The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
The man who entered the room was of sufficiently remarkable appearance to have attracted attention anywhere. He was short, but so fat that he looked less than his actual height, which was barely five feet. His ponderous head, which was covered with short stiff black hair, like a brush, seemed to merge into his body without any neck, and two black eyes glittered like diamond points in the white expanse of his hairless face. As he advanced towards the table these eyes roved quickly from one to the other of the faces on the other side of the table. He was in every way a remarkable contrast to his employer, and a painter in search of a subject might have been tempted to take the pair as models for a picture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
"Take that chair and answer my questions," said Mr. Cromering, addressing the waiter in a very loud voice. "Oh, I forgot," he added, to the innkeeper. "How do you manage to communicate with him if he is stone deaf?"
"Quite easily, sir. Charles understands the lip language--he reads your lips while you speak. It is not even necessary to raise your voice, so long as you pronounce each word distinctly."
"Sit down, Charles--do you understand me?" said the chief constable doubtfully. By way of helping the waiter to comprehend he pointed to the chair the innkeeper had vacated.
The waiter crossed the room and took the chair. Like so many fat men, his movements were quick, agile, and noiseless, but as he came forward it was noticeable that his right arm was deformed, and much shorter than the other.
The chief constable eyed the strange figure before him in some perplexity, and the fat white-faced deaf man confronted him stolidly, with his black twinkling eyes fixed on his face. His gaze, which was directed to the mouth and did not reach the eyes, was so disconcerting to Mr. Cromering that he cleared his throat with several nervous "hems" before commencing his examination:
"Your name is----?"
"Charles Lynn, sir."
The reply was delivered in a whispered voice, the not infrequent result of prolonged deafness, complete isolation from the rest of humanity causing the gradual loss of sound values in the afflicted person; but the whisper, coming from such a mountain of flesh, conveyed the impression that the speaker's voice was half-strangled in layers of fat, and with difficulty gasped a way to the air. Mr. Cromering looked hard at the waiter as though suspecting him of some trick, but Charles' eyes were fixed on the mouth of his interrogator, awaiting his next question.
"I understand that you waited on the two gentlemen in the upstairs sitting-room last night"--Mr. Cromering still spoke in such an unnecessarily loud voice that he grew red in the face with the exertion--"the gentleman who was murdered, and the young man Ronald, who came to the inn last night. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir. I waited on the gentlemen, sir."
"Very well. I want you to tell us all that took place between these gentlemen while you were in the room. You were there all through the dinner, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir, but I didn't follow all of the conversation because of my infirmity." He touched his ears as he spoke. "I gathered some remarks of Mr. Glenthorpe's, because he told me to stand opposite him and watch his lips for orders, but I didn't get much of what the young gentleman said, because I was standing behind his chair most of the time so as to see Mr. Glenthorpe's lips better."
"Well, tell us all you did gather of the conversation, and everything you saw."
"I beg your pardon, sir"--the interruption came from Superintendent Galloway--"but would it not be advisable to get from the waiter first something of what passed between him and Ronald when Ronald came to the inn last night? The waiter was the first to see him, Benson says."
"Quite right. I had forgotten. Tell us, Charles, what passed when Ronald first came to the inn in the afternoon."
"It was between five and six o'clock, sir, when the young gentleman came to the front door and asked for the landlord. I told him he was out, but would be back shortly. The young gentleman said he was very tired, as he had walked a long distance and lost his way in the marshes, and would I show him into a private room and send him some refreshments. I took him into the bar parlour--this room, sir--and brought him refreshments. He seemed very tired--hardly able to lift one leg after the other."
"Did he look ill--or strange?"
"I didn't notice anything strange about him, sir, but he dropped into a chair as though he was exhausted, and told me to send the landlord to him as soon as he came in. I left him sitting there, and when Mr. Benson returned I told him, and he went in to him. I didn't see the young gentleman again until I waited on him and Mr. Glenthorpe at dinner in the upstairs sitting-room."
"Very good. Tell us what happened there."
"I laid the table, and took up the dinner at half-past seven. Those were Mr. Glenthorpe's orders. When I went up the first time the table was covered with flints and fossils, which Mr. Glenthorpe was showing the young gentleman, and I helped Mr. Glenthorpe put these back into the cupboards, and then I laid the table. When I took up the dinner the gentlemen sat down to it, and Mr. Glenthorpe rang for Mr. Benson, and told him to bring up some sherry. When the sherry came up Mr. Glenthorpe told the young gentleman that it was a special wine sent down by his London wine merchants, and he asked Mr. Ronald what he thought of it. Mr. Ronald said he thought it was an excellent dry wine. The gentlemen didn't talk much during dinner, though Mr. Glenthorpe was a little upset about the partridges. He said they had been cooked too dry. He asked the young gentleman what he thought of them, but I don't know what he replied, for I was not watching his lips.
"Mr. Glenthorpe quite recovered himself by the time coffee was served, and was talking a lot about his researches in the neighbourhood. It was very learned talk, but it seemed to interest Mr. Ronald, for he asked a number of questions. Mr. Glenthorpe seemed very pleased with his interest, and told him about a valuable discovery made in a field near what he called the hut circles. He said he had bought the field off the farmer for L300, and was going to commence his excavations immediately. As the farmer refused to take a cheque for the land he had been over to the bank at Heathfield for the money, and had brought it back with him so as to pay it over in the morning and take possession of the field. Mr. Glenthorpe complained that the bank had made him take all the money in Treasury notes, and he took them out of his pocket and showed them to the young gentleman, saying how bulky they were, and pointing out that they were all of the first issue."
"And what did Ronald say to that?"
If the chief constable's question covered a trap, the waiter seemed unconscious of it.
"I wasn't looking at him, sir, and did not hear his reply. After putting the money back in his pocket, Mr. Glenthorpe told me to go downstairs and tell Mr. Benson to bring up some of the old brandy. Mr. Benson came back with me, and Mr. Glenthorpe took the bottle from him and filled the glasses himself, telling the young gentleman that the brandy was the best in England, a relic of the old smuggling days, but far too good for scoundrels who had never paid the King's revenue one half-penny. Then when Mr. Benson had left the room he began to talk about the field again, and how anxious he was to start the excavations. That was about all I heard, sir, for shortly afterwards Mr. Glenthorpe told me to clear away the things, which took me several trips downstairs, because, not having the full use of my right hand, I have to use a small tray. It was not till this morning, when I was cleaning the cutlery, that I noticed that one of the knives I had taken upstairs the night before was missing. I think that is all, sir."
The silence which followed, broken only by the rapid travelling of Superintendent Galloway's pen across the paper, revealed how intently the fat man's auditors had followed his whispered recital of the events before the murder. It was Superintendent Galloway who, putting down his fountain pen, asked the waiter to describe the knife he had missed.
"It was a small, white-handled knife, sir--not one of the dinner knives, but one of the smaller ones."
"Are you sure it was one of the knives you took upstairs last night?"
"Quite sure, sir. We are very short of good cutlery, and I picked out this knife to put by the young gentleman's plate because it was a very good one. It and the carving-knife are the only two knives we have in that particular white-handled pattern."
"Was this knife sharp?"
"Very sharp, with a rather thin blade. I keep all my cutlery in good order, sir."
"You seem to have heard a lot that passed last night in spite of your deafness," said Superintendent Galloway, in the blustering manner he had found very useful in browbeating rural witnesses in the police courts. "Is it customary for waiters to listen to everything that is said when they are waiting at table?"
"I did not hear everything, sir," rejoined the waiter, and his soft whisper was in striking contrast to the superintendent's hectoring tones. "I explained to the other gentleman that I heard very little the young gentleman said, because I wasn't watching his lips. It was principally Mr. Glenthorpe's part of the conversation I have related. I followed almost everything he said because I was watching his lips closely the whole of the time."
"Why?" snapped Superintendent Galloway.
"It was Mr. Glenthorpe's strict instructions that I was to watch his lips closely every time I waited on him, because of my infirmity. He disliked very much being waited on by a deaf waiter when first he came to the inn. He said he didn't want to have to bellow out when he wanted anything. But when he found that I could understand lip language, and could follow what he was saying by watching his lips, he allowed me to wait on him, but he gave me strict instructions never to take my eyes off him when I was waiting on him, because he disliked having to repeat an order."
At the request of Sir Henry, Superintendent Galloway asked the waiter if he had noticed anything peculiar in the actions of the murdered man's guest during the dinner. The waiter replied that he had not noticed the young gentleman particularly. So far as his observation went the young gentleman had acted just like an ordinary young gentleman, and he had noticed nothing strange or eccentric about him.
Mr. Cromering decided to occupy the remaining time at his disposal by questioning Ann. The stout servant was brought from the kitchen in a state of trepidation, and, after curtsying awkwardly to the assembled gentlemen, flopped heavily into a chair, covered her face with her apron, and burst into sobs. Her story--which was extracted from her with much difficulty--bore out the innkeeper's account of her early morning interview with Ronald. She said the poor young gentleman had opened the door when she knocked with his tea. He was fully dressed, with his boots in his hand, and he said he wouldn't wait for any breakfast, though she had offered to cook him some fresh fish the master had caught the day before. He asked her to clean his boots, but as she was carrying them away he called her back and said he would wear them as they were. They were all covered with mud--a regular mask of mud. She wanted to rub the mud off, but he said that didn't matter: he was in a hurry to get away. While she had them in her hands she turned them up and looked at the bottoms, intending to put them to the kitchen fire to dry them if the soles were wet, and it was then she noticed that there was a circular rubber heel on one which was missing on the other--only the iron peg being left. She took particular notice of the peg, because she intended to hammer it down in the kitchen, thinking it must be very uncomfortable to walk on, but the young gentleman didn't give her the chance--he just took the boots from her and walked into his room, shutting the door behind him.
Thus far Ann proceeded, between convulsive sobs and jelly-like tremors of her fat frame. By dint of further questioning, it was elicited from her that during this colloquy at the bedroom door the young gentleman had put a pound note into her hand, and told her to give it to her master in payment of his bill. "It won't be so much as that, sir," she had said. "What about the change?"
"Oh, damn the change!" the young gentleman had said, very impatient-like, and then he had said, "Here's something for yourself," and put five shillings into her hand.
"Did the young gentleman seem at all excited during the time you saw him?" asked the chief constable, anticipating the inevitable question from Sir Henry.
"I don't know what you mean by excited, sir. He seemed rarely impatient to be gone, though anybody might be excited at having to walk across them nasty marshes in the morning mist without a bite to stay the stomach. I only hope he didn't catch a chill, the poor young man."
Further questions on this point only brought forth another shower of tears, and a sobbing asseveration that she hadn't taken particular notice of the young gentleman, who was a kind, liberal-hearted gentleman, no matter what some folk might think. It was evident that the tip of five shillings had won her heart.
The chief constable waited for the storm to subside before he was able to extract the information that Ann hadn't seen the young gentleman leave the house. He had gone when she took up Mr. Glenthorpe's breakfast nearly an hour later, and made the discovery that the key of Mr. Glenthorpe's room was in the outside of the door, and his room empty. The young gentleman could easily have left the inn without being seen, for she and Charles were in the kitchen, and nobody else was downstairs at the time.
It was in response to Colwyn's whispered suggestion that the chief constable asked Ann if she had turned off the gas at the meter the previous night. Yes, she had, she said. She heard the gentlemen leave the sitting-room upstairs and say good-night to each other as they went to their bedrooms, and she turned off the gas at the meter underneath the stair five minutes afterwards, when she had finished her ironing, and went to bed herself. That would be about half-past ten.
Mr. Cromering, who did not understand the purport of the question, was satisfied with the answer, and allowed the servant to retire. But Colwyn, as he went out to the front to get the motor ready for the journey to Heathfield, was of a different opinion.
"Ann may have turned off the gas as she said," he thought, "but it was turned on again during the night. Did Ann know this, and keep it back, or was it turned on and off again without her knowledge?"