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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

About The Securities

Title:     About The Securities
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

When I say that my friend Matthew lay dying, I want you so far as possible to dissociate the statement from any conventional, and certainly from any pictorial, conceptions of death which you may have acquired. Death sometimes shows himself one of those impersonal artists who conceal their art, and, unless you had been told, you could hardly have guessed that Matthew was dying, dying indeed sixty miles an hour, dying of consumption, dying because some one else had died four years before, dying too of debt.

Connoisseurs, of course, would have understood; at a glance would have named the sculptor who was silently chiselling those noble hollows in the finely modelled face,--that Pygmalion who turns all flesh to stone,--at a glance would have named the painter who was cunningly weighting the brows with darkness that the eyes might shine the more with an unaccustomed light. Matthew and I had long been students of the strange wandering artist, had begun by hating his art (it is ever so with an art unfamiliar to us), and had ended by loving it.

'Let us see what the artist has added to the picture since yesterday,' said Matthew, signing to me to hand him the mirror.

'H'm,' he murmured, 'he's had one of his lazy days, I'm afraid. He's hardly added a touch--just a little heightened the chiaroscuro, sharpened the nose a trifle, deepened some little the shadows round the eyes....

'O why,' he presently sighed, 'does he not work a little overtime and get it done? He's been paid handsomely enough....

'Paid,' he continued, 'by a life that is so much undeveloped gold-mine, paid by all my uncashed hopes and dreams....'

'He works fast enough for me, old fellow,' I interrupted; 'there was a time, was there not, when he worked too fast for you and me?'

There are moments, for certain people, when such fantastic unreality as this is the truest realism. Matthew and I talked like this with our brains, because we hadn't the courage to allow our hearts to break in upon the conversation. Had I dared to say some real emotional thing, what effect would it have had but to set poor tired Matthew a-coughing? and it was our aim that he should die with as little to-do as practicable. The emotional in such situations is merely the obvious. There was no need for either of us to state the elementary feelings of our love. I knew that Matthew was going to die, and he knew that--I was going to live, and we pitied each other accordingly; though I confess my feeling for him was rather one of envy,--when it was not congratulation.

Thus, to tell the truth, we never mentioned 'the hereafter.' I don't believe it even occurred to us. Indeed, we spent the few hours that remained of our friendship in retailing the latest gathered of those good stories with which we had been accustomed to salt our intercourse.

One of Matthew's anecdotes was, no doubt, somewhat suggested by the occasion, and I should add that he had always somewhat of an ecclesiastical bias--would, I believe, have ended some day as a Monsignor, a notable 'Bishop Blougram.'

His story was of an evangelistic preacher who desired to impress his congregation with the unmistakable reality of hell-fire. 'You know the Black Country, my friends,' he had declaimed,' you have seen it, at night, flaring with a thousand furnaces, in the lurid incandescence of which myriads of unhappy beings, our fellow-creatures (God forbid!), snatch a precarious existence--you have seen them silhouetted against the yellow glare, running hither and thither, as it seemed from afar, in the very jaws of the awful fire. Have you realised that the burdens with which they thus run hither and thither are molten iron, iron to which such a stupendous heat has been applied that it has melted, melted as though it had been sugar in the sun?--well! returning to hell-fire, let me tell you this, that in hell they eat this fiery molten metal for ice-cream!--yes! and are glad to get anything so cool.'

It was thus we talked while Matthew lay dying, for why should we not talk as we had lived? We both laughed long and heartily over this story; perhaps it would have amused us less had Matthew not been dying; and then his kind old nurse brought in our lunch. We had both excellent appetites, and were far from indifferent to the dainty little meal which was to be our last but one together. I brought my table as close to Matthew's pillow as was possible, and he stroked my hand with tenderness in which there was a touch of gratitude.

'You are not frightened of the bacteria!' he laughed sadly; and then he told me, with huge amusement, how a friend (and a true, dear friend for all that) had come to see him a day or two before, and had hung over the end of the bed to say farewell, daring to approach no nearer, mopping his fear-perspiring brows with a handkerchief soaked in 'Eucalyptus'!

'He had brought an anticipatory elegy too,' said my friend, 'written against my burial. I wish you'd read it for me,' and he fidgeted for it in the nervous manner of the dying. Finding it among his pillows, he handed it to me saying, 'You needn't be frightened of it. It is well dosed with Eucalyptus.'

We laughed even more over this poem than over our stories, and then we discussed the terms of three cremation societies to which, at the express request of my friend, I had written a day or two before.

Then having smoked a cigar and drunk a glass of port together (for the assured dying are allowed to 'live well'), Matthew grew sleepy, and, tucking him beneath the counterpane, I left him, for, after all, he was not to die that day.

Circumstances prevented my seeing him again for a week. When I did so, entering the room poignantly redolent of the strange sweet odour of antiseptics, I saw that the great artist had been busy in my absence. Indeed, his work was nearly at an end. Yet to one unfamiliar with his methods there was still little to alarm in Matthew's face. In fact, with the exception of his brain, and his ice-cold feet, he was alive as ever. And even to his brain had come a certain unnatural activity, a life as of the grave, a sort of vampire vitality, which would assuredly have deceived any who had not known him. He still told his stories, laughed and talked with the same unconquerable humour, was in every way alert and practical, with this difference, that he had forgotten he was going to die, that the world in which he exercised his various faculties was another world to that in which, in spite of his delirium, we ate our last boiled fowl, drank our last wine, smoked our last cigar together. His talk was so convincingly rational, dealt with such unreal matters in so every-day a fashion, that you were ready to think that surely it was you and not he whose mind was wandering.

'You might reach that pocket-book, and ring for Mrs. Davies,' he would say in so casual a way that of course you would ring. On Mrs. Davies's appearance he would be fumbling about among the papers in his pocket-book, and presently he would say, with a look of frustration that went to one's heart--'I've got a ten-pound note somewhere here for you, Mrs. Davies, to pay you up till Saturday, but somehow I seem to have lost it. Yet it must be somewhere about. Perhaps you'll find it as you make the bed in the morning. I'm so sorry to have troubled you....'

And then he would grow tired and doze a little on his pillow.

Suddenly he would be alert again, and with a startling vividness tell me strange stories from the dreamland into which he was now passing.

I had promised to see him on Monday, but had been prevented, and had wired to him accordingly. This was Tuesday.

'You needn't have troubled to wire,' he said. 'Didn't you know I was in London from Saturday to Monday?'

'The doctor and Mrs. Davies didn't know,' he continued with the creepy cunning of the dying: 'I managed to slip away to look at a house I think of taking--in fact I've taken it. It's in--in--now, where is it? Now isn't that silly? I can see it as plain as anything--yet I cannot, for the life of me, remember where it is, or the number.... It was somewhere St. John's Wood way ... never mind, you must come and see me there, when we get in....'

I said he was dying in debt, and thus the heaven that lay about his deathbed was one of fantastic Eldorados, sudden colossal legacies, and miraculous windfalls.

'I haven't told you,' he said presently, 'of the piece of good luck that has befallen me. You are not the only person in luck. I can hardly expect you to believe me, it sounds so like the Arabian Nights. However, it's true for all that. Well, one of the little sisters was playing in the garden a few afternoons ago, making mud-pies or something of that sort, and she suddenly scraped up a sovereign. Presently she found two or three more, and our curiosity becoming aroused, a turn or two with the spade revealed quite a bed of gold; and the end of it was, that on further excavating, the whole garden proved to be one mass of sovereigns. Sixty thousand pounds we counted ... and then, what do you think?--it suddenly melted away....'

He paused for a moment, and continued, more in amusement than regret--

'Yes--the Government got wind of it, and claimed the whole lot as treasure-trove!

'But not,' he added slyly, 'before I'd paid off two or three of my biggest bills. Yes--and--you'll keep it quiet, of course,--there's another lot been discovered in the garden, but we shall take good care the Government doesn't get hold of it this time, you bet.'

He told this wild story with such an air of simple conviction that, odd as it may seem, one believed every word of it. But the tale of his sudden good-fortune was not ended.

'You've heard of old Lord Osterley,' he presently began again. 'Well, congratulate me, old man: he has just died and left everything to me. You know what a splendid library he had--to think that that will all be mine--and that grand old park through which we've so often wandered, you and I! Well, we shall need fear no gamekeeper now, and of course, dear old fellow, you'll come and live with me--like a prince--and just write your own books and say farewell to journalism for ever. Of course I can hardly believe it's true yet. It seems too much of a dream, and yet there's no doubt about it. I had a letter from my solicitors this morning, saying that they were engaged in going through the securities, and--and--but the letter's somewhere over there; you might read it. No? can't you find it? It's there somewhere about, I know. Never mind, you can see it again....' he finished wearily.

'Yes!' he presently said, half to himself, 'it will be a wonderful change! a wonderful change!'

* * * * *

At length the time came to say good-bye, a good-bye I knew must be the last, for my affairs were taking me so far away from him that I could not hope to see him for some days.

'I'm afraid, old man,' I said, 'that I mayn't be able to see you for another week.'

'O never mind, old fellow, don't worry about me. I'm much better now--and by the time you come again we shall know all about the securities.'

The securities! My heart had seemed like a stone, incapable of feeling, all those last unreal hours together; but the pathos of that sad phrase, so curiously symbolic, suddenly smote it with overwhelming pity, and the tears sprang to my eyes for the first time. As I bent over him to kiss his poor damp forehead, and press his hand for the last farewell, I murmured--

'Yes--dear, dear old friend. We shall know all about the securities....'

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: About The Securities