AFTER all said and done, the expectation was not quite as bad as the reality. But, then, it seldom is, as George Shannon told himself with a cynical smile. For a business man, he was gifted with a fine imagination. Frequently in his after-dinner leisure he had sat there weaving it out in his mind as a novelist knits the thread of a story.
Shannon was glad to be alone. He marveled at his own self-control, he almost admired the way in which he was concealing his trouble. For the last hour or two he had been gardening, busy among his flowers, as if he knew he could look forward with pleasure to the realization of the floral harvest. Yet, even while he was bending there among the petunias, or training the roses over the pergola, he knew perfectly well that someone else would reap the full beauty of the cream and damask blossoms.
It was hard lines, Shannon told himself. A sentimental man might have shed tears over it. It was all the more hard because he had seen this little paradise of his expanded in blossom, he himself had turned an arid desert into a galaxy of glory. He could recollect the time when the smooth lawns had been no more than ragged bare patches, when the house itself had been gaunt and stark in its white hideousness. That had been ten years ago. And now there was not a trimmer, neater, or more perfect garden within twenty miles of the city. It all would have to go. He would have to begin life over again. He would be lucky in the future if he had even so much as a cabbage patch.
He had not told anybody yet: even his wife did not know. For the best part of an hour they had been standing on the edge of the lawn, planning out a new and elaborate border, and Shannon had thrown himself into the matter with a zest and enthusiasm which fairly astonished himself. He was glad that his wife did not know yet; gradually a little scheme was forming in his mind whereby this precious Naboth's vineyard might be retained and the enemy clamoring at his gates worsted.
The scheme would entail the last price that man pays for anything, but, then, it would be for the best, and distinctly to the advantage of Mrs. Shannon and the children. She had been a good wife to him for twenty odd years. He was deeply and profoundly grateful, with the calm, tranquil affection of the man who knows that he has found the one woman in the world for him. No doubt it would be a terrible shock. But, then, Kate Shannon would never know the truth, and in time to come she would tell her children what manner of man their father had been, and how they could do no better than follow in his footsteps. She would have money, too. There would be no further anxiety as to the two boys at Harvard, and Kate could go to Germany to finish her education. There was grim satisfaction, too, in the idea of getting upon terms with Frederick Bramlay, and thus for the first time in that unscrupulous financier's history someone would get the best of him. Shannon actually smiled to himself as he pictured the scene up to the final moment when—
Actually he stood there making up his mind to that stupendous sacrifice with a smile on his lips. He noticed a stiff bent of grass rising from the velvet lawn. He put back a trail drooping from a rebellious climbing rose and fastened it tenderly in its place. Next year his wife would be doing the same thing. The savour of life would have come back to her, and she would have her children to look after. There were two sets of thoughts occupying Shannon's mind—the one set grim and ghastly, the other tender and romantic. Between these two he was arriving at a firm and definite conclusion. The argument was crystallized hard and firm before Shannon was interrupted by the arrival of a friend in the person of Raymond Clausen. These two had been schoolfellows, they had spent the best part of their lives in the city together; indeed, if there was one man whom Shannon could trust, it was Clausen.
"I didn't expect to see you here," the latter said.
"Probably not," Shannon smiled. "I ought to be biting my nails in the library, I suppose. It is a very odd thing, Raymond, but now the point has come, I don't seem to mind at all."
"Have you told the wife?" Clausen asked.
"Well, no, I haven't. I hadn't the heart to do so. When I got home to-night, I found Kate full of her project for making a new rose-garden. You will hardly believe it possible, but I have been throwing myself into the scheme just the same as if I had paid off my mortgage and the place belonged to me."
"I quite understand the feeling," Clausen said sympathetically. "It is infernally hard upon your wife and children. I suppose you haven't said anything to Bramlay about it."
Shannon shrugged his shoulders almost indifferently.
"What is the use?" he asked. "The man has no heart and no bowels of compassion. Did you ever know him do a good or kindly action in his life? There is a man who has thrown over friend after friend directly they have ceased to be of use to him. He gives nothing away. He is capable of any rascality, so long as he contrives to keep out of reach of the law. I declare I can scarcely contain myself when I think of the way in which he has treated me. It was I who lent him the money to give him his first start in life. I lent him five hundred dollars of my hard savings when I never expected to see it again. I pinched myself to give him his opportunity. And now how does he treat me? When he bought that fine house of his behind that belt of elms yonder, four years ago, he conceived the idea of turning this place of mine into a lodge. It never seemed to occur to him that I had an affection for this home of mine which cannot be measured by mere money. I refused to sell the place, of course; in fact, as you know, it is not altogether mine to sell. And what did that scoundrel do? He induced me to leave the old firm which I was with for years to become his manager. As true as we are standing here, Clausen, that man faithfully promised me a share of the business at the end of three years. And now mark the sequel. He dismisses me from his employ under the plea that I am slovenly and incompetent. He leaves me at fifty-five years of age to face the world again. And why does he do this? Simply because he knows that I shall be unable to keep up the payments on my mortgage, and that the house must come into the market. It is the old story of Naboth's vineyard over again. Fancy this from a man who is looked up to and respected. And yet every word I am telling you is absolutely true."
"Oh, I believe it," Clausen said. "What a pity it is that you can't think of some way of getting even with the scoundrel!"
A peculiar smile came over Shannon's face.
"I have thought of a way," he said quietly. "It is one of those queer ideas that come to all us of sometimes. I believe if I had not been a business man, I should have made a respectable poet. Let us walk up and down the lawn and talk it over. I wouldn't tell this to any other man but you... Now, suppose I am disposed to save all this, and insure the future of my wife and family by an act of personal sacrifice. Suppose that I know a thing or two about Bramlay which would damage him seriously if it became public. Oh, I don't mean blackmail in that sense of the word. Besides, I haven't the nerve to fight Bramlay openly, and possibly nobody would believe me. We'll argue, for instance, that there is going to be trouble over those copper mines in which Bramlay is interested. Mind you, it is by no means a pretty business, and the public have yet a good deal to learn about it. But Bramlay will come out of it all right, as he always does. And now let us carry the scheme a little further. Suppose I were to lose my nerve and take my own life, leaving letters behind me hinting that I was afraid of disclosures in connection with the Copper Syndicate, and leaving the public to believe that Bramlay was at the bottom of the whole thing. Oh, I could manage it easily enough. There would be a searching inquiry even beyond the reach of Bramlay's bribery and hush money, and after that, with all his wealth, he would become a marked man. The class of people he aspires to know would turn their backs upon him. What do you think of that?"
"It sounds like a modern novel," Clausen said, a bit cynically. "But it would be a mere act of timidity and revenge. I fail to see how your wife and family could benefit by a course like this. Your program is not complete."
"I am coming to that," Shannon said quietly. "We will suppose I write a letter not only to Bramlay, but also to Charlton, his private secretary. I go further still and write a letter to the same effect to you. This places the matter beyond Bramlay's power so far as burking investigation goes. No doubt Bramlay could purchase Charlton's silence, but he couldn't buy yours. After the thing is done and I am out of the way, you go straight to Bramlay and offer to sell him the letter I have written you for two hundred thousand dollars. Oh, you needn't smile, he would buy it fast enough. I tell you, he dare not face investigations. And yet, once I have put the knife to my heart or the pistol to my head, no power on earth could prevent an investigation if you read the letter I wrote you at the inquest. Do you see now?"
"Oh, it is convincing enough," Clausen replied. "And I would do it for you, too. There is nothing I should enjoy more than facing Bramlay with such a weapon in my hands. But you are talking absolute nonsense, my dear fellow, as you know as well as I do."
THE hour was getting late now, but Shannon was still in his garden. Clausen had been gone for a considerable time, and it was something past ten before Shannon crossed over to a nearby office and despatched a long telegram to his friend. He seemed easier in his mind now. There was a smile upon his face. He whistled a fragment from an operatic tune. As the clock was striking eleven he strode out of his own gate down the now deserted road till he came to an imposing pair of lodges which guarded the drive leading up to the magnificent old house where Bramlay, the great financier, had his home. Shannon did not hurry himself. He strolled casually along the drive until he stood in front of the house. His mind was not sufficiently distracted to blind him to the beauty of the flower-beds and the exquisite savor of the roses and the smoothness of the springy lawns. The house was more or less in darkness, save for the study, where the electric lights burned brilliantly. The long French windows were open, and as Shannon crossed the lawns he saw the figure of the financier half buried in an armchair and surrounded by a mass of papers in which he appeared to be absorbed. He was in evening dress, a slim, spare figure with a plain square face and a prominent jaw. There was only one thing which Bramlay lived for, and that was the making of money. It was doubtful whether he appreciated all the luxury and beauty of his surroundings, except as living evidence that he was a rich man who could afford to indulge his fancies.
Shannon strode into the room with the air of a man who is quite at home. Bramlay's hard features knitted in a frown.
"This is somewhat unexpected," he said coldly.
"No doubt," Shannon responded. "May I be permitted to sit down for a moment? I want to talk matters over with you. It will probably be the last opportunity I have."
"Will you take anything?" Bramlay asked.
"Presently, yes. But not until I have finished. Then you can ring your bell and ask one of the servants to bring me some soda-water. But we would better have our explanation first."
"What explanation?" Bramlay demanded.
"Oh, I am not likely to detain you long. I have no desire to stand between you and your money-making. If you will look at me, you will see that I am quite calm and collected; I am not carried away by trouble or anxiety; therefore, I tell you quite coolly that you are, without exception, the coldest and most deliberate scoundrel I ever came across in my life. When I came here this evening, I debated seriously in my mind as to whether I should kill you or hot. Sit still, man—there is nothing to be afraid of. I have too much respect for my family to take the work off the devil's shoulders in that way. But I think I can get even with you in another form—not through your heart, but through your beloved money."
"The man is mad!" Bramlay muttered.
"No," Shannon went on, "the man was never more sane in his life. You see, I have found you out. As a matter of fact, I found you out years ago, only I was too blind to see it. It would have appeared incredible to me that you could quietly sit down and plan the ruin of a man who helped you to attain your present position, simply because he refused to sell you a house and home of which he was fond. You built up your wealth by audacious and daring speculations. If you had failed, you would have accounted it no dishonor, you would have had no sympathy for those whom you ruined—and indirectly you have ruined a good many. Now, I am not concerned with the others, but I certainly am with my own flesh and blood. Because I refused to part with my little home, you worked out a scheme to obtain possession of it. By deliberate lies you induced me to leave my old firm—you said that if I would come to you, I should have a share in the business in three years, and that you would make it right for the boys after I was gone. You did this in cold blood, so that you could get rid of me at this particular moment, merely because you want my little place to turn into a lodge. Ah, you can't understand how I built that miniature paradise of mine, inch by inch and step by step, and how it became part and parcel of my life. It was enough for you that you should get the mortgage into your own hands and force me into such a corner that I should be bound to sell to you. Without the least compunction or a wink less sleep of nights, you would turn me out at fifty-odd years of age to begin the world again. My boys would have to come down from the university, and the girl shift as best she can. Mind, I am not reproaching you, because you are the kind of man who is beyond the reach of words. But you are not going to have my place. Oh, you can smile. Tell me, if you like, that the mortgage deeds are at this very moment in your safe. Tell me that it is only the matter of a few weeks. Don't you think so?"
"I am sure of it," Bramlay said with a sour smile.
"For once in a way you are wrong. I have nearly done with it now. I am practically at the end of my tether. But after I am gone, my dear wife will still live happy in the possession of her home. The boys will finish their course at Harvard, and the girl will go to Germany. And, what is more to the point, every penny of this money will come out of your pocket. Oh, you may scheme and trick and lie and cheat, but I have an imagination which goes further than anything you can conceive. There are scores of men in the world who would make much more efficient scoundrels than you if they would only stoop to the muck-rake and the refuse-heap where you make your money. Is my meaning plain?"
Bramlay shuffled about uneasily in his chair. He had never seen his late manager in this mood before. There was a calm assurance about him which rendered the financier uneasy.
"What are you driving at?" he asked suilenly.
"Ah, you begin to be uneasy!" Shannon cried. "You will be uneasier still before morning. Now, you must know that I am perfectly aware of all that has happened in the matter of those copper mines. I know you see your way to come out with clean hands, so far as public knowledge is concerned, because you can buy silence and choke the throats of your foes with your cheque book. But you couldn't choke public inquiry, which will be bound to follow when the coroner comes to hold an inquest on my body."
"Absolutely mad!" Bramlay muttered.
"No; I am as sane as you are. I have worked the thing out coolly and deliberately, just as you plot out your own dirty schemes, and I can see my way to the finish. Not for my own sake, but for the sake of my wife and my family I am doing this. And even then I should hesitate only I know perfectly well that when the thing is done and ended, you will see that no dishonor attaches to my name. Oh, you won't do this out of friendship. You will do it for the sake of your own miserable hide. But let me get on, because I am wasting time. Now he has got my telegram, my friend Clausen will be here at any moment. We will assume, if you like, that I have lost my nerve over those copper mines. I am afraid of what might come out at the inquiry. That is why I have decided to take my own life. But before so doing I wrote a long explanatory letter to your private secretary Charlton, and another to my friend Clausen, who naturally enough will produce this letter at the inquest. Come, your imagination can grasp perfectly well what is likely to follow. The thing will be in the hands of the police. The public will demand a thorough investigation, and ten thousand cheque books could not save your reputation then. I have only to raise my hand and pull a trigger and release half an ounce of lead, and that tiny bit of metal will bring all your schemes and all your happiness tumbling about your ears. Ah! I touch you now."
For Bramlay had risen suddenly to his feet. There was a peculiar pallor on his hard square face.
"For Heaven's sake, don't talk like that!" he said hoarsely. "But, then, of course you are only joking."
"Joking! I never was more serious in my life."
"Well, we will talk it over to-morrow," Bramlay said with a forced laugh. "You will think better of it then. I dare say we can arrange this matter. Let it stand over for a week."
"And give you time to make your plans accordingly? Oh, no. Do you suppose that I should ever trust you again! Besides, the mischief is done, the letters are already written. There is only one thing that would induce me to draw back now, and that is two hundred thousand dollars in cash counted out upon yonder table. I would not even take your cheque."
"You are not likely to get it," Bramlay said tartly.
"An answer worthy of the man," Shannon cried. "I might have known that you could not part with your money. But what I cannot effect this side of the grave I can reach for from the Other. And now ring your bell for my soda-water."
Bramlay was nothing loath to comply with the request. His voice was hard and strained as he gave the order. The footman came presently with a syphon and glasses on a tray. As Shannon stood up, something glittered in his hand.
"Your master is a thief and a scoundrel!" he cried. "Bear witness to-morrow that I said so. And now..."
The glittering object was raised to his head. There was a flash and a dull report, and Shannon lay on his face on the carpet, shot through the brain. With a hoarse cry Bramlay rose to his feet and rushed out into the hall. He stood there shaking from head to foot in a perfect ague of terror.
It was all over and done with. The little house at the corner of the road, behind drawn curtains, sheltered lamentation and woe and the tight stretching of human misery. There was uneasiness and anxiety, too, under the roof of the millionaire as he sat alone in his library an hour later. He had forced himself to stay in the library, though there was still that crimson stain upon the carpet. It seemed to him that he could still see the shadowy outline of Shannon's figure there. The whole scene rose before him. The prostrate body, the round-eyed, white-faced footman, and the outline of Clausen standing in the window with a telegram in his hand. Then there had been a confused blend of figures—policemen in uniform, a grim-faced inspector, and finally the disappeamce of Clausen in the direction of Shannon's house, with an intimation that he would be back presently to discuss certain important business with the financier. Was the man ever coming back? Bramlay wondered. And what did he really know? Had Shannon actually dispatched those letters, or did they exist only in his imagination? Finally Bramlay decided that the letters had been written. The whole thing had been too cool and deliberate to leave much doubt on that score. Inch by inch and link by link the plot had been elaborated until the last detail was complete. The letters had been sent to Clausen and Charlton. They would know all about it by this time. So far as Charlton was concerned, Bramlay knew exactly how to act. But, on the other hand, Clausen was a man of great intellect. He was Shannon's best friend, and he hated Bramlay from the bottom of his honest and independent heart. There would be no squaring him, as Bramlay very well knew. Here was a source of deep and abiding anxiety. But there was another thing that troubled the millionaire as well. Rack his brains as he would, he could not see to the end of Shannon's scheme; it was impossible to fathom his meaning when he declared that Bramlay should pay the price of his wife's future happiness and the prosperity of his family. What had the man meant?
Bramlay paced up and down the room. The clock on the mantelpiece was nearing the hour of one, and as yet Clausen had not kept his promise. He came a few minutes later through the still open window. His face was grave and set. The look of dislike in his gray eyes broadened and expanded.
"This is very good of you," Bramlay stammered. "I—"
"It is not good of me at all," Clausen said sternly. "I am here for no benefit of yours. I suppose you know why my poor friend shot himself. Now, don't lie and palter and prevaricate with me, because I have the whole thing in this letter which I hold in my hand. It was written to me this afternoon, so that I should get it by the last post this evening. In the meantime Shannon had asked me to go to see him, and while we walked up and down the garden after dinner he disclosed his scheme for getting even with you. He was so cool and calm about it I thought he was joking—I know now that he spoke in that way so that I should have a clear and comprehensive idea of what was passing in his mind. He knew that a small matter of business would compel me to get back to meet the last post, and there I found his letter. A little later on I received a telegram saying that the thing would be done to-night."
"But why?" Bramlay stammered.
"Why!" Clausen cried impatiently. "You cold-blooded rascal, just as if you don't know! Didn't you, with your lies and deceit, lure poor Shannon away from his employment where he was doing so well, and take him into your business? Didn't you work this thing all out in your mind so that you could rob him of the house he loved so well? Of course you did. And there you stand opposite me pretending you know nothing as to the causes which led up to this distressing business. Upon my word, if I consulted my own inclination, I would take you by the collar and thrash the life out of you. You pass for a man of resolution and courage—if you could see that ghastly face of yours in a glass now, you might have reason to doubt even that virtue. But you are puzzled and frightened. You want to know what is going to happen in the future. Well, you can come to the inquest to-morrow morning and see for yourself. You will know then."
"But those letters?" Bramlay stammered.
"I will be quite frank with you, Clausen. Shannon told me he had given the whole thing away in a letter to you, and another one to Charlton. Of course, so far as Charlton is concerned—"
"Oh, you needn't say it," Clausen sneered.
"I know perfectly well that you can stop Charlton's mouth. But you can't close my lips. You see, I have as much money as I happen to want, and if only I had known that this was going to happen, I would have lent poor Shannon all he needed to get out of your power. But, unfortunately, I didn't know that my friend was mad. He was so calm and collected that he would have deceived all the doctors in England. What he was discussing with me in grim earnest, I took to be no more than a cynical play of fancy. But Shannon had worked it all out to the last letter. I suppose he told you how he was going to punish you?"
"There was a threat of making me pay," Bramlay murmured.
"Precisely. And I am going to see it carried out. Some people might call it blackmail, but I don't think so. If I were to take you by the collar and thrash you now, you would forget all about it in a week. You would ask me to dine with you if you thought you could make two cents by doing so. Oh, I know you. Still, the sooner this matter is finished and done with, the better I shall be pleased. Shannon told you that he would make you pay, and that, moreover, he should go to his grave without any shadow of disgrace upon his memory. What you don't know, and what is puzzling and frightening you now, is how the thing is to be accomplished. How can Shannon reach you from the other side of the grave? How can he compel you to make his wife's old age comfortable and assured, so that she can live in her present house and educate her children?"
"I don't know," Bramlay said feebly.
"Very well, I'll tell you. Now, I know perfectly well that you have already made arrangements in your mind as to the way in which you are going to suppress the letter which Shannon wrote to your secretary. But it is no use doing that unless you would suppress my letter also. Mind you, I don't see how anything is to be gained by public investigation of that kind, so my conscience is easy on that score. There will be something for the creditors now, but if they go to law over it, nothing will be left. And now let us get to business. I am in possession of a certain letter which you badly need. As a matter of fact, the letter was sent to me so that I might sell it to you for a price, and if you refuse to buy, I am to produce it at the inquest. As I said before, nothing could be gained by this course. It is a suppressio viri at the worst. Besides, if we maintain a judicious silence on this point, the world will believe that poor Shannon went out of his mind in consequence of overwork or something of that kind, and thus he will get sympathy instead of contempt. Now, is it worth your while to buy that letter, to have the inquest settled in an hour, or are you prepared to face the thing out to the finish and court an investigation? I'll give you five minutes to decide. So far as I am concerned, it is a matter of indifference to me which determination you come to."
Bramlay paced up and down the room, a prey to his own disturbed thoughts. He was in a cleft stick, now, and he knew it. Shannon's had been no idle boast. He had stretched out a hand from beyond the grave, a hand so powerful that Bramlay could see no means of getting away from the grip of it.
"What do you want for the letter?" he demanded.
"Two hundred thousand dollars," Clausen said dryly.
"The very figure Shannon named!" Bramlay cried.
"Precisely. Now I think you understand exactly. You are going to give me your cheque for two hundred thousand dollars, and in return I will make you a present of the letter. I don't know what a good many people would say as to the morality of this transaction, but so far as I am concerned I don't feel that I am doing anything particularly wrong. And now, let there be no more beating about the bush. You may frown and shake your head, but from the very first moment you made up your mind to pay, and upon my word, I wonder at my own moderation. If I had demanded ten times the sum, you must have paid it. I have only one real regret over the matter, and that is my inability to let poor Shannon know how perfectly successful his plot has been. There are few men who have gone as far as he has for the sake of those dependent upon him."
But Bramlay was not listening. He took his cheque book from a drawer and placed on one of the pink slips a signature a great deal less steady than it usually was. He passed this across the table to Clausen and held out an eager hand for the letter. This he carefully burned with a match, and crushed the fragments into an ash-tray.
Clausen nodded in reply. Then he went out into the darkness and closed the French window carefully behind him.