Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"What kind of people have you here?" I asked of one of my first acquaintances, after becoming a resident of the pleasant little village of Moorfield.
"Very clever people, with one or two exceptions," he replied. "I am sure you will like us very well."
"Who are the exceptions?" I asked. "For I wish to keep all such exceptions at a distance. Being a stranger, I will, wisely, take a hint in time. It's an easy matter to shun an acquaintanceship; but by no means so easy to break it off, after it is once formed."
"Very truly said, Mr. Jones. And I will warn you, in time, of one man in particular. His name is John Mason. Keep clear of him, if you wish to keep out of trouble. He's as smooth and oily as a whetstone; and, like a whetstone, abrades everything he touches. He's a bad man, that John Mason."
"Who, or what is he?" I asked.
"He's a lawyer, and one of the principal holders of property in the township. But money can't gild him over. He's a bad man, that John Mason, and my advice to you and to everyone, is to keep clear of him. I know him like a book!"
"I'm very much obliged to you," said I, "for your timely caution: I will take care to profit by it."
My next acquaintance bore pretty much the same testimony, and so did the next. It was plain that John Mason was not the right kind of a man, and rather a blemish upon the village of Moorfield, notwithstanding he was one of the principal property-holders in the township.
"If it wasn't for that John Mason!" I heard on this hand, and, "If it wasn't for that John Mason!" I heard on the other hand, as my acquaintanceship among the people extended. Particularly bitter against him, was the first individual who had whispered in my ear a friendly caution; and I hardly ever met with him, that he hadn't something to bad say about that John Mason.
About six months after my arrival in Moorfield, I attended a public meeting, at which the leading men of the township were present. Most of them were strangers to me. At this meeting, I fell in company with a very pleasant man, who had several times addressed those present, and always in such a clear, forcible, and common-sense way, as to carry conviction to all but a few, who carped and quibbled at everything he said, and in a very churlish manner. Several of those quibblers I happened to know. He represented one set of views, and they another. His had regard for the public good; theirs looked, it was plain, to sectional and private interests.
"How do you like our little town, Mr. Jones?" said this individual to me, after the meeting had adjourned, and little knots of individuals were formed here and there for conversation.
"Very well," I replied.
"And the people?" he added.
"The people," I answered, "appear to be about a fair sample of what are to be found everywhere. Good and bad mixed up together."
"Yes. That, I suppose, is a fair general estimate."
"Of course," I added, "we find, in all communities, certain individuals, who stand out more prominent than the rest — distinguished for good or evil. This appears to be the case here, as well as elsewhere."
"You have already discovered, then, that, even in Moorfield, there are some bad men."
"Oh, yes. There's that John Mason, for instance."
The man looked a little surprised, but remarked, without any change of tone — "So, you have heard of him, have you?"
"As a very bad man?"
"Yes, very bad. Have you ever met him?"
"No, and never wish to."
"You've seen him, I presume?"
"Never. Is he here?"
The man glanced round the room, and then replied — "I don't see him."
"He was here, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, and addressed the meeting several times."
"In one of those sneering, ill-tempered answers to your remarks, no doubt."
The man slightly inclined his head, as if acknowledging a compliment.
"It's a pity," said I, "that such men as this John Mason often have wealth and some shrewdness of mind to give them power in the community."
"Perhaps," said my auditor, "your prejudices against this man are too strong. He's not perfect, I know; but even the devil is often painted blacker than he is. If you knew him, I rather think you would estimate him a little differently."
"I don't wish to know him. Opportunities have offered, but I have always avoided an introduction."
"Who first gave you the character of this man?" asked the individual with whom I was conversing.
"Mr. Laxton," I replied. "Do you know him?"
"Oh, yes, very well. He speaks hard of Mason, does he?"
"He has cause, I believe."
"Did he ever explain to you what the problem was?"
"Not very fully; but he gives him a general bad character, and says he has done more to injure the best interests of the village, than any ten of its worst enemies that exist."
"Indeed! That is a sweeping declaration. But I will frankly own that I cannot join in so broad a condemnation of the man, although he has his faults, and no one knows them, I think, better than I do."
This made no impression upon me. The name of John Mason was associated in my mind with everything that was bad, and I replied by saying that I was very well satisfied in regard to his character, and didn't mean to have anything to do with him while I lived in Moorfield.
Someone interrupted our conversation at this point, and I was separated from my very agreeable companion. I met him frequently afterwards, and he was always particularly polite to me, and once or twice asked me if I had fallen in with that John Mason yet; to which I always replied in the negative, and expressed myself as ever, in regard to the personage mentioned.
Careful as we may be to keep out of trouble, we are not always successful in our efforts. When I removed to Moorfield, I supposed my affairs to be in a very good way; but things proved to be otherwise. I was disappointed, not only in the amount I expected to receive from the business I followed in the village, but disappointed in the receipt of money I felt sure of getting by a certain time.
When I first came to Moorfield, I bought a piece of property from Laxton — this business transaction made us acquainted — and paid, cash down, one-third of the purchase-money, the property remaining as security for the two-thirds, which I was under contract to settle at a certain time. My first payment was two thousand dollars. Unfortunately, when the final payment became due, I was not in funds, and the prospect of receiving money within five or six months was anything but good. In this dilemma, I called upon Laxton, and informed him of my financial disappointment. His face became grave.
"I hope it will not put you to any serious inconvenience."
"What?" he asked.
"My failure to meet this payment on the property. You are fully secured, and within six months I will be able to do what I had hoped to do at this time."
"I am sorry, Mr. Jones," he returned, "but I have made all my calculations to receive the sum due at this time, and cannot do without it."
"But I haven't the money, Mr. Laxton, and have fully explained to you the reason why."
"That is your problem, not mine, Mr. Jones. If you have been disappointed at one point, it is your business to look to another. A contract is a contract."
"Will you not extend the time of payment?" said I.
"No, sir, I cannot."
"What will you do?"
"Do? You ask a strange question."
"Well, what will you do?"
"Why, raise the money on the property."
"How will you do that?"
"Sell it, of course."
I asked no further questions, but left him and went away. Before reaching home, to which place I was retiring in order to think over the position in which I was placed, and determine what steps to take, if any were left to me, I met the pleasant acquaintance I had made at the town-meeting.
"You look grave, Mr. Jones," said he, as we paused, facing each other. "What's the matter?"
I frankly told him my difficulty.
"So Laxton has got you in his clutches, has he?" was the simple, yet, I perceived, meaning reply that he made.
"I am in his clutches, certainly," said I. "And will not get out of them very easily, I apprehend."
"What will he do?"
"He will sell the property at auction."
"It won't bring his claim under the hammer."
"No, I suppose not, for that is really more than the property is worth."
"Do you think so?"
"Certainly I do. I know the value of every lot of ground in the township, and know that you have been taken advantage of in in your purchase."
"What do you suppose it will bring at a forced sale?"
"Few men will bid over twenty-five hundred dollars."
"You cannot be serious?"
"I assure you I am. He, however, will overbid all, up to four thousand. He will, probably, have it knocked down to him at three thousand, and thus come into the unencumbered possession of a piece of property upon which he has received two thousand dollars."
"But three thousand dollars will not satisfy his claim against me."
"No. You will still owe him a thousand dollars."
"Will he prosecute his claim?"
"He?" And the man smiled. "Yes, to the last extremity, if there is hope of getting anything."
"Then I am certainly in a bad way."
"I'm afraid you are, unless you can find someone here who will befriend you in the matter."
"There is no one here who will lend me four thousand dollars upon that piece of property," said I.
"I don't know but one man who is likely to do it," was answered.
"Who is that?" I asked, eagerly.
"John Mason! I'll never go to him."
"I might as well remain where I am, as get into his hands — a crook and a lawyer to boot. No, no. Better to bear the evils that we have, than fly to others that we know not of."
"You may get assistance somewhere else, but I am doubtful," said the man; and, bowing politely, passed on, and left me to my own unpleasant reflections.
Laxton made as quick work of the business as the nature of the case would admit, and in a very short time the property was advertised at public sale. As the time for the sale approached, the great desire to prevent the sacrifice that I was too well assured would take place, suggested the resort of calling upon Mason; but my prejudice against the man was so strong, that I could not get my own consent to do so.
On the day before the sale, I met the individual before alluded to.
"Have you been to see Mason?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Then you have made up your mind to let that scoundrel, Laxton, fleece you out of your property?"
"I see no way of preventing it."
"Why don't you try Mason?"
"I don't believe it would do any good."
"I think differently."
"If he did help me out of this difficulty," I replied, "it would only be to get me into a more narrow corner."
"You don't know any such thing," said the man, a different tone from any in which he had yet taken when Mason was the subject of our remarks.
"Think, for a moment, upon the basis of your prejudice; it lies mainly upon the assertion of Laxton — who, from your own experience has proved to be a scoundrel. The fact is, your estimate of Mason's character is entirely erroneous. Laxton hates him, because he has circumvented him more than a dozen times in his schemes of iniquity, and will circumvent him again, if I do not greatly err, provided you give him the opportunity of doing so."
There was force in the view. True enough; what confidence was there to be placed in Laxton's words? And if Mason had circumvented him; as was alleged, of course there was a very good reason for detraction.
"At what hour do you think I can see him?" said I.
"I believe he is usually in about twelve o'clock."
"I will see him," said I, with emphasis.
"Do so," returned the man; "and may your interview be as satisfactory as you can desire."
At twelve, precisely, I called upon Mason, not without many misgivings, I must own. I found my prejudices still strong; and as to the good result, I could not help feeling serious doubts. On entering his office, I found no one present but the individual under whose advice I had called.
"Mr. Mason is not in," said I, feeling a little disappointed.
"Oh, yes, he is in," was replied. I looked around, and then turned my eyes upon the man's face. I did not exactly comprehend its expression.
"My name is John Mason," said he, bowing politely; "so be seated, and let us talk over the business upon which you have called on me."
I needed no invitation to sit down, for I could not have kept my feet if I had tried, so suddenly and completely did his words astonish and confound me.
I will not repeat the confused, blundering apologies I attempted to make — nor give his gentlemanly replies. Enough, that an hour before the time at which the sale was advertised to take place on the next day, I waited upon Laxton.
"Be kind enough," said I, "to let me have that obligation upon which your present stringent measures are founded. I wish to take it up."
The man looked perfectly blank.
"Mr. John Mason," said I, "has generously furnished me with the funds necessary to save my property from sacrifice, and will take the securities you hold."
"Blast that John Mason!" ejaculated Laxton, with excessive bitterness, turning away and leaving where I stood. I waited for ten minutes, but did not come back. A suspicion that he meant let the sale go on, if possible, crossed my mind, and I returned to Mason, who saw the sheriff and the whole matter arranged.
Laxton has never spoken to me since. As for "That John Mason," I have proved him to be fast friend, and a man of strict honor in everything. So much for slander.