by Arthur Conan
“It cannot be done. People really
would not stand it. I know because I have
tried.”—Extract from an unpublished paper upon
George Borrow and his writings.
Yes, I tried and my experience may interest other
people. You must imagine, then, that I am soaked in George
Borrow, especially in his Lavengro and his Romany
Rye, that I have modelled both my thoughts, my speech and my
style very carefully upon those of the master, and that finally I
set forth one summer day actually to lead the life of which I had
read. Behold me, then, upon the country road which leads
from the railway-station to the Sussex village of Swinehurst.
As I walked, I entertained myself by recollections of the
founders of Sussex, of Cerdic that mighty sea-rover, and of Ella
his son, said by the bard to be taller by the length of a
spear-head than the tallest of his fellows. I mentioned the
matter twice to peasants whom I met upon the road. One, a
tallish man with a freckled face, sidled past me and ran swiftly
towards the station. The other, a smaller
and older man, stood entranced while I recited to him that
passage of the Saxon Chronicle which begins, “Then came
Leija with longships forty-four, and the fyrd went out against
him.” I was pointing out to him that the Chronicle
had been written partly by the monks of Saint Albans and
afterwards by those of Peterborough, but the fellow sprang
suddenly over a gate and disappeared.
The village of Swinehurst is a straggling line of
half-timbered houses of the early English pattern. One of
these houses stood, as I observed, somewhat taller than the rest,
and seeing by its appearance and by the sign which hung before it
that it was the village inn, I approached it, for indeed I had
not broken my fast since I had left London. A stoutish man,
five foot eight perhaps in height, with black coat and trousers
of a greyish shade, stood outside, and to him I talked in the
fashion of the master.
“Why a rose and why a crown?” I asked as I pointed
He looked at me in a strange manner. The man’s
whole appearance was strange. “Why not?” he
answered, and shrank a little backwards.
“The sign of a king,” said I.
“Surely,” said he. “What else should
we understand from a crown?”
“And which king?” I asked.
“You will excuse me,” said he, and tried to
“Which king?” I repeated.
“How should I know?” he asked.
“You should know by the rose,” said I,
“which is the symbol of that Tudor-ap-Tudor, who, coming
from the mountains of Wales, yet seated his posterity upon the
English throne. Tudor,” I continued, getting between
the stranger and the door of the inn, through which he appeared
to be desirous of passing, “was of the same blood as Owen
Glendower, the famous chieftain, who is by no means to be
confused with Owen Gwynedd, the father of Madoc of the Sea, of
whom the bard made the famous cnylyn, which runs in the Welsh as
I was about to repeat the famous stanza of Dafydd-ap-Gwilyn
when the man, who had looked very fixedly and strangely at me as
I spoke, pushed past me and entered the inn.
“Truly,” said I aloud, “it is surely Swinehurst
to which I have come, since the same means the grove of the
hogs.” So saying I followed the fellow into the bar
parlour, where I perceived him seated in a corner with a large
chair in front of him. Four persons of various degrees were
drinking beer at a central table, whilst a small man of active
build, in a black, shiny suit, which seemed to have seen much
service, stood before the empty fireplace.
Him I took to be the landlord, and I asked him what I should have
for my dinner.
He smiled, and said that he could not tell.
“But surely, my friend,” said I, “you can
tell me what is ready?”
“Even that I cannot do,” he answered; “but I
doubt not that the landlord can inform us.” On this
he rang the bell, and a fellow answered, to whom I put the same
“What would you have?” he asked.
I thought of the master, and I ordered a cold leg of pork to
be washed down with tea and beer.
“Did you say tea and beer?” asked the
“For twenty-five years have I been in business,”
said the landlord, “and never before have I been asked for
tea and beer.”
“The gentleman is joking,” said the man with the
“Or else—” said the elderly man in the
“Or what, sir?” I asked.
he—“nothing.” There was something very
strange in this man in the corner—him to whom I had spoken
“Then you are joking,” said the landlord.
I asked him if he had read the works of my master,
George Borrow. He said that he had not. I told him
that in those five volumes he would not, from cover to cover,
find one trace of any sort of a joke. He would also find
that my master drank tea and beer together. Now it happens
that about tea I have read nothing either in the sagas or in the
bardic cnylynions, but, whilst the landlord had departed to
prepare my meal, I recited to the company those Icelandic stanzas
which praise the beer of Gunnar, the long-haired son of Harold
the Bear. Then, lest the language should be unknown to some
of them, I recited my own translation, ending with the
If the beer be small, then let the mug be
I then asked the company whether they went to church or to
chapel. The question surprised them, and especially the
strange man in the corner, upon whom I now fixed my eye. I
had read his secret, and as I looked at him he tried to shrink
behind the clock-case.
“The church or the chapel?” I asked him.
“The church,” he gasped.
“Which church?” I asked.
He shrank farther behind the clock. “I have never
been so questioned,” he cried.
I showed him that I knew his secret, “Rome was not built
in a day,” said I.
“He! He!” he cried. Then, as I turned
away, he put his head from behind the clock-case and tapped his
forehead with his forefinger. So also did the man with the
shiny coat, who stood before the empty fireplace.
Having eaten the cold leg of pork—where is there a
better dish, save only boiled mutton with capers?—and
having drunk both the tea and the beer, I told the company that
such a meal had been called “to box Harry” by the
master, who had observed it to be in great favour with commercial
gentlemen out of Liverpool. With this information and a
stanza or two from Lopez de Vega I left the Inn of the Rose and
Crown behind me, having first paid my reckoning. At the
door the landlord asked me for my name and address.
“And why?” I asked.
“Lest there should be inquiry for you,” said the
“But why should they inquire for me?”
“Ah, who knows?” said the landlord, musing.
And so I left him at the door of the Inn of the Rose and Crown,
whence came, I observed, a great tumult of laughter.
“Assuredly,” thought I, “Rome was not built in
Having walked down the main street of Swinehurst, which, as I
have observed, consists of half-timbered buildings in the ancient
style, I came out upon the country road, and proceeded to
look for those wayside adventures, which are, according to the
master, as thick as blackberries for those who seek them upon an
English highway. I had already received some boxing lessons
before leaving London, so it seemed to me that if I should chance
to meet some traveller whose size and age seemed such as to
encourage the venture I would ask him to strip off his coat and
settle any differences which we could find in the old English
fashion. I waited, therefore, by a stile for any one who
should chance to pass, and it was while I stood there that the
screaming horror came upon me, even as it came upon the master in
the dingle. I gripped the bar of the stile, which was of
good British oak. Oh, who can tell the terrors of the
screaming horror! That was what I thought as I grasped the
oaken bar of the stile. Was it the beer—or was it the
tea? Or was it that the landlord was right and that other,
the man with the black, shiny coat, he who had answered the sign
of the strange man in the corner? But the master drank tea
with beer. Yes, but the master also had the screaming
horror. All this I thought as I grasped the bar of British
oak, which was the top of the stile. For half an hour the
horror was upon me. Then it passed, and I was left feeling
very weak and still grasping the oaken bar.
I had not moved from the stile, where I had been seized
by the screaming horror, when I heard the sound of steps behind
me, and turning round I perceived that a pathway led across the
field upon the farther side of the stile. A woman was
coming towards me along this pathway, and it was evident to me
that she was one of those gipsy Rias, of whom the master has said
so much. Looking beyond her, I could see the smoke of a
fire from a small dingle, which showed where her tribe were
camping. The woman herself was of a moderate height,
neither tall nor short, with a face which was much sunburned and
freckled. I must confess that she was not beautiful, but I
do not think that anyone, save the master, has found very
beautiful women walking about upon the high-roads of
England. Such as she was I must make the best of her, and
well I knew how to address her, for many times had I admired the
mixture of politeness and audacity which should be used in such a
case. Therefore, when the woman had come to the stile, I
held out my hand and helped her over.
“What says the Spanish poet Calderon?” said
I. “I doubt not that you have read the couplet which
has been thus Englished:
Oh, maiden, may I humbly pray
That I may help you on your way.”
The woman blushed, but said nothing.
“Where,” I asked, “are the Romany
chals and the Romany chis?”
She turned her head away and was silent.
“Though I am a gorgio,” said I, “I know
something of the Romany lil,” and to prove it I sang the
Coliko, coliko saulo wer
Apopli to the farming ker
Will wel and mang him mullo,
Will wel and mang his truppo.
The girl laughed, but said nothing. It appeared to me
from her appearance that she might be one of those who make a
living at telling fortunes or “dukkering,” as the
master calls it, at racecourses and other gatherings of the
“Do you dukker?” I asked.
She slapped me on the arm. “Well, you are a
pot of ginger!” said she.
I was pleased at the slap, for it put me in mind of the
peerless Belle. “You can use Long Melford,”
said I, an expression which, with the master, meant fighting.
“Get along with your sauce!” said she, and struck
“You are a very fine young woman,” said I,
“and remind me of Grunelda, the daughter of Hjalmar, who
stole the golden bowl from the King of the Islands.”
She seemed annoyed at this. “You keep a
civil tongue, young man,” said she.
“I meant no harm, Belle. I was but comparing you
to one of whom the saga says her eyes were like the shine of sun
This seemed to please her, for she smiled. “My
name ain’t Belle,” she said at last.
“What is your name?”
“The name of a queen,” I said aloud.
“Go on,” said the girl.
“Of Charles’s queen,” said I, “of whom
Waller the poet (for the English also have their poets, though in
this respect far inferior to the Basques)—of whom, I say,
Waller the poet said:
That she was Queen was the Creator’s act,
Belated man could but endorse the fact.”
“I say!” cried the girl. “How you do
“So now,” said I, “since I have shown you
that you are a queen you will surely give me a
choomer”—this being a kiss in Romany talk.
“I’ll give you one on the ear-hole,” she
“Then I will wrestle with you,” said I.
“If you should chance to put me down, I will do penance by
teaching you the Armenian alphabet—the very word alphabet,
as you will perceive, shows us that our letters came from Greece. If, on the other hand, I should chance to
put you down, you will give me a choomer.”
I had got so far, and she was climbing the stile with some
pretence of getting away from me, when there came a van along the
road, belonging, as I discovered, to a baker in Swinehurst.
The horse, which was of a brown colour, was such as is bred in
the New Forest, being somewhat under fifteen hands and of a
hairy, ill-kempt variety. As I know less than the master
about horses, I will say no more of this horse, save to repeat
that its colour was brown—nor indeed had the horse or the
horse’s colour anything to do with my narrative. I
might add, however, that it could either be taken as a small
horse or as a large pony, being somewhat tall for the one, but
undersized for the other. I have now said enough about this
horse, which has nothing to do with my story, and I will turn my
attention to the driver.
This was a man with a broad, florid face and brown
side-whiskers. He was of a stout build and had rounded
shoulders, with a small mole of a reddish colour over his left
eyebrow. His jacket was of velveteen, and he had large,
iron-shod boots, which were perched upon the splashboard in front
of him. He pulled up the van as he came up to the stile
near which I was standing with the maiden who had come from the
dingle, and in a civil fashion he asked me if I could
oblige him with a light for his pipe. Then, as I drew a
matchbox from my pocket, he threw his reins over the splashboard,
and removing his large, iron-shod boots he descended on to the
road. He was a burly man, but inclined to fat and scant of
breath. It seemed to me that it was a chance for one of
those wayside boxing adventures which were so common in the olden
times. It was my intention that I should fight the man, and
that the maiden from the dingle standing by me should tell me
when to use my right or my left, as the case might be, picking me
up also in case I should be so unfortunate as to be knocked down
by the man with the iron-shod boots and the small mole of a
reddish colour over his left eyebrow.
“Do you use Long Melford?” I asked.
He looked at me in some surprise, and said that any mixture
was good enough for him.
“By Long Melford,” said I, “I do not mean,
as you seem to think, some form of tobacco, but I mean that art
and science of boxing which was held in such high esteem by our
ancestors, that some famous professors of it, such as the great
Gully, have been elected to the highest offices of the
State. There were men of the highest character amongst the
bruisers of England, of whom I would particularly mention Tom of
Hereford, better known as Tom Spring, though his
father’s name, as I have been given to understand, was
Winter. This, however, has nothing to do with the matter in
hand, which is that you must fight me.”
The man with the florid face seemed very much surprised at my
words, so that I cannot think that adventures of this sort were
as common as I had been led by the master to expect.
“Fight!” said he. “What
“It is a good old English custom,” said I,
“by which we may determine which is the better
“I’ve nothing against you,” said he.
“Nor I against you,” I answered. “So
that we will fight for love, which was an expression much used in
olden days. It is narrated by Harold Sygvynson that among
the Danes it was usual to do so even with battle-axes, as is told
in his second set of runes. Therefore you will take off
your coat and fight.” As I spoke, I stripped off my
The man’s face was less florid than before.
“I’m not going to fight,” said he.
“Indeed you are,” I answered, “and this
young woman will doubtless do you the service to hold your
“You’re clean balmy,” said Henrietta.
“Besides,” said I, “if you will not fight me
for love, perhaps you will fight me for this,” and I held out a sovereign. “Will you hold
his coat?” I said to Henrietta.
“I’ll hold the thick ’un,” said
“No, you don’t,” said the man, and put the
sovereign into the pocket of his trousers, which were of a
corduroy material. “Now,” said he, “what
am I to do to earn this?”
“Fight,” said I.
“How do you do it?” he asked.
“Put up your hands,” I answered.
He put them up as I had said, and stood there in a sheepish
manner with no idea of anything further. It seemed to me
that if I could make him angry he would do better, so I knocked
off his hat, which was black and hard, of the kind which is
“Heh, guv’nor!” he cried, “what are
you up to?”
“That was to make you angry,” said I.
“Well, I am angry,” said he.
“Then here is your hat,” said I, “and
afterwards we shall fight.”
I turned as I spoke to pick up his hat, which had rolled
behind where I was standing. As I stooped to reach it, I
received such a blow that I could neither rise erect nor yet sit
down. This blow which I received as I stooped for his
billy-cock hat was not from his fist, but from his iron-shod
boot, the same which I had observed upon the splashboard.
Being unable either to rise erect
or yet to sit down, I leaned upon the oaken bar of the stile and
groaned loudly on account of the pain of the blow which I had
received. Even the screaming horror had given me less pain
than this blow from the iron-shod boot. When at last I was
able to stand erect, I found that the florid-faced man had driven
away with his cart, which could no longer be seen. The
maiden from the dingle was standing at the other side of the
stile, and a ragged man was running across the field from the
direction of the fire.
“Why did you not warn me, Henrietta?” I asked.
“I hadn’t time,” said she. “Why
were you such a chump as to turn your back on him like
The ragged man had reached us, where I stood talking to
Henrietta by the stile. I will not try to write his
conversation as he said it, because I have observed that the
master never condescends to dialect, but prefers by a word
introduced here and there to show the fashion of a man’s
speech. I will only say that the man from the dingle spoke
as did the Anglo-Saxons, who were wont, as is clearly shown by
the venerable Bede, to call their leaders ’Enjist and
’Orsa, two words which in their proper meaning signify a
horse and a mare.
“What did he hit you for?” asked the man from the dingle. He was exceedingly ragged, with
a powerful frame, a lean brown face, and an oaken cudgel in his
hand. His voice was very hoarse and rough, as is the case
with those who live in the open air. “The bloke hit
you,” said he. “What did the bloke hit you
“He asked him to,” said Henrietta.
“Asked him to—asked him what?”
“Why, he asked him to hit him. Gave him a thick
’un to do it.”
The ragged man seemed surprised. “See here,
gov’nor,” said he. “If you’re
collectin’, I could let you have one half-price.”
“He took me unawares,” said I.
“What else would the bloke do when you bashed his
hat?” said the maiden from the dingle.
By this time I was able to straighten myself up by the aid of
the oaken bar which formed the top of the stile. Having
quoted a few lines of the Chinese poet Lo-tun-an to the effect
that, however hard a knock might be, it might always conceivably
be harder, I looked about for my coat, but could by no means find
“Henrietta,” I said, “what have you done
with my coat?”
“Look here, gov’nor,” said the man from the
dingle, “not so much Henrietta, if it’s the same to
you. This woman’s my wife. Who are you to call
I assured the man from the dingle that I had meant no
disrespect to his wife. “I had thought she was a
mort,” said I; “but the ria of a Romany chal is
always sacred to me.”
“Clean balmy,” said the woman.
“Some other day,” said I, “I may visit you
in your camp in the dingle and read you the master’s book
about the Romanys.”
“What’s Romanys?” asked the man.
Myself. Romanys are gipsies.
The Man. We ain’t gipsies.
Myself. What are you then?
The Man. We are hoppers.
Myself (to Henrietta). Then how did you
understand all I have said to you about gipsies?
Henrietta. I didn’t.
I again asked for my coat, but it was clear now that before
offering to fight the florid-faced man with the mole over his
left eyebrow I must have hung my coat upon the splashboard of his
van. I therefore recited a verse from Ferideddin-Atar, the
Persian poet, which signifies that it is more important to
preserve your skin than your clothes, and bidding farewell to the
man from the dingle and his wife I returned into the old English
village of Swinehurst, where I was able to buy a second-hand
coat, which enabled me to make my way to the station, where I
should start for London. I could not but remark with some
surprise that I was followed to the station by many of
the villagers, together with the man with the shiny coat, and
that other, the strange man, he who had slunk behind the
clock-case. From time to time I turned and approached them,
hoping to fall into conversation with them; but as I did so they
would break and hasten down the road. Only the village
constable came on, and he walked by my side and listened while I
told him the history of Hunyadi Janos and the events which
occurred during the wars between that hero, known also as
Corvinus or the crow-like, and Mahommed the second, he who
captured Constantinople, better known as Byzantium, before the
Christian epoch. Together with the constable I entered the
station, and seating myself in a carriage I took paper from my
pocket and I began to write upon the paper all that had occurred
to me, in order that I might show that it was not easy in these
days to follow the example of the master. As I wrote, I
heard the constable talk to the station-master, a stout,
middle-sized man with a red neck-tie, and tell him of my own
adventures in the old English village of Swinehurst.
“He is a gentleman too,” said the constable,
“and I doubt not that he lives in a big house in London
“A very big house if every man had his rights,”
said the station-master, and waving his hand he signalled that
the train should proceed.