Spain - Gypsies
( Originally Published 1905 )
NO foreigner has known the Zingali better than George Borrow, the linguistic Englishman, who could speak Rommany so well that gypsies all over Europe took him for a brother. In the employ of the English Bible Society, he spent some five adventurous years in Spain, wandering through the wilds and sharing the life of shepherds, muleteers, even the fierce gitanos. As he found the Spanish gypsies half a century ago, so, in essentials, are they still — the men jockeys, tinkers, and blacksmiths, the women fortune tellers and dancers, the children the most shameless little beggars of all the Peninsula. Yet there has been an improvement.
The gitanos are not such ruffians as of old, nor even such arrant thieves, although it would still be unwise to trust them within call of temptation.
"There runs a swine down yonder hill,
Still more compromising is the Christmas carol : —
"Into the porch of Bethlehem
" Oh, those swarthy gypsies !
There are wealthy gypsies, whose wives and daughters go arrayed with the utmost elegance of fashion, in several Spanish cities. Seville has her gypsy lawyer, but her gypsy bull-fighter, who died two years ago, was held to reflect even greater credit on the parent stock.
By law the gypsies are now established as Spaniards, with full claim to Spanish rights and privileges — Nuevos Castellanos, as they have been called since the day when Spain bethought her of these Ishmaels as "food for powder" and subjected them to the regular military draft. Even in Granada, where the gypsy community still lives in semi-barbarism, there are hopeful signs. The gitanos drive a sharp trade in donkeys, but their forge fires, gleaming far up the Albaicin in the evening, testify to their industry. The recent opening by the municipality of schools for the gypsy children has already wrought a marked change for the better. Some half-dozen dirty little palms, outstretched for cinco centimos, pester the stranger to-day where scores used to torment him, and the mothers take pride in the literary accomplishments of their tawny broods. On one occasion, when, having, as the Spanish say, "clean pockets," I firmly declined to see a small gypsy girl dance or hear her sing, the mother assured me, as a last greedy expedient, that "the child could pray."
On the Alhambra hill the gypsies, who scent tourists from afar and troop thither, on the track of newly arrived parties, like wolves to their banquet, are picturesque figures enough, the men in peaked hats, spangled jackets, and sashes of red silk, the women with bright handkerchiefs bound over their raven hair, large silver earrings, gay bodices, and short, flounced petticoats.
There is one old gitano, in resplendent attire, who haunts the Alhambra doors and introduces himself to visitors, with bows queerly compounded of condescension and supplication, as the King of the Gypsies, modestly offering his photograph for a peseta. If you turn to your attendant Spaniard and ask, sotto voce, "But is this truly the Gypsy King? " you will receive a prompt affirmative, while the quick-witted old masquerader strikes a royal attitude, rolls his eyes prodigiously, nd twirls his three-cornered hat at arm's length above his head, until its tinsel ornaments sparkle like crown jewels. But no sooner is his Majesty well out of hearing than your guide hastens to eat his own words. "No, no, no! He is not the King of the Gypsies, but he is a gypsy, yes, and it is better not to have his ill will."
Whether this hardened pretender could cast the evil eye or not, we never knew, for having bought two of his pictures at the first onset, we suffered ever afterward the sunshine of his favor. In fact we often made a wide detour rather than pass him on the hill, for he would spring to his feet at our remotest approach and stand bowing like an image of perpetual motion, his hat brandished high in air, until our utmost in the way of answering nods and smiles seemed by contrast sheer democratic incivility.
The swarthy faces and glittering eyes of the gypsies meet one everywhere in the Granada streets, but to see them in their own precinct it is necessary to take off your watch, empty your pockets of all but small silver and coppers, and go to the Albaicin. This hill, parted from the Alhambra by the deep ravine of the gold-bearing Darro, was in Moorish times the chosen residence of the aristocracy. Still Arabian arches span the gorge, and many of the toppling old houses that lean over the swift, mountain-born current, shabby as they look to the passer-by, are beautiful within with arabesque and fretwork, carven niches, delicate columns and open patios, where fountains still gush and orange blossoms still shed fragrance. Such degenerate palaces are often occupied by the better class of gypsies, those who traffic in horses, as well as in donkeys, while their women, grouped in the courts and doorways, embroider with rainbow wools, in all fantastic patterns, the stout mantles of the Andalusian mountaineers.
As we climbed the Albaicin, fronting as it does the hill of the Alhambra, the exceeding beauty of the view at first claimed all our power of seeing. Below was the gray sweep of the city and beyond the fruitful plain of Granada, its vivid green shading into a far-off dimness like the sea. Just opposite us rose the fortress of the Alhambra, a proud though broken girdle of walls and towers, while in the background soared the dazzling snow peaks of the Sierra Nevada, glistening with unbearable splendor under the intense blue of the Andalusian sky.
In the midst of our rhapsodies I became aware of a shrill voice at my feet, a persistent tug at my skirts, and reluctantly dropped my eyes on a comely little gypsy lass lying along a sunny ledge and imperiously demanding cinco centimos.
" Now what would you do with cinco centimos if you had them ? "
With the universal beggar gesture she pointed to her mouth. " Buy a rusk. I am starving. I am already dead of hunger."
Crossing her hands upon her breast, she closed her eyes in token of her mortal extremity, but instantly flashed them open again to note the effect.
" Your cheeks are not the cheeks of famine."
At a breath the young sorceress sucked them in and succeeded, plump little person though she was, in looking so haggard and so woe-begone that our political economy broke down in laughter, and we gave her the coveted cent in return for her transformation act.
Off she darted, with her wild locks flying in the wind, and was back in a twinkling, a circlet of bread suspended from her arm. She tripped along beside us for the rest of the afternoon, using the rusk sometimes as a hoop, sometimes as a crown, sometimes as a peephole. She tossed it, sang through it, dandled it, stroked it, and occasionally, while the bread approximated more and more in hue to her own gypsy complexion, took an artistic nibble, dotting the surface with a symmetrical curve of bites. It was not mere food to her; it was luxury, it was mirth—like a Lord Mayor's feast or a Delmonico breakfast.
Following the Camino del Sacro Monte, marked by many crosses, our attention was more and more withdrawn from the majestic views spread out before us to the gypsies, whose cave dwellings lined the way. Burrowing into the earth, from the midst of thickets of prickly pear, are these strange abodes, whose chimneys rise abruptly out of the green surface of the hillside. Dens as they are, the best of them possess some decencies. Flaps of cloth serve them for doors, their peering fronts are whitewashed, they are furnished with a stool or two, a box of tools or clothing, a few water jars, a guitar, and, in the farther end of the lair, a family bedstead, or more often a heap of dirty sheepskins. Cooking tins, bottles, saddles, and coils of rope hang on the rough walls ; there may be a shelf of amulets and toys for sale, and the indispensable pot of puchero simmers over a handful of fire.
Out from these savage homes swarmed a whining, coaxing, importunate horde of sly-eyed women and an impish rabble of children. Young and old clutched at us with unclean hands, clung to us with sinewy brown arms, begged, flattered, demanded, and dragged us bodily into their hill. We felt as if we had gone back to German fairy tales and had fallen into the evil grip of the gnomes. Hardly could escort, carriage, and a reckless rain of coppers break the spell. We were forced to taste their repulsive messes, to cross witch palms with silver, to buy even the roadside weeds the urchins gathered before our eyes. We were birds for the plucking, sheep for the shearing. Only when we had turned our pockets inside out to show that we had not a "little dog " left, were we suffered to go free, followed, doubtless, by the curses of Egypt, because we had yielded such poor picking.
In Seville, too, the gypsies have their own quarter, but in pro-portion as Seville is a gentler city than Granada, so are the looks and manners of her gypsy population more attractive. Crossing the yellow Guadalquivir by the bridge of Isabel Segunda, we come immediately on the picturesque, dark-visaged figures, with their uneffaced suggestion of wildness, of freedom, of traditions apart from the common humdrum of humanity. The boy, clad in one fluttering garment, who is perilously balancing his slender brown body on the iron rail; the bright-kerchiefed young mother, thrusting her tiny black bantling into our faces; the silent, swarthy men who lean along the bridge side, lithe even in their lounging ; — all have a latent fierceness in their look. Their eyes are keen as knives — strange eyes, whose glitter masks the depth. But as we go on into the potter's suburb of Triana, into the thick of the gypsy life, we are not more seriously molested than by the continual begging, nor is this the rough, imperious begging of Granada; a flavor of Sevillian grace and fun has passed upon it. Offer this bush-headed lad, pleading starvation, the orange he has just tossed away, and he will double up over the joke and take to his little bare heels. Give to the fawning sibyl who insists on telling your fortune a red rose for her hair, and the chances are that she will rest content. But the time to see the gypsies in their glory is during the three days and nights of the Feria.
On the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth of April Seville annually keeps, on the Prado de San Sebastian, where the Inquisition used to light its fires, the blithest of spring festivals. The Feria is a fair, but much more than a fair. There are droves upon droves of horses, donkeys, cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. There are rows upon rows of booths with toys, booths with nuts and candies, booths with the gay-handled Albacete knives and daggers. There are baskets upon baskets of rainbow fans, mimic fighting cocks, oranges, and other cheap Sevillian specialties. Cooling drinks are on sale at every turn, but there is no drunkenness. There are thousands and tens of thousands of people in motion, but there is no bustling, no elbowing, no rudeness of pressure. Dainty little children wander alone in that tremendous throng. The order and tranquillity that prevail by day and night in this multitude of merrymakers render it possible for the Feria to be what it is. For during these enchanted April hours even the noblest families of Seville come forth from the proud seclusion of their patios and live in casetas, little rustic houses that are scarcely more than open tents, exposed to the gaze of every passer-by.
A lofty bridge, crossed by two broad flights of stairs and tapering to a tower, stands at the intersection of the three chief Feria avenues. The bridge is brilliantly illuminated by night, and close-set globes of gas, looped on running tubes along both sides of these three festal streets, pour floods of light into the casetas. Chinese lanterns in red and yellow abound, and lines of banner-staffs flaunt the Spanish colors. The casetas are usually constructed of white canvas on a framework of light-brown fretwood, though the materials are sometimes more durable.
Clubhouses are large and elaborate, and individual taste varies the aspect of the private tents. The more important families of Seville own their casetas, but in general these airy abodes are rented from year to year, the price for the three days of the Feria ranging from twenty-five dollars on the central avenue to five dollars for the more remote houselets on the two streets that branch off at right angles. The numerous byways are occupied by cafes, booths, penny shows, and the like, the gypsies having one side of a lane to themselves. The other side is given over to circus-rings, merry-go-rounds, cradle-swings marked " For Havana," " For Manila," "For Madrid," dancing dwarfs, braying bands, caged bulls, and tents provided with peepholes through which one may see "The Glorious Victory of the Spanish Troops at Santiago," and other surprising panoramas of the recent war. These are in high favor with soldiers and small boys, whose black heads bump together at every aperture.
Such attractions are especially potent over the country folk, who come jogging into Seville during fair time, mounted two or three together on jaded horses, sorry mules, and even on indignant little donkeys. Their peasant costumes add richly to the charm of the spectacle, and their simplicity makes them an easy spoil for the canny folk of Egypt. You see them especially in the cool of the early morning, when trade in cattle is at its liveliest. Ten to one they have been fleeced already by the gitanos, who, out in the great meadow where the live-stock is exposed for sale, have their own corner for "dead donkeys," as the Sevillians term the decrepit old beasts that have been magically spruced up for the occasion. Cervantes has his jest at " a gypsy's ass, with quicksilver in its ears."
Then comes the turn of the gitanas, looking their prettiest, with roses in hair, and over the shoulders those captivating black silk shawls embroidered in many-colored patterns of birds and flowers. The younger enchantresses keep watch, each in front of her family tent, before whose parted curtains the more ill-favored women of the household are busy frying the crisp brown bunuelos, a species of doughnut dear to the Spanish tooth.
As you loiter down the lane, be you wide-eyed shepherd from the provinces, or elegant grandee from Madrid, or haughty foreigner from London or Vienna, the sturdy sirens rush upon you, seize you by arm or neck, and by main force tug you into their tented prisons, from which you must gnaw your way out through a heap of hot bunuelos. Or you may compromise on a cup of Spanish chocolate, flavored with cinnamon and thick as flannel, or perhaps win your liberty by gulping down a cupful of warm goat's milk. The prices shock the portliest purses, but at your first faint sign of protest a gathering mob of gypsies presses close with jeers and hisses, and even the frying-pan sputters contempt.
The Feria presents its most quiet aspect during the after-noon. Some twenty or thirty thousand of the promenaders have been drawn off by the superior attraction of the bullfight, and others have retired for their siestas. Yet there are thousands left. This is a grand time for the children, who disport themselves in the avenues with whistles, swords, balls, kites, and other trophies from the toy booths. These little people are exquisitely dressed, often in the old Andalusian costumes, and tiny lad and tiny lass, of aristocratic look and bearing, may be seen tripping together through one of the graceful national dances in the midst of a sidewalk throng. The toddlers, too, are out, under charge of happy nursemaids.
Even the babies have been brought to the fair, and lie, contentedly sucking their rosy thumbs, in the doorways of the casetas. The lords of these doll-houses are enjoying peaceful smokes together in the background of the open parlors, which are furnished with as many chairs as possible, a piano, and a central stand of flowers ; while semicircles of silent ladies, languidly waving the most exquisite of fans, sit nearer the front, watching the ceaseless stream of pedestrians, and beyond these the double procession of carriages, which keep close rank as they advance on one side of the avenue and return on the other. It is bad form not to go to the Feria once at least in a carriage. Large families of limited means hire spacious vehicles resembling omnibuses, and, squeezed together in two opposite rows, drive up and down the three chief streets for hours.
There are crested landaus, with handsome horses, gay donkey-carts, decked out with wreaths and tassels, shabby cabs, sporting red and yellow ribbons on their whips, tooting coaches — every sort and kind of contrivance for relieving humanity of its own weight. There are mounted cavaliers in plenty, and occasionally, under due masculine escort, a fair-haired English girl rides by, or a group of Spanish senoras, who have come into Seville on horseback from their country homes. But all this movement is slow and dreamy, the play of the children being as gentle as the waving of the fans.
Even Gypsy Lane shares in the tranquillity of the drowsy afternoon. We were captured there almost without violence, and, while we trifled with the slightest refreshment we could find, a juvenile entertainment beguiled us of our coppers with pleasurable ease. A coquettish midget of four summers innocently danced for us the dances that are not innocent, and a wee goblin of seven, who could not be induced to perform without a cap, that he might pull it down over his bashful eyes, stamped and kicked, made stealthy approaches and fierce starts of attack through the savage hunting jigs inherited from the ancient life of the wilderness. The women swung their arms and shrilled wild tunes to urge the children on, but a second youngster who attempted one of these barbaric dances for us broke down in mid career, and, amid a chorus of screaming laughter, buried his blushes in his mother's lap. The tent had become crowded with stalwart, black gitanos, but they were in a domestic mood, smiled on the children's antics, and eyed us with grim amusement as the women caught up from rough cradles and thrust into our arms those elfish babies of theirs. Even the infant of five days winked at us with trickery in its jet beads of vision. But so inert was gypsy enterprise that we were suffered to depart with a few pesetas yet in our possession.
In the evening, from eight till one, the Feria is perfect Fairyland. Under the light of those clustered gas globes and butterfly-colored lanterns pass and repass the loveliest women of the world. Beautifully clad as the senoritas have been during morning and afternoon, their evening toilets excel and crown the rest. White-robed, white-sandalled, their brown, bewitching faces peeping out from the lace folds of white mantillas, with white shawls, embroidered in glowing hues, folded over the arm, and delicate white fans in hand, they look the very poetry of maidenhood. Months of saving, weeks of stitching, these costumes may have cost, but the Feria is, above all, a marriage mart, and the Andalusian girl, usually so strictly guarded, so jealously secluded, never allowed to walk or shop alone, is now on exhibition. As these radiant forms glide along the avenues, the men who meet them coolly bend and look full into their faces, scanning line and feature with the critical air of connoisseurs. But well these cavaliers illustrate the Andalusian catch : —
" Because I look thee in the face,
The girl's opportunity is in her dancing. Every Andalusian woman, high or low, knows the Sevillana. Some have been trained in it by accredited teachers of the art, but the most learn the dance in childhood, as naturally as they learn to speak and sing. They are never weary of dancing it, morning, noon, and night, two girls together, or a girl and a lad, but such dancing is confined to the Moorish privacy of the Spanish home—except in Fair time. Then the whole world may stand before the casetas and see the choicest daughters of Seville dancing the dance that is very coquetry in motion. Rows of girls awaiting their turn, and of matrons who are chaperoning the spectacle, sit about the three sides of the mimic drawing-room. A dense crowd of men, crying " Ole ! Ole ! " and commenting as freely on the figures and postures of the dancers as if they were ballet artistes in a cafe chantant, is gathered close in front. For their view these rhythmic maidens dance on, hour after hour, until their great, dusky eyes are dim with sleep. The tassels of curly ribbon, tinted to match the dainty touches of color in their costumes, seem to droop in exhaustion from the tossing castanets. What matter? For a Spanish girl to reach her twenty-fifth birthday without a novio is a tragedy of failure, and these tired dancers are well aware that caballeros are making the rounds from caseta to caseta, on purpose to select a wife.
In Gypsy Lane there is no sugar coating. The Flamenco dances are directly seductive. The life of the forest animal seems reproduced in the fierceness, the fitfulness, the abandon, of each strange series of abrupt gesticulations. Yet these gypsy women, boldly as they play on the passions of the spectators, care only for Gentile money, and fling off with fiery scorn the addresses that their songs and dances court. Many a flouted gallant could tell the tale of one who
" Like a right gypsy, hath, at fast and loose, Beguiled me to the very heart of loss."
Husbands and lovers look on at the dancers' most extreme poses, even caresses, in nonchalant security. 'While one gitana after another takes the stage, a crescent of men and women, seated behind, cheer her on with cries and clappings, strummings of the guitar, and frenzied beatings of the floor with staff and stool. Yet their excitement, even at its apparent height, never sweeps them out of their crafty selves. Beyond the dancer they see the audience. Disdain and dislike are in the atmosphere, and never more than when the rain of silver is at its richest. Still they follow the gypsy law, " To cheat and rob the stranger always and ever, and be true only to our own blood."