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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

George Borrow (1803–1881)

Three Thimbles and a Pea

From “Lavengro”

A MAN emerged from the tent, bearing before him a rather singular table. It appeared to be of white deal, was exceedingly small at the top, and with very long legs. At a few yards from the entrance he paused and looked round, as if to decide on the direction which he should take. Presently, his eye glancing on me as I lay upon the ground, he started, and appeared for a moment inclined to make off as quick as possible, table and all. In a moment, however, he seemed to recover assurance, and, coming up to the place where I was, the long legs of the table projecting before him, he cried, “Glad to see you here, my lord!”

“Thank you,” said I; “it’s a fine day.”

“Very fine, my lord. Will your lordship play? Them that finds, wins—them that don’t finds, loses.”

“Play at what?” said I.

“Only at the thimble and pea, my lord.”

“I never heard of such a game.”

“Didn’t you? Well, I’ll soon teach you,” said he, placing the table down. “All you have to do is to put a sovereign down on my table, and to find the pea, which I put under one of my thimbles. If you find it—and it is easy enough to find it—I give you a sovereign besides your own; for them that finds, wins.”

“And them that don’t find, loses,” said I. “No, I don’t wish to play.”

“Why not, my lord?”

“Why, in the first place, I have no money.”

“Oh, you have no money! That, of course, alters the case. If you have no money, you can’t play. Well, I suppose I must be seeing after my customers,” said he, glancing over the plain.

“Good day,” said I.

“Good day,” said the man slowly, but without moving, and as if in reflection. After a moment or two, looking at me inquiringly, he added, “Out of employ?”

“Yes,” said I, “out of employ.”

The man measured me with his eye as I lay on the ground. At length he said, “May I speak a word or two to you, my lord?”

“As many as you please,” said I.

“Then just come a little out of hearing, a little farther on the grass, if you please, my lord.”

“Why do you call me my lord?” said I, as I arose and followed him.

“We of the thimble always calls our customers lords,” said the man. “But I won’t call you such a foolish name any more. Come along.”

The man walked along the plain till he came to the side of a dry pit, when, looking round to see that no one was nigh, he laid his table on the grass, and, sitting down with his legs over the side of the pit, he motioned me to do the same. “So you are in want of employ?” said he, after I had sat down beside him.

“Yes,” said I, “I am very much in want of employ.”

“I think I can find you some.”

“What kind?” said I.

“Why,” said the man, “I think you would do to be my bonnet.”

“Bonnet,” said I; “what is that?”

“Don’t you know? However, no wonder, as you had never heard of the thimble-and-pea game; but I will tell you. We of the game are very much exposed. Folks, when they have lost their money, as those who play with us mostly do, sometimes uses rough language, calls us cheats, and sometimes knocks our hats over our eyes; and what’s more, with a kick under our table, causes the top deals to fly off. This is the third table I have used this day, the other two being broken by uncivil customers. So we of the game generally like to have gentlemen go about with us to take our part, and encourage us, though pretending to know nothing about us. For example, when the customer says, ‘I’m cheated,’ the bonnet must say, ‘No, you a’n’t; it is all right.’ Or when my hat is knocked over my eyes, the bonnet must square, and say, ‘I never saw the man before in all my life, but I won’t see him ill-used.’ And when they kicks at the table, the bonnet must say, ‘I won’t see the table ill-used, such a nice table, too; besides, I want to play myself.’ And then I would say to the bonnet, ‘Thank you, my lord, them that finds, wins.’ And then the bonnet plays, and I lets the bonnet win.”

“In a word,” said I, “the bonnet means the man who covers you, even as the real bonnet covers the head.”

“Just so,” said the man; “I see you are awake, and would soon make a first-rate bonnet.”

“What would the wages be?” I demanded.

“Why, to a first-rate bonnet, as I think you would prove, I could afford to give from forty to fifty shillings a week.”

“Is it possible?” said I.

“Good wages, a’n’t they?” said the man….

“I find no fault with the wages,” said I, “but I don’t like the employ.”

“Not like bonneting?” said the man. “Ah, I see, you would like to be principal. Well, a time may come—those long white fingers of yours would just serve for the business.”

“Is it a difficult one?” I demanded.

“Why, it is not very easy. Two things are needful—natural talent and constant practice. But I’ll show you a point or two connected with the game,” and, placing his table between his knees as he sat over the side of the pit, he produced three thimbles, and a small brown pellet, something resembling a pea. He moved the thimble and pellet about, now placing it to all appearance under one, and now under another. “Under which is it now?” he said at last. “Under that,” said I, pointing to the lowermost of the thimbles, which, as they stood, formed a kind of triangle. “No,” said he, “it is not; but lift it up.” And, when I lifted up the thimble, the pellet, in truth, was not under it. “It was under none of them,” said he; “it was pressed by my little finger against my palm.” And then he showed me how he did the trick, and asked me if the game was not a funny one; and, on my answering in the affirmative, he said, “I am glad you like it; come along and let us win some money.”

Thereupon, getting up, he placed the table before him, and was moving away; observing, however, that I did not stir, he asked me what I was staying for. “Merely for my own pleasure,” said I; “I like sitting here very well.” “Then you won’t close?” said the man. “By no means,” I replied; “your proposal does not suit me.” “You may be principal in time,” said the man. “That makes no difference,” said I; and, sitting with my legs over the pit, I forthwith began to decline an Armenian noun. “That a’n’t cant,” said the man; “no, nor gipsy, either. Well, if you won’t close, another will; I can’t lose any more time,” and forthwith he departed.

And after I had declined four Armenian nouns, of different declensions, I rose from the side of the pit, and wandered about amongst the various groups of people scattered over the green. Presently I came to where the man of the thimbles was standing, with the table before him, and many people about him. “Them who finds, wins, and them who can’t find, loses,” he cried. Various individuals tried to find the pellet, but all were unsuccessful, till at last considerable dissatisfaction was expressed, and the terms rogue and cheat were lavished upon him. “Never cheated anybody in all my life!” he cried; and, observing me at hand, “Didn’t I play fair, my lord?” he inquired. But I made no answer. Presently some more played, and he permitted one or two to win, and the eagerness to play with him became greater. After I had looked on for some time, I was moving away. Just then I perceived a short, thick personage, with a staff in his hand, advancing in a great hurry; whereupon, with a sudden impulse, I exclaimed:

  • “Shoon thimble-engro;
  • Avella gorgio!”
  • The man, who was in the midst of his pea-and-thimble process, no sooner heard the last word of the distich, than he turned an alarmed look in the direction of where I stood. Then, glancing around, and perceiving the constable, he slipped forthwith his pellet and thimbles into his pocket, and, lifting up his table, he cried to the people about him, “Make way!” With a motion with his head to me, as if to follow him, he darted off with a swiftness which the short, pursy constable could by no means rival. And whither he went, or what became of him, I know not, inasmuch as I turned away in another direction.