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   Chapter 49 No.49

Selections from the Poems and Plays of Robert Browning By Robert Browning Characters: 5271

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Now, in your land, gypsies reach you only350

After reaching all lands beside;

North they go, South they go, trooping or lonely,

And still, as they travel far and wide,

Catch they and keep now a trace here, a trace there,

That puts you in mind of a place here, a place there335

But with us, I believe they rise out of the ground,

And nowhere else, I take it, are found

With the earth-tint yet so freshly embrowned:

Born, no doubt, like insects which breed on

The very fruit they are meant to feed on.360

For the earth-not a use to which they don't turn it,

The ore that grows in the mountain's womb,

Or the sand in the pits like a honeycomb,

They sift and soften it, bake it and burn it-

Whether they weld you, for instance, a snaffle365

With side-bars never a brute can baffle;

Or a lock that's a puzzle of wards within wards;

Or, if your colt's forefoot inclines to curve inwards,

Horseshoes they hammer which turn on a swivel

And won't allow the hoof to shrivel.370

Then they cast bells like the shell of the winkle

That keep a stout heart in the ram with their tinkle;

But the sand-they pinch and pound it like otters;

Commend me the gypsy glass-makers and potters!

Glasses they'll blow you, crystal-clear,375

Where just a faint cloud of rose shall appear,

As if in pure water you dropped and let die

A bruised black-blooded mulberry;

And that other sort, their crowning pride,

With long white threads distinct inside,380

Like the lake-flower's fibrous roots which dangle

Loose such a length and never tangle,

Where the bold sword-lily cuts the clear waters,

And the cup-lily couches with all the white daughters:

Such are the works they put their hand to,385

The uses they turn and twist iron and sand to.

And these made the troop, which our Duke saw sally

Toward his castle from out of the valley,

Men and women, like new-hatched spiders,

Come out with the morning to greet our riders.390

And up they wound till they reached the ditch,

Whereat all stopped save one, a witch

That I knew, as she hobbled from the group,

By her gait directly and her stoop,

I, whom Jacynth was used to importune395

To let that same witch tell us our fortune.

The oldest gypsy then above ground;

And, sure as the autumn season came round,

She paid us a visit for profit or pastime,

And every time, as she swore, for the last time.400

And presently she was seen to sidle

Up to the Duke till she touched his bridle,

So that the horse of a sudden reared up

As under its nose the old witch peer

ed up

With her worn-out eyes, or rather eye-holes405

Of no use now but to gather brine,

And began a kind of level whine

Such as they used to sing to their viols

When their ditties they go grinding

Up and down with nobody minding;410

And then, as of old, at the end of the humming

Her usual presents were forthcoming

-A dog-whistle blowing the fiercest of trebles

(Just a seashore stone holding a dozen fine pebbles),

Or a porcelain mouthpiece to screw on a pipe-end-415

And so she awaited her annual stipend.

But this time the Duke would scarcely vouchsafe

A word in reply; and in vain she felt

With twitching fingers at her belt

For the purse of sleek pine-marten pelt,420

Ready to put what he gave in her pouch safe-

Till, either to quicken his apprehension,

Or possibly with an after-intention,

She was come, she said, to pay her duty

To the new Duchess, the youthful beauty.425

No sooner had she named his lady

Than a shine lit up the face so shady,

And its smirk returned with a novel meaning-

For it struck him, the babe just wanted weaning;

If one gave her a taste of what life was and sorrow,430

She, foolish today, would be wiser tomorrow;

And who so fit a teacher of trouble

As this sordid crone bent well-nigh double?

So, glancing at her wolf-skin vesture,

(If such it was, for they grow so hirsute435

That their own fleece serves for natural fur-suit)

He was contrasting, 'twas plain from his gesture,

The life of the lady so flower-like and delicate

With the loathsome squalor of this helicat.

I, in brief, was the man the Duke beckoned440

From out of the throng, and while I drew near

He told the crone-as I since have reckoned

By the way he bent and spoke into her ear

With circumspection and mystery-

The main of the lady's history,445

Her frowardness and ingratitude:

And for all the crone's submissive attitude

I could see round her mouth the loose plaits tightening,

And her brow with assenting intelligence brightening,

As though she engaged with hearty goodwill450

Whatever he now might enjoin to fulfill,

And promised the lady a thorough frightening.

And so, just giving her a glimpse

Of a purse, with the air of a man who imps

The wing of the hawk that shall fetch the hernshaw,455

He bade me take the gypsy mother

And set her telling some story or other

Of hill or dale, oak-wood or fernshaw,

To wile away a weary hour

For the lady left alone in her bower,460

Whose mind and body craved exertion

And yet shrank from all better diversion.

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