The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Mr. Fentolin raised to his lips the little gold whistle which hung from his neck and blew it. He seemed to devote very little effort to the operation, yet the strength of the note was wonderful. As the echoes died away, he let it fall by his side and waited with a pleased smile upon his lips. In a few seconds there was the hurried flutter of skirts and the sound of footsteps. The girl who had just completed her railway journey entered, followed by her brother. They were both a little out of breath, they both approached the chair without a smile, the girl in advance, with a certain expression of apprehension in her eyes. Mr. Fentolin sighed. He appeared to notice these things and regret them.
"My child," he said, holding out his hands, "my dear Esther, welcome home again! I heard the car outside. I am grieved that you did not at once hurry to my side."
"I have not been in the house two minutes," Esther replied, "and I haven't seen mother yet. Forgive me."
She had come to a standstill a few yards away. She moved now very slowly towards the chair, with the air of one fulfilling a hateful task. The fingers which accepted his hands were extended almost hesitatingly. He drew her closer to him and held her there.
"Your mother, my dear Esther, is, I regret to say, suffering from a slight indisposition," he remarked. "She has been confined to her room for the last few days. Just a trifling affair of the nerves; nothing more, Doctor Sarson assures me. But my dear child," he went on, "your fingers are as cold as ice. You look at me so strangely, too. Alas! you have not the affectionate disposition of your dear mother. One would scarcely believe that we have been parted for more than a week."
"For more than a week," she repeated, under her breath.
"Stoop down, my dear. I must kiss your forehead - there! Now bring up a chair to my side. You seem frightened - alarmed. Have you ill news for me?"
"I have no news," she answered, gradually recovering herself.
"The gaieties of London, I fear," he protested gently, "have proved a little unsettling."
"There were no gaieties for me," the girl replied bitterly. "Mrs. Sargent obeyed your orders very faithfully. I was not allowed to move out except with her."
"My dear child, you would not go about London unchaperoned!"
"There is a difference," she retorted, "between a chaperon and a jailer."
Mr. Fentolin sighed. He shook his head slowly. He seemed pained.
"I am not sure that you repay my care as it deserves, Esther," he declared. "There is something in your deportment which disappoints me. Never mind, your brother has made some atonement. I entrusted him with a little mission in which I am glad to say that he has been brilliantly successful."
"I cannot say that I am glad to hear it," Esther replied quietly.
Mr. Fentolin sat back in his chair. His long fingers played nervously together, he looked at her gravely.
"My dear child," he exclaimed, in a tone of pained surprise, "your attitude distresses me!"
"I cannot help it. I have told you what I think about Gerald and the life he is compelled to live here. I don't mind so much for myself, but for him I think it is abominable."
"The same as ever," Mr. Fentolin sighed. "I fear that this little change has done you no good, dear niece.
"Change!" she echoed. "It was only a change of prisons."
Mr. Fentolin shook his head slowly - a distressful gesture. Yet all the time he had somehow the air of a man secretly gratified.
"You are beginning to depress me," he announced. "I think that you can go away. No, stop for just one moment. Stand there in the light. Dear me, how unfortunate! Who would have thought that so beautiful a mother could have so plain a daughter!"
She stood quite still before him, her hands crossed in front of her, something of the look of the nun from whom the power of suffering has gone in her still, cold face and steadfast eyes.
"Not a touch of colour," he continued meditatively, "a figure straight as my walking-stick. What a pity! And all the taste, nowadays, they tell me, is in the other direction. The lank damsels have gone completely out. We buried them with Oscar Wilde. Run along, my dear child. You do not amuse me. You can take Gerald with you, if you will. I have nothing to say to Gerald just now. He is in my good books. Is there anything I can do for you, Gerald? Your allowance, for instance - a trifling increase or an advance? I am in a generous humour."
"Then grant me what I begged for the other day," the boy answered quickly. "Let me go to Sandhurst. I could enter my name next week for the examinations, and I could pass to-morrow."
Mr. Fentolin tapped the table thoughtfully with his forefinger.
"A little ungrateful, my dear boy," he declared, "a little ungrateful that, I think. Your confidence in yourself pleases me, though. You think you could pass your examinations?"
"I did a set of papers last week," the boy replied. "On the given percentages I came out twelfth or better. Mr. Brown assured me that I could go in for them at any moment. He promised to write you about it before he left."
Mr. Fentolin nodded gently.
"Now I come to think of it, I did have a letter from Mr. Brown," he remarked. "Rather an impertinence for a tutor, I thought it. He devoted three pages towards impressing upon me the necessity of your adopting some sort of a career."
"He wrote because he thought it was his duty," the boy said doggedly.
"So you want to be a soldier," Mr. Fentolln continued musingly. "Well, well, why not? Our picture galleries are full of them. There has been a Fentolin in every great battle for the last five hundred years. Sailors, too - plenty of them - and just a few diplomatists. Brave fellows! Not one, I fancy," he added, "like me - not one condemned to pass their days in a perambulator. You are a fine fellow, Gerald - a regular Fentolin. Getting on for six feet, aren't you?
" Six feet two, sir."
"A very fine fellow," Mr. Fentolin repeated. "I am not so sure about the army, Gerald. You see, there are some people who say, like your American friend, that we are even now almost on the brink of war."
"All the more reason for me to hurry," the boy begged.
Mr. Fentolin closed his eyes.
"Don't!" he insisted. "Have you ever stopped to think what war means - the war you speak of so lightly? The suffering, the misery of it! All the pageantry and music and heroism in front; and behind, a blackened world, a trail of writhing corpses, a world of weeping women for whom the sun shall never rise again. Ugh! An ugly thing war, Gerald. I am not sure that you are not better at home here. Why not practise golf a little more assiduously? I see from the local paper that you are still playing at two handicap. Now with your physique, I should have thought you would have been a scratch player long before now."
"I play cricket, sir," the boy reminded him, a little impatiently, "and, after all, there are other things in the world besides games."
Mr. Fentolin's long finger shot suddenly out. He was leaning a little from his chair. His expression of gentle immobility had passed away. His face was stern, almost stony.
"You have spoken the truth, Gerald," he said. "There are other things in the world besides games. There is the real, the tragical side of life, the duties one takes up, the obligations of honour. You have not forgotten, young man, the burden you carry?"
The boy was paler, but he had drawn himself to his full height.
"I have not forgotten, sir," he answered bitterly. "Do I show any signs of forgetting? Haven't I done your bidding year by year? Aren't I here now to do it?"
"Then do it !" Mr. Fentolin retorted sharply. "When I am ready for you to leave here, you shall leave. Until then, you are mine. Remember that. Ah! this is Doctor Sarson who comes, I believe. That must mean that it is five o'clock. Come in, Doctor. I am not engaged. You see, I am alone with my dear niece and nephew. We have been having a little pleasant conversation."
Doctor Sarson bowed to Esther, who scarcely glanced at him. He remained in the background, quietly waiting.
"A very delightful little conversation," Mr. Fentolin concluded. "I have been congratulating my nephew, Doctor, upon his wisdom in preferring the quiet country life down here to the wearisome routine of a profession. He escapes the embarrassing choice of a career by preferring to devote his life to my comfort. I shall not forget it. I shall not be ungrateful. I may have my faults, but I am not ungrateful Run away now, both of you. Dear children you are, but one wearies, you know, of everything. I am going out. You see, the twilight is coming. The tide is changing. I am going down to meet the sea."
His little carriage moved towards the door. The brother and sister passed out. Esther led Gerald into the great dining-room, and from there, through the open windows, out on to the terrace. She gripped his shoulder and pointed down to the Tower.
"Something," she whispered in his ear, "is going to happen there."