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Gypsy Glimpses by Hesba Stretton

Charles Doe Hesba Stretton


By Hesba Stretton

Published in All The Year Round, May 8, 1869.

The writer, going down to spend last Christmas in one of the midland counties, soon heard that a portion of a true gipsy tribe had encamped in the town, on a spare bit of land usually occupied by travelling circuses and similar troups of performers. They received visitors into their ground at the small charge of threepence each, with the hope of extracting larger sums by coaxing, flattery, or fortune-telling. It was Christmas Eve when we went to see them. It had been the weekly market-day, and the gipsies had made themselves conspicuous in the market by their lavish purchases of the very best and dearest articles in it, and, to the great astonishment of the doubting market-women, by paying indisputably good gold and silver for them. The ground was a dark and muddy field, surrounded by dingy tents, which had, however, a faint glow about them, as if there were plenty of light within. We approached the nearest with cautious and hesitating steps, noiseless on the soft ground; but a voice immediately saluted us with the invitation, "Come in, ladies. Don't be afraid of the poor gipsies." A smooth, pleasant, fawning voice, with flexible tones in it, such as the voices of uneducated people rarely possess, but which seemed to be the common property of all this tribe. We lifted a flap of the tent, and, stooping low, entered. This was the scene we came upon.

A long, low tent, about twenty feet in length, and not more than seven feet in height, and of the same height and breadth from one end to the other. The frame was made of strong hoops placed pretty closely together, with strengthening girders between; it was well covered with good Scotch blankets, which had once been, the gipsy told me, "as white as the driven snow," but which were now brown and weather- stained. A kind of division was made across the middle of the tent. In the front was a space answering to the kitchen and family sitting-room, the centre of which was occupied by a large convenient brazier, filled with glowing charcoal; this had a circular shake-down of straw, perfectly fresh and clean, surrounding it. The further portion of the tent contained a bed, resting on the ground, but piled high with mattresses, and covered with rugs and blankets of the most brilliant colours, scarlet, amber, and blue; two or three boxes, also covered with gorgeous rugs; a set of china richly painted, and a silver tea service; a parrot in a ludicrous brass cage; a picture or two; and a real Christmas tree, with its ordinary accompaniments of oranges and sweetmeats suspended to its decorated branches. A pretty lamp, which hung from the middle of the low roof, shed a brilliant light upon all; while the charcoal fire made the tent even warmer than was desirable on a mild winter's night. The occupants were two only: a widow and her unmarried daughter, who was a handsome and graceful young woman of seven-and-twenty, expressing a lofty contempt for the men of her tribe, and informing us that she put up and took down their large tent, alone, without their aid. These two possessed, besides their tent, a caravan, and the mother held a licence as travelling hawker. The daughter was sitting cross-legged on the straw, with a very large earthenware bowl before her, where she was mixing the ingredients for their Christmas pudding, which seemed likely to be of incredible proportions for a family of two, as she was stoning three pounds of raisins for it. Both were busy, and evidently not in a mood for fortune-telling, or possibly they did not consider us worthy of any exercise of their powers. Very courteous they were, with a finer sort of dignity in their manner than many an English lady would show under a similar infliction—the visit of perfect strangers at a domestic crisis. Two little girls came flying into the tent, with new scarlet frieze frocks in their hands, fresh from the fingers of the dressmaker, and trimmed with black velvet and bugles, which were to be worn for the first time on Christmas Day. I spoke to the old gipsy, of Epping Forest, and she told me, with a touch of poetry in the words, that her daughter was "a real forest bird," having been born in "Grandmother's parlour:" a spot of the old forest now enclosed and built upon. It was easy to trace the same poetic vein in most of them. I told one young mother, with a child in her arms, how we called a little girl belonging to us, Daisy, because she was born when the daisies were springing; her bright black eyes glistened and grew softer as she said it was like her own self, she called her little Oscar "Bee," for when he was a baby, the humming-bees used to fly in and out of her tent, and help to sing him to sleep.

We were asked to visit two or three other tents. One especially, which was even larger and richer than the first, belonging to a married daughter of the old gipsy. The husband was away, and the young woman was sitting alone; she was dressed in an elegant light print dress, and wore gold earrings four inches long, dropping to her shoulders. Amidst the bright-coloured rugs behind her, and upon a pillow as white as snow, lay the curly black head of a little child, sleeping soundly under the full glare of the lamp. She was languidly shredding herbs for the stuffing of a turkey for the morrow's dinner. A large pan was boiling over the charcoal fire, with that placid, equable, gentle bubble, which must give indescribable satisfaction and peace to the heart of a cook; while a delicious savour diffused itself, not too obtrusively, throughout the tent. A large tray of china plates and dishes stood in the background. The whole interior was a picture of extreme comfort, blended with an air of luxury and romance. The rich crimsons, purples, and ambers, of the colouring; the mother's beauty and languid grace; the half hidden face upon the pillow, rosy with sleep; the smokeless fire, with its little bubbling accompaniment of cheery music; these made us linger, till the flap of the tent was gently stirred, and two rough maids-of-all-work entered, who had stolen a few minutes from their lawful business of doing errands, to snatch the brief delight of paying to have their fortunes told.

Of course, we went away, and went with the most innocent and honourable intentions; but finding the ground too muddy in the direction we took, we retraced our steps past the tent, and observed two or three minute peepholes, which proved irresistibly tempting. The young gipsy woman, with her fine air of superiority, was keeping her seat, while one of the rough-looking girls knelt before her, stammering out an apology for her hand not being over clean.

"Never mind, child," said the gipsy, while she read it closely for a minute or two. "You've a high spirit."

"That's true enough," murmured the girl.

"You may be led, but you won't be drove," she continued.

"True," assented the girl.

"You've lost friends by slander."

"That's as true as I'm here tonight!" said the girl, with a look ten times more solemn than if she had been in church.

"Your fortune will be rose by marriage, not by service. There's a J. and a W. thinking about you; which do you prefer?"

The girl simpered, but did not answer rashly; it was a very momentous question.

"I think," she said, bashfully, "I should prefer the J."

"I was just going to tell you," said the fortune-teller, "that there's a ring bought and paid for, as you know nothing about. You'll be a married woman in six months, and have three children, if you mind what you're about."

The girl's face grew radiant with delight, and she rapturously exclaimed to her companion, "It's every word true, Mary." Mary had been to get change, two sixpences for a shilling, and had just brushed past us, too, intent and too impatient to pay any regard to our eaves-dropping. She now entered in her turn, with the same shame-facedness concerning her rough hands. But a dog inside the tent, that had been snarling all the time at our unwarrantable conduct, becoming more uneasy, we decided it was time to go; so we left the field, and the dim tents dotted about it, and returned to the house at which we were visiting, whose occupant had passed sixty long years beneath the same roof-tree; a strange contrast to the vagrant tribe, possessing an abiding place nowhere.

The same striking contrast was presented to us still more forcibly a few days later, when we were invited to spend an evening with the gipsies in the oldest of all the residences in the neighbourhood:—a pile of irregular buildings, set up at different times, with ivied gables, and lattice windows here and there, bearing the name of the Old Hall. It has been a homestead and dwelling-place through many generations, and its thick walls had sheltered a countless succession of guests, before the gipsies were welcomed within its broad, low doorways. It was known that they had received a somewhat similar invitation elsewhere, but that they had been deeply affronted by being gathered into a public room, and mixed up, as they said, with quite a low class of people, and where they had had their tea served to them in delft cups, and with leaden spoons. Their host upon this occasion had assured them that they should meet none but his personal friends, and should be treated as any other of his visitors. He was thoroughly anxious to gratify their feelings, and minister to their aesthetic tastes. The dining-hall—a handsome room, large enough to seat fifty or sixty guests, and with walls painted of a deep rich red—was decorated with evergreens and pictures, and brilliantly lighted up. The tables were adorned with plate, and china, and flowers, but with a more profuse display of provisions than usual; needless as it proved. Some misgiving being felt as to whether they might fail us at the last moment, a servant was sent down to the camp to ascertain the feeling of the gipsies. They were found regaling themselves with tea, and bread and meat; and when expostulated with, they gave the superb reply, "We must not be hungry when we are visiting. We cannot fill ourselves at the Doctor's expense."

They arrived at the Doctor's about half an hour after the appointed time, as if they had the fashionable dread of appearing too eager to accept the hospitality offered to them. The men were a band of strong healthy-looking fellows, mostly dressed like homely country farmers; but with very little of the awkwardness and bashfulness of the lower farmer class. The women retained a more picturesque style of apparel, except in the instance of my unmarried friend of twenty-seven, who was attired in a mauve moire antique gown, with a very long train, a Paisley shawl, and a lace bonnet with flowers in it. The rest of the women were less magnificent, and more gipsy-like; but several of them apologised for their dress, saying that they had never thought they would be treated like real gentlefolks. We mingled with them as much as possible at the tea-table, but the gipsy men kept apart at one end of the room, with a little native wildness in their behaviour. As might have been expected, their appetite was somewhat dull, but they could not resist the temptation of hot buttered cakes. The first who made the discovery of these dainties proclaimed it in a loud voice to some friend at a distance; but that was the sole breach of etiquette which came under my notice. In general they conducted themselves with as much ease and self-possession as if they were accustomed to occupy chairs and tables at every meal; one little boy alone asking to be put down upon the floor to rest his legs. Opposite to me at the tea-table, sat two young women, with low broad intelligent foreheads, black eyes, very brilliant, but with no softness or depth in them, and purplish black hair falling carelessly about the neck and face. Their hands, like those of most of the other women, were small and well-shaped, with long, taper fingers laden with rings, and bearing little trace of rough work. I counted eleven rings on the hand of the girl opposite me; and upon another occasion I asked her to let me look at them. She was then en deshabille in her tent, kneeling at a washing-tub, but she willingly took off a yellow silk handkerchief which covered her neck, and handed it to me with all her jewelry tied in a tight knot at one corner, which had been hidden in her bosom. They were of less value than I had fancied, five of them being memorial rings only.

When tea was over the Doctor had some religious addresses administered to his strange guests, and the gipsies with an honourable exception or two, then looked as if they thought it was time to go home. But as soon as this duty was performed the Doctor, whose desire it was to make the evening thoroughly enjoyable to them, invited them to adjourn to the drawing-room. Then began the real pleasure of the party. The gipsies were taken by surprise; but while the men held back a little, the women and children thronged, with childish delight and curiosity, into the drawing-room.

It was a large low room, such as are to be found in ancient houses only, wainscotted from floor to roof with polished panels of oak, dark with age, which formed an excellent background for throwing out the warm colouring of the gipsy groups. Pictures, mostly fair, sunny, and lightsome, and mirrors in glistening frames, hung against the walls. There were flowers about, and cases of butterflies; and there were couches, ottomans, and chairs of light gay colours. We left these seats to the gipsies, and it was marvellous with what complete dignity and elegance they occupied them. The only trace that they were not "to the manner born," was that one young girl, of fifteen or so, slipped down after a while from her sofa to a more familiar posture on the floor. They amused themselves with the albums, knickknacks, old china, books of pictures, solitaire-boards, and other ornaments of the room, with a very close resemblance to the composure and collectedness of those accustomed to such things all their life. During the early part of the evening they had exchanged remarks with one another very freely in Romany, which was, of course, incomprehensible to us; but upon finding themselves drawing-room guests, they put on an additional politeness of bearing. I heard only one sentence spoken in Romany, which was plainly a sharp rebuke, administered by an elderly woman to a girl who was laughing and talking somewhat too loudly.

The men were not one whit behind the women in good breeding and courtesy. Those who ventured into the drawing-room would rise to offer their seat to a lady whom they might see standing, just as any other gentlemen would. One of them conversed fluently with a lady at the piano concerning the different operas, and asked for airs from La Sonnambula and La Zingara. "Look at Annie with that gipsy fellow!" said Annie's husband. It was a droll sight. The gipsy, a dark sunburnt man, was leaning over her with bent head, his hand upon the music-board, ready to turn the leaves, while she was looking up into his face, smiling and talking as to any other gentleman. He tried his skill when she rose from the piano, and said, regretfully, that their wandering life was altogether inconsistent with pianos.

But most of the men kept in the dining-room, and the large entrance-hall, which contained many fine plants, mosses, and ferns. They specially admired the brilliant scarlet of the poynsittia pulcherrima, and asked to have the name written down for them, in order that the next child born, in the camp might be called after it! They were also much interested in an antique cumbersome suit of armour; but they considered it fair manners to talk Romany in the hall, and did not make any observation upon it in English.

One little living picture will always stay in my memory. A young gipsy mother, with the true Zingara beauty of face, a low olive-tinted forehead, straight eyebrows, glittering eyes, and black hair, with the metallic lustre of a raven's wing upon it. Her dress, a kind of vest of a creamy white, with a skirt of pure simple primary red, neither scarlet nor crimson, of some soft stuff which showed something of the roundness and grace of her limbs. A pair of long earrings fell beside her dusky neck. She had small tawny hands covered with rings. And upon her lap, with its shrewd, small, fortune-telling face lying on her bosom, and its bead-like eyes with very little look of babyhood in them, nestled a child only seven months old, lightly caressed by her bare arm. She was leaning back against the dark panelling, weary with sitting upright so long, but in an attitude of wonderful grace and freedom, while the light of the fire beside her, played about her and her baby.

The most intelligent of the gipsies was a man with the rather unromantic name of Smith. He told me there was scarcely one among them who could read or write. Most of the people in their tribe were related in and out. They belonged to the true gipsy race; not to the gipsies of Epping Forest, who were a mongrel lot, from whom they had been obliged to separate, on account of their low and dirty habits. Only one man in their camp had mixed blood, and the taint had come in so long ago that nobody knew whence it came. The real gipsies were to be known as much by their customs and traditions as by their genealogy. If a dog should lick any plate or vessel, even a brass or copper pan, it was immediately destroyed, or disposed of; no true gipsy would use it again. They called themselves protestants of the Church of England, and were christened, married, and buried, at the church nearest to which their camp happened to be. "It was almost an unheard-of thing," he said, "for a real gipsy to marry a person of another race; but such things might become more common by and by."

This man was a pleasant, straightforward-looking, fair man, with nothing of the gipsy caste of face. His voice was steady and grave, and his manner exceedingly self-respectful. He had three children with him, over whom he kept a strict, but kindly oversight. His wife was at home, taking care of the tent, he said. When it was time for the party to disperse, Smith made a farewell speech to the Doctor, spoken with much dignity and courtesy, assuring him that his people had never spent an evening with so much enjoyment. They took their departure with no awkward hurry or rush, leaving us with the impression that while entertaining gipsies, we had been entertaining gentle-people unawares.

It is but fair to add that the trust reposed in them was not betrayed. Of the many little articles of value, which lay about the Old Hall, ready to pilfering fingers, not one was missed. Our gipsy guests had been strictly honest.

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