Beating the Law

Beating the Law  (1912) 
by Ellis Parker Butler

Extracted from Red Book magazine, Chicago, April 1912, pp. 1110-1120. Accompanying illustrations by Arthur William Brown omitted.


An argument against counting your chickens before they are hatched


Author of “Pigs Is Pigs,” etc.

FORTUNE had been unkind to old Ashbel Clute. She had piled up twenty-eight million dollars for him, and had failed to give him eternal life on earth for the enjoyment of the dollars; and then, when he first began to feel the pain in his side, she permitted the legislators of the state to pass the inheritance tax law. As old Ashbel figured on the back of an envelope just how much of his money the state would take as inheritance tax when he died, his hard face grew harder and his lip lifted, at one corner in a snarl. For three days he sat in his office with the snarl on his face, and his eyes on a crack in the wall plaster, and then he walked across to Dr. Wightman’s office and had himself examined.

“You have lived temperately and frugally,” said the physician, “and that is in your favor. But this disease—”

“How long have I to live?” asked Ashbel Clute. “I didn’t come here to hear a lecture. I’ll pay you your fee without that. I want to know how long I have to live.”

“If you would let me explain the disease, I could make myself clearer to you,” said the physician.

“How long have I to live?” insisted Ashbel.

“Unless you hasten things by fast living, which I do not think you will,” said the physician with a slight smile, “you will live six years at least; probably seven; possibly ten. Except for this trouble you are as sound as a nut.”

“Humph! What’s your charge?”

“Five dollars.”

“Here’s two. That’s enough. I wish I could earn two dollars as easily.”

Ashbel Clute returned to his office, stopping on the way to get Henry Lane, his lawyer.

“Henry,” he said when they were in the office and the door closed, “I’m getting to be an old man.”

“Nonsense, Ashbel!” said the lawyer. “You are good for twenty years yet.”

“Henry,” said Ashbel, “I’ve worked hard. I’ve earned a rest. I’m going to retire.”

“You! Why, you could no more retire, Ashbel, than I could stop breathing, and, if you did, it would be for the same reason. Man, it would kill you to give up affairs.”

“I’m an old man, Henry. I’m going to let the young ones do the work. It’s time for me to take a rest. Let them do the hard work. They’ll get the money when I die.”

“What will you do with yourself if you give up managing your affairs?”

“I’ll sport around. I’ve never had much pleasure, Henry. I’ll loaf a little.”

The lawyer laid back his head and laughed aloud.

“You’ll loaf!” he cried, as he looked at the cruel mouth and hard blue eyes. “That’s a good one, Ashbel. You’ll loaf for about ten minutes. But what did you want me for?”

Ashbel rubbed his knees slowly.

“I want you to draw up incorporation papers, Henry, for the Clute Investment Company,” said the old man. “How much indebtedness can a corporation have in this state, Henry?”

“Two-thirds the capital stock,” said the lawyer.

“Make the capital stock forty-five millions, then,” said Ashbel, “in one-hundred-dollar shares. I’ll take one share, and each of my children will take a fifth. Nine millions each, except Doris. Make her portion one share less.”

“To allow for your one share,” said Lane.

“The objects of the company,” said Ashbel, in the same dry tone, “are to own and deal in real-estate, personal-property, stocks, bonds—”

“I understand,” said the lawyer. “You wish it to have the fullest latitude allowed by the law.”

“That’s it,” said Ashbel. “I want to turn all my property over to it. And then draw up a note, Henry, for twenty-eight millions, payable to me. I’ll have the company sign it when I turn over my property to it."

He rubbed his knees slowly again and looked at the crack in the wall.

“Make that note payable one day after date, Henry,” he said. “And—I think I’ll be president of the company, Henry. And you can make George, Vice-President, and Walter, Secretary-Treasurer.”

There were other minor details he gave the lawyer, for Ashbel Clute knew his affairs to the smallest detail and liked to attend to every detail himself, and when the lawyer left he remained in his chair, slowly rubbing his knees and staring at the crack in the wall, with a frown on his forehead. He went over his plans again and again, but could find no flaw in them. The incorporation of an investment company was perfectly legal. He could lend his sons and daughters the money required by law as paid-in capital in the company, taking their notes. He could sell all his holdings in real-estate and stocks and bonds and other securities and personal-property to the company, and take one note from the company for the full amount. All the notes would be made payable one day after date, and under the state law a note, unless legally pressed for payment within that time, became null and void at the end of five years. With six years to live, and probably seven, and possibly ten, Ashbel Clute would, by allowing the notes to become outlawed, die worth only the clothes on his back and one lone share, worth one hundred dollars, in the Clute Investment Company. His children would have received each one-fifth of his fortune, and there would be no inheritance tax to pay whatever. He would beat the law.

If the legality of the transfer were questioned the notes given him could be shown as adequate and legal payment for the property. It was no one’s business but his own if he allowed the notes to be outlawed, any more than if he put a good apple in a drawer and allowed it to rot. By holding one lone share he was entitled to attend all meetings of the company, and he had so long dominated his children, ruling them with an iron hand, he had no doubt his word would still be law in the management of the affairs. In fact, he would have himself appointed manager for the company at its first meeting. When he arose from his chair he smiled grimly. It is something pleasant to beat the law.

That night he called the children together at his home on Shady Avenue and explained the object of the Clute Investment Company. George and Walter, their faces younger replicas of their father’s own face, understood instantly. Kate, keen eyed and long nosed, nodded her head as point after point of the plan was brought out. Margaret, the flashy daughter, asked a question now and then. It was she who asked: “But what about the income, father? The company will begin earning an income the moment you turn the property over to it. Do the stockholders divide that?”

“No, they don’t!” said Ashbel. “I mean to have a salary as manager of the company. That will take care of the income.”

“That’s only right, Mag,” said George, frowning at her. “Father isn’t dead yet. He is doing this to save us the inheritance tax. You might be grateful.”

“Oh, grateful!” she said. “I’m as grateful as you are. I only wanted to know. This is all business, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is business,” said Kate, who had been whispering with her husband. “We have a right to know the details, if we are to give our notes. A note is money, as long as it is valid. Will you tell me this, father: If the value of the stocks and bonds you turn over should depreciate within five years, and you hold the company’s note, you could sue on it, couldn’t you? Of course I’m not suspicious, father, but James and I have money of our own. If anyone but you proposed this I wouldn’t go into it. We take the securities at your own valuation, and give our note—”

“Kate!” said Doris appealingly. She was the only one of the children that greatly resembled her dead mother, and that was, no doubt, the reason she had elected to remain unmarried and keep house for her father, while the others made homes of their own. “Kate, don’t you see father is doing this for us?”

“I’m doing it to beat a law made by a rascally lot of parasites and grafters who never did an honest day’s work in their lives,” said Ashbel Clute without emotion. “Populists and grangers who want to rob any man that gains a few honest dollars! You are a sensible girl, Kate. Don’t let anyone rob you. Money is money.”

“I don’t believe anyone robs me of much,” said Kate laughingly, but her laugh was the mirthless laugh of the Clutes.

They all drew up to the table while Ashbel ran over his list of investments and holdings. There was not a suspicious stock or bond in the lot. Most of the stocks were in companies Ashbel himself had helped form, owning land that was increasing in value and that would increase more rapidly as the years passed. That he owned these stocks was no surprise to his children; they were all stockholders in the same companies. They checked off their father’s list with the careful coldness of strangers. They appreciated his feelings in the matter of the inheritance tax; they felt the same as regards all taxes. Even Doris, under her father’s advice, went down to the tax assessor’s office each year and swore off her taxes.

Ashbel’s children were not infants, as the law defines infants. They ranged in years from George, the eldest, who was fifty, to Doris, who was thirty, and all of them were wealthy in their own names, aside from what their father should leave them. George and Walter had married well, choosing wives as close-fisted as themselves. Kate and Margaret had married men chosen by their brothers, Kate a bank cashier in the bank of which Walter was President, and Margaret, after a long flirtation with Roscoe Lane which almost became a scandal, had married a man double her years and as grasping as herself. Doris alone remained single.

On the whole, the Clute family was highly respected in Westcote. The men worked hard and women and men alike dressed well and attended church regularly and gave to the church in proportion to what their means were supposed to be. Once each year each of the married sons and daughters gave a reception, to repay the social obligations they had incurred during the past twelve-month, and these receptions were notable events, well planned and well carried out. To outward view the Clute family was a happy, hard-working, contented group, bound together by the closest ties. As a matter of fact each son and daughter was jealous of the rest, and the father was suspicious of all of them. They thought of nothing but money and, except Doris, knew little but money.

“This is the portrait of George we had done in Berlin,” Mrs. George would say. “The artist wanted a thousand dollars, but we managed to get it for seven hundred and fifty.”

As soon as Ashbel Clute could afford it, when he was a young man, he had built himself a house that was the pride of the town. He set the amount to be spent for the house at twenty thousand dollars—an immense sum in Westcote at that day—and he did this without a qualm. He could afford it, and the Clutes were never slow to spend large amounts to good purpose. But once having decided he wanted a twenty-thousand-dollar house, Ashbel Clute made his own deals with lumber dealers and hardware men. He got the lowest price and then began a slow process of beating down that price, saving penny by penny. Then he picked out each foot of lumber himself, rejecting ten boards to take one. He chose his foundation brick in the same way, going over brick after brick at the yards until he had the pick of all on hand. He lived with the house as it grew out of the ground. If a carpenter struck a nail and the nail flew off, Ashbel hunted in the sand and clay until he found it again, and put it back in the nail keg. He was paying for the nails himself. In the end he had a house the architect had estimated at twenty thousand dollars, and it had cost him just fifteen thousand dollars. The five thousand invested in low grade coal land bought twenty-five acres. He put sheep on the land and made it pay its taxes and a little more while he waited for the better grade coal in the vicinity to exhaust itself. It might be twenty years before the coal land had an enhanced value; it might be two hundred years; but a Clute was always a Clute. Some Clute would reap the benefit. It was thus Ashbel builded his fortune. He had imagination, and his great imagining was that some day the Clutes would be as great as the ancient Fuggers or the modern Rothschilds. And so they would, and will be, unless the fortune begun by old Ashbel is torn and gnawed to rags by income and inheritance taxes.

Rebecca Clute, his wife, had been an able and a cheerful helpmate. Very stout and very good-natured, she enjoyed saving a penny as thoroughly as Ashbel, but she did it in the whole-hearted manner of a good woman of Holland, with much chaffing and laughter. When Ashbel entered a shop to make a purchase the clerks tried to slip to the back; when Rebecca entered they crowded to be the one to wait on her. With three maids in her house she would scrub the stoop stairs herself because the maids were wasteful of the soft soap which was made, under Rebecca’s own supervision, of the waste fat accumulated during the winter. For society she cared not a rap, but she liked to have callers, and to talk with them about her household affairs, her maids and her children. She had a big heart, and she loved her children and Ashbel dearly, and she would sometimes weep at the tale told her by a begging tramp, and then cut him a thick slice of bread. Before he received it, however, her economical feelings would take control, and she would give him the outside crust of yesterday’s loaf, without butter. But she had been dead ten years when Ashbel formed the Clute Investment Company. Ashbel never spoke of her after the funeral, but he mourned her every day of his life. The children mourned her also, deeply and sincerely.

The five years following the formation of the Clute Investment Company passed rapidly, as years do when one grows older. Once each year Ashbel, as President, called a meeting of the stock holders of the company, and reported what he had done as Manager. With the meeting of the third year he began giving the children a share of the income of the company; the balance he re-invested for the company itself. Not a word was said by anyone of the notes the company had given him, or of the notes given him by the children. No interest was paid on them, and nothing was done to suggest the notes existed, and they were outlawed by limitation at the end of the fifth year. Not a word was said in criticism of the management of the company. At the annual meetings Ashbel reported the increase in the value of the company’s holdings: one million dollars one year, two-and-a-quarter millions the next, and so on, and gave them the total value as nearly as he could compute it. The same officers were elected each time, and the meeting adjourned for a year.

The fifth year ended; the notes were outlawed, and Ashbel went once more to his physician.

“This pain in my side—” he began.

“We must expect it to be worse now,” said Dr. Wightman. “We are five years older than when you were here last. You should have had regular treatment.”

“But it isn’t worse,” said Ashbel. “It is no worsen—maybe it is some better. I feel pretty good for an old man, I guess.”

The physician examined Ashbel again, and very carefully.

“Mr. Clute,” he said, when he had thumped, him and stethoscoped him and tried all his tests, “you are a remarkable man. You have a body like a steel engine and a constitution like a horse. How many years did I give you?”

“Six years. That was five years ago.”

“I’ll give you as many as you want now. You can live to be one hundred, or a hundred and ten, if you take care of yourself. How long have you had this pain in your side?”

“Always,” said Ashbel. “Since I was a boy, anyway.”

“You did not tell me that before,” said Dr. Wightman. “You led me to believe it was a new pain.”

“Yes,” said Ashbel, “I wanted to make it as bad as I could. I wanted to know the shortest time I had to live. So I look healthy to you?”

“Absolutely,” said the physician.

“That’s good,” said Ashbel without emotion. “How much do I owe you?”

“Five dollars.”

“Here’s two dollars. I wish I could earn money as easy as that.”

The next annual meeting was held in Ashbel’s dingy little office as usual. Ashbel made his report. He told his sons and daughters the assets of the Clute Investment Company had increased by over three million dollars during the year since the last annual meeting. He told them the cash income, not re-invested, was about eight hundred thousand dollars.

“I’m an old man now,” he said, and George, who believed he would be the head of the family and manager of the Clute fortunes when his father retired, and who had been waiting impatiently for the day, moved forward in his chair. “I’m an old man, and I can’t live long. I’ve lived here in Westcote all my life, and I’ve made my money here and near here. Times have changed since I began life here as a young man, George. Business is not the same.”.

“Very true, father,” said George.

“When I was a young man,” continued Ashbel, “what a man earned was his own. He was respected for it, but times have changed. I’ve never done anything for this town.”

“You have helped build it up,” said Walter. “You have been a good citizen.”

His father looked at him coldly.

“I’ve been a good business man, Walter,” he said, “and I’m a better business man to-day than any of you. I’m going to vote myself that eight hundred thousand dollars, and I’m going to give the town of Westcote a park—a million dollar park—Clute Park.”

George’s jaw fell. Walter half arose from his chair. Kate and Margaret turned ghastly white.

“I hear a motion that eight hundred thousand dollars be paid the Manager of the Company,” said Ashbel.

“I don’t make any such motion!” snapped Henry, and looked at his brothers and sisters. All shook their heads but Doris.

“Doris?” said Ashbel questioningly.

“I make the motion,” said Doris.

“Margaret seconds it?” said Ashbel, looking at her with harsh eyes.

“Oh, well, I’ll second it,” said Margaret nervously.

Ashbel put the motion.

“No!” said George promptly and firmly, and Walter, Kate and Margaret echoed him. Only Doris voted as her father wished.

“Carried!” said Ashbel with his grim smile.

“Father,” said George, very white but as hard and cool as usual, “you can’t do that. I—we don’t wish to offend you, but business is business. You can’t vote away our money when the majority is against you.”

“Your money!” said Ashbel, swinging about in his chair and looking George in the eye. “Your money! It’s my money. I’m not dead yet. Not yet!”

“No, father,” said Walter suavely, “and we are all thankful you are spared to us, to help us with your advice. But you are not as young as you were, father. Business to-day requires keen minds, and even a mind like yours grows dull with age. Look at this reasonably, father. Would you, even ten years ago, have thought of giving a million dollars for a park as a present to the city? It’s not business; it’s folly.”

Ashbel looked at Walter and saw his son’s firm jaw set as his own had set many a time when his will had been contested.

“Walter is right,” said George. “We know you were offered a million and a half for the timber land in Grosjean County a few months ago, and you refused it. It was worth half a million more to the Red Star Company than to anyone else because they were on the ground with their mill. They had to go elsewhere. You couldn’t get a million for that timber land from anyone else. That was poor business.”

“The land will be worth two millions in twenty years,” said Ashbel.

“Oh, don’t argue!” said Kate impatiently. “Father, we have decided it is time we took the management of our affairs into our own hands. You are old now, and this notion of throwing away a million dollars for a park is but one instance of what old men will do. You will get into the hands of sharpers and thieves, and they will rob you right and left. We have talked it over, and we are going to elect George President and Manager of the Company.”

Ashbel stood up. His eyes blazed and his hand trembled. He pointed to the door.

“Get out!” he cried. “Get out! Get out of this office, and if you ever come in here again, I’ll throw you out! I’m old, am I? I’m a senile old idiot, tottering into the grave, am I? I—”

His voice failed from very anger.

“Father—” said George, but Ashbel took him by the shoulder and thrust him toward the door. The younger man tottered and fell on one knee, putting out one hand to save himself. Ashbel pushed Walter with both his hands, and beat on his back with fury. Kate put up one arm to shelter her face, and then they all crowded into the hall, for their father had picked up the heavy iron seal of the Clute Investment Company.

He stood a moment glaring at the door, and then his lip raised in a snarl and he dropped into his chair and stared at the crack in the plaster wall. They had taken from him his one reason for living, the management of his great properties. They had not delayed one day beyond the time they must, but had pushed him out of his own. What did they care for him? They coveted his money. They used the tool he had contrived as an instrument to save them a part of his fortune as a wedge to pry him out of his rights. They were ingrates. They had waited until they were sure of his money and then had cast him aside like an old shoe.

He sat handling the iron seal and staring at the crack when the door was opened.


He looked around. It was Doris.

“I have come to you,” she said. “I love you, father.”.

“Oh, fiddlesticks!” Ashbel snapped. “You want to get something out of me, like the rest. What do you want? I’ve one share of stock in the company; is that what you want? Take it. I’m an old imbecile pauper.”

His lifted upper lip trembled. Doris ventured farther into the room and placed her hand on his shoulder.

“Father,” she said, “you are not a pauper. I have my share in the company, and that is yours. I hate the way they acted. Isn’t there some way you can take my money out and—and—”

There was no way, for Ashbel had seen to that, but in another moment Doris was sobbing on her father’s shoulder, and the old man was patting her arm, as if she, and not he, was the injured one.

“Come home," she said. “Come home and rest.”

“Home?” said Ashbel. “I have no home. I’m a pauper.”

“Don’t talk that way, father,” pleaded Doris. “How can you be a pauper when I have so much? I’ll give it all to you. I can give my share in the company to you. I don’t want it, father. As long as we have the old home, where mother was so happy—”

“We have no home,” said Ashbel. “The company has a home. I transferred that with the rest. They can vote us out of it.”

“But they would not do that!” cried Doris with horror. “Not out of the home you built; not out of the home where they were born!”

Ashbel laughed with a sneering intake of breath.

He was right. He had no home, and before a month was up George let him know it. He put the matter on the sanest grounds. The old home was expensive to keep up and unnecessarily large for one man and one daughter. George himself had never built, and he had a large family. He required a larger house than the one he was living in. The other children thought as he did. The company had offered to sell him the house, and he had bought it.

For a week Ashbel did not leave the house. He wandered from one room to the other. He seemed to be failing rapidly. He would enter a room and seat himself in a chair where his wife had sat, and look at the walls and the pictures on them, and then he would walk into another room and do the same, or he would sit on the porch, looking out over the river, with a chair close beside him, as if his wife still sat there. To tear an old man from the home he has known the better part of his life is the utmost cruelty, and Ashbel was not losing his home only, but the investments that were like living, breathing friends to him. The Gold Ridge Coal Company he had created and nursed through its infant ailments as he had nursed George and Walter. He knew every vein and nerve in its body. These companies and investments, he knew now, had been as much his children as the children of his loins, and they had been taken from him by his other children. Doris trembled when she saw her father’s state. He did not go to his office for a week, and at night she could hear him pacing the floor of his bedroom.

One day, early in the second week, Doris brought him her stock in the Clute Investment Company, signed on the back for transfer to him. He took it and let it lie in his lap as if unheeded, while he looked out over the river. George and the other children had ceased their visits to the house entirely. At length Ashbel put out his hand and touched Doris’ arm.

“You are a good girl, Doris,” he said; “you are like your mother.”

It was the greatest word of affection he had spoken to any of his children for years, and Doris’ eyes filled.

“Have Peter harness up,” he said after a minute.

“Where are you going, father?” asked Doris.

“To see Walter. Walter is Secretary. Walter will have to make the transfer.”

“You wont have words with him?”

“I have words with no one, now. What is my word worth?”

He drove to Walter’s office, but before the coachman drew up before the door he changed his mind and ordered Peter to drive to his own office. He re-remembered that Walter did not have the company seal, and without it he could not issue the transferred stock. He climbed the stairs slowly and unlocked his door. The seal lay where he had left it on the day of the stormy meeting, on his desk, and he picked it up and put it in his pocket. Then he paused and looked at his iron safe. Slowly and carefully he turned the combination knob and swung open the door. He unlocked the small wooden drawer and took out the note the company had given him, and the notes given him by his children.

When he walked down the stairs he was another man. The stoop in his broad shoulders that had come since the stormy meeting was gone; his eyes were stern and hard again, and his jaw was set as of old.

“To Walter’s,” he said.

He left the stock and the seal with Walter’s cashier, and walked firmly across the sidewalk to his carriage.

“To Lane’s,” he told Peter.

"Henry,” he said, when he sat by the lawyer’s desk, “I want you to draw up a deed of gift to the Town of Westcote, from me, for the old Griscome property, to be used and held, as a public park. I want you to buy that land for me. I’ll pay a million or anything under a million. Get it as low as you can. And I want you to draw up a will for me. I’m getting old, Henry.”

“Oh, you’re good for twenty years yet," said the lawyer. “You look younger to-day than you did ten years ago.

“But I thought that you had transferred all your property to the Clute Investment Company?” the lawyer added.

“In this will,” said Ashbel, ignoring the question, “I want to give all I own, every cent and stiver of it, to my daughter Doris. Make the will short, and make it unbreakable, Henry. And you might say, somewhere, I’m giving her all because of love and affection for her. You can do that, can’t you, Henry?”

“Certainly I can.”

“And, Henry,” said Ashbel, putting his hand in his breast pocket and drawing forth the note the Clute Investment Company had given him, “just notify this company to pay this note. With interest, Henry. And let ’em know if it is not paid in ten days or some satisfactory settlement made, I’ll begin suit.”

The lawyer took the note and looked at it, quizzically, while a wry smile spoiled the contour of his mouth. The note was for twenty-eight million dollars, due one day after date, signed by the Clute Investment Company, and the date was over five years old, but Henry Lane placed it in his safe as carefully as if there were no law outlawing a note in five years. He handled it as if it were worth its face value. And it was. It was not an outlawed note, worth only the value of the paper on which it was written. Embossed upon it was the seal of the Clute Investment Company, and under the laws of the state a note bearing a seal was valid for twenty years!

“Ashbel,” said Henry Lane as he turned back from the safe, “when was that seal placed on that note?”

“I don’t know, Henry, I don’t know!” said Ashbel, shaking his head. “I can’t remember. I’m getting old, Henry. I’m almost senile, Henry. Some things I can’t seem to remember at all.”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1937, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 85 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.