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A Wasted Opportunity

The Easy Chair saw at once that its friend was full of improving conversation, and it let him begin without the least attempt to stay him; anything of the kind, in fact, would have been a provocation to greater circumstance in him. He said:

"It was Christmas Eve, and I don't know whether he arrived by chance or design at a time when the heart is supposed to be softest and the mind openest. It's a time when, unless you look out, you will believe anything people tell you and do anything they ask you. I must say I was prepossessed by his appearance; he was fair and slender, and he looked about thirty-five years old; and when he said at once that he would not deceive me, but would confess that he was just out of the penitentiary of a neighboring State where he had been serving a two years' sentence, I could have taken him in my arms. Even if he had not pretended that he had the same surname as myself, I should have known him for a brother, and though I suspected that he was wrong in supposing that his surname was at all like mine, I was glad that he had sent it in, and so piqued my curiosity that I had him shown up, instead of having my pampered menial spurn him from my door, as I might if he had said his name was Brown, Jones, or Robinson."

"We dare say you have your self-justification," we put in at this point, "but you must own that it doesn't appear in what you are saying. As a good citizen, with the true interests of the poor at heart, you would certainly have had your pampered menial spurn him from your door. His being of your name, or claiming to be so, had nothing to do with his merit or want of it."

"Oh, I acknowledge that, and I'll own that there was something in his case, as he stated it, that appealed to my fancy even more than his community of surname appealed to my family affection. He said he was a Scotchman, which I am not, and that he had got a job on a cattle-steamer, to work his way back to his native port. The steamer would sail on Monday, and it was now Friday night, and the question which he hesitated, which he intimated, in terms so tacit that I should not call them an expression of it, was how he was to live till Monday."

"He left the calculation entirely to me, which he might not have done if he had known what a poor head I had for figures, and I entered into it with a reluctance which he politely ignored. I had some quite new two-dollar notes in my pocket-book, the crisp sort, which rustle in fiction when people take them out to succor the unfortunate or bribe the dishonest, and I thought I would give him one if I could make it go round for him till his steamer sailed. I was rather sorry for its being fresh, but I had no old, shabby, or dirty notes such as one gives to cases of dire need, you know."

"No, we don't know. We so seldom give paper at all; we prefer to give copper."

"Well, that is right; one ought to give copper if the need is very pressing; if not so pressing, one gives small silver, and so on up. But here was an instance which involved a more extended application of alms. 'You know,' I told him, while I was doing my sum in mental arithmetic, 'there are the Mills hotels, where you can get a bed for twenty-five cents; I don't remember whether they throw in breakfast or not.' I felt a certain squalor in my attitude, which was not relieved by the air of gentle patience with which he listened, my poor namesake, if not kinsman; we were both at least sons of Adam. He looked not only gentle, but refined; I made my reflection that this was probably the effect of being shut up for two years where the winds were not allowed to visit him roughly, and the reflection strengthened me to say, 'I think two dollars will tide you over till Monday.' I can't say whether he thought so, too, but he did not say he did not think so. He left it quite to me, and I found another mathematical difficulty. There were three nights' lodging to be paid for, and then he would have a dollar and a quarter for food. I often spend as much as that on a single lunch, including a quarter to the waiter, and I wouldn't have liked making it pay for three days' board. But I didn't say so; I left the question entirely to him, and he said nothing.

"In fact, he was engaged in searching himself for credentials, first in one pocket, and then in another; but he found nothing better than a pawn-ticket, which he offered me. 'What's this?' I asked. 'My overcoat,' he said, and I noted that he had borrowed a dollar and a half on it. I did not like that; it seemed to me that he was taking unfair advantage of me, and I said, 'Oh, I think you can get along without your overcoat.' I'm glad to think now that it hadn't begun to snow yet, and that I had no prescience of the blizzard—what the papers fondly called the Baby Blizzard (such a pretty fancy of theirs!)—which was to begin the next afternoon, wasn't making the faintest threat from the moonlit sky then. He said, 'It's rather cold,' but I ignored his position. At the same time, I gave him a quarter."

"That was magnificent, but it was not political economy," we commented. "You should have held to your irrefutable argument that he could get along without his overcoat. You should have told him that he would not need it on shipboard."

"Well, do you know," our friend said, "I really did tell him something like that, and it didn't seem to convince him, though it made me ashamed. I suppose I was thinking how he could keep close to the reading-room fire, and I did not trouble to realize that he would not be asked to draw up his chair when he came in from looking after the cattle."

"It would have been an idle compliment, anyway," we said. "You can't draw up the reading-room chairs on shipboard; they're riveted down."

"I remembered afterward. But still I was determined not to take his overcoat out of pawn, and he must have seen it in my eye. He put back his pawn-ticket, and did not try to produce any other credentials. I had noticed that the ticket did not bear the surname we enjoyed in common; I said to myself that the name of Smith, which it did bear, must be the euphemism of many who didn't wish to identify themselves with their poverty even to a pawnbroker. But I said to him, 'Here!' and I pulled open my table drawer, and took from it a small envelope full of English coins, which I had been left stranded with on several returns from Europe; the inhuman stewards had failed to relieve me of them; and as I always vow, when I have got through our customs, that I will never go to Europe again, I had often wondered what I should do with those coins. I now took out the largest and handsomest of them: 'Do you know what that is?' 'Yes,' he said; 'it's two shillings and sixpence—what we call a half-crown.' His promptness restored my faith in him; I saw that he must be what he said; undoubtedly he had been in the penitentiary; very likely our name was the same; an emotion of kinship stirred in my heart. 'Here!' I said, and I handed him the coin; it did not seem so bad as giving him more American money. 'They can change that on the ship for you. I guess you can manage now till Monday,' and my confidence in Providence diffused such a genial warmth through my steam-heated apartment that I forgot all about his overcoat. I wish I could forget about it now."

We felt that we ought to say something to comfort a man who owned his excess of beneficence. "Oh, you mustn't mind giving him so much money. We can't always remember our duty to cut the unfortunate as close as we ought. Another time you will do better. Come! Cheer up!"

Our friend did not seem entirely consoled by our amiability. In fact, he seemed not to notice it. He heaved a great sigh in resuming: "He appeared to think I was hinting that it was time for him to go, for he got up from the lounge where I had thoughtlessly had the decency to make him sit down, and went out into the hall, thanking me as I followed him to the door. I was sorry to let him go; he had interested me somehow beyond anything particularly appealing in his personality; in fact, his personality was rather null than otherwise, as far as that asserted any claim; such a mere man and brother! Before he put his hand on my door-knob a belated curiosity stirred in me, which I tried, as delicately as I could, to appease. 'Was your trouble something about the'—I was going to say the ladies, but that seemed too mawkish, and I boldly outed with—'women?' 'Oh no,' he said, meekly; 'it was just cloth, a piece of cloth,' 'Breaking and entering?' I led on. 'Well, not exactly, but—it came to grand larceny,' and I might have fancied a touch of mounting self-respect in his confession of a considerable offence.

"I didn't know exactly what to say, so I let myself off with a little philosophy: 'Well, you see, it didn't pay, exactly,' 'Oh no,' he said, sadly enough, and he went out."

Our friend was silent at this point, and we felt that we ought to improve the occasion in his behalf. "Well, there you lost a great opportunity. You ought to have rubbed it in. You ought to have made him reflect upon the utter folly of his crime. You ought to have made him realize that for a ridiculous value of forty, or fifty, or seventy-five dollars, he had risked the loss of his liberty for two years, and not only his liberty, but his labor, for he had come out of the penitentiary after two years of hard work as destitute as he went in; he had not even the piece of cloth to show for it all. Yes, you lost a great opportunity."

Our friend rose from the dejected posture in which he had been sitting, and blazed out—we have no milder word for it—blazed out in a sort of fiery torrent which made us recoil: "Yes, I lost that great opportunity, and I lost a greater still. I lost the opportunity of telling that miserable man that, thief for thief, and robber for robber, the State which had imprisoned him for two years, and then cast him out again without a cent of pay for the wages he had been earning all that dreadful time, was a worse thief and a worse robber than he! I ought to have told him that in so far as he had been cheated of his wages by the law he was the victim, the martyr of an atrocious survival of barbarism. Oh, I have thought of it since with shame and sorrow! I was sending him out into the cold that was gathering for the Baby Blizzard without the hope of his overcoat, but since then I have comforted myself by considering how small my crime was compared with that of the State which had thrown him destitute upon the world after the two years' labor it had stolen from him. At the lowest rate of wages for unskilled labor, it owed him at least a thousand dollars, or, with half subtracted for board and lodging, five hundred. It was his delinquent debtor in that sum, and it had let him loose to prey upon society in my person because it had defrauded him of the money he had earned."

"But, our dear friend!" we entreated, "don't you realize that this theft, this robbery, this fraud, as you call it, was part of the sanative punishment which the State had inflicted upon him?"

"And you don't think two years' prison, two years' slavery, was sanative enough without the denial of his just compensation?"

We perceived that it would be useless to argue with a man in this truculent mood, and we silently forbore to urge that the vision of destitution which the criminal must have before his eyes, advancing hand in hand with liberty to meet him at the end of his term when his prison gates opened into the world which would not feed, or shelter, or clothe, or in any wise employ him, would be a powerful deterrent from future crime, and act as one of the most efficient agencies of virtue which the ingenuity of the law has ever invented. But our silence did not wholly avail us, for our poor misguided friend went on to say:

"Suppose he had a wife and children—he may have had several of both, for all I know—dependent on him, would it have been particularly sanative for them to be deprived of his earnings, too?"

"We cannot answer these sophistries," we were exasperated into replying. "All that we can say is that anything else—anything like what you call justice to the criminal, the prisoner—would disrupt society," and we felt that disrupt was a word which must carry conviction to the densest understanding. It really appeared to do so in this case, for our friend went away without more words, leaving behind him a manuscript, which we mentally rejected, while seeing our way to use the material in it for the present essay; it is the well-known custom of editors to employ in this way the ideas of rejected contributors.

A few days later we met our friend, and as we strolled beside him in the maniacal hubbub of the New York streets, so favorable to philosophic communion, we said, "Well, have you met your namesake since you came to his rescue against the robber State, or did he really sail on the cattle-steamer, as he said he was going to do?"

Our friend gave a vague, embarrassed laugh. "He didn't sail, exactly, at least not on that particular steamer. The fact is, I have just parted from him at my own door—the outside of it. It appears that the authorities of that particular line wished to take advantage of him by requiring him to pay down a sum of money as a guarantee of good faith, and that he refused to do so—not having the money, for one reason. I did not understand the situation exactly, but this was not essential to his purpose, which made itself evident through a good deal of irrelevant discourse. Since I had seen him, society had emulated the State in the practice of a truly sanative attitude toward him. At the place where he went to have his half-crown changed into American money they would only give him forty cents for it, but he was afterward assured by an acquaintance that the current rate was sixty cents. In fact, a half-crown is worth a little more."

"Well, what can you expect of money-changers?" we returned, consolingly. "And what is going to become of your unhappy beneficiary now?"

"Why, according to his report, fortune has smiled, or half-smiled, as the novelists say, upon him. He has found a berth on another line of cattle-steamers, where they don't require a deposit as a guarantee of good faith. In fact, the head steward has taken a liking to him, and he is going out as one of the table-stewards instead of one of the herdsmen; I'm not sure that herdsmen is what they call them."

We laughed sardonically. "And do you believe he is really going?"

Our friend sighed heavily. "Well, I don't believe he's coming back. I only gave him the loose change I had in my pocket, and I don't think it will support him so handsomely to the end of the week that he will wish to call upon me for more."

We were both silent, just as the characters are in a novel till the author can think what to make them say next. Then we asked, "And you still think he had been in the penitentiary?"

"I don't see why he should have said so if he wasn't."

"Well, then," we retorted bitterly, again like a character in fiction, "you have lost another great opportunity: not a moral opportunity this time, but an æsthetic opportunity. You could have got him to tell you all about his life in prison, and perhaps his whole career leading up to it, and you could have made something interesting of it. You might have written a picaresque novel or a picaresque short story, anyway."

Our friend allowed, with a mortified air, "It was rather a break."

"You threw away the chance of a lifetime. Namesakes who have been in jail don't turn up every day. In his intimate relation to you, he would have opened up, he would have poured out his whole heart to you. Think of the material you have lost."

We thought of it ourselves, and with mounting exasperation. When we reflected that he would probably have put it into his paper, and when we reflected that we could have given so much more color to our essay, we could not endure it. "Well, good-day," we said, coldly; "we are going down this way."

Our friend shook hands, lingeringly, absently. Then he came to himself with a mocking laugh. "Well, perhaps he wasn't, after all, what he said."

William Dean Howells