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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 5
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The Profiteers - Chapter 5 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1983

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The Profiteers - Chapter 5

CHAPTER V

Josephine received her altogether unexpected visitor that afternoon with a certain amount of trepidation, mingled with considerable distaste. Mr. Peter Phipps' manner, however, went far towards disarming resentment. He was suave, restrained and exceedingly apologetic.

"If I have taken a liberty in coming to see you, Lady Dredlinton, without a direct invitation, I am going to apologise right away," he said. "I don't get much of an opportunity of a chat with you while the others are all around, and I felt this afternoon like taking my chance of finding you at home."

"I am always glad to see my husband's friends," Josephine replied a little stiffly. "As a matter of fact, however, I was surprised to see you because I left word that I was at home to only one caller."

"Fortunate person!" Mr. Phipps declared with a sigh. "May I sit down?"

"Certainly," was the somewhat cold assent. "If you really have anything to say to me, perhaps you had better let me know what it is at once."

Peter Phipps was a man whose life had been spent in facing and overcoming difficulties, but as he took the chair to which Josephine had somewhat ungraciously pointed, he was compelled to admit to himself that he was confronted with a task which might well tax his astuteness to the utmost. To begin with he made use of one of his favourite weapons,--silence. He sat quite still, studying the situation, and in those few moments Josephine found herself studying him. He was tall, over six feet, with burly shoulders, a thickset body, and legs rather short for his height. He was clean-shaven, his hair was a sandy grey, his complexion florid, his eyes blue and piercing. His upper lip was long, and his mouth, when closed, rather resembled some sort of a trap. He was dressed with care, almost with distinction. But for his pronounced American accent, he would probably have been taken for a Scandinavian.

"Did you come here to improve your acquaintance with the interior of my sitting room?" Josephine asked, a little irritated at last by his silence.

He shook his head.

"I should say not. I came, Lady Dredlinton, to talk to you about your husband."

"Then if you will allow me to say so," Josephine replied, "you have come upon a very purposeless errand. I do not discuss my husband with any one, for reasons which I think we need not go into."

Peter Phipps leaned forward in his chair. It was a favourite attitude of his, and one which had won him many successes.

"See here, Lady Dredlinton," he began, "you don't like me. That's my misfortune, but it don't affect the matter as it stands at present between us. I have a kindly feeling for your husband, and I have--a feeling for you which I won't at present presume to refer to."

"Perhaps," Josephine said calmly, "you had better not."

"That feeling," Phipps went on, "has brought me here this afternoon. Your husband is not playing the game with us any more than he is with you."

"What do you know--"

"Let's cut that out, shall we," he interrupted, "Let's talk like a sensible man and woman. Do you want us to drop your husband out of the B. & I. Board?"

"Nothing would give me greater pleasure," Josephine assured him. "I cannot imagine why you ever put him on."

Peter Phipps was a little staggered.

"Perhaps you don't know," he said, "that your husband's salary for doing nothing is four thousand pounds a year."

"I suppose you think him worth that," Josephine answered coldly, "or you would not pay it."

"He is worth nothing at all," Phipps declared bluntly. "I put him on the Board and I am paying him four thousand a year for a reason which I am surprised you have never guessed."

"How on earth should I?" Josephine demanded. "I know nothing whatever about business. On the face of it, I should think you were mad."

"We will leave the reason for Lord Dredlinton's appointment alone for the moment," Phipps continued. "I imagined that it would be gratifying to you. I imagined that the four thousand a year would be of some account in your housekeeping."

"You were entirely wrong, then," Josephine replied. "Whatever Lord Dredlinton may draw from your company, he has kept. Not one penny of it has come to me, directly or indirectly."

Phipps was staggered. He did not doubt for a second, however, that he was listening to the truth.

"Say, this is the worst thing ever!" he declared. "Why, what do you suppose your husband does with the money?"

"I have no idea, nor have I any interest."

"Come, come!" Phipps murmured. "That's bad. Of course," he went on, his eyes narrowing a little as he watched his companion closely, as though to estimate the effect of his words, "of course, I knew that Lord Dredlinton had other interests in life besides his domestic ones, but I had no idea that he carried things to such a length."

Josephine glanced at the clock.

"Will you forgive my saying that up to the present you have not offered me any sufficient explanation as to the reason for your visit?"

"I was coming to it," he assured her. "To tell you the truth, you've rather cut the ground away from under my feet, I was coming to tell you that Lord Dredlinton had drawn money from the company to which he was not entitled, besides having overdrawn his salary to a considerable extent. The cashier has pointed out to me serious irregularities. I came to you to know what I was to do."

"I cannot conceive a person less able to advise you," she answered. "I have said before that my husband's connection with your company is one which I dislike extremely, and I should be delighted to hear that it was ended."

"If it were ended at the present moment," Phipps said slowly, "it would, I fear, be under somewhat painful circumstances."

"What do you mean?" Josephine demanded.

"What I very much hate to put into plain words. Your husband has used money of the company's to which he has no right. I have been paying him four thousand a year, hoping that indirectly I was benefiting you. He has deceived me. I see no reason why I should spare him. The last money he drew from the company--his action in drawing it amounts to a criminal misdemeanour."

"Do you mean that you will prosecute him?"

"Why not?"

Josephine for the first time showed signs of disturbance.

"Is this what you came to tell me?" she asked.

"In a sense, yes!"

"What is the amount?"

"The specific amount in question is a thousand pounds."

"And do you want me to find it to save my husband from prison?"

Mr. Phipps was shocked.

"My dear lady," he protested, "you have utterly and entirely misunderstood me."

"I am not so sure about that," she answered.

"You have misunderstood me if you imagine for a moment that I came here to ask you to make up the amount of your husband's defalcations."

"What did you come for, then?"

"I came," Peter Phipps declared, "entirely out of consideration for you. I came to ask what you wished done, and to do it. I came to assure you of my sympathy; if you will accept it, my friendship; and if you will further honour me by accepting it, my help."

"Just how do you propose to help me?" Josephine enquired.

"Just in the way," he answered, "that a man to whom money is of no account may sometimes help a woman for whom he has a most profound, a most sincere, a most respectful admiration".

"You came, in fact," Josephine said, "to place your bank account at my disposal?"

"I would never have ventured," he protested, "to have put the matter so crudely. I came to express my admiration for you and my desire to help you."

"And in return?"

"I do not bargain. Lady Dredlinton," Phipps said slowly. "I must confess that if you could regard me with a little more toleration, if you would accept at any rate a measure of my friendship, would endeavour, may I say, to adopt a more sympathetic attitude with regard to me, it would give me the deepest pleasure."

Josephine shook her head.

"Mr. Phipps," she said, "you have the name of being a very hard-headed and shrewd business man. You come here offering my husband's honour and your banking account. I could not possibly accept these things from a person to whom I can make no return. If you will let me know the exact amount of my husband's defalcation, I will try and pay it."

"You cannot believe," he exclaimed almost angrily, "that I came here to take your money?"

"Did you come here believing that I was going to take yours?" she asked.

Peter Phipps, who knew men through and through and had also a profound acquaintance with women of a certain class, was face to face for once with a type of which he knew little. The woman who could refuse his millions, offered in such a manner, for him could have no real existence. Somewhere or other he must have blundered, he told himself. Or perhaps she was clever; she was leading him on to more definite things?

"I came here, Lady Dredlinton," he said, "prepared to offer, if you would accept it, everything I possess in the world in return for a little kindness."

Phipps had not heard the knock at the door, though he saw the change in Josephine's face. She rose to her feet with a transfiguring smile.

"How lucky I am," she exclaimed, "to have a witness to such a wonderful offer!"

Wingate paused for a moment in his passage across the room. His outstretched hand fell to his side. The expression of eagerness with which he had approached Josephine disappeared from his face. He confronted Phipps, who had also risen to his feet, as a right-living man should confront his enemy. There was a second or two of tense silence, broken by Phipps, who was the first to recover himself.

"Welcome to London, Mr. Wingate," he said. "I was hoping to see you this morning in the City. This is perhaps a more fortunate meeting."

"You two know each other?" Josephine murmured.

"We are old acquaintances," Wingate replied.

"And business rivals," Phipps put in cheerfully. "A certain wholesome rivalry, Lady Dredlinton, is good for us all. In whatever camp I find myself, I generally find Mr. Wingate in the opposite one. I have an idea, in fact," he went on, "that we are on the point of recommencing our friendly rivalry."

Josephine, who had been standing up for the last few moments, touched the bell.

"You will keep your rivalry for the City, I trust," she said.

It was just then that Phipps surprised a little glance flashed from Josephine to Wingate. He seemed suddenly to increase in size, to become more menacing, portentous. There was thunder upon his forehead. He seemed on the point of passionate speech. At that moment the butler opened the door and Josephine held out her hand.

"It was very kind of you to call, Mr. Phipps. I will think over all that you have said, and discuss it--with my husband."

Phipps had regained command of himself. He bowed low over her hand but could not keep the malice from his tone.

"You could not have a better counsellor," he declared.

Neither Josephine nor Wingate spoke a word until the door was finally closed after the unwelcome caller and they heard his heavy tread retreating down the hall. Then she sank back upon the couch and motioned him to sit by her side.

"I suppose I am an idiot," she acknowledged, "but that man terrifies me."

"In what way?"

"He is my husband's associate in business." Josephine said, "and apparently desires to take advantage of that fact. My husband is not a reliable person where money is concerned. He seems to have been behaving rather badly."

"I am very sorry," Wingate murmured.

She looked at him curiously.

"Has anything happened?" she asked. "You seem distressed."

Wingate shook his head. The shock of having met his enemy under such circumstances was beginning to pass.

"Forgive me," he begged. "The fact of it is, the last person I expected to find here was Peter Phipps. I forgot that your husband was connected with his company."

"You two are not friends?" she suggested.

"We are bitter enemies," Wingate confessed, "and shall be till one of us goes down. We are a very terrible example of the evils of this age of restraint. In more primitive days we should have gone for one another's throats. One would have lived and the other died. It would have been, better."

Josephine shivered.

"Don't!" she implored. "You sound too much in earnest."

"I am in earnest about that man," he replied gravely. "I beg you, Lady Dredlinton, as I hope to call myself your friend, not to trust him, not to encourage him to visit you, to keep him always at arm's length."

"And I," she answered, holding out her hand, "as I hope and mean to be--as I _am your friend--promise that I will have no more to do with him than the barest courtesy demands. To tell you the truth, your coming this afternoon was a little inopportune. If you had been a single minute later, I honestly believe that he would have said unforgivable things."

Wingate's eyes flashed.

"If I could have heard him!" he muttered.

"But, dear friend, you could have said nothing nor done anything," she reminded him soothingly. "Remember that although we are a little older friends than many people know of, we still have some distance to go in understanding."

"I want to be your friend, and I want to be your friend quickly," he said doggedly.

"No one in the world needs friends as I do," Josephine answered, "because I do not think that any one is more lonely."

"You have changed," he told her, his eyes full of sympathy.

"Since Etaples? Yes! Somehow or other, I was always able to keep cheerful there because there was always so much real misery around, and one felt that one was doing good in the world. Here I seem to be such a useless person, no good to anybody."

"If you say things like that, I shall forget how far we have to travel," he declared. "I need your friendship. I have come over here with rather a desperate purpose. I think I can say that I have never known fear, and yet sometimes I flinch when I think of the next few months. I want a real friend, Lady Dredlinton."

She gave him her hand.

"Josephine, if you please," she said, "and all the friendship you care to claim. There, see how rapidly we have progressed! You have been here barely a quarter of an hour and I have given you what really means a great deal to me."

"I shall prize it," he assured her, "and I shall justify it."

They began to talk of their first meeting, of the doctors and friends whom they had known together. The time slipped away. It was nearly seven o'clock when he rose to leave. Even then she seemed loath to let him go.

"What are you doing this evening?" she enquired.

"Nothing," he answered promptly.

"Come back and dine here," she begged. "I warn you, no one is coming, but I think you had better meet Henry, and, to proceed to the more selfish part of it all, I rather dread a tete-a-tete dinner this evening. Will you be very good-natured and come?"

He held her hands and looked into her eyes.

"Josephine," he asked, "do you think it needs any good nature on my part?"

She met his gaze frankly enough at first, smiling gratefully at his ready acceptance. And then a curious change came. She felt her heart begin to beat faster, the strange intrusion of a new element into her life and thoughts and being. It was shining out of her eyes, something which made her a little afraid yet ridiculously light-hearted. Suddenly she felt the colour burning in her cheeks. She withdrew her hands, lost her presence of mind, and found it again at the sound of the servant's approaching footsteps.

"About eight o'clock, then," she said. "A dinner coat will do unless you are going on somewhere. Henry will be so glad to meet you."

"It will give me great pleasure to meet Lord Dredlinton," Wingate murmured, as he made his farewell bow.

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