Adventures in Indigence: Iv. Horatio
THAT the poor have strange, one might almost say occult, powers, seems to me proved. The downtrodden with whom I dealt were, so far as I could judge, the very pies and daws of existence, who, one might reasonably suppose, would be grateful for whatever hips and haws and other chance berries the bleak winter of their calamities left them. Nothing could be further from the truth. They lived, rather, it would seem, on canary seed and millet, maize and sesame, not obtainable in the open markets of the world. I fell under the strange delusion that they were to labor for me, and that, for a wage agreed upon, they were to relieve me of care. Again, how wide of the mark was this! They expected to be looked after like queen bees, and they were! I myself laboring from flower to flower for them, and filling their cells with honey.
You may think them as stupid as you like and as inconsiderable. Deal with them but long enough, and you shall have strange suspicions. You shall begin to note a growing and undeniable likeness in these to Cinderella and ‘The Youngest Brother.’ Nor are these fairy tales, mind you, safe and unbelievable, shut up there in your Grimm and Andersen on the shelf, to be taken down only at pleasure; no, but fairy tales potent and indisputable, hoeing your potatoes, walking, about in the flesh in your kitchen, and hanging out your clothes of a Monday.
It is astounding, if one only becomes poor enough, — I say it in all soberness and sincerity, — how rich and powerful one may become. And perhaps just here it is my duty to submit a testimony I have up to this time withheld. I have said that I myself have been poor, but I have as yet said nothing of the strange unlooked-for loftiness that this circumstance lent me. While I was of the wealthy, I strongly maintained that these, and what we are wont to call the ‘upper classes,’ have the very considerable advantage, and believed it with all my heart. But no sooner was I downright poor, uncertain even where the next meals were to come from, than the potion, the charm, the necromancy, the delusion, or the truth, —have it which you will!— began to work, and I myself to have a subtle suspicion, and at last a positive sense, of superiority.
He knows ye not, ye heavenly powers!
The wealthy, the advantageous began to dwindle in my eyes. How poor they were in real experience, in sympathy, in understanding; how wanting in fine feeling; how destitute, for the most part, of that only wealth worth acquiring—wealth of the heart! — whereas, the poorer I was, the greater the wealth of understanding that was mine; as my moneys dwindled, I was made rich of the universe; a new sense of love and bounty were given me as by an unlooked-for legacy. The vast tired multitude going home at night, all these suddenly were my own — my brothers and my sisters; further, it may be noted, I acquired the wealthy also. These too became my brothers, more chill and starved sometimes (I knew this now) in their luxuries than the ’poor’ in their destitution. Could one, indeed, knowing any of the real values, feel a bitterness toward such ? or could one fail to experience, having known any of the true humilities of life, a love for these also?
Let it sound as paradoxical as it may, — I do not say it unadvisedly, — poverty is an enrichment, and often enough a grandeur. Here, indeed, in this fact — I think it by no means unlikely — may lie the explanation of many a humorously high behavior and lordliness in those of whom I have more particularly told. If this be truth, as I take it to be, then it lends consistency, even if a little quaint, to what threatened to seem but unwarrantable chaos.
Is it not probable, remembering my own experience, that Musgrove, Mamie, Margaret, and the others had with their very indigence acquired a compensating fortune and, by reason of their very destitution, inherited as a legacy the universe? It should not be forgotten, moreover, that I had come to these distinctions only after years of comfortable living, whereas those I have told you of had been born to the purple of their poverty. I, in serving others, have never yet been able to give myself the ample airs of a Margharetta. I have never found it possible to pull pennies out of peoples’ pockets by the Æschylean tragedy of my condition, nor to draw pity at will out of their hearts. I am smitten with silence when trouble and difficulty assail me, and I have an intolerable instinct against asking for the sympathy and commiseration of others; whereas those better accustomed than myself, — as I have shown you, — how readily are they able to requisition your sympathy, to appropriate wholly your pity, and to confiscate your possessions and your ethics! How easily, as I have borne testimony, can they set aside social customs and laws which the less privileged of us dare not ignore; can be married, for instance, without clerk or benefit of clergy — rather, after the manner of the owl and the pussy cat, by the mere procuring of a ring; can protect their children from drowning with canton-flannel charms; can preserve their faith unspoiled despite the most blasting circumstances; are on such easy terms with the Deity that they speak of her whom the poetic and devout prefer to name ‘Star of the Deep,’and ‘Queen of Heaven,’as the Deity’s ‘Maw-ma’; can at will, like prestidigitators or after the manner of a Mamie, by a mere turn of the hand make your conscientious resolves vanish; can draw pity out of the place where solemn indignation should have been, as magicians rabbits out of a silk hat; can carry off your much needed linen and have it look like a favor!
And we, mind you, in the face of these abilities, have assumed them to be our inferiors, and have organized for them frankly a society for the improvement of their condition! That we can mitigate their sufferings and inconveniences, lessen their cold or their hunger, I willingly admit; but I am not of so bold an intellect as to believe that we can improve their condition, or that their condition, take it for all in all, can be improved upon.
If you doubt such testimony as I have borne, and think it too personal, there is other more general and considerable. Were not Egypt and all her power despised and triumphed over by ‘a colony of revolted Egyptian slaves’? Did not proud Rome go down, also, to a like downtrodden people? Picture what Rome was in her might — Rome tracing her ancestry to the gods! And then look upon her bowed down in slavish subserviency to kiss the shoe of a poor fisherman!
And the poor then, who called themselves Christians — as now you would have called them underlings, menials, subalterns. Yes, and so they were. And they lived precariously in caves and catacombs under the surveillance of the emperor’s guards, as our most scurvy poor under the police. Yet see them to-day, with dominion over palm and pine, and with control of the earth’s continents. And where now are the Roman emperors?
History teems with such instances. With what scorn do you suppose the mighty Persians in their glittering armor might have looked upon those few youths who in the dawn ‘sat combing their long hair for death’ before Marathon? When the nameless poor murmured outside the gates of Versailles, what would any of us have given for the brief lineage or trumpery royalty of a Marie or a Louis? It would not have sold for a franc to any one with a head for business. Even as these poor people shook the gates, almost the haughtiest queen of history was already on her way, then, and at their bidding, to become the Widow Capet. And that, too, for only a little while, and by sufferance, before they hurried her on to the last level of all.
There may seem to be about them at first a marked futility. Only wait, and you shall see what a power they have! Is there need that they should pique or plume themselves or strut? They have no need to cut a dash. The herald’s office could add nothing to their stature. Here is no newness or recency, no innovation; here rather are tradition, custom, something time-honored, however little you may think it venerable. Here is immemorial usage, ‘whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.’
And have these continued in the world in predominating numbers, despite misfortune, calamity, catastrophe? No; mind you, rather because of these! Think of a race with that ability ! Since Cain fell into misfortune and was shielded of the Almighty, and Lazarus, for a like reason, lacked not a divine advocate, have these not had the special protection of God? Can you show me any people of lands and property, of thrift and saving habits, of full granaries and honest provident stores laid by, who were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night? who had manna and quail supplied them; and an entire land swept clean of its rightful owners by the Lord’s hand, so that they might come into it instead, to enjoy the wells they had not digged, and the fruits thereof which neither had they planted?
Were it not of too great a bulk, the testimony of literature could be brought to corroborate that of history. When you read The Jolly Beggars, you are informed without squeamishness which is the most free and powerful class in the world; and when you have read that other document by the same hand, The Twa Dogs, you have perused a fine bit of testimony as to which is the happiest. Or if there lacked these and there were left us but Arden and its gentle beggars — who could be in doubt? How they triumph over the rich and the successful and lord it felicitously in their poverty! What would you look to find these but broken and saddened — these who are not only beggars, mind you, but wronged men: the Duke, Orlando, Rosalind, all suffering injustice; Adam starving; Touchstone, Jaques, Amiens, and for the most part all of them, too well acquainted with the rudeness of the world; men who had known but too well the unkindness of man’s ingratitude, the feigning of most friendship, the bitterness of benefits forgot. And yet, turn only to that first scene in the forest. If ever I set eyes on independent gentlemen, here they are! And who doubts too, reading of these, that Shakespeare wrote of them out of his own Arden, out of the enrichment of his own poverty, and the splendors of his unsuccessful years!
The powers of the poor! This is a matter to which I have often lent my speculation, and have striven to perceive by what rights, as of gods in exile, they have maintained their dignity and their supremacy; and I have wondered whether one of these may not be that necessity laid upon them to touch more nearly than we the realities of life. We have set guards at our gateways to turn away Poverty or Misery or Cold or Hunger, yes, and Human Brotherhood and Life and Death themsel ves. Death, it is true, and some others, will not be altogether gainsaid, but enter at last into the lives of all of us, bringing invariably — this is to be noted — a great, dignity to the house which they have visited. But to the poor the ‘heavenly powers’ come, whether welcome or no, and like the gods visiting mortals, they do not depart, save from the entirely unworthy, without bestowing enrichment.
I have sat at the table of an old Philemon and Baucis, whose condition of poverty appeared not to be bettered by their entertainment of the great realities of life; whose pitcher poured as scant as ever it did, though Death and Calamity had but lately visited them. But when you thirsted for a better draught, a draught not to sustain the body, but the spirit — then, then the miracle was evident enough! They filled your cup to its trembling brim, nor — pour as they would — could they empty their hearts of love and understanding.
These are indeed good gifts, and of the gods, and there are many others; and it would take little to prove how much more bountifully the poor receive of them than the wealthier classes.
Another possession, which I have noted often among the poor, is that gayety, that lightness of heart, that almost inconsequent gayety, so often seen, amazingly, among them. Where you and I might be crushed by calamity, they can raise their heads and be glad, and that over some trifle. Where you might have gone sad and sober for weeks, Mamie could dance her little ragtime songs; Margaret could be gay with the pig; and Margharetta, fresh from a new downfall, could gather the children of her heart to her as a hen its chickens, and in blissful content think nothing of the morrow. This I have seen again and again. They arc as recuperative as King David. Let them sin and blunder and suffer and be cast down, it is but for a brief season; soon you shall hear the plucking of their harp and the sound of their psaltery, and a new song unto the Lord.
As further testimony, this is, I believe, the place to confess that it was not in the days of my prosperity and happiness, but in the days of my poverty and sorrow, that I myself became possessed of this good gift of the gods. The laughter and gayety of heart of prosperous years, though they may be of no mean order, seem to me but pallid things compared with those of a more tested season. To have seen the total wreckage of one’s hopes, to have known despair and the bleak winds of the heath of the world, and to delight still, and more than ever, in the little and the gay, and to taste with a keener relish than ever before the fine-flavored humor of the world, this is to be rich though one were in tatters; this is to be gifted though to the last farthing one has been robbed.
But there is another endowment besides all these, even more precious — I mean that unconscious grace and dignity of spirit possessed by some of the poor; I mean that quiet and gracious acceptance of a lot which to our reckoning seems but bare and difficult; that gentle and persistent kindliness of men and women toward a world which, it seems to us, has so roughly and despitefully used them.
This I take to be the greatest of the gifts that the gods confer upon the poor; and being so, it is fitting that it should not be indiscriminately bestowed. You shall not meet it commonly or often; yet here or there will be found some true ruler of his kind, looking out on the world with this kindly and gracious spirit. I have known some few such myself, and one notably.
I saw him first selling papers by a subway entrance. The day was cold, and he had that peculiarly pinched look of those who are both iil-nourished anti ill-clad; and yet you could not without presumption have called him pitiful. There was a kind of simple grandeur about him which I am at a loss adequately to describe: a thing rather to be embodied in myth and legend.
The ‘envy of the gods’ has been variously set out in tale and story. Prometheus defying divinity is a moving enough figure, hurling curses back at his superior, and visited by Asia, Panthea, and the nymphs and Oceanides. But it would need a new legend, it seems to me, to embody that loftiness which, in a similar bondage, hurls no curses, breathes no complaint, nor asks even to be spared, if that be possible; a gentleness which, without the least leaning to humility, preserves a generous outlook, triumphant in its persistent kindliness as Prometheus in his unconquered might; unbroken, unlowered; bound, yet attaining somehow to a continued generosity and bestowed.
It might seem, by the look of this man, that Fate had come to hate one she could so little bend; for not only was he ragged and pinched, but there was about his delicate face and the great slenderness of the body, only too certainly, the mark of some physical ravage, and of an overborne endurance. To the casual observer, he was but a man selling newspapers at the entrance to the subway; to those of thoughtful and speculative observation, he was a man standing within a few feet of his grave, and likely at almost any moment to feel on his shoulder, or dimly on his chilly hand, the summoning touch of Hermes, Leader of Souls.
There was about him a most amiable patience and courtesy which had not at all the color of resignation. Indeed, to speak of resignation in his case would have been to impute to him riches and hopes he had not. I can give you no idea how much more courteous he seemed than his destiny. The only Asia who ever visited him, I am sure, was a woman, fat and comfortable-looking, who sold papers also, at the other end of the subway entrance, behind the shelter of its glass. She used to come over sometimes while I was buying my paper of him, to ask him to make change, blowing on her hands in a wholesome manner, or beating her arms like a cabby. That she never sympathized with him, I felt sure, not alone because of the general look and contour of her, but because — as I have tried to show you — he was not the man to whom one would presume to tender sympathy.
As I came to know him better, I began to take the keenest pleasure in his smile, which was always ready. He never let the salutation go at a mere ‘good-morning.’ To my banal ‘Pretty cold to-day!’ he would reply smiling, and even while turning his shoulder to receive the cut of the wind less directly, ‘Yes, but bracing’; or, while his blue fingers fumbled for change, ‘Not quite so cold as yesterday’; or it was, ‘Well, the children like snow for Christmas’; or, ‘This snow will give work to the poor, cleaning the streets’; or, if the white flakes turned to threads of rain, ‘This will save the city a great deal.’
There never was any bravado in this, only the incomparable gentleness and the winning smile. If Fate lingered about, malicious, hoping to hear him at last complain, she might as well have given over her eavesdropping. I, going to him for the daily Times, and not infrequently with a tired spirit and a heavy heart, would find that, in return for my penny, he had given me, not only the morning paper, but a new courage, or a heartening and precious shame of my own discouragement, or, oftener still, a new faith in the world. So it was that he stood there, day after day, in the freezing weather, dispensing these benefits, a peculiar and moving royalty legible in his person.
If those who read of him here pity him, it can only be because my words give but such a poor idea of his great dignity. Those who saw him with a clear eye, could they pity him, do you think? And I — I who had cried out more than once, under how much less provocation, against the duress of fortune — was it my right to give him commiseration? Marry, heaven forbid! Again and again, as I went from him, my mind suggested, rather, noble likenesses, and sought to find some simile to match him. Once it was, ‘The gods go in low disguises’; again, ‘Great spirits now on earth are sojourning’; and once the words of Amiens, addressed to the Duke, seemed to me to blend in with his behaviors: —
That can translate the stubbornness of fortune
Into so quiet and so sweet a style.’
And again, I thought once that the royal Dane, addressing Horatio, offered me words befitting: —
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing;
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Has ta’en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well com-
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please.’
One day I bought him a pair of woolen gloves, and all the way to his corner I kept rehearsing an absurd speech of presentation, designed to relieve both him and me of embarrassment. He must not know that I had bought them for him! I wanted to spare myself that! So, I concocted what is currently known as a ‘cock-andbull’ story; but, as I look back on it and its results, I lean to believing that I never perpetrated a finer bit of fiction, I give it now without shame.
‘My husband,’ said I, fumbling for my penny, ‘ has been very ill — a long while.’
‘ Well, now, I’m sorry! ’ said Horatio gravely, and without the least wonder, apparently, why this should have been proffered.
‘And the doctors think,’ I stumbled on, digging in my purse, ‘there’s no likelihood in the world at all he will be out of his bed before the summer.’
‘Ah, that’s very hard for a man if he’s active,’ said Horatio, speaking with full sympathy as of one who knew.
‘And so,’ said I, putting my penny in his hand, taking the Times, and mentally beshrewing me the clumsiness of language, ‘ and so, you see,’— here I brought them forth, — ‘there’s a pair of gloves of his he won’t have even the chance to wear; and they’re almost as good as new, and — I just thought — may be —’
Here words deserted me. I appealed directly to his eyes. These were fixed, kind and gray, on the gloves. He was already taking them.
‘Indeed, I’d like very much to wear them,’ he said, ‘but I’m sorry he can’t be wearing them himself. May be he’ll be well sooner than you think, though. Sickness is a bad thing. These are very warm,’ — this with his delightful smile, and he began drawing one of them on, — ‘I’m very much obliged. But may be he’ll be well sooner than you think. I’m sure I hope so.’
It was a busy morning. The early subway was pouring forth its crowds as an early chimney, just started, its smoke. I was glad to mingle and fade among them.
The next morning, he was ready, may be even a little eager, as I approached. He had my paper doubled and waiting for me, and waiting too, his gentle inquiry, ‘Is he better?’
‘Yes,’ said I, ‘I think so — a little.’
Some one else wanted a paper and we said no more. But each day after that he asked me, and I gave him a cautious, not too enthusiastic report, for my patient must remain indoors till sharp weather and all possible need of gloves were past. So, he was only a little better. I took pains once to add, ‘ A long illness is very discouraging.’
‘That it is,’ Horatio assented. ‘But you’ll forget that when he’s well.’
So we continued in our courtesies and our sympathies; I very pleased and hardly conscience-stricken, to have been able to give him what I knew he must have cherished a good deal more than the gloves, something, indeed, for the warming of his heart — the chance, say rather the right, to extend his so experienced sympathy, and the opportunity to give, to one in need of them, some of the stored-up riches of his spirit. So, his own days growing short, and the shadow of his own cares lengthening, he yet smiled daily, as he gave me of these riches, and wished me a happy sunrise of my hopes and a goodmorrow.
One day he was not there. His fine spirit had fared forth. I can still feel the shock and sudden loss it was to me. I went over to Asia, or Panthea, selling her papers, and questioned her. Was he ill?
‘He went very sudden, ma’am, I believe. His wife came to say so. I’m selling his papers now. What will you have? The Times?'
Hermes, the kindly, had beckoned him from his ‘undefeated, undishonored field,’ and he had gone, eager and gentle there, too, I have no doubt.
It was but a little while that I knew him, but the influence of him abides. He has lent something to life which even the least noble cannot take from it. The sorry old derelict, his poor old red lantern eyes looking out of his dark face, when I give him a dole, receives it not from me, I think, after all, but from some gentleness which Horatio lends me as a legacy.
Although I have spoken of them throughout with lightness, and have laughed at their amazing follies, yet I know well that there is a solemnity forever attendant upon the poor. There is without doubt some unexpected endowment in suffering and privation, some surprising enrichment in the common lot. Have it as you will, there is no honor so high, or distinction so covetable, as to be a sharer of human joys and sorrows, and an intimate, even though it be in misery and solitude, of the hearts of men; and to this brotherhood, sharing the common lot, the poor undeniably contribute by far the greater numbers.
The grandeurs of the wealthy are but a brief pageant. The beggar who looks on, as did Horatio, at this pageant, without envy, and who, looking on, gives a gentle patronage to the rich, does so not without warrant. The greater splendors and possessions are his own. Let them decorate their stately halls; let them transport, as I have known them to do, entire ceilings from Venetian palaces, tapestries from chambers of those who also long ago once were great — the glory of the sun will not be subsidized, the halls of the morning are lit with unmatchable splendors, and the palace chambers of the night are hung by mightier ministrants with tapestries of a finer weave, and ceiled with stars for the more vagrant and the vagabond who shall sleep some day beneath them, without monument and unremembered.
Do not these know life more nearly? Who has flattered them? Who has shielded them from infancy, from the great powers? Who has defended them? Have not these, like Œdipus and other kings’ sons, been exposed upon the very rocks of time; and have they not survived that circumstance? Sorrow and Death have dealt with them more nearly, and without ambassadors. They have had audience with reality; they have talked with Life without interpreters.
He who loves this world, and has found it good on such terms, may be allowed his reasonable preference; he who speaks fondly still of life, who has had such communings, may speak with some authority. Horatio’s smile was worth the pleasantness and optimism of a thousand who have never made change with blue fingers, or shrunk from the cut of the cold.
And if you tell me that none but a sentimentalist would call poverty an enrichment, then I can only assume that you have never been poor; and if you tell me that the high behavior of Horatio is at the best but endurance, even then, could I grant you so much, the argument still would hold. Even so, Horatio endured life with a noble grace, and helped others to do so; even so, he was able still to find pleasure in a fate from which the wealthy would shrink in horror, and lovable traits in one they would have called his bitterest enemy. He had blessed the life which had cursed him, and had loved it though it had despitefully used him.
So he triumphed — yet without pride; nor did one hear in his spirit’s victory any hint of animosity, or talk of reprisals, or bitterness, or demand for indemnities, or hidden hate. Rather, he was to be found each day undefeated in his impregnable gentleness, that still unfallen province in which he dwelt. His were some incalculable riches of the spirit which Poverty had heaped up and amassed for him through those years when his fingers handled without complaint the miserable pennies; his was some towering strength under the disguise of the weak and broken body; like that Olympian glory fabled inevitably to appear some time, under the mortal humility of gods in exile. There was about him, for all his slenderness, something grand, something epic, and allegorical. He might have stood as a symbol of a downtrodden people, such nations as the world (be it said to our shame) sees still, and that not in small numbers — crushed, oppressed by the arrogant, the strong, yet still surviving and giving to the other nations their gifts of gay song or heroic endurance, and out of an incredible bounty still bestowing love and kindness and beauty on the world which has behaved toward them without mercy.
Look, if you will, at the beggar nations of the world, and search the heart of the poor among peoples, and I am convinced that you will find in these also corroborative evidence of truths I have tried here to touch upon but lightly. Let be their follies and their mistakes and all their incredible assumptions: who shall declare that poverty has not enriched them likewise?
And among them, shall you not find high and royal and single spirits, who, like Horatio, have both known and loved the world and triumphed over it without animosity? To have known and loved the world! Is not this the true test after all, and the indisputable mark of a king’s son? And shall you not find it oftener among the poor than elsewhere? For he cannot be said to know the world who has never been at its mercy; as only he can be said to have triumphed over it who, having suffered all things at its hands, yet loves it with unconquerable fidelity.