Chapter XXIV
 

Philippa, even for some moments after the departure of Captain Griffiths and his myrmidons, remained in a sort of nerveless trance. The crisis, with its bewildering denouement, had affected her curiously. Lessingham rose presently to his feet.

"I wonder," he asked, "if I could have a whisky and soda?"

She stamped her foot at him in a little fit of hysterical passion.

"You're not natural!" she cried. "Whisky and soda!"

"Well, I don't know," he protested mildly, helping himself from the table in the background. "I rather thought I was being particularly British. When in doubt, take a drink. That is Richard all the world over, you know."

She broke into a little mirthless laugh.

"I shall begin to think that you are a poseur!" she exclaimed.

He crossed the room towards her.

"Perhaps I am, dear," he confessed. "I want you just to sit up and lose that unnatural look. I am not really full of cheap bravado, but I am a philosopher. Something has happened to postpone - the end. Good luck to it, I say!"

He raised his tumbler to his lips and set it down empty. Philippa rose to her feet and walked restlessly to the window and back.

"I'll try and be reasonable too," she promised, resuming her seat. "I was right, you see. Captain Griffiths has discovered everything. Can you tell me what possible reason any one in London could have had for interference?"

"I seem to have got a friend up there without knowing it, don't I?" he observed.

"This is aging me terribly," Philippa declared, throwing herself back into her seat. "All my life I have hated mysteries. Here I am face to face with two absolutely insoluble ones. Captain Griffiths has assured me that there is here in Dreymarsh something of sufficient importance to account for the presence of a foreign spy. You have confirmed it. I have been torturing my brain about that for the last twenty-four hours. Now there happens something more inexplicable still. You are arrested, and you are not arrested. Your identity is known, and Captain Griffiths is forbidden to do his duty."

"It seems puzzling, does it not?" Lessingham agreed. "I shouldn't worry about the first, but this last little episode takes some explaining."

"If anything further happens this evening, I think I shall go mad," Philippa sighed.

"And something is going to happen," Lessingham declared, rising to his feet. "Did you hear that?"

Above even the roar of the wind they heard the brazen report of a gun from almost underneath the window. The room was suddenly lightened by a single vivid flash.

"A mortar!" Lessingham exclaimed. "And that was a rocket, unless I'm mistaken."

"The signal for the lifeboat!" Philippa announced. "I wonder if we can see anything."

She hastened towards the window, but paused at the abrupt opening of the door. Nora burst in, followed more sedately by Helen.

"Mummy, there's a wreck!" the former cried in excitement. "I heard something an hour ago, and I got up, and I've been sitting by the window, watching. I saw the lifeboat go out, and they're signalling now for the other one."

"It's quite true, Philippa," Helen declared. "We're going to try and fight our way down to the beach."

"I'll go, too, " Lessingham decided. "Perhaps I may be of use."

"We'll all go," Philippa agreed. "Wait while I get my things on. What is it, Mills?" she added, as the door opened and the latter presented himself.

"There is a trawler on the rocks just off the breakwater, your ladyship," he announced. "They have just sent up from the beach to know if we can take some of the crew in. They are landing them as well as they can on the line."

"Of course we can," was the prompt reply. "Tell them to send as many as they want to. We will find room for them, somehow. I'll go upstairs and see about the fires. You'll all come back?" she added, turning around.

"We will all come back," Lessingham promised.

They fought their way down to the beach. At first the storm completely deafened all sound. The lanterns, waved here and there by unseen hands, seemed part of some ghostly tableau, of which the only background was the raging of the storm. Then suddenly, with a startling hiss, another rocket clove its way through the darkness. They had an instantaneous but brilliant view of all that was happening, - saw the trawler lying on its side, apparently only a few yards from the shore, saw the line stretched to the beach, on which, even at that moment, a man was being drawn ashore, licked by the spray, his strained face and wind-tossed hair clearly visible. Then all was darkness again more complete than ever. They struggled down on to the shingle, where the little cluster of fishermen were hard at work with the line. Almost the first person they ran across was Jimmy Dumble. He was standing on the edge of the breakwater with a great lantern in his hand, superintending the line, and, as they drew near, Lessingham, who was a little in advance, could hear his voice above the storm. He was shouting towards the wreck, his hand to his mouth.

"Send the master over next, you lubbers, or we'll cut the line. Do you hear?"

There was no reply or, if there was, it was drowned in the wind. Lessingham gripped the fisherman by the arm.

"Whom do you mean by 'master'?" he demanded. Dumble scarcely glanced at his interlocutor.

"Why, Sir Henry Cranston, to be sure," was the agitated answer. "These lubbers of sea hands are all coming off first, and the line won't stand for more than another one or two," he added, dropping his voice.

Then the thrill of those few minutes' excitement unrolled itself into a great drama before Lessingham's eyes. Sir Henry was on that ship as near as any man might wish to be to death.

"'Ere's the next," Jimmy muttered, as they turned the windlass vigorously. "Gosh, 'e's a heavy one, too!"

Then came a cry which sounded like a moan and above it the shrill fearful yell of a man who feels himself dropping out of the world's hearing. Lessingham raised the lantern which stood on the beach by Jimmy's side. The line had broken. The body of its suspended traveller had disappeared! And just then, strangely enough, for the first time for over an hour, the heavens opened in one great sheet of lightning, and they could see the figure of one man left on the ship, clinging desperately to the rigging.

"Tie the line around me," Jimmy shouted. "Let her go. Get the other end on the windlass."

They paid out the rope through their hands. Jimmy kicked off his boots and plunged into the cauldron. He swam barely a dozen strokes before he was caught on the top of an incoming wave, tossed about like a cork and flung back upon the beach, where he lay groaning. There was a little murmur amongst the fisherman, who rushed to lean over him,

"Swimming ain't no more use than trying to walk on the water," one of them declared.

Lessingham raised the lantern which he was carrying, and flashed it around.

"Where are the young ladies ?" he asked.

"Gone up to the house with two as we've just taken off the wreck," some one informed him.

Lessingham stooped down. Willing hands helped him unfasten the cord from Jimmy's waist. He tore off his own coat and waistcoat and boots. Some helped, other sought to dissuade him, as he secured the line around his own waist.

"We've sent for more rockets," one man shouted in his ear. "The man will be back in half an hour."

Lessingham pushed them on one side. He stood on the edge of the beach and, borrowing a lantern, watched for his opportunity. Then suddenly he vanished. They looked after him. They could see nothing but the rope slipping past their feet, inch by inch. Sometimes it was stationary, sometimes it was drawn taut. The first great wave that came flung a yard or so of slack amongst them. Then, after the roar of its breaking had died away, they saw the rope suddenly tighten, and pass rapidly out, and the excitement began to thicken.

"That 'un didn't get him, anyway," one of them muttered.

"He'll go through the next, with luck," another declared hopefully.

Lessingham, fighting for his consciousness, deafened and half stunned by the roar of the waters about him, still felt the exhilaration of that great struggle. He looked once into seas which seemed to touch the clouds, drew himself stiff, and plunged into the depths of a mountain of foaming waters, whose summit seemed to him like one of those grotesque and nightmare-distorted efforts of the opium-eating brain. Then the roar sounded all behind him, and he knew that he was through the breakers. He swam to the side of the ship and clutched hold of a chain. It was Sir Henry's out-stretched hand which pulled him on to the deck.

"My God, that was a swim!" the latter declared, as he pulled his rescuer up, not in the least recognising him. "Let's have the end of that cord, quick! So!" he went on, paying it out through his fingers until the end of the rope appeared. "You'd better get your breath, young man, and then over you go. I'll follow."

"I'm damned if I do!" was the vigorous reply. "You start off while I get my breath."

They were suddenly half drowned with a shower of spray. Sir Henry held Lessingham in a grip of iron, or he would have been swept overboard.

"Get one arm through the chains, man," he shouted. "My God!" he added, peering through the gloom. "Lessingham!"

"Well, don't stop to worry about that," was the fierce reply. "Let's get on with our job."

Sir Henry threw off his oilskins and his underneath coat.

"Follow me when they wave the lantern twice," he directed. "If we either of us get the knock - well, thanks!"

Lessingham felt the grip of Sir Henry's hand as he passed him and went overboard into the darkness. Then, with one arm through the chains, he drew towards him by means of his heel the coat which Sir Henry had thrown upon the deck. Gradually it came within reach of his disengaged hand. He seized it, shook it out, and dived eagerly into the breast pocket. There were several small articles which he threw ruthlessly away, and then a square packet, wrapped in oilcloth, which bent to his fingers. Another breaking wave threw him on his back. One arm was still through the chain, the other gripped what some illuminating instinct had already convinced him was the chart! As soon as he had recovered his breath, a grim effort of humour parted his lips. He lay there for a moment and laughed till the spray, this time with a rush of green water underneath, very nearly swept him from his place.

They were waving a lantern on the beach when he struggled again to his feet.

He slipped the little packet down his clothes next to his skin, and groped about to find the end of the line which Sir Henry and he had fastened to a staple below the chains. Then he drew a long breath, gripped the rope and shouted. A second or two later he was back in the cauldron.

As they pulled him on to the beach, he had but one idea. Whatever happened, he must not lose consciousness. The packet was still there against the calf of his leg. It must be his own hands which removed his clothes. It seemed to him that those few bronzed faces, those half a dozen rude lanterns, had become magnified and multiplied a hundredfold. It was an army of blue-jerseyed fishermen which patted him on the back and welcomed him, lanterns like the stars flashing everywhere around. He set his teeth and fought against the buzzing in his ears. He tried to speak, and his voice sounded like a weak, far away whisper.

"I am all right," he kept on saying.

Then he felt himself leaning on two brawny arms. His feet followed the mesmeric influence of their movement. Was he going into the clouds, he wondered? They stopped to open a gate, the gate leading to the gardens of Mainsail Haul. How did he get there? He had no idea. More movements of his feet, and then unexpected warmth. He looked around him. There were voices. He listened. The one voice? The one face bending over his, her eyes wet with tears, her whispers an incoherent stream of broken words. Then the warmth seemed to come back to his veins. He sat up and found himself on the couch in the library, the rain dripping from him in little pools, and he knew that he had succeeded. He had not fainted.

"I am all right," he repeated. "What a mess I am making!"

The voices around him were still a little tangled, but the hand which held a steaming tumbler to his lips was Philippa's.

"Drink it all," she begged.

He felt the tears come into his eyes, felt the warm blood streaming through his body, felt a little wet patch at the back of the calf of his leg, and the hand which set down the empty tumbler was almost steady.

"There's a hot bath ready," Philippa told him; "some dry clothes, and a bedroom with a fire in. Do let Mills show you the way."

He rose at once, prepared to follow her. His feet were not quite so steady as he would have wished, but be made a very presentable show. Mills, with a little apology, held out his arm. Philippa walked by his other side.

"As soon as you have finished your bath and got into some dry clothes," Philippa whispered, "please ring, or send Mills to let us know."

He was even able to smile at her.

"I am quite all right," he assured her once more.