The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Philippa's breakdown was only momentary. With a few brusque words she brought the other two down to the level of her newly recovered equanimity.
"To be practical," she began, "we have no time to lose. I will go and get a suit of Dick's clothes, and, Helen, you had better take Mr. Lessingham into the gun room. Afterwards, perhaps you will have time to ring up the hotel."
Lessingham took a quick step towards her, - almost as though he were about to make some impetuous withdrawal. Philippa turned and met his almost pleading gaze. Perhaps she read there his instinct of self-abnegation.
"I am in command of the situation," she continued, a little more lightly. "Every one must please obey me. I shan't be more than five minutes."
She left the room, waving back Lessingham's attempt to open the door for her. He stood for a moment looking at the place where she had vanished. Then he turned round.
"Major Felstead's description," he said quietly, "did not do his sister justice."
"Philippa is a dear," Helen declared enthusiastically. "Just for a moment, though, I was terrified. She has a wonderful will."
"How long has she been married?"
"About six years."
"Are there - any children?"
Helen shook her head.
"Sir Henry had a daughter by his first wife, who lives with us."
"Six years!" Lessingham repeated. "Why, she seems no more than a child. Sir Henry must be a great deal her senior."
"Sixteen years," Helen told him. "Philippa is twenty-nine. And now, don't be inquisitive any more, please, and come with me. I want to show you where to change your clothes."
She opened a door on the other side of the room, and pointed to a small apartment across the passage.
"If you'll wait in there," she begged, "I'll bring the clothes to you directly they come. I am going to telephone now."
"So many thanks," he answered. "I should like a pleasant bedroom and sitting room, and a bathroom if possible. My luggage you will find already there. A friend in London has seen to that."
She looked at him curiously.
"You are very thorough, aren't you? she remarked.
The people of the country whom it is my destiny to serve all are," he replied. "One weak link, you know, may sometimes spoil the mightiest chain."
She closed the door and took up the telephone.
"Number three, please," she began. "Are you the hotel? The manager? Good! I am speaking for Lady Cranston. She wishes a sitting-room, bedroom and bath-room reserved for a friend of ours who is arriving to-day - a Mr. Hamar Lessingham. You have his luggage already, I believe. Please do the best you can for him. - Certainly. - Thank you very much."
She set down the receiver. The door was quickly opened and shut. Philippa reappeared, carrying an armful of clothes.
"Why, you've brought his grey suit," Helen cried in dismay, "the one he looks so well in!"
"Don't be an idiot," Philippa scoffed. "I had to bring the first I could find. Take them in to Mr. Lessingham, and for heaven's sake see that he hurries! Henry's train is due, and he may be here at any moment."
"I'll tell him," Helen promised. "I'll smuggle him out of the back way, if you like."
Philippa laughed a little drearily.
"A nice start that would be, if any one ever traced his arrival!" she observed. "No, we must try and get him away before Henry comes, but, if the worst comes to the worst, we'll have him in and introduce him. Henry isn't likely to notice anything," she added, a little bitterly.
Helen disappeared with the clothes and returned almost immediately, Philippa was sitting in her old position by the fire.
"You're not worrying about this, dear, are you?" the former asked anxiously.
"I don't know," Philippa replied, without turning her head. "I don't know what may come of it, Helen. I have a queer sort of feeling about that man."
Helen sighed. "I suppose," she confessed, "I am the narrowest person on earth. I can think of one thing, and one thing only. If Mr. Lessingham keeps his word, Dick will be here perhaps in a month, perhaps six weeks - certainly soon!"
"He will keep his word," Philippa said quietly. "He is that sort of man."
The door on the other side of the room was softly opened. Lessingham's head appeared.
"Could I have a necktie?" he asked diffidently. Philippa stretched out her hand and took one from the basket by her side.
"Better give him this," she said, handing it over to Helen. "It is one of Henry's which I was mending.- Stop!"
She put up her finger. They all listened.
"The car!" Philippa exclaimed, rising hastily to her feet. "That is Henry! Go out with Mr. Lessingham, Helen," she continued, "and wait until he is ready. Don't forget that he is an ordinary caller, and bring him in presently."
Helen nodded understandingly and hurried out.
Philippa moved a few steps towards the other door. In a moment it was thrown open. Nora appeared, with her arm through her father's.
"I went to meet him, Mummy," she explained. "No uniform - isn't it a shame!"
Sir Henry patted her cheek and turned to greet his wife. There was a shadow upon his bronzed, handsome face as he watched her rather hesitating approach.
"Sorry I couldn't catch your train, Phil," he told her. "I had to make a call in the city so I came down from Liverpool Street. Any luck?"
She held his hands, resisting for the moment his proffered embrace.
"Henry," she said earnestly, "do you know I am so much more anxious to hear your news."
"Mine will keep," he replied. "What about Richard?"
She shook her head.
"I spent the whole of my time making enquiries," she sighed, "and every one was fruitless. I failed to get the least satisfaction from any one at the War Office. They know nothing, have heard nothing."
"I'm ever so sorry to hear it," Sir Henry declared sympathetically. "You mustn't worry too much, though, dear. Where's Helen?"
"She is in the gun room with a caller."
"With a caller? "Nora exclaimed. "Is it any one from the Depot? I must go and see."
"You needn't trouble," her stepmother replied. "Here they are, coming in."
The door on the opposite side of the room was suddenly opened, and Hamar Lessingham and Helen entered together. Lessingham was entirely at his ease, - their conversation, indeed, seemed almost engrossing. He came at once across the room on realising Sir Henry's presence.
"This is Mr. Hamar Lessingham - my husband," Philippa said. "Mr. Lessingham was at college with Dick, Henry, so of course Helen and he have been indulging in all sorts of reminiscences."
The two men shook hands.
"I found time also to examine your Leech prints," Lessingham remarked. "You have some very admirable examples."
"Quite a hobby of mine in my younger days," Sir Henry admitted. "One or two of them are very good, I believe. Are you staying in these parts long, Mr. Lessingham?"
"Perhaps for a week or two," was the somewhat indifferent reply. "I am told that this is the most wonderful air in the world, so I have come down here to pull up again after a slight illness."
"A dreary spot just now," Sir Henry observed, "but the air's all right. Are you a sea-fisherman, by any chance, Mr. Lessingham?"
"I have done a little of it," the visitor confessed. Sir Henry's face lit up. He drew from his pocket a small, brown paper parcel.
"I don't mind telling you," he confided as he cut the string, "that I don't think there's another sport like it in the world. I have tried most of them, too. When I was a boy I was all for shooting, perhaps because I could never get enough. Then I had a season or two at Melton, though I was never much of a horseman. But for real, unadulterated excitement, for sport that licks everything else into a cocked hat, give me a strong sea rod, a couple of traces, just enough sea to keep on the bottom all the time, and the codling biting. Look here, did you ever see a mackerel spinner like that?" he added, drawing one out of the parcel which he had untied. "Look at it, all of you."
Lessingham took it gingerly in his fingers. Philippa, a little ostentatiously, turned her back upon the two men and took up a newspaper.
"Lady Cranston does not sympathize with my interest in any sort of sport just now," Sir Henry explained good-humouredly. "All the same I argue that one must keep one's mind occupied somehow or other."
"Quite right, Dad!" Nora agreed. "We must carry on, as the Colonel says. All the same, I did hope you'd come down in a new naval uniform, with lots of gold braid on your sleeve. I think they might have made you an admiral, Daddy, you'd look so nice on the bridge."
"I am afraid," her father replied, with his eyes glued upon the spinner which Lessingham was holding, "that that is a consideration which didn't seem to weigh with them much. Look at the glitter of it," he went on, taking up another of the spinners. "You see, it's got a double swivel, and they guarantee six hundred revolutions a minute."
"I must plead ignorance," Lessingham regretted, "of everything connected with mackerel spinning."
"It's fine sport for a change," Sir Henry declared. "The only thing is that if you strike a shoal one gets tired of hauling the beggars in. By-the-by, has Jimmy been up for me, Philippa? Have you heard whether there are any mackerel in?"
Philippa raised her eyebrows.
"Mackerel!" she repeated sarcastically.
"Have you any objection to the fish, dear?" Sir Henry enquired blandly.
Philippa made no reply. Her husband frowned and turned towards Lessingham.
"You see," he complained a little irritably, "my wife doesn't approve of my taking an interest even in fishing while the war's on, but, hang it all, what are you to do when you reach my age? Thinks I ought to be a special constable, don't you, Philippa?"
"Need we discuss this before Mr. Lessingham?" she asked, without looking up from her paper.
Lessingham promptly prepared to take his departure.
"See something more of you, I hope," Sir Henry remarked hospitably, as he conducted his guest to the door. "Where are you staying here?"
"At the hotel."
"I did not understand that there was more than one," Lessingham replied. "I simply wrote to The Hotel, Dreymarsh."
"There is only one hotel open, of course, Mr. Lessingham," Philippa observed, turning towards him. "Why do you ask such an absurd question, Henry? The 'Grand' is full of soldiers. Come and see us whenever you feel inclined, Mr. Lessingham."
"I shall certainly take advantage of your permission, Lady Cranston," were the farewell words of this unusual visitor as he bowed himself out.
Sir Henry moved to the sideboard and helped himself to a whisky and soda. Philippa laid down her newspaper and watched him as though waiting patiently for his return. Helen and Nora had already obeyed the summons of the dressing bell.
"Henry, I want to hear your news," she insisted. He threw himself into an easy-chair and turned over the contents of Philippa's workbasket.
"Where's that tie of mine you were mending?" he asked. "Is it finished yet?"
"It is upstairs somewhere," she replied. "No, I have not finished it. Why do you ask? You have plenty, haven't you?"
"Drawers full," he admitted cheerfully. "Half of them I can never wear, though. I like that black and white fellow. Your friend Lessingham was wearing one exactly like it."
"It isn't exactly an uncommon pattern," Philippa reminded him.
"Seems to have the family taste in clothes," Sir Henry continued, stroking his chin. "That grey tweed suit of his was exactly the same pattern as the suit Richard was wearing, the last time I saw him in mufti."
"They probably go to the same tailor," Philippa remarked equably.
Sir Henry abandoned the subject. He was once more engrossed in an examination of the mackerel spinners.
"You didn't answer my question about Jimmy Dumble," he ventured presently.
Philippa turned and looked at him. Her eyes were usually very sweet and soft and her mouth delightful. Just at that moment, however, there were new and very firm lines in her face.
"Henry," she said sternly, "you are purposely fencing with me. Mr. Lessingham's taste in clothes, or Jimmy Dumble's comings and goings, are not what I want to hear or talk about. You went to London, unwillingly enough, to keep your promise to me. I want to know whether you have succeeded in getting anything from the Admiralty?"
"Nothing but the cold shoulder, my dear," he answered with a little chuckle.
"Do you mean to say that they offered you nothing at all?" she persisted. "You may have been out of the service too long for them to start you with a modern ship, but surely they could have given you an auxiliary cruiser, or a secondary command of some sort?"
"They didn't even offer me a washtub, dear," he confessed. "My name's on a list, they said -"
"Oh, that list!" Philippa interrupted angrily. "Henry, I really can't bear it. Couldn't they find you anything on land?"
"My dear girl," he replied a little testily, "what sort of a figure should I cut in an office! No one can read my writing, and I couldn't add up a column of figures to save my life. What is it?" he added, as the door opened, and Mills made his appearance.
"Dumble is here to see you, sir.
"Show him in at once," his master directed with alacrity. "Come in, Jimmy," he went on, raising his voice. "I've got something to show you here."
Philippa's lips were drawn a little closer together. She swept past her husband on her way to the door.
"I hope you will be so good," she said, looking back, "as to spare me half an hour of your valuable time this evening. This is a subject which I must discuss with you further at once."
"As urgent as all that, eh?" Sir Henry replied, stopping to light a cigarette. "Righto! You can have the whole of my evening, dear, with the greatest of pleasure.- Now then, Jimmy!"