Chapter XXXII
 

For a moment Philippa was unsteady upon her feet. Lessingham led her to a chair. From outside came the low, cautious hooting of the motor horn, calling to its dilatory passenger.

"I can not, of course, explain everything to you," he began, in a tone of unusual restraint, "but I do know that for the last two years your husband has been responsible to the Admiralty for most of the mine fields around your east coast. To begin with, his stay in Scotland was a sham. He was most of the time with the fleet and round the coasts. His fishing excursions from here have been of the same order, only more so. All the places of importance, from here to the mouth of the Thames, have been mined, or rather the approaches to them have been mined, under his instructions. My mission in this country, here at Dreymarsh - do not shrink from me if you can help it - was to obtain a copy of his mine protection scheme of a certain town on the east coast."

"Why should I shrink from you?" she murmured. "This is all too wonderful! What a little beast Henry must think me!" she added, with truly feminine and marvellously selfish irrelevance.

"You and Miss Fairclough," Lessingham went on, "have rather scoffed at my presence here on behalf of our Secret Service. It seemed to you both very ridiculous. Now you understand."

"It makes no difference," Philippa protested tearfully. "You always told us the truth."

"And I shall continue to do so," Lessingham assured her. "I am not a clever person at my work which is all new to me, but fortune favoured me the night your husband was shipwrecked. I succeeded in stealing from him, on board that wrecked trawler, the plan of the mine field which I was sent over to procure."

"Of course you had to do it if you could," Philippa sobbed. "I think it was very clever of you."

He smiled.

"There are others who might look at the matter differently," he said. "I am going to ask you a question which I know is unnecessary, but I must have your answer to take away with me. If you had known all the time that your husband, instead of being a skulker, as you thought him, was really doing splendid work for his country, you would not have listened to me for one moment, would you? You would not have let me grow to love you?"

She clutched his hands.

"You are the dearest man in the world," she exclaimed, her lips still quivering, "but, as you say, you know the answer. I was always in love with Henry. It was because I loved him that I was so furious. I liked you so much that it was mean of me ever to think of - of what so nearly happened."

"So nearly happened!" he repeated, with a sudden access of the bitterest self-pity.

Once more the low, warning hoot of the motor horn, this time a little more impatient, broke the silence. Philippa was filled with an unreasoning terror.

"You must go!" she implored. "You must go this minute! If they were to take you, I couldn't bear it. And that man Griffiths - he has sworn that if he can not get the Government authority, he will shoot you!"

"Griffiths has gone to London," he reminded her.

"Yes, but he may be back by this train," she cried, glancing at the clock, "and I have a strange sort of fancy - I have had it all day - that Henry might come, too. It is overdue now. Any one might arrive here. Oh, please, for my sake, hurry away!" she begged, the tears streaming from her eyes. "If anything should happen, I could never forgive myself. It is because you have been so dear, so true and honourable, that all this time has been wasted. If it were to cost you your life!"

She was seized by a fit of nervous anxiety which became almost a paroxysm. She buttoned his coat for him and almost dragged him to the door. And then she stopped for a moment to listen. Her eyes became distended. Her lips were parted. She shook as though with an ague.

"It is too late!" she faltered hysterically. "I can hear Henry's voice! Quick! Come to the window. You must get out that way and through the postern gate."

"Your husband will have seen the car," he protested. "And besides, there is your dressing-bag and your travelling coat."

"I shall tell him everything," she declared wildly. "Nothing matters except that you escape. Oh, hurry! I can hear Henry talking to Jimmy Dumble - for God's sake - "

The words died away upon her lips. The door had been opened and closed again immediately. There was the quick turn of the lock, sounding like the click of fate. Sir Henry, well inside the room, nodded to them both affably.

"Well, Philippa? You weren't expecting me, eh? Hullo, Lessingham! Not gone yet? Running it a trifle fine, aren't you?"

Lessingham glanced towards the fastened door.

"Perhaps," he admitted, "a trifle too fine."

Sir Henry was suddenly taken by storm. Philippa had thrown herself into his arms. Her fingers were locked around his neck. Her lips, her eyes, were pleading with him.

"Henry! Henry, you must forgive me! I never knew - I never dreamed what you were really doing. I shall never forgive myself, but you - you will be generous "

"That's all right, dear," he promised, stooping down to kiss her. "Partly my fault, of course. I had to humour those old ladies down at Whitehall1 who wanted me to pose as a particularly harmless idiot. You see," he went on, glancing towards Lessingham, "they were always afraid that my steps might be dogged by spies, if my position were generally known."

Philippa did not relinquish her attitude. She was still clinging to her husband. She refused to let him go.

"Henry," she begged, "oh, listen to me! I have so much to confess, so much of which I am ashamed! And yet, with it all, I want to entreat - to implore one great favour from you."

Sir Henry looked down into his wife's face.

"Is it one I can grant?" he asked gravely.

"If you want me ever to be happy again, you will," she sobbed. "For Helen's sake as well as mine, help Mr. Lessingham to escape."

Lessingham took a quick step forward. He had the air of one who has reached the limits of his endurance.

"You mean this kindly, Lady Cranston, I know," he said, "but I desire no intervention."

Sir Henry patted his wife's hand and held her a little away from him. There was a curious but unmistakable change in his deportment. His mouth had not altogether lost its humorous twist, but his jaw seemed more apparent, the light in his eyes was keener, and there was a ring of authority in his tone.

"Come," he said, "let us understand one another, Philippa, and you had better listen, too, Mr. Lessingham. I can promise you that your chances of escape will not be diminished by my taking up these few minutes of your time. Philippa," he went on, turning back to her, "you have always posed as being an exceedingly patriotic Englishwoman, yet it seems to me that you have made a bargain with this man, knowing full well that he was in the service of Germany, to give him shelter and hospitality here, access to my house and protection amongst your friends, in return for certain favours shown towards your brother."

Philippa was speechless. It was a view of the matter which she and Helen had striven so eagerly to avoid.

"But, Henry," she protested, "his stay here seemed so harmless. You yourself have laughed at the idea of espionage at Dreymarsh. There is nothing to discover. There is nothing going on here which the whole world might not know."

"That was never my plea," Lessingham intervened.

"Nor is it the truth," Sir Henry added sternly.

The Baron Maderstrom was sent here, Philippa, to spy upon me, to gain access by any means to this house, to steal, if he could, certain plans and charts prepared by me."

Philippa began to tremble. She seemed bereft of words.

"He told me this," she faltered. "He told me not half an hour ago."

There was a tapping at the door. Sir Henry moved towards it but did not turn the key.

"Who is that?" he asked.

"Captain Griffiths is here with an escort, sir," Mills announced. "He has seized the motor car outside, and he begs to be allowed to come in."