The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn found Mr. Oakham awaiting him in the hotel lobby, a little before eleven the following morning, to inform him that the necessary arrangements had been made to enable him to be present at his interview with Penreath. Colwyn forbore to ask him on what pretext he had obtained the gaol governor's consent to his presence, but merely signified that he was ready. Mr. Oakham replied that they had better go at once, and asked the porter to call a taxi.
On arriving at the gaol they passed through the double entrance gates, Mr. Oakham turned to a door on the left just within the gates, and entered. The door opened into a plainly furnished office, with walls covered with prison regulations. Behind a counter, at a stand-up desk opposite the door, a tall burly man in a uniform of blue and silver was busily writing in a large ledger. Ranged in rows, on hooks alongside him, were bunches of immense keys, and as he turned to attend to Oakham and Colwyn another bunch of similar keys could be seen dangling at his side. Mr. Oakham explained the purpose of their visit, and produced the order for the interview. The functionary in blue and silver, who was the entrance gaoler, perused it attentively, and pushed over two forms for the solicitor and the detective to fill in. It was the last formality that the law insisted on--a grim form of visiting card whereon the visitor inscribes his name and business, which is sent to the condemned man, who must give his consent to the interview before it is granted.
When Mr. Oakham and Colwyn had filled in their forms the entrance gaoler took them and pulled a rope. Somewhere in a corridor a bell clanged, and a moment afterwards a gaoler opened a small door on the other side of the counter. The entrance gaoler gave him the forms, and he disappeared with them. There ensued a long period of waiting, and nearly half an hour elapsed before he reappeared again, accompanied by a warder. The blue and silver functionary silently lifted the flap of the counter, and beckoned Mr. Oakham and Colwyn to accompany the warder through the small door at the other end of the room.
They went through and the bell clanged once more as the door closed behind them. The warder took them along a corridor to a door at the farther end, and ushered them into a room--a large apartment, not unlike a board room, furnished with a table and chairs ranged on each side. It was the governor of the gaol's room, where the interview was to take place. Colwyn took one of the chairs at the table, Mr. Oakham took another, and silently they awaited the coming of the condemned man.
Another quarter of an hour elapsed before the door at the other end of the room opened, and Penreath appeared between two warders. They conducted him to the table, and placed a chair for him. With a quick glance at his visitors he sat down, and the warders seated themselves on each side of him. The warder who had brought the visitors in then nodded to Mr. Oakham, as an indication that the interview might begin.
In the brief glance that the young man cast at his visitors Colwyn observed both calmness of mind and self-possession. Although deep shadows under the eyes and the tenseness of the muscles round the mouth revealed sleepless nights and mental agony, Penreath's face showed no trace of insanity or the guilty consciousness of evil deeds, but had the serene expression of a man who had fought his battle and won it.
Mr. Oakham began the interview with him in a dry professional way, as though it were an interview between solicitor and client in the sanctity of a private room, with no hearers. And, indeed, the prison warders sitting there with the impassive faces of officialdom might have been articles of furniture, so remote were they from displaying the slightest interest in the private matters discussed between the two. No doubt they had been present at many similar scenes, and custom is a deadening factor. Mr. Oakham's object was to urge his client to consent to the lodgement of an appeal against the jury's verdict, and to that end he advanced a multitude of arguments and a variety of reasons. The young man listened patiently, but when the solicitor had concluded he shook his head with a gesture of finality which indicated an unalterable refusal.
"It's no use, Oakham," he said. "My mind is quite made up. I'm obliged to you for all the trouble you have taken in my case, but I cannot alter my decision. I shall go through with it--to the end."
"In that case it is no use my urging you further." Mr. Oakham spoke stiffly, and put his eye-glasses in his pocket with an air of vexation. "Mr. Colwyn has something to say to you on the subject. Perhaps you will listen to him. He believes he can help you."
"He helped to arrest me," said Penreath, with a slight indifferent look at the detective.
"But not to convict you," said Colwyn. "I had hoped to help you."
"What do you want of me?" Penreath's tone was cold.
"In the first place, I have to say that I believe you innocent."
The young man lifted his eyebrows slightly, as if to indicate that the other's opinion was a matter of indifference to him, but he remained silent.
"I have come to beg of you, even at this late hour, to break your silence, and give an account of your actions that night at the inn."
"You might have saved yourself the trouble of coming here. I have nothing whatever to say."
"That means that you continue in your refusal to speak. Will you answer one or two questions?"
"Will you not tell me why you kept silence about what you saw in Mr. Glenthorpe's room that night of the murder?"
"Man, how did you find that out?" Penreath's calm disappeared in a sudden fury of voice and look. "What do you know?"
"I know whom you are trying to shield," replied the detective, with his eyes fixed on Penreath's face. "You are wrong. She----"
"I beg of you to be silent! Do not mention names, for God's sake." Penreath's face had grown suddenly white.
"It is in your power to ensure my silence."
"By speaking yourself."
"That I will never do."
"Then you compel me to go to the authorities and tell them what I have discovered. I will save you in spite of yourself."
"Do you think that I want to be saved--like that?"
Struggling desperately for self-control Penreath turned to Mr. Oakham. "Why did you bring Mr. Colwyn here?" he asked the solicitor fiercely. "To torture me?"
Before Mr. Oakham could reply Colwyn laughed aloud. A clear ringing laugh of unmistakable satisfaction. The laugh sounded strangely incongruous in such a place.
"Penreath," he said, "you've told me all that I came here to know. You're a splendid young Briton, but finesse is not your strong point. You've acted like a quixotic young idiot in this case, and got yourself into a nice muddle for nothing. The girl is as innocent as you are, and you are a pair of simpletons! Yes. I mean what I say," continued the detective, answering the young man's amazed look with a reassuring smile. "Do you think that I would want to save you at her expense? Now perhaps, when I have told you what happened that night, you will answer a few questions. Before you went to bed you sat down and wrote a letter on a leaf torn from your pocket-book. That letter was to Miss Willoughby, breaking off your engagement. After writing it you went to bed. At that time it was raining hard.
"You must have fallen asleep almost immediately, and slept for half an hour--perhaps a little more--for when you awoke the rain had ceased. You heard a slight noise in your room, and lit your candle to see what it was. There was a rat in the corner of the room. You got up to throw something at it, but as soon as you moved the rat darted across the room and disappeared behind the wardrobe at the side of the bed. You pushed back the wardrobe and----"
"For God's sake, say no more!" said Penreath. His face was grey, and he was staring at the detective with the eyes of a man who saw his heart's secret--the secret for which he was prepared to die--being dragged out into the light of day. "How did you learn all this?"
"That does not matter much just how. What you saw through the wall made you determine to leave the house as speedily as possible, and also caused you to destroy the letter you had written to Miss Willoughby.
"You were wrong in what you did. In the first place, you misinterpreted what you saw through the door in the wall. By thinking Peggy guilty and leaving the inn early in the morning, you not only wronged her grievously, but brought suspicion on yourself. Peggy's presence in the room was quite by accident. She had gone to ask Mr. Glenthorpe to assist you in your trouble, by lending you money, and, finding the door open, she impulsively went in and found him dead--murdered. And at the bedside she picked up the knife--the knife you had used at dinner--and this."
Colwyn produced Penreath's match-box from his pocket and laid it on the table in front of him.
"Because of the knife and this match-box she thought you guilty."
"I! Why I never left my room after I went into it," exclaimed Penreath. "I left the match-box in the room where I had dined with Mr. Glenthorpe. When I awoke after falling asleep, and heard the noise in the room--just as you describe--I could not find my match-box when I wanted a match to light my candle, then I remembered that I had left it in the sitting-room on the mantelpiece. I happened to find a loose match in my vest pocket."
"Peggy came to see me at my hotel, after the trial, and told me all she knew," continued Colwyn. "It was well she did, for my second visit to the inn brought to light a number of facts which will enable me to establish your innocence."
"And what about the real murderer?" asked Penreath, in a hesitating voice, without looking at the detective.
"We will not go into that just now, unless you have anything to tell me that will throw further light on the events of the night." Colwyn shot a keen, questioning glance at the young man.
"I will answer any questions you wish to put to me. It is the least I can do after having made such a fool of myself. It was the shock of seeing Peggy in the room that robbed me of my judgment. I should have known her better, but you must remember that I had no idea she was in the house until I looked through the door in the wall which I had accidentally discovered, and saw her standing at the bedside, with the knife in her hand. I started to follow her home that day because I wished to know more about her. I lost my way in the mist. I met a man on the marshes who directed me to the village and the inn."
"When she heard your voice, and saw you going upstairs, she waited about in the hope of seeing you before she went to bed, as she wished to avoid meeting you in the presence of her father. When she saw Mr. Glenthorpe's door open she acted on a sudden impulse, and went in."
"I have been rightly punished for my stupidity and my folly," said Penreath. "I have wronged her beyond forgiveness."
"You really have not much to blame yourself for except your obstinate silence. That was really too quixotic, even if things had been as you imagined. No man is justified in sacrificing his life foolishly. And you had much to live for. You had your duty to do in life. Nobody knew that better than you--a soldier who had served his country gallantly and well. In fact, your silence has been to me one of the puzzles of this case, and even now it seems to me that you must have had a deeper motive than that of shielding the girl, because you could have asserted your innocence without implicating her."
"You are a very clever man, Colwyn," said the other slowly. "There was another reason for my silence."
"What was it?"
"I am supposed to be an epileptic. I happen to know a little of the course of that frightful disease, and it seemed to me that it was better to die--even at the hands of the hangman--than to live on to be a burden to my friends and relations, particularly when by dying I could shield the girl I loved. That is why I was glad when the plea put up for my defence failed. I preferred to die rather than live branded as a criminal lunatic. So, you see, it was not such a great sacrifice on my part, after all."
"What brought you back to the wood where you were arrested?"
"To see her. I do not know if I wanted to speak to her; but I wanted above all things to see her once again. When I left the inn that morning I had no idea that I might fall under suspicion for having committed the murder, but I was desperately unhappy after what I had seen the night before, and I didn't care what I did or where I went. Instead of walking back to Durrington I struck across the marshes in the opposite direction. I walked along all day, through a desolate area of marshes, meeting nobody except an old eel fisherman in the morning, and, later on, a labourer going home from his work. I was very tired when I saw the labourer, and I asked him to direct me to some place where I could obtain rest and refreshment. He pointed to a short cut across the marshes, which, he said, led to a hamlet with an inn. I went along the path he had pointed out, but I lost my way in the gathering darkness. After wandering about the marshes for some time I saw the light of a cottage window some distance off, and went there to inquire my way. The occupant, an old peasant woman, could not have heard anything about the murder, for she was very kind to me, and gave me tea and food. Afterwards I set out for the inn again, and when I reached the road I sat down by the side of it to rest awhile.
"While I was sitting there two men came along. They did not see me in the dark, and I heard them talking about the murder, and from what they said I knew that I was suspected, and that the whole country side was searching for me. It seemed incredible to me, and my first instinct was to fly. I sat there until the men's voices died away in the distance, then I turned off the road, and hurried across some fields, looking for a place to hide. After walking some distance I came to a large barn, standing by itself. The door was open, and I went in. I had no matches, but I felt some hay or straw on the floor. I lay down and pulled some over me, and fell fast asleep.
"I had only intended to rest in the barn for a while, but I was so tired that I slept all night. When I awoke it was broad daylight. I did not know where I was at first, but it all came back to me, and I started up in a fright, determined to leave the barn as quickly as possible, for I knew it was an unsafe hiding place, and likely to be searched at any time. But before I could get away I heard loud voices approaching, and I knew I should be seen. I looked hastily around for some place of concealment. It was just a big empty shed with one or two shelves covered with apples, and a lot of straw on the floor. In desperation, as the voices came nearer, I lay down on the floor again, and pulled straw over me till I was completely hidden from view.
"The door opened, and some men looked in. Through the straw that covered me I could see them quite distinctly--three fishermen and a farm labourer--though apparently they couldn't see me. From their conversation I gathered that they formed part of a search party looking for me, and had been told off to search the barn. This apparently they were not anxious to do, for they merely peeped in at the door, and one of them, in rather a relieved tone, said I wasn't in there, wherever I was. One of the fishermen replied that he expected that I was far enough off by that time. They stood at the door for a few moments, talking about the murder, and then they went away.
"I stayed in the barn all day, but nobody else came near me. When it was dark, I filled my pockets with apples from the shelves, and went out. I wandered about all night, and found myself close to a railway station at daybreak. I had been in that part of the country before, so I knew where I was--not far from Heathfield, with Flegne about three miles away across the fields. The country was nearly all open, and consequently unsafe. As I walked through a field I spied a little hut, almost hidden from view in a clump of trees. The door was open, and I could see it was empty. I went in, lay down, and fell fast asleep.
"When I awoke it was getting dusk. I was very stiff and cold, so I started out walking again to get myself warm. It was then, I remember well, that the longing came over me to see Peggy again. I cursed myself for my weakness, knowing what I knew--or thought I knew, God forgive me.
"I found myself making my way back to Flegne as fast as my legs would carry me--which wasn't very fast, because I was weak from want of food, and so footsore that I could hardly stumble along. But I got over the three miles somehow, and reached the wood, where I crawled into some undergrowth, and lay there all night, sometimes dozing, sometimes wide awake, and sometimes a bit light-headed, I think. It was there you found me next day, and I was glad you did. I was about finished when I saw you looking through the bushes and only too glad to come out. I didn't care what happened to me then. And now, I have told you all."
The young man, as he finished his story, buried his face in his hands, as though overcome by the recollection of the mental anguish he had been through, and what he had endured.
"Not quite all, I think," said Colwyn, after a pause.
"I have told you everything that counts," said Penreath, without looking up.
"You have not," replied the detective firmly. "You have not told me all you saw when you were looking through the door between the two rooms the night of the murder."
Penreath raised his head and regarded the other with startled eyes.
"What do you mean?" he said, in a whisper.
"I mean that you have kept back that you saw the body removed," he said grimly.
"Are you a man or a wizard?" cried Penreath fiercely. "God! how did you find that out?"
"By guess work, if you like," responded the other coolly. "Listen to me! There has been too much concealment about this case already, so let us have no more of it. It was because of what you saw afterwards that your suspicions were doubly fastened on the girl, is that not so? I thought as much," he continued, as the other nodded without speaking. "How long after Peggy left the room was it before the body was removed?"
"Not very long," replied Penreath. "After she went out of the room I sat on the bedside. I did not close the small door I had discovered, or replace the wardrobe. I was too overwhelmed. In a little while--perhaps ten minutes--I saw a light shine through the hole again. I went to it and looked through--God knows why--and I saw somebody walking stealthily into the room, carrying a candle. He went to the bedside and, with a groan, lifted the body on to his shoulders, and carried it out of the room. I crept to my door, and looked out and saw him descending the stairs. God in heaven, what a horror, what a horror!
"I waited to see no more. I shut the door in the wall, pulled the wardrobe back into its place and determined to leave the accursed inn as soon as it was daylight. In my cell at nights, when I hear the footsteps of the warder sounding along the corridor and dying away in the distance, it reminds me of how I stood at the door that night, listening to the sound of the footsteps stumbling down the staircase."
"You heard the footsteps distinctly, then?" said the detective.
"Distinctly and clearly. The staircase is a stone one, as you know."
"Did you put your boots out to be cleaned before you went to bed?"
"And were they there when you looked out of the door?"
"I do not remember. But I know they were there in the morning, dirty and covered with clay. I took them in, and was about to put them on, when the servant knocked at the door with a cup of morning tea. I answered the door with the boots in my hand. She offered to clean them for me, and was taking them away, but I called her back and said I would not wait for them. I was too anxious to get away from the place."
"Do you remember when you lost the rubber heel of one of them?"
"It must have been when I was walking the previous day. They were only put on the day before. I happened to mention to a bootmaker at Durrington that my left heel had become jarred with walking. He recommended me to try rubber heels to lessen the strain, and he put them on for me. I had never worn them before, and found them very uncomfortable when I was walking along the marshes. They seemed to hold and stick in the wet ground."
"And now there are one or two other points I want you to make clear. Why did you register in the name of James Ronald at the Durrington Hotel?"
"That was merely a whim. I was disgusted with London and society after my return from the front. Those who have been through this terrible war learn to see most things at their true worth, and the frivolity, the snobbishness, and the shams of London society at such a time sickened and disgusted me. They tried to lionise me in drawing rooms and make me talk for their entertainment. They put my photograph in the illustrated papers, and interviewed me, and all that kind of thing. What had I done! Nothing! Not a tithe of what thousands of better men are doing every day out there. So I went away from it all. I had no intention, when I went into the hotel, of not registering in my full name though. That came about in a peculiar way. It was the first registration form I had seen--it was the first hotel I had stayed at after nearly eighteen months at the front--and I put down my two christian names, James Ronald, in the wrong space, the space for the surname, which is the first column. I saw my error as I glanced over the form, but the girl, thinking I had filled it up, took it away from me. It then struck me that it was just as well to let it go; it would prevent my being worried by fools."
"And how came it that you ran so short of money that you had to leave the hotel?"
"I have practically nothing except what my father allows me, and which is paid quarterly through his bankers in London. I left London with a few pounds in my pocket, and thought no more about money until the hotel proprietor stopped me one morning and asked me politely to discharge my bill, as I was a stranger to him. It was then that I first realised the difference between a name like Penreath of Twelvetrees and plain James Ronald. I was furious, and told him he should have the money in two days, as soon as I could communicate with my London bankers. I wrote straight away, and asked them to send me some money. The money came, the morning I was turned out of the hotel; I saw the letter in the rack, addressed to J. R. Penreath, but what good was that to me? I could not claim it because I was booked in the name of James Ronald. I knew nobody in the place to whom I could apply. I had some thoughts of confiding in the hotel proprietor, but one look at his face was sufficient to put that out of the question.
"So I went in to breakfast, desperately angry at being treated so, and feeling more than a little ill. You know what happened at the breakfast table. I began to feel pretty seedy, and left my place to get to the fresh air, when that doctor--Sir Henry Durwood--jumped up and grabbed me. I tried to push him off, but he was too strong for me, and I found myself going. The next thing I knew was that I was lying in my bedroom, and hearing somebody talk. After you had left the room I determined to leave the hotel as quickly as possible. I packed a small handbag, and told the hotel-keeper on my way downstairs that he could keep my things until I paid my bill. Then I walked to Leyland Hoop, where I had an appointment with Peggy, as you know. I seem to have acted as a pretty considerable ass all round," said the young man, with a rueful smile. "But I had a bad gruelling from shell-shock. I wouldn't mention this, but it's really affected my head, you know, and I don't think I'm always quite such a fool as this story makes me appear to be."
"And your nerves were a bit rattled by the Zeppelin raid at Durrington, were they not?" said Colwyn sympathetically.
"You seem to know everything," said the young man, flushing. "I am ashamed to say that they were."
"You have no cause to be ashamed," replied Colwyn gently. "The bravest men suffer that way after shell-shock."
"It's not a thing a man likes to talk about," said Penreath, after a pause. "But if you have had experience of this kind of thing, will you tell me if you have ever seen a man completely recover--from shell-shock, I mean?"
"I should say you will be quite yourself again shortly. There cannot be very much the matter with your nerves to have stood the experience of the last few weeks. After we get you out of here, and you have had a good rest, you will be yourself again."
"And what about this other thing--this furor epilepticus, whatever it is?" asked Penreath, anxiously.
"As you didn't murder anybody, you haven't had the epileptic fury," replied Colwyn, laughing.
"But Sir Henry Durwood said at the trial that I was an epileptic," persisted the other.
"He was wrong about the furor epilepticus, so it is just as likely that he was wrong about the epilepsy. His theory was that you were going to attack somebody at the breakfast table of the hotel, and you have just told us that you had no intention of attacking anybody--that your only idea was to get out of the room. You are neither an epileptic nor insane, in my opinion, but at that time you were suffering from the after effects of shell-shock. Take my advice, and forget all about the trial and what you heard there, or, if you must think of it, remember the excellent certificate of sanity and clear-headedness which the doctors for the Crown gave you! When you get free I'll take you to half a dozen specialists who'll probably confirm the Crown point of view."
Penreath laughed for the first time.
"You've made me feel like a new man," he said. "How can I thank you for all you have done?"
"The only way you can show your gratitude is by instructing Mr. Oakham to lodge an appeal for you--at once. Have you the necessary forms with you, Mr. Oakham?"
"I have," said the solicitor, finding voice after a long silence.