The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 22


Mr. Fentolin sat for a moment in his chair with immovable face. Then he pointed to the door, which Gerald had left open behind him.

"Close that door, Gerald."

The boy obeyed. Mr. Fentolin waited until he had turned around again.

"Come and stand over here by the side of the table," he directed.

Gerald came without hesitation. He stood before his uncle with folded arms. There was something else besides sullenness in his face this morning, something which Mr. Fentolin was quick to recognise.

"I do not quite understand the nature of your question, Gerald," Mr. Fentolin began. "It is unlike you. You do not seem yourself. Is there anything in particular the matter?"

"Only this," Gerald answered firmly. "I don't understand why this naval fellow should come here and ask you to close up your wireless because secrets have been leaking out, and a few moments afterwards you should be picking up a message and telephoning to London information which was surely meant to be private. That's all. I've come to ask you about it."

"You heard the message, then?"

"I did."

"You listened - at the keyhole?"

"I listened outside," Gerald assented doggedly. "I am glad I listened. Do you mind answering my question?

"Do I mind!" Mr. Fentolin repeated softly. "Really, Gerald, your politeness, your consideration, your good manners, astound me. I am positively deprived of the power of speech."

"I'll wait here till it comes to you again, then," the boy declared bluntly. "I've waited on you hand and foot, done dirty work for you, put up with your ill-humours and your tyranny, and never grumbled. But there is a limit! You've made a poor sort of creature of me, but even the worm turns, you know. When it comes to giving away secrets about the movements of our navy at a time when we are almost at war, I strike."

"Melodramatic, almost dramatic, but, alas! so inaccurate," Mr. Fentolin sighed. "Is this a fit of the heroics, boy, or what has come over you? Have you by any chance - forgotten?"

Mr. Fentolin's voice seemed suddenly to have grown in volume. His eyes dilated, he himself seemed to have grown in size. Gerald stepped a little back. He was trembling, but his expression had not changed.

"No, I haven't forgotten. There's a great debt we are doing our best to pay, but there's such a thing as asking top much, there's such a thing as drawing the cords to snapping point. I'm speaking for Esther and mother as well as myself. We have been your slaves; in a way I suppose we are willing to go on being your slaves. It's the burden that Fate has placed around our necks, and we'll go through with it. All I want to point out is that there are limits, and it seems to me that we are up against them now."

Mr. Fentolin nodded. He had the air of a man who wishes to be reasonable.

"You are very young, my boy," he said, "very young indeed. Perhaps that is my fault for not having let you see more of the world. You have got some very queer ideas into your head. A little too much novel reading lately, eh? I might treat you differently. I might laugh at you and send you out of the room. I won't. I'll tell you what you ask. I'll explain what you find so mysterious. The person to whom I have been speaking is my stockbroker."

"Your stockbroker!" Gerald exclaimed.

Mr. Fentolin nodded.

"Mr. Bayliss," he continued, "of the firm of Bayliss, Hundercombe & Dunn, Throgmorton Court. Mr. Bayliss is a man of keen perceptions. He understands exactly the effect of certain classes of news upon the market. The message which I have just sent to him is practically common property. It will be in the Daily Mail to-morrow morning. The only thing is that I have sent it to him just a few minutes sooner than any one else can get it. There is a good deal of value in that, Gerald. I do not mind telling you that I have made a large fortune through studying the political situation and securing advance information upon matters of this sort. That fortune some day will probably be yours. It will be you who will benefit. Meanwhile, I am enriching myself and doing no one any harm."

"But how do you know," Gerald persisted, "that this message would ever have found its way to the Press? It was simply a message from one battleship to another. It was not intended to be picked up on land. There is no other installation but ours that could have picked it up. Besides, it was in code. I know that you have the code, but the others haven't."

Mr. Fentolin yawned slightly.

"Ingenious, my dear Gerald, but inaccurate. You do not know that the message was in code, and in any case it was liable to be picked up by any steamer within the circle. You really do treat me, my boy, rather as though I were a weird, mischief-making person with a talent for intrigue and crime of every sort. Look at your suspicions last night. I believe that you and Mr. Hamel had quite made up your minds that I meant evil things for Mr. John P. Dunster. Well, I had my chance. You saw him depart."

"What about his papers?"

"I will admit," Mr. Fentolin replied, "that I read his papers. They were of no great consequence, however, and he has taken them away with him. Mr. Dunster. as a matter of fact, turned out to be rather a mare's-nest. Now, come, since you are here, finish everything you have to say to me. I am not angry. I am willing to listen quite reasonably."

Gerald shook his head.

"Oh, I can't!" he declared bitterly. "You always get the best of it. I'll only ask you one more question. Are you having the wireless hauled down?"

Mr. Fentolin pointed out of the window. Gerald followed his finger. Three men were at work upon the towering spars.

"You see," Mr. Fentolin continued tolerantly, "that I am keeping my word to Lieutenant Godfrey. You are suffering from a little too much imagination, I am afraid. It is really quite a good fault. By-the-by, how do you get on with our friend Mr. Hamel?"

"Very well," the boy replied. "I haven't seen much of him."

"He and Esther are together a great deal, eh?" Mr. Fentolin asked quickly.

"They seem to be quite friendly."

"It isn't Mr. Hamel, by any chance, who has been putting these ideas into your head?"

"No one has been putting any ideas into my head," Gerald answered hotly. "It's simply what I've seen and overheard. It's simply what I feel around, the whole atmosphere of the place, the whole atmosphere you seem to create around you with these brutes Sarson and Meekins; and those white-faced, smooth-tongued Marconi men of yours, who can't talk decent English; and the post-office man, who can't look you in the face; and Miss Price, who looks as though she were one of the creatures, too, of your torture chamber. That's all."

Mr. Fentolin waited until he had finished. Then be waved him away.

"Go and take a long walk, Gerald," he advised. "Fresh air is what you need, fresh air and a little vigorous exercise. Run along now and send Miss Price to me."

Gerald overtook Hamel upon the stairs.

"By this time," the latter remarked, "I suppose that our friend Mr. Dunster is upon the sea."

Gerald nodded silently. They passed along the corridor. The door of the room which Mr. Dunster had occupied was ajar. As though by common consent, they both stopped and looked in. The windows were all wide open, the bed freshly made. The nurse was busy collecting some medicine bottles and fragments of lint. She looked at them in surprise.

"Mr. Dunster has left, sir," she told them.

"We saw him go," Gerald replied.

"Rather a quick recovery, wasn't it, nurse?" Hamel asked.

"It wasn't a recovery at all, sir," the woman declared sharply. "He'd no right to have been taken away. It's my opinion Doctor Sarson ought to be ashamed of himself to have permitted it."

"They couldn't exactly make a prison of the place, could they?" Hamel pointed out. "The man, after all, was only a guest."

"That's as it may be, sir," the nurse replied. "All the same, those that won't obey their doctors aren't fit to be allowed about alone. That's the way I look at it."

Mrs. Fentolin was passing along the corridor as they issued from the room. She started a little as she saw them.

"What have you two been doing in there?" she asked quickly.

"We were just passing," Hamel explained. "We stopped for a moment to speak to the nurse."

"Mr. Dunster has gone," she said. "You saw him go, Gerald. You saw him, too, didn't you, Mr. Hamel?"

"I certainly did," Hamel admitted.

Mrs. Fentolin pointed to the great north window near which they were standing, through which the clear sunlight streamed a little pitilessly upon her worn face and mass of dyed hair.

"You ought neither of you to be indoors for a minute on a morning like this," she declared. "Esther is waiting for you in the car, I think, Mr. Hamel."

Gerald passed on up the stairs to his room, but Hamel lingered. A curious impulse of pity towards his hostess stirred him. The morning sunlight seemed to have suddenly revealed the tragedy of her life. She stood there, a tired, worn woman, with the burden heavy upon her shoulders.

"Why not come out with Miss Fentolin and me? he suggested. "We could lunch at the Golf Club, out on the balcony. I wish you would. Can't you manage it?"

She shook her head.

"Thank you very much," she said. "Mr. Fentolin does not like to be left."

Something in the finality of her words seemed to him curiously eloquent of her state of mind. She did not move on. She seemed, indeed, to have the air of one anxious to say more. In that ruthless light, the advantages of her elegant clothes and graceful carriage were suddenly stripped away from her. She was the abject wreck of a beautiful woman, wizened, prematurely aged. Nothing remained but the eyes, which seemed somehow to have their message for him.

"Mr. Fentolin is a little peculiar, you know," she went on, her voice shaking slightly with the effort she was making to keep it low. "He allows Esther so little liberty, she sees so few young people of her own age. I do not know why he allows you to be with her so much. Be careful, Mr. Hamel."

Her voice seemed suddenly to vibrate with a curious note of suppressed fear. Almost as she finished her speech, she passed on. Her little gesture bade him remain silent. As she went up the stairs, she began to hum scraps of a little French air.