The Dignity of Dollars

Overland Monthly/July, 1900

WHAT a blind, helpless creature man is after all, and how hopelessly inconsistent! He looks back with pride upon his goodly heritage of the ages, and yet obeys unwittingly every mandate of that heritage; for it is incarnate with him, and in it are imbedded the deepest roots of his soul. Strive as he will, he cannot escape it—unless he be a genius, one of those rare creations to whom alone is granted the God-given privilege of doing entirely new and original things in entirely new and original ways. But the common clay-born man, possessing only talents, may do only what has been done before him. At the best, if he work hard, and cherish himself exceedingly, he may duplicate any or all previous performances of his kind; he may even do some of them better; but there he stops, the composite hand of his whole ancestry bearing heavily upon him.

And again, in the matter of his ideas, which have been thrust upon him, and which he has been busily garnering from the great world-harvest ever since the day when his eyes first focused and he drew, startled, against the warm breast of his mother—the tyranny of these he cannot shake off. Servants of his will, they at the same time master his destiny. They may not coerce genius, but they dictate and sway every action of the clay-born. If he hesitates on the verge of a new departure, they whip him back into the well-greased groove; if he pause, bewildered, at sight of some unexplored domain, they rise like ubiquitous finger-posts and direct him by the village path to the communal meadow. And he permits these things, and continues to permit them, for he cannot help them, and he is a slave. Out of his ideas he may weave cunning theories, beautiful ideals; but he is working with ropes of sand. At the slightest stress, the last least bit of cohesion flits away, and each idea flies apart from its fellows, while all clamor that he do this thing, or think this thing, in the ancient and time-honored way. He is only a clay-born; so he bends his neck. He knows further that the clay-born are a pitiful, pitiless majority, and that he may do nothing which they do not do.

It is only in some way such as this that we may understand and explain the dignity which attaches itself to dollars. In the watches of the night, whether in the silent chamber or under the eternal stars, we may assure ourselves that there is no such dignity; but jostling with our fellows in the white light of day, we find that it does exist, and that we ourselves measure ourselves by the dollars we happen to possess. They give us confidence and carriage and dignity—aye, a personal dignity which goes down deeper than the garments with which we hide our nakedness. The world, when it knows nothing else of him, measures a man by his clothes; but the man himself, if he be neither a genius nor a philosopher, but merely a clay-born, measures himself by his pocketbook. He cannot help it, and can no more fling it from him than can the bashful young man his self-consciousness when crossing a ballroom floor.

I remember once absenting myself from civilization for weary months. When I returned, it was to a strange city in another country. The people were but slightly removed from my own breed, and they spoke the same tongue, barring a certain barbarous ascent which I learned was far older than the one imbibed by me with my mother’s milk. A fur cap, soiled and singed by many camp-fires, half sheltered the shaggy tendrils of my uncut hair. My foot-gear was of walrus-hide, cunningly blended with seal-gut. The remainder of my dress was as primal and uncouth. I was a sight to give merriment to gods and men. Olympus must have roared at my coming. The world, knowing me not, could judge me by my clothes alone. But I refused to be judged. My spiritual backbone stiffened, and I held my head high, looking all men in the eyes. And I did these things, not that I was an egotist, not that I was impervious to the critical glances of my fellows, but because of a certain hogskin belt, plethoric and sweat-bewrinkled, which buckled next the skin above the hips. O, it’s absurd, I grant, but had that belt not been so circumstanced and so situated, I should have shrunk away into side-streets and backalleys, walking humbly and avoiding all gregarious humans except those who were likewise abroad without belts. Why? I do not know, save that in such way did my fathers before me.

Viewed in the light of sober reason, the whole thing was preposterous. But I walked down the gangplank with the mien of a hero, of a barbarian who knew himself to be greater than the civilization he threaded. I was possessed of the arrogance of a Roman governor. At last I knew what it was to be born to the purple, and I took my seat in the hotel carriage as though it were my chariot about to proceed with me to the imperial palace. People discreetly dropped their eyes before my proud gaze, and into their hearts I know I forced the query, What manner of man can this mortal be? I was superior to convention, and the very garb which otherwise would have damned me tended toward my elevation. And all this was due, not to my royal lineage, nor to the deeds I had done and the champions I had overthrown, but to a certain hogskin belt buckled next the skin. The sweat of months was upon it, toil had defaced it, and it was not a creation such as would appeal to the aesthetic mind; but it was plethoric. There was the arcanum—nay, arcana, for each yellow grain conduced to my exaltation, and the sum of these grains was the sum of my mightiness. Had they been less, just so would have been my stature; more, and I would have reached the sky.

And this was my royal progress through that most loyal city. I purchased a host of indispensables from the tradespeople, and bought me such pleasures and diversions as befitted one who had long been denied. I scattered my gold lavishly, nor did I chaffer over prices in mart or exchange. And because of these things I did, I demanded homage. Nor was it refused. I moved through wind-swept groves of limber backs; across sunny glades, lighted by the beaming rays from a thousand obsequious eyes; and when I tired of this, basked on the greensward of popular approval. Money was very good, I thought, and for the time was content. But there rushed upon me the words of Erasmus, “When I get some money I shall buy me some Greek books, and afterward some clothes,” and a great shame wrapped me around. But, luckily for my soul’s welfare, I reflected and was saved. By the clearer vision vouchsafed me, I held Erasmus, fire-flashing, heaven-born, while I—I was merely a clay-born, a son of earth. For a giddy moment I had for forgotten this and tottered. And I rolled over on my greensward, caught a glimpse of a regiment of undulating backs, and thanked my particular gods that such moods of madness were passing brief.

But on another day, receiving with kingly condescension the service of my good subjects’ backs, I remembered the words of another man, long since laid away, who was by birth a nobleman, by nature a philosopher and a gentleman, and who by circumstance yielded up his head upon the block. “That a man of lead,” he once remarked, “who has no more sense than a log of wood, and is as bad as he is foolish, should have many wise and good men to serve him, only because he has a great heap of that metal; and that if, by some accident or trick of law (which sometimes produces as great changes as chance itself), all this wealth should pass from the master to the meanest varlet of his whole family, he himself would very soon become one of his servants, as if he were a thing that belonged to his wealth, and so was bound to follow its fortune.”

And when I had remembered this much, I unwisely failed to pause and reflect. So I gathered my belongings together, cinched my hogskin belt tight about me, and went away to my own country. It was a very foolish thing to do. I am sure it was. But when I had recovered my reason, I fell upon my particular gods and berated them mightily, and as penance for their watchlessness placed them away amongst dust and cobwebs. Oh no, not for long. They are again enshrined, as bright and polished as of yore, and my destiny is once more in their keeping.

It is given that travail and vicissitude mark time to man’s footsteps as he stumbles onward toward the grave; and it is well. Without the bitter one may not know the sweet. The other day — nay, it was but yesterday — I fell before the rhythm of fortune. The inexorable pendulum had swung the counter direction, and there was upon me an urgent need. The hogskin belt was flat as famine, nor did it longer gird my loins. From my window I could descry, at no great distance, a very ordinary mortal of a man, working industriously among his cabbages. I thought: Here am I, capable of teaching him much concerning the field wherein he labors, — the nitrogenic-why of the fertilizer, the alchemy of the sun, the microscopic cell-structure of the plant, the cryptic chemistry of root and runner, — but thereat he straightened his work-wearied back and rested. His eyes wandered over what he had produced in the sweat of his brow, then on to mine. And as he stood there drearily, he became reproach incarnate. “Unstable as water,” he said (I am sure he did), — “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel. Man, where are your cabbages?”

I shrank back. Then I waxed rebellious. I refused to answer the question. He had no right to ask it, and his presence was an affront upon the landscape. And a dignity entered into me, and my neck was stiffened, my head poised. I gathered together certain certificates of goods and chattels, pointed my heels toward him and his cabbages, and journeyed townward. I was yet a man. There was naught in those certificates to be ashamed of. But alack-a-day! While my heels thrust the cabbageman beyond the horizon, my toes were drawing me, faltering, like a timid old beggar, into a roaring spate of humanity — men, women, and children without end. They had no concern with me, nor I with them. I knew it; I felt it. Like She, after her fire-bath in the womb of the world, 1 dwindled in my own sight. My feet were uncertain and heavy, and my soul became as a meal sack, limp with emptiness and tied in the middle. People looked upon me scornfully, pitifully, reproachfully. (I can swear they did.) In every eye I read the question, Man, where are your cabbages?

So I avoided their looks, shrinking close to the curbstone and by furtive glances directing my progress. At last I came hard by the place, and peering stealthily to the right and left that none who knew might behold me, I entered hurriedly, in the manner of one committing an abomination. ‘Fore God! I had done no evil, nor had I wronged any man, nor did I contemplate evil; yet was I aware of evil. Why? I do not know, save that there goes much dignity with dollars, and being devoid of the one I was destitute of the other. The person I sought practised a profession as ancient as the oracles but far more lucrative. It is mentioned in Exodus; so it must have been created soon after the foundations of the world; and despite the thunder of ecclesiastics and the mailed hand of kings and conquerors, it has endured even to this day. Nor is it unfair to presume that the accounts of this most remarkable business will not be closed until the Trumps of Doom are sounded and all things brought to final balance.

Wherefore it was in fear and trembling, and with great modesty of spirit, that I entered the Presence. To confess that I was shocked were to do my feelings an injustice. Perhaps the blame may be shouldered upon Shylock, Fagin, and their ilk; but I had conceived an entirely different type of individual. This man — why, he was clean to look at, his eyes were blue, with the tired look of scholarly lucubrations, and his skin had the normal pallor of sedentary existence. He was reading a book, sober and leather-bound, while on his finely moulded, intellectual head reposed a black skull-cap. For all the world his look and attitude were those of a college professor. My heart gave a great leap. Here was hope!

But no; he fixed me with a cold and glittering eye, searching with the chill of space till my financial status stood before him shivering and ashamed. I communed with myself: By his brow he is a thinker, but his intellect has been prostituted to a mercenary exaction of toll from misery. His nerve centres of judgment and will have not been employed in solving the problems of life, but in maintaining his own solvency by the insolvency of others. He trades upon sorrow and draws a livelihood from misfortune. He transmutes tears into treasure, and from nakedness and hunger garbs himself in clean linen and develops the round of his belly. He is a bloodsucker and a vampire. He lays unholy hands on heaven and hell at cent per cent, and his very existence is a sacrilege and a blasphemy. And yet here am I, wilting before him, an arrant coward, with no respect for him and less for myself. Why should this shame be? Let me rouse in my strength and smite him, and by so doing, wipe clean one offensive page.

But no. As I said, he fixed me with a cold and glittering eye, and in it was the aristocrat’s undisguised contempt for the canaille. Behind him was the solid phalanx of a bourgeois society. Law and order upheld him, while I titubated, cabbageless, on the ragged edge. Moreover, he was possessed of a formula whereby to extract juice from a flattened, lemon, and he would do business with me.

I told him my desires humbly, in quavering syllables. In return, he craved my antecedents and residence, pried into my private life, insolently demanded how many children had I and did I live in wedlock, and asked divers other unseemly and degrading questions. Aye, I was treated like a thief convicted before the act, till I produced my certificates of goods and chattels aforementioned. Never had they appeared so insignificant and paltry as then, when he sniffed over them with the air of one disdainfully doing a disagreeable task. It is said, “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of Anything that is lent upon usury;” but he evidently was not my brother, for he demanded seventy per cent. I put my signature to certain indentures, received my pottage, and fled from his presence.

Faugh! I was glad to be quit of it. How good the outside air was! I only prayed that neither my best friend nor my worst enemy should ever become aware of what had just transpired. Ere I had gone a block I noticed that the sun had brightened perceptibly, the streets become less sordid, the gutter mud less filthy. In people’s eyes the cabbage question no longer brooded. And there was a spring to my body, an elasticity of step as I covered the pavement. Within me coursed an unwonted sap, and I felt as though I were about to burst out into leaves and buds and green things. My brain was clear and refreshed. There was a new strength to my arm. My nerves were tingling and I was a-pulse with the times. All men were my brothers. Save one — yes, save one. I would go back and, wreck the establishment. I would disrupt that leather-bound volume, violate that black skull-cap, burn the accounts. But before fancy could father the act, I recollected myself and all which had passed. Nor, did I marvel at my new-born might, at my ancient dignity which had returned. There was a tinkling chink as I ran the yellow pieces through my fingers, and with the golden music rippling round me I caught a deeper insight into the mystery of things.

Oakland, California,
February, 1900