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

Chapter 6

First Steps in French

THE feudal framework of Edward Albert’s ideas would admit of no gainful enterprises of this kind whatever; His disposition was to do nothing of any sort anywhere until he was told. Quite time enough then,

“Earning a living” meant for him finding a “place”, a “situation”, both definitely sessile words. You ceased to float dangerously along the stream of life at the very earliest opportunity and struck root. You found where you could get the best pay for the least work — if possible with fixed rises and a pension scheme — and you settled down, trusting, admiring, but at the same time avoiding the humiliating company of your betters as much as possible. You got a nice little household of your own — but of that later. You started a “hobby” to amuse you in your spare time, you watched cricket and played golf, and so backed slowly towards the grave in which you were to bury whatever talent you had ever possessed. Respectful but irresponsible dependence; “ordering yourself lowly and reverently to all your betters”, as the dear old catechism puts it; that was the feudal idea.

Before his mother’s death, Edward Albert had been induced to contemplate the problem of his social anchorage so far as to listen to a suggestion made by one of her friends that a Gas Works Clerk was one of the soundest possible positions to which a modest young Believer might aspire. To qualify for such a place in the world, he heard the lady say it was best to go twice a week to the evening classes of the Imperial College of Commercial Science for their Course of Training in Business Methods. They issued certificates of proficiency in all the clerkly arts, pr6cis and book-keeping by single and double entry, commercial arithmetic, mensuration, long hand and shorthand. Elementary French — not French but Elementary French, whatever that may mean. This training was specially adapted to turning a crude human being into a Gas Works Clerk, and indeed she knew as a fact that the gas works people came to the College and accepted its certificates unquestioningly. The College, according to its copious prospectus, engaged in many other activities, the Lower Division Civil Service, London Matriculation and so on, but it was the Gas Works Clerk, one particular case she had known, that had seized upon the informant’s imagination. He was such a nice young man.

Edward Albert listened carelessly at first and then attentively, and reflected. The College was situated in Kentish Town; its hoarding made a brave show, and what he saw there was not so much the prospect of gumming himself down firmly as a Gas Works Clerk, as of going in the evening, unwatched and uncontrolled, through the magic of the lit streets to the college. One could start early and arrive late; he was already an adept in such intercalary freedoms. He had still much of the lingering levity of boyhood and the Hidden Hand in his make-up.

Then he would be able to loiter on his way outside the glittering temptations of the cinema theatre. He could stop and see and read everything there was to be read and seen, contemplate the lively “stills”, wondering. He could watch people going in. He wouldn’t go in. That would be wrong. Bat there was no harm in asking what it would cost to go in. What would you see? And if after all, someday he did go in. It would be a sin of course, a dreadful sin, disobedience, deceit, all that. You might be run over on your way home and go straight to hell with all your sin upon you. . . .

But suppose you weren’t run over! Lovely ladies, quite close up, kissing. Fellers carrying them off on their saddles. Shooting. Throwing knives. What harm would it be to see it once? Those were the days of the early Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mack Sennett; and dear Mary Pickford as “Little Pal” was dawning on a world that has always loved her. Magically silent they were, with a stirring piano accompaniment. Through those forbidden doors you could hear the music; you could get glimpses. . . .

Of course he would repent very bitterly before he went to bed — for one cannot be too careful — and pray God to preserve him, and promise never to do it again. God was pretty good at forgiving anyhow if you set about it in the right way. Seventy times seven and all that. “‘Ave mercy on me, a miserable sinner, God; ‘ave mercy on me. I was led away. I was tempted.”

He felt he could get away with it. Those evening classes would be like a great door opening upon unknown mysteries and freedoms. You might stay out until after ten!

So that when the project was brought before Mr Myame, there was a very considerable discussion before it was deferred.

“I am all for it,” said Mr Myame, “in due course. When he is ripe for it. But that is not yet. You see, at times and in some subjects he will not exert himself. I have had to note that in his reports. His ability, I maintain, is considerable, but until he makes more progress in his Elementary French, in his Arithmetic, in his dictation and parsing and handwriting — Look at those inky fingers now, Mrs Tewler! Is he ready yet to benefit by a Commercial College?”

Edward Albert felt a spasm of hatred for Mr Myame.

“Of course, p’raps they teach you better in the College,” said Edward Albert, and then, mitigating the blow; “Faster like.”

“There’s no Royal Road to Learning,” said Mr Myame. “No. ‘Thorough’, has always been my motto. Like the great Earl Strafford. So let us go down to the foundations, the Elements. What is the French, Tewler, for ‘the’?”

That was easy. “Ler Lar Lay,” sang Edward Albert.

“Elementary French,” said Mr Myame, “that is all he will ever have to study. Advanced French has an amount of innuendo in it. . . . I don’t admire it. I hope he will never be able to read French books or go on one of those trips they advertise nowadays to Boulogne or Paris. French literature even at its best is tainted by a curious continental flavour. There is something unEnglish about it. All that is worth while in it has been translated and suitably expurgated. Or much of it could not be published here. But let us get on with our little examination. Tell me again, Tewler, what is the French for ‘the’— in the singular.”

“Masculine, Ler; feminine, Lar.”

“And neuter, dear?” said Mrs Tewler encouragingly.

Mr Myame smiled gravely. “I am afraid there is no neuter in French. None whatever. ‘Lay’, the third word you heard, is simply the plural.

“The French language brings sex into everything,” Mr Myame proceeded to explain. “That is its nature. Everything is ‘il’ or ‘elle’. ‘Il’ is he and ‘elle’ is she. Nothing is neuter in French — nothing.”

“Extraordinary!” said Mrs Tewler.

“A table, oone table, is feminine, believe it or not. Oone shays, feminine also, is a chair. But a knife, oon canif, is masculine. Oon, you observe, not Oone. You notice the difference, masculine and female.”

“A male knife! A female chair! It makes me feel — quite uncomfortable,” said Mrs Tewler. “Why do they do it?”

“There it is. And now, Tewler, how do you say ‘the father and the mother’?”

“Le père ate la mère.”

“Good. Very good. And now for the plural.”

Gently but firmly Mr Myame led him on from this first reassuring stage to more difficult combinations. Various relations, an aunt, an uncle, a nephew, various objects, apples, books, gardens, houses, encumbered the mind; ownership, Mong and mar and note, complicated their relationship. By the time they got to “To the books of the aunt of the gardener of our house,” Edward Albert had lost his head completely. He was guessing and floundering. Mr Myame corrected him and tangled him up almost caressingly.

“You see,” said Mr Myame, “he has it in a sort of way, but he is unsound. He is not yet Thorough. The grounding is loose because so far he has not given his mind to it. Until he has all that firm and clear and hard as a rock, it would be a mere waste of money to send him on to the College. . . . ”

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