The Stoic

  • 24 Jul - 30 Jul, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

"Mr Ventnor, sir."

The candescent spot moved.

A voice said:

"Sit down."

Mr Ventnor sat in an armchair on the opposite side of the fire; and, finding a kind of somnolence creeping over him, pinched himself. He wanted all his wits about him. The old man was speaking in that extinct voice of his, and Mr Ventnor said rather pettishly,

"Beg pardon,

I don't get you."

Old Heythorp's voice swelled with sudden force,

"Your letters are Greek to me."

"Oh! Indeed, I think we can soon make them into plain English!"

"Sooner the better."

Mr Ventnor passed through a moment of indecision. Should he lay his cards on the table? It was not his habit, and the proceeding was sometimes attended with risk. The knowledge, however, that he could always take them up again, seeing there was no third person here to testify that he had laid them down, decided him, and he said,

"Well, Mr Heythorp, the long and short of the matter is this: Our friend Mr Pillin paid you a commission of ten per cent. On the sale of his ships. Oh! Yes. He settled the money, not on you, but on your relative Mrs Larne and her children. This, as you know, is a breach of trust on your part."

The old man's voice, "Where did you get hold of that cock-and-bull story?" brought him to his feet before the fire.

"It won't do, Mr Heythorp. My witnesses are Mr Pillin, Mrs Larne, and Mr Scriven."

"What have you come here for, then – blackmail?"

Mr Ventnor straightened his waistcoat; a rush of conscious virtue had dyed his face.

"Oh! You take that tone," he said, "do you? You think you can ride roughshod over everything? Well, you're very much mistaken. I advise you to keep a civil tongue and consider your position, or I'll make a beggar of you. I'm not sure this isn't a case for a prosecution!"

"Gammon!" The choler in Charles Ventnor kept him silent for a moment; then he burst out,

"Neither gammon nor spinach. You owe me three hundred pounds, you've owed it me for years, and you have the impudence to take this attitude with me, have you? Now, I never bluster; I say what I mean. You just listen to me. Either you pay me what you owe me at once, or I call this meeting and make what I know public. You'll very soon find out where you are. And a good thing, too, for a more unscrupulous – unscrupulous….." he paused for breath.

Occupied with his own emotion, he had not observed the change in old Heythorp's face. The imperial on that lower lip was bristling, the crimson of those cheeks had spread to the roots of his white hair. He grasped the arms of his chair, trying to rise; his swollen hands trembled; a little saliva escaped one corner of his lips.

And the words came out as if shaken by his teeth, "So-so-you-you bully me!"

Conscious that the interview had suddenly passed from the phase of negotiation, Mr Ventnor looked hard at his opponent. He saw nothing but a decrepit, passionate, crimson-faced old man at bay, and all the instincts of one with everything on his side boiled up in him. The miserable old turkey-cock-the apoplectic image!

And he said, "And you'll do no good for yourself by getting into a passion. At your age, and in your condition, I recommend a little prudence. Now just take my terms quietly, or you know what'll happen. I'm not to be intimidated by any of your airs."

And seeing that the old man's rage was such that he simply could not speak, he took the opportunity of going on,

"I don't care two straws which you do – I'm out to show you whose master. If you think in your dotage you can domineer any longer – well, you'll find two can play at that game. Come, now, which are you going to do?"

The old man had sunk back in his chair, and only his little deep-blue eyes seemed living. Then he moved one hand, and Mr Ventnor saw that he was fumbling to reach the button of an electric bell at the end of a cord. 'I'll show him,' he thought, and stepping forward, he put it out of reach. Thus frustrated, the old man remained-motionless, staring up. The word "blackmail" resumed its buzzing in Mr Ventnor's ears. The impudence the consummate impudence of it from this fraudulent old ruffian with one foot in bankruptcy and one foot in the grave, if not in the dock.

"Yes," he said, "it's never too late to learn; and for once you've come up against someone a leetle bit too much for you. Haven't you now? You'd better cry 'Peccavi.'"

Then, in the deathly silence of the room, the moral force of his position, and the collapse as it seemed of his opponent, awakening a faint compunction; he took a turn over the Turkey carpet to readjust his mind.

"You're an old man, and I don't want to be too hard on you. I'm only showing you that you can't play fast and loose as if you were God Almighty any longer. You've had your own way too many years. And now you can't have it, see!"

Then, as the old man again moved forward in his chair, he added, "Now, don't get into a passion again; calm yourself, because I warn you – this is your last chance. I'm a man of my word; and what I say, I do."

By a violent and unsuspected effort the old man jerked himself up and reached the bell. Mr Ventnor heard it ring, and said sharply, "Mind you, it's nothing to me which you do.

I came for your own good. Please yourself. Well?"

He was answered by the click of the door and the old man's husky voice, "Show this hound out! And then come back!"

Mr Ventnor had presence of mind enough not to shake his fist.

Muttering, "Very well, Mr Heythorp! Ah! Very well!" he moved with dignity to the door. The careful shepherding of the servant renewed the fire of his anger. Hound! He had been called a hound!

After seeing Mr Ventnor off the premises the man Meller returned to his master, whose face looked very odd…. "all patchy-like," as he put it in the servants' hall, as though the blood driven to his head had mottled for good the snowy whiteness of the forehead.

He received the unexpected order, "Get me a hot bath ready, and put some pine stuff in it."

When the old man was seated there, the valet asked, "How long shall I give you, sir?"

"Twenty minutes."

"Very good, sir."

Lying in that steaming brown fragrant liquid, old Heythorp heaved a stertorous sigh. By losing his temper with that ill-conditioned cur he had cooked his goose. It was done to a turn; and he was a ruined man. If only – oh! If only he could have seized the fellow by the neck and pitched him out of the room! To have lived to be so spoken to; to have been unable to lift hand or foot, hardly even his voice – he would sooner have been dead!

Yes – sooner have been dead! A dumb and measureless commotion was still at work in the recesses of that thick old body, silverbrown in the dark water, whose steam he drew deep into his wheezing lungs, as though for spiritual relief. To be beaten by a cur like that! To have that common cad of a pettifogging lawyer drag him down and kick him about; tumble a name which had stood high, in the dust!

The fellow had the power to make him a byword and a beggar! It was incredible!

But it was a fact.

And to-morrow he would begin to do it--perhaps had begun already. His tree had come down with a crash! Eighty years-eighty good years! He regretted none of them-regretted nothing; least of all this breach of trust which had provided for his grandchildren – one of the best things he had ever done. The fellow was a cowardly hound, too! The way he had snatched the bell-pull out of his reach-despicable cur! And a chap like that was to put "paid" to the account of Sylvanus Heythorp, to "scratch" him out of life – so near the end of everything, the very end! His hand raised above the surface fell back on his stomach through the dark water, and a bubble or two rose. Not so fast – not so fast! He had but to slip down a foot, let the water close over his head, and "Good-bye" to Master Ventnor's triumph Dead men could not be kicked off the Boards of Companies. Dead men could not be beggared, deprived of their independence. He smiled and stirred a little in the bath till the water reached the white hairs on his lower lip. It smelt nice! And he took a long sniff:

He had had a good life,

a good life!

And with the thought that he had it in his power at any moment to put Master Ventnor's nose out of joint – to beat the beggar after all, a sense of assuagement and well-being crept over him. His blood ran more evenly again. He closed his eyes. They talked about an after-life – people like that holy woman. Gammon! You went to sleep – a long sleep; no dreams. A nap after dinner! Dinner! His tongue sought his palate! Yes! He could eat a good dinner! That dog hadn't put him off his stroke! The best dinner he had ever eaten was the one he gave to Jack Herring, Chichester, Thornworthy, Nick Treffry and Jolyon Forsyte

at Pole's.

Good Lord! In 'sixty – yes – 'sixty-five? Just before he fell in love with Alice Larne – ten years before he came to Liverpool. That was a dinner! Cost twenty-four pounds for the six of them – and Forsyte an absurdly moderate fellow. Only Nick Treff'ry and himself had been three-bottle men! Dead! Every jack man of them.

And suddenly he thought, 'my name's a good one – I was never down before--never beaten!'

A voice above the steam said, "The twenty minutes is up, sir."

"All right; I'll get out.

Evening clothes."

And Meller, taking out dress suit and shirt, thought, 'Now, what does the old bloomer want dressing' up again for; why can't he go to bed and have his dinner there? When a man's like a baby, the cradle's the place for him.'....

An hour later, at the scene of his encounter with Mr Ventnor, where the table was already laid for dinner, old Heythorp stood and gazed. The curtains had been drawn back, the window thrown open to air the room, and he could see out there the shapes of the dark trees and a sky grapecoloured, in the mild, moist night. It smelt good. A sensuous feeling stirred in him, warm from his bath, clothed from head to foot in fresh garments. Deuce of a time since he had dined in full fig! He would have liked a woman dining opposite – but not the holy woman; no, by George! – would have liked to see light falling on a woman's shoulders once again, and a pair of bright eyes! He crossed, snail-like, towards the fire.

There that bullying fellow had stood with his back to it – confound his impudence! – As if the place belonged to him. And suddenly he had a vision of his three secretaries' faces – especially young Farney's as they would look, when the pack got him by the throat and pulled him down. His co-directors, too! Old Heythorp! How are the mighty fallen! And that hound jubilant! His valet passed across the room to shut the window and draw the curtains. This chaps too!

The day he could no longer pay his wages, and had lost the power to say "Shan't want your services any more" – when he could no longer even pay his doctor for doing his best to kill him off! Power, interest, independence, all – gone! To be beautifully dressed, given pap, like a baby in arms, served as they chose to serve him, and wished out of the way – broken, dishonoured! By money alone an old man had his being! Meat, drink, movement, breathe! When all his money was gone the holy woman would let him know it fast enough. They would all let him know it; or if they didn't, it would be out of pity!

to be continued...