Chapter XXV
 

Philippa, unusually early on the following morning, glanced at the empty breakfast table with a little air of disappointment, and rang the bell.

"Mills," she enquired, "is no one down?"

"Sir Henry is, I believe, on the beach, your ladyship," the man answered, "and Miss Helen and Miss Nora are with him."

"And Mr. Lessingham?"

"Mr. Lessingham, your ladyship," Mills continued, looking carefully behind him as though to be sure that the door was closed, "has disappeared."

"Disappeared?" Philippa repeated. "What do you mean, Mills?"

"I left Mr. Lessingham last night, your ladyship," Mills explained, "in a suit of the master's clothes and apparently preparing for bed - I should say this morning, as it was probably about two o'clock. I called him at half past eight, as desired, and found the room empty. The bed had not been slept in."

"Was there no note or message?" Philippa asked incredulously.

"Nothing, your ladyship. One of the maid servants believes that she heard the front door open at five o'clock this morning."

"Ring up the hotel," Philippa instructed," and see if he is there."

Mills departed to execute his commission. Philippa stood looking out of the window, across the lawn and shrubbery and down on to the beach. There was still a heavy sea, but it was merely the swell from the day before. The wind had dropped, and the sun was shining brilliantly. Sir Henry, Helen, and Nora were strolling about the beach as though searching for something. About fifty yards out, the wrecked trawler was lying completely on its side, with the end of one funnel visible. Scattered groups of the villagers were examining it from the sands. In due course Mills returned.

"The hotel people know nothing of Mr. Lessingham, your ladyship, beyond the fact that he did not return last night. They received a message from Hill's Garage, however, about half an hour ago, to say that their mechanic had driven Mr. Lessingham early this morning to Norwich, where he had caught the mail train to London, The boy was to say that Mr. Lessingham would be back in a day or so."

Philippa pushed open the windows and made her way down towards the beach. She leaned over the rail of the promenade and waved her hand to the others, who clambered up the shingle to meet her.

"Scarcely seen you yet, my dear, have I?" Sir Henry observed.

He stooped and kissed her forehead, a salute which she suffered without response. Helen pointed to the wreck.

"It doesn't seem possible, does it," she said, " that men's lives should have been lost in that little space. Two men were drowned, they say, through the breaking of the rope. They recovered the bodies this morning."

"Everything else seems to have been washed on shore except my coat," Sir Henry grumbled. "I was down here at daylight, looking for it."

"Your coat!" Philippa repeated scornfully. "Fancy thinking of that, when you only just escaped with your life!"

"But to tell you the truth, my dear," Sir Henry explained, "my pocketbook and papers of some value were in the pocket of that coat. I can't think how I came to forget them. I think it was the surprise of seeing that fellow Lessingham crawl on to the wreck looking like a drowned rat. Jove, what a pluck he must have!"

"The fishermen can talk of nothing else," Nora put in excitedly. "Mummy, it was simply splendid! Helen and I had gone up with two of the rescued men, but I got back just in time to see them fasten the rope round his waist and watch him plunge in."

"How is he this morning? " Helen asked.

"Gone," Philippa replied.

They all looked at her in surprise.

"Gone?" Sir Henry repeated. "What, back to the hotel, do you mean?"

"His bed has not been slept in," Philippa told them. "He must have slipped away early this morning, gone to Hill's Garage, hired a car, and motored to Norwich. From there he went on to London. He has sent word that he will be back in a few days."

"I hope to God he won't!" Sir Henry muttered.

Philippa swung round upon him.

"What do you mean by that?" she demanded. "Don't you want to thank him for saving your life?"

"My dear, I certainly do," Sir Henry replied, "but just now - well, I am a little taken aback. Gone to London, eh? Tore away without warning in the middle of the night to London! And coming back, too - that's the strange part of it!"

One would think, from Sir Henry's expression, that he was finding food for much satisfaction in this recital of Lessingham's sudden disappearance.

"He is a wonderful fellow, this Lessingham," he added thoughtfully. "He must have - yes, by God, he must have - In that storm, too!"

"If you could speak coherently, Henry," Philippa observed, "I should like to say that I am exceedingly anxious to know why Mr. Lessingham has deserted us so precipitately."

Sir Henry would have taken his wife's arm, but she avoided him. He shrugged his shoulders and plodded up the steep path by her side.

"The whole question of Lessingham is rather a problem," he said. "Of course, you and Helen have seen very much more of him than I have. Isn't it true that people have begun to make curious remarks about him?"

"How did you know that, Henry?" Philippa demanded.

"Well, one hears things," he replied. "I should gather, from what I heard, that his position here had become a little precarious. Hence his sudden disappearance."

"But he is coming back again," Philippa reminded her husband.

"Perhaps!"

Philippa signified her desire that her husband should remain a little behind with her. They walked side by side up the gravel path. Philippa kept her hands clasped behind her.

"To leave the subject of Mr. Lessingham for a time," she began, "I feel very reluctant to ask for explanations of anything you do, but I must confess to a certain curiosity as to why I should find you lunching at the Canton with two very beautiful ladies, a few days ago, when you left here with Jimmy Dumble to fish for whiting; and also why you return here on a trawler which belongs to another part of the coast?"

Sir Henry made a grimace.

"I was beginning to wonder whether curiosity was dead," he observed good-humouredly. "If you wouldn't mind giving me another - well, to be on the safe side let us say eight days - I think I shall be able to offer you an explanation which you will consider satisfactory."

"Thank you," Philippa rejoined, with cold surprise; "I see no reason why you should not answer such simple questions at once."

Sir Henry sighed deprecatingly, and made another vain attempt to take his wife's arm.

"Philippa, be a little brick," he begged. "I know I seem to have been playing the part of a fool just lately, but there has been a sort of reason for it."

"What reason could there possibly be," she demanded, "which you could not confide in me?"

He was silent for a moment. When he spoke again there was a new earnestness in his tone.

"Philippa," he said, "I have been working for some time at a little scheme which isn't ripe to talk about yet, not even to you, but which may lead to something which I hope will alter your opinion. You couldn't see your way clear to trust me a little longer, could you?" he begged, with rather a plaintive gleam in his blue eyes. "It would make it so much easier for me to say no more but just have you sit tight."

"I wonder," she answered coldly, "if you realise how much I have suffered, sitting tight, as you call it, and waiting for you to do something!"

"My fishing excursions," he went on desperately, "have not been altogether a matter of sport."

"I know that quite well," she replied. "You have been making that chart you promised your miserable fishermen. None of those things interest me, Henry. I fear - I am very much inclined to say that none of your doings interest me. Least of all," she went on, her voice quivering with passion, "do I appreciate in the least these mysterious appeals for my patience. I have some common sense, Henry."

"You're a suspicious little beast," he told her.

"Suspicious!" she scoffed. "What a word to use from a man who goes off fishing for whiting, and is lunching at the Carlton, some days afterwards, with two ladies of extraordinary attractions!"

"That was a trifle awkward," Sir Henry admitted, with a little burst of candour, "but it goes in with the rest, Philippa."

"Then it can stay with the rest," she retorted, "exactly where I have placed it in my mind. Please understand me. Your conduct for the last twelve months absolves me from any tie there may be between us. If this explanation that you promise comes - in time, and I feel like it, very well. Until it does, I am perfectly free, and you, as my husband, are non-existent. That is my reply, Henry, to your request for further indulgence."

"Rather a foolish one, my dear," he answered, patting her shoulder, "but then you are rather a child, aren't you?"

She swung away from him angrily.

"Don't touch me!" she exclaimed. "I mean every word of what I have said. As for my being a child - well, you may be sorry some day that you have persisted in treating me like one."

Sir Henry paused for a moment, watching her disappearing figure. There was an unusual shade of trouble in his face. His love for and confidence in his wife had been so absolute that even her threats had seemed to him like little morsels of wounded vanity thrown to him out of the froth of her temper. Yet at that moment a darker thought crossed his mind. Lessingham, he realised, was not a rival, after all, to be despised. He was a man of courage and tact, even though Sir Henry, in his own mind, had labelled him as a fool. If indeed he were coming back to Dreymarsh, what could it be for? How much had Philippa known about him? He stood there for a few moments in indecision. A great impulse had come to him to break his pledge, to tell her the truth. Then he made his disturbed way into the breakfast room.

"Where's your mother, Nora?" he asked, as Helen took Philippa's place at the head of the table.

"She wants some coffee and toast sent up to her room." Nora explained. "The wind made her giddy."

Sir Henry breakfasted in silence, rang the bell, and ordered his car.

"You going away again, Daddy? " Nora asked.

"I am going to London this morning," he replied, a little absently.

"To London?" Helen repeated. "Does Philippa know?"

"I haven't told her yet."

Helen turned towards Nora.

"I wish you'd run up and see if your mother wants any more coffee, there's a dear," she suggested.

Nora acquiesced at once. As soon as she had left the room, Helen leaned over and laid her hand upon Sir Henry's arm.

"Don't go to London, Henry," she begged.

"But my dear Helen, I must," he replied, a little curtly.

"I wouldn't if I were you," she persisted. "You know, you've tried Philippa very high lately, and she is in an extremely emotional state. She is all worked up about last night, and I wouldn't leave her alone if I were you."

Sir Henry's blue eyes seemed suddenly like points of steel as he leaned towards her.

"You think that she is in love with that fellow Lessingham?" he asked bluntly.

"No, I don't," Helen replied, "but I think she is more furious with you than you believe. For months you have acted - well, how shall I say?"

"Oh, like a coward, if you like, or a fool. Go on."

"She has asked for explanations to which she is perfectly entitled," Helen continued, "and you have given her none. You have treated her like something between a doll and a child. Philippa is as good and sweet as any woman who ever lived, but hasn't it ever occurred to you that women are rather mysterious beings? They may sometimes do, out of a furious sense of being wrongly treated, out of a sort of aggravated pique, what they would never do for any other reason. If you must go, come back to-night, Henry. Come back, and if you are obstinate, and won't tell Philippa all that she has a right to know, tell her about that luncheon in town."

Sir Henry frowned.

"It's all very well, you know, Helen," he said, "but a woman ought to trust her husband."

"I am your friend, remember," Helen replied, "and upon my word, I couldn't trust and believe even in Dick, if he behaved as you have done for the last twelve months."

Sir Henry made a grimace.

"Well, that settles it, I suppose, then," he observed. "I'll have one more try and see what I can do with Philippa. Perhaps a hint of what's going on may satisfy her."

He climbed the stairs, meeting Nora on her way down, and knocked at his wife's door. There was no reply. He tried the handle and found the door locked.

"Are you there, Philippa?" he asked.

"Yes!" she replied coldly.

"I am going to London this morning. Can I have a few words with you first?"

"No!"

Sir Henry was a little taken aback.

"Don't be silly, Philippa," he persisted. "I may be away for four or five days."

There was no answer. Sir Henry suddenly remembered another entrance from a newly added bathroom. He availed himself of it and found Philippa seated in an easy-chair, calmly progressing with her breakfast. She raised her eyebrows at his entrance.

"These are my apartments," she reminded him.

"Don't be a little fool," he exclaimed impatiently.

Philippa deliberately buttered herself a piece of toast, picked up her book, and became at once immersed in it.

"You don't wish to talk to me, then?" he demanded.

"I do not," she agreed. "You have had all the opportunities which any man should need, of explaining certain matters to me. My curiosity in them has ended; also my interest - in you. You say you are going to London. Very well. Pray do not hurry home on my account."

Sir Henry, as he turned to leave the room, made the common mistake of a man arguing with a woman - he attempted to have the last word.

"Perhaps I am better out of the way, eh?"

"Perhaps so," Philippa assented sweetly.