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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XVIII, published 1892)

Passage 286

“Even so, Jim. My questions,” I repeated. “I put questions as well as yourself; and however little I may have satisfied Mamie with my answers, I beg to remind you that you gave me none at all.”

“You mean about the bankruptcy?” asked Jim.

I nodded.

He writhed in his chair. “The straight truth is, I was ashamed,” he said. “I was trying to dodge you. I've been playing fast and loose with you, Loudon; I've deceived you from the first, I blush to own it. And here you came home and put the very question I was fearing. Why did we bust so soon? Your keen business eye had not deceived you. That's the point, that's my shame; that's what killed me this afternoon when Mamie was treating you so, and my conscience was telling me all the time, Thou art the man.'”

“What was it, Jim?” I asked.

“What I had been at all the time, Loudon,” he wailed; “and I don't know how I'm to look you in the face and say it, after my duplicity. It was stocks,” he added in a whisper.

“And you were afraid to tell me that!” I cried. “You poor, old, cheerless dreamer! what would it matter what you did or didn't? Can't you see we're doomed? And anyway, that's not my point. It's how I stand that I want to know. There is a particular reason. Am I clear? Have I a certificate, or what have I to do to get one? And when will it be dated? You can't think what hangs by it!”

“That's the worst of all,” said Jim, like a man in a dream, “I can't see how to tell him!”

“What do you mean?” I cried, a small pang of terror at my heart.

“I'm afraid I sacrificed you, Loudon,” he said, looking at me pitifully.

“Sacrificed me?” I repeated. “How? What do you mean by sacrifice?”

“I know it'll shock your delicate self-respect,” he said; “but what was I to do? Things looked so bad. The receiver—” (as usual, the name stuck in his throat, and he began afresh). “There was a lot of talk; the reporters were after me already; there was the trouble and all about the Mexican business; and I got scared right out, and I guess I lost my head. You weren't there, you see, and that was my temptation.”

The word 'certificate' troubles me there. What kind of certificate is meant there? It seems to be a specific one. The two characters, Loudon Dodd and Jim Pinkerton, went bankrupt and now Loudon Dodd wants to know where he stands - financially and judicially. 'Certificate' seems to have a specific judicial and - private or personal meaning in this context. Thank you for helping.

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The certificate referred to is almost certainly the "Certificate of Conformity". This is an instrument introduced in English law as the "Statute of Anne" in 1705. Following independence American bankruptcy law remained based on English law, and included a similar provision*. Its purpose was to release debtors from financial liabilities incurred before a bankruptcy, thereby allowing them to make a fresh start.

In this case, Pinkerton declared bankruptcy while Dodd was away in Honolulu investigating what had happened to the Flying Scud. As he was a de facto business partner of Pinkerton, Dodd naturally assumed that he was involved in the bankruptcy too. This is important because shortly after returning to San Francisco Dodd received a letter telling him his grandfather Alexander had died, leaving him 17,000 pounds in his will. If the certificate of conformity had been granted. Dodd would be able to keep the money, otherwise it would be used to pay off the creditors. Hence his urgency in asking:

Have I a certificate, or what have I to do to get one? And when will it be dated? You can't think what hangs by it!”

-essentially his whole financial security hinges on whether the certificate was issued before his grandfather died.

In the end, however, his worry was unnecessary, as Pinkerton hadn't formally named Dobbs as being a partner at all:

there being no deed of partnership, I made out you were only a kind of clerk that I called a partner just to give you taffy; and so I got you ranked a creditor on the estate for your wages and the money you had lent. And——”

I believe I reeled. “A creditor!” I roared; “a creditor! I'm not in the bankruptcy at all?”

and so he had no liability for the debts. Indeed he was actually a creditor.


* See here for an example of a court in Mississippi in 1869 deciding whether to issue a Certificate of Conformity or not.

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  • Thank you very much indeed. I have to relate this link to the English legal relationships but this bankruptcy took place in San Francisco. Maybe the legal relationships were similar and didn't much differ in those days and the notations (like 'Certificate of Conformity') were the same. Nevertheless, a big upvote for your answer goes without saying.
    – philphil
    Nov 21, 2023 at 20:37
  • Yes, US bankruptcy law had the same notion of a Certificate of Conformity as English law. I'll rewrite to make this a little clearer. Nov 21, 2023 at 23:33

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