The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Sir Henry stepped back from the scales and eyed the fish which they had been weighing, admiringly.
"You see that, Mills? You see that, Jimmy?" he pointed out. "Six and three-quarter pounds! I was right almost to an ounce. He's a fine fellow!"
"A very extraordinary fish, sir," the butler observed. "Will you allow me to take your oilskins? Dinner was served nearly an hour ago."
Sir Henry slipped off his dripping overalls and handed them over.
"That's all right," he replied. "Listen. Don't say a word about my arrival to your mistress at present. I have some writing to do. Bring me a glass of sherry at once, or mix a cocktail if you can do so without being missed, and take Jimmy away and give him some whisky and soda."
"But what about your own dinner, sir?"
"I'll have a tray in the gun room," his master decided, "say in twenty minutes' time. And, Mills, who did you say were dining?"
"Two of the young officers from the Depot, sir - Mr. Harrison and Mr. Sinclair - and Mr. Hamar Lessingham."
"Lessingham, eh? Sir Henry repeated, as he seated himself before his writing-table. "Mills," he added, in a confidential whisper, "what port did you serve?"
The butler's expression was one of conscious rectitude.
"Not the vintage, sir," he announced with emphasis. "Some very excellent wood port, which we procured for shooting luncheons. The young gentlemen like it."
"You're a jewel, Mills," his master declared. "Now you understand - an aperitif for me now, some whisky for Jimmy in your room, and not a word about my being here. Good night, Jimmy. Sorry we were too late for the mackerel, but we had some grand sport, all the same. You'll have a day or two's rest ashore now."
"Aye, aye, sir!" Dumble replied. "We got in just in time. There's something more than a squall coming up nor'ards."
Sir Henry listened for a moment. The French windows shook, the rain beat against the panes, and a dull booming of wind was clearly audible from outside.
"We timed that excellently," he agreed. "Come up and have a chat to-morrow, Jimmy, if your wife will spare you."
"I'll be round before eleven, sir," the fisherman promised, with a grin.
Sir Henry waited for the closing of the door. Then he leaned forward for several moments. He had scarcely the appearance of a man returned from a week or two of open-air life and indulgence in the sport he loved best. The healthy tan of his complexion was lessened rather than increased. There were black lines under his eyes which seemed to speak of sleepless nights, and a beard of several days' growth was upon his chin. He drank the cocktail which Mills presently brought him, at a gulp, and watched with satisfaction while the mixer was vigorously shaken and a second one poured out.
"We've had a rough time, Mills," he observed, as he set down the glass. "Until this morning it scarcely left off blowing."
"I'm sorry to hear it, sir," was the respectful reply. "If I may be allowed to say so, sir, you're looking tired."
"I am tired," Sir Henry admitted. "I think, if I tried, I could go to sleep now for twenty-four hours."
"You will pardon my reminding you, so far as regards your letters, that there is no post out tonight, sir," Mills proceeded. "I have prepared a warm bath and laid out your clothes for a change."
"Capital!" Sir Henry exclaimed. "It isn't a letter that's bothering me, though, Mills. There are just a few geographical notes I want to make. You know, I'm trying to improve the fishermen's chart of the coast round here. That fellow Groocock - Jimmy Dumble's uncle - very nearly lost his motor boat last week through trusting to the old one."
"Just so, sir," Mills replied deferentially, placing the empty glass upon his tray. "If you'll excuse me, sir, I must get back to the dining room."
"Quite right," his master assented. "They won't be out just yet, will they?"
"Her ladyship will probably be rising in about ten minutes, sir - not before that."
Sir Henry nodded a little impatiently. Directly the door was closed he rose to his feet, stood for a moment listening by the side of his fishing cabinet, then opened the glass front and touched the spring. With the aid of a little electric torch which he took from his pocket, he studied particularly a certain portion of the giant chart, made some measurements with a pencil, some notes in the margin, and closed it up again with an air of satisfaction. Then he resumed his seat, drew a folded slip of paper from his breast pocket, a chart from another, turned up the lamp and began to write. His face, as he stooped low, escaped the soft shade and was for a moment almost ghastly. Every now and then he turned and made some calculations on the blotting-paper by his side. At last he leaned back with a little sigh of relief. He had barely done so before the door behind him was opened.
"Are we going to stay in here, Mummy, or are we going into the drawing-room?" Nora asked.
"In here, I think," he heard Philippa reply.
Then they both came in, followed by Helen. Nora was the first to see him and rushed forward with a little cry of surprise.
"Why, here's Dad!" she exclaimed, flinging her arms around his neck. "Daddy, how dare you be sitting here all by yourself whilst we are having dinner! When did you get back? What a fish!"
Sir Henry closed down his desk, embraced his daughter, and came forward to meet his wife.
"Fine fellow, isn't he, Nora!" he agreed. "Well, Philippa, how are you? Pleased to see me, I hope? Another new frock, I believe, and in war time!"
"Fancy your remembering that it was war time!" she answered, standing very still while he leaned over and kissed her.
"Nasty one for me," Sir Henry observed good-humouredly. "How well you're looking, Helen! Any news of Dick yet?"
Helen attempted an expression of extreme gravity with more or less success.
"Nothing fresh," she answered.
"Well, well, no news may be good news," Sir Henry remarked consolingly. "Jove, it's good to feel a roof over one's head again! This morning has been the only patch of decent weather we've had."
"This morning was lovely," Helen assented. "Philippa and I went and sat up in the woods."
Philippa, who was standing by the fire, turned and looked at her husband critically.
"We have some men dining," she said. "They will be out in a few minutes. Don't you think you had better go and make yourself presentable? You smell of fish, and you look as though you hadn't shaved for a week."
"Guilty, my dear," Sir Henry admitted. "Mills is just getting me something to eat in the gun room, and then I am going to have a bath and change my clothes."
"And shave, Dad," Nora reminded him.
"And shave, you young pest," her father agreed, patting her on the shoulder. "Run away and play billiards with Helen. I want to talk to your mother until my dinner's ready."
Nora acquiesced promptly.
"Come along, Helen, I'll give you twenty-five up. Or perhaps you'd like to play shell out?" she proposed. "Arthur Sinclair says I have improved in my potting more than any one he ever knew."
Sir Henry opened the door and closed it after them. Then he returned and seated himself on the lounge by Philippa's side. She glanced up at him as though in surprise, and, stretching out her hand towards her work-basket, took up some knitting.
"I really think I should change at once, if I were you," she suggested.
"Presently. I had a sort of foolish idea that I'd like to have a word or two with you first. I've been away for nearly a fortnight, haven't I?"
"You have," Philippa assented. "Perhaps that is the reason why I feel that I haven't very much to say to you."
"That sounds just a trifle hard," he said slowly.
"I am hard sometimes," Philippa confessed. "You know that quite well. There are times when I just feel as though I had no heart at all, nor any sympathy; when every sensation I might have had seems shrivelled up inside me."
"Is that how you are feeling at the present time towards me, Philippa?" he asked.
Her needles flashed through the wool for a moment in silence.
"You had every warning," she told him. "I tried to make you understand exactly how your behaviour disgusted me before you went away."
"Yes, I remember," he admitted. "I'm afraid, dear, you think I am a worthless sort of a fellow."
Philippa had apparently dropped a stitch. She bent lower still over her knitting. There was a distinct frown upon her forehead, her mouth was unrecognisable.
"Your friend Lessingham is here still, I understand?" her husband remarked presently.
"Yes," Philippa assented, "he is dining to-night. You will probably see him in a few minutes."
Sir Henry looked thoughtful, and studied for a moment the toe of a remarkably unprepossessing looking shoe.
"You're so keen about that sort of thing," he said, "what about Lessingham? He is not soldiering or anything, is he?"
"I have no idea," Philippa replied. "He walks with a slight limp and admits that he is here as a convalescent, but he hasn't told us very much about himself."
"I wonder you haven't tackled him," Sir Henry continued. "You're such an ardent recruiter, you ought to make sure that he is doing his bit of butchery."
Philippa looked up at her husband for a moment and back at her work.
"Mr. Lessingham," she said, "is a very delightful friend, whose stay here every one is enjoying very much, but he is a comparative stranger. I feel no responsibility as to his actions."
"And you do as to mine?"
Sir Henry's head was resting on his hand, his elbow on the back of the lounge. He seemed to be listening to the voices in the dining room beyond.
"Hm!" he observed. "Has he been here often while I've been away?"
"As often as he chose," Philippa replied. "He has become very popular in the neighbourhood already, and he is an exceedingly welcome guest here at any time."
"Takes advantage of your hospitality pretty often, doesn't he?"
"He is here most days. We are always rather disappointed when he doesn't come."
Sir Henry's frown grew a little deeper.
"What's the attraction?" he demanded.
Philippa smiled. It was the smile which those who knew her best, feared.
"Well," she confided, "I used to imagine that it was Helen, but I think that he has become a little bored, talking about nothing but Dick and their college days. I am rather inclined to fancy that it must be me."
"You, indeed!" he grunted. "Are you aware that you are a married woman?"
Philippa glanced up from her work. Her eyebrows were raised, and her expression was one of mild surprise.
"How queer that you should remind me of it!" she murmured. "I am afraid that the sea air disturbs your memory."
Sir Henry rose abruptly to his feet.
"Oh, damn!" he exclaimed.
He walked to the door. His guests were still lingering over their wine. He could hear their voices more distinctly than ever. Then he came back to the sofa and stood by Philippa's side.
"Philippa, old girl," he pleaded, "don't let us quarrel. I have had such a hard fortnight, a nor'easter blowing all the time, and the dirtiest seas I've ever known at this time of the year. For five days I hadn't a dry stitch on me, and it was touch and go more than once. We were all in the water together, and there was a nasty green wave that looked like a mountain overhead, and the side of our own boat bending over us as though it meant to squeeze our ribs in. It looked like ten to one against us, Phil, and I got a worse chill than the sea ever gave me when I thought that I shouldn't see you again."
Philippa laid down her knitting. She looked searchingly into her husband's face. She was very far from indifferent to his altered tone.
"Henry," she said, "that sounds very terrible, but why do you run such risks - unworthily? Do you think that I couldn't give you all that you want, all that I have to give, if you came home to me with a story like this and I knew that you had been facing death righteously and honourably for your country's sake? Why, Henry, there isn't a man in the world could have such a welcome as I could give you. Do you think I am cold? Of course you don't! Do you think I want to feel as I have done this last fortnight towards you? Why, it's misery! It makes me feel inclined to commit any folly, any madness, to get rid of it all."
Her husband hesitated. A frown had darkened his face. He had the air of one who is on the eve of a confession.
"Philippa," he began, "you know that when I go out on these fishing expeditions, I also put in some work at the new chart which I am so anxious to prepare for the fishermen."
Philippa shook her head impatiently.
"Don't talk to me about your fishermen, Henry! I'm as sick with them as I am with you. You can see twenty or thirty of them any morning, lounging about the quay, strapping young fellows who shelter themselves behind the plea of privileged employment. We are notorious down here for our skulkers, and you - you who should be the one man to set them an example, are as bad as they are. You deliberately encourage them."
Sir Henry abandoned his position by his wife's side, His face darkened and his eyes flashed.
"Skulkers? " he repeated furiously.
Philippa looked at him without flinching.
"Yes! Don't you like the word?"
The angry flush faded from his cheeks as quickly as it had come. He laughed a little unnaturally, took up a cigarette from an open box, and lit it.
"It isn't a pleasant one, is it, Philippa?" he observed, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets strolling away. "If one doesn't feel the call - well, there you are, you see. Jove, that's a fine fish.
He stood admiring the codling upon the scales. Philippa continued her work.
"If you intend to spend the rest of the evening with us," she told him calmly, "please let me remind you again that we have guests for dinner. Your present attire may be comfortable but it is scarcely becoming."
He turned away and came back towards her. As he passed the lamp, she started.
"Why, you're wet," she exclaimed, "wet through!"
"Of course I am," he admitted, feeling his sleeve, "but to tell you the truth, in the interest of our conversation I had quite forgotten it. Here come our guests, before I have had time to escape. I can hear your friend Lessingham's voice."