The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
If the inmates of the inn felt any surprise at Colwyn's remaining after the inquest, they did not betray it. That evening Ann nervously intercepted him to ask if he would have a partridge for his dinner, and Colwyn, remembering the shortness of the inn larder, replied that a partridge would do very well. Later on Charles served it in the bar parlour, and waited with his black eyes fixed on Colwyn's lips, sometimes anticipating his orders before they were uttered. He brought a bottle of claret from the inn cellar, assuring Colwyn in his soft whisper that he would find the wine excellent, and Colwyn, after sampling it, found no reason for disagreeing with the waiter's judgment.
At the conclusion of the meal Colwyn sent for the innkeeper, and asked him a number of questions about the district and its inhabitants. The innkeeper intimated that Flegne was a poor place at the best of times, but the war had made it worse, and the poorer folk--the villagers who lived in the beach-stone cottages--were sometimes hard-pressed to keep body and soul together. They did what they could, eking out their scanty earnings by eel-fishing on the marshes, and occasionally snaring a few wild fowl. Mr. Glenthorpe's researches in the district had been a godsend because of the employment he had given, which had brought a little ready money into the place.
It was obvious to Colwyn's alert intelligence that the innkeeper did not care to talk about his dead guest.
There was no visible reluctance--indeed, it would have been hard to trace the sign of any particular emotion on his queer, bird-like face--but his replies were slow in coming when questioned about Mr. Glenthorpe, and he made several attempts to turn the conversation in another direction. When he had finished a glass of wine Colwyn offered him, he got up from the table with the remark that it was time for him to return to the bar.
"I will go with you," said Colwyn. "It will help to pass away an hour."
There were about a dozen men in the bar--agricultural labourers and fishermen--clustered in groups of twos and threes in front of the counter, or sitting on stools by the wall, drinking ale by the light of a smoky oil lamp which hung from the rafters. The fat deaf waiter was in the earthy recess behind the counter, drawing ale into stone mugs.
A loud voice which had been holding forth ceased suddenly as Colwyn entered. The inmates of the bar regarded him questioningly, and some resentfully, as though they considered his presence an intrusion. But Colwyn was accustomed to making himself at home in all sorts of company. He walked across the bar, called for some whisky, and, while it was being served, addressed a friendly remark to the nearest group to him. One of the men, a white-bearded, keen-eyed Norfolk man, answered his question civilly enough. He had asked about wild fowl shooting in the neighbourhood, and the old man had been a water bailiff on the Broads in his younger days. The question of sport will draw most men together. One after another of the villagers joined in the conversation, and were soon as much at home with Colwyn as though they had known him from boyhood. Some of them were going eel-fishing that night, and Colwyn violated the provisions of the "no treating" order to give them a glass of whisky to keep out the cold of the marshes. The rest of the tap room he regaled with ale.
From these Norfolk fishermen Colwyn learnt many of the secrets of the wild and many cunning methods of capturing its creatures, but the real object of his visit to the bar--to discover whether any of the frequenters of the Golden Anchor had ever seen Ronald in the district before the evening of the murder--remained unsatisfied. He was a stranger to "theer" parts, the men said, in response to questions on the subject.
But "theer" parts were limited to a mile or so of the marshland in which they spent their narrow, lonely lives. Their conversation revealed that they seldom went outside that narrow domain. Durrington, which was little more than ten miles away, was only a name to them. Many of them had not been as far as Leyland for months. They spent their days catching eels in the marsh canals, or in setting lobster and crab traps outside the breakwater. The agricultural labourers tilled the same patch of ground year after year. They had no recreations except an occasional night at the inn; their existence was a lifelong struggle with Nature for a bare subsistence. Most of them had been born in the beach-stone cottages where their fathers had been born before them, and most of them would die, as their fathers had died, in the little damp bedrooms where they had first seen the light, passing away, as their fathers had passed away, listening to the sound of the North Sea restlessly beating against the breakwater. That sound was never out of their ears while they lived, and it was the dirge to which they died. Such was their life, but they knew no other, and wished no other.
Colwyn was early astir the following morning, and after breakfast went out. His purpose was to try to discover something which would throw light on Ronald's appearance at Flegne. With that object he scoured the country for some miles in the direction of Heathfield, for he deemed the possibility of Ronald having come by that route worth inquiring into. But his time was wasted; none of his inquiries brought to light anything to suggest that Ronald had ever been in the district before.
When he returned to the village the day was more than half spent. As he entered the inn, he encountered Charles, who stopped when he saw him.
"There are two men in the bar asking to see you, sir," he said, in his soft whisper. "Duney and Backlos are their names. They say they saw you in the bar last night, and they would like to speak to you privately, if you have no objection."
"Show them into the bar parlour," the detective said. "And, Charles, you might ask Ann to let me have a little lunch when they are gone."
Colwyn proceeded to the bar parlour. A moment or two afterwards the waiter ushered in two men and withdrew, closing the door after him.
In response to Colwyn's request, his two visitors seated themselves awkwardly, but they seemed to have considerable difficulty in stating the object of their visit. Duney, one of the men who had helped to recover Mr. Glenthorpe's body from the pit, was a short, thickset, hairy-faced man, with round surprised eyes, which he kept intently fixed upon the detective's face, as though seeking inspiration for speech from that source. The other man, Backlos, was a tall, hawk-featured man with a sweeping black moustache, who needed only gaudy habiliments to make him the ideal pirate king of the comic opera stage. It was he who spoke first.
"If you please, ma'aster, we uns come to you thinkin' as you might gi' us a bit o' advice."
"About somefin' we seed last night," explained Mr. Duney, finding his own voice at the sound of his companion's.
"I thowt 'ow 'twas agreed 'tween us I wor to tell the gentleman, bor?" growled the pirate king, turning a pair of dusky eyes on his companion. "Yow allus have a way o' overdoin' things, you know, Dick."
"Right, bor, right," replied Mr. Duney. "Yow oughter know I only wanted to help yow out, Billy."
"I dawn't want onny helpin' out," replied the pirate. "It's loike this 'ere, ma'aster," he continued, turning again to Colwyn. "Arter Dick and I left the Anchor las' night, we thowt we'd be walkin' a spell. We wor a talkin' o' th' murder at th' time, and wonderin' what we wor to do fur another job o' work, things bein' moighty bad heerabouts, when, as we neared top o' th' rise, we heered the rummiest kind o' noise a man ever heerd, comin' from that theer wood by th' pits. Dick says to me, in a skeered kind of voice, 'That's fair a rum un,' says he. There wornt much mune at th' time, but we could see things clar enough, and thow we looked around us we couldn't see a livin' thing a movin' either nigh th' woods nor on th' ma'shes. While we looked we seed a big harnsee rise out o' th' woods and go a flappin' away across th' ma'shes. Then all of a suddint we saw somefin' come a-wamblin' outer the shadder o' the wood, and run along by th' edge of ut. We couldn't make out a' furst what it moight be, thow for sure we got a rare fright. For my part, I thowt it might a' been ole Black Shuck, thow th' night didn't seem windy enough for un."
"Stop a bit," said Colwyn. "What do you mean by Black Shuck? Oh, I remember. It's a Norfolk tradition or ghost story, isn't it? Black Shuck is supposed to be a big black dog, with one eye in the middle of the head, who runs without sound and howls louder than the wind. Whoever meets him is sure to die before the year is out."
"That's him," said Mr. Backlos, affirming, with a grave nod of his head, his own profound belief in the canine apparition in question. "My grandfeyther seen un once not a hundred yards from the very spot were we wor standin' last night, and, sure enough, he died afore three months wor out. Dick and I couldn't tell what it wor we see creepin' out o' th' shadder o' th' wood, an' to tell yow th' trewth, ma'aster, we didn't care to look agen. I asked Dick if he didn't think it wor Black Shuck. 'Naw daywt,' says Dick, 'if it ain't somefin' worse.' 'What do'st a' mean, bor?' says I. 'Well,' says Dick slowly like, 'it might be the sperrit from th' pit, for 'twas in no mortal man to holler out like that cry we just heered.' Wornt those yower words, bor?"
Mr. Duney, thus appealed to, nodded portentously, as though to indicate that his words were well justified.
"Never mind the spirit from the pit," said Colwyn. "Go on with your story."
"Well, ma'aster, just as we wor walkin' away from th' wood as fast as ever we could, th' mune come out from behind th' shadder of a cloud, and threw a light right ower th' wood. We just happened to give a glance round ahind us at th' time, to see if we wor bein' follered, and, by its light, we saw a man a creepin' back into th' wood."
"A man? Are you sure it was a man?"
"There's no manner o' doubt about that, ma'aster. We both saw it once, and we didn't wait to look again. We run as hard as we could pelt to Dick's cottage by the ma'shes, and got inside and stood listenin' to heer if we were bein' follered. Dick says to me, says 'e, 'S'posen it wor the chap who murdered owd Mr. Glenthorpe at the Anchor?' I thowt as much meself, but a' tried to laugh it off, and says to Dick, 'What for should it be him? He's far enough away by this time, for we s'arched the place round fur miles, and we took in that theer wood where we just see un.' 'We never s'arched th' wood,' says Dick, 'leastways, not proper, an' it's a rare hidin' place for un.' 'So it be, to be sure,' says I. 'If he sees that there light we'll be browt out from heer dead men,' says Dick. 'So we will, for sartin,' says I. 'Let's put out th' light, so th' bloody-minded murderer won't ha' narthin' to go by if he ain't seen it yet.' So we put out th' light and stayed theer till th' mornin', when we went out to work, and then when I seed Dick later we thowt we'd come and tell you all about it, seein' as yower a gentleman, and in consiquence a man of larnin', and might p'rhaps tell us what we'd better do."
"You have certainly done the proper thing in disclosing what you have seen," said the detective, after a thoughtful pause. "But why have you come to me in the matter? It seems to me that the proper course to pursue would be to lay your information before Constable Queensmead."
The two men exchanged a glance of conscious embarrassment. Then Mr. Backlos, with the air of a man who had made up his mind to take the bull by the horns, blurted out:
"It's like this, ma'aster. We be in a bit o' a fix about that. Yow see, last night we were out arter conies, and thow I can swar we were out in th' open and not lookin' for conies on annybody's land, cos Dick an' I have already bin fined ten bob for snarin' conies on Farmer Cranley's land, an' if we went to Queensmead he moight think we'd been a snarin' there again. So Dick says to me, says he, 'Why not see the chap wot came into th' Anchor bar last night? Annybody can see wi' half an eye that he's a real swell, for didn't he stand treat all round--an' wot he says we'll go by, and 'e won't treat us dirty, whatever he says, though, mind ye, bor, there's narthin' to gi' away. So let's go to thissun, an' tell un all about it.'"
"I also tol' yow, Billy, that if thar be a reward out for this chap wot killed Mr. Glenthorpe, thissun 'ud tell us how to get it without sharin' wi' Queensmead, who does narthin' but take th' bread owt o' ower mouths, he bein' so sharp about th' conies. For if this chap in th' woods is the one wot killed owd Mr. Glenthorpe, we have a right to th' money for cotchin' un. Didn't I say that, Billy?"
"Yow did, bor, yow did; them wor yower vaery words," acquiesced Mr. Backlos.
"I think you had better leave the matter in my hands," said Colwyn, with difficulty repressing a smile at this exceedingly Norfolk explanation. "And now, you had better have a drink, for I am sure you must be dry after all that talk."
The men, after drinking Colwyn's health in two mugs of ale, departed with placid countenances, and Colwyn was left to meditate over the news they had imparted. The result of his meditations was that he presently went forth in search of Police Constable Queensmead.
The constable lived in the village street--in a beach-stone cottage which was in slightly better repair than its neighbours, and much better kept. There were white curtains in the windows, and in the garden a few late stocks and hardy climbing roses were making a brave effort to bloom in depressing surroundings. It was Queensmead who answered the door to the detective's knock, and he led the way inside to his little office when he saw who his visitor was.
"I do not think these chaps saw anything except what their own fears created," he said, after Colwyn had told him as much of the two men's story as he saw fit to impart. "I searched the wood thoroughly the day after the murder. Ronald was not there then."
"He may have come back since."
Queensmead's dark eyes lingered thoughtfully on the detective's face, as though seeking to gather the meaning underlying his words.
"Why should he do such a foolish thing, sir?" he asked.
"It is not always easy to account for a man's actions."
"It is hard to account for a man wanted by the police running his head into a noose."
"Ronald may not know he is wanted by the police."
"Why, of course he must know. If he doesn't----" Queensmead broke off suddenly and looked at the detective queerly, as if suddenly realising all that the remark implied. "You must have some strange ideas about this case," he added slowly.
"I have, but we won't go into them now," said the detective, with a slight smile. He appreciated the fact that the other was, to use an American colloquialism, "quick on the uptake." "Your immediate duty is clear."
"You mean I should search the wood again?" said Queensmead, with the same quick comprehension as before. "Very well. Will you come with me?"
Colwyn nodded, and Queensmead, without more ado, took a revolver and a pair of handcuffs from a cupboard, slipped them into his pockets, and announced that he was ready. He opened the door for his visitor to precede him, and they set forth.
The hut circles on the rise looked more desolate than ever in the waning afternoon light. The excavations commenced by Mr. Glenthorpe had been abandoned, and a spade left sticking in the upturned earth had rusted in the damp air. The track of the footprints to the pit in which the body had been flung still showed distinctly in the clay, and the splash of blood gleamed dully on the edge of the hole. On the other side of the pit the trees of the wood stood in stunted outline against a lowering black sky.
The two men entered the wood silently. The trees were of great age, the trunks thick and gnarled, with low twisted boughs, running and interlacing in every direction. So thickly were they intertwined that it was twilight in the sombre depths of the wood, although the fierce winds from the North Sea had already stripped the upper branches of leaves. The ground was covered with a rank and rotting undergrowth, from which tiny spirals of vapour, like gnomes' fires, floated upwards. The silence was absolute; even the birds of the coast seemed to shun the place, which looked as if it had been untrodden since the days when the beast men of the Stone Age prowled through its dim recesses to the hut circles on the rise.
Colwyn and Queensmead searched the wood and the matted undergrowth as they progressed, closely scrutinising the ferny hollows, looking up into the trees, examining the thickets and clumps of shrubs. They had reached the centre of the wood, and were picking their way through a rank growth of nettles which covered the decayed bracken, when Colwyn experienced a mental perception as tangible as a cold hand placed upon the brow of a sleeper. He had the swift feeling that there was somebody else besides themselves in the solitude of the wood--somebody who was watching them. He looked around him intently, and his eyes fell upon a screen of interlaced branches which grew on the other side of the dip they were traversing. Without any conscious effort on his own part, his eyes travelled to the thickest part of the obstruction, and encountered another pair of eyes gazing at him steadily from the depths of the leafy screen. That gaze held his own for a moment, and then vanished. He looked again, but the screen was now unbroken, and not the rustle of a leaf betrayed the person who was concealed within.
Colwyn touched Queensmead's arm.
"There is somebody hiding in those bushes ahead of us," he whispered.
Queensmead's eyes ran swiftly along the clump of bushes ahead, and he raised his revolver.
"Come out, or I'll fire!" he cried.
His sharp command shattered the heavy silence like the crack of a firearm. The next moment the figure of a man broke from the twisted branches and walked down the slope towards them. It was Ronald.
"Put up your hands, Ronald," commanded Queensmead sternly, poising the revolver at the advancing man. "Put them up, or I'll fire."
"Fire if you like."
The words fell from Ronald's lips wearily, but he did not put up his hands. His clothes were torn and stained, his face gaunt and lined, and in his tired eyes was the look of a man who had lived in the solitudes with no other companion but despair. Queensmead stepped forward and with a swift gesture snapped the handcuffs on his wrist.
"I arrest you for the murder of Roger Glenthorpe," he said.
"I could have got away from you if I had wanted," said the young man wearily. "But what was the use? I'm glad it is over."
"I warn you, Ronald, that any statement you now make may be used against you on your trial," broke in Queensmead harshly.
"My good fellow, I know all about that." The sudden note of imperiousness in his manner reminded Colwyn of the way in which he had snubbed Sir Henry Durwood in his bedroom at the Durrington hotel three mornings before. But it was in his previous indifferent tone that the young man added: "Have either of you a spirit flask?"
Police Constable Queensmead eyed his captive with the critical eye of an officer of justice upon whom devolved the responsibility of bringing his man fit and well to trial. Ronald's face had gone haggard and white, and he lurched a little in his walk. Then he stood still, and regarded the two men weakly.
"I'm about done up," he admitted.
"We'd better take him to the inn and get him some brandy," said Queensmead. "Take his other arm, will you?"
They returned slowly with Ronald between them. He did not ask where they were taking him, but stumbled along on their supporting arms like a man in a dream, with his eyes fixed on the ground. When clear of the wood, Queensmead led his prisoner past the pit where Mr. Glenthorpe's body had been cast, but Ronald did not even glance at the yawning hole alongside of him. It was when they were descending the slope towards the inn that Colwyn noticed a change in his indifferent demeanour. He raised his head and surveyed the inn with sombre eyes, and then his glance travelled swiftly to his pinioned hands. For a moment his frame stiffened slightly, as though he were about to resist being taken farther. But if that were his intention the mood passed. The next moment he was walking along with his previous indifference.
When they reached the inn Queensmead asked Colwyn in a whisper to keep an eye on the prisoner while he went inside and got the brandy. As soon as he had gone Colwyn turned to Ronald and earnestly said:
"You may not know me, apart from our chance meeting at Durrington, but I am anxious to help you, if you are innocent."
"I have heard of you. You are Colwyn, the private detective."
"That makes it easier then, for you will know that I have no object in this case except to bring the truth to light. If you have anything to say that will help me to do that I beg of you to do so. You may safely trust me."
"I know that, Mr. Colwyn, but I have nothing to say." Ronald spoke wearily--almost indifferently.
"Nothing?" Astonishment and disappointment were mingled in the detective's voice.
Before anything more could be said Queensmead reappeared from the inn with some brandy in a glass. Ronald raised it to his lips with his manacled hands, then turned away in response to an imperative gesture from Queensmead. Colwyn stood where he was for a moment, watching them, then turned to enter the inn. As he did so, his eyes fell upon the white face of Peggy, framed in the gathering gloom of the passage, staring with frightened eyes at the retreating forms of the village constable and his prisoner. She slipped out of the door and took a few hurried steps in their direction. But when she reached the strip of green which bordered the side of the inn she stopped with a despairing gesture, as though realising the futility of her effort, and turned to retrace her steps. Colwyn advanced rapidly towards her.
"I want to speak to you," he said curtly.
She stood still, but there was a prescient flash in her eyes as she looked at him.
"You were in the dead man's room last night," he said. "What were you doing there?"
"I do not know that it is any business of yours," she replied, in a low tone.
"I do not think you had better adopt that attitude," he said quietly. "You know you had no right to go into that room. I do not wish to threaten you, but you had better tell me the truth."
She stood silent for a moment, as though weighing his words. Then she said:
"I will tell you why I went there, not because I am afraid of anything you can do, but because I am not afraid of the truth. I went there because of a promise I made to Mr. Glenthorpe. He was very kind and good to me--when he was alive. Only two days before he met his death he asked me, if anything happened to him at any time, to go to his bedroom and remove a packet I would find in a little secret drawer in his writing table, and destroy it without opening it. He showed me where the packet was, and how to open the drawer. After he was dead I thought of my promise, and tried several times to slip into the room and get the packet, but there was always somebody about. So I went in last night, after everybody was in bed, because I thought the police might find the packet in searching his desk, and I should have been very unhappy if I had not been able to keep my promise."
"How did you get into the room? The door was locked, and Superintendent Galloway had the key."
"He left it on the mantelpiece downstairs. I saw it there earlier in the evening, and when he was out of the room I slipped in and took it, and put the key of my own room in its place. I replaced it next morning."
"What did you do with the packet you removed?"
"I took it across the marshes and threw it into the sea," she replied, looking steadily into his face.
"Why did you go to that trouble? Why did you not burn it?"
"I had no fire, and I dared not keep it till the morning. Besides, there were rings and things in the packet--his dead wife's jewellery. He told me so."
He looked at her keenly. She had told him the truth about her visit to the breakwater, but how much of the rest of her story was true?
"So that is your explanation?" he said.
"I am sorry to say that I find it difficult to believe. If you are deceiving me you are very foolish."
"I have told you the truth, Mr. Colwyn," she said, and, turning away, returned to the inn.