There is a story told at the Club when silvered widowers sit around warm fires, swilling brandy and puffing cigars, on long winter nights. They swap stories of lost, found, and unrequited love into the wee small hours, recalling their favourite heartfelt tales until the air is thick with acrid smoke and alcoholic vapour. One particular tale brings a particular smile to my face for I know it to be true. I know this because it happened to someone very close to me: to my brother, in-fact, and no finer gentleman could be found on the streets of London then or even today. For the sake of anonymity I shall not reveal the names of those involved to this affair, however, as a guide to the astute reader I shall tell you that the initials used within these writings are correct so that with a modicum of investigation their true identity may be deduced.
Jonathan Wilkinson was a popular man about the town. Since his discharge from the service he settled well into society, becoming a regular to the guest lists of the finest parties that London had to offer. Whilst his fellow guests were accomplished barristers, stockbrokers, and surgeons Jonathan wandered from venture to failed venture, so by the age of twenty-five he had forfeited his inheritance and was begging at my door for whatever allowance I could spare to maintain his lifestyle.
Jonathan was an earnest fellow, as honest as a summer day was long. The type of chap that looked you squarely in the eye, presenting a steady, firm grip; speaking with such sincerity and frivolity that one could forgive him any foolhardiness as he displayed from time to time.
"Youre spoiling the chap!" My older friends at the club would to advise me. "You will do the man no favours!" And they were perfectly correct, for since the death of our father Id assumed a somewhat paternal role as he passed from adolescence to manhood with the same reckless indifference throughout. I helped him whenever and wherever I could, laughing off his dilatory nature as a youthful shortcoming that would disappear with age. The appearance of my firstborn, Thomas, changed my wifes levity and she scalded me harshly over his continued patronage. "You simply cant maintain his lifestyle," she would say each morning as she reviewed the balance.
I recall summoning him to the studio soon after Toms arrival. "Jonathan," I said, as I looked him in the eye, like a father. "Its time we cut the strings. I have a wife and child to support and I simply cannot afford to continue to finance your lifestyle".
He took it well, almost too well, for his understanding smile nearly tore my heart in two. He grinned broadly, hugging me with a joyful tear as he thanked me for being such a brother that would make him face his manly duties. It was almost as much as I could bear, so it was with the heaviest of hearts that I presented him a final £200, hugging him upon my doorstep as though he left for war.
And that was the last that I heard or saw of him for three terrible months and recurring nightmares where I would imagine his wraith like face begging for change upon the snow bound streets of Marylebone. Even my wife shared my anxiety and together we began to rue our decision as reckless and premature. Rumours first circulated of him within the Club and although no one spoke his name directly I imagined it spoken in whispers and muffled conversations that thinned to silence as I walked into a room. For a time I believed this paranoia or perhaps a similar malady of the mind and it took the singular appearance of the article in black and white before me to ease my troubled mind of its torment.
That was upon the morning of the December 5th, a chilled winters morning that frosted the roads and the windowpanes with a thick ice, setting a thick condensation to my breath as I walked toward the club. The streets rang with hurried gentlemen in bowler hats and heavy woollen coats, striding purposefully with canes or hailing cabs as they tipped their hats, bidding "Good Morning
Good Morning!" I walked into the busy clubroom, seeking a copy of The Times, which Timothy (our trusted concierge) hung ironed at the bar each morning by eight. I settled into my favourite leather chair, laying the social page upon the table; juggling a steaming pot of tea and buttered crumpets as I smoothed the page before me. At first I thought it my imagination however following several brisk blinks, Jonathans smiling face remained upon the front page in the company of an attractive young woman
"Bow Street Beau Courts Boston Heiress"
Renowned London socialite, Mr. Jonathan Wilkinson,
has again been sighted upon the arm of Miss Sarah
Albright, daughter and sole heir to renowned
millionaire and philanthropist Col. Theodore Albright
from the United States of America. The couples were
sighted at the recent birthday for Caroline Chisholm,
daughter to Lord and Lady Chisholm and are said to
be close to nuptials. Sources close to Col. Albright
reveal his blessing to the happy couple.
Col. Albright, a self made millionaire with interests
in cotton and shipping, is known to be in London
to conduct business with Lloyds Insurers"
I was in shock! Such shock that I began to choke my Earl Grey, juggling the saucer within my hand until Timothy intervened to relieve me of its burden. I gripped the paper firmly, rounding my shoulders, studying with firm intent. I read the article over and over with torrid disbelief. It seemed that the chap had indeed landed firmly on his feet! Indeed! I was between rapturous joy and perilous rage as I considered his visage within the photograph and that of
"Sarah Albright?" I said aloud.
"Quite a catch, Mr. Wilkinson" said Timothy from a height above my chair "
"Timothy, This Colonel Albright chap?"
"At the Savoy Sir. I can arrange a meeting"
* * *
I was working in my studio late that afternoon, elbow deep in oils, adding detail to a portrait with such concentration that I did not hear the door open or the steps toward me as I worked at the ezel. The animated gesticulations of my model alerted me to a foreign presence within the room causing me to look up from my work.
"Amazing! Simply amazing!" said a familiar voice.
Jonathan stood behind me, staring at the huge portrait where I worked busily with my brushes and palate filling my arms. He shook his head as he looked upon the canvas, then he looked toward the model that posed beside the fireplace.
"You are more than a painter my dear brother, you are an artist and whilst painters are a pound a penny in these times, an artist is indeed a rarity and a treasure to his generation. My dear brother, your talent never ceases to amaze me!"
I blushed proudly as I looked toward my brothers happy face, rounding toward the painting to bask within a self-observant glory with Jonathan who continued. "Why the fellow is the most disconsolate chap that I have ever looked upon. His face, the ragged clothing! He is the very essence of the London beggar! Do tell me dear brother, where did you discover such a wretch?"
"Jonathan, Oh Jonathan!" was all that I could expel in response, with a feeling of such joy that I hugged him tenderly, forgetting my past anxiety. "Jonathan, weve been so worried"
He looked toward me as we parted our embrace and it was then that I saw consternation in his eyes and a tear that seemed to wallow far beneath the surface. A furrow urged its way forward on his countenance, creasing his brow and within a minute it seemed as though he carried the burden of a thousand men upon his shoulders. "Gerald
I need to talk", he said in a cool and steady voice as he walked toward the window, staring outward to the garden.
"But Jonathan, can it not wait? You can see that I am working!"
I gestured to my model, who retired to the settee, casually lighting a cigarillo as we continued our discussion.
"Then I shall be brief for I need your immediate counsel on this matter of the heart. It is most urgent."
"What is the trouble?"
"It is a woman."
"You know of her?"
"Only what I read within the papers."
"Then you will know that she is the most wonderful fascinating woman ever to walk this earth," he said with conviction.
"And this is your trouble?" I said lightly with a laugh. "This does not seem such a burden. Does she does not return your affection?"
"Quite the contrary, we love one another completely."
"And the trouble is?"
"Its her father, The Colonel. He will not agree to our marriage before certain conditions are met and I fear these shall take me many years to fulfil by which time Sarah will return to America. She will forget me and I shall never see her again!"
He stood, a hunched figure at the window, shoulders shaking with emotion as he leaned upon the sill.
"Prey tell me these conditions Jonathan and if they are unreasonable then I shall meet with this Albright chap and tell him so! Does he not like you, Jonathan?"
"He is most fond of my character and my generosity toward his daughter yet my fortune troubles him. He will not give us his blessing and permit a wedding until I have proof of £10,000 within my bank account and I fear that this will take me many years."
"And how much have you now?"
"Scarcely £100 remains from your last generous gift," he said sorrowfully.
"I wish that I could help you brother, alas you know that I cannot except to try to reason with the father on your behalf."
"He is most insistent. He believes it a small condition."
I excused myself briefly from the room, leaving Jonathans sad figure staring out the window as I answered young Toms cries from the bedroom. From the doorway I watched him continue his lonely vigil, staring sadly upon the garden until he turned to catch the eye of the model that sat across the room.
"Oh I am a selfish chap" he said quietly to himself "I wallow in self pity whilst this fellow lives upon the street without so much as a family for comfort nor even a roof over his head." He reached into his pocket, pulling two shining guineas from his purse that he laid into the old mans hands.
"Thank you, thank you sir", was the old man's response and a light smile slowly crossed his lips.
* * *
I met with Jonathan at the club the next morning to discuss a meeting with the Colonel.
"Timothy has already contacted the Savoy to arrange it and he's awaiting his response."
"I see no point," said Jonathan. "The Colonel was most insistent on the matter and do not believe that he will yield."
I hugged his shoulder, smiling into his despondent eyes.
"By the way old chap, it seems that you have gained something of an aficionado."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"The old model at my studio. Following your departure he was most inquisitive. He was most interested to learn about you and the situation with Colonel Albright."
"You discussed my personal affairs with a beggar? I expect that he will be waiting for alms at my doorstep upon my return!"
"Waiting for alms? Why the Baron is one of the wealthiest fellows in Europe! He could buy the whole of London at a whim!"
"Are you discussing the same fellow?"
"The Baron is a devotee of my work. He has commissioned a portrait, dressed as a beggar, which shall display within one of the greatest Palaces of Europe. I failed to introduce you to the Baron because he did not wish to be recognised without his full regalia."
"I feel like such a fool!" said Jonathan, shaking his head. "He looked so sad that I gave the chap two guineas."
"Two Guineas to the Baron? Ha! It is no wonder that he has taken such an interest. It seems that you have greatly amused him."
"I feel so embarrassed. Please forward my sincere apologies to the Baron when next you see him."
"He gave me this envelope to give to you. I expect that it is an invitation to meet with him. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to apologise yourself"
Jonathan took the embossed envelope from my hand and opened it slowly before me. Neatly written upon the Baron's card in neat copper plate writing was Dear Mr Wilkinson,
Please accept this small gift as a token of appreciation from an old beggar man.
My warm congratulations to Mr & Mrs Wilkinson on the occasion of their wedding
Baron M Le Vere"Beneath the card lay a cheque for £10,000.
* * *
Jonathan and Sarah Wilkinson were married that summer at St Pauls. It was a beautiful ceremony attended by dignitaries from London and Boston society. Mid-way during the service an old beggar man slipped into the church, unnoticed from the street. He sat quietly in the back row wearing a ragged leather waistcoat, old trousers held up with cord, a hunting cap with a pheasants feather stuck in the top and a happily contented smile.