The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
During the latter part of the conversation Superintendent Galloway walked to the open window, and looked out. He turned round swiftly, with a look of unusual animation on his heavy features, and exclaimed:
"The murderer entered through the window."
The others went over to the window. The inn on that side had been built into a small hill of beehive shape, which had been partly levelled to make way for the foundations. Seen from outside, the inn, with its back to the sea and a corner of its front entering the hillside, bore a remote resemblance to some nakedly ugly animal with its nose burrowed into the earth. Part of the bar was actually underground, and the windows of the rooms immediately above looked out on the hillside. The window of Mr. Glenthorpe's room, which was above the bar parlour, was not more than four or five feet away from the round-shouldered side of the hill. From that point the hill fell away rapidly, and the first-story windows at the back, where the house rose from the flat edge of the marsh, were about fifteen feet from the ground. The space between the inn wall and the beehive curve of the hill, which was very narrow under Mr. Glenthorpe's window, but widened as the hill fell away, was covered with a russet-coloured clay, which contrasted vividly with the sombre grey and drab tints of the marshes.
"It was an easy matter to get in this window," said Superintendent Galloway. "And here's the proof that the murderer came in this way." He stooped and picked up something from the floor, close to the window, and held it out in the palm of his hand for the inspection of his companions. It was a small piece of red clay, like the russet-coloured clay outside the window.
"Here is another clue," said Colwyn, pointing to a fragment of black material adhering to a nail near the bottom of the window.
"Ronald ripped something he was wearing while getting through the window," said Galloway, detaching the fragment, which he and Colwyn examined closely.
"Have you noticed that?" said Colwyn, pointing to a pool of water which had collected near the open window, between the edge of the carpet and the skirting board.
"Yes," replied Galloway. "It was raining heavily last night."
With eyes sharpened by his discoveries, Galloway made a careful search of the carpet, and found several more crumbs of red clay between the window and the bed. Near the bed he detected some splashes of candle-grease, which he detached from the carpet with his pocket-knife. He also picked up the stump of a burnt wooden match, and the broken unlighted rink head of another. After showing these things to his companions he placed them carefully in an empty match-box, which he put in his pocket.
"Somebody has bumped against this gas globe pretty hard," said Colwyn. "The glass is broken and the incandescent burner smashed."
He bent down to examine the white fragments of the burner which were scattered about the carpet, and as he did so he noticed another broken wooden match, and two more splashes of candle-grease directly beneath the gas-jet. He removed the candle-grease carefully, and showed it to Galloway.
"More candle-grease!" the latter said. "Well, that's not likely to prove anything except that Ronald was careless with his light. I suppose the wind caused the candle to gutter. I would willingly exchange the candle-grease for some finger-prints. There's not a sign of finger-prints anywhere. Ronald must have worn gloves. Now, let us have a look at Ronald's room. I want to see if he could get out of his own window on to the hillside. His window is higher from the ground than this window. The hill falls away very sharply."
The bedroom Ronald had occupied was small and narrow, and its meagre furniture was in striking contrast with the comfortable appointments of the room they had just left. It contained a single bed, a chest of drawers, a washstand, and a wardrobe. The latter, a cumbrous article of furniture, stood between the bed and the wall, against the side nearest to Mr. Glenthorpe's room.
Galloway strode across to the window, which was open, and looked out. The hillside fell away so rapidly that the bottom of the window was quite eight feet from the ground outside.
"Not much of a drop for an athletic young fellow like Ronald," said Galloway to Colwyn, who had joined him.
"The window is very much smaller than the one in Mr. Glenthorpe's bedroom," said Colwyn.
"But large enough for a man to get through. Look here! I can get my head and shoulders through, and where the head and shoulders go the rest of the body will follow. Ronald got through it last night and into the next room by the other window. There can be no doubt that that was how the murder was committed."
Galloway left the window, and examined the bedroom carefully. He turned down the bed-clothes, and scrutinised the sheets and pillows.
"I thought he might have left some blood-stains on the linen, after carrying the body downstairs," he explained. "But he hasn't."
"Sir Henry says the bleeding was largely internal," remarked Mr. Cromering. "That would account for the absence of any tell-tale marks on the bed-clothes."
"He was too clever to wash his hands when he came back," grumbled Galloway, turning to the washstand and examining the towels. "He's a cool customer."
"I notice that the candle in the candlestick is a wax one," said Colwyn.
"And burnt more than half-way down," commented Galloway, glancing at it.
"You attach no significance to the fact that the candle is a wax one?" questioned the detective.
"No, do you?" replied Galloway, with a puzzled glance.
Colwyn did not reply to the question. He was looking attentively at the large wardrobe by the side of the bed.
"That's a strange place to put a wardrobe," he said. "It would be difficult to get out of bed without barking one's shins against it."
"It was probably put there to hide the falling wall-paper,--the place is going to rack and ruin," said Galloway, pointing to the top of the wardrobe, where the faded wall-paper, mildewed and wet with damp, was hanging in festoons. "Now, Queensmead, lead the way outside. I've seen all I want to see in this room."
"Would you like to see the room where Ronald and Mr. Glenthorpe dined?" suggested the constable. "It's on this floor, on the other side of Mr. Glenthorpe's bedroom."
"We can see that later. I want to examine outside before it gets dark."
They left the room. The innkeeper was waiting patiently in the passage, standing motionless at the head of the staircase, with his head inclining forward, like a marsh heron fishing in a dyke. He hastened towards them.
"I noticed a reading-lamp by Mr. Glenthorpe's bedside, Mr. Benson," said Colwyn. "Did he use that as well as the gas?"
"He rarely used the gas, sir, though it was put into the room at his request. He found the reading-lamp suited his sight better."
"Did he use candles? I saw no candlestick in the room."
"He never used candles, sir--only the reading-lamp."
"When was the gas-globe smashed? Last night?"
"It must have been, sir. Ann says it was quite all right yesterday."
"I've got my own idea how that was done," said Galloway, who had been an attentive listener to the innkeeper's replies to Colwyn's questions. "Show the way downstairs to the back door, Mr. Benson."
The innkeeper preceded them down the stairs and along the passage to another one, which terminated in a latched door, which he opened.
"How was this door fastened last night?" asked Galloway.
"By this bolt at the top," said the innkeeper, pointing to it. "There is no key--only this catch."
"Is this the only back outlet from the inn?" asked Colwyn.
At Galloway's suggestion they first went to the side of the inn, in order to examine the ground beneath the windows. The fence enclosing the yard had fallen into disrepair, and had many gaps in it. There were no footprints visible in the red clay of the natural passage-way between the inn wall and the hill, either beneath the window of Ronald's room or Mr. Glenthorpe's window.
"The absence of footprints means nothing," said Galloway. "Ronald may have climbed from one room to the other in his stocking feet, and then put on his boots to remove the body. Even if he wore his boots he might have left no marks, if he walked lightly."
"I am not so sure of that," said Colwyn. "But what do you make of this?"
He pointed to an impression in the red earth underneath Mr. Glenthorpe's window--a line so faint as to be barely noticeable, running outward from the wall for about eighteen inches, with another line about the same length running at right angles from it. Superintendent Galloway examined these two lines closely and then shook his head as though to intimate he could make nothing of them.
"What do you think they are?" said Mr. Cromering, turning to Colwyn.
"I think they may have been made by a box," was the reply.
"You are not suggesting that the murderer threw a box out of the window?" exclaimed Superintendent Galloway, staring at the detective. "Look how straight the line from the wall is! A box would have fallen crookedly."
"I do not suggest anything of the kind. If it was a box, it is more likely it was placed outside the window."
"For what purpose?"
"To help the murderer climb into the room."
"He didn't need it," replied Galloway. "It's an easy matter to get through this window from the ground. I can do it myself." He placed his hands on the sill, sprang on to the window ledge, and dropped back again. "I attach no importance to these lines. They are so faint that they might have been made months ago. There is nothing to be seen here, so we may as well go and look at the footprints. Show us where the marks of the footsteps commence, Queensmead."
The constable led the way to the other side of the house and across the green. The grass terminated a little distance from the inn in a clay bank bordering a wide tract of bare and sterile land, which extended almost to the summit of the rise. Clearly defined in the clay and the black soft earth were two sets of footprints, one going towards the rise, and the other returning. The outgoing footsteps were deeply and distinctly outlined from heel to toe. The right foot plainly showed the circular mark of a rubber heel, which was missing in the other, though a sharp indentation showed the mark of the spike to which the rubber had been fastened.
"The footprints lead straight to the mouth of the pit where the body was thrown," said Queensmead.
"What a clue!" exclaimed Superintendent Galloway, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "You are quite certain the inn servant can swear that these marks were made by Ronald's boots, Queensmead?"
"There's no doubt on that point, sir," replied the constable. "She had the boots in her hands this morning, just before Ronald put them on, and she distinctly noticed that there was a rubber heel on the right boot, but not on the other."
"It seems a strange thing for a young man of Ronald's position to have rubber heels affixed to his boots," remarked Mr. Cromering. "I was under the impression that they were an economical device of the working classes. But perhaps he found them useful to save his feet from jarring."
"We shall find them useful to hang him," responded Galloway curtly. "Let us proceed to the pit, gentlemen. May I ask you to keep clear of the footprints? I do not want them obliterated before I can take plaster casts."
They followed the footsteps up the rise. Near the summit they disappeared in a growth of nettles, but reappeared on the other side, skirting a number of bowl-shaped depressions clustered in groups along the brow of the rise. These were the hut circles--the pit dwellings of the early Britons, shallow excavations from six to eight feet deep, all running into one another, and choked with a rank growth of weeds. Between them and a little wood which covered the rest of the summit was an open space, with a hole gaping nakedly in the bare earth.
"That's the pit where the body was thrown," said Queensmead, walking to the brink.
The pit descended straight as a mining shaft until the sides disappeared in the interior gloom. It was impossible to guess at its depth because of the tangled creepers which lined its sides and obscured the view, but Mr. Cromering, speaking from his extensive knowledge of Norfolk geology, said it was fully thirty feet deep. He added that there was considerable difference of opinion among antiquaries to account for its greater depth. Some believed the pit was simply a larger specimen of the adjoining hut circles, running into a natural underground passage which had previously existed. But the more generally accepted theory was that the hut circles marked the site of a prehistoric village, and the deeper pit had been the quarry from which the Neolithic men had obtained the flints of which they made their implements. These flints were imbedded in the chalk a long way from the surface, and to obtain them the cave men burrowed deeply into the clay, and then excavated horizontal galleries into the chalk. Several of the red-deer antler picks which they used for the purpose had been discovered when the pit was first explored twenty-five years ago.
"Mr. Glenthorpe was very much interested in the prehistoric and late Stone Age remains which are to be found in abundance along the Norfolk coast," he added. "He has enriched the national museums with a valuable collection of prehistoric man's implements and utensils, which he recovered in various parts of Norfolk. For some time past he had been carrying out explorations in this district in order to add to the collection. It is sad to think that he met his death while thus employed, and that his murdered body was thrown in the very pit which was, as it were, the centre of his explorations and the object of his keenest scientific curiosity."
"Did you ever see clearer footprints?" exclaimed the more practical-minded Galloway. "Look how deep they are near the edge of the pit, where the murderer braced himself to throw the body off his back into the hole. See! there is a spot of blood on the edge."
It was as he had said. The footprints were clear and distinct to the brink of the pit, but fainter as they turned away, showing that the man who had carried the body had stepped more lightly and easily after relieving himself of his terrible burden.
"I must take plaster casts of those prints before it rains," said Galloway. "They are far too valuable a piece of evidence to be lost. They form the final link in the case against Ronald."
"You regard the case as conclusive, then?" said Colwyn.
"Of course I do. It is now a simple matter to reconstruct the crime from beginning to end. Ronald got through Mr. Glenthorpe's window last night in the dark. As the catch has not been forced, he either found it unlocked or opened it with a knife. After getting into the room he walked towards the foot of the bed. He listened to make sure that Mr. Glenthorpe was asleep, and then struck the match I picked up near the foot of the bed, lit the candle he was carrying, put it on the table beside the bed, and stabbed the sleeping man. Having secured the money, he unlocked the door, carried the corpse out on his shoulder, closed the door behind him but did not lock it, then took the body downstairs, let himself out of the back door, carried it up here and cast it into the pit. That's how the murder was committed."
"I agree with you that the murderer entered through the window," said Colwyn. "But why did he do so? It strikes me as important to clear that up. If Ronald is the murderer, why did he take the trouble to enter the room from the outside when he slept in the next room?"
"Surely you have not forgotten that the door was locked from inside? Benson says Mr. Glenthorpe was in the habit of locking his door and sleeping with the key under the pillow. Ronald no doubt first tried to enter the room by the door, but, finding it locked, climbed out of his window, and got into the room through the other window. He dared not break open the door for fear of disturbing the inmate or alarming the house."
"Then how do you account for the key being found in the outside of Mr. Glenthorpe's door this morning?"
"Quite easily. During the struggle or in the victim's death convulsions the bed-clothes were disarranged, and Ronald saw the key beneath the pillow. Or he may have searched for it, as he knew he would need it before he could open the door and remove the body. It was easy for him to climb through the window to commit the murder, but he couldn't remove the body that way. After finding the key he unlocked the door, and put the key in the outside, intending to lock the door and remove the key as he left the room, so as to defer the discovery that Mr. Glenthorpe was missing until as long after his own departure in the morning as possible. He may have found it a difficult matter to stoop and lock the door and withdraw the key while he was encumbered with the corpse, so left it in the door till he returned from the pit. When he returned he was so exhausted with carrying the body several hundred yards, mostly uphill, that he forgot all about the key. That is my theory to account for the key being in the outside of the door."
"It's an ingenious one, at all events," commented Colwyn. "But would such a careful deliberate murderer overlook the key when he returned?"
"Nothing more likely," said the confident superintendent. "It's in trifles like this that murderers give themselves away. The notorious Deeming, who murdered several wives, and disposed of their bodies by burying them under hearthstones and covering them with cement, would probably never have been caught if he had not taken away with him a canary which belonged to the last woman he murdered. It was a clue that couldn't be missed--like the silk skein in Fair Rosamond's Bower."
"Here's another point: why did not Ronald, having disposed of the body, disappear at once, instead of waiting for the morning?"
"Because if his room had been found empty in the morning, as well as that of Mr. Glenthorpe's, the double disappearance would have aroused instant suspicion and search. Ronald gauged the moment of his departure very cleverly, in my opinion. On the one hand, he wanted to get away before the discovery of Mr. Glenthorpe's empty bedroom; and, on the other hand, he wished to stay at the inn long enough to suggest that he had no reason for flight, but was merely compelled to make an early departure. The trouble and risk he took to conceal the body outside prove conclusively that he thought the pit a sufficiently safe hiding-place to retard discovery of the crime for a considerable time, and he probably thought that even when it was discovered that Mr. Glenthorpe was missing his absence would not, at first, arouse suspicions that he had met with foul play.
"It was not as though Mr. Glenthorpe was living at home with relatives who would have immediately raised a hue and cry. He was a lonely old man living in an inn amongst strangers, who were not likely to be interested in his goings and comings. That suggests another alternative theory to account for the key in the door: Ronald may have left it in the door to convey the impression that Mr. Glenthorpe had gone out for an early walk. That belief would at least gain Ronald a few hours to make good his escape from this part of the country and get away by train before any suspicions were aroused. The fact that none of Mr. Glenthorpe's clothes were missing was not likely to be discovered in an inn until suspicion was aroused. Ronald laid his plans well, but how was he to know that in his path to the pit he walked over soil as plastic and impressionable as wax?"
"But in spite of that you assume he knew exactly where this pit was situated?"
"Nothing more likely. It is well-known to archaeologists. Ronald may well have heard of it while staying at Durrington, or he may have known of it personally through some previous visit to this part of the world. And there is also evidence that Mr. Glenthorpe told him of the hut circles and the pit during dinner last night."
"Just one more doubt, Superintendent. How do you account for the cracked gas globe and the broken incandescent mantle?"
"Ronald probably knocked his head against it as he approached the bed," said Galloway promptly.
"Hardly. Ronald's height, according to the description, is five feet ten inches. That happens to be also my height, and I can pass under the gas globe without touching it."
"Then it was broken when Ronald was carrying the corpse downstairs," replied Galloway, after a moment's reflection. "He carried the corpse on his shoulders and part of the body would be above his head."
"Superintendent Galloway has an answer for everything," said Colwyn with a smile, to Mr. Cromering. "He is persuasive if not always convincing."
"The case seems clear enough to me," said the chief constable thoughtfully. "Come, gentlemen, let us return to the inn. We have a number of things to do, and not much time to do them in."