Chapter XXX.
 

And now we have come down to the memorable summer and fall of 1857. No gathering clouds, no far-distant, low-voiced thunder gave warning of an approaching storm. The sky was clear, and the sun of prosperity moving onward in his strength, when, suddenly, from the West came a quick flash and an ominous roll of thunder. Men paused, looked at each other, and asked what it meant. Here and there a note of warning was sounded; but, if heeded by any, it came too late. There followed a brief pause, in which people held their breaths. Then came another flash, and another rattling peal. Heavy clouds began to roll up from the horizon; and soon the whole sky was dark. Pale face looked into pale face, and tremulous voices asked as to what was coming. Fear and consternation were in all hearts. It was too late for any to seek refuge or shelter. Ere the startled multitudes had stirred from their first surprised position, the tempest came down in its fury, sweeping, tornado-like, from West to East, and then into one grand gyration circling the whole horizon. Men lost courage, confidence, and hope. They stood still while the storm beat down, and the fearful work of destruction went on.

No commercial disaster like this had ever before visited our country. Houses that stood unmoved through many fierce convulsions went down like brittle reeds, and old Corporations which were thought to be as immovable as the hills tottered and fell, crushing hundreds amid their gigantic ruins.

Among the first to yield was the greatly extended house of Floyd, Lawson, Lee, & Co. The news came up on the wires to S----, with orders to stop the mills and discharge all hands. This was the bursting of the tempest on our town. Mr. Dewey had gone to New York on the first sign of approaching trouble, and his return was looked for anxiously by all with whom he was deeply interested in business. But many days passed and none saw him, or heard from him. Failing to receive any communication, Squire Floyd, who had everything involved, went down to New York. I saw him on the morning of his return. He looked ten years older.

It was soon whispered about that the failure of Floyd, Lawson, Lee, & Co. was a bad one. Then came intimations that Mr. Dewey was not in New York, and that his partners, when questioned about him, gave very unsatisfactory replies.

"Have you any notes of the Clinton Bank, Doctor?" said a friend whom I met in the street. "Because, if you have, take my advice and get rid of them as quickly as possible. A run has commenced, and it's my opinion that the institution will not stand for forty-eight hours."

It stood just forty-eight hours from the date of this prophecy, and then closed its doors, leaving our neighborhood poorer by the disaster over two hundred thousand dollars. There was scarcely a struggle in dying, for the institution had suffered such an exhausting depletion that when its extremity came it passed from existence without a throe. A Receiver was immediately appointed, and the assets examined. These consisted, mainly, of bills receivable under discount, not probably worth now ten cents on the dollar. Three-fourths of this paper was drawn or endorsed by New York firms or individuals, most of whom had already failed. The personal account of Ralph Dewey showed him to be a debtor to the Bank in the sum of nearly a hundred thousand dollars. The President, Joshua Kling, had not been seen since the evening of the day on which the doors of the Clinton Bank were shut, never to be opened for business again. His accounts were all in confusion. The Cashier, who had succeeded him on his elevation to the Presidency of the institution; was a mere creature in his hands; and from his revelations it was plain that robbery had been progressing for some time on a grand scale.

As soon as these disastrous facts became known to the heaviest sufferers in S----, the proper affidavits were made out, and requisitions obtained for both Dewey and Kling, as defaulters and fugitives from justice. The Sheriff of our county, charged with the duty of arrest, proceeded forthwith to New York, and, engaging the services of detectives there, began the search for Dewey, who, it was believed, had not left that city. He was discovered, in a week, after having dexterously eluded pursuit, on the eve of departure for England, disguised, and under an assumed name. His next appearance in S----was as a prisoner in the hands of our Sheriff, who lodged him in jail. Very heavy bonds being required for his appearance at court, there was not found among us any one willing to take the risk, who was qualified to become his surety. And so the wretched man was compelled to lie in prison until the day of trial.

Immediately on his incarceration, he sent for Mr. Wallingford, who visited him without delay. He found him a shrinking, cowed, and frightened culprit; not a man, conscious of rectitude, and therefore firm in bearing, though in a false and dangerous position.

"This is a bad business, Mr. Wallingford," he said, on meeting the lawyer--"a very bad business; and I have sent for you as a professional gentleman of standing and ability, in order to have a consultation in regard to my position--in fact, to place myself wholly in your hands. I must have the best counsel, and therefore take the earliest opportunity to secure your valuable services. Will you undertake my case?"

"That will depend, Mr. Dewey," was answered, "entirely upon how it stands. If you are falsely accused, and can demonstrate to me your innocence, I will defend you to the utmost of my ability, battling your accusers to the last. But if, on the contrary, you cannot show clean hands, I am not the one to undertake your case."

Dewey looked at Mr. Wallingford strangely. He scarcely comprehended him.

"I may have committed mistakes; all men are liable to error," he replied.

"Mistake is one thing, Mr. Dewey, and may be explained; fraud is another thing, and cannot be explained to mean any thing else. What I want you to understand, distinctly, is this: If your connection with the Clinton Bank has been, from the beginning, just and honorable, however much it may now seem to be otherwise, I will undertake your case, and conduct it, I care not through how great difficulties, to a favorable issue. But if it has not been--and you know how it stands--do not commit your fate to me, for I will abandon you the moment I discover that you have been guilty of deliberate wrong to others."

The countenance of Mr. Dewey fell, and he seemed to shudder back into himself. For some time he was silent.

"If there is a foregone conclusion in your mind, that settles the matter," he said, at length, in a disappointed tone.

"All I ask is clear evidence, Mr. Dewey. Foregone conclusions have nothing to do with the matter," replied Mr. Wallingford, "If you know yourself to be innocent, you may trust yourself in my hands; if not, I counsel you to look beyond me to some other man."

"All men are liable to do wrong, Mr. Wallingford; and religion teaches that the door of repentance is open to every one."

"True, but the just punishment of wrong is always needed for a salutary repentance. The contrition that springs from fear of consequences, is not genuine repentance. If you have done wrong, you must take the penalty in some shape, and I am not the man knowingly to stay the just progression of either moral or civil law."

"Will you accept a retaining fee, even if not active in my case?" asked Mr. Dewey.

"No," was the emphatic answer.

A dark, despairing shadow fell over the miserable man's face, and he turned himself away from the only being towards whom he had looked with any hope in this great extremity of his life.

Mr. Wallingford retired with pity in his heart. The spectacle was one of the most painful he had ever witnessed. How was the mighty fallen!--the proud brought low! As he walked from the prison, the Psalmist's striking words passed through his mind--"I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree; yet he passed away, and lo, he was not."

When the day of trial came, Mr. Wallingford appeared as counsel for the creditors of the Clinton Bank, on the side of the prosecution. He did not show any eagerness to gain his case against the prisoner; but the facts were so strong, and all the links in the chain of evidence so clear, that conviction was inevitable. A series of frauds and robberies was exposed, that filled the community with surprise and indignation; and when the jury, after a brief consultation, brought in a verdict of guilty, the expression of delight was general. Detestation of the man's crimes took away all pity from the common sentiment in regard to him. A sentence of five years' expiation in the State prison closed the career of Ralph Dewey in S-----, and all men said: "The retribution is just."

Squire Floyd lost everything, and narrowly escaped the charge of complicity with Dewey. Nothing but the fact of their known antagonism for some two or three years, turned the public mind in his favor, and enabled him to show that what appeared collusion, was only, so far as he was concerned, fair business operations. With the wreck of his fortune he came very near making also a wreck of his good name. Even as it was, there were some in S----who thought the Squire had, in some things, gone far beyond the rule of strict integrity.

Judge Bigelow, thanks to the timely and resolute intervention of Mr. Wallingford, stood far away from the crashing wrecks, when the storm swept down in fearful devastation. It raged around, but did not touch him; for he was safely sheltered, and beyond its reach.