A Dollar on the Conscience!
by Timothy Shay Arthur
"Fifty-five cents a yard, I believe you said?" The customer was opening her purse.
Now fifty cents a yard was the price of the goods, and so Mr. Masterson had informed the lady. She misunderstood him, however.
In the community, Mr. Masterson had the reputation of being a conscientious, noble-minded man. He knew that he was thus highly estimated, and self-delight appropriated the good opinion as clearly his due.
It came instantly to the lip of Mr. Masterson to say, "Yes, fifty-five." The love of gain was strong in his mind, and ever ready to accede to new plans for adding dollar to dollar. But, before the words were uttered, a disturbing perception of something wrong restrained him.
"I wish twenty yards," said the customer taking it for granted that fifty-five cents was the price of the goods.
Mr. Masterson was still silent; though he commenced promptly to measure off the goods.
"Not too costly at that price," remarked the lady.
"I think not," said the storekeeper. "I bought the case of goods from which this piece was taken very low."
"Twenty yards at fifty-five cents! Just eleven dollars." The customer opened her purse as she thus spoke, and counted out the sum in glittering gold dollars. "That is right, I believe," and she pushed the money towards Mr. Masterson, who, with a kind of automatic movement of his hand, drew forward the coin and swept it into his cash box.
"Send the bundle to No. 300 Argyle Street," said the lady, with a bland smile, as she turned from the counter, and the half-bewildered store-keeper.
"Stay, madam! there is a slight mistake!" The words were in Mr. Masterson's thoughts, and on the point of gaining utterance, but he had not the courage to speak. He had gained a dollar in the transaction beyond his due, and already it was lying heavily on his conscience. Willingly would he have thrown it off; but when about to do so, the quick suggestion came, that, in acknowledging to the lady the fact of her having paid five cents a yard too much, he might falter in his explanation, and thus betray his attempt to do her wrong. And so he kept silence, and let her depart beyond recall.
Anything gained at the price of virtuous self-respect — is acquired at too large a cost. A single dollar on the conscience may press so heavily as to bear down a man's spirits, and rob him of all the delights of life. It was so in the present case. Vain was it that Mr. Masterson sought self-justification. Argue the matter as he would, he found it impossible to escape the smarting conviction that he had just stolen a dollar from one of his customers. Many times through the day he found himself in a musing, abstracted state, and on rousing himself therefrom, became conscious, in his external thought, that it was the dollar by which he was troubled.
"I'm very foolish," said he, mentally, as he walked homeward, after closing his store for the evening. "Very foolish to worry myself about a trifle like this. The goods were cheap enough at fifty-five cents, and she is quite as well contented with her bargain as if she had paid only fifty cents."
But it would not do. The dollar was on his conscience, and he sought in vain to remove it by efforts of this kind.
Mr. Masterson had a wife and three pleasant children. They were the sunlight of his home. When the business of the day was over, he usually returned to his own fireside with buoyant feeling. It was not so on this occasion. There was a pressure on his bosom — a sense of discomfort — a lack of self-satisfaction. The kiss of his wife, and the clinging arms of his children, as they were entwined around his neck, did not bring the old delight.
"What is the matter with you this evening, dear? Are you not well?" inquired Mrs. Masterson, breaking in upon the thoughtful mood of her husband, as he sat in unwonted silence.
"I am perfectly well," he replied, rousing himself, and forcing a smile.
"You look sober."
"Do I?" Another forced smile.
"Something troubles you, I'm afraid."
"O no; it's all in your imagination."
"Are you sick, papa?" now asked a bright little fellow, clambering upon his knee.
"Why no, my love, I'm not sick. Why do you think so?"
"Because you don't play horses with me."
"Oh dear! Is that the ground of your suspicion?" replied the father, laughing. "Come! we'll soon scatter them to the winds."
And Mr. Masterson commenced a game of romps with the children. But he tired long before they grew weary, nor did he, from the beginning, enter into this sport with his usual zest.
"Does your head ache, papa?" inquired the child who had previously suggested sickness, as he saw his father leave the floor, and seat himself, with some gravity of manner, on a chair.
"Not this evening, dear," answered Mr. Masterson.
"Why don't you play longer, then?"
"Oh papa!" exclaimed another child, speaking from a sudden thought, "you don't know what a time we had at school today!"
"Ah! what was the cause?"
"Oh! you'll hardly believe it. But Eddy Jones stole a dollar from Maggy Enfield!"
"Stole a dollar!" ejaculated Mr. Masterson. His voice was husky, and he felt a cold chill passing along every nerve.
"Yes, papa! he stole a dollar! Oh, isn't that dreadful?"
"Perhaps he was wrongly accused," suggested Mrs. Masterson.
"Emma Wilson saw him do it, and they found the dollar in his pocket. Oh! he looked so pale, and it made me almost sick to hear him cry as if his heart would break."
"What did they do with him?" asked Mrs. Masterson.
"They sent for his mother, and she took him home. Isn't that dreadful?"
"It must have been dreadful for his poor mother," Mr. Masterson ventured to remark.
"But more dreadful for him," said Mrs. Masterson. "Will he ever forget his crime and disgrace? Will the pressure of that dollar on his conscience ever be removed? He may never do so wicked an act again; but the memory of this wrong deed cannot be wholly effaced from his mind."
How rebukingly fell all these words on the ears of Mr. Masterson. Ah! what would he not then have given to have the weight of that dollar removed? Its pressure was so great, as almost to suffocate him. It was all in vain that he tried to be cheerful, or to take an interest in what was passing immediately around him. The innocent prattle of his children had lost its usual charm, and there seemed an accusing expression in the eye of his wife, as, in the concern his changed aspect had occasioned, she looked soberly upon him. Unable to bear all this, Mr. Masterson went out, something unusual for him, and walked the streets for an hour. On his return, the children were in bed, and he had regained sufficient self-control to meet his wife with a less disturbed appearance.
On the next morning, Mr. Masterson felt somewhat better. Sleep had left his mind more tranquil. Still there was a pressure on his feelings, which thought could trace to that unlucky dollar. About an hour after going to his store, Mr. Masterson saw his customer of the day previous enter, and move along towards the place where he stood behind his counter. His heart gave a sudden bound, and the color rose to his face. An accusing conscience was quick to conclude as to the object of her visit. But he soon saw that no suspicion of wrong dealing was in the lady's mind. With a pleasant half recognition, she asked to look at certain articles, from which she made purchases, and in paying for them, placed a ten dollar bill in the hand of the storekeeper.
"That weight shall be off my conscience," said Mr. Masterson to himself, as he began counting out the change due his customer; and, purposely, he gave her one dollar more than was justly hers in that transaction. The lady glanced her eyes over the money, and seemed slightly bewildered. Then, much to the storekeeper's relief, opened her purse and dropped it therein.
"All is right again!" was the mental ejaculation of Mr. Masterson, as he saw the purse disappear in the lady's pocket, while his bosom expanded with a sense of relief.
The customer turned from the counter, and had nearly gained the door, when she paused, drew out her purse, and emptying the contents of one end into her hand, carefully noted the amount. Then walking back, she said, with a thoughtful air —
"I think you've made a mistake in the change, Mr. Masterson."
"I presume not, ma'am. I gave you four dollars and thirty-five cents," was the quick reply.
"Four dollars and thirty-five cents," said the lady, musingly.
"Yes, four dollars and thirty-five cents."
"That's right; yes, that's right," Mr. Masterson spoke, somewhat nervously.
"The article came to six dollars and sixty-five cents, I believe?"
"Yes, yes; that was it!"
"Then three dollars and thirty-five cents will be my right change," said the lady, placing a small gold coin on the counter. "You gave me too much."
The customer turned away and retired from the store, leaving that dollar still on the conscience of Mr. Masterson.
"I'll throw it into the street!" said he to himself, impatiently. "Or give it to the first beggar that comes along."
But conscience whispered that the dollar wasn't his, either to give away or to throw away. Such waste, or impulsive benevolence, would be at the expense of another — and this could not mend the matter.
"This is all squeamishness," said Mr. Masterson trying to argue against his convictions. But it was of no avail. His convictions remained as clear and rebuking as ever.
The next day was Sunday, and Mr. Masterson went to church, as usual, with his family. Scarcely had he taken a seat in his pew, when, on raising his eyes, they rested on the countenance of the lady from whom he had abstracted the dollar! How quickly his cheek flushed! How troubled became, instantly, the beatings of his heart!
Unhappy Mr. Masterson! He could not make the usual responses that day, in the services; and when the congregation joined in the swelling hymn of praise, his voice was heard not in the general thanksgiving. Scarcely a word of the eloquent sermon reached his ears, except something about "dishonest dealing;" he was too deeply engaged in discussing the question, whether or not he should get rid of the troublesome dollar by dropping it into the contribution box, at the close of the morning service, to listen to the words of the preacher. This question was not settled when the box came around, but, as a kind of desperate alternative, he cast the money into the box.
For a short time, Mr. Masterson felt considerable relief of mind. But this disposition of the money proved only a temporary palliative. There was a pressure on his feelings; still a weight on his conscience that gradually became heavier. Poor man! What was he to do? How was he to get this dollar removed from his conscience? He could not send it back to the lady and tell her the whole truth. Such an exposure of himself would not only be humiliating, but hurtful to his character. It would be seeking to do right, in the infliction of a wrong to himself.
At last, Mr. Masterson, who had ascertained the lady's name and residence, inclosed her a dollar, anonymously, stating that it was her due; that the writer had obtained it from her, unjustly, in a transaction which he did not care to name, and could not rest until he had made restitution.
Ah! the humiliation of spirit suffered by Mr. Masterson in thus seeking to get ease for his conscience! It was one of his bitterest life experiences. The longer the dollar remained in his possession, the heavier became its pressure, until he could endure it no longer. He felt not only disgraced in his own eyes, but humbled in the presence of his wife and children. Not for worlds would he have allowed them to look into his heart.
If a simple act of restitution could have covered all the past, happy would it have been for Mr. Masterson. But this was not possible. The deed was entered in the book of his life — and nothing could efface the record. Though obscured by the accumulating dust of time, now and then a hand sweeps unexpectedly over the page — and the writing is revealed. Though that dollar has been removed from his conscience, and he is now guiltless of wrong — yet there are times when the old pressure is felt with painful distinctness.
Earnest seeker after this world's goods — take warning by Mr. Masterson, and beware how, in a moment of weak yielding, you get a dollar on your conscience. One of two evils must follow. It will give you pain and trouble — or make callous the spot where it rests. And the latter of these evils is that which is most to be deplored.