E. Phillips Oppenheim.

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taken our breath away, Wingate. Your amazing assurance has made it
difficult for us to answer you coherently. I am only now beginning to
realise that you are in earnest in this idiotic piece of melodrama, but
if you are - so are we. - You can starve us or shoot us or suffocate us,
but we shall not sell wheat. - By God, we shan't!"

The man seemed for a moment to swell, - his eyes to flash fire. Wingate
shrugged his shoulders.

"I accept your defiance," he announced. "Let us commence our tryst."

Dredlinton struck the table with his fist, Phipps' brave words seemed to
have struck an alien note of fear in his fellow prisoner.

"I will not submit!" he exclaimed. "My health will not stand
it! - Phipps! - Rees!"

There was meaning in his eyes as well as in his tone, a meaning which
Phipps put brutally into words.

"It's no good, Dredlinton," he warned him. "We are going to stick it out,
and you've got to stick it out with us. But," he added, glaring at
Wingate, "remember this. Only half an hour before I was taken, Scotland
Yard rang up to tell me that they thought they had a clue as to Stanley's
disappearance. You risk five years' penal servitude by this freak."

"I am content," was the cool reply.

"But I am not!" Dredlinton shouted, straining at his cords. "I resign!
I resign from the Board! Do you hear that, Wingate? I chuck it! Set me

"The proper moment for your resignation from the Board of the British and
Imperial Granaries," Wingate told him sternly, "was a matter of six
months ago. You are a little too late, Dredlinton. Better make up your
mind to stick it out with your friends."

Dredlinton groaned. There was all the malice of hatred in his eyes, a
note of despair in his exclamation.

"They are strong men, those two," he muttered. "They can stand more than
I can. I demand my freedom."

Wingate threw himself into an easy-chair.

"Endurance," he observed, "is largely a matter of nerves. You must make
this a test. If you fail, well, your release always rests with your two
friends. I am sure they will not see you suffer unduly."

Phipps leaned a little across the table.

"We shall suffer," he said hoarsely, "but it will be for hours. With you,
Wingate, it will be a matter of years! Our turn will come when we visit
you in prison. Damn you!"


In the Board room of the British and Imperial Granaries, Limited, were
four vacant chairs and four unoccupied desks, each of the latter piled
with a mass of letters. Outside was disquietude, in the street almost a
riot. Callers were compelled to form themselves into a queue, - and left
with scanty comfort. Wingate, by what seemed to be special favour, was
passed through the little throng and ushered by Harrison himself into the
deserted Board room.

"So you have no news of any of your directors, Harrison?" the
former observed.

"None whatever, sir."

The two men exchanged long and in a way searching glances. Harrison was,
as always, the lank and cadaverous nonentity, the man of negative
suspicions and infinite reserves. His eyes were fixed upon the carpet. He
was a study in passivity.

"What happens to the business, eh - to your big operations?"
Wingate enquired.

"The business suffers to some extent, of course," Harrison admitted.

"Your banking arrangements?"

"I have limited powers of signature. So far the bank has been lenient."

"I see," Wingate ruminated, - and waited.

"The general policy of the firm is, as you are aware, to buy," Harrison
continued thoughtfully. "That policy has naturally been suspended during
the last forty-eight hours. There are rumours, too, of a large shipment
of wheat from an unexpected source, by some steamers which we had failed
to take account of. Prices are dropping every hour."


The confidential clerk shook his head.

"Only by points and fractions. The market is never sure of our
principals. Sometimes when they have bought, most largely they have
remained inactive for a few days beforehand, on purpose to depress

"Do people believe in - their disappearance?"

"Not down here - in the City, I mean," Harrison replied grimly. "To be
frank with you, the market suspects a plant."

"Let me," Wingate suggested, "give you my impression as to the
disappearance of three of your directors."

"It would be very interesting," Harrison murmured, his eyes following the
hopeless efforts of a huge fly to escape through the closed window.

"I picture them to myself," his visitor went on, "as indulging in a
secret tour through the north of England - -a tour undertaken in order
that they may realise personally whether their tactics have really
produced the suffering and distress reported."


"I picture them convinced. I ask myself what would be their natural
course of action. Without a doubt, they would sell wheat."

"Sell wheat" Harrison repeated. "Yes!"

"They would be in a hurry," Wingate continued. "They would not wish to
waste a moment. They would probably telephone their instructions."

From the great office outside came the hum of many voices, the shrill
summons of many telephones, a continued knocking and shouting at the
locked door. To all these sounds Harrison remained stoically indifferent.
He was studying once more the pattern of the carpet.

"Telephone," he repeated thoughtfully.

"It would be sufficient, if you recognized the voice?"

"Confirmation - from a fellow director, I might have to ask for,"
Harrison decided.

"Nothing else?"


"And how long would it take you to sell, say - "

"I should prefer not to have quantities mentioned," Harrison
interrupted. "When we start to sell in a dozen places, the thing is
beyond exact calculation. The brake can be put on if necessary."

"I understand," Wingate replied - -"but I should think it probable, if the
truth dawns upon our friends - that no brake will be necessary. - As
regards your own affairs, Harrison?"

"I received your letter last night, sir."

"You found its contents satisfactory?"

"I found them generous, sir."

Wingate took up his hat and stick a moment or so later.

"My visit here," he remarked, "might easily be misconstrued. Would it be
possible for me to leave without fighting my way through that mob?"

Harrison led the way through an inner room to a door opening out upon a
passage. Dark buildings frowned down upon them from either side. The
place was a curious little oasis from the noonday heat. In the distance
was a narrow vista of passing men and vehicles. Harrison stood there with
the handle of the door in his hand. There was no farewell between him and
his departing visitor, no sign of intelligence in his inscrutable face.

"Presuming that the disappearance of Mr. Phipps, Mr. Rees and Lord
Dredlinton is accounted for by this supposed journey to the North,"
he ventured, "when should you imagine that they might be communicating
with me?"

"About dawn to-morrow," Wingate replied. "You will be here."

"I never leave," was the quiet answer. "About dawn to-morrow?"

"Or before."

Josephine asked the same question in a different manner when Wingate
entered her little sitting room a few hours later.

"They are obstinate?" she enquired curiously.

He sipped the tea which she had handed to him.

"Very," he admitted, "yet, after all, why not? If we succeed, it is, at
any rate, the end of their private fortunes, of Phipps' ambitions and
your husband's dreams of wealth."

"So much the better," she declared sadly. "More money with Henry has only
meant a greater eagerness to get rid of it."

A companionship which had no need of words seemed to have sprung up
between them. They sat together for some minutes without speech, minutes
during which the deep silence which reigned throughout the house seemed
curiously accentuated. Josephine shivered.

"I shall never know what happiness is," she declared, "until I have left
this house - never to return!"

"That will not be long," he reminded her gravely.

She placed her hand on his.

"It is full of the ghosts of my sorrows," she went on. "I have known
misery here."

"And I one evening of happiness," he said, smiling.

Her eyes glowed for a moment, but she was disturbed, tremulous, agitated.

"I listen for footsteps in the streets," she confessed. "I am afraid!"

"Needlessly," he assured her. "I know for a fact that Shields is off
the scent."

"But he is not a fool," she answered hastily.

Wingate's smile was full of confidence.

"Dear," he said, "I do not believe that you have anything to fear. There
have been no loose ends left. Behind your front door is safety."

"The man Shields - I only saw him for a few minutes, but he impressed me,"
she sighed.

"Shields is, without doubt, a capable person," Wingate admitted, "but he
could only succeed in this case by blind guessing. Stanley Rees was
brought into this house through the mews, without observation from any
living person. Phipps, when he received that supposed message from you,
was only too anxious to come the same way. They left their respective
abodes for here in a secrecy which they themselves encouraged, for Rees
imagined that your husband had urgent need of him, and Phipps was ass
enough to believe that your summons meant what he wished it to mean.
There has been no leakage of information anywhere. - Honestly, Josephine,
I think that you may banish your fears."

"A woman's fears only, dear," she admitted, as she gave him her hands.
"Why did nature make my sex pessimists and yours optimists, I wonder? I
would so much rather look towards the sun."

"Soon," he promised her with a smile, "I shall dominate your subconscious
mind. You shall see the colours of life through my eyes. You will find
your long-delayed happiness."

The tears which stood in her eyes were of unalloyed content, - the drama
so close at hand was forgotten. Their hands remained clasped for a
moment. Then he left her.

Back into that room with its strange mystery of shadows, its odour of
mingled tragedy and absurdity. Grant rose from a high-backed chair
guarding the table, as Wingate approached. The latter glanced towards the
three men crouching around the table. Their white faces gleamed weirdly
against the background of shaded light. There were black lines under
Dredlinton's eyes. He made a gurgling effort at speech, - his muttered
words were only partly coherent.

"I resign! I resign!"

Wingate shook his head.

"I am afraid, Lord Dredlinton," he said, "that you are in the hands of
your fellow directors. One may not be released without the others.
Directly you can induce Mr. Phipps and Mr. Rees to see reason, you
will all three be restored to liberty. Until then I am afraid that you
must share the inevitable inconveniences connected with your enforced
stay here."

Phipps lurched towards him with a furious gesture. Wingate only smiled as
he threw himself into his easy-chair.

"Wheat is falling very slowly," he announced. "Every one is waiting for
the B. & I. to sell. - You can go now, Grant," he added, "I will take up
the watch myself."


Wingate, notwithstanding his iron nerve, awoke with a start, in the grey
of the following morning, to find his heart pounding against his ribs
and a chill sense of horror stealing into his brain. Nothing had
happened or was happening except that one cry, - the low, awful cry of a
man in agony. He sat up, switched on the electric light by his side and
gazed at the round table, his fingers clenched around the butt of his
pistol. Dredlinton, from whom had come the sound, had fallen with his
head and shoulders upon the table. His face was invisible, only there
crept from his hidden lips a faint repetition of the cry, - the hideous
sob, it might have been, as of a spirit descending into hell. Then there
was silence. Phipps was sitting bolt upright, his eyes wide open,
motionless but breathing heavily. He seemed to be in a state of coma,
neither wholly asleep nor wholly conscious. Rees was leaning as far back
in his chair as his cords permitted. His patch of high colour had gone;
there was an ugly twist to his mouth, a livid tinge in his complexion,
but nevertheless he slept. Wingate rose to his feet and watched. Phipps
seemed keyed up to suffering. Dredlinton showed no sign. Their gaoler
strolled up to the table.

"There is the bread there, Phipps," he said, "a breakfast tray outside
and some coffee. How goes it?"

Phipps turned his leaden face. His eyes glowed dully.

"Go to hell!" he muttered.

Wingate returned to his place, lit and smoked a pipe and dozed off again.
When he opened his eyes, the sunlight was streaming in through a chink in
the closed curtains. He looked towards the table. Dredlinton had not
moved; Rees was crying quietly, like a child. An unhealthy-looking
perspiration had broken out on Phipps' face.

"Really," Wingate remarked, "you are all giving yourselves an unnecessary
amount of suffering."

Phipps spoke the fateful words after two ineffectual efforts. His
syllables sounded hard and detached.

"We give in," he faltered. "We sell."

"Capital!" Wingate exclaimed, rising promptly to his feet. "Come! In ten
minutes you shall be drinking coffee or wine - whichever you fancy. We
will hurry this little affair through."

He crossed the room, opened a cupboard and brought a telephone
instrument to the table.

"City 1000," he began. - "Yes! - British and Imperial - Right! Mr. Harrison
there? - Ask him to come to the 'phone, please. - Harrison? Good! Wait a
moment. Mr. Phipps will speak to you."

Wingate held the telephone before the half-unconscious man. Phipps swayed
towards it.

"Yes? That Harrison? - Mr. Phipps. - No, it's quite all right. We've been
away, Mr. Rees and I. We've decided - "

He reeled a little in his chair. Wingate poured some brandy from his
flask into the little metal cup and held it out. Phipps drank it

"Go on now."

"We have decided," Phipps continued, "to sell wheat - to sell, you
understand? You are to telephone Liverpool, Manchester, Lincoln, Glasgow,
Bristol and Cardiff. Establish the price of sixty shillings. - Yes, that's
right - sixty shillings. - What is that you say? - You want
confirmation? - Mr. Rees will speak."

Wingate passed the telephone to the next man; also his flask, which he
held for a moment to his lips. Rees gurgled greedily. His voice sounded
strained, however, and cracked.

"Mr. Rees speaking, Harrison. - Yes, we are back. We'll be around at the
office later on. You got Mr. Phipps' message? - We've made up our minds to
sell wheat - sell it. What the devil does it matter to you why? We are
selling it to save - "

Wingate's pistol had stolen from his pocket. Rees glared at it for a
moment and then went on.

"To save an injunction from the Government. We have private information.
They have determined to find our dealings in wheat illegal. - Yes, Mr.
Phipps meant what he said - sixty shillings. - Use all our long-distance
wires. How long will it take you? - A quarter of an hour? - Eh?"

Wingate held the instrument away for a moment.

"You will have your breakfast," he promised, "immediately the
reply comes."

"A quarter of an hour?" Rees went on. "Nonsense! Try and do it in five
minutes. - Yes, our whole stock. When you've got the message through, ring
us up. - Where are we? Why, at Lord Dredlinton's house. Don't be longer
than you can help. Put a different person on each line. - What's that?"

Rees turned his head.

"He wants to know again," he said, "how much to sell. Let me say half our
stock. That will be sufficient to ruin us. It will bring the price of
that damned loaf of yours - "

"The whole stock," Wingate interrupted, "every bushel."

"Sell the whole stock," Rees repeated wearily.

Wingate replaced the telephone upon a distant table. Then he mixed a
little brandy and water in two glasses, broke off a piece of bread, set
it before the two men and rang the bell. It was answered in an incredibly
short space of time.

"Grant," he directed, "bring in the breakfast trays in ten minutes."

The man disappeared as silently as he had come. Wingate cut the knots and
released the hands of his two prisoners. Their fingers were numb and
helpless, however. Rees picked up the bread with his teeth from the
table. Phipps tried but failed. Wingate held the tumbler of brandy and
water once more to his lips.

"Here, take this," he invited. "You'll find the circulation come back all
right directly."

"Aren't you going to give him anything?" Phipps asked, moving his head
towards Dredlinton.

"He is asleep," Wingate answered. "Better leave him alone until breakfast
is ready."

The telephone bell tinkled. Wingate brought back the instrument and held
out a receiver each to Phipps and his nephew.

"Harrison speaking. Your messages have all gone through on the trunk
lines, sir. The sales have begun already, and the whole market is in a
state of collapse. If you are coming down, I should advise you, sir, to
come in by the back entrance. There'll be a riot here when the news
gets about."

Wingate removed the telephone once more.

"And now," he suggested, "you would like a wash, perhaps? Or first we'd
better wake Dredlinton."

He leaned over and touched the crouching form upon the shoulder. There
was no response.

"Dredlinton," he said firmly, "wake up. Your vigil is over."

Again there was no response. Wingate leaned over and lifted him up bodily
by both shoulders. Rees went off into a fit of idiotic laughter. Phipps
stretched out his hands before his eyes. It was a terrible sight upon
which they looked, - Dredlinton's face like a piece of marble, white to
the lips, the eyes open and staring, the unmistakable finger of Death
written across it.

"He's gone!" Rees choked. "He's gone!"

Phipps suddenly found vigour once more in his arm. He struck the table.
There was a note of triumph in his brazen tone.

"My God, Wingate," he cried, "you've killed him! You'll swing for this
job, after all!"

There followed a few moments of tense and awestruck silence. Then an
evil smile parted Rees' lips, and he looked at Wingate with triumphant

"This is murder!" he exclaimed.

"So your excellent uncle has already intimated," Wingate replied. "I am
sorry that it has happened, of course. As for the consequences, however,
I do not fear them."

He crossed the room and rang the bell. Once more a servant in plain
clothes made his appearance with phenomenal quickness.

"Send to her ladyship's room," Wingate directed, "and enquire the name
and address of Lord Dredlinton's doctor. Let him be fetched here at once.
Tell two of the others to come down. Lord Dredlinton must be carried into
his bedroom."

The man had scarcely left the room before the door was opened again and
Grant himself appeared. This time he closed the door behind him and came
a little way towards Wingate.

"Inspector Shields is here, sir," he announced in an agitated whisper.

Wingate stood for a moment as though turned to stone.

"Inspector Shields?" he repeated. "What does he want?"

"He wants to see Lord Dredlinton. I explained that it was an
inconvenient time, but he insisted upon waiting."

Wingate hesitated for a moment, deep in thought. The two exhausted men
chuckled hideously.

"Some playing cards," Wingate directed, suddenly breaking into speech.
"Open that sideboard, Grant. Bring out the sandwiches and biscuits and
fruit. That's right. And some glasses. Open the champagne quickly.
Cigars, too. Here - shut the door. We must have a moment or two at this.
You understand, Grant - -a debauch!"

The two moved about like lightning. In an incredibly short time, the room
presented a strange appearance. The table before which the three men had
kept their weary vigil was littered all over with playing cards, cigar
ash, fragments of broken wine glasses. A half-empty bottle of champagne
stood on the floor. Two empty ones, their contents emptied into some
bowls of flowers, lay on their sides. Another pack of cards was scattered
upon the carpet. A chair was overturned. There was every indication of a
late-night sitting and a debauch. Last of all, Grant and Wingate between
them carried the body of Lord Dredlinton behind the screen and laid it
upon the sofa. Then the latter stood back and surveyed his work.

"That will do," he said. "Wait one moment, Grant, before you show the
inspector in. I have a word to say first to my two friends here."

Phipps scowled across the table, heavy-eyed and sullen. There were black
lines under his eyes, in which the gleam of hunger still lurked. His
hands were gripping a chunk of the bread which he had torn away from the
loaf, but which he had seemed to eat with difficulty.

"Your friends may have something to say to you," he muttered. "If you
think to stop our tongues, you're wrong - wrong, I tell you. The game's up
for you, Wingate. The wires that are ruining us this morning will be
telling of your arrest to-night, eh?"

"You may be right," Wingate answered coolly, "but I doubt it. Listen. Do
you believe that I am a man who keeps his word?"

"Go on," Phipps muttered.

"You are quite right in all that you have been saying, up to a certain
point. Tell the truth and I am done for, but you pay the price, both
of you. Under those circumstances, will it be worth your while to tell
the truth?"

"What do you mean?" Rees demanded.

Phipps made a movement to rise.

"I am faint," he cried. "Give me some wine."

Wingate filled two tumblers with champagne and gave one to each. The
effect upon Phipps was remarkable. The colour came back into his cheeks,
his tone gathered strength.

"What do you mean?" he echoed, "Worth our while? - Why the devil don't
they bring the man in? You'll see!"

"Inspector Shields will no doubt insist upon coming in," Wingate replied.
"I gather from his visit that he is on the right track at last. But
listen. If I am going to be arrested on a charge of abduction and
manslaughter, as seems exceedingly probable, I am not going to leave my
job half done. An English jury may call it murder if I shoot you two as
you sit. I'll risk that. If I am going to get into trouble for one of
you, I'll make sure of the lot."

His voice carried conviction. The two men stared at him. Rees, who had
been gnawing at a crust of bread, swallowed thickly, drained his glass
and staggered to his feet.

"You wouldn't dare!" he scoffed.

"You underestimate my courage," Wingate assured them with a smile. "See,
I will speak to you words which I swear are as true as any to which you
have ever listened. I hear the footsteps of the inspector. If you fail
for a single second to corroborate the story which I shall tell him, I
shall shoot you both and possibly myself. Look at me, both of you. You
know I have the courage to do it. You know I _shall_ do it. - That's all."

There was a knock at the door. Grant opened it and stood on one side.

"Inspector Shields has called," he announced. "I thought you might like
to have a word with him, sir."


The inspector blinked for a moment. The appearance of the room, with its
closely drawn curtains and air of dissipation, was certainly strange.
Wingate advanced to meet him.

"You called to see Lord Dredlinton, I believe, Inspector," he began. "My
name is Wingate. I am friend of the family."

"I understood that Lord Dredlinton was here," the inspector announced,
looking around.

"I am sorry to say," Wingate informed him gravely, "that a very terrible
thing has happened. Lord Dredlinton died suddenly in this room, only a
few minutes ago. His body is upon the sofa there."

The imperturbability of the inspector was not proof against such an
amazing statement.

"Good God!" he exclaimed. "Was he ill?"

"Not that we know of," Wingate replied. "The doctor, who is on his way
here, will doubtless be able to inform us upon that point, I have always
understood that his heart was scarcely sound."

The inspector, as he stepped forward towards the couch, with Wingate a
yard or two in front of him, for the first time recognised the two men
who sat at the table, looking at him so strangely. Rees' hands were in
his pockets, his tie had come undone, his hair was ruffled. He had all
the appearance of a man recovering from a wild debauch. Phipps'
waistcoat was unbuttoned, and his eyes, in the gathering light, were
streaked with blood.

"Mr. Rees!" the inspector exclaimed. "And Mr. Phipps! Here? Why, I've a
dozen men all over the country looking for you two gentlemen!"

There was a dead silence. Wingate's hand had stolen into his pocket, in
which there was a little bulge, Rees seemed about to speak, then checked

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Online LibraryE. Phillips OppenheimThe Profiteers → online text (page 12 of 13)