Autobiography, with Letters

By William Lyon Phelps | Go to book overview

23
INTERLUDE: HIC ET UBIQUE

WHEN I was seven or eight years old, as I was walking up Chapel Street, New Haven, amid the crowd of shoppers, I saw an old man, with a white beard, old and ragged and looking feeble and cold and hungry, asking individuals in a piteous tone, 'Won't you give an old man a penny?' Feeling very sorry for this wretched beggar, I stood and watched him. All of a sudden he came over to me and bending down low to my little face, he whispered,' Don't you worry about me. I'm all right and I've got plenty of money.' Then he raised the lower part of his beard, revealing the face of a healthy young man. He followed this gesture by drawing from his pocket a canvas bag containing a pint of cash, filled to the brim with silver coins. I looked at this in amazement. At that moment another passer came along; and my beggar went right up to him and said in heartrending tones, 'Won't you give an old man a penny?'

This was my first revelation of human duplicity. I did not give him away. But why did he take this chance? Was it because he could not endure the expression on my face? Was it merely because I was a child?

Many years later, as I was standing in line to buy a ticket at a railway station, I marvelled at the sublime patience, the sweet courtesy, the undeviating politeness with which the ticket-seller answered foolish questions. Three or four women preceded me and each one of them asked this man repeatedly superfluous, almost idiotic questions. To each

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