E. Phillips Oppenheim.

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THE PROFITEERS

BY E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM

1921






CHAPTER I


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 retroussé 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!"

"Why not?"

"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."




CHAPTER II


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.


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