The Vanished MessengerE. Phillips Oppenheim / Mystery & Detective
THE VANISHED MESSENGER
By E. Phillips Oppenheim
There were very few people upon Platform Number Twenty-one of LiverpoolStreet Station at a quarter to nine on the evening of April 2--possiblybecause the platform in question is one of the most remote and leastused in the great terminus. The station-master, however, was therehimself, with an inspector in attendance. A dark, thick-set man, wearinga long travelling ulster and a Homburg hat, and carrying in his hand abrown leather dressing-case, across which was painted in black lettersthe name MR. JOHN P. DUNSTER, was standing a few yards away, smokinga long cigar, and, to all appearance absorbed in studying theadvertisements which decorated the grimy wall on the other side ofthe single track. A couple of porters were seated upon a barrow whichcontained one solitary portmanteau. There were no signs of otherpassengers, no other luggage. As a matter of fact, according to thetime-table, no train was due to leave the station or to arrive at it, onthis particular platform, for several hours.
Down at the other end of the platform the wooden barrier was thrustback, and a porter with some luggage upon a barrow made his noisyapproach. He was followed by a tall young man in a grey tweed suit and astraw hat on which were the colours of a famous cricket club.
The inspector watched them curiously. Lost his way, I should think, heobserved.
The station-master nodded. It looks like the young man who missed theboat train, he remarked. Perhaps he has come to beg a lift.
The young man in question made steady progress up the platform. Hishands were thrust deep into the pockets of his coat, and his foreheadwas contracted in a frown. As he approached more closely, he singled outMr. John P. Dunster, and motioning his porter to wait, crossed to theedge of the track and addressed him.
Can I speak to you for a moment, sir?
Mr. John P. Dunster turned at once and faced his questioner. He did sowithout haste--with a certain deliberation, in fact--yet his eyeswere suddenly bright and keen. He was neatly dressed, with the quietprecision which seems as a rule to characterise the travelling American.He was apparently of a little less than middle-age, clean-shaven,broad-shouldered, with every appearance of physical strength. He seemedlike a man on wires, a man on the alert, likely to miss nothing.
Are you Mr. John P. Dunster? the youth asked.
I carry my visiting-card in my hand, sir, the other replied, swinginghis dressing-case around. My name is John P. Dunster.
The young man's expression was scarcely ingratiating. To a naturalsullenness was added now the nervous distaste of one who approaches adisagreeable task.
I want, if I may, to ask you a favour, he continued. If you don'tfeel like granting it, please say no and I'll be off at once. I am on myway to The Hague. I was to have gone by the boat train which left halfan hour ago. I had taken a seat, and they assured me that the trainwould not leave for at least ten minutes, as the mails weren't in. Iwent down the platform to buy some papers and stood talking for a momentor two with a man whom I know. I suppose I must have been longer thanI thought, or they must have been quicker than they expected with themailbags. Anyhow, when I came back the train was moving. They wouldnot let me jump in. I could have done it easily, but that fool of aninspector over there held me.
They are very strict in this country, I know.
Mr. Dunster agreed, without change of expression. Please go on.
I saw you arrive--just too late for the train. While I was swearingat the inspector, I heard you speak to the station-master. Since then Ihave made inquiries. I understand that you have ordered a special trainto Harwich.
Mr. John P. Dunster said nothing, only his keen, clear eyes seemed allthe time to be questioning this gloomy-looking but apparently harmlessyoung man.
I went to the station-master's office, the latter continued, andtried to persuade them to let me ride in the guard's van of yourspecial, but he made a stupid fuss about it, so I thought I'd bettercome to you. Can I beg a seat in your compartment, or anywhere in thetrain, as far as Harwich?
Mr. Dunster avoided, for the moment, a direct reply. He had the air of aman who, whether reasonably or unreasonably, disliked the request whichhad been made to him.
You are particularly anxious to cross to-night? he asked.
I am, the youth admitted emphatically. I never ought to have riskedmissing the train. I am due at The Hague to-morrow.
Mr. John P. Dunster moved his position a little. The light from arain-splashed gas lamp shone now full upon the face of his suppliant: aboy's face, which would have been pleasant and even handsome but for thediscontented mouth, the lowering forehead, and a shadow in the eyes, asthough, boy though he certainly was in years, he had already, atsome time or another, looked upon the serious things of life. Hisnervousness, too, was almost grotesque. He had the air of dislikingimmensely this asking a favour from a stranger. Mr. Dunster appreciatedall these things, but there were reasons which made him slow in grantingthe young man's request.
What is the nature of your pressing business at The Hague? he asked.
The youth hesitated.
I am afraid, he said grimly, that you will not think it of muchimportance. I am on my way to play in a golf tournament there.
A golf tournament at The Hague! Mr. Dunster repeated, in a slightlyaltered tone. What is your name?
Mr. Dunster stood quite still for a moment. He was possessed of awonderful memory, and he was conscious at that moment of a subtle appealto it. Fentolin! There was something in the name which seemed to himsomehow associated with the things against which he was on guard. Hestood with puzzled frown, reminiscent for several minutes, unsuccessful.Then he suddenly smiled, and moving underneath the gas lamp, shook openan evening paper which he had been carrying. He turned over the pagesuntil he arrived at the sporting items. Here, in almost the firstparagraph, he saw the name which had happened to catch his eye a momentor two before:
GOLF AT THE HAGUE
Among the entrants for the tournament which commences to-morrow, are several well-known English players, including Mr. Barwin, Mr. Parrott, Mr. Hillard and Mr. Gerald Fentolin.
Mr. Dunster folded up the newspaper and replaced it in his pocket. Heturned towards the young man.
So you're a golfer, are you?
I play a bit, was the somewhat indifferent reply.
Mr. Dunster turned to another part of the paper and pointed to the greatblack head-lines.
Seems a queer thing for a young fellow like you to be worrying aboutgames, he remarked. I haven't been in this country more than a fewhours, but I expected to find all the young men getting ready.
Getting ready for what?
Why, to fight, of course, Mr. Dunster replied. Seems pretty clearthat there's an expeditionary force being fitted out, according to thisevening's paper, somewhere up in the North Sea. The only EnglishmanI've spoken to on this side was willing to lay me odds that war would bedeclared within a week.
The young man's lack of interest was curious.
I am not in the army, he said. It really doesn't affect me.
Mr. Dunster stared at him.
You'll forgive my curiosity, he said, but say, is there nothing youcould get into and fight if this thing came along?
Nothing at all, that I know of, the youth replied coolly. War is anaffair which concerns only the military and naval part of two countries.The civil population--
Plays golf, I suppose, Mr. Dunster interrupted. Young man, I haven'tbeen in England for some years, and you rather take my breath away. Allthe same, you can come along with me as far as Harwich.
The young man showed signs of some satisfaction. I am very much obligedto you, sir, he declared. I promise you I won't be in the way.
The station-master, who had been looking through a little pile oftelegrams brought to him by a clerk from his office, now turned towardsthem. His expression was a little grave.
Your special will be backing down directly, sir, he announced, butI am sorry to say that we hear very bad accounts of the line. They saythat this is only the fag-end of the storm that we are getting here, andthat it's been raging for nearly twenty-four hours on the east coast. Idoubt whether the Harwich boat will be able to put off.
We must take our chance about that, Dunster remarked. If themail boat doesn't run, I presume there will be something else we cancharter.
The station-master looked the curiosity which he did not actuallyexpress in words.
Money will buy most things, nowadays, sir, he observed, but if itisn't fit for our mail boat, it certainly isn't fit for anything elsethat can come into Harwich Harbour. However, you'll hear what they saywhen you get there.
Mr. Dunster nodded and relapsed into a taciturnity which was obviouslyone of his peculiarities. The young man strolled down the platform, andcatching up with the inspector, touched him on the shoulder.
Do you know who the fellow is? he asked curiously. It's awfullydecent of him to let me go with him, but he didn't seem very keen aboutit.
The inspector shook his head.
No idea, sir, he replied. He drove up just two minutes after thetrain had gone, came straight into the office and ordered a special.Paid for it, too, in Bank of England notes before he went out. I fancyhe's an American, and he gave his name as John P. Dunster.
The young man paused to light a cigarette.
If he's an American, I suppose that accounts for it, he observed. Hemust be in a precious hurry to get somewhere, though.
A night like this, too! the inspector remarked, with a shiver.I wouldn't leave London myself unless I had to. They say there'sa tremendous storm blowing on the east coast. Here comes the train,sir--just one saloon and the guard's van.
The little train backed slowly along the platform side. The engine wassplashed with mud and soaking wet. The faces of the engine-driver andhis companion shone from the dripping rain. The station-master held openthe door of the saloon.
You've a rough journey before you, sir, he said. You'll catch theboat all right, though--if it goes. The mail train was very heavyto-night. You should catch her up this side of Colchester.
Mr. Dunster nodded.
I am taking this young gentleman with me, he announced shortly.It seems that he, too, missed the train. I am much obliged to you,station-master, for your attention. Good night!
They were about to start when Mr. Dunster once more let down the window.
By the way, he said, as it is such a wild night, you will oblige mevery much if you will tell the engine-driver that there will be afive pound note for himself and his companion if we catch the mail.Inspector!
The inspector touched his hat. The station-master had turned discreetlyaway. He had been an inspector himself once, and sovereigns had beenuseful to him, too. Then the train glided from the platform side,plunged with a scream through a succession of black tunnels, and withrapidly increasing speed faced the storm.