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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

A Borrowed Sovereign

Title:     A Borrowed Sovereign
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]


Jim lent me a sovereign. He was working hard to make his home, and was saving every penny. However, I took it, for I was really in sore straits. If you have ever known what it is absolutely to need a sovereign, when you have neither banking account nor employment, and your evening clothes are no longer accessible for the last, you will be in a position to understand the transfiguring properties of one small piece of gold. You leave your friend's rooms a different man. Like the virtuous in the Buddhistic round, you go in a beggar and come out a prince. To vary Carlyle's phrase, you can pay for dinners, you can call hansoms, you can take stalls; in fact, you are a prince--to the extent of a sovereign.

And oh! how wooingly does the world seem to nestle round you--the same world that was so cold and haughty ten minutes ago. The world is a courtesan, and has heard you have found a sovereign.

The gaslights seem beaming love at you. So near and bright are the streets, you want to stay out in them all night; though you didn't relish the prospect last evening. O sweet, sweet, siren London, with your golden voice--I have a sovereign!

This, of course, was but the first rich impulse. The sovereign should really be kept for the lodgings. But the snug little oyster-shops about Booksellers' Row are so tempting, and there is nothing like oysters to give one courage to open that giant oyster spoken of by Ancient Pistol.

I went in. I assured my conscience that it should only be 'Anglo-Portuguese,' and that I would forego the roll and butter. But 'Anglos' are not nice, Dutch are in every way to be preferred; and if you are paying eighteenpence you might as well pay three shillings, and what's the use of drawing the line at a roll and butter? No! we will repent after the roll and butter. 'Roll and butter' shall be my Ebenezer. The 'r's' have a notorious mnemonic quality. They will help me to remember.

So I sat down, and, fondling my sovereign in my pocket, fell into a dream. When the oysters came I wished they had been 'Anglos' after all, because my dream had grown beautiful and troublesome, and I had really forgotten the oysters altogether. However, I ate them mechanically, and ordering another half-dozen, so that the manager should not begrudge me my seat, I turned again to my dream.

A young girl sat in a dainty room, writing at a quaint old escritoire, lit by candles in shining brass sconces. She had a sweet blonde face, but more character in it than usually falls to the lot of the English girl. There was experience in the sensitive refinement of her features, a silver touch of suffering: not wasting experience or bitter suffering, but just enough to refine--she had waited. But she had been bravely happy all the time.

Pretty books filled a shelf above her escritoire, and between the candlesticks was a photograph in a filigree silver frame. Towards this she looked every now and then, in the pauses of her writing, with a happy, trustful expression of quiet love. During one pause she noticed that her little clock pointed to 8.30. 'Jim will just be going on,' she said to herself. Yes, that photograph was 'Jim.'

A quaint little face it was, full of sweet wrinkles, and yet but a boy's face. The wrinkles, you could see, were but so many threads of gold which happy laughter had left there. Siss called him her Punchinello, likewise her poet, for Jim is a poet who makes his poetry of his own bright face and body, acts it night after night to an audience, and the people laugh and cry as he plays, for his face is like a bubbling spring, full of laughing eddies on the surface, but ever so deep with sweet freshness beneath--and some catch sight of the deeps. The world knows him as a comedian. Siss knows him as a poet, and because she knows what loving tender tears are in him as well as laughter, she calls him her Punchinello.

This is what she was writing: 'How near our home seems now, Jimmie boy! Every night as you go on--and you are just going on now--I feel our home draw nearer: and, do you know, all this week our star has seemed to grow brighter and brighter. Can you see it in London? It comes out here about six o'clock--first very pale, like a dream, and then fuller and fuller and warmer and warmer. Sometimes I say that it is the sovereigns we are putting into the bank that make it so much brighter; and I am sure it _was_ brighter after that last ten pounds.... You are laughing at me, aren't you? Never mind; you can be just as silly. Dear, dear, funny little face!'

I had reached just so far in my dream when the oysters came, and that is why I wished I had ordered 'Anglos' and no roll.

When I looked again, Siss had stopped writing, and was sitting with her head in her hands dreaming. I looked into her eyes, felt ashamed for a moment, and then stepped into her dream. I felt I was not worthy to walk there, but I took off my hat and told myself that I was reverent.

It was a pretty flat, full of dainty rooms, and I followed her from one to another, and one there was just like that in which I had seen her writing, with the old escritoire, and the books, and the burning candles, and the silver photograph shrine. She walked about very wistfully, and her eyes were full. So were mine, and I wanted to sob, but feared lest she should hear. Presently Jim joined her, and they walked together, and said to each other, 'Think, this is our home at last'--'Think, this is our home at last. O love, our home--together for evermore!'

This they said many times, and at length they came to a room that had a door white as ivory, and I caught a breath of freshest flowers as they opened and passed in.

Then I closed my eyes, and when I looked again I thought an angel stood on the threshold, as I had seen it somewhere in Victor Hugo--a happy angel with finger upon his lip.

And when the dream had gone, and I was once more alone, I said 'Jim is working, Siss is waiting, and I--am eating borrowed oysters.'

Then I took out the sovereign and looked at it, for it was now symbolic. Outside, above the street, a star was shining. I had filched a beam of Siss's star. Was it less bright tonight? Had she missed this sovereign?

It had been symbolic before--a sovereign's-worth of the world, the flesh, and the devil; now it was a sovereign's-worth of holy love and home. Every penny I spent of it dimmed that star, delayed that home. In my pocket it meant a sovereign's-worth more working and waiting. Pay it back again into that star, and it was a sovereign nearer home. Yes, it was a sovereign's-worth of that flat, of that escritoire, those books, those burning candles, that photograph, that ivory-white door, those sweet-smelling flowers, a sovereign's-worth of that angel, I was keeping in my pocket.

Out on it! God forgive me. I had not thought it meant that to borrow a sovereign from Jim, meant that to eat those borrowed oysters. Nevertheless, they had not been all an immoral indulgence. Even oysters may be the instruments of virtue in the hands of Providence.

The shopman knew me, so I 'confounded it' and told him I had come out without my purse. It was all right. Pay next time, Jim's theatre was close by, it was but a stone's-throw to the stage-door. Easy to leave him a note. What will he think, I wonder, as he reads it, and the sovereign rolls out: 'Dear old man, forgive me--I forgot it was a sovereign's-worth of home.'

Yet, after all, it was the oysters that did this thing.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Borrowed Sovereign