(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

John Lenox was the son of a well-to-do businessman in New York. After college, he lived for several years in Europe at his father’s expense. He was twenty-six years old when he returned to America, without having done anything which fitted him to earn a living.

John returned to find that his father’s business was failing rapidly and that he would soon have to make a living for himself. His father found a place for him with a New York law firm, but reading law proved uncongenial. When his father died, John left the firm. Then, through an old friend of his father, John became assistant to the owner of a small bank in Homeville, New York.

David Harum, the owner of the bank, was a crusty old man who enjoyed his reputation as a skinflint. What most of the townspeople did not know was that he was quite a philanthropist in his own way but preferred to cover up his charity and good deeds with gruff words. Harum’s one vice was horse trading. His sister, who kept house for him, firmly believed that he would rather trade horses than eat or sleep. Moreover, he usually came out ahead in any swapping deal.

David Harum was well pleased with the appearance of his new assistant, John Lenox; and when John took hold of his duties better than any other clerk in the bank had ever done, David Harum began to think seriously of looking after the young man’s future. Harum felt that John should have an opportunity to better himself, but he wanted first to be certain that he was not mistaken in judging the young man’s character. He set out to discover what he wanted to know in a peculiar way. He let John live uncomfortably in a broken-down hotel for several months to ascertain his fortitude. He also gave John several chances to be dishonest by practices that a sharp trader like Harum might be expected to approve. John’s straightforward dealings won Harum’s respect and approval. He casually gave John five ten-dollar gold pieces and asked him to move into a room in Harum’s own large house with him and his sister, Polly.

John had begun to discover that Harum was not the selfish and crusty old man that he appeared. He knew that Harum had called in a widow whose mortgage was overdue and had torn up the paper because the woman’s husband had at one time taken Harum to the circus when the banker was a little boy without a cent to his name. Even Harum’s horse trading was different when one came to know him. As John Lenox discovered, Harum only let people cheat themselves. If someone professed to know all about horses, Harum used the trade to teach him a lesson, but if a tyro professed his ignorance of the animals, Harum was sure to give him a fair exchange. He was a living example of the proverb that propounds shrewdly that it is impossible to cheat an honest man and, the corollary, that it is almost impossible not to cheat a dishonest one.


(The entire section is 1177 words.)