The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
An orange crescent of a waning moon was sinking in a black sky as Colwyn let himself quietly out of the door and took his way up to the rise. But the darkness of the night was fading fast before the grey dawn of the coming day, and in the marshes below the birds were beginning to stir and call among the reeds.
Colwyn waited for the first light of dawn before attempting the descent of the pit. His plan was to climb down by the creepers as far as they went, and descend the remainder of the distance by the rope, which he would fasten to one of the shrubs growing in the interior. He realised that his chances of success depended on the slope of the pit and the depth to which the shrubs grew, but the attempt was well worth making. Assistance would have made the task much easier, but publicity was the thing Colwyn desired most to avoid at that stage of his investigations. There would be time enough to consider the question of seeking help if he failed in his individual effort.
He made his plans carefully before commencing the descent. He first tested a rope he had found in the lumber room of the inn; it was thin but strong and capable of bearing the weight of a heavier man than himself. The rope was not more than fifteen feet in length, but if the hardy climbing plants which lined the sides of the pit were capable of supporting him ten or twelve feet down, that length should be sufficient for his purpose. Having tested the rope and coiled it, he slipped it into the right-hand pocket of his coat with one end hanging out. Next he opened his knife, and placed it with a candle and a box of matches in his other pocket. Then turning on his electric torch, he lowered himself cautiously into the pit by the creepers which fringed the surface.
There was no difficulty about the descent for the first eight or ten feet. Then the shrubs that had afforded foothold for his feet suddenly ceased, and the foot that he had thrust down for another perch touched nothing but the slippery side of the pit. Clinging firmly with his left hand to the network of vegetation which grew above his head, Colwyn flashed his electric torch into the blackness of the pit beneath him. One or two long tendrils of the climbing plants which grew higher up dangled like pendulous snakes, but the vegetable growth ceased at that point. Beneath him the naked sides of the pit gleamed sleek and wet in the rays of the torch.
Pulling himself up a little way to gain a securer footing, Colwyn took the coil of rope from his pocket, and selecting a strong withe which hung near him, sought to fasten the end of the rope to it. It took him some time to do this with the hand he had at liberty, but at length he accomplished it to his satisfaction, and then he allowed the coils of the rope to fall into the pit. He next essayed to test the strength of the support, by pulling at it. To his disappointment, his first vigorous tug snapped the withe to which the rope was attached. He tied the rope to a stronger growth, but with no better result: the growths seemed brittle, and incapable of bearing a great strain when tested separately. It was the twisted network of the withes and twigs which gave the climbing plants inside the pit sufficient toughness to support his weight. Taken singly, they had very little strength.
Colwyn reluctantly realised that it would be folly to endeavour to attempt the further descent of the pit by their frail support, and he decided to relinquish the attempt.
As he was about to ascend, the light of the torch brought into view that part of the pit to which he was clinging, and he noticed that the testing of the withes had torn away a portion of the leafy screen, revealing the black and slimy surface of the pit's side. Colwyn was amazed to see a small peg, with a fishing line attached to it, sticking in the bare earth thus exposed. Somebody had been down the pit and placed it there--recently, judging by the appearance of the peg, which was clean and newly cut. What was at the other end of the line, which dangled in the darkness of the pit? A better hiding place for anything valuable could not have been devised. The thin fishing line was indiscernible against the slimy side of the pit, and Colwyn realised that he would never have discovered it had it not been for the lucky accident which had exposed the peg to which the line was anchored. A place of concealment chosen at the expense of so much trouble and risk indicated something well worth concealing, and it was with a strong premonition of what was suspended down the pit that the detective, taking a firmer hold of the twining tendrils above his head, began to haul up the line. The weight at the end was slight; the line came up readily enough, foot after foot running through his hand, and then, finally, a small oblong packet, firmly fastened and knotted to the end of the line.
Colwyn examined the packet by the light of the torch. It was a man's pocket-book of black morocco leather, a large and serviceable article, thick and heavy. The detective did not need the information conveyed by the initials "R. G." stamped in silver lettering on one side, to enlighten him as to the owner of the pocket-book and what it contained.
Removing the peg from the earth, Colwyn was about to place the pocket-book and the line in his pocket, but on second thoughts he restored the peg to its former position, and endeavoured to untie the knots by which the pocket-book was fastened to the line. It was difficult to do this with one hand, but, by placing the pocket-book in his pocket, and picking at the knots one by one, he at length unfastened it from the line. He tied his own pocket-book to the end of the line, and dropped it back into the pit. He next replaced the greenery torn from the spot where the peg rested. When he had restored, as far as he could, the original appearance of the hiding place, he ascended swiftly to the surface.
The first act, on reaching the fresh air, was to examine the contents of the pocket-book. As he anticipated, it was crammed full of notes of the first Treasury issue. He did not take them out to count them; a rook, watching him curiously from the edge of the wood, warned him of the danger of human eyes.
Here, then, was the end of his investigations, and a discovery which would necessitate his departure from the inn sooner than he had anticipated. Nothing remained for him to do but to acquaint the authorities with the fresh facts he had brought to light, indicate the man to whom those facts pointed, and endeavour to see righted the monstrous act of injustice which had condemned an innocent man to the ignominy of a shameful death. The sooner that task was commenced the better. The law was swift to grasp and slow to release, and many were the formalities to be gone through before the conviction of a wrongly convicted man could be quashed, especially in a grave charge like murder. Only on the most convincing fresh evidence could the jury's verdict be upset, and none knew better than Colwyn that such evidence had not yet been obtained. But the additional facts discovered during his second visit to the inn, if not in themselves sufficient to upset the verdict against Penreath, nevertheless threw an entirely new light on the crime, which, if speedily followed up, would prove Penreath's innocence by revealing the actual murderer. The only question was whether the police would use the clues he was going to place in their hands in the manner he wished them to be used. If they didn't--but Colwyn refused to contemplate that possibility. His mind reverted to the chief constable of Norfolk. He felt he was on firm ground in believing that Mr. Cromering would act promptly once he was certain that there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Glenthorpe case.
It would be necessary to arrange his departure from the inn in such a manner as not to arouse suspicion, and also to have the pit watched in case any attempt was made to recover the money he had found that morning. Colwyn, after some consideration, decided to invoke the aid of Police Constable Queensmead. His brief association with Queensmead had convinced him that the village constable was discreet and intelligent.
It was still very early as he descended to the village and sought the constable's house. His knock at the door was not immediately answered, but after the lapse of a minute or two the door was unbolted, and the constable's face appeared. When he saw who his visitor was he asked to be excused while he put on some clothes. He was back speedily, and ushered Colwyn into the room in which he did his official business.
"Queensmead," said the detective earnestly, "I have to go to Norwich, and I want you to do something for me in my absence. I am going to tell you something in strict confidence. Fresh facts have come to light in the Glenthorpe case. You remember Mr. Glenthorpe's money, which was supposed to have been stolen by Penreath, but which was never recovered. I found it this morning down the pit where the body was thrown."
"How did you get down the pit?" asked Queensmead.
"I climbed down the creepers as far as they went. I had a rope for the rest of the descent, but it wasn't needed, for I found Mr. Glenthorpe's pocket-book suspended by a cord about ten feet down. Here it is."
Queensmead scrutinised the pocket-book and its contents, and on handing it back remarked:
"Do you think Penreath returned and concealed himself in the wood to recover these notes?"
Colwyn was struck by the penetration of this remark.
"No, quite the contrary," he replied. "Your deduction is drawn from an isolated fact. It has to be taken in conjunction with other fresh facts which have come to light--facts which put an entirely fresh complexion on the case, and tend to exculpate Penreath."
"I would rather not know what they are, then," replied Queensmead quietly. "It is better I should not know too much. You see, it might be awkward, in more ways than one, if things are turning out as you say. What is it you want me to do?"
"I want you to watch the pit on the rise while I am away, chiefly at night. It is of paramount importance that the man whom I believe to be the thief and murderer should not be allowed to escape in my absence. I do not think that he has any suspicions, so far, and it is practically certain nobody saw me descend the pit. But if he should, by any chance, go down to the pit for his money, and find it gone, he would know he had been discovered, and instantly seek safety in flight. That must be prevented."
"You must arrest him."
"I do not see how that can be done," replied Queensmead. "I cannot take upon myself to arrest a man simply for descending the pit. It's not against the law."
"In order to get over that difficulty I left my own pocket-book tied to the cord in the pit," replied Colwyn. "It's a black leather one, like Mr. Glenthorpe's. If the thief goes down he is hardly likely to discover the difference till he gets to the surface. You can arrest him for the theft of my pocket-book, which contains a little money. You can make a formal entry of my complaint of my loss."
"Well, I've heard that you were a cool customer, Mr. Colwyn, and now I believe it," replied Queensmead, laughing outright. "Fancy thinking out a plan like that down in the pit! But as you've made the complaint it's my duty to enter it, and keep a look out for your lost pocket-book. I'll watch the pit, and if anybody goes down it I'll arrest him."
"If the attempt is made it will not be in daytime--it will be in the night, you may be sure of that. I want you to watch the pit at night. The life of an innocent man may depend on your vigilance. It will only be for two nights, or three at the most. I shall certainly return within three days."
"You may depend on me," replied the constable. "I will go to the pit as soon as it grows dark, and watch from the edge of the wood till daylight."
"Thank you," said Colwyn. "I felt sure you would do it when you knew what was at stake. I have an idea that your vigil will not be disturbed, but I want to be on the safe side. I suppose you are not afraid of the ghost?"
"You have heard of the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit?" said Queensmead, looking at the other curiously.
"I have heard of her, but I have not heard her, or seen her. Have you?"
"I cannot say I have, but I live at the wrong end of the village, and I never go out at night. But there are plenty of villagers, principally customers of the Anchor, who are prepared to take their Bible oath that they have heard her--if not seen her. The White Lady has terrorised the whole village--since the murder."
There was something in the tone of the last three words which attracted the detective's attention.
"There was not much talk of the ghost before the murder, then?" he asked.
"Very little. I have been stationed here for two years, and hardly knew of its existence. Of course, it's a deep-rooted local tradition, and every villager has heard the story in childhood, and most of them believe it. Many of them actually think they have heard moans and shrieks coming from the rise during this last week or so. It's a lonely sort of place, with very little to talk about; it doesn't take much to get a story like that going round."
"Then you think there is some connection between the reappearance of the ghost and the hiding of the money in the pit it is supposed to haunt?"
"It's not my business to draw inferences of that kind, sir. I leave that to my betters, if they think fit to do so. I am only the village constable."
"But you've already inferred that the legend has been spread round again by means of gossip at the Anchor. Was it started there?"
"It was and it wasn't. A fool of a fellow named Backlog burst into the tap-room one night and said he had heard the White Lady shrieking, and Charles--that's the waiter--declared that he had seen something white the same night. That was the start of the business."
"So I have heard. But what has kept it going ever since?"
"Well, from what I hear--I never go to the inn myself, but a local policeman learns all the gossip in a small place like this--the subject is brought up in the bar-room every evening, either by the innkeeper or Charles, and discussed till closing time, when the silly villagers go home, huddled together like a flock of sheep, not daring to look round for fear of seeing the White Lady."
"Do Benson and Charles both believe in the ghost?"
"It seems as if they do." The constable's voice was noncommittal.
As Colwyn rose to go, Queensmead looked at him with a trace of hesitation in his manner.
"Perhaps you'd answer me a question, sir," he said in a low tone, as though afraid of being overheard. "That greenery that grows inside the pit, by which you climbed down, will it support a heavy weight?"
"It will hold a far heavier man than you, if you are thinking of making the descent," said Colwyn laughingly. "It's a case of unity is strength. The tendrils of the climbing plants are so twisted together that they are as tough as ropes."
"Thank you. What time will you reach here when you return?"
"Probably not before dusk, but certainly by then. In the meantime, of course, you will not breathe a word of this to anybody."
"I am not likely to do that. I shall keep a close watch on the pit till I see you again."
"That's right. Good day."
"Good day, sir."
It still wanted a few minutes to seven when Colwyn returned to the inn. The front door was as he had left it, closed, but unlocked. The house was silent: nobody was yet stirring. He locked the door after him, and proceeded to his room, pleased to think he had not been seen going or coming. His first act on reaching his room was to lock the door and count the money in the pocket-book. The money was all in single Treasury notes, with one five-pound note. The case contained nothing else except a faded newspaper clipping on Fossil Sponges. Colwyn replaced the notes, and put the case in an inside breast pocket. He next performed the best kind of toilet the primitive resources of the inn permitted, and occupied himself for an hour or so in completing his notes of his investigations.
While he was breakfasting he saw the innkeeper passing the half-open door, and he called him into the room and told him to let him have his bill without delay, as he was returning to Durrington that morning. The innkeeper made no comment on hearing his guest's intention, and Charles brought in the bill a little later. Colwyn, as he paid it, casually asked Charles if he happened to know the time of the morning trains from Heathfield.
"There's one to Durrington at eleven o'clock, sir," said the waiter, consulting a greasy time-table. "There's one at 9:30, but it's a good long walk to the station, and you could not catch it because there's no way of getting there except by walking, as you know, sir."
"The eleven o'clock train will suit me," said Colwyn, consulting his watch.
"Shall I go and get your bag, sir?"
"No, thanks, I've not packed it yet."
Colwyn went upstairs shortly afterwards determined to pack his bag and leave the place as soon as possible. As he was about to enter his room he saw Peggy appear at the end of the passage. She looked at him with a timid, wistful smile, and made a step towards him, as though she would speak to him. Colwyn pretended not to see her, and hurried into his room and shut the door. How could he tell her what she had so innocently done in recalling him to the inn? How inform her what the cost of saving her lover would be to her? Somebody else must break the news to her, when it came to that. He packed his things quickly, anxious only to leave a place which had grown repugnant to him, and to drop the dissimulation which had become hateful. Never had he so acutely realised how little a man is master of his actions when entangled in the strange current of Destiny which men label Chance.
When he emerged from the room with his bag, Peggy was no longer visible. The innkeeper was standing in the passage as he went downstairs, and Colwyn nodded to him as he passed. He breathed easier in the fresh morning air, and set out briskly for the station.
He reached Heathfield an hour later, and found he had nearly half an hour to wait for his train. The first ten minutes of that time he utilised despatching two telegrams. One was to the chief constable of Norfolk, at Norwich, and the other to Mr. Oakham, in London. In the latter telegram he indicated that fresh discoveries had come to light in Penreath's case, and he asked the solicitor to go as soon as possible to Norwich where he would await him at his hotel.