The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn reached Durrington by midday, and proceeded to the hotel for his letters and lunch. After a cold meal served by a shivering waiter in the chilly dining room he went to the garage where he had left his car, and set out for Norwich. He arrived at the cathedral city late in the afternoon, and drove to the hotel where Mr. Oakham had stayed. While engaging a room, he told the clerk that he expected Mr. Oakham from London, and asked to be informed immediately he arrived. After making these arrangements the detective left the hotel and went to the city library, where he spent the next couple of hours making notes from legal statutes and the Criminal Appeal Act.
When he returned to the hotel for dinner the clerk informed him that Mr. Oakham had arrived a short time previously, and had requested that Mr. Colwyn would join him at dinner. Colwyn proceeded to the dining-room, and saw Mr. Oakham dining in solitary state at a large table, reading a London evening newspaper between the courses. He looked up as Colwyn approached, and rose and shook hands.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," said the detective. "I hardly thought you would get here before the morning."
"I had arranged to visit Norwich to-morrow, but in view of the urgent nature of your telegram I decided to catch the afternoon train instead," replied the solicitor. "Will you dine with me, Mr. Colwyn, and we can talk business afterwards."
Colwyn complied, and when the meal was finished, Mr. Oakham turned to him with an eagerness which he did not attempt to conceal, and said:
"Now for your news, Mr. Colwyn. But, first, where shall we talk?"
"As well here as anywhere. There is nobody within hearing."
The solicitor followed his glance round the almost empty dining-room, and nodded acquiescence. Drawing his chair a little nearer the detective, he begged him to begin.
"I have not very much to tell you--at present. But since the conviction of your client, James Ronald Penreath, I have been back to the inn where the murder was committed, and I have discovered fresh evidence which strengthens considerably my original belief that Penreath is an innocent man. But I have reached a stage in my investigations when I need your assistance in completing my task before I go to the authorities with my discoveries. It is hardly necessary for me to tell a man of your experience that it is one of the most difficult things in the world to upset a jury's verdict in a case of murder."
"What have you discovered?"
"This, for one thing." Colwyn produced the pocket-book, and displayed the contents on the table. "This is the murdered man's pocket-book, containing the missing notes which Penreath is supposed to have murdered him for. The prosecution dropped the charge of robbery, but the theft formed an important part of the Crown theory of the crime, as establishing motive."
"Where did you find this pocket-book?"
"Suspended by a piece of cord, half way down the pit where the body was flung."
"It's an interesting discovery," replied Mr. Oakham thoughtfully tapping his nose with his gold-rimmed eye-glasses as he stared at the black pocket-book on the white tablecloth. "Speaking personally, it is proof of what I have thought all along, that a Penreath of Twelvetrees would not commit a robbery. Therefore, on that line of reasoning, one could argue that as Penreath did not commit the robbery, and the Crown hold that the murder was committed for the money, Penreath must be innocent. But the Crown is more likely to hold that as Penreath threw the body in the pit, he concealed the money there afterwards, and was hiding in the wood to recover it when he was arrested. The real point is, Mr. Colwyn, can you prove that it was not Mr. Penreath who placed the money in the pit?"
"I believe I can prove, at all events, that it was not Penreath who threw the body into the pit."
"You can! Then who was it?"
"I am not prepared to answer that question at the moment. During my visit to the inn I made a number of other discoveries besides that of the pocket-book, which, though slight in themselves, all fit in with my present theory of the murder. But before disclosing them, I want to complete my investigations by testing my theory to the uttermost. It is just possible that I may be wrong, though I do not think so. When I have taken the additional step which completes my investigations, I will go to the chief constable, reconstruct the crime for him as I see it now, and ask him to take action."
"Then why have you sent for me?"
"To help me to complete my task. Part of my theory is that Penreath is deliberately keeping silent to shield some one else. The solicitor of a convicted man has access to him even when he is condemned to death. I want you to take me with you to see Penreath."
"For what purpose?"
"In order to get him to speak."
"It would be quite useless." The lawyer spoke in some agitation. "I have seen him twice since the verdict, and implored him to speak if he has anything to say, but he declared that he had nothing to say."
"Nevertheless, I shall succeed where you have failed. Penreath is an innocent man."
"Then why does he not speak out, even now--more so now than ever?"
"He has his reasons, and they seem sufficient to him to keep him silent even under the shadow of the gallows."
"And why do you think he will confide them to you, when he refuses to divulge them to his professional adviser?"
"He will not willingly reveal them to me. My hope of getting his story depends entirely upon my success in springing a surprise upon him. That is one of my reasons for not telling you more just now. The mere fact that you knew would hamper my handling a difficult situation. The slightest involuntary gesture or look might put him on his guard, and the opportunity would be lost. It is not absolutely essential that I should gain Penreath's statement before going to the police, but if his statement coincides with my theory of the crime it will strengthen my case considerably when I reconstruct the crime for the police."
"Your way of doing business strikes me as strange, Mr. Colwyn," said the solicitor stiffly. "As Mr. Penreath's professional adviser, surely I am entitled to your fullest confidence. You are asking me to behave in a very unprofessional way, and take a leap in the dark. There are proper ways of doing things. I will be frank with you. I have come to Norwich in order to urge Penreath for the last time to permit me to lodge an appeal against his conviction. That interview has been arranged to take place in the morning."
"Has he previously refused to appeal?"
"May I ask on what grounds you are seeking permission to appeal?"
"If he consents, my application to the Registrar would be made under Section Four of the Criminal Appeal Act," was the cautious reply.
"That means you are persisting in your original defence--that Penreath is guilty, but insane. Therefore your application for leave to appeal against the sentence on the ground of insanity only enables you to appeal to the Court to quash the sentence on the ground that Penreath is irresponsible for his acts. Even if you succeed in your appeal he will be kept in gaol as a criminal lunatic. In a word, you intend to persist in a defence which, as I told you before the trial, had very little chance of success. In my opinion it has no more chance of success before the Court of Appeal. You have not sufficient evidence for a successful defence on the grounds of insanity. The judge, in his summing up at the trial, was clearly of the opinion that Sir Henry Durwood was wrong in thinking Penreath insane, and he directed the jury accordingly.
"In my opinion the judge was right. I do not think Penreath is insane, or even subject to fits of impulsive insanity. If you ask my opinion, I think he is still suffering from the effects of shell shock, and, like many other brave men who have been similarly affected, he endeavoured to conceal the fact. I have come to the conclusion that Penreath's peculiar conduct at the Durrington hotel, on which Sir Henry based his theory of furor epilepticus, was nothing more than the combined effect of mental worry and an air raid shock on a previously shattered nervous system. Penreath is a sane man--as sane as you or I--and my late investigations at the scene of the murder have convinced me that he is an innocent man also. The question is, are you going to allow professional etiquette to stand in the way of proving his innocence?"
"But you have not shown me anything to convince me that he is an innocent man. Your statement comes as a great surprise to me, and you cannot expect that I should credit your bare assumption. It would be exceedingly difficult to believe without the most convincing proofs, which you have not brought forward. I prepared the case for the defence at the trial, and I only permitted that defence to be put forward because there was no other course--the evidence was so overwhelming, and Penreath's obstinate silence in the face of it pointed so conclusively to his guilt."
"Nevertheless, you were wrong. The question is, are you going to help me undo that wrong?"
"You have not yet proved to me that it is a wrong," quibbled the solicitor.
"Mr. Oakham, let me make this quite clear to you," said the detective sternly. "I have sent for you out of courtesy, because, as I said before, I like to do things in a regular way. As you force me to speak plainly, there is another reason, which is that I did not wish to make you look small, or injure your professional reputation, by acting independently of you. It would be a bad advertisement for Oakham and Pendules if it got abroad--as it assuredly will if you persist in your attitude--that an innocent client of yours was almost sent to the gallows through your wrong defence at his trial. It is in your hands to prevent such a scandal from becoming public property. But if you are going to stand on professional etiquette it is just as well you should understand that I am quite prepared to act independently of you. I have sufficient influence to obtain an order from the governor of the gaol for an interview with the condemned man, and I shall do so. I have discovered sufficient additional evidence in this case to save Penreath, and I am going to save him, with or without your assistance. You have had your way--it was a wrong way. Now I am going to have my way. I only ask you to trust me for a few hours. After I have seen Penreath you are at liberty to accompany me to the chief constable, to whom I shall tell everything. That is my last word."
"I will do as you ask, Mr. Colwyn," replied the solicitor, after a short pause. "Not because I am apprehensive of the consequences, but because you have convinced me that it would be foolish and wrong on my part to place any obstacles in the way of establishing my client's innocence, even if it is only the smallest chance. You must forgive my hesitation. I am an old man, and your story has been such a shock that I am unable to realise it yet. But I will not stand on punctilio when it is a question of trying to save a Penreath of Twelvetrees from the gallows. I think I can arrange it with the governor of the gaol to permit you to accompany me when I see Penreath in the morning. That interview is to take place at twelve o'clock. We can go together from here to the gaol, if that will suit you."
"That will suit me excellently. And before that interview takes place I should be glad if you would tell me the facts of Penreath's engagement to Miss Willoughby."
"I really know very little about it," said Mr. Oakham, looking somewhat surprised at the question. "I have heard, though, that Penreath met Miss Willoughby in London before the war, and became engaged after a very brief acquaintance. Ill-natured people say that the girl's aunt threw her at Penreath's head. The aunt is a Mrs. Brewer, a wealthy manufacturer's widow, a pushing nobody----"
"I have met her."
"I had forgotten. Well, you know that type of woman, with an itch to get into Society. Perhaps she thought that the marriage of her niece to a Penreath of Twelvetrees would open doors for her. At any rate, I remember there was a great deal of tittle-tattle at the time to the effect that she manoeuvred desperately hard to bring about the engagement. On the other hand, there can be no harm in stating now that Ronald Penreath's father was almost equally keen on that match for monetary reasons. The Penreaths are far from wealthy. From that point of view the match seemed suitable enough--money on one side, and birth and breeding on the other. I am not sure that there was very much love in the case, or that the young people's feelings were deeply involved on either side. There is no reason why I should not mention these things now, for the match has been broken off. It was broken off shortly after Penreath's arrest."
"By the young lady?"
"By the aunt, in her presence. It happened the day after they went to Heathfield to identify Penreath. Mrs. Brewer was furious about the whole business as soon as she ascertained that it wasn't a mistake, as she had hoped at first, and that there was likely to be much unpleasant publicity over it. She said she would never be able to hold up her head in Society after the disgrace, and all that sort of thing. It all came about through my asking Miss Willoughby if she would like to see her lover while he was awaiting trial. The girl replied, coldly enough, that it would be time enough to see him after he had cleared himself of the dreadful charge hanging over his head. By the way she spoke she seemed to think herself a deeply injured person, as perhaps she was. Then the aunt had her say, and insisted that I must tell Penreath the engagement was broken off. I asked Miss Willoughby if that was her wish also, and she replied that it was. I told Penreath the following day, but I do not think that it worried him very much."
"I do not think it would," replied Colwyn with a smile.