The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
"Everything fits in beautifully," said Superintendent Galloway confidently. "I never knew a clearer case. All that remains for me to do is to lay my hands on this chap Ronald, and an intelligent jury will see to the rest."
The police official and the detective had dined together in the small bar parlour on Colwyn's return from driving Mr. Cromering and Sir Henry Durwood to Heathfield Station. The superintendent had done more than justice to the meal, and a subsequent glass of the smugglers' brandy had so mellowed the milk of human kindness in his composition that he felt inclined for a little friendly conversation with his companion.
"You are very confident," said Colwyn.
"Of course I am confident. I have reason to be so. Everything I have seen to-day supports my original theory about this crime."
"And what is your theory as to the manner in which this crime was committed? I have gathered a general idea of the line you are taking by listening to your conversation this afternoon, but I should like you to state your theory in precise terms. It is an interesting case, with some peculiar points about it which a frank discussion might help to elucidate."
Superintendent Galloway looked suspiciously at Colwyn out of his small hard grey eyes. His official mind scented an attempt to trap him, and his Norfolk prudence prompted him to get what he could from the detective but to give nothing away in return.
"I see you're suspicious of me, Galloway," continued Colwyn with a smile. "You've heard of city detectives and their ways, and you're thinking to yourself that a Norfolk man is more than a match for any of them."
This sally was so akin to what was passing in the superintendent's mind that a grim smile momentarily relaxed his rugged features.
"My thoughts are my own, I suppose," he said.
"Not when you've just given them away," replied Colwyn, in a bantering tone. "My dear Galloway, your ingenuous countenance is a mirror to your mind, in which he who runs may read. But you are quite wrong in suspecting me. I have no ulterior motive. My only interest in this crime--or in any crime--is to solve it. Anybody can have the credit, as far as I am concerned. Newspaper notoriety is nothing to me."
"You've managed to get a good deal of it without looking for it, then," retorted the superintendent cannily. "It was only the other day I was reading a long article in one of the London newspapers about you, praising you for tracking the criminals in the Treasury Bonds case. The police were not mentioned."
"Fame--or notoriety--sometimes comes to those who seek it least," replied the detective genially. "I assure you that article came unasked. I'm a stranger to the political art of keeping sweet with the journalists--it was a statesman, you know, who summed up gratitude as a lively sense of favours to come. Now, in this case, let us play fair, actuated by the one desire to see that justice is done. This case does not strike me as quite such a simple affair as it seems to you. You approach it with a preconceived theory to which you are determined to adhere. Your theory is plausible and convincing--to some extent--but that is all the more reason why you should examine and test every link in the chain. You cannot solve difficult points by ignoring them and, to my mind, there are some difficult and perplexing features about this case which do not altogether fit in with your theory."
"If my mind is an open book to you perhaps you'll tell me what my theory is," responded Superintendent Galloway, sourly.
"Yes; that's a fair challenge." The detective pushed back his chair, and stood with his back against the mantelpiece, with a cigar in his mouth. "Your theory in this case is that chance and opportunity have made the crime and the criminal. Chance brings this young man Ronald to this lonely Norfolk inn, and sees to it that he is allowed to remain when the landlord wants to turn him away. Chance throws him into the society of a man of culture and education, who is only too glad of the opportunity of relieving the tedium of his surroundings in this rough uncultivated place by passing a few hours in the companionship of a man of his own rank of life. Chance contrives that this gentleman shall have in his possession a large sum of money which he shows to Ronald, who is greatly in need of money. Opportunity suggests the murder, provides the weapon, and gives Ronald the next room to his intended victim in a wing of the inn occupied by nobody else.
"Your theory as to how the murder was actually committed strikes me as possible enough--up to a certain point. You think that Ronald, after waiting until everybody in the inn is likely to be asleep, steals out of his own room to the room of his victim. He finds the door locked. Chance, however, has thoughtfully provided him with a window opening on to a hillside, which enables him to climb out of his own window and into the window of the next room. He gets in, murders Mr. Glenthorpe, secures his money, and, finding the key of his bedroom under the pillow, carries the body of his victim downstairs, and outside, casting it into a deep hole some distance from the house, in the hope of preventing or retarding discovery of the crime. Through an oversight he forgets the key in the door, which he had placed in the outside before carrying off the body, intending when he returned to lock the door and carry the key away with him.
"Next morning you have the highly suspicious circumstance of the young man's hurried departure, his refusal to have his boots cleaned, the incident of the L1 note, and the unshakable fact that the footprints leading to and from the pit where the body was discovered had been made by his boots.
"As a further contributory link in the chain of evidence against Ronald, you intend to use the fact that he was turned out of the Grand Hotel, Durrington, the previous day because he couldn't pay his hotel bill, because this fact, combined with the fact that Mr. Glenthorpe showed him the money he had drawn from the bank at Heathfield, supplies a strong motive for the crime. In this connection you intend to try to establish that the Treasury note which Ronald left to pay his inn bill was one of those in Mr. Glenthorpe's possession, because it happens to be one of the First Treasury issue, printed in black and white, and all Mr. Glenthorpe's notes were of that issue, according to the murdered man's own statement. That, I take it, is the police theory of this case."
"It is," said Superintendent Galloway. "You've put it a bit more fancifully than I should, but it comes to the same thing. But what do you make out of the incident at the Grand Hotel, Durrington, yesterday morning? You were there, and saw it all. Does it seem strange to you that Ronald should have come straight to this inn and committed a murder after making that scene at the hotel? Do you think it suggests that Ronald has, well--impulses of violence, let us say?" Superintendent Galloway poured himself out another glass of old brandy and sipped it deliberately, watching the detective cautiously between the sips.
Colwyn was silent for a moment. He was quick to comprehend the double-barrelled motive which underlay the superintendent's question, and he had no intention of letting the police officer pump him for his own ends.
"Sir Henry Durwood would be better able to answer that question than I," he said.
"I asked him when we were driving over here this afternoon, but he shut up like an oyster--you know what these professional men are, with their stiff-and-starched ideas of etiquette," grumbled the superintendent.
A flicker of amusement showed in Colwyn's eyes. Really the superintendent was easily drawn, for an East Anglian countryman. "After all, it is only Sir Henry Durwood's opinion that Ronald intended violence at the Grand," he said. "Sir Henry did not give him the opportunity to carry out his intention--if he had such an intention."
"Exactly my opinion," exclaimed Superintendent Galloway, eagerly rising to the fly. "I have ascertained that Ronald's behaviour during the time he was staying at the hotel was that of an ordinary sane Englishman. The proprietor says he was quite a gentleman, with nothing eccentric or peculiar about him, and the servants say the same. They are the best judges, after all. And nobody noticed anything peculiar about him at the breakfast table except yourself and Sir Henry--and what happened? Nothing, except that he was a bit excited--and no wonder, after the young man had just been ordered to leave the hotel. Then Sir Henry grabbed hold of him and he fainted--or pretended to faint; it may have been all part of his game. Sir Henry may have thought he intended to do something or other, but no British judge would admit that as evidence for the defence. This chap Ronald is as sane as you or me, and a deep, cunning cold-blooded scoundrel to boot. If the defence try to put up a plea of insanity they'll find themselves in the wrong box. There's not a jury in the world that wouldn't hang him on the evidence against him."
This time Colwyn could not forbear smiling at the guileless way in which Superintendent Galloway had revealed the thoughts which had been passing through his mind. But his amusement was momentary, and it was in a grave, earnest tone that he replied:
"The hotel incident is a puzzling one, but I agree with you that it doesn't enter into the police case against Ronald. It is your duty to deal with the facts of the case, and if you think that Ronald committed this murder----"
"If I think that Ronald committed this murder!" Superintendent Galloway's interruption was both amazed and indignant. "I'm as certain he committed the murder as if I saw him do it with my own eyes. Did you, or anybody else, ever see a clearer case?"
"It is because the circumstantial evidence against him is so strong that I speak as I do," continued Colwyn, in the same earnest tones. "Innocent men have been hanged in England before now on circumstantial evidence. It is for that very reason that we should guard ourselves against the tendency to accept the circumstantial evidence against him as proof of his guilt, instead of examining all the facts with an open mind. We are the investigators of the circumstances: it is not for us to prejudge. That is the worst of circumstantial evidence: it tends to prejudgment, and sometimes to the ignoring of circumstances and facts which might tell in favour of the suspect, if they were examined with a more impartial eye. It is for these reasons that I am always careful to suspend judgment in cases of circumstantial evidence, and examine carefully even the smallest trifles which might tell in favour of the man to whom circumstantial evidence points.
"Have you discovered anything, since you have been at the inn, which shakes the theory that Ronald is the murderer?"
"I have come to the conclusion that the case is much more complex and puzzling than was at first supposed."
"I should like to know what makes you think that," returned Superintendent Galloway. "Up to the present I have seen nothing to shake my conviction that Ronald is the guilty man. What have you discovered that makes you think otherwise?"
"I do not go as far as that--yet. But I have come across certain things which, to my mind, need elucidation before it is possible to pronounce definitely on Ronald's guilt or innocence. To take them consecutively, let me repeat that I cannot reconcile Ronald's excitable conduct at the Durrington hotel with his supposed actions at the inn. In the former case he behaved like a man who, whether insane or merely excited, had not the slightest fear of the consequences. At this inn he acted like a crafty cautious scoundrel who had weighed the consequences of his acts beforehand, and took every possible precaution to save his own skin. You see nothing inconsistent in this----"
"I do not," interjected the superintendent firmly.
"Quite so. Then, the next point that perplexes me is why Ronald took the trouble to carry the body of his victim to the pit and throw it in."
"For the motive of concealment, and to retard discovery. But for the footprints it would probably have given him several days--perhaps weeks--in which to make good his escape."
"Did he not run a bigger risk of discovery by carrying the body downstairs in an occupied house, and across several hundred yards of open land close to the village?"
"Not in a remote spot like this. They keep early hours in this part of the country. I guarantee if you walked through the village now you wouldn't see a soul stirring."
"Ronald was not likely to know that. Next, how did Ronald, a stranger to the place, know the locality of this pit so accurately as to be able to walk straight to it?"
"Easily. He might have approached the inn from that side, and passed it on his way. And nothing is more likely than Mr. Glenthorpe would tell him about the pit in the course of his conversation about the excavations. There is also the possibility that Ronald knew of the existence of the pit from a previous visit to this part of the country."
"My next point is that Ronald was put to sleep in what he imagined was an upstairs bedroom. How did he discover that his bedroom, and the bedroom of Mr. Glenthorpe's adjoining, opened on to a hillside which enabled him to get out of one bedroom and into the other?"
"Again, Mr. Glenthorpe probably told him--he seems to have been a garrulous old chap, according to all accounts. Or Ronald may have looked out of his window when he was retiring, and seen it for himself. I always look out of a bedroom window, and particularly if it is a strange bedroom, before getting into bed."
"These are matters of opinion, and, though your explanations are possible ones, I do not agree with you. We are looking at this case from entirely different points of view. You believe that Ronald committed the murder, and you are allowing that belief to colour everything connected with the case. I am looking at this murder as a mystery which has not yet been solved, and, without excluding the possibility that Ronald is the murderer, I am not going, because of the circumstantial evidence against him, to accept his guilt as a foregone conclusion until I have carefully examined and tested all the facts for and against that theory.
"The one outstanding probability is that Mr. Glenthorpe was murdered for his money. Now, excluding for the time being the circumstantial evidence against Ronald--though without losing sight of it--the next point that arises is was he murdered by somebody in the inn or by somebody from outside--say, for example, one of the villagers employed on his excavation works. The waiter's story of the missing knife suggests the former theory, but I do not regard that evidence as incontrovertible. The knife might have been stolen from the kitchen by a man who had been drinking at the bar; indeed, until we have recovered the weapon it is not even established that this was the knife with which the murder was committed. It might have been some other knife. We must not take the waiter's story for granted until we have recovered the knife, and not necessarily then. But that story, as it stands, inclines to support the theory that the murder was committed by somebody in the inn. On the other hand, the theory of an outside murderer lends itself to a very plausible reconstruction of the crime. Suppose, for example, the murder had been committed by one of Mr. Glenthorpe's workmen, actuated by the dual motives of revenge and robbery, or by either motive. Apparently the whole village knew of Mr. Glenthorpe's intention to draw this money which was in his possession when he was murdered--he seems to have been a man who talked very freely of his private affairs--and the amount, L300, would be a fortune to an agricultural labourer or a fisherman. Such a man would know all about the bedroom windows on that side of the inn opening on to the hillside, and would naturally choose that means of entry to commit the crime. And, if he were a labourer in Mr. Glenthorpe's employ, the thought of concealing the body by casting it into the pit would probably occur to him."
"I do not think there is much in that theory," said Superintendent Galloway thoughtfully. "Still, it is worth putting to the test. I'll inquire in the morning if any of the villagers are suspicious characters, or whether any of Glenthorpe's men had a grudge against him."
"Now let us leave theories and speculations and come to facts. Our investigations of the murdered man's room this afternoon gave us several clues, not the least important of which is that we are enabled to fix the actual time of the murder with some degree of accuracy. It is always useful, in a case of murder, to be able to establish the approximate time at which it was committed. In this case, the murder was certainly committed between the hours of 11 p.m. and 11.30 p.m., and, in all probability, not much before half-past eleven."
"How do you fix it so accurately as that?" asked the police officer, looking keenly at the detective.
"According to Ann, the gentlemen went to their rooms about half-past ten, and she turned off the gas downstairs shortly afterwards, and went to bed herself. When we examined the room this afternoon, we found patches of red mud of the same colour and consistency of the soil outside the window leading from the window to the bedside, and a pool--a small isolated pool--of water near the open window. There were, as you recollect, no footprints outside the window. On the other hand, the footprints from the inn to the pit are clear and distinct. Rain commenced to fall last night shortly before eleven, but it did not fall heavily until eleven o'clock. From then till half-past eleven it was a regular downpour, when it ceased, and it has not rained since. Now, the patches of red mud in the bedroom, and the obliteration of footprints outside the window, prove that the murderer entered the room during the storm, but the footprints leading to the pit prove that the body was not removed from the room until the rain had completely ceased, otherwise they would have been obliterated also, or partly obliterated. These facts make it clear that the murder was committed between eleven and half-past, but the pool of water near the window enables us to fix the time more accurately still, and say that he entered the room during the time the rain was at its heaviest--that is, between ten minutes past and half-past eleven."
"I'm hanged if I see how you fix it so definitely," said the superintendent, who had been following the other's deductions with interest. "The pool of water may have collected at any time, once the window was open."
"My dear Galloway, you are working on the rule-of-thumb deduction that the rain blew in the open window and formed the pool. As a matter of fact, it did nothing of the kind. The wind was blowing the other way, and away from that side of the house. Furthermore, the hill on that side of the inn acts as a natural barrier against rain and weather."
"Then how the deuce do you account for the water in the room?"
"Surely you have not forgotten the piece of black material we found sticking on the nail outside the window?"
"I have not forgotten it, but I do not see how you connect it with the pool of water."
"Because it is a piece of umbrella silk. The murderer was carrying an umbrella--and an open umbrella--have you the piece of silk? If so, let us look at it."
The superintendent produced the square inch of silk from his waistcoat pocket, and examined it closely: "Of course it's umbrella silk," he exclaimed, slapping his leg. "Funny I didn't recognise it at the time."
"Perhaps I wouldn't have recognised it myself, but for the fact that a piece of umbrella silk formed an important clue in a recent case I was engaged upon," replied the detective. "Experience counts for a lot--sometimes. See, this piece of silk is hemmed on the edge--pretty conclusive proof that the murderer was carrying the umbrella open, to shield him from the rain, and that it caught on the nail outside the window, tearing off the edge. He closed it as he got inside the window, and placed it near the window-sill, and the rain dripped off it and formed the pool of water. The size of the pool, and the fact that the murderer carried an open umbrella to shield him, prove pretty conclusively that he made his entrance into the room during the time the rain was falling heaviest--which was between 11.10 p.m. and 11.30.
"We now come to what is the most important discovery of all--the pieces of candle-grease we found in the murdered man's bedroom. They help to establish two curious facts, the least important of which is that somebody tried to light the gas in Mr. Glenthorpe's room last night, and, failing to do so, went downstairs and turned on the gas at the meter."
"What if they did?" grunted Superintendent Galloway, pouring out another glass of brandy. He was secretly annoyed at having overlooked the clue of the umbrella silk, and was human enough to be angry with the detective for opening his eyes to the fact. "I don't see how you're going to prove it, and, even if you did, it doesn't matter a dump one way or the other."
"We'll let that point go," rejoined Colwyn curtly. "Your attitude in shutting your eyes to facts hardly encourages me to proceed, but I'll try. Would you mind showing me those bits of candle-grease you picked up in the bedroom?"
Superintendent Galloway produced a metal match-box from his pocket, emptied some pieces of candle-grease, a burnt wooden match and a broken matchhead from it, and sat back eyeing the detective with a supercilious smile. Colwyn, after examining them closely, brought from his own pocket an envelope, and shook several more pieces of candle-grease on the table.
"Look at these pieces of candle-grease side by side," he said. "Yours were picked up alongside the bed; I found mine underneath the gas burner."
Superintendent Galloway glanced at the pieces of candle-grease with the same supercilious smile. "I see them," he said. "They are pieces of candle-grease. What of them?"
"Do you not see that they are different kinds of candle-grease? The pieces you picked up alongside the bed are tallow; mine, picked up from underneath the gas-globe, are wax."
The Superintendent had not noticed the difference in the candle-grease, but he thought it beneath his dignity to examine them again. "The murderer may have had two candles," he said oracularly. "Anyway, what does it matter? They're both candle-grease."
Colwyn swept his fragments back into his pocket with a quick impatient gesture. "Both candle-grease, as you say," he returned sharply. "We do not seem to be making much progress in our investigations, so let us discontinue them. Good-night."