Fortune Telling, by Washington Irving
Hall, or The Humorists
Each city, each town, and every village,
Affords us either an alms or pillage.
And if the weather be cold and raw.
Then in a barn we tumble on straw.
If warm and fair, by yea-cock and nay-cock,
The fields will afford us a hedge or a hay-cock.
As I was walking one evening with the Oxonian, Master Simon, and the
general, in a meadow not far from the village, we heard the sound of a
fiddle, rudely played, and looking in the direction from whence it
came, we saw a thread of smoke curling up from among the trees. The
sound of music is always attractive; for, wherever there is music,
there is good-humour, or good-will. We passed along a footpath, and
had a peep through a break in the hedge, at the musician and his
party, when the Oxonian gave us a wink, and told us that if we would
follow him we should have some sport.
It proved to be a gipsy encampment, consisting of three or four little
cabins, or tents, made of blankets and sail-cloth, spread over hoops
that were stuck in the ground. It was on one side of a green lane,
close under a hawthorn hedge, with a broad beech-tree spreading above
it. A small rill tinkled along close by, through the fresh sward, that
looked like a carpet.
A tea-kettle was hanging by a crooked piece of iron, over a fire made
from dry sticks and leaves, and two old gipsies, in red cloaks, sat
crouched on the grass, gossiping over their evening cup of tea; for
these creatures, though they live in the open air, have their ideas of
fireside comforts. There were two or three children sleeping on the
straw with which the tents were littered; a couple of donkeys were
grazing in the lane, and a thievish-looking dog was lying before the
fire. Some of the younger gipsies were dancing to the music of a
fiddle, played by a tall, slender stripling, in an old frock-coat,
with a peacock's feather stuck in his hat-band.
As we approached, a gipsy girl, with a pair of fine, roguish eyes,
came up, and, as usual, offered to tell our fortunes. I could not but
admire a certain degree of slattern elegance about the baggage. Her
long black silken hair was curiously plaited in numerous small braids,
and negligently put up in a picturesque style that a painter might
have been proud to have devised.
Her dress was of figured chintz, rather ragged, and not over-clean but
of a variety of most harmonious and agreeable colours; for these
beings have a singularly fine eye for colours. Her straw hat was in
her hand, and a red cloak thrown over one arm.
The Oxonian offered at once to have his fortune told, and the girl
began with the usual volubility of her race; but he drew her on one
side, near the hedge, as he said he had no idea of having his secrets
overheard. I saw he was talking to her instead of she to him, and by
his glancing towards us now and then, that he was giving the baggage
some private hints. When they returned to us, he assumed a very
serious air. "Zounds!" said he, "it's very astonishing how these
creatures come by their knowledge; this girl has told me some things
that I thought no one knew but myself!" The girl now assailed the
general: "Come, your honour," said she, "I see by your face you're a
lucky man; but you're not happy in your mind; you're not, indeed, sir;
but have a good heart, and give me a good piece of silver, and I'll
tell you a nice fortune."
The general had received all her approaches with a banter, and had
suffered her to get hold of his hand; but at the mention of the piece
of silver, he hemmed, looked grave, and, turning to us, asked if we
had not better continue our walk. "Come, my master," said the girl,
archly, "you'd not be in such a hurry, if you knew all that I could
tell you about a fair lady that has a notion for you. Come, sir; old
love burns strong; there's many a one comes to see weddings, that go
away brides themselves."—Here the girl whispered something in a low
voice, at which the general coloured up, was a little fluttered, and
suffered himself to be drawn aside under the hedge, where he appeared
to listen to her with great earnestness, and at the end paid her
half-a-crown with the air of a man that has got the worth of his
money. The girl next made her attack upon Master Simon, who, however,
was too old a bird to be caught, knowing that it would end in an
attack upon his purse, about which he is a little sensitive. As he has
a great notion, however, of being considered a royster, he chucked her
under the chin, played her off with rather broad jokes, and put on
something of the rake-helly air, that we see now and then assumed on
the stage, by the sad-boy gentleman of the old school. "Ah, your
honour," said the girl, with a malicious leer, "you were not in such a
tantrum last year, when I told you about the widow, you know who; but
if you had taken a friend's advice, you'd never have come away from
Doncaster races with a flea in your ear!" There was a secret sting in
this speech, that seemed quite to disconcert Master Simon. He jerked
away his hand in a pet, smacked his whip, whistled to his dogs, and
intimated that it was high time to go home. The girl, however, was
determined not to lose her harvest. She now turned upon me, and, as I
have a weakness of spirit where there is a pretty face concerned, she
soon wheedled me out of my money, and, in return, read me a fortune;
which, if it prove true, and I am determined to believe it, will make
me one of the luckiest men in the chronicles of Cupid.
I saw that the Oxonian was at the bottom of all this oracular mystery,
and was disposed to amuse himself with the general, whose tender
approaches to the widow have attracted the notice of the wag. I was a
little curious, however, to know the meaning of the dark hints which
had so suddenly disconcerted Master Simon; and took occasion to fall
in the rear with the Oxonian on our way home, when he laughed heartily
at my questions, and gave me ample information on the subject.
The truth of the matter is, that Master Simon has met with a sad
rebuff since my Christmas visit to the Hall. He used at that time to
be joked about a widow, a fine dashing woman, as he privately informed
me. I had supposed the pleasure he betrayed on these occasions
resulted from the usual fondness of old bachelors for being teased
about getting married, and about flirting, and being fickle and
false-hearted. I am assured, however, that Master Simon had really
persuaded himself the widow had a kindness for him; in consequence of
which he had been at some extraordinary expense in new clothes, and
had actually got Frank Bracebridge to order him a coat from Stultz. He
began to throw out hints about the importance of a man's settling
himself in life before he grew old; he would look grave, whenever the
widow and matrimony were mentioned in the same sentence; and privately
asked the opinion of the Squire and parson about the prudence of
marrying a widow with a rich jointure, but who had several children.
An important member of a great family connexion cannot harp much upon
the theme of matrimony, without its taking wind; and it soon got
buzzed about that Mr. Simon Bracebridge was actually gone to Doncaster
races, with a new horse; but that he meant to return in a curricle
with a lady by his side. Master Simon did, indeed, go to the races,
and that with a new horse; and the dashing widow did make her
appearance in a curricle; but it was unfortunately driven by a
strapping young Irish dragoon, with whom even Master Simon's
self-complacency would not allow him to venture into competition, and
to whom she was married shortly after.
It was a matter of sore chagrin to Master Simon for several months,
having never before been fully committed. The dullest head in the
family had a joke upon him; and there is no one that likes less to be
bantered than an absolute joker. He took refuge for a time at Lady
Lillycraft's, until the matter should blow over; and occupied himself
by looking over her accounts, regulating the village choir, and
inculcating loyalty into a pet bulfinch, by teaching him to whistle
"God save the King."
He has now pretty nearly recovered from the mortification; holds up
his head, and laughs as much as any one; again affects to pity married
men, and is particularly facetious about widows, when Lady Lillycraft
is not by. His only time of trial is when the general gets hold of
him, who is infinitely heavy and persevering in his waggery, and will
interweave a dull joke through the various topics of a whole
dinner-time. Master Simon often parries these attacks by a stanza from
his old work of "Cupid's Solicitor for Love:"
"'Tis in vain to wooe a widow over long,
In once or twice her mind you may perceive;
Widows are subtle, be they old or young,
And by their wiles young men they will deceive."