The peaceful gypsy band still wanders

In Gavril Afanassievitch’s house opening from the hall on the right was
a a narrow room with one window. In it stood a simple bed covered with
a blanket. Before the bed stood a small table of pine wood, on which a
tallow candle burnt, and a book of music lay open. On the wall hung an
old blue uniform and its contemporary, a three-cornered hat; above it
nailed to the wall with three nails hung a picture representing Charles
XII. on horseback. The notes of a flute sounded through this humble
abode. The captive dancing-master, its solitary occupant, in a skull
cap and cotton dressing-gown, was enlivening the dulness of a winter’s
evening practising some strange Swedish, marches. After devoting two
whole hours to this exercise the Swede took his flute to pieces, packed
it in a box, and began to undress.

THE GYPSIES,

NARRATIVE AND DRAMATIC POEM.

A noisy band of gypsies are wandering through. Bessarabia. To-day they
will pitch their ragged tents on the banks of the river. Sweet as
freedom is their nights rest, peaceful their slumber.

Between the cart wheels, half screened by rugs, burns a fire around
which the family is preparing supper. In the open fields graze the
horses, and behind the tents a tame bears lies free. In the heart of
the desert all is movement with the preparations for the morning’s
march, with the songs of the women, the cries of the children, and the
sound of the itinerant anvil. But soon upon the wandering band falls
the silence of sleep, and the stillness of the desert is broken only by
the barking of the dogs and the neighing of the horses.

The fires are everywhere extinguished, all is calm; the moon shines
solitary in the sky, shedding its light over the silent camp.

In one of the tents is an old man who does not sleep, but remains
seated by the embers, warming himself by their last glow. He gazes
into the distant steppes, which are now wrapped in the mists of night.
His youthful daughter has wandered into the distant plains. She is
accustomed to her wild freedom; she will return. But night wears on,
and the moon in the distant clouds is about to set. Zemphira tarries,
and the old man’s supper is getting cold. But here she comes, and,
following on her footsteps, a youth, a stranger to the old gypsy.

“Father,” says the maiden, “I bring a guest; I found him beyond the
tombs in the steppes, and I have invited him to the camp for the night.
He wishes to become a gypsy like us. He is a fugitive from the law. But
I will be his companion. He is ready to follow wherever I lead.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “I am glad. Stay in the shelter of our camp till
morning, or longer it thou wilt. I am-ready to share with thee both
bread and roof. Be one of us. Make trial of our life; of our wandering,
poverty, and freedom. To-morrow, at daybreak, in one van, we will go
together. Choose thy trade: forge iron, or sing songs, leading the bear
from village to village.”

_Aleko:_ “I will remain.”

_Zemphira_: “He is mine; who shall take him from me? But it is late….
the young moon has set, the fields are hidden in darkness, and sleep
overpowers me.”

Day breaks. The old man moves softly about the silent camp.

“Wake, Zemphira, the sun is rising; awake, my guest. ‘Tis time, tis
time! Leave, my children, the couch of slothfulness.”

Noisily the clustering crowd expands; the tents are struck; the vans
are ready to start. All is movement, and the horde advances over the
desert.

Asses with paniers full of sportive children lead the way; husbands,
brothers, wives, daughters, young and old, follow in their wake. What
shouting and confusion! Gypsy songs are mingled with the growling
of the bear, impatiently gnawing at his chain. What a motley of
bright-coloured rags! The naked children! The aged men! Dogs bark and
howl, the bagpipes drone, the carts creak. All is so poor, so wild,
so disorderly, but full of the life and movement ever absent from our
dead, slothful, idle life, monotonous as the songs of slaves.

The youth gazes disheartened over the desert plain. The secret cause of
his sadness he admits not even to himself. By his side is the dark-eyed
Zemphira. Now he is a free inhabitant of the world, and radiant above
him shines the sun in midday glory. Why, then, does the youth’s heart
tremble–what secret sorrow preys upon him?

God’s little bird knows neither care nor labour, Why should it strive
to build a lasting nest? The night is long, but a branch suffices for
its sleeping place. When the sun comes in his glory, birdie hears the
voice of God, flutters his plumage, and sings his song. After spring,
Nature’s fairest time, comes hot summer. Late autumn follows, bringing
mist and cold. Poor men and women are sad and dismal. To distant lands,
to warmer climes beyond the blue sea, flies birdie to the spring. Like
a little careless bird is the wandering exile. For him there is no
abiding nest, no home! Every road is his; at each stopping-place is his
night’s lodging. Waking at dawn, he leaves his day at God’s disposal,
and the toil of life disturbs not his calm, indolent heart. At times,
glory’s enchantment, like a distant star, attracts his gaze; or sudden
visions of luxury and pleasure float before him. Sometimes above his
solitary head growls the thunder, and beneath the thunder, as beneath a
peaceful sky, he sleeps serene. And thus he lives, ignoring the power
of blind treacherous Fate. But once, oh God! how passion played with
his obedient soul! How it raged in his tormented breast! Is it long,
and for how long, that it has left him calm? It will rage again; let
him but wait!

_Zemphira_: “Friend, tell me, dost thou not regret what thou hast left
for ever?”

_Aleko_: “What have I left?”

_Zemphira:_ “Thou knowest; thy people, thy cities.”

_Aleko:_ “Regret? If thou knewest, if thou could’st imagine the
confinement of our stifling towns! There people crowded behind walls
never breathe the cool breeze of the morning, nor the breath of
spring-scented meadows. They are ashamed to love, and chase away the
thought. They traffic with liberty, bow their heads to idols, and beg
for money and chains. What have I left? The excitement of treason, the
prejudged sentence, the mob’s mad persecution or splendid infamy.”

_Zemphira:_ “But there thou hadst magnificent palaces, many coloured
carpets, entertainments, and loud revels; and the maiden’s dresses are
so rich!”

_Aleko:_ “What is there to please in our noisy towns? The genuine
love, no veritable joy. The maidens. How much dost thou surpass them,
without their rich apparel, their pearls, or their necklaces! Be true,
my gentle friend! My sole wish is to share with thee love, leisure, and
this self-sought exile.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Thou lovest us, though born amongst the rich.. But
freedom is not always agreeable to those used to luxury. We have a
legend:–

“Once a king banished a man from the South to live amongst us–I once
knew but have forgotten his difficult name–though old in years he was
youthful, passionate, and simple-hearted. He had a wondrous gift of
song, with a voice like running waters. Everyone liked him. He dwelt
on the banks of the Danube, harming no one, but pleasing many with his
stories. He was helpless, weak, and timid as a child. Strangers brought
him game and fish caught in nets. When the rapid river froze and
winter storms raged high, they clad the saintly old man in soft warm
furs. But he could never be inured to the hardships of a poor man’s
life. He wandered about pale and thin, declaring that an offended God
was chastening him for some crime. He waited, hoping for deliverance,
and full of sad regret. The wretched man wandered on the banks of the
Danube shedding bitter tears, as he remembered his distant home, and,
dying, he desired that his unhappy bones should be carried to the
South. Even in death the stranger to these parts could find no rest.”

_Aleko:_ “Such is thy children’s fate, O Borne, O world-famed Empire!
Singer of love, singer of the gods, say what is glory? The echo from
the tomb, the voice of praise continued from generation to generation,
or a tale told by a gypsy in his smoky tent?”

* * * * *

Two years passed. The peaceful gypsy band still wanders, finding
everywhere rest and hospitality. Scorning the fetters of civilisation,
Aleko is free, like them; without regret or care he leads a wandering
life. He is unchanged, unchanged the gypsy band. Forgetful of his past,
he has grown used to a gypsy life. He loves sleeping under their tents,
the delight of perpetual idleness, and their poor but sonorous tongue.
The bear, a deserter from his native haunts, is now a shaggy guest
within his tent. In the villages along the deserted route that passes
in front of some Moldavian dwelling, the bear dances clumsily before
a timid crowd and growls and gnaws his tiresome chain. Leaning on his
staff the old man lazily strikes the tambourine; Aleko, singing, leads
the bear; Zemphira makes the round of the villagers, collecting their
voluntary gifts; when night sets in all three prepare the corn they
have not reaped, the old man sleeps, and all is still…. The tent is
quiet and dark.

In the spring the old man is warming his numbed blood; at a cradle his
daughter sings of love. Aleko listens, and turns pale.

_Zemphira_: “Old husband, cruel husband, cut me, burn me, I am firm,
and fear neither knife nor fire. I hate thee, despise thee; I love
another, and loving him will die.”

_Aleko:_ “Silence, thy singing annoys me. I dislike wild songs.”

_Zemphira:_ “Dislike them? And what do I care! I am singing for myself.
Cut me, burn me, I will not complain. Old husband, cruel husband, thou
shalt not discover him. He is fresher than the spring, warmer than
the summer-day. How young and bold he is! How much he loves me! How I
caressed him in the stillness of the night! How we laughed together at
thy white hair.”

_Aleko:_ “Silence, Zemphira. Enough!”

_Zemphira:_ “Then thou hast understood my song.”

_Aleko:_ “Zemphira!”

_Zemphira_: “Be angry if thou wilt…. the song is about thee.” (_She
retires singing_, “_Old husband, &c._”)

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Yes, I remember; that song was made in my time, and
has long been sung for folk’s amusement. Marioula used; as we wandered
over the Kagula Steppes, to sing it in the winter nights. The memory of
past years grows fainter hourly, but that song impressed me deeply.”
. . . . . . . . . . . All is still. It is night, and the moon casts a
sheen over the blue of the southern sky. Zemphira has awakened the old
man.

“Oh, father! Aleko is terrible; listen to him! In his heavy sleep he
groans and sobs.”

_The Old Gypsy_: “Do not disturb him, keep quiet. I have heard a
Russian saying that at this time, at midnight, the house spirit often
oppresses a sleeper’s breathing, and before dawn quits him again. Stay
with me.”

_Zemphira:_ “Father, he murmurs Zemphira!”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “He seeks thee even in his sleep. Thou art dearer to
him than all the world.”

_Zemphira_: “I care no longer for his love; I am weary, my heart wants
freedom. I have already–But hush! dost thou hear? He repeats another
name.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Whose name?”

_Zemphira:_ “Dost thou not hear? The hoarse groan, the savage grinding
of his teeth! How terrible! I will rouse him.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “No, don’t chase away the night spirit; it will leave
him of its own accord!”

_Zemphira:_ “He has turned, and raised himself; he calls me, he is
awake. I will go to him. Good night, and sleep.”

_Aleko:_ “Where hast thou been?”

_Zemphira:_ “With my father. Some spirit has oppressed thee. In sleep
thy soul has suffered tortures. Thou didst frighten me; grinding thy
teeth and calling out to me.”

_Aleko:_ “I dreamt of thee, and saw as if between us…. I had horrible
thoughts.”

_Zemphira:_ “Put no faith in treacherous dreams.”

_Aleko:_ “Alas! I believe in nothing Neither in dreams, nor in sweet
assurances, nor in thy heart.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Young madman. Why dost thou sigh so often? We here
are free. The sky is clean, the women famous for their beauty. Weep
not. Grief will destroy thee.”

_Aleko:_ “Father! she loves me no more.”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Be comforted, friend. She is but a child. Thy sadness
is unreasonable. Thou lovest anxiously and earnestly, but a woman’s
heart loves playfully. Behold, through the distant vault the full moon
wanders free, throwing her light equally over all the world. First
she peeps into one cloud, lights it brilliantly, and then glides to
another, making to each a rapid visit. Who shall point out to her one
spot in the heavens and say, ‘There shalt thou stay’? Who to the young
girl’s heart shall say, ‘Love only once and change not’? Be pacified.”

_Aleko:_ “How she loved me! How tenderly she leant upon me in the
silent desert when we were together in the hours of night! Full of
child-like gaiety, how often, with her pleasant prattle or intoxicating
caress, has she in an instant chased away my gloom! And now, Zemphira
is false! My Zemphira is cold!”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Listen, and I will tell thee a story about myself.
Long, long ago, before the Danube was threatened by the Muscovite (thou
seest, Aleko, I speak of an ancient sorrow), at a time when we feared
the Sultan who, through Boodjak Pasha, ruled the country from the lofty
towers of Ackerman. I was young then, and my bosom throbbed with the
passion of youth. My curly locks were not streaked with white. Among
the young beauties there was one…. To whom I turned as to the sun,
till at last I called her mine. Alas! like a falling star, my youth
swiftly sped. Still briefer was our love. Marioula loved me but one
year.”

“One day, by the waters of Kagula, we encountered a strange band of
gypsies, who pitched their tents near ours at the foot of the hill.
Two nights we passed together. On the third, they left, and Marioula
forsook her little daughter and followed them. I slept peacefully.
Day broke, and I awoke; my companion was not there. I searched, I
called–no trace remained. Zemphira cried, I wept too! From that moment
I became indifferent to all womankind. Never since has my gaze sought
amongst them a new companion. My dreary hours I have spent alone.”

_Aleko:_ “What! Didst thou not instantly pursue the ingrate and her
paramour, to plunge thy dagger in their false hearts?”

_The Old Gypsy:_ “Why should I? Youth is freer than the birds. Who can
restrain love? Everyone has his turn of happiness. Once fled, it will
never return.”

_Aleko:_ “No, I am different. Without a struggle never would I yield
my rights. At least, I would enjoy revenge. Ah, no! Even if I were to
find my enemy lying asleep over the abyss of the sea, I declare that
even then my foot should not spare him, but should unflinchingly kick
the helpless villain into the depths of the ocean, and mock his sudden
terrible awakening with a savage laugh of exultation. Long would his
fall resound a sweet and merry echo in my ears.” . . . . . . . _A Young
Gypsy_: “One kiss, just one more embrace.”

_Zemphira:_ “My husband is jealous and angry. I must go!”

_The Young Gypsy_: “Once more…. a longer one…. at parting.”

_Zemphira:_ “Good-bye. Here he comes.”

_The Young Gypsy:_ “Tell me. When shall we meet again?”

_Zemphira:_ “To-night, when the moon rises over the hill beyond the
tombs.”

_The Young Gypsy:_ “She is deceiving me; she will not come.”

_Zemphira_: “Run–there he is! I will be there, beloved!”

Aleko sleeps, and in his mind dim visions play. With a cry he wakes in
the dark, and, stretching out his jealous arm, clutches with a startled
hand the cold bed. His companion is far away….. Trembling he sits up
and listens…. All is quiet! Fear comes upon him. He shivers, then
grows hot. Rising from his bed, he leaves the tent, and, terribly
pale, wanders round the vans. All is silent, the fields are still,
and it is dark. The moon has risen in a mist, and the twinkling stars
are scarcely seen. But on the dewy grass slight footprints can be
discovered, leading to the tombs. With hurried tread he follows on the
path made by the ill-omened footmarks.

In the distance, on the road side, a tomb shines white before him.
Carried along by his hesitating feet, full of dread presentiment,
his lips quivering, his knees trembling … he proceeds … when
suddenly … can it be a dream? Suddenly he perceives two shadows close
together, and hears two voices whispering over the desecrated grave.

_The First Voice_: “‘Tis time.”

_The Second Voice_: “Wait.”

_The First Voice_: “‘Tis time, my love.”

_The Second Voice_: “No, no! We will wait till morning.”

_The First Voice_: “‘Tis late already.”

_The Second Voice_ “How timidly thou lovest! One moment more.”

_The First Voice_: “Thou wilt destroy me!”

_The Second Voice_: “One moment!”

_The First Voice_: “If my husband wakes and I am not—-”

_Aleko:_ “I am awake. Whither are you going? Don’t hurry; you both are
well here–by the grave.”

_Zemphira_: “Run, run, my friend.”

_Aleko:_ “Stop! Whither goest thou, my beautiful youth? Lie there!”
(_He plunges his knife into him._)

_Zemphira:_ “Aleko!”

_The Young Gypsy:_ “I am dying!”

_Zemphira:_ “Aleko, thou wouldst kill him! Look, thou art covered with
blood! Oh, what hast thou done?”

_Aleko:_ “Nothing; thou canst now enjoy his love.”

_Zemphira:_ “Enough, I do not fear thee! Thy threats I despise, and thy
deed of murder I curse.”

_Aleko:_ “Then die thyself!”

_Zemphira:_ “I die, loving him.” . . . . . . . From the east the
light of day is shining. Beyond the hill Aleko, besmeared with blood,
sits on the grave-stone, knife in hand. Two corpses lie before him.
The murderer’s face is terrible. An excited crowd of timid gypsies
surrounds him. A grave is being dug. A procession of sorrowing women
approaches, and each in turn kisses the eyes of the dead. The old
father sits apart, staring at his dead daughter in dumb despair. The
corpses are then raised, and into the cold bosom of the earth the young
couple are lowered. From a distance Aleko looks on. When they are
buried, and the last handful of earth thrown over them, without a word
he slowly rolls from off the stone on to the grass. Then the old man
approaches him, and says:

“Leave us, proud man. We area wild people and have no laws. We neither
torture nor execute. We exact neither tears nor blood, but with a
murderer we cannot live. Thou art not born to our wild life. Thou
wouldst have freedom for thyself alone. The sight of thee would be
intolerable to us; we are a timid, gentle folk. Thou art fierce and
bold. Depart, then; forgive us, and peace be with thee!”

He ended, and with great clamour all the wandering band arose, and at
once quitted the ill-fated camp and quickly vanished into the distant
desert tract. But one van, covered with old rugs, remained in the fatal
plain standing alone.

So, at the coming of winter and its morning mists, a flock of belated
cranes rise from a field loudly shrieking and flying to the distant
South, while one sad bird, struck by a fatal shot, with wounded
drooping wing, remains behind. Evening came. By the melancholy van no
fire was lighted; and no one slept beneath its covering of rugs that
night.

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