The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Hamel set down the lamp upon the table. He glanced at the little clock upon the dresser; it was a quarter past ten. The woman had observed his entrance, although it seemed in no way to have discomposed her.
"Do you know the time, Mrs. Cox?" he asked. "You ought to have been home hours ago. What are you doing there?"
She rose to her feet. Her expression was one of dogged but patient humility.
"I started for home before nine o'clock, sir," she told him, "but it was worse than ever to-night. All the way along by the sea I seemed to hear their voices, so I came back. I came back to listen. I have been listening for an hour."
Hamel looked at her with a frown upon his forehead.
"Mrs. Cox," he said, "I wish I could understand what it is that you have in your mind. Those are not real voices that you hear; you cannot believe that?"
"Not real voices," she repeated, without the slightest expression in her tone.
"Of course not! And tell me what connection you find between these fancies of yours and that room? Why do you come and listen here?
"I do not know," she answered patiently.
"You must have some reason," he persisted.
"I have no reason," she assured him, "only some day I shall see behind these doors. Afterwards, I shall hear the voices no more."
She was busy tying a shawl around her head. Hamel watched her, still puzzled. He could not get rid of the idea that there was some method behind her madness.
"Tell me - I have found you listening here before. Have you ever heard anything suspicious?"
"I have heard nothing yet," she admitted, "nothing that counts."
"Come," he continued, "couldn't we clear this matter up sensibly? Do you believe that there is anybody in there? Do you believe the place is being used in any way for a wrong purpose? If so, we will insist upon having the keys from Mr. Fentolin. He cannet refuse. The place is mine.
"Mr. Fentolin would not give you the keys, sir," she replied. "If he did, it would be useless."
"Would you like me to break the door in?" Hamel asked.
"You could not do it, sir," she told him, "not you nor anybody else. The door is thicker than my fist, of solid oak. It was a mechanic from New York who fitted the locks. I have heard it said in the village - Bill Hamas, the carpenter, declares that there are double doors. The workmen who were employed here were housed in a tent upon the beach and sent home the day they finished their job. They were never allowed in the village. They were foreigners, most of them. They came from nobody knows where, and when they had finished they disappeared. Why was that, sir? What is there inside which Mr. Fentolin needs to guard so carefully?"
"Mr. Fentolin has invented something," Hamel explained. "He keeps the model in there. Inventors are very jealous of their work."
She looked down upon the floor for a moment.
"I shall be here at seven o'clock in the morning, sir. I will give you your breakfast at the usual time."
Hamel opened the door for her.
"Good night, Mrs. Cox," he said. "Would you like me to walk a little way with you? It's a lonely path to the village, and the dikes are full."
"Thank you, no, sir," she replied. "It's a lonely way, right enough, but it isn't loneliness that frightens me. I am less afraid out with the winds and the darkness than under this roof. If I lose my way and wander all night upon the marsh, I'll be safer out there than you, sir.
She passed away, and Hamel watched her disappear into the darkness. Then he dragged out a bowl of tobacco and filled a pipe. Although he was half ashamed of himself, he strolled back once more into the kitchen, and, drawing up a stool, he sat down just where he had discovered Hannah Cox, sat still and listened. No sound of any sort reached him. He sat there for ten minutes. Then he scrambled to his feet.
"She is mad, of course!" he muttered.
He mixed himself a whisky and soda, relit his pipe, which had gone out, and drew up an easy-chair to the fire which she had left him in the sitting-room. The wind had increased in violence, and the panes of his window rattled continually. He yawned and tried to fancy that he was sleepy. It was useless. He was compelled to admit the truth - that his nerves were all on edge. In a sense he was afraid. The thought of bed repelled him. He had not a single impulse towards repose. Outside, the wind all the time was gathering force. More than once his window was splashed with the spray carried on by the wind which followed the tide. He sat quite still and tried to think calmly, tried to piece together in his mind the sequence of events which had brought him to this part of the world and which had led to his remaining where he was, an undesired hanger-on at the threshold of Miles Fentolin. He had the feeling that to-night he had burned his boats. There was no longer any pretence of friendliness possible between him and this strange creature. Mr. Fentolin suspected him, realised that he himself was suspected. But of what? Hamel moved in his chair restlessly. Sometimes that gathering cloud of suspicion seemed to him grotesque. Of what real harm could he be capable, this little autocrat who from his chair seemed to exercise such a malign influence upon every one with whom he was brought into contact? Hamel sighed. The riddle was insoluble. With a sudden rush of warmer and more joyous feelings, he let the subject slip away from him. He closed his eyes and dreamed for a while. There was a new world before him, joys which only so short a time ago he had fancied had passed him by.
He sat up in his chair with a start. The fire had become merely a handful of grey ashes, his limbs were numb and stiff. The lamp was flickering out. He had been dozing, how long he had no idea. Something had awakened him abruptly. There was a cold draught blowing through the room. He turned his head, his hands still gripping the sides of his chair. His heart gave a leap. The outer door was a few inches open, was being held open by some invisible force. There was some one there, some one on the point of entering stealthily. Even as he watched, the crack became a little wider. He sat with his eyes riveted upon that opening space. The unseen hand was still at work. Every instant he expected to see a face thrust forward. The sensation of absolute physical fear by which he was oppressed was a revelation to him. He found himself wishing almost feverishly that he was armed. The physical strength in which he had trusted seemed to him at that instant a valueless and impotent thing. There was a splash of spray or raindrops against the window and through the crack in the door. The lamp chimney hissed and spluttered and finally the light went out. The room was in sudden darkness. Hamel sprang then to his feet. Silence had become an intolerable thing. He felt the close presence of another human being creeping in upon him.
"Who's there?" he cried. "Who's there, I say?"
There was no direct answer, only the door was pushed a little further open. He had stepped close to it now. The sweep of the wind was upon his face, although in the black darkness he could see nothing. And then a sudden recollection flashed in upon him. From his trousers pocket he snatched a little electric torch. In an instant his thumb had pressed the button. He turned it upon the door. The shivering white hand which held it open was plainly in view. It was the hand of a woman! He stepped swiftly forward. A dark figure almost fell into his arms.
"Mrs, Fentolin!" he exclaimed, aghast.
An hysterical cry, choked and subdued, broke from her lips. He half carried, half led her to his easy-chair. Suddenly steadied by the presence of this unlooked-for emergency, he closed the outside door and relit the lamp with firm fingers. Then he turned to face her, and his amazement at this strange visit became consternation.
She was still in her dinner-gown of black satin, but it was soaked through with the rain and hung about her like a black shroud. She had lost one shoe, and there was a great hole in her silk stocking. Her hair was all disarranged; one of its numerous switches was hanging down over her ear. The rouge upon her cheeks had run down on to her neck. She sat there, looking at him out of her hollow eyes like some trapped animal. She was shaking with fear. It was fear, not faintness, which kept her silent.
"Tell me, please, what is the matter?" he insisted, speaking as indifferently as he could. "Tell me at once what has happened?"
She pointed to the door.
"Lock it!" she implored.
He turned down the latch and drew the bolt. The sound seemed to give her a little courage. Her fingers went to her throat for a moment.
"Give me some water."
He poured out some soda-water. She drank only o sip and put it down again. He began to be alarmed. She had the appearance of one who has suddenly lost her senses.
"Please tell me just what has happened?" he begged. "If I can help in any way, you know I will. But you must tell me. Do you realise that it is three o'clock? I should have been in bed, only I went to sleep over the fire here."
"I know," she answered. "It is just the wind that has taken away my breath. It was a hard struggle to get here. Listen - you are our friend, Mr. Hamel - Esther's and mine? Swear that you are our friend?"
"Upon my honour, I am," he assured her. "You should know that."
"For eight years," she went on, her voice clear enough now, although it seemed charged with a curious metallic vibration, "for eight years we've borne it, all three of us, slaves, bound hand and foot, lashed with his tongue, driven along the path of his desires. We have seen evil things. We have been on the point of rebellion, and he's come a little nearer and he's pointed back. He has taken me by the hand, and I have walked by the side of his chair, loathing it, loathing myself, out on to the terrace and down below, just where it happened. You know what happened there, Mr. Hamel?"
"You mean where Mr. Fentolin met with his accident."
"It was no accident!" she cried, glancing for a moment around her. "It was no accident! It was my husband who took him up and threw him over the terrace, down below; my husband who tried to kill him; Esther's father - Gerald's father! Miles was in the Foreign Office then, and he did something disgraceful. He sold a secret to Austria. He was always a great gambler, and he was in debt. Seymour found out about it. He followed him down here. They met upon the terrace. I - I saw it!"
He was silent for a moment.
"No one has known the truth," he murmured.
"No one has ever known," she assented, "and our broken lives have been the price. It was Miles himself who made the bargain. We - we can't go on, Mr. Hamel."
"I begin to understand," Hamel said softly. "You suffer everything from Miles Fentolin because he kept the secret. Very well, that belongs to the past. Something has happened, something to-night, which has brought you here. Tell me about it?"
Once more her voice began to shake.
"We've seen - terrible things - horrible things," she faltered. "We've held our peace. Perhaps it's been nearly as bad before, but we've closed our eyes; we haven't wanted to know. Now - we can't help it. Mr. Hamel, Esther isn't at Lord Saxthorpe's. She never went there. They didn't ask her. And Dunster - the man Dunster -"
"'Where is Esther?" Hamel interrupted suddenly.
"Locked up away from you, locked up because she rebelled! "
She shook her head. Her eyes were filled with horror.
"But he left the Hall - I saw him!"
She shook her head.
"It wasn't Dunster. It was the man Miles makes use of - Ryan, the librarian. He was once an actor."
"Where is Dunster, then?" Hamel asked quickly. "What has become of him?"
She opened her lips and closed them again, struggled to speak and failed. She sat there, breathing quickly, but silent. The power of speech had gone.