Little Gypsy

Author: Miguel de Cervantes  | Date: 1613


IT WOULD ALMOST SEEM THAT THE GITANOS AND Gitanas, or male and female gipsies, had been sent into the world for the sole purpose of thieving. Born of parents who are thieves, reared among thieves, and educated as thieves, they finally go forth perfected in their vocation, accomplished at all points, and ready for every species of roguery. In them the love of thieving, and the ability to exercise it, are qualities inseparable from their existence, and never lost until the hour of their death. Now it chanced that an old woman of this race, one who had merited retirement on full pay as a veteran in the ranks of Cacus, brought up a girl whom she called Preciosa, and declared to be her granddaughter. To this child she imparted all her own acquirements, all the various tricks of her art.

Little Preciosa became the most admired dancer in all the tribes of Gipsydom; she was the most beautiful and discreet of all their maidens; nay she shone conspicuous not only among the gipsies, but even as compared with the most lovely and accomplished damsels whose praises were at that time sounded forth by the voice of fame. Neither sun, nor wind, nor all those vicissitudes of weather, to which the gipsies are more constantly exposed than any other people, could impair the bloom of her complexion or embrown her hands; and what is more remarkable, the rude manner in which she was reared only served to reveal that she must have sprung from something better than the Gitano stock; for she was extremely pleasing and courteous in conversation, and lively though she was, yet in no wise did she display the least unseemly levity; on the contrary, amidst all her sprightliness, there was at the same time so much genuine decorum in her manner, that in the presence of Preciosa no gitana, old or young, ever dared to sing lascivious songs, or utter unbecoming words.

The grandmother fully perceived what a treasure she had in her grandchild; and the old eagle determined to set her young eaglet flying, having been careful to teach her how to live by her talons. Preciosa was rich in hymns, ballads, seguidillas, sarabands, and other ditties, especially romances, which she sang with peculiar grace; for the cunning grandmother knew by experience that such accomplishments, added to the youth and beauty of her granddaughter, were the best means of increasing her capital, and therefore she failed not to promote their cultivation in every way she could. Nor was the aid of poets wanting; for some there are who do not disdain to write for the gipsies, as there are those who invent miracles for the pretended blind, and go snacks with them in what they gain from charitable believers.

During her childhood, Preciosa lived in different parts of Castile; but in her sixteenth year her grandmother brought her to Madrid, to the usual camping-ground of the gipsies, in the fields of Santa Barbara. Madrid seemed to her the most likely place to find customers; for there everything is bought and sold. Preciosa made her first appearance in the capital on the festival of Santa Anna, the patroness of the city, when she took part in a dance performed by eight gitanas, with one gitano, an excellent dancer, to lead them. The others were all very well, but such was the elegance of Preciosa, that she fascinated the eyes of all the spectators. Amidst the sound of the tambourine and castanets, in the heat of the dance, a murmur of admiration arose for the beauty and grace of Preciosa; but when they heard her sing- for the dance was accompanied with song- the fame of the gitana reached its highest point; and by common consent the jewel offered as the prize of the best dancer in that festival was adjudged to her.

After the usual dance in the church of Santa Maria, before the image of the glorious Santa Anna, Preciosa caught up a tambourine, well furnished with bells, and having cleared a wide circle around her with pirouettes of exceeding lightness, she sang a hymn to the patroness of the day. It was the admiration of all who heard her. Some said, "God bless the girl!" Others, "’Tis a pity that this maiden is a gitana: truly she deserves to be the daughter of some great lord!" Others more coarsely observed, "Let the wench grow up, and she will show you pretty tricks; she is closing the meshes of a very nice net to fish for hearts." Another more good-natured but ill-bred and stupid, seeing her foot it so lightly, "Keep it up! keep it up! Courage, darling! Grind the dust to atoms!" "Never fear," she answered, without losing a step; "I’ll grind it to atoms."

At the vespers and feast of Santa Anna Preciosa was somewhat fatigued; but so celebrated had she become for beauty, wit, and discretion, as well as for her dancing, that nothing else was talked of throughout the capital. A fortnight afterwards, she returned to Madrid, with three other girls, provided with their tambourines and a new dance, besides a new stock of romances and songs, but all of a moral character; for Preciosa would never permit those in her company to sing immodest songs, nor would she ever sing them herself. The old gitana came with her, for she now watched her as closely as Argus, and never left her side, lest some one should carry her off. She called her granddaughter, and the girl believed herself to be her grandchild.

The young gitanas began their dance in the shade, in the Calle de Toledo, and were soon encircled by a crowd of spectators. Whilst they danced, the old woman gathered money among the bystanders, and they showered it down like stones on the highway; for beauty has such power that it can awaken slumbering charity. The dance over, Preciosa said, "If you will give me four quartos, I will sing by myself a beautiful romance about the churching of our lady the Queen Dona Margarita. It is a famous composition, by a poet of renown, one who may be called a captain in the battalion of poets."

No sooner had she said this, than almost every one in the ring cried out, "Sing it, Preciosa; here are my four quartos;" and so many quartos were thrown down for her, that the old gitana had not hands enough to pick them up. When the gathering was ended, Preciosa resumed her tambourine, and sang the promised romance, which was loudly encored, the whole audience crying out with one voice, "Sing again, Preciosa, sing again, and dance for us, girl: thou shalt not want quartos, whilst thou hast the ground beneath thy feet."

Whilst more than two hundred persons were thus looking on at the dance, and listening to the singing of the gitana, one of the lieutenants of the city passed by; and seeing so many people together, he asked what was the occasion of the crowd. Being told that the handsome gitana was singing there, the lieutenant, who was not without curiosity, drew near also to listen, but in consideration of his dignity, he did not wait for the end of the romance. The gitanilla, however, pleased him so much, that he sent his page to tell the old crone to come to his house that evening with her troop, as he wished his wife Dona Clara to hear them. The page delivered the message, and the old gitana promised to attend.

After the performance was ended, and the performers were going elsewhere, a very well-dressed page came up to Preciosa, and giving her a folded paper, said, "Pretty Preciosa, will you sing this romance? It is a very good one, and I will give you others from time to time, by which you will acquire the fame of having the best romances in the world."

"I will learn this one with much willingness," replied Preciosa; "and be sure, senor, you bring me the others you speak of, but on condition that there is nothing improper in them. If you wish to be paid for them, we will agree for them by the dozen; but do not expect to be paid in advance; that will be impossible. When a dozen have been sung, the money for a dozen shall be forthcoming."

"If the Senora Preciosa only pays me for the paper," said the page, "I shall be content. Moreover, any romance which does not turn out so well shall not be counted."

"I will retain the right of choice," said Preciosa; and then she continued her way with her companions up the street, when some gentlemen called and beckoned to them from a latticed window.

Preciosa went up and looked through the window, which was near the ground, into a cheerful, well-furnished apartment, in which several cavaliers were walking about, and others playing at various games.

"Will you give me a share of your winnings, senors?" said Preciosa, in the lisping accent of the gipsies, which she spoke not by nature but from choice. At the sight of Preciosa, and at the sound of her voice, the players quitted the tables, the rest left off lounging, and all thronged to the window, for her fame had already reached them. "Come in! Let the little gipsies come in," said the cavaliers, gaily; "we will certainly give them a share of our winnings."

"But you might make it cost us dear, senors," said Preciosa.

"No, on the honour of gentlemen," said one, "you may come in, nina, in full security that no one will touch the sole of your shoe. I swear this to you by the order I wear on my breast;" and as he spoke he laid his hand on the cross of the order of Calatrava which he wore.

"If you wish to go in, Preciosa," said one of the gitanillas who were with her, "do so by all means; but I do not choose to go where there are so many men."

"Look you, Christina," answered Preciosa, "what you have to beware of is one man alone; where there are so many there is nothing to fear. Of one thing you may be sure, Christina; the woman who is resolved to be upright may be so amongst an army of soldiers. It is well, indeed, to avoid occasions of temptation, but it is not in crowded rooms like this that danger lurks."

"Well then, let us go in, Preciosa," said her companion, "you know more than a witch."

The old gipsy also encouraged them to go in, and that decided the question. As soon as they had entered the room, the cavalier of the order, seeing the paper which Preciosa carried, stretched out his hand to take it. "Do not take it from me," she said: "It is a romance but just given to me, and which I have not yet had time to read."

"And do you know how to read, my girl?" said one of the cavaliers.

"Ay, and to write too," said the old woman. "I have brought up my grandchild as if she was a lawyer’s daughter."

The cavalier opened the paper, and finding a gold crown inclosed in it, said, "Truly, Preciosa, the contents of this letter are worth the postage. Here is a crown inclosed in the romance."

"The poet has treated me like a beggar," said Preciosa; "but it is certainly a greater marvel for one of his trade to give a crown than for one of mine to receive it. If his romances come to me with this addition, he may transcribe the whole Romancero General and send me every piece in it one by one. I will weigh their merit; and if I find there is good matter in them, I will not reject them. Read the paper aloud, senor, that we may see if the poet is as wise as he is liberal."

The cavalier accordingly read what follows:-

Sweet gipsy girl, whom envy’s self

Must own of all fair maids the fairest,

Ah! well befits thy stony heart

The name thou, Preciosa, *001 bearest.

If as in beauty, so in pride

And cruelty thou grow to sight,

Woe worth the land, woe worth the age

Which brought thy fatal charms to light.

A basilisk in thee we see,

Which fascinates our gaze and kills.

No empire mild is thine, but one

That tyrannises o’er our wills.

How grew such charms ’mid gipsy tribes,

From roughest blasts without a shield?

How such a perfect chrysolite

Could humble Manzanares yield?

River, for this thou shalt be famed,

Like Tagus with its golden show,

And more for Preciosa prized

Than Ganges with its lavish flow.

In telling fortunes who can say

What dupes to ruin thou beguilest?

Good luck thou speak’st with smiling lips,

But luckless they on whom thou smilest!

’Tis said they’re witches every one,

The women of the gipsy race;

And all men may too plainly see

That thou has witchcraft in thy face.

A thousand different modes are thine

To turn the brain; for rest or move,

Speak, sing, be mute, approach, retire,

Thou kindlest still the fire of love.

The freest hearts bend to thy sway,

And lose the pride of liberty;

Bear witness mine, thy captive thrall,

Which would not, if it could, be free.

These lines, thou precious gem of love,

Whose praise all power of verse transcends,

He who for thee will live or die,

Thy poor and humble lover sends.

"The poem ends with ’poor’ in the last line," said Preciosa; "and that is a bad sign. Lovers should never begin by saying that they are poor, for poverty, it strikes me, is a great enemy to love."

"Who teaches you these things, girl?" said one of the cavaliers.

"Who should teach me?" she replied. "Have I not a soul in my body? Am I not fifteen years of age? I am neither lame, nor halt, nor maimed in my understanding. The wit of a gipsy girl steers by a different compass from that which guides other people. They are always forward for their years. There is no such thing as a stupid gitano, or a silly gitana. Since it is only by being sharp and ready that they can earn a livelihood, they polish their wits at every step, and by no means let the moss grow under their feet.

"You see these girls, my companions, who are so silent. You may think they are simpletons, but put your fingers in their mouths to see if they have cut their wise teeth; and then you shall see what you shall see. There is not a gipsy girl of twelve who does not know as much as one of another race at five-and-twenty, for they have the devil and much practice for instructors, so that they learn in one hour what would otherwise take them a year."

The company were much amused by the gitana’s chat, and all gave her money. The old woman sacked thirty reals, and went off with her flock as merry as a cricket to the house of the senor lieutenant, after promising that she would return with them another day to please such liberal gentlemen. Dona Clara, the lieutenant’s lady, had been apprised of the intended visit of the gipsies, and she and her doncellas and duenas, as well as those of another senora, her neighbour, were expecting them as eagerly as one looks for a shower in May. They had come to see Preciosa.

She entered with her companions, shining among them like a torch among lesser lights, and all the ladies pressed towards her. Some kissed her, some gazed at her; others blessed her sweet face, others her graceful carriage. "This, indeed, is what you may call golden hair," cried Dona Clara; "these are truly emerald eyes." The senora, her neighbour, examined the gitanilla piecemeal. She made a pepetoria *002 of all her joints and members, and coming at last to a dimple in her chin, she said, "Oh, what a dimple! it is a pit into which all eyes that behold it must fall."

Thereupon an esquire in attendance on Dona Clara, an elderly gentleman with a long beard, exclaimed, "Call you this a dimple, senora? I know little of dimples then if this be one. It is no dimple, but a grave of living desires. I vow to God the gitanilla is such a dainty creature, she could not be better if she was made of silver or sugar paste. Do you know how to tell fortunes, nina?"

"That I do, and in three or four different manners," replied Preciosa.

"You can do that too?" exclaimed Dona Clara. "By the life of my lord the lieutenant, you must tell me mine, nina of gold, nina of silver, nina of pearls, nina of carbuncles, nina of heaven, and more than that cannot be said."

"Give the nina the palm of your hand, senora, and something to cross it with," said the old gipsy; "and you will see what things she will tell you, for she knows more than a doctor of medicine."

The senora Tenienta *003 put her hand in her pocket, but found it empty; she asked for the loan of a quarto from her maids, but none of them had one, neither had the senora her neighbour. Preciosa seeing this, said, "For the matter of crosses all are good, but those made with silver or gold are best. As for making the sign of the cross with copper money, that, ladies, you must know lessens the luck, at least it does mine. I always like to begin by crossing the palm with a good gold crown, or a piece of eight, or at least a quarto, for I am like the sacristans who rejoice when there is a good collection."

"How witty you are," said the lady visitor; then turning to the squire, "Do you happen to have a quarto about you, Senor Contreras? if you have, give it me, and when my husband the doctor comes you shall have it again."

"I have one," replied Contreras, "but it is pledged for two-and- twenty maravedis for my supper; give me so much and I will fly to fetch it."

"We have not a quarto amongst us all," said Dona Clara, "and you ask for two-and-twenty maravedis? Go your ways, Contreras, for a tiresome blockhead, as you always were."

One of the damsels present, seeing the penury of the house, said to Preciosa, "Nina, will it be of any use to make the cross with a silver thimble?"

"Certainly," said Preciosa; "the best crosses in the world are made with silver thimbles, provided there are plenty of them." "I have one," said the doncella; "if that is enough, here it is, on condition that my fortune be told too."

"So many fortunes to be told for a thimble!" exclaimed the old gipsy. "Make haste, granddaughter, for it will soon be night." Preciosa took the thimble, and began her soothsaying.

Pretty lady, pretty lady,

With a hand as silver fair,

How thy husband dearly loves thee

’Tis superfluous to declare.

Thou’rt a dove, all milk of kindness;

Yet at times too thou canst be

Wrathful as a tiger, or a

Lioness of Barbary.

Thou canst show thy teeth when jealous:

Truly the lieutenant’s sly;

Loves with furtive sports to vary

Magisterial gravity.

What a pity! One worth having

Woo’d thee when a maiden fair.

Plague upon all interlopers!

You’d have made a charming pair.

Sooth, I do not like to say it,

Yet it may as well be said;

Thou wilt be a buxom widow;

Twice again shalt thou be wed.

Do not weep, my sweet senora;

We gitanas, you must know,

Speak not always true as gospel;

Weep not then, sweet lady, so.

If the thought is too distressing,

Losing such a tender mate,

Thou hast but to die before him,

To escape a widow’s fate.

Wealth abundant thou’lt inherit,

And that quickly, never fear:

Thou shalt have a son, a canon,

-Of what church does not appear;

Not Toledo; no, that can’t be;

And a daughter- let me see-

Ay, she’ll rise to be an abbess;

-That is, if a nun she be.

If thy husband do not drop off

From this moment in weeks four,

Burgos him, or Salamanca,

Shall behold corregidor.

Meanwhile keep thyself from tripping:

Where thou walkest, many a snare

For the feet of pretty ladies

Naughty gallants lay: beware!

Other things still more surprising

Shall on Friday next be told,

Things to startle and delight thee,

When I’ve crossed thy palm with gold.

Preciosa having finished this oracular descant for the lady of the house, the rest of the company were all eager to have their fortunes told likewise, but she put them off till the next Friday, when they promised to have silver coin ready for crossing their palms. The senor lieutenant now came in, and heard a glowing account of the charms and accomplishments of the leading gitana. Having made her and her companions dance a little, he emphatically confirmed the encomiums bestowed on Preciosa; and putting his hand in his pocket he groped and rummaged about in it for a while, but at last drew his hand out empty, saying, "Upon my life I have not a doit. Give Preciosa a real, Dona Clara. I will give it you by and by."

"That is all very well, senor," the lady replied; "but where is the real to come from? Amongst us all we could not find a quarto to cross our hands with."

"Well, give her some trinket or another, that Preciosa may come another day to see us, when we will treat her better."

"No," said Dona Clara, "I will give her nothing to-day, and I shall be sure she will come again."

"On the contrary," said Preciosa, "if you give me nothing, I will never come here any more. Sell justice, senor lieutenant, sell justice, and then you will have money. Do not introduce new customs, but do as other magistrates do, or you will die of hunger. Look you, senor, I have heard say that money enough may be made of one’s office to pay any mulcts that may be incurred, *004 and to help one to other appointments."

"So say and do those who have no conscience," said the lieutenant; "but the judge who does his duty will have no mulct to pay; and to have well discharged his office, will be his best help to obtain another."

"Your worship speaks like a very saint," replied Preciosa; "proceed thus, and we shall snip pieces off your old coats for relics."

"You know a great deal, Preciosa," said the lieutenant; "say no more, and I will contrive that their majesties shall see you, for you are fit to be shown to a king."

"They will want me for a court fool," said the gitanilla, "and as I never shall learn the trade, your pains will be all for nothing. If they wanted me for my cleverness, they might have me; but in some palaces fools thrive better than the wise. I am content to be a gitana, and poor, and let Heaven dispose of me as it pleases."

"Come along, nina," said the old gipsy; "say no more, you have said a great deal already, and know more than I ever taught you. Don’t put too fine a point to your wit for fear it should get blunted; speak of things suitable to your years; and don’t set yourself on the high ropes, lest you should chance to have a fall."

"The deuce is in these gitanas," said the delighted lieutenant, as they were taking their leave. The doncella of the thimble stopped them for a moment, saying to Preciosa, "Tell me my fortune, or give me back my thimble, for I have not another to work with."

"Senora doncella," replied Preciosa, "count upon your fortune as if it were already told, and provide yourself with another; or else sew no more gussets until I come again on Friday, when I will tell you more fortunes and adventures than you could read in any book of knight errantry."

The gipsies went away, and falling in with numerous workwomen returning from Madrid to their villages as usual at the Ave Maria, they joined company with them, as they always did for the greater security; for the old gipsy lived in perpetual terror lest some one should run away with her granddaughter.


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Chicago: Miguel de Cervantes, "I," Little Gypsy, trans. Walter K. Kelly Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: de Cervantes, Miguel. "I." Little Gypsy, translted by Walter K. Kelly, Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: de Cervantes, M, 'I' in Little Gypsy, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from