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Wilson's Border Tales
Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven

Chapter 1

All the world knows that Mandeville, the author of the "Fable of the Bees," and Shaftesbury, the author of the "Characteristics,’ divided a great portion of mankmd on a question which is now no question at all That there are, assuredly, some instances to be met with of rational bipeds, who exhibit scarcely any traces of a moral sense, and act altogether upon the principle of selfishness, we do not deny; but this admission does not bind us to the selfish theory, for the very good reason, that we hold these creatures to be nothing better than a species of monsters. Nor do we think the world, with the tendency to self-love that prevails in it, would have been the better for the want of these living, walking exemplars of their patron—the devil; for, of a surety, they show us the fallen creature in all his naked deformity, and make us hate the principle of evil through the ugly flesh-case in which it works, and the noisome overt acts it turns up in the repugnant nostrils of good men. Now, if you are an inhabitant of that scandalous freestone village that lies near Arthur Seat, and took its name from the Northumbrian king, Edwin—corrupted, by the conceit of the inhabitants, into Edin—you will say that we mean something personal in these remarks; and, very probably, when we mention the name of Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven, who, about twenty years after Mr John Neal introduced to the admiring eyes of the inhabitants of the Scottish metropolis the term haberdasher, carried on that trade in one of the principal streets of the city, our intention will be held manifest. And what then? We will only share the fate, without exhibiting the talent of Horace, and shall care nothing if we return his good humour—a quality of far greater importance to mankind than even that knowledge "which is versant with the stars."

Now, this Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven, who took up, as we have already signified, the trade designated by the strange appellative introduced by the said John Neal, was one of those dabblers in morals who endeavour to make the whole system of morality accord with their own wishes. As to the moral sense, so strongly insisted for by the noble author of the "Characteristics," he considered it as a taste something like that for virtue, which a man might have or not have, just as it pleased Dame Nature, or Mr Syntax Pedagogue, but which he could pretend to have as often and in as great profusion as it pleased himself. It was, he acknowledged, a very good thing to have, sometimes, about one, but there were many things in the world far better—such as money, a good house, good victuals, good clothing, and so forth. It was again, sometimes, a thing a man might be much better without. It formed a stumbling-block to prosperity; and when, at the long run, a man had made to it many sacrifices, and become a beggar, "rich in the virtue of good offices," he did not find that it got him a softer bed in an alms-house, or a whiter piece of bread at the door of the rich. These sentiments were probably strengthened by the view he took of the world, and especially of our great country, where there is a mighty crying, and a mighty printing about virtue, magnanimity, and honesty, in the abstract, while there is probably, less real active honesty than might be found among the Karomantyns—yea, or the Hottentots or Cherokees. Then, too, it could not be denied that "riches cover a multitude of sins;" why, then, should not Mr Thriven strive to get rich?

Upon such a theory did Mr Samuel Thriven propose to act. It had clearly an advantage over theories in general in so much as it was every day reduced to practice by a great proportion of mankind, and so proved to be a good workable speculation. That he intended to follow out the practical part of his scheme with the same wisdom he had exhibited in choosing his theory of morals, may be safely doubted. Caution, which is of great use to all men in a densely-popu lated country, is an indispensable element in the cornposition of one who would be rich at the expense of others. A good-natured man will often allow himself to be cheated out of a sum which is not greater than the price of his ease, and there are a great number of such good-natured men in all communities. It is upon these that clever men operate; without them a great portion of the cleverest would starve. They are the lambs with sweet flesh and soft wool, making the plains a paradise for the wolves. A system of successful operations carried on against these quiet subjects, for a number of years, might have enabled Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven to have retired, with his feelings of enjoyment blunted, and his conscience quickened, to some romantic spot where he might have turned poetical. An idle man is always, to some extent, a poet; and a rogue makes often a good sentimentalist.

This ought clearly to have been the course which worldly caution should have suggested as the legitimate working out of the theory of selfishness. But Mr Thriven was not gifted with the virtue of patience to the same extent that he was with the spirit of theorizing on the great process of getting rich. He wanted to seize Plutus by a coup de main, and hug the god until he got out of him a liberal allowance. The plan has been attended with success; but it is always a dangerous one. The great deity of wealth has been painted lame, blind, and foolish, because he gives, without distinction, to the undeservmg as well as to the worthy—to the bad often more than to the good. It is seldom his godship will be coaxed into a gift; and if he is attempted to be forced, he can use his lame leg, and send the rough worshipper to the devil. Neither can we say that Mr Thriven’s scheme was new or ingenious, being no other than to "break with the full hand"—a project of great antiquity in Scotland, and struck at, for the first time, by the Act 1621, cap. 18. It existed, indeed, in ancient Rome and was comprehended under the general name of stellionate, from stelio, a little subtle serpent, common in Italy Always in great vogue in our country, it at one time roused the choler of our judges to snch an extent that they condemned the culprits either to wear the yellow cap and stockings of different colours, or be for ever at the mercy of their creditors. But these times had gone by, and man might make a very respectable thing of a break, if he could manage it adroitly enough to make it appear that he had himself been the victim of misplaced confidence So Mr Samuel, having given large orders to the English houses for goods, at a pretty long credit, got himself in debt to an amount proportioned to the sum he wished to make by his failure. There is no place in the world where a man may get more easily in debt than in Scotland. We go for a decent, composed, shrewd, honest people; and, though we are very adequately and sufficiently hated by the volatile English whom we so often beat on their own ground, and at their own weapons, we enjoy a greater share of their confidence in mercantile matters than their own countrymen. Vouchsafe to John the privilege of abusing Sawney, and calling him all manner of hard names, and he will allow his English neck to be placed in the Scotch noose, with a civility and decorum that is just as commendable as his abuse of our countryman is ungenerous and unmanly. Mr Thriven’s warehouses were, accordingly, soon filled with goods from both England and Scotland; and it is no inconsiderable indication of a man’s respectability that he is able to get pretty largely in debt. When a man is to enter upon the speculations of failing, the step we have now mentioned is the first and most important preliminary. Debt is the Ossa from which the successful speculator rolls into the rich vale of Tempe. There are some rugged rocks in the side of his descent to independence—such as the examinations under the statutes—that are next to be guarded against, and the getting over these is a more difficult achievement than the getting himself regularly constituted a debtor. The running away of a trusty servant with a hundred pounds, especially if he has forged the cheque, maybe the making of a good speculator in bankruptcy, because the loss of a thousand or two may be safely laid to the charge of one who dare not appear to defend himself. The failure and flight of a relation, to whom one gives a hundred pounds to leave him in his books a creditor in a thousand, is also a very good mode of overcoming some of the difficulties of failing; and a clever man, with a sharp foresight, ought to be working assiduously for a length of time in collecting the names of removing families, every one of whom will make a good "bad-debtor." These things were not unknown to Mr Thriven; but accident did what the devil was essaying to do for him, or rather, speaking in a more orthodox manner, the great enemy, taking the form of the mighty power, yclept Chance, set the neighbouring uninsured premises, belonging to Miss Fortune, the milliner, in a blaze; and a large back warehouse, in which there was scarcely anything save Mr Thriven’s ledgers, was burnt so effectually, that no person could have told whether they were full of Manchester goods, or merely atmospheric air of the ordinary weight—that is, thirty-one grains to a hundred cubic inches.

When a respectable man wishes ardently for a calamity, he arrays his face in comely melancholy, because he has too much respect for public decorum to outrage the decencies of life. Mr Samuel Ramsay Thriven accordingly looked the loss he had sustained with a propriety that might have done honour to a widower between whom and a bad wife the cold grave has been shut for the space of a day, and then set about writing circulars to his creditors, stating that, owing to his having sustained a loss through the burning of a warehouse where he had deposited three thousand pounds’ worth of goods, he was under the necessity of stopping payment. No attorney ever made more of letter-writing than Mr Samuel did on that day: in place of three shillings and fourpence for two pages, every word he penned was equal to a pound.

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