The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Richard Hame1, although he certainly had not the appearance of a person afflicted with nerves, gave a slight start. For the last half-hour, during which time the train had made no stop, he had been alone in his compartment. Yet, to his surprise, he was suddenly aware that the seat opposite to him had been noiselessly taken by a girl whose eyes, also, were fixed with curious intentness upon the broad expanse of marshland and sands across which the train was slowly making its way. Hamel had spent a great many years abroad, and his first impulse was to speak with the unexpected stranger. He forgot for a moment that he was in England, travelling in a first-class carriage, and pointed with his left hand towards the sea.
"Queer country this, isn't it?" he remarked pleasantly. "Do you know, I never heard you come in. It gave me quite a start when I found that I had a fellow-passenger."
She looked at him with a certain amount of still surprise, a look which he returned just as steadfastly, because even in those few seconds he was conscious of that strange selective interest, certainly unaccounted for by his own impressions of her appearance. She seemed to him, at that first glance, very far indeed from being good-looking, according to any of the standards by which he had measured good looks. She was thin, too thin for his taste, and she carried herself with an aloofness to which he was unaccustomed. Her cheeks were quite pale, her hair of a soft shade of brown, her eyes grey and sad. She gave him altogether an impression of colourlessness, and he had been living in a land where colour and vitality meant much. Her speech, too, in its very restraint, fell strangely upon his ears.
"I have been travelling in an uncomfortable compartment," she observed. "I happened to notice, when passing along the corridor, that yours was empty. In any case, I am getting out at the next station."
"So am I," he replied, still cheerfully. "I suppose the next station is St. David's?"
She made no answer, but so far as her expression counted for anything at all, she was a little surprised. Her eyes considered him for a moment. Hamel was tall, well over six feet, powerfully made, with good features, clear eyes, and complexion unusually sunburnt. He wore a flannel collar of unfamiliar shape, and his clothes, although they were neat enough, were of a pattern and cut obviously designed to afford the maximum of ease and comfort with the minimum regard to appearance. He wore, too, very thick boots, and his hands gave one the impression that they were seldom gloved. His voice was pleasant, and he had the easy self-confidence of a person sure of himself in the world. She put him down as a colonial - perhaps an American - but his rank in life mystified her.
"This seems the queerest stretch of country," he went on; "long spits of sand jutting right out into the sea, dikes and creeks - miles and miles of them. Now, I wonder, is it low tide or high? Low, I should think, because of the sea-shine on the sand there."
She glanced out of the window.
"The tide," she told him, "is almost at its lowest."
"You live in this neighbourhood, perhaps?" he enquired.
"I do," she assented.
"Sort of country one might get very fond of," he ventured.
She glanced at him from the depths of her grey eyes.
"Do you think so?" she rejoined coldly. "For my part, I hate it."
He was surprised at the unexpected emphasis of her tone - the first time, indeed, that she had shown any signs of interest in the conversation.
"Kind of dull I suppose you find it," he remarked pensively, looking out across the waste of lavender-grown marshes, sand hummocks piled with seaweed, and a far distant line of pebbled shore. "And yet, I don't know. I have lived by the sea a good deal, and however monotonous it may seem at first, there's always plenty of change, really. Tide and wind do such wonderful work."
She, too, was looking out now towards the sea.
"Oh, it isn't exactly that," she said quietly. "I am quite willing to admit what all the tourists and chance visitors call the fascination of these places. I happen to dislike them, that is all. Perhaps it is because I live here, because I see them day by day; perhaps because the sight of them and the thought of them have become woven into my life."
She was talking half to herself. For a moment, even the knowledge of his presence had escaped her. Hamel, however, did not realise that fact. He welcomed her confidence as a sign of relaxation from the frigidity of her earlier demeanour.
"That seems hard," he observed sympathetically. "It seems odd to hear you talk like that, too. Your life, surely, ought to be pleasant enough."
She looked away from the sea into his face. Although the genuine interest which she saw there and the kindly expression of his eyes disarmed annoyance, she still stiffened slightly.
"Why ought it?."
The question was a little bewildering.
"Why, because you are young and a girl," he replied. "It's natural to be cheerful, isn't it?"
"Is it?" she answered listlessly. "I cannot tell. I have not had much experience."
"How old are you?" he asked bluntly.
This time it certainly seemed as though her reply would contain some rebuke for his curiosity. She glanced once more into his face, however, and the instinctive desire to administer that well-deserved snub passed away. He was so obviously interested, his question was asked so naturally, that its spice of impertinence was as though it had not existed.
"I am twenty-one," she told him.
"And how long have you lived here?
"Since I left boarding-school, four years ago."
"Anywhere near where I am going to bury myself for a time, I wonder?" he went on.
"That depends," she replied. "Our only neighbours are the Lorneybrookes of Market Burnham. Are you going there?"
He shook his head.
"I've got a little shanty of my own," he explained, "quite close to St. David's Station. I've never even seen it yet."
She vouchsafed some slight show of curiosity.
"Where is this shanty, as you call it?" she asked him.
"I really haven't the faintest idea," he replied. "I am looking for it now. All I can tell you is that it stands just out of reach of the full tides, on a piece of rock, dead on the beach and about a mile from the station. It was built originally for a coastguard station and meant to hold a lifeboat, but they found they could never launch the lifeboat when they had it, so the man to whom all the foreshore and most of the land around here belongs - a Mr. Fentolin, I believe - sold it to my father. I expect the place has tumbled to pieces by this time, but I thought I'd have a look at it."
She was gazing at him steadfastly now, with parted lips.
"What is your name?" she demanded.
She repeated it lingeringly. It seemed quite unfamiliar.
"Was your father a great friend of Mr. Fentolin's, then?" she asked.
"I believe so, in a sort of way," he answered. "My father was Hamel the artist, you know. They made him an R.A. some time before he died. He used to come out here and live in a tent. Then Mr. Fentolin let him use this place and finally sold it to him. My father used often to speak to me about it before he died."
"Tell me," she enquired, "I do not know much about these matters, but have you any papers to prove that it was sold to your father and that you have the right to occupy it now when you choose?"
"Of course I have," he assured her. "As a matter of fact, as none of us have been here for so long, I thought I'd better bring the title-deed, or whatever they call it, along with me. It's with the rest of my traps at Norwich. Oh, the place belongs to me, right enough!" he went on, smiling. "Don't tell me that any one's pulled it down, or that it's disappeared from the face of the earth?"
"No," she said, "it still remains there. When we are round the next curve, I think I can show it to you. But every one has forgotten, I think, that it doesn't belong to Mr. Fentolin still. He uses it himself very often."
She looked at her questioner quite steadfastly, quite quietly, speechlessly. A curious uneasiness crept into his thoughts. There were mysterious tbings in her face. He knew from that moment that she, too, directly or indirectly, was concerned with those strange happenings at which Kinsley had hinted. He knew that there were things which she was keeping from him now.
"Mr. Fentolin uses one of the rooms as a studio. He likes to paint there and be near the sea," she explained. "But for the rest, I do not know. I never go near the place."
"I am afraid," he remarked, after a few moments of silence, "that I shall be a little unpopular with Mr. Fentolin. Perhaps I ought to have written first, but then, of course, I had no idea that any one was making use of the place."
"I do not understand," she said, "how you can possibly expect to come down like this and live there, without any preparation."
"Why not? "
"You haven't any servants nor any furniture nor things to cook with."
"Oh! I am an old campaigner," he assured her. "I meant to pick up a few oddments in the village. I don't suppose I shall stay very long, anyhow, but I thought I'd like to have a look at the place. By-the-by, what sort of a man is Mr. Fentolin?"
Again there was that curious expression in her eyes, an expression almost of secret terror, this time not wholly concealed. He could have sworn that her hands were cold.
"He met with an accident many years ago," she said slowly. "Both his legs were amputated. He spends his life in a little carriage which he wheels about himself."
"Poor fellow!" Hamel exclaimed, with a strong man's ready sympathy for suffering. "That is just as much as I have heard about him. Is he a decent sort of fellow in other ways? I suppose, anyhow, if he has really taken a fancy to my little shanty, I shall have to give it up."
Then, as it seemed to him, for the first time real life leaped into her face. She leaned towards him. Her tone was half commanding, half imploring, her manner entirely confidential.
"Don't!" she begged. "It is yours. Claim it. Live in it. Do anything you like with it, but take it away from Mr. Fentolin!"
Hamel was speechless. He sat a little forward, a hand on either knee, his mouth ungracefully open, an expression of blank and utter bewilderment in his face. For the first time he began to have vague doubts concerning this young lady. Everything about her had been so strange: her quiet entrance into the carriage, her unusual manner of talking, and finally this last passionate, inexplicable appeal.
"I am afraid," he said at last, "I don't quite understand. You say the poor fellow has taken a fancy to the place and likes being there. Well, it isn't much of a catch for me, anyway. I'm rather a wanderer, and I dare say I shan't be back in these parts again for years. Why shouldn't I let him have it if he wants it? It's no loss to me. I'm not a painter, you know, like my father."
She seemed on the point of making a further appeal. Her lips, even, were parted, her head a little thrown back. And then she stopped. She said nothing. The silence lasted so long that he became almost embarrassed.
"You will forgive me if I am a little dense, won't you?" he begged. "To tell you the truth," he went on, smiling, "I've got a sort of feeling that I'd like to do anything you ask me. Now won't you just explain a little more clearly what you mean, and I'll blow up the old place sky high, if it's any pleasure to you."
She seemed suddenly to have reverted to her former self - the cold and colourless young woman who had first taken the seat opposite to his.
"Mine was a very foolish request," she admitted quietly. "I am sorry that I ever made it. It was just an impulse, because the little building we were speaking of has been connected with one or two very disagreeable episodes. Nevertheless, it was foolish of me. How long did you think of staying there - that is," she added, with a faint smile," providing that you find it possible to prove your claim and take up possession? "
"Oh, just for a week or so," he answered lightly, "and as to regaining possession of it," he went on, a slightly pugnacious instinct stirring him, "I don't imagine that there'll be any difficulty about that."
"Really!" she murmured.
"Not that I want to make myself disagreeable," he continued, "but the Tower is mine, right enough, even if I have let it remain unoccupied for some time."
She let down the window - a task in which he hastened to assist her. A rush of salt, cold air swept into the compartment. He sniffed it eagerly.
"Wonderful! " he exclaimed.
She stretched out a long arm and pointed. Away in the distance, on the summit of a line of pebbled shore, standing, as it seemed, sheer over the sea, was a little black speck.
That," she said, " is the Tower."
He changed his position and leaned out of the window.
"Well, it's a queer little place," he remarked. "It doesn't look worth quarrelling over, does it?"
"And that," she went on, directing his attention to the hill, " is Mr. Fentolin's home, St. David's Hall."
For several moments he made no remark at all. There was something curiously impressive in that sudden sweep up from the sea-line; the strange, miniature mountain standing in the middle of the marshes, with its tree-crowned background; and the long, weather-beaten front of the house turned bravely to the sea.
"I never saw anything like it," he declared. "Why, it's barely a quarter of a mile from the sea, isn't it? "
"A little more than that. It is a strangely situated abode, isn't it?"
"Wonderful!" he agreed, with emphasis. "I must study the geological formation of that hill," he continued, with interest. "Why, it looks almost like an island now."
"That is because of the floods," she told him. "Even at high tide the creeks never reach so far as the back there. All the water you see stretching away inland is flood water - the result of the storm, I suppose. This is where you get out," she concluded, rising to her feet.
She turned away with the slightest nod. A maid was already awaiting her at the door of the compartment. Hamel was suddenly conscious of the fact that he disliked her going immensely.
"We shall, perhaps, meet again during the next few days," he remarked.
She half turned her head. Her expression was scarcely encouraging.
"I hope," she said, "that you will not be disappointed in your quarters."
Hamel followed her slowly on to the platform, saw her escorted to a very handsome motor-car by an obsequious station-master, and watched the former disappear down the stretch of straight road which led to the hill. Then, with a stick in one hand, and the handbag which was his sole luggage in the other, he left the station and turned seaward.