Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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THE cliff formed one of the horns of a little bay about ten miles north of Whitby. The house stood in a plot of cultivated ground some fifty yards from the edge of the cliff and three-quarters of a mile from any other habitation.
It was a very small house—a mere cottage, in fact—and was flanked on each side by the ruins of several other cottages.
In former times, when the trade in jet had been a flourishing industry, these ruined cottages had been the homes of the sturdy miners who had worked in the jet-mines, with which the cliff was honeycombed. With the decay of the industry, however, the miners had departed, the cottages had fallen into ruin, and the only men who now worked in the mines were two or three men from the neighboring village of Snakesby, each of whom was "on his own" in a different part of the old workings, picking up such scraps of jet as he could find, and paying one-third of the proceeds of his find to the local lord of the manor.
The one house that remained intact—the house already referred to—had been saved from falling into ruin like its fellows through having been purchased, long years before the date of the following events, by an eccentric individual, named Enoch Verrill.
"Old Enoch," as he was always called, had formerly been a master mariner, and, as such, had saved a comfortable competency. In the heyday of his career, however, a shipwreck, in which he had lost his wife and only child, had blighted his life, and had changed him into a miserly recluse.
After the deaths of his wife and child he had retired from the sea, had bought the house on the cliff, and had taken up his residence there. He had fitted each of the six windows with iron bars and steel-lined shutters, and had furnished the two outer doors with massive bolls and chains and patent locks. He kept no servant, seldom went out, and never, on any pretext whatever, allowed anybody to enter the house.
At the time when this thing happened he was close upon seventy, and had been living in this fashion for over thirty years. As previously remarked, he had saved a considerable sum of money; and, according to the village gossip—which, for once, was true—he had converted his savings into cash, and kept them in a box beneath his bed.
Allusion has been made to the neighboring Village of Snakesby. This village was of such importance that its resident police officer enjoyed the rank of sergeant. And it was Sergeant Walker, the officer in question, who rang up the curtain on the drama now about to be unfolded.
He had been out all night, on patrol duty, and was returning to Snakesby by the footpath which ran along the edge of the cliffs. The season was mid-October, the time was half-past seven in the morning, and it was raining cats and dogs.
As the sergeant was passing "Old Enoch's" house, he was startled to hear a frantic shout of "Help—help!" The cry came from the interior of the house, and 'the sergeant had no doubt that it came from Enoch Verrill.
He ran to the front door, but found that it was locked and bolted. He hammered on the door, but received no reply. He ran round to the back door, but found that it was also locked and bolted. He applied his ear to the keyhole, and distinctly heard somebody moving to and fro inside the house.
"Open this door!" he called out. "D'you hear? In the name of the law, I command you to open this door!"
Receiving no reply, he tried to burst the door open. Finding this a task beyond hie strength; he examined the windows, but, as all of them were protected on the outside by Iron bars and were closed on the inside by steel-plated shutters, he soon abandoned any hope.
By this time he was convinced that "Old Enoch" had been murdered. If his theory were correct, it followed, as a matter of course, that the murderer was still in the house. If, therefore, the sergeant were to leave and go down to the village to summon help to break into the house, he would give the murderer an opportunity of escaping. Yet he could not break into the house without help. What, then, should he do?
Whilst he was debating this question, the rector of Snakesby, who was on his way to visit a sick parishioner, appeared on the scene. To him the sergeant related what had happened, and what he suspected. The rector then ran back to the village, leaving, the sergeant to keep watch on the house, and, presently, returned with the village blacksmith, armed with a sledgehammer.
The front door having been smashed open, the three men entered the silent house. At the foot of the stairs they discovered the huddled and unconscious form of Enoch Verrill, clad only in his nightshirt, and bleeding from an ugly wound at the hack of his head. On proceeding upstairs they found that the box in which the old man kept his savings—it was a brass-bound sea- chest—had been dragged from under his bed, and had been broken open, Except for one or two silver coins and a roll of banknotes, its contents had disappeared, From this it was only too clear that somebody had gained admittance to the house, had stunned "Old Enoch," and had stolen his savings, It was equally clear that the thief had been in the house at the moment when the sergeant had heard "Old Enoch's" cry for help.
And yet, though the sergeant and the rector and the blacksmith searched every room, no trace of the thief could they find.
The sergeant had kept watch on the house from the moment he had heard the old man's cry to the moment when he and his companions broke in. All the doors and windows were securely fastened on the inside. And yet the thief had escaped!
After the village doctor had been summoned and "Old Enoch" had been put to bed, the rector, who was an old college chum of Sexton Blake's, returned to the rectory, and told his wife all that had happened.
"We've often asked Blake to come and stay with us," he said, "but we've never succeeded in bagging him, But we've got him now, as sure as eggs are eggs."
"How?" asked his wife.
By way of reply, the rector wrote out a telegram to Sexton Blake, giving him a brief synopsis of the case.
"The thief was in the house when the sergeant arrived on the scene," he concluded, "Sergeant kept watch on the house up to time we broke in. We found all doors and windows fastened inside, yet thief had escaped. Can you resist such a problem, even though there will be no fee?"
"That'll fetch him!" said the rector confidently to his wife.
And it did, for two hours later the rector received the following telegram from Sexton Blake:
NO. ARRIVE SNAKESBY 7.45 TO-MORROW MORNING.
LEAVING London at eleven o'clock on Thursday night, and travelling by way of York and Stockton, Sexton Blake arrived at Snakesby at a quarter to eight on Friday morning. It was still raining heavily, and had been raining since Wednesday night.
The rector, in a macintosh and sou'-wester, met him at the station, and conducted him to the house on the cliff, where "Old Enoch," still unconscious, was lying in bed, with the district nurse in attendance.
"And the police have discovered nothing more than you have told me?" said Sexton Blake to the rector, who, on the way from the station, had given him a full account of all the known facts of the case.
"Absolutely nothing," said the rector, as they entered the house. "How the thief escaped, in spite of locked doors and fastened windows, and in spite or the fact that the sergeant was keeping watch outside the house all the time, is a mystery which you alone can solve."
"Perhaps," said Sexton Blake.
"Oh. you'll solve it, right enough!" said the rector confidently,
"I'll do my best, anyhow," said Sexton Blake,
By way of a beginning, he carefully examined all the doors and windows, and quickly satisfied himself that none of them—except the door which had been broken open by the blacksmith—had been tampered with. He then examined the various rooms in the house, and presently came to the kitchen, where the first thing that attracted his attention was a wooden trapdoor in the middle of the floor.
"Where does that lead to?" he asked. "A cellar?"
"No," said the rector. "It leads into a rainwater cistern. Most of the houses hereabouts have similar cisterns, for this isn't a town, you understand. We have no municipal water-supply here, you know. Drinking-water is procured from one or two wells in the district, but for all other purposes we are dependent on rainwater."
Sexton Blake opened the trapdoor. Underneath the kitchen was a deep, square tank, into which a pipe conducted the rainwater from the roof of the house. As it was still raining heavily, water was pouring into the cistern in considerable volume. Kneeling down, the detective struck a match and peered through the open trapdoor into the cistern. Although it had been raining fast since Wednesday night, there was only about a foot of water in the cistern. That struck Sexton Blake as somewhat curious, and it struck him as still more, curious that the walls of the cistern were wet for ten Or twelve feet above the level of the water.
"Within tho last twenty-four hours this cistern was nearly full," he muttered to himself. "Now it is almost empty, though rain has been falling all the time. Why is that?" He pondered for a moment or two; then, struck by a sudden idea, he turned to the rector.
"I want a lantern and a rope," he said.
When the lantern and the rope had been procured, the detective took off his boots and socks, and rolled his trousers up to his knees; then he lowered himself through the trapdoor, and groped for a little while on the floor of the tank.
"I think I'm on the track of the solution now," he said, when the rector had hauled him hack into the kitchen.
"How? Why? What do you mean?" asked the bewildered rector.
Instead of replying, Sexton Blake donned his boots and socks, rolled down his trousers, and led the way to the edge of the cliff, where he pointed to an opening in the face of the rock, mid-way between the summit and the beach.
"What's that?" he asked.
"The mouth of one of the old workings of the jet-mines," said the rector.
"And from that opening," said Sexton Blake, "a tunnel-like passage—drift, I believe, is the technical name—leads into the heart of this cliff?"
"Of course," said the rector,
"Then I think we'll explore that drift," said Sexton Blake.
And, without any further explanation, he led the way down the narrow zigzag path that ran from the summit of the cliff to the mouth of the drift.
"WHAT is your theory?" asked the rector, as he and Sexton Blake plunged into the drift and groped their way by lantern-light along an underground rocky passage six feet high and four feet wide.
"Can't you guess?" said the detective, "No? Yet you saw that rainwater cistern?"
"And you observed that the walls of the tank were wet almost up to the top?"
"Yet there was only a foot of water in tho cistern, in spite, of the fact that it has rained continuously since Wednesday night."
"That is curious, certainly.. But what does it point to?"
"It points to the fact that that cistern has recently been emptied."
"But how, and by whom?"
Sexton Blake shrugged his shoulders.
"You're very dense," he said. "This drift apparently runs under Mr. Verrill's house. Suppose a man were working in this drift yesterday morning, blasting the rock in search of jet. Suppose that, in the course or his blasting operations, he blasted a hole in the floor of Mr. Verrill's rainwater tank. What would happen?"
"All the water in the tank would run out and flow into this drift."
"And when all tho water had run out, there would be a hole in the bottom of the tank, through which the man might enter Mr. Verrill's house and afterwards make his escape."
"You believe—" began the rector.
"I do!" said Sexton Blake "I believe that somebody was working in this drift yesterday morning, and—possibly by accident—blasted a hole in the bottom of Mr. Verrill's cistern. I believe that when he discovered what he had done, and realised the chance which Fate had placed in his hands, he hauled himself through the hole, climbed out of the cistern into the kitchen, was surprised by Mr. Verrill, stunned him, secured the contents of the sea-chest, and departed by the same way that he had arrived."
The rector shook his head.
"Plausible, but impossible!" he said. "If there was a hole in the bottom of the cistern, there wouldn't be a foot of water in it now!"
"True!" said Sexton Blake, "The same objection occurred to me, and that is why I went down into the cistern and examined the floor."
"And what did you find?"
"I found ample evidence that there had been a hole in the floor which had recently been repaired by plugging it with stones and cement. In other words, after the thief had escaped yesterday morning, he had set to work to plug up the hole, in order to cover up all traces of his crime. Probably ho did not complete the repair of the breach until late last night, and that is why there is only a foot of water in the tank this morning. You don't happen to know, do you, who usually works in this drift?"
"Yes," said the rector. "The landlord of the Snakesby Arms, a man named Porritt, has been working in this drift for the last—"
He paused and caught his breath, for at that moment they perceived a feeble glimmer of light about twenty yards ahead of them.
"It's Porritt!" whispered the rector as, a moment later, they came within sight of a man who, by the light of a lantern, was industriously drilling holes in the roof of the drift and plugging them with blasting-powder.
Porritt paled at the sight of the two men, and regarded them with glances of obvious uneasiness. They chatted to him for a moment or two, the rector explaining that he was showing "his friend" what the interior of a jet-mine was like. They then resumed their tramp, and presently came to the end of the drift.
Here they found conclusive proof of the truth of the detective's theory; for there was a hole in the roof, which had recently been repaired, and the floor of the drift was six inches deep in water which had gushed out of the cistern.
"I said you would solve the mystery, and you have!" said the rector. "We are now standing, no doubt, under 'Old Enoch's' house. That hole, or that which was a hole yesterday, leads into the rain-water cistern under the kitchen floor, and it was through that hole that the thief gained admittance to the house."
"Without a doubt;" said Sexton Blake. "And Porritt, as you saw a few moments ago, is now drilling holes in the roof of the drift and plugging them with blasting-powder. Why?"
The rector shook his head,
"With the intention," said Sexton Blake, "of bringing down a portion of the roof and blocking up the drift, and so preventing anybody discovering these proofs of—"
The sentence ended in a startled gasp, for at that moment the striking of a match fell on the detective's ears. Porritt had acted sooner than Blake had expected. Suspecting that the two men were on his track, he had determined to bring down the roof and bury them alive!
"Run! Run for your life!" yelled Blake.
They dashed down the drift and were just in time to see Porritt apply a lighted match to the train which he had laid. At the sight of the two men he rapped out a furious oath and took to his heels. Pressing their elbows to their sides, the detective and the rector hounded after him; and even as they overtook him, and flung themselves upon him from behind, the drift re-echoed with a deafening explosion, followed by the crash of hundreds of tons of falling rock.
So violent was the concussion of the air, even at that distance, that all three men were hurled to the ground. None of them was seriously hurt, however; and three-quarters of an hour later Porritt had been safely lodged in the village lock-up, and the stolen money had been found in a cupboard at the Snakesby Arms.