The Town Lot
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
Once upon a time, it happened that the men who governed the municipal affairs of a certain growing town in the West, resolved, in grave deliberation assembled, to purchase a five-acre lot at the north end of the city — recently incorporated — and have it improved for a park or public square. Now, it also happened, that all the saleable ground lying north of the city was owned by a man named Smith — a shrewd, wide-awake individual, whose motto was "Every man for himself," with an occasional addition about a certain gentleman in black taking "the hindmost."
Smith, it may be mentioned, was secretly at the bottom of this scheme for a public square, and had himself suggested the matter to an influential member of the council; not that he was moved by what is denominated public spirit — no; the spring of action in the case was merely "private spirit," or a regard for his own good. If the council decided upon a public square, he was the man from whom the ground would have to be bought; and he was the man who could get his own price therefore.
As we have said, the park was decided upon, and a committee of two appointed whose business it was to see Smith, and arrange with him for the purchase of a suitable lot of ground. In due form the committee called upon the landholder, who was fully prepared for the interview.
"You are the owner of those lots at the north end?" said the spokesman of the committee.
"I am," replied Smith, with becoming gravity.
"Will you sell a portion of ground, say five acres, to the city?"
"For what purpose?" Smith knew very well for what purpose the land was wanted.
"We have decided to set apart about five acres of ground, and improve it as a kind of park, or public promenade."
"Have you, indeed? Well, I like that," said Smith, with animation. "It shows the right kind of public spirit."
"We have, moreover, decided that the best location will be at the north end of the town."
"Decidedly my own opinion," returned Smith.
"Will you sell us the required acres?" asked one of the councilmen.
"That will depend somewhat upon where you wish to locate the park."
The particular location was named.
"The very spot," replied Smith, promptly, "upon which I have decided to erect four rows of dwellings."
"But it is too far out for that," was naturally objected.
"O, no; not at all. The city is rapidly growing in that direction. I have only to put up the dwellings referred to, and dozens will be anxious to purchase lots, and build all around them. Won't the ground to the left of that which you speak of answer as well?"
But the committee replied in the negative. The lot they had mentioned was the one decided upon as most suited for the purpose, and they were not prepared to think of any other location.
All this Smith understood very well. He was not only willing, but anxious for the city to purchase the lot they were negotiating for. All he wanted was to get a good high price for the same — say four or five times the real value. So he feigned indifference, and threw difficulties in the way.
A few years previous to this time, Smith had purchased a considerable tract of land at the north of the then flourishing village, at fifty dollars an acre. Its present value was about three hundred dollars an acre. After a good deal of talk on both sides, Smith finally agreed to sell the particular lot pitched upon. The next thing was to arrange as to price.
"At what do you hold this ground per acre?"
It was some time before Smith answered this question. His eyes were cast upon the floor, and earnestly did he enter into debate with himself as to the value he should place upon the lot. At first he thought of five hundred dollars per acre. But his avarice soon caused him to advance on that sum, although, a month before, he would have caught at such an offer. Then he advanced to six, to seven, and to eight hundred. And still he felt undecided.
"I can get my own price," said he to himself. "The city has to pay, and I might just as well get a large sum as a small one."
"For what price will you sell?" The question was repeated.
"I must have a good price."
"We are willing to pay what is fair and right."
"Of course. No doubt you have fixed a limit to which you will go."
"Not exactly that," said one of the gentlemen.
"Are you prepared to make an offer?"
"We are prepared to hear your price, and to make a report thereon," was replied.
"That's a very valuable lot of ground," said Smith.
"Name your price," returned one of the committeemen, a little impatiently.
Thus brought up to the point, Smith, after thinking hurriedly for a few moments, said —
"One thousand dollars an acre."
Both the men shook their heads in a very positive way. Smith said that it was the lowest he would take; and so the conference ended.
At the next meeting of the city councils, a report on the town lot was made, and the extraordinary demand of Smith canvassed. It was unanimously decided not to make the proposed purchase.
When this decision reached the landholder, he was considerably disappointed. He wanted money badly, and would have "jumped at" two thousand dollars for the five acre lot, if satisfied that it would bring no more. But when the city came forward as a purchaser, his avarice was subjected to a very strong temptation. He believed that he could get five thousand dollars as easily as two; and quieted his conscience by the salvo — "An article is always worth what it will bring."
A week or two went by, and Smith was about calling upon one of the members of the council, to say that, if the city really wanted the lot he would sell at their price, leaving it with the council to act justly and generously, when a friend said to him,
"I hear that the council had the subject of a public square under consideration again this morning."
"Indeed!" Smith was visibly excited, though he tried to appear calm.
"Yes; and I also hear that they have decided to pay the extravagant price you asked for a lot of ground at the north end of the city."
"A thousand dollars an acre?"
"Its real value, and not cent more," said Smith.
"People differ about that. However, you are lucky," the friend replied. "The city is able to pay."
"So I think. And I mean they shall pay."
Before the committee, to whom the matter was given in charge, had time to call upon Smith, and close with him for the lot, that gentleman had concluded in his own mind that it would be just as easy to get twelve hundred dollars an acre as a thousand. It was plain that the council were bent upon having the ground, and would pay a high sum for it. It was just the spot for a public square; and the city must become the owner. So, when he was called upon, by the gentlemen, and they said to him,
"We are authorized to pay you your price," he promptly answered, "The offer is no longer open. You declined it when it was made. My price for that property is now twelve hundred dollars an acre."
The men offered remonstrance; but it was of no avail. Smith believed that he could get six thousand dollars for the ground as easily as five thousand. The city must have the lot, and would pay almost any price.
"I hardly think it right, Mr. Smith," said one of his visitors, "for you to take such an advantage. This square is for the public good."
"Let the public pay, then," was the unhesitating answer. "The public is able enough."
"The location of this park, at the north end of the city, will greatly improve the value of your other property."
This Smith understood very well. But he replied,
"I am not so sure of that. I have some very strong doubts on the subject. It's my opinion, that the buildings I contemplated erecting will be far more to my advantage. Be that as it may, however, I am decided in selling for nothing less than six thousand dollars."
"We are only authorized to pay five thousand," replied the committee. "If you agree to take that sum, will close the bargain on the spot."
Five thousand dollars was a large sum of money, and Smith felt strongly tempted to close in with the liberal offer. But six thousand loomed up before his imagination still more temptingly.
"I can get it," said he to himself; "and the property is worth what it will bring."
So he positively declined to sell it at a thousand dollars per acre.
"At twelve hundred you will sell?" remarked one of the committee, as they were about retiring.
"Yes. I will take twelve hundred the acre. That is the lowest rate, and I am not anxious even at that price. I can do quite as well by keeping it in my own possession. But, as you seem so bent on having it, I will not stand in your way. When will the council meet again?"
"Not until next week."
"Very well. If they then accept my offer, all will be right. But, understand me; if they do not accept, the offer no longer remains open. It is a matter of no consequence to me which way the thing goes."
It was a matter of consequence to Smith, for all his assertion — a matter of very great importance. He had several thousand dollars to pay in the course of the next few months on land purchases, and no way to meet the payments, except by mortgages, or sales of property; and, it may naturally be concluded, that he suffered considerable uneasiness during the time which passed until the next meeting of the council.
Of course, the grasping disposition shown by Smith, became the town talk; and people said a good many hard things of him. Little, however, did he care, just so that he secured six thousand dollars for a lot not worth more than two thousand.
Among other residents and property holders in the town, was a simple-minded, true-hearted, honest man, named Jones. His father had left him a large farm, a goodly portion of which, in process of time, came to be included in the limits of the new city; and he found a much more profitable employment in selling building lots than in tilling the soil. The property of Mr. Jones lay at the west side of the town.
Now, when Mr. Jones heard of the exorbitant demand made by Smith for a five acre lot, his honest heart throbbed with a feeling of indignation.
"I couldn't have believed it of him," said he. "Six thousand dollars! Preposterous! Why, I would give the city a lot of twice the size, and do it with pleasure."
"You would?" said a member of the council, who happened to hear this remark.
"Certainly I would."
"You are really in earnest?"
"Undoubtedly. Go and select a public square from any of my unappropriated land on the west side of the city, and I will pass you the title as a free gift tomorrow, and feel pleasure in doing so."
"That is public spirit," said the councilman.
"Call it what you will. I am pleased in making the offer."
Now, let it not be supposed that Mr. Jones was shrewdly calculating the advantage which would result to him from having a park at the west side of the city. No such thought had yet entered his mind. He spoke from the impulse of a generous feeling.
Time passed on, and the session day of the council came around — a day to which Smith had looked forward with no ordinary feelings of interest, that were touched at times by the coldness of doubt, and the agitation of uncertainty. Several times he had more than half repented of his refusal to accept the liberal offer of five thousand dollars, and of having fixed so positively upon six thousand as the "lowest figure."
The morning of the day passed, and Smith began to grow uneasy. He did not venture to seek for information as to the doings of the council, for that would be to expose the anxiety he felt in the result of their deliberations. Slowly the afternoon wore away, and it so happened that Smith did not meet any of the councilmen; nor did he even know whether the council was still in session or not. As to making allusion to the subject of his anxious interest to anyone, that was carefully avoided; for he knew that his exorbitant demand was the town talk — and he wished to affect the most perfect indifference on the subject.
The day closed, and not a whisper about the town lot had come to the ears of Mr. Smith. What could it mean? Had his offer to sell at six thousand been rejected? The very thought caused his heart to grow heavy in his bosom. Six, seven, eight o'clock came, and still it was all dark with Mr. Smith. He could bear the suspense no longer, and so determined to call upon his neighbor Wilson, who was a member of the council, and learn from him what had been done.
So he called on Mr. Wilson.
"Ah, friend Smith," said the latter; "how are you this evening?"
"Well, I thank you," returned Smith, feeling a certain oppression of the chest. "How are you?"
"Oh, very well."
Here there was a pause. After which Smith said, "About that ground of mine. What did you do?"
"Nothing," replied Wilson, coldly.
"Nothing, did you say?" Smith's voice was a little husky.
"No. You declined our offer; or, rather, the high price fixed by yourself upon the land."
"You refused to buy it at five thousand, when it was offered," said Smith.
"I know we did, because your demand was exorbitant."
"Oh, no, not at all," returned Smith quickly.
"In that we only differ," said Wilson. "However, the council has decided not to pay you the price you ask."
"There was not a dissenting voice."
Smith began to feel more and more uncomfortable.
"I might take something less," he ventured to say, in a low, hesitating voice.
"It is too late now," was Mr. Wilson's prompt reply.
"Too late! How so?"
"We have procured a lot."
"Mr. Wilson!" Poor Smith started to his feet in chagrin and astonishment.
"Yes; we have taken one of Jones's lots on the west side of the city. A beautiful ten acre lot."
"You have!" Smith was actually pale.
"We have; and the title deeds are now being made out."
It was some time before Smith had sufficiently recovered from the stunning effect of this bad news, to make the inquiry,
"And pray how much did Jones ask for his ten acre lot."
"He presented it to the city as a gift," replied the councilman.
"A gift! What folly!"
"No, not folly — but true worldly wisdom; though I believe Jones did not think of advantage to himself when he generously made the offer. He is worth twenty thousand dollars more today than he was yesterday, in the simple advanced value of his land for building lots. And I know of no man in this town whose good fortune affects me with more pleasure."
Smith stole back to his home with a mountain of disappointment on his heart. In his avarice he had entirely overreached himself, and he saw that the consequences were to react upon all his future prosperity. The public square at the west end of the town would draw improvements in that direction, all the while increasing the wealth of Mr. Jones, while lots at the north end would remain at present prices, or, it might be, take a downward range.
And so it proved. In ten years, Jones was the richest man in the town, while half of Smith's property had been sold for taxes. The five acre lot passed from his hands, under the hammer, in the foreclosure of a mortgage, for one thousand dollars!
Thus it is that inordinate selfishness and avarice overreach themselves; while the liberal man devises liberal things, and is sustained thereby.