Pages 83-89

CHAPTER V

 

More Raggle-Taggle in Surrey

 

Two families of Gypsies hatched their vardos and tans in the river meadows beyond Leatherhead. They came four days before I was to leave England for Mexico; my Mexican journey coming within the three months foretold by the Gypsy Clara Lee.

The two families were Surrey Gypsies, Coopers and Kings. They were wild-looking, wild-wayed people, and very good company. Every hour that I spent with them was all pleasure for me. I first saw sign of their arrival in the presence of a tilt-cart and tall skewbald pony, driven by a slight fair-complexioned Gypsy man of wild appearance, pelting down the Dorking road at dangerous speed. Accompanying the man was a small dark-haired attractive boy, wearing a woman’s black beaver-felt hat, such as many of the Surrey Gypsy women elders possess. Also in the cart was a great shaggy, black hound of greyhound build, much resembling a pure-bred Scottish deerhound. The speeding horse and cart and the Gypsies made a picturesque group, further picture being given by a rain of autumn leaves descending upon the travellers from boughs of the beech trees overhanging the road; for it was the month of November. I wondered if perhaps the Gypsies were merely passing through the town bound for some more distant place.

The following morning was a Saturday, and amongst the shopping crowd – always filling the narrow leatherhead pavements – I beheld two Gypsy women, both of them carrying babes, swinging in shawls at their sides. The women were very beautiful. It was not merely the imagination of my own eyes, which always look in love upon the Romanichals, for I heard remarks from people in the street as they passed near the Gypsies. “Gypsies! Gypsies!” they whispered at each other. “Good-looking people aren’t they!” Good-looking! Oh, beautiful! Beautiful! Like two bright-plumed birds-of-paradise passing down the street.

The Gypsies were not out hawking, but were buying groceries and bread which they were piling into their deep square hawking baskets. That convinced me that they were hatching (camping or staying) in or near Leatherhead. I went up to them and greeted them in Romany and asked them where were their vans? They were very friendly and told me that they were staying for a few days in the fields by the river below Young Street. They asked me to visit them there.

“Tooti-aveli sig (You come soon)” they besought of me, laughing shrilly because we used Romany words together and our voices were loud, and the shoppers in the street stared and wondered at the strange language.

The two women were related by marriage, Emily Cooper was married to Rachel’s brother Levi; Rachel was married to Ephram King – the dun-coloured man with the boy and the black deerhound whom I had seen driving the flat-cart earlier in the week. Emily was the most beautiful English Romany woman I have seen. Her face was so golden and glowing it well resembled a bunch of kil-koori (buttercup) flowers. Her long almond-shaped eyes were of intense blue and were brilliant things in her golden face. Her face was full and rounded, very firm-fleshed, with regular and beauteous features. Her abundant hair, looped low over her strong neck, was of such darkness that it was truly purple of hue, like the “blackheart” berries (bilberries) which the Gypsy women and children gather on the moors and commons in summertime. She was wearing a blouse of sun-faded blue satin, in parts the color of her eyes, a long skirt of bracken-tan, very ragged and patched, over which was a black cotton apron, which was equipped on its innerside with the habitual mongerin’ pootsi (begging-pocket) – so she told me on my asking her. Her shoes were battered objects with down-trodden heals, all the polish long washed away by rains and mud. But she walked in her mean shoes with the abundant grace general to the puro Romany. Her body was well-built, heavy almost, but graceful of movement.

Rachel was most unlike Emily, beautiful also, but of a different, almost sinister, beauty. She was tall and straight as a pillar of ebony, and was dressed entirely in black, her only show of Gypsy colour being a men-weriga (necklace) of coral beads, which I could see were true coral. She was the darkest English Romany woman I have beheld, just as her brother Levi, Emily’s husband, was the darkest man. Later I was to meet with more of Rachel’s brothers, Abraham, Reuben, Isaac and Ezra, all of exceptional swarthiness, the family indeed being known to the other Gypsies as the Kawlo (black) Lees or Coopers, they inheriting their darkness from their mother Selina. Her face was brown-skinned, and flat; flat except for very prominent cheek-bones which were raised and sharp like rocks upon her face. Her hair was as purple-dark as Emily’s, and equally abundant, but worn straight, hanging down on to her small high breasts. Rachel’s clothes were yet more raggle-taggle than her sister-in-law’s, but she walked the Leatherhead pavement with the pride and carriage of a princess of Egypt. It was understandable that people should stay to stare after her. Unfortunately Rachel was very deaf, and could only understand speech shouted into her ear.

Other Surrey Gypsies have told me that Emily and Rachel are haughty and unfriendly, “keepin’ theysels to theysels o’er much”; but that I did not find. My impression was one of friendliness, sympathy, abundant humour, and also intelligence. Two of the finest women of any race whom I have known.

In the afternoon I went on my promised visit to the caravans, taking with me the traditional dino (gift), which is a part of Romany courtesy. It being apple and pear time, I loaded my baskets with those fruits, fragrant as Lady Autumn’s own breathing, and glowing like diminutive harvest moons piled there against the rush sides of the baskets. It was an autumn afternoon of radiant sunlight, with orchestra of robin song and the golden and the red-hued leaves blowing from the trees and piling upon the brown waiting earth in sunset swathes. High in the hedgerows trailed the flowers of travellers-joy like soiled snow, mingling with the ruby berries of wild rose and hawthorn. A perfect setting for the Gypsy vardos and the black tans and the grazing horses, the camp pitch being a strip of grass alongside the river, with behind the caravans wide fields stretching away to the blue hills of Surrey. The fields were all gilded from the stubble of the wheat which recently had been harvested there, and their borders flamed with corn-poppies.

The barking of the camp dogs told of my arrival and brought pleased, shouted greetings, from Emily and Rachel. Rachel came climbing up through the reeds and willow clumps at the river’s edge, she accompanied by her two young sons. She was still clad in the black clothing of the morning, but her corals were replaced with a dicklo the redness of the poppy flowers. She held a long willow-wand with string and hook attached, with which she had been fishing. Emily was seated on the grass by her caravan, suckling a black-haired babe. There were poppies swaing all around her, so that the Gypsy woman sat within a circle of crimson flowers. Her white-skinned breast, so heavy with her abundance of rich milk and most fairly patterned with the purple tracings of the milk veins, contrasted strangely with the sun darkened skin of the woman’s throat, face and hands. Her feet then were naked of any covering.

“Besh opre the chor (sit upon the grass),” Emily called to me, and with her free hand made the poppies lay flattened into a silken crimson cushion for my coming. I sat myself at the Gypsy’s side and placed the fruit gift at her bare feet. Rachel joined us, and to the sweet song of the sucking babe we talked together of the life that was past and the possibilities of the life ahead. Being Romany women there was much talk about love: and what better talk could there be.

Emily was happily wedded with her dark Levi, but Rachel at the time was in ill-humour with her light Ephram. “Hokki akei! Hokki akei! Miri, kuhti pen (Look here! my sweet sister),” Rachel warned me. “Ne’er should a dark wed wi’ a fair, ne’er do th two be well swisht (married, surrey Gypsy word). There allus do be warrin’ one agen t’other. Shoon! (listen to me) Shoon! Ke mandi, miri kushti pen.”

“Aavali! (yes) Aavali, Rachel,” I said. “Me shoon.”

The camp site was close by the public footpath, and it was being a Saturday afternoon there were many passers-by. Emily, sitting facing the path, continued to suckle her child, giving no attention to the stranger people, giving all her attention to me. Gypsy women are never self-conscious about the breastfeeding of their babes in public. The mares of the Gypsies suckle their foals in the fields, the lurcher bitches their whelps, why not the mothers their babes? This natural simplicity which for me is such an endearing and praiseworthy quality in the human, was likewise noticeable amongst the peasant people of the Arab countries and Mexico. I shall long remember at a village Catholic midnight mass on a Christmas eve in Mexico, the Indian women suckling their babes in the church as they sang their praises in commemoration of the birth of another babe who drank first of his mother’s milk when in a stable.

After a while the women’s husbands came to join us; they, well knowing that they had been figuring much in our conversation, looked therefore constrained of face, which ill-suited the proud stallion body of Emily’s Levi. Rachel’s husband, Ephram King, I had seen already in Leatherhead. He was not an attractive-looking man apart from the interest of his wild-seeming appearance. His face had a weasel cast, and the impression that he gave was one of poverty of body and mind. The rich Gypsy blood seemed to have been diluted in that man’s veins. His body was thin and undeveloped, and his colouring of hair and flesh a uniform dun. But who can judge well and fairly a human character from mere physical appearance? Doubtless the Gypsy had his share of worthiness; for I heard some years later that Rachel was well reconciled to her man and had borne him another son. I think that my admiration for Rachel would have prejudiced my eyes, for I was wanting no lesser man that an Gypsy price for the dark princess of Egypt.

Levi Cooper, Emily’s husband was a man of picturesque and unusual appearance and obvious power of character, a typical example of the famed family of the black Lees. Levi was wearing a cloth cap, from beneath which streamed long locks of his charcoal black hair. His lean brown face, notable as the face of Rachel for its flatness and the prominent cheekbones, was very baleno (hairy) with its growth of black beard and the long moustaches about his strong-lipped, fierce-looking mouth. He was without a shirt, and his ragged tweed jacket failed to meet over his great hairy chest, and was belted with the twisted cord of a driving-whip, such as George Nicholson had taught me to plait from a length of strong string. The legs of his trousers came no further than the calves of his long powerful legs. He wore great clumping boots caked with clay and horse-dung. In his hand was a long chookni (driving whip) the throng blowing in the autumn wind. I thought Emily well mated: in the arms of that man she would enjoy a wild storm of Gypsy love. No wonder that Emily’s beauty blossomed so greatly and her face was golden colour of kil-koori flowers.

Levi talked with me concerning horses. He was proud that he was not a mere trader in horses but also bred and broke them himself. He had trained horses for circuses. The group of us then discussed herbal medicine for equine ailments. Levi’s favourite remedy was the mallow plant, which he found of use for the relief of almost all general horse complaints with the exception of worms, for which he employed the tops of green broom – before flowering. He was scornful concerning the gawje way of breaking horses, and he told me how he and other Gypsy horsemen achieve this. The unbroken animal is merely roped to one fully broken, which is ridden by a Gypsy. The Gypsy will then leap from the broken horse on to the back of the roped divio and thereupon fight the animal to a standstill and thus into temporary submission. A few further days of such training and the animal will be fully broken.

When the two husbands had left us, they harnessing a showy skewbald to the flat-cart and driving away across the field at fierce speed – Levi was without doubt the maddest horseman with whom I have been acquainted – Emily, Rachel and I continued to talk about medicinal herbs. Emily sang the praises of those in general use with the Surrey Gypsies; mallow, plantain and dock, all for the healing of wounds and bruises; dandelion, hops and toadflax for the cure of liver ailments, coltsfoot for coughs, yarrow and sorrel for fevers, nettle cresses and meadowsweet for blood-cleansing, and then teas of flowers for good cheer, marigold, cowslip, elder-blossom, speedwell and wildrose.
I told the sisters concerning herbal love potions, marigold flowers and water-mint, bark strips of common ash, and berries of the rowan tree. Then there are also the dew gathered from the leaf cups of the teasel plant, pollen shaken from hazel catkins and collected from the pistils of the autumn crocuses, walnut kernels ground and mixed into little cakes of flour, samphire pulled fresh from the sea rocks, and seeds of the yellow horned-poppy. We were nearing the end of such talk when another Gypsy man approached us, he being Ruben, though he took the name of Joe or Joseph, brother to Levi and Rachel.

He was a Gypsy of short stature, noticeable in contrast to the unusual tallness of the rest of Selina’s children. He wore ordinary clothing, not Gypsy: brown felt hat of trilby shape, balanced on the back of his head; semi-clean collar and a crumpled magenta tie, brown suit which was not even ragged. Only his boots with their abundant covering of clay and their laces of old knotted string were not similar to the town man’s. His face, however, bore the stamp of the Romany, in its dark weathering and wind and sun patterning of wrinkles despite the man’s youthfulness – he not having more than twenty odd years. The brilliance of the black eyes was Gypsy too, and above all the hair. For the hat was but balanced on the thick crop of wonderful hair, the same black-purple, bilberry-fruits indeed, hue of Emily and Rachel, yet more magnificent, shining and glistening like starling wings in the sun, so that at times the very blackness appeared to contain with its depths all colours. I looked in fascination at the Gypsy’s hair, and he, sensing my admiration, removed his hat, throwing it down amongst the poppies.

“I don’t like to see our men a-wearin’ corlers an’ ties,” then said Emily of her brother-in-law. “It don’t be natteral-like. Dicklos (neck scarves) belongs to our men.”

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