On Something/His Character

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
On Unkown People

A certain merchant in the City of London, having retired from business, purchased for himself a private house upon the heights of Hampstead and proposed to devote his remaining years to the education and the establishment in life of his only son.

When this youth (whose name was George) had arrived at the age of nineteen his father spoke to him after dinner upon his birthday with regard to the necessity of choosing a profession. He pointed out to him the advantages of a commercial career, and notably of that form of useful industry which is known as banking, showing how in that trade a profit was to be made by lending the money of one man to another, and often of a man's own money to himself, without engaging one's own savings or fortune.

George, to whom such matters were unfamiliar, listened attentively, and it seemed to him with every word that dropped from his father that a wider and wider horizon of material comfort and worldly grandeur was spreading out before him. He had hitherto had no idea that such great rewards were attached to services so slight in themselves, and certainly so valueless to the community. The career sketched out for him by his father appealed to him most strongly, and when that gentleman had completed his advice he assured him that he would follow it in every particular.

George's father was overjoyed to find his son so reasonable. He sat down at once to write the note which he had planned, to an old friend and connection by marriage, Mr. Repton, of Repton and Greening; he posted it that night and bade the lad prepare for the solemnity of a private interview with the head of the firm upon the morrow.

Before George left the house next morning his father laid before him, with the pomp which so great an occasion demanded, certain rules of conduct which should guide not only his entry into life but his whole conduct throughout its course. He emphasized the value of self-respect, of a decent carriage, of discretion, of continuous and tenacious habits of industry, of promptitude, and so forth; when, urged by I know not what demon whose pleasure it is ever to disturb the best plans of men, the old gentleman had the folly to add the following words as he rose to his feet and laid his hand heavily upon his son's shoulder:

"Above all things, George, tell the truth. I was young and now am old. I have seen many men fail, some few succeed; and the best advice I can give to my dear only son is that on all occasions he should fearlessly and manfully tell the truth without regard of consequence. Believe me, it is not only the whole root of character, but the best basis for a successful business career even today."

Having so spoken, the old man, more moved than he cared to show, went upstairs to read his newspaper, and George, beautifully dressed, went out by the front door towards the Tube, pondering very deeply the words his father had just used.

I cannot deny that the impression they produced upon him was extraordinary - far more vivid than men of mature years can easily conceive. It is often so in early youth when we listen to the voice of authority; some particular chance phrase will have an unmeasured effect upon one. A worn tag and platitude solemnly spoken, and at a critical moment, may change the whole of a career. And so it was with George, as you will shortly perceive. For as he rumbled along in the Tube his father's words became a veritable obsession within him: he saw their value ramifying in a multitude of directions, he perceived the strength and accuracy of them in a hundred aspects. He knew well that the interview he was approaching was one in which this virtue of truth might be severely tested, but he gloried in the opportunity, and he came out of the Tube into the fresh air within a step of Mr. Repton's office with set lips and his young temper braced for the ordeal.

When he got to the office there was Mr. Repton, a kindly old gentleman, wearing large spectacles, and in general appearance one of those genial types from which our caricaturists have constructed the national figure of John Bull. It was a pleasure to be in the presence of so honest a man, and in spite of George's extreme nervousness he felt a certain security in such company. Moreover, Mr. Repton smiled paternally at him before putting to him the few questions which the occasion demanded. He held George's father's letter between two fingers of his right hand, moving it gently in the air as he addressed the lad:

"I am very glad to see you, George," he said, "in this old office. I've seen you here before, Chrm! as you know, but not on such important business, Chrm!" He laughed genially. "So you want to come and learn your trade with us, do you? You're punctual I hope, Chrm?" he added, his honest eyes full of good nature and jest.

George looked at him in a rather gloomy manner, hesitated a moment, and then, under the influence of an obvious effort, said in a choking voice, "No, Mr. Repton, I'm not."

"Hey, what?" said Mr. Repton, puzzled and a little annoyed at the young man's manner.

"I was saying, Mr. Repton, that I am not punctual. I have dreamy fits which sometimes make me completely forget an appointment. And I have a silly habit of cutting things too fine, which makes me miss trains and things, I think I ought to tell you while I am about it, but I simply cannot get up early in the morning. There are days when I manage to do so under the excitement of a coming journey or for some other form of pleasure, but as a rule I postpone my rising until the very latest possible moment."

George having thus delivered himself closed his lips and was silent.

"Humph!" said Mr. Repton. It was not what the boy had said so much as the impression of oddness which affected that worthy man. He did not like it, and he was not quite sure of his ground. He was about to put another question, when George volunteered a further statement:

"I don't drink," he said, "and at my age it is not easy to understand what the vice of continual drunkenness may be, but I shouldn't wonder if that would be my temptation later on, and it is only fair to tell you that, young as I am, I have twice grossly exceeded in wine; on one occasion, not a year ago, the servants at a house where I was stopping carried me to bed."

"They did?" said Mr. Repton drily.

"Yes," said George, "they did." Then there was a silence for a space of at least three minutes.

"My dear young man," said Mr. Repton, rising, "do you feel any aptitude for a City career?"

"None," said George decisively.

"Pray," said Mr. Repton (who had grown-up children of his own and could not help speaking with a touch of sarcasm - he thought it good for boys in the lunatic stage), "pray," said he, looking quizzically down at the unhappy but firm-minded George as he sat there in his chair, "is there any form of work for which you do feel an aptitude?"

"Yes, certainly," said George confidently.

"And what is that?" said Mr. Repton, his smile beginning again.

"The drama," said George without hesitation, "the poetic drama. I ought to tell you that I have received no encouragement from those who are the best critics of this art, though I have submitted my work to many since I left school. Some have said that my work was commonplace, others that it was imitative; all have agreed that it was dull, and they have unanimously urged me to abandon every thought of such composition. Nevertheless I am convinced that I have the highest possible talents not only in this department of letters but in all."

"You believe yourself," said Mr. Repton, with a touch of severity, "to be an exceptional young man?"

George nodded. "I do," he said, "quite exceptional. I should have used a stronger term had I been speaking of the matter myself. I think I have genius, or, rather, I am sure I have; and, what is more, genius of a very high order."

"Well," said Mr. Repton, sighing, "I don't think we shall get any forrader. Have you been working much lately?" he asked anxiously - "examinations or anything?"

"No," said George quietly. "I always feel like this."

"Indeed!" said Mr. Repton, who was now convinced that the poor boy had intended no discourtesy. "Well, I wonder whether you would mind taking back a note to your father?"

"Not at all," said George courteously.

Mr. Repton in his turn wrote a short letter, in which he begged George's father not to take offence at an old friend's advice, recalled to his memory the long and faithful friendship between them, pointed out that outsiders could often see things which members of a family could not, and wound up by begging George's father to give George a good holiday. "Not alone," he concluded; "I don't think that would be quite safe, but in company with some really trustworthy man a little older than himself, who won't get on his nerves and yet will know how to look after him. He must get right away for some weeks," added the kind old man, "and after that I should advise you to keep him at home and let him have some gentle occupation. Don't encourage him in writing. I think he would take kindly to gardening. But I won't write any more: I will come and see you about it."

Bearing that missive back did George reach his home.... All this passed in the year 1895, and that is why George is to-day one of the best electrical engineers in the country, instead of being a banker; and that shows how good always comes, one way or another, of telling the truth.