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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 2
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The Profiteers - Chapter 2 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2580

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The Profiteers - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

Josephine Dredlinton, with a smile which gave to her face a singularly sweet expression, deprecated the disturbance which her coming had caused amongst the little company. The four men had risen to their feet. Kendrick was holding a chair for her. She apparently knew every one intimately except Wingate, and Sarah hastened to present him.

"Mr. Wingate--the Countess of Dredlinton," she said. "Mr. Wingate has just arrived from New York, Josephine, and he wants to know which are the newest plays worth seeing and the latest mode in men's ties."

A somewhat curious few seconds followed upon Sarah's few words of introduction. Wingate stood drawn to his fullest height, having the air of a man who, on the point of making his little conventional movement and speech, has felt the influence of some emotion in itself almost paralysing. His eyes searched the face of the woman before whom he stood, almost eagerly, as though he were conjuring up to himself pictures of her in some former state and trying to reconcile them with her present appearance. She, on her side, seemed to be realising some secret and indefinable pleasure. The lines of her beautiful mouth, too often, nowadays, weary and drooping, softened into a quiet, almost mysterious smile. Her eyes--very large and wonderful eyes they were--seemed to hold some other vision than the vision of this tall, forceful-looking man. It was a moment which no one, perhaps, except those two themselves realised. To the lookers-on it seemed only a meeting between two very distinguished and attractive-looking people, naturally interested in each other.

"It is a great pleasure to meet Lady Dredlinton," Wingate said. "I hope that Miss Baldwin's remark will not prejudice me in your opinion. I am really not such a frivolous person as she would have you believe."

"Even if you were," she rejoined, sinking into the chair which had been brought for her, "a little frivolity from men, nowadays, is rather in order, isn't it?"

"It's all very well for those who can afford to indulge in it," Kendrick grumbled. "We can't earn our bread and butter now on the Stock Exchange. Even our friend Maurice here, who works as long as an hour and a half a day sometimes, declares that he can barely afford his new Rolls-Royce."

"You men are so elusive about your prospects," Sarah declared. "I believe that Jimmy could afford to marry me to-morrow if he'd only make up his mind to it."

"I'm ready to try, anyhow," the young man assured her promptly. "Girls nowadays talk so much rot about giving up their liberty."

"Once a taxicab driver, always a taxicab driver," Sarah propounded. "Did you know that that was my profession, Mr. Wingate? If you do need anything in the shape of a comfortable conveyance while you are in town, will you remember me? I'll send you a card, if you like."

"Don't, for heaven's sake, listen to that young woman," Kendrick begged.

"Her cab's on its last legs," the Honourable Jimmy warned him, "three cylinders missing, and the fourth makes a noise like popcorn when you come to a gradient."

"It isn't as though she could drive," Maurice White put in. "There isn't an insurance company in London will take her on as a risk."

Sarah glanced from one to the other in well-assumed viciousness.

"Don't I hate you all!" she exclaimed bitterly. "I can understand Jimmy, because he likes me to drive him all the time, but you others, who aren't regular clients at all, why you should butt in and try to spoil my chances, I can't think. Mr. Wingate is just my conception of the ideal fare--generous, affable, and with trans-Atlantic notions about tips. I shall send you my card, all the same, Mr. Wingate."

"And I hope," Josephine said, "that Mr. Wingate will not take the slightest notice of all the rubbish these unkind people have been saying. Miss Baldwin drives me continually and has given me every satisfaction."

"'Every satisfaction' I love," Sarah declared. "I shall have that framed."

"Any chance of your taking me back to the Milan?" Wingate enquired.

Sarah shook her head regretfully, glancing down at her muslin gown.

"Can't you see I'm in my party clothes?" she said. "I did bring the old 'bus down here, but I had a boy meet me and take it away. I'll send you my card and telephone number, Mr. Wingate. You can rely upon my punctuality and dispatch. Even my aunt here would give me a reference, if pressed," she added, as their hostess paused for a moment to whisper something in Josephine's ear.

"Your driving's like your life, dear, much too fast for my liking." Lady Amesbury declared. "I hope things are better in your country, Mr. Wingate, but our young people go on anyhow now. Here's my niece drives a taxicab and is proud of it, my own daughter designs underclothes and sells them at a shop in Sloane Street to any one who comes along, and my boy, who ought to go into the Guards, prefers to go into Roger Kendrick's office. What are you going to start him at, Roger?"

"A pound a week and his lunch money, probably," Kendrick replied.

"I don't think he'll earn it," his fond mother said sadly. "However, that's your business. Don't forget you're dining with me Sunday night, John. I'll ask Josephine, too, if you succeed in making friends with her. She's a little difficult, but well worth knowing.--Dear me, I wish people would begin to go! I wonder whether they realise that it is nearly six o'clock."

"I shan't stir a yard," Sarah declared, "until I have had another ice. Jimmy, run and fetch me one."

"My family would be the last to help me out," Lady Amesbury grumbled. "I'm ashamed of the whole crowd of you round here. Roger, you and Mr. White are disgraceful, sitting and drinking whiskies and sodas and enjoying yourselves, when you ought to have been walking round the gardens being properly bored."

"I came to enjoy myself and I have done so," Kendrick assured her. "To add to my satisfaction, I have met my biggest client--at least he is my biggest client when he feels like doing things."

"Do you feel like doing things now, Mr. Wingate?" Sarah ventured.

Maurice White held out his hands in horror.

"My dear young lady," he exclaimed, "such questions are absolutely impossible! When a man comes on to a market, he comes on secretly. There are plenty of people who would give you a handsome cheque to hear Mr. Wingate's answer to that question."

"Any one may hand over the cheque, then," Wingate interposed smilingly, "because my answer to Miss Baldwin is prompt and truthful. I do not know."

"Of course," Lady Amesbury complained, "if you are going to introduce a commercial element into my party--well, why don't you and Maurice, Roger, go and dance about opposite one another, and tear up bits of paper, and pretend to be selling one another things?--Hooray, I can see some people beginning to move! I'll go and speed them off the premises."

She hurried away. Sarah drew a sigh of relief.

"Somehow or other," she confessed, "I always feel a sense of tranquility when my aunt has just departed."

Josephine rose to her feet.

"I think I shall go," she decided, "while the stock of taxicabs remains unexhausted."

"If you will allow me," Wingate said, "I will find you one."

Their farewells were a little casual. They were all, in a way, intimates. Only Kendrick touched Wingate on the shoulder.

"Shall I see you in the City to-morrow?" he asked.

"About eleven o'clock," Wingate suggested, "if that is not too early. There are a few things I want to talk to you about."

"Where shall I send my card?" Sarah called out after him.

"The Milan Hotel," he replied, "with terms, please."

She made a little grimace.

"Terms!" she repeated scornfully. "An American generally pays what he is asked."

"On the contrary," Wingate retorted, "he pays for what he gets."

"Your address?" Wingate asked, as he handed Josephine into a taxicab.

"Dredlinton House, Grosvenor Square," she answered. "You mustn't let me take you out of your way, though."

"Will you humour me?" he asked. "There is something I want to say to you, and I don't want to say it here. May we drive to Albert Gate and walk in the Park a little way? I can find you another taxi the other side."

"I should like that very much," she answered.

They spoke scarcely at all during their brief drive, or during the first part of their walk in the Park. Then he pointed to two chairs under a tree.

"May we sit here?" he begged, leading the way.

She followed, and they sat side by side. He took off his hat and laid it on the ground.

"So one of the dreams of my life has been realised," he said quietly. "I have met Sister Josephine again."

She was for a moment transformed. A delicate pink flush stole through the pallor of her cheeks, her tired eyes were lit with pleasure. She smiled at him.

"I was wondering," she murmured. "You really hadn't forgotten, then?"

"I remember," he told her, "as though it were yesterday, the first time I ever saw you. I was brought into Etaples. It wasn't much of a wound but it was painful. I remember seeing you in that white stone hall, in your cool Sister's dress. After the dust and horror of battle there seemed to be nothing in that wonderful hospital of yours but sunlight and white walls and soft voices. I watched your face as you listened to the details about my case--and I forgot the pain. In the morning you came to see how I was, and most mornings afterwards."

"I am glad that you remember," she murmured.

"I have forgotten nothing," he went on. "I think that those ten days of convalescence out in the gardens of your villa and down by the sea were the most wonderful days I ever spent."

"I love to hear you say so," she confessed.

"Out there," he continued, "the whole show was hideous from beginning to end, a ghastly, terrible drama, played out amongst all the accompaniments which make hell out of earth. And yet the thing gripped. The tragedy of Ypres came and I escaped from the hospital."

"You were not fit to go. They all said that."

"I couldn't help it," he answered. "The guns were there, calling, and one forgot. I've been back to England three times since then, and each time one thought was foremost in my mind--'shall I meet Sister Josephine?'"

"But you never even made enquiries," she reminded him. "At my hospital I made it a strict rule that our names in civil life were never mentioned or divulged, but afterwards you could have found out."

He touched her left hand very lightly, lingered for a moment on her fourth finger.

"It was the ring," he said. "I knew that you were married, and somehow, knowing that, I desired to know no more. I suppose that sounds rather like a cry from Noah's Ark, but I couldn't help it. I just felt like that."

"And now you probably know a good deal about me," she remarked, with a rather sad smile. "I have been married nine years. I gather that you know my husband by name and repute."

"Your husband is associated with a man whom I have always considered my enemy," he said.

"My husband's friends are not my friends," she rejoined, a little bitterly, "nor does he take me into his confidence as regards his business exploits."

"Then what does it matter?" he asked. "I should never have sought you out, for the reason I have given you, but since we have met you will not refuse me your friendship? You will let me come and see you?"

She laughed softly.

"I shall be very unhappy if you do not. Come to-morrow afternoon to tea at five o'clock. There will be no one else there, and we can talk of those times on the beach at Etaples. You were rather a pessimist in those days."

"It seems ages ago," he replied. "To-day, at any rate, I feel differently. I knew when I glanced at Lady Amesbury's card this morning that something was going to happen. I went to that stupid garden party all agog for adventure."

"Am I the adventure?" she asked lightly.

He made no immediate answer, turning his head, however, and studying her with a queer, impersonal deliberation. She was wearing a smoke-coloured muslin gown and a black hat with gracefully arranged feathers. For a moment the weariness had passed from her face and she was a very beautiful woman. Her features were delicately shaped, her eyes rather deep-set. She had a long, graceful neck, and resting upon her throat, fastened by a thin platinum chain, was a single sapphire. There was about her just that same delicate femininity, that exquisite aroma of womanliness and tender sexuality which had impressed him so much upon their first meeting. She was more wonderful even than his dreams, this rather tired woman of fashion whose coming had been so surprising. He would have answered her question lightly but he found it impossible. A great part of his success in life had been due to his inspiration. He knew perfectly well that she was to be the adventure of his life.

"It is so restful here," she said presently, "and I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed our meeting, but alas!" she added, glancing at her watch, "you see the time--and I am dining out. We will walk to Hyde Park Corner and you must find me a cab."

He rose to his feet at once and they strolled slowly along on the least frequented footpath.

"I hope so much," she went on, "that my husband's connection with the man you dislike will not make any difference. You must meet him, of course--my husband, I mean. You will not like him and he will not understand you, but you need not see much of him. Our ways, unfortunately, have lain apart for some time."

"You have your troubles," he said quietly. "I knew it when you first began to talk to me at Etaples."

"I have my troubles," she admitted. "You will understand them when you know me better. Sometimes I think they are more than I can bear. Tonight I feel inclined to make light of them. It is a great thing to have friends. I have so few."

"I am a little ambitious," he ventured. "I do not wish to take my place amongst the rank and file. I want to be something different to you in life--more than any one else. If affection and devotion count, I shall earn my place."

Her eyes were filled with tears as she gave him her hand.

"Indeed," she assured him, "you are there already. You have been there in my thoughts for so long. If you wish to keep your place, you will find very little competition. I am rather a dull woman these days, and I have very little to give."

He smiled confidently as he stopped a taxicab and handed her in.

"May I not be the judge of that?" he begged. "Giving depends upon the recipient, you know. You have given me more happiness within this last half-hour than I have had since we parted in France."

Some instinct of her younger days brought happiness into her laugh, a provocative gleam into her soft eyes.

"You are very easily satisfied," she murmured.

He laughed back again, but though he opened his lips to speak, the words remained unsaid. Something warned him that here was a woman passing through something like a crisis in her life, and that a single false step on his part might be fatal. He stood hat in hand and watched the taxicab turn up Park Lane.

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