The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 3


As the young man staggered to his feet, he had somehow a sense of detachment, as though he were commencing a new life, or had suddenly come into a new existence. Yet his immediate surroundings were charged with ugly reminiscences. Through a great gap in the ruined side of the saloon the rain was tearing in. As he stood up, his head caught the fragments of the roof. He was able to push back the wreckage with ease and step out. For a moment he reeled, as he met the violence of the storm. Then, clutching hold of the side of the wreck, he steadied himself. A light was moving back and forth, close at hand. He cried out weakly: "Hullo!"

A man carrying a lantern, bent double as he made his way against the wind, crawled up to them. He was a porter from the station close at hand.

"My God! "he exclaimed. "Any one alive here?"

"I'm all right," Gerald muttered, "at least, I suppose I am. What's it all - what's it all about? We've had an accident."

The porter caught hold of a piece of the wreckage with which to steady himself.

"Your train ran right into three feet of water," he answered. "The rails had gone - torn up. The telegraph line's down."

"Why didn't you stop the train?"

"We were doing all we could," the man retorted gloomily. "We weren't expecting anything else through to-night. We'd a man along the line with a lantern, but he's just been found blown over the embankment, with his head in a pool of water. Any one else in your carriage?"

"One gentleman travelling with me," Gerald answered. "We'd better try to get him out. What about the guard and engine-driver?"

"The engine-driver and stoker are both alive," the porter told him. "I came across them before I saw you. They're both knocked sort of sillylike, but they aren't much hurt. The guard's stone dead."

"Where are we?"

"A few hundred yards from Wymondham. Let's have a look for the other gentleman."

Mr. John P. Dunster was lying quite still, his right leg doubled up, and a huge block of telegraph post, which the saloon had carried with it in its fall, still pressing against his forehead. He groaned as they dragged him out and laid him down upon a cushion in the shelter of the wreckage.

"He's alive all right," the porter remarked. "There's a doctor on the way. Let's cover him up quick and wait."

"Can't we carry him to shelter of some sort Gerald proposed.

The man shook his head. Speech of any sort was difficult. Even with his lips close to the other's ears, he had almost to shout.

"Couldn't be done," he replied. "It's all one can do to walk alone when you get out in the middle of the field, away from the shelter of the embankment here. There's bits of trees flying all down the lane. Never was such a night! Folks is fair afraid of the morning to see what's happened. There's a mill blown right over on its side in the next field, and the man in charge of it lying dead. This poor chap's bad enough."

Gerald, on all fours, had crept back into the compartment. The bottle of wine was smashed into atoms. He came out, dragging the small dressing-case which his companion had kept on the table before him. One side of it was dented in, but the lock, which was of great strength, still held.

"Perhaps there's a flask somewhere in this dressing-case," Gerald said. " Lend me a knife."

Strong though it had been, the lock was already almost torn out from its foundation. They forced the spring and opened it. The porter turned his lantern on the widening space. Just as Gerald was raising the lid very slowly to save the contents from being scattered by the wind, the man turned his head to answer an approaching hail. Gerald raised the lid a little higher and suddenly closed it with a bang.

"There's folks coming at last!" the porter exclaimed, turning around excitedly. "They've been a time and no mistake. The village isn't a quarter of a mile away. Did you find a flask, sir?"

Gerald made no answer. The dressing-case once more was closed, and his hand pressed upon the lid. The porter turned the light upon his face and whistled softly.

"You're about done yourself, sir," he remarked. "Hold up."

He caught the young man in his arms. There was another roar in Gerald's ears besides the roar of the wind. He had never fainted in his life, but the feeling was upon him now - a deadly sickness, a swaying of the earth. The porter suddenly gave a little cry.

"If I'm not a born idiot!" he exclaimed, drawing a bottle from the pocket of his coat with his disengaged hand. "There's whisky here. I was taking it home to the missis for her rheumatism. Now, then."

He drew the cork from the bottle with his teeth and forced some of the liquid between the lips of the young man. The voices now were coming nearer and nearer. Gerald made a desperate effort.

"I am all right," he declared. "Let's look after him."

They groped their way towards the unconscious man, Gerald still gripping the dressing-case with both hands. There were no signs of any change in his condition, but he was still breathing heavily. Then they heard a shout behind, almost in their ears. The porter staggered to his feet.

"It's all right now, sir!" he exclaimed. "They've brought blankets and a stretcher and brandy. Here's a doctor, sir."

A powerful-looking man, hatless, and wrapped in a great ulster, moved towards them.

"How many are there of you?" he asked, as he bent over Mr. Dunster.

"Only we two," Gerald replied. "Is my friend badly hurt?"

"Concussion," the doctor announced. "We'll take him to the village. What about you, young man? Your face is bleeding, I see."

"Just a cut," Gerald faltered; "nothing else."

"Lucky chap," the doctor remarked. "Let's get him to shelter of some sort. Come along. There's an inn at the corner of the lane there."

They all staggered along, Gerald still clutching the dressing-case, and supported on the other side by an excited and somewhat incoherent villager.

"Such a storm as never was," the latter volunteered. "The telegraph wires are all down for miles and miles. There won't be no trains running along this line come many a week, and as for trees - why, it's as though some one had been playing ninepins in Squire Fellowes's park. When the morning do come, for sure there will be things to be seen. This way, sir. Be careful of the gate."

They staggered along down the lane, climbing once over a tree which lay across the lane and far into the adjoining field. Soon they were joined by more of the villagers, roused from their beds by rumours of terrible happenings. The little, single-storey, ivy-covered inn was all lit up and the door held firmly open. They passed through the narrow entrance and into the stone-flagged barroom, where the men laid down their stretcher. As many of the villagers as could crowd in filled the passage. Gerald sank into a chair. The sudden absence of wind was almost disconcerting. He felt himself once more in danger of fainting. He was only vaguely conscious of drinking hot milk, poured from a jug by a red-faced and sympathetic woman. Its restorative effect, however, was immediate and wonderful. The mist cleared from before his eyes, his brain began to work. Always in the background the horror and the shame were there, the shame which kept his hand pressed with unnatural strength upon the broken lock of that dressing-case. He sat a little apart from the others and listened. Above the confused murmur of voices he could hear the doctor's comment and brief orders, as he rose to his feet after examining the unconscious man.

"An ordinary concussion," he declared. "I must get round and see the engine-driver now. They have got him in a shed by the embankment. I'll call in again later on. Let's have one more look at you, young man."

He glanced at the cut on Gerald's forehead, noted the access of colour in his cheeks, and nodded.

"Born to be hanged, you were," he pronounced. "You've had a marvellous escape. I'll be in again presently. No need to worry about your friend. He looks as though he'd got a mighty constitution. Light my lantern, Brown. Two of you had better come with me to the shed. It's no night for a man to be wandering about alone."

He departed, and many of the villagers with him. The landlady sat down and began to weep.

"Such a night! Such a night!" she exclaimed, wringing her hands. "And there's the doctor talks about putting the poor gentleman to bed! Why, the roof's off the back part of the house, and not a bedroom in the place but mine and John's, and the rain coming in there in torrents. Such a night! It's the judgment of the Lord upon us! That's what it is - the judgment of the Lord!"

"Judgment of the fiddlesticks!" her husband growled. "Can't you light the fire, woman? What's the good of sitting there whining?"

"Light the fire," she repeated bitterly, "and the chimney lying out in the road! Do you want to suffocate us all, or is the beer still in your head? It's your evil doings, Richard Budden, and others like you, that have brought this upon us. If Mr. Wembley would but come in and pray!"

Her husband scoffed. He was dressed only in his shirt and trousers, his hair rough, his braces hanging down behind.

"Come in and pray!" he repeated. "Not he! Not Mr. Wembley! He's safe tucked up in his bed, shivering with fear, I'll bet you. He's not getting his feet wet to save a body or lend a hand here. Souls are his job. You let the preacher alone, mother, and tell us what we're going to do with this gentleman."

"The Lord only knows!" she cried, wringing her hands.

"Can I hire a motor-car from anywhere near?" Gerald asked.

"There's motor-cars, right enough," the innkeeper replied, "but not many as would be fools enough to take one out. You couldn't see the road, and I doubt if one of them plaguey things would stir in this storm."

"Such nonsense as you talk, Richard Budden!" his wife exclaimed sharply. "It's twenty minutes past three of the clock, and there's light coming on us fast. If so be as the young gentleman knows folks round about here, or happens to live nigh, why shouldn't he take one of them motor-cars and get away to some decent place? It'll be better for the poor gentleman than lying here in a house smitten by the Lord."

Gerald rose stiffly to his feet. An idea was forming in his brain. His eyes were bright. He looked at the body of John Dunster upon the floor, and felt once more in his pocket.

"How far off is the garage?" he asked.

"It's right across the way," the innkeeper replied, a speculation of Neighbour Martin's, and a foolish one it do seem to me. He's two cars there, and one he lets to the Government for delivering the mails."

Gerald felt in his pocket and produced a sovereign.

"Give this," he said, "to any man you can find who will go across there and bring me a car - the most powerful they've got, if there's any difference. Tell them I'll pay well. This - my friend will be much better at home with me than in a strange place when he comes to his senses."

"It's sound common sense," the woman declared. "Be off with you, Richard."

The man was looking at the coin covetously, but his wife pushed him away.

"It's not a sovereign you'll be taking from the gentleman for a little errand like that," she insisted sharply. "He shall pay us for what he's had when he goes, and welcome, and if so be that he's willing to make it a sovereign, to include the milk and the brandy and the confusion we've been put to this night, well and good. It's a heavy reckoning, maybe, but the night calls for it. We'll see about that afterwards. Get along with you, I say, Richard."

"I'll be wet through," the man muttered.

"And serve you right!" the woman exclaimed. "If there's a man in this village to-night whose clothes are dry, it's a thing for him to be ashamed of."

The innkeeper reluctantly departed. They heard the roar of the wind as the door was opened and closed. The woman poured out another glass of milk and brought it to Gerald.

"A godless man, mine," she said grimly. "If so happen as Mr. Wembley had come to these parts years ago, I'd have seen myself in my grave before I'd have married a publican. But it's too late now. We're mostly too late about the things that count in this world. So it's your friend that's been stricken down, young man. A well-living man, I hope?"

Gerald shivered ever so slightly. He drank the milk, however. He felt that he might need his strength.

"What train might you have been on the woman continued. "There's none due on this line that we knew of. David Bass, the station-master, was here but two hours ago and said he'd finished for the night, and praised the Lord for that. The goods trains had all been stopped at Ipswich, and the first passenger train was not due till six o'clock."

Gerald shook his head with an affectation of weariness.

"I don't know," he replied. "I don't remember anything about it. We were hours late, I think."

The woman was looking down at the unconscious man. Gerald rose slowly to his feet and stood by her side. The face of Mr. John P. Dunster, even in unconsciousness, had something in it of strength and purpose. The shape of his head, the squareness of his jaws, the straightness of his thick lips, all seemed to speak of a hard and inflexible disposition. His hair was coal black, coarse, and without the slightest sprinkling of grey. He had the neck and throat of a fighter. But for that single, livid, blue mark across his forehead, he carried with him no signs of his accident. He was a little inclined to be stout. There was a heavy gold chain stretched across his waist-coat. From where he lay, the shining handle of his revolver protruded from his hip, pocket.

"Sakes alive!." the woman muttered, as she looked down. "What does he carry a thing like that for - in a peaceful country, too!" "It was just an idea of his," Gerald answered. "We were going abroad in a day or two. He was always nervous. If you like, I'll take it away."

He stooped down and withdrew it from the unconscious man's pocket. He started as he discovered that it was loaded in every chamber.

"I can't bear the sight of them things," the woman declared. "It's the men of evil ways, who've no trust in the Lord, who need that sort of protection."

They heard the door pushed open, the howl of wind down the passage, and the beating of rain upon the stone flags. Then it was softly closed again. The landlord staggered into the room, followed by a young man.

"This 'ere is Mr. Martin's chaffer," he announced. "You can tell him what you want yerself."

Gerald turned almost eagerly towards the newcomer.

"I want to go to the other side of Holt," he said, "and get my friend - get this gentleman away from here - get him home, if possible. Can you take me?"

The chauffeur looked doubtful.

"I'm afraid of the roads, sir," he replied. "There's talk about many bridges down, and trees, and there's floods out everywhere. There's half a foot of water, even, across the village street now. I'm afraid we shouldn't get very far."

"Look here," Gerald begged eagerly, "let's make a shot at it. I'll pay you double the hire of the car, and I'll be responsible for any damage. I want to get out of this beastly place. Let's get somewhere, at any rate, towards a civilised country. I'll see you don't lose anything. I'll give you a five pound note for yourself if we get as far as Holt."

"I'm on," the young man agreed shortly. "It's an open car, you know."

"It doesn't matter," Gerald replied. "I can stick it in front with you, and we can cover - him up in the tonneau."

"You'll wait until the doctor comes back?" the landlord asked.

"And why should they?" his wife interposed sharply. "Them doctors are all the same. He'll try and keep the poor gentleman here for the sake of a few extra guineas, and a miserable place for him to open his eyes upon, even if the rest of the roof holds, which for my part I'm beginning to doubt. They'd have to move him from here with the daylight, anyhow. He can't lie in the bar parlour all day, can he?"

"It don't seem right, somehow," the man com plained doggedly. "The doctor didn't say anything about having him moved."

"You get the car," Gerald ordered the young man. "I'll take the whole responsibility."

The chauffeur silently left the room. Gerald put a couple of sovereigns upon the mantelpiece.

"My friend is a man of somewhat peculiar temperament," he said quietly. "If he finds himself at home in a comfortable room when he comes to his senses, I am quite sure that he will have a better chance of recovery. He cannot possibly be made comfortable here, and he will feel the shock of what has happened all the more if he finds himself still in the neighbourhood when he opens his eyes. If there is any change in his condition, we can easily stop somewhere on the way."

The woman pocketed the two sovereigns.

"That's common sense, sir," she agreed heartily, "and I'm sure we are very much obliged to you. If we had a decent room, and a roof above it, you'd be heartily welcome, but as it is, this is no place for a sick man, and those that say different don't know what they are talking about. That's a real careful young man who's going to take you along in the motor-car. He'll get you there safe, if any one will."

"What I say is," her husband protested sullenly, "that we ought to wait for the doctor's orders. I'm against seeing a poor body like that jolted across the country in an open motor-car, in his state. I'm not sure that it's for his good."

"And what business is it of yours, I should like to know?" the woman demanded sharply. "You get up-stairs and begin moving the furniture from where the rain s coming sopping in. And if so be you can remember while you do it that this is a judgment that's come upon us, why, so much the better. We are evil-doers, all of us, though them as likes the easy ways generally manage to forget it."

The man retreated silently. The woman sat down upon a stool and waited. Gerald sat opposite to her, the battered dressing-case upon his knees. Between them was stretched the body of the unconscious man.

"Are you used to prayer, young sir?" the woman asked.

Gerald shook his head, and the woman did not pursue the subject. Only once her eyes were half closed and her words drifted across the room.

"The Lord have mercy on this man, a sinner!"