You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 16

Boy into Man

IN this setting it was that Edward Albert Tewler began that series of studies, trials, efforts and inquiries that constituted the basic side of his metamorphosis, his wakening to the need of getting a living and finding a place for himself in the great swaying organism of adult human life. He was too young to be affected very seriously by the First World War of 1914–18. After the first excitement of being at war, that wider interest faded. He had not acquired the newspaper habit. He celebrated Armistice Day as the triumphant realisation that “we”, the British, had won, as ever, and he ceased to have any sort of international consciousness thereafter. He was, as we shall tell later, quite surprised by the war in 1939.

He set himself with great gravity to his studies in that Kentish Town College. He had a serious discussion with the Principal about his prospects. The idea of a bank clerkship seemed hopeless, and the Principal was by no means so convinced of the value of the London Matriculation as the Camden Town librarian. “It’s pretty stiff, you know. Three languages. There’s Latin, French, and either Greek or German.”

“German’s Greek to me” said Edward Albert.

“And it’s not much in itself unless you’re going to be a teacher.

“But what I should do, if I were you,” said the Principal, “is to take our special course of Business Method for our own Certificate of Proficiency. There are one or two business organisations, ‘North London Leaseholds’ for example, that practically take all their clerical staff from us on our certificate. We charge a slight commission when you are placed. There you get something certain. The pay isn’t high, I admit, but the hours aren’t bad, nine to one and two to six, and then you could come here for more advanced work in our evening classes, and have a shot at the Lower Division Civil Service or something of that sort. . . . ”

That seemed a sound, safe proposition to Edward Albert and he accepted it. He gained his Certificate of Proficiency at the second attempt and was presently handed over to North London Leaseholds, and after that he went on with a variety of evening classes, and never got anywhere or did anything further. Nothing whatever. His objectives wavered continually.

He became a perennial student. He sat in the backs of lecture theatres not even trying to keep up with what was going on. Generally he began with a certain mental resistance to the lecturer, which deepened into something very like detestation as the course flowed on. “How does he know?” he would ask himself, “and, anyhow he needn’t give himself the airs he does. I expect there’s others could make all his blab blab look pretty small if they chose. Wish I’d never joined up for this Rot. Worse than the last, it is.” If he had known of any way of putting out his tongue at those lecturers invisibly, he would certainly have done so.

Among other subjects, he attended classes in Elizabethan Literature, Botany, English Prose Composition, Elementary Latin, Political Economy, Agricultural Science, Geology, Geometrical Drawing and Greek Art. But whatever possibility his mind had had of deliberate concentration was rapidly diminishing now under the pressure of those intense preoccupations with which we shall deal in the next chapter.

When he was just over one-and-twenty a wonderful thing happened to him, one of his reveries was more than realised; he came in for money. He inherited an estate of some of the very worst slum-property in Edinburgh, which finally realised a capital of between nine and ten thousand pounds. His maternal uncle had died intestate and he was the sole next of kin. He had no idea of the magnitude of the old man’s hoard. That dawned upon him by degrees. His idea of a legacy was a “hundred pounds.” At first he thought the whole thing might be a joke of Harold Thump’s, but the postmark was Edinburgh right enough. He consulted Mrs Doober, Mr Doober, Colebrook and Mahogany, and the College Lecturer in Constitutional Law. They all took it seriously and gave valuable advice.

So he got a week’s leave in anticipation of his customary ten days. holidays from his North London Leaseholds job, and went off to Scotland to see about it all. All his advisers seemed to expect more than that “cool hundred.”

“A cool fousand, then,” he had tried.

“It might be more than that,” said Mr Doober. “Much more than that.

Edward Albert’s expectations expanded. Endless reveries had prepared his mind for some such good fortune. He was elated but not intoxicated when he began to realise the extent and nature of his windfall. He displayed an unsuspected business shrewdness. “I can’t manage that property, as you say; it has to be somebody on the spot, and if there’s people ready to buy an’ ready to sell. What I want is mortgages, first mortgages, scattered about, for you can’t be too careful. I know a bit about mortgages; I bin a mortgagee for years. And I’d like if I can to have it all done by Hooper and Kirkshaw and Hooper — you know, Sir Rumbold Hooper.”

Whereupon the people in Edinburgh became excessively respectful and distributed his fortune carefully and righteously, and Edward Albert came back to London in a real first-class carriage, with tremendously padded blue seats and white lace for your head and hot water pipes and everything, whistling softly to himself and torn between a desire to tell everybody about his legacy and a determination not to let anybody know too much about it.

His reveries were confused and exciting. You will hear more about them in the next Book. He foresaw nothing, but on that return journey he anticipated a good deal. Nothing he anticipated happened. That something which figures so largely in heavy classical discourses upon Greek Tragedy, “[unrecoverable OCR error (dcvefcyxTj)]”, seems to have been on the same train and to have followed him post haste to Scartmore House.

From this point onward Mr James Whittaker and Mr Myame faded unobtrusively out of Edward Albert’s life and in consequence out of our story. “It takes the lousy little beast right off our hands, and that’s that,” said Mr James Whittaker, and never gave him another thought. Those are his last words in our drama.

Mr Myame’s formal exit had occurred already.

The winding-up of his trusteeship had been accomplished with the utmost correctness and formality by Hooper and Kirkshaw and Hooper. The mortgage was being paid off with regularity and the good man’s accounts were entirely in order. The transition occurred without a jolt. A residuum of a thousand pounds remained undisturbed for some years by dignified mutual consent.

Such was Mr Myame’s formal exit. But something of him hung about in dreamland to the very end of Edward Albert’s days.

Mr Myame had figured in a string of religious nightmares during a phase of dyspepsia and influenza following upon a revivalist sermon Edward Albert had been miraculously induced to hear by a sudden shower of rain. “Strait is the gate,” tenored the revivalist, “and narrow is the way!”— the very first words Edward Albert heard. How many times had he not called Mr Myame narrow? Narrow is the way. You cannot be too careful. Hell is on either side.

With these rapid confusions of identity natural in dreamland, Mr Myame would be at one moment himself and at another his own just and terrible God, who, according to the best Christian authorities, had created a world of sinners in order to hunt it remorselessly to a hell of everlasting torture. This amiable Divinity overhung him, pouring coals of Jupiter upon him out of a kind of cornucopia scuttle. Edward Albert screamed noiselessly in the dreamland way. He awoke rigid with horror and for days his soul was black with spiritual dismay.

He dreaded bedtime and those God-ridden hours.

There was nothing to be done about them, except live through them. You can’t give up going to bed. And gradually they were pushed out of his consciousness by returning health and the steady onset of that other dominant system of urgencies in the human metamorphosis, the convergent factors of the sexual drive. That too shall be told with the same disinterested integrity that we have observed hitherto, at any cost to the lingering illusions and natural modesty of reader and writer alike.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30