Puslapio vaizdai

The Profiteer

Drawings by ERNEST FUHR


see old Vignolles, vivid and

He had come back to England a

Tall alert, safe in a big arm-chair week before from somewhere close to

again, reposing in my rooms, eloquent and nervous, or thoughtful and sitting at his ease that was to me one of those rare delights that go with friendship, the slow and cautious friendship of the middle years. He was always himself, and I liked that self most utterly, with never a reservation. I dare say, if you come to analysis, it was because Vignolles did the things that I could do only in dreams, imaginatively. He actually did them; while I, when it came to action-I funked them, I suppose. I could see them and the way of them I would have loved to follow, but there were always prudence and the risks.

He had always gone on. If a dream, a course of action, came to him, he followed it, no matter where it led. He did not count the cost. It was the right thing to do, and he did it. The right thing for him to do, I should have said. For me it would have been most definitely the wrong thing. I I could not have seen it out, or my nerve would have given way. But here he was, tall, spare, and dark despite the gray hair. I dare say this peculiar effect of darkness came from his eyes, singularly dark eyes. They were the eyes of a young man, though he was well, very well, into the fifties.

the equator. Out East it was, and he had returned there after he had left the army. It was a plantation, or maybe two plantations, where he grew tea and rubber. He had gone straight out to the fountain-head and had come back with a fortune. He was a war profiteer, he declared, of the very worst kind. He 'd taken our money and had n't done a day's work to deserve it. I wonder whether I can tell his story somehow near the way he told it.

"You remember," he said, "I had more or less got settled when the war found us out-upset things, so it seemed; but, as a matter of fact, I 've come through, and it 's made rather a rich man of me. I can't help it; but there it is. I thought I was going to be ruined and all the rest of it. I'd counted on that; but, of course, one does n't hesitate. You don't know my people? There were quite a good few of us, but I 've only a sister left now. She 's married and pretty well done for; used to be rather a good sort.

"I'd been what they call a 'rolling stone' for years and years; simply could not help it. I'd been rather a thorn in the flesh. You see, my people were in commerce, and I was absolutely uncommercial and even unprofessional;

they'd have stood something respectable, like doctoring or law. I wanted to see the world and men and cities, and so I roamed and roamed and roamed till I was long past forty instead of making provision for my old age, instead of devoting myself to a wife and family. That's the proper thing to do if you 're a Vignolles. So my father looked at it, and my grandfather and aunts and uncles. But they'd done all that, and in 1913 or so they were all gone, and they'd left me a few thousands. Could n't help themselves, it seemed; could n't take it away with them.

"My sister got a good bit, but I got some as well. I put the money into tea and rubber; went in with a fellow called Sutherland, who knew all about it. He was a Scotchman, not very well off, but deuced honest. It's a jolly life. You ride about on a pony and watch other people work-nice, bronze savages. They enjoy it if you treat 'em well. It's their life; they 've never known any other. You watch the things grow, you have n't a care in the world, and you 're very happy. At least I was, and so was Sutherland. He had diabetes, poor chap; but if he ate the right kind of food and drank the right kind of drink, he was not much the worse for it. Fact is, it tended to make him the steady, Godfearing kind of chap he was and is.

"We were just on the edge of making a good living and putting money by when the war came and busted up everything. At least so I felt, and so did most of us. I raced home and joined up; you remember, that's how we found each other. Rather a middle-aged couple!"

And Vignolles paused here and chuckled over the pair of us, and the

figure we had cut in uniform, a brace of grizzled subalterns, saluting majors half our age and trying hard to take 'em seriously; and I dare say they were doing the same by us. He resumed:

"Everybody who could stand upright or sit a horse came trooping home. But there was that poor old blighter Sutherland. He had diabetes, and they would n't look at him. You had to take an oath that you were free from 'organic disease'-that 's what they called it before they 'd let you sail, and there was a doctor who knew all about him. So Sutherland had to stay behind and look after the tea and the rubber. He'd had five years of it before I turned up again. He was Scotch and honest and shrewd and devilish hard-working, and though I had n't done a stroke or a hand's turn in those five years, I was his partner, and he 'd made a rich man of me. Simply could n't help it. The prices went up and up and up, whether you wanted 'em to or not. The world was in a conspiracy to make the two of us rich.

"That's what it seems like. I know a dozen men who 've been treated just the same, and scores of others who 've been broke and done in. War's curious. Even my gifted brother-in-law is n't quite the same success that he used to be. But I've sold out to Sutherland," my friend concluded. "You see, money 's not much use to a man out there. out there. Here here in England, I've a fancy one might do some good with it."


And this, more or less, is the way in which my friend Vignolles became a profiteer and put away a roving life and returned to the country of his

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fathers, where he lived very plainly in a second-rate hotel, and no doubt pondered ways and means of doing "some good with it."

There was a house, to begin with. Vignolles had bought it. One could not well avoid buying a house if one wished to live in one just then. It was not right in London and it was not right in the country; it was exactly on the dividing-line where the one begins and the other ends. It looked out over half a county; a landscape-painter might describe its strange variety and the marvelous great sky that overspread it and made you feel that here was English air. After London one could fill one's lungs here, and fill one's eyes, and empty one's heart of all our dismal struggles and inward-turning thought. One looked out from here

and found one's wings again. Maybe we two old buffers only shared an illusion or were blinded by the beauty of that scene. Still, there it was, and it did one's eyes good to look out on it.

The house was rapidly filling with Vignolles purchases; for here he had resolved to make his home. There was a cottage next to the front gate, where lived the gardener. He had belonged to the house and seemed to go with it; and, incidentally, he and his now watched out that no one stole the furniture, books, and pictures, and all the other truck that Vignolles was accumulating.

He was doing it entirely by himself and most methodically. He still kept to his second-rate hotel, and there he would brood for a week upon each He had a plan of the place


rooms, passages, stairways, landings, lobbies, and what not. He took them one by one, saw them in his mind's eye, and dealt with them like a decorator or an artist; and when he had done with his mental image and set it down on paper, he went out and about in London and ordered and chose the things. He created a dozen interiors. He had all the measurements.

"But it's all empty," he said, smiling; "the joke 'll begin when I find people to live in it.

"My sister goes round with me at times," he explained, "and tells me how mad I am. But this is only a beginning. When I'm done" He did n't finish, but kept us on the edge of anticipations. When he had "done," I inferred, his sister would regard him as a public danger.

The house at last was "done"; but that was only, as he had rightly said, "a beginning." The next step was an effort constructed with his usual care in the seclusion afforded by that very second-rate hotel. In my rooms one evening he produced it, just a slip of paper, and on it I read:

Housekeeper required for gentleman's place near London. War widow with one or two children would be given preference. Replies to Captain V. c/o Smith Hammett and Smith, Solicitors, 14, London Wall, E. C.

It was the first time I had known Vignolles claim the rank wherewith he had passed out of the army.

"I'm shoving this advertisement into half a dozen papers. It's the least I can do for 'em, and I'm rather fond of kids," he explained, "and it 'll mean a home for some good lady."

"It 's certainly an idea," I said; "but why not advertise straight out

for a wife and family and be done with it?"

"Oh, I'm only after the kids. I could give 'em a chance, could n't I? And I 've rather missed that side of life; never had time for it, or even the money, until to-day."

I found the advertisement on the front page of my "Morning Post" the following Friday; I picked up "The Times" at the club on the Saturday, and there it was; and I found it again on Sunday in "The Observer." No wonder that I lost my friend for over a week! I pictured him snowed under, engaged with womenfolk and correspondence. It is not exactly a joke or matter for laughter, but still I chuckled. I could n't have faced itthose widows and those kids. No, I positively could n't.


But Vignolles had faced it, and was facing it, and would go on facing it. He dropped in on the ninth day and said:

"I think I 've got 'em. There 's a Mrs. Tyrrell; three kids, one grown up and fending for herself, a boy of ten, and a girl of twelve. I get the two small ones if everything goes well. We're making one another's acquaintance to begin with."

"And the mother?" I asked, for I was n't quite so deucedly paternal and was more interested in her than in the rest.

"The mother 's all right. Her husband was a gunner regular, and she appreciates the situation. She's had five years of it with her 'in-laws'; I don't suppose it quite agrees with her. Of course she did n't say anything, but one guesses. I'm taking the two kids to the zoo to-morrow, and next day

we 'll have the car and all run down child demanded three helpings of mutto see my view."

He told me about all sorts of other kids, and how he had dealt with them, with their mothers, and with everything.

"It's pretty simple," he said; "I go by the letters. When there 's a woman behind 'em, I keep them; when they're just a lot of words, I chuck 'em away. There were only twenty good ones out of close on two hundred. The ladies were written to, and when I'd seen them, I asked to see the kids. I judged them by the way they took that side of the question. Twelve fell out on that; seemed to fancy it might be them that I was after and that the kids did n't so much matter. It's a pathetic world." Vignolles, half smiling, half serious, lit a fresh cigarette.

I recall some of his "kids" and a few of his widows, for he had entertained me an entire evening with the story of them, and, no doubt, I had prompted and encouraged this recital, which was all life's business to him at that particular period and phase.

There was one little girl he had rejected owing to her incredible appetite for mutton. It sounds incredible, but he was as positive as he was disgusted.

"The mother was all right," he had said, "seemed a very capable woman otherwise; but an only child, spoiled and restless, and greedy as a little pig, I could n't stand that. She'd already called me 'uncle,' and sprawled in the best chair without being asked, and suggested that I should buy her a doll and a scooter. It'll be hats and jeweler's truck ten year's from now, and she 'll exploit the whole race of us if she's pretty enough, and give us icy kisses for our trouble. I had the two of them to lunch, and that precious

ton-just sat and yelped for them till she got 'em. No, she was n't hungry, but just a little pig; and she looked it, too—a very fat child."

Another of his widows had two daughters, delightful, grown-up girls; and the mother was so charming that one wondered whether nature had made her so or whether it was an art she had acquired. Vignolles lingered over this trio with a certain reluctance, as though it had cost him an effort to part with them; as indeed, it had.

"I invited the lot to dinner-a very good dinner, too," he said. ““There's no fool like an old fool'-it's a quotation from Solomon or some other wise old josser. I kept that sage remark in front of me the whole blissful evening. There was the charming mother, a dangerous creature, though I suspect nothing much to look at in the morning; cross, I imagine, but brightening all day, and toward nightfall positively radiant. There was the engaged girl, who had driven a car in France and was going to marry one of her officers when they could afford it. She wore her hair short, had the freshest, healthiest complexion, and was just like a nice boy. She probably thought me rather an old ass. The other girl was beautiful-just that and nothing more, as though it were her job and she took it very seriously. I loved the very sight of her; but though I may be old and a bit of a fool, I 'm not quite fool enough to live in a house with things like that. A Moslem pasha might manage it; but it's not done in England by elderly gentlemen unless they 're eager for trouble. I ought to get a medal for resisting that trio. One is flesh and blood sometimes, after all," he added.

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