The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part II

Henry made his way to New York and took odd jobs for a while to feed himself.  But subsistence was not the way he wanted to spend his life.  He apprenticed himself to a shrewd banker.  He learned the ways of investing and money-lending.  He particularly excelled in making high interest, high risk loans, and claiming any and all collateral when his clients defaulted.  He sold the items for premium prices, keeping a nice commission for himself.  If there was no collateral, he delighted in sending the miscreants to prison for their thievery.

Everything went well for a number of years.  He began to amass a small fortune, but small was never what he wanted.  He never had time for friends:  they were just parasites that wanted to drain him of his wealth.  He was self-sufficient.  He was self-made.  He needed no one.

That didn’t mean that the ladies did not take notice.  Henry was a fine looking young man.  He turned heads.  And sometimes, the heads turned so far, they young ladies attached to them got completely turned around.  One such lovely young girl was Madeline Seward, the daughter of a successful partner in the bank where Henry worked.  Madeline made no pretense of her interests.  She knew precisely what she wanted.  She saw ambition in him, and she wanted to make it to the top of the social ladder as much as he did.  In those days, women had to depend on men to open such doors.  Truth was, she was as ruthless and hard bitten as he was.  They would have been a match made in…well heaven doesn’t make such matches.  But Henry didn’t realize that.  He actually began to fall for her. 

Henry was wealthy enough to take a wife and support her in style.   He didn’t have to work up courage to ask for her hand, all he had to do was tap on her door and she would agree to become Mrs. Henry Potter.  They would be fabulously wealthy and powerful and live in ostentatious opulence, as befitting one who had risen from poverty to the pinnacle of success.        

But fate was not kind.

One day, a fever kept him home from work.  He would wrap up, sleep, drink some soup and brandy, and be ready to return to work in the morning.  But the recuperation day turned into a month.  The fever had been polio, and by the time he was well enough to think about work again, he was also paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

Madeline, whose whole life was focused on the material world and physical perfection, cast him off like yesterday’s kitchen slop.  She moved on, choosing to cut her ties by writing a tersely worded note of separation.  She never even visited him while he was practically at death’s door.

He cursed his lot.  He blamed his God, and swore off ever showing reverence again to any being that could be so cruel.  How dare He cut him down in his prime!  And he swore he would never again show weakness when it came to women.  There was more money to be made, more property to be accumulated. 

 “More chains to be forged,” said Woodrow almost to himself.

“How’s that?” asked Clarence.

“Dickens,” said Woodrow.

“Ah, yes,” said Clarence.  “I’m quite fond of Twain.  Now where did I put that new book?” he asked, patting his waistcoat and robe pockets.

“A-hem,” Joseph interrupted.

Clarence looked a bit sheepish.  “Of course, sir.”

The scene shifted to a more recent time.  After his illness, Henry had returned to Bedford Falls where he started investing with an eye toward buying the bank.  If he could ever control the money supply, he would own the town.  He continued exploiting the poor and making more money for his own considerable accounts, which he kept judiciously spread over many other institutions.  He converted much cash to gold and silver and he bought as much real estate as he dared, while keeping a comfortable liquid cash flow.  He needed to both have money and to show he had money.  For what, he really didn’t know.  He wanted respect.  Especially after he was confined to the wheelchair, he wanted people know that he was still better than they were.  He made sure to shorten the legs on the guest chair in his office so that the grovellers that made supplication to him had to physically look up to him.  It was a small thing, but it made him feel better about himself to make others feel inadequate.

When the market crashed in October of ‘29, Potter hardly flinched.  He saw the national misfortune as an opportunity.  He stepped in and finally took over the bank.  He bought as many properties in Bedford Falls and the surrounding area as were for sale, and he held onto control of as many businesses as he could.  By securing their loans he bought into them and refused to be only a silent partner.

Through it all, there had been one business that had been a thorn in his side.  The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.  Peter and William Bailey were pathetic.  They reminded him of his father.  They preferred to see what they called the good in people, which all too often turned into a bad case of being taken advantage of.  

Of course, Peter was the brains of the operation.  Billy was, well, he was Billy.  Some said he was too often found in his cups.  Others thought he was just a little addled.  He was harmless, and people liked him. 

When Peter died, Henry had to think fast.  His first inclination was to crush the dying business like the dry husk it was.  But he needed time to think.  As a member of the board of directors, Henry needed Bailey Brothers to remain solvent, at least until he could manipulate a proper takeover.  He went along with the simple-minded suggestion of putting George in charge.  Another idiot Bailey.  He could bide his time and wait for George to make a mistake.  They always made mistakes, these Baileys and their kind.

But George was smart.  There was more business sense in him than there ever had been in his old man.  He was shrewd.  He reminded him of himself in some ways, but for some asinine reason, George never quite wanted to get ahead it seemed.  He had the brains, but he lacked the drive.  Henry knew George Bailey would never get very far.

Henry planned to use George’s untapped ambition against him.  Thus, he hatched his masterpiece plan of offering George a job, starting at the unheard of sum of $20,000 a year.  A few months, no more than a year, and Bailey would be fired for some trumped-up charge.  Negligence, incompetence, malfeasance, anything would work.  In the mean time, with only Billy at the helm, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan would quietly disintegrate, torn to pieces between the Scylla of ignorance and the Charybdis of sentimentality.

George nibbled at the bait.  He had spent his life with one big dream after another being crushed by a misguided sense of responsibility.  Henry was ready to set the hook.  Then, like a freak storm blowing up on a sunny afternoon, George shattered Henry’s strategy for ultimate conquest.  He walked out, streaming insults and spewing self-righteous bilge water.

Henry, angered, but undeterred, retreated to his counting house office to plot and regroup.  He needed another plan. 

And then, just when it looked like the war was lost, what could only have been a divine intervention (maybe Heaven did care, after all) brought George to his knees, crawling to him, Henry Potter, for help in covering the Building and Loan’s deposit that had mysteriously disappeared.  Five hundred dollars equity in a life insurance policy.  He was worth more dead than alive, Henry had told George.  The fact of the matter was, he was worthless either way.  Even if he ended his pitiable existence, the insurance company wouldn’t pay out on a suicide. 

The money remained folded in the newspaper that old dim-witted Billy Bailey had so stupidly handed him that morning.  He kept it in his lap.  He would not let it out of his sight for fear that the Baileys would recover it and continue to operate outside his control.  It was his money, now.  Possession was nine points of the law.  He had found the money.  He was under no legal obligation to return it.

 “That depends on whose law he’s reading,” said Clarence. 

“Men like Potter don’t often care about morality,” Joseph offered.

“So true,” Woodrow agreed.  “The letter of the law and not the spirit.  That’s got a lot of folks into a lot of hot water.”

“If it were only water,” said Clarence, his words trailing wistfully.

And then Henry heard about the ignorant sheep that pulled George Bailey’s fat out of the fire.  How stupid could they be?  Would George Bailey ever be able to repay them at the pittance he charged in interest?  Maybe this would be the death knell for the Bailey Brothers, after all….

But Bailey’s riffraff would not want repayment.  Not even principle without interest.  Doubly stupid.  How could they hope to get ahead without even a hint of usury?

 

            “Oh my, it’s time to go.  We’ve caught you up on Henry Potter, such as he is.  I’m sorry you have such a case to contend with on your first assignment,” Clarence apologized, although the case was not of his making. 

            “Don’t you worry, Clarence.  I’ll think of something,” Woodrow smiled, and patted Clarence on the shoulder.

            Clarence smiled and looked at Joseph.  “I’ve got a good feeling about Woodrow, sir, but I’m worried about Henry.”

            “Yes, Woodrow will make a fine addition to our ranks.  I have faith in him.  That’s why I called him up for this assignment.  He’s smart, and he has a keen sense about people.”

            “But Potter’s the worst I have encountered in over 279 years, sir.”

            “He has rough edges.  But somewhere, deep down, there may still be a kernel of goodness.”

 

            Woodrow Jefferson faded into earthly existence in a very different way from his first entrance as a wailing baby all those years ago in Virginia.  This time, he was fully grown, fully clothed, and had a distinct mission.  Before, he was property.  This time, he was freer than free.  He checked his tool kit, a prop he would use to gain admission to Potter’s house.  After that, he would need to use his wits to gain admission to Potter’s heart.

            Woodrow raised the antique door knocker and let it fall.  It resounded on the thick wooden door and he waited for a response.  A moment later and the nameless, almost faceless servant opened the door.

            “The service entrance is to the rear,” he said, almost automatically.

            “Well, since I’m here, and you’re here, what say we just let me in the front door?”

            “Very well…sir.”  The valet was not sure why he called the scruffy man in spotless overalls ‘sir.”  It just seemed to fit.

            “Please tell Mr. Potter I’m here to fix his furnace.”

            “Very well, sir.”

            Henry Potter rolled into the room, this time under his own power.  The folded newspaper was no longer in his lap, but now stashed safely in his smoking jacket.

            “What’s this about a furnace?  My heat is working fine,” he grumbled.

            Woodrow looked up and nodded.  The furnace gave a cough, then died.

            “See here!  I don’t know what racket you’re running, but that furnace was running like new.”

            “All things need a tune-up every now and then, Mr. Potter,” replied Woodrow, calmly.  The room had chilled in an unnaturally short time.  It was a nice touch.  Clarence was pleased.

            “Well, get on with it,” Potter mumbled.  ‘And don’t dawdle!  I’m not paying you overtime for a Christmas Eve service call.”

            “I’ve nothing better to do this evening, Mr. Potter.”

            Potter rolled away, still grumbling.

            A few minutes later, after the servant had been dismissed for the night, Woodrow came into the sitting room where Potter held court. 

            “The furnace may need some parts from the shop.  But right now, the snow’s awfully heavy.  I’m not sure I can make it there and back safely until it slacks up.”

            “Well, build the fire and take some of the chill out of the air before I catch pneumonia.”

            “Yes, sir.   You mind if I warm myself a bit, too?”

             “Suit yourself.  But you’re not on the clock while you do it.”

            Woodrow smiled inwardly.  So far, so good.

            “How long you lived here, Mr. Potter,” asked Woodrow.

            “Long enough.  Ever since I came back from the city.  I was born here, you know.  Went off to seek my fortune.”  He harrumphed.  “Made it, too, and then some.”

            “More to life than money, Mr. Potter.”

            “If there is, I haven’t found it.  If it doesn’t bring you happiness by earning it, it can buy whatever you’re lacking.”

            “I’m not sure I follow.”

            “I don’t expect you would.  Your type seems to do fine living day to day.”

            “That’s about all any of us can do, Mr. Potter.”

            “You don’t take charge of your life.  That’s what makes us different.”

            “I still don’t follow.”

            “Dim-witted….”Henry muttered.  “I know what I want, and I go after it.  I get what I want, because I don’t let silly sentimentality get in my way.”

            “What some folks want is what’s best for others.”

            “Best for others.  What have they ever done for me?!”

            “They’re how you make a living, one way or another.  They can make your life better.”

            “Better than what?  I own more of Bedford Falls than any other living person.  I have the finest house, I wear the finest clothes.  I do as I please, because people respect me.”

            “People fear you, Henry.”

            “Now see here, whatever your name is…” Potter stammered.  He had never been spoken to by a working class scalawag like this before!  The only other person ever to speak to him like that was that infernal George Bailey!

            “Truth hurts, doesn’t it Henry.”

            “How dare you!  How dare you insult me that way!  Who is your employer?  I’m going to give him a call right now…” he grunted as he reached for the candlestick phone on the end table.

             “You don’t need a phone to call my boss, Henry.”

            “Oh, so you’re the boss.”

            “No, just let’s say I answer to a higher power.”

            “A higher power, you say.  You work for the government?”

            “I’m an angel, Henry.  I was sent here to talk to you.  That’s what angels do.  Get sent to do things.”

            “I’ve heard it all, now.  I’m calling the police.”

            “Sheriff Warren’s still over at the Baileys’.  He’s having a good time with half the town.  The other half will probably be there before the party breaks up.”

            “Party?  What party?”

            “You know, Henry.”

            “Know what?”

            “Folks are coming in droves to help George out of a jam.  He means a lot to this town.”

            “Hogwash!  George Bailey is a fool.  A fool and a poor businessman.  You know what they say about a fool and his money!”

            “Harry Bailey said he’s the richest man in town.  I believe it, too.”

            “If that’s so, why did he come begging for $8,000 dollars this very afternoon?”

            “I think you know.”

            “I have no idea what you mean,” Potter lied, shifting his glance just slightly downward, to the right.  His right hand moved to the paper peeking out of his robe.

            “I’m talking about the money you have folded in that paper, right there.”

            “Get out!”

            “I think I’ll stay a little while.”

 

 

…continued in Part III

 

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