This is a short story by Oscar Wilde. The story concerns a young man who, although he does not have much money himself, is moved to pity by the sight of an elderly beggar who is posing as a model for his artist friend. Although he can barely afford to do so, the young man gives the beggar the largest denomination coin that he has in his pocket. The young man’s act of kindness has unexpected positive consequences for him.
The Model Millionaire by Oscar Wilde
Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming person. The poor should be ordinary and practical. It is better to have a permanent income than to be interesting. These are the great truths of modern life which Hughie Erskine never realized. Poor Hughie! He was not, we must admit, a man of great intelligence. He never said a clever or even an unkind thing in his life. But then he was wonderfully good-looking, with his brown hair, his clear-cut features, and his grey eyes. He was as popular with men as he was with women, and he had every quality except that of making money. His father, on his death, had left him his sword and a History of the Peninsular War in 15 parts. Hughie hung the first above his mirror, put the second on a shelf, and lived on two hundred pounds a year that an old aunt allowed him. He had tried everything. He had bought and sold shares for six months; but how could he succeed among experienced men? He had been a tea trader for a little longer, but he had soon tired of that. Then he had tried selling wine, but nobody bought any. At last he became nothing, a charming, useless young man with perfect features and no profession.
To make matters worse, he was in love. The girl he loved was Laura Merton, the daughter of a former army officer who had lost his temper and his health in India, and had never found either of them again. Hughie loved her so much that he was ready to kiss her feet; and Laura loved him too. They were the best-looking pair in London, and had no money at all. Her father was very fond of Hughie, but would not hear of any marriage plans.
‘Come to me, my boy, when you have got ten thousand pounds of your own, and we will see about it,’ he used to say.
One morning, Hughie called in to see a great friend of his, Alan Trevor. Trevor was a painter. Of course, few people are not these days. But he was also an artist, and artists are rather rare. He was a strange, rough man, with a spotty face and an overgrown red beard. But when he took up the brush he was a real master, and his pictures were very popular. He had been much attracted by Hughie at first, it must be admitted, just because of his personal charm. ‘The only people a painter should know,’ he used to say, ‘are people who are both beautiful and stupid, people who are a pleasure to look at and restful to talk to.’ But after he got to know Hughie better, he liked him quite as much for his bright, cheerful spirits, and his generous, carefree nature, and had asked him to visit whenever he liked.
When Hughie came in, he found Trevor putting the finishing touches to a wonderful life-size picture of a beggar. The beggar himself was standing on a raised platform in a corner of the room. He was a tired old man with a lined face and a sad expression. Over his shoulder was thrown a rough brown coat, all torn and full of holes; his thick boots were old and mended, and with one hand he leant on a rough stick, while with the other he held out his old hat for money.
‘What an astonishing model!’ whispered Hughie, as he shook hands with his friend.
‘An astonishing model?’ shouted Trevor at the top of his voice; ‘I should think so! Such beggars are not met with every day Good heavens! What a picture Rembrandt would have made of him!’
‘Poor old man!’ said Hughie. ‘How miserable he looks! But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune.’
‘Certainly,’ replied Trevor, ‘you don’t want a beggar to look happy, do you?’
‘How much does a model get for being painted?’ asked Hughie, as he found himself a comfortable seat.
‘A shilling an hour.’
‘And how much do you get for your picture, Alan?’
‘Oh, for this I get two thousand pounds.’
‘Well, I think the model should have a share,’ cried Hughie, laughing; ‘he works quite as hard as you do.’
‘Nonsense, nonsense! Look at the trouble of laying on the paint, and standing all day in front of the picture! It’s easy, Hughie, for you to talk. But you mustn’t talk; I’m busy. Smoke a cigarette, and keep quiet.’
After some time the servant came in, and told Trevor that the frame maker wanted to speak to him.
‘Don’t run away, Hughie,’ he said, as he went out, ‘I will be back in a moment.’
The old beggar took advantage of Trevor’s absence to rest for a moment. He looked so miserable that Hughie pitied him, and felt in his pockets to see what money he had. All he could find was a pound and some pennies. ‘Poor old man,’ he thought, ‘he needs it more than I do, but I shan’t have much money myself for a week or two’; and he walked across the room and slipped the pound into the beggar’s hand.
The old man jumped, and a faint smile passed across his old lips. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said, ‘thank you.’
Then Trevor arrived, and Hughie left, a little red in the face at what he had done. He spent the day with Laura, who was charmingly cross that he had given away a pound, and had to walk home because he had no money for transport.
That night he went to his club at about 11 o’clock, and found Trevor sitting by himself in the smoking room.
‘Well, Alan, did you finish the picture all right?’ he asked.
‘Finished and framed, my boy!’ answered Trevor; ‘and, by the way, that old model you saw has become very fond of you. I had to tell him all about you — who you are, where you live, what your income is, what hopes you have … ’
‘My dear Alan,’ cried Hughie, ‘I shall probably find him waiting for me when I go home. But, of course, you are only joking. Poor old man! I wish I could do something for him. I think it is terrible that anyone should be so miserable. I have got piles of old clothes at home — do you think he would like any of them? His clothes were falling to bits.’
‘But he looks wonderful in them,’ said Trevor. ‘I would never want to paint him in good clothes. But I’ll tell him of your offer.’
‘Alan,’ said Hughie seriously, ‘You painters are heartless men.’
‘An artist’s heart is in his head,’ replied Trevor;‘ and besides, our business is to show the world as we see it, not to make it better. And now tell me how Laura is. The old model was quite interested in her.’
‘You don’t mean to say you talked to him about her?’ said Hughie.
‘Certainly I did. He knows all about the cruel father, the lovely Laura, and the ten thousand pounds.’
‘You told the old beggar all about my private affairs?’ cried Hughie.
‘My dear boy,’ said Trevor, smiling, ‘that old beggar, as you call him, is one of the richest men in Europe. He could buy all London tomorrow and still have money in the bank. He has a house in every capital, eats oh7 plates of gold, and can prevent Russia going to war when he wishes.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’ cried Hughie.
‘What I say,’ said Trevor. ‘The old man you saw today in my room was Baron Hausberg. He is a great friend of mine, buys all my pictures and that sort of thing, and asked me a month ago to paint him as a beggar. There’s nothing surprising about that. These rich men have some strange ideas. And I must say he looked fine in those old clothes.’
‘Baron Hausberg!’ cried Hughie. ‘Good heavens! I gave him a pound!’ and he sank back into his chair in shock.
‘Gave him a pound!’ shouted Trevor and he roared with laughter. ‘My dear boy, you’ll never see it again. His business is with other people ‘s money.’
‘I think you ought to have told me, Alan,’ said Hughie in a bad temper, ‘and not have let me make such a fool of myself.’
‘Well, to begin with, Hughie,’ said Trevor, ‘I never thought that you went about giving your money away in that careless manner. I can understand your kissing a pretty model, but not giving money to an ugly one. Besides, when you came in I didn’t know whether Hausberg would like his name mentioned. You know he wasn’t in his usual dress!’
‘How stupid he must think me!’ said Hughie.
‘Not at all. He was in the highest spirits after you left, and kept laughing to himself. I couldn’t understand why he was so interested in knowing all about you, but I see it all now. He’ll keep your pound for you, pay you interest every six months, and have a story to tell after dinner.’
‘I am an unlucky devil,’ said Hughie. ‘The best thing I can do is to go to bed; and, my dear Alan, you mustn’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t dare show my face if people knew’
‘Nonsense! It shows your kindness of spirit, Hughie. Have another cigarette, and you can talk about Laura as much as you like.’
But Hughie refused to stay; he walked home, feeling very unhappy, and leaving Alan Trevor helpless with laughter.
The next morning, as he was at breakfast, the servant brought him a card on which was written, ‘Mr Gustave Naudin, for Baron Hausberg’. ‘I suppose he wants me to say I am sorry about yesterday,’ said Hughie to himself, and he told the servant to bring the visitor in.
An old gentleman with gold glasses and grey hair came into the room and said, ‘Have I the honor of speaking to Mr Erskine?’
Hughie agreed that he was Mr Erskine.
‘I have come from Baron Hausberg,’ he continued. ‘The Baron-’
‘I beg, sir, that you will tell him how truly sorry I am,’ said Hughie quickly.
‘The Baron,’ said the old gentleman with a smile, ‘has asked me to bring you this letter’; and he held out an envelope.
On the outside was written ‘A wedding present to Hugh Erskine and Laura Merton, from an old beggar’, and inside was a cheque for ten thousand pounds.