Compromises/The Beggar's Pouch

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THE BEGGAR'S POUCH

Just Heaven! for what wise reasons hast thou ordered it that beggary and urbanity, which are at such variance in other countries, should find a way to be at unity in this?—Sterne.

A rich American, with a kind heart and a lively sense of humour, was heard to remark as he crossed the Italian frontier, en route for Switzerland: "Now, if there be any one in the length and breadth of Italy who has not yet begged from me, this is his time to come forward."

It was a genial invitation, betokening that tolerance of mind rarely found in the travelling Saxon, who is fortified against beggars, as against many other foreign institutions, by a petition-proof armour of finely welded principle and prejudice. He disapproves of mendicancy in general. He believes—or he says he believes—that you wrong and degrade your fellow men by giving them money. He has the assurance of his guide-book that the corps of ragged veterans who mount guard over every church door in Rome are unworthy of alms, being themselves capitalists on no ignoble scale. His irritation, when sore beset, is natural and pardonable. His arguments are not easily answered. He can be vaguely statistical,—real figures are hard to come by in Italy,—he can be earnestly philosophical, he can quote Mr. Augustus Hare. In the end, he leaves you perplexed in spirit and dull of heart, with sixpence saved in your pocket, and the memory of pinched old faces—which do not look at all like the faces of capitalists at home—spoiling your appetite for dinner.

This may be right, but it is a melancholy attitude to adopt in a land where beggary is an ancient and not dishonourable profession. All art, all legend, all tradition, tell for the beggar. The splendid background against which he stands gives colour and dignity to his part. We see him sheltered by St. Julian,—ah, beautiful young beggar of the Pitti!—fed by St. Elizabeth, clothed by St. Martin, warmed by the fagots which St. Francesca Romano gathered for him in the wintry woods. What heavenly blessings have followed the charity shown to his needs! What evils have followed thick and fast where he has been rejected! I remember these things when I meet his piteous face and outstretched palm to-day. It is true that the Italian beggar almost always takes a courteous, or even an impatient denial in wonderfully good part; but, should he feel disposed to be malevolent, I am not one to be indifferent to his malevolence. I do not like to hear a shaken old voice wish that I may die unshriven. There are too many possibilities involved.

So sang a withered Sibyl energetical,
And banned the ungiving door with lips prophetical.

Mr. Henry James is of the opinion (and one envies him his ability to hold it) that "the sum of Italian misery is, on the whole, less than the sum of the Italian knowledge of life. That people should thank you, with a smile of enchanting sweetness, for the gift of twopence is a proof certainly of an extreme and constant destitution; but—keeping in mind the sweetness—it is also a proof of a fortunate ability not to be depressed by circumstances." This is a comforting faith to foster, and more credible than the theory of secreted wealth within the beggar's pouch. It takes a great many pennies to build up a substantial fortune, and the competition in mendicancy is too keen to permit of the profits being large. The business, like other roads to fortune, is "not what it once was." A particularly good post, long held and undisputed, an imposingly venerable and patriarchal appearance, a total absence of legs or arms,—these things may lead to modest competency; but these things are rare equipments. My belief in the affluence of beggars, a belief I was cherishing carefully for the sake of my own peace of mind, received a rude shock when I beheld a crippled old woman, whose post was in the Piazza S. Claudio, tucked into a doorway one cold December midnight, her idle crutches lying on her knees. If she had had a comfortable or even an uncomfortable home to go to, why should she have stayed to shiver and freeze in the deserted Roman streets?

The latitude extended by the Italian Church to beggars, the patronage shown them, never ceases to vex the tourist mind. An American cannot reconcile himself to marching up the church steps between two rows of mendicants, each provided with a chair, a little scaldino, and a tin cup, in which a penny rattles lustily. There is nothing casual about the appearance of these freeholders. They make no pretence—as do beggars at home—of sudden emergency or frustrated hopes. They are following their daily avocation,—the only one for which they are equipped,—and following it in a spirit of acute and healthy rivalry. To give to one and not to all is to arouse such a clamorous wail that it seems, on the whole, less stony-hearted to refuse altogether. Once inside the sacred walls, we find a small and well-selected body of practitioners hovering around the portals, waiting to exact their tiny toll when we are ready to depart. "Exact" is not too strong a word to use, for I have had a lame but comely young woman, dressed in decent black, with a black veil framing her expressive face, hold the door of the Aracœli firmly barred with one arm, while she swept the other toward me in a gesture so fine, so full of mingled entreaty and command, that it was worth double the fee she asked. Occasionally—not often—an intrepid beggar steals around during Mass, and, touching each member of the congregation on the shoulder, gently implores an alms. This is a practice frowned upon as a rule, save in Sicily, where a "plentiful poverty" doth so abide that no device for moving compassion can be too rigidly condemned. I have been present at a high Mass in Palermo, when a ragged woman with a baby in her arms moved slowly after the sacristan, who was taking up the offertory collection, and took up a second collection of her own, quite as though she were an authorized official. It was a scandalous sight to Western eyes,—in our well-ordered churches at home such a proceeding would be as impossible as a trapeze performance in the aisle,—but what depths of friendly tolerance it displayed, what gentle, if inert, compassion for the beggar's desperate needs!

For in Italy, as in Spain, there is no gulf set between the rich and poor. What these lands lack in practical philanthropy is atoned for by a sweet and universal friendliness of demeanour, and by a prompt recognition of rights. It would be hard to find in England or in America such tattered rags, such gaunt faces and hungry eyes; but it would be impossible to find in Italy or in Spain a church where rags are relegated to some inconspicuous and appropriate background. The Roman beggar jostles—but jostles urbanely—the Roman prince; the noblest and the lowliest kneel side by side in the Cathedral of Seville. I have heard much all my life about the spirit of equality, and I have listened to fluent sermons, designed to prove that Christians, impelled by supernatural grace, love this equality with especial fervour; but I have never seen its practical workings, save in the churches of southern Europe. There tired mothers hush their babies to sleep, and wan children play at ease in their Father's house. There I have been privileged to stand for hours, during long and beautiful services, because the only available chairs had been appropriated by forlorn creatures who would not have been permitted to intrude into the guarded pews at home.

It has been always thus. We have the evidence of writers who give it with reluctant sincerity; of Borrow, for example, who firmly believed he hated many things for which he had a natural and visible affinity. "To the honour of Spain be it spoken," he writes in "The Bible in Spain," "that it is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is never insulted nor looked upon with contempt. Even at an inn the poor man is never spurned from the door, and, if not harboured, is at least dismissed with fair words, and consigned to the mercies of God and His Mother."

The more ribald Nash, writing centuries earlier, finds no words too warm in which to praise the charities of Catholic Rome. "The bravest Ladies, in gownes of beaten gold, washing pilgrims' and poor soldiours' feete. … This I must say to the shame of us English; if good workes may merit Heaven, they doe them, we talk about them."

The Roman ladies "doe them" still; not so picturesquely as they did three hundred years ago, but in the same noble and delicate spirit. Their means and their methods are far below the means and methods of charitable organizations in England and America. They cannot find work where there is no work to be done. They cannot lift the hopeless burden of want which is the inevitable portion of the Italian poor. They can at best give only the scanty loaf which keeps starvation from the door. They cannot educate the children, nor make the swarming populace of Rome "self-respecting," by which we mean self-supporting. But they can and do respect the poverty they alleviate. Their mental attitude is simpler than ours. They know well that it is never the wretchedly poor who "fear fate and cheat nature," and they see, with more equanimity than we can muster, the ever recurring tragedy of birth. The hope, so dear to our Western hearts, of ultimately raising the whole standard of humanity shines very dimly on their horizon; but if they plan less for the race, they draw closer to the individual. They would probably, if questioned, say frankly with Sir Thomas Browne: "I give no alms only to satisfy the hunger of my Brother, but to fulfil and accomplish the Will and Command of my God." And if the "Religio Medici" be somewhat out of date,—superseded, we are told, by a finer altruism which rejects the system of reward,—we may still remember Mr. Pater's half rueful admission that it was all "pure profit" to its holder.

When Charles Lamb lamented, with innate perversity, the decay of beggars, he merely withdrew his mind from actualities,—which always annoyed him,—and set it to contemplate those more agreeable figures which were not suffering under the disadvantage of existence. It was the beggar of romance, of the ballads, of the countryside, of the merry old songs, whose departure he professed to regret. The outcast of the London streets could not have been—even in Lamb's time—a desirable feature. To-day we find him the most depressing object in the civilized world; and the fact that he is what is called, in the language of the philanthropist, "unworthy," makes him no whit more cheerful of contemplation. The ragged creature who rushes out of the darkness to cover the wheel of your hansom with his tattered sleeve manages to convey to your mind a sense of degraded wretchedness, calculated to lessen the happiness of living. His figure haunts you miserably, when you want to forget him and be light of heart. By his side, the venerable, white-bearded old humbugs who lift the leather curtains of Roman and Venetian churches stand forth as cheerful embodiments of self-respecting mendicancy. They, at least, are no pariahs, but recognized features of the social system. They are the Lord's poor, whose prayers are fertile in blessings. It is kind to drop a coin into the outstretched hand, and to run the risk—not so appalling as we seem to think—of its being unworthily bestowed. "Rake not into the bowels of unwelcome truth to save a half-penny;" but remember, rather, the ever-ready alms of Dr. Johnson, who pitied most those who were least deserving of compassion. Little doubt that he was often imposed upon. The fallen women went on their way, sinning as before. The "old struggler" probably spent his hard-earned shilling for gin. The sick beggar whom he carried on his back should by rights have been languishing in the poor-house. But the human quality of his kindness made it a vital force, incapable of waste. It warmed sad hearts in his unhappy time, as it warms our sad hearts now. Like the human kindness of St. Martin, it still remains—a priceless heritage—to enrich us poor beggars in sentiment to-day.

And this reminds me to ask—without hope of answer—if the blessed St. Martin can be held responsible for the number of beggars in Tours? The town is not pinched and hunger-bitten like the sombre old cities of Italy, but possesses rather an air of comfort and gracious prosperity. It is in the heart of a province where cruel poverty is unknown, and where "thrift and success present themselves as matters of good taste." Yet we cannot walk half an hour in Tours without meeting a number of highly respectable beggars, engrossed in their professional duties. They do not sin against the harmony of their surroundings by any revolting demonstration of raggedness or penury. On the contrary, they are always neat and decent; and on Sundays have an aspect of such unobtrusive well-being that one would never suspect them of mendicancy. When a clean, comfortably dressed old gentleman, with a broad straw hat, and a rosebud in his buttonhole, crosses the street to affably ask an alms, I own I am surprised, until I remember St. Martin, who, fifteen hundred years ago, shared his mantle with the beggar shivering by the way. It was at Amiens that the incident occurred, but the soldier saint became in time the apostle and bishop of Tours; wherefore it is in Tours, and not in Amiens, that beggars do plentifully abound to-day; it is in Tours, and not in Amiens, that the charming old tale moves us to sympathy with their not very obvious needs. They are an inheritance bequeathed us by the saint. They are in strict accord with the traditions of the place. I am told that giving sous to old men at church doors is not a practical form of benevolence; but neither was it practical to cut a military cloak in two. Something must be allowed to impulse, something to the generous unreason of humanity.

And, after all, it is not begging, but only the beggar who has forfeited favour with the elect. We are begged from on an arrogantly large scale all our lives, and we are at liberty to beg from others. It may be wrong to give ten cents to a legless man at a street corner; but it is right, and even praiseworthy, to send ten tickets for some dismal entertainment to our dearest friend, who must either purchase the dreaded things or harass her friends in turn. If we go to church, we are confronted by a system of begging so complicated and so resolute that all other demands sink into insignificance by its side. Mr. John Richard Green, the historian, was wont to maintain that the begging friar of the pre-reform period, "who at any rate had the honesty to sing for his supper, and preach a merry sermon from the portable pulpit he carried round," had been far outstripped by a "finer mendicant," the begging rector of to-day. A hospital nurse once told me that she was often too tired to go to church—when free—on Sundays. "But it doesn't matter whether I go or not," she said with serious simplicity, "because in our church we have the envelope system." When asked what the system was which thus lifted church-going from the number of Christian obligations, she explained that envelopes marked with each Sunday's date were distributed to the congregation, and duly returned with a quarter inclosed. When she stayed at home, she sent the envelope to represent her. The collecting of the quarters being the pivotal feature of the Sunday's service, her duty was fulfilled.

With this, and many similar recollections in my mind, I own I am disposed to think leniently of Italy's church-door mendicants. How moderate their demands, how disproportionate their gratitude, how numberless their disappointments, how unfailing their courtesy! I can push back a leather curtain for myself, I can ring a sacristan's bell. But the patriarch who relieves me of these duties has some dim, mysterious right to stand in my way,—a right I cannot fathom, but will not pretend to dispute. He is, after all, a less insistent beggar than are the official guardians of galleries and museums, who relieve the unutterable weariness of their idle days by following me from room to room with exasperating explanations, until I pay them to go away. I have heard tourists protest harshly against the ever-recurring obligation of giving pennies to the old men who, in Venice, draw their gondolas to shore, and push them out again. They say—what is perfectly true—that it is an extortion to be compelled to pay for unasked and unnecessary services, and they generally add something about not minding the money. It is the principle of the thing to which they are opposed. But these picturesque accessories of Venetian life are, for the most part, worn-out gondoliers, whose days of activity are over, and who are saved from starvation, only by the semblance of service they perform. Their successors connive at their pretence of usefulness, knowing that some day they, too, must drop their oars, and stand patiently waiting, hook in hand, for the chance coin that is so grudgingly bestowed. That it should be begrudged—even on principle—seems strange to those whose love for Venice precludes the possibility of fault-finding. The graybeards sunning themselves on the marble steps are as much a part of the beautiful city as are the gondoliers silhouetted against the sky, or the brown boys paddling in the water. Such old age is meagre, but not wholly forlorn. A little food keeps body and soul together, and life yields sweetness to the end. "It takes a great deal to make a successful American," confesses Mr. James; "but to make a happy Venetian takes only a handful of quick sensibility. … Not the misery of Italians, but the way they elude their misery, is what pleases the sentimental tourist, who is gratified by the sight of a beautiful race that lives by the aid of its imagination."