[William Haig Miller]:
"The Man of Wealth"
The Mirage of Life
By the author of "The Problem of Life; or the Three Questions"
[By W. H. Miller]. With illustrations by [John] Tenniel.
London: Religious Tract Society, [c.1890]
pp. 127. 16mo. [First published 1850]

pp. 24-34


A far more general object of pursuit than fashion is Wealth. This may be almost termed the universal passion, and it might appear at first sight bold to class its votaries amongst those who are chasing the Mirage. Yet true it is, that however legitimate the possession of wealth, when employed as a talent for promoting the glory of God and the good of our fellow-creatures, it is, when sought without reference to these ends, a snare and a delusion.

It is deceptive as regards the certainty of its acquisition. A young merchant, intoxicated with success and full of worldly energy, was a short time since boasting, in the presence of the writer of these pages, that fortunes were to be made in London, and that he had set his heart on acquiring one. Within a few months after he was in his grave.

Wealth is deceptive, also, as regards the enjoy- [25] ment which it promises to its possessors. The writer was, at one time, in the habit of meeting another merchant, who, almost in the prime of life had succeeded in realizing a fortune of more than £100,000 by incessant toil. The time for retiring to enjoy his hard-won earnings at last came but a fit of paralysis, brought on by excessive labour, shattered his frame, and reduced him to a state of pitiable helplessness.

Wealth is further deceptive when viewed with reference to its vanity when acquired. The great Duke of Marlborough used to walk through the rain at night to save sixpence, and accumulated a fortune of a million and a half. "Would he have taken all this pains," asks a writer, "could he have foreseen that after his death his fortune would, in the course of a few years, pass into the hands of a family which he had always opposed and regarded as his enemies?" Dr. Ring, in the anecdotes of his own times, speaks of a gentleman of his acquaintance, who went back a long distance to exchange a bad halfpenny which he had taken from the waiter of a coffee-room. He died worth more than £200,000; but his fortune, from want of a will, was divided amongst six day-labourers, for whom, when living, he had no regard. He had heaped up riches, without knowing who should gather them. A late Scottish nobleman, accompanying a gentleman to the summit of a hill which overlooked his lordship's estates, after explaining that, as far as the eye could reach, the country was his property, stated, in reply to the remark, "Surely [26] your lordship must be a happy man," that he did not believe there was in all the vast circuit that met their gaze an individual so unhappy as himself. The guilty Colonel Charteris found that piles of wealth were a poor substitute for a peaceful conscience; when dying, he said he would readily give £30,000 to have it proved to his satisfaction that there was no such place as hell. Still more miserable was the career of the well-known Elwes, the miser. When worth more than half a million, he wore clothes so ragged that many persons, mistaking him for a common street beggar, would put a penny into his hand as they passed. He would pick up bones and rags. He would glean with his tenants in his fields, and complain bitterly of the birds robbing him of so much hay with which to build their nests. He, however, gained his end in life. He accumulated nearly a million of money, but found, when he had done so, that the object of his search was full of dissatisfaction. His last days, we are told, were embittered by anxiety about the preservation of his property. He would start from his sleep, exclaiming, "My money! my money! You shall not rob me of my money." At the dead of night he was found wandering through his house, bemoaning the loss of a fivepound note, which he had hid in a place that he could not remember; and, although then a millionaire, protesting that the note was nearly all he had in the world! His last hours were filled with gloom and anxiety. He died wretched and unhappy, possessing such extensive wealth, and [27] yet finding it unable to supply the wants of an immortal spirit.

Leaving, however, various other forms in which the Mirage of wealth might be exemplified, we shall confine ourselves to one more illustration, namely, the instability of riches, and select for our type; WILLIAM BECKFORD, of Fonthill, or, The Man of Wealth.

William Beckford was born towards the middle of the eighteenth century. He was the only son of a wealthy West Indian proprietor, who, dying when his child was ten years of age, left an income of more than £100,000 a year, to accumulate until the boy should teach his majority. Young Beckford's mental powers were good, and no pains were spared in cultivating them by a refined education. Sir William Chambers instructed him in architecture, and the eminent Mozart taught him music. At twenty-one, with the income of a prince, and accumulations in ready money to the amount of about a million sterling, he launched upon the world. How vast were the capacities of usefulness placed before him! His income might have banished penury from whole districts of his country. The great talent of promoting human happiness was placed within his reach; but he threw the golden opportunity away. Proud and haughty, the youthful Beckford withdrew from the active business of life; and retiring to the Continent, devoted himself to a life of luxurious ease. Settling after a time in Portugal, he there lavished his wealth upon a charming villa, which [28] a poet, who visited it when in ruins, has described in the following lines

" Here, too, thou, Beckford - England's wealthiest son
Once formed thy paradise, as not aware
When wanton Wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek Peace voluptuous snares was ever wont to shun:
Here didst thou dwell; here schemes of pleasure plan,
Beneath yon mountain's ever beauteous brow.
But now, as if a thing unblest by man,
Thy lonely dwelling is as lone as thou.
Here giant weeds a passage scarce allow
To halls deserted, portals gaping wide;
Fresh lessons to unthinking mortals,
how Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied,
Swept into wrecks anon by Time's ungentle tide."

During Beckford's residence in Portugal, he visited, under the royal sanction, some of the wealthy and luxurious monasteries of that country. It is difficult to convey an idea of the pomp and splendour of this journey, which resembled more the cavalcade of an Eastern prince than the tour of a private individual. "Everything," he himself says, "that could be thought or dreamed of for our convenience or relaxation was carried in our train -nothing was left behind but care and sorrow," "The ceiling of my apartment in the monastery," he adds, 'was gilded and painted; the floor spread with Persian carpets of the finest texture; the tables decked with superb ewers and basins of chased silver." The kitchen in which his dinner was prepared is thus described: "A stream of water flowed through it, from which were formed reservoirs containing every kind of river-fish. On [29] one side were heaped up loads of game and venison; on the other side were vegetables and fruit, in endless variety. Beyond a long line of stores extended a row of oven; and close to them hillocks of wheaten flour, finer than snow; rocks of sugar, jars of the purest oil, and pastry in various abundance." The dinner which followed these preparations was served in a magnificent saloon of the monastery, covered with pictures, and lighted up with a profusion of wax tapers in sconces of silver. "The banquet," he adds, "consisted of rarities and delicacies, of event season, from distant countries." Confectionery and fruits awaited the party in a room still more sumptuous, where vessels of Goa filigree, containing the rarest and most fragrant spices, were handed round. Such was Beckford's mode of life during this journey. Painful recollections are awakened, when perusing this narrative, of a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day.

Returning, at the commencement of the present century, to his native country, Beckford again abandoned himself to an unwise enjoyment of his wealth. Taking a capricious dislike to a splendid mansion on his estate, which had been erected by his father at a vast cost, he ordered it to be pulled down. He resolved that, phoenix-like, there should arise from its ruins a building which should surpass in magnificence all that hitherto had been known in English art. Fonthill Abbey, one of the wonders of the West of [30] England, was the result of this determination. Whole galleries of that vast pile were- apparently erected for the sole purpose of enabling Beckford to emblazon on their windows the crests of the families from whom he boasted his descent. The wonder of the fabric, however, was a tower of colossal dimensions and great height, erected somewhat in the manner and spirit of those who once reared a similar structure on the plains of Shinar: "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name."

To complete the erection of Beckford's princely pile, almost every cart in the county was employed, so that at one time agricultural labour was well-nigh suspended. Impatient of delay, night, at one period, was not allowed to impose obstacles to the progress of the work. Torchlight was employed; fresh bands of labourers relieving at evening those who worked by day. In the dark nights of winter, the distant traveller was startled by the blaze of light from Fonthill, which proclaimed at once the resources and the folly of the man of wealth. Beckford's principal enjoyment was in watching the erection of this structure. At nightfall he would repair to some elevated grounds, and there, in solitude, would feast his eyes for hours with the singular spectacle presented by the dancing of the lights, and the play of their reflection on the neighbouring forest. The building seemed, indeed, Beckford's idol-the object for which he lived. He devoted [31: illustration] [32] the whole of his energies to make it realize the most fascinating vision of an excited imagination.

After the completion of the abbey, Beckford's conduct was still more extraordinary. A wall, twelve feet high, surrounded his mansion and grounds, the latter of which were so arranged as to contain walks and rides twenty miles in extent Within this mysterious circle scarcely any visitors were allowed to pass. In stately grandeur he dwelt alone, shunning converse with the world around. Majesty itself, so ran the rumour, was desirous of visiting this wonderful domain, but was refused admittance. Strangers would disguise themselves as servants, as peasants, or as pedlars, in the hope of catching even a transient glimpse at its glories. Nor was its interior unworthy of this curiosity. All that art and wealth could give; to produce effect, were there. "Gold and silver vases and cups," says one who saw the place, "are so numerous here that they dazzle the eye; and when one looks round at the cabinets, candelabra, and ornaments which decorate the room, we may almost imagine that we stand in the treasury of some oriental prince, whose riches consist entirely in vessels of gold and silver enriched with precious stones of every sort, from the ruby to the diamond."*

[33] Such was Beckford, of Fonthill. With an income of more than £100,000 per annum, he seemed above the reach of fortune. Who would have ventured to style all this splendour evanescent as the Mirage? And yet it was so. A sudden depreciation of West Indian property took place. Some lawsuits terminated unfavourably, and embarrassments poured in like a flood on the princely owner. The gates which had refused admittance to a monarch were rudely thrust open by a sheriff's officer. The mansion, erected at so vast an expense, was sold. The greater part of the costly treasures were scattered by the hammer of the auctioneer, and Beckford driven, with the shattered fragments of a fortune, to spend his old age in a watering-place; there to muse on the instability of wealth; there to feel how little pleasure the retrospect of neglected talents can give, and to point the oft-told moral of the vanity of human pursuits. He fell, it is said, unpitied. The noblest opportunities of conferring happiness had been placed within his reach, and had been thrown away. What could he now show for the amount of wealth intrusted to his stewardship? Little more than a heap of rubbish! a dismantled mansion in Portugal, and two ruined dwellings in England. The tower, [34] which he had erected at so great a cost, fell to the ground, and Fonthill Abbey was pulled down by its new owner.

Thus melted away, like frostwork before the sun, the extravagant productions of the man of wealth. His whole life had been a sad misapplication of the talents committed to his care, and in the end he discovered that he had been cheated by the Mirage.

"Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy." - 1 Tim. vi. 17.

* The grounds of Fonthill seem to have been almost as beautiful as the interior. There were all varieties of surface; winding vale, steep ridge, hill, deli, knoll, and lake, clumps and masses of oak and pine; solitude for the poet and painter; terraces; a flower garden unmatched in England; American plantations filled with the trees and flowering shrubs of North America. Here were extent, repose, and majesty for the pencil of Claude; the rugged grandeur that would affect Ruysdael; and the deep and savage wildness which suited the genius of Salvator Rosa.

Illustration facing page 30 [31], by John Tenniel.