The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn returned to Durrington in a perplexed and dissatisfied frame of mind. The trial, which he had attended and followed closely, had failed to convince him that all the facts concerning the death of Roger Glenthorpe had been brought to light. Really, the trial had not been a trial at all, but merely a battle of lawyers about the state of Penreath's mind.
If Penreath was really sane--and Colwyn, who had watched him closely during the trial, believed that he was--the Crown theory of the murder by no means accounted for all the amazing facts of the case.
Should he have done more? Colwyn asked himself this question again and again. But that query always led to another one--Could he have done more? In his mental probings the detective could rarely get away from the point--and when he did get away from it he always returned to it--that Penreath, by his dogged silence, had been largely responsible for his own conviction. If a man, charged with murder, refused to account for actions which pointed to him as the murderer, how could anybody help him? Silence, in certain circumstances, was the strongest presumptive proof of guilt. A man was the best judge of his own actions and, if he refused to speak when his own life might pay the forfeit for silence, he must have the strongest possible reason for holding his tongue. What other reason could Penreath have except the consciousness of guilt, and the hope of escaping the consequences through a loop-hole of the law?
Colwyn, however, was unable to accept this line of argument as conclusive, so he tried to put the case out of his mind. But the unsolved points of the mystery--the points that he himself had discovered during his visit to the inn--kept returning to his mind at all sorts of odd times, in the night, and during his walks. And each recurrence was accompanied by the consciousness that he had not done his best in the case, but had allowed the silence of the accused man to influence his judgment and slacken his efforts to unravel the clues he had originally discovered. Thus he travelled back to his starting-point, that the conviction of Penreath had not solved the mystery of the murder of Roger Glenthorpe.
The hotel and its guests bored him. The season was over, and the few people who remained were elderly and commonplace, prone to overeating, and to falling asleep round the lounge fire after dinner. The only topics of conversation were the weather, the war, and food. Sometimes the elderly clergyman, who still lingered, though the other golfers had gone, sought to turn the conversation to golf, but nobody listened to him except his wife, who sat opposite to him in the warmest part of the lounge placidly knitting socks for the War Comforts Fund. The Flegne murder and its result were not discussed; by tacit mutual understanding the guests never referred to the unpleasant fact that they had lived for some weeks under the same roof with a man who had since been declared a murderer by the laws of his country.
Colwyn decided to return to London, although the month he had allowed himself for a holiday was not completed. He was restless and uneasy and bored, and he thought that immersion in work would help him to forget the Glenthorpe case. He came to this decision at breakfast one morning. Within an hour he had paid his bill, received the polite regrets of the proprietor at his departure, and was motoring leisurely southward along the cliff road towards its junction with the main London road.
Important consequences frequently spring from trifling incidents. Colwyn, turning his car to the side of the road to avoid a flock of sheep, punctured a tyre on a sharp jagged piece of rock concealed in the loose sand at the side of the road. He had not a spare tyre on the car, and the shepherd informed him that the nearest town where he could hope to get the tyre replaced was Faircroft, but even that was doubtful, because Faircroft was a small town without a garage, and the one tradesman who did motor-car repairs was, just as likely as not, without the right kind of tyres, or equally likely to have none at all. As he had left Durrington barely three miles behind Colwyn decided to return there, to have the car repaired, and defer his departure till the following day.
He reached Durrington with a deflated tyre, took the car to the garage, and then went back to the hotel. It wanted nearly an hour to lunch-time, and on his way in he paused at the office window to inform the clerk that he had returned, and would stay till the following day. The proprietor was in the office, checking some figures. The latter looked up as Colwyn informed the lady clerk of his altered plans, and informed him that a young lady had been at the hotel inquiring for him shortly after his departure.
"What was her name?" asked the detective, in some surprise.
"She didn't give her name. She seemed very disappointed when she learnt that you had departed for London, and went away at once."
"What was she like?"
The proprietor and the lady clerk described her at the same time. In the former's eyes the visitor had appeared pretty and young with golden hair and a very clear complexion. The lady clerk, without the least departure from the standard of courtesy imposed upon her by her position, managed to indicate that the impression made upon her feminine mind was that of a white-faced girl with red hair. From both descriptions Colwyn had no difficulty in identifying the visitor as Peggy.
Why had she come to Durrington to see him? Obviously the visit was connected with the murder at the inn. Colwyn recalled his last conversation with her on the marshes the day after he had seen her come out of the dead man's room.
He hurried out in the hope of finding her. She had probably come by train from Leyland, and would go back the same way. Colwyn looked at his watch. It was a quarter past twelve, and there was no train back to Leyland till half-past one--so much Colwyn remembered from his study of the local time-table. Therefore, unless she had walked back to Flegne she should not be difficult to find--probably she was somewhere on the cliffs, or near the sea. Somehow, Peggy seemed to belong to the sea and Nature. It was difficult to picture her in a conventional setting.
It was by the sea that he found her, sitting in one of the shelters on the parade, with her hands clasped in her lap, looking listlessly at a fisher-boat putting out from the yellow sands below. She glanced round at the sound of his footsteps, and, seeing who it was, came out from the shelter and advanced to meet him.
"They told me at the hotel somebody had been asking for me, and I guessed it was you. You wanted to see me?"
"Yes." She did not express any surprise at his return, as another girl would, but stood with her hands still clasped in front of her, and a look of entreaty in her eyes. Colwyn noticed that her face had grown thinner, and that in the depths of her glance there lurked a troubled shadow.
"Shall we walk a little and you can tell me what you wish to say?"
"It is very kind of you."
He turned away from the front and towards the cliffs, judging that the girl would feel more disposed to talk freely away from human habitation and people. They went on for some distance in silence, the girl walking with a light quick step, looking straight in front of her, as though immersed in thought.
They reached a part of the cliffs where a low wall divided the foreland from an old churchyard which was fast crumbling into the sea. Peggy paused with her hand on the wall, and looked seaward. The sun, piercing a rift in the dark clouds, lighted the sullen grey waters with patches of gold. Colwyn, in the hope of inducing his companion to talk, pointed out the beautiful effect of the light and shadow on the sea.
"I hate the sea! I have never looked at it since the war started without seeing the many, many dead sailor boys at the bottom, staring up with their dead eyes through the weight of waters for a God of Justice in the heavens, and looking in vain." She turned her eyes from the sea, and looked at him passionately. "You do not care about the sea, either. You are only trying to put me at my ease--to help me say what I want to say. It is kind of you, but it is not necessary. I feel I can trust you--I must trust you. I am only a girl and there is nobody else in the world I dare trust. It is about--him. Have you seen him? Have you spoken to him? Did he speak about me?"
"I saw him only at the trial," replied Colwyn, with his ready comprehension. "I had no opportunity of speaking to him alone."
"I read about the trial in the paper," she went on. "They said that he was mad in order to try and save him, but he is not mad--he was too good and kind to be mad. Oh, why did he kill Mr. Glenthorpe? Will they kill him for that? You are clever, can you not save him? I have come to beg you to save him. Ever since they took him away I have seen his eyes wherever I go, looking at me reproachfully, as though calling upon me to save him. Last night, while I was in my grandmother's room, I thought I saw him standing there, and heard his voice, just as he used to speak. And in the night I woke up and thought I heard him whisper, 'Peggy, it is better to tell the truth.' This morning I could endure it no longer, and I came across to find you."
"You have known him before, then?"
"Yes." The girl met Colwyn's grave glance with clear, unafraid eyes. "I did not tell you before, not because I was afraid to trust you, for I liked you from the first, but I was afraid that if I told you all you would think him guilty, and not try to help him. And when you spoke to me on the marshes that day you believed he might be innocent."
"How do you know that?"
"I heard you say so to that police officer--Superintendent Galloway--after dinner the first night you were at Flegne. I was passing the bar parlour when you and he were talking about the murder, and I heard you say that you thought somebody else might have done it. The day after, when you saw me on the marshes, I was frightened to tell you the truth, because I thought if you knew it you might go away and not try to save him."
"You had better tell the whole truth to me now. Nothing you can now say will make it worse for Penreath, and it may be possible to help him. When did you first meet him?"
"Nearly three weeks before--it happened. I used to go out for long walks, when I could get away from grandmother, and this day I walked nearly as far as Leyland. He came walking along the sands a little while afterwards, and he looked at me as he passed. Presently he came back again, and stopped to ask me if there was a shorter way back to Durrington than by the coast road. I told him I didn't know, and he stopped to talk to me for a while. He told me he was in Norfolk for a holiday, and was spending the time in country rambles.
"I will tell you the whole truth. I returned to the headland next day in the hope that I might see him again. After I had been there a little while I saw him walking along the sands. He waved his hand when he saw me, as though we had been old friends, and that afternoon we stayed talking much longer.
"I saw him nearly every afternoon after that--whenever I could get away I walked down to the headland, and he was always there. The spot where we used to meet was hidden from the road by some fir-trees, and I do not think we were ever seen by anybody. He told me all about himself, but I did not tell him anything about myself or my home. I knew he was a gentleman, and I thought if I told him that my father kept an inn he might not want to see me any more, and I could not bear that. I told him my Christian name, and he liked it, and used to call me by it, but I would not tell him my other name.
"The night that he came to the inn I met him in the afternoon at the headland as usual, and we stayed talking until it was time for me to go home. He was very troubled that day, and it grieved me to see him looking so white and ill. When I questioned him he told me that he had been slightly ill that morning, and that he was very much worried about money matters. I felt very unhappy to think that he was troubled about money, and when he saw that he said he was sorry he had told me.
"When I left him it was later than usual. I was supposed to look after my grandmother every afternoon, and when I went to the headland I usually got Ann to sit in her room until I returned. I was always careful to get back before my father came in from fishing on the marshes. He would have been very angry if he had returned and found me absent, and I should not have been able to get out again. It was nearly four that afternoon when I left the headland, and I walked very quick so as to be back in time. It was getting on towards dusk when I reached home.
"I went straight up to my grandmother's room, so that Ann could go down and get dinner for Mr. Glenthorpe, who usually came in about dark. I sat with grandmother till past six o'clock, and then, as Ann hadn't brought grandmother's tea, I went down to the kitchen to get it myself. Ann was very busy getting dinner, and she told me a young gentleman had arrived at the inn half an hour before, and he was going to dine upstairs with Mr. Glenthorpe, and stay for the night. I was surprised, for we rarely had visitors at the inn. I asked Ann some questions about him, but she could tell me very little. Charles, the waiter, came into the kitchen to get the things ready to take upstairs, and he told me that the visitor was young, good-looking, and seemed a gentleman.
"I got grandmother's tea ready, and was carrying it along the passage from the kitchen when I fancied I heard Mr. Penreath's voice in the bar parlour. I thought at first that I must be mistaken; then the door of the parlour opened, and Mr. Glenthorpe and Mr. Penreath came out. I was so surprised and frightened that I almost dropped the tray I was carrying. If they had looked down the side passage they would have seen me. But he and Mr. Glenthorpe turned the other way, and went upstairs. Then Charles came along carrying a dinner tray, and went upstairs also. I knew then that Mr. Penreath was the gentleman who was going to dine with Mr. Glenthorpe, and stay the night.
"I did not know what to do. I took grandmother's tea upstairs, and crept past the room where they were having dinner, because I did not want him to see me till I had made up my mind what to do. The door was shut, and they couldn't see me, though I could hear them talking inside. When I got to my grandmother's room I tried to think what was best to do. My first thought was that he had found out who I was. Then it seemed to me that he might have come by accident, in some way that I didn't understand, because why should he dine with Mr. Glenthorpe, and stay with him, if he had come to see me? Then I wondered if it were possible that he knew Mr. Glenthorpe, who was a gentleman like himself, and had come to ask him to help him. I had never told him anything about Mr. Glenthorpe or myself.
"I determined to try and see him that night to let him know that the inn was my home. If he had come to the inn by accident it was better that he should not meet me in front of my father, because in his surprise he might say that he had met me before. My father would have been very angry if he knew I had been meeting a stranger. So I went along the passage several times in the hope of seeing him as he came from dinner. But once my father was going into the room where they were having dinner, and he nearly saw me, so I dared not go again.
"A little after ten o'clock my grandmother began to get restless, as she always does when a storm is coming on, and I had to stay with her to keep her quiet. I can do more with her than anybody else when she is like that, and it is not safe to leave her. Sometimes my father goes and sits with her a while before he goes to bed, but this night he did not. She got very bad as the storm came on, and while it lasted I sat alongside of her holding her hand and soothing her. After about half an hour the rain ceased as suddenly as it had commenced, and grandmother fell asleep. I knew she was all right until the morning, so I left her for the night.
"As I turned to go to my room, I thought I saw a light in the other passage, and I went down to see what it was. I thought perhaps Mr. Penreath might be waiting up reading before going to bed.
"I crept along to the bend of the passage, and looked down it, thinking perhaps I might see him and speak to him. There was nobody in the passage, but the door of Mr. Glenthorpe's room was half open and a light was streaming through it.
"I do not know really what took me to Mr. Glenthorpe's room. I have tried to think it out clearly since, but I cannot. I know I was distressed and troubled about Mr. Penreath's presence at the inn, and I was afraid he would be cross and angry with me for not having told him the truth about myself. And before that, when I was walking home after meeting him that afternoon, I had been unhappy about his wanting money, and wished that I could do something to help him. These thoughts kept going through my head as I sat with grandmother during the storm.
"When I saw the door of Mr. Glenthorpe's room open, and the light burning, all these thoughts seemed to come back into my head together. I remembered how good and kind Mr. Glenthorpe had always been to me. I had heard my father tell Charles that morning that Mr. Glenthorpe had gone to the bank at Heathfield that day to draw out a large sum of money to buy Mr. Cranley's field.
"I think I had a confused idea that I would go and confide in Mr. Glenthorpe, and ask him to help Mr. Penreath. Perhaps I have not made myself very clear about this, but I do not remember very clearly myself, for I acted on a sudden impulse, and ran along the passage quickly, in case he should shut his door before I got there, because I knew if he did that I should not have the courage to knock. Through the half-open door I could see the inside of the room between the door and the window. It seemed to me to be empty. I gave a little tap at the door, but there was no reply. It was then I noticed that the bedroom window was wide open, and that a current of air was blowing into the room and causing the light behind the door to cast flickering shadows across the room.
"That struck me as strange. I knew Mr. Glenthorpe always used a reading lamp, and never a candle, and I knew that the reading lamp wouldn't cast shadows because of the lamp glass. I do not know what I feared, but I know a dreadful shiver of fear crept over me, and that some force stronger than myself seemed to compel me to step inside the room in spite of my fears."