The Quality Of Mercy – William Dean Howells
Mr. Howells has this time chosen a subject for illustration which affords plenty of ground for serious thinking. He has written a story of defalcation; the too familiar story of the treasurer of a rich corporation who, himself rich, is greedy for more money; who first uses the funds at his disposal for personal ends; pays them back; uses them again and cannot pay them back; falsifies the books and so gains time to steal more; is at last found out, and b ing given three days to make restitution, finds himself called upon to choose between suicide, surrender, or flight to Canada. It cannot be said that there is anything new in the facts of the defalcation; but these defalcations are monotonously alike. The man who becomes a thief in this way seldom begins with a deliberate purpose to steal. As such a criminal must, by the hypothesis, be a weak man, his first effort is to gloss the character of his actions to himself. He is only borrowing rather irregularly, he tries to think; and he holds to an intention to restore the embezzled funds, which by a hocus-pocus method of word-juggling common to such characters assumes in his mind the aspect of redeeming honesty. When the dream of restoration has been dissipated, as it always is, the thief does not any the more face the truth or admit that he is what he is. In falsifying the books he persuades himself that he is only giving himself further chance of retrieval, and so he goes on till the catastrophe occurs. Now it is evident that a study of such a criminal’s mind must be full of interest, and Mr. Howells has made a masterly analysis.
The Quality Of Mercy.
Excerpt from the text:
Northwick’s man met him at the station with the cutter. The train was a little late, and Elbridge was a little early; after a few moments of formal waiting, he began to walk the clipped horses up and down the street. As they walked they sent those quivers and thrills over their thin coats which horses can give at will; they moved their heads up and down, slowly and easily, and made their bells jangle noisily together; the bursts of sound evoked by their firm and nervous pace died back in showers and falling drops of music. All the time Elbridge swore at them affectionately, with the unconscious profanity of the rustic Yankee whose lot has been much cast with horses. In the halts he made at each return to the station, he let his blasphemies bubble sociably from him in response to the friendly imprecations of the three or four other drivers who were waiting for the train; they had apparently no other parlance. The drivers of the hotel ‘bus and of the local express wagon were particular friends; they gave each other to perdition at every other word; a growing boy, who had come to meet Mr. Gerrish, the merchant, with the family sleigh, made himself a fountain of meaningless maledictions; the public hackman, who admired Elbridge almost as much as he respected Elbridge’s horses (they were really Northwick’s, but the professional convention was that they were Elbridge’s), clothed them with fond curses as with a garment. He was himself, more literally speaking, clothed in an old ulster, much frayed about the wrists and skirts, and polished across the middle of the back by rubbing against counters and window-sills. He was bearded like a patriarch, and he wore a rusty fur cap pulled down over his ears, though it was not very cold; its peak rested on the point of his nose, so that he had to throw his head far back to get Elbridge in the field of his vision. Elbridge had on a high hat, and was smoothly buttoned to his throat in a plain coachman’s coat of black; Northwick had never cared to have him make a closer approach to a livery; and it is doubtful if Elbridge would have done it if he had asked or ordered it of him. He deferred to Northwick in a measure as the owner of his horses, but he did not defer to him in any other quality.
“Say, Elbridge, when you goin’ to give me that old hat o’ your’n?” asked the hackman in a shout that would have reached Elbridge if he had been half a mile off instead of half a rod.
“What do you want of another second-hand hat, you —— —— old fool, you?” asked Elbridge in his turn.
The hackman doubled himself down for joy, and slapped his leg; at the sound of a whistle to the eastward, he pulled himself erect again, and said, as if the fact were one point gained, “Well, there she blows, any way.” Then he went round the corner of the station to be in full readiness for any chance passenger the train might improbably bring him.
No one alighted but Mr. Gerrish and Northwick. Mr. Gerrish found it most remarkable that he should have come all the way from Boston on the same train with Northwick and not known it; but Northwick was less disposed to wonder at it. He passed rapidly beyond the following of Mr. Gerrish, and mounted to the place Elbridge made for him in the cutter. While Elbridge was still tucking the robes about their legs, Northwick drove away from the station, and through the village up to the rim of the highland that lies between Hatboro’ and South Hatboro’. The bare line cut along the horizon where the sunset lingered in a light of liquid crimson, paling and passing into weaker violet tints with every moment, but still tenderly flushing the walls of the sky, and holding longer the accent of its color where a keen star had here and there already pierced it and shone quivering through. The shortest days were past, but in the first week of February they had not lengthened sensibly, though to a finer perception there was the promise of release from the winter dark, if not from the winter cold. It was not far from six o’clock when Northwick mounted the southward rise of the street; it was still almost light enough to read; and the little slender black figure of a man that started up in the middle of the road, as if it had risen out of the ground, had an even vivid distinctness. He must have been lying in the snow; the horses crouched back with a sudden recoil, as if he had struck them back with his arm, and plunged the runners of the cutter into the deeper snow beside the beaten track. He made a slight pause, long enough to give Northwick a contemptuous glance, and then continued along the road at a leisurely pace to the deep cut through the snow from the next house. Here he stood regarding such difficulty as Northwick had in quieting his horses, and getting underway again. He said nothing, and Northwick did not speak; Elbridge growled, “He’s on one of his tears again,” and the horses dashed forward with a shriek of all their bells. Northwick did not open his lips till he entered the avenue of firs that led from the highway to his house; they were still clogged with the snowfall, and their lowermost branches were buried in the drifts.
“What’s the matter with the colt?” he asked.
“I don’t know as that fellow understands the colt’s feet very well. I guess one of the shoes is set wrong,” said Elbridge.
“Better look after it.”
Northwick left Elbridge the reins, and got out of the cutter at the flight of granite steps which rose to the ground-floor of his wooden palace. Broad levels of piazza stretched away from the entrance under a portico of that carpentry which so often passes with us for architecture. In spite of the effect of organic flimsiness in every wooden structure but a log cabin, or a fisherman’s cottage shingled to the ground, the house suggested a perfect functional comfort. There were double windows on all round the piazzas; a mellow glow from the incandescent electrics penetrated to the outer dusk from them; when the door was opened to Northwick, a pleasant heat gushed out, together with the perfume of flowers, and the odors of dinner.
“Dinner is just served, sir,” said the inside man, disposing of Northwick’s overcoat and hat on the hall table with respectful scruple.
Northwick hesitated. He stood over the register, and vaguely held his hands in the pleasant warmth indirectly radiated from the steam-pipes below.
“The young ladies were just thinking you wouldn’t be home till the next train,” the man suggested, at the sound of voices from the dining-room.
“They have some one with them?” Northwick asked.
“Yes, sir. The rector, sir; Mr. Wade, sir.”
“I’ll come down by and by,” Northwick said, turning to the stairs. “Say I had a late lunch before I left town.”
“Yes, sir,” said the man.
Northwick went on up stairs, with footfalls hushed by the thickly-padded thick carpet, and turned into the sort of study that opened out of his bedroom. It had been his wife’s parlor during the few years of her life in the house which he had built for her, and which they had planned to spend their old age in together. It faced southward, and looked out over the greenhouses and the gardens, that stretched behind the house to the bulk of woods, shutting out the stage-picturesqueness of the summer settlement of South Hatboro’. She had herself put the rocking-chair in the sunny bay-window, and Northwick had not allowed it to be disturbed there since her death. In an alcove at one side he had made a place for the safe where he kept his papers; his wife had intended to keep their silver in it, but she had been scared by the notion of having burglars so close to them in the night, and had always left the silver in the safe in the dining-room.
She was all her life a timorous creature, and after her marriage had seldom felt safe out of Northwick’s presence. Her portrait, by Hunt, hanging over the mantelpiece, suggested something of this, though the painter had made the most of her thin, middle-aged blond good looks, and had given her a substance of general character which was more expressive of his own free and bold style than of the facts in the case. She was really one of those hen-minded women, who are so common in all walks of life, and are made up of only one aim at a time, and of manifold anxieties at all times. Her instinct for saving long survived the days of struggle in which she had joined it to Northwick’s instinct for getting; she lived and died in the hope, if not the belief, that she had contributed to his prosperity by looking strictly after all manner of valueless odds and ends. But he had been passively happy with her; since her death, he had allowed her to return much into his thoughts, from which her troublesome solicitudes and her entire uselessness in important matters had obliged him to push her while she lived. He often had times when it seemed to him that he was thinking of nothing, and then he found he had been thinking of her. At such times, with a pang, he realized that he missed her; but perhaps the wound was to habit rather than affection. He now sat down in his swivel-chair and turned it from the writing-desk which stood on the rug before the fireplace, and looked up into the eyes of her effigy with a sense of her intangible presence in it, and with a dumb longing to rest his soul against hers. She was the only one who could have seen him in his wish to have not been what he was; she would have denied it to his face, if he had told her he was a thief; and as he meant to make himself more and more a thief, her love would have eased the way by full acceptance of the theories that ran along with his intentions and covered them with pretences of necessity. He thought how even his own mother could not have been so much comfort to him; she would have had the mercy, but she would not have had the folly. At the bottom of his heart, and under all his pretences, Northwick knew that it was not mercy which would help him; but he wanted it, as we all want what is comfortable and bad for us at times. With the performance and purpose of a thief in his heart, he turned to the pictured face of his dead wife as his refuge from the face of all living. It could not look at him as if he were a thief.
The word so filled his mind that it seemed always about to slip from his tongue. It was what the president of the board had called him when the fact of his fraudulent manipulation of the company’s books was laid so distinctly before him that even the insane refusal, which the criminal instinctively makes of his crime in its presence, was impossible. The other directors sat blankly round, and said nothing; not because they hated a scene, but because the ordinary course of life among us had not supplied them with the emotional materials for making one. The president, however, had jumped from his seat and advanced upon Northwick. “What does all this mean, sir? I’ll tell you what it means. It means that you’re a thief, sir; the same as if you had picked my pocket, or stolen my horse, or taken my overcoat out of my hall.”
He shook his clenched fist in Northwick’s face, and seemed about to take him by the throat. Afterwards he inclined more to mercy than the others; it was he who carried the vote which allowed Northwick three days’ grace, to look into his affairs, and lay before the directors the proof that he had ample means, as he maintained, to meet the shortage in the accounts. “I wish you well out of it, for your family’s sake,” he said at parting; “but all the same, sir, you are a thief.”
He put his hands ostentatiously in his pockets, when some others meaninglessly shook hands with Northwick, at parting, as Northwick himself might have shaken hands with another in his place; and he brushed by him out of the door without looking at him. He came suddenly back to say, “If it were a question of you alone, I would cheerfully lose something more than you’ve robbed me of for the pleasure of seeing you handcuffed in this room and led to jail through the street by a constable. No honest man, no man who was not always a rogue at heart, could have done what you’ve done; juggled with the books for years, and bewitched the record so by your infernal craft, that it was never suspected till now. You’ve given mind to your scoundrelly work, sir; all the mind you had; for if you hadn’t been so anxious to steal successfully, you’d have given more mind to the use of your stealings. You may have some of them left, but it looks as if you’d made ducks and drakes of them, like any petty rascal in the hands of the Employees’ Insurance Company. Yes, sir, I believe you’re of about the intellectual calibre of that sort of thief. I can’t respect you even on your own ground. But I’m willing to give you the chance you ask, for your daughter’s sake. She’s been in and out of my house with my girl like one of my own children, and I won’t send her father to jail if I can help it. Understand! I haven’t any sentiment for you, Northwick. You’re the kind of rogue I’d like to see in a convict’s jacket, learning to make shoe-brushes. But you shall have your chance to go home and see if you can pay up somehow, and you sha’n’t be shadowed while you’re at it. You shall keep your outside to the world three days longer, you whited sepulchre; but if you want to know, I think the best thing that could happen to you on your way home would be a good railroad accident.”
The man’s words and looks were burnt into Northwick’s memory, which now seemed to have the faculty of simultaneously reproducing them all. Northwick remembered his purple face, with its prominent eyes, and the swing of his large stomach, and just how it struck against the jamb as he whirled a second time out of the door. The other directors, some of them, stood round buttoned up in their overcoats, with their hats on, and a sort of stunned aspect; some held their hats in their hands, and looked down into them with a decorous absence of expression, as people do at a funeral. Then they left him alone in the treasurer’s private room, with its official luxury of thick Turkey rugs, leathern arm-chairs, and nickel-plated cuspidors standing one on each side of the hearth where a fire of soft coal in a low-down grate burned with a subdued and respectful flicker.