In September of the year 169-, I, William Tobias Merrick--twenty years old and possessed of more sense and education than prospects--was sent from my father's house at Exeter to live with my bachelor uncle, a prominent wine merchant of Wapping, near London. It was thought that I, being the fourth son in a family whose brickworks would only comfortably support three, might learn something there of the shipping trade, my uncle's connexions in this area being quite extensive. Neither my father nor my uncle saw fit to consult me in this matter. Having assumed that any young man should welcome the chance to work amid great seagoing ships, they regarded my opinions as settled beforehand. Thus it never came into their consideration that I disliked the sea above all things, and had once resolved, during an intolerable bark crossing from Cardiff to Portishead some years past, never to set foot on the boards of a ship again.
Wapping--as viewed from the horse cart sent to fetch me upon my arrival day--seemed a foul and smoky place. Ships of all sizes lined the blackstone wharves along the Thames, groaning under rank-smelling cargoes of charcoal, wool, indigo, tea, and all else imaginable that a seaworthy craft might hold. The high street, such as it was then, was thronged with a considerable array of humanity--watermen and sailmakers, lightermen and coopers, not to mention members of the other trades, both respectable and not, associated with large river ports. As one reared amid the quiet lanes of Exeter, I knew at once there would be novelties here to fill a year of idle Sundays. And see them I would. Suspecting my uncle to be a man much engaged in his business--and one who might regard his obligations to me as more sentimental than actual--I anticipated his having but little time for my supervision. Thus did I hope to be left largely to my own devices, free to set off into the streets and there occupy myself in the manner of any young man new to the city and eager to take a Dutchman's draught of life--that is, I would take myself to the coffee-houses and the theatres and the taverns, though without much idea of what precisely I would find there.
I was at this time a healthy, energetic fellow--well-made but slender in form, restless in manner yet still more so in my thoughts and aspirations. Through my father's generosity, I had conducted early studies with my home tutor and at the Rev. Charles Tuffley's school in Exeter, though it was no one's true expectation that I should pursue a clerical preferment. For I was victim to what my father called an Excess of Animal Spirits, and it was quite apparent to all that life in a Devonshire vicarage would hardly be consonant with my nature. I fancied myself in any case a Deist (much to the Rev. Tuffley's dismay), and would probably have refused a Bishopric at three thousand a year if one had been offered me. Nor, however, was I any more usefully engaged during a year at Trinity College, Cambridge, where the tutors could speak of naught but Plato and like ancients, for which I had but little patience. Why, I would wonder aloud, if there be a Form in Heav'n for every thing we spy on earth, how is there money? Money is for buying what one has not, for filling a perceived lack, so how can there be money in a realm where all is completeness and perfection? To this my Cambridge tutors had no answer but scorn. And so I did not thrive at university, and was soon sent down. I returned to Exeter, where I remained a year before being sent on to my uncle at Wapping. But this last proved all to the best, inasmuch as I had another design--one that rendered my residence in Wapping, so short a distance from the City of London, exceedingly desirable to me. For I, William Tobias Merrick, had every hope of making my living not by the shipping trade, but by what seemed to me the only adventurous profession available to a man of intelligence and enterprize but little fortune--viz., as a Stock-Jobber.
'Twas my old friend, cousin, and occasional home tutor, Joshua Dooling, who had planted this seed in my breast. He it was who gave me the true education of my youth, introducing me to the joyous intricacies of what was then called Dutch finance--that new, uncharted world of notes and shares and annuities, of lotteries, bearer bonds, Refuses, and Puts--which was only then taking hold in and around the Royal Exchange in London. At no small expense to himself, Josh had sent to him at Exeter a commercial periodical, the Collection for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, published by a Mr. John Houghton, apothecary and coffee trader of London. Upon its twice-weekly arrival, my cousin and I would leave off our dull studies of figures or Greek to scrutinize this treasure-filled publication, poring especially over the Actions of joint-stock companies and their prices, until the pages wore thin between our fingers. The familiar names of these companies became a kind of incantation with us--Hudson's Bay, Lustring, Blue Paper--and each evening, as we sat in my father's parlour before a dappling fire, we would calculate and recalculate the value of our holdings. "Marry, William!" Josh might say, "The Derby I purchased last week at 55 stands now at 65 and more. I warrant I have outdone every jobber in the City this day!" Of course, these wondrous gains (and our equally wondrous, though more infrequent, losses) were wholly of the imagination, for we two together had not a groat in the world. And yet the excitement of our maneuverings was hardly diminished by this fact. For Josh and I fancied ourselves among the New Men of England, in spirit if not yet in fact. We understood well the most important lesson of the time--namely, that the real wealth of Englishmen would henceforth derive not from the actual doing and making of Things, nor from the owning and exploiting of Lands, but rather from the buying and selling of Prospects and Risks.
Thus my eagerness upon arriving at Wapping, some scant few years after being introduced into these mysteries. What I had heretofore only read and talked about with my tutor was suddenly present before my very eyes. Nor was I alone in my excitement. All of London, it seemed, was in thrall to this new religion of finance. And why should it not be so? A century of strife and hardship--of civil war and plague, of fire and the threat of Popish treachery--was coming to an end. That old devil, King James, had shown his cloven foot and packed off to France, where just another double-dealing Catholic rogue would hardly be noticed. King William was upon the throne, and subject to a great Compromise that would henceforth keep the nation's finances safe from the meddling of overbearing monarchs. Stability and Toleration were the game now, leaving any man free to prosper by his wits--or else to perish by the lack of them. And there was little doubt in my own mind to which fate I was destined.
All of this, however, was still but hearsay to me on that September afternoon when first I arrived on my uncle's doorstep in Wapping. My portmanteau having been deposited (by a rather supercilious young footman) in my garret room at the top of the house, I was immediately conducted across the courtyard to the private offices of the warehouse. Here Mr. Gilbert Hawking, my uncle, sat deeply engaged in a bill of lading. This impressive gentleman--a severe, hatchet-faced figure who wore a chestnut periwig as large as a Dartmoor lamb--rose from behind his massive desk as I entered. "Nephew," said he, "I've not seen you these dozen years. You are quite changed, I see."
"And 'twould be a sorry thing indeed if it were otherwise, Uncle."
"Hrmph," said he, looking somewhat abashed. "I see your point, sir."
Fearing that I had offended him (for giving offense is, I own, a tendency in my behaviour), I quickly added, "But though I was not yet seven years old when last we met, when my dear mother was buried, I can say that you yourself have changed but little. Still the hale and prosperous gentleman of old, unless appearances deceive."
This seemed to mollify him. He shook his artificial locks in gruff satisfaction. "More prosperous than hale, I'm afraid, and not enough of either for my taste." He gestured toward a stool across from him. "Though one must recall that 'twas Capua that corrected Hannibal."
I stopped. "I do not understand you, sir."
"Oh, 'tis an Expression, merely an Expression. 'Tis meant to say that luxury will be the ruin of one. I trust you are familiar with Hannibal, and are aware that his star began to fall only after tasting the luxuries of Capua?"
"Indeed, I see," said I, not seeing at all, but taking the seat he offered.
After exchanging a few observations regarding the weather in Devonshire and the soundness of various family members, my uncle turned to the immediate business at hand. "Now," said he, patting the account-books strewn across the desk before him, "As you are indeed the son of my dear deceased sister, I am well pleased to be in a position to do something for you." Here he removed a tortoiseshell snuffbox from his waistcoat, snapped open the lid, but then merely fingered the clasp in thought. "And yet I believe 'twould be doing you no service to molly-coddle you like some . . . some soft-cheeked niece. I expect toil and effort from you, sir. By which I mean that you must work for your supper, though it be served on your uncle's table."
"I would not have it otherwise, sir," I lied. Then, compounding the lie, "I am no stranger to hard work. And I warrant you will find me as eager a clerk--"
"Under-clerk," he interrupted me.
I gave a small bow of my head. "As eager an under-clerk as you will find anywhere."
"Very good," said he. "For 'tis only sensible that you begin small. Granted, others who do not share your advantages must undergo a long apprenticeship before advancing further. But a young man of your family and education (incomplete though the latter may be) follows a different path." He peered up at me then. "Pray do not think yourself above the position of under-clerk, however. There is much for you to learn in that capacity. And you must not look to correct Magnificat before you learn Te Deum."
I narrowed my eyes in confusion. "Another Expression, sir?"
"Yes, yes," he said impatiently. "Meaning that you must gain experience and qualifications before you can advance to greater things. You see the sense of the adage?"
"Good." He took his portion of snuff finally and grimaced. "You must remember, Nephew, that you are in London now, and in London a man must put himself upon his own legs; no one else will do it for him. 'Tis a city brimming with opportunities, for the man resourceful enough to take advantage of them."
"So I have heard it observed, Uncle. And it will be my goal to prove myself that kind of man."
"Having said that, however," he continued, not really heeding my answers, "I must also warn you that there are temptations to Sin and Wickedness at every turn in the metropolis. 'Tis all too easy to succumb. Thus you will do well to remember that, in Trade particularly, a good name is better than a golden girdle."
He sighed. "Good name--surely you understand that. And golden girdle?"
I shook my head.
"By the Lord Harry, sir! Think of it as saying . . . oh, 'tis better to have a spotless reputation than an estate of forty thousand pounds, or the like."
"Ah, that is indeed good advice, Uncle."
He eyed me carefully, as if wondering within himself if I were an idiot. "Have you any money?" he enquired of me then.
"My father was good enough to send me off with a gift of fifty guineas, sir."
"Strange. In his letter he makes it out to be a hundred."
I gave a little cough. "I meant to say, sir, that I have but fifty remaining, my expenses en route being greater than anticipated."
He nodded--with vague approval, I thought--having perhaps settled to my advantage the question of my idiocy. "Then I will provide you with a little against your first year's earnings. Your clothes, if I may say so, are not of the London style. And you will find that a man is oft judged here by the quality of his breeches." He pulled a bell cord behind him. "You begin your under-clerkship in one week's time," said he. "In the meanwhile, you will have the names of a few merchants in the City who will welcome your custom as my nephew. Unless you wish to remain a clerk for the rest of your days, I would suggest a few fashionable coats; a frock, say; a number of waistcoats of silk; a half dozen pairs of cloth and leather breeches; stockings, of course; a pair or two of passable buckled shoes, a few hats, and some fine ruffled shirts and neckcloths: also a dozen cambric handkerchiefs. Eventually, a new periwig or two, though that perhaps can wait. Oh, and a small sword, of course--the sharper the better--which you would do well to carry on your person at all times. Do not expect your current ready money, of whatever summe, to go as far as you expect in meeting these expenses."
The sneering footman entered the room again, and I understood that the interview was at an end.
"Welcome to London, Nephew," my uncle said then, abruptly, before turning back to his accounts.
This was not, you may say, the warmest welcome ever received by a young man arriving in a strange household. And yet, despite all, I was not much discouraged by this somewhat brusque reception. For I had learned early in life that 'tis better to understand a man than be loved by him, the benefits and disadvantages accruing to oneself being more predictable in the former case. And though my uncle could not be said to overflow with Bonhomie, I had come to London in search of fortune, not family. And besides, I soon discovered that my uncle's household was not entirely devoid of readily affectionate natures. For there was employed there someone who, it would seem, took an immediate liking to me, though for what reason I cannot imagine.
I met this woman--the housekeeper of the place, Mrs. Popper--upon leaving my uncle's offices and making for my chamber to settle in. She stood in the hallway before my door, scolding a young maid for some infraction concerning the state of my bed linens. As I approached, they both fell suddenly silent.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Extravagance by Gary Krist. Copyright © 2002 by Gary Krist. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.