Magdeburg, December 14, 1814
Fritz sat beside his brothers, watching the show. One of the clowns fell down again, and he and little Abbat roared with laughter. The lady on the horse was so wonderful – only Fritz wondered what Mama would have thought of her costume – but she was so wonderfully talented. He remembered his mother, who had died four years earlier, having told them of the times when she and her sister, Aunt Frieda, had attempted to ride standing up. It had always led to nearly disastrous tumbles, but neither of them had actually broken their neck, or even their leg.
“There she goes!” he cried, as the woman did a flip, landing gracefully on the horse’s back as it trotted round the ring.
He looked at his brothers, and then back at the performers, seeing what each was watching. Little Abbat now sat, staring as if transfixed at a young girl who played the flute and swayed back and forth. In front of her was a large snake, which swayed in unison with her movements.
“Helmkin, you can’t be bored!” He nudged his brother’s arm. Wilhelm sat staring at the ground, looking very bored indeed.
“Ja, Fritz, I am. I wish we hadn’t come here. Karly, shouldn’t we go now?” Wilhelm asked, turning in his seat.
“Nein! I wish to hear what he has to say,” Karl said, pointing to the man sitting at the back of the ring.
Karl sat watching the man at the back of the ring, who seemed to be directing everything.
At first, Karl hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the beautiful girl, as she swayed in a sort of dance, the snake following her. Her gauzy dress shimmered, and seemed almost as if she too had scales like the snake.
But he had glanced away, to watch the man at the back of the ring. He had said something, but Karl hadn’t been able to understand. Then the man looked at him. He couldn’t tear his gaze away, so he had begun to study him, trying to identify something about him which seemed vaguely familiar. That seemed strange, as he had never met gypsies like these before. When the man spoke, his German was hard to understand; he spoke with a strong accent of some Eastern tongue.
Finally, the horse lady stopped riding, and the clowns had disappeared, but the music of the flute continued. The man rose, and came forward, presenting little Abbat with a piece of fruit. He took it, and looked up at the man.
“Danke!” he said, his mouth nearly dripping with juice.
Wilhelm also took a piece. So did Karl, but Fritz did not.
The man walked about, offering fruit, sweets or flowers to people in the crowd. Occasionally, he would pause, speaking low in his own language, as if to himself. Finally, he returned to his seat at the back of the ring. Then, suddenly, he cried out loudly, some mysterious word.
“Abbat, come back here; Papa said not to let you go off alone,” Fritz cried, starting forward, but Karl pulled him back.
“I want to see what happens,” he whispered. Wilhelm rose, and so did many others in the crowd. They all walked forward and turned in unison. They all had a strange, blank expression on their faces. They continued to walk about in a sort of formation, never colliding, even though from their faces they appeared to be asleep.
The man shouted something again, and the crowd began to mill about, seeming confused.
“How did I get here?” one man asked. “I didn’t leave my seat.”
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