SHORT STORIES

The Haunting of Mr. Vanner

A Strange Story of Revenge

J. J. Bell August 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

The Haunting of Mr. Vanner

A Strange Story of Revenge

J. J. Bell August 1 1910

The Haunting of Mr. Vanner

A Strange Story of Revenge

J. J. Bell

Author of "^Vee MacGregor", etc.

GIVE him time, sir; give him time,” pleaded the big, blackbearded man. “Have patience, and he will pay thee all. My brother isn’t a swindler. He’s only been a bit unlucky. Now, sir—”

The smart-looking, middle-aged man at the large desk waved his hand.

“You have gone over that already, Mr. Brand. I have never suggested that your brother was a swindler. Certainly not ! It is simply the case of an account becoming so much overdue, that we have been compelled to place it in the hands of our agents for recovery. I gather from my secretary's reports that your brother has made many promises, but has kept none. The law must—”

“I know, sir, I know. But the circumstances are peculiar.”

“They usually are, when a man cannot pay. I must ask you to spare me a further recital. I am a busy man, and I tell you frankly that I had you admitted this afternoon under a misapprehension. I thought you were another Mr. Brand.”

“I know who you mean—the Mr. Brand who, taking advantage of his similar name, is trying to cut out my brother by producing rubbish to look like my brother’s specialties. Mr. Vanner, do you consider that a fair game ?”

Mr. Vanner smiled in a tired fash-

ion. “I’m afraid I have not time for further discussion on the subject of your brother’s affairs. You must remember that, until to-day, I never heard of your brother, Mr. Brand. This is a very large business—”

“But it belongs to you?”

"Of course. Practically, at any rate,” said Mr. Vanner, complaceentlv.

“A large business—so large that you don’t know what you're doing!” Mr. Vanner was ruffled. “I know what I’m doing—to the last ounce of metal, and the last farthing of money,” he said, sharply.

John Brand drew a quick breath. "But you don’t know what you’re doing to my brother. I ask your pardon, sir. I don’t want to seem impertinent. As I told you, my brother did not know I was coming to see you to-day. He did not dream of such a thing. To tell you the truth, sir, he had almost given up hope last night. That last lawyer’s letter fairly crumpled him up. You see, he's not a strong man, and lie’s a bit troubled with his nerves. But he’s honest and clever, and—”

“Really, Mr. Brand. I fear I cannot spare you more time. If you insist, you had better see my chief clerk—” “He’s no good. sir. He’s just a machine. He would take a note of it, and give a note of it to someone else.

and—and so on. But a word from you, Mr. Vanner, a word from you

Mr. Vanner coughed, and picked up a pencil, the copying-ink pencil with which in these days he signed his dictated letters, pen and ink being out of the question for so busy a man.

“That will do,” he said, coldly. “We have certain principles, and a certain system in this business, to which we adhere. Your brother has received the limit of leniency. The law must—”

“But a little longer, Mr. Vanner,” cried the big man, writhing in the chair that seemed too small for him. “Call off your dogs—I mean your lawyers. Give him another month— one month—to try to get that contract I told you about. Call off your lawyers. I don’t say lawyers have no souls, but they must surely leave them at home when they go out to business in the mornings, for their letters are— are hell. I’m only a poor man in a situation. But my brother may be worth thousands any day. Call off your lawyers in the meantime, sir, and give him a spell of peace.”

Mr. Vanner stretched his hands towards a bell on his desk. His shaven face had hardened, yet he was neither an unjust man nor a merciless. Albeit, his patience was exhausted. He had listened to a long story, pitiful, no doubt, but quite commonplace. It was no satisfaction to him to drive a debtor into bankruptcy ; but if he did not do it, someone else would. Besides, there was still the possibility of the lawyers recovering the debt before other creditors fell upon the unfortunate. It was only business. The amount involved—a trifle over a hundred pounds—was a petty matter to a firm such as his, but he might as well retire as begin to make bad debts with his eyes open. His finger touched the button.

“Man !” cried his visitor, “you don’t know what you’re doing. Wait, wait!

You must not break James. I-

I’m afraid of what he might do. There’s a thing in the papers this

morning about a poor soul that threw himself under a train, and left a note saying he’d been driven to it by—lawyers. Maybe, he had no right to contract debts, and you’d be correct in saying that the debts were really the cause of his madness. But it took somebody — somebody ' among his creditors—to push him over the thin line betwdxt hope and despair. Somebody didn’t mean it, but somebody did it, Mr. Vanner. And though it was all in the way of business and perfectly legal, and all that, I thought this morning that I’d rather be the poorest devil in the world than the lawyer who wrote the last letter received by the suicide. I’m telling you this, sir, as a last resort-Ah !”

Mr. Vanner’s finger had wavered, but now it pressed the button firmly. His visitor was undoubtedly getting maudlin.

John Brand rose from his chair, one great fist aloft.

“No, no!” he said, passionately, “You needn’t be afraid. I’ll not touch you, though I could put the life out of your well-dressed body and your smart brain with one hand. It was your heart I wanted to touch, and I’ve failed. You can’t—you won’t—break your rules of business. You won’t ’phone to your lawyers ordering them to let James Brand alone for another month. The law, you say, must take its course. Well, I say, damn your business principles and your law !” He dropped his hand to his side, as a knock fell on the door, and a clerk entered.

“Show this gentleman out,” said Vanner, speaking evenly, but looking a little pale.

“One moment !” The big man’s voice sank almost to a whisper. “I have to thank you for seeing me, Mr. Vanner. I’m sorry — not for anything I’ve said, but for the way I’ve said some things. I’m glad I never so far forgot myself, save once, as to quote Scripture. There was a certain temptation to do so, because, though you may not know it, we both attend the same church pretty regu-

larly. But Scripture holds but poor arguments for week-days. Perhaps, indeed, I had no argument at all for what I have said. Business is like Nature: it kills off the weak and struggling. You are not inhuman— and yet, Mr. Vanner, I think you have made a mistake this time.” Brand bowed, picked up his hat and followed the wondering clerk.

On the steps of the great building of offices he halted, his hand to his head. Was there no earthly possibility of his being able to find the money himself? To John Brand, who had never earned more than thirty-five shillings a week, £107 seemed an enormous sum. All his savings had recently gone in assisting brother James, who, in addition to business responsibilities, had a wife and three children. John was a bachelor of nearly forty. He had no one dependent on him. On the other hand, he had no property worth mentioning. His business position was that of a sub-manager in the furniture department of a well-known firm. He never hoped for anything higher, but fulfilled his duties in a stolid, methodical fashion.

Out of business hours he devoted himself to reading more or less solid works, to helping to entertain ragged boys at an obscure mission-hall, and to admiring his brother James. Apart from his rather handsome appearance, John Brand was quite an insignificant person. And where was such a person to raise, immediately, at least a hundred pounds^ His own worldly possessions, including watch and chain, would not, he reckoned, bring more than ten pounds. No ; the thing was impossible. And yet there were so many men in that great town to whom a hundred pounds was of no special account; men who gave away that sum, and greater, without thinking of getting anything in return. But, of course, he did not know those men. In a way, he knew one—but that one was impossible. He sighed. His faith and hope in humanity had

suffered a blow, a stunning blow, at that recent interview.

He looked at his watch. A quarter past two. He had obtaied liberty for the whole afternoon, anticipating (simple-minded John!) that his mission would be successful, and that he would carry the good news of a month’s grace to his brother, and stay awhile to encourage him to greater effort. But now— well, he had better just go back to the furniture department, and see James at night. There was nothing else he could do. Nevertheless, as he passed from one street to another, he thought of the one man he knew to whom a hundred pounds was of “no special account.” Yet that one man was surely unapproachable on such a matter.

But, about an hour later, John came face to face with him in the furniture department. He was one of the junior partners, a young man with a reputation for fastness, but with a cheerful and kindly manner to his employes.

“Changed your mind about your half-holiday? Or didn’t she turn up?” he said to John.

“Not exactly, sir,” John replied with a wan smile. And suddenly a sort of desperate courage came to him. “Could I speak to you in private, sir?”

The junior partner looked surprised. Then he said, pleasantly enough: “Surely! Come along to my room.”

Ten minutes later John Brand came out of the private room, his eyes full of tears, and a cheque for all he required in his hand. He did not remember what he had said, how he had explained and begged, and promised. But to his dying day he would not forget the words of his young employer, words so carelessly, yet so kindly, uttered : “There you are,

Brand, and good luck to your brother. But don’t let yourself get run in for more responsibility. As to repayment. you have offered a pound a week. That will suit me all right,

but you needn’t begin paying till the New Year, when—keep it dark in the meantime—you are down for promotion, with fifty shillings a week. Yes, yes. That’s all right. You’ve just time to get the cash, before the bank closes.”

It was a very different John Brand that entered the office of Vanner & Co. for the second time that after? noon.

“I wish to pay Tames Brand’s account.”

The young clerk, who had attended at the counter, went over and whispered to the cashier. The cashier, who took his own importance from the importance of the firm he served, came leisurely to the counter.

“The account is now in the hands of Messrs. Proudfoot and Bland,” he said, adding the legal firm’s address, “and should therefore be paid to them.”

“Bother your formalities! Do you want the money or not?”

The cashier, somewhat taken aback, muttered something about “legal expenses,” and departed to “make inquiry.” He returned with a statement of account, which he receipted without remark.

“Here’s the cash. Your lawyers can whistle to you for their six-and-eight, or whatever it is,” said John, brightly. “And now you’ll just ring them up, and tell them tu stop fussing a decent man with their ugly letters.”

“We shall advise our agents of the payment in due course,” said the cashier with a chill dignity.

“Due fiddlesticks !” John smote the counter with his clenched fist, so that every clerk in the office jumped. “Do it now !”

“That’s enough, my man !” said the indignant cashier. “You—”

“Time’s precious!” the big man interrupted him. “Drop your routine for once, and—’phone!”

It was done.

“Thank you,” said John Brand, mildly. “There’s no use keeping a man on the rack after you’ve got what you wanted out of him. Tell

your master that the account has been paid. Tell him, likewise, from John Brand, that he’ll be begging orders from James Brand before six months are over.”

Once more John found himself in the street. He could have sung aloud with elation, with gratitude and thanksgiving, as he took a car to his brother’s place of business. The solitary clerk, who knew him, pointed to the door of a little room inscribed “private.”

“Busy?” queried John, to whom that little room was a sort of holy of holies.

“He’s been there since two o’clock. I took him in a letter that came by the four post—”

“Letter—Oh !—Well, I’ll just step in.”

John took the receipted account from his pocket, and entered, smiling. He closed the door quietly.

At a large, table, littered with papers, covered with calculations, and bearing a pile of ingots of metal of various and exquisite shades of color, sat James Brand. He leaned forward over the table, his hands clenched, and with his face resting on his right arm.

John’s foot touched a small empty bottle, and sent it rolling across the floor. The receipt fluttered from his fingers. He stood as if frozen.

Mr. Vanner, about to escort his wife to the theatre, was getting into his overcoat in the hall, when the servant, who had just answered the door, informed him that a man wished to speak to him for a moment. The man would not come in. With an impatient remark, Vanner went to the door. He recognized Brand by his beard : otherwise the man’s face had changed.

“Well, what is it, my man? This is not my business address. Besides, my reply to you to-day was final—absolutely final.”

“Yes, it was final. Mr. Vanner,” said Brand, in a hollow voice. “But your account is paid.”

“Oh, indeed. I am glad to hear that, for your brother’s sake, as well as my own.”

“Your clerk did not tell you?”

“Well, I generally leave such matters to the office.”

“I see,” said Brand, slowly. “I came to tell you that I paid my brother’s account. He does not know it is paid. I hope he may never know—the knowledge would only worry him. He got another letter from your lawyers at four o’clock to-day. A ’phone from you, when I saw you, would have stopped it, or caused it to be cancelled. It finished him. According to the doctor, he took the poison immediately after. At twenty past four I found him dead. Don’t say anything, Mr. Vanner. But, you see, you have made a mistake this afternoon—a mistake you will never forget. For you shall not be allowed to forget.” Brand paused, breathing heavily, but when he spoke again, his voice was still cold and hollow. “I say you shall not be allowed to forget. I could kill you, but that would not satisfy me. I could—”

“I am not responsible for this regrettable affair,” Vanner broke in, thickly. Then—“Is it money you want ?”

“Curse your money! I want nothing from you, but your peace of mind. And—I will have that. From now until I die, I shall pray against you. Do you see what I mean? Think of it, when you sit in church, when you rest at home, when you work in your office, when you go out pleasure-seeking. Think of a man always praying, day after day, morning, noon and nightpraying that your prayers may be unanswered, that your hopes may come to nothing, that your desires and ambitions may be refused and confounded. Think of that—and take comfort from your business principles and systems, if you can.”

So saying, John Brand, his face convulsed, turned, and departed swiftly.

“A madman!” murmured Vanner. But his countenance was sickly as he closed the door.

II.

Now and then we absorb an idea that is like to a lusty weed. We cut it down, we pull it up; but either the new seed has already fallen, or a scrap of root remains, for ere long it flourishes once more, apace. Sometimes it proves no worse than an annoyonce, or a dread; at others, it develops into a mania or obsession. Vanner was not a superstitious man, in the modern meaning of the phrase, at least. He did not believe in ghosts, goblins, or fairies, the evil eye or the power of magic, the crystal globe or the dire possibilities of walking under a ladder. He did not even believe in luck ; but that may have been because he had never been what we call unlucky. The business, which he had inherited, had prospered—though not without industry and intelligence on his part; his married life was happy; he had not a discreditable relation ; his own life had been straight and clean. No man had ever pointed to him as one who dealt harshly or unfairly with his neighbors; nor had his conscience accused him on that score. He assured himself that he was in no wise responsible for the suicide of Jaimes Brand, the inventor and worker in alloys. No one, save a man crazed with grief, would even suggest that he was responsible. To do so would be utterly absurd. The debtor’s misfortunes had, in this case, culminated, without a doubt, in a most grevious tragedy, but business would soon cease to be business if unfortunate debtors were all to be treated tenderly as potential suicides. No, no; he was horribly shocked at the thing’s happening in connection with his business, he deplored the position of the hapless wife and children ; but, before God and before man, he was not responsible.

And yet the idea of John Brand continually praying against him waxed insistent as the days went on.

On the morning of the fifth Sunday following the tragedy, Vanner abruptly declared his intention of not' gUng to church. His - wife looked pertrubed.

“Aren’t you feeling well, Fred?”

“Perfectly well. I’m a little tired. Don’t worry. I may go in the evening.”

But he did not go in the evening. The thought of John Brand in yonde.j corner of the gallery had become too much for him. And the following Sunday morning he persuaded his wife to accompany him to another church, where a famous man happened to be preaching. There the real blow feil, for Vanner realized that it was not necessary to see his enemy in order to be conscious, of the latter’s existence. Vanner prayed fervently, but he began to doubt his power to pray successfully against Brand. Perhaps Brand had been a much better man than he. Perhaps ... A week later, to his wife’s dismay, he refused to go to any church. He had decided, he said, to take a walk into the country. He had been feeling the need of it for some time. So he went into the country, to escape the thoughts of Brand that now pervaded even his home, and returned too exhausted to eat his dinner, for he had been trying, as it wére, to run away from Brand.

On the morrow he found, among the numerous papers on his desk, a polite intimation from a firm of chartered accountants to the effect that Robert Brand & Co., Fancy Metal Manufacturers, were unable to meet their liabilities.

“It’s a bad one, sir,” said the old clerk, “though the account was not much behind. They owe us seven hundred and thirty-five pounds.”

“Do they?” said Vanner absently, and was silent for a space. “Hadn’t these people something to do with the —'the misfortunes of the other Brand —James Brand?” he asked, tapping the letter with his pencil.

“A good deal, I should say, sir. They imitated many of his fine specialities in trashy material, and seemed

likely to spoil his market. But I heard that James Brand would have found a way of competing with them, and maybe beating them, if he had lived a little longer.”

“Ah !... But you wouldn’t hold them—er—responsible for James Brand’s death—would you, Henry?”

“Ah, well, hardly, sir. Business is business, you know. Might as well say that we killed the poor fellow, sir.”

“Yes, yes; of course, that would be equally absurd. Well, that’s all in the meantime. You can give instructions for lodging our claim.”

The old man went out, wondering. “I never saw him take a big bad debt so quietly,” he said to himself. .

But it was not till he was alone that Vanner really considered the bad debt in itself.

“Good God !” he suddenly whispered ; “did John Brand pray for this?”

Later he called himself a fool. The thing had happened simply in the course of business. He had made plenty of bad debts before ever John Brand crossed his path. It was a mere chance that this particular account should be larger than at any previous period. And, of course, the name Brand had its disagreeable associations. Curse the name ! He found himself dreading another suicide. He was afraid to open the paper that evening. _

“Fred,” said his wife, “I wish you would take a holiday. I never saw you so nervous. Is business worrying you, dear?”

It was a rare thing for Mrs. Vanner to ask a direct question ; as a rule, she gained her husband’s confidence without that.

He laughed shortly. “We made rather a serious bad debt to-day,” he said.

“To-day? I am sorry, Fred. But you’ve been worrying for weeks. And you’ve grown thin and lost color. Won’t you see Dr. Chalmers? I wish you would.”

“Nonsense! There’s nothing the matter, Isobel—. Unless, as you sug-

gest, a touch of nerves.” He laughed again, wishing he could tell her the truth. “I think Til run up to London for the week-end,” he continued. “There are one or two people I could see with advantage at present.”

“The very thing!” she cried, looking pleased. “London will do you good.”

This was on Tuesday, and during the next three days he experienced a sense of almost cheerful anticipation. It was not that a trip to London was anything of an event, but the thought of putting four hundred miles between himself and the disturbing force gave him hope. Even wireless telegraphy, he had read, might be rendered ineffectual by distance ; moreover, he feit that a change of scene and people might serve to put his soul out of tune, so to speak, with the malign influence which he now believed John Brand to be exerting upon it. So, about two o’clock on Friday, he took his pre-engaged seat in the first-class dining-car, and lay back with a sigh of relief, closing his eyes. “Thank God,” he said, uiider his breath.

Just as the train began to move, however, he glanced out of the window, and experienced a shock. On the platform, talking with another man, was John Brand. Vanner turned away—the fraction of a second too late. Brand had looked up, caught sight of the traveler, and his mild countenance had, in the flash of recognition, become savage and merciless.

Vanner ordered a glass of brandy. He was not a drinker of spirits, but he consumed a number of brandies ere he reached his destination that night. In his note-book he wrote a message to his wife. Until he stepped upon the platform at Euston he half-expected an accident. He had engaged a room at the station hotel, and he retired to bed immediately. He slept till three in the morning, when he awoke feverish and wretched. “That infernal brandy!” he told himself, was the cause. Then he proceeded to argue that there had been nothing significant in Brand’s being at the

Central Station ; doubtless the man had been seeing someone off by the busiest train of the day; his look of hatred at that sudden encounter was, perhaps, natural, though not justified. He, Vanner, hated Brand—and, by heaven, he would beat him yet.

About five o'clock he dropped to sleep again, and when called at eight, he felt better. He had an important appointment for that morning—the signing of a contract involving large benefits to his firm. As he drove through the fresh London air, his spirits rose. It would take a lot of praying to spoil this bit of business! At the same time he put up a brief prayer for himself. A moment later the horse fell.

\ anner was only slightly bruised, but he was greatiy shaken, and more so mentally than physically. The policeman found him almost incoherent. He continued his journey on foot, behaving at the crossings like an old woman. He found it necessary to take some brandy before paying his business call.

“I am sorry, Mr. Vanner, exceedingly sorry,” said the junior partner of the firm. “As you know, I was most willing that you should have the business, and I thought my uncle was in accord with me in the matter. However, at the last moment—yesterdav afternoon, to be precise—he decided otherwise, and accepted another offer. You understand that, personally, I did my best ?”

“I—understand,” said Vanner, with a pale smile. He was not disappointed ; he was overwhelmed. The contract had seemed such an absolute certainty.

“I shall hope that we may do business on a future occasion. Mr. Vanner.”

Vanner moistened his lips, but did not speak. He drew his hand slowly across his forehead.

“I’m afraid that spill has upset you a bit,” said the junior partner, sympathetically. He knew that Vanner was too big a man to be much affect-

ed by the loss of the contract. “Will yon rest here, and lunch with me later?”

Vanner thanked him, and rose.

“I’m leaving at two o’clock,” he managed to say, aching with an intense longing for home.

“I’m sorry. Let me get you a cab.” “Thanks, I’ll walk.”

The other nodded. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Vanner.”

* * * *

He reached the hotel at noon. The hall-porter came forward with a telegram.

Vanner was white ere he opened it. He sank upon a chair in the lounge, and stared at the dancing words:

“Sorry to ask you come home. Harry met with accident. Isobel.” Harry was his youngest boy. Presently he pulled himself together and sent a reply:

“Leaving two train. Wire latest to Carlisle seven o’clock. Fred.”

Then he went up to his room, and threw himself on the bed.

This was fear indeed! . . .

He was on the verge of panic when, an hour later, he despatched a telegram to his confidential clerk:

“Find out address of John Brand, brother of late James Brand. See him and ask him to meet me arrival London train ten tzventy Central to-night. Tell him most important. Vanner.” Another hour, and the long, hideous journey began. Vanner ate nothing; he could neither smoke nor read. He muttered to himself continually.

At Carlisle, the conductor, previously instructed, brought him his wife’s message :

“Glad you are coming. Harry no worse.”

“Perhaps,” whispered Vanner, alone in the compartment, “perhaps he has stopped praying for the moment.”

* * * *

The train slowed into the Cefttral Station. Vanner, searching the platform with wild eyes, at last caught sight of a big man with a black beard. He almost ran to him.

“Mr. Brand, it was good of you to come,” he began.

“What is it?” Brand asked, coldly.

“Come out of the crowd,” said Vanner, clutching his arm, and well-nigh dragging him to a deserted platform. “I wanted to see you, Mr. Brand. I’ve been thinking over things,” he went on with piteous eagerness; “I say, I’ve been thinking over things, and I—I’d like to do something for the family of your brother. The thought of your brother has been—has been very painful to me. .You understand, Mr. Brand ?”

“Conscience?” said Brand.

“No—no; not conscience. I still hold that I was not responsible. It was all in—in the course of business. You see that now, don’t you? Anyway, the whole thing is a problem beyond human understanding.”

There was a short pause, broken by Brand.

“In my eyes, you killed my brother,” he said. “You didn’t intend to do it, but you did. I do not know why I should have been induced to meet you here. I must go now.”

“Stay—stay, Mr. Brand. • Let me do something. I—I thought of two thousand pounds. And if I paid that, do you think you might be prevailed upon to stop—to stop—”

“Say no more, sir. If my brother’s family were in want, they would take nothing from you. But I am glad to say they are not in want. My brother’s patents have been sold for the sum of twenty thousand pounds. He didn’t know their value, but I found an honest man who did. That is all. Kindly let me go.”

But Vanner, desperate, held . the man’s arm. In shame and agony he stammered :

“Is money of no use to you, Mr. Brand ? What—tell me what I can do to induce you to stop praying?”

Brand stared at him. “Stop praying?”

“Praying against me. You—you know what I mean. Ever since we last parted things have been going wrong with me. And now my little

boy has met with an accident, and God knows what I shall find when I get home. Oh, stop it! I beg you to stop it!”

Something like pity dawned on the big man’s face.

‘Ts it possible that you’re thinking of something I said then?” he asked. “I think I remember, and I meant it at the time. But—well, that was all. It ended there. Go home, Mr. Vanner, and I—I hope you’ll find your boy better.” He shook off Vanner's grasp, and turned away.

“Stay!” cried Vanner. “Are you telling me that you have not been praying against me all through the last six weeks?”

“I think you must be crazy,” said Brand, not altogether unkindly, “to have such an idea in your head. No man can afford to pray against another. If you want a straight answer, I’ll tell you that I'd as soon have prayed for you. . . . You're ill. Give

me your bag. I’ll get you a cab. You and I shan’t meet again.

* * * *

As Vanner entered his home, the doctor met him.

“Your boy is going to get better,” said the doctor. And Vanner bowed his head—in silence.