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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 12
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The Profiteers - Chapter 12 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :3245

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The Profiteers - Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

"Throw your coat down anywhere, Miss Baldwin," Wingate invited, as he ushered that young lady into his rooms soon after eleven o'clock on the following evening. "Now what can I give you? There are some sandwiches here--ham and pate-de-foie-gras, I think. Whisky and soda or some hock?"

"A pate sandwich and some plain soda water, please," Sarah replied, taking off the long motoring coat which concealed her evening clothes. "I have been fined for everything except disorderly driving--daren't risk that. Thanks!" she went on. "What ripping sandwiches! And quite a good play, wasn't it?"

"I am glad you enjoyed it."

"It was a swindle Josephine not turning up," Sarah continued, as she stretched herself out in Wingate's easy-chair. "Domestic ructions again, I suppose. How I do hate that husband of hers!"

"It was disappointing," he admitted.

There was a brief pause, during which Sarah finished her sandwiches and lit a cigarette.

"Wilshaw seems to be having a little trouble with the outside porter," her host remarked presently.

"It must cost him at least half a sovereign every time I leave the cab," Sarah sighed.

"How much do you make a week out of your driving, if it isn't too personal a question?" he enquired.

"It depends upon how much Jimmy's got."

"Is he your only client, then?"

"He very seldom gives me a chance of another. Once or twice I've refused to be engaged by the day, but he sends his man around to the garage and I find him sitting in the cab when I arrive."

Wingate laughed softly. She looked up at him with twinkling eyes.

"I believe you're making fun of my profession," she complained.

"Not at all, but I was wondering whether it wouldn't be cheaper for you to marry Jimmy, as you call him."

"We have spoken about it once or twice," she admitted. "The worst of it is, I don't think the cab would support two."

"Is Wilshaw so badly off?"

"His money is tied up until he is twenty-eight," Sarah explained. "I think that his father must have known how he was going to turn out. Jimmy promised that he would never anticipate it, and the dear old thing keeps his word. We shall be married on his twenty-eighth birthday, all right, unless his mother does the decent thing before."

"Has she money?" Wingate asked.

"Plenty--but she hasn't much confidence in Jimmy. I think she shows signs of wavering lately, though. Perhaps his latest idea--he's going into the City to-morrow, you know--may bring her around.--Mr. Wingate!"

"Well?"

"You're rather a dear old thing, you know," she said, "although you're so serious."

"And you're quite nice," he admitted, "although you're such an incorrigible little flirt."

"How do you know?" she laughed. "You never give me a chance of showing what I can do in that direction."

"Too old, my dear young lady," her host lamented, as he mixed himself a whisky and soda.

"Rubbish!" she scoffed. "Too much in love with some one else, I believe."

"These are too strenuous days for that sort of thing," he rejoined, "except for children like you and Mr. Wilshaw."

"I don't know so much about that," she objected. "The world has never gone so queerly that people haven't remembered to go on loving and be made love to. Look at the war marriages."

"Yes--and the war divorces," he reminded her.

"Brute!" she exclaimed, with a little grimace.

"Why 'brute'?" he protested. "You can't deny them. Some of these marriages were genuine enough, of course. Others were simply the result of a sort of amorous hysteria. Affected every one in those days just like a germ."

"John Wingate!"

"Yes?"

"Don't try to be cynical."

"I'm not."

"You are," she persisted. "There isn't a man breathing who has a more wonderful capacity for caring than you. You hide your feelings from most people. Are you very angry with me for having guessed? I have, you know."

Wingate paused in the act of lighting a cigarette.

"What's that?"

"I think I have a sort of second sight in such matters, especially as regards people in whom I am interested," Sarah continued, "and if there is one woman in the world whom I really adore, and for whom I am heartily sorry, it is Josephine Dredlinton."

"She has a rotten time," was Wingate's terse comment.

"Very few people know how rotten," Sarah went on. "She has lost nearly all her own relations in the war, her husband has spent the greater part of her fortune, flaunted his affairs with various actresses in the face of all London, shilly-shallied through the war as a recruiting officer, or on any odd job that kept him safely at home, and now he openly associates with a little company of men in the City who are out to make money any old way they can get hold of it."

"Lord Dredlinton is a bad lot," Wingate acquiesced.

"And Josephine is an angel," Sarah declared warmly. "If I were a man--"

"Well, you're not," he interrupted.

"If I were a man," she went on, laying her hand upon his, "I wouldn't let Josephine live out these best days of her life in sorrow. I wouldn't have her insulted and peered at, every hour of her life. I wouldn't see her living in torture, when all the time she has such a wonderful capacity for life and love. Do you know what I'd do, Mr. Wingate?"

"What would you do?" he asked.

"I'd take her away! I wouldn't care about anybody else or anything. If the world didn't approve, I'd make a little world of my own and put her in it. You're quite strong enough."

He looked through the walls of the room, for a minute.

"Yes, I am strong enough," he agreed, "but is she?"

"Why do you doubt her?" Sarah demanded. "What has she in her present life to lose, compared with what she gains from you--what she wants more than anything else in the world--love?"

He made no answer. The girl's words had thrilled him. Then the door swung open and Jimmy appeared, very pink and white, very immaculate, and looking rather more helpless than usual.

"I say, Sarah," he exclaimed, "it's no use! There's a most infernal block down in the courtyard. Chap wanted me to push the taxi out into the street. It's cost me all the loose change I've got to stop his sending for a policeman. We'll have to do a scoot."

Sarah sighed as her host arranged her cloak around her.

"Sorry we couldn't have stayed a little longer," she said. "Mr. Wingate was just getting most interesting."

"You'll have a drink before you go, Wilshaw?" Wingate insisted. "Say when."

The young man accepted the whisky and soda and promptly disposed of it.

"Thanks, old chap! Frightfully sorry to rush away like this, but that fellow downstairs means business."

"Good night, Mr. Wingate," Sarah said, holding out her hand, "and thanks ever so much for the evening. You don't think I'm a forward little minx, do you?"

"I think you're a sensible little dear," he assured her, "far too good for Jimmy."

"Sorry I accepted your hospitality, if that's how you're feeling," Jimmy grunted. "By the by, you haven't a few cigarettes, have you, for me to smoke while Sarah tries to get me safely home?"

Wingate held out the box.

"Fill your case," he invited; "your pockets, too, if you like. Don't forget, both of you, luncheon at one-thirty to-morrow in the restaurant. Good night!"

He stood with the door open, watching them go down the corridor. Then he came slowly back into his room. Once more the telephone bell began to ring. He picked up the receiver. The indifference of his opening monosyllable vanished in a second. Something amazing crept into his face.

"Who?--Lady Dredlinton?" he exclaimed.

"But where are you?--Downstairs?--Yes--Yes--Why, of course.--Here?--You mean that you are coming here, up to my room?--I don't quite understand.--Yes, of course.--One moment, please. Come up by the east lift unless you want to meet Sarah Baldwin and Wilshaw. They have this moment left me. The hall porter will show you."

Wingate laid down the receiver, glanced for a moment at the clock, hurried to the door, pushed back and secured the latch. Then he came back into the room and stood listening.

In the end she came quite suddenly. The door had opened and closed before he heard even the swish of her skirts. She stood there looking at him a little appealingly. She was dressed in dark travelling clothes and she carried a heavy dressing case in her hand. He sprang forward and took it from her.

"My dear friend," she exclaimed, with an attempt at levity, "don't look so tragic! There is a very simple explanation of this extraordinary visit, as you will soon find."

"It needs no explanation," he declared.

"Oh, yes, it does, of course," she continued. "I simply want you to intercede with the authorities here, so that I do not have to go and stand at that terrible counter. There is a continental train just in, and the place is crowded."

"You wish to stay here for the night?"

"Mayn't I? I have always heard that it was such a charming hotel, and I must stay somewhere."

"There is some trouble?" he asked slowly.

"There is always trouble," she replied, with a shrug of the shoulders. "To-night seems to me as though it may be the climax. You won't be horrified if I sit down and smoke one of your cigarettes? And may I remind you that your attitude is not entirely hospitable?"

Wingate had recovered from his first stupor. His eyes were very bright, he was filled with the sense of wonderful happenings.

"Oh, I'll be as hospitable as you like," he assured her. "You shan't have any cause to reproach me so far as that is concerned. This easy-chair, please. It is by far the most comfortable one. And now some cushions," he added, slipping them behind her. "The cigarettes are here, and I have some excellent hock. Just half a glass? Good! Miss Baldwin has been praising my sandwiches. You'll have one, won't you?"

She sighed with content, almost with happiness. The strained look had gone from her face. She took off her hat and he laid it upon the table.

"You are very good, very kind indeed," she murmured. "And yet not so kind as I would like to be."

He came and stood by her side. She was eating one of the sandwiches and had already tasted the wine. Somehow, he knew quite well that she had had no dinner.

"I want you to understand," he began, "that you are free to tell me what has happened to-night or not--just as you please. Don't feel obliged to explain, I'll be quite frank, I am a curious person as regards you. I want to know--everything. I should like to know how it was that you were unable to come to dinner or join us at the theatre to-night. I should like to know what has brought you out of your house to an hotel at midnight--but don't tell me unless you want to."

"I do want to," she assured him. "I want to tell you everything. I think--somehow I almost feel that you have the right to know."

"Cultivate that feeling," he begged her. "I like it."

She smiled, a wan little smile that passed very soon. Her face grew sad again. She was thinking.

"I dare say you can guess," she began presently, "something of what my daily life is like when my husband is in town. It is little less than torture, especially since he became mixed up with Mr. Phipps, that horrible person Martin, and their friends."

"Abominable!" Wingate muttered.

"He is all the while trying to induce me to receive their women friends," she continued. "I need not tell you that I have refused, as I always should refuse."

"Naturally!"

"To-night, however," she went on, "he has surpassed himself. First of all he telephoned to say that he was bringing home friends for dinner, and if I had any other engagement he requested me to cancel it. As you know, I did so. Notwithstanding his message, he did not arrive at the house until eleven o'clock, barely an hour ago."

"And kept you waiting all that time?"

"That is nothing. Let me explain something before I conclude. Before the war I had an Austrian maid, a woman whom I turned out of the house, and whom my husband at that time did not dare to ask me to reinstate. He had not then spent quite the whole of my fortune. Besides an undoubted intrigue with my husband, I heard afterwards that she only escaped imprisonment as a spy by leaving the country hurriedly just before war was declared. Tonight, my husband, having kept me waiting three hours while he dined with her in Soho, brought her back to the house, announcing that he had engaged her as his secretary."

"Damn the fellow!" Wingate muttered.

"Naturally," she continued, "I declined to sleep under the same roof. The woman remained--and here am I."

"You are here," he repeated. "Thank God for that!"

"It was perhaps imprudent of me," she sighed, "to choose this hotel, but I had a curious feeling of weakness. I felt that I must see some one to whom I could tell what had happened--some friend--before I slept. Perhaps my nerves are going. So I came to you. Did I do wrong?"

"The wrong would be if ever you left me," he declared passionately.

She patted his hand. "Dear friend!"

"The room I will arrange for in a minute or two," he promised. "That is quite easy. But to-morrow--what then?"

"I shall telephone home," she replied. "If that woman is still in the house, I shall go down into the country, and from there I shall write my lawyers and apply for a separation."

"So those are your plans," he remarked calmly.

"Yes. Can you suggest anything better?"

"I can suggest something a thousand times better."

She hesitated for a moment. Perhaps she was conscious of a certain alteration in his deportment, the ring of his last words, the slight but unusual air of emotional fervour with which he seemed somehow to have become endowed. A woman of curiously strong virginal instincts, she realised, perhaps for the first time, the approach of a great change in Wingate's attitude towards her. Yet she could not keep from her lips the words which must bring his avowal.

"What do you mean?" she faltered.

"That you end it all," he advised firmly, "that you take your courage in both hands, that you do not return to your husband at all."

"Not return," she repeated, her eyes held by his.

"That you come to me," he went on, bending over the side of her chair. "Needless, wonderful words, but I love you. You were the first woman in my life. You will be the last. I have been silent, as you know. I have waited for something like this, and I think the time has come."

"The time can never come," she cried despairingly.

"The time has come at least for me to tell you that I love you more than any woman on earth," he declared, "that I want to take care of you, to take you into my life, to build a wall of passionate devotion around you, to keep you free from every trouble and every harm."

"Ah, dear friend, if it were but possible!" she murmured, holding his hands tightly.

"But it is possible," he insisted. "All that we need is courage. You owe nothing to your husband. You can leave him without remorse or a moment's shame. Your life just now is wasted,--a precious human life. I want you, Josephine. God knows how I want you!"

"You have my friendship--even my love. There, I have said it!" she repeated, with a little sob, "my love."

His arms were suddenly around her. She shrank back in her chair. Her terrified eyes invited and yet reproached him.

"Remember--oh, please remember!" she cried.

"What can I remember except one thing?" he whispered.

She held him away from her.

"You talk as though everything were possible between us. How can that be? I have no joy in my husband, nor he in me--but I am married. We are not in America."

He rose to his feet, a strong man trembling in every limb. He stood before her, trying to talk reasonably, trying to plead his cause behind the shelter of reasonable words.

"Let me tell you," he began, "why our divorce laws are so different from yours. We believe that the worst breach of the Seventh Commandment is the sin of an unloving kiss, the unwillingly given arms of a shuddering wife, striving to keep the canons of the prayer book and besmirching thereby her life with evil. We believe, on the other hand, that there is no sin in love."

"If you and I were alone in the world!"

"If you are thinking of your friends," he pleaded, "they are more likely to be proud of the woman who had the courage to break away from a debasing union. Every one realises--what your husband is. He has been unfaithful not only to you but to every friend he has ever had."

"Do I not know it!" she moaned. "Isn't the pain of it there in my heart, hour by hour!"

His reasonableness was deserting him. Again he was the lover, begging for his rights.

"Wipe him out of your mind, sweetheart," he begged. "I'll buy you from him, if you like, or fight him for you, or steal you--I don't care which. Anything sooner than let you go."

"I don't want to go," she confessed, afraid of her own words, shivering with the meaning of them.

"You never shall," he continued, his voice gaining strength with his rising hopes. "You've opened my lips and you must hear what is in my heart. You are the one love of my life. My hours and days are empty, I want you always by my side."

The love of him swept her away. Her head had fallen back, she saw his face through the mist.

"Go on, go on," she begged.

"I want you as I have wanted nothing else in life--not only for my own sake, for yours. I want to chase all those lines of sorrow away from your face."

"My poor, tired face," she faltered.

"Tired?" he repeated. "It's the most beautiful face on earth."

The smile which suddenly transformed her quivering mouth made it indeed seem so.

"You are so foolish, dear, but go on," she pleaded.

"I want to see you grow younger and lighter-hearted. I want you to realise day by day that something beautiful is stealing into your life. I want you to feel what real love is--tender, passionate, lover's love."

"My dear, my dear!" she cried. "I do not dare to think of these things, yet they sound so wonderful."

"Leave the daring to me, sweetheart," he answered. "You shall have nothing to do but rest after these horrible days, rest and care for me a little."

"Oh, I do care!" she exclaimed, with sudden passion. "That is what makes it all so wonderful."

"You love me? Tell me so once more?" he begged.

"Dear, I love you. You must have known it or you couldn't have said these things. And I thought I was going to die without knowing what love was."

"Never fear that again," he cried joyfully. "You shall know what it is every hour of the day. You shall know what it is to feel yourself surrounded by it, to feel it encompass you on every side. You shall know what it is to have some one think for you, live for you, make sweet places for your footsteps in life."

Her eyes shone. The years had fallen away. She rose tremblingly to her feet, her arms stole around his neck.

"John, you dear, wonderful lover," she whispered, "why, it has come already! I am forgetting everything. I am happy!"

The clock on Wingate's mantelpiece struck one. He drew himself gently away from the marvel of those soft entwining arms, stooped and kissed Josephine's fingers reverently.

"Dear," he said, "let me begin to take up my new responsibilities. We must arrange for your stay here."

She laughed happily, rose, and with a woman's instinct stood before the mirror, patting her hair.

"I don't recognise myself," she murmured. "Is this what love brings, John?"

He stood for a moment by her side.

"Love?" he repeated. "Why, you haven't begun yet to realise what it means--what it will bring to you."

Once more she set her hands upon his shoulders. Her eyes, which a moment before had looked so longingly into his, drooped for a moment.

"Dear," she begged, "you won't ever be sorry, will you, and--does this sound selfish, I wonder?--you won't mind waiting?"

He smiled down at her.

"I shall never be sorry," he declared firmly. "I shall always bless this night and the impulse that brought you here. And as to waiting," he went on, "well, I have had four years of waiting without any particular hope, even of seeing you again. I think that with hope I can hold out a little longer."

He went over to the telephone and spoke for a few moments. Then he laid down the receiver and returned.

"A boy is bringing up the key of your room at once," he announced. "You will be in the south block, a long way off, but the rooms there are comfortable."

"Thank you, John dear," she said, smiling.

"Just one thing more," he continued. "I want you to remember that this miserable, tangled skein of unhappiness which you have called life is finished and done with. From to-night you belong to me. I must see you to-morrow--if possible at Dredlinton House--and we can work out some plans then. But you are to worry about nothing. Remember that I am here, and I love you.--Good night!"

Once more she rested for a moment in his arms. The seconds sped by. Then he took a quick step backwards, and they both stared at the door. It was closed now, but the slam of it a moment before had sounded like a pistol shot.

"Who was that?" she asked in a terrified whisper.

"That idiot of a boy with the key, I expect," he replied. "Wait, dear."

He hurried outside, through the little hall and into the corridor. There was no one in sight, not even the sound of footsteps to be heard. He listened for a moment and then returned.

"Who was it?" she repeated.

"Nobody!"

"But some one must have looked in--have seen us!"

"It may have been the outside door," he suggested.

She shook her head.

"The door was closed. I closed it behind me."

"You mustn't worry, dear," he insisted. "In all probability some one did look into the room by mistake, but it is very doubtful whether they would know who we were. It may have been Sparks, my man, or the night valet, seeing a light here. Remember what I told you a few minutes ago--there is no trouble now which shall come near you."

She smiled, already reassured.

"Of course, I am rather absurd," she said, "but then look at me! It is past one o'clock, and here am I in your rooms, with that terrible dressing case on the table, and without a hat, and still looking, I am afraid," she concluded, with a final glance into the glass, "a little tumbled."

"You look," he told her fondly, "like a girl who has just realised for the first time in her life that she is loved."

"How strange," she laughed happily,--"because that is exactly how I feel!"

There was a knock at the door. A page entered, swinging a key in his hand.

"Key of 440 for the lady, sir," he announced.

"Quite right, my boy. Listen. Did you meet any one in the corridor?"

"No one, sir."

"You haven't been in here before without knocking, have you?"

"No, sir," was the prompt reply. "I came straight up in the lift."

Wingate turned to Josephine with a little shrug of the shoulders.

"The mystery, then, is insoluble," he declared cheerfully, "but remember this, sweetheart," he added, as the boy stepped discreetly outside, "in small things as well as large, the troubles of this world for you are ended."

"You don't know how wonderful it sounds to hear words like that," she sighed, as they stood hand in hand. "I shan't seem very selfish, John, shall I, if I ask for a little time to realise all this? I feel that everything I have and am ought to be yours at this moment, because you have made me so happy, because my heart is so full of gratitude. But, alas, I have my weaknesses! I am a very proud woman. Sometimes I am afraid I have been a little censorious--as regards others!"

He stooped and kissed her fingers.

"If you knew what it felt like," he whispered, as he held open the door for her, "to have something to wait for! And whether you realise it or not, you are with me--from now on--always--my inspiration--my daily happiness."

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