The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 4


"My advice to you, sir, is to chuck it!"

Gerald turned towards the chauffeur by whose side he was seated a little stiffly, for his limbs were numbed with the cold and exhaustion. The morning had broken with a grey and uncertain light. A vaporous veil of mist seemed to have taken the place of the darkness. Even from the top of the hill where the car had come to a standstill, there was little to be seen.

"We must have come forty miles already," the chauffeur continued, "what with going out of our way all the time because of the broken bridges. I'm pretty well frozen through, and as for him," he added, jerking his thumb across his shoulder, "it seems to me you're taking a bit of a risk."

"The doctor said he would remain in exactly the same condition for twenty-four hours," Gerald declared.

"Yes, but he didn't say anything about shaking him up over forty miles of rough road," the other protested. "You'll excuse me, sir," he continued, in a slightly changed tone; "it isn't my business, of course, but I'm fairly done. It don't seem reasonable to stick at it like this. There's Holt village not a mile away, and a comfortable inn and a fire waiting. I thought that was as far as you wanted to come. We might lie up there for a few hours, at any rate."

His passenger slipped down from his place, and, lifting the rug, peered into the tonneau of the car, over which they had tied a hood. To all appearance, the condition of the man who lay there was unchanged. There was a slightly added blueness about the lps but his breathing was still perceptible. It seemed even a little stronger. Gerald resumed his seat.

"It isn't worth while to stay at Holt," he said quietly. "We are scarcely seven miles from home now. Sit still for a few minutes and get your wind."

"Only seven miles," the chauffeur repeated more cheerfully. "That's something, anyway."

"And all downhill."

"Towards the sea, then?"

"Straight to the sea," Gerald told him. "The place we are making for is St. David's Hall, near Salthouse."

The chauffeur seemed a little startled.

"'Why, that's Squire Fentolin's house!"

Gerald nodded.

"That is where we are going. You follow this road almost straight ahead."

The chauffeur slipped in the clutch.

"Oh, I know the way now, sir, right enough!" he exclaimed. "There's Salthouse marsh to cross, though. I don't know about that."

"We shall manage that all right," Gerald declared. "'We've more light now, too."

They both looked around. During the last few minutes the late morning seemed to have forced its way through the clouds. They had a dim, phantasmagoric view of the stricken country: a watery plain, with here and there great patches of fields, submerged to the hedges, and houses standing out amidst the waste of waters like toy dwellings. There were whole plantations of uprooted trees. Close to the road, on their left, was a roofless house, and a family of children crying underneath a tarpaulin shelter. As they crept on, the wind came to them with a brackish flavour, salt with the sea. The chauffeur was gazing ahead doubtfully.

"I don't like the look of the marsh," he grumbled. "Can't see the road at all. However, here goes."

"Another half-hour," Gerald assured him encouragingly, "and we shall be at St. David's Hall. You can have as much rest as you like then."

They were facing the wind now, and conversation became impossible. Twice they had to pull up sharp and make a considerable detour, once on account of a fallen tree which blocked the road, and another time because of the yawning gap where a bridge had fallen away. Gerald, however, knew every inch of the country they were in and was able to give the necessary directions. They began to meet farm wagons now, full of people who had been driven from their homes. Warnings and information as to the state of the roads were shouted to them continually. Presently they came to the last steep descent, and emerged from the devastated fragment of a wood almost on to the sea level. The chauffeur clapped on his brakes and stopped short.

"My God!" he exclaimed. "Here's more trouble!"

Gerald for a moment was speechless. They seemed to have come suddenly upon a huge plain of waters, an immense lake reaching as ar as they could see on either side. The road before them stretched like a ribbon for the next three miles. Here and there it disappeared and reappeared again. In many places it was lapped by little waves. Everywhere the hedges were either altogether or half under water. In the distance was one farmhouse, only the roof of which was visible, and from which the inhabitants were clambering into a boat. And beyond, with scarcely a break save for the rising of one strangely-shaped hill, was the sea. Gerald pointed with his finger.

" There's St. David's Hall," he said, "on the other side of the hill. The road seems all right."

"Does it!" the chauffeur grunted. "It's under water more than half the way, and Heaven knows how deep it is at the sides! I'm not going to risk my life along there. I am going to take the car back to Holt."

His hand was already upon the reverse lever, but Gerald gripped it.

"Look here," he protested, "we haven't come all this way to turn back. You don't look like a coward."

"I am not a coward, sir," was the quiet answer. "Neither am I a fool. I don't see any use in risking our lives and my master's motor-car, because you want to get home."

"Naturally," Gerald answered calmly, "but remember this. I am responsible for your car - not you. Mr. Fentolin is my uncle."

The chauffeur nodded shortly.

"You're Mr. Gerald Fentolin, aren't you, sir?" he remarked. "I thought I recognised you."

"I am," Gerald admitted. "We've had a rough journey, but it doesn't seem sense to turn back now, does it, with the house in sight?"

"That's all very well, sir," the chauffeur objected doubtfully, "but I don't believe the road's even passable, and the floods seem to me to be rising."

"Try it," the young man begged. "Look here, I don't want to bribe you, or anything of that sort. You know you're coming out of this well. It's a serious matter for me, and I shan't be likely to forget it. I want to take this gentleman to St. David's Hall and not to a hospital. You've brought me here so far like a man. Let's go through with it. If the worst comes to the worst, we can both swim, I suppose, and we are not likely to get out of our depth."

The chauffeur moved his head backwards.

"How about him?"

"He must take his chance," Gerald replied. "He's all right where he is. The car won't upset and there are plenty of people who'll see if we get into trouble. Come, let's make a dash for it."

The chauffeur thrust in his clutch and settled himself down. They glided off along that winding stretch of road. To its very edge, on either side of them, so close that they could almost touch it, came the water, water which stretched as far as they could see, swaying, waveless, sinister-looking. Even Gerald, after his first impulse of wonder, kept his eyes averted and fixed upon the road ahead. Soon they reached a place where the water met in front. There were only the rows of white palings on either side to guide them. The chauffeur muttered to himself as he changed to his first speed.

"If the engine gets stopped," he said, "I don't know how we shall get out of this."

They emerged on the other side. For some time they had a clear run. Then suddenly the driver clapped on his brakes.

"My God!" he cried. "We can't get through that!"

In front of them for more than a hundred yards the water seemed suddenly to have flowed across the road. Still a mile distant, perched on a ridge of that strangely-placed hill, was their destination.

"It can't be done, sir!" the man groaned. "There isn't a car ever built could get through that. See, it's nearly up to the top of those posts. I must put her in the reverse and get back, even if we have to wait on the higher part of the road for a boat."

He glanced behind, and a second cry broke from his lips. Gerald stood up in his place. Already the road which had been clear a few minutes before was hidden. The water was washing almost over the tops of the white posts behind them. Little waves were breaking against the summit of the raised bank.

"We're cut off!" the chauffeur exclaimed. "'What a fool I was to try this! There's the tide coming in as well!"

Gerald sat down in his place.

"Look here," he said, "we can't go back, whether we want to or not. It's much worse behind there than it is in front. There's only one chance. Go for it straight ahead in your first speed. It may not stop the engine. In any case, it will be worse presently. There's no use funking it. If the worst happens, we can sit in the car. The water won't be above our heads and there are some boats about. Blow your horn well first, in case there's any one within hearing, and then go for it."

The chauffeur obeyed. They hissed and spluttered into the water. Soon all trace of the road was completely lost. They steered only by the tops of the white posts.

"It's getting deeper," the man declared. "It's within an inch or two of the bonnet now. Hold on."

A wave broke almost over them but the engine continued its beat.

"If we stop now," he gasped, "we're done!"

The engine began to knock.

"Stick at it," Gerald cried, rising in his place a little. "Look, there's only one post lower than the last one that we passed. They get higher all the time, ahead. You can almost see the road in front there. Now, in with your gear again, and stick at it."

Another wave broke, this time completely over them. They listened with strained ears - the engine continued to beat. They still moved slowly. Then there was a shock. The wheel had struck something in the road - a great stone or rock. The chauffeur thrust the car out of gear. The engine still beat. Gerald leaped from the car. The water was over his knees. He crossed in front of the bonnet and stooped down.

"I've got it!" he exclaimed, tugging hard. "It's a stone."

He moved it, rolled it on one side, and pushed at the wheel of the car as his companion put in the speed. They started again. He jumped back his place.

"We've done it, all right!" he cried. "Don't you see? It's getting lower all the time."

The chauffeur had lost his nerve. His cheeks were pale, his teeth were chattering. The engine, however, was still beating. Gradually the pressure of the water grew less. In front of them they caught a glimpse of the road. They drew up at the top of a little bridge over one of the dikes. Gerald uttered a brief exclamation of triumph.

"We're safe!" he almost sobbed. "There's the road, straight ahead and round to the right. There's no more water anywhere near."

They had left the main part of the flood behind them. There were still great pools in the side of the road, and huge masses of seaweed had been carried up and were lying in their track. There was no more water, however. At every moment they drew nearer to the strangely-shaped hill with its crown of trees.

"The house is on the other side," Gerald pointed out. "We can go through the lodge gates at the back here. The ascent isn't so steep."

They turned sharply to the right, along another stretch of straight road set with white posts, ending before a red brick lodge and a closed gate. They blew the horn and a gardener came out. He gazed at them in amazement.

"It's all right," Gerald cried. "Let us through quickly, Foulds. We've a gentleman in behind who's ill."

The man swung open the gate with a respectful salute. They made their way up a winding drive of considerable length, and at last they came to a broad, open space almost like a platform. On their left were the marshes, and beyond, the sea. Along their right stretched the long front of an Elizabethan mansion. They drew up in front of the hail door. Their coming had been observed, and servants were already waiting. Gerald sprang to the ground.

"There's a gentleman in behind who's ill," he explained to the butler. "He has met with an accident on the way. Three or four of you had better carry him up to a bedroom - any one that is ready. And you, George," he added, turning to a boy, "get into the car and show this man the way round to the garage, and then take him to the servants' hall."

Several of the servants hastened to do his bidding, and Gerald did his best to answer the eager but respectful stream of questions. And then, just as they were in the act of lifting the still unconscious man on to the floor of the hall, came a queer sound - a shrill, reverberating whistle. They all looked up the stairs.

"The master is awake," Henderson, the butler, remarked, dropping his voice a little.

Gerald nodded.

"I will go to him at once," he said.