The Vanity of Expectation

THEY were the best of things — and the worst; they were the height of wisdom— they were the depth of folly; they were the invention of genius — they were the invention of the Evil One himself. And all this teapot-tempest was stirred up about a trifle of no more weight than — a woman’s pocket.

Archdeacon Davis and his wife sat at breakfast in the sunny Deanery dining-room, discussing their doings for the day, among which Mrs. Davis mentioned an appointment at the dressmaker’s.

‘ If you are having a new dress made, ‘ said the Archdeacon, ‘I hope you will not allow that woman to put in another of those pockets which I so strongly disapprove of; no doubt you have told her of my objection to them.’

This talk took place at that era in the world’s history when Dame Fashion had plucked up women’s pockets from the side seam of the skirt and planted them in the rear placket, and before she later decreed that women could have no pockets at all. Mrs. Davis had not meant to start the subject of pockets, for from painful experience she knew to what discussion it would lead. So she tried to turn it off by saying,—

‘I will ask Miss Foley what she can do about it.’

’Do not ask her anything. Tell her that I consider a rear pocket positively immoral; it is an open invitation to pickpockets, and hence an encouragement of vice.’

‘Nobody could slip his hand into my pocket without my knowing it,’ maintained Mrs. Davis. ‘I have told you it would be impossible. And it is n’t an “open invitation,” for it is under the pleat and does n’t show. You have coat-tail pockets; don’t they encourage vice, too?’

‘Not at all; quite a different matter. I never carry anything in that pocket but a handkerchief, and there are no Fagins nowadays who would trouble to steal a handkerchief. But a woman carries her pocketbook in her back pocket, endangering its safety and tempting the dishonest.’

‘Well, dear,’ answered his wife with a sigh, ‘I’ll speak to Miss Foley; but I can’t see any harm in putting pockets where they are most convenient.'

No one could say that Mrs. Davis was not as dutiful as a Very Reverend wife should be; never, even in strictest privacy, did she utter the wish that the Archdeacon, who had undeniable executive ability, would limit that gift to church activities and not carry it into the domestic field. Yet the most complaisant wife cannot help having her thoughts. As they rose from the table, she said, —

‘I hope you will have an interesting morning at the ministers’ meeting.’

This was a tactful way of turning the Archdeacon’s displeasure into another channel; for the previous week he had come home from the meeting disgusted because ‘some old fogey’ had talked three quarters of an hour without saying anything. Her effort was largely successful, though the Archdeacon as he left the room fired a parting shot at ‘women’s senseless fashions.’

A brisk walk in the fresh spring air tended to allay his irritation with the tiresome ways of humanity. That morning the speaker was good, and in the discussion which followed the talk, the Archdeacon scored two or three points. How much more rational men were than women! Men could see the force of an argument, but women— ! If once women got an idea in their heads, no reasoning could pry it loose.

After the meeting he went to the Penn Trust Company to cash a check. There were only a few people in the bank, so his business was quickly done. Just as he was turning to go out, his eye fell on a familiar figure at the receiving teller’s window. His wife had said nothing at breakfast about going to the bank; it must have been some later plan. He would wait for her and they could walk home together.

Her back was toward him, and she was in such earnest conversation with the teller that she evidently had not seen him; yet, as if intentionally to annoy him, what did that provoking woman do but slip her hand into her placket pocket. This sight brought back all the poignancy of the morning’s discussion. If one could only get a woman to be sensible!

Then the imp of mischief who loves to stir up trouble shot an impulse through the clerical coal of the Archdeacon as easily as if piercing the jacket of a youngster in knickerbockers. Here was his chance to prove himself right about pockets. With a step aimed to combine stealthiness with an appearance of casual loitering, in case she should suddenly turn, he passed close behind her, and with a quick motion slipped his hand under the placket and drew out her pocketbook.

He took a few quick steps, then paused, gazing far away into space with a look of innocence which he wanted his wife to see on his face when she should lay her indignant grasp upon his arm. But no hand seized him. He looked over his shoulder; she was still talking intently to the teller. In spite of his own arguments, he did not think the trick could be done so easily. She had noticed nothing; well, so much the better. He would go home without telling her. He left the bank with such ill-concealed chuckling that the doorman wished he knew the joke.

At lunch-time he went to the table with scarcely suppressed smiles. His first glance at his wife showed him, however, that she was not going to confess her loss; in fact, she showed such self-control that no one would have guessed there was anything on her mind. The meal moved along with the commonplaces of talk. The Archdeacon did not want to open the subject while the maid was coming in and out; he would spare his wife’s feelings to that extent, though it was hard to keep from laughing when he thought how amazed she would be if she could see into his breast pocket. At last, dessert was on the table and they were alone. With studied casualness he began,—

‘Have you had a pleasant morning?’

‘Very much as usual, looking after household matters. Mrs. Shaw called me up and kept me an interminable time at the ‘phone, talking about the Girls’ Friendly entertainment; I thought she would never get done.’

No weakening in her defensive front; of course, she would hate to confess. He must take more direct aim.

‘Was there not something unusual, some unpleasant experience?’

‘Nothing I can think of, except Mrs. Shaw; you know how she always insists on having her own way about everything. What makes you think there was anything?’

Her surprise was too genuine for doubt; evidently she had not needed her pocketbook after he saw her and so had not missed it. That was unfortunate; it took the edge off his triumph. Still, she would be chagrined when she knew.

‘I think you lost something downtown. Did you not miss anything after you left the bank ?’

She opened her eyes still wider.

‘ I have n’t been down-town. I have n’t been out of the house. It is not till this afternoon that I go to Miss Foley’s.’

With a queer sinking feeling somewhere inside of him the Archdeacon pulled out the pocketbook and held it out to her. She looked at it coldly.

‘Where did you get that? I never saw it before.’

His inward sinking became a landslide, carrying him down some dark descent. From its lowest depths he saw in a flash his mistake, and realized the appallingness of his deed. Suppose someone had seen him, a dignitary of the Church, slip his hand into a strange woman’s pocket and take her pocketbook. He never could explain it. A practical joke is a feeble and foolish defense to offer a judge and jury. He could see the crowded courtroom, and people whispering behind their hands, ‘He’s just like everybody else: needed money, — a sudden temptation, — and down he goes.’ Even if he should be acquitted —

At this moment the doorbell rang. Yes, it was true; he had been seen. His mind came back with a bound from the courtroom to his own doorstep. He pictured the blue coat and gray helmet entering the hall, the arm of the law holding out a warrant for his arrest. He broke into a cold perspiration, and could not lift his eyes when the maid came in. After an unendurable delay she said, —

‘Mrs. Millar’s boy with the bundle of sewing for the Auxiliary meeting.’

He breathed once more. When he and his wife were again alone, he told her the miserable joke he had tried to play on her.

‘And look what has come of it. You cannot expect that woman to keep quiet, and when the story becomes known, what will people think of me? Those who believe I am not a knave will set me down for a fool, and in my position one is almost as bad as the other. When I stand in the pulpit I shall always feel this ridiculous episode standing between me and my congregation.’

His wife, whatever her inmost feelings may have been, did her best to lighten his self-reproach.

‘When you return it you can just say there was a mistake, and not tell her how you came to have it. You can get around it somehow. But open it and find out whose it is.’

He unfastened the clasp, and looking inside, found two notes, — two new one-hundred-dollar notes, — nothing else. No card, no scrap of writing. There was nothing in the pocketbook to help him out, and the large sum made his situation worse. He must wait — and think. He retired to his study, but the room was misnamed so far as that afternoon went. Although a book lay open before him, his attention was fixed on the doorbell whose faint ring he could just hear He had never heard it sound so often in an afternoon, and at every ring his heart pounded as he waited to hear an approaching step. But none came. As dusk fell and his apprehensions quieted a little, he found himself staring at the page where he had opened the book in the early afternoon: he had not read a word.

There was little sleep for him that night. The next morning he was at the bank as soon as the doors were open. The cashier was one of his flock, and he went straight to his office. He did not mean to tell the whole truth if he could help it; no mortal man could be trusted to keep such a good story secret, and it would be too humiliating to have it broadcast through the church. So he weighed his words with care.

‘Good-morning, Mr. Haines; I have come to you for help in a difficulty in which I find myself. Under peculiar circumstances, I came into possession of a pocketbook yesterday which I have reason to think belongs to one of your depositors. Has there been any inquiry made for it?’

‘Not that I have heard of. Did you find it in the bank?’

‘Well, not exactly that; but I carried it home with me because I thought I knew whose it was, and expected to return it to her. However, I found that I was mistaken, and the purse itself contains no clue to the owner. As it has two hundred dollars in it I fear its loss will be a serious matter.’

‘If people are so careless as to drop their pocketbooks about, they deserve to do some worrying about them. While I have heard of no such inquiry, I ‘ll ask about it, to make sure.’

He soon returned, shaking his head.

‘No such loss reported yet; I ‘ll let you know at once if we hear anything. It is very kind of you to take so much trouble. I hope the owner will appreciate the inconvenience she has put you to — I think you said it is a lady’s pocketbook?’

The Archdeacon, feeling most uncomfortable from these remarks, left the bank, and went to the Evening News office, where he left a cautiously worded advertisement for the Lost and Found column. Having taken all the steps he could think of to repair the mischief, he felt more at ease, though that word gives no true description of his state of mind. Ease deserted his days and rest his nights as the week wore on to its close without a sign from the Unknown. Each succeeding day deepened the mystery of the silence.

‘Can you imagine,’ he said to his wife, ‘anyone losing two hundred dollars and making no inquiry for it? Would not a much smaller loss send you back to every place you had been that day, to hunt for it?’

‘Perhaps she was only passing through the city, and did n’t miss it for so long that she did n’t know where to look for it.’

The Archdeacon shook his head.

’I have thought of many different conditions that might fit that mysterious woman, but not one of them will account for her not finding me, either through the bank or the advertisement.’

The next Sunday morning the Archdeacon omitted the Commandments from the service; with thoughts of that two hundred dollars, he felt so shy toward the Eighth that he could not trust himself to read it. A second week passed without any light on the pocketbook, then a third, and a fourth. Finally, he said to his wife, —

‘I do not want to keep that money any longer about the house; something must be done about it.’

‘You might give it anonymously to missions,’suggested Mrs. Davis, ‘or to the Cathedral Fund.’

‘My dear,’ said the Archdeacon sternly, ‘you have hinted at something of the same sort before. Understand once for all that I cannot give it to any cause, for it is not mine to give. I am the unwilling custodian of that money and I shall continue its custodian until it is claimed, if it be to my dying day. I shall deposit it in the bank as a special fund, on no account to be touched except to restore it to its rightful owner.’

The archdeaconal garment of urbanity had worn a little thin in these last weeks; Mrs. Davis tried to mend it by replying soothingly, —

‘Certainly, dear; you would, of course, know what is best to do with it.’

As a matter of fact, the Archdeacon had not made up his mind what to do with the money till opposition to his wife’s suggestion crystallized his decision. Now, having stated so positively what should be done, he lost no time in doing it. With the firm conscience of one who knows he treads the strait path, he took the money to the bank, to the very window where, a month before, it had come into his hand. He passed the notes through the wicket with a sigh of relief; he would feel easier with the money out of his possession, though the incident would leave an everlasting scar on his self-esteem.

The teller was about to enter the amount in the pass book when he suddenly laid down his pen and scanned the notes closely. The Archdeacon’s heart, which had grown more reasonable of late, began to hammer as it had done so often in the first days of this unhappy experience. With a hasty ‘One moment, please,’the teller darted out of his cage and disappeared into a rear office.

The Archdeacon gripped the ledge of the window hard till his knuckles showed white. He knew that his knees would not give way entirely if he had something to cling to. Were the notes marked? Had they been listed as stolen?

It was hard that the story must come out after all this time; it had been only a joke, after all, and he had tried his best to right the matter.

The teller was coming back; his face gave no encouragement, for it was much disturbed. Leaning forward until he almost touched the bars of the wicket, he announced in a strained whisper, —

‘I am very sorry to have to tell you Dr. Davis, but these notes are counterfeits.’