The Spirit of the Bank of Lower Canada
Ghost writing came naturally to the president’s confidential assistant. He’d been dead for thirty-eight years
SECOND PRIZE, MACLEAN'S SHORT-STORY CONTEST
THE BELIEF is widely held that presidents of the Bank of Lower Canada have always written their own speeches, but in fact between 1876 and 1954 they were the work of Mr. Percy Aikinshaw.
Mr. Aikinshaw, an editorial writer on the Pall Mall Gazette, becoming involved in an unhappy situation of a bigamous nature, found it wiser to seek his fortune in the New World. He was a gentle home-loving person, so fond of homes indeed that he kept two going at the same time, and he did not at all relish this sally into the rough unknown. But on his arrival in Montreal he was lucky enough to find lodgings with a kindly widow who kept a wellheated home on Bleury Street, and there he stayed until the day of his death. This widow had a brother occupying a sound position in the middle rank of the heirarchy of the Bank of Lower Canada, and he
recommended Mr. Aikinshaw to Lord Memphremagog, president of the bank, who was then looking for a confidential assistant.
Lord Memphremagog found Mr. Aikinshaw a man of good taste and vocabulary, and he was installed in a small, cozy room adjoining the presidential office. Originally intended as an ample clothes closet, it proved an ideal confidential nook for a confidential assistant, and Mr. Aikinshaw was delighted with it. He was thirty-eight when he was appointed to his post a month after his arrival in Montreal and he lived to perform his duties for another forty years. He died at his desk on Christmas Eve 1916 of a sudden heart attack which may have been brought on by suffocation.
Sir Andrew McMaster was then president of the Bank of Lower Canada. He had inherited Mr. Aikinshaw from Lord Memphremagog and was
particularly distressed to lose him at this time, for he was due to address the Toronto branch of the Sons of Empire early in January.
He went into the dead man’s office to see whether by chance Mr. Aikinshaw had left some notes for the speech and realized, at first with shocked astonishment but then with sincere delight, that Mr. Aikinshaw was still there. The presence he encountered could hear and understand him and could in reply convey thoughts to his brain. Mr. Aikinshaw dictated a forceful and dignified speech and, in his relief at receiving this assistance, Sir Andrew was quite willing to take on the additional chore of writing it out himself.
Luckily, Mr. Aikinshaw’s function had never been officially acknowledged, and so the fact that the president’s ghost had become a ghost was not of maj'or consequence. Sir Andrew, however, realized
that it would not increase the confidence of either investors or depositors if he revealed the source of his continuing inspiration, and he kept it entirely secret until he was succeeded as president by Sir Herbert Fothergill. He then presented Sir Herbert to Mr. Aikinshaw, and Mr. Aikinshaw readily agreed to remain at his post.
The tradition, passed on by Sir Herbert in his turn, was broken only in 1954 when Blake Jopson became president. Blake Jopson had no use for tradition. A farmer’s son, he had risen to the top through simple, rugged ability, and his self-declared role in the bank was that of new broom. One of the first things he decided to sweep out was the musty closet sacred to the memory of Percy Aikinshaw.
It was not j'ust a matter of removing Mr. Aikinshaw’s presence. For years the new president had listened to the sonorous periods which, he now knew, had all come from the same pen, and for years his irritation with them had risen. They were not, he was sure, the right way to speak to Canada in the mid-twentieth century. An entirely new approach was required. After ordering the small room to be converted into a regular clothes closet, he appointed his own confidential assistant.
It was the subject of
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scandalized comment in the bank lunchrooms that this appointment was made from outside. Jack Veale, junior professor of economics at the University of Saskatchewan, had written— in a magazine that bank executives read—a series of articles on what he called The Responsible Conduct of Business. The welcome offer from the Bank of Lower Canada confirmed his growing impression that opportunities are riper on the far side of the campus. A tall, fair young man, more athlete than scholar in appearance, he was given an office next to the bank economist. The president did not find it necessary to tell him about his predecessor.
BLAKE JOPSON offended horribly Mr. Aikinshaw’s image of what the head of the Bank of Lower Canada ought to be. He was the first president in Mr. Aikinshaw’s memory who was not tall, slim and elegant, and who did not speak what Mr. Aikinshaw regarded as cultured English. Bulky and heavy-faced, with crew-cut hair and a voice of gruff authority, he appeared a typical American businessman. He dressed loosely and loudly. But, in spite of all this, Mr. Aikinshaw could scarcely credit the way he was being treated after almost eighty years of loyal service.
When Blake Jopson resolutely closed his mind to all attempts to communicate, Mr. Aikinshaw became so upset that he pondered taking the train to Toronto to offer his services to the Bank of Upper Canada, the traditional rival. Only his memories of the kindness of Lord Memphremagog, Sir Andrew and Sir Herbert, working on a gentle, homeloving nature, held him back. And this restraint gave the president a false impression of early and absolute success.
Jack Veale meanwhile produced a talk on Our New Industrial Frontiers for which Blake Jopson was widely acclaimed. The Financial Post did a half-page profile and the Canadian edition of Time was quite laudatory. Percy Aikinshaw was less impressed and, after reading a further script entitled Banking And The People Of Canada, which he found on the president’s desk, he knew that he had to take action. He chose a late January afternoon when grey skies thick with Unfällen snow pressed against Veale’s window. The new man, with many periodicals spread over his desk, was co-ordinating his thoughts at a portable typewriter.
I trust you will pardon the intrusion, Mr. Veale,” Mr. Aikinshaw remarked, ' hut I was most anxious to have a word with you.”
"Yes, what is it?”
My name is Aikinshaw, Percy Aikinshaw.”
r. Well, come in, I’ll be through in a minute.”
'But I am in.”
Jack Veale finished his sentence, then looked round. "What the ...”
: Nobody told you about me?” Mr.
Aikinshaw was really hurt.
Veale rose to his feet.
"Mr. Jopson should have told you, even though he was ashamed of what he did. For eighty years I wrote the Speeches of the presidents of this bank, excellent speeches everyone agreed, and then suddenly ...” He broke off.
t)f course I do not hold you to blame, Mr. Veale, but you can understand why
I feel somewhat bitter about it all.” Veale peered round the room, shook the clothes tree as if expecting Mr. Aikinshaw to fall out of an overcoat, and then edged toward the closed door.
"Please, Mr. Veale. My body died in 1916, but when the spirit is truly devoted the absence of a body makes surprisingly little difference.”
"You—you continued to write their speeches—a fter ward? ’ ’
"Writing is not a wholly accurate description. Physical activity is now, alas, beyond me. But mind speaks to mind. Just as I am now speaking to you.”
Veale returned heavily to his chair. "Well,” he said at last, "where do we go from here?”
"That, Mr. Veale, is what I wished to discuss with you. As you will readily realize, your appointment was a terrible blow. Not that I had any pride of position, although my confidential relationship to so many presidents of this great institution would surely justify it. But the whole purpose of my existence has been taken away from me.”
"Couldn’t you—er—go to some other place?”
"It seems not. I don’t fully understand these matters but there has been no suggestion of a transfer.”
"I see. So what do you expect me to do about it?” The gentleness of Mr. Aikinshaw’s manner gave Jack Veale back his normal powers of decision and aggression.
"I hope you won’t feel offended,” Mr. Aikinshaw replied obliquely, "if I say I’ve been rather disturbed by the type of speech Mr. Jopson is giving.” "And why is that?”
"The substance, Mr. Veale, struck me as reasonably sound but the language—need it really be so colloquial? I remember one sentence in which Mr. Jopson suggested getting down to the —guts of a problem. I was deeply shocked.”
"Mr. Aikinshaw, it may interest you to know that I did postgraduate work on executive speechmaking at the Harvard School of Business. The day of the polished phrase, the rolling period is over. The modern businessman must speak as he thinks— vigorously and to the point.”
"But not the president of the Bank of Lower Canada. He is no ordinary businessman.”
"It’s high time he became one.” There was a long pause. At last Percy Aikinshaw urged gently, "I realize Mr. Jopson wishes to have a change of pace but it is surely not necessary to go to extremes. Would it not be of some assistance to you, Mr. Veale, if I edited your material just here and there, if I took a little of the roughness out of it?”
"I was brought in to provide a new look, Mr. Aikinshaw, and a new look it is going to be. I think you should apply for a transfer.”
"But, Mr. Veale, just consider ...” Jack Veale finally lost control. "Get to hell out of here,” he shouted.
Distressed beyond words, Mr. Aikinshaw retired.
WHEN in the depths of the clothes closet he came to consider things calmly, he found that Veale’s rude refusal had aroused a new determination. Stronger action had to be taken. Yet he had difficulty deciding what this action should consist of. The only previous nastiness he experienced he had solved by flight, and in this case flight was not to be contemplated. He was fighting not merely for his own future but for the good name of the bank.
He decided to seek advice, from a man whom he had often been tempted
to speak to. Hitherto, loyalty to the sitting president had denied such indiscretion but now his greater loyalty to the bank positively demanded it.
Marriner Hancock had once held the title of manager of the Westmount branch. His charm of manner had made him a great favorite with the ladies of the neighborhood who delighted to drop in and pass the time of day with him, but unfortunately business acumen did not supplement his endearing personality. Having made too many loans which the inspectors described succinctly as ill-advised, he was appointed bank historian.
It was in this position that he came to learn about the career of Percy Aikinshaw. The full extent of Mr. Aikinshaw’s duties was never revealed to him, but there was enough material available to provide him with a charming, inspirational article for The Bank of Lower Canada Magazine, entitled P. A.—Devoted Assistant to Six Presidents. Mr. Aikinshaw had been very touched by it.
Again he chose a dim late afternoon to present himself. Marriner Hancock, a small grey-haired man who favored the severe dress of the traditional banker and wore spats in preference to snowboots, was happily re-reading the personal journal of the bank’s first manager in Dawson City. His immediate comment was, "Percy Aikinshaw? I’m delighted to meet you,” and he looked around for a hand to clasp. Then he realized the true situation. "But of course. Christmas Eve 1918, if my memory serves me.”
"1916, Mr. Hancock.”
"Is this a—visit?”
"Oh, no. I’ve remained with the bank.”
"My dear fellow, what terrific loyalty.”
Assured of the historian’s sympathy, Mr. Aikinshaw recounted the story of his troubles. Marriner Hancock shook his head with sad understanding. "Our new president,” he said, "is by all accounts a very able man but he is scarcely the type of president we loyal servants of the Bank of Lower Canada have the right to expect. And this Veale fellow is a complete outsider. How can he presume to interpret our century-old philosophy? You must certainly do something about it,” he added with determination.
"I should dearly love to,” Mr. Aikinshaw agreed, "but I cannot quite see how.”
"But my dear fellow it is, for one in your position, the easiest of tasks.’ Marriner Hancock paused, then drove his advice home. "Persecute, Aikinshaw, persecute.”
"I do not like ...”
"This is no time for scruples.”
"The necessary physical action i now, I fear, quite out of the question.’ "It will be a pleasure and an honor tc assist you. Besides, it is my duty a; bank historian to preserve, if you will pardon the expression, our ancien! monuments. And I can assure you that we shall not lack allies.”
THREE mornings later Jack Veal* could not find his typewriter. H' searched his office and that of th# economist next door, then summon# the building superintendent. Veale who was a realist, made certain sugg# tions about the cleaning staff which th superintendent resented so deeply h went straight to the secretary to com plain. Every member of the cleanin' staff had served the bank for at lea? fifteen years.
The secretary called up Veale to suf gest he might have mislaid the typ* writer. Aroused by a certain asperi« in the secretary’s voice, Veale, who on the point of arranging to borro*
another one, determined the matter must be cleared up rapidly and decisively. He undertook a thorough search of each department of the head office. The brusqueness born of his irritation did not leave a happy impression, nor did his attitude to the chief inspector, Gordon Broadhead, when he found the machine in a corner of Mr. Broadhead’s personal washroom. "You don’t think I put it there, do you?” Mr. Broadhead said finally, and insisted on receiving an answer to his question.
The lunchrooms found this ill - tem-
pered odyssey of the confidential assistant an intriguing subject of conversation. His actions a week later gave rise to yet more vehement exchanges. It appeared that he had peculiar ideas about his position; he was affecting the mahogany wastebasket and patterned carpet absolutely reserved for assistant general managers.
Jack Veale was surprised how many officials found it necessary to call on him, yet stayed for only a brief and absent-minded visit. Gordon Broadhead, however, wasted no time. "Where did you pick up that wastebasket,
Veale—and that carpet, eh?”
"I don’t know.”
"You don’t know?”
"I just found them here one morning.”
"Well, nobody has informed me of your appointment as AGM.”
The typewriter incident could have been an accident, but this certainly was not. Aikinshaw was at work, a mean and spiteful spirit, and he was enjoying assistance. But this post at the Bank of Lower Canada was too large a step up the ladder of success for Jack Veale to abandon. He debated whether to
launch a counterattack but he could find no suitably exposed flank. He would just have to stand the siege.
Percy Aikinshaw himself now felt the time had come to make another appeal for co-operation, but Marriner Hancock was dead against it. "We’re softening him, Percy,” he said, "but we still have a way to go.”
There are four lunchrooms in the Bank of Lower Canada. The first is for the clerical staff, the second for junior executives, the third for middle executives, and the fourth is known as the president’s dining room. Jack Veale had been placed in the middle executives’ room, which had aroused no little comment, his colleagues there all being seasoned servants of the bank.
He was most surprised then to receive a call from Mrs. Waterhouse, the manager’s widow in charge of the dining service, to inform him that henceforth he would eat in the president’s room. He was to take the fourth chair from the left at the third table.
When Mrs. Waterhouse had rung off he pondered his automatic suspicions, then dialed the dining service number. "Oh, Mrs. Waterhouse, this is Jack Veale. Did you say the third chair from the left at the fourth table?”
"Let me see, Mr. Veale. No, it’s the fourth chair from the left at the third table.”
"I must admit I’m rather puzzled. I didn’t think I . . .”
"Those were Mr. Jopson’s personal instructions.”
It was inconceivable that Percy Aikinshaw would take the president’s name in vain. On the other hand, Blake Jopson, a man not bound by convention, would easily see the advantage to his confidential assistant of listening to the conversation in the president’s dining room. He decided to risk it.
He went early to the lunchroom and sat at the assigned seat. The senior executives eyed him oddly as they came in, but he had expected this. It was Gordon Broadhead who walked up to him and stated, "I think, Mr. Veale, that you are sitting in my chair.” "The president said I was to have lunch here.”
"He told you himself, no doubt.” "No, he . . .”
At that moment Blake Jopson entered and approached the small knot of executives who were gathering round Veale. "Did you want to see me about something, Jack?”
"Mr. Veale is under the impression you expected him to take lunch in this room,” the chief inspector explained. "An error, I’m afraid, Jack.”
He went at once to see Mrs. Waterhouse.
"I told you to eat in the president’s dining room, Mr. Veale? Oh dear me no, I never said any such thing.”
There was no point in arguing. Aikinshaw was weaving a conspiracy round him; even Broadhead was probably in it. But they’d learn what sort of man they had to deal with.
HE WAS ready for battle when Percy Aikinshaw called that afternoon. "Mr. Veale, could I have a word with you?”
"I certainly want a word with you. This ridiculous campaign has gone far enough. You and your associates won’t drive me out like this.”
"But, Mr. Veale, I don’t want to drive you out, I only want . . .”
"Listen to me, Aikinshaw, Blake Jopson brought me in to do a job for him, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to write him a bunch of the best damned speeches any Canadian businessman ever delivered, and with those speeches in my file I’ll most likely move
on. But not till I’m good and ready.”
"You—you’d tell people that you wrote Mr. Jopson’s speeches?”
"Sure. I don’t belong to the bank, Aikinshaw, I . . .” But Veale realized there was no point in going on, the presence had withdrawn.
Percy Aikinshaw, horrified, went to Marmer Hancock.
"A tough customer, as I told you, Percy, but we’ll fix him,” the historian consoled his friend, and then proceeded to oudine a new plan.
"I couldn’t bring myself to do this, Marmer, if he weren’t disloyal,” Mr. Aikinshaw said solemnly.
In view of his great oratorical success, Blake Jopson had been invited to address the Ottawa Dominion Club, the most influential audience in Canada. What Does the Future Hold For Our Economy? would surely, Jack thought, establish its author as one of the lop economic thinkers of the nation.
The text was delivered a couple of days before it was due to be given.
"Thank you, Jack. Is it a good one?”
"The best yet, Mr. Jopson.”
"I’ll run over it this afternoon. Then you’ll have plenty of time for any changes.”
The speech came back with a few minor suggestions and a note: "This is grand. Thanks. B.J.” After making the necessary revisions, Jack Veale gave his final text to the secretary for typing, then checked it and sent it to the president.
There were seven cabinet ministers and eleven ambassadors among the audience in the dining hall of the Chateau Laurier. A very senior civil servant introduced Blake Jopson as "the clear-voiced spokesman of financial Canada.”
Jack Veale, at a discreet, back-of-theroom table, listened with satisfaction as the president unfolded his complimentary beginning, touching on wise lawmaking and able government, speaking of fair debate and inspired decisions. "And as I stand here today before the men who are building the nation, as I view the future in your company, I am horrified . . .” There was an absolute hush as Blake Jopson peered down at his text, rapidly turned over three or four pages, and then with a large, firm hand shuffled the sheets together and stuffed them into his pocket. Weakness and indecision had not made him president of the Bank of Lower Canada. "Yes, gentlemen, I am horrified at the prospect of what might happen to Canada without such leadership.”
The address did not last as long as had been expected; some of the figures, the experts said after, were very approximate, but the language was powerful and inspiring. There was prolonged applause. "You could feel the personality of the man,” commented the Greek ambassador.
Jack Veale sat through the speech in a daze, recognizing only occasional scraps of his own phrasing. He thought it wiser not to try to speak to Blake Jopson, surrounded by dignitaries, at the Chateau. He would await his summons to the presidential office.
BLAKE JOPSON sent for him early next morning. "Sit down, Jack. Never had a reception like that before, have we? Did you do it on purpose?” The president seemed as breezy as ever.
Then what happened?”
There was only one possible answer, whatever the consequences. "You’ve heard of Percy Aikinshaw, sir?”
Seconds ticked away. "Was he responsible?”
Jack Veale told in detail the story
of Mr. Aikinshaw’s appearances and the related persecution. He was man enough to describe his predecessor as a loyal, rather than jealous, spirit, one devoted to the traditional way of doing and saying things.
"Well, well,” said Blake Jopson at the end, "we must do something about that. But I sure wish all our people felt about the bank the way old Percy does.”
"I see your point, sir, but in my position . . .”
"It’s been tough on you, Jack, I agree. On me, too. Standing up before
that audience with a script that read like Alice In Wonderland. I hadn’t had time to check it. But the exhilaration, Jack, when I put it away and began talking myself! And knew I could go on talking!” The president dragged himself away from the memory of his triumph. "I shall of course prepare all my own speeches from now on. So there’s no reason to subject you to further embarrassment. And if you’re interested I can get you a very nice spot with the president of Mont Tremblant Life.”
Jack Veale had prepared himself for
an inevitable return to the classroom but he was a resilient character. "Thank you very much, sir. I’d appreciate that.”
"Fine. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure our Mr. Aikinshaw is waiting to hear how the speech went.”
As his ex-confidential assistant left the room Blake Jopson retired into the clothes closet. He remained there for three quarters of an hour. When he emerged, the Bank of Lower Canada had a new Assistant General Manager —History and Research, appointed for eternity if need be. if