The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Mr. Fentolin, his carriage drawn up close to the beach, was painting steadily when Hamel stood once more by his side. His eyes moved only from the sea to the canvas. He never turned his head.
"So your wooing has not prospered, my young friend," he remarked gently. "I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
"Your niece has gone out to lunch," Hamel replied shortly.
Mr. Fentolin stopped painting. His face was full of concern as he looked up at Hamel.
"My dear sir," he exclaimed, "how can I apologise! Of course she has gone out to lunch. She has gone out to Lady Saxthorpe's. I remember the subject being discussed. I myself, in fact, was the instigator of her going. I owe you a thousand apologies, Mr. Hamel. Let me make what amends are possible for your useless journey. Dine with us to-night."
"You are very kind."
"A poor amends," Mr. Fentolin continued. "A morning like this was made for lovers. Sunshine and blue sky, a salt breeze flavoured just a little with that lavender, and a stroll through my spring gardens, where my hyacinths are like a field of purple and gold, a mantle of jewels upon the brown earth. Ah, well! One's thoughts will wander to the beautiful things of life. There were once women who loved me, Mr. Hamel."
Hamel looked doubtfully at the strange little figure in the chair. Was this genuine, he wondered, a voluntary outburst, or was it some subtle attempt to incite sympathy? Mr. Fentolin seemed almost to have read his thought.
"It is not for the sake of your pity that I say this," he continued. "Mine is only the passing across the line which age as well as infirmity makes inevitable. No one in the world who lives to grow old, and who has loved and felt the fire of it in his veins, can pass that line without sorrow, or look back without a pang. I am among a great army. Well, well, I shall paint no more to-day," he concluded abruptly.
"Where is your servant? " Hamel asked.
Mr. Fentolin glanced around him carelessly.
"He has wandered away out of sight. He knows well how necessary solitude is to me if once I take the brush between my fingers - solitude natural and entire, I mean. If any one is within a dozen yards of me I know it, even though I cannot see them. Meekins is wandering somewhere the other side of the Tower."
"Shall I call him ?"
"On no account," Mr. Fentolin begged. "Presently he will appear, in plenty of time. There is the morning to be passed - barely eleven o'clock, I think, now. I shall sit in my chair, and sink a little down, and dream of these beautiful lights, these rolling, foam-flecked waves, these patches of blue and shifting green. I can form them in my brain. I can make a picture there, even though my fingers refuse to move. You are not an aesthete, I think, Mr. Hamel? The study of beauty does not mean to you what it did to your father, and my father, and, in a smaller way to me."
"Perhaps not," Hamel confessed. "I believe I feel these things somewhere, because they bring a queer sense of content with them. I am afraid, though, that my artistic perceptions are not so keen as some men's."
Mr. Fentolin looked at him thoughtfully.
"It is the physical life in your veins - too splendid to permit you abstract pleasures. Compensations again, you see - compensations. I wonder what the law is that governs these things. I have forgotten sometimes," he went on, "forgotten my own infirmities in the soft intoxication of a wonderful seascape. Only," he went on, his face a little grey, "it is the physical in life which triumphs. There are the hungry hours which nothing will satisfy."
His head sank, his chin rested upon his chest. He had all the appearance now of a man who talks in bitter earnest. Yet Hamel wondered. He looked towards the Tower; there was no sign of Meekins. The sea-gulls went screaming above their heads. Mr. Fentolin never moved. His eyes seemed half closed. It was only when Hamel rose to his feet that he looked swiftly up.
"Stay with me, I beg you, Mr. Hamel," he said. "I am in one of the moods when solitude, even for a moment, is dangerous. Do you know what I have sometimes thought to myself?"
He pointed to the planked way which led down the steep, pebbly beach to the sea.
"I have sometimes thought," he went on, "that it would be glorious to find a friend to stand by my side at the top of the planks, just there, when the tide was high, and to bid him loose my chair and to steer it myself, to steer it down the narrow path into the arms of the sea. The first touch of the salt waves, the last touch of life. Why not? One sleeps without fear."
He lifted his head suddenly. Meekins had am peared, coming round from the back of the Tower. Instantly Mr. Fentolin's whole manner changed. He sat up in his chair.
"It is arranged, then," he said. "You dine with us to-night. For the other matters of which you have spoken, well, let them rest in the hands of the gods. You are not very kind to me. I am not sure whether you would make Esther a good husband. I am not sure, even, that I like you. You take no pains to make yourself agreeable. Considering that your father was an artist, you seem to me rather a dull and uninspired young man. But who can tell? There may be things stirring beneath that torpid brain of yours of which no other person knows save yourself."
The concentrated gaze of Mr. Fentolin's keen eyes was hard to meet, but Hamel came out of the ordeal without flinching.
"At eight o'clock, Mr. Fentolin," he answered. "I can see that I must try to earn your better opinion.
Hamel read steadily for the remainder of the morning. It was past one o'clock when he rose stiffly from his seat among the sand knolls and, strolling back to the Tower, opened the door and entered. The cloth was laid for luncheon in the little sitting-room, but there were no signs of Hannah Cox. He passed on into the kitchen and came to a sudden standstill. Once more the memory of his own work passed away from him. Once more he was back again among that queer, clouded tangle of strange suspicions, of thrilling, half-formed fears, which had assailed him at times ever since his arrival at St, David's. He stopped quite short. The words which rose to his lips died away. He felt the breathless, compelling need for silence and grew tense in the effort to make no sound.
Hannah Cox was kneeling on the stone floor. Her ear was close to the crack of the door which led into the boat-house. Her face, half turned from it, was set in a strange, concentrated passion of listening; her lips were parted, her eyes half closed. She took no more notice of Hamel or his arrival than if he had been some useless piece of furniture. Every faculty seemed to be absorbed in that one intense effort of listening. There was no need of her out-stretched finger. Hamel fell in at once with a mood so mesmeric. He, too, listened. The small clock which she had brought with her from the village ticked away upon the mantelpiece. The full sea fell with placid softness upon the high beach outside. Some slight noise of cooking came from the stove. Save for these things there was silence. Yet, for a space of time which Hamel could never have measured, they both listened. When at last the woman rose to her feet, Hamel, finding words at last, was surprised to find that his throat was dry.
"What is it, Mrs. Cox?" he asked. "Why were you listening there?"
Her face was absolutely expressionless. She was busying herself now with a small saucepan, and her back was turned towards him.
"I spend my life, sir," she said, "listening and waiting. One never knows when the end may come."
"But the boat-house," Hamel objected. "No one has been in there his morning, have they?"
"Who can tell?" she answered. "He could go anywhere when he chose, or how he chose - through the keyhole, if he wanted."
"But why listen?" Hamel persisted. "There is nothing in there now but some odds and ends of machinery."
She turned from the fire and looked at him for a moment. Her eyes were colourless, her tone unemotional.
"Maybe! There's no harm in listening."
"Did you hear anything which made you want to listen?"
"Who can tell?" she answered. "A woman who lives well-nigh alone, as I live, in a quiet place, hears things so often that other folk never listen to. There's always something in my ears, night or day. Sometimes I am not sure whether it's in this world or the other. It was like that with me just then. It was for that reason I listened. Your luncheon's ready, sir."
Hamel walked thoughtfully back into his sitting-room. He seated himself before a spotless cloth and watched Hannah Cox spread out his well-cooked, cleanly-served meal.
"If there's anything you want, sir," she said, "I shall hear you at a word. The kitchen door is open."
"One moment, Mrs. Cox."
She lingered there patiently, with the tray in her hand.
"There was some sound," Hamel continued, "perhaps a real sound, perhaps a fancy, which made you go down on your knees in the kitchen. Tell me what it was."
"The sound I always hear, sir," she answered quietly. "I hear it in the night, and I hear it when I stand by the sea and look out. I have heard it for so many years that who can tell whether it comes from this world or the other - the cry of men who die!"
She passed out. Hamel looked after her, for a moment, like a man in a dream, In his fancy he could see her back again once more in the kitchen, kneeling on the stone floor,- listening!