The Man Who Gave Good Advice

by Maurice Baring

To Henry Cust

When he was a child his baby brother came to him one day and said that their elder brother, who was grown up, had got a beautiful small ship in his room. Should he ask him for it? The child who gave good advice said: "No, if you ask him for it he will say you are a spoilt child; but go and play in his room with it before he gets up in the morning, and he will give it to you." The baby brother followed this advice, and sure enough two days afterwards he appeared triumphant in the nursery with the ship in his hands, saying: "He said I might choose, the ship or the picture-book." Now the picture-book was a coloured edition of Baron Munchausen's adventures; the boy who gave good advice had seen it and hankered for it. As the baby brother had refused it there could be no harm in asking for it, so the next time his elder brother sent him on an errand (it was to fetch a pin-cushion from his room) judging the moment to be propitious, he said to him: "May I have the picture-book that baby wouldn't have?" "I don't like little boys who ask," answered the big brother, and there the matter ended.

The child who gave good advice went to school. There was a rage for stag beetles at the school; the boys painted them and made them run races on a chessboard. They imagined—rightly or wrongly—that some stag beetles were much faster than others. A little boy called Bell possessed the stag beetle which was the favourite for the coming races. Another boy called Mason was consumed with longing for this stag beetle; and Bell had said he would give it to him in exchange for Mason's catapult, which was famous in the school for the unique straightness of its two prongs. Mason went to the boy who gave good advice and asked him for his opinion. "Don't swap it for your catty," said the boy who gave good advice, "because Bell's stag beetle may not win after all; and even if it does stag beetles won't be the rage for very long; but a catty is always a catty, and yours is the best in the school." Mason took the advice. When the races came off, the stag beetles were so erratic that no prize was awarded, and they immediately ceased to be the rage. The rage for stag beetles was succeeded by a rage for secret alphabets. One boy invented a secret alphabet made of simple hieroglyphics, which was imparted only to a select few, who spent their spare time in corresponding with each other by these cryptic signs. The boy who gave good advice was not of those initiated into the mystery of the cypher, and he longed to be. He made several overtures, but they were all rejected, the reason being that boys of the second division could not let a "third division squit" into their secret. At last the boy who gave good advice offered to one of the initiated the whole of his stamp collection in return for the secret of the alphabet. This offer was accepted. The boy took the stamp collection, but the boy who gave good advice received in return not the true alphabet but a sham one especially manufactured for him. This he found out later; but recriminations were useless; besides which the rage for secret alphabets soon died out and was replaced by a rage for aquariums, newts, and natterjack toads.

The boy went to a public school. He was a fag. His fag-master had two fags. One morning the other fag came to the boy who gave good advice and said: "Clarke (he was the fag-master) told me three days ago to clean his football boots. He's been 'staying out' and hasn't used them, and I forgot. He'll want them to-day, and now there isn't time. I shall pretend I did clean them."

"No, don't do that," said the boy who gave good advice, "because if you say you have cleaned them he will lick you twice as much for having cleaned them badly—say you forgot." The advice was taken, and the fag-master merely said: "Don't forget again." A little later the fag-master had some friends to tea, and told the boy who gave good advice to boil him six eggs for not more than three minutes and a half. The boy who gave good advice, while they were on the fire, took part in a rag that which was going on in the passage; the result was that the eggs remained seven minutes in boiling water. They were hard. When the fag-master pointed this out and asked his fag what he meant by it, the boy who gave good advice persisted in his statement that they had been exactly three minutes and a half in the saucepan, and that he had timed them by his watch. So the fag-master caned him for telling lies.

The boy who gave good advice grew into a man and went to the university. There he made friends with a man called Crawley, who went to a neighbouring race meeting one day and lost two or three hundred pounds.

"I must raise the money from a money-lender somehow," said Crawley to the man who gave good advice, "and on no account must the Master hear of it or he would send me down; or write home, which would be worse."

"On the contrary," said the man who gave good advice, "you must go straight to the Master and tell him all about it. He will like you twice as much for ever afterwards; he never minds people getting into scrapes when he happens to like them, and he likes you and believes you have a great career before you."

Crawley went to the Master of the college and made a clean breast of it. The Master told him he had been foolish—very foolish; but he arranged the whole matter in such a manner that it never came to the ears of Crawley's extremely violent-tempered and puritanical father.

The man who gave good advice got a "First" in Mods, and everyone felt confident he would get a first in Greats; he did brilliantly in nearly all his papers; but during the Latin unseen a temporary and sudden lapse of memory came over him and he forgot the English for manubioe, which the day before he had known quite well means prize-money. In fact the word was written on the first page of his note-book. The word was in his brain, but a small shutter had closed on it for the moment and he could not recall it. He looked over his neighbour's shoulder. His neighbour had translated it "booty." He copied the word mechanically, knowing it was wrong. As he did so he was detected and accused of cribbing. He denied the charge, the matter was investigated, the papers were compared, and the man who gave good advice was disqualified. In all his other papers he had done incomparably better than anyone else.

When he left Oxford the man who gave good advice went into a Government office. He had not been in it long before he perceived that by certain simple reforms the work of the office could be done twice as effectually and half as expensively. He embodied these reforms in a memorandum and they were not long afterwards adopted. He became private secretary to Snipe, a rising politician and persuaded him to change his party and his politics. Snipe, owing to this advice, became a Cabinet Minister, and the man who gave good advice, having inherited some money, stood for Parliament himself. He stood as a Conservative at a General Election and spoke eloquently to enthusiastic meetings. The wire-pullers prophecied an overwhelming majority, when shortly before the poll, at one of his meetings, he suddenly declared himself to be an Independent, and made a speech violently in favour of Home Rule and conscription. The result was that the Liberal Imperialist got in by a huge majority, and the man who gave good advice was pelted with rotten eggs.

After this the man who gave good advice abandoned politics and took to finance; in this branch of human affairs he made the fortune of several of his friends, preventing some from putting their money in alluring South African schemes, and advising others to risk theirs on events which seemed to him certain, such as the election of a President or the short-lived nature of a revolution; events which he foresaw with intuition amounting to second-sight. At the same time he lost nearly all his own money by investing it in a company which professed to have discovered a manner—cheap and rapid—of transforming copper into platinum. He made the fortune of a publisher by insisting on the publication of a novel which six intelligent men had declared to be unreadable. It was called "The Conscience of John Digby," and when published it sold by thousands and tens of thousands. But he lost the handsome reward he received for this service by publishing at his own expense, on magnificent paper, an edition of Rabelais' works in their original tongue. He frequently spotted winners for his friends and for himself, but any money that he won at a race meeting he invariably lost coming home in the train on the Three Card Trick.

Nor did he lose touch with politicians, and this brought about the final catastrophe. A great friend of his, the eminent John Brooke, had the chance of becoming Prime Minister. Parties were at that time in a state of confusion. The question was, should his friend ally himself with or sever himself for ever from Mr. Capax Nissy, the leader of the Liberal Aristocracy Party, who seemed to have a large following? His friend, John Brooke, gave a small dinner to his most intimate friends in order to talk over the matter. The man who gave good advice was so eloquent, so cogent in his reasoning, so acute in his perception, that he persuaded Brooke to sever himself for ever from Capax Nissy. He persuaded all who were present, with the exception of Mr. Short-Sight, a pig-headed man who reasoned falsely. So annoyed did the man who gave good advice become with Short-Sight, and so excited in his vexation, that he finally lost his self-control, and hit him as hard as he could on the head—after Short-Sight had repeated a groundless assertion for the seventh time—with the poker.

Short-Sight died, and the man who gave good advice was convicted of wilful murder. He gave admirable advice to his counsel, but threw away his own case as soon as he entered the box himself, which he insisted on doing. He was hanged in gaol at Reading. Many people whom he had benefited in various ways visited him in prison, among others John Brooke, the Prime Minister. It is said that he would certainly have been reprieved but for the intemperate and inexcusable letters he wrote to the Home Secretary from prison.

"It's a great tragedy—he was a clever man," said Brooke after dinner when they were discussing the misfortune at Downing Street; "a very clever man, but he had no judgment."

"No," said Snipe, the man whose private secretary the man who gave good advice had been, "That's it. It's an awful thing—but he had no judgment."