Through a Bank Window
FOR more than eight contented years I have counted it “ my blessing, not my doom,” that during the greater part of the day I look forth upon the world through the bronze gratings of a bank window; and, owing perhaps to some fatal defect in my sensibilities, throughout all these years it has never once occurred to me to look upon my work in a critical or apologetic spirit. Therefore it was something of a shock to me, when I was accosted this morning by an acquaintance who said in a pitying tone, —
“ Poor girl, how monotonous you must find life, obliged as you are to spend all your days in the prosaic atmosphere of a bank!”
The immediate effect of this gratuitous sympathy was to make me very angry; and though I answered the lady politely, I found myself soliloquizing somewhat after this fashion: —
“ Prosaic! Monotonous! Humph! I’d be willing, my condescending friend, to wager my next month’s salary that more interesting events come within my ken each day than you are privileged to witness in a year of your comfortable, wellpadded existence! ”
After a time, however, my sense of humor came to the rescue, and, my indignation gradually fading away, I was able to enter upon my morning’s duties in a smiling state of mind, and, becoming absorbed in the day’s work, soon forgot the incident entirely.
But to-night, at the end of a toilsome day, the words come back to me; and I find myself longing for the pen of the ready writer, that I might set forth somewhat of the tense and living interest with which the atmosphere about me has seemed vibrant. There is never a day that does not hold some incident worthy of remembrance, but this day has been unusual, inasmuch as each hour made some striking demand upon our notice.
Scarcely had the great doors been thrown open this morning, when three men of foreign aspect crowded up to the desk of the foreign-exchange manager (that kindly man whose patience with these strangers within our gates has no bounds). The men were easily recognized as Greeks; only one of them could speak English, and the other two were dependent upon him for the stating of their needs and the information they desired. Through the interpreter it was learned that they were father and son, and that they wished to send home for the wife and mother. A simple little story, but I assure you this was a great moment in the lives of these swarthy strangers; and as they counted out the dirty United States bills in exchange for which they were to receive a draft on Athens, I thought of the long days of toil in the blistering sun that that money represented, and it seemed to me that it took no small courage and faith to hand over these hard-earned dollars to a man of alien blood and speech, in exchange for a bit of (to them) meaningless paper.
But as I scanned the faces of the two men while they waited for the draft, I saw there shining bravely the goodly trinity of faith, courage, and hope; and I wondered what sort of a patient, brave old mother it was who was coming across the broad seas to make a home for these two.
The father was not feebly old, but a certain weary look upon his face spoke of many disappointments and hardships endured, — the face of the life-long laborer who must toil with all his strength for a bare living. But if the father’s countenance was heavy with the burdens of life, not so the son’s: here was youth with all its fire and vigor! His features were fine and sensitive, and in his dreamy dark eyes, to my fancy, there lurked haunting memories of the blue Ægean and the ancient glories of his race.
Truly the face of a poet this, and had fate granted it to him to be born in a different time, surely this lad must have been a poet, — one like Theocritus perchance: for here, too, was a soul who would have found very sweet the music of the whispering pine trees, and on a rustic lute would have piped us sweet melodies of woodland nymphs, and songs of the fishermen who rise before the dawn to prepare the nets.
And so it was that my day began with a sight of a humble devotion interwoven with thoughts of old songs and myths of that Golden Age when all the world was young, and sadness and toil were yet unknown.
The next occurrence of the morning, however, had a very modern flavor! A woman, evidently bewildered by the intricacies of cashing a check, took her departure in such haste as to forget her twoyear-old son, whom she had placed upon a divan in the bank’s corridor, while she transacted her business.
For a time the child was so quiet that he was not noticed, but as a realization of his motherless state began to dawn upon him, the youngster sent forth a wail that speedily brought him to the attention of all within hearing.
Several of the masculine part of the bank’s force took their stand about this protesting bit of humanity; but while anxious to quiet his wails, one by one they were forced to acknowledge their helplessness.
In the mean time, remembering that discretion is the better part of valor, I, who feel that I am better qualified to discuss rates of discount and exchange than to care for deserted babies, kept myself very much in the background. But while endeavoring to look unconcerned, I was in reality longing to comfort the clamorous child, and was glad when a word from that most kindly disposed man, our president, summoned me upon the scene.
Bracing myself for a new experience, I approached the baby and took him in my arms. As I did so, the poor little chap seemed to recognize in me a long-lost friend, and burrowing his face on my shoulder, after a few heart-breaking sobs, allowed himself to be petted into quietness. And when he finally lifted his small, pink, tear-stained countenance, and looked about him with a timid little smile, exactly as if he were apologizing for the trouble he had caused, the while he clung tightly to me, I must confess to a moment of most rapturous conceit. However, my egotism, being of a mushroom growth, perished as quickly, for in a few moments’ time, the mother of the baby rushed in quite as frantically as she had rushed forth, and from the manner in which she snatched the baby from me, I judged that she feared she would find it a more difficult matter to redeem her baby than, unidentified, to cash a check. As one of “ the boys ” said, “ Perhaps she thought we wanted to keep the lad for a burglar alarm! ”
The balance of the morning passed by uneventfully; but early in the afternoon, one of our tellers distinguished himself by identifying, as a much-wanted criminal, a man who was even then presenting a forged cheek. It was a clever bit of detective work, performed so quietly that few of the customers who were in the bank knew what had transpired, or realized what the presence of the bluecoated chief of police in conference with our president betokened. But if the occurrence created little comment among those outside the bank windows, within the clerks were all agog with excitement, while the quick-witted teller endeavored to act as though he were in the habit of playing Sherlock Holmes every day of his life, and accepted the admiration of his fellow workers with an air of nonchalance that deceived no one.
Later in the afternoon another incident came within my notice: homely as to details, but full of pathos. It was near three in the afternoon when an old weatherbeaten farmer approached the cashier’s desk, and pulling out a well-stuffed wallet asked for a New York draft for seven hundred dollars, and then proceeded to count out that amount in bills. While the draft was being prepared, the farmer grew confidential and unfolded a touching story of parental devotion.
“ You see, mister, it’s this way,” he began. “ Jim’s a mighty bright fellow, and I reckon if his luck ever turns he ’ll make some stir in the world. It’s five years now since he went out to Arizony, and he’s had a hard time of it so far. Been sick some, and twice he’s been robbed by his partners, but now he’s got a claim that he calc’lates is about as good as they make ’em even in old Arizony. But you know it takes an awful sight of money to start one of them ’ere mines going.”
The old man stopped here and looked timidly up at the man at the imposing desk as if hoping for confirmation, and the cashier, who knew by sad experience how great indeed is the need for money in such enterprises, replied, —
“ Yes, that is so. Capital is needed always; ” and added, “ I suppose you had this money laid by for a rainy day, did n’t you ? ”
The old man shook his head sadly. “ No; you see, ma and I did have nigh onto a thousand dollars saved for our old age; but when Jim wrote us a spell back how mighty bad he needed some money we calc’lated we could get along and we sent that to him. You know he’s all we’ve got,” he wound up pathetically.
“ And this?” queried the cashier, holding up the draft he was about to sign.
The old man’s voice broke a little as he said, “ Well, Jim wrote again last week that he had to have some more money quick, so ma and I mortgaged the place to send this. But it’s all right. Jim’s a mighty fine lad.”
Now our cashier is not a sentimentalist (he is too good a banker for that), but as he placed the draft in the toil-worn hand he said kindly, —
“ Well, I hope your boy will prove to be one of the lucky ones, and that he will be as true-blue to oLhers as his father has been to him.”
Now, it may be that Jim is a luckless prospector, or, worse yet, a gambler wasting his father’s hard-earned money in vicious dens; but, somehow or other, we who saw his old father cheerfully sacrifice all he had in order to help “ the boy,” are hoping that some day his father’s love and faith will be justified.
Such is the brief outline of a not unusual day in a moderately large bank; and yet I think it could hardly be called dull or monotonous, replete as it is with human interest.
And so it is day after day; one has only to look about at any time to have revealed to him living chapters torn from the lives of the passing throng.
Yonder at the front of the line stands a laboring man, waiting to cash his hardearned check, the proceeds of which are probably already spent, so quickly do the necessities of life eat up the wages of toil; while behind him in the line is the millionaire, chatting, as he waits, with a lady of fashion, who carries in her prettily gloved hand a check won at bridge the day before. This lady in turn is being jostled by a woman who, dressed as she is in quiet elegance, might pass unobserved in the crowd; but, alas, the check she will cash will betray her to the man at the window! But both she and the maker of the check may go their ways unworried, for the priest at the confessional guards not his secrets more carefully than does the teller at the bank window.
Saint and sinner, rich and poor, thief and philanthropist, sooner or later during the day must pass through the bank’s corridor; and each is received with equal courtesy, for bank clerks must recognize no degrees of poverty or prosperity, no stains on clothes or souls.
And as this varied stream flows past my window in a quiet corner of the bank, my heart is often touched with sadness. For, owing perhaps to the baleful light that emanates from the “ accursed gold,” I fancy that in this place one sees most plainly the scars left on souls by cankering care, and that anxiety that haunts the lives of us all. “ The sense of lack,” one creed calls it, the prod of ambition, or the struggle for existence — call it what you please, this grim spectre is a familiar guest in the soul of every living person.
The strong man veils his fear beneath an assumption of bravado, lighting a cigar as he waits for the word from the Man at the Window that is to make or mar the work of a lifetime. The lady of fashion jests at poverty, and draws aside her skirts lest she be contaminated by a touch from the woman who has sold her soul to escape starvation. But if the truth were known, the “ Laughing Cavalier ” of Finance and My Lady of High Degree deep down in their hearts are listening as fearfully for the padded footfalls of the Wolf as do their sad brothers and sisters who curse them as they pass.
Therefore, as this searching light reveals their souls’ pain, my heart thrills with a sense of kinship for the ever-changing multitude; and if now and then the opportunity is given me to aid in some small way one of these, my masked brothers and sisters, I accept it gladly, rejoicing in the fact that even in the midst of the humble duties of existence as fulfilled in “ the prosaic atmosphere of a bank,”
As if one spoke to another.