Be Just Before
My friend Peyton was what is called a “fine, generous fellow.” He valued money only as a means of obtaining what he desired, and was always ready to spend it with an acquaintance for mutual gratification. Of course, he was a general favorite. Everyone spoke well of him, and few hesitated to give ear the benefit of their good opinion. I was first introduced to him when he was in the neighborhood of twenty-two years of age. Peyton was then a clerk in the receipt of six hundred dollars a year. He grasped my hand with an air of frankness and sincerity, that at once installed him in my good opinion. A little pleasure excursion was upon the tapis, and he insisted on my joining it. I readily consented. There were five of us, and the expense to each, if borne mutually, would have been something like one dollar. Peyton managed everything, even to paying the bills; and when I offered to pay him my proportion, he said;--
“No, no!” –pushing back my hand—“nonsense!”
“Yes; but I must insist upon meeting my share of the expense.”
“Not a word more. The bill’s settled, and you needn’t trouble your head about it,” was his reply; and he seemed half offended when I still urged upon him to take my portion of the cost.
“What a fine, generous fellow Peyton is!” said one of the party to me, as we met the next day.
"Did he also refuse to let you share in the expense of our excursion?” I asked.
“After what he said to you, I was afraid of offending him by proposing to do so.”
“He certainly is generous—but, I think to a fault, if I saw a fair specimen of his generosity yesterday.”
“We should be just, as well as generous.”
“I never heard that he was not just.”
“Nor I. But I think he was not just to himself. And I believe it will be found to appear in the end, that, if we are not just to ourselves, we will, somewhere in life, prove unjust to others. I think that his salary is not over twelve dollars a week. If he bore the whole expense of our pleasure excursion, it cost him within a fraction of half his earnings for a week. Had we all shared alike, it would not have been a serious matter to any of us.”
“Oh! as to that, it is no serious matter to him. He will never think of it."
“But, if he does so frequently, he may feel it sooner or later.” I replied.
“I’m sure I don’t know anything about that," was returned. “He is a generous fellow and I cannot but like him. Indeed every one likes him.”
Some days afterwards I fell in with Peyton again, and in order to retaliate a little, invited him to go and get some refreshments with me. He consented. When I put my hand in my pocket to pay for them, his hand went into his. But I was too quick for him. He seemed uneasy about it. He could feel pleased while giving, but it evidently worried him to be the recipient.
From that time, for some years, I was intimate with the young man. I found that he set no true value upon money. He spent it freely with everyone; and everyone spoke well of him. “What a generous, whole-souled fellow he is!” or, "what a noble heart he has!” were expressions constantly made in regard to him. While “Mean, stingy fellow!” and other such epithets, were unsparingly used in speaking of a quiet, thoughtful young man, named Merwin, who was clerk with him in the same store. Merwin appeared to set a due value upon time and money. He rarely indulged himself in any way, and it was with difficulty that he could ever be induced to join in any pleasures that involved much expense. But I always observed that when he did so, he was exact about paying his proportion.
About two years after my acquaintance with Peyton began, an incident let me deeper into the character and quality of his generosity. I called one day at the house of a poor widow woman who washed for me, to ask her to do up some clothes, extra to the usual weekly washing. I thought she looked as if she were in trouble about something, and said so to her.
“It’s very hard at best,” she replied, “for a poor woman, with four children to provide for, to get along, if she has to depend upon washing and ironing for a living, But when so many neglect to pay their regular”—
“Neglect to pay their washwoman!” I said, in a tone of surprise, interrupting her.
“Oh, yes. Many do that!”
“Dashing young men, who spend their money freely, are too apt to neglect these little matters, as they call them.”
“And do young men for whom you work really neglect to pay you?”
“Some do. There are at least fifteen dollars now owed to me, and I don’t know which way to turn to get my last months rent for my landlord, who has been after it three times this week already. Mr. Peyton owes me ten dollars and I can’t”—
“Mr. Peyton? It can’t be possible!”
“Yes, it is though. He used to be one of the most punctual young men for whom I washed. But lately he never has any money.”
“He’s a very generous-hearted young man.”
“Yes, I know he is,” she replied. “But something is wrong with him. He looks worried every time I ask him for money; and sometimes speaks as if half angry with me for troubling him. There’s Mr. Merwin—I wish all were like him. I have never yet taken home his clothes, that I didn’t find the money waiting for me, exact to the cent. He counts every piece when he lays out his washing for me, and knows exactly what it will come to; and then if he happens to be out, the change is always left with the chambermaid. It is a pleasure to do anything for him.”
“He isn’t liked generally so well as Mr. Peyton is,” said I.
“Isn’t he? It’s strange!” the poor woman returned innocently.
On the very next day, I saw Peyton riding out with an acquaintance in a buggy.
“Who paid for your ride yesterday?” I said to the latter, with whom I was quite familiar, when next we met.
“Oh, Peyton, of course. He always pays. you know. He’s a fine, generous fellow. I wish there were more like him.”
“That you might ride out for nothing a little oftener, hey?”
My friend colored slightly.
“No, not that,” said he. “But you know there is so much selfishness in the world; we hardly ever meet a man who is willing to make the slightest sacrifice for the good of others.”
“True. And I suppose it is this very selfishness that makes us so warmly admire a man like Mr. Peyton, who is willing to gratify us at his own charge. It’s a pleasant thing to ride out and see the country, but we are apt to think twice about the cost before we act once. But if some friend will stand the expense, how generous and whole-souled we think him! It is the same in everything else. We like the enjoyment, but can’t afford the expense; and he is a generous, fine-hearted fellow, who will squander his money in order to gratify us. Isn’t that it, my friend?”
He looked half convince, and a little sheepish, to use an expressive Saxonism.
On the evening succeeding this day, Peyton sat alone in his room, his head leaning upon his hand, and his brow contracted. There was a tap at his door. “Come in.” A poorly clad, middle-aged woman entered. It was his washwoman.
The lines on the young man’s brow became deeper.
“Can’t you let me have some money, Mr. Peyton! MY landlord is pressing hard for his rent, and I cannot pay him until you pay me.”
“Really, Mrs. Lee, it is quite impossible just now. I am entirely out of money. But my salary will be due in three weeks, and then I will pay you up the whole. You must make your landlord wait until that time. I am very sorry to put you to this trouble. But it will never happen again.”
The young man really did feel sorry, and expressed it in his face as well as in the tone of his voice.
“Can’t you let me have one or two dollars, Mr. Peyton? I am entirely out of money.”
“It is impossible—I haven’t a shilling left, but try to wait three weeks, and then it will all come to you in a lump, and do you a great deal more good than if you had it a dollar at a time.
Mrs. Lee retired slowly, and with a disappointed air. The young man sighed heavily as she closed the door after her. He had been too generous and now he could not be just. The buggy in which he had driven out with his friend on that day had cost him his last two dollars—a sum which would have lightened the heart of his poor wash-woman.
“The fact is, my salary is too small.” said he, rising and walking about his room uneasily. “It is not enough to support me. If the account were fully made up, tailor’s bill, bootmaker’s bill, and all, I dare say I should find myself at least three hundred dollars in debt.”
Merwin received the same salary that he did, and was just three hundred dollars ahead. He dressed as well, owed no man a dollar, and was far happier. It is true, he was not called a “fine, generous fellow,” by persons who took good care of their money, while they were very willing to enjoy the good things of life at a friends expense. But he did not mind this. The want of such a reputation did not disturb his mind very seriously.
After Mrs. Lee had been gone a half an hour, Peyton’s door was flung suddenly open. A young man, bounding in, with extended hand came bustling up to him.
“Ah, Peyton, my fine fellow! How are you? How are you?” And he shook Peyton’s hand quite vigorously.
"Hearty!—and how are you, Freeman?”
“Oh, gay as a lark. I have come to ask a favor of you.”
“I want fifty dollars,”
Peyton shrugged his shoulders.
“I must have it, my boy? I never yet knew you to desert a friend, and I don’t believe you will do so now.”
“Suppose I haven’t fifty dollars?”
“You can borrow it for me. I only want it for a few days. You shall have it beck on next Monday. Try for me—there’s a generous fellow!”
“There’s a generous fellow,” was irresistible. It came home to Peyton in the right place. He forgot poor Mrs. Lee, his unpaid tailor’s bill, and sundry other troublesome accounts.
“If I can get an advance of fifty dollars on my salary tomorrow, you can have it.”
“Thank you! Thank you! I knew I shouldn’t have to ask twice when I called upon Henry Peyton. It always does me good to grasp the hand of such a man as you are.”
On the next day, an advance of fifty dollars was asked and obtained. This sum was lent as promised. In two weeks, the individual who borrowed it was in New Orleans, from whence he had the best of reasons for not wishing to return to the North. Of course, the generous Henry Peyton lost his money.
An increase of salary to a thousand dollars only made him less careful of his money. Before, he lived as freely as if his income had been one-third above what it was; now he increased his expenses in like ratio. It was a pleasure to him to spend his money—not for himself alone, but among his friends.
It is no cause of wonder, that in being so generous to some, he was forced to be unjust to others. He was still behindhand with his poor wash-woman—owed for boarding, clothes, hats, boots, and a dozen other matters---and was, in consequences, a good deal harassed with duns. Still, he was called by some of his old cronies, “a fine, generous fellow.” A few were rather colder in their expressions. He had borrowed money from them, and did not offer to return it, and he was such a generous-minded young man, that they felt a delicacy about calling his attention to it.
“Can you raise two thousand dollars?” was asked of him by a friend, when he was twenty-seven years old. “If you can, I know a first-rate chance to get into business.”
“Indeed! What is the nature of it.”
The friend told him all he knew, and he was satisfied that a better offering might never present itself. But two thousand dollars were indispensable.
“Can you borrow it?” suggested the friend.
“I will try.”
“Try your best. You will never again have such an opportunity.”
Peyton did try, but in vain. Those who could lend it to him considered him “too good-hearted a fellow “to trust with money; and he was forced to see that tide, which if he could have taken it at the flood, would have led him on to fortune, slowly and steadily recede.
To Merwin the same offer was made. He had fifteen hundred dollars laid by, and easily procured the balance. No one was afraid to trust him with money.
“What a fool I have been!” was the mental exclamation of Peyton, when he learned that his fellow-clerk had been able, with his own earnings, on a salary no larger than his own, to save enough to embrace the golden opportunity which he was forced to pass by. “They call Merwin mean and selfish—and I am called a generous fellow. That means he has acted like wise man, and I like a fool, I suppose. I know him better than they do. He is neither mean nor selfish, but careful and prudent, as I ought to have been. His mother is poor and so is mine. Ah, me!” and the thought of his mother caused him to clasp both hands against his forehead. “I believe two dollars of his have been sent weekly to his poor mother, but I have never helped mine a single cent. There is the mean man, and here is the generous one. Fool! Fool! Wretch! He has fifteen hundred dollars ahead, after having sent his mother one hundred dollars a year for five or six years, and I am over five hundred dollars in debt. A fine, generous fellow, truly!”
The mind of Peyton was, as it should be, disturbed to its very center. His eyes were fairly opened, and he saw just where he stood, and what he was worth as a generous man.
“They have flattered my weakness,” said he bitterly, to eat and drink and ride at my expense. It was very easy to say, “how free-hearted he is,’ so that I could hear them. A cheap way of enjoying the good things of life, verily! But the end of all this has come. One year from to-day, if I live, I will owe no man a dollar. My kind old mother, whom I have so long neglected, shall hear from me at once—ten dollars a month I dedicate to her. Come what will nothing shall touch that. This agreement with myself I solemnly enter into in the sight of Heaven, and nothing shall tempt me to violate it.”
“Are you going to ride out this afternoon, Peyton?” inquired a young friend, breaking in upon him at this moment.
“Yes, if you’ll hire the buggy,” was promptly returned.
“I can’t afford that.”
“Nor I either. How much is your salary?”
“Only a thousand.”
“Just what mine is. If you can’t, I am sure I cannot.”
“Of course, you ought to be the best judge. I knew you rode out often, and liked company.”
“Yes, I have done so; but that’s past. I’ve been a ‘fine, generous fellow’ long enough to get into debt and mar my prospects for life, perhaps; but I am going to assume a new character. No doubt the very ones who have had so many rides, oyster suppers, and theater tickets at my expense, will all at once discover that I am as mean and selfish as Merwin, who has refrained from not only injurious, expensive indulgences, but even denied himself many innocent pleasures to save time and money for better purposes. I now wish I had been as truly noble and generous in the right direction as he has been.”
Peyton went to work in the matter of reform in right good earnest, but he found it hard work; old habits and inclinations were very strong. Still he had some strength of mind, and he brought this into as vigorous exercise as it was possible for him to do, mainly with success, but sometimes with gentle lapses into self-indulgence.
His mother lived in a neighboring town, and was in humble circumstances. She supported herself by keeping a shop for the sale of various little articles. The old lady sat behind her counter, one afternoon, sewing, and thinking of her only son.
“Ah, me!” she sighed, “I thought Henry would have done something for himself long before this; but he is a wild, free-hearted boy, and spends everything as he goes.”
“Here’s a letter for you at last, Mrs. Peyton,” said the well-known voice of the postman, breaking in upon her just this moment.
With trembling hands, Mrs. Peyton broke the seal; a bank-bill crumpled in her fingers as she opened the letter. A portion of its contents read:--
“DEAR MOTHER: I have some very serious thoughts of late about my way of living. You know I never liked to be considered mean; this led me to be, what seemed to everybody very generous. Everybody was pleased to eat, and drink, and ride at my expense; but no one seemed inclined to let me do the same at his expense. I have been getting a good salary for six or seven years, and for a part of that time, as much as a thousand dollars. I am ashamed to say that I have not a farthing laid by; nay, what is worse, I owe a good many little bills. But, dear mother, I think I have come fairly to my senses. I have come to a resolution not to spend a dollar foolishly; thus far I have been able to keep my promise to myself, and, by the help of Heaven, I mean to keep it to the end. My first thought, on seeing my folly, was of my shameful disregard to my mother’s condition. In this letter are ten dollars. Every month you will receive from me a like sum—more, if you need it. As soon as I can lay by a sufficient amount, I will look around for some means of entering into business, and as soon after as possible, make provision for you, that your last days may be spent in ease and comfort.”
“God bless the dear boy!” exclaimed Mrs. Peyton, dropping the letter, while the tears gushed from her eyes. The happy mother wept long for joy. With her trembling hand she wrote a reply, and urged him, by the tenderest and most sacred considerations, to keep to his good resolutions.
At the end of a year Peyton examined his affairs and found himself free from debt; but for nearly one hundred dollars of his wages he could not account.. He puzzled over it for two or three evenings, and made out over fifty dollars spent foolishly.
“No doubt the rest will have to be passed to that account,” said he at last, half angry with himself. “I’ll have to watch closer than this. At the end of the next year, I’ll not be in doubt about where one hundred dollars have gone.”
It was rarely, now, that you would hear the name of Peyton mentioned. Before, everyone said he was a “fine, generous fellow;” everybody praised him. Now, he seemed to be for gotten, or esteemed of little consideration. He felt this; but he had started to accomplish a certain end, and he had sufficient strength of mind not to be driven from his course.
In a few years he entered into business and succeeded beyond his expectations. He provided a home for his mother, and no one who saw her during the remaining ten years of her life would have called her unhappy.
I know Peyton still. He is not now, by general reputation, “a fine, generous fellow.” But he is a good and respected citizen, and was a good son while his mother lived with him. He has won the means of really benefiting others, and few are more willing than he is to do it, when it can be done in the right way. He is still “generous”-- but wisely so.
“Unto those who sit in sorrow,
God has sent this precious word
Not an earnest prayer or impulse of the
heart ascends unheard
He who rides upon the tempest,
heeds the sparrow when it falls
And with mercies crowns the humblest,
when before the throne he calls.”
M. A. Vroman