from Popular Magazine
Up Liberty Hill
by Ellis Parker Butler
Seven days after Brann's thirty-sixth birthday Ella received the telegram from Riverside. It contained just four words -- "Father died this morning" -- and was signed by Ella's cousin, Jessie. A few days later Ella received the letter from Jessie telling of the old man's peaceful demise, and in the letter was one sentence that was like a sentence of eternal servitude to Brann: "Father, in his will, leaves me a life interest in the estate; everything else goes to the hospital outright." This ended Brann's hope of anything coming from that source, and there was no other source.
Ella wept over the letter, tears that were in part because of the death of the kindly old man and in part because of the dull hopelessness of the future that he might so easily have made happy. Jessie's father had been Ella's only uncle. It was a disappointment, and a rather bitter one, that he had left nothing to them, but Sam and Ella did not mention this, even to each other. It meant that they must go on as they had been going, with the three children growing up and being more of an expense each year, the poor furniture getting shabby, and Sam's forehead showing deeper and deeper creases of worry.
The troubles of the Branns were not uncommon troubles. Except for Ella's operation -- and that had turned out favorably four years before -- they were nothing, as the saying is, that money could not cure. Sam Brann, after his marriage, had crept up to one hundred and fifty dollars a month in salary, and there he had clung -- hung on for dear life -- because of the debts that worried him, the mouths to feed, and the bodies to house and clothe.
Both he and Ella had hoped, not unreasonably, that Ella's Uncle Henry would leave them a few dollars. They had looked forward -- not eagerly, but with due regret for the event that must occur some time -- to a possibility that Uncle Henry's will would set Sam free. They felt bound hand and foot, and especially brain bound, by the debts. They hung like a dark menace over their lives, taking away all joy, making life a wearisome thing and making work a treadmill. Work should not be that. Work should be a pleasant satisfaction or a sane adventure in search of fortune.
The load of debt had taken the snap out of Sam Brann, and now it was drying the sap out of him. At thirty-six he felt old, and hated to feel so. He knew he was a better man than he had shown himself to be. He was confident he could hold down a bigger job than he held at Morley's, but he simply did not dare to cut loose from that sure one hundred and fifty a month. What he saw was himself using his talents as a life-insurance agent. He was so sure he could make good at that that he would have thrown up his job at Morley's in a minute -- if it had not been for Ella and the kids and those debts. The debts were eight hundred dollars.
Of their disappointment when their hope of something from Uncle Henry failed they said but this:
"Well," said Ella, "I suppose we will just go on as we have been going."
"I don't see what else we can do," Sam answered.
Nor did he see what else they could do, but he could not keep from wondering whether there was not something to be done. And every time he tried to think what could be done the thought of those debts came like a mist before his eyes and befogged his brain. They were like a fog wall across the road. As old man Strout said, they gave him the blind eye. They blinded him so that he could not see a way out.
Nevertheless, Sam Brann, angered by the thought that Ella had to patch and scrape and save and go without, tried to think of a way out.
It was one night, after he and Ella had gone to bed, that he decided. He had been reading in bed a book that was more interesting than any novel to him -- "The Modern Insurance Agent" -- and he got out of bed to extinguish the electric light.
"If I hadn't been fool enough to get married," he thought, "I could cut away from Morley tomorrow. A man is an idiot to marry when he --"
He turned for a last glance round the room. He went to the crib at the foot of the bed to see that the baby was tucked in.
"Poor kid!" he said, thinking of the near poverty the baby was to grow up to.
Then, as he went back to his own bed to turn out the light that was at its head, his eyes rested on Ella. She was sleeping, with her head resting on one cheek and one arm thrown above her head. Even after all these hard years, her nightdress showed that she wished to appear attractive to his eyes. It had a row of cheap insertion lace and an edging of lace, but it was so old that the fabric was rotten and it had torn across her breast. She had mended it carefully, but where the tear had been the stitching showed like a white scar.
Sam Brann stood for several minutes looking down at his sleeping wife. He remembered how much younger she had looked when he had married her.
"It's worry," he said. "Poor girl!" And then and there he decided to do what he had more than once thought of doing. It was not murder. It was not suicide. It was nothing like that, and yet -- to many men -- it has often been a sort of suicide. He decided to borrow money to pay his debts, and to borrow it in the only way a man in his position could borrow it.
At the door of the loan shark's office, Sam Brann paused, hesitating with his hand on the knob. He looked back along the corridor, but no one was in sight in the whole long, narrow, tile-floored hall. This relieved him somewhat, but, in addition to his reluctance to be seen entering Strout's, he had still some reluctance to take the step the opening of the door would initiate. Then he drew a deep breath and opened the door.
"Just inside the door," his friend Coston had told him that morning on the train to town, "you will find a girl -- a woman of about thirty-five -- sitting at a desk. You won't see Strout; he's seldom there. The girl will ask you what you want, and when you tell her she will slide a blank at you and ask you to fill it in, and she will go on with her work as if you did not exist. When you've got it filled in you shove it at her and she'll tell you to come back at such an hour on such a day. It's easy. With a man like you there won't be any trouble. You go back and get your money and sign the note; that's all."
"But if you take my advice," said Berkley, "you won't go near the place. I've been there! After my wife was sick I tried it. I was eight years between the teeth of that shark -- eight years! I'll bet I paid him five hundred dollars for a two-hundred-dollar loan. Oh, more than that! They eat you alive, those loan sharks. They suck your blood. It's like Coston says; it is easy to get in, but say! It's the devil and all to get out again. Keep away from them, Brann. You'll be sorry."
"I don't know that I'll try it," said Brann. "I just wondered about it. Who was that one you mentioned, Coston? I might as well have his address."
"You leave him alone, Brann," urged Berkley.
"His name's Strout. He's in the Mammoth Building, fifteenth floor, I think."
That very afternoon Brann had asked Morley for an hour or so, and now he was standing just inside the door that bore an inscription in gilt letters:
"E. STROUT, LOANS."
The room was much as Coston had described it, but as Brann closed the door behind him he noticed some things Coston had not mentioned. The desk, at which the girl of thirty-five was supposed to sit stood where he had said it would be, just outside the railing, but the girl of thirty-five was not there. In a far corner of the room, which was small, a bookkeeper stood at a tall desk, thumbing over a pile of record cards and making entries in a ledger. He had a thin, hard face, and chewed gum with quick, hard movements of his jaw. He did not look up when Brann came in.
At another desk, just inside the railing, another man sat with his back to the door, bending over a record book of considerable size, running down its columns with a pen.
There was not much wall space in the room, but where there was space a motto or picture hung. There were three pictures. One was a portrait of Billy Sunday with his fist raised in a vigorous elocutionary pose, a second was a good portrait of Henry Ward Beecher, the third was a trashy lithograph of the "Rock of Ages," with a splashy blue sea and a maiden with long, golden hair clinging to a heavy stone cross. The framed mottoes were not the usual "This is My Busy Day" sort. They were: "God Rules," "Honesty is the Best Policy," and even "Do As You Would Be Done By."
"The hypocrite!" thought Brann, and then the man at the desk turned suddenly and looked up at Brann. He was an old man. His face was seamed and cross-wrinkled, his hair long and white, but quite thin on top. As he looked at Brann he adjusted his rimless spectacles.
"Well, my friend," he asked, "what can I do for you?"
"I want to borrow some money," said Brann, coloring. "A friend of mine --"
"This is the place," said the old man. "Come in."
Brann fumbled with the catch of the railing gate and entered. He took the seat the old man indicated. Brann was perspiring with nervous shame. He felt as most those who entered Strout's door for the first time felt. Later, when they came to make the payments on the principal, and to pay the outrageous interest and to renew their notes for principal and interest, they felt otherwise, for the loan shark is the last resort of the beaten dog. Those who go there feel as an honest man always feels when he accepts assistance from a crook. No one likes to be seen entering or leaving a pawnshop, but a pawnbroker is an honest gentleman compared with the loan shark. Brann felt that his face was red and burning.
The old man closed the record book he had been studying and drew from a desk drawer a blank covered with questions.
"If you will just fill this out?" he suggested, and handed Brann a pen. Then he leaned back in his chair and took up a small, black-covered book and read to himself while Brann studied the blank and filled in the answers to the question. When the old man put down the book to receive the blank from Brann, Brann noticed what it was. It was a copy of the New Testament.
"Quite right!" said the old man. "All shipshape, I should say. Can you come back, say, Tuesday at three? Quite right! Good day, sir!"
Brann hurried out.
That night Brann told Ella what he had done.
"Won't you have to pay frightful interest, Sam?" she asked. "I've always heard that men who lend money like that just rob the people who borrow from them. Don't you have to pay a bonus or something every time the note is renewed?"
"That's not the question with me, Ella," said Sam. "Old Strout has not talked terms to me yet, but his terms are not what I am interested in. It is this thing of being in debt to forty different people and all of them worrying me all the time. I get so I can't think. It is as if I was in the middle of a flock of vultures and all of them flying at me so that I have to spend all my time beating them off. Strout may be a bigger vulture than any one of them, but he will be only one. I'll have time to think between his attacks. And, honey, when I get him paid up I'm going to get into the insurance game just as quick as I can."
"Of course you must do what you think best, Sam," his wife said.
He had amused her somewhat by telling her of the office, with its highly religious legends and portraits, and of Strout, who looked like a gospel shouter. "The mean, little, dried-up cuss," he called him. Tuesday at three, however, he was back in Strout's office, ready to accept whatever terms the loan shark proposed.
Strout and his bookkeeper were alone again, the bookkeeper as grimly indifferent as ever.
"Come in! Come in!" Strout exclaimed as he saw Brann. He put down the Testament he had been reading and turned his wrinkled face toward Brann, looking through the young man, studying him.
"My name is Brann," said Sam. "You told me to call today about a loan. I left an application blank --"
The old man chuckled, as at some good joke known to him alone.
"Hee! hee!" he cackled. "You think I'm Eli, don't you? I'm Elias. Eli was the money lender. He was my brother; he's dead. God rest his soul!" He shook his head slowly, and then repeated rather mournfully: "God rest his soul!"
Brann had seated himself at the old man's side. Now he arose.
"Sit down! Sit down!" said the old man. "Maybe I'll be better than Eli."
He fumbled in a pigeonhole until he found the blank Brann had filled out.
"Why did you want to borrow money from a loan shark?" he asked, looking up at Brann again. "Eli was that. He gripped 'em and he strangled 'em. He's dead now, God rest his soul! How many did he grip and strangle, Hoskins?"'
"Something over twelve thousand, all told," said the bookkeeper, and shut his jaw on his chewing gum again with a snap.
"Dreadful! Dreadful!" said the old man mournfully. "But I'm making amends; yes, I'm making amends. They keep coming here, poor fellows. Like you," he said, with something like suddenness, to Brann. Then he chuckled. "They come to the loan shark and they find the Debt Doctor."
His eyes actually twinkled as he said it. He put a thin hand on Brann's arm.
"That's what most of 'em need, a Debt Doctor," he said. "I thought of it myself. To make amends for Eli. Eli is dead, God rest his poor soul!"
He shot his thin arm toward another pigeonhole and put a printed slip in Brann's hand.
"Read it!" he ordered.
Brann took the slip and read what was printed on its two sides: "Let the Debt Doctor collect your slow accounts," it began. It was a well-written circular. "If I can collect a dollar here and a dollar there from your slow debtors," it said, "and you put the money in a savings bank at four per cent, in a few years you will have enough to discount all your bills." There were tables showing how the dollar here and the dollar there, put in the savings bank, increased. "Don't fret and fume to collect an old debt in a lump; let the Debt Doctor collect it little by little, the only way a slow debtor can pay."
There was much to that effect. The same thing was repeated over and over in different words, all insisting that the creditor accept small payments on account and bank them as a special fund. Brann handed the slip back to Elias Strout.
"Yes," he said, "but I wanted to borrow; I have no debts I want collected."
"And I don't collect debts," grinned old Elias. "Young man, I'm almost twice as old as you are. I can talk to you like a father. Tell me, right out, how do you feel about yourself?"
"Feel? About myself?" asked Sam, puzzled.
"Feel you are a big success in life, do you?" asked old Strout.
"Lord, no!" said Brann impulsively.
"Don't take the name of the Lord in vain," said Elias severely. "Well, then, what do you think of yourself?"'
"Oh, I'm a failure," said Brann rather hopelessly. "I'm one of the under dogs they tell about. I've got a miserable salary, I'm eight hundred dollars in debt, it takes about all I earn to pay living expenses, I've got a wife and three children to support --"
Elias chuckled in his dry way again.
"And you are a failure," he said. "Just so! Don't seem worth while for such a failure to go on living, does it? How long have you been married?"
"Fifteen years," said Brann.
Old Elias consulted the blank Brann had filled in.
"Right!" he said. "You've supported a wife fifteen years. Cost you not less than three hundred dollars at the lowest each year. That's forty-five hundred dollars. One child eleven years old cost you at least one hundred dollars a year, eleven hundred dollars. One child eight years old, eight years at one hundred dollars, eight hundred dollars. One child four years old, say three hundred dollars to date. That is sixty-seven hundred dollars you've paid out on account of the community, ain't it? I don't count your own support -- every man is expected to earn his own living -- but I'm figuring up what you've been worth to the community. You've produced three children and paid for the keep of them and your wife sixty-seven hundred dollars, and you owe eight hundred dollars. I don't see where the failure comes in, my son. Your community value shows a surplus of fifty-eight hundred dollars and three children. That's success for any man. Why, my friend, you've carried a load worth sixty-seven hundred to the community, and you had to run in debt only eight hundred dollars while you were doing it! That's fine! That's great!"
"A good part of the debt was for an operation my wife had to have," said Brann.
"Yes, think of that! Repairs for the good of the community!" said old Elias rather excitedly. "Why, you ought to be proud! Listen, is a bachelor who reaches thirty-six and is free from debt a good community asset? Absolutely! He has a right to feel proud of himself. And you have reached thirty-six, supported a wife, produced three children, and owe only a trifling eight hundred dollars. Why, my dear man, if that bachelor is worth par to the community you are worth three hundred and sixty! You have no reason to think poorly of yourself."
Brann looked with amusement at the excited old man.
"You fellows always think of money in the bank," said old Strout. "If you haven't money in the bank you think you are failures. And you are only thirty-six years old! Why, my son, the average man don't begin to amass a competence until he is forty-five. If a man begins to pile up money before he is forty it is most unusual. And you are only thirty-six." He turned toward the gum-chewing bookkeeper. "Hoskins," he said briskly, "give me that Bradbury chart."
The bookkeeper turned to a file and handed old Elias a stiff sheet of paper. Strout spread it out on the desk.
"See that title at the top?" he asked. "Says 'Liberty Hill.' I thought of that. I got up this chart. I thought of this whole idea. I sell these charts. Until Eli died I went about the country selling them. But brother Eli was such a rascal, such an eternal old shark -- he did so much evil -- that when he died and left me his money I just said I would come here and squat in his office and try to make up for some of the evil he did. And I'm doing it, son; I'm doing it! They keep coming here for loans and I set 'em right."
Brann examined the chart carelessly. The heavy paper was quadrille ruled -- ruled into small squares -- with a heavy line ruled at the top. Down the right-hand margin the rows of squares were marked five dollars, ten dollars, fifteen dollars, and so on, each horizontal row representing five dollars. The up-and-down rows were marked with months -- January, February, March, and so on. On this Bradbury chart a rough line began at January, 1899, and zigzagged up and across the chart until it reached the heavy line at the top in the row of squares marked May, 1903. The whole affair was greasy and soiled, as if it had been handled innumerable times.
"Hoskins," said old Elias, "what is Bradbury now?"
"General manager of the U. & G. Biscuit Company, salary fifteen thousand dollars," said the bookkeeper briefly.
"Was getting six hundred dollars a year, owed debts of three hundred and sixty, had a wife and baby, was thirty-two years old and thought he was a failure when I sold him the first chart I ever sold," said old Elias. "See, here he starts his line at three hundred and sixty dollars. It goes up five dollars the first month, seven and a half the second, ten dollars the next. It goes up and up and up. Here it goes down ten dollars -- Christmas he bought something for the wife and baby and let the grocer wait a month -- but it goes up eleven dollars the next month." Here he hits the Freedom Line. That's a Liberty Hill for you!"
"Some men can save enough out of their salaries --" Brann began.
"Bradbury couldn't," chuckled old Elias. "That's the point; he couldn't. He had the 'blind eye.' Have you got the 'blind eye?'"
"What's that?" asked Brann.
"When you try to think of your affairs the debts you owe come down over your eyes like a soft, black shutter," said Elias. "They are always there, in your brain, just above your eyes, ready to flop down and blind your thoughts. Honest, now, don't you think of your debts as a distressing mass, a soft, black wall you can't push through, something that keeps you from seeing the future clearly?"
"Why, yes," said Brann hesitatingly. "If I could just throw them aside and see ahead a few years --"
"This does it!" exclaimed old Strout, slapping the Bradbury chart. "You take the black wall, the eye-blinding something that worries you, and you turn it into a line and start it here. Then it is no longer something awful and mysterious; it is a line that you have to make climb up the chart month by month, up Liberty Hill to Freedom Heights."
For a minute Brann stared at the chart.
Said old Elias: "The way you do it is this: You buy a chart from me and take it home and show it to your wife and your children. You start your line at the bottom of your hill and you say: 'That's where we are now. When that line gets to here' -- and you show them the Freedom Line -- 'we will be free. Every month the line climbs upward is a glad month; every month it slips back a Square is a sad month. We'll all try to help, won't we, mother?' That's what you will say. Your wife will say: 'We certainly will!' Wives always say that. Then you put the chart where you and your wife can see it every day. On your bedroom wall is a good place."
Old Strout chuckled again.
"You'll break your necks to get that line up Liberty Hill," he said. "A dollar here and a dollar there; it is easy with the chart to urge you on and encourage you. And that's where this circular comes in."
He gave Brann again the circular headed "Let the Debt Doctor collect your slow accounts."
"I don't collect accounts," he said. "This is just to give your creditors the idea that small payments on old accounts are worth taking. They've been nagging you to pay up in full or you wouldn't have come here to borrow from a shark. They get this circular; you happen in and offer to pay a dollar now and then as you can save it; they jump at the chance, because the circular has prepared them for it."
"It strikes me as childish," said Brann.
"It looks as if I had to coax myself with a sort of picture thing," Brann said.
"The chart? Why, my dear young man, the chart is the one great discovery of modern business. I took the idea from big business, from the biggest business. Railroads, Standard Oil, banks, the governments -- they all use charts. A board of directors can't meet without a chart on the table. I'm a director in a small bank over in Jersey; we have a chart showing the deposits and how they have increased year by year, month by month, week by week. It is the first thing we look at when we enter the directors' room. Everybody is overworked there; all trying to get the bank in good, profit-paying shape. Only yesterday the cashier said to me: 'Strout, I'm about worked out, but I won't quit. That chart is keeping me going.' That's what charts do -- keep us going. Up and up! 'Excelsior' applied to business and turned into a picture, into a moving picture that changes week by week or month by month."
Strout was right. Modern business is done on charts. You can't talk with a big-business man ten minutes before he begins to talk about his charts, his summer "peaks" and his winter "valleys." It is always, "We expect to push our gross sales up" to some point not yet reached or, "We hit a new peak without profits" last week or last month or last year. In spite of himself Brann's brain began to itch for a chart, with a line that he could begin pushing upward.
"But the main reason I wanted to borrow a lump sum," he said, "was so I could cut loose from this poor job I have and get into another line -- life insurance."
"My son," said old Strout, "if you think you can make good in life insurance, or anything else, don't wait. There are two times when it is safe for a man to try a new field. One is when he had a lot of money in the bank; the other is when he is in debt over his ears. In the first instance he can stand a loss; in the second a loss won't hurt him."
"But my family?"
"Might starve, eh, while you are getting on your feet?" grinned Strout. "How many starving families do you see? My friend, there is a great deal more talk about failure than there are failures. Think of the failures you know --"
"I'm about the only one," said Brann.
"You're not a failure," said Strout angrily, as if Brann had offered him a personal insult. "You haven't tried anything that you could fail at. Wake up! Put your debts on a chart! Try something!"
"How much are the charts?" asked Brann.
"One dollar," said Elias. "Hoskins, give this young man a No. 9 chart."
That night Brann took the chart home and showed it to his wife with a feeling of mild shame, fearing she would accuse him of silliness. She listened while he explained its psychology.
"There is a good place for it between the clothes closet and the dresser," was what she said.
"But what do you think of it, Ella?" Sam asked. "Will you help me push the line up Liberty Hill?"
"Sam, you know I'm always willing to do everything I can. Of course. I was just thinking it was a pity -- but, of course, we can do that later."
"Why, make another chart, so Liberty Hill can go on climbing after it passes the Freedom Line," said Ella.
She was a little tremulous and doubtful when Sam told her he had decided to leave Morley and plunge into the insurance field immediately.
"Don't you think we ought to wait until we push Liberty Hill above the Freedom Line, Sam?" she asked.
"No, I don't," he said, "but I won't try it without your approval. The one important thing is that Liberty Hill. But listen, Ella --"
He explained why he thought he could make a success in the insurance line. He told her the methods and plans he had thought out.
"But I thought people never wanted insurance," she said. "I thought it was something that had to be forced on them."
"That's just where my plan differs," said Brann. "I'm going into the business on the theory that people do want insurance, and I know it is the right theory. Why, Ella, there is today more money invested in insurance policies than in any other form of investment in the world, I do believe. Now, when I go to a man --"
Brann made the plunge at the end of the month. The next month was one of somewhat hard sledding for the Branns, but Liberty Hill went upward like a steep cliff because when Sam went to his creditors to ask them to accept a dollar now and a dollar then he found they were willing to take out policies with him if he would pay all, or nearly all, his commission on his old accounts. Before the next month had passed he was well in the harness. He was placing policies with the friends he had counted on and opening the subject of insurance with new prospects -- laying the foundations for future business.
He found that being forced to use his own resources of brain and initiative was giving him new belief in himself, and, at the same time, he found that the insurance business was not such an unsupported affair as he had imagined. Back of him was the whole great company, every energy exerted to make his work easier.
Exactly two years and three months after he had gone to old Strout for a loan Brann went back to the office in the Mammoth Building. The day before he had paid the surgeon the last dollar of the bill for Ella's operation, and, although it was not yet the end of the month, he and Ella had carried the line of Liberty Hill to the Freedom Line, marking the chart with pen and ink.
When he entered the office old Elias sat at his desk, seemingly no older, still reading his New Testament. He looked up and seemed to recognize something familiar in Brann's face.
"You don't know me?" said Sam. "I'm Samuel Brann. You sold me a chart a little over two years ago. I just thought I would drop in and say I have run Liberty Hill up to the Freedom Line."
Old Elias put down his book.
"Yes, yes," he said. "They all do. Hoskins, let me have one of the Mount Independence charts." He looked at Brann through his rimless spectacles, took in his clean-cut face, his pleased smile. "Give me one of the five-year charts, ruled for a ten-thousand-dollar hill," he said.
"That ought to be about right," said Brann.