The Stoic

  • 17 Apr - 23 Apr, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

In the City of Liverpool, on a January day of 1905, the Board-room of "The Island Navigation Company" rested, as it were, after the labours of the afternoon. The long table was still littered with the ink, pens, blotting paper, and abandoned documents of six persons –a deserted battlefield of the brain. And, lonely, in his chairman's seat at the top end old Sylvanus Heythorp sat, with closed eyes, still and heavy as an image. One puffy, feeble hand, whose fingers quivered, rested on the arm of his chair; the thick white hair on his massive head glistened in the light from a green shaded lamp. He was not asleep, for every now and then his sanguine cheeks filled, and a sound, half sigh, half grunt, escaped his thick lips between a white moustache and the tiny tuft of white hairs above his cleft chin.

Sunk in the chair, that square thick trunk of a body in short black braided coat seemed divested of all neck. Young Gilbert Farney, secretary of "The Island Navigation Company," entering his hushed Board-room, stepped briskly to the table, gathered some papers, and stood looking at his chairman. Not more than thirtyfive, with the bright hues of the optimist in his hair, beard, cheeks, and eyes, he had a nose and lips which curled ironically.

For, in his view, he was the Company; and its Board did but exists to chequer his importance. Five days in the week for seven hours a day he wrote, and thought, and wove the threads of its business, and this lot came down once a week for two or three hours, and taught their grandmother to suck eggs. But watching that red-cheeked, white-haired, somnolent figure, his smile was not so contemptuous as might have been expected. For after all, the chairman was a wonderful old boy. A man of go and insight could not but respect him.

Eighty! Half paralysed, over head and ears in debt, having gone the pace all his life –or so they said! – till at last that mine in Ecuador had done for him –before the secretary's day, of course, but he had heard of it. The old chap had bought it up on specs – "de l'audace, toujours de l'audace," as he was so fond of saying – paid for it half in cash and half in promises, and then – the thing had turned out empty, and left him with L20,000 worth of the old shares unredeemed. The old boy had weathered it out without a bankruptcy so far. Indomitable old buffer; and never fussy like the rest of them! Young Farney, though a secretary, was capable of attachment; and his eyes expressed a pitying affection.

The Board meeting had been long and "snadgy" – a final settling of that Pillin business. Rum goes the chairman forcing it on them like this! And with quiet satisfaction the secretary thought 'And he never would have got it through if I hadn't made up my mind that it really is good business!' For to expand the company was to expand himself. Still, to buy four ships with the freight market so depressed was a bit startling, and there would be opposition at the general meeting. Never mind! He and the chairman could put it through –put it through. And suddenly he saw the old man looking at him. Only from those eyes could one appreciate the strength of life yet flowing underground in that well-nigh helpless car case – deep-coloured little blue wells, tiny, jovial, round windows.

A sigh travelled up through layers of flesh, and he said almost inaudibly: "Have they come, Mr Farney?"

"Yes, sir. I've put them in the transfer office; said you'd be with them in a minute; but I wasn't going to wake you."

"Haven't been asleep. Help me up." Grasping the edge of the table with his trembling hands, the old man pulled, and, with Farney heaving him behind, attained his feet. He stood about five feet ten, and weighed fully fourteen stone; not corpulent, but very thick all through; his round and massive head alone would have outweighed a baby. With eyes shut, he seemed to be trying to get the better of his own weight, and then he moved with the slowness of a barnacle towards the door. The secretary, watching him, thought: 'Marvellous old chap! How he gets about by himself is a miracle! And he can't retire, they say-lives on his fees!' But the chairman was through the green baize door.

At his tortoise gait he traversed the inner office, where the youthful clerks suspended their figuring – to grin behind his back – and entered the transfer office, where eight gentlemen were sitting. Seven rose, and one did not. Old Heythorp raised a saluting hand to the level of his chest and moving to an armchair, lowered himself into it. "Well, gentlemen?" One of the eight gentlemen got up again.

"Mr Heythorp, we've appointed Mr Brownbee to voice our views. Mr Brownbee!"

And down he sat. Mr Brownbee rose a stoutish man some seventy years of age, with little grey side whiskers, and one of those utterly steady faces only to be seen in England, faces which convey the sense of business from father to son for generations; faces which make wars, and passion, and free thought seem equally incredible; faces which inspire confidence, and awaken in one a desire to get up and leave the room. Mr Brownbee rose, and said in a suave voice: "Mr Heythorp, we here represent about L14,000. When we had the pleasure of meeting you last July, you will recollect that you held out a prospect of some more satisfactory arrangement by Christmas. We are now in January, and I am bound to say we none of us get younger."

From the depths of old Heythorp a preliminary rumble came travelling, reached the surface, and materialised – "Don't know about you – feel a boy, myself." The eight gentlemen looked at him. Was he going to try and put them off again? Mr Brownbee said with unruffled calm: "I'm sure we're very glad to hear it. But to come to the point. We have felt, Mr Heythorp, and I'm sure you won't think it unreasonable, that--er- -bankruptcy would be the most satisfactory solution. We have waited a long time, and we want to know definitely where we stand; for, to be quite frank, we don't see any prospect of improvement; indeed, we fear the opposite."

"You think I'm going to join the majority." This plumping out of what was at the back of their minds produced in Mr Brownbee and his colleagues a sort of chemical disturbance. They coughed, moved their feet, and turned away their eyes, till the one who had not risen, a solicitor named Ventnor, said bluffly: "Well, put it that way if you like."

Old Heythorp's little deep eyes twinkled. "My grandfather lived to be a hundred; my father ninety-six – both of them rips. I'm only eighty, gentlemen; blameless life compared with theirs."

"Indeed," Mr Brownbee said, "we hope you have many years of this life before you."

"More of this than of another." And a silence fell, till old Heythorp added: "You're getting a thousand a year out of my fees. Mistake to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I'll make it twelve hundred. If you force me to resign my directorships by bankruptcy, you won't get a rap, you know."

Mr Brownbee cleared his throat: "We think, Mr Heythorp, you should make it at least fifteen hundred. In that case we might perhaps consider."

Old Heythorp shook his head. "We can hardly accept your assertion that we should get nothing in the event of bankruptcy. We fancy you greatly underrate the possibilities. Fifteen hundred a year is the least you can do for us."

"See you d---d first." Another silence followed, then Ventnor, the solicitor, said irascibly: "We know where we are, then."

Brownbee added almost nervously: "Are we to understand that twelve hundred a year is your –your last word?" Old Heythorp nodded.

"Come again this day month, and I'll see what I can do for you;" and he shut his eyes. Round Mr Brownbee six of the gentlemen gathered, speaking in low voices; Mr Ventnor nursed a leg and glowered at old Heythorp, who sat with his eyes closed. Mr Brownbee went over and conferred with Mr Ventnor, then clearing his throat, he said: "Well, sir, we have considered your proposal; we agree to accept it for the moment. We will come again, as you suggest, in a month's time. We hope that you will by then have seen your way to something more substantial, with a view to avoiding what we should all regret, but which I fear will otherwise become inevitable."

Old Heythorp nodded. The eight gentlemen took their hats, and went out one by one, Mr Brownbee courteously bringing up the rear. The old man, who could not get up without assistance, stayed musing in his chair. He had diddled 'em for the moment into giving him another month, and when that month was up-he would diddle 'em again! A month ought to make the Pillin business safe, with all that hung on it. That poor funkey chap Joe Pillin! A gurgling chuckle escaped his red lips.

What a shadow the fellow had looked, trotting in that evening just a month ago, behind his valet's announcement: "Mr Pillin, sir." What a parchmenty, precise, thread-paper of a chap, with his bird's claw of a hand, and his muffled-up throat, and his quavery: "How do you do, Sylvanus? I'm afraid you're not."

"First rate. Sit down. Have some port."

"Port! I never drink it. Poison to me! Poison!"

"Do you good!" "Oh! I know, that's what you always say."

"You've a monstrous constitution, Sylvanus. If I drank port and smoked cigars and sat up till one o'clock, I should be in my grave to-morrow. I'm not the man I was. The fact is, I've come to see if you can help me. I'm getting old; I'm growing nervous...."

"You always were as chickeny as an old hen, Joe."

"Well, my nature's not like yours. To come to the point, I want to sell my ships and retire. I need rest. Freights are very depressed. I've got my family to think of."

"Crack on and go broke; buck you up like anything!"

"I'm quite serious, Sylvanus."

"Never knew you anything else, Joe."

A quavering cough, and out it had come: "Now –in a word – won't your 'Island Navigation Company' buy my ships?" A pause, a twinkle, a puff of smoke.

"Make it worth my while!" He had said it in jest; and then, in a flash, the idea had come to him. Rosamund and her youngsters! What a chance to put something between them and destitution when he had joined the majority! And so he said: "We don't want your silly ships."

That claw of a hand waved in deprecation. "They're very good ships – doing quite well. It's only my wretched health. If I were a strong man I shouldn't dream...."

"What d'you want for 'em?" Good Lord! How he jumped if you asked him a plain question. The chap was as nervous as a guinea-fowl!

"Here are the figures – for the last four years. I think you'll agree that I couldn't ask less than seventy thousand."

Through the smoke of his cigar old Heythorp had digested those figures slowly, Joe Pillin feeling his teeth and sucking lozenges the while; then he said: "Sixty thousand! And out of that you pay me ten per cent., if I get it through for you. Take it or leave it."

"My dear Sylvanus, that's almost-cynical."

"Too good a price – you'll never get it without me."

"But a – but a commission! You could never disclose it!"

"Arrange that all right. Think it over. Freights will go lower yet. Have some port."

"No, no! Thank you. No! So you think freights will go lower?"

"Sure of it."

"Well, I'll be going. I'm sure I don't know. It's – it's – I must think."

"Think at your hardest."

"Yes, yes. Good-bye. I can't imagine how you still go on smoking those things and drinking port.

"See you in your grave yet, Joe."

What a feeble smile the poor fellow had! Laugh-he couldn't! And, alone again, he had browsed, developing the idea which had come to him.

Though, to dwell in the heart of shipping, Sylvanus Heythorp had lived at Liverpool twenty years, he was from the Eastern Counties, of a family so old that it professed to despise the Conquest. Each of its generations occupied nearly twice as long as those of less tenacious men.

to be continued...