CHAPTER X: ALMS-GIVING
AS I SEARCHED for a penny it began to rain. The blind man opened a parcel and I saw that it contained a small tarpaulin cape. But the several coats I wore made it difficult to find my change; I thought I had better forego my charity that day, and I walked away. Eight or nine hours a day waiting for alms is his earthly lot, I said, and walking towards the river, and leaning on the parapet, I wondered if he recognised the passing step — if he recognised my step — and associated them with a penny? Of what use that he should know the different steps? if he knew them there would be anticipation and disappointments. But a dog would make life comprehensible; and I imagined a companionship, a mingling of muteness and blindness, and the joy that would brighten the darkness when the dog leaped eagerly upon the blind mans knees. I imagined the joy of warm feet and limb, and the sudden poke of the muzzle. A dog would be a link to bind the blind beggar to the friendship of life. Now why has this small blind man, with a face as pale as a plant that never sees the sun, not a dog? A dog is the natural link and the only link that binds the blind beggar to the friendship of life.
Looking round, I could see that he was taking off his little cape, for it had ceased raining. But in a few weeks it would rain every day, and the wind would blow from the river in great gusts. Will he brave another winter? I asked myself. Iron blasts will sweep through the passage; they will find him through the torn shirt and the poor grey trousers, the torn waist-coat, the black jacket, and the threadbare over-coat — someones cast-off garment… . Now, he may have been born blind, or he may have become blind; in any case he has been blind for many years, and if he persist in living he will have to brave many winters in that passage, for he is not an old man. What instinct compels him to bear his dark life? Is he afraid to kill himself? Does this fear spring from physical or from religious motives? Fear of hell? Surely no other motive would enable him to endure his life.
In my intolerance for all life but my own I thought I could estimate the value of the Great Mockery, and I asked myself angrily why he persisted in living. I asked myself why I helped him to live. It would be better that he should throw himself at once into the river. And this was reason talking to me, and it told me that the most charitable act I could do would be to help him over the parapet. But behind reason there is instinct, and in obedience to an impulse, which I could not weigh or appreciate, I went to the blind man and put some money into his hand; the small coin slipped through his fingers; they were so cold that he could not retain it, and I had to pick it from the ground.
Thankee, sir. Can you tell, sir, what time it is?
And this little question was my recompense. He and I wanted to know the time. I asked him why he wanted to know the time, and he told me because that evening a friend was coming to fetch him. And, wondering who that friend might be, and, hoping he might tell me, I asked him about his case of pencils, expressing a hope that he sold them. He answered that he was doing a nice bit of trading.
The boys about here are a trouble, he said, but the policeman on the beat is a friend of mine, and he watches them and makes them count the pencils they take. The other day they robbed me, and he gave them such a cuffing that I dont think theyll take my pencils again. You see, sir, I keep the money I take for the pencils in the left pocket, and the money that is given to me I keep in the right pocket. In this way I know if my accounts are right when I make them up in the evening.
Now where, in what lonely room does he sit making up his accounts? but, not wishing to seem inquisitorial, I turned the conversation.
I suppose you know some of the passers-by.
Yes, I know a tidy few. Theres one gentleman who gives me a penny every day, but hes gone abroad, I hear, and sixpence a week is a big drop.
As I had given him a penny a day all the summer, I assumed he was speaking of me. And my sixpence a week meant a days dinner, perhaps two days dinners! It was only necessary for me to withhold my charity to give him ease. He would hardly be able to live without my charity, and if one of his other patrons were to do likewise the world would be freed from a life that I could not feel to be of any value.
So do we judge the world if we rely on our reason, but instinct clings like a child and begs like a child, and my instinct begged me to succour this poor man, to give him a penny every day, to find out what his condition was, and to stop for a chat every time I gave him my penny. I had obeyed my instinct all the summer, and now reason had intervened, reason was in rebellion, and for a long time I avoided, or seemed to avoid, the passage where the blind man sat for eight or nine hours, glad to receive, but never asking for alms.
I think I forgot the blind man for several months. I only remembered him when I was sitting at home, or when I was at the other side of the town, and sometimes I thought I made myself little excuses not to pass through the passage. Our motives are so vague, so complex and many, that one is never quite sure why one does a thing, and if I were to say that I did not give the blind man pennies that winter because I believed it better to deprive him of his means of livelihood and force him out of life than to help him to remain in life and suffer, I should be saying what was certainly untrue, yet the idea was in my mind, and I experienced more than one twinge of conscience when I passed through the passage. I experienced remorse when I hurried past him, too selfish to unbutton my coat, for every time I happened to pass him it was raining or blowing very hard, and every time I hurried away trying to find reasons why he bore his miserable life. I hurried to my business, my head full of chatter about St. Simons Stylites, telling myself that he saw God far away at the end of the sky, His immortal hands filled with immortal recompenses; reason chattered about the compensation of celestial choirs, but instinct told me that the blind man standing in the stone passage knew of such miraculous consolations.
As the winter advanced, as the winds grew harsher, my avoidance of the passage grew more marked, and one day I stopped to think, and asked myself why I avoided it.
There was a faint warmth in the sky, and I heard my heart speaking to me quite distinctly, and it said: —
Go to the blind man — what matter about your ten minutes delay; you have been unhappy since you refrained from alms-giving, and the blind beggar can feel the new year beginning.
You see, sir, I have added some shirt buttons and studs to the pencils. I dont know how they will go, but one never knows till one tries.
Then he told me it was smallpox that destroyed his eyes, and he was only eighteen at the time.
You must have suffered very much when they told you your sight was going?
Yes, sir. I had the hump for six weeks.
What do you mean?
It doubled me up, that it did. I sat with my head in my hands for six weeks.
And after that?
I didnt think any more about it — what was the good?
Yes, but it must be difficult not to think, sitting here all alone.
One mustnt allow ones self to give way. One would break down if one did. Ive some friends, and in the evening I get plenty of exercise.
What do you do in the evenings?
I turn a hay-cutting machine in a stable.
And youre quite contented?
I dont think, sir, a happier man than I passes through this gate-way once a month.
He told me his little boy came to fetch him in the evening.
Yes, sir, and Ive got four children. Theyre going away for their holidays next week.
Where are they going?
To the sea. It will do them good; a blow on the beach will do them a power of good.
And when they come back they will tell you about it?
And do you ever go away for a holiday?
Last year I went with a policeman. A gentleman who passes this way, one of my friends, paid four shillings for me. We had a nice dinner in a public house for a shilling, and then we went for a walk.
And this year are you going with the policeman?
I hope so, a friend of mine gave me half-a-crown towards it.
Ill give you the rest.
A soft south wind was blowing, and an instinct as soft and as gentle filled my heart, and I went towards some trees. The new leaves were beginning in the branches; and sitting where sparrows were building their nests, I soon began to see further into life than I had seen before. Were here, I said, for the purpose of learning what life is, and the blind beggar has taught me a great deal, something that I could not have learnt out of a book, a deeper truth than any book contains. … And then I ceased to think, for thinking is a folly when a soft south wind is blowing, and an instinct as soft and as gentle fills the heart.