The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Twenty Five
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Section Twenty Five
At Watts’s Printinghouse I contracted an Acquaintance with an ingenious young Man, one Wygate, who having wealthy Relations, had been better educated than most Printers, was a tolerable Latinist, spoke French, & lov’d Reading. I taught him, & a Friend of his, to swim, at twice going into the River, & they soon became good Swimmers. They introduc’d me to some Gentlemen from the Country who went to Chelsea by Water to see the College and Don Saltero’s Curiosities. In our Return, at the Request of the Company, whose Curiosity Wygate had excited, I stripped & leaped into the River, & swam from near Chelsea to Blackfriars, performing on the Way many Feats of Activity both upon & under Water, that surpris’d & pleas’d those to whom they were Novelties. I had from a Child been ever delighted with this Exercise, had studied & practis’d all Thevenot’s Motions & Positions, added some of my own, aiming at the graceful & easy, as well as the Useful. All these I took this Occasion of exhibiting to the Company, & was much flatter’d by their Admiration. And Wygate, who was desirous of becoming a Master, grew more & more attach’d to me, on that account, as well as from the Similarity of our Studies. He at length propos’d to me travelling all over Europe together, supporting ourselves everywhere by working at our Business. I was once inclin’d to it. But mentioning it to my good Friend Mr Denham, with whom I often spent an Hour, when I had Leisure. He dissuaded me from it, advising me to think only of returning to Pennsylvania, which he was now about to do.
I must record one Trait of this good Man’s Character. He had formerly been in Business at Bristol, but fail’d in Debt to a Number of People, compounded and went to America. There, by a close Application to Business as a Merchant, he acquir’d a plentiful Fortune in a few Years. Returning to England in the Ship with me, He invited his old Creditors to an Entertainment, at which he thank’d them for the easy Composition they had favor’d him with, & when they expected nothing but the Treat, every Man at the first Remove, found under his Plate an Order on a Banker for the full Amount of the unpaid Remainder with Interest.
He now told me he was about to return to Philadelphia, and should carry over a great Quantity of Goods in order to open a Store there: He propos’d to take me over as his Clerk, to keep his Books (in which he would instruct me) copy his Letters, and attend the Store. He added, that as soon as I should be acquainted with mercantile Business he would promote me by sending me with a Cargo of Flour & Bread &c. to the West Indies, and procure me Commissions from others; which would be profitable, & if I manag’d well, would establish me handsomely. The Thing pleas’d me, for I was grown tired of London, remember’d with Pleasure the happy Months I had spent in Pennsylvania, and wish’d again to see it. Therefore I immediately agreed, on the Terms of Fifty Pounds a Year, Pennsylvania Money; less indeed than my present Gettings as a Compositor, but affording a better Prospect.
I now took Leave of Printing, as I thought for ever, and was daily employ’d in my new Business; going about with Mr Denham among the Tradesmen, to purchase various Articles, & seeing them pack’d up, doing Errands, calling upon Workmen to dispatch, &c. and when all was on board, I had a few Days Leisure. On one of these Days I was to my Surprise sent for by a great Man I knew only by Name, a Sir William Wyndham and I waited upon him. He had heard by some means or other of my Swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriars, and of my teaching Wygate and another young Man to swim in a few Hours. He had two Sons about to set out on their Travels; he wish’d to have them first taught Swimming; and propos’d to gratify me handsomely if I would teach them. They were not yet come to Town and my Stay was uncertain, so I could not undertake it. But from this Incident I thought it likely, that if I were to remain in England and open a Swimming School, I might get a good deal of Money. And it struck me so strongly, that had the Overture been sooner made me, probably I should not so soon have returned to America. After many Years, you & I had something of more Importance to do with one of these Sons of Sir William Wyndham, become Earl of Egremont, which I shall mention in its Place
Thus I spent about 18 Months in London. Most Part of the Time, I work’d hard at my Business, & spent but little upon myself except in seeing Plays & in Books. My Friend Ralph had kept me poor. He owed me about 27 Pounds; which I was now never likely to receive; a great Sum out of my small Earnings. I lov’d him notwithstanding, for he had many amiable Qualities. Tho’ I had by no means improv’d my Fortune. But I had pick’d up some very ingenious Acquaintance whose Conversation was of great Advantage to me, and I had read considerably.