Chapter XIII
 

Philippa leaned back in her place.

"Exactly what do you mean by that, Mr. Lessingham?" she demanded.

He shook himself free from a curious sense of unreality, and turned towards her.

"I must confess," he said, "that sometimes your husband puzzles me."

"Not nearly so much as he puzzles me," Philippa retorted, a little bitterly.

"Has he always been so desperately interested in deep-sea fishing?"

Philippa shrugged her shoulders.

"More or less, but never quite to this extent. The thing has become an obsession with him lately. If you are really going to stay and talk with me, do you mind if we don't discuss my husband? Just now the subject is rather a painful one with me."

"I can quite understand that," Lessingham murmured sympathetically.

"What do you think of Captain Griffiths?" she asked, a little abruptly.

"I have thought nothing more about him. Should I? Is he of any real importance?"

"He is military commandant here."

Lessingham nodded thoughtfully.

"I suppose that means that he is the man who ought to be on my track," he observed.

"I shouldn't be in the least surprised to hear that he was," Philippa said drily. "I have told you that he came and asked about you the other night, when he dined here. He seemed perfectly satisfied then, but he is here again to-night to see Henry, and he never visits anywhere in an ordinary way."

"Are you uneasy about me?" Lessingham enquired.

"I am not sure," she answered frankly. "Sometimes I am almost terrified and would give anything to hear that you were on your way home. And at other times I realise that you are really very clever, that nothing is likely to happen to you, and that the place will seem duller than ever when you do go."

"That is very kind of you," he said. "In any case, I fear that my holiday will soon be coming to an end."

"Your holiday?" she repeated. "Is that what you call it?"

"It has been little else," he replied indifferently. "There is nothing to be learnt here of the slightest military significance."

"We told you that when you arrived," Philippa reminded him.

"I was perhaps foolish not to believe you," he acknowledged.

"So your very exciting journey through the clouds has ended in failure, after all!" she went on, a moment or two later.

"Failure? No, I should not call it failure."

"You have really made some discoveries, then?" she enquired dubiously.

"I have made the greatest discovery in the world."

Her eyebrows were gently raised, the corners of her mouth quivered, her eyes fell.

"Dear me! In this quiet spot?" she sighed.

"Yes!"

"Is it Helen or me?"

"Philippa!" he protested.

Her eyebrows were more raised than ever. Her mouth had lost its alluring curve.

"Really, Mr. Lessingham!" she exclaimed. "Have I ever given you the right to call me by my Christian name?"

"In my country," he answered, "we do not wait to ask. We take."

"Rank Prussianism," she murmured. "I really think you had better go back there. You are adopting their methods."

"I may have to at any moment," he admitted, "or to some more distant country still. I want something to take back with me."

"You want a keepsake, of course," Philippa declared, looking around the room. "You can have my photograph - the one over there. Helen will give you one of hers, too, I am sure, if you ask her. She is just as grateful to you about Richard as I am."

"But from you," he said earnestly, "I want more than gratitude."

"Dear me, how persistent you are!" Philippa murmured. "Are you really determined to make love to me?"

"Ah, don't mock me!" he begged. "What I am saying to you comes from my heart."

Philippa laughed at him quietly. There was just a little break in her voice, however.

"Don't he absurd!"

"There is nothing absurd about it," he replied, with a note of sadness in his tone. "I felt it from the moment we met. I struggled against it, but I have felt it growing day by day. I came here with my mind filled with different purposes. I had no thought of amusing myself, no thought of seeking here the happiness which up till now I seem to have missed. I came as a servant because I was sent, a mechanical being. You have changed everything. For you I feel what I have never felt for any woman before. I place before you my career, my freedom, my honour."

Philippa sighed very softly.

"Do you mind ringing the bell?" she begged.

"The bell?" he repeated. "What for?"

"I want Helen to hear you," she confided, with a wonderful little smile.

"Philippa, don't mock me," he pleaded. "If this is only amusement to you, tell me so and let me go away. It is the first time in my life that a woman has come between me and my work. I am no longer master of myself. I am obsessed with you. I want nothing else in life but your love."

There was an almost startling change in Philippa's face. The banter which had served her with so much effect, which she had relied upon as her defensive weapon, was suddenly useless. Lessingham had created an atmosphere around him, an atmosphere of sincerity.

"Are you in earnest?" she faltered.

"God knows I am!" he insisted.

"You - you care for me?"

"So much," he answered passionately, "that for your sake I would sacrifice my honour, my country, my life."

"But I've only known you for such a short time," Philippa protested, "and you're an enemy."

"I discard my birth. I renounce my adopted country," he declared fiercely. "You have swept my life clear of every scrap of ambition and patriotism. You have filled it with one thing only - a great, consuming love."

"Have you forgotten my husband?"

"Do you think that if he had been a different sort of man I should have dared to speak? Ask yourself how you can continue to live with him? You can call him which you will. Both are equally disgraceful. Your heart knows the truth. He is either a coward or a philanderer."

Philippa's cheeks were suddenly white. Her eyes flashed. His words had stung her to the quick.

"A coward?" she repeated furiously. "You dare to call Henry that?"

Lessingham rose abruptly to his feet. He moved restlessly about the room. His fists were clenched, his tone thick with passion.

"I do!" he pronounced. "Philippa, look at this matter without prejudice. Do you believe that there is a single man of any country, of your husband's age and rank, who would be content to trawl the seas for fish whilst his country's blood is being drained dry? Who would weigh a codling," he added, pointing scornfully to the scales, "whilst the funeral march of heroes is beating throughout the world? The thing is insensate, impossible!"

Philippa's head drooped. Her hands were nervously intertwined.

"Don't!" she pleaded, "I have suffered so much."

"Forgive me," he begged, with a sudden change of voice. "If I am mistaken in your husband - and there is always the chance - I am sorry. I will confess that I myself had a different opinion of him, but I can only judge from what I have seen and from that there is no one in the world who would not agree with me that your husband is unworthy of you."

"Oh, please stop!" Philippa cried. "Stop at once!"

Lessingham came back to his place by her side. His voice was still shaking, but it had grown very soft.

"Philippa, forgive me," he repeated. "If you only knew how it hurts to see you like this! Yet I must speak. There is just once in every man's lifetime when he must tell the truth. That time has come with me - I love you."

"So does my husband," she murmured.

"I will only remind you, then, that he shows it in strange fashion," Lessingham continued. "He sets your wishes at defiance. He who should be an example in a small place like this, is only an object of contempt in the neighbourhood. Even I, who have only lived here for so short a time, have caught the burden of what people say."

Philippa wiped her eyes.

"Please, do you mind," she begged, "not saying anything more about Henry. You are only reminding me of things which I try all the time to forget."

"Believe me," Lessingham answered wistfully, "I am only too content to ignore him, to forget that he exists, to remember only that you are the woman who has changed my life."

Philippa looked at him in something like dismay, rather like a child who has started an engine which she has no idea how to stop.

"But you must not - you must not talk to me like this!"

His hand closed upon hers. It lay in his grasp, unyielding, cold, yet passive.

"Why not?" he whispered. "I have the one unalterable right, and I am willing to pay the great price."

"Right?" she faltered.

"The right of loving you - the right of loving you better than any woman in the world."

There was a queer silence, only partly due, as she was instantly aware, to the emotion of the moment. A door behind them had opened. Philippa's quicker senses had recognised her husband's footsteps. Lessingham rose deliberately to his feet. In his heart he welcomed the interruption. This might, perhaps, be the decisive moment. Sir Henry was strolling towards them. His manner and his tone, however, were alike good-natured.

"I was to order you into the billiard room, Mr. Lessingham," he announced. "Sinclair has been sent for - a night route march, or some such horror - and they want you to make a four."

Lessingham hesitated. He had a passionate inclination to face the situation, to tell this man the truth. Sir Henry's courteous indifference, however, was like a harrier. He recognised the inevitable.

"I am afraid I am rather out of practice," he said, "but I shall be delighted to do my best."