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A short story by Ambrose Bierce

Converting A Prodigal

Title:     Converting A Prodigal
Author: Ambrose Bierce [More Titles by Bierce]

Little Johnny was a saving youth--one who from early infancy had cultivated a provident habit. When other little boys were wasting their substance in riotous gingerbread and molasses candy, investing in missionary enterprises which paid no dividends, subscribing to the North Labrador Orphan Fund, and sending capital out of the country gene rally, Johnny would be sticking sixpences into the chimney-pot of a big tin house with "BANK" painted on it in red letters above an illusory door. Or he would put out odd pennies at appalling rates of interest, with his parents, and bank the income. He was never weary of dropping coppers into that insatiable chimney-pot, and leaving them there. In this latter respect he differed notably from his elder brother, Charlie; for, although Charles was fond of banking too, he was addicted to such frequent runs upon the institution with a hatchet, that it kept his parents honourably poor to purchase banks for him; so they were reluctantly compelled to discourage the depositing element in his panicky nature.

Johnny was not above work, either; to him "the dignity of labour" was not a juiceless platitude, as it is to me, but a living, nourishing truth, as satisfying and wholesome as that two sides of a triangle are equal to one side of bacon. He would hold horses for gentlemen who desired to step into a bar to inquire for letters. He would pursue the fleeting pig at the behest of a drover. He would carry water to the lions of a travelling menagerie, or do anything, for gain. He was sharp-witted too: before conveying a drop of comfort to the parching king of beasts, he would stipulate for six-pence instead of the usual free ticket--or "tasting order," so to speak. He cared not a button for the show.

The first hard work Johnny did of a morning was to look over the house for fugitive pins, needles, hair-pins, matches, and other unconsidered trifles; and if he sometimes found these where nobody had lost them, he made such reparation as was in his power by losing them again where nobody but he could find them. In the course of time, when he had garnered a good many, he would "realize," and bank the proceeds.

Nor was he weakly superstitious, this Johnny. You could not fool _him_ with the Santa Claus hoax on Christmas Eve: he would lie awake all night, as sceptical as a priest; and along toward morning, getting quietly out of bed, would examine the pendent stockings of the other children, to satisfy himself the predicted presents were not there; and in the morning it always turned out that they were not. Then, when the other children cried because they did not get anything, and the parents affected surprise (as if they really believed in the venerable fiction), Johnny was too manly to utter a whimper: he would simply slip out of the back door, and engage in traffic with affluent orphans; disposing of woolly horses, tin whistles, marbles, tops, dolls, and sugar archangels, at a ruinous discount for cash. He continued these provident courses for nine long years, always banking his accretions with scrupulous care. Everybody predicted he would one day be a merchant prince or a railway king; and some added he would sell his crown to the junk-dealers.

His unthrifty brother, meanwhile, kept growing worse and worse. He was so careless of wealth--so so wastefully extravagant of lucre--that Johnny felt it his duty at times to clandestinely assume control of the fraternal finances, lest the habit of squandering should wreck the fraternal moral sense. It was plain that Charles had entered upon the broad road which leads from the cradle to the workhouse--and that he rather liked the travelling. So profuse was his prodigality that there were grave suspicions as to his method of acquiring what he so openly disbursed. There was but one opinion as to the melancholy termination of his career--a termination which he seemed to regard as eminently desirable. But one day, when the good pastor put it at him in so many words, Charles gave token of some apprehension.

"Do you really think so, sir?" said he, thoughtfully; "ain't you playin' it on me?"

"I assure you, Charles," said the good man, catching a ray of hope from the boy's dawning seriousness, "you will certainly end your days in a workhouse, unless you speedily abandon your course of extravagance. There is nothing like habit--nothing!"

Charles may have thought that, considering his frequent and lavish contributions to the missionary fund, the parson was rather hard upon him; but he did not say so. He went away in mournful silence, and began pelting a blind beggar with coppers.

One day, when Johnny had been more than usually provident, and Charles proportionately prodigal, their father, having exhausted moral suasion to no apparent purpose, determined to have recourse to a lower order of argument: he would try to win Charles to economy by an appeal to his grosser nature. So he convened the entire family, and,

"Johnny," said he, "do you think you have much money in your bank? You ought to have saved a considerable sum in nine years."

Johnny took the alarm in a minute: perhaps there was some barefooted little girl to be endowed with Sunday-school books.

"No," he answered, reflectively, "I don't think there can be much. There's been a good deal of cold weather this winter, and you know how metal shrinks! No-o-o, I'm sure there can't be only a little."

"Well, Johnny, you go up and bring down your bank. We'll see. Perhaps Charles may be right, after all; and it's not worth while to save money. I don't want a son of mine to get into a bad habit unless it pays."

So Johnny travelled reluctantly up to his garret, and went to the corner where his big tin bank-box had sat on a chest undisturbed for years. He had long ago fortified himself against temptation by vowing never to even shake it; for he remembered that formerly when Charles used to shake his, and rattle the coins inside, he always ended by smashing in the roof. Johnny approached his bank, and taking hold of the cornice on either side, braced himself, gave a strong lift upwards, and keeled over upon his back with the edifice atop of him, like one of the figures in a picture of the great Lisbon earthquake! There was but a single coin in it; and that, by an ingenious device, was suspended in the centre, so that every piece popped in at the chimney would clink upon it in passing through Charlie's little hole into Charlie's little stocking hanging innocently beneath.

Of course restitution was out of the question; and even Johnny felt that any merely temporal punishment would be weakly inadequate to the demands of justice. But that night, in the dead silence of his chamber, Johnny registered a great and solemn swear that so soon as he could worry together a little capital, he would fling his feeble remaining energies into the spendthrift business. And he did so.

[The end]
Ambrose Bierce's short story: Converting A Prodigal