The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
When Colwyn went in to lunch the following day after a walk on the front, he found Sir Henry awaiting him in the lounge with a visitor whose identity the detective guessed before Sir Henry introduced him.
"This is Mr. Oakham," said Sir Henry. "I have told him of your investigation into this painful case which has brought him to Norfolk."
"An investigation in which you helped," said Colwyn, with a smile.
"I am afraid it would be stretching the fable of the mouse and the lion to suggest that I was able to help such a renowned criminal investigator as yourself," returned Sir Henry waggishly. "When Mr. Oakham learnt that you had been investigating this case he expressed a strong desire to see you."
"I am returning to London by the afternoon express, Mr. Colwyn," said the solicitor. "I should be glad if you could spare me a little of your time before I go."
"Certainly," replied Colwyn, courteously. "It had better be at once, had it not? You have not very much time at your disposal."
"If it does not inconvenience you," replied Mr. Oakham politely. "But your lunch----"
"That can wait," said the detective. "I feel deeply interested in this case of young Penreath."
"Mr. Oakham saw him this morning before coming over," said Sir Henry. "He is quite mad, and refuses to say anything. Therefore, we have come to the conclusion----"
"Really, Sir Henry, you shouldn't have said that." Mr. Oakham's tone was both shocked and expostulatory.
"Why not?" retorted Sir Henry innocently. "Mr. Colwyn knows all about it--I told him myself. I thought you wanted him to help you?"
"I am aware of that, but, my dear sir, this is an extremely delicate and difficult business. As Mr. Penreath's professional adviser, I must beg of you to exercise more reticence."
"Then I had better go and have my lunch while you two have a chat," said Sir Henry urbanely, "or I shall only be putting my foot in it again. Mr. Oakham, I shall see you before you go." Sir Henry moved off in the direction of the luncheon room.
"Perhaps you will come to my sitting-room," said Colwyn to Mr. Oakham. "We can talk quietly there."
"Thank you," responded Mr. Oakham, and he went with the detective upstairs.
Mr. Oakham, of Oakham and Pendules, Temple Gardens, was a little white-haired man of seventy, attired in the sombre black of the Victorian era, with a polished reticent manner befitting the senior partner of a firm of solicitors owning the most aristocratic practice in England; a firm so eminently respectable that they never rendered a bill of costs to a client until he was dead, when the amount of legal expenses incurred during his lifetime was treated as a charge upon the family estate, and deducted from the moneys accruing to the next heir, who, in his turn, was allowed to run his allotted course without a bill from Oakham and Pendules. They were a discreet and dignified firm, as ancient as some of the names whose family secrets were locked away in their office deed boxes, and were reputed to know more of the inner history of the gentry in Burke's Peerage than all the rest of the legal profession put together.
The arrest of the only son of Sir James Penreath, of Twelvetrees, Berks, on a charge of murder, had shocked Mr. Oakham deeply. Divorces had come his way in plenty, though he remembered the day when they were considered scandalous in good families. But the modern generation had changed all that, and Mr. Oakham had since listened to so many stories of marital wrongs, and had assisted in obtaining so many orders for restitution of conjugal rights, that he had come to regard divorce as fashionable enough to be respectable. He was intimately versed in most human failings and follies, and a past master in preventing their consequences coming to light. Financial embarrassments he was well used to--they might almost be said to be his forte--for many of his clients had more lineage than money, but the crime of murder was a thing outside his professional experience.
The upper classes of the present generation had, in this respect at least, improved on the morals of their freebooting ancestors, and murder had gone so completely out of fashion among the aristocracy that Mr. Oakham had never been called upon to prepare the defence of a client charged with killing a fellow creature. Mr. Oakham regarded murder as an ungentlemanly crime. He believed that no gentleman would commit murder unless he were mad. Since his arrival in Norfolk he had come to the conclusion that young Penreath was not only mad, but that he had committed the murder with which he stood charged. Sir Henry Durwood had been responsible for the first opinion, and the police had helped him to form the second. Two interviews he had had with his client since his arrest had strengthened and deepened both convictions.
It was in this frame of mind that Mr. Oakham seated himself in the detective's sitting room. He accepted a cigar from Colwyn's case, and looked amiably at his companion, who waited for him to speak. The interview had been of the solicitor's seeking, and it was for him to disclose his object in doing so.
"This is a very unfortunate case, Mr. Colwyn," the solicitor remarked.
"Yes; it seems so," replied Colwyn.
"I am afraid there is not the slightest doubt that this unhappy young man has committed this murder."
"You have arrived at that conclusion?"
"It is impossible to arrive at any other conclusion, in view of the evidence."
"It is purely circumstantial. I thought that perhaps Penreath would have some statement to make which would throw a different light on the case."
"I will be frank with you, Mr. Colwyn," said the solicitor. "You are acquainted with all the facts of the case, and I hope you will be able to help us. Penreath's attitude is a very strange one. Apparently he does not apprehend the grave position in which he stands. I am forced to the conclusion that he is suffering from an unhappy aberration of the intellect, which has led to his committing this crime. His conduct since coming to Norfolk has not been that of a sane man. He has hidden himself away from his friends, and stayed here under a false name. I understand that he behaved in an eccentric and violent way in the breakfast room of this hotel on the morning of the day he left for the place where the murder was subsequently committed."
"You have learnt this from Sir Henry, I presume?"
"Yes. Sir Henry has conveyed to me his opinion, based on his observation of Mr. Penreath's eccentricity at the breakfast table the last morning of his stay here, that Mr. Penreath is an epileptic, liable to attacks of furor epilepticus--a phase of the disease which sometimes leads to outbreaks of terrible violence. He thought it advisable that I should know this at once, in view of what has happened since. Sir Henry informed me that he confided a similar opinion to you, as you were present at the time, and assisted him to convey Penreath upstairs. May I ask what opinion you formed of his behaviour at the breakfast table, Mr. Colwyn?"
"I thought he was excited--nothing more."
"But the violence, Mr. Colwyn! Sir Henry Durwood says Penreath was about to commit a violent assault on the people at the next table when he interfered."
"The violence was not apparent--to me," returned the detective, who did not feel called upon to disclose his secret belief that Sir Henry had acted hastily. "Apart from the excitement he displayed on this particular morning, Penreath seemed to me a normal and average young Englishman of his class. I certainly saw no signs of insanity about him. It occurred to me at the time that his excitement might be the outcome of shell-shock. We had had an air raid two nights before, and some shell-shock cases are badly affected by air raids. I have since been informed that Penreath was invalided out of the Army recently, suffering from shell-shock."
"In Sir Henry's opinion the shell-shock has aggravated a tendency to the disease."
"Has Penreath ever shown any previous signs of epilepsy?"
"Not so far as I am aware, but his mother developed the disease in later years, and ultimately died from it. Her illness was a source of great worry and anxiety to Sir James. And epilepsy is hereditary."
"Pathologists differ on that point. I know something of the disease, and I doubt whether Penreath is an epileptic. He showed none of the symptoms which I have always associated with epilepsy."
"An eminent specialist like Sir Henry is hardly likely to be mistaken. The fact that Penreath seemed a sane and collected individual to your eye proves nothing. Epileptic attacks are intermittent, and the sufferer may appear quite sane between the attacks. Epilepsy is a remarkable disease. A latent tendency to it may exist for years without those nearest and dearest to the sufferer suspecting it, so Sir Henry says. Penreath's case is a very strange and sad one."
"It is a strange case in very way," said Colwyn earnestly. "Why should a young man like Penreath go over to this remote Norfolk village, where he had not been before, and murder an old man whom he had never seen previously? The police theory that this murder was committed for the sake of L300 which the victim had drawn out of the bank that day seems incredible to me, in the case of a young man like Penreath."
"The only way of accounting for the whole unhappy business is on Sir Henry's hypothesis that Penreath is mad. In acute epileptic mania there are cases in which there is a seeming calmness of conduct, and these are the most dangerous of all. The patient walks about like a man in a dream, impelled by a force which he cannot resist, and does all sorts of things without conscious purpose. He will take long walks to places he has never been, will steal money or valuables, and commit murder or suicide with apparent coolness and cunning. Sir Henry describes this as automatic action, and he says that it is a notable characteristic of the form of epileptic mania from which Penreath is suffering. You will observe that these symptoms fit in with all the facts of the case against Penreath. The facts, unfortunately, are so clear that there is no gainsaying them."
"It seems so now," said Colwyn thoughtfully. "Yet, when I was investigating the facts at the time, I came across several points which seemed to suggest the possibility of an alternative theory to the police theory."
"I should like to know what those points are."
"I will tell you."
The detective proceeded to set forth the result of his visit to the inn, and the solicitor listened to him with close attention. When he had finished Mr. Oakham remarked:
"I am afraid there is not much in these points, Mr. Colwyn. Your suggestion that there were two persons in the murdered man's room is interesting, but you have no evidence to support it. The girl's explanation of her visit to the room is probably the true one. Far be it from me, as Penreath's legal adviser, to throw away the slightest straw of hope, but your conjectures--for, to my mind, they are nothing more--are nothing against the array of facts and suspicious circumstances which have been collected by the police. And even if the police case were less strong, there is another grave fact which we cannot overlook."
"You mean that Penreath refuses to say anything?" said Colwyn.
"He appears to be somewhat indifferent to the outcome," returned the lawyer guardedly.
"It is his silence which baffles me," said Colwyn. "I saw him alone after his arrest, and told him I was willing to help him if he could tell me anything which would assist me to establish his innocence--if he were innocent. He replied that he had nothing to say."
"What you tell me deepens my conviction that Penreath does not realise the position in which he is placed, and cannot be held accountable for his actions."
"Is it your intention to plead mental incapacity at the trial?"
"Sir Henry Durwood has offered to give evidence that, in his opinion, Penreath is not responsible for his actions. The Penreath family is under a debt of gratitude to Sir Henry. I consider it little short of providential that Sir Henry was staying here at the time." Like most lawyers, Mr. Oakham had a firm belief in the interposition of Providence--particularly in the affairs of the families of the great. "And that is the reason for my coming over here to see you this morning, Mr. Colwyn. You were present at the breakfast table scene--you witnessed this young man's eccentricity and violence. The Penreath family is already under a debt of gratitude to you--will you increase the obligation? In other words, will you give evidence in support of the defence at the trial?"
"You want me to assist you in convincing the jury that Penreath is a criminal lunatic," said Colwyn. "That is what your defence amounts to. It is a grave responsibility. Doctors and specialists are sometimes mistaken, you know."
"I am afraid there is very little doubt in this case. Here is a young man of birth and breeding, who hides from his friends under an assumed name, behaves in public in an eccentric manner, is turned out of his hotel, goes to a remote inn, and disappears before anybody is up. The body of a gentleman who occupied the room next to him is subsequently discovered in a pit close by, and the footprints leading to the pit are those of our young friend. The young man is subsequently arrested close to the place where the body was thrown, and not then, or since, has he offered his friends any explanation of his actions. In the circumstances, therefore, I shall avail myself of Sir Henry's evidence. In my own mind--from my own observation and conversation with Penreath--I am convinced that he cannot be held responsible for his actions. In view of the tremendously strong case against him, in view of his peculiar attitude to you--and others--in the face of accusation, and in view of his previous eccentric behaviour, I shall take the only possible course to save the son of Penreath of Twelvetrees from the gallows. I had hoped, Mr. Colwyn, that you, who witnessed the scene at this hotel, and subsequently helped Sir Henry Durwood convey this unhappy young man upstairs, would see your way clear to support Sir Henry's expert opinion that this young man is insane. Your reputation and renown would carry weight with the jury."
"I am sorry, but I am afraid you must do without me," replied Colwyn. "In view of Penreath's silence I can come to no other conclusion, though against my better judgment, than that he is guilty, but I cannot take upon myself the responsibility of declaring that he is insane. In spite of Sir Henry Durwood's opinion, I cannot believe that he is, or was. It will be a difficult defence to establish in the case of Penreath. If you wish the jury to say that Penreath is the victim of what French writers call epilepsie larvee, in which an outbreak of brutal or homicidal violence takes the place of an epileptic fit, with a similar break in the continuity of consciousness, you will first have to convince the judge that Penreath's preceding fits were so slight as to permit the possibility of their being overlooked, and you will also have to establish beyond doubt that the break in his consciousness existed from the time of the scene in the hotel breakfast-room until the time the murder was committed. The test of that state is the unintelligent character of some of the acts of the sufferer. In my opinion, a defence of insanity is not likely to be successful. Personally, I shall go no further in the case, but I cannot give up my original opinion that the whole of the facts in this case have not been brought to light. Probably they never will be--now."