The Gentleman Beggar, by Samuel Warren

Experiences of a Barrister, and Confessions of an Attorney

One morning, about five years ago, I called by appointment on Mr. John Balance, the fashionable pawnbroker, to accompany him to Liverpool, in pursuit of a Levanting customer—for Balance, in addition to pawning, does a little business in the sixty per cent. line. It rained in torrents when the cab stopped at the passage which leads past the pawning-boxes to his private door. The cabman rang twice, and at length Balance appeared, looming through the mist and rain in the entry, illuminated by his perpetual cigar. As I eyed him rather impatiently, remembering that trains wait for no man, something like a hairy dog, or a bundle of rags, rose up at his feet, and barred his passage for a moment. Then Balance cried out with an exclamation, in answer apparently to a something I could not hear, "What, man alive!—slept in the passage!—there, take that, and get some breakfast, for Heaven's sake!" So saying, he jumped into the "Hansom," and we bowled away at ten miles an hour, just catching the Express as the doors of the station were closing. My curiosity was full set—for although Balance can be free with his money, it is not exactly to beggars that his generosity is usually displayed; so when comfortably ensconced in a coupé I finished with—

"You are liberal with your money this morning; pray, how often do you give silver to street-cadgers?—because I shall know now what walk to take when flats and sharps leave off buying law."

Balance, who would have made an excellent parson if he had not been bred to a case-hardening trade, and has still a soft bit left in his heart that is always fighting with his hard head, did not smile at all, but looked as grim as if squeezing a lemon into his Saturday night's punch. He answered slowly, "A cadger—yes; a beggar—a miserable wretch, he is now; but, let me tell you, Master David, that that miserable bundle of rags was born and bred a gentleman—the son of a nobleman, the husband of an heiress, and has sat and dined at tables where you and I, Master David, are only allowed to view the plate by favor of the butler. I have lent him thousands, and been well paid. The last thing I had from him was his court-suit; and I hold now his bill for one hundred pounds that will be paid, I expect, when he dies."

"Why, what nonsense you are talking! you must be dreaming this morning. However, we are alone; I'll light a weed, in defiance of Railway-law, while you spin that yarn; for, true or untrue, it will fill up the time to Liverpool."

"As for yarn," replied Balance, "the whole story is short enough; and as for truth, that you may easily find out if you like to take the trouble. I thought the poor wretch was dead, and I own it put me out meeting him this morning, for I had a curious dream last night."

"Oh, hang your dreams! Tell us about this gentleman beggar that bleeds you of half-crowns—that melts the heart even of a pawnbroker!"

"Well, then, that beggar is the illegitimate son of the late Marquis of Hoopborough by a Spanish lady of rank. He received a first rate education, and was brought up in his father's house. At a very early age he obtained an appointment in a public office, was presented by the marquis at court, and received into the first society, where his handsome person and agreeable manners made him a great favorite. Soon after coming of age, he married the daughter of Sir E. Bumper, who brought him a very handsome fortune, which was strictly settled on herself. They lived in splendid style, kept several carriages, a house in town, and a place in the country. For some reason or other, idleness, or to please his lady's pride he said, he resigned his appointment. His father died, and left him nothing; indeed, he seemed at that time very handsomely provided for.

"Very soon Mr. and Mrs. Molinos Fitz-Roy began to disagree. She was cold, correct—he was hot and random. He was quite dependent on her, and she made him feel it. When he began to get into debt, he came to me. At length some shocking quarrel occurred—some case of jealousy on the wife's side, not without reason, I believe; and the end of it was, Mr. Fitz-Roy was turned out of doors. The house was his wife's, the furniture was his wife's, and the fortune was his wife's—he was, in fact, her pensioner. He left with a few hundred pounds ready money, and some personal jewelry, and went to a hotel. On these and credit he lived. Being illegitimate, he had no relations—being a fool, when he spent his money, he lost his friends. The world took his wife's part, when they found she had the fortune, and the only parties who interfered were her relatives, who did their best to make the quarrel incurable. To crown all, one night he was run over by a cab, was carried to a hospital, and lay there for months, and was, during several weeks of the time, unconscious. A message to the wife, by the hands of one of his debauched companions, sent by a humane surgeon, obtained an intimation that 'if he died, Mr. Croak, the undertaker to the family, had orders to see to the funeral,' and that Mrs. Molinos was on the point of starting for the Continent, not to return for some years. When Fitz-Roy was discharged, he came to me, limping on two sticks, to pawn his court-suit, and told me his story. I was really sorry for the fellow—such a handsome, thoroughbred-looking man. He was going then into the west somewhere, to try to hunt out a friend. 'What to do, Balance,' he said, 'I don't know. I can't dig, and unless somebody will make me their gamekeeper, I must starve, or beg, as my Jezebel bade me, when we parted!'

"I lost sight of Molinos for a long time, and when I next came upon him it was in the Rookery of Westminster, in a low lodging-house, where I was searching with an officer for stolen goods. He was pointed out to me as the 'gentleman-cadger,' because he was so free with his money when 'in luck.' He recognized me, but turned away then. I have since seen him, and relieved him more than once, although he never asks for anything. How he lives, Heaven knows. Without money, without friends, without useful education of any kind, he tramps the country, as you saw him, perhaps doing a little hop-picking or hay-making, in season, only happy when he obtains the means to get drunk. I have heard through the kitchen whispers that you know come to me, that he is entitled to some property; and I expect if he were to die his wife would pay the hundred pound bill I hold; at any rate, what I have told you I know to be true, and the bundle of rags I relieved just now is known in every thieves' lodging in England as the 'gentleman cadger.'"

This story produced an impression on me: I am fond of speculation, and like the excitement of a legal hunt as much as some do a fox-chase. A gentleman, a beggar—a wife rolling in wealth—rumors of unknown property due to the husband;—it seemed as if there were pickings for me amidst this carrion of pauperism.

Before returning from Liverpool, I had purchased the gentleman beggar's acceptance from Balance. I then inserted in the "Times" the following advertisement: "Horatio Molinos Fitz-Roy.—If this gentleman will apply to David Discount, Esq., Solicitor, St. James's, he will hear of something to his advantage. Any person furnishing Mr. R's correct address, shall receive £1 1s. reward. He was last seen," &c. Within twenty-four hours I had ample proof of the wide circulation of the "Times." My office was besieged with beggars of every degree, men and women, lame and blind, Irish, Scotch, and English—some on crutches, some in bowls, some in go-carts. They all knew him as "the gentleman," and I must do the regular fraternity of tramps the justice to say, that not one would answer a question until he made certain that I meant the "gentleman" no harm.

One evening, about three weeks after the appearance of the advertisement, my clerk announced "another beggar." There came in an old man leaning upon a staff, clad in a soldier's greatcoat, all patched and torn, with a battered hat, from under which a mass of tangled hair fell over his shoulders and half concealed his face. The beggar, in a weak, wheezy, hesitating tone, said, "You have advertized for Molinos Fitz-Roy. I hope you don't mean him any harm; he is sunk, I think, too low for enmity now; and surely no one would sport with such misery as his." These last words were uttered in a sort of piteous whisper.

I answered quickly, "Heaven forbid I should sport with misery—I mean and hope to do him good, as well as myself."

"Then, sir, I am Molinos Fitz-Roy!"

While we were conversing candles had been brought in. I have not very tender nerves—my head would not agree with them—but I own I started and shuddered when I saw and knew that the wretched creature before me was under thirty years of age, and once a gentleman. Sharp, aquiline features, reduced to literal skin and bone, were begrimed and covered with dry fair hair; the white teeth of the half-open mouth chattered with eagerness, and made more hideous the foul pallor of the rest of the countenance. As he stood leaning on a staff half bent, his long, yellow bony fingers clasped over the crutch-head of his stick, he was indeed a picture of misery, famine, squalor, and premature age, too horrible to dwell upon. I made him sit down, sent for some refreshment which he devoured like a ghoul, and set to work to unravel his story. It was difficult to keep him to the point; but with pains I learned what convinced me that he was entitled to some property, whether great or small there was no evidence. On parting, I said, "Now, Mr. F, you must stay in town while I make proper inquiries. What allowance will be enough to keep you comfortably?"

He answered humbly after much pressing, "Would you think ten shillings too much?"

I don't like, if I do those things at all, to do them shabbily—so I said, "Come every Saturday and you shall have a pound." He was profuse in thanks, of course, as all such men are as long as distress lasts.

I had previously learned that my ragged client's wife was in England, living in a splendid house in Hyde Park Gardens, under her maiden name. On the following day the Earl of Owing called upon me, wanting five thousand pounds by five o'clock the same evening. It was a case of life or death with him, so I made my terms and took advantage of his pressure to execute a coup de main. I proposed that he should drive me home to receive the money, calling at Mrs. Molinos in Hyde Park Gardens, on our way. I knew that the coronet and liveries of his father, the Marquis, would ensure me an audience with Mrs. Molinos Fitz-Roy.

My scheme answered. I was introduced into the lady's presence. She was, and probably is, a very stately, handsome woman, with a pale complexion, high solid forehead, regular features, thin, pinched, self-satisfied mouth. My interview was very short. I plunged into the middle of the affair, but had scarcely mentioned the word husband, when she interrupted me with, "I presume you have lent this profligate person money, and want me to pay you." She paused, and then said, "He shall not have a farthing." As she spoke, her white face became scarlet.

"But, Madam, the man is starving. I have strong reasons for believing he is entitled to property, and if you refuse any assistance, I must take other measures." She rang the bell, wrote something rapidly on a card, and, as the footman appeared, pushed it towards me across the table, with the air of touching a toad, saying, "There, sir, is the address of my solicitors; apply to them if you think you have any claim. Robert, show the person out, and take care he is not admitted again."

So far I had effected nothing; and, to tell the truth, felt rather crest-fallen under the influence of that grand manner peculiar to certain great ladies and to all great actresses.

My next visit was to the attorneys, Messrs. Leasem and Fashun, of Lincoln's Inn Square; and there I was at home. I had had dealings with the firm before. They are agents for half the aristocracy, who always run in crowds like sheep after the same wine-merchants, the same architects, the same horse-dealers, and the same law-agents. It may be doubted whether the quality of law and land management they get on this principle is quite equal to their wine and horses. At any rate, my friends of Lincoln's Inn, like others of the same class, are distinguished by their courteous manners, deliberate proceedings, innocence of legal technicalities, long credit and heavy charges. Leasem, the elder partner, wears powder and a huge bunch of seals, lives in Queen Square, drives a brougham, gives the dinners and does the cordial department. He is so strict in performing the latter duty, that he once addressed a poacher who had shot a Duke's keeper, as "my dear creature," although he afterwards hung him.

Fashun has chambers in St. James Street, drives a cab, wears a tip, and does the grand haha style.

My business lay with Leasem. The interviews and letters passing were numerous. However, it came at last to the following dialogue:—

"Well, my dear Mr. Discount," began Mr. Leasem, who hates me like poison, "I'm really very sorry for that poor dear Molinos—knew his father well; a great man, a perfect gentleman; but you know what women are, eh, Mr. Discount? My client won't advance a shilling; she knows it would only be wasted in low dissipation. Now, don't you think (this was said very insinuatingly)—don't you think he had better be sent to the work-house? Very comfortable accommodation there, I can assure you—meat twice a week, and excellent soup; and then, Mr. D., we might consider about allowing you something for that bill."

"Mr. Leasem, can you reconcile it to your conscience to make such an arrangement? Here's a wife rolling in luxury, and a husband starving!"

"No, Mr. Discount, not starving; there is the work-house, as I observed before; besides, allow me to suggest that these appeals to feeling are quite unprofessional—quite unprofessional."

"But, Mr. Leasem, touching this property which the poor man is entitled to?"

"Why, there again, Mr. D., you must excuse me; you really must. I don't say he is, I don't say he is not. If you know he is entitled to property, I am sure you know how to proceed; the law is open to you, Mr. Discount—the law is open; and a man of your talent will know how to use it."

"Then, Mr. Leasem, you mean that I must, in order to right this starving man, file a Bill of Discovery, to extract from you the particulars of his rights. You have the Marriage Settlement, and all the information, and you decline to allow a pension, or afford any information; the man is to starve, or go to the work-house?"

"Why, Mr. D., you are so quick and violent, it really is not professional; but you see, (here a subdued smile of triumph,) it has been decided that a solicitor is not bound to afford such information as you ask, to the injury of his client."

"Then you mean that this poor Molinos may rot and starve, while you keep secret from him, at his wife's request, his title to an income, and that the Court of Chancery will back you in this iniquity?"

I kept repeating the word "starve," because I saw it made my respectable opponent wince. "Well, then, just listen to me: I know that in the happy state of our equity law, Chancery can't help my client; but I have another plan—I shall go hence to my office, issue a writ, and take your client's husband in execution—as soon as he is lodged in jail, I shall file his schedule in the Insolvent Court, and when he comes up for his discharge, I shall put you in the witness-box, and examine you on oath, 'touching any property of which you know the insolvent to be possessed,' and where will be your privileged communications then?"

The respectable Leasem's face lengthened in a twinkling, his comfortable confident air vanished, he ceased twiddling his gold chain, and at length he muttered, "Suppose we pay the debt?"

"Why, then, I'll arrest him the day after for another."

"But, my dear Mr. Discount, surely such conduct would not be quite respectable?"

"That's my business; my client has been wronged, I am determined to right him, and when the aristocratic firm of Leasem and Fashun takes refuge according to the custom of respectable repudiators, in the cool arbors of the Court of Chancery, why, a mere bill-discounting attorney like David Discount, need not hesitate about cutting a bludgeon out of the Insolvent Court."

"Well, well, Mr. D., you are so warm—so fiery; we must deliberate, we must consult. You will give me until the day after to-morrow, and then we'll write you our final determination; in the meantime, send us a copy of your authority to act for Mr. Molinos Fitz-Roy."

Of course I lost no time in getting the gentleman beggar to sign a proper letter.

On the appointed day came a communication with the L. and F. seal, which
I opened, not without unprofessional eagerness. It was as follows:—

"In re Molinos Fitz-Roy and Another.

"Sir,—In answer to your application on behalf of Mr. Molinos Fitz-Roy, we beg to inform you that, under the administration of a paternal aunt who died intestate, your client is entitled to two thousand five hundred pounds eight shillings and sixpence, Three per Cents.; one thousand five hundred pounds nineteen shillings and fourpence, Three per Cents., Reduced; one thousand pounds, Long Annuities; five hundred pounds, Bank Stock; three thousand five hundred pounds, India Stock, besides other securities, making up about ten thousand pounds, which we are prepared to transfer over to Mr. Molinos Fitz-Roy's direction forthwith."

Here was a windfall! It quite took away my breath.

At dusk came my gentleman beggar, and what puzzled me was how to break the news to him. Being very much overwhelmed with business that day, I had not much time for consideration. He came in rather better dressed than when I first saw him, with only a week's beard on his chin; but, as usual, not quite sober. Six weeks had elapsed since our first interview. He was still the humble, trembling, low-voiced creature, I first knew him.

After a prelude, I said, "I find, Mr. F., you are entitled to something; pray, what do you mean to give me in addition to my bill, for obtaining it?" He answered rapidly, "Oh, take half; if there is one hundred pounds, take half—if there is five hundred pounds, take half."

"No, no; Mr. F., I don't do business in that way, I shall be satisfied with ten per cent."

It was so settled. I then led him out into the street, impelled to tell him the news, yet dreading the effect; not daring to make the revelation in my office, for fear of a scene.

I began hesitatingly, "Mr. Fitz-Roy, I am happy to say that I find you are entitled to … ten thousand pounds!"

"Ten thousand pounds!" he echoed. "Ten thousand pounds!" he shrieked. "Ten thousand pounds!" he yelled; seizing my arm violently. "You are a brick—Here, cab! cab!" Several drove up—the shout might have been heard a mile off. He jumped in the first.

"Where to?" said the driver.

"To a tailor's, you rascal!"

"Ten thousand pounds! ha, ha, ha!" he repeated hysterically, when in the cab; and every moment grasping my arm. Presently he subsided, looked me straight in the face, and muttered with agonizing fervor, "What a jolly brick you are!"

The tailor, the hosier, the boot-maker, the hair-dresser, were in turn visited by this poor pagan of externals. As by degrees under their hands he emerged from the beggar to the gentleman, his spirits rose; his eyes brightened; he walked erect, but always nervously grasping my arm—fearing, apparently, to lose sight of me for a moment, lest his fortune, should vanish with me. The impatient pride with which he gave his orders to the astonished tradesman for the finest and best of everything, and the amazed air of the fashionable hairdresser when he presented his matted locks and stubble chin, to be "cut and shaved," may be acted—it cannot be described.

By the time the external transformation was complete, and I sat down in a Cafe in the Haymarket opposite a haggard but handsome thoroughbred-looking man, whose air, with the exception of the wild eyes and deeply browned face, did not differ from the stereotyped men about town sitting around us, Mr. Molinos Fitz-Roy had already almost forgotten the past. He bullied the waiter, and criticised the wine, as if he had done nothing else but dine and drink and scold there all the days of his life.

Once he wished to drink my health, and would have proclaimed his whole story to the coffee-room assembly, in a raving style. When I left he almost wept in terror at the idea of losing sight of me. But, allowing for these ebullitions—the natural result of such a whirl of events—he was wonderfully calm and self-possessed.

The next day, his first care was to distribute fifty pounds among his friends, the cadgers, at a "house of call" in Westminster, and formally to dissolve his connection with them; those present undertaking for the "fraternity," that for the future he should never be noticed by them in public or private.

I cannot follow his career much further. Adversity had taught him nothing. He was soon again surrounded by the well-bred vampires who had forgotten him when penniless; but they amused him, and that was enough. The ten thousand pounds were rapidly melting when he invited me to a grand dinner at Richmond, which included a dozen of the most agreeable, good-looking, well-dressed dandies of London, interspersed with a display of pretty butterfly bonnets. We dined deliciously, and drank as men do of iced wines in the dog-days—looking down from Richmond Hill.

One of the pink-bonnets crowned Fitz-Roy with a wreath of flowers; he looked—less the intellect—as handsome as Alcibiades. Intensely excited and flushed, he rose with a champagne glass in his hand to propose my health.

The oratorical powers of his father had not descended on him. Jerking out sentences by spasms, at length he said, "I was a beggar—I am a gentleman—thanks to this—"

Here he leaned on my shoulder heavily a moment, and then fell back. We raised him, loosened his neckcloth—

"Fainted!" said the ladies—

"Drunk!" said the gentlemen—

He was dead!