A Mystery Explained

by Timothy Shay Arthur

"I hear that you are going to Niagara Falls and to the White Mountains?" asked Hoffman.

"Yes, I'm off next week," replied Hamilton.

"How long will you be absent?"

"From ten days to two weeks."

"What will it cost?"

"It shall cost something like a hundred dollars."

"A hundred dollars! Where did you raise that sum? Who's the lender?"

"I never borrow."

"Indeed! Then you've had a legacy given to you."

"No, and never expect to have one. All my relations are poor."

"Then unravel the mystery. Say where the hundred dollars came from."

"The answer is easy. I saved it from my salary."


"I saved it during the last six months, for just this purpose, and now I am to have two weeks of pleasure and profit combined."


"I have given you the facts."

"What is your salary, please?"

"Six hundred a year."

"So I thought. But you don't mean to say, that in six months you have saved one hundred dollars out of three hundred?"

"Yes, that is just what I mean to say."

"Preposterous. I get six hundred and am in debt."

"No wonder."

"Why no wonder?"

"If a man spends more than he receives he will fall in debt."

"Of course he will. But on a salary of six hundred how is it possible for a man to keep out of debt?"

"By spending less than he receives."

"That is easily said "

"And as easily done. All that is needed is prudent forethought, integrity of purpose, and self-denial. He must take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves."

"That saying is trite and obsolete."

"True, even if it is trite and never obsolete. It is as true today, as it was in poor Richard's time. Of that I can bear witness."

"I could never be a miser or a skinflint."

"Nor I. But I can refuse to waste my money in unconsidered trifles, and so keep it for more important things; for a trip to Niagara Falls and the White Mountains, for instance."

The two young men who thus talked were clerks, each receiving the salary already mentioned six hundred dollars. One of them, named Hamilton, understood the use of money; the other, named Hoffman, practiced the abuse of this important article. The consequence was, that while Hamilton had a hundred dollars saved for a trip during his summer vacation Hoffman was in debt for more than two or three times that amount!

The incredulous surprise expressed by Hoffman was sincere. He could not understand the strange fact which had been announced. For an instant it crossed his mind that Hamilton might only have advanced his seeming impossible economy as a cover to dishonest practices. But he pushed the thought away as wrong.

"Not much room for waste of money on a salary of six hundred a year," answered Hoffman.

"There is always room for waste," said Hamilton. "A leak is a leak be it ever so small. The quart flagon will as surely waste its precious contents through a fracture that loses only a drop at a time as the vessel from which a constant stream is pouring. The fact is, as things are in our day, whether flagon or vessel leakage is the rule, not the exception."

"I would like to know where the leak in my flagon is to be found," said Hoffman. "I think it would puzzle a finance committee to discover it."

"Shall I unravel the mystery for you?"

"You unravel it! What do you know of my affairs?"

"I have eyes."

"Do I waste my money?"

"Yes, if you have not saved as much as I have during the last six months; and yes, if my eyes have given a true report."

"What have your eyes reported?"

"A system of waste, in trifles, which does not add anything substantial to your happiness, and certainly lays the foundation for a vast amount of disquietude, and almost certain failure in monetary affairs, and consequent humiliations."

Hoffman shook his head gravely answering, "I can't see it."

"Would you like to see it?"

"O, certainly, if it exists."

"Well, suppose we go down into the matter of expenditures, item by item, and make some use of the common rules of arithmetic as we go along. Your salary, to start with, is six hundred dollars, and you pay the same as I do for boarding and washing, that is, four and a half dollars per week, which gives the sum of two hundred and thirty-four dollars a year. What do your clothes cost?"

"A hundred and fifty dollars will cover everything!"

"Then you have two hundred and sixteen dollars left. What becomes of that large sum?"

Hoffman dropped his eyes, and went to thinking. Yes, what had become of these two hundred and sixteen dollars? Here was the whole thing in a nutshell.

"Cigars," said Hamilton. "How many do you use in a day?"

"Not over three. But these are a part of considered expenses. I am not going to do without cigars."

"I am only getting down to the items," answered the friend. "We must find out where the money goes. Three cigars a day, and, on an average, one to a friend, which makes four."

"Very well, say four."

"At six cents apiece."

Hamilton took a slip of paper and made a few figures.

"Four cigars a day at six cents each, cost twenty-four cents. Three hundred and sixty-five days, multiplied by twenty-four cents a day gives eighty-seven dollars and sixty cents, as the cost of your cigars for a year."

"O, no! That is impossible," returned Hoffman, quickly.

"There is the calculation. Add it for yourself," replied Hamilton, offering the slip of paper.

"True as I live!" ejaculated the other, in sincere surprise. "I never dreamed of such a thing. Eighty-seven dollars. That will never do in the world. I must cut this down!"

"A simple matter of figures. I wonder you had not thought of counting the cost. Now I do not smoke at all. It is a bad habit, which injures the health, and makes us disagreeable to our friends, to say nothing of the expense. So you see how natural the result, that at the end of the year I should have eighty-seven dollars in hand, while you had puffed away an equal sum in smoke. So much for the cigar account. I think you take a game of billiards now and then."

"Certainly I do. Billiards are innocent. I am very fond of the game, and must have some recreation."

"Exactly so. The question now is, What do they cost?"

"Nothing to speak of. You can't make out a case here."

"We shall see. How often do you play?"

"Two or three times a week."

"Say twice a week."


"Very well. Let it be twice. A shilling a game must be paid for use of the table?"

"Which comes from the loser's pocket. I, generally, make it a point to win."

"But lose sometimes."

"Of course. The winning is rarely all on one side."

"One or two games a night?"


"Suppose we put down an average loss of three games in a week. Will that be too high?"

"No. Call it three games a week."

"Or, as to expense, three shillings. Then, after the play, there comes a glass of ale or, it may be oysters."


"Will two shillings a week, taking one week with another, pay for your ale and oysters?"

Hoffman did not answer until he had reflected for a few moments, Then he said

"I'm afraid neither two nor four shillings will cover this item. We must set it down at six."

"Which gives for billiards, ale and oysters the sum of one dollar and a half per week. Fifty-two weeks multiplied by a dollar twelve-and-a-half a week and we have the sum of fifty-eight dollars and fifty cents. Rather a serious item this, in the year's expense, where the income is only six hundred dollars!"

Hoffman looked at his friend in a bewildered kind of way. This was astounding.

"How often do you go to the theater and opera?" Hamilton went on with his questions.

"Sometimes once a week. Sometimes twice or thrice, according to the attraction."

"And you take a date now and then?"


"Particularly during the opera season?"

"Yes. I'm not so selfish as always to indulge in these pleasures alone."

"Very well. Now for the cost. Sometimes the opera is one dollar. So it costs two dollars when you take a date."

"Which is not very often."

"Will fifty cents a week, averaging the year, meet this expense?"

After thinking for some time, Hoffman said yes, he thought that fifty cents a week would be a fair appropriation.

"Which adds another item of twenty-six dollars a year to your expenses."

"But would you cut off everything?" objected Hoffman. "Is a man to have no recreations, no amusements?"

"That is another question," coolly answered Hamilton. "Our present business is to ascertain what has become of the two hundred and sixteen dollars which remained of your salary after boarding and clothing bills were paid. That is a handsome gold chain. What did it cost?"

"Eighteen dollars."

"Bought lately?"

"Within six months."

"So much more accounted for. Is that a diamond pin?"

Hoffman colored a little as he answered

"Not a very costly one. Merely a scarf-pin, as you see. Small, though brilliant. Always worth what I paid for it."

"Cost twenty-five or thirty dollars?"


"Shall I put that down as one of the year expenses?"

"Yes, you may do so."

"What about coach hire? Do you ride or walk to and from business?"

"I ride, of course. You wouldn't expect me to walk nearly a mile four times a day."

"But I never ride, except in bad weather. The walk gives me just the exercise I need. Every man, who is confined in a store or counting-room during business hours, should walk at least four miles a day. Taken in installments of one mile at a time, at good intervals, there is surely no hardship in this exercise. Four rides, at six-pence a ride and we have another item of twenty-five cents a day. You go down town nearly every evening?"


"And ride both ways?


"A shilling more, or thirty seven and a half cents daily for coach hire. Now for another little calculation. Three hundred days, at three shillings a day. There it is "

And Hamilton reached a slip of paper to his friend.

"Impossible!" The latter actually started to his feet. "A hundred and twelve dollars and fifty cents!"

"If you spend three shillings a day, you will spend that sum in a year. Figures are inexorable."

Hoffman sat down again in troubled surprise, saying,

"Have you got to the end?"

"Not yet," replied his companion.

"Very well. Go on."

"I often notice you with pastries, or other confections; and you are, sometimes, quite free in sharing them with your friends. Burnt almonds, sugar almonds, candied fruits, macaroons, etc. These are not to be obtained for nothing; and besides their cost, they are a positive injury to the health. You, of course, know to what extent you indulge this weakness of appetite. Shall we say that it costs an average of ten cents a day?"

"Add fruit, in and out of season, and call it fifteen cents," replied Hoffman.

"Very well. For three hundred days, this will give another large sum forty-five dollars!"

"Anything more?" said Hoffman in a subdued, helpless kind of way, like one lying prostrate from a sudden blow.

"I've seen you driving out occasionally; sometimes on Sunday. And, by the way, I think you generally take an excursion on Sunday, over to Staten Island, or to Hoboken, or up the river, or but no matter where; you go about and spend money on the Sabbath day. How much does all this cost? A dollar a week? Seventy-five cents? Fifty cents? We are after the exact figures as near as can be. What does it cost for drives and excursions, and their spice of refreshment?"

"Say thirty dollars a year."

"Thirty dollars, then, we will call it. And here let us close, in order to review the ground over which we have been traveling. All those various expenses, not one of which is for things essential to health, comfort, or happiness but rather for their destruction, amount to the annual sum of four hundred and two dollars you can go over the figures for yourself. Add to this three hundred and eighty-four dollars, the cost of boarding and clothing, and you swell the aggregate to nearly eight hundred dollars; and your salary is but six hundred!"

A long silence followed.

"I am amazed, confounded!" said Hoffman, resting his head between his hands, as he leaned on the table at which they were sitting. "And not only amazed and confounded," he went on, "but humiliated, ashamed! Was I a blind fool that I did not see it myself? Had I forgotten my multiplication table?"

"You are like hundreds nay, thousands," replied the friend, "to whom a sixpence, a shilling, or even a dollar spent daily has a very insignificant look; and who never stop to think that sixpence a day amounts to over twenty dollars in a year; a shilling a day to over forty; and a dollar a day to three hundred and sixty-five. We cannot waste our money in trifles, and yet have it to spend for substantial benefits. The cigars you smoked in the past year; the games of billiards you played; the ale and oysters, cakes, confections, and fruit consumed; the rides in coaches; the drives and Sunday excursions give only the briefest of pleasures, and left new and greater desires, unsatisfied. It will not do, my friend, to grant an indulgence to natural appetites and desires for they ever seek to be our masters! If we would be men self-poised, self-controlled, self-possessed men we must let reason govern in all our actions. We must be wise, prudent, just, and self-denying; and from this rule of conduct will spring order, tranquility of mind, success, and true enjoyment.

"I think, Hoffman, that I am quite as happy a man as you are; far happier, I am sure, at this moment; and yet I have denied myself nearly all these indulgences through which you have exhausted your means, and embarrassed yourself with debt. Moreover, I have a hundred dollars clear of everything, with which I shall take a long-desired excursion while you will be compelled, for lack of the very money which has been worse than wasted, to remain a prisoner in the city. Please, be counseled to a different course in the future."

"I would be a knave or fool to need further incentive," said Hoffman, with much bitterness. "At the rate I am going on debt, humiliation, and disgrace are before me. I may live up to my income without actually wronging others but not beyond it. As things are now going, I am two hundred dollars worse off at the end of each year, than when I began; and, worse still, weaker as to moral purpose, while the carnal and sensual natures, from constant indulgence, have grown stronger. I must break this thraldom now; for, a year hence, it may be too late! Thank, you, my friend, for your plain talk. Thank you for teaching me anew, the multiplication table. I shall, assuredly, not forget it again!"