The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 6


Mr. John P. Dunster opened his eyes upon strange surroundings. He found himself lying upon a bed deliciously soft, with lace-edged sheets and lavender-perfumed bed hangings. Through the discreetly opened upper window came a pleasant and ozone-laden breeze. The furniture in the room was mostly of an old-fashioned type, some of it of oak, curiously carved, and most of it surmounted with a coat of arms. The apartment was lofty and of almost palatial proportions. The whole atmosphere of the place breathed comfort and refinement. The only thing of which he did not wholly approve was the face of the nurse who rose silently to her feet at his murmured question:

"Where am I?"

She felt his forehead, altered a bandage for a moment, and took his wrist between her fingers.

"You have been ill," she said. "There was a railway accident. You are to lie quite still and not say a word. I am going to fetch the doctor now. He wished to see you directly you spoke."

Mr. Dunster dozed again for several moments. When he reopened his eyes, a man was standing by his bedside, a short man with a black beard and gold-rimmed glasses. Mr. Dunster, in this first stage of his convalescence, was perhaps difficult to please, for he did not like the look of the doctor, either.

"Please tell me where I am?" he begged.

"You have been in a railway accident," the doctor told him, "and you were brought here afterwards."

"In a railway accident," Mr. Dunster repeated. "Ah, yes, I remember! I took a special to Harwich - I remember now. Where is my dressing-bag?"

"It is here by the side of your bed."

"And my pocket-book?"

"It is on your dressing-table."

"Have any of my things been looked at?"

"Only so far as was necessary to discover your identity," the doctor assured him. "Don't talk too much. The nurse is bringing you some beef tea."

"When," Mr. Dunster enquired, " shall I be able to continue my journey?"

"That depends upon many things," the doctor replied.

Mr. Dunster drank his beef tea and felt considerably stronger. His head still ached, but his memory was returning.

"There was a young man in the carriage with me," he asked presently. "Mr. Gerald something or other I think he said his name was?"

"Fentolin," the doctor said. "He is unhurt. This is his relative's house to which you have been brought."

Mr. Dunster lay for a time with knitted brows. Once more the name of Fentolin seemed somehow familiar to him, seemed somehow to bring with it to his memory a note of warning. He looked around the room fretfully. He looked into the nurse's face, which he disliked exceedingly, and he looked at the doctor, whom he was beginning to detest.

"Whose house exactly is this?" he demanded.

"This is St. David's Hall - the home of Mr. Miles Fentolin," the doctor told him. "The young gentleman with whom you were travelling is his nephew."

"Can I send a telegram?" Mr. Dunster asked, a little abruptly.

"Without a doubt," the doctor replied. "Mr. Fentolin desired me to ask you if there was any one whom you would like to apprise of your safety."

Again the man upon the bed lay quite still, with knitted brows. There was surely something familiar about that name. Was it his fevered fancy or was there also something a little sinister?

The nurse, who had glided from the room, came back presently with some telegraph forms. Mr. Dunster held out his hand for them and then hesitated.

"Can you tell me any date, Doctor, upon which I can rely upon leaving here?"

"You will probably be well enough to travel on the third day from now," the doctor assured him.

"The third day," Mr. Dunster muttered. "Very well."

He wrote out three telegrams and passed them over.

"One," he said, "is to New York, one to The Hague, and one to London. There was plenty of money in my pocket. Perhaps you will find it and pay for these."

"Is there anything more," the doctor asked, "that can be done for your comfort?"

"Nothing at present," Mr. Dunster replied. "My head aches now, but I think that I shall want to leave before three days are up. Are you the doctor in the neighbourhood?"

Sarson shook his head.

"I am physician to Mr. Fentolin's household," he answered quietly. "I live here. Mr. Fentolin is himself somewhat of an invalid and requires constant medical attention."

Mr. Dunster contemplated the speaker steadfastly.

"You will forgive me," he said. "I am an American and I am used to plain speech. I am quite unused to being attended by strange doctors. I understand that you are not in general practice now. Might I ask if you are fully qualified?"

"I am an M.D. of London," the doctor replied. "You can make yourself quite easy as to my qualifications. It would not suit Mr. Fentolin's purpose to entrust himself to the care of any one without a reputation."

He left the room, and Mr. Dunster closed his eyes. His slumbers, however, were not altogether peaceful ones. All the time there seemed to be a hammering inside his head, and from somewhere back in his obscured memory the name of Fentolin seemed to be continually asserting itself. From somewhere or other, the amazing sense which sometimes gives warning of danger to men of adventure, seemed to have opened its feelers. He rested because he was exhausted, but even in his sleep he was ill at ease.

The doctor, with the telegrams in his hand, made his way down a splendid staircase, past the long picture gallery where masterpieces of Van Dyck and Rubens frowned and leered down upon him; descended the final stretch of broad oak stairs, crossed the hail, and entered his master's rooms. Mr. Fentolin was sitting before the open window, an easel in front of him, a palette in his left hand, painting with deft, swift touches.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, without looking around, "it is my friend the doctor, my friend Sarson, M.D. of London, L.R.C.P. and all the rest of it. He brings with him the odour of the sick room. For a moment or two, just for a moment, dear friend, do not disturb me. Do not bring any alien thoughts into my brain. I am absorbed, you see - absorbed. It is a strange problem of colour, this."

He was silent for several moments, glancing repeatedly out of the window and back to his canvas, painting all the time with swift and delicate precision.

"Meekins, who stands behind my chair," Mr. Fentolin continued, "even Meekins is entranced. He has a soul, my friend Sarson, although you might not think it. He, too, sees sometimes the colour in the skies, the glitter upon the sands, the clear, sweet purity of those long stretches of virgin water. Meekins, I believe, has a soul, only he likes better to see these things grow under his master's touch than to wander about and solve their riddles for himself."

The man remained perfectly immovable. Not a feature twitched. Yet it was a fact that, although he stood where Mr. Fentolin could not possibly observe him, he never removed his gaze from the canvas.

"You see, my medical friend, that there has been a great tide in the night, following upon the flood? Even our small landmarks are shifted. Soon, in my little carriage, I shall ride down to the Tower. I shall sit there, and I shall watch the sea. I think that this evening, with the turn of the tide, the spray may reach even to my windows there. I shall paint again. There is always something fresh in the sea, you know - always something fresh in the sea. Like a human face - angry or pleased, sullen or joyful. Some people like to paint the sea at its calmest and most beautiful. Some people like to see happy faces around them. It is not every one who appreciates the other things. It is not quite like that with me, eh, Sarson?"

His hand fell to his side. Momentarily he had finished his work. He turned around and eyed the doctor, who stood in taciturn silence.

"Answer. Answer me," he insisted.

The doctor's gloomy face seemed darker still.

"You have spoken the truth, Mr. Fentolin," he admitted. "You are not one of the vulgar herd who love to consort with pleasure and happiness. You are one of those who understand the beauty of unhappiness - in others," he added, with faint emphasis.

Mr. Fentolin smiled. His face became almost like the face of one of those angels of the great Italian master.

"How well you know me!" he murmured. "My humble effort, Doctor - how do you like it?"

The doctor bent over the canvas.

"I know nothing about art," he said, a little roughly. "Your work seems to me clever - a little grotesque, perhaps; a little straining after the hard, plain things which threaten. Nothing of the idealist in your work, Mr. Fentolin."

Mr. Fentolin studied the canvas himself for a moment.

"A clever man, Sarson," he remarked coolly, "but no courtier. Never mind, my work pleases me. It gives me a passing sensation of happiness. Now, what about our patient?"

"He recovers," the doctor pronounced. "From my short examination, I should say that he had the constitution of an ox. I have told him that he will be up in three days. As a matter of fact, he will be able, if he wants to, to walk out of the house to-morrow."

Mr. Fentolin shook his head.

"We cannot spare him quite so soon," he declared. "We must avail ourselves of this wonderful chance afforded us by my brilliant young nephew. We must keep him with us for a little time. What is it that you have in your hands, Doctor? Telegrams, I think. Let me look at them."

The doctor held them out. Mr. Fentolin took them eagerly between his thin, delicate fingers. Suddenly his face darkened, and became like the face of a spoilt and angry child.

"Cipher!" he exclaimed furiously. "A cipher which he knows so well as to remember it, too! Never mind, it will be easy to decode. It will amuse me during the afternoon. Very good, Sarson. I will take charge of these."

"You do not wish anything dispatched?"

"Nothing at present," Mr. Fentolin sighed. "It will be well, I think, for the poor man to remain undisturbed by any communications from his friends. Is he restless at all?"

"He wants to get on with his journey."

"We shall see," Mr. Fentolin remarked. "Now feel my pulse, Sarson. How am I this morning?"

The doctor held the thin wrist for a moment between his fingers, and let it go.

"In perfect health, as usual," he announced grimly.

"Ah, but you cannot be sure!" Mr. Fentolin protested. "My tongue, if you please."

He put it out.

"Excellent!"

"We must make quite certain," Mr. Fentolin continued. "There are so many people who would miss me. My place in the world would not be easily filed. Undo my waistcoat, Sarson. Feel my heart, please. Feel carefully. I can see the end of your stethoscope in your pocket. Don't scamp it. I fancied this morning, when I was lying here alone, that there was something almost like a palpitation - a quicker beat. Be very careful, Sarson. Now."

The doctor made his examination with impassive face. Then he stepped back.

"There is no change in your condition, Mr. Fentolin," he announced. "The palpitation you spoke of is a mistake. You are in perfect health."

Mr. Fentolin sighed gently.

"Then," he said, "I will now amuse myself by a gentle ride down to the Tower. You are entirely satisfied, Sarson? You are keeping nothing back from me?"

The doctor looked at him with grim, impassive face. "There is nothing to keep back," he declared. "You have the constitution of a cowboy. There is no reason why you should not live for another thirty years.

Mr. Fentolin sighed, as though a weight bad been removed from his heart.

"I will now," he decided, reaching forward for the handle of his carriage, "go down to the Tower. It is just possible that a few days' seclusion might be good for our guest."

The doctor turned silently away. There was no one there to see his expression as he walked towards the door.