The Autobiography of a Dollar

by Francis Clement Kelley

I was born in a beautiful city on the banks of a charming river, the capital of a great nation. Unlike humans, I can remember no childhood, though it is said that I had a formative period in the care of artists whose brains conceived the beauty of my face and whose hands realized the glory of their dreams. But to them I was only a pretty thing of paper with line and color upon it. They gave me nothing else, and I really began to live only when some one representing the Great Nation stamped a seal upon me. Though a bloodless thing, yet I felt a throb of being. I lived, and the joy of it went rioting through me.

I remember that at first I was confined in a prison, bound with others by an elastic band which I longed to break that I might escape to the welcoming hands of men who looked longingly at me through the bars. But soon one secured me and I went out into a great, wide and very beautiful world.

Of the first months of my life I can remember but very little, only that I was feverishly happy in seeing, and particularly in doing. I was petted and admired and sought after. I went everywhere and  did everything. So great was my popularity that some even bartered their peace of mind to obtain me, and others, forced to see me go, shed tears at the parting. Some, unable to have me go to them otherwise, actually stole me. But all the time I cared nothing, for I was living and doing—making men smile and laugh when I was with them and weep when I went away. It was all the same to me whether they laughed or cried. I only loved the power that was in me to make them do it and I believed that the power was without limit.

I was not yet a year old when I began to lose my beauty. I noticed it first when I fell into the hands of a man with long hair and pointed beard, who frowned at me and said: "You poor, faded, dirty thing, to think that I made you!" But I did not care. He had not made me. It was the Great Nation. Anyhow I could still do things and make even him long for me. So I was happy.

I was one year and a half old when I formed my first great partnership with others of my kind, and it came about like this: I had been in the possession of a poor woman who had guarded me for a week in a most unpleasant smelling old purse, when I heard a sharp voice ask for me—nay, demand me, and couple the demand with a threat that my guardian should lose her home were the demand refused. I was given over, I hoped, to better quarters, but in this I was sadly disappointed, for my new owner  confined me in a strong but ill-favored box where thousands like myself were growing mouldy and wrinkled, away from the light of day. Sometimes we were released at night to be carefully counted by candle-light, but that was all. Thus we who were imprisoned together formed a partnership, but even then we were not strong enough to free ourselves. One night the box was opened with a snap and I saw the thin, pale face of my master looking down at us. He selected me and ninety-nine of my companions and placed us outside the box.

"There's the money," he said, "as I told you. It's all yours. Are you satisfied now?" I looked across the table at a young girl with a white, set face that was very, very beautiful. She did not answer.

"If you want it why don't you take it?" he snarled at her. "I can tell you again that there is nothing else for you."

The girl had something in her hand that I saw. I see more than most men. The thing she had made a sharp noise and spit a flame at him. He fell across the table and something red and warm went all over me. I began to be unhappy, for I thought I saw that there was something in the world that could not be bought. For him I cared nothing.

It was strange that after my transfers I was at last used to pay the judge who tried the girl. I was in the judge's pocket when he sentenced her to death. He said: "May the Lord have mercy on your soul."  But I knew, for I told you I could see more than most men, that he didn't believe in the Lord or in souls. He left the court to spend me at a ——, but I think that I will not mention that shameful change. There was nothing strange about my falling into the hangman as part of his pay. I had been in worse hands in the interim.

I saw her die. Not a word did she say about the man she killed, though it might have saved her to tell of the mock marriage and the other things I knew she could reveal. She thought it better to die, I suppose, than be shamed. So she died—unbought. It made me still more unhappy to think of it at all. The dark stain never left me, but I cared nothing for that. What troubled was that I knew she wanted me, was starving for what I could buy, but spurned me and died rather than take me. There was something that had more power than I possessed.

I made up my mind to forget, so my next effort was the greatest I had yet made—my partnership with millions of others. I traveled long distances over and over again. I dug gold from the earth and so produced others like myself. I built railroads, skyscrapers, steamships and great public works. I disguised myself, in order to enhance my power, under new forms of paper and metal, coin, drafts, checks, orders and notes. Indeed I scarcely knew myself when I returned to the bill with the red stain upon it. My partners were nearly all with us one  day when the master came in with a man and pointed us out to him. The man shook his head. It was a great, massive head, good to look at. My master talked a long time with him but he never changed. Then he placed a great roll of us in his hand. He threw us down, kicked us, and went out without a look back. I was more unhappy than ever. He had spurned me, though I knew by his look that he wanted me. I felt cursed. I had not much power at all. There was another thing I could not buy.

But a curse came in good earnest two days later. The terror of that has never left me. I saw a man die who loved me better than his honor or his God. He refused, dying, to give me back to the man from whom he had stolen me. The priest who stood by his bed implored him. He refused and the priest turned from him without saying the words of absolution. When the chill came on him he hissed and spit at us, and croaked his curses, but the death rattle kept choking them back into him, only to have him vomit them into our faces again and again till he died. The priest came back and looked at him.

"Poor fool!" he said to him, but to me and my companions he said: "YOU sent him to Hell."

Ah! What a power that was, but while I rejoiced in it I was not glad enough. He could have conquered had he only willed it. I knew he was my master long before I mastered him. 

His dissipated and drunken children fought for us beside his very bed. I was wrenched from one hand to the other, falling upon the dirty floor to be trampled on again and again. When the fight ended I was torn and filthy, so that, patched and ugly, my next master sent me back to the great capital to be changed; to have the artists work again on me and restore my beauty. They did it well, but no artist could give me new life.

Again I went forth and fell into the hands of a good man. I knew he was good when I heard him speak to me and to those who were with me. "God has blessed me," he said, "with riches and knowledge and strength, but I am only His steward. This money like all the rest shall be spent in His service." Then we were sent out, thousands of us, returning again and again, splitting into great and small parties, but all coming and going hither and thither on errands of mercy.

Now I felt my love of doing return. Never did I now see a tear that I did not dry. Never did I hear a sigh that I did not change to a laugh; never a wound that I did not heal; never a pain that I did not soothe; nor a care I did not lighten. Where the sick were found, I visited them; where the poor were, I bought them bread. Out on the plains and in the desert I lifted the Cross of Hope and the Chalice of Salvation. To the dying I sped the Minister of Pardon. Into the darkness and the shadow  of death I sent the Light of love and hope and truth, till, rich in the deeds of mercy I did in my master's name, I felt the call to another deathbed—his own. I saw my companions flying from the bounds of the great earth to answer the call. They knew he needed them now with the rich interest of good deeds they had won for him. Fast they came and the multitude of them filled him with wonder. The enemy who hated him pointed to them in derision. "Gold buys hell, not heaven," he laughed, but we stood around the bed and the enemy could not pass us. Then we, and deeds we did for him at his command, began to pray and the prayer was like sweetest music echoing against the very vault of heaven; and other sounds, like the gentle tones of harps, were wafted over us, swelling louder and louder till all seemed changed to a thousand organs, with every stop attuned to the praying. They were the voices of the children from parts and regions where we had lifted the Cross. One by one they joined the mighty music till on the wings of the melody the master was borne aloft, higher and higher as new voices coming added of their strength. I watched till he was far above and still rising to heights beyond the ken of dreams.

An Angel touched me.

"Be thou clean," he said, "and go, I charge thee, to thy work. Thy master is not dead, but only begins his joy. While time is, thou shalt work for him and thy deeds of good shall be his own. Wherever thou shalt go let the Cross arise that, under its shadow, the children may gather and the song find new strength and new volume to lift him nearer and nearer the Throne."

So I am happy that I have learned my real power; that I can do what alone is worth doing—for His sake.