As I came round the bush I was aware of four beggars in the shade of it, counting their spoils.
They sat at their ease, with food and a flagon of wine before them and silver cups, for all the world like gentlefolk on a picnic, only happier. But I knew them for beggars by the boldness of their asking eyes and the crook in their fingers.
They looked at me curiously, as if to say, “What do you bring us?”
“Nothing, gentlemen,” I answered, “I am only seeking information.”
At this they moved uneasily and glanced at one another with a crafty look of alarm. Their crooked fingers closed around the cups.
“Are you a collector of taxes?” cried the first beggar.
“Certainly not,” I replied with heat, “but a payer of them!”
“Come, come,” said the beggar, with a wink at his comrades, “no insult intended! Only a prudent habit of ours in these days of mixed society. But you are evidently poor and honest. Take a chair on the grass. Honesty we love, and to poverty we have no objection–in fact, we admire it–in others.”
So I sat down beside them in the shade of the bush and lit my pipe to listen.
In the hot field below, a man was ploughing amid the glare of the sun. The reins hung about his neck like a halter, and he clung to the jerking handles of the plough while the furrows of red earth turned and fell behind him like welts on the flank of the hill.
“A hard life,” said the second beggar, draining his cup, “but healthy! And very useful! The world must have bread.”
“Plenty of it,” said the third beggar, “else what would become of that?”
He nodded down the valley, where tall spires pointed toward the blue and taller chimneys veiled it with black. The huddled city seemed to move and strain and quiver under the dusky curtain, and the fumes of its toil hung over it like steam from a sweating horse.
“It is a sad sight,” said the fourth beggar, waving his hand with the gesture of an orator. “Shakespeare was right when he said, ‘God made the country and man made the town.’ Admit for the present that cities are necessary evils. The time is coming when every man must have his country-place. Meanwhile let us cultivate the rural virtues.”
He smacked his lips and lifted the flagon.
“Right,” said the first beggar, “a toast! To the simple life!”
So the four quaffed a cupful of wine–and I a puff of smoke–to the simple life.
In the bush was a bird, very busy catching flies. He perched on a branch, darted into the air, caught his fly, and fluttered to another branch. Between flies he chirped and twittered cheerfully.
“Beautiful bird,” said the first beggar, leaning back, “a model of cheerful industry! What do they call him?”
“A warbler,” said I, “because he has so little voice.”
“He might sing better,” observed the second beggar, “if he did not work so hard catching flies.”
But the fourth beggar sighed and wiped the corner of his left eye, for he was a tender-hearted man on one side.
“I am thinking,” said he, “of the poor flies!”
“Bet you a hundred to ten he doesn’t catch the next one,” said the third beggar.
“Done,” cried the others, but before the stakes were counted out, the bird had flown.
“Tell me, sirs,” I began, when they had stripped the gilded bands from their cigars and lighted them, “what it is that makes you all so innocently merry and contented in this troublous world?”
“It is a professional secret,” said the first beggar. “If we tell it, you will give it away.”
“Never,” I answered. “I only want to put it into a poem.”
The beggars looked at one another and laughed heartily. “That will do no harm,” said they, “our secret will be safe there.”
“Well, then,” said the first beggar gravely, “it is religion. We approve the conduct of Providence. It must be all right. The Lord is on our side. It would be wicked to ask why. We practise the grace of resignation, and find peace.”
“No,” said the second beggar smiling, “religion is an old wives’ tale. It is philosophy that makes us contented. Nothing could be unless it was, and nothing is different from what it has to be. Evolution goes on evolving all the time. So here we are, you see, in the best world possible at the present moment. Why not make the most of it? Pass me the flagon.”
“Not at all,” interrupted the fourth beggar loudly, “I will have none of your selfish religion or your immoral philosophy. I am a Reformer. This is the worst world possible, and that is why I enjoy it. It gives me my chance to make orations about reform. Philanthropy is the secret of happiness.”
“Piffle!” said the third beggar, tossing a gold coin in the air. “You talk as if people heard you. The secret of happiness–religion, philosophy, philanthropy?–poppycock! It is luck, sheer luck. Life is a game of chance. Heads I win, tails you lose. Will you match me, Master Poet?”
“You will have to excuse me,” I said. “I have only a penny in my pocket. But I am still puzzled by your answers. You seem of many minds, but of one spirit. You are all equally contented. How is this?”
The eyes of the beggars turned to the piles of booty in front of them, and they all nodded their heads wisely as if to say, “you can see.”
A packet of papers lay before the first beggar and his look lingered on them with love.
“How came you by these?” I asked.
“An old gentleman gave them to me,” he answered. “He said he was my grandfather. He was an unpleasant old fellow, but God rest his soul! These are all gilt-edged.”
The second beggar was playing with a heap of jewels. He was a handsome fellow with fine hands.
“How did you get these pretty things?” said I.
“By consenting to be married,” he replied. “It was easy enough. She squints, and her grammar is defective, but she is a good little thing.”
The third beggar ran his fingers through the pile of gold before him, and took up a coin, now and then, to flip it in the air.
“How did you earn this?” I asked.
“Earn it!” said he scornfully, “do you take me for a labouring man? These fellows here lent me something, and I bet on how much corn that fellow down there with the plough would raise–and the rest–why, the rest was luck, sheer luck!”
“And you?” I turned to the fourth beggar who had a huge bag beside him, so full of silver that the dimes and quarters ran from the mouth of it.
“I,” said he loftily, “am a Reformer. The people love me and give me whatever I want, because I tell them that these other beggars have no right to their money. I am going to be President.”
At this they all burst into shouts of laughter and rolled on the grass. Even the Reformer chuckled a little.
While they were laughing, the ploughman came up with an axe and began to chop at the bush.
“What are you doing to our bush?” cried the beggars.
“Chopping it down,” said the ploughman.
“But why?” cried they.
“I must plough this field,” said he.
So the beggars grabbed their spoils and scuttled away to other countries, and I went on over the hill.
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