HIS MOST FATEFUL MORNING

Introduction

When writing short stories, O. Henry borrowed freely from his own life. It helped with the verisimilitude, which was what O. Henry stories were noted for, along with puns and surprise endings. Austin and Texas were the settings for a number of stories, though the names were often changed to protect the writer's identity. In "Friends at San Rosario" (first published in Ainslee's Magazine, April 1903), he took the most fateful morning of his life and turned it into a short story with a silver lining.

From 1891 to 1894, Will Porter worked as a cashier at the First National Bank of Austin. It was a thoroughly uneventful job, just another revenue stream in the river of life, until late in the fall of 1894. During a routine government audit one morning, a federal bank examiner discovered shortages in Porter's books amounting to $5,654.20. The examiner leveled 50 charges of embezzlement at Porter. He would eventually be convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison, where he perfected his art as a writer.

In "Friends at San Rosario," downtown San Rosario (a made-up western town in an unnamed state) was really downtown Austin with some new names painted over the front doors.

The First National Bank of Austin became the First National Bank of San Rosario, whose president, Major Tom B. Kingman, mirrored Porter's boss, Major Tom Brackenridge (with a little of George Washington Littlefield thrown in; see A Taler of Two Georges).

Stockmen's National Bank, which stood across the street from the First National Bank of San Rosario, was George Washington Littlefield's American National Bank, which faced the First National Bank of Austin at Congress and 6th. Littlefield had made a fortune in Longhorn cattle before turning banker.

Scarbrough's Dry Goods in Austin became Rubensky's Clothing Emporium in San Rosario.

San Rosario's train station was three blocks from the banks; Austin's train station stood three blocks south at 3rd and Congress. The narrow-gauge railroad that came to San Rosario was in real life the narrow-gauge railroad that brought in the Capitol's pink granite from Marble Falls. It isn't narrow-gauge anymore, but you can ride on that same line (from Cedar Park to Burnet) aboard the Hill Country Flyer, a weekend excursion steam-engine train operated by the Austin Steam Train Association.

Here is O. Henry's account of the most fateful day in Will Porter's life.

Excerpt from "Friends at San Rosario"

The west-bound stopped at San Rosario on time at 8:20 A.M. A man with a thick black leather wallet under his arm left the train and walked rapidly up the main street of the town. There were other passengers who also got off at San Rosario, but they either slouched limberly over to the railroad eating-house or the Silver Dollar saloon, or joined the groups of idlers about the station.

Indecision had no part in the movements of the man with the wallet. He was short in stature, but strongly built, with very light, closely trimmed hair, smooth determined face, and aggressive, gold-rimmed nose glasses. He was well dressed in the prevailing Eastern style. His air denoted a quiet but conscious reserve force, if not actual authority.

After walking a distance of three squares he came to the center of the town's business area. Here another street of importance crossed the main one, forming the hub of San Rosario's life and commerce. Upon one corner stood the postoffice. Upon another Rubensky's Clothing Emporium. The other two diagonally opposing corners were occupied by the town's two banks, the First National and the Stockmen's National. Into the First National Bank of San Rosario the newcomer walked, never slowing his brisk step until he stood at the cashier's wlndow. The bank opened for business at nine, and the working force was already assembled, each member preparing his department for the day's business. The cashier was examining the mail when he noticed the stranger standing at his window.

"Bank doesn't open 'til nine," he remarked, curtly, but without feeling. He had had to make that statement so often to early birds since San Rosario adopted city banking hours.

"I am well aware of that," said the other man, in cool, brittle tones. "Will you kindly receive my card?"\

The cashier drew the small, spotless parallelogram inside the bars of his wicket, and read:

J. F. C. NETTLEWICK

National Bank Examiner

"Oh--er--will you walk around inside, Mr.--er--Nettlewick. Your first visit--didn't know your business, of course. Walk right around, please."

The examiner was quickly inside the sacred precincts of the bank, where he was ponderously introduced to each employee in turn by Mr. Edlinger, the cashier--a middle-aged gentleman of deliberation, discretion, and method.

"I was kind of expecting Sam Turner round again, pretty soon," said Mr. Edlinger. "Sam's been examining us now for about four years. I guess you'll find us all right, though, considering the tightness in business. Not overly much money on hand, but able to stand the storms, sir, stand the storms."

"Mr. Turner and I have been ordered by the Comptroller to exchange districts," said the examiner, in his decisive, formal tones. He is covering my old territory in southern Illinois and Indiana. I will take the cash first, please."

Perry Dorsey, the teller, was already arranging his cash on the counter for the examiner's inspection. He knew it was right to a cent, and he had nothing to fear, but he was nervous and flustered. So was every man in the bank. There was something so icy and swift, so impersonal and uncompromising about this man that his very presence seemed an accusation. He looked to be a man who would never make nor overlook an error.

Mr. Nettlewick first seized the currency, and with a rapid, almost juggling motion, counted it by packages. Then he spun the sponge cup toward him and verified the count by bills. His thin, white fingers flew like some expert musician's upon the keys of a piano. He dumped the gold upon the counter with a crash, and the coins whined and sang as they skimmed across the marble slab from the tips of his nimble digits. The air was full of fractional currency when he came to the halves and quarters. He counted the last nickel and dime. He had the scales brought, and he weighed every sack of silver in the vault. He questioned Dorsey concerning each of the cash memoranda--certain checks, charge slips, etc., carried over from the previous day's work--with unimpeachable courtesy, yet with something so mysteriously momentous in his frigid manner, that the teller was reduced to pink cheeks and a stammering tongue.

This newly imported examiner was so different from Sam Turner. It had been Sam's way to enter the bank with a shout, pass the cigars, and tell the latest stories he had picked up on his rounds. His customary greeting to Dorsey had been, "Hello, Perry! Haven't skipped out with the boodle yet, I see."

Turner's way of counting the cash had been different, too. He would finger the packages of bills in a tired kind of way, and then go into the vault and kick over a few sacks of silver, and the thing was done. Halves and quarters and dimes? Not for Sam Turner. "No chicken feed for me," he would say when they were set before him. "I'm not in the agricultural department." But then, Turner was a Texan, an old friend of the bank's president, and had known Dorsey since he was a baby.

While the examiner was counting the cash, Major Thomas B. Kingman--known to every one as "Major Tom"--the president of the First National, drove up to the side door with his old dun horse and buggy, and came inside.

He saw the examiner busy with the money, and, going into the little "pony corral," as he called it, in which his desk was railed off, he began to look over his letters.

By this time Nettlewick had finished his count of the cash. His pencil fluttered like a swallow over the sheet of paper on which he had set his figures. He opened his black wallet, which seemed to be also a kind of secret memorandum book, made a few rapid figures in it, wheeled and transfixed Dorsey with the glare of his spectacles. That seemed to say: "You're safe this time, but----"

"Cash all correct," snapped the examiner. He made a dash for the individual bookkeeper, and, for a few minutes, there was a fluttering of ledger leaves and a sailing of balance sheets through the air.

"How often do you balance your pass-books?" he demanded suddenly.

"Er--once a month," faltered the individual bookkeeper, wondering how many years they would give him.

All right," said the examiner, turning and charging upon the general bookkeeper, who had the statements of his foreign banks and their reconcilement memoranda ready. Everything there was found to be all right. Then the stub book of the certificates of deposit. Flutter--flutter--zip--zip--check! All right. List of over-drafts, please. Thanks. H'm-m. Unsigned bills of the bank, next. All right.

Then came the cashier's turn, and easy-going Mr. Edlinger rubbed his nose and polished his glasses nervously under the quick fire of questions concerning the circulation, undivided profits, bank real estate, and stock ownership.

Presently Nettlewick was aware of a big man towering above him at his elbow--a man sixty years of age, rugged and hale, with a rough, grizzled beard, a mass of gray hair, and a pair of penetrating blue eyes that confronted the formidable glasses of the examiner without a flicker.

"Er--Major Kingman, our president--er--Mr. Nettlewick," said the cashier.

Two men of very different types shook hands. One was a finished product of the world of straight lines, conventional methods, and formal affairs. The other was something freer, wider, and nearer to nature. Tom Kingman had not been cut to any pattern. He had been mule-driver, cowboy, ranger, soldier, sheriff, prospector and cattleman. Now, when he was bank president, his old comrades from the prairies, of the saddle, tent, and trail, found no change in him.

He had made his fortune when Texas cattle were at the high tide of value, and had organized the First National Bank of San Rosario. In spite of his largeness of heart and sometimes unwise generosity toward his old friends, the bank had prospered, for Major Tom Kingman knew men as well as he knew cattle. Of late years the cattle business had known a depression, and the major's bank was one of the few whose losses had not been great.

"And now," said the examiner, briskly, pulling out his watch, "the last thing is the loans. We will take them up now, if you please."

"Come with me, sir," said Major Kingman, in his deep voice, that united Southern drawl with the rhythmic twang of the West; "We will go over them together. Nobody knows those notes as I do. Some of 'em are a bit wobbly on their legs, and some are mavericks without extra many brands on their backs, but they'll 'most all pay out at the round-up."

The two sat down at the president's desk. First, the examiner went through the notes at lightning spped, and added up their total, finding it to agree with the amount of loans carried on the book of daily balances. Next, he took up the larger loans, inquring scrupulously into the condition of their endorsers or securities. The new examiner's mind seemed to course and turn and make unexpected dashes hither and thither like a bloodhound seeking a trail. Finally he pushed aside all the notes except a few, which he arranged in a neat pile before him, and began a dry, formal little speech.

"I find, sir, the condition of your bank to be very good, considering the poor crops and the depression in the cattle interests of your state. The clerical work seems to be done accurately and punctually. Your past-due paper is moderate in amount and promises only a small loss. I would recommend the calling in of your large loans, and the making of only sixty and ninety day or call loans until general business revives. And now, there is one thing more, and I will have finished with the bank. Here are six notes aggregating something like $40,000. They are secured, according to their faces, by various stocks, bonds, shares, etc., to the value of $70,000. These securities are missing from the notes to which they should be attached. I suppose you have them in the safe or vault. You will permit me to examine them."

Major Tom's light-blue eyes turned unflinchingly toward the examiner.

"No, sir," he said, in a low but steady tone; "those securities are neither in the safe nor the vault. I have taken them. You may hold me personally responsible for their absence."

Nettlewick felt a slight thrill. He had not expected this. He had struck a momentous trail when the hunt was drawing to a close.

"Ah!" said the examiner. He waited a moment, and then continued: "May I ask you to explain more definitely?"

"The securities were taken by me," repeated the Major. "It was not for my own use, but to save a friend in trouble. Come in here, sir, and we'll talk it over."

He led the examiner into the bank's private office at the rear, and closed the door. There was a desk, and a table, and a half-a-dozen leather-covered chairs. On the wall was the mounted head of a Texas steer with horns five feet from tip to tip. Opposite hung the major's old cavalry saber that he had carried at Shiloh and Fort Pillow.

Placing a chair for Nettlewick, the major seated himself by the window, from which he could see the post-office and the carved limestone front of the Stockman's National. He did not speak at once, and Nettlewick felt, perhaps, that the ice should be broken by something so near its own temperature as the voice of official warning.

"Your statement," he began, "since you have failed to modify it, amounts, as you must know, to a very serious thing. You are aware, also, of what my duty must compel me to do. I shall have to go before the United States Commissioner and make---"

"I know, I know," said Major Tom, with a wave of his hand. "You don't suppose I'd run a bank without being posted on national banking laws and the revised statutes! Do your duty. I'm not asking any favors. But I spoke of my friend. I did want you to hear me tell you about Bob."...

 


The evidence points to Porter's technical guilt. Yes, the money was gone. But in his mind, he didn't really steal the money, so much as borrow it. His motive? To finance the sinking Rolling Stone, which was sucking up moss instead of gathering it. Porter loaned himself a little at a time, probably only as much as circumstances and bill collectors dictated, and altered the books as he went, with the idea of repaying and readjusting the books later.

But evidently, Porter was not alone in his casual philosophy banking. He took his cue from those around him. A few years earlier, Major Tom Brackenridge discovered that the bank's bookkeeper, J. M. Thornton, had "borrowed" thousands of dollars and was unable to repay the bank. To everyone's relief, the affair was settled out of court. The bank's officers and directors had a policy that allowed them to loan themselves the bank's money in exchange for a memo, which they sometimes forgot to leave.

Porter once spent 2 days looking for a $100 shortage before an officer told him, "Oh, yes, I took out a hundred the other day when I went to San Antonio and forgot to file a slip for it." He rarely left the bank for lunch, Porter's wife said, for fear of how the money might be handled while he was away.

It was as if nobody cared about the bank's integrity. And this was probably true. Founder and majority stockholder George Washington Brackenridge had been trying to sell the bank since 1889. It had made some money during the fat years of the cattle boom, but went lame with the collapse of the cattle industry that started in 1884 and never paid another dividend.

In 1893, during a year of great financial depression that killed or crippled many banks, George Washington Brackenridge decided to sell the First National Bank of Austin, whatever the cost. The bank's sale went through at about the same time Porter started The Rolling Stone. Major Tom and younger brother Bob Brackenridge stayed on as president and cashier, respectively, during the transition. Sale of the bank involved a thorough scrutiny of its books and practices, at a time when the U.S. Treasury Department was looking to redeem itself. With the failure of so many banks in 1893, it became clear that many bank examiners had covered up or overlooked questionable banking practices. Under fire for their lackluster performance, the comptroller of the currency put the pressure on them to uncover instances of fraud and embezzlement. These were the circumstances under which the fateful audit of the First National Bank of Austin took place. (See also A Taler of Two Georges.)

Mr. Roach and other friends agreed to make up $5,000 of Porter's shortage, and the bank was content to let the matter drop, but the federal government would not let up. It would seek Porter's indictment when the grand jury met in July 1895. Despite bank examiner F. B. Gray's evidence, the grand jury no-billed him. The grand jury's foreman, J. M. Thornton, understood Porter's plight all too well. Still, the federal government persisted. Despite his many friend's best intentions, Porter was destined to be a sacrificial victim for the changing times, the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Texas's vast, formerly free ranges had been fenced in, and the feds intended to do the same to the state's freewheeling bankers. But if he had not gone to prison, would he have become the great writer that he was? Who knows? What we do know is that his whole life was fair game for use in his stories. Of course, he wasn't above bending the facts if it suited the story. Unlike his own experience, in "Friends at San Rosario," the bank examiner walked away empty-handed ...


The major led the way back into the banking room. The examiner, astounded, perplexed, nettled, at sea, followed. He felt that he had been made the victim of something that was not exactly a hoax, but that left him in the shoes of one who had been played upon, used, and then discarded, without even an inkling of the game. Perhaps, also, his official position had been irreverently juggled with. But there was nothing he could take hold of. An official report of the matter would be an absurdity. And, somehow, he felt that he would never know anything more about the matter than he did then.

Frigidly, mechanically, Nettlewick examined the securities, found them to tally with the notes, gathered his thick wallet, and rose to depart.

"I will say," he protested, turning the indignant glare of his glasses upon Major Kingman, "that your statements--your misleading statements, which you have not condescended to explain--do not appear to be quite the thing, regarded as business or humor. I do not understand such motives or actions."

Major Tom looked at him serenely and not unkindly.

"Son," he said, "there are plenty of things in the chaparral, and on the prairies, and up the canons that you don't understand. But I want to thank you for listening to a garrulous old man's prosy story. We old Texans love to talk about our adventures and our old comrades, and the home folks have long ago learned to run when we begin with 'Once upon a time,' so we have to spin our yarns to the stranger within our gates."

The major smiled, but the examiner only bowed coldly, and abruptly quitted the bank. They saw him travel diagonally across the street in a straight line and enter the Stockmen's National Bank. ...


Some of O. Henry's puns were subtle and personal, perhaps unconscious. If you're alert, you've noticed one ironic twist, involving Nettlewick the tormenter in San Rosario and Thornton, his savior (and fellow sinner) in Austin. O. Henry even managed to work the name of the man who sent him to jail, bank examiner F. B. Gray, into "Friends at San Rosario," via one of the puns he is so famous for. See if you can catch it:


... Major Tom sat down at his desk and drew from his breast pocket the note Roy had given him. He had read it once, but hurriedly, and now, with something like a twinkle in his eyes, he read it again. These were the words he read:

DEAR TOM:

I hear there's one of Uncle Sam's greyhounds going through you, and that means we'll catch him inside of a couple of hours, maybe. Now I want you to do something for me. We've got just $2,200 in the bank, and the law requires that we have $20,000. I let Ross and Fisher have $18,000 late yesterday afternoon to buy up that Gibson bunch of cattle. They'll realize $40,000 in less than thirty days on the transaction, but that won't make my cash on hand look any prettier to that bank examiner. Now, I can't show him those notes, for they're just plain notes of hand without any security in sight, but you know that Pink Ross and Jim Fisher are two of the finest white men God ever made, and they'll do the square thing. You remember Jim Fisher--he was the one who shot that faro dealer in El Paso. I wired Sam Bradshaw's bank to send me $20,000, and it will get in on the narrow-gauge [train] at 10:35. You can't let a bank examiner in to count $2,200 and close your doors. Tom, you hold that examiner. Hold him. Hold him if you have to rope him and sit on his head. Watch our front window after the narrow-gauge gets in, and when we've got the cash inside we'll pull down the shade for a signal. Don't turn him loose till then. I'm counting on you, Tom.

Your Old Pard,

Bob Buckley,

Prest. Stockmen's National....


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