The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Sir Henry was standing with his hands in his pockets and a very blank expression upon his face, looking out upon the Admiralty Square. He was alone in a large, barely furnished apartment, the walls of which were so hung with charts that it had almost the appearance of a schoolroom prepared for an advanced geography class. The table from which he had risen was covered with an amazing number of scientific appliances, some samples of rock and sand, two microscopes and several telephones.
Sir Henry, having apparently exhausted the possibilities of the outlook, turned somewhat reluctantly away to find himself confronted by an elderly gentleman of cheerful appearance, who at that moment had entered the room. From the fact that he had done so without knocking, it was obvious that he was an intimate.
"Well, my gloomy friend," the newcomer demanded, "what's wrong with you?"
Sir Henry was apparently relieved to see his visitor. He pushed a chair towards him and indicated with a gesture of invitation a box of cigars upon his desk.
"Your little Laranagas," he observed. "Try one."
The visitor opened the box, sniffed at its contents, and helped himself.
"Now, then, get at it, Henry," he enjoined. "I've a Board in half-an-hour, and three dispatches to read before I go in. What's your trouble?"
"Look here, Rayton," was the firm reply, "I want to chuck this infernal hole-and-corner business. I tell you I've worked it threadbare at Dreymarsh and it's getting jolly uncomfortable."
The newcomer grinned.
"Poor chap!" he observed, watching his cigar smoke curl upwards. "You're in a nasty mess, you know, Henry. Did I tell you that I had a letter from your wife the other day, asking me if I couldn't find you a job?"
Sir Henry waited a little grimly, whilst his friend enjoyed the joke.
"That's all very well," he said, "but we are on the point of a separation, or something of the sort. I'll admit it was all right at first to run the thing on the Q.T., but that's pretty well busted up by now. Why, according to your own reports, they know all about me on the other side."
"Not a doubt about it," the other agreed. "I'm not sure that you haven't got a spy fellow down at Dreymarsh now."
"I'm quite sure of it," Sir Henry replied grimly. "The brute was lunching with my wife at the Carlton to-day, and, as luck would have it, I was landed with that Russian Admiral's wife and sister-in-law. You're breaking up the happy home, that's what you're doing, Rayton!"
His lordship at any rate seemed to find the process amusing. He laughed until the tears stood in his eyes.
"I should love to have seen Philippa's face," he chuckled, "when she walked into the restaurant and saw you there! You're supposed to be off on a fishing expedition, aren't you?"
"I went out after whiting," Sir Henry groaned, "and I'd just promised to chuck it for a time when I got the Admiral's message."
"Well, we'll see to your German spy, anyway," his visitor promised.
"Don't be an ass!" Sir Henry exclaimed irritably. "I don't want the fellow touched at present. Why, he's been a sort of persona grata at my house. Hangs around there all the time when I'm away."
"All the more reason for putting an end to his little game, I should say," was the cheerful reply.
"And have the whole neighbourhood either laughing at my wife and Miss Fairclough, or talking scandal about them!" Sir Henry retorted.
"I forgot that," his friend confessed ruminatively. "He's a gentlemanly sort of fellow, from what I hear, but a rotten spy. What do you want done with him?"
"Leave him for me to deal with," Sir Henry insisted. "I have a little scheme on hand in which he is concerned."
Rayton scratched his chin doubtfully.
"The fellow may not be such a fool as he seems," he reminded his friend.
"I won't run any risks," Sir Henry promised. "I just want him left there, that's all. And look here, Rayton, you know what I want from you. I quite agreed to your proposals as to my anonymity at the time when I was up in Scotland, but the thing's a secret no longer with the people who count. Every one in Germany knows that I'm a mine-field specialist, so I don't see why the dickens I should pose any longer as a sort of half-baked idiot."
Rayton's eyes twinkled.
"You want to play the Wilson Barrett hero and make a theatrical disclosure of your greatness," he laughed. "Poor Philippa will fall upon her knees. You will be the hero of the village, which will probably present you with some little article of plate. You've a good time coming, Henry."
"Talk sense, there's a good fellow," the other begged. "You go and see the Chief and put it to him. There isn't a single reason why I shouldn't own up now."
"I'll see what I can do," Rayton promised, "but what about this fellow Lessingham, or whatever else he calls himself, down there? There's a chap named Griffiths - Commandant, isn't he? - been writing us about him."
"I won't have Lessingham touched," Sir Henry insisted. "He can't do any particular harm down there, and there isn't a line or a drawing of mine down at Dreymarsh which he isn't welcome to."
Lord Rayton rose to his feet.
"Look here, Henry, old fellow," he said, "I do sympathise with you up to a certain point. I tell you what I'll do. I shall have to answer Philippa's letter, and I'll answer it in such a way that if she is as clever a little woman as I think she is, she'll get a hint. Of course," he went on ruminatively, "it is rather a misfortune that the Princess Ollaneff and her sister are such jolly good-looking women. Makes it look a little fishy, doesn't it? What I mean to say is, it's a far cry from fishing for whiting in the North Sea to lunching with a beautiful princess at the Carlton - when you think your wife's down in Norfolk."
Sir Henry threw open the door.
"Look here, I've had enough of you, Rayton," he declared. "You get back and do an hour's work, if you can bring your mind to it."
The latter assumed a sudden dignity, necessitated by the sound of voices in the corridor, and departed. The door had scarcely been closed when two younger men presented themselves - Miles Ensol, Sir Henry's secretary, a typical-looking young sailor minus his left arm; and a pale-faced, clean-shaven man of uncertain age, in civilian clothes. Sir Henry shook hands with the latter and pointed to the easy-chair which his previous visitor had just vacated.
"Welcome back again, Horridge," he said cordially. "Miles, I'll ring when I want you."
"Very good, sir," the secretary replied. "There's a fisherman from Norfolk downstairs, when you're at liberty."
Sir Henry nodded.
"I'll see him presently. Shut him up somewhere where he can smoke."
The young man withdrew, carefully closing the door, around which Sir Henry, with a word of apology, arranged a screen.
"I don't think," he explained, "that eavesdropping extends to these premises, or that our voices could reach outside. Still, a ha'porth of prevention, eh? Have a cigar, Horridge."
"I'm not smoking for a day or two, thank you, sir.
"You look as though they'd put you through it," Sir Henry remarked.
His visitor smiled.
"I've travelled fourteen miles in a barrel," he said, "and we were out for twenty-four hours in a Danish sailing skiff. You know what the weather's been like in the North Sea. Before that, the last word of writing I saw on German soil was a placard, offering a reward of five thousand marks for my detention, with a disgustingly lifelike photograph at the top. I had about fifty yards of quay to walk in broad daylight, and every other man I passed turned to stare after me. It gives you the cold shivers down your back when you daren't look round to see if you're being followed."
Sir Henry groped in the cupboard of his desk, and produced a bottle of whisky and a syphon of soda water. His visitor nodded approvingly.
"I've touched nothing until I've reached what I consider sanctuary," he observed. "My nerves have gone rotten for the first time in my life. Do you mind, sir, if I lock the door?"
"Go ahead," Sir Henry assented.
He brought the whisky and soda himself across the room. Horridge resumed his seat and held out his hand almost eagerly. For a moment or two he shook as though he had an ague. Then, just as suddenly as it had come upon him, the fit passed. He drained the contents of the tumbler at a gulp' set it down empty by his side, and stretched out his hand for a cigar.
"The end of my journey didn't help matters any," he went on. "I daren't even make for a Dutch port, and we were picked up eventually by a tramp steamer from Newcastle to London with coals. I hadn't been on board more than an hour before a submarine which had been following overhauled us. I thought it was all up then, but the fog lifted, and we found ourselves almost in the midst of a squadron of destroyers from Harwich. I made another transfer, and they landed me in time to catch the early morning train from Felixstowe."
"Did they get the submarine?" his listener asked eagerly.
"Get it!" the other repeated, with a smile. "They blew it into scrap metal."
"Plenty of movement in your life!"
"I've run the gauntlet over there once too often," Horridge said grimly. "Just look at me now, Sir Henry. I'm twenty-nine years old, and it's only two years and a half since I was invalided out of the navy and took this job on. The last person I asked to guess my age put me down at fifty. What should you have said?"
"Somewhere near it," was the candid admission. "Never mind, Horridge, you've done your bit. You shall pass on your experience to a new hand, take your pension and try the south coast of England for a few months. Now let's get on with it. You know what I want to hear about."
Horridge produced from his pocket a long strip of paper.
"They're there, sir," he announced, "coaled to the scuppers, every man standing to stations and steam up. There's the list."
He handed the paper across to Sir Henry, who glanced it down.
"The fast cruiser squadron," he observed. "Hm! Three new ships we haven't any note of. No transports, then, Horridge?'"
"Not a sign of one, sir," was the reply. "They're after a bombardment."
He rose to his feet, walked to a giant map of England, and touched a certain port on the east coast. Sir Henry's eyes glistened.
"It is a certainty," Horridge replied. "I've been on three of those ships. I've dined with four of the officers. They're under sealed orders, and the crew believes that they're going to escort out half a dozen commerce destroyers. But I have the truth. That's their objective," Horridge repeated, touching once more the spot upon the map, "and they are waiting just for one thing."
Sir Henry smiled thoughtfully.
"I know what they're waiting for," he said. "Perhaps if they'd a Herr Horridge to send over here for it, they'd have got it before now. As it is - well, I'm not sure," he went on. "It seems a pity to disappoint them, doesn't it? I'd love to give them a run for their money."
Horridge smiled faintly. He knew a good deal about his companion.
"They're spoiling for it, sir," he admitted. Sir Henry spoke down a telephone and a few minutes later Ensol reappeared.
"Find Mr. Horridge a comfortable room," his chief directed, "and one of our confidential typists. You can make out your report at your leisure," he went on. "Come in and see me when it's all finished."
"Certainly, sir," Horridge replied, rising.
Sir Henry held out his hand. He looked with something like wonder at the nerve-shattered man who had risen to his feet with a certain air of briskness.
"Horridge," he said, "I wish I had your pluck."
"I don't know any one in the service from whom you need borrow any, sir," was the quiet reply.