The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Chapter 16

Gloomy Forebodings — The Postman’s Mother — The Letter — Bears and Barons — The Best of Advice

Nothing occurred to me of any particular moment during the following day. Isopel Berners did not return; but Mr. Petulengro and his companions came home from the fair early in the morning. When I saw him, which was about mid-day, I found him with his face bruised and swelled. It appeared that some time after I had left him, he himself perceived that the jockeys with whom he was playing cards were cheating him and his companion, a quarrel ensued, which terminated in a fight between Mr. Petulengro and one of the jockeys, which lasted some time, and in which Mr. Petulengro, though he eventually came off victor, was considerably beaten. His bruises, in conjunction with his pecuniary loss, which amounted to about seven pounds, were the cause of his being much out of humour; before night, however, he had returned to his usual philosophic frame of mind, and, coming up to me as I was walking about, apologized for his behaviour on the preceding day, and assured me that he was determined, from that time forward, never to quarrel with a friend for giving him good advice.

Two more days passed, and still Isopel Berners did not return. Gloomy thoughts and forebodings filled my mind. During the day I wandered about the neighbouring roads in the hopes of catching an early glimpse of her and her returning vehicle; and at night lay awake, tossing about on my hard couch, listening to the rustle of every leaf, and occasionally thinking that I heard the sound of her wheels upon the distant road. Once at midnight, just as I was about to fall into unconsciousness, I suddenly started up, for I was convinced that I heard the sound of wheels. I listened most anxiously, and the sound of wheels striking against stones was certainly plain enough. ‘She comes at last,’ thought I, and for a few moments I felt as if a mountain had been removed from my breast; —‘here she comes at last, now, how shall I receive her? Oh,’ thought I, ‘I will receive her rather coolly, just as if I was not particularly anxious about her — that’s the way to manage these women.’ The next moment the sound became very loud, rather too loud, I thought, to proceed from her wheels, and then by degrees became fainter. Rushing out of my tent, I hurried up the path to the top of the dingle, where I heard the sound distinctly enough, but it was going from me, and evidently proceeded from something much larger than the cart of Isopel. I could, moreover, hear the stamping of a horse’s hoof at a lumbering trot. Those only whose hopes have been wrought up to a high pitch, and then suddenly dashed down, can imagine what I felt at that moment; and yet when I returned to my lonely tent, and lay down on my hard pallet, the voice of conscience told me that the misery I was then undergoing, I had fully merited, from the unkind manner in which I had intended to receive her, when for a brief minute I supposed that she had returned.

It was on the morning after this affair, and the fourth, if I forget not, from the time of Isopel’s departure, that, as I was seated on my stone at the bottom of the dingle, getting my breakfast, I heard an unknown voice from the path above — apparently that of a person descending — exclaim, ‘Here’s a strange place to bring a letter to;’ and presently an old woman, with a belt round her middle, to which was attached a leathern bag, made her appearance, and stood before me.

‘Well, if I ever!’ said she, as she looked about her. ‘My good gentlewoman,’ said I, ‘pray what may you please to want?’ ‘Gentlewoman!’ said the old dame, ‘please to want! — well, I call that speaking civilly, at any rate. It is true, civil words cost nothing; nevertheless, we do not always get them. What I please to want is to deliver a letter to a young man in this place; perhaps you be he?’ ‘What’s the name on the letter?’ said I, getting up and going to her. ‘There is no name upon it,’ said she, taking a letter out of her scrip, and looking at it. ‘It is directed to the young man in Mumper’s Dingle.’ ‘Then it is for me, I make no doubt,’ said I, stretching out my hand to take it. ‘Please to pay me ninepence first,’ said the old woman. ‘However,’ said she, ‘civility is civility, and, being rather a scarce article, should meet with some return. Here’s the letter, young man, and I hope you will pay for it; for if you do not I must pay the postage myself.’ ‘You are the postwoman, I suppose,’ said I, as I took the letter. ‘I am the postman’s mother,’ said the old woman; ‘but as he has a wide beat, I help him as much as I can, and I generally carry letters to places like this, to which he is afraid to come himself.’ ‘You say the postage is ninepence,’ said I, ‘here’s a shilling.’ ‘Well, I call that honourable,’ said the old woman, taking the shilling, and putting it into her pocket —‘here’s your change, young man,’ said she, offering me threepence. ‘Pray keep that for yourself,’ said I; ‘you deserve it for your trouble.’ ‘Well, I call that genteel,’ said the old woman; ‘and as one good turn deserves another, since you look as if you couldn’t read, I will read your letter for you. Let’s see it; it’s from some young woman or other, I dare say.’ ‘Thank you,’ said I, ‘but I can read.’ ‘All the better for you,’ said the old woman; ‘your being able to read will frequently save you a penny, for that’s the charge I generally make for reading letters; though as you behaved so genteely to me, I should have charged you nothing. Well, if you can read, why don’t you open the letter, instead of keeping it hanging between your finger and thumb?’ ‘I am in no hurry to open it,’ said I, with a sigh. The old woman looked at me for a moment —‘Well, young man,’ said she, ‘there are some — especially those who can read — who don’t like to open their letters when anybody is by, more especially when they come from young women. Well, I won’t intrude upon you, but leave you alone with your letter. I wish it may contain something pleasant. God bless you,’ and with these words she departed.

I sat down on my stone, with my letter in my hand. I knew perfectly well that it could have come from no other person than Isopel Berners; but what did the letter contain? I guessed tolerably well what its purport was — an eternal farewell! yet I was afraid to open the letter, lest my expectation should be confirmed. There I sat with the letter, putting off the evil moment as long as possible. At length I glanced at the direction, which was written in a fine bold hand, and was directed, as the old woman had said, to the young man in ‘Mumper’s Dingle,’ with the addition near —— in the county of ——. Suddenly the idea occurred to me, that, after all, the letter might not contain an eternal farewell, and that Isopel might have written, requesting me to join her. Could it be so?’ ‘Alas! no,’ presently said Foreboding. At last I became ashamed of my weakness. The letter must be opened sooner or later. Why not at once? So as the bather who, for a considerable time has stood shivering on the bank, afraid to take the decisive plunge, suddenly takes it, I tore open the letter almost before I was aware. I had no sooner done so than a paper fell out. I examined it; it contained a lock of bright flaxen hair. ‘This is no good sign,’ said I, as I thrust the lock and paper into my bosom, and proceeded to read the letter, which ran as follows:



I send these lines, with the hope and trust that they will find you
well, even as I am myself at this moment, and in much better spirits,
for my own are not such as I could wish they were, being sometimes
rather hysterical and vapourish, and at other times, and most often,
very low. I am at a sea-port, and am just going on shipboard; and
when you get these I shall be on the salt waters, on my way to a
distant country, and leaving my own behind me, which I do not expect
ever to see again.

‘And now, young man, I will, in the first place, say something about
the manner in which I quitted you. It must have seemed somewhat
singular to you that I went away without taking any leave, or giving
you the slightest hint that I was going; but I did not do so without
considerable reflection. I was afraid that I should not be able to
support a leave-taking; and as you had said that you were determined
to go wherever I did, I thought it best not to tell you at all; for I
did not think it advisable that you should go with me, and I wished
to have no dispute.

‘In the second place, I wish to say something about an offer of
wedlock which you made me; perhaps, young man, had you made it at the
first period of our acquaintance, I should have accepted it, but you
did not, and kept putting off and putting off, and behaving in a very
strange manner, till I could stand your conduct no longer, but
determined upon leaving you and Old England, which last step I had
been long thinking about; so when you made your offer at last
everything was arranged — my cart and donkey engaged to be sold — and
the greater part of my things disposed of. However, young man, when
you did make it, I frankly tell you that I had half a mind to accept
it; at last, however, after very much consideration, I thought it
best to leave you for ever, because, for some time past, I had become
almost convinced, that though with a wonderful deal of learning, and
exceedingly shrewd in some things, you were — pray don’t be
offended — at the root mad! and though mad people, I have been told,
sometimes make very good husbands, I was unwilling that your friends,
if you had any, should say that Belle Berners, the workhouse girl,
took advantage of your infirmity; for there is no concealing that I
was born and bred up in a workhouse; notwithstanding that, my blood
is better than your own, and as good as the best; you having yourself
told me that my name is a noble name, and once, if I mistake not,
that it was the same word as baron, which is the same thing as bear;
and that to be called in old times a bear was considered as a great
compliment — the bear being a mighty strong animal, on which account
our forefathers called all their great fighting-men barons, which is
the same as bears.

‘However, setting matters of blood and family entirely aside, many
thanks to you, young man, from poor Belle, for the honour you did her
in making that same offer; for, after all, it is an honour to receive
an honourable offer, which she could see clearly yours was, with no
floriness nor chaff in it; but, on the contrary, entire sincerity.
She assures you that she shall always bear it and yourself in mind,
whether on land or water; and as a proof of the good-will she bears
to you, she has sent you a lock of the hair which she wears on her
head, which you were often looking at, and were pleased to call flax,
which word she supposes you meant as a compliment, even as the old
people meant to pass a compliment to their great folks, when they
called them bears; though she cannot help thinking that they might
have found an animal as strong as a bear, and somewhat less uncouth,
to call their great folks after: even as she thinks yourself, amongst
your great store of words, might have found something a little more
genteel to call her hair after than flax, which, though strong and
useful, is rather a coarse and common kind of article.

‘And as another proof of the goodwill she bears to you, she sends
you, along with the lock, a piece of advice, which is worth all the
hair in the world, to say nothing of the flax.

Fear God, and take your own part. 131 There’s Bible in that,
young man; see how Moses feared God, and how he took his own part
against everybody who meddled with him. And see how David feared
God, and took his own part against all the bloody enemies which
surrounded him — so fear God, young man, and never give in! The world
can bully, and is fond, provided it sees a man in a kind of
difficulty, of getting about him, calling him coarse names, and even
going so far as to hustle him; but the world, like all bullies,
carries a white feather in its tail, and no sooner sees a man taking
off his coat, and offering to fight his best, than it scatters here
and there, and is always civil to him afterwards. So when folks are
disposed to ill-treat you, young man, say, “Lord have mercy upon me!”
and then tip them Long Melford, 132 to which, as the saying goes,
there is nothing comparable for shortness all the world over; and
these last words, young man, are the last you will ever have from her
who is, nevertheless,

                                    ‘Your affectionate female servant,
                                                     ‘ISOPEL BERNERS.’

After reading the letter I sat for some time motionless, holding it in my hand. The day-dream in which I had been a little time before indulging, of marrying Isopel Berners, of going with her to America, and having by her a large progeny, who were to assist me in felling trees, cultivating the soil, and who would take care of me when I was old, was now thoroughly dispelled. Isopel had deserted me, and was gone to America by herself, where, perhaps, she would marry some other person, and would bear him a progeny, who would do for him what in my dream I had hoped my progeny by her would do for me. Then the thought came into my head that though she was gone I might follow her to America, but then I thought that if I did I might not find her; America was a very large place, and I did not know the port to which she was bound; but I could follow her to the port from which she had sailed, and there possibly discover the port to which she was bound; but then I did not even know the port from which she had set out, for Isopel had not dated her letter from any place. Suddenly it occurred to me that the post-mark on the letter would tell me from whence it came, so I forthwith looked at the back of the letter, and in the post-mark read the name of a well-known and not very distant sea-port. I then knew with tolerable certainty the port where she had embarked, and I almost determined to follow her, but I almost instantly determined to do no such thing. Isopel Berners had abandoned me, and I would not follow her; ‘perhaps,’ whispered pride, ‘if I overtook her, she would only despise me for running after her;’ and it also told me pretty roundly that, provided I ran after her, whether I overtook her or not, I should heartily despise myself. So I determined not to follow Isopel Berners; I took her lock of hair, and looked at it, then put it in her letter, which I folded up and carefully stowed away, resolved to keep both for ever, but I determined not to follow her. Two or three times, however, during the day, I wavered in my determination, and was again and again almost tempted to follow her, but every succeeding time the temptation was fainter. In the evening I left the dingle, and sat down with Mr. Petulengro and his family by the door of his tent; Mr. Petulengro soon began talking of the letter which I had received in the morning. ‘Is it not from Miss Berners, brother?’ said he. I told him it was. ‘Is she coming back, brother?’ ‘Never,’ said I; ‘she is gone to America, and has deserted me.’ ‘I always knew that you two were never destined for each other,’ said he. ‘How did you know that?’ I inquired. ‘The dook told me so, brother; you are born to be a great traveller.’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘if I had gone with her to America, as I was thinking of doing, I should have been a great traveller.’ ‘You are to travel in another direction, brother,’ said he. ‘I wish you would tell me all about my future wanderings,’ said I. ‘I can’t, brother,’ said Mr. Petulengro, ‘there’s a power of clouds before my eye.’ ‘You are a poor seer, after all,’ said I, and getting up, I retired to my dingle and my tent, where I betook myself to my bed, and there, knowing the worst, and being no longer agitated by apprehension, nor agonized by expectation, I was soon buried in a deep slumber, the first which I had fallen into for several nights.

131 Borrow places these words on the title-page of the present book.

132 A right-handed blow. See ‘Lavengro,’ ii. 289.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51