An Operation in Money by Albert
In an elegant and lofty bank-parlor there sat in council, on an autumn
morning, fourteen millionaires. They reposed in deep arm-chairs, and their
venerable faces were filled with profound gravity. Before them, upon a broad
mahogany table, were piles of books, sheaves of paper in rubber bands, bundles
of quill pens, quires of waste paper for calculations, and a number of huge
red-covered folios, containing the tell-tale reports of the mercantile agencies.
They had just completed the selections from the list of applicants for discount,
and were now in that state of lethargy that commonly follows a great and
The president, with his hands pressed together before him, was looking at the
fresco of Commerce upon the ceiling; his ponderous right-hand neighbor was
stumbling feebly over an addition that one of the bookkeepers had made upon one
of the papers—he hoped to find it wrong; his left-hand neighbor was doubling his
under-lip with his stout fingers; an octogenarian beyond had buried his chin in
his immense neck, and was going to sleep; another was stupidly blinking at the
nearest coal-fire; two more were exchanging gasping whispers; another was wiping
his gold spectacles with a white handkerchief, now and then stopping to hold
them unsteadily up to the light; and another was fingering the polished lapel of
his old black coat, and saying, with asthmatic hoarseness to all who would look
at him, "F-o-u-r-teen years! f-o-u-r-teen years!"
A tall regulator-clock, with its mercury pendulum, ticked upon the wall; the
noise of the heavy rumbling in the streets was softened into a low monotone, and
now and then a bit of coal rattled upon the fender.
The oil-portraits of four former presidents looked thoughtfully down on the
scene of their former labors; the polished wainscots reflected ragged pictures
of the silent fourteen, and all was perfectly in order and perfectly secure.
Presently, however, there was an end to the stagnation; the white heads began
to move and to look around.
The president's eyes came gradually down from the Commerce, and, after
travelling over the countenances of his stirring
confrères, they settled by accident upon the table before him. There they
encountered a white envelope, inscribed "to the President and Honorable Board of
"Oh gentlemen! gentlemen!" cried the president, seizing the letter, "one
moment more, I beg of you. Here's a—a—note—a communication—a—I don't know what
it is myself, I'm sure, but"—the thirteen sank back again, feeling somewhat
touched that they should be so restrained. The president ran his eye over the
missive. He smiled as one does sometimes at the precocity of an infant. "The
letter, gentlemen," said he, slipping the paper through his fingers, "is from
the paying teller. It is a request for"—here the president delayed as if about
making a humorous point—"for a larger salary." Then he dropped his eyes and
lowered his head, as he might have done had he confessed that somebody had
kissed him. He seemed to be the innocent mouthpiece of a piece of flagrant
There was a moment's silence. Then a heavy-voiced gentleman took up a pen and
"Is this man's name Dreyfus—or—or what is it?"
"Let me think," returned the president, returning once more to the Commerce;
"Dreyfus?—no—not Dreyfus—yes—no. Paying teller—hum—it's curious I can't
recall—it commences with an F—FIELDS—yes, Fields! that's his name—Fields, to be
The questioner at once wrote down the word on the paper.
"This is the second time that he has applied for this favor, is it not?"
formally inquired another of the thirteen, in the tone that a judge uses when he
asks the clerk, "Has he not been before me on a former occasion?"
"Yes," replied the president, "this is a renewal of an effort made six months
There was a general movement. Several chairs rolled back, and their occupants
exchanged querulous glances.
"Suppose we hear the letter read," suggested a fair soul. "Perhaps"—a
septuagenarian, with snowy hair and a thin body, clad in the clerical guise of
the old school, and who had made a fortune by inventing a hat-block, arose
hastily to his feet, and said:
"I cannot stay to listen to a dun!"
A chorus from the majority echoed the exclamation. All but four staggered to
their feet, and tottered off in various directions; some to pretend to look out
at the window, and some to the wardrobes, where was deposited their outer
"Clarks," stammered the feeble hatter, feeling vainly for the arm-holes in
his great-coat—"clarks presume on their value. Turn 'em out, say I. Give 'em a
chance to rotate. You've got my opinion, Mr. President. Refuse what's-his-name,
Fields. Tell him he's happy and well off now, without knowing it. Where
can be the sleeves to—to this"--his voice
expired in his perplexity.
Fields's cause looked blue. One director after another groped to the door,
saying, as he went, "I can't encourage it, Mr. President—tell him 'No,' Mr.
President—it would only make the rest uneasy if we allowed it—plenty more to
fill his place."
The hatter's voice stopped further mention of the subject. He stood at one
end of the apartment in a paroxysm of laughter. Tears filled his eyes. He
pointed to another director, who, at the other extremity of the room, was also
puzzling over a coat. "There's Stuart with my mackintosh! He's trying to
put it on—and here am I with
his coat trying to put
that on. I—I said to myself, 'This is pretty
large for a slim man like you.'—Great God, Stuart, if I hadn't been
quick-sighted we might have stayed here all night!" He immediately fell into
another fit of laughter, and so did his friend. They exchanged coats with great
hilarity, and those who had gone out of the door lumbered back to learn the
cause of it. The story went round from one to the other, "Why, Stuart had
Jacobs's coat, and Jacobs had Stuart's coat!" Everybody went into convulsions,
and the president drew out his pocket-handkerchief and shrieked into it.
The board broke up with great good feeling, and Jacobs went away very weak,
saying that he was going to tell the joke against Stuart on the street—if he
lived to get there.
Three gentlemen remained, professedly to hear Fields's letter read. Two staid
because the room was comfortable, and the other because he wanted to have a
little private conversation with the president afterward.
Therefore the president wiped away the tears that Stuart's humor had forced
from his eyes, and opened the crumpled letter, and, turning his back to the
light, read it aloud, while the rest listened with looks of great amusement in
their wrinkled faces.
the President and Directors of the---- National Bank.
"GENTLEMEN: I most
respectfully renew my application for an increase
of my salary to five thousand
dollars per annum, it now being four
thousand. I am impelled to do
this because I am convinced that I am
not sufficiently recompensed
for the labor I perform; and because
other tellers, having the same
responsibilities, receive the larger
sum per annum; and, lastly,
because I am about to be married.
"I remember that your answer
to my first application was a definite
refusal, and I blamed myself
for not having presented the case more
clearly to your distinguished
notice. Will you permit me to rectify
that fault now, and to state
briefly why I feel assured that my
present claim is not an
"1. While ten years ago we
agreed that three thousand dollars was a
fair compensation for the work
I was then called upon to perform,
and four years later agreed
that four thousand dollars was then fair
pay for my increased tasks,
caused by the increase of your business,
is it not just that I should
now ask for a still further advance in
view of the fact that your
business has doubled since the date of
our last contract?
"It has been necessary for me
to acquaint myself with the signatures
and business customs and
qualifications of twice the former number
of your customers, and my
liability to error has also become greater
in like ratio. But I have
committed no errors, which argues that I
have kept up an equal strain
of care. This has made demands upon my
brain and my bodily strength,
which I think should be requited for.
"2. I, like each of you, will
one day reach an age when the body and
mind will no longer be able to
provide for themselves. But between
us, should we continue our
present relations, there would be this
vital difference: You would
have made an accumulation of wealth that
would be sufficient for your
wants, while I would be poor in spite
of the fact that I labored
with you, and next to yourselves did the
most to protect your
interests. In view of my approaching
incompetence (no matter how
far off it is), I am working at a
disadvantage. Would it not be
right to enable me to protect myself
from this disadvantage?
"3. While you pay me a price
for my labor and for my skill as an
expert, do you compensate me for the trials you put
probity? You pay me for what I
do, but do you reward me for what I
might, but do not
do? Is what I do not
do a marketable
quantity? I think that it is.
To prove it, inquire of those whose
servants have behaved ill,
whether they would not have paid
something to have forestalled
"There is a bad strain to this
paragraph, and I will not dwell upon
it. I only ask you to remember
that enormous sums of money pass
through my hands every day,
and that the smallest slip of my memory,
or of my care, or of my
fidelity, might cause you irreparable loss.
Familiarity with money and
operations in money always tend to lessen
the respect for the regard
that others hold it in. To resist the
subtle influences of this
familiarity involves a certain wear and
tear of those principles which
must be kept intact
for your sake.
"I beg you to accept what is
my evident meaning, even if my method
of setting it forth has not
been particularly happy. I have assured
myself that my claim is a
valid one, and I await your obliging reply
"I remain, very respectfully,
At the end the president suddenly lowered his head with a smile, and looked
over the top of his glasses at his audience, clearly meaning, "There's a letter
But two of the gentlemen were fast asleep, nodding gently at one another
across the table, while their hands clasped the arms of their chairs. The other
one was looking up toward the roofs of the buildings opposite, absorbed in
The president said, aloud:
"I think, as long as Fields has made such a touse about it, that I'd better
draft a reply, and not give him a verbal an—"
"Draft!" said the speculator, brought to life by the word. "Draft did you
say, sir? What?—On whom?—"
"I said 'draft a reply' to—to this," returned the other, waving the letter.
"Oh, a reply! Draft one. Draft a reply—a reply to the letter about the
salary. Oh, certainly, by all means."
"And read it to the directors at the meeting next Friday," suggested the
The speculator's eyes turned vacantly upon him, and it was full half a minute
before he comprehended. "Yes, yes, of course, read it to the directors next
Friday. They'll approve it, you know. That will be regular, and according to
rule. But about Steinmeyer, you know. When a man like Steinmeyer does such a
thing as—but just come to the window a minute."
He led the president off by the arm, and that was the last of Fields's letter
for that day.
Fields was truly on the anxious-seat.
As he had said in his letter, he was engaged to be married, and he wanted to
be about the consummation of the contract, for he had already delayed too long.
His affiancée was a sweet girl who lived with
her widowed mother in the country, where they had a fine house, and a fine
demesne attached to it. When the time for the marriage was finally settled upon,
the lady instantly set about remodelling her domicile and its surroundings, and
making it fit for the new spirits that were soon to inhabit it. She drew upon
her accumulation of money that had thriven long in a private bank, and expended
it in laying out new lawns, planting new trees, building new stables, erecting
tasteful graperies and kiosks. This sum was not very large, and it included not
only what had been saved out of the earnings of the farm, but also what had been
saved out of the income from the widow's property, which consisted of twelve
thousand dollars in insurance stock.
Fields had thus far expended nearly all of his salary of four thousand
dollars. He was accustomed to use a quarter of it for his own purposes, and the
rest he applied to the comfort of his aged parents, whom he maintained. Thus it
will be seen that Fields's desire to add to his own wealth had reason to be.
Just at this time there stepped in the Chicago fire. On the second day Fields
began to be frightened about the twelve thousand dollars in insurance stock.
Telegrams poured into the city by hundreds, and the tale grew more dismal with
His fears were realized. The widow's money was swept away, and a sort of
paralysis fell upon the country-house and all its surroundings. The carpenters
went away from the kiosks, the masons from the face-walls, the smiths from the
graperies, the gardeners from the lawns, and everything came to a stand-still.
The extra farm-hands were discharged, and much of the work was left unfinished.
What was to be done?
The mother and daughter wept in secret. Their careers had been interrupted.
Desolation was out-of-doors, and desolation was in their hearts. The earth lay
in ragged heaps; beams and timbers leaned half erect; barns were party-colored
with the old paint and the new, and the shrubbery was bare to the frosts. Joys
which had smiled had fled into the far distance, and now looked surly enough;
all pleasures were unhorsed, and hope was down.
It was under these circumstances that Fields wrote a second time to the
honorable board of directors to ask them to pay him better wages.
Friday came. There was a meeting, and Fields knew that his case must now be
At eleven o'clock the directors emerged from their parlor, and passed by his
desk in twos and threes, chatting and telling watery jokes, as most great men
"They look as if they had entirely forgotten me," said Fields to himself.
Pretty soon the cashier came and placed a letter upon his counter.
"Ah!" thought the teller, "I was mistaken. I wonder if I can read it here
without changing countenance?"
He could but try it. He tore off the envelope. It went thus:
"DEAR SIR: The president and
directors, to whom you addressed a
request for an increase of
salary, must beg to criticise the
arguments advanced in your
"They do not understand why
you should place a new value upon your
honesty because in other
people there happens to be sometimes such a
thing as dishonesty. It is a
popular notion that honesty among men
is rare, but the idea is a
mistaken one. Honesty of the purest kind,
as honesty is usually
understood, is very common. They cannot help
feeling, also, that you
somewhat overestimate the value of your
work, which to them seems to
be only a higher sort of routine,
calling for no intellectual
endeavor, and requiring but little more
than an ordinary bookkeeper's
care for its perfect performance. But
for the differences that
do exist between your
tasks and those of
the bookkeeper you will
remember you are already compensated by a
salary a fourth larger.
"Briefly, they consider their
bank a piece of money-making
mechanism, of which you are an
able and respected part; but they
cannot understand how you
could hope to raise their fear of
peculations and villainies
when their system of checks and
counter-checks is so perfect.
They have never lost a dollar by the
immorality of any of their
employés, and they are sure that matters
are so arranged that any such
immorality, even of the rankest kind,
could occasion them no
"Nor do they comprehend why
your idea that increase of business
justifies a request for an
increase of salary may not be met with
the suggestion that your hours
of labor are the same as your former
hours, and that all you were
able to perform in those hours, to the
best of your capacity, was
purchased at the beginning of your
connection with them.
"In regard to the pure
question of the sufficiency of your salary,
they hint in the kindest
manner that all expenditures are
contractible as well as
"They hasten to take this
opportunity to express to you their
appreciation of your perfect
exhibits; and, complimenting you upon
the care with which you have
fulfilled the duties of your post, they
remain your obedient
The teller felt that a more maddening letter could not have been written. Its
civility seemed to him to be disagreeable suavity; its failure to particularize
the points he made to be a disgraceful evasion; and the liberty it took in
generalizing his case to be an enormous insult.
The very first sentence on honesty put him in the light of a blackmailer—one
that threatened mischief if his demands were not complied with. The next
sentence went to show that he was an egotist, because he thought his labors
required wear and tear of brain. The third called him a sound cog-wheel. The
latter part of the same said that a villain could do no evil if he wished to,
for they (the directors) had protected themselves against villains. Then it went
on to say that the writers did not understand how anxiety and caution could be
involved in the pursuit of his duties; and then it was thrown out that his
marriage was his seeking—not theirs. Finally,
they patted him on the head.
Fields passed a sleepless night. He felt that he had been belittled to the
extremest point, and that there was not a foothold left for his dignity. His
soul was incised and chafed, and he lay awake thinking that degradation of
himself and his office could have proceeded no further.
Toward morning he hit upon a plan to establish himself in what he believed to
be the proper light. "It will require nerve," reflected he, doubtingly, "and not
only nerve in itself, but a certain exact quantity of it. Too much nerve would
destroy me, and too little nerve would do the same thing. I think, however, that
I can manage it. I feel able to do anything. Even a paying teller will turn if—"
On the following Monday there was a special meeting of the directors for the
purpose of examining the books and accounts of the bank. The bank-controller was
expected to call for an exhibit within the coming week, and it was desirable
that the directors should feel assured that their institution was in the proper
order. The call of the controller was always impending. It might come any day,
and it would require an exhibit of the condition of the bank on any previous
day. He was permitted to make five of these calls during the year, and, inasmuch
as he was at liberty to choose his own days, his check upon the banks was
complete. If he found a bank that had not fulfilled the requirements of law, he
was obliged to take away its charter, and to close it: hence the
examination-meeting in the present case. The accounts of the tellers were passed
upon, the cashier's books were looked over, as were also those of the regular
bookkeepers. There seemed to be no errors, and the contents of the safes were
proved. There was perfect order in all the departments. The clerks were
complimented. "Now," said Fields to himself, "is my opportunity."
On the next day at ten o'clock the directors again assembled—this time for
their regular labors—to examine the proposals for discount.
The day happened to be cold and stormy. The twenty clerks were busily and
silently at work behind their counters and gratings, and the fourteen directors
were shut tight in their mahogany room. There was but little passing to and fro
from the street, though now and then a half-frozen messenger came stamping in,
and did his errand, with benumbed fingers, through the little windows. The
tempest made business light.
At eleven o'clock Fields wrote a note and sent it to the directors' room. The
boy who carried it knocked softly, and the president appeared, took the letter,
and then closed the door again.
Then there was a moment of almost total silence; the clerks wrote, the leaves
rattled, and it seemed as if it were an instant before an expected explosion.
Presently an explosion came. The clerks heard with astonishment a tumult in
the directors' room—exclamations, hurried questions, the hasty rolling of chairs
on their casters, and then the sound of feet.
The door was hastily drawn open, and those who were near could see that
nearly all the directors were clustered around it, straining their eyes to look
at the paying teller. Most of them were pale and they called, in one voice,
"Come here!" "Come in here at once!" "Fields!" "Mr. Fields!" "Sir, you are
wanted!" "Step this way instantly!" Fields put down his pen, opened the tall
iron gate which separated him from the counters, and walked rather quickly
toward the den of lions. An opening was made for him in the group, and he passed
through the door, and it was shut once more.
He walked across the room to the fireplace. He took out his handkerchief,
and, seizing a corner between a thumb and forefinger, slowly shook it open, and
then turned around.
"This note, sir! What does it mean?" cried the president, advancing upon him,
waving the paper in his trembling hand.
"Have you read it?" demanded Fields, in a loud voice.
"Yes," said the president. He was astonished at Fields's manner. He cast a
glance upon his fellow-directors.
"Then what is the use of asking me what I mean? It is as plain as I can make
"But it says—but it says," faltered the venerable gentleman, turning the
paper to the light, "that you have only money enough to last until twelve
o'clock. Your statement yesterday showed a balance to your credit of three
hundred and fifty-two thousand dollars. That will last at least—"
"But I have not got three hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars. I have
only got twenty-seven thousand dollars!"
"But we counted three hundred and seventy-seven thousand dollars."
"Yesterday—yes. But not this morning."
"Great God!" cried Stuart, thrusting himself forward, "what!--" He fixed his
feeble eyes upon Fields, but could speak no further. His arms fell down by his
sides, and he began to tremble. He did not have sufficient courage to ask the
question. Somebody else did.
"What has become of it?"
"That I shall not tell you!" returned Fields, looking defiantly at one
director after another.
"But is it gone?" cried the chorus. Many of the faces that confronted Fields
had become waxen. The little group was permeated with a tremor.
"Yes, it is gone; I have taken it."
"You have taken it!" "You
have taken it!" "You have taken it!"
The directors, overwhelmed and confounded, retreated from Fields as if they
were in personal danger from him.
"In Heaven's name, Fields!" exclaimed the president, "speak out! Tell us!
What!--where!--the money! Come, man!"
"You had better lock the door," said the teller; "some one will be coming
One of the most feeble and aged of the board turned around and hastened, as
fast as his infirm limbs would permit him, and threw the bolt with feverish
haste, and then ran back again to hear.
"Yes," said Fields, with deliberation, "I have taken the money. I have
carried it away and hidden it where no one can lay hands upon it but myself."
"Then—then, sir, you have stolen it!"
Fields bowed. "I have stolen it."
"But you have ruined us!"
"And you have ruined yourself!"
"I am not so sure of that."
"Stop this useless talk!" cried a gentleman, who had heretofore been silent.
He bent upon Fields a look of great dignity. "Make it clear, sir, what you have
"Certainly. When I left the bank last night I put into my pockets one hundred
and fifty thousand dollars in greenbacks of the one-thousand-dollar
denomination, one hundred thousand dollars in national-currency notes of the
one-hundred-dollar denomination, and one hundred thousand dollars in gold
certificates. I left to the credit of my account twenty-seven thousand eight
hundred and sixty-two dollars and some odd cents. Eight thousand of these have
been already drawn this morning. It is not unlikely that the whole of what is
left may be drawn within the next five minutes, and the next draft upon you will
find you insolvent. If the balance is against you at the clearing-house, you
will undoubtedly be obliged to stop payment before one o'clock."
Fields's interlocutor turned sharply around and sank into his seat. At this
three of the young members of the board—Slavin, a wool-dealer, Debritt, a silk
importer, and Saville, an insurance actuary—made a violent onslaught upon the
teller, but others interposed.
What was to be said? What was to be done? Somebody cried for a policeman, and
would have thrown up a window and called into the street. But the act was
prevented. It was denounced as childish. After a moment, everybody but Fields
had seated himself in his accustomed place, overcome with agitation. Those who
could see devoured the teller with their eyes. Two others wept with puerile fear
and anger. They began to realize the plight they were in. It began to dawn upon
them that an immense disaster was hanging over their heads. How were they to
escape from it? Which way were they to turn to find relief? It was no time for
brawling and denunciation; they were in the hands of an unscrupulous man, who,
at this crucial moment, was as cool and implacable as an iceberg. They watched
him carelessly draw and redraw his handkerchief through his fingers; he was
unmoved, and entirely at ease.
"Can it be possible!" said a tall and aged director, rising from his chair
and bending upon the culprit a look of great impressiveness—"can it be possible
that it is our upright and stainless clerk who confesses to such a stupendous
villainy as this? Can it be that one who has earned so much true esteem from his
fellow-men thus turns upon them and—"
"Yes, yes, yes!" replied Fields, impatiently, "that is all true; but it is
all sentiment. Let us descend to business. I know the extent of my wickedness
better than you do. I have taken for my own use from your bank. I have robbed
you of between a quarter and a half million of dollars. I am a pure robber. That
is the worst you can say of me. The worst you can do with me is to throw me into
prison for ten years. By the National Currency Act of 1865, section 55, you will
see that for this offence against you I may be incarcerated from five to ten
years—not more than ten. If you imprison me for ten years, you do your worst.
During those ten years I shall have ample time to perfect myself in at least
three languages, and to read extensively, and I shall leave the jail at
forty-five a polished and learned man, in the prime of life, and possessed of
enormous wealth. There will be no pleasure that I cannot purchase. I shall
become a good-natured cynic; I shall freely admit that I have disturbed the
ordinary relations of labor and compensation, but I shall so treat the matter
that I shall become the subject of a semi-admiration that will relieve me from
social ostracism. I have carefully reviewed the ground. I shall go to jail, pass
through my trial, receive my sentence, put on my prisoner's suit, begin my daily
tasks, and all with as much equanimity as I possess at present. There will be no
contrition and no shame. Do not hope to recover a dollar of your money. I have
been careful to secrete it so that the most ingenious detectives and the largest
rewards will not be able to obtain a hint of its whereabouts. It is entirely
beyond your reach."
Fields was now an entire master of the situation. The board was filled with
consternation; its members conferred together in frightened whispers.
"But," pursued Fields, "do you properly understand
your situation? My desk is virtually without
money. My assistant at this instant may discover that he has not sufficient
funds to pay the check he has in his hand. In a moment more the street may be in
possession of the facts. Besides the present danger, have you forgotten the
controller?" Nothing more could now add to the alarm that filled the room.
"What shall we do, Fields? We cannot go under; we cannot—"
"I will tell you."
The room became silent again. All leaned forward to listen. Some placed their
hands behind their ears.
"I do not think that the drafts upon us to-day will amount to eighty thousand
dollars. You might draw that sum from the receiving teller, but that would
occasion remark. I advise you to draw from your private accounts elsewhere one
hundred thousand dollars, and quietly place it upon my counter. I would do it
without an instant's delay."
"But what guarantee have we that you will not appropriate that also?"
"I give you my word," replied Fields, with a smile.
"And to what end do you advise us to keep the bank intact?"
"That we may have time to arrange terms."
"For a compromise."
Here was a patch of blue sky—a glimpse of the sun. Fields was not insensible
to moderation, after all.
"What do you propose?" eagerly demanded three voices.
"I think you had first better insure yourselves against suspension," was the
In ten minutes one of the directors hurriedly departed, with five checks in
his wallet. These were the contributions of his fellows. The president passed
out to see how matters stood at the paying teller's desk. No more drafts had
been presented, and the nineteen thousand dollars were still undisturbed. He
returned reassured. He locked the door again.
"Now, sir," said he to the paying teller, "let us go on."
"Very well," was the reply. "I think you all perceive by this time the true
position of affairs. I possess three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and
your bank has lost that sum. I have detailed the benefits which will accrue to
me, and the trouble which will in all likelihood accrue to you. It will be
unpleasant for you to throw your selves upon the mercies of your stockholders.
Stockholders are hard-hearted people. Each one of you will, in case this matter
is discovered, find his financial credit and his reputation for sagacity much
impaired; and, besides this, there will be incurred the dangers of a 'run' upon
you, to say nothing of the actual loss to the institution, which will have to be
made good to the last dollar. But let us see if we cannot do better.
Notwithstanding the fact that I have fully made up my mind to go to prison, I
cannot deny that not to go to prison would be
an advantage. Therefore, if you will promise me immunity from prosecution, I
will return to you to-morrow morning a quarter of a million dollars. I ask you
to give me a reply within five minutes. The proposition is a bare one, and is
sufficiently plain. I shall require your faith as directors and individuals, and
in return I will give my pledge, as a robber of the highest grade—a bond which
perhaps is as good as any that can be made under the circumstances."
The directors no sooner saw that it lay within their power to regain
five-sevenths of their money than they began, almost with one voice, threaten
Fields with punishment if he did not return the whole.
"Gentlemen," cried the paying teller, interrupting their exclamations, "I
must impose one more condition. It is that you do not mention this affair
again—that you keep the whole matter secret, and not permit it to be known
beyond this apartment that I have had any other than the most agreeable
relations with you. All that is imperative. There remain but two more minutes.
The president will signify to me your decision."
The time elapsed. Fields put his watch into his pocket.
"Well, sir?" said he.
"We accept the terms," replied the president, bowing stiffly.
Fields also bowed. A silence ensued. Presently a director said to Fields:
"May I ask you what led you to this step?"
"Sir," replied the teller, with severity, "you are encroaching upon our
contract. I may speak of this affair, but you have no right to."
Then he turned to the board:
"Do you wish me to go back to my work?"
There was a consultation. Then the president said:
"If you will be so kind."
The business of the day went forward as usual. The teller's counter-desk was
supplied with money, and no suspicion was aroused among his fellows.
As each director went out of the bank, he stopped at Fields's window, and
addressed some set remark to him upon business matters; and so intimate did the
relations between them seem that the clerks concluded that the lucky man was
about to be made cashier, and they began to pay him more respect.
In the intervening night there again recurred to the directors the enormity
of the outrage to which they had been subjected. The incident of recovering so
large a part of what they had originally supposed was gone had the effect of
making them partially unmindful of the loss of the smaller sum which the teller
finally agreed to accept in place of punishment. But in the lapse between the
time of the robbery and the time of the promised restitution, their appreciation
of their position had time to revive again, and when they assembled on the next
morning to receive the money from Fields, they were anxious and feverish.
Would he come? Was he not at this moment in Canada? Would a man who could
steal one hundred thousand dollars return a quarter of a million? Absurd!
Every moment one of them went to the door to see if Fields had appeared. The
rest walked about, with their hands behind them, talking together incoherently.
The air was full of doubts. The teller usually came at a quarter past nine, but
the hour arrived without the man. Intolerable suspense!
Two or three of the directors made paths for themselves amid the chairs, and
anxiously traversed them. Slavin took a post beside a window and gazed into the
street. Debritt, with his right hand in his bosom, and with his left grasping
the upper rail of a seat, looked fixedly into the coals. Stuart sipped at a
goblet of water, but his trembling hand caused him to spill its contents upon
the floor. No one now ventured to speak except in a whisper; it seemed that a
word or a loud noise must disturb the poise of matters. The clock ticked, the
blue flames murmured in the grate, and the pellets of sand thrown up by the wind
rattled against the windows.
But yet there were no signs of the paying teller.
Was it possible that this immense sum of money was
gone? Could it be true that they must report
this terrible thing to the world? Had they permitted themselves to become the
lieutenants to a wily scoundrel? Were they thus waiting silent and inactive
while he was being borne away at the speed of the wind, out of their reach?
All at once Fields came in at the door.
He was met with a gladness that was only too perceptible. Every gentleman
emitted a sigh of relief, and half started, as if to take the delinquent by the
Fields had expected this. He was shrewd enough to act before the feeling had
He advanced to the table. The directors hastened like schoolboys to take
their accustomed places. They bent upon the teller's face the most anxious
"Gentlemen," said he, "I believe that you fully understand that I return this
large sum of money to you at my own option. You recognize the fact that most men
would endure, for instance, an imprisonment of ten years rather than lose the
control of a quarter of a million of dollars."
The directors hastened to signify "Yes!"
"But," continued Fields, taking several large envelopes from his inner
pockets, "I shall be content with less. There is the sum I mentioned."
The directors fell upon the packages and counted their contents. The table
was strewed with money. Fields contemplated the scene with curiosity. Presently
it was announced that the sum was complete.
"Now, gentlemen," said Fields, "you have suffered loss. I have a hundred
thousand dollars which I have forced you to present me with. That is a large
sum, though to us who are so familiar with millions it seems small, almost
insignificant; but, in reality, it has a great importance. You now see, my
friends, what a part of your money-making mechanism may achieve. There is no
bank, even of third-rate importance, in this city, whose receiving teller or
paying teller may not do exactly as I have done. On any day, at any hour, they
may load themselves with valuables and go away. You, and all directors, depend
servilely upon the pure honesty of your clerks. You can erect no barrier, no
guard, no defence, that will protect you from the results of decayed principle
in them. They are deeply involved in dangerous elements. Ease, luxury, life-long
immunity from toil, wait upon their resolution to do ill. This resolution may be
the determination of an instant, or the result of long-continued sophistical
reasoning. You cannot detect the approach to such a resolve in your servant, and
he, perhaps, can hardly detect it in himself. But one day it is complete: he
acts upon it. You are bereft of your property; he flees, and there is the nine
days' stir, and all is over. Your greatest surety lies in your appreciation of
your danger. I have proved to you what that danger consists of; you did not know
before. Your best means of defence is to respect, to the fullest extent, the
people upon whom you depend. They are worthy of it. An instant's reflection will
show you that neither of you would be proof against a strong temptation. For the
sake of recovering a sum of money you have compounded with felony. All of you
are at this moment in breach of the law. You have submitted without a struggle
to the dominant impulse. The principle of exact honor which you demand in me
does not exist in yourselves. But let us end this disagreeable scene. Perhaps I
have demonstrated something that you never realized. I hope you understand. I
now surrender to you the one hundred thousand dollars, which you thought I had
stolen. I had no intention of keeping it; I only pretended to take it in order
to impress you with my ideas."
Every director arose to his feet in haste. Fields placed another packet upon
the table, and, in face of the astonished board, left the apartment.
An hour afterward he was again summoned to the parlor. He advanced to his old
position at the end of the table. It was clear that the temper of the assembly
was favorable to him.
"Mr. Fields," said the president, "your attack upon us was singular and
rapid, and I think it has made the mark that you intended it should. Your mode
of convincing us was, one might say, dramatic; and, though I believe you might
have attained your object in another way, we acknowledge that your letter had
but little effect. We now wish to provide for you as you claim, and as you
deserve. But we cannot look upon you with quietude. It is almost impossible to
see you without shuddering. We must place you elsewhere. If you remained here,
you would always be in close proximity to a quarter of a million dollars."
"But you believe in my integrity?"
"You understand my motives?"
"And you acknowledge them to be just?"
"But you personify a terrible threat. You are an exponent of a great danger,
and you could not ask us to live with one who showed that he held a sword above
our heads. That would be impossible. We therefore offer you the position of
actuary in the---- Life. Mr. Stuart is about to resign it, and at our request he
has consented to procure you the chair. Your salary will be thrice that you now
receive. Do you accept?"
"Without an instant's hesitation," replied Fields.
He then shook hands with each director, and they separated excellent friends.
Fields winged his way to the farm in the country, and told the news. That is,
he told the best of it. He told the actual news after hours, when there was but
one to tell it to.
There was a shriek.
"Oh, if they had!"
"Had what—Sun and Moon!"
"Why, sent you to prison."
"Well, we should have had to wait ten years, that's all. After that, we
should have been worth, with interest added to the capital, five hundred and
sixty thousand dollars."
"Sir! Can you suppose that I would ever marry a robber, a wretched robber?"
"Never! But it is different where one robs for the sake of principle."
"Y—yes, that is true; I forgot that. I think that principle is a great thing.
In the spring the face-walls and the lawns and the kiosks went forward
according to the original design, and the actuary frequently brought his city
friends, directors and all, down to look at them.