It is important to consider other concerns in life than making money; however, money is the motivation for most businessmen. However, a person may achieve great financial wealth without attaining ‘his highest value’, which is satisfaction in life.
The true name of the family concerned is not given, but the protagonist is referred to as John Craven. He is a wealthy businessman who is rewarded more by ‘columns of figures in his private account-book’ than his family. He is driven to financial, rather than moral, success ‘until long after he was a grandfather.’
However, after a serious illness ‘the tide of satisfaction seemed at last to turn’ and he is advised to spend ‘a few months in Europe’ to recuperate. He rejects the idea at first but is ‘low spirited’ when he returns to work and sees the good job is son, Jack, is doing, and how out of touch he feels as a result - ’the rascal had even grown a little patronizing of late’. Jack is, in turn, irritated that his father is still meddling in the business he is running so well for what ‘seemed like a year’.
John and his wife go to Europe. He enjoys the time, contenting himself with forging business contacts along the way. His wife endlessly urged him to ‘give up the business to the boys.’ She dies ‘not long after their return’ and he misses her greatly as since his illness they ‘had been more lover-like and affectionate than ever before.’ He is left ‘desolate’ and with no interests outside of his work he began to feel ‘he was an old fogy and fast drifting astern of the times.’ He disagrees with Jack, telling him ‘You treat me as if I were an old woman.’ His grandson is ‘a good-for-nothing dandy’ and John is frustrated how ‘times had changed’.
John Craven regularly walked in the mornings along the new streets developing around his home. He was impressed with their orderliness and industry. Here he sees a young shopkeeper with a little haberdashery store that is small but ‘most alluringly arranged.’ He accepts the young man’s hospitality and goes in to the shop where he is told about the new entrepreneur’s plans. Mr. Craven is dressed in an old coat and he loses a button in the store.
The young man, William Chellis, feels sorry for the downtrodden old man. Mr. Craven buys four papers of pins with the change in his pocket – a novelty for a man used to writing cheques. As he leaves, Mr. Craven notices a ‘sweet-faced’ seamstress smiling at him. He returns home and his chastised by his daughter for being late. He decides to offer ‘capital’ to the young businessman, and considers whether to mention the young seamstress.
At his place of business, John Craven’s retirement is quickly reported. He returns the next day to Chellis’ shop. The pretty seamstress, Miss Brooks, is there and offers to sew Craven’s lost button on. She and Mr. Chellis have speculated on Craven’s poverty – which was more to do with love than money. ‘He felt poorer, after all, than these young creatures, who still had their fortunes to make, and whose best capital was their love for each other.’
John Craven, calling himself Mr. Brown to the young couple ’begged to go into partnership’ with Chellis. He manages to keep his identity secret. He is invited to their wedding and subsequently their home, but politely declines though he privately drinks to their ‘health and prosperity.’
Chellis and his wife are hugely grateful to ‘Mr. Brown’ for his help with their business. He stops visiting the shop and passes away in the summer. In a codicil to his will, he leaves $5,000 to William Chellis with a poignant note which warns –‘Remember that getting money may make you as poor as it has me.’ The couple is surprised when they find Mr. Brown’s identity. They are very pleased with the money, but Chellis realises, as he kisses his wife, that ‘there were truly many gains to be had in the world beside money,’
The omniscient narrator is clear on the message she wishes to impart from the first line. ‘If a man chooses a profession it is, or ought to be, with other desires than that of growing rich.’ She explains her message by recounting the tale of John Craven, who managed to realise this point too late for his own life, but soon enough to make a difference to Mr. and Mrs. William Chellis. There is a real sense of moral teaching about the opening of the story.
John Craven, we are told, is ‘the proud inheritor of a name already well known in business circles’. This indicates that his success is something he has been given, rather than something he created for himself. There is a tone of negativity as Craven’s ‘gratified sense of security’ is brought by his accounts rather than his ‘handsome young children’. He is portrayed as a selfish man right in to old age – ‘he thought little of his personal relation to society, and still less of his relation to the next world.’ It would be possible to draw comparisons with Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, ‘A Christmas Carol.’
Serious illness means Craven’s physician recommends he travel to Europe. He feels he has ‘already enjoyed foreign sights by proxy,’ and he initially sees the plan as a ‘conspiracy’ rather than an attempt to help him. Here we see Craven’s cynical attitude.
The incongruity of Craven’s old furniture in his new office is a metaphor for the fact he no longer belongs in the business: both are ‘out of place in all this magnificence of glass and mahogany.’
Craven takes the trip to Europe, but uses the opportunity to network rather than relax. He ignores his wife’s requests to ‘give up the business to the boys,’, but, realistically, he has little else in his life. When his wife dies, Craven is ‘desolate’, even though ‘they had loved each other with a sober, undemonstrative affection,’ and he appears to be as obsolete as his old furniture.
When he chooses to walk the ‘respectable and orderly’ area close to his home, he sees a young man with a young business and his whole future ahead. The young man’s business is haberdashery- trivial women’s frippery but also the fabric of a solid future for William Chellis. Craven’s old overcoat is a comfort to him, but a sign of poverty to young Chellis and his sweetheart. Indeed Craven is experiencing poverty at this time, though not in the material sense. He has a scarcity of care and love: his grandchildren are preoccupied with preparations for a ball and his daughter treats him like a child.
Craven returns to Chellis’ shop as he sees ‘their excellent prospects’ in terms of both business and family life. His alias allows him to be involved but not intrude. He allows the Chellises to make their own future, revelling in how his young partner accepts and welcomes his ‘sagacity of advice’.
Once Craven’s identity is revealed along with the legacy, he adds a poignant note, which reminds the reader of the lesson the narrator wanted to illustrate from the beginning: that ‘there are other things which a man needs beside wealth to be happy.’