Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
At Ease with the Romanys
By Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903)
 
[The Gypsies. 1882.]

THE AMERICAN gypsies do not beg, like their English brothers, and particularly their English sisters. This fact speaks volumes for their greater prosperity and for the influence which association with a proud race has on the poorest people. Our friends at Oaklands always welcomed us as guests. On another occasion when we went there, I said to my niece, “If we find strangers who do not know us, do not speak at first in Romany. Let us astonish them.” We came to a tent, before which sat a very dark, old-fashioned gypsy woman. I paused before her, and said in English:
  1
  “Can you tell a fortune for a young lady?”  2
  “She don’t want her fortune told,” replied the old woman suspiciously and cautiously, or it may be with a view of drawing us on; “No, I can’t tell fortunes.”  3
  At this the young lady was so astonished that, without thinking of what she was saying, or in what language, she cried:  4
  “Dordi! Can’t tute pen dukkerin?” (Look! Can’t you tell fortunes?)  5
  This unaffected outburst had a greater effect than the most deeply studied theatrical situation could have brought about. The old dame stared at me and at the lady as if bewildered, and cried:  6
  “In the name of God, what kind of gypsies are you?”  7
  “Oh! mendui shom bori chovihani!” cried L., laughing; “we are a great witch and a wizard, and if you can’t tell me my fortune, I’ll tell yours. Hold out your hand, and cross mine with a dollar, and I’ll tell you as big a lie as you ever penned a galderli Gorgio (a green Gentile).”  8
  “Well,” exclaimed the gypsy, “I’ll believe that you can tell fortunes or do anything! Dordi! dordi! but this is wonderful. Yet you’re not the first Romany rni (lady) I ever met. There’s one in Delaware: a boridiri (very great) lady she is, and true Romany.—flick o the jib te rinkeni adosta (quick of tongue and fair of face). Well, I am glad to see you.”  9
  “Who is that talking there?” cried a man’s voice from within the tent. He had heard Romany, and he spoke it, and came out expecting to see familiar faces. His own was a study, as his glance encountered mine. As soon as he understood that I came as a friend, he gave way to infinite joy, mingled with sincerest grief that he had not at hand the means of displaying hospitality to such distinguished Romanys as we evidently were. He bewailed the absence of strong drink. “Would we have some tea made? Would I accompany him to the next tavern, and have some beer? All at once a happy thought struck him. He went into the tent and brought out a piece of tobacco, which I was compelled to accept. Refusal would have been unkind, for it was given from the very heart. George Borrow tells us that, in Spain, a poor gypsy once brought him a pomegranate as a first acquaintanceship token. A gypsy is a gypsy wherever you find him.  10
  These were very nice people. The old dame took a great liking to L., and showed it in pleasant manners. The couple were both English, and liked to talk with me of the old country and the many mutual friends whom we had left behind. On another visit, L. brought a scarlet silk handkerchief, which she had bound round her head and tied under her chin in a very gypsy manner. It excited, as I anticipated, great admiration from the old dame.  11
  “Ah kenn tute dikks rinkeni—now you look nice. That’s the way a Romany lady ought to wear it! Don’t she look just as Alfi used to look?” she cried to her husband. “Just such eyes and hair!”  12
  Here L. took off the diklo, or handkerchief, and passed it round the gypsy woman’s head, and tied it under her chin, saying:  13
  “I am sure it becomes you much more than it does me. Now you look nice:
 “‘Red and yellow for Romany,
And blue and pink for the Gorgiee.’”
  14
  We rose to depart; the old dame offered back to L. her handkerchief, and, on being told to keep it, was greatly pleased. I saw that the way in which it was given had won her heart.  15
  “Did you hear what the old woman said while she was telling your fortune?” asked L., after we had left the tent.  16
  “Now I think of it, I remember that she or you had hold of my hand, while I was talking with the old man, and he was making merry with my whiskey. I was turned away, and around so that I never noticed what you two were saying.”  17
  “She penned your dukkerin, and it was wonderful. She said that she must tell it.”  18
  And here L. told me what the old dye had insisted on reading in my hand. It was simply very remarkable, and embraced an apparent knowledge of the past, which would make any credulous person believe in her happy predictions of the future.  19
  “Ah, well,” I said, “I suppose the dukk told it to her. She may be an eye-reader. A hint dropped here and there, unconsciously, the expression of the face, and a life’s practice will make anybody a witch. And if there ever was a witch’s eye, she has it.”  20
  “I would like to have her picture,” said L., “in that lullo diklo (red handkerchief). She looked like all the sorceresses of Thessaly and Egypt in one, and, as Bulwer says of the Witch of Vesuvius, was all the more terrible for having been beautiful.”  21
  Some time after this we went with Britannia Lee, a-gypsying, not figuratively, but literally, over the river into New Jersey. And our first greeting, as we touched the ground, was of good omen, and from a great man, for it was Walt Whitman. It is not often that even a poet meets with three sincerer admirers than the venerable bard encountered on this occasion; so, of course, we stopped and talked, and L. had the pleasure of being the first to communicate to Bon Gaultier certain pleasant things which had recently been printed of him by a distinguished English author, which is always an agreeable task. Blessed upon the mountains, or at the Camden ferry-boat, or anywhere, are the feet of anybody who bringeth glad tidings.  22
  “Well, are you going to see gypsies?”  23
  “We are. We three gypsies be. By the abattoir. Au revoir.”  24
  And on we went to the place where I had first found gypsies in America. All was at first so still that it seemed as if no one could be camped in the spot.  25
  “Se kekno adoi.” (There’s nobody there.)  26
  “Dordi!” cried Britannia, “Dikkava me o tuv te tan te wardo. (I see a smoke, a tent, a wagon.) I declare, it is my puro pal, my old friend, W.”  27
  And we drew near the tent and greeted its owner, who was equally astonished and delighted at seeing such distinguished Romany tni rnis, or gypsy young ladies, and brought forth his wife and three really beautiful children to do the honors. W. was a good specimen of an American-born gypsy, strong, healthy, clean, and temperate, none the worse for wear in out-of-dooring, through tropical summers and terrible winters. Like all American Romanys, he was more straightforward than most of his race in Europe. All Romanys are polite, but many of the European kind are most uncomfortably and unconsciously naïve….  28
  “I shall never forget the first day you came to my camp,” said W. to Britannia. “Ah, you astonished me then. You might have knocked me down with a feather. And I didn’t know what to say. You came in a carriage with two other ladies. And you jumped out first, and walked up to me, and cried, ‘Sa’shn!’ That stunned me, but I answered, ‘Sa’shn.’ Then I didn’t speak Romanes to you, for I didn’t know but what you kept it a secret from the other two ladies, and I didn’t wish to betray you. And when you began to talk it as deep as any old Romany I ever heard, and pronounced it so rich and beautiful, I thought I’d never heard the like. I thought you must be a witch.”  29
  “Awer me shom chovihani” (but I am a witch), cried the lady. “Mukka men j adr o tan.” (Let us go into the tent.) So we entered, and sat round the fire, and asked news of all the wanderers of the roads, and the young ladies, having filled their pockets with sweets, produced them for the children, and we were as much at home as we had ever been in any salon; for it was a familiar scene to us all, though it would, perhaps, have been a strange one to the reader, had he by chance, walking that lonely way in the twilight, looked into the tent and asked his way, and there found two young ladies—bien mises—with their escort, all very much at their ease, and talking Romany as if they had never known any other tongue from the cradle.  30
  “What is the charm of all this?” It is that if one has a soul, and does not live entirely reflected from the little thoughts and little ways of a thousand other little people, it is well to have at all times in his heart some strong hold of nature. No matter how much we may be lost in society, dinners, balls, business, we should never forget that there is an eternal sky with stars over it all, a vast, mysterious earth with terrible secrets beneath us, seas, mountains, rivers, and forests away and around; and that it is from these and what is theirs, and not from gas-lit, stifling follies, that all strength and true beauty must come. To this life, odd as he is, the gypsy belongs, and to be sometimes at home with him by wood and wold takes us for a time from “the world.” If I express myself vaguely and imperfectly, it is only to those who know not the charm of nature, its ineffable soothing sympathy—its life, its love. Gypsies, like children, feel this enchantment as the older grown do not. To them it is a song without words; would they be happier if the world brought them to know it as words without song, without music or melody? I never read a right old English ballad of sumere when the leaves are grene or the not-broune maid, with its rustling as of sprays quivering to the song of the wode-wale, without thinking or feeling deeply how those who wrote them would have been bound to the Romany. It is ridiculous to say that gypsies are not “educated” to nature and art, when, in fact, they live it. I sometimes suspect that æsthetic culture takes more true love of nature out of the soul than it inspires. One would not say anything of a wild bird or deer being deficient in a sense of that beauty of which it is a part. There are infinite grades, kinds, or varieties of feeling of nature, and every man is perfectly satisfied that his is the true one. For my own part, I am not sure that a rabbit, in the dewy grass, does not feel the beauty of nature quite as much as Mr. Ruskin, and much more than I do.  31
 
 
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