AMONGST the curiosities of human reasoning is this: one forms a judgment on certain statements; they turn out incorrect, yet the judgment sound.
This occurs oftenest when, to divine what any known person will do in a case stated, we go boldly by his character, his habits, or his interest: for these are great forces, towards which men gravitate through various and even contrary circumstances.
Now women, sitting at home out of detail’s way, are somewhat forced, as well as naturally inclined, to rely on their insight into character; and, by this broad clue, often pass through false or discoloured data to a sound calculation.
Thus it was Mrs. Dodd applied her native sagacity to divine why Richard Hardie declined Julia for his son’s wife, and how to make him withdraw that dissent: and the fair diviner was much mistaken in detail but right in her conclusion; for Richard Hardie was at that moment the unlikeliest man in Barkington to decline Julia Dodd — with Hard Cash in five figures — for his daughter-inlaw.
I am now about to make a revelation to the reader, that will incidentally lead him to Mrs. Dodd’s conclusion, but by a different path.
The outline she gave her daughter and my reader of Richard Hardie’s cold and prudent youth was substantially correct; but something had occurred since then, unknown to her, unknown to all Barkington. The centuries had blown a respectable bubble.
About two hundred and fifty years ago, some genius, as unknown as the inventor of the lathe, laid the first wooden tramroad, to enable a horse to draw forty-two cwt. instead of seventeen. The coalowners soon used it largely. In 1738, iron rails were invented; but prejudice, stronger than that metal, kept them down, and the wooden ones in vogue, for some thirty years. Then iron prevailed.
Meantime, a much greater invention had been creeping up to join the metal way; I mean the locomotive power of steam, whose history is not needed here. Enough that in 1804 took place as promising a wedding as civilisation ever saw; for then an engine built by Trevethick, a great genius frittered for want of pluck, drew carriages, laden with ten tons, five miles an hour on a Welsh railway. Next stout Stephenson came on the scene, and insisted on benefiting mankind in spite of themselves, and of shallow legislators, a priori reasoners, and a heavy Review whose political motto was, “Stemus super antiquas vias;” which may be rendered, “Better stand still on turnpikes than move on rails.”
His torments and triumph are history.
Two of his repartees seem neat: 1. To Lord Noodle, or Lord Doodle, which was it? objecting haughtily, “And suppose a cow should get in the way of your engine, sir?” he replied, “Why, then it would be bad — for the coow.” The objector had overrated the obstructive power of his honoured parent.
2. To the a priori reasoners, who sat in their studies and demonstrated with complete unanimity that uncogged wheels would revolve on a smooth rail, but leave the carriage in statu quo, he replied by building an engine with Lord Ravensworth’s noble aid, hooking on eight carriages, and rattling off up an incline. “Solvitur ambulando,” quoth Stephenson the stout-hearted to Messrs. A Priori.
Next a coach ran on the Stockton and Darlington rail. Next the Liverpool and Manchester line was projected. Oh, then, what bitter opposition to the national benefactors, and the good of man!
Awake from the tomb echoes of dead Cant.
“The revolving wheels might move the engine on a rail; but what would that avail if they could not move them in the closet, and on a mathematical paper? Railways would be bad for canals, bad for morals, bad for highwaymen, bad for roadside inns: the smoke would kill the partridges (‘Aha! thou hast touched us nearly,’ said the country gentlemen), the travellers would go slowly to their destination, but swift to destruction.” And the Heavy Review, whose motto was “Stemus super turnpikes,” offered “to back old Father Thames against the Woolwich railway for any sum. And Black Will, who drove the next heaviest ephemeral in the island, told a schoolboy, who now writes these pages, “there’s nothing can ever be safe at twenty miles an hour, without ’tis a bird in the air;” and confirmed it with an oath. Briefly, buzz! buzz! buzz!
Gray was crushed, Trevethick driven out of the country, stout Steevie thwarted, badgered, taunted, and even insulted, and bespattered with dirt — I might say with dung, since his opponents discharged their own brains at him by speech and writing. At last, when, after the manner of men, they had manured their benefactor well, they consented to reap him. Railways prevailed, and increased, till lo and behold a Prime Minister with a spade delving one in the valley of the Trent. The tide turned; good working railways from city to city became an approved investment of genuine capital, notwithstanding the frightful frauds and extortion to which the projectors were exposed in a Parliament which, under a new temptation, showed itself as corrupt and greedy as any nation or age can parallel.
When this sober state of things had endured some time, there came a year that money was loose, and a speculative fever due in the whirligig of time. Then railways bubbled. New ones were advertised, fifty a month, and all went to a premium. High and low scrambled for the shares, even when the projected line was to run from the town of Nought to the village of Nothing across a goose common. The flame spread, fanned by prospectus and advertisement, two mines of glowing fiction, compared with which the legitimate article is a mere tissue of understatements; princes sat in railway tenders, and clove the air like the birds whose effigies surmount their armorials; our stiffest Peers relaxed into Boards; Bishops warned their clergy against avarice, and buttered Hudson an inch thick for shares; and turned their little aprons into great pockets; men, stainless hitherto, put down their infants, nurses included, as independent subscribers, and bagged the coupons, capturi tartaros. Nearly everything that had a name, and, by some immense fortuity, could write it, demanded its part in the new and fathomless source of wealth: a charwoman’s two sons were living in a garret on fifteen shillings apiece per week; down went their excellencies’ names for L. 37,000 worth of bubbling iron; another shareholder applied imperiously from a house in Grosvenor Square; he had breakfasted on the steps. Once more in Time’s whirligig gentlemen and their footmen jostled one another on the Exchange, and a motley crew of peers and printers, vicars and admirals, professors, cooks, costermongers, cotton-spinners, waiters, coachmen, priests, potboys, hankers, braziers, dairymen, mail-guards, barristers, spinsters, butchers, beggars, duchesses, rag-merchants — in one word, of Nobs and Snobs; fought and scrambled pell mell for the popular paper, and all to get rich in a day.8
8 For the humours of the time see the parliamentary return of Railway Subscribers, published 1846: Francis’s British Railway: Evan’s Commercial Crisis; and the pamphlets and journals of the day.
Richard Hardie had some money in existing railways, but he declined to invest his hard cash upon hypotheticals. He was repeatedly solicited to be a director, but always declined. Once he was offered a canny bribe of a thousand pounds to let his name go on a provisional committee. He refused with a characteristic remark: “I never buy any merchandise at a fancy price, not even hard cash.”
Antidote to the universal mania, Barkington had this one wet blanket; an unpopular institution; but far more salutary than a damp sheet especially in time of Bubble.
Nearly all his customers consulted Richard Hardie, and this was the substance of his replies: “The Bubbles of History, including the great one of my youth, were national, as well as individual, follies. It is not so now: the railways, that ruin their allottees and directors, will be pure additions to the national property, and some day remove one barrier more from commerce. The Dutch tulip frenzy went on a petty fancy: the Railway fury goes on a great fact. Our predecessors blew mere soap bubbles; we blow an iron bubble: but here the distinction ends. In 1825 the country undertook immediate engagements, to fulfil which a century’s income would not have sufficed: today a thousand railway companies are registered, requiring a capital of six hundred million and another thousand projected, to cost another five hundred million. Where is the money to come from? If the world was both cultivated and civilised (instead of neither), and this nation could be sold, with every building, ship, quadruped, jewel, and marketable female in it, it would not fetch the money to make these railways; yet the country undertakes to create them in three years with its floating capital. Arithmetic of Bedlam! The thing cannot last a year without collapsing.” Richard Hardie talked like this from first to last. But, when he saw that shares invariably mounted; that even those who, for want of interest, had to buy them at a premium, sold them at a profit; when he saw paupers making large fortunes in a few months, by buying into every venture and selling the next week — he itched for his share of the booty, and determined to profit in act by the credulity of mankind, as well as expose it in words. He made use of his large connections to purchase shares, which he took care to part with speedily. He cleared a good deal of money, and that made him hungrier: he went deeper and deeper into what he called Flat-catching, till one day he stood to win thirty thousand pounds at a coup.
But it is dangerous to be a convert, real or false, to Bubble: the game is to be rash at once, and turn prudent at the full tide. When Richard Hardie was up to his chin in these time bargains, came an incident not easy to foresee: the conductors of the Times, either from patriotism or long-sighted policy, punctured the bladder, though they were making thousands weekly by the railway advertisements. The time was so well chosen, and the pin applied, that it was a death-blow: shares declined from that morning, and the inevitable panic was advanced a week or two. The more credulous speculators held on in hopes of a revival; but Hardie, who knew that the collapse had been merely hastened, saw the gravity of the situation, and sold largely at a heavy loss. But he could not sell all the bad paper he had accumulated for a temporary purpose: the panic came too swiftly and too strong; soon there were no buyers at any price. The biter was bit: the fox who had said, “This is a trap; I’ll lightly come and lightly go,” was caught by the light fantastic toe.
In this emergency he showed high qualities: vast financial ability, great fortitude, and that sense of commercial honour which Mrs. Dodd justly called his semi-chivalrous sentiment. He mustered all his private resources to meet his engagements and maintain his high position. Then commenced a long and steady struggle, conducted with a Spartan dignity and self-command, and a countenance as close as wax. Little did any in Barkington guess the doubts and fears, the hopes and despondencies, which agitated and tore the heart and brain that schemed, and throbbed, and glowed, and sickened by turns beneath that steady modulated exterior. And so for months and months he secretly battled with insolvency; sometimes it threatened in the distance, sometimes at hand, but never caught him unawares: he provided for each coming danger, he encountered each immediate attack. But not unscathed in morals. Just as matters looked brighter, came a concentration of liabilities he could not meet without emptying his tills, and so incurring the most frightful danger of all. He had provided for its coming too; but a decline, greater than he had reckoned on, in the value of his good securities, made that provision inadequate. Then it was he committed a faux-pas. He was one of his own children’s trustees, and the other two signed after him like machines. He said to himself: “My honour is my children’s; my position is worth thousands to them. I have sacrificed a fortune to preserve it; it would be madness to recoil now.” He borrowed three thousand pounds of the trust money, and, soon after, two thousand more: it kept him above water; but the peril, and the escape on such terms, left him gasping inwardly.
At last, when even his granite nature was almost worn down with labour, anxiety, and struggling all alone without a word of comfort — for the price of one grain of sympathy would have been “Destruction”— he shuffled off his iron burden and breathed again.
One day he spent in a sort of pleasing lethargy, like a strong swimmer who, long and sore buffeted by the waves, has reached the shore at last.
The next day his cashier, a sharp-visaged, bald-headed old man called Young Skinner, invited his attention rather significantly to the high amount of certain balances compared with the cash at his (Skinner’s) disposal.
“Indeed!” said Hardie quietly; “that must be regulated.” He added graciously, as if conferring a great favour, “I’ll look into the books myself, Skinner.”
He did more: he sat up all night over the books; and his heart died with him. Bankruptcy seemed coming towards him, slow perhaps, but sure. And meantime to live with the sword hanging over him by a hair!
Soon matters approached a crisis; several large drafts were drawn, which would have cleaned the bank out, but that the yearly rents of a wealthy nobleman had for some days past been flowing in. This nobleman had gone to explore Syria and Assyria. He was a great traveller, who contrived to live up to his income at home, but had never been able to spend a quarter of it abroad, for want of enemies and masters — better known as friends and servants — to help him. So Hardie was safe for some months, unless there should be an extraordinary run on him, and that was not likely this year; the panic had subsided, and, nota bene, his credit had never stood higher. The reason was, he had been double-faced; had always spoken against railways: and his wise words were public, whereas his fatal acts had been done in the dark.
But now came a change, a bitter revulsion, over this tossed mind: hope and patience failed at last, and his virtue, being a thing of habit and traditions rather than of the soul, wore out; nay more, this man, who had sacrificed so nobly to commercial integrity, was filled with hate of his idol and contempt of himself. “Idiot!” said he, “to throw away a fortune fighting for honour — a greater bubble than that which has ruined me — instead of breaking like a man, with a hidden purse, and starting fair again, as sensible traders do.”
No honest man in the country that year repented of his vices so sincerely as Richard Hardie loathed his virtue. And he did not confine his penitence to sentiment: he began to spend his days at the bank poring over the books, and to lay out his arithmetical genius in a subtle process, that should enable him by degrees to withdraw a few thousands from human eyes for his future use, despite the feeble safeguards of the existing law. In other words, Richard Hardie, like thousands before him, was fabricating and maturing a false balance-sheet.
One man in his time plays many animals. Hardie at this period turned mole. He burrowed darkling into oes alienum. There is often one of these sleek miners in a bank: it is a section of human zoology the journals have lately enlarged on, and drawn the painstaking creature grubbing and mining away to brief opulence — and briefer penal servitude than one could wish. I rely on my reader having read these really able sketches of my contemporaries, and spare him minute details, that possess scarcely a new feature, except one: in that bank was not only a mole, but a mole-catcher; and, contrary to custom, the mole was the master, the mole-catcher the servant. The latter had no hostile views; far from it: he was rather attached to his master. But his attention was roused by the youngest clerk, a boy of sixteen, being so often sent for into the bank parlour, to copy into the books some arithmetical result, without its process. Attention soon became suspicion; and suspicion found many little things to feed on, till it grew to certainty. But the outer world was none the wiser: the mole-catcher was no chatterbox; he was a solitary man — no wife nor mistress about him; and he revered the mole, and liked him better than anything in the world —except money.
Thus the great banker stood, a colossus of wealth and stability to the eye, though ready to crumble at a touch; and indeed self-doomed, for bankruptcy was now his game.
This was a miserable man, far more miserable than his son, whose happiness he had thwarted: his face was furrowed and his hair thinned by a secret struggle; and of all the things that gnawed him, like the fox, beneath his Spartan robe, none was more bitter than to have borrowed five thousand pounds of his children and sunk it.
His wife’s father, a keen man of business, who saw there was little affection on his side, had settled his daughter’s money on her for life, and in case of her death, on the children upon coming of age. The marriage of Alfred or Jane would be sure to expose him; settlements would be proposed; lawyers engaged to peer into the trust, &c. No; they must remain single for the present, or else marry wealth.
So, when his son announced an attachment to a young lady living in a suburban villa, it was a terrible blow, though he took it with outward calm, as usual. But if, instead of prating about beauty, virtue, and breeding, Alfred had told him hard cash in five figures could be settled by the bride’s family on the young couple, he would have welcomed the wedding with great external indifference, but a secret gush of joy; for then he could throw himself on Alfred’s generosity, and be released from that one corroding debt; perhaps allowed to go on drawing the interest of the remainder.
Thus, in reality, all the interests with which this story deals converged towards one point: the fourteen thousand pounds. Richard Hardie’s opposition was a mere misunderstanding; and if he had been told of the Cash, and to what purpose Mrs. Dodd destined it, and then put on board the Agra in the Straits of Gaspar, he would have calmly taken off his coat, and help to defend the bearer of It against all assailants as stoutly, and, to all appearance, imperturbably, as he had fought that other bitter battle at home. For there was something heroic in this erring man, though his rectitude depended on circumstances.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59