BY E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM
The Marchioness of Amesbury was giving a garden party in the spacious but somewhat urban grounds of her mansion in Kensington. Perhaps because it was the first affair of its sort of the season, and perhaps, also, because Cecilia Amesbury had the knack of making friends in every walk of life, it was remarkably well attended. Two stockbrokers, Roger Kendrick and his friend Maurice White, who had escaped from the City a little earlier than usual, and had shared a taxicab up west, congratulated themselves upon having found a quiet and shady seat where iced drinks were procurable and the crush was not so great.
"Anything doing in your market to-day?" Kendrick asked his younger associate.
White made a little grimace.
"B. & I., B. & I., all the time," he grumbled. "I'm sick of the name of the damned things. And to tell you the truth, Ken, when a client asks for my advice about them, I don't know what to say."
Kendrick contemplated the tips of his patent boots. He was a well-looking, well-turned-out and well-to-do representative of the occupation which he, his father and grandfather had followed,—ten years older, perhaps, than his companion, but remarkably well-preserved. He had made money and kept it.
"They say that Rockefeller's at the back of them," he remarked.
"They may say what they like but who's to prove it?" his young companion argued. "They must have enormous backing, of course, but until they declare it, I'm not pushing the business. Look at the Board on their merits, Ken."
Roger Kendrick nodded. Every one on the Stock Exchange was interested in B. & I.'s, and he settled himself down comfortably to hear what his companion had to say on the matter.
"There's old Dreadnought Phipps," White continued. "Peter Phipps, to give him his right name. Well, has ever a man who aspires to be considered a financial giant had such a career? He was broken on the New York Stock Exchange, went to Montreal and made a million or so, back to New York, where he got in with the copper lot and no doubt made real money. Then he went for that wheat corner in Chicago. He got out of that with another fortune, though they say he sold his fellow directors. Now he turns up here, chairman of the B. & I., who must have bought fifty million pounds' worth of wheat already this year. Well, unless he's considerably out of his depth, he must have some one else's money to play with besides his own."
"Let me see, who are the other directors?" Kendrick enquired.
"Well, there's young Stanley Rees, Phipps' nephew, who came in for three hundred thousand pounds a few years ago," Maurice White answered; "old skinflint Martin, who may be worth half a million but certainly not more; and Dredlinton. Dredlinton's rabbit, of course. He hasn't got a bob. There's money enough amongst the rest for any ordinary business undertaking, if only one could understand what the mischief they were up to. They can't corner wheat in this country."
"I wonder," Kendrick murmured. "The harvests last year were bad all over the world, you know, and this year, except in the States and Canada, they will be worse. With another fifty million it might be done."
"But they're taking deliveries," White pointed out. "They have granaries all over the kingdom, subsidiary companies to do the dirty work of refusing to sell. Already they say that three quarters of the wheat of the country is in their hands, and mind you, they sell nothing. The price goes up and up, just the same as the price of their shares has risen. They buy but they never sell. Some of the big banks must be helping, of course, but I know one or two—one in particular—-who decline to handle any business from them at all."
"I should say their greatest risk was Government interference," Kendrick observed. "Gambling in foodstuffs ought to be forbidden."
"It would take our Government a year to make up their minds what to do," White scoffed, "and by that time these fellows would have sold out and be on to something else."
"Well, it's too hot for shop," Kendrick yawned. "I think I shall cut work on Friday and have a long week-end at Sandwich."
"I have a good mind to do the same," his companion declared. "And as to B. & I.'s there's money to be made out of them one way or the other, but I shall advise my clients not to touch them.—Hullo, we're discovered! Here's Sarah."
The young lady in question, escorted by a pink-complexioned, somewhat bored-looking young man, who cheered up at the sight of the iced drinks, greeted the two friends with a smile. She was attired in the smartest of garden-party frocks, her brown eyes were clear and attractive, her complexion freckled but pleasant, her mouth humorous, a suggestion which was further carried out by her slightly retrousse nose. She seemed to bring with her an agreeable atmosphere of wholesome things.
"You shall advise your clients not to touch what?" she enquired. "Are there any tips going?"
Kendrick shook his head.
"You stick to the tips your clients slip into your hand, my dear young lady," he advised, "and don't dabble in what you don't understand. The Stock Exchange is a den of thieves, and Maurice here and I are two of the worst examples."
Miss Sarah Baldwin made a little grimace.
"My clients are such a mean lot," she complained. "Now that they have got over the novelty of being driven in a taxicab by a woman, they are positively stingy. Even Jimmy here only gave me a sovereign for picking him up at St. James' Street, waiting twenty minutes at his tailor's, and bringing him on here. What is it that you're going to advise your clients to leave alone, please, Mr. White?"
"British and Imperial Granaries."
The young man—the Honourable James Wilshaw—suddenly dropped his eyeglass and assumed an anxious expression.
"I say, what's wrong with them, White?" he demanded. "They're large holders of wheat, and wheat's going up all the time."
"Wheat's going up because they're buying," was the dry comment. "Directly they leave off it will drop, and when it begins to drop, look out for a slump in B. & I.'s."
The young man relapsed into a seat by Sarah's side and swung an immaculately trousered leg.
"But look here, Maurice, my boy, why should they leave off buying, eh?" he enquired.
"Because," the other explained, "there is a little more wheat in the world than the B. & I. have money for."
"I can give you a further reason," Kendrick intervened, "for leaving B. & I.'s severely alone. There is at the present moment on his way to this country—-if he is not already here, by the by—one of the shrewdest and finest speculators in the world, who is coming over on purpose to do what up to now our own men seem to have funked—fight the B. & I. tooth and nail."
"Who's that, Ken?" Maurice White asked with interest. "Why haven't I heard about him before?"
"Because," Kendrick replied, "he wrote and told me that he was coming and marked his letter 'Private,' so I thought that I had better keep it to myself. His boat was due in Liverpool several days ago, though, so I suppose that any one who is interested knows all about his coming by this time."
"But his name?" Sarah demanded. "Why don't you tell us his name and all about him? I love American millionaires who do things in Wall Street and fight with billions. If he's really nice, he may take me off your hands, Jimmy."
"I'd like to see him try," that young man growled, with unexpected fierceness.
"Well, his name is John Philip Wingate," Kendrick told them. "He started life, I believe, as a journalist. Then he inherited a fortune and made another one on Wall Street, where I imagine he came across Dreadnought Phipps. What happened I don't exactly know," he went on ruminatively. "Phipps couldn't have squeezed him, or we should have heard about it, but somehow or other the two got at loggerheads, for it's common knowledge amongst their business connections—I don't know that they have any friends—that Wingate has sworn to break Phipps. There will be quite a commotion in the City when it gets about that Wingate is here or on his way over."
"It's almost like a romance," Sarah declared, as she took the ice which her cavalier had brought her and settled down once more in her chair. "Tell me more about Mr. Wingate, please. Mr. Phipps I know, of course, and he doesn't seem in the least terrifying. Is Mr. Wingate like that or is he a dourer type?"
"John Wingate," Kendrick said reflectively, "is a much younger man than Phipps—-I should say that he wasn't more than thirty-five—and much better-looking. I must say that in a struggle I shouldn't know which to back. Wingate has sentiment and Phipps has none; conscience of which Phipps hasn't a shred, and a sense of honour with which Phipps was certainly never troubled. These points are all against him in a market duel, but on the other hand he has a bigger outlook than Phipps, he has nerves of steel and the grit of a hero. Did I tell you, by the by, that he went into the war as a private and came out a brigadier?"
"Splendid!" Sarah murmured. "Now tell us where Peter Phipps comes in?"
"Well," Kendrick continued, "Phipps attracts sympathy because of his lavish hospitality and apparent generosity, whilst Wingate is a man of many reserves and has few friends, either on this side or the other. Then Phipps, I should say, is the wealthier man, and in this present deal, at any rate, he has marvellous support, so that financially he must tower over Wingate. Then, too, I think he understands the tricks of the market better over here, and he has a very dangerous confederate in Skinflint Martin. What that old blackguard doesn't know of chicanery and crooked dealing, the devil himself couldn't make use of. If he's put his own money into B. & I., I should say that Phipps can't be broken. My advice to Wingate, at any rate, when we meet, will be to stand by for a time."
The sound of approaching voices warned them that their seclusion was on the point of being broken into. Their hostess, an elderly lady of great social gifts and immense volubility, appeared, having for her escort a tall, well-groomed man of youthful middle-age, with the square jaw and humorous gleam in his grey eyes of the best trans-Atlantic type. Lady Amesbury beamed upon them all.
"Just the people I was looking for!" she exclaimed. "I want you all to know my great friend, Mr. Wingate from New York."
Every one was glad to meet Wingate, and Kendrick and he exchanged the greetings of old friends.
"Now you have found some one whom you can talk to, my dear John," his hostess declared. "I shall consider you off my hands for the afternoon. Come and dine with me next Sunday night, and don't lose your heart to Sarah Baldwin. She's a capricious little minx, and, besides, she's engaged to Jimmy there, though heaven knows whether they'll ever get married.—There! I knew it! My own particular Bishop being lured into conversation with Hilda Sutton, who's just become a freethinker and can't talk of anything else. It will spoil the dear man's afternoon if she gets really started.—Good-by, all of you. Take care of Mr. Wingate."
She hurried off, and the newcomer seated himself between Kendrick and Sarah.
"We've just been hearing all about you, Mr. Wingate," Sarah began, "but I must say you're the last person we expected to see here. We imagined you dashing in a great motor-car from Liverpool to your office in the City, dictating letters, speaking into the telephone, and doing all sorts of violent things. I don't believe Mr. Kendrick told us the truth about you at all."
Wingate smiled good-humouredly.
"Tell me what Kendrick has been saying, and I will let you know whether it is the truth or not," he promised.
"Well, he has just given us a thrilling picture of you," she went on, "coming over here armed cap-a-pie to do battle for the romance of money. Already we were picturing to ourselves poor Dreadnought Phipps, the first of your victims, seeking for an asylum in the Stock Exchange Almshouses; and the other desperado—what was his name? Skinflint Martin?—on his knees before you while you read him a moral lecture on the evils of speculation."
Wingate's eyes twinkled.
"From all of which I judge that you have been discussing the British and Imperial Granaries," he remarked.
"Our dear young friend, Miss Baldwin," Kendrick said, "has a vivid imagination and a wonderful gift of picturesque similies. Still, I have just been telling them that one reason why I wouldn't touch B. & I.'s is because they have an idea over here that you are going to have a shy at them."
"My attitude toward the company in question is certainly an unfriendly one," Wingate admitted. "I hate all speculations the basis of which is utterly selfish. Dealing in foodstuffs is one of them. But, Miss Baldwin," he went on, turning towards her, "why do we talk finance on such a wonderful afternoon, and so far away from the City? I really came over from the States to get an occasional cocktail, order some new clothes and see some plays. What theatres do you advise me to go to?"
"I can tell you plenty," she answered, "which I should advise you to stay away from. It is quite easy to see, Mr. Wingate, that you have been away from London quite a long time. You are not in the least in touch with us. On the Stock Exchange they do little, nowadays, I am told, but invent stories which the members can tell only to other men's wives, and up in the west we do little else except talk finance. The money we used to lose at auction bridge now all goes to our brokers. We worry the lives out of our men friends by continually craving for tips."
"Dear me," Wingate remarked, "I had no idea things were as bad as that."
"Now what," Sarah asked ingratiatingly, "is your honest opinion about British and Imperial Granaries?"
"If I gave it to you," Wingate replied, "my opinion would be the only honest thing about it."
"Then couldn't one do some good by selling a bear of them?" she enquired sagely.
"You would do yourself and every one else more good by not dealing in them at all," Wingate advised. "The whole thing is a terrible gamble."
"When did you arrive?" Kendrick enquired. "Have you been in the City yet?"
Wingate shook his head.
"I have spent the last two days in the north of England," he replied. "I was rather interested in having a glance at conditions there. I only arrived in London last night."
"But this morning?" Sarah asked him. "You don't mean to tell me that you had strength of mind enough to keep away from the City?"
"I certainly do. I did not even telephone to my brokers. Kendrick here knows that, for he is one of the firm."
"Then what did you do?" Sarah persisted, "I can't imagine you spending your first morning in idleness."
"You might have called it idleness; I didn't," he answered, smiling. "I had my hair cut and my nails manicured; I was measured for four new suits of clothes, a certain number of shirts, and I bought some other indispensable trifles."
"Dear me," Sarah murmured, "you aren't at all the sort of man I thought you were!"
"You don't seem energetic. I should have thought, even if you weren't supposed to buy or sell, that you would have been all round the markets, enquiring about B. & I.'s this morning."
"I read the papers instead," he replied. "One can learn a good deal from the papers."
"You will find rather a partial Press where B. & I.'s are concerned," Kendrick observed.
"I have already noticed it," was the brief reply. "Still, even the Press must live, I suppose."
"Cynic!" Sarah murmured.
"Might one ask, without being impertinent," Maurice White enquired, addressing Wingate for the first time, "what is your real opinion concerning the directors of the B. & I.?"
Wingate answered him deliberately.
"I am scarcely a fair person to ask," he said, "because Peter Phipps is a personal enemy of mine. However, since you have asked the question, I should say that Phipps is utterly unscrupulous and possesses every qualification of a blackguard. Rees, his nephew, is completely under his thumb, occupying just the position he might be supposed to hold. Skinflint Martin ought to have died in penal servitude years ago, and as for Dredlinton—"
Wingate was quick to scent disaster. He broke off abruptly in his sentence just as a tall, pale, beautifully gowned woman who had detached herself from a group close at hand turned towards them.
"It is Lady Dredlinton," Kendrick whispered in his ear.
"Then I will only say," Wingate concluded, "that Lord Dredlinton's commercial record scarcely entitles him to a seat on the Board of any progressive company."
Josephine Dredlinton, with a smile which gave to her face a singularly sweet expression, deprecated the disturbance which her coming had caused amongst the little company. The four men had risen to their feet. Kendrick was holding a chair for her. She apparently knew every one intimately except Wingate, and Sarah hastened to present him.
"Mr. Wingate—the Countess of Dredlinton," she said. "Mr. Wingate has just arrived from New York, Josephine, and he wants to know which are the newest plays worth seeing and the latest mode in men's ties."
A somewhat curious few seconds followed upon Sarah's few words of introduction. Wingate stood drawn to his fullest height, having the air of a man who, on the point of making his little conventional movement and speech, has felt the influence of some emotion in itself almost paralysing. His eyes searched the face of the woman before whom he stood, almost eagerly, as though he were conjuring up to himself pictures of her in some former state and trying to reconcile them with her present appearance. She, on her side, seemed to be realising some secret and indefinable pleasure. The lines of her beautiful mouth, too often, nowadays, weary and drooping, softened into a quiet, almost mysterious smile. Her eyes—very large and wonderful eyes they were—seemed to hold some other vision than the vision of this tall, forceful-looking man. It was a moment which no one, perhaps, except those two themselves realised. To the lookers-on it seemed only a meeting between two very distinguished and attractive-looking people, naturally interested in each other.
"It is a great pleasure to meet Lady Dredlinton," Wingate said. "I hope that Miss Baldwin's remark will not prejudice me in your opinion. I am really not such a frivolous person as she would have you believe."
"Even if you were," she rejoined, sinking into the chair which had been brought for her, "a little frivolity from men, nowadays, is rather in order, isn't it?"
"It's all very well for those who can afford to indulge in it," Kendrick grumbled. "We can't earn our bread and butter now on the Stock Exchange. Even our friend Maurice here, who works as long as an hour and a half a day sometimes, declares that he can barely afford his new Rolls-Royce."
"You men are so elusive about your prospects," Sarah declared. "I believe that Jimmy could afford to marry me to-morrow if he'd only make up his mind to it."
"I'm ready to try, anyhow," the young man assured her promptly. "Girls nowadays talk so much rot about giving up their liberty."
"Once a taxicab driver, always a taxicab driver," Sarah propounded. "Did you know that that was my profession, Mr. Wingate? If you do need anything in the shape of a comfortable conveyance while you are in town, will you remember me? I'll send you a card, if you like."
"Don't, for heaven's sake, listen to that young woman," Kendrick begged.
"Her cab's on its last legs," the Honourable Jimmy warned him, "three cylinders missing, and the fourth makes a noise like popcorn when you come to a gradient."
"It isn't as though she could drive," Maurice White put in. "There isn't an insurance company in London will take her on as a risk."
Sarah glanced from one to the other in well-assumed viciousness.
"Don't I hate you all!" she exclaimed bitterly. "I can understand Jimmy, because he likes me to drive him all the time, but you others, who aren't regular clients at all, why you should butt in and try to spoil my chances, I can't think. Mr. Wingate is just my conception of the ideal fare—generous, affable, and with trans-Atlantic notions about tips. I shall send you my card, all the same, Mr. Wingate."
"And I hope," Josephine said, "that Mr. Wingate will not take the slightest notice of all the rubbish these unkind people have been saying. Miss Baldwin drives me continually and has given me every satisfaction."
"'Every satisfaction' I love," Sarah declared. "I shall have that framed."
"Any chance of your taking me back to the Milan?" Wingate enquired.
Sarah shook her head regretfully, glancing down at her muslin gown.
"Can't you see I'm in my party clothes?" she said. "I did bring the old 'bus down here, but I had a boy meet me and take it away. I'll send you my card and telephone number, Mr. Wingate. You can rely upon my punctuality and dispatch. Even my aunt here would give me a reference, if pressed," she added, as their hostess paused for a moment to whisper something in Josephine's ear.
"Your driving's like your life, dear, much too fast for my liking." Lady Amesbury declared. "I hope things are better in your country, Mr. Wingate, but our young people go on anyhow now. Here's my niece drives a taxicab and is proud of it, my own daughter designs underclothes and sells them at a shop in Sloane Street to any one who comes along, and my boy, who ought to go into the Guards, prefers to go into Roger Kendrick's office. What are you going to start him at, Roger?"
"A pound a week and his lunch money, probably," Kendrick replied.
"I don't think he'll earn it," his fond mother said sadly. "However, that's your business. Don't forget you're dining with me Sunday night, John. I'll ask Josephine, too, if you succeed in making friends with her. She's a little difficult, but well worth knowing.—Dear me, I wish people would begin to go! I wonder whether they realise that it is nearly six o'clock."
"I shan't stir a yard," Sarah declared, "until I have had another ice. Jimmy, run and fetch me one."
"My family would be the last to help me out," Lady Amesbury grumbled. "I'm ashamed of the whole crowd of you round here. Roger, you and Mr. White are disgraceful, sitting and drinking whiskies and sodas and enjoying yourselves, when you ought to have been walking round the gardens being properly bored."
"I came to enjoy myself and I have done so," Kendrick assured her. "To add to my satisfaction, I have met my biggest client—at least he is my biggest client when he feels like doing things."
"Do you feel like doing things now, Mr. Wingate?" Sarah ventured.
Maurice White held out his hands in horror.
"My dear young lady," he exclaimed, "such questions are absolutely impossible! When a man comes on to a market, he comes on secretly. There are plenty of people who would give you a handsome cheque to hear Mr. Wingate's answer to that question."
"Any one may hand over the cheque, then," Wingate interposed smilingly, "because my answer to Miss Baldwin is prompt and truthful. I do not know."
"Of course," Lady Amesbury complained, "if you are going to introduce a commercial element into my party—well, why don't you and Maurice, Roger, go and dance about opposite one another, and tear up bits of paper, and pretend to be selling one another things?—Hooray, I can see some people beginning to move! I'll go and speed them off the premises."
She hurried away. Sarah drew a sigh of relief.
"Somehow or other," she confessed, "I always feel a sense of tranquility when my aunt has just departed."
Josephine rose to her feet.
"I think I shall go," she decided, "while the stock of taxicabs remains unexhausted."
"If you will allow me," Wingate said, "I will find you one."
Their farewells were a little casual. They were all, in a way, intimates. Only Kendrick touched Wingate on the shoulder.
"Shall I see you in the City to-morrow?" he asked.
"About eleven o'clock," Wingate suggested, "if that is not too early. There are a few things I want to talk to you about."
"Where shall I send my card?" Sarah called out after him.
"The Milan Hotel," he replied, "with terms, please."
She made a little grimace.
"Terms!" she repeated scornfully. "An American generally pays what he is asked."
"On the contrary," Wingate retorted, "he pays for what he gets."
"Your address?" Wingate asked, as he handed Josephine into a taxicab.
"Dredlinton House, Grosvenor Square," she answered. "You mustn't let me take you out of your way, though."
"Will you humour me?" he asked. "There is something I want to say to you, and I don't want to say it here. May we drive to Albert Gate and walk in the Park a little way? I can find you another taxi the other side."
"I should like that very much," she answered.
They spoke scarcely at all during their brief drive, or during the first part of their walk in the Park. Then he pointed to two chairs under a tree.
"May we sit here?" he begged, leading the way.
She followed, and they sat side by side. He took off his hat and laid it on the ground.
"So one of the dreams of my life has been realised," he said quietly. "I have met Sister Josephine again."
She was for a moment transformed. A delicate pink flush stole through the pallor of her cheeks, her tired eyes were lit with pleasure. She smiled at him.
"I was wondering," she murmured. "You really hadn't forgotten, then?"
"I remember," he told her, "as though it were yesterday, the first time I ever saw you. I was brought into Etaples. It wasn't much of a wound but it was painful. I remember seeing you in that white stone hall, in your cool Sister's dress. After the dust and horror of battle there seemed to be nothing in that wonderful hospital of yours but sunlight and white walls and soft voices. I watched your face as you listened to the details about my case—and I forgot the pain. In the morning you came to see how I was, and most mornings afterwards."
"I am glad that you remember," she murmured.
"I have forgotten nothing," he went on. "I think that those ten days of convalescence out in the gardens of your villa and down by the sea were the most wonderful days I ever spent."
"I love to hear you say so," she confessed.
"Out there," he continued, "the whole show was hideous from beginning to end, a ghastly, terrible drama, played out amongst all the accompaniments which make hell out of earth. And yet the thing gripped. The tragedy of Ypres came and I escaped from the hospital."
"You were not fit to go. They all said that."
"I couldn't help it," he answered. "The guns were there, calling, and one forgot. I've been back to England three times since then, and each time one thought was foremost in my mind—'shall I meet Sister Josephine?'"
"But you never even made enquiries," she reminded him. "At my hospital I made it a strict rule that our names in civil life were never mentioned or divulged, but afterwards you could have found out."
He touched her left hand very lightly, lingered for a moment on her fourth finger.
"It was the ring," he said. "I knew that you were married, and somehow, knowing that, I desired to know no more. I suppose that sounds rather like a cry from Noah's Ark, but I couldn't help it. I just felt like that."
"And now you probably know a good deal about me," she remarked, with a rather sad smile. "I have been married nine years. I gather that you know my husband by name and repute."
"Your husband is associated with a man whom I have always considered my enemy," he said.
"My husband's friends are not my friends," she rejoined, a little bitterly, "nor does he take me into his confidence as regards his business exploits."
"Then what does it matter?" he asked. "I should never have sought you out, for the reason I have given you, but since we have met you will not refuse me your friendship? You will let me come and see you?"
She laughed softly.
"I shall be very unhappy if you do not. Come to-morrow afternoon to tea at five o'clock. There will be no one else there, and we can talk of those times on the beach at Etaples. You were rather a pessimist in those days."
"It seems ages ago," he replied. "To-day, at any rate, I feel differently. I knew when I glanced at Lady Amesbury's card this morning that something was going to happen. I went to that stupid garden party all agog for adventure."
"Am I the adventure?" she asked lightly.
He made no immediate answer, turning his head, however, and studying her with a queer, impersonal deliberation. She was wearing a smoke-coloured muslin gown and a black hat with gracefully arranged feathers. For a moment the weariness had passed from her face and she was a very beautiful woman. Her features were delicately shaped, her eyes rather deep-set. She had a long, graceful neck, and resting upon her throat, fastened by a thin platinum chain, was a single sapphire. There was about her just that same delicate femininity, that exquisite aroma of womanliness and tender sexuality which had impressed him so much upon their first meeting. She was more wonderful even than his dreams, this rather tired woman of fashion whose coming had been so surprising. He would have answered her question lightly but he found it impossible. A great part of his success in life had been due to his inspiration. He knew perfectly well that she was to be the adventure of his life.
"It is so restful here," she said presently, "and I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed our meeting, but alas!" she added, glancing at her watch, "you see the time—and I am dining out. We will walk to Hyde Park Corner and you must find me a cab."
He rose to his feet at once and they strolled slowly along on the least frequented footpath.
"I hope so much," she went on, "that my husband's connection with the man you dislike will not make any difference. You must meet him, of course—my husband, I mean. You will not like him and he will not understand you, but you need not see much of him. Our ways, unfortunately, have lain apart for some time."
"You have your troubles," he said quietly. "I knew it when you first began to talk to me at Etaples."
"I have my troubles," she admitted. "You will understand them when you know me better. Sometimes I think they are more than I can bear. Tonight I feel inclined to make light of them. It is a great thing to have friends. I have so few."
"I am a little ambitious," he ventured. "I do not wish to take my place amongst the rank and file. I want to be something different to you in life—more than any one else. If affection and devotion count, I shall earn my place."
Her eyes were filled with tears as she gave him her hand.
"Indeed," she assured him, "you are there already. You have been there in my thoughts for so long. If you wish to keep your place, you will find very little competition. I am rather a dull woman these days, and I have very little to give."
He smiled confidently as he stopped a taxicab and handed her in.
"May I not be the judge of that?" he begged. "Giving depends upon the recipient, you know. You have given me more happiness within this last half-hour than I have had since we parted in France."
Some instinct of her younger days brought happiness into her laugh, a provocative gleam into her soft eyes.
"You are very easily satisfied," she murmured.
He laughed back again, but though he opened his lips to speak, the words remained unsaid. Something warned him that here was a woman passing through something like a crisis in her life, and that a single false step on his part might be fatal. He stood hat in hand and watched the taxicab turn up Park Lane.
There was a little flutter of excitement in the offices of Messrs. Kendrick, Stone, Morgan and Company when, at a few minutes after eleven the following morning, Wingate descended from a taxicab, pushed open the swing doors of the large general office and enquired for Mr. Kendrick. Without a moment's delay he was shown into Roger Kendrick's private room, but the little thrill caused by his entrance did not at once pass away. It was like the visit of a general to Divisional Headquarters. Action of some sort seemed to be in the air. Ideas of big dealings already loomed large in the minds of the little army of clerks. Telephones were handled longingly. Those of the firm who were members of the Stock Exchange abandoned any work of a distracting nature and held themselves ready for a prompt rush across the street.
Even Roger Kendrick, as he shook hands with his client, was conscious of a little thrill of expectation. Wingate was a man who brought with him almost a conscious sense of power. Carefully, but not overcarefully dressed, muscular, with a frame like steel, eyes keen and bright, carrying himself like a man who knows himself and his value, John Wingate would have appeared a formidable adversary in any game in which he chose to take a hand. Whatever his present intentions were, however, he seemed in no hurry to declare himself. The two men spoke for a few minutes on outside subjects. Wingate referred to the garden party of the afternoon before, led the conversation with some skill around to the subject of Josephine Dredlinton, and listened to what the other man had to say.
"Every one is sorry for Lady Dredlinton," Kendrick pronounced. "Why she married Dredlinton is one of the mysteries of the world. I suppose it was the fatal mistake so many good women make—the reformer's passion. Dredlinton's rotten to the core, though. No one could reform him, could even influence him to good to any extent. He's such a wrong 'un, to tell you the truth, that I'm surprised Phipps put him on the Board. His name is long past doing any one any good."
"Lady Dredlinton did not strike me as having altogether the air of an unhappy woman," Wingate observed tentatively.
Kendrick shrugged his shoulders.
"No fundamentally good woman is ever unhappy," he said, "or rather ever shows it. She is face to face all the time with the necessity of making the best of things for the sake of other people. Lady Dredlinton carries herself bravely, but the people who know her best never cease to feel sorry for her."
"You have those figures I sent you a wireless for?" Wingate asked, a little abruptly.
"I have them here," Kendrick replied, producing a little roll of papers from a drawer. "They want a little digesting, even by a man with a head for figures like yours. In some respects, these fellows seem to have had the most amazing luck. Unless we come to an understanding with Russia within the next month, of which there doesn't seem to me to be the slightest prospect, we shall get no wheat from there for at least another year."
"And the harvests all over eastern Europe were shocking," Wingate said, half to himself.
"It doesn't seem to me," Kendrick pointed out, "that more than driblets can be expected from anywhere, except, of course, the greatest source of all, Canada and the United States."
"You've no indication of the Government's attitude, I suppose?" Wingate asked.
"I don't suppose they have one," Kendrick answered, "upon that or any other subject. Of course, if all the wheat that's being stored in the country under the auspices of the B. & I. stood in their own name, the matter would appear in a different light, but they've been infernally clever with all these subsidiary companies. They own a majority of shares in each, without a doubt, but they conduct their transactions as though they were absolutely independent concerns."
Wingate studied the figures in the document he was holding for some minutes in thoughtful silence. The telephone rang at Kendrick's elbow. He picked up the receiver and listened.
"That Kendrick?" a voice enquired.
"Speaking," Kendrick answered.
"This is Peter Phipps, from right away opposite. Say, I am told that John Wingate of New York is a client of yours."
Kendrick passed across the spare receiver to Wingate and paused for a moment whilst the latter held it to his ear.
"He is," Kendrick admitted.
"Well, I am given to understand that he is coming into the City to do business," Phipps continued. "If he is in any way disposed to be a seller, we are buyers of wheat for autumn delivery at market price, perhaps even a shade over."
"Any quantity?" Kendrick enquired.
"A hundred thousand—anything up to a million bushels, if Mr. Wingate feels like coming in big. Anyway, we're ready to talk business. Will you put it up to your client?"
"Shall you be seeing him soon?"
"This morning, probably."
"Thought you might," the voice at the other end of the telephone observed, "as I saw him step into your office half an hour ago. Give him my compliments and say I hope we may make a deal together."
"Certainly," Kendrick promised. "Good morning."
The two men laid down their receivers. Kendrick's eyes twinkled.
"Well, that fellow's a sport, anyway," he declared.
"I suppose in one sense of the word he is," Wingate admitted. "So he wants me to sell him wheat, eh? It looks a good thing at these prices, Kendrick, doesn't it, and a normal harvest coming along on the other side?"
"That's for you to say," was the cautious reply. "These big deals in commodities which have to be delivered on a certain date always seem to me a little out of the sphere of legitimate gambling."
"At the same time," Wingate remarked, "the price of wheat to-day is scandalous. If the B. & I. forced it up any higher, I should think that the Government must intervene."
"I shouldn't reckon upon it."
"Naturally! I shouldn't enter into a gamble, taking that as a certainty. At the same time, I want to view the matter in all its bearings. I can't conceive any private firm being allowed to boost up the price of wheat to such an extent for purposes of speculation."
"It would be devilish difficult," Kendrick pointed out, "to trace the whole thing to the B. & I."
Wingate took a cigarette from the open box upon the office table, lit it and smoked for a moment thoughtfully.
"Kendrick," he said, "I am a good friend and a good enemy; Peter Phipps is my enemy. We should probably shake hands if we met, we might even sit down at the same table, but we know the truth. Each of us in his heart desires nothing in the world so much as the ruin of the other."
"What was the start of this feeling?" Kendrick asked.
"A woman," Wingate replied shortly, "and that's all there is to be said about it, Kendrick. I shall hate Peter Phipps as long as I live, for the sake of the girl he ruined, and he will hate me because of the thrashing I gave him. Ever noticed the scar on his right cheek, Kendrick?"
"Often," the stockbroker replied. "He told me it was done in a saloon fight out in the Far West."
"I did it in the Far East," Wingate declared grimly, "as far east, at least, as the drawing-room of his Fifth Avenue house. He'll never lose that scar. He'll never lose his hatred of the man who gave it to him.—So he wants me to sell him wheat!"
"It's a pretty dangerous thing to introduce feelings of this sort into business," Kendrick remarked.
"You're right," Wingate admitted. "It makes one careful. I'm not selling any wheat to-day, Kendrick."
"It will be a disappointment to the office," the other remarked. "Personally, I'm glad."
"Oh, I'll keep your office busy," Wingate promised. "I'm not coming into the City for nothing, I can assure you. There are five commissions for you," he went on, drawing a sheet of paper from the rack and writing on it rapidly. "That will keep your office busy for a time. I'll give you a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Don't ring me up unless you want more margin. Closing time prices are all I'm interested in, and I can get those on the tape anywhere."
The stockbroker's eyes glistened as he looked through the list.
"You're a good judge, Wingate," he said. "You'll make money on most of these."
"I expect I shall," Wingate acknowledged. "Anyhow, it will keep you people busy and serve as a sort of visiting card here for me until—"
"Until what?" Kendrick asked, breaking a short pause.
"Until I can make up my mind how to deal with those fellows across the way. On paper it still looks a good thing to sell them wheat, you know. Peter Phipps has something up his sleeve for me, though. I've got to try and find out what it is."
"You'll excuse me for a moment?" Kendrick begged. "I'm only a human being, and I can't hold a couple of million pounds' worth of business in my hand and not set it going. I'll be back directly."
"Don't hurry on my account," Wingate replied. "I'm going to use your telephone, if I may."
"Of course! You have a private line there. The others will be all buzzing away in a minute. I'll send Jenkins and Poore along to the House. What about lunch?"
"To-morrow, one o'clock at the Milan," Wingate appointed. "I'm busy to-day."
Wingate made his way from the City to Shaftesbury Avenue, where he entered a block of offices, studied the direction board on the wall for a few minutes, and finally took the lift to the fourth floor. Exactly opposite to him across the uncarpeted corridor was a door from which half the varnish had peeled off, on which was painted in white letters—MR. ANDREW SLATE. A knock on the panel resulted in an immediate invitation to enter. Wingate turned the handle, entered and closed the door behind him. The man who was the solitary occupant of the room half rose from behind his desk.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
Wingate was in no hurry to reply. He took rapid stock of his surroundings and of the man who had confronted him. The room was small, none too clean and badly furnished. It reeked with the smell of tobacco, and notwithstanding the warmth of the June day, all the windows were tightly closed. Its occupant, a lank man with a smooth but wizened face, straight white hair and dark, piercing eyes, was in accord with his surroundings,—shabby, unkempt, with cigarette ash down the front of his coat, his collar none too clean, his tie awry.
"Hm!" Wingate remarked, "Seems to me you're not taking care of yourself, Andrew. Do you mind if I open a window or two?"
"My God, it's Wingate!" the tenant of the room exclaimed. "John Wingate!"
Wingate, who had succeeded in opening the windows, came over and shook hands with the man whom he had come to visit.
"How are you, Andrew?" he said. "What on earth's got you that you choose to live in an atmosphere like this!"
Slate, who had recovered from his surprise, slipped dejectedly back into his place. Wingate had established himself with caution upon the only remaining chair.
"I've had lung trouble over here," Slate explained, "This heavy atmosphere plays the devil with one's breathing. I guess you're right about the windows though. How did you find me out?"
"Telephone directory, aided by my natural intelligence," Wingate replied. "What are you doing these days?"
"Trying to run straight and finding it filthily difficult," the other answered.
"What do you call yourself, anyway?" Wingate asked. "There's nothing except your name on the board downstairs."
"I'm the only one in the building," he said, "who isn't either a theatrical agent or a bookmaker. I've got just a small connection amongst the riffraff as a man who can be trusted to collect the necessary evidence in a divorce case, especially if there's a little collusion, or find a few false witnesses to help a thief with an alibi. Once or twice I have even gone so far as to introduce a receiver to a successful thief."
"Hm!" Wingate observed. "You see all sorts of life."
"I do indeed," Slate admitted. "What do you want with me? I can find you a murderer who's looking for a job, or a burglar who would take anything on where there was a reasonable chance of success, or half a dozen witnesses—a little tarnished, though, I'm afraid they may be—who would swear anything. Or I can find you several beautiful ladies—beautiful, that is to say, with the aid of one of the costumers up the street and a liberal supply of cosmetics—who will inveigle any young man you want dealt with into any sort of situation, provided he is fool enough and the pay is good. I'm an all-round man still, Wingate, but my nose is a little closer to the ground than it was."
Wingate looked thoughtfully at the man whom he had come to visit, studying his appearance in every detail. Then he leaned across and laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Andrew," he said, "you and I have looked out at life once or twice and seen the big things. I guess there's no false shame between us. I can say what I want, can't I?"
"I should say so," was the hearty reply. "Get right on with it, John. I've passed the blushing age."
"It's like this," Wingate explained. "I've got a job for you. You can't do it like that. Walk to the door, will you?"
"Damn it, I know you're going to look at my boots!" Slate declared, as he rose unwillingly and obeyed.
"You've got it at once," Wingate acquiesced. "You're a smart fellow still, Slate, I see. Now listen. You can't do my job like that. Here's twenty pounds on account. I'm going to stroll around to the Milan Grillroom and take a table for luncheon. I shall expect you there in half an hour. You're in the neighbourhood for quick changes."
Slate took the money and reached for his hat.
"Come along, then. You take the lift down. I'll go by the stairs. I shan't be late, unless you'd like me to stop and have a shave and my hair trimmed."
"Great idea," Wingate assented. "I'll make it three quarters. There really isn't any hurry. Say an hour, if you like. I'll be sitting down inside."
The metamorphosis in Andrew Slate was complete. With his closely trimmed white hair, the dark growth gone from his chin, in a well-cut morning coat and trousers, a grey tie and fashionable collar, his appearance was entirely irreproachable. Wingate nodded his satisfaction as he approached the table.
"Jolly well done, Andrew," he declared. "You certainly do pay for dressing, my boy. Now drink that cocktail up and we'll talk business."
Andrew Slate's altered deportment would have delighted the author of "Sartor Resartus." With his modish and correct clothes, his self-respect seemed to have returned. He carried himself differently, there was a confident ring in his tone. He studied the menu which Wingate passed him, through a well-polished eyeglass, and one could well have believed that he was a distinguished and frequent patron of the place.
"Well, what is it, Wingate?" he asked at last, when the business of ordering luncheon was concluded. "I only hope it's something I can tackle."
"You can tackle it all right," his companion assured him encouragingly. "For a week or ten days you've nothing more to do than a little ordinary detective business. If I decide to carry out a scheme which is forming in my mind, it will be a more serious affair. Time enough for that, though. I should just like to ask you this. Can you find a few bullies of the Tom Grogan class, if necessary?"
"Half a hundred, if you want them," Slate replied confidently. "When I first came over, Wingate, I can tell you I felt all at sea. It seemed to me that the police had got this city in the hollow of their hands, and that there was no chance at all for the man who couldn't rely on the law to do him justice. I soon found out my mistake. There's nothing I could get done in New York or Chicago which I couldn't get done here, and at a great deal less cost and trouble. You thought I was joking when I told you at my office that I could find you a murderer. I wasn't. I could find you half a dozen, if necessary."
"We aren't going quite as far as that," he said. "Have you anything on at all at the present moment?"
"Not a thing."
"I want you altogether free," Wingate went on. "I'm talking business now because it's necessary. You're going to earn money with me, Andrew, and incidentally you are going to help me break the man whom I think that you hate almost as much as I do."
"You don't mean Phipps—Dreadnought Phipps?" Slate exclaimed, suddenly laying down his knife and fork.
"I do," Wingate answered. "We are up against each other once more, and, believe me, Slate, this is going to be the last time."
There was a smouldering fire in Slate's fine eyes. Nevertheless, he seemed disturbed.
"You're up against a big thing, Wingate," he said. "Peter Phipps has made good over here. They say that he's coining money in this new company of his."
"I'm after his blood, all the same," Wingate replied. "We've had several tussles since—"
"Since you nearly beat the breath out of his body," Slate interrupted, with a little shiver.
"Yes, we've had several tussles since then," Wingate repeated, "and we haven't hurt each other much. This time I think one of us is going under. Phipps wants to join issue with me in the City. I'm not so sure. I'm out to break him properly this time, and I am not going to rush in until I know the ropes."
Slate emptied a glass of wine and leaned forward.
"John," he said, relapsing once more into the familiarity of their early college days, "you couldn't have set me a job more to my heart than to have me help in brewing mischief for Peter Phipps. I'm your man, body and soul—you know that. But you've been a good friend to me—almost the only one I ever had—and I've got to put this up to you. Peter Phipps is as clever as the devil. He is up to every trick in this world, and a few that he probably borrowed from Satan himself. I'm not trying to put you off. I only want to say this. Go warily. Don't let him lure you on into risking too much on any one move. Always remember that he has something up his sleeve."
"That's all right, Slate," he said. "I promise you I'll think out every move on the board. I shall risk nothing until I can see my way clear ahead. Meanwhile, you can work on this."
He wrote a few sentences on a sheet of paper, which he folded up and passed across the table.
"Don't open it now," he said. "Think it over and don't mind putting suggestions up to me if anything occurs to you. Call here to see me every morning at ten o'clock. I have a suite in the Court, number eighty-nine. You've done with business—you understand?"
"Sure!" Slate answered. "Let's talk about that last game you and I were in against Princeton."
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?"
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."
"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.
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.
"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!"
"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?"
"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.
"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."
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."