Mr. R. S. Ashley, his wife, and his sixteen-year-old son had arrived in Chicago and were staying at the Great Northern. They had come from their little home in western Iowa to see the World’s Fair – a visit they had planned and looked forward to since a certain evening in early spring when Ashley had brought home an “Official Guide,” and had unfolded to the family his scheme for “Tad’s graduation present” and “mother’s long-earned holiday.” And so all through his last term in the high school, the final examinations, and the graduation exercises, Tad was dreaming of the trip to come. To Ashley himself there was more pleasure in the planning than the actual going. Every night after business hours he would get out the guide book and with “Tad” and “mother” plan little excursions over the grounds, little programs for the evenings, and little lists of things to purchase for their friends. The memoranda he would place in his note-book along with another list of pleasure which he alone had planned for his wife and son. This list he had not permitted them to see.
Mrs. Ashley, however, found more real pleasure in the planning than either her husband or her son. For weeks she had had a dressmaker in the house, cutting and sewing and fitting, and all the neighbors had been in to advise and help, and talk it over, until Ashley declared that the place resembled nothing so much as the good old church sewing societies of his youth. But he encouraged his wife in it all. The eighteen years of their married life had been too busy for much pleasure. Her time had been filled with household duties, his with the building up of his moderate business. He was getting on his feet now. Nothing remained but the small mortgage on the home and one note to the local bank which he hoped to meet in the fall. So he encouraged his wife in her planning, and actually took delight in her little feminine extravagancies.
“That’s right, Jane,” he had said, “just get anything you wish. I want you to look your best, little mother – equal to any of ‘em. And you’ll do it, too. Why, Tad, your mother’s just as good looking as when I met her twenty years ago at Johnson’s party. For eighteen years we’ve slaved and never had a vacation – not so much as a trip back to the old home in Vermont. So we’re going now in the best of style. We’ll spend some money, and see something, and make up for lost time.”
So they had come to Chicago and were staying at the Great Northern. It was the morning after their arrival, and they were taking breakfast.
“Why, father,” said Tad suddenly, looking up from the morning paper, “it says here that the Louisiana Land and Improvement Company has gone under. That’s our Mr. Merrill’s southern land scheme we’ve heard so much about, isn’t it?”
“It can’t be. Let me look at it.” Ashley took the paper, but it trembled slightly in his hand. “Yes, that’s the company. I wonder what could have caused it. Thought Merrill was solid as a rock, but you can’t tell now-a-days. That looks rather bad for our -” But Ashley did not finish his sentence. From his inside coat pocket he took out his notebook, selecting the slip marked with the program for that day. He did not look at the newspaper again.
The evening dailies confirmed the report of the failure, and ascribed it to the closing of a large Philadelphia bank which had been deeply interested in the southern company. The failure, the article went on to say, would be felt most heavily by Iowa and Nebraska bankers, who, through Merrill’s efforts, had been drawn into the southern enterprise. If Merrill’s bank at Des Moines were forced to the wall, it would pull down ten or fifteen smaller country banks. Ashley felt certain that his home bank would be one of these. Merrill had started it several years before his removal to Des Moines and his great financial success there. But though Merrill was said to hold no stock in the smaller bank, his former connection would have its bearing on the future course of that institution. Ashley understood the situation perfectly, and, more than that, he understood how vitally it affedcted him and how much it might mean to him and his family. But through it all not once did his fears reach his face.
“We’ll go and see Sol Smith Russell tonight,” he said cheerily. “It’s years since we’ve seen a good play. They say he’s one of the best players in the city. And I’ve got the best seats in the house – right down in front by the stage.” And the three went and laughed and cried over the homely play which touched their hearts to the very depths.
The next morning was Sunday and they came down to breakfast rather late for them. Tad opened the paper.
“Here’s more about the big Louisiana failure, father. It’s pulled in Mr. Merrill – yes, and here’s a whole lot of little banks, too. I wonder if –--“
“Just let me glance at that a moment.” Ashley took the newspaper. “It’s too bad for Merrill – probably it’ll eat up everything he owns. I feel more sorry for his family, though. They’ve lived a high life since they left our town and it’ll go hardest with them.” Then he glanced at the special dispatch from Des Moines. The bank of his home town was one of the first in the list of those which were affected. Ashley folded the paper slowly and placed it in his outer coat pocket. Then he turned to his wife, who had been giving her order and had not heard the conversation between the two.
“Where do we go to church this morning? One of the large ones. Just wait until I find it. Oh, yes, we’ll go to hear Dr. Gunsaulus, and in the afternoon out to Lincoln Park.”
When they came in that evening a telegram was awaiting Ashley. He thrust it into his inside coat pocket unopened and met Mrs. Ashley’s tired but happy face.
“Now for some supper and then to bed early. I’m half famished and dead tired. Tomorrow we’ll start in to do the fair systematically, and see everything there is to see if it takes us a month.”
They had their supper and then Ashley escorted his wife up the elevator and to her room. Tad remained in the office below.
“Now, you go to bed right away, little mother, and rest up completely. Tad and I’ll sit down in the office a little while and then turn in.”
Coming back, Ashley took his boy by the arm and drew him into a window of one of the little side rooms.
“Tad, read that,” and Ashley handed his son the telegram which he had taken from the envelope during his absence. It was several moments before the boy fully understood. The father sat silently gazing out into the night.
“Tad, I owe that bank a good deal of money. I’d hoped to straighten it up this year, but I can’t meet the note just now. If the bank won’t give me time, it means ruination. I don’t know what they’ll do, but if they call in their paper now, I’ll lose everything – home and all. That mortgage on the home is the worst thing. Why, my God, it would kill mother to have to give it up after nearly twenty years there.” And his voice broke. Then in a moment he went on quietly:
“She must not know. I must leave on the midnight train and you must tell her it was important business. Explain it away somehow – I leave that to you. She’s tired now and sleeping, and it’s best not to wake her. She’d only worry. You must look after her now, my boy.”
For hours father and son sat there in the little room and talked – talked of many things – talked for the first time in their lives as man to man. Then Ashley went up to his room and tenderly kissed his sleeping wife. Coming down again he handed over the little slips and a roll of bills to Tad. He grasped the boy by the shoulder and wrung his hand quickly, and then left him with a husky goodbye.
The next day two telegrams came to the Great Northern from a little Iowa town.
Mrs. Ashley’s read: “Arrived this morning. Made big business deal. Everything all right. Detained here. Love to you both.”
Tad’s read: “Bank foreclosed at noon today. Lost everything, but saved home. Keep dark to mother. Give her one good time till money runs out.”
Harry Graves Shedd
The Kiote, March 1898