Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The King of the Beggars
By William Wetmore Story (1819–1895)
From ‘Roba di Roma’

DIRECTLY above the Piazza di Spagna, and opposite to the Via de’ Condotti, rise the double towers of the Trinità de’ Monti. The ascent to them is over one hundred and thirty-five steps, planned with considerable skill, so as to mask the steepness of the Pincian, and forming the chief feature of the Piazza. Various landings and dividing walls break up their monotony; and a red-granite obelisk, found in the gardens of Sallust, crowns the upper terrace in front of the church. All day long these steps are flooded with sunshine, in which, stretched at length, or gathered in picturesque groups, models of every age and both sexes bask away the hours when they are free from employment in the studios. Here in a rusty old coat, and long white beard and hair, is the “Padre Eterno”; so called from his constantly standing as model for the First Person of the Trinity in religious pictures. Here is the ferocious bandit, with his thick black beard and conical hat; now off duty, and sitting with his legs wide apart, munching in alternate bites an onion which he holds in one hand, and a lump of bread which he holds in the other. Here is the contadina, who spends her studio life in praying at a shrine with upcast eyes, or lifting to the Virgin her little sick child, or carrying a perpetual copper vase to the fountain, or receiving imaginary bouquets at a Barmecide carnival. Here is the invariable pilgrim, with his scallop-shell, who has been journeying to St. Peter’s and reposing by the way near aqueducts or broken columns so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary; and who is now fast asleep on his back, with his hat pulled over his eyes. When strangers come along, the little ones run up and thrust out their hands for baiocchi; and so pretty are they with their large, black, lustrous eyes, and their quaint, gay dresses, that a new-comer always finds something in his pocket for them. Sometimes a group of artists passing by will pause and steadily examine one of these models, turn him about, pose him, point out his defects and excellences, give him a baiocco, and pass on. It is, in fact, a models’ exchange.  1
  All this is on the lower steps, close to the Piazza di Spagna; but as one ascends to the last platform, before reaching the upper piazza in front of the Trinità de’ Monti, a curious squat figure, with two withered and crumpled legs, spread out at right angles and clothed in long blue stockings, comes shuffling along on his knees and hands, which are protected by clogs. As it approaches, it turns suddenly up from its quadrupedal position; takes off its hat; shows a broad, stout, legless torso, with a vigorous chest and a ruddy face, as of a person who has come half-way up from below the steps through a trap-door, and with a smile whose breadth is equaled only by the cunning which lurks round the corners of the eyes, says, in the blandest and most patronizing tones, with a rising inflection, “Buon giorno, signore! Oggi fa bel tempo,” or “fa cattivo tempo,” as the case may be. This is no less a person than Beppo, King of the Beggars, and Baron of the Scale di Spagna. He is better known to travelers than the Belvedere Torso of Hercules at the Vatican; and has all the advantage over that wonderful work, of having an admirable head and a good digestion. Hans Christian Andersen has celebrated him in ‘The Improvisatore,’ and unfairly attributed to him an infamous character and life; but this account is purely fictitious, and is neither vero nor ben trovato. Beppo, like other distinguished personages, is not without a history. The Romans say of him, “Era un signore in paese suo”—“He was a gentleman in his own country”; and this belief is borne out by a certain courtesy and style in his bearing which would not shame the first gentleman in the land. He was undoubtedly of a good family in the provinces, and came to Rome while yet young to seek his fortune. His crippled condition cut him off from any active employment, and he adopted the profession of a mendicant as being the most lucrative and requiring the least exertion. Remembering Belisarius, he probably thought it not beneath his own dignity to ask for an obolus. Should he be above doing what a great general had done? However this may be, he certainly became a mendicant, after changing his name; and steadily pursuing this profession for more than a quarter of a century, by dint of his fair words, his bland smiles, and his constant “Fa buon tempo,” and “Fa cattivo tempo,”—which, together with his withered legs, were his sole stock in starting,—he has finally amassed a very respectable little fortune. He is now about fifty-five years of age; has a wife and several children; and a few years ago, on the marriage of a daughter to a very respectable tradesman, he was able to give her what was considered in Rome a very respectable dowry. The other day, a friend of mine met a tradesman of his acquaintance running up the Spanish steps.  2
  “Where are you going in such haste?” he inquired.  3
  “To my banker.”  4
  “To your banker? But what banker is there above the steps?”  5
  “Only Beppo,” was the grave answer. “I want sixty scudi, and he can lend them to me without difficulty.”  6
  “Really?”  7
  “Of course. Come vi pare?” said the other, as he went on to his banker.  8
  Beppo hires his bank—which is the upper platform of the steps—of the government, at a small rent per annum; and woe to any poor devil of his profession who dares to invade his premises! Hither, every day at about noon, he comes mounted on his donkey and accompanied by his valet, a little boy, who, though not lame exactly, wears a couple of crutches as a sort of livery; and as soon as twilight begins to thicken and the sun is gone, he closes his bank (it is purely a bank of deposit), crawls up the steps, mounts a stone post, and there majestically waits for his valet to bring the donkey. But he no more solicits deposits. His day is done; his bank is closed; and from his post he looks around, with a patronizing superiority, upon the poorer members of his profession,—who are soliciting with small success the various passers-by,—as a king smiles down upon his subjects. The donkey being brought, he shuffles on to its crupper, and makes a joyous and triumphant passage down through the streets of the city to his home. The bland business smile is gone. The wheedling subserviency of the day is over. The cunning eye opens largely. He is calm, dignified, and self-possessed. He mentions no more the state of the weather. “What’s Hecuba to him,” at this free moment of his return? It is the large style in which all this is done that convinces me that Beppo was a “signor in paese suo.” He has a bank, and so had Prince Torlonia and Sir Francis Baring. But what of that? he is a gentleman still. The robber knights and barons demanded toll of those who passed their castles, with violence and threats, and at the bloody point of their swords. Whoso passes Beppo’s castle is prayed in courtesy to leave a remembrance, and receives the blandest bow and thanks in return. Shall we then say the former are nobles and gentlemen, the other is a miserable beggar? Is it worse to ask than to seize? Is it meaner to thank than to threaten? If he who is supported by the public is a beggar, our kings are beggars, our pensions are charity. Did not the Princess Royal hold out her hand the other day to the House of Commons? and does any one think the worse of her for it? We are all, in measure, beggars; but Beppo, in the large style of kings and robber-barons, asks for his baiocco, and like the merchant-princes, keeps his bank. I see dukes and noble guards in shining helmets, spurs, and gigantic boots, ride daily through the streets on horseback, and hurry to their palaces; but Beppo, erectly mounted on his donkey, in his short jacket (for he disdains the tailored skirts of a fashionable coat, though at times over his broad shoulders a great blue cloak is grandly thrown, after the manner of the ancient emperors), is far more impressive, far more princely, as he slowly and majestically moves at nightfall towards his august abode. The shadows close around him as he passes along; salutations greet him from the damp shops; and darkness at last swallows up for a time the great square torso of the “King of the Beggars.”  9
  Such is Beppo as he appears on the public ’change. His private life is involved somewhat in obscurity; but glimpses have been had of him which indicate a grand spirit of hospitality, and condescension not unworthy of the best days of his ancestors, the barons of the Middle Ages. Innominato, a short time since, was passing late at night along the district of the Monti, when his attention was attracted by an unusual noise and merry-making in one of its mean little osterie or bettole. The door was ajar; and peeping in, he beheld a gallant company of roisterers of the same profession as Beppo, with porters, and gentlemen celebrated for lifting in other ways. They were gathered round a table, drinking merrily; and mounted in the centre of it, with his withered legs crooked under him, sat Baron Beppo, the high-priest of the festive rites. It was his banquet; and he had been strictly Scriptural in his invitations to all classes from the street. He was the Amphitryon who defrayed the cost of the wine, and acknowledged with a smile and a cheerful word the toasts of his guests; and when Innominato saw him, he was as “glorious” as Tam O’Shanter. He was not under the table, simply because he was on it; and he had not lost his equilibrium, solely because he rested upon so broad a base. Planted like an oak, his legs figuring the roots, there he sat, while the jolly band of beggars and rascals were “rousing the night-owl with a catch,” and the blood of the vine was freely flowing in their cups. The conversation was very idiomatic and gay, if not aristocratic, and Beppo’s tongue wagged with the best. It was a most cheering spectacle. The old barons used to sit above the salt, but Baron Beppo sat higher yet,—or rather, he reminded one of classic days, as, mounted there like a Bacchic Torso, he presided over the noisy rout of Silenus.  10
  Beppo has, however, fallen lately into disgrace. His breakfast had perhaps disagreed with him, perhaps he had “roused the night-owl” too late on the previous night, and perhaps his nerves were irritated by a bad “scirocco”; but certain it is that one unfortunate morning an English lady to whom he applied for “qualche cosa” made some jocosely intended answer, to the effect that he was as rich as she, and alluded, it is said, to the dowry he had given his daughter; whereupon it became suddenly “cattivo giorno” with Beppo, and he suffered himself to threaten her, and even, as some accounts go, to throw stones; and the lady having reported him to the authorities, Beppo went into forced retirement for a time. I was made aware of this one day by finding his bank occupied by a new figure and face. Astonished at the audacity of this interloper, I stopped and said, “And Beppo, where is he?” The jolly beggar then informed me, in a very high and rather exulting voice (I am sorry to say), beginning with a sharp and prolonged eh—e-e-e-h, that the police had laid violent hands on Beppo, because he had maltreated an English lady, and that he ought to have known better, but “come si fa”; and that for the present he was at San Michele.  11
  Beppo having repented, and it is to be hoped amended, during his sojourn in that holy hospice, has now again made his appearance in the world. But during his absence the government has passed a new and salutary law, by which beggars are forbidden publicly to practice their profession, except upon the steps of the churches. There they may sit and extend their hand, and ask charity from those who are going to their prayers; but they may no longer annoy the public, and especially strangers in the street. Beppo, therefore, keeps no more his bank on the steps of the Piazza di Spagna; but has removed it to those of the church of St. Agostino, where, at least for the present, he is open to the “receipt of custom.”  12
  The words of the previous sentence are now, alas! no longer true. Since they were written and printed last, Beppo has passed away from among the living to join the great company, among which Lazarus is not the least. Vainly the eye of the stranger will seek him on the steps of the Piazza di Spagna, or on those of St. Agostino. The familiar figure has gone. The places which have known him will know him no more; and of the large and noble company of mendicants at Rome, there is not one left who could fitly wear the mantle that has fallen from his shoulders.  13

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