The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Lunch was over the following day, and the majority of the hotel guests were assembled in the lounge, some sitting round a log fire which roared and crackled in the old-fashioned fireplace, others wandering backwards and forwards to the hotel entrance to cast a weather eye on the black and threatening sky.
During the night there had been one of those violent changes in the weather with which the denizens of the British Isles are not altogether unfamiliar; a heavy storm had come shrieking down the North Sea, and though the rain had ceased about eleven o'clock the wind had blown hard all through the night, bringing with it from the Arctic a driving sleet and the first touch of bitter, icy, winter cold.
The ladies of the hotel, who the previous day had paraded the front in light summer frocks, sat shivering round the fire in furs; and the men walked up and down in little groups discussing the weather and the war. The golfers stood apart debating, after their wont, the possibility of trying a round in spite of the weather. The elderly clergyman was prepared to risk it if he could find a partner, and, with the aid of an umbrella held upside down, was demonstrating to an attentive circle the possibility of going round the most open course in England in the teeth of the fiercest gale that ever blew, provided that a brassy was used instead of a driver.
"I don't see how you could drive a ball with either to-day," said one of the doubtful ones. "You'd be driving right against the wind for the first four holes, and when you have the wind behind you at the bend in the cliff by the fifth, the force of the gale would probably carry your ball half a mile out to sea. These links here are supposed to be the most exposed in England."
"My dear sir, you surely do not call this a gale," retorted the clergyman. "I have played some of my best games in a stronger wind than this. And as for this being the most exposed course in England--well, let me ask you one question: have you ever played over the Worthing course with a strong northeast gale--a gale, mind you, not a wind--sweeping over the Downs?"
"Can't say I have," grunted the previous speaker, a tall cadaverous man, wrapped from head to foot in a great grey ulster, and wearing woollen gloves. "In fact, I've never been on the Worthing course."
"I thought not." The clergyman's face showed a golfer's satisfaction at having tripped a fellow player. "The Worthing course is the most difficult course in England, all up hill and down dale, and full of pitfalls for those who don't know its peculiarities. I had a very remarkable experience there, last year, with the crack local player--his handicap was plus two. We played a round in a gale with the wind whistling over the high downs at the rate of seventy or eighty miles an hour. My partner didn't want to play at first because of the weather, but I persuaded him to go round, and I beat him by two up and four to play solely by relying on the brassy and midiron. He stuck to the driver, and lost in consequence. I'll just show you how the game went. Suppose the first hole to be just beyond the hall door there, and you drive off from here. Now, imagine that umbrella stand--would you mind moving away a little from it, sir? Thank you--to be a group of fir trees fully a hundred yards to the right of the fairway. Well, I got a shot 160 yards up the fairway with a low straight ball which never lifted more than a yard from the green, but my opponent, instead of sticking to the brassy, as I did, preferred to use his big driver, and what do you think happened to him? The wind took his ball clean over the fir trees."
The story was interrupted by the sudden entrance from outside of a young officer who had been taking a turn on the front. He strode hurriedly into the lounge, with a look of excitement on his good-humoured boyish face, and accosted the golfers, who happened to be nearest the door.
"I say, you fellows, what do you think has happened? You remember that chap who fainted yesterday morning? Well, he's wanted for committing a murder!"
The piece of news created the sensation that its imparter had counted upon. "A murder!" was echoed from different parts of the lounge in varying degrees of horror, amazement and dread, and the majority of the guests came eagerly crowding round to hear the details.
"Yes, a murder!" repeated the young officer, with relish. "And, what's more, he committed it after he left here yesterday. He walked across to some inn a few miles from here along the coast, put up there for the night, and in the middle of the night stabbed some old chap who was staying there."
There was a lengthy pause while the hotel guests digested this startling information, and endeavoured to register anew their previous faint impressions of the young man of the alcove table in the new light of his personality as an alleged murderer. The pause was followed by an excited hum of conversation and eager questions, the ladies all talking at once.
"What a providential escape we have all had!" exclaimed the clergyman's wife, her fresh comely face turning pale.
"That's just what I said myself, madam, when I heard the news," replied the young officer.
"I presume this murderous young ruffian has been secured?" asked the clergyman, who had turned even paler than his wife. "The police, I hope, have him under arrest."
The young officer shook his head.
"He's shown them a clean pair of heels. He may be heading back this way, for all I know. There will be a hue and cry over the whole of Norfolk for him by to-night, but murderers are usually very crafty, and difficult to catch. I bet they won't catch him before he murders somebody else."
The men looked at one another gravely, and some of the ladies gave vent to cries of alarm, and clung to their husband's arms. The clergyman turned angrily on the man who had brought the news.
"What do you mean, sir, by blurting out a piece of news like this before a number of ladies?" he said sternly. "It was imprudent and foolish in the last degree. You have alarmed them exceedingly."
"Oh, that's all tosh!" replied the other rudely. "They were bound to hear of it sooner or later; why, everybody on the front is talking about it. I thought you'd be awfully bucked to hear the news, seeing that you were sitting at the next table to him yesterday morning."
"Who gave you this information?" asked Colwyn, who had just come down stairs wearing a motor coat and cap, and paused on his way to the door on hearing the loud voices of the excited group round the young officer.
"One of the fishermen on the front. The police constable at the place where the murder was committed--a little village with some outlandish name--came over here to report the news. This is the nearest police station to the spot, it seems."
"But is he quite certain that the man who is supposed to have committed the murder is the young man who fainted yesterday morning?" asked Sir Henry Durwood, who had joined the group. "Has he been positively identified?"
"The fisherman tells me that there's no doubt it's him--the description's identical. He cleared out before the murder was discovered. There's a rare hue and cry all along the coast. They are organizing search parties. There's one going out from here this afternoon. I'm going with it."
Colwyn left the group of hotel guests, and went to the front door. Sir Henry Durwood, after a moment's hesitation, followed him. The detective was standing in the hotel porch, thoughtfully smoking a cigar, and looking out over the raging sea. He nodded cordially to the specialist.
"What do you think of this story?" asked Sir Henry.
"I was just about to walk down to the police station to make some inquiries," responded Colwyn. "It is impossible to tell from that man's story how much is truth and how much mere gossip."
"I'm afraid it's true enough," replied Sir Henry Durwood. "You'll remember I warned him yesterday to send for his friends. A man in his condition of health should not have been permitted to wander about the country unattended. He has probably had another attack of furor epilepticus, and killed somebody while under its influence. Dear, dear, what a dreadful thing! It may be said that I should have taken a firmer hand with him yesterday, but what more could I have done? It's a very awkward situation--very. I hope you'll remember, Mr. Colwyn, that I did all that was humanly possibly for a professional man to do--in fact, I went beyond the bounds of professional decorum, in tendering advice to a perfect stranger. And you will also remember that what I told you about his condition was in the strictest confidence. I should like very much to accompany you to the police station, if you have no objection--I feel strongly interested in the case."
"I shall be glad if you will come," replied the detective.
Colwyn turned down the short street to the front, where a footpath protected by a hand rail had been made along the edge of the cliff for the benefit of jaded London visitors who wanted to get the best value for their money in the bracing Norfolk air. At the present moment that air, shrieking across the North Sea with almost hurricane force, was too bracing for weak nerves on the exposed path, and it was real hard work to force a way, even with the help of the handrail, against the wind, to say nothing of the spray which was flung up in clouds from the thundering masses of yellow waves dashing at the foot of the cliffs below. Sir Henry Durwood, at any rate, was very glad when his companion turned away from the cliffs into one of the narrow tortuous streets running off the front into High Street.
Colwyn paused in front of a stone building, half way up the street, which displayed the words, "County Police," on a board outside. Knots of people were standing about in the road--fishermen in jerseys and sea boots, some women, and a sprinkling of children--brought together by the news of murder, but kept from encroaching on the sacred domain of law and order by a massive red-faced country policeman, who stood at the gate in an awkward pose of official dignity, staring straight in front of him, ignoring the eager questions which were showered on him by the crowd. The group of people nearest the gate fell back a little as they approached, and the policeman on duty looked at them inquiringly.
Colwyn asked him the name of the officer in charge of the district, and received the reply that it was Superintendent Galloway. The policeman looked somewhat doubtful when Colwyn asked him to take in his card with the request for an interview. He compromised between his determination to do the right thing and his desire not to offend two well-dressed gentlemen by taking Colwyn into his confidence.
"Well, you see, sir, it's like this," he said, sinking his voice so that his remarks should not be heard by the surrounding rabble. "I don't like to interrupt Superintendent Galloway unless it's very important. The chief constable is with him."
"Do you mean Mr. Cromering, from Norwich?" asked Colwyn.
The policeman nodded.
"He came over here by the morning train," he explained.
"Very good. I know Mr. Cromering well. Will you please take this card to the chief constable and say that I should be glad of the favour of a short interview? This is a piece of luck," he added to Sir Henry, as the constable took the card and disappeared into the building. "We shall now be able to find out all we want to know."
The police constable came hastening back, and with a very respectful air informed them that Mr. Cromering would be only too happy to see Mr. Colwyn. He led them forthwith into the building, down a passage, knocked at a door, and without waiting for a response, ushered them into a large room and quietly withdrew.
There were two officials in the room. One, in uniform, a heavily built stout man with sandy hair and a red freckled face, sat at a large roll-top desk writing at the dictation of the other, who wore civilian clothes. The second official was small and elderly, of dry and meagre appearance, with a thin pale face, and sunken blue eyes beneath gold-rimmed spectacles. This gentleman left off dictating as Colwyn and Sir Henry Durwood entered, and advanced to greet the detective with a look which might have been mistaken for gratitude in a less important personage.
Mr. Cromering's gratitude to Colwyn was not due to any assistance he had received from the detective in the elucidation of baffling crime mysteries. It arose from an entirely different cause. Wolfe is supposed to have said that he would sooner have been remembered as the author of Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" than as the conqueror of Quebec. Mr. Cromering would sooner have been the editor of the English Review than the chief constable of Norfolk. His tastes were bookish; Nature had intended him for the librarian of a circulating library: the safe pilot of middle class ladies through the ocean of new fiction which overwhelms the British Isles twice a year. His particular hobby was paleontology. He was the author of The Jurassic Deposits of Norfolk, with Some Remarks on the Kimeridge Clay--an exhaustive study of the geological formation of the county and the remains of prehistoric reptiles, fishes, mollusca and crustacea which had been discovered therein. This work, which had taken six years to prepare, had almost been lost to the world through the carelessness of the Postal Department, which had allowed the manuscript to go astray while in transit from Norfolk to the London publishers.
The distracted author had stirred up the postal authorities at London and Norwich, and had ultimately received a courteous communication from the Postmaster General to the effect that all efforts to trace the missing packet had failed. A friend of Mr. Cromering's suggested that he should invoke the aid of the famous detective Colwyn, who had a name for solving mysteries which baffled the police. Mr. Cromering took the advice and wrote to Colwyn, offering to mention his name in a preface to The Jurassic Deposits if he succeeded in recovering the missing manuscript. Colwyn, by dint of bringing to bear a little more intelligence and energy than the postal officials had displayed, ran the manuscript to earth in three days, and forwarded it to the owner with a courteous note declining the honour of the offered preface as too great a reward for such a small service.
"Very happy to meet you, Mr. Colwyn," said the chief constable, as he came forward with extended hand. "I've long wanted to thank you personally for your kindness--your great kindness to me last year. Although I feel I can never repay it, I'm glad to have the opportunity of expressing it."
"I'm afraid you are over-estimating a very small service," said Colwyn, with a smile.
"Very small?" The chief constable's emphasis of the words suggested that his pride as an author had been hurt. "If you had not recovered the manuscript, a work of considerable interest to students of British paleontology would have been lost. I must show you a letter I have just received from Sir Thomas Potter, of the British Museum, agreeing with my conclusions about the fossil remains of Ichthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, and Mosasaurs, discovered last year at Roslyn Hole. It is very gratifying to me; very gratifying. But what can I do for you, Mr. Colwyn?"
"First let me introduce to you Sir Henry Durwood," said Colwyn.
"Durwood? Did you say Durwood?" said the little man, eagerly advancing upon the specialist with outstretched hand. "I'm delighted to meet one of our topmost men of science. Your illuminating work on Elephas Meridionalis is a classic."
"I'm afraid you're confusing Sir Henry with a different Durwood," said the detective, coming to the rescue. "Sir Henry Durwood is the distinguished specialist of Harley Street, and not the paleontologist of that name. We have called to make some inquiries about the murder which was committed somewhere near here last night."
"The ruling passion, Mr. Colwyn, the ruling passion! Personally I should be only too glad of your assistance in the case in question, but I'm afraid there's no deep mystery to unravel--it's not worth your while. It would be like cracking a nut with a steam hammer for you to devote your brains to this case. All the indications point strongly to one man."
"A young man who was staying at the Grand till yesterday?" inquired the detective.
The chief constable nodded.
"We're looking for a young man who's been staying at the Grand for some weeks past under the name of Ronald. He's a stranger to the district, and nobody seems to know anything about him. Perhaps you gentlemen can tell me something about him."
"Very little, I'm afraid," replied Colwyn. "I've seen him at meal times, and nodded to him, but never spoken to him till yesterday, when he had a fainting fit at breakfast. Sir Henry Durwood and I helped him to his bedroom, and exchanged a few remarks with him on his recovery."
"Yes, I've been told of that illness," said Mr. Cromering, meditating. "Did he do or say anything while you were with him that would throw any light on the subsequent tragic events of the night, for which he is now under suspicion?"
Colwyn related what had happened at breakfast and afterwards. Mr. Cromering listened attentively, and turning to Sir Henry Durwood asked him if he had seen Ronald before the previous day.
"I saw him yesterday for the first time at the breakfast table," replied Sir Henry Durwood. "I arrived only the previous night. He was taken ill at breakfast. Mr. Colwyn and I assisted him to his room and left him there. I know nothing whatever about him."
"What was the nature of his illness?" inquired the chief constable.
"It had some of the symptoms of a seizure," replied Sir Henry guardedly. "I begged him, when he recovered, not to leave his room. I even offered to communicate with his friends, by telephone, if he would give me their address, but he refused."
"It is a pity he did not take your advice," responded the chief constable. "He appears to have left the hotel shortly after his illness, and walked along the coast to a little hamlet called Flegne, about ten miles from here. He reached there in the evening, and put up at the village inn, the Golden Anchor, for the night. He left early in the morning, before anybody was up. Shortly afterwards the body of Mr. Roger Glenthorpe, an elderly archaeologist, who had been staying at the inn for some time past making researches into the fossil remains common to that part of Norfolk, was found in a pit near the house. The tracks of boot-prints from near the inn to the mouth of the pit, and back again, indicate that Mr. Glenthorpe was murdered in his bedroom at the inn, and his body afterwards carried by the murderer to the pit in which it was found."
"In order to conceal the crime?" said Colwyn.
"Precisely. Two men employed by Mr. Glenthorpe saw the footprints earlier in the morning, and when it was discovered that Mr. Glenthorpe was missing, one of them was lowered into the pit by a rope and found the body at the bottom. The pit forms a portion of a number of so-called hut circles, or prehistoric shelters of the early Briton, which are not uncommon in this part of Norfolk."
"And you have strong grounds for believing that this young man Ronald, who was staying at the Grand till yesterday, is the murderer?"
"The very strongest. He slept in the room next to the murdered man's, and disappeared hurriedly in the early morning from the inn some time before the body was discovered. It is his boot-tracks which led to and from the pit where the body was found. A considerable sum of money has been stolen from the deceased, and we have ascertained that Ronald was in desperate straits for money. Another point against Ronald is that Mr. Glenthorpe was stabbed, and a knife which was used by Ronald at the dinner table that night is missing. It is believed that the murder was committed with this knife. But if you feel interested in the case, Mr. Colwyn, you had better hear the report of Police Constable Queensmead."
The chief constable touched a bell, and directed the policeman who answered it to bring in Constable Queensmead.
The policeman who appeared in answer to this summons was a thickset sturdy Norfolk man, with an intelligent face and shrewd dark eyes. On the chief constable informing him that he was to give the gentlemen the details of the Golden Anchor murder, he produced a notebook from his tunic, and commenced the story with official precision.
Ronald had arrived at the inn before dark on the previous evening, and had asked for a bed for the night. A little later Mr. Glenthorpe, the murdered man, who had been staying at the inn for some time past, had come in for his dinner, and was so pleased to meet a gentleman in that rough and lonely place that he had asked Ronald to dine with him. The dinner was served in an upstairs sitting-room, and during the course of the meal Mr. Glenthorpe talked freely of his scientific researches in the district, and informed his guest that he had that day been to Heathfield to draw L300 to purchase a piece of land containing some valuable fossil remains which he intended to excavate. The two gentlemen sat talking after dinner till between ten and eleven, and then retired to rest in adjoining rooms, in a wing of the inn occupied by nobody else. In the morning Ronald departed before anybody, except the servant, was up, refusing to wait for his boots to be cleaned. The servant, who had had the boots in her hands, had noticed that one of the boots had a circular rubber heel on it, but not the other. Ronald gave her a pound to pay for his bed, and the note was one of the first Treasury issue, as were the notes which Mr. Glenthorpe had drawn from the bank at Heathfield the day before. The men who had seen the footprints to the pit earlier in the morning, informed Queensmead of their discovery on learning that Mr. Glenthorpe had disappeared. Queensmead examined the footprints, and, with the assistance of the men, recovered the body. Queensmead telephoned a description of Ronald to the police stations along the coast, then mounted his bicycle and caught the train at Leyland in order to report the matter to the district headquarters at Durrington.
"I suppose there is no doubt that the young man who stayed at the inn is identical with Ronald," said the detective, when the constable had finished his story. "Do the descriptions tally in every respect?"
"Read the particulars you have prepared for the hand-bills, Queensmead," said the chief constable.
The constable produced a paper from his pocket and read: "Description of wanted man: About 28 years of age, five feet nine or ten inches high, fair complexion rather sunburnt, blue eyes, straight nose, fair hair, tooth-brush moustache, clean-cut features, well-shaped hands and feet, white, even teeth. Was attired in grey Norfolk or sporting lounge jacket, knickerbockers and stockings to match, with soft grey hat of same material. Wore a gold signet-ring on little finger of left hand. Distinguishing marks, a small star-shaped scar on left cheek, slightly drags left foot in walking. Manner superior, evidently a gentleman."
"That is conclusive enough," said Colwyn. "It tallies in every respect. The scar is an unmistakable mark. I noticed it the first time I saw Ronald."
"I noticed it also," said Sir Henry Durwood.
"It seems a clear case to me," said the chief constable. "I have signed a warrant for Ronald's arrest, and Superintendent Galloway has notified all the local stations along the coast to have the district searched. We think it very possible that Ronald is in hiding somewhere in the marshes. We have also notified the district railway stations to be on the lookout for anybody answering his description, in case he tries to escape by rail."
"It seems a strange case," remarked the detective thoughtfully. "Why should a young man of Ronald's type leave his hotel and go across to this remote inn, and commit this brutal murder?"
"He was very short of money. We have ascertained that he had been requested to leave the hotel here because he could not pay his bill. He has paid nothing since he has been here, and owed more than L30. The proprietor told him yesterday morning, as he was going in to breakfast, that he must leave the hotel at once if he could not pay his bill. He went away shortly after the scene in the breakfast room which was witnessed by you gentlemen, and left his luggage behind him. I suspect the proprietor would not allow him to take his luggage until he had discharged his bill."
"It strikes me as a remarkable case, nevertheless," said Colwyn. "I should like to look into it a little further, with your permission."
"Certainly," replied the chief constable courteously. "Superintendent Galloway will be in charge of the case. I suggested that he should ask for a man to be sent down from Scotland Yard, but he does not think it necessary. I feel sure that he will be delighted to have the assistance of such a celebrated detective as yourself. When are you starting for Flegne, Galloway?"
"In half an hour," replied the superintendent. "I shall have to walk from Leyland--five miles or more. The train does not go beyond there."
"Then I will drive you over in my car," said the detective.
"In that case perhaps you'll permit me to accompany you," said the chief constable. "I should very much like to observe your methods."
"And I too," said Sir Henry Durwood.