Our sales for July delivery amounted to nearly a million of dollars; less than fifty thousand was taken according to contract. The rest we had to carry and our bankers had to carry us. We shall never cease to be grateful for the generous help they gave us in that critical period.
Under these financial conditions it was only natural that all merchandise markets should be greatly depressed.
Our market was weak at eighteen cents, although not a pound could now be imported below twenty-two cents. The large stock seemed to hang as a wet blanket, but as a fact most of it was concentrated in three strong hands. We were the largest holders. I called on the other two and told them it was absurd to sell at the ruling price, and if they would assure me we would not have to take their stock—in other words, if they would hold it off the market—we would buy the floating lots and advance the price close to the importing point. I further offered to give them an equal share of the purchases if they so desired. They asked how much I thought we would have to buy? To which I replied, "Not over five hundred tons."
The agreement was made on the basis of an equal division of the purchases. Slowly but steadily we raised the price, and when the end we sought was accomplished we had bought four hundred and ninety tons. The operation and consequent advance in the market made a difference in the value of our holdings of seventy thousand dollars.
FAREWELL TO "REDSTONE"
All through the summer of 1893 we had been discussing the advisability of leaving "Redstone" and taking up a permanent residence in New York.
Our children were now at a period when good schools were imperative for their proper education, and such did not exist at Knollwood. Our social life was almost entirely with our New York friends, and though two families of the "Immortal Ten" had become residents of Knollwood they were to leave at the end of the term for which they had rented. The Banfords occupied "Sunnyside," while George Lawton, who had removed to Orange, rented his house to the Todds.
While we were fond of all the New York friends and especially so of Will Curtice and his wife, for George and Charlotte Todd we had a tender spot in our hearts that none of the others quite reached. George, in a way, reminded me of my former friend, Frank Slater; not that he resembled him in feature, but in his possession of a charm of manner that won everybody with whom he came in contact. Versatile, witty, and brilliant in his entertaining power, he was easily the most popular man in our circle. Entering the employment of New York's greatest life insurance company as an office boy, he is today one of its vice-presidents, and this proud position is the well-deserved reward of wonderful ability. His wife is one of those sweet, pretty, clever women that everybody loves.
Ned Banford had met with disaster. He was one of many who were unable to weather the panic. At the time of his failure he was indebted to me five thousand dollars. A day or two before the event he brought me a package of unset pearls which he valued at eight thousand dollars and requested me to hold them as security.
Mr. Viedler, who also was a creditor, was abroad. As soon as he learned of the failure he returned to New York and advanced a considerable sum of money to enable Ned to make a settlement with his merchandise creditors. This took considerable time, and meanwhile I required in my own business the use of all my resources. I told Ned if he could not arrange to repay me I would be forced to sell the pearls, and suggested taking them to Tiffany, where I was well known, and asking them to make an offer. To this he strongly objected, and much to my surprise, in view of all that I had done for him, exhibited a good deal of ill-feeling toward me for taking such a position. I remained firm, however, and fixed a date beyond which I would not wait. The day before the specified time Ned brought to my office Mr. Viedler's cheque to my order for five thousand dollars.
Throwing the cheque on my desk he said, with a smile, "Here's your money, old man; now I want you to do something for me. Just give me your note for five thousand dollars payable to Viedler." I said, "Why should I do that, Ned? I am not borrowing this money of Viedler. This is not to benefit me—it is to help you and save those pearls."
"Yes, I know," he replied, "but Viedler is a queer sort of chap. He has been putting up a lot of money for me. He wants this done this way and I want to humor him. It will help me and won't hurt you. Payment will never be demanded of you." I asked him if Mr. Viedler was fully informed on the matter and knew what my position was. He replied, "Yes, I have told him all about it." I then gave him the note. The sequel to this incident will come in a later chapter.
As a final result of our summer's deliberation we leased a house at Eighty-sixth Street and West End Avenue and by the first of October had become settled in our new home; the horses we took with us but the ponies were sold. The children had outgrown them. "Redstone" we closed for the winter. In the spring I offered it for rent and quickly found a good tenant in the agent of the Rhinelander estate. Our four daughters were entered at the school of the Misses Ely on Riverside Drive and made rapid and satisfactory progress in their studies.
As soon as we had become thoroughly accustomed to life in New York I think every member of the family was glad of the change. The children made many pleasant friends, enjoyed their school life, their Saturday matinees and drives in the park, and not one of them would have liked to return to Knollwood.
As for my wife and myself, our enjoyment of the life was beyond question. We had always been fond of the theatre and now we saw everything worth seeing. We had a delightful circle of friends whom we were meeting continually. Our home was handsome and spacious. Our appointments fitted it beautifully and every room in the house, from the billiard-room in the basement, up through the four stories was very attractive.
Every pleasant morning I drove the T-cart or tandem through the park to the Fifty-eighth Street Elevated station, and in the afternoon, with the brougham, after calls or shopping, my wife would meet me. When there was sufficient snow to permit it we would have out the large sleigh, and with four-in-hand or three abreast derive keen pleasure from our drive.
For clubs I had little use, though a member of several. For many years I went to the Down-Town Association for luncheon and occasionally after the theatre took my wife to the ladies' dining-room in the Colonial Club for a supper; as a rule, however, we went for these suppers to the Waldorf, where we usually met friends.
With our life in New York commenced a closer intimacy with the Caines, though not of our seeking. They lived nearer to us than any of our friends and their informal calls became very frequent. In a way we liked them. They were chatty, sociable people, though a little too much inclined to gossip. They were not well mated. Both had tempers and the wife had some money, the husband, little or none; consequently there was friction and they lacked the good taste to confine their differences to the privacy of their own apartments. This was a great drawback to our enjoyment of their society.
A SUMMER ON THE SOUND
The winter of 1893 and 1894, crowded with its social pleasures, was soon over, and with the approach of warm weather we sought a summer home.
We had passed so many summers inland, we longed for the water—ocean or sound, preferably the latter. Many places on the Connecticut and Long Island shores were looked at without finding just what we wanted, and it was not until the middle of June that we decided on the W. H. Crossman place at Great Neck, L. I.
The place had many attractions, not the least of which was its accessibility by boat. A sail of an hour twice a day was in itself a great rest for me, and combined with this was a commodious, well-furnished house; fine stable; ample grounds, handsomely laid out; good kitchen garden, planted; plenty of fruit; gardener, and Alderney cows on the place, and best of all a fine bathing beach at the foot of the lawn, with the open Sound before us.
As I sat at dinner I could see the Sound steamers go by on their way east, numerous yachts passing constantly, the Sands Point Light, and across the Sound the New York shore.
We drove to Great Neck from New York on the drag, crossing the Ferry to College Point.
On one side of us was King's Point, on the other the beautiful residence of Hazen L. Hoyt. The neighbors were friendly and cordial, all very pleasant people; the drives through the surrounding country delightful, over good roads and under great trees that afforded effectual shade from the sun. Later we experienced a few weeks of torment with the mosquitoes, when out of doors, though the house was kept free from the pests. There were days when my poor horses, though coal black, appeared gray, so thickly were they covered with those ravenous mosquitoes.
We entertained many of our friends during the season and I had some good fishing. When we returned to our home in the fall, taking everything into consideration, we voted the summer's experience a success.
At this time we decided to give our horses a well-earned rest. They were in perfect condition, but we thought it would be a good idea to winter them on a farm, and as I had an acquaintance at Boonton, N. J., who made a business of that sort of thing, I sent them to him, bringing them back to town in the spring. They were well cared for and came back to us like young colts.
During the winter of 1894 and 1895 we saw more of the Caines than ever. One evening early in the season, while on our way to the theatre together, Albert, as he sat back in the carnage, remarked, "I wish I could afford to go to the theatre once a week all winter." I said, "Albert, I will tell you how to fix that. You put in five hundred dollars and I will do the same. I will do a little operating in our market with it and we will devote the profits entirely to amusement."
He sent me his cheque a day or two later, and out of the profits of that little account we certainly derived a great deal of pleasure. Every Saturday night a carriage conveyed us to the theatre, and after the performance to the Waldorf, where we had supper. Then in the Moorish room we took coffee and liqueurs while smoking a cigar and chatting with our wives and the friends we frequently met. Those little affairs cost about thirty dollars an evening, and I so managed the account that there was always a balance on hand.
On one of these evenings an incident occurred that gave me a new light on the character of Albert. It had its humor and I relate it:
The Caines and ourselves were in the Moorish room. We had finished our coffee and I had paid the check. While chatting, we were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Curtice, Mr. and Mrs. Todd, and two other friends, making now, with us, a party of ten. Albert, with just a little undue haste, called a waiter and ordered liqueurs for the party. When the check was brought him, he paid for six and sent the waiter to me to collect for our four, the amount being eighty cents. He wanted the amusement fund to stand part of his hospitality. The others of the party noticed it and smiled significantly. They knew the man better than I did.
Another winter had gone, leaving in its wake agreeable memories of many happy reunions with the friends we had learned to love so well, and once again we faced the problem that comes to so many New Yorkers who do not own their summer home—where shall we go for the heated term?
We were considering whether we would risk another encounter with the mosquitoes and try Great Neck once more, when we heard the Crossman place had been rented, and there was no other place there, in the market, that we cared to take.
Our thoughts turned to the ocean. With my wife I searched the Jersey coast from Seabright down to Asbury Park. Farther than that we did not want to go on account of the length of the trip to and from the city.
On our first visit we cut out every place except Monmouth Beach and Seabright, and on the second took a lease of the Brent Wood Cottage at Monmouth Beach. It was delightfully situated, directly on the beach, a spacious and comfortably furnished house with a large stable.
The house was in good repair, except that it needed painting. As I had taken the lease for two seasons and the owner would do nothing, I had it painted at my expense. We also did some redecorating in some of the rooms, and when the work was finished had a very attractive place.
The grand sail down the harbor and across the lower bay to the Highlands was a source of daily delight to me. I had my own large and nicely furnished stateroom with its private deck, rented by the season, and we were very glad that we missed taking the place at Great Neck.
On the first and second stories there were wide piazzas running around the house, and for hours at a time with my marine glasses at hand to look at passing steamers, I sat and enjoyed, what has always been a fascination to me, watching the magnificent surf crashing and dashing on the beach below. The house was protected by a formidable bulkhead, but it was no uncommon occurrence to have great showers of spray come dashing over it.
To watch the moon rise out of the sea, to listen to the roaring of those ceaseless waves, the last thing before I slept at night and the first thing on awakening in the morning, had for me a charm unequalled by anything in Nature's wonders. And those September storms, particularly severe that year, awe-inspiring in their mighty grandeur.
Oh! there is nothing like the ocean.
On July first, the two years having expired, the commodity in which we dealt again went on the free list. Naturally, stocks in this country had been reduced to a very low point. With four cents per pound duty removed, no one wanted any of the old stock, which had paid the duty, on hand. Every consumer and dealer in the country was bare of supplies and a very active demand from all sources set in immediately.
When we abandoned the brokerage business to become importers and dealers, our relations with our London friends changed. We bought of them all that we imported and they sold to no other American firm. If they bought in this market, their orders came to us. With their movements we worked in sympathy. If they advanced the price in London we did the same in New York and vice-versa. We were in constant cable communication, informing each other from hour to hour of the market movements.
There were times, however, when they entered into market campaigns that extended over a long period. In these we did not fully participate. Our market was too narrow to permit of it, and it involved the locking up of too much capital.
In August, in accordance with our London advices, we began quietly to accumulate stock in expectation of a much higher market late in the fall. We remained persistent though quiet buyers until October, meanwhile doing our utmost to hold the market down that we might buy cheaply. We looked to see the operation completed by the end of the year, with a very handsome profit. Early in October our stock was sufficiently large to make it an object to advance the price, and our buying became more aggressive.
Just when the value began to rise, the London market halted. This at once checked the advance in New York and for the time being we had a waiting game on our hands, it being quite impossible for our market to advance above the London parity and remain there. We must wait for London.
After a moderate reaction London again advanced and we bought here freely everything that was offered. Again London halted. All through November conditions were the same; a few days of strength, then a reaction, meanwhile our stock had been largely increased. At the beginning of December our advices from London led us to believe that all hesitation would now disappear and the market rapidly advance. Our holdings were already enormous, but we had no reason to doubt the success of our operations, and continued our purchases.
THE SHIP FOUNDERS
December 17, 1895, will ever remain in the memory of business men, at least of this generation, as the day when President Cleveland transmitted to Congress his Venezuelan message, a piece of jingoism which was entirely uncalled for and resulted in disastrous consequences to the commercial interests of the country. It came as a flash of lightning from a clear sky. It was the direct and immediate cause of a stock and money panic in Wall Street which, while it added largely to the wealth of certain individuals, brought disaster and ruin to many.
If, my reader, you do not already know, ask any well-informed stock broker of that period who it was that sold the market short on an enormous scale during the few days prior to the message, and when he tells you the name draw your own deductions. You will not require to be a Sherlock Holmes.
We knew just before this fateful day that at last we had undertaken an operation which was to result in loss, and a heavy one, but we never dreamed it was to be our Waterloo—nor would it have been except for the acute stringency in the money market, the result of that Venezuelan message.
Our commitments for the end of December and first week of January were unusually heavy. We met them with increasing difficulty until the twenty-eighth of December and then came our failure.
I was dazed at the extent of the catastrophe. I could not realize that a business which I had built up from nothing to a volume of nearly fifteen millions a year with more than eight hundred active accounts on the books, and out of which I had made a fortune, was swept away, leaving me only a mountain of debt.
Alas, it was only too true. The liabilities were nearly one and one-half millions. Of course, there were large assets, mostly merchandise, but everything was gone, and my wife threw in "Redstone," which had cost me forty thousand dollars, with the rest.
As soon as I recovered myself, I had a meeting with my creditors, all of whom were most kindly disposed, and my statement was accepted without any examination of the books of the firm. Outside of our regular bankers we had heavy loans in which there were large equities. Arrangements were made and these loans taken up at once.
Our position had been so prominent and our holdings were so large, the news of the failure caused a heavy decline, which carried the price down to almost the lowest figure in the history of the trade; but not one ton of our stock was thrown on the market and we ourselves liquidated the business over a period of several months.
Our former clerk, the broker, George Norman, also failed, claiming our failure as the cause.
In our operations it was often necessary to cover our identity by using a broker's name, an established custom in many lines of business. We had favored George largely and our business had been very profitable to him. We did not know at the time, but learned a little later, that prices on the contracts made through him were on our books in excess of the prices he had paid the seller, whereas they should have agreed. This really made him a principal instead of a broker. Actually he had bought of sellers for his own account at one price and sold to us at a higher price, he making the difference in addition to his commissions. His representations to us were always that the price we were paying him was the lowest the seller would accept.
Norman also had been operating on his own account, and by failing escaped his losses. The general opinion of the trade was that he really made money by his failure.
On our books at the time of the failure were a number of discretionary accounts. All of these clients were our friends, and most of them had been with us for many years and had received their investments back in profits over and over again. In order to do justice to all we had to syndicate these accounts. The combined capital was large and the operations had always been very profitable.
These clients had come to us without our solicitation and it was distinctly understood from the start that their investment was at their own risk. All this money was now lost. We had no legal liability, but we did feel, as they were friends, that there was a moral responsibility and we told them one and all we would accept it.
We did something else for them; a few knew it at the time and showed their appreciation. Some of them will not know it until they read it here.
Every one of those clients could have been held as an undisclosed partner, for a very large part of our losses were made in the December operations for the syndicate. Morally, they were not responsible, for they never intended assuming any such liability, nor would we have allowed them to; but legally, technically, they were liable, and we saved them, keeping the burden where it had fallen, on our own shoulders. We had one discretionary account that was not in the syndicate. It was the account of Albert Caine. This was operated under our guarantee against loss, we taking half the profits as compensation for the guarantee. Although this account stood in Albert's name, it was his wife's money and her investment. It had been running for a long time and profits had been paid her to the extent of about forty-seven hundred dollars.
Although we had not the affection for the Caines we had for others in our circle of friends, we were extremely intimate. I have told of our amusement fund and of how residing near each other we were meeting them continually. They had visited us at "Redstone," at Great Neck, and at Monmouth Beach, and I hardly expected they would be the first to desert us. They were—and worse.
As soon as Caine heard of the failure he began a search for property to attach. He told a mutual friend that papers were being drawn to attach the horses and carriages and the house furniture. For some reasons he changed his mind, which was just as well, as all were beyond his reach.
Then he made a statement reflecting on me, giving as his authority my bankers, on whom he had called. This I took up at once. I knew it was false.
Without letting him know the object, I arranged an interview at my lawyer's office, which he attended, accompanied by his lawyer. I had asked George Todd to be there as a witness who could relate an account of the interview to our mutual friends. Caine, when he saw Todd, objected to his presence, but he remained.
My lawyer repeated the statement and asked Caine if he had made it. He replied, "Yes." He asked him if the banker had told him this, and he answered, "No."
Then Todd said, "Albert, do I understand you to say that this statement you made and said you had heard from the bankers, you admit having made, and now say that you did not hear it, and that it was a lie"? To which he replied, "Yes," and burst into tears. That ended the interview and thereafter the Caines were ostracised by our circle of friends.
A little later Mrs. Caine commenced suit. Just to tease her I fought the case, claiming that while guaranteeing against loss, I had not guaranteed profits, and that these should be deducted. After keeping her on the "anxious seat" for about two years she secured a judgment for the full amount, and she owns to-day the only judgment against me. She would have had more money now had she remained a friend.
There were two of my liabilities that distressed me far more than the others and one of these caused me the keenest anguish of mind. At the time of the settlement of the Slater estate, Mr. Pell, Mrs. Slater's father, was a creditor for fourteen thousand dollars. Frank had been using this money and had paid Mr. Pell ten per cent. per annum on it, not regarding it as a matter of interest, but merely to give the old gentleman, who was out of business and becoming feeble, a certain amount of income. Mr. Pell asked me as a favor to take this money and do the same for him as Frank had been doing. I did so, and later he added two thousand dollars to the amount, so that I owed him in all sixteen thousand dollars.
The other liability was for twenty-five thousand dollars due to Mrs. Slater. There had been a time a year or two back when temporarily my resources were pretty well tied up, and I then borrowed this amount of Mrs. Slater. When I asked her at the time if she wanted to help me out, she replied, "I am only too delighted, Walter, to do anything you ask," and she meant it. The loan was made without security and was an act of purest friendship. To make it she had to withdraw the money from her invested funds and of course I told her this would not diminish her income.
It was this liability to Mrs. Slater that caused me such torture of mind. The one thing that slightly relieved this feeling was the knowledge that neither she nor Mr. Pell wanted the money. If the income could be kept up, and this I hoped to accomplish, I could take my own time for repayment of the principal.
My mail was crowded for days with letters of sympathy. Practically all our out-of-town customers wrote us, and to their kindly expressions of regret for our disaster was added the hope that we would continue in business, and promises of hearty support in the matter of sending us their orders.
With our competitors it was different. One or two called on us and were sincere in their regret. Others, as we met them, talked the same way, but we knew they did not mean it; and one, a Sunday-school teacher whom I described in an earlier chapter as doing business on a paving-stone heart, was reported to me as having made derogatory remarks regarding us.
As soon as this report reached me, I went at once to his office, and while his face crimsoned in his confusion at being confronted, he denied that he had made the remark. I accepted his denial, though I did not believe him. I had no more use for him than for the sort of Christianity of which he is an example, and thereafter I treated him with the barest civility.
THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS
One of my friends once said to me, "Stowe, it is worth all the trouble you have had to find out what a noble woman your wife is"; and his wife added, "She is the bravest woman I ever knew."
Did not I know full well the bravery of the woman?
Had not her character and nobility of soul been revealed to me time and again in the troubles that beset us in the early years of our married life? True, this catastrophe immeasurably overshadowed anything that had come to us before, but I knew how my wife would take it and I was not disappointed.
If it were possible, she loved me more than ever. Her constant effort was to cheer me up, keep up my courage by imparting her own brave spirit to mine. Never a word of regret for all the luxuries and many comforts that must now be given up, never a suspicion of despondency. Only the brightest of smiles and most tender caresses were lavished on me by my devoted wife, and with all was her earnest desire to do what she could to lighten my burdens and to share in the struggle before us.
The same spirit animated the children. One and all they supported me by their strong affection shown in every possible way.
Immediately following my disaster the loyalty and regard of my social friends, with the one exception of the Caines, was shown on all sides. Kindly letters and personal calls were numerous and did much to relieve the terrible feeling of despondency that weighed me down.
The bright particular star in this firmament of friends was Mrs. Slater. She had made a heavy loss that she could ill afford and she accepted it without a shadow of reproach to me. Of course she expected and hoped that at some time I would be able to repay her, but this thought did not influence her in her stanch friendship. Had she known there was no possible hope of my ever repaying her, her feeling toward me would have been the same. Mrs. Caine, who knew her, while calling and in a spirit of malice endeavored to turn her against me. As a result, the call was never returned, and the acquaintance ceased.
At this time I was seeking no favors from friends except in one little matter in which I was assisted by George Todd and Will Curtice. They were not called upon for financial aid, but they guaranteed my carrying out an agreement which made them jointly liable to the extent of four thousand dollars. I fulfilled my obligation and then returned their guarantee.
The spirit shown by the tradespeople with whom I had dealings touched me deeply. I had always been prompt in the settlement of bills and immediately after my failure every account of this character was paid at once. Of course we immediately cut off all unnecessary expense.
King, the well-known up-town fish dealer, had been serving us oysters and fish regularly each day. We were through now with course dinners and these items were cut out. The next day I received a letter from him, from which I quote:
"I want your trade if it's only a pound of codfish a week, and you can pay once a month, once a year, or whenever it pleases you."
Then there was old Tom Ward, the coal dealer. I had in my cellar about thirty tons of coal and I called at his office to get him to send for it and pay me what he could afford to. As I entered the door he sprang forward with outstretched hand, saying, "Mr. Stowe, I am glad to see you, and I want to say you're the whitest little man on the West Side, and I have a few hundred dollars in the bank. If you want them you're welcome to them." My tailor, with whom I had traded for a great many years, told me I could always have anything in his shop and no bills would be rendered until asked for. And so it was with all.
Of the house on Eighty-sixth Street, I had a lease at three thousand dollars a year. My landlord, Mr. W. E. D. Stokes, told me to "remain until the end of the lease and not bother about the rent." I accepted this offer for one month. The Misses Ely, where the girls attended school, called on my wife and asked her to continue the girls for the rest of the school year without charge. The larger tradesmen, such as Tiffany, Altman; Arnold, Constable, and the like, all wanted our account kept on their books, but we were through with the pomps and vanities and had no use for them. My coachman offered me his savings and with the house servants it was the same.
Before the end of January arrangements had been completed for our new scale of living. The horses and carriages, representing an investment of ten thousand dollars, I sold for less than two thousand. There was no time to look for buyers and I made a forced sale. Of the contents of our home we sold nothing except a panoply of armor and one piece of bronze. These, Mrs. Veidler, who had always admired them, bought, and added to the appointments of her Fifth Avenue home.
At Westfield, N. J., we were offered a large house with modern conveniences, well-stocked conservatory, and attractive grounds, at a rental of fifty dollars per month. This we accepted, and on the eighth of February took possession.
Before leaving the city we were entertained at a series of dinners and theatre parties given by our friends of the "Immortal Ten," and though these occasions were somewhat saddening, partaking of the nature of a farewell honor to a fallen "Prince," we appreciated the compliment.
"W. E. STOWE & CO., INCORPORATED"
At the suggestion of my attorneys, I decided to continue the business as a corporation.
The reason for this was that I wanted to continue under the same firm name and not as an agent, and while aside from Caine there were no antagonistic creditors, it was deemed wise to provide against any possibility of such appearing later on and jeopardizing the new capital which I expected to raise without difficulty.
As a matter of fact no creditor except Caine ever assumed such an attitude.
Under the laws of West Virginia a corporation was organized as W. E. Stowe & Co., Incorporated.
The charter was made broad enough to cover every possible branch of the business and the capital stock fixed at twenty-five thousand dollars with liberty to increase to one million.
The organization was completed by electing as officers members of my family, and the ten per cent required by law to be paid in was raised in part by my wife by the sale of personal property and the remainder by myself in a loan from a gentleman who was one of the heaviest losers in the operations carried on for our friends.
My bankers, within certain reasonable limits and restrictions, promised me their assistance, and I believed I would soon again be on the highway to prosperity.
The first step was to raise the twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars to complete the capitalization.
This seemed easy; why not? There was my friend Viedler; a man worth several millions. He had been warmly sympathetic in his expressions of regret at my misfortune. He and Mrs. Viedler had always shown a cordial fondness for us, which we reciprocated. The social intimacy had been close and always delightful.
At first I thought I would ask him for the entire amount, then concluded to ask for five thousand dollars, really believing he would comply with pleasure and offer more if wanted.
I wrote him asking for the money as a loan, telling him the purpose for which it was wanted and offering to give him a lien on my library, if he so desired, as security.
By return mail came a brief reply, typewritten and signed by his secretary: "Mr. Viedler makes no more personal loans."
That was the sum and substance of the communication, and the first intimation I had that another friend had deserted us. It was such a surprise that I did not fully realize the fact until I had re-read the letter.
Some months later I was informed, to my complete astonishment, that Mr. Viedler had some feeling against me because I had not protected him on that note for five thousand dollars he held and which it will be remembered I gave to Banford in 1893 without any consideration and solely as a matter of accommodation to him. The pearls which I held as security for the money due me from Banford, had been, at Viedler's request, consigned to him for sale, under an agreement by which Banford was to pay out of the proceeds to Mr. Viedler the amount of the note with interest. At the time of the consignment I handed to Mr. Viedler's secretary an order on Banford directing him to do this.
If Mr. Viedler had considered that note my liability it is most singular he did not demand payment at its maturity early in 1894.
As soon as I learned of his feelings in the matter I wrote him on the subject and asked for an interview that we might go into every detail of the transaction. This he declined, and it became evident to me he knew there was no cause for the feeling he claimed to have, and his refusing to aid me was simply for the reason he did not want to, which, of course, was his indisputable right.
Well; Viedler had failed me, who next?
On my desk, amongst the letters of sympathy received immediately after my failure, was one from a prominent Wall Street man, whom I had known for many years and who for a time had been one of my neighbors at Knollwood. I wrote to him about the same as I had written Viedler.
The return mail brought his reply, written personally, expressing regret that he was "unable to assist me as he was a large borrower himself."
All stock brokers are large borrowers in their business, but here was an instance in which this universal custom was given as an excuse for not making a loan of five thousand dollars to a friend in trouble.
And who was this man? Here is what Thomas W. Lawson had to say of him in one of the chapters of "Frenzied Finance":
J*** M*** deserves more than a mere passing mention here, for he was at this time a distinguished Wall Street character and one of the ablest practitioners of finance in the Country. During the last fifteen years of his life, M*** was party to more confidential jobs and deals than all other contemporaneous financiers, and he handled them with great skill and high art. Big, jolly, generous, a royal eater and drinker, an associate of the rich, the friend of the poor, a many-times millionaire.
Another friend off the list—but there were many left. Now for the next one. "The third time a charm"—perhaps.
Again I turned to the letters on my desk. This time I took up one from a former mayor of New York. A man widely known, politically, socially, and as a philanthropist.
His kind letter when received had been a pleasant surprise to me. I had known him but a few years and could not claim a very close intimacy, though he had always been most cordial and our families were acquainted. As I re-read his letter it seemed to me as if it invited me to address him under just such circumstances as then existed.
Again, and for the third time, my messenger went forth seeking for the friend who would help a man when he is down.
The reply came promptly enough and brought me the information that my friend did not "desire to invest in any new business."
I had not asked him to; my request was for a loan, but his answer was all-sufficient.
Despondency followed. Where is the use? I asked myself. "To succeed is to win fame; to fail, a crime." "The world has no use for an unsuccessful man." Thus I gave up the attempt to raise a sum of money that, before I made the effort, seemed but a trifle, "light as air."
During the summer two of our Connecticut friends, who had been members of the syndicate, between them made me a loan of six thousand dollars, and this gave me a capital of eighty-five hundred dollars. With this I attempted to save what I could of the enormous business I had built up. How absurd it seemed, and yet my courage was far from gone.
THE STRUGGLE COMMENCED
By midsummer of 1896 the liquidation of the affairs of the old firm was practically completed; that is, in so far as related to the conversion of our assets into cash and payment of the proceeds to our creditors. These payments were very large, but there was still a heavy deficiency, which I hoped in time to pay in full with interest, gigantic as the burden seemed.
Every business day found me at my office working early and late as I had never worked before. With but one clerk and an office-boy, a vast amount of detail had to be undertaken by myself. Night after night my thoughts were almost constantly on plans to keep together the business I had established.
I was fighting an octopus. My competitors all were arrayed against me with a force I had never before experienced. They spared no effort to crush the man who had beaten them over and over again in battles for commercial supremacy. It was their turn now and they showed no mercy.
But how different was the warfare waged on me! In the days gone by I had struck them powerful blows, straight from the shoulder; but a foul blow?—never! No man, living or dead, can or could say I did not fight fair. Nor did I ever press an advantage unduly or profit by the necessities of a competitor.
Here was one enemy, sneaking through the trade with his lying tongue, always under cover, doing his utmost to injure me. Had that man forgotten the day in 1888 when he came to my office and told me he would be ruined unless our London friends would accept a compromise from him and asked me to cable urging them to do so? Had he forgotten how on the following day, when I showed him the reply reading, "Risk of buyers does not concern us. Cannot assist," he raised his hands, and shouting, "My God! what shall I do"? almost collapsed? Surely he must have forgotten how I told him that I would stand between him and ruin, allowed him to settle on his own terms, and carried him along for years.
Here was another enemy, a different stripe of man. He sat in his palatial office and never let an opportunity pass to thrust a knife in my back. His blows, less coarse and brutal, were even more effective, for they were backed by the weight of great wealth and respectability. An adept in the refinement of cruelty, between Sundays, when as a vestryman of a prominent church he presumably asked forgiveness of his sins, he did all that he could by false insinuations to help along the work of putting down and out forever the man who had never done him an injury, or conquered him in any way not warranted by fair and generous business competition.
There were many like this man.
I had to fight against practically unlimited wealth in the hands of a score of bitter enemies, men without conscience in the matter of crushing a competitor. Anything to beat Stowe was the war-cry; get the orders away from him, no matter what the cost, the plan of campaign. Those men knew I could not long survive if they could keep me from getting business.
To fight them back I had complete knowledge of the trade, great personal popularity with my customers, and only eighty-five hundred dollars capital. The last item was the weak point. Had I controlled even only one hundred thousand dollars I believe with all their wealth I could have beaten them to a standstill.
My customers stood nobly by me. There were hundreds of instances when telegrams came to the office advising me of my competitors' quotations and giving me the opportunity to meet the price and secure the business. I never lost an order that the buyer did not write and express his regret at our failure to secure it; but I could not do business at a loss, my competitors knew this, and that sooner or later they must surely win the fight.
From business on the Exchange I was barred until after final settlement with creditors. As a matter of fact this was more of a loss to the Exchange than to me. During 1895 our name had appeared on the contracts of fully ninety per cent. of all the business done on the floor, and in the five years immediately following our failure the entire business did not equal that of any two months in 1895.
On December 3lst, I found the volume of business for the year had been less than a million of dollars as compared with nearly fifteen millions in 1895.
Competition had cut into the percentage of profit to such an extent that what I had made was insufficient to counterbalance my expenditures.
Office and home expenses had been kept down to small figures; I had made the regular monthly payments to Mrs. Slater and to Mr. Pell and in addition made some payments of interest on the moral obligations to our Connecticut friends, but my little capital had to some extent been impaired.
The year at Westfield in its home life was far from unpleasant. Our reduced circumstances had not deprived us of the ordinary comforts. We still had our library and the handsome appointments of our former home, and though these latter were out of keeping with the house we enjoyed them.
The game of billiards after dinner, while I smoked my cigar, served to distract for the time being my thoughts from business worries, and for out-of-door exercise we took almost daily spins on our wheels, which had been substituted for the horses.
We made one delightful trip on those wheels during the summer. With my wife, a son, and a daughter, we started on Friday afternoon, and after spending the night in Morristown, went on the next day to Lake Hopatcong, returning home on Monday (Labor Day).
On Sunday, in our wandering, we visited all the familiar spots and recalled the many drag trips we had taken there with our friends as our guests and wondered if we would ever again repeat those pleasant experiences.
We dwelt particularly on one trip, brought to mind by a visit to the Bertrand Island Club. While there we looked back in the register at a sketch made by my friend and architect, Charlie Fitch. He and his wife were included with our guests on that occasion, and after asking me to allow him to register the party he filled a page with an artistic sketch of "Redstone" with the drag in the foreground.
Charlie Wood and his wife also were of that party, and at a dinner at "Redstone" on our return he sang a song composed by himself for the occasion. I quote a few lines:
"Here's a good health to the Lake in the hills, Here's to the hand that our glass ever fills, The Kodak and Banjo; But principally, mind you, To the fellow who pays the bills."
This chapter covering the first year after my failure would be incomplete without its testimony to the devotion of my wife and children under the new conditions. My wife was a glorious sunbeam whose rays of cheerfulness never dimmed. Her wonderful spirits and courage lifted me out of the Slough of Despondency, and her love and tenderness supported me through every trial.
The children, from my elder son, who had cut short his college course and joined me in the office, down to the baby of the family, then a girl of eight years, were constant in their efforts to contribute to my comfort and happiness.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUED
At the commencement of 1897 it seemed as if everything was against me. In the trade the fight for my customers was waged with renewed vigor, and one after another names which had been on our books for years were dropped from the lists of our supporters. We tried to retain them and they tried to have us do so, giving us every possible advantage, but it was useless.
We could not compete against the wealth of our competitors. In our efforts to do this we made losses, small in individual instances, but we knew if continued our little capital would soon be exhausted. Our banking facilities since the liquidation of the old affairs had been greatly restricted. The business was now too small to be of any interest to the bankers and the commissions exacted cut into the profits to such an extent there was nothing left for us.
With no capital, our London connection had entirely lost its value, and this same lack of capital prevented us from doing business with our old speculative clients.
With my mind harassed by the weight of my monthly obligations, support of family, office expenses, payments to Mrs. Slater and Mr. Pell, and the more or less constant inquiry from some of my moral (as I call them) creditors as to how soon I could commence making them monthly payments, my brain was well-nigh turned.
I was beginning to realize the true meaning of the word desperation. Is it any wonder that in this condition of mind my judgment should have failed me or that my operations should turn out badly? At all events, such was the case. Whatever I did in the market it always seemed as if a relentless fate pursued me.
I felt as if I must make money and I lost it.
Through this time of trial my wife was still the same loving, cheerful helpmate. Nothing could daunt her courage nor depress her spirits. If she had her hours of worry, she kept them from me.
We decided to move into a smaller house and sell our surplus household appointments, works of art, and my library. It was hard to part with all the beautiful things we had lived amongst so long, and when it came to the library I fear our tears were very close to the surface.
We arranged for a small house at Sound Beach, Connecticut, a new and pretty cottage directly on the Sound. Our small payments were to apply on the purchase and we hoped in this way to once more own a home.
Early in April there was a three-days' sale at the Knickerbocker auction rooms. I attended the sale and witnessed, with aching heart, the slaughter—for such it proved. With the exception of an exquisite set of Webb cut glass, manufactured on an original design and never duplicated, and a very small part of the rare china, the prices realized averaged but little more than ten per cent. of the cost. The great chest of Gorham silver brought hardly its bullion value.
A few pieces I could not see so sacrificed and bought them in. The fine hall clock, which had cost me six hundred and fifty dollars, I could not let go for seventy-five. An imported cabinet, costing two hundred dollars, at eighteen; a Tiffany vase for which I had paid seventy dollars, at eight, and so on; but I had to stop some where, and so most of the things were sold. Within a few days I sold at private sale what I had bought in, but realized only a little more than the auction prices.
Then came the paintings. These were sent to a down-town auction room. All but four, which I withdrew, I saw sold at absurdly low prices. The four and the hall clock, representing a cost value of twenty-seven hundred dollars, were taken by Charlie Wood in cancellation of a debt of five hundred and seventy-five dollars, borrowed money. He certainly was well paid.
And now the library. Two small cases had been reserved from our furniture sale, and these were to be filled with—what? There was hardly a book in the whole library we did not love and cherish as a friend. How were we to make the selection?
Dickens, Scott, Thackeray, Fielding, Prescott, Irving, Hawthorne, the British Poets, Dumas, Lever, Cooper, Strickland, Kingsley, Bulwer—these, all beautiful sets bound by Riviere, Zahnsdorff and other noted binders, must be sold on account of their money value. Over and over again we went through the catalogue and finally our task was completed.
As I carefully packed case after case of the books destined for sale, it seemed almost like burying a child when I nailed the covers down.
The sale was at Bangs. The first day I attended but had not the courage to go the second day. There were but few private buyers, and hundreds of the volumes went back to the shelves of the booksellers from whom I had purchased them. They told me afterwards they were amazed at getting them so low.
In April we took possession of the cottage at Sound Beach. The house, though very small, was comfortable and cozy, and the lawn extended to the shore of the Sound, at that point rocky and picturesque.
With freedom from care I could have been very happy in the new home; 'but with constant worry over the struggle for existence, this was impossible. Despite my best efforts, matters continued to go wrong, and before the summer was over I had reached the end of my resources.
Then commenced the bitter struggle with real poverty.
It was impossible to keep out of debt for current expenses at home and in the office. For the first time in my life I had become "slow-pay" to small tradesmen. "Buy nothing you cannot pay for" is all right in theory, but let those who preach it put themselves in my place in those dark days. There were days and weeks when the house would have been bare of food if the grocer and butcher had refused me credit. There were days at the office when letters had to be held over night for lack of money to pay postage.
My wife, unknown to me and in hope of helping me over the hard spot, wrote to Mr. Viedler, asking him for a loan of a few hundred dollars. He never replied to her letter. Then she wrote to Charlie Wood. From him came a reply, that if I had not read it, I would never have believed him capable of writing.
It was the first wickedly cruel blow dealt me by one whom I regarded as a warm personal friend, and the cruelty was vastly accentuated by dealing it through my wife.
In his letter he gave as a reason for not making the loan that I had caused him to lose fifty thousand dollars—that as a result he had been compelled to pay for his home, recently completed, and one of the handsomest in Orange, New Jersey, in part by mortgage; further, in writing, he went out of his way to express himself, with an ability for which he is noted, in most unkind and bitter terms.
Here are the facts:
At our first interview after my failure I said, "Charlie, I am sorry for your loss." To which he replied, "Walter, you do not owe me a cent." He had invested with us fifty-four thousand dollars, but he had drawn in profits thirty-two thousand, so that his actual loss was but twenty-two thousand dollars.
In 1890, only two weeks after he had declined to share with me that small investment in the Connecticut concern to benefit the estate of his deceased partner, because he "could not go into any outside investment," he came to my office and asked me to take eighteen thousand dollars, to be—and was—later increased, for operations in our market. I took it, not that I wanted it, but for the reason that he was a friend who asked me to help him and as was the case with every such investment, except Caine's, it was distinctly understood that the risk of loss was the investor's.
When I negotiated the sale of this man's interest in those properties to Mallison I secured him at least twenty-five thousand dollars more than he expected or could have gotten himself, and it was on that occasion his wife exclaimed, "Oh, Walter, what a friend you have been"! He also was one of those investors whom I relieved from being held as an undisclosed partner at the time of my failure—and this man was my friend!
To the letter he had written to my wife I replied, resenting indignantly the falsity and injustice of his charges and offering the vouchers to prove my statements. His answer was conciliatory, and admitted that "the facts were really much better" than he supposed.
In those days I thought often of the many I had assisted in the past and wondered if the "bread cast upon the waters would return to me after many days" Of course I did occasionally find a friend who helped a little, but these were few and far between.
There was one man whom I had once loaned three hundred dollars. He asked for the loan, to be returned in two weeks. I never asked for the money and it was not until more than two years had passed that he had returned it. I wrote him in 1897 asking a loan of one hundred dollars for a few weeks. In reply he wrote: "You will be surprised at my not granting you this small favor, but I have lost so much money through loans to friends that I make no more personal loans."
Throughout the year there was no improvement in my affairs. I managed to keep the debts for current expenses down to small figures, altogether not more than a few hundred dollars, but I was always a month or two behind, both in the office and at home.
We welcomed the end of the year, for we felt that any change must be for better. I could not see how it could be much worse.
THE DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN
The winter dragged slowly along while we led a hand-to-mouth existence. Even those dreary times did not drive the sunshine from my home. Love reigned supreme in the family circle and my wife and children continually petted and caressed me, made light of our troubles and stoutly affirmed that brighter days would surely come.
Fortunately all kept well, and while they must have felt the awful strain of our impoverished condition, they concealed from me such feelings, if they existed. My wife's wonderful health has, through all our troubles been maintained. She is the only woman I ever knew who never had a headache and in all our married life she has never been ill.
We were to leave Sound Beach in the spring. I could not carry out my arrangement with the owner of the property and he released me. Where should we go next to seek an abiding place? And in my mind was the thought, how long will we be able to remain there when we find it.
My thoughts reverted to those days of 1876 on the little farm. "Let us try farming again," said I, and try it we did.
At Ramsey, New Jersey, I found a modernized, comfortable house with fifteen acres of land. There was an asparagus bed, plenty of strawberries, and some other fruit. This place I rented for a year at four hundred dollars and removed there on the thirtieth of April.
I employed a man with horses and plow by the day and soon had my crops planted. About half the land was rich grass and I left this for a hay crop. As in the old days, so now I was successful in my farming experiment. Our crops considering the acreage, were enormous, and again I astonished the natives. I found a ready market with the vegetable peddlers and the profits went a long way toward paying the rent.
At the office matters were unchanged. I was doing neither better nor worse than for many months previous. The summer had passed and with the early fall I foresaw a change in market conditions that I longed to take advantage of, but I had no capital, nor could I think of any one who would assist me—yes, I did think of one friend who through all my trials had been stanch and true, but I could not bring myself to the point of calling on that friend for financial aid.
It was Mrs. Slater. Her father, Mr. Pell, had been dead for some months and had been deprived of no comfort through his loss by my failure.
When my payments ceased in 1897 Mrs. Slater had been compelled to reduce her expenses and with her boy was now living in an apartment in New York. Her income was still sufficient to enable her to live very nicely, and though her loss had made it necessary to be careful in her expenditures this had not in any way affected her friendship for the man who was the cause. On the contrary, she always stood up for me when my affairs were discussed by others in her presence, and when occasionally I called on her she always expressed a sympathetic friendly interest in my trials without adding to my unhappiness by referring to my indebtedness to her.
As the days went by developments proved that my judgment of the market was correct. An opportunity to make money was at hand and if I was to take advantage of it I must get some capital quickly. I felt certain with a little capital I could do a profitable business that would not only relieve me from the terrible distress I had been under for so long, but would enable me to commence again, at least in part, my payments to Mrs. Slater.
After careful consideration, I put the matter before her in a letter and then called to talk it over. She had a strong desire to help me and of course would be glad to see her income increased, and she very willingly let me have five thousand dollars.
Success came from the start. Of course with this small capital there was no fortune to be made, but that was not what I was looking for at that time. The bitter experience I had been through had put a limit to my ambition. The acme of my desires then was a comfortable living for my family and the ability to send to Mrs. Slater her interest cheque promptly each month. This I was now in a fair way to accomplish and my spirits and courage rose rapidly.
We had a very happy Christmas that year. The accounts with the butcher and grocer had been paid up, and our gifts, consisting of much-needed additions to the family wardrobe, gave us, I believe, more pleasure than in the old days of prosperity when the gifts represented large intrinsic value. Everything now was viewed in contrast with the days of poverty which we hoped had departed never to return.
Opening with a promise of better times, which was fulfilled to a marked degree, the year 1899 witnessed a great change in my affairs. Again I was making money, not in such amounts as during many years prior to my failure, but there was a steady and substantial gain each month.
With but two employees, a stenographer and typewriter, and an office-boy, I was kept very busy at the office. My hours were long, and with nearly four hours each day passed in the trip to and from the office, we decided it would be better to seek an inexpensive home in New York.
The thought of what our housekeeping had been for the past three years, moving each year, no maids and with scanty means, led us to believe that boarding would be an agreeable change for all, and so we stored our furniture and in the early spring secured pleasant accommodations at a very reasonable price, in an apartment hotel, the St. Lorenz, on East Seventy-second Street.
With our return to the city we renewed our former intimacy with Mr. and Mrs. Curtice, George Todd and his wife, and a few other friends, though we did not see as much of them as in the old days. They had a large circle of friends and led an active social life, while we were living very quietly, doing practically no entertaining. There were a number of pleasant little dinners, my wife and I occasionally attended the theatre, and we were very happy in our improved circumstances.
The business outlook encouraged me greatly. Mrs. Slater had increased my capital with another five thousand dollars, I was getting back many of the old customers I had lost after the failure, and it seemed as if a return to prosperity, which would be lasting, was assured.
In June we went to Nyack-on-the-Hudson for the summer and in October returned to our apartment in New York. The pleasure of our residence there was contributed to by the society of Mrs. Slater. Her boy had been sent to boarding-school and she took an apartment at the St. Lorenz.
We had an experience that winter which will never be effaced from my memory.
One evening I took my wife and Mrs. Slater to the Casino to witness a performance of the "Belle of New York," Our seats were in the center of the orchestra, third row from the stage. The house was crowded, with many people standing.
The first act was over, when there came to me suddenly a feeling of great uneasiness. I knew not how to account for it. The performance interested me, we were conversing pleasantly, there was nothing I could see or think of to explain the feeling, and yet it existed.
The curtain rose on the second act. I was no longer interested and could not keep my attention on the stage. My eyes continually wandered over the house, and after what seemed an endless time the act was over. I then thought I would mention my feeling to my wife and suggest leaving the theatre. This was unreasonable. The ladies were enjoying the performance and I disliked exceedingly to spoil their evening with what appeared to be nervousness on my part.
Again the curtain rose. I found myself irritated by the performers, every word and action dragged so slowly in the mood I was in. I looked at the people between us and the aisle and it was only by strong exertion of will that I was able to keep my seat. Again I looked around the house. Everything was perfectly quiet.
Five minutes later the folds of the curtain, one of those that open in the center and are drawn up high on each side, on the right of the stage, were a mass of flame; the curtain was lowered and instantly the other side was on fire.
The panic was on. Amidst cries of fire and shrieks of women came the rush for the exits. Instantly the aisles were choked with a frantic, struggling crowd. A man sitting in front of my wife stepped on the back of her seat and narrowly escaped kicking her in the face with his other foot in a useless rush. He did not get ten feet away.
At the instant the flame appeared Mrs. Slater said in a quiet voice, "Do you see that, Walter"?
"Yes," I replied. "What shall we do"? she said; and I answered, "Sit still." My wife, always brave, was urging the women around her to sit still and keep quiet. There was nothing else to do. Either that fire would be extinguished or we were doomed. There was no possibility of escape through the mass of people behind us and I realized that fact instantly.
Fortunately the people on the stage kept their presence of mind, the firemen had the hose at work quickly, and we escaped with a slight sprinkling from the spray.
Was there ever a clearer warning given by intuition?
The year ended bright with promise of continued prosperity. We had enjoyed the comfort of living amid pleasant surroundings and I had saved nearly three thousand dollars. I looked forward to commencing again payments of interest on my moral obligations and some liquidation of my debt to Mrs. Slater, but I wanted, if possible, to first get a larger capital, that I might make these payments without impairing my facilities for doing business.
SMOOTH SAILING INTO ROUGH WATERS
The year 1900 was very closely a repetition of 1899. In May we again went to Nyack for the summer, and in the fall, instead of returning to the St. Lorenz, rented an apartment on Park Avenue, and taking our furniture out of storage resumed house-keeping. It was somewhat less expensive and we had tired of hotel fare.
Business was fairly good on the average, though there were dull periods which made me restless. There was so much to be done I was eager to make money faster.
In July the balance of the amount due to Mrs. Slater under the contract with Mallison, which had expired, was paid over to me, and pending some permanent investment I loaned it out on call.
Through the formation of trusts the trade had entirely changed in its character. Many of our best customers had been absorbed by one gigantic combination, and the supplies of the commodity we dealt in, required by these consumers, were now furnished under a contract made with the leading firm in the trade, this firm having been one of the underwriters in the flotation of the securities and also was represented in the board of directors.
This one consolidation took out of the open market a demand equivalent to fully one-third of the entire consumption of the United States. Then there was another trust, a comparatively small affair, but this too absorbed a number of our customers. A third trust was in course of organization, and when completed would, with the others, leave for open competition less than half of the country's requirements.
Backed by a very wealthy concern we tried to get a chance to compete for the contract with the leading trust, but it was quite useless. We were told the business could not be given to us, no matter how advantageous our terms might be, and our inference was that the object of the trust was not to get the material at the lowest price, but to give the business to a favored firm without competition.
This large contract naturally excited much interest in the trade and great efforts were made to ascertain its terms. The generally accepted theory was that the firm supplied the material as wanted and the price for each month's deliveries was fixed by the average of the market for the last ten days of the month. As if bearing this out it was noted that during the last ten days of each month, the firm holding the contract did its utmost to manipulate a rise in price, which would, of course, inure greatly to its benefit.
These changes taking from us the legitimate demand from so many consumers, made our business far more speculative. Instead of buying to supply a regular trade, our purchases were made largely to be resold in wholesale lots to dealers or others, and the profit would depend on an advance in the market following the purchase. If the market favored us the business was profitable; if not, then losses must be met.
At this time we were doing considerable business on joint account with George Norman, our former clerk. In many of the purchases and sales we made he had half interest and in the same way we were interested in many of his operations. This business for many months proved profitable. Aside from these transactions we both were doing a good deal of business on individual account, we far more than was prudent considering our capital, though at that time, in my anxiety to make money, I did not realize it.
There came a time when, on a small scale, I repeated my error of 1895. The first time it was my misfortune, the second my fault.
For this fatal mistake I have no defense. I should have known better—but in explanation there is something to say, and while it is not a defense, it is in a measure some palliation.
There had been a period of inactivity with no opportunity to make money. My mind was depressed over the loss of legitimate trade through the trusts and I was harassed by appeals from some of my moral creditors for help. I felt more than ever before the weight of my awful burden.
In a recent interview with Mrs. Slater, in which her affairs had been discussed, I had stated to her my hopes of accomplishing certain things. A remark she made in reply seemed to have burned into my brain. Her words were, "To do that you must make money and lots of it." That was in clear-cut words the task before me. I "must make money and lots of it." It drove from my mind thoughts of prudence and safety. I took no account of the risk of my business. I thought only of the possible profits.
Perhaps I was mad, mentally irresponsible. It certainly seems so to me now. Possibly I had the fever of a gambler playing for high stakes. At all events, I plunged to the limit—and the market went against me. I tried to extricate myself, but too late. It was impossible. All the capital at my command was lost, and in addition there was nearly twelve thousand dollars indebtedness on our contracts in which George Norman had half interest. The horror that came over me as I realized my awful position I can compare only to Dante's "Inferno." What should I do? What could I do? I wonder I did not go insane.
Norman came to my office and tried to encourage me. The contracts standing in his name had all been settled and he had money left. When he left it had been agreed that I was to arrange for time for payment of the differences on our joint-account contracts, and as opportunity offered he was with his capital to do a joint-account business with me by which we hoped to make money enough to pay these differences and recoup my losses. Meanwhile he was to let me have from month to month what money I would require, above what I could make myself, to meet my expenses and the payments to Mrs. Slater.
This arrangement gave me a breathing spell. I managed to pull myself together and go home after the terrible day in a state of comparative calmness. I could not tell my wife of this new trouble and I could not tell Mrs. Slater. If my expenses and Mrs. Slater's payments were provided for why worry either of them? In a few months, I reasoned, things will come my way again and I will get out of this awful pit. Meanwhile, I could eat my heart out in useless regret when alone, but must conceal from all the world my trouble.
I hope no reader of these pages will ever know the fortune of mind I suffered. It was infinitely worse than any possible physical torture in the days of the Spanish Inquisition. I once listened to a sermon on "Hell," delivered by the late Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage. His word picture of a place of torment was so vivid one could almost inhale the odor of the burning sulphur and yet the place he painted was a paradise compared to the hell on earth that was my portion.
For a few months Norman was as good as his word. He made up the deficiency in my earnings and continually encouraged me with what he would do when market conditions warranted operations. Then he commenced slowly to withdraw his assistance by responding to my request for money only in part, on the plea that he was himself hard pressed. I had good reasons for knowing that such was not the case.
THE TYRANNY OF THE JURY LAW
Of course my wife knew I was having hard times, but she had no idea of my terrible situation. At the end of July, 1901, in order to reduce our expenses we moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, taking a small cottage at a very low rental.
Another reason for leaving New York was that I might escape from jury duty.
This had become a nightmare, and to a man situated as I was it seems to me the jury law is tyrannical and unjust. My business required my constant personal attention. There was no one to take my place. A day's absence meant not only loss of money that might be made that day, but possible loss of customers through inattention to their orders and inquiries. I needed every dollar I could make. The hardship to those dependent on me for support if I were taken from my business to serve on a jury would be actual—I simply could not do it.
During the previous winter I had been summoned four times, on each occasion before a different judge. The first time I called on the judge in his private room before the opening of the court, and was excused. The next month I was again summoned. This time also the judge excused me, but it required much argument to induce him to do so. The third time it was even more difficult to escape, though I succeeded again. The fourth time was a rather novel experience. I shall not forget it, and if that judge reads these pages he will remember it. I gave him a fright that startled him out of his dignified composure.
When ushered into his room I found the judge seated at his desk, there being three or four other men present. They stepped back as I approached within a few feet of the judge.
In a low voice I explained why I wished to be excused. It was humiliating to have to tell my story before others and I endeavored to speak so low they would not hear me.
This judge was of a different type. The others had been most kind in manner, even expressing sympathy for my unfortunate position; but this man was brusque and unpleasant. When I ceased speaking he turned around in his chair and in a loud voice said:
"Oh, no, I cannot excuse you for any such reason." I replied, "Your Honor, what better reason could I have than those given you"? To which he answered, "Don't come to me and ask me to give you reasons for excuse from jury duty. You must serve; we want men that cannot get away from their business." Then he turned his back on me.
For a brief moment I stood there silent. The judge commenced writing at his desk. The other men were watching me. I thought of what it meant in the critical condition of my affairs to take me from my office for two weeks and the thought made me desperate.
Springing forward, I seized the judge by the arm, and while his whole body shook with the nervous trembling of my grasp, I shouted at him: "Do you know what you are doing? Would you put a man who is almost at the point of nervous prostration or perhaps worse in a jury box? Do you think I am in any condition to do jury duty"? The other men gathered around and endeavored to calm me. The judge, who had risen from his chair, dropped into it again with a frightened look, and with a voice scarcely audible, said, "Your mental condition will excuse you," and then asked one of the men to assist me out of the office. And I needed his assistance. I was so weak I could hardly stand. I wondered afterwards the judge did not commit me for examination as to my sanity.
In the name of justice, why should a man be placed in such a position? Why compelled to humiliate himself by laying bare to any man, judge though he be, his poverty and then have to argue on that point as an excuse for not doing jury duty? If a man is prepared to prove that it would be a serious injury to himself to serve, he ought to be excused. How could a man do justice in a trial before him, when his mind is racked with worry over his own affairs? It is unfair to all—plaintiff, defendant, and juryman alike.
With the removal to Plainfield came the commencement of a period of bitter trial and almost unremitting struggle for existence.
Norman, though he occasionally assisted me with small amounts, never redeemed his promise to do the joint-account business which was to pay those debts, as much his as mine, and recoup my losses. Meanwhile, he was doing well and reported to be making money fast.
The months passed by, and though I managed to make the payments to Mrs. Slater I was running behind on my bills at the office and at home. Something must be done. I tried in every way to get Norman to pay me part of the considerable sum which stood against him on my books-he was heartless. He knew I would not sue him and if I did he could keep the matter hanging in the courts for years. Then I resolved to get some money out of him in another way.
He was accustomed to make certain deliveries through our office, the payments being made to us. In the next settlement I made with him I deducted a few hundred dollars, sufficient to pay my most pressing bills; and gave him credit for the amount.
I felt I had a perfect legal and moral right to keep this money; but a few days later thought perhaps, as a matter of policy, I had made a mistake, as he could throw more or less business my way which I might lose if he resented my action. I then wrote him expressing my regret for the necessity of the step. At first he took it very nicely, told me not to speak of it, and that it was all right; but later he did his utmost to divert business from me and then my only regret was that I had not kept the whole amount.
From an office-boy at four dollars per week I had brought him up in my business, launched him out as a broker, supported him liberally, and made him successful. All he ever had in the world he owed either directly or indirectly to me. He wronged me in the old days before the failure in 1895, again in this later failure, and now added insult to injury in his base ingratitude.
In these days of trial I was often severely pressed for ready money in small amounts for current expenses. My old friend Will Curtice had responded to my occasional requests for loans, which had been invariably returned, though not always with promptness. The time came when he declined, saying he could not do it, which meant he would not, for he was becoming a rich man. At a later period, and when my credit with butcher and grocer had reached the limit. I wrote to him for fifty dollars. I told him it was for bread and butter for my family and that whether he made the loan or not I should never again appeal to him. He returned my letter, first writing across it, "It is quite impossible." A few days later I met him in the street. He saw me coming and deliberately cut me.
Another friend gone. One of the old "Immortal Ten"—the man who had composed that song containing the lines:
"And Stowe has been so generous since, That all the crowd have dubbed him Prince."
At one of our old dinner-parties I heard Curtice say, in the course of conversation, "Friends are of no use except for what you can get out of them." He laughed when he said it and I supposed it was a thoughtless joke—perhaps he meant it seriously.
AT THE BRINK OF THE GRAVE
It is the afternoon of January 4th, 1903. I am going from my office, home to that devoted woman who has in all my bitter trials stood by me brave as a lion, always the same loving, cheerful, true wife—the mother of my children, those dear ones who have done their best to aid in her heroic efforts to sustain my courage and comfort me in my awful distress of mind.
On my way to the train I stop at a drug store. To the clerk I say, "A bottle of morphine pills." He looks at me an instant and says, "For neuralgia, perhaps"? I reply, "Yes." He hands me a book. I register a fictitious name and address, take the bottle and leave the store. How easy it is to get possession of this deadly drug which brings rest in a sleep that knows no end.
How can I go into that home and greet my loved ones with this awful thought in my mind? What am I about to do? Am I going to plunge that poor family into the lowest depths of grief and shame? God, forgive me! I do not think of that phase. And why do I not think of it?
The brain is weary to the straining point. Nothing but abject poverty, cruel, gaunt want stares me in the face. Can I see my loved ones hungry without a roof to shelter them? I am penniless. The tradesmen will give no further credit. The landlord wants his rent and I have not a friend in the world that I can think of to help me. I have humiliated myself in the dust in my efforts to borrow a little money. I have asked it as a loan or charity, if they chose to regard it as the same thing, from men of wealth who have known me intimately for many years, but all in vain.
And so I am going to destroy myself that my family may get immediate relief through the paltry few thousand dollars of life insurance, all that remains of the nearly two hundred thousand dollars I carried in my prosperous days.
I have thought of what will be the probable course of events after my death. Probably my wife, perhaps with Mrs. Slater, will buy a small farm and raise chickens or something of that sort, out of which all can get a living until the boys can help to something better—anyway, they will be better off without me.
Fallacious reasoning to ease the mind for a coward's act, say you? Perhaps—but I could not see it so at that time. All that I could grasp in my mental state was the fact that I had no money and knew not where to get any. Money must be found for my family to exist and my death would bring it—consequently I must die.
On the ferryboat I stood on the rear deck and looked back at the lights of the great city. It was, so I believed, my last farewell to the scene of my busy life. I was strangely calm.
On the train I read the evening paper as usual and after arriving at my station walked home. The fond greeting from all, never omitted, seemed that evening especially tender. There was no poverty of love, whatever the material conditions might be. Our simple dinner over, the evening was passed as usual and we retired.
The details of the awful horror which followed would inflict too much pain on me to write and give my readers no pleasure to read. For many hours the physicians labored at their almost hopeless task and finally dragged me back from the brink of the grave.
Before leaving my office I had mailed a letter to a friend in the trade requesting him to take charge of my business matters the following morning. He did so, and in the evening came to my home, having kept himself informed during the day, by telephone, of my condition. He told me he had come to help, and before anything else wanted my promise never again to repeat my action. I had already given a sacred vow to my poor wife to that effect, and so help me God, come what may, I will never break it!
This friend and another gentleman in the trade provided me with money to pay my pressing bills. They amounted to less than three hundred dollars, and in a few days I was able to return to the office. Meanwhile, Mrs. Slater had been informed of the exact situation. It was a terrible blow to her, but she did all she could to help by releasing me from a large part of the indebtedness and agreeing to accept a very low rate of interest on the remainder.
AGAIN AT THE HELM
When I again took up my work at the office, it was with courage renewed and fortified by a week of constant effort on the part of my wife to make me realize more than ever before how much easier it would be for her to bear any trials, no matter how severe, with me, rather than a life of ease, even were that possible, without me. While with loving care she nursed me back to health, she showed me the folly of what I had attempted, and though making that point clear and forceful avoided saying one word that would add to the depression which weighed me down. Despite the frightful shock she had received her love remained faithful and undiminished. It was marvelous—the love and courage of that noble woman!
With a determination to succeed in at least making a living and sufficient beside to meet the payments to Mrs. Slater, I put my whole soul in my work. I do not suppose I really worked any harder than I had for years past, but it seemed so, and in a measure my efforts were rewarded.
We had on our books a good many customers who were small buyers. The rest of the trade not competing with us so actively for this class as for the larger business, made it easier for us to hold it. Most of these firms we had been selling for more than a quarter of a century.
There had recently been much complaint from these customers of the prices we charged them, compared with published quotations of the wholesale market.
On the occasion of a call at the office, one of them asked if it would not be practicable in some way to buy to better advantage? We explained to him the terms on which the business in importation lots was done. If we were in a position to buy our supplies direct in large lots, as importers, paying cash against the documents on arrival of the steamer, and then await discharge of cargo, after which would come weighing up in small lots and making shipments, we could afford to sell at lower figures, but we had not the capital to do the business.
He then suggested that the difficulty of lack of capital could be surmounted by making our sales on terms of payment of approximate amount with order. I was so eager for business that I probably did not give to the possibility of loss to me in carrying out such a suggestion the consideration it should have had. At all events, we mailed a few letters to customers explaining the matter, and a business on this basis was commenced and quickly grew to large proportions.
This fact made it dangerous, for the larger the business the greater the risk. We had to continually have an interest in the market either on one side or the other, and if the business was large our interest must be in proportion.
For some time the business was most satisfactory. My judgment of the market was correct, our customers were well pleased, and we made good profits. I was greatly encouraged with the outlook and believed my troubles were at an end. During this period a certain large interest used our office as a medium for some market manipulation, and while this was going on that interest stood behind us in this business.
Then came the other side of the story. We made losses. The market went against us when our interest in it was considerable, and the losses, not a large amount, still, were to us staggering. Compared with the business we had been doing, there were but few contracts outstanding. We tried to complete them. The material had arrived, we arranged to have it weighed up, and it was invoiced, but we could not make the shipments.
Just as events culminated there came to me in a most unexpected manner an opportunity for a connection in another line of business which promised large and almost immediate results.
I was through with the struggle in my own trade. Without large capital it was useless to go on; and even with this, the business had been so cut into by the trusts, the opportunity for making money was far less than in the earlier years of my career. In the new line I would meet with strangers and must of necessity carry with me no complications. I believed in a comparatively short time I could make enough money to pay my creditors and with that end in mind I embraced the opportunity.
To my wife I said simply that my affairs had become involved, and then started on the journey to my new field, many hundreds of miles from New York, leaving her to adjust the old matters, with my aid, through correspondence.
All but two or three of the smaller creditors showed the utmost kindness, expressing their sympathy and the willingness to give me time to pay my debts. This was all I asked.
The new connection was all that was represented. I liked the business, my particular work was congenial, and so good were the prospects I was as nearly happy as a man of my domestic taste could be when separated from his wife.
Early in 1904 it became necessary for me to spend some time in a city near New York. My wife then gave up the house, stored her furniture, and with the family joined me.
It was here the hardest blow of all was dealt me. One of the small creditors, in an attempt to collect his debt through the office of the district attorney, caused my arrest. This came at a time when my efforts were about to show tangible results, and its publicity severed my business connection. Instead of hastening the payment of his claim, my creditor by his action delayed it. The blow was a crushing one in every way—to my financial prospects and to my mental and physical condition.
"In the eyes of the law a man is innocent until proven guilty; the world says he is guilty until proven innocent."
I was taken to the district attorney's office, treated with courtesy, and told I would be released on giving five hundred dollars bail. I believed I could do this and was given the day to accomplish it. By telephone and telegraph I tried to find the friends whom I thought would surely stand by me to that extent in this emergency, especially as there was no possible risk of loss. They had but to take the five hundred dollars out of their bank and deposit it in another place quite as secure. Sooner or later it would come back to them.
When the day was ended I was poorer by the amount of the tolls I had paid and had not found the friend. This one would like to do it, but could not; another had gone to luncheon and would call me up on the telephone as soon as he returned—he must be still at luncheon. Every one I tried had some excuse.
To my wife I wrote fully, suggesting to her a number of people to whom she might appeal in her efforts to effect my release. Then I settled down to grim despair.
For three full weeks my wife labored unceasingly to get bail. The amount had been reduced, first to three hundred, then to two hundred dollars, and finally she secured the latter sum and I returned to her almost a wreck mentally and physically.
Among the people I had told my wife to apply to was Mr. Mallison, who, it will be remembered, was the man to whom I sold the Wood and Slater interests in certain properties.
For some time before our second failure he had been doing business in our office on joint account and some of the money he had contributed was lost. In reply to my wife's letter he gave these losses as a reason for not helping, and added that I had admitted to his lawyer I had not made the purchases for which his money was to be used for margins.
I know the man and do not believe he would knowingly make a statement contrary to the facts, but I cannot conceive how he could possibly place such a construction on anything that was said by me at the interview he referred to, or at any other time. It is absolutely and unqualifiedly false. Not only did I make clear that every dollar of his money had been applied as intended, but I urged his lawyer to examine the books and trace the losses, and understood he would do so. When he did not, I supposed he was entirely satisfied and did not want to further mix in my affairs for fear that the creditors would try to hold his client responsible as an undisclosed partner.
Is it reasonable to suppose that I would appeal to Mallison for help if there had been the slightest shadow of foundation for the statement in his letter? The idea is preposterous.
My condition was now such that rest was imperative. In three weeks I had lost in weight twenty-one pounds and my nerves were almost in a state of total collapse. I hoped a few weeks in the country would renew my physical strength and mental equilibrium, but I had underestimated the force of the shock. All the summer and fall the weakness remained and it was only toward the close of the year I was able to resume my labors. This enforced rest was made possible through the kindness of two or three gentlemen in the trade and one or two other friends who contributed the funds to meet my family expenses.
When bail was given I was told trial would come early in October. Letters of inquiry to the district attorney brought only indefinite replies, simply telling me I would be notified when wanted, and there the matter ended.
Nearly forty, or, to be exact, thirty-nine years of my life have been covered by this narrative, now drawing to its conclusion. As I sit at my writing-table, memory carries me back to the first chapter, and even before—to my school-boy days, those happy days when care was unknown.
The panorama moves slowly on before my mental vision and I see myself a youth at the portal of manhood.
Into view now comes the fair girl who honored and blessed me with a love that has proved almost beyond the power of conception. As I raise my eyes from the paper they rest on her dear face. Wonderful to relate, no lines of care do I discover. Save for the premature and very becoming silver of her hair and the matronly development of figure there is but little indication of the many years that have passed since we joined hands in our voyage of life. As her glance meets mine, she flashes at me, as in the days of yore, the same sweet smile of love and tenderness.
The early years of our married life appear before me. Those years when periods of worry alternated with others of freedom from care. The years of my early struggle against heavy odds, to gain success. The years of "Love's young dream" how sweet that side of my life seemed then, and how far sweeter, deeper, stronger seems now the love of our later years through the triumphs and trials those years brought with them.
To my mind comes the successive births of our children and the joy the advent of each brought into our family circle.
And now I see myself in the delirium of that well-nigh fatal illness when but for my devoted wife's careful nursing the occasion for writing this narrative would never have arisen.
The scene changes and year after year of prosperity rolls into view. Those years when with wealth steadily increasing I reveled in the business I had created and reared to such large proportions. The thought of the contrast with present conditions for an instant stops the beating of my heart—and yet I think, "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."
Now comes that day when I considered the question of retiring from business. Oh! why did not the fates then guide me rightly? What years of misery would have been spared to those I loved—and yet that very love was the motive that swayed me.
The pictures change. Clouds gather and darken the sunshine of my life. Crashes of thunder sound in my ears and the storm of my first failure is upon me. "The ship founders." God help the passengers and crew!
The boat is launched and gathers them in—can it make the shore? Here and there a little smooth water, an occasional rift of light through the clouds—alas! only to be followed by greater darkness—and the pictures cease. But no, there is still one to come.
The boat is aground. Mountains of surf dash on the rocky coast, seeking to tear the frail craft to pieces. In the perspective behold the sea of many years, studded with the crafts of those friends of my former good ship Prosperity. How many I see that owe to me, some only a pennant, many a sail or two, and others the stanch deck on which they stand.
Do they see our signal of distress? Beyond a doubt. Do they answer it? Wait.
Speeding toward us, with the flag of true friendship flying at the peak, comes a gallant ship. In letters of gold the name Dwight Temple stands out from the bow. Many times we have asked aid from its owner and never once has it been refused, though in our great wreck his loss was heavy. Here comes to our relief the good ship George Todd, a friend that has never failed; but in many of our dark hours his ship has sailed in foreign waters, far removed from our troubled seas. Then comes sailing right for us Charlie Fitch, never but once appealed to, and then did his best and instantly to help us. And now one more, the Carleton Cushing,—a true friend, a heart of oak, but the craft too small to avail in a heavy sea—and that is all!
How about the great ocean steamer which could take on board our whole boat and never miss the cost? Has the captain seen our signals? Seen them?—yes, again and again, written in letters of blood drawn from our hearts, and ignored them. Freighted with probably fifty millions of dollars that ship goes from port to port doing good. It must be so, for these philanthropic acts have been widely advertised. But while we have sailed in the same waters for nearly forty years our boat is now too small to be noticed, though once we did receive a keg of ship biscuit for which we still owe and are not ungrateful.
And there is another large steamer—how about that one? No help for us there. We sailed in company for years, but now that steamer, the Viedler, is bound on a voyage of discovery to the North Pole and has no desire to aid a craft which has met with disaster, even though manned by old friends.
And so it is with all the rest.
See all those small boats—not one but has seen our signals of trouble. We did not expect from them material aid. They are too small to give it. But though for many years we have been friends, helping them time and time again in their days of need, they have forgotten us. From them we looked for the touch of sympathy, the firm grasp of the hand, the friendly word of encouragement, and we looked in vain. Not even to the woman came a single line to lighten her burden.
It's the way of the world. Thank God, I have been able to chronicle exceptions, even though so few.
It is midnight—my narrative is finished. As the pen drops from my hand the weary eyes close and I sleep.
The living room in our bungalow. Before the great stone fire-place sitting side by side, my wife and I. Her hand rests in mine as we gaze into the flames ascending from the fragrant logs resting on the massive wrought-iron andirons. These and the caribou head looking down on us from above the high mantel came from the hall at "Redstone." The chime rings out as in the days long gone by from the dear old clock re-purchased from Charlie Wood.
As we look around the room in the soft fire-light we see the few old friends left from that awful slaughter when our household gods were sold; and best of all, in the low shelves at one end of the room are the dearly loved volumes, all that remain of our once fine library.
We leave our chairs, and going arm-in-arm to the window stand watching the moon rise out of the sea. All is peace and contentment in this modest home wherein we plan to end our days, for at last we have found rest.
The maid comes in the room, lights the lamps, draws the draperies over the windows and again we are alone. From my writing-table I take up the letter received from my publishers by the last mail. It has been read and re-read, but again I read it aloud. It tells such good news.