I begin shrewdly to suspect the young man of a terrible
taint — Poetry; with which idle disease if he be infected,
there’s no hope of him in astate course. Actum est of him
for a commonwealth’s man, if he goto’t in rhyme once.
Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair.
My father had, generally speaking, his temper under complete self-command, and his anger rarely indicated itself by words, except in a sort of dry testy manner, to those who had displeased him. He never used threats, or expressions of loud resentment. All was arranged with him on system, and it was his practice to do “the needful” on every occasion, without wasting words about it. It was, therefore, with a bitter smile that he listened to my imperfect answers concerning the state of commerce in France, and unmercifully permitted me to involve myself deeper and deeper in the mysteries of agio, tariffs, tare and tret; nor can I charge my memory with his having looked positively angry, until he found me unable to explain the exact effect which the depreciation of the louis d’or had produced on the negotiation of bills of exchange. “The most remarkable national occurrence in my time,” said my father (who nevertheless had seen the Revolution)—“and he knows no more of it than a post on the quay!”
“Mr. Francis,” suggested Owen, in his timid and conciliatory manner, “cannot have forgotten, that by an arret of the King of France, dated 1st May 1700, it was provided that the porteur, within ten days after due, must make demand”—
“Mr. Francis,” said my father, interrupting him, “will, I dare say, recollect for the moment anything you are so kind as hint to him. But, body o’ me! how Dubourg could permit him! Hark ye, Owen, what sort of a youth is Clement Dubourg, his nephew there, in the office, the black-haired lad?”
“One of the cleverest clerks, sir, in the house; a prodigious young man for his time,” answered Owen; for the gaiety and civility of the young Frenchman had won his heart.
“Ay, ay, I suppose he knows something of the nature of exchange. Dubourg was determined I should have one youngster at least about my hand who understood business. But I see his drift, and he shall find that I do so when he looks at the balance-sheet. Owen, let Clement’s salary be paid up to next quarter-day, and let him ship himself back to Bourdeaux in his father’s ship, which is clearing out yonder.”
“Dismiss Clement Dubourg, sir?” said Owen, with a faltering voice.
“Yes, sir, dismiss him instantly; it is enough to have a stupid Englishman in the counting-house to make blunders, without keeping a sharp Frenchman there to profit by them.”
I had lived long enough in the territories of the Grand Monarque to contract a hearty aversion to arbitrary exertion of authority, even if it had not been instilled into me with my earliest breeding; and I could not refrain from interposing, to prevent an innocent and meritorious young man from paying the penalty of having acquired that proficiency which my father had desired for me.
“I beg pardon, sir,” when Mr. Osbaldistone had done speaking; “but I think it but just, that if I have been negligent of my studies, I should pay the forfeit myself. I have no reason to charge Monsieur Dubourg with having neglected to give me opportunities of improvement, however little I may have profited by them; and with respect to Monsieur Clement Dubourg”—
“With respect to him, and to you, I shall take the measures which I see needful,” replied my father; “but it is fair in you, Frank, to take your own blame on your own shoulders — very fair, that cannot be denied. — I cannot acquit old Dubourg,” he said, looking to Owen, “for having merely afforded Frank the means of useful knowledge, without either seeing that he took advantage of them or reporting to me if he did not. You see, Owen, he has natural notions of equity becoming a British merchant.”
“Mr. Francis,” said the head-clerk, with his usual formal inclination of the head, and a slight elevation of his right hand, which he had acquired by a habit of sticking his pen behind his ear before he spoke —“Mr. Francis seems to understand the fundamental principle of all moral accounting, the great ethic rule of three. Let A do to B, as he would have B do to him; the product will give the rule of conduct required.”
My father smiled at this reduction of the golden rule to arithmetical form, but instantly proceeded.
“All this signifies nothing, Frank; you have been throwing away your time like a boy, and in future you must learn to live like a man. I shall put you under Owen’s care for a few months, to recover the lost ground.”
I was about to reply, but Owen looked at me with such a supplicatory and warning gesture, that I was involuntarily silent.
“We will then,” continued my father, “resume the subject of mine of the 1st ultimo, to which you sent me an answer which was unadvised and unsatisfactory. So now, fill your glass, and push the bottle to Owen.”
Want of courage — of audacity if you will — was never my failing. I answered firmly, “I was sorry that my letter was unsatisfactory, unadvised it was not; for I had given the proposal his goodness had made me, my instant and anxious attention, and it was with no small pain that I found myself obliged to decline it.”
My father bent his keen eye for a moment on me, and instantly withdrew it. As he made no answer, I thought myself obliged to proceed, though with some hesitation, and he only interrupted me by monosyllables. —“It is impossible, sir, for me to have higher respect for any character than I have for the commercial, even were it not yours.”
“It connects nation with nation, relieves the wants, and contributes to the wealth of all; and is to the general commonwealth of the civilised world what the daily intercourse of ordinary life is to private society, or rather, what air and food are to our bodies.”
“And yet, sir, I find myself compelled to persist in declining to adopt a character which I am so ill qualified to support.”
“I will take care that you acquire the qualifications necessary. You are no longer the guest and pupil of Dubourg.”
“But, my dear sir, it is no defect of teaching which I plead, but my own inability to profit by instruction.”
“Nonsense. — Have you kept your journal in the terms I desired?”
“Be pleased to bring it here.”
The volume thus required was a sort of commonplace book, kept by my father’s recommendation, in which I had been directed to enter notes of the miscellaneous information which I had acquired in the course of my studies. Foreseeing that he would demand inspection of this record, I had been attentive to transcribe such particulars of information as he would most likely be pleased with, but too often the pen had discharged the task without much correspondence with the head. And it had also happened, that, the book being the receptacle nearest to my hand, I had occasionally jotted down memoranda which had little regard to traffic. I now put it into my father’s hand, devoutly hoping he might light on nothing that would increase his displeasure against me. Owen’s face, which had looked something blank when the question was put, cleared up at my ready answer, and wore a smile of hope, when I brought from my apartment, and placed before my father, a commercial-looking volume, rather broader than it was long, having brazen clasps and a binding of rough calf. This looked business-like, and was encouraging to my benevolent well-wisher. But he actually smiled with pleasure as he heard my father run over some part of the contents, muttering his critical remarks as he went on.
“— Brandies — Barils and barricants, also tonneaux. — At Nantz 29 — Velles to the barique at Cognac and Rochelle 27 — At Bourdeaux 32 — Very right, Frank — Duties on tonnage and custom-house, see Saxby’s Tables — That’s not well; you should have transcribed the passage; it fixes the thing in the memory — Reports outward and inward — Corn debentures — Over-sea Cockets — Linens — Isingham — Gentish — Stock-fish — Titling — Cropling — Lub-fish. You should have noted that they are all, nevertheless to be entered as titlings. — How many inches long is a titling?”
Owen, seeing me at fault, hazarded a whisper, of which I fortunately caught the import.
“Eighteen inches, sir.”—
“And a lub-fish is twenty-four — very right. It is important to remember this, on account of the Portuguese trade — But what have we here? — Bourdeaux founded in the year — Castle of the Trompette — Palace of Gallienus — Well, well, that’s very right too. — This is a kind of waste-book, Owen, in which all the transactions of the day — emptions, orders, payments, receipts, acceptances, draughts, commissions, and advices — are entered miscellaneously.”
“That they may be regularly transferred to the day-book and ledger,” answered Owen: “I am glad Mr. Francis is so methodical.”
I perceived myself getting so fast into favour, that I began to fear the consequence would be my father’s more obstinate perseverance in his resolution that I must become a merchant; and as I was determined on the contrary, I began to wish I had not, to use my friend Mr. Owen’s phrase, been so methodical. But I had no reason for apprehension on that score; for a blotted piece of paper dropped out of the book, and, being taken up by my father, he interrupted a hint from Owen, on the propriety of securing loose memoranda with a little paste, by exclaiming, “To the memory of Edward the Black Prince — What’s all this? — verses! — By Heaven, Frank, you are a greater blockhead than I supposed you!”
My father, you must recollect, as a man of business, looked upon the labour of poets with contempt; and as a religious man, and of the dissenting persuasion, he considered all such pursuits as equally trivial and profane. Before you condemn him, you must recall to remembrance how too many of the poets in the end of the seventeenth century had led their lives and employed their talents. The sect also to which my father belonged, felt, or perhaps affected, a puritanical aversion to the lighter exertions of literature. So that many causes contributed to augment the unpleasant surprise occasioned by the ill-timed discovery of this unfortunate copy of verses. As for poor Owen, could the bob-wig which he then wore have uncurled itself, and stood on end with horror, I am convinced the morning’s labour of the friseur would have been undone, merely by the excess of his astonishment at this enormity. An inroad on the strong-box, or an erasure in the ledger, or a mis-summation in a fitted account, could hardly have surprised him more disagreeably. My father read the lines sometimes with an affectation of not being able to understand the sense — sometimes in a mouthing tone of mock heroic — always with an emphasis of the most bitter irony, most irritating to the nerves of an author.
“O for the voice of that wild horn,
On Fontarabian echoes borne,
The dying hero’s call,
That told imperial Charlemagne,
How Paynim sons of swarthy Spain
Had wrought his champion’s fall.
“Fontarabian echoes!” continued my father, interrupting himself; “the Fontarabian Fair would have been more to the purpose — Paynim! — What’s Paynim? — Could you not say Pagan as well, and write English at least, if you must needs write nonsense? —
“Sad over earth and ocean sounding.
And England’s distant cliffs astounding.
Such are the notes should say
How Britain’s hope, and France’s fear,
Victor of Cressy and Poitier,
In Bordeaux dying lay.”
“Poitiers, by the way, is always spelt with an s, and I know no reason why orthography should give place to rhyme. —
“‘Raise my faint head, my squires,’ he said,
‘And let the casement be display’d,
That I may see once more
The splendour of the setting sun
Gleam on thy mirrored wave, Garonne,
And Blaye’s empurpled shore.
“Garonne and sun is a bad rhyme. Why, Frank, you do not even understand the beggarly trade you have chosen.
“‘Like me, he sinks to Glory’s sleep,
His fall the dews of evening steep,
As if in sorrow shed,
So soft shall fall the trickling tear,
When England’s maids and matrons hear
Of their Black Edward dead.
“‘And though my sun of glory set,
Nor France, nor England, shall forget
The terror of my name;
And oft shall Britain’s heroes rise,
New planets in these southern skies,
Through clouds of blood and flame.’
“A cloud of flame is something new — Good-morrow, my masters all, and a merry Christmas to you! — Why, the bellman writes better lines.” He then tossed the paper from him with an air of superlative contempt, and concluded —“Upon my credit, Frank, you are a greater blockhead than I took you for.”
What could I say, my dear Tresham? There I stood, swelling with indignant mortification, while my father regarded me with a calm but stern look of scorn and pity; and poor Owen, with uplifted hands and eyes, looked as striking a picture of horror as if he had just read his patron’s name in the Gazette. At length I took courage to speak, endeavouring that my tone of voice should betray my feelings as little as possible.
“I am quite aware, sir, how ill qualified I am to play the conspicuous part in society you have destined for me; and, luckily, I am not ambitious of the wealth I might acquire. Mr. Owen would be a much more effective assistant.” I said this in some malice, for I considered Owen as having deserted my cause a little too soon.
“Owen!” said my father —“The boy is mad — actually insane. And, pray, sir, if I may presume to inquire, having coolly turned me over to Mr. Owen (although I may expect more attention from any one than from my son), what may your own sage projects be?”
“I should wish, sir,” I replied, summoning up my courage, “to travel for two or three years, should that consist with your pleasure; otherwise, although late, I would willingly spend the same time at Oxford or Cambridge.”
“In the name of common sense! was the like ever heard? — to put yourself to school among pedants and Jacobites, when you might be pushing your fortune in the world! Why not go to Westminster or Eton at once, man, and take to Lilly’s Grammar and Accidence, and to the birch, too, if you like it?”
“Then, sir, if you think my plan of improvement too late, I would willingly return to the Continent.”
“You have already spent too much time there to little purpose, Mr. Francis.”
“Then I would choose the army, sir, in preference to any other active line of life.”
“Choose the d — l!” answered my father, hastily, and then checking himself —“I profess you make me as great a fool as you are yourself. Is he not enough to drive one mad, Owen?”— Poor Owen shook his head, and looked down. “Hark ye, Frank,” continued my father, “I will cut all this matter very short. I was at your age when my father turned me out of doors, and settled my legal inheritance on my younger brother. I left Osbaldistone Hall on the back of a broken-down hunter, with ten guineas in my purse. I have never crossed the threshold again, and I never will. I know not, and I care not, if my fox-hunting brother is alive, or has broken his neck; but he has children, Frank, and one of them shall be my son if you cross me farther in this matter.”
“You will do your pleasure,” I answered — rather, I fear, with more sullen indifference than respect, “with what is your own.”
“Yes, Frank, what I have is my own, if labour in getting, and care in augmenting, can make a right of property; and no drone shall feed on my honeycomb. Think on it well: what I have said is not without reflection, and what I resolve upon I will execute.”
“Honoured sir! — dear sir!” exclaimed Owen, tears rushing into his eyes, “you are not wont to be in such a hurry in transacting business of importance. Let Mr. Francis run up the balance before you shut the account; he loves you, I am sure; and when he puts down his filial obedience to the per contra, I am sure his objections will disappear.”
“Do you think I will ask him twice,” said my father, sternly, “to be my friend, my assistant, and my confidant? — to be a partner of my cares and of my fortune? — Owen, I thought you had known me better.”
He looked at me as if he meant to add something more, but turned instantly away, and left the room abruptly. I was, I own, affected by this view of the case, which had not occurred to me; and my father would probably have had little reason to complain of me, had he commenced the discussion with this argument.
But it was too late. I had much of his own obduracy of resolution, and Heaven had decreed that my sin should be my punishment, though not to the extent which my transgression merited. Owen, when we were left alone, continued to look at me with eyes which tears from time to time moistened, as if to discover, before attempting the task of intercessor, upon what point my obstinacy was most assailable. At length he began, with broken and disconcerted accents — “O L— d, Mr. Francis! — Good Heavens, sir! — My stars, Mr. Osbaldistone! — that I should ever have seen this day — and you so young a gentleman, sir! — For the love of Heaven! look at both sides of the account — think what you are going to lose — a noble fortune, sir — one of the finest houses in the City, even under the old firm of Tresham and Trent, and now Osbaldistone and Tresham — You might roll in gold, Mr. Francis — And, my dear young Mr. Frank, if there was any particular thing in the business of the house which you disliked, I would” (sinking his voice to a whisper) “put it in order for you termly, or weekly, or daily, if you will — Do, my dear Mr. Francis, think of the honour due to your father, that your days may be long in the land.”
“I am much obliged to you, Mr. Owen,” said I—“very much obliged indeed; but my father is best judge how to bestow his money. He talks of one of my cousins: let him dispose of his wealth as he pleases — I will never sell my liberty for gold.”
“Gold, sir? — I wish you saw the balance-sheet of profits at last term — It was in five figures — five figures to each partner’s sum total, Mr. Frank — And all this is to go to a Papist, and a north-country booby, and a disaffected person besides — It will break my heart, Mr. Francis, that have been toiling more like a dog than a man, and all for love of the firm. Think how it will sound, Osbaldistone, Tresham, and Osbaldistone — or perhaps, who knows” (again lowering his voice), “Osbaldistone, Osbaldistone, and Tresham, for our Mr. Osbaldistone can buy them all out.”
“But, Mr. Owen, my cousin’s name being also Osbaldistone, the name of the company will sound every bit as well in your ears.”
“O fie upon you, Mr. Francis, when you know how well I love you — Your cousin, indeed! — a Papist, no doubt, like his father, and a disaffected person to the Protestant succession — that’s another item, doubtless.”
“There are many very good men Catholics, Mr. Owen,” rejoined I.
As Owen was about to answer with unusual animation, my father re-entered the apartment.
“You were right,” he said, “Owen, and I was wrong; we will take more time to think over this matter. — Young man, you will prepare to give me an answer on this important subject this day month.”
I bowed in silence, sufficiently glad of a reprieve, and trusting it might indicate some relaxation in my father’s determination.
The time of probation passed slowly, unmarked by any accident whatever. I went and came, and disposed of my time as I pleased, without question or criticism on the part of my father. Indeed, I rarely saw him, save at meal-times, when he studiously avoided a discussion which you may well suppose I was in no hurry to press onward. Our conversation was of the news of the day, or on such general topics as strangers discourse upon to each other; nor could any one have guessed, from its tenor, that there remained undecided betwixt us a dispute of such importance. It haunted me, however, more than once, like the nightmare. Was it possible he would keep his word, and disinherit his only son in favour of a nephew whose very existence he was not perhaps quite certain of? My grandfather’s conduct, in similar circumstances, boded me no good, had I considered the matter rightly. But I had formed an erroneous idea of my father’s character, from the importance which I recollected I maintained with him and his whole family before I went to France. I was not aware that there are men who indulge their children at an early age, because to do so interests and amuses them, and who can yet be sufficiently severe when the same children cross their expectations at a more advanced period. On the contrary, I persuaded myself, that all I had to apprehend was some temporary alienation of affection — perhaps a rustication of a few weeks, which I thought would rather please me than otherwise, since it would give me an opportunity of setting about my unfinished version of Orlando Furioso, a poem which I longed to render into English verse. I suffered this belief to get such absolute possession of my mind, that I had resumed my blotted papers, and was busy in meditation on the oft-recurring rhymes of the Spenserian stanza, when I heard a low and cautious tap at the door of my apartment. “Come in,” I said, and Mr. Owen entered. So regular were the motions and habits of this worthy man, that in all probability this was the first time he had ever been in the second story of his patron’s house, however conversant with the first; and I am still at a loss to know in what manner he discovered my apartment.
“Mr. Francis,” he said, interrupting my expression of surprise and pleasure at seeing, him, “I do not know if I am doing well in what I am about to say — it is not right to speak of what passes in the compting-house out of doors — one should not tell, as they say, to the post in the warehouse, how many lines there are in the ledger. But young Twineall has been absent from the house for a fortnight and more, until two days since.”
“Very well, my dear sir, and how does that concern us?”
“Stay, Mr. Francis; — your father gave him a private commission; and I am sure he did not go down to Falmouth about the pilchard affair; and the Exeter business with Blackwell and Company has been settled; and the mining people in Cornwall, Trevanion and Treguilliam, have paid all they are likely to pay; and any other matter of business must have been put through my books:— in short, it’s my faithful belief that Twineall has been down in the north.”
“Do you really suppose?” so said I, somewhat startled.
“He has spoken about nothing, sir, since he returned, but his new boots, and his Ripon spurs, and a cockfight at York — it’s as true as the multiplication-table. Do, Heaven bless you, my dear child, make up your mind to please your father, and to be a man and a merchant at once.”
I felt at that instant a strong inclination to submit, and to make Owen happy by requesting him to tell my father that I resigned myself to his disposal. But pride — pride, the source of so much that is good and so much that is evil in our course of life, prevented me. My acquiescence stuck in my throat; and while I was coughing to get it up, my father’s voice summoned Owen. He hastily left the room, and the opportunity was lost.
My father was methodical in everything. At the very same time of the day, in the same apartment, and with the same tone and manner which he had employed an exact month before, he recapitulated the proposal he had made for taking me into partnership, and assigning me a department in the counting-house, and requested to have my final decision. I thought at the time there was something unkind in this; and I still think that my father’s conduct was injudicious. A more conciliatory treatment would, in all probability, have gained his purpose. As it was, I stood fast, and, as respectfully as I could, declined the proposal he made to me. Perhaps — for who can judge of their own heart? — I felt it unmanly to yield on the first summons, and expected farther solicitation, as at least a pretext for changing my mind. If so, I was disappointed; for my father turned coolly to Owen, and only said, “You see it is as I told you. — Well, Frank” (addressing me), “you are nearly of age, and as well qualified to judge of what will constitute your own happiness as you ever are like to be; therefore, I say no more. But as I am not bound to give in to your plans, any more than you are compelled to submit to mine, may I ask to know if you have formed any which depend on my assistance?”
I answered, not a little abashed, “That being bred to no profession, and having no funds of my own, it was obviously impossible for me to subsist without some allowance from my father; that my wishes were very moderate; and that I hoped my aversion for the profession to which he had designed me, would not occasion his altogether withdrawing his paternal support and protection.”
“That is to say, you wish to lean on my arm, and yet to walk your own way? That can hardly be, Frank; — however, I suppose you mean to obey my directions, so far as they do not cross your own humour?”
I was about to speak —“Silence, if you please,” he continued. “Supposing this to be the case, you will instantly set out for the north of England, to pay your uncle a visit, and see the state of his family. I have chosen from among his sons (he has six, I believe) one who, I understand, is most worthy to fill the place I intended for you in the counting-house. But some farther arrangements may be necessary, and for these your presence may be requisite. You shall have farther instructions at Osbaldistone Hall, where you will please to remain until you hear from me. Everything will be ready for your departure tomorrow morning.”
With these words my father left the apartment.
“What does all this mean, Mr. Owen?” said I to my sympathetic friend, whose countenance wore a cast of the deepest dejection.
“You have ruined yourself, Mr. Frank, that’s all. When your father talks in that quiet determined manner, there will be no more change in him than in a fitted account.”
And so it proved; for the next morning, at five o’clock, I found myself on the road to York, mounted on a reasonably good horse, and with fifty guineas in my pocket; travelling, as it would seem, for the purpose of assisting in the adoption of a successor to myself in my father’s house and favour, and, for aught I knew, eventually in his fortune also.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00