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Chapter 9

BEGGARS

IN a pleasant, airy, up-hill country, it was my fortune when I was
young to make the acquaintance of a certain beggar. I call him
beggar, though he usually allowed his coat and his shoes (which
were open-mouthed, indeed) to beg for him. He was the wreck of an
athletic man, tall, gaunt, and bronzed; far gone in consumption,
with that disquieting smile of the mortally stricken on his face;
but still active afoot, still with the brisk military carriage, the
ready military salute. Three ways led through this piece of
country; and as I was inconstant in my choice, I believe he must
often have awaited me in vain. But often enough, he caught me;
often enough, from some place of ambush by the roadside, he would
spring suddenly forth in the regulation attitude, and launching at
once into his inconsequential talk, fall into step with me upon my
farther course. "A fine morning, sir, though perhaps a trifle
inclining to rain. I hope I see you well, sir. Why, no, sir, I
don't feel as hearty myself as I could wish, but I am keeping about
my ordinary. I am pleased to meet you on the road, sir. I assure
you I quite look forward to one of our little conversations." He
loved the sound of his own voice inordinately, and though (with
something too off-hand to call servility) he would always hasten to
agree with anything you said, yet he could never suffer you to say
it to an end. By what transition he slid to his favourite subject
I have no memory; but we had never been long together on the way
before he was dealing, in a very military manner, with the English
poets. "Shelley was a fine poet, sir, though a trifle atheistical
in his opinions. His Queen Mab, sir, is quite an atheistical work.
Scott, sir, is not so poetical a writer. With the works of
Shakespeare I am not so well acquainted, but he was a fine poet.
Keats - John Keats, sir - he was a very fine poet." With such
references, such trivial criticism, such loving parade of his own
knowledge, he would beguile the road, striding forward uphill, his
staff now clapped to the ribs of his deep, resonant chest, now
swinging in the air with the remembered jauntiness of the private
soldier; and all the while his toes looking out of his boots, and
his shirt looking out of his elbows, and death looking out of his
smile, and his big, crazy frame shaken by accesses of cough.

He would often go the whole way home with me: often to borrow a
book, and that book always a poet. Off he would march, to continue
his mendicant rounds, with the volume slipped into the pocket of
his ragged coat; and although he would sometimes keep it quite a
while, yet it came always back again at last, not much the worse
for its travels into beggardom. And in this way, doubtless, his
knowledge grew and his glib, random criticism took a wider range.
But my library was not the first he had drawn upon: at our first
encounter, he was already brimful of Shelley and the atheistical
Queen Mab, and "Keats - John Keats, sir." And I have often
wondered how he came by these acquirements; just as I often
wondered how he fell to be a beggar. He had served through the
Mutiny - of which (like so many people) he could tell practically
nothing beyond the names of places, and that it was "difficult
work, sir," and very hot, or that so-and-so was "a very fine
commander, sir." He was far too smart a man to have remained a
private; in the nature of things, he must have won his stripes.
And yet here he was without a pension. When I touched on this
problem, he would content himself with diffidently offering me
advice. "A man should be very careful when he is young, sir. If
you'll excuse me saying so, a spirited young gentleman like
yourself, sir, should be very careful. I was perhaps a trifle
inclined to atheistical opinions myself." For (perhaps with a
deeper wisdom than we are inclined in these days to admit) he
plainly bracketed agnosticism with beer and skittles.

Keats - John Keats, sir - and Shelley were his favourite bards. I
cannot remember if I tried him with Rossetti; but I know his taste
to a hair, and if ever I did, he must have doted on that author.
What took him was a richness in the speech; he loved the exotic,
the unexpected word; the moving cadence of a phrase; a vague sense
of emotion (about nothing) in the very letters of the alphabet:
the romance of language. His honest head was very nearly empty,
his intellect like a child's; and when he read his favourite
authors, he can almost never have understood what he was reading.
Yet the taste was not only genuine, it was exclusive; I tried in
vain to offer him novels; he would none of them, he cared for
nothing but romantic language that he could not understand. The
case may be commoner than we suppose. I am reminded of a lad who
was laid in the next cot to a friend of mine in a public hospital
and who was no sooner installed than he sent out (perhaps with his
last pence) for a cheap Shakespeare. My friend pricked up his
ears; fell at once in talk with his new neighbour, and was ready,
when the book arrived, to make a singular discovery. For this
lover of great literature understood not one sentence out of
twelve, and his favourite part was that of which he understood the
least - the inimitable, mouth-filling rodomontade of the ghost in
HAMLET. It was a bright day in hospital when my friend expounded
the sense of this beloved jargon: a task for which I am willing to
believe my friend was very fit, though I can never regard it as an
easy one. I know indeed a point or two, on which I would gladly
question Mr. Shakespeare, that lover of big words, could he revisit
the glimpses of the moon, or could I myself climb backward to the
spacious days of Elizabeth. But in the second case, I should most
likely pretermit these questionings, and take my place instead in
the pit at the Blackfriars, to hear the actor in his favourite
part, playing up to Mr. Burbage, and rolling out - as I seem to
hear him - with a ponderous gusto-

"Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd."

What a pleasant chance, if we could go there in a party I and what
a surprise for Mr. Burbage, when the ghost received the honours of
the evening!

As for my old soldier, like Mr. Burbage and Mr. Shakespeare, he is
long since dead; and now lies buried, I suppose, and nameless and
quite forgotten, in some poor city graveyard. - But not for me, you
brave heart, have you been buried! For me, you are still afoot,
tasting the sun and air, and striding southward. By the groves of
Comiston and beside the Hermitage of Braid, by the Hunters' Tryst,
and where the curlews and plovers cry around Fairmilehead, I see
and hear you, stalwartly carrying your deadly sickness, cheerfully
discoursing of uncomprehended poets.


II


The thought of the old soldier recalls that of another tramp, his
counterpart. This was a little, lean, and fiery man, with the eyes
of a dog and the face of a gipsy; whom I found one morning encamped
with his wife and children and his grinder's wheel, beside the burn
of Kinnaird. To this beloved dell I went, at that time, daily; and
daily the knife-grinder and I (for as long as his tent continued
pleasantly to interrupt my little wilderness) sat on two stones,
and smoked, and plucked grass, and talked to the tune of the brown
water. His children were mere whelps, they fought and bit among
the fern like vermin. His wife was a mere squaw; I saw her gather
brush and tend the kettle, but she never ventured to address her
lord while I was present. The tent was a mere gipsy hovel, like a
sty for pigs. But the grinder himself had the fine self-
sufficiency and grave politeness of the hunter and the savage; he
did me the honours of this dell, which had been mine but the day
before, took me far into the secrets of his life, and used me (I am
proud to remember) as a friend.

Like my old soldier, he was far gone in the national complaint.
Unlike him, he had a vulgar taste in letters; scarce flying higher
than the story papers; probably finding no difference, certainly
seeking none, between Tannahill and Burns; his noblest thoughts,
whether of poetry or music, adequately embodied in that somewhat
obvious ditty,

"Will ye gang, lassie, gang
To the braes o' Balquidder."

- which is indeed apt to echo in the ears of Scottish children, and
to him, in view of his experience, must have found a special
directness of address. But if he had no fine sense of poetry in
letters, he felt with a deep joy the poetry of life. You should
have heard him speak of what he loved; of the tent pitched beside
the talking water; of the stars overhead at night; of the blest
return of morning, the peep of day over the moors, the awaking
birds among the birches; how he abhorred the long winter shut in
cities; and with what delight, at the return of the spring, he once
more pitched his camp in the living out-of-doors. But we were a
pair of tramps; and to you, who are doubtless sedentary and a
consistent first-class passenger in life, he would scarce have laid
himself so open; - to you, he might have been content to tell his
story of a ghost - that of a buccaneer with his pistols as he lived
- whom he had once encountered in a seaside cave near Buckie; and
that would have been enough, for that would have shown you the
mettle of the man. Here was a piece of experience solidly and
livingly built up in words, here was a story created, TERES ATQUE
ROTUNDUS.

And to think of the old soldier, that lover of the literary bards!
He had visited stranger spots than any seaside cave; encountered
men more terrible than any spirit; done and dared and suffered in
that incredible, unsung epic of the Mutiny War; played his part
with the field force of Delhi, beleaguering and beleaguered; shared
in that enduring, savage anger and contempt of death and decency
that, for long months together, bedevil'd and inspired the army;
was hurled to and fro in the battle-smoke of the assault; was
there, perhaps, where Nicholson fell; was there when the attacking
column, with hell upon every side, found the soldier's enemy -
strong drink, and the lives of tens of thousands trembled in the
scale, and the fate of the flag of England staggered. And of all
this he had no more to say than "hot work, sir," or "the army
suffered a great deal, sir," or "I believe General Wilson, sir, was
not very highly thought of in the papers." His life was naught to
him, the vivid pages of experience quite blank: in words his
pleasure lay - melodious, agitated words - printed words, about
that which he had never seen and was connatally incapable of
comprehending. We have here two temperaments face to face; both
untrained, unsophisticated, surprised (we may say) in the egg; both
boldly charactered: - that of the artist, the lover and artificer
of words; that of the maker, the seeer, the lover and forger of
experience. If the one had a daughter and the other had a son, and
these married, might not some illustrious writer count descent from
the beggar-soldier and the needy knife-grinder?


III


Every one lives by selling something, whatever be his right to it.
The burglar sells at the same time his own skill and courage and my
silver plate (the whole at the most moderate figure) to a Jew
receiver. The bandit sells the traveller an article of prime
necessity: that traveller's life. And as for the old soldier, who
stands for central mark to my capricious figures of eight, he dealt
in a specially; for he was the only beggar in the world who ever
gave me pleasure for my money. He had learned a school of manners
in the barracks and had the sense to cling to it, accosting
strangers with a regimental freedom, thanking patrons with a merely
regimental difference, sparing you at once the tragedy of his
position and the embarrassment of yours. There was not one hint
about him of the beggar's emphasis, the outburst of revolting
gratitude, the rant and cant, the "God bless you, Kind, Kind
gentleman," which insults the smallness of your alms by
disproportionate vehemence, which is so notably false, which would
be so unbearable if it were true. I am sometimes tempted to
suppose this reading of the beggar's part, a survival of the old
days when Shakespeare was intoned upon the stage and mourners
keened beside the death-bed; to think that we cannot now accept
these strong emotions unless they be uttered in the just note of
life; nor (save in the pulpit) endure these gross conventions.
They wound us, I am tempted to say, like mockery; the high voice of
keening (as it yet lingers on) strikes in the face of sorrow like a
buffet; and the rant and cant of the staled beggar stirs in us a
shudder of disgust. But the fact disproves these amateur opinions.
The beggar lives by his knowledge of the average man. He knows
what he is about when he bandages his head, and hires and drugs a
babe, and poisons life with POOR MARY ANN or LONG, LONG AGO; he
knows what he is about when he loads the critical ear and sickens
the nice conscience with intolerable thanks; they know what they
are about, he and his crew, when they pervade the slums of cities,
ghastly parodies of suffering, hateful parodies of gratitude. This
trade can scarce be called an imposition; it has been so blown upon
with exposures; it flaunts its fraudulence so nakedly. We pay them
as we pay those who show us, in huge exaggeration, the monsters of
our drinking-water; or those who daily predict the fall of Britain.
We pay them for the pain they inflict, pay them, and wince, and
hurry on. And truly there is nothing that can shake the conscience
like a beggar's thanks; and that polity in which such protestations
can be purchased for a shilling, seems no scene for an honest man.

Are there, then, we may be asked, no genuine beggars? And the
answer is, Not one. My old soldier was a humbug like the rest; his
ragged boots were, in the stage phrase, properties; whole boots
were given him again and again, and always gladly accepted; and the
next day, there he was on the road as usual, with toes exposed.
His boots were his method; they were the man's trade; without his
boots he would have starved; he did not live by charity, but by
appealing to a gross taste in the public, which loves the limelight
on the actor's face, and the toes out of the beggar's boots. There
is a true poverty, which no one sees: a false and merely mimetic
poverty, which usurps its place and dress, and lives and above all
drinks, on the fruits of the usurpation. The true poverty does not
go into the streets; the banker may rest assured, he has never put
a penny in its hand. The self-respecting poor beg from each other;
never from the rich. To live in the frock-coated ranks of life, to
hear canting scenes of gratitude rehearsed for twopence, a man
might suppose that giving was a thing gone out of fashion; yet it
goes forward on a scale so great as to fill me with surprise. In
the houses of the working class, all day long there will be a foot
upon the stair; all day long there will be a knocking at the doors;
beggars come, beggars go, without stint, hardly with intermission,
from morning till night; and meanwhile, in the same city and but a
few streets off, the castles of the rich stand unsummoned. Get the
tale of any honest tramp, you will find it was always the poor who
helped him; get the truth from any workman who has met misfortunes,
it was always next door that he would go for help, or only with
such exceptions as are said to prove a rule; look at the course of
the mimetic beggar, it is through the poor quarters that he trails
his passage, showing his bandages to every window, piercing even to
the attics with his nasal song. Here is a remarkable state of
things in our Christian commonwealths, that the poor only should be
asked to give.


IV


There is a pleasant tale of some worthless, phrasing Frenchman, who
was taxed with ingratitude: "IL FAUT SAVOIR GARDER L'INDEPENDANCE
DU COEUR," cried he. I own I feel with him. Gratitude without
familarity, gratitude otherwise than as a nameless element in a
friendship, is a thing so near to hatred that I do not care to
split the difference. Until I find a man who is pleased to receive
obligations, I shall continue to question the tact of those who are
eager to confer them. What an art it is, to give, even to our
nearest friends! and what a test of manners, to receive! How, upon
either side, we smuggle away the obligation, blushing for each
other; how bluff and dull we make the giver; how hasty, how falsely
cheerful, the receiver! And yet an act of such difficulty and
distress between near friends, it is supposed we can perform to a
total stranger and leave the man transfixed with grateful emotions.
The last thing you can do to a man is to burthen him with an
obligation, and it is what we propose to begin with! But let us
not be deceived: unless he is totally degraded to his trade, anger
jars in his inside, and he grates his teeth at our gratuity.

We should wipe two words from our vocabulary: gratitude and
charity. In real life, help is given out of friendship, or it is
not valued; it is received from the hand of friendship, or it is
resented. We are all too proud to take a naked gift: we must seem
to pay it, if in nothing else, then with the delights of our
society. Here, then, is the pitiful fix of the rich man; here is
that needle's eye in which he stuck already in the days of Christ,
and still sticks to-day, firmer, if possible, than ever: that he
has the money and lacks the love which should make his money
acceptable. Here and now, just as of old in Palestine, he has the
rich to dinner, it is with the rich that he takes his pleasure:
and when his turn comes to be charitable, he looks in vain for a
recipient. His friends are not poor, they do not want; the poor
are not his friends, they will not take. To whom is he to give?
Where to find - note this phase - the Deserving Poor? Charity is
(what they call) centralised; offices are hired; societies founded,
with secretaries paid or unpaid: the hunt of the Deserving Poor
goes merrily forward. I think it will take more than a merely
human secretary to disinter that character. What! a class that is
to be in want from no fault of its own, and yet greedily eager to
receive from strangers; and to be quite respectable, and at the
same time quite devoid of self-respect; and play the most delicate
part of friendship, and yet never be seen; and wear the form of
man, and yet fly in the face of all the laws of human nature: -
and all this, in the hope of getting a belly-god Burgess through a
needle's eye! O, let him stick, by all means: and let his polity
tumble in the dust; and let his epitaph and all his literature (of
which my own works begin to form no inconsiderable part) be
abolished even from the history of man! For a fool of this
monstrosity of dulness, there can be no salvation: and the fool
who looked for the elixir of life was an angel of reason to the
fool who looks for the Deserving Poor!


V


And yet there is one course which the unfortunate gentleman may
take. He may subscribe to pay the taxes. There were the true
charity, impartial and impersonal, cumbering none with obligation,
helping all. There were a destination for loveless gifts; there
were the way to reach the pocket of the deserving poor, and yet
save the time of secretaries! But, alas! there is no colour of
romance in such a course; and people nowhere demand the picturesque
so much as in their virtues.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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