English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, , at sacred-texts.com
Gipsies and Cats.—“Christians.”—Christians not “Hanimals.”—Green, Red, and Yellow.—The Evil Eye.—Models and Morals.—Punji and Sponge-cake.—Troubles with a Gipsy Teacher.—Pilferin’ and Bilberin’.—Khapana and Hopper.—Hoppera-glasses.—The little wooden Bear.—Huckeny Ponkee, Hanky Panky, Hocus-pocus, and Hokkeny Bāro.—Burning a Gipsy Witch alive in America.—Daniel in the Lions’ Den.—Gipsy Life in Summer.—The Gavengroes.—The Gipsy’s Story of Pitch-and-Toss.—“You didn’t fight your Stockings off?”—The guileless and venerable Gipsy.—The Gipsy Professor of Rommany and the Police.—His Delicacy of Feeling.—The old Gipsy and the beautiful Italian Models.—The Admired of the Police.—Honesty strangely illustrated.—Gipsies willing or unwilling to communicate Rommany.—Romance and Eccentricity of Gipsy Life and Manners.—The Gipsy Grandmother and her Family.—A fine Frolic interrupted.—The Gipsy Gentleman from America.—No such Language as Rommany.—Hedgehogs.—The Witch Element in Gipsy Life.—Jackdaws and Dogs.—Their Uses.—Lurchers and Poachers.—A Gipsy Camp.—The Ancient Henry.—I am mistaken for a Magistrate or Policeman.—Gipsies of Three Grades.—The Slangs.—Jim and the Twigs.—Beer rained from Heaven.—Fortune-telling.—A golden Opportunity to live at my Ease.—Petulamengro.—I hear of a New York Friend.—The Professor’s Legend of the Olive-leaf and the Dove, “A wery tidy little Story.”—The Story of Samson as given by a Gipsy.—The great Prize-fighter who was hocussed by a Fancy Girl.—The Judgment Day.—Passing away in Sleep or Dream to God.—A Gipsy on Ghosts.—Dogs which can kill Ghosts.—Twisted-legged Stealing.—How to keep Dogs away from a Place.—Gipsies avoid Unions.—A Gipsy Advertisement in the “Times.”—A Gipsy Poetess and a Rommany Song.
It would be a difficult matter to decide whether the superstitions and odd fancies entertained by the Gipsies in England are derived from the English peasantry, were brought from India, or picked up on the way. This must be left for ethnologists more industrious and better informed than myself to decide. In any case, the possible common Aryan source will tend to obscure the truth, just as it often does the derivation of Rommany words. But nothing can detract from the inexpressibly quaint spirit of Gipsy originality in which these odd credos are expressed, or surpass the strangeness of the reasons given for them. If the spirit of the goblin and elfin lingers anywhere on earth, it is among the Rommany.
One day I questioned a Gipsy as to cats, and what his opinion was of black ones, correctly surmising that he would have some peculiar ideas on the subject, and he replied—
“Rommanys never lel kaulo matchers adrée the ker, ’cause they’re mullos, and beng is covvas; and the puro beng, you jin, is kaulo, an’ has shtor herros an’ dui mushis—an’ a sherro. But pauno matchers san kushto, for they’re sim to pauno ghosts of rānis.”
Which means in English, “Gipsies never have black cats in the house, because they are unearthly creatures, and things of the devil; and the old devil, you know, is black, and has four legs and two arms—and a head. But white cats are good, for they are like the white ghosts of ladies.”
It is in the extraordinary reason given for liking white cats that the subtle Gipsyism of this cat-commentary consists. Most people would consider a resemblance to a white ghost rather repulsive. But the Gipsy lives by night a strange life, and the reader who peruses carefully the stories which are given in this volume, will perceive in them a familiarity with goblin-land and its denizens which has become rare among “Christians.”
But it may be that I do this droll old Gipsy great wrong in thus apparently classing him with the heathen, since he one day manifested clearly enough that he considered he had a right to be regarded as a true believer—the only drawback being this, that he was apparently under the conviction that all human beings were “Christians.” And the way in which he declared it was as follows: I had given him the Hindustani word janwur, and asked him if he knew such a term, and he answered—
“Do I jin sitch a lav (know such a word) as janwur for a hanimal? Āvo (yes); it’s jomper—it’s a toadus” (toad).
“But do you jin the lav (know the word) for an animal?”
“Didn’t I just pooker tute (tell you) it was a jomper? for if a toad’s a hanimal, jomper must be the lav for hanimal.”
“But don’t you jin kek lav (know a word) for sar the covvas that have jivaben (all living things)—for jompers, and bitti matchers (mice), and gryas (horses)? You and I are animals.”
“Kek, rya, kek (no, sir, no), we aren’t hanimals. Hanimals is critters that have something queer about ’em, such as the lions an’ helephants at the well-gooroos (fairs), or cows with five legs, or won’ful piebald grais—them’s hanimals. But Christins aint hanimals. Them’s mushis” (men).
To return to cats: it is remarkable that the colour which makes a cat desirable should render a bowl or cup objectionable to a true Gipsy, as I have elsewhere observed in commenting on the fact that no old-fashioned Rommany will drink, if possible, from white crockery. But they have peculiar fancies as to other colours. Till within a few years in Great Britain, as at the present day in Germany, their fondness for green coats amounted to a passion. In Germany a Gipsy who loses caste for any offence is forbidden for a certain time to wear green, so that ver non semper viret may be truly applied to those among them who bloom too rankly.
The great love for red and yellow among the Gipsies was long ago pointed out by a German writer as a proof of Indian origin, but the truth is, I believe, that all dark people instinctively choose these hues as agreeing with their complexion. A brunette is fond of amber, as a blonde is of light blue; and all true kaulo or dark Rommany chāls delight in a bright yellow pongdishler, or neckerchief, and a red waistcoat. The long red cloak of the old Gipsy fortune-teller is, however, truly dear to her heart; she feels as if there were luck in it—that bāk which is ever on Gipsy lips; for to the wanderers, whose home is the roads, and whose living is precarious, Luck becomes a real deity. I have known two old fortune-telling sisters to expend on new red cloaks a sum which seemed to a lady friend very considerable.
I have spoken in another chapter of the deeply-seated faith of the English Gipsies in the evil eye. Subsequent inquiry has convinced me that they believe it to be peculiar to themselves. One said in my presence, “There was a kauli juva that dicked the evil yack ad mandy the sala—my chavo’s missis—an’ a’ter dovo I shooned that my chavo was naflo. A bongo-yācki mush kairs wafro-luckus. Avali, the Gorgios don’t jin it—it’s saw Rommany.”
I.e., “There was a dark woman that looked the evil eye at me this morning—my son’s wife—and after that I heard that my son was ill. A squint-eyed man makes bad-luck. Yes, the Gorgios don’t know it—it’s all Rommany.”
The Gipsy is of an eminently social turn, always ready when occasion occurs to take part in every conversation, and advance his views. One day my old Rom hearing an artist speak of having rejected some uncalled-for advice relative to the employment of a certain model, burst out in a tone of hearty approbation with—
“That’s what I say. Every man his own juva (every man his own girl), an’ every painter his own morals.”
If it was difficult in the beginning for me to accustom the Gipsy mind to reply clearly and consistently to questions as to his language, the trouble was tenfold increased when he began to see his way, as he thought, to my object, and to take a real interest in aiding me. For instance, I once asked—
“Puro! do you know such a word as punji? It’s the Hindu for capital.”
(Calmly.) “Yes, rya; that’s a wery good word for capital.”
“But is it Rommany?”
(Decidedly.) “It’ll go first-rateus into Rommany.”
“But can you make it out? Prove it!”
(Fiercely.) “Of course I can make it out. Kushto. Suppose a man sells ’punge-cake, would’nt that be his capital? Punje must be capital.”
But this was nothing to what I endured after a vague fancy of the meaning of seeking a derivation of words had dimly dawned on his mind, and he vigorously attempted to aid me. Possessed with the crude idea that it was a success whenever two words could be forced into a resemblance of any kind, he constantly endeavoured to Anglicise Gipsy words—often, alas! an only too easy process, and could never understand why it was I then rejected them. By the former method I ran the risk of obtaining false Hindustani Gipsy words, though I very much doubt whether I was ever caught by it in a single instance; so strict were the tests which I adopted, the commonest being that of submitting the words to other Gipsies, or questioning him on them some days afterwards. By the latter “aid” I risked the loss of Rommany words altogether, and undoubtedly did lose a great many. Thus with the word bilber (to entice or allure), he would say, in illustration, that the girls bilbered the gentleman into the house to rob him, and then cast me into doubt by suggesting that the word must be all right, “’cause it looked all the same as pilferin’.”
One day I asked him if the Hindustani word khapana (pronounced almost hopana) (to make away with) sounded naturally to his ears.
“Yes, rya; that must be happer, habber, or huvver. To hopper covvas away from the tan (i.e., to hopper things from the place), is when you rikker ’em awayus (carry them away, steal them), and gaverit (hide it) tally your chuckko (under your coat). An’ I can pen you a waver covva (I can tell you another thing) that’s hopper—them’s the glasses that you look through—hoppera-glasses.”
And here in bounding triumph he gave the little wooden bear a drink of ale, as if it had uttered this chunk of solid wisdom, and then treated himself to a good long pull. But the glance of triumph which shot from his black-basilisk eyes, and the joyous smile which followed these feats of philology, were absolutely irresistible. All that remained for me to do was to yield in silence.
One day we spoke of huckeny pokee, or huckeny ponkee, as it is sometimes called. It means in Rommany “sleight of hand,” and also the adroit substitution of a bundle of lead or stones for another containing money or valuables, as practised by Gipsy women. The Gipsy woman goes to a house, and after telling the simple-minded and credulous housewife that there is a treasure buried in the cellar, persuades her that as “silver draws silver,” she must deposit all her money or jewels in a bag near the place where the treasure lies. This is done, and the Rommany dye adroitly making up a parcel resembling the one laid down, steals the latter, leaving the former.
Mr Barrow calls this hokkeny bāro, the great swindle. I may remark, by the way, that among jugglers and “show-people” sleight of hand is called hanky panky. “Hocus-pocus” is attributed by several writers to the Gipsies, a derivation which gains much force from the fact, which I have never before seen pointed out, that hoggu bazee, which sounds very much like it, means in Hindustani legerdemain. English Gipsies have an extraordinary fancy for adding the termination us in a most irregular manner to words both Rommany and English. Thus kéttene (together) is often changed to kettenus, and side to sidus. In like manner, hoggu (hocku or honku) bazee could not fail to become hocus bozus, and the next change, for the sake of rhyme, would be to hocus-po-cus.
I told my ancient rambler of an extraordinary case of “huckeny pokee” which had recently occurred in the United States, somewhere in the west, the details of which had been narrated to me by a lady who lived at the time in the place where the event occurred.
“A Gipsy woman,” I said, “came to a farmhouse and played huckeny pokee on a farmer’s wife, and got away all the poor woman’s money.”
“Did she indeed, rya?” replied my good old friend, with a smile of joy flashing from his eyes, the unearthly Rommany light just glinting from their gloom.
“Yes,” I said impressively, as a mother might tell an affecting story to a child. “All the money that that poor woman had, that wicked Gipsy woman took away, and utterly ruined her.”
This was the culminating point; he burst into an irrepressible laugh; he couldn’t help it—the thing had been done too well.
“But you haven’t heard all yet,” I added. “There’s more covvas to well.”
“Oh, I suppose the Rummany chi prastered avree (ran away), and got off with the swag?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Then they caught her, and sent her to starabun” (prison).
“No,” I replied.
“And what did they do?”
“THEY BURNT HER ALIVE!”
His jaw fell; a glossy film came over his panther-eyes. For a long time he had spoken to me, had this good and virtuous man, of going to America. Suddenly he broke out with this vehement answer—
“I won’t go to that country—s’up mi duvel! I’ll never go to America.”
It is told of a certain mother, that on showing her darling boy a picture in the Bible representing Daniel in the lions’ den, she said, “And there is good Daniel, and there are those naughty lions, who are going to eat him all up.” Whereupon the dear boy cried out, “O mother, look at that poor little lion in the corner—he won’t get any.”
It is from this point of view that such affairs are naturally regarded by the Rommany.
There is a strange goblinesque charm in Gipsydom—something of nature, and green leaves, and silent nights—but it is ever strangely commingled with the forbidden; and as among the Greeks of old with Mercury amid the singing of leafy brooks, there is a tinkling of, at least, petty larceny. Witness the following, which came forth one day from a Gipsy, in my presence, as an entirely voluntary utterance. He meant it for something like poetry—it certainly was suggested by nothing, and as fast as he spoke I wrote it down:—
“It’s kushto in tattoben for the Rommany chals. Then they can jāl langs the drum, and hatch their tan acai and odoi pré the tem. We’ll lel moro habben acai, and jāl andūrer by-an’-byus, an’ then jāl by rātti, so’s the Gorgios won’t dick us. I jins a kūshti puv for the graias; we’ll hatch ’pré in the sala, before they latcher we’ve been odoi, an’ jāl an the drum an’ lel moro habben.”
“It is pleasant for the Gipsies in the summer-time. Then they can go along the road, and pitch their tent here and there in the land. We’ll take our food here, and go further on by-and-by, and then go by night, so that the Gorgios won’t see us. I know a fine field for the horses; we’ll stop there in the morning, before they find we have been there, and go on the road and eat our food.”
“I suppose that you often have had trouble with the gavengroes (police) when you wished to pitch your tent?”
Now it was characteristic of this Gipsy, as of many others, that when interested by a remark or a question, he would reply by bursting into some picture of travel, drawn from memory. So he answered by saying—
“They hunnelo’d the choro puro mush by pennin’ him he mustn’t hatch odoi. ‘What’s tute?’ he pens to the prastramengro; ‘I’ll del you thrin bar to lel your chuckko offus an’ koor mandy. You’re a ratfully jucko an’ a huckaben.’”
English—They angered the poor old man by telling him he must not stop there. “What are you?” he said to the policeman, “I’ll give you three pounds to take your coat off and fight me. You’re a bloody dog and a lie” (liar).
“I suppose you have often taken your coat off?”
“Once I lelled it avree an’ never chivved it apré ajaw.”
(I.e., “Once I took it off and never put it on again.”)
“How was that?”
“Yeckorus when I was a tāno mush, thirty besh kennā—rummed about pange besh, but with kek chavis—I jālled to the prasters of the graias at Brighton. There was the paiass of wussin’ the pāsheros apré for wongur, an’ I got to the pyass, an’ first cheirus I lelled a boro bittus—twelve or thirteen bar. Then I nashered my wongur, an’ penned I wouldn’t pyass koomi, an’ I’d latch what I had in my poachy. Adoi I jālled from the gudli ’dree the toss-ring for a pāshora, when I dicked a waver mush, an’ he putched mandy, ‘What bāk?’ and I penned pauli, ‘Kek bāk; but I’ve got a bittus left.’ So I wussered with lester an’ nashered saw my covvas—my chukko, my gad, an’ saw, barrin’ my rokamyas. Then I jālled kerri with kek but my rokamyas an—I borried a chukko off my pen’s chavo.
“And when my juva dickt’omandy pash-nāngo, she pens, ‘Dovo’s tute’s heesis?’ an’ I pookered her I’d been a-koorin’. But she penned, ‘Why, you haven’t got your hovalos an; you didn’t koor tute’s hovalos avree?’ ‘No,’ I rakkered; ‘I taddered em offus. (The mush played me with a dui-sherro poshéro.)
“But drée the sala, when the mush welled to lel avree the jucko (for I’d nashered dovo ajaw), I felt wafrodearer than when I’d nashered saw the waver covvas. An’ my poor juvā ruvved ajaw, for she had no chāvo. I had in those divvuses as kushti coppas an’ heesus as any young Gipsy in Anglatérra—good chukkos, an’ gads, an’ pongdishlers.
“An’ that mush kurried many a geero a’ter mandy, but he never lelled no bāk. He’d chore from his own dadas; but he mullered wafro adrée East Kent.”
“Once when I was a young man, thirty years ago (now)—married about five years, but with no children—I went to the races at Brighton. There was tossing halfpence for money, and I took part in the game, and at first (first time) I took a good bit—twelve or thirteen pounds. Then I lost my money, and said I would play no more, and would keep what I had in my pocket. Then I went from the noise in the toss-ring for half an hour, when I saw another man, and he asked me, ‘What luck?’ and I replied, ‘No luck; but I’ve a little left yet.’ So I tossed with him and lost all my things—my coat, my shirt, and all, except my breeches. Then I went home with nothing but my breeches on—I borrowed a coat of my sister’s boy.
“And when my wife saw me half-naked, she says, ‘Where are your clothes?’ and I told her I had been fighting. But she said, ‘Why, you have not your stockings on; you didn’t fight your stockings off!’ ‘No,’ I said; ‘I drew them off.’ (The man played me with a two-headed halfpenny.)
“But in the morning when the man came to take away the dog (for I had lost that too), I felt worse than when I lost all the other things. And my poor wife cried again, for she had no child. I had in those days as fine clothes as any young Gipsy in England—good coats, and shirts, and handkerchiefs.
“And that man hurt many a man after me, but he never had any luck. He’d steal from his own father; but he died miserably in East Kent.”
It was characteristic of the venerable wanderer who had installed himself as my permanent professor of Rommany, that although almost every phrase which he employed to illustrate words expressed some act at variance with law or the rights of property, he was never weary of descanting on the spotlessness, beauty, and integrity of his own life and character. These little essays on his moral perfection were expressed with a touching artlessness and child-like simplicity which would carry conviction to any one whose heart had not been utterly hardened, or whose eye-teeth had not been remarkably well cut, by contact with the world. In his delightful naïveté and simple earnestness, in his ready confidence in strangers and freedom from all suspicion—in fact, in his whole deportment, this Rommany elder reminded me continually of one—and of one man only—whom I had known of old in America. Need I say that I refer to the excellent --- ---?
It happened for many days that the professor, being a man of early habits, arrived at our rendezvous an hour in advance of the time appointed. As he resolutely resisted all invitation to occupy the room alone until my arrival, declaring that he had never been guilty of such a breach of etiquette, and as he was, moreover, according to his word, the most courteous man of the world in it, and I did not wish to “contrary” him, he was obliged to pass the time in the street, which he did by planting himself on the front steps or expanding himself on the railings of an elderly and lonely dame, who could not endure that even a mechanic should linger at her door, and was in agony until the milkman and baker had removed their feet from her steps. Now, the appearance of the professor (who always affected the old Gipsy style), in striped corduroy coat, leather breeches and gaiters, red waistcoat, yellow neck-handkerchief, and a frightfully-dilapidated old white hat, was not, it must be admitted, entirely adapted to the exterior of a highly respectable mansion. “And he had such a vile way of looking, as if he were a-waitin’ for some friend to come out o’ the ’ouse.” It is almost needless to say that this apparition attracted the police from afar off and all about, or that they gathered around him like buzzards near a departed lamb. I was told by a highly intelligent gentleman who witnessed the interviews, that the professor’s kindly reception of these public characters—the infantile smile with which he courted their acquaintance, and the good old grandfatherly air with which he listened to their little tales—was indescribably delightful. “In a quarter of an hour any one of them would have lent him a shilling;” and it was soon apparent that the entire force found a charm in his society. The lone lady herself made a sortie against him once; but one glance at the amiable smile, “which was child-like and bland,” disarmed her, and it was reported that she subsequently sent him out half-a-pint of beer.
It is needless to point out to the reader accustomed to good society that the professor’s declining to sit in a room where valuable and small objects abounded, in the absence of the owner, was dictated by the most delicate feeling. Not less remarkable than his strict politeness was the mysterious charm which this antique nomad unquestionably exercised on the entire female sex. Ladies of the highest respectability and culture, old or young, who had once seen him, invariably referred to him as “that charming old Gipsy.”
Nor was his sorcery less potent on those of low degree. Never shall I forget one morning when the two prettiest young Italian model-girls in all London were poséeing to an artist friend while the professor sat and imparted to me the lore of the Rommany. The girls behaved like moral statues till he appeared, and like quicksilver imps and devilettes for the rest of the sitting. Something of the wild and weird in the mountain Italian life of these ex-contadine seemed to wake like unholy fire, and answer sympathetically to the Gipsy wizard-spell. Over mountain and sea, and through dark forests with legends of streghe and Zingari, these semi-outlaws of society, the Neapolitan and Rommany, recognised each other intuitively. The handsomest young gentleman in England could not have interested these handsome young sinners as the dark-brown, grey-haired old vagabond did. Their eyes stole to him. Heaven knows what they talked, for the girls knew no English, but they whispered; they could not write little notes, so they kept passing different objects, to which Gipsy and Italian promptly attached a meaning. Scolding them helped not. It was “a pensive sight.”
To impress me with a due sense of his honesty and high character, the professor informed me one day that he was personally acquainted, as he verily believed, with every policeman in England. “You see, rya,” he remarked, “any man as is so well known couldn’t never do nothing wrong now,—could he?”
Innocent, unconscious, guileless air—and smile! I shall never see its equal. I replied—
“Yes; I think I can see you, Puro, walking down between two lines of hundreds of policemen—every one pointing after you and saying, ‘There goes that good honest --- the honestest man in England!’”
“Āvo, rya,” he cried, eagerly turning to me, as if delighted and astonished that I had found out the truth. “That’s just what they all pens of me, an’ just what I seen ’em a-doin’ every time.”
“You know all the police,” I remarked. “Do you know any turnkeys?”
He reflected an instant, and then replied, artlessly—
“I don’t jin many o’ them. But I can jist tell you a story. Once at Wimbledown, when the kooroo-mengroes were odoi (when the troopers were there), I used to get a pound a week carryin’ things. One day, when I had well on to two stun on my dumo (back), the chief of police sees me an’ says, ‘There’s that old scoundrel again! that villain gives the police more trouble than any other man in the country!’ ‘Thank you, sir,’ says I, wery respectable to him. ‘I’m glad to see you’re earnin’ a ’onest livin’ for once,’ says he. ‘How much do you get for carryin’ that there bundle?’ ‘A sixpence, rya!’ says I. ‘It’s twice as much as you ought to have,’ says he; ‘an’ I’d be glad to carry it myself for the money.’ ‘All right, sir,’ says I, touchin’ my hat and goin’ off, for he was a wery nice gentleman. Rya,” he exclaimed, with an air of placid triumph, “do you think the head-police his selfus would a spoke in them wery words to me if he hadn’t a thought I was a good man?”
“Well, let’s get to work, old Honesty. What is the Rommanis for to hide?”
“To gaverit is to hide anything, rya. Gaverit.” And to illustrate its application he continued—
“They penned mandy to gaver the gry, but I nashered to keravit, an’ the mush who lelled the gry welled alangus an’ dicked it.”
(“They told me to hide the horse, but I forgot to do it, and the man who owned the horse came by and saw it.”)
It is only a few hours since I heard of a gentleman who took incredible pains to induce the Gipsies to teach him their language, but never succeeded. I must confess that I do not understand this. When I have met strange Gipsies, it has often greatly grieved me to find that they spoke their ancient tongue very imperfectly, and were ignorant of certain Rommany words which I myself, albeit a stranger, knew very well, and would fain teach them. But instead of accepting my instructions in a docile spirit of ignorant humility, I have invariably found that they were eagerly anxious to prove that they were not so ignorant as I assumed, and in vindication of their intelligence proceeded to pour forth dozens of words, of which I must admit many were really new to me, and which I did not fail to remember.
The scouting, slippery night-life of the Gipsy; his familiarity with deep ravine and lonely wood-path, moonlight and field-lairs; his use of a secret language, and his constant habit of concealing everything from everybody; his private superstitions, and his inordinate love of humbugging and selling friend and foe, tend to produce in him that goblin, elfin, boyish-mischievous, out-of-the-age state of mind which is utterly indescribable to a prosaic modern-souled man, but which is delightfully piquant to others. Many a time among Gipsies I have felt, I confess with pleasure, all the subtlest spirit of fun combined with picture-memories of Hayraddin Maugrabin—witch-legends and the “Egyptians;” for in their ignorance they are still an unconscious race, and do not know what the world writes about them. They are not attractive from the outside to those who have no love for quaint scholarship, odd humours, and rare fancies. A lady who had been in a camp had nothing to say of them to me save that they were “dirty—dirty, and begged.” But I ever think, when I see them, of Tieck’s Elves, and of the Strange Valley, which was so grim and repulsive from without, but which, once entered, was the gay forecourt of goblin-land.
The very fact that they hide as much as they can of their Gipsy life and nature from the Gorgios would of itself indicate the depths of singularity concealed beneath their apparent life—and this reminds me of incidents in a Sunday which I once passed beneath a Gipsy roof. I was, en voyage, at a little cathedral town, when learning that some Gipsies lived in a village eight miles distant, I hired a carriage and rode over to see them. I found my way to a neat cottage, and on entering it discovered that I was truly enough among the Rommany. By the fire sat a well-dressed young man; near him was a handsome, very dark young woman, and there presently entered a very old woman,—all gifted with the unmistakable and peculiar expression of real Gipsies.
The old woman overwhelmed me with compliments and greetings. She is a local celebrity, and is constantly visited by the most respectable ladies and gentlemen. This much I had learned from my coachman. But I kept a steady silence, and sat as serious as Odin when he visited the Vala, until the address ceased. Then I said in Rommany—
“Mother, you don’t know me. I did not come here to listen to fortune-telling.”
To which came the prompt reply, “I don’t know what the gentleman is saying.” I answered always in Rommany.
“You know well enough what I am saying. You needn’t be afraid of me—I’m the nicest gentleman you ever saw in all your life, and I can talk Rommany as fast as ever you ran away from a policeman.”
“What language is the gentleman talking?” cried the old dame, but laughing heartily as she spoke.
“Oh dye—miri dye,
Don’t tute jin a Rommany rye?
Can’t tu rakker Rommany jib,
Tachipen and kek fib?”
“Āvo, my rye; I can understand you well enough, but I never saw a Gipsy gentleman before.”
[Since I wrote that last line I went out for a walk, and on the other side of Walton Bridge, which legend says marks the spot where Julius Cæsar crossed, I saw a tent and a waggon by the hedge, and knew by the curling blue smoke that a Gipsy was near. So I went over the bridge, and sure enough there on the ground lay a full-grown Petulamengro, while his brown juva tended the pot. And when I spoke to her in Rommany she could only burst out into amazed laughter as each new sentence struck her ear, and exclaim, “Well! well! that ever I should live to hear this! Why, the gentleman talks just like one of us! ‘Bien apropos,’ sayde ye ladye.”]
“Dye,” quoth I to the old Gipsy dame, “don’t be afraid. I’m tácho. And shut that door if there are any Gorgios about, for I don’t want them to hear our rakkerben. Let us take a drop of brandy—life is short, and here’s my bottle. I’m not English—I’m a waver temmeny mush (a foreigner). But I’m all right, and you can leave your spoons out. Tácho.”
“The boshno an’ kāni
The rye an’ the rāni;
Welled acai ’pré the boro lun pani.
Rinkeni juva hav acai!
Del a choomer to the rye!”
“Duveleste!” said the old fortune-teller, “that ever I should live to see a rye like you! A boro rye rakkerin’ Rommanis! But you must have some tea now, my son—good tea.”
“I don’t pi muttermengri dye (‘drink tea,’ but an equivoque). It’s muttermengri with you and with us of the German jib.”
“Ha! ha! but you must have food. You won’t go away like a Gorgio without tasting anything?”
“I’ll eat bread with you, but tea I haven’t tasted this five-and-twenty years.”
“Bread you shall have, rya.” And saying this, the daughter spread out a clean white napkin, and placed on it excellent bread and butter, with plate and knife. I never tasted better, even in Philadelphia. Everything in the cottage was scrupulously neat—there was even an approach to style. The furniture and ornaments were superior to those found in common peasant houses. There was a large and beautifully-bound photograph album. I found that the family could read and write—the daughter received and read a note, and one of the sons knew who and what Mr Robert Browning was.
But behind it all, when the inner life came out, was the wild Rommany and the witch-aura—the fierce spirit of social exile from the world in which they lived (the true secret of all the witch-life of old), and the joyous consciousness of a secret tongue and hidden ways. To those who walk in the darkness of the dream, let them go as deep and as windingly as they will, and into the grimmest gloom of goblin-land, there will never be wanting flashes of light, though they be gleams diavoline, corpse-candlelights, elfin sparkles, and the unearthly blue lume of the eyes of silent night-hags wandering slow. In the forgotten grave of the sorcerer burns steadily through long centuries the Rosicrucian lamp, and even to him whose eyes are closed, sparkle, on pressure, phosphorescent rings. So there was Gipsy laughter; and the ancient wicca and Vala flashed out into that sky-rocketty joyousness and Catherine-wheel gaiety, which at eighty or ninety, in a woman, vividly reminds one of the Sabbat on the Brocken, of the ointment, and all things terrible and unearthly and forbidden.
I do not suppose that there are many people who can feel or understand that among the fearfully dirty dwellers in tents and caravans, cock-shysters and dealers in dogs of doubtful character, there can be anything strange, and quaint, and deeply tinged with the spirit of which I have spoken. As well might one attempt to persuade the twenty-stone half-illiterate and wholly old-fashioned rural magistrate of the last century that the poor devil of a hen-stealing Gipsy dragged before him knew that which would send thrills of joy through the most learned philologist in Europe, and cause the great band of scholars to sing for joy. Life, to most of us, is nothing without its humour; and to me a whilome German student illustrating his military marauding by phrases from Fichte, or my friend Pauno the Rommany urging me with words to be found in the Mahabahrata and Hāfiz to buy a terrier, is a charming experience.
I believe that my imagination has neither been led nor driven, when it has so invariably, in my conversing with Gipsy women, recalled Faust, and all I have ever read in Wierus, Bodinus, Bekker, Mather, or Glanvil, of the sorceress and sortilega. And certainly on this earth I never met with such a perfect replica of Old Mother Baubo, the mother of all the witches, as I once encountered at a certain race. Swarthy, black-eyed, stout, half-centuried, fiercely cunning, and immoderately sensual, her first salutation was expressed in a phrase such as a Corinthian soul might be greeted with on entering that portion of the after-world devoted to the fastest of the fair. With her came a tall, lithe, younger sorceress; and verily the giant fat sow for her majesty, and the broom for the attendant, were all that was wanting.
To return to the cottage. Our mirth and fun grew fast and furious; the family were delighted with my anecdotes of the Rommany in other lands—German, Bohemian, and Spanish,—not to mention the gili. And we were just in the gayest centre of it all, “whin,—och, what a pity!—this fine tay-party was suddenly broken up,” as Patrick O’Flanegan remarked when he was dancing with the chairs to the devil’s fiddling, and his wife entered. For in rushed a Gipsy boy announcing that Gorgios (or, as I may say, “wite trash”) were near at hand, and evidently bent on entering. That this irruption of the enemy gave a taci-turn to our riotry and revelling will be believed. I tossed the brandy in the cup into the fire; it flashed up, and with it a quick memory of the spilt and blazing witch-brew in “Faust.” I put the tourist-flask in my pocket, and in a trice had changed my seat and assumed the air of a chance intruder. In they came, two ladies—one decidedly pretty—and three gentlemen, all of the higher class, as they indicated by their manner and language. They were almost immediately followed by a Gipsy, the son of my hostess, who had sent for him that he might see me.
He was a man of thirty, firmly set, and had a stern hard countenance, in which shone two glittering black eyes, which were serpent-like even among the Rommany. Nor have I ever seen among his people a face so expressive of self-control allied to wary suspicion. He was neatly dressed, but in a subdued Gipsy style, the principal indication being that of a pair of “cords,” which, however, any gentleman might have worn—in the field. His English was excellent—in fact, that of an educated man; his sum total that of a very decided “character,” and one who, if you wronged him, might be a dangerous one.
We entered into conversation, and the Rommany rollicking seemed all at once a vapoury thing of the dim past; it was the scene in a witch-revel suddenly shifted to a drawing-room in May Fair. We were all, and all at once, so polite and gentle, and so readily acquainted and cosmo-polite—quite beyond the average English standard; and not the least charming part of the whole performance was the skill with which the minor parts were filled up by the Gipsies, who with exquisite tact followed our lead, seeming to be at once hosts and guests. I have been at many a play, but never saw anything better acted.
But under it all burnt a lurid though hidden flame; and there was a delightful diablerie of concealment kept up among the Rommany, which was the more exquisite because I shared in it. Reader, do you remember the scene in George Borrow’s “Gipsies in Spain,” in which the woman blesses the child in Spanish, and mutters curses on it meanwhile in Zincali? So it was that my dear old hostess blessed the sweet young lady, and “prodigalled” compliments on her; but there was one instant when her eye met mine, and a soft, quick-whispered, wicked Rommany phrase, unheard by the ladies, came to my ear, and in the glance and word there was a concentrated anathema.
The stern-eyed Gipsy conversed well, entertaining his guests with ease. After he had spoken of the excellent behaviour and morals of his tribe—and I believe that they have a very high character in these respects—I put him a question.
“Can you tell me if there is really such a thing as a Gipsy language? one hears such differing accounts, you know.”
With the amiable smile of one who pitied my credulity, but who was himself superior to all petty deception or vulgar mystery, he replied—
“That is another of the absurd tales which people have invented about Gipsies. As if we could have kept such a thing a secret!”
“It does, indeed, seem to me,” I replied, “that if you had, some people who were not Gipsies must have learned it.”
“Of course,” resumed the Gipsy, philosophically, “all people who keep together get to using a few peculiar terms. Tailors and shoemakers have their own words. And there are common vagabonds who go up and down talking thieves’ slang, and imposing it on people for Gipsy. But as for any Gipsy tongue, I ought to know it” (“So I should think,” I mentally ejaculated, as I contemplated his brazen calmness); “and I don’t know three words of it.”
And we, the Gorgios, all smiled approval. At least that humbug was settled; and the Rommany tongue was done for—dead and buried—if, indeed, it ever existed. Indeed, as I looked in the Gipsy’s face, I began to realise that a man might be talked out of a belief in his own name, and felt a rudimentary sensation to the effect that the language of the Black Wanderers was all a dream, and Pott’s Zigeuner the mere tinkling of a pot of brass, Paspati a jingling Turkish symbol, and all Rommany a præterea nihil without the vox. To dissipate the delusion, I inquired of the Gipsy—
“You have been in America. Did you ever hunt game in the west?”
“Yes; many a time. On the plains.”
“Of course—buffalo—antelope—jack rabbits. And once” (I said this as if forgetfully)—“I once ate a hedgehog—no, I don’t mean a hedgehog, but a porcupine.”
A meaning glance shot from the Gipsy’s eye. I uttered a first-class password, and if he had any doubt before as to who the Rommany rye might be, there was none now. But with a courteous smile he replied—
“It’s quite the same, sir—porcupine or hedgehog. I know perfectly well what you mean.”
“Porcupines,” I resumed, “are very common in America. The Chippeways call them hotchewitchi.”
This Rommany word was a plumper for the Gipsy, and the twinkle of his eye—the smallest star of mirth in the darkest night of gravity I ever beheld in my life—was lovely. I had trumped his card at any rate with as solemn gravity as his own; and the Gorgios thought our reminiscences of America were very entertaining.
“He had more tow upon his distaffé
Than Gervais wot of.”
But there was one in the party—and I think only one—who had her own private share in the play. That one was the pretty young lady. Through all the conversation, I observed from time to time her eyes fixed on my face, as if surmising some unaccountable mystery. I understood it at once. The bread and butter on the table, partly eaten, and the snow-white napkin indicated to a feminine eye that some one not of the household had been entertained, and that I was the guest. Perhaps she had seen the old woman’s quick glance at me, but it was evident that she felt a secret. What she divined I do not know. Should this work ever fall into her hands, she will learn it all, and with it the fact that Gipsies can talk double about as well as any human beings on the face of the earth, and enjoy fun with as grave a face as any Ojib’wa of them all.
The habits of the Gipsy are pleasantly illustrated by the fact that the collection of “animated books,” which no Rommany gentleman’s library should be without, generally includes a jackdaw. When the foot of the Gorgio is heard near the tent, a loud “wā-āwk” from the wary bird (sounding very much like an alarm) at once proclaims the fact; and on approaching, the stranger finds the entire party in all probability asleep. Sometimes a dog acts as sentinel, but it comes to the same thing. It is said you cannot catch a weasel asleep: I am tempted to add that you can never find a Gipsy awake—but it means precisely the same thing.
Gipsies are very much attached to their dogs, and in return the dogs are very much attached to their masters—so much so that there are numerous instances, perfectly authenticated, of the faithful animals having been in the habit of ranging the country alone, at great distances from the tent, and obtaining hares, rabbits, or other game, which they carefully and secretly brought by night to their owners as a slight testimonial of their regard and gratitude. As the dogs have no moral appreciation of the Game Laws, save as manifested in gamekeepers, no one can blame them. Gipsies almost invariably prefer, as canine manifesters of devotion, lurchers, a kind of dog which of all others can be most easily taught to steal. It is not long since a friend of mine, early one morning between dark and dawn, saw a lurcher crossing the Thames with a rabbit in his mouth. Landing very quietly, the dog went to a Gipsy tan, deposited his burden, and at once returned over the river.
Dogs once trained to such secret hunting become passionately fond of it, and pursue it unweariedly with incredible secrecy and sagacity. Even cats learn it, and I have heard of one which is “good for three rabbits a week.” Dogs, however, bring everything home, while puss feeds herself luxuriously before thinking of her owner. But whether dog or cat, cock or jackdaw, all animals bred among Gipsies do unquestionably become themselves Rommanised, and grow sharp, and shrewd, and mysterious. A writer in the Daily News of October 19, 1872, speaks of having seen parrots which spoke Rommany among the Gipsies of Epping Forest. A Gipsy dog is, if we study him, a true character. Approach a camp: a black hound, with sleepy eyes, lies by a tent; he does not bark at you or act uncivilly, for that forms no part of his master’s life or plans, but wherever you go those eyes are fixed on you. By-and-by he disappears—he is sure to do so if there are no people about the tan—and then reappears with some dark descendant of the Dom and Domni. I have always been under the impression that these dogs step out and mutter a few words in Rommany—their deportment is, at any rate, Rommanesque to the highest degree, indicating a transition from the barbarous silence of doghood to Christianly intelligence. You may persuade yourself that the Gipsies do not mind your presence, but rest assured that though he may lie on his side with his back turned, the cunning jucko is carefully noting all you do. The abject and humble behaviour of a poor negro’s dog in America was once proverbial: the quaint shrewdness, the droll roguery, the demure devilry of a real Gipsy dog are beyond all praise.
The most valuable dogs to the Gipsies are by no means remarkable for size or beauty, or any of the properties which strike the eye; on the contrary, an ugly, shirking, humble-looking, two-and-sixpenny-countenanced cur, if he have but intellect, is much more their affaire. Yesterday morning, while sitting among the tents of “ye Egypcians,” I overheard a knot of men discussing the merits of a degraded-looking doglet, who seemed as if he must have committed suicide, were he only gifted with sense enough to know how idiotic he looked. “Would you take seven pounds for him?” asked one. “Āvo, I would take seven bar; but I wouldn’t take six, nor six an’ a half neither.”
The stranger who casts an inquisitive eye, though from afar off, into a Gipsy camp, is at once noted; and if he can do this before the wolf—I mean the Rom—sees him, he must possess the gift of fern-seed and walk invisible, as was illustrated by the above-mentioned yesterday visit. Passing over the bridge, I paused to admire the scene. It was a fresh sunny morning in October, the autumnal tints were beautiful in golden brown or oak red, while here and there the horse-chestnuts spread their saffron robes, waving in the embraces of the breeze like hetairæ of the forest. Below me ran the silver Thames, and above a few silver clouds—the belles of the air—were following its course, as if to watch themselves in the watery winding mirror. And near the reedy island, at the shadowy point always haunted by three swans, whom I suspect of having been there ever since the days of Odin-faith, was the usual punt, with its elderly gentlemanly gudgeon-fishers. But far below me, along the dark line of the hedge, was a sight which completed the English character of the scene—a real Gipsy camp. Caravans, tents, waggons, asses, smouldering fires; while among them the small forms of dark children could be seen frolicking about. One Gipsy youth was fishing in the stream from the bank, and beyond him a knot of busy basketmakers were visible.
I turned the bridge, adown the bank, and found myself near two young men mending chairs. They greeted me civilly; and when I spoke Rommany, they answered me in the same language; but they did not speak it well, nor did they, indeed, claim to be “Gipsies” at all, though their complexions had the peculiar hue which indicates some other than Saxon admixture of blood. Half Rommany in their knowledge, and yet not regarded as such, these “travellers” represented a very large class in England, which is as yet but little understood by our writers, whether of fact or fiction. They laughed while telling me anecdotes of gentlemen who had mistaken them for real Rommany chals, and finally referred me to “Old Henry,” further down, who “could talk with me.” This ancient I found a hundred yards beyond, basketing in the sun at the door of his tent. He greeted me civilly enough, but worked away with his osiers most industriously, while his comrades, less busy, employed themselves vigorously in looking virtuous. One nursed his infant with tender embraces, another began to examine green sticks with a view to converting them into clothes-pegs—in fact I was in a model community of wandering Shakers.
I regret to say that the instant I uttered a Rommany word, and was recognised, this discipline of decorum was immediately relaxed. It was not complimentary to my moral character, but it at least showed confidence. The Ancient Henry, who bore, as I found, in several respects a strong likeness to the Old Harry, had heard of me, and after a short conversation confided the little fact, that from the moment in which I had been seen watching them, they were sure I was a gav-mush, or police or village authority, come to spy into their ways, and to at least order them to move on. But when they found that I was not as one having authority, but, on the contrary, came talking Rommany with the firm intention of imparting to them three pots of beer just at the thirstiest hour of a warm day, a great change came over their faces. A chair was brought to me from a caravan at some distance, and I was told the latest news of the road.
“Matty’s got his slangs,” observed Henry, as he inserted a ranya or osier-withy into his basket, and deftly twined it like a serpent to right and left, and almost as rapidly. Now a slang means, among divers things, a hawker’s licence.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I remarked. There was deep sincerity in this reply, as I had more than once contributed to the fees for the aforesaid slangs, which somehow or other were invariably refused to the applicant. At last, however, the slangs came; and his two boys, provided with them (at ten shillings per head), were now, in their sphere of life, in the position of young men who had received an education or been amply established in business, and were gifted with all that could be expected from a doting father. In its way this bit of intelligence meant as much to the basketmaker as, “Have you heard that young Fitz-Grubber has just got the double-first at Oxford?” or, “Do you know that old Cheshire has managed that appointment in India for his boy?—splendid independence, isn’t it?” And I was shrewdly suspected by my audience, as the question implied, that I had had a hand in expanding this magnificent opening for the two fortunate young men.
“Dick adoi!” cried one, pointing up the river. “Look there at Jim!”
I looked and saw a young man far off, shirking along the path by the river, close to the hedge.
“He thinks you’re a gav-mush,” observed Henry; “and he’s got some sticks, an’ is tryin’ to hide them ’cause he daren’t throw ’em away. Oh, aint he scared?”
It was a pleasing spectacle to see the demi-Gipsy coming in with his poor little green sticks, worth perhaps a halfpenny, and such as no living farmer in all North America would have grudged a cartload of to anybody. Droll as it really seemed, the sight touched me while I laughed. Oh, if charity covereth a multitude of sins, what should not poverty do? I care not through which door it comes—nay, be it by the very portal of Vice herself—when sad and shivering poverty stands before me in humble form, I can only forgive and forget. And this child-theft was to obtain the means of work after all. And if you ask me why I did not at once proceed to the next magistrate and denounce the criminal, I can only throw myself for excuse on the illustrious example of George the Fourth, head of Church and State, who once in society saw a pickpocket remove from a gentleman’s fob his gold watch, winking at the king as he did so. “Of course I couldn’t say anything,” remarked the good-natured monarch, “for the rascal took me into his confidence.”
Jim walked into camp amid mild chaff, to be greeted in Rommany by the suspected policeman, and to accept a glass of the ale, which had rained as it were from heaven into this happy family. These basketmakers were not real Gipsies, but churdi or half-bloods, though they spoke with scorn of the two chair-menders, who, working by themselves at the extremity of the tented town (and excluded from a share in the beer), seemed to be a sort of pariahs unto these higher casters.
I should mention, en passant, that when the beer-bearer of the camp was sent for the three pots, he was told to “go over to Bill and borrow his two-gallon jug—and be very careful not to let him find out what it was for.” I must confess that I thought this was deeply unjust to the imposed-upon and beerless William; but it was another case of confidence, and he who sits among Gipsies by hedgerows green must not be over-particular. Il faut heurler avec les loups. “Ain’t it wrong to steal dese here chickens?” asked a negro who was seized with scruples while helping to rob a hen-roost. “Dat, Cuff, am a great moral question, an’ we haint got time to discuss it—so jist hand down anoder pullet.”
I found that Henry had much curious knowledge as to old Rommany ways, though he spoke with little respect of the Gipsy of the olden time, who, as he declared, thought all he needed in life was to get a row of silver buttons on his coat, a pair of high boots on his feet, and therewith—basta! He had evidently met at one time with Mr George Borrow, as appeared by his accurate description of that gentleman’s appearance, though he did not know his name. “Ah! he could talk the jib first-rateus,” remarked my informant; “and he says to me, ‘Bless you! you’ve all of you forgotten the real Gipsy language, and don’t know anything about it at all.’ Do you know Old Frank?” he suddenly inquired.
“Āvo,” I replied. “He’s the man who has been twice in America.”
“But d’ye know how rich he is? He’s got money in bank. And when a man gets money in bank, I say there is somethin’ in it. An’ how do you suppose he made that money?” he inquired, with the air of one who is about to “come down with a stunner.” “He did it a-dukkerin’.” 171 But he pronounced the word durkerin’; and I, detecting at once, as I thought, an affinity with the German “turkewava,” paused and stared, lost in thought. My pause was set down to amazement, and the Ancient Henry repeated—
“Fact. By durkerin’. I don’t wonder you’re astonished. Tellin’ fortunes just like a woman. It isn’t every man who could do that. But I suppose you could,” he continued, looking at me admiringly. “You know all the ways of the Gorgios, an’ could talk to ladies, an’ are up to high life; ah, you could make no end of money. Why don’t you do it?”
Innocent Gipsy! was this thy idea of qualification for a seer and a reader of dark lore? What wouldst thou say could I pour into thy brain the contents of the scores of works on “occult nonsense,” from Agrippa to Zadkiel, devoured with keen hunger in the days of my youth? Yes, in solemn sadness, out of the whole I have brought no powers of divination; and in it all found nothing so strange as the wondrous tongue in which we spoke. In this mystery called Life many ways have been proposed to me of alleviating its expenses; as, for instance, when the old professor earnestly commended that we two should obtain (I trust honestly) a donkey and a rinkni juva, who by telling fortunes should entirely contribute to our maintenance, and so wander cost-free, and kost-frei over merrie England. But I threw away the golden opportunity—ruthlessly rejected it—thereby incurring the scorn of all scientific philologists (none of whom, I trow, would have lost such a chance). It was for doing the same thing that Matthew Arnold immortalised a clerke of Oxenforde: though it may be that “since Elizabeth” such exploits have lost their prestige, as I knew of two students at the same university who a few years ago went off on a six weeks’ lark with two Gipsy girls; but who, far from desiring to have the fact chronicled in immortal rhyme, were even much afraid lest it should get into the county newspaper!
Leaving the basketmakers (among whom I subsequently found a grand-daughter of the celebrated Gipsy Queen, Charlotte Stanley), I went up the river, and there, above the bridge, found, as if withdrawn in pride, two other tents, by one of which stood a very pretty little girl of seven or eight years with a younger brother. While talking to the children, their father approached leading a horse. I had never seen him before, but he welcomed me politely in Rommany, saying that I had been pointed out to him as the Rommany rye, and that his mother, who was proficient in their language, was very desirous of meeting me. He was one of the smiths—a Petulengro or Petulamengro, or master of the horse-shoe, a name familiar to all readers of Lavengro.
This man was a full Gipsy, but he spoke better English, as well as better Rommany, than his neighbours, and had far more refinement of manner. And singularly enough, he appeared to be simpler hearted and more unaffected, with less Gipsy trickery, and more of a disposition for honest labour. His brother and uncle were, indeed, hard at work among the masons in a new building not far off, though they lived like true Gipsies in a tent. Petulamengro, as the name is commonly given at the present day, was evidently very proud of his Rommany, and talked little else: but he could not speak it nearly so well nor so fluently as his mother, who was of “the old sort,” and who was, I believe, sincerely delighted that her skill was appreciated by me. All Gipsies are quite aware that their language is very old and curious, but they very seldom meet with Gorgios who are familiar with the fact, and manifest an interest in it.
While engaged in conversation with this family, Petulamengro asked me if I had ever met in America with Mr ---, adding, “He is a brother-in-law of mine.”
I confess that I was startled, for I had known the gentleman in question very well for many years. He is a man of considerable fortune, and nothing in his appearance indicates in the slightest degree any affinity with the Rommany. He is not the only real or partial Gipsy whom I know among the wealthy and highly cultivated, and it is with pleasure I declare that I have found them all eminently kind-hearted and hospitable.
It may be worth while to state, in this connection, that Gipsy blood intermingled with Anglo-Saxon when educated, generally results in intellectual and physical vigour. The English Gipsy has greatly changed from the Hindoo in becoming courageous, in fact, his pugnacity and pluck are too frequently carried to a fault.
My morning’s call had brought me into contact with the three types of the Gipsy of the roads. Of the half-breeds, and especially of those who have only a very slight trace of the dark blood or kālo ratt, there are in Great Britain many thousands. Of the true stock there are now only a few hundreds. But all are “Rommany,” and all have among themselves an “understanding” which separates them from the “Gorgios.”
It is difficult to define what this understanding is—suffice it to say, that it keeps them all in many respects “peculiar,” and gives them a feeling of free-masonry, and of guarding a social secret, long after they leave the roads and become highly reputable members of society. But they have a secret, and no one can know them who has not penetrated it.
* * * * *
One day I mentioned to my old Rommany, what Mr Borrow has said, that no English Gipsy knows the word for a leaf, or patrin. He admitted that it was true; but after considering the subject deeply, and dividing the deliberations between his pipe and a little wooden bear on the table—his regular oracle and friend—he suddenly burst forth in the following beautiful illustration of philology by theology:—
“Rya, I pens you the purodirus lav for a leaf—an’ that’s a holluf. (Don’t you jin that the holluf was the firstus leaf? so holluf must be the Rommany lav, sense Rommanis is the purodirest jib o’ saw.) For when the first mush was kaired an’ created in the tem adrée—and that was the boro Duvel himself, I expect—an’ annered the tem apré, he was in the bero, an’ didn’t jin if there was any puvius about, so he bitchered the chillico avree. An’ the chillico was a dove, ’cause dove-us is like Duvel, an’ pāsh o’ the Duvel an’ Duvel’s chillico. So the dove mukkered avree an’ jalled round the tem till he latchered the puvius; for when he dickered a tan an’ lelled a holluf-leaf, he jinned there was a tem, an’ hatched the holluf apopli to his Duvel. An’ when yuv’s Duvel jinned there was a tem, he kaired bitti tiknos an’ foki for the tem—an’ I don’t jin no more of it. Kekoomi. An’ that is a wery tidy little story of the leaf, and it sikkers that the holluf was the first leaf. Tācho.”
“Sir, I will tell you the oldest word for a leaf—and that is an olive. (Don’t you know that the olive was the first leaf? so olive must be the Rommany word, since Rommanis is the oldest language of all.) For when the first man was made and created in the world—and that was the great God himself, I expect—and brought the land out, he was in the ship, and didn’t know if there was any earth about him, so he sent the bird out. And the bird was a dove, because dove is like Duvel (God), and half God and God’s bird. So the dove flew away and went around the world till he found the earth; for when he saw a place and took an olive-leaf, he knew there was a country (land), and took the olive-leaf back to his Lord. And when his Lord knew there was land, he made little children and people for it—and I don’t know anything more about it. And that is a very tidy little story of the leaf, and it shows that the olive was the first leaf.”
Being gratified at my noting down this original narrative from his own lips, my excellent old friend informed me, with cheerfulness not unmingled with the dignified pride characteristic of erudition, and of the possession of deep and darksome lore, that he also knew the story of Samson. And thus spake he:—
“Samson was a boro mush, wery hunnalo an’ tatto at koorin’, so that he nashered saw the mushis avree, an’ they were atrash o’ lester. He was so surrelo that yeckorus when he poggered avree a ker, an’ it had a boro sasterni wuder, he just pet it apré his dumo, an’ hookered it avree, an’ jalled kerri an’ bikin’d it.
“Yeck divvus he lelled some weshni juckals, an’ pandered yāgni-trushnees to their poris and mukked ’em jāl. And they nashered avree like puro bengis, sig in the sala, when sār the mushis were sūtto, ’ūnsa parl the giv puvius, and hotchered sār the giv.
“Then the krallis bitchered his mushis to lel Samson, but he koshered ’em, an’ pāsh mored the tāt of ’em; they couldn’t kurry him, and he sillered ’em to praster for their miraben. An’ ’cause they couldn’t serber him a koorin’, they kaired it sidd pré the chingerben drum. Now Samson was a seehiatty mush, wery cāmmoben to the juvas, so they got a wery rinkeni chi to kutter an’ kuzzer him. So yuv welled a lāki to a worretty tan, an’ she hocussed him with drab till yuv was pilfry o’ sutto, an his sherro hungered hooper side a lācker; an’ when yuv was selvered, the mushis welled and chinned his ballos apré an’ chivved him adrée the sturaben.
“An’ yeck divvus the foki hitchered him avree the sturaben to kair pyass for ’em. And as they were gillerin’ and huljerin’ him, Samson chivved his wasters kettenus the boro chongurs of the sturaben, and bongered his kokerus adrée, an sār the ker pet a lay with a boro gudli, an’ sār the pooro mushis were mullered an’ the ker poggered to bitti cutters.”
“Samson was a great man, very fierce and expert at fighting, so that he drove all men away, and they were afraid of him. He was so strong that once when he broke into a house, and it had a great iron door, he just put it on his back, and carried it away and went home and sold it.
“One day he caught some foxes, and tied firebrands to their tails and let them go. And they ran away like old devils, early in the morning, when all the people were asleep, across the field, and burned all the wheat.
“Then the king sent his men to take Samson, but he hurt them, and half killed the whole of them; they could not injure him, and he compelled them to run for life. And because they could not capture him by fighting, they did it otherwise by an opposite way. Now Samson was a man full of life, very fond of the girls, so they got a very pretty woman to cajole and coax him. And he went with her to a lonely house, and she ‘hocussed’ him with poison till he was heavy with sleep, and his head drooped by her side; and when he was poisoned, the people came and cut his hair off and threw him into prison.
“And one day the people dragged him out of prison to make sport for them. And as they were making fun of him and teasing him, Samson threw his hands around the great pillars of the prison, and bowed himself in, and all the house fell down with a great noise, and all the poor men were killed and the house broken to small pieces.
“And so he died.”
“Do you know what the judgment day is, Puro?”
“Āvo, rya. The judgment day is when you soves alay (go in sleep, or dream away) to the boro Duvel.”
I reflected long on this reply of the untutored Rommany. I had often thought that the deepest and most beautiful phrase in all Tennyson’s poems was that in which the impassioned lover promised his mistress to love her after death, ever on “into the dream beyond.” And here I had the same thought as beautifully expressed by an old Gipsy, who, he declared, for two months hadn’t seen three nights when he wasn’t as drunk as four fiddlers. And the same might have been said of Carolan, the Irish bard, who lived in poetry and died in whisky.
The soul sleeping or dreaming away to God suggested an inquiry into the Gipsy idea of the nature of spirits.
“You believe in mullos (ghosts), Puro. Can everybody see them, I wonder?”
“Āvo, rya, āvo. Every mush can dick mullos if it’s their cāmmoben to be dickdus. But ’dusta critters can dick mullos whether the mullos kaum it or kek. There’s grais an’ mylas can dick mullos by the rātti; an’ yeckorus I had a grai that was trasher ’drée a tem langs the rikkorus of a drum, pāsh a boro park where a mush had been mullered. He prastered a mee pauli, but pāsh a cheirus he welled apopli to the wardos. A chinned jucko or a wixen can hunt mullos. Āvali, they chase sperits just the sim as anything ’drée the world—dan’r ’em, koor ’em, chinger ’em—’cause the dogs can’t be dukkered by mullos.”
In English: “Yes, sir, yes. Every man can see ghosts if it is their will to be seen. But many creatures can see ghosts whether the ghosts wish it or not. There are horses and asses (which) can see ghosts by the night; and once I had a horse that was frightened in a place by the side of a road, near a great park where a man had been murdered. He ran a mile behind, but after a while came back to the waggons. A cut (castrated) dog or a vixen can hunt ghosts. Yes, they chase spirits just the same as anything in the world—bite ’em, fight ’em, tear ’em—because dogs cannot be hurt by ghosts.”
“Dogs,” I replied, “sometimes hunt men as well as ghosts.”
“Āvo; but men can fool the juckals avree, and men too, and mullos can’t.”
“How do they kair it?”
“If a choramengro kaums to chore a covva when the snow is apré the puvius, he jāls yeck piro, pālewavescro. If you chiv tutes pīros pal-o-the-waver—your kusto pīro kaired bongo, jallin’ with it a rikkorus, an’ the waver pīro straightus—your patteran’ll dick as if a bongo-herroed mush had been apré the puvius. (I jinned a mush yeckorus that had a dui chokkas kaired with the dui tāchabens kaired bongo, to jāl a-chorin’ with.) But if you’re pallered by juckals, and pet lully dantymengro adrée the chokkas, it’ll dukker the sunaben of the juckos.
“An’ if you chiv lully dantymengro where juckos kair panny, a’ter they soom it they won’t jāl adoi chichi no moreus, an’ won’t mutter in dovo tan, and you can keep it cleanus.”
That is, “If a thief wants to steal a thing when the snow is on the ground, he goes with one foot behind the other. If you put your feet one behind the other—your right foot twisted, going with it to one side, and the other foot straight—your trail will look as if a crooked-legged man had been on the ground. (I knew a man once that had a pair of shoes made with the two heels reversed, to go a-thieving with.) But if you are followed by dogs, and put red pepper in your shoes, it will spoil the scent of the dogs.
“And if you throw red pepper where dogs make water, they will not go there any more after they smell it, and you can keep it clean.”
“Well,” I replied, “I see that a great many things can be learned from the Gipsies. Tell me, now, when you wanted a night’s lodging did you ever go to a union?”
“Kek, rya; the tramps that jāl langs the drum an’ māng at the unions are kek Rommany chals. The Rommany never kair dovo—they’d sooner besh in the bāvol puv firstus. We’d putch the farming rye for mukkaben to hatch the rātti adrée the granja,but we’d sooner suv under the bor in the bishnoo than jāl adrée the chuvveny-ker. The Rommany chals aint sim to tramps, for they’ve got a different drum into ’em.”
In English: “No, sir; the tramps that go along the road and beg at the unions are not Gipsies. The Rommany never do that—they’d sooner stay in the open field (literally, air-field). We would ask the farmer for leave to stop the night in the barn, but we’d sooner sleep under the hedge in the rain than go in the poorhouse. Gipsies are not like tramps, for they have a different way.”
The reader who will reflect on the extreme misery and suffering incident upon sleeping in the open air, or in a very scanty tent, during the winter in England, and in cold rains, will appreciate the amount of manly pride necessary to sustain the Gipsies in thus avoiding the union. That the wandering Rommany can live at all is indeed wonderful, since not only are all other human beings less exposed to suffering than many of them, but even foxes and rabbits are better protected in their holes from storms and frost. The Indians of North America have, without exception, better tents; in fact, one of the last Gipsy tans which I visited was merely a bit of ragged canvas, so small that it could only cover the upper portion of the bodies of the man and his wife who slept in it. Where and how they packed their two children I cannot understand.
The impunity with which any fact might be published in English Rommany, with the certainty that hardly a soul in England not of the blood could understand it, is curiously illustrated by an incident which came within my knowledge. The reader is probably aware that there appear occasionally in the “Agony” column of the Times (or in that devoted to “personal” advertisements) certain sentences apparently written in some very strange foreign tongue, but which the better informed are aware are made by transposing letters according to the rules of cryptography or secret writing. Now it is estimated that there are in Great Britain at least one thousand lovers of occult lore and quaint curiosa, decipherers of rebuses and adorers of anagrams, who, when one of these delightful puzzles appears in the Times, set themselves down and know no rest until it is unpuzzled and made clear, being stimulated in the pursuit by the delightful consciousness that they are exploring the path of somebody’s secret, which somebody would be very sorry to have made known.
Such an advertisement appeared one day, and a friend of mine, who had a genius for that sort of thing, sat himself down early one Saturday morning to decipher it.
First of all he ascertained which letter occurred most frequently in the advertisement, for this must be the letter e according to rules made and provided by the great Edgar A. Poe, the American poet-cryptographer. But to reveal the secret in full, I may as well say, dear reader, that you must take printers’ type in their cases, and follow the proportions according to the size of the boxes. By doing this you cannot fail to unrip the seam of any of these transmutations.
But, alas! this cock would not fight—it was a dead bird in the pit. My friend at once apprehended that he had to deal with an old hand—one of those aggravating fellows who are up to cryp—a man who can write a sentence, and be capable of leaving the letter e entirely out. For there are people who will do this.
So he went to work afresh upon now hypotheses, and pleasantly the hours fled by. Quires of paper were exhausted; he worked all day and all the evening with no result. That it was not in a foreign language my friend was well assured.
“For well hee knows the Latine and the Dutche;
Of Fraunce and Toscanie he hath a touche.”
Russian is familiar to him, and Arabic would not have been an unknown quantity. So he began again with the next day, and had been breaking the Sabbath until four o’clock in the afternoon, when I entered, and the mystic advertisement was submitted to me. I glanced at it, and at once read it into English, though as I read the smile at my friend’s lost labour vanished in a sense of sympathy for what the writer must have suffered. It was as follows, omitting names:—
“MANDY jins of --- ---. Patsa mandy, te bitcha lav ki tu shan. Opray minno lav, mandy’l kek pukka til tute muks a mandi. Tute’s di’s see se welni poggado. Shom atrash tuti dad’l jal divio. Yov’l fordel sor. For miduvel’s kom, muk lesti shoon choomani.”
In English: “I know of ---. Trust me, and send word where you are. On my word, I will not tell till you give me leave. Your mother’s heart is wellnigh broken. I am afraid your father will go mad. He will forgive all. For God’s sake, let him know something.”
This was sad enough, and the language in which it was written is good English Rommany. I would only state in addition, that I found that in the very house in which I was living, and at the same time, a lady had spent three days in vainly endeavouring to ascertain the meaning of these sentences.
It is possible that many Gipsies, be they of high or low degree, in society or out of it, may not be pleased at my publishing a book of their language, and revealing so much of what they fondly cherish as a secret. They need be under no apprehension, since I doubt very much whether, even with its aid, a dozen persons living will seriously undertake to study it—and of this dozen there is not one who will not be a philologist; and such students are generally aware that there are copious vocabularies of all the other Gipsy dialects of Europe easy to obtain from any bookseller. Had my friend used the works of Pott or Paspati, Ascoli or Grellman, he would have found it an easy thing to translate this advertisement. The truth simply is, that for scholars there is not a single secret or hidden word in English Gipsy or in any other Rommany dialect, and none except scholars will take pains to acquire it. Any man who wished to learn sufficient Gipsy to maintain a conversation, and thereby learn all the language, could easily have done so half a century ago from the vocabularies published by Bright and other writers. A secret which has been for fifty years published in very practical detail in fifty books, is indeed a secrét de Ponchinelle.
I have been asked scores of times, “Have the Gipsies an alphabet of their own? have they grammars of their language, dictionaries, or books?” Of course my answer was in the negative. I have heard of vocabularies in use among crypto-Rommanies, or those who having risen from the roads live a secret life, so to speak, but I have never seen one. But they have songs; and one day I was told that in my neighbourhood there lived a young Gipsy woman who was a poetess and made Rommany ballads. “She can’t write,” said my informant; “but her husband’s a Gorgio, and he can. If you want them, I’ll get you some.” The offer was of course accepted, and the Gipsy dame, flattered by the request, sent me the following. The lyric is without rhyme, but, as sung, not without rhythm.
“Die at the gargers (Gorgios),
The gargers round mandy!
Trying to lel my meripon,
My meripon (meripen) away.
I will care (kair) up to my chungs (chongs),
Up to my chungs in Rat,
All for my happy Racler (raklo).
My mush is lelled to sturribon (staripen),
To sturribon, to sturribon;
Mymush is lelled to sturribon,
To the Tan where mandy gins (jins).”
“Look at the Gorgios, the Gorgios around me! trying to take my life away.
“I will wade up to my knees in blood, all for my happy boy.
“My husband is taken to prison, to prison, to prison; my husband is taken to prison, to the place of which I know.”