PUNCTUALLY to its time, the 9.37 a.m. up train hurried into the station, and the suburban crowd rushed at it. There was a of banging doors, and the engine, snorting impatiently, dragged the congested train on again. Many passengers were standing, and there was an overflow meeting in the guard's van. There was a little ineffective grumbling, but a more general tendency to regard a railway company as a natural law, before which the only correct attitude was one of patient resignation. The suburb was badly served and the accommodation was insufficient; it had always been so; it would always be so. But was poor, mortal man to contend with a great, divine railway company? Certainly not. The very thought seemed almost irreverent. Occasionally a clerk, in a moment of mad rebellion, would observe to a passenger who happened to be standing on another man's feet at the time, that the Company did not do them over well, and that more trains would be a convenience. But humble submission was the more general note.
But whatever might happen to others, Mr. Graham Ventnor was never crowded. A first class compartment was reserved for him and his friends. No resident in the suburb would have ventured to profane the privacy of that apartment; they were respectful people. On one occasion, when Mr. Ventnor was a few moments late, and the train was being kept back for him, a stranger, desperate in his search for a seat, ventured to enter the sacred precincts. The guard, the stationmaster, and a porter were on his trail at once; they were perfectly polite, but they managed to make that stranger understand that he had done a shameful thing; and, of course, they removed him. "No room in any of the other firsts? Very sorry, sir, but we can't help that. This compartment is strictly reserved for Mr. Ventnor and his party." And Mr. Ventnor's party, awaiting his arrival, glared at the outcast.
Mr. Ventnor thoroughly enjoyed respect and the other signs that he was a personage. But it must not be thought that he was bumptious or peremptory in his manner. On the contrary, he was full of smiling geniality. His was the good humour of a man whose position is assured, and his vanity was no more than normal. He was thought well of in his little world, and that pleased him; he could not always be reminding himself that his suburb constituted a very little world indeed. He was popular among those who served him, as much for his kindly ways as for his generous gifts. When the stationmaster's baby was ill, Mr. Ventnor never forgot to inquire. He always had a word on the situation for that keen politician the guard of the 9.37. His equals found him a pleasant companion, but nobody found him an intimate friend. The social manner was absolutely unbreakable; even that privileged circle that shared the reserved carriage in the morning had never penetrated behind it. "He's a very good chap," said Sharman, the broker, "and I've known him for twenty years. But if I ever wanted a little help, I should feel that I didn't know him well enough to ask for it. You get on well enough with him up to a certain point, and then there's a cut-off; you never get any further."
"I'm not so sure," said Mr. Lardner, K.C., "that there is any further to get. I'm inclined to think that we know all that there is. I believe that if you did want help, he would give you it; and, which is rather important, he would not talk about it."
"I quite believe that. But all the same I should not like to ask him for it. He'd give it, but he'd never respect you again."
"Well," said Lardner, laughing, "you needn't worry about it. You're not likely to want the help. According to all I hear, you people are making money hand over fist just now. Lucky beggars!"
"The public's on the feed, and we're not standing idle. That's all true enough. But then, with us, the more business we have, the greater the risk that we run."
"That's it," said Lardner. "It wouldn't be you if you weren't grumbling."
"I don't grumble exactly; but times like these make one nervous. People forget that when we make money, it is in driblets; and when we lose it, it is in big lumps. I wish things were rather quieter; they're going too fast."
Sharman always looked anxious and worried. His pessimistic tendencies were rather a joke with Ventnor and Lardner. He was a little man with a big family and a good business; he gave the impression that both the family and the business were too large for him. Barstow, who made up the party in the reserved carriage, never joined in the chaff. He was a solemn man; he was interested in his business in Mincing Lane and in his garden—he was fond of gardening and spent a good deal of money on his place; though out of a proper feeling of respect for the practical king of the suburb, he employed one man less than Mr. Graham Ventnor.
Day after day these four men travelled to the City together, and in the evening returned together. They represented the cream of the suburb; they were supposed to be the four wealthiest men in it. I would not imply that the suburb thought of nothing but money, but it did value the qualities or the opportunities that could make money without getting into trouble. The four men were on the best of terms, and their wives were on the best of terms also. They dined together with fair regularity. In good works and local politics the eight were as one. The supremacy of Ventnor was never disputed. It was for him to head the subscription list, to take the chair, and to have his name on the bills as patron. In years and presence he was the superior of the other three. He was a tall man, erect and alert in spite of his sixty years. He was still a handsome man, and he carried himself well and dressed with absolute correctness. He had lived longer in the suburb; he spent more money, it was beyond argument.
But what Sharman had said was perfectly true. Ventnor had a limit of intimacy beyond which no one was allowed to pass. The three men who met him constantly and travelled to and fro with him every working day did not know him really.
In another respect Sharman had been right. The boom, after the manner of booms, had suddenly turned into a slump. One important failure had involved the downfall of some minor firms. The public performed its usual financial operation. It had bought when prices were high; it now sold when prices were low. The first part of that operation had been sheer fatuousness, but the second part was frequently a matter of necessity. Sharman looked more worried and anxious than ever. One did not question him, but he admitted that he hardly knew how he stood at present. It might be all right. Lardner, who with all his chaff had a very friendly feeling for Sharman, began to be afraid that things were going badly with him.
One afternoon, as Ventnor, Lardner, and Barstow stood on the platform at Waterloo and chatted as they waited for their train, Sharman came up to them. He was very white and his manner was nervous.
"Hullo!" said Lardner. "You look pretty seedy."
"How are things going on the Stock Exchange?" Ventnor asked, with a genial smile.
"Oh! don't ask me. I wish I'd never seen the place! I wish to goodness I were you!"
"What? You want to be a humdrum solicitor? It would bore you to death, after the excitement of your present life."
"Yes, a solicitor, or a shoeblack—anybody who has his fate more or less in his own hands, and at any rate does not get punished for other men's sins. I'm hanged if I shall be able to stand this racket much longer!"
Mr. Barstow, who believed in the exercise of tact, observed that the afternoon was almost unpleasantly warm.
"Cheer up!" said Ventnor jovially. "One of these days I'll give you eight hours in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Very, very dry. You'd never stand it. All right for old-fashioned fogies like myself, but not enough excitement in it for Mr. Sharman."
"Ah! you can afford to treat everything as a joke."
"Here's our train," said Barstow, and the four men entered their carriage. Sharman flung himself back on the cushions with his eyes half closed; he looked absolutely worn out. Ventnor, sitting opposite, seemed as fresh and bright as when he started out in the morning. He was stripping the cover from a new pack of cards. They generally played a rubber of whist on the return journey.
Sharman sat up again to play his hand. Generally good, this afternoon he played execrably. He missed the call; he forgot the cards played; he made every possible mistake, Barstow, his partner, was furious.
"I'm very sorry," said Sharman, "but I can't help it. I simply can't get my mind on to the game. I don't believe I've got any mind left."
"We'd better give it up," said Lardner. "Sharman's not up to it. We can finish the rubber to-morrow."
"I should be awfully obliged if you would," said Sharman.
So the game was abandoned. In a few moments Sharman was asleep. Barstow read the paper; Ventnor and Lardner amused themselves with écarté.
At their destination, when they had got out of the carriage, Lardner caught Ventnor by the arm. "Let those two go on. I want a word or two with you."
"Certainly. What is it?"
"It's my private opinion that poor little Sharman's bust."
"You don't say so?"
"I do. Either absolutely ruined, or at any rate very hard hit. I've never known him to be like that before, and I know what an awful stew he has been in over this account. Bigger men than he have gone under, you know."
"Yes, I know that. But Sharman does not behave like a ruined man. He's had a trying time, but he's all right."
"Then how does a ruined man behave?"
"That depends on the strength of the man. But if Sharman were ruined, he would not get into the same carriage with us; he would keep out of the way. If he did get in with us, he would not even attempt to play whist, and, above all, he would not be able to go to sleep."
"I admit that those are all strong points. But it's quite simple. I shall look Sharman up to-night after dinner—nominally, to smoke a cigar with him, as I sometimes do; really, to find out how the land lies. If, after all, I happen to be right, and he only wants some temporary help to pull through, will you join me on even terms in finding it for him? You're a far richer man than I am, and whatever I do in the matter you can much better afford to do. Sharman's not a bad little chap, and we've known him a long time. He's a white man and he won't put us wrong. The trouble will be to get him to let us see him through."
"Certainly I'll join you. But I don't attach much value to this piece of generosity, because there will be no necessity for it. I repeat what I said before—Sharman's all right. And I'm glad of it. He's a bit too ready to jabber about his private affairs, but he's a good chap at heart. He does not need your help or mine."
"I hope you're right. In any case, many thanks." And Lardner climbed into his dog-cart and drove off.
He went round to see Sharman in the evening, and found him much the better for his dinner and a rest. Of his own accord he began to talk about business, and Lardner soon found that his fears were groundless. On this occasion Sharman's nervousness and his disposition to make the worst of everything had stood him in good stead. So far as business went, he had done, he admitted, fairly well. But you could pay too much for money. The strain, the anxiety, the overwork were killing him. Luckily it was not always like that; if it were, he would have to give it up altogether. And Lardner, greatly relieved, began to talk golf.
But one of the four men who had travelled down together was ruined, though that one was not Sharman. And that rubber of whist, which after the first game had been adjourned to the following day, was never to be played out.
After Lardner had left him, Mr. Graham Ventnor stood for a moment undecided. Then he sent away the carriage which was waiting for him. On a fine afternoon he sometimes preferred to walk back and to take a stroll on the Common before dinner.
As he walked up the High Street he noted the familiar scene with a new interest. The shops were busy, and Ventnor found himself observing that prices were cheaper in London—as if he had never observed it before. He noticed keenly the expression on the faces of men and boys who touched their hats to him. What did they think of him? What did they say as soon as they had gone past? The group of pretty women in bright dresses standing at the corner—the motor-car that passed him, working hard and going fast—the absurd dummy in boating things in the window of the cheap tailor—the bills fluttering at the office of the local newspaper—everyone and everything, however commonplace and trivial, had for him a freshness and a mystery. He was—and he knew it—seeing it all for the last time. Yet he kept his head erect and maintained his look of genial good humour; a prosperous man, with nothing on his mind, that is what he seemed.
There were no more shops to look at now; at its upper end the street reformed, widened and became residential. The long wall of old red bricks, pleasant in colour, with the pollarded elms showing above it at regular intervals—that was Barstow's place. A very good fellow, Barstow, but it was a pity that he had no sense of humour. Then came the Recreation Ground; over the gate was the carved inscription that proclaimed that it was the gift of Graham Ventnor, Esq. "Thanks to the wise and splendid munificence of Mr. Ventnor"—that was how the article in the local paper had begun. Would they alter that inscription now?' And what would the paper say? The turning to the right would have been the short way to the Common, but it would have taken Ventnor past his own house. Inside the house were his wife and daughters, all fond of him and proud of him. He could not go that way; the shame of the bold cowardice that he had in his mind stopped him. He had already written and posted in London the letter that was to say good-bye to them; they would believe the story that it told them—for a while, at any rate. He hurried on and took another turning further up.
There were groups of children playing on the outer fringe of the Common, under the row of young lime trees. On the seats were young men and maidens, awkward and constrained lovers—the women wearing a look of pleased discomfort. A little girl, chased by her companions, rushed past him, stumbled, fell, and howled. Kind Mr. Ventnor picked her up and comforted her with the coppers from his ticket-pocket. As he walked on he heard: "’Lizabeth! Come! Quick! A gentleman's give our Gladys threepence." He found an empty seat and sat down to rest. He had still more than a mile to go.
Yes, it was ruin; not the ruin from misfortune that brings one the unbearable pity of friends, but the ruin that comes of folly and crime. The first step thither had been taken ten years before. It was the year of his "wise and splendid munificence"; it was also the year of Pallet's bankruptcy. He had discussed that bankruptcy with Sharman, and had said, "I cannot conceive what happiness a man can get from living beyond his income. It's simply stupid, you know. It can only end one way." He remembered the words exactly; at the time when he said them he himself was living far beyond his income, and was making good the deficiency by "borrowing" the money entrusted to him by clients for investment. His had not been the folly of ignorance or inability; he knew perfectly well what he was doing. He was a man that could not go back. He had slowly got into the first place in his town; he was the man of importance, the man to whom every new scheme was to be submitted, the man whose support meant everything. Retrenchment would have been a sign of failure—an admission that the king could do wrong. So he went on, doing infamous things that he might secure respect, doing reckless and rotten things that he might be thought wise and stable. He was less a fool than a madman; and he was a madman of some considerable cunning, since for ten years the soundness of his position had never been doubted, and his malpractices had never incurred the least suspicion. Another solicitor who had stolen his clients' money was found out, struck off, and heavily sentenced. Lardner had happened to remark on the sentence at the time; he thought it excessive. "Not a bit of it," said Graham Ventnor, in a burst of perfectly genuine indignation. "I'm only sorry that the man can't be hanged. Where great trust is shown, as between solicitor and client, I would have the penalty for its abuse proportionately severe." He recalled those words now. They had not been hypocritical; they had expressed his sincere conviction. At one period during those ten years a series of judicious speculations enabled him to put back the money that he had taken. But his speculations were not always successful, and his expenses went on increasing. He was soon on the downward path again. It was about this time that, thanks to his liberality and energy, the finances of the Cottage Hospital were put into a satisfactory condition.
One may play that game cleverly and prolong it wonderfully, but the end comes, and it is checkmate. Ventnor had foreseen that, and had never had the least doubt what he would do when the end came. He knew the look on an inferior's face when his superior falls—that curious, disrespectful smile. He knew the kind of thing thatsaid. "Poor old Ventnor! I always said he was going a bit too fast. Sorry for his wife and children, though." And Ventnor had not the least intention of stopping to see and hear that kind of thing.
The end had come rapidly. On the verge of discovery Ventnor had tried to save himself by speculation. And he had been caught in the slump. There had been a bitter irony in the situation when Lardner had appealed to him, without a doubt of his ability, to save poor Sharman from ruin. Nothing would have pleased Ventnor better, if Sharman had required the assistance and he had been in a position to give it. He was not quite a common thief; all he had valued in money was the power that it gave him to command the respect of his fellows and to do good. Well, it was all over now.
It was time for him to go. He had sat there longer than he had intended, making his useless survey of the past. The children had gone home already. The sun was setting; the air was still, hot, and heavy. He rose from his seat and took his way across the Common. Suddenly he heard behind him the sound of barking, and looked round. It was his favourite dog, a beautiful collie, the winner of many prizes. Mr. Ventnor's horses, and dogs, and begonias always won prizes.
"What are you doing here, Pete? Who let you out? Managed that yourself, did you? Well, you're not coming. No, Pete. Home! Get home!"
The dog understood and was generally obedient. But this time he went a little way, stopped, and again tried to follow his master. Ventnor had to throw stones at him to get him finally to obey.
In another twenty minutes he had reached the place where a little footpath leaves the main track across the Common, and passes through a wood lying low in a hollow. Ventnor took the footpath. On the edge of the wood he paused and looked round. Not a soul was in sight; not a sound was to be heard. He took the revolver—a new one—from his pocket and began methodically to slip in the cartridges. He gave a sigh of relief—relief that he had managed to keep it up to the end. Not by a word or a look had he given away his secret. Pity and contempt would come, but he would never have to know them. The house of cards would fall, but it would have lasted his lifetime.
He walked slowly and with a firm step into the dark of the wood. For nearly ten minutes there was silence. Then a shot rang out clear, and a flight of birds rose from the wood and flew rapidly away.
On Sunday morning Lardner and Sharman went for a walk together across the Common. Naturally they spoke of the one subject with which the suburb was ringing—the disappearance of its great man.
"Well," said Sharman, "we saw him that afternoon. He was sane and normal then, if ever a man was. He was in no trouble of any kind. He was on the best of terms with his wife and children. It seems absurd to suppose that he was in any financial mess."
"Quite absurd," said Lardner. "We know the kind of man he was. He hated speculation and extravagance; he was one's ideal of a safe, solid, prosperous solicitor. No, the thing's inexplicable—unless he's met with some accident."
"And even then we should have heard of it by now."
They turned down the footpath into the wood, still discussing the mystery. Presently Sharman pointed to a recumbent figure, half hidden in the bracken, some few yards away from them. "That beggar's taking it pretty easy," he said.
"Yes. I wonder what that thing is shining there by his hand."
"Go and see."
Lardner went forward. He recognised the man with the revolver by his side. Then he motioned to Sharman to stand back.
"Don't come!" he called. "It's too awful to look at!"
"What do you mean? What?"
"Ventnor! It's his body! He has killed himself!"