Chapter XXXI
 

Lessingham stood for a moment by the side of the car from which he had just descended, glanced at the huge tires and the tins of petrol lashed on behind.

"Nothing more you want, chauffeur?" he asked.

"Nothing, sir," was the almost inaudible reply.

"You have the route map?"

"Yes, sir, and enough petrol for three hundred miles."

Lessingham turned away, pushed open the gate, and walked up the drive of Mainsail Haul. Decidedly it was the moment of his life. He was hard-pressed, as he knew, by others besides Griffiths. A few hours now was all the start he could reasonably expect. He was face to face with a very real and serious danger, which he could no longer ignore, and from which escape was all the time becoming more difficult. And yet all the emotionalism of this climax was centered elsewhere. It was from Philippa's lips that he would hear his real sentence; it was her answer which would fill him once more with the lust for life, or send him on in his rush through the night for safety, callous, almost indifferent as to its result.

He walked up the drive, curiously at his ease, in a state of suspended animation, which knew no hope and feared no disappointment. Just before he reached the front door, the postern gate in the wall on his left-hand side opened, and Philippa stood there, muffled up in her fur coat, framed in the faint and shadowy moonlight against the background of seabounded space. He moved eagerly towards her.

"I heard the car," she whispered. "Come and sit down for a moment. It isn't in the least cold, and the moon is just coming up over the sea. I came out," she went on, as he walked obediently by her side, "because the house somehow stifled me."

She led him to a seat. Below, the long waves were breaking through upon the rocks, throwing little fountains of spray into the air. The village which lay at their feet was silent and lifeless - there was, indeed, a curious absence of sound, except when the incoming waves broke upon the rocks and ground the pebbles together in their long, backward swish. Very soon the sleeping country, now wrapped in shadows, would take form and outline in the light of the rising moon; hedges would divide the square fields, the black woods would take shape and the hills their mystic solemnity. But those few minutes were minutes of suspense. Lessingham was to some extent conscious of their queer, allegorical significance.

"I have come," he reminded her quite steadily, "for my answer."

She showed him the small bag by her side upon the seat, and touched her cloak. She was indeed prepared for a journey.

"You see," she told him, "here I am."

His face was suddenly transformed. She was almost afraid of the effect of her words. She found herself struggling in his arms.

"Not yet," she begged. "Please remember where we are."

He released her reluctantly. A few yards away, they could hear the soft purring of the six-cylinder engine, inexorable reminder of the passing moments. He caught her by the hand.

"Come," he whispered passionately. "Every moment is precious."

She hesitated no longer. The open postern gate seemed to him suddenly to lead down the great thoroughfare of a new and splendid life. He was to be one of those favoured few to whom was given the divine prize. And then he stopped short, even while she walked willingly by his side. He knew so well the need for haste. The gentle murmur of that engine was inviting him all the while. Yet he knew there was one thing more which must be said.

"Philippa," he began, " you know what we are doing? We can escape, I believe. My flight is all wonderfully arranged. But there will be no coming back. It will be all over when our car passes over the hills there. You will not regret? You care enough even for this supreme sacrifice?"

"I shall never reproach you as long as I live," she promised. "I have made up my mind to come, and I am ready."

"But it is because you care?" he pleaded anxiously.

"It is because I care, for one reason."

"In the great way?" he persisted. "In the only way?"

She hesitated. He suddenly felt her hand grow colder in his. He saw her frame shiver beneath its weight of furs.

"Don't ask me quite that," she begged breathlessly. "Be content to know that I have counted the cost, and that I am willing to come."

He felt the chill of impending disaster. He closed the little gate through which they had been about to pass, and stood with his back to it. In that faint light which seemed to creep over the world before the moon itself was revealed, she seemed to him at that moment the fairest, the most desirable thing on earth. Her face was upturned towards his, half pathetic, half protesting against the revelation which he was forcing from her.

"Listen, Philippa," he said, "Miss Fairclough warned me of one thing. I put it on one side. It did not seem to be possible. Now I must ask you a question. You have some other motive, have you not, for choosing to come away 'with me? It is not only because you love me better than any one else in the world, as I do you, and therefore that we belong to one another and it is right and good that we should spend our lives in one another's company? There is something else, is there not, at the root of your determination? Some ally?"

It was a strange moment for Philippa. Nothing had altered within her, and yet a wonderful pity was glowing in her heart, tearing at her emotions, bringing a sob into her throat.

"You mean - Henry? she faltered.

"I mean your husband," he assented.

She was suddenly passionately angry with herself. It seemed to her that the days of childishness were back. She was behaving like an imbecile whilst he played the great game.

"You see," he went on, his own voice a little unsteady, "this is one of those moments in both our lives when anything except the exact truth would mean shipwreck. You still love your husband?"

"I am such a fool!" she sobbed, clutching at his arm.

"You were willing to go away with me," he continued mercilessly, "partly because of the anger you felt towards him, and partly out of revenge, and just a little because you liked me. Is that not so?"

Her head pressed upon his arm. She nodded. It was just that convulsive movement of her head, with its wealth of wonderful hair and its plain black motoring hat, which dealt the death-blow to his hopes. She was just a child once more - and she trusted him.

"Very well, then," he said, "just let me think - for a moment."

She understood enough not to raise her head. Lessingham was gazing out through the chaotic shadows of the distant banks of clouds from which the moon was rising. Already the pain had begun, and yet with it was that queer sense of exaltation which comes with sacrifice.

"We have been very nearly foolish," he told her, with grave kindliness. "It is well, perhaps, that we were in time. Those windows which lead into your library,- through which I first came to you, by-the-by,- " he added, with a strange, reminiscent little sigh, "are they open?".

"Yes!" she whispered.

"Come, then," he invited. "Before I leave there is something I want to make clear to you."

They made their way rather like two conspirators along the little terraced walk. Philippa opened the window and closed it again behind them. The room was empty. Lessingham, watching her closely, almost groaned as he saw the wonderful relief in her face. She threw off the cloak, and he groaned again as he remembered how nearly it had been his task to remove it. In her plain travelling dress, she turned and looked at him very pathetically.

"You have, perhaps, a morning paper here?" he enquired.

"A newspaper? Why, yes, the Times," she answered, a little surprised.

He took it from the table towards which she pointed, and held it under the lamplight. Presently he called to her. His forefinger rested upon a certain column.

"Read this," he directed.

She read it out in a tone which passed from surprise to blank wonder:

Commander Sir Henry Cranston, Baronet, to receive the D.S.0. for special services, and to be promoted to the rank of Acting Rear-Admiral.

"What does it mean?" she asked feverishly. "Henry? A D.S.0. for Henry for special services?"

"It means," he told her, with a forced smile, "that your husband is, as you put it in your expressive language, a fraud."