The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
It seemed to the two women, brief though the period of actual silence was, that in those few seconds they jointly conceived definite and lasting impressions of the man who was to become, during the next few weeks, an object of the deepest concern to both of them. The intruder was slightly built, of little more than medium height, of dark complexion, with an almost imperceptible moustache of military pattern, black hair dishevelled with the wind, and eyes of almost peculiar brightness. He carried himself with an assurance which was somewhat remarkable considering the condition of his torn and mud stained clothes, the very quality of which was almost undistinguishable. They both, curiously enough, formed the same instinctive conviction that, notwithstanding his tramplike appearance and his burglarious entrance, this was not a person to be greatly feared.
The stranger brushed aside Philippa's incoherent exclamation and opened the conversation with some ceremony.
"Ladies," he began, with a low bow, "in the first place let me offer my most profound apologies for this unusual form of entrance to your house."
Philippa rose from her easy-chair and confronted him. The firelight played upon her red-gold hair, and surprise had driven the weariness from her face. Against the black oak of the chimneypiece she had almost the appearance of a framed cameo. Her voice was quite steady, although its inflection betrayed some indignation.
"Will you kindly explain who you are and what you mean by this extraordinary behaviour?" she demanded.
"It is my earnest intention to do so without delay," he assured her, his eyes apparently rivetted upon Philippa. "Kindly pardon me."
He held out his arm to stop Helen, who, with her eye upon the bell, had made a stealthy attempt to slip past him. Her eyes flashed as she felt his fingers upon her arm.
"How dare you attempt to stop me!" she exclaimed.
"My dear Miss Fairclough," he remonstrated, "in the interests of all of us, it is better that we should have a few moments of undisturbed conversation. I am taking it for granted that I have the pleasure of addressing Miss Fairclough?"
There was something about the man's easy confidence which was, in its way, impressive yet irritating. Helen appeared bereft of words and retreated to her place almost mildly. Philippa's very delicate eyebrows were drawn together in a slight frown.
"You are acquainted with our names, then?"
"Perfectly," was the suave reply. "You, I presume, are Lady Cranston? I may be permitted to add," he went on, looking at her steadfastly, "that the description from which I recognise you does you less than justice."
"I find that remark, under the circumstances, impertinent," Philippa told him coldly.
He shrugged his shoulders. There was a slight smile upon his lips and his eyes twinkled.
"Alas!" he murmured, "for the moment I forgot the somewhat unusual circumstances of our meeting. Permit me to offer you what I trust you will accept as the equivalent of a letter of introduction."
"A letter of introduction," Philippa repeated, glancing at his disordered clothes, "and you come in through the window!"
"Believe me," the intruder assured her, "it was the only way."
"Perhaps you will tell me, then," Philippa demanded, her anger gradually giving way to bewilderment, "what is wrong with my front door?"
"For all I know, dear lady," the newcomer confessed, "yours may be an excellent front door. I would ask you, however, to consider my appearance I have been obliged to conclude the last few miles of my journey in somewhat ignominious fashion. My clothes - they were quite nice clothes, too, when I started," he added, looking down at himself ruefully - " have suffered. And, as you perceive, I have lost my hat."
"Your hat?" Helen exclaimed, with a sudden glance at Nora's trophy.
"Precisely! I might have posed before your butler, perhaps, as belonging to what you call the hatless brigade, but the mud upon my clothes, and these unfortunate rents in my garments, would have necessitated an explanation which I thought better avoided. I make myself quite clear, I trust?"
"Clear?" Philippa murmured helplessly.
"Clear?" Helen echoed, with a puzzled frown.
"I mean, of course," their visitor explained, "so far as regards my choosing this somewhat surreptitious form of entrance into your house."
Philippa shrugged her shoulders and made a determined move towards the bell. The intruder, however, barred her way. She looked up into his face and found it difficult to maintain her indignation. His expression, besides being distinctly pleasant, was full of a respectful admiration.
"Will you please let me pass?" she insisted.
"Madam," he replied, "I am afraid that it is your intention to ring the bell."
"Of course it is," she admitted. "Don't dare to prevent me."
"Madam, I do not wish to prevent you," he assured her. "A few moments' delay - that is all I plead for."
"Will you explain at once, sir," Philippa demanded, "what you mean by forcing your way into my house in this extraordinary fashion, and by locking that door?"
"I am most anxious to do so," was the prompt reply. "I am correct, of course, in my first surmise that you are Lady Cranston - and you Miss Fairclough?" he added, bowing ceremoniously to both of them. "A very great pleasure! I recognised you both quite easily, you see, from your descriptions."
"From our descriptions?" Philippa repeated.
The newcomer bowed.
"The descriptions, glowing, indeed, but by no means exaggerated, of your brother Richard, Lady Cranston, and your fiance, Miss Fairclough."
"Richard?" Philippa almost shrieked.
"You have seen Dick?" Helen gasped.
The intruder dived in his pockets and produced two sealed envelopes. He handed one each simultaneously to Helen and to Philippa.
"My letters of introduction," he explained, with a little sigh of relief. "I trust that during their perusal you will invite me to have some tea. I am almost starving."
The two women hastened towards the lamp.
"One moment, I beg," their visitor interposed. "I have established, I trust, my credentials. May I remind you that I was compelled to ensure the safety of these few minutes' conversation with you, by locking that door. Are you likely to be disturbed?"
"No, no! No chance at all," Philippa assured him.
"If we are, we'll explain," Helen promised.
"In that case," the intruder begged, "perhaps you will excuse me."
He moved towards the door and softly turned the key, then he drew the curtains carefully across the French windows. Afterwards he made his way towards the tea-table. A little throbbing cry had broken from Helen's lips.
"Philippa," she exclaimed, "it's from Dick! It's Dick's handwriting!"
Philippa's reply was incoherent. She was tearing open her own envelope. With a well-satisfied smile, the bearer of these communications seized a sandwich in one hand and poured himself out some tea with the other. He ate and drank with the restraint of good-breeding, but with a voracity which gave point to his plea of starvation. A few yards away, the breathless silence between the two women had given place to an almost hysterical series of disjointed exclamations.
"It's from Dick!" Helen repeated. "It's his own dear handwriting. How shaky it is! He's alive and well, Philippa, and he's found a friend."
"I know - I know," Philippa murmured tremulously. "Our parcels have been discovered, and he got them all at once. Just fancy, Helen, he's really not so ill, after all!"
They drew a little closer together.
"You read yours out first," Helen proposed," and then I'll read mine."
Philippa nodded. Her voice here and there was a little uncertain.
Philippa read the postscript with a little shiver. Then she set her teeth as though determined to ignore it.
"Isn't it wonderful!" she exclaimed, turning towards Helen with glowing eyes. "Now yours, dear?"
Helen's voice trembled as she read. Her eyes, too, at times were misty:
There were a few moments of significant silence. The girls were leaning together, their arms around one another's necks, their heads almost touching. Behind them, their visitor continued to eat and drink. He rose at last, however, reluctantly to his feet, and coughed. They started, suddenly remembering his presence. Philippa turned impulsively towards him with outstretched hands.
"I can't tell you how thankful we are to you," she declared.
"Both of us," Helen echoed.
He touched with his fingers a box of cigarettes which stood upon the tea-table.
"You permit? "he asked.
"Of course," Philippa assented eagerly. "You will find some matches on the tray there. Do please help yourself. I am afraid that I must have seemed very discourteous, but this has all been so amazing. Won't you have some fresh tea and some toast, or wouldn't you like some more sandwiches?"
"Nothing more at present, thank you," he replied. "If you do not mind, I would rather continue our conversation."
"These letters are wonderful," Philippa told him gratefully. "You know from whom they come, of course. Dick is my twin brother, and until the war we had scarcely ever been parted. Miss Fairclough here is engaged to be married to him. It is quite two months since we had a line, and I myself have been in London for the last three days, three very weary days, making enquiries everywhere."
"I am very happy," he said, "to have brought you such good news."
Once more the normal aspect of the situation began to reimpose itself upon the two women. They remembered the locked door, the secrecy of their visitor's entrance, and his disordered condition.
"May I ask to whom we are indebted for this great service?" Philippa enquired.
"My name for the present is Hamar Lessingham," was the suave reply.
"For the present?" Philippa repeated. "You have perhaps, some explanations to make," she went on, with some hesitation; "the condition of your clothes, your somewhat curious form of entrance?"
"With your permission."
"One moment," Helen intervened eagerly. "Is it possible, Mr. - Lessingham, that you have seen Major Felstead lately?"
"A matter of fifty-six hours ago, Miss Fairclough. I am happy to tell you that be was looking, under the circumstances, quite reasonably well."
Helen caught up a photograph from the table by her side, and came over to their visitor's side.
"This was taken just before be went out the first time," she continued. "Is he anything like that now?"
Mr. Hamar Lessingham sighed and shook his head.
"You must expect," he warned her, "that prison and hospital have had their effect upon him. He was gaining strength every day, however, when I left."
Philippa held out her hand. She had been looking curiously at their visitor.
"Helen, dear, afterwards we will get Mr. Lessingham to talk to us about Dick," she insisted. "First there are some questions which I must ask."
He bowed slightly and drew himself up. For a moment it seemed as though they were entering upon a duel - the slight, beautiful woman and the man in rags.
"Just now," she began, "you told us that you saw Major Felstead, my brother, fifty-six hours ago."
"That is so," he assented.
"But it is impossible!" she pointed out. "My brother is a prisoner of war in Germany."
"Precisely," he replied, "and not, I am afraid, under the happiest conditions, he has been unfortunate in his camp. Let us talk about him, shall we?"
"Are you mad," Helen demanded, "or are you trying to confuse us?"
"My dear young lady!" he protested. "Why suppose such a thing? I was flattering myself that my conversation and deportment were, under the circumstances, perfectly rational."
"But you are talking nonsense," Philippa insisted. "You say that you saw Major Felstead fifty-six hours ago. You cannot mean us to believe that fifty-six hours ago you were at Wittenberg."
"That is precisely what I have been trying to tell you," he agreed.
"But it isn't possible!" Helen gasped.
"Quite, I assure you," he continued; "in fact, we should have been here before but for a little uncertainty as to your armaments along the coast. There was a gun, we were told, somewhere near here, which we were credibly informed had once been fired without the slightest accident."
Philippa's eyes seemed to grow larger and rounder.
"He's raving!" she decided.
"He isn't!" Helen cried, with sudden divination. "Is that your hat?" she asked, pointing to the table where Nora had left her trophy.
"It is," he admitted with a smile, "but I do not think that I will claim it."
"You were in the observation car of that Zeppelin!"
Lessingham extended his hand.
"Softly, please," he begged. "You have, I gather, arrived at the truth, but for the moment shall it be our secret? I made an exceedingly uncomfortable, not to say undignified descent from the Zeppelin which passed over Dutchman's Common last night."
"Then," Philippa cried, "you are a German!"
"My dear lady, I have escaped that misfortune," Lessingham confessed. "Do you think that none other than Germans ride in Zeppelins?"