The Inn by Guy Preston is a scary story about a man who goes looking for shelter after his motor bike breaks down one misty night. He comes across an old inn where he is greeted by a bind man and his wife who allow him to stay the night.
The life of a country doctor is apt to prove rather strenuous, particularly when his practice extends over an area of twenty square miles, and his sole vehicle happens to be a worn-out bicycle of antediluvian manufacture; consequently it was with an exclamation of annoyance that Dr Sutton awoke, at about half past four one winter’s morning, to hear the front doorbell ringing furiously. His only servant had departed the previous day on a long-promised visit to her mother in Keswick, and as he was a bachelor he was, of course, alone in the house.
“Let them ring, confound them,” he muttered to himself, “disturbing a hard-working body at this un-godly hour! And,” he added, “after all the rumpus, I suppose it’s the usual cry of ‘Come at once — Willie has a pain in the toe.’ Some folks seem to think a doctor has no right to a few hours’ sleep.”
He snuggled himself still farther under the bedclothes, and tried to ignore the bell and the knocker, which had now come into play, but to no purpose.
BANG! BANG! BANG! Whoever it was out there had no intention of being denied, for the house shook under the thunder of the knocking, and at last Dr Sutton rose, and slipping on his dressing-gown, went grumbling to the door.
As he opened it, peering into the darkness, a figrure darted through into the house, slamming the door after him, and clutched at the doctor’s arm with a trembling hand.
The doctor made to free himself, but the stranger clung the tighter. “I was told a doctor lives here,” he gasped, his breath coming in great gulps, that made a hoarse tearing sound in his throat. “Dr Sutton! Are you the doctor? I want a doctor!”
The doctor surveyed him calmly before leading the way to his study. The surgery was a sort of outhouse and as cold as an ice-well, but here, in the doctor’s private study, a few embers still glowed despite the lateness of the hour, and the room was still warm.
“Yes, I am he,” he replied, and threw a log on the fire.
“Then for God’s sake, tell me — am I mad?”
Dr Sutton looked at him before replying. He presented an extraordinary appearance. His hair was wild and thick with dust and sweat, his clothes torn, and his face, which normally would be pleasing, was now cut and bleeding and begrimed with filth. A wild look was in his eyes, but in his voice was such a note of anxious pleading that, startled as he was by the stranger’s queer aspect, the doctor was reassured.
“You have had a bad scare,” was his answer. He motioned the man to a chair, into which he immediately collapsed, and went to the bureau upon which reposed half a dozen bottles and a siphon.
The man swallowed the brandy gratefully, and gradually the colour crept back into his cheeks.
The doctor regarded him keenly during the few moments of silence that followed. There was no need to hurry him; he would tell his own story when he had sufficiently recovered. He now lolled back in the chair, his right hand thrust deep into his coat pocket, his left tapping nervously on the arm, and from time to time wiping imaginary stains from off his coat and the knees of his trousers.
Obviously he was in great distress, and his nerves had been taxed to their utmost.
Presently he began to speak, and this is the tale he told.
* * *
“My name is Methuen – Frank Methuen – and I travel in photographic accessories. My firm – Messrs Bardsey and Black – switched me up to this district only a fortnight ago. Previously, I had done only the South Coast towns, and I may say that I disliked intensely shooting up to Cumberland, away from all my friends, to break entirely fresh ground with my goods. However, somebody had to go, and as luck would have it I was the one to be chosen.”
He paused, and the doctor nodded encouragingly.
“We all have to do things occasionally that go against the grain,” he said. “It was not my choice to be buried in the moors like this, with a practice stretching from Gretna half way to Whitehaven. Speaking figuratively, of course,” he added with a smile, as Methuen looked incredulous. “There are times when I long for the bustle and noise of a big town, and would willingly exchange this house, cosy as it is, for a flat and a practice among the slums of Glasgow.”
“Then you can imagine how I felt, a Londoner, used to travelling as I am, when I found myself deposited by the LNER at a dirty little station near Cockermouth — Hayra, I think it was called.”
The doctor nodded again and poured out two more drinks. He was becoming interested in the man who had so unfeelingly dragged him from his bed before even the dawn had come. There were few new faces in his life, and one could get so stale with only farm labourers and petty shopkeepers to talk to. Besides, he was feeling wide awake now, and cold, despite the burning log which had now caught and was roaring up the chimney. Yes, a drink was clearly indicated.
Methuen thanked him and continued: “I spent the first week trying to pn ersuade a Cumbrian of Scotch ancestry to start a new line of P.O.P., but could make as much impression on him as I could on a piece of concrete by beating it with a feather. The next few days I wandered about the neighbouring villages, pushing the same and other articles, but without much succcess, and at last I decided to make for the Workington and Whitehaven district. Accordingly I mounted my motor bike late last night in an endeavour to reach the Royal Hotel, Whitehaven, in time for a bath and a good night’s rest before starting early the next morning my rounds; but Fate was against me.
“I was in the middle of a desolate tract of moorland when my bike conked out, and on dismounting I found that somehow my petrol tank had received a dinge, whether my fault or through the carelessness of the people at the last garage, I don’t know, and was leaking badly. It was, in fact, entirely empty; and on examining my spare tin, which I always carry, I discovered that someone had been liberally helping himself, and there were only a few drops left. I plugged the hole as best I could with a piece of chewing-gum — useful stuff that — and refilling with my remaining spot of juice, recommenced my journey. I had got no farther than a quarter of a mile or so when the darn thing petered out again; my mending had been futile, I was stranded.
“It was by now about ten o’clock at night, pitch dark, and as far as I could estimate, at least six miles to the nearest village. I looked about for a house or farm of some sort, but could see nothing, and to add to my discomfort a thick moorland mist began to creep up.”
He broke off.
“You know this country well, I presume?”
“Passably,” admitted the doctor.
“Well, I don’t, and I don’t mind confessing that I found myself growing horribly afraid. Here was I, a stranger, landed miles from anywhere, absolutely alone on the Cumberland moors, without a sight or a sound of a living human being and that accursed mist growing denser every second. It was ghastly!”
Methuen stopped, and putting his left hand before his eyes, made a movement as though to wipe away the recollection. Then he seemed to steady himself with an effort, and resumed:
“I am not considered a coward so far as I know by my acquaintances, but here, somehow, I seemed to get an impression of evil – intense evil, as though something malevolent was with me, watching me, gloating over my inability to get away. I could almost feel its vile breath upon me, the pressure of something like tentacles stealing softly about my body with a sickening gentleness, like some loathsome caress, luring me, urging me, forcing me onward towards a gap in the hedge. I struggled, but to resist was useless. I was powerless in the grasp of this strange malign influence.
“Imagine my joy, then, when on reaching the gap and stepping through I felt this evil presence slip from my shoulders like a discarded mantle, and saw facing me the very shelter that I sought — an inn. It was like a friendly gesture in a foreign country!
“It stood, it is true, entirely in darkness, but I had no doubt that I could soon rouse the landlord, and visions of a hearty supper of ham and eggs, well fried, with perhaps a tankard of ale, rose rapidly before my eyes.
“This side of the hedge the feeling of fear had entirely vanished, and I laughed at myself for my qualms of a few moments before. The path to the inn lay almost hidden among a mass of straggling undergrowth, and this and the overhanging trees must have accounted for my not noticing it from the road.
“It was quite a fair-sized building, a low, rambling structure of old-world design, and swinging creakily in the cool night air I recognized apainted signboard, though it was too dark for me to read its portent from where I was standing. Though I noticed nothing un-usual at the time I may say that since it has struck me forcibly that there was something uncanny in the fact that, although the other side of the hedge the mist was thick and the air still as death, here, in what might be called the garden of the inn, there was no mist, and currents of wind eddied about through the trees, fanning my face and swinging the great signboard with a strange persistency. I went up to the door and knocked loudly. My motor bike could remain where I had left it, for I had quite made up my mind that wild horses would not drag me back into that ghastly atmosphere I had just encountered in the road.
“At first there was no response, and I repeated the summons, examining the old tavern more closely during the period I was kept waiting. Here, under the eaves of the porch, I could now discern — my eyes having become accustomed to the darkness — some semblance of a picture half-obliterated by exposure to many seasons of wind and rain, upon the inn sign. This was in the nature of a coffin supported by six headless bearers goose-stepping towards a white headstone, and underneath this somewhat forbidding daub with grim irony ran the legend: ‘Ye Journey’s End’.
“Evidently the landlord was a man with either a peculiar sense of humour or gifted with an enormous propensity for continuing a tradition, for it was plain that the inn was a relic of ancient and more stirring days, and it was possible that his love of old things made him hesitate to change this gruesome, though exceedingly interesting, old sign.
“While I was thus conjecturing I heard a movement within the house, and a faint glimmer of light appeared from behind one of the windows above the porch to my right. After an appreciable pause this was suddenly extinguished, and I concluded that whoever was within the inn had decided they had imagined my knocking and retired to bed again. I had just raised my hand to deliver a sound drubbing to the massive front door when I sensed, rather than heard, a faint flip flop of loosely slippered feet approaching the door from inside. The next instant came the welcome sound of heavy iron bolts being withdrawn and the big door sung slowly inwards.
“The man who confronted me was a singularly unprepossessing individual, and I had a sensation, as I viewed him, as though someone had lightly run a brush fitted with many sharp-pointed and icy bristles down my spinal column.
“He stood squarely before me, a short squat man, with a smooth round face white as a full moon and entirely hairless. An old-fashioned nightcap covered his scalp, and about his shoulders depended a long cloak of some dark colour. But what struck the greatest chill of all was this – he had no eyes!
“From the bald place where the eyebrows should have been, to the top of the puffy cheeks, stretched a thick layer of parchment-like skin, and he groped before him with his hands, using them like the antennae of some fat white slug. Ugh!”
Methuen shivered, and the doctor leaned forward in his chair. “Go on!” he said.
“Behind him stood a woman holding an old-fashioned candlestick, and the contrast between them was extraordinary. She was of middle height and of a good figure, and was draped in a kind of wrapper of filmy texture. A very goddess of a creature!
“She was handsome in a rather impudent, bold way, full-lipped and black browed, and her large eyes seemed to glow with a strange lustre as she stood there watching me.
“I explained my circumstances and asked for shelter, and at the sound of my voice the landlord — for I presume it was he – reached out for my face, feeling it all over with his pulpy fingers as if to satisfy himself as to my appearance.
“I suppose the woman must have seen the look of disgust upon my features, for she called out to him, ‘Let him enter, he will do well enough’, and at the words he stood aside and beckoned me in. I may as well tell you now that had there been anything, even a barn of a fowl house, in the neighbourhood where I could have spent the night secure from the cold and the penetrating damp of the mist, I would have sought it rather than pass an hour here. But this was no time to indulge fancies. I was a stranger and must count myself lucky to be admitted, and if my landlord filled me with a strange, unaccountable dread, I should have to put up with it unless I wished once more to face the terrors of that awful road outside.
“I entered, and the woman silently conducted me to a bedroom on the first floor. I should have stated before that the inn had only the two storeys, and I was now immediately below the roof. At my request for some supper and a bath she shook her head, and concluding that probably she was tired, I let it go at that, after first regretting that I had disturbed her slumbers, and wishing her a ‘goodnight’. She smiled mysteriously and withdrew with a little curtsy, closing the door after her. I was alone in the room.
“I glanced round it; it was bare enough but it would do. In one corner was a small washhand-stand and towels, a couple of chairs stood against one wall, and against another was a massive oak chest. A huge four-poster bed occupied nearly the whole of one side of the room, and the remaining side was entirely bare except for a small door, which, on my trying it, refused to yield. I put my eye to the keyhole and peeped through, but of course could make out nothing because of the darkness.
“Well, I was tired and began to undress. My one illumination was a vast bronze lamp, so heavy that it must have taken three men to place it where it now stood on a pedestal in the corner near the window, and the bad light it gave made me wish my hosts had a little less love of the antique and little more of ordinary everyday comfort. As I gratefully threw off my clothes, I considered. Surely that bold beauty who had guided me to my room could not be the wife of that monstrosity who had met me at the door? And if so, what a terrible existence for her! To be shut up with such a creature alone on these desolate moors — what wrong could a mere girl do to merit such a diabolical punishment? It was against the laws of Nature! It was an outrage! Thus my chivalrous spirit took up the cause of beauty, and condemned the beast.
“At last, when I was ready for bed, the yearning for a bath once more came over me.
“I wondered — was it possible? — and crossed once more to the little door in the wall. Yes, it was locked, but that alone would not deter me. I have always made a point of carrying with me any old keys that I have ever used or even found, in case they may come in useful later on. My idiosyncrasy was rewarded, and on trying one of my bunch in the lock, to my joy I found it fitted.
“I turned it and the door opened. Rapture — a bathroom! Dirty, ill-kept, but still the joy of all Englishmen — a bathroom! I glanced round for a candle, as the lamp was too heavy to shift, but, as usual, when one needs a thing it is never to be found anywhere. Well, I would bathe in the dark, that was all!
“I turned on the tap. Even in the gloom, with only the light which escaped from my bedroom to see by, I could see that the water ran dark with iron, or, more probably, rust from disuse and the old, pipes and cistern which wheezed and gurgled over my head. The bath itself was an iron one of primitive construction, not like the enamelled luxuries we are used to today. I returned to my room while the water ran, or rather, trickled, and tried my bed.
“Here at any rate was comfort, and again I laughed at my earlier fears. I might fare a great deal worse than spend a night on this feathered mattress, and if I filched a bath, even a cold one, and no one the wiser — well, it was all to the good. I began at last to consider myself in luck’s way. I whistled cheerfully as I returned to the bathroom and slipped of my dressing-gown; I chuckled at my deceit as I turned off the water and stepped into the bath. Then I caught my breath, transfixed. God in heaven! What was this?
“The sides and bottom of the bath were thick and slippery with blood! I reeled and leapt out, and then for a moment I think I must have fainted.
“When I recovered I was lying at the side of that foul receptacle, and my feet and ankles were red with the rapidly congealing fluid, which something told me was unquestionably the lifeblood of a human being.
At first I was too dazed to think coherently. The macabre ablutions I had so nearly performed were too hideous to contemplate. When at last my strength had returned sufficiently to permit me to regain my own room and wipe the malodorous beastliness, now grown sticky and glutinous, from my feet with my towel, I felt better, and tried to consider the whole affair in a calm light. It seemed impossible! Yet there were the vile stains upon my towel to convince me that I had suffered no monstrous hallucination. It was real! It was horrible! It was harrowing, revolting, but undeniably true!
“For how long I remained sitting hunched upon my bed, striving to collect my scattered wits, I do not know. It may have been five minutes, but it seemed an eternity.
“At last I gathered my things together and began to dress. To sleep was impossible with the knowledge of that horror lying so near and so silent in the next room. For that the body was concealed somewhere within that fatal bathroom I had no doubt; the body of the poor victim drained of his blood as though he had been sucked dry by some mighty leech, which in turn had disgorged its ghastly meal into that reeking bath.
“A leech! In a flash it came to me, the simile I had sought to fit to my blind landlord. That was what it was he reminded me of so forcibaly — a great loathsome white leech, glutted with blood, and greedy, greedy for more!
“Who would be next? I shuddered, then I flew to the window. No! Escape that way was out of the question, for I saw now what had previously eluded my notice. From top to bottom of my window, fixed firmly into the masonry, ran six stout iron bars, and whatever else in the inn might have fallen into decay, these remained in a perfect state of preservation
“I ran to the door — it was locked! I was a prisoner!
“Then as I stood there wondering what to do, I heard again the steady flip-flop, flip-flop of loosely fitting slippers on the stairs. They came nearer, nearer; they reached my door; they ceased!
“Watching with eyes dilated with fear, I saw the lock slip noiselessly back in its socket and the door knob begin to turn slowly, almost imperceptibly, round.
“I stood rooted to the spot, paralyzed with terror, my heart pounding in my throat, the blood hammering in my temples with the noise of muffled drums.
“The silence was awful!
“Not a sound broke the stillness save the whistling of my breath between my teeth and the slow drip-drip-drip from the bathroom tap. Then I felt a tremor of icy air fan my cheek, which gradually grew to a steady draught — the door was stealthily opening!
“Somehow I found my voice.
“‘Go away!’ I screamed, a thin, unnatural sound, and threw my whole weight against this last, barrier between myself and — What? I felt a moment’s resistance, then it yielded and shut, and as I lay clawing the panels in a paroxysm of fright, I heard the shuffling footsteps recede until once more absolute stillness reigned. For some minutes longer I lay there panting, cursing myself for a coward, and wondering why I had not brained the blind horror and made good my escape, but somehow it seemed that in the presence of this creature every vestige of manliness was drained from me and I was left a craven, cowed by the awful sense of evil that emanated from him.
“After a little while I plucked up my courage and opened the door. The landing was in darkness, but what was more important the key was missing from the other side of the door. It was consequently impossible for me to lock myself in, and not for a kingdom would I risk an attempt to get out that way.
“I closed the door again, and, crossing the room, tried to shift the great oak chest. With a big effort I found this to be possible, so bit by bit, I eased it nearer, until at last it rested across my threshold, and I heaved a sigh of relief.
“Here at any rate was a barrier to be reckoned with! Now there was nothing for it but to wait until daylight, and leaving the lamp still burning, I flung myself down fully dressed on the bed, resolved to bear with the circumstances as best I could.
“I have mentioned that the bed was an old four-poster one, and it was hung with faded green curtains which depended in the usual style from the canopy overhead to my right and left and round at the back, excluding all draught.
“As I lay there I examined these with idle interest, casting my eyes up until I reached the canopy itself.
“I am not fastidious, as you may have guessed, but if there is one insect which fills me with more disgust than another it is a spider, and there, dangling by a single thread immediately above my face, was a great fat monster of the species. A long point of metal stuck down from the middle of the canopy, which had been used, I conjectured, at some time for forming the base of a swinging lantern, and from this the insect had spun its web across to one of the poles at the head of the bed.
He had now returned to the centre of his trap and as I have said, dangled precariously over my face.
“I watched him, fascinated, but by now I was worn out and from time to time caught myself dozing. I strove to keep awake, but Nature asserted herself, and at last I succumbed to her wooing. I slept.
“The next thing I remember was feeling the plop of the wretched insect as it landed on my cheek and scuttled down my neck. With a smothered cry I leapt from my bed, and as I did so the long metal point fell with a swish and embedded itself in the depreression just vacated by my body. I tell you, sir, that spider saved my life!
“Wondering, and not a little afraid, I ungratefully brushed the creature from my person and approached the bed. Then I think I realized what it meant. That metal point was part of a long spear-like contrivance, whose shaft vanished through a small hole in the ceiling, the whole being the most damnable invention for murder ever conceived by the brain of a fiend!
“Its fall had broken the web, and, presumably, the preliminary trembling of the shaft before its release had frightened the spider, which had alighted on my face, warning me in its turn.
“A Providential escape!
“As I paused irresolute in the middle of the room I thought I heard a slight movement outside the door, but may have been mistaken. I waited a few moments longer to reassure myself that this was but the outcome of extreme nervous tension, and stood listening intently. Then from behind the wall at the side of the bed there came the unmistakable sound of something scratching softly, scratching and fumbling, and the sound of a click.
“I wheeled round
“Slowly, very slowly, a crack appeared in the wall itself, and from within showed the faint glimmer of a light.
“In a trice I was across the room and had put out my lamp. This time I had no intention of letting my fears overcome my faculties. With the courage born of desperation I forced myself again to enter that loathsome bathroom and pushed the door to, taking care to leave it just sufficiently ajar to enable me to watch whatever might be about to occur, while at the same time keeping myself free from observation. From my new point of vantage I saw the gap in the panel widen. I saw the pulpy hands like the antennae of a huge slug come feeling along the wall, and then, like the obscene figment of an unhealthy imagination, my landlord stepped into the room. For a moment he paused, listening, his hands pawing the air before him as if un-certain of his direction, and then stealthily, noiselessly he turned and moved, groping towards my bed.
“Behind him, framed in the space of the open panel, stood the woman, her hand still grasping the candle in the same way in which she had met me at the door, but on her face was such an expression of ghoulish exultation that I shivered, for only a devil could exult as she did then.
“By now the man had reached the side of the bed, and softly his hands felt over the sheets, groping, groping. They touched the spear-shaft, and with a sound like the contented purr of a giant cat he slid his hands down the shaft, feeling for the body which had so lately lain there.
“Suddenly he snarled and started back, and at the sound the woman came into the room. With one glance she comprehended the situation and seized him by the arm.
“‘Quick! The bathroom!’ she whispered, and half pushing, half dragging the blind, groping creature, moved swiftly in my direction. There was no time to lose. Like a flash I cast round for some means of egress from this charnel-house. Above the cistern, which was over the bath, something winked and twinkled – a star.
Like lightning I clawed my way up the pipes to the skylight, and lay there gasping. A foul stench assailed my nostrils, but I dare not move. Indeed, I had hardly gained the top of the cistern and flung myself flat before the door opened and my pursuers stood on the threshold. Would they see me?
“I think I prayed then as I have never prayed before. Right from my heart I sent up a cry to heaven for assistance.
“The woman said something and stooped, feeling under the bath. When she stood up again, I saw that she held an axe in her hand, and she began to laugh horribly. It was like the roar of a wild animal that smells raw meat.
“‘Come down!’ she cried. ‘You must pay for your lodging,’ and when I made no movement, thrust the candle into the man’s hand and made to climb up after me.
“It was the work of a second to put my elbow through the glass and break the window, and as I struggled to get through I heard her clambering up after me with the agility of a young tigress.
“Once I slipped and fell, striking the lid of the cistern, which gave way beneath my weight, and my feet and hands came in contact with some soft and flabby substance. I looked down — horror of horrors! I was kneeling on a heap of mutilated corpses!
“Men and women were there, some untouched by of the hand of corruption, others in the final stages of decomposition; the bodies of wayfarers like myself who had tasted the hospitality of this appalling inn.
“I scrambled out and, reaching the window, threw myself out upon the sloping tiles of the roof. I could see the face of the woman distorted with fury, as she too began to squeeze her way through the skylight. I edged myself nearer the eaves to a spot where a branch of a tree overhung the roof, holding out promise of escape. I had almost grasped this blessed branch in my hands when suddenly my foot slipped on a piece of moss and I slithered to the edge and clung there with all my might.
“To fall now might mean a broken limb, and that spelt capture, with all that it entailed.
“I hesitated and was lost.
“With a scream of triumph the woman was upon me. Horrified, I saw her whirl the axe aloft. Hypnotized, I watched the instrument descend, relentless, cruel, and heard it swish as it cleaved the air. Then there came a stinging sensation in my right hand, and I found myself slipping, falling to the ground below.
“Somehow I staggered to my feet and fled.
“How long I ran through the night like a mad thing I don’t know. I only know that when at last I did look back for a possible pursuer, the place where the inn had stood was a blaze of flame, and the sky above glowed crimson in the surrounding darkness.”
Methuen ceased, and the sweat was standing out in great beads on his brow, as though he had lived again his harrowing experience.
“Very interesting,” remarked the doctor. “So the inn caught fire? How was that?”
“I can only conclude that when the woman gave the blind man the candle to hold he must have placed it against his flannelette nightgown inadvertently, and blundered out of the bathroom in his panic, to come up against some such draperies as those about the four-poster.”
The doctor smiled.
“You are certainly adept at explaining things,” he admitted.
Methuen rose and went behind his chair. He was very pale, and placed his left hand on the back of it as though to support himself as he faced the doctor.
“So you do think I’m mad?” he exclaimed slowly.
The doctor shrugged.
“Then how do you account for this?”
With a sudden gesture he withdrew his right arm from his coat pocket and thrust it out before him.
All four fingers of the hand were missing and the roughly improvised bandages hung loosely, sticky and wet with blood.
Dr Sutton caught him as he swayed and fell.