The Mill on the Floss By George Eliot Book 3: The Downfall: Chapter 5 - Tom Applies His Knife to the Oyster

"But I don't think I could get any money at that for a long while, could I?"

"That's true; but people don't get much money at anything, my boy, when they're only sixteen. You've had a good deal of schooling, however; I suppose you're pretty well up in accounts, eh? You understand book keeping?"

"No," said Tom, rather falteringly. "I was in Practice. But Mr. Stelling says I write a good hand, uncle. That's my writing," added Tom, laying on the table a copy of the list he had made yesterday.

"Ah! that's good, that's good. But, you see, the best hand in the world'll not get you a better place than a copying-clerk's, if you know nothing of book-keeping, — nothing of accounts. And a copying-clerk's a cheap article. But what have you been learning at school, then?"

Mr. Deane had not occupied himself with methods of education, and had no precise conception of what went forward in expensive schools.

"We learned Latin," said Tom, pausing a little between each item, as if he were turning over the books in his school-desk to assist his memory, — "a good deal of Latin; and the last year I did Themes, one week in Latin and one in English; and Greek and Roman history; and Euclid; and I began Algebra, but I left it off again; and we had one day every week for Arithmetic. Then I used to have drawing-lessons; and there were several other books we either read or learned out of, — English Poetry, and Horæ Pauliné and Blair's Rhetoric, the last half."

Mr. Deane tapped his snuff-box again and screwed up his mouth; he felt in the position of many estimable persons when they had read the New Tariff, and found how many commodities were imported of which they knew nothing; like a cautious man of business, he was not going to speak rashly of a raw material in which he had had no experience. But the presumption was, that if it had been good for anything, so successful a man as himself would hardly have been ignorant of it.

About Latin he had an opinion, and thought that in case of another war, since people would no longer wear hair-powder, it would be well to put a tax upon Latin, as a luxury much run upon by the higher classes, and not telling at all on the ship-owning department. But, for what he knew, the Horé Pauliné might be something less neutral. On the whole, this list of acquirements gave him a sort of repulsion toward poor Tom.

"Well," he said at last, in rather a cold, sardonic tone, "you've had three years at these things, — you must be pretty strong in 'em. Hadn't you better take up some line where they'll come in handy?"

Tom colored, and burst out, with new energy:

"I'd rather not have any employment of that sort, uncle. I don't like Latin and those things. I don't know what I could do with them unless I went as usher in a school; and I don't know them well enough for that! besides, I would as soon carry a pair of panniers. I don't want to be that sort of person. I should like to enter into some business where I can get on, — a manly business, where I should have to look after things, and get credit for what I did. And I shall want to keep my mother and sister."

"Ah, young gentleman," said Mr. Deane, with that tendency to repress youthful hopes which stout and successful men of fifty find one of their easiest duties, "that's sooner said than done, — sooner said than done."

"But didn't you get on in that way, uncle?" said Tom, a little irritated that Mr. Deane did not enter more rapidly into his views. "I mean, didn't you rise from one place to another through your abilities and good conduct?"

"Ay, ay, sir," said Mr. Deane, spreading himself in his chair a little, and entering with great readiness into a retrospect of his own career. "But I'll tell you how I got on. It wasn't by getting astride a stick and thinking it would turn into a horse if I sat on it long enough. I kept my eyes and ears open, sir, and I wasn't too fond of my own back, and I made my master's interest my own. Why, with only looking into what went on in the mill,, I found out how there was a waste of five hundred a-year that might be hindered. Why, sir, I hadn't more schooling to begin with than a charity boy; but I saw pretty soon that I couldn't get on far enough without mastering accounts, and I learned 'em between working hours, after I'd been unlading. Look here." Mr. Deane opened a book and pointed to the page. "I write a good hand enough, and I'll match anybody at all sorts of reckoning by the head; and I got it all by hard work, and paid for it out of my own earnings, — often out of my own dinner and supper. And I looked into the nature of all the things we had to do in the business, and picked up knowledge as I went about my work, and turned it over in my head. Why, I'm no mechanic, — I never pretended to be — but I've thought of a thing or two that the mechanics never thought of, and it's made a fine difference in our returns. And there isn't an article shipped or unshipped at our wharf but I know the quality of it. If I got places, sir, it was because I made myself fit for 'em. If you want to slip into a round hole, you must make a ball of yourself; that's where it is."

Mr. Deane tapped his box again. He had been led on by pure enthusiasm in his subject, and had really forgotten what bearing this retrospective survey had on his listener. He had found occasion for saying the same thing more than once before, and was not distinctly aware that he had not his port-wine before him.

"Well, uncle," said Tom, with a slight complaint in his tone, "that's what I should like to do. Can't I get on in the same way?"

"In the same way?" said Mr. Deane, eyeing Tom with quiet deliberation. "There go two or three questions to that, Master Tom. That depends on what sort of material you are, to begin with, and whether you've been put into the right mill. But I'll tell you what it is. Your poor father went the wrong way to work in giving you an education. It wasn't my business, and I didn't interfere; but it is as I thought it would be. You've had a sort of learning that's all very well for a young fellow like our Mr. Stephen Guest, who'll have nothing to do but sign checks all his life, and may as well have Latin inside his head as any other sort of stuffing."

"But, uncle," said Tom, earnestly, "I don't see why the Latin need hinder me from getting on in business. I shall soon forget it all; it makes no difference to me. I had to do my lessons at school, but I always thought they'd never be of any use to me afterward; I didn't care about them."

"Ay, ay, that's all very well," said Mr. Deane; "but it doesn't alter what I was going to say. Your Latin and rigmarole may soon dry off you, but you'll be but a bare stick after that. Besides, it's whitened your hands and taken the rough work out of you. And what do you know? Why, you know nothing about book-keeping, to begin with, and not so much of reckoning as a common shopman. You'll have to begin at a low round of the ladder, let me tell you, if you mean to get on in life. It's no use forgetting the education your father's been paying for, if you don't give yourself a new un."

Tom bit his lips hard; he felt as if the tears were rising, and he would rather die than let them.

"You want me to help you to a situation," Mr. Deane went on; "well, I've no fault to find with that. I'm willing to do something for you. But you youngsters nowadays think you're to begin with living well and working easy; you've no notion of running afoot before you get horseback. Now, you must remember what you are, — you're a lad of sixteen, trained to nothing particular. There's heaps of your sort, like so many pebbles, made to fit in nowhere. Well, you might be apprenticed to some business, — a chemist's and druggist's perhaps; your Latin might come in a bit there — — "

Tom was going to speak, but Mr. Deane put up his hand and said:

"Stop! hear what I've got to say. You don't want to be a 'prentice, — I know, I know, — you want to make more haste, and you don't want to stand behind a counter. But if you're a copying-clerk, you'll have to stand behind a desk, and stare at your ink and paper all day; there isn't much out-look there, and you won't be much wiser at the end of the year than at the beginning. The world isn't made of pen, ink, and paper, and if you're to get on in the world, young man, you must know what the world's made of. Now the best chance for you 'ud be to have a place on a wharf, or in a warehouse, where you'd learn the smell of things, but you wouldn't like that, I'll be bound; you'd have to stand cold and wet, and be shouldered about by rough fellows. You're too fine a gentleman for that."

Mr. Deane paused and looked hard at Tom, who certainly felt some inward struggle before he could reply.

"I would rather do what will be best for me in the end, sir; I would put up with what was disagreeable."

"That's well, if you can carry it out. But you must remember it isn't only laying hold of a rope, you must go on pulling. It's the mistake you lads make that have got nothing either in your brains or your pocket, to think you've got a better start in the world if you stick yourselves in a place where you can keep your coats clean, and have the shopwenches take you for fine gentlemen. That wasn't the way I started, young man; when I was sixteen, my jacket smelt of tar, and I wasn't afraid of handling cheeses. That's the reason I can wear good broadcloth now, and have my legs under the same table with the head of the best firms in St. Ogg's."

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