The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
During the next half-hour, Hamel was introduced to luxuries to which, in a general way, he was entirely unaccustomed. One man-servant was busy preparing his bath in a room leading out of his sleeping apartment, while another brought him a choice of evening clothes and superintended his disrobing. Hamel, always observant, studied his surroundings with keen interest. He found himself in a queerly mixed atmosphere of luxurious modernity and stately antiquity. His four-poster, the huge couch at the foot of his bed, and all the furniture about the room, was of the Queen Anne period. The bathroom which communicated with his apartment was the latest triumph of the plumber's art - a room with floor and walls of white tiles, the bath itself a little sunken and twice the ordinary size. He dispensed so far as he could with the services of the men and descended, as soon as he was dressed, into the hall. Meekins was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, dressed now in somber black.
"Mr. Fentolin will be glad if you will step into his room, sir," he announced, leading the way.
Mr. Fentolin was seated in his chair, reading the Times in a corner of his library. Shaped blocks had been placed behind and in front of the wheels of his little vehicle, to prevent it from moving. A shaded reading-lamp stood on the table by his side. He did not at once look up, and Hamel glanced around with genuine admiration. The shelves which lined the walls and the winged cases which protruded into the room were filled with books. There was a large oak table with beautifully carved legs, piled with all sorts of modern reviews and magazines. A log fire was burning in the big oaken grate. The perfume from a great bowl of lavender seemed to mingle curiously yet pleasantly with the half musty odour of the old leather-hound volumes. The massive chimneypiece was of black oak, and above it were carved the arms of the House of Fentolin. The walls were oak-panelled to the ceiling.
"Refreshed, I hope, by your bath and change, my dear visitor?" the head of the house remarked, as he laid down his paper. "Draw a chair up here and join me in a glass of vermouth. You need not be afraid of it. It comes to me from the maker as a special favour.
Hamel accepted a quaintly-cut wine-glass full of the amber liquid. Mr. Fentolin sipped his with the air of a connoisseur.
"This," he continued, "is one of our informal days. There is no one in the house save my sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, and a poor invalid gentleman who, I am sorry to say, is confined to his bed. My sister-in-law is also, I regret to say, indisposed. She desired me to present her excuses to you and say how greatly she is looking forward to making your acquaintance during the next few days."
"It is very kind of Mrs. Fentolin," he murmured.
"On these occasions," Mr. Fentolin continued, "we do not make use of a drawing-room. My niece will come in here presently. You are looking at my books, I see. Are you, by any chance, a bibliophile? I have a case of manuscripts here which might interest you.
Hamel shook his head.
"Only in the abstract, I fear," he answered. "I have scarcely opened a serious book since I was at Oxford."
"What was your year?" Mr. Fentolin asked.
"Fourteen years ago I left Magdalen," Hamel replied. "I had made up my mind to he an engineer, and I went over to the Boston Institute of Technology."
Mr. Fentolin nodded appreciatively.
"A magnificent profession," he murmured. "A healthy one, too, I should judge from your appearance. You are a strong man, Mr. Hamel."
"I have had reason to be," Hamel rejoined. "During nearly the whole of the time I have been abroad, I have been practically pioneering. Building railways in the far West, with gangs of Chinese and Italians and Hungarians and scarcely a foreman who isn't terrified of his job, isn't exactly drawing-room work."
"You are going back there?" Mr. Fentolin asked, with interest.
Hamel shook his head.
"I have no plans," he declared. "I have been fortunate enough, or shall I some day say unfortunate enough, I wonder, to have inherited a large legacy."
Mr. Fentolin smiled.
"Don't ever doubt your good fortune," he said earnestly. "The longer I live - and in my limited way I do see a good deal of life - the more I appreciate the fact that there isn't anything in this world that compares with the power of money. I distrust a poor man. He may mean to be honest, but he is at all times subject to temptation. Ah! here is my niece.
Mr. Fentolin turned towards the door. Hamel rose at once to his feet. His surmise, then, had been correct. She was coming towards them very quietly. In her soft grey dinner-gown, her brown hair smoothly brushed back, a pearl necklace around her long, delicate neck, she seemed to him a very exquisite embodiment of those memories which he had been carrying about throughout the afternoon.
"Here, Mr. Hamel," his host said, " is a member of my family who has been a deserter for a short time. This is Mr. Richard Hamel, Esther; my niece, Miss Esther Fentolin."
She held out her hand with the faintest possible smile, which might have been of greeting or recognition.
"I travelled for some distance in the train with Mr. Hamel this afternoon, I think," she remarked.
"Indeed?" Mr. Fentolin exclaimed. "Dear me, that is very interesting - very interesting, indeed! Mr. Hamel, I am sure, did not tell you of his destination?"
He watched them keenly. Hamel, though he scareely understood, was quick to appreciate the possible significance of that tentative question.
"We did not exchange confidences," he observed. "Miss Fentolin only changed into my carriage during the last few minutes of her journey. Besides," he continued, "to tell you the truth, my ideas as to my destination were a little hazy. To come and look for some queer sort of building by the side of the sea, which has been unoccupied for a dozen years or so, scarcely seems a reasonable quest, does it?"
"Scarcely, indeed," Mr. Fentolin assented. "You may thank me, Mr. Hamel, for the fact that the place is not in ruins. My blatant trespassing has saved you from that, at least. After dinner we must talk further about the Tower. To tell you the truth, I have grown accustomed to the use of the little place."
The sound of the dinner gong boomed through the house. A moment later Gerald entered, followed by a butler announcing dinner.
"The only remaining member of my family," Mr. Fentolin remarked, indicating his nephew. "Gerald, you will be pleased, I know, to meet Mr. Hamel. Mr. Hamel has been a great traveller. Long before you can remember, his father used to paint wonderful pictures of this coast."
Gerald shook hands with his visitor. His face, for a moment, lighted up. He was looking pale, though, and singularly sullen and dejected.
"There are two of your father's pictures in the modern side of the gallery up-stairs," he remarked, a little diffidently. "They are great favourites with everybody here."
They all went in to dinner together. Meekins, who had appeared silently, had glided unnoticed behind his master's chair and wheeled it across the hall.
"A partie carree to-night," Mr. Fentolin declared. "I have a resident doctor here, a very delightful person, who often dines with us, but to-night I thought not. Five is an awkward number. I want to get to know you better, Mr. Hamel, and quickly. I want you, too, to make friends with my niece and nephew. Mr. Hamel's father," he went on, addressing the two latter," and your father were great friends. By-the-by, have I told you both exactly why Mr. Hamel is a guest here to-night - why he came to these parts at all? No? Listen, then. He came to take possession of the Tower. The worst of it is that it belongs to him, too. His father bought it from your father more years ago than we should care to talk about. I have really been a trespasser all this time."
They took their places at a small round table in the middle of the dining-room. The shaded lights thrown downwards upon the table seemed to leave most of the rest of the apartment in semi-darkness. The gloomy faces of the men and women whose pictures hung upon the walls were almost invisible. The servants themselves, standing a little outside the halo of light, were like shadows passing swiftly and noiselessly back and forth. At the far end of the room was an organ, and to the left a little balcony, built out as though for an orchestra. Hamel looked about him almost in wonderment. There was something curiously impressive in the size of the apartment and its emptiness.
"A trespasser," Mr. Fentolin continued, as he took up the menu and criticised it through his horn-rimmed eyeglass, "that is what I have been, without a doubt."
"But for your interest and consequent trespass," Hamel remarked, "I should probably have found the roof off and the whole place in ruins."
"Instead of which you found the door locked against you," Mr. Fentolin pointed out. "Well, we shall see. I might, at any rate, have lost the opportunity of entertaining you here this evening. I am particularly glad to have an opportunity of making you known to my niece and nephew. I think you will agree with me that here are two young people who are highly to be commended. I cannot offer them a cheerful life here. There is little society, no gaiety, no sort of excitement. Yet they never leave me. They seem to have no other interest in life but to be always at my beck and call. A case, Mr. Hamel, of really touching devotion. If anything could reconcile me to my miserable condition, it would he the kindness and consideration of those by whom I am surrounded."
Hamel murmured a few words of cordial agreement. Yet he found himself, in a sense, embarrassed. Gerald was looking down upon his plate and his face was hidden. Esther's features had suddenly become stony and expressionless. Hamel felt instinctively that something was wrong.
"There are compensations," Mr. Fentolin continued, with the air of one enjoying speech, "which find their way into even the gloomiest of lives. As I lie on my back, hour after hour, I feel all the more conscious of this. The world is a school of compensations, Mr. Hamel. The interests - the mental interests, I mean - of unfortunate people like myself, come to possess in time a peculiar significance and to yield a peculiar pleasure. I have hobbies, Mr. Hamel. I frankly admit it. Without my hobbies, I shudder to think what might become of me. I might become a selfish, cruel, misanthropical person. Hobbies are indeed a great thing."
The brother and sister sat still in stony silence. Hamel, looking across the little table with its glittering load of cut glass and silver and scarlet flowers, caught something in Esther's eyes, so rarely expressive of any emotion whatever, which puzzled him. He looked swiftly back at his host. Mr. Fentolin's face, at that moment, was like a beautiful cameo. His expression was one of gentle benevolence.
"Let me be quite frank with you," Mr. Fentolin murmured. "My occupation of the Tower is one of these hobbies. I love to sit there within a few yards of the sea and watch the tide come in. I catch something of the spirit, I think, which caught your father, Mr. Hamel, and kept him a prisoner here. In my small way I, too, paint while I am down there, paint and dream. These things may not appeal to you, but you must remember that there are few things left to me in life, and that those, therefore, which I can make use of, are dear to me. Gerald, you are silent to-night. How is it that you say nothing?"
"I am tired, sir," the boy answered quietly.
Mr. Fentolin nodded gravely.
"It is inexcusable of me," he declared smoothly, "to have forgotten even for a moment. My nephew, Mr. Hamel," he went on, "had quite an exciting experience last night - or rather a series of experiences. He was first of all in a railway accident, and then, for the sake of a poor fellow who was with him and who was badly hurt, he motored back here in the grey hours of the morning and ran, they tell me, considerable risk of being drowned on the marshes. A very wonderful and praiseworthy adventure, I consider it. I trust that our friend up-stairs, when he recovers, will be properly grateful."
Gerald rose to his feet precipitately. The service of dinner was almost concluded, and he muttered something which sounded like an excuse. Mr. Fentolin, however, stretched out his band and motioned him to resume his seat.
"My dear Gerald!" he exclaimed reprovingly. "You would leave us so abruptly? Before your sister, too! What will Mr. Hamel think of our country ways? Pray resume your seat."
For a moment the boy stood quite still, then he slowly subsided into his chair. Mr. Fentolin passed around a decanter of wine which had been placed upon the table by the butler. The servants had now left the room.
"You must excuse my nephew, if you please, Mr. Hamel," he begged. "Gerald has a boy's curious aversion to praise in any form. I am looking forward to hearing your verdict upon my port. The collection of wine and pictures was a hobby of my grandfather's, for which we, his descendants, can never be sufficiently grateful."
Hamel praised his wine, as indeed he had every reason to, but for a few moments the smooth conversation of his host fell upon deaf ears. He looked from the boy's face, pale and wrinkled as though with some sort of suppressed pain, to the girl's still, stony expression. This was indeed a house of mysteries! There was something here incomprehensible, some thing about the relations of these three and their knowledge of one another, utterly baffling. It was the queerest household, surely, into which any stranger had ver been precipitated.
"The planting of trees and the laying down of port are two virtues in our ancestors which have never been properly appreciated," Mr. Fentolin continued. "Let us, at any rate, free ourselves from the reproach of ingratitude so far as regards my grandfather - Gerald Fentolin - to whom I believe we are indebted for this wine. We will drink -"
Mr. Fentolin broke off in the middle of his sentence. The august calm of the great house had been suddenly broken. From up-stairs came the tumult of raised voices, the slamming of a door, the falling of something heavy upon the floor. Mr. Fentolin listened with a grim change in his expression. His smile had departed, his lower lip was thrust out, his eyebrows met. He raised the little whistle which hung from his chain. At that moment, however, the door was opened. Doctor Sarson appeared.
"I am sorry to disturb you, Mr. Fentolin," he said, "but our patient is becoming a little difficult. The concussion has left him, as I feared it might, in a state of nervous excitability. He insists upon an interview with you."
Mr. Fentolin backed his little chair from the table. The doctor came over and laid his hand upon the handle.
"You will, I am sure, excuse me for a few moments, Mr. Hamel," his host begged. "My niece and nephew will do their best to entertain you. Now, Sarson, I am ready."
Mr. Fentolin glided across the dim, empty spaces of the splendid apartment, followed by the doctor; a ghostly little procession it seemed. The door was closed behind them. For a few moments a curious silence ensued. Gerald remained tense and apparently suffering from some sort of suppressed emotion. Esther for the first time moved in her place. She leaned towards Hamel. Her lips were slowly parted, her eyes sought the door as though in terror. Her voice, although save for themselves there was no one else in the whole of that great apartment, had sunk to the lowest of whispers.
"Are you a brave man, Mr. Hamel?" she asked.
He was staggered but he answered her promptly.
"I believe so."
"Don't give up the Tower - just yet. That is what - he has brought you here for. He wants you to give it up and go back. Don't!"
The earnestness of her words was unmistakable. Hamel felt the thrill of coming events.
"Don't ask me," she begged. "Only if you are brave, if you have feeling for others, keep the Tower, if it be for only a week. Hush!"
The door had been noiselessly opened. The doctor appeared and advanced to the table with a grave little bow.
"Mr. Fentolin," he said, "has been kind enough to suggest that I take a glass of wine with you. My presence is not needed up-stairs. Mr. Hamel," he added, "I am glad, sir, to make your acquaintance. I have for a long time been a great admirer of your father's work."
He took his place at the head of the table and, filling his glass, bowed towards Hamel. Once more Gerald and his sister relapsed almost automatically into an indifferent and cultivated silence. Hamel found civility towards the newcomer difficult. Unconsciously his attitude became that of the other two. He resented the intrusion. He found himself regarding the advent of Doctor Sarson as possessing some secondary significance. It was almost as though Mr. Fentolin preferred not to leave him alone with his niece and nephew.
Neverthe1ess, his voice, when he spoke, was clear and firm.