The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
A cold twilight had fallen upon the land when Hamel left the Tower that evening and walked briskly along the foot-way to the Hall. Little patches of mist hung over the creeks, the sky was almost frosty. The lights from St. David's Hall shone like cheerful beacons before him. He hastened up the stone steps, crossed the terrace, and passed into the hall. A servant conducted him at once to the drawing-room. Mrs. Fentolin, in a pink evening dress, with a pink ornament in her hair, held out both her hands. In the background, Mr. Fentolin, in his queerly-cut evening clothes, sat with folded arms, leaning back in his carriage. He listened grimly to his sister-in-law as she stood with Hamel's hands in hers.
"My dear Mr. Hamel!" she exclaimed. "How perfectly charming of you to come up and relieve a little our sad loneliness! Delightful, I call it, of you. I was just saying so to Miles."
Hamel looked around the room. Already his heart was beginning to sink.
"Miss Fentolin is well, I hope?" he asked.
"Well, but a very naughty girl," her mother declared. "I let her go to Lady Saxthorpe's to lunch, and now we have had simply the firmest letter from Lady Saxthorpe. They insist upon keeping Esther to dine and sleep. I have had to send her evening clothes, but you can't tell, Mr. Hamel, how I miss her."
Hamel's disappointment was a little too obvious to pass unnoticed. There was a shade of annoyance, too, in his face. Mr. Fentolin smoothly intervened.
"Let us be quite candid with Mr. Hamel, dear Florence," he begged. "I have spoken to my sister-in-law and told her the substance of our conversation this morning," he proceeded, wheeling his chair nearer to Hamel. "She is thunderstruck. She wishes to reflect, to consider. Esther chanced to be away. We have encouraged her absence for a few more hours."
"I hope, Mrs, Fentolin," Hamel said simply, " that you will give her to me. I am not a rich man, but I am fairly well off. I should be willing to live exactly where Esther wishes, and I would do my best to make her happy."
Mrs, Fentolin opened her lips once and closed them again. She laughed a little - a high-pitched, semi-hysterical laugh. The hand which gripped her fan was straining so that the blue veins stood out almost like whipcord.
"Esther is very young, Mr. Hamel. We must talk this over. You have known her for such a very short time."
A servant announced dinner, and Hamel offered his arm to his hostess.
"Is Gerald away, too?" he asked.
"We do indeed owe you our apologies," Mr. Fentolin declared. "Gerald is spending a couple of days at the Dormy House at Brancaster - a golf arrangement made some time back."
"He promised to play with me to-morrow," Hamel remarked thoughtfully. "He said nothing about going away."
"I fear that like most young men of his age he has little memory," Mr. Fentolin sighed. "However, he will be back to-morrow or the next day. I owe you my apologies, Mr. Hamel, for our lack of young people. We must do our best to entertain our guest, Florence. You must be at your best, dear. You must tell him some of those capital stories of yours."
Mrs, Fentolin shivered for a moment. Hamel, as he handed her to her place, was struck by a strange look which she threw upon him, half furtive, full of pain. Her hand almost clung to his. She slipped a little, and he held her tightly. Then he was suchdenly conscious that something hard was being pressed into his palm. He drew his hand away at once.
"You seem a little unsteady this evening, my dear Florence," Mr. Fentolin remarked, peering across the round table.
She eyed him nonchalantly enough.
"The floor is slippery," she said. "I was glad, for a moment, of Mr. Hamel's strong hand. Where are those dear puppies? Chow-Chow," she went on, "come and sit by your mistress at once."
Hamel's fingers inside his waistcoat pocket were smoothing out the crumpled piece of paper which she had passed to him. Soon he had it quite flat. Mrs, Fentolin, as though freed from some anxiety, chattered away gaily.
"I don't know that I shall apologise to Mr. Hamel at all for the young people being away," she declared. "Just fancy what we have saved him from - a solitary meal served by Hannah Cox! Do you know that they say she is half-witted, Mr. Hamel?"
"So far, she has looked after me very well," Hamel observed.
"Her intellect is defective," Mr. Fentolin remarked, "on one point only. The good woman is obsessed by the idea that her husband and sons are still calling to her from the Dagger Rocks. It is almost pitiful to meet her wandering about there on a stormy night. The seacoasts are full of these little village tragedies - real tragedies, too, however insignificant they may seem to us."
Mr. Fentolin's tone was gently sympathetic. He changed the subject a moment or two later, however.
"Nero fiddles to-night," he said, "while Rome burns. There are hundreds in our position, yet it certainly seems queer that we should be sitting here so quietly when the whole country is in such a state of excitement. I see the press this morning is preaching an immediate declaration of war."
"Against whom?" Mrs, Fentolin asked.
Mr. Fentolin smiled.
"That does seem to be rather the trouble," he admitted. "Russia, Austria, Germany, Italy, and France are all assisting at a Conference to which no English representative has been bidden. In a sense, of course, that is equivalent to an act of hostility from all these countries towards England. The question is whether we have or have not a secret understanding with France, and if so, how far she will be bound by it. There is a rumour that when Monsieur Deschelles was asked formally whom he represented, that he replied - 'France and Great Britain.' There may be something in it. It is hard to see how any English statesman could have left unguarded the Mediterranean, with all that it means, trusting simply to the faith of a country with whom we have no binding agreement. On the other hand, there is the mobilisation of the fleet. If France is really faithful, one wonders if there was need for such an extreme step."
"I am out of touch with political affairs," Hamel declared. "I have been away from England for so long."
"I, on the other hand," Mr. Fentolin continued, his eyes glittering a little, "have made the study of the political situation in Europe my hobby for years. I have sent to me the leading newspapers of Berlin, Rome, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Vienna. For two hours every day I read them, side by side. It is curious sometimes to note the common understanding which seems to exist between the Powers not bound by any formal alliance. For years war seemed a very unlikely thing, and now," he added, leaning forward in his chair, "I pronounce it almost a certainty."
Hamel looked at his host a little curiously. Mr. Fentolin's gentleness of expression seemed to have departed. His face was hard, his eyes agleam. He bad almost the look of a bird of prey. For some reason, the thought of war seemed to be a joy to him. Perhaps he read something of Hamel's wonder in his expression, for with a shrug of the shoulders he dismissed the subject.
"Well," he concluded, "all these things lie on the knees of the gods. I dare say you wonder, Mr. Hamel, why a poor useless creature like myself should take the slightest interest in passing events? It is just the fascination of the looker-on. I want your opinion about that champagne. Florence dear, you must join us. We will drink to Mr. Hamel's health. We will perhaps couple that toast in our minds with the sentiment which I am sure is not very far from your thoughts, Florence."
Hamel raised his glass and bowed to his host and hostess. He was not wholly at his ease. It seemed to him that he was being watched with a queer persistence by both of them. Mrs, Fentolin continued to talk and laugh with a gaiety which was too obviously forced. Mr. Fentolin posed for a while as the benevolent listener. He mildly applauded his sister-in-law's stories, and encouraged Hamel in the recital of some of his reminiscences. Suddenly the door was opened. Miss Price appeared. She walked smoothly across the room and stood by Mr. Fentolin's side. Stooping down, she whispered in his ear. He pushed his chair back a little from the table. His face was dark with anger.
"I said not before ten to-night," he muttered.
Again she spoke in his ear, so softly that the sound of her voice itself scarcely travelled even as far as where Hamel was sitting. Mr. Fentolin looked steadfastly for a moment at his sister-in-law and from her to Hamel. Then he backed his chair away front the table.
"I shall have to ask to be excused for three minutes," he said. "I must speak upon the telephone. It is a call from some one who declares that they have important news."
He turned the steering-wheel of his chair, and with Miss Price by his side passed across the dining-room, out of the Oasis of rose-shaded lights into the shadows, and through the open door. From there he turned his head before he disappeared, as though to watch his guest. Mrs, Fentolin was busy fondling one of her dogs, which she had raised to her lap, and Hamel was watching her with a tolerant smile.
"Koto, you little idiot, why can't you sit up like your sister? Was its tail in the way, then! Mr. Hamel," she whispered under her breath, so softly that he barely caught the words, although he was only a few feet away, "don't look at me. I feel as though we were being watched all the time. You can destroy that piece of paper in your pocket. All that it says is 'Leave here immediately after dinner'"
Hamel sipped his wine in a nonchalant fashion. His fingers had strayed over the silky coat of the little dog, which she had held out as though for his inspection.
"How can I?" he asked. "What excuse can I make?"
"Invent one," she insisted swiftly. "Leave here before ten o'clock. Don't let anything keep you. And destroy that piece of paper in your pocket, if you can - now."
"But, Mrs, Fentolin -" he began.
She caught up one of her absurd little pets and held it to her mouth.
"Meekins is in the doorway," she whispered
Don't argue with me, please. You are in danger you know nothing about. Pass me the cigarettes."
She leaned back in her chair, smoking quickly. She held one of the dogs on her knee and talked rubbish to it. Hamel watched her, leaning back in his carved oak chair, and he found it hard to keep the pity from his eyes. The woman was playing a part, playing it with desperate and pitiful earnestness, a part which seemed the more tragical because of the soft splendour of their surroundings. From the shadowy walls, huge, dimly-seen pictures hung about them, a strange and yet impressive background. Their small round dining-table, with its rare cut glass, its perfect appointments, its bowls of pink roses, was like a spot of wonderful colour in the great room. Two men servants stood at the sideboard a few yards away, a triumph of negativeness. The butler, who had been absent for a moment, stood now silently waiting behind his master's place. Hamel was oppressed, during those few minutes of waiting, by a curious sense of unreality, as though he were taking part in some strange tableau. There was something unreal about his surroundings and his own presence there; something unreal in the atmosphere, charged as it seemed to be with some omen of impending happenings; something unreal in that whispered warning, those few hoarsely uttered words which had stolen to his hearing across the clusters of drooping roses; the absurd babble of the woman, who sat there with tragic things under the powder with which her face was daubed.
"Koto must learn to sit upon his tail - like that. No, not another grape till he sits up. There, then!"
She was leaning forward with a grape between her teeth, towards the tiny animal who was trying in vain to balance his absurdly shaped little body upon the tablecloth. Hamel, without looking around, knew quite well what was happening. Soon he heard the click of the chair. Mr. Fentolin was back in his place. His skin seemed paler and more parchment-like than ever. His eyes glittered.
"It seems," he announced quietly, as he raised his wine-glass to his lips with the air of one needing support, "that we entertained an angel unawares here. This Mr. Dunster is lost for the second time. A very important personage he turns out to be."
"You mean the American whom Gerald brought home after the accident?" Mrs, Fentolin asked carelessly.
Mr. Fentolin replied. "He insisted upon continuing his journey before he was strong enough. I warned him of what might happen. He has evidently been take ill somewhere. It seems that he was on his way to The Hague."
"Do you mean that he has disappeared altogether this time?" Hamel asked.
Mr. Fentolin shook his head.
"No, he has found his way to The Hague safely enough. He is lying there at a hotel in the city, but he is unconscious. There is some talk about his having been robbed on the way. At any rate, they are tracing his movements backwards. We are to be honoured with a visit from one of Scotland Yard's detect,ives, to reconstruct his journey from here. Our quiet little corner of the world is becoming quite notorious. Florence dear, you are tired. I can see it in your eyes. Your headache continues, I am sure. We will not be selfish. Mr. Hamel and I are going to have a long evening in the library. Let me recommend a phenacetin and bed."
She rose at once to her feet, with a dog under either arm.
"I'll take the phenacetin," she promised, "but I hate going to bed early. Shall I see you again, I wonder, Mr. Hamel?"
"Not this evening, I fear," he answered. "I am going to ask Mr. Fentolin to excuse me early."
She passed out of the room. Hamel escorted her as far as the door and then returned. Mr. Fentolin was sitting quite still in his chair. His eyes were fixed upon the tablecloth. He looked up quickly as Hamel resumed his seat.
"You are not in earnest, I hope, Mr. Hamel," he said, "when you tell me that you must leave early? I have been anticipating a long evening. My library is filled with books on South America which I want to discuss with you."
"Another evening, if you don't mind," Hamel begged. "To-night I must ask you to excuse my hurrying away."
Mr. Fentolin looked up from underneath his eyelids. His glance was quick and penetrating.
"Why this haste?"
Hamel shrugged his shoulders.
"To tell you the truth," he admitted, "I had an idea while I was reading an article on cantilever bridges this morning. I want to work it out."
Mr. Fentolin glanced behind him. The door of the dining-room was closed. The servants had disappeared. Meekins alone, looking more like a prize fighter than ever in his somber evening clothes, had taken the place of the butler behind his master's chair.
"We shall see," Mr. Fentolin said quietly.