The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Accustomed though he was to the sight which he was about to face, Gerald shivered slightly as he opened the door of Mr. Fentolin's room. A strange sort of fear seemed to have crept into his bearing and expression, a fear of which there had been no traces whatever during those terrible hours through which he had passed - not even during that last reckless journey across the marshes. He walked with hesitating footsteps across the spacious and lofty room. He had the air of some frightened creature approaching his master. Yet all that was visible of the despot who ruled his whole household in deadly fear was the kindly and beautiful face of an elderly man, whose stunted limbs and body were mercifully concealed. He sat in a little carriage, with a rug drawn closely across his chest and up to his armpits. His beautifully shaped hands were exposed, and his face; nothing else. His hair was a silvery white; his complexion parchment-like, pallid, entirely colourless. His eyes were a soft shade of blue. His features were so finely cut and chiselled that they resembled some exquisite piece of statuary. He smiled as his nephew came slowly towards him. One might almost have fancied that the young man's abject state was a source of pleasure to him.
"So you are back again, my dear Gerald. A pleasant surprise, indeed, but what is the meaning of it? And what of my little commission, eh?"
The young man's face was dark and sullen. He spoke quickly but without any sign of eagerness or interest in the information he vouchsafed.
"The storm has stopped all the trains," he said. "The boat did not cross last night, and in any ease I couldn't have reached Harwich. As for your commission, I travelled down from London alone with the man you told me to spy upon. I could have stolen anything he had if I had been used to the work. As it was - I brought the man himself."
Mr. Fentolin's delicate fingers played with the handle of his chair. The smile had passed from his lips. He looked at his nephew in gentle bewilderment.
"My dear boy," he protested, "come, come, be careful what you are saying. You have brought the man himself! So far as my information goes, Mr. John P. Dunster is charged with a very important diplomatic commission. He is on his way to Cologne, and from what I know about the man, I think that it would require more than your persuasions to induce him to break off his journey. You do not really wish me to believe that you have brought him here as a guest?"
"I was at Liverpool Street Station last night," Gerald declared. "I had no idea how to accost him, and as to stealing any of his belongings, I couldn't have done it. You must hear how fortune helped me, though. Mr. Dunster missed the train; so did I - purposely. He ordered a special. I asked permission to travel with him. I told him a lie as to how I had missed the train. I hated it, but it was necessary."
Mr. Fentolin nodded approvingly.
"My dear boy," he said, "to trifle with the truth is always unpleasant. Besides, you are a Fentolin, and our love of truth is proverbial. But there are times, you know, when for the good of others we must sacrifice our scruples. So you told Mr. Dunster a alsehood."
"He let me travel with him," Gerald continued. "We were all night getting about half-way here. Then - you know about the storm, I suppose?"
Mr. Fentolin spread out his hands.
"Could one avoid the knowledge of it he asked. "Such a sight has never been seen."
"We found we couldn't get to Harwich," Gerald went on. "They telegraphed to London and got permission to bring us to Yarmouth. We were on our way to Norwich, and the train ran off the line."
"An accident?" Mr. Fentolin exclaimed.
"Our train ran off the line and pitched down an embankment. Mr. Dunster has concussion of the brain. He and I were taken to a miserable little inn near Wymondham. From there I hired a motor-car and brought him here."
"You hired a motor-car and brought him here," Mr. Fentolin repeated softly. "My dear boy - forgive me if I find this a little hard to understand. You say that you have brought him here. Had he nothing to say about it?"
"He was unconscious when we picked him up," Gerald explained. "He is unconscious now. Tbe doctor said he would remain so for at least twenty-four hours, and it didn't seem to me that the journey would do him any particular harm. The roof had been stripped off the inn where we were, and the place was quite uninhabitable, so we should have had to have moved him somewhere. We put him in the tonneau of the car and covered him up. They have carried him now into a bedroom, and Sarson is looking after him."
Mr. Fentolin sat quite silent. His eyes blinked once or twice, and there was a curious curve about his lips.
"You have done well, my boy," he pronounced slowly. "Your scheme of bringing him here sounds a little primitive, but success justifies everything."
Mr. Fentolin raised to his lips and blew softly a little gold whistle which hung from a chain attached to his waistcoat. Almost immediately the door opened. A man entered, dressed somberly in black, whose bearing and demeanour alike denoted the servant, but whose physique was the physique of a prize-fighter. He was scarcely more than five feet six in height, but his shoulders were extraordinarily broad. He had a short, bull neck and long, mighty arms. His face, with the heavy jaw and small eyes, was the face of the typical fighting man, yet his features seemed to have become disposed by habit into an expression of gentle, almost servile civility.
"Meekins," Mr. Fentolin said, "a visitor has arrived. Do you happen to have noticed what luggage he brought?"
"There is one small dressing-case, sir," the man replied; "nothing else that I have seen."
"That is all we brought," Gerald interposed.
"You will bring the dressing-case here at once," Mr. Fentolin directed, "and also my compliments to Doctor Sarson, and any pocket-book or papers which may help us to send a message to the gentleman's friends."
Meekins closed the door and departed. Mr. Fentolin turned back towards his nephew.
"My dear boy," he said, "tell me why you look as though there were ghosts flitting about the room? You are not ill, I trust?"
"Tired, perhaps," Gerald answered shortly. "We were many hours in the car. I have had no sleep."
Mr. Fentolin's face was full of kindly sympathy.
"My dear fellow," he exclaimed, "I am selfish, indeed! I should not have kept you here for a moment. You had better go and lie down."
"I'll go directly," Gerald promised. "Can I speak to you for one moment first?"
"Speak to me Mr. Fentolin repeated, a little wonderingly. "My dear Gerald, is there ever a moment when I am not wholly at your service?"
"That fellow Dunster, on the platform, the first moment I spoke to him, made me feel like a cur," the boy said, with a sudden access of vigour in his tone. "I told him I was on my way to a golf tournament, and he pointed to the news about the war. Is it true, uncle, that we may be at war at any moment?"
Mr. Fentolin sighed.
"A terrible reflection, my dear boy," he admitted softly, "but, alas! the finger of probability points that way."
"Then what about me Gerald exclaimed. "I don't want to complain, but listen. You dragged me home from a public school before I could even join my cadet corps. You've kept me banging around here with a tutor. You wouldn't let me go to the university. You've stopped my entering either of the services. I am nineteen years old and useless. Do you know what I should do to-morrow if war broke out? Enlist! It's the only thing left for me."
Mr. Fentolin was shocked.
"My dear boy !" he exclaimed. "You must not talk like that! I am quite sure that it would break your mother's heart. Enlist, indeed! Nothing of the sort. You are part of the civilian population of the country."
"Civilian population be d-d!" the boy suddenly cried, white with rage. "Uncle, forgive me, I have stood all I can bear. If you won't let me go in for the army - I could pass my exams to-morrow - I'm off. I'll enlist without waiting for the war. I can't bear this idle life any longer."
Mr. Fentolin leaned a little forward in his chair.
"Gerald!" he said softly.
The boy turned his head, turned it unwillingly. He had the air of a caged animal obeying the word of his keeper. A certain savage uncouthness seemed to have fallen upon him during the last few minutes. There was something almost like a snarl in his expression.
"Gerald!" Mr. Fentolin repeated.
Then it was obvious that there was something between those two, some memory or some living thing, seldom, if ever, to be spoken of, and yet always present. The boy began to tremble.
"You're a little overwrought, Gerald," Mr. Fentolin declared. "Sit quietly in my easy-chair for a few moments. Walt until I have examined Mr. Dunster's belongings. Ah! Meekins has been prompt, indeed."
There was a stealthy tap at the door. Meekins entered with the small dressing-case in his hand. He brought it over to his master's chair. Mr. Fentolin pointed to the floor.
"Open it there, Meekins," he directed. "I fancy that the pocket-book you are carrying will prove more interesting. We will just glance through the dressing-case first. Thank you. Yes, you can lay the things upon the floor. A man of Spartan-like life, I should imagine Mr. Dunster. A spare toothbrush, though, I am glad to see. Pyjamas of most unattractive pattern. And what a taste in shirts! Nothing but wearing apparel and singularly little of that, I fancy."
The dressing-case was empty, its contents upon the floor. Mr. Fentolin held out his hand and took the pocket-book which Meekins had been carrying. It was an ordinary morocco affair, similar to those issued by American banking houses to enclose letters of credit. One side of it was filled with notes. Mr. Fentolin withdrew them and glanced them through.
"Dear me!" he murmured. "No wonder our friend engages special trains! He travels like a prince, indeed. Two thousand pounds, or near it, in this little compartment. And here, I see, a letter, a sealed letter with no address."
He held it out in front of him. It was a long commercial envelope of ordinary type, and although the flap was secured with a blob of sealing wax, there was no particular impression upon it.
"We can match this envelope, I think," Mr. Fentolin said softly. "The seal we can copy. I think that, for the sake of others, we must discover the cause for this hurried journey on the part of Mr. John P. Dunster."
With his long, delicate forefinger Mr. Fentolin slit the envelope and withdrew the single sheet of paper which it contained. There were a dozen lines of written matter, and what appeared to be a dozen signatures appended. Mr. Fentolin read it, at first with ordinary interest. Then a change came. The look of a man drawn out of himself, drawn out of all knowledge of his surroundings or his present state, stole into his face. Literally he became transfixed. The delicate fingers of his, left hand gripped the sides of his little carriage. His eyes shone as though those few written lines upon which they were riveted were indeed some message from an unknown, an unimagined world. Yet no word ever passed his lips. There came a time when the tension seemed a little relaxed. With fingers which still trembled, he folded up the sheet and replaced it in the envelope. He guarded it with both his hands and sat quite still. Neither Gerald nor his servant moved. Somehow, the sense of Mr. Fentolin's suppressed excitement seemed to have become communicated to them. It was a little tableau, broken at last by Mr. Fentolin himself.
"I should like," he said, turning to Gerald, "to be alone. It may interest you to know that this docu which Mr. Dunster has brought across the seas, and which I hold in my hands, is the most amazing message of modern times."
Gerald rose to his feet.
"What are you going to do about it?" he asked abruptly. "Do you want any one in from the telegraph room?"
Mr. Fentolin shook his head slowly.
"At present," he announced, "I am going to reflect. Meekins, my chair to the north window - so. I am going to sit here," he went on, " and I am going to look across the sea and reflect. A very fortunate storm, after all, I think, which kept Mr. John P. Dunster from the Harwich boat last night. Leave me, Gerald, for a time. Stand behind my chair, Meekins, and see that no one enters."
Mr. Fentolin sat in his chair, his hands still gripping the wonderful document, his eyes travelling over the ocean now flecked with sunlight. His eyes were fixed upon the horizon. He looked steadily eastward.