Gypsy Smith (1860-1947)
His Life and Work
|Chapter 2. My Mother|
We were travelling in Hertfordshire.
The oldest of the family, a girl, was taken ill. The nearest town was Baldock,
and my father at once made for it, so that he might get a doctor for his child.
I remember as if it were yesterday that the gipsy waggon stood outside the door
of the doctor's house. My father told him he had a sick daughter. The doctor
mounted the steps of the waggon and, leaning over the door, called my sick sister
to him and examined her. He did not enter our poor waggon. We were only gipsies.
"Your daughter has the small-pox," he said to my father, "you
must get out of the town at once." He sent us to a bye-lane about one-and-a-half
miles away - it is called Norton Lane. In a little bend of this lane, on the
left-hand side, between a huge overhanging hawthorn and a wood on the right-hand
side, making a natural arch, father erected our tent. There he left mother and
four children. He took the waggon two hundred yards farther down the lane, and
stood it on the right-hand side near an old chalkpit. From the door he could
see the tent clearly and be within call. The waggon was the sick-room and my
father was the nurse. In a few days the doctor, coming to the tent, discovered
that my brother Ezekiel also had the small-pox, and he too was sent to the waggon,
so that my father had now two invalids to nurse. Poor mother used to wander
up and down the lane in an almost distracted condition, and my father heard
her cry again and again: "My poor children will die, and I am not allowed
to go to them!" Mother had to go into Baldock to buy food, and, after preparing
it in the tent, carried it half-way from there to the waggon. Then she put it
on the ground and waited till my father came for it. She shouted or waved her
silk handkerchief to attract his attention. Sometimes he came at once, but at
other times he would be busy with the invalids and unable to leave them just
at the moment. And then mother went back, leaving the food on the ground, and
sometimes before father had reached it, it was covered with snow, for it was
the month of March and the weather was severe. And mother, in the anxiety of
her loving heart, got every day, I think, a little nearer and nearer to the
waggon, until one day she went too near, and then she also fell sick. When the
doctor came he said it was the small-pox.
My father was in the uttermost distress. His worst fears were realised. He had hoped to save mother, for he loved her as only a gipsy can love. She was the wife of his youth and the mother of his children. They were both very young when they married, not much over twenty, and they were still very young. He would have died to save her. He had struggled with his calamities bravely for a whole month, nursing his two first-born with whole-hearted love and devotion, and had never had his clothes off, day or night And this he had done in order to save her from the terrible disease. And now she too was smitten. He felt that all hope was gone, and knowing he could not keep us separate any longer, he brought the waggon back to the tent. And there lay mother and sister and brother, all three sick with small-pox. In two or three days a little baby was born.
Mother knew she was dying. Our hands were stretched out to hold her, but they were not strong enough. Other hands, omnipotent and eternal, were taking her from us. Father seemed to realise, too, that she was going. He sat beside her one day and asked her if she thought of God. For the poor gipsies believe in God, and believe that He is good and merciful. And she said, "Yes."
"Do you try to pray, my dear?"
"Yes, I am trying, and while I am trying to pray it seems as though a black hand comes before me and shows me all that I have done, and something whispers, 'There is no mercy for you!'"
But my father had great assurance that God would forgive her, and told her about Christ and asked her to look to Him. He died for sinners. He was her Saviour. My father had some time before been in prison for three months on a false charge, and it was there that he had been told what now he tried to teach my mother. After my father had told her all he knew of the Gospel she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. Then he went outside, stood behind the waggon, and wept bitterly. When he went back again to see her she looked calmly into his face, and said with a smile: "I want you to promise me one thing. Will you be a good father to my children?" He promised her that he would; at that moment he would have promised her anything. Again he went outside and wept, and while he was weeping he heard her sing -
"I have a Father in the promised land.
My God calls me, I must go
To meet Him in the promised land."
My father went back to her and said: "Polly, my clear, where did you learn that song?"
She said: "Cornelius, I heard it when I was a little girl. One Sunday my father's tents were pitched on a village green, and seeing the young people and others going into a little school or church or chapel - I do not know which it was - I followed them in and they sang those words."
It must have been twenty years or so since my mother had heard the lines. Although she had forgotten them all these years, they came back to her in her moments of intense seeking after God and His salvation. She could not read the Bible, she had never been taught about God and His Son, but these words came back to her in her dying moments and she sang them again and again. Turning to my father, she said, "I am not afraid to die now. I feel that it will be all right. I feel assured that God will take care of my children."
Father watched her all that Sunday night, and knew she was sinking fast. When Monday morning dawned it found her deep in prayer. I shall never forget that morning. I was only a little fellow, but even now I can close my eyes and see the gipsy tent and waggon in the lane. The fire is burning outside on the ground, and the kettle is hanging over it in true gipsy fashion, and a bucket of water is standing near by. Some clothes that my father has been washing are hanging on the hedge. I can see the old horse grazing along the lane. I can see the boughs bending in the breeze and I can almost hear the singing of the birds, and yet when I try to call back the appearance of my dear mother I am baffled. That dear face that bent over my gipsy cradle and sang lullabies to me, that mother who if she had lived would have been more to me than any other in God's world - her face has faded clean from my memory. I wandered up the lane that morning with the hand of my sister Tilly in mine. We two little things were inseparable. We could not go to father, for he was too full of his grief. The others were sick. We two had gone off together, when suddenly I heard my name called: "Rodney!" and running to see what I was wanted for, I encountered my sister Emily. She had got out of bed, for bed could not hold her that morning, and she said to me, "Rodney, mother's dead!" I remember falling on my face in the lane as though I had been shot, and weeping my heart out and saying to myself, "I shall never be like other boys, for I have no mother!" And somehow that feeling has never quite left me, and even now, in my man's life, there are moments when mother is longed for.
My mother's death caused a gloom indescribable to settle down upon the tent life. The day of the funeral came. My mother was to be buried at the dead of night. We were only gipsies, and the Authorities would not permit the funeral to take place in the daytime. In the afternoon the coffin was placed on two chairs outside the waggon, waiting for the darkness. Sister and brother were so much better that the waggon had been emptied. My father had been trying to cleanse it, and the clothes, such as we had for wearing and sleeping in, had been put into the tent. While we were watching and weeping round the coffin - father and his five children - the tent caught fire, and all our little stock of worldly possessions was burnt to ashes. The sparks flew around us on all sides of the coffin, and we expected every moment that that too would be set on fire. We poor little things were terrified nearly to death. "Mother will be burnt up," we wept. "Mother will be burnt up." Father fell upon his face on the grass crying like a child. The flames were so strong that he could do nothing to stop their progress, and indeed he had to take great care to avoid harm to himself. Our agonies while we were witnessing this, to us, terrible conflagration, helpless to battle against it, may easily be imagined, but, strange to relate, while the sparks fell all around the coffin, the coffin itself was untouched.
And now darkness fell, and with it came to us an old farmer's cart. Mother's coffin was placed in the vehicle, and between ten and eleven o'clock my father, the only mourner, followed her to the grave by a lantern light. She lies resting in Norton churchyard, near Baldock. When my father came back to us it was midnight, and his grief was very great. He went into a plantation behind his van, and throwing himself on his face, promised God to be good, to take care of his children, and to keep the promise that he had made to his wife. A fortnight after the little baby died and was placed at her mother's side. If you go to Norton churchyard now and inquire for the gipsies' graves they will be pointed out to you. My mother and her last born lie side by side in that portion of the graveyard where are interred the remains of the poor, the unknown, and the forsaken.
We remained in that fatal lane a few weeks 'longer; then the doctor gave us leave to move on, all danger being over. So we took farewell of the place where we had seen so much sorrow.
I venture to think that there are some points of deep spiritual significance in this narrative. First of all, there is the sweet and touching beauty of my father's endeavour to show my mother, in the midst of his and her ignorance, the way of salvation as far as he was able. My dear father tried to teach her of God. Looking back on that hour he can see clearly in it the hand of God. When he was in prison as a lad, many years before, he heard the Gospel faithfully preached by the chaplain. The sermon had been on the text, "I am the Good Shepherd, and know My sheep, and am known of Mine." My father was deeply distressed and cried to God to save him, and had there been any one to show him the way of salvation he would assuredly have found peace then.
At the time of my mother's death too my father was under deep conviction, but there was no light. He could not read, none of his friends could read, and there was no one to whom he could go for instruction and guidance. The actual date of his conversion was some time after this, but my father is convinced, that if he had been shown the way of salvation he would have there and then surrendered his life to God.
Another significant point was this: what was it that brought back to my mother' s mind in her last hour the lines -
"I have a Father in the promised land.Was it not the Holy Ghost, of whom Christ said, "But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you"? (John xiv. 26). My mother had lived in a religious darkness that was all but unbroken during her whole life, but a ray of light had crept into her soul when she was a little girl, by the singing of this hymn. That was a part of the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. No minister ever looked near our gipsy-tent, no missioner, no Christian worker. To me it is plain that it was the Holy Ghost who brought these things to her remembrance - as plain as the sun that shines, or the flowers that bloom, or the birds that sing. That little child's song, heard by my mother as she wandered into that little chapel that Sunday afternoon, was brought back to her by the Spirit of God and became a ladder by which she climbed from her ignorance and superstition to the light of God and the many mansions. And my mother is there, and although I cannot recall her face, I shall know it some day.
My God calls me, I must go
To meet Him in the promised land"?
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