"Aequam memento rebus in arduis Servare mentem:"--Horace.
In the City of Liverpool, on a January day of 1905, the Board-room of "The Island Navigation Company" rested, as it were, after the labours of the afternoon. The long table was still littered with the ink, pens, blotting-paper, and abandoned documents of six persons--a deserted battlefield of the brain. And, lonely, in his chairman's seat at the top end old Sylvanus Heythorp sat, with closed eyes, still and heavy as an image. One puffy, feeble hand, whose fingers quivered, rested on the arm of his chair; the thick white hair on his massive head glistened in the light from a green-shaded lamp. He was not asleep, for every now and then his sanguine cheeks filled, and a sound, half sigh, half grunt, escaped his thick lips between a white moustache and the tiny tuft of white hairs above his cleft chin. Sunk in the chair, that square thick trunk of a body in short black-braided coat seemed divested of all neck.
Young Gilbert Farney, secretary of "The Island Navigation Company," entering his hushed Board-room, stepped briskly to the table, gathered some papers, and stood looking at his chairman. Not more than thirty-five, with the bright hues of the optimist in his hair, beard, cheeks, and eyes, he had a nose and lips which curled ironically. For, in his view, he was the Company; and its Board did but exist to chequer his importance. Five days in the week for seven hours a day he wrote, and thought, and wove the threads of its business, and this lot came down once a week for two or three hours, and taught their grandmother to suck eggs. But watching that red-cheeked, white-haired, somnolent figure, his smile was not so contemptuous as might have been expected. For after all, the chairman was a wonderful old boy. A man of go and insight could not but respect him. Eighty! Half paralysed, over head and ears in debt, having gone the pace all his life--or so they said!--till at last that mine in Ecuador had done for him--before the secretary's day, of course, but he had heard of it. The old chap had bought it up on spec'--"de l'audace, toujours de l'audace," as he was so fond of saying--paid for it half in cash and half in promises, and then--the thing had turned out empty, and left him with L20,000 worth of the old shares unredeemed. The old boy had weathered it out without a bankruptcy so far. Indomitable old buffer; and never fussy like the rest of them! Young Farney, though a secretary, was capable of attachment; and his eyes expressed a pitying affection. The Board meeting had been long and "snadgy"--a final settling of that Pillin business. Rum go the chairman forcing it on them like this! And with quiet satisfaction the secretary thought 'And he never would have got it through if I hadn't made up my mind that it really is good business!' For to expand the company was to expand himself. Still, to buy four ships with the freight market so depressed was a bit startling, and there would be opposition at the general meeting. Never mind! He and the chairman could put it through--put it through. And suddenly he saw the old man looking at him.
Only from those eyes could one appreciate the strength of life yet flowing underground in that well-nigh helpless carcase--deep-coloured little blue wells, tiny, jovial, round windows.
A sigh travelled up through layers of flesh, and he said almost inaudibly:
"Have they come, Mr. Farney?"
"Yes, sir. I've put them in the transfer office; said you'd be with them in a minute; but I wasn't going to wake you."
"Haven't been asleep. Help me up."
Grasping the edge of the table with his trembling hands, the old man pulled, and, with Farney heaving him behind, attained his feet. He stood about five feet ten, and weighed fully fourteen stone; not corpulent, but very thick all through; his round and massive head alone would have outweighed a baby. With eyes shut, he seemed to be trying to get the better of his own weight, then he moved with the slowness of a barnacle towards the door. The secretary, watching him, thought: 'Marvellous old chap! How he gets about by himself is a miracle! And he can't retire, they say-lives on his fees!'
But the chairman was through the green baize door. At his tortoise gait he traversed the inner office, where the youthful clerks suspended their figuring--to grin behind his back--and entered the transfer office, where eight gentlemen were sitting. Seven rose, and one did not. Old Heythorp raised a saluting hand to the level of his chest and moving to an arm-chair, lowered himself into it.
One of the eight gentlemen got up again.
"Mr. Heythorp, we've appointed Mr. Brownbee to voice our views. Mr. Brownbee!" And down he sat.
Mr. Brownbee rose a stoutish man some seventy years of age, with little grey side whiskers, and one of those utterly steady faces only to be seen in England, faces which convey the sense of business from father to son for generations; faces which make wars, and passion, and free thought seem equally incredible; faces which inspire confidence, and awaken in one a desire to get up and leave the room. Mr. Brownbee rose, and said in a suave voice:
"Mr. Heythorp, we here represent about L14,000. When we had the pleasure of meeting you last July, you will recollect that you held out a prospect of some more satisfactory arrangement by Christmas. We are now in January, and I am bound to say we none of us get younger."
From the depths of old Heythorp a preliminary rumble came travelling, reached the surface, and materialised--
"Don't know about you--feel a boy, myself."
The eight gentlemen looked at him. Was he going to try and put them off again? Mr. Brownbee said with unruffled calm:
"I'm sure we're very glad to hear it. But to come to the point. We have felt, Mr. Heythorp, and I'm sure you won't think it unreasonable, that--er--bankruptcy would be the most satisfactory solution. We have waited a long time, and we want to know definitely where we stand; for, to be quite frank, we don't see any prospect of improvement; indeed, we fear the opposite."
"You think I'm going to join the majority."
This plumping out of what was at the back of their minds produced in Mr. Brownbee and his colleagues a sort of chemical disturbance. They coughed, moved their feet, and turned away their eyes, till the one who had not risen, a solicitor named Ventnor, said bluffly:
"Well, put it that way if you like."
Old Heythorp's little deep eyes twinkled.
"My grandfather lived to be a hundred; my father ninety-six--both of them rips. I'm only eighty, gentlemen; blameless life compared with theirs."
"Indeed," Mr. Brownbee said, "we hope you have many years of this life before you."
"More of this than of another." And a silence fell, till old Heythorp added: "You're getting a thousand a year out of my fees. Mistake to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I'll make it twelve hundred. If you force me to resign my directorships by bankruptcy, you won't get a rap, you know."
Mr. Brownbee cleared his throat:
"We think, Mr. Heythorp, you should make it at least fifteen hundred. In that case we might perhaps consider--"
Old Heythorp shook his head.
"We can hardly accept your assertion that we should get nothing in the event of bankruptcy. We fancy you greatly underrate the possibilities. Fifteen hundred a year is the least you can do for us."
"See you d---d first."
Another silence followed, then Ventnor, the solicitor, said irascibly:
"We know where we are, then."
Brownbee added almost nervously:
"Are we to understand that twelve hundred a year is your--your last word?"
Old Heythorp nodded. "Come again this day month, and I'll see what I can do for you;" and he shut his eyes.
Round Mr. Brownbee six of the gentlemen gathered, speaking in low voices; Mr. Ventnor nursed a leg and glowered at old Heythorp, who sat with his eyes closed. Mr. Brownbee went over and conferred with Mr. Ventnor, then clearing his throat, he said:
"Well, sir, we have considered your proposal; we agree to accept it for the moment. We will come again, as you suggest, in a month's time.
"We hope that you will by then have seen your way to something more substantial, with a view to avoiding what we should all regret, but which I fear will otherwise become inevitable."
Old Heythorp nodded. The eight gentlemen took their hats, and went out one by one, Mr. Brownbee courteously bringing up the rear.
The old man, who could not get up without assistance, stayed musing in his chair. He had diddled 'em for the moment into giving him another month, and when that month was up-he would diddle 'em again! A month ought to make the Pillin business safe, with all that hung on it. That poor funkey chap Joe Pillin! A gurgling chuckle escaped his red lips. What a shadow the fellow had looked, trotting in that evening just a month ago, behind his valet's announcement: "Mr. Pillin, sir."
What a parchmenty, precise, thread-paper of a chap, with his bird's claw of a hand, and his muffled-up throat, and his quavery:
"How do you do, Sylvanus? I'm afraid you're not--"
"First rate. Sit down. Have some port."
"Port! I never drink it. Poison to me! Poison!"
"Do you good!"
"Oh! I know, that's what you always say."
"You've a monstrous constitution, Sylvanus. If I drank port and smoked cigars and sat up till one o'clock, I should be in my grave to-morrow. I'm not the man I was. The fact is, I've come to see if you can help me. I'm getting old; I'm growing nervous...."
"You always were as chickeny as an old hen, Joe."
"Well, my nature's not like yours. To come to the point, I want to sell my ships and retire. I need rest. Freights are very depressed. I've got my family to think of."
"Crack on, and go broke; buck you up like anything!"
"I'm quite serious, Sylvanus."
"Never knew you anything else, Joe."
A quavering cough, and out it had come:
"Now--in a word--won't your 'Island Navigation Company' buy my ships?"
A pause, a twinkle, a puff of smoke. "Make it worth my while!" He had said it in jest; and then, in a flash, the idea had come to him. Rosamund and her youngsters! What a chance to put something between them and destitution when he had joined the majority! And so he said: "We don't want your silly ships."
That claw of a hand waved in deprecation. "They're very good ships--doing quite well. It's only my wretched health. If I were a strong man I shouldn't dream...."
"What d'you want for 'em?" Good Lord! how he jumped if you asked him a plain question. The chap was as nervous as a guinea-fowl!
"Here are the figures--for the last four years. I think you'll agree that I couldn't ask less than seventy thousand."
Through the smoke of his cigar old Heythorp had digested those figures slowly, Joe Pillin feeling his teeth and sucking lozenges the while; then he said:
"Sixty thousand! And out of that you pay me ten per cent., if I get it through for you. Take it or leave it."
"My dear Sylvanus, that's almost-cynical."
"Too good a price--you'll never get it without me."
"But a--but a commission! You could never disclose it!"
"Arrange that all right. Think it over. Freights'll go lower yet. Have some port."
"No, no! Thank you. No! So you think freights will go lower?"
"Sure of it."
"Well, I'll be going. I'm sure I don't know. It's--it's--I must think."
"Think your hardest."
"Yes, yes. Good-bye. I can't imagine how you still go on smoking those things and drinking port.
"See you in your grave yet, Joe." What a feeble smile the poor fellow had! Laugh-he couldn't! And, alone again, he had browsed, developing the idea which had come to him.
Though, to dwell in the heart of shipping, Sylvanus Heythorp had lived at Liverpool twenty years, he was from the Eastern Counties, of a family so old that it professed to despise the Conquest. Each of its generations occupied nearly twice as long as those of less tenacious men. Traditionally of Danish origin, its men folk had as a rule bright reddish-brown hair, red cheeks, large round heads, excellent teeth and poor morals. They had done their best for the population of any county in which they had settled; their offshoots swarmed. Born in the early twenties of the nineteenth century, Sylvanus Heythorp, after an education broken by escapades both at school and college, had fetched up in that simple London of the late forties, where claret, opera, and eight per cent. for your money ruled a cheery roost. Made partner in his shipping firm well before he was thirty, he had sailed with a wet sheet and a flowing tide; dancers, claret, Cliquot, and piquet; a cab with a tiger; some travel--all that delicious early-Victorian consciousness of nothing save a golden time. It was all so full and mellow that he was forty before he had his only love affair of any depth--with the daughter of one of his own clerks, a liaison so awkward as to necessitate a sedulous concealment. The death of that girl, after three years, leaving him a natural son, had been the chief, perhaps the only real, sorrow of his life. Five years later he married. What for? God only knew! as he was in the habit of remarking. His wife had been a hard, worldly, well-connected woman, who presented him with two unnatural children, a girl and a boy, and grew harder, more worldly, less handsome, in the process. The migration to Liverpool, which took place when he was sixty and she forty-two, broke what she still had of heart, but she lingered on twelve years, finding solace in bridge, and being haughty towards Liverpool. Old Heythorp saw her to her rest without regret. He had felt no love for her whatever, and practically none for her two children--they were in his view colourless, pragmatical, very unexpected characters. His son Ernest--in the Admiralty--he thought a poor, careful stick. His daughter Adela, an excellent manager, delighting in spiritual conversation and the society of tame men, rarely failed to show him that she considered him a hopeless heathen. They saw as little as need be of each other. She was provided for under that settlement he had made on her mother fifteen years ago, well before the not altogether unexpected crisis in his affairs. Very different was the feeling he had bestowed on that son of his "under the rose." The boy, who had always gone by his mother's name of Larne, had on her death been sent to some relations of hers in Ireland, and there brought up. He had been called to the Dublin bar, and married, young, a girl half Cornish and half Irish; presently, having cost old Heythorp in all a pretty penny, he had died impecunious, leaving his fair Rosamund at thirty with a girl of eight and a boy of five. She had not spent six months of widowhood before coming over from Dublin to claim the old man's guardianship. A remarkably pretty woman, like a full-blown rose, with greenish hazel eyes, she had turned up one morning at the offices of "The Island Navigation Company," accompanied by her two children--for he had never divulged to them his private address. And since then they had always been more or less on his hands, occupying a small house in a suburb of Liverpool. He visited them there, but never asked them to the house in Sefton Park, which was in fact his daughter's; so that his proper family and friends were unaware of their existence.
Rosamund Larne was one of those precarious ladies who make uncertain incomes by writing full-bodied storyettes. In the most dismal circumstances she enjoyed a buoyancy bordering on the indecent; which always amused old Heythorp's cynicism. But of his grandchildren Phyllis and Jock (wild as colts) he had become fond. And this chance of getting six thousand pounds settled on them at a stroke had seemed to him nothing but heaven-sent. As things were, if he "went off"--and, of course, he might at any moment, there wouldn't be a penny for them; for he would "cut up" a good fifteen thousand to the bad. He was now giving them some three hundred a year out of his fees; and dead directors unfortunately earned no fees! Six thousand pounds at four and a half per cent., settled so that their mother couldn't "blue it," would give them a certain two hundred and fifty pounds a year-better than beggary. And the more he thought the better he liked it, if only that shaky chap, Joe Pillin, didn't shy off when he'd bitten his nails short over it!
Four evenings later, the "shaky chap" had again appeared at his house in Sefton Park.
"I've thought it over, Sylvanus. I don't like it.
"No; but you'll do it."
"It's a sacrifice. Fifty-four thousand for four ships--it means a considerable reduction in my income."
"It means security, my boy."
"Well, there is that; but you know, I really can't be party to a secret commission. If it came out, think of my name and goodness knows what."
"It won't come out."
"Yes, yes, so you say, but--"
"All you've got to do's to execute a settlement on some third parties that I'll name. I'm not going to take a penny of it myself. Get your own lawyer to draw it up and make him trustee. You can sign it when the purchase has gone through. I'll trust you, Joe. What stock have you got that gives four and a half per cent.?"
"That'll do. You needn't sell."
"Yes, but who are these people?"
"Woman and her children I want to do a good turn to." What a face the fellow had made! "Afraid of being connected with a woman, Joe?"
"Yes, you may laugh--I am afraid of being connected with someone else's woman. I don't like it--I don't like it at all. I've not led your life, Sylvanus."
"Lucky for you; you'd have been dead long ago. Tell your lawyer it's an old flame of yours--you old dog!"
"Yes, there it is at once, you see. I might be subject to blackmail."
"Tell him to keep it dark, and just pay over the income, quarterly."
"I don't like it, Sylvanus--I don't like it."
"Then leave it, and be hanged to you. Have a cigar?"
"You know I never smoke. Is there no other way?"
"Yes. Sell stock in London, bank the proceeds there, and bring me six thousand pounds in notes. I'll hold 'em till after the general meeting. If the thing doesn't go through, I'll hand 'em back to you."
"No; I like that even less."
"Rather I trusted you, eh!"
"No, not at all, Sylvanus, not at all. But it's all playing round the law."
"There's no law to prevent you doing what you like with your money. What I do's nothing to you. And mind you, I'm taking nothing from it--not a mag. You assist the widowed and the fatherless--just your line, Joe!"
"What a fellow you are, Sylvanus; you don't seem capable of taking anything seriously."
"Care killed the cat!"
Left alone after this second interview he had thought: 'The beggar'll jump.'
And the beggar had. That settlement was drawn and only awaited signature. The Board to-day had decided on the purchase; and all that remained was to get it ratified at the general meeting. Let him but get that over, and this provision for his grandchildren made, and he would snap his fingers at Brownbee and his crew-the canting humbugs! "Hope you have many years of this life before you!" As if they cared for anything but his money--their money rather! And becoming conscious of the length of his reverie, he grasped the arms of his chair, heaved at his own bulk, in an effort to rise, growing redder and redder in face and neck. It was one of the hundred things his doctor had told him not to do for fear of apoplexy, the humbug! Why didn't Farney or one of those young fellows come and help him up? To call out was undignified. But was he to sit there all night? Three times he failed, and after each failure sat motionless again, crimson and exhausted; the fourth time he succeeded, and slowly made for the office. Passing through, he stopped and said in his extinct voice:
"You young gentlemen had forgotten me."
"Mr. Farney said you didn't wish to be disturbed, sir."
"Very good of him. Give me my hat and coat."
"Thank you. What time is it?"
"Six o'clock, sir."
"Tell Mr. Farney to come and see me tomorrow at noon, about my speech for the general meeting."
"Good-night to you."
At his tortoise gait he passed between the office stools to the door, opened it feebly, and slowly vanished.
Shutting the door behind him, a clerk said:
"Poor old chairman! He's on his last!"
"Gosh! He's a tough old hulk. He'll go down fightin'."
Issuing from the offices of "The Island Navigation Company," Sylvanus Heythorp moved towards the corner whence he always took tram to Sefton Park. The crowded street had all that prosperous air of catching or missing something which characterises the town where London and New York and Dublin meet. Old Heythorp had to cross to the far side, and he sallied forth without regard to traffic. That snail-like passage had in it a touch of the sublime; the old man seemed saying: "Knock me down and be d---d to you--I'm not going to hurry." His life was saved perhaps ten times a day by the British character at large, compounded of phlegm and a liking to take something under its protection. The tram conductors on that line were especially used to him, never failing to catch him under the arms and heave him like a sack of coals, while with trembling hands he pulled hard at the rail and strap.
"All right, sir?"
He moved into the body of the tram, where somebody would always get up from kindness and the fear that he might sit down on them; and there he stayed motionless, his little eyes tight closed. With his red face, tuft of white hairs above his square cleft block of shaven chin, and his big high-crowned bowler hat, which yet seemed too petty for his head with its thick hair--he looked like some kind of an idol dug up and decked out in gear a size too small.
One of those voices of young men from public schools and exchanges where things are bought and sold, said:
"How de do, Mr. Heythorp?"
Old Heythorp opened his eyes. That sleek cub, Joe Pillin's son! What a young pup-with his round eyes, and his round cheeks, and his little moustache, his fur coat, his spats, his diamond pin!
"How's your father?" he said.
"Thanks, rather below par, worryin' about his ships. Suppose you haven't any news for him, sir?"
Old Heythorp nodded. The young man was one of his pet abominations, embodying all the complacent, little-headed mediocrity of this new generation; natty fellows all turned out of the same mould, sippers and tasters, chaps without drive or capacity, without even vices; and he did not intend to gratify the cub's curiosity.
"Come to my house," he said; "I'll give you a note for him."
"Tha-anks; I'd like to cheer the old man up."
The old man! Cheeky brat! And closing his eyes he relapsed into immobility. The tram wound and ground its upward way, and he mused. When he was that cub's age--twenty-eight or whatever it might be--he had done most things; been up Vesuvius, driven four-in-hand, lost his last penny on the Derby and won it back on the Oaks, known all the dancers and operatic stars of the day, fought a duel with a Yankee at Dieppe and winged him for saying through his confounded nose that Old England was played out; been a controlling voice already in his shipping firm; drunk five other of the best men in London under the table; broken his neck steeple-chasing; shot a burglar in the legs; been nearly drowned, for a bet; killed snipe in Chelsea; been to Court for his sins; stared a ghost out of countenance; and travelled with a lady of Spain. If this young pup had done the last, it would be all he had; and yet, no doubt, he would call himself a "spark."
The conductor touched his arm.
"'Ere you are, sir."
He lowered himself to the ground, and moved in the bluish darkness towards the gate of his daughter's house. Bob Pillin walked beside him, thinking: 'Poor old josser, he is gettin' a back number!' And he said: "I should have thought you ought to drive, sir. My old guv'nor would knock up at once if he went about at night like this."
The answer rumbled out into the misty air:
"Your father's got no chest; never had."
Bob Pillin gave vent to one of those fat cackles which come so readily from a certain type of man; and old Heythorp thought:
'Laughing at his father! Parrot!'
They had reached the porch.
A woman with dark hair and a thin, straight face and figure was arranging some flowers in the hall. She turned and said:
"You really ought not to be so late, Father! It's wicked at this time of year. Who is it--oh! Mr. Pillin, how do you do? Have you had tea? Won't you come to the drawing-room; or do you want to see my father?"
"Tha-anks! I believe your father--" And he thought: 'By Jove! the old chap is a caution!' For old Heythorp was crossing the hall without having paid the faintest attention to his daughter. Murmuring again:
"Tha-anks awfully; he wants to give me something," he followed. Miss Heythorp was not his style at all; he had a kind of dread of that thin woman who looked as if she could never be unbuttoned. They said she was a great churchgoer and all that sort of thing.
In his sanctum old Heythorp had moved to his writing-table, and was evidently anxious to sit down.
"Shall I give you a hand, sir?"
Receiving a shake of the head, Bob Pillin stood by the fire and watched. The old "sport" liked to paddle his own canoe. Fancy having to lower yourself into a chair like that! When an old Johnny got to such a state it was really a mercy when he snuffed out, and made way for younger men. How his Companies could go on putting up with such a fossil for chairman was a marvel! The fossil rumbled and said in that almost inaudible voice:
"I suppose you're beginning to look forward to your father's shoes?"
Bob Pillin's mouth opened. The voice went on:
"Dibs and no responsibility. Tell him from me to drink port--add five years to his life."
To this unwarranted attack Bob Pillin made no answer save a laugh; he perceived that a manservant had entered the room.
"A Mrs. Larne, sir. Will you see her?"
At this announcement the old man seemed to try and start; then he nodded, and held out the note he had written. Bob Pillin received it together with the impression of a murmur which sounded like: "Scratch a poll, Poll!" and passing the fine figure of a woman in a fur coat, who seemed to warm the air as she went by, he was in the hall again before he perceived that he had left his hat.
A young and pretty girl was standing on the bearskin before the fire, looking at him with round-eyed innocence. He thought: 'This is better; I mustn't disturb them for my hat'; and approaching the fire, said:
"Jolly cold, isn't it?"
The girl smiled: "Yes-jolly."
He noticed that she had a large bunch of violets at her breast, a lot of fair hair, a short straight nose, and round blue-grey eyes very frank and open. "Er" he said, "I've left my hat in there."
"What larks!" And at her little clear laugh something moved within Bob Pillin.
"You know this house well?"
She shook her head. "But it's rather scrummy, isn't it?"
Bob Pillin, who had never yet thought so answered:
The girl threw up her head to laugh again. "O.K.? What's that?"
Bob Pillin saw her white round throat, and thought: 'She is a ripper!' And he said with a certain desperation:
"My name's Pillin. Yours is Larne, isn't it? Are you a relation here?"
"He's our Guardy. Isn't he a chook?"
That rumbling whisper like "Scratch a Poll, Poll!" recurring to Bob Pillin, he said with reservation:
"You know him better than I do." "Oh! Aren't you his grandson, or something?"
Bob Pillin did not cross himself.
"Lord! No! My dad's an old friend of his; that's all."
"Is your dad like him?"
"What a pity! It would have been lovely if they'd been Tweedles."
Bob Pillin thought: 'This bit is something new. I wonder what her Christian name is.' And he said:
"What did your godfather and godmothers in your baptism---?"
The girl laughed; she seemed to laugh at everything.
Could he say: "Is my only joy"? Better keep it! But-for what? He wouldn't see her again if he didn't look out! And he said:
"I live at the last house in the park-the red one. D'you know it? Where do you?"
"Oh! a long way--23, Millicent Villas. It's a poky little house. I hate it. We have awful larks, though."
"Who are we?"
"Mother, and myself, and Jock--he's an awful boy. You can't conceive what an awful boy he is. He's got nearly red hair; I think he'll be just like Guardy when he gets old. He's awful!"
Bob Pillin murmured:
"I should like to see him."
"Would you? I'll ask mother if you can. You won't want to again; he goes off all the time like a squib." She threw back her head, and again Bob Pillin felt a little giddy. He collected himself, and drawled:
"Are you going in to see your Guardy?"
"No. Mother's got something special to say. We've never been here before, you see. Isn't he fun, though?"
"I think he's the greatest lark; but he's awfully nice to me. Jock calls him the last of the Stoic'uns."
A voice called from old Heythorp's den:
"Phyllis!" It had a particular ring, that voice, as if coming from beautifully formed red lips, of which the lower one must curve the least bit over; it had, too, a caressing vitality, and a kind of warm falsity.
The girl threw a laughing look back over her shoulder, and vanished through the door into the room.
Bob Pillin remained with his back to the fire and his puppy round eyes fixed on the air that her figure had last occupied. He was experiencing a sensation never felt before. Those travels with a lady of Spain, charitably conceded him by old Heythorp, had so far satisfied the emotional side of this young man; they had stopped short at Brighton and Scarborough, and been preserved from even the slightest intrusion of love. A calculated and hygienic career had caused no anxiety either to himself or his father; and this sudden swoop of something more than admiration gave him an uncomfortable choky feeling just above his high round collar, and in the temples a sort of buzzing--those first symptoms of chivalry. A man of the world does not, however, succumb without a struggle; and if his hat had not been out of reach, who knows whether he would not have left the house hurriedly, saying to himself: "No, no, my boy; Millicent Villas is hardly your form, when your intentions are honourable"? For somehow that round and laughing face, bob of glistening hair, those wide-opened grey eyes refused to awaken the beginnings of other intentions--such is the effect of youth and innocence on even the steadiest young men. With a kind of moral stammer, he was thinking: 'Can I--dare I offer to see them to their tram? Couldn't I even nip out and get the car round and send them home in it? No, I might miss them--better stick it out here! What a jolly laugh! What a tipping face--strawberries and cream, hay, and all that! Millicent Villas!' And he wrote it on his cuff.
The door was opening; he heard that warm vibrating voice: "Come along, Phyllis!"--the girl's laugh so high and fresh: "Right-o! Coming!" And with, perhaps, the first real tremor he had ever known, he crossed to the front door. All the more chivalrous to escort them to the tram without a hat! And suddenly he heard: "I've got your hat, young man!" And her mother's voice, warm, and simulating shock: "Phyllis, you awful gairl! Did you ever see such an awful gairl; Mr.---"
And then--he did not quite know how--insulated from the January air by laughter and the scent of fur and violets, he was between them walking to their tram. It was like an experience out of the "Arabian Nights," or something of that sort, an intoxication which made one say one was going their way, though one would have to come all the way back in the same beastly tram. Nothing so warming had ever happened to him as sitting between them on that drive, so that he forgot the note in his pocket, and his desire to relieve the anxiety of the "old man," his father. At the tram's terminus they all got out. There issued a purr of invitation to come and see them some time; a clear: "Jock'll love to see you!" A low laugh: "You awful gairl!" And a flash of cunning zigzagged across his brain. Taking off his hat, he said:
"Thanks awfully; rather!" and put his foot back on the step of the tram. Thus did he delicately expose the depths of his chivalry!
"Oh! you said you were going our way! What one-ers you do tell! Oh!" The words were as music; the sight of those eyes growing rounder, the most perfect he had ever seen; and Mrs. Larne's low laugh, so warm yet so preoccupied, and the tips of the girl's fingers waving back above her head. He heaved a sigh, and knew no more till he was seated at his club before a bottle of champagne. Home! Not he! He wished to drink and dream. "The old man" would get his news all right to-morrow!
The words: "A Mrs. Larne to see you, sir," had been of a nature to astonish weaker nerves. What had brought her here? She knew she mustn't come! Old Heythorp had watched her entrance with cynical amusement. The way she whiffed herself at that young pup in passing, the way her eyes slid round! He had a very just appreciation of his son's widow; and a smile settled deep between his chin tuft and his moustache. She lifted his hand, kissed it, pressed it to her splendid bust, and said:
"So here I am at last, you see. Aren't you surprised?"
Old Heythorp, shook his head.
"I really had to come and see you, Guardy; we haven't had a sight of you for such an age. And in this awful weather! How are you, dear old Guardy?"
"Never better." And, watching her green-grey eyes, he added:
"Haven't a penny for you!"
Her face did not fall; she gave her feather-laugh.
"How dreadful of you to think I came for that! But I am in an awful fix, Guardy."
"Never knew you not to be."
"Just let me tell you, dear; it'll be some relief. I'm having the most terrible time."
She sank into a low chair, disengaging an overpowering scent of violets, while melancholy struggled to subdue her face and body.
"The most awful fix. I expect to be sold up any moment. We may be on the streets to-morrow. I daren't tell the children; they're so happy, poor darlings. I shall be obliged to take Jock away from school. And Phyllis will have to stop her piano and dancing; it's an absolute crisis. And all due to those Midland Syndicate people. I've been counting on at least two hundred for my new story, and the wretches have refused it."
With a tiny handkerchief she removed one tear from the corner of one eye. "It is hard, Guardy; I worked my brain silly over that story."
From old Heythorp came a mutter which sounded suspiciously like:
Heaving a sigh, which conveyed nothing but the generosity of her breathing apparatus, Mrs. Larne went on:
"You couldn't, I suppose, let me have just one hundred?"
"Not a bob."
She sighed again, her eyes slid round the room; then in her warm voice she murmured:
"Guardy, you were my dear Philip's father, weren't you? I've never said anything; but of course you were. He was so like you, and so is Jock."
Nothing moved in old Heythorp's face. No pagan image consulted with flowers and song and sacrifice could have returned less answer. Her dear Philip! She had led him the devil of a life, or he was a Dutchman! And what the deuce made her suddenly trot out the skeleton like this? But Mrs. Larne's eyes were still wandering.
"What a lovely house! You know, I think you ought to help me, Guardy. Just imagine if your grandchildren were thrown out into the street!"
The old man grinned. He was not going to deny his relationship--it was her look-out, not his. But neither was he going to let her rush him.
"And they will be; you couldn't look on and see it. Do come to my rescue this once. You really might do something for them."
With a rumbling sigh he answered:
"Wait. Can't give you a penny now. Poor as a church mouse."
Mrs. Larne heaved one of her most buoyant sighs. She certainly did not believe him.
"Well!" she said; "you'll be sorry when we come round one night and sing for pennies under your window. Wouldn't you like to see Phyllis? I left her in the hall. She's growing such a sweet gairl. Guardy just fifty!"
"Not a rap."
Mrs. Larne threw up her hands. "Well! You'll repent it. I'm at my last gasp." She sighed profoundly, and the perfume of violets escaped in a cloud; Then, getting up, she went to the door and called: "Phyllis!"
When the girl entered old Heythorp felt the nearest approach to a flutter of the heart for many years. She had put her hair up! She was like a spring day in January; such a relief from that scented humbug, her mother. Pleasant the touch of her lips on his forehead, the sound of her clear voice, the sight of her slim movements, the feeling that she did him credit--clean-run stock, she and that young scamp Jock--better than the holy woman, his daughter Adela, would produce if anyone were ever fool enough to marry her, or that pragmatical fellow, his son Ernest.
And when they were gone he reflected with added zest on the six thousand pounds he was getting for them out of Joe Pillin and his ships. He would have to pitch it strong in his speech at the general meeting. With freights so low, there was bound to be opposition. No dash nowadays; nothing but gabby caution! They were a scrim-shanking lot on the Board--he had had to pull them round one by one--the deuce of a tug getting this thing through! And yet, the business was sound enough. Those ships would earn money, properly handled-good money.
His valet, coming in to prepare him for dinner, found him asleep. He had for the old man as much admiration as may be felt for one who cannot put his own trousers on. He would say to the housemaid Molly: "He's a game old blighter--must have been a rare one in his day. Cocks his hat at you, even now, I see!" To which the girl, Irish and pretty, would reply: "Well, an' sure I don't mind, if it gives um a pleasure. 'Tis better anyway than the sad eye I get from herself."
At dinner, old Heythorp always sat at one end of the rosewood table and his daughter at the other. It was the eminent moment of the day. With napkin tucked high into his waistcoat, he gave himself to the meal with passion. His palate was undimmed, his digestion unimpaired. He could still eat as much as two men, and drink more than one. And while he savoured each mouthful he never spoke if he could help it. The holy woman had nothing to say that he cared to hear, and he nothing to say that she cared to listen to. She had a horror, too, of what she called "the pleasures of the table"--those lusts of the flesh! She was always longing to dock his grub, he knew. Would see her further first! What other pleasures were there at his age? Let her wait till she was eighty. But she never would be; too thin and holy!
This evening, however, with the advent of the partridge she did speak.
"Who were your visitors, Father?"
Trust her for nosing anything out! Fixing his little blue eyes on her, he mumbled with a very full mouth: "Ladies."
"So I saw; what ladies?"
He had a longing to say: 'Part of one of my families under the rose.' As a fact it was the best part of the only one, but the temptation to multiply exceedingly was almost overpowering. He checked himself, however, and went on eating partridge, his secret irritation crimsoning his cheeks; and he watched her eyes, those cold precise and round grey eyes, noting it, and knew she was thinking: 'He eats too much.'
She said: "Sorry I'm not considered fit to be told. You ought not to be drinking hock."
Old Heythorp took up the long green glass, drained it, and repressing fumes and emotion went on with his partridge. His daughter pursed her lips, took a sip of water, and said:
"I know their name is Larne, but it conveyed nothing to me; perhaps it's just as well."
The old man, mastering a spasm, said with a grin:
"My daughter-in-law and my granddaughter."
"What! Ernest married--Oh! nonsense!"
He chuckled, and shook his head.
"Then do you mean to say, Father, that you were married before you married my mother?"
The expression on her face was as good as a play!
She said with a sort of disgust: "Not married! I see. I suppose those people are hanging round your neck, then; no wonder you're always in difficulties. Are there any more of them?"
Again the old man suppressed that spasm, and the veins in his neck and forehead swelled alarmingly. If he had spoken he would infallibly have choked. He ceased eating, and putting his hands on the table tried to raise himself. He could not and subsiding in his chair sat glaring at the stiff, quiet figure of his daughter.
"Don't be silly, Father, and make a scene before Meller. Finish your dinner."
He did not answer. He was not going to sit there to be dragooned and insulted! His helplessness had never so weighed on him before. It was like a revelation. A log--that had to put up with anything! A log! And, waiting for his valet to return, he cunningly took up his fork.
In that saintly voice of hers she said:
"I suppose you don't realise that it's a shock to me. I don't know what Ernest will think--"
"Ernest be d---d."
"I do wish, Father, you wouldn't swear."
Old Heythorp's rage found vent in a sort of rumble. How the devil had he gone on all these years in the same house with that woman, dining with her day after day! But the servant had come back now, and putting down his fork he said:
"Help me up!"
The man paused, thunderstruck, with the souffle balanced. To leave dinner unfinished--it was a portent!
"Help me up!"
"Mr. Heythorp's not very well, Meller; take his other arm."
The old man shook off her hand.
"I'm very well. Help me up. Dine in my own room in future."
Raised to his feet, he walked slowly out; but in his sanctum he did not sit down, obsessed by this first overwhelming realisation of his helplessness. He stood swaying a little, holding on to the table, till the servant, having finished serving dinner, brought in his port.
"Are you waiting to sit down, sir?"
He shook his head. Hang it, he could do that for himself, anyway. He must think of something to fortify his position against that woman. And he said:
"Send me Molly!"
"Yes, sir." The man put down the port and went.
Old Heythorp filled his glass, drank, and filled again. He took a cigar from the box and lighted it. The girl came in, a grey-eyed, dark-haired damsel, and stood with her hands folded, her head a little to one side, her lips a little parted. The old man said:
"You're a human being."
"I would hope so, sirr."
"I'm going to ask you something as a human being--not a servant--see?"
"No, sirr; but I will be glad to do anything you like."
"Then put your nose in here every now and then, to see if I want anything. Meller goes out sometimes. Don't say anything; Just put your nose in."
"Oh! an' I will; 'tis a pleasure 'twill be to do ut."
He nodded, and when she had gone lowered himself into his chair with a sense of appeasement. Pretty girl! Comfort to see a pretty face--not a pale, peeky thing like Adela's. His anger burned up anew. So she counted on his helplessness, had begun to count on that, had she? She should see that there was life in the old dog yet! And his sacrifice of the uneaten souffle, the still less eaten mushrooms, the peppermint sweet with which he usually concluded dinner, seemed to consecrate that purpose. They all thought he was a hulk, without a shot left in the locker! He had seen a couple of them at the Board that afternoon shrugging at each other, as though saying: 'Look at him!' And young Farney pitying him. Pity, forsooth! And that coarse-grained solicitor chap at the creditors' meeting curling his lip as much as to say: 'One foot in the grave!' He had seen the clerks dowsing the glim of their grins; and that young pup Bob Pillin screwing up his supercilious mug over his dog-collar. He knew that scented humbug Rosamund was getting scared that he'd drop off before she'd squeezed him dry. And his valet was always looking him up and down queerly. As to that holy woman--! Not quite so fast! Not quite so fast! And filling his glass for the fourth time, he slowly sucked down the dark red fluid, with the "old boots" flavour which his soul loved, and, drawing deep at his cigar, closed his eyes.
The room in the hotel where the general meetings of "The Island Navigation Company" were held was nearly full when the secretary came through the door which as yet divided the shareholders from their directors. Having surveyed their empty chairs, their ink and papers, and nodded to a shareholder or two, he stood, watch in hand, contemplating the congregation. A thicker attendance than he had ever seen! Due, no doubt, to the lower dividend, and this Pillin business. And his tongue curled. For if he had a natural contempt for his Board, with the exception of the chairman, he had a still more natural contempt for his shareholders. Amusing spectacle when you came to think of it, a general meeting! Unique! Eighty or a hundred men, and five women, assembled through sheer devotion to their money. Was any other function in the world so single-hearted. Church was nothing to it--so many motives were mingled there with devotion to one's soul. A well-educated young man--reader of Anatole France, and other writers--he enjoyed ironic speculation. What earthly good did they think they got by coming here? Half-past two! He put his watch back into his pocket, and passed into the Board-room.
There, the fumes of lunch and of a short preliminary meeting made cosy the February atmosphere. By the fire four directors were conversing rather restlessly; the fifth was combing his beard; the chairman sat with eyes closed and red lips moving rhythmically in the sucking of a lozenge, the slips of his speech ready in his hand. The secretary said in his cheerful voice: "Time, sir."
Old Heythorp swallowed, lifted his arms, rose with help, and walked through to his place at the centre of the table. The five directors followed. And, standing at the chairman's right, the secretary read the minutes, forming the words precisely with his curling tongue. Then, assisting the chairman to his feet, he watched those rows of faces, and thought: 'Mistake to let them see he can't get up without help. He ought to have let me read his speech--I wrote it.'
The chairman began to speak:
"It is my duty and my pleasure,' ladies and gentlemen, for the nineteenth consecutive year to present to you the directors' report and the accounts for the past twelve months. You will all have had special notice of a measure of policy on which your Board has decided, and to which you will be asked to-day to give your adherence--to that I shall come at the end of my remarks...."
"Excuse me, sir; we can't hear a word down here."
'Ah!' thought the secretary, 'I was expecting that.'
The chairman went on, undisturbed. But several shareholders now rose, and the same speaker said testily: "We might as well go home. If the chairman's got no voice, can't somebody read for him?"
The chairman took a sip of water, and resumed. Almost all in the last six rows were now on their feet, and amid a hubbub of murmurs the chairman held out to the secretary the slips of his speech, and fell heavily back into his chair.
The secretary re-read from the beginning; and as each sentence fell from his tongue, he thought: 'How good that is!' 'That's very clear!' 'A neat touch!' 'This is getting them.' It seemed to him a pity they could not know it was all his composition. When at last he came to the Pillin sale he paused for a second.
"I come now to the measure of policy to which I made allusion at the beginning of my speech. Your Board has decided to expand your enterprise by purchasing the entire fleet of Pillin & Co., Ltd. By this transaction we become the owners of the four steamships Smyrna, Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon, vessels in prime condition with a total freight-carrying capacity of fifteen thousand tons, at the low inclusive price of sixty thousand pounds. Gentlemen, de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!"--it was the chairman's phrase, his bit of the speech, and the secretary did it more than justice. "Times are bad, but your Board is emphatically of the opinion that they are touching bottom; and this, in their view, is the psychological moment for a forward stroke. They confidently recommend your adoption of their policy and the ratification of this purchase, which they believe will, in the not far distant future, substantially increase the profits of the Company." The secretary sat down with reluctance. The speech should have continued with a number of appealing sentences which he had carefully prepared, but the chairman had cut them out with the simple comment: "They ought to be glad of the chance." It was, in his view, an error.
The director who had combed his beard now rose--a man of presence, who might be trusted to say nothing long and suavely. While he was speaking the secretary was busy noting whence opposition was likely to come. The majority were sitting owl-like-a good sign; but some dozen were studying their copies of the report, and three at least were making notes--Westgate, for, instance, who wanted to get on the Board, and was sure to make himself unpleasant--the time-honoured method of vinegar; and Batterson, who also desired to come on, and might be trusted to support the Board--the time-honoured method of oil; while, if one knew anything of human nature, the fellow who had complained that he might as well go home would have something uncomfortable to say. The director finished his remarks, combed his beard with his fingers, and sat down.
A momentary pause ensued. Then Messieurs Westgate and Batterson rose together. Seeing the chairman nod towards the latter, the secretary thought: 'Mistake! He should have humoured Westgate by giving him precedence.' But that was the worst of the old man, he had no notion of the suaviter in modo! Mr. Batterson thus unchained--would like, if he might be so allowed, to congratulate the Board on having piloted their ship so smoothly through the troublous waters of the past year. With their worthy chairman still at the helm, he had no doubt that in spite of the still low--he would not say falling--barometer, and the-er-unseasonable climacteric, they might rely on weathering the--er--he would not say storm. He would confess that the present dividend of four per cent. was not one which satisfied every aspiration (Hear, hear!), but speaking for himself, and he hoped for others--and here Mr. Batterson looked round--he recognised that in all the circumstances it was as much as they had the right--er--to expect. But following the bold but to his mind prudent development which the Board proposed to make, he thought that they might reasonably, if not sanguinely, anticipate a more golden future. ("No, no!") A shareholder said, 'No, no!' That might seem to indicate a certain lack of confidence in the special proposal before the meeting. ("Yes!") From that lack of confidence he would like at once to dissociate himself. Their chairman, a man of foresight and acumen, and valour proved on many a field and--er--sea, would not have committed himself to this policy without good reason. In his opinion they were in safe hands, and he was glad to register his support of the measure proposed. The chairman had well said in his speech: 'de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!' Shareholders would agree with him that there could be no better motto for Englishmen. Ahem!
Mr. Batterson sat down. And Mr. Westgate rose: He wanted--he said--to know more, much more, about this proposition, which to his mind was of a very dubious wisdom.... 'Ah!' thought the secretary, 'I told the old boy he must tell them more'.... To whom, for instance, had the proposal first been made? To him!--the chairman said. Good! But why were Pillins selling, if freights were to go up, as they were told?
"Matter of opinion."
"Quite so; and in my opinion they are going lower, and Pillins were right to sell. It follows that we are wrong to buy." ("Hear, hear!" "No, no!") "Pillins are shrewd people. What does the chairman say? Nerves! Does he mean to tell us that this sale was the result of nerves?"
The chairman nodded.
"That appears to me a somewhat fantastic theory; but I will leave that and confine myself to asking the grounds on which the chairman bases his confidence; in fact, what it is which is actuating the Board in pressing on us at such a time what I have no hesitation in stigmatising as a rash proposal. In a word, I want light as well as leading in this matter."
Mr. Westgate sat down.
What would the chairman do now? The situation was distinctly awkward--seeing his helplessness and the lukewarmness of the Board behind him. And the secretary felt more strongly than ever the absurdity of his being an underling, he who in a few well-chosen words could so easily have twisted the meeting round his thumb. Suddenly he heard the long, rumbling sigh which preluded the chairman's speeches.
"Has any other gentleman anything to say before I move the adoption of the report?"
Phew! That would put their backs up. Yes, sure enough it had brought that fellow, who had said he might as well go home, to his feet! Now for something nasty!
"Mr. Westgate requires answering. I don't like this business. I don't impute anything to anybody; but it looks to me as if there were something behind it which the shareholders ought to be told. Not only that; but, to speak frankly, I'm not satisfied to be ridden over roughshod in this fashion by one who, whatever he may have been in the past, is obviously not now in the prime of his faculties."
With a gasp the secretary thought: 'I knew that was a plain-spoken man!'
He heard again the rumbling beside him. The chairman had gone crimson, his mouth was pursed, his little eyes were very blue.
"Help me up," he said.
The secretary helped him, and waited, rather breathless.
The chairman took a sip of water, and his voice, unexpectedly loud, broke an ominous hush:
"Never been so insulted in my life. My best services have been at your disposal for nineteen years; you know what measure of success this Company has attained. I am the oldest man here, and my experience of shipping is, I hope, a little greater than that of the two gentlemen who spoke last. I have done my best for you, ladies and gentlemen, and we shall see whether you are going to endorse an indictment of my judgment and of my honour, if I am to take the last speaker seriously. This purchase is for your good. 'There is a tide in the affairs of men'--and I for one am not content, never have been, to stagnate. If that is what you want, however, by all means give your support to these gentlemen and have done with it. I tell you freights will go up before the end of the year; the purchase is a sound one, more than a sound one--I, at any rate, stand or fall by it. Refuse to ratify it, if you like; if you do, I shall resign."
He sank back into his seat. The secretary, stealing a glance, thought with a sort of enthusiasm: 'Bravo! Who'd have thought he could rally his voice like that? A good touch, too, that about his honour! I believe he's knocked them.
It's still dicky, though, if that fellow at the back gets up again; the old chap can't work that stop a second time. 'Ah! here was 'old Apple-pie' on his hind legs. That was all right!
"I do not hesitate to say that I am an old friend of the chairman; we are, many of us, old friends of the chairman, and it has been painful to me, and I doubt not to others, to hear an attack made on him. If he is old in body, he is young in mental vigour and courage. I wish we were all as young. We ought to stand by him; I say, we ought to stand by him." ("Hear, hear! Hear, hear!") And the secretary thought: 'That's done it!' And he felt a sudden odd emotion, watching the chairman bobbing his body, like a wooden toy, at old Appleby; and old Appleby bobbing back. Then, seeing a shareholder close to the door get up, thought: 'Who's that? I know his face--Ah! yes; Ventnor, the solicitor--he's one of the chairman's creditors that are coming again this afternoon. What now?'
"I can't agree that we ought to let sentiment interfere with our judgment in this matter. The question is simply: How are our pockets going to be affected? I came here with some misgivings, but the attitude of the chairman has been such as to remove them; and I shall support the proposition." The secretary thought: 'That's all right--only, he said it rather queerly--rather queerly.'
Then, after a long silence, the chairman, without rising, said:
"I move the adoption of the report and accounts."
"I second that."
"Those in favour signify the same in the usual way. Contrary? Carried." The secretary noted the dissentients, six in number, and that Mr. Westgate did not vote.
A quarter of an hour later he stood in the body of the emptying room supplying names to one of the gentlemen of the Press. The passionless fellow said: "Haythorp, with an 'a'; oh! an 'e'; he seems an old man. Thank you. I may have the slips? Would you like to see a proof? With an 'a' you said--oh! an 'e.' Good afternoon!" And the secretary thought: 'Those fellows, what does go on inside them? Fancy not knowing the old chairman by now!'...
Back in the proper office of "The Island Navigation Company" old Heythorp sat smoking a cigar and smiling like a purring cat. He was dreaming a little of his triumph, sifting with his old brain, still subtle, the wheat from the chaff of the demurrers: Westgate--nothing in that--professional discontent till they silenced him with a place on the board--but not while he held the reins! That chap at the back--an ill-conditioned fellow! "Something behind!" Suspicious brute! There was something--but--hang it! they might think themselves lucky to get four ships at that price, and all due to him! It was on the last speaker that his mind dwelt with a doubt. That fellow Ventnor, to whom he owed money--there had been something just a little queer about his tone--as much as to say, "I smell a rat." Well! one would see that at the creditors' meeting in half an hour.
"Mr. Pillin, sir."
"Show him in!"
In a fur coat which seemed to extinguish his thin form, Joe Pillin entered. It was snowing, and the cold had nipped and yellowed his meagre face between its slight grey whiskering. He said thinly:
"How are you, Sylvanus? Aren't you perished in this cold?"
"Warm as a toast. Sit down. Take off your coat."
"Oh! I should be lost without it. You must have a fire inside you. So-so it's gone through?"
Old Heythorp nodded; and Joe Pillin, wandering like a spirit, scrutinised the shut door. He came back to the table, and said in a low voice:
"It's a great sacrifice."
Old Heythorp smiled.
"Have you signed the deed poll?"
Producing a parchment from his pocket Joe Pillin unfolded it with caution to disclose his signature, and said:
"I don't like it--it's irrevocable."
A chuckle escaped old Heythorp.
Joe Pillin's voice passed up into the treble clef.
"I can't bear irrevocable things. I consider you stampeded me, playing on my nerves."
Examining the signatures old Heythorp murmured:
"Tell your lawyer to lock it up. He must think you a sad dog, Joe."
"Ah! Suppose on my death it comes to the knowledge of my wife!"
"She won't be able to make it hotter for you than you'll be already."
Joe Pillin replaced the deed within his coat, emitting a queer thin noise. He simply could not bear joking on such subjects.
"Well," he said, "you've got your way; you always do. Who is this Mrs. Larne? You oughtn't to keep me in the dark. It seems my boy met her at your house. You told me she didn't come there."
Old Heythorp said with relish:
"Her husband was my son by a woman I was fond of before I married; her children are my grandchildren. You've provided for them. Best thing you ever did."
"I don't know--I don't know. I'm sorry you told me. It makes it all the more doubtful. As soon as the transfer's complete, I shall get away abroad. This cold's killing me. I wish you'd give me your recipe for keeping warm."
"Get a new inside."
Joe Pillin regarded his old friend with a sort of yearning. "And yet," he said, "I suppose, with your full-blooded habit, your life hangs by a thread, doesn't it?"
"A stout one, my boy"
"Well, good-bye, Sylvanus. You're a Job's comforter; I must be getting home." He put on his hat, and, lost in his fur coat, passed out into the corridor. On the stairs he met a man who said:
"How do you do, Mr. Pillin? I know your son. Been' seeing the chairman? I see your sale's gone through all right. I hope that'll do us some good, but I suppose you think the other way?"
Peering at him from under his hat, Joe Pillin said:
"Mr. Ventnor, I think? Thank you! It's very cold, isn't it?" And, with that cautious remark, he passed on down.
Alone again, old Heythorp thought: 'By George! What a wavering, quavering, thread paper of a fellow! What misery life must be to a chap like that! He walks in fear--he wallows in it. Poor devil!' And a curious feeling swelled his heart, of elation, of lightness such as he had not known for years. Those two young things were safe now from penury-safe! After dealing with those infernal creditors of his he would go round and have a look at the children. With a hundred and twenty a year the boy could go into the Army--best place for a young scamp like that. The girl would go off like hot cakes, of course, but she needn't take the first calf that came along. As for their mother, she must look after herself; nothing under two thousand a year would keep her out of debt. But trust her for wheedling and bluffing her way out of any scrape! Watching his cigar-smoke curl and disperse he was conscious of the strain he had been under these last six weeks, aware suddenly of how greatly he had baulked at thought of to-day's general meeting. Yes! It might have turned out nasty. He knew well enough the forces on the Board, and off, who would be only too glad to shelve him. If he were shelved here his other two Companies would be sure to follow suit, and bang would go every penny of his income--he would be a pauper dependant on that holy woman. Well! Safe now for another year if he could stave off these sharks once more. It might be a harder job this time, but he was in luck--in luck, and it must hold. And taking a luxurious pull at his cigar, he rang the handbell.
"Bring 'em in here, Mr. Farney. And let me have a cup of China tea as strong as you can make it."
"Yes, sir. Will you see the proof of the press report, or will you leave it to me?"
"Yes, sir. It was a good meeting, wasn't it?"
Old Heythorp nodded.
"Wonderful how your voice came back just at the right moment. I was afraid things were going to be difficult. The insult did it, I think. It was a monstrous thing to say. I could have punched his head."
Again old Heythorp nodded; and, looking into the secretary's fine blue eyes, he repeated: "Bring 'em in."
The lonely minute before the entrance of his creditors passed in the thought: 'So that's how it struck him! Short shrift I should get if it came out.'
The gentlemen, who numbered ten this time, bowed to their debtor, evidently wondering why the deuce they troubled to be polite to an old man who kept them out of their money. Then, the secretary reappearing with a cup of China tea, they watched while their debtor drank it. The feat was tremulous. Would he get through without spilling it all down his front, or choking? To those unaccustomed to his private life it was slightly miraculous. He put the cup down empty, tremblingly removed some yellow drops from the little white tuft below his lip, refit his cigar, and said:
"No use beating about the bush, gentlemen; I can offer you fourteen hundred a year so long as I live and hold my directorships, and not a penny more. If you can't accept that, you must make me bankrupt and get about sixpence in the pound. My qualifying shares will fetch a couple of thousand at market price. I own nothing else. The house I live in, and everything in it, barring my clothes, my wine, and my cigars, belong to my daughter under a settlement fifteen years old. My solicitors and bankers will give you every information. That's the position in a nutshell."
In spite of business habits the surprise of the ten gentlemen was only partially concealed. A man who owed them so much would naturally say he owned nothing, but would he refer them to his solicitors and bankers unless he were telling the truth? Then Mr. Ventnor said:
"Will you submit your pass books?"
"No, but I'll authorise my bankers to give you a full statement of my receipts for the last five years--longer, if you like."
The strategic stroke of placing the ten gentlemen round the Board table had made it impossible for them to consult freely without being overheard, but the low-voiced transference of thought travelling round was summed up at last by Mr. Brownbee.
"We think, Mr. Heythorp, that your fees and dividends should enable you to set aside for us a larger sum. Sixteen hundred, in fact, is what we think you should give us yearly. Representing, as we do, sixteen thousand pounds, the prospect is not cheering, but we hope you have some good years before you yet. We understand your income to be two thousand pounds."
Old Heythorp shook his head. "Nineteen hundred and thirty pounds in a good year. Must eat and drink; must have a man to look after me not as active as I was. Can't do on less than five hundred pounds. Fourteen hundred's all I can give you, gentlemen; it's an advance of two hundred pounds. That's my last word."
The silence was broken by Mr. Ventnor.
"And it's my last word that I'm not satisfied. If these other gentlemen accept your proposition I shall be forced to consider what I can do on my own account."
The old man stared at him, and answered:
"Oh! you will, sir; we shall see."
The others had risen and were gathered in a knot at the end of the table; old Heythorp and Mr. Ventnor alone remained seated. The old man's lower lip projected till the white hairs below stood out like bristles. 'You ugly dog,' he was thinking, 'you think you've got something up your sleeve. Well, do your worst!' The "ugly dog" rose abruptly and joined the others. And old Heythorp closed his eyes, sitting perfectly still, with his cigar, which had gone out, sticking up between his teeth. Mr. Brownbee turning to voice the decision come to, cleared his throat.
"Mr. Heythorp," he said, "if your bankers and solicitors bear out your statements, we shall accept your offer faute de mieux, in consideration of your--" but meeting the old man's eyes, which said so very plainly: "Blow your consideration!" he ended with a stammer: "Perhaps you will kindly furnish us with the authorisation you spoke of?"
Old Heythorp nodded, and Mr. Brownbee, with a little bow, clasped his hat to his breast and moved towards the door. The nine gentlemen followed. Mr. Ventnor, bringing up the rear, turned and looked back. But the old man's eyes were already closed again.
The moment his creditors were gone, old Heythorp sounded the hand-bell.
"Help me up, Mr. Farney. That Ventnor--what's his holding?"
"Quite small. Only ten shares, I think."
"Ah! What time is it?"
"Quarter to four, sir."
"Get me a taxi."
After visiting his bank and his solicitors he struggled once more into his cab and caused it to be driven towards Millicent Villas. A kind of sleepy triumph permeated his whole being, bumped and shaken by the cab's rapid progress. So! He was free of those sharks now so long as he could hold on to his Companies; and he would still have a hundred a year or more to spare for Rosamund and her youngsters. He could live on four hundred, or even three-fifty, without losing his independence, for there would be no standing life in that holy woman's house unless he could pay his own scot! A good day's work! The best for many a long month!
The cab stopped before the villa.
There are rooms which refuse to give away their owners, and rooms which seem to say: 'They really are like this.' Of such was Rosamund Larne's--a sort of permanent confession, seeming to remark to anyone who entered: 'Her taste? Well, you can see--cheerful and exuberant; her habits--yes, she sits here all the morning in a dressing-gown, smoking cigarettes and dropping ink; kindly observe my carpet. Notice the piano--it has a look of coming and going, according to the exchequer. This very deep-cushioned sofa is permanent, however; the water-colours on the walls are safe, too--they're by herself. Mark the scent of mimosa--she likes flowers, and likes them strong. No clock, of course. Examine the bureau--she is obviously always ringing for "the drumstick," and saying: "Where's this, Ellen, and where's that? You naughty gairl, you've been tidying." Cast an eye on that pile of manuscript--she has evidently a genius for composition; it flows off her pen--like Shakespeare, she never blots a line. See how she's had the electric light put in, instead of that horrid gas; but try and turn either of them on--you can't; last quarter isn't paid, of course; and she uses an oil lamp, you can tell that by the ceiling: The dog over there, who will not answer to the name of 'Carmen,' a Pekinese spaniel like a little Djin, all prominent eyes rolling their blacks, and no nose between--yes, Carmen looks as if she didn't know what was coming next; she's right--it's a pet-and-slap-again life! Consider, too, the fittings of the tea-tray, rather soiled, though not quite tin, but I say unto you that no millionaire's in all its glory ever had a liqueur bottle on it.'
When old Heythorp entered this room, which extended from back to front of the little house, preceded by the announcement "Mr. Aesop," it was resonant with a very clatter-bodandigo of noises, from Phyllis playing the Machiche; from the boy Jock on the hearthrug, emitting at short intervals the most piercing notes from an ocarina; from Mrs. Larne on the sofa, talking with her trailing volubility to Bob Pillin; from Bob Pillin muttering: "Ye-es! Qui-ite! Ye-es!" and gazing at Phyllis over his collar. And, on the window-sill, as far as she could get from all this noise, the little dog Carmen was rolling her eyes. At sight of their visitor Jock blew one rending screech, and bolting behind the sofa, placed his chin on its top, so that nothing but his round pink unmoving face was visible; and the dog Carmen tried to climb the blind cord.
Encircled from behind by the arms of Phyllis, and preceded by the gracious perfumed bulk of Mrs. Larne, old Heythorp was escorted to the sofa. It was low, and when he had plumped down into it, the boy Jock emitted a hollow groan. Bob Pillin was the first to break the silence.
"How are you, sir? I hope it's gone through."
Old Heythorp nodded. His eyes were fixed on the liqueur, and Mrs. Larne murmured:
"Guardy, you must try our new liqueur. Jock, you awful boy, get up and bring Guardy a glass."
The boy Jock approached the tea-table, took up a glass, put it to his eye and filled it rapidly.
"You horrible boy, you could see that glass has been used."
In a high round voice rather like an angel's, Jock answered:
"All right, Mother; I'll get rid of it," and rapidly swallowing the yellow liquor, took up another glass.
Mrs. Larne laughed.
"What am I to do with him?"
A loud shriek prevented a response. Phyllis, who had taken her brother by the ear to lead him to the door, let him go to clasp her injured self.
Bob Pillin went hastening towards her; and following the young man with her chin, Mrs. Larne said, smiling:
"Aren't those children awful? He's such a nice fellow. We like him so much, Guardy."
The old man grinned. So she was making up to that young pup! Rosamund Larne, watching him, murmured:
"Oh! Guardy, you're as bad as Jock. He takes after you terribly. Look at the shape of his head. Jock, come here!" The innocent boy approached; with his girlish complexion, his flowery blue eyes, his perfect mouth, he stood before his mother like a large cherub. And suddenly he blew his ocarina in a dreadful manner. Mrs. Larne launched a box at his ears, and receiving the wind of it he fell prone.
"That's the way he behaves. Be off with you, you awful boy. I want to talk to Guardy."
The boy withdrew on his stomach, and sat against the wall cross-legged, fixing his innocent round eyes on old Heythorp. Mrs. Larne sighed.
"Things are worse and worse, Guardy. I'm at my wits' end to tide over this quarter. You wouldn't advance me a hundred on my new story? I'm sure to get two for it in the end."
The old man shook his head.
"I've done something for you and the children," he said. "You'll get notice of it in a day or two; ask no questions."
"Oh! Guardy! Oh! you dear!" And her gaze rested on Bob Pillin, leaning over the piano, where Phyllis again sat.
Old Heythorp snorted. "What are you cultivating that young gaby for? She mustn't be grabbed up by any fool who comes along."
Mrs. Larne murmured at once:
"Of course, the dear gairl is much too young. Phyllis, come and talk to Guardy!"
When the girl was installed beside him on the sofa, and he had felt that little thrill of warmth the proximity of youth can bring, he said:
"Been a good girl?"
She shook her head.
"Can't, when Jock's not at school. Mother can't pay for him this term."
Hearing his name, the boy Jock blew his ocarina till Mrs. Larne drove him from the room, and Phyllis went on:
"He's more awful than anything you can think of. Was my dad at all like him, Guardy? Mother's always so mysterious about him. I suppose you knew him well."
Old Heythorp, incapable of confusion, answered stolidly:
"Who was his father? I don't believe even mother knows."
"Man about town in my day."
"Oh! your day must have been jolly. Did you wear peg-top trousers, and dundreary's?"
Old Heythorp nodded.
"What larks! And I suppose you had lots of adventures with opera dancers and gambling. The young men are all so good now." Her eyes rested on Bob Pillin. "That young man's a perfect stick of goodness."
Old Heythorp grunted.
"You wouldn't know how good he was," Phyllis went on musingly, "unless you'd sat next him in a tunnel. The other day he had his waist squeezed and he simply sat still and did nothing. And then when the tunnel ended, it was Jock after all, not me. His face was--Oh! ah! ha! ha! Ah! ha!" She threw back her head, displaying all her white, round throat. Then edging near, she whispered:
"He likes to pretend, of course, that he's fearfully lively. He's promised to take mother and me to the theatre and supper afterwards. Won't it be scrummy! Only, I haven't anything to go in."
Old Heythorp said: "What do you want? Irish poplin?"
Her mouth opened wide: "Oh! Guardy! Soft white satin!"
"How many yards'll go round you?"
"I should think about twelve. We could make it ourselves. You are a chook!"
A scent of hair, like hay, enveloped him, her lips bobbed against his nose,--and there came a feeling in his heart as when he rolled the first sip of a special wine against his palate. This little house was a rumty-too affair, her mother was a humbug, the boy a cheeky young rascal, but there was a warmth here he never felt in that big house which had been his wife's and was now his holy daughter's. And once more he rejoiced at his day's work, and the success of his breach of trust, which put some little ground beneath these young feet, in a hard and unscrupulous world. Phyllis whispered in his ear:
"Guardy, do look; he will stare at me like that. Isn't it awful--like a boiled rabbit?"
Bob Pillin, attentive to Mrs. Larne, was gazing with all his might over her shoulder at the girl. The young man was moonstruck, that was clear! There was something almost touching in the stare of those puppy dog's eyes. And he thought 'Young beggar--wish I were his age!' The utter injustice of having an old and helpless body, when your desire for enjoyment was as great as ever! They said a man was as old as he felt! Fools! A man was as old as his legs and arms, and not a day younger. He heard the girl beside him utter a discomfortable sound, and saw her face cloud as if tears were not far off; she jumped up, and going to the window, lifted the little dog and buried her face in its brown and white fur. Old Heythorp thought: 'She sees that her humbugging mother is using her as a decoy.' But she had come back, and the little dog, rolling its eyes horribly at the strange figure on the sofa, in a desperate effort to escape succeeded in reaching her shoulder, where it stayed perched like a cat, held by one paw and trying to back away into space. Old Heythorp said abruptly:
"Are you very fond of your mother?"
"Of course I am, Guardy. I adore her."
"H'm! Listen to me. When you come of age or marry, you'll have a hundred and twenty a year of your own that you can't get rid of. Don't ever be persuaded into doing what you don't want. And remember: Your mother's a sieve, no good giving her money; keep what you'll get for yourself--it's only a pittance, and you'll want it all--every penny."
Phyllis's eyes had opened very wide; so that he wondered if she had taken in his words.
"Oh! Isn't money horrible, Guardy?"
"The want of it."
"No, it's beastly altogether. If only we were like birds. Or if one could put out a plate overnight, and have just enough in the morning to use during the day."
Old Heythorp sighed.
"There's only one thing in life that matters--independence. Lose that, and you lose everything. That's the value of money. Help me up."
Phyllis stretched out her hands, and the little dog, running down her back, resumed its perch on the window-sill, close to the blind cord.
Once on his feet, old Heythorp said:
"Give me a kiss. You'll have your satin tomorrow."
Then looking at Bob Pillin, he remarked:
"Going my way? I'll give you a lift."
The young man, giving Phyllis one appealing look, answered dully: "Tha-anks!" and they went out together to the taxi. In that draughtless vehicle they sat, full of who knows what contempt of age for youth; and youth for age; the old man resenting this young pup's aspiration to his granddaughter; the young man annoyed that this old image had dragged him away before he wished to go. Old Heythorp said at last:
Thus expected to say something, Bob Pillin muttered
"Glad your meetin' went off well, sir. You scored a triumph I should think."
"Oh! I don't know. I thought you had a good bit of opposition to contend with."
Old Heythorp looked at him.
"Your grandmother!" he said; then, with his habitual instinct of attack, added: "You make the most of your opportunities, I see."
At this rude assault Bob Pillin's red-cheeked face assumed a certain dignity. "I don't know what you mean, sir. Mrs. Larne is very kind to me."
"No doubt. But don't try to pick the flowers."
Thoroughly upset, Bob Pillin preserved a dogged silence. This fortnight, since he had first met Phyllis in old Heythorp's hall, had been the most singular of his existence up to now. He would never have believed that a fellow could be so quickly and completely bowled, could succumb without a kick, without even wanting to kick. To one with his philosophy of having a good time and never committing himself too far, it was in the nature of "a fair knock-out," and yet so pleasurable, except for the wear and tear about one's chances. If only he knew how far the old boy really counted in the matter! To say: "My intentions are strictly honourable" would be old-fashioned; besides--the old fellow might have no right to hear it. They called him Guardy, but without knowing more he did not want to admit the old curmudgeon's right to interfere.
"Are you a relation of theirs, sir?"
Old Heythorp nodded.
Bob Pillin went on with desperation:
"I should like to know what your objection to me is."
The old man turned his head so far as he was able; a grim smile bristled the hairs about his lips, and twinkled in his eyes. What did he object to? Why--everything! Object to! That sleek head, those puppy-dog eyes, fattish red cheeks, high collars, pearl pin, spats, and drawl-pah! the imbecility, the smugness of his mug; no go, no devil in any of his sort, in any of these fish-veined, coddled-up young bloods, nothing but playing for safety! And he wheezed out:
"Milk and water masquerading as port wine."
Bob Pillin frowned.
It was almost too much for the composure even of a man of the world. That this paralytic old fellow should express contempt for his virility was really the last thing in jests. Luckily he could not take it seriously. But suddenly he thought: 'What if he really has the power to stop my going there, and means to turn them against me!' And his heart quailed.
"Awfully sorry, sir," he said, "if you don't think I'm wild enough. Anything I can do for you in that line--"
The old man grunted; and realising that he had been quite witty, Bob Pillin went on:
"I know I'm not in debt, no entanglements, got a decent income, pretty good expectations and all that; but I can soon put that all right if I'm not fit without."
It was perhaps his first attempt at irony, and he could not help thinking how good it was.
But old Heythorp preserved a deadly silence. He looked like a stuffed man, a regular Aunt Sally sitting there, with the fixed red in his cheeks, his stivered hair, square block of a body, and no neck that you could see-only wanting the pipe in his mouth! Could there really be danger from such an old idol? The idol spoke:
"I'll give you a word of advice. Don't hang round there, or you'll burn your fingers. Remember me to your father. Good-night!"
The taxi had stopped before the house in Sefton Park. An insensate impulse to remain seated and argue the point fought in Bob Pillin with an impulse to leap out, shake his fist in at the window, and walk off. He merely said, however:
"Thanks for the lift. Good-night!" And, getting out deliberately, he walked off.
Old Heythorp, waiting for the driver to help him up, thought 'Fatter, but no more guts than his father!'
In his sanctum he sank at once into his chair. It was wonderfully still there every day at this hour; just the click of the coals, just the faintest ruffle from the wind in the trees of the park. And it was cosily warm, only the fire lightening the darkness. A drowsy beatitude pervaded the old man. A good day's work! A triumph--that young pup had said. Yes! Something of a triumph! He had held on, and won. And dinner to look forward to, yet. A nap--a nap! And soon, rhythmic, soft, sonorous, his breathing rose, with now and then that pathetic twitching of the old who dream.
When Bob Pillin emerged from the little front garden of 23, Millicent Villas ten days later, his sentiments were ravelled, and he could not get hold of an end to pull straight the stuff of his mind.
He had found Mrs. Larne and Phyllis in the sitting-room, and Phyllis had been crying; he was sure she had been crying; and that memory still infected the sentiments evoked by later happenings. Old Heythorp had said: "You'll burn your fingers." The process had begun. Having sent her daughter away on a pretext really a bit too thin, Mrs. Larne had installed him beside her scented bulk on the sofa, and poured into his ear such a tale of monetary woe and entanglement, such a mass of present difficulties and rosy prospects, that his brain still whirled, and only one thing emerged clearly-that she wanted fifty pounds, which she would repay him on quarter-day; for their Guardy had made a settlement by which, until the dear children came of age, she would have sixty pounds every quarter. It was only a question of a few weeks; he might ask Messrs. Scriven and Coles; they would tell him the security was quite safe. He certainly might ask Messrs. Scriven and Coles--they happened to be his father's solicitors; but it hardly seemed to touch the point. Bob Pillin had a certain shrewd caution, and the point was whether he was going to begin to lend money to a woman who, he could see, might borrow up to seventy times seven on the strength of his infatuation for her daughter. That was rather too strong! Yet, if he didn't she might take a sudden dislike to him, and where would he be then? Besides, would not a loan make his position stronger? And then--such is the effect of love even on the younger generation--that thought seemed to him unworthy. If he lent at all, it should be from chivalry--ulterior motives might go hang! And the memory of the tear-marks on Phyllis's pretty pale-pink cheeks; and her petulantly mournful: "Oh! young man, isn't money beastly!" scraped his heart, and ravished his judgment. All the same, fifty pounds was fifty pounds, and goodness knew how much more; and what did he know of Mrs. Larne, after all, except that she was a relative of old Heythorp's and wrote stories--told them too, if he was not mistaken? Perhaps it would be better to see Scrivens'. But again that absurd nobility assaulted him. Phyllis! Phyllis! Besides, were not settlements always drawn so that they refused to form security for anything? Thus, hampered and troubled, he hailed a cab. He was dining with the Ventnors on the Cheshire side, and would be late if he didn't get home sharp to dress.
Driving, white-tied--and waist-coated, in his father's car, he thought with a certain contumely of the younger Ventnor girl, whom he had been wont to consider pretty before he knew Phyllis. And seated next her at dinner, he quite enjoyed his new sense of superiority to her charms, and the ease with which he could chaff and be agreeable. And all the time he suffered from the suppressed longing which scarcely ever left him now, to think and talk of Phyllis. Ventnor's fizz was good and plentiful, his old Madeira absolutely first chop, and the only other man present a teetotal curate, who withdrew with the ladies to talk his parish shop. Favoured by these circumstances, and the perception that Ventnor was an agreeable fellow, Bob Pillin yielded to his secret itch to get near the subject of his affections.
"Do you happen," he said airily, "to know a Mrs. Larne--relative of old Heythorp's--rather a handsome woman-she writes stories."
Mr. Ventnor shook his head. A closer scrutiny than Bob Pillin's would have seen that he also moved his ears.
"Of old Heythorp's? Didn't know he had any, except his daughter, and that son of his in the Admiralty."
Bob Pillin felt the glow of his secret hobby spreading within him.
"She is, though--lives rather out of town; got a son and daughter. I thought you might know her stories--clever woman."
Mr. Ventnor smiled. "Ah!" he said enigmatically, "these lady novelists! Does she make any money by them?"
Bob Pillin knew that to make money by writing meant success, but that not to make money by writing was artistic, and implied that you had private means, which perhaps was even more distinguished. And he said:
"Oh! she has private means, I know."
Mr. Ventnor reached for the Madeira.
"So she's a relative of old Heythorp's," he said. "He's a very old friend of your father's. He ought to go bankrupt, you know."
To Bob Pillin, glowing with passion and Madeira, the idea of bankruptcy seemed discreditable in connection with a relative of Phyllis. Besides, the old boy was far from that! Had he not just made this settlement on Mrs. Larne? And he said:
"I think you're mistaken. That's of the past."
Mr. Ventnor smiled.
"Will you bet?" he said.
Bob Pillin also smiled. "I should be bettin' on a certainty."
Mr. Ventnor passed his hand over his whiskered face. "Don't you believe it; he hasn't a mag to his name. Fill your glass."
Bob Pillin said, with a certain resentment:
"Well, I happen to know he's just made a settlement of five or six thousand pounds. Don't know if you call that being bankrupt."
"What! On this Mrs. Larne?"
Confused, uncertain whether he had said something derogatory or indiscreet, or something which added distinction to Phyllis, Bob Pillin hesitated, then gave a nod.
Mr. Ventnor rose and extended his short legs before the fire.
"No, my boy," he said. "No!"
Unaccustomed to flat contradiction, Bob Pillin reddened.
"I'll bet you a tenner. Ask Scrivens."
Mr. Ventnor ejaculated:
"Scrivens---but they're not--" then, staring rather hard, he added: "I won't bet. You may be right. Scrivens are your father's solicitors too, aren't they? Always been sorry he didn't come to me. Shall we join the ladies?" And to the drawing-room he preceded a young man more uncertain in his mind than on his feet....
Charles Ventnor was not one to let you see that more was going on within than met the eye. But there was a good deal going on that evening, and after his conversation with young Bob he had occasion more than once to turn away and rub his hands together. When, after that second creditors' meeting, he had walked down the stairway which led to the offices of "The Island Navigation Company," he had been deep in thought. Short, squarely built, rather stout, with moustache and large mutton-chop whiskers of a red brown, and a faint floridity in face and dress, he impressed at first sight only by a certain truly British vulgarity. One felt that here was a hail-fellow--well-met man who liked lunch and dinner, went to Scarborough for his summer holidays, sat on his wife, took his daughters out in a boat and was never sick. One felt that he went to church every Sunday morning, looked upwards as he moved through life, disliked the unsuccessful, and expanded with his second glass of wine. But then a clear look into his well-clothed face and red-brown eyes would give the feeling: 'There's something fulvous here; he might be a bit too foxy.' A third look brought the thought: 'He's certainly a bully.' He was not a large creditor of old Heythorp. With interest on the original, he calculated his claim at three hundred pounds--unredeemed shares in that old Ecuador mine. But he had waited for his money eight years, and could never imagine how it came about that he had been induced to wait so long. There had been, of course, for one who liked "big pots," a certain glamour about the personality of old Heythorp, still a bit of a swell in shipping circles, and a bit of an aristocrat in Liverpool. But during the last year Charles Ventnor had realised that the old chap's star had definitely set--when that happens, of course, there is no more glamour, and the time has come to get your money. Weakness in oneself and others is despicable! Besides, he had food for thought, and descending the stairs he chewed it: He smelt a rat--creatures for which both by nature and profession he had a nose. Through Bob Pillin, on whom he sometimes dwelt in connection with his younger daughter, he knew that old Pillin and old Heythorp had been friends for thirty years and more. That, to an astute mind, suggested something behind this sale. The thought had already occurred to him when he read his copy of the report. A commission would be a breach of trust, of course, but there were ways of doing things; the old chap was devilish hard pressed, and human nature was human nature! His lawyerish mind habitually put two and two together. The old fellow had deliberately appointed to meet his creditors again just after the general meeting which would decide the purchase--had said he might do something for them then. Had that no significance?
In these circumstances Charles Ventnor had come to the meeting with eyes wide open and mouth tight closed. And he had watched. It was certainly remarkable that such an old and feeble man, with no neck at all, who looked indeed as if he might go off with apoplexy any moment, should actually say that he "stood or fell" by this purchase, knowing that if he fell he would be a beggar. Why should the old chap be so keen on getting it through? It would do him personally no good, unless--Exactly! He had left the meeting, therefore, secretly confident that old Heythorp had got something out of this transaction which would enable him to make a substantial proposal to his creditors. So that when the old man had declared that he was going to make none, something had turned sour in his heart, and he had said to himself: "All right, you old rascal! You don't know C. V." The cavalier manner of that beggarly old rip, the defiant look of his deep little eyes, had put a polish on the rancour of one who prided himself on letting no man get the better of him. All that evening, seated on one side of the fire, while Mrs. Ventnor sat on the other, and the younger daughter played Gounod's Serenade on the violin--he cogitated. And now and again he smiled, but not too much. He did not see his way as yet, but had little doubt that before long he would. It would not be hard to knock that chipped old idol off his perch. There was already a healthy feeling among the shareholders that he was past work and should be scrapped. The old chap should find that Charles V. was not to be defied; that when he got his teeth into a thing, he did not let it go. By hook or crook he would have the old man off his Boards, or his debt out of him as the price of leaving him alone. His life or his money--and the old fellow should determine which. With the memory of that defiance fresh within him, he almost hoped it might come to be the first, and turning to Mrs. Ventnor, he said abruptly:
"Have a little dinner Friday week, and ask young Pillin and the curate." He specified the curate, a tee-totaller, because he had two daughters, and males and females must be paired, but he intended to pack him off after dinner to the drawing-room to discuss parish matters while he and Bob Pillin sat over their wine. What he expected to get out of the young man he did not as yet know.
On the day of the dinner, before departing for the office, he had gone to his cellar. Would three bottles of Perrier Jouet do the trick, or must he add one of the old Madeira? He decided to be on the safe side. A bottle or so of champagne went very little way with him personally, and young Pillin might be another.
The Madeira having done its work by turning the conversation into such an admirable channel, he had cut it short for fear young Pillin might drink the lot or get wind of the rat. And when his guests were gone, and his family had retired, he stood staring into the fire, putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Five or six thousand pounds--six would be ten per cent. on sixty! Exactly! Scrivens--young Pillin had said! But Crow & Donkin, not Scriven & Coles, were old Heythorp's solicitors. What could that mean, save that the old man wanted to cover the tracks of a secret commission, and had handled the matter through solicitors who did not know the state of his affairs! But why Pillin's solicitors? With this sale just going through, it must look deuced fishy to them too. Was it all a mare's nest, after all? In such circumstances he himself would have taken the matter to a London firm who knew nothing of anybody. Puzzled, therefore, and rather disheartened, feeling too that touch of liver which was wont to follow his old Madeira, he went up to bed and woke his wife to ask her why the dickens they couldn't always have soup like that!
Next day he continued to brood over his puzzle, and no fresh light came; but having a matter on which his firm and Scrivens' were in touch, he decided to go over in person, and see if he could surprise something out of them. Feeling, from experience, that any really delicate matter would only be entrusted to the most responsible member of the firm, he had asked to see Scriven himself, and just as he had taken his hat to go, he said casually:
"By the way, you do some business for old Mr. Heythorp, don't you?"
Scriven, raising his eyebrows a little, murmured: "Er--no," in exactly the tone Mr. Ventnor himself used when he wished to imply that though he didn't as a fact do business, he probably soon would. He knew therefore that the answer was a true one. And non-plussed, he hazarded:
"Oh! I thought you did, in regard to a Mrs. Larne."
This time he had certainly drawn blood of sorts, for down came Scriven's eyebrows, and he said:
"Mrs. Larne--we know a Mrs. Larne, but not in that connection. Why?"
"Oh! Young Pillin told me--"
"Young Pillin? Why, it's his---!" A little pause, and then: "Old Mr. Heythorp's solicitors are Crow & Donkin, I believe."
Mr. Ventnor held out his hand. "Yes, yes," he said; "goodbye. Glad to have got that matter settled up," and out he went, and down the street, important, smiling. By George! He had got it! "It's his father"--Scriven had been going to say. What a plant! Exactly! Oh! neat! Old Pillin had made the settlement direct; and the solicitors were in the dark; that disposed of his difficulty about them. No money had passed between old Pillin and old Heythorp not a penny. Oh! neat! But not neat enough for Charles Ventnor, who had that nose for rats. Then his smile died, and with a little chill he perceived that it was all based on supposition--not quite good enough to go on! What then? Somehow he must see this Mrs. Larne, or better--old Pillin himself. The point to ascertain was whether she had any connection of her own with Pillin. Clearly young Pillin didn't know of it; for, according to him, old Heythorp had made the settlement. By Jove! That old rascal was deep--all the more satisfaction in proving that he was not as deep as C. V. To unmask the old cheat was already beginning to seem in the nature of a public service. But on what pretext could he visit Pillin? A subscription to the Windeatt almshouses! That would make him talk in self-defence and he would take care not to press the request to the actual point of getting a subscription. He caused himself to be driven to the Pillin residence in Sefton Park. Ushered into a room on the ground floor, heated in American fashion, Mr. Ventnor unbuttoned his coat. A man of sanguine constitution, he found this hot-house atmosphere a little trying. And having sympathetically obtained Joe Pillin's reluctant refusal--Quite so! One could not indefinitely extend one's subscriptions even for the best of causes!--he said gently:
"By the way, you know Mrs. Larne, don't you?"
The effect of that simple shot surpassed his highest hopes. Joe Pillin's face, never highly coloured, turned a sort of grey; he opened his thin lips, shut them quickly, as birds do, and something seemed to pass with difficulty down his scraggy throat. The hollows, which nerve exhaustion delves in the cheeks of men whose cheekbones are not high, increased alarmingly. For a moment he looked deathly; then, moistening his lips, he said:
"Larne--Larne? No, I don't seem---"
Mr. Ventnor, who had taken care to be drawing on his gloves, murmured:
"Oh! I thought--your son knows her; a relation of old Heythorp's," and he looked up.
Joe Pillin had his handkerchief to his mouth; he coughed feebly, then with more and more vigour:
"I'm in very poor health," he said, at last. "I'm getting abroad at once. This cold's killing me. What name did you say?" And he remained with his handkerchief against his teeth.
Mr. Ventnor repeated:
"Larne. Writes stories."
Joe Pillin muttered into his handkerchief
"Ali! H'm! No--I--no! My son knows all sorts of people. I shall have to try Mentone. Are you going? Good-bye! Good-bye! I'm sorry; ah! ha! My cough--ah! ha h'h'm! Very distressing. Ye-hes! My cough-ah! ha h'h'm! Most distressing. Ye-hes!"
Out in the drive Mr. Ventnor took a deep breath of the frosty air. Not much doubt now! The two names had worked like charms. This weakly old fellow would make a pretty witness, would simply crumple under cross-examination. What a contrast to that hoary old sinner Heythorp, whose brazenness nothing could affect. The rat was as large as life! And the only point was how to make the best use of it. Then--for his experience was wide--the possibility dawned on him, that after all, this Mrs. Larne might only have been old Pillin's mistress--or be his natural daughter, or have some other blackmailing hold on him. Any such connection would account for his agitation, for his denying her, for his son's ignorance. Only it wouldn't account for young Pillin's saying that old Heythorp had made the settlement. He could only have got that from the woman herself. Still, to make absolutely sure, he had better try and see her. But how? It would never do to ask Bob Pillin for an introduction, after this interview with his father. He would have to go on his own and chance it. Wrote stories did she? Perhaps a newspaper would know her address; or the Directory would give it--not a common name! And, hot on the scent, he drove to a post office. Yes, there it was, right enough! "Larne, Mrs. R., 23, Millicent Villas." And thinking to himself: 'No time like the present,' he turned in that direction. The job was delicate. He must be careful not to do anything which might compromise his power of making public use of his knowledge. Yes-ticklish! What he did now must have a proper legal bottom. Still, anyway you looked at it, he had a right to investigate a fraud on himself as a shareholder of "The Island Navigation Company," and a fraud on himself as a creditor of old Heythorp. Quite! But suppose this Mrs. Larne was really entangled with old Pillin, and the settlement a mere reward of virtue, easy or otherwise. Well! in that case there'd be no secret commission to make public, and he needn't go further. So that, in either event, he would be all right. Only--how to introduce himself? He might pretend he was a newspaper man wanting a story. No, that wouldn't do! He must not represent that he was what he was not, in case he had afterwards to justify his actions publicly, always a difficult thing, if you were not careful! At that moment there came into his mind a question Bob Pillin had asked the other night. "By the way, you can't borrow on a settlement, can you? Isn't there generally some clause against it?" Had this woman been trying to borrow from him on that settlement? But at this moment he reached the house, and got out of his cab still undecided as to how he was going to work the oracle. Impudence, constitutional and professional, sustained him in saying to the little maid:
"Mrs. Larne at home? Say Mr. Charles Ventnor, will you?"
His quick brown eyes took in the apparel of the passage which served for hall--the deep blue paper on the walls, lilac-patterned curtains over the doors, the well-known print of a nude young woman looking over her shoulder, and he thought: 'H'm! Distinctly tasty!' They noted, too, a small brown-and-white dog cowering in terror at the very end of the passage, and he murmured affably: "Fluffy! Come here, Fluffy!" till Carmen's teeth chattered in her head.
"Will you come in, sir?"
Mr. Ventnor ran his hand over his whiskers, and, entering a room, was impressed at once by its air of domesticity. On a sofa a handsome woman and a pretty young girl were surrounded by sewing apparatus and some white material. The girl looked up, but the elder lady rose.
Mr. Ventnor said easily
"You know my young friend, Mr. Robert Pillin, I think."
The lady, whose bulk and bloom struck him to the point of admiration, murmured in a full, sweet drawl:
"Oh! Ye-es. Are you from Messrs. Scrivens?"
With the swift reflection: 'As I thought!' Mr. Ventnor answered:
"Er--not exactly. I am a solicitor though; came just to ask about a certain settlement that Mr. Pillin tells me you're entitled under."
Seeing the girl about to rise from underneath the white stuff, Mr. Ventnor said quickly:
"Pray don't disturb yourself--just a formality!" It had struck him at once that the lady would have to speak the truth in the presence of this third party, and he went on: "Quite recent, I think. This'll be your first interest-on six thousand pounds? Is that right?" 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 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. She was trying to hook young Bob for that sprig of a girl--it was clear as mud. 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 worth while to have made a bargain--a woman like that could have made it worth while! 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 washin' '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 he had 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?"
And he thought desperately: 'Dare I--oughtn't I--couldn't I somehow take her hand or put my arm round her, or something?' Instead, he sat very rigid at his end of the sofa, while she sat lax and lissom 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, when chaff and even kisses came readily to the lips, and girls were fair game, would make him think: 'Is she really such an innocent? Doesn't she really want me to kiss 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---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 fervour:
"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!"
"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. Then the thought of Ventnor again ousted all others. What on earth-how on earth! He searched his mind for what he could possibly have said the other night. Surely he had not asked him to do anything; certainly not given him their address. There was something very odd about it that had jolly well got to be cleared up! And he said:
"Are you sure the name of that Johnny who came here yesterday was Ventnor?"
"And he was short, and had whiskers?"
"Yes; red, and red eyes."
He murmured reluctantly:
"It must be him. Jolly good cheek; I simply can't understand. I shall go and see him. How on earth did he know your address?"
"I expect you gave it him."
"I did not. I won't have you thinking me a squirt."
Phyllis jumped up. "Oh! Lawks! Here's mother!" Mrs. Larne was coming up the garden. Bob Pillin made for the door. "Good-bye," he said; "I'm going." But Mrs. Larne was already in the hall. Enveloping him in fur and her rich personality, she drew him with her into the drawing-room, where the back window was open and Phyllis gone.
"I hope," she said, "those naughty children have been making you comfortable. That nice lawyer of yours came yesterday. He seemed quite satisfied."
Very red above his collar, Bob Pillin stammered:
"I never told him to; he isn't my lawyer. I don't know what it means."
Mrs. Larne smiled. "My dear boy, it's all right. You needn't be so squeamish. I want it to be quite on a business footing."
Restraining a fearful inclination to blurt out: "It's not going to be on any footing!" Bob Pillin mumbled: "I must go; I'm late."
"And when will you be able---?"
"Oh! I'll--I'll send--I'll write. Good-bye!" And suddenly he found that Mrs. Larne had him by the lapel of his coat. The scent of violets and fur was overpowering, and the thought flashed through him: 'I believe she only wanted to take money off old Joseph in the Bible. I can't leave my coat in her hands! What shall I do?'
Mrs. Larne was murmuring:
"It would be so sweet of you if you could manage it today"; and her hand slid over his chest. "Oh! You have brought your cheque-book--what a nice boy!"
Bob Pillin took it out in desperation, and, sitting down at the bureau, wrote a cheque similar to that which he had torn and burned. A warm kiss lighted on his eyebrow, his head was pressed for a moment to a furry bosom; a hand took the cheque; a voice said: "How delightful!" and a sigh immersed him in a bath of perfume. Backing to the door, he gasped:
"Don't mention it; and--and don't tell Phyllis, please. Good-bye!"
Once through the garden gate, he thought: 'By gum! I've done it now. That Phyllis should know about it at all! That beast Ventnor!'
His face grew almost grim. He would go and see what that meant anyway!
Mr. Ventnor had not left his office when his young friend's card was brought to him. Tempted for a moment to deny his own presence, he thought: 'No! What's the good? Bound to see him some time!' If he had not exactly courage, he had that peculiar blend of self-confidence and insensibility which must needs distinguish those who follow the law; nor did he ever forget that he was in the right.
"Show him in!" he said.
He would be quite bland, but young Pillin might whistle for an explanation; he was still tormented, too, by the memory of rich curves and moving lips, and the possibilities of better acquaintanceship.
While shaking the young man's hand his quick and fulvous eye detected at once the discomposure behind that mask of cheek and collar, and relapsing into one of those swivel chairs which give one an advantage over men more statically seated, he said:
"You look pretty bobbish. Anything I can do for you?"
Bob Pillin, in the fixed chair of the consultor, nursed his bowler on his knee.
"Well, yes, there is. I've just been to see Mrs. Larne."
Mr. Ventnor did not flinch.
"Ah! Nice woman; pretty daughter, too!" And into those words he put a certain meaning. He never waited to be bullied. Bob Pillin felt the pressure of his blood increasing.
"Look here, Ventnor," he said, "I want an explanation."
"Why, of your going there, and using my name, and God knows what."
Mr. Ventnor gave his chair two little twiddles before he said
"Well, you won't get it."
Bob Pillin remained for a moment taken aback; then he muttered resolutely:
"It's not the conduct of a gentleman."
Every man has his illusions, and no man likes them disturbed. The gingery tint underlying Mr. Ventnor's colouring overlaid it; even the whites of his eyes grew red.
"Oh!" he said; "indeed! You mind your own business, will you?"
"It is my business--very much so. You made use of my name, and I don't choose---"
"The devil you don't! Now, I tell you what---"
Mr. Ventnor leaned forward--"you'd better hold your tongue, and not exasperate me. I'm a good-tempered man, but I won't stand your impudence."
Clenching his bowler hat, and only kept in his seat by that sense of something behind, Bob Pillin ejaculated:
"Impudence! That's good--after what you did! Look here, why did you? It's so extraordinary!"
Mr. Ventnor answered:
"Oh! is it? You wait a bit, my friend!"
Still more moved by the mystery of this affair, Bob Pillin could only mutter:
"I never gave you their address; we were only talking about old Heythorp."
And at the smile which spread between Mr. Ventnor's whiskers, he jumped up, crying:
"It's not the thing, and you're not going to put me off. I insist on an explanation."
Mr. Ventnor leaned back, crossing his stout legs, joining the tips of his thick fingers. In this attitude he was always self-possessed.
"You do--do you?"
"Yes. You must have had some reason."
Mr. Ventnor gazed up at him.
"I'll give you a piece of advice, young cock, and charge you nothing for it, too: Ask no questions, and you'll be told no lies. And here's another: Go away before you forget yourself again."
The natural stolidity of Bob Pilings face was only just proof against this speech. He said thickly:
"If you go there again and use my name, I'll Well, it's lucky for you you're not my age. Anyway I'll relieve you of my acquaintanceship in future. Good-evening!" and he went to the door. Mr. Ventnor had risen.
"Very well," he said loudly. "Good riddance! You wait and see which boot the leg is on!"
But Bob Pillin was gone, leaving the lawyer with a very red face, a very angry heart, and a vague sense of disorder in his speech. Not only Bob Pillin, but his tender aspirations had all left him; he no longer dallied with the memory of Mrs. Larne, but like a man and a Briton thought only of how to get his own back, and punish evildoers. The atrocious words of his young friend, "It's not the conduct of a gentleman," festered in the heart of one who was made gentle not merely by nature but by Act of Parliament, and he registered a solemn vow to wipe the insult out, if not with blood, with verjuice. It was his duty, and they should d---d well see him do it!
Sylvanus Heythorp seldom went to bed before one or rose before eleven. The latter habit alone kept his valet from handing in the resignation which the former habit prompted almost every night.
Propped on his pillows in a crimson dressing-gown, and freshly shaved, he looked more Roman than he ever did, except in his bath. Having disposed of coffee, he was wont to read his letters, and The Morning Post, for he had always been a Tory, and could not stomach paying a halfpenny for his news. Not that there were many letters--when a man has reached the age of eighty, who should write to him, except to ask for money?
It was Valentine's Day. Through his bedroom window he could see the trees of the park, where the birds were in song, though he could not hear them. He had never been interested in Nature--full-blooded men with short necks seldom are.
This morning indeed there were two letters, and he opened that which smelt of something. Inside was a thing like a Christmas card, save that the naked babe had in his hands a bow and arrow, and words coming out of his mouth: "To be your Valentine." There was also a little pink note with one blue forget-me-not printed at the top. It ran:
I'm sorry this is such a mangy little valentine; I couldn't go out to get it because I've got a beastly cold, so I asked Jock, and the pig bought this. The satin is simply scrumptious. If you don't come and see me in it some time soon, I shall come and show it to you. I wish I had a moustache, because my top lip feels just like a matchbox, but it's rather ripping having breakfast in bed. Mr. Pillin's taking us to the theatre the day after to-morrow evening. Isn't it nummy! I'm going to have rum and honey for my cold.
So this that quivered in his thick fingers, too insensitive to feel it, was a valentine for him!
Forty years ago that young thing's grandmother had given him his last. It made him out a very old chap! Forty years ago! Had that been himself living then? And himself, who, as a youth came on the town in 'forty-five? Not a thought, not a feeling the same! They said you changed your body every seven years. The mind with it, too, perhaps! Well, he had come to the last of his bodies, now! And that holy woman had been urging him to take it to Bath, with her face as long as a tea-tray, and some gammon from that doctor of his. Too full a habit--dock his port--no alcohol--might go off in a coma any night! Knock off not he! Rather die any day than turn tee-totaller! When a man had nothing left in life except his dinner, his bottle, his cigar, and the dreams they gave him--these doctors forsooth must want to cut them off! No, no! Carpe diem! while you lived, get something out of it. And now that he had made all the provision he could for those youngsters, his life was no good to any one but himself; and the sooner he went off the better, if he ceased to enjoy what there was left, or lost the power to say: "I'll do this and that, and you be jiggered!" Keep a stiff lip until you crashed, and then go clean! He sounded the bell beside him twice-for Molly, not his man. And when the girl came in, and stood, pretty in her print frock, her fluffy over-fine dark hair escaping from under her cap, he gazed at her in silence.
"Want to look at you, that's all."
"Oh I an' I'm not tidy, sirr."
"Never mind. Had your valentine?"
"No, sirr; who would send me one, then?"
"Haven't you a young man?"
"Well, I might. But he's over in my country.
"What d'you think of this?"
He held out the little boy.
The girl took the card and scrutinised it reverently; she said in a detached voice:
"Indeed, an' ut's pretty, too."
"Would you like it?"
"Oh I if 'tis not taking ut from you."
Old Heythorp shook his head, and pointed to the dressing-table.
"Over there--you'll find a sovereign. Little present for a good girl."
She uttered a deep sigh. "Oh! sirr, 'tis too much; 'tis kingly."
She took it, and came back, her hands clasping the sovereign and the valentine, in an attitude as of prayer.
The old man's gaze rested on her with satisfaction.
"I like pretty faces--can't bear sour ones. Tell Meller to get my bath ready."
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.
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,
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 no 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 bath is 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, nothing 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.
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.
"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 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 me?"
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 alcohol."
"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 pluck," 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 rascal." 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 along 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.
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 to-morrow 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 cock-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. 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 women--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. 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.
"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!"
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 who's 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?"
"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, silver-brown 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 dressin' 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 grape-coloured, 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 chap 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 dressed and undressed, 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, breath! 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! He had never been pitied yet--thank God! And he said:
"Get me up a bottle of Perrier Jouet. What's the menu?"
"Germane soup, sir; filly de sole; sweetbread; cutlet soubees, rum souffly."
"Tell her to give me a hors d'oeuvre, and put on a savoury."
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 forget-me-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 gamble 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 cork 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 champagne." 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."
"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 dunno."
The girl answered softly:
"Poor old man, let um 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 n't be first-rate, at this time of year--should be made with little young home-grown 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 champagne. 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 to-night."
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:
"These are the special glasses, sir; only four to the bottle."
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 sexual 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."
"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?"
"Well, get it, then; and don't be an ass."
"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 champagne--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!"
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 wine, 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 thought: '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 brandy in the sideboard."
"Brandy, 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 the liqueur of brandy. The whole gamut! And watching his cigar-smoke wreathing blue in the orange glow, he smiled. 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 brandy! How can you--you know it's simple poison to you!" A figure in white, scarcely actual, loomed up close. He took the bottle to fill up his liqueur 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 champagne--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 white-aproned 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 liquor 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 for ever--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's 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 low-cut dress--the flush of her first supper party--a gardenia at her breast, 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:
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 lips; 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.
* * * * * * * * * * * *