The Stoic

  • 22 May - 28 May, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Then, assisting the chairman to his feet, he watched those rows of faces, and thought:

'Mistake to let them see he can't get up without help. He ought to have let me read his speech – I wrote it.'

The chairman began to speak:

"It is my duty and my pleasure,' ladies and gentlemen, for the nineteenth consecutive year to present to you the directors' report and the accounts for the past twelve months. You will all have had special notice of a measure of policy on which your Board has decided, and to which you will be asked to-day to give your adherence – to that I shall come at the end of my remarks...."

"Excuse me, sir; we can't hear a word down here."

'Ah!' thought the secretary, 'I was expecting that.'

The chairman went on, undisturbed. But several shareholders now rose, and the same speaker said testily:

"We might as well go home. If the chairman's got no voice, can't somebody read for him?"

The chairman took a sip of water, and resumed. Almost all in the last six rows were now on their feet, and amid a hubbub of murmurs the chairman held out to the secretary the slips of his speech, and fell heavily back into his chair. The secretary re-read from the beginning; and as each sentence fell from his tongue, he thought:

'How good that is!'

'That's very clear!'

'A neat touch!'

'This is getting them.'

It seemed to him a pity they could not know it was all his composition. When at last he came to the Pillin sale he paused for a second.

"I come now to the measure of policy to which I made allusion at the beginning of my speech. Your Board has decided to expand your enterprise by purchasing the entire fleet of Pillin & Co., Ltd. By this transaction we become the owners of the four steamships Smyrna, Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon, vessels in prime condition with a total freight-carrying capacity of fifteen thousand tons, at the low inclusive price of sixty thousand pounds. Gentlemen, de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!"

….it was the chairman's phrase, his bit of the speech, and the secretary did it more than justice.

"Times are bad, but your Board is emphatically of the opinion that they are touching bottom; and this, in their view, is the psychological moment for a forward stroke. They confidently recommend your adoption of their policy and the ratification of this purchase, which they believe will, in the not far distant future, substantially increase the profits of the Company."

The secretary sat down with reluctance. The speech should have continued with a number of appealing sentences which he had carefully prepared, but the chairman had cut them out with the simple comment:

"They ought to be glad of the chance."

It was, in his view, an error. The director who had combed his beard now raised – a man of presence, who might be trusted to say nothing long and suavely. While he was speaking the secretary was busy noting whence opposition was likely to come. The majority were sitting owl-like-a good sign; but some dozen were studying their copies of the report, and three at least were making notes – Westgate, for, instance, who wanted to get on the Board, and was sure to make himself unpleasant – the time-honoured method of vinegar; and Batterson, who also desired to come on, and might be trusted to support the Board – the time-honoured method of oil; while, if one knew anything of human nature, the fellow who had complained that he might as well go home would have something uncomfortable to say.

The director finished his remarks, combed his beard with his fingers, and sat down. A momentary pause ensued. Then Messieurs Westgate and Batterson rose together. Seeing the chairman nod towards the latter, the secretary thought:

'Mistake! He should have humoured Westgate by giving him precedence.'

But that was the worst of the old man; he had no notion of the suaviter in modo! Mr Batterson thus unchained – would like, if he might be so allowed, to congratulate the Board on having piloted their ship so smoothly through the troublous waters of the past year.

With their worthy chairman still at the helm, he had no doubt that in spite of the still low – he would not say falling – barometer, and the-er-unseasonable climacteric, they might rely on weathering the – er – he would not say storm. He would confess that the present dividend of four per cent. Was not one which satisfied every aspiration (Hear, hear!), but speaking for himself, and he hoped for others – and here Mr Batterson looked round – he recognised that in all the circumstances it was as much as they had the right – er – to expect. But following the bold but to his mind prudent development which the Board proposed to make, he thought that they might reasonably, if not sanguinely, anticipate a more golden future.

("No, no!")

A shareholder said, 'No, no!'

That might seem to indicate a certain lack of confidence in the special proposal before the meeting.


From that lack of confidence he would like at once to dissociate himself. Their chairman, a man of foresight and acumen, and valour proved on many a field and – er – sea, would not have committed him to this policy without good reason. In his opinion they were in safe hands, and he was glad to register his support of the measure proposed.

The chairman had well said in his speech: 'de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!'

Shareholders would agree with him that there could be no better motto for Englishmen. Ahem! Mr Batterson sat down.

And Mr Westgate rose: He wanted – he said – to know more, much more, about this proposition, which to his mind was of a very dubious wisdom....

'Ah!' thought the secretary,

'I told the old boy he must tell them more'....

To whom, for instance, had the proposal first been made?

To him! – The chairman said. Good! But why were Pillins selling, if freights were to go up, as they were told?

"Matter of opinion."

"Quite so; and in my opinion they are going lower, and Pillins were right to sell. It follows that we are wrong to buy."

("Hear, hear!" "No, no!")

"Pillins are shrewd people. What does the chairman say? Nerves! Does he mean to tell us that this sale was the result of nerves?"

The chairman nodded.

"That appears to me a somewhat fantastic theory; but I will leave that and confine myself to asking the grounds on which the chairman bases his confidence; in fact, what it is which is actuating the Board in pressing on us at such a time what I have no hesitation in stigmatising as a rash proposal. In a word, I want light as well as leading in this matter."

Mr Westgate sat down. What would the chairman do now? The situation was distinctly awkward – seeing his helplessness and the lukewarmness of the Board behind him. And the secretary felt more strongly than ever the absurdity of his being an underling, he who in a few well-chosen words could so easily have twisted the meeting round his thumb. Suddenly he heard the long, rumbling sigh which preluded the chairman's speeches.

"Has any other gentleman anything to say before I move the adoption of the report?"

Phew! That would put their backs up. Yes, sure enough it had brought that fellow, who had said he might as well go home, to his feet! Now for something nasty!

"Mr Westgate requires answering. I don't like this business. I don't impute anything to anybody; but it looks to me as if there were something behind it which the shareholders ought to be told. Not only that; but, to speak frankly, I'm not satisfied to be ridden over roughshod in this fashion by one who, whatever he may have been in the past, is obviously not now in the prime of his faculties."

With a gasp the secretary thought: 'I knew that was a plain-spoken man!'

He heard again the rumbling beside him. The chairman had gone crimson, his mouth was pursed, his little eyes were very blue.

"Help me up," he said.

The secretary helped him, and waited, rather breathless. The chairman took a sip of water, and his voice, unexpectedly loud, broke an ominous hush:

"Never been so insulted in my life. My best services have been at your disposal for nineteen years; you know what measure of success this Company has attained. I am the oldest man here, and my experience of shipping is, I hope, a little greater than that of the two gentlemen who spoke last. I have done my best for you, ladies and gentlemen, and we shall see whether you are going to endorse an indictment of my judgment and of my honour, if I am to take the last speaker seriously. This purchase is for your good. 'There is a tide in the affairs of men' – and I for one am not content, never have been, to stagnate. If that is what you want, however, by all means give your support to these gentlemen and have done with it. I tell you freights will go up before the end of the year; the purchase is a sound one, more than a sound one – I, at any rate, stand or fall by it. Refuse to ratify it, if you like; if you do,

I shall resign."

He sank back into his seat. The secretary, stealing a glance, thought with a sort of enthusiasm: 'Bravo!

Who'd have thought he could rally his voice like that? A good touch, too, that about his honour! I believe he's knocked them. It's still dicky, though, if that fellow at the back gets up again; the old chap can't work that stop a second time.

'Ah! here was 'old Apple-pie' on his hind legs. That was

all right!

"I do not hesitate to say that I am an old friend of the chairman; we are, many of us, old friends of the chairman, and it has been painful to me, and I doubt not to others, to hear an attack made on him. If he is old in body, he is young in mental vigour and courage. I wish we were all as young. We ought to stand by him; I say, we ought to stand by him."

("Hear, hear! Hear, hear!")

And the secretary thought: 'That's done it!'

And he felt a sudden odd emotion, watching the chairman bobbing his body, like a wooden toy, at old Appleby; and old Appleby bobbing back.

Then, seeing a shareholder close to the door get up, thought: 'Who's that? I know his face – Ah! yes; Ventnor, the solicitor – he's one of the chairman's creditors that are coming again this afternoon. What now?'

"I can't agree that we ought to let sentiment interfere with our judgment in this matter. The question is simply: How are our pockets going to be affected? I came here with some misgivings, but the attitude of the chairman has been such as to remove them; and I shall support the proposition."

The secretary thought: 'That's all right – only, he said it rather queerly – rather queerly.'

Then, after a long silence, the chairman, without rising, said: "I move the adoption of the report and accounts."

"I second that."

"Those in favour signify the same in the usual way. Contrary? Carried."

The secretary noted the dissentients, six in number, and that Mr. Westgate did not vote. A quarter of an hour later he stood in the body of the emptying room supplying names to one of the gentlemen of the Press.

The passionless fellow said: "Haythorp, with an 'a'; oh! an 'e'; he seems an old man. Thank you. I may have the slips? Would you like to see a proof? With an 'a' you said – oh! an 'e.' Good afternoon!"

And the secretary thought: 'Those fellows, what does go on inside them? Fancy not knowing the old chairman by now!'...

Back in the proper office of "The Island Navigation Company" old Heythorp sat smoking a cigar and smiling like a purring cat. He was dreaming a little of his triumph, sifting with his old brain, still subtle, the wheat from the chaff of the demurrers: Westgate – nothing in that – professional discontent till they silenced him with a place on the board – but not while he held the reins!

to be continued...