Hans Breitmann as Romany Rye
To the many who do not know, it is not easy to explain the charm of the Gypsy. But what it means to the few who feel it, Borrow, long ago, left no chance of doubt. I have come under the spell. There was a time when I found my hand’s breadth of romance — “ ’mid the blank miles round about” — on the road and in the tents. But when I look back, the centre of the group round the fire or under the trees was not the Gypsy, but a tall, fair man, with flowing beard, more like a Viking, — my Uncle, Charles Godfrey Leland, without whom I might never have found my way to those camps by the wayside.
He first took me to see the Gypsies after his return to Philadelphia, in the spring of 1880. He had already written his first books about them, was already honored as a Romany scholar throughout the learned world, and welcomed as a friend in every green lane where Gypsies wander. I like best to remember him as he was on these tramps, gay and at ease in his velveteen coat and soft wide-brimmed hat, alert for discovery of the Romany in the Philadelphia fields, and like a child in his enjoyment of it all, from the first glimpse of the smoke curling through the trees and the first sound of the soft “sarishan” of greeting. Of his love for the Gypsies I can, therefore, speak from my vivid memory of the old days. And as, since his death, all his Gypsy papers and collections have been placed in my hands, by his wish, I now know no less well — perhaps better than anybody — just how hard he worked over their history and their language. For if “gypsying” was, as he said, the best sport he knew, it was also his most serious pursuit. There are notebooks, elaborate vocabularies, stories, proverbs, songs, diaries, lists of names, memoranda of all sorts; there are great bundles of letters: from Gypsies, from other “Romany Ryes,” — Borrow, Groome, the Archduke Josef, Mr. MacRitchie, Professor Palmer, Mr. John Sampson, Mr. Hubert Smith, Dr. Bath Smart, Mr, Crofton. Nothing, I do believe, has ever united men as closely as love of the Gypsy, — when it has not estranged them completely, — and it happened that never was there a group of scholars so ready to be drawn together by this bond, Borrow their inspiration, as they would have been the first to admit.
If the “Romany Rye” is, as Groome defined him, one, not a Gypsy, who loves the race and has mastered the tongue, Borrow did not invent him. Already students had busied themselves with the language; already Gypsy scholars, like Glanvill’s, — or Matthew Arnold’s ? — “had roam’d the world with that wild brotherhood.” But they had been scattered through the many centuries since the first Gypsy had appeared in Europe. It was Borrow who, hearing the music of the wind on the heath, feeling the charm of the Gypsy’s life, made others hear and feel with him, till, where there had been but one Romany Rye, there were now a score, learning more of Romany in a few years than earlier scholars had in hundreds, and, less fearful than Glanvill’s youth, giving the world their knowledge of the language and the people who spoke it. A very craze for the Gypsy spread through the land. I know of nothing like it, save the ardor with which the Félibrige took root in Provence. Language in both cases — with the Félibres their own, with the Romany Ryes that of the stranger — led to sympathy and fellowship. There were the same meetings, the same friendships and rivalries, the same collaboration, the same exaltation even,— only, the sober men of the North were less intoxicated with the noise of their own voices, less theatrical in proclaiming their brotherhood, less eager to make of a common study a new religion, — and more self-conscious. They would have been ashamed to blow their trumpets in public, to advertise themselves with joyous self-abandonment. The Felibres were proud to be Provençal; the Romany Ryes loved to play at gypsying. And so, while the history of the Félibrige — probably with years of life before it — has been written again and again, the movement Borrow started still waits its historian, though, if the child has been born who will see the last Gypsy, as has been said, the race of Gypsy scholars must now be dying out. It is a pity. The story of their studies and their friendships, as I read it in these yellowing letters and notebooks, is worth immortalizing.
Of all the little group, not one got to know the Gypsies better, loved them more honestly, and wrote about them more learnedly and yet delightfully, than the Rye,— the name by which they all called him, by which I knew him best. During his life he had a wider notoriety as “Hans Breitmann,” but I think he will be remembered better as the Romany Rye, for into his Gypsy books he put more of himself as well as his most perfect work. If his study of the Romanies began only when he came to settle in England in 1870, it was simply because, until then, he had found no Romanies to study. Love of them must always have been in his blood. Nothing appealed to him more than the mysterious. The passion for the strange that set him reading Paracelsus at an age when most boys, if they read at all, are deep in penny dreadfuls; that gave him, as his last keen pleasure just before his death, the recovery of the Voodoo stone stolen from his hotel in Florence; — this passion, always so strong in him, predestined him to dealings of the “deepest” with the Gypsies, — everything connected with whom is a mystery, as Lavengro told the Armenian, — once the Gypsies came his way. The Rye — I cannot speak, as I cannot think, of him by any other name — did not make Borrow’s pretence to secret power; he did not pose as the Sapengro, their master. Nor was there anything of the vagabond about him. I cannot imagine him in the dingle with the Flaming Tinman and Isopel Berners. He would have been supremely uncomfortable wandering through Norway, or through life, with Esmeralda. He could not have passed himself off for a Gypsy with Wlislocki or Herrmann in the mountains of Transylvania, with Sampson on Welsh roads, with Borrow in Spain. It was not his way of caring for the Gypsies that was the only difference; he cared for them no less. For him the fascination was in the message their dark faces brought from the East, the “fatherland of divination and enchantment;” in the shreds and tatters of myths and magics that clung to them; in their black language — the kālo jib — with the something mysterious in it that drew Borrow to the Irish tongue.
Besides, in his religion, which was a sort of mystical materialism, love of nature played a large part. It would no more have driven him into the wilderness with Thoreau than love for the Gypsy could have led him to pitch his tent in Borrow’s dingle. But it was very real, all the same, and opened his heart to the people who are at home with nature, and whom he thought the human types of this love which is vanishing. In his ears, theirs was “the cheerful voice of the public road;” to its “sentiment” their presence was the clue; and he believed that Borrow felt this with him. I am not so sure. For all the now famous picture of the Gypsy as the human cuckoo adding charm to the green lanes in spring and summer, it is a question whether nature ever really appealed to Borrow, save as a background for his own dramatic self. With the Rye, however, I have wandered often and far enough to know that he loved the wood, the sea, the road, none the less when all humanity had been left behind. And out of this love of Nature, and the people nearest to her, came the gift of which he boasted once in a letter to Borrow, — he had always, he said, been able to win the confidence of Indians and negroes. It was natural, then, that he and the Gypsies, as soon as they met, should understand each other.
I do not mean that he did not enjoy the dramatic moment when it came. He did. He liked to astonish the Gypsies by talking to them in their own language. He liked to be able, no matter where he chanced upon them, — in England or America, Hungary or Italy, Egypt or Russia, —to stroll up, to all appearances the complete Gorgio, or Gentile; to be greeted as one; and then, of a sudden, to break fluently into Romany: “to descend upon them by a way that was dark and a trick that was vain, in the path of mystery,” and then to watch their wonder; — that was “a game, a jolly game, and no mistake,” — a game, worth all the philological discoveries in the world, which, I must say, he played uncommonly well. Everything about him helped, — his im posing presence, his fine head, with the long flowing beard, always towering above the Romanies; his gestures; — he had an impressive way, all his own, of throwing out his large hands as he spoke the magic words; — his earnestness, for he was tremendously in earnest in everything he did, and no Romany Rye ever “looked fixedly for a minute” into the Gypsy’s eye — the first move in the game — with more telling effect. To have an audience, especially a disinterested audience, added to the effect and the pleasure. “Wait, and you will see something queer,” he told the friend who was with him at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, when he spoke to the Hungarian Gypsies. There you have it. And the “queer thing” did not end with the first breathless second of astonishment. For he could tell the Romanies their own stories and fortunes, sing them their own songs, put them up to their own tricks, every bit as well as they could themselves, if not better, and look the Gorgio all the time. “How do you do it up to such a high peg?” one of them asked him once. “It’s the air and the style! ” To become a mystery to the people of mystery was a situation to which the study of no other language could lead. And to have somebody, even a chance passer-by, see him do it; to force an involuntary, “Do you know, sir, I think you’re the most mysterious gentleman I ever met!” but made his triumph complete.
If at home, up to 1869, he had never fallen among Gypsies, fate so willed it that in England he should settle first in the town of all others where to escape them was impossible for the few who did not want to escape, though most people there would not have known a Gypsy had they seen one. This was Brighton, middle-class and snobbish, still too dazzled by the royalty that once patronized it, to have eyes for the Romanies who, however, were always to be found at the Devil’s Dyke, but a few miles off. It was another piece of luck that chief among these Romanies should be old Matty Cooper, in his way as remarkable a personage as the Regent had been before him. He and his sister Gentilla, at the right seasons of the year, were certain to be camped somewhere about the Devil’s Dyke, and what they did not know of English Romany was not worth knowing.
Exactly how it happened I cannot say, except that it could not have been otherwise, but the Rye had not been very long in Brighton before Matty Cooper was coming to him three and four times a week, sometimes every day, to teach him Romany. “ I read to him aloud the Turkish Gypsy Dictionary of Paspati,” the Rye wrote years afterwards to Ibbetson, a Romany Rye of a later generation. “When he remembered or recognized a word, or it recalled another, I wrote it down. Then I went through the vocabularies of Liebich, Pott, Simson, etc., and finally through Brice’s Hindustani Dictionary, and the great part of a much larger work and one in Persian.” Matty had the courage, during the lesson, to face any dictionary his pupil chose to open, though how he faced his people in the tents afterwards, what language he used to them, is not on record. I have the notebooks by me, nine or ten in number, in which the results of each morning’s work were set down, and nowhere are there signs of the master playing truant. The date of each lesson is entered; sometimes, too, the sum paid for it, and it is to Matty’s credit that there were weeks when, at the rate of three shillings a lesson, he earned twenty-one. Then follows a list of the new words learned, or the old words discussed, each accompanied by its definition, its possible derivation, its variations suggested by different Gypsies and Gypsy scholars, and its practical application. There is no question that the lessons were not all “beer and ’baccy ’’for Matty.
But there are other entries that explain how he managed to bear the strain. Sometimes, the pupil records, “I went with my professor to visit the Gypsies camped about Brighton far and near;” and, by the time he left Brighton, a few months later, for Oatlands Park, the open road had become the usual classroom. At first, I fancy, the Rye hoped to continue his studies by correspondence. Otherwise, I can hardly explain a couple of letters which I have found among his papers. Both are undated; but both, internal evidence proves, come from Gypsies at the Dyke. Here is the first, of which the second is practically but a repetition:
MY DEAR Sir,— I received your kind letter and happy to hear you was quite well also your friend Sir i have sorry to tell you that my poor sister is very ill i do not think she will be here long i cannot tell you anything about Romni Chib in the letter but if you will come down to see me i have a little more to say to you as you know where i live and if i have not at home i ham aways up on the Dike i must thank you for telling me about my niphews so no more from your well wisher.
However, the Romany university is all outdoors, and Matty was as much at home along the shores of the Thames as at the Devil’s Dyke. Indeed, he was best known as “the Windsor Froggie,” and Windsor is not far from Oatlands Park, which, in its turn, is not far from Walton Bridge and the old willow tree through which some thirty years ago — alas, I cannot say how it is now — the blue smoke was always curling: as sure a sign of the presence of Gypsies as the flag floating from Windsor Tower is of royalty. And in all the country round about — the country of the old church towers the Rye loved, rising over fringes of forest, of ancient castles with the village at their feet, of the river and bridge in the foreground — Gypsies were forever coming and going. By the cool banks of the Thames, by the “turf-edged way,” they pitched their smoked tents, and in the little ale-house, at the country fair, on every near racecourse, the pupil was sure of finding his Romany professor or one or more of his tutors. The notebooks now are full of the sound of running water and rustling leaves; the sun shines in them, the rain pours. Borrow, teaching Isopel Berners Armenian, was not freer of academic traditions than the Rye, taking his frequent lesson from Matty Cooper. Certainly, nothing could be farther from the methods of Harvard or of Oxford than the session on Sunday, November 16, 1873:
“Went to the Bridge, but no Matty. Went to Joshua Cooper’s tent, — not there. Finally found Joshua out of breath, who, having just been chased by a gavmush [policeman], escaped by throwing away the wood he was carrying home.
So we had a long session and a very stormy one, — the children squalling, the Gypsies chingering [quarrelling], and old Matty, as Head Dictionary, shutting them all up. Finally, young Smith, Sally Buckland’s grandson, and another came to visit, and, after praising my great generosity, got a tringrushi [shilling], and departed in a boat with a jug, returning joyfully, singing cheerful, — with three quarts, which made the Sabbath sweet unto them. During all the confusion, I extracted the following. ’’
And the following means several pages of Romany words. Or here is another entry two days later: —
“Matty was waiting at the gate and took me a long walk, perhaps twentylive miles, — visiting on the way Ripley and Woking. . . . We got luncheon in Woking, Matty feasting on cold pork and I on beefsteak, hot baked ’taturs, bread and butter and ale.”
And this was the day that, “as we got on, Matty became more excited, and when, after dusk we got near the Park, he began to sing jollily,” with a gay “ Diddle dumpty dum Hurrah!” a song all about the hunger of his children and the cold in his tent; a subject which would hardly strike any one, save a Gypsy, as something to be particularly jolly about. But, the Rye adds, “I got the following words from him,” and there are ten pages of them.
“I ran after the beagles, Matty of course was oil the ground.” “Out with the beagles, meeting Gypsies.” “Another cold, frosty, bright morning, we started for Cobham,” — are examples of some of the further entries that follow one another in rapid succession.
Not even English Gypsies have outgrown the primeval fashion of expressing gratitude through gifts, a fashion they brought with them from the East. Jasper Petulengro was as ready to lend Borrow the money to buy a horse, as the wild Gitano in Badajoz was to throw down before him the bursting pomegranate, his one possession. And the Rye’s friends were as eager to give him something as to take from him, and, words being about all they had worth giving, and what he most wanted, words were lavished upon him,—in the daily lesson, at every chance meeting, even by trusty messenger. It is amusing in the notebooks to come across such an entry as: —
“Christopher Jones, a half-breed Gypsy, but whose mother was a fullblood (a Lee), and said to be deeply learned in old Gypsy, told Cooper to ask me if I knew that water was called the boro Duvel. C. Jones had much intercourse with old Gypsies.”
The scholar, of course, would prize the facts in the notebooks, however acquired. But it is the entries like this that please me, the little memoranda, scribbled in pencil, meant no doubt to be rubbed out later, but left, fortunately, as witnesses to the friendly relations between the Rye in the boro ketchema (big hotel) and the Gypsies in their tent by the roadside.
“Write to G. Cooper,” one of those entries says; “ask if she has seen Louisa Lee, — tell her her mother is dead. Oliver ill. Send your love.”
And the Rye, gradually, came to be looked upon as a sort of general newsagent and letter-writer for all the Romanies in the south; and he must have accepted the trust with good nature, or an “ever loving friend” would not have written from the tents to charge him: —
“if you should see my boy again you might ask him where his sister is as i should like to hear from her as well as i should from him if you see valentine Stanley you might give my love to him and tell him i should be glad to hear from him or his Brother at Any time and you might give my kind love and best wishes to Anybody that ask About me give my kind love and best Respects to your wife and neice sir if you should see any of the Smalls again plase to tell them there is some money left them By the death of their Aunt Eliza What Was in Australia the house is to be sold in tauntonand the money is to be divided among her Brothers Children.”
In the midst of all this hard work,— or pleasant play, — or rather when he first embarked upon it, the Rye’s thoughts naturally turned to Borrow. No one could then, or can ever again, see or hear of Romanies without thinking of Borrow. And Borrow was still living, — not the magnificent, young, heroic Borrow, inviting wonder wherever he went, whatever he did, whether fighting the Horrors or the Tinman, talking to an old applewoman on London Bridge, or drinking beer at a wayside inn, translating the Bible into Mant-chu or distributing it to the heathen in Spain. (By the way, only a few years ago, I saw the sign “G. Borrow, Agent of the British and Foreign Bible Society,” high up on a house in the Plaza Mayor, in Seville.) But it was now the old Borrow, ill natured, grumpy, living like any city man in a respectable Brompton Square, passing his afternoons at the Savile Club; still ready, however, to pose, if we can believe Groome, who saw him in the winter of 1873. “He posed even to me, a mere lad,” Groome says; as he had to old Esther Faa in Yetholm, or to Colonel Napier in Seville. But of this talent for grumpiness and for posing, the Rye was agreeably ignorant. All he knew was that he owed the sport he cared more for than any other in the world to George Borrow. “For twenty years it [Borrow’s work] has had an incredible influence over me,” he wrote in his first letter, asking for an interview. Gypsy scholars who came after Borrow might, and did, point out flaws and blunders in his work, might find fault with his want of exactness, and the meagreness of his knowledge of Romany. I tremble when I think of his rage, could he read some of the letters now lying before me. And yet, I do not think there was one of them all who did not agree with Groome in ranking “ George Borrow above every other writer on the Gypsies.”
“To mystify” was Borrow’s game in life,—a game which the Rye could also play, when he held a leading hand; and it is characteristic that, between them, they should have made their short acquaintance a problem as baffling as the Romany was before they gave the world the solution. The letter, to which I have referred, published by Mr. Knapp in his Life of Borrow, is dated October 18, 1870. There is a second from the Rye, dated January, 1871, — both were written from Brighton, — and Mr. Knapp, keener to detect the matter of fact than the unusual, finds in it proof that during the interval the desired meeting had taken place. And yet, the only letter from Borrow which I have found among the Rye’s papers, written as if no meeting had taken place, is dated November 2, 1871. It is from 22 Hereford Square, Brompton, and, though not enthusiastic, is at least not discouraging from the Borrow of those days.
SIR, — I have received your letter and am gratified by the desire you express to make my acquaintance.
Whenever you please to come, I shall be happy to see you.
This might settle matters, did not the Rye state in his Memoirs and again in The Gypsies — without any date, of course, but 1870 is the year of which he is speaking in the Memoirs2— that he was introduced, by chance, to Borrow in the British Museum, where, afterwards, he again met and talked several times with the “Nestor of Gypsyism.” But I am as ready to dispense with exactness in this matter as in Borrow’s philology. The main thing is that the younger Gypsy scholar did “once see Borrow plain,” — cannot you fancy them looking at each other “fixedly for a few moments” in the approved Romany Rye fashion ? — that several meetings followed, and that the Rye, so far from being disillusioned, when he later gathered into a book all he had learned on the roads offered the dedication of The English Gypsies to the man he looked up to as master. The letter carrying the offer was directed to the care of Murray, the publisher, who assured the Rye it must have reached Borrow, and this assurance is also in my pile of letters, — the letters that tell me the whole story of those full years of Gypsy scholarship. But Borrow’s only answer was the public announcement, a few days later, of his Lavo-Lil. When it came to interest in the Gypsy, Lavengro drew the line at himself.
But hurry as Borrow might to throw together, anyhow, the words, stories, and names collected during long years, the Rye’s book came out first. I am not sure if The English Gypsies is remembered by a public dazzled by the melodramatic Romany of fiction, and incapable of appreciating its great learning. But in it the Rye also sings the joys of the road and of the things that make life sweet to the wanderer; it has something of the undefinable charm of the Gypsy himself; and what the public in the seventies thought is shown by the fact that the book went quickly into a second edition. What the Romany Ryes thought, they straightway sat down and wrote to tell the author, — Mr. Hubert Smith, Dr. Bath Smart, Crofton, Groome, Palmer, one and all. When I look at the great pile of their letters, carefully preserved, it strikes me as one of the little ironies of life that the Gypsy, smoking and dreaming his own life away, should have excited his lovers to such a delirium of industry.
As I read these old letters, I wonder that the rest of the world could keep on plodding at its accustomed tasks and refuse to see that the Gypsy was the only thing of real importance in the world. I wish I had space for Groome’s letters, so charming are they, written with all the seriousness and enthusiasm of youth; he was only twenty-three or twenty-four at the time; but they would make a volume of themselves. Those from Professor E. H. Palmer show that he could be no less irresistible as a friend than accomplished as a scholar. In 1874, he and the Rye, with the further help of Miss Janet Tuckey, were hard at work collaborating, and to read Palmer’s letters is to believe that really there could be nothing worth doing except to write Gypsy ballads, and to publish them afterwards in a volume (English Gypsy Songs). Between Cambridge and London, those that were written flew backwards and forwards; getting themselves criticised with a zeal scarcely short of fanaticism. In thenbehalf papers were “nobbled,” — did n’t “young Fred Pollock” write for the Saturday, and did n’t he know well “Leslie Stephen of the Pall Mall —“I, like you, will do my damndest to make the book go,” Palmer writes with one of his reports of tried and suggested intrigue! “I am more on for it than even for my Arabic Grammar, which is just out, and which has absorbed almost all my thought for these two years past.” Occasionally, other matters call for a passing word, but they speedily make way for the only thing that counts.
“I will talk about your forthcoming Chinaman discoverer to-night at Trinity, where I dine with the Chancellor and Honorary degree men, — Sir James Wolsey and Co., and a distinguished countryman of yours, J. R. Lowell, — and on every other occasion that I can. It ought to be a success. My lectures are at an end, thank my dearie duvel [dear God], so that as soon as I can clear off a few reviews I shall be free to go ahead with the Romany Pomes. I am very glad Miss Tuckey is also likely to be free to finish off her lot. As soon as you let me have a printed slip of the Royal poem, I will get the Dean to present it. In the meantime please let us have the specimens for the, Athenœum, etc., and then we will follow them up with a leader from W. Besant in the Daily News.”
Log-rolling, you may say. Yes, but logrolling done with a gayety, a disinterestedness, a sense of the fun of it, unknown to the present modern weakling with no ambition higher than the commercial traveller’s.
The publisher, Trübner, intimate friend though he was of the Rye’s, it seems, would not think of the book until a certain number of subscribers were assured.
“I don’t much like having to do publisher’s work as well as our own,” Palmer says in one of his gayest letters, “ nor do I like having to appeal ad misericordiam for subscribers, but I suppose we must submit.
“ ‘ You are earnestly requested to subscribe to the above work; it is the composition of a blind orphan who is deaf and dumb and has no use of his limbs. Unless 50,000 copies at a penny each are taken by a Christian and sympathizing public the book will remain unpublished, and the writer will have no resource but the workhouse or dishonesty.’ However, as soon as I have finished the glossary — which I am getting on with fast — I will draw up, as you suggest, a circular, and when you have approved and touched up, we will scatter it broadcast, and I will ask every one I know to subscribe. We will make it go somehow. I think we had better come out with a burst, get if we can Royalty’s opinion, then get out our prospectus, then a leader on it in the Daily News, then specimens in the Athenœum, and say a sandwich man with a prospectus on his hat up and down Regent Street.”
It is impossible to read Palmer’s letters without sharing his excitement, so that it is a regret to me when, in them, I reach the moment of the book’s appearance. Not that the excitement is at an end. There is still the agitation of sending a copy to the Queen, this time through her equerry, Colonel Ponsonby, and of receiving in due course the usual formal, “lam desired to acknowledge the receipt of the Vol. on English Gipsy Songs forwarded by you to the Queen, and to announce Her Majesty’s acceptance of it with thanks.” — Did this sort of thing ever do any good to any book ? — There is still the redoubled agitation of intrigue, now for reviews. From some unknown channel, news arrives that “ Crofton is to be civil; ” more encouraging, the Athenœum really is amiable. Palmer, in between a consultation with the oculist and a visit to the Sultan of Zanzibar, — who, it might be recorded, talked all the time “about Hell and Purgatory,” — stops to write, “Hooray! dordi [behold] the Athenœum, — have n’t they mulched us tale mishto” [done us well]! “Walter Pollock” is to write for the Saturday. A dinner with the proprietor of the Spectator may lead to things there, by gentle insinuation,— who knows ? I may as well state at once that all this did lead to results more practical than the mere kudos, with which, usually, the philologist must be content, for the first edition was sold out by August.
After the launching of the book, Palmer’s letters became few; partly because the two men were now more often together, meeting in the summer, and, eventually, Palmer coming to London to live; partly because the Rye returned to Philadelphia in 1879, and whatever letters Palmer wrote there, before his tragic death, are gone, no one knows where.
But, during the seventies, it seemed as if not only Groome, and Palmer, and Bath Smart, and Mr. Crofton, and Mr. Hubert Smith, but everybody who sent the Rye a letter, could write of nothing but Gypsies. One day it was George Boker, then Minister to Russia, supplying him with information as to the Gypsies in that country; the next, it was a friend, giving him news of the Gypsies near Weybridge and Oatlands Park. Or else it was Dr. Garnett writing from the British Museum to enclose a Gypsy song from a Ivoloszvar publication; or Miss Janet Tuckey consulting him about her ballads, envying Palmer his facility,— “why, he’d soon make a book all by himself;” or Mr. Horace E. Scudder, with a message from army officers in the West, puzzled by a suggested relation between Romany and Red Indian;— and it is curious that the same relation, or rather comparison, should have suggested itself to “old Frank Cooper,” who, one day at the W alton Races, according to the notebooks, told the Rye he “had been often puzzled by Indians in America and their great resemblance toGypsies; ”—or Miss Genevieve Ward, anxious for Gypsy sougs that, in her coming role of Gypsy, will be more effective, she thinks, sung “in the tree lingo, ”— letters from any and every one; a long list, far too long to quote.
And it was another part of the charm the Romanies had for him, that, thanks to them, he could travel nowhere and not find friends waiting for him. All his journeys during these years mean so many chapters for his Gypsy books. He went to Russia for the winter, and the record is in his papers on the Russian Gypsies who sang to him in St. Petersburg and Moscow. He attended the Oriental Congress in Paris in 1878, and he might have forgotten it himself but for his meetings with the Hungarian Gypsies who played to him at the Exposition. He wandered over England, here, there, and I, for one, could not say where, were it not for the Gypsies, who, in each new place, gave him fresh material for his books. He spent a summer in Wales, Palmer with him, that would be a blank in the story of his life but for the discovery of Shelta, the encounters with some of the deep, wild Welsh Gypsies, and the legend that grew up among them of his passing. Of this legend, Mr. John Sampson, of University College, Liverpool, wrote to him, more than twenty years later, in a letter that I quote now, because it refers more especially to this period. It is one of the most delightful letters in all the bundle, — delightful to write, delightful to receive : —
“I can scarcely tell you with what pleasure I again hear from you, — one of the few remaining tacho-biëno Romany Rais. Though it is long since I wrote to you, you have been so often in my thoughts that I feel as if I knew you better than perhaps I do. . . .
“Well, Romani, which you somewhere rightly compare to the longing for the plains (Kipling’s ‘ East a-calling’) is as much a passion with me as ever, and since the cessation of our Journal I have done more work at it than ever, especially at the very perfect Welsh dialect. Five years ago, travelling through Wales in Gypsy fashion with van and tent, in company with Kuno Meyer, Walter Raleigh, and two other friends (one a Gypsy), I struck one of the Woods, — Edward Wood, a harper, — and begun from him my study of the Welsh dialect. Since then I have practically spent all my spare time in Wales with the Welsh Gypsies, and believe I now know every member of the family, and every word and inflexion. At times I have spent weeks without hearing English spoken, for the natives speak Welsh, and the Gypsies invariably Romani, not as with most English Gypsies only on rare occasions. . . .
“Now let me tell you something that I think will interest you. Do you know that you have become a mythical personage among the Welsh Gypsies, just as the Archduke has among some Continental Gypsy tribes ? (I forget which, but I remember reading about it in Herrmann’s Ethnologische Mittheilungen, and I daresay I could rake out the reference if you want it.) I first heard vague allusions to it from several Gypsies without, of course, connecting it with you. Then meeting ‘Taw,’ that deepest of witches, at Menai, I heard the story more definitely. It was told me as a great secret. Her story was of a great kinsman of the Woods who lived across the water, of great height and fabulous wealth which he held in trust for the family, and with which he would eventually endow them; who spoke deep Romani as they did, who knew everything, who travelled everywhere. ‘You met him at Aberystwyth,’ I said. ‘Auaua Chavo! ’ ‘In the year 187—’ ‘Bichadás tut yov
more fōkengi ? ’ I did not deny it, for it is a rule of mine neither to deny or affirm anything, neither to promise or refuse anything, to the Gypsies. Since then from different parts of Wales I have had repeated invitations to turn up the money at once or take the consequences. Only last year I received a letter from a Wrexham firm of solicitors saying that from information received they now positively knew that certain sums of money intended for their client, Mrs. Wood, had been withheld by me, and that, the matter having been placed in their hands, they would stand no nonsense, or words to that effect. I replied, saying that if they would read the enclosed letter to their client she would gather something of my intentions. The enclosed letter was in Romani.”
When, after ten years, the Rye,in 1879, crossed the Atlantic again, and found Philadelphia, in many ways, transformed almost out of recognition, there were Gypsies to keep him from feeling a stranger in his native land. It was then I got to know the Romanies. Most people in those days — as I believe they do still — looked upon respectability as Philadelphia’s only product. Its straight streets and regular vistas of house fronts seemed to offer no escape from the commonplace, no chance to stumble upon the unknown. And yet, to the Philadelphian, as to Borrow, “strange things” may every day occur, for America now, as well as the British Isles, is full of the people who bring adventure to one’s very doorstep.
I was young, the convent not so many years behind me, and I was carried off my feet by the wonder of it all. A quarter of a century older as I am now, when I look back to those days I still see in North Broad Street, not the chief thoroughfare “up town,” where no correct Philadelphian would be “found dead,” but the path to the freedom of Oakdale Park, where the Costelloes camped in the early spring; the dreariest West Philadelphia suburb becomes transfigured into the highway to Bohemia and its seven castles, though to my blind fellow citizens it was only an open lot where the Lovells pitched their dirty little brown tents; the old thrill comes with the thought of the ferry where we embarked for Camden the Ineffable, and the Reservoir, and, under its shadow, Davy Wharton, the truest Gypsy of them all, who slept through the short crisp October days, while Shēva, his wife, begged and told fortunes in the town. But there was no going anywhere, on any matter-of-fact errand, without the happy risk of adventure. If I stepped into a street car, might I not, as sometimes happened, be greeted with the mysterious “sarishan” from Gypsy women carrying their day’s plunder home, while all the Gorgios stared ? In my own back yard, — good Philadelphian for garden, — or at my own front door, might I not run into a tinker, part if not all Gypsy, sharpening the family knives and scissors? And on decorous Chestnut Street , were there not rare, but unforgettable, visions of strange wild creatures with flashing eyes and long black hair, wearing strange garments decorated with big silver buttons, striding along on First Day morning, past the quiet groups of Friends in plain coats and plain bonnets, — beautiful beings, such as I had never seen before, but have since on the remote roads of Transylvania ? “Do you remember,’’ the Rye wrote me from Florence (in 1892), referring to these old days, “do you remember Rosanna Lovell, and how we took her a dukkerin lil [fortune-telling book] and brought a thousand people out to see her; and how Val Stanley sent out every ten minutes for beer, which we drank out of a moustache-cup, — and the great tent with, the Arab brass lamp, where the beer was carried round in a watering pot! — and the old Rom who apologised for the want of a view or scenery, and who offered a piece of tobacco for hospitality?”—Why, Philadelphia was all adventure, a town of “strange things.”
The Rye had not lost in America his extraordinary faculty of inspiring others with his own enthusiasm, and the Gypsy fever spread, as in England, even to people he did not know. Before long, on our expeditions, we were joined by an artist,
— he is now my husband; many articles, for the Century principally, coming of those days when we were fellow explorers, and, also, I sometimes think, our life for the last twenty years together. And, almost as soon, Gypsy bulletins were dispatched from Boston, where Miss Abby Alger watched for the passing Romany, with the keenness of Groomc in Göttingen or Palmer in Cambridge. And, as promptly, we were hearing from our Gypsy friends of two tāni rānis (young ladies) down in Delaware, beautiful, rich, and real Romanies, — one a Lee,
— talking deep Romany, though housedwellers. We thought them myths for a while. But they, at the right moment, materialized, at first in a voluminous correspondence, eventually in person, when the tāni rāni, who was a Lee to the Romanies and Katharine Bayard to all the world beside, was crossing the ferry with us to that Lotus Land under the shadow of the Reservoir. But what now strikes me as the most curious evidence of the hold the Gypsy had taken of people’s imagination, is the ease with which Planchette wrote Romany for a girl I knew, who, without its help, could not, or thought she could not, speak a word of the language.
It adds to the picturesqueness of these memories that Walt Whitman should have a prominent place in them. We seldom could get to Camden and home again without meeting and talking with him. Sometimes we found him sitting in a big chair by the fruit stall at the foot of Market Street, gossiping with the Italian who kept it, eating peanuts, shaking hands with the horse-car drivers, whose stopping place was just in front. Sometimes he was leaving the ferryboat as we started, or stepping on it as we landed in Camden. Sometimes we paid him a visit in his brother’s house, where he lived. Sometimes we rode up together in the Market Street car. He always wanted to hear about the Gypsies, though I fancied he was not quite in sympathy with our way of seeing them. It would not have been his way. He would rather have come across them by chance, not by design. In the memoranda of his life, left by the Rye to my care, there are some stray notes of these meetings with Walt Whitman, and I only wish I could make others realize all that they recall and suggest as I read them.
“It seems so strange to me now  — to think that I used to walk with him [Walt Whitman] and take drinks with him in small publics and talk of poetry and people, and visit him in his home with Elizabeth Robins — long ago. There were always Gypsies camped about a mile from his house, and Elizabeth and I, going and coming, . . . used to meet him and tell him all that we had seen, which greatly interested the old Bohemian. I have some recollection of telling him his fortune or of examining his palm. We had no idea in those days that we were making print for the future. But we were really all three very congenial and Gypsyish. Whitman’s manner was deliberate and grave; he always considered or ‘took’ an idea ‘well in’ before replying. He was, I think, rather proud of the portrait of an ancestor which hung in the parlor of his home. . . .
“One day, when I found him seated on a chair at the foot of Market Street in Philadelphia, by the ferry, a favourite haunt of his, he was admiring a wooden statue of an Indian, a tobacconist’s sign. He called my attention to it,—not as a work of art, but as something characteristic and indicative of national taste. I quite understood and agreed with him, for it had, as he saw it, an art value. It was a bit of true folk-lore. . . .
“Once, when I had first made his acquaintance, we met at the corner of Sansom and Seventh streets. He took me into a very common little bar-room where there was a table, and introduced me to several rather shabby, common looking men, not workmen, but looking like Bohemians and bummers. I drank ale and talked, and all easily and naturally enough, — I had in my time been bon compagnon with Gypsies, tinkers, and all kinds of loose fish, and thought nothing of it all. But when we came forth, Whitman complimented me very earnestly on having been so companionable, and said he had formed a very different idea of me; in short, he did not know the breadth of my capacity. I had evidently risen greatly in his opinion.
“When my book on the Gypsies appeared, I, knowing that it would interest him, gave him a copy, in which I had written a short complimentary poem; and, mindful of the great and warm gratitude which he had declared regarding my brother Henry, I asked him if he would not write for me a few original verses, though it were only a couplet, in the copy of Leaves of Grass which he had sent to my brother. His reply was a refusal at which I should not have felt hurt, had it been gently worded or civilly evasive, but his reply was to the effect that he never did anything of the kind except for money. His exact words then were, ‘Sometimes when a fellow says to me: “Walt, here’s ten or five dollars, —write me a poem for it,” I do so.’ And then, seeing a look of disappointment or astonishment in my face, he added, ‘But I will give you my photograph and autograph,’ which he did.”
After I came to England, in 1884, the same year the Rye returned, I went on some expeditions with him to see the English Gypsies; but not many. I was seldom in London in the summer during the few years he remained in England, and the fog and wet of a London winter never exactly made me long to see “the road before me.” But of these few expeditions, two stand out with startling vividness in my memory, and are very characteristic of him as Romany Rye.
One was to the Derby. My only experience of what Mr. Henry James calls the “popular revel ” taught me little of the English people, — its virtue in his eyes, — most of my day being spent with the Wanderers who could teach me more of the East. What horses ran, I do not think I knew; I am sure I did not look on at one race; it is doubtful if I had a glimpse of the course. My confused memory is of innumerable Gypsy tents; of more Romanies than I had ever seen together at any one moment in any one place; of endless beer and chaff, of which I am afraid I did not consume or contribute my share; of gay bouts in the cocoanut shies; of the Rye for the rest of the afternoon, with a cocoanut under each arm, beaming with pride over his skill in winning them; and of the day’s wonders culminating in what, to me, was the great event of that year’s Derby. I don’t know quite how it happened. We were passing late in the afternoon a tent which somehow we had missed in the morning, and we stopped to speak to the dye and the children playing around it. Almost at once, out of the tent came a young woman. It was in the days of “water waves,” and never had I beheld such an amazing arrangement of them on any one head. They and her face shone with soap and water. A bright new silk handkerchief was tied coquettishly about her neck. She smiled, and tripped on to greet a friend. In less time than I can write it, with hair streaming, handkerchief flying, face flowing with blood, she was struggling in the arms of the other woman, both swearing like troopers.
“Hold hard!” cried the Rye, “this won’t do!”
And down fell the cocoanuts, and he was between the two women, his great head and beard towering above them, blows and kicks falling upon him from either side like rain, for so quickly was it done that it took them a good minute to realize they were not pommeling each other. That ended the fight. But since then, I have understood Jasper Petulengro better! “Rum animals. . . . Did you ever feel their teeth and nails, brother?”
The other expedition was to the Hampton Races, where I had my one memorable meeting with Matty Cooper, who was then very old, and very drunk, too, I regret to say, but very charming; and where I wore the carnations he presented me, as, at other tournaments, maidens wore the colors of their knights.
From now onward, the Rye did not see so much of the Gypsies. And yet, never at any time, not even when collaborating with Palmer, was he so immersed in Gypsy matters as when, within four years of his return to England, the Gypsy Lore Society was established. There was again a perpetual interchange of letters, an agitation, a fever, an absorption. The Romany Ryes all joined forces. Old grievances were forgotten, old disputes settled, old correspondences renewed.
The credit for founding this society has been given to W. J. Ibbetson, who, in answer to Colonel Prideaux’s question in Notes and Queries (October 8,1887) as to whether any systematic attempt had been made to collect the songs and ballads of English Gypsies, suggested (November 17) that a club of Romany Ryes be formed to collect and publish by subscription as complete vocabularies and collections of ballads in the Anglo-American dialect as might be possible at that date. The matter was taken up by Mr. David MacRitchie, to whom, eventually, fell the work of starting the society. At first the Rye did not respond with enthusiasm. He had proposed just such a society eighteen years before, and the little band of Gypsy scholars then, instead of supporting him, “were very much annoyed (as George Borrow also was) at the appearance of a new intruder in their field.”
His first letter on the subject to Mr. MacRitchie from Brighton, February 26, 1888, was rather indifferent. He agreed that there “should be a Romany society to collect what is left of this fast vanishing people,” and he was quite willing to join and pay his guinea a year, but there must be no further responsibility, while he urged a greater exclusiveness than Mr. MacRitchie, with a necessary eye to the bank account, thought possible.
“I do not insist on anything, but I have possibly had a little more experience than most men in founding or watching such Clubs, and I will therefore give reasons for admitting only men who speak Romany. If such men only join, it will give the Society a marked character. The members will be able to do something and to work. A man who don’t know Romany may pay his guinea, but of what use will he be ? And of what earthly use will his guinea be ? To publish our works! Why, if our works are worth printing at all, I can find a publisher who will do it all at his own expense. Now this is a fact. Half the works issued by Societies are rubbish which the writers could not get printed, except by influence. . . .
“ I should prefer a small and poor society, but a real one, —even with gypsies in it,—do an amateur theatrical company. Pardon me for speaking so earnestly, but I have been so sickened by my experience of clubs in which men were taken in for their money, that I would like to be in one which was real.”
His indifference was not quite conquered even when Mr. MacRitchie, early in May, wrote to offer him the highest tribute it was possible for the Romany Ryes to offer.
“ Crofton and Groome and myself hope that you will also become our President,” Mr. MacRitchie tells him. “Before we send a prospectus to others, we must have two or three office-bearers named, and there is no one so well fitted for the Presidentship as yourself. So I hope soon to hear that you have accepted. We propose that Mr. Crofton be Vice President, and that I be Secretary and Treasurer. Groome has kindly agreed to divide my labours (such as they are), but he firmly declines to appear as Secretary — or in any prominent position.”
Later, however, Groome did appear as editor of the Journal with Mr. MacRitchie.
“Unless you can get along with my name alone, there will be very little use in proclaiming me as President,” is the Rye’s answer on May 4. “I am out of London and England — or expect to be — most of the time. ... If my name will help I am willing to let it be used.”
Of course his name would help, and so Mr. MacRitchie assured him promptly, and I can see that his indifference began to be shaken, by the interest he took when it came to the question of Romany spelling, which I wish, for my comfort and my readers’, had been settled years before.
“Let the word be henceforward written Gypsies with a y,” he wrote to Mr. MacRitchie on May 9. “You caused me to write it so. If it comes from Egypt — gypsies is right.
“Seriously, let us come to some agreement as to orthography. Groome writes Ri,—I write Rye after Borrow, because he made Rye known. But I don’t like the Kooshty of Smart, nor the forcing Romany words into strict English form. So far as we can make Romany agree with Continental, and especially with Indian pronunciation, we really ought to do so. We had better arrange all this en famille. We can ‘rehabilitate’ Gypsy without manufacturing, if we will only be unselfish and harmonious.”
The society, it is true, lasted only a short time, but while it did last it kept on, to use Mr. MacRitchie’s phrase, “booming.” In the summer of 1890 came the Folk-Lore Congress in Paris, and the Oriental Congress in Stockholm, and, with them, the occasion to flaunt the scholarship of the Romany Ryes in the face of the world. To the general public, learned congresses of learned men may seem dull things, but never in the letters of the Romany Ryes. In Paris the president figured as “Directeur de la Gypsylore-Society; ” he read a paper to prove that the Gypsies have been “the great colporteurs” of folk-lore, — a phrase Groome later applauded, expanding the theory, — he reported to Mr. MacRitchie, on August 1, 1889: —
“Yesterday was a grand day for us. As I said, it has fallen on the Gypsy Lore Society to come to the front and take all the honour of representing England, as the English Folk-Lore Society has not appeared at all in it! . . . In the evening Prince Roland Bonaparte gave an awful swell dinner (Roumanian gypsy musicians and pre-historic menu, etched for the occasion), and as President of the G. L. S. I was seated at the Prince’s right hand. ... At any rate, we have had a stupendous lift, and with energy may do much more. Lord knows that I have tried my little utmost, not without some effect.” . . .
In Stockholm, he worked for the society no less hard, but — I leave it to his letter to explain the “but,” and to throw an unexpected side light on the ways and woes of Orientalists assembled in solemn congress: —
“The Swedish Oriental Congress was one hundred times fuller of incident than the Paris one. It was awfully overdone, and turned into a great Oriental Circus,
— to its very great detriment as a learned body. We were rushed about and feted and made a great show of,—until I now loathe the very name of ‘banquet,’ ‘reception,’ the sight of banners or hurrahing thousands, fireworks and processions. We all got tired or fell ill, — half of the Orientalists became ‘queer’ or irritable,
— and then they quarrelled! My God, how they did quarrel!! I kept out of it all, — but I am awful glad to get home again.”
But despite congresses, despite booming, despite the tremendous interest of everybody in the society, by February of 1891 the impossibility of a much longer life was realized.
The Journal actually ceased in 1892, and with it all reasons for the existence of the society disappeared. “But the Gypsy question is not played out,” Mr. MacRitchie wrote during the last months. “It has no end of things to say for itself yet. I intend pegging away at the Gypsies for a long time to come, though of course avoiding Gypsomania.” The Rye, when he was enthusiastic about anything, was never to be outdone in enthusiasm by any one. He, too, kept “pegging away.” Before the work of the society was over, he had published his Gypsy Sorcery, a book full of curious information,but concerned less with the Gypsy himself than with Gypsy superstitions. He now promptly undertook a Gypsy Decameron, and finished it, too, with the name changed to Romany Wit and Wisdom, but never got so far as to publish it; the manuscript lies with all his other Gypsy papers, a marvelous collection. He planned a record of the Romany Ryes of Great Britain and their work, “especially to please them,” he wrote to me at the time. But they all shrank back, afraid of the critic, and he had to give up the idea.
And the Gypsy still filled his letters. He kept on writing to Mr. MacRitchie, though at longer intervals; he renewed the long interrupted correspondence with Groome; he found a new correspondent in Mr. Sampson, who, when not writing of his wanderings with the Gypsies on Welsh roads, was sending his Romany translations of Heine and Omar Khayyám, and once of Gaudeamus, the Rye having long before made an English version of Scheffel; “we used to sing it around our camp-fire in the evening,” Mr. Sampson adds. Nor could the Rye keep the Gypsy out of his letters to me. The almost inevitable ending of them all is “ Tiro Kamlo Koko” (your affectionate Uncle), and, wherever he went, he had Gypsy adventures to report to me, sure of my sympathy. Now it was at the Bagni di Lucca, where “ down in the valley I met a band of Piedmontese Gypsies. They denied being Gypsy, and did n’t know a word of Romany. Indignantly pointing to the horse, I said, ‘How do you call that?’ And the answer was ‘Grai.' ‘Yes,’ quoth I, ‘and thou art manusch [man], te adovo se a chava, te me shorn o boro Romani Rai ’ [and that is a boy, and I am a great Gypsy gentleman]. Then we got on very well.” Now it was in Geneva, and a French Gypsy woman told him his fortune, and he gave in return “ a small shell tied up in leather which was received with boundless gratitude. I also described eloquently the value of the shell as a bringer of bacht” [luck]. Now it was at Innsbrück, where, lonely, without the companionship he always craved, “I met a charming van full of Romanys three days ago, and almost cried for joy.” Now it was at Homburg, the last place to suggest that sort of society,but, — “I met with a real Gypsy family in a beer garden, day before yesterday, and had a gay time.” And so it went on to the very last year of his life (the last quotation I give is as recent as 1899).
I have said enough, however, to show what the Gypsies meant to him all his life long, once he got to know them; how much more his interest was than the passing “fad” he never forgave any one for calling it. He loved them as a friend, he studied them as a scholar, and to such good purpose that, when they have vanished forever from the roads, they will still live and wander in the pages of his books. Even if Borrow had never written, the Romany would be immortalized in The English Gypsies and The Gypsies.