On my first evening that I spent with the Smiths they commenced lessons for me in Surrey Gypsy dialect, and many were the curious words that I took down from them to compare later with the standard Romany words and endeavour to trace their origin: a task which fascinated me, I loving foreign languages and words, my father having spoken nine languages, my mother knowing eight. It was a strange speech that the Smith family spoke; much intermixed with mumper patter. I loved my lessons in the firelight, and all of the hours that I spent thus, evening after evening, were notable and memorable ones.
I soon found that White Will was a philosopher, with a powerful sense of justice and a mind rich in natural poetry. It was the poetical element in his character which made him delight in descriptions of the bizarre Gypsies whom I had met, and also the foreign scenes. Places were of especial interest because he possessed the Gypsy travel yearning, and he would beseech me for more and more descriptions, and retelling of many of them. His favorites being: how the spring came in earth-bound rainbows of flowers over the desert and mountains of Mexico and North Africa; the glitter and beauty of Turkey’s Bosphorus and Sea of Marmora; moonlight on Israel’s lake of Galilee; and the way that the sun sets over the coast of Spain and Portugal; a blizzard over Newfoundland.
“Thats rikeno (beautiful).” he’d sigh, “aye, ‘tis wondrous rikeno. You tells things rikeno. ‘Tis the wish o’ we that you travel along o’ we fer awhile. We’d provide fer you an’ you could give our chauvi (children) lessons in readin’ and writin’. ‘Tis our wish.”
I had always then to tell Will that I had little time left in England, because by the mid-spring of the coming year I would be over sea again, heading the coming time for the Orient. But it was a true wish of mine to travel with them one day. That promise seemed to comfort and satisfy him.
For his part Will told to me many picturesque things. Especially accounts of the principal Romany celebrations, horse-races, weddings, births, and the ceremony of deaths. The celebrations seemed to consist mostly of wild drinking and dancing, and from what the Gypsy told me, the drunken frenzy of the men at such times seemed to resemble the sexual madness of camels and elephants – the “must”, when these animals would run amok and nothing could hold or stay them. There were also descriptions of the gentler dancing of the young unmarried men and women at hop-picking times: when wooden boards would be spread over the grass, and by the light of lantern, fire and moon, and to the accompaniment of the mouth-organ and accordion -and sometimes a fiddle- there would be dancing through the night. Not only the Gypsy jigs and step dances, but Romanies dancing with gawjes, performing the old folk dances of the English countryside.
The Smiths also told me much medical lore of the Gypsies, the most memorable account being that of their curing of the seventh child Loowey, when she was dying of pneumonia. The gawje doctor had told the parents that he could do no more for the child and that they must be prepared to lose her during the night. White Will and his fellow Gypsies then decided to take over, and to use the Romany cure of the plastering of the lungs with warm cow dung. That treatment necessitated the covering of the lung areas with warm dung, both front and back of the body, renewing the plaster as soon as it lost its warmth and thus its drawing powers. To have the plaster at its very best the dung should be obtained fresh from the cow. Thus through one afternoon and a whole night the Gypsies chased a herd of cows around the fields in the obtaining of warm dung from them. And when the doctor arrived on the next day, the child, whom he had expected to find dying or dead, was sitting upright on her mother’s lap supping bread and milk. The treatment was then continued in modified form, the dung being obtained in a more simple way from the cow pats in the fields, and heated in tin cans over the fire. The child made a speedy and full recovery from pneumonia. The doctor carefully took down into his note-book all details of the cure – “for future use”, he declared.
Eliza’s sharp tongue was contemptuous when it came to that part of the narritive. She declared: “Could you now, jest could you , see the gawje allowin’ cow stuff to be plastered on their fine bodies. Why, they won’t even dirty their vastis (hands) wi’ poov (earth) wi’out a-pullin a big mooi (face). What do tooti (you) think, now?” she asked of me.
“I don’t really think that I could see the gawje having such treatment,” I agreed. “But I’ve some gawje friends who are as close to the earth as any Romany, and who honour the natural remedies, especially herbs. And many ordinary gawjes do use urine often enough for relief of chilblains.”
“Aye, but not dunnock (cow) water! Their own.”
“Aye,” I agreed further, smiling then to myself at her passion against all except her own kind.
The Smith family did not sit in idleness around their fires in the evening. There was usually peg-making in progress. And it is as peg-makers that I always picture the family: the pale willow pegs and the pale peg-makers.
However, the Smiths did not confine themselves to willow although it predominated in their work; they used also a variety of other woods, hazel, dogwood, ash. They told me that often enough they had skirmishes with the game keepers when cutting their peg sticks in the copses. (Yoggles was their dialect name for keepers.) The girls, too, had been in such fights, the elegant Charlotte being reputed very skilled with her fists, the family saying of her that she was a tatcho cor-mush’ (true boxer-man). The Smiths worked much on the pegging plan of the Coopers and King families whom I had watched at work three years ago in the same river fields. They cut their peeled sticks into even lengths of six inches, then they banded them with tin heated and hammered in the fire. Their hammer they called pogermesti. They hammer-beat the tin upon the tinning block to make the tiny holes for the insertion of the fine nails they called krafnis. After the nailing and splitting of the pegs with the peg knife -koshti chiv- a horn-handled instrument with a metal end resembling in shape the cutter of an old-fashioned tin-opener – the pegs then became the finished articles ready for sale and took the name of fidas. The fidas are then bundled into lots of six, called peg-dolls – and indeed they look like wooden dolls – and are sold to the shops, generally at fourpence a bundle, and at higher cost at the house doors, because hawking is a wearisome business, and severe on shoe leather. In the packing of the peg bundles into the big square hawking baskets with their leather shoulder slings, if one bundle should fall to the ground the family declare in unison, “that one’s sold:: an old Romany superstition.
Often and often I watched the young women go forth on their peg-hawking, the blessing of their parents upon them and their wares. The beautiful Mayday carried her babe at her side, slung through the traditional Romany baby carrier, the roper, a broad sling cut from old carpet lengths, and work across the body and reaching to one hip, the legs of the babe then being placed through the sling, and a shawl worn over all to keep the child in position. When Mayday first showed me her roper , she impulsively pulled it from her body and placed it on me and wished for me soon a child – and, moreover, a Gypsy child. The family teased her, but she was very serious, her face flushed and her eyes shining, she very well returning my deep affection for her.
Frequently I would meet with the peg-sellers in Leatherhead village. I would go then into the shops which they had visited, and there demand pegs, only hand-made Gypsy ones, in order to help forth the trading of my friends. Sometimes the kipsies (baskets) of the peg-sellers would be emptied, all the wares having been sold. Then loaves of white bread would be stacked there instead, and highly coloured cakes, and apples too, purchased with the peg money. Sometimes Lil’ Bill slept in one of the peg baskets.
Mayday’s babe, Lil’ Bill, was a most peculiar infant, with his massive head and ancient-looking face, so fat and white, his general appearance putting me in mind of the small pig in Alice in Wonderland. For the babe had none of his mother’s beauty as yet, her glowing colour had not entered his skin and he possessed the tallow whiteness of the Will Smith brood. The child was passionately loved by his mother. Sweet as a lark her voice would cry to him: “Oh my Lil’ Bill, Lil’ Bill, my wonderful chauvi (child).” And her brilliant lips would kiss the white face. “Ain’t ‘e a lil’ prince now; ain’t the rikeno kralis (beautiful king)?” Answering her own question, she would promptly inform her son triumphantly: “They sez you is like a kralis. They all sez you is.” “They” were the nodding trees and grasses around her caravan, for the talked often with such things being a very true child of Nature, who drank daily from her Mother Earth’s vital breast.
Mayday had run away from her own peopel with scarcely into her fourteenth year. She had left to wed with White Will’s eldest son, choosing a broomstick marriage. Her babe, Lil’ Bill, had been born to her in her sixteenth year, and born dramatically in a Kent strawberry field whilst she had been at work there. Strong, brown, capable, Gypsy hands, stained with strawberry juice, had helped Mayday’s first child into the light of the sun. Mayday panted always for fresh air, and never could abide the door of her vardo to be closed, and it stood wide to the elements even when the snow piled upon her floor.
“Me feyther’s people were tan (tent) people,” she explained. “I’d die if I wuz to be shut in a kair (house) wiv doors an’ winders shutterd as I see the gawjes alivin’. Oh I’m Gawd thankful that I be Gypsy, an’ Lil’ Bill is thankful too.” Mayday was a beautiful charcater.
Long shall I carry in my eyes the picture of her as I saw her one autumn day when the sun was newly risen over the dew-drenched fields. She stood at her vardo door singing to the shining morning. She had garlanded herself, her nut-brown brow and neck, with twines of the blood-red byrony berries from the hedgerows. Lil’ Bill was in her arms, also garlanded, but with the silver tinsel of the flowers of traveler’s joy, for fear that he should harm himself with the eating of byrony fruits. On the babe’s pale head was a diminutive grey hat woven of sparrow feathers; in one hand a clothes-peg.
The pegs dominated the lives of White Will and his family. They were the articles that they made best. White Will told me that when he married Eliza they were very poor, little more than tan-dwellers; they decided to invest in children. To have many children, and bring them up as peg-makers; and that they had accomplished.
The family realized that pegs are a seasonable article of trade, and that the gawje housewife generally dries her clothes indoors when winter winds blow heavy with rain. But when I met the Smiths late in November, the were yet at their peg-making, though often enough the young women returned with the greater portion of their wares unsold.
The son Bill also employed his artistic hands iwt making of artificial flowers of wood, which is another typical Gypsy product. With the same willow boughs from which the pegs were cut, Bill used a peculiar scraping instrument of similar appearance to an apple-corer. That instrument has a center hole lined with sharp metal, and through which are passed the wands of willow. The scraper was then drawn down the wand, causing long streamers of wood to appear and to remain attached to the central layers of the wood; the streamers hanging and curling picturesquely in similar form to the petals of chrysanthemums. Those wood shavings flowers were then dipped into pans of bright vegetable dyes, made from such plant things as bracken leaves, sloe berries, apple, oak and ash bark, knapweed heads and water-lily roots. Sprigs of green box leaves or broom twigs were then wired around the long stems of the wooden flowers. Bill told me that he could also make paper roses, the finished product, when waxed, giving life to the paper roses for years. George Nicholson, by the fireside in the Yorkshire dales, had demonstrated to me the making of paper flowers, roses, and lilies. The flowers-to-be, first cut into long strips of crepe paper, a warm knife or pen-knife blade drawn over the cut petals causing them to curl over in very natural form. The base of the paper blooms then fixed into wire, and the work completed by dipping the flowers into a basin of melted wax candles, coloured the appropriate flower hues with dye. Often the baskets of pale pegs would be made colourful by the addition of bunches of the gaudy artificial flowers laying atop of the peg-bundles.
To illustrate the dominance of the clothes-peg in the life of the English Gypsies, White Will liked to tell a story of a Gypsy woman being found dead in a ditch.
“Ow did they that found the body know that the jumel (married woman) wuz a Romany?” he asked of me. “Guess now.”
I guessed. “Because her face was weather-tanned?”
“Her legs were mottled down the front from wood-fires scorching?”
“Her teeth were stained?”
I could think of no further distinguishing marks for a dead female Gypsy body, other than beauty of shape and wealth of hair. So I said: “I give up then. Tell me the answer, Gypsy man!”
White Will shouted with childlike laughter and pushed his cap to the back of his head and waved his pegging knife at me. “They knew she be a Romany ‘cos she’d a clos’-peg in ‘er pootsie (pocket), see. Chooro jumel (poor woman), if she’d nothing else she got a fidas wiv ‘er.”
“Be it tatcho (true) story?” I asked.
“Naw (no), ‘tis but a Romany riddle.”
“Tis very clever, Will,” I praised, “and a little toogeno (sad).”
“Fivoben (life) be toogeno, ‘cept on fairus divvaws (fair days).” the Gypsy philosophized.
I sat in silence then and listened to the merriment of the fire being fed with flung handfuls of peg-shavings into great rubicund fire-horses. As the white sea-horses of the ocean fling themselves against the black shore rocks, so the crimson steeds of the Gypsy fires do bite at the dark body of the stew-pot hung above them, I thought, as I regarded the wild red flames.
Pegs! Pegs! Pegs! As I watched the nourishing of the fire with the fidas shavings, I realized how closely peg-making was linked with the Gypsy fires. Each helped each other: nothing was wasted, true to the necessitous nature of Gypsy life.