“I want Helen to hear you,” she confided, with a wonderful little smile.
“Philippa, don’t mock me,” he pleaded. “If this is only amusement to you, tell me so and let me go away. It is the first time in my life that a woman has come between me and my work. I am no longer master of myself. I am obsessed with you. I want nothing else in life but your love.”
There was an almost startling change in Philippa’s face. The banter which had served her with so much effect, which she had relied upon as her defensive weapon, was suddenly useless. Lessingham had created an atmosphere around him, an atmosphere of sincerity.
“Are you in earnest?” she faltered.
“God knows I am!” he insisted.
“You—you care for me?”
“So much,” he answered passionately, “that for your sake I would sacrifice my honour, my country, my life.”
“But I’ve only known you for such a short time,” Philippa protested, “and you’re an enemy.”
“I discard my birth. I renounce my adopted country,” he declared fiercely. “You have swept my life clear of every scrap of ambition and patriotism. You have filled it with one thing only—a great, consuming love.”
“Have you forgotten my husband?”
“Do you think that if he had been a different sort of man I should have dared to speak? Ask yourself how you can continue to live with him? You can call him which you will. Both are equally disgraceful. Your heart knows the truth. He is either a coward or a philanderer.”
Philippa’s cheeks were suddenly white. Her eyes flashed. His words had stung her to the quick.
“A coward?” she repeated furiously. “You dare to call Henry that?”
Lessingham rose abruptly to his feet. He moved restlessly about the room. His fists were clenched, his tone thick with passion.
“I do!” he pronounced. “Philippa, look at this matter without prejudice. Do you believe that there is a single man of any country, of your husband’s age and rank, who would be content to trawl the seas for fish whilst his country’s blood is being drained dry? Who would weigh a codling,” he added, pointing scornfully to the scales, “whilst the funeral march of heroes is beating throughout the world? The thing is insensate, impossible!”
Philippa’s head drooped. Her hands were nervously intertwined.
“Don’t!” she pleaded, “I have suffered so much.”
“Forgive me,” he begged, with a sudden change of voice. “If I am mistaken in your husband—and there is always the chance—I am sorry. I will confess that I myself had a different opinion of him, but I can only judge from what I have seen and from that there is no one in the world who would not agree with me that your husband is unworthy of you.”
“Oh, please stop!” Philippa cried. “Stop at once!”
Lessingham came back to his place by her side. His voice was still shaking, but it had grown very soft.