I touched the crumbled bits.
“Our Finnegan excavates,” said Sir Robert. “To make his tunnel. With his large rakelike chelicerae he dislodges soil, works it into a ball, carries it in his jaws, and drops it beyond his hole.”
Sir Robert displayed half a dozen pellets on his trembling palm. “Normal balls evicted from a tiny trapdoor tunnel. Toy-size.” He knocked his cane on the huge globes at our feet. “Explain those!”
I laughed. “The children must’ve made them with mud!”
“Nonsense!” cried Sir Robert irritably, glaring about at trees and earth. “By God, somewhere, our dark beast lurks beneath his velvet lid. We might be standing on it. Christ, don’t stare! His door has beveled rims. Some architect, this Finnegan. A genius at camouflage.”
Sir Robert raved on and on, describing the dark earth, the arachnid, its fiddling legs, its hungry mouth, as the wind roared and the trees shook.
Suddenly, Sir Robert flung up his cane.
“No!” he cried.
I had no time to turn. My flesh froze, my heart stopped.
Something snatched my spine.
I thought I heard a huge bottle uncorked, a lid sprung. Then this monstrous thing crawled down my back.
“Here!” cried Sir Robert. “Now!”
He struck with his cane. I fell, dead weight. He thrust the thing from my spine. He lifted it.
The wind had cracked the dead tree branch and knocked it onto my back.
Weakly, I tried to rise, shivering. “Silly,” I said a dozen times. “Silly. Damn awful silly!”
“Silly, no. Brandy, yes!” said Sir Robert. “Brandy?”
The sky was very black now. The rain swarmed over us.
Door after door after door, and at last into Sir Robert’s country house study. A warm, rich room, where a fire smoldered on a drafty hearth. We devoured our sandwiches, waiting for the rain to cease. Sir Robert estimated that it would stop by eight o’clock, when, by moonlight, we might return, ever so reluctantly, to Chatham Forest. I remembered the fallen branch, its spidering touch, and drank both wine and brandy.
“The silence in the forest,” said Sir Robert, finishing his meal. “What murderer could achieve such a silence?”
“An insanely clever man with a series of baited, poisoned traps, with liberal quantities of insecticide, might kill off every bird, every rabbit, every insect,” I said.
“Why should he do that?”
“To convince us that there is a large spider nearby. To perfect his act.”
“We are the only ones who have noticed this silence; the police did not. Why should a murderer go to all that trouble for nothing?”
“Why is a murderer? you might well ask.”
“I am not convinced.” Sir Robert topped his food with wine. “This creature, with a voracious mouth, has cleansed the forest. With nothing left, he seized the children. The silence, the murders, the prevalence of trapdoor spiders, the large earth balls, it all fits.”
Sir Robert’s fingers crawled about the desktop, quite like a washed, manicured spider in itself. He made a cup of his frail hands, held them up.
“At the bottom of a spider’s burrow is a dustbin into which drop insect remnants on which the spider has dined. Imagine the dustbin of our Grand Finnegan!”
I imagined. I visioned a Great Legged thing fastened to its dark lid under the forest and a child running, singing in the half-light. A brisk insucked whisk of air, the song cut short, then nothing but an empty glade and the echo of a softly dropped lid, and beneath the dark earth the spider, fiddling, cabling, spinning the stunned child in its silently orchestrating legs.
What would the dustbin of such an incredible spider resemble? What the remnants of many banquets? I shuddered.
“Rain’s letting up.” Sir Robert nodded his approval. “Back to the forest. I’ve mapped the damned place for weeks. All the bodies were found in one half-open glade. That’s where the assassin, if it was a man, arrives! Or where the unnatural silk-spinning, earth-tunneling architect of special doors abides his tomb.”
“Must I hear all this?” I protested.
“Listen more.” Sir Robert downed the last of his burgundy. “The poor children’s prolapsed corpses were found at thirteen-day intervals. Which means that every two weeks our loathsome eight-legged hide-and-seeker must feed. Tonight is the fourteenth night after the last child was found, nothing but skin. Tonight our hidden friend must hunger afresh. So! Within the hour, I shall introduce you to Finnegan the great and horrible!”