The Zeppelin's Passenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Mills' words were plainly audible throughout the room. Philippa made eager signs to Lessingham, pointing to the French windows. Lessingham, however, shook his head.
"I prefer," he said gently, "to finish my conversation with your husband."'
There was another and more insistent summons from outside. This time it was Captain Griffiths' raucous voice.
"Sir Henry Cranston," he called out, "I am here with authority. I beg to be admitted."
"Where is your escort?"
"In the hall."
"If I let you come in," Sir Henry continued, "will you come alone?"
"I should prefer it," was the eager reply. "I wish to make this business as little unpleasant to - to everybody as possible."
Sir Henry softly turned the key, opened the door, and admitted Griffiths. The man seemed to see no one else but Lessingham. He would have hastened at once towards him, but Sir Henry laid his hand upon his arm.
"You must kindly restrain your impatience for a few moments," he insisted. "This is a private conference. Your business with the Baron Maderstrom can be adjusted later."
"It is my duty," Griffiths proclaimed impatiently, "to arrest that man as a spy. I have authority, granted me this morning in London."
"Quite so," Sir Henry observed, "but we are in the midst of a very interesting little discussion which I intend to conclude. Your turn will come later, Captain Griffiths."
"I can countenance no discussion with such men as that," Griffiths declared scornfully. "I am here in the execution of my duty, and I resent any interference with it."
"No one wishes to interfere with you," Sir Henry assured him, "but until I say the word you will obey my orders."
"So far as I am concerned," Lessingham intervened, "I wish it to be understood that I offer no defence."
"You have no defence," Sir Henry reminded him suavely. "I gather that not only had you the effrontery to steal a chart from my pocket in the midst of a life struggle upon the trawler, but you have capped this exploit with a deliberate attempt to abduct my wife." Griffiths seemed for a moment almost beside himself. His eyes glowed. His long fingers twitched. He kept edging a little nearer to Lessingham.
"Both charges," the latter confessed, looking Sir Henry in the eyes, "are true."
Then Philippa found herself. She saw the sudden flash in her husband's eyes, the grim fury in Griffiths' face. She stepped once more forward.
"Henry," she insisted, "you must listen to what I have to say."
"We have had enough words," Griffiths interposed savagely.
Sir Henry ignored the interruption.
"I am listening, Philippa," he said calmly.
"It was my intention an hour ago to leave this place with Mr. Lessingham to-night," she told him deliberately.
"The devil it was!" Sir Henry muttered.
"As for the reason, you know it," she continued, her tone full of courage. "I am willing to throw myself at your feet now, but all the same I was hardly treated. I was made the scapegoat of your stupid promise. You kept me in ignorance of things a wife should know. You even encouraged me to believe you a coward, when a single word from you would have changed everything. Therefore, I say that it is you who are responsible for what I nearly did, and what I should have done but for him - listen, Henry - but for him!"
"But for him," her husband repeated curiously.
"It was Mr. Lessingham," she declared, "who opened my eyes concerning you. It was he who refused to let me yield to that impulse of anger. Look at my coat there. My bag is on that table. I was ready to leave with him to-night. Before we went, he insisted on telling me everything about you. He could have escaped, and I was willing to go with him. Instead, he spent those precious minutes telling me the truth about you. That was the end."
"Lady Cranston omits to add," Lessingham put in, "that before I did so she told me frankly that her feelings for me were of warm friendliness - that her love was given to her husband, and her husband only."
"How long is this to go on?" Griffiths asked harshly. "I have the authority here and the power to take that man. These domestic explanations have nothing to do with the case."
"Excuse me," Sir Henry retorted, with quiet emphasis, "they have a great deal to do with it."
"I am Commandant of this place -" Griffiths commenced. "And I possess an authority here which you had better not dispute," Sir Henry reminded him sternly.
There was a moment's tense silence. Griffiths set his teeth hard, but his hand wandered towards the back of his belt.
"I am now," Sir Henry continued, "going to announce to you a piece of news, over which we shall all be gloating when to-morrow morning's newspapers are issued, but which is not as yet generally known. During last night, a considerable squadron of German cruisers managed to cross the North Sea and found their way to a certain port of considerable importance to us.
Lessingham started, His face was drawn as though with pain. He had the air of one who shrinks from the news he is about to hear.
"Incidentally," Sir Henry continued, "three-quarters of the squadron also found their way to the bottom of the sea, and the other quarter met our own squadron, lying in wait for their retreat, and will not return."
Lessingham swayed for a moment upon his feet. One could almost fancy that Sir Henry's tone was tinged with pity as he turned towards him.
"The chart of the mine field of which you possessed yourself, he said, "which it was the object of your visit here to secure, was a chart specially prepared for you. You see, our own Secret Service is not altogether asleep. Those very safe and inviting-looking channels for British and Allied traffic - I marked them very clearly, didn't I? - were where I'd laid my mines. The channels which your cruisers so carefully avoided were the only safe avenues. So you see why it is, Maderstrom, that I have no grudge against you."
Lessingham's face for a moment was the face of a stricken man. There was a look of dull horror in his eyes.
"Is this the truth?" he gasped.
"It is the truth," Sir Henry assured him gravely.
"Does this conclude the explanations?" Captain Griffiths demanded impatiently. "Your news is magnificent, Sir Henry. As regards this felon - "
Sir Henry held up his hand.
"Maderstrom's fate," he said, "is mine to deal with and not yours, Captain Griffiths."
Philippa was the first to grasp the intentions of the man who was standing only a few feet from her. She threw herself upon his arm and dragged down the revolver which he had raised. Sir Henry, with a shout of fury, was upon them at once. He took Griffiths by the throat and threw him upon the sofa. The revolver clattered harmlessly on to the carpet. "His Majesty's Service has no use for madmen," he thundered. "You know that I possess superior authority here."
"That man shall not escape!" Griffiths shouted.
He struggled for his whistle. Sir Henry snatched it from him and picked up the revolver from the carpet.
"Look here, Griffiths," he remonstrated severely, "one single move in opposition to my wishes will cost you your career. Let there be no misunderstanding about it. That man will not be arrested by you to-night."
Griffiths staggered to his feet. He was half cowed, half furious.
"You take the responsibility for this, Sir Henry?" he demanded thickly. "The man is a proved traitor. If you assist him to escape, you are subject to penalties - "
Sir Henry threw open the door.
"Captain Griffiths," he interrupted, "I am not ignorant of my position in this matter. Believe me, your last chance of retaining your position here is to remember that you have had specific orders to yield to my authority in all matters. Kindly leave this room and take your soldiers back to their quarters."
Griffiths hesitated for a single moment. He had the appearance of a man half demented by a passion which could find no outlet. Then he left the room, without salute, without a glance to the right or to the left. Out in the hall, a moment later, they heard a harsh voice of command. The hall door was opened and closed behind the sound of retreating footsteps.
"Sir Henry," Lessingham reminded him, "I have not asked for your intervention."
"My dear fellow, you wouldn't," was the prompt reply. "As for the little trouble that has happened in the North Sea, don't take it too much to heart, it was entirely the fault of the people who sent you here."
"The fault of the people who sent me here," Lessingham repeated. "I scarcely understand."
"It's simple enough," Sir Henry continued. "You see, you are about as fit to be a spy as Philippa, my wife here, is to be a detective. You possess the one insuperable obstacle of having the instincts of a gentleman. - Come, come," he went on, "we have nothing more to say to one another. Open that window and take the narrow path down to the beach. Jimmy Dumble is waiting for you at the gate. He will row you out to a Dutch trawler which is lying even now off the point."
"You mean me to get away?" Lessingham exclaimed, bewildered. "Believe me, it will cost nothing," Sir Henry assured him. "I was not bluffing when I told Captain Griffiths that I had supreme authority here. He knows perfectly well that I am within my rights in aiding your escape."
Philippa moved swiftly to where Lessingham was standing. She gave him her hands.
"Dear friend," she begged, "so wonderful a friend as you have been, don't refuse this last thing."
"Be a sensible fellow, Maderstrom," Sir Henry said. "Remember that you can't do yourself or your adopted country a ha'porth of good by playing the Quixote."
"Besides," Philippa continued, holding his hands tightly, "it is, after all, only an exchange. You have saved Henry's life, set Richard free, and brought us happiness. Why should you hesitate to accept your own liberty?"
Sir Henry threw open the window and looked towards a green light out at sea.
"There's your trawler," he pointed out, "and remember the tide will turn in half an hour. I don't wish to hurry you "
Lessingham raised Philippa's fingers to his lips.
"I shall think of you both always," he said simply. "You are very wonderful people."
He turned towards the window. Sir Henry took up the Homburg hat from the table by his side.
"Better take your hat," he suggested.
Lessingham paused, accepted it, and looked steadfastly at the donor.
"You knew from the first?" he asked.
"From the very first," Sir Henry assured him. "Don't look so confounded," he went on consolingly. "Remember that espionage is the only profession in which it is an honour to fail."
Philippa came a little shyly into her husband's arms, as he turned back into the room. The tenderness in his own face, however, and a little catch in his voice, broke down at once the wall of reserve which had grown up between them.
"My dear little woman!" he murmured. "My little sweetheart! You don't know how I've ached to explain everything to you - including the Russian ladies."
"Explain them at once, sir!" Philippa insisted, pretending to draw her face away for a moment.
"They were the wife and sister-in-law of the Russian Admiral, Draskieff, who was sent over to report upon our method of mine laying," he told her.
"You and I have to go up to a little dinner they are giving to-morrow or the next day.
"Oh, dear, what an idiot I was!" Philippa exclaimed ruefully. "I imagined - all sorts of things. But, Henry dear," she went on, "do you know that we have a great surprise for you - here in the house?"
"No surprise, dear," he assured her, shaking his head. "I knew the very hour that Richard left Wittenberg. And here he is, by Jove!"
Richard and Helen entered together. Philippa could not even wait for the conclusion of the hearty but exceedingly British greeting which passed between the two men.
"Listen to me, both of you!" she cried incoherently.- "Helen, you especially! You never heard anything so wonderful in your life! They weren't fishing excursions at all. There weren't any whiting. Henry was laying mines all the time, and he's blown up half the German fleet! It's all in the Times this morning. He's got a D.S.0. - Henry has - and he's a Rear-Admiral! Oh, Helen, I want to cry!"
The two women wandered into a far corner of the room. Richard wrung his brother-inlaw's hand.
"Philippa isn't exactly coherent," he remarked, "but it sounds all right."
"You see," Sir Henry explained, "I've been mine laying ever since the war started. I always had ideas of my own about mine fields, as you may remember. I started with Scotland, and then they moved me down here. The Admiralty thought they'd be mighty clever, and they insisted upon my keeping my job secret. It led to a little trouble with Philippa, but I think we are through with all that. - I suppose you know that those two young women have been engaged in a regular conspiracy, Dick?"
"I know a little," Richard replied gravely, "and I'm sure you will believe that I wouldn't have countenanced it for a moment if I'd had any idea what they were up to."
"I'm sure you wouldn't," Sir Henry agreed. "Anyway, it led to no harm."
"Maderstrom, then," Richard asked, with a sudden more complete apprehension of the affair, "was over here to spy upon you?"
"That's the ticket," Sir Henry assented.
"And he bribed Philippa and Helen with my liberty!"
"Don't you worry about that," his brother-in-law begged. "They must have known by instinct that a chap like Maderstrom couldn't do any harm."
"Where is he now?" Richard asked eagerly. "Helen insisted upon keeping me out of the way but we've heard all sorts of rumours. The Commandant has been up here after him, hasn't he?"
"Yes, and I sent him away with a flea in his ear! I don't like the fellow."
"The pseudo-Mr. Lessingham, eh?" Sir Henry observed. "Well, to tell you the truth, Dick, if there is one person I am a little sorry for in the history of the last few weeks, it's Maderstrom."
"You, too?" Richard exclaimed. "Why, every one seems crazy about the fellow."
Sir Henry nodded.
"I remember him in your college days, Dick. He was a gentleman and a good sort, only unfortunately his mother was a German. He did his bit of soldiering with the Prussian Guards at the beginning of the war, got a knock and volunteered for the Secret Service. They sent him over here. The fellow must have no end of pluck, for, as I dare say you know, they let him down from the observation car of a Zeppelin. He finds his way here all right, makes his silly little bargain with our dear but gullible womenkind, and sets himself to watch - to watch me, mind. The whole affair is too ridiculously transparent. For a time he can't bring himself even to touch my papers here, although, as it happens, they wouldn't have done him the least bit of good. It was only the stress and excitement of the shipwreck last week that he ventured to steal the chart which I had so carefully prepared for him. I really think, if he hadn't done that, I should have had to slip it into his pocket or absolutely force it upon him somehow. He sends it off like a lamb and behold the result! We've crippled the German Navy for the rest of the war."
"It was a faked chart, then, of course?" Richard demanded breathlessly.
"And quite the cleverest I ever prepared," Sir Henry acknowledged. "I can assure you that it would have taken in Von Tirpitz himself, if he'd got hold of it."
"But where is Maderstrom now, sir?" Richard asked.
Sir Henry moved his head towards the window, where Philippa, for the last few moments, had softly taken her place. Her eyes were watching a green light bobbing up and down in the distance. Suddenly she gave a little exclamation.
"It's moving!" she cried. "He's off!"
"He's safe on a Dutch trawler," Sir Henry declared. "And I think," he added, moving towards the sideboard, "it's time you and I had a drink together, Dick."
They helped themselves to whisky and soda. There were still many explanations to be given. Half-concealed by the curtain, Philippa stood with her eyes turned seawards. The green light was dimmer now, and the low, black outline of the trawler crept slowly over the glittering track of moonlight. She gave a little start as it came into sight. There was a sob in her throat, tears burning in her eyes. Her fingers clutched the curtains almost passionately. She stood there watching until her eyes ached. Then she felt an arm around her waist and her husband's whisper in her ear.
I haven't let you wander too far, have I, Phil?"
She turned quickly towards him, eager for the comfort of his extended arms. Her face was buried in his shoulder.
"You know," she murmured.