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Chapter XII 


THE TRUTH ABOUT THE GIPSIES

I felt lonely after losing my companion, and I met nobody to take his place. In fact, for a couple of hours I met nothing worth mentioning, male or female, with the exception of a gipsy caravan, which I suppose was both; but it was a poor show. Borrow would have blushed for it. In fact, it is my humble opinion that the gipsies have been overdone, just as the Alps have been over-climbed. I have no great desire to see Switzerland, for I am sure the Alps must be greasy with being climbed.

Besides, the Alps and the gipsies, in common with waterfalls and ruined castles, belong to the ready-made operatic poetry of the world, from which the last thrill has long since departed. They are, so to say, public poetry, the public property of the emotions, and no longer touch the private heart or stir the private imagination. Our fathers felt so much about them that there is nothing left for us to feel. They are as a rose whose fragrance has been exhausted by greedy and indiscriminate smelling. I would rather find a little Surrey common for myself and idle about it a summer day, with the other geese and donkeys, than climb the tallest Alp.

Most gipsies are merely tenth-rate provincial companies, travelling with and villainously travestying Borrow's great pieces of "Lavengro" and "Romany Rye." Dirty, ill-looking, scowling men; dirty, slovenly, and wickedly ugly women; children to match, snarling, filthy little curs, with a ready beggar's whine on occasion. A gipsy encampment to-day is little more than a moving slum, a scab of squalor on the fair face of the countryside.

But there was one little trifle of an incident that touched me as I passed this particular caravan. Evidently one of the vans had come to grief, and several men of the party were making a great show of repairing it. After I had run the gauntlet of the begging children, and was just out of ear- shot of the group, I turned round to survey it from a distance. It was encamped on a slight rise of the undulating road, and from where I stood tents and vans and men were clearly silhouetted against the sky. The road ran through and a little higher than the encampment, which occupied both sides of it. Presently the figure of a young man separated itself from the rest, stept up on to the smooth road, and standing in the middle of it, in an absorbed attitude, began to make a movement with his hands as though winding string round a top. That in fact was his occupation, and for the next five minutes he kept thus winding the cord, flinging the top to the ground, and intently bending down to catch it on his hand, none of the others, not even the children, taking the slightest notice of him,--he entirely alone there with his poor little pleasure. There seemed to me pathos in his loneliness. Had some one spun the top with him, it would have vanished; and presently, no doubt at the bidding of an oath I could not hear, he hurriedly thrust the top into his pocket, and once more joined the straining group of men. The snatched pleasure must be put by at the call of reality; the world and its work must rush in upon his dream. I have often thought about the top and its spinner, as I have noted the absorbed faces of other people's pleasures in the streets,--two lovers passing along the crowded Strand with eyes only for each other; a student deep in his book in the corner of an omnibus; a young mother glowing over the child in her arms; the wild-eyed musician dreamily treading on everybody's toes, and begging nobody's pardon; the pretty little Gaiety Girl hurrying to rehearsal with no thought but of her own sweet self and whether there will be a letter from Harry at the stage- door,--yes, if we are alone in our griefs, we are no less alone in our pleasures. We spin our tops as in an enchanted circle, and no one sees or heeds save ourselves,--as how should they with their own tops to spin? Happy indeed is he, who has his top and cares still to spin it; for to be tired of our tops is to be tired of life, saith the preacher.

As the young gipsy's little holiday came to an end, I turned with a sigh upon my way; and here, while still on the subject, may I remark on the curious fact that probably Borrow has lived and died without a single gipsy having heard of him, just as the expertest anglers know nothing of Izaak Walton.

Has the British soldier, one wonders, yet discovered Rudyard Kipling, or is the Wessex peasant aware of Thomas Hardy? It is odd to think that the last people to read such authors are the very people they most concern. For you might spend your life, say, in studying the London street boy, and write never so movingly and humourously about him, yet would he never know your name; and though Whitechapel makes novelists, it does so without knowing it,--makes them to be read in Mayfair,--just as it never wears the dainty hats and gowns its weary little milliners and seamstresses make through the day and night. It is Capital and Labour over again, for in literature also we reap in gladness what others have sown in tears.

And now, after these admirable reflections, I am about to make such "art" as I can of another man's tragedy, as will appear in the next chapter.

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