The Stoic

  • 19 Jun - 25 Jun, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

That this paralytic old fellow should express contempt for his virility was really the last thing in jests. Luckily he could not take it seriously. But suddenly he thought,

'What if he really has the power to stop my going there, and means to turn them against me!' And his heart quailed.

"Awfully sorry, sir," he said, "If you don't think I'm wild enough. Anything I can do for you in that line."

The old man grunted; and realising that he had been quite witty, Bob Pillin went on,

"I know I'm not in debt, no entanglements, got a decent income, pretty good expectations and all that; but I can soon put that all right if I'm not fit without."

It was perhaps his first attempt at irony, and he could not help thinking how good it was.

But old Heythorp preserved a deadly silence. He looked like a stuffed man, a regular Aunt Sally sitting there, with the fixed red in his cheeks, his stivered hair, square block of a body, and no neck that you could see – only wanting the pipe in his mouth! Could there really be danger from such an old idol?

The idol spoke, "I'll give you a word of advice. Don't hang round there, or you'll burn your fingers. Remember me to your father. Good-night!"

The taxi had stopped before the house in Sefton Park. An insensate impulse to remain seated and argue the point fought in Bob Pillin with an impulse to leap out, shake his fist in at the window, and walk off.

He merely said, however: "Thanks for the lift. Good-night!"

And, getting out deliberately, he walked off. Old Heythorp, waiting for the driver to help him up, thought 'Fatter, but no more guts than his father!'

In his sanctum he sank at once into his chair. It was wonderfully still there every day at this hour; just the click of the coals, just the faintest ruffle from the wind in the trees of the park. And it was cosily warm, only the fire lightening the darkness. A drowsy beatitude pervaded the old man.

A good day's work! A triumph – that young pup had said.

Yes! Something of a triumph! He had held on, and won. And dinner to look forward to, yet. A nap – a nap! And soon, rhythmic, soft, sonorous, his breathing rose, with now and then that pathetic twitching of the old who dream.

When Bob Pillin emerged from the little front garden of 23, Millicent Villas ten days later, his sentiments were ravelled, and he could not get hold of an end to pull straight the stuff of his mind. He had found Mrs Larne and Phyllis in the sitting-room, and Phyllis had been crying; he was sure she had been crying; and that memory still infected the sentiments evoked by later happenings.

Old Heythorp had said: "You'll burn your fingers."

The process had begun. Having sent her daughter away on a pretext really a bit too thin, Mrs Larne had installed him beside her scented bulk on the sofa, and poured into his ear such a tale of monetary woe and entanglement, such a mass of present difficulties and rosy prospects, that his brain still whirled, and only one thing emerged clearly-that she wanted fifty pounds, which she would repay him on quarter-day; for their Guardy had made a settlement by which, until the dear children came of age, she would have sixty pounds every quarter. It was only a question of a few weeks; he might ask Messrs.

Scriven and Coles; they would tell him the security was quite safe. He certainly might ask Messrs. Scriven and Coles – they happened to be his father's solicitors; but it hardly seemed to touch the point. Bob Pillin had a certain shrewd caution, and the point was whether he was going to begin to lend money to a woman who, he could see, might borrow up to seventy times seven on the strength of his infatuation for her daughter. That was rather too strong!

Yet, if he didn't she might take a sudden dislike to him, and where would he be then?

Besides, would not a loan make his position stronger? And then – such is the effect of love even on the younger generation – which thought seemed to him unworthy. If he lent at all, it should be from chivalry – ulterior motives might go hang!

And the memory of the tear-marks on Phyllis's pretty pale-pink cheeks; and her petulantly mournful, "Oh! young man, isn't money beastly!" scraped his heart, and ravished his judgment. All the same, fifty pounds was fifty pounds, and goodness knew how much more; and what did he know of Mrs Larne, after all, except that she was a relative of old Heythorp's and wrote stories – told them too, if he was not mistaken?

Perhaps it would be better to see Scrivens'. But again that absurd nobility assaulted him. Phyllis! Phyllis! Besides, were not settlements always drawn so that they refused to form security for anything? Thus, hampered and troubled, he hailed a cab. He was dining with the Ventnors on the Cheshire side, and would be late if he didn't get home sharp to dress. Driving, white-tied and waist-coated, in his father's car, he thought with a certain contumely of the younger Ventnor girl, whom he had been wont to consider pretty before he knew Phyllis. And seated next her at dinner, he quite enjoyed his new sense of superiority to her charms, and the ease with which he could chaff and be agreeable. And all the time he suffered from the suppressed longing which scarcely ever left him now, to think and talk of Phyllis.

Ventnor's fizz was good and plentiful, his old Madeira absolutely first chop, and the only other man present a teetotal curate, who withdrew with the ladies to talk his parish shop. Favoured by these circumstances, and the perception that Ventnor was an agreeable fellow, Bob Pillin yielded to his secret itch to get near the subject of his affections.

"Do you happen," he said airily, "to know a Mrs Larne – relative of old Heythorp's – rather a handsome woman-she writes stories."

Mr Ventnor shook his head. A closer scrutiny than Bob Pillin's would have seen that he also moved his ears.

"Of old Heythorp's? Didn't know he had any, except his daughter, and that son of his in the Admiralty."

Bob Pillin felt the glow of his secret hobby spreading within him.

"She is, though – lives rather out of town; got a son and daughter. I thought you might know her stories – clever woman."

Mr Ventnor smiled.

"Ah!" he said enigmatically, "these lady novelists! Does she make any money by them?"

Bob Pillin knew that to make money by writing meant success, but that not to make money by writing was artistic, and implied that you had private means, which perhaps was even more distinguished. And he said,

"Oh! She has private means, I know."

Mr Ventnor reached for the Madeira.

"So she's a relative of old Heythorp's," he said.

"He's a very old friend of your father's. He ought to go bankrupt, you know."

To Bob Pillin, glowing with passion and Madeira, the idea of bankruptcy seemed discreditable in connection with a relative of Phyllis. Besides, the old boy was far from that! Had he not just made this settlement on Mrs Larne?

And he said: "I think you're mistaken. That's of the past."

Mr Ventnor smiled.

"Will you bet?" he said. Bob Pillin also smiled. "I should be betting on a certainty."

Mr Ventnor passed his hand over his whiskered face.

"Don't you believe it; he hasn't a mag to his name. Fill your glass."

Bob Pillin said, with a certain resentment,

"Well, I happen to know he's just made a settlement of five or six thousand pounds. Don't know if you call that being bankrupt."

"What! On this Mrs Larne?"

Confused, uncertain whether he had said something derogatory or indiscreet, or something which added distinction to Phyllis, Bob Pillin hesitated, and then gave a nod. Mr Ventnor rose and extended his short legs before the fire.

"No, my boy," he said.

"No!" Unaccustomed to the process, Bob Pillin reddened.

"I'll bet you about that. Ask Scrivens."

Always been sorry he didn't come to me. Shall we join the ladies?"

And to the drawing-room he preceded a young man more uncertain in his mind than on his feet....

Charles Ventnor was not one to let you see that more was going on within than met the eye. But there was a good deal going on that evening, and after his conversation with young Bob he had occasion more than once to turn away and rub his hands together. When, after that second creditors' meeting, he had walked down the stairway which led to the offices of "The Island Navigation Company," he had been deep in thought.

Short, squarely built, rather stout, with moustache and large mutton-chop whiskers of a red brown, and a faint floridity in face and dress, he was impressed at first sight only by a certain truly British face. One felt that here was a hail-fellow – well, met man who liked lunch and dinner, went to Scarborough for his summer holidays, sat with his wife, took his daughters out in a boat and was never sick.

One felt that he went to church every Sunday morning, looked upwards as he moved through life, disliked the unsuccessful, and expanded with his second glass of drink. But then a clear look into his well-clothed face and red-brown eyes would give the feeling,

'There's something furious here; he might be a bit too foxy.'

A third look brought the thought, 'He's certainly a bully.'

He was not a large creditor of old Heythorp. With interest on the original, he calculated his claim at three hundred pounds – unredeemed shares in that old Ecuador mine. But he had waited for his money eight years, and could never imagine how it came about that he had been induced to wait so long. There had been, of course, for one who liked "big pots," a certain glamour about the personality of old Heythorp, still a bit of a swell in shipping circles, and a bit of an aristocrat in Liverpool.

But during the last year Charles Ventnor had realised that the old chap's star had definitely set – when that happens, of course, there is no more glamour, and the time has come to get your money. Weakness in oneself and others is despicable! Besides, he had food for thought, and descending the stairs he chewed it,

He smelt a rat – creatures for which both by nature and profession he had a nose. Through Bob Pillin, on whom he sometimes dwelt in connection with his younger daughter, he knew that old Pillin and old Heythorp had been friends for thirty years and more. That, to an astute mind, suggested something behind this sale. The thought had already occurred to him when he read his copy of the report. A commission would be a breach of trust, of course, but there were ways of doing things; the old chap was devilish hard pressed, and human nature was human nature! His lawyerish mind habitually put two and two together. The old fellow had deliberately appointed to meet his creditors again just after the general meeting which would decide the purchase – had said he might do something for them then.

Had that no significance? In these circumstances Charles Ventnor had come to the meeting with eyes wide open and mouth tight closed. And he had watched. It was certainly remarkable that such an old and feeble man, with no neck at all, who looked indeed as if he might go off with apoplexy any moment, should actually say that he "stood or fell" by this purchase, knowing that if he fell he would be a beggar.

Why should the old chap be so keen on getting it through? It would do him personally no good, unless. Exactly! He had left the meeting, therefore, secretly confident that old Heythorp had got something out of this transaction which would enable him to make a substantial proposal to his creditors.

So that when the old man had declared that he was going to make none, something had turned sour in his heart, and he had said to himself,

"All right, you stupid! You don't know C. V."

to be continued...