Chapter XXVIII
 

"You're a nice scoundrel, Benson," said Superintendent Galloway, nodding his head at the innkeeper with a kind of ferocious banter. "You're really a first-class villain, upon my soul! But this precious story with which you've tried to bamboozle us is not complete. Would it be putting too much strain on your inventive faculties to ask you, while you are about it, to give us your version of how the money which was stolen from Mr. Glenthorpe came to be hidden in the pit in which you flung his body?"

"But I didn't know the money was hidden in the pit," said the wretched man, glancing uneasily at the pocket-book, which was still lying on the table. "I never saw the money, though I've confessed to you that I would have taken it if I had seen it. That's the truth, sir--every word I've told you to-night is true! Charles will bear me out."

"I've no doubt he will. I'll have something to say to that scoundrel later on. There's a pair of you. I've no doubt he caught you in the act of carrying away the body of your victim, and that you bribed him to keep silence. You planned together to let an innocent man go to the gallows in order to save your own skin. Now, my man----"

"Wait a moment, Galloway."

It was Colwyn who spoke. The innkeeper's story had been to him like a finger of light in a murky depth, revealing unseen and unimagined abominations, but supplying him with those missing pieces of the puzzle for which he had long and vainly searched. During the brief colloquy between Galloway and the innkeeper his brain had been busy fitting together the whole intricate design of knavery.

"I want to ask a question," he continued, in answer to the other's glance of inquiry. "What time was it you went to Mr. Glenthorpe's room--the first time I mean, Benson. Can you fix it definitely?"

"Yes, sir. I kept looking at my watch in my room, waiting for the time to pass. It was twenty past eleven the last time I looked, and I left my room about five minutes later."

"Was it raining then?"

"Yes, sir, but not so hard as previously, and it stopped altogether before I entered the room, though the wind was blowing."

"That is as I thought. Benson's story is true, Galloway."

"What!" The police officer's vociferous exclamation was in striking contrast to the detective's quiet tones. "How do you make that out?"

"He couldn't have committed the murder. Mr. Glenthorpe was killed during the storm, between eleven and half-past. Benson says he didn't enter the room till nearly half-past eleven."

"If that's all you're going on----"

"It isn't." There was a trace of irritation in the detective's voice. "But Benson's story fills in the gaps of my reconstruction in a remarkable way--so completely, that he couldn't have invented it to save his life, because he does not know all we know. In this extraordinarily complicated case the times are everything. My original theory was right. There were two persons in the room the night of the murder--three, really, but Peggy doesn't affect the reconstruction one way or the other. The murderer, who carried an umbrella to shield himself from the rain, entered the room about twenty past eleven. He murdered Mr. Glenthorpe, took the money, and escaped the same way he entered--by the window. Benson entered by the door at half-past eleven, certainly not later, and after standing at the bedside for two or three minutes, rushed downstairs, as he related, leaving his candle burning at the bedside. During his absence downstairs his daughter entered the room. Benson returned for the candle and found it gone. Had he returned a minute or two earlier he would have seen his daughter carrying it away, because in her story to me she said she thought she heard somebody creeping up the stairs as she left the room. I thought at the time that she imagined this, but now I have very little doubt that it was her father she heard, going upstairs again to get the candle. Finally, Benson, after planning it with Charles, removed the body to the pit some time after midnight."

"This is mere guess-work. Let us stick to facts. On Benson's own confession he entered the room nefariously and removed the dead man's body."

"Yes, but it was a dead body when he got there--just dead. Mr. Glenthorpe was alive and well not ten minutes before."

"Oh, come, Mr. Colwyn, this is going too far," Galloway expostulated. "Again, I say, let us have no guess-work."

"This is not guess-work. There can be no doubt that the murderer left the room by the window just before Benson entered it by the door."

"How do you know that?" asked Galloway.

"Because he was watching Benson from the window."

Galloway looked startled.

"You go too deep for me," he said. "Was it Penreath who got out of the window?"

"No, Penreath, like Benson, was the victim of a deep and subtle villain."

"Then who was it?"

Before Colwyn could reply a shriek rang out--a single hoarse and horrible cry, which went reverberating and echoing over the marshes, rising to a piercing intensity at its highest note, and then ceasing suddenly. In the hush that ensued the chief constable looked nervously at Colwyn.

"It came from the rise," he said in a voice barely raised above a whisper. "Do you think----"

Colwyn read the unspoken thought in his mind.

"I'll go and see what it was," he said briefly.

He opened the door and went out. In the passage he encountered Ann shaking and trembling, with a face blanched with terror.

"It came from the pit, sir--the Shrieking Pit," she whispered. "It's the White Lady. Don't leave me, I'm like to drop. God a' mercy, what's that?" she cried, finding her voice in a fresh access of terror as a heavy knock smote the door. "For God's sake, don't 'ee go, sir, don't 'ee go, as you value your life. It's the White Lady at the door, come to take her toll again from this unhappy house. You be mad to face her, sir--it's certain death."

But Colwyn loosened himself quickly from her detaining grasp, and strode to the door. As he passed the bar he caught a glimpse of a ring of cowering frightened faces within, huddled together like sheep, and staring with saucer eyes. The mist spanned the doorway like a sheet.

"Who's there?" he cried.

"It's me, sir." Constable Queensmead stepped out of the mist into the passage, looking white and shaken. "Something's happened up at the pit. While I was watching from the corner of the wood I saw somebody appear out of the mist and come creeping up the rise towards the pit. I waited till he got to the brink, and when he made to climb down, I knew he was the man you were after, so I went over to the pit. He had disappeared inside, but I could hear the creepers rustling as he went down. After a bit, I heard him coming up again, tugging and straining at the creepers, and gasping for breath. When he was fairly out, I turned my torch on him and told him to stand still. It is difficult to say exactly how it happened, sir, but when he saw he was trapped he made a kind of spring backwards, slipped on the wet clay, lost his balance, and fell back into the pit. I sprang forward and tried to save him, but it was too late. He caught at the creepers as he fell, hung for a second, then fell back with a loud cry."

"Who was it, Queensmead?"

"Charles, the waiter, sir."

"We must get him out at once," said Colwyn. "We shall need a rope and some men. Can you get some ropes, Queensmead? There's some men in the bar--we'll get them to help.

"I don't think they're likely to come, sir. They're all too frightened of the Shrieking Pit, and the ghost."

"I'll go and talk to them. Meanwhile, you go and get ropes."

Colwyn returned to the bar parlour and, after explaining to Mr. Cromering and Galloway what had happened, went into the bar.

"Men," said Colwyn, "Charles has fallen into the pit on the rise, and I need the help of some of you to get him out. Queensmead has gone for ropes. Who will come with me?"

There was no response. The villagers looked at each other in silence, and moved uneasily. Then a man in jersey and sea-boots spoke:

"None of us dare go up to th' pit, ma'aster."

"Why not?"

"Life be sweet, ma'aster. It be a suddint and bloody end to meet th' White Lady of th' pit. Luke what's happened to Charles, who went out of this bar not ten minutes agone! Who knows who she may take next?"

"Very well, then stay where you are. You are a lot of cowards," said Colwyn, turning away.

The faces of the men showed that the epithet rankled, as Colwyn intended that it should. There was a brief pause, and then another fisherman stepped forward and said:

"I'm a Norfolk man, and nobbut agoin' to say I'm afeered. I'll go wi' yow, ma'aster."

"If yower game, Tom, I'll go too," said another.

By the time Queensmead returned with the ropes there was no lack of willing helpers, and the party immediately set forth. When they arrived at the pit Colwyn said that it would be best for two men to descend by separate ropes, so as to be able to carry Charles to the surface in a blanket if he were injured, and not killed. Colwyn had brought a blanket from the inn for the purpose.

"I'll go down, for one," said the seaman who had acted as spokesman in the bar. "I'm used to tying knots and slinging a hammock, so maybe I can make it a bit easier for the poor chap if he's not killed outright."

"And I'll go with you," said Colwyn.

Mr. Cromering drew the detective aside.

"My good friend," he said, "do you think it is wise for you to descend? This man Charles, if he is still alive, may be actuated by feelings of revenge towards you, and seek to do you an injury."

"I am not afraid of that," returned Colwyn. "I laid the trap for him, and it is my duty to go down and bring him up."

Colwyn left the chief constable and returned to the pit. The next moment he and the seaman commenced the descent. They carried electric torches, and took with them a blanket and a third rope. They were carefully lowered until the torches they carried twinkled more faintly, and finally vanished in the gloom. A little while afterwards the strain on the ropes slackened. The rescuers had reached the bottom of the pit. A period of waiting ensued for those on top, until a jerk of the ropes indicated the signal for drawing up again. The men on the surface pulled steadily. Soon the torches were once more visible down the pit, and then the lanterns on the surface revealed Colwyn and the fisherman, supporting between them a limp bundle wrapped in the blanket, and tied to the third rope. As they reached the air they were helped out, and the burden they carried was laid on the ground near the mouth of the pit. The blanket fell away, exposing the face of Charles, waxen and still in the rays of the light which fell upon it.

"Dead?" whispered Mr. Cromering.

"Dying," returned Colwyn. "His back is broken."

The dying man unclosed his eyelids, and his dark eyes, keen and brilliant as ever, roved restlessly over the group who were standing around him. They rested on Colwyn, and he lifted a feeble hand and beckoned to him. The detective knelt beside him, and rested his head on his arm. The white lips formed one word:

"Closer."

Colwyn bent his head nearer, and those standing by could see the dying man whispering into the detective's ear. He spoke with an effort for some minutes, and hurriedly, like one who knew that his time was short. Then he stopped suddenly, and his head fell back grotesquely, like a broken doll's. Colwyn felt his heart, and rose to his feet.

"He is dead," he said.