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   Chapter 1 No.1

The Shrieking Pit By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 13993

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Colwyn had never seen anything quite so eccentric in a public room as the behaviour of the young man breakfasting alone at the alcove table in the bay embrasure, and he became so absorbed in watching him that he permitted his own meal to grow cold, impatiently waving away the waiter who sought with obtrusive obsequiousness to recall his wandering attention by thrusting the menu card before him.

To outward seeming the occupant of the alcove table was a good-looking young man, whose clear blue eyes, tanned skin and well-knit frame indicated the truly national product of common sense, cold water, and out-of-door pursuits; of a wholesomely English if not markedly intellectual type, pleasant to look at, and unmistakably of good birth and breeding. When a young man of this description, your fellow guest at a fashionable seaside hotel, who had been in the habit of giving you a courteous nod on his morning journey across the archipelago of snowy-topped tables under the convoy of the head waiter to his own table, comes in to breakfast with shaking hands, flushed face, and passes your table with unseeing eyes, you would probably conclude that he was under the influence of liquor, and in your English way you would severely blame him, not so much for the moral turpitude involved in his excess as for the bad taste, which prompted him to show himself in public in such a condition. If, on reaching his place, the young man's conduct took the additional extravagant form of picking up a table-knife and sticking it into the table in front of him, you would probably enlarge your previous conclusion by admitting the hypotheses of drugs or dementia to account for such remarkable behaviour.

All these things were done by the young man at the alcove table in the breakfast room of the Grand Hotel, Durrington, on an October morning in the year 1916; but Colwyn, who was only half an Englishman, and, moreover, had an original mind, did not attribute them to drink, morphia, or madness. Colwyn flattered himself that he knew the outward signs of these diseases too well to be deceived into thinking that the splendid specimen of young physical manhood at the far table was the victim of any of them. His own impression was that it was a case of shell-shock. It was true that, apart from the doubtful evidence of a bronzed skin and upright frame, there was nothing about him to suggest that he had been a soldier: no service lapel or regimental badge in his grey Norfolk jacket. But an Englishman of his class would be hardly likely to wear either once he had left the Army. It was almost certain that he must have seen service in the war, and by no means improbable that he had been bowled over by shell-shock, like many thousands more of equally splendid specimens of young manhood. Any other conclusion to account for the strange condition of a young man like him seemed unworthy and repellent.

"It must be shell-shock, and a very bad case-probably supposed to be cured, and sent up here to recuperate," thought Colwyn. "I'll keep an eye on him."

As Colwyn resumed his breakfast it occurred to him that some of the other guests might have been alarmed by the young man's behaviour, and he cast his eyes round the room to see if anybody else had noticed him.

There were about thirty guests in the big breakfast apartment, which had been built to accommodate five times the number-a charming, luxuriously furnished place, with massive white pillars supporting a frescoed ceiling, and lighted by numerous bay windows opening on to the North Sea, which was sparkling brightly in a brilliant October sunshine. The thirty people comprised the whole of the hotel visitors, for in the year 1916 holiday seekers preferred some safer resort than a part of the Norfolk coast which lay in the track of enemy airships seeking a way to London.

Two nights before a Zeppelin had dropped a couple of bombs on the Durrington front, and the majority of hotel visitors had departed by the next morning's train, disregarding the proprietor's assurance that the affair was a pure accident, a German oversight which was not likely to happen again. Off the nervous ones went, and left the big hotel, the long curved seafront, the miles of yellow sand, the high green headlands, the best golf-links in the East of England, and all the other attractions mentioned in the hotel advertisements, to a handful of people, who were too nerve-proof, lazy, fatalistic, or indifferent to bother about Zeppelins.

These thirty guests, scattered far and wide over the spacious isolation of the breakfast-room, in twos and threes, and little groups, seemed, with one exception, too engrossed in the solemn British rite of beginning the day well with a good breakfast to bother their heads about the conduct of the young man at the alcove table. They were, for the most part, characteristic war-time holiday-makers: the men, obviously above military age, in Norfolk tweeds or golf suits; two young officers at a table by the window, and-as indifference to Zeppelins is not confined to the sterner sex-a sprinkling of ladies, plump and matronly, or of the masculine walking type, with two charmingly pretty girls and a gay young war widow to leaven the mass.

The exception was a tall and portly gentleman with a slightly bald head, glossy brown beard, gold-rimmed eye-glasses perilously balanced on a prominent nose, and an important manner. He was breakfasting alone at a table not far from Colwyn's, and Colwyn noticed that he kept glancing at the alcove table where the young man sat. As Colwyn looked in his direction their eyes met, and the portly gentleman nodded portentously in the direction of the alcove table, as an indication that he also had been watching the curious behaviour of the occupant. A moment afterwards he got up and walked across to the pillar against which Colwyn's table was placed.

"Will you permit me to take a seat at your table?" he remarked urbanely. "I am afraid we are going to have trouble over there directly," he added, sinking his voice as he nodded in the direction of the distant alcove table. "We may have to act promptly. Nobody else seems to have noticed anything. We can watch him from behind this pillar without his seeing us."

Colwyn nodded in return with a quick comprehension of all the other's speech implied, and pushed a chair towards his visitor, who sat down and resumed his watch of the young man at the alcove table. Colwyn bestowed a swift glance on his companion which took in everything. The tall man in glasses looked too human for a lawyer, too intelligent for a schoolmaster, and too well-dressed for an ordinary medical man. Colwyn, versed in judging men swiftly from externals, noting the urbane, somewhat pompous face, the authoritative, professional pose, the well-shaped, plump white hands, and the general air of well-being and prosperity which exuded from the whole man, placed him as a successful practitioner in the more lucrative

path of medicine-probably a fashionable Harley Street specialist.

Colwyn returned to his scrutiny of the young man at the alcove table, and he and his companion studied him intently for some time in silence. But the young man, for the moment, was comparatively quiet, gazing moodily through the open window over the waters of the North Sea, an untasted sole in front of him, and an impassive waiter pouring out his coffee as though the spectacle of a young man sticking a knife into the table-cloth was a commonplace occurrence at the Grand Hotel, and all in the day's doings. When the waiter had finished pouring out the coffee and noiselessly departed, the young man tasted it with an indifferent air, pushed it from him, and resumed his former occupation of staring out of the window.

"He seems quiet enough now," observed Colwyn, turning to his companion. "What do you think is the matter with him-shell-shock?"

"I would not care to hazard a definite opinion on so cursory an observation," returned the other, in a dry, reticent, ultra-professional manner. "But I will go so far as to say that I do not think it is a case of shell-shock. If it is what I suspect, that first attack was the precursor of another, possibly a worse attack. Ha! it is commencing. Look at his thumb-that is the danger signal!"

Colwyn looked across the room again. The young man was still sitting in the same posture, with his gaze bent on the open sea. His left hand was extended rigidly on the table in front of him, with the thumb, extended at right angles, oscillating rapidly in a peculiar manner.

"This attack may pass away like the other, but if he looks round at anybody, and makes the slightest move, we must secure him immediately," said Colwyn's companion, speaking in a whisper.

He had barely finished speaking when the young man turned his head from the open window and fixed his blue eyes vacantly on the table nearest him, where an elderly clergyman, a golfing friend, and their wives, were breakfasting together. With a swift movement the young man got up, and started to walk towards this table.

Colwyn, who was watching every movement of the young man closely, could not determine, then or afterwards, whether he meditated an attack on the occupants of the next table, or merely intended to leave the breakfast room. The clergyman's table was directly in front of the alcove and in a line with the pair of swinging glass doors which were the only exit from the breakfast-room. But Colwyn's companion did not wait for the matter to be put to the test. At the first movement of the young man he sprang to his feet and, without waiting to see whether Colwyn was following him, raced across the room and caught the young man by the arm while he was yet some feet away from the clergyman's table. The young man struggled desperately in his grasp for some moments, then suddenly collapsed and fell inert in the other's arms. Colwyn walked over to the spot in time to see his portly companion lay the young man down on the carpet and bend over to loosen his collar.

The young man lay apparently unconscious on the floor, breathing stertorously, with convulsed features and closed eyes. After the lapse of some minutes he opened his eyes, glanced listlessly at the circle of frightened people who had gathered around him, and feebly endeavoured to sit up. Colwyn's companion, who was bending over him feeling his heart, helped him to a sitting posture, and then, glancing at the faces crowded around, exclaimed in a sharp voice:

"He wants air. Please move back there a little."

"Certainly, Sir Henry." It was a stout man in a check golfing suit who spoke. "But the ladies are very anxious to know if it is anything serious."

"No, no. He will be quite all right directly. Just fall back, and give him more air. Here, you!"-this to one of the gaping waiters-"just slip across to the office and find out the number of this gentleman's room."

The waiter hurried away and speedily returned with the proprietor of the hotel, a little man in check trousers and a frock coat, with a bald head and an anxious, yet resigned eye which was obviously prepared for the worst. His demeanour was that of a man who, already overloaded by misfortune, was bracing his sinews to bear the last straw. As he approached the group near the alcove table he smoothed his harassed features into an expression of solicitude, and, addressing himself to the man who was supporting the young man on the floor, said, in a voice intended to be sympathetic,

"I thought I had better come myself, Sir Henry. I could not understand from Antoine what you wanted or what had happened. Antoine said something about somebody dying in the breakfast-room--"

"Nothing of the sort!" snapped the gentleman addressed as Sir Henry, shifting his posture a little so as to enable the young man to lean against his shoulder. "Haven't you eyes in your head, Willsden? Cannot you see for yourself that this gentleman has merely had a fainting fit?"

"I'm delighted to hear it, Sir Henry," replied the hotel proprietor. But his face expressed no visible gratification. To a man who had had his hotel emptied by a Zeppelin raid the difference between a single guest fainting instead of dying was merely infinitesimal.

"Who is this gentleman, and what's the number of his room?" continued Sir Henry. "He will be better lying quietly on his bed."

"His name is Ronald, and his room is No. 32-on the first floor, Sir Henry."

"Very good. I'll take him up there at once."

"Shall I help you, Sir Henry? Perhaps he could be carried up. One of the waiters could take his feet, or perhaps it would be better to have two."

"There's not the slightest necessity. He'll be able to walk in a minute-with a little assistance. Ah, that's better!" The abrupt manner in which Sir Henry addressed the hotel proprietor insensibly softened itself into the best bedside manner when he spoke to the patient on the carpet, who, from a sitting posture, was now endeavouring to struggle to his feet. "You think you can get up, eh? Well, it won't do you any harm. That's the way!" Sir Henry assisted the young man to rise, and supported him with his arm. "Now, the next thing is to get him to his room. No, no, not you, Willsden-you're too small. Where's that gentleman I was sitting with a few minutes ago? Ah, thank you"-as Colwyn stepped forward and took the other arm-"now, let us take him gently upstairs."

The young man allowed himself to be led away without resistance. He walked, or rather stumbled, along between his guides like a man in a dream. Colwyn noticed that his eyes were half-closed, and that his head sagged slightly from side to side as he was led along. A waiter held open the glass doors which led into the lounge, and a palpitating chambermaid, hastily summoned from the upper regions, tripped ahead up the broad carpeted stairs and along the passage to show the way to the young man's bedroom.

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