me for a moment in silence, then turning to Mrs. Petulengro, she said: ‘You have had your will with me; are you satisfied?’ ‘Quite so, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘and I hope you will be so too, as soon as you have looked in the glass.’ ‘I have looked in one already,’ said Belle, ‘and the glass does not flatter.’ ‘You mean the face of the young rye,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘never mind him, madam; the young rye, though he knows a thing or two, is not a university, nor a person of universal wisdom. I assure you that you never looked so well before, and I hope that, from this moment, you will wear your hair in this way.’ ‘And who is to braid it in this way?’ said Belle, smiling. ‘I, madam,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘I will braid it for you every morning, if you will but be persuaded to join us. Do so, madam, and I think if you did, the young rye would do so too.’ ‘The young rye is nothing to me, nor I to him,’ said Belle, ‘we have stayed some time together, but our paths will soon be apart. Now farewell, for I am about to take a journey.’ ‘And you will go out with your hair as I have braided it,’ said Mrs. Petulengro, ‘if you do everybody will be in love with you.’ ‘No,’ said Belle, ‘hitherto I have allowed you to do what you please, but henceforth I shall have my own way. Come, come,’ said she, observing that the gypsy was about to speak, ‘we have had enough of nonsense, whenever I leave this hollow it will be wearing my hair in my own fashion.’ ‘Come, wife,’ said Mr. Petulengro, ‘we will no longer intrude upon the rye and rawnie, there is such a thing as being troublesome.’ Thereupon Mr. Petulengro and his wife took their leave, with many salutations. ‘Then you are going?’ said I, when Belle and I were left alone. ‘Yes,’ said Belle, ‘I am going on a journey, my affairs compel me.’ ‘But you will return again?’ said I. ‘Yes,’ said Belle, ‘I shall return once more.’ ‘Once more,’ said I, ‘what do you mean by once more? The Petulengros 62 will soon be gone, and will you abandon me in this place?’ ‘You were alone here,’ said Belle, ‘before I came, and I suppose, found it agreeable, or you would not have stayed in it.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘that was before I knew you; but having lived with you here, I should be very loth to live here without you.’ ‘Indeed,’ said Belle, ‘I did not know that I was of so much consequence to you. Well, the day is wearing away — I must go and harness Traveller to the cart.’ ‘I will do that,’ said I, ‘or anything else you may wish me. Go and prepare yourself; I will see after Traveller and the cart.’ Belle departed to her tent, and I set about performing the task I had undertaken. In about half an hour Belle again made her appearance — she was dressed neatly and plainly. Her hair was no longer in the Roman fashion, in which Pakomovna had plaited it, but was secured by a comb; she held a bonnet in her hand. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’ I demanded. ‘There are two or three bundles by my tent which you can put into the cart,’ said Belle. I put the bundles into the cart, and then led Traveller and the cart up the winding path to the mouth of the dingle, near which was Mr. Petulengro’s encampment. Belle followed. At the top, I delivered the reins into her hands; we looked at each other steadfastly for some time. Belle then departed, and I returned to the dingle, where, seating myself on my stone, I remained for upwards of an hour in thought.

51 Borrow is fond of using ‘Roman’ and ‘Roumanian’ in the sense of ‘Romany’; but no gypsy ever does so.

52 Knapp quotes from Borrow’s MSS. the rest of this ditty:

‘Sore the chavies ‘dre their ten

Are chories and lubbenies — tatchipen.’

The song may be translated:

There’s a wizard and witch of evil fame,

And Petulengro it is their name;

Within their tent each lass and youth

Is a wanton or thief — I tell you truth.

53 Tent.

54 See ‘Lavengro,’ i. 158, note.

55 Lady.

56 His real name seems to have been Anselo Herne. See p. 72.

57 Brother.

58 The girl she is black. See p. 182, note.

59 See Introduction.

60 Ibid.

61 Better gaujo, ‘gentile.’

62 Smiths.

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