Adventures in Indigence. I
BOTH Stevenson and Lamb, writing of ‘Beggars,’ fall into what I take to be a grave misapprehension. They both write a defense, and constitute themselves advocates. Lamb brilliantly solicits our pity for these ‘ pensioners on our bounty’; Stevenson, though he characteristically makes himself comrade and brother of his client, and presents the ‘humbuggery’ of the accused as a legitimate art, nevertheless thinks himself but too evidently of a higher order, and the better gentleman of the two. Here, and it would seem in spite of himself, are patronage and condescension.
I own such an attitude shocks me and makes me apprehensive. Were I superstitious, of a certain creed, I should cross myself to ward off calamity; or were I a Greek of the ancient times, I should certainly pour a propitiatory libation to Hermes, god of wayfarers, thieves, vagabonds, mendicants, and the like. ‘Poor wretches,’ indeed! ‘ Pensioners,’ they! ‘ Ragamuffins! humbugs!' They, with their occult powers! They, mind you, needing our advocacy! I could indeed bear a different testimony.
I think I began first to know the power of the poor, and to fall under their sway, when I was certainly not more than six years old. It must have been about then that I was learning to sew. This seems to have been a profession to which I was so temperamentally disinclined that my mother, to sweeten the task, was wont during the performance of it to read to me. While I sat on a hassock at her feet scooping an unwilling perpendicular needle in and out of difficult hems, my mother would read from one of many little chapbooks and children’s tracts, which were kept commonly in a flat wicker darning-basket in her wardrobe; little paper books held over from her own and her mother’s childhood. They were illustrated with quaint woodcuts, and the covers of them were colored. I was allowed to choose which one was to be read.
One day—‘because the time was ripe,’ I suppose — I selected a little petunia-colored one, outwardly very pleasing to my fancy. It contained the story and the pictures of a miserable beggar and a haughty and unfeeling little girl. He was in rags and reclined, from feebleness I fancy, on the pavement; she walked proudly in a full-skirted dress, strapped slippers, and pantalets. She wore a dipping leghorn with streamers. Just over this she carried a most proud parasol, just under it a nose aristocratically, it may even be said unduly, high in the air.
I think I need not dwell on the tale, save to say that it was one of the genus known as ‘moral.’ There was only one ending possible to the story; the triumph of humility, the downfall of pride and prosperity; swift and awful retribution falling upon her of the leghorn and pantalets. I believe they allowed her in the last picture a pallet of straw, a ragged petticoat, bare feet, clasped hands, and a prayerful reconciliation with her Maker. The story was rendered distinctly poignant for me by the fact that I possessed a parasol of pink ‘pinked silk,’ which was held on Sundays and certain other occasions proudly — it also — over a leghorn with streamers which dipped back and front exactly as did the little girl’s in the story. But never, never, — once I had made the acquaintance of that story, — was my nose carried haughtily under it when by chance I sighted one of that race so numerous and so ancient, so well known and so little known to us all. From that day I began to know the power of the poor.
I can remember delectable candies that I did not buy, delicious soft cocoanut sticks that I never tasted, joys that I relinquished, hopes that I deferred, for the questionable but tyrannous comfort of a penny in an alien tin cup, and the inevitable ‘God bless you, little lady!’ which, remembering her of the leghorn and pantalets, I knew to be of necessity more desirable than the delights I forewent.
There was an old blind man there in my home town, whom I remember very keenly. He used to go up and down, he and his dog, in front of the only caravansary the place boasted, — the Hotel Latonia, — tap-tap, tap-tapping. He had the peculiar stiff hesitating walk of the blind, the strange expectant upward tilt of the face. He wore across his shoulder a strap on which was fastened a little tin cup.
I used to see the drummers and leisurely men of a certain order, their chairs tilted back against the hotel wall, their heels in the chair-rungs, their hats on the back of their heads, their thumbs in their arm-holes, their cigars tilted indifferently to heaven, and they even cracking their jokes and slapping their knees and roaring with laughter, or perhaps yawning, perfectly unaware of the blind man, it seemed, while he passed by slowly, tap-tap, taptapping.
But it was never thus with me. His cane tapped, not only on the pavement, but directly on my heart. You could have heard it, had you put your ear there. It may have seemed that his eyes were turned to the sky. That was but a kind of physical delusion. I knew better. In some occult way they were searching me out and finding me. I can give you no idea of the command of the thing. Perhaps I have no need to. Your own childhood — it is not improbable — may have been under a similar dominion.
If I thought to experiment and withhold my penny, I might escape the blind man for a while; I might elude him, for instance, while the other members of the family and the guests in that old home of my childhood were gay and talkative at the supper table; or afterward, when laughter and song drowned the lesser sounds; or while I stood safe in the loved shelter of my father’s arm, listening to conversations I enjoyed, even though I could not understand them; or while, in the more intimate evenings, he took his flute from its case, screwed its wonderful parts together, and, his fingers rising and falling with magic and precision on the joined wood and ivory, played ‘Mary of Argyle’ until I too heard the mavis singing. But later, later, when I lay alone in my bed in the nursery in the moonlight, or, if it were winter, in the waning firelight and the creeping shadows, then, then there came up the stairs and through the rooms the sound of the blind man’s cane, tap-tap, taptapping. He had come for his penny. And the next time I saw him, with a chastened spirit and a sense of escape, I gave him two.
But my own childish subserviency to the poor did not give me so great a sense of their power as my mother’s relation to them. She, it seems, was perpetually at their service. Let them but raise a hand indicating their need ever so slightly, and she moved in quick obedience, although it seemed she too must sometimes have wearied of such service. Guests were many and frequent in that old home, as I have elsewhere told; but these came either by announcement or by invitation; the poor, on the contrary, came unasked, unannounced, and exactly when they chose, as by royal prerogative. Indeed, many a time I have seen my mother excuse herself to a guest, to wait sympathetically upon a man or a woman with a basket — it might be the queen of the gypsies, with vivid memorable face; or the Wandering Jew in the very flesh; or it might be Kathleen ni Houlihan herself, all Erin looking out, haunting you, from her tragic old eyes — offering soap or laces at exorbitant prices, or other less useful wares, tendered for sale and excuse at the kitchen door.
There was one whom I especially remember — Musgrove. He was a fine marquis of a man, was Musgrove, as slender as a fiddle and with as neat a waist. He used to come to the front door and sit by the old hall clock, waiting my mother’s pleasure. He had a wife and seven or nine children, and a marvelous multiplicity of woes. There was a generosity and spaciousness about the calamities of Musgrove — something mythopœic, promethean. Tragedies befell him with consistent abundance. Four or five of the seven or nine had broken their arms, almost put out their eyes, or had just escaped by a hair’s breadth from permanent blanketmortgage disability when the floor of the cottage they lived in fell through; or they had been all but carried off wholesale by measles. Once all nine, as I remember it, were poisoned en gros by Sunday-school-picnic ice-cream, which left the children of others untouched. Only myths were comparable. Niobe alone, and she not altogether successfully, could have matched calamities with him.
By and by Time itself, I think, wearied of Musgrove. I think my mother, sympathetic as she was, must have come to think the arrows of outrageous fortune were falling far too thick for likelihood, even on so shining a mark as Musgrove. She came from interviews with him with a kind of gentle weariness. But Musgrove, I am very sure, had an eye for the drama. He knew his exits and his entrances, and I have reason to believe no shade of feeling in my mother’s face was lost upon him.
He came one day to say good-bye; his shabbiness heightened, but brightened also, by a red cravat. It was safe now, no doubt, to allow himself this gayety. He knew that my mother would be glad to hear that, through the kindness of some one nearly as kind as herself, he had been able to obtain a position in a large city. He lacked but the money to move. After that — prosperity would be his.
My mother did not deny him his chance, Musgrove himself, you see, having contrived it so that the chance was not without a certain advantage and privilege for her. So he made his fine bow, and he and his fine marquis manners were gone.
I think my mother must have missed him. I know I did. The other pensioners came as regularly as ever — the gypsy with her grimy laces; the Jew with his tins and soap; rheumatic darkies by the dozen, frankly empty-handed; the little girl with the thin legs and with the black shawl pinned over her head and draped down over the shy and empty basket on her arm; and the old German inventor who always brought the tragedy of old and outworn hopes along with some new invention; or, at infrequent intervals, for a touch of color, there came an Italian organ-grinder, and—if the gods were good — a monkey. But there were times when I would have exchanged them all to see Musgrove again, with his fine promethean show of endurance, his incomparable assortment of unthinkable calamities.
Another, it is true, came in his place, but he was of a wholly different type. He had not the old free manner of Musgrove, yet he was strangely appealing, too. He wore a beard and was stooped and spent and submissive, a man broken by fate. He did not complain. He did not wait rather grandly by the hall clock as Musgrove had done; no, but in the kitchen, about breakfast-time, awaiting the cook’s not always cordial pleasure.
In spite of my mother’s sympathy,
— which should certainly have made amends for any lack of it in the cook,
— he had a way of slipping in and out with a little shrinking movement of his body, like the hound that does the same to escape a blow. One would have said that body and soul flinched. He limped stiffly, and seemed always to have come a little dazed from far countries.
My mother took even a very keen interest in him. This man was more difficult to reach, but by that very token seemed no doubt the more worthy. He told no wonderful tales to tax your credulity. His very reticence was moving and hard to endure; the death of nine or seven children would have been less sad. He kept coming for quite a long time. Then the day dawned — a day quite like any other, I suppose, though it should have been dark with cloudy portent — when, by some slight misstep, some trifling but old reference on his part when his mind was off its guard, my mother discovered as by a sudden lightning flash that this was Musgrove.
I have known some dramatic moments in my life, but I would not put this low on the list.
He seemed to know for an intense arrested instant that he had spoken a false line, that he had for a miserable moment forgotten his part. He staggered into it again with what I know now was fine courage, and managed in perfect character to get away. I can still see him as he departed, bent and submissive (having most meekly thanked my mother), and not forgetting to limp stiffly, going along under the falling leaves of the grape-arbor, in the autumn sunshine, the shadows of the stripped vines making a strange and moving pattern on his old coat as he went; nor have I failed to see him in all the years since, thus departing, — inevitably, irretrievably, — and have found my heart going many a time along with him.
My mother, and I with my hand in hers, went back into the quiet comfortable rooms of that old house. But if you suppose we went in any spirit of ascendency or righteous indignation, or justification, you are indeed mistaken. To be in the right is such an easy, such a pleasant thing; what is difficult and must be tragically difficult to endure is to be artistically, tragically in the wrong. I think it likely that my mother remembered Musgrove, as I have done, through all the years, a little as a survivor might remember one who had gone down before his eyes. It is thus, you see, that Musgrove, bent and always departing, still continues to sway others with his strange powers, as it is fitting, no doubt, that one of his rare genius should do.
Besides those that I have mentioned, there were two especially of that ancient race whose fortunes were bound in with my early memories.
It was upon a day when I was a little more than fourteen that I came to know them. I was alone at home, save for the maids in the house, and was reading at my ease, as I loved to do, in that old verandah that fronted the south. I remember well that the book I read was Rasselas, or The Happy Valley.
The verandah was deep and long. Beside it ran a brick pavement, delightful in color and texture. Over this, joining the verandah, there curved a latticed grape-arbor of most gracious lines, on which grew, in lovely profusion, a wisteria, a catawba grape vine, moonflower, and traveler’s-joy. When the wisteria, like a spendthrift, had lavished all its purple blossoms, and there were left but green leaves in its treasury, then the grape bloom lifted its fragrance; and when this was spent, the traveler’s joy, as though it had foreseen and saved for the event, flung forth its treasure; and when at last its every petal had fallen and nothing more remained, — for the moonflower had its own prejudice, persistently refused the demands of the sun, and would open its riches only to the moon and the night moths, — then the early autumn sun, feeling through the thinning leaves, hardly expectant, would come upon that best treasure of all, stored long, against this time, in the reddening clusters of the grapes.
All these things lent I cannot say what charm inexhaustible to that old verandah, and made it a place of abiding romance and delight. The pattern of the sunshine and of the moonlight as they fell through the lattice and the leaves, on the floor of it, are things that still haunt my memory with the sense of a lovely security, of a generous abundance, and, as it were, of the lavish inexhaustible liberality of life itself.
There, secure against interruption, I read and pondered, with the imaginative ponderings of fourteen, the strange longings of that Prince who should have been so content in the Happy Valley.
As I read, I was aware of a strange intrusion: a bent form in baggy trousers and rusty coat stooped under the weight of an old and worn harp; behind him, bent also, but by no visible burden, an old man with a violin entered the gateway of the arbor. They came very slowly and deliberately, yet without pause or uncertainty. They did not introduce themselves, being, I knew instantly, quite above such plebeian need. They asked no permission, nor solicited any tolerance. They spoke not a word. It was as if they had long outgrown the need of such earthly trivialities.
He of the rusty coat and baggy trousers, having taken a slow look at the place around, — as though to establish in his mind some mysterious identity, — let the harp slip from his shoulders to the brick pavement, adjusted it there very deliberately, and proceeded to pluck one or two of its strings with testing fingers, still looking around carefully all the while; then he adjusted his camp-stool, seated himself, pulled the worn, yet delicate and feminine, instrument toward him, so that her body lay against his shoulder, and put his hands in position to play.
The old violin, more lordly, made no concession whatever to harmony; he tuned or touched not a string, but with a really kingly gesture put his instrument in the worn hollow of his shoulder, laid his head and cheek over against it, as though lending his whole soul to listen, raised the bow, held it for an immortal instant over the strings, and then drew out a long preliminary note — on, on, on, to the very quivering tip of the bow.
My education had not been neglected as to music. There had always been much of it in my home, where flute and voice and harp and violin and piano spoke often, and my home town was near a great musical centre, where, young as I was, I had heard the best that was to be heard. Had I been in a critical mood, I should have noted how badly the long-drawn note was drawn; I can hear still how excruciating it was, how horribly it squawked; but rendered solemn, as I was, by the strangeness of their appearance and their presence, and dimly, dimly aware of their immortal powers, it thrilled me more than I remember those of Sarasate or Ysaye to have done.
The long note at an end, without so much as a consultation of the eyes, they then began. With never a word, only with thrilling tones horribly off the key, the violin spoke, say rather wrung its hands and wailed, ‘Oh, don’t you remember’—(‘Oh, yes; I remember!’ throbbed and sobbed the harp) — ‘Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?’
They played it all through, even to what must have been the ‘slab of granite so gray,’ varying all the while from one half to one tone off the key, the old violin lending his ear as attentively all the while to the voice of his instrument as if she spoke with the tongues of angels; his dim veiled eyes fixed on incalculable distances, like those of an eagle in captivity.
The old harp, on the contrary, kept his eyes lowered stubbornly on the vibrating strings; and the harp as he smote, quivered like some human thing struck upon its remembering heart. From the painfully reminiscent song they leaped without pause into that second most wailful melody in the world, —
Deep in the quiet grave,’ —
and played that on to the end also.
But though to the outward eye these visitors played upon the harp and violin, how much more indeed did they play upon me! Young, and sensitive, and as yet unsounded, how, with dim compelling fingers they searched and found and struck and drew from me emotions I had never known! Old and worn and bowed with life, and weatherbeaten of the world, they played there in the mottled sunlight of that romantic arbor, as might Ulysses have stood mistaken and unhonored by those who had but heard of Troy. There was to me something suddenly overwhelming in the situation. Oh, who was I, to enjoy so much, in such security; to feast upon plenty, and to know the generous liberality of life, while these, doomed to the duress of the gods, went through the world, day after day, half-starved, playing miserable memorable music fearfully off the key!
Perhaps I was intense; certainly I was young; and as certainly I had all the eager vivid imagination of youth. Moreover, this was, it should not be overlooked, my very first adventure, all my own, with the poor; my first piece of entirely independent service to those mysterious powers. Meanwhile, the divinities in disguise played on — a wild, boisterous tune it was now, set to a rollicking measure and infinitely more sad for that than the sighs of ‘Trovatore,’or than sweet Alice under the stone. Bent they seemed on sounding every stop. You may think they were but a grimy pair, dull and squalid; probably embittered. I can only tell you that they invoked for me that day, as with the mournful powers of the Sybil of Cumæ, love and life and death, and joy irrevocable, and memory — these they called up to pass before me, and bade them as they went, for one summoning moment, to reveal their faces to me.
Presently, I do not know with what dark thoughts, these two would have departed, but I remembered and begged them to stay. I flew upstairs and found my purse, and emptied it, and gave them what it held. They took it without thanks, merely as lawful tribute exacted. Again they would have departed, but I begged them still to remain. Should this ancient Zeus and Hermes be allowed to depart without bread? I disappeared into the house with a beating heart. I found bread and milk and meat. I brought these and set them out for them, and drew chairs for them. All this, too, they took for granted, with some shrewd glances at me; they shuffled their feet about under the table, bent low to their plates like hungry men, and shoveled their food into their mouths dexterously with their knives, the better, no doubt, to disguise their divinity.
While they ate, I went, with a heart troubled yet high, and gathered for them grapes that hung immortally lovely in the sun. These too they ate, with a more manifest pleasure, cleaning the bunches down to the stems; and when they had made away with all they could, slipped the remaining clusters in their pockets against a less hospitable occasion.
I remember then that they went and left me standing there in a world of dreams and speculation and adventure. They had gone as they had come; but me they left forever changed. As they departed, certain doors in my young days swung and closed mysteriously. For me the channels of life were permanently deepened. With them had departed my complacent, inexperienced attitude of mind; with them had fared forth the care-free child that I had been. This adventure all my own, conducted in my own manner, had initiated me into vast possibilities, the more impressive because but dimly seen. On me had depended for a little while these two of God knows what ancient descent. I too had begun to know and taste life. I too would begin to count my memories. Oh, strange new world! And with strange people in it!
On this world, enter, upper left stage, Leila the maid.
‘O Miss Laura, honey, what you bin’ doin’? Dey ain’t nothin’ but no’count beggars, chile. Don’t you know dey mought ’a’ come indo’s and carried off all de silver? Dat’s just de kind would steal fum you when you war n’t lookin’. I ain’t right sho’ now dey ain’t got some o’ de silver in dey pockets!’ And she took savage stock of what lay on the table.
O Leila, ingenuous mind! Dearly as I loved her, how little she knew! How far she was from understanding the habits and predilections of the gods! Would they trouble, do you think, to take a silver knife or fork, who can take away the priceless riches of childhood with them? Would they pause to purloin a mere petty silver spoon, who can carry off an entire golden period of your existence, and leave you with the leaden questions and dull philosophy and heavy responsibility of older years?
I should have asked their names, that I might set these in my prayers, but I had not had presence of mind enough to do that; so, that night, while I knelt by my bed, alone in the moonlight, a very devout little girl, there stood there, shadowy in the shadows, and among my nearest and dearest, on whom I asked the Lord’s blessing, the old Harp and Violin; while, with my head buried passionately in my hands, I begged Providence to have an especial care of these new friends of my heart, to bless them, to let its face shine upon them, and to give them peace.
Musical beggars! I have seen them often since, in one guise or another. Sometimes they trumpet on the trombone or cornet, or blow fearful blasts upon the French horn; I have known them to finesse upon the flute or flageolet. These differences are but inconsiderable. Always I find them equally mighty. I have thought sometimes to get past them with giving them only a great deal more than I could afford. Useless frugality! futile economy! For still they will be laying ghostly hands upon you; still will they be exacting a heavier tribute and demanding that gold and silver of the soul which, as Plato is so well aware, is how infinitely more precious. These are people of power, let appearances be what they may. You may patronize them if you like, and look upon them as the downtrodden and the dregs of existence. I am indeed not so hardy. I have read a different fate in their groups and constellations.
There were other poor whose influence was potent in my childhood, but I pass them by to note but one more, of a curiously strong type, who crossed my path when I might have been about sixteen. She was a Salvation Army Major, — Major Lobley, — and she had at her heels an army of poor wretches, ‘flood-sufferers.’ That great river on which my home town was situate had risen and overflowed its banks, and had spread devastation. As it happened, my mother had standing idle at that time three or four small houses. Into these a large and variegated band of ‘ flood sufferers ’ was assisted to move. They came, poor things, bringing their lares and penates. One, whom I take to have been an aristocrat among them, led a mule. Among them all, like a burst of sunshine over a dark and variegated landscape, came Major Lobley and the drum. It would make a better recital, I know, if I said that she was beating it — but I am resolved to tell of things only as I remember them. The drum, however, even though silent, was to the eye sufficiently triumphant and sounding.
My acquaintance with Major Lobley began the morning after her installation. We had already, for the comfort of her clan, parted with all the available covers we could spare. She came seeking more. The maid brought me her name. I went into the parlor to receive her and to learn her errand. I take the liberty of reminding you that I was young and proud, with a traditional training and conventional pride.
In that curtained and rather sombre room, there sat Major Lobley, like a brilliant bit of sunshine. Before I knew what she was about, she was on her feet, had hold of both my hands, had kissed me on both cheeks, was holding me away from her a little, — a quick pleased gesture seen oftener on the stage than off it, — and was saying dazzlingly, ‘Sister! Are you saved?’
They tell me that even the bravest at the Marne were demoralized by the use of poisonous gases and other methods of warfare unknown, even undreamed of, by them; and a like panic is said to have seized the Germans at first sight of the British armored monsters which ploughed over the ground disdainful of every obstacle, taking their own tracks with them. Major Lobley attacked me in a fashion I had never before even dreamed of. She was carrying her own tracks with her. None of my own aforethought invulnerable defenses were of the least use. She had thrown down and traversed the most ancient barriers. She had attacked me in the very intrenchments of my oldest traditions. Where were dignity, convention, pride of place, custom of behavior, and other supposedly impregnable defenses? Where were distinctions of class, fortifications of good taste, intrenchments of haughtiness? Where were reserve and other iron and concrete and barbed-wire entanglements? I tell you, they were as though they were not! This glib inquiry about my soul routed me, demoralized me so completely that I do not even remember what I said. I only know that I fled precipitately for safety into the covert of the nearest subject. Was there anything she needed? And how could I serve her?
At this she was eager.
‘Well, I’ll tell you! We need another comfort. Darius needs a comfort for his mule. Darius is a good man and his soul is saved. Now could n’t you lend another comfort to the Lord?’
‘Yes,’ said I, in what now seems to me a kind of hypnotized state. ‘ I think I can find another for you.’ And I went myself and took it from my bed.
She received it with hallelujahs and went away beaming, assuring me as she went, and as on the authority of an ambassador, that I would certainly have my reward.
I make no apology for all this. I know well that I was the weak and routed one. I know that this gypsy from nowhere, with her lack of advantages and her Cinderella training among the ashes and dregs of life, had me at an astonishing disadvantage. I know that, while I stood by, in my futile pride, she went off unaccountably, in a spangled coach, as it were, carrying with her salvation and all the satisfaction in the world, happily possessed of the bed-covers without which I was to sleep somewhat chilly that night.
But I think it due to myself to say that this weakness on my part was not single. For weeks, months — as long as she stayed in the neighborhood — Major Lobley swayed people as by a spell. One would have sworn her drumstick was a wand. In theory, and out of her presence, we younger ones declared her presuming and impossible, but were reduced to serve her whenever she appeared. My mother and my elder sister, who were experienced and better judges, continued to give her and her thin ragged ranks daily help. Pans of biscuit, pots of soup, drifted in that northwesterly direction as by some gulf stream of sympathy which you might speculate and argue about all you liked, but whose course remained mystical and unchanged.
One point I must not fail to mention. I had worried somewhat concerning Darius’s mule. There was, I knew, no shelter for him save a tiny woodshed just about half his size. I pictured him standing there with only his forequarters or hindquarters sheltered, and the rest of him the sport of the elements and the biting weather. Needless anxiety; futile concern! I might have read a different fate for him in Orion and Pleiades! Such anxiety comes of thinking too meanly of life. Darius had a better opinion of it, and it may be with better cause. Perhaps he argued that a power that was able to save his soul was perfectly well able to look after his mule; and rendered expectant by this belief, Darius’s eyes saw what my less faithful ones would certainly have overlooked, namely, that the comfortable kitchen of the little house, with its sunshine and its neat wainscoting, made an ideal abiding-place for his friend. Here, therefore, positively benefiting by misfortune and like an animal in a fairy tale, the mule of Darius abode, and no doubt more comfortably than ever in his life before; and if his meals remained meagre, he was enabled to eke them out with a generous attention to the wainscoting.
You see! What can be said of a people like that, able to turn the most unlikely things to strange and immediate uses, for all the world as the fairy godmother did the pumpkin and the mice!
Here is, I am persuaded, something ancient and inherited, and acquired not in Major Lobley’s brief span; something, rather, dating back to gypsy centuries, God knows how many æons ago — something that had triumphed and ruled on countless occasions before now; some freedom, some innate selfapproval; some linking, it would almost seem, of the powers of poverty with the powers of the Deity.
Have it as you will, the finer appearance still clings to the improvident. They give you color and incident without your asking; they scatter romance and wonder with largesse, as kings. As mere memorable characters, were not the old blind man and Musgrove and Major Lobley worth the money and the anxiety they cost us? And who will contend that Darius’s tradition is not to be valued above a mere wainscoting and the cost of a few repairs?
I have long believed that Æsop needs rewriting in many instances, and very especially in that of ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant.’ What should be told — since Æsop’s creatures are intended to exemplify human behaviors and draw human morals — is how the Grasshopper spent the winter with the Ant, and ate up all the Ant’s preserves and marmalades, and fiddled nightly and gayly by the Ant’s fire, and managed somehow to make the Ant feel that the privilege had been all her own, to have labored long for the benefit of so interesting and so gifted a gentleman.
I can recall from time to time, all through my childhood and girlhood, that I and mine made a kind of festival of a like circumstance, and how gladly we toiled for the benefit of that class which might be said to winter perpetually on our sympathies. I do not allude merely to tableaux, fairs, private theatricals, musicales, and the like, given for the benefit of those who neither sowed nor gathered into barns. I would be afraid to say how many times, from my early years, I was for their sake a spangled fairy, a Queen Elizabeth court dame, an ‘Elaine,’ white, pallid, on a barge, dead of unrequited love, a Gainsborough or Romney portrait, or a Huguenot lady parting from her lover, or a demure ‘Priscilla,’ or a dejected ‘Mariana,’ or a shaken-kneed reciter of verses, or a trembling performer on the piano. I remember that there was a huge trunk in the old attic at home given over to nothing but amateur theatrical properties. I remember coming home often from dragging, wearisome rehearsals, how tired, but happy! What fun it was to toil and practice and rehearse and labor until your little bones ached ‘for the benefit of—!’
‘For the benefit of ’! I tell you it is a magic phrase! I remember my mother coming home again and again — from some charitable conclave I suppose — radiant and eager, as she so often was, to announce that we were once more to be permitted to labor in response to its magic. Once, after her attendance on some missionary meeting, it was conveyed to us that we were to be allowed to dress fifty dolls ‘for the benefit of’ as many gregarious little grasshoppers of Senegambia, to the end that their Christmas and our own should be the happier.
It had all the air of a fine adventure. It was a fine adventure. I really would not have missed it. Yet unless you have dressed, let us say, thirty dolls, and know that twenty more remain naked, you can hardly guess how dolldressmaking may hang heavy, even on the most eager fingers. I can still see them all in their pretty and varied dresses, ranged triumphant at last on top of the old square piano, that we might behold the labor of our hands — their feet straight ahead of them, their eyes fixed, staring but noncommittal, supposedly on Senegambia. It seems to me now a gay, even though at the same time a somewhat futile, thing to have done; but turn it as you will, the true privilege was ours.
We and our forebears, you see, had in perfect innocence laid by a few stores through the generations. We had preserved and retained certain standards and comfortable customs and conveniences of living; certain traditions too of education and treasures of understanding; by which token it became our privilege to entertain and provide for those cicada souls who had followed the more romantic profession of fiddling; and that we might have our privilege to the full, we were graciously permitted to set our preserves, not merely for the swarming grasshoppers of our own land: it was vouchsafed us to sustain and supply with dolls and other delights the appealing little grasshoppers of Senegambia.
Recalling all my childhood and girlhood experience with the poor, I am led by every path of logic to believe that they have some secret power of their own — some divine right and authority by which they rule, beside which the most ancient dynasties are but tricks of evanescence, and the infallibility of the Pope a mere political exigency. The powers they wield would seem to me unique. Show me a dictatorship, empire, oligarchy, system or suzerainty, seignory or pashawlic, which presides over and possesses anything commensurate with their realm; which sways and commands anything comparable to their wide dominion!
Will you show me any other people outside of the fairy-books who can put the most fearful calamity on like a cloak and doff it at. will, who can augment their families to seven or eight children overnight, and reduce them as readily to five or six the following day if it but seem to them advisable ? Where outside their ranks is there any one capable of persuading you that it is a privilege to sleep cold so that some Darius you never saw or care to see shall, he and his allegorical mule, go better warmed? Who else, being neither of your kith nor kin, has such power over you that, with a mere bloodshot eye and shiver of the shoulders, they can turn your automobile, your furs, your warmth, and all your pleasant pleasures into Dead Sea apples of discomfort? Or, did any of your own class, by merely playing ‘Ben Bolt,’raggedly and horribly off the key, under a grapearbor, exercise so great a power over you that, having given him what you had, you went awed and chastened of all vanity, and set his name in your prayers that night as the Church service does the king? Are these people of rank who can do this? Or will you still cling to your aristocracies?
It is likely that I shall be accused of sentimentality. Some will say that to talk of the power of the poor is but cruel irony. If I would speak wisely and not as one of the foolish women, let me live and work among the poor, or better still, be of them. This is the only way fairly to judge them.
I am of a like opinion; and am therefore resolved to ask you to let me speak of a later time, when I myself was poor, and of the wider knowledge of the powers of the poor which that circumstance afforded me. For, in my advantageous days, I was permitted only to serve the poor, the discouraged, the improvident; later, I was promoted to be, at least in a measure, of their fellowship.
(To be continued)