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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Shrieking Pit By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 16025

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Sir Henry dismissed the chambermaid at the door, and Colwyn and he lifted the young man on to the bed. He lay like a man in a stupor, breathing heavily, his face flushed, his eyes nearly closed. Sir Henry drew up the blind, and by the additional light examined him thoroughly, listening closely to the action of his heart, and examining the pupils of his eyes by rolling back the upper lid with some small instrument he took from his pocket.

"He'll do now," he said, after loosening the patient's clothes for his greater comfort. "He'll come to in about five minutes, and may be all right again shortly afterwards. But there are certain peculiar features about this case which are new in my experience, and rather alarm me. Certainly the young man ought not to be left to himself. His friends should be sent for. Do you know anything about him? Is he staying at the hotel alone? I only arrived here last night."

"I believe he is staying at the hotel alone. He has been here for a fortnight or more, and I have never seen him speak to anybody, though I have exchanged nods with him every morning. His principal recreation seems to lie in taking long solitary walks along the coast. He has been in the habit of going out every day, and not returning until dinner is half over. Perhaps the hotel proprietor knows who his friends are."

"Would you be so kind as to step downstairs and inquire? I do not wish to leave him, but his friends should be telegraphed to at once and asked to come and take charge of him."

"Certainly. And I'll send the telegram while I am down there."

But Colwyn returned in a few moments to say that the hotel proprietor knew nothing of his guest. He had never stayed in the house before, and he had booked his room by a trunk call from London. On arrival he had filled in the registration paper in the name of James Ronald, but had left blank the spaces for his private and business addresses. He looked such a gentleman that the proprietor had not ventured to draw his attention to the omissions.

"Another instance of how hotels neglect to comply with the requirements of the Defence of the Realm Act!" exclaimed Sir Henry. "Really, it is very awkward. I hardly know, in the circumstances, how to act. Speaking as a medical man, I say that he should not be left alone, but if he orders us out of his room when he recovers his senses what are we to do? Can you suggest anything?" He shot a keen glance at his companion.

"I should be in a better position to answer you if I knew what you consider him to be really suffering from. I was under the impression it was a bad case of shell-shock, but your remarks suggest that it is something worse. May I ask, as you are a medical man, what you consider the nature of his illness?"

Sir Henry bestowed another searching glance on the speaker. He noted, for the first time, the keen alertness and intellectuality of the other's face. It was a fine strong face, with a pair of luminous grey eyes, a likeable long nose, and clean-shaven, humorous mouth-a man to trust and depend upon.

"I hardly know what to do," said Sir Henry, after a lengthy pause, which he had evidently devoted to considering the wisdom of acceding to his companion's request. "This gentleman has not consulted me professionally, and I hardly feel justified in confiding my hurried and imperfect diagnosis of his case, without his knowledge, to a perfect stranger. On the other hand, there are reasons why somebody should know, if we are to help him in his weak state. Perhaps, sir, if you told me your name--"

"Certainly: my name is Colwyn-Grant Colwyn."

"You are the famous American detective of that name?"

"You are good enough to say so."

"Why not? Who has not heard of you, and your skill in the unravelling of crime? There are many people on both sides of the Atlantic who regard you as a public benefactor. But I am surprised. You do not at all resemble my idea of Colwyn."

"Why not?"

"You do not talk like an American, for one thing."

"You forget I have been over here long enough to learn the language. Besides, I am half English."

Sir Henry laughed good-humouredly.

"That's a fair answer, Mr. Colwyn. Of course, your being Colwyn alters the question. I have no hesitation in confiding in you. I am Sir Henry Durwood-no doubt you have heard of me. Naturally, I have to be careful."

Colwyn looked at his companion with renewed interest. Who had not heard of Sir Henry Durwood, the nerve specialist whose skill had made his name a household word amongst the most exclusive women in England, and, incidentally, won him a knighthood? There were professional detractors who hinted that Sir Henry had climbed into the heaven of Harley Street and fat fees by the ladder of social influence which a wealthy, well-born wife had provided, with no qualifications of his own except "the best bedside manner in England" and a thorough knowledge of the weaknesses of the feminine temperament. But his admirers-and they were legion-declared that Sir Henry Durwood was the only man in London who really understood how to treat the complex nervous system of the present generation. These thoughts ran through Colwyn's mind as he murmured that the opinion of such an eminent specialist as Sir Henry Durwood on the case before them must naturally outweigh his own.

"You are very good to say so." Sir Henry spoke as though the tribute were no more than his due. "In my opinion, the symptoms of this young man point to epilepsy, and his behaviour downstairs was due to a seizure from which he is slowly recovering."

"Epilepsy! Haut or petit mal?"

"The lesser form-petit mal, in my opinion."

"But are his symptoms consistent with the form of epilepsy known as petit mal, Sir Henry? I thought in that lesser form of the disease the victim merely suffered from slight seizures of transient unconsciousness, without convulsions, regaining control of himself after losing himself, to speak broadly, for a few seconds or so."

"Ah, I see you know something of the disease. That simplifies matters. The layman's mind is usually at sea when it comes to discussing a complicated affection of the nervous system like epilepsy. You are more or less right in your definition of petit mal. But that is the simple form, without complications. In this case there are complications, in my opinion. I should say that this young man's attack was combined with the form of epilepsy known as furor epilepticus."

"I am afraid you are getting beyond my depth, Sir Henry. What is furor epilepticus?"

"It is a term applied to the violence sometimes displayed by the patient during an attack of petit mal. The manifestation is extreme violence-usually much greater than in violent anger, as a rule."

"I believe there are cases on record of epileptics having committed the most violent outrages against those nearest and dearest to them. Is that what you mean by furor epilepticus?"

"Yes; but that attacks are generally directed towards strangers-rarely towards loved ones, though there have been such cases."

"I begin to understand. When we were at the breakfast table your professional eye diagnosed this young man's symptoms-his nervous tremors, his excitability, and the extravagant action with the knife-as premonitory symptoms of an attack of furor epilepticus, in which the sufferer would be liable to a dangerous outburst of violence?"

"Exactly. The minor symptoms suggested petit mal, but the act of sticking the knife into the table pointed strongly to the complication of furor epileptic. That was why I went over to your table to have your assistance in case of trouble."

"You feared he would attack one of the guests?"

"Yes, epileptics are extremely dangerous in that condition, and will commit murder if they are in possession of a weapon. There have been cases in which they have succeeded in killing the victims of their fury."

"Without being conscious of it?"

"Without being conscious of it then or

afterwards. After the patient recovers from one of these attacks his mind is generally a complete blank, but occasionally he will have a troubled or confused sense of something having happened to him-like a man awakened from a bad dream, which he cannot recall. This young man may come to his senses without remembering anything which occurred downstairs, or he may be vaguely alarmed, and ask a number of questions. In either case, it will be some time-from half an hour to several hours-before his mind begins to work normally again."

"Do you think it was his intention, when he got up from his table, to attack the group at the table nearest him-that elderly clergyman and his party?"

"I think it highly probable that he would have attacked the first person within his reach-that is why I wanted to prevent him."

"But he didn't carry the knife with him from his table."

"My dear sir"-Sir Henry's voice conveyed the proper amount of professional superiority-"you speak as though you thought a victim of furor epilepticus was a rational being. He is nothing of the kind. While the attack lasts he is an uncontrollable maniac, not responsible for his actions in the slightest degree."

"But, if he is capable of conceiving the idea of attacking his fellow creatures, surely he is capable of picking up a knife for the purpose, particularly when he has just previously had one in his hand?" urged Colwyn. "I have no intention of setting up my opinion against yours, Sir Henry, but there are certain aspects of this young man's illness which are not altogether consistent with my own experience of epileptics. As a criminologist, I have given some study to the effect of epilepsy and other nervous diseases on the criminal temperament. For instance, this young man did not give the usual cry of an epileptic when he sprang up from the table. And if it is merely an attack of petit mal, why is he so long in recovering consciousness?"

"The so-called epileptic cry is not invariably present, and petit mal is sometimes the half-way house to haut mal," responded Sir Henry. "I have said that this case presents several unusual features, but, in my opinion, there is nothing absolutely inconsistent with epilepsy, combined with furor epilepticus. And here is one symptom rarely found in any fit except an epileptic seizure." The specialist pointed to a faint fleck of foam which showed beneath the young man's brown moustache.

Colwyn bent over him and wiped his lips with his handkerchief. As he did so the young man's eyes unclosed. He regarded Colwyn languidly for a moment or two, and then sat upright on the bed.

"Who are you?" he exclaimed.

"It's quite all right, Mr. Ronald," said the specialist, in his most soothing bedside manner. "Just take things easily. You have been ill, but you are almost yourself again. Let me feel your pulse-ha, very good indeed! We will have you on your legs in no time."

The young man verified the truth of the latter prediction by springing off his bed and regarding his visitors keenly. There was now, at all events, no lack of sanity and intelligence in his gaze.

"What has happened? How did I get here?"

"You fainted, and we brought you up to your room," interposed Colwyn tactfully, before Sir Henry could speak.

"Awfully kind of you. I remember now. I felt a bit seedy as I went downstairs, but I thought it would pass off. I don't remember much more about it. I hope I didn't make too much of an ass of myself before the others, going off like a girl in that way. You must have had no end of a bother in dragging me upstairs-very good of you to take the trouble." He smiled faintly, and produced a cigarette case.

"How do you feel now?" asked Sir Henry Durwood solemnly, disregarding the proffered case.

"A bit as though I'd been kicked on the top of the head by a horse, but it'll soon pass off. Fact is, I got a touch of sun when I was out there"-he waved his hand vaguely towards the East-"and it gives me a bit of trouble at times. But I'll be all right directly. I'm sorry to have given you so much trouble."

He proffered this explanation with an easy courtesy, accompanied by a slight deprecating smile which admirably conveyed the regret of a well-bred man for having given trouble to strangers. It was difficult to reconcile his self-control with his previous extravagance downstairs. But to Colwyn it was apparent that his composure was simulated, the effort of a sensitive man who had betrayed a weakness to strangers, for the fingers which held a cigarette trembled slightly, and there were troubled shadows in the depths of the dark blue eyes. Colwyn admired the young man's pluck-he would wish to behave the same way himself in similar circumstances, he felt-and he realised that the best service he and Sir Henry Durwood could render their fellow guest was to leave him alone.

But Sir Henry was far from regarding the matter in the same light. As a doctor he was more at home in other people's bedrooms than his own, for rumour whispered that Lady Durwood was so jealous of her husband's professional privileges as a fashionable ladies' physician that she was in the habit of administering strong doses of matrimonial truths to him every night at home. Sir Henry settled himself in his chair, adjusted his eye-glasses more firmly on his nose and regarded the young man standing by the mantelpiece with a bland professional smile, slightly dashed by the recollection that he was not receiving a fee for his visit.

"You have made a good recovery, but you'll need care," he said. "Speaking as a professional man-I am Sir Henry Durwood-I think it would be better for you if you had somebody with you who understood your case. With your-er-complaint, it is very desirable that you should not be left to the mercy of strangers. I would advise, strongly advise you, to communicate with your friends. I shall be only too happy to do so on your behalf if you will give me their address. In the meantime-until they arrive-my advice to you is to rest."

A look of annoyance flashed through the young man's eyes. He evidently resented the specialist's advice; indeed, his glance plainly revealed that he regarded it as a piece of gratuitous impertinence. He answered coldly:

"Many thanks, Sir Henry, but I think I shall be able to look after myself."

"That is not an uncommon feature of your complaint," said the specialist. An oracular shake of the head conveyed more than the words.

"What do you imagine my complaint, as you term it, to be?" asked the young man curtly.

Colwyn wondered whether even a fashionable physician, used to the freedom with which fashionable ladies discussed their ailments, would have the courage to tell a stranger that he regarded him as an epileptic. The matter was not put to the test-perhaps fortunately-for at that moment there was a sharp tap at the door, which opened to admit a chambermaid who seemed the last word in frills and smartness.

"If you please, Sir Henry," said the girl, with a sidelong glance at the tall handsome young man by the mantelpiece, "Lady Durwood would be obliged if you would go to her room at once."

It speaks well for Sir Henry Durwood that the physician was instantly merged in the husband. "Tell Lady Durwood I will come at once," he said. "You'll excuse me," he added, with a courtly bow to his patient. "Perhaps-if you wish-you might care to see me later."

"Many thanks, Sir Henry, but there will be no need." He bowed gravely to the specialist, but smiled cordially and held out his hand to Colwyn, as the latter prepared to follow Sir Henry out of the room. "I hope to see you later," he said.

But when Colwyn, after a day spent on the golf-links, went into the dining-room for dinner that evening, the young man's place was vacant. After the meal Colwyn went to the office to inquire if Mr. Ronald was still unwell, and learnt, to his surprise, that he had departed from the hotel an hour or so after his illness.

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