The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Towards three o'clock on the following afternoon, the boisterous wind of an uncertain morning settled down to worse things. It tore the spray from the crest of the gathering waves, dashed it even against the French windows of Mainsail Haul, and came booming down the open spaces cliffwards, like the rumble of some subterranean artillery. A little group of fishermen in oilskins leaned over the railing and discussed the chances of Ben Oates bringing his boat in safely. Philippa, also, distracted by a curious anxiety, stood before the blurred window, gazing into what seemed almost a grey chaos. "Captain Griffiths, your ladyship."
She turned around quickly at the announcement. Even an unwelcome caller at that moment was almost a relief to her.
"How nice of you to come and see me on such an afternoon, Captain Griffiths," she exclaimed, as they shook hands. "Helen is over at the Canteen, Nora is hard at work for once in her life, and I seem most dolefully alone."
Her visitor's reception of Philippa's greeting promised little in the way of enlivenment. He seemed more awkward and ill at ease than ever, and his tone was almost threatening.
"I am very glad to find you alone, Lady Cranston," he said. "I came specially to have a few words with you on a certain matter."
Her momentary impulse of relief at his visit passed away. There seemed to her something sinister in his manner. She was suddenly conscious that there was a new danger to be faced, and that this man's attitude towards her was, for some reason or other, inimical. After the first shock, however, she prepared herself to do battle.
"Well, you seem very mysterious," she observed. "I haven't broken any laws, have I? No lights flashing from any of my windows?"
"So far as I am aware, there are no complaints of the sort," the Commandant acknowledged, still speaking with an unnatural restraint. "My call, I hope, may he termed, to some extent, at least, a friendly one."
"How nice!" she sighed. "Then you'll have some tea, won't you?"
"Not at present, if you please," he begged. "I have come to talk to you about Mr. Hamar Lessingham."
"Really?" Philippa exclaimed. "Whatever has that poor man been doing now."
"Dreymarsh," her visitor proceeded, "having been constituted, during the last few months, a protected area, it is my duty to examine and enquire into the business of any stranger who appears here. Mr. Hamar Lessingham has been largely accepted without comment, owing to his friendship with you. I regret to state, however, that certain facts have come to my knowledge which make me wonder whether you yourself may not in some measure have been deceived."
"This sounds very ridiculous," Philippa interposed quietly.
"A few weeks ago," Captain Griffith continued, "we received information that this neighbourhood would probably be visited by some person connected with the Secret Service of Germany. There is strong evidence that the person in question is Mr. Hamar Lessingham."
"A graduate of Magdalen, my brother's intimate friend, and a frequent visitor at my father's house in Cheshire," Philippa observed, with faint sarcasm.
"The possibility of your having made a mistake, Lady Cranston," Captain Griffiths rejoined, "has, I must confess, only just occurred to me. The authorities at Magdalen College have been appealed to, and no one of the name of Lessingham was there during any one of your brother's terms."
Philippa took the blow well. She simply stared at her caller in a noncomprehending manner.
"We have also information," he continued gravely, "from Wood Norton Hall - from your mother, in fact, Lady Cranston - that no college friend of your brother, of that name, has ever visited Wood Norton."
"Go on," Philippa begged, a little faintly. "Did I ever live there myself? Was Richard ever at Magdalen?"
Captain Griffiths proceeded with the air of a man who has a task to finish and intends to do so, regardless of interruptions.
"I have had some conversation with Mr. Lessingham, in the course of which I asked him to explain his method of reaching here, and his last habitation. He simply fenced with me in the most barefaced fashion. He practically declined to give me any account of himself."
Philippa rose and rang the bell.
"I suppose I must give you some tea," she said, "although you seem to have come here on purpose to make my head ache."
"My object in coming here," Captain Griffiths rejoined, a little stiffly, "is to save you some measure of personal annoyance."
"Oh, please don't think that I am ungrateful," Philippa begged. "Of course, it is all some absurd mistake, and I'm sure we shall get to the bottom of it presently - Tell me what you think of the storm?" she added, as Mills entered with the tea tray. "Do you think it will get any worse, because I am terrified to death already?"
"I am no judge of the weather here," he confessed. "I believe the fishermen are preparing for something unusual."
She seated herself before the tea tray and insisted upon performing her duties as hostess. Afterwards she laid her hand upon his arm and addressed him with an air of complete candour.
"Now, Captain Griffiths," she began, "do listen to me. Just one moment of common sense, if you please. What do you suppose there could possibly be in our harmless seaside village to induce any one to risk his life by coming here on behalf of the Secret Service of Germany?"
"Dreymarsh," Captain Griffiths replied, "was not made a prohibited area for nothing."
"But, my dear man, be reasonable," Philippa persisted. "There are perhaps a thousand soldiers in the place, the usual preparations along the cliff for coast defence, a small battery of anti-aircraft guns, and a couple of searchlights. There isn't a grocer's boy in the place who doesn't know all this. There's no concealment about it. You must admit that Germany doesn't need to send over a Secret Service agent to acquaint herself with these insignificant facts."
Her visitor smiled very faintly. It was the first time he had relaxed even so far as this.
"I am not in possession of any information which I can impart to you, Lady Cranston," he said, "but I am not prepared to accept your statement that Dreymarsh contains nothing of greater interest than the things which you have mentioned."
There was no necessity for Philippa to play a part now. The suggestion contained in her visitor's words had really left her in a state of wonder.
"You are making my flesh creep!" she exclaimed. "You don't mean to say that we have secrets here?"
"I have said the last word which it is possible for me to say upon the subject," he declared. "You will understand, I am sure, that I am not here in the character of an inquisitor. I simply thought it my duty, in view of the fact that you had made yourself the social sponsor for Mr. Lessingham, to place certain information before you, and to ask, unofficially, of course, if you have any explanation to give? You may even," he went on, hesitatingly, "appreciate the motives which led me to do so."
"My dear man, what explanation could I have?" Philippa protested, "it is an absolute and undeniable fact that Mr. Lessingham was at Magdalen with my brother, and also that he visited us at Wood Norton. I know both these things of my own knowledge. The only possible explanation, therefore, is that you have been misinformed."
"Or," Captain Griffiths ventured, "that Mr. Hamar Lessingham in those days passed under another name."
"Another name?" Philippa faltered.
"Some such name, perhaps," he continued, "as Bertram Maderstrom"
There was a short silence. Captain Griffiths had leaned back in his chair and was caressing his upper lip. His eyes were fixed upon Philippa and Philippa saw nothing. Her little heel dug hard into the carpet. In a few seconds the room ceased to spin. Nevertheless, her voice sounded to her pitifully inadequate.
"What an absurdity all this is!" she exclaimed.
"Maderstrom," Captain Griffiths said thoughtfully, "was, curiously enough, an intimate college friend of your brother's. He was also a visitor at Wood Norton Hall. At neither place is there any trace of Mr. Hamar Lessingham. Perhaps you have made a mistake, Lady Cranston. Perhaps you have recognised the man and failed to remember his name. If so, now is the moment. to declare it."
"I am very much obliged to you," Philippa retorted, "but I have never met or heard of this Mr. Maderstrom - "
"Baron Maderstrom," he interrupted.
"Baron Maderstrom, then, in my life; whereas Mr. Lessingham I remember perfectly."
"I am sorry," Captain Griffiths said, setting down his empty teacup and rising slowly to his feet. "We cannot help one another, then."
"If you want me to transfer Mr. Lessingham, whom I remember perfectly, into a German baron whom I never heard of," Philippa declared boldly, "I am afraid that we can't."
"Baron Maderstrom was a Swedish nobleman," Captain Griffiths observed.
"Swedish or German, I know nothing of him," Philippa persisted.
"There remains, then, nothing more to be said."
"I am afraid not," Philippa agreed sweetly.
"Under the circumstances," Captain Griffiths asked, "you will not, I am sure, expect me to dine to-night"
"Not if you object to meeting Mr. Hamar Lessingham," Philippa replied.
Her visitor's face suddenly darkened, and Philippa wondered vaguely whether anything more than professional suspicion was responsible for that little storm of passion which for a moment transformed his appearance. He quickly recovered, however.
"I may still," he concluded, moving towards the door, "be forced to present myself here in another capacity."