The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 18


The beautiful but somewhat austere front of St. David's Hall seemed, in a sense, transformed, as Hamel and his companion climbed the worn grey steps which led on to the broad sweep of terrace. Evidently visitors had recently arrived. A dark, rather good-looking woman, with pleasant round face and a ceaseless flow of conversation, was chattering away to Mr. Fentolin. By her side stood another woman who was a stranger to Hamel - thin, still elegant, with tired, worn face, and the shadow of something in her eyes which reminded him at once of Esther. She wore a large picture hat and carried a little Pomeranian dog under her arm. In the background, an insignificant-looking man with grey side-whiskers and spectacles was beaming upon everybody. Mr. Fentolin waved his hand and beckoned to Hamel and Esther as they somewhat hesitatingly approached.

"This is one of my fortunate mornings, you see, Esther!" he exclaimed, smiling. "Lady Saxthorpe has brought her husband over to lunch. Lady Saxthorpe," he added, turning to the woman at his side, "let me present to you the son of one of the first men to realise the elusive beauty of our coast. This is Mr. Hamel, son of Peter Hamel, R.A. - the Countess of Saxthorpe."

Lady Saxthorpe, who had been engaged in greeting Esther, held out her hand and smiled good-humour- edly at Hamel.

"I know your father's work quite well," she declared, "and I don't wonder that you have made a pilgrimage here. They tell me that he painted nineteen pictures - pictures of importance, that is to say - within this little area of ten miles. Do you paint, Mr. Hamel?"

"Not at all," Hamel answered.

"Our friend Hamel," Mr. Fentolin intervened, "woos other and sterner muses. He fights nature in distant countries, spans her gorges with iron bridges, stems the fury of her rivers, and carries to the boundary of the world that little twin line of metal which brings men like ants to the work-heaps of the universe. My dear Florence," he added, suddenly turning to the woman at his other side, "for the moment I had forgotten. You have not met our guest yet. Hamel, this is my sister-in-law, Mrs. Seymour Fentolin."

She held out her hand to him, unnaturally thin and white, covered with jewels. Again he saw something in her eyes which stirred him vaguely.

"It is so nice that you are able to spend a few days: with us, Mr. Hamel," she said quietly. "I am sorry that I have been too indisposed to make your acquaintance earlier."

"And, Mr. Fentolin continued, "you must know my young friend here, too. Mr. Hamel - Lord Saxthorpe."

The latter shook hands heartily with the young man.

"I knew your father quite well," he announced. "Queer thing, he used to hang out for months at a time at that little shanty on the beach there. Hardest work in the world to get him away. He came over to dine with us once or twice, but we saw scarcely anything of him. I hope his son will not prove so obdurate."

"You are very kind," Hamel murmured.

"Mr. Hamel came into these parts to claim his father's property," Mr. Fentolin said. "However, I have persuaded him to spend a day or two up here before he transforms himself into a misanthrope. What of his golf, Esther, eh?"

"Mr. Hamel plays very well, indeed," the girl replied.

"Your niece was too good for me," Hamel confessed.

Mr. Fentolin smiled.

"The politeness of this younger generation," he remarked, "keeps the truth sometimes hidden from us. I perceive that I shall not be told who won. Lady Saxthorpe, you are fortunate indeed in the morning you have chosen for your visit. There is no sun in the world like an April sun, and no corner of the earth where it shines with such effect as here. Look steadily to the eastward of that second dike and you will see the pink light upon the sands, which baffled every one until our friend Hamel came and caught it on his canvas."

"I do see it," Lady Saxthorpe murmured. "What eyes you have, Mr. Fentolin! What perception for colour!"

"Dear lady," Mr. Fentolin said, "I am one of those who benefit by the law of compensations. On a morning like this I can spend hours merely feasting my eyes upon this prospect, and I can find, if not happiness, the next best thing. The world is full of beautiful places, but the strange part of it is that beauty has countless phases, and each phase differs in some subtle and unexplainable manner from all others. Look with me fixedly, dear Lady Saxthorpe. Look, indeed, with more than your eyes. Look at that flush of wild lavender, where it fades into the sands on one side, and strikes the emerald green of that wet seamoss on the other. Look at the liquid blue of that tongue of sea which creeps along its bed through the yellow sands, through the dark meadowland, which creeps and oozes and widens till in an hour's time it will have become a river. Look at my sand islands, virgin from the foot of man, the home of sea-gulls, the islands of a day. There may be other and more beautiful places. There is none quite like this."

"I pity you no longer," Lady Saxthorpe asserted fervently. "The eyes of the artist are a finer possession than the limbs of the athlete."

The butler announced luncheon, and they all trooped in. Hamel found himself next to Lady Saxthorpe.

"Dear Mr. Fentolin has been so kind," she confided to him as they took their places. "I came in fear and trembling to ask for a very small cheque for my dear brother's diocese. My brother is a colonial bishop, you know. Can you imagine what Mr. Fentolin has given me?"

Hamel wondered politely. Lady Saxthorpe continued with an air of triumph.

"A thousand pounds! Just fancy that - a thousand pounds! And some people say he is so difficult," she went on, dropping her voice. "Mrs. Hungerford came all the way over from Norwich to beg for the infirmary there, and he gave her nothing."

"What was his excuse? " Hamel asked.

"I think he told her that it was against his principles to give to hospitals," Lady Saxthorpe replied. "He thinks that they should be supported out of the rates."

"Some people have queer ideas of charity," Hamel remarked. "Now I am afraid that if I had been Mr. Fentolin, I would have given the thousand pounds willingly to a hospital, but not a penny to a mission."

Mr. Fentolin looked suddenly down the table. He was some distance away, but his hearing was wonderful.

"Ah, my dear Hamel," he said, "believe me, missions are very wonderful things. It is only from a very careful study of their results that I have brought myself to be a considerable supporter of those where I have some personal knowledge of the organisation. Hospitals, on the other hand, provide for the poor what they ought to be able to provide for themselves. The one thing to avoid in the giving away of money is pauperisation. What do you think, Florence?"

His sister-in-law, who was seated at the other end of the table, looked across at him with a bright but stereotyped smile.

"I agree with you, of course, Miles. I always agree with you. Mr. Fentolin has the knack of being right about most things," she continued, turning to Lord Saxthorpe. "His judgment is really wonderful."

"Wish we could get him to come and sit on the bench sometimes, then," Lord Saxthorpe remarked heartily. "Our neighbours in this part of the world are not overburdened with brains. By-the-by," he went on, "that reminds me. You haven't got such a thing as a mysterious invalid in the house, have you?"

There was a moment's rather curious silence. Mr. Fentolin was sitting like a carved figure, with a glass of wine half raised to his lips. Gerald had broken off in the middle of a sentence and was staring at Lord Saxthorpe. Esther was sitting perfectly still, her face grave and calm, her eyes alone full of fear. Lord Saxthorpe was not an observant man and he continued, quite unconscious of the sensation which his question had aroused.

"Sounds a silly thing to ask you, doesn't it? They're all full of it at Wells, though. I sat on the bench this morning and went into the police-station for a moment first. Seems they've got a long dispatch from Scotland Yard about a missing man who is supposed to be in this part of the world. He came down in a special train on Tuesday night - the night of the great flood - and his train was wrecked at Wymondham. After that he was taken on by some one in a motor-car. Colonel Renshaw wanted me to allude to the matter from the bench, but it seemed to me that it was an affair entirely for the police."

As though suddenly realising the unexpected interest which his words had caused, Lord Saxthorpe brought his sentence to a conclusion and glanced enquiringly around the table.

"A man could scarcely disappear in a civilised neighbourhood like this," Mr. Fentolin remarked quietly, "but there is a certain amount of coincidence about your question. May I ask whether it was altogether a haphazard one?"

"Absolutely," Lord Saxthorpe declared. "The idea seems to be that the fellow was brought to one of the houses in the neighbourhood, and we were all rather chaffing one another this morning about it. Inspector Yardley - the stout fellow with the beard, you know - was just starting off in his dogcart to make enquiries round the neighbourhood. If any one in fiction wants a type of the ridiculous detective, there he is, ready-made."

"The coincidence of your question," Mr. Fentolin said smoothly, "is certainly a strange one. The mysterious stranger is within our gates."

Lady Saxthorpe, who had been out of the conversation for far too long, laid down her knife and fork.

"My dear Mr. Fentolin!" she exclaimed. "My dear Mrs. Fentolin! This is really most exciting! Do tell us all about it at once. I thought that the man was supposed to have been decoyed away in a motor-car. Do you know his name and all about him?"

"There are a few minor points," Mr. Fentolin murmured, "such as his religious convictions and his size in boots, which I could not swear about, but so far as regards his name and his occupation, I think I can gratify your curiosity. He is a Mr. John P. Dunster, and he appears to be the representative of an American firm of bankers, on his way to Germany to conclude a loan."

"God bless my soul!" Lord Saxthorpe exclaimed wonderingly. "The fellow is actually here under this roof! But who brought him? How did he find his way?"

"Better ask Gerald," Mr. Fentolin replied. "He is the abductor. It seems that they both missed the train from Liverpool Street, and Mr. Dunster invited Gerald to travel down in his special train. Very kind of him, but might have been very unlucky for Gerald. As you know, they got smashed up at Wymondham, and Gerald, feeling in a way responsible for him, brought him on here; quite properly, I think. Sarson has been looking after him, but I am afraid he has slight concussion of the brain."

"I shall remember this all my life," Lord Saxthorpe declared solemnly, "as one of the most singular coincidences which has ever come within my personal knowledge. Perhaps after lunch, Mr. Fentolin, you will let some of your people telephone to the police-station at Wells? There really is an important enquiry respecting this man. I should not be surprised," he added, dropping his voice a little for the benefit of the servants, "to find that Scotland Yard needed him on their own account."

"In that case," Mr. Fentolin remarked, "he is quite safe, for Sarson tells me there is no chance of his being able to travel, at any rate for twenty-four hours."

Lady Saxthorpe shivered.

"Aren't you afraid to have him in the house?" she asked, "a man who is really and actually wanted by Scotland Yard? When one considers that nothing ever happens here except an occasional shipwreck in the winter and a flower-show in the summer, it does sound positively thrilling. I wonder what he has done."

They discussed the subject of Mr. Dunster's possible iniquities. Meanwhile, a young man carrying his hat in his hand had slipped in past the servants and was leaning over Mr. Fentolin's chair. He laid two or three sheets of paper upon the table and waited while his employer glanced them through and dismissed him with a little nod.

"My wireless has been busy this morning," Mr. Fentolin remarked. "We seem to have collected about forty messages from different battleships and cruisers. There must be a whole squadron barely thirty miles out."

"You don't really think," Lady Saxthorpe asked, "that there is any fear of war, do you, Mr. Fentolin?

He answered her with a certain amount of gravity. "Who can tell? The papers this morning were bad. This conference at The Hague is still unexplained. France's attitude in the matter is especially mysterious."

"I am a strong supporter of Lord Roberts," Lord Saxthorpe said, "and I believe in the vital necessity of some scheme for national service. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that a successful invasion of this country is within the bounds of possibility."

"I quite agree with you, Lord Saxthorpe," Mr. Fentolin declared smoothly. "All the same, this Hague Conference is a most mysterious affair. The papers this morning are ominously silent about the fleet. From the tangle of messages we have picked up, I should say, without a doubt, that some form of mobilisation is going on in the North Sea. If Lady Saxthorpe thinks it warm enough, shall we take our coffee upon the terrace?"

"The terrace, by all means," her ladyship assented, rising from her place. "What a wonderful man you are, Mr. Fentolin, with your wireless telegraphy, and your telegraph office in the house, and telephones. Does it really amuse you to be so modern?"

"To a certain extent, yes," Mr. Fentolin sighed, as he guided his chair along the hall. "When my misfortune first came, I used to speculate a good deal upon the Stock Exchange. That was really the reason I went in for all these modern appliances."

"And now?" she asked. "What use do you make of them now?"

Mr. Fentolin smiled quietly. He looked out sea-ward, beyond the sky-line, from whence had come to him, through the clouds, that tangle of messages.

"I like to feel," he said, "that the turning wheel of life is not altogether out of earshot. I like to dabble just a little in the knowledge of these things."

Lord Saxthorpe came strolling up to them.

"You won't forget to telephone about this guest of yours?" he asked fussily.

"It is already done," Mr. Fentolin assured him. "My dear sister, why so silent?"

Mrs. Fentolin turned slowly towards him. She, too, had been standing with her eyes fixed upon the distant sea-line. Her face seemed suddenly to have aged, her forced vivacity to have departed. Her little Pomeranian rubbed against her feet in vain. Yet at the sound of Mr. Fentolin's voice, she seemed to come back to herself as though by magic.

"I was looking where you were looking," she dedared lightly, "just trying to see a little way beyond. So silly, isn't it? Chow-Chow, you bad little dog, come and you shall have your dinner."

She strolled off, humming a tune to herself. Lord Saxthorpe watched her with a shadow upon his plain, good-humoured face.

"Somehow or other," he remarked quietly, "Mrs. Fentolin never seems to have got over the loss of her husband, does she? How long is it since he died?"

"Eight years," Mr. Fentolin replied. "It was just six months after my own accident."

"I am losing a great deal of sympathy for you, Mr. Fentolin," Lady Saxthorpe confessed, coming over to his side. "You have so many resources, there is so much in life which you can do. You paint, as we all know, exquisitely. They tell me that you play the violin like a master. You have unlimited time for reading, and they say that you are one of the greatest living authorities upon the politics of Europe. Your morning paper must bring you so much that is interesting."

"It is true," Mr. Fentolin admitted, "that I have compensations which no one can guess at, compensations which appeal to me more as time steals on. And yet -"

He stopped short.

"And yet?" Lady Saxthorpe repeated interrogatively.

Mr.. Fentolin was watching Gerald drive golf balls from the lawn beneath. He pointed downwards.

"I was like that when I was his age," he said quietly.