Gypsy Glimpes by 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.