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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 23
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The Profiteers - Chapter 23 Post by :ironeagle Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :3419

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The Profiteers - Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

The inspector blinked for a moment. The appearance of the room, with its closely drawn curtains and air of dissipation, was certainly strange. Wingate advanced to meet him.

"You called to see Lord Dredlinton, I believe, Inspector," he began. "My name is Wingate. I am friend of the family."

"I understood that Lord Dredlinton was here," the inspector announced, looking around.

"I am sorry to say," Wingate informed him gravely, "that a very terrible thing has happened. Lord Dredlinton died suddenly in this room, only a few minutes ago. His body is upon the sofa there."

The imperturbability of the inspector was not proof against such an amazing statement.

"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Was he ill?"

"Not that we know of," Wingate replied. "The doctor, who is on his way here, will doubtless be able to inform us upon that point, I have always understood that his heart was scarcely sound."

The inspector, as he stepped forward towards the couch, with Wingate a yard or two in front of him, for the first time recognised the two men who sat at the table, looking at him so strangely. Rees' hands were in his pockets, his tie had come undone, his hair was ruffled. He had all the appearance of a man recovering from a wild debauch. Phipps' waistcoat was unbuttoned, and his eyes, in the gathering light, were streaked with blood.

"Mr. Rees!" the inspector exclaimed. "And Mr. Phipps! Here? Why, I've a dozen men all over the country looking for you two gentlemen!"

There was a dead silence. Wingate's hand had stolen into his pocket, in which there was a little bulge, Rees seemed about to speak, then checked himself. He glanced towards Phipps,--Phipps, whose hands were clasped together as though he were in pain.

"The wanderers returned," Wingate explained, with a smile. "Lord Dredlinton, as you know. Inspector, has been very much worried by the supposed disappearance of his fellow directors. They turned up here last night unexpectedly. It seems that they have been all the time up in the North of England, making some investigations connected with the energies of their company. Their sudden return was naturally a great relief to Lord Dredlinton. We all celebrated---perhaps a little too well. Since then I am afraid we must also plead guilty," Wingate went on, "to a rather wild night, which has ended, as you see, in tragedy."

The inspector bent down and examined Lord Dredlinton's body.

"The doctor is on his way here," Wingate continued. "He will inform us, no doubt, as to the cause of death. Lord Dredlinton looked very exhausted many times during the night--or rather the morning--"

"I am to understand," Shields interrupted quietly, "that, overjoyed by the return of his friends, Lord Dredlinton, Mr. Phipps, Mr. Rees and yourself indulged forthwith in a debauch? A great deal of wine was drunk?"

"A great deal," Wingate admitted.

"Supper, I see, has been served here," the inspector went on, "and you have played cards."

"Poker," Wingate assented. "Lord Dredlinton preferred bridge but we rather overruled him."

Shields turned towards the two men, who had been silent listeners. In his face there seemed to be some desire for corroboration.

"You two gentlemen were present when Lord Dredlinton died?" he asked.

"We were," Phipps replied, after a moment's hesitation.

"We believed that it was a faint," Rees observed. "Even now it seems impossible to believe that he is dead."

"Dead!--My God!" Phipps repeated, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

"Nothing else transpired during the evening," the inspector continued, "likely to have proved a shock to his lordship?"

"Nothing," Phipps declared hoarsely. "We must have been playing for a great many hours."

"I am a strong man," Rees added, "and the youngest of the party, but I too--feel faint."

"It seems a little strange, Mr. Wingate," Shields remarked, turning towards him, "that you yourself show not the slightest signs of fatigue."

Wingate smiled grimly.

"I neither drink nor smoke to excess," he explained, "and as a rule I keep regular hours. Perhaps that is why, if I choose to sit up all night, I am able to stand it."

There was a knock at the door and Grant presented himself. To all appearance he was, as ever, the perfect butler. It was only Wingate who saw that quick, questioning look, the hovering of his hand about his pocket; who knew that, if necessary, there was no risk which this man would not run.

"The doctor has arrived, sir," he announced.

"You had better show him in," Wingate replied. "And, Grant."

"Yes, sir?"

"It would be as well, I think, to let her ladyship be informed that Lord Dredlinton is ill--very ill."

The man bowed and stood on one side as the doctor entered. The latter paused for a moment in astonishment as he looked upon the scene. Then he moved towards one of the windows and threw it up.

"If Lord Dredlinton has been sitting for long in an atmosphere like this," he observed drily, "it's enough to have killed him."

He glanced around with an air of distaste at Phipps and Rees, at the debris of the presumed debauch, and stooped over the body stretched upon the sofa. His examination lasted barely a minute. Then he rose to his feet.

"Lord Dredlinton is dead," he announced in a shocked tone.

"I feared so," Wingate murmured.

"Will you call in some servants?" the doctor went on. "I should like the body carried into his lordship's bedroom at once."

Grant appeared, quickly followed by two of his subordinates. The melancholy little procession left the room, and Shields turned to follow it. As he reached the door, he hesitated and glanced around towards Wingate.

"Mr. Wingate," he said, "I wish to hear what the doctor has to say concerning Lord Dredlinton's death, but I also wish to have another word with you before you leave the house. Can I rely upon your waiting here for me?"

"I give you my word," Wingate promised.

"I shall also require some explanation," the inspector continued, turning to Phipps--

"Explanation be damned!" the latter interrupted furiously. "If you want to know the truth about the whole business--"

He broke off suddenly. His eyes seemed fascinated by the slow entry of Wingate's hand to his pocket. He kicked a footstool sullenly on one side. The inspector, after waiting for a moment, turned away.

"In due season," he concluded, "I shall require to hear the truth from both of you gentlemen. You seem to have given Scotland Yard a great deal of unnecessary trouble."

The telephone bell began to ring as the door closed. Wingate took up the receiver, listened for a moment and passed the instrument over to Phipps. The latter presently replaced the receiver upon its hook with a little groan.

"You've broken us," he announced grimly.

"No news has ever given me greater pleasure." Wingate replied.

Stanley Rees rose to his feet.

"We are not prisoners any more, I suppose?" he asked sullenly. "I am going home."

"There is nothing to detain you," Wingate replied politely, "unless you choose to take breakfast first."

"We want no more of your hospitality," Phipps muttered. "You will hear of us again!"

Wingate stood between them and the door.

"Listen," he said. "You are going away, I can see, with one idea in your mind. You have held your peace during the last quarter of an hour, because you have known that your lives would be forfeit if you told the truth, but you are saying to yourselves now that from the shelter of other walls you can tell your story."

There was a furtive look in Rees' eyes, a guilty twitch on his companion's mouth. Wingate smiled.

"You cannot," he continued, "by the wildest stretch of imagination, believe that this has been a one-man job. The whole scheme of your conveyance into Dredlinton House and into this room has necessitated the employment of something like twenty men. The greater part of these, of course, have been paid by me. One or two are volunteers."

"Volunteers?" Phipps exclaimed. "Do you mean that you could find men to do your dirty work for nothing?"

"I found men," Wingate answered sternly, "and I could find many more--and without payment, too--who were willing to enter into any scheme directed against you and your company."

"Are we to stand here," Phipps demanded, "whilst you preach us a sermon about our business methods?"

"I am afraid, for your own sakes, you must hear what I have to say before you go," Wingate replied. "I will put it in as few words as possible. If you give the show away, besides making yourselves the laughingstocks of the world you may live for twenty-four hours if my people are unlucky, but I give you my word of honour, Phipps--and I will do you the credit of believing that you recognise truth when you come across it--that you will both of you be dead before the dawn of the second day."

Phipps leaned against the back of a chair. He seemed to have aged ten years in the last few days.

"You threaten us with the vengeance of some secret society?" he demanded.

"Not so very secret, either," Wingate rejoined, "but if you want to know the truth, I will tell it you. The greatest problem which we had to face, in arranging this little escapade, was how we should keep you silent after your release. We could think of none but primitive means, and those primitive means are established. There are five men, each of them men who have been ruined by the operations of your company, who have sworn to take your lives if you should divulge the truth as to your detention here. They are men of their word and they will do it. That is the position, gentlemen. I will not detain you any longer."

Phipps moistened his dry lips.

"If," he said, "we decide to hold our peace about the happenings of the last few days, it will not be because of your threats."

"So long as you hold your peace," Wingate replied drily, "I have no desire to question your motives. Believe me, though, silence, and silence alone, will preserve your lives."

He opened the door and they passed out of the room, Phipps stumbling a little, as though blinded by the unexpected sunshine which streamed through the skylight in the hall. From the shadows beyond, Grant came suddenly into evidence.

"Breakfast is served in the dining room," he announced respectfully.

A flickering anger seemed suddenly to blaze up in Stanley Rees. He cast a furious glance at the man whose fingers had twisted their imprisoning cords.

"Open the door," he snarled, "and let us get out of this damned house!"

Almost before the front door had closed upon Phipps and his nephew. Inspector Shields descended the stairs, crossed the hall, made his way down the passage, and silently entered the room which had been the scene of the tragedy. Wingate was standing in the midst of the debris at the far end of the apartment, directing the operations of a servant whom he had summoned. Shields held up his hand.

"Stop, please," he ordered quietly.

The two men both looked around.

"I was just having the room cleared up," Wingate explained.

"Presently," was the curt reply. "Please send the man away. I want a word with you alone."

The pseudo-servant lingered, his eyes fixed upon Wingate's face. He, too, was an underling of Grant's,--a keen, intelligent-looking man, with broad shoulders and a powerful face. Wingate nodded understandingly.

"I will ring if I need you, John," he said quietly.

The man left the room. Wingate sat upon the arm of an easy-chair. Shields stood looking meditatively about him, his hands thrust deep into his coat pockets.

"What is the physician's report?" the former asked.

The inspector seemed to come back from a brown study.

"Ah! Upon Lord Dredlinton? A very good report from your point of view, Mr. Wingate. Lord Dredlinton's death was due to exhaustion, but the doctor certifies that he was suffering, and has been for some time, from advanced valvular disease of the heart."

"He had not the appearance," Wingate observed, "of being a healthy man."

"He certainly was not," Shields admitted. "On the other hand, with great care he might have lived for some time. The immediate cause of his death was the strain of--what shall we call it, Mr. Wingate--this orgy?"

"An excellent word," Wingate agreed, his eyes fixed upon his companion.

The inspector lifted one of the packs of cards which had been dashed upon the table and looked at them thoughtfully.

"Poker," he murmured. "By the by, where are the chips?"

"The chips?" Wingate repeated.

"Poker is one of those games, I believe, which necessitates the use of counters or the handling of a great deal of money."

Wingate shrugged his shoulders. He made no reply. Shields took up one of the bottles of champagne, held it to the light, poured out the remainder of its contents and gazed with an air of surprise at the froth which crept up the glass.

"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "I do not know much about champagne, but it seems to me that this has not been opened very long. By the by, you all drank champagne?" he went on. "I see no trace of any spirits about."

"It was one of Lord Dredlinton's hobbles," Wingate declared. "Spirits are very seldom served in this house."

The Inspector nodded. He had crossed to the sideboard and was looking into the contents of a great bowl of flowers.

"I never heard," he reflected, "that roses did well in champagne. Let me see," he proceeded, counting the empty bottles, "four bottles between four of you, the contents of at least two bottles here, and--dear me, the carnations, too!" he went on, peering into a further bowl. "Really, Mr. Wingate, your orgy scarcely seems to have been one of drink."

"Perhaps it was not," was the resigned reply.

The inspector sighed.

"I have seldom," he pronounced, looking fixedly at his companion, "seen a more amateurish piece of work than the arrangement of this so-called debauch. It seems pitiable, Mr. Wingate, that a man with brains like yours should have sought to deceive in so puerile a fashion."

"What is this leading up to?" Wingate demanded.

The inspector drew a little pamphlet from his pocket and passed it across. Wingate took it into his hands, opened it and stared at it in surprise.

"A list of Cunard sailings!" he exclaimed.

"One of the safest of lines," said Shields, with a nod. "The _Agricola sails to-morrow morning. The boat train, I believe, leaves Euston at four."

Wingate glanced from the sailing list to his companion. The inspector was making movements as though about to depart. Wingate himself was speechless.

"The physician is able to certify," Shields went on, "that Lord Dredlinton's death is due to natural causes. There will therefore be no inquest. That being the case, it is not my business to make enquiries--unless I choose."

A newsboy went shouting across the square. The two men heard distinctly his hoarse cry:

"Great fall of wheat in every market! Cheap bread next week!"

The eyes of the two men met. There was almost a smile upon Shields' thin lips as he turned towards the door.

"And I do not choose," he concluded.

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