The Stoic

  • 03 Jul - 09 Jul, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

And at the limpid assent of that rich, sweet voice, he thought,

'Fine woman;

what eyes!'

"Thank you; that's quite enough. I can go to Scrivens for any detail. Nice young fellow, Bob Pillin, isn't he?"

He saw the girl's chin tilt and Mrs Larne's full mouth curling in a smile.

"Delightful young man; we're very fond of him."

And he proceeded, "I'm quite an old friend of his; have you known him long?"

"Oh! No. How long, Phyllis, since we met him at Guardy's? About a month. But he's so unaffected – quite at home with us. A nice fellow."

Mr Ventnor murmured, "Very different from his father,

isn't he?"

"Is he? We don't know his father; he's a shipowner,

I think."

Mr Ventnor rubbed his hands, "Ye-es," he said, "just giving up – a warm man. Young Pillin's a lucky fellow – only son. So you met him at old Mr Heythorp's. I know him too – relation of yours, I believe."

"Our dear Guardy is such a wonderful man."

Mr Ventnor echoed, "Wonderful – regular

old Roman."

"Oh! But he's so kind!"

Mrs Larne lifted the white stuff, "Look what he's given this naughty gairl!"

Mr Ventnor murmured, "Charming! Charming! Bob Pillin said, I think, that Mr Heythorp was your settlor."

One of those little clouds which visit the brows of women who have owed money in their time passed swiftly athwart Mrs Larne's eyes. For a moment they seemed saying, 'Don't you want to know too much?'

Then they slid from under it. "Won't you sit down?" she said.

"You must forgive our being at work."

Mr Ventnor, who had need of sorting his impressions, shook his head.

"Thank you; I must be getting on. Then Messrs. Scriven can – a mere formality! Goodbye! Good-bye, Miss Larne. I'm sure the dress will be most becoming."

And with memories of a too clear look from the girl's eyes, of a warm firm pressure from the woman's hand, Mr Ventnor backed towards the door and passed away just in time to avoid hearing in two voices, "What a nice lawyer!"

"What a horrid man!"

Back in his cab, he continued to rub his hands. No, she didn't know old Pillin! That was certain; not from her words, but from her face. She wanted to know him, or about him, anyway. H'm! It would astonish his young friend to hear that he had called. Well, let it! And a curious mixture of emotions beset Mr Ventnor. He saw the whole thing now so plainly and really could not refrain from a certain admiration. The law had been properly diddled!

There was nothing to prevent a man from settling money on a woman he had never seen; and so old Pillin's settlement could probably not be upset. But old Heythorp could. It was neat, though, oh! Neat! And that was a fine woman – remarkably! He had a sort of feeling that if only the settlement had been in danger, it might have been worthwhile to have made a bargain, a woman like that could have made it worthwhile! And he believed her quite capable of entertaining the proposition! Her eye! Pity, quite a pity!

Mrs Ventnor was not a wife who satisfied every aspiration. But alas! The settlement was safe. This baulking of the sentiment of love, whipped up, if anything, the longing for justice in Mr Ventnor. That old chap should feel his teeth now. As a piece of investigation it was not so bad – not so bad at all! He had had a bit of luck, of course, no, not luck, just that knack of doing the right thing at the right moment which marks a real genius for affairs.

But getting into his train to return to Mrs Ventnor, he thought, 'A woman like that would have been!'

And he sighed. With a neatly written cheque for fifty pounds in his pocket Bob Pillin turned in at 23, Millicent Villas on the afternoon after Mr Ventnor's visit. Chivalry had won the day. And he rang the bell with an elation which astonished him, for he knew he was doing

a soft thing.

"Mrs Larne is out, sir; Miss Phyllis is at home."

His heart leaped.

"Oh-h! I'm sorry. I wonder if she'd see me."

The little maid answered

"I think she's been washing' 'er'air, sir, but it may be dry be now. I'll see."

Bob Pillin stood stock still beneath the young woman on the wall. He could scarcely breathe. If her hair were not dry – how awful! Suddenly he heard floating down a clear but smothered

"Oh! Gefoozleme!" and other words which he could not catch. The little maid came running down.

"Miss Phyllis says, sir, she'll be with you in a jiffy. And I was to tell you that Master Jock is loose, sir."

Bob Pillin answered "Tha-anks," and passed into the drawing-room. He went to the bureau, took an envelope, enclosed the cheque, and addressing it, "Mrs Larne," replaced it in his pocket. Then he crossed over to the mirror. Never till this last month had he really doubted his own face; but now he wanted for it things had he never wanted. It had too much flesh and colour. It did not reflect his passion.

This was a handicap. With a narrow white piping round his waistcoat opening, and a buttonhole of tuberoses, he had tried to repair its deficiencies. But do what he would, he was never easy about himself nowadays, never up to that pitch which could make him confident in her presence.

And until this month to lack confidence had never been his wont. A clear, high, mocking voice said, "Oh-h! Conceited, young man!"

And spinning round he saw Phyllis in the doorway. Her light brown hair was fluffed out on her shoulders, so that he felt a kind of fainting-sweet sensation, and murmured inarticulately, "Oh! I say – how jolly!"

"Lawks! It's awful! Have you come to see mother?"

Balanced between fear and daring, conscious of a scent of hay and verbena and camomile, Bob Pillin stammered, "Ye-es. I – I'm glad she's not in, though."

Her laugh seemed to him terribly unfeeling.

"Oh! oh! Don't be foolish. Sit down. Isn't washing one's head awful?"

Bob Pillin answered feebly,

"Of course, I haven't much experience."

Her mouth opened. "Oh! You are, aren't you?"

Instead, he sat very rigid at his end of the sofa, while she sat at the other, and one of those crises of paralysis which beset would-be lovers fixed him to the soul. Sometimes during this last month memories of a past existence, 'Is she really such an innocent? Doesn't she really want me to like her?'

Alas! such intrusions lasted but a moment before a blast of awe and chivalry withered them, and a strange and tragic delicacy – like nothing he had ever known – resumed its sway. And suddenly he heard her say,

"Why do you know such

awful men?"

"What? I don't know any

awful men."

"Oh yes, you do; one came here yesterday; he had whiskers, and he was awful."

"Whiskers?" His soul revolted in disclaimer.

"I believe I only know one man with whiskers – a lawyer."

"Yes – that was him; a perfectly horrid man. Mother didn't mind him, but I thought he was a beast."

"Ventnor! Came here? How d'you mean?"

"He did; about some business of yours, too."

Her face had clouded over. Bob Pillin had of late been harassed by the still-born beginning of a poem, "I rode upon my way and saw a maid who watched me from the door."

It never grew longer, and was prompted by the feeling that her face was like an April day. The cloud which came on it now was like an April cloud, as if a bright shower of rain must follow. Brushing aside the two distressful lines, he said,

"Look here, Miss Larne, Phyllis, look here!"

"All right, I'm looking!"

"What does it mean – how did he come? What did he say?"

She shook her head, and her hair quivered; the scent of camomile, verbena, hay was wafted; then looking at her lap, she muttered, "I wish you wouldn't – I wish mother wouldn't – I hate it. Oh! Money! Beastly – beastly!" and a tearful sigh shivered itself into Bob Pillin's reddening ears.

"I say, don't! And do tell me, because……"

"Oh! You know."

"I don't – I don't know anything at all. I never…."

Phyllis looked up at him.

"Don't tell fibs; you know mother's borrowing money from you, and it's hateful!"

A desire to lie roundly, a sense of the cheque in his pocket, a feeling of injustice, the emotion of pity, and a confused and black astonishment about Ventnor, caused Bob Pillin to stammer,

"Well, I'm d---d!" and to miss the look which Phyllis gave him through her lashes – a look saying, "Ah! That’s better!"

"I am d…..! Look here! D'you mean to say that Ventnor came here about my lending money? I never said a word to him…."

"There you see – you are lending!"

He clutched his hair.

"We've got to have this out," he added.

"Not by the roots! Oh! You do look funny. I've never seen you with your hair untidy. Oh! Oh!"

Bob Pillin rose and paced the room. In the midst of his emotion he could not help seeing himself sidelong in the mirror; and on pretext of holding his head in both his hands, tried earnestly to restore his hair.

Then coming to a halt he said, "Suppose I am lending money to your mother, what does it matter? It's only till quarter-day. Anybody might

want money."

Phyllis did not raise her face.

"Why are you lending it?"

"Because – because – why shouldn't I?" and diving suddenly, he seized her hands.

She wrenched them free; and with the emotion of despair, Bob Pillin took out the envelope.

"If you like," he said, "I'll tear this up. I don't want to lend it, if you don't want me to; but I thought – I thought…"

It was for her alone he had been going to lend this money! Phyllis murmured through her hair, "Yes! You thought that I – that's what's so hateful!"

Apprehension pierced

his mind.

"Oh! I never – I swear

I never…."

"Yes, you did; you thought

I wanted you to lend it."

She jumped up, and brushed past him into the window. So she thought she was being used as a decoy! That was awful – especially since it was true. He knew well enough that Mrs Larne was working his admiration for her daughter for all that it was worth.

And he said with simple fervor, "What rot!" It produced no effect, and at his wits' end, he almost shouted, "Look, Phyllis! If you don't want me to – here goes!"

Phyllis turned.

Tearing the envelope across, he threw the bits into the fire.

"There it is," he said.

Her eyes grew round; she said in an awed voice, "Oh!"

In a sort of agony of honesty he said, "It was only a cheque. Now you've got your way."

Staring at the fire she answered slowly, "I expect you'd better go before

mother comes."

Bob Pillin's mouth fell afar; he secretly agreed, but the idea of sacrificing a moment alone with her was intolerable, and he said hardily, "No, I shall

stick it!"

Phyllis sneezed.

"My hair isn't a bit dry," and she sat down on the fender with her back to the fire. A certain spirituality had come into Bob Pillin's face.

If only he could get that wheeze off, "Phyllis is my only joy!" or even, "Phyllis – do you – won't you – mayn't I?"

But nothing came – nothing.

And suddenly she said, "Oh! Don’t breathe so loud;

it's awful!"

"Breathe? I wasn't!"

"You were; just like Carmen when she's dreaming."

He had walked three steps towards the door, before he thought, 'What does it matter? I can stand anything from her; and walked the three steps back again.

She said softly,

"Poor young man!"

He answered gloomily,

"I suppose you realise that this may be the last time you'll

see me?"

"Why? I thought you were going to take us to

the theatre."

"I don't know whether your mother will – after…." Phyllis gave a little clear laugh.

"You don't know mother. Nothing makes any difference to her."

And Bob Pillin muttered,

"I see." He did not, but it was of no consequence.

to be continued...