WITHIN AN INCH OF MY LIFE
A single tent stood in a gully running from one of the gravel-pits of the heath, near an iron-red rillet, and a girl of Kiomi’s tribe leaned over the lazy water at half length, striking it with her handkerchief. At a distance of about twice a stone’s-throw from the new carriage-road between Durstan and Bulsted, I fancied from old recollections she might be Kiomi herself. This was not the time for her people to be camping on Durstan. Besides, I feared it improbable that one would find her in any of the tracks of her people. The noise of the wheels brought the girl’s face round to me. She was one of those who were babies in the tents when I was a boy. We were too far apart for me to read her features. I lay back in the carriage, thinking that it would have been better for my poor little wild friend if I had never crossed the shadow of her tents. A life caught out of its natural circle is as much in danger of being lost as a limb given to a wheel in spinning machinery; so it occurred to me, until I reflected that Prince Ernest might make the same remark, and deplore the damage done to the superior machinery likewise.
My movements appeared to interest the girl. She was up on a mound of the fast-purpling heath, shading her eyes to watch me, when I called at Bulsted lodge-gates to ask for a bed under Julia’s roof that night. Her bare legs twinkled in a nimble pace on the way to Durstan Hall, as if she was determined to keep me in sight. I waved my hand to her. She stopped. A gipsy’s girl’s figure is often as good an index to her mind as her face, and I perceived that she had not taken my greeting favourably; nor would she advance a step to my repeated beckonings; I tried hat, handkerchief, purse, in vain. My driver observed that she was taken with a fit of the obstinacy of ‘her lot.’ He shouted, ‘Silver,’ and then ‘Fortune.’ She stood looking. The fellow discoursed on the nature of gipsies. Foxes were kept for hunting, he said; there was reason in that. Why we kept gipsies none could tell. He once backed a gipsy prizefighter, who failed to keep his appointment. ’Heart sunk too low below his belt, sir. You can’t reckon on them for performances. And that same man afterwards fought the gamest fight in the chronicles o’ the Ring! I knew he had it in him. But they’re like nothing better than the weather; you can’t put money on ’em and feel safe.’ Consequently he saw no good in them.
‘She sticks to her post,’ he said, as we turned into the Durstan grounds. The girl was like a flag-staff on the upper line of heathland.