"I was surprised at how easy it was to give it back," Ward says. "I think people misjudge themselves."

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CHICAGO — Before she found the blue bag under the mattress in her new house, Cathy Ward had occasionally engaged in a parlor game, the one where you’re asked what you’d do if you found $100.

Would you give it back?

Whenever she played the game, one or two people in the conversation always said they wouldn’t. Ward always imagined that she would, but virtue is easier in theory than in fact, and now here was the fact of this blue bag.

It was move-in day. Ward, a 911 dispatcher at O’Hare, and her husband, Joe DeGreif, an American Airlines mechanic, had bought the 1940s white frame Chicago house from the family of an elderly deceased woman, and with it came all the furniture, including a mattress Ward immediately decided had to go.

It was a heavy old thing, but she managed to tug it off the box springs, and there sat the bag.

“I knew what it was going to be,” she says. “It was not that big. I figured a few hundred.”

She reached into the bag. The money came in bundles, wrapped in rubber bands, many labeled in a shaky hand: Taxes. Utilities. Pension.

Ward went down to the basement to see her husband.

“I found at least $10,000,” she told him.

He came upstairs. They spread the money out on the dining table until it was covered and every bill counted. Neither of them had ever seen so much cash.

And it was all theirs, they figured. By contract, they’d bought the house and its contents, which just happened to include $23,800.

Would they give it back? This was no game.

“My husband didn’t even blink,” Ward says.

Actually, he did.

The old house needed new wiring and windows. Their young kids needed what kids need. And the credit cards.

“We could have been debt-free,” DeGreif says.

But even as he hesitated, a higher voice spoke, the one that said legal isn’t always moral. Ward thought about her own elderly parents, generous and honest, and what they’d taught their nine children.

“If it was my mom,” she says, “and she had worked for something that she intended to leave for me, I would want someone to find me.”

So DeGreif drove to the home of one of the women’s sons. We found some money, he said. He named the sum.

“He looked like he was about to pass out,” DeGreif says. “Then he started tearing up, gave me a hug, said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.”‘

(The man didn’t want to be identified for this column, but his real estate agent confirmed the story.)

From the woman’s son, Ward and DeGreif learned that she had grown up in the Great Depression, and like so many survivors of that time, never forgot that it might come again. The house, where she lived for six decades, raised her kids and grew old, was kept up well enough, but she rarely replaced anything, not a window or a lamp or an outlet cover.

And what she didn’t spend, she tucked under the mattress, where it might have been found by someone less scrupulous than Joe DeGreif and Cathy Ward.

“I was surprised at how easy it was to give it back,” Ward says. “I think people misjudge themselves.”

She and her husband have found a normal rhythm in their new house, paying bills, raising children. Their neighbors drop by to say how much they loved the old woman who once lived there, and how much she would love that little kids are in the yard again.