What’s that to absolute freedom; such as the very beggars have; to feast and revel here to-day, and yonder to-morrow; next day where they please; and so on still, the whole country or kingdom over? There’s liberty! the birds of the air can take no more.
This roving crew is called “Starlight Tom’s Gang,” from the name of its chieftain, a notorious poacher. I have heard repeatedly of the misdeeds of this “minion of the moon;” for every midnight depredation that takes place in park, or fold or farm-yard, is laid to his charge. Starlight Tom, in fact, answers to his name; he seems to walk in darkness, and, like a fox, to be traced in the morning by the mischief he has done. He reminds me of that fearful personage in the nursery rhyme:
Who goes round the house at night?
None but bloody Tom!
Who steals all the sheep at night?
None but one by one!
In short, Starlight Tom is the scapegoat of the neighbourhood, but so cunning and adroit, that there is no detecting him. Old Christy and the game-keeper have watched many a night, in hopes of entrapping him; and Christy often patrols the park with his dogs, for the purpose, but all in vain. It is said that the Squire winks hard at his misdeeds, having an indulgent feeling towards the vagabond, because of his being very expert at all kinds of games, a great shot with the cross-bow, and the best morris-dancer in the country.
The Squire also suffers the gang to lurk unmolested about the skirts of his estate, on condition that they do not come about the house. The approaching wedding, however, has made a kind of Saturnalia at the Hall, and has caused a suspension of all sober rule. It has produced a great sensation throughout the female part of the household; not a housemaid but dreams of wedding favours, and has a husband running in her head. Such a time is a harvest for the gipsies: there is a public footpath leading across one part of the park, by which they have free ingress, and they are continually hovering about the grounds, telling the servant-girls’ fortunes, or getting smuggled in to the young ladies.
I believe the Oxonian amuses himself very much by furnishing them with hints in private, and bewildering all the weak brains in the house with their wonderful revelations. The general certainly was very much astonished by the communications made to him the other evening by the gipsy girl: he kept a wary silence towards us on the subject, and affected to treat it lightly; but I have noticed that he has since redoubled his attentions to Lady Lillycraft and her dogs.
I have seen also Phoebe Wilkins, the housekeeper’s pretty and love-sick niece, holding a long conference with one of these old sibyls behind a large tree in the avenue, and often looking round to see that she was not observed. I make no doubt that she was endeavouring to get some favourable augury about the result of her love-quarrel with young Ready Money, as oracles have always been more consulted on love affairs than upon any thing else. I fear, however, that in this instance the response was not so favourable as usual; for I perceived poor Phoebe returning pensively towards the house, her head hanging down, her hat in her hand, and the riband trailing along the ground.
At another time, as I turned a corner of a terrace, at the bottom of the garden, just by a clump of trees, and a large stone urn, I came upon a bevy of the young girls of the family, attended by this same Phoebe Wilkins. I was at a loss to comprehend the meaning of their blushing and giggling, and their apparent agitation, until I saw the red cloak of a gipsy vanishing among the shrubbery. A few moments after, I caught sight of Master Simon and the Oxonion stealing along one of the walks of the garden, chuckling and laughing at their successful waggery; having evidently put the gipsy up to the thing, and instructed her what to say.
After all, there is something strangely pleasing in these tamperings with the future, even where we are convinced of the fallacy of the prediction. It is singular how willingly the mind will half deceive itself, and with what a degree of awe we will listen to these babblers about futurity. For my part, I cannot feel angry with these poor vagabonds, that seek to deceive us into bright hopes and expectations. I have always been something of a castle-builder, and have found my liveliest pleasures to arise from the illusions which fancy has cast over commonplace realities. As I get on in life, I find it more difficult to deceive myself in this delightful manner; and I should be thankful to any prophet, however false, that would conjure the clouds which hang over futurity into palaces, and all its doubtful regions into fairy-land.
The Squire, who, as I have observed, has a private good-will towards gipsies, has suffered considerable annoyance on their account. Not that they requite his indulgence with ingratitude, for they do not depredate very flagrantly on his estate; but because their pilferings and misdeeds occasion loud murmurs in the village. I can readily understand the old gentleman’s humour on this point; I have a great toleration for all kinds of vagrant sunshiny existence, and must confess I take a pleasure in observing the ways of gipsies. The English, who are accustomed to them from childhood, and often suffer from their petty depredations, consider them as mere nuisances; but I have been very much struck with their peculiarities. I like to behold their clear olive complexions, their romantic black eyes, their raven locks, their lithe, slender figures; and hear them in low silver tones dealing forth magnificent promises of honours and estates, of world’s wealth, and ladies’ love.
Their mode of life, too, has something in it very fanciful and picturesque. They are the free denizens of nature, and maintain a primitive independence, in spite of law and gospel; of county gaols and country magistrates. It is curious to see this obstinate adherence to the wild, unsettled habits of savage life transmitted from generation to generation, and preserved in the midst of one of the most cultivated, populous, and systematic countries in the world. They are totally distinct from the busy, thrifty people about them. They seem to be, like the Indians of America, either above or below the ordinary cares and anxieties of mankind. Heedless of power, of honours, of wealth; and indifferent to the fluctuations of times; the rise or fall of grain, or stock, or empires, they seem to laugh at the tolling, fretting world around them, and to live according to the philosophy of the old song:
“Who would ambition shun,
And loves to lie i’ the sun,
Seeking the food he eats,
And pleased with what he gets,
Come hither, come hither, come hither;
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.”
In this way, they wander from county to county; keeping about the purlieus of villages, or in plenteous neighbourhoods, where there are fat farms and rich country-seats. Their encampments are generally made in some beautiful spot—either a green shady nook of a road; or on the border of a common, under a sheltering hedge; or on the skirts of a fine spreading wood. They are always to be found lurking about fairs, and races, and rustic gatherings, wherever there is pleasure, and throng, and idleness. They are the oracles of milk-maids and simple serving-girls; and sometimes have even the honour of perusing the white hands of gentlemen’s daughters, when rambling about their fathers’ grounds. They are the bane of good housewives and thrifty farmers, and odious in the eyes of country justices; but, like all other vagabond beings, they have something to commend them to the fancy. They are among the last traces, in these matter-of-fact days, of the motley population of former times; and are whimsically associated in my mind with fairies and witches, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood, and the other fantastical personages of poetry.