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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 15
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The Profiteers - Chapter 15 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :687

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The Profiteers - Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

Dredlinton sank into Phipps' vacated chair and leaned back with his hands in his trousers pockets. He had the air of a man fortified by a certain amount of bravado,--stimulated by some evil purpose.

"So you don't want to sell those shares, Mr. Wingate?"

"I have decided not to," was the calm reply.

"Any particular reason?"

"None," Wingate acknowledged, "except that I am not very anxious to have any business relations with Mr. Phipps."

"And for the sake of that prejudice," Dredlinton observed, "you can afford to refuse such a profit as he offered you?"

"I have other reasons for not wishing to sell," Wingate declared. "I have a very high opinion of Mr. Phipps' judgment as a business man. If the shares are worth so much as that to him, they are probably worth the same amount for me to keep."

Lord Dredlinton shook his head.

"Quite a fallacy, Wingate," he pronounced. "Phipps, as a matter of fact, is offering you considerably more than the shares are worth, because with their help he means to bring off a big thing."

"If he relies upon my shares," was the indifferent reply, "I am afraid the big thing won't come off."

"You won't sell, then?"

"No!"

Lord Dredlinton glanced for a moment at his finger nails. He seemed wrapped in abstract thought.

"I wonder if I could induce you to change your mind," he said.

"I am quite sure that you could not."

"Still, I am going to try. You are a great admirer of my wife, I believe, Mr. Wingate?"

Wingate frowned slightly.

"I prefer not to discuss Lady Dredlinton with you," he said curtly.

"Still, you won't mind going so far as to say that you are an admirer of hers?" the latter persisted.

"Well?"

"You are probably her confidant in the unfortunate differences which have arisen between us?"

"If I were, I should not consider it my business to inform you."

"Your sympathy is without doubt on her side?"

Wingate changed his attitude.

"Look here," he said, "this subject is not of my choosing. I should have preferred to avoid it. Since you press me, however, I haven't the faintest hesitation in saying that I look upon your wife as one of the sweetest and best women I ever knew, married, unfortunately, to a person utterly unworthy of her."

Dredlinton started in his place. A little streak of colour flushed up to his eyes.

"What the devil do you mean by that?"

"Look here," Wingate expostulated, "you can't threaten me, Dredlinton. You asked for what you got. Why not save time and explain why you have dragged your wife's name into this business?"

Dredlinton, in his peculiar way, was angry. His speech was a little broken, his eyes glittered.

"Explain? My God, I will! You are one of those damned frauds, Wingate, who pose as a purist and don't hesitate to make capital out of the harmless differences which sometimes arise between husband and wife. You sympathise with Lady Dredlinton, eh?"

"I should sympathise with any woman who was your wife," Wingate assured him, his own temper rising.

Dredlinton leaned a little forward. He spoke with a vicious distinctness.

"You sympathise with her to such an extent that you lure her to your rooms at midnight and send her back when you've--"

Dredlinton's courage oozed out before he had finished his speech. Wingate had swung around towards his companion, and there was something terrifying in his attitude.

"You scoundrel!" he exclaimed.

Dredlinton drew a little farther back and kept his finger upon the bell.

"Look here," he said viciously, "you may as well drop those heroics. I am not talking at random. My wife was seen in your arms, in your rooms at the Milan Court, with her dressing case on the table, last night, by little Flossie Lane, your latest conquest in the musical comedy world. She spent the night at the Milan."

"It's a lie!" Wingate declared, with cold fury. "How the devil could Flossie Lane see anything of the sort? She was nowhere near my rooms."

"Oh, yes, she was!" Dredlinton assured him. "She just looked in--one look was quite enough. Didn't you hear the door slam?"

"My God!" Wingate muttered, with a sudden instinct of recollection.

"Perhaps you wonder why she came?" the other continued. "I will tell you. I followed my wife to the Milan--I thought it might be worth while. I saw her enter the lift and come up to your room. While I was hesitating as to what to do, I met Flossie. Devilish clever idea of mine! I determined to kill two birds with one stone. I told her you'd been enquiring for her--that you were alone in your rooms and would like to see her. She went up like a two-year-old. Jove, you ought to have seen her face when she came down!"

"You cad!" Wingate exclaimed. "Your wife simply came to beg my intervention with the management to secure her a room in the--"

"Chuck it!" Dredlinton interrupted. "You're a man of the world. You know very well that I can get a divorce, and I'm going to have it--if I want it. I am meeting Flossie Lane at midday at my solicitor's. What have you got to say about that?"

"That if you keep your word it will be a very happy release for your wife," Wingate replied drily.

Dredlinton leaned across the desk. There was an almost satyrlike grin upon his face.

"You are a fool," he said. "My wife wants to get rid of me--you and she have talked that over, I have no doubt--but not this way. She is a proud woman, Wingate. The one desire of her life is to be free, but you can take this from me--if I bring my suit and gain my decree on the evidence I shall put before the court---don't forget Flossie Lane, will you?--she'll never raise her head again. That is what I am going to do, unless--"

He paused.

"Unless what?" Wingate demanded.

"Unless you sell those shares to Peter Phipps."

Wingate was silent for a few moments. He studied his companion appraisingly.

"Dredlinton," he said at last, "I did you an injustice."

"I am glad that you are beginning to appreciate the fact," the other replied, with some dignity. "I welcome your confession."

"I looked upon you," Wingate continued, "as only an ordinary, weak sort of scoundrel. I find you one of the filthiest blackguards who ever crawled upon the earth."

Dredlinton scowled for a moment and then laughed in a hard, unnatural sort of way.

"I can't lose my temper with you, Wingate--upon my word, I can't. You are so delightfully crude and refreshing. Your style, however, is a little more suited to your own country, don't you think--the Far West and that sort of thing. Shall I draft a little agreement that you will sell the shares to Phipps? Just a line or two will be sufficient."

Wingate made no reply. He walked across to the frosted window and gazed out of the upper panes up to the sky. Presently he returned.

"Where is your wife?" he asked.

"She telephoned from the Milan this morning, discovered that the young lady to whom she had such unfounded objections had left, and returned in a taxi just before I started for the office."

"Supposing I sell these shares?"

"Then," Dredlinton promised, "I shall endeavour to forget the incident of last night. Further than that, I might indeed be tempted, if it were made worth my while, to provide my wife with a more honourable mode of escape."

"You're wonderful," Wingate declared, nodding his head quickly. "What are you going to get for blackmailing me into selling those shares?"

"Two thousand pounds."

"Get along and earn it, then."

Dredlinton wrote in silence for several moments. Then he read the document over to himself.

"'I, John Wingate--all my shares in the Universal Steamship Company, and accept herewith as a deposit.' There, Mr. Wingate, I think you will find that correct. Phipps shall write you a cheque Immediately."

He touched the bell. Phipps entered almost at the same moment.

"I am pleased to tell you," Dredlinton announced, "that I have induced Mr. Wingate to see reason. He will sell the shares."

"My congratulations!" Phipps ventured, with a broad smile. "Mr. Wingate has made a most wise and acceptable decision."

"Will you make out a cheque for ten thousand pounds as a deposit?" Dredlinton continued. "Mr. Wingate will then sign the agreement I have drawn up on the lines of the memorandum you left on the desk."

"With pleasure," was the brisk reply.

Wingate took up a pen, glanced through the agreement, and was on the point of signing his name when a startled exclamation from the man by his side caused him to glance up. The door had been opened. Harrison was standing there, looking a little worried. His tone was almost apologetic.

"The Countess of Dredlinton," he announced.

The arrival of Josephine affected very differently the three men, to whom her coming was equally surprising. Her husband, after an exclamation which savoured of profanity, stared at her with a doubtful and malicious frown upon his forehead. With Wingate she exchanged one swift glance of mutual understanding. Phipps, after his first start of surprise, welcomed her with the utmost respect and cordiality.

"My dear Lady Dredlinton," he declared, "this is charming of you! I had really given up hoping that you would ever honour us with your presence."

"You can chuck all that, Phipps," Dredlinton interrupted curtly. "My wife hasn't come here to bandy civilities. What do you want, madam?" he demanded, moving a step nearer to her.

She held a slip of paper in her hand and unfolded it before their eyes.

"My husband," she said, "has justly surmised that I have not come here in any spirit of friendliness, I have come to let Mr. Wingate know the contents of this cable, which arrived soon after my husband left the house this morning. The message was in code, but, as Mr. Wingate's name appeared, I have taken the trouble to transcribe it."

"That's more than you could do, my lady," Dredlinton snarled.

"I can assure you that you are mistaken," was the calm reply. "You forget that you were not quite yourself last night, and that you left the B. & I. code book on the study table. Please listen, Mr. Wingate."

All the apparent good humour had faded from Phipps' face. He struck the table with his fist.

"Dredlinton," he insisted, "you must use your authority. That message is a private one. It must not be read."

Wingate moved to Josephine's side.

"Must not?" he repeated under his breath.

"It is a private message from a correspondent in New York, who is a personal friend of Lord Dredlinton's," Phipps declared. "It is of no concern to any one except ourselves. Dredlinton, you must make your wife understand--"

"Understand?" Dredlinton broke in. "Give me that message, madam."

He snatched at it. Wingate leaned over and swung him on one side. For a single moment Phipps, too, seemed about to attempt force. Then, with an ugly little laugh, he recovered himself.

"My dear Lady Dredlinton, let me reason with you," he begged. "On this occasion Mr. Wingate is in opposition to our interests, your husband's and mine. You cannot--"

"Let Lady Dredlinton read the cable," Wingate interposed.

It was done before any further interference was possible. Wingate stood at her side, grim and threatening. The words had left her lips before either of the other men could shout her down.

"It is a night message from New York," she said. "Listen: 'Confirm eleven steamers Universal Line withdrawn Japan trade loading secretly huge wheat cargo for Liverpool. Confirm John Wingate, Milan Court, holds controlling influence. Advise buy his shares any price.'"

There was a moment's intense silence. Dredlinton opened his lips and closed them again. Phipps was exhibiting remarkable self-control. His tone, as he addressed Wingate, was grave but almost natural.

"Under these circumstances, do you wish to repudiate your bargain?" he asked. "We must at least know where we are."

Wingate turned to Josephine.

"The matter," he decided, "is not in my hands. Lady Dredlinton," he went on, "the person who opened the door of my sitting room last night was Miss Flossie Lane, a musical comedy actress sent there by your husband, who had followed you to the Milan. Your husband imagines that because you were in my apartments at such an unusual hour, he has cause for a divorce. That I do not believe, but, to save proceedings which might be distasteful to you, I was prepared to sell Mr. Phipps my shares in the Universal Line, imagining it to be an ordinary business transaction. The cable which you have just read has revealed the true reason why Phipps desires to acquire those shares. The arrival of that wheat will force down prices, for a time, at any rate. It may even drive this accursed company into seeking some other field of speculation. What shall I do?"

She smiled at him over her husband's head. She did not hesitate even for a second. Her tone was proud and insistent.

"You must of course keep your shares," she declared. "As regards the other matter, my husband can do as he thinks well."

Wingate's eyes flashed his thanks. He drew a little sigh of relief and deliberately tore in halves the agreement which he had been holding. Dredlinton leaned over the desk, snatched at the telephone receiver, threw himself into his chair, and, glared first at Wingate and then at his wife.

"My God, then," he exclaimed furiously, "I'll keep my word!--Mayfair 67.--I'll drag you through the dust, my lady," he went on. "You shall be the heroine of one of those squalid divorce cases you've spoken of so scornfully. You shall crawl through life a divorcee, made an honest woman through the generosity of an American adventurer!--67, Mayfair, I said."

Phipps shook his head sorrowfully.

"My friend," he said, "this is useless bluster. Put down the telephone. Let us talk the matter out squarely. Your methods are a little too melodramatic."

"Go to hell!" Dredlinton shouted. "You are too much out for compromises, Phipps. There are times when one must strike.--Exchange! I say, Exchange! Why the devil can't you give me Mayfair 67?--What's that?--An urgent call?--Well, go on, then. Out with it.--Who's speaking? Mr. Stanley Rees' servant?--Yes, yes! I'm Lord Dredlinton. Get on with it."

There was a moment of intense silence. Dredlinton was listening, indifferently at first, then as though spellbound, his lips a little parted, his cheeks colourless, his eyes filled with a strange terror. Presently he laid down the receiver, although he failed to replace it. He turned very slowly around, and his eyes, still filled with a haunting fear, sought Wingate's.

"Stanley has disappeared!" he gasped. "He had one of those letters last night. It lies on his table now, his servant says. There was a noise in his room at four o'clock this morning. When they called him---he had gone! No one has seen or heard of him since!"

"Stanley disappeared?" Phipps repeated in a dazed tone.

"There's been foul play!" Dredlinton cried hoarsely. "His servant is sure of it!"

Wingate picked up his hat and stick and moved towards the door. From the threshold he looked back, waiting whilst Josephine joined him.

"Youth," he said calmly, "must be served. Stanley Rees was, I believe, the youngest director on the Board of the British and Imperial Granaries. Now, if you like, Mr. Phipps, I'll come on to your market. I'm a seller of a hundred thousand bushels of wheat at to-day's price."

"Go to hell!" Phipps shouted, his face black with rage.

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