The Stoic

  • 07 Aug - 13 Aug, 2021
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The last night to call his soul his own, the last night of his independence. Send in his resignations to-morrow – not wait to be kicked off! Not give that fellow a chance! A voice which seemed to come from far off, said,

"Father! You're drinking way too much! How can you – you know it's simple poison to you!" A figure in white, scarcely actual, loomed up close.

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 almost had a good life, a good life!

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.

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 the apoplectic image!

He took the bottle to fill up his glass, in defiance; but a hand in a long white glove, with another dangling from its wrist, pulled it away, shook it at him, and replaced it in the sideboard. And, just as when Mr Ventnor stood there accusing him, a swelling and churning in his throat prevented him from speech; his lips moved, but only a little froth came forth. His daughter had approached again. She stood quite close, in white satin, thin-faced, sallow, with eyebrows raised, and her dark hair frizzed – yes! Frizzed – the holy woman! With all his might he tried to say,

'So you bully me, do you – you bully me to-night!' but only the word "so" and a sort of whispering came forth. He heard her speaking. "It's no good your getting angry, Father. After the drink – it's wicked!" Then her form receded in a sort of rustling white mist; she was gone; and he heard the sputtering and growling of her taxi, bearing her to the ball. So! She tyrannised and bullied, even before she had him at her mercy did she? She should see! Anger had brightened his eyes; the room came clear again. And slowly raising himself he sounded the bell twice, for the girl, not for that fellow Meller, who was in the plot. As soon as her pretty black and whiteaproned figure stood before him, he said,

"Help me up."

Twice her soft pulling was not enough, and he sank back. The third time he struggled to his feet.

"Thank you; that'll do."

Then, waiting till she was gone, he crossed the room, fumbled open the sideboard door, and took out the bottle. Reaching over the polished oak,

he grasped a sherry glass; and holding the bottle with both hands, tipped the drink into it, put it to his lips and sucked. Drop by drop it passed over his palate mild, very old, old as himself, coloured like sunlight, fragrant. To the last drop he drank it, then hugging the bottle to his shirt-front, he moved snail-like to his chair, and fell back into its depths. For some minutes he remained there motionless, the bottle clasped to his chest, thinking,

'This is not the attitude of a gentleman. I must put it down on the table-on the table;' but a thick cloud was between him and everything. It was with his hands he would have to put the bottle on the table! But he could not find his hands, could not feel them. His mind see-sawed in strophe and antistrophe,

"You can't move!" – "I will move!"

"You're beaten."

"I'm not beat."

"Give up!" – "I won't."

That struggle to find his hands seemed to last forever – he must find them! After that – go down – all standing – after that! Everything round him was red. Then the red cloud cleared just a little, and he could hear the clock – "tick-tick-tick"; a faint sensation spread from his shoulders down to his wrists, down his palms; and yes – he could feel the bottle! He redoubled his struggle to get forward in his chair; to get forward and put the bottle down. It was not dignified like this! One arm he could move now; but he could not grip the bottle nearly tight enough to put it down. Working his whole body forward, inch by inch, he shifted himself up in the chair till he could lean sideways, and the bottle, slipping down his chest, dropped slanting to the edge of the low stool-table. Then with all his might he screwed his trunk and arms an inch further, and the bottle stood.

He had done it – done it! His lips twitched into a smile; his body sagged back to its old position. He had done it! And he closed his eyes.... At half-past eleven the girl Molly, opening the door, looked at him and said softly,

"Sirr! There are some ladies, and a gentleman!"

But he did not answer. And, still holding the door, she whispered out into the hall,

"He's asleep, miss."

A voice whispered back,

"Oh! Just let me go in, I won't wake him unless he does. But I do want to show him my dress."

The girl moved aside; and on tiptoe Phyllis passed in. She walked to where, between the lamp-glow and the fire-glow, she was lighted up. White satin – her first flowy dress – the flush of her first supper party – a gardenia at her neck, another in her fingers! Oh! What a pity he was asleep! How red he looked! How funnily old men breathed! And mysteriously, as a child might, she whispered,

"Guardy!" No answer! And pouting, she stood twiddling the gardenia.

Then suddenly she thought, 'I'll put it in his buttonhole! When he wakes up and sees it, how he'll jump!'

And stealing close, she bent and slipped it in. Two faces looked at her from round the door; she heard Bob Pillin's smothered chuckle; her mother's rich and feathery laugh. Oh! How red his forehead was! She touched it with her shaking hands; skipped back, twirled round, danced silently a second, blew a kiss, and like quicksilver was gone. And the whispering, the chuckling, and one little out-pealing laugh rose in the hall. But the old man slept. Nor until Meller came at his usual hour of half-past twelve, was it known that he would never wake.