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CHAPTER VII.
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[Pg 267] 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.

[Pg 268]
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[Pg 269] 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."

[Pg 270]

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,[Pg 271] 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?"

[Pg 272]

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[Pg 273] 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[Pg 274] 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."

[Pg 275]

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 th............
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