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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Chapter X

page 36

Chapter X.

Josiah Begg, of San Francisco—Early Enterprise—Glasgow Fair—San Francisco in the "Forties"—"A Packman or Pedlar on Wheels."

Josiah Begg, of San Francisco, merchant shipper and general importer, deceased, was what is generally known as a uniformly successful man.

The bare fact of his decease renders the corresponding fact of his birth a foregone conclusion. He was, accordingly, born somewhere in the first decade of the present century, and at the time of his death had advanced some years beyond the half-hundred. He was of Scottish descent, having first seen the light of day at a small weaving village named Crossford, on the banks of the Clyde,98 in the upper ward of Lanarkshire.

We have said he was a uniformly successful man. Now, that is a class of man every one envies but no one admires. Their uniform success in life makes them bumptious99 and intolerant.

With no earthly distinction, other than the distinction conferred on them by or through the caprice100 of blind luck, they come to regard themselves as very smart fellows, and, in virtue thereof, conceive they have the right to lecture their fellow-man upon every conceivable topic and occasion. "Look here," they say, "what I have done; and, if you had only followed my example, how infinitely better it would have been for you today"

What aggravates the evil is that, while the bumptious man is for the most part devoid of feeling and inflated by success, the unfortunate man is, as a rule, of a sensitive nature—a man of delicate and refined feeling. How it is that the well refined in human nature should thus be made scapegoat for the coarse page 37and callous, is one of those inscrutable decrees of providence hard to be understood.

That there are those in the world who look upon the government of the world as being subject to blind caprice may evince101 a want of breadth of view, but it does not betoken insensibility to what is passing round. The almighty dollar, the great outcome of this uniform success, will assert itself; and, say what you will about the superiority of mind over matter, material wealth is, and to all appearance will continue to be, power.

Even in his youth, as if fate and the future had resolved upon taking the earliest opportunity for protesting against the unsavoury sound associated with his name, Josiah Begg indicated the achievement in gold that awaited his manhood.

The Goddess of Fortune seemed to say, "Look at that boy Begg: if you think he is going to be one of your pauper lot, you are mistaken. Just see how he birls102 up the coin in pitch-and-toss,103 and how judiciously he selects the hand in neevy-neevy-nick-nack.104 He wins the toss every time, and selects the even hand nine times out of ten. That's the kind of stuff to make a moneyed man of."

We had better explain that pitch-and-toss and neevy-neevy-nick-nack were the two favourite amusements of Josiah's youth. "A game of football, or leap-frog," he would say, "is each good in its way, but they include no stake. You might kick as long as you like, and leap as high as you choose, and yet have naught for your trouble." In that way he began accumulating property at an early period of his life, and, as age advanced, he extended his operations.

It was remembered for many years in Crossford that Josiah paid a visit to the western metropolis on the occasion of a certain Glasgow fair. One great pastime of the period was the portable shooting-gallery. It was quite a primitive affair. It consisted of a wheelbarrow, with a board set up on end, on which the bull's-eye was painted in brightest colours. If the marksman made a bull's-eye he got back his coin, together with a handful of nuts; if he made a miss he forfeited his coin, and got no nuts.

Josiah embarked upon one of these speculations, and won. He took the second chance, and won; and, in fact, kept on page 38winning, until the owner of the wheelbarrow discovered that it was time for him to knock off, and transfer his patronage to some neighbour practitioner. Josiah did as he was bidden; but, after half an hour's experience, the neighbour practitioner advised a further transfer of his patronage. The result of this unique piece of youthful enterprise was that Master Begg returned to Crossford with his coin in his pocket and sufficient nuts in his satchel to set up in a small way of business. And that was exactly what Josiah did.

With his mind improved by the observations made and the experience gained during his sojourn in Glasgow, Josiah erected a portable shooting-gallery in his native village. In that way he succeeded in converting his stock of nuts into hard cash, besides making other additions thereto. In this pleasant and profitable way his early youth was spent.

Crossford, which consisted of not more than a score of one-story thatched houses, with bits of kailyards105 behind, was rather too confined a place for a promising genius of this kind. He was accordingly apprenticed to a linendraper106 in Glasgow.

Hitherto Josiah's commercial undertakings, profitable in a way, had been mere child's-play. Now he entered upon a career affording an opportunity for developing his genius on lines commensurate with his future greatness.

His first triumph in this his new line of life was in many respects akin to that of the surgical operation pronounced impossible by high medical authority—viz., extracting blood from a stone. One of the linendraper's customers became bankrupt, and, on being looked into, his affairs were pronounced in a state of hopeless insolvency. "There won't be a sixpence in the pound left when all expenses are paid," said the disconsolate linendraper.

Josiah was sent to supervise affairs, his instructions being to make the best of a bad job, and get the concern wound up without delay.

He acted on these instructions to the letter. Finding the bankrupt stock would not move off quick enough according to the ordinary rules of trade, he instituted the Saturday auction-sale.

That was an improvement. Still, it was not the perfection of Josiah Begg's improving genius. He therefore improved page 39upon the improvement. Ignoring beaten tracks and preconceived opinions in the pursuit of auction-sales, he introduced for the first time in Scotland the "Dutch auction" system—that is, beginning at the other end, and working downwards until the price bidden reached the "sticking-point."107 The innovation was a great success, and in an incredible short space of time the entire stock disappeared.

On reckoning up, the Dutch auction system, together with Josiah Begg's uniform success, yielded 7s. 6d., instead of 6d., in the pound.

This happy despatch put Josiah on the best terms with creditors in bankrupt estates, and his services came to be in great request, more especially when the estates were considered to be hopelessly involved.

We are now advancing well into the "forties," when the golden city of San Francisco commenced to shed abroad its fame, and thousands were flocking in at its "Golden Gate."

"This is a chance for me," said Josiah, and, having selected a large consignment of miscellaneous goods and gear, set sail for the far West.

Arriving at San Francisco when the gold-fever was at its height, the excitement was something terrible to witness. Men's actions seemed to be governed by no principle in reason, and nothing appeared too utterly extravagant to gain credence, or secure a following. It was a conglomeration of the nationalities of the earth let loose in a body, without any of those staying properties supposed to be prerogative of the human mind and understanding. At its dispersion the Tower of Babel could not have set up a greater hubbub; and that was true both as regards men's words and actions in San Francisco.

Mr. Josiah Begg, however, did not allow himself to be borne away by the excitement of the moment. On the contrary, it only tended to make him more careful, more cautious.

After making a good many observations, coupled with a great many inquiries, he resolved upon "feeling the pulse" of the place as to the value put upon his consignments. The auction-sale on the Dutch principle had stood him in good stead in the Old World, why not try its merits in the new? The experiment was carried out, with the result that it gave page 40him a pretty good insight into the class of goods that took well in the city, together with an idea of those likely to go well in the country.

Following up this information, he possessed himself of a horse and trap,108 and set out on his travels—a packman, or pedlar on wheels. It was at the outset a one-horse trap, but in Josiah Begg's hands it soon blossomed into a four-horse team. In that way he visited not only the established gold-workings, but, by dint109 of enterprise and courage, he was amongst the first at some of the new rushes. He came in time to be well known throughout the goldfields as "Scotia,"110 and before long few men enjoyed a wider reputation.

Both on the diggings and elsewhere the Scot and his nationality are considered fair game for poking a bit of borax.* Mr. Josiah Begg fully appreciated the importance of patience; hence in process of time he got the name of being "a good-natured sort of a fellow" you could not "put out" so long as you did not put your hand too deep into his pocket. Putting one thing with another, Josiah succeeded in doing good business, so that, in the land of his adoption, that strong personal characteristic, uniform success, did not desert him.

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98 River Clyde which passes through Glasgow and the Lanarkshire, the second longest river in Scotland.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

99 Conceited and self-asserted.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

100 Impulse.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

101 Reveal.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

102 Spins an object in the air.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

103 A gambling game involving the throwing of coins.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

104 Usually spelt “nievie-nievie-nick-nack” – in which one is asked to guess which hand holds a small, concealed object.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

105 Small plots of land where vegetables are grown.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

106 A dry-goods dealer, usally dealing in fabrics.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

107 The obstacle one progresses towards.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

108 A nimble two-wheeled cart used for transporting people.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

109 Force.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

110 The fixed Latin term for Scotland in the late Middle Ages.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

* See Appendix, Note 22.