The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Ronald's strange silence after his arrest decided Colwyn to relinquish his investigations and return to Durrington. His tacit admissions, coupled with the damaging evidence against him, enforced conviction in the young man's guilt in spite of the detective's previous belief to the contrary. In assisting Queensmead in his search Colwyn had cherished the hope that Ronald, if captured, would declare his innocence and gladly respond to his overture of help. But, instead of doing so, Ronald had taken up an attitude which was suspicious in the highest degree, and one which caused the detective to falter in his belief that the Glenthorpe murder case was a much deeper mystery than the police imagined. Ronald's attitude, by its accordance with the facts previously known or believed about the case, belittled the detective's own discoveries, and caused him to come to the conclusion that it was hardly worth while to go farther into it.
Nevertheless, it was in a perplexed and puzzled state of mind that he returned to Durrington, and his perplexity was not lessened by a piece of information given to him at luncheon by Sir Henry. The specialist started up from his seat as soon as he saw the detective, and made his way across to his table.
"My dear fellow," he burst out, "I have the most amazing piece of news. Who do you think this chap Ronald turns out to be? None other than James Ronald Penreath, only son of Sir James Penreath--Penreath of Twelvetrees--one of the oldest families in England, dating back before the Conquest! Not very much money, but very good blood--none better in England, in fact. The family seat is in Berkshire, and the family take their name from a village near Reading, where a battle was fought in 800 odd between the Danes and Saxons under Ethelwulf. You won't get a much older ancestry than that. Sir James married the daughter of Sir William Shirley, the member for Carbury, Cheshire--her family was not so good as his, but an honourable county family, nevertheless. This young man is their only child. A nice disgrace he's brought on the family name, the foolish fellow!"
"Who told you this?" asked Colwyn.
"Superintendent Galloway told me last night. The description of the young man was published in the London press in order to assist his capture, and it appears it was seen by the young lady to whom he is affianced, Miss Constance Willoughby, who is at present in London, engaged in war work. I have never met Miss Willoughby, but her aunt, Mrs. Hugh Brewer, with whom she is living at Lancaster Gate, is well-known to me. She is an immensely wealthy woman, who devotes her life to public works, and moves in the most exclusive philanthropic circles. The young lady was terribly distressed at the similarity of details in the description of the wanted man and that of her betrothed, particularly the scar on the cheek. Although she could not believe they referred to Mr. Penreath, she deemed it advisable to communicate with the Penreath family solicitor, Mr. Oakham, of Oakham and Pendules.
"Mr. Oakham called up Superintendent Galloway on the trunk line yesterday, to make inquiries, and shortly afterwards the news came through of Ronald's arrest. Superintendent Galloway was rather perturbed at learning that the arrested man resembled the description of the heir of one of the oldest baronetcies in England, and sought me to ask my advice. As he rather vulgarly put it, he was scared at having flushed such high game, and he thought, in view of my professional connection with some of the highest families in the land, that I might be able to give him information which would save him from the possibility of making a mistake--if such a possibility existed."
"Superintendent Galloway did not seem much worried by any such fears the last time I saw him," said Colwyn. "His one idea then was to catch Ronald and hang him as speedily as possible."
"The case wears another aspect now," replied Sir Henry gravely, oblivious of the irony in the detective's tones. "To arrest a nobody named Ronald is one thing, but to arrest the son of Penreath of Twelvetrees is quite a different matter. The police--quite rightly, in my opinion--wish to guard against the slightest possibility of mistake."
"There is no certainty that Ronald is the son of Sir James Penreath," said Colwyn thoughtfully. "Printed descriptions of people are very misleading."
"Exactly my contention," replied Sir Henry eagerly. "I told Galloway that the best way to settle the point was to let the young lady see the prisoner. The police are acting on the suggestion. Mr. Oakham is coming down with Miss Willoughby and her aunt from London by the afternoon train. They will go straight to Heathfield, where they will see Ronald before his removal to Norwich gaol. Superintendent Galloway is driving over from here in a taxicab to meet them at the station and escort them to the lock-up, and I am going with him. It is a frightful ordeal for two highly-strung ladies to have to undergo, and my professional skill may be needed to help them through with it. I shall suggest that they return here with me afterwards, and stay for the night at the hotel, instead of returning to London immediately. The night's rest will serve to recuperate their systems after the worry and excitement."
"No doubt," said Colwyn, who began to see how Sir Henry Durwood had built up such a flourishing practice as a ladies' specialist.
Sir Henry, having imparted his information, promised to acquaint him with the result of the afternoon's interview, and bustled out of the breakfast room in response to the imperious signalling of his wife's eye.
It was after dinner that evening, in the lounge, that Sir Henry again approached Colwyn, smoking a cigar, which represented the amount of a medical man's fee in certain London suburbs. But as Sir Henry counted his fees in guineas, and not in half-crowns, he could afford to be luxurious in his smoking. He took a seat beside the detective and, turning upon him his professionally portentous "all is over" face, remarked:
"There is no mistake. Ronald is Sir James Penreath's son."
"Miss Willoughby identified him, then?"
"It was a case of mutual identification. Mr. Penreath, to give him his proper name, was brought under escort into the room where we were seated. He started back at the sight of Miss Willoughby--I suppose he had no idea whom he was going to see--and said, 'Why, Constance!' The poor girl looked up at him and exclaimed, 'Oh, James, how could you?' and burst into a flood of tears. It was a very painful scene."
"I have no doubt it was--for all concerned," was Colwyn's dry comment. "Why did Miss Willoughby greet her betrothed husband in that way, as though she were convinced of his guilt? What does she know about the case?"
"Superintendent Galloway prepared her mind for the worst during the ride from the station to the gaol. She asked him a number of questions, and he told her that there was no doubt that the man she was going to see was the man who had murdered Mr. Glenthorpe."
"I suspected as much. But what else transpired during the interview? How did Penreath receive Miss Willoughby's remark?"
"Most peculiarly. He seemed about to speak, then checked himself with a half smile, looked down on the ground, and said no more. Superintendent Galloway signed to the policemen to remove him, and we withdrew. The interview did not last more than a minute or so."
"Miss Willoughby did not see him alone, then?"
"No. Galloway told her that she would not be permitted to see him alone."
"And nothing more was said on either side while Penreath was in the room?"
"Nothing. Penreath's attitude struck me as that of a man who did not wish to speak. He appeared self-conscious and confused, like a man with a secret to hide."
"Perhaps his silence was due to pride. After Miss Willoughby's tactless remark he may have thought there was no use saying anything when his sweetheart believed him guilty." Colwyn spoke without conviction; the memory of Penreath's demeanour to him after his arrest was too fresh in his mind.
"You wrong Miss Willoughby. She is only too anxious to catch at any straw of hope. When she learnt that you had been making some investigations into the case she expressed an anxiety to see you. She and her aunt yielded to my advice, and returned here to spend the night at the hotel before going back to London. As they did not feel inclined to face the ordeal of public scrutiny after the events of the day they are dining in private, and they have asked me to take you to their room when you are at liberty. Mr. Oakham has gone to Norwich, where he will stay for some days to prepare the defence of this unhappy young man, but he is coming here in the morning to see the ladies before they depart for London. He asked me to tell you that he would like to see you also."
"I shall be glad to see him, and Miss Willoughby as well. Have the ladies asked you your opinion of the case?"
"Naturally they did. I gave them the best comfort I could by hinting that in my opinion Mr. Penreath is not in a state of mind at present in which he can be held responsible for his actions. I did not say anything about epilepsy--the word is not a pleasant one to use before ladies."
"Did you tell them this in front of Galloway?"
"Certainly not. A professional man in my position cannot be too careful. I am glad now that I was so circumspect about this matter in my dealings with the police--very glad indeed. It was my duty to tell Mr. Oakham, and I did so. He was interested in what I told him--exceedingly so, and was anxious to know if I had given my opinion of Penreath's condition to anybody else. I mentioned that I had told you--in confidence."
"And it was then, no doubt, that Mr. Oakham said he would like to see me. I fancy I gather his drift. And now shall we visit Miss Willoughby?"
"Yes, I should say the ladies will be expecting us," said Sir Henry, looking at a fat watch with jewelled hands which registered golden minutes for him in Harley Street. He beckoned a waiter, and asked him to conduct them to Mrs. Brewer's sitting-room. The waiter led them along a corridor on the first floor, tapped deferentially, opened the door noiselessly in response to a feminine injunction to "come in," waited for the gentlemen to enter, and then closed the door behind them.
Two ladies rose to greet them. One was small and overdressed, with fluffy hair and China blue eyes. She carried some knitting in her hand, and a pet dog under her arm. Colwyn had no difficulty in identifying her with the frequent photographs of Mrs. Brewer which appeared in Society and illustrated papers. She belonged to a class of women who took advantage of the war to advertise themselves by philanthropic benefactions and war work, but she was able to distance most of her competitors for newspaper notoriety by reason of her wealth. Her niece, Miss Constance Willoughby, was of a different type. She was tall and graceful, with dark eyes and level brows. A straight nose and a firm chin indicated that their possessor was not lacking in a will of her own. Her manner was self-possessed and assured--a trifle too much so for a sensitive girl in the circumstances, Colwyn thought. Then he remembered having read in some paper that Miss Willoughby was one of the leaders of the new feminist movement which believed that the war had brought about the complete emancipation of English woman-hood, and with it the right to possess and display those qualities of character which hitherto were supposed to be peculiarly masculine. It was perhaps owing to her advocacy of these claims that Miss Willoughby felt herself called upon to display self-possession and self-control at a trying time. Colwyn, appraising her with his clear eye as Sir Henry introduced him, found himself speculating as to the reasons which had caused Penreath and her to fall in love with one another.
"Please sit down, Mr. Colwyn," said Mrs. Brewer, resuming a comfortable arm-chair in front of the fire, and adjusting the Pekingese on her lap. "I am so grateful to you for coming to see us in this unconventional way. I have been so anxious to see you! Everybody has heard of you, Mr. Colwyn--you're so famous. It was only the other day that I was reading a long article about you in some paper or other. I forget the name of the paper, but I remember that it said a lot of flattering things about you and your discoveries in crime. It said----Oh, you naughty, naughty Jellicoe." This to the dog, which had become entangled in the skein of wool on her lap, and was making frantic efforts to free itself. "Bad little doggie, you've ruined this sock, and some poor soldier will have to go with bare feet because you've been naughty! Are you a judge of Pekingese, Mr. Colwyn? Don't you think Jellicoe a dear?"
"Do you mean Sir John Jellicoe, Mrs. Brewer?"
"Of course not! I mean my Pekingese. I've named him after our great gallant commander, because it is through him we are all able to sleep safe and sound in our beds these dreadful nights."
"Sir John Jellicoe ought to feel flattered," said Colwyn gravely.
"Yes, I really think he should," replied Mrs. Brewer innocently. "Jellicoe is not a pretty name for a dog, but I think we should all be patriotic just now. But tell me what you think of this dreadful case, Mr. Colwyn. I am so frightfully distressed about it that I really don't know what to do. How could Mr. Penreath do such a shocking thing? Why didn't he go back to the front, if he had to kill somebody, instead of hiding away from everybody and murdering this poor old man in this wild spot? Such a disgrace to us all!"
"Mr. Penreath has been in the Army, then?" asked Colwyn.
"Of course. Didn't you know? He was in Mesopotamia, but was sent to the West Front recently, where he won the D.S.O. for an act of great gallantry under heavy fire, but was shortly afterwards invalided out of the Army. It was in all the papers at the time."
"You forget, my dear lady, that Mr. Penreath did not disclose his full name while he was staying here," interposed Sir Henry solemnly. "I myself was in complete ignorance of his identity until last night."
"Why, of course--you told me this afternoon. My poor head! Whatever induced Mr. Penreath to do such a thing as to conceal his name? So common and vulgar! What motive could he have? What do you think his motive was, Mr. Colwyn?"
"I think, Aunt Florence, as your nerves are bad, that you had better permit me to talk to Mr. Colwyn," said Miss Willoughby, speaking for the first time. "Otherwise we shall get into a worse tangle than the Pekingese."
"I am sure I shall be only too relieved if you will talk to Mr. Colwyn," rejoined the elder woman. "My head is really not equal to the task--my nerves are so frightfully unstrung."
Mrs. Brewer returned to the task of untangling the dog from the knitting wool, and the girl faced the detective earnestly.
"Mr. Colwyn," she said, "I understand you have been investigating this terrible affair. Will you tell me what you think of it? Do you believe that Mr. Penreath is guilty? You need not fear to be frank with me."
"I will not hesitate to be so. I shall be pleased to give you my conclusions about this case--so far as I have formed any--but I should be greatly obliged if you would answer a few questions first. That might help me to clear up one or two points on which I am at present in doubt, and make my statement to you clearer."
"Ask me any questions you wish."
"Thank you. In the first place, how long is it since Mr. Penreath returned from the front, invalided out of the Army?"
"About two months ago."
"Was he wounded?"
"No. I understand that he broke down through shell-shock, and the doctors said that it would be some time before he completely recovered. I do not know the details. Mr. Penreath was very sensitive and reticent about the matter, and so I forbore questioning him."
Colwyn nodded sympathetically.
"I understand. Have you noticed much difference in his demeanour since he returned from the front?"
"That question is a little difficult to answer," said the girl, hesitating.
"I can quite understand how you feel about it. My motive in asking the question is to see if we can ascertain why Penreath came to Norfolk under a concealed name, and then wandered over to this place, Flegne, in an almost penniless condition, when he had plenty of friends who would have supplied his needs, and, I should say, had money of his own in the bank, for it is quite certain that he would be in receipt of an allowance from his father. He acted most unusually for a young man of his standing and position, and I am wondering if shell-shock left him in that restless, unsettled, reckless condition which is one of its worst effects."
"I have seen so little of him since he returned from the front that it is difficult for me to answer you," said the girl, after a pause. "He went down to Berkshire to his father's place on his return, and stayed there a month. Then he came to London, and we met several times, but rarely alone. I am very deeply engaged in war work, and was unable to give him much of my time. When I did see him he struck me as rather moody and distrait, but I put that down to his illness, and the fact that he must naturally feel unhappy at his forced inaction. My friends paid him much attention and sent him many invitations--in fact, they would have made quite a fuss of him if he had let them--and, of course, he had friends of his own, but he didn't seem to want to go anywhere, and he told me once or twice that he wished people would let him alone. I pointed out to him that he had his duty to do in Society as well as at the front, but he said he disliked Society, particularly in war-time. About three weeks ago he told me one night at a dance that he was sick of London, and thought he would be better for a change of air. He was looking rather pale, and I agreed he would be the better for a change. I asked him where he intended going, and he said he thought he would try the east coast--he didn't say what part. He left me with the intention of going away the next day. That was the last I saw of him--until to-day."
"You got no letter from him?"
"I did not hear from him--nor of him--until I saw his description published in the London newspapers as that of a criminal wanted by the police."
Miss Willoughby uttered the last sentence in some bitterness, with a sparkle of resentment in her eyes. It was apparent that she considered she had been badly treated by her lover, and that his arrest had hardened, instead of softening, her feelings of resentment.
"I am much obliged to you for answering my questions, Miss Willoughby," said the detective. "As I told you before, they are not dictated by curiosity, but in the hope of eliciting some information which would throw light on this puzzling case."
"A puzzling case! You consider it a puzzling case, Mr. Colwyn?" She glanced at him with a more eager and girlish expression than he had yet seen on her face. "I understood from the police officer that there was no room for doubt in the matter. Sir Henry Durwood shares the police view." She turned a swift questioning glance in the specialist's direction.
Sir Henry caught the glance, and felt it incumbent upon himself to utter a solemn commonplace.
"I beg of you not to raise false hopes in Miss Willoughby's breast, Mr. Colwyn," he said.
"I have no intention of doing so," returned the detective. "On the other hand, I protest against everybody condemning Penreath until it is certain he is guilty. And now, Miss Willoughby, I will tell you what I have discovered."
He entered upon a brief account of his investigations at the inn, with the exception that he omitted the visit of Peggy to the murdered man's chamber and her subsequent explanation. Miss Willoughby listened attentively, and, when he had concluded, remarked:
"Do you think the wax and tallow candle-grease dropped in the room suggests the presence of two persons?"
"I feel sure that it does."
"And who do you think the other was?"
"It is not yet proved that Penreath was one of them."
She flushed under the implied reproof, and hurriedly added:
"Have you acquainted the police with your discoveries, Mr. Colwyn?"
"I have, and I am bound to say that they attach very little importance to them."
"Do you propose to go any further with your investigations?"
"I would prefer not to answer that question until I have seen Mr. Oakham to-morrow."