Elsie on the road

Elsie’s nan rubbed soot on her face, then applied the same to Elsie and her brother Absalom.

“Why are you making us dirty, nan?”

“So that the farmer’s wife will feel sorry for us, but also so she won’t recognise us later. That’s why they call us dirty gypsies!”

Elsie’s nan laughed, while Absalom looked skywards.

The farmhouse was old and rambling, smoke pouring from the chimneys and not a few cracks in the brickwork. A couple of children almost as dirty as themselves played in the dust outside the kitchen door. Elsie’s nan rapped sharply on the old wood, dislodging some flakes of paint. A face almost as weather-beaten as nan’s appeared from the gloom, a scowl to frighten even the most wicked of children fixed to her face. Elsie shrank back behind her nan’s skirts. The farmer’s wife, voice as old and cracked as her face, spoke sharply.

“Yes? What is it that you want?”

Nan bobbed a curtsey. “Pardon me, ma’am, we did ‘ear as you’ve just butchered a pig, and wondered if we could buy a hand off the beast – for a fair price, of course.”

“Show me your money.”

Nan produced a silver sixpence, cut in half. She held out her hand with one half on her outstretched palm. Elsie, seeing no immediate danger, risked a peek from behind nan’s skirts. She smiled at the farmer’s wife, whose scowl softened as she spoke. “Aye, we can spare a hand from the old pig for good silver. Wait there.”

She disappeared into the gloom. Elsie heard voices from inside. Two identical faces surrounded by identical ringlets materialised at the door. “Tell us our fortunes, please, please! Please do!”

“Now, now, young ladies. You ought to know that fortunes never work unless you cross the teller’s palm with silver. Do you have silver?”

“Yes, yes, Marie has an eighth, is that enough?”

“It’s enough for one.” Nan laughed to take the sting out of her words. “Do you have another?”

Marie cupped her hand against her mouth as she whispered into her sister’s ear. The other girl ran off. Marie turned back to nan. “Abigail has gone to ask papa, he’s in a good mood because he did well at market.”

Nan was silent, but inside she was rejoicing. Now the game was on! She didn’t  fleece the poor, but these folk were obviously well off. Compared to themselves, anyway.

Abigail reappeared, holding out another eighth while reciting breathlessly. “Papa says there’s no more, and we’d better get a ribbon each, too!”

Nan smiled. “Of course! Elsie, would you pass me the box of plain ribbons? No, wait, girls this fine must have patterns! Pass me the other box, please.”

Elsie knew there was only one box, but made a show of digging out the box from their handcart. “Here you go, nan.”

Abigail’s and Marie’s eyes were wide as they made their choices. Satisfied, they stowed their ribbons in little velvet drawstring purses. Elsie had never seen such finery. Marie noticed her look.

“What’s your name, gypsy girl?”

Nan ushered Elsie forwards. She spoke shyly. “Elsie, miss.”

“Elsie, would you like a purse of your very own?”

Elsie looked down at the dirt and slowly nodded her head. Her voice whispered, “yes, please, very much.”

“Just a minute.” Marie disappeared back inside added came back with another velvet purse. “I hope you don’t mind, I didn’t get the stitching quite right on this one, so I made another. And our minister said we should give to the poor and you’re poor, so here you are.”

The mention of a minister was too much for Elsie, who could say nothing. She held out trembling hands to take the offering. Marie grasped Elsie’s shaking hands. “Oh bless, she’s overcome. Listen, Elsie. It’s bad luck to give an empty purse, so I put a copper penny in there.”

“A penny? A whole copper penny? It would take me days to earn that back in the factory.” She stammered out her thanks.

Absalom’s face was turning red under the soot, lips compressed into a thin line – until the other sister, Abigail, pressed a penny into his hands. We couldn’t give your sister a penny unless you had one too, but mind you buy her something, because you wouldn’t have one without her.”

Absalom mumbled something suitable and then wandered off to inspect his prize.

Nan was about to tell the twins’ fortunes, when the farmer’s wife returned, passing nan a huge hand of pork wrapped in layers of muslin. Another bonus. She wondered if she dared try for more. Still, they seemed like charitable folks, if a little dour. “Pardon me, mistress, I don’t suppose you have any potatoes to go with it? They needn’t be your best ones. It’s for the babbies. Always hungry and it breaks my heart to hear them cry for food. I could tell fortunes while you fetch them.”

With barely a grunt, the farmer’s wife disappeared again. Nan turned to the twins. “C’mon, then, these fortunes won’t tell themselves.” Nan proceeded to assure them that they would marry rich merchants, never having to work the land again and they would produce fine babies, all of which would survive.

Back came the farmer’s wife with a small sack of potatoes.

“Thank you,” enthused nan. “It’s a shame there’s no carrots to go with them, but you can’t have everything.” A matching sack of carrots appeared. “You’re a good woman. We’ll be thirsty, but not hungry, at least.” A battered enamel flask joined the rest. 

“It’s milk.” The farmer’s wife continued, “nothing else, you hear? I just want your word that you won’t curse this house and then you can take your leave.

“I’ll do better than that,” said nan. “I’ll bless this house from the foundations to the rafters!”

“Be quick about it before my husband comes to see why his dinner’s delayed, then be off with you.”

Nan produced her snuff-stained ochre handkerchief, waved it around, making everyone sneeze, uttered some arcane gibberish, then marched off down the path, still waving the hanky. Elsie pushed the handcart, noting that Absalom was nowhere to be seen.

Once back on the road, Absalom burst out of a hedgerow, huffing and sweating under his load. “Nice firewood you found there, lad,” said nan. “Well done.”

Elsie was puzzled. “Nan, what happened back there? We’ve got more money than we started with, a purse, plus a large piece of meat, and potatoes, carrots and milk. Absalom stole firewood. Why aren’t we being chased?”

“My little gypsy-in-training, the secret is to never let the mark feel like they’ve been fleeced. As for stealing, take only enough that the loss won’t be noticed. They have a barn full of firewood for the coming winter. They won’t miss that bundle – and how else are we going to cook that pork?”

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