The Poor Idiot In Tuscany
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
BEGGARS are one of the great charms of existence in Tuscany. They are picturesque, cheery, well-mannered; superlative actors; superb studies in the physiological and psychological aspects of poverty; accomplished and varied conversationalists; and they have withal a wealth and power of benediction so strong and efficacious, that it really seems to bear fruit in your own most hungry and poverty-stricken soul.
At first you remember the dignity and the irrefragability of the maxims of Anglo-Saxon political economy, and angrily resent all beggars; in return they give you unpaid lessons in bonhomie and good manners; and in the end you succumb to them. They serve their purposes. They help to keep alive in you the good habit of indiscriminate giving which Poor Laws and Charity Organisations are apt to choke out of your soul under the leaden skies of Cockneydom. They make so much of you, too; they have such a happy way of making you feel your own honour and dignity, that you begin to bless Will Shakespeare for having taught you that a man's best deserts still merit him a whipping, and the less men deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. And so, naturally, you begin to use them after your own honour and dignity, and the honour and dignity of a well-conditioned gentleman seem to require that he should give a two-centime piece to every tattered rascal who asks an alms of him. I f you have not got it, say, Non c'ho nulls, pover'uomo:—un allra voila—I've not got anything, poor fellow—another day—and you may pass on your way without further molestation and be sure of the same fervent blessing as if you had given. Or—what the beggar much prefers—you may say that you have nothing less than a twenty-centime piece of nickel or a one-lira note, and he will fish up the exact change for you from the secrets of his spacious, well-filled pockets.
Of course the system of unblushing beggary would never answer among Teutons or Saxons or Scandinavians: among them people would take to it simply because it paid. Few Tuscans are so degraded as to take to it merely because it is profitable: beggars are composed of a small class of the generally unregenerate, of another small class who have lacked the moral grit to grapple with adversity, and of a large class that is physically so disabled as to be incapable of work. There is really no great harm in Tuscan mendicancy: it keeps the workhouses emptier. People do not grudge their do it: it helps to keep down the rates and check municipal prodigality.
My favourite beggar is a person of unusual intelligence, who has the barefaced impudence to call himself "the poor idiot" (ii povero scemo). Perhaps it is not so very barefaced after all, for with long practice and a rare skill he has acquired the make-up, gait, speech, and general deportment of a hopeless, drivelling imbecile, and that with an art so consummate that no practised actor could ever hope to touch him on his own ground. His walk alone must have taken a world of thinking out. He shuffles, of course, but in a series of serpentine curves that baffle description. He is on and off the pavement every half-second, always with the same meandering, tortuous, shuffling gait. Often you expect to see him knocked down by some wild careering cab, but a con-volution occurs at the saving moment, and he grins from the gutter at the departing charioteer. His grin is, perhaps, the most effective feature of his stock-in-trade; he grins idiotically all across his grimy visage, he grins with his eyes and with the lines about his eyes, he grins with his large nostrils and lop-ears, and with his wrinkled intellectual brow. Ordinarily he carries a rickety basket filled with meaningless billets and chips of wood; at other times, slung over his shoulder, a sooty sable sack, into the depths of which no man has ever penetrated or cared to spy. He munches much: a full mouth adds pertinency to his idiot mutterings, and imbecility to his multifold grin. In short, as he squats there, basking in the Tuscan sun, crooning his witless drivel, munching and mumbling and railing on Lady Fortune in set crazy terms, he seems the perfect portrait of a blinking idiot and lunatic lean-witted fool.
For a good full year I believed him to be a genuine addlepate. One day his sense of humour threw him momentarily off his guard, and I discovered that he was really a creature with a more than ordinary stock of native mother-wit. I had rung the bell at my door and was waiting in the street for admittance, when the "poor idiot" gyrated down upon me with his snuffling, " Spare a centesimo for the poor idiot, signore!"
" Let us see," I said, feeling in my ticket-pocket, "whether I have anything for the poor blind man" (cieco). The mistake was inadvertent quite.
" Idiot, signore, idiot!" (scemo) he answered reproachfully, correcting me. And then I knew and saw for the first time that he was no idiot. I saw that he read and understood the look in my eyes, and I read and understood the look in his eyes, and saw to the full that he enjoyed the jest of preferring idiocy to blindness and of reproving me for attributing to him physical infirmity rather than mental.
"Why, thou rascal! " I cried, "thou'rt no idiot at all! "
" Ma sissignore, sissignore! I have ever been weak in the wits."
"Not a bit of it! 'Tis I who am the greater idiot for having thought thee a veritable imbecile all this long while!"
" Ma nossignore, no signoria! Indeed I am a bit deficient!"
" And I am the greater idiot," I continued, "for that I slave and work whilst thou enjoyest in full idleness the luxury of playing the fool!"
The "fiovero scemo" was hugely tickled, and grinned all over his foolish face. I gave him a piece of nickel to show him that I should not withdraw my patronage because he was no real idiot. Indeed I have since then much increased my alms for the sake of bandying words with this exquisite fool. But on our next meeting he had assumed again his skilfully contrived mask of imbecility, and he seldom lets it fall.
It is a delightful sensation to call a man an idiot and yet know all the while that you are paying him a compliment sweet to his ears and advantageous to his walk in life. We engage in a very subtly conceived badinage: I rail at imbecility in the full pride of my right wits, he with maudlin good-humour mocks at the fancied boon of sanity. A " deep contemplative " fool, he affects to think my sanity as much an acquired art as his own idiocy, and much less well done. Hence it follows that I should have proved the better actor if I had essayed the role of shallow-brain instead of the staid, pharisaical part of rational sage. But all this is conveyed by looks and grins and a fatuous treatment of my questions; it is seldom that I catch him in the babbling mood, when he moralises on the times, apishly, but with sagacity and keen racy humour. He does not forget that he has a part to play, that I know too much already, that I may turn traitor and betray him, and take out of his mouth the bread that he contrives to earn by the want of his wits.
Of course the " povero scemo " is a very reprehensible person. I suppose him to be a creature with a more than ordinary loathing for manual labour, and with intellectual faculties that he has not known how to use for the want of instruction. Being able-bodied he could not long beg with success, if he were also compos mentis; and so to keep body and soul together in inglorious ease, he feigns to be diseased in his wits. This I take it is the true inner history of the unprincipled rascal; but who that for half a do it can revel with him in all the luxury of fine-drawn paradox would wish him clapped under the hatches of a workhouse or set to breaking stones upon the road? Of an infinite cunning and natural good manners, he molests no man and conciliates the police, and in his begging he is unostentatious and free from all persistency. And so being at the same time irredeemable and harmless, it is surely better for the humbling of our pride that he should continue to sit on the doorsteps, railing at vainglorious sanity and mumbling the praises of despised imbecility.