The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Mr. John P. Dunster, lying flat upon his little bed, watched with dilated eyes the disappearance of the ladder. Then he laughed. It was a queer sound - broken, spasmodic, devoid of any of the ordinary elements of humor - and yet it was a laugh. Mr. Fentolin turned his head towards his prisoner and nodded thoughtfully.
"What a constitution, my friend!" he exclaimed, without any trace of disturbance in his voice. "And what a sense of humour! Strange that a trifling circumstance like this should affect it. Meekins, burn some more of the powder. The atmosphere down here may be salubrious, but I am unaccustomed to it."
"Perhaps," Mr. Dunster said in a hollow tone, you will have some opportunity now of discovering with me what it is like."
"That, too, is just possible," Mr. Fentolin admitted, blowing out a little volume of smoke from a cigarette which he had just lit, "but one never knows. We have friends, and our position, although, I must admit, a little ridiculous, is easily remedied. But how that mischief-making Mr. Hamel could have found his way into the boat-house does, I must confess, perplex me."
"He must have been hanging around and followed us in when we came," Meekins muttered. "Somehow, I fancied I felt some one near."
"Our young friend," Mr. Fentolin continued, has, without doubt, an obvious turn of mind. He will send for his acquaintance in the Foreign Office; they will haul out Mr. Dunster here, and he will have a belated opportunity of delivering his message at The Hague."
"You aren't going to murder me first, then?" Mr. Dunster grunted.
Mr. Fentolin smiled at him benignly.
"My dear and valued guest," he protested, "why so forbidding an idea? Let me assure you from the bottom of my heart that any bodily harm to you is the most unlikely thing in the world. You see, though you might not think it," he went on, "I love life. That is why I keep a doctor always by my side. That is why I insist upon his making a complete study of my constitution and treating me in every respect as though I were indeed an invalid. I am really only fifty-nine years old. It is my intention to live until I am eighty-nine. An offence against the law of the nature you indicate might interfere materially with my intentions."
Mr. Dunster struggled for a moment for breath.
"Look here," he said, "that's all right, but do you suppose you won't be punished for what you've done to me? You laid a deliberate plot to bring me to St. David's Hall; you've kept me locked up, dosed me with drugs, brought me down here at the dead of night, kept me a prisoner in a dungeon. Do you think you can do that for nothing? Do you think you won't have to suffer for it?"
Mr. Fentolin smiled.
"My dear Mr. Dunster," he reminded him, you were in a railway accident, you know; there is no possible doubt about that. And the wound in your head is still there, in a very dangerous place. Men who have been in railway accidents, and who have a gaping wound very close to their brain, are subject to delusions. I have simply done my best to play the Good Samaritan. Your clothes and papers are all untouched. If my eminent physician had pronounced you ready to travel a week ago, you would certainly have been allowed to depart a week ago. Any interference in your movements has been entirely in the interests of your health."
Mr. Dunster tried to sit up but found himself unable.
"So you think they won't believe my story, eh?" he muttered. "Well, we shall see."
Mr. Fentolin thoughtfully contemplated the burning end of his cigarette for a moment.
"If I believed," he said, "that there was any chance of your statements being accepted, I am afraid I should be compelled, in all our interests, to ask Doctor Sarson to pursue just a step further that experiment into the anatomy of your brain with which he has already trifled."
Mr. Dunster's face was suddenly ghastly. His reserve of strength seemed to ebb away. The memory of some horrible moment seemed to hold him in its clutches.
"For God's sake, leave me alone!" he moaned. "Let me get away, that's all; let me crawl away!"
"Ah!" Mr. Fentolin murmured. "That sounds much more reasonable. When you talk like that, my friend. I feel indeed that there is hope for you. Let us abandon this subject for the present. Have you solved the puzzle yet?" he asked Meekins.
Meekins was standing below the closed trap-door. He had already dragged up a wooden case underneath and was piling it with various articles of furniture.
"Not yet, sir," he replied. "When I have made this steadier, I am just going to see what pressure I can bring to bear on the trap-door."
"I heard the bolts go," Doctor Sarson remarked uneasily.
"In that case," Mr. Fentolin declared, "it will indeed be an interesting test of our friend Meekins' boasted strength. Meekins holds his place - a very desirable place, too - chiefly for two reasons: first his discretion and secondly his muscles. He has never before had a real opportunity of testing the latter. We shall see."
Doctor Sarson came slowly and gravely to the bedside. He looked down upon his patient. Mr. Dunster shivered.
"I am not sure, sir," he said very softly, "that Mr. Dunster, in his present state of mind, is a very safe person to be allowed his freedom. It is true that we have kept him here for his own sake, because of his fits of mental wandering. Our statements, however, may be doubted. An apparent return to sanity on his part may lend colour to his accusations, especially if permanent. Perhaps it would be as well to pursue that investigation a shade further. A touch more to the left and I do not think that Mr. Dunster will remember much in this world likely to affect us."
Mr. Dunster's face was like marble. There were beads of perspiration upon his forehead, his eyes were filled with reminiscent horror. Mr. Fentolin bent over him with genuine interest.
"What a picture he would make!" he murmured. "What a drama! Do you know, I am half inclined to agree with you, Sarson. The only trouble is that you have not your instruments here."
"I could improvise something that would do the trick," the doctor said thoughtfully. "It really isn't a complicated affair. It seems to me that his story may gain credence from the very fact of our being discovered in this extraordinary place. To have moved him here was a mistake, sir."
"Perhaps so," Mr. Fentolin admitted, with a sigh. "It was our young friend Mr. Hamel who was responsible for it. I fancied him arriving with a search warrant at any moment. We will bear in mind your suggestion for a few minutes. Let us watch Meekins. This promises to be interesting."
By dint of piling together all the furniture in the place, the man was now able to reach the trap-door. He pressed upon it vigorously without even bending the wood. Mr. Fentolin smiled pleasantly.
"Meekins," he said, "look at me."
The man turned and faced his master. His aspect of dogged civility had never been more apparent.
"Now listen," Mr. Fentolin went on. "I want to remind you of certain things, Meekins. We are among friends here - no secrecy, you understand, or anything of that sort. You need not be afraid! You know how you came to me? You remember that little affair of Anna Jayes in Hartlepool?"
The face of the man was filled with terror. He began to tremble where he stood. Mr. Fentolin played for a moment with his collar, as though he found it tight.
"Such a chance it was, my dear Meekins," Mr. Fentolin continued cheerfully, "which brought me that little scrap of knowledge concerning you. It has bought me through all these years a good deal of faithful service. I am not ungrateful, believe me. I intend to retain you for my body-servant and to keep my lips sealed, for a great many years to come. Now remember what I have said. When we leave this place, that little episode will steal back into a far corner of my mind. I shall, in short, forget it. If we are caught here and inconvenience follows, well, I cannot say. Do your best, Meekins. Do a little better than your best. You have the reputation of being a strong man. Let us see you justify it."
The man took a long breath and returned to his task. His shoulders and arms were upon the door. He began to strain. He grew red in the face; the veins across his forehead stood out, blue, like tightly-drawn string. His complexion became purple. Through his open mouth his breath came in short pants. With every muscle of his body and neck he strained and strained. The woodwork gave a little, but it never even cracked. With a sob he suddenly almost collapsed. Mr. Fentolin looked at him, frowning.
"Very good - very good, Meekins," he said, "but not quite good enough. You are a trifle out of practice, perhaps. Take your breath, take time. Remember that you have anotber chance. I am not angry with you, Meekins. I know there are many enterprises upon which one does not succeed the first time. Get your breath; there is no hurry. Next time you try, see that you succeed. It is very important, Meekins, for you as well as for us, that you succeed."
The man turned doggedly back to his task. The eyes of the three men watched him - Mr. Dunster on the bed; Doctor Sarson, pale and gloomy, with something of fear in his dark eyes; and Mr. Fentolin himself, whose expression seemed to be one of purely benevolent and encouraging interest. Once more the face of the man became almost unrecognisable. There was a great crack, the trap-door had shifted. Meekins, with a little cry, reeled and sank backwards. Mr. Fentolin clapped his hands lightly.
"Really, Meekins," he declared, "I do not know when I have enjoyed any performance so much. I feel as if I were back in the days of the Roman gladiators. I can see that you mean to succeed. You will succeed. You do not mean to end your days amid objectionable surroundings."
With the air of a man temporarily mad, Meekins went back to his task. He was sobbing to himself now. His clothes had burst away from him. Suddenly there was a crash, the hinges of the trap-door had parted. With the blood streaming from a wound in his forehead, Meekins staggered back to his feet. Mr. Fentolin nodded.
"Excellent!" he pronounced. "Really excellent. With a little assistance from our friend Meekins, you, I am sure, Sarson, will now be able to climb up and let down the steps."
Doctor Sarson stood by Mr. Fentolin's chair, and together they looked up through the fragments of the trap-door. Meekins was still breathing heavily. Suddenly they heard the sound of a sharp report, as of a door above being slammed.
"Some one was in the boat-house when I broke the trap-door," Meekins muttered. "I heard them moving about."
Mr. Fentolin frowned.
"Then let us hurry," he said. "Sarson, what about your patient?"
Mr. Dunster was lying upon his side, watching them. The doctor went over to the bedside and felt his pulse and head.
"He will do for twelve hours," he pronounced. "If you think that other little operation -"
He broke off and looked at Mr. Fentolin meaningly. The man on the bed shrank back, his eyes lit with horror. Mr. Fentolin smiled pleasantly.
"I fear," he said, "that we must not stay for that just now. A little later on, perhaps, if it becomes necessary. Let us first attend to the business on hand."
Meekins once more clambered on to the little heap of furniture. The doctor stood by his side for a moment. Then, with an effort, he was hoisted up until he could catch hold of the floor of the outhouse. Meekins gave one push, and he disappeared.
"Any one up there?" Mr. Fentolin enquired, a shade of anxiety in his tone.
"No one," the doctor reported.
"Has anything been disturbed?"
Doctor Sarson was some little time before he replied.
"Yes," he said," some one seems to have been rummaging about."
"Send down the steps quickly," Mr. Fentolin ordered. "I am beginning to find the atmosphere here unpleasant."
There was a brief silence. Then they heard the sound of the ladder being dragged across the floor, and a moment or two later it was carefully lowered and placed in position. Mr. Fentolin passed the rope through the front of his carriage and was drawn up. From his bed Mr. Dunster watched them go. It was hard to tell whether he was relieved or disappointed.
"Who has been in here?" Mr. Fentolin demanded, as he looked around the place.
There was no reply. A grey twilight was struggling now through the high, dust-covered windows. Meekins, who had gone on towards the door, suddenly called out:
"Some one has taken away the key! The door is locked on the other side!"
Mr. Fentolin's frown was malign even for him.
"Our dear friend, Mr. Hamel, I suppose," he muttered. "Another little debt we shall owe him! Try the other door."
Meekins moved towards the partition. Suddenly he paused. Mr. Fentolin's hand was outstretched; he, too, was listening. Above the low thunder of the sea came another sound, a sound which at that moment they none of them probably understood. There was the steady crashing of feet upon the pebbles, a low murmur of voices. Mr. Fentolin for the first time showed symptoms of fear.
"Try the other door quickly," he directed.
Meekins came back, shaking his head. Outside, the noise seemed to be increasing. The door was suddenly thrown open. Hannah Cox stood outside in her plain black dress, her hair wind-tossed, her eyes aflame. She held the key in her fingers, and she looked in upon them. Her lips seemed to move, but she said nothing.
"My good woman," Mr. Fentolin exclaimed, frowning, "are you the person who removed that key?"
She laid her hand upon his chair. She took no no tice of the other two.
"Come," she said, "there is something here I want you to listen to. Come!"