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by George Borrow
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


George Henry Borrow (1803-1881) from East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of Army recruiting officer, wrote novels and travelogues based on his experiences travelling around Europe and who developed a particular affinity with the Romany Gipsies who figure prominently in his work, notably in this book and its successor, The Romany Rye

Abridged: JH

For more works by George Borrow, see The Index


I. - The Scholar, the Gipsy, the Priest

On an evening of July, in the year 18 -, at East D - - -, a beautiful little town in East Anglia, I first saw the light. My father, a Cornishman, after serving many years in the Line, at last entered as captain in a militia regiment. My mother, a strikingly handsome woman, was of the Huguenot race. I was not the only child of my parents, for I had a brother three years older than myself. He was a beautiful boy with much greater mental ability than I possessed, and he, with the greatest affection, indulged me in every possible way. Alas, his was an early and a foreign grave!

I have been a wanderer the greater part of my life, being the son of a soldier, who, unable to afford the support of two homes, was accompanied by his family wherever he went. A lover of books and of retired corners, I was as a child in the habit of fleeing from society. The first book that fascinated me was one of Defoe's. But those early days were stirring times, for England was then engaged in the struggle with Napoleon.

I remember strange sights, such as the scenes at Norman Cross, a station or prison where some six thousand French prisoners were immured. And vividly impressed on my memory is my intercourse with an extraordinary old man, a snake-catcher, who thrilled me with the recitals of his experiences. He declared that the vipers had a king, a terrible creature, which he had encountered, and from which he had managed to escape. After telling me that strange story of the king of the vipers, he gave me a viper which he had tamed, and had rendered harmless by extracting its fangs. I fed it with milk, and frequently carried it abroad with me in my walks.

One day on my rambles I entered a green lane I had never seen before. Seeing an odd-looking low tent or booth, I advanced towards it. Beside it were two light carts, and near by two or three lean ponies cropped the grass. Suddenly the two inmates, a man and a woman, both wild and forbidding figures, rushed out, alarmed at my presence, and commenced abusing me as an intruder. They threatened to fling me into the pond over the hedge.

I defied them to touch me, and, as I did so, made a motion well understood by the viper that lay hid in my bosom. The reptile instantly lifted its head and stared at my enemies with its glittering eyes. The woman, in amazed terror, retreated to the tent, and the man stood like one transfixed. Presently the two commenced talking to each other in what to me sounded like French, and next, in a conciliating tone, they offered me a peculiar sweetmeat, which I accepted. A peaceable conversation ensued, during which they cordially invited me to join their party and to become one of them.

The interview was rudely interrupted. Hoofs were heard, and the next moment a man rode up and addressed words to the gipsies which produced a startling effect. In a few minutes, from different directions, came swarthy men and women. Hastily they harnessed the ponies and took down the tent, and packed the carts, and in a remarkably brief space of time the party rode off with the utmost speed.

Three years passed, during which I increased considerably in stature and strength, and, let us hope, improved in mind. For at school I had learnt the whole of Lilly's "Latin Grammar"; but I was very ignorant of figures. Our regiment was moved to Edinburgh, where the castle was a garrison for soldiers. In that city I and my brother were sent to the high school. Here the scholars were constantly fighting, though no great harm was done. I had seen deaths happen through fights at school in England.

I became a daring cragsman, a character to which an English lad can seldom aspire, for in England there are neither crags nor mountains. The Scots are expert climbers, and I was now a Scot in most things, particularly the language. The castle in which I dwelt stood on a craggy rock, to scale which was my favourite diversion.

In the autumn of 1815, when the war with Napoleon was ended, we were ordered to Ireland, where at school I read Latin and Greek with a nice old clergyman, and of an evening studied French and Italian with a banished priest, Italian being my favourite.

It was in a horse fair I came across Jasper Petulengro, a young gipsy of whom I had caught sight in the gipsy camp I have already alluded to. He was amazed to see me, and in the most effusively friendly way claimed me as a "pal," calling me Sapengro, or "snake-master," in allusion, he said, to the viper incident. He said he was also called Pharaoh, and was the horse-master of the camp.

From this time I had frequent interviews with Jasper. He taught me much Romany, and introduced me to Tawno Chikno, the biggest man of the gipsy nation, and to Mrs. Chikno. These stood to him as parents, for his own were banished. I soon found that in the tents I had become acquainted with a most interesting people. With their language I was fascinated, though at first I had taken it for mere gibberish. My rapid progress astonished and delighted Jasper. "We'll no longer call you Sapengro, brother," said he, "but Lavengro, which in the language of the gorgios meaneth word-master." And Jasper's wife actually proposed that I should marry her sister.

The gipsies departed for England. I was now sixteen, and continued in the house of my parents, passing my time chiefly in philological pursuits. But it was high time that I should adopt some profession. My father would gladly have seen me enter the Church, but feared I was too erratic. So I was put to the law, but while remaining a novice at that pursuit, I became a perfect master of the Welsh language. My father soon began to feel that he had made a mistake in the choice of a profession for me.

My elder brother, who had cultivated a great taste for painting, told me one evening that father had given him £150 and his blessing, and that he was going to London to improve himself in his art.

My father was taken ill with severe attacks of gout, and, in a touching conversation, assured me that his end was approaching. Before that sad event happened, my brother, whom he longed to see, arrived home. My father died with the name of Christ on his lips. The brave old soldier, during intervals between his attacks, had told me more of his life than I had ever learned before, and I was amazed to find how much he knew and had seen. He had talked with King George, and had known Wellington, and was the friend of Townshend, who, when Wolfe fell, led the British grenadiers against the shrinking regiments of Montcalm.

II. - An Adventure with a Publisher

One damp, misty March morning, I dismounted from the top of a coach in the yard of a London inn. Delivering my scanty baggage to a porter, I followed him to a lodging prepared for me by an acquaintance. It consisted of a small room in which I was to sit, and a smaller one still in which I was to sleep.

Having breakfasted comfortably by a good fire, I sallied forth and easily found my way to the place I was in quest of, for it was scarcely ten minutes' walk distant. I was cordially received by the big man to whom some of my productions had been sent by a kind friend, and to whom he had given me a letter of introduction, which was respectfully read. But he informed me that he was selling his publishing business, and so could not make use of my literary help. He gave me counsel, however, especially advising me to write some evangelical tales, in the style of the "Dairyman's Daughter." As I told him I had never heard of that work, he said: "Then, sir, procure it by all means." Much more conversation ensued, during which the publisher told me that he purposed continuing to issue once a month his magazine, the "Oxford Review," and to this he proposed that I should attempt to contribute. As I was going away he invited me to dine with him on the ensuing Sunday.

On Sunday I was punctual to my appointment with the publisher. I found that for twenty years he had taken no animal food and no wine. After some talk he requested me to compile six volumes of Newgate lives and trials, of a thousand pages each, the remuneration to be £50 at the completion of the work. I was also to make myself generally useful to the "Review," and, furthermore, to translate into German a book of philosophy which he had written. Then he dismissed me, saying that, though he never went to church, he spent much of every Sunday afternoon alone, musing on the magnificence of Nature and the moral dignity of man.

I compiled the "Chronicles of Newgate," reviewed books for the "Review," and occasionally tried my best to translate into German portions of the publisher's philosophy. But the "Review" did not prove a successful speculation, and with its decease its corps of writers broke up. I was paid, not in cash, but in bills, one payable at twelve, the other at eighteen months after date. It was a long time before I could turn these bills to any account. At last I found a person willing to cash them at a discount of only thirty per cent.

By the month of October I had accomplished about two-thirds of the compilation of the Newgate lives, and had also made some progress with the German translation. But about this time I had begun to see very clearly that it was impossible that our connection would be of long duration; yet, in the event of my leaving the big man, what had I to offer another publisher? I returned to my labour, finished the German translation, got paid in the usual style, and left that employer.

III. - The Spirit of Stonehenge

One morning I discovered that my whole worldly wealth was reduced to a single half-crown, and throughout that day I walked about in considerable distress of mind. By a most singular chance I again came across my friend Petulengro in a fair into which I happened to wander when walking by the side of the river beyond London. My gipsy friend was seated with several men, carousing beside a small cask. He sprang up, greeting me cordially, and we chatted in Romany as we walked about together. Questioning me closely, he soon discovered that by that time I had only eighteen pence in my pocket.

Said Jasper: "I, too, have been in the big city; but I have not been writing books. I have fought in the ring. I have fifty pounds in my pocket, and I have much more in the world. Brother, there is considerable difference between us." But he could not prevail on me to accept or to borrow money, for I said that if I could not earn, I would starve. "Come and stay with us," said he. "Our tents and horses are on the other side of yonder wooded hill. We shall all be glad of your company, especially myself and my wife, Pakomovna."

I declined the kind invitation and walked on. Returning to the great city, I suddenly found myself outside the shop of a publisher to whom I had vainly applied some time before, in the hope of selling some of my writings. As I looked listlessly at the window, I observed a paper affixed to the glass, on which was written in a fair round hand, "A Novel or Tale is much wanted." I at once resolved to go to work to produce what was thus solicited. But what should the tale be about? After cogitating at my lodging, with bread and water before me, I concluded that I would write an entirely fictitious narrative called "The Life and Adventures of Joseph Sell, the Great Traveller." This Joseph Sell was an imaginary personage who had come into my head.

I seized pen and paper, but soon gave up the task of outlining the story, for the scenes flitted in bewildering fashion before my imagination. Yet, before morning, as I lay long awake, I had sketched the whole work on the tablets of my mind. Next day I partook of bread and water, and before night had completed pages of Joseph Sell, and added pages in varying quantity day by day, until my enterprise was finished.

"To-morrow for the bookseller! Oh, me!" I exclaimed, as I lay down to rest.

On arriving at the shop, I saw to my delight that the paper was still in the window. As I entered, a ladylike woman of about thirty came from the back parlour to ask my business. After my explanation, she requested me, as her husband was out, to leave the MS. with her, and to call again the next day at eleven. At that hour I duly appeared, and was greeted with a cordial reception. "I think your book will do," said the bookseller. After some negotiation, I was paid £20 on the spot, and departed with a light heart. Reader, amidst life's difficulties, should you ever be tempted to despair, call to mind these experiences of Lavengro. There are few positions, however difficult, from which dogged resolution and perseverance will not liberate you.

I had long determined to leave London, as my health had become much impaired. My preparations were soon made, and I set out to travel on foot. In about two hours I had cleared the great city, and was in a broad and excellent road, leading I knew not whither. In the evening, feeling weary, I thought of putting up at an inn, but was induced to take a seat in a coach, paying sixteen shillings for the fare. At dawn of day I was roused from a broken slumber and bidden to alight, and found myself close to a moorland. Walking on and on, I at length reached a circle of colossal stones.

The spirit of Stonehenge was upon me. As I reclined under the great transverse stone, in the middle of the gateway of giants, I heard the tinkling of bells, and presently a large flock of sheep came browsing along, and several entered the circle. Soon a man also came up. In a friendly talk, the young shepherd told me that the people of the plain believed that thousands of men had brought the stones from Ireland, to make a temple in which to worship God.

"But," said I, "our forefathers slaughtered the men who raised the stones, and left not one stone on another."

"Yes, they did," said the shepherd, looking aloft at the great transverse stone.

"And it is well that they did," answered I, "for whenever that stone, which English hands never raised, is by English hands thrown down, woe to the English race. Spare it, English. Hengist spared it."

We parted, and I wandered off to Salisbury, the city of the spire. There I stayed two days, spending my time as best I could, and then walked forth for several days, during which nothing happened worthy of notice, but the weather was brilliant, and my health had greatly improved.

Coming one day to a small countryside cottage, I saw scrawled over the door, "Good beer sold here." Being overcome with thirst, I went in to taste the beverage. Along the wall opposite where I sat in the well-sanded kitchen was the most disconsolate family I had ever seen, consisting of a tinker, his wife, a pretty-looking woman, who had evidently been crying, and a ragged boy and girl. I treated them to a large measure of beer, and in a few minutes the tinker was telling me his history. That conversation ended very curiously, for I purchased for five pounds ten shillings the man's whole equipment. It included his stock-in-trade, and his pony and cart. Of the landlady I purchased sundry provisions, and also a waggoner's frock, gave the horse a little feed of corn, and departed.

IV. - The Flaming Tinman

At three hours past noon I thus started to travel as a tinker. I was absolutely indifferent as to the direction of my journey. Coming to no hostelry, I pitched my little tent after nightfall in a waste land amongst some bushes, and kindled a fire in a convenient spot with sticks which I gathered. For a few days I practiced my new craft by trying to mend two kettles and a frying-pan, remaining in my little camp. Few folk passed by. But soon some exciting incidents happened. My quarters were one morning suddenly invaded by a young Romany girl, who advanced towards me, after closely scanning me, singing a gipsy song:

     The Romany chi
     And the Romany chal
     Shall jaw tasaulor
     To drab the bawlor,
     And dook the gry
     Of the farming rye.

A very pretty song, thought I, falling hard to work again on my kettle; a very pretty song, which bodes the farmers much good. Let them look to their cattle.

"All alone here, brother?" said a voice close to me, in sharp, but not disagreeable tones.

A talk ensued, in which the girl discovered that I knew how to speak Romany, and it ended in my presenting her with the kettle.

"Parraco tute - that is, I thank you, brother. The rikkeni kekaubi is now mine. O, rare, I thank you kindly, brother!"

Presently she came towards me, stared me full in the face, saying to herself, "Grey, tall, and talks Romany!" In her countenance there was an expression I had not seen before, which struck me as being composed of fear, curiosity, and deepest hate. It was only momentary, and was succeeded by one smiling, frank, and open. "Good-bye, tall brother," said she, and she departed, singing the same song.

On the evening of the next day, after I had been with my pony and cart strolling through several villages, and had succeeded in collecting several kettles which I was to mend, I returned to my little camp, lit my fire, and ate my frugal meal. Then, after looking for some time at the stars, I entered my tent, lay down on my pallet, and went to sleep. Two more days passed without momentous incidents, but on the third evening the girl reappeared, bringing me two cakes, one of which she offered to eat herself, if I would eat the other. They were the gift to me of her grandmother, as a token of friendship. Incautiously I ate a portion to please the maiden. She eagerly watched as I did so. But I paid dearly indeed for my simplicity. I was in a short time seized with the most painful sensations, and was speedily prostrate in helpless agonies.

While I was in this alarming condition the grandmother appeared, and began to taunt me with the utmost malignity. She was Mrs. Herne, "the hairy one," who had conceived inveterate spite against me at the time when Petulengro had proposed that I should marry his wife's sister. This poison had been administered to inflict on me the vengeance she had not ceased to meditate.

My life was in real peril, but I was fortunately delivered by a timely and providential interposition. The malignant old gipsy woman and her granddaughter were scared as they watched my sufferings by hearing the sound of travellers approaching. Two wayfarers came along, one of whom happened to be a kind and skillful doctor. He saved my life by drastic remedies.

The next that I heard of Mrs. Herne was, as Petulengro told me when we again met, that she had hanged herself, the girl finding her suspended from a tree. That announcement was accompanied by an unexpected challenge from my friend Jasper to fight him. He declared that as she was his relative, and I had been the cause of her destruction, there was no escape from the necessity of fighting. My plea that there was no inclination on my part for such a combat was of no avail. Accordingly we fought for half an hour, when suddenly Petulengro exclaimed: "Brother, there is much blood on your face; I think enough has been done in the affair of the old woman."

So the struggle ended, and my Romany friend once more pressed me to join his tribe in their camp and in their life. I declined the offer, for I had resolved to practice yet another calling, the trade of a blacksmith. I could do so, for amongst the stock-in-trade I had purchased from the tinker was a small forge, with an anvil and hammers.

It has always struck me that there is something poetical about a forge. I believe that the life of any blacksmith, especially a rural one, would afford material for a highly poetical treatise. But a rude stop was put to my dream. One morning, a brutal-looking ruffian, whom I had met before and recognised as a character known as the Flaming Tinman, appeared on the scene, accusing me with fearful oaths of trespassing on his ground. After volleys of abuse, he attacked me, and a fearful fight ensued, in which he was not the victor, for in one of his terrific lunges he slipped, and a blow which I was aiming happened to strike him behind the ear. He fell senseless. Two women were with him, one, a vulgar, coarse creature, his wife; the other a tall, fine young woman, who travelled with them for company, doing business of her own with a donkey and cart, selling merchandise.

While I was bringing water from a spring in order to seek to revive the Flaming Tinman, his wife and the young woman violently quarrelled, for the latter took my part vehemently. When at length my enemy recovered sufficiently to look about him, and then to stand up, I found that his wife had put an open knife in his hand. But his intention could not be carried out, for his right hand was injured in the fight, and was for the time useless, as he quickly realised.

The couple presently departed, cursing me and the young woman, who remained behind in the little camp, and, as I was in an exhausted state, offered to make tea by the camp fire. While we were taking the repast, she told me the story of her life. Her name was Isopel Berners, and though she believed that she had come of a good stock, she was born in a workhouse. When old enough, she had entered the service of a kind widow, who travelled with small merchandise. After the death of her mistress, Isopel carried on the same avocation. Being friendless, and falling in with the Flaming Tinman and his wife, she had associated with them, yet acknowledged that she had found them to be bad people.

Time passed on. Isopel and I lived still in the dingle, occupying our separate tents. She went to and fro on her business, and I went on short excursions. Her company, when she happened to be in camp, was very entertaining, for she had wandered in all parts of England and Wales. For recreation, I taught her a great deal of Armenian, much of which was like the gipsy tongue. She had a kind heart, and was an upright character. She often asked me questions about America, for she had an idea she would like to go there. But as I had never crossed the sea to that country, I could only tell her what I had heard about it.

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