The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
It was characteristic of Mr. Cromering to beguile the long walk in the dark from Heathfield Station by discussing Colwyn's theory that Benson had circulated the reappearance of the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit in order to keep the villagers away from the place where the stolen money was hidden. Mr. Cromering had been much impressed--he said so--with the logical skill and masterly deductive powers by which Colwyn had reconstructed the hidden events of the night of the murder, like an Owen reconstructing the extinct moa from a single bone, but he was loath to accept that part of the theory which seemed to throw doubt on the authenticity of a famous venerable Norfolk legend which had at least two hundred years of tradition behind it.
Mr. Cromering, without going so far as to affirm his personal belief in the story, declared that there were several instances extant of enlightened and educated people who had seen the ghost, and had suffered an untimely end in consequence. He cited the case of a visiting magistrate, who had been visiting in the district some twenty years ago, and knew nothing about the legend. He was riding through Flegne one night, and heard dismal shrieks from the wood on the rise. Thinking somebody was in need of help, he dismounted from his horse, and went up to the rise to investigate. As he neared the pit the White Lady appeared from the pit and looked at him with inexpressibly sad eyes, drew her hand thrice across her throat, and disappeared again in the pit. The magistrate was greatly startled at what he had seen, and related the experience to his host when he got home. The latter did not tell him of the tragic significance which was attached to the apparition, but the magistrate cut his throat three days after his return to London. "Surely, that was more than a mere coincidence?" concluded Mr. Cromering.
"I do not wish to undermine the local belief in the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit," said Colwyn, with a smile which the darkness hid. "All I say is that her frequent reappearances since the money was hidden in the pit were exceedingly useful for the man who hid the money. I can assure you that none of the villagers would go near the pit for twice the amount. There are plenty of them who will go to their graves convinced that they have heard her nightly shrieks since the murder was committed."
"It is difficult to believe that they are all mistaken," said Mr. Cromering slowly.
"I do not think they are mistaken--at least, not all of them. Some have probably heard shrieks."
"Then how do you account for the shrieks?" asked the chief constable eagerly.
"I think they have heard Benson's mother shrieking in her paroxysms of madness."
"By Jove, that's a shrewd notion!" chuckled Superintendent Galloway. "You don't miss much, Mr. Colwyn. Whether you're right or not, there's not the slightest doubt that the whole village is in terror of the ghost, and avoids the Shrieking Pit like a pestilence. I was talking to a Flegne farmer the other day, and he assured me, with a pale face, that he had heard the White Lady shrieking three nights running, and when his men went to the inn after dark they walked half a mile out of their way to avoid passing near the pit. He told me also that the general belief among the villagers is that Mr. Glenthorpe saw the White Lady a night or so before he was murdered."
"I heard that story also," responded Colwyn. "He was in the habit of walking up to the rise after dark. He appears to have been keenly interested in his scientific work."
"He was absorbed in it to the exclusion of everything else," said the chief constable, with a sigh. "His death is a great loss to British science, and Norfolk research in particular. I was very much interested in that newspaper clipping which was found in his pocket-book with the money. It was a London review on a brochure he had published on sponge spicules he had found in a flint at Flegne, and was his last contribution to science, published two days before he was struck down. What a loss!"
Their conversation had brought them to the top of the rise. Beneath them lay the little hamlet on the edge of the marshes, wrapped in a white blanket of mist. Colwyn asked his companions to remain where they were, while he went to see if Queensmead was on the watch. He walked quickly across the hut circles until he reached the pit. There his keen eyes detected a dark figure standing motionless in the shadow of the wood.
"Is that you, Queensmead?" he said, in a low voice.
"Yes, Mr. Colwyn." The figure advanced out of the shadow.
"Is everything all right?"
"Quite all right, sir. I've watched from this spot from dark till dawn since you've been away, and there's not been a soul near the pit. I've not been disturbed--not even by the White Lady."
"You have done excellently. The chief constable and Superintendent Galloway have come over with me, and we are going to the inn now. You had better keep watch here for half an hour longer, so as to be on the safe side. If anybody comes to the pit during that time you must detain him, and call for assistance. I will come and relieve you myself."
"Very good, sir, you can depend on me," said Queensmead quietly, as he returned to his post.
Colwyn rejoined his companions, and told them what had passed.
"I want to be on the safe side in case Benson tries to bolt when he sees us," he explained. "He's hardly likely to go without making an effort to get the money. Now, let us go to the inn."
"One moment," said the chief constable. "How do you propose to proceed when we get there?"
"Get Benson by himself and frighten him into a confession," was the terse reply. "I want your authority to threaten him with arrest. In fact, I should prefer that you or Superintendent Galloway undertook to do that. It would come with more force."
"Let it be Galloway," responded the chief constable. "You will act just as if I were not present, Galloway, and it is my wish that you do whatever Mr. Colwyn asks you."
"Thank you," replied the detective. "Let us go, now. There is no time to be lost. Somebody may have seen me speaking to Queensmead."
They descended the rise and, reaching the flat, discerned the gaunt walls of the old inn looming spectrally from the mist. A light glimmered in the bar, and loud voices were heard within. Colwyn felt for the door. It was shut and fastened. He knocked sharply; the voices within ceased as though by magic, and presently there was the sound of somebody coming along the passage. Then the door was opened, and the white face of Charles appeared in the doorway, framed in the yellow light of a candle which he held above his head as he peered forth into the mist. His black eyes roved from Colwyn to the forms behind him.
"I'm sorry you were kept waiting, sir," he said, in his strange whisper, which seemed to have a tremor in it. "But the customers will have the door locked at night now. They are frightened of this ghost--this White Lady--she's been heard shrieking----"
"Never mind that now," replied Colwyn. He had determined how to act, and stepped quickly inside. "Where's Benson?"
"He's sitting upstairs with his mother, sir. Shall I tell him you want him?"
"No. I will go myself. Take these gentlemen into the bar parlour, and return to the bar."
Colwyn made his way upstairs in the dark. He passed the rooms where Mr. Glenthorpe had been murdered and Penreath had slept, and the room from which he had watched Peggy's nocturnal visit to the death chamber. That wing of the inn was as empty and silent as it had been the night of the murder, but a lighted candle, placed on an old hall stand which Colwyn remembered having seen that night in the lumber room, flickered in the wavering shadows--a futile human effort to ward off the lurking terrors of darkness by the friendly feeble companionship of a light which could be extinguished even more quickly than a life.
Colwyn took the candle to light him down the second passage to the mad woman's room. As he reached it, the door opened, and Peggy stepped forth. She recoiled at the sight of the detective.
"You!" she breathed. "Oh, why----"
"I have come to see your father," said Colwyn. It went to his heart to see the entreaty in her eyes, the pitiful droop of her lips and the thinness of her face.
The door was opened widely, and the innkeeper appeared on the threshold beside his daughter. Behind him, Colwyn could see the old mad woman in her bed in the corner of the room, mumbling to herself and fondling her doll. The innkeeper fastened his bird-like eyes on the detective's face.
"What are you doing here?" he said, and there was no mistaking the note of terror in his voice. "What is it you want?"
"I want to speak to you downstairs," said the detective.
The innkeeper looked swiftly to the right and left with the instinct of a trapped animal seeking an avenue of escape. Then his eyes returned to the detective's face with the resigned glance of a man who had made up his mind.
"I will come down with you," he said. "Peggy, you must look after your grandmother till I return."
The girl went back into the room and shut the door behind her, without a word or a glance. Once more Colwyn felt admiration for her as a rare type of woman-hood. Truly, she had self-control, this girl.
He and the innkeeper took their way along the passages and descended the stairs without exchanging a word. When they got to the foot of the stairs Benson half hesitated, and turned to Colwyn as if for direction. The latter nodded towards the door of the bar parlour, and motioned the innkeeper to enter. Following closely behind, he saw the innkeeper start with surprise at the sight of the two inmates of the room. Mr. Cromering was seated at the table, but Superintendent Galloway was standing up with his back to the fireplace. There was a moment's tense silence before the latter spoke.
"We have sent for you to ask you a few questions, Benson."
"I was under the impression--that is, I was led to believe--that it was Mr. Colwyn who wanted to see me."
"Never mind what you thought," retorted Galloway impatiently. "You know perfectly well what has brought us here. I'm going to ask you some questions about the murder which was committed in this inn less than three weeks ago."
"I know nothing about it, sir, beyond what I told you before."
"You will be well advised, in your own interests, not to lie, Benson. Why did you not tell us you had a second key to Mr. Glenthorpe's room?"
There was a perceptible pause before the reply came.
"I didn't think it mattered, sir."
"Then you admit you have a second key?"
"Very well." Superintendent Galloway took out a pocket-book and made a note of the reply. "Now, where did you conceal the money?"
"What money, sir?"
"Don't equivocate, man!" Superintendent Galloway produced the pocket-book Colwyn had recovered from the pit, and held it at arm's length in front of the innkeeper. "I mean the L300 in Treasury notes in this pocket-book, which Mr. Glenthorpe drew from the bank, and which you took from his room the night he was murdered."
"I know nothing about it."
To Colwyn at least it seemed that the expression on the innkeeper's face as he glanced at the pocket-book might have been mistaken by an unprejudiced observer for genuine surprise.
"I suppose you never saw it before, eh?" sneered Galloway.
"I never did."
"Nor hid it in the pit?"
Galloway paused in his questioning in secret perplexity. Benson's answers to his last three questions were given so firmly and unhesitatingly that some of his former doubts of Colwyn's theory returned to him with redoubled force. But it was in his most truculent and overbearing manner that he next remarked:
"Do you also deny that you carried Mr. Glenthorpe's body from his room and threw it down the pit?"
The spasm of sudden terror which contorted the innkeeper's face was a revelation to the three men who were watching him closely.
"I don't know anything about it," he quavered weakly.
"That won't go down, Benson!" Galloway was quick to follow up his stroke, shaking his head fiercely, like a dog worrying a rat. "You were seen carrying the body downstairs, the night of the murder. You might as well own up to it, first as last. Lies will not help you. We know too much for you to wriggle out of it. And never mind smoothing your hair down like that. We know all about that scar on your forehead, and how you got it."
A wooden clock, standing on the mantelpiece, measured off half a minute in heavy ticks. Then the innkeeper, in a voice which was little more than a whisper, spoke:
"It is true. I carried the body downstairs."
"Why did you not tell us this before?"
"It would not have made any difference."
"What!" Superintendent Galloway's indignation and amazement threatened to choke his utterance. "You keep silence till an innocent man is almost hanged for your misdeeds, and now have the brazen effrontery to say it makes no difference."
"Is Mr. Penreath innocent?"
"Nobody should know that better than you."
"Then who murdered Mr. Glenthorpe?"
"Let us have no more of this fooling, Benson." Superintendent Galloway's voice was very stern. "You have already admitted that you carried Mr. Glenthorpe's body downstairs."
"Oh!" The wretched man cried out wildly, like one who sees an engulfing wave too late. "I see what you mean--you think I murdered him. But I did not--I did not! Before God I am innocent." His voice rang out loudly.
"We don't want to listen to this talk," interrupted Galloway roughly. "You are under arrest, Benson, for complicity in this murder, and the less you say the better for yourself."
"But I tell you I am innocent." The innkeeper brought his skeleton hands together in a gesture which was almost tragic in its despair. "I carried the body downstairs, but I did not murder him. Let me explain. Let me tell you----"
"My advice to you is to keep silence, man. Keep your story for the trial," replied the police official. "You'd better get ready to go to Heathfield with me. I'll go upstairs with you, and give you five minutes to get ready."
"Let him tell his story before you take him away, Galloway," said Colwyn, who had been keenly watching the innkeeper's face during the dialogue between him and his accuser. "I want to hear it."
"I do not see what good it will do," grumbled Superintendent Galloway. "However, as you want to hear it, let him go ahead. But let me first warn you, Benson, that anything you say now may be used in evidence against you afterwards."
"I do not care for that--I am not afraid of the truth being known," replied the innkeeper. He turned from the uncompromising face of the police officer to Colwyn, as though he divined in him a more unprejudiced listener. "I did not murder Mr. Glenthorpe, but I went to his room with the intention of robbing him the night he was murdered," he commenced. "I was in desperate straits for money. The brewer had threatened to turn me out of the inn because I couldn't pay my way. I knew Mr. Glenthorpe had taken money out of the bank that morning, and in an evil moment temptation overcame me, and I determined to rob him. I told myself that he was a wealthy man and would never feel the loss of the money, but if I was turned out of the inn my daughter and my old mother would starve.
"My plan was to go to his room after everybody was asleep, let myself in with my key, and secure the pocket-book containing the money. I knew that Mr. Glenthorpe was a sound sleeper, and I was aware that he generally locked his door and slept with the key under his pillow.
"I went to my room early that night, and waited a long time before making the attempt. It came on to rain about eleven o'clock, and I waited some time longer before leaving my room. I walked in my stocking feet, so as to make no sound, and I carried a candle, but it was not lighted. When I got to the door I stood and listened awhile outside, thinking I might judge by Mr. Glenthorpe's breathing whether he was asleep, but I could hear nothing. I unlocked the door quietly, and felt my way towards the bed in the dark, hoping to find his coat and the money in it without running the risk of striking a light.
"But I could not lay my hands on the coat in the dark, so I struck a match to light the candle. I had made up my mind that if Mr. Glenthorpe should wake up and see me at his bedside I would tell him the truth and ask him to lend me some money.
"By the light of the candle I saw Mr. Glenthorpe lying on his back, with his arms thrown out from his body. He was uncovered, and the bed-clothes were lying in a tumbled heap at the foot of the bed. I stood looking at him for a minute, not knowing what to do. I did not realise at the time that he was dead, because the wind blowing in at the open window caused the candle to flicker, and I could not see very clearly. I thought he must be in a fit, and I wondered what I could do to help him. As the candle still kept flickering in the wind, I picked up the candlestick and walked to the gas-jet in the centre of the room, turned on the tap and tried to light it with the candle. It would not light, and then I remembered that I had told Ann to turn it off at the meter before going to bed. I walked back to the bedside, put the candle down on the table, and had a closer look at Mr. Glenthorpe. As he was still in the same attitude I put my hand on his heart to see if it was beating. I felt something warm and wet, and when I drew back my hand I saw that it was covered with blood.
"When I realised that he was dead--murdered--I lost my nerve and rushed from the room, leaving the candle burning at the bedside. My one thought was to get downstairs and wash the blood off my hand. It was not until I had reached the kitchen that I remembered that I had left the candle burning upstairs. I considered whether I should return for it at once or wash my hands first. I decided on the latter course, and went into the kitchen.
"I had just lit a candle, when I heard a door open behind me, and, turning round, I saw Charles coming out of his room in his shirt and trousers, with a candle in his hand. He said he had seen the light under his door, and wondering who had come into the kitchen had got up to see. Then his face changed when he saw my hands, and he asked me how the blood came to be on them.
"I tried to put him off at first by telling him I had knocked my hand upstairs. He didn't say any more, but stood there watching me wash my hands, and when I had finished he said that if I was going upstairs he would come with me, as he remembered he had left his corkscrew in Mr. Glenthorpe's sitting room, and would want it in the morning.
"I could see that he suspected me, and that if he went upstairs he would see the light burning in Mr. Glenthorpe's bedroom, and might go in. So, in desperation, I confessed to him that I had gone into Mr. Glenthorpe's room, and found him dead. I asked Charles what I should do. He heard me very quietly, but when he learnt that I had left my candle burning in Mr. Glenthorpe's room he said the first thing was to go and get that, and then we could discuss what had better be done.
"I realised that was good advice, and went upstairs to get the candlestick. But when I got to the door I was amazed to find the room in darkness. The door was on the jar, just as I remembered leaving it, but there was not a glimmer of light. I was in a terrible fright, but as I stood there in the dark, listening intently, the sound of the wind roaring round the house reminded me how the candle had flickered in the wind while I was in the room before, and I concluded that it must have blown out the light. So I went into the room, feeling my way along the walls with my hands. When I got near the bed I struck a match and looked for the candlestick. But it was gone.
"Then I knew somebody had been in the room, and I made my way downstairs again as fast as I could, and told Charles, and asked him what he thought of it. Charles said it was clear that the murderer, whoever he was, had revisited the room since I had been there, and finding the candle, had carried it off with him. I asked Charles for what purpose? Charles turned it over in his mind for a moment, and then said that it seemed to him that he might have done it to secure himself, in case he was caught, by being able to prove that somebody else had been in Mr. Glenthorpe's room that night.
"I saw the force of that and was greatly alarmed, and asked Charles what he thought I had better do. Charles, after thinking it over for a while, said in my own interests I would be well advised if I carried the body away and concealed it somewhere where it was not likely to be found. He pointed out that if the facts came to light it would be very awkward for me. On my own admission I had gone into Mr. Glenthorpe's room in the middle of the night, and had come away leaving him dead in bed, with his blood on my hands, and my bedroom candlestick alight at his bedside. Charles pointed out that these facts were sure to come to light if the body was left where it was, but if the body was removed and safely hidden, it might be thought that Mr. Glenthorpe had simply disappeared.
"I was struck by the force of these arguments, and we next discussed where the body should be hidden. We both thought of the pit, but I didn't like that idea at first because I thought the police would be sure to search the pit when they learnt of Mr. Glenthorpe's disappearance, because his excavations were near the pit. Charles, on the other hand, thought it was the safest place--much safer than the sea, which was sure to cast up the body. He said it would never occur to the police to search the pit, until the body had lain there so long that it would be impossible to say how he came by his death. Perhaps it would never be searched, in which case the body would never be recovered.
"We decided on the pit, and Charles said he would keep watch downstairs while I went up and got the body. But first I went and opened the back door and went to the side of the inn to see if anybody was about. The rain had ceased, it was a dark and stormy night, and everybody long since gone to bed. The rough stones outside cut my feet, and recalled to my mind that I was without boots. I knew I could not carry the body all the way up the rise without boots, and I was about to go to my room to get them when I remembered that I had seen Penreath's boots outside his bedroom door. I decided to wear them and avoid the risk of going back to my room for my own boots. I have a small foot, and I had no doubt that they would fit me.
"Charles suggested that I should go into the room in the dark, so as to lessen the risk of being seen, and light the candle when I got inside. I took the candle, but I said I would turn on the gas at the meter, in case the wind blew out the candle. I will keep nothing back now. The real reason was that I wanted the better light to make quite sure if the money was gone. I thought perhaps the murderer might have overlooked it, and I hoped to find it because I needed it so badly. When I got upstairs I stopped outside Mr. Penreath's room, picked up his boots, and put them on. I went into the room in the dark, intending to strike a match, and light the gas, and search for the money. I miscalculated the distance, and bumped into the gas globe in the dark, cutting my head badly. When I struck a match I found that I couldn't light the gas because the incandescent burner had been broken by the blow, so I lit the candle.
"I shuddered at the ordeal of carrying the body downstairs, and only nerved myself to the task by reflecting on the risk to myself if I allowed it to remain where it was. As I stood by the bedside, I noticed Mr. Glenthorpe's key of the room lying by the pillow, and I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I then lifted the body on my shoulders, carried it downstairs, steadying it with one hand, and carrying the candle in the other. Charles was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, and he took the candle from me and lighted me to the back door.
"A late moon was just beginning to show above the horizon when I got outside, and by its light I had no difficulty in finding my way up the rise and to the pit. It was a terrible task, and I was glad when I had accomplished it. I returned to the back door, where Charles was awaiting me. We then fastened the back door, and he went to his room off the kitchen, and I went upstairs to my room. As I passed Mr. Glenthorpe's room I saw the door was open, and I pulled it quickly to, but I forgot to take out the key I had left in the door when I first entered the room.
"I remembered the key in the morning when Ann told me Mr. Glenthorpe's room was empty, but I dared not remove it then because I knew Ann must have seen it. And later on, when you were questioning me about the key in the door, I was afraid to tell you about the second key, because I knew you would question me.
"When I learnt from Ann that Mr. Penreath had left early in the morning, and wouldn't stay for breakfast, I felt sure it was he who had committed the murder. It was a little later that Charles took me aside in the bar and told me that he had walked up to the rise early that morning to see if everything was all right, and that I had left traces of my footprints across the clay to the mouth of the pit. I was very much upset when I heard this, for I knew the body was sure to be found. But Charles said that, as things turned out, it was a very lucky accident.
"Charles said there was no doubt Mr. Penreath was the murderer. He had not only cleared out, but the knife he had used at dinner had disappeared. Charles said he had not missed the knife the night before, but he had discovered the loss when counting the cutlery that morning. If the police found out that it was his boots which made the prints leading to the pit it would only be another point against him, and as he was sure to be hanged in any case the best thing I could do was to go and inform Constable Queensmead of Mr. Glenthorpe's disappearance and Mr. Penreath's departure, but to keep silence about my own share in carrying the body to the pit. Even if the murderer denied removing the body nobody would believe him. I thought the advice good, and I followed it. I don't know whether I could have kept it up if I had been cross-questioned, but from first to last nobody seemed to have the least suspicion of me. The only time I was really afraid was when one of you gentlemen asked me about the key in the outside of the door, but you passed it over and went on to something else.
"And now you know the whole truth. But I should like to say that I kept silence about carrying the body away because I didn't think I was injuring anybody. I believed Mr. Penreath to be guilty. Now you tell me he is innocent. If I had had any idea of that I would have told the truth at once, even though you had hanged me for it."