“Why don’t you follow the advice of Mr. Williams and buy some shares of stock?” asked Selma lightly, yet coaxingly, of her husband one day in the third year of their marriage. The Williamses were dining with them at the time, and a statement by Gregory, not altogether without motive, as to the profits made by several people who had taken his advice, called forth the question. He and his wife were amiably inclined toward the Littletons, and were proud of the acquaintance. Among their other friends they boasted of the delightful excursions into the literary circle which the intimacy afforded them. They both would have been pleased to see their neighbors more amply provided with money, and Gregory, partly at the instance of Flossy, partly from sheer good-humor in order to give a deserving but impractical fellow a chance to better himself, threw out tips from time to time—crumbs from the rich man’s table, but bestowed in a friendly spirit. Whenever they were let fall, Selma would look at Wilbur hoping for a sign of interest, but hitherto they had evoked merely a smile of refusal or had been utterly ignored.
Her own question had been put on several occasions, both in the company of the tempter and in the privacy of the domestic hearth, and both in the gayly suggestive and the pensively argumentative key. Why might they not, by means of a clever purchase in the stock market, occasionally procure some of the agreeable extra pleasures of life—provide the ready money for theatres, a larger wardrobe, trips from home, or a modest equipage? Why not take advantage of the friendly advice given? Mr. Williams had made clear that the purchase of stocks on a sufficient margin was no more reprehensible as a moral proposition than the purchase of cargoes of sugar, cotton, coffee or tea against which merchants borrowed money at the bank. In neither instance did the purchaser own outright what he sought to sell at an advance; merely in one case it was shares, in the other merchandise. Of course it was foolish for inexperienced country folk with small means to dabble in stocks and bonds, but why should not city people who were clever and had clever friends in the business eke out the cost of living by shrewd investments? In an old-fashioned sense it might be considered gambling; but, if it were true, as Wilbur and Mr. Williams both maintained, that the American people were addicted to speculation, was not the existence of the habit strong evidence that the prejudice against it must be ill-founded? The logical and the patriotic conclusion must needs be that business methods had changed, and that the American nation had been clever enough to substitute dealings in shares of stock, and in contracts relating to cereals and merchandise for the methods of their grandfathers who delivered the properties in bulk.