The Million Pound Banknote Part 4

Pages 13-16

‘You are quite right, sir, quite right. One moment – let me show you out of the shop, sir. There – good day, sir, good day.’

Well, don’t you see what was going to happen after that? I simply started buying whatever I wanted, and asking for change. Within a week I had everything I needed to be comfortable. I stayed at an expensive private hotel in Hanover Square. I ate my dinners there, but for breakfast I kept going to Harris’s humble eating place, the place where I had got my first meal on my million-pound banknote. Thanks to me, things were going well for Harris. The news had got out that the foreign crazy man who carried million-pound bills in his pocket always ate at the place. That was enough. From being a poor, struggling, little business that did not make much money, Harris’ eating place had become famous, and overcrowded with customers.

Harris was so grateful that kept lending me money, and would not let me say no. So, I was a poor man who had money to spend. I lived like the rich and the great. I judged that sooner or later things were going to go wrong; but I was in this mess now, and I had to swim across it or drown.

You see, I thought that disaster had to happen eventually. This was the serious side, the sober side, yes, the tragic side, of a situation which would otherwise have been completely ridiculous. In the dark of the night, the tragedy part was always in my mind. It was always warning and always worrying me and so I moaned and turned around in my bed, and sleep was hard to find. But in the cheerful daylight the tragedy disappeared, and I walked on air. I was so happy that I felt almost drunk with it.

You can’t blame me for being happy. I had become rather well-known in the biggest city in the world. This stopped me from thinking clearly about things. You could not buy a newspaper, English, Scottish, or Irish, without reading one or more stories about the ‘vest-pocket million-pounder’ and things I had done or said.

At first, when the newspapers mentioned me, I was at the bottom of thegossip column. Next, I was listed above the lower aristocracy, and next above the barons. It went on and on. As my reputation increased I was mentioned earlier and earlier in the gossip column, until I reached as high as it was possible to go. There I stayed, being mentioned above all aristocrats but the royal family, and above all churchmen apart from the top one in all England. But I knew that although I was well-known, I had not earned my fame.

Then came the greatest moment of all – the official recognition, so to speak. Punch magazine showed a cartoon of me! In a single instant this changed me from someone who was notorious to someone who was famous! Yes, my name and reputation were secure now; my place was established. I might be still joked about, but with respect, not rudely. I could be smiled at, but not laughed at. The time for that had gone by.Punch had pictured me dressed in rags, bargaining with a Beefeater for the Tower of London. Well, you can imagine how this affected a young fellow like me. No-one had ever taken notice of me before, and now suddenly I couldn’t say anything that didn’t catch on and get repeated everywhere.

When I left the house I kept overhearing people telling each other, ‘There he goes; that’s him!’. I couldn’t eat breakfast without a crowd watching me; couldn’t appear at the opera without being watched by a thousand opera glasses. Why, I just swam in glory all day long – that is all I can say about it.

You know, I even kept my old suit of rags. Every now and then I went out in them. I enjoyed the old pleasure of buying something unimportant and being insulted, and then showing the person insulting me the million-pound banknote. But I couldn’t keep that up. The illustrated papers made the suit well-known. Now when I went out in it I was recognized at once and a crowd followed me. If I tried to buy something the man would offer me his whole shop on credit before I could even pull my note on him.

When I had been famous for about ten days I went to do my duty to my country. That is to say, I visited the American ambassador. He received me with enthusiasm, but complained that I had been slow in coming to him. He said that there was only one way to get his forgiveness. One of his guests for his dinner-party that night had been taken ill, and I should take the vacant place. I said I would, and we started talking. It turned out that he and my father had been friends while boys at school. Later they were students together at Yale university, and had always been warm friends until my father’s death.

So then he required me to visit him at his house any time I was free, and of course I was very happy to do this. In fact, I was more than willing; I was glad. When the crash came, he might somehow be able to save me from total destruction. I didn’t know how, but I hoped that he might think of a way. I didn’t dare to tell him everyting, because it had all become so complicated. I did wish that I might have been able to come to him before I started this strange life in London.

No, I couldn’t tell him now. I was in too deep. That is, too deep to tell my new friend about the bet. However, I did not think things were completely out of control. Because you see, even though I was borrowing money, I was being very careful – that is, I was not spending more than my salary. Of course, I couldn’t know what my salary was going to be. However I had a good enough idea. If I won the bet I could choose any job which that rich old gentleman could give me. Of course I would have to be good at the job, but I would be – I hadn’t any doubt about that.

Go to Part 5 here.