Home  »  library  »  prose  »  At the Horse-Fair

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

At the Horse-Fair

By George Borrow (1803–1881)

From ‘Lavengro’

“WHAT horse is that?” said I to a very old fellow, the counterpart of the old man on the pony, save that the last wore a faded suit of velveteen, and this one was dressed in a white frock.

“The best in mother England,” said the very old man, taking a knobbed stick from his mouth, and looking me in the face, at first carelessly, but presently with something like interest; “he is old like myself, but can still trot his twenty miles an hour. You won’t live long, my swain; tall and overgrown ones like thee never do: yet, if you should chance to reach my years, you may boast to thy great-grand-boys, thou hast seen Marshland Shales.”

Amain I did for the horse what I would neither do for earl or baron, doffed my hat; yes! I doffed my hat to the wondrous horse, the fast trotter, the best in mother England; and I too drew a deep ah! and repeated the words of the old fellows around. “Such a horse as this we shall never see again: a pity that he is so old.”

Now, during all this time I had a kind of consciousness that I had been the object of some person’s observation; that eyes were fastened upon me from somewhere in the crowd. Sometimes I thought myself watched from before, sometimes from behind; and occasionally methought that if I just turned my head to the right or left, I should meet a peering and inquiring glance; and indeed, once or twice I did turn, expecting to see somebody whom I knew, yet always without success; though it appeared to me that I was but a moment too late, and that some one had just slipped away from the direction to which I turned, like the figure in a magic lantern. Once I was quite sure that there were a pair of eyes glaring over my right shoulder; my attention, however, was so fully occupied with the objects which I have attempted to describe, that I thought very little of this coming and going, this flitting and dodging of I knew not whom or what. It was after all a matter of sheer indifference to me who was looking at me. I could only wish whomsoever it might be to be more profitably employed, so I continued enjoying what I saw; and now there was a change in the scene: the wondrous old horse departed with his aged guardian; other objects of interest are at hand. Two or three men on horseback are hurrying through the crowd; they are widely different in their appearance from the other people of the fair—not so much in dress, for they are clad something after the fashion of rustic jockeys, but in their look: no light-brown hair have they, no ruddy cheeks, no blue quiet glances belong to them; their features are dark, the locks long, black, and shining, and their eyes are wild; they are admirable horsemen, but they do not sit the saddle in the manner of common jockeys, they seem to float or hover upon it like gulls upon the waves; two of them are mere striplings, but the third is a very tall man with a countenance heroically beautiful, but wild, wild, wild. As they rush along, the crowd give way on all sides, and now a kind of ring or circus is formed, within which the strange men exhibit their horsemanship, rushing past each other, in and out, after the manner of a reel, the tall man occasionally balancing himself upon the saddle, and standing erect on one foot. He had just regained his seat after the latter feat, and was about to push his horse to a gallop, when a figure started forward close from beside me, and laying his hand on his neck, and pulling him gently downward, appeared to whisper something into his ear; presently the tall man raised his head, and scanning the crowd for a moment in the direction in which I was standing, fixed his eyes full upon me; and anon the countenance of the whisperer was turned, but only in part, and the side-glance of another pair of wild eyes was directed towards my face; but the entire visage of the big black man, half-stooping as he was, was turned full upon mine.

But now, with a nod to the figure who had stopped him, and with another inquiring glance at myself, the big man once more put his steed into motion, and after riding round the ring a few more times, darted through a lane in the crowd, and followed by his two companions, disappeared; whereupon the figure who had whispered to him, and had subsequently remained in the middle of the space, came towards me, and cracking a whip which he held in his hand so loudly that the report was nearly equal to that of a pocket-pistol, he cried in a strange tone:—

“What! the sap-engro? Lor! the sap-engro upon the hill!”

“I remember that word,” said I, “and I almost think I remember you. You can’t be—”

“Jasper, your pal! Truth, and no lie, brother.”

“It is strange that you should have known me,” said I. “I am certain, but for the word you used, I should never have recognized you.”

“Not so strange as you may think, brother: there is something in your face which would prevent people from forgetting you, even though they might wish it; and your face is not much altered since the time you wot of, though you are so much grown. I thought it was you, but to make sure I dodged about, inspecting you. I believe you felt me, though I never touched you; a sign, brother, that we are akin, that we are dui palor—two relations. Your blood beat when mine was near, as mine always does at the coming of a brother; and we became brothers in that lane.”

“And where are you staying?” said I: “in this town?”

“Not in the town; the like of us don’t find it exactly wholesome to stay in towns: we keep abroad. But I have little to do here—come with me, and I’ll show you where we stay.”

We descended the hill in the direction of the north, and passing along the suburb reached the old Norman bridge, which we crossed; the chalk precipice, with the ruin on its top, was now before us; but turning to the left we walked swiftly along, and presently came to some rising ground, which ascending, we found ourselves upon a wild moor or heath.

“You are one of them,” said I, “whom people call—”

“Just so,” said Jasper; “but never mind what people call us.”

“And that tall handsome man on the hill, whom you whispered: I suppose he’s one of ye. What is his name?”

“Tawno Chikno,” said Jasper, “which means the small one; we call him such because he is the biggest man of all our nation. You say he is handsome—that is not the word, brother; he’s the beauty of the world. Women run wild at the sight of Tawno. An earl’s daughter, near London—a fine young lady with diamonds round her neck—fell in love with Tawno. I have seen that lass on a heath, as this may be, kneel down to Tawno, clasp his feet, begging to be his wife—or anything else—if she might go with him. But Tawno would have nothing to do with her: ‘I have a wife of my own,’ said he, ‘a lawful Romany wife, whom I love better than the whole world, jealous though she sometimes be.’”

“And is she very beautiful?” said I.

“Why, you know, brother, beauty is frequently a matter of taste; however, as you ask my opinion, I should say not quite so beautiful as himself.”

We had now arrived at a small valley between two hills, or downs, the sides of which were covered with furze; in the midst of this valley were various carts and low tents forming a rude kind of encampment; several dark children were playing about, who took no manner of notice of us. As we passed one of the tents, however, a canvas screen was lifted up, and a woman supported upon a crutch hobbled out. She was about the middle age, and besides being lame, was bitterly ugly; she was very slovenly dressed, and on her swarthy features ill-nature was most visibly stamped. She did not deign me a look, but addressing Jasper in a tongue which I did not understand, appeared to put some eager questions to him.

“He’s coming,” said Jasper, and passed on. “Poor fellow,” said he to me, “he has scarcely been gone an hour, and she is jealous already. Well,” he continued, “what do you think of her? you have seen her now, and can judge for yourself—that ’ere woman is Tawno Chikno’s wife!”

We went to the farthest of the tents, which stood at a slight distance from the rest, and which exactly resembled the one which I have described on a former occasion; we went in and sat down, one on each side of a small fire which was smoldering on the ground; there was no one else in the tent but a tall tawny woman of middle age, who was busily knitting. “Brother,” said Jasper, “I wish to hold some pleasant discourse with you.”

“As much as you please,” said I, “provided you can find anything pleasant to talk about.”

“Never fear,” said Jasper; “and first of all we will talk of yourself. Where have you been all this long time?”

“Here and there,” said I, “and far and near, going about with the soldiers; but there is no soldiering now, so we have sat down, father and family, in the town there.”

“And do you still hunt snakes?” said Jasper.

“No,” said I, “I have given up that long ago; I do better now: read books and learn languages.”

“Well, I am sorry you have given up your snake-hunting; many’s the strange talk I have had with our people about your snake and yourself, and how you frightened my father and mother in the lane.”

“And where are your father and mother?”

“Where I shall never see them, brother; at least, I hope so.”

“Not dead?”

“No, not dead; they are bitchadey pawdel.”

“What’s that?”

“Sent across—banished.”

“Ah! I understand; I am sorry for them. And so you are here alone?”

“Not quite alone, brother.”

“No, not alone; but with the rest—Tawno Chikno takes care of you.”

“Takes care of me, brother!”

“Yes, stands to you in the place of a father—keeps you out of harm’s way.”

“What do you take me for, brother?”

“For about three years older than myself.”

“Perhaps; but you are of the gorgios, and I am a Romany Chal. Tawno Chikno take care of Jasper Petulengro!”

“Is that your name?”

“Don’t you like it?”

“Very much, I never heard a sweeter; it is something like what you call me.”

“The horseshoe master and the snake-fellow—I am the first.”

“Who gave you that name?”

“Ask Pharaoh.”

“I would if he were here, but I do not see him.”

“I am Pharaoh.”

“Then you are a king.”

“Chachipen Pal.”

“I do not understand you.”

“Where are your languages? you want two things, brother: mother-sense, and gentle Romany.”

“What makes you think that I want sense?”

“That being so old, you can’t yet guide yourself!”

“I can read Dante, Jasper.”

“Anan, brother.”

“I can charm snakes, Jasper.”

“I know you can, brother.”

“Yes, and horses too; bring me the most vicious in the land, if I whisper he’ll be tame.”

“Then the more shame for you—a snake-fellow—a horse-witch—and a lil-reader—yet you can’t shift for yourself. I laugh at you, brother!”

“Then you can shift for yourself?”

“For myself and for others, brother.”

“And what does Chikno?”

“Sells me horses, when I bid him. Those horses on the chong were mine.”

“And has he none of his own?”

“Sometimes he has; but he is not so well off as myself. When my father and mother were bitchadey pawdel, which, to tell you the truth, they were for chiving wafodo dloovu, they left me all they had, which was not a little, and I became the head of our family, which was not a small one. I was not older than you when that happened; yet our people said they had never a better krallis to contrive and plan for them, and to keep them in order. And this is so well known, that many Romany Chals, not of our family, come and join themselves to us, living with us for a time, in order to better themselves, more especially those of the poorer sort, who have little of their own. Tawno is one of these.”

“Is that fine fellow poor?”

“One of the poorest, brother. Handsome as he is, he has not a horse of his own to ride on. Perhaps we may put it down to his wife, who cannot move about, being a cripple, as you saw.”

“And you are what is called a Gipsy King?”

“Ay, ay; a Romany Chal.”

“Are there other kings?”

“Those who call themselves so; but the true Pharaoh is Petulengro.”

“Did Pharaoh make horse-shoes?”

“The first who ever did, brother.”

“Pharaoh lived in Egypt.”

“So did we once, brother.”

“And you left it?”

“My fathers did, brother.”

“And why did they come here?”

“They had their reasons, brother.”

“And you are not English?”

“We are not gorgios.”

“And you have a language of your own?”


“This is wonderful.”

“Ha, ha!” cried the woman who had hitherto sat knitting at the farther end of the tent without saying a word, though not inattentive to our conversation, as I could perceive by certain glances which she occasionally cast upon us both. “Ha, ha!” she screamed, fixing upon me two eyes which shone like burning coals, and which were filled with an expression both of scorn and malignity,—“it is wonderful, is it, that we should have a language of our own? What, you grudge the poor people the speech they talk among themselves? That’s just like you gorgios: you would have everybody stupid single-tongued idiots like yourselves. We are taken before the Poknees of the gav, myself and sister, to give an account of ourselves. So I says to my sister’s little boy, speaking Romany, I says to the little boy who is with us, ‘Run to my son Jasper and the rest, and tell them to be off: there are hawks abroad.’ So the Poknees questions us, and lets us go, not being able to make anything of us; but as we are going, he calls us back. ‘Good woman,’ says the Poknees, ‘what was that I heard you say just now to the little boy?’ ‘I was telling him, your worship, to go and see the time of day, and to save trouble I said it in our language.’ ‘Where did you get that language?’ says the Poknees. ‘’Tis our own language, sir,’ I tells him: ‘we did not steal it.’ ‘Shall I tell you what it is, my good woman?’ says the Poknees. ‘I would thank you, sir,’ says I, ‘for ’tis often we are asked about it.’ ‘Well, then,’ says the Poknees, ‘it is no language at all, merely a made-up gibberish.’ ‘Oh, bless your wisdom,’ says I with a curtsey, ‘you can tell us what our language is without understanding it!’ Another time we meet a parson. ‘Good woman,’ says he, ‘what’s that you are talking? Is it broken language?’ ‘Of course, your reverence,’ says I, ‘we are broken people; give a shilling, your reverence, to the poor broken woman.’ Oh, these gorgios! they grudge us our very language!”

“She called you her son, Jasper?”

“I am her son, brother.”

“I thought you said your parents were …”

“Bitchadey pawdel; you thought right, brother. This is my wife’s mother.”

“Then you are married, Jasper?”

“Ay, truly; I am husband and father. You will see wife and chabó anon.”

“Where are they now?”

“In the gav, penning dukkerin.”

“We were talking of languages, Jasper.”

“True, brother.”

“Yours must be a rum one.”

“’Tis called Romany.”

“I would gladly know it.”

“You need it sorely.”

“Would you teach it me?”

“None sooner.”

“Suppose we begin now?”

“Suppose we do, brother.”

“Not whilst I am here,” said the woman, flinging her knitting down, and starting upon her feet; “not whilst I am here shall this gorgio learn Romany. A pretty manœuvre, truly; and what would be the end of it? I goes to the farming ker with my sister, to tell a fortune, and earn a few sixpences for the chabés. I sees a jolly pig in the yard, and I says to my sister, speaking Romany, ‘Do so and so,’ says I; which the farming man hearing, asks what we are talking about. ‘Nothing at all, master,’ says I; ‘something about the weather,’—when who should start up from behind a pale, where he has been listening, but this ugly gorgio, crying out, ‘They are after poisoning your pigs, neighbor,’ so that we are glad to run, I and my sister, with perhaps the farm-engro shouting after us. Says my sister to me, when we have got fairly off, ‘How came that ugly one to know what you said to me?’ Whereupon I answers, ‘It all comes of my son Jasper, who brings the gorgio to our fire, and must needs be teaching him.’ ‘Who was fool there?’ says my sister. ‘Who indeed but my son Jasper,’ I answers. And here should I be a greater fool to sit still and suffer it; which I will not do. I do not like the look of him; he looks over-gorgeous. An ill day to the Romans when he masters Romany; and when I says that, I pens a true dukkerin.”

“What do you call God, Jasper?”

“You had better be jawing,” said the woman, raising her voice to a terrible scream; “you had better be moving off, my gorgio; hang you for a keen one, sitting there by the fire, and stealing my language before my face. Do you know whom you have to deal with? Do you know that I am dangerous? My name is Herne, and I comes of the Hairy Ones!”

And a hairy one she looked! She wore her hair clubbed upon her head, fastened with many strings and ligatures; but now, tearing these off, her locks, originally jet black, but now partially grizzled with age, fell down on every side of her, covering her face and back as far down as her knees. No she-bear of Lapland ever looked more fierce and hairy than did that woman, as standing in the open part of the tent, with her head bent down and her shoulders drawn up, seemingly about to precipitate herself upon me, she repeated again and again—

“My name is Herne, and I comes of the Hairy Ones!”—

“I call God Duvel, brother.”

“It sounds very like Devil.”

“It doth, brother, it doth.”

“And what do you call divine, I mean godly?”

“Oh! I call that duvelskoe.”

“I am thinking of something, Jasper.”

“What are you thinking of, brother?”

“Would it not be a rum thing if divine and devilish were originally one and the same word?”

“It would, brother, it would.”

From this time I had frequent interviews with Jasper, sometimes in his tent, sometimes on the heath, about which we would roam for hours, discoursing on various matters. Sometimes mounted on one of his horses, of which he had several, I would accompany him to various fairs and markets in the neighborhood, to which he went on his own affairs, or those of his tribe. I soon found that I had become acquainted with a most singular people, whose habits and pursuits awakened within me the highest interest. Of all connected with them, however, their language was doubtless that which exercised the greatest influence over my imagination. I had at first some suspicion that it would prove a mere made-up gibberish; but I was soon undeceived. Broken, corrupted, and half in ruins as it was, it was not long before I found that it was an original speech; far more so indeed than one or two others of high name and celebrity, which up to that time I had been in the habit of regarding with respect and veneration. Indeed, many obscure points connected with the vocabulary of these languages, and to which neither classic nor modern lore afforded any clue, I thought I could now clear up by means of this strange broken tongue, spoken by people who dwelt amongst thickets and furze bushes, in tents as tawny as their faces, and whom the generality of mankind designated, and with much semblance of justice, as thieves and vagabonds. But where did this speech come from, and who were they who spoke it? These were questions which I could not solve, and which Jasper himself, when pressed, confessed his inability to answer. “But whoever we be, brother,” said he, “we are an old people, and not what folks in general imagine, broken gorgios; and if we are not Egyptians, we are at any rate Romany Chals!”