Chapter XIV
 

Sir Henry was obviously not in the best of tempers. For a mild-mannered and easy-going man, his expression was scarcely normal.

"That fellow was making love to you," he said bluntly, as soon as the door was closed behind Lessingham.

Philippa looked up at her husband with an air of pleasant candour.

"He was doing it very nicely, too," she admitted.

"You mean to say that you let him?"

"I listened to what he had to say," she confessed. "It didn't occur to you, I suppose," her husband remarked, with somewhat strained sarcasm, "that you were another man's wife?"

"I am doing my best to forget that fact," Philippa reminded him.

"I see! And he is to help you?"

"Possibly."

Sir Henry's irritation was fast merging into anger.

"I shall turn the fellow out of the house," he declared.

Philippa shrugged her shoulders.

"Why don't you?"

He seated himself on the couch by his wife's side. "Look here, Philippa, don't let's wrangle," he begged. "I'm afraid you'll have to make up your mind to see a good deal less of your friend Lessingham, anyway."

Philippa's brows were knitted. She was conscious of a vague uneasiness.

"Really? And why?"

"For one thing," her husband explained, "because I don't intend to have him hanging about my house during my absence."

"The best way to prevent that would be not to go away," Philippa suggested.

"Well, in all probability," he announced guardedly, "I am not going away again - at least not just yet."

Philippa's manner suddenly changed. She laid down her work. Her hand rested lightly upon her husband's shoulder.

"You mean that you are going to give up those horrible fishing excursions of yours?"

"For the present I am," he assured her.

"And are you going to do something - some work, I mean?" she asked breathlessly.

"For the immediate present I am going to stay at home and look after you," he replied.

Philippa's face fell. Her manner became notably colder.

"You are very wise," she declared. "Mr. Lessingham is a most fascinating person. We are all half in love with him - even Helen."

"The fellow must have a way with him," Sir Henry conceded grudgingly. "As a rule the people here are not over-keen on strangers, unless they have immediate connections in the neighbourhood. Even Griffiths, who since they made him Commandant, is a man of many suspicions, seems inclined to accept him."

"Captain Griffiths dined here the other night," Philippa remarked, "and I noticed that he and Mr. Lessingham seemed to get on very well."

"The fellow's all right in his way, no doubt," Sir Henry began.

"Of course he is," Philippa interrupted. "Helen likes him quite as much as I do."

"Does he make love to Helen, too?" Sir Henry ventured.

"Don't talk nonsense!" Philippa retorted. "He isn't that sort of a man at all. If he has made love to me, he has done so because I have encouraged him, and if I have encouraged him, it is your fault."

Sir Henry, with an impatient exclamation, rose from his place and took a cigarette from an open box.

"Quite time I stayed at home, I can see. All the same, the fellow's rather a puzzle. I can't help wondering how he succeeded in making such an easy conquest of a lady who has scarcely been notorious for her flirtations, and a young woman who is madly in love with another man. He hasn't - "

"Hasn't what?"

"He hasn't," Sir Henry continued, blowing out the match which he had been holding to his cigarette and throwing it away, "been in the position of being able to render you or Helen any service, has he?"

"I don't understand you," Philippa replied, a little uneasily.

"There's nothing to understand," Sir Henry went on. "I was simply trying to find some explanation for his veni, vidi, vici."

"I don't think you need go any further than the fact," Philippa observed, "that he is well-bred, charming and companionable."

"Incidentally," Sir Henry queried, "do you happen to have come across any one here who ever heard of him before?"

"I don't remember any one," Philippa replied. "He was at college with Richard, you know."

Sir Henry nodded.

"Of course, that's a wonderful introduction to you and Helen," he admitted. "And by-the-by, that reminds me," he went on, "I never saw such a change in two women in my life, as in you and Helen. A few weeks ago you were fretting yourselves to death about Dick. Now you don't seem to mention him, you both of you look as though you hadn't a care in the world, and yet you say you haven't heard from him. Upon my word, this is getting to be a house of mysteries!"

"The only mystery in it that I can see, is you, Henry," she declared.

"Me?" he protested. "I'm one of the simplest-minded fellows alive. What is there mysterious about me?"

"Your ignominious life," was the cold reply.

"Jove, I got it that time!" he groaned, - "got it in the neck! But didn't I tell you just now that I was turning over a new leaf?"

"Then prove it," Philippa pleaded. "Let me write to Rayton and beg him to use his influence to get you something to do. I am sure you would be happier, and I can't tell you what a difference it would make to me."

"It's that indoor work I couldn't stick, old thing," he confided. "You know, they're saying all the time it's a young man's war. They'd make me take some one's place at home behind a desk."

"But even if they did," she protested, "even if they put you in a coal cellar, wouldn't you be happier to feel that you were helping your country? Wouldn't you be glad to know that I was happier?"

Sir Henry made a wry face.

"It seems to me that your outlook is a trifle superficial, dear," he grumbled. "However - now what the dickens is the matter?"

The door had been opened by Mills, with his usual smoothness, but Jimmy Dumble, out of breath and excited, pushed his way into the room.

"Hullo? What is it, Jimmy?" his patron demanded.

"Beg your pardon, sir," was the almost incoherent reply. "I've run all the way up, and there's a rare wind blowing. There's one of our - our trawlers lying off the Point, and she's sent up three green and six yellow balls."

"Whiting, by God!" Sir Henry exclaimed.

"Whiting!" Philippa repeated, in agonised disgust. "What does this mean, Henry?"

"It must be a shoal," her husband explained. "It means that we've got to get amongst them quick. Is the Ida down on the beach, Jimmy?"

"She there all right, sir," was the somewhat doubtful reply, "but us'll have a rare job to get away, sir. That there nor'easter is blowing great guns again and it's a cruel tide."

"We've got to get out somehow," Sir Henry declared. "Mills, my oilskins and flask at once. I sha'n't change a thing, but you might bring a cardigan jacket and the whisky and soda."

Mills withdrew, a little dazed. Philippa, whose fingers were clenched together, found her tongue at last.

"Henry!" she exclaimed furiously.

"What is it, my dear?"

"Do you mean to tell me that after your promise," she continued, "after what you have just said, you are starting out to-night for another fishing expedition?"

"Whiting, my dear," Sir Henry explained. "One can't possibly miss whiting. Where the devil are my keys? - Here they are. Now then."

He sat down before his desk, took some papers from the top drawer, rummaged about for a moment or two in another, and found what seemed to be a couple of charts in oilskin cases. All the time the wind was shaking the windows, and a storm of rain was beating against the panes.

"Help yourself to whisky and soda, Jimmy," Sir Henry invited, as he buttoned up his coat. "You'll need it all presently."

"I thank you kindly, sir," Jimmy replied. "I am thinking that we'll both need a drink before we're through this night."

He helped himself to a whisky and soda on the generous principle of half and half. Philippa, who was watching her husband's preparations indignantly, once more found words.

"Henry, you are incorrigible!" she exclaimed. "Listen to me if you please. I insist upon it."

Sir Henry turned a little impatiently towards her. "Philippa, I really can't stop now," he protested. "But you must! You shall!" she cried. "You shall hear this much from me, at any rate, before you go. What I said the other day I repeat a thousandfold now."

Sir Henry glanced at Dumble and motioned his head towards the door. The fisherman made an awkward exit.

"A thousandfold," Philippa repeated passionately. "You hear, Henry? I do not consider myself any more your wife. If I am here when you return, it will be simply because I find it convenient. Your conduct is disgraceful and unmanly."

"My dear girl!" he remonstrated. "I may be back in twenty-four - possibly twelve hours."

"It is a matter of indifference to me when you return," was the curt reply. "I have finished."

The door was thrown open.

"Your oilskins, sir, and flask," Mills announced, hurrying in, a little breathless. "You'll forgive my mentioning it, sir, but it scarcely seems a fit night to leave home."

"Got to be done this once, Mills," his master replied, struggling into his coat.

The young people from the billiard room suddenly streamed in. Nora, who was still carrying her cue, gazed at her father in amazement.

"Why, where's Dad going?" she cried.

"It appears," Philippa explained sarcastically, "that a shoal of whiting has arrived."

"Very uncertain fish, whiting," Sir Henry observed, "here to-day and gone to-morrow."

"You won't find it too easy getting off to-night, sir," Harrison remarked doubtfully.

"Jimmy will see to that," was the confident reply. "I expect we shall be amongst them at daybreak. Good-by, everybody! Good-by, Philippa!"

His eyes sought his wife's in vain. She had turned towards Lessingham.

"You are not hurrying off, are you, Mr. Lessingham?" she asked. "I want you to show me that new Patience."

"I shall be delighted."

Sir Henry turned slowly away. For a moment his face darkened as his eyes met Lessingham's. He seemed about to speak but changed his mind.

"Well, good-by, every one," he called out. "I shall be back before midnight if we don't get out."

"And if you do?" Nora cried.

"If we do, Heaven help the whiting!"