The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn formed his plans on his way back to the hotel. He stopped at the office as he went in to lunch, and informed the lady clerk that he had changed his mind about leaving, and would keep on his room, but expected to be away in the country for two or three days. The lady clerk, who had mischievous eyes and wore her hair fluffed, asked the detective if he had been successful in finding the young lady who had called to see him. On Colwyn gravely informing her that he had, she smiled. It was obvious that she scented a romance in the guest's changed plans.
As the detective wished to attract as little attention as possible in the renewed investigations he was about to make, he decided not to take his car to Flegne. After lunch he packed a few necessaries in a handbag, and caught the afternoon train to Heathfield. Arriving at that wayside station, he asked the elderly functionary who acted as station-master, porter and station cleaner the nearest way across country to Flegne, and, receiving the most explicit instructions in a thick Norfolk dialect, set out with his handbag.
The road journey to Flegne was five miles. By the footpath across the fields it was something less than four, and Colwyn, walking briskly, reached the rise above the marshes in a little less than an hour. The village on the edge of the marshes looked grey and cheerless and deserted in the dull afternoon light, and the sighing wind brought from the North Sea the bitter foretaste of winter. The inn was cut off from the village by a new accession of marsh water which had thrust a slimy tongue across the road, forming a pool in which frogs were vociferously astir.
As Colwyn descended the rise the front door of the inn opened, and the gaunt figure of the innkeeper emerged, carrying some fishing lines in his hands. He paused beneath the inn signboard, the rusty swinging anchor, and looked up at the sky, which was lowering and black. As he did so, he turned, and saw Colwyn. He waited for him to approach, and left it to the visitor to speak first. He showed no surprise at Colwyn's appearance, but his bird-like face did not readily lend itself to the expression of human emotions. It would have been almost as easy for a toucan to display joy, grief, or surprise.
"Good afternoon, Benson," said the detective cheerfully. "Going to be rather wet for a fishing excursion, isn't it?"
"That's just what I can't make up my mind, sir," replied the other. "Clouds like these do not always mean rain in this part of the world. The clouds seem to gather over the marshes more, and sometimes they hang like this for days without rain. But I do not think I'll go fishing to-night. The rain in these parts goes through you in no time, and there's no shelter on the marshes."
"In that case you'll be able to attend to me."
"I'd do that in any case, sir," replied the other quickly.
"I think of spending a few days here before returning to London. I am interested in archaeological research, and this part of the Norfolk coast is exceedingly rich in archaeological and prehistoric remains, as, of course, you are well aware."
"Yes, sir. Many scientific gentlemen used to visit the place at one time. We had one who stayed at the inn for a short time last year--Dr. Gardiner, perhaps you have heard of him. He was very interested in the hut circles on the rise, and when he went back to London he wrote a book about them. Then there was poor Mr. Glenthorpe. He was never tired of talking of the ancient things which were under the earth hereabouts."
"Quite so. I should like to make a few investigations on my own account. That is why I have come over this afternoon. I have left my car and my luggage at Durrington, where I have been staying, thinking you might find it easier to put me up without them. I presume you can accommodate me, Benson?"
"Well, sir, you know the place is rough and I haven't much to offer you. But if you do not mind that----"
"Not in the least. You need not go to any trouble on my account."
"Then, sir, I shall be pleased to do what I can to make you comfortable. Will you step inside? This way, sir--I must ask Ann about your room before I can take you upstairs."
The innkeeper opened the door of the bar parlour, and asked Colwyn to excuse him while he consulted the servant. He returned in a few minutes with Ann lumbering in his wake. The stout countrywoman bobbed at the sight of the detective, and proceeded to explain in apologetic tones, with sundry catches of the breath and jelly-like movements of her fat frame, that she was sorry being caught unawares, and not expecting visitors, but the fact was that Mr. Colwyn couldn't have the room he slept in before, because she had given it a good turn out that day, and everything was upside down, to say nothing of it being as damp as damp could be. There was only poor Mr. Glenthorpe's room--of course, that wouldn't do--and the room next, which the poor young gentleman had slept in. Would Mr. Colwyn mind having that room? If he didn't mind, she could make it quite comfortable, and would have clean sheets aired in front of the kitchen fire in no time.
Colwyn felt that he had reason to congratulate himself that he had been asked to occupy the very room which he desired to examine closely. The lucky accident of turning out the other room would save him a midnight prowl from the one room to the other, with the possible risk of detection. He told Ann that the room Mr. Penreath had slept in would do very well, and assured her that she was not to bother on his account. But Ann was determined to worry, and her mind was no sooner relieved about the bedroom than she propounded the problem of dinner. She had been taken unawares in that direction also. There was nothing in the house but a little cold mutton, and some hare soup left over from the previous day. If she warmed up a plateful of soup--it was lovely soup, and had set into a perfect jelly--and made rissoles of the mutton, and sent them to table with some vegetables, with a pudding to follow; would that do? Colwyn replied smilingly that would do excellently, and Ann withdrew, promising to serve the meal within an hour.
Colwyn passed that time in the bar parlour. The innkeeper, of his own accord, brought in some of the famous smuggled brandy, and willingly accepted the detective's invitation to drink a glass of it. With an old-fashioned long-footed liqueur glass of the brown brandy in front of him, the innkeeper waxed more loquacious than Colwyn had yet found him, and related many strange tales of the old smuggling days of the inn, when cargoes of brandy were landed on the coast, and stowed away in the inn's subterranean passages almost under the noses of the excise officers. According to local history, the inn had been built into the hillside to afford better lurking-places, for those who were continually at variance with His Majesty's excise officers. There was one local worthy named Cranley, the lawless ancestor of the yeoman who had sold the piece of land to Mr. Glenthorpe, who was reported to be the most brazen smuggler in Norfolk, which was saying something, considering the greater portion of the coastal population were engaged in smuggling in those days.
Cranley was a local hero, with a hero's love for the brandy he smuggled so freely, and tradition declared of him that on one occasion he set light to some barns and hayricks in order to warn some of his smuggling companions who were "running a cargo" that a trap had been laid for them. The farmers who had suffered by the blaze had sought to carry Cranley before the justices, but he, with a few choice spirits, had barricaded himself in the inn, defying the countryside for months, subsisting on bread and brandy, and shooting from the circular windows on the south side of the house at the soldiers sent to take him. Local tradition varied as to the ultimate fate of Cranley and his desperate band.
According to some authorities, they escaped through the marshes and put to sea; but another version of the story declared that they had been captured and tried in the inn, and then ingloriously hanged, one after the other, from the stanchion outside the door from which the anchor suspended. This version added the touch that Cranley's last request was for a bumper of the famous old brandy he had lost his life for, and when it was given him he quaffed it to the bottom, dashed the cup in the hangman's face, and swung himself off into eternity. Confirmatory evidence of the siege of Cranley and his merry men was to be seen in the outside wall, which was dinted with bullet marks made by the King's troops as they tried to hit the smugglers, firing through the circular windows.
The innkeeper rambled on in this fashion until the entry of Charles with a table-cloth reminded him of the flight of time, and he withdrew with a halting apology for having sat there talking so long. The fat waiter saluted Colwyn with a grave bow, and proceeded to lay the cloth. When he had done this he left the room and returned with a bottle of claret, which he put down in front of the fire, and proceeded to warm the wine, keeping his hand on the bottle as he did so. Then he lifted the bottle and held it to the light before setting it carefully on the table.
"Your knowledge of wine is not of much use to you in Flegne, Charles," remarked Colwyn. "You do not belong to these parts, I fancy."
"No, sir. I'm a Londoner born and bred," replied the waiter, in his soft whisper.
"Why did you leave it? Londoners, as a rule, prefer their city to any other part of the world."
"I'd starve there now that my hearing is gone. London takes everything from you, but gives you nothing in return. I'm only too grateful to Mr. Benson for employing me here, considering the nature of my affliction. No London hotel would give me a job now. But though I do say it, sir, I think I make myself useful to Mr. Benson, and earn my keep and the few shillings he gives me. I save him all the trouble I can."
This was undoubtedly true, as Colwyn had observed during his former visit to the inn. The deaf waiter was, to all intents and purposes, the real manager of the inn, leaving the innkeeper free to pursue his solitary life while he attended to the bar and the cellar, helped Ann with the work, and waited on infrequent travellers. Doubtless the arrangement suited both, though it could not have been profitable to either, for there was little more than a bare living for one in such a place.
Looking up suddenly from his plate, Colwyn caught the waiter's black eyes fixed on him in a keen penetrating gaze. Meeting the detective's eyes, Charles instantly lowered his own. But for the latter action Colwyn would have thought nothing of the incident, for he was aware that Charles, on account of his deafness, had to watch the lips of people he was serving in order to read their lips. But if Charles had been merely watching for him to speak he would not have felt impelled to avert his gaze when detected. The sudden lowering of his eyes was the swift unconscious action of a man taken by surprise. The detective realised that Charles did not accept the reason he had given to account for his second visit to the inn. Charles evidently suspected that that reason masked some ulterior motive.
Colwyn finished his dinner and produced his cigar-case. Selecting a cigar, he lit it with a match from the box Peggy had given him that day.
"Have you ever seen this box before, Charles?" he said, placing the box on the table.
The waiter picked up the little silver and enamel box and examined it attentively.
"I have, sir," he said, handing it back. "It is Mr. Penreath's."
"How do you recognise it?"
"By the letters in enamel, sir. I noticed them that night at the dinner table, when I was holding Mr. Penreath's candlestick while he lit it with a match from that box."
"Did he put it back in his pocket after lighting the candle?"
"Yes, sir; into his vest pocket."
"It was picked up in Mr. Glenthorpe's room after the murder was committed. A strong clue, Charles! Many a man has been hanged on less."
"No doubt, sir."
The waiter, balancing a tray on his deformed arm, proceeded to clear the table. When he had completed his task he asked the detective if he needed him any more, because if he did not it was time for him to go into the bar. On Colwyn saying that he needed nothing further he noiselessly withdrew, steadying the loaded tray with his sound hand.
Colwyn spent the evening sitting by the fire, smoking. It was fortunate he had plenty to think about, for the inn did not offer any resources in the way of reading to occupy the mind of the chance visitor to its roof. There were a few books in the recess by the fireplace, but they consisted of bound volumes of The Norfolk Sporting Gazette from 1860 to 1870, with an odd volume on Fishing on the Broads and an obsolete Farmers' Annual. The past occupants of the inn had evidently been keen sportsmen, for there were specimens of stuffed fowl and fish ranged in glass cases around the walls, and two old rusty fowling pieces and a fishing rod hung suspended near the ceiling.
Shortly after nine o'clock the innkeeper entered the room with a candlestick, which he placed on the table. He explained that it was his custom to go upstairs early, in order to sit with his mother for a little while before he retired. The poor soul looked for it, he said, and grew restless if he was late.
"Who is sitting with her at present?" inquired the detective.
"My daughter, sir. She always waits till I go up."
"You never leave her alone, then?"
"Only at night-time, sir. The doctor told me she could be safely left at night. She sleeps fairly well, considering, though when there's wild weather I always go in to her. The sound of the wind shrieking across the marshes from the sea excites her, and we get a lot of that sort of weather on the Norfolk coast, particularly in the winter months. I wish I could afford to have her better looked after, but I cannot, and that's the long and short of it."
"Things are pretty bad with you, Benson?"
"Very bad, indeed, sir. It keeps me awake at night, wondering where it's all going to end. However, I don't want to burden you with my troubles--I suppose we all have our own to bear. I merely came in to bring your candlestick, and to ask you if there is anything you want before I go to bed. Charles is gone to his room, but Ann is still up."
"Tell Ann she need not sit up on my account. I need nothing further, and I can find my way to my room. Is it ready yet?"
"Quite, sir. Ann has just been up there, putting on some fresh sheets. Perhaps you wouldn't mind turning off the gas at the meter as you go up--it is just underneath the stairs. If you would not mind the trouble Ann could then go to bed. We keep early hours here, as a rule. There is nothing to sit up for."
"I'll turn off the gas--I know where the meter is. How is it, Benson, that the gas is laid on in only two of the rooms upstairs--the rooms Mr. Glenthorpe used to occupy? It would have been an easy matter to lay it on to the adjoining rooms, once the pipes had been taken upstairs."
"That's quite true, sir, but the gas was taken upstairs on Mr. Glenthorpe's account, shortly after he came here. He thought he would like it, and he paid the bill for having it fixed. But after it was laid on he rarely used it. He said he found the gaslight trying for his eyes when he wanted to read in bed, so he got a reading lamp."
"And yet the gas tap was partly turned on in his room the morning after the murder," remarked Colwyn meditatively.
"Perhaps the murderer turned it on," suggested the innkeeper in a low tone.
But there was a slight tremor in his voice that did not escape the keen ears of the detective.
"That is possible, but the point was not cleared up at the trial; it probably never will be now," he replied, eyeing the innkeeper attentively. "And the incandescent burner was broken too. Have you had a new burner attached, Benson?"
"No, sir. The room has never been used since."
"It's a queer thing about that broken burner. That's another point in this case that was not cleared up at the trial. Who do you think broke it?"
"How should I know, sir?" His bird's eyes, in their troubled shadow, turned uneasily from the detective's glance.
"Nevertheless, you can hazard an opinion. Why not? The case is over and done with now, and Penreath--or Ronald, as he called himself--is condemned to death. So who do you think broke that burner, Benson?"
"Who else but the murderer, sir?"
"That's the police theory, I know, but I doubt whether Penreath was tall enough to strike it with his head. It's more than six feet from the ground." The detective threw a critical glance over the innkeeper's figure as though he were measuring his height with his eye. "You are well over six feet, Benson--you might have done it."
It was a chance shot, but the effect was remarkable. The innkeeper swung his small head on the top of his long neck in the direction of the detective, with a strange gesture, like a pinioned eagle twisting in a trap.
"What makes you say that!" he cried, and his voice had a new and strident note. "I had nothing whatever to do with it."
"What do you mean?" replied the detective sternly. "What do you suppose I am suggesting?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," replied the other. "The fact is I have not been myself for some time past."
His voice broke off in an odd tremor, and Colwyn noticed that the long thin hand he stretched out, as though to deprecate his previous violence, was shaking violently.
"What's the matter with you, man?" The detective eyed him keenly. "Your nerve has gone."
"I know it has, sir. What happened in this house a fortnight ago upset me terribly, and I haven't got over it yet. I have other troubles as well--private troubles. I've had to sit up with mother a good deal lately."
"You'd better take a few doses of bromide," said the detective brusquely. "A man with your nerves should not live in a place like this. You had better go to bed now. Good night."
"Good night, sir." The innkeeper hurried out of the room without another word.
Colwyn sat by the fire for some time longer pondering over this unexpected incident, until the kitchen clock chiming eleven warned him to go to bed. He turned off the gas at the meter underneath the stairs as Benson had requested. When he reached the room in which Mr. Glenthorpe had been murdered, he paused outside the door, and turned the handle. The door was locked.
As he was about to enter the adjoining bedroom which had been allotted to him, a slender pencil of light pierced the darkness of the passage leading off the one in which he stood. As he watched the gleam grew brighter and broader; somebody was walking along the other passage. A moment later the innkeeper's daughter came into view, carrying a candle. She advanced quickly to where the detective was standing.
"I heard you coming upstairs," she explained, in a whisper. "I have been waiting and listening at my door. I wanted to see you, but it is difficult for me to do so without the others knowing. So I thought I would wait. I wanted to let you know that if you wish to see me at any time--if you need me to do anything--perhaps you would put a note under my door, and I could meet you down by the breakwater at any time you appoint. Nobody would see us there."
Colwyn nodded approvingly. Decidedly this girl was not lacking in resource and intelligence.
"I am so glad you are here," she went on earnestly. "I was afraid, after I left you to-day, that you might change your mind. I waited at one of the upstairs windows all the afternoon till I saw you coming. You will save him, won't you?"
She looked up at him with a faint smile, which, slight as it was, gave her face a new rare beauty.
"I will try," responded Colwyn, gravely. "Can you tell where the key of Mr. Glenthorpe's room is kept?"
"It hangs in the kitchen. Do you want it? I will get it for you. If Ann or Charles see me, they, will not think it as strange as if they saw you."
She was so eager to be of use to him that she did not wait for his reply, but ran quickly and noiselessly along the passage, and down the stairs. In a very brief space she returned with the key, which she placed in his hand. "Is there anything else I can do?" she asked.
"Nothing, except to tell me where you got the key. I want to put it back again without anybody knowing it has been used."
"It hangs on the kitchen dresser--the second hook. You cannot mistake it, because there is a padlock key and one of my father's fishing lines hanging on the same hook."
"Then that is all you can do. I will let you know if I want to see you at any time."
"Thank you. Good night!" She was gone without another word.
Colwyn stood at his door watching her until she disappeared into the passage which led to her own room. Then he turned into his bedroom and shut the door behind him.
He walked to the window and threw it open. The sea mist, driving over the silent marshes like a cloud, touched his face coldly as he stood there, meditating on the strange turn of events which had brought him back to the inn to pursue his investigations into the murder at the point where he had left them more than a fortnight before. In that brief period how much had happened! Penreath had been tried and sentenced to death for a crime which Colwyn now believed he had not committed. Chance--no, Destiny--by placing in his hand a significant clue, had directed his footsteps thither, and left it for his intelligence to atone for his past blunder before it was too late.
It was with a feeling that the hand of Destiny was upon him that Colwyn turned from the window and regarded the little room with keen curiosity. Its drab interior held a secret which was a challenge to his intelligence to discover. What had happened in that room the night Ronald slept there? He noted the articles of furniture one by one. Nothing seemed changed since he had last been in the room, the day after the murder was committed. There was a washstand near the window, a chest of drawers, a dressing table and a large wardrobe at the side of the bed. Colwyn looked at this last piece of furniture with the same interest he had felt when he saw it the first time. It was far too big and cumbrous a wardrobe for so small a room, about eight feet high and five feet in width, and it was placed in the most inconvenient part of the room, by the side of the bed, not far from the wall which abutted on the passage. He opened its double doors and looked within. The wardrobe was empty.
Colwyn made a methodical search of the room in the hope of discovering something which would throw light on the events of the night of the murder. Doubtless the room had not been occupied since Penreath had slept there, and he might have left something behind him--perhaps some forgotten scrap of paper which might help to throw light on this strange and sinister mystery. In the detection of crime seeming trifles often lead to important discoveries, as nobody was better aware than Colwyn. But though he searched the room with painstaking care, he found nothing.
It was while he was thus engaged that a faint rustle aroused his attention, and looking towards the corner of the room whence it proceeded, he saw a large rat crouching by the skirting-board watching him with malevolent eyes. Colwyn looked round for a weapon with which to hit it. The creature seemed to divine his intentions, for it scuttled squeaking across the room, and disappeared behind the wardrobe.
Colwyn approached the wardrobe and pushed it back. As he did so, he had a curious sensation which he could hardly define. It was as though an unseen presence had entered the room, and was silently watching him. His actions seemed not of his own volition; it was as though some force stronger than himself was urging him on. And, withal, he had the uncanny feeling that the whole incident of the rat and the wardrobe, and his share in it, was merely a repetition of something which had happened in the room before.
The wardrobe moved much more easily than he had expected, considering its weight and size. There was no rat behind it, but a hole under the skirting showed where the animal had made its escape. But it was the space where the wardrobe had stood that claimed Colwyn's attention. The reason why it had been placed in its previous position was made plain. The damp had penetrated the wall on that side, and had so rotted the wall paper that a large portion of it had fallen away.
In the bare portion of the wall thus revealed, about two feet square, was a wooden trap door, fastened by a button. Colwyn unfastened the button, and opened the door. A black hole gaped at him.
The light of the candle showed that the wall was hollow, and the trap opened into the hollow space. There was nothing unusual in such a door in an old house; Colwyn had seen similar doors in other houses built with the old-fashioned thick walls. It was the primitive ventilation of a past generation; the doors, when opened, permitted a free current of air to percolate through the building, and get to the foundations. But a further examination of the hole revealed something which Colwyn had never seen before--a corresponding door on the other side of the wall. The other door opened into the bedroom which had been occupied by Mr. Glenthorpe. Colwyn pushed it with his hand, but it did not yield. It was doubtless fastened with a button on the outside, like the other.
Colwyn, scrutinising the second door closely, noticed that the wood was worm-eaten and shrunken. For that reason it fitted but loosely into the aperture of the wall, and on the one side there was a wide crack which arrested Colwyn's attention. It ran the whole length of the door, along the top--that is, horizontally--and was, perhaps, a quarter of an inch wide.
With the tightened nerves which presage an important discovery, Colwyn felt for his pocket knife, opened the largest blade, and thrust it into the crack. It penetrated up to the handle. He ran the knife along the whole length of the crack without difficulty. There was no doubt it opened into the next room.
Colwyn closed the trap-door carefully, and started to push the wardrobe back into its previous position. As he did so, his eye fell upon several tiny scraps of paper lying in the vacant space. He stooped, and picked them up. They were the torn fragments of a pocket-book leaf, which had been written upon. Colwyn endeavoured to place the fragments together and read the writing. But some of the pieces were missing, and he could only decipher two disjointed words--"Constance" and "forgive."
Slowly, almost mechanically, the detective felt for his pipe, lit it, and stood for a long time at the open window, gazing with set eyes into the brooding darkness, wrapped in profound thought, thinking of his discoveries and what they portended.