Chapter IX
 

"Captain Griffiths to see your ladyship."

Philippa's fingers rested for a moment upon the keyboard of the piano before which she was seated, awaiting Lessingham's arrival. Then she glanced at the clock. It was ten minutes to eight.

"You can show him in, Mills, if he wishes to see me."

Captain Griffiths was ushered into the room - awkward, unwieldly, nervous as usual. He entered as though in a hurry, and there was nothing in his manner to denote that he had spent the last few hours making up his mind to this visit.

"I must apologise for this most untimely call, Lady Cranston," he said, watching the closing of the door. "I will not take up more than five minutes of your time."

"We are very pleased to see you at any time, Captain Griffiths," Philippa said hospitably. "Do sit down, please."

Captain Griffiths bowed but remained standing.

"It is very near your dinner-time, I know, Lady Cranston," he continued apologetically. "The fact of it is, however, that as Commandant here it is my duty to examine the bona fides of any strangers in the place. There is a gentleman named Lessingham staying at the hotel, who I understand gave your name as reference."

Philippa's eyes looked larger than ever, and her face more innocent, as she gazed up at her visitor.

"Why, of course, Captain Griffiths," she said. "Mr. Lessingham was at college with my brother, and one of his best friends. He has shot down at my father's place in Cheshire."

"You are speaking of your brother, Major Felstead?"

"My only brother."

"I am very much obliged to you, Lady Cranston," Captain Griffiths declared. "I can see that we need not worry any more about Mr. Lessingham."

Philippa laughed.

"It seems rather old-fashioned to think of you having to worry about any one down here," she observed. "It really is a very harmless neighbourhood, isn't it?"

"There isn't much going on, certainly," the Commandant admitted. "Very dull the place seems at times."

"Now be perfectly frank," Philippa begged him. "Is there a single fact of importance which could be learnt in this place, worth communicating to the enemy? Is the danger of espionage here worth a moment's consideration?"

"That," Captain Griffiths replied in somewhat stilted fashion, "is not a question which I should be prepared to answer off-hand."

Philippa shrugged her shoulders and appealed almost feverishly to Helen, who had just entered the room.

"Helen, do come and listen to Captain Griffiths! He is making me feel quite creepy. There are secrets about, it seems, and he wants to know all about Mr. Lessingham."

Helen smiled with complete self-possession.

"Well, we can set his mind at rest about Mr. Lessingham, can't we?" she observed, as she shook hands.

"We can do more," Philippa declared. "We can help him to judge for himself. We are expecting Mr. Lessingham for dinner, Captain Griffiths. Do stay."

"I couldn't think of taking you by storm like this," Captain Griffiths replied, with a wistfulness which only made his voice sound hoarser and more unpleasant. "It is most kind of you, Lady Cranston. Perhaps you will give me another opportunity."

"I sha'n't think of it," Philippa insisted. "You must stay and dine to-night. We shall be a partie carre, for Nora goes to bed directly after dinner. I am ringing the bell to tell Mills to set an extra place," she added.

Captain Griffiths abandoned himself to fate with a little shiver of complacency. He welcomed Lessingham, who was presently announced, with very much less than his usual reserve, and the dinner was in every way a success. Towards its close, Philippa became a little thoughtful. She glanced more than once at Lessingham, who was sitting by her side, almost in admiration. His conversation, gay at times, always polished, was interlarded continually with those little social reminiscences inevitable amongst men moving in a certain circle of English society. Apparently Richard Felstead was not the only one of his college friends with whom he had kept in touch. The last remnants of Captain Griffiths' suspicions seemed to vanish with their second glass of port, although his manner became in no way more genial.

"Don't you think you are almost a little too daring?" Philippa asked her favoured guest as he helped her afterwards to set out a bridge table.

"One adapts one's methods to one's adversary," he murmured, with a smile, "Your friend Captain Griffiths had only the very conventional suspicions. The mention of a few good English names, acquaintance with the ordinary English sports, is quite sufficient with a man like that."

Helen and Griffiths were talking at the other end of the room. Philippa raised her eyes to her companion's.

"You become more of a mystery than ever," she declared. "You are making me even curious. Tell me really why you have paid us this visit from the clouds?"

She was sorry almost as soon as she had asked the question. For a moment the calm insouciance of his manner seemed to have departed. His eyes glowed.

"In search of new things," he answered.

"Guns? Fortifications?"

"Neither."

A spirit of mischief possessed her. Lessingham's manner was baffling and yet provocative. For a moment the political possibilities of his presence faded away from her mind. She had an intense desire to break through his reserve.

"Won't you tell me - why you came?"

"I could tell you more easily," he answered in a low tone, "why it will be the most miserable day of my life when I leave."

She laughed at him with perfect heartiness.

"How delightful to be flirted with again!" she sighed. "And I thought all German men were so heavy, and paid elaborate, underdone compliments. Still, your secret, sir, please? That is what I want to know."

"If you will have just a little patience!" he begged, leaning so close to her that their heads almost touched, "I promise that I will not leave this place before I tell it to you."

Philippa's eyes for the first time dropped before his. She knew perfectly well what she ought to have done and she was singularly indisposed to do it. It was a most piquant adventure, after all, and it almost helped her to forget the trouble which had been sitting so heavily in her heart. Still avoiding his eyes, she called the others.

"We are quite ready for bridge," she announced.

They played four or five rubbers. Lessingham was by far the most expert player, and he and Philippa in the end were the winners. The two men stood together for a moment or two at the sideboard, helping themselves to whisky and soda. Griffiths had become more taciturn than ever, and even Philippa was forced to admit that the latter part of the evening had scarcely been a success.

"Do you play club bridge in town, Mr. Lessingham?" Griffiths asked.

"Never," was the calm reply.

"You are head and shoulders above our class down here."

"Very good of you to say so," Lessingham replied courteously. "I held good cards to-night."

"I wonder," Griffiths went on, dropping his voice a little and keeping his eyes fixed upon his companion, "what the German substitute for bridge is."

"I wonder," Lessingham echoed.

"As a nation," his questioner proceeded, "they probably don't waste as much time on cards as we do."

Lessingham's interest in the subject appeared to be non-existent. He strolled away from the sideboard towards Philippa. She, for her part, was watching Captain Griffiths.

"So many thanks, Lady Cranston," Lessingham murmured, "for your hospitality."

"And what about that secret?" she asked.

"You see, there are two," he answered, looking down at her. "One I shall most surely tell you before I leave here, because it is the one secret which no man has ever succeeded in keeping to himself. As for the other - "

He hesitated. There was something almost like pain in his face. She broke in hastily.

"I did not call you away to ask about either. I happened to notice Captain Griffiths just now. Do you know that he is watching you very closely?"

"I had an idea of it," Lessingham admitted indifferently. "He is rather a clumsy person, is he not?"

"You will be careful?" she begged earnestly. "Remember, won't you, that Helen and I are really in a most disgraceful position if anything should come out."

"Nothing shall," he promised her. "I think you know, do you not, that, whatever might happen to me, I should find some means to protect you."

For the second time she felt a curious lack of will to fittingly reprove his boldness. She had even to struggle to keep her tone as careless as her words.

"You really are a delightful person!" she exclaimed. "How long is it since you descended from the clouds?"

"Sometimes I think that I am there still," he answered, "but I have known you about seventy-six hours."

"What precision?" she laughed. "It's a national characteristic, isn't it? Captain Griffiths," she continued, as she observed his approach, "if you really must go, please take Mr. Lessingham with you. He is making fun of me. I don't allow even Dick's friends to do that."

Lessingham's disclaimer was in quite the correct vein.

"You must both come again very soon," their hostess concluded, as she shook hands. "I enjoyed our bridge immensely."

The two men were already on their way to the door when a sudden idea seemed to occur to Captain Griffiths. He turned back.

"By-the-by, Lady Cranston," he asked, "have you heard anything from your brother?"

Philippa shook her head sadly. Helen, who, unlike her friend, had not had the advantage of a distinguished career upon the amateur dramatic stage, turned away and held a handkerchief to her eyes.

"Not a word," was Philippa's sorrowful reply.

Captain Griffiths offered a clumsy expression of his sympathy.

"Bad luck!" he said. "I'm so sorry, Lady Cranston. Good night once more."

This time their departure was uninterrupted. Helen removed her handkerchief from her eyes, and Philippa made a little grimace at the closed door.

"Do you be1ieve," Helen asked seriously, "that Captain Griffiths has any suspicions?"

Philippa shrugged her shoulders.

"If he has, who cares?" she replied, a little defiantly. "The very idea of a duel of wits between those two men is laughable."

"Perhaps so," Helen agreed, with a shade of doubt in her tone.