I kept my promise to White Will and went to visit him and his family on Banstead Downs to hear from him how he had fared in the Epsom police courts. The visit was memorable because of the death of a Gypsy child and the preparations being made for her funeral. At the time of my going to Banstead, the winter had increased in severity and it was very cold. Yet, nevertheless, a Gypsy day, filled with colour and mystery. An immense crimson front sun i na sky grey and cobwebby as soiled net curtains. The dowland silvered with melted rime and swirling mists thereover, lying low and indicating that they would later form a blanket of fog. Everywhere there was robin song.
As I walked the downs in my search for the Gypsies – I trailing them only by the marks left by the caravan wheels: difficult search on the frost-hardened ground – I observed how thoroughly the Surrey Council had performed their anti-Gypsy work. On every likely stretch of good grazing for the Romany horses were to be found the eye-offending notices prohibiting the staying of the caravans. Good evidence of the persecution of a minority by the powerful.
Finally I found the encampment upon a high ridge of the downs; a row of caravans silhouetted against the grey-green winter sky. When I approached closer I found also, on a lower level of the ground, and extraordinary fire, formed of a great towering pile of brushwood, it being as tall and pyramidal as a Red Indian wigwam, with a host of the scarlet fire-horses assembled there, prancing and roaring admist the towering wood as they devoured it. It was the greatest Gypsy fire that my eyes had looked upon. Also, I found one of the greatest Gypsy gatherings, for I counted over fifty dark forms, mostly squatting upon the ground, gathered in a wide ring around the fire.
Charlotte Smith came forward to welcome me, she declaring: “Feyther’s so glad about the letter you wrote they gravvers. Us is all awaitin’ to rocker wi’ you. Feyther’s not about just now, ‘e’s out wi’ the trolli (flat-cart, Surrey Gypsy dialect), lookin’ fer you. ‘Ow did you find us now?”
I followed the weddin’ wheels an’ hoped they’d be your folks’.”
At my use of the Surrey Gypsy word for the van-tracks, which Charlotte’s family had taught me, the young woman laughed merrily, then she pressed her hand over her lips to end her mirth.
“We all be togeno (sad) thisaday. A chauvi’s dead in ‘orspital, an’ the men are sittin’ up o’ nights fer the comfertin’ of ‘er togeno bitta mulo (sad little spirit/ghost).”
The words of Charlotte explained the extraordinary fire and the large number of Gypsies gathered there: the men so sombre in black and grey, all without their bright coloured dicklos, resembled a circle of crows resting on the ground amidst the swirling mists. The firelight painted with rose glow the grim brown faces, and as Charlotte led me towards the gathering, I recognized some of the Cooper men who had shared the wild ride with me on Levi Cooper’s flat-cart many years ago. They also knew me, and called out in welcome, and them made a place for me in their circle.
The Gypsies told me about the death of a five-year-old girl child whose lungs had been affected by the winter damp and frosts. They had not thought to use the cow-dung treatment with which White Will had had such complete success on his own child. White Will had not been available at the commencement of the illness, nor had there been cows in any of the near fields. The parents had been unable to get the inflammation away from the child’s lungs, and had sought hospital treatment for her, and she had died. I thought to myself that the modern hospital, with its over-heated rooms and closed windows and chlorinated drinking water and over-use of chemical drugs, was not the place for any creature from the open-air life. I found the same with the animals of the woods and meadows: in the veterinary places they languished and faded. But I said nothing of my thoughts. I merely spoke agreement with the several men who gave opinion that: “Mebbe the chauvi be better done by to be safe and warm in hev (Heaven, also grave), wot wi’ the winter almost upon us an’ the world to-day bein’ sech a kawlo place for us needis (Gypsies, Surrey dialect).”
“Mebbe, my friends,” I agreed, “mebbe.”
I studied well the group of adult Gypsies and their crowd of children. Winter was upon the downs, it had come some weeks ago, bringing its hereditary fogs and frosts and baneful-looking moon. The winter solstice itself was soon approaching. The Gypsies had been ordered to leave their Banstead site; they knew not where to go. Their clothing was true raggle-taggle, their faces pallid and their bodies over-lean from lack of nourishment; their wagons miserable living-places, mostly carts converted into caravans by their own carpentry: canvas roofs were prevalent. Only the horses appeared well fed, for the kawlo rat (black blood Gypsies) know well how to nurse a horse on herbs and rough grazing. And yet the group held fiercely to their traditional life; the great fire that they had created seemed to be a defiance of the modern world’s disapproving and condemnatory attitude to the Romany life. “Free as the smoke of our fires,” say the Gypsies of themselves.
And yet, how true of that gathering of Gypsies, at that bitter hour for them, were words of Matthew Arnold: sensitive, often prophetic, writer, creator of the immortal Scholar Gypsy poem, who in another poem spoke thus of the Romany people:
The dingy tents are pitch’d; the fires
Give to the wind their wavering spires,
In dark knots crowd round the wild flame
Their children, as when first they came;
They see their shackled beasts again
Move, browsing, up the grey wall’d lane.
Signs are not wanting which might rase
The ghost in them of former days –
Signs are not wanting if they would;
Suggestive to disquietitude.
They must live still – and yet God knows,
Crowded and keen the country grows;
It seems as if in their decay,
The law grew stronger every day.
And they will rub through if they can,
Tomorrow on the shelf-same plan,
Till death arrive to supersede,
For them, vicissitude and need.
“My beloved Gypsies,” I lamented in silence. “My own nomad people. What is to become of you all in these unnatural times? ‘Crowded and keen’ indeed the country grows. I shall think of you all when I am away in freer lands, and shall worry and sorrow over you. When I learn of times of long rain and snow upon England, I shall lament, remembering your raggle-taggle clothes and your wretched wagons.”
My drear thoughts were ended by the appearance of White Will, coming scurrying mouse-like across the field. His face was less white than usual, due doubless to the beer which he had been taking in quantity ever since his victory in the police court: a long-lasting celebration of the triumph of justice, and also the money that he had saved thereby.
After he had spoken his thanks to me, White Will told me further concerning the vigil and funeral for the dead Gypsy child. A three-night’s vigil was being kept, and this was the last night, and the body itself was due from the hospital a goodly distance away. Hourly they were expecting its arrival. The Gypsies had made the coffin themselves from oakwood, the wood well seasoned by their tears in the making. The child’s few toys were already within the coffin – true to gypsy tradition, to prevent haunting. A ragged doll – rags wound around painted clothes pegs – a rattle made from a tin half-filled with pebbles, and a little wooden horse that her father had carved for her from hollywood.
The hospital were sending the corpse to stay with the Gypsies until the burial. A place by the fire had already been allotted. The men were to burn candles – sheltered with glass jars – upon the coffin throughout the night, and were to chanter (sing) to the little mulo (spirit, ghost) for the comforting of it. Bill Smith, White Will’s son, could play well upon the fiddle, and such an instrument had been sent for from a neighbour Gypsy camp. Song and music were kindly things for the mulo as it flitted around its former body, preparatory for the long flight to hev (heaven). Hev of the Gypsies! Duvelesko bauro poov, God’s great field. Flower-strewn and watered by many springs and brooks of sweet waters, no doubt, and filled with hares and rabbits for their dogs, and sweet bite for their horses, and not one policeman or interfering government official allowed anywhere, and always a great sun by day and a full moon by night….
When on other occasions I have been lamenting the present-day treatment of the English Romanies, gawje sympathizers have asked me of what suggestions I would make for improving Gypsy living. “What do they want of us – your Romanies?” And I have replied thus: “Firstly to tbe left alone, not interfered with. They are a race as secretive as the hares and the golden plover, they want to be left alone to wander in the quiet places as yet not ruined by man and his improving and anti-Nature works. They want to have their gatherings at horse-fairs and sucklike without the police attendant upon them (remember their treatment for the Epsom Derby day, a traditional event for the English Romanies – their caravans and tents now banned permanently from the race-course). They want to be allowed to rest their caravans by the roadside for a week or more if they wish, not to be harried and hounded everywhere with a one-to three-day limit: they want peace from the police hounds and the packs of council officials who come in their wake. Finally they want some sympathetic feeling from the gawje. Because the Gypsy is an outlaw and has retained his freedom in a world shackled by the chains of commerce and so-called progress, often the gawje is subconsciously envious of the brown people ever travelling “over the hills an’ far away”, and thus resentful, and sees only the dark side of Gypsy character, not the golden. Of the Gypsies the gawjes say: “thieves and vagabonds’: they see not the clever brown hands so skilled in field work and handicrafts, nor the big and generous hearts which succour all who are distressed and needy – as many a tramp, deserting soldier, fleeing prisoner, will give evidence: they see not the most high education in the book of Nature, how skilfully the Romanies read it’s pages, knowing the stars, the wild flowers, and creatures, the telling of the weather, the culling and eating of wild produce, all of which is almost lost to the modern settled gawje: they see not the music in the Gypsies, in their singing voices and dancing feet and their playing of instruments – be it only a Romany child beating upon a tin drum or piping on a flute made from a reed: the gawje sees only darkness around the Gypsy, and yet in truth there is golden brightness, more brightness than in most races, although the quality often has become hidden and tarnished like old gold, and needs the rub of kindness and sympathy to shine forth again.