Pages 161-168

As Gypsies Wander img pg 161

At once the tent front was parted and a woman came out into the night. She was handsome, I could tell that at once despite the dim light. Her good looks came from her abundant smooth black hair, worn with a centre parting, and framing her still young face of an attractive oval shape and with fine lineaments. Except for a torn dress she was naked, her feet too being bare. Her form was shadowy in the blue light of the stars and the starving fire.

Immediately I put into her hands bags of cherries and cakes, I telling her, “I’m staying in Valencia, and want very much to talk with Spanish Gypsies.”

The Gypsy laughed excitedly at my words, and threw back her head and clapped her hands. She then called to her children in the tent, telling them to put some clothes upon their bodies and come forth and meet with a stranger from overseas who herself looked like a Gitana. Next she kicked her fire back into life, and further, crouching in the dust, blew fiercely upon the embers in the familiar skilled Gypsy way, until orange crocus flowers of the flame were soon pushing forth from the black ashes, and those she fed with handfuls of straw and sticks. As she worked at her fire she told that her name was Isabella, and she lived in the encampment with her three young sons.

Two of Isabella’s children soon appeared, they being fully revealed in the brightness of the rekindled fire. The two small boys were grotesque figures with their thin, scarecrow-like bodies decked in the most tattered of clothing, and their brilliant, wild-looking eyes shining through low-hanging fringes of unbrushed hair.

I told Isabella my name, and asked her the names of the two boys. I was informed that one was Rico (Rich), an abbreviation of Frederico, the other Plata (Silver {Spanish}), ironical names regarding the emaciated ragged forms of their owners. When Rico and Plata beheld the food that I had given to their mother, which she had placed on the far side of the tent, and of which they, with quivering nostrils, had, like truffle hours, pounced upon all, and fighting and yelling at each other, quickly ate up everything including, seemingly, the cherry stones, Isabella fought with her wild children, shouting at them that they must leave some food for their other brother, but hunger and the presence of food put the boys beyond her control. In short time not a scrap of anything remained, and then Rico ate also pieces of paper bag where the cakes had left grease marks. It was real hunger that I witnessed, and yet the children seemed happy enough, vivid and lively and full of wit and naughtiness.

Isabella then took me to see her third son, who was older than Rico or Plata. He lay in the small tent, bedded on a pile of sacks; an ashen-faced boy with a bandaged head. I gave him cherries from the small store that I had been saving for the house-dwelling Gypsies whom we were to visit later. “Zo-Zo”, the mother named her third child, and tragic he looked in the candlelight that Isabella brought into the tent. Gypsy children are so unused to sickness they fret themselves when confined to a bed. The child brought from under the sacking covering him a big, black living rat, and told me that it was his special friend and kept him good company during the days that his bad head was causing him to be in bed.

“He is the king of the rats of Spain,” he told me, and swung the ugly creature by its long, naked tail. He then shared some of his cherries with the rat.

Soon Isabella led me outside to my companions. She then worked on the fire again until a good flame was achieved, and then coming to my side took my hand and began to peer at it. She asked me if she could give my hand a reading, and for answer I drew a piece of silver across her forehead. She pulled me down by the fire, and the Gypsy lads grouped themselves on either side of me. My future was told in a mixture of Spanish and French, most of which I was able to understand. Isabella’s words came in a ready flow, proving  her adept at such work, but all that she said was entirely apart from my own way of life, and was only of entertainment value to me, and therefor I encouraged her in her fantasies of rich men and big houses, I disliking both.

In the midst of the session of palmistry, another Gypsy woman appeared. She was one of the dirtiest-looking human beings that I have ever beheld, her rags lacking the general quality of the picturesque, they being so begrimed and evil smelling. Her body was enormous with pregnancy, and her confinement must have been within the week. She spoke no word at all, but merely came amongst us and indicated the condition of her body and then stretched out her hand in begging gesture. When she had been given money she went away, still not having spoken to any of us, including her fellow Gypsies. Isabella, meanwhile, continued her reading of my hand, where I continued to meet with rich men and live in big houses.

When the palmistry was ended, Bella called to her sons to give an entertainment of song and dance. That they did, admirably, in the poppy glow of the fire, which their mother fed well with twists of straw and with slats of wood which she tore from old boxes, she wishing to keep a good light for the dancing performance. Firstly the boys performed the slow, sad dances of Spain, eyes downcast in the traditional manner. Then came the leaping, passionate dances of the Gypsies, with eyes then held half-closed in almost trance-like manner. We, the audience, clapped our hands, struck our hips and chorused “ole’s” to inspire the young dancers into a true frenzy of a Gypsy zam bra. Fantastic scene! The ragged cild dancers, small and brown, and lithe as salamanders in the firelight; their setting of rubble-piled earth and litter of bottles and old tins, the surrounding tents, and above, the brilliant Spanish stars; it gave to me one more Gypsy impression that I shall remember always.

The dancing was followed by Gypsy songs, shrill and wild and very unskilled, yet so heart-stirring that I heaped upon the two performers the cherries and other foods that I had been keeping for the house Gypsies. I would have stayed at the encampment the night long.

However, I was no longer alone with my companions and Bella and her sons, for the dancing and singing and our applauding, had brought many other Gypsies from their tents. Although the new audience stood beyond the firelight and were merely huddled, watchful shapes in the crowding darkness which even the stars could not light, their presence caused much uneasiness to my non-Gypsy companions, and they commanded that I should leave the place immediately with them. Bella had been hopeful that she would read the hands of the further three visitors but they would not stay. As they had shown me much kindness in accompanying me to the Gypsies, I did not want to disobey a further time the request to leave and therefore I turned away from the fireside.

I promised Bella that I would return on the morrow afternoon, and show to her some of my Gypsy photographs, and photograph her and her sons, if she wished. I then followed after my friends, staying as I passed the ragged tent wherein lay Zo-Zo, to fling on his bed handfuls of cherries and biscuits that I had kept for him and his king rat. Rico and Plata accompanied us a goodly distance from the encampment, they providing entertainment all of the time, shouting, dancing and acerbating; two small Gypsy clowns, very endearing and yet pathetic as clowns are always pathetic.

Safely away from the camping ground my friends were in god humor with me again, and were agreeable to guiding me to the street of the Gypsies, despite the lateness of the hour. They said that the house-dwelling Gypsies were law-abiding and safe people. The street was only a short distance from the place of the tent dwellers, and we were soon there. It was not only my imagination that the street of the Gypsies possessed an atmosphere different from any of the others which I visited during my daily explorations on foot of the exquisite and enthralling city of Valencia: there was great difference. There were more animals in the Gypsy street than elsewhere. Although it was late, many big dogs yet played in the roadway, moving growling into house doorways at our coming. In the courtyards goats were to be seen, and I further had sight of donkeys and mules. There were much poultry roosting on wooden perches in tall cages, or tied with cords to posts, by their legs, to prevent their straying away. As many of the Gypsies of Valencia are flower-sellers, and keep their wares in the coolth of their yards, exquisite flower-scents met us as we walked by, especially the favorite of Spain – the carnation. Despite the time being night, twitter of birds and sometimes trills of sweet song, came from the habitations of the bird-catchers. Much activity could be heard in the houses, through the open windows clamor of voices where people crowded into small rooms; and often enough the music of guitars and the throb of castanets.

“Wherever the Gitanas are there’s music and song,” commented my friends.

“That is true,” I agreed, “always music and song.” And I recalled to mind the unearthly street music of the French Gypsy Django and, further, all the skilled guitarists of Les Saintes Maries -the singing of Fernandez- and the constant accompaniment of the tamarisk trees there. I was wearing the ear-rings given to me by the Alsace-Lorraine Gypsy, Jean Beau-Marie.

Not many Gypsies were in the street and the few that we passed stared after us, doubtless wondering what affairs had brought us to their place at late night. The little that I could see of them in the wan lamplight, showed all to be of the true Spanish type, lithe and swarthy and very vital.

When we were close by the end of the street a woman of some thirty years, who had been walking short paces ahead of us, turned to my companions and greeted them. She told that they were known to her from the restaurant, where her brothers and sisters sometimes danced and sang during the summer season. She told her name, which was Maria. Her features were of the same attractive type as Bella’s, and she was of similar figure. But where as Bella had been of disheveled appearance and clothed in rags, Maria was well kept and dressed; her black hair binding her brow being as swathes of jet-hued satin. She wore ear-ings of pearl and gold, and her gown was of modern design, made of brilliant red satin, partly covered by a black cape. Her shapely feet were in red leather shoes, with high Spanish heals, a golden bangle was worn around one fine angle. Fashionable Paris would have welcomed her. She was very friendly and laughter-lit, her ready laughter being much to her advantage, because it called attention with such frequency to her perfect teeth in their setting of beautifully curved peony-red lips.

When my friends told her their reason for being in the street of the Gypsies she immediately invited us into her house. The room into which she took us was well-kept and very orderly. Gypsies in houses are inclined to collect much rubbish around them, I have observed; so that often enough there is little space left for movement.  They are especially apt to crowd their rooms with animals, many dogs and often enough poultry and goats; and I have met with colts and donkeys in the living-rooms. Also implements and materials for their various handicrafts occupy much space. Indeed, Gypsies possessing houses oftentimes crowd the rooms with litter and animals, and themselves live out i the yard; perhaps returning to the house at night for sleep. I do not blame them. There was no litter in Maria’s house, nor animals, only sleeping children.

The centre piece of the room was a wide mattress, occupying much of the uncarpeted floor, on which lay the forms of three children in deep sleep, covered by a quilt of brilliant colors, heavily embroidered. Close by the bed was a brazier filled with glowing charcoal and in one corner of the room there was a pile of charcoal and also olive roots, to provide further feed for the fire. There was little furniture and no chairs, which is not unusual in a Romany home, Gypsies habitually preferring to sit upon the floor. This I found true also of the Mexican peasants who are so much Gypsy in their ways; and furthermore, very typical of the Arabs who likewise are very Gypsy: all three peoples are beloved to me. The walls were hung with many religious pictures of bright prints such as seen in Catholic peasant homes, the pictures framed plainly in wood. On one wall side there were fixed rows of hooks, holding much clothing. In the Gypsy house it seemed strange to see hanging there a coat of fur and many American-style dresses. The general impression of the room was of cleanliness and happiness.

Maria talked with us a goodly time, telling about the Gypsy life of Valencia. From her I learnt that in Valencia also, the Romanichals follow their traditional trades: flower-sellers, chair-menders, basket-makers, glass- and copper-workers, tinsmiths, horse smiths, horse, mule and donkey traders, bootblacks, and above all – and more general to the Spanish and Oriental Gypsies than elsewhere- popular entertainers, dancers, singers, guitarists, and acrobats, also bull-fighters. Always trades where the Gypsy can live indecently of a master: a Gypsy works for himself only, and his family, whenever possible. Other work is casual, such as seasonable fieldwork and sometimes factory work, where their swift and deft hands make them popular.

Maria talked also about Gypsy weddings, and promised me that if I could stay long enough in Valencia she would invite me to a Romany bod a (Gypsy wedding), where I would experience some o the best entertainment in Spain, for to such festivities thronged the finest Gypsy dancers and singers, also the toreadors. The entertainers gave freely of their talent and time, the bull-fighters their esteemed patronage – all in payment for the wines and the food provided at such celebrations. She told us that only a week past there had been a Gypsy wedding in the port district of Valencia, and the feasting had continued throughout three nights.

I apologized for having come as a stranger and a visitor into her house, with empty hands, so contrary to Gypsy custom. I promised her that if she would let me visit her again I would bring sweetmeats for her children. I told her how I had not been able to resist giving all that I carried to the hungry boys of the Gypsy encampment. Maria said that they were bad Gypsies there, a place of thieves, and that we should not have gone near there after dark.

My friends then nodded their heads at me: “You see! It is as we warned you,” they reproached me. But I thought of the ragged tents and the children prancing like salamanders in the firelight, and was pleased with my visit and knew that I should return on the morrow.

Our chattering voices awoke the sleeping children, and they were fretful and uneasy as are all children disturbed in their night-time sleep. And the hour by then being near midnight, we told Maria that we must leave her. She promised me that she would tell many Gypsy friends of my next which she hoped would be on the morrow, when I would then be able to see many of the reputed most beautiful Gypsies of Valancia, goodly numbers of them living in the street where I was then visiting.

As I was passing through the door in the rear of my friends, the Gypsy put her hand on my arm and then said: “I’ve formed a bit love for your ear-rings, will you change them for mine?”

Such a request was not of great surprise to me, it is a very general thing for Gypsy men to chop dicklos (swop neck-scarfs), and the women their head scarves and various trinkets. But Maria’s earrings were fine finer than my own, being of gold and pearl and finely carved. Mine were of slight monetary value, made only of light beaten copper set with blue glass stones; but their sentimental value was infinite, they being a gift from a Gypsy chief who had fastened them on to my ears with a blessing of Gypsy luck, and they were further a constant reminder of the fantastic Gypsy fiesta of Les Saintes Maries. I knew that I must refuse Maria, but I did not want in any way to offend her, she having been most hospitable and kindly in her home. Therefore I took much trouble to explain to Maria all the circumstances of the coming of the earrings to me; and she forgave me my refusal. She was indeed amused to know that it was a Gypsy man who had given them, and that fact was at the heart of her forgiveness. Yet before she finally let me go and ended the subject, she took one of her own handsome rings from her ear and placed it in my hand, where the weight of the metal felt heavy. She then told me with Gypsy shrewdness: “If one day you meet with a new Gypsy man, and loving you he will not wish to see in your ears rings given to you by another, but want you only to wear those of his own giving; will you think of Maria and remember her want for them with the blue brilliants.” And she touched my ears with her fingers.

“Oh Maria! Maria! you Gypsy!” I teased. “Yes, I give such a promise to you.” I thought then of the rings in the ears of the Golden Gypsy, M., and such an overwhelming sadness came down upon me that I could have sat then in the gutter and wept.

But my companions urged: “Come, come, hurry. How late it is. At home they’ll be filled with fears for us.”

It was indeed a late hour; yet from open windows the music of guitars and castanets could still be heard in the street of the Gypsies.


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