Chapter XXVII
 

Philippa and Helen looked at one another a little dolefully across the luncheon table.

"I supposes one misses the child," Helen said.

"I feel too depressed for words," Philippa admitted.

"A few days ago," Helen reminded her companion, "we were getting all the excitement that was good for any one."

"And a little more," Philippa agreed. "I don't know why things seem so flat now. We really ought to be glad that nothing terrible has happened."

"What with Henry and Mr. Lessingham both away," Helen continued, "and Captain Griffiths not coming near the place, we really have reverted to the normal, haven't we? I wonder - if Mr. Lessingham has gone back."

"I do not think so," Philippa murmured.

Helen frowned slightly.

"Personally," she said, with some emphasis, "I hope that he has."

"If we are considering the personal point of view only," Philippa retorted, "I hope that he has not."

Helen looked her disapproval.

"I should have thought that you had had enough playing with fire," she observed.

"One never has until one has burned one's fingers," Philippa sighed. "I know perfectly well what is the matter with you," she continued severely. "You are fretting because curried chicken is Dick's favourite dish."

"I am not such a baby," Helen protested. "All the same, it does make one think. I wonder - "

"I know exactly what you were going to say," Philippa interrupted. "You were going to say that you wondered whether Mr. Lessingham would keep his promise."

"Whether he would be able to," Helen corrected. "It does seem so impossible, doesn't it? "

"So does Mr. Lessingham himself," Philippa reminded her. "It isn't exactly a usual thing, is it, to have a perfectly charming and well-bred young man step out of a Zeppelin into your drawing-room."

"You really believe, then," Helen asked eagerly, "that he will be able to keep his promise?"

Philippa nodded confidently.

"Do you know," she said, "I believe that Mr. Lessingham, by some means or another, would keep any promise he ever made. I am expecting to see Dick at any moment now, so you can get on with your lunch, dear, and not sit looking at the curry with tears in your eyes."

"It isn't the curry so much as the chutney," Helen protested faintly. "He never would touch any other sort."

"Well, I shouldn't be surprised if he were here to finish the bottle," Philippa declared. "I have a feeling this morning that something is going to happen."

"How long has Nora gone away for?" Helen enquired, after a moment's pause.

"A fortnight or three weeks," Philippa answered. "Her grandmother wired that she would be glad to have her until Christmas."

"Just why," Helen asked seriously, "have you sent her away?"

Philippa toyed with her curry, and glanced around as though she regretted Mills' absence from the room.

"I thought it best," she said quietly. "You see, I am not quite sure what the immediate future of this menage is going to be."

Helen leaned across the table and laid her hand upon her friend's.

"Dear," she sighed, "it worries me so to hear you talk like that."

"Why?"

"Because you know perfectly well, although you profess to ignore it, that at the bottom of your heart there is no one else but Henry. It isn't fair, you know."

"To whom isn't it fair?" Philippa demanded.

"To Mr. Lessingham."

Philippa was thoughtful for a few moments.

"Perhaps," she admitted, "that is a point of view which I have not sufficiently considered."

Helen pressed home her advantage.

"I don't think you realise, Philippa," she said, "how madly in love with you the man is. In a perfectly ingenuous way, too. No one could help seeing it."

"Then where does the unfairness come in?" Philippa asked. "It is within my power to give him all that he wants."

"But you wouldn't do it, Philippa. You know that you wouldn't!" Helen objected. "You may play with the idea in your mind, but that's just as far as you'd ever get."

Philippa looked her friend steadily in the face. "I disagree with you, Helen," she said. Helen set down the glass which she had been in the act of raising to her lips. It was her first really serious intimation of the tragedy which hovered over her future sister-in-law's life. Somehow or other, Philippa had seemed, even to her, so far removed from that strenuous world of over-drugged, over-excited feminine decadence, to whom the changing of a husband or a lover is merely an incident in the day's excitements. Philippa, with her frail and almost flowerlike beauty, her love of the wholesome ways of life, and her strong affections, represented other things. Now, for the first time, Helen was really afraid, afraid for her friend.

"But you couldn't ever - you wouldn't leave Henry!"

Philippa seemed to find nothing monstrous in the idea.

"That is just what I am seriously thinking of doing," she confided.

Helen affected to laugh, but her mirth was obviously forced. Their conversation ceased perforce with the return of Mills into the room.

Then the wonderful thing happened. The windows of the dining room faced the drive to the house and both women could clearly see a motor car turn in at the gate and stop at the front door. It was obviously a hired car, as the driver was not in livery, but the tall, mulled-up figure in unfamiliar clothes who occupied the front seat was for the moment a mystery to them. Only Helen seemed to have some wonderful premonition of the truth, a premonition which she was afraid to admit even to herself. Her hand began to shake. Philippa looked at her in amazement.

"You look as though you had seen a ghost, Helen!" she exclaimed. "Who on earth can it be, coming at this time of the day?"

Helen was speechless, and Philippa divined at once the cause of her agitation. She sprang to her feet.

"Helen, you don't imagine -" she gasped. "Listen!"

There was a voice in the hail - a familiar voice, though strained a little and hoarse; Mills' decorous greetings, agitated but fervent. And then - Major Richard Felstead!

"Dick!" Helen screamed, as she threw herself into his arms. "Oh, Dick! Dick!"

It was an incoherent, breathless moment. Somehow or other, Philippa found herself sharing her brother's embrace. Then the fire of questions and answers was presently interrupted by Mills, triumphantly bearing in a fresh dish of curry.

"What will the Major take to drink, your ladyship?" he asked.

Felstead laughed a little chokingly.

"Upon my word, there's something wonderfully sound about Mills!" he said. "It's a ghoulish thing to ask for in the middle of the day, isn't it, Philippa, but can I have some champagne?"

"You can have the whole cellarful," Philippa assured him joyously. "Be sure you bring the best, Mills."

"The Perrier Jonet 1904, your ladyship," was the murmured reply.

Mills' disappearance was very brief, and in a very few moments they found themselves seated once more at the table. They sat one on either side of him, watching his glass and his plate. By degrees their questions and his answers became more intelligible.

"When did you get here?" they wanted to know.

"I arrived in Harwich about daylight this morning," he told them; "came across from Holland. I hired a car and drove straight here."

"When did you know you were coming home?" Helen asked.

"Only two days ago," he replied. "I never was so surprised in my life. Even now I can't realise my good luck. I can't see what I've done. The last two months, in fact, seem to me to have been a dream. Jove!" he went on, as he drank his wine, "I never thought I should be such a pig as to care so much for eating and drinking!"

"And think what weeks of it you have before you?" Helen explained, clapping her hands. "Philippa and I will have a new interest in life - to make you fat."

He laughed.

"It won't be very difficult," he promised them. "I had several months of semi-starvation before the miracle happened. It was all just the chance of having had a pal up at Magdalen who's been serving in the German Army - Bertram Maderstrom was his name. You remember him, Philippa? He was a Swede in those days."

"What a dear he must have been to have remembered and to have been so faithful!" Philippa observed, looking away for a moment.

"He's a real good sort," Felstead declared enthusiastically, "although Heaven knows why he's turned German! He worked like a slave for me. I dare say he didn't find it so difficult to get me better quarters and a servant, and decent food, but when they told me that I was free - well, it nearly knocked me silly."

"The dear fellow!" Philippa murmured pensively.

"Do you remember him, either of you?" Felstead continued. "Rather good-looking he was, and a little shy, but quite a sportsman."

"I - seem to remember," Philippa admitted.

"The name sounds familiar," Helen echoed. "Do have some more chutney, Dick."

"Thanks! What a pig I am making of myself!" he observed cheerfully. "You girls will think I can't talk about any one but Maderstrom, but the whole business beats me so completely. Of course, we were great pals, in a way, but I never thought that I was the apple of his eye, or anything of that sort. How he got the influence, too, I can't imagine. And oh! I knew there was something else I was going to ask you girls," Felstead went on. "Have you ever had a letter, or rather a letter each, uncensored? Just a line or two? I think I mentioned Maderstrom which I should not have been allowed to do in the ordinary prison letters."

Felstead was helping himself to cheese, and he saw nothing of the quick glance which passed between the two women.

"Yes, we had them, Dick," Philippa told him. "It was one afternoon - it doesn't seem so very long ago. And oh, how thankful we were!"

Felstead nodded.

"He got them across all right, then. Tell me, did they come through Holland? What was the postmark?"

"The postmark," Philippa repeated, a little doubtfully. "You heard what Dick asked, Helen? The postmark?"

"I don't think there was one," Helen replied, glancing anxiously at Philippa.

Felstead set down his glass.

"No postmark? You mean no foreign postmark, I suppose? They were posted in England, eh?"

Philippa shook her head.

"They came to us, Dick," she said, "by hand."

Felstead was, without a doubt, astonished. He turned round in his chair towards Philippa.

"By hand?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say that they were actually brought here by hand?"

Perhaps something in his manner warned them. Philippa laughed as she bent over his chair.

"We will tell you how they came, presently," she declared, "but not until you have finished your lunch, drunk the last drop of that champagne, and had at least two glasses of the port that Mills has been decanting so carefully. After that we will see. Just now I have only one feeling, and I know that Helen has it, too. Nothing else matters except that we have you home again.

Felstead patted his sister on the cheek, drew her face down to his and kissed her.

"It's so wonderful to be at home!" he exclaimed apologetically. "But I must warn you that I am the rabidest person alive. I went out to the war with a certain amount of respect for the Germans. I have come back loathing them like vermin. I spent - but I won't go on."

Mills made his appearance with the decanter of port.

"I beg your ladyship's pardon," he said, as he filled Felstead's glass, "but Mr. Lessingham has arrived and is in the library, waiting to see you."