Chapter XXVI
 

Philippa, late that afternoon, found what she sought - solitude. She had walked along the sands until Dreymarsh lay out of sight on the other side of a spur of the cliffs. Before her stretched a long and level plain, a fringe of sand, and a belt of shingly beach. There was not a sign of any human being in sight, and of buildings only a quaint tower on the far horizon.

She found a dry place on the pebbles, removed her hat and sat down, her hands clasped around her knees, her eyes turned seaward. She had come out here to think, but it was odd how fugitive and transient her thoughts became. Her husband was always there in the background, but in those moments it was Lessingham who was the predominant figure. She remembered his earnestness, his tender solicitude for her, the courage which, when necessity demanded, had flamed up in him, a born and natural quality. She remembered the agony of those few minutes on the preceding day, when nothing but what still seemed a miracle had saved him. At one moment she felt herself inclined to pray that he might never come back. At another, her heart ached to see him once more. She knew so well that if he came it would be for her sake, that he would come to ask her finally the question with which she had fenced. She knew, too, that his coming would be the moment of her life. She was so much of a woman, and the passionate craving of her sex to give love for love was there in her heart, almost omnipotent. And in the background there was that bitter desire to bring suffering upon the man who had treated her like a child, who had placed her in a false position with all other women, who had dawdled and idled away his days, heedless of his duty, heedless of every serious obligation. When she tried to reason, her way seemed so clear, and yet, behind it all, there was that cold impulse of almost Victorian prudishness, the inheritance of a long line of virtuous women, a prudishness which she had once, when she had believed that it was part of her second nature, scoffed at as being the outcome of one of the finer forms of selfishness.

She told herself that she had come there to decide, and decision came no nearer to her. A late afternoon star shone weakly in the sky. A faint, vaporous mist obscured the horizon and floated in tangled wreaths upon the face of the sea. Only that line of sand seemed still clear-cut and distinct, and as she glanced along it her eyes were held by something approaching, something which seemed at first nothing but a black, moving speck, then gradually resolved itself into the semblance of a man on horseback, galloping furiously. She watched him as he drew nearer and nearer, the sand flying from his horse's hoofs, his figure motionless, his eyes apparently fixed upon some distant spot. It was not until he had come within fifty yards of her that she recognised him. His horse shied at the sight of her and was suddenly swung round with a powerful wrist. Little specks of sand, churned up in the momentary stampede of hoofs, fell upon her skirt. For the rest, she watched the struggle composedly, a struggle which was over almost as soon as it was begun. Captain Griffiths leaned down from his trembling but subdued horse.

"Lady Cranston!" he exclaimed in astonishment.

"That's me," she replied, smiling up at him. "Have you been riding off your bad temper?"

He glanced down at his horse's quivering sides. Back as far as one could see there was that regular line of hoof marks.

"Am I bad-tempered?" he asked.

"Well," she observed, "I don't know you well enough to answer that question. I was simply thinking of yesterday evening."

He slipped from his horse and stood before her. His long, severe face had seldom seemed more malevolent.

"I had enough to make me bad-tempered," he declared. "I had tracked down a German spy, step by step, until I had him there, waiting for arrest - expecting it, even - and then I got that wicked message."

"What was that wicked message after all?" she enquired.

"That doesn't matter," he answered. "It was from a quarter where they ought to know better, and it ordered me to make no arrest. I have sent to the War Office to-day a full report, and I am praying that they may change their minds."

Philippa sighed.

"If you hadn't received that telegram last night," she observed, "it seems to me that I should have been a widow to-day."

He frowned, and struck his boot heavily with his riding whip.

"Yes, I heard of that," he admitted. "I dare say if he hadn't gone, though, some one else would."

"Would you have gone if you had been there?" she asked.

"If you had told me to," he replied, looking at her steadfastly.

Philippa felt a little shiver. There was something ominous in the intensity of his gaze and the meaning which he had contrived to impart to his tone. She rose to her feet.

"Well," she said, "don't let me keep you here. I am getting cold."

He passed his arm through the bridle of his horse. "I will walk with you, if I may," he proposed. She made no reply, and they set their faces homewards.

"I hear Lessingham has left the place," he remarked, a little abruptly.

"Oh, I expect he'll come back," Philippa replied.

"How long is it, Lady Cranston, since you took to consorting with German spies? "he asked.

"Don't be foolish - or impertinent," she enjoined. "You are making a ridiculous mistake about Mr. Lessingham."

He laughed unpleasantly.

"No need for us to fence," he said. "You and I know who he is. What I do want to know, what I have been wondering all the way from the point there - four miles of hard galloping and one question - why are you his friend? What is he to you?"

"Really, Captain Griffiths," she protested, looking up at him, "of what possible interest can that be to you?"

"Well, it is, anyhow," he answered gruffly. "Anything that concerns you is of interest to me."

Philippa realised at that moment, perhaps for the first time, what it all meant. She realised the significance of those apparently purposeless afternoon calls, when through sheer boredom she had had to send for Helen to help her out; the significance of those long silences, the melancholy eyes which seemed to follow her movements. She felt an unaccountable desire to laugh, and then, at the first twitchings of her lips, she restrained herself. She knew that tragedy was stalking by her side.

"I think, Captain Griffiths," she said gravely, "that you are talking nonsense, and you are not a very good hand at it. Won't you please ride on?"

He made no movement to mount his horse. He plodded along the soft sand by her side - a queer, elongated figure, his gloomy eyes fixed upon the ground.

"Until this fellow Lessingham came you were never so hard," he persisted.

She looked at him with genuine curiosity.

"I was never so hard?" she repeated. "Do you imagine that I have ever for a single moment considered my demeanour towards you - you of all persons in the world? I simply don't remember when you have been there and when you haven't. I don't remember the humours in which I have been when we have conversed. All that you have said seems to me to be the most arrant nonsense."

He swung himself into the saddle and gathered up the reins.

"Thank you," he said bitterly, "I understand. Only let me tell you this," he went on, his whip poised in his hand. "You may have powerful friends who saved your - "

He hesitated so long that she glanced up at him and read all that he had wished to say in his face.

"My what?" she asked.

His courage failed him.

"Mr. Lessingham," he proceeded, "from arrest. But if he shows his face here again in Dreymarsh, I sha'n't stop to arrest him. I shall shoot him on sight and chance the consequences."

"They'll hang you!" she declared savagely.

He laughed at her.

"Hang me for shooting a man whom I can prove to be a German spy? They won't dare! They won't even dare to place me under arrest for an hour. Why, when the truth becomes known," he went on, his voice gaining courage as the justice of his case impressed itself upon him, "what do you suppose is going to happen to two women who took this fellow in and befriended him, introduced him under a false name to their friends, gave him the run of their house - this man whom they knew all the time was a German? You, Lady Cranston, chafing and scolding your husband by night and by day because he isn't where you think he ought to be; you, so patriotic that you cannot bear the sight of him out of uniform; you - the hostess, the befriender, the God knows what of Bertram Maderstrom! It will be a pretty tale when it's all told!"

"I really think," Philippa asserted calmly, "that you are the most utterly impossible and obnoxious creature I have ever met."

His face was dangerous for a moment. They had not yet reached the promontory which sheltered them from Dreymarsh.

"Perhaps," he muttered, leaning malignly towards her, "I could make myself even more obnoxious."

"Quite possibly," she replied, "only I want to tell you this. If you come a single inch nearer to me, one of them shall shoot you."

"Your friend or your husband, eh? "he scoffed.

She waved him on.

"I think," she told him, "that either of them would be quite capable of ridding the world of a coward like you."

"A coward?" he repeated.

"Precisely! Isn't it a coward's part to terrorise a woman?"

"I don't want to terrorise you," he said sulkily.

"Well, you must admit that you haven't shown any particular desire to make yourself agreeable," she pointed out.

He turned suddenly upon her.

"I am a fool, I know," he declared bitterly. "I'm an awkward, nervous, miserable fool, my own worst enemy as they say of me in the Mess, turning the people against me I want to have like me, stumbling into every blunder a fool can. I'm the sort of man women make sport of, and you've done it for them cruelly, perfectly."

"Captain Griffiths!" she protested. "When have I ever been anything but kind and courteous to you?"

"It isn't your kindness I want, nor your courtesy! There's a curse upon my tongue," he went on desperately. "I'm not like other men. I don't know how to say what I feel. I can't put it into words. Every one misunderstands me. You, too! Here I rode up to you this afternoon and my heart was beating for joy, and in five minutes I had made an enemy of you. Damn that fellow Lessingham! It is all his fault!"

Without the slightest warning he brought down his hunting crop upon his horse's flanks. The mare gave one great plunge, and he was off, riding at a furious gallop. Philippa watched him with immense relief, In the far distance she could see two little specks growing larger and larger. She hurried on towards them.

"Whatever did you do to Captain Griffiths, Mummy? Nora demanded. "Why he passed us without looking down, galloping like a madman, and his face looked - well, what did it look like, Helen?"

Helen was gazing uneasily along the sands.

"Like a man riding for his enemy," she declared.