SUNSET STORIES : NUMBER SIXTEEN
John Thorne was not the first of his kind, but for a brief period he was among the most successful. He was English by birth and had been raised in genteel and highly conventional surroundings in Sussex. At the age of twenty-six, no longer able to tolerate what was to him too circumscribed a lifestyle, he moved to the United States, where he found matters more to his liking. Here was opportunity for an intelligent, enterprising man, not enslaved by convention.
Having no aversion to either physical or mental effort, Thorne tried his hand at a number of jobs, working as a stevedore, a logger, a coalminer, a store manager and a bartender before deciding that none of these estimable occupations was right for him. What he wanted was to divide his time between scientific matters and humanitarian issues. In fairness to him, he did not wish to do either of those things for his own material gain. He really was intent upon both expanding his technical knowledge and serving the public. In order to do what he had in mind on a timescale he considered acceptable, he needed a short cut to financial independence.
As he was open to all possibilities and not in the least encumbered by inhibitions, Thorne concluded that the swiftest way to achieve social security was by relieving a number of his more affluent contemporaries of some of their shares of the world’s wealth. To him, the assessment was a simple one. The targets he had in mind would, even after receiving his attentions, still live well enough. What did another business coup or one more piece of jewellery mean to them? They would never be destitute.
Thorne’s reasoning extended to the idea that his plunder would be put into one bank or another, thus increasing the credit base of the whole national system. That was surely better than allowing people to have cash and trinkets just lying around. It would increase the rate at which money circulated, and as financial people were always moaning about lack of liquidity, that seemed to be a good thing. And anyway, many of the wealthy and privileged probably owed their advantages to means which, if usually not illegal, were often hardly more savoury than those Thorne was minded to employ. He knew that that was pure rationalisation, but contented himself with the moral fig leaf.
So John Thorne became a gentleman thief. He had no grandiose notions of one mighty coup that might see him though for life, but could alternatively put him behind bars for many years, or possibly subject him to relentless pursuit, which would be almost as inconvenient as incarceration. A man of breeding should not find himself hampered in such ways. A little here, a little there was Thorne’s motto. The odd few hundred dollars or some bauble – the latter always converted into cash – purloined would cause annoyance, but most likely no great uproar.
It was surprisingly easy. Thorne began with an evaluation of the prospective job. If he perceived any obvious risk, he went no further. Where there did not seem to be a problem, he proceeded. In short order, he laid hands on a good deal of money, which he invested in a dozen banks. But he was still in his middle twenties, and as restless as men of that age so often are. Also, even the most individualistic and precarious occupations can eventually become repetitive. The escape from routine becomes another kind of routine. A banker banks, a builder builds, a salesman sells and a thief steals. The stirrings did not induce Thorne to abandon his chosen line of work immediately. He would do so when the right time came. Meanwhile, a little variety would be welcome. Different scenery might be the answer.
During one of his spells of relaxation, Thorne read extensively about the burgeoning economic success in the wide open spaces of the West. Gold, silver and copper were, it seemed, being found in abundance. Admittedly this vast area was sparsely populated, so the way of life was often rather more basic than that in the East. But still, it was something new and it had been said that a change was a good as a rest. Thorne decided to try his luck west of the Mississippi.
He started in Colorado then worked his way north, across the High Plains, intending to reach the Pacific Northwest. His approach was simple. Endowed with the airs of an upper-class English upbringing, which he had no intention of discarding – a man had his standards – he projected himself as a wealthy Briton, seeking investment opportunities. He used several assumed names, dressed well, spoke with the affectation widely expected of him and generally conformed to a somewhat foppish image. But the openings he mentioned never appeared. After a short spell in whatever community he had selected, he moved on to some vaguely implied further port of call.
The thefts which coincided with Thorne’s presence in any town were never attributed to a man of his obvious affluence, especially as he usually made a point of staying on in the place concerned for some days after the unfortunate events. When involved in conversations with the locals about such matters, he was as outraged as anyone else. It was most baffling to a clearly upright English gentleman. Still, they all lived in a wicked world, he opined. These depredations were most likely the work of a gang and no doubt the law would catch up with the miscreants.
On a clear frosty December night, Thorne was about his business in Grant’s Ferry, Montana. He had spent two days looking over the town. It didn’t seem promising, but a man had to take what was available and as the last month had been kind to him, he was feeling buoyant. Having established that he could depart fast and far, he had decided that there was no point in dallying. Even before reaching this place, he had almost made up his mind that this would be his last outing as a lawbreaker. Though the whole thing was well within his intellectual and psychological scope, it was becoming a little too demanding in physical terms. Wriggling into and out of confined spaces was increasingly tiresome and not without danger. Only a week earlier he had sustained a nasty cut on the right hand, while exiting a house via a window he had broken to get in. He would pick up what he could that night, then return to his earlier haunts and think things out.
By three in the morning, Thorne was tired. Since midnight he had called at a saloon, a store and the freight office. The first two had produced acceptable pickings, but the third had been disappointing. He had decided to leave the small bank until last, guessing that its defences might be harder to penetrate than those of the places he’d already visited. He had in mind that his previous experience with banks had not been encouraging. First, he wasn’t the best of cracksmen – it wasn’t easy to get tuition in that art. Second, his black valise was now bulging with recent takings, and he didn’t really need to run any more risks. Third, if he was to keep to his schedule for departure, he hadn’t much time. However, it seemed remiss to pass up the obvious local cash repository. He would devote a few minutes to it.
Ingress didn’t take long, the back door yielding easily. Once inside, Thorne was helped by the bright moonlight. He inspected the tellers’ area and was not surprised to find it bare. Anything of value would be in the safe, which was likely to be in the manager’s office. The short corridor leading from behind the cash counter to the rear of the premises had a single door on each side. Thorne opened one, finding himself confronted with an assortment of cleaning paraphernalia. Trying the other door, he entered a room, about twenty by fifteen feet. Clearly, this was the inner sanctum. It was dominated by a large desk and a bulky item which was in deep shadow, but seemed to be his objective. At the far side of the desk was a high-backed chair, turned outwards, facing the window.
Thorne did not hesitate. He moved quietly across to the safe. Having reached it, he nearly leapt out of his skin when, with some creaking, the chair turned. “Were you looking for something?” The man’s voice was flat and seemingly disengaged.
Still aided by the moon, Thorne saw a small fellow, arms folded across his chest, in the massive chair. Accustomed as he was to happenings that would have unsettled most people, the intruder remained calm. “As a matter of fact, I was,” he said, “but I hardly expected to find company. Whatever are you doing here at this hour?”
“Doing? I’m not doing anything in particular, but I suppose you are. Robbing the bank, unless I’m much mistaken, eh?”
Thorne maintained his equanimity. “Well, to be truthful, I had some such notion,” he said, “but you seem to be rather in my way. I assume you are the owner or manager of this place?”
“I am both, sir,” said the man in the chair. “My name is Joseph Ransome and I assume you have drawn a predictable blank in the tellers’ drawers and you now intend to take the contents of the safe?”
“Quite so, but if you are adamant in your opposition to the scheme, I will not insist.”
“Adamant. No, I’m not. In fact, you’ve caught me at a particularly critical point in my life – the last hour, as it happens.”
Even for the urbane Thorne, this was startling, but he was nothing if not a quick thinker. “My goodness,” he said, “I hadn’t expected a discussion of this kind, but now that we’re engaged in it, I really do think we might have a little light in here. Would you mind?”
Ransome did not answer immediately, but struck a match, putting it to a lamp on his desk. Thorne took one of the two chairs facing him, seeing a man who really did seem to be in the state his words indicated. He was as diminutive as he had appeared to be in the dark, but looked somehow even more so, shrunken as he was in the large expanse of worn brown leather. His face was painfully haggard, the hue fish-belly. Thorne assessed him as being in his late forties.
The frustrated burglar rubbed his hands, not entirely because of the cold. This was something new and he was always ready for that, even in so awkward a position as his present one. “Now,” he said, with genuine joviality, “we can’t have this kind of thing. I would like very much to hear what’s on your mind, although I’d be just as well pleased if you could be brief. I’m rather busy.”
“Brevity is no problem to me, young man. I am ruined and have no wish to see the dawn. Is that brief enough for you?”
“Oh, come, old fellow” drawled Thorne. “I think you make too much of the matter. I never yet encountered the problem that did not have a solution.” He stabbed a thumb and forefinger into a vest pocket, withdrew a handsome gold watch, consulted it and shoved it back. “I fear I cannot allow your difficulty to impede my movements for very long. I have a timetable to maintain. However, I’ll happily give you half an hour. Perhaps I can suggest something that will help. These things are best discussed in a relaxed atmosphere, so I think we might as well get through a brace of those smokes you have there.”
Staring at his extraordinary caller, Ransome absently pushed across the desk a cedarwood box containing an assortment of cigars of various sizes and qualities. Thorne selected one of the largest, raising it to his ear and giving it the connoisseur’s roll between thumb and forefinger before piercing the end with a match. He lit up, taking his time about getting an even burn. “Do join me,” he said. “I find it so much more convivial when men smoke together, especially at twenty past three in the morning. Also, I cannot abide uncomfortable companions and you are fidgeting. Kindly do something with your hands.”
Still mesmerised, Ransome fumbled in the box, took out a panatella and got it going. He noticed that his right hand had twice within a minute been within six inches of the revolver with which he intended to end his life, yet he had not considered using the weapon, upon either himself or his visitor.
Thorne took a pull at his cigar and gave a contented sigh. “Jamaican, if I’m not in error,” he said. “I prefer Havana but this will do. Now, I indicated that my time is limited, so let us try to make best use of it. By the way, I’d be obliged if you would remove that firearm. I find that such contrivances come between gentlemen. So common, don’t you think?”
Ransome, mouth agape, took the gun and dropped it into a drawer.
“Excellent,” said Thorne, “though I must say you are not the best host I have ever had. I believe it is customary to offer a libation. At this time of day my first choice would be brandy, but I’ll be happy with whatever you have.”
Ransome fumbled in another drawer, extracting a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He poured handsome measures and slid one across the desk. “That’s the nearest I can offer you,” he said.
“It’s good enough.” Thorne raised his glass. “Here’s to your health. Now, what is the difficulty?”
By this time, Ransome was totally entranced, the surreal nature of the situation having already receded to the back of his mind. Also, as the result of a gulp of the whiskey and a few draws on his smoke, he was, to his surprise, mellowing at remarkable speed, associating with his interlocutor’s mood. “I’ve failed,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
“Well, I fancied myself as a banking man, but I’ve come up short. Now, don’t get me wrong. I pride myself that I’m honest, but I’ve made errors of judgement. All along, I wanted to be straight – and I have been. Unfortunately, two of the last three winters have been disastrous. Ranchers and settlers have had their livelihoods destroyed. The mining and lumber interests have suffered, too. That’s affected all the businesses around here. Apart from a few lucky individuals, we’re all in big trouble.”
“Hmn. I see what you mean, but a man in your position is supposed to allow for these things, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is. That’s where I’ve been at fault. The truth is that I’m not hard enough for this game. People think that a banker has insides of flint. In my case, that isn’t true. I’ve tried to help, really I have, but I’ve made too many generous loans, with too little sound backing. Now, the bill has come in. The result is that I can’t meet my commitments. There’s nobody to blame but me. The word has got out and when the bank opens later today, I’ll not be able to cope with the withdrawals. If you can think of a way out of that, you’ll be the smartest man I’ve ever met.”
Thorne scratched his jaw. “You put the matter most succinctly. I’m not too familiar with these affairs, you understand, but what about calling in your loans, or foreclosing mortgages. You’re allowed to do such things, aren’t you?”
“What’s the point? There nothing to be gained by demanding payment from people who have no money because their lives have been wrecked by bad luck. Believe me, nearly all the loans I’ve made were to decent people, who would have made out well enough if fate hadn’t given them a raw deal. They’re industrious, and all they needed was a fair chance. As it is, they’ve come to grief. That applies to me, too”
Thorne pondered for a long moment, then said: “Dear me, you have miscalculated, haven’t you? However, you seem to have missed the points that matter.”
Thorne inspected his cigar, tapping off an inch of ash. “Offhand, I can think of two,” he said, “Tell me, what do you consider the most vital thing in life, for all of us?”
Ransome shook his head. “Right now, I guess it’s money,” he said.
Thorne shook his head. “Rubbish, man,” he replied. “There’s any amount of the stuff in this world. The art is to ensure that enough of it comes your way. Can’t you think of anything more important?”
Ransome extended his hands in resignation. “At present I can’t, unless it’s health.”
“Ah, you’re getting warmer,” said Thorne. “Anything else?”
“Not as far as I can see.”
Thorne took another long draw on his smoke. “Well,” he said, you’ve improved, but you still miss the critical element.”
“Please don’t play games with me,” groaned Ransome. “If you have a suggestion, make it.”
Thorne smiled. “Very well,” he said. “What about time?”
Ransome shrugged. “How does that come in?”
Finally, Thorne showed some sharpness. “You still don’t understand, do you?” he said. “I’ve already mentioned that there’s no end of cash around, which can buy you something by way of health, though I believe not much. There are also mountains of gold and silver, plus houses and carriages galore, but there’s only one thing we all have in limited supply, and that’s time. No matter how well off we may be, we all have only one share of it, and few people know how much they have left.”
“And in what way does that bear upon my present state?”
“Well, you may be an unsuccessful banker today and you may be a barroom-sweeper tomorrow, but who knows what you may be the day after? Good gracious, man, it’s clear from your conversation that you’re no fool. In a month or a year, your position could be vastly better than it is now. You might be in another and more rewarding line of work. You weren’t born to banking, or anything else. When the dust has settled on this matter, you’ll be able to move on and be almost anything you want to be.”
Ransome slapped his hands on the armrests of his chair. “I never thought about it that way.” he said. “It’s a new turn, and that’s a fact. Still, the question is how do I get out of this plight? If you can answer that, you’re a better man than I am.”
“No, I’m not a better man than you,” said Thorne. “It’s merely a question of different points of view. As it happens, I intend to desist from my current line of work in the near future. It’s a means to an end, but I have to confess, it’s rather distasteful to me.”
“I can imagine so. What will you do later?”
“I’d like turn my attention to higher matters. I hope to be of use to society by producing some inventions beneficial to the public, and I wish to do charitable work. In short, anything for the common good. It matters little, so long as things come out right in the end. Whatever the route, I need time to study certain subjects and in order to do that, I must have financial security. Perhaps I have an odd way of reaching my goal, but in the end I shall repay other people as a whole to a much greater extent than I have inconvenienced them individually. It’s a question of the end justifying the means. I don’t expect anyone else to approve of my methods, but I hope to make the point in due course. Still, that’s no help to you, is it?”
“No. The fact remains that against deposits of twenty-six thousand, I have two hundred and sixty-three dollars in the safe over there, for what good that will do me, you might as well take it as leave it.”
“I see. Now, as I said, I’m not well versed in your line of work. What proportion of your investment balances should you have in ready cash?”
“Oh, usually quite a small one – about ten per cent at most. Half of that is more than enough in normal circumstances. It would be even now. It’s just matter of confidence. So long as people believe that a banker has adequate resources at his disposal, they don’t worry. They panic only when they’re doubtful, and even then, they tend to calm down at the sight of plenty of money in their bank.”
“I see,” Thorne replied. It’s rather like the way bankers see it. The more affluent the customers, the easier they find it to get credit, whereas anyone without obvious substance has trouble.”
“I couldn’t have put it better.”
Thorne knocked off more cigar ash. “Good,” he said. Now, there’s surely another issue. Can you think what it is? I’ve already given you a clue.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to do more than that. You may have gathered that I’m not in the mood for solving puzzles.”
“Well,” said Thorne, “have you ever considered the difference between wealth and riches?”
“I can’t say I have. They both seem the same to me.”
“Oh, really,” Thorne replied. “For an intelligent man, you are being very obtuse. Surely wealth is what you have in your pocket, whereas riches are what you have inside yourself. You are an American, sir. Surely I don’t need to remind you of the words of Benjamin Franklin?”
“Yes. Did he not say that if a man puts the contents of his purse into his head, no-one can take the result away from him?”
“I’m not familiar with the expression.”
Thorne pursed his lips. “Let me try from another angle,” he said. It’s obvious to me, even from this short talk, that you are a man of above average acuity. You are equipped to succeed at whatever you put your mind to. I ask you to consider how many people are in that position. You may well conclude that there are few. Now, by what right do you deprive the world of one such person? It’s pure selfishness, sir. You have not only a right but an obligation to offer the rest of us what you can. One might say that by being born you have paid for your ticket through life and that you owe it to yourself and to everyone else to take the whole trip.”
Ransome fingered his chin “That’s an interesting way of looking at things,” he said. “I’m damned if I know what to say.”
“Well,” said Thorne, “I can’t give you any more of my time and I’ll not trouble you for your two hundred and sixty-three dollars. I think you’re a poor businessman. Your heart seems to be bigger than your head. However, I believe you’re fundamentally a good sort.” He delved into his valise, drawing out a wad of banknotes and handing them over to Ransome. “You’ll find four thousand dollars there,” he said. “From what you say, that should tide you over. Now, pull yourself together. I shall watch your progress and I hope you will not fail me. However, if you should decide to use your gun after all, remember that it should be put into the mouth, pointed upwards. Any other way and you could make a mess of things and become a burden to others. That happened to a young fellow I knew. Shot himself in the temple and wound up in a coma for ages. Terrible nuisance to his family. Most inconsiderate of him. Anyway, time is of the essence, so I really must leave you.”
With a dazed expression, Ransome retrieved his gun from the drawer and handed it butt-first to Thorne. “Thank you,” he said quietly “I don’t think I’ll need this now, but just to be sure, I’d be obliged if you take it with you.”
Following his talk with John Thorne, Joseph Ransome spent two hours in deep thought. Thereafter, he worked as a man possessed. By six that morning, he had hauled elderly Isaac Rowley, the town’s only accountant, from his bed and got him working at full speed. Next, the busy banker roused the local newspaperman, asking him to stand by to run off a single-page item later that morning.
Shortly after nine o’clock, Ransome’s first customers arrived to find a notice in the window, stating that the annual audit was in progress and that there would be business as usual after the noon break.
At one o’clock, the bank opened to a line of investors, resolved to recover what they could. On entering, they were confronted with a conspicuous display of cash behind the tellers and, thanks to the newspaperman, a pile of copies of the bank’s balance sheet, complete with Rowley’s certificate to the effect that the accounts had been inspected and that the reserves were substantially above average for a finance house. There was no requirement for any more details from the books to be made public, nor was the auditor obliged to explain how the conduct of the bank’s affairs had confounded widespread belief by leading to such a healthy position.
The truth was that Rowley had accepted that Joseph Ransome had produced an injection of money from his own resources to keep the business solvent. The elderly auditor had been mindful of that when doing his work. He had also carefully considered the damaging social consequences of a run on the bank. And he had been conscious of the fact that he was one of Ransome’s most substantial investors. Taking things all round, there did not seem to be anything to be said for rocking the boat.
Nobody in town was more respected than Rowley. His seal of approval was good enough. All those who had been ready to clamour for their money returned home, most of them shamefaced. It was striking that none of John Thorne’s victims of the night before connected their losses with Ransome’s show of soundness. Indeed, the fact that the bank had not been robbed was attributed to its impregnability. That was taken as a salutary lesson to all and sundry.
Joseph Ransome and John Thorne never met or corresponded after that fateful morning. Ransome survived the rough patch, stayed in his line of business and went on to become highly successful, managing at the same time to be well-liked by almost all his customers – no easy feat for a banker. He died of natural causes, twenty-two years after that early-morning talk with his improbable benefactor.
No-one but Thorne himself would ever know what went through his mind after he had spoken with Joseph Ransome. Riding fast on a rented horse, he reached the railroad halt north of Grant’s Ferry and caught the early morning train, heading back to the eastern seaboard, where his life in America had started. There, he consolidated all his bank accounts into a fund, financing a foundation and home for the rehabilitation of criminals who had served their prison sentences. He laboured day and night in that cause, exhausting himself physically and mentally, committing almost all his wealth to the effort and achieving success that made his name a byword in the field. For himself, he set aside from the beginning exactly the same sum of money he had left with Joseph Ransome – four thousand two hundred and sixty-three dollars. The cash was kept in a safe in his quarters – three rooms in the home’s premises.
For over two decades, Thorne brooked no distractions. He never even got around to the scientific work he had envisaged. By a curious coincidence, he died at the age of fifty-two, in the same week that Joseph Ransome passed away. On the last day of his life, Thorne was addressing his dozen charges in the common room when his quarters were burgled in broad daylight. His money was stolen, the loss leaving him penniless.
Miss Emma Strang, who had for many years doubled as Thorne’s housekeeper and matron of his institution’s premises, told police investigators that two hours after the break-in, she had heard Thorne in his apartment, laughing loudly. That was the only evidence of humour she had noticed on her employer’s part in all the time she had served him. A moment later, she heard a loud report. Unable to restrain her curiosity, she had gone to Thorne’s living room door and, on hearing nothing further, had knocked. There was no response, so she had entered the room, finding the public benefactor sprawled back in the chair behind his desk, dead of a self-inflicted head wound. The gun he had used – the one he had accepted from Joseph Ransome so long ago – was on the floor, though it was clear that he had fired the fatal short by placing the barrel in his mouth.
* * *