Coals of Fire

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856

"I am sorry, Mr. Granger, that you should have felt it necessary to proceed to extremities against me," said a care-worn, anxious-looking man, as he entered the store of a thrifty dealer in tape, needles, and sundry small wares, drawing aside, as he spoke, the personage he addressed. "There was no need of this."

"There's where you and I differ, Mr. Layton," replied Granger, rudely. "The account has been standing nearly a year, and I have asked you for it until I am sick and tired."

"I know you have waited a long time for your money," returned the debtor, humbly, "but not, I assure you, because I felt indifferent about paying the bill. I am most anxious to settle it, and would do so this hour, if I had the ability."

"I can't give out of my money in this way, Mr. Layton. If everybody kept me out of my just dues as long as you have, where do you think I would be? Not in this store, doing as good a business as anyone in the street, (Granger drew himself up with an air of consequence,) but coming out at the little end, as some of my neighbors are. I pay every man his just dues, and it is but right that every man should pay me."

"Where there is a willingness, without present ability, some allowances should be made."

"Humph! I consider a willingness to pay me what is due to me, a very poor substitute for the money."

There was an insulting rudeness in the way Granger uttered this last sentence, that made the honest blood boil in the veins of his unfortunate debtor. He was tempted to utter a keen rebuke in reply, but restrained himself, and simply made answer:

"Good intentions, I know, are not money. Still, they should be considered as some extenuation in a debtor, and at least exempt him from unnecessarily harsh treatment. No man can tell how it may be with him in the course of a few years, and that, if nothing else, should make everyone as lenient towards the unfortunate as possible."

"If you mean to insinuate by that," replied Granger, in a quick voice, "that I am likely to be in your situation in a few years, I must beg permission to say that I consider your remarks as little better than an insult. It's enough, let me tell you, for you to owe me and not pay me, without coming into my store to insult me. If you have nothing better to say, I see no use in our talking any longer." And Granger made a motion to turn from his debtor. But the case of Layton was too urgent to let him act as his indignant feelings prompted.

"I meant no offence, I assure you, Mr. Granger," he said, earnestly, "I only urged one among many reasons that I could urge, why you should spare a man in my situation."

"While I have as many to urge, why I shall not spare you," was angrily retorted. "Your account is sued out, and must take its course, unless you can pay it, or give the required security under the law."

"Won't you take my notes at three, six, nine, and twelve months, for the whole amount I owe you? I am very confident that I can pay you in that time; if not, you may take any steps you please, and I will not say a single word."

"Yes, if you will give me a good endorser."

Layton sighed, and stood silent for some time.

"Will that suit you?" said Granger.

"I am afraid not. I have never asked for an endorser in my life, and do not know anyone who would be willing to go on my paper."

"Well, just as you like. I shall not give up the certainty of a present legal process, for bits of paper with your name on them, you may depend upon it."

The poor debtor sighed again, and more heavily than before.

"If you go on with your suit against me, Mr. Granger, you will entirely break me up," said he, anxiously.

"That's your problem, not mine. I want nothing but justice--what the law gives to every man. You have property enough to pay my claim; the law will adjudge it to me, and I will take it. Have you any right to complain?"

"Others will have, if I have not. If you seize upon my goods, and force a sale of them for one-fourth of what they are worth, you injure the interests of my other creditors. They have rights, as well as yourself."

"Let them look after them, then, as I am looking after mine. It is as much as I can do to see to my own interests. But it's no use for you to talk. If you can pay the money or give security, well--if I not, things will have to take their course."

"On this you are resolved?"

"I am!"

"Even with the certainty of entirely breaking me up?"

"That, I have before told you, is your own problem, not mine."

"All I have to say, then, is," remarked Layton, as he turned away, "that I sincerely hope you may never be placed in my situation; or, if so unfortunate, that you may have a more humane man to deal with than I have."

"Thank you!" was cuttingly replied, "but you needn't waste sympathy on me in advance. I never expect to be in your position. I would sell the shirt off of my back, before I would allow a man to ask me for a dollar justly his due, without promptly paying him."

Finding that all his appeals were in vain, Layton retired from the store of his unfeeling creditor. It was too late, now, to make a confession of judgment to some other creditor, who would save, by an amicable sale, the property from sacrifice, and thus secure it for the benefit of all. Granger had already obtained a judgment and taken out an execution, under which a levy had been made by the sheriff, and a sale was ordered to take place in a week. Nothing could now hinder the onward progress of affairs to a disastrous crisis, but the payment of the debt, or its security. As neither the one nor the other was possible, the sale was advertised, the store of Layton closed, and the sacrifice made. Goods that cost four times the amount of Granger's claim, were sold for just enough to cover it, and the residue of the stock left for the other creditors. These were immediately called together, and all that the ruined debtor possessed in the world given up to them.

"Take my furniture and all," said he. "Even after that is added to this poor remnant, your claims will be very far from satisfied. Had I dreamed that Granger was so selfish a man as to disregard everyone's interests in the eager pursuit of his own--I would, long before he had me in his power, have made a general assignment for the benefit of the whole. But it is too late now for regrets; they avail nothing. I still have health, and an unbroken spirit. I am ready to try again, and, it may be, that success will crown my efforts. If so, you have the pledge of an honest man, that every dollar of present deficit shall be made up. Can I say more?"

Fortunately for Layton, there was no Granger among the unsatisfied portion of his creditors. He was pitied more than censured. Every man said "no" to the proposition to surrender up his household furniture.

"Let that remain untouched. We will not visit your misfortunes upon your family."

After all his goods had been sold off to the best advantage, a little over sixty cents on the dollar was paid. The loss to all parties would have been light, had Granger not sacrificed so much to secure his own debt.

Regarding Layton as an honest man, and pitying his condition, with a large family on his hands to provide for, a few of his creditors had a conference on the subject of his affairs, which resulted in a determination to make an effort to put him on his feet again. The first thing done was to get all parties to sign a permanent release of obligations still held against him, thus making him free from all legal responsibilities for past transactions. The next thing was to furnish him with a small, saleable stock of goods, on a liberal credit.

On this basis, Layton started again in the world, with a confident spirit. The old store was given up, and a new one taken at about half the rent. It so happened, that this store was next to the one occupied by Granger, who, now that he had got his own, and had been made sensible of the indignation of the other creditors for what he had done--felt rather ashamed to look his neighbor in the face.

"Who has taken your store?" he asked of the owner of the property next to his own, seeing him taking down the notice that had been up for a few days.

"Your old friend Layton," replied the man, who was familiar with the story of Layton's recent failure.

"You are not in earnest?" said Granger, looking serious.

"Yes--I have rented it to Layton."

"He has just been broken up root and branch, and can't get credit for a dollar. How can he go into business?"

"Some friends have assisted him."

"Indeed! I didn't suppose a man in his condition had many friends."

"Oh, yes. An honest man always has friends. Layton is an honest man, and I would trust him now as freely as before. He has learned wisdom by experience, and, if ever he gets into difficulties again, will take good care that no one man gets an undue preference over another. His recent failure, I am told, was caused by one of his creditors, who, in the eager desire to get his own, sacrificed a large amount of property, to the injury of the other creditors."

Granger did not venture to make any reply to this, lest he should betray, by his manner, the fact that he was the individual to whom allusion was made. He need not have been careful on this point, as the person with whom he was conversing, knew very well who was the grasping creditor.

A day or two afterwards, Layton took possession of his new store, and commenced arranging his goods. Granger felt uneasy when he saw the doors and windows open, and the goods arriving. He did not wish to meet Layton. But this could not now be avoided. As much as he loved money, and as much as he had congratulated himself for the promptness by which he had secured his debt, he now more than half wished that he had been less stringent in his proceedings.

It was the custom of Granger to come frequently to his door, and stand with his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, and look forth with a self-satisfied air. But not once did he venture thus to stand upon his own threshold on the day Layton commenced receiving his goods. When business called him out, he was careful to step into the street, so much turned away from the adjoining store, that he could not see the face of anyone who might be standing in the entrance. On returning, he would glide along close to the houses, and enter quickly his own door. By this carefulness to avoid meeting his old debtor, Granger managed not to come into direct contact with him for some time. But this was not always to be the case. One day, just as he was about entering his store, Layton came out of his own door, and they met face to face.

"Ah! How are you, friend Layton?" he said, with an air of forced cordiality, extending his hand as he spoke. "So you have become my next-door neighbor?"

"Yes," was the quiet reply, made in a pleasant manner, and without the least appearance of resentment for the past.

"I am really glad to find you are on your feet again," said Granger, affecting an interest which he did not feel. "For the misfortunes you have suffered, I always felt grieved, although, perhaps, I was a little to blame for hastening the crisis in your affairs. But I had waited a long time for my money, you know."

"Yes, and others will now have to wait a great deal longer, in consequence of your hasty action," replied Layton, speaking seriously, but not in a way to offend.

"I am very sorry, but it can't be helped now," said Granger, looking a little confused. "I only took the ordinary method of securing my own. If I had not taken care of myself, somebody would have come in and swept the whole. You know you couldn't possibly have stood it much longer."

"If you think it right, Mr. Granger, I have nothing now to say," returned Layton.

"You certainly could not call it wrong for a man to sue another who has the means, and yet refuses to pay what he owes him?"

"I think it wrong, Mr. Granger," replied Layton, "for any man to injure others in his over-eagerness to get his own, and this you did. You seized four times as many goods as would have paid your claim if they had been fairly sold, and had them sacrificed for one-fourth of their value, thus wronging my other creditors out of some three thousand dollars in the present, and taxing my future efforts to make good what was no better than thrown into the sea. You had no moral right to do this, although you had the legal power. This is my opinion of the matter, Mr. Granger; and I freely express it, in the hope that, if ever another man is so unfortunate as to get in your debt without the means of present payment, that you will be less exacting with him than you were with me."

Granger writhed in spirit under this cutting rebuke of Layton, which was given seriously, but not in anger. He tried to make a great many excuses, to none of which Layton made any reply. He had said all he wished to say on the subject. After this, the two met frequently--more frequently than Granger cared about meeting the man he had injured. Several times he alluded, indirectly, to the past, in an apologetic way, but Layton never appeared to understand the allusion. This was worse to Granger than if he had come out and said over and over again, just what he thought of the other's conduct.

Five years from the day Layton commenced business anew, he made his last dividend upon the debt that stood against him at the time his creditors generously released him and set him once more upon his feet. He was doing a very good business, and had a credit much more extensive than he cared about using. No one was more ready to sell him than Granger, who frequently importuned him to make bills at his store. This he sometimes did, but made it a point never to give his note for the purchase, always paying the cash and receiving a discount.

"I'd as gladly have your note as your money," Granger would sometimes say.

"I always prefer paying the cash while I have it," was generally the answer. "In this way, I make a double profit on my sales."

The true reason why he would not give his note to Granger, was his determination never to be in debt to any man who, in an extremity, would oppress him. This reason was more than suspected by Granger, and it worried him exceedingly. If Layton had refused to buy from him at all, he would have felt less annoyance.

Year after year passed on, and Layton's business gradually enlarged, until he was doing at least four times as much as Granger, who now found himself much oftener the buyer from, than the seller to, Layton. At first, in making bills with Layton, he always made it a point to pay cash for them. But this soon became inconvenient, and he was forced to say, in making a pretty heavy purchase--

"I shall have to give my note for this."

"Just as you please, Mr. Granger, it is all the same to me," replied Layton, indifferently. "I had as gladly have your note as your money."

Granger felt his cheek burn. For the hundredth time, he repented of one act in his life.

A few months after this, Granger found himself very hard pressed to meet his payments. He had been on the borrowing list for a good while, and had drawn so often and so largely upon business friends, that he had almost worn out his welcome. For one of his heavy days, he had been endeavoring to make provision in advance, but had not succeeded in obtaining all the money needed, when the day arrived. In his extremity, and as a last resort, yet with a most heart-sinking reluctance, he called in to see Layton.

"Have you seven hundred dollars more than you want today?" he asked, in a tone that betrayed his unwillingness to ask the favor, although he strove to appear indifferent.

"I have, and it's at your service," was promptly and cheerfully replied. "Shall I fill you a check?"

"If you please," said Granger; "I have a very heavy payment to make today, and find money tighter than usual. When do you wish me to return it to you?" he asked, as he took the check.

"Oh, in three or four days. Will that do?"

"It will suit me exactly. I am very much obliged to you, indeed."

"You are very welcome. I shall always be happy to accommodate you in a similar way. I generally have something over."

When Granger returned to his own store, his cheek burned, his heart beat quicker, and his breathing was oppressed. He felt humbled in his own eyes. To the man whom he once so cruelly wronged, he had been compelled to go for a favor, and that man had generously returned him good for evil. He was unhappy until he could replace the money he had borrowed, which was in a day or two, and even then he still felt very uncomfortable.

After this, Granger of course was frequently driven to the necessity of getting temporary loans from Layton, which were always made in a way which showed that it gave his neighbor real pleasure to accommodate him.

Gradually, difficulties gathered around Granger so thickly, that he found it almost impossible to keep his head above water. Two thirds of his time were spent in efforts to raise money to meet his payments, and the other third in brooding sadly and inactively over the embarrassed condition of his affairs. This being the case, his business suffered inevitably. Instead of going on and making handsome profits, as he had once done, he was actually losing money, and that, too, rapidly; for, when he bought, he often made imprudent purchases, and when he sold, he made three bad debts where he formerly made one.

At last, a crisis came in his affairs, as come it must, sooner or later, under such a system. A stoppage and ruin he saw to be inevitable. He owed more borrowed money than he could possibly return within the time for which he had obtained it, and had, besides, large payments to make in the bank within the period. Any effort to get through, he saw would be hopeless, and he determined to give up; not, however, without securing something for himself.

"Twenty cents less in the dollar for my creditors," he argued, "will not kill them, and that difference will be quite important to me. When the storm blows over, it will give me the means of hoisting sail again."

At this time, Granger owed Layton two thousand dollars borrowed money, and two thousand dollars in notes of hand, given for goods purchased of him.

"It won't do," he said to himself, "to let him lose anything. I would never be able to look him in the face again, after what has happened between us. No--no--I must see him safe."

On the next day, Granger called in to see Layton. His face was serious.

"Can I say a word to you alone?" he asked.

"Certainly," and the two men retired to a private part of the store. Granger had never felt so wretched in all his life. After two or three efforts to speak, he at last found voice enough to say--

"Mr. Layton, I have very bad news to tell you. It is impossible for me to go on any longer. I shall stop tomorrow, inevitably. I owe you two thousand dollars in borrowed money and two thousand in notes, making, in all, four thousand dollars. I don't wish you to lose anything by me, and, to secure your borrowed money, I have brought you good notes for two thousand dollars, which is the best I can possibly do. For the other two thousand dollars, I want you to come into my store, and take your choice of anything there, which I will sell you, and take my own notes back in payment. That is the best I can possibly do for you, Mr. Layton, and it will be far better, I fear, than I shall be able to do for anyone else."

Layton was taken entirely by surprise.

"What you say astonishes me, Mr. Granger; I thought you were doing a very flourishing business?"

"And so I would have been, had I not ventured a little beyond my depth, and got cramped for money to meet my payments. A neglect of my business was the inevitable consequence; for, when all my time was taken up in raising money, I had none left to see after my business in a proper manner. Bad debts have been one of the consequences, and profitless operations another, until I am involved beyond the power of extrication, and must see everything fall in ruins about my head."

"It really grieves me to hear you say this," replied Layton, not offering to take the notes which Granger was still holding out for his acceptance. "But, perhaps, you magnify your difficulties. Don't you think some temporary relief would help you over your present embarrassments?"

"No, nothing temporary would be of any avail."

"Have you any objection to letting me see a full statement of your affairs? Perhaps I can suggest something better than a failure, which is almost always the very worst thing that can be done."

"Most gladly will I do so, Mr. Layton," returned Granger; "and if you can point out any way by which I can get over my present difficulties, I shall be forever under obligation to you."

An examination into Granger's business satisfied Layton that a few thousand dollars would save it.

"You need not fail," he said, cheerfully, to the unhappy man, as soon as he fully comprehended the state of his affairs.

"What is to prevent it?" eagerly asked the embarrassed merchant.

"You need more money," said Layton.

"I know that. Seven or eight thousand dollars would relieve me, if I had the use of it for one or two years, so that I could devote all my time to business. I have enough to do. All that is needed is to do it well."

"Yes, I see that clearly enough."

"But the money, where is that to come from?"

"It can be raised, I think. In fact, if you will secure me against loss, I will take your notes and raise it for you."

"I will secure you upon everything that I possess," was instantly replied.

"Very well. That will do. How much money must you have tomorrow?"

"Two thousand dollars."

"That can be managed easily enough. I will see that it is raised. In the meantime, get all arrangements for the security in progress, so that I can take your notes and pass them through bank as fast as you need to have money."

Granger was overpowered. He could hardly believe that he heard aright. This was the man who had been driven by his grasping spirit into bankruptcy, and utterly ruined. The thought again flashed through his mind, and sent the blood burning to his face. Pride for a moment tempted him to refuse the offered kindness; but there was too much at stake--he could not do it. While the act of Layton heaped coals of fire upon his head, he had no alternative but to submit to a thing only less painful than utter ruin. From ruin he was saved; but he was an altered and an humbled man. Many times since, have unfortunate debtors been in his power, and, although he has not acted towards them with much liberality, (for it was not in him to do so,) he has not oppressed them.