The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
The inn, seen in the grey evening of a grey day, had a stark and sinister aspect, an atmosphere of mystery and secretiveness, an air of solitary aloofness in the dreary marshes, standing half shrouded in the night mists which were sluggishly crawling across the oozing flats from the sea. It was not a place where people could be happy--this battered abode of a past age on the edge of the North Sea, with the bitter waters of the marshes lapping its foundations, and the cold winds for ever wailing round its gaunt white walls.
The portion buried in the hillside, with only the tops of the windows peering above, suggested the hidden holes and burrowing byways of a dead and gone generation of smugglers who had used the inn in the heyday of Norfolk's sea prosperity. It may have been a thought of the possibilities of the inn as a hiding place which prompted Mr. Cromering to exclaim, after gazing at it attentively for some seconds:
"We had better go through this place from the bottom."
As they approached the inn a stout short man, who was looking out from the low and narrow doorway, retreated into the interior, and immediately afterwards the long figure of the innkeeper emerged as though he had been awaiting the return of the party, and had posted somebody to watch for them.
The innkeeper showed no surprise on receiving Mr. Cromering's instruction to show them over the inn. Walking before them he led them along a side passage opposite the bar, opening doors as he went, and drawing aside for them to enter and look at the rooms thus revealed.
It was a strange rambling old place inside, full of nooks and crannies, and unexpected odd corners and apertures, short galleries and stone passages winding everywhere and leading nowhere; the downstairs rooms on different levels, with stone steps into them, and queer slits of windows pierced high up in the thick walls. On the ground floor a central passage divided the inn into two portions. On the one side were several rooms, some empty and destitute of furniture, others barely furnished and empty, and a big gloomy kitchen in which a stout countrywoman, who shook and bobbed at the sight of the visitors, was washing greens at a dirty deal table. Off the kitchen were two small rooms, poorly furnished as servants' bedrooms, and the windows of these looked out on the marshes at the back of the house. On the other side of the centre passage was the bar, which was subterranean at the far end, with the cellar adjoining tunnelled into the hillside. In the recesses of the cellar the short stout man they had seen at the doorway was, by the light of a tallow candle, affixing a spigot to one of the barrels which stood against the earthen wall. Behind the bar was a small bar parlour, and behind that two more rooms, the house on that side finishing in a low and narrow gallery running parallel with the outside wall.
The staircase upstairs opened into a stone passage, running from the front of the inn to the back. On the left-hand side of the passage, going from the head of the stairs to the back of the house, were four rooms. The first was a small, comfortably furnished sitting room, where Mr. Glenthorpe and his guest had dined the previous night. The bed chamber of the murdered man adjoined this room. Next came the room in which Ronald had slept, and then an empty lumber room. There were four bedrooms on the other side, all unfurnished, except one at the far end of the passage, the lumber-room. The innkeeper explained that the murdered man had been the sole occupant of that wing of the house until the previous night, when Mr. Ronald had occupied the room next to him. At this end of the passage another and narrower passage ran at right angles from it along the back of the house, with several rooms opening off it on one side only. The first of these rooms was empty; the next room contained a small iron bedstead, a chair, and a table, and the innkeeper said that it was his bedroom. At the next door he paused, and turning to Mr. Cromering hesitatingly remarked:
"This is my mother's room, sir. She is an invalid."
"We will not disturb your mother, we will merely glance into the room," said the kindly chief constable.
"It is not that, sir. She is----" He broke off abruptly, and knocked at the door.
After a few moments' pause there was the sound of somebody within turning a key in the lock, then the door was opened by a young girl, who, at the sight of the visitors, walked hurriedly across to a bedstead at the far end of the room, on which something grey was moving, and stood in front of it as though she would guard the occupant of the bed from the intruding eyes of strangers.
"It's all right, Peggy," said the innkeeper. "We shall not be here long. My daughter is afraid you will disturb her grandmother," he said turning to the gentlemen. "My mother is----" A motion of his finger towards his forehead completed the sentence more significantly than words.
The figure on the bed in the corner was in the shadow, but they could make it out to be that of an old and shrivelled woman in a grey flannel nightdress, who was sitting up in bed, swinging backward and forward, holding some object in her arms, clasped tightly to her breast, while her small dark eyes, deepset under furrowed brows, gazed at the visitors with the unmeaning stare of an animal.
But Colwyn's eyes were drawn to the girl at the bedside. She was beautiful, of a type sufficiently rare to attract attention anywhere. Her delicate profile and dainty grace shone in the shadow of the sordid room like an exquisite picture. He was aware of a skin of transparent whiteness, a wistful sensitive mouth, a pair of wonderful eyes with the green-grey colour of the sea in their depths, and a crown of red-gold hair. She was poorly, almost shabbily, dressed, but the crude cheap garbing of a country dressmaker was unable to mar the graceful outlines of her slim young figure. But it was the impassivity of the face and detachment of attitude which chained Colwyn's attention and stimulated his intellectual curiosity. The human face is usually an index to the owner's character, but this girl's face was a mask which revealed nothing. The features might have been marble for anything they displayed, as she stood by the bedside regarding with grave inscrutable eyes the group of men in the doorway. There was something pathetic in the contrast between her grace and beauty and stillness and the uncouth gestures and meaningless stare of the old woman in the bed behind her.
The old woman, moving from side to side with the unhappy restlessness which characterises the insane, dropped over the side of the bed the object she had been nursing in her arms, and looked at the girl with the dumb entreaty of an animal. The girl stooped down by the side of the bed, picked up the fallen article, and restored it to the mad woman. It was a doll.
Mr. Cromering, who saw the action and the article, flushed like a man who had seen something which should be kept secret, and turned to leave the room. The others followed, and immediately afterwards they heard the door closed after them, and the key turned in the lock.
Superintendent Galloway, who had more of the inquiring turn of mind of the police official than the chief constable, asked the innkeeper several questions about his mother and her condition. The innkeeper said her insanity was the outcome of an accident which had happened two years before. She was sitting dozing by the kitchen fire when a large boiler of water overturned, scalding her terribly, and the shock and pain had sent her mad. She had never left the bedroom since, and had gradually become reduced to a condition of imbecility, alternated by occasional outbursts of violence.
"Is she ever allowed out of the room?" asked Superintendent Galloway quickly, as though a sudden thought had struck him.
"Never, sir; she never tries to get out of bed except when she's violent. She will sit there for hours, playing with a doll, but when she has her paroxysms she runs round and round the room, crying out as you heard her just now, and throwing the things about. Did you notice, sir, that there was no glassware in the room? She has tried to injure herself with glass and crockery in her violent fits."
"How often does she have paroxysms of violent madness?" asked the chief constable.
"Not often, sir; usually about the turn of the moon, or when there is a gale at sea."
"There was a gale at sea last night," said Colwyn. "Did your mother have an attack then?"
"Peggy said when she came downstairs last night she thought there were signs of an attack coming on, but when I looked in on Mother as I was going to bed, shortly before eleven, she seemed quiet enough, so I locked her door and went to bed."
"Do you mean to say that you leave this poor mad woman in her bedroom all night alone?" asked the chief constable.
"It's the best thing to be done, sir," replied the innkeeper, with an apologetic air. "We tried having somebody to sleep with her, but it only made her worse, and the doctor who saw her last year said it wasn't necessary. Peggy is with her a lot in the daytime, and often until she goes to bed. So she's really not left alone very much, because Ann goes into her room as soon as she gets up in the morning--about six o'clock."
"And is your mother always secured in her room--is the door always locked?" asked Superintendent Galloway.
"Yes, sir: the door is always locked inside or outside, and when I go to bed at night I take the key into my room and hang it on a nail. Ann comes in and gets it in the morning."
"You did that last night, as usual?"
"Yes, sir. Mother was quiet--just as you saw her now. She is quiet most of the time."
"God help her, poor soul!" exclaimed the chief constable. "Where does this passage lead to, Benson?" he asked, as if to change the conversation, pointing to a gloomy gallery running off the passage in which they were standing.
"It leads to two rooms looking out over the end of the inn, sir," replied the innkeeper. "They are the only two rooms you haven't seen."
"Who occupies this room?" asked Superintendent Galloway, opening the door of the first, and disclosing a small, plainly furnished bedroom.
"My daughter, sir."
"The next one is empty and unfurnished, like many of the others," observed the chief constable. "This place seems too big for you, Benson. Were all these rooms destitute of furniture when you took over the inn?"
"Not all, sir, but the inn being too big for me I sold the furniture for what it would fetch. It was no use to me."
"Why don't you take a smaller place?" asked Superintendent Galloway, abruptly. "You'll never do any good on this part of the coast--it's played out, and there's no population."
"I'm well aware of that, sir, but it's difficult for a man like me to make a shift once he gets into a place. There's Mother for one thing."
"She ought to be placed in a lunatic asylum," said the superintendent, looking sternly at the innkeeper.
"It's a hard thing, sir, to put your own mother away. Besides, begging your pardon, she's hardly bad enough for a lunatic asylum."
"Let us go downstairs, Galloway, if we have seen the whole of the inn," said the chief constable, breaking into this colloquy. "Time is really getting on."
They went downstairs again to the small room they had been shown into when they first entered the inn, Mr. Cromering after despatching the innkeeper for refreshments for the party glanced once more at his watch, and remarked to Colwyn that he was afraid he would have to ask him to drive him in his car back to Durrington without delay.
"Galloway will stay here for the inquest to-morrow," he added. "But I must get back to Norwich to-night."
"It is not necessary to go back to Durrington, to get to Norwich," said Colwyn; "there's a train passes through Heathfield on the branch line, at 5.40." He consulted his own watch as he spoke. "It's now just four o'clock. Heathfield cannot be more than six miles away across country. I can run you over there in twenty minutes. That would give you an hour or so more here. I am speaking for myself as well as you," he added, with a smile. "I should like to know a little more about this case."
"But I shall be taking you out of your way, and delaying the return of you and Sir Henry to Durrington."
"I should like to return here and stay until after the inquest. Perhaps Sir Henry would not mind returning to Durrington from Heathfield. He will be able to catch the Durrington train at Cottenden, and get back to his hotel in time for dinner. Would you mind, Sir Henry?"
"Not in the least," replied Sir Henry politely.
"Then I think I might stay a little longer," said the chief constable. "What's the road like to Heathfield, Galloway? You know something about this part of the country."
"Very bad," replied the superintendent uncompromisingly, who had his own reasons for wanting to get rid of his superior officer and the detective.
"It will be all right in daylight, and I'll risk it coming back," said the detective cheerfully.
He spoke with the resolute air of one used to making prompt decisions, and Mr. Cromering yielded with the feeble smile of a man who was rather glad to be released of the task of making up his own mind. The entrance of the innkeeper with refreshments put an end to the discussion. He thrust upon the police officials present the responsibility of breaking the licensed hours in which liquor might be drunk in war time by serving them with sherry, old brandy, and biscuits.
The chief constable made himself a party to this breach of the law by helping himself to a glass of sherry. The wine was excellent and dry, and he poured himself out another. The result of this stimulant was directly apparent in the firm tones with which he announced his intention of examining those inmates of the inn who could throw any light on the murder of the previous night. He directed Superintendent Galloway to sit beside him and take notes of the information thus elicited for the use of the coroner the following day.
"I think it would be as well to begin with the story of the innkeeper," he added. "Please pull that bell-rope, Galloway."