The canvas of my memory is crowded with interesting figures whom I met at the Camargue Gypsy fiesta. M., in the center, and then the others arrayed around him: so many wonderful people.
There was Jean Beau-Marie, Gypsy chief from Alsace-Lorraine. A strange figure, sombre as his own shadow. Dressed entirely in black: white-faced, black fanatical eyes, black hair coming low down his neck and in long side chops. His pallid face notable for the sadness of its expression. The Nazis had turned him thus: Jean had seen his brother hanged by them. He carried many papers of honorable mention from the French military in recognition of his work throughout the war. (Very many of the French bohemians, knowing that there was no survival for the Gypsies under the Hitler regime, served with the Maquis, carrying out works of sabotage in which, owing to the elusive nature of the true Romany, they had an especial skill.) Jean was the bell ringer in the church for the Gypsy fiesta, and there was something prophetic in that sombre figure pulling at the ropes which sent the great bells clanging and summoning. Ring out the bad and the cruel: ring in the new and the better.
qJean was a constant friend to me throughout the fiesta. He accepted my love for M. and knew that such an emotion cannot be shared. He escorted me to Gypsy balls and guitar playing contest, and he being one of the most popular and esteemed Gypsies at the fiesta – on account of his anti-Nazi work for his people – introduced me to many of the important Gypsy personages.
Before he left Camargue he placed on my ears a pair of antique Gypsy ear-rings, of beaten copper set with blue stones the color of the kingfishers which flash across the pools in the Camargue marshes. He gave me also a pink double rose which he says will hold its scent for ever. I still have Jean’s rose, many years have passed away since the Camargue fiesta and the flower still retains its lovely perfume.
Dr. Paul Fenet was one of the Gypsy notables to whom Jean introduced me. He was the first Gypsy doctor whom I had met. Jean brought the doctor to me during a guitar-playing contest. and we conversed to that background sound of crying, sighing music. As soon as I beheld the doctor I knew that I was meeting with an outstanding personality and character. The man was crippled and walked with sticks, he always since being attended by a faithful Gypsy servant. His figure was lean and lithe as a Gypsy lurcher dog, and the eyes as keen and quick and far-seeing, though paradoxically they were also mystical of expression. His dress was picturesque: being a tan, wide-brimmed felt hat, khaki twill jacket adorned with a deep collar of natural lambskin, narrow-legged fawn trousers, and bright tan leather shoes, hued and as polished as horse chestnuts newly dropped from their green shells. The wide hat and the lambskin collar well set off the Gypsy’s wonderful face which, in shape and expression, seemed to me to resemble an Eastern prince. Certainly that face was remarkably oriental, with high cheek-bones, strong nose with unusually arched nostrils, and long dark eyes with such attracting express. This Gypsy doctor was famed for his skill not only with human beings – he specializing in psychology – but also in true Gypsy tradition he was an expert in the veterinary care of racehorses and cattle.
The guitar music played on unceasing as the beating of sea waves, and the doctor and I – with Jean beau-Marie often acting as interpreter for my limited French and Spanish – conversed in its ebb and its flow, telling of herbs and their wonderful powers to restore and to cure. The doctor himself had fallen down a mountain ravine when searching for medicinal herbs and been injured so severely that had he been without his herbal knowledge which he had applied to his injuries after rescue, he would have succumbed. As it was he was crippled for life. We talked on into the heart of the dawn: and then when the herbs of the Camargue were opening out their flowers to greet the new light, we went to our beds to close our eyes in long delayed sleep.
Artists and photographers throng at the Les Saintes Maries fiesta, and it was a Gypsy whom I found the most memorable of them all. Pascal Durand is an artist who during the winter lives in Montreuil, Paris, working in oils on the rough but exquisite pencil sketches of Gypsies which he makes during hi spring and sumer travels. For, possessing the true spirit of the Romany, he must escape fro the imprisonment of the towns when the trees show their youngest leaves in each new year. This, he told me, was due to his love for the adventure of the roads and the quiet and the mystery of the mountains, and again for the natural gaiety of the Gypsy people – so different from the artificial gaiety of the town cafes – and their abundant beauty.
Pascal is of half-French half-Hungarian parentage. He has the face and body of a French peasant, an almost simple face except for its good shape of nose and jaw – and the eyes! It was the eyes that revealed his Gypsy blood: wild, flashing, magnificent. When first I beheld him he was sketching a little Gypsy girl, holding her fascinated by his talk; and ever afterwards whenever I met with him he was at work, sketching ceaselessly. At a Gypsy ball I saw an incident which was typical of Pascal and his work. During the ball a fight with knives commenced between two brothers, and all the dancers fled the ballroom, knowing well the danger of such combat; it was extraordinary how quickly the crowded floor of the bar where the dance was being held was emptied. But Pascal stayed on there, busy with his pencil and pad, recording the horrible combat which the Gypsies finished afterwards amongst the tamarisk trees. Along with his painting Pascal possesses a great love for poetry and music and is very knowledgeable concerning the French poets and musicians. He himself resembled a brilliant Gypsy painting, with the bright colors of his ungroomed thick black hair, glittering, restless sea-blue eyes set in ruddy-fleshed face, and then his habitual attire (for I never saw him clothed differently) of ragged brown trousers and sun-faded red shirt, daubed with a multitude of paint-marks so numerous that they made almost a pattern upon the shirt.
There thronged also at the fiesta the fortune-tellers; and Louise Batista attracted me most. Her face was typical, legendary Gypsy with its high cheek-bones, compelling fierce eyes, proud mouth and deep bronze complexion and skin-weathering of life-long exposure to sun and wind. She was a most likable personality with her shrewd young and quick wit and her passionate love for her one daughter which is the flame in her strange and tragic life. I visited Mme Batista daily, loving her conversation and finding much pleasure also merely in regarding her fine proud face. Always she was seated upon the ground, being a true Romany with that close kinship with the earth; and she would croon to the fire to bring it into flame sufficient to cook the contents of the big black stew-pot. Her long-skirted dress of faded lilac cotton enhanced the fine lines of her tall, lithe body and revealed how she moved with the grace of a gazelle – swift she was, too, as a gazelle.
From her I increased my knowledge of fortune-telling, hand-reading. Mme Batista was unusually skilled, possessing those clairvoyant powers essential to the true fortuneteller. And yet she was poor – as so many of the truly talented are poor whilst the shoddy and make-believe prosper – so poor that she was only able to stay for the first day of the fiesta, and then moved onwards leaving but the charred scaring of her fire. I sorrowed because of her departure, but such being general to Gypsies the world over one must learn to rejoice in their presence and not be hurt by their constant leave-takings; consider them as one considers the migratory birds, most precious because so soon away, and maybe, alas! not to return.
Then furthermore – and the biggest group of all at the fiesta – were the musicians and the singers. And when I think upon all whom I met with at Les Saintes Maries, it is Fernandez Caulas who steps before my eyes. Or indeed strolls before my eyes; he a strolling player, a troubadour, being skilled in both music and song, the sweet love songs of France and Spain and above all of his own people – the Gypsies.
Fernandez was born in Algeria, of a Spanish Gypsy father and French non-Gypsy mother. He tells proudly that his Romany grandmother was a sorceress, his uncle a great singer. His father was a hunter, always in the forests or on the mountains, trapping animals and birds for their skins and plumage. Years ago he failed to return from a hunt in mountains of Algeria and has been seen no more, although Fernandez and others have searched long for him. The early years of Fernandez’s life were spent in Paris where he learned to read and write, and in this he differed from most of the Gypsies at Les Saintes marries – and the works over indeed. With the black, lank shining hair of the Spaniard, and wide eyes the light blue of chicory flowers, reeded by long black lashes, Fernandez was one of the handsomest Gypsies at the fiesta, having also a face beautifully formed, with the sensitive mouth and broad brow which indicates a romantic quality of mind. His voice was tenor, and really did possess that far-carrying throbbing quality of the nightingales at love-time.
I met Fernandez on the last evening of the fiesta, when the Golden Gypsy had gone “over the hill an’ far away” and I was consumed with loneliness. Always I shall bless his music and his songs for distracting my mind from the pain of M.’s departure. Fernandez proved to be very entertaining, for he conversed well on the subjects of white and black magic, phantoms and warlocks, land-sprites and menfolk; he was knowledgeable also concerning the ways of the bygone troubadours of France and Spain, and possessed much information on the history and location of the old chateaux of France especially of Provence.
I left Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer with Fernandez and his cousin Toni (also a half-Gypsy: with an Italian mother and a Spanish Gypsy father), a skillful accordion player and musical partner to Fernandez – when they have not quarreled with each other. During the train journey across the flat green marshes of the cam argue, the two men in typical Gypsy fashion, sang and made music, and the passengers, recognizing their talent, paid them generously, so that when we reached the town of Aries, we were able to enjoy an excellent meal and many bottles of the red wine of Provence. The wine – and the shimmering golden sunlight – inspired more music ad song from Fernandez and Toni, and thus we passed our day, wafering along the sun-gold paths near the river Rhone. Pink roses of intoxicating scent tossing in the river breezes against the azure Provencal sky, wild canaries flitting through dark copses, poppies and marigolds kissing our feet: the ending of the fiesta.
At dusk I was taking a train further southwards to Spain the two Gypsy men were going in other directions to Marseille. I remember well how the spell of the Gypsy fiesta in the Camargue was so powerful upon me, that I being in such dreaming state, took the wrong train, and went northwards as far as Lyons, were I had to remain the night on the station and retrace my way south in the dawn of the next day.