“Have you examined that bill, James?”
“I find two errors.”
“Ah, let me see.”
The lad handed his employer a long bill that had been placed on his desk for examination.
“Here is an error in the calculation of ten dollars, which they have made against themselves; and another ten dollars in the footing.”
“Also against themselves?”
The merchant smiled in a way that struck the lad as peculiar.
“Twenty dollars against themselves,” he remarked in a kind of pleasant surprise. “Trusty clerks they must have!”
“Shall I correct the figures?” asked the lad.
“No, let them correct their own mistakes. We don’t examine bills for other people’s benefit,” replied the merchant. “It will be time to rectify those errors when they find them out. All so much gain as it now stands.”
The boys delicate moral sense was shocked at so unexpected a remark. He was the son of a poor widow, who had given him to understand that to be just was the duty of man.
Mr. Carman, the merchant in whose employment he had been for only a few months, was an old friend of his father, and a person in whom he reposed the highest confidence. In fact, James had always looked upon him as a model man; and when Mr. Carman agreed to take him into his store, he felt that great good fortune was in his way.
“Let them correct their own mistake.” These words made a strong impression on the mind of James Lewis. When first spoken by Mr. Carman, and with the meaning then involved, he felt, as we have said, shocked; but as he turned them over again in his thoughts, and connected their utterance with a person who stood so high in his mother’s estimation. He began to think that perhaps the thing was fair enough in business. Mr. Carman was hardly the man to do wrong. A few days after James had examined the bill, a clerk from the house by which it had been rendered, called for settlement. The lad, who was present, waited with interest to see whether Mr. Carman would speak of the error. But he made no remark. A check for the amount of the bill rendered, was filled up, and a receipt taken.
“Is that right?” James asked himself this question. His moral sense said no. But the fact that Mr. Carman had so acted, bewildered his mind.
“It may be the way in business”—so he thought to himself—“but it don’t look honest. I wouldn’t have believed it of him.”
Mr. Carman had a kind of way with him that won the boy’s heart, and naturally tended to make him judge of whatever he might do in a most favorable manner.
“I wish he had corrected that error,” he said to himself a great many times when thinking in a pleased way of Mr. Carman, and his own good fortune in having been received into his employment. “It don’t look right, but it may be in the way of business.”
One day he went to the bank and drew the money for a check. In counting it over he found the teller had paid him fifty dollars too much, so he went back to the counter and told him his mistake. The teller thanked him, and he returned to the store with the consciousness in his mind of having done right.
“The teller overpaid me fifty dollars,” he said to Mr. Carman, as he handed him the money.
“Indeed replied the latter, a light breaking over his countenance, and he hastily counted the bank bills.
The light faded as the last bill left his fingers.
“There’s no mistake, James.” A tone of disappointment was in his voice.
“Oh, I gave him back the fifty dollars. Wasn’t that right?”
“You simpleton!” exclaimed Mr. Carman. “Don’t you know that bank mistakes are never corrected? If the teller had paid you fifty dollars short he would not have made it right.”
The warm blood mantled the cheek of James under this reproof. It is often the case that more shame is felt for a blunder than a crime. In this instance the lad felt a sort of mortification at having done what Mr. Carman was pleased to call a silly thing, and he made up his mind that if they should ever over pay him a thousand dollars at the bank, he should bring the amount to his employer, and let him do as he pleased with the money.
“Let people look after their own mistakes,” said Mr. Carman.
James Lewis pondered these things in his heart. The impression they made was too strong to ever be forgotten. “It may be right,” he said, but he did not feel altogether satisfied.
A month or two after the occurrence of that bad mistake, as James counted over his weekly wages, just received from Mr. Carman, he discovered he was paid half a dollar too much.
The first impulse of his mind was to return the half-dollar to his employer, and it was on his lips to say, “You have given me half dollar too much, sir,” when the unforgotten words, “Let people look after their own mistakes,” flashing upon his thoughts, made him hesitate. To hold a parley with evil is to be overcome.
“I must think about this said James, as he put the money in his pocket. “If it is true in one case, I is true in another. Mr. Carman don’t correct mistakes that people make in his favor, and he can’t complain when the rule works against him.”
But the boy was very far from being in a comfortable state. He felt that to keep a half dollar would be a dishonest act. Still he could not make up his mind to return it, at least not then.
James did not return the half-dollar, but spent it to his own gratification. After he had done this it came suddenly into his head that Mr. Carman had only been trying him, and he was filled with anxiety and alarm.
Not long after Mr. Carman repeated the same mistake. James kept the half-dollar with less hesitation.
“Let him correct his own mistakes,” said he resolutely; “that’s the doctrine he acts on with other people, and he can’t complain if he gets paid in the same coin he puts into circulation. I just wanted half a dollar.”
From that time the fine moral sense of James Lewis was blunted. He had taken an evil counselor into his heart, stimulated a spirit of covetousness---latent in almost every mind—which cause him to desire the possession of things beyond his ability to obtain.
James had good business qualifications, and so pleased Mr. Carman by his intelligence, industry, and tact with customers, that he advanced him rapidly, and gave him, before he was eighteen years of age, the most reliable position in the store. But James had learned something more from his employer than how to do business well. He had learned to be dishonest. He had never forgotten the first lesson he had received in this bad science; he had acted upon it, not only on two instances, but in a hundred, and almost always to the injury of Mr. Carman. He had long since given up waiting for mistakes to be made in his favor, but originated them in the varied and complicated transactions of a large business in which he was trusted implicitly.
James grew sharp, cunning, and skilful; always on the alert; always bright, and ready to meet any approaches towards a discovery of his wrong-doing by his employer, who held him in the highest regard.
Thus it went on until James was in his twentieth year, when the merchant had his suspicions aroused by a letter that spoke of the young man as not keeping the most respectable company, and as spending money too freely for a clerk on a moderate salary.
Before this James had removed his mother into a pleasant house, for which he had paid a rent of four hundred dollars; his salary was eight hundred, but he deceived his mother by telling her it was fifteen hundred. Every comfort that she needed was fully supplied, and she was beginning to feel that, after along and painful struggle with the world, her happier days had come.
James was at his desk when the letter was received by Mr. Carman. He looked at his employer and saw him change countenance suddenly. He read it over twice, and James saw that the contents produced disturbance. Mr. Carman glanced towards the desk, and their eyes met; it was only for a moment, but the look that James received made his heart stop beating.
There was something about the movements of Mr. Carman for the rest of the day that troubled the young man. It was plain to him that suspicion had been around by that letter. Oh, how bitterly now did he repent, in dread of discovery and punishment, the evil of which he had been guilty! Exposure would disgrace and ruin him, and bow the head of his widowed mother even to the grave.
“You are not well this evening,” said Mrs. Lewis, as she looked at her son’s changed face across the table, and noticed he did not eat.
“My head aches.”
“Perhaps a rest will make you feel better.”
“I’ll lie down on the sofa in the parlor for a short time.”
Mrs. Lewis followed him into the parlor in a little while, and, sitting down on the sofa on which he was lying, placed her hand upon his head. Ah, it would take more than the loving pressure of a mother’s hand to ease the pain in which he was suffering. The touch of that pure hand increased the pain to agony.
“Do you feel better,” asked Mrs. Lewis. She had remained some time with her hand on his forehead.
“Not much,” he replied, and rising as he spoke, he added, “I think a walk in the open air will do me good.”
“Don’t go out, James,” said Mrs. Lewis, a troubled feeling coming into her heart.
“I’ll walk only a few squares.” And James went from the parlor and passed into the street.
“There is more than headache the matter with him,” thought Mrs. Lewis.
For half an hour James walked without any purpose in his mind beyond the escape from the presence of his mother.
At last his walk brought him near Mr. Carman’s store, and at passing he was surprised at seeing a light within.
“What can this mean?” he asked himself, a new fear creeping, with its shuddering impulse, into his heart.
He listened by the door and windows but he could hear no sound within.
“There’s something wrong, “he said, what can it be? If this is discovered what will be the end of it? Ruin! Ruin! My poor mother!”
The wretched young man hastened on, walked the streets for two hours, when he returned home. His mother met him when he entered, and with unconcealed anxiety asked if he were better. He said yes but in a manner that only increased the trouble she felt, and passed up hastily to his own room.
In the morning the strangely altered face of James, as he met his mother at the breakfast table, struck alarm into her heart. He was silent, and evaded all her questions. While they sat at the table the door-bell rang loudly. The sound startled James, and he turned his head to listen, in a nervous way.
“Who is it asked Mrs. Lewis.
“A gentleman who wishes to see Mr. James,” replied the girl.
James rose instantly and went into the hall, shutting the dining-room door as he did so. Mrs. Lewis sat waiting her son’s return. She heard him coming back in a few moments; but he did not enter the dining-room. Then he returned along the hall to the street door and she heard it shut. All was silent, starting up, she ran into the passage, but James was not there. He had gone away with the person who called.
Ah, that was a sad going away. Mr. Carman had spent half the night in examining the accounts of James, and discovered frauds of over six thousand dollars. Blindly indignant, he sent an officer to arrest him early in the morning; and it was with this officer that he went away from his mother, never to return.
“The young villain shall lie in the bed he has made for himself!” exclaimed Mr. Carman, in his bitter indignation. And he made the exposure completely. At the trial he showed an eager desire to have him convicted, and presented such an array of evidence that the jury could not give any other verdict than guilty.
The poor mother was in court, and audibly in the silence that followed came her convulsed sobs upon the air. The presiding judge addressed the culprit, and asked if he had anything to say why the sentence should not be pronounced against him. All eyes were turned upon the pale, agitated young man, who rose with an effort, and leaned against the railing by which he stood, as if needing the support.
“Will it please your honors.” He said, “to direct my persecutor to come a little nearer, so that I can look at him and your honors at the same time?”
Mr. Carman was directed to come forward to where the boy stood. James looked at him steadily for a few moments, and turned to the judges.
“What I have to say to your honors is this [he spoke calmly and distinctly], and it may in a degree extenuate, though it cannot excuse, my crime. I went into that man’s store an innocent boy, and if he had been an honest man I would not have stood before you today as a criminal!
Mr. Carman appealed to the court for protection against an allegation of such an outrageous character; but he was peremptorily ordered to be silent. James went on in a firm voice.
“Only a few weeks after I went into his employment I examined a bill by his direction, and discovered an error of twenty dollars.”
The face of Mr. Carman crimsoned.
“You remember it, I see,” remarked James, “and I have cause to remember it as long as I live. The error was in favor of Mr. Carman. I asked if I should correct the figures and he answered “No; let them correct their own mistakes. We don’t examine bills for other people’s benefit.’ It was my first lesson in dishonesty. I saw the bill settled, and Mr. Carman take twenty dollars that was not his own. I felt shocked at first; it seemed such a wrong thing. But soon after he called me a simpleton for handing back a fifty-dollar bill to the teller of the bank, which he had overpaid me on a check, and then—“
“May I ask the protection of the court” said Mr. Carman.
“Is it true what the lad says?” asked the presiding judge.
Mr. Carman hesitated and looked confused. All eyes were on his face; and judge and jury, and lawyers and spectators, felt certain that he was guilty of leading the unhappy young man astray.
“Not long afterward,” resumed Lewis, “in receiving my wages I found that Mr. Carman had paid me fifty cents too much. I was about to give it back to him, when I remembered his remark about letting people correct their own mistakes, and said to myself, ‘let him correct his own error,’ and dishonestly kept the money. Again the same thing happened, and again I kept the money that did not of right belong to me. This was the beginning of evil, and here I am. If he had shown any mercy, I might have kept silent and made no defense.”
The young man covered his face with his hands, and sat down overpowered with his feelings. His mother who was near him sobbed aloud, and bending over, laid her hands on his head, saying;--
“My poor boy! My poor boy!”
There were few eyes in the court-room undimmed. In the silence that followed Mr. Carman spoke out:--
“Is my character to be thus blasted on the word of a criminal, your honors? Is this right?”
“Your solemn oath that this charge is untrue,” said the judge, “will place you in the right.” It was the unhappy boy’s only opportunity, and the court felt bound in humanity to hear him.
James Lewis stood up again instantly, and turned his white face and dark, piercing eyes upon Mr. Carman.
“Let him take his oath if he dare!” he exclaimed.
Mr. Carman consulted with his counsel, and withdrew.
After a brief conference with his associates, the presiding judge said, addressing the criminal:--
“In consideration of your youth, and the temptation to which in tender years you were unhappily subject, the court gives you the slightest sentence, one years imprisonment. But let me solemnly warn you against any further steps in the way you have taken. Crime can have no valid excuse. It is evil in the sight of God and man, and leads only to suffering. When you come forth again from your brief incarceration, may it be with the resolution rather to die than to commit crime!
And the curtain fell on that sad scene in the boy’s life. When it was lifted again, he came forth from prison a year afterwards, his mother was dead. From the day her pale face faded from his vision as he passed from the court-room, he never looked upon her again.
Ten years afterward a man was reading a newspaper in a far western town. He had a calm, serious face and looked like one who had known suffering and trial.
“Brought to justice at last!” he said to himself, as the blood came to his face; “convicted on the charge of open insolvency, and sent to State prison. So much for the man who gave me in tender years the first lessons in ill-doing. But, thank God! the other lessons have been remembered. When you come forth again said the judge, ‘may it be with the resolution to die rather than commit a crime!’ and I have kept this injunction in my heart when there seemed no way of escape except through crime: and God helping me, I will keep it to the end.”
The world is dark, but you are called to brighten
Some little corner, some secluded glen
Somewhere a burden rests that you may lighten
And thus reflect the Master’s love for men
Is there a brother drifting on life’s ocean
Who might be saved if you but speak a word
Speak it today. The testing of devotion
Is our response when duty’s call is heard.