The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
"He was lying on the bed, quite dead. There was blood on his breast, and his hands were held out, as though he had tried to push off the man who had killed him. On the table, by the head of the bed, was a lighted candle, and it was the light of the candle which had cast the flickering shadows I had seen before entering the room. On the bed, near the pillow, was a match-box, and I remember picking it up and placing it in the candlestick--mechanically, for I am sure I did not know what I was doing, and I did not recall the act till afterwards. I have a clearer recollection of touching something with my foot, and stooping to pick it up. It was a knife--a white handled knife, with blood on the blade. And as I stood there, with it in my hand, there came to my mind, clear and distinct, the memory of having seen that knife on the dinner tray Charles had carried past me upstairs, as I stood in the passage near the kitchen, where I first discovered that Mr. Penreath was in the house.
"I do not know how long I stood there, with the knife in my hand, looking at the body--perhaps it was not more than a moment. There seemed to be two individualities in me, one urging me to fly, the other keeping me rooted to the spot, petrified.
"Then I heard a sound downstairs. A wild panic came over me, and my head grew dizzy. The shadows in the corners of the room seemed full of mocking eyes, and I thought I heard stealthy steps creeping up the stairs. I dared not stay where I was, but I was too afraid to go out into the passage in the dark. Then my eyes fell on the candle, and I picked it up and was going to rush from the room, when I remembered that I had the knife in my hand.
"I did not know what to do with it. I wanted to shield him, but some feeling within me would not let me carry it away. I looked round the room for somewhere to hide it, and my eye fell on a picture against the wall, close to the door. Quick as thought I put the knife behind the picture as I ran from the room.
"There was nobody in the passage, and I gained my own room and locked the door. I think I must have fainted, or become unconscious, for I remember nothing more after throwing myself on my bed, and when I came to my senses the dawn was creeping in through my bedroom window. I was very cold, and dazed. I crept into bed without taking off my clothes, and fell asleep. When I awoke it was broad daylight, and as I lay in bed I heard the kitchen clock chime seven.
"I got up, and went into grandmother's room. A little while afterwards Ann came up with some tea, and she told me that Mr. Penreath had gone away early, without having any breakfast. She told me that she had found Mr. Glenthorpe's room empty, with the key in the outside of the door. She was afraid something had happened to him, so she had sent for Constable Queensmead. I did not tell her what I had seen in the night. I wanted to be alone, to think. I could not understand how Mr. Glenthorpe's body had disappeared from his room. I think I hoped that I would presently wake up and find that what I had seen during the night was some terrible dream. But Ann came up a little later and told me that Mr. Glenthorpe's body had been discovered in the pit on the rise, and that Mr. Ronald, as she called Mr. Penreath, was suspected of having murdered him.
"When she told me that I felt as though my blood turned to ice. I knew it was true--I knew that he had killed Mr. Glenthorpe because he wanted money--but I knew that in spite of all I wanted to shield and help him. I kept in my grandmother's room all day, determined to keep silence, and tell nobody about what I had seen during the night. The one thing that worried me was the knife which I had put behind the picture on the wall. I tried once to go into the room and get it, but the door was locked, and I dared not ask for the key.
"Then in the afternoon the police came from Durrington. I did not know who you were when you came with them into my grandmother's room, but as soon as I saw you I was afraid, though I tried hard not to let you see it. I knew you were cleverer than the others. But your eyes seemed to go right into mine, and search my soul. I asked my father afterwards who you were, and he said your name was Mr. Colwyn, and that you were a London detective. I had read about you; I knew that you were famous and clever, and after seeing you I felt that you would be sure to discover my secret, and put Mr. Penreath in prison.
"That night when I was downstairs, I heard you and the police officer talking in the room where you had dined, and I listened at the door. When I heard you say that you were not certain who committed the murder, I was very much surprised, because up till then I felt quite certain that you would think Mr. Penreath was guilty. I believed if you found the knife you would alter your opinion, Ann having told me that the police knew that Mr. Glenthorpe had been murdered with a knife which Mr. Penreath had used at dinner. The idea came into my head that if I could get the knife before you found it, you might go on thinking that somebody else had committed the crime, and perhaps persuade the police to think so as well.
"I made up my mind I would go into the room that night and get the knife. I knew that the door was locked, and that the police officer had placed the key on the mantelpiece in the bar parlour. During the evening I kept downstairs at the back of the passage waiting for an opportunity to get it. You both stayed there so long that I did not think I should get the chance.
"After you went upstairs to bed Mr. Galloway called Charles to get him some brandy. Charles came out from his room to get it. Mr. Galloway followed him into the bar. While he was there I slipped into the room and got the key, and left the key of my own room in its place. I did not think the police officer would notice the difference, but it was a risk I had to take. Then I ran up to my room.
"Although I had got the key I was for some time afraid to use it. I could not bear the thought of going into that room, and to get there I had to go past your door; I did not like that.
"Then I crept out along the passage as quietly as I could, carrying my shoes, for I had made up my mind that after I got the knife I would take it across the marshes to the breakwater and throw it into the sea. That was the one place where I felt sure you would not find it. I carried a candle in my hand, but I dared not light it until I got past your door, in case you were awake and saw the light. When I reached Mr. Glenthorpe's room I lit the candle and unlocked the door, turning the key as gently as I could. But it made a noise, and, as I stood listening, I thought I heard a movement in your room. I blew out the candle, stepped inside the room, took the key out, and locked the door on the inside.
"I do not know how long I stood there listening in the dark, but I know that I was not as frightened as I had expected to be--at first. I kept telling myself that Mr. Glenthorpe had always been kind to me while he was alive, and that he would not harm me now that he was dead. I did not look towards the bed, but kept close to the door, straining my ears to catch any sound in the passage outside. But after a while I began to get frightened in that dark room with the door locked, and dreadful thoughts came into my mind. I remembered a story I had read about a man who was locked up all night in a room with a dead body, and was found mad in the morning, and the position of the corpse had changed. It seemed to me as though Mr. Glenthorpe was sitting up in bed looking at me, but I dared not turn round to see. I knew that I must get out of the room or scream. I lit the candle, felt for the knife behind the picture, and opened the door. As soon as the candle was alight I felt braver, and I looked out of the door before going into the passage. I could see nothing--all seemed quiet--so I came out of the room and locked the door behind me and went downstairs.
"Once I was outside the house and could see the friendly stars all my fears vanished. I know the marshes so well that I can find my way across them at any time. And in my heart I had the feeling that I had been brave and helped him. When I had thrown the knife into the sea from the breakwater I felt almost lighthearted, and when I reached my room again I fell asleep as soon as I got into bed.
"Until you spoke to me the next day I had no idea that you had seen and followed me. But I knew it the moment you stopped me and said you wanted to speak to me. Then I realised you had watched me, and the story I told you to account for my visit to the room came into my head. I did not know whether you believed me or not, but I did not care much, because I knew you could not have seen what I threw into the sea. That secret was safe as long as I kept silence; and you couldn't make me speak against my will."
Peggy, as she concluded, glanced up wistfully to see how her companion received her story, but she could learn nothing from the detective's inscrutable face. Colwyn, on his part, was thinking rapidly. He believed that the innkeeper's daughter, yielding to the strain of a secret too heavy to be borne alone, had this time told him the truth, but, as he ran over the main points of her narrative in his mind, he could not see that it shed any additional light on the murder. The only new fact that she had revealed was that she and Penreath had been acquainted before. She had also, perhaps unconsciously, given away the fact that she and Penreath were in love with each other; at all events, her story proved that she was so deeply in love with Penreath that she had displayed unusual force of character in her efforts to shield him. But that knowledge did not carry them any further towards a solution of the mystery. It was with but a faint hope of eliciting anything of real value that he turned to her and said:
"There is one point of your story on which I am not quite clear. You said that in the morning, when you heard of the recovery of Mr. Glenthorpe's body from the pit, you knew that Mr. Penreath was the murderer. Why were you so sure of that? Was is because you picked up the knife with which the murder was committed? The knife was a clue--the police theory of course is that Penreath secreted the knife at the dinner table for the purpose of committing the murder--but, by itself, it was hardly a convincing clue. Was there something else that made you feel sure he was guilty of this crime?"
"Yes, there was something else," she repeated slowly.
"I thought as much. And that something else was the match-box--is that not so?"
"Yes, it was the match-box," she repeated again, this time almost in a whisper.
"What was there about the match-box that made you feel so certain?"
"Must I tell you that?" she said, looking at him helplessly.
"Of course you must tell me." Colwyn's face was stern. "As I told you before, nothing you can do or say can hurt him now, and the only hope of helping him is by telling the whole truth."
"It was his match-box. It had his monogram on it."
"You have brought it with you?"
For answer she took something from the bosom of her dress and laid it, with a heart-broken look, in Colwyn's hand. The article was a small match-box, with a regimental badge in enamel on one side, and on the other some initials in monogram. Colwyn examined it closely.
"I see the initials are J.R.P.," he said. "How did you know they were his initials? You knew his name?"
"Yes. He used to light cigarettes with matches from that match-box when I was with him, and one day I asked him to show it to me. He did so, and I asked him what the initials were for, and he told me they stood for his own name--James Ronald Penreath. And then he told me much about himself and his family, and--and he said he cared for me, but he was not free."
She gave out the last few words in a low tone, and stood looking at him like a girl who had exposed the most sacred secret of her heart in order, to help her lover. But Colwyn was not looking at her. He had opened the match-box, and was shaking out the few matches which remained in the interior. They fell, half a dozen of them, into the palm of his hand. They were wax matches, with blue heads. A sudden light leapt into the detective's eyes as he saw them--a look so strange and angry that the girl, who was watching him, recoiled a little.
"What is it? What have you found?" she cried.
"It is a pity you did not tell me the truth in the first instance instead of deceiving me," he retorted harshly. "Listen to me. Does any one at the inn know of your visit to me to-day? I do not suppose they do, but I want to make sure."
"Nobody. I told them I was going to Leyland to see the dressmaker."
"So much the better." Colwyn looked at his watch. "You have just time to catch the half-past one train back. You had better go at once. I will go to the inn some time this evening, but you must not let any one know that I am coming, or that you have seen me to-day. Do you understand? Can I depend on you?"
"Yes," she replied. "I will do anything you tell me. But, oh, do tell me before I go whether you are going to save him."
"I cannot say that," he replied, in a gentler voice. "But I am going to try to help him. Go at once, or you will not catch the train."