The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 78

ERNEST was now well turned twenty-six years old, and in little more than another year and a half would come into possession of his money. I saw no reason for letting him have it earlier than the date fixed by Miss Pontifex herself, at the same time I did not like his continuing the shop at Blackfriars after the present crisis. It was not till now that I fully understood how much he had suffered, nor how nearly his supposed wife’s habits had brought him to actual want.

I had indeed noted the old, wan, worn look settling upon his face, but was either too indolent or too hopeless of being able to sustain a protracted and successful warfare with Ellen to extend the sympathy and make the enquiries which I suppose I ought to have made. And yet I hardly know what I could have done, for nothing short of his finding out what he had found out would have detached him from his wife, and nothing could do him much good as long as he continued to live with her.

After all I suppose I was right; I suppose things did turn out all the better in the end for having been left to settle themselves-at any rate whether they did or did not, the whole thing was in too great a muddle for me to venture to tackle it so long as Ellen was upon the scene; now, however, that she was removed, all my interest in my godson revived, and I turned over many times in my mind what I had better do with him.

It was now three and a half years since he had come up to London and begun to live, so to speak, upon his own account. Of these years, six months had been spent as a clergyman, six months in gaol, and for two and a half years he had been acquiring twofold experience in the ways of business and of marriage. He had failed, I may say, in everything that he had undertaken, even as a prisoner; yet his defeats had been always, as it seemed to me, something so like victories, that I was satisfied of his being worth all the pains I could bestow upon him; my only fear was lest I should meddle with him when it might be better for him to be let alone. On the whole I concluded that a three and a half years’ apprenticeship to a rough life was enough; the shop had done much for him; it had kept him going after a fashion, when he was in great need; it had thrown him upon his own resources, and taught him to see profitable openings all around him, where a few months before he would have seen nothing but insuperable difficulties; it had enlarged his sympathies by making him understand the lower classes, and not confining his view of life to that taken by gentlemen only. When he went about the streets and saw the books outside the secondhand book-stalls, the bric-a-brac in the curiosity shops, and the infinite commercial activity which is omnipresent around us, he understood it and sympathised with it as he could never have done if he had not kept a shop himself.

He has often told me that when he used to travel on a railway that overlooked populous suburbs, and looked down upon street after street of dingy houses, he used to wonder what kind of people lived in them, what they did and felt, and how far it was like what he did and felt himself. Now, he said, he knew all about it. I am not very familiar with the writer of the Odyssey (who, by the way, I suspect strongly of having been a clergyman), but he assuredly hit the right nail on the head when he epitomised his typical wise man as knowing “the ways and farings of many men.” What culture is comparable to this? What a lie, what a sickly, debilitating debauch did not Ernest’s school and university career now seem to him, in comparison with his life in prison and as a tailor in Blackfriars. I have heard him say he would have gone through all he had suffered if it were only for the deeper insight it gave him into the spirit of the Grecian and the Surrey pantomimes. What confidence again in his own power to swim if thrown into deep waters had not he won through his experiences during the last three years!

But, as I have said, I thought my godson had now seen as much of the under currents of life as was likely to be of use to him, and that it was time he began to live in a style more suitable to his prospects. His aunt had wished him to kiss the soil, and he had kissed it with a vengeance; but I did not like the notion of his coming suddenly from the position of a small shopkeeper to that of a man with an income of between three and four thousand a year. Too sudden a jump from bad fortune to good is just as dangerous as one from good to bad; besides, poverty is very wearing; it is a quasi-embryonic condition, through which a man had better pass if he is to hold his later developments securely, but like measles or scarlet fever he had better have it mildly and get it over early.

No man is safe from losing every penny he has in the world, unless he has had his facer. How often do I not hear middle-aged women and quiet family men say that they have no speculative tendency; they never had touched, and never would touch, any but the very soundest, best reputed investments, and as for unlimited liability, oh, dear! dear! and they throw up their hands and eyes.

Whenever a person is heard to talk thus he may be recognised as the easy prey of the first adventurer who comes across him; he will commonly, indeed, wind up his discourse by saying that in spite of all his natural caution, and his well knowing how foolish speculation is, yet there are some investments which are called speculative but in reality are not so, and he will pull out of his pocket the prospectus of a Cornish gold mine. It is only on having actually lost money that one realises what an awful thing the loss of it is, and finds out how easily it is lost by those who venture out of the middle of the most beaten path. Ernest had had his facer, as he had had his attack of poverty, young, and sufficiently badly for a sensible man to be little likely to forget it. I can fancy few pieces of good fortune greater than this as happening to any man, provided, of course, that he is not damaged irretrievably.

So strongly do I feel on this subject that if I had my way I would have a speculation master attached to every school. The boys would be encouraged to read the Money Market Review, the Railway News, and all the best financial papers, and should establish a stock exchange amongst themselves in which pence should stand as pounds. Then let them see how this making haste to get rich moneys out in actual practice. There might be a prize awarded by the head-master to the most prudent dealer, and the boys who lost their money time after time should be dismissed. Of course if any boy proved to have a genius for speculation and made money — well and good, let him speculate by all means.

If universities were not the worst teachers in the world I should like to see professorships of speculation established at Oxford and Cambridge. When I reflect, however, that the only things worth doing which Oxford and Cambridge can do well are cooking, cricket, rowing and games, of which there is no professorship, I fear that the establishment of a professorial chair would end in teaching young men neither how to speculate, nor how not to speculate, but would simply turn them out as bad speculators.

I heard of one case in which a father actually carried my idea into practice. He wanted his son to learn how little confidence was to be placed in glowing prospectuses and flaming articles, and found him five hundred pounds which he was to invest according to his lights. The father expected he would lose the money; but it did not turn out so in practice, for the boy took so much pains and played so cautiously that the money kept growing and growing till the father took it away again, increment and all — as he was pleased to say, in self defence.

I had made my own mistakes with money about the year 1846, when everyone else was making them. For a few years I had been so scared and had suffered so severely, that when (owing to the good advice of the broker who had advised my father and grandfather before me) I came out in the end a winner and not a loser, I played no more pranks, but kept henceforward as nearly in the middle the middle rut as I could. I tried in fact to keep my money rather than to make more of it. I had done with Ernest’s money as with my own-that is to say I had let it alone after investing it in Midland ordinary stock according to Miss Pontifex’s instructions. No amount of trouble would have been likely to have increased my godson’s estate one half so much as it had increased without my taking any trouble at all.

Midland stock at the end of August, 1850, when I sold out Miss Pontifex’s debentures, stood at L32 per L100. I invested the whole of Ernest’s L15,000 at this price, and did not change the investment till a few months before the time of which I have been writing lately — that is to say until September, 1861. I then sold at L129 per share and invested in London and North-Western ordinary stock, which I was advised was more likely to rise than Midlands now were. I bought the London and North-Western stock at L93 per L100, and my godson now in 1882 still holds it.

The original LI5,000 had increased in eleven years to over L60,000; the accumulated interest, which, of course, I had re-invested, had come to about L10,000 more, so that Ernest was then worth over L70,000. At present he is worth nearly double that sum, and all as the result of leaving well alone.

Large as his property now was, it ought to be increased still further during the year and a half that remained of his minority, so that on coming of age he ought to have an income of at least L3500 a year.

I wished him to understand bookkeeping by double entry. I had myself as a young man been compelled to master this not very difficult art; having acquired it, I have become enamoured of it, and consider it the most branch of any young man’s education after reading and writing. I was determined, therefore, that Ernest should master it, and proposed that he should become my steward, bookkeeper, and the manager of my hoardings, for I called the sum which my ledger showed to have accumulated from L15,000 to L70,000. I told him I was going to begin to spend the income as soon as it had mounted up to L80,000.

A few days after Ernest’s discovery that he was still a bachelor, while he was still at the very beginning of the honeymoon, as it were, of his renewed unmarried life, I broached my scheme, desired him to give up his shop, and offered him L300 a year for managing (so far indeed as it required any managing) his own property. This L300 a year, I need hardly say, I made him charge to the estate.

If anything had been wanting to complete his happiness it was this. Here, within three or four days he found himself freed from one of the most hideous, hopeless liaisons imaginable, and at the same time raised from a life of almost squalor to the enjoyment of what would to him be a handsome income.

“A pound a week,” he thought, “for Ellen, and the rest for myself.”

“No,” said I, “we will charge Ellen’s pound a week to the estate also. You must have a clear L300 for yourself.”

“I fixed upon this sum, because it was the one which Mr. Disraeli gave Coningsby when Coningsby was at the lowest ebb of his fortunes. Mr. Disraeli evidently thought L300 a year the smallest sum on which Coningsby could be expected to live, and make the two ends meet; with this, however, he thought his hero could manage to get along for a year or two. In 1862, of which I am now writing, prices had risen, though not so much as they have since done; on the other hand Ernest had had less expensive antecedents than Coningsby, so on the whole I thought L300 a year would be about the right thing for him.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31