Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 33

Boxing Harry — Mr Bos — Black Robin — Drovers — Commercial Travellers.

I ARRIVED at the hostelry of Mr Pritchard without meeting any adventure worthy of being marked down. I went into the little parlour, and, ringing the bell, was presently waited upon by Mrs Pritchard, a nice matronly woman, whom I had not before seen, of whom I inquired what I could have for dinner.

“This is no great place for meat,” said Mrs Pritchard, “that is fresh meat, for sometimes a fortnight passes without anything being killed in the neighbourhood. I am afraid at present there is not a bit of fresh meat to be had. What we can get you for dinner I do not know, unless you are willing to make shift with bacon and eggs.”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said I, “I will have the bacon and eggs with tea and bread-and-butter, not forgetting a pint of ale — in a word, I will box Harry.”

“I suppose you are a commercial gent,” said Mrs Pritchard.

“Why do you suppose me a commercial gent?” said I. “Do I look one?”

“Can’t say you do much,” said Mrs Pritchard; “you have no rings on your fingers, nor a gilt chain at your waistcoat-pocket, but when you said ‘box Harry,’ I naturally took you to be one of the commercial gents, for when I was at Liverpool I was told that that was a word of theirs.”

“I believe the word properly belongs to them,” said I. “I am not one of them; but I learnt it from them, a great many years ago, when I was much amongst them. Those whose employers were in a small way of business, or allowed them insufficient salaries, frequently used to ‘box Harry,’ that is, have a beaf-steak, or mutton-chop, or perhaps bacon and eggs, as I am going to have, along with tea and ale, instead of the regular dinner of a commercial gentleman, namely, fish, hot joint, and fowl, pint of sherry, tart, ale and cheese, and bottle of old port, at the end of all.”

Having made arrangements for “boxing Harry” I went into the tap-room, from which I had heard the voice of Mr Pritchard proceeding during the whole of my conversation with his wife. Here I found the worthy landlord seated with a single customer; both were smoking. The customer instantly arrested my attention. He was a man, seemingly about forty years of age with a broad red face, with certain somethings, looking very much like incipient carbuncles, here and there, upon it. His eyes were grey and looked rather as if they squinted; his mouth was very wide, and when it opened displayed a set of strong, white, uneven teeth. He was dressed in a pepper-and-salt coat of the Newmarket cut, breeches of corduroy and brown top boots, and had on his head a broad, black, coarse, low-crowned hat. In his left hand he held a heavy whale-bone whip with a brass head. I sat down on a bench nearly opposite to him and the landlord.

“Well,” said Mr Pritchard; “did you find your way to Llanfair?”

“Yes,” said I.

“And did you execute the business satisfactorily which led you there?” said Mr Pritchard.

“Perfectly,” said I.

“Well, what did you give a stone for your live pork?” said his companion glancing up at me, and speaking in a gruff voice.

“I did not buy any live pork,” said I; “do you take me for a pig-jobber?”

“Of course,” said the man, in pepper-and-salt; “who but a pig jobber could have business at Llanfair?”

“Does Llanfair produce nothing but pigs?” said I.

“Nothing at all,” said the man in the pepper-and-salt, “that is, nothing worth mentioning. You wouldn’t go there for runts, that is, if you were in your right senses; if you were in want of runts you would have gone to my parish and have applied to me, Mr Bos; that is if you were in your senses. Wouldn’t he, John Pritchard?”

Mr Pritchard thus appealed to took the pipe out of his mouth, and with some hesitations said that he believed the gentleman neither went to Llanfair for pigs nor black cattle but upon some particular business.

“Well,” said Mr Bos, “it may be so, but I can’t conceive how any person, either gentle or simple, could have any business in Anglesey save that business was pigs or cattle.”

“The truth is,” said I, “I went to Llanfair to see the birth-place of a great man — the cleverest Anglesey ever produced.”

“Then you went wrong,” said Mr Bos, “you went to the wrong parish, you should have gone to Penmynnydd; the clebber man of Anglesey was born and buried at Penmynnydd, you may see his tomb in the church.”

“You are alluding to Black Robin,” said I, “who wrote the ode in praise of Anglesey — yes, he was a very clever young fellow, but excuse me, he was not half such a poet as Gronwy Owen.”

“Black Robin,” said Mr Bos, “and Gronow Owen, who the Devil were they? I never heard of either. I wasn’t talking of them, but of the clebberest man the world ever saw. Did you never hear of Owen Tiddir? If you didn’t, where did you get your education?”

“I have heard of Owen Tudor,” said I, “but never understood that he was particularly clever; handsome he undoubtedly was — but clever — “

“How not clebber?” interrupted Mr Bos. “If he wasn’t clebber, who was clebber? Didn’t he marry a great queen, and was not Harry the Eighth his great grandson?”

“Really,” said I, “you know a great deal of history.”

“I should hope I do,” said Mr Bos. “Oh, I wasn’t at school at Blewmaris for six months for nothing; and I haven’t been in Northampton, and in every town in England, without learning something of history. With regard to history I may say that few — Won’t you drink?” said he, patronizingly, as he pushed a jug of ale which stood before him on a little table towards me.

Begging politely to be excused on the plea that I was just about to take tea, I asked him in what capacity he had travelled all over England.

“As a drover to be sure,” said Mr Bos, “and I may say that there are not many in Anglesey better known in England than myself — at any rate I may say that there is not a public-house between here and Worcester at which I am not known.”

“Pray excuse me,” said I, “but is not droving rather a low-lifed occupation?”

“Not half so much as pig-jobbing,” said Bos, “and that that’s your trade I am certain, or you would never have gone to Llanfair.”

“I am no pig-jobber,” said I, “and when I asked you that question about droving, I merely did so because one Ellis Wynn, in a book he wrote, gives the drovers a very bad character, and puts them in Hell for their mal-practices.”

“Oh, he does,” said Mr Bos, “well, the next time I meet him at Corwen I’ll crack his head for saying so. Mal-practices — he had better look at his own, for he is a pig-jobber too. Written a book has he? then I suppose he has been left a legacy, and gone to school after middle-age, for when I last saw him, which is four years ago, he could neither read nor write.”

I was about to tell Mr Bos that the Ellis Wynn that I meant was no more a pig-jobber than myself, but a respectable clergyman, who had been dead considerably upwards of a hundred years, and that also, notwithstanding my respect for Mr Bos’s knowledge of history, I did not believe that Owen Tudor was buried at Penmynnydd, when I was prevented by the entrance of Mrs Pritchard, who came to inform me that my repast was ready in the other room, whereupon I got up and went into the parlour to “box Harry.”

Having dispatched my bacon and eggs, tea and ale, I fell into deep meditation. My mind reverted to a long past period of my life, when I was to a certain extent fixed up with commercial travellers, and had plenty of opportunities of observing their habits, and the terms employed by them in conversation. I called up several individuals of the two classes into which they used to be divided, for commercial travellers in my time were divided into two classes, those who ate dinners and drank their bottle of port, and those who “boxed Harry.” What glorious fellows the first seemed! What airs they gave themselves! What oaths they swore! and what influence they had with hostlers and chambermaids! and what a sneaking-looking set the others were! shabby in their apparel; no fine ferocity in their countenances; no oaths in their mouths, except such a trumpery apology for an oath as an occasional “confounded hard;” with little or no influence at inns, scowled at by hostlers, and never smiled at by chambermaids — and then I remembered how often I had bothered my head in vain to account for the origin of the term “box Harry,” and how often I had in vain applied both to those who did box and to those who did not “box Harry,” for a clear and satisfactory elucidation of the expression — and at last found myself again bothering my head as of old in a vain attempt to account for the origin of the term “boxing Harry.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50