The Vanished Messenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Hamel awoke to find his room filled with sunshine and a soft wind blowing in through the open window. There was a pleasant odour of coffee floating up from the kitchen. He looked at his watch - it was past eight o'clock. The sea was glittering and bespangled with sunlight. He found among his scanty belongings a bathing suit, and, wrapped in his overcoat, hurried down-stairs.
"Breakfast in half an hour, Mrs. Cox," he called out.
She stood at the door, watching him as he stepped across the pebbles and plunged in. For a few moments he swam. Then he turned over on his back. The sunlight was gleaming from every window of St. David's Hall. He even fancied that upon the terrace he could see a white-clad figure looking towards him. He turned over and swam once more. From her place in the doorway Mrs. Cox called out to him.
"Mind the Dagger Rocks, sir!"
He waved his hand. The splendid exhilaration of the salt water seemed to give him unlimited courage. He dived, but the woman's cry of fear soon recalled him. Presently he swam to shore and hurried up the beach. Mrs. Cox, with a sigh of relief, disappeared into the kitchen.
"Those rocks on your nerves again, Mrs. Cox?" he asked, good-humouredly, as he took his place at the breakfast table a quarter of an hour later.
"It's only us who live here, sir," she answered, "who know how terrible they are. There s one - it comes up like my hand - a long spike. A boat once struck upon that, and it's as though it'd been sawn through the middle."
"I must have a look at them some day," he declared. "I am going to work this morning, Mrs. Cox. Lunch at one o'clock."
He took rugs and established himself with a pile of books at the back of a grassy knoll, sheltered from the wind, with the sea almost at his feet. He sharpened his pencil and numbered the page of his notebook. Then he looked up towards the Hall garden and found himself dreaming. The sunshine was delicious, and a gentle optimism seemed to steal over him.
"I am a fool!" he murmured to himself. "I am catching some part of these people's folly. Mr. Fentolin is only an ordinary, crotchety invalid with queer tastes. On the big things he is probably like other men. I shall go to him this morning.
A sea-gull screamed over his head. Little, brown sailed fishing-boats came gliding down the harbourway. A pleasant, sensuous joyfulness seemed part of the spirit of the day. Hamel stretched himself out upon the dry sand.
"Work be hanged!" he exclaimed.
A soft voice answered him almost in his ear, a voice which was becoming very familiar.
"A most admirable sentiment, my young friend, which you seem to be doing your best to live up to. Not a line written, I see."
He sat up upon his rug. Mr. Fentolin, in his little carriage, was there by his side. Behind was the faithful Meekins, with an easel under his arm.
"I trust that your first night in your new abode has been a pleasant one?" Mr. Fentolin asked.
"I slept quite well, thanks," Hamel replied. "Glad to see you're going to paint."
Mr. Fentolin shook his head gloomily.
"It is, alas!" he declared, "one of my weaknesses. I can work only in solitude. I came down on the chance that the fine weather might have tempted you over to the Golf Club. As it is, I shall return."
"I am awfully sorry," Hamel said. "Can't I go out of sight somewhere?"
Mr. Fentolin sighed.
"I will not ask your pardon for my absurd humours," he continued, a little sadly. "Their existence, however, I cannot deny. I will wait."
"It seems a pity for you to do that," Hamel remarked. "You see, I might stay here for some time."
Mr. Fentolin's face darkened. He looked at the young man with a sort of pensive wrath.
"If," the latter went on, "you say 'yes' to something I am going to ask you, I might even stay - in the neighbourhood - for longer still."
Mr. Fentolin sat quite motionless in his chair; his eyes were fixed upon Hamel.
"What is it that you are going to ask me?" be demanded.
"I want to marry your niece.
Mr. Fentolin looked at the young man in mild surprise.
"A sudden decision on your part, Mr. Hamel?" he murmured.
"Not at all," Hamel assured him.
"I have been ten years looking for her."
"And the young lady?" Mr. Fentolin enquired.
"What does she say?"
"I believe, sir," Hamel replied, "that she would be willing."
Mr. Fentolin sighed.
"One is forced sometimes," he remarked regretfully, "to realise the selfishness of our young people. For many years one devotes oneself to providing them with all the comforts and luxuries of life. Then, in a single day, they turn around and give everything they have to give to a stranger. So you want to marry Esther?"
"If you please." "She has a very moderate fortune."
"She need have none at all," Hamel replied; "I have enough."
Mr. Fentolin glanced towards the house.
"Then," he said, "I think you had better go and tell her so; in which case, I shall be able to paint."
"I have your permission, then?" Hamel asked, rising to his feet eagerly.
"Negatively," Mr. Fentolin agreed, "you have. I cannot refuse. Esther is of age; the thing is reasonable. I do not know whether she will be happy with you or not. A young man of your disposition who declines to study the whims of an unfortunate creature like myself is scarcely likely to be possessed of much sensibility. However, perhaps your views as to a solitary residence here will change with your engagement to my niece."
Hamel did not reply for a moment. He was trying to ask himself why, even in the midst of this rush of anticipatory happiness, he should be conscious of a certain reluctance to leave the Tower - and Mr. Fentolin. He was looking longingly towards the Hall. Mr. Fentolin waved him away.
"Go and make love," he ordered, "and leave me alone. We are both in pursuit of beauty - only our methods differ."
Hamel hesitated no longer but walked up the narnow path with swift, buoyant footsteps. Everywhere he seemed to be surrounded by the glorious spring sunshine. It glittered in the little pools and creeks by his side. It drew a new colour from the dun-coloured marshes, the masses of emerald seaweed, the shimmering sands. It flashed in the long row of windows of the Hall. As he drew nearer, he could see the banks of yellow crocuses in the sloping gardens behind. There were odours of spring in the air. He ran lightly up the terrace steps. There was an easy-chair drawn into her favourite corner, and a book upon the table, but no sign of Esther. He hesitated for a moment, and then, retracing his steps along the terrace, entered the house by the front door, which stood wide open. There was no one in the hall, scarcely a sound about the place. A great clock ticked solemnly from the foot of the stairs. There was not even a servant in sight. Hamel wandered around, a a loss what to do. He opened the door of the drawing-room and looked in. It was empty. He turned away, meaning to ring a bell. On his way across the hall he paused. A curiously suggestive sound reached him faintly from the end of one of the passages. It was the click of a typewriter.
Hamel stood for a moment perfectly still. He had hurred up to the Hall, filled with the one selfish joy common to all mankind. He had had no thought save the thought of seeing Esther. The click of that machine brought him hack to the stern realities of life. He remembered his talk to Kinsley, his promise. On the hall table he could see from where he was standing the great headlines which announced the nation's anxiety. He was in the house of a suspected spy. The click of the typewriter was an accompaniment to his thought. He looked around once more and listened. Then he made his way quietly across the hail and down the long passage, at the end of which the room which Mr. Fentolin called his workroom was situated. He turned the handle of the door and entered, closing it immediately behind him. The woman who was typing paused with her fingers upon the keys. Her eyes met his coldly, without curiosity. She had paused in her work, but she took no other notice of his coming.
"Has Mr. Fentolin sent you here?" she asked at last.
He came over to the typewriter.
"Mr. Fentolin has not sent me," he said slowly. "I am here on my own account. I dare say you will think that I am a lunatic to come to you like this. Nevertheless, please listen to me."
Her fingers left the keys. She laid her hands upon the table in front of her. He drew a little nearer. She covered over the sheets of paper with which she was surrounded with a pad of blotting-paper. He pointed suddenly to them.
"Why do you do that? " he demanded. "What is there in your work that you are afraid I might see?"
She answered him without hesitation.
"These are private papers of Mr. Fentolin's. No one has any business to see them. No one has any business to enter this room. Why are you here?"
"I came to the Hall to find Miss Fentolin," he replied. "I heard the click of your typewriter. I came to you, I suppose I should say, on impulse."
Her eyes rested upon his, filled with a cold and questioning light.
"There's an impression up in London," Hamel went on, "that Mr. Fentolin has been intefering by means of his wireless in affairs which don't concern him, and giving away valuable information. This man Dunster's disappearance is as yet unexplained. I feel myself justified in making certain investigations, and among the first of them I should like you to tell me exactly the nature of the work for which Mr. Fentolin finds a secretary necessary?"
She glanced towards the bell. He moved to the edge of the table as though to intercept her.
"In any ordinary case," he continued, "I would not ask you to betray your employer's confidence. As things are, I think I am justified. You are English, are you not? You realise, I suppose, that the country is on the brink of war?"
She looked at him from the depths of her still, lusterless eyes.
"You must be a very foolish person," she remarked, "if you expect to obtain information in this manner."
"Perhaps I am," he confessed, "but my folly has brought me to you, and you can give me the information if you will."
"Where is Mr. Fentolin?" she asked.
"Down at the Tower," he replied. "I left him there. He sent me up to see Miss Fentolin. I was looking for her when the click of your typewriter reminded me of other things."
She turned composedly back to her work. "I think," she said, "that you had better go and find Miss Fentolin."
"Don't talk nonsense! You can't think I have risked giving myself away to you for nothing? I mean to search this room, to read the papers which you are typing."
She glanced around her a little contemptuously.
"You are welcome," she assured him. "Pray proceed."
They exchanged the glances of duelists. Her plain black frock was buttoned up to her throat. Her colourless face seemed set in exact and expressionless lines. Her eyes were like windows of glass. He felt only their scrutiny; nothing of the reason for it, or of the thoughts which stirred behind in her brain. There was nothing about her attitude which seemed in any way threatening, yet he had the feeling that in this interview it was she who possessed the upper hand.
"You are a foolish person," she said calmly. "You are so foolish that you are not, in all probability, in the slightest degree dangerous. Believe me, ours is an unequal duel. There is a bell upon this table which has apparently escaped your notice. I sit with my finger upon the button - so. I have only to press it, and the servants will be here. I do not wish to press it. I do not desire that you should be, as you certainly would be, banished from this house."
He was immensely puzzled. She had not resented his strange intrusion. She had accepted it, indeed, with curious equanimity. Her forefinger lingered still over the little ivory knob of the bell attached to her desk. He shrugged his shoulders.
"You have the advantage of me," he admitted, a little curtly. "All the same, I think I could possess myself of those sheets of paper, you know, before the bell was answered."
"Would it be wise, I wonder, then, to ensure their safety?" she asked coolly.
Her finger pressed the bell. He took a quick step forward. She held out her hand.
"Stop!" she ordered. "These sheets will tell you nothing which you do not know already unless you are a fool. Never mind the bell. That is my affair. I am sending you away."
He leaned a little towards her.
"It wouldn't be possible to bribe you, I suppose?"
She shook her head.
"I wonder you haven't tried that before. No, it would not - not with money, that is to say."
"You'll tell Mr. Fentolin, I presume?" he asked quickly.
"I have nothing to tell him," she replied. "Nothing has happened. Richards," she went on, as a servant entered the room, "Mr. Hamel is looking for Miss Fentolin. Will you see if you can find her?"
The man's expression was full of polite regret. "Miss Fentolin went over to Legh Woods early this morning, sir," he announced. "She is staying to lunch with Lady Saxthorpe."
Hamel stood quite still for a moment. Then he turned to the window. In the far distance he could catch a glimpse of the Tower. Mr. Fentolin's chair had disappeared from the walk.
"I am sorry," he said. "I must have made a mistake. I will hurry back."
There were more questions which he was longing to ask, but the cold negativeness of her manner chilled him. She sat with her fingers poised over the keys, waiting for his departure. He turned and left the room.