WHEN I was a very small boy in pinafores and went to a woman's school, it so happened that I wanted a stick of slate pencil and had no money to buy it with. I was afraid of being scolded for losing my pencils so often, because I was a real careless little fellow and so did not dare to ask at home what was John to do? There was a little shop in the place where nuts, and tops, and cakes, and balls were sold by old Mrs. Dearson, and sometimes I had seen boys and girls get trusted by the old lady.
I argued with myself that Christmas was coming, and that somebody or other would be sure to give me a penny then and perhaps even a whole silver sixpence. I would, therefore, go into debt for a stick of slate pencil and be sure to pay at Christmas. I did not feel easy about it, but still I screwed my courage up and went into the shop. One farthing was the amount; since I had never owed anything before and my credit was good, the pencil was handed over by the kind dame, and I was in debt. It did not please me much, and I felt as if I had done wrong, but I little knew how soon I should smart for it. How my father came to hear of this little stroke of business I never knew, but some little bird or other whistled it to him, and he was very soon down upon me in right earnest. God bless him for it.
He was a sensible man and not a child spoiler; he did not intend to bring up his children to speculate and play at what big rogues call financing; therefore, he knocked my getting into debt on the head at once, and no mistake. He gave me a very powerful lecture about getting into debt; how like it was to stealing; about the way in which people were ruined by it; and how a boy who would owe a farthing might one day owe a hundred pounds, get into prison, and bring his family into disgrace. It was a lecture, indeed; I think I can hear it now and can feel my ears tingling at the recollection of it. Then I was marched off to the shop like a deserter being marched back to barracks, crying bitterly all down the street, and feeling dreadfully ashamed because I thought everybody knew I was in debt.
The farthing was paid amid many solemn warnings, and the poor debtor was set free like a bird let out of a cage. How sweet it felt to be out of debt! How did my little heart vow and declare that nothing should ever tempt me into debt again! It was a fine lesson, and I have never forgotten it. If all boys were inoculated with the same doctrine when they were young, it would be as good as a fortune to them and save them wagon loads of trouble in later life. God bless my father, say I, and send a breed of such fathers into old England to save her from being eaten up with villainy - for what with companies and schemes and paper money, the nation is getting to be as rotten as touchwood.
Ever since that early sickening, I have hated debt as Luther hated the Pope, and if I say some fierce things about it, you must not wonder. To keep debt, dirt, and the devil out of my cottage has been my greatest wish ever since I set up housekeeping. Although the last of the three has sometimes got in by the door or the window - for the old serpent will wriggle through smallest crack - yet, thanks to a good wife, hard work, honesty, and scrubbing brushes, the two others have not crossed the threshold. Debt is so degrading that if I owed a man a penny I would walk twenty miles in the dead of winter to pay him, sooner than feel that I was under an obligation.
I should be as comfortable with peas in my shoes, or a hedge-hog in my bed, or a snake up my back, as with bills hanging over my head at the grocer's, and the baker's, and the tailor's. Poverty is hard, but debt is horrible; a man might as well have a smoky house and a scolding wife, which are said to be the two worst evils of life, as be in debt. We may be poor and yet respectable, which John Ploughman and his wife hope they are and will be; but a man in debt cannot even respect himself, and he is sure to be talked about by the neighbors, and that talk will not be much to his credit.
Some persons appear to like to be owing money; but I would as soon be a cat up a chimney with the fire lit, or a fox with the hounds at my heels, or a hedgehog on a pitchfork, or a mouse under an owl's claw. An honest man thinks a purse full of other people's money to be worse than an empty one. He cannot bear to eat other people's cheese, wear other people's shirts, and walk about in other people's shoes; neither will he be easy while his wife is decked out in the milliner's bonnets and wears the dressmaker's flannels. The jackdaw in the peacock's feathers was soon plucked, and borrowers will surely come to poverty-a poverty of the bitterest sort because there is shame in it.
Living beyond their incomes is the ruin of many of my neighbors; they can hardly afford to keep a rabbit and have to drive a pony and chaise. I am afraid extravagance is the common disease of the times; many professing Christians have caught it to their shame and sorrow. Good cotton or stuff gowns are not enough nowadays; girls must have silks and satins, and then there's a bill at the dressmaker's as long as a winter's night and quite as dismal. Show, style, and smartness run away with a man's means, keep the family poor, and the fathers nose down on the grindstone.
Frogs try to look as big as bulls and burst themselves. A pound a week apes five hundred a year and comes to the county court Men burn the candle at both ends and then say they are very unfortunate; why don't they put twaddle on the right horse and say they are extravagant? Economy is half the battle in life, but it is not so hard to earn money as to spend it well. Hundreds would never have known want if they had not first known waste. If all poor men's wives knew how to cook, how far a little might go. our minister says the French and the Germans beat us hollow in nice cheap cookery.
I wish they would send missionaries over to convert our gossiping women into good managers; this is a French fashion which would be a good deal more useful than those fine pictures in Mrs. Fripper's window, with ladies rigged out in a new style every month. Dear me! Some people are much too fine nowadays to eat what their fathers were thankful to see on the table, and so they please their palates with costly feeding, come to the workhouse, and expect everybody to pity them. They turn up their noses at bread and butter and end up eating raw turnips stolen out of the fields. They who like fighting cocks at other men's costs will get their combs cut, or perhaps get roasted for it one of these days. If you have a great store of peas, you may put more in the soup; but everybody should fare according to his earnings.
He is both a fool and a knave who has a shilling coming in, and on the strength of it, spends a pound which does not belong to him. cut your coat according to your cloth is sound advice; but cutting other people's cloth by running into debt is as like thieving as a sofa is like a couch. If I meant to be a rogue, I would deal in marine stores, or be a petty fogging lawyer or a priest, or open a loan office, or go out picking pockets, but I would scorn the dirty art of getting into debt without a prospect of being able to pay.
Debtors can hardly help being liars, for they promise to pay when they know they cannot; and when they have made up a lot of false excuses, they promise again, so they lie as fast as a horse can trot.
"You have debts and make debts still, If you've not lied, lie you will."
Now, if owing leads to lying, who shall say that it is not a most evil thing? Of courses their are exceptions, and I do not want to come down hard upon an honest man who is brought down by sickness or heavy losses. But take the rule as a rule, and you will find debt to be a great dismal swamp, a huge mud hole, a dirty ditch: happy is the man who gets out of it after once tumbling in, but happiest of all is he who has been by God's goodness kept out of the mire altogether. If you ask the devil to dinner, it will be hard to get him out of the house again; it is better to have nothing to do him.
Where a hen has laid one egg, she is very likely to lay another; when a man is once in debt, he is likely to get into it again; it is better to keep clear of it from the first. He who gets in for a penny will soon be in for pound, and when a man is in over his shoes, he is very liable to be in over his boots. Never owe a farthing, and you will never owe a guinea.
If you want to sleep soundly, buy a bed of a man who is in debt; surely it must be a very soft one, or he never have rested so easy on it. I suppose people get hardened to it, as Smith's donkey did when its master broke so many sticks across its back. It seems to me that a real honest man would sooner get as lean as a greyhound than feast on borrowed money, and would choke up his throat with dust before he would let the landlord make chalk marks against him behind the door for a beer score. What pins and needles tradesmen's bills must stick in a fellow's soul! A pig on credit always grunts. Without debt, without care; out of debt, out of danger.
Owing and borrowing are bramble bushes full of thorns. If ever I borrow a spade from my next-door neighbor, I never feel safe with it for fear I should break it; I never can dig in peace as I do with my own. If I had a spade at the shop and I knew I could not pay for it, I think I should set to and dig my own grave out of shame. Scripture says, "Owe no man anything," which does not mean pay your debts, but never have any to pay. My opinion is that those who willfully break this law ought to be turned out of the Christian church, neck and crop, as we say. our laws are shamefully full of encouragement to credit: nobody need be a thief now. A man has only to open a shop and fail at it, and it will pay him much better; as the proverb is, "He who never fails will never grow rich."
Why, I know tradesmen who have failed five or six times and yet think they are on the road to heaven; the scoundrels, what would they do if they got there? They are a deal more likely to go where they shall never come out till they have paid the uttermost farthing. But people say, "How liberal they area Yes, with other people's money. I hate to see a man steal a goose and then give religion the giblets. Piety by all means but pay your way as part of it. Honesty comes first and then generosity. But how often religion is a cloak for deceiving!
There's Mrs. Scamp as fine as a peacock, all the girls out at boarding school learning French and the piano, the boys swelling about in kid gloves, and G. B. Scamp, Esquire, driving a fast-trotting mare and taking the chair at public meetings, while his poor creditors cannot get more than enough to live from hand to mouth. It is shameful and beyond endurance to see how genteel swindling is winked at by many in this country. I'd have off with their white waistcoats and kid gloves and patent leather boots, if I had my way, and give them the county crop and the prison livery for six months; gentlemen or not, I'd let them see that big rogues could dance on the treadmill to the same tune as little ones. I'd make the land too hot to hold such scamping gentry if I were a member of Parliament or a prime minister; since I've no such power, I can at least write against the fellows and let off the steam of my wrath in that way.
My motto is, "pay as you go, and keep from small scores. Short reckonings are soon cleared. Pay what you owe, and what you're worth, you'll know. Let the clock tick, but no Sticky for me. Better go to bed without your supper than get up in debt. Sins and debts are always more than we think them to be. Little by little, a man gets in over his head and ears. It is the petty expenses that empty the purse. Money is round and rolls assay easily. Tom Thriftless buys what he does not want because it is a great bargain, and so he is soon brought to sell what he does want and finds it a very little bargain. He cannot say "No" to his friend who wants him to be security; he gives grand dinners, makes many holidays, keeps a fat table, lets his wife dress fine, never looks after his servants, and by-and-by he is quite surprised to find that the end of the quarter comes round so very fast, and that creditors bark so loud.
He has sowed his money in the fields of thoughtlessness, and now he wonders that he has to reap the harvest of poverty. Still he hopes for something to turn up to help him out of difficulty, and so muddles himself into more troubles, forgetting that hope and expectation are a fool's income. Being hard up, he goes to market with empty pockets, and buys at whatever prices tradesmen like to charge him, and so he pays more than double and gets deeper and deeper into the mire.
This leads him to scheming and trying little tricks and mean dodges, for it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright. this is sure not to be the answer, for schemes are like spiders' webs which never catch anything better than flies and are soon swept away. you might as well try to mend your shoes with brown paper or stop a broken window with a sheet of ice, as to try to patch up a failing business with maneuvering and scheming. When the schemer is found out, he is like a dog in church that everybody kicks, or like a barrel of powder which nobody wants for a neighbor.
They say poverty is a sixth sense, and it had need be, for many debtors seem to have lost the other five or were born without common sense, for they appear to fancy that you not only make debts, but pay them by borrowing. A man pays Peter with what he has borrowed of Paul and thinks he is getting out of his difficulties, when he is only putting one foot into the mud to pull his other foot out. It is hard to shave an egg or pull hairs out of a bald pate, but they are both easier than paying 'debts out of an empty pocket. Samson was a strong man, but he could not pay debts without money.
He is a fool who thinks he can do it by scheming. As to borrowing money of loan sharks, it's like a drowning man catching at razors: both Jews and Gentiles, when they lend money, generally pluck the geese as long as they have any feathers. A man must cut down his outgoings and save his incomings if he wants to clear himself; you can't spend your penny and pay debts with it too. Stint the kitchen if the purse is bare. Don't believe in any way of wiping out debts except by paying hard cash. Promises make debts, and debts make promises, but promises never pay debts. Promising is one thing, and performing is quite another. A good man's word should be as binding as an oath, and he should never promise to pay unless he has a clear prospect of doing so in due time. Those who stave off payment by false promises deserve no mercy. It is all very well to say "I'm very sorry," but:
"A hundred years of regret Pay not a farthing of debts."
Now I'm afraid all this sound advice might as well have been given to my master's cocks and hens as to those who have gotten into the habit of spending what is not their own, for advice to such people goes in at one ear and out at the other. Well, those who won't listen will have to feel, and those who refuse cheap advice will have to buy dear repentance; but to young people beginning life, a word may be worth a world, and this shall be John Ploughman's short sermon, with three points to it: always re a little below your means, never get into debt, and remember,
"He who goes a borrowing Goes a sorrowing."