Forester, by Maria Edgeworth

Forester, a Clerk.

We left Forester when he was just going to offer himself as clerk to a brewer. The brewer was a prudent man; and he sent one of his porters with a letter to Dr. Campbell, to inform him that a young lad, whom he had formerly seen in company with Mr. Henry Campbell, and who, he understood, was the doctor’s ward, had applied to him, and that he should be very happy to take him into his service, if his friends approved of it, and could properly recommend him. In consequence of Dr. Campbell’s answer to the brewer’s letter, Forester, who knew nothing of the application to his friends, obtained the vacant clerkship. He did not, however, long continue in his new situation. At first he felt happy, when he found himself relieved from, the vulgar petulance of Miss M’Evoy and her brother Colin: in comparison with their rude ill-humours, the clerks who were his companions appeared patterns of civility. By hard experience, Forester was taught to know, that obliging manners in our companions add something to the happiness of our lives. “My mind to me a kingdom is,” was once his common answer to all that his friend Henry could urge in favour of the pleasures of society; but he began now to suspect, that separated from social intercourse, his mind, however enlarged, would afford him but a dreary kingdom.

He flattered himself, that he could make a friend of the clerk who had found his key: this young man’s name was Richardson; he was good-natured, but ignorant; and neither his education nor his abilities distinguished him from any other clerk in similar circumstances. Forester invited him to walk to Arthur’s Seat, after the monotonous business of the day was over, but the clerk preferred walking on holidays in Prince’s-street; and, after several ineffectual attempts to engage him in moral and metaphysical arguments, our hero discovered the depth of his companion’s ignorance with astonishment. Once, when he found that two of the clerks, to whom he had been talking of Cicero and Pliny, did not know any thing of these celebrated personages, he said, with a sigh,

“But knowledge to their eyes her ample page,

      Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;

Chill penury repressed their noble rage,

      And froze the genial current of their soul.”

The word penury, in this stanza, the clerks at least understood, and it excited their “noble rage;” they hinted, that it ill became a person, who did not dress nearly as well as themselves, to give himself such airs, and to taunt his betters with poverty; they said that they supposed, because he was an Englishman, as they perceived by his accent, he thought he might insult Scotchmen as he pleased. It was vain for him to attempt any explanation; their pride and their prejudices combined against him: and, though their dislike to him was not so outrageous as that of the gardener, gentle Colin, yet it was quite sufficient to make him uneasy in his situation. Richardson was as steady as could reasonably be expected; but he showed so little desire to have “the ample page, rich with the spoils of time,” unrolled to him, that he excited our young scholar’s contempt. No friendships can be more unequal than those between ignorance and knowledge. We pass over the journal of our hero’s hours, which were spent in casting up and verifying accounts; this occupation, at length he decided, must be extremely injurious to the human understanding: “All the higher faculties of my soul,” said he to himself, “are absolutely useless at this work, and I am reduced to a mere machine.” But there were many other circumstances in the mercantile system, which Forester had not foreseen, and which shocked him extremely. The continual attention to petty gain, the little artifices which a tradesman thinks himself justifiable in practising upon his customers, could not be endured by his ingenuous mind. One morning the brewery was in an uncommon bustle; the clerks were all in motion. Richardson told Forester that they expected a visit in a few hours from the gauger and the supervisor, and that they were preparing for their reception. When the nature of these preparations was explained to Forester; when he was made to understand that the business and duty of a brewer’s clerk was to assist his master in evading certain clauses in certain acts of parliament; when he found, that to trick a gauger was thought an excellent joke, he stood in silent moral astonishment. He knew about as much of the revenue laws as the clerks did of Cicero and Pliny; but his sturdy principles of integrity could not bend to any of the arguments, founded on expediency, which were brought by his companions in their own and their master’s justification. He declared that he must speak to his master upon the subject immediately. His master was as busy as he could possibly be; and, when Forester insisted upon seeing him, he desired that he would speak as quickly as he could, for that he expected the supervisor every instant. Our hero declared, that he could not, consistently with his principles, assist in evading the laws of his country. The brewer stared, and then laughed; assured him that he had as great a respect for the laws as other people; that he did nothing but what every person in his situation was obliged to do in their own defence. Forester resolutely persisted in his determination against all clandestine practices. The brewer cut the matter short, by saying, he had not time to argue; but that he did not choose to keep a clerk who was not in his interests; that he supposed the next thing would be, to betray him to his supervisor.

“I am no traitor!” exclaimed Forester; “I will not stay another instant with a master who suspects me.”

The brewer suffered him to depart without reluctance; but what exasperated Forester the most was the composure of his friend Richardson during this scene, who did not even offer to shake hands with him, when he saw him going out of the house: for Richardson had a good place, and did not choose to quarrel with his master, for a person whom he now verily believed to be, as he had originally suspected, insane.

“This is the world! — this is friendship!” said Forester to himself.

His generous and enthusiastic imagination supplied him with eloquent invectives against human nature, even while he ardently desired to serve his fellow-creatures. He wandered through the streets of Edinburgh, indulging himself alternately in misanthropic reflections and benevolent projects. One instant, he resolved to study the laws, that he might reform the revenue laws; the next moment, he recollected his own passion for a desert island, and he regretted that he could not be shipwrecked in Edinburgh.

The sound of a squeaking fiddle roused Forester from his reverie; he looked up, and saw a thin, pale man fiddling to a set of dancing dogs, that he was exhibiting upon the flags, for the amusement of a crowd of men, women, and children. It was a deplorable spectacle; the dogs appeared so wretched, in the midst of the merriment of the spectators, that Forester’s compassion was moved, and he exclaimed —

“Enough, enough! — They are quite tired; here are some halfpence!”

The showman took the halfpence; but several fresh spectators were yet to see the sight; and though the exhausted animals were but little inclined to perform their antic feats, their master twitched the rope, that was fastened round their necks, so violently, that they were compelled to renew their melancholy dance.

Forester darted forward, stopped the fiddler’s hand, and began an expostulation, not one word of which was understood by the person to whom it was addressed. A stout lad, who was very impatient at this interruption of his diversion, began to abuse Forester, and presently from words he proceeded to blows.

Forester, though a better orator, was by no means so able a boxer as his opponent. The battle was obstinately fought on both sides; but, at length, our young Quixote received what has no name in heroic language, but in the vulgar tongue is called a black eye; and, covered with blood and bruises, he was carried by some humane passenger into a neighbouring house. It was a printer and bookseller’s shop. The bookseller treated him with humanity; and, after advising him not to be so hastily engaged to be the champion of dancing dogs, inquired who he was, and whether he had any friends in Edinburgh, to whom he could send.

This printer, from having been accustomed to converse with a variety of people, was a good judge of the language of gentlemen; and, though there was nothing else in Forester’s manners which could have betrayed him, he spoke in such good language, that the bookseller was certain that he had received a liberal education.

Our hero declined telling his history; but the printer was so well pleased with his conversation, that he readily agreed to give him employment; and, as soon as he recovered from his bruises, Forester was eager to learn the art of printing.

“The art of printing,” said he, “has emancipated mankind, and printers ought to be considered as the most respectable benefactors of the human race.”

Always warm in his admiration of every new phantom that struck his imagination, he was now persuaded that printers’ devils were angels, and that he should be supremely blessed in a printer’s office.

“What employment so noble!” said he, as he first took the composing-stick in his hand; “what employment so noble, as that of disseminating knowledge over the universe!”

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:44