Bank Clerk Suicides

by J.P. Buschlen


HOWAT felt in his pocket, to make sure the thousand was there. He did not smile or exult; his feelings were bitter and his thoughts were of the bank, in which he would never work again. In his mind once more he ran over the circumstances of the case. The starting-point was when Jeb Apted observed to one of the other bank fellows, in a whisper, “Howat's acting funny this while back.” Howat had overheard, and an idea immediately formed in his brain. He would act still more erratically and when the time came to do what he had often thought of doing his story would be believed.

As he sat in his train between Toronto and Hamilton, thinking of the final week, of the deception and hatred, the anxiety and suspense of it, the bankclerk shuddered.

He marvelled at the nerve with which he had actually done the thing at last, and speculated on where he would have been had anyone seen him take the money—two hundred dollars in American and eight hundred in Canadian notes. He still wondered at the ease with which he had convinced the manager and accountant that the thousand dollars had been paid out through the wicket in error—two days ago now.

But he must not congratulate himself too soon. He longed for morning and the sight of a newspaper.

He did not leave his seat at Niagara, but bought a ticket on the train for Buffalo. There he changed another hundred dollars into American money, at four different places, and purchased a ticket for New York. He had, luckily, only half an hour's wait at Buffalo. Once in New York, where he had spent two months once, he felt that he would be safer than anywhere else.

His train left Buffalo at 10.30. He occupied a day coach and spent the long hours of night feeding the hate in his heart, a feeling that had been deepening for a long time. He cursed the oppressors who had ground him down, and repeated to himself that he was glad he had finally got back what was his own. For eight years he had slaved in their offices all over the country, ending up as teller in a city branch on eight hundred a year—sixteen dollars a week! He had begun in Nova Scotia on a salary of one hundred.

“It was coming to me,” repeated the absconding teller to himself.

Early morning light revealed the beautiful landscape along the Hudson. Tears came into the bank-clerk's eyes; he felt a strange complication of emotions. But under and through them all was a reckless hatred, which kept him to his purpose. He cursed the bank. First, it had moved him away from his mother—who went his bond until he was twenty-one. She had died at a time when he was so far away it took him two days to get back. He had asked to be left in Nova Scotia, but the bank had refused—why, only the bank knew. But what did mothers matter, anyway?

“I'm glad,” said Howat to himself, his eyes on the western banks of the placid Hudson; “by ——! I'm glad!”

He had thought the thing all out. There was no one to be disgraced. His relatives were few and cared nothing about him; they would be pleased to disown him.

As the summer morning brightened, Howat glanced about him in the car, but all the faces were strange. Nevertheless, he sank back a little in his seat. Mechanically his hand went up to his lip, where a moustache was beginning to grow. He would have his hair shingled, too, and get his eyes tested for glasses. He would alter his appearance entirely.

Arrived at the Forty-Second Street station he bought a morning paper, but there was nothing in it about himself. It was unreasonable to expect that there should be anything; still he was relieved to find there was not. The letters he had written the bank manager and Jack Perrin, the ledger-keeper, would not reach them till nine o'clock; so his story would not be in the papers until afternoon.

He looked in a telephone directory and found that there was a Y.M.C.A. on Twenty-Third Street. Thither, without suitcase or raincoat, he went. His only baggage was a package of money in an inside pocket. He asked the “Y” secretary where he could get a cheap room in the central part of the city, and the secretary handed him a list of places, on which he took notes. The first room he looked at was very cheap and comparatively comfortable, so he engaged it, paying one week's rent in advance. It was on the second floor of a gloomy house on Twenty-Second Street, and was cared for by a woman past middle age.

The name he gave was “J.S. Short”; and the housekeeper said her name was Mrs. Morang. Glad to talk with someone, he sat down and got slightly acquainted with Mrs. Morang. He confided to her that he was from Chicago; that he had come to New York for a visit and might remain if he liked it. She asked him where his luggage was and he told her it was at the station. She expressed the hope that he would keep his rooms at her place indefinitely, and he replied that no doubt he would.

A little later the tired bankclerk lay down on his folding-bed, with a package under his pillow, and tried to sleep; but he only dozed. Occasionally he would waken with a start, to wonder where he was.

At noon he went out and purchased a suitcase and some clothes—he must have luggage and a new suit. After lunch he bought a copy of the Journal, noon edition. There was nothing in it yet of interest to himself.

During the afternoon he slept. His dreams were many and discomfiting. He saw himself in prison, on the gallows, in a fire, drowning; and all the time there was a sort of gnawing within him somewhere. He awakened in a clammy perspiration. The newsies on the street below were shouting “Evening papers.” He went down and bought one—and there it was, the story of his tragedy. There was no photograph, and the story itself was brief: too much was going on in the world to make a feature of a clerk's death.

“BANK CLERK SUICIDES.

“TORONTO, July 19.—B.M. Howat, a teller in the X—— Bank here, disappeared last night, leaving letters, received through the post this morning, addressed to the bank manager and a clerk who roomed with Howat, announcing his intention of drowning himself at the Falls.

“It is known through a G.R.R. ticket agent who knew the teller that Howat bought a ticket for Niagara, and as all his belongings were left in his room, there seems to be no doubt that he carried out his tragic intention. He had been acting queerly for some time. Nothing is said of a shortage in the teller's cash. The manager thinks it was purely a case of mental derangement.”

Howat sighed, relieved. Again in his room he read the trifling news item, and wondered why so much had been kept back from the press. No mention had been made of the missing money, which his letters stated was the reason for his rash act. Doubtless the bank had considered it best to suppress the fact of the cash-shortage. The public might inquire as to the teller's salary! It was better to leave the impression that he had suicided in a fit of temporary insanity—a natural consequence of his queer actions—than to admit that the responsibilities of a heavy post on small pay had driven him into a state of melancholia where anything might happen.

Again the fugitive bankclerk swore to himself that he was glad he had gone through with the thing. He must harden himself until he was as hard as the men who had oppressed him as a clerk, and who always as in the matter of announcing his death, fully considered the expediency of everything. He had put over a little deal all by himself, and must come to regard it in the cold light of business. He had not swindled widows and orphans; he had swindled nobody: he had merely got some of the money that had been kept back from him for eight years—money that he had dearly earned. With this thought fully established in his mind he settled down to a strange, lonely manner of life in New York. He carried a little money with him all the time, but most of it was kept in his suitcase—until it would be safe to open a bank account somewhere.

At the end of two weeks Howat had nine hundred dollars in his possession, half of which was in United States currency. He found that he could live very nicely on twelve dollars a week, but he decided to allow himself fifteen. He would rest for a while; when half of the thousand was gone it would be time enough to look for work. He would take in the shows, see the sights, and prowl about town until the office-fag had left him and he felt familiar with the ways of a great city. By the time he came to apply for a position he would have confidence in himself.

His moustache grown, his hair cropped, and wearing glasses, Howat began to feel secure. He spoke regularly to no one except Mrs. Morang; with the lodgers he had nothing whatever to do. Occasionally he mailed himself a letter from Brooklyn or Hoboken, so that his landlady might not suspect anything. The habit of deception grew on him.

For weeks he lived the same shadowy life. He knew every star on Broadway and had learned a great deal about the Tenderloin. With his cane as sole companion he went about the city—and how many others were doing practically the same!—unknown, silent, watchful; The life was bound to grow intolerable.

As his money dwindled and as the summer spent itself Howat began to wonder how long things could go on as they were going. He had practically ceased to argue with himself over the crime he had committed in Toronto. The fact that he was believed to be dead made it impossible for him to go back; the public would have no sympathy with him. The temptation had come, indeed; but he had put it from him. He knew how much mercy the bank would show him.

“The oppressors,” as he called them, were ever on the watch for errors of all kinds, and specialized in making examples of the erring. Howat's hatred of them exaggerated their mercilessness in his own eyes, and made thought of penitent return as intolerable as hope of forgiveness was vain.

No, the bridges had been burned. He must push ahead. He could never again be B.M. Howat.

Late in October he decided to find a position. He was sick of the aimless existence he had been leading, and was conscious of an acute sense of loneliness and ostracism. He wanted to get back into the world again and be considered a human being. For months he had been nothing but a ghost. He felt a longing for congenial company, such as he had known in the bank back in Canada. He recalled, with a sigh, the pleasant life he had led in country towns throughout Ontario. What would some of his old friends think of him if they knew what he had done? Anyway, he was gone from them forever, and what they would or would not think made no difference now. He had facts, not fancies, to deal with; and the facts were that he was a new man, J.S. Short, about to begin the business life in a strange city.

For three weeks he looked in vain for a position. Finally deciding that a knowledge of typewriting would help him, he rented a machine, got a book of instruction, and began a hard and systematic practice. By the middle of November, having worked at the typewriter eight hours a day for twenty-five days, he had the touch method learned and was fairly rapid. Four hundred dollars of his money was now gone.

Through deception the ex-bankclerk finally secured a situation as book-keeper and typist in an advertising bureau. In making application he declared with an air of frankness that his home was in Chicago and that he had been a clerk there, but had quarreled with his employer and didn't care to send for references. The advertising manager was of the easy-going type, and he saw no reason why he should not give the applicant a trial. Probably he was glad to get any kind of a man as assistant book-keeper on twelve dollars a week. But the low salary did not daunt Howat. From the first he showed a determination to get on.

In time he won the confidence of his employer and confrères. His position kept him busy, and he was happier than he had been as a ghost about town. He suffered fits of despondency, of course, many of them, but these he willingly bore, considering them the penalty for what he had done in Toronto. He would not admit to himself that he had committed a crime, but he knew that he had done something unworthy, to say the least, and must put up with the after-effects.

Yes, months of solitude were telling on him. He was not the kind of stuff that criminals are made of. Hate, alone, had led him into the trap that circumstance had set for him.

When a man is in a passion he may suffer a physical wound unconsciously, but when his passion subsides he becomes aware of the smart. So it was with Howat. A new environment helped him forget the bank and the bankers, and as his hatred waned a consciousness of his own wrong-doing developed.

After a period of doubt there came misery-laden convictions. He was distrait and sad at last. In this state of mind it was natural that he should search for consolation and happiness outside of himself.

One day he discovered that there was something about a certain girl in the office that made him want to be in her presence. She asked him to help her fill in a paragraph of a letter, for which she had failed to make readable notes, and afterwards her eyes troubled him. They seemed to reflect the sadness and yearning that he felt in his own heart.

This was in December. Howat was living within his means and had six hundred dollars in the bank. A lodger, by the way, had peeked into his room one night and blasted his faith in suitcases.

He did not think of the money so much now as he had been doing: Marion Hessan was on his mind. He discovered, as time went on, that he did not care to have thought of the girl and the bank account enter the same brain-cell together.

In January the assistant book-keeper received an increase in salary of three dollars a week, and began to save money. Marion Hessan worked beside him—and made his daily task a pleasure. He acknowledged the fact eventually. One day he asked if he might take her to the theatre. Of course she refused, but she offered an explanation. Later he asked again—and she accepted.

The fugitive bankclerk was happy that evening; happier than he had been for a long time. After taking Marion to her home in the Bronx he went to his lodging fully convinced that he loved her. And although the realization at length brought him pain, it was not strong enough to smother his happiness.

On his way to the office next morning he saw a familiar face, and his blood seemed suddenly to turn cold. The man was an old customer of the X—— Bank, Toronto; Howat had waited on him often. Their eyes met, but the Toronto man showed no signs of recognition.

During the morning's duties Marion whispered to the assistant book-keeper that he looked ill. The tone in which she spoke caused his heart to throb sickeningly. Then, with the strange suddenness of a soul-reaction, there flashed upon his mind a great light in which he saw hope—and more. The light burned searchingly, and in its refining flare he saw the necessity for repentance.

The vision staggered him, but he thrilled with the joy of it, all day; and in the evening he prayed—something new for him.

He had set himself a task. He could not undo what had been done, but he could partially atone for it. He resolved to pay back the thousand dollars he had stolen! He would save up and add to what he already had in the bank, and when there was enough he would send a draft for the full amount to his old bank's guarantee company in Montreal, where all X—— Bank employees were insured. The company that had made good his defalcation need not know from whence the money came—indeed, they must not know. But they would have it back, and that was almost more than justice demanded.

His resolution working, Howat felt greatly relieved. It would take him six months more to save the money he needed, but he faced the work and the sacrifice without a whimper, knowing he had brought this punishment upon himself. He would need to live on eight dollars a week; but he knew, now, that he could do it, no matter how hard it might be.

The assistant book-keeper let Marion, to some extent, into his confidence. He told her that he had a debt to discharge and that he could not take her out for a long time, but that he liked her company and wanted to call on her. She proved that she understood and appreciated his friendship. He was introduced to her parents, to whom he volunteered the information that he was an orphan from Chicago, and before long a certain little flat in the Bronx was like home to him.

Spring had its natural effect upon the penitent man and the serious-minded young girl. They grew out of their friendship as naturally as the buds grew out of trees. They confessed things to each other. In his striving to save money and atone for a sin Howat lost his superficial fear. He saw wherein he had changed—and it was not alone the moustache and glasses that made him look thirty at twenty-five. Old friends would scarcely recognize him now, even if he spoke to them; and those friends were not at all likely to visit New York. He had nothing to fear—from without. The fear within—that was another matter.

Midsummer found him in possession of a thousand dollars. Before the interest was added he drew it from the bank—ten one-hundred-dollar notes. He would buy a draft at some other bank, where he was not known, and give a highly fictitious name. Better still—he would go to Philadelphia for the draft; then there would be absolutely no chance of his ever being traced.

The book-keeper got a day's leave of absence from work and caught a local train at the Pennsylvania Station. Folding his arms, to protect an inside pocket, he sat back in his seat, and closed his eyes to keep out the flying cinders. The heavy summer air blowing warm through the open windows as the train made speed made him drowsy and gradually he fell asleep. When he awakened his hand went swiftly to his inside coat-pocket—then he glanced around to make sure no one had observed the impulsive movement.

The train filled up at Newark and he was obliged to share his seat. The wind still blew warm through the windows. He dozed, slept—and awakened to find his money and his fellow-passenger gone.

Among the crowds that ferried across from Jersey City to New York that night were two men who had sat together in a train seat earlier in the day. Both of them had worn a moustache then, but only one did now—B.M. Howat, formerly of the X—— Bank, Toronto.

Worn-looking, despairing, Howat stumbled into his little room on Twenty-Second Street and lay undressed upon the bed. For a long while he could not think. He was in a species of nightmare. There were moments when he could scarcely convince himself that he was not on a train along the banks of the Hudson.

With a thousand dollars of stolen money in his pocket between Albany and New York he had felt keenly the injustice done him. He had thought not of his own crime but of the crimes of those he called “the oppressors.” But now, with the situation reversed, he felt nothing but remorse. The only thief that troubled him was himself.

His brain at length began to move. He saw, before him in the darkness, the man he had been. The seriousness of his crime grew and grew. He had not stolen a thousand dollars; he had stolen the fruits of a year's labor. No matter whose the money, it represented fifty weeks of toil on a wage of twenty dollars a week. He, B.M. Howat, had virtually condemned some fellow creature to work a year for him without pay, without food. It was like murder. For a moment, in his meditation, his old hatred against the bank had come back—but not because of its maltreatment of himself. He was unworthy of anything better. But others—how sinfully had they been treated! How many weeks, how many years, in the aggregate, had the oppressors forced their slaves to work without reward? Viewed from the new plane of life to which Howat had climbed through suffering, this sin of the oppressors looked infinite. But always he came back to the sin he himself had been guilty of; and when his strength was well spent he broke down and cried.

Two years—and they are easily written—had gone. J.S. Short was now head book-keeper with his company, and Marion Hessan was still by his side—though not at the office. In March he had sent a draft for one thousand dollars to Montreal. Now it was August.

On the back veranda of their inexpensive Bronx flat they sat together in the face of a hazy evening sun.

“Jack,” she said, ruffling his hair, “what do you mean by getting grey like this?”

“I suppose,” he smiled, “it's a sign of the cares and uncertainties of life.”

She stroked the grey hairs.

“I like them,” she said. “But what cares and uncertainties are there in your life?”

“You,” he answered.

She smiled, half seriously.

“You look tired to-night, boy,” she said, after regarding him in silence for a while.

He took her hand.

“Marion,” he said, “there's something I've never told you. It's about my health.”

Her eyes were wide-open.

“Sometimes—oh, once in a long while ” he continued, “I see an expression in people's faces that makes me feel queer. It must have something to do with the mind.”

Marion laughed skeptically at this, and asked him, with poor gravity:

“Did you see one to-day that frightened you, dear?”

“Yes,” he answered, “I did.”

But, of itself, his face smiled.

She called him a humorist and other things even more desirable. Then, as he answered the love and faith in her eyes, he swore to himself, for the thousandth time, that she should never be permitted to share his hell.