The Vanished Messenger

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 32


Hamel, for the next few minutes, forgot everything else in his efforts to restore to consciousness his unexpected visitor. He rebuilt the fire, heated some water upon his spirit lamp, and forced some hot drink between the lips of the woman who was now almost in a state of collapse. Then he wrapped her round in his own ulster and drew her closer to the fire. He tried during those few moments to put away the memory of all that she had told him. Gradually she began to recover. She opened her eyes and drew a little sigh. She made no effort at speech, however. She simply lay and looked at him like some wounded animal. He came over to her side and chafed one of her cold hands.

"Come," he said at last, "you begin to look more like yourself now. You are quite safe in here, and, for Esther's sake as well as your own, you know that I am your friend."

She nodded, and her fingers gently pressed his.

"I am sure of it," she murmured.

"Now let us see where we are," he continued. "Tell me exactly why you risked so much by leaving St. David's Hall to-night and coming down here. Isn't there any chance that he might find out?"

"I don't know," she answered. "It was Lucy Price who sent me. She came to my room just as I was undressing."

"Lucy Price," he repeated. "The secretary?"

"Yes! She told me that she had meant to come to you herself. She sent me instead. She thought it best. This man Dunster is being kept alive because there is something Miles wants him to tell him, and he won't. But to-night, if he is still alive, if he won't tell, they mean to make away with him. They are afraid."

"Miss Price told you this?" Hamel asked gravely.

Mrs, Fentolin nodded.

"Yes! She said so. She knows - she knows everything. She has been like the rest of us. She, too, has suffered. She, too, has reached the breaking point. She loved him before the accident. She has been his slave ever since. Listen!"

She suddenly clutched his arm. They were both silent. There was nothing to be heard but the wind. She leaned a little closer to him.

"Lucy Price sent me here to-night because she was afraid that it was to-night they meant to take him from his hiding-place and kill him. The police have left off searching for Mr. Dunster in Yarmouth and at The Hague. There is a detective in the neighbourhood and another one on his way here. They are afraid to keep him alive any longer."

"Where was Mr. Fentolin when you left?" Hamel asked.

"I asked Lucy Price that," she replied. "When she came to my room, there were no signs of his leaving. She told me to come and tell you everything. Do you know where Mr. Dunster is?"

Hamel shook his head.

" Within a few yards of here," she went on. "He is in the boat-house, the place where Miles told you he kept a model of his invention. They brought him here the night before they put his clothes on Ryan and sent him off disguised as Mr. Dunster, in the car to Yarmouth."

Hamel started up, but she clutched at his arm and pulled him back. "No," she cried, "you can't break in! There are double doors and a wonderful lock. The boat-house is yours; the building is yours. In the morning you must demand the keys - if he does not come to-night!"

"And how are we to know," Hamel asked, "if he comes to-night?"

"Go outside," she whispered. "Look towards St. David's Hall and tell me how many lights you can see."

He drew back the bolt, unlatched the door, and stepped out into the darkness. The wind and the driving rain beat against his face. A cloud of spray enveloped and soaked him. Like lamps hung in the sky, the lights of St. David's Hall shone out through the black gulf. He counted them carefully; then he stepped back.

"There are seven," he told her, closing the door with an effort.

She counted upon her fingers.

"I must come and see," she muttered. "I must be sure. Help me."

He lifted her to her feet, and they staggered out together.

"Look!" she went on, gripping his arm. "You see that row of lights? If anything happens, if Mr. Fentolin leaves the Hall to-night to come down here, a light will appear on the left in the far corner. We must watch for that light. We must watch -"

The words, whispered hoarsely into. his ear, suddenly died away. Even as they stood there, far away from the other lights, another one shone suddenly out in the spot towards which she had pointed, and continued to burn steadily. He felt the woman who was clinging to his arm become suddenly a dead weight.

"She was right!" Mrs. Pentolin moaned. "He is coming down to-night! He is preparing to leave now; perhaps he has already started! What shall we do? What shall we do?"

Hamel was conscious of a gathering sense of excitement. He, too, looked at the signal which was flashing out its message towards them. Then he gripped his companion's arm and almost carried her back into the sitting-room.

"Look here," he said firmly, "you can do nothing further. You have done your part and done it well. Stay where you are and wait. The rest belongs to me."

"But what can you do?" she demanded, her voice shaking with fear. "Meekins will come with him, and Doctor Sarson, unless he is here already. What can you do against them? Meekins can break any ordinary man's back, and Mr. Fentolin will have a revolver."

Hamel threw another log on to the fire and drew her chair closer to it.

"Never mind about he declared cheerfully. "Mr. Fentolin is too clever to attempt violence, except as a last resource. He knows that I have friends in London who would need some explanation of my disappearance. Stay here and wait."

She recognised the note of authority in his tone, and she bowed her head. Then she looked up at him; she was a changed woman.

"Perhaps I have done ill to drag you into our troubles, Mr. Hamel," she said, "and yet, I believe in you. I believe that you really care for Esther. If you can help us now, it will be for your happiness, too. You are a man. God bless you!"

Hamel groped his way round the side of the Tower and took up a position at the extreme corner of the landward side of the building, within a yard of the closed doors. The light far out upon the left was still gleaming brightly, but two of the others in a line with it had disappeared. He flattened himself against the wall and waited, listening intently, his eyes straining through the darkness. Yet they were almost upon him before he had the slightest indication of their presence. A single gleam of light in the path, come and gone like a flash, the gleam of an electric torch directed momentarily towards the road, was his first indication that they were near. A moment or two later he heard the strange click, click of the little engine attached to Mr. Fentolin's chair. Hamel set his teeth and stepped a few inches further back. The darkness was so intense that they were actually within a yard or so of him before he could even dimly discern their shapes. There were three of them - Mr. Fentolin in his chair, Doctor Sarson, and Meekins. They paused for a moment while the latter produced a key. Hamel distinctly heard a slow, soft whisper from Doctor Sarson.

"Shall I go round to the front and see that he is in bed?"

"No need," Mr. Fentolin replied calmly. "It is nearly four o'clock. Better not to risk the sound of your footsteps upon the pebbles. Now!"

The door swung noiselessly open. The darkness was so complete that even though Hamel could have touched them with an outstretched hand, their shapes were invisible. Hamel, who had formed no definite plans, had no time to hesitate. As the last one disappeared through the door, he, too, slipped in. He turned abruptly to the left and, holding his breath, stood against the wall. The door closed behind them. The gleam of the electric light flashed across the stone floor and rested for a moment upon a trapdoor, which Meekins had already stooped to lift. It fell back noiselessly upon rubber studs, and Meekins immediately slipped through it a ladder, on either side of which was a grooved stretch of board, evidently fashioned to allow Mr. Fentolin's carriage to pass down. Hamel held his breath. The moment for him was critical. If the light flashed once in his direction, he must be discovered. Both Meekins and Doctor Sarson, however, were intent upon the task of steering Mr. Fentolin's little carriage down below. They placed the wheels in the two grooves, and Meekins secured the carriage with a rope which he let run through his fingers. As soon as the little vehicle had apparently reached the bottom, he turned, thrust the electric torch in his pocket, and stepped lightly down the ladder. Doctor Sarson followed his example. They disappeared in perfect silence and left the door open. Presently a gleam of light came travelling up, from which Hamel knew that they had lit a lamp below. Very softly he crept across the floor, threw himself upon his stomach and peered down. Below him was a room, or rather a cellar, parts of which seemed to have been cut out of the solid rock. Immediately underneath was a plain iron bedstead, on which was lying stretched the figure of a man. In those first few moments Hamel failed altogether to recognise Mr. Dunster. He was thin and white, and he seemed to have shrunken; his face, with its coarse growth of beard, seemed like the face of an old man. Yet the eyes were open, eyes dull and heavy as though with pain. So far no word had been spoken, but at that moment Mr. Fentolin broke the silence.

"My dear guest," he said, "I bring you our most sincere apologies. It has gone very much against the grain, I can assure you, to have neglected you for so long a time. It is entirely the fault of the very troublesome young man who occupies the other portion of this building. In the daytime his presence makes it exceedingly difficult for us to offer you those little attentions which you might naturally expect."

The man upon the bed neither moved nor changed his position in any way. Nor did he speak. All power of initiative seemed to have deserted him. He lay quite still, his eyes fixed upon Mr. Fentolin.

"There comes a time," the latter continued, "when every one of us is confronted with what might be described as the crisis of our lives. Yours has come, my guest, at precisely this moment. It is, if my watch tells me the truth, five and twenty minutes to four. It is the last day of April. The year you know. You have exactly one minute to decide whether you will live a short time longer, or whether you will on this last day of April, and before - say, a quarter to four, make that little journey the nature of which you and I have discussed more than once."

Still the man upon the bed made no movement nor any reply. Mr. Fentolin sighed and beckoned to Doctor Sarson.

"I am afraid," he whispered, "that that wonderful drug of yours, Doctor, has been even a little too far-reaching in its results. It has kept our friend so quiet that he has lost even the power of speech, perhaps even the desire to speak. A little restorative, I think - just a few drops."

Doctor Sarson nodded silently. He drew from his pocket a little phial and poured into a wine-glass which stood on a table by the side of the bed, half a dozen drops of some ruby-coloured liquid, to which he added a tablespoonful of water. Then he leaned once more over the bed and poured the contents of the glass between the lips of the semi-conscious man.

"Give him two minutes," he said calmly. "He will be able to speak then."

Mr. Fentolin nodded and leaned back in his chair. He glanced around the room a little critically. There was a thick carpet upon the floor, a sofa piled with cushions in one corner, and several other articles of furniture. The walls, however, were uncovered and were stained with damp. A great pink fungus stood out within a few inches of the bed, a grim mixture of exquisite colouring and loathsome imperfections. The atmosphere was fetid. Meekins suddenly struck a match and lit some grains of powder in a saucer. A curious odour of incense stole through the place. Mr. Fentolin nodded appreciatively.

"That is better," he declared. " Really, the atmosphere here is positively unpleasant. I am ashamed to think that our guest has had to put up with it so long. And yet," he went on, "I think we must call it his own fault. I trust that he will no longer be obstinate."

The effect of the restorative began to show itself. The man on the bed moved restlessly. His eyes were no longer altogether expressionless. He was staring at Mr. Fentolin as one looks at some horrible vision. Mr. Fentolin smiled pleasantly.

"Now you are looking more like your old self, my dear Mr. Dunster," he remarked. "I don't think that I need repeat what I said when I first came, need I? You have just to utter that one word, and your little visit to us will be at an end."

The man looked around at all of them. He raised himself a little on his elbow. For the first time, Hamel, crouching above, recognised any likeness to Mr. John P. Dunster.

"I'll see you in hell first!"

Mr. Fentolin's face momentarily darkened. He moved a little nearer to the man upon the bed.

"Dunster," he said, "I am in grim earnest. Never mind arguments. Never mind why I am on the other side. They are restless about you in America. Unless I can cable that word to-morrow morning, they'll communicate direct with The Hague, and I shall have had my trouble for nothing. It is not my custom to put up with failure. Therefore, let me tell you that no single one of my threats has been exaggerated. My patience has reached its breaking point. Give me that word, or before four o'clock strikes, you will find yourself in a new chamber, among the corpses of those misguided fishermen, mariners of ancient days, and a few others. It's only a matter of fifty yards out to the great sea pit below the Dagger Rocks - I've spoken to you about it before, haven't I? So surely as I speak to you of it at this moment

Mr. Fentolin's speech came to an abrupt termination. A convulsive movement of Meekins', an expression of blank amazement on the part of Doctor Sarson, had suddenly checked the words upon his lips. He turned his head quickly in the direction towards which they had been gazing, towards which in fact, at that moment, Meekins, with a low cry, had made a fruitless spring. The ladder down which they had descended was slowly disappearing. Meekins, with a jump, missed the last rung by only a few inches. Some unseen hand was drawing it up. Already the last few feet were vanishing in mid-air. Mr. Fentolin sat quite quiet and still. He looked through the trap-door and saw Hamel.

"Most ingenious and, I must confess, most successful, my young friend!" he exclaimed pleasantly. "When you have made the ladder quite secure, perhaps you will be so good as to discuss this little matter with us?"

There was no immediate reply. The eyes of all four men were turned now upon that empty space through which the ladder had finally disappeared. Mr. Fentolin's fingers disappeared within the pocket of his coat. Something very bright was glistening in his hand when he withdrew it.

"Come and parley with us, Mr. Hamel," he begged. "You will not find us unreasonable."

Hamel's voice came back in reply, but Hamel himself kept well away from the opening.

"The conditions," he said, "are unpropitious. A little time for reflection will do you no harm."

The trap-doors were suddenly closed. Mr. Fentolin's face, as he looked up, became diabolic.

"We are trapped!" he muttered; "caught like rats in a hole!"