“I now returned to Rome, and was born into a very poor and numerous family, which, to be honest with you, procured its livelihood by begging. This, if you was never yourself of the calling, you do not know, I suppose, to be as regular a trade as any other; to have its several rules and secrets, or mysteries, which to learn require perhaps as tedious an apprenticeship as those of any craft whatever.
“The first thing we are taught is the countenance miserable. This indeed nature makes much easier to some than others; but there are none who cannot accomplish it, if they begin early enough in youth, and before the muscles are grown too stubborn.
“The second thing is the voice lamentable. In this qualification too, nature must have her share in producing the most consummate excellence: however, art will here, as in every other instance, go a great way with industry and application, even without the assistance of genius, especially if the student begins young.
“There are many other instructions, but these are the most considerable. The women are taught one practice more than the men, for they are instructed in the art of crying, that is, to have their tears ready on all occasions: but this is attained very easily by most. Some indeed arrive at the utmost perfection in this art with incredible facility.
“No profession requires a deeper insight into human nature than the beggar’s. Their knowledge of the passions of men is so extensive, that I have often thought it would be of no little service to a politician to have his education among them. Nay, there is a much greater analogy between these two characters than is imagined; for both concur in their first and grand principle, it being equally their business to delude and impose on mankind. It must be confessed that they differ widely in the degree of advantage which they make by their deceit; for, whereas the beggar is contented with a little, the politician leaves but a little behind.
“A very great English philosopher hath remarked our policy, in taking care never to address any one with a title inferior to what he really claims. My father was of the same opinion; for I remember when I was a boy, the pope happening to pass by, I tended him with ‘Pray, sir;’ ‘For God’s sake, sir;’ ‘For the Lord’s sake, sir;’ — To which he answered gravely, ‘Sirrah, sirrah, you ought to be whipped for taking the Lord’s name in vain;’ and in vain it was indeed, for he gave me nothing. My father, overhearing this, took his advice, and whipped me very severely. While I was under correction I promised often never to take the Lord’s name in vain any more. My father then said, ‘Child, I do not whip you for taking his name in vain; I whip you for not calling the pope his holiness.’
“If all men were so wise and good to follow the clergy’s example, the nuisance of beggars would soon be removed. I do not remember to have been above twice relieved by them during my whole state of beggary. Once was by a very well-looking man, who gave me a small piece of silver, and declared he had given me more than he had left himself; the other was by a spruce young fellow, who had that very day first put on his robes, whom I attended with ‘Pray, reverend sir, good reverend sir, consider your cloth.’ He answered, ‘I do, child, consider my office, and I hope all our cloth do the same.’ He then threw down some money, and strutted off with great dignity.
“With the women I had one general formulary: ‘Sweet pretty lady,’ ‘God bless your ladyship,’ ‘God bless your handsome face.’ This generally succeeded; but I observed the uglier the woman was, the surer I was of success.
“It was a constant maxim among us, that the greater retinue any one traveled with the less expectation we might promise ourselves from them; but whenever we saw a vehicle with a single or no servant we imagined our booty sure, and were seldom deceived.
“We observed great difference introduced by time and circumstance in the same person; for instance, a losing gamester is sometimes generous, but from a winner you will as easily obtain his soul as a single groat. A lawyer traveling from his country seat to his clients at Rome, and a physician going to visit a patient, were always worth asking; but the same on their return were (according to our cant phrase) untouchable.
“The most general, and indeed the truest, maxim among us was, that those who possessed the least were always the readiest to give. The chief art of a beggar-man is, therefore, to discern the rich from the poor, which, though it be only distinguishing substance from shadow, is by no means attainable without a pretty good capacity and a vast degree of attention; for these two are eternally industrious in endeavoring to counterfeit each other. In this deceit the poor man is more heartily in earnest to deceive you than the rich, who, amidst all the emblems of poverty which he puts on, still permits some mark of his wealth to strike the eye. Thus, while his apparel is not worth a groat, his finger wears a ring of value, or his pocket a gold watch. In a word, he seems rather to affect poverty to insult than impose on you. Now the poor man, on the contrary, is very sincere in his desire of passing for rich; but the eagerness of this desire hurries him to over-act his part, and he betrays himself as one who is drunk by his overacted sobriety. Thus, instead of being attended by one servant well mounted, he will have two; and, not being able to purchase or maintain a second horse of value, one of his servants at least is mounted on a hired rascallion. He is not contented to go plain and neat in his clothes; he therefore claps on some tawdry ornament, and what he adds to the fineness of his vestment he detracts from the fineness of his linen. Without descending into more minute particulars, I believe I may assert it as an axiom of indubitable truth, that whoever shows you he is either in himself or his equipage as gaudy as he can, convinces you he is more so than he can afford. Now, whenever a man’s expense exceeds his income, he is indifferent in the degree; we had therefore nothing more to do with such than to flatter them with their wealth and splendor, and were always certain of success.
“There is, indeed, one kind of rich man who is commonly more liberal, namely, where riches surprise him, as it were, in the midst of poverty and distress, the consequence of which is, I own, sometimes excessive avarice, but oftener extreme prodigality. I remember one of these who, having received a pretty large sum of money, gave me, when I begged an obolus, a whole talent; on which his friend having reproved him, he answered, with an oath, ‘Why not? Have I not fifty left?’
“The life of a beggar, if men estimated things by their real essence, and not by their outward false appearance, would be, perhaps, a more desirable situation than any of those which ambition persuades us, with such difficulty, danger, and often villainy, to aspire to. The wants of a beggar are commonly as chimerical as the abundance of a nobleman; for besides vanity, which a judicious beggar will always apply to with wonderful efficacy, there are in reality very few natures so hardened as not to compassionate poverty and distress, when the predominancy of some other passion doth not prevent them.
“There is one happiness which attends money got with ease, namely, that it is never hoarded; otherwise, as we have frequent opportunities of growing rich, that canker care might prey upon our quiet, as it doth on others; but our money stock we spend as fast as we acquire it; usually at least, for I speak not without exception; thus it gives us mirth only, and no trouble. Indeed, the luxury of our lives might introduce diseases, did not our daily exercise prevent them. This gives us an appetite and relish for our dainties, and at the same time an antidote against the evil effects which sloth, united with luxury, induces on the habit of a human body. Our women we enjoy with ecstasies at least equal to what the greatest men feel in their embraces. I can, I am assured, say of myself, that no mortal could reap more perfect happiness from the tender passion than my fortune had decreed me. I married a charming young woman for love; she was the daughter of a neighboring beggar, who, with an improvidence too often seen, spent a very large income which he procured by his profession, so that he was able to give her no fortune down; however, at his death he left her a very well accustomed begging-hut, situated on the side of a steep hill, where travelers could not immediately escape from us, and a garden adjoining, being the twenty-eighth part of an acre, well planted.
“She made the best of wives, bore me nineteen children, and never failed, unless on her lying-in, which generally lasted three days, to get my supper ready against my return home in an evening; this being my favorite meal, and at which I, as well as my whole family, greatly enjoyed ourselves; the principal subject of our discourse being generally the boons we had that day obtained, on which occasions, laughing at the folly of the donors made no inconsiderable part of the entertainment; for, whatever might be their motive for giving, we constantly imputed our success to our having flattered their vanity, or overreached their understanding.
“But perhaps I have dwelt too long on this character; I shall conclude, therefore, with telling you that after a life of 102 years’ continuance, during all which I had never known any sickness or infirmity but that which old age necessarily induced, I at last, without the least pain, went out like the snuff of a candle.
“Minos, having heard my history, bid me compute, if I could, how many lies I had told in my life. As we are here, by a certain fated necessity, obliged to confine ourselves to truth, I answered, I believed about 50,000,000. He then replied, with a frown, ‘Can such a wretch conceive any hopes of entering Elysium?’ I immediately turned about, and, upon the whole, was rejoiced at his not calling me back.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08