MR. WHITTINGTON’S OFFER
TUPPENCE turned sharply, but the words hovering on the tip of her tongue remained unspoken, for the man’s appearance and manner did not bear out her first and most natural assumption. She hesitated. As if he read her thoughts, the man said quickly:
“I can assure you I mean no disrespect.”
Tuppence believed him. Although she disliked and distrusted him instinctively, she was inclined to acquit him of the particular motive which she had at first attributed to him. She looked him up and down. He was a big man, clean shaven, with a heavy jowl. His eyes were small and cunning, and shifted their glance under her direct gaze.
“Well, what is it?” she asked.
The man smiled.
“I happened to overhear part of your conversation with the young gentleman in Lyons’.”
“Well—what of it?”
“Nothing—except that I think I may be of some use to you.”
Another inference forced itself into Tuppence’s mind:
“You followed me here?”
“I took that liberty.”
“And in what way do you think you could be of use to me?”
The man took a card from his pocket and handed it to her with a bow.
Tuppence took it and scrutinized it carefully. It bore the inscription, “Mr. Edward Whittington.” Below the name were the words “Esthonia Glassware Co.,” and the address of a city office. Mr. Whittington spoke again:
“If you will call upon me to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock, I will lay the details of my proposition before you.”
“At eleven o’clock?” said Tuppence doubtfully.
“At eleven o’clock.”
Tuppence made up her mind.
“Very well. I’ll be there.”
“Thank you. Good evening.”
He raised his hat with a flourish, and walked away. Tuppence remained for some minutes gazing after him. Then she gave a curious movement of her shoulders, rather as a terrier shakes himself.
“The adventures have begun,” she murmured to herself. “What does he want me to do, I wonder? There’s something about you, Mr. Whittington, that I don’t like at all. But, on the other hand, I’m not the least bit afraid of you. And as I’ve said before, and shall doubtless say again, little Tuppence can look after herself, thank you!”
And with a short, sharp nod of her head she walked briskly onward. As a result of further meditations, however, she turned aside from the direct route and entered a post office. There she pondered for some moments, a telegraph form in her hand. The thought of a possible five shillings spent unnecessarily spurred her to action, and she decided to risk the waste of ninepence.
Disdaining the spiky pen and thick, black treacle which a beneficent Government had provided, Tuppence drew out Tommy’s pencil which she had retained and wrote rapidly: “Don’t put in advertisement. Will explain to-morrow.” She addressed it to Tommy at his club, from which in one short month he would have to resign, unless a kindly fortune permitted him to renew his subscription.
“It may catch him,” she murmured. “Anyway, it’s worth trying.”
After handing it over the counter she set out briskly for home, stopping at a baker’s to buy three penny-worth of new buns.
Later, in her tiny cubicle at the top of the house she munched buns and reflected on the future. What was the Esthonia Glassware Co., and what earthly need could it have for her services? A pleasurable thrill of excitement made Tuppence tingle. At any rate, the country vicarage had retreated into the background again. The morrow held possibilities.
It was a long time before Tuppence went to sleep that night, and, when at length she did, she dreamed that Mr. Whittington had set her to washing up a pile of Esthonia Glassware, which bore an unaccountable resemblance to hospital plates!
It wanted some five minutes to eleven when Tuppence reached the block of buildings in which the offices of the Esthonia Glassware Co. were situated. To arrive before the time would look over-eager. So Tuppence decided to walk to the end of the street and back again. She did so. On the stroke of eleven she plunged into the recesses of the building. The Esthonia Glassware Co. was on the top floor. There was a lift, but Tuppence chose to walk up.
Slightly out of breath, she came to a halt outside the ground glass door with the legend painted across it “Esthonia Glassware Co.”
Tuppence knocked. In response to a voice from within, she turned the handle and walked into a small rather dirty outer office.
A middle-aged clerk got down from a high stool at a desk near the window and came towards her inquiringly.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Whittington,” said Tuppence.
“Will you come this way, please.” He crossed to a partition door with “Private” on it, knocked, then opened the door and stood aside to let her pass in.
Mr. Whittington was seated behind a large desk covered with papers. Tuppence felt her previous judgment confirmed. There was something wrong about Mr. Whittington. The combination of his sleek prosperity and his shifty eye was not attractive.
He looked up and nodded.
“So you’ve turned up all right? That’s good. Sit down, will you?”
Tuppence sat down on the chair facing him. She looked particularly small and demure this morning. She sat there meekly with downcast eyes whilst Mr. Whittington sorted and rustled amongst his papers. Finally he pushed them away, and leaned over the desk.
“Now, my dear young lady, let us come to business.” His large face broadened into a smile. “You want work? Well, I have work to offer you. What should you say now to £100 down, and all expenses paid?” Mr. Whittington leaned back in his chair, and thrust his thumbs into the arm-holes of his waistcoat.
Tuppence eyed him warily.
“And the nature of the work?” she demanded.
“Nominal—purely nominal. A pleasant trip, that is all.”
Mr. Whittington smiled again.
“Oh!” said Tuppence thoughtfully. To herself she said: “Of course, if father heard that he would have a fit! But somehow I don’t see Mr. Whittington in the role of the gay deceiver.”
“Yes,” continued Whittington. “What could be more delightful? To put the clock back a few years—a very few, I am sure—and re-enter one of those charming pensionnats de jeunes filleswith which Paris abounds——”
Tuppence interrupted him.
“Exactly. Madame Colombier’s in the Avenue de Neuilly.”
Tuppence knew the name well. Nothing could have been more select. She had had several American friends there. She was more than ever puzzled.
“You want me to go to Madame Colombier’s? For how long?”
“That depends. Possibly three months.”
“And that is all? There are no other conditions?”
“None whatever. You would, of course, go in the character of my ward, and you would hold no communication with your friends. I should have to request absolute secrecy for the time being. By the way, you are English, are you not?”
“Yet you speak with a slight American accent?”
“My great pal in hospital was a little American girl. I dare say I picked it up from her. I can soon get out of it again.”
“On the contrary, it might be simpler for you to pass as an American. Details about your past life in England might be more difficult to sustain. Yes, I think that would be decidedly better. Then——”
“One moment, Mr. Whittington! You seem to be taking my consent for granted.”
Whittington looked surprised.
“Surely you are not thinking of refusing? I can assure you that Madame Colombier’s is a most high-class and orthodox establishment. And the terms are most liberal.”
“Exactly,” said Tuppence. “That’s just it. The terms are almost too liberal, Mr. Whittington. I cannot see any way in which I can be worth that amount of money to you.”
“No?” said Whittington softly. “Well, I will tell you. I could doubtless obtain some one else for very much less. What I am willing to pay for is a young lady with sufficient intelligence and presence of mind to sustain her part well, and also one who will have sufficient discretion not to ask too many questions.”
Tuppence smiled a little. She felt that Whittington had scored.
“There’s another thing. So far there has been no mention of Mr. Beresford. Where does he come in?”
“My partner,” said Tuppence with dignity. “You saw us together yesterday.”
“Ah, yes. But I’m afraid we shan’t require his services.”
“Then it’s off!” Tuppence rose. “It’s both or neither. Sorry—but that’s how it is. Good morning, Mr. Whittington.”
“Wait a minute. Let us see if something can’t be managed. Sit down again, Miss——” He paused interrogatively.
Tuppence’s conscience gave her a passing twinge as she remembered the archdeacon. She seized hurriedly on the first name that came into her head.
“Jane Finn,” she said hastily; and then paused open-mouthed at the effect of those two simple words.
All the geniality had faded out of Whittington’s face. It was purple with rage, and the veins stood out on the forehead. And behind it all there lurked a sort of incredulous dismay. He leaned forward and hissed savagely:
“So that’s your little game, is it?”
Tuppence, though utterly taken aback, nevertheless kept her head. She had not the faintest comprehension of his meaning, but she was naturally quick-witted, and felt it imperative to “keep her end up” as she phrased it.
Whittington went on:
“Been playing with me, have you, all the time, like a cat and mouse? Knew all the time what I wanted you for, but kept up the comedy. Is that it, eh?” He was cooling down. The red colour was ebbing out of his face. He eyed her keenly. “Who’s been blabbing? Rita?”
Tuppence shook her head. She was doubtful as to how long she could sustain this illusion, but she realized the importance of not dragging an unknown Rita into it.
“No,” she replied with perfect truth. “Rita knows nothing about me.”
His eyes still bored into her like gimlets.
“How much do you know?” he shot out.
“Very little indeed,” answered Tuppence, and was pleased to note that Whittington’s uneasiness was augmented instead of allayed. To have boasted that she knew a lot might have raised doubts in his mind.
“Anyway,” snarled Whittington, “you knew enough to come in here and plump out that name.”
“It might be my own name,” Tuppence pointed out.
“It’s likely, isn’t it, then there would be two girls with a name like that?”
“Or I might just have hit upon it by chance,” continued Tuppence, intoxicated with the success of truthfulness.
Mr. Whittington brought his fist down upon the desk with a bang.
“Quit fooling! How much do you know? And how much do you want?”
The last five words took Tuppence’s fancy mightily, especially after a meagre breakfast and a supper of buns the night before. Her present part was of the adventuress rather than the adventurous order, but she did not deny its possibilities. She sat up and smiled with the air of one who has the situation thoroughly well in hand.
“My dear Mr. Whittington,” she said, “let us by all means lay our cards upon the table. And pray do not be so angry. You heard me say yesterday that I proposed to live by my wits. It seems to me that I have now proved I have some wits to live by! I admit I have knowledge of a certain name, but perhaps my knowledge ends there.”
“Yes—and perhaps it doesn’t,” snarled Whittington.
“You insist on misjudging me,” said Tuppence, and sighed gently.
“As I said once before,” said Whittington angrily, “quit fooling, and come to the point. You can’t play the innocent with me. You know a great deal more than you’re willing to admit.”
Tuppence paused a moment to admire her own ingenuity, and then said softly:
“I shouldn’t like to contradict you, Mr. Whittington.”
“So we come to the usual question—how much?”
Tuppence was in a dilemma. So far she had fooled Whittington with complete success, but to mention a palpably impossible sum might awaken his suspicions. An idea flashed across her brain.
“Suppose we say a little something down, and a fuller discussion of the matter later?”
Whittington gave her an ugly glance.
Tuppence smiled sweetly.
“Oh no! Shall we say payment of services in advance?”
“You see,” explained Tuppence still sweetly, “I’m so very fond of money!”
“You’re about the limit, that’s what you are,” growled Whittington, with a sort of unwilling admiration. “You took me in all right. Thought you were quite a meek little kid with just enough brains for my purpose.”
“Life,” moralized Tuppence, “is full of surprises.”
“All the same,” continued Whittington, “some one’s been talking. You say it isn’t Rita. Was it——? Oh, come in.”
The clerk followed his discreet knock into the room, and laid a paper at his master’s elbow.
“Telephone message just come for you, sir.”
Whittington snatched it up and read it. A frown gathered on his brow.
“That’ll do, Brown. You can go.”
The clerk withdrew, closing the door behind him. Whittington turned to Tuppence.
“Come to-morrow at the same time. I’m busy now. Here’s fifty to go on with.”
He rapidly sorted out some notes, and pushed them across the table to Tuppence, then stood up, obviously impatient for her to go.
The girl counted the notes in a businesslike manner, secured them in her handbag, and rose.
“Good morning, Mr. Whittington,” she said politely. “At least, au revoir, I should say.”
“Exactly. Au revoir!” Whittington looked almost genial again, a reversion that aroused in Tuppence a faint misgiving. “Au revoir, my clever and charming young lady.”
Tuppence sped lightly down the stairs. A wild elation possessed her. A neighbouring clock showed the time to be five minutes to twelve.
“Let’s give Tommy a surprise!” murmured Tuppence, and hailed a taxi.
The cab drew up outside the tube station. Tommy was just within the entrance. His eyes opened to their fullest extent as he hurried forward to assist Tuppence to alight. She smiled at him affectionately, and remarked in a slightly affected voice:
“Pay the thing, will you, old bean? I’ve got nothing smaller than a five-pound note!”
To be continued…
Read Chapter 1 here.