The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
The woman who paused for a moment upon the threshold of the library, looking in upon the little company, was undeniably beautiful. She had masses of red-gold hair, a little disordered by her long railway journey, deep-set hazel eyes, a delicate, almost porcelain-like complexion, and a sensitive, delightfully shaped mouth. Her figure was small and dainty, and just at that moment she had an appearance of helplessness which was almost childlike. Nora, after a vigorous embrace, led her stepmother towards a chair.
"Come and sit by the fire, Mummy," she begged. "You look tired and cold."
Philippa exchanged a general salutation with her guests. She was still wearing her travelling coat, and her air of fatigue was unmistakable. Griffiths, who had not taken his eyes off her since her entrance, wheeled an easy-chair towards the hearth-rug, into which she sank with a murmured word of thanks.
"You'll have some tea, won't you, dear?" Helen enquired.
Philippa shook her head. Her eyes met her friend's for a moment - it was only a very brief glance, but the tragedy of some mutual sorrow seemed curiously revealed in that unspoken question and answer. The two young subalterns prepared to take their leave. Nora, kneeling down, stroked her stepmother's hand.
"No news at all, then?" Helen faltered.
"None," was the weary reply.
"Any amount of news here, Mummy," Nora intervened cheerfully, "and heaps of excitement. We had a Zeppelin over Dutchman's Common last night, and she lost her observation car. Mr. Somerfield took me up there this afternoon, and I found a German hat. No one else got a thing, and, would you believe it, those children over there tried to take it away from me."
Her stepmother smiled faintly.
"I expect you are keeping the hat, dear," she observed.
"I should say so!" Nora assented.
Philippa held out her hand to the two young men who had been waiting to take their leave.
"You must come and dine one night this week, both of you," she said. "My husband will be home by the later train this evening, and I'm sure he will be glad to have you."
"Very kind of you, Lady Cranston, we shall be delighted," Harrison declared.
"Rather!" his companion echoed.
Nora led them away, and Helen, with a word of excuse, followed them. Griffiths, who had also risen to his feet, came a little nearer to Philippa's chair.
"And you, too, of course, Captain Griffiths," she said, smiling pleasantly up at him. "Must you hurry away?"
"I will stay, if I may, until Miss Fairclough returns," he answered, resuming his seat.
"Do!" Philippa begged him. "I have had such a miserable time in town. You can't think how restful it is to be back here."
"I am afraid," he observed, "that your journey has not been successful."
Philippa shook her head.
"It has been completely unsuccessful," she sighed. "I have not been able to hear a word about my brother. I am so sorry for poor Helen, too. They were only engaged, you know, a few days before he left for the front this last time."
Captain Griffiths nodded sympathetically.
"I never met Major Felstead," he remarked, "but every one who has seems to like him very much. He was doing so well, too, up to that last unfortunate affair, wasn't he?"
"Dick is a dear," Philippa declared. "I never knew any one with so many friends. He would have been commanding his battalion now, if only he were free. His colonel wrote and told me so himself."
"I wish there were something I could do," Griffiths murmured, a little awkwardly. "It hurts me, Lady Cranston, to see you so upset."
She looked at him for a moment in faint surprise.
"Nobody can do anything," she bemoaned. "That is the unfortunate part of it all."
He rose to his feet and was immediately conscious, as he always was when he stood up, that there was a foot or two of his figure which he had no idea what to do with.
"You wouldn't feel like a ride to-morrow morning, Lady Cranston?" he asked, with a wistfulness which seemed somehow stifled in his rather unpleasant voice. She shook her head.
"Perhaps one morning later," she replied, a little vaguely. "I haven't any heart for anything just now."
He took a sombre but agitated leave of his hostess, and went out into the twilight, cursing his lack of ease, remembering the things which he had meant to say, and hating himself for having forgotten them. Philippa, to whom his departure had been, as it always was, a relief, was already leaning forward in her chair with her arm around Helen's neck.
"I thought that extraordinary man would never go," she exclaimed, "and I was longing to send for you, Helen. London has been such a dreary chapter of disappointments."
"What a sickening time you must have had, dear!"
"It was horrid," Philippa assented sadly, "but you know Henry is no use at all, and I should have felt miserable unless I had gone. I have been to every friend at the War Office, and every friend who has friends there. I have made every sort of enquiry, and I know just as much now as I did when I left here - that Richard was a prisoner at Wittenberg the last time they heard, and that they have received no notification whatever concerning him for the last two months.
Helen glanced at the calendar.
"It is just two months to-day," she said mournfully, "since we heard."
"And then," Philippa sighed, "he hadn't received a single one of our parcels."
Helen rose suddenly to her feet. She was a tall, fair girl of the best Saxon type, slim but not in the least angular, with every promise, indeed, of a fuller and more gracious development in the years to come. She was barely twenty-two years old, and, as is common with girls of her complexion, seemed younger. Her bright, intelligent face was, above all, good-humoured. Just at that moment, however, there was a flush of passionate anger in her cheeks.
"It makes me feel almost beside myself," she exclaimed, "this hideous incapacity for doing anything! Here we are living in luxury, without a single privation, whilst Dick, the dearest thing on earth to both of us, is being starved and goaded to death in a foul German prison!"
"We mustn't believe that it's quite so bad as that, dear," Philippa remonstrated. "What is it, Mills?"
The elderly man-servant who had entered with a tray in his band, bowed as he arranged it upon a side table.
"I have taken the liberty of bringing in a little fresh tea, your ladyship," he announced, "and some hot buttered toast. Cook has sent some of the sandwiches, too, which your ladyship generally fancies."
"It is very kind of you, Mills," Philippa said, with rather a wan little smile. "I had some tea at South Lynn, but it was very bad. You might take my coat, please."
She stood up, and the heavy fur coat slipped easily away from her slim, elegant little body.
"Shall I light up, your ladyship?" Mills enquired.
"You might light a lamp," Philippa directed, "but don't draw the blinds until lighting-up time. After the noise of London," she went on, turning to Helen, "I always think that the faint sound of the sea is so restful."
The man moved noiselessly about the room and returned once more to his mistress.
"We should be glad to hear, your ladyship," he said, "if there is any news of Major Felstead?" Philippa shook her head.
"None at all, I am sorry to say, Mills! Still, we must hope for the best. I dare say that some of these camps are not so bad as we imagine."
"We must hope not, your ladyship," was the somewhat dismal reply. "Shall I fasten the windows?"
"You can leave them until you draw the blinds, Mills," Philippa directed. "I am not at home, if any one should call. See that we are undisturbed for a little time."
"Very good, your ladyship."
The door was closed, and the two women were once more alone. Philippa held out her arms.
"Helen, darling, come and be nice to me," she begged. "Let us both pretend that no news is good news. Oh, I know what you are suffering, but remember that even if Dick is your lover, he is my dear, only brother - my twin brother, too. We have been so much to each other all our lives. He'll stick it out, dear, if any human being can. We shall have him back with us some day."
"But he is hungry," Helen sobbed. "I can't bear to think of his being hungry. Every time I sit down to eat, it almost chokes me."
"I suppose he has forgotten what a whisky and soda is like," Philippa murmured, with a little catch in her own throat.
"He always used to love one about this time," Helen faltered, glancing at the clock.
"And cigarettes!" Philippa exclaimed. "I wonder whether they give him anything to smoke."
"Nasty German tobacco, if they do," Helen rejoined indignantly. "And to think that I have sent him at least six hundred of his favourite Egyptians!"
She fell once more on her knees by her friend's side. Their arms were intertwined, their cheeks touching. One of those strange, feminine silences of acute sympathy seemed to hold them for a while under its thrall. Then, almost at the same moment, a queer awakening came for both of them. Helen's arm was stiffened. Philippa turned her head, but her eyes were filled with incredulous fear. A little current of cool air was blowing through the room. The French windows stood half open, and with his back to them, a man who had apparently entered the room from the gardens and passed noiselessly across the soft carpet, was standing by the door, listening. They heard him turn the key. Then, in a businesslike manner, he returned to the windows and closed them, the eyes of the two women following him all the time. Satisfied. apparently, with his precautions, he turned towards them just as an expression of indignant enquiry broke from Philippa's lips. Helen sprang to her feet, and Philippa gripped the sides of her chair. The newcomer advanced a few steps nearer to them.