The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
The road to Flegne skirted the settled and prosperous cliff uplands, thence ran through the sea marshes which stretched along that part of the Norfolk coast as far as the eye could reach until they were merged and lost to view in the cold northern mists.
The road, after leaving the uplands, descended in a sinuous curve towards the sea, but the party in the motor car were stopped on their way down by a young mounted officer, who, on learning of their destination, told them they would have to make an inland detour for some miles, as the military authorities had closed that part of the coast to ordinary traffic.
As they turned away from the coast, the chief constable informed Colwyn that the prohibited area was full of troops guarding a little bay called Leyland Hoop, where the water was so deep that hostile transports might anchor close inshore, and where, according to ancient local tradition,
"He who would Old England win, Must at the Leyland Hoop begin."
After traversing a mile or so of open country, and passing through one or two scattered villages, they turned back to the coast again on the other side of a high green headland which marked the end of the prohibited area, and, crossing the bridge of a shallow muddy river, found themselves in the area of the marshes.
It was a region of swamps and stagnant dykes, of tussock land and wet flats, with scarcely a stir of life in any part of it, and nothing to take the eye except a stone cottage here and there.
The marshes stretched from the road to the sea, nearly a mile away. Man had almost given up the task of attempting to wrest a living from this inhospitable region. The boat channels which threaded the ooze were choked with weed and covered with green slime from long disuse, the little stone quays were thick with moss, the rotting planks of a broken fishing boat were foul with the encrustations of long years, the stone cottages by the roadside seemed deserted. Here and there the marshes had encroached upon the far side of the road, creeping half a mile or more farther inland, destroying the wholesome earth like rust corroding steel, and stretching slimy tentacles towards the farmlands on the rise.
Humanity had retreated from the inroads of the sea only after a stubborn fight. The ruins of an Augustinian priory, a crumbling fragment of a Norman tower, the mouldering remnant of a castellated hall, showed how prolonged had been the struggle with the elements of Nature before Man had acknowledged his defeat and retreated, leaving hostages behind him. And--significant indication of the bitterness of the fight--it was to be noted that, while the builders of a bygone generation had built to face the sea, the handful of their successors who still kept up the losing fight had built their beach-stone cottages with sturdy stone backs to the road, for the greater protection of the inmates from the fierce winter gales which swept across the marshes from the North Sea.
The car had travelled some miles through this desolate region when the chief constable directed Colwyn's attention to a spire rising from the flats a mile or so away, and said it was the church of Flegne-next-sea. Colwyn increased his speed a little, and in a few minutes the car had reached the outskirts of the little hamlet, which consisted of a straggling row of beach-stone cottages, a few gaunt farm-houses on the rise, and a cruciform church standing back from the village on a little hill, with high turret or beacon lights which had warned the North Sea mariners of a former generation of the dangers of that treacherous coast.
In times past Flegne-next-sea--pronounced "Fly" by the natives, "Fleen" by etymologists, and "Flegney" by the rare intrusive Cockney--had doubtless been a prosperous little port, but the encroaching sea had long since killed its trade, scattered its inhabitants, and reduced it to a spectre of human habitation compelled to keep the scene of its former activities after life had departed. Half the stone cottages were untenanted, with broken windows, flapping doors, and gardens overgrown with rank marsh weeds. The road through the village had fallen into disrepair, and oozed beneath the weight of the car, a few boards thrown higgledy-piggledy across in places representing the local effort to preserve the roadway from the invading marshes. The little canal quay--a wooden one--was a tangle of rotting boards and loose piles, and the stagnant green water of the shallow canal was abandoned to a few grey geese, which honked angrily at the passing car. There was no sign of life in the village street, and no sound except the autumn wind moaning across the marshes and the boom of the distant sea against the breakwater.
"There's the inn--straight in front," said Police-Constable Queensmead, pointing to it.
The Golden Anchor inn must have been built in the days of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, for nothing remained of the maritime prosperity which had originally bestowed the name upon the building. It was of rough stone, coloured a dirty white, with two queer circular windows high up in the wall on one side, the other side resting on a little, round-shouldered hill. It was built facing away from the sea like the beach-stone cottages, from which it was separated by a patch of common. From the rear of the inn the marshes stretched in unbroken monotony to the line of leaping white sea dashing sullenly against the breakwater wall, and ran for miles north and south in a desolate uniformity, still and grey as the sky above, devoid of life except for a few migrant birds feeding in the salt creeks or winging their way seaward in strong, silent flight. The rays of the afternoon sun, momentarily piercing the thick clouds, fell on the white wall and round glazed windows of the inn, giving it a sinister resemblance to a dead face.
Colwyn brought his car to a standstill on the edge of the saturated strip of common.
"We shall have to walk across," he said.
"Nobody will run off with the car," said Galloway, scrambling down from his seat.
"The murderer brought the body from the back of the house across this green, and carried it up that rise in front of the inn," said Queensmead. "You cannot see the pit from here, but it is close to that little wood on the summit. The footprints do not show in the grass, but they are very plain in the clay a little farther on, and lead straight to the pit."
"How deep is the pit?" asked Colwyn.
"About thirty feet. It was not an easy matter to bring up the body."
"We will examine the pit and the footprints later," said Mr. Cromering. "Let us go inside first."
Picking their way across the common to the front of the inn, they encountered a little group of men conversing underneath the rusty old anchor signboard which dangled from a stout stanchion above the front door of the inn. Some men, wearing sea-boots and jerseys, others in labouring garb, splashed with clay and mud, were standing about. They ceased their conversation as the party from the motor-car appeared around the corner, and, moving a respectful distance away, watched them covertly.
The front door of the inn was closed. Superintendent Galloway tapped at it sharply, and after the lapse of a moment or two the door was opened, and a man appeared on the threshold. Seeing the police uniforms he stepped outside as if to make more room for the party to enter the narrow passage from which he had emerged. Colwyn noticed that he was so tall that he had to stoop in the old-fashioned doorway as he came out.
Seen at close quarters, this man was a strange specimen of humanity. He was well over six feet in height, and so cadaverous, thin and gaunt that he might well have been mistaken for the presiding genius of the marshes who had stricken that part of the Norfolk coast with aridity and barrenness. But there was no lack of strength in his frame as he advanced briskly towards his visitors. His face was not the least remarkable part of him. It was ridiculously small and narrow for so big a frame, with a great curved beak of a nose, and small bright eyes set close together. Those eyes were at the present moment glancing with bird-like swiftness from one to the other of his visitors.
"You are the innkeeper--the landlord of this place?" asked Mr. Cromering.
"At your service, sir. Won't you go inside?" His voice was the best part of him; soft and gentle, with a cultivated accent which suggested that the speaker had known a different environment at some time or other.
"Show us into a private room," said Mr. Cromering.
The innkeeper escorted the party along the passage, and took them into a room with a low ceiling and sanded floor, smelling of tobacco, explaining, as he placed chairs, that it was the bar parlour, but they would be quiet and free from interruption in it, because he had closed the inn that day in anticipation of the police visit.
"Quite right--very proper," said the chief constable.
"Will you and the other gentlemen take any refreshment, after your journey?" suggested the innkeeper. "I'm afraid the resources of the inn are small, but there is some excellent old brandy."
He stretched out an arm towards the bell rope behind him. Colwyn noticed that his hand was long and thin and yellow--a skeleton claw covered with parchment.
"Never mind the brandy just now," said Mr. Cromering, taking on himself to refuse on behalf of his companions the proffered refreshment. "We have much to do and it will be time enough for refreshments afterwards. We will view the body first, and make inquiries after. Where is the body, Benson?"
"Take us to the room."
The innkeeper led the way upstairs along a dark and narrow passage. When he reached a door near the end, he opened it and stood aside for them to enter.
"This is the room," he said, in a low voice. It was Colwyn's keen eye that noted the key in the door. "What is that key doing in the door, on the outside?" he asked. "How long has it been there?"
"The maid found it there this morning, sir, when she went up with Mr. Glenthorpe's hot water. That made her suspect something must be wrong, because Mr. Glenthorpe was in the habit of locking his door of a night and placing the key under his pillow. So, after knocking and getting no answer, she opened the door, and found the room empty."
"The door was not locked, though the key was in the door?"
"No, sir, and everything in the room was just as usual. Nothing had been disturbed."
"And was that bedroom window open when you found the room empty?" asked Superintendent Galloway, pointing to it through the open doorway.
"Yes, sir--just as you see it now. I gave orders that nothing was to be touched."
"Ronald slept in this room," said Queensmead, indicating the door of the adjoining bedroom.
"We will look at that later," said Galloway.
The interior of the room they entered was surprisingly light and cheerful and spacious, having nothing in common with those low gloomy vaults, crammed with clumsy furniture and moth-eaten stuffed animals, which generally pass muster as bedrooms in English country inns. Instead of the small circular windows of the south side, there was a large modern two-paned window in a line with the door, opening on to the other side of the house. The bottom pane was up, and the window opened as wide as possible. A very modern touch, unusual in a remote country inn, was a rose coloured gas globe suspended from the ceiling, in the middle of the room. The furniture belonged to a past period, but it was handsome and well-kept--a Spanish mahogany wardrobe, chest of drawers and washstand with chairs to match. Modern articles, such as a small writing-desk near the window, some library books, a fountain pen, a reading-lamp by the bedside, and an attache case, suggested the personal possessions and modern tastes of the last occupant. A comfortable carpet covered the floor, and some faded oil-paintings adorned the walls.
The bed--a large wooden one, but not a fourposter--stood on the left-hand side of the room from the entrance, with the head against the wall nearest the outside passage, and the foot partly in line with the open window, which was about eight feet away from it. The door when pushed back swung just clear of a small bedroom table beside the bed, on which the reading lamp stood, with a book beside it. The other side of the bed was close to the wall which divided the room from the next bedroom, so that there was a large clear space on the outside, between the bed and the door. The gas fitting, which was suspended from the ceiling in this open space, hung rather low, the bottom of the globe being not more than six feet from the floor. The globe was cracked, and the incandescent burner was broken.
The murdered man had been laid in the middle of the bed, and covered with a sheet. Superintendent Galloway quietly drew the sheet away, revealing the massive white head and clear-cut death mask of a man of sixty or sixty-five; a fine powerful face, benign in expression, with a chin and mouth of marked character and individuality. But the distorted contour of the half-open mouth, and the almost piteous expression of the unclosed sightless eyes, seemed to beseech the assistance of those who now bent over him, revealing only too clearly that death had come suddenly and unexpectedly.
"He was a great archaeologist--one of the greatest in England," said Mr. Cromering gently, with something of a tremor in his voice, as he gazed down at the dead man's face. "To think that such a man should have been struck down by an assassin's blow. What a loss!"
"Let us see how he was murdered," said the more practical Galloway, who was standing beside his superior officer. He drew off the covering sheet as he spoke, and dropped it lightly on the floor.
The body thus revealed was that of a slightly built man of medium height. It was clad in a flannel sleeping suit, spattered with mud and clay, and oozing with water. The arms were inclining outwards from the body, and the legs were doubled up. There were a few spots of blood on the left breast, and immediately beneath, almost on the left side, just visible in the stripe of the pyjama jacket, was the blow which had caused death--a small orifice like a knife cut, just over the heart.
"It is a very small wound to have killed so strong a man," said Mr. Cromering. "There is hardly any blood."
Sir Henry examined the wound closely. "The blow was struck with great force, and penetrated the heart. The weapon used--a small, thin, steel instrument--and internal bleeding, account for the small external flow."
"What do you mean by a thin, steel instrument?" asked Superintendent Galloway. "Would an ordinary table-knife answer that description?"
"Certainly. In fact, the nature of the wound strongly suggests that it was made by a round-headed, flat-bladed weapon, such as an ordinary table or dinner knife. The thrust was made horizontally,--that is, across the ribs and between them, instead of perpendicularly, which is the usual method of stabbing. Apparently the murderer realised that his knife was too broad for the purpose, and turned it the other way, so as to make sure of penetrating the ribs and reaching the heart."
"Does not that suggest a rather unusual knowledge of human anatomy on the murderer's part?" asked Mr. Cromering.
"I do not think so. Anybody can tell how far apart the human ribs are by feeling them."
"It is easy to see, Sir Henry, that the wound was made by a thin-bladed knife, but why do you think it was also round-headed?" asked Superintendent Galloway. "Might it not have been a sharp-pointed one?"
"Or even a dagger?" suggested Mr. Cromering.
"Certainly not a dagger. The ordinary dagger would have made a wider perforation with a corresponding increase in the blood-flow. My theory of a round-headed knife is based on the circumstance of a portion of the deceased's pyjama jacket having been carried into the wound. A sharp-pointed knife would have made a clean cut through the jacket."
"I see," said Superintendent Galloway, with a sharp nod.
"Therefore, we may assume, in the case before us,"--Sir Henry Durwood waved a fat white hand in the direction of the corpse as though he were delivering an anatomical lecture before a class of medical students--"that the victim was killed with a flat, round knife with a round edge, held sideways. Furthermore, the position of the wound reveals that the blow was too much on the left side to pierce the centre of the heart directly, but was a slanting blow, delivered with such force that it has probably pierced the heart on the right side, causing instant death."
"The weapon, then, entered the body in a lateral direction, that is, from left to right?" asked Colwyn, who had been closely following the specialist's remarks.
"That is what I meant to convey," responded Sir Henry, in his most professional manner. "The blade entered on the left side, and travelled towards the centre of the body."
"From the nature of the wound would you say that the knife entered almost parallel with the ribs, though slanting slightly downwards, in order to pierce the heart on the right side?"
"That would be the general direction, though it is impossible to ascertain, without a postmortem examination, the exact spot where the heart was pierced."
"But the wound slants in such a way as to prove that the blow was struck from left to right?" persisted Colwyn.
"Undoubtedly," responded Sir Henry.