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Title: The Wings of Chance
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
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The Wings of Chance

by

Fred M. White

Published in:
The Observer (Christmas edition), Australia, 13 Dec 1922
The Central Queensland Herald, Rockhampton, Australia, 20 Sep 1934
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014



"IT seems to me," said the first conspirator, with the air of a man who makes a discovery, "it seems to me that we are lost."

"If you are discovered," murmured the second conspirator, "you are lost."

"Oh, yes, dramatically speaking, perhaps," the third conspirator put in. "All right on the stage, don't you know, but not here. If we are discovered we are saved. Driver, where are we?"

"Oh, don't ask me, gents all," the chauffeur said with absolute detachment. "I dunno. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of Regent's Park, though I ain't bettin' on it. 'Ackney coach,' 'ansom and taxicab man and boy for thirty year, and I never saw such a fog afore."

He spoke the truth—nobody had. Never had there been such a fog since London began. Four mild January days without a breath of wind had been followed by one of the most disastrous fires the Thames-side had ever known. Thousands of barrels of petroleum had lifted their dense pall of smoke into the heavy clouds, and now the falling fog had drifted the heavy, suffocating mass over the metropolis like some funeral pall. Like the plague of Egypt, the darkness could be felt.

Now, whatever atmospheric disaster the Fates have in store, the business of London must go on. Shops and offices must be attended to, and at all hazards the City of London must be achieved. The three conspirators had reached their offices some way, they had managed to get off those letters, and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, had no anathema for the telephone. For the rest, they shared a flat on the north side of Regent's Park, and, with the help of the gods, had all and sundry found their way back to dinner. You cannot easily discourage a stockbroker.

They should have been contented as they were; they had been wrong to attempt so heavy an overdraft on the bank of fate. They should have sent down to the floor below and asked Leckie—also safe back from the city—and been happy with an evening at bridge.

But they were young and ardent and flushed with success, and the black throat of the fog had no terrors for them. At any cost they were going to Lady Shoreham's fancy dress ball. There was not much more than a mile to go, their dresses were ready, and they really fancied themselves as three more or less picturesque anarchist conspirators. The dresses had a touch of the Mephistophelean, with vivid red slashed here and there; they wore black wigs, and their faces were masked. Also, they were three exceedingly well-set-up young men, with all the matchless audacity which is so necessary for success in the air of Copthall Avenue. They dreamt of the day when the big coup would come off, of the hour of the exclusive information when the big men would shiver and wonder what the trio would do next.

The inspiration had yet to come.

They managed to find a taxi right enough. A sovereign if he got them to Shoreham House within the hour, which offer in times of lesser stress would have been generous. The driver was inclined to be pessimistic, but he would do his best. Moreover, he had taken nothing all day. He fumbled his way along at a snail's pace, his heart in his mouth all the time. By the intervention of Providence he ran over nobody, he collided with no light standards, but—in ten minutes he was hopelessly lost, and appealed imploringly to all and collectively who passed to tell him where he was. The conundrum was a popular one that night, but, alas! the chosen who could answer it were few.

From out of the denseness of the fog came strange sounds. There were little cries of alarm, bleats of apology, the tinkle of metal on metal, and once the crash of broken glass. The first conspirator, who rejoiced in the name of Dick Willoughby, put his head out of the window.

"This is very interesting," he said. "Do you remember the ingenious excuse made by the city clerk for not getting to business during one foggy spell? He sent a telegram, you know: 'Sorry cannot reach offices to-day, as I have not yet got home yesterday!' Not bad, eh?"

Nobody laughed. The other conspirators, Bond and Machen, were getting anxious. It was just past 10, and apparently they were farther from their destination than ever. It was gradually being borne in on them that there was going to be no destination—if they escaped spending the night in a cab they would be lucky.

"I wish I was well out of this," Bond muttered.

A moment later and he nearly had his way. Out of the fog, barely a yard away, loomed another taxi; the driver pulled sharply to the left up a steep, grassy bank. What the grassy bank was doing there, apparently in the middle of the road, did not come for a moment within the area of speculation. For the fraction of a second, or so it seemed, the tension was great. Then the taxis cleared; there was an outline of white posts and rails, and the cab came to a standstill, apparently in a field.

"Now, where the dickens are we?" Willoughby asked.

"Somewhere out in Surrey, governor," the chauffeur growled, "unless some 'umorist 'as gone and shoved a tennis lawn down 'ere. Anyway, we're on grass inside somebody's gate. No doubt there's a 'ouse a bit farther on if one could only see it. Still, I'm in your 'ands."

Willoughby's mind was made up. In the vernacular of his clan, he was fed up with the whole thing. Besides, it was just possible that he stood on the edge of adventure, just a chance that destiny would waft a little excitement to them.

"Turn out, boys," he commanded. "We are going to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. In other words, we are going to find the house and ask shelter for the night. Driver, here is your sovereign. If you like to look for another fare—"

"Not me, sir," the chauffeur said philosophically. "I am safe 'ere, and 'ere I stay. Inside the keb with me bit of supper an' packet of fags. Don't you worry about me."

They promised faithfully that they wouldn't, and went their way. Apparently the grounds about the house were fairly extensive, for the adventurers passed another tennis lawn before they reached what looked like a beacon gleam against the thickness of the fog. The trio were actually inside the porch before they realised the fact that the front door was hospitably open.

"Let's enter the house first and ring the bell afterwards," Machen suggested.

The suggestion was sufficiently unconventional to suggest itself to the others. They passed from the darkness and desolation of the gloom into a large square hall brilliantly lighted, warm and inviting. Never had a refined and luxurious English home looked so alluring before. A great wood fire crackled on the open hearth, there were trophies of the chase on the polished floor, some remarkably good pictures hung on the panelled walls. High up were stags' heads and racks of guns and a 'varsity oar, with a dark blue blade and Magdalen College arms mounted on a shield. The whole atmosphere was inviting and cosy to the last degree.

"Well, thank Heaven we've struck the trail of a sportsman," Bond exclaimed. "Let's hope that the proud possessor of all this splendour was in the Oxford boat with you, Willoughby. Golf clubs, too. Any odds the chap is a plus player. Ring the bell, Machen."

Machen complied vigorously. The ripple of it could be heard afar off. And no response came to the second and third summons. Willoughby laughed.

"An adventure, by George!" he cried. "Money on it, we're alone in the house. All the household has gone and lost itself in the fog. In my mind's eye I can picture the catastrophe. The hero failed to materialise for dinner. Being a fine sportsman, probably he is as handsome as a Greek god. He has a young and beautiful wife who is devoted to him. She went to look for him and lost herself. Then the butler went to look for her; and the cook followed the butler; and so on. Regular house that Jack built game."

"The fact remains that we are alone in the house," Bond said thoughtfully. "I refuse to connect tragedy with a place like this. Let's explore. Dining-room first. If they've left us some supper the measure of my gratitude will know no bounds. To be candid, I'm confoundedly hungry."

There were no less than five rooms leading from the hall. A blaze of light glittered everywhere, and everywhere was the same pleasing suggestion of comfort and luxury. The big dining-room was oak panelled throughout; there were racing and sporting cups on the old buffet, a fine army of gold-topped bottles, and on the table, with covers laid for half a dozen guests, a cold supper that suggested the Savoy or the Ritz at their best. Bond's mouth watered as he looked at it.

"Now, this is touching," he said. "This is really thoughtful. It is far more than I had expected. In the circumstances, they will hardly expect us to wait. Hallo."

The speaker wheeled suddenly round as there came to his ear a choking sound from the region of the doorway. He was just in time to grab a scared-faced page boy by the shoulder. Evidently the youth was fully under the impression that his last hour was come.

"What does all this mean?" Bond demanded. "Where are the servants, and you—er—your employer?"

"Master and missis couldn't get back," the stricken page gasped. "Got caught in the fog this side of Croydon. They sent a telegram; and if anybody turned up to supper the butler was to explain. They were to have supper first and go to Lady Shoreham's after."

"Then where's the butler and all the rest of them?"

"Next door, sir. The people are away, and the servants are giving a party. It's all right, sir—indeed, it is. You see, we expected nobody in this fog, and—and I went to see a friend on the other side. Left me in charge, they did. And if anybody turned up I was to—"

"My boy," Willoughby said kindly, "have no fear. It's a festive time, when one forgives—well, anything. Only show me the telegram, not necessarily for publication, but as a—very good. Mr. Everest will understand. We are his guests. And I am quite sure that he would not like us to wait. We are not going to disturb the servants; we are going to let them enjoy themselves. The lot of the average domestic is hard, and it is the duty of the rich, like ourselves, to treat them with every consideration. Let them come back when they like. We will wait upon ourselves. Put the cigars and cigarettes handy on the table, and go your way. That will do, George."

The page vanished. He was young; he came evidently from the country; his scruples were satisfied. And it would probably be ages before the servants returned.

"How did you get at the name of our esteemed host?" Machen asked.

"Idiot!" Willoughby explained. "I guessed that the name would be on the telegram. That was why I demanded to see the missive. Everest was in the boat the year after I came down. Gordon Everest, he is, and a year ago he married Miss Wanstead, only daughter of the Master of the Riding Hunt. Any amount of money, and a real good chap to boot. He'll laugh like anything when he hears of this little adventure of ours. Come and sup.; let us sample the flowing bowl. And may this not be the end of our night's adventures. We deserve something to make up for our disappointment. Bond, oblige me by opening one of those bottles. Here's to the gods of happy chance. May they never desert us in the the hour of adversity."

He helped himself generously to Perigord pie—it would have been bad taste, he explained, not to do due justice to Gordon Everest's hospitality. They ate gaily enough, despite the fact that they wore their masks, for Willoughby had insisted on that. He liked to be guarded against possible surprises, and at any moment the garrison was liable to invasion. And Willoughby liked to be ready. A man who means some day to be a Napoleon of the Stock Exchange must be like that.

"To our host and hostess," Bond cried, emptying his champagne glass and reaching for a cigarette. "May they live long and prosper. Upon my word, I am sorry they are not here. I am sorry for some of the other would-be roysterers at present wading about in this fog. How many are there of them at the present moment, like little Tommy Tucker, singing for their supper? Really, we ought to consider ourselves fortunate, brethren. We ought to stand by the gate and proffer hospitality to the passers-by. What say?"

Willoughby and Bond regarded the suggestion as an excellent one. All the same, Willoughby did not seem to be quite easy in his mind. He had a fancy for exploring the servants' quarters. The matter that troubled him he did not disclose to the others. He came back presently more cheerful—he was more cheerful still after a telephone call and a whispered conversation with some body at the other end of the line.

"Now I feel better," he proclaimed.

"You fellows leave too much to chance. The man armed is he who—who gets his blow in first. Ah! here they are. Now for it!"

A pink and white individual, clothed in a certain dignity and evening dress of sorts, came with none too much ceremony into the room. He was followed by a female of uncertain age, and anything but uncertain obesity, in black satin and many gold brooches. It needed no amazing foresight to distinguish these as the butler and cook to the establishment.

"So you've condescended to come back at last, Odgers," Willoughby said coolly. "Unless I am mistaken, that is Mrs. Marus behind you. You don't recognise me, Odgers?"

The butler frankly confessed himself at a disadvantage. The pink indignation had faded from his cheeks. Mrs. Marus's hysterical desire for the police was no longer uppermost in her mind. Here were no audacious burglars, taking advantage of the fog. And Odgers had passed all his prosaic life in good houses, and flattered himself that he recognised a gentleman when he saw one.

"We will remain anonymous, Odgers," Willoughby went on calmly. "Were I to remove my mask, you would know me—I mean all of us—at once. You see, we are more fortunate than Mr. Everest and your mistress—we have got here; and here we propose to stay. If your master manages to struggle home before daylight, or what passes for daylight, we will excuse them. We esteem ourselves fortunate in obtaining shelter and supper. You had better all go to bed, Odgers. No, I will answer the telephone. In all probability that is Mr. Everest calling."

Willoughby advanced calmly into the hall and took down the receiver. For a moment he seemed to listen to some message of grave import.

"Oh, yes," he said. "What? Absolutely. What! Oh, yes, we got here all right. But it was pure blind luck, I assure you. Eh? Go any farther? Not much. It's the unkindest fog London has ever seen. Where? Between Croydon and Clapham? A decent place? Well, you're lucky, old boy. You might still be prowling about the roads in the car. Yes, we are all three of us here. I fancy Odgers took us for burglars at first. We had a fancy to sup in our masks. Why, Ethel? Oh she's all right. Tell Odgers what? Oh, yes; certainly. Pyjamas in the back of the linen cupboard? Oh, for us. Thanks, old chap. So long."

Odgers looked relieved. Nothing had been said as to his escapade.

"You need not be alarmed as to your master and mistress," Willoughby said, as he hung up the receiver. "They have reached a place of safety. And I did not say anything about the supper party of yours, Odgers. Two of us will sleep in your master's room and one in the dressing-room. The pyjamas—but you heard what Mr. Everest said. You had better retire, Odgers, and leave the house to us."

Odgers raised no objection. On the whole, he was disposed to regard himself as well out of it.

"Well, you are a wonder!" Bond said admiringly. "I've been dreading the return of the vassals of the house. How on earth did you manage it, Willoughby!"

"My dear chap, it's nothing," Willoughby said modestly. "I wanted to get into the kitchen, because I felt quite sure that I should find the insurance cards there. They were in a dresser drawer—John Odgers, and Mary Marus, widow, and all the rest of them. Now, obviously, Odgers was the butler—with a name like that he couldn't be anything else. And Mary Marus must be the cook. Hence the easy familiarity with which I had their names on the tip of my tongue."

"But, my dear chap, Everest himself on the 'phone?" Machen protested.

"There was no Everest on the 'phone. I faked that call. There is an extension in the dining-room, and I rang up by lifting the extension receiver. I was afraid you would see me do it. My conversation with my good friend Gordon Everest was purely imaginary. I had to make the genial Odgers feel quite at his ease, and I flatter myself that I did so. We're absolutely safe now."

"Oh, you'll get on all right," Bond said admiringly. "But you always were a genius for finding the most ingenious way out of a scrape. Pity there are not four of us here to make up a table at bridge."

"Let's go out and find somebody," Machen suggested. "All we need is two or three balls of string, with an end tied to the front door, and—"

Willoughby held up a hand as a mysterious tapping was heard on the window.

"Here's your fourth at bridge," he said, "knocking to come in. Hope he plays 'auction.' Well?"

"Excuse me, gents." A hoarse voice broke the silence as the window was opened. "I'm your driver. Been sittin' in my keb for the last hour or more 'alf asleep. I thought I 'eard somebody callin' and I got up. A gent was standin' by the gate in the fog. Dismissed 'is keb, 'e 'ad; came an' said as the man was a fool. And now 'e—well, 'e don't know where 'e are."

"This is the hand of Providence," Willoughby said solemnly. "What's he like, driver?"

"Well, sir, as far as I can make out, 'e's rather old and thin, and in some kind of fancy dress. 'E—;"

A shout of laughter drowned the rest of the sentence.

"On his way to Lady Shoreham's dance for a dollar!" Bond shouted. "Well, he's come to the right place. The people who live in this house are friends of ours, cabby. We owe you something for bringing us here, if only by accident. Show the gentleman in."

The wayfarer came, tall and thin and extra cadaverous by reason of his close-fitting tights and black jerkin. He looked exceedingly bad-tempered; his hard mouth was set firm and savagely.

"This is a nice thing!" he exclaimed. "A nice thing to happen in a city like London! I presume you people have been kept from Lady Shoreham's dance by the fog. I you happen to know me—;"

An exclamation was on Bond's lips, but Willoughby laid a hand with a grip to it on his shoulder.

"We have none of us the pleasure, Sir," he said. "This, sir, is my house. I am Lord Bollinger, at your service. This is Colonel Kinlock, and here is my cousin, the Honourable John Driver."

Machen chocked slightly, but Willoughby was perfectly grave.

"We were also prevented from going to the dance," he went on, "so we supped here, and kept our masks on, trying to snatch a gaiety we do not feel. You said your name was—;"

"Smith," the stranger gabbled. "John Smith. Really, you are very kind, and supper would be acceptable. I presume you have such a thing in the house as a telephone. I have to send a message to my broker. I expected to meet him at the dance, but he would hardly turn out in this weather. I will 'phone him to his own house, as I have to get to Liverpool, on my way to America to-morrow. Business in a mild way, you understand."

Willoughby led the way to the telephone, and appeared to close the door behind him. All the same, he stood so that he could hear every word that passed. So could the other two, who had suddenly grown grave and silent The air of the Stock Exchange on them now.

"What's that, what's that!" came the raucous voice in the hall. "Not come home? What! Prefer to stay in the City, as the fog is so thick! Very full all day to-morrow. Quite right. Ring off, please. .. Hallo! Is that the Exchange? Give me 01707 City. .. That you, Starley? You know whose speaking! Yes, it's me, 'Wigs on the green.' Thought I'd give you the password. I'm going to Liverpool and New York. Sell W's. Sell and sell as long as you have anybody to buy. That'll do. Ring off."

"Nice old beauty, isn't he!" Bond whispered. "Let's murder him and bury him in the cellar. He'd have a fit if he only knew who we really are. Can't we manage to—;"

"We can," Willoughby said grimly. "We are going to make a jolly good thing out of this. We are acting on exclusive information. Old Gregory Hicks, who likes to call himself John Smith for the moment, has opened a great bear raid on W's which mean to the initiated Western Atlantic Rails. The old fox is off tomorrow to manipulate the stock across the water. He little thinks that he has delivered himself into the hands of three of the astutest intellects in Throgmorton Street, where—Soft! Here he comes."

Mr. John Smith, alias Gregory Hicks, one of the most grasping and unscrupulous millionaires who ever commanded respect in the City, came back looking on better terms with himself. He even went so far as to crack a joke or two, for he was not devoid of a sense of humour. He did not repudiate the Perigord pie, neither did he refuse the wine when it was red. But he refused to play bridge, and was glad enough an hour later to find himself in the dressing-room and a spare pair of pyjamas. There were baize doors on the landings, and Willoughby noted the fact with gratitude as he came down the stairs and reached for the 'phone.

"You must get him," he said. "Ring and ring, till you do. Give me your name and address and I'll send you a tenner for your trouble. What? You don't call that bribery. .. Oh, thanks, that you, Pallart? It's Willoughby. And it's Willoughby full of inside information. Now, listen carefully. Quite sure you've got all that? Now start out early to-morrow morning and sell till you're blind and blue in the face. Work the telephone or the cable all over England and the Continent."

"I'm in it, and Bond and Machen, and we're good for all we're got between us, and that's about £30,000. It would be downright flying in the face of Providence to miss a chance like this. Do we mind if you come in? Why, of course not. The more the merrier. Only do it boldly. So long."

In the dining-room Machen promptly opened a bottle of champagne. The three of them removed their masks, their faces were glad with smiles.

"Here's to Dame Fortune, who never, never deserts the bold," he said. "Willoughby, founder of our fortune, I look towards you. They say that the hour always produces the man—and it has. One drink and then we'll be off. We must not tempt Fortune too far. I dare say our cabby wouldn't mind—;"

"The fog is lifting," Machen said from the window.

Without another word they crept silently from the room, the richer for a fine evening's adventure on the wings of chance, and the richer also by the sum of something that was to prove over a hundred and fifty thousand pounds.


THE END

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