The Poor Debtor
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1851
"There is one honest man in the world, I am happy to say," remarked a rich merchant, named Petron, to a friend who happened to call in upon him.
"Is there, indeed? I am glad to find you have made a discovery of the fact. Who is the individual entitled to the honorable distinction?"
"You know Moale, the tailor?"
"Yes. Poor fellow! he's been under the weather for a long time."
"I know. But he's an honest man for all that."
"I never doubted his being honest, Mr. Petron."
"I have reason to know that he is. But I once thought differently. When he was broken up in business some years ago, he owed me a little bill, which I tried to get out of him as hard as anyone ever did try for his own. But I dogged him until weary, and then, giving him up as a bad case, passed the trifle that he owed me to account of profit and loss. He has crossed my path a few times since; but, as I didn't feel toward him as I could wish to feel toward all men, I treated him with marked coldness. I am sorry for having done so, for it now appears that I judged him too severely. This morning he called in of his own free will, and paid me the old account. He didn't say anything about interest, nor did I, though I am entitled to, and ought to have received it. But, as long as he came forward of his own accord and settled his bill, after I had given up all hope of ever receiving it — I thought I might afford to be a little generous and not say anything about the interest; and so I gave him a receipt in full. Didn't I do right?"
"In what respect?" asked the friend.
"In forgiving him the interest, which I might have claimed as well as not, and which he would, no doubt, have paid, or brought me at some future time."
"Oh, yes. You were right to forgive the interest," returned the friend, but in a tone and with a manner that struck the merchant as rather singular. "No man should ever take interest on money due from an unfortunate debtor."
"Indeed! Why not?" Mr. Petron looked surprised. "Is not money always worth its interest?"
"So it is said. But the poor debtor has no money upon which to make any interest. He begins the world again with nothing but his ability to work; and, if saddled with an old debt — principal and interest — his case is hopeless. Suppose he owes ten thousand dollars, and, after struggling hard for three or four years, gets into a position that will enable him to pay off a thousand dollars a year. There is some chance for him to get out of debt in ten years. But suppose interest has been accumulating at the rate of some six hundred dollars a year. His debt, instead of being ten thousand, will have increased to over twelve thousand dollars by the time he is in a condition to begin to pay off anything; and then, instead of being able to reduce the amount a thousand dollars a year, he will have to let six hundred go for the annual interest on the original debt. Four years would have to elapse before, under this system, he would get his debt down to where it was when he was broken up in business. Thus, at the end of eight years' hard struggling, he would not, really, have advanced a step out of his difficulties. A debt of ten thousand dollars would still be hanging over him. And if, persevering to the end, he should go on paying the interest regularly and reducing the principal, some twenty-five years of his life would be spent in getting free from debt, when little over half that time would have been required, if his creditors had, acting from the commonest dictates of humanity, voluntarily released the interest."
"That is a new view of the case, I must confess — at least new to me," said Mr. Petron.
"It is the humane view of the case. But, looking to interest alone, it is the best view for every creditor to take. Many a man who, with a little effort, might have cancelled, in time, the principal of a debt unfortunately standing against him, becomes disheartened at seeing it daily growing larger through the accumulation of interest — and gives up in despair. The desire to be free from debt spurs many a man into effort. But make the difficulties in his way so large as to appear insurmountable, and he will fold his hands in helpless inactivity. Thousands of dollars are lost every year in consequence of creditors grasping after too much, and breaking down the hope and energy of the debtors."
"Perhaps you are right," said Mr. Petron — "that view of the case never presented itself to my mind. I don't suppose, however, the interest on fifty dollars would have broken down Moale."
"There is no telling. It is the last straw, you know, that breaks the camel's back. Five years have passed since his day of misfortune. Fifteen dollars for interest are therefore due. I have my doubts if he could have paid you sixty-five dollars now. Indeed, I am sure he could not. And the thought of that as a new debt, for which he had received no benefit whatever, would, it is more than probable, have produced a discouraged state of mind, and made him resolve not to pay you anything at all."
"But that wouldn't have been honest," said the merchant.
"Perhaps not, strictly speaking. To be dishonest is from a set purpose to defraud; to take from another what belongs to him; or to withhold from another, when ability exists to pay, what is justly his due. You would hardly have placed Moale in either of these positions, if, from the pressure of the circumstances surrounding him as a poor man and in debt, he had failed to be as active, industrious, and prudent as he would otherwise have been. We are all apt to require too much of the poor debtor, and to have too little sympathy with him. Let the hope of improving your own condition — which is the mainspring of all your business operations — be taken away, and instead, let there be only the desire to pay off old debts through great labor and self-denial, that must continue for years, and imagine how differently you would think and feel from what you do now. Nay, more; let the debt be owed to those who are worth their thousands and tens of a thousands, and who are in the enjoyment of every luxury and comfort they could desire — while you go on paying them what you owe, by over-exertion and the denial to yourself and family of all those little luxuries and recreations which both so much need, and then say how deeply dyed would be that dishonesty which would cause you, in a moment of darker and deeper discouragement than usual, to throw the crushing weight from your shoulders, and resolve to bear it no longer? You must leave a man some hope in life, if you would keep him active and industrious in his sphere."
Mr. Petron said nothing in reply to this; but he looked sober. His friend soon after left.
The merchant, as the reader may infer from his own acknowledgment, was one of those men whose tendency to regard only their own interests has become so confirmed a habit, that they can see nothing beyond the narrow circle of self. Upon debtors he had never looked with a particle of sympathy; and had, in all cases, exacted his own as rigidly as if his debtor had not been a creature of human needs and feelings. What had just been said, however, awakened a new thought in his mind; and, as he reflected upon the subject, he saw that there was some reason in what had been said, and felt half ashamed of his allusion to the interest of the tailor's fifty-dollar debt.
Not long after, a person came into his store, and from some cause mentioned the name of Moale.
"He's an honest man — that I am ready to say of him," remarked Mr. Petron.
"Honest, but very poor," was replied.
"He's doing well now, I believe," said the merchant.
"He's managing to keep soul and body together, and hardly that."
"He's paying off his old debts."
"I know he is; but I blame him for injuring his health and wronging his family, in order to pay a few hundred dollars to men a thousand times better off in the world than he is. He brought me twenty dollars on an old debt yesterday, but I wouldn't touch it. His misfortunes had long ago cancelled the obligation in my eyes. God forbid! that with enough to spare, I should take the bread out of the mouths of a poor man's children."
"Is he so very poor?" asked Mr. Petron, surprised and rebuked at what he heard.
"He has a family of six children to feed, clothe, and educate; and he has it to do by his unassisted labor. Since he was broken up in business some years ago, he has had great difficulties to contend with, and only by pinching himself and family, and depriving both of nearly every comfort, has he been able to reduce the old claims that have been standing against him. But he has shortened his own life ten years thereby, and has deprived his children of the benefits of education, except in an extremely limited degree — wrongs that are irreparable. I honor his stern integrity of character, but think that he has carried his ideas of honesty too far. God gave him these children, and they have claims upon him for earthly comforts and blessings to the extent of his ability to provide. His misfortunes he could not prevent, and they were sent as much for the chastisement of those who lost by him as they were for his own. If, subsequently, his greatest exertion was not sufficient to provide more than ordinary comforts for the family still dependent upon him, his first duty was to see that they did not lack. If he could not pay his old debts without injury to his health or wrong to his family — he was under no obligation to pay them; for it is clear, that no claims upon us are so imperative as to require us to wrong others in order to satisfy them."
Here was another new doctrine for the ears of the merchant — doctrine strange, as well as new. He did not feel quite so comfortable as before about the recovered debt of fifty dollars. The money still lay upon his desk. He had not yet entered it upon his cash-book, and he felt now less inclined to do so than ever. The claims of humanity, in the abstract, pressed themselves upon him for consideration, and he saw that they were not to be lightly thrust aside.
In order to pay the fifty dollars, which had been long due to the merchant, Mr. Moale had, as alleged, denied himself and family at every point, and overworked himself to a degree seriously injurious to his health; but his heart felt lighter after the sense of obligation was removed.
There was little at home, however, to make him feel cheerful. His wife, not feeling able to hire a servant, was worn down with the care and labor of her large family; the children were, as a necessary consequence, neglected both in minds and bodies. Alas! there was no sunshine in the poor man's dwelling.
"Well, Alice," said Mr. Moale, as his wife came and stood by the table upon which he sat at work, holding her babe in her arms, "I have paid off another debt, thank Heaven!"
"Petron's. He believed me a rogue and treated me as such. I hope he thinks differently now."
"I wish all men were as honest in their intentions as you are."
"So do I, Alice. The world would be a much better one than it is, I am thinking."
"And yet, William," said his wife, "I sometimes think we do wrong to sacrifice so much to get out of debt. Our children — "
"Alice," spoke up the tailor, quickly, "I would almost sell my body into slavery to get free from debt. When I think of what I still owe, I feel as if I would suffocate."
"I know how badly you feel about it, William; but your heart is honest, and should not that reflection bear you up?"
"What is an honest heart without an honest hand, Alice?" replied the tailor, bending still to his work.
"The honest heart is the main thing, William; God looks at that. Man judges only of the action — but God sees the heart and its purposes."
"But what is the purpose without the act?"
"It is all that is required, where no ability to act is given. William, God does not demand of anyone impossibilities."
"Though man often does," said the tailor, bitterly.
There was a pause, broken, at length, by the wife, who said — "And have you really determined to put John and Henry out to work? They are so young."
"I know they are, Alice; too young to leave home. But — "
The tailor's voice became unsteady; he broke off in the middle of the sentence.
"Necessity requires it to be done," he said, recovering himself; "and it is of no avail to give way to unmanly weakness. But for this old debt, we might have been comfortable enough, and able to keep our children around us until they were of a more fitting age to go from under their parents' roof. Oh, what a curse is debt!"
"There is more yet to pay?"
"Yes, several hundreds of dollars; but if I fail as I have for a year past, I will break down before I get through."
"Let us think of our family, William; they have the first claim upon us. Those to whom money is owed, are far better off than we are; they stand in no need of it."
"But is it not justly due, Alice?" inquired the tailor, in a rebuking voice.
"No more justly due than is food, and clothing, and a home to our children," replied the tailor's wife, with more than her usual decision of tone. "God has given us these children, and he will require an account of the souls committed to our charge. Is not a human soul of more importance than dollars? A few years, and it will be out of our power to do our children good; they will grow up, and bear forever the marks of neglect and wrong."
"Alice! Alice! for heaven's sake, do not talk in this way!" exclaimed the tailor, much disturbed.
"William," said the wife, "I am a mother, and a mother's heart can feel right; nature tells me that it is wrong for us to thrust out our children before they are old enough to go into the world. Let us keep them home longer."
"We cannot — and still pay off this debt."
"Then let the debt go unpaid for the present. Those to whom it is owed, can receive no harm from waiting; but our children will — "
Just then a man brought in a letter, and, handing it to the tailor, withdrew. On breaking the seal, Mr. Moale found that it contained fifty dollars, and read as follows:
"SIR — Upon reflection, I feel that I ought not to receive from you the money that was due to me when you became unfortunate some years ago. I understand that you have a large family, that your health is not very good, and that you are depriving the one of comforts, and injuring the other, in endeavoring to pay off your old debts. To cancel these obligations would be all right — nay, your duty — if you could do so without neglecting higher and plainer duties. But you cannot do this, and I cannot receive the money you paid me this morning. Take it back, and let it be expended in making your family more comfortable. I have enough, and more than enough for all my needs, and I will not deprive you of a sum that must be important, while to me it is of little consequence either as gained or lost. Edward Petron."
The letter dropped from the tailor's hand; he was overcome with emotion. His wife, when she understood its purpose, burst into tears.
The merchant's sleep was sweeter that night than it had been for some time, and so was the sleep of the poor debtor.
The next day Mr. Moale called to see Mr. Petron, to whom, at the insistence of the latter, he gave a full detail of his actual circumstances. The merchant was touched by his story, and prompted by true benevolence to aid him in his struggles. He saw most of the tailor's old creditors, and induced those who had not been paid in full, to voluntarily relinquish their claims; and some of those who had received money since the poor man's misfortunes — to restore it as belonging of right to his family. There was not one of these creditors who did not feel happier by their act of generosity; and no one can doubt that both the tailor and his family were also happier. John and Henry were not compelled to leave their home until they were older and better prepared to endure the privations that usually attend the boy's first entrance into the working world; and help for the mother in her arduous duties could now be afforded.
No one doubts that the creditor, whose money is not paid to him, has rights. But too few think of the rights of the poor debtor, who sinks into obscurity, and often privations — while his heart is oppressed with a sense of obligations utterly beyond his power to cancel.