Authors: Ethel Lina White
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary
A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
Title: The Spiral Staircase (Some Must Watch) Author: Ethel Lina White eBook No.: 0300931.txt Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)—8 bit Date first posted: June 2003 Date most recently updated: June 2003
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A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
Title: The Spiral Staircase (Some Must Watch) Author: Ethel Lina White
A MYSTERY NOVEL
Originally published under the title of SOME MUST WATCH (1933)
“For Some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away.”
Helen realized that she had walked too far just as daylight Was beginning to fade.
As she looked around her, she was struck by the desolation of the country. During her long walk, she had met noone, and had passed no cottage. The high-banked lanes, which blocked her view, were little better than steepmudslides. On either side of her rose the hills—barren sepia mounds, blurred by a fine spit of rain.
Over all hung a heavy sense of expectancy, as though the valley awaited some disaster. In the distance—too far away to be even a threat—rumbled faint, lumpy sounds of thunder.
Fortunately Helen was a realist, used to facing hard economic facts, and not prone to self-pity. Of soaring spirit, yet possessed of sound common sense, she believed that. those thinly-veiled pitfalls over hell—heaviness of body and darkness of spirit—could be explained away by liver or atmosphere.
Small and pale as a slip of crescent moon, she was only redeemed from insignificance by her bush of light-red springy hair. But, in spite of her unostentatious appearance, she throbbed with a passion for life, expressed in an expectancy of the future, which made her welcome each fresh day, and shred its interest from every hour and minute.
As a child, she pestered strangers to tell her the time, not from a mere dul wish to know whether it were early or late, but from a specialized curiosity to see their watches. This habit persisted when she had to earn her own living under the roofs of fortunate people who possessed houses of their own.
Her one dread was being out of work. She could estimate, therefore, the scores of replies which had probably been received as a result of the advertisement for a lady-help at Professor Warren’s country house; and, as soon as she arrived, at the Summit, she realized that its very loneliness had helped to remove her from the ranks of the unemployed.
It was tucked away in a corner, somewhere at the union of three counties, on the border-line between England and Wales. The nearest town was twenty-two miles away-the nearest village, twelve. No maid would stay at such a forsaken pocket—a pocket with a hole in it-through which dribbled a chronic shrinkage of domestic labor.
Mrs. Oates, who, with her husband, helped to fill the breach, summed up the situation to Helen, when they met, by appointment, at the Ladies Waiting Room, at Hereford.
“I told Miss Warren as she’d have to get a lady. No one else would put up with it.”
Helen agreed that ladies were a drug in the market. She had enjoyed some months of enforced leisure, and was only too grateful for the security of any home, after weeks of stringent economy-since “starvation” is a word not found in a lady’s vocabulary. Apart from the essential loneliness of the locality, it was an excellent post, for she had not only a nice room and good food, but she took her meals with the family.
The last fact counted, with her, for more than a gesture of consideration, since it gave her the chance to study her employers. She was lucky in being able to project herself into their lives, for she could rarely afford a seat at the Pictures, and had to extract her entertainment from the raw material of life.
The Warren family possessed some of the elements of drama. The Professor, who was a widow_, and his sister and housekeeper—Miss Warren—were middle-aged to elderly. Helen classified them as definite types, academic, frigid, and well-bred, but otherwise devoid of the vital human interest.
Their step-mother, however, old Lady Warren—the invalid in the blue room-was of richer mold. Blood and mud had been used in her mixture, and the whole was churned up, thrice daily, by a dose of evil temper. She was the terror of the household; only yesterday, she had flung a basin of gruel at her nurse’s head.
It had been her natural and ladylike protest against this substitute for the rare steak, which she preferred, but was unable to chew. As her aim was excellent, it had achieved the desired result; that morning Oates had driven the departing nurse into the town, and was coming back, in the evening, with a fresh target.
Helen, who had not yet been brought into contact with the old lady, rather admired her spirit. The household was waiting for her to die, but she still called the tune. Every morning, Death knocked politely on the door of the blue room; and Lady Warren saluted him in her customary fashion, with a thumb to her nose.
Besides this low-comedy relief, Helen suspected the triangle situation, as represented by the Professor’s son, hisdaughter-in-law, and the resident pupil, whom the Professor was coaching for the Indian Civil Service. The son—a clever, ugly youth—was violently and aggressively in love with his wife, Simone. She was an unusually attractive girl, with money of her own, and a wanton streak in her composition.
To put it mildly, she was an experimentalist with men. At present, she was plainly trying to make sentimental history with the pupil, Stephen Rice-a good-looking casual young sprig, rejected of Oxford. Helen liked him instinctively, and hoped he would continue to resist the lady.
Although her curiosity hovered around the Summit and its inmates, her duties were her chief interest. The reminder that she had a new job to hold down made her pull a face as she glanced at her watch.
Already the first shadows were beginning to stir, as prelude to the short interlude between the lights. Very soon it would be dark.
A long walk stretched between her and the Summit. She could see it, in the distance, blocked with solid assurance, against the background of shrouded hills. But, dividing them, yawned a bowl of empty country, which dipped down for about a mile, into a tree-lined hollow, before it climbed up a corresponding slope, to the young plantation on its crest.
In spite of her stoicism, Helen’s heart sank. faintly at the prospect of re-passing through that choked dell. Since she had come to the Summit, she had been struck by the density of the surrounding undergrowth. When she looked out of the windows, at twilight, the evergreen shrubs on the lawnseemed actually to move and advance closer to the walls, as though they were pioneers in a creeping invasion.
Feeling secure as in a fortress, she enjoyed the contrast between the witched garden and the solid house, cheerful with lights and voices. She was inside and safe. But now, she was outside, and nearly two miles away.
“Idiot” she told herself, “it’s not late. It’s only dark. Scram.”
As she was denied the employer’s privilege of abuse, she got even by saying exactly what she liked to herself. She whipped up her courage by calling herself a choice collection of names, as she began to run cautiously, slipping on the slimy camber of the lane, since the rutted middle was too stony for safety.
She kept her eyes fixed on her goal, which seemed to be sinking gradually into the ground, as she dipped lower and lower. Just before she lost sight of it, a light gleamed out in the window of the blue room.
It seemed to her a signal, calling her back to a special duty. Every evening, at twilight, she had to go around the house, locking the doors and putting the shutters over the windows. Hitherto, she had derided the job as the limit of precaution; but, here, in the tenebrous solitude, it assumed an unpleasant significance.
There was a connection between it and a certain atmosphere of tension—excitement in the kitchen, whispers in the drawingroom—which emanated from a background of murder.
Murder. Helen shied instinctively at the word. Her mind was too healthy to regard crime other than fiction, which turned newspapers into the sensational kind of reading-matter, which is sold on Railway Station bookstalls. It was impossible to believe that these tragedies happened to real people.
She forced herself to think of a safer subject.
“Suppose I won the Irish Sweep.”
But, as the lane dropped deeper, its steep banks shutting out the light, she discovered that she had a mind above mere supposititious wealth. Simple pleasures appealed to her more at that moment—the safety of the kitchen at the Summit, with Mrs. Oates and the ginger cat for company, and dripping-toast for tea.
She made another start.
“Suppose I won the Irish Sweep. Someone’s got to win. Out of all the millions of people in the world, a few people are marked out to win fortunes. Staggering.”
Unfortunately, the thought introduced another equally stupendous.
“Yes. And out of all the millions of people who die in their beds, a few are marked out to be murdered.”
She switched off the current of her thoughts, for before her, crouched the black mouth of the hollow.
When she had crossed it, earlier in the afternoon, she had been chiefly concerned in picking out a fairly dry passage over the rich black mold formed by leaf-deposits. She had only marked it down as a sheltered spot in which to search for early primroses.
But the promise of spring was now only a mockery. As she advanced, the place seemed an area of desolation and decay, with wind-falls for crops. In this melancholy trough—choked with seasonal litter—sound was reduced to furtive rustles; light was shrunken to a dark miasma, through which trees loomed with the semblance of men.
Suddenly, murder ceased to be a special fiction of the Press. It became real—a menace and a monstrosity.
Helen could no longer control her thoughts, as she remembered what Mrs. Oates had told her about the crimes. There were four of them—credibly the work of some maniac, whose chosen victims were girls.
The first two murders were committed in the town, which was too far away from the Summit for the inmates to worry. The third took place in a village, but still comfortably remote. The last girl was strangled in a lonely country-house, within a five-mile radius of Professor Warren’s residence.
It was an uncomfortable reminder that the maniac was growing bolder with success. Each time he penetrated closer into the privacy of his victim.
“The first time, it was just a street-murder,” thought Helen. “Then, he hid in a garden. After that, he went inside a house. And then—right upstairs. You ought to feel safe there.”
Although she was determined. not to yield to panic, and run, she ceased to pick her way between cart-ruts tilled with water, but plunged recklessly into muddy patches, whose suction glugged at the soles of her shoes. She had reached the densest part of the grove, where the trees intergrew in stunting overcrowding.
To her imagination, the place was suggestive of evil. Tattered leaves still hung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering from a gibbet. A sluggish stream was clogged with dead leaves. Derelict litter of broken boots and rusty tins cropped out of a rank growth of docks and nettles, to mark a tramp’s camping-place.
Again Helen thought of the murders.
“It’s coming nearer—and nearer. Nearer to us.”
Suddenly, she wondered if she were being followed. As she stopped to listen, the hollow seemed to be murmurous with faint sounds-the whisper of shrivelled leaves, the snapping of twigs, the chuckles of dripping water.
It was possible to fancy anything. Although she knew that, if she ran, her imagination would gallop away with her, she rushed across the soft ground, collecting poultices of mud on the soles of her boots.
Her heart was pounding when the opposite lane reared itself in front of her, like the wall of a house. The steepness however proved deceptive, for, around the first bend, it doubled, like a crooked arm, to relieve the steepness of the gradient.
Once more, Helen’s normal courage returned, for her. watch told her that she had won her race against time. The precious new job was safe. Her legs ached as she toiled upwards, but she cheered herself by the reminders that a merry heart goes all the way—that the longest lane has a turning—that every step was bringing her nearer home. Presently she reached the top of the rise, and entered the plantation, which was thinly planted with young firs and larches, and carpeted with fallen needles. At its thickest part, she could see through it, and, suddenly, she caught sight of the Summit.