15th June 1901: Money Matters

Belloc arrived in Italy with ‘eight francs and forty centimes for my viaticum and temporary provision wherewith the accomplish the good work of my pilgrimage’ (Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome (Ignatius Press 2003) p.257).

This quotation is typical of Belloc in The Path to Rome, being both serious – he had far too little money to get him to Milan nearly ninety miles away – and humorous – talk of the ‘good work of my pilgrimage’ makes Belloc sound amusingly pompous given that this pilgrimage thus far has been a rather earthy affair.

The reason Belloc needed to reach Milan is that before the pilgrimage he had posted money to himself there. In the days before cash machines, it was the best way to avoid having to carry too much, with all the dangers that that brought. To make sure he got to the city before his money ran out, Belloc decided to walk by forced march, covering the distance in two days and nights, and finishing on the third day, spending only so much as he went.

The best laid plans, though… and not for the first time, Belloc says he will do one thing and starts doing another. Thus, he was soon spending more than he meant on food and drink along the way.

Still, he found companionship as he walked, even if only of a limited kind.

There… were a gentleman and a lady in a carriage who wondered where I was going, and I told them (in French) “to Rome”.

The Path to Rome, p.264

In Bellinzona, Belloc ‘sank down upon a bench before the curtained door of a drinking booth’ (The Path to Rome, p.267). Perhaps unwisely given his financial situation, he ordered a vermouth, but then he went and ordered drinks for the inn keeper’s husband and another man who had been watching him sketch!

Belloc ended up eating with this little party, and it would have been nice to report that they treated him kindly after he treated them to a drink, but alas, after he had finished eating, he simply went on his way with just ‘four francs and eighty centimes’ (The Path to Rome, p.268) in his pocket.

Belloc had another problem,

… my map was a bad one, and on a very small scale, and the road from Bellinzona to Lugano has a crook in it, and it was essential to find a short cut.

The Path to Rome, p.269

This lead to a very singular encounter with a stationer. Belloc told him that he was ‘”too poor to buy a map’ (The Path to Rome, p.269) but ‘”If you will let me look at one for a few moments, I will pay you what you think fit.”‘ (Ibid) The stationer did not like this at all and railed against Belloc for it. Nevertheless, he let him look at the maps all the same.

After he had done so, Belloc, somewhat drily, said to the stationer,

“Sir, I shall always hold in remembrance the day on which you did me this signal kindness; nor shall I forget your courtesy and goodwill.”

The Path to Rome, p.270

Whereupon, rather than take offence at Belloc’s sarcasm, or at least perceive his words to be sarcastic, the stationer ‘burst into twenty smiles, and bowed, and seemed beatified’ (The Path to Rome, p.270). and became Belloc’s friend, inviting him to look at his other maps.

On the way to Lugano, Belloc ate with an old man who became the latest to overcharge him. He tried to do so by three times the value of the meal but Belloc managed to ‘beat him down to double’ (The Path to Rome, p.276).

Belloc fell asleep by Lake Lugano. Later that night, he woke up and was spotted by the searchlight of an Italian torpedo-boat. The border police took him for a smuggler…

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