They See in Darkness - Ethel Lina White - ebook

They See in Darkness ebook

Ethel Lina White

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The Elephant Never Forgets is a more psychological story. The main character, Anna, a young Englishwoman, wants to visit Russia because of her interest in a ’proletarian experiment’ and a faithless newspaper editor. The trip is delayed. Anna fell into a trap, stunned by the terrifying atmosphere of suspicion and the crazy tactic of postponing the Soviet Union...

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Contents

PROLOGUE

I. THE MAD NUN

II. HOW THEY BROUGHT THE GOOD NEWS

III. FAMILY MOURNING

IV. THE ARCHWAY

V. ALL-HALLOW E'EN

VI. TRESPASS

VII. RIGHT OF ENTRY

VIII. "OF YOUR CHARITY"

IX. HELL AND HIGH WATER

X. THE BOTTOM OF THE WELL

XI. THREE'S COMPANY

XII. TIGER BAIT

XIII. THE KILL

PROLOGUE

OLDTOWN was damp, picturesque and historic–a collection of gracious buildings set in a tree-lined valley. Its heart was the Square where the dim houses slanted crazily, as though they were built with a pack of ancient cards. They gave the impression of swaying in the November wind which shook the stripped branches of the Spanish chestnuts.

Standing in the big-bellied bow-window of the County Club, the Chief Constable, Colonel Pride, smoked as he chatted to his guest–a retired Indian judge whom he had known in the East. The Colonel’s face was scalded scarlet by tropical sun, which had also bleached his flaxen brows and lashes. In contrast with his white hair, his blue eyes looked youthfully keen as he watched a girl cross the cobbles on perilous heels.

She was tall, slender and fair, with a finished appearance, as though much time and thought had been spent to achieve an effect. When she drew nearer, it was possible to see the exquisite moulding of her face and the porcelain delicacy of her colouring. Her expression was bored, to demonstrate the nonchalance exacted by a reputation for beauty and poise.

The Indian judge noticed his old friend’s absorption with cynical amusement, blent with surprise. As Colonel Pride had been immune to woman during his younger days, his present interest in youth appeared somewhat ominous.

“Pretty girl,” he probed.

“I suppose so,” agreed the Colonel in a grudging voice. “I believe she is by way of being our local beauty.”

“Who is she?”

“Simone Mornington-Key. Mother’s a widow. They live in Old Court.”

He nodded across the Square to a red brick Queen Anne mansion, its front door opening flush with the pavement.

In contradiction with his indifference, the Colonel continued to stare at the girl with so concentrated a gaze, that his friend felt a hint would not be misplaced.

“She’s too modern for our generation,” he said.

As he spoke, the girl looked up at the Club window. Recognising the Colonel, she inclined her head in the precision-bow of a monarch who had practised it during a long reign. Since the attraction was obviously not mutual, the Judge asked a direct question.

“Interested in her, Pride?”

“Like hell I am,” declared the Colonel. “That girl is an object of interest not only to myself but to every policeman in the town. For all we know to the contrary, she is a murderess.”

The words jolted the Judge out of his composure.

“A murderess?” he echoed. “That beautiful calm face...But I should know exactly how little that means. Mere facade...Why is she at large?”

“At present, she is only under general suspicion,” explained the Chief Constable. He lowered his voice before he continued. “A family in this town is being systematically wiped out. They are all legatees in the will of Josiah Key–a tea-merchant who made his pile in China. He came back to his native town and lived at Canton House, where he died. His fortune is divided between his sister and his nieces and nephews. The mischief is it’s one of those reversionary wills. As the legatees die, their shares go to enrich the jack-pot. Winner takes all, including the capital.”

“By ‘winner,’ you mean the ultimate survivor?” asked the Judge.

“I do. And the death-rate in that family is getting more than a coincidence.”

The Judge screwed together his wrinkled lids.

“In view of this sudden fall,” he remarked, “the last-man-in is likely to finish up himself at eight o’clock in the morning. The inference is that he will reveal his identity with his last murder. Reasoning by the book, he must be guilty. But you will have to prove his guilt. He might stage a final crime which is too crafty to be traced to him. Pride, you are not sitting too easy.”

“Neither is he,” said the Colonel. “Everyone will believe that he wiped out the others when–in reality–he may be damned by a chain of unlucky circumstances. He could be innocent.”

“In such a case, I can imagine compensation. With a fortune to spend, he has not got to remain in Oldtown and wilt under local odium.”

“Ah, it’s plain to see you are neither a gardener nor a small-town man. If you were, you’d know that your hometown is the biggest place in the world, while it’s damnably difficult to grow new roots.”

The Judge looked across the Square at the hoary houses which appeared to be on the point of toppling down. He shivered as a gust of wind blew through the cracks of the diamond-paned windows. Too tactful to question the local attraction, he began to chat about the Chief Constable’s problem.

“I suppose you suspect the family?” he asked.

“That is definitely the police-angle,” replied the Colonel. “The deaths are limited to the legatees of old Key’s will and they alone have the motive.”

“Any dubious character among them?”

“No, they are all nice people...And they are being killed off one by one.”

The Judge hid his astonishment at the anger in his old friend’s voice. As though he felt his emotion was out of place, the Colonel began to explain.

“This business reminds me of something which happened when I was a youngster. We had a big tank, filled with minnows, in the conservatory, and we used to go to the canal to net fresh stock. Late one evening I came home in triumph with a unique specimen and dumped him into the tank...In the morning, every fish was dead, floating belly-up on the top of the water. In my ignorance, I had put a killer into the tank–a cray-fish.”

The Colonel gave a short laugh as he added, “My rind is as tough as most, but even now, I can’t think of that business without a qualm. It was a sort of nursery version of the massacre of Cawnpore. Imagine that devil hunting down his helpless victims all through the night and not letting-up until he had slaughtered the lot...Get me?”

“Not exactly,” confessed the Judge. “I’m afraid I can’t get enthusiastic about fish.”

“But you see the analogy? There’s a killer loose in this town, remorselessly hunting down a bunch of helpless people. For instance, take Simone.”

He pointed to the fair girl who was returning from her short walk to the pillar-box, and added, “That girl may be the killer. On the other hand, she may be the next victim.”

“Certainly it’s up to you,” said the Judge. “By the way, what about popular opinion?”

“The subject is too delicate to be discussed openly among decent people. But I am told that the mystery has been solved by the ignorant and superstitious element. They say that the murders are committed by the ‘Mad Nun.’”

I. THE MAD NUN

THE miasma of fear and superstition which created “the mad nun” had been dormant in the atmosphere for months, so that only a murder was needed to release it. It was a poisonous suggestion generated by the combination of a muffled landscape and a body of recluses, known locally as “The Black Nuns.”

Oldtown was not especially healthy as it lay low and was ringed too closely by trees which pressed in upon it like the threat of an invading army. In places, the forest appeared actually to have broken-in, for isolated houses were almost hidden by the surrounding foliage. The civic lungs–not designed for deep-breathing–were provided by the bungalows of a new suburb at its eastern end, where its spine of High Street merged into the main road.

There was a secondary road which by-passed the town, following the curve of a sulky brown river and shadowed by the perpetual twilight of fir-woods. This river-road was unlighted and was usually damp underfoot, while its surface was slippery from fallen leaves and fir-needles. Consequently it was neglected in favour of the shorter main road and was popular only with lovers, until they were driven away by the procession of the Black Sisters.

Every evening, as darkness was beginning to fall, a body of dark veiled forms filed singly out of the gates of a large mansion–the Cloisters–at the west end of the town. They wore heavy black habits and high cowls which covered their faces completely–exaggerating their height to unhuman stature, so that they resembled the creations of a nightmare.

They crossed the main road and descended to the river road–to reappear at the other end of the town. After a short service in the little Roman Catholic chapel, they retraced their steps back to the Cloisters.

The usual number of wild stories was circulated about the recluses. They were credited with the faculty of seeing only at night-time–of living in darkness–of torturing their mental patients. No one had ever seen their faces or heard their voices. None could guess at outlines hidden under shapeless robes...

The Chief Constable–Colonel Pride–had been told some of the truth about the mysterious sisterhood. To begin with, he knew that they were not nuns and belonged to no religious order. Their leader was an anonymous lady and was vouched for by the late Josiah Key, tea-merchant, who had known her in China.

There was no doubt of their wealth, for they not only bought the Cloisters–which had been empty for years because of its uneconomic size–but they reconstructed it to meet their requirements. In these transactions, they were represented by a Miss Gomme, who looked after all their business affairs and acted as a buffer between them and the outside world. She was grey, gaunt and reticent, as though she had been born during a long winter night of frost, and she proved herself a worthy guardian of secrets.

The Chief Constable released some of his information when Inspector Wallace, of the local Police, asked him about the new-comers.

“Have they a racket or are they just cranks?” he queried.

“Neither, I believe,” replied Colonel Pride. “They are a body, recluses who believe in the curative properties of darkness. Their official title is ‘Sisters of the Healing Darkness.’ They run a home for the treatment of severe nervous and borderline cases. They claim never to have had a failure.”

“Proves they can afford to pick and choose.”

“Yes,” agreed the Colonel, “they probably reject a doubtful case. Of course the home is licensed in the usual way. Even if their methods appear unconventional, they get their results.”

The Inspector still looked sceptical.

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