The Fatal Boots, by William Makepeace Thackeray


I have called this chapter “cutting weather,” partly in compliment to the month of February, and partly in respect of my own misfortunes, which you are going to read about. For I have often thought that January (which is mostly twelfth-cake and holiday time) is like the first four or five years of a little boy’s life; then comes dismal February, and the working-days with it, when chaps begin to look out for themselves, after the Christmas and the New Year’s heyday and merrymaking are over, which our infancy may well be said to be. Well can I recollect that bitter first of February, when I first launched out into the world and appeared at Doctor Swishtail’s academy.

I began at school that life of prudence and economy which I have carried on ever since. My mother gave me eighteenpence on setting out (poor soul! I thought her heart would break as she kissed me, and bade God bless me); and, besides, I had a small capital of my own which I had amassed for a year previous. I’ll tell you, what I used to do. Wherever I saw six halfpence I took one. If it was asked for I said I had taken it and gave it back; — if it was not missed, I said nothing about it, as why should I? — those who don’t miss their money, don’t lose their money. So I had a little private fortune of three shillings, besides mother’s eighteenpence. At school they called me the copper-merchant, I had such lots of it.

Now, even at a preparatory school, a well-regulated boy may better himself: and I can tell you I did. I never was in any quarrels: I never was very high in the class or very low: but there was no chap so much respected:— and why? I’D ALWAYS MONEY. The other boys spent all theirs in the first day or two, and they gave me plenty of cakes and barley-sugar then, I can tell you. I’d no need to spend my own money, for they would insist upon treating me. Well, in a week, when theirs was gone, and they had but their threepence a week to look to for the rest of the half-year, what did I do? Why, I am proud to say that three-halfpence out of the threepence a week of almost all the young gentlemen at Dr. Swishtail’s, came into my pocket. Suppose, for instance, Tom Hicks wanted a slice of gingerbread, who had the money? Little Bob Stubbs, to be sure. “Hicks,” I used to say, “I’LL buy you three halfp’orth of gingerbread, if you’ll give me threepence next Saturday.” And he agreed; and next Saturday came, and he very often could not pay me more than three-halfpence. Then there was the threepence I was to have THE NEXT Saturday. I’ll tell you what I did for a whole half-year:— I lent a chap, by the name of Dick Bunting, three-halfpence the first Saturday for three-pence the next: he could not pay me more than half when Saturday came, and I’m blest if I did not make him pay me three-halfpence FOR THREE-AND-TWENTY WEEKS RUNNING, making two shillings and tenpence-halfpenny. But he was a sad dishonorable fellow, Dick Bunting; for after I’d been so kind to him, and let him off for three-and-twenty-weeks the money he owed me, holidays came, and threepence he owed me still. Well, according to the common principles of practice, after six-weeks’ holidays, he ought to have paid me exactly sixteen shillings, which was my due. For the

First week the 3d. would be 6d. | Fourth week . . . . . 4s.
Second week . . . . . 1s. | Fifth week . . . . . 8s.
Third week . . . . . 2s. | Sixth week . . . . . 16s.

Nothing could be more just; and yet — will it be believed? when Bunting came back he offered me THREE-HALFPENCE! the mean, dishonest scoundrel.

However, I was even with him, I can tell you. — He spent all his money in a fortnight, and THEN I screwed him down! I made him, besides giving me a penny for a penny, pay me a quarter of his bread and butter at breakfast and a quarter of his cheese at supper; and before the half-year was out, I got from him a silver fruit-knife, a box of compasses, and a very pretty silver-laced waistcoat, in which I went home as proud as a king: and, what’s more, I had no less than three golden guineas in the pocket of it, besides fifteen shillings, the knife, and a brass bottle-screw, which I got from another chap. It wasn’t bad interest for twelve shillings — which was all the money I’d had in the year — was it? Heigho! I’ve often wished that I could get such a chance again in this wicked world; but men are more avaricious now than they used to be in those dear early days.

Well, I went home in my new waistcoat as fine as a peacock; and when I gave the bottle-screw to my father, begging him to take it as a token of my affection for him, my dear mother burst into such a fit of tears as I never saw, and kissed and hugged me fit to smother me. “Bless him, bless him,” says she, “to think of his old father. And where did you purchase it, Bob?”—“Why, mother,” says I, “I purchased it out of my savings” (which was as true as the gospel). — When I said this, mother looked round to father, smiling, although she had tears in her eyes, and she took his hand, and with her other hand drew me to her. “Is he not a noble boy?” says she to my father: “and only nine years old!”—“Faith,” says my father, “he IS a good lad, Susan. Thank thee, my boy: and here is a crown-piece in return for thy bottle-screw — it shall open us a bottle of the very best too,” says my father. And he kept his word. I always was fond of good wine (though never, from a motive of proper self-denial, having any in my cellar); and, by Jupiter! on this night I had my little skinful — for there was no stinting — so pleased were my dear parents with the bottle-screw. The best of it was, it only cost me threepence originally, which a chap could not pay me.

Seeing this game was such a good one, I became very generous towards my parents; and a capital way it is to encourage liberality in children. I gave mamma a very neat brass thimble, and she gave me a half-guinea piece. Then I gave her a very pretty needle-book, which I made myself with an ace of spades from a new pack of cards we had, and I got Sally, our maid, to cover it with a bit of pink satin her mistress had given her; and I made the leaves of the book, which I vandyked very nicely, out of a piece of flannel I had had round my neck for a sore throat. It smelt a little of hartshorn, but it was a beautiful needle-book; and mamma was so delighted with it, that she went into town and bought me a gold-laced hat. Then I bought papa a pretty china tobacco-stopper: but I am sorry to say of my dear father that he was not so generous as my mamma or myself, for he only burst out laughing, and did not give me so much as a half-crown piece, which was the least I expected from him. “I shan’t give you anything, Bob, this time,” says he; “and I wish, my boy, you would not make any more such presents — for, really, they are too expensive.” Expensive indeed! I hate meanness — even in a father.

I must tell you about the silver-edged waistcoat which Bunting gave me. Mamma asked me about it, and I told her the truth — that it was a present from one of the boys for my kindness to him. Well, what does she do but writes back to Dr. Swishtail, when I went to school, thanking him for his attention to her dear son, and sending a shilling to the good and grateful little boy who had given me the waistcoat!

“What waistcoat is it,” says the Doctor to me, “and who gave it to you?”

“Bunting gave it me, sir,” says I.

“Call Bunting!” and up the little ungrateful chap came. Would you believe it, he burst into tears — told that the waistcoat had been given him by his mother, and that he had been forced to give it for a debt to Copper-Merchant, as the nasty little blackguard called me? He then said how, for three-halfpence, he had been compelled to pay me three shillings (the sneak! as if he had been OBLIGED to borrow the three-halfpence!)— how all the other boys had been swindled (swindled!) by me in like manner — and how, with only twelve shillings, I had managed to scrape together four guineas. . . . .

My courage almost fails me as I describe the shameful scene that followed. The boys were called in, my own little account-book was dragged out of my cupboard, to prove how much I had received from each, and every farthing of my money was paid back to them. The tyrant took the thirty shillings that my dear parents had given me, and said he should put them into the poor-box at church; and, after having made a long discourse to the boys about meanness and usury, he said, “Take off your coat, Mr. Stubbs, and restore Bunting his waistcoat.” I did, and stood without coat and waistcoat in the midst of the nasty grinning boys. I was going to put on my coat —

“Stop!” says he. “TAKE DOWN HIS BREECHES!”

Ruthless, brutal villain! Sam Hopkins, the biggest boy, took them down — horsed me — and I WAS FLOGGED, SIR: yes, flogged! O revenge! I, Robert Stubbs, who had done nothing but what was right, was brutally flogged at ten years of age! — Though February was the shortest month, I remembered it long.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00