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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 7
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The Profiteers - Chapter 7 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :3219

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The Profiteers - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

"I fear" the newcomer remarked, as he softly closed the door behind him, "that I am an intruder. Perhaps, Josephine, I may be favoured with an introduction to this gentleman? He is a stranger to me, so far as I remember. An old friend of yours, I presume?"

He advanced a step or two farther into the room, a slim, effeminate-looking person of barely medium height, dressed with the utmost care, of apparently no more than middle age but with crow's-feet about his eyes and sagging pockets of flesh underneath them. His closely trimmed, sandy moustache was streaked with grey, his eyes were a little bloodshot, he had the shrinking manner of one who suffers from habitual nervousness. Josephine, after her first start of surprise, watched him with coldly questioning eyes.

"I hope you have dined, Henry," she said. "A waiter rang up from somewhere to say you would not be home."

"A message which I do not doubt left you inconsolable," he observed, with a little curl of his lips. "Do not distress yourself, I pray. I have dined at the club, and I have only come home to change. I am on my way to a party. I would not have intruded if your maid had shown her usual discretion."

Josephine ignored the insolent innuendo.

"You do not know my husband, I think, Mr. Wingate," she said,--"Mr. John Wingate--Lord Dredlinton."

The newcomer's manner underwent a sudden change.

"What, John Wingate from New York?" he exclaimed.

Wingate assented briefly. Lord Dredlinton advanced at once with outstretched hand. All the amiability which he could muster at a moment's notice was diffused into his tone and manner.

"My dear sir," he said, "I am delighted to meet you. I have just been dining with our mutual friend, Peter Phipps, and your name was the last mentioned. I, in fact, accepted a commission to find you out and convey a message from Phipps. There is a little matter in which you are both indirectly interested which he wants to discuss."

Wingate had risen to his feet. By the side of the slighter man, his height and appearance seemed almost imposing.

"To be quite frank with you, Lord Dredlinton," he said, as he returned the newcomer's greeting without enthusiasm, "I cannot imagine any subject in which I could share an interest with Mr. Phipps."

Lord Dredlinton was politely surprised.

"Is that so? Peter Phipps is an awfully good fellow."

"Mr. Phipps is a director of the British and Imperial Granaries, Limited," Wingate said quietly.

"So am I," Lord Dredlinton announced, with a bland smile.

"I am aware of it," was the curt reply.

"You don't approve of our company?"

"I do not."

Lord Dredlinton shrugged his shoulders. He lit a cigarette and dismissed the subject.

"Well, well," he continued amiably, "there is no need for us to quarrel, I hope. We all look at things differently in this world, and, fortunately, the matter which I want to discuss with you lies right outside the operations of the B. & I. When can you give me a few moments of your time, Mr. Wingate? Will you call around at our offices, Number 13 Throgmorton Street, next Tuesday morning at, say? eleven-thirty?"

Wingate was a little perplexed.

"I don't want to waste your time, Lord Dredlinton," he said. "Can't you give me some idea as to the nature of this business?"

"To tell you the truth, I can't," the other confided. "It's more Phipps' affair than mine. I'll promise, though, that we won't keep you for longer than ten minutes."

"I will come then." Wingate acquiesced a little doubtfully. "I must warn you, however, that between Phipps and myself there is a quarrel of ancient standing. We meet as acquaintances because the conventions of the world make anything else ridiculous. One of my objects in coming to this side is to consider whether I can find any reasonable means of attacking the very disgraceful trust with which you and he are associated."

Lord Dredlinton remained entirely unruffled. He shrugged his shoulders with an air of protest.

"You are a little severe, Mr. Wingate," he said, "but I promise you that Phipps shall keep his temper and that I will not be drawn into a quarrel. I am very pleased to see you here. My wife's friends are always mine.--If you will excuse me, I will go and change my clothes now. I have been inveigled into the last word of our present-day frivolities--a theatrical supper party."

He turned away, with an enigmatic smile at his wife and a ceremonious bow to Wingate, and closed the door behind him carefully. They heard his retreating footsteps on the stairs; then Wingate resumed his seat by Josephine's side.

"Do you mind?" he asked.

"Not a scrap," she replied. "Besides, it has given Henry such immense pleasure. I am quite sure that he never believed it possible that I should be found holding another man's hand. Or," she went on, with a little grimace, "that any other man would want to hold it."

"It is possible," Wingate said deliberately, "that your husband may have further surprises of that nature in store for him."

She laughed. "Is that a threat?"

"If you like to regard it as such. You will find out before long that I am a terribly persistent person."

"I wonder," she remarked thoughtfully, "what could have made him so extraordinarily agreeable to you."

"To tell you the truth, I was surprised," Wingate replied. "And Peter Phipps, too! What can they want with me down at Throgmorton Street? They can't imagine that they can hustle me into the market?"

"Henry was very much in earnest," she told him.

Wingate's face darkened for a moment.

"They couldn't suspect--No, that wouldn't be possible!"

"Suspect what?"

"That my enmity to the B. & I.," he went on, in a low tone, "is beginning to take definite shape."

"Just what do you mean by that?" she asked.

"I have just the glimmerings of a scheme," he told her. "It will be something entirely unexpected, and it will mean a certain amount of risk."

"Don't forget that you have promised to let me help," she reminded him.

"If I strike," he said, "it will be at the directors. Your husband will suffer with the rest."

"That would not affect my attitude in the least," she assured him. "As I think you must have gathered, there is no manner of sympathy between my husband and myself."

"I am glad to hear you say so," he declared bluntly. "If there had been, I should have felt it my duty to advise you to use all your influence to get him to resign from the Board."

"As bad as that?"

"As bad as that," he answered.

"You can't tell me anything about your scheme yet?"

"Not yet."

"How is it," she asked, "that they have been allowed to operate in wheat to this enormous extent?"

"Well, for one thing," he told her, "the company has been planned and worked out with simply diabolical cleverness. They are inside the law all the time, and they manage to keep there. Their agents are so camouflaged that you can't tell for whom they are buying. Then they command an immense capital."

"The others must have found it, then," she observed. "My husband is almost without means."

"Phipps has supporters," Wingate said thoughtfully. "They'll carry on this combine until the last moment, until a Government commission, or something of the sort, looks like intervening. Then they'll probably let a dozen of their subsidiary companies go smash, and Peter Phipps, Skinflint Martin and Rees will be multimillionaires. Incidentally, the whole of their enormous profits will have come from the working classes."

"However visionary it is, I want to know about your scheme," she persisted.

"I cannot make up my mind to bring you into it," he declared doubtfully. "It is practically a one-man show, and it is--well, a little primitive."

"Do you think I mind that?" she asked eagerly. "The only point worth considering is, could I help? You know in your heart that you could not make me afraid."

"I shall take you into my confidence, at any rate," he promised, "and you shall decide afterwards. I warn you, you will think that I have drunk deep of the Bowery melodrama."

"I shall mind nothing," she laughed as she assured him. "When do we begin?"

Wingate was thoughtful for a moment or two. They both heard the opening of a heavy door down below, the hailing of a taxi by the butler, and Dredlinton's voice in the street.

"Is that your husband going?" he enquired.

She nodded.

"Then I am going to make a most singular request," he said. "I am going to ask you whether you would show me over the portion of the house which you used as a hospital."

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