The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn waited on the marshes until the coming of the dawn revealed the breakwater and the sea crashing against it. A brief scrutiny of the white waste of waters, raging endlessly against the barrier, convinced him of the futility of attempting to discover what the innkeeper's daughter had thrown from the breakwater wall an hour before. The sea would retain her secret.
The sea mist hung heavily over the marshes as Colwyn cautiously picked his way back along the slippery canal path. Sooner than he expected, the inn appeared from the grey mist like a sheeted ghost. Colwyn stood for a few moments regarding the place attentively. There was something weird and sinister about this lonely inn on the edge of the marshes. Strange things must have happened there in the past, but the lawless secrets of a bygone generation of smugglers had been safely kept by the old inn. The cold morning light imparted the semblance of a leer to the circular windows high up in the white wall, as though they defied the world to discover the secret of the death of Roger Glenthorpe.
There was no sign of life about the inn as Colwyn approached it. The back door yielded to his pull on the latch, and he gained his room unobserved; apparently all the inmates were still wrapped in slumber. Colwyn spent half an hour or so in making some sort of a toilet. He had brought a suit-case with him in the car, so he changed his wet clothes, shaved himself in cold water, washed, and brushed his hair. He looked at his watch, and found that it was after six o'clock. He wondered if the girl Peggy was sleeping after her night's adventure.
A swishing noise, somewhere in the lower regions, broke the profound stillness of the house. Somebody was washing the floor, somewhere. Colwyn opened his door and went downstairs. Ann, the stout servant, was washing the passage. She was on her hands and knees, with her back towards the staircase, swabbing vigorously, and did not see the detective descending the stairs.
"Good morning, Ann," said Colwyn, pleasantly.
She turned her head quickly, with a start, and Colwyn could have sworn that the quick glance she gave him was one of fear. But she merely said, "Good morning, sir," and went on with her work, while the detective stood looking at her. She finished the passage in a few minutes and got awkwardly to her feet, wiping her red hands on her coarse apron.
"You and I are the only early risers in the house, it seems, Ann," said Colwyn, still regarding her attentively.
"If you please, sir, Charles is up, and gone out to the canal to see if there are any fish for breakfast on the master's night lines."
"Fresh fish for breakfast! Well, that's a very good thing," replied the detective, reflecting it was just as well that he had got in before Charles went out. "What time does Mr. Benson come down?"
"About half-past seven, sir, as a general rule, but sometimes he has his breakfast in bed."
"That's not a bad idea at times, Ann. But I see you are impatient to get on with your work. Would you mind if I went into the kitchen and talked to you while you are preparing breakfast?"
Again there was a gleam of fear in the woman's eyes as she looked quickly at the detective, but her voice was self-possessed as she replied:
"Very well, sir," and turned down the passage which led to the kitchen.
"What time was it when you turned off the gas the night before last?" asked Colwyn, when the kitchen was reached. "You told us yesterday that it was about half-past ten, but you did not seem very sure of the exact time. Can you not fix it accurately? Try and think."
The look the woman gave Colwyn this time was undoubtedly one of relief.
"Well, sir," she said, "I usually turn off the gas at ten o'clock, but, to tell you the truth, I was a little bit late that night."
"A little bit late, eh? That means you forgot all about it."
"I did forget about it, and that's the truth. The master told me not to turn off the meter until the gentlemen in the parlour upstairs had gone to bed. Charles told me when he came down from the upstairs parlour with the last of the dinner things that the gentlemen were still sitting in front of the fire talking, but some time after Charles had come down and gone to bed I heard them moving about upstairs, as though they were going to their rooms."
"What time was that?" asked the detective.
"Just half-past ten. I happened to glance at the kitchen clock at the time. Charles, who had been told that he wouldn't be wanted upstairs again, had gone to bed quite half an hour before, but I didn't go until I had folded some clothes which I had airing in front of the kitchen fire. When I did get to bed, and was just falling off to sleep, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to turn off the gas at the meter. I got out of bed again, lit my candle, and went up the passage to the meter, which is just under the foot of the stairs, turned off the gas, and went back to bed."
"Did you notice the time then?"
"The kitchen clock was just chiming eleven as I got back to my bed."
"You are sure it was not twelve?"
"Quite sure, sir."
"Did you hear any sound upstairs?"
"No, sir. It was as quiet as the dead."
"Was it raining at that time?"
"It started to rain heavens hard just as I got back to bed, but before that the wind was moaning round the house, as it do moan in these parts, and I knew we was in for a storm. I was glad enough to get back to my warm bed."
"You might have seen something, if you had been a little later. The staircase is the only way the body could have been brought down from there." The detective pointed to the room above where the dead man lay.
The woman trembled violently.
"It's God's mercy I didn't see something," she said, and her voice fell to a husky whisper. "I should 'a' died wi' fright if I had seen it being brought downstairs. All day long I've been thanking God I didn't see anything."
"Do nobody else but you and Charles sleep downstairs?"
"Nobody, sir. I sleep in a small room off the kitchen, but Charles sleeps in one of the rooms in the passage which leads off the kitchen, the first room, not far from my own. But that'd been no help to me if I'd seen anything. I might have screamed the house down before Charles would have heard me, he being stone deaf."
"Quite true, Ann. And now is that all you have to tell me about the gas?"
The woman seemed to have some difficulty in replying, but finally she stammered out in an embarrassed voice, plucking at her apron the while:
"Look at me, Ann, and tell me the truth. Come now, it will be better for everybody."
The countrywoman looked at the detective with whitening face, and there was something in his penetrating gaze that kept her frightened eyes fixed on his.
"Yes, Ann, go on," prompted the detective encouragingly.
But the woman didn't go on; there crept into her face instead an obstinate look, her mouth closed tightly, and her hands ceased twitching.
"I've told you everything, sir," she said quietly.
"You've not told me you found the meter turned on when you got up next morning," replied the detective sternly.
The woman's fat face turned haggard with anxiety, and then she began to cry softly with her apron to her eyes.
"Why did you not tell us this, Ann?"
"If you please, sir, I thought that the master mightn't like it if he knew. He's very particular about having the gas turned off at night, and he might have thought I had forgotten it."
Colwyn gave her another searching look.
"Even if that were true, Ann, you have no right to keep back anything that may tend to shield the guilty, or injure the innocent."
"I didn't think it mattered, sir."
"You still say that you heard nothing after you went to bed?"
"No, sir. I fell asleep as soon as I got into bed."
"So you said before, but you did not tell us the whole truth yesterday, you know, and I do not know whether to believe you now."
"Hush, sir, there's somebody coming down the passage."
Colwyn strolled into the passage and encountered Superintendent Galloway coming towards the kitchen. He stared at the detective and exclaimed:
"Hello, you're up early."
"Yes; I found it difficult to sleep, so I came downstairs."
"I hope you've not been making love to Ann," said Galloway, who had his own sense of humour. "I'm looking for this infernal waiter, Charles. He is never about when he's wanted. Charles! Charles!"
Superintendent Galloway's shouts brought Ann hurrying from the kitchen, and she explained to him, as she had explained to Colwyn, that Charles had gone on to the marshes to look for fish.
"Send him to my room as soon as he comes in; I've other fish for him to fry," grumbled the superintendent. "A queer household this," he said to Colwyn, as they walked along the passage. "Ah, here is Charles, fish and all."
The fat waiter was hurrying in with a string of fish in his hand, and he came towards them in response to Superintendent Galloway's commanding gesture. The superintendent told him to go out and intercept Constable Queensmead before he went out with his search party, and bring him to the inn. Charles nodded an indication that he understood the instruction, and turned away to execute it.
"I want Queensmead to get a dozen of the village blockheads together for a jury," he said to Colwyn. "The coroner sent me word before we left Durrington yesterday that he'd be over this morning, but he did not say what time, and I forgot to ask him. He's the man to kick up a devil of a shindy if he came and found we were not ready for him."
Queensmead speedily appeared in response to the summons, listened quietly to Superintendent Galloway's laconic command to catch a jury and catch them quick, and went back to the village to secure twelve good men and true.
Colwyn and Galloway meanwhile breakfasted together in the bar parlour, on some of the fish which Charles had brought in. As nothing followed the fish Superintendent Galloway, who was an excellent trencherman, rang the bell and ordered the waiter to bring some eggs and bacon. The waiter hesitated a moment, and then said that he believed they were out of bacon. There were some eggs, if they would do.
"Bring me a couple, boiled, as quick as you like," said the superintendent. "This is a queer kind of inn," he grumbled to Colwyn. "They don't give you enough to eat."
"I think they're a little short themselves," replied Colwyn.
"By Jove, I believe you're right!" said the superintendent, staring hard at the edibles on the table before him. "There's not much here--a piece of butter no bigger than a walnut, a spoonful of jam, and tea as weak as water. Come to think of it, they gave us nothing but some of Glenthorpe's left over game for dinner last night. You're right, they are hard up."
Superintendent Galloway looked at Colwyn with as much animation on his heavy features as though he had lighted on some new and important discovery. Colwyn, who had finished his breakfast and was not particularly interested in the conversation, strolled out with the intention of smoking a cigar outside the front door. In the passage he encountered Ann, bearing a tray with two cups and saucers, a pot of tea and some bread and butter which she proceeded to carry upstairs. Colwyn wondered for whom the breakfast was intended. There were three people upstairs--the father, his daughter, and the poor mad woman, and the breakfast was laid for two. The appearance of the innkeeper descending the stairs, answered the question. Colwyn accosted him as he came down.
"You're a late riser, Benson."
"Yes, sir, it's a bit difficult to handle Mother in the morning: the only way to keep her quiet is for me to stay with her until Peggy is ready to go to her and give her her breakfast. Mother is quiet enough with Peggy and me, but nobody else can do anything with her, and sometimes nobody can do anything with her except my daughter. She spends a lot of time with her, sir."
The innkeeper looked more like a bird than ever as he proffered this explanation, standing at the foot of the stairs dressed as he had been the previous night, with his bright bird's eyes peering from beneath his shock of iron-grey hair at the man in front of him. Colwyn noticed that his hair had been recently wet, and plastered straight down so that it hung like a ridge over his forehead--just as it had been the previous night. Colwyn wondered why the man wore his hair like that. Did he always affect that eccentric style of hairdressing, or had he adopted it to alter his personal appearance--to disguise himself, or to conceal something?
"It's no life for a young girl," said the detective, in answer to the innkeeper's last remark.
"I know that, sir. But what am I to do? I cannot afford to keep a nurse. Peggy never complains. She's used to it. But if you'll excuse me, sir. I must go and get the room ready for the inquest."
"What room is it going to be held in?"
"Superintendent Galloway told me to put a table and some chairs into the last empty room off the passage leading into the kitchen. It's the biggest room in the house, and there are plenty of chairs in the lumber room upstairs."
"It should do excellently for the purpose, I should think," said Colwyn.
A few moments later he saw the innkeeper and the waiter carrying chairs from the lumber room downstairs into the empty room, where Ann dusted them. Then they carried in a small table from another room. Superintendent Galloway, with inky fingers and a red face, and a sheaf of foolscap papers in his hand, came bustling out of the bar parlour to superintend the arrangements. When the chairs had been placed to his liking he ordered the innkeeper to bring him a glass of ale. While he was drinking it Constable Queensmead entered the front door with a file of shambling, rough-looking villagers trailing behind him, and announced to his superior officer that the men were intended to form a jury. Superintendent Galloway seemed quite satisfied with their appearance, and remarked to Colwyn that he didn't care how soon the coroner arrived--now he had the jury and witnesses ready for him.
"How many witnesses do you propose to call?" said Colwyn.
"Five: Queensmead, Benson, the waiter, and the two men who found the footprints leading to the pit and who recovered the body and brought it here. That's enough for a committal. The coroner will no doubt bring a doctor from Heathfield to certify the cause of death. I've got all the statements ready. I took Benson's and the waiter's yesterday. The waiter's evidence is the principal thing, of course. Do you remember suggesting to me last night the possibility of this murder having been committed by one of Mr. Glenthorpe's workmen with a grudge against him? Well, it's a very strange thing, but Queensmead was telling me this morning that one of Mr. Glenthorpe's workmen had a grudge against him. He's a chap named Hyson, the local ne'er-do-well, who was almost starving when Mr. Glenthorpe came to the district. Glenthorpe was warned against employing him, but the fellow got round him with a piteous tale, and he put him on. He proved to be just as ungrateful as the average British workman, and caused the old gentleman a lot of trouble. He seems to have been a bit of a sea lawyer, and tried to disaffect the other workmen by talking to them about socialism, and the rights of labour, and that sort of rubbish. When I heard this I had the chap brought to the inn and cross-questioned him a bit, but I am certain that he had nothing to do with the murder. He's a weak, spineless sort of chap, full of argument and fond of beer--that's his character in the village--and the last man in the world to commit a murder like this. I flatter myself," added Superintendent Galloway in a tone of mingled self-complacency and pride, "that I know a murderer when I see one."
"Have you made any inquiries about umbrellas?" asked Colwyn.
"Yes. Apparently Ronald did not bring an umbrella with him, though it's cost me some trouble to establish that fact. It is astonishing how unobservant people are about such things as umbrellas, sticks, and handbags. Most people remember faces and clothes with some accuracy, but cannot recall whether a person carried an umbrella or walking-stick. Charles is not sure whether Ronald carried an umbrella, Benson thinks he did not, and Ann is sure he didn't. The balance of evidence being on the negative side, I assume that Ronald did not bring an umbrella to the inn, because it was more likely to have been noticed if he had. I next inquired about the umbrellas in the house. At first I was told there were only two--a cumbrous, Robinson Crusoe sort of affair, kept in the kitchen and used by the servant, and a smaller one, belonging to Benson's daughter. I have examined both. The covering of the girl's umbrella is complete. Ann's is rent in several places, but the covering is blue, whereas the piece of umbrella covering we found adhering to Mr. Glenthorpe's window is black. While I was questioning Ann she suddenly remembered that there was another umbrella in that lumber-room upstairs. We went upstairs to look for it, but we couldn't find it, though Ann says she saw it there a day or two before the murder. I think we may assume that Ronald took it."
"But Ronald was a stranger to the place. How would he know the umbrella was in the lumber-room?" said Colwyn, who had followed Galloway's narrative with close attention.
"The door of the lumber-room stands ajar. Ronald probably looked in from curiosity, and saw the umbrella."
The easy assurance with which Superintendent Galloway dismissed or got over difficulties which interfered with his own theory did not commend itself to Colwyn, but he did not pursue the point further.
"Is the umbrella still missing?" he asked.
"Yes. It seems that even a murderer cannot be trusted to return an umbrella." Superintendent Galloway laughed shortly at his grim joke and walked away to supervise the preparations for the inquest.
The coroner presently arrived from Heathfield in a small runabout motor-car which he drove himself, with a tall man sitting beside him, and a short pursy young man in the back seat nursing a portable typewriter and an attache case on his knees. Toiling in the rear, some distance behind the car, was a figure on a bicycle, which subsequently turned out to be the reporter of the Heathfield local paper, who had come over with instructions from one of the London agencies to send a twenty line report of the inquest for the London press. In peace times "specials" would probably have been despatched from the metropolis to "do a display story," and interview some of the persons concerned, but the war had discounted by seventy-five per cent the value of murders as newspaper "copy."
The coroner, a short, stout, commonplace little man, jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped, and bustled into the inn with an air of fussy official importance, leaving his companions to follow.
"Good day, Galloway," he exclaimed, as that officer came forward to greet him. "I hope you've got everything ready."
"Everything's ready, Mr. Edgehill. Do you intend to commence before lunch?"
"Of course I do. Are you aware that it is war-time? How many witnesses have you?"
"Five, sir. Their statements have all been taken."
"Then I shall go straight through--it seems a simple case--merely a matter of form, from what I have heard of it. I have another inquest at Downside at four o'clock. Where's the body? Upstairs? Doctor"--this to the tall thin man who had sat beside him in the run-about--"will you go upstairs with Queensmead and make your examination? Where's the jury? Pendy"--this to the young man with the typewriter and attache case--"get everything ready and swear in the jury. Galloway will show you the room. What's that? Oh, that's quite all right"--this in reply to some murmured apology on the part of Superintendent Galloway for the mental incapacity of the jury--"we ought to be glad to get juries at all--in war-time."
Colwyn had feared that the result of the inquest was a foregone conclusion the moment he saw the coroner alighting from his motor-car outside the inn. Ten minutes later, when the little man had commenced his investigations, he realised that the proceedings were merely a formal compliance with the law, and in no sense of the word an inquiry.
Mr. Edgehill, the coroner, was one of those people who seized upon the war as a pretext for the exercise of their natural proclivity to interfere in other people's affairs. He took the opportunity that every inquest gave him to lecture the British public on their duties and responsibilities in war-time. The body on which he was sitting formed his text, the jury was his congregation, and the newspaper reporters the vehicles by which his admonitions were conveyed to the nation. Mr. Edgehill saw a shirker in every suicide, national improvidence in a corpse with empty pockets, and had even been able to discover a declining war morale in death by misadventure. He thanked God for air raids and food queues because they brought the war home to civilians, and he was never tired of asserting that he lived on half the voluntary rations scale, did harder work, felt ten years younger, and a hundred times more virtuous, in consequence.
If he did not actually insert the last clause his look implied a superior virtue to his fellow creatures, and was meekly accepted as such. He never held an inquest without introducing some remarks upon uninterned aliens, the military age, Ireland and conscription, soldiers' wives and drinking, the prevalence of bigamy, and other popular war-time topics. In short, Mr. Edgehill, like many other people, had used the war to emerge from a chrysalis existence as a local bore into a butterfly career as a public nuisance. In that capacity he was still good "copy" in some of the London newspapers, and was even occasionally referred to in leading articles as a fine example of the sturdy country spirit which Londoners would do well to emulate.
Before commencing his inquiry into the death of Mr. Glenthorpe, the coroner indignantly expressed his surprise that a small hamlet like Flegne could produce so many able-bodied men to serve on a jury in war-time. But after ascertaining that all the members of the jury were over military age, with the exception of one man who was afflicted with heart disease, he suffered the inquest to proceed.
The evidence of the innkeeper and the waiter was a repetition of the story they had told to the chief constable on the preceding day. Constable Queensmead, in his composed way, gave an account of his preliminary investigations into the crime, and the finding of the body.
The only additional evidence brought forward was given by two of the men who had been in the late Mr. Glenthorpe's employ. These men, Herward and Duney, had found the track of the footprints in the clay near the pit on going to work the previous morning. After the discovery that Mr. Glenthorpe was missing from the inn, Herward had been let down into the pit by a rope, and had brought up the body. Both these men told their story with a wealth of unlettered detail, and Duney, who was one of the aboriginals of the district, added his personal opinion that t'oud ma'aster mun 'a' been very dead afore the chap got him in the pit, else he would 'a' dinged one of the chap's eyes in, t'oud ma'aster not bein' a man to be taken anywhere against his will. However, the chap that carried him must 'a' been powerful strong, because Herward told him his own arms were begunnin' ter ache good tidily just a-howdin' him up to the rope when they wor being a-hawled out the pit.
The coroner, in his summing up, dwelt upon the strong circumstantial evidence against Ronald, and the folly of the deceased in withdrawing a large sum of money from the bank for the purpose of carrying out scientific research in war-time. "Had he invested that money in war bonds he would have probably been alive to-day," said Mr. Edgehill gravely. The jury had no hesitation in returning a verdict of wilful murder against James Ronald.
The coroner, the doctor, the clerk carrying the typewriter and the attache case, and Superintendent Galloway departed in the runabout motor-car shortly afterwards. Before evening a mortuary van, with two men, appeared from Heathfield and removed the body of the murdered man.