The Beggars, by Lord Dunsany
I was walking down Piccadilly not long ago, thinking of nursery rhymes and
regretting old romance.
As I saw the shopkeepers walk by in their black frock-coats and their
black hats, I thought of the old line in nursery annals: "The merchants of
London, they wear scarlet."
The streets were all so unromantic, dreary. Nothing could be done for
them, I thought—nothing. And then my thoughts were interrupted by barking
dogs. Every dog in the street seemed to be barking—every kind of dog, not
only the little ones but the big ones too. They were all facing East
towards the way I was coming by. Then I turned round to look and had this
vision, in Piccadilly, on the opposite side to the houses just after you
pass the cab-rank.
Tall bent men were coming down the street arrayed in marvelous cloaks. All
were sallow of skin and swarthy of hair, and most of them wore strange
beards. They were coming slowly, and they walked with staves, and their
hands were out for alms.
All the beggars had come to town.
I would have given them a gold doubloon engraven with the towers of
Castile, but I had no such coin. They did not seem the people to who it
were fitting to offer the same coin as one tendered for the use of a
taxicab (O marvelous, ill-made word, surely the pass-word somewhere of
some evil order). Some of them wore purple cloaks with wide green borders,
and the border of green was a narrow strip with some, and some wore cloaks
of old and faded red, and some wore violet cloaks, and none wore black.
And they begged gracefully, as gods might beg for souls.
I stood by a lamp-post, and they came up to it, and one addressed it,
calling the lamp-post brother, and said, "O lamp-post, our brother of the
dark, are there many wrecks by thee in the tides of night? Sleep not,
brother, sleep not. There were many wrecks an it were not for thee."
It was strange: I had not thought of the majesty of the street lamp and
his long watching over drifting men. But he was not beneath the notice of
these cloaked strangers.
And then one murmured to the street: "Art thou weary, street? Yet a little
longer they shall go up and down, and keep thee clad with tar and wooden
bricks. Be patient, street. In a while the earthquake cometh."
"Who are you?" people said. "And where do you come from?"
"Who may tell what we are," they answered, "or whence we come?"
And one turned towards the smoke-stained houses, saying, "Blessed be the
houses, because men dream therein."
Then I perceived, what I had never thought, that all these staring houses
were not alike, but different one from another, because they held
And another turned to a tree that stood by the Green Park railings,
saying, "Take comfort, tree, for the fields shall come again."
And all the while the ugly smoke went upwards, the smoke that has stifled
Romance and blackened the birds. This, I thought, they can neither praise
nor bless. And when they saw it they raised their hands towards it,
towards the thousand chimneys, saying, "Behold the smoke. The old
coal-forests that have lain so long in the dark, and so long still, are
dancing now and going back to the sun. Forget not Earth, O our brother,
and we wish thee joy of the sun."
It had rained, and a cheerless stream dropped down a dirty gutter. It had
come from heaps of refuse, foul and forgotten; it had gathered upon its
way things that were derelict, and went to somber drains unknown to man or
the sun. It was this sullen stream as much as all other causes that had
made me say in my heart that the town was vile, that Beauty was dead in
it, and Romance fled.
Even this thing they blessed. And one that wore a purple cloak with broad
green border, said, "Brother, be hopeful yet, for thou shalt surely come
at last to the delectable Sea, and meet the heaving, huge, and travelled
ships, and rejoice by isles that know the golden sun." Even thus they
blessed the gutter, and I felt no whim to mock.
And the people that went by, in their black unseemly coats and their
misshapen, monstrous, shiny hats, the beggars also blessed. And one of
them said to one of these dark citizens: "O twin of Night himself, with
thy specks of white at wrist and neck like to Night's scattered stars. How
fearfully thou dost veil with black thy hid, unguessed desires. They are
deep thoughts in thee that they will not frolic with colour, that they say
'No' to purple, and to lovely green 'Begone.' Thou hast wild fancies that
they must needs be tamed with black, and terrible imaginings that they
must be hidden thus. Has thy soul dreams of the angels, and of the walls
of faëry that thou hast guarded it so utterly, lest it dazzle astonished
eyes? Even so God hid the diamond deep down in miles of clay.
"The wonder of thee is not marred by mirth.
"Behold thou art very secret.
"Be wonderful. Be full of mystery."
Silently the man in the black frock-coat passed on. And I came to
understand when the purple beggar had spoken, that the dark citizen had
trafficked perhaps with Ind, that in his heart were strange and dumb
ambitions; that his dumbness was founded by solemn rite on the roots of
ancient tradition; that it might be overcome one day by a cheer in the
street or by some one singing a song, and that when this shopman spoke
there might come clefts in the world and people peering over at the abyss.
Then turning towards Green Park, where as yet Spring was not, the beggars
stretched out their hands, and looking at the frozen grass and the yet
unbudding trees they, chanting all together, prophesied daffodils.
A motor omnibus came down the street, nearly running over some of the dogs
that were barking ferociously still. It was sounding its horn noisily.
And the vision went then.