The Tontine

1. The Investment

Newton Stewart was where they gathered,
in a legal-smelling office.
Twenty gentlemen of standing,
every one of them a father
of a son a year or younger
(stipulated by the lawyer
in the curious undertaking
of administering the Tontine).
Every father gave a thousand,
twenty thousand pounds in total,
a considerable fortune
in the days of Queen Victoria.
And the lawyer was entrusted
to invest the whole caboodle
in a safe and steady venture
chosen at his own discretion,
while the innocents I mentioned
(twenty little ones, remember?)
gurgled happily at nurses
whom they took to be their mothers.
So began the living contest,
brainchild of the worthy Tonty -
this his only contribution
to the happiness of nations.

2. First Cull

Farquhar was the first to flounder -
measles left him unprotected
from the cholera that followed
taking with him Jones and Walker.
Whooping cough in moderation
is survivable by many
but delicious complications
put an end to MacAnespie.
So it was that, of the twenty,
sixteen might have had a birthday
but an old perambulator
left its handle in the care of
Wilson's nurse, as Wilson gaily
rolled in front of an express train.
Nursie was discharged from service,
while the twenty thousand grew at
nearly three percent per annum.

3. Second Cull

Troubled times befell the Porters
so the young beloved Simon
matched his lungs against the chimneys
and they proved to be the weaker.
Similarily incommoded
by a fall in family fortune
Smythe and Peters were seconded
to a dismal paupers' prison
never more to see the sunlight.
While the sweet tuberculosis
sowed the seeds of early exit
(eighty two was such a winter)
to a portion of the sample
who inhabited the city
with its smog of yellow brimstone.
Alphabetically listed
there were Anderson and Edwards
there were Fredericks and Manners
closely followed by McDonald.
Thus it was that of the twenty
only seven were included
when the end of adolescence
loomed like fate on the horizon.

4. The Seven

Twenty years since its inception
twenty years of steady progress
at the hands of merchant bankers
fifty more (perhaps) to follow
as our seven golden warriors
came to physical fruition.

MacGuire was first to taste the joys of love
McCall was next to fall, and it was sad
that she who seemed to fit him like a glove
was she whom young MacGuire already had
succumbed to. In the fashion of the times
there had to be a duel. Pistols at dawn
(and by the way you'll notice this bit rhymes -
that Hiawatha stuff goes on and on...)
MacGuire was pretty sharp. He'd been abroad
in Africa and practised killing game
while young McCall (the miserable sod)
was destined for the church. A dreadful shame.
And as he fell, a bullet in his heart,
his gun went off and killed his second, Smart.

Young MacGuire although the victor
was unsure of his position
for the law was never joyous
at the killing of a curate
so he joined the Foreign Legion
rushing off to the Sahara
and was relatively happy
for it suited his ambition
to be always in the action
till a camel kicked his head in.

So four remained alive till middle age
Their names were Martin, Samson, Jack and Law,
the first three, active players on the stage
of commerce, but the fourth one had a flaw
in character, for all his waking hours
were spent in plotting evil to befall
his fellow tontinites, and all his powers
he put to serve this end. He wanted all
the fortune to devolve upon his head
but far from settling down and trusting fate
he dreamed of suffocating in his bed
each of his rivals, saying "Why should I wait
until I'm old? I've got a brain. Employ it
to win my fortune while I can enjoy it!"

But before Law had a chance to
perpetrate a single murder
Martin made a bad investment
on behalf of his employer
bringing bankruptcy to many
and his conscience pricked him sorely
so he leapt out of the window
of his office in the city
landing squarely on the head of
someone walking on the pavement,
someone contemplating murder
though the world had never known it.
And as Law and Martin perished
still the fortune waxed enormous.

5. Samson and Jack

In the days of their retirement
lives could not have been as different
as the lives of Jack and Samson
for the very simple reason
of the circumstance of marriage.
Samson's family, understanding
that he could be worth a million
to be theirs in perpetuity
if he only lived the longer,
wrapped him up in cosy flannel
kept him clear of sickly persons
hid his whisky and tobacco
monitored his every movement
even those we cannot mention.
Mollycoddled like an infant,
his frustration grew excessive
and his hatred for his family
(most of all his son and daughter
who considered him a passport
to eternity of leisure)
soon outweighed whatever solace
his longevity could furnish
so he seized upon a table
knife and practised hari kiri
with remarkable success in one
so elderly and feeble.
He was suitably rewarded
for the pain he had to suffer
by the look of greater anguish
in the eyes of his tormentors
when they saw he was a goner.

and Jack?

Eighty three and never married
he had always been a loner
not unsociable, but quiet,
and content to fish the river
where it bordered on his garden.
He was fishing when they found him
with the news about the tontine
but he smiled a little sadly
as he thought of poor old Samson,
took the cheque the lawyer proffered,
never marvelled at its value,
gently tore it into pieces
which he floated on the river
and continued in his fishing.

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