GEORGE BORROW, relating his wanderings with the Gipsies, makes them speak frequently of the “affairs of Egypt,” when they want to refer to intimate things relating to the essentials of their life. He makes his Gipsies consider Egypt their original home, gives the impression that they still have secret ties to the land of the Pharaohs, and thereby confirms the original error which gave to the Gipsies their name, from the corruption of the word “Egyptian.” Had he made the Gipsies speak of the affairs of the Balkans instead of the affairs of Egypt, he would have been nearer the truth. For of the total number of Gipsies living to-day, more than three quarters live in the Balkans, the greater part in Rumania and Hungary. That is why in New York the Gipsies quarter themselves chiefly among the Balkan peoples. The Rumanian Gipsies live in the Rumanian quarter, the Polish Gipsies in the Polish quarters, the Hungarian in the Hungarian quarters, with a continual migration from one country to another, from one quarter to another, which frequently is marked off only by an intermediate street or by the width of the sidewalk. And yet there is a great difference in the character and language of those Gipsies. Only the older ones understand the Calo of the Balkans, which is the speech of the European Gipsy. The younger ones, especially those who have learned English, are fast forgetting their original tongue, much to the annoyance of the older ones, who denounce them constantly as traitors to the fold.
To speak of Gipsy quarters is, however, a bit dangerous, for there are Gipsy quarters only in the winter. Spring sees them off, departing as suddenly as they arrived, leaving no trace behind them other than a few disappointed old women whose cures they have undertaken, a few grieved maidens to whom they have promised love-potions which they have never given, and a few superstitious men who have been in the habit of going to them regularly to have their fortunes read and advice given on how to confound their enemies. For it is the delusion of every Balkan man or woman, including the Poles and the Russians, that some enemy, a horde of enemies, in league with the evil one, is continually dodging their steps, undoing what they have done or attempted to do. And even the white plague, which so frequently overtakes the Balkan younger element in the narrow, unsanitary quarters in which they live in the city, transported from high mountains to dark cellars, is attributed more to sorcery than to lack of air and proper nourishment and to work under unendurable conditions. The Gipsy promises to confound the Satana, the Dracu, the Strigoi, or whatever name the evil one carries in a Balkan tongue.
But go they must, as soon as spring comes. And their departure is as sudden as it is unobserved. The curtained empty stores in which they have lived along the streets are suddenly discovered in the morning uncurtained. The big downy beds in which they rolled themselves for the night, the only furniture except trunks and bundles in a Gipsy’s house, are removed as quietly as only feathered downs can be moved. When the neighborhood wakens in the morning the Gipsies are gone. Gone to haunt the roads, to weave baskets from the rear end of a wagon to which a lean nag is harnessed. Gone to tell fortunes to the villagers and farmers while the men are dealing in automobiles. Since the horse has gone out of fashion the Gipsies have become itinerant automobile dealers. Forever moving onward, though in circles, westward, trading, the Ford that was ridden in the morning becomes a Rolls-Royce in the evening, and will again be a Ford the following day, leaving the difference, by no means negligible, in the pockets of the children of the Ganges River. And clever as they have been at horse dealing, they are still cleverer at buying or selling a car.
In October I had gone to visit my Gipsy friends who should have come in from the west at about that time. There was no trace of them anywhere. Although they had come to the city in September, they had returned to the road, feeling that there were yet three months of good weather ahead of them. And when a Gipsy can be out-doors he is never to be got indoors. When I returned again, three months later, Fourth Street between Avenue A and the East River, Third Street, Second Street, First Street, the heart of the Balkan quarters in New York, were full of them. Not an empty store which had formerly housed a butcher or a grocer but had been taken by them. The windows were curtained off to the top with Turkish patterned gauzes and calicoes; and a beautiful dusky maiden, with her black tresses hanging loosely over her shoulders, and her golden necklaces and bracelets dangling from her neck and arms, was standing outside awaiting her lover from the other street. An old woman, loaded down by the numerous dresses she wore, one on top of the other, and a wolfskin fur coat on top of all, was walking about, followed by a number of impudent gamins, on her way to gossip with friends who had just come from some other part of the country, to learn the tidings of the road.
Big, tall Mathei, fully six feet four inches high, proportionately broad and weighing about three hundred pounds, whom I had known ever since I was a child, had frequently encamped within sight of my home on the Danube. Here he received me with open arms. He had news for me from the other side. But first of all he wanted to show me his new wife. Fully thirty years younger than he is, a beautiful Brazilian Gipsy whom he had married in Mexico and for whom he had paid eight thousand dollars in gold. And so proud was he of her he had weighted her down with jewels and silks. Of course marrying a Brazilian Gipsy had ruled him out of his clan. But he was in love. He expected them to come to their senses. His own family had already forgiven.
The long store, which had once been a butcher’s place, was carpeted. Even the walls were hung with thick Oriental rugs, some two inches thick, of all colors and hues. The back half of the store had been curtained off to serve as a bedroom and dining-room. A huge, billowy down mattress was lying on the floor. A coal-stove, red-hot, stood in the center. Two fighting-cocks, which had never left the side of the lady, were peaceably cackling to each other.
Mathei stretched out on his back and asked his wife to dance to the rhythm he was beating with his palms. It was indeed a great delight to him; for no Gipsies dance as well as the Brazilians and the Spanish do, and Mathei was eager to show her off. I had not been there long when his son came in, with his wife, and his daughter with her husband; and also two of his former wives made their appearance. We were a gay company that evening.
“This is a good country,” Mathei told me, “except for one thing. Why is the wine so expensive?”
When I told him about the prohibition laws he opened his eyes wide. He had never heard of such a thing. He had thought that because of certain taxes imposed upon the wineand this idea has been current among all the Gipsiesthe good juice had become more expensive.
Across the street from Mathei lived Lupu, a Rumanian Gipsy, the chief of the Rumanian clan in New York. His home, as befits a chief and as if he were still on the road, was a larger one than that of any other Gipsy in the neighborhood. It had formerly been a tailor shop. It was larger and more luxuriously furnished than any other home. By that I mean to say that there were more down beds and thicker layers of carpets, both on the floors and on the walls. A great number of silver trinkets, bells and bracelets, and a considerable number of weapons, swords and blades from Damascus and Teheran, Yataghans from Turkey, Spanish florets, Greek sabers, and muskets and carbines and flint-locks from all countries and all times decorated the walls. A young Gipsy fiddler was sitting near him, ready to play at command. For Lupu had only reluctantly come over here during the late Balkan War, and was pining away, longing for the more familiar stretches of roads and rivers that he had known for years. And so he kept a young fiddler to play him home songs, to smother his home-sickness.
“But look, Lupu,” I said to him, “you are making more money here, I am certain. You are warm in winter. You are not molested. Why should you be so morose?”
“I am a Gipsy chief, supposedly without a home or a country,” the roamer and rover answered. “But when the summer is over do I return to Galatz or Braila, next to my own people, to hear the language that I have always heard, and dance to the tunes I have always danced to, and listen to the people talk about the great deeds of my father or forefathers, or what? No, I come to live in a street populated with people who are themselves strangers here. And my children, you will see them soon. My grandchildren are taken to schools where they kill them so as to teach them to read a few words in a book which they will forget anyhow.” And after a few moments’ silence he added: “But what is worse, what is much worse, is that there is no joy in our trading. It is not money only.” Rising to his feet, he yelled at the top of his voice : “I am a horse-trader ! We have been horse-traders for hundreds of years, and there are no horses to trade with here! And I hate the boiling, smoking, horseless things people run around in, which we buy and sell !”
“Why don’t you return home ?” I asked him. “You have enough money. There will be no difficulty.”
Lupu sighed deeply. And then he told me another secret. “The women won’t go. Every one of our women is making three and four times the amount her man is making. You thought that because people go to school there would not be any fortune-telling, ha? If I told you that my wife is making sixty dollars a day telling fortunes, and that the older they are the more money they make, would you believe me? And women do not care to leave a place where they make money. To them money is everything. If we were to listen to them we should be living in the city here all the time.”
As we were speaking an automobile stopped in front of the house, and two well-dressed ladies came in timidly. Had they understood Lupu’s glance as he welcomed them and asked them to go beyond the curtained part of the store, they might have hesitated. I heard low murmurs, the broken singsong of the old Gipsy woman who was telling them things in a mixture of French, English, and German. Sighs, gasps, and the clinking of ,money. I smelled a little incense mixed with sulphur, and heard talk of a black cat at midnight. The whole thing lasted less than five minutes, and the two ladies rushed out with flushed faces and bent shoulders. Lupu’s wife came out to greet me, literally licking her chops.
“Cate? How much?” Lupu asked, without turning his head.
“Dece; ten,” and she turned her back proudly.
The old chief pulled out his watch, his old Turkish watch which he wound with a key, and pointed with his fingers on the hands. “In less than five minutes, and she only tells me half of what she got.”
Another woman followed these two. She was from the neighborhood. She carried a little baby in her arms which seemed to be wasted with some disease. She was behind the curtain. A Hungarian. I heard Hungarian words in the conversation. She remained there for a few minutes. Lupu did not trouble to ask how much that one had given. Then suddenly he leaned back, closed his eyes, and asked the young Gipsy boy to play.
A few minutes later twenty or more Gipsies came in, for in that store lived the whole of Lupu’s clan, which virtually formed four families; and the youngsters who did go to school looked pale and emaciated, indeed so pale you could hardly have distinguished them from the other boys of the neighborhood.
But only the older men took it so to heart. The younger element did not seem to care much where they lived, as long as they could have their loves and their drinks and their dances and their musicas long as they make so much money themselves, and their wives always making more.
The women-folk of the coppersmiths and kettle-makers are visited in the daytime by the musicians, whose work is only at night. The musicians, better dressed than the other men of the tribe, in fancy shoes and red neckties, with waxed and oiled hair sleekly combed, carrying their fiddles under their coats, begin their visits from about noon. And there is music in every coppersmith Gipsy household while the man is away, interrupted only by the arrival of some superstitious hunter of fortune-telling; very few of the Gipsy women find it necessary to go abroad to hunt for customers.
At night when the Gipsy musicians have gone each their way to play at weddings, some of the more fortunate ones to cabarets and restaurants, the coppersmith clan is walking around entertaining the wives of the musicians until the small hours of the morning, entertaining them with songs and tales and dances and interminable quarrels and talks. Arranging marriage matches is the chief occupation of the coppersmiths and kettle-makers. And it is no small matter to arrange such a match, considering the love of bargaining of the Gipsies. The mother of the young man transacts the business with the father of the young girl. She generally begins by offering for the bride a mere pittance, a thousand dollars in gold, whereupon the father of the girl takes umbrage, as if it were an insult to his daughter, and he hurls threats that he will kill them all for offending him so.
“Does anybody know something about my daughter that I do not know ? Has she misbehaved? Is she sickly? Has her mother ever been ill? And have not my children all lived to be big and strong?” And he points out four stalwart, husky sons with their offspring.
The tumult grows until the people in the neighborhood, thinking the Gipsies are about to kill one another, call the police. The patrol-wagon appears. The neighborhood is abroad and curious. A hundred bronzed vociferating men and women suddenly rise like ghosts from everywhere and make their way into the store. “It is notheeng, just talk.” They pacify the policemen.
After such an initial scandal the mother raises her offer with five hundred dollars. Meanwhile, hand in hand, the youngsters, whose fate they are settling, make the rounds of the moving pictures; visit friends, in absolute certainty that within a day or two the affair will be settled satisfactorily; for the mother would be proud to pay a considerable sum for a bride for her son. Or, as one of them told me when on a visit with Miss Fillmore and Mrs. Champenois: “You pay six thousand dollars and get a big, nice healthy girl. You pay three thousand and you don’t get a big, nice girl. And a big, nice healthy girl gives birth to big, nice healthy children. And the not nice, big healthy girl does not give birth to big healthy children. And they cost much money for doctor and everything. And then when their papa wants to marry them nobody gives much money for them. It is cheap to pay much money at the beginning.”
Of course, nothing is ever said about the bride’s dowry equal if not surpassing the amount paid for herin silks and jewels and down beds.
They showed me a pretty girl, asking me whether I would not myself be willing to offer even more than six thousand dollars for her. This manner of mating is the cause of the Gipsies’ survival. The mating is that of the careful stock-breeder.
A Gipsy wedding in a hall on St. Mark’s Place, or in another hall in the neighborhood, is something never to be forgotten when once seen. Such a wedding lasts at least three days. It generally begins on Friday and lasts over Sunday, with four bands of music succeeding one another. The women come to the wedding arrayed in the most gorgeous costumesin silks and brocades from all the ends of the earth, and jades and rubies and diamonds studded in silver belts and in bracelets hanging and dangling on the brown bare arms and from the red sashes that hold together on the hips the two halves of the ample, colored skirts they wear.
And the men, the older ones especially, wear their own national costumes, the white shirt hanging over the sash, and the wide trousers embroidered at the seams tucked into the high patent-leather boots, and tall, beribboned astrakhan caps on their heads. And they dance and yell and sing and drink in a continual swaying motion, changing rhythms and tempos with sudden interruptions for solo dances and solo songs. The older men and women, always anxious to show the younger ones that they are still alive, execute the most intricate steps, to the great admiration of the circle of onlookers, who stand with backs bent deeply over them in a circle, clapping their hands and yelling their “Ohe ! Ohe ! Ohe!”
At midnight of the second wedding night the bride dances. The dance usually begins in a slow walk, but it ends an hour later in a terrifically furious step, in which all those present finally join in a frantic hysteria of limbs, until the bride swoons in the arms of the groom, who him-self, not having danced a step, is the only one capable of taking care of her. And he carries her away to his home while the others still dance on.
The wedding festival still continues. The mother and father of the bride are conducted home by part of the guests, who remain with them to continue the festival. And the mother weeps and cries. She has lost her child and berates her husband for having sold her to an unworthy man. The mother and father of the groom have to be brought home, and part of the guests remain with them to continue the festival. And then the nearest relatives are brought home, marching through the streets with the musicians at the head of them, singing softly so as not to disturb the sleepers. Such is a Gipsy wedding in New Yorkor in Damascus, or in the Carpathian Mountains.
The Gipsies live unmolested in New York, until some-thing happens in the neighborhood. But when the police find no clue to some crime, suspicion is immediately directed toward these mysterious strangers. A number of them are called to the police station, harassed, questioned ; and the usual wind-up of such an affair is an order compelling them to leave the neighborhood within twenty-four hours, without the slightest consideration of the hardships it may entail upon them. The Gipsies here are without any protection. No voice is ever raised to defend them. They are also the prey of numerous welfare societies. The Prevention of Cruelty to Children comes to bother them, cornpelling them to send their children to school, or to dress them in such manner as befits future American citizens, which these children will never be. The truant-officer of the adjoining school is a continual trouble to them. For after he is once inscribed and enrolled, the young Gipsy danchuck thinks that he has done his duty and is likely never to appear again until forced to do so. When Lupu or Stan or Vladislav finds himself haled before the judge, the whole clan appears with him, and they cry and weep and gesticulate in a half-dozen tongues to make themselves understood. And the father is fined and ordered to punish his son for truancy. One might as well ask the seal to punish her young for diving.
On First Street, below First Avenue, live the Russian Gipsies, headed by Mishka, who is chief violinist of the tribe. Mishka, met on one of the principal streets of the city, would never be taken for a Gipsy. He is most immaculately dressed. And although swarthy, with a small ear-ring hanging in his left ear, his peculiarities would be taken as the eccentricities of an artist rather than as the characteristics of a race. He speaks French and German fluently, is suave, and has the best of manners. He has played at the Hermitage in Paris and has made his fame on Piccadilly. In Moscow and in Petrograd he was one of the most favored leaders of Gipsy bands in the midnight cabarets. His gifts from his admirers are many. It has taken him a long time to make his peculiar art of playing valuable in New York. But so many of the Russian aristocracy arrived here that numerous Russian inns and cabarets sprang into existence on upper Broadway. The democratic American is paying for the privilege of being waited upon by a Russian nobleman who serves caviar at two dollars and a half a sandwich and tea at fifty cents a glass. Mishka plays in one of these places to give atmosphere. Two or three hundred dollars a week is as nothing to him. In a good mood he buys a few thousand dollars’ worth of jewels for his wife, to subdue her anger when he has been too long away from her; for many are the temptations put in his way. As at home, the Russians who can afford it are anything but niggardly, and their women are very charming.
But when his work is over Mishka returns to his gadzhika and his danchucks, a half-dozen of them, ranging from ten years down, in a basement store which had once been a coal shop down on First Street. He takes off his Tuxedo and his immaculate white shirt and collar, and dons a Russian blouse, and is at home. He had once, in an attempt to become a regular citizen, moved into one of the apartment-houses of the neighborhood, dressing his wife and his children American fashion and giving himself out as a Russian. He had even bought furniture on the instalment plan from a dealer on Avenue A, with stiff mission-wood chairs and rockers and regulation sideboard and brass beds. But before a month was over he had returned to the basement. His quarters had been too much like a house, while the basement is much more like a subterranean tent.
I expect Mishka to make several such attempts in the near future. His American friends, musicians, urge him to become an American. Mishka himself urges his children to go to school, and has indeed made his oldest, a girl of ten, teach him to read and write. It is the beginning of the end of the Mishka clan. I suspect and am afraid that his playing will greatly deteriorate, once he is cut off from his habits, which have been the habits of his ancestors. He already speaks of marrying his daughter to an American boy. The girl herself is trying to subdue the colors of her dress and is ashamed of being known as a Gipsy by her schoolmates. Indeed, the whole Gipsydom of Russian musicians on First Street has been tainted by Americanism. These Gipsies are being mentioned to the other Gipsies of the neighborhood as an example by well-meaning ladies urging the welfare of the children, and by the truant-officer. And because of that there has been a good deal of friction between the Rumanian and Hungarian Gipsies and the Russian Gipsies in New York. The outside world knows nothing about that.
There is not a thing that happens to be against the Balkan tzigan, but it is immediately imputed to the intrigues of the Russian ones. As it is, the Gipsies of one nationality have none too much friendship for the Gipsies of another, in spite of Borrow’s contention that they form a secret society the world over. It is indeed a rare thing when a Hungarian Gipsy woman marries a Rumanian Gipsy man, or vice versa; and it is still a rarer occasion when a Brazilian Gipsy or a Spanish Gipsy is permitted to enter the clan. A white man or a white woman will be much easier welcomed than a Gipsy of another nationality.
On Third Street, below Avenue A and down to the East River, are housed the Brazilian Gipsies. There was some commotion not long ago when, after a fire in one of the houses, in which Cordoba and his family lived, a mother bear and two little cubs were suddenly seen dragged out into the street. The Cordobas had brought the trio into their home while the neighborhood was asleep. Every stitch of clothes the whole family possessed went up in flames. But the bear and the cubs were saved, much to the later annoyance of the Gipsies, who suddenly found themselves in Dutch with a hundred laws and regulations. The firemen had no sooner gone than the Gipsy family returned to the store, boarded up the broken windows, and began to moan. But it did not take very long before the other Brazilian Gipsies of the neighborhood had rented another store for them and fitted them out. For the wealth of one Gipsy is the wealth of the tribe.
The Brazilian Gipsies are less colorful than the other ones. They sing less than either the Hungarian, Russian, or Rumanian Gipsies do. And they are not as given to fortune-telling, are not as skilful at it, as their brothers of the skin are. Their doors are not as open to strangers. You can open the door of almost any Gipsy family and be received hospitably after wishing them good morning or good evening. They will offer to show you their costumes and their bric-a-brac, and let you finger the jewelry that hangs on their necks and from their arms. But the Brazilian Gipsy, like the Spaniard, living under curtained windows, will only open a crack of the door, peer at you, ask you what you want, shake his head, and close the door before you have answered. They are neither as wealthy nor as large-handed as the other Gipsies and are suspected, by the Rumanians especially, of all sorts of evil things. Indeed, I have been assured that neither cat nor dog is safe in their vicinity, and that they eat even other things. But this is another Gipsy peculiarity, of accusing one another and thus confusing everything.
On Fifth and Sixth Streets and on Ninth Street live the Hungarian Gipsies. Tall, slender, curly-headed, with long, black, waxed mustaches, musicians all of them, they stroll about like the lords of creation, with utter contempt for their wives and women-folk of the tribe. The men make their quarters apart from the women’s quarters, very much in the manner of the Mohammedans, who separate their harems from the living space.
You can easily recognize a Hungarian Gipsy’s home. The curtains are much lower, and the people have even taken to living in apartment-houses. Should you pass the street slowly and listen, you will perceive the curious fiery sound emitted by the cymbalom, their favorite musical instrument. Furious waves of music, made so familiar to the cultivated ear through Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies and Brahms’s Hungarian dances, will let you know that you are in front of a Hungarian Gipsy’s home. You may, if you feel like it, go in and wish them good morning. No pretext is needed. They are accustomed to visitors. You will be asked to allow them to tell your fortune, and before you know it you will be separated from some of your money, and, seated comfortably on a low divan, you will be smoking a cigarette while the lady of the house is urging her daughter to play for you something on the cymbalom. After she has played, there may be another girl in the family who can sing, and you will be asked to listen to her singing. When she has finished singing and you have given her something, another one may suddenly begin to turn somersaults and do all sorts of gymnastics for you. You will seldom see any male member of the family. If they are at home, they will not even deign to rise and wish you welcome or look at you. And if they should happen to come in while you are there, they will pierce you through with their small black eyes, a question or two will be asked, and woe to the one suspected of having looked too tenderly at any of the women of the household.
The men congregate in innumerable Hungarian restaurants of the neighborhood, restaurants and Weinstuben, where there is great talk of this and that great musician. When the Hungarian cymbalist, Yanosh Barti, who has played for years at the Capitol Theater, died recently, there was almost a riot because of the disputes between the other musicians as to whether he was a greater cymbalom player than another one still living. It is strange, but the pusta children who have for centuries lived in the deserts of Hungary, so isolated, so within themselves, are adapting themselves most readily to city conditions. I have seldom heard talk among them of a desire to return home.
And so through the winter these nomadic races, here in great numbers since the late war, have dotted the lower East Side streets, the Balkans of New York, with their winter homes, thus helping the other inhabitants to feel more at home. Indeed, were it understood, those who are so anxious to Americanize southeastern European people would welcome the Gipsies among them, if it were for nothing else but because they give that touch so necessary to the hundred thousand people living, pining, and longing for their homes. They can endure Anglo-Saxon civilization much easier with the presence of their Gipsies about them. They can forget, when it is necessary to forget, that they are not at home. The dash of color, the dash of song they bring, is like the special condiment needed in order to make food palatable. There would be no festivities among the Rumanians and Hungarians and Poles, or the Russians, if it were not for the Gipsies. It would be impossible for them to have any festivity, christening, or marriage (the first frequently before the last) while jazz was played or rag songs were danced, such music being not only meaningless to them but insufferably cruel to their ears.
There are about thirty thousand Gipsies roaming over the United States at present. Of that some twenty thousand are natives, in Louisiana and New Mexico. The other ten thousand are almost evenly distributed between the Russian, Polish, Hungarian, and Rumanian Gipsies. In the winter, between the months of October and April, about four thousand of them live in New York. Five hundred or so of the men are occupied playing nightly at cabarets and at the weddings of their co-nationals. Others are in continual demand in the neighborhood show-houses and vaudevilles as dancers and performers. The rest of them are fortune-telling to fortune-hunters.
They have neither church nor any other religious institutions. Each tribe has a different religion from the others. They have no literature and care for none. And when I lately read to them what celebrated gipsologists had said about Gipsies, there was great merriment among them all.
And yet, impossible as it sounds, it seems to me that most of them who have come here will be absorbed ; but in the following manner: The Rumanian Gipsies will inter-marry with the Rumanian people living here, the Russians with the Russian, and so forth. By the time these nationalities through intermarriage absorb one another, there will be little left of the original Gipsy blood. Such things have already happened.
We went down one day to buy some costumes for a theatrical production. Most of the Gipsies refused to sell. But one family with which I am fairly well acquainted was easily persuaded to take gold in exchange for gorgeously patterned, ample, blood-red, canary-yellow, and field-green silken dresses. The bargain concluded, we were still short a wedding dress for the second act. After much palaver, the old lady consented to show us her wedding dress, which she has kept these fifty years. It brought forth gasps and cries of delight from Miss Mary Fowler and Mrs. Jeanne Cassel. Gossamer spun and woven by fairy hands in the shadow of a golden evening. But she would not hear of selling it, the old lady. I entreated and begged. No, it was hers. She had refused even to include it in the dowry for her daughter. After many hours, and when I had explained that we should be compelled to show a Gipsy bride in an unbefitting dress, she draped it on one of the ladies. Tears came into her eyes as she looked at her. “Even as I looked in that myself.” And then she suddenly exclaimed: “Take it as a gift. But I will not sell.”
We made to leave, afraid she might change her mind. At the door she stopped Miss Fowler. I trembled. The old woman’s face became entreating. Her lips and eyes had that curious shrewd smile I know so well.
“Cross your palm with silver, and I will tell your fortune.”
And she who had so magnificently given was beggingswindlingout of habit.
It is east of Third Avenue above Twentieth Street. You will find the place easily enough in daytime. Horses are tied out on the street, while a peculiar kind of people line the sidewalk, some flourishing long-handled whips over their heads, others with their riding-crops under their arms or sticking out of their leggings.
In good days, early in the spring, the block resembles a horse-fair in a far-off countryin any far-off country of the world. For this is the peculiarity of the business. Horsemen are the same the world over. McTurk of Dublin, Ciorcani the Gipsy of the Hungarian plains, Mr. Sire of New York, and Mahbub Ali of India in Kipling’s “Kim” are one and the same person. And where horses are sold the same methods are applied, the same language is used in different tongues, and the environment changes to suit the men who fill the circle.
“This heah hawse is lame. The right foh leg drags,” says the would-be buyer.
“Lame nothing. He just favors that leg,” answers the dealer.
“Lame” is eliminated from the language of the seller. A lame leg is a “favored” leg.
A horse is never older than thirteen years, because after that his age can no longer be read in the age-worn teeth. And when it comes to price, a horse is worth what you can get.
Inside one of the half-cement, half-brick buildings the auction is going on. The auctioneer is standing on a bench, the buyers in a wide circle. A horse, tagged and numbered, is held in place by a young hostler, who hangs on the short halter with all his weight to show off the spirit of the animal. If it is a plow-horse, he stands loosely by to impress people with its meekness, kindness, and docility; for a runner or a trotter he has different tactics. A really good boy is worth his weight in gold.
There is old Tom, a horse-dealing Gipsy. Everybody knows Tom.
But he never even lifts his head when a pedigreed horse is offered for sale. He never hears the introduction of the auctioneer when a “blood” is brought out. He does not care to know what the dam or sire was, and he does not want to listen to the tale of records set on the track by brothers, half-brothers, sisters, and half-sisters of the horse in question.
“Them are horses for them that know nuthin’ about horse-flesh and ain’t horsemen at all,” is Tom-As-Is’s dictum. “It ‘s for amatchures. That knowin’ for sure all about the animal is disgustin’. Listen to him !”
The auctioneer was reciting, refreshing his memory from written notes : “Dam retired from track with two-ten record. Sire with two-four. Brother now in training for big Futurity. Winner of
“Do you hear him? Come out of here. I ain’t in the market for no machines. It ‘s horse-flesh I buy. And it ‘s up to my eye, to my experience, to my horsemanship to know all about a horse when I see it. The rest is gamble, excitement. What ‘s a man in the business for if not for that? Why buy it if you know all it can do?”
A magnificent young colt with a long pedigree was put up for sale. Its sensitive head was kept erect on a thin, long neck. The red nostrils spurted fire, and the taut veins on the buttocks and legs were quivering with excitement.
“Tom,” I said, “what do you say to this fellow?”
“It ‘s all in the pedigree; I ain’t got nothing to say.”
“Could I make something out of him?”
“Well, it ‘s in the pedigree. Figure the record of the sire and dam. If you ’11 keep him well and train him well you ‘ll get a fair average of the two. Nothing to get excited about.” And Tom left me.
The young colt was sold for a very small sum. There were no “amatchures” at the sale.
Then, toward the end, No. 64 was brought out, a young colt, part Arab, part mustang, and with a dash of thoroughbred and some other breed thrown in. There was no pedigree, and the auctioneer called out : “As issold with no guarantee.”
Tom was outside the stable, but the sound of “As is” brought him running to the circle. Instantly he was at one of the legs and felt it knowingly and slowly from the hips down to the hoofs. When the operation was over Tom saw three other men, each busy feeling a leg.
He had to wait for his turn on the other legs. What a quartet of horse-dealers ! How much alike they looked to one another ! Finally they were given a chance to buy a horse on their own personal knowledge. Then each tried the horse for its wind and kept his observation to himself.
“Nice young colt, two years old, as is. What am I bid for him? How much to start with?” chanted the auctioneer.
“Twenty,” said Tom-As-Is.
“Twenty, twenty, twenty, who gives twenty-five? Twenty-five I ‘ve got. Who gives thirty, thirty, thirty? Thirty I ‘ve got. Who gives forty? Forty . . .”
Tom bid higher and higher. The others kept raising the price. At the end the non-pedigreed, non-guaranteed horse sold for three times the amount the pure-bred colt had brought.
“It ‘s not knowing what goes into the making of him that makes us expect something extra,” explained Tom, as he led the awkward creature to his stable. “He mebbe won’t make more than a tram-car horse, and mebbe he ’11 break records! Who knows? But in them pedigreed things it ‘s machine-like. I ‘m a horseman, I am.”
A horseman he is, Tom. Of the same tribe as El Zorab in Arabia, Mahbub in India, Ciorcani on the pasta of the Magyar land, and Mehemet Ali in the swamps of the Dobrudja.