A Woman Intervenes by Robert Barr
A few mornings later Wentworth worked his way, with much balancing and grasping of stanchions, along the deck, for the ship rolled fearfully, but the person he sought was nowhere visible. He thought he would go into the smoking-room, but changed his mind at the door, and turned down the companion-way to the main saloon. The tables had been cleared of the breakfast belongings, but on one of the small tables a white cloth had been laid, and at this spot of purity in the general desert of red plush sat Miss Brewster, who was complacently ordering what she wanted from a steward, who did not seem at all pleased in serving one who had disregarded the breakfast-hour, to the disarrangement of all saloon rules. The chief steward stood by a door and looked disapprovingly at the tardy guest. It was almost time to lay the tables for lunch, and the young woman was as calmly ordering her breakfast as if she had been the first person at table.
She looked up brightly at Wentworth, and smiled as he approached her.
'I suppose,' she began, 'I'm dreadfully late, and the steward looks as if he would like to scold me. How awfully the ship is rolling! Is there a storm?'
'No. She seems to be doing this sort of thing for amusement. Wants to make it interesting for the unfortunate passengers who are not good sailors, I suppose. She's doing it, too. There's scarcely anyone on deck.'
'Dear me! I thought we were having a dreadful storm. Is it raining?'
'No. It's a beautiful sunshiny day; without much wind either, in spite of all this row.'
'I suppose you have had your breakfast long ago?'
'So long since that I am beginning to look forward with pleasant anticipation to lunch.'
'Oh dear! I had no idea I was so late as that. Perhaps you had better scold me. Somebody ought to do it, and the steward seems a little afraid.'
'You over-estimate my courage. I am a little afraid, too.'
'Then you do think I deserve it?'
'I didn't say that, nor do I think it. I confess, however, that up to this moment I felt just a trifle lonely.'
'Just a trifle! Well, that is flattery. How nicely you English do turn a compliment! Just a trifle!'
'I believe, as a race, we do not venture much into compliment making at all. We leave that for the polite foreigner. He would say what I tried to say a great deal better than I did, of course, but he would not mean half so much.'
'Oh, that's very nice, Mr. Wentworth. No foreigner could have put it nearly so well. Now, what about going on deck?'
'Anywhere, if you let me accompany you.'
'I shall be most delighted to have you. I won't say merely a trifle delighted.'
'Ah! Haven't you forgiven that remark yet?'
'There's nothing to forgive, and it is quite too delicious to forget. I shall never forget it.'
'I believe that you are very cruel at heart, Miss Brewster.'
The young woman gave him a curious side-look, but did not answer. She gathered the wraps she had taken from her cabin, and, handing them to him before he had thought of offering to take them, she led the way to the deck. He found their chairs side by side, and admired the intelligence of the deck-steward, who seemed to understand which chairs to place together. Miss Jennie sank gracefully into her own, and allowed him to adjust the wraps around her.
'There,' she said, 'that's very nicely done; as well as the deck-steward himself could do it, and I am sure it is impossible to pay you a more graceful compliment than that. So few men know how to arrange one comfortably in a steamer chair.'
'You speak as though you had vast experience in steamer life, and yet you told me this was your first voyage.'
'It is. But it doesn't take a woman more than a day to see that the average man attends to such little niceties very clumsily. Now just tuck in the corner out of sight. There! Thank you, ever so much. And would you be kind enough to--Yes, that's better. And this other wrap so. Oh, that is perfect. What a patient man you are, Mr. Wentworth!'
'Yes, Miss Brewster. You are a foreigner. I can see that now. Your professed compliment was hollow. You said I did it perfectly, and then immediately directed me how to do it.'
'Nothing of the kind. You did it well, and I think you ought not to grudge me the pleasure of adding my own little improvements.'
'Oh, if you put it in that way, I will not. Now, before I sit down, tell me what book I can get that will interest you. The library contains a very good assortment.'
'I don't think I care about reading. Sit down and talk. I suppose I am too indolent to-day. I thought, when I came on board, that I would do a lot of reading, but I believe the sea-air makes one lazy. I must confess I feel entirely indifferent to mental improvement.'
'You evidently do not think my conversation will be at all worth listening to.'
'How quick you are to pervert my meaning! Don't you see that I think your conversation better worth listening to than the most interesting or improving book you can choose from the library? Really, in trying to avoid giving you cause for making such a remark, I have apparently stumbled into a worse error. I was just going to say I would like your conversation much better than a book, when I thought you would take that as a reflection on your reading. If you take me up so sharply I will sit here and say nothing. Now then, talk!'
'What shall I say?'
'Oh, if I told you what to say I should be doing the talking. Tell me about yourself. What do you do in London?'
'I work hard. I am an accountant.'
'And what is an accountant? What does he do? Keep accounts?'
'Some of them do; I do not. I see, rather, that accounts which other people keep have been correctly kept.'
'Aren't they always correctly kept? I thought that was what book-keepers were hired for.'
'If books were always correctly kept there would be little for us to do; but it happens, unfortunately for some, but fortunately for us, that people occasionally do not keep their accounts accurately.'
'And can you always find that out if you examine the books?'
'Can't a man make up his accounts so that no one can tell there is anything wrong?'
'The belief that such a thing can be done has placed many a poor wretch in prison. It has been tried often enough.'
'I am sure they can do it in the States. I have read of it being done and continued for years. Men have made off with great sums of money by falsifying the books, and no one found it out until the one who did it died or ran away.'
'Nevertheless, if an expert accountant had been called in, he would have found out very soon that something was wrong, and just where the wrong was, and how much.'
'I didn't think such cleverness possible. Have you ever discovered anything like that?'
'What is done when such a thing is discovered?'
'That depends upon circumstances. Usually a policeman is called in.'
'Why, it's like being a detective. I wish you would tell me about some of the cases you have had. Don't make me ask so many questions. Talk.'
'I don't think my experiences would interest you in the least. There was one case with which I had something to do in London, two years ago, that----'
'Oh, London! I don't believe the book-keepers there are half so sharp as ours. If you had to deal with American accountants, you would not find out so easily what they had or had not done.'
'Well, Miss Brewster, I may say I have just had an experience of that kind with some of your very sharpest American book-keepers. I found that the books had been kept in the most ingenious way with the intent to deceive. The system had been going on for years.'
'How interesting! And did you call in a policeman?'
'No. This was one of the cases where a policeman was not necessary. The books were kept with the object of showing that the profits of the m--of the business--had been much greater than they really were. I may say that one of your American accountants had already looked over the books, and, whether through ignorance or carelessness, or from a worse motive, he reported them all right. They were not all right, and the fact that they were not, will mean the loss of a fortune to some people on your side of the water, and the saving of good money to others on my side.'
'Then I think your profession must be a very important one.'
'We think so, Miss Brewster. I would like to be paid a percentage on the money saved because of my report.'
'And won't you?'
'I think that is too bad. I suppose the discrepancy must have been small, or the American accountant would not have overlooked it?'
'I didn't say he overlooked it. Still, the size of a discrepancy does not make any difference. A small error is as easily found as a large one. This one was large. I suppose there is no harm in my saying that the books, taking them together, showed a profit of forty thousand pounds, when they should have shown a loss of nearly half that amount. I hope nobody overhears me.'
'No; we are quite alone, and you may be sure I will not breathe a word of what you have been telling me.'
'Don't breathe it to Kenyon, at least. He would think me insane if he knew what I have said.'
'Is Mr. Kenyon an accountant, too?'
'Oh no. He is a mineralogist. He can go into a mine, and tell with reasonable certainty whether it will pay the working or not. Of course, as he says himself, any man can see six feet into the earth as well as he can. But it is not every man that can gauge the value of a working mine so well as John Kenyon.'
'Then, while you were delving among the figures, your companion was delving among the minerals?'
'And did he make any such startling discovery as you did?'
'No; rather the other way. He finds the mines very good properties, and he thinks that if they were managed intelligently they would be good paying investments--that is, at a proper price, you know--not at what the owners ask for them at present. But you can have no possible interest in these dry details.'
'Indeed, you are mistaken. I think what you have told me intensely interesting.'
For once in her life Miss Jennie Brewster told the exact truth. The unfortunate man at her side was flattered.
'For what I have told you,' he said, 'we were offered twice what the London people pay us for coming out here. In fact, even more than that: we were asked to name our own price.'
'Really now! By the owners of the property, I suppose, if you wouldn't tell on them?'
'No. By one of your famous New York newspaper men. He even went so far as to steal the papers that Kenyon had in Ottawa. He was cleverly caught, though, before he could make any use of what he had stolen. In fact, unless his people in New York had the figures which were originally placed before the London Board, I doubt if my statistics would have been of much use to him even if he had been allowed to keep them. The full significance of my report will not show until the figures I have given are compared with those already in the hands of the London people, which were vouched for as correct by your clever American accountant.'
'You shouldn't run down an accountant just because he is American. Perhaps there will come a day, Mr. Wentworth, when you will admit that there are Americans who are more clever than either that accountant or that newspaper man. I don't think your specimens are typical.'
'I don't "run down," as you call it, the men because they are Americans. I "run down" the accountant because he was either ignorant or corrupt. I "run down" the newspaper man because he was a thief.'
Miss Brewster was silent for a few moments. She was impressing on her memory what he had said to her, and was anxious to get away, so that she could write out in her cabin exactly what had been told her. The sound of the lunch-gong gave her the excuse she needed, so, bidding her victim a pleasant and friendly farewell, she hurried from the deck to her state-room.