The Stoic

  • 31 Jul - 06 Aug, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

He had never been pitied yet – thank God! And he said, "Get me up a bottle of something to drink."

What's the menu?"

"Germane soup, sir; filly de sole; sweetbread; cutlet soubees, souffly."

"Tell her to give me a hors d'oeuvre, and put on a savoury."

"Yes, sir."

When the man had gone, he thought, 'I should have liked an oyster – too late now!' and going over to his bureau, he fumblingly pulled out the top drawer.

There was little in it – Just a few papers, business papers on his Companies, and a schedule of his debts; not even a copy of his will – he had not made one, nothing to leave! Letters he had never kept. Half a dozen bills, a few receipts, and the little pink note with the blue forgetme-not.

That was the lot! An old tree gives up bearing leaves, and its roots dry up, before it comes down in a wind; an old man's world slowly falls away from him till he stands alone in the night. Looking at the pink note, he thought,

'Suppose I'd married Alice – a man never had a better mistress!'

He fumbled the drawer to; but still he strayed feebly about the room, with a curious shrinking from sitting down, legacy from the quarter of an hour he had been compelled to sit while that hound worried at his throat. He was opposite one of the pictures now. It gleamed, dark and oily, limning a Scots Grey who had mounted a wounded Russian on his horse, and was bringing him back prisoner from the Balaclava charge.

A very old friend – bought in 'fifty-nine. It had hung in his chambers in the Albany – hung with him ever since. With whom would it hang when he was gone? For that holy woman would scrap it, to a certainty, and stick up some Crucifixion or other, some new-fangled high art thing! She could even do that now if she liked – for she owned it, owned every mortal stick in the room, to the very glass he would drink his champagne from; all made over under the settlement fifteen years ago, before his last big gamble went wrong.

"De l'audace, toujours de l'audace!"

The game which had brought him down till his throat at last was at the mercy of a bullying hound. The pitcher and the well! At the mercy…..! The sound of a popping voice dragged him from reverie. He moved to his seat, back to the window, and sat down to his dinner. By George! They had got him an oyster! And he said,

"I've forgotten my teeth!"

While the man was gone for them, he swallowed the oysters, methodically touching them one by one with cayenne, Chili vinegar, and lemon. Ummm! Not quite what they used to be at Pimm's in the best days, but not bad – not bad! Then seeing the little blue bowl lying before him, he looked up and said,

"My compliments to cook on the oysters. Give me the drink."

And he lifted his trembling teeth. Thank God, he could still put 'em in for himself! The creaming goldenish fluid from the napkined bottle slowly reached the brim of his glass, which had a hollow stem; raising it to his lips, very red between the white hairs above and below, he drank with a gurgling noise, and put the glass down-empty.

Nectar! And just cold enough!

"I frapped it the least bit, sir."

"Quite right. What's that smell of flowers?"

"It's from those 'yacinths on the sideboard, sir. They come from Mrs Larne, this afternoon."

"Put 'em on the table. Where's my daughter?"

"She's had dinner, sir; goin' to a ball, I think."

"A ball!"

"Charity ball, I fancy, sir."

"Ummm! Give me a touch of the old sherry with the soup."

"Yes, sir. I shall have to open a bottle…"

"Very well, then, do!"

On his way to the cellar the man confided to Molly, who was carrying the soup,

"The Gov'nor's going it to-night! What he'll be like tomorrow I don’t know."

The girl answered softly, "Poor old man, let us have his pleasure."

And, in the hall, with the soup tureen against her bosom, she hummed above the steam, and thought of the ribbons on her new chemises, bought out of the sovereign he had given her. And old Heythorp, digesting his osyters, snuffed the scent of the hyacinths, and thought of the St. Germain, his favourite soup. It would not be first-rate, at this time of year – should be made with little young homegrown peas. Paris was the place for it. Ah! The French were the fellows for eating, and – looking things in the face!

Not hypocrites – not ashamed of their reason or their senses! The soup came in. He sipped it, bending forward as far as he could, his napkin tucked in over his shirt-front like a bib. He got the bouquet of that sherry to a T – his sense of smell was very keen to-night; rare old stuff it was – more than a year since he had tasted it – but no one drank sherry nowadays, hadn't the constitution for it!

The fish came up, and went down; and with the sweetbread he took his second glass of drink. Always the best, that second glass – the stomach well warmed, and the palate not yet dulled. Umm! So that fellow thought he had him beaten, did he?

And he said suddenly,

"The fur coat in the wardrobe, I've no use for it. You can take it away tonight."

With tempered gratitude the valet answered, "Thank you, sir; much obliged, I'm sure."

So the old buffer had found out there was moth in it!

"Have I worried you much?"

"No, sir; not at all, sir – that is, no more than reason."

"Afraid I have. Very sorry – can't help it. You'll find that, when you get like me."

"Yes, sir; I've always admired your pluck, sir.

"Um! Very good of you to say so."

"Always think of you keepin' the flag flying', sir."

Old Heythorp bent his body from the waist.

"Much obliged to you."

"Not at all, sir. Cook's done a little spinach in cream with the soubees."

"Ah! Tell her from me it's a capital dinner, so far."

"Thank you, sir."

Alone again, old Heythorp sat unmoving, his brain just narcotically touched.

"The flag flyin' – the flag flyin'!"

He raised his glass and sucked. He had an appetite now, and finished the three cutlets, and all the sauce and spinach. Pity! He could have managed a snipe fresh shot! A desire to delay, to lengthen dinner, was strong upon him; there were but the souffle' and the savoury to come. He would have enjoyed, too, someone to talk to. He had always been fond of good company – been good company himself, or so they said – not that he had had a chance of late. Even at the Boards they avoided talking to him, he had noticed for a long time.

Well! That wouldn't trouble him again – he had sat through his last Board, no doubt. They shouldn't kick him off, though; he wouldn't give them that pleasure – had seen the beggars hankering after his chairman's shoes too long. The souffle was before him now, and lifting his glass, he said,

"Fill up."

"These are the special glasses, sir; only four to the bottle."

"Fill up."

The servant filled, screwing up his mouth. Old Heythorp drank, and put the glass down empty with a sigh. He had been faithful to his principles, finished the bottle before touching the sweet – a good bottle of a good brand! And now for the souffle!

Delicious, flipped down with the old sherry! So that holy woman was going to a ball, was she! How deuced funny! Who would dance with a dry stick like that, all eaten up with a piety which was just disappointment?

Ah! Yes, lots of women like that – had often noticed 'em--pitied 'em too, until you had to do with them and they made you as unhappy as themselves, and were tyrants into the bargain.

And he asked, "What's the savoury?"

"Cheese remmykin, sir."

His favourite.

"I'll have my port with it – the 'sixty-eight."

The man stood gazing with evident stupefaction. He had not expected this. The old man's face was very flushed, but that might be the bath.

He said feebly, "Are you sure you ought, sir?"

"No, but I'm going to."

"Would you mind if I spoke to Miss Heythorp, Sir?"

"If you do, you can leave my service."

"Well, Sir, I don't accept the responsibility."

"Who asked you to?"

"No, Sir...."

"Well, get it, then; and don't be a mugger."

"Yes, Sir."

If the old man were not humoured he would have a fit, perhaps! And the old man sat quietly staring at the hyacinths. He felt happy, his whole being lined and warmed and drowsed – and there was more to come! What had the holy folk to give you compared with the comfort of a good dinner?

Could they make you dream, and see life rosy for a little? No, they could only give you promissory notes which never would be cashed. A man had nothing but his pluck – they only tried to undermine it, and make him squeal for help. He could see his precious doctor throwing up his hands,

"Port after a bottle of drink – you'll die of it!"

And a very good death too – none better. A sound broke the silence of the closed-up room. Music? His daughter playing the piano overhead. Singing too! What a trickle of a voice! Jenny Lind! The Swedish nightingale – he had never missed the nights when she was singing – Jenny Lind!

"It's very hot, sir. Shall I take it out of the case?"

Ah! The ramequin!

"Touch of butter, and the cayenne!"

"Yes, sir."

He ate it slowly, savouring each mouthful; had never tasted a better. With cheese – port! He drank one glass, and said,

"Help me to my chair."

And settled there before the fire with decanter and glass and hand-bell on the little low table by his side, he murmured,

"Bring coffee, and my cigar, in twenty minutes."

To-night he would do justice to his drink, not smoking till he had finished. As old Horace said,

"Aequam memento rebus in arduis Servare mentem."

And, raising his glass, he sipped slowly, spilling a drop or two, shutting his eyes. The faint silvery squealing of the holy woman in the room above, the scent of hyacinths, the drowse of the fire, on which a cedar log had just been laid, the feeling of the port soaking down into the crannies of his being, made up a momentary Paradise. Then the music stopped;

and no sound rose but the tiny groans of the log trying to resist the fire. Dreamily he then started to think,

'Life wears you out – wears you out. Logs on a fire!'

And he filled his glass again. That fellow had been careless; there were dregs at the bottom of the decanter and he had got down to them! Then, as the last drop from his tilted glass trickled into the white hairs on his chin, he heard the coffee tray put down, and taking his cigar he put it to his ear, rolling it in his thick fingers. In prime condition! And drawing a first whiff, he said,

"Open that bottle of the old drink in the sideboard."

"Drink, sir? I really daren't, sir."

"Are you my servant or not?"

"Yes, sir, but…."

A minute of silence, then the man went hastily to the sideboard, took out the bottle, and drew the cork.

The tide of crimson in the old man's face had frightened him.

"Leave it there."

The unfortunate valet placed the bottle on the little table.

'I'll have to tell her,' he thought; 'but if I take away the port decanter and the glass, it won't look so bad.'

And, carrying them, he left the room. Slowly the old man drank his coffee, and then his favourite drink. The whole gamut! And watching his cigar-smoke wreathing blue in the orange glow, he smiled.

to be continued...