“You’re nearly as good as an intelligent sheep-dog to talk to, Smith— when a man gets tired of thinking to himself and wants a relief. You’re a bit of a mug and a good deal of an idiot, and the chances are that you don’t know what I’m driving at half the time— that’s the main reason why I don’t mind talking to you. You ought to consider yourself honoured; it ain’t every man I take into my confidence, even that far.”
Smith rubbed his head.
“I’d sooner talk to you—or a stump—any day than to one of those silent, suspicious, self-contained, worldly-wise chaps that listen to everything you say—sense and rubbish alike—as if you were trying to get them to take shares in a mine. I drop the man who listens to me all the time and doesn’t seem to get bored. He isn’t safe. He isn’t to be trusted. He mostly wants to grind his axe against yours, and there’s too little profit for me where there are two axes to grind, and no stone—though I’d manage it once, anyhow.”
“How’d you do it?” asked Smith.
“There are several ways. Either you join forces, for instance, and find a grindstone—or make one of the other man’s axe. But the last way is too slow, and, as I said, takes too much brain-work— besides, it doesn’t pay. It might satisfy your vanity or pride, but I’ve got none. I had once, when I was younger, but it—well, it nearly killed me, so I dropped it.
“You can mostly trust the man who wants to talk more than you do; he’ll make a safe mate—or a good grindstone.”
Smith scratched the nape of his neck and sat blinking at the fire, with the puzzled expression of a woman pondering over a life-question or the trimming of a hat. Steelman took his chin in his hand and watched Smith thoughtfully.
“I—I say, Steely,” exclaimed Smith, suddenly, sitting up and scratching his head and blinking harder than ever—“wha—what am I?”
“How do you mean?”
“Am I the axe or the grindstone?”
“Oh! your brain seems in extra good working order to-night, Smith. Well, you turn the grindstone and I grind.” Smith settled. “If you could grind better than I, I’d turn the stone and let you grind, I’d never go against the interests of the firm—that’s fair enough, isn’t it?”
“Ye-es,” admitted Smith; “I suppose so.”
“So do I. Now, Smith, we’ve got along all right together for years, off and on, but you never know what might happen. I might stop breathing, for instance—and so might you.”
Smith began to look alarmed.
“Poetical justice might overtake one or both of us—such things have happened before, though not often. Or, say, misfortune or death might mistake us for honest, hard-working mugs with big families to keep, and cut us off in the bloom of all our wisdom. You might get into trouble, and, in that case, I’d be bound to leave you there, on principle; or I might get into trouble, and you wouldn’t have the brains to get me out— though I know you’d be mug enough to try. I might make a rise and cut you, or you might be misled into showing some spirit, and clear out after I’d stoushed you for it. You might get tired of me calling you a mug, and bossing you and making a tool or convenience of you, you know. You might go in for honest graft (you were always a bit weak-minded) and then I’d have to wash my hands of you (unless you agreed to keep me) for an irreclaimable mug. Or it might suit me to become a respected and worthy fellow townsman, and then, if you came within ten miles of me or hinted that you ever knew me, I’d have you up for vagrancy, or soliciting alms, or attempting to levy blackmail. I’d have to fix you—so I give you fair warning. Or we might get into some desperate fix (and it needn’t be very desperate, either) when I’d be obliged to sacrifice you for my own personal safety, comfort, and convenience. Hundreds of things might happen.
“Well, as I said, we’ve been at large together for some years, and I’ve found you sober, trustworthy, and honest; so, in case we do part —as we will sooner or later—and you survive, I’ll give you some advice from my own experience.
“In the first place: If you ever happen to get born again —and it wouldn’t do you much harm—get born with the strength of a bullock and the hide of one as well, and a swelled head, and no brains— at least no more brains than you’ve got now. I was born with a skin like tissue-paper, and brains; also a heart.
“Get born without relatives, if you can: if you can’t help it, clear out on your own just as soon after you’re born as you possibly can. I hung on.
“If you have relations, and feel inclined to help them any time when you’re flush (and there’s no telling what a weak-minded man like you might take it into his head to do)—don’t do it. They’ll get a down on you if you do. It only causes family troubles and bitterness. There’s no dislike like that of a dependant. You’ll get neither gratitude nor civility in the end, and be lucky if you escape with a character. (You’ve got no character, Smith; I’m only just supposing you have.) There’s no hatred too bitter for, and nothing too bad to be said of, the mug who turns. The worst yarns about a man are generally started by his own tribe, and the world believes them at once on that very account. Well, the first thing to do in life is to escape from your friends.
“If you ever go to work—and miracles have happened before— no matter what your wages are, or how you are treated, you can take it for granted that you’re sweated; act on that to the best of your ability, or you’ll never rise in the world. If you go to see a show on the nod you’ll be found a comfortable seat in a good place; but if you pay the chances are the ticket clerk will tell you a lie, and you’ll have to hustle for standing room. The man that doesn’t ante gets the best of this world; anything he’ll stand is good enough for the man that pays. If you try to be too sharp you’ll get into gaol sooner or later; if you try to be too honest the chances are that the bailiff will get into your house—if you have one—and make a holy show of you before the neighbours. The honest softy is more often mistaken for a swindler, and accused of being one, than the out-and-out scamp; and the man that tells the truth too much is set down as an irreclaimable liar. But most of the time crow low and roost high, for it’s a funny world, and you never know what might happen.
“And if you get married (and there’s no accounting for a woman’s taste) be as bad as you like, and then moderately good, and your wife will love you. If you’re bad all the time she can’t stand it for ever, and if you’re good all the time she’ll naturally treat you with contempt. Never explain what you’re going to do, and don’t explain afterwards, if you can help it. If you find yourself between two stools, strike hard for your own self, Smith—strike hard, and you’ll be respected more than if you fought for all the world. Generosity isn’t understood nowadays, and what the people don’t understand is either ‘mad’ or ‘cronk’. Failure has no case, and you can’t build one for it. . . . I started out in life very young—and very soft.”
“I thought you were going to tell me your story, Steely,” remarked Smith.
Steelman smiled sadly.