How to Destroy a Good Business by Mary Roberts Rinehart
"Well, Mr. Tompkins, what do you think about it? I wish you would speak. I've been talking at you for full ten blessed minutes, and you haven't as much as opened your lips in reply."
"About what?" asked Mr. Tompkins, looking up with an air of surprise.
"About what, indeed!" rejoined the lady, in no very melodious tone. "Why, about that house in Franklin Street, to be sure. What else did you suppose it was?"
"Oh! ah! yes."
"Mr. Tompkins, why don't you answer me like a man? Oh! ah! yes! I hate that."
"Yes, and I hate that just as bad. But you needn't think to put me off with a 'humph!' Have you made up your mind about buying that house--say?"
"I've got to make up my mind about something else first."
"Indeed! And what is that, pray?"
"About where the money is to come from."
"Mr. Tompkins, I am out of all patience with you! Its precious little that I ask for, dear knows! But even that little is never granted."
"If you'll get me the money, Ellen, I'll buy the house with pleasure," returned Mr. Tompkins, in a quiet voice.
"Me! I wonder where I'd get the money? It's an insult for you to talk to me in this way, when you keep me as poor as a church mouse all the time. Every dollar I get from you is like pulling a tooth."
"And causes me as much pain, sometimes."
"I won't put up with such treatment from you, Mr. Tompkins," said the good lady, passionately, and walked from the room with a stately step and an effort at dignity. The husband retreated precipitately, and sought his place of business. He sighed as he took his seat upon a counting-house stool at the desk, and commenced turning over the pages of various large account-books. While thus engaged, a person entered his store, and was shown back to that portion of it where he had retired. Mr. Tompkins looked up on hearing his name pronounced, and met the steady eye of one whose presence was not very agreeable to him just at that time.
"Ah, Mr. Wolford! How are you to-day? I am glad to see you," he said, with an effort to seem pleased and indifferent.
"Very well. How are you?" was the blunt response.
"Take a chair, Mr. Wolford."
The visitor sat down, with considerable emphasis in his manner, threw one leg over the other, and leaned back in his chair. Tompkins was nervous. His effort to seem at ease led him into overaction.
He smiled, or rather smirked--for a smile is always natural, never forced--and introduced various topics of conversation, one after the other, with the manner of a man whose thoughts were far away from his words, and who yet wished to be very agreeable to a personage from whom he wished a favour.
"What do you think of the news from Washington to-day, Mr. Wolford? Strange doings there!"
"Our party were completely outgeneralled in that measure."
"Bad news from London."
"Yes, bad enough."
"It has played the mischief with stocks."
"Thank fortune, I don't deal in stocks."
And thus Tompkins run on, and Wolford replied cold and sententiously for some ten minutes. Then there came a pause, and the two men looked into each other's faces for a short time, without either of them speaking.
"The year for which I loaned you ten thousand dollars expires next week," said Wolford, in a quiet tone, breaking the silence.
"Does it?" returned Tompkins, affecting surprise. "I had no idea the time was so near being up. Are you sure?"
"I never make mistakes in such matters, Mr. Tompkins, and can't understand how other people can."
"Creditors are said to have better memories than debtors," replied Tompkins, attempting something like pleasantry.
"Yes--I know. You will, of course, be prepared to take up the mortgage upon your property?"
"I am afraid not, Mr. Wolford. Money is exceedingly tight. But as your security is perfectly good, and you do not want the money, you will let the matter remain as it is for a little while longer?"
"I loaned you the money for a year, did I not?"
"Very well. The year will be up in a week."
"I would like to borrow the same amount for another year."
"I have no objection to your doing so, if you can find any one who will lend it."
"Will you not do so?"
"No. I have other use for my money."
"I will increase the interest, if that will be any inducement. Money in a good business like mine can bear a heavy interest."
"I am not satisfied with the security. Property is falling in value."
"Not satisfied!'" exclaimed Tompkins, in unfeigned surprise. "The property is worth double the sum you have advanced for my use."
"I differ with you--and I am not alone in differing."
"Very well, Mr. Wolford," said Tompkins, in a changed tone, that evinced roused and half-indignant feeling, "you shall be paid. I can easily transfer the security to some other person, if I find it necessary to do so, and raise the amount due you."
Wolford, phlegmatic as he was, seemed slightly moved by this unexpected change in the manner and position of Tompkins. He narrowly observed the expression of his face, but did not reply. He was afraid to trust himself to speak, lest he should betray his real thoughts.
"You will be prepared to pay me next week, then," he at length said, rising.
"Yes, sir. You shall have the money," replied Tompkins.
"Good day." And Wolford retired; not altogether satisfied that he had gained all he had hoped to gain by the visit.
"Ah me!" sighed Tompkins, turning to his desk as soon as this man had departed. "Here comes more trouble. That miserly wretch has no more use for his money than the man in the moon. It seems to give him delight to make every one feel his power. It is for no other reason than this, that I am now to be harassed half out of my life in order to raise ten thousand dollars in a week, besides meeting my other payments. I must try and get some one to take the mortgage he is about releasing."
While thus musing, the individual who had just left him was walking slowly down Market Street, with his eyes upon the pavement, in deep thought. He was a short, stoutly built old man, dressed in a well-worn suit of brown broadcloth. His hat was white, large in the brim, low in the crown, and pulled down so heavily on the high collar of his coat, that it turned up behind in a very decided way, indicating the save-all propensities of its owner. His face was as hard as iron: it was deeply seamed by years or the indulgence of the baser cupidities of a perverted nature. His lower lip projected slightly beyond the upper that was pressed closely upon it. His small gray eyes were deeply sunk beneath a wrinkled forehead, and twinkled like stars when any thing excited him; usually they were as calm and passionless as any part of his face.
This man had never engaged, during his whole life, in any useful branch of business. Money was the god he worshipped, and to gain this, he was ready to make almost any sacrifice. He started in life with five thousand dollars--a legacy from a distant relative. To risk this sum, or any portion of it, in trade, would have been, in his view, the most egregious folly. His first investment was in six per cent. ground-rents, from which he received three hundred dollars per annum. It cost him two hundred to live; he had, therefore, at the end of the year, a surplus of one hundred dollars. He was casting about in his mind what he should do with this in, order to make it profitable, when a hard-pressed tradesman asked him for the loan of a hundred dollars for a short time. The idea of loaning his money, when first presented, almost made his hair stand on end. He shook his head, and uttered a decided "No." It so happened that the man was so much in need of money, that he became importunate.
"I know you have it, if you would only lend it, Wolford," said he. "Let me have a hundred dollars for a month, and I will give you a good interest for it, and security besides."
"What kind of security?" eagerly asked the miser, his face brightening. The idea had struck him, as being a good one. The man was a tailor.
"I will let you hold Mr. S----P----'s note, at six months, for one hundred and fifty dollars, as security."
Wolford shook his head.
"He might die or break, and then where would be my hundred dollars?"
"I would pay it to you."
Wolford continued to shake his head.
"How would a piece of broadcloth answer your purpose?"
"What is it worth?"
"I have a piece of twenty yards, worth eight dollars a yard. It would bring six and a half under the hammer. You can hold that, if you please."
"How much interest will you pay?"
"I will give you two dollars for the use of one hundred for thirty days."
"If you will say three, you may have it."
"Three per cent. a month!--thirty-six per cent. a year! Oh no! That would ruin any man."
"I don't think the operation worth making for less than three dollars."
"It is too much, Wolford. But I'll tell you what I'll do. Let it be for sixty days, and make the interest five dollars."
"I to hold the cloth as security until it is paid?"
"Very well. You shall have the money."
A note for one hundred and five dollars, at sixty days, was drawn and handed to the young shaver, who paid down one hundred dollars, and went off with his collateral under his arm.
This transaction opened a new world to Wolford's imagination. Two and a half per cent. a month, and six per cent. per annum, could hardly be compared together. He sat down and began to figure up the result of the one operation in comparison with the other, and found that while his investment in ground-rents yielded only three hundred dollars a year, five thousand dollars, at two and a half per cent. a month, the rate at which he had made the operation just referred to, would yield fifteen hundred dollars per annum!
From that moment he became dissatisfied with ground-rents as an investment. As quickly as it could be done, he sold, for one thousand dollars, a piece of real estate, and, depositing the money in bank, looked around him for good paper to shave. He did not have to look very long. Borrowers quickly presented themselves, but no one got money except on the most tangible kind of security, and at a ruinous interest. Careful as he tried to be, Wolford was not always successful in his operations. One or two failures on the part of his borrowers, made him acquainted at a magistrate's office, where he acquired another new idea upon which he improved.
"If you wish to invest money safely and profitably, I will put you in the way of doing it," said a petty dispenser of justice to poor debtors, rogues and vagabonds, aside to the miser one day, after he had given judgment against a delinquent borrower.
"How?" eagerly asked Wolford.
"A great many cases of debt are decided by me every week, on amounts varying from one to fifty dollars," replied the magistrate. "As soon as a judgment is given, the debtor has to pay the money, find security, or go to jail, In most cases, the matter is settled by security for six months, when the debt, with costs and interest, has to be paid."
"Legal interest?" asked Wolford.
"Certainly," replied the magistrate, with a smile. "It is a legal matter, and only legal interest can be charged."
"Oh, of course! I didn't think of that."
"Very well: after a judgment is obtained, in five cases out of six the prosecutor is sick, of the business, and perfectly willing to sell out the judgment and have no more to do with it. The best business in the world is to buy these judgments. You can make at least forty per cent. per annum."
"Forty per cent."
"Forty per cent!" and Wolford's eyes sparkled. "Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes. If I were allowed to buy them, as I am not, I would wish no better business."
"You think it safe?"
"Nothing can be safer. If the judgment is not paid at the end of six months, you can go to work immediately, with an execution, on the property of the original debtor, or his security, as you may think best, and at once obtain your money."
"Suppose neither of them have any property?"
"I take very good care not to accept bad security. Besides, you will find but few persons out of whom fifty dollars, or less, may not be obtained, under the pressure of an execution."
"I like the idea amazingly," said Wolford, thoughtfully. "Forty per cent. per annum! Capital! I will buy judgments."
"I have two hundred dollars' worth in my desk now, which I have directions to sell. Do you want them? They have six months to run. Twenty per cent. off will be just forty dollars--here they are."
Wolford carefully examined the documents which the magistrate placed in his hands, and, after considering the subject for some time, said that he would buy them. His check for one hundred and sixty dollars was received by the magistrate, and the judgments became his property.
"It's even better than forty per cent. per annum," remarked the magistrate, as he folded up the check be had received.
"You make over fifty-five per cent."
"Yes--look at it. You have just paid one hundred and sixty dollars for what will yield you two hundred and six dollars in six months,--for you must remember that you will get legal interest on the claim you have bought. Now this is a fraction over fifty-five per cent. per annum. What do you think of that for an investment?"
"Capital! But have you much of this kind of business?"
"Enough to, keep several thousand dollars constantly employed for you."
With this brief ejaculation, that came from Wolford's heart, he turned away and left the office.
On this operation, the magistrate made six per cent. The regular selling price of judgments was twenty-five per cent., with a commission of one per cent. for effecting the sale.
In a few months, Wolford had all his money invested in judgments. This business he continued for several years, meeting with but few losses. He could then write himself worth twenty-five thousand dollars, and began to find it necessary to seek for some heavier investments than buying judgments, even if they did not pay quite so well.
Loaning money on mortgages of real estate, at about ten per centum, he found a very safe business; with this he united the shaving of undoubted paper, at from one to two per cent. a month. Mr. Tompkins he had frequently shaved so closely as almost to make the blood come. This was previous to the loan before alluded to. Since that had been made, Mr. Tompkins rarely found it necessary to put good paper into Wolford's hands for discount. This the miser considered a dead loss, and he therefore determined that the loan should be taken up, and made in some quarter not likely to affect the shaving operations.
The declaration of Mr. Tompkins, that he could easily get some one else to take the mortgage, was not too well relished by Wolford, If he were sure this could be done, he would be content to accept an increase of interest and continue the loan, for the security was of the very safest kind, and ample.
"I must think about this," said he to himself, as he walked homeward, after parting with Tompkins. "I rarely make false moves, and should not like to do so in this case."
When Mr. and Mrs. Tompkins met, at dinnertime, neither of them appeared in the most happy frame of mind. The lady looked especially disagreeable. The meal passed in silence, and was eaten with little appetite.
As soon as her husband had retired from the house, which he did very soon after he had left the table, Mrs. Tompkins's manner changed.
"Humph!" said she, tossing her head, "he needn't begin the sulky game with me. Two can play at that, as he ought to know very well. I've set my heart on having a handsomer establishment than the purse-proud Mrs. Gileston, and, what is more, I will be gratified. Mr. Tompkins is worth two dollars to her husband's one, and yet she sweeps about the street with the air of a duchess, and never so much as looks me in the face, though I have been twice introduced to her. But, I'll be even with my lady! I've set my heart on this, and will move heaven and earth to accomplish it."
This half-spoken soliloquy will afford the reader some clue to the character of Mrs. Tompkins. Her husband, to whom she had been married about ten years, had gradually risen from the position of a clerk to that of a merchant, in a small way, when the death of a distant relative put him in possession of about, thirty thousand dollars. Up to that time, his wife, who was a poor girl when he married her, had been content to live in a style suited to their means. But the moment a fortune so large in her eyes, fell to their share, her ideas expanded, and she suddenly became aware of the fact that she was a woman of no mean importance.
To Mr. Tompkins, this money came just in time to save him from failure. He had started, as too many do, without capital, and had unwisely attempted to do more business than means so limited would bear. He, consequently, knew the value of money far better than his wife, and was disposed to invest what he did not require in his business, in a safe way. She, on the contrary, proposed that they should, at once, adopt a style of living in consonance with their bettered fortunes.
"We live very comfortably, as we now are," he said, in answer to a repetition of her plea for a handsome house, on the evening following the day of his interview with Wolford. "We live as well as our means have, until within a few years, enabled us to live."
Mrs. Tompkins rejoined--
"With improved fortunes, we should adopt a different style."
"I don't think we should be in any particular hurry about it," said the husband. "Let the change, if any be made, come gradually."
"All eyes are upon us," was Mrs. Tompkins's answer to this. "And everybody expects us to take a different and higher place in society."
"It is my opinion," said the husband, "that we are free to live in any style that may suit us."
"It is all very well to say that, Mr. Tompkins, but it will not do. We must, while in the world, do as the world does. People in our circumstances do not live in a rented house;--we should have a dwelling of our own, and that a handsome one--handsomer than Gileston's house, about which there, is so much talk."
"Gileston's house!" said Mr. Tompkins, in surprise. "Why that house didn't cost a cent less than twenty-five thousand dollars."
"Well, suppose it did not. What then?"
"Do you imagine that we can build a house at an expense of twenty-five thousand dollars?"
"Why not, Mr. Tompkins?"
"Where is the money to come from?"
"There it is again! But I can tell you."
"I wish to my heart you would, for it's more than I can."
"Take it out of bank, where it lies rusting."
"What's the matter?"
"How much do you suppose I have in bank tonight?"
"Dear knows! Forty or fifty thousand dollars, I suppose."
"Just seventy-nine dollars and ten cents! And what is more, I have two thousand dollars to pay to-morrow, five hundred on the day after, and ten or twelve thousand more to make up within the next two weeks. If You will tell me where all this money is to come from, I will build you a dozen houses: as it is, you must build your own castles--in the air."
A flood of tears answered this bitterly spoken reply. Her tears, the lady had found, on more occasions than one, to have a powerful effect upon her husband. It must be said for her, that she did not believe a word of what Mr. Tompkins had alleged in regard to the balance of his bank account. For a man who had been in a good business for a number of years, and had received a legacy of thirty thousand dollars, to be so near out of cash, was to her mind preposterous. She knew he had invested nearly twenty thousand dollars in property, but what of that? Her tears disturbed Mr. Tompkins, as they always did.
"What I tell you is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," said he, in a calm, but serious voice, after, the sobs of his wife had begun to die away. "And now, what would you have me do?"
"You can do just as you please, Mr. Tompkins. It is nothing to me. You know your own business best." This was said with an offended air, in which was something of indifference.
"You are unreasonable, Ellen."
"Very likely I am; at least in your eyes. I believe you never had a very exalted opinion of your wife's good sense: nor much regard for her wishes!"
"I believe, Ellen," returned the husband, "that few men regard the happiness of their wives more than I have regarded the happiness of mine. Perhaps if I had been less considerate, it might have been better for all."
"Considerate, indeed! Oh, yes! You're very considerate to buy old warehouses to rent, in place of a decent dwelling for your family! Very considerate that--wasn't it?"
At this point of the contest, Mr. Tompkins retired from the field, his forces reduced and in disorder. He saw but one hope of peace, and that was by an early surrender, and on the best terms that could be made. The property that he had purchased yielded him about fourteen hundred a year. To sell this, and build, with the proceeds, a splendid mansion, from which no income could possibly arise, seemed to him an act of egregious folly. But any thing for peace. To sell it, and put the money in his business, was a much more desirable act, instead of borrowing money, at an exorbitant interest, in order to make his payments. He had more than once thought of doing this. At the time the investment was made, his business operations were light, and he did not need the use of over ten thousand dollars of the timely legacy he had received. Since then his business had increased, and with this increase came the need of more ready money than he could command. He did not like the idea of selling his real estate, because he was very confident, from the many improvements going on in the quarter of the city where it was situated, that it would double in value in the course of ten years. He was so confident of this, that he preferred paying a high rate of interest for money for temporary purposes, rather than sell his property. So hard did he become pressed at last, that he resorted to the expedient of raising ten thousand dollars on mortgage, at ten per centum per annum. Wolford held this mortgage, as the reader is aware.
It was with painful reluctance that Mr. Tompkins made up his mind to part with his warehouse property, in order to gratify the love of display which was the besetting sin of his better half. But, even should he do that, he would have to let ten thousand dollars go to clear off the mortgage; and if it brought him twenty-two or three thousand, or even twenty-five thousand, he would not have enough to build the elegant mansion his wife desired: and should he build one in a style not consonant with her exalted ideas, his position, instead of being better, would be much worse.
The next week, to poor Mr. Tompkins, he was called a rich man, was one of sad perplexity and anxious deliberation upon what it was best for him to do. He had great difficulty in raising sufficient money to meet his payments, independent of the ten thousand dollars demanded by Wolford. Where that sum was to come from he could not tell. He had made several applications for a loan to take the place of the one now upon his property, and had even caused advertisements to be inserted in the newspapers, addressed to "capitalists," but without effect.
During all this time, Mrs. Tompkins was as disagreeable as it was possible for her to be. When her husband returned home, in the evening, sick at heart with the toil and anxiety of the day, he was met by no pleasant words or cheerful smiles. A sober face presided at his table, where the words were few and coldly spoken.
The period for which Wolford's loan had been made was within two days of its expiration, when, half beside himself with perplexity, Mr. Tompkins advertised his property for sale. There were enough who understood its real value precisely, and were ready to come forward and offer to purchase. As soon as the miser and usurer saw the course events were taking, he very kindly informed Mr. Tompkins that he had just received, unexpectedly, a large sum of money, and should not want the ten thousand dollars due him.
"You are too late," replied Mr. Tompkins, when he communicated this intelligence.
"Why so?" asked Wolford.
"I have made up my mind to sell."
"I don't want my money."
"Oh, very well, I can keep it."
"On what security."
"My note of hand."
The miser shrugged his shoulders.
"Don't you like that security?"
"I have no objection to your warehouse property."
"But that I shall sell."
Wolford retired in a dissatisfied mood. He had overreached himself.
In the course of a week the sale was made, and for cash. The property brought twenty-five thousand dollars. After the mortgage was released, and his borrowed money account balanced, Mr. Tompkins had just twelve thousand dollars to his credit in bank, with a month's heavy payments before him.
On this basis, and with this position of affairs to sustain him, Mr. Tompkins, feeling in a desperate mood, determined that he would build himself an elegant residence. The plan was furnished by an architect, and the work commenced forthwith. Mrs. Tompkins was all her husband could wish, from the day she was apprized of his decision in regard to a matter that had so long been near her heart. He said nothing of the sacrifice he had made, nor intimated any thing about what might be the ultimate consequence, although every sober thought of the future awoke a fear. The house, when finished, cost twenty-three thousand dollars; and when furnished twenty-eight thousand. It need not be said that Mr. Tompkins was hard run for money. On the day he moved into his splendid mansion, he borrowed from Mr Wolford, on a mortgage of his new property, fifteen thousand dollars, at twelve per cent. per annum. He had but one or two alternatives--to borrow at this ruinous rate of interest, or fail. The operation was for one year, without any privilege of renewal; this was the longest time at which the usurer ever loaned his money.
For one year Mrs. John Tompkins was in her glory. She gave six large parties during that time, at a heavy cost. Her husband, notwithstanding the loan of fifteen thousand dollars, was in trouble about money matters; Business had been unusually dull both in the spring and fall, and money hard to collect. Nearly ten thousand dollars, which he had fully expected to receive from distant customers, failed to come in. As the period for which he had borrowed from Wolford drew toward its close, he could not but feel uneasy. From no other quarter had he any hope of raising so large a sum as fifteen thousand dollars upon his house. He was poring over his bill-book, one day, when the man he had thought of far more frequently than was pleasant to him, came in. Mr. Tompkins felt uneasy.
"Ah--how do you do, Mr. Wolford?" said he, affecting a pleased air. "Sit down."
Wolford looked grave. He had come on business, and to him business matters were of serious import. He returned the merchant's salutation with formality, seated himself deliberately, and, resting his hands upon the head of his cane, looked up with a sinister expression on his face.
"A fine day this, Mr. Wolford," said Tompkins.
"Yes, very fine. How is business?"
"Dull--terribly dull. I have never known such a business season. There is absolutely nothing doing."
Wolford made no reply.
"I suppose you have plenty of money to lend," remarked the merchant, hardly knowing why he said so.
"No--not a dollar. It's tight with me as well as it is with you. And this brings me to the subject-matter of my visit. You are no doubt aware that, according to the terms of the loan, you are to return my fifteen thousand dollars in a few days?"
"Yes, I am aware of it. Must you have it all?"
"Every dollar; and I want three times as much, if I can get it."
"I was in hope you would renew the loan, Mr. Wolford."
"I really don't see how I am to raise fifteen thousand dollars in a few days--these times."
"You have had long enough to make it up, I am sure. You knew very well that the loan would come due next week, and that it was only for one year."
"Yes, I knew all that, very well."
"And yet you are not prepared to pay it?"
"No, I certainly am not to-day. What I may be in a week is more than I can tell."
Wolford did not want the money he had loaned to Mr. Tompkins--that is, he had no use for it. But he could never rest contented for any length of time under the reflection that another person was enjoying his money. He took an insane delight, too, in making others feel his power. If Mr. Tompkins had obtained the amount, and tendered it to Wolford, two weeks before it was due, the miser would have, in all probability, solicited him to keep it on even better terms than at first obtained; but to appear anxious about the matter, was to foreclose all chances of a renewal.
After Wolford had left the store of Mr. Tompkins, the merchant tried to rally his thoughts, and review the whole matter calmly. Thinking, however, did not make him feel much better. He could not see his way clear. If the loan were not paid off, his property would, he had not the least doubt, be sold forthwith, under the mortgage.
"I was a fool ever to build such a house, and involve myself as I have done," he murmured, fretfully. "I wish to my heart it was in the bottom of the sea. Between my wife's extravagance and this accursed usurer, I shall be ruined at last."
This was uttered almost involuntarily, but it had the effect to give his thoughts a new direction. After thinking intensely for some time, he took a long inspiration, compressed his lips tightly as he breathed out again, and then said, half aloud, and in a tone of decision--
"I will not suffer myself to be made a fool of any longer, by wife or usurer. Mrs. John Tompkins will have to lay aside a portion of her dignity, or get some other means of supporting it. I am called a man, and I will be a man."
On the evening of that day, while seated at the tea-table, Mrs. Tompkins said--
"Have you ever noticed, dear, the beautiful equipage of Mrs. Van D----?"
"The beautiful establishment of Mrs. Van D----?"
"What kind of an establishment?"
The manner of her husband disturbed the self-satisfaction of Mrs. Tompkins. Her reply was not in so bland a voice.
"Her carriage and pair, I mean, of course."
"No; I never notice such things."
"You don't, indeed!"
"Don't you ever expect to keep a carriage?"
"I do not."
"I am sure you will."
"You labour under a mistake, Ellen. I have no such intention."
"If I wish for one, I am sure you will gratify me." Mrs. Tompkins spoke softly and smiled.
"No--not even to gratify you, Ellen." Mr. Tompkins spoke seriously, and his brow contracted.
"You built this beautiful house to gratify me."
"True--and by doing so have set myself half crazy."
"Mr. Tompkins, I don't understand you. You are in a strange mood this evening."
"And so would you be in a strange mood, if you had suffered as much as I have during the day."
"Suffered! What have you suffered about?"
"Because I built this house."
"You speak in riddles. Why do you not explain yourself?" Mrs. Tompkins's voice trembled, and there were tears in her eyes.
"I will explain myself, Ellen," said her husband, his manner becoming serious and earnest: it had been fretful and captious before. "I was weak enough to yield to your urgent desire to have an elegant mansion, as you called it, and build this house, at a very heavy cost. I knew that I was doing wrong at the time, and that both you and I would live to regret the act of folly. But you held the reins, and I suffered myself to be driven. The consequence is, that I am involved in difficulties, and this house has to be sold within ten days."
Mr. Tompkins paused. He wished to see the effect of what he had said. Had an earthquake shaken the house to its foundation, Mrs. Tompkins could not have been more astonished than she was by this speech. Her face became deadly pale; she trembled violently from head to foot, and panted like a frightened hare. To utter a word in reply was impossible. The husband was startled at the effect produced, but did not waver an instant in his purpose. The suddenness of the annunciation had one good effect: it opened the eyes of Mrs. Tompkins completely. The manner of her husband left no doubt upon her mind that all he had said was true--that the house would have to go, spite of all he could do to save it. He might be to blame for getting into difficulties--might have mismanaged his business--but that could not alter the present position of things. On recovering from the shock occasioned by so astounding a declaration, she did not resort to any of her old tricks to manage her husband. She felt that they would be useless. As soon as she could speak, she said, firmly--
"Is all this true?"
"As true as you live and breathe."
"And it is my fault?"
"I am sorry that I cannot say otherwise." There was a good deal of feeling in the husband's tone as he made this reply. "I need not relate how I strove to convince you that I could not afford to build such a house--that to sell my warehouse property, in order to do so, would be to rob myself of at least seven or eight thousand dollars--for that property would inevitably increase in value this amount in the next five years. Already it has been sold at an advance of three thousand dollars on what I received for it. I need not relate how unhappy you made both yourself and me, until I consented to do as you wished. It is all within your remembrance. A man cannot stand every thing. I had trouble enough, even then, with my business--but found no compensation at home. In a desperate mood, I resolved to make home pleasant, if possible. I made the sacrifice, and here is the result!"
Mrs. Tompkins wept bitterly when her husband ceased speaking. Every word went to her heart. She saw her folly, nay, her crime, in having acted as she had done. She was a weak, vain woman, but not all perverted. Notwithstanding rank weeds had long overgrown the garden of her mind, some plants of goodly promise yet remained.
On the next day, without hesitating a moment, Mr. Tompkins went to a real-estate broker, and employed him to sell his house as quickly as possible. He mentioned this to his wife, as a thing of course, and suggested the necessity of disposing of their splendid furniture, and retiring from their too prominent position in the social world.
"There is but one way of safety and peace," he said, "and that way we must take, whether the entrance to it be smooth or thorny."
"Why need we sell our handsome furniture?" asked Mrs. Tompkins, in a hoarse voice.
"For the same reason that we have for selling our house," firmly returned her husband--"because it is necessary."
Mr. Tompkins spoke so decidedly, that his wife felt that remonstrance would be unavailing. Having once admitted the truth of all he had alleged, she had no ground for opposition. Completely subdued, she became altogether passive, and left her husband to do just as he pleased. The pressing nature of his affairs made him prompt to carry out all the reforms he had proposed. In less than a week he found a purchaser for his house, and was able to sell it on tolerably fair terms. The real-estate agent who had made the sale for him, had left his store but a short time after communicating all the preliminaries of the transaction, when old Wolford entered with a slow gait and a look of resolution.
"Will you be ready with that money to-morrow?" said he, fixing his small, keen eyes upon the merchant, and bending his brows.
"No!" was the decisive answer.
"Then I shall foreclose the mortgage."
"You will not do that, certainly," returned Tompkins, in a quiet tone, something like a smile playing about his lips.
"Won't I? Don't trust to that, my friend. I always keep contracts to the letter, and exact them from others, when made to me, as rigidly. You borrowed my money for a year, on a mortgage of your property. That year is up to-morrow. If the money does not come, I will immediately have your property sold."
"I have been ahead of you," coolly replied Tompkins.
"What do you mean?"
"I have already sold the property."
The miser seemed stunned by the intelligence.
"Sold it?," he asked, after a moment--"why have you sold it?"
"In order to get out of your clutches, now and for ever. You have had a good deal of my money in your time, and fool enough have I been to let you get your fingers upon it! But you will never get another dollar from me! You were not content with eighteen hundred dollars a year as the interest on fifteen thousand--wasn't I a fool to pay it?--but you must try to put your foot still more heavily on my neck! But you have overreached yourself. Your mortgage on my property is not worth that!--(snapping his fingers.) Didn't you know this before?"
"What do you mean?" Wolford showed considerable alarm.
"You took twelve per cent. per annum?"
"I know I did."
"And that is usury?"
"It is a fair interest. Money is always worth the market price."
"The law says that all over six per cent. is usury; and the taking of such excess vitiates the transaction."
"Do you mean to put in that plea?"
"Yes, if you take the first step toward foreclosing your mortgage, or show yourself in my store until I send for you, which I will do when it is perfectly convenient for me to pay your fifteen thousand dollars, and not before."
"Oh, take your time, Mr. Tompkins--take your time--I am in no particular hurry for the money," said Wolford, with an altered tone and manner--"Just when it is convenient will suit me."
"Are you sure of that?" said the merchant, speaking with a slight sneer upon his lip.
"Oh, yes! I thought I would need the money now, but I believe I will not. The mortgage can remain as long as you want it."
"I don't want it long," muttered Tompkins, turning toward his desk, and taking no further notice of the alarmed and discomfited usurer.
In about two weeks he had the pleasure of handing him the whole amount of the loan, and getting a release of the property. Wolford tried to be very affable and apologetic; but he was treated according to the merchant's estimation of his real character, and not otherwise.
"Free from your clutches, and for ever!" said Mr. Tompkins, speaking to himself, as he stepped into the street from Wolford's dwelling, feeling lighter in heart than he had felt for a long time. "What madness, with the means I have had in my hands, ever to have fed your avaricious maw!"
Although Mr. Tompkins could see the sky by looking upward, he was still in the forest, and had a hard journey before him, ere he gained the pleasant champaign he was seeking so eagerly. The cash he received on selling his house was barely sufficient to clear it of all encumbrance. He was, therefore, still hard pressed for money in his business. The sale of his handsome furniture would help him a good deal, and he determined, resolutely, to have this done forthwith. His wife ventured a demurrer, which he immediately overruled. She had lost the ability to contend with him. A sale at auction was proposed.
"Just think of the exposure," urged his wife.
"I don't care a fig for that. A protested note would be a worse exposure. I must have the money. We can board for a couple or three years, or keep house in a plain way, until I make up some of the losses sustained by our folly."
Mrs. Tompkins was passive. A vendue was called, and three thousand dollars in cash realized. This succour came just in time, for it saved the merchant's credit, and met his pressing demands, until he could turn the paper given in part payment for his house, into money. From that time he began to feel his business resting less heavily upon his shoulders. Money came in about as fast as he needed it. In a few months he began to have quite a respectable balance in bank--a thing he had not known for years.
It was a good while before Mrs. Tompkins could hold up her head in society, where she had, for some time, held it remarkably high. She never carried it as stately as before. As for Wolford, he but seldom passed the store of the merchant: when he did so, it was not without a pang--he had lost a good customer by grinding him too hard, and could not forgive himself for the error.