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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Profiteers - Chapter 8
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The Profiteers - Chapter 8 Post by :solidbank Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :2312

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The Profiteers - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Wingate returned to his rooms at the Milan about eleven o'clock that evening, to find Roger Kendrick, Maurice White and the Honourable Jimmy Wilshaw stretched out in his most comfortable chairs, drinking whiskies and sodas and smoking cigarettes.

"Welcome!" he exclaimed, smiling upon them from the threshold. "Are you all here? Is there any one I forgot to invite?"

"The man's tone is inhospitable," the Honourable Jimmy murmured, showing no inclination to rise.

"I decline to apologise," Kendrick said. "The fact of it is, we're here for your good, Wingate. We are here to see that you do not die of ennui and loneliness in this stony-hearted city."

"In other words," Maurice White chimed in, "we are here to take you to the great supper-party."

"Well, I'm glad to hear about it," Wingate declared, giving his coat and hat to the valet who had followed him in. "Why don't you fellows sit down and have a drink?"

"My dear fellow," Kendrick sighed, "sarcasm does not become you. We are all drinking--your whisky. Also, I believe, smoking your cigarettes. Your servant--admirable fellow, that--absolutely forced them upon us--wouldn't take 'no.' And indeed, why should we refuse? We have come to offer you rivers of champagne, cigars of abnormal length, and the lips of the fairest houris in London. In other words, Sir Frederick Houstley, steel magnate of Sheffield, is giving a supper party to the world, and our instructions are to convey you there by force or persuasion, drunk or sober, sleepy or wide awake."

"I accept your cordial invitation," Wingate said, mixing himself a whisky and soda. "At what time does the fight commence?"

"Forthwith," Kendrick announced. "We sally forth from here to the Arcadian Rooms, situated in this building. Afterwards we make merry. John, my boy," he went on, "you have the air of a man who has drunk deep already to-night of the waters of happiness. Exactly where did you dine?"

"In Utopia," Wingate answered. "According to you, I am to sup in fairyland."

"But breakfast," the Honourable Jimmy put in,--"a man ought to be dashed careful where he breakfasts. A man is known by his breakfast companions, what?"

"Young fellow," Wingate asked, "where is Sarah?"

"Have no fear," was the blissful reply. "Sarah is coming to the supper. She's filling her old 'bus up with peaches from the Gaiety. Not being allowed to sit inside with any of them, I was sent on ahead."

"You dog!" Maurice White exclaimed.

"Dog yourself," was the prompt retort. "Opportunity is a fine thing. Sometimes I have a gruesome fear that Sarah does not altogether trust me."

Kendrick, who had been straightening his tie before the glass, now swung around.

"This way to the lift, boys," he said. "Time we put in an appearance."

The reception room of the Arcadian suite was already fairly well crowded. Wingate shook hands with his host, a cheery, theatrical-loving soul, and was presented to many other people. Where he was not introduced he found a pleasing absence of formality, which facilitated conversation and rapidly widened his circle of acquaintances. Kendrick came over and slapped him on the back.

"Wingate, my lad," he exclaimed, "you're going some! You're the bright boy of the party. Whom are you taking into supper?"

"Me!" said a rather shrill but not unmusical voice from Wingate's side. "Introduce us, please, Mr. Kendrick. We have been making furtive conversation for the last five minutes."

"It is a great occasion," Kendrick declared. "I present Mr. John Wingate, America's greatest financier, most successful soldier, and absolutely inevitable President, to Miss Flossie Lane, England's greatest musical comedy artist."

Miss Lane grabbed Wingate's arm.

"Let's go in to supper," she suggested. "All the best places will be taken if we don't hurry."

"One word," Kendrick begged, relapsing for a moment into his ordinary manner as he touched Wingate on the shoulder. "Dredlinton is here, rather drunk and very quarrelsome. I heard him telling some one about having found you dining alone with his wife to-night. Phipps was listening. Look at him, as black as a thundercloud! Keep your head if Dredlinton gets troublesome."

Wingate nodded and was promptly led away. They found places about half-way down the great horseshoe table, laden with flowers and every sort of cold delicacy. There were champagne bottles at every other place, a small crowd of waiters, eager to justify their existence,--a rollicking, Bohemian crowd, the _jeunesse doree of London, and all the talent and beauty of the musical comedy stage. It was a side of life with which Wingate was somewhat unfamiliar. Nevertheless, his feet that night were resting upon the clouds. Any form of life was sweet to him. The new joy in his heart warmed his pulses, lightened his tongue, unlocked a new geniality. He was disposed to talk with everybody. The young lady by his side, however, had other views.

"Do you like our show, Mr. Wingate?" she asked. "Or perhaps you don't go to musical comedies? I am in 'Lady Diana,' you know."

"One of the very first things I am going to see," Wingate replied, "but as a matter of fact, I only arrived from America a few days ago. I hear that you are a great success."

It took the young lady very nearly a quarter of an hour to explain how greatly the play might be improved and strengthened by the allotment to her of a few more songs and another dance, and she also recounted the argument she had had with the stage manager as to her absence from the stage during the greater part of Act Two.

"I am not vain," she concluded, with engaging frankness, "but on the other hand I am not foolish, and I know quite well that many people--a great part of the audience, in fact--come because they see my name upon the boards, and I have numberless complaints because I am only on for such a short time in what should be the most important act of the play. I tell them it's nothing to do with me, but as long as my name is displayed outside the theatre and I know how they feel about it, I feel a certain responsibility. Now you are a very clever man, and a man of the world, Mr. Wingate. What do you think about it?"

"I think that you are quite right," he declared, with satisfactory emphasis.

"You don't know Mr. Maken, our manager, I suppose?" she enquired.

Wingate shook his head.

"As a matter of fact," he confessed, "I know very few theatrical people."

"What a pity you're not fond of the stage!" she sighed, with a world of regret in her very blue eyes. "You might have a theatre of your own, and a leading lady, and all the rest of it."

"It sounds rather fascinating," he admitted, "under certain circumstances. All the same, I don't think I should like to make a business of what is such a great pleasure."

"I thought, with American men," she said archly, "that their business was their pleasure."

"To a certain extent, I suppose," he admitted, "but then, you see, I am half English. My mother was English although she was married in America, and I was born there."

"How did you manage about serving?" she enquired.

"I gave both a turn," he explained. "I turned out for England first and then for America."

"How splendid of you!" she murmured, raising her fine eyes admiringly and then dropping them in a most effective manner. "But wasn't it a shocking waste of time and lives! Just fancy, in all those years, how many undeveloped geniuses must have been killed without ever having had their chance! How miserably upside down the whole world was, too! Four years and more during which a supper party, except at a private house, was an impossibility!"

"I suppose," Wingate admitted, a little staggered, "that taken from that point of view the war was an unfortunate infliction."

"And after all," the young lady went on, "here we are at the end of it very much as though it had never happened. Do you think they will be able to stop wars in the future?"

"I don't know," he confessed. "I suppose international differences must be settled somehow or other. Personally, I think a wrestling match, or something of that sort--"

"Now you're making fun of me," she interrupted reproachfully. "I see you don't want to talk about serious things. Do you admire Miss Orford?" she asked, indicating another musical comedy lady who was seated opposite, and who had shown occasional signs of a desire to join in the conversation.

Wingate took his cue from his questioner's tone and glance.

"A little too thin," he hazarded.

"Molly is almost painfully thin," his companion conceded, with apparent reluctance, "and I think she makes up far more than she need."

"Bad for the complexion in time, I suppose," he observed.

"I don't know. Molly's been doing it for a great many years. She understudies me, you know, at the theatre. Would you like me to send you word if ever I'm unable to play?"

"Quite unnecessary," he replied, with the proper amount of warmth. "I should be far too brokenhearted to attend if you were not there. Besides, is Miss Orford clever?"

"Don't ask me," her friend sighed. "She doesn't even do me the compliment of imitating me. Tell me, don't you love supping here?"

"Under present circumstances," he agreed.

"I love it, too," she murmured, with an answering flash of the eyes. "I am not sure," she went on, "that I care about these large parties, although I always like to come when Sir Frederick asks me. He is such a dear, isn't he?"

"He is a capital host," Wingate assented.

"I am so fond of really interesting conversation," the young lady further confided. "I love to have a man who really amounts to something tell me about his life and work."

"Mr. Peter Phipps, for instance?" he suggested. "Didn't I see you lunching here with him the other day?"

She looked across the table, towards where Phipps was sitting hand in hand with a young lady in blue, and apparently being very entertaining. Miss Flossie caught a glimpse of Wingate's expression.

"You don't like Mr. Phipps," she said. "You don't think I ought to lunch with him."

"I shouldn't if I were a young lady like you, whose choice must be unlimited," Wingate replied.

"How do you know that it is unlimited?" she demanded. "Perhaps just the people whom I would like to lunch with don't ask me."

"They need encouragement," he suggested.

She laughed into his eyes.

"Do you know anything about the men who need encouragement?" she asked demurely.

He avoided the point and made some casual remark about the changes in London during the last few years. She sighed sorrowfully.

"It has changed for no one so much as me," she murmured. "The war--"

"You lost friends, I suppose?" he ventured.

She closed her eyes.

"Don't!" she whispered. "I never speak of it," she went on, twisting a ring around her fingers nervously, "I don't like it mentioned, but I was really engaged to young Lord Fanleighton."

He murmured a little word of sympathy, and their conversation was momentarily interrupted as she leaned forward to answer an enquiry from her host. Wingate turned to Sarah, who was seated at his other side.

"How dare you neglect me so shamefully!" she asked.

"Let me make amends," he pleaded.

"I am glad you feel penitent, at any rate. I expect Miss Flossie Lane has asked you what you think of her friend, Miss Orford, and told you that she was engaged to Lord Fanleighton."

"What a hearing!" he murmured.

"Don't be silly," she replied. "I couldn't hear a word, but I know her stock in trade."

There was a little stir at the farther end of the table. Lord Dredlinton had left his place and was standing behind Phipps, with his hands upon his shoulders. He seemed to be shouting something in his ear. At that moment he recognised Wingate. He staggered up the farther side of the table towards him, butting into a waiter on the way and pausing for a moment to curse him, Flossie jogged Wingate's elbow.

"What fun!" she whispered. "Here's Lord Dredlinton, absolutely blotto!"

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