William Morris. Commonweal 1887

Honesty is the Best Policy;
Or, The Inconvenience of Stealing 1

Source: “Honesty is the Best Policy 1, Commonweal, 12 November 1887;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

[A Dialogue between Mr James Brown, a business man, and Mr Olaf Evans, a kind of artist and literary man; neighbours.]

Scene — A Suburban Highway, tending townward.

Evans (turning round as Brown catches him up on the road). Well, Brown, you look in a deuce of a hurry this morning.

Brown (sulkily). And you look as if you have no need to hurry.

E. No, I haven’t — because I must write my own books and paint my own pictures myself — but don’t be in such a hurry, old man; its a long time since I have had a talk with you, although we live next door but one to each other.

B. (testily) No, no, its all very well for you, who have all the day before you to loaf in, to take it easy; but I must get on to my business, and catch the ‘bus.

E. Come now, Brown! You know well enough that your clerks don’t want you; and they can’t idle, because they have got old Jackson to drive them; and he does it as a pleasure and not as a duty. You will only be in the way when you get there.

[Brown’s sulkiness visibly increases; but he slows down, and they walk on side by side for a little, but without talking, Evans whistling ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ very much out of tune.]

B. Well, now, why don’t you talk, Evans, since you have kept me here lounging along with you: and there you go mooning along, pretending to be pondering over your novel, or your picture, and really thinking about nothing.

E. Well, you see, I like human company even when it doesn’t talk. But what were you thinking about Brown?

B. (very testily). You.

E. Curious! I was thinking about you, and wondering what had put you out so this morning; because you are generally rather a cheery kind of a bird.

B. Well, I admit that I am in a bad temper — there.

E. Or rather you were; but since you have made up your mind to tell me all about it you are beaming as usual. Well, ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh'; abound my friend, abound!

B. Well you know, Evans, you may think it a little thing, but there’s that jolly little garden of mine, all spoilt this morning. You know, the square piece between the trees.

E. Hilloa! who’s done that? One of your Tory friends been spiting you these brisk political times, like Mr Whiteley’s desperate enemies?

B. Well you see, it’s the pears. They have come after them; you know, that jargonelle tree close by.

E. Come after them? Yes, and got them too, I suppose — boys, I should think.

B. Every blessed one — no, no! it isn’t boys, its blackguards; blackguards I tell you. No one can keep any fruit for them in this beastly hole.

[Here he uses the resources of the English language in a manner too emphatic for our printer to render with the resources of type.]

E. My dear Brown, calm yourself, when it’s done you all the good it can! I suppose these blackguards had no pears and wanted some, and had no money to buy them with. Blackguards seldom have any money, I notice. It often happens so to me.

B. No, blast them! They had spent it all in beer.

[The resources o f the English language drawn on again.]

E. Doubtless; and the pears would come refreshing to them after hot-coppers — if blackguards ever have hot-coppers!

B. Refreshing! Don’t be a fool! Don’t you know that they would sell ‘em and buy more beer with them, blast them!

E. Touching instance of the Marxian formula, C-M-C! Never mind me, Brown, my mind wanders a little sometimes. But I say, really, don’t let it put you out so, for you can easily buy some more pears, and much better ones; you're not a blackguard, and you have got plenty of money, and the ones that were gone were no great shakes after all. And then they won’t be wasted, somebody will eat them; and look it quite squares with your dignified position here, as a leading Radical in the neighbourhood to grow fruit for the public benefit. By Jove! an idea seizes me. Suppose you put up for Parliament here next election, you might get a good deal of popularity by this affair if you managed it properly. But since the pears were what they were, perhaps you will give people the gripes; but even then that’s a kind of revenge for you at the worst, even if the stealers exchange their commodity pears, for money wherewith to buy the commodity beer; some one will get the gripes.

B. Now look here, Evans, you think yourself damned clever with your chaff; but you know very well I don’t care about the value of the pears, but one does want to know what becomes of one’s own fruit. And when you talk of the gripes and the beer and all that; that’s just what I say. It damages me and doesn’t do any good to them. That’s what always comes of stealing. And as to the pears being wasted, I know my garden is wasted; why my wife had tears in her eyes when I fetched her out before breakfast to look at the damage those damned blackguards had done; all those single dahlias broken down and all, and she doesn’t care about flowers anything like as much as I do! Damnation!

E. Poor Mrs Brown!

B. Now there you go! You won’t understand me! they are welcome to the fruit. Next year I'll have it all picked and put in baskets before the door in the open street with a placard over them, ‘Blackguards are requested to partake of other people’s property; scoundrels are begged to accept what other people have worked for’.

E. A very proper thing to do! and won’t do your popularity any harm. People will take in your pears much quicker than your jokes, though they are not bad. If only you understood where they would lead you if you followed them up properly.

B. What I mean is this, and I'm sure when you think fit to be serious, you will agree with me; that in stealing it isn’t so much the shifting of the property from one man to another, especially if he is a rich man, that is so bad, as the confusion and nuisance of it, and its waste and destruction, and the heart-burning and hatred it causes. In short, as I said, it does harm both to the stealer and the stolen-from; in short, it is bad all round.

E. Isn’t even good for trade?

B. Of course not. (Pompously.) Nothing is good for trade except steady production, and honest dealing in the things produced. But, Evans, I really wonder at a decent man like you, and very good-natured fellow, being so flippant about such a beastly, miserable, destructive, inconvenient vice as stealing. The more I think of it the more I hate it: it is simply the worst form of war. Come, my dear fellow, be serious.

E. I assure you I'm as serious as possible, and quite delighted to hear that you hate stealing, since I quite agree with all that you have been saying about it.

B. (mollified.) Well, I thought you would.

E. Yes; and what you have been saying makes me bold to say something to you in return: that since you hate stealing, you ought to do your best to get rid of it altogether.

B. Well, so I do, don’t I?

E. Do you? How, pray?

B. Why, I look sharp after my property; don’t allow anyone that I have to do with to be backward with their accounts; don’t put temptation in anyone’s way; whilst at the same time I must say for myself that I am liberal in my dealings — give my servants good wages, and my clerks too, though you did sneer at me about old Jackson; who, I must tell you, is a very useful person, and a precious good screw he gets from me. In short, I'm none of your sloppy, indulgent, weakly good-natured persons like — like -

E. Like me, eh?

B. Well, don’t take offence; but you are, rather, you know, ain’t you? But look here, Evans, it don’t do, you know — that sort of thing; you do much more harm by it than good. Now I really take trouble with the people I have to deal with, and both by example and by looking sharply after them and treating them justly (and they know when they are justly treated, bless you!) I do hope I make them honest persons. I hold that a man has no right to have property unless he accepts its responsibilities and takes that kind of trouble: and it is a trouble, mind you. Now you -

E. But do you never try to do anything to keep yourself from stealing?

B. There, there! you are at it again! — never serious for two minutes together! But you needn’t look penitent; I wasn’t offended, my dear fellow,

E. Well, but I am not penitent at all; but I am somewhat discouraged, because I was deadly serious, and was going to beg you to help me and others to put an end to stealing, both other peoples’ and our own.

B. Evans, what do you mean?

E. Since you did really seem to hate stealing so, and since I know you are an honest man enough at heart, I was going to ask you to join the Socialist League, to which I belong -

B. Evans! Evans!

E. And the object of which is to get rid of all stealing for good and all.

B. Get rid of all property, you mean! But I never knew that you were a Socialist; — I am shocked, I am shocked! And the Socialist League, too! Well!

E. How you fly out at a man! How should you have known I was a Socialist? If ever I began to talk about the wrongs of the working class, or the stupidity of our system of production, you would take me all cross, and think I was only talking Ruskinism; and then you would shut me up with some Radical aphorism, and get excited about Gladstone, and not listen to one word I had to say. And I didn’t like to push myself forward, as if I were a person of any importance.

B. Well, only to think of it! And let me tell you, Mr Socialist, when you call me a thief, I call you a coward for not telling me before.

E. (penitently.) Well, it was rather cowardly. But now you see I've done it; so you need not twit me with it. And I won’t be cowardly any more about it; and I'll speak at the open-air meetings about here, instead of at the East-end only.

B. What! you a street-preaching demagogue too! — go about advising people to rebellion and murder and all that?

E. No; I advise them not to steal or let others steal. Come, I say, I don’t mind your hard words, but just think it over about joining us.

B. NO!!!

E. Well, here we are close to the Straightway and the ‘bus. Let’s make peace, at any rate; and come in this evening and have a pipe, and convert me, if you can, to the ways of peace, righteousness — and stealing: and forget about your garden.

B. Well, I will come in, but no Socialist politics, if you please. Well, I promise to come.

E. Well, we won’t talk politics. I'll read you the manuscript of my last poem, on the Birth of the Bruce: it isn’t very long.

B. (dubiously.) All right, all right. Now I must be off: ‘bus is just going to start. (Exit on ‘bus.)

E. (to himself), Well, I've caught him properly. Because, don’t you see, when he comes in and sees my MS. on the table, he will be anxious to put off the evil half-hour of the reading, and he will be glad to let me begin to talk of Socialism or anything else rather than read my poetry to him. And when I once begin he will presently get hot and argue; and even if I don’t sow a seed or two in him (and really he is a very good fellow) at all events it will be good practice for me against my next open-air speech.