16th June 1901: The Candle Calls It

… or maybe for a tramp; I thought that this was the moment when Belloc was arrested but it looks like that comes later. On this occasion, the search light went on its way and so did Belloc.

Thinking about it again, I realise that I am confusing Belloc’s pilgrimage with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk across Europe thirty or so years later. Yes, he definitely was arrested by a lake.

Tired and weary, Belloc trudged on. He had three francs in his pocket and thirty-eight miles until Milan. He came to a house, and asked the woman who was looking out of the window for a bed. She told him they had no rooms. A man looked out another window and confirmed this.

The man and woman then started chatting to each other while Belloc did his best to make them change their minds. Presently, a young man opened the front door and let Belloc in. Inside, however, he reiterated that they had no rooms to spare.

Whatever I have in common with these southerners made me understand that I had won, so I smiled at him and nodded; he also smiled, and at once beckoned to me. He led me upstairs, and showed me a charming bed in a clean room, where there was a portrait of the Pope, looking cunning; the charge for that delightful and human place was sixpence, and as I said good-night to the youth, the man and woman from above said good-night also. And this was my first introduction to the most permanent feature in the Italian character. The good people!

Hilaire Belloc The Path to Rome, p282

I love his comment about the pope – it’s the kind, of course, that only someone who loves Peter’s successor can say without risking being called a bigot. What makes it all the funnier is that in 1901, the pope was Leo XIII, a man who I doubt could have looked cunning if he had scowled while wearing a hat with ‘I am Cunning’ written across it.

Pope Leo XIII, ‘Cunning’

Belloc crossed the border into Italy at Chiasso. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Como. Belloc, however, was tired and the day was hot, so no doubt trudged there.

Beautiful Como, but Belloc found it underwater. Poor men ferried the rich around on carts, and Belloc got himself a much needed meal.

Now, he had to decide what to do next. He was still twenty-five or more miles from Milan. If he walked, the journey would take into the evening, and he would arrive to find the post office shut. But he would need to eat.

I could beg, but there was the risk of being arrested, and that means an indefinite waste of time, perhaps several days; and time, that had defeated me at the Gries, threatened me here again. I had nothing to sell or to pawn, and I had no friends.

The Path to Rome, p.291

Belloc went into Como cathedral to consider his options. There, he saw two votive candles about to go out. He decided that if the candle on the left went out first, he would walk – even if it meant becoming ill for want of food; if the candle on the right went out first, though, he would take the train.

The candle on the right shot up its death flame and it looked for a second like Belloc would be walking, but all of a sudden, the candle on the left died. The train it was.

I have a feeling that Belloc would have found a way to take the train, anyway; I don’t think he had a heart for walking, and he wasn’t stupid – he would not have put himself at such risk (his attempt to cross the Gries Pass notwithstanding).

So, he boarded the train. He had just enough money for a ticket to Milan, and no more. Upon his arrival, he withdrew his money and sat down at a café outside the cathedral. He felt bad for being so dirty and scruffy, so bought an expensive drink for the café owner to keep him onside. The man sat down with him and they talked in French.

Belloc’s feeling of unease on account of his appearance lasted until evening. That night, he ate in another inn before taking a room there (?). It was a squalid place,

The walls were mildewed, the place ramshackle and evil, the rickety bed not clean, the door broken and warped, and that night I was oppressed with the vision of poverty. Dirt and clamour and inhuman conditions surrounded me. Yet the people meant well…

The Path to Rome, p.296

The ellipsis, by the way, is Belloc’s.

Belloc could and should have removed himself from this room but perhaps he stayed because he felt that because he looked like a tramp this is where he deserved to be. This, by the way, was not an attitude the belonged to his pilgrimage – if I recall correctly, Belloc was worried by the spectre of poverty throughout his life; it’s why he wrote so much.

Credit Where It’s Due
Portrait of Pope Leo XIII: Wikipedia

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…