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The Romany Rye
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.
In this work, George Borrow continued the "kind of biography in the Robinson Crusoe style" which he had begun in the three volumes of "Lavengro."
Abridged: JH
For more works by George Borrow, see The Index

The Romany Rye

The Romany Rye

    In this work, published in two volumes in 1857, George Borrow continued the "kind of biography in the Robinson Crusoe style" which he had begun in the three volumes of "Lavengro," issued six years earlier. "Romany Rye" is described as a sequel to "Lavengro," and takes up that story with the author and his friend Isopel Berners encamped side by side in the Mumpers' Dingle, whither the gipsies, Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro and their relations, shortly afterwards arrive. The book consists of a succession of episodes, without plot, the sole connecting thread being Borrow's personality as figuring in them. Much of the "Romany Rye" was written at Oulton Broad, where, after his marriage in 1840, Borrow lived until he removed to Hereford Square, Brompton. At Oulton, it is worthy of record, gipsies were allowed to pitch their tents, the author of "Romany Rye" and "Lavengro" mingling freely with them. As a novel, the "Romany Rye" is preferred by many readers to any of Borrow's other works.

I. - The Roving Life

It was, as usual, a brilliant morning, the dewy blades of the rye-grass which covered the plain sparkled brightly in the beams of the sun, which had probably been about two hours above the horizon. Near the mouth of the dingle - Mumpers' Dingle, near Wittenhall, Staffordshire - where my friend Isopel Berners and I, the travelling tinker, were encamped side by side, a rather numerous body of my ancient friends and allies occupied the ground. About five yards on the right, Mr. Petulengro was busily employed in erecting his tent; he held in his hand an iron bar, sharp at the bottom, with a kind of arm projecting from the top for the purpose of supporting a kettle or cauldron over the fire. With the sharp end of this he was making holes in the earth at about twenty inches distance from each other, into which he inserted certain long rods with a considerable bend towards the top, which constituted the timbers of the tent and the supporters of the canvas. Mrs. Petulengro and a female with a crutch in her hand, whom I recognised as Mrs. Chikno, sat near him on the ground.

"Here we are, brother," said Mr. Petulengro. "Here we are, and plenty of us."

"I am glad to see you all," said I; "and particularly you, madam," said I, making a bow to Mrs. Petulengro, "and you also, madam," taking off my hat to Mrs. Chikno.

"Good-day to you, sir," said Mrs. Petulengro. "You look as usual, charmingly, and speak so, too; you have not forgot your manners."

"It is not all gold that glitters," said Mrs. Chikno. "However, good-morrow to you, young rye."

"I am come on an errand," said I. "Isopel Berners, down in the dell there, requests the pleasure of Mr. and Mrs. Petulengro's company at breakfast. She will be happy also to see you, madam," said I, addressing Mrs. Chikno.

"Is that young female your wife, young man?" said Mrs. Chikno.

"My wife?" said I.

"Yes, young man, your wife - your lawful certificated wife?"

"No," said I. "She is not my wife."

"Then I will not visit with her," said Mrs. Chikno. "I countenance nothing in the roving line."

"What do you mean by the roving line?" I demanded.

"What do I mean by the roving line? Why, by it I mean such conduct as is not tatcheno. When ryes and rawnies lives together in dingles, without being certificated, I call such behaviour being tolerably deep in the roving line, everything savouring of which I am determined not to sanctify. I have suffered too much by my own certificated husband's outbreaks in that line to afford anything of the kind the slightest shadow of countenance."

"It is hard that people may not live in dingles together without being suspected of doing wrong," said I.

"So it is," said Mrs. Petulengro, interposing. "I am suspicious of nobody, not even of my own husband, whom some people would think I have a right to be suspicious of, seeing that on his account I once refused a lord. I always allows him an agreeable latitude to go where he pleases. But I have had the advantage of keeping good company, and therefore - - "

"Meklis," said Mrs. Chikno, "pray drop all that, sister; I believe I have kept as good company as yourself; and with respect to that offer with which you frequently fatigue those who keeps company with you, I believe, after all, it was something in the roving and uncertificated line."

II. - The Parting of the Ways

Belle was sitting before the fire, at which the kettle was boiling.

"Were you waiting for me?" I inquired.

"Yes," said Belle.

"That was very kind," said I.

"Not half so kind," said she, "as it was of you to get everything ready for me in the dead of last night."

After tea, we resumed our study of Armenian. "First of all, tell me," said Belle, "what a verb is?"

"A part of speech," said I, "which, according to the dictionary, signifies some action or passion. For example: I command you, or I hate you."

"I have given you no cause to hate me," said Belle, looking me sorrowfully in the face.

"I was merely giving two examples," said I. "In Armenian, there are four conjugations of verbs; the first ends in al, the second in yel, the third in oul, and the fourth in il. Now, have you understood me?"

"I am afraid, indeed, it will all end ill," said Belle.

"Let us have no unprofitable interruptions," said I. "Come, we will begin with the verb hntal, a verb of the first conjugation, which signifies rejoice. Come along. Hntam, I rejoice; hntas, thou rejoicest. Why don't you follow, Belle?"

"I'm sure I don't rejoice, whatever you may do," said Belle.

"The chief difficulty, Belle," said I, "that I find in teaching you the Armenian grammar proceeds from your applying to yourself and me every example I give."

"I can't bear this much longer," said Belle.

"Keep yourself quiet," said I. "We will skip hntal and proceed to the second conjugation. Belle, I will now select for you to conjugate the prettiest verb in Armenian - the verb siriel. Here is the present tense: siriem, siries, sirè, siriemk, sirèk, sirien. Come on, Belle, and say 'siriem.'"

Belle hesitated. "You must admit, Belle, it is much softer than hntam."

"It is so," said Belle, "and to oblige you, I will say 'siriem.'"

"Very well indeed, Belle," said I. "And now, to show you how verbs act upon pronouns, I will say 'siriem zkiez.' Please to repeat 'siriem zkiez.'"

"'Siriem zkiez!'" said Belle. "That last word is very hard to say."

"Sorry that you think so, Belle," said I. "Now please to say 'siria zis.'" Belle did so.

"Now say 'yerani thè sirèir zis,'" said I.

"'Yerani thè sirèir zis,'" said Belle.

"Capital!" said I. "You have now said, 'I love you - love me - ah! would that you would love me!'"

"And I have said all these things?"

"You have said them in Armenian," said I.

"I would have said them in no language that I understood; and it was very wrong of you to take advantage of my ignorance and make me say such things."

"Why so?" said I. "If you said them, I said them, too."

"You did so," said Belle; "but I believe you were merely bantering and jeering."

"As I told you before, Belle," said I, "the chief difficulty which I find in teaching you Armenian proceeds from your persisting in applying to yourself and me every example I give."

"Then you meant nothing, after all?" said Belle, raising her voice.

"Let us proceed: sirietsi, I loved."

"You never loved anyone but yourself," said Belle; "and what's more - - "

"Sirietsits, I will love," said I; "sirietsies, thou wilt love."

"Never one so thoroughly heartless."

"I tell you what, Belle - you are becoming intolerable. But we will change the verb. You would hardly believe, Belle," said I, "that the Armenian is in some respects closely connected with the Irish, but so it is. For example: that word parghatsoutsaniem is evidently derived from the same root as fear-gaim, which, in Irish, is as much as to say, 'I vex.'"

"You do, indeed," said Belle, sobbing.

"But how do you account for it?"

"Oh, man, man!" cried Belle, bursting into tears, "for what purpose do you ask a poor ignorant girl such a question, unless it be to vex and irritate her? If you wish to display your learning, do so to the wise and instructed, and not to me, who can scarcely read or write."

"I am sorry to see you take on so, dear Belle," said I. "I had no idea of making you cry. Come, I beg your pardon; what more can I do? Come, cheer up, Belle. You were talking of parting; don't let us part, but depart, and that together."

"Our ways lie different," said Belle.

"I don't see why they should," said I. "Come, let us be off to America together."

"To America together?" said Belle.

"Yes," said I; "where we will settle down in some forest, and conjugate the verb siriel conjugally."

"Conjugally?" said Belle.

"Yes; as man and wife in America."

"You are jesting, as usual," said Belle.

"Not I, indeed. Come, Belle, make up your mind, and let us be off to America."

"I don't think you are jesting," said Belle; "but I can hardly entertain your offers; however, young man, I thank you. I will say nothing more at present. I must have time to consider."

Next day, when I got up to go with Mr. Petulengro to the fair, on leaving my tent I observed Belle, entirely dressed, standing close to her own little encampment.

"Dear me," said I. "I little expected to find you up so early."

"I merely lay down in my things," said Belle; "I wished to be in readiness to bid you farewell when you departed."

"Well, God bless you, Belle!" said I. "I shall be home to-night; by which time I expect you will have made up your mind."

On arriving at the extremity of the plain, I looked towards the dingle. Isopel Berners stood at the mouth, the beams of the early morning sun shone full on her noble face and figure. I waved my hand towards her. She slowly lifted up her right arm. I turned away, and never saw Isopel Berners again.

The fourth morning afterwards I received from her a letter in which she sent me a lock of her hair and told me she was just embarking for a distant country, never expecting to see her own again. She concluded with this piece of advice: "Fear God, and take your own part. Fear God, young man, and never give in! The world can bully, and is fond, if it sees a man in a kind of difficulty, of getting about him, calling him coarse names; but no sooner sees the man taking off his coat and offering to fight, than it scatters, and is always civil to him afterwards."

III. - Horse-Keeping and Horse-Dealing

After thus losing Isopel, I decided to leave the dingle, and having, by Mr. Petulengro's kind advice, become the possessor of a fine horse, I gave my pony and tinker's outfit to the gipsies, and set out on the road, whereupon I was to meet with strange adventures.

At length, awaiting the time when I could take my horse to Horncastle Fair and sell him, I settled at a busy inn on the high-road, where, in return for board and lodging for myself and horse, I had to supervise the distribution of hay and corn in the stables, and to keep an account thereof. The old ostler, with whom I was soon on excellent terms, was a regular character - a Yorkshireman by birth, who had seen a great deal of life in the vicinity of London. He had served as ostler at a small inn at Hounslow, much frequented by highway men. Jerry Abershaw and Richard Ferguson, generally called Galloping Dick, were capital customers then, he told me, and he had frequently drunk with them in the corn-room. No man could desire jollier companions over a glass of "summut"; but on the road they were terrible, cursing and swearing, and thrusting the muzzles of their pistols into people's mouths.

From the old ostler I picked up many valuable hints about horses.

"When you are a gentleman," said he, "should you ever wish to take a journey on a horse of your own, follow my advice. Before you start, merely give your horse a couple of handfuls of corn, and a little water - somewhat under a quart. Then you may walk and trot for about ten miles till you come to some nice inn, where you see your horse led into a nice stall, telling the ostler not to feed him till you come. If the ostler happens to have a dog, say what a nice one it is; if he hasn't, ask him how he's getting on, and whether he ever knew worse times; when your back's turned, he'll say what a nice gentleman you are, and how he thinks he has seen you before.

"Then go and sit down to breakfast, and before you have finished, get up and go and give your horse a feed of corn; chat with the ostler two or three minutes till your horse has taken the shine out of his corn, which will prevent the ostler taking any of it away when your back's turned. Then go and finish your breakfast, and when you have finished your breakfast, when you have called for the newspaper, go and water your horse, letting him have about one pailful; then give him another feed of corn, and enter into discourse with the ostler about bull-baiting, the prime minister, and the like; and when your horse has once more taken the shine out of his corn, go back to your room and your newspaper. Then pull the bell-rope and order in your bill, which you will pay without counting it up - supposing you to be a gentleman. Give the waiter sixpence, and order out your horse, and when your horse is out, pay for the corn, and give the ostler a shilling, then mount your horse and walk him gently for five miles.

"See to your horse at night, and have him well rubbed down. Next day, you may ride your horse forty miles just as you please, and those will bring you to your journey's end, unless it's a plaguey long one. If so, never ride your horse more than five-and-thirty miles a day, always seeing him well fed, and taking more care of him than yourself, seeing as how he is the best animal of the two."

The stage-coachmen of that time - low fellows, but masters of driving - were made so much fuss of by sprigs of nobility and others that their brutality and rapacious insolence had reached a climax. One, who frequented our inn, and who was called the "bang-up coachman," was a swaggering bully, who not only lashed his horses unmercifully, but in one or two instances had beaten in a barbarous manner individuals who had quarrelled with him. One day an inoffensive old fellow of sixty, who refused him a tip for his insolence, was lighting his pipe, when the coachman struck it out of his mouth.

The elderly individual, without manifesting much surprise, said: "I thank you; and if you will wait a minute I'll give you a receipt for that favour." Then, gathering up his pipe, and taking off his coat and hat, he advanced towards the coachman, holding his hands crossed very near his face.

The coachman, who expected anything but such a movement, pointed at him derisively with his finger. The next moment, however, the other had struck aside the hand with his left fist, and given him a severe blow on the nose with his right, which he immediately followed by a left-hand blow in the eye. The coachman endeavoured to close, but his foe was not to be closed with; he did not shift or dodge about, but warded off the blows of his opponent with the greatest sangfroid, always using the same guard, and putting in short, chopping blows with the quickness of lightning. In a very few minutes the coachman was literally cut to pieces. He did not appear on the box again for a week, and never held up his head afterwards.

Reaching Horncastle at last, I managed to get quarters for myself and horse, and, by making friends with the ostlers and others, picked up more hints.

"There a'n't a better horse in the fair," said one companion to me, "and as you are one of us, and appear to be all right, I'll give you a piece of advice - don't take less than a hundred and fifty for him."

"Well," said I, "thank you for your advice; and, if successful, I will give you 'summut' handsome."

"Thank you," said the ostler; "and now let me ask whether you are up to all the ways of this here place?"

"I've never been here before," said I.

Thereupon he gave me half a dozen cautions, one of which was not to stop and listen to what any chance customer might have to say; and another, by no manner of means to permit a Yorkshireman to get up into the saddle. "For," said he, "if you do, it is three to one that he rides off with the horse; he can't help it. Trust a cat amongst cream, but never trust a Yorkshireman on the saddle of a good horse."

"A fine horse! A capital horse!" said several of the connoisseurs. "What do you ask for him?"

"A hundred and fifty pounds," said I.

"Why, I thought you would have asked double that amount! You do yourself injustice, young man."

"Perhaps I do," said I; "but that's my affair. I do not choose to take more."

"I wish you would let me get into the saddle," said the man. "The horse knows you, and therefore shows to more advantage; but I should like to see how he would move under me, who am a stranger. Will you let me get into the saddle, young man?"

"No," said I.

"Why not?" said the man.

"Lest you should be a Yorkshireman," said I, "and should run away with the horse."

"Yorkshire?" said the man. "I am from Suffolk - silly Suffolk - so you need not be afraid of my running away with him."

"Oh, if that's the case," said I, "I should be afraid that the horse would run away with you!"

Threading my way as well as I could through the press, I returned to the yard of the inn, where, dismounting, I stood still, holding the horse by the bridle. A jockey, who had already bargained with me, entered, accompanied by another individual.

"Here is my lord come to look at the horse, young man," said the jockey. My lord was a tall figure of about five-and-thirty. He had on his head a hat somewhat rusty, and on his back a surtout of blue rather worse for wear. His forehead, if not high, was exceedingly narrow; his eyes were brown, with a rat-like glare in them. He had scarcely glanced at the horse when, drawing in his cheeks, he thrust out his lips like a baboon to a piece of sugar.

"Is this horse yours?" said he.

"It's my horse," said I. "Are you the person who wishes to make an honest penny by it?" alluding to a phrase of the jockey's.

"How?" said he, drawing up his head with a very consequential look, and speaking with a very haughty tone. "What do you mean?" We looked at each other full in the face. "My agent here informs me that you ask one hundred and fifty pounds, which I cannot think of giving. The horse is a showy horse. But look, my dear sir, he has a defect here, and in his near foreleg I observe something which looks very much like a splint! Yes, upon my credit, he has a splint, or something which will end in one! A hundred and fifty pounds, sir! What could have induced you to ask anything like that for this animal? I protest - Who are you, sir? I am in treaty for this horse," said he, turning to a man who had come up whilst he was talking, and was now looking into the horse's mouth.

"Who am I?" said the man, still looking into the horse's mouth. "Who am I? his lordship asks me. Ah, I see, close on five," said he, releasing the horse's jaws.

Close beside him stood a tall youth in a handsome riding dress, and wearing a singular green hat with a high peak.

"What do you ask for him?" said the man.

"A hundred and fifty," said I.

"I shouldn't mind giving it to you," said he.

"You will do no such thing," said his lordship. "Sir," said he to me, "I must give you what you ask."

"No," said I; "had you come forward in a manly and gentlemanly manner to purchase the horse I should have been happy to sell him to you; but after all the fault you have found with him I would not sell him to you at any price."

His lordship, after a contemptuous look at me and a scowl at the jockey, stalked out.

"And now," said the other, "I suppose I may consider myself as the purchaser of this here animal for this young gentleman?"

"By no means," said I. "I am utterly unacquainted with either of you."

"Oh, I have plenty of vouchers for my respectability!" said he. And, thrusting his hand into his bosom, he drew out a bundle of notes. "These are the kind of things which vouch best for a man's respectability."

"Not always," said I; "sometimes these kind of things need vouchers for themselves." The man looked at me with a peculiar look. "Do you mean to say that these notes are not sufficient notes?" said he; "because, if you do, I shall take the liberty of thinking that you are not over civil; and when I thinks a person is not over and above civil I sometimes takes off my coat; and when my coat is off - - "

"You sometimes knock people down," I added. "Well, whether you knock me down or not, I beg leave to tell you that I am a stranger in this fair, and shall part with the horse to nobody who has no better guarantee for his respectability than a roll of bank-notes, which may be good or not for what I know, who am not a judge of such things."

"Oh, if you are a stranger here," said the man, "you are quite right to be cautious, queer things being done in this fair. But I suppose if the landlord of the house vouches for me and my notes you will have no objection to part with the horse to me?"

"None whatever," said I.

Thereupon I delivered the horse to my friend the ostler. The landlord informed me that my new acquaintance was a respectable horse-dealer and an intimate friend of his, whereupon the purchase was soon brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

IV. - A Recruiting Sergeant

Leaving Horncastle the next day, I bent my steps eastward, and on the following day I reached a large town situated on a river. At the end of the town I was accosted by a fiery-faced individual dressed as a recruiting sergeant.

"Young man, you are just the kind of person to serve the Honourable East India Company."

"I had rather the Honourable Company should serve me," said I.

"Of course, young man. Take this shilling; 'tis service money. The Honourable Company engages to serve you, and you the Honourable Company."

"And what must I do for the Company?"

"Only go to India - the finest country in the world. Rivers bigger than the Ouse. Hills higher than anything near Spalding. Trees - you never saw such trees! Fruits - you never saw such fruits!"

"And the people - what kind are they?"

"Pah! Kauloes - blacks - a set of rascals! And they calls us lolloes, which, in their beastly gibberish, means reds. Why do you stare so?"

"Why," said I, "this is the very language of Mr. Petulengro."

"I say, young fellow, I don't like your way of speaking; you are mad, sir. You won't do for the Honourable Company. Good-day to you!"

"I shouldn't wonder," said I, as I proceeded rapidly eastward, "if Mr. Petulengro came from India. I think I'll go there."

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