Chapter XVI
 

Mr. William Hayter, in the solitude of his chambers at the Milan Court, was a very altered personage. He extended no welcoming salutation to his midnight visitor but simply motioned him to a chair.

"Well," he began, "is your task finished that you are in London?"

"My task," Lessingham replied, "might just as well never have been entered upon. The man you sent me to watch is nothing but an ordinary sport-loving Englishman."

"Really! You have lived as his neighbour for nearly a month, and that is your impression of him?"

"It is," Lessingham assented. "He has been away sea-fishing, half the time, but I have searched his house thoroughly."

"Searched his papers, eh?"

"Every one I could find, and hated the job. There are a good many charts of the coast, but they are all for the use of the fishermen."

"Wonderful!" Hayter scoffed. "My young friend, you may yet find distinction in some other walk of life. Our secret service, I fancy, will very soon be able to dispense with your energies."

"And I with your secret service," Lessingham agreed heartily. "I dare say there may be some branches of it in which existence is tolerable. That, however, does not apply to the task upon which I have been engaged."

"You have been completely duped," Hayter told him calmly, "and the information you have sent us is valueless. Sir Henry Cranston, instead of being the type of man whom you have described, is one of the greatest experts upon coast defense and mine-laying, in the English Admiralty."

Lessingham laughed shortly.

"That," he declared, "is perfectly absurd."

"It is," Hayter repeated, with emphasis, "the precise truth. Sir Henry Cranton's fishing excursions are myths. He is simply transferred from his fishing boat on to one of a little fleet of so-called mine sweepers, from which he conducts his operations. Nearly every one of the most important towns on the east coast are protected by minefields of his design."

Lessingham was dumbfounded. His companion's manner was singularly convincing.

"But how could Sir Henry or any one else keep this a secret?" he protested. "Even his wife is scarcely on speaking terms with him because she believes him to he an idler, and the whole neighbourhood gossips over his slackness."

"The whole neighbourhood is easily fooled," Hayter retorted. "There are one or two who know, however."

"There are one or two," Lessingham observed grimly, "who are beginning to suspect me."

"That is a pity," Hayter admitted, "because it will be necessary for you to return to Dreymarsh at once."

"Return to Dreymarsh at once? But Cranston is away. There is nothing for me to do there in his absence."

"He will be back on Wednesday or Thursday night," was the confident reply. "He will bring with him the plan of his latest defenses of a town on the east coast, which our cruiser squadron purpose to bombard. We must have that chart."

Lessingham listened in mute distress.

"Could you possibly get me relieved?" he begged. "The fact is - "

"We could not, and we will not," Hayter interrupted fiercely. "Unless you wish me to denounce you at home as a renegade and a coward, you will go through with the work which has been allotted to you. Your earlier mistakes will be forgiven if that chart is in my hands by Friday."

"But how do you know that he will have it? "Lessingham protested. "Supposing you are right and he is really responsible for the minefields you speak of, I should think the last thing he would do would be to bring the chart back to Dreymarsh."

"As a matter of fact, that is precisely what he will do," Hayter assured his listener. "He is bringing it back for the inspection of one of the commissioners for the east coast defense, who is to meet him at his house. And I wish to warn you, too, Maderstrom, that you will have very little time. For some reason or other, Cranston is dissatisfied with the secrecy under which he has been compelled to work, and has applied to the Admiralty for recognition of his position. Immediately this is given, I gather that his house will be inaccessible to you."

Lessingham sat, his arms folded, his eyes fixed upon the fire. His thoughts were in a turmoil, yet one thing was hatefully clear. Cranston was not the unworthy slacker he had believed him to be. Philippa's whole point of view might well be changed by this discovery - especially now that Cranston had made up his mind to assert himself for his wife's sake. There was an icy fear in his heart.

"You understand," Hayter persisted coldly, "what it is you have to do?"

"Perfectly. I shall return by the afternoon train," was the despairing reply.

"If you succeed," Hayter continued, "I shall see that you get the usual acknowledgment, but I will, if you wish it, ask for your transfer to another branch of the service. I am not questioning your patriotism or your honour, Maderstrom, but you are not the man for this work."

"You are right," Lessingham said. "I am not."

"It is not my affair," Hayter proceeded, "to enquire too closely into the means used by our agents in carrying out our designs. That I find you in London in company with the wife of the man whom you are appointed to watch, may be a fact capable of the most complete and satisfactory explanation. I ask no questions. I only remind you that your country, even though it be only your adopted country, demands from you, as from all others in her service, unswerving loyalty, a loyalty uninfluenced by the claims of personal sentiment, duty, or honour. Have I said enough?"

"You have said as much as it is wise for you to say," Lessingham replied, his voice trembling with suppressed passion.

"That is all, then," the other concluded. "You know where to send or bring the chart when you have it? If you bring it yourself, it is possible that something which you may regard as a reward, will be offered to you."

Lessingham rose a little wearily to his feet. His farewell to Hayter was cold and lifeless.

He left the hotel and started on his homeward way, struggling with a sense of intolerable depression. The streets through which he passed were sombre and unlit.

A Zeppelin warning, a few hours before, had driven the people to their homes. There was not a chink of light to be seen anywhere. An intense and gloomy stillness seemed to brood over the deserted thoroughfares. Nightbirds on their way home flitted by like shadows. Policemen lurked in the shadows of the houses. The few vehicles left crawled about with insufficient lights. Even the warning horns of the taxicab men sounded furtive and repressed. Lessingham, as he marched stolidly along, felt curiously in sympathy with his environment. Hayter's news brought him face to face with that inner problem which had so suddenly become the dominant factor in his life. For the first time he knew what love was. He felt the wonder of it, the far-reaching possibilities, the strange idealism called so unexpectedly into being. He recognized the vagaries of Philippa's disposition, and yet, during the last few days, he had convinced himself that she was beginning to care. Her strained relations with her husband had been, without a doubt, her first incentive towards the acceptance of his proffered devotion. Now he told himself with eager hopefulness that some portion of it, however minute, must be for his own sake. The relations between husband and wife, he reminded himself, must, at any rate, have been strained during the last few months, or Cranston would never have been able to keep his secret. In his gloomy passage through this land of ill omens, however, he shivered a little as he thought of the other possibility - tortured himself with imagining what might happen during her revulsion of feeling, if Philippa discovered the truth. A sense of something greater than he had yet known in life seemed to lift him into some lofty state of aloofness, from which he could look down and despise himself, the poor, tired plodder wearing the heavy chains of duty. There was a life so much more wonderful, just the other side of the clouds, a very short distance away, a life of alluring and passionate happiness. Should he ever find the courage, he wondered, to escape from the treadmill and go in search of it? Duty, for the last two years, had taken him by the hand and led him along a pathway of shame. He had never been a hypocrite about the war. He was one of those who had acknowledged from the first that Germany had set forth, with the sword in her hand, on a war of conquest. His own inherited martial spirit had vaguely approved; he, too, in those earlier days, had felt the sunlight upon his rapier. Later had come the enlightenment, the turbulent waves of doubt, the nightmare of a nation's awakening conscience, mirrored in his own soul. It was in a depression shared, perhaps, in a lesser degree by millions of those whose ranks he had joined, that he felt this passionate craving for escape into a world which took count of other things.