The Stoic

  • 29 May - 04 Jun, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

There was a chap at the back – an ill-conditioned fellow!

"Something behind!" Suspicious brute!

There was something – but – hang it! They might think themselves lucky to get four ships at that price, and all due to him! It was on the last speaker that his mind dwelt with a doubt. That fellow Ventnor, to whom he owed money, there had been something just a little queer about his tone as much as to say,

"I smell a rat."

Well! One would see that at the creditors' meeting in half an hour.

"Mr Pillin, sir."

"Show him in!"

In a fur coat which seemed to extinguish his thin form, Joe Pillin entered. It was snowing, and the cold had nipped and yellowed his meager face between its slight grey whiskering.

He said thinly: "How are you, Sylvanus? Aren't you perished in this cold?"

"Warm as a toast. Sit down. Take off your coat."

"Oh! I should be lost without it. You must have a fire inside you. So-so it's gone through?"

Old Heythorp nodded; and Joe Pillin, wandering like a spirit, scrutinised the shut door. He came back to the table, and said in a low voice:

"It's a great sacrifice."

Old Heythorp smiled. "Have you signed the deed poll?"

Producing a parchment from his pocket Joe Pillin unfolded it with caution to disclose his signature, and said: "I don't like it – it's irrevocable."

A chuckle escaped old Heythorp.

"As death."

Joe Pillin's voice passed up into the treble clef.

"I can't bear irrevocable things. I consider you stampeded me, playing on my nerves."

Examining the signatures old Heythorp murmured: "Tell your lawyer to lock it up. He must think you a sad dog, Joe."

"Ah! Suppose on my death it comes to the knowledge of my wife!"

"She won't be able to make it hotter for you than you'll be already."

Joe Pillin replaced the deed within his coat, emitting a queer thin noise. He simply could not bear joking on such subjects.

"Well," he said, "you've got your way; you always do. Who is this Mrs Larne? You oughtn't to keep me in the dark. It seems my boy met her at your house. You told me she didn't come there."

Old Heythorp said with relish: "Her husband was my son by a woman I was fond of before I married; her children are my grandchildren. You've provided for them. Best thing you ever did."

"I don't know, I don't know. I'm sorry you told me. It makes it all the more doubtful. As soon as the transfer's complete, I shall get away abroad. This cold's killing me. I wish you'd give me your recipe for keeping warm."

"Get a new inside."

Joe Pillin regarded his old friend with a sort of yearning.

"And yet," he said, "I suppose, with your full-blooded habit, your life hangs by a thread, doesn't it?"

"A stout one, my boy"

"Well, good-bye, Sylvanus. You're a Job's comforter; I must be getting home."

He put on his hat, and, lost in his fur coat, passed out into the corridor. On the stairs he met a man who said: "How do you do, Mr Pillin? I know your son. Been' seeing the chairman? I see your sale's gone through all right. I hope that'll do us some good, but I suppose you think the other way?"

Peering at him from under his hat, Joe Pillin said: "Mr Ventnor, I think? Thank you! It's very cold, isn't it?"

And, with that cautious remark, he passed on down. Alone again, old Heythorp thought: 'By George! What a wavering, quavering, thread paper of a fellow! What misery life must be to a chap like that! He walks in fear – he wallows in it.

Poor devil!'

And a curious feeling swelled his heart, of elation, of lightness such as he had not known for years. Those two young things were safe now from penurysafe! After dealing with those infernal creditors of his he would go round and have a look at the children. With a hundred and twenty a year the boy could go into the Army – best place for a young scamp like that. The girl would go off like hot cakes, of course, but she needn't take the first calf that came along. As for their mother, she must look after herself; nothing under two thousand a year would keep her out of debt.

But trust her for wheedling and bluffing her way out of any scrape! Watching his cigar-smoke curl and disperse he was conscious of the strain he had been under these last six weeks, aware suddenly of how greatly he had baulked at thought of to-day's general meeting. Yes! It might have turned out nasty. He knew well enough the forces on the Board, and off, who would be only too glad to shelve him. If he were shelved here his other two Companies would be sure to follow suit, and bang would go every penny of his income – he would be a pauper dependant on that holy woman.

Well! Safe now for another year if he could stave off these sharks once more. It might be a harder job this time, but he was in luck – in luck, and it must hold. And taking a luxurious pull at his cigar, he rang the handbell.

"Bring them in here, Mr Farney. And let me have a cup of China tea as strong as you can make it."

"Yes, sir. Will you see the proof of the press report, or will you leave it to me?"

"To you."

"Yes, sir. It was a good meeting, wasn't it?" Old Heythorp nodded. "Wonderful how your voice came back just at the right moment. I was afraid things were going to be difficult. The insult did it, I think. It was a monstrous thing to say. I could have punched his head."

Again old Heythorp nodded; and, looking into the secretary's fine blue eyes, he repeated: "Bring them in."

The lonely minute before the entrance of his creditors passed in the thought: 'So that's how it struck him! Short shrift I should get if it came out.' The gentlemen, who numbered ten this time, bowed to their debtor, evidently wondering why the deuce they troubled to be polite to an old man who kept them out of their money. Then, the secretary reappearing with a cup of China tea, they watched while their debtor drank it. The feat was tremulous. Would he get through without spilling it all down his front, or choking? To those unaccustomed to his private life it was slightly miraculous. He put the cup down empty, tremblingly removed some yellow drops from the little white tuft below his lip, refit his cigar, and said:

"No use beating about the bush, gentlemen; I can offer you fourteen hundred a year so long as I live and hold my directorships and not a penny more. If you can't accept that, you must make me bankrupt and get about sixpence in the pound. My qualifying shares will fetch a couple of thousand at market price. I own nothing else. The house I live in, and everything in it, barring my clothes and my cigars, belong to my daughter under a settlement fifteen years old. My solicitors and bankers will give you information. That's the position in a nutshell."

In spite of business habits the surprise of the ten gentlemen was only partially concealed.

A man who owed them so much would naturally say he owned nothing, but would he refer them to his solicitors and bankers unless he was telling the truth?

Then Mr Ventnor said: "Will you submit your pass books?"

"No, but I'll authorise my bankers to give you a full statement of my receipts for the last five years--longer, if you like."

The strategic stroke of placing the ten gentlemen round the Board table had made it impossible for them to consult freely without being overheard, but the low-voiced transference of thought travelling round was summed up at last by Mr Brownbee.

"We think, Mr Heythorp, that your fees and dividends should enable you to set aside for us a larger sum. Sixteen hundred, in fact, is what we think you should give us yearly. Representing, as we do, sixteen thousand pounds, the prospect is not cheering, but we hope you have some good years before you yet. We understand your income to be two thousand pounds."

Old Heythorp shook his head.

"Nineteen hundred and thirty pounds in a good year. Must eat and drink; must have a man to look after me not as active as I was. Can't do on less than five hundred pounds. Fourteen hundred's all I can give you, gentlemen; it's an advance of two hundred pounds. That's my last word."

The silence was broken by Mr Ventnor. "And it's my last word that I'm not satisfied. If these other gentlemen accept your proposition I shall be forced to consider what I can do on my own account."

The old man stared at him, and answered: "Oh! you will, sir; we shall see."

The others had risen and were gathered in a knot at the end of the table; old Heythorp and Mr Ventnor alone remained seated. The old man's lower lip projected till the white hairs below stood out like bristles. 'You ugly dog,' he was thinking, 'you think you've got something up your sleeve. Well, do your worst!'

The "ugly dog" rose abruptly and joined the others. And old Heythorp closed his eyes, sitting perfectly still, with his cigar, which had gone out, sticking up between his teeth. Mr Brownbee turning to voice the decision come to, cleared his throat.

"Mr Heythorp," he said, "If your bankers and solicitors bear out your statements, we shall accept your offer faute de mieux, in consideration. Blow your consideration!" he ended with a stammer.

"Perhaps you will kindly furnish us with the authorisation you spoke of?" Old Heythorp nodded, and Mr Brownbee, with a little bow, clasped his hat to his breast and moved towards the door. The nine gentlemen followed. Mr Ventnor, bringing up the rear, turned and looked back. But the old man's eyes were already closed again. The moment his creditors were gone, old Heythorp sounded the handbell.

"Help me up, Mr Farney. That Ventnor – what's his holding?"

"Quite small. Only ten shares, I think."

"Ah! What time is it?" "Quarter to four, sir."

"Get me a taxi."

After visiting his bank and his solicitors he struggled once more into his cab and caused it to be driven towards Millicent Villas. A kind of sleepy triumph permeated his whole being, bumped and shaken by the cab's rapid progress. So! He was free of those sharks now so long as he could hold on to his Companies; and he would still have a hundred a year or more to spare for Rosamund and her youngsters. He could live on four hundred, or even three-fifty, without losing his independence, for there would be no standing life in that holy woman's house unless he could pay his own scot! A good day's work! The best for many a long month! The cab stopped before the villa.

There are rooms which refuse to give away their owners, and rooms which seem to say: 'They really are like this.'

Of such did Rosamund Larne’s – a sort of permanent confession, seem to remark to anyone who entered:

'Her taste?

Well, you can see – cheerful and exuberant; her habits – yes, she sits here all the morning in a dressing-gown, smoking cigarettes and dropping ink; kindly observe my carpet. Notice the piano – it has a look of coming and going, according to the exchequer. This very deep-cushioned sofa is permanent, however; the water-colours on the walls are safe, too – they're by herself. Mark the scent of mimosa – she likes flowers, and likes them strong. No clock, of course. Examine the bureau – she is obviously always ringing for "the drumstick," and saying:

"Where's this, Ellen, and where's that? You naughty girl, you've been tidying."

Cast an eye on that pile of manuscript – she has evidently a genius for composition; it flows off her pen – like Shakespeare, she never blots a line.

to be continued...