The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn was astir with the first glimmering of a grey dawn. He wanted to test the police theory that the murder was committed by climbing from one bedroom to the other, but he did not desire to be discovered in the experiment by any of the inmates of the inn.
The window of his bedroom was so small that it was difficult to get through, and there was a drop of more than eight feet from the ledge to the hillside. After one or two attempts Colwyn got out feet foremost, and when half way through wriggled his body round until he was able to grasp the window-ledge and drop to the ground. The fall caused his heels to sink deeply into the clay of the hillside, which was moist and sticky after the rain.
Colwyn closely examined the impression his heels had made, and then walked along until he stood underneath the window of the next room. It was an easy matter to climb through this window, which was larger, and closer to the ground--five feet from the hillside, at the most. Colwyn sprang on to the ledge, and tried the window with his hand. It was unlocked. He pushed up the lower pane, and entered the room.
From the window he walked straight to the bedside, noting, as he walked, that his footsteps left on the carpet crumbs of the red earth from outside, similar to those which had been found in the room the morning after the murder. He next examined the broken incandescent burner in the chandelier in the middle of the room, and took careful measurements of the distances between the gas jet, the bedside and the door, observing, as he did so, that the gaslight was almost in a line with the foot of the bed. That was a point he had marked previously when Superintendent Galloway had suggested that the incandescent burner was broken by the murderer striking it with the corpse he was carrying. Colwyn had found it difficult to accept that point of view at the time, but now, in the light of recent discoveries, and the new theory of the crime which was gradually taking shape in his mind, it seemed almost incredible that the murderer, staggering under the weight of his ghastly burden, should have taken anything but the shortest track to the door.
After examining the bed with an attentive eye, Colwyn next looked for the small door in the wall. It was not apparent: the wall-paper appeared to cover the whole of the wall on that side of the room in unbroken continuity. But a closer inspection revealed a slight fissure or crack, barely noticeable in the dark green wall-paper, extending an inch or so beyond a small picture suspended near the door of the room. When the picture was taken down the crack was more apparent, for it ran nearly the whole length of the space. The door had been papered over when the room was last papered, which was a long time ago, judging by the dingy condition of the wall-paper, and the crack had been caused by the shrinking of the woodwork of the door, as Colwyn had noticed the previous night.
Colwyn let himself out of the room with the key Peggy had given him, locked the door behind him, and took the key down to the kitchen. It was still very early, and nobody was stirring. Having hung the key on the hook of the dresser, he returned to his room.
At breakfast time that morning Charles informed him, in his husky whisper, that he had to go over to Heathfield that day, to ascertain why the brewer had not sent a consignment of beer, which was several days overdue. Charles' chief regret was that for some hours his guest would be left to the tender mercies of Ann, and he let it be understood that he had the poorest opinion of women as waitresses. But he promised to return in time to minister to Colwyn's comforts at dinner. Somewhat amused, Colwyn told the fat man not to hurry back on his account, as Ann could look after him very well.
As Colwyn was smoking a cigar in front of the inn after breakfast, he saw Charles setting out on his journey, and watched his short fat form toil up the rise and disappear on the other side. Immediately afterwards, the gaunt figure of the innkeeper emerged from the inn, prepared for a fishing excursion. He hesitated a moment on seeing Colwyn, then walked towards him and informed him that he was going to have a morning's fishing in a river stream a couple of miles away, having heard good accounts in the bar overnight of the fish there since the recent rain.
"Who will look after the inn, with both you and Charles away?" asked Colwyn, with a smile.
The innkeeper, carefully bestowing a fishing-line in the capacious side pocket of his faded tweed coat, replied that as the inn was out of beer, and not likely to have any that day, there was not much lost by leaving it. That seemed to exhaust the possibilities of the conversation, but the innkeeper lingered, looking at his guest as though he had something on his mind.
"I do not know if you care for fishing, sir," he remarked, after a rather lengthy pause. "If you do, I should be happy at any time to show you a little sport. The fishing is very good about this district--as good as anywhere in Norfolk."
Colwyn was quick to divine what was passing in the innkeeper's mind. He had been brooding over the incident in the bar parlour of the previous night, and hoped by this awkward courtesy to remove the impression of his overnight rudeness from his visitor's mind. As Colwyn was equally desirous of allaying his fears, he thanked him for his offer, and stood chatting with him for some moments. His pleasant and natural manner had the effect of putting the innkeeper at his ease, and there was an obvious air of relief in his bearing as he wished the detective good morning and departed on his fishing expedition.
Colwyn spent the morning in a solitary walk along the marshes, thinking over the events of the night and morning. He returned to the inn for an early lunch, which was served by Ann, who gossiped to him freely of the small events which had constituted the daily life of the village since his previous visit. The principal of these, it seemed, had been the reappearance, after a long period of inaction, of the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit--an apparition which haunted the hut circles on the rise. Colwyn, recalling that Duney and Backlos imagined they had encountered a spectre the night they saw Penreath on the edge of the wood, asked Ann who the "White Lady" was supposed to be. Ann was reticent at first. She admitted that she was a firm believer in the local tradition, which she had imbibed with her mother's milk, but it was held to be unlucky to talk about the White Lady. However, her feminine desire to impart information soon overcame her fears, and she launched forth into full particulars of the legend. It appeared that for generations past the deep pit on the rise in which Mr. Glenthorpe's body had been thrown had been the haunt of a spirit known as the White Lady, who, from time to time, issued from the depths of the pit, clad in a white trailing garment, to wander along the hut circles on the rise, shrieking and sobbing piteously. Whose ghost she was, and why she shrieked, Ann was unable to say. Her appearances were infrequent, with sometimes as long as a year between them, and the timely warning she gave of her coming by shrieking from the depths of the pit before making her appearance, enabled folk to keep indoors and avoid her when she was walking. As long as she wasn't seen by anybody, not much harm was done, but the sight of her was fatal to the beholder, who was sure to come to a swift and violent end.
Ann related divers accredited instances of calamity which had followed swiftly upon an encounter with the White Lady, including that of her own sister's husband, who had seen her one night going home, and the very next day had been kicked by a horse and killed on the spot. Ann's grandmother, when a young girl, had heard her shrieking one night when she was going home, but had had the presence of mind to fall flat on her face until the shrieking had ceased, by which means she avoided seeing her, and had died comfortably in her bed at eighty-one in consequence.
Colwyn gathered from the countrywoman's story that the prevailing impression in the village was that Mr. Glenthorpe's murder was due to the interposition of the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit. The White Lady, after a long silence, had been heard to shriek once two nights before the murder, but the warning had not deterred Mr. Glenthorpe from taking his nightly walk on the rise, although Ann, out of her liking and respect for the old gentleman, had even ventured to forget her place and beg and implore him not to go. But he had laughed at her, and said if he met the White Lady he would stop and have a chat with her about her ancestors. Those were his very words, and they made her blood run cold at the time, though she little thought how soon he would be repenting of his foolhardiness in his coffin. If he had only listened to her he might have been alive that blessed day, for she hadn't the slightest doubt he met the White Lady that night in his walk, and his doom was brought about in consequence.
Ann concluded by solemnly urging Colwyn, as long as he remained at the inn, to keep indoors at night as he valued his life, for ever since the murder the White Lady had been particularly active, shrieking nearly every night, as though seeking another victim, and the whole village was frightened to stir out in consequence. Ann had reluctantly to admit that she had never actually heard her shrieking herself--she was a heavy sleeper at any time--but there were those who had, plenty of them. Besides, hadn't he heard that Charles, while shutting up the inn the very night poor Mr. Glenthorpe's body had been taken away, had seen something white on the rise? On Colwyn replying that he had not heard this, Ann assured him the whole village believed that Charles had seen the White Lady, and regarded him as good as dead, and many were the speculations as to the manner in which his inevitable fate would fall.
The relation of the legend of the White Lady lasted to the conclusion of lunch, and then Colwyn sauntered outside with a cigar, in order to make another examination of the ground the murderer had covered in going to the pit. The body had been carried out the back way, across the green which separated the inn from the village, and up the rise to the pit. The green was now partly under water, and the track of the footprints leading to the rise had been obliterated by the heavy rains which had fallen since, but the soft surface retained the impression of Colwyn's footsteps with the same distinctness with which it had held, and afterwards revealed, the track of the man who had carried the corpse to the pit.
Colwyn examined the pit closely. The edges were wet and slippery, and in places the earth had been washed away. The sides, for some distance down, were lined with a thick growth of shrubs and birch. Colwyn knelt down on the edge and peered into the interior of the pit. He tested the strength of the climbing and creeping plants which twisted in snakelike growth in the interior. It seemed to him that it would be a comparatively easy matter to descend into the pit by their support, so far as they went. But how far did they go?
While he was thus occupied he heard the sound of footsteps crashing through the undergrowth of the little wood on the other side of the pit. A moment later a man, carrying a rabbit, and followed by a mongrel dog, came into view. It was Duney. He stared hard at Colwyn and then advanced towards him with a grin of recognition.
"Yow be lookin' to see how t'owd ma'aster was hulled dune th' pit?" he asked.
"I was wondering how far the pit ran straight down," replied Colwyn. "It seems to take a slight slope a little way down. Does it?"
"I doan't know narthin' about th' pit, and I doan't want to," replied Mr. Duney, backing away with a slightly pale face. "Doan't yow meddle wi' un, ma'aster. It's a quare place, thissun."
"Why, what's the matter with it?"
"Did you never hear that th' pit's haunted? Like enough nobody'd tell yow. Folk hereabowts aren't owerfond of talkin' of th' White Lady of th' Shrieking Pit, for fear it should bring un bad luck."
"I've been hearing a little about her to-day. Is she any relation of Black Shuck, the ghost dog you were telling me about?"
"It's no larfin' matter, ma'aster. You moind the day me and Billy Backlog come and towld yow about us seein' that chap on th' edge of yon wood that night? Well, just befower we seed un we heerd th' rummiest kind of noise--summat atween a moan and a shriek, comin' from this 'ere pit. I reckon, from what's happened to that chap Ronald since, that it wor the White Lady of th' Pit we heered. It's lucky for us we didn't see un."
"I remember at the time you mentioned something about it."
"Ay, she be a terr'ble bad sperrit," said Mr. Duney, wagging his head unctuously. "She comes out of this yare pit wheer t'owd man was chucked, and wanders about the wood and th' rise, a-yellin' somefin awful. It's nowt to hear her--we've all heerd her for that matter--but to see her is to meet a bloody and violent end within the month. That's why they call this 'ere pit 'the Shrieking Pit.' I'm thinkin' that owd Mr. Glenthorpe, who was allus fond of walkin' up this way at nights, met her one night, and that'll account for his own bloody end. And it's my belief that she appeared to the young chap who was hidin' in th' woods the night we saw un. And look what's happened to un! He's got to be hanged, which is a violent end, thow p'r'aps not bloody."
"If that's the local belief, I wonder anybody went down into the pit to recover Mr. Glenthorpe's body."
"Nobody wouldn't 'a' gone down but Herward. I wouldn't 'a' gone down for untowd gowd, but Herward comes from th' Broads, and don't know nartin' about this part of the ma'shes. Besides, he ain't no Christian, down't care for no ghosts nor sperrits. I've often heerd un say so."
"Is it true that the White Lady has been seen since Mr. Glenthorpe was murdered?"
"She's been heered, shure enough. Billy Backlog, who lives closest to the rise, was a-tellin' us in the Anchor bar that she woke him up two nights arter th' murder, a-yowlin' like an old tomcat, but Billy knew it worn't a cat--it weer far more fearsome, wi gasps at th' end. The deaf fat chap at Benson's arst him what time this might be. Billy said he disremembered th' time--mebbe it wor ten or a bit past. Then the fat chap said it wor just about that time the same night, as he wor shuttin' up, he saw somefin white float up to th' top of th' pit. He thowt at th' time it might be mist, thow there weren't much mist on th' ma'shes that night, but now he says 'es sure that it wor the White Lady from the Shrieking Pit that he saw. 'Then Gawdamighty help yow, poor fat chap,' says Billy, looking at him solemn-like. 'The hearin' of her is narthin', it's th' seein' o' her that's the trouble.' The poor fat chap a' been nigh skeered out o' his wits ever since, and nobody in th' village wud go near th' pit a' nighttimes--no, not for a fortin. I ain't sure as it's safe to be here even in daytimes, thow I never heered of her comin' out in the light." Mr. Duney turned resolutely away from the pit, and called to his dog, who was sitting near the edge, regarding his master with blinking eyes and lolling tongue. "I'll be goin', in case that Queensmead sees me from th' village. I cot this coney fair and square in th' open, but it be hard to make Queensmead believe it. Well, I'll be goin'. Good mornin', ma'aster."
He trudged away across the rise, with his dog following at his heels. Colwyn was about to turn away also, when his eye was caught by a scrap of stained and discoloured paper lying near the edge of the pit, where the rain had washed away some of the earth. He stooped, and picked it up. It was a slip of white paper, about five inches long, and perhaps three inches in width, quite blank, but with a very apparent watermark, consisting of a number of parallel waving lines, close together, running across the surface. Although the watermark was an unusual one, it seemed strangely familiar to Colwyn, who tried to recall where he had seen it before. But memory is a tricky thing. Although Colwyn's memory instantly recognised the watermark on the paper, he could not, for the moment, recollect where he had seen it, though it seemed as familiar to him as the face of some old acquaintance whose name he had temporarily forgotten. Colwyn ultimately gave up the effort for the time being, and placed the piece of paper in his pocket-book, knowing that his memory would, sooner or later, perform unconsciously the task it refused to undertake when asked.
Colwyn spent the afternoon in another solitary walk, and darkness had set in before he returned to the village. As he reached the inn he glanced towards the hut circles, and was startled to see something white move slowly along by the edge of the Shrieking Pit and vanish in the wood. There was something so weird and ghostly in the spectacle that Colwyn was momentarily astounded by it. Then his eye fell on the sea mist which covered the marshes in a white shroud, and he smiled slightly. It was not the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit he had seen, but a spiral of mist, floating across the rise.
The sight brought back to his mind the stories he had heard that day, and when he was seated at dinner a little later he casually asked Charles if he believed in ghosts. The fat man, with a sudden uplifting of his black eyes, as though to ascertain whether Colwyn was speaking seriously, replied that he did not.
"I'm surprised to hear of your scepticism, Charles, for I'm told that the apparition from the pit--the White Lady, as she is called--has favoured you with a special appearance," said Colwyn, in a bantering tone.
"I see what you mean now, sir. I didn't understand you at first. It was like this: some of the villagers were talking about this ghost in the bar a few nights back, and one or two of the villagers, who all firmly believed in it, declared that they had heard her wandering about the previous night, moaning and shrieking, as is supposed to be her custom. I, more by way of a joke than anything else, told them I had seen something white on the rise the previous night, when I was shutting up the inn. But the whole village has got it into their heads that I saw the White Lady, and they think because I've seen her I'm a doomed man. The country folk round about here are an ignorant and superstitious lot, sir."
"And did you actually see anything, Charles, the night you speak of?"
"I saw something, sir--something long and white--like a moving white pillar, if I may so express myself. While I looked it vanished into the woods."
"It was probably mist. I saw something similar this evening!"
"Very likely, sir. I do not think it was a ghost."
Colwyn did not pursue the subject further, though he was struck by the wide difference between Charles' account of the incident and that given to him by Duney at the pit that afternoon.
When Charles had cleared the table Colwyn sat smoking and thinking until late. After he was sure that the rest of the inmates of the inn had retired, he went to the kitchen and took the key of Mr. Glenthorpe's room from the hook of the dresser. When he reached his own bedroom, his first act was to push back the wardrobe and open the trap door he had discovered the previous night. He looked at his watch, and found that the hour was a little after eleven. He decided to wait for half an hour before carrying out the experiment he contemplated. By midnight he would be fairly safe from the fear of discovery. He lay down on his bed to pass the intervening time, but he was so tired that he fell asleep almost immediately.
He awakened with a start, and sat up, staring into the black darkness. For a moment or two he did not realise his surroundings, then the sound of stealthy footsteps passing his door brought him back to instant wakefulness. The footsteps halted--outside his door, it seemed to Colwyn. There followed the sound of a hand fumbling with a lock, followed by the shooting of a bolt and the creaking of a door. The truth flashed upon the detective; somebody was entering the next room. As he listened, there was the scrape of a match, and a moment later a narrow shaft of light streamed through the open wall-door into his room.
Colwyn got noiselessly off his bed and looked through the crack in the inner small door into the other room. The picture on the other side of the wall narrowed his range of vision, but through the inch or so of crack extending beyond the picture he was able to see clearly that portion of the adjoining bedroom in which the bed stood. Near the bed, examining with the light of a candle the contents of the writing table which stood alongside of it, was Benson, the innkeeper.
He was searching for something--rummaging through the drawers of the table, taking out papers and envelopes, and tearing them open with a furious desperate energy, pausing every now and again to look hurriedly over his shoulder, as though he expected to see some apparition start up from the shadowy corners. The search was apparently fruitless, for presently he crammed the papers back into the drawers with the same feverish haste, and, walking rapidly across the room, passed out of the view of the watcher on the other side, for the picture which hung on the inside wall prevented Colwyn seeing beyond the foot of the bed. Although the innkeeper could not now be seen, the sound of his stealthy quick movements, and the flickering lights cast by the candle he carried, suggested plainly enough that he was continuing his search in that portion of the room which was not visible through the crack.
In a few minutes he came back into Colwyn's range of vision, looking dusty and dishevelled, with drops of perspiration starting from his face. With a savage gesture, which was akin to despair, he wiped the perspiration from his face, and tossed back his long hair from his forehead. It was the first time Colwyn had seen his forehead uncovered, and a thrill ran through him as he noticed a deep bruise high upon the left temple. The next moment the innkeeper walked swiftly out of the room, and Colwyn heard him close the door softly behind him.
Colwyn waited awhile. When everything seemed quiet, he cautiously opened his door in the dark, and tried the door of the adjoining room. It was locked.
The innkeeper, then, had another key which fitted the murdered man's door. And what was he searching for? Money? The treasury notes which Mr. Glenthorpe had drawn out of the bank the day he was murdered, which had never been found? Money--notes!
By one of those hidden and unaccountable processes of the human brain, the association of ideas recalled to Colwyn's mind where he had previously seen the peculiar watermark of waving lines visible on the piece of paper he had picked up at the brink of the pit that afternoon: it was the Government watermark of the first issue of War Treasury notes.
Colwyn lit his bedroom candle, and examined the piece of paper in his pocket-book with a new and keen interest. There was no doubt about it, the mark on the dirty blank paper was undoubtedly the Treasury watermark. But how came such a mark, designed exclusively for the protection of the Treasury against bank-note forgeries, to appear on a dirty scrap of paper?
As he stood there, turning the bit of paper over and over, in his hand, puzzling over the problem, the solution flashed into his mind--a solution so simple, yet, withal, so remarkable, that he hesitated to believe it possible. But a further examination of the paper removed his doubts. Chance had placed in his hands another clue, and the most important he had yet discovered, to help him in the elucidation of the mystery of the murder of Roger Glenthorpe. But to verify that clue it would be necessary for him to descend the pit.