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Title: What Doth It Profit
Author:Ben Ames Williams
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Language: English
Date first posted:  January 2019
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What Doth It Profit


Ben Ames Williams

The Bay was very still and quiet; no sound came from it save the lapping of little waves no more than an inch or two high, as the tide crept in across the rocks toward the sea wall at our feet. It was the dark of the moon; but there were northern lights glowing in the skies, and they shed a certain vague and ghostly luminosity across the water. A motor boat went past, exhaust pat-patting sharply in the stillness. We could see its lights, see the white blur of its hull. We were sitting, Bill and I, on the veranda of Bill's cottage, in the dark. In one of the other cottages, down the shore, we could hear two or three women laughing and talking together. Someone passed in the darkness, in the direction of the tennis court, humming under his breath: "My Dame has a Lame. Tame Crane..." Four or five people were playing "Pounce" in the cottage up the shore, their sharp, excited laughter rupturing the silence of the night.

My friend Bill smokes a pipe with a long, straight stem; and in the summer time it is his habit to look disreputable. But he is never quite so disreputable as he looks. He has taught school—grammar school, high school, private school—for something like forty years; and now he is retired, and spends his time nursing a young apple orchard on one of the inland hills. There is a ripeness about him; he finds, at times, matters well worth while to say, and it is often worth while to submit, to him your perplexities.

"The most interesting part of the whole system," I said to him this night, "is that each one of these crimes, these disobediences, brings with it an inescapeable and peculiar penalty."

He puffed at his pipe and asked succinctly, "As how?"

"It had not occurred to me till I studied the thing out, but it's true," I told him. "For example: God, or Moses for God, said: 'Thou shalt have none other Gods before me!' And if you disobey, the penalty is that you lose the god you have chosen. If you have any other god, you can't keep him. If your god is money—you have to leave it behind you when you die. Or anything else. The only god you can hold to is God."

Bill nodded. "Yes, that's so," he agreed.

"Or, 'Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah, thy God, in vain.' And the penalty of disobeying is the same that was incurred by the boy who cried: 'Wolf!' once too often. When you want to be believed thereafter, you are not believed..."

"Like using too much slang," Bill suggested. "You lose the gift of tongues."

"And the commandment with a promise," I reminded him. "'Honor thy father and mother.' If you don't, your own children won't honor you. It never fails."

His interest was caught. "True of them all, I guess," he said. "I remember a passage in Proverbs...Something about the man who commits adultery destroying his own soul."

"'They're so plain to be seen, when you look for them," I agreed. "I've been thinking of the one about stealing. 'Thou shalt not steal!' There's the most common vice, or most common crime in this country today. A stenographer manicures her finger nails on office time; or her boss makes her work overtime without extra pay. Stealing, either way. A brick-layer lays five hundred bricks a day when he could lay a thousand; or a contractor pays a man twenty dollars who is worth thirty. Everybody steals, somehow. Steals credit, steals time, steals money, steals honor, steals reputation. People used to take this crime more seriously."

"They had to," Bill suggested. "The institution of property was the foundation of civilization. The cave men didn't have property; they had possessions. And they had them as long as they could keep them, and no longer. Just as soon as a man could leave his bow and arrow hung in a tree and say 'That is mine' and know it would be there when he got back, civilization began."

"And the law put on a heavy penalty for taking that bow and arrow, too," I suggested.

"Necessity," said Bill. "If people stole, somebody was going to suffer. Maybe die. Out west, thirty or forty years ago, if a man's horse was stolen he might be left afoot to die. So they hung horse thieves. Hung all thieves of any account, a couple of hundred years ago in England. Used to cut off their hands, in some places. Oh, stealing was a crime in those days."

"And now it's a peccadillo."

"Unless you get found out," Bill amended.

We were silent for a little; till I said at last, "But the penalty is still there."

Bill swung his head around, the bowl of his pipe glowing in the darkness. "What do you make it?" he asked. "What is the penalty?"

"You come to hate and despise the man you stole from," I replied confidently. "You call him a boob. You inflate yourself with your own conceit; and you see no wisdom or good in any other man. So you become miserable. There's no one so miserable as the man who sees no good in other men."

Bill thought that over. "I don't know," he said.

I was anxious to convince him—for I was myself not fully convinced. "True, though," I insisted. "The slacking clerk thinks he is fooling his boss; the driving boss thinks he is fooling his clerks. The burglar despises the householder; the bunco man calls his victims boobs..."

"It's not enough," said Bill. I waited, wondering. "Your penalty's not heavy enough," he repeated. "It's too abstract. It has no teeth."

"But there's always a penalty," I insisted. "To fit the crime. That's the nature of things."

"Sure," Bill agreed. "But you've got the wrong one. The thief gets his wage; but his wage is not what you think."

"What, then?" I asked; and Bill was silent for a moment, as though considering. Then chuckled, in a way that had no mirth in it.

"I saw a man up town the other day," he told me, stuffing a fresh load of tobacco into his pipe. "A man I hadn't seen for a good many years. He went to school to me fifteen or twenty years ago. I've heard about him, off and on, indirectly..."

"What made you think of him?" I asked.

"Because he's always been a thief." said Bill. "And because you can see so plainly what his pay has been."

I made no immediate comment. Bill lighted his pipe, his face illumined for a moment by the leaping flame of the match; and he settled back into his chair, puffing great clouds of smoke out across the veranda rail. After a moment, lifted his feet upon the rail, so that he was more comfortable.

So told this tale.

You said a while ago (Bill spoke thickly, for his teeth were clenched across his pipe stem) that we are all thieves; that stealing is the universal vice, or the universal crime. Probably you are right. Under a broad definition, most of us steal pretty consistently; and by the same token, most of us incur the penalty of theft. If that's so, we ought to know what it is we incur...

This man I'm going to tell you about was a natural born thief. If we're all thieves, yet most of us have our honest moments. This man had no honest moments. He's an extreme case; a clear-cut case. And correspondingly easy to analyze and to understand. I remember three or four of his thievings. You can see in each the workings of the universal Law.

I said this man went to school to me, as a boy. Lots of people have gone to school to me, one time or another. There's no better way to get acquainted with a person than to try to teach him something. I've become mighty well acquainted with some people, in that fashion; and I came to know this man, Arthur Jessop, through and through, during the year he lived under my roof, when I was instructor and house master in a certain private school...

It was toward the end of his year with us that the thing happened about which I propose to tell you. Oh, there had been other incidents that I had let pass without comment. He was a boy I disliked from the beginning. This may have been one of those instinctive repugnances for which it is impossible to account; but I think it was prompted by the fact that he had not even the rudimentary sense of honor which other boys were developing, at that age. He would lie, for example; and he seemed to enjoy it. Most healthy boys hate to lie.

I had tried to straighten him out as well as I could.

I put him to room with Roy Ward, a boy a little older than himself, small and frail, and too much inclined to his books, hoping each would be good for the other; but before the end of the year I knew this experiment was not going to succeed.

The thing I want to set forth came along with the June examinations. These examinations were rather important—in the eyes of the boys, for many of them were preparing for college and wished to make sure of getting there. Roy Ward, I remember, spent all his spare time in studying. But Arthur was not working, and once or twice I advised him to buckle down. He had a careless assurance, told me that he wasn't worried; and it was, after all, not my affair how much he studied, so long as he passed the examination.

My courses were in mathematics—algebra and geometry—and Arthur was in two of my classes. He had an alert mind; extraordinarily so. But he did not care to put in the necessary digging, so that he was shaky on fundamentals. I thought he would have trouble with the final papers.

As the time for the examinations approached, Arthur began to question me, more or less skilfully, in an effort to find what the questions would be like. I, of course, gave him no satisfaction; but I watched him. Most of my work was done at my desk at home; and this desk was in my bedroom. He and Roy were in a room on the floor above. Twice I came out from my room to find Arthur in the hall, apparently just passing through. It occurred to me that he was watching me as closely as I was watching him.

So I did a thing that was perhaps unfair. I drafted the examination papers in algebra and in geometry put them in envelopes, labelled them, and left them in a pigeon hole of my desk. Twenty problems on each paper, and all as simple and as easy as I could make them. Then I put in the big pad on the desk a fresh blotter, untirely unmarked, its soft surface without a depression; and I left it there when I went across the lawn to the school building to act as monitor of the study hour for the smaller boys.

From the school window, I could see the side door of my house; and toward midafternoon, I saw Arthur go in at this door. He was inside perhaps twenty minutes, then came out again. When I went home, just before dinner, I held the blotter toward the light and saw, as I had expected, that it was covered with depressions. In places I could recognize Arthur's handwriting. He had brought a sheet or two of paper from his room and copied the examination questions in pencil; and the pressure of the pencil had marked the blotter.

I debated for a while, what to do; and eventually decided to say nothing to the boy at the time. But I was careful to prepare new examination papers, and stiff ones; and when the day of the examination came, and Arthur tackled it, it was almost amusing to see his consternation. He had memorized the solutions to the easy problems on the other papers; but he was completely at a loss before the new questions. I graded the other boys' papers leniently; but with him I was severe. And I flunked him on the course.

The point is, he could have passed the examination with a little work, could probably have passed it anyway but for the shock of surprise when he found that he had been fooled. As it was, he failed; and we refused to pass him for college.

He and his mother came to me to try to make some arrangement. I told him the truth. Arthur denied it, and his mother believed him; and they threatened to sue the school. But of course, they did not do so. He tutored through the summer, and passed the college entrance examinations in the fall. But as far as his theft of the questions was concerned, you perceive, he had his trouble for his pains.

After Jessup went to college I heard no more of him for a number of years, except in the most indirect way. I knew that he and Roy Ward had roomed together, during their freshman year; and I knew that Arthur had played baseball sufficiently well to make his college team, and that he was good enough at football to be a substitute outside. But Arthur never came back to the school reunions, and neither did Roy Ward. Some of the other boys came back; and from them I heard that Arthur and Roy had broken up their friendship; that they had quarrelled; and that the weight of Arthur's college popularity had made Roy correspondingly unpopular.

Knowing the two boys as I did, I wondered; and when Roy came back to school in June of the seventh year after he left us, I made occasion to get him to myself and to approach the subject of his trouble with Arthur.

Roy told me the story reluctantly; and I saw that he was reluctant because he thought I would not believe him. He had grown into a shy, awkward, uncertain young man; one of those men who seem always to have their tails between their legs. I was sorry for him...

The thing was simple enough. The two had, as I said, roomed together. Arthur had the commercial instinct highly developed; and toward the end of their freshman year he conceived a plan for making some money. The plan was not original with him; such things are done in college, year by year. But—he invited Roy into partnership. They were to buy from graduating seniors as much furniture as they could finance and store; and in September they would sell this furniture to incoming freshmen. Roy had no fitness for either buying or selling; but—he had money, while Arthur's father and mother were not well-to-do. The agreement was that Roy should furnish the money; that Arthur should do the work; and that they should split the profits equally.

Roy told me that it wasn't till after they came back to college in the fall, that he found out what Arthur had done. Roy said:—"When the furniture was all sold, Arthur came to me—we didn't room together that year, anyway—and said he hadn't done well; that the storage charges had been heavier than he thought, and that the freshmen would not pay the prices he asked... He said the profit had been less than twenty dollars; and he gave me back the money I had furnished, and persuaded me to let him keep all the profits, because he had worked so hard.

"He was clever, too. Our original agreement had been in writing, like a note for the money I had loaned him; and he said the simplest thing was just for me to receipt the note, showing he didn't owe me any money. So I did."

Then Roy began to discover that Arthur had bilked him. Arthur had kept books, of a sort. These books showed the price paid for each piece of furniture, and the price received. Names of buyer and seller were not given. But Roy happened upon a leather couch in a freshman's room, which he happened to recognize; and he asked the boy how much the couch had cost. The answer set him investigating.

He found that Arthur had paid less than the figures on the books; had charged more. "It wasn't much," Roy told me.

"I don't think he made over a hundred dollars out of it. But it made me mad, and I hunted him up, and accused him of it..."

But his case was, of course, hopeless. Arthur had his signed release; he had back of him the weight of his popularity as an athlete and a good fellow, while Roy was a solitary, and a student. And Arthur simply said that Roy lied. It broke Roy up rather badly, spoiled his four years in college, and went far, I thought, to spoil his life...

I asked him what Arthur did with the money. "Lost it," Roy told me. "He played poker with some fellows who had more money than he, and lost a lot, that fall. Mine went with the rest, I suppose. I remember he worked in a club, the rest of that year, to pay his board."

That was the story as I got it from Roy. I've no reason to doubt that it was true. You might call it Jessop's second theft.

The next time I heard of him, it was from a man who had known him in school under me. What I'm going to tell now, I got from him; and later on, I met Charlie Day himself, and Charlie said it was true.

It seems that when Arthur left college, he went to work as a bond salesman. Such places pay very small salaries; but a good man makes money out of his commissions. Arthur had the instincts of a salesman; he could have made a legitimate success in that line. And he did, at the first, rather well. His house had taken him on because of his college record; he had the momentum of his college successes behind him; and after a year or two, he must have had a comfortable and an increasing income.

About that time, he went up to Worcester on a bond-selling expedition; and because he had friends everywhere, he was invited to one of the country clubs, and to a dance or two. It was at the club that he met the girl he married. Her name was Laura Marsh; and when Arthur met her, she was engaged to this Charlie Day, one of his college classmates. Charlie introduced him to her.

Jessop's reputation, where women were concerned, was later on to become very bad indeed; but at that time his exploits had either not begun, or they had been well hidden. He became infatuated with Laura Marsh; and the unscrupulous strain which was a part of him by that time made him determine to marry her. To marry her, in spite of the fact that she was already engaged, and had been for a matter of a year, to Charlie. They were waiting till Charlie had enough money to support a wife.

Arthur Jessop set out to steal her. He succeeded. The man had charm; he was shrewd. He paid Laura the sort of attention she had always longed for; the sort Charlie Day had not enough imagination to devise. He made her like him, made her fond of him, made her want to see much of him. She was, apparently, of a romantic tum; and he boasted, years afterward, of how he cajoled her. "You should always do something to make a girl remember you," he explained. "I could see she was romantic. So when I bade her good night, that first night, I kissed her hand."

The mechanics of his conquest are not worth repeating. He had, remember, the college glamour still about him. On his third trip to Worcester, he was satisfied that Laura was sufficiently won to be willing to marry him if she were free. But she had scruples, which he recognized.

He met these scruples by lying about Charlie Day to her, lying as lago did, as though unwillingly and under compulsion. He excited her curiosity by veiled suggestions, then answered with apparent reluctance the questions she put to him. After they were divorced, when he was in his cups, he used to brag about these matters...

About that time, Charlie Day went down to Boston, and Arthur took him to dinner in the evening, and they went to the theatre afterward. When Arthur next saw Laura Marsh, she spoke of this evening they two had spent together. Arthur showed surprise, a little chagrin. "Did Charlie tell you about that?" he asked, in an astonished tone.

Laura said: "Why, yes. Why not?"

"I didn't think he would," Arthur replied.

And so she questioned him; and so, with reluctance in every gesture, he told her the final lie. Told her they had been accosted by two girls, upon the street; told her Charlie had gone, with one of these girls, to a private dining-room in the café. "Of course, I ditched the other girl," Arthur assured her. "Then I waited around to meet Charlie as we had planned. He was going to spend the night with me."

"Did he?" Laura asked.

And Arthur said: "No. No, he didn't come."

Two days later she went to Boston, ostensibly for shopping, and she and Arthur were secretly married there. They planned to keep it secret; but Charlie Day, with the instinct of a lover, half guessed and half discovered what had happened.

He went to see Laura. She was still in the first flood of her infatuation; and she told him the truth, told why she had abandoned him. So Charlie sought out Jessop, and in his slow, thorough way, gave the man a thrashing. Then set hopelessly to work to prove that Arthur had bed.

Of course, he could not do that. Jessop had been too clever. And after a month or two, Charlie gave it up; but he continued to worship Laura, silently, as such men will... He seems to have been sure she would turn to him, some day.

And he was right, Jessop had stolen her, but he could not keep her. It is often so with stolen goods. Two or three months after they were married, they began housekeeping in a little flat in Brookline. But a month after that she left him, left him and went home, probably Charlie knows why, but no one else. Arthur tried to get her back; but when he found he could not, he was not long in giving her grounds enough for half-a-dozen divorces. In the end she married Charlie. They have two boys now, coming toward manhood, I believe.

That winning of Laura Marsh seems to have been the crest of Jessop's career. After that, he began to go steadily downhill.

I said he did well, in the beginning, as a bond salesman. Might have continued to do well, for he was in the employ of one of the three oldest and soundest houses in Boston. But the man was a thief by nature; he was not satisfied to plod.

About five years after he left college and after his divorce, boom times came along. One of those periods when the market goes up and up, when every one seems to have money for any investment that is offered, and when the wildest schemes are floated successfully, and gold bricks turn to gold. Arthur was in clover. He had never made so much money before; and after a little while, he was not satisfied with legitimate profits, but began reaching out for something more.

I occasionally bought a bond from his house; and one day he called upon me to see if I wished to take any new securities. I had accumulated a little surplus capital. Even a school teacher sometimes succeeds in saving money, you know; and I bought a thousand dollar railroad bond that seemed to be thoroughly sound.

When we had arranged that, Arthur looked at me with that old assurance in his eyes, and asked quizzically: "Are you inclined to take on a little speculation?"

I said I was not, of course; nevertheless he produced a folder and handed it to me.

"There's a fine chance," he said. "I tell you frankly, it's a gamble. You may never get a dividend; and you may never get your principal back. It's a pure gamble. But if it wins, a hundred dollar bond will be worth a thousand in a year's time."

I refused again, and he accepted my refusal; but I remembered the incident when his smash up came, a month later. He had been marketing worthless bits of paper, in this way, among the clients of his house, and pocketing the proceeds. It was ingenious enough. A man who had put one or five or ten thousand dollars into sound paper might very readily put a hundred into even so pure a gamble as this one of Arthur's. He had made no false representations; there was no law that touched him. But his employers discharged him; and the incident gave him a black eye in the financial world, from which he did not recover.

Arthur himself laughed at it, at first. He had made a substantial sum out of his trickery; but he lost it by going short on that boom market, and then he tried to get another job. I heard that he had failed to get work with any bond house; then he was involved in a swindling scheme, and barely escaped the law; and after that he took to the road as a clothing salesman. They discharged him for falsifying his expense accounts.

That was the last I heard of him, until I met him up town the other day. I talked with him a little while. He said he had had mighty hard luck; that he kept losing every job he got, somehow... You could read his story in his face.

He was trying to sell one of the clothing stores up town a line of cheap and worthless jewelry. And he had no luck at it. The stuff was the barest fraud, on its very face. Shiny gilt and dull stones... And Jessop himself had a whine in his voice that was enough to brand him.

He was shabbily dressed. A threadbare, dingy collar, and ravelings on the edges of his cuffs. Bags under his eyes. A wreck of a man. I can remember, even now, what an upstanding youngster he used to be. It made me feel pretty badly; and when he begged a loan, I gave him a five dollar bill and wished him luck.

I saw him grin behind my back, when he thought I had turned away. He left town on the noon train... Don't suppose I'll ever see Arthur Jessop again.

Bill fell silent, and for a moment neither of us spoke. Then he looked toward me, as though to hear my comment.

"You see, I was right," I told him. "He brags of how he fooled his wife; brags, no doubt, of how he fooled his customers. Calls the whole world 'boob', just as he thought you a fool for giving him that money."

"Doubtless," Bill assented. "But that is not what I mean. To come to think all men are fools is not sufficient punishment for a thief; there is a heavier."

I, puzzled for a moment, could not see. "Then what is the penalty?" I asked.

Bill puffed slowly at his pipe. "Arthur stole the examination questions—and did not get them," he reminded me. "He stole from Roy Ward, and lost the money. He stole a wife—and could not keep her. He stole from his customers—and the loot slipped through his fingers. Always his thefts have been fruitless. That is the real punishment of thieving."

"That what you steal you cannot keep?" I asked.

"That what you steal you cannot keep," he agreed. The stars overhead were bright; the blurred whiteness of the Milky Way touched the horizon northeast of where we sat. A miracle of order in the heavens; and Bill lifted a hand to point that way. "There's a Law down here as there is up there," he said. "A Way to be followed, and a fit punishment for leaving of the Way. Arthur Jessop stole—and his stealing netted him nothing at all.

"Nothing at all. That's the thief's wage. He was paid his wage, you see."


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