Chapter XIX
 

Lessingham sat upon a fallen tree on Dutchman's Common near the scene of his romantic descent, and looked rather ruefully over the moorland, seawards. Above him, the sky was covered with little masses of quickly scudding clouds. A fugitive and watery sunshine shone feebly upon a wind-tossed sea and a rain-sodden landscape. He found a certain grim satisfaction in comparing the disorderliness of the day with the tumult in his own life. He felt that he had embarked upon an enterprise greater than his capacity, for which he was in many ways entirely unsuitable. And behind him was the scourge of the telegram which he had received a few hours ago, a telegram harmless enough to all appearance, but which, decoded, was like a scourge to his back.

Your work is unsatisfactory and your slackness deserves reprobation. Great events wait upon you. The object of your search is necessary for our imminent operations.

The sound of a horse's hoofs disturbed him. Captain Griffiths, on a great bay mare, glanced curiously at the lonely figure by the roadside, and then pulled up.

"Back again, Mr. Lessingham?" he remarked.

"As you see."

The Commandant fidgeted with his horse for a moment. Then he approached a little nearer to Lessingham's side.

"You are a good walker, I perceive, Mr. Lessingham," he remarked.

"When the fancy takes me," was the equable reply.

"Have you come out to see our new guns?"

"I had no idea," Lessingham answered indifferently, "that you had any."

Griffiths smiled.

"We have a small battery of anti-aircraft guns, newly arrived from the south of England," he said. "The secret of their coming and their locality has kept the neighbourhood in a state of ferment for the last week."

Lessingham remained profoundly uninterested.

"They most of them spotted the guns," his companion continued, "but not many of them have found the searchlights yet."

"It seems a little late in the year," Lessingham observed, "to be making preparations against Zeppelins."

"Well, they cross here pretty often, you know," Griffiths reminded him. "It's only a matter of a few weeks ago that one almost came to grief on this common. We picked up their observation car not fifty yards from where you are sitting."

"I remember hearing about it," Lessingham acknowledged.

"By-the-by," the Commandant continued, smoothing his horse's neck, "didn't you arrive that evening or the evening after?"

"I believe I did."

"Liverpool Street or King's Cross? The King's Cross train was very nearly held up."

"I didn't come by train at all," Lessingham replied, glancing for a moment into the clouds, "And now I come to think of it, it must have been the evening after."

"Fine county for motoring," Griffiths continued, stroking his horse's head.

"The roads I have been on seem very good," was the somewhat bored admission.

"You haven't a car of your own here, have you?"

"Not at present."

Captain Griffiths glanced between his horse's ears for a few moments. Then he turned once more towards his companion.

"Mr. Lessingham," he said, "you are aware that I am Commandant here?"

"I believe," Lessingham replied, "that Lady Cranston told me so."

"It is my duty, therefore," Griffiths went on, "to take a little more than ordinary interest in casual visitors, especially at this time of the year. The fact that you are well-known to Lady Cranston is, of course, an entirely satisfactory explanation of your presence here. At the same time, there is certain information concerning strangers of which we keep a record, and in your case there is a line or two which we have not been able to fill up."

"If I can be of any service," Lessingham murmured.

"Precisely," the other interrupted. "I knew you would feel like that. Now your arrival here - we have the date, I think - October 6th. As you have just remarked, you didn't come by train. How did you come?"

Lessingham's surprise was apparently quite genuine.

"Is that a question which you ask me to answer- officially?" he enquired.

His interlocutor shrugged his shoulders.

"I am not putting official questions to you at all," he replied, "nor am I cross-examining you, as might be my duty, under the circumstances, simply because your friendship with the Cranstons is, of course, a guarantee as to your position. But on the other hand, I think it would be reasonable if you were to answer my question."

Lessingham nodded.

"Perhaps you are right," he admitted. "As you can tell by finding me here this afternoon, I am a great walker. I arrived - on foot."

"I see," Griffiths reflected. "The other question which we usually ask is, where was your last stopping place?"

"Stopping place?" Lessingham murmured.

"Yes, where did you sleep the night before you came here?" Griffiths persisted.

Lessingham shook his head as though oppressed by some distasteful memory.

"But I did not sleep at all," he complained. "It was one of the worst nights which I have ever spent in my life."

Captain Griffiths gathered up his reins.

"Well," he said with clumsy sarcasm, "I am much obliged to you, Mr. Lessingham, for the straight-forward way in which you have answered my questions. I won't bother you any more just at present. Shall I see you to-morrow night at Mainsail Haul?"

"Lady Cranston has asked me to dine," was the somewhat reserved reply.

His inquisitor nodded and cantered away. Lessingham looked after him until he had disappeared, then he turned his face towards Dreymarsh and walked steadily into the lowering afternoon. Twilight was falling as he reached Mainsail Haul, where he found Philippa entertaining some callers, to whom she promptly introduced him. Lessingham gathered, almost in the first few minutes, that his presence in Dreymarsh was becoming a subject of comment.

"My husband has played bridge with you at the club, I think," a lady by whose side he found himself observed. "You perhaps didn't hear my name - Mrs. Johnson?"

"I congratulate you upon your husband," Lessingham replied. "I remember him perfectly well because he kept his temper when I revoked."

"Dear me!" she exclaimed. "He must have taken a fancy to you, then. As a rule, they rather complain about him at bridge."

"I formed the impression," Lessingham continued, "that he was rather a better player than the majority of the performers there."

Mrs. Johnson, who was a dark and somewhat forbidding-looking lady, smiled.

"He thinks so, at any rate," she conceded. "Didn't he tell me that you were invalided home from the front?"

Lessingham shook his head.

"I am quite sure that it was not mentioned," he said. "We walked home together as far as the hotel one evening, but we spoke only of the golf and some shooting in the neighbourhood."

Philippa, who had been maneuvering to attract Lessingham's attention, suddenly dropped the cake basket which she was passing. There was a little commotion. Lessingham went down on his hands and knees to help collect the fragments, and she found an opportunity to whisper in his ear.

"Be careful. That woman is a cat. Stay and talk to me. Please don't bother, Mr. Lessingham. Won't you ring the bell instead?" she continued, raising her voice.

Lessingham did as he was asked, and affected not to notice Mrs. Johnson's inviting smile as he returned. Philippa made room for him by her side.

"Helen and I were talking this afternoon, Mr. Lessingham," she said, "of the days when you and Dick were both in the Magdalen Eleven and both had just a chance of being chosen for the Varsity. You never played, did you?"

He shook his head.

"No such luck. In any case, Richard would have been in well before me. I always maintained that he was the first of our googlie bowlers."

"So you were at Magdalen with Major Felstead?" another caller remarked in mild wonder.

"Mr. Lessingham and my brother were great friends," Philippa explained. "Mr. Lessingham used to come down to shoot in Cheshire."

Lady Cranston's guests were all conscious of a little indefinable disappointment. The gossip concerning this stranger's appearance in Dreymarsh was practically strangled. Mrs. Johnson, however, fired a parting shot as she rose to go.

"You were not in the same regiment as Major Felstead, were you, Mr. Lessingham?" she asked. "No," he answered calmly.

Philippa was busy with her adieux. Mrs. Johnson remained indomitable.

"What was your regiment, Mr. Lessingham?" she persisted. "You must forgive my seeming inquisitive, but I am so interested in military affairs."

Lessingham bowed courteously.

"I do not remember alluding to my soldiering at all," he said coolly, "but as a matter of fact I am in the Guards."

Mrs. Johnson accepted Philippa's hand and the inevitable. Her good-by to Lessingham was most affable. She walked up the road with the vicar.

"I think, Vicar," she said severely, "that for a small place, Dreymarsh is becoming one of the worst centres of gossip I ever knew. Every one has been saying all sorts of unkind things about that charming Mr. Lessingham, and there you are - Major Felstead's friend and a Guardsman! Somehow or other, I felt that he belonged to one of the crack regiments. I shall certainly ask him to dinner one night next week."

The vicar nodded benignly. He had the utmost respect for Mrs. Johnson's cook, and his own standard of social desirability, to which the object of their discussion had attained.

"I should be happy to meet Mr. Lessingham at any time," he pronounced, with ample condescension. I noticed him in church last Sunday morning."