The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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For a few brief seconds no one seemed inclined to take upon themselves the onus of speech. Richard's amazement seemed to increase upon reflection.
"Maderstrom!" he exclaimed. "Bertram! What in the name of all that's diabolical are you doing here?"
"I am just a derelict," Lessingham explained, with a faint smile. "Glad to see you, Richard. You are a day earlier than I expected."
"You knew that I was coming, then?" Richard demanded.
"Naturally," Lessingham replied. "I had the great pleasure of arranging for your release."
"Look here," Richard went on, "I'm groping about a bit. I don't understand. Forgive me if I run off the track. I'm not forgetting our friendship, Maderstrom, or what I owe to you since you came and found me at Wittenburg. But for all that, you have served in the German Army and are an enemy, and I want to know what you are doing here, in England, in my brother-in-law's house."
"No particular harm, Richard, I promise you," Lessingham replied mildly.
"You are here under a false name!"
"Hamar Lessingham, if you do not mind," the other assented. "I prefer my own name, but I do not fancy that the use of it would ensure me a very warm welcome over here just now. Besides," he added, with a glance at Philippa, "I have to consider the friends whose hospitality I have enjoyed."
In a shadowy sort of way the truth began to dawn upon Richard. His tone became grimmer and his manner more menacing.
"Maderstrom," he said, "we met last under different circumstances. I will admit that I cut a poor figure, but mine was at least an honourable imprisonment. I am not so sure that yours is an honourable freedom."
Philippa laid her hand upon her brother's arm.
"Dick, dear, do remember that they were starving you to death!" she begged.
"You would never have lived through it," Helen echoed.
"You are talking to Mr. Lessingham," Philippa protested, "as though he were an enemy, instead of the best friend you ever had in your life."
Richard waved them away. "You must leave this to us," he insisted. "Maderstrom and I will be able to understand one another, at any rate. What are you doing in this house - in England? What is your mission here?"
"Whatever it may have been, it is accomplished," Lessingham said gravely. "At the present moment, my plans are to leave your country to-night."
"Accomplished?" Richard repeated. "What the devil do you mean? Accomplished? Are you playing the spy in this country?"
"You would probably consider my mission espionage," Lessingham admitted.
"And you have brought it to a successful conclusion?"
Philippa threw her arms around her brother's neck. "Dick," she pleaded, "please listen. Mr. Lessingham has been here, in this district, ever since he landed in England. What possible harm could be do? We haven't a single secret to be learned. Everybody knows where our few guns are. Everybody knows where our soldiers are quartered. We haven't a harbour or any secret fortifications. We haven't any shipping information which it would be of the least use signalling anywhere. Mr. Lessingham has spent his time amongst trifles here. Take Helen away somewhere and forget that you have seen him in the house. Remember that he has saved Henry's life as well as yours."
"I invite no consideration upon that account," Lessingham declared. "All that I did for you in Germany, I did, or should have attempted to do, for my old friend. Your release was different. I am forced to admit that it was the price paid for my sojourn here. I will only ask you to remember that the bargain was made without your knowledge, and that you are in no way responsible for it."
"A price," Richard pronounced fiercely, "which I refuse to pay!"
Lessingham shrugged his shoulders.
"The alternative," he confessed, "is in your hands."
Richard moved towards the telephone.
"I am sorry, Maderstrom," he said, "but my duty is clear. Who is Commandant here, Philippa?"
Philippa stood between her brother and the telephone. There was a queer, angry patch of colour in her cheeks. Her eyes were on fire.
"Richard," she exclaimed, "you shall not do this from my house! I forbid you!"
"Do what?" "Give information. Do you know what it would mean if they believed you?"
"Death," he answered. "Maderstrom knew the risk he ran when he came to this country under a false name."
"Perfectly," Lessingham admitted.
"But I won't have it!" Philippa protested. "He has become our friend. Day by day we have grown to like him better and better. He has saved your life, Dick. He has brought you back to us. Think what it is that you purpose!"
"It is what every soldier has to face," Richard declared.
"You men drive me crazy with your foolish ideas!" Philippa cried desperately. "The war is in your brains, I think. You would carry it from the battlefields into your daily life. Because two great countries are at war, is everything to go by - chivalry? - all the finer, sweeter feelings of life? If you two met on the battlefield, it would be different. Here in my drawing-room, I will not have this black demon of the war dragged in as an excuse for murder! Take Dick away, Helen!" she begged. "Mr. Lessingham is leaving to-night. I will pledge my word that until then he remains a harmless citizen."
"Women don't understand these things, Philippa - " Richard began.
"Thank heavens we understand them better than you men!" Philippa interrupted fiercely. "You have but one idea- to strike - the narrow idea of men that breeds warfare. I tell you that if ever universal peace comes, if ever the nations are taught the horror of this lust for blood, this criminal outrage against civilisation, it is the women who will become the teachers, because amongst your instincts the brutish ones of force are the first to leap to the surface at the slightest provocation. We women see further, we know more. I swear to you, Richard, that if you interfere I will never forgive you as long as I live!"
Richard stared at his sister in amazement. There seemed to be some new spirit born within her. Throughout all their days he had never known her so much in earnest, so passionately insistent. He looked from her to the man whom she sought to protect, and who answered, unasked, the thoughts that were in his mind.
"Whatever harm I may have been able to do," Lessingham announced, "is finished. I leave this place to-night, probably for ever. As for the Commandant," he went on with a faint smile, "he is already upon my track. There is nothing you can tell him about me which he does not know. It is just a matter of hours, the toss of a coin, whether I get away or not."
"They've found you out, then?" Richard exclaimed.
"Only a miracle saved me from arrest a week ago," Lessingham acknowledged. "Your Commandant here is at the present moment in London for the sole purpose of denouncing me."
"And yet you remain here, paying afternoon calls?" Richard observed incredulously. "I'm hanged if I can see through this!"
"You see," Lessingham explained gently. "I am a fatalist!"
It was Helen who finally led her lover from the room. He looked back from the door.
"Maderstrom," he said, "you know quite well how personally I feel towards you. I am grateful for what you have done for me, even though I am beginning to understand your motives. But as regards the other things we are both soldiers. I am going to talk to Helen for a time. I want to understand a little more than I do at present."
"Let me help you," he begged. "Here is the issue in plain words. All that I did for you at Wittenberg, I should have done in any case for the sake of our friendship. Your freedom would probably never have been granted to me but for my mission, although even that I might have tried to arrange. I brought your letters here, and I traded them with your sister and Miss Fairclough for the shelter of their hospitality and their guarantees. Now you know just where friendship ended and the other things began. Do what you believe to be your duty."
Richard followed Helen out, closing the door after him. Lessingham looked down into Philippa's face.
"You are more wonderful even than I thought," he continued softly. "You say so little and you live so near the truth. It is those of us who feel as you do - who understand - to whom this war is so terrible."
"I want to ask you one question before I send you away," she told him. "This journey to America?"
"It is a mission on behalf of Germany," he explained, "but it is, after all, an open one. I have friends - highly placed friends - in my own country, who in their hearts feel as I do about the war. It is through them that I am able to turn my back upon Europe. I have done my share of fighting," he went on sadly, "and the horror of it will never quite leave me. I think that no one has ever charged me with shirking my duty, and yet the sheer, black ugliness of this ghastly struggle, its criminal inutility, have got into my blood so that I think I would rather pass out of the world in some simple way than find myself back again in that debauch of blood. Is this cowardice, Philippa?"
She looked at him with shining eyes.
"There isn't any one in the world," she said, "who could call you a coward. Whatever I may decide, whatever I may feel towards you, that at least I know."
He kissed her fingers.
"At ten o'clock," he began - "But listen," she interrupted. "Apart from anything which Dick might do, you are in terrible danger here, all the more if you really have accomplished something. Why not go now, at this moment? Why wait? These few hours may make all the difference."
"They may, indeed, make all the difference to my life," he answered. "That is for you."
He followed Mills, who had obeyed her summons, out of the room. Philippa moved to the window and watched him until he had disappeared. Then very slowly she left the room, walked up the stairs, made her way to her own little suite of apartments, and locked the door.