Gipsy George

GIPSY GEORGE first bestowed upon me the honor of his acquaintance one sunny afternoon in August, in the quiet village of Lyndhurst. He came into a vacation which was filled with the wonderful beauty of the New Forest, and by the sheer force of his personality so impressed himself upon my memory that he remains the central figure in my recollections of that enchanted region.

On the outskirts of Lyndhurst is a large, rambling old inn, seedy and weather-beaten, a relic of the long-past bustle of coaching days. It still preserves some faded air of departed importance, like that of a decayed gentlewoman who has seen better fortunes; and it is the more lonely for its reminders that once if was the centre of so much life and stir. It has few patrons in these times, and the long seats which stretch away against the outer wall on either side of the main door are seldom warmed by lounging guests. Now and then it has the poor comfort of a loafer or two smoking here, but except during the Fair even this mockery of patronage is infrequent; and through most of the year the inn is little more than a forlorn relic.

A few furlongs beyond the White Swan the high road forks at right angles, and borders on two sides a wide sloping ground covered with pleasant English turf. The other sides of this common are backed by a fine thick growth of trees, largely beech. This space is the fairground of Lyndhurst; and here is held annually, on the ninth of August, a fair for the sale of the New Forest ponies.

All about the open spaces of the New Forest, on the lovely grassy downs, under the magnificent oaks and beeches, by the cross which marks the spot where William Rufus was killed well nigh a thousand years ago, among the furze or the ferns which grow to the breast of a man, are to be seen droves of small horses. Though they run apparently wild, they are all owned and branded, and when the time comes mares and foals are rounded up and separated. On August ninth the yearling colts are gathered on the common at Lyndhurst, and dealers from all over southern England collect to buy them.

Not only horse-dealers come together, but all the usual frequenters of an English fair appear. For days previous, come drifting into the neighborhood the showmen, the jugglers, the peddlers, and all the mongrel riff-raff characteristic of such an occasion. The gipsies are by no means last or least in this motley assembly; and their carts are conspicuous for days before the Fair begins.

On the afternoon which enriched me with the sight of Gipsy George I was walking past the White Swan when I noticed a group of gipsies seated on the bench before the house, or standing near it. The temptation to observe them more closely led me to turn in and to take my place on the seat on the other side of the door. The men were seven in number, all comfortably dressed, all swarthy and black-haired, all keen-eyed. In their carriage they showed a fine freedom of action, the unconscious grace of unconstrained and open-air humanity. They talked in a tongue unknown to me, which I took to be Romany, and had I been George Borrow I should on the spot have invented wildly impossible analogies between chance-heard syllables and imaginary dialects of the Orient. As it was I merely admired, and rolled under my tongue the sweet cud of romantic encounter.

The tallest of these men was the handsomest human creature I ever beheld. He was an inch or two over six feet, as I discovered afterward by comparing his stature with my own; but he was so strongly built as hardly to look his height. He was superbly proportioned, with a magnificent head set on a column of a neck a Greek sculptor might have been proud of modeling. His hair, soot-black, was crisped into tight knots, which ringed his forehead like the locks of an archaic statue, and pushed from under the weather-stained red cap set on the back of his crown. His eyes were big, and bright, and merry, with a vivacity which kindled a spark in their velvety brown. They brought to my mind more than once the notion that they might be the eyes of a deer with a sense of humor, yet too they had a power which might upon occasion look a man down like a blow. His mouth was half covered by a short, crisp beard and a close mustache, but the vivid red of his lips and the whiteness of his strong, even teeth could not be hidden. He was the incarnation of health and virility, and brought into my head the line: —

“ Brown exercise leaped up to hear.”

The tall gipsy was dressed in a corduroy jacket with metal buttons, kneebreeches, rough stockings, and hobnailed shoes. He was saying nothing when I came up, and yet he dominated the group. With no advantage of costume except his red cap, he easily, as theatrical folk might say, held the stage.

Hardly had I taken my seat when an unkempt barmaid came out with a frothing pitcher of ale. The gipsy nearest the door took it from her hand, and improved his opportunity to quaff sturdily. Then he proffered it to the tall man, with what from his manner I guessed to be a half jocose apology. The tall gipsy, instead of taking the pitcher, waved his hand grandly, and rolled out a sentence of angry Romany. To this the pitcherholder retorted, the other rejoined, the bystanders struck in vehemently, and a storm of voices arose which for the moment seemed to promise me sport more exciting than I had counted on. It all ended, however, in the tall man’s turning away with a superb gesture of disdain and a last scornful fling of sonorous syllables. The others called out to him in chorus, but he paid no attention. He stalked over to my side of the inn-door, and sat down close to me.

“My pretty gentleman,” he said in excellent English, “I am heart-glad to see you. I’ve been long wearying for you.”

I looked at him with natural surprise. He was apparently entirely serious, and I cannot even now tell why it flashed upon me that he was deliberately trying to fool me.

“That is the more kind of you,” I returned with equal seriousness, “as you never saw me before.”

He did not relax his gravity by the twinkle of an eyelash.

“Oh, my pretty gentleman,” he said, “you’re surely not going to deny me after the long love I’ve had since the day we parted at Salisbury Fair.”

“When was that?”

“Two years this very month we’re alive in,” he answered.

The Salisbury sheep-selling does come in August, as nobody would know better than a gipsy, and for a moment I thought he might mistake me for somebody he had seen before. Then the conviction that he was playing with me reasserted itself.

“It was my spirit,” I told him solemnly. “I was in America; but if you say you saw me at Salisbury, of course you did, so it must have been my spirit.”

He threw back his strong shoulders and laughed, with a laugh as rich as oil from nuts.

“Oh, my pretty gentleman, you’re too sharp for me. It’s no use trying to fool you. This is the first time I ever set eyes on you, so of course you’ll give me a drink.”

“Give you a drink? I just saw you refuse one.”

He drew himself up with a fine dignity, evidently as much genuine pride as acting.

“Do you know who I am?” he demanded.

“I have not the honor,” I responded with a mock bow.

He opened his splendid brown eyes to their fullest extent, and raised his head proudly.

“I am St. George and the Dragon,” he announced.

“Indeed!” I cried, with an affectation of great enthusiasm. “I never expected to see you off of a sovereign.”

The notion tickled him so much that for a second the absolute seriousness of his face relaxed, and his eyes sparkled.

“Then I suppose, my pretty gentleman, you are going to give me a sovereign as a token.”

“You should ask for one thing at a time,” I returned. “You have n’t told me why you did n’t take a drink when it was offered to you.”

“Take a drink? Did n’t you see him drink out of the pitcher before he offered it to me?”

The indignation with which he said this was probably partly genuine, for Gipsy George stood always on his dignity with his men. He was, as I learned afterward, the head of a numerous and prosperous clan, and he did not easily bear any failure to observe toward him a proper deference.

“I don’t see,” I told him, “that because you are too lofty to drink after another, I am called upon to pay for your beer.”

“But I told you who I am.”

“St. George and the Dragon, I think you said.”

“Oh, my pretty gentleman, you’re so sharp you could use your wits for a razor; but I’m George and — ”

The closing word was evidently Romany, and I did not catch it.

“And what?”

“Chief, you’d call it. Nobody has a right to drink before me.”

Inquiries which I made later confirmed this statement. I found that Gipsy George, as he was commonly called, was a man of no little importance and of good substance. He had fifty ponies for sale at the Fair a few days later, and was besides proprietor of the numerous “cocoanutshies” which encumbered the ground on that occasion and entrapped the pennies of the rustic youths. Tins opulence did not prevent him from begging every time I met him. From asking for a drink on this first occasion, he passed to a request for five pounds; and as denial met him he lessened his demands until he came down to a touching plea that at least the pretty gentleman would give him a farthing so that he might make a hole through it and wear it around his neck until he died. The refusal of even this modest request he met with perfect goodnature, and the statement that a childlike gipsy such as he had no chance against a mortal of intelligence so supernatural as that of the pretty gentleman.

From the country folk around I heard that the tribe had a reputation far from satisfactory. At the yard of a stone-cutter, where I lingered to look at the Purbeck marble he was working, I heard that every tool had to be either locked up or kept in hand so long as the gipsies were in the neighborhood. The man assured me that he had once laid down his hammer to light his pipe, and an invisible thief of a gipsy had made off with the utensil under his very nose. When I repeated this to Gipsy George he commented with entire placidity of expression, “These folks here don’t know real honesty when they see it. It’s naturally scarce in these parts when we ain’t here.”

I made it a point to see all that I could of my new acquaintance. He would have been worth following about for the simple delight of looking at a creature so magnificent. His motions were deliberate, but as easy and as sure as the swing of a wave. His talk was full of humor, and had not a little shrewdness. One day we were sitting on the bench where he had first joined me, while two or three of his tribe were on the other side of the door as on that day. A rather stout, commonplace Englishman came along the road, and stopped to speak to the men.

“Do you know who that is?” asked Gipsy George.

“Naturally not.”

“That is the Inspector.”

“What does he inspect?”

“Us,” he answered. Then after a little pause which gave emphasis, he added, “And we inspect him.”

He explained, in reply to my questions, that all the English gipsies are under the supervision of inspectors whose business it is to keep track of their wanderings, to see that they do not get into mischief, and to represent the august power of the law.

“He thinks he knows us through to the bone,” declared my gipsy; “but he believes anything we want him to. We can see the ideas crawling round in his head as clear as maggots in a cheese. Oh, he’s our Inspector, all right.”

“Meaning that you own him?” I suggested.

Gipsy George threw out his hand with a fine gesture of scorn.

“We would n’t demean ourselves to own a spy-thing; but he’s ours to use. Even if a ferret’s mangy, he’ll do to catch rats with.”

I had no means of learning how far the Inspector was really beguiled, but as I looked into the unfathomable eyes of the vagabond beside me, I was entirely prepared to believe that the official was hardly likely to get the better of Gipsy George.

The talk I had with my engaging acquaintance ranged over a wide variety of subjects. Once or twice it touched on deep matters, although he had a wholesome preference for topics connected with tangible and sound concerns of daily life. He was a most thorough pagan, utterly unconcerned about spiritual mysteries because he had no shadow of belief in them. He one day summed up his whole philosophy of life and death in a single sentence.

“ Oh, a man’s like that cloud,” he said, waving his hand toward a fleecy mass in the blue sky. “The wind’s on the cheek to-day, and there is no cheek when the wind blows to-morrow.”

Perhaps the thing which impressed me most when he said this was the absolute absence of anything like sentiment in his voice or manner. The wind would blow to-morrow, and the man would not be here to feel it on his cheek: this was simply a fact like any other, like the fact that the sun rises and sets. It was acquiescence in the laws of nature, as passionless as that of the leaf that falls or the dust that is scattered by the wind.

On the day before the Fair I sauntered out to the fair-ground. It was a day of enchantment, such as comes now and then amid the multitudinous dampnesses of an English summer. The woods which rose on two sides of the place had for the occasion been shut off from the field by a high fence of rails, and rustled divinely fresh and verdant. The turf was a little trampled, but still green and agreeable. The scene, for which turf and woods formed the setting, was as varied and picturesque as heart could wish. Tents stood about, booths were being set up, gipsy wagons were ranged here and there, men, women, children, and dogs swarmed everywhere, and the air was full of busy voices.

Over a fire in a distant corner a woman with a scarlet kerchief on her head was superintending the boiling of a kettle, while two or three children and halfgrown girls lay or sat around watching the operation with hungry interest. In the middle of the field was my friend, with a group of his fellows about him. He spied me almost as soon as I set foot on the fair-ground, and came forward at once with his easy, swinging stride.

“My pretty gentleman,” he cried jovially, seizing me by the arm, “I was waiting for you, and great was the longing I had for you.” He turned as he spoke, and in a voice like a trumpet roared across the whole width of the ground, “Ho, wife, there! Here’s my pretty gentleman, the American, come to see us.”

I had no chance to protest, but was led briskly across to the fire. The scarletkerchiefed woman straightened up as we neared her. Our greetings were far more awkward on my side than on hers, for she was on her native heath, and perfectly at her ease.

“The pretty gentleman has come to give you a pound,” Gipsy George proclaimed unblushingly.

“Not that exactly,” I corrected him. “I came over to see if you had that pony you promised to give me.”

“No ponies till to-morrow,” responded he. Then with a gesture in which he appealed to the red-cheeked lasses reclining on the ground and watching us with expressionless faces, he went on, “Look at that now! Here is this American duke that has two trunks full of gold at the inn over there, a black one and a yellow one, and I have to sleep on the bare ground; but he is n’t walling to give me a penny.”

Nothing in my intercourse with the gipsy startled me as did this remark. I had in fact a yellow and a black trunk at the inn; and the intimation that my shrewd Romany had been making inquiries was not pleasant. I had never seen him within half a mile of the inn, but at the moment the feeling of being spied upon so filled me with distrust that I got away as soon as possible. The wife bore me no malice, however, for on the next day, when I encountered her in charge of one of the cocoanut-shies, she greeted me with the affection of an old acquaintance, to the evident astonishment of some of the bystanders.

August ninth, the great day of the year for Lyndhurst, was again sunshiny and beautiful. Only one shower fell during the entire day. In the early dawn I heard men and horses going past my inn, and about the middle of the forenoon I went out to the fair-ground. I found everything in full swing. The shooting-galleries, the tents where rubber balls were tossed at pockets for ghastly prizes in the shape of plaster-of-Paris images, the cocoanut-shies, the beer-booths, the eatingbooths, the raree-shows, were in vigorous operation. A raucous but delightful Punch and Judy occupied a prominent position, and before this I lingered long; for a considerable time, too, I watched a young lady, one of a party from a neighboring estate, shooting with an air-rifle. The mark was a blown egg-shell tossed into the air on a jet of water. Her aim was remarkable, and shell after shell fell in shattered bits until I began to wonder whether the supply would hold out.

“Where do you suppose,” I asked an American girl who was with me, “they get all those eggs with nothing but wind in them ? ”

“The fowls of the air lay them,” she replied with perfect seriousness.

One of the gentlemen of the aristocratic party, who had been watching my companion in open admiration of her beauty, opened his mouth upon hearing this. He evidently had it in mind to explain that the egg-shells were really the product of the common or garden hen, but his courage, like his perception of a joke, was unequal to the occasion.

The crowd collected at the Fair was most amusing. It included all grades, from the wearer of titles to the barefooted vagabond. The author of Lady Audley’s Secret, a matronly, strong-faced woman, with shrewd and kindly eyes, walked about in a poke-bonnet of brown straw, and represented literature. I saw no Americans outside of our own party, and few foreigners of any sort; but the varieties of English were sufficiently great.

About a third of the fair-ground was occupied by the booths and shows, the rest of the space being given up to the ponies. These were, as they should have been, the most interesting feature of the whole. Emerging from among the tents, I came upon a scene of most exhilarating confusion. All over the field were scattered men and ponies, each man being attached to one end of a rope while a frantic pony was fastened to the other. All over the place they were darting and jumping, here a man dragging a pony, there a pony pulling a man, in a third place two or three of these strange couples tangled in a snarl, and everywhere observers running and leaping to avoid being dashed off their feet by the sweeping cords.

At intervals of a dozen feet all along the high fence which had been for the occasion put up on the wooded sides of the common, were bunches of foals, kept in their places by guards of boys. In each bunch the pretty creatures, only a few days in captivity, crowded together, half distracted by fear. They were continually in motion, the whole group circling around and around like a school of minnows. Beside each group stood the salesman, calling aloud the perfections of his especial lot of horseflesh.

Would-be purchasers went from place to place, looking the ponies over, chaffering with the sellers, or making comments. Every few moments a buyer would indicate some particular beast in the revolving bunch. The seller would then take a rope with a slip-noose on the end, fix this in a hook on the end of a pole, and proceed to angle for the pony required. As soon as the noose was slipped over the neck of the foal, the poor frightened creature was dragged from among its companions and made to exhibit its paces in the open field.

I had the deepest sympathy for these clean-limbed, wide-eyed, frightened little beasties. For the first time in their lives they felt the tether, and their fright became panic. Across the field they dashed until brought up with a jerk which must almost have dislocated the neck. Then they tugged until the groom was forced to let them run again lest they choke completely; and so the process was repeated, until the pony was too exhausted to carry on the unequal struggle.

Amid the throng, as I darted hither and thither to avoid the ropes, I soon discovered Gipsy George. He was twenty feet of rope away from a beautiful bay foal, which danced, and rushed, and leaped, fearful but full of pluck. With a practiced hand he now let the colt run, now made it stand, sometimes paying out the entire cord, and then gathering it up until he was close to his prey. Meanwhile he was bargaining with a bull-necked farmer, a fellow so brutal-looking that for the pony’s sake I was relieved when the price parted them. Gipsy George hurled after the departing farmer words of jeering so highly colored that I thought they might be answered by the farmer’s fists; then he turned to me with an alluring and sunshiny smile.

“Ah, my pretty gentleman,” he hailed me, “here you are at last. I’ve been keeping this little fellow for you all day. Did you see that man that wanted to buy him ? I sent him about his business, and he was ready to offer me his whole farm for the beauty.”

Here the beauty made a diversion by plunging wildly into the middle of a group of bystanders; but Gipsy George extricated and managed him with skillful hand.

“ I kept him to sell to you,” he resumed as soon as circumstances allowed him to go on with the conversation. “You shall have him for five pounds. That’s just half what I’d ask anybody else.”

“You are generous beyond belief,” I answered, “if I only had n’t just heard you offer him for three pounds.”

The pony made another opportune diversion, although he might have spared himself the trouble, for Gipsy George would not have been in the least disconcerted.

“Will you take him now?” was the question asked at the next breathingspace.

“What should I do with him?”

“Take him to America. He’ll go in your topcoat pocket.”

“Thank you; but I am afraid I might sit down on him.”

“Then I’ll go with you and take care of him.”

We had more chaff in the same vein, diversified by frantic excursions on the part of the pony, of his master, and not infrequently of myself; but in the end Gipsy George got tired of tugging against the stoutly braced feet of the foal, and let one of his assistants restore the animal to the bunch from which it had come.

“Come now, my pretty gentleman,” he said, wiping his wet forehead, “this is the last time I ’ll ever see your face. Give me a five-pound note to remember you by.”

“If you can’t remember me without that,” I answered, “ I shall have to bear the bitterness of being forgotten.”

“Always too sharp for a poor gipsy! Give me a pound then.”

“You ask just a pound too much.”

“ Ten shillings ? ”

“ Nonsense!”

“ Five shillings ? ”

“ Rubbish! ”

So we descended the scale to one shilling, to sixpence, to threepence, to twopence, to a penny. Then he began on my clothing. He begged for my hat; I declined to go home bareheaded: for my coat; but I was equally stubborn about parading in my shirt-sleeves; he demanded my shoes, my waistcoat, my cravat. Finally he was pushed to his last request, and he put it with a touch of wild fancy so fine that I immediately invited him to have a mug of ale at my cost.

“My pretty gentleman,” he said, “ you ’re going from me forever. Give me at least your handkerchief, and I’ll use it in Paradise to remember you by!”

And the brown eyes of the dear rascal shone so, that although we chaffed one another over the ale, that delightful bit of extravagance is the thing which comes always to mind when I recall my too brief acquaintance with the gipsy. Never was a rover more attractive to look upon, with his handsome face and magnificent body; never was tricksy spirit gifted with a more delicious humor, a humor conveyed as much by look and mien as by word; never was philosophical vagabond more enchantingly pagan, with the natural and inevitable paganism of the wild hawk or the lusty gorse. About him was a sense of the wide spaces on the downs, with the clouds sailing overhead, the wood-scents and the smell of the fire mingling into an indescribable and bewildering odor. In his presence one seemed to hear the call of the wild, to which respond the ancestral instincts that have come down from our forebears who treked over the plains of central Asia. Whether the wand is on his cheek to-day, or if no cheek is where the wind is blowing over English downs, I do not know; but at least in my memory is always alive and vital the figure of my one Romany, brown-eyed Gipsy George.