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?
"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?"
"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."
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!