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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    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.
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