Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853

AN EXTINGUISHER.

YONDER perambulating pyramid of deal boards, labelled on its four acute-angled fronts with Messrs. Welt and Felt's puffs of Wellington boots, at 9s. 4d. a pair, is technically termed, among the initiated, an Extinguisher, doubtless from its similarity in shape to that useful domestic implement. The term is applicable in more senses than one: the machine in question is not merely like an extinguisher in shape, but also in its operation; he who puts it on, in some sort extinguishes himself-quenches the last fluttering glimmer of ambition, and resigns his being to a lot of very equivocal happiness, and one much more adapted to provoke the wit than to excite the pity of unthinking spectators. One man may regard him as a peripatetic philosopher, an ingenious combination of Diogenes and a snail, carrying his humble mansion wherever he goes, and observing mankind from the summit of his desires; another may choose to look upon him as one who has voluntarily thrust himself into a pillory for the guerdon of fourteen-pence a day; a third, affecting to look up to his cloudy top from a level of fifty feet below him, may hail him as a Simeon Stylites; while a fourth shall name him Cheops, because his bones are buried within the walls of a pyramid.
    In sober truth, the tenant of an extinguisher is neither philosopher, Romish saint, nor anchorite. He is rather a man doubly and trebly unfortunate, who often, from the want of industry, the want of a profession, or the want of perseverance, capacity, or integrity, and most of all from the want of self-denial, finds his way into his wooden surtout. Other men achieve distinction through the exercise of positive virtues; he arrives at his through the sheer force of his numberless negations; the qualities which he does not possess accomplish his destiny, and degrade him to the lowest rank, as surely and inevitably as the qualities of enterprise and integrity exalt their possessors to the highest. Let us glance briefly over the history of one whom we knew in better days, and whom we lately encountered while sheltering his conical sedan, during a storm of rain, beneath the Piazza of Covent Garden Market.
    Jack Rattle was the only son of a tradesman well-to-do in the world, and who drove a thriving business in a large town in the West of England. Unhappily for Jack, his father died after a short illness, just as the boy had left school, and was hesitating in the choice of a profession, having just completed his fifteenth year. By his father's will the whole of the property was equally divided between his two children, Jack and his sister. The executors found it necessary to sell the business, as the lad was too young to take it in charge. The will was proved at Doctors' Commons, and the property amounted to near £8,000. So soon as Jack was made aware that when be was of age he should come into the possession of four thousand pounds, his disinclination for business of any kind soon became apparent He grew apace, but his pride dilated faster than his person. His father's executors, by virtue of the trust they held, articled him to a solicitor, but they could not make him learn his profession, of every detail of which he contrived to remain consummately ignorant. He aped the man while yet a boy, and, cultivating dancing and whiskers in preference to Blackstone and Coke, grew up a very graceful and handsome ignoramus, the plague of his guardians, whom be was continually pestering for supplies, and the delight of quadrille parties where he shone a star of the first magnitude. When the last lingering year of his minority had at length taken wing, his guardians were but too glad to surrender their trust; and Jack, now his own master, and master of more than four thousand pounds besides, started off for Paris, to enjoy his liberty unrestrained.
    He was absent barely three years, during which time his sister had married a substantial farmer and borne him a brace of sturdy children. How Jack employed his long sojourn in the gayest capital of Europe it is impossible to tell with certainty, though it is very easy to guess, seeing that lie left the whole of his money behind him, for which he brought back in exchange a shabby, braided suit of French cut, a prodigious crop of whisker and moustache, and an indescribable jargon of gasconading and slang gallicisms, intelligible to no one beyond the clique of roués and gamblers into whose hands it was plain that he had eventually fallen, and who, pigeon as he was, had plucked him to the last feather.
    It was now that he received his first lesson in that science which many are so unwilling to learn, and pay so dearly for learning - knowledge of the world. His old master, the lawyer, upon whom he sought to quarter himself as an in-door clerk, dismissed him with a rather candid explanation of five minutes' length; and his guardians, to whom he applied for a loan wherewith to establish himself in his father's business, sneered at the proposal, and asked him whether it was likely that if he could not take care of his own money he could take care of theirs? Jack trod the high ropes, and breaking away in a storm of passion, flew to the honest farmer who had married his sister, with whom he took up his abode as a guest. From a guest, honoured and cherished, accommodated with a nag, and indulged in all kinds of rural sports, he descended by degrees, as his welcome wore out, to "one of the family," then to a cumbersome inmate, always uselessly in the way, and finally to a pest whom it was indispensable to get rid of. Jack, whose perceptions were none of the most acute, would have hung on to the last, but for the representations of his sister, who enlightened him as to the true state of the case, and who advised him to go to London, and find employment by which he could maintain himself. As she backed this advice with the offer of a loan of twenty pounds, probably at the suggestion of her husband, who would have purchased Jack's absence at ten times the amount, her proposal was accepted, and Jack, mounting the night coach, dropped from its roof one fine morning in the spring of 1838, with his fortune to make among the millions of struggling individuals all striving in pursuit of the same end.
    Twice seven years have passed away since then, and Jack has made his fortune - made it as thoroughly as man can be said to make anything which he does not actually manufacture with his hands. Were we to trace the process through which he has arrived at the consummation of the four triangular deal boards in which he buries himself alive for the benefit of Messrs. Welt and Felt, and for the modest consideration they award him, we should find that his progress for the last fourteen years has been a series of successive failures, each of which deposited him a step lower on the social ladder; and we should find too that one and all resulted from the absence of qualities which he ought to have possessed, and which every man is bound to possess, to preserve, and to cultivate. As a clerk, his first employment, he failed- from, want of punctuality and attention; as a shopman, from want of politeness, and, it is to be feared, of integrity as well; as a town-traveller, from want of activity and good temper; as a cab man, from want of sobriety; as an omnibus conductor, from want of patience and civility ; - and so on and on, and down and down, until circumstances, which he would never take the trouble to mould for himself, have shuffled him into his timber coil, and made him a perambulating four-sided puffing machine - a wandering variation of a bill-sticker's hoarding-a living substitute for a dead wall.
    It often happens that a man serves for the moral of his own history; and thus it is with Jack Rattle. To those who know him, and it may be to those who do not, his appearance in his large-lettered garb in the public streets is suggestive of other and very different things than Wellington boots, at nine and four-pence a pair. Though but on the verge of forty, want and wretchedness have done upon him the work of years, have bowed his head and furrowed his once handsome face, in which the expression of a miserable content with a miserable lot forbids the beholder to indulge a hope that, by his own exertions at least, he will ever emancipate himself from it. Imagination sees in him a melancholy spectacle of a ruined life, a departed existence, coffined above-ground-the wandering ghost of a buried ambition -"doomed for a certain time to walk the earth" as an incarnate Puff.