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

Chapter 5

Terrifying Enterprise

UNRESTRAINED youngsters think and talk of getting on in the world. Young Buffin Burleybank, who came into the school as a day boy for one short term until there was a vacancy for him at Mottiscombe, lived in an acquisitive home atmosphere where making money was openly discussed and glorified. He had wonderful stories of “young Harmsworth” and “old Newnes.” Young Harmsworth had lived just round the corner, so to speak, in Camden Town, and his father was an unsuccessful barrister who used to speak in the Camden Town Mock Parliament. And the youngster had borrowed a bit of money somehow, started something called Answers, started something else called Comic Cuts, and now was worth a cool million. Still young and worth a cool million. And Newnes had been just a little obscure country chemist until he read a bit out of a paper and said to his wife, “I call that a regular Tit Bit.” And then came the great idea, why not have a magazine filled up entirely with Tit Bits, with unconsidered trifles picked up here there and everywhere? And he put a bit of capital into it and here he was ‘normously rich. ‘Normously rich. “Why! he owns pretty nearly every funicular in the world!”

“What’s a funicular?” asked Edward Albert.

“My father says he does, anyhow,” said Buffin, evading the question. “What I’m going to do is, go in for cars. Yes, cars. Put my shirt on them. These motor cars are going big. They cost a lot to make and they’re always going to cost a lot to make. You got to have skilled exact workmen, my father says, and those you can’t get cheap. Nohow. So if the demand grows the price will go up. See? They’ve got cars now about as cheap first-hand as ever they’re going to be, and what people like doctors and commercial travellers and middle — class people will get will be anything from shop-soiled to tenth-hand. Well, that’s a business for you. Eh? Growing and growing. You can buy ’em, do ’em up as good as new, sell ’em hire purchase, hire ’em out — In a few years only dukes and earls and millionaires will have the slick new cars. There won’t be one car in ten on the road new. Not one in ten.”

“You don’t think they might somehow make reely cheap cars?” speculated Edward Albert.

“They’ve tried it, in America. My father knows all about that. There’s a man named Henry Ford and his cars — why they’re a joke! They rattle. They’re ugly as sin. They fall to pieces. He makes jokes about ’em himself. Then there’s these steam cars they have. Kettles on wheels. They blow out in a high wind. My father saw one of them blown out the other day. No. The car for a man of ordinary means is going to be the second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand, high grade car, done-up and carefully renewed. There’s lots of cars on the road now that will still be on the road in twenty-five years’ time. And that’s where little Buffin Burleybank means to come in. That’s where we open the oyster. You watch me. Go to Buffin Burleybank for a car. Get his advice. See his selection. His ‘normous selection. A Car for Everyman. There’s wonderful twists and turns in it. There’s such things as vintage years for cars, my father says. J’ever think of that?”

“What’s a vintage year?” asked Edward Albert.

“My father says they’ll buy ’em by their dates,” said Buffin, overriding the question. “It’s a great game. You got to watch out for everything. You got to keep your eyes skinned.”

And excited by this home-grown faith in his business ability, he actually started a scheme of his own for buying and selling bicycles right there in the school, that even impressed Mr Myame. If you bought a single bicycle you were the public and you had to pay full price; the dealer was bound by his contract with the wholesaler not to undersell. But suppose a few of you got together and made yourselves a firm and had an address and business notepaper all proper, then you could order half a dozen machines at trade rates and get them — Buffin was a little vague — twenty-five, thirty-five per cent off. Which meant, said Buffin, calculating rapidly, you get six at the price of four. “Practically,” said Buffin, seeing Mr Myame was checking his figures slowly but earnestly. For he talked the idea out to Mr Myame after school one day, and Mr Myame was interested and bent his countenance towards him and seemed to half believe in him. So it was that a firm named B. Burleybank and Co. came into actual being in Camden Town. It had the use of a small newsagent’s shop for its address, and by advance payments by Mr Myame and Nuts MacBryde and a friendly advance and an order from Burleybank père, who wanted to give the boy a bit of experience as well as a birthday present of a bicycle, the necessary capital was assembled and six shining bicycles were procured and stored, after a brief altercation, in the newsagent’s back yard.

“And now,” said our young entrepreneur, after handing out his three cost price bicycles to his three associates, “I’ve only got to sell the other three at the market rate and I stand in to make. . . . ”

There were complications in the reckoning; the stationery and so forth had to be paid for. And there was a difficulty he had not anticipated in finding just the particular people in Camden Town who were disposed to buy a bicycle in a hurry at the market rate. He persuaded the newsagent to put one of the unsold machines into the shop, and marked it at a ten per cent reduction as “A bargain. Slightly shop — soiled”, but after a couple of days the newsagent insisted upon its removal because customers coming in for papers and cigarettes barked their shins against the treadle and swore something dreadful.

Buffin became almost wistful in his inquiries, ‘e You don’t happen to know anyone who wants a brand new bicycle in splendid condition at very little over cost price?” He went about reading the faces of passers-by for the bicycle-buying look. Intimations of a transitory failure, of a lesson that would finally redound to his credit, came into his speeches. “It’s not such a good thing as I thought. This. I started undercapitalised. If it wasn’t for having to go to Mottiscombe I’d risk it now. I’d ask for three months’ credit on twelve more bicycles, twelve, mind you, hire a shop-window and make a splash. And when the credit was up I’d pay upon what I’d sold and have credit extended for more. They’d do it if I talked to them. I’m getting the hang of it. . . . Well, let me tell you a day will come when all you timid snipe will remember how Buffin bought his first experience for forty pounds — maybe it will come to that, s’much as that — bought it for forty pounds and sold it for a million.”

“And suppose ‘e doesn’t sell his bicycles,” said Edward Albert, whistling after his fashion. “Suppose they don’t pay him at Mottiscombe. Nice ‘ole ‘e’ll be in.”

Which indeed was precisely what happened. Buffin went off to Mottiscombe and never more did the star of the Burleybanks rise above Edward Albert’s horizon. Anything may have happened to them except success. Maybe Burleybank and Son went in too deep for second-hand cars before they heard of the use of gauges in mass production.

Edward Albert watched this burst of enterprise with envious disapproval when, first of all, he felt it might succeed, and then with that “told you so” feeling which is one of our subtler pleasures in this vale of tears.

But Mr Myame’s transitory appreciation of Buffin’s cleverness wounded our hero profoundly. There was an element of worldliness about it. He had expected more other-worldliness from Mr Myame. He anyhow had got out of it very well, he and Nuts. . . . It set one thinking.

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