In 1722, Peter the Great of Russia abolished a tax he had introduced some twenty years earlier, it having proved to be a rather hairy source of national income. The tax had been the result of an 18-month European tour to seek the aid of European monarchs, and to observe how other militias and armies were trained. During the tour, he learned that many European customs and styles were far superior to the antiquated ways in Russia. One of the first rulings he made upon his return was that all of his courtiers and officials shave off their long beards, as being clean-shaven was the European style. Anyone who kept their beard was subject to an annual Beard Tax of 100 rubles. Upon payment of the tax, bearded Russians were given a token; on one side of the token was an image of the lower part of a face with a full beard and the inscription “the beard is a superfluous burden.”
The idea of a beard tax had a bit of a history. Nearly 200 years earlier, King Henry VIII of England, who wore a beard himself, had introduced a tax on beards, although he probably didn’t pay the tax himself (it’s good to be the king). The tax was a graduated tax, varying with the wearer’s social position, not the length of his beard. Some years later, his daughter, Elizabeth I, reintroduced the beard tax, taxing every beard of more than two weeks’ growth, although she probably didn’t pay the tax herself (it’s good to be the queen).
Don’t Hurry Worry Me, part 1: blue denim temptation
As Chicken Avery liked to put it, “Clarence Henry’s pants had a more exciting life than Clarence himself did.” Chicken told the story of Clarence’s wandering trousers with relish, and he told it frequently, because it was a good story and a story with a proper moral.
The story ended when Mango, Clarence’s faithful dog, brought Clarence’s pants to him a week after they had disappeared. The pants were soiled and wrinkled and just a little chewed up. Well, Clarence punished that poor mutt but he should have been thanking him because Mango was a hero not a villain. Of course, Clarence didn’t know the details of that week during which his pants were gone. How Chicken Avery knew is anybody’s guess, but he knew, and he loved to tell about it. And Chicken swore it was all true.
The story began when Clarence’s wife washed his favorite pants, a pair of pale blue denims that had been brushed until they were as soft and smooth as the pink sands of Paradise Beach. She washed his pants, then hung them out on the clothesline to dry, out near the road where they were bound to tempt passers-by, being the fine pants they were.
And those pants did tempt a lot of folks who passed by, but those folks were honest, law-abiding citizens, and they resisted blue-denim temptation. All except that rogue Randall. He didn’t resist. No, when he saw that no one was about, he snatched the pants right off the line, draped them over one arm and sauntered on down the road where he caught the bus that took him all the way to Port Elizabeth. From there, he walked up the road that led out of Port Elizabeth toward Titus Simeon’s farm. Before he reached the farm, he ducked behind a bush where he slipped out of his tattered jeans and into his purloined blue denims.
“My oh my,” he said aloud, as the softness of the blue denim caressed his legs and as he imagined how these pants would help impress Titus’ beautiful young daughter, Ismelde, and how maybe she would want to touch the supple fabric and, thereby, the man within. He got quite excited thinking of Ismelde, her pouting lips and innocent eyes, and he quickened his pace.
When he reached the farm, he did not approach it straight on, knowing that he should avoid Ismelde’s father who disliked the young men of the island in general and Randall in particular and who held the unreasonable notion that Ismelde should not carry on with young men, she being but seventeen and quite naive. Randall spotted Ismelde. She spotted him as well and pointed to the barn. Randall understood and quickly skulked into the barn where he waited with some impatience for Ismelde to join him.
This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines. It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.