Yankee Gypsies

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Language: English
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I CONFESS it, I am keenly sensitive to "skyey influences." (2) I profess no indifference to the movements of that capricious old gentleman known as the clerk of the weather. I cannot conceal my interest in the behavior of that patriarchal bird whose wooden similitude gyrates on the church spire. Winter proper is well enough. Let the thermometer go to zero if it will; so much the better, if thereby the very winds are frozen and unable to flap their stiff wings. Sounds of bells in the keen air, clear, musical, heart-inspiring; quick tripping of fair moccasined feet on glittering ice pavements; bright eyes glancing above the uplifted muff like a sultana's behind the folds of her yashmak;(3) schoolboys coasting down street like mad Greenlanders; the cold brilliance of oblique sunbeams flashing back from wide surfaces of glittering snow, or blazing upon ice jewelry of tree and roof: there is nothing in all this to complain of. A storm of summer has its redeeming sublimities,—its slow, upheaving mountains of cloud glooming in the western horizon like new-created volcanoes, veined with fire, shattered by exploding thunders. Even the wild gales of the equinox have their varieties,—sounds of wind-shaken woods and waters, creak and clatter of sign and casement, hurricane puffs, and down-rushing rain-spouts. But this dull, dark autumn day of thaw and rain, when the very clouds seem too spiritless and languid to storm outright or take themselves out of the way of fair weather; wet beneath and above, reminding one of that rayless atmosphere of Dante's Third Circle, where the infernal Priessnitz(4) administers his hydropathic torment,—

"A heavy, cursed, and relentless drench,—
The land it soaks is putrid;"

or rather, as everything animate and inanimate is seething in warm mist, suggesting the idea that Nature, grown old and rheumatic, is trying the efficacy of a Thomsonian steam-box(5) on a grand scale; no sounds save the heavy plash of muddy feet on the pavements; the monotonous, melancholy drip from trees and roofs; the distressful gurgling of waterducts, swallowing the dirty amalgam of the gutters; a dim, leaden-colored horizon of only a few yards in diameter, shutting down about one, beyond which nothing is visible save in faint line or dark projection; the ghost of a church spire or the eidolon of a chimney-pot,—he who can extract pleasurable emotions from the alembic of such a day has a trick of alchemy with which I am wholly unacquainted.

(1) From the closing air inThe Jolly Beggars,a cantata.
(2) "A breath thou art
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st
Hourly afflict."
Shakespeare:Measure for Measure,act III. scene 1.
(3) "She turns and turns again, and carefully glances around
her on all sides, to see that she is safe from the eyes of
Mussulmans, and then suddenly withdrawing the yashmak she
shines upon your heart and soul with all the pomp and might of
her beauty." Kinglake'sEothen,chap. iii. In a note to
YashmakKinglake explains that it is not a mere
semi-transparent veil, but thoroughly conceals all the features
except the eyes: it is withdrawn by being pulled down.
(4) Vincenz Priessnitz was the originator of the water-cure.
After experimenting upon himself and his neighbors he took up
the profession of hydropathy and established baths at his native
place, Grafenberg in Silesia, in 1829. He died in 1851.
(5) Dr. Samuel Thomson, a New Hampshire physician,
advocated the use of the steam bath as a restorer of system
when diseased. He died in 1843 and left behind an
autobiography (Life and Medical Discoveries) which
contains a record of the persecutions he underwent.

Hark! a rap at my door. Welcome anybody just now. One gains nothing by attempting to shut out the sprites of the weather. They come in at the keyhole; they peer through the dripping panes; they insinuate themselves through the crevices of the casement, or plump down chimney astride of the raindrops.

I rise and throw open the door. A tall, shambling, loose-jointed figure; a pinched, shrewd face, sun-brown and wind-dried; small, quick-winking black eyes,—there he stands, the water dripping from his pulpy hat and ragged elbows.

I speak to him; but he returns no answer. With a dumb show of misery, quite touching, he hands me a soiled piece of parchment, whereon I read what purports to be a melancholy account of shipwreck and disaster, to the particular detriment, loss, and damnification of one Pietro Frugoni, who is, in consequence, sorely in want of the alms of all charitable Christian persons, and who is, in short, the bearer of this veracious document, duly certified and indorsed by an Italian consul in one of our Atlantic cities, of a high-sounding, but to Yankee organs unpronounceable, name....