Sunday, 14 April 2013

One last stroke

A Stoic is one of my favourite John Galsworthy short stories. The main character is Sylvanus Heythorp, elderly chairman of a shipping company. After a full life, he is almost immobile and close to death but still retains his grip on the company. His final ambition is to pull one last stroke and raise enough money to provide for his illegitimate grandchildren.

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

Heythorp's plan is to arrange a secret commission on a shipping deal. He is by no means a sympathetic character, yet the story is a wonderfully atmospheric portrait of a hard man, now on the edge of the Abyss but with absolutely no regrets for a life lived to the full.

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.

With his last scam safely in the bag, Haythorp is unexpectedly rumbled by a minor creditor. Yet he still has fire in his belly and is not about to be thwarted at this late stage. He secures the deal via his own death, brought on by final lavish meal eaten alone and savoured to the full.

The souffle was before him now, and lifting his glass, he said: “Fill up.”

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

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

So that holy woman [Heythorp’s detested daughter] 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.”

His favourite. “I’ll have my port with it — the ‘sixty-eight.”

The man stood gazing with evident stupefaction. He had not expected this. The old man’s face was very flushed, but that might be the bath. He said feebly: “Are you sure you ought, sir?”

“No, but I’m going to.”

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

“If you do, you can leave my service.”

“Well, Sir, I don’t accept the responsibility.”

“Who asked you to?”

“No, Sir....” 

“Well, get it, then; and don’t be an ass.”

“Yes, Sir.” If the old man were not humoured he would have a fit, perhaps!

Sylvanus Heythorp achieves his last ambition by dying replete and contented, still clutching a bottle of his finest brandy.


James Higham said...

Oh my goodness - making me hungry now.

A K Haart said...

James - (: