The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Mr. Oakham did not discuss what had taken place in the prison as he and Colwyn drove to the office of the chief constable after the interview. He sat silent in his corner of the taxi, his hands clasped before him, and gazing straight in front of him with the look of a man who sees nothing. From time to time his lips moved after the fashion of the old, when immersed in thought, and once he audibly murmured, "The poor lad; the poor lad." Colwyn forbore to speak to him. He realised that he had had a shock, and was best left to himself.
By the time the taxi reached the office of the chief constable Mr. Oakham showed symptoms of regaining his self-possession. He felt for his eye-glasses, polished them, placed them on his nose and glanced at his watch. It was in something like his usual tones that he asked Colwyn, as they alighted from the cab, whether he had an appointment with the chief constable.
"I wired to you both at the same time," replied the detective. "I asked him to keep this afternoon free," he explained with a smile.
A police constable in the outer office took in their names. He speedily returned with the message that the chief constable would be glad to see them, and would they step this way, please. Following in his wake, they were conducted along a passage and into a large comfortably furnished room, where Mr. Cromering was writing at a small table placed near a large fire. He looked up as the visitors entered, put down his pen, and came forward to greet them.
"I am pleased to see you again, Mr. Colwyn, and you also, Mr. Oakham. Please draw your chairs near the fire gentlemen--there's a decided nip in the air. I got your telegram, Mr. Colwyn, and I am at your disposal, with plenty of time. Your telegram rather surprised me. What has happened in the Glenthorpe case?"
"Fresh facts have come to light--facts that tend to prove the innocence of Penreath, who was accused and convicted for the murder."
"Dear me! This is a very grave statement. What proofs have you?"
"Sufficient to warrant further steps in the case. It is a long story, but I think when you have heard it you will feel justified in taking prompt action."
Before Mr. Cromering could reply, the police constable who had shown in Colwyn and Mr. Oakham entered the room and said that Superintendent Galloway, from Durrington, was outside.
"Bring him in, Johnson," said Mr. Cromering. He turned to Colwyn and added: "When I received your telegram I telephoned to Galloway and asked him to be here this afternoon. As he worked up the case against Penreath, I thought it better that he should be present and hear what you have to say. You have no objection, I suppose?"
"On the contrary, I shall be very glad for Galloway to hear what I have to say."
The police constable returned, ushering in Superintendent Galloway, who looked rather surprised when he saw his superior officer's visitors. He nodded briefly to Colwyn, and looked inquiringly at the chief constable.
"Mr. Colwyn has discovered some fresh facts in the Glenthorpe murder, Galloway," explained Mr. Cromering. "I sent for you in order that you might hear what they are."
"What sort of facts?" asked Galloway, with a quick glance at the detective.
"That is what Mr. Colwyn proposes to explain to us."
"I shall have to go back to the beginning of our investigations to do so--to the day when we motored from Durrington to Flegne," said the detective. "We went there with the strong presumption in our minds that Penreath was the criminal, because of suspicious facts previously known about him. He was short of money, he had concealed his right name when registering at the hotel, and his behaviour at the breakfast table the morning of his departure suggested an unbalanced temperament. It is a legal axiom that men's minds are influenced by facts previously known or believed, and we set out to investigate this case under the strong presumption that Penreath, and none other, was the murderer.
"The evidence we found during our visit to the inn fitted in with this theory, and inclined the police to shut out the possibility of any alternative theory because of the number of concurrent points which fitted in with the presumption that Penreath was the murderer. There was, first, the fact that the murderer had entered through the window. Penreath had been put to sleep in the room next the murdered man, in an unoccupied part of the inn, and could easily have got from one window to the other without being seen or heard. Next was the fact that the murder had been committed with a knife with a round end. Penreath had used such a knife when dining with Mr. Glenthorpe, and that knife was afterwards missing. Next, we have him hurriedly departing from the inn soon after daybreak, refusing to wait till his boots were cleaned, and paying his bill with a Treasury note.
"Then came the discovery of the footprints to the pit where the body had been thrown, and those footprints were incontestably made by Penreath's boots. The stolen notes suggested a strong motive in the case of a man badly in need of money, and the payment of his bill with a Treasury note of the first issue suggested--though not very strongly--that he had given the servant one of the stolen notes. These were the main points in the circumstantial evidence against Penreath. The stories of the landlord of the inn, the deaf waiter, and the servant supported that theory in varying degrees, and afforded an additional ground for the credibility of the belief that Penreath was the murderer. The final and most convincing proof--Penreath's silence under the accusation--does not come into the narrative of events at this point, because he had not been arrested.
"It was when we visited the murdered man's bedroom that the first doubts came to my mind as to the conclusiveness of the circumstantial evidence against Penreath. The theory was that Penreath, after murdering Mr. Glenthorpe, put the body on his shoulder, and carried it downstairs and up the rise to the pit. The murderer entered through the window--the bits of red mud adhering to the carpet prove that conclusively enough--but if Penreath was the murderer where had he got the umbrella with which he shielded himself from the storm? The fact that the murderer carried an umbrella is proved by the discovery of a small patch of umbrella silk which had got caught on a nail by the window. Again, why should a man, getting from one window to another, bother about using an umbrella for a journey of a few feet only? He would know that he could not use it when carrying the body to the pit, for that task would require both his hands. And what had Penreath done with the umbrella afterwards?
"The clue of the umbrella silk, and the pool of water near the window where the murderer placed the umbrella after getting into the room, definitely fixed the time of the murder between eleven and 11.30 p.m., because the violent rainstorm on that night ceased at the latter hour. If Penreath was the murderer, he waited until the storm ceased before removing the body. There were no footprints outside the window where the murderer got in, because they were obliterated by the rain. On the other hand, the footsteps to the pit where the body was thrown were clear and distinct, proving conclusively that no rain fell after the murderer left the house with his burden. It seemed to me unlikely that a man after committing a murder would coolly sit down beside his victim and wait for the rain to cease before disposing of the body. His natural instinct would be to hide the evidence of his crime as quickly as possible.
"These points, however, were of secondary importance, merely tending to shake slightly what lawyers term the probability of the case against Penreath. But a point of more importance was my discovery that the candle-grease dropped on the carpet was of two different kinds--wax and tallow--suggesting that two different persons were in the room on the night of the murder. Mr. Glenthorpe did not use a candle, but a reading lamp. Neither did Mr. Glenthorpe use the gas globe in the middle of the room. Yet that gas tap was turned on slightly when we examined the room, and the globe and the incandescent burner smashed. Who turned on the tap, and who smashed the globe? Penreath is not tall enough to have struck it with his head. Superintendent Galloway's theory was that it might have been done by the murderer when throwing the body of his victim over his shoulder.
"An ideal case of circumstantial evidence may be weakened, but not destroyed, by the destruction of one or more of the collateral facts which go to make it up. There are two kinds of circumstantial evidence. In one kind presumption of guilt depends on a series of links forming a chain. In the other, the circumstances are woven together like the strands of a rope. That is the ideal case of circumstantial evidence, because the rope still holds when some of the strands are severed. The case against Penreath struck me as resembling a chain, which is no stronger than its weakest link. The strongest link in the chain of circumstances against Penreath was the footprints leading to the pit. They had undoubtedly been made by his boots, but circumstances can lie as well as witnesses, and in both cases the most plausible sometimes prove the greatest liars. Take away the clue of the footprints, and the case against Penreath was snapped in the most vital link. The remaining circumstances in the case against him, though suspicious enough, were open to an alternative explanation. The footprints were the damning fact--the link on which the remaining links of the chain were hung.
"But the elimination of the clue of the footprints did not make the crime any easier of solution. From the moment I set foot in the room it struck me as a deep and baffling mystery, looking at it from the point of view of the police theory or from any other hypothesis. If Penreath had indeed committed the murder, who was the second visitor to the room? And if Penreath had not committed the murder, who had?
"That night, in my room, I sought to construct two alternative theories of the murder. In the first place, I examined the case thoroughly from the police point of view, with Penreath as the murderer. In view of what has come to light since the trial, there is no need to take up time with giving you my reasons for doubting whether Penreath had committed the crime. I explained those reasons to Superintendent Galloway at the time, pointing out, as he will doubtless remember, that the police theory struck me as illogical in some aspects, and far from convincing as a whole. There were too many elements of uncertainty in it, too much guess-work, too much jumping at conclusions. Take one point alone, on which I laid stress at the time. The police theory originally started from the point of Penreath's peculiar behaviour at the Durrington hotel, which, from their point of view, suggested homicidal mania. To my mind, there was no evidence to prove this, although that theory was actually put forth by the defence at Penreath's trial. I witnessed the scene at the breakfast table, and, in my opinion, Sir Henry Durwood acted hastily and wrongly in rushing forward and seizing Penreath. There was nothing in his behaviour that warranted it. He was a little excited, and nothing more, and from what I have heard since he had reason to be excited. Neither at the breakfast table nor in his room subsequently did his actions strike me as the actions of a man of insane, neurotic, or violent temperament. He was simply suffering from nerves. It is important to remember, in recalling the events which led up to this case, that Penreath was invalided out of the Army suffering from shell-shock, and that two nights before the scene at the hotel there was an air raid at Durrington. Shell-shock victims are always prejudicially affected by air raids.
"Even if the police theory had been correct on this point, it seemed inconceivable to me that a man affected with homicidal tendencies would have displayed such cold-blooded caution and cunning in carrying out a murder for gain, as the murderer at the Golden Anchor did. The Crown dropped this point at the trial. I merely mention it now in support of my contention that the case of circumstantial evidence against Penreath was by no means a strong one, because it originally depended, in part, on inferred facts which the premises did not warrant.
"Next, the discoveries made in the room where the murder was committed, and certain other indications found outside, did not fit in with the police case against Penreath. Superintendent Galloway's reconstruction oL the crime, after he had seen the body and examined the inn premises, did not account for the existence of all the facts. There were circumstances and clues which were not consistent with the police theory of the murder. The probability of the inference that Penreath was the murderer was not increased by the discoveries we made. I am aware that absolute proof is not essential to conviction in a case of circumstantial evidence, but, on the other hand, to ignore facts which do not accord with a theory is to go to the other extreme, for by so doing you are in danger of excluding the possibility of any alternative theory.
"On the other hand, when I sought to account for the crime by any other hypothesis I found myself puzzled at every turn. The presence of two persons in the room was the baffling factor. The murderer had entered through the window in the storm, lighted the tallow candle which he brought with him, walked straight to the bed and committed the murder. Then he had waited till the rain ceased before carrying the body downstairs to the pit. But what about the second person--the person who had carried the wax candle and dropped spots of grease underneath the broken gas globe? Had he come in at a different time, and why? Why had he sought to light the gas, when he carried a candle? Why had he--as I subsequently ascertained--left the room and gone downstairs to turn on the gas at the meter?
"Eliminating Penreath for the time being, I tried next to fit in the clues I had discovered with two alternative theories. Had the murder been committed from outside by a villager, or by somebody in the inn? There were possibilities about the former theory which I pointed out to Superintendent Galloway, who subsequently investigated them, and declared that there was no ground for the theory that the murder had been committed from outside. The theory that the murder had been committed by somebody inside the inn turned my attention to the inmates of the inn. Excluding Penreath for the time being, there were five inmates inside the walls the night the murder was committed--the innkeeper, his daughter, his mother, the waiter, and Ann, the servant. The girl could hardly have committed the murder, and could certainly not have carried away the body. The old mad woman might have committed the murder if she could have got out of her room, but she could not have carried the body to the pit--neither could the servant. By this process of elimination there remained the landlord and the deaf waiter.
"For a reason which it is not necessary to explain now, my thoughts turned to the waiter when I first saw the body of the murdered man. The possibility that he was the murderer was strengthened by the slight clue of the line in the clay which I found underneath the murdered man's bedroom window. That window is about five feet from the ground outside, and the waiter, who is short and stout, could not have climbed through the window without something to stand on. But the waiter could not possibly have carried the body to the pit. His right arm is malformed, and only a very strong man, with two strong arms, could have performed that feat.
"There remained the innkeeper. He was the only person on the inn premises that night, except Penreath, who could have carried the corpse downstairs and thrown it into the pit. Although thin, I should say he is a man of great physical strength. It is astonishing to think, in looking back over all the circumstances of this extraordinary case, that some suspicion was not diverted to him in the first instance. He was very hard-pressed for money, and he knew for days beforehand that Mr. Glenthorpe was going to draw L300 from the bank--a circumstance that Penreath could not possibly have known when he sought chance shelter at the inn that night. He was the only person in the place tall enough to have smashed the gas globe and incandescent burner in Mr. Glenthorpe's room by striking his head against it. He knew the run of the place and the way to the pit intimately--far better than a stranger like Penreath could. I was struck with that fact when we were examining the footprints. The undeviating course from the inn to the mouth of the pit suggested an intimate acquaintance with the way. The man who carried the body to the pit in the darkness knew every inch of the ground.
"It is easy to be wise after the event, but my thoughts and suspicions were centering? more and more around the innkeeper when Penreath was arrested. His attitude altered the whole aspect of the case. His hesitating answers to me in the wood, his fatalistic acceptance of the charge against him, seemed to me equivalent to a confession of guilt, so I abandoned my investigations and returned to Durrington.
"I was wrong. It was a mistake for which I find it difficult to forgive myself. Penreath's hesitation, his silence--what were they in the balance of probabilities in such a strange deep crime as this murder? In view of the discoveries I had already made--discoveries which pointed to a most baffling mystery--I should not have allowed myself to be swerved from my course by Penreath's silence in the face of accusation, inexplicable though it appeared at the time. You know what happened subsequently. Penreath, persisting in his silence, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death--because of that silence, which compelled the defence to rely on a defence of insanity which they could not sustain.
"I went back to the inn a second time, not of my own volition, but because of a story told me by the innkeeper's daughter, Peggy, at Durrington four days ago. The night before the inquest Peggy paid a visit to the room in which the murdered man lay. I did not see her go in, but I saw her come out. She went downstairs and hurried across the marshes and threw something into the sea from the top of the breakwater. The following day, after Penreath's arrest, I questioned her. She gave me an explanation which was hardly plausible, but Penreath's silence, coming after the accumulation of circumstances against him, had caused me to look at the case from a different angle, and I did not cross-examine her. The object of her visit to me after the trial was to admit that she had not told me the truth previously. Her amended story was obviously the true one. She and Penreath had met by chance on the seashore near Leyland Hoop two or three weeks before, and had met secretly afterward. The subsequent actions of these two foolish young people prove, convincingly enough, that they had fallen passionately in love with each other. Peggy, however, had never told Penreath her name or where she lived--because she knew her position was different from his, she says--and she could not understand how he came to be at the inn that night. Naturally, she was very much perturbed at his unexpected appearance. She waited for an opportunity to speak to him after hearing his voice, but was compelled to attend on her mad grandmother until it was very late.
"Before going to bed she went down the passage to see if by any chance he had not retired. There was a light in Mr. Glenthorpe's room, and, acting on a sudden girlish impulse, she ran along the passage to Mr. Glenthorpe's door, intending to confide her troubles in one who had always been very good and kind to her. The door was partly open, and as she got no reply to her knock, she entered. Mr. Glenthorpe was lying on his bed, murdered, and on the floor--at the side of the bed--she found the knife and this silver and enamel match-box. She hid the knife behind a picture on the wall. She did a very plucky thing the following night by going into the dead man's room and removing the knife in order to prevent the police finding it, for by that time she was aware that the knife formed an important piece of evidence in the case against her lover. It was the knife she threw into the sea, but she kept the match-box, which she recognised as Penreath's. When she came to me she did not intend to tell me anything about the match-box if she could help it. She was frank enough up to a point, but beyond that point she did not want to go.
"After Penreath's conviction she began, womanlike, to wonder if she had not been too hasty in assuming his guilt, and as the time slipped by and brought the day of his doom nearer she grew desperate, and as a last resource she came to me. It was a good thing she did so. For her story, though apparently making the case against Penreath blacker still, incidentally brought to light a clue which threw a new light on the case and decided me to return to Flegne. That clue is contained in the match-box."