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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 6
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The Profiteers - Chapter 6 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2337

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The Profiteers - Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI

Dredlinton House, before which Wingate presented himself punctually at eight o'clock that evening, had a sombre, almost a deserted appearance. The great bell which he pealed seemed to ring through empty spaces. His footsteps echoed strangely in the lofty white stone hall as he followed the butler into a small anteroom, from which, however, he was rescued a few minutes later by Josephine's maid.

"Her ladyship will be glad if you will come to the boudoir," she invited. "Dinner is to be served there. If monsieur will follow me."

Wingate passed up the famous staircase, around which was a little semicircle of closed doors, and was ushered into a small apartment on the first floor, through the shielded windows of which he caught glimpses of green trees. The room was like a little fairy chamber, decorated in white and the faintest shade of mauve. In the center, a white and gold round table was prepared for the service of dinner, some wonderful cut glass and a little bunch of mauve sweet peas its only decoration.

"Her ladyship will be down in a moment," the maid announced, as she lowered the blind a little more to keep out the last gleam of sunlight. "If monsieur will be seated."

Wingate ignored the silent invitation of the voluptuous little settee with its pile of cushions. He stood instead upon the hearth rug, gazing around him. The room, in its way, was a revelation. Josephine, ever since their first meeting at Etaples, had always seemed to him to carry with her a faint suggestion of sadness, which everything in this little apartment seemed to contradict. The silverpoint etchings upon the wall were of the school of Hellieu, delicate but daring, exquisite in workmanship and design, the last word in the expression of modern life and love. A study of Psyche, in white marble, fascinated him with its wonderful outline and sense of arrested motion. The atmosphere appeared to him intensely feminine and yet strange. He realised suddenly that it contained no knick-knacks,--nothing, in short, but books and flowers. Perhaps his greatest surprise, however, came at the opening of the door. It seemed at first that he was confronted by a stranger. The woman who entered in a perfectly white gown of some clinging material, with a single row of pearls around her neck, with ringless fingers and plainly coiled hair, seemed like the ghost of her own girlhood. It was only when she smiled, a smile which, curiously enough, seemed to bring back something of that aging sadness into her face, that he found himself able to readjust his tangled impressions. Then he realised that she was no longer a girl, that she was indeed a woman, beautiful, graceful, serious, with all the charm of her greater physical and spiritual maturity.

"Please don't think," she begged, as she sank into the settee by which he was standing, "that I have inveigled you here under false pretences. Henry took the trouble to ring me up from the City this morning to say that he should be dining at home--such an unusual event that I took it for granted it meant a tete-a-tete.--I don't quite know why I treat you with such an extraordinary amount of confidence," she went on, "but I feel that I must and it helps me so much. A tete-a-tete dinner with my husband would have been insupportable. I should have had to telephone to Sarah Baldwin if you had not been available. Sarah would probably have been engaged, and then I should have had to have gone to bed with a headache."

"You don't imagine," he asked, smiling, "that I am disappointed at your husband's absence?"

"I hope not," she answered, raising her eyes to his for a moment.

"Let me imitate your adorable frankness," he begged. "I hope your husband's absence this evening is not because he objects to meeting me?"

"Of course not," she replied wonderingly. "Why on earth should he object to meeting you?"

"You probably don't know," Wingate replied, "that I am in a sort of way the declared enemy of the British and Imperial Granaries--Phipps' latest escapade--of which your husband is a director."

"I am sure that would not have made the slightest difference," she replied. "As a matter of fact, he had no idea that you were coming this evening--I had no opportunity of telling him. A servant rang up from the club, half an hour ago, to say that he would not be home. Come, here is dinner. Will you sit there?" she invited, indicating the chair which a trim parlour maid was holding. "I hope you can eat quite simple things. One scarcely knows what to order, this hot weather."

Wingate took his place, and the conversation merged into those indefinite channels necessitated by the presence of servants. The dinner, simple though it was, was perfect,--iced consomme, a lobster mayonnaise, cold cutlets and asparagus. Presently the little movable sideboard, with its dainty collection of cold dishes and salads, was wheeled outside by the solitary maid who waited upon them, and nothing was left upon the table but a delicately-shaped Venetian decanter of _Chateau Yquem_, liqueurs in tiny bottles, the coffee served in a jug of beaten copper, and an ivory box of cigarettes. With the closing of the door, a different atmosphere seemed immediately created. They smiled into one another's eyes in mutual appreciation.

"I was dying to send Laura away," she confessed. "Why do servants get on one's nerves so when one wants to talk? I don't think I ever noticed it before so much."

"Nor I," he admitted. "Now we are alone there is a sort of luxury in thinking that one may open any one of those subjects I want so much to discuss with you, and perhaps a greater luxury still is the lingering, the feeling that unless one chooses one need say nothing and yet be understood."

"Sympathetic person!" she sighed. "Tell me, by the by, did you notice an air of desertion in the lower part of the house?"

"There seemed to be echoes," he admitted. "I noticed it more this afternoon."

"The whole of the rooms downstairs were fitted up as a small hospital during the last year of the war," she explained. "It was after I had a slight breakdown and was sent back from Etaples. Some of our patients stayed on for months afterwards, and we have never had the place put to rights yet. One or two rooms are quite sufficient for us in these days."

"It seems to be a wing by itself that remains empty," Wingate ruminated.

"The house might have been built for the purpose we put it to," she said. "The rooms we turned into a hospital are quite cut off from the rest of the place. If ever you murder Peter Phipps and want a hiding place, I shall be able to provide you with one!"

He was looking unusually thoughtful. It was evident that he was pursuing some train of reflection suggested by her words. At the mention of Phipps' name, however, he came back to earth.

"I think I should rather like to murder Phipps," he confessed. "The worst of it is the laws are so ridiculously undiscriminating. One would have to pay the same penalty for murdering him as for getting rid of an ordinary human being."

"Queer how I share your hatred of that person," she murmured.

"Was he trying to make love to you this afternoon?" Wingate asked bluntly.

"He was just too clever," she replied, "to put it into plain words. His instinct told him what the result would be, so he decided to wait a little longer, although just towards the end he nearly gave himself away. As a matter of fact," she went on, "he was rather tediously melodramatic. My husband, it seems, is in disgrace with the company--has overdrawn, or helped himself to money, or something of the sort. I rather fancy that I am cast for the role of self-sacrificing wife, who saves her husband from prison by little acts of kindness to his wronged partner. Somehow or other, I don't think the role suits me. I am a very hard-hearted woman, I suppose, but I don't believe I should lift up my little finger to save Henry from prison. Besides, I hate the British and Imperial Granaries."

"Why?" he asked.

"I hate the principle of gambling in commodities that are necessary for the poor," she answered. "I don't pretend to be a philanthropist, or charitable, or anything of that sort. I am wrapped up in my own life and its unhappiness. At the same time, I would never receive as a friend any one who indulged in that sort of speculation."

He looked at her thoughtfully, for once without that absorbing personal interest which had sprung up like a flame in his life. He felt that underneath her words lay real earnestness, real purpose.

"Tell me," he asked, a little abruptly, "if I started a crusade against the British and Imperial, outside the Stock Exchange altogether, if I embarked in a crude and illegal scheme to break them up, would you help me?"

"To the fullest extent of my power," she answered eagerly. "Tell me about it at once, please?"

"Not for a few days," he replied. "I have to think out many details, to get my tools together, and then to decide whether I should have a reasonable chance of success."

"Promise me that I shall help?" she insisted.

"I promise that you shall have the opportunity."

She rose from her chair and settled down in a corner of the settee. With a little half-conscious gesture she invited him to take the place by her side.

"Do you know," she said, "that you are making life much more endurable for me?"

"You should never believe it unendurable," he told her firmly. "Whatever one has suffered, and however dreary the present, there is always the future."

"I wonder," she murmured. "In this life or the next?"

"In this one," he answered.

"Are you, by the by, a believer in anything beyond?" she went on.

"A struggling one," he replied. "I have wanted so much to believe that I think I have at times almost succeeded."

"I believe," she said reflectively, "but I cannot analyse my belief. I am most content when I keep my brain shut off from it and consider it as an instinct. I try to tell myself that the power which is responsible for the sorrows of this world must provide compensation. Even history can show us that this has always been the case. Yesterday," she continued, "I went to a spiritual seance. I found nothing. I shall go to the next thing of the sort which any one suggests. I am like the hypochondriac with his list of patent medicines. I try them all, but my heart still aches."

"I think," he admitted, "that _au fond I have, like most men, a strong leaven of materialism in me. I have had my disappointments in life. I want my compensations here, in the same world where I have suffered."

"Why should we not try to believe, like La Fontaine," she questioned, "that sorrow and unhappiness are akin to disease, a mental instead of a physical scourge--that it must pass just as inevitably?"

"It is a comfortable philosophy," he confessed. "Could you adopt it?"

"In my blackest moments I should have scoffed at the idea," she replied. "One thing I know quite well, though, is unchanging," she continued, her face losing all the gentle softness which a moment before he had found so fascinating, so reminiscent of those sad, sleepy-eyed women immortalised by the masters of the Renaissance. "That is my hatred of everything and everybody connected with my present life."

"Everybody?" he murmured.

She stretched out her hand impulsively. He held it in his with a tender, caressing clasp. There seemed to be no need of words. The moment was in its way so wonderful that neither of them heard the opening of the door. It was only the surprised exclamation of the man who had entered which brought them back to a very sordid present.

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