“Aequam memento rebus in arduis
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'.”
Thank you for reading!