The Stoic

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

A strong scent of hyacinths greeted him in the hall; and Mr Ventnor, who was an amateur of flowers, stopped to put his nose into a fine bloom and think uncontrollably of Mrs Larne. Pity! The things one had to give up in life – fine people – one thing and another. Pity! The thought inspired in him a timely anger; and he followed the servant, intending to stand no nonsense from this paralytic old rascal. The room he entered was lighted by a bright fire, and a single electric lamp with an orange shade on a table covered by a black satin cloth. There were heavily gleaming oil paintings on the walls, a heavy old brass chandelier without candles, heavy dark red curtains, and an indefinable scent of burnt acorns, coffee, cigars, and old man.

When she had gone he took up the other letter – some lawyer's writing, and opening it with the usual difficulty, read: ‘February 13, 1905.’ SIR, – Certain facts having come to my knowledge, I deem it my duty to call a special meeting of the shareholders of 'The Island Navigation Coy.,' to consider circumstances in connection with the purchase of Mr Joseph Pillin's fleet.

And I give you notice that at this meeting your conduct will be called in question. "I am, Sir, "Yours faithfully, "CHARLES VENTNOR. "SYLVANUS HEYTHORP,ESQ." Having read this missive, old Heythorp remained some minutes without stirring.

Ventnor! That solicitor chap who had made himself unpleasant at the creditors' meetings! There are men whom a really bad bit of news at once stampedes out of all power of coherent thought and action, and men who at first simply do not take it in.

Old Heythorp took it in fast enough; coming from a lawyer it was about as nasty as it could be. But, at once, with stoic wariness his old brain began casting round. What did this fellow really know? And what exactly could he do? One thing was certain; even if he knew everything, he couldn't upset that settlement. The youngsters were all right.

The old man grasped the fact that only his own position was at stake. But this was enough in all conscience; a name which had been before the public fifty odd years – income, independence, more perhaps. It would take little, seeing his age and feebleness, to make his Companies throw him over. But what had the fellow got hold of? How decide whether or not to take notice; to let him do his worst, or try and get into touch with him? And what was the fellow's motive? He held ten shares! That would never make a man take all this trouble, and over a purchase which was really first-rate business for the Company.

Yes! His conscience was quite clean. He had not betrayed his Company – on the contrary, had done it a good turn, got them four sound ships at a low price – against much opposition. That he might have done the Company a better turn, and got the ships at fifty-four thousand, did not trouble him – the six thousand was a deuced sight better employed; and he had not pocketed a penny piece himself!

But the fellow's motive? Spite? Looked like it. Spite, because he had been disappointed of his money, and defied into the bargain! H'm! If that were so, he might still be got to blow cold again. His eyes lighted on the pink note with the blue forget-me-not. It marked as it were the high water mark of what was left to him of life; and this other letter in his hand-by Jove! Low water mark!

And with a deep and rumbling sigh he thought, 'No, I'm not going to be beaten by this fellow.' "Your clothes are ready, sir."

Crumpling the two letters into the pocket of his dressing-gown, he said,

"Help me up; and telephone to Mr Farney to be good enough to come round."

An hour later, when the secretary entered, his chairman was sitting by the fire perusing the articles of association. And, waiting for him to look up, watching the articles shaking in that thick, feeble hand, the secretary had one of those moments of philosophy not too frequent with his kind. Some said the only happy time of life was when you had no passions, anything to hope and live for. But did you really ever reach such a stage? The old chairman, for instance, still had his passion for getting his own way, still had his prestige, and set a lot of store by it!

And he said, "Good morning, sir; I hope you're all right in this east wind. The purchase is completed."

"Best thing the company ever did. Have you heard from a shareholder called Ventnor. You know the man I mean?"

"No, sir. I haven't."

"Well! You may get a letter that'll make you open your eyes. An impudent scoundrel! Just write at my dictation."

"February 14th, 1905…" CHARLES VENTNOR, Esq. "SIR, – I have your letter of yesterday's date, the contents of which I am at a loss to understand. My solicitors will be instructed to take the necessary measures."

'Phew, What's all this about?' the secretary thought.

"Yours truly...."

"I'll sign."

And the shaky letters closed the page, "SYLVANUS HEYTHORP."

"Post that as you go."

"Anything else I can do for you, sir?"

"Nothing, except to let me know if you hear from this fellow."

When the secretary had gone the old man thought, 'So! The ruffian hasn't called the meeting yet. That'll bring him round here fast enough if it's his money he wants-blackmailing scoundrel!'

"Mr Pillin, sir; and will you wait lunch, or will you have it in the dining room?"

"In the dining-room."

At sight of that death's-head of a fellow, old Heythorp felt a sort of pity. He looked bad enough already – and this news would make him look worse. Joe Pillin glanced round at the two closed doors.

"How are you, Sylvanus? I'm very poorly."

He came closer, and lowered his voice, "Why did you get me to make that settlement? I must have been mad. I've had a man called Ventnor – I didn't like his manner. He asked me if I knew a Mrs Larne."

"Ha! What did you say?"

"What could I say? I don't know her. But why did he ask?"

"Smells like a rat."

Joe Pillin grasped the edge of the table with both hands.

"Oh!" he murmured.

"Oh! Don’t say that!" Old Heythorp held out to him the crumpled letter. When he had read it Joe Pillin sat down abruptly before the fire.

"Pull yourself together, Joe; they can't touch you, and they can't upset either the purchase or the settlement. They can upset me, that's all."

Joe Pillin answered, with trembling lips, "How you can sit there, and look the same as ever! Are you sure they can't touch it?"

Old Heyworth nodded grimly.

"They talk of an Act, but they haven't passed it yet. They might prove a breach of trust against me. But I'll diddle them. Keep your pecker up, and get off abroad."

"Yes, yes. I must. I'm very bad. I was going to-morrow. But I don't know, I'm sure, with this hanging over me. My son knowing her makes it worse. He picks up with everybody. He knows this man Ventnor too. And I daren't say anything to Bob. What are you thinking of, Sylvanus? You look very funny!"

Old Heythorp seemed to rouse himself from a sort of coma.

"I want my lunch," he said.

"Will you stop and have some?"

Joe Pillin stammered out, "Lunch! I don't know when I shall eat again. What are you going to do, Sylvanus?"

"Bluff the beggar out of it."

"But suppose you can't?"

"Buy him off. He's one – of my creditors."

Joe Pillin stared at him afresh.

"You always had such nerve," he said yearningly.

"Do you ever wake up between two and four? I do – and everything's black."

"Put a good stiff nightcap on, my boy, before going to bed."

"Yes; I sometimes wish I was less temperate. But I couldn't stand it. I'm told your doctor forbids you to drink."

"He does. That's why I drink it."

Joe Pillin, brooding over the fire, said, "This meeting – d'you think they mean to have it? D'you think this man really knows? If my name gets into the newspapers…." but encountering his old friend's deep little eyes, he stopped.

"So you advise me to get off to-morrow, then?"

Old Heythorp nodded.

"Your lunch is served, sir."

Joe Pillin started violently, and rose. "Well, good-bye, Sylvanus-good-bye! I don't suppose I shall be back till the summer, if I ever come back!"

He sank his voice, "I shall rely on you. You won't let them, will you?"

Old Heythorp lifted his hand, and Joe Pillin put into that swollen shaking paw his pale and spindly fingers.

"I wish I had your luck by me," he said sadly.

"Good-bye, Sylvanus," and turning, he passed out.

Old Heythorp thought, 'Poor shaky chap. All to pieces at the first shot!' And, going to his lunch, ate more heavily than usual.

Mr Ventnor, on reaching his office and opening his letters, found, as he had anticipated, one from "that old friend."

Its contents excited in him the need to know his own mind. Fortunately this was not complicated by a sense of dignity – he only had to consider the position with an eye on not being made to look a fool. The point was simply whether he set more store by his money than by his desire for--er--Justice. If not, he had merely to convene the special meeting, and lay before it the plain fact that Mr Joseph Pillin, selling his ships for sixty thousand pounds, had just made a settlement of six thousand pounds on a lady whom he did not know, a daughter, ward, or what-not – of the purchasing company's chairman, who had said, moreover, at the general meeting, that he stood or fell by the transaction; he had merely to do this, and demand that an explanation be required from the old man of such a startling coincidence.

Convinced that no explanation would hold water, he felt sure that his action would be at once followed by the collapse, if nothing more, of that old image, and the infliction of a nasty slur on old Pillin and his hopeful son. On the other hand, three hundred pounds was money; and, if old Heythorp were to say to him,

"What do you want to make this fuss for – here's what I owe you!" could a man of business and the world let his sense of justice – however he might itch to have it satisfied – stand in the way of what was after all also his sense of Justice? – For this money had been owing to him for the deuce of a long time.

In this dilemma, the words, "My solicitors will be instructed" were of notable service in helping him to form a decision, for he had a certain dislike of other solicitors, and an intimate knowledge of the law of libel and slander; if by any remote chance there should be a slip between the cup and the lip, Charles Ventnor might be in the soup – a position which he deprecated both by nature and profession.

High thinking, therefore, decided him at last to answer thus, "February 19th, 1905." SIR, – I have received your note. I think it may be fair, before taking further steps in this matter, to ask you for a personal explanation of the circumstances to which I alluded. I therefore propose with your permission to call on you at your private residence at five o'clock tomorrow afternoon. "Yours faithfully, "CHARLES VENTNOR. "SYLVANUS HEYTHORP, Esq."

Having sent this missive, and arranged in his mind the damning, if circumstantial, evidence

he had accumulated, he awaited the hour with confidence, for his nature was not lacking in the surety of a Briton. All the same, he dressed himself particularly well that morning, putting on a blue and white striped waistcoat which, with a cream-coloured tie, set off his fulvous whiskers and full blue eyes; and he lunched, if anything, more fully than his wont, eating a stronger cheese and taking a glass of special Club ale.

He took care to be late, too, to show the old fellow that his coming at all was in the nature of an act of grace. He became conscious of a candescent spot on the far side of the hearth, where the light fell on old Heythorp's thick white hair.

to be continued...