The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
Colwyn opened the silver and enamel box, and emptied the matches on the table.
"I showed this match-box to Charles on my return to the inn, and he told me that Penreath used it in the upstairs sitting-room the night he dined there with Mr. Glenthorpe. Therefore, it is a reasonable deduction to assume that he had no other matches in his possession the night of the murder.
"This fact is highly significant, because the matches in Penreath's silver box are, as you see, blue-headed wax matches, whereas the matches struck in Mr. Glenthorpe's room on the night of the murder were of an entirely different description--wooden matches with pink heads, of British manufacture--so-called war matches, with cork pine sticks. The sticks of these matches break rather easily unless they are held near the head. Two broken fragments of this description of match, with unlighted heads, were found in Mr. Glenthorpe's room the morning after the murder. Superintendent Galloway picked up one by the foot of the bed, and I picked up the other under the broken gas-globe. The recovery of Penreath's match-box in the murdered man's room suggested several things. In the first place, if he had no other matches in his possession except those in his silver and enamel box, he was neither the murderer nor the second person who visited the room that night. But if my deduction about the matches was correct, how was it that his match-box was found in the murdered man's room? The inference is that Penreath left his match-box in the dining room after lighting his candle before going to bed, and the murderer found it and took it into Mr. Glenthorpe's bedroom to point suspicion towards Penreath.
"This fact opened up a new possibility about the crime--the possibility that Penreath was the victim of a conspiracy. When we were examining the footprints which led to the pit, the possibility of somebody else having worn Penreath's boots occurred to me, because I have seen that trick worked before, but the servant's story suggested that Penreath did not put his boots outside his door to be cleaned, but came to the door with them in his hand in the morning. But Penreath told me this morning that he put out his boots overnight to be cleaned, but had taken them back into his room before Ann brought up his tea. The murderer, therefore, had ample opportunity to use them for his purpose of carrying the body to the pit and to put them back afterwards outside Penreath's door.
"But Peggy's belated admissions did more than suggest that Penreath was the victim of a sinister plot--they narrowed down the range of persons by whom it could have been contrived. The plotter was not only an inmate of the inn, but somebody who had seen the match box and knew that it belonged to Penreath.
"I returned to Flegne to resume the investigations I had broken off nearly three weeks before, and from that point my discoveries were very rapid, all tending to throw suspicion on Benson. The first indication was the outcome of a remark of mine about his height, and the broken gas light in Mr. Glenthorpe's bedroom. It was purely a chance shot, but it threw him into a pitiable state of excitement. I let him think, however, that it was nothing more than a chance remark. That night I was put to sleep in Penreath's room, and there I made two discoveries. The first was the existence of a small door, behind the wardrobe, opening on a corresponding door on the other side, which in its turn opens into Mr. Glenthorpe's room. Thus it would be possible for a person in the room Penreath occupied, discovering these doors as I did, to see into the next bedroom--under certain conditions. My second discovery was the outcome of my first discovery--I picked up underneath the wardrobe a fragment of an appealing letter which Penreath had commenced to write to his fiancee, and had subsequently torn up. It was a long time before I grasped the full significance of these two discoveries. Why should a man, after writing a letter of appeal to his fiancee, decide not to send it and destroy it? The most probable reason was that something had happened to cause him to change his mind. What could have happened to change the conditions so quickly? The hidden doors in the wall, which looked into the next room, supplied an answer to the question. Penreath had looked through, and seen--what? My first thought was that he had seen the murder committed, but that theory did not account for the destruction of the letter, and his silence when arrested, unless, indeed, the girl had committed the murder. The girl--Peggy! It came to me like a flash, the solution of the strangest aspect of this puzzling case--the reason why Penreath maintained his dogged silence under an accusation of murder.
"It came to me, the clue for which I had been groping, with the recollection of a phrase in the girl's story to me--her second story--in which she not only told me of her efforts to shield Penreath, but revealed frankly to me her relations with Penreath, innocent enough, but commenced in chance fashion, and continued by clandestine meetings in lonely spots. I remembered when she told me about it all that I was impressed by Penreath's absolute straightforwardness in his dealings with this girl. He was open and sincere with her throughout, gave her his real name, and told her much about himself: his family, his prospects, and even his financial embarrassment. He went further than that: he told her that he was engaged to be married, and that if he could get free he would marry her. A young man who talks in this strain is very much in love. The artless story of Peggy revealed that Penreath was as much in love with the girl as she was with him. 'If he could get free!' That was the phrase that gave me the key to the mystery. He had set out to get free by writing to Miss Willoughby, breaking off his engagement. Later he had torn up the letter because through the door in the wall he had seen Peggy standing by the bedside of the murdered man, and had come to the conclusion that she had murdered him.
"If you think it a little strange that Penreath should have jumped to this conclusion about the woman he loved, you must remember the circumstances were unusual. Peggy had surrounded herself with mystery; she refused to tell her lover where she lived, she would not even tell him her name. When he looked into the room he did not even know she was in the house, because she had kept out of his way during the previous evening, waiting for an opportunity to see him alone. Consequently he experienced a great shock at the sight of her, and the mystery with which she had always veiled her identity and movements recurred to him with a terrible and sinister significance as he saw her again under such damning conditions, standing by the bedside of the dead man with a knife in her hand.
"Penreath's subsequent actions--his destruction of the letter he had written to Miss Willoughby, his hurried departure from the inn, and his silence in the face of accusation--are all explained by the fact that he saw the girl Peggy in the next room, and believed that she had committed this terrible crime.
"I now come to the clues which point directly to Benson's complicity in the murder. I have already told you of his alarm at my chance remark about his height and the smashed gas globe. You also know that he was in need of money. The next point is rather a curious one. When Benson was telling us his story the day after the murder I observed that he kept smoothing his long hair down on his forehead. There was something in the action that suggested more than a mannerism. The night after I discovered the door in the wall, I left it open in order to watch the next room. During the night Benson entered and searched the dead man's chamber. I do not know what he was looking for--he did not find it, whatever it was--but during the search he grew hot, and threw back his hair from his forehead, revealing a freshly healed scar on his temple. The reason he had worn his hair low was explained: he wanted to hide from us the fact that it was he who had smashed the gas-globe in Mr. Glenthorpe's room, and had cut his head by the accident.
"But his visit to the dead man's room revealed more than the scar on his forehead. How did Benson get into the room? The room had been kept locked since the murder. That night I had taken the key from a hook on the kitchen dresser in order to examine the room when the inmates of the place had retired. Benson, therefore, had let himself in with another key. This was our first knowledge of another key. Hitherto we had believed that the only key was the one found in the outside of the door the morning after the murder. The police theory is partly based on that supposition. Benson's possession of a second key, and his silence concerning it, point strongly to his complicity in the crime. He knew that Mr. Glenthorpe was accustomed to lock his door and carry the key about with him, so he obtained another key in order to have access to the room whenever he desired. There would have been nothing in this if he had told his household about it. A second key would have been useful to the servant when she wanted to arrange Mr. Glenthorpe's room. But Benson kept the existence of the second key a close secret. He said nothing about it when we questioned him concerning the key in the door. An innocent man would have immediately informed us that there was a second key to the room. Benson kept silence because he had something to hide.
"I now come to the events of the next morning. My investigation of the rise and the pit during the afternoon had led to a discovery which subsequently suggested to my mind that the missing money had been hidden in the pit. I determined to try and descend it. I arose before daybreak, as I did not wish any of the inmates of the inn to see me. Before going to the pit I got out of the window and into the window of the next room, as Penreath is supposed to have done. That experiment brought to light another small point in Penreath's favour. The drop from the first window is an awkward one--more than eight feet--and my heels made a deep indentation in the soft red clay underneath the window. If Penreath had dropped from the window, even in his stocking feet, the marks of his heels ought to have been visible. There was not enough rain after the murder was committed to obliterate them entirely. There were no such marks under his window when we examined the ground the morning after the murder.
"I next proceeded to the rise and lowered myself down the pit by the creepers inside. About ten feet down the vegetable growth ceased, and the further descent was impossible without ropes. But at the limit of the distance to which a man can climb down unaided, I saw a peg sticking into the side of the pit, with a fishing line suspended from it. I drew up the line, and found attached to it the murdered man's pocket-book containing the L300 he had drawn out of the bank at Heathfield the day he was murdered.
"Let me now try to reconstruct the crime in the light of the fresh information we have gained. Benson was in desperate straits for money, and he knew that Mr. Glenthorpe had drawn L300 from the bank that morning, all in small notes, which could not be traced. The fact that he obtained a second key to the room suggests that he had been meditating the act for some time past. It will be found, I think, when all the facts are brought to light, that he obtained the second key when he learnt that Mr. Glenthorpe intended to take a large sum of money out of the bank. Penreath's chance arrival at the inn on the day that the money was drawn out, probably set him thinking of the possibility of murdering and robbing Mr. Glenthorpe in circumstances that would divert suspicion to the stranger. Penreath unconsciously helped him by leaving his match-box in the room where he had dined with Mr. Glenthorpe. Benson found the match-box on looking into the room to see that everything was all right when his guests had retired, and determined to commit the murder that night, and leave it by the murdered man's bedside, as a clue to direct attention to Penreath. His next idea, to murder Mr. Glenthorpe with the knife which Penreath had used at dinner, probably occurred to him as he considered the possibilities of the match-box.
"It is difficult to decide why Benson chose to enter the room from the window instead of by the door when he had a second key of the room. He may have attempted to open the door with the key, and found that Mr. Glenthorpe had locked the door and left the key on the inside. Or he may have thought that as Penreath was sleeping in the next room, he ran too great a risk of discovery by entering from the door, and so decided to enter by the window. We must presume that Benson subsequently found Mr. Glenthorpe's key, either inside the door or under his pillow, and kept it. He entered the window, stabbed Mr. Glenthorpe, and placed the match-box and the knife at the side of the bed. His next act would be to search for the money. Finding it difficult to search by the light of the tallow candle, he decided to go downstairs and turn on the gas.
"During his absence Peggy entered the room, saw the dead body, and picked up the knife and the match-box. Then she picked up the candlestick by the bed, and fled in terror. Benson, after turning on the gas at the meter, returned to find the room in darkness. Thinking that the wind had blown out the candle, he walked to the gas with the intention of lighting it. In doing so he knocked his head against the globe, cutting his forehead, and smashing the incandescent burner.
"Benson, when he found that the candlestick had disappeared must, in his fright, have rushed downstairs for another. He could not light the gas, because he had smashed the burner. In no other way can I account for the second lot of candle-grease that I found in the room underneath the gas-light, which made me believe at first that the room had been visited by two persons on the night of the murder. There were two persons, Benson and his daughter, but Peggy did not bring a candlestick into the room. It looks to me as though Benson, on returning with the second candle, attempted to light the gas with it and failed. That action would account for the gas tap being turned on, and the spilt grease directly underneath. He then searched the room till he found the pocket-book containing the money.
"The subsequent removal of the body to the pit strikes me as an afterthought. The complete plan was too diabolically ingenious and complete to have formed in the murderer's mind at the outset. The man who put the match-box and knife by the bedside of the murdered man in order to divert suspicion to Penreath had no thought, at that stage, of removing the body. That idea came afterwards, probably when he went upstairs the second time with the lighted candle, and saw Penreath's boots outside the door. I cannot help thinking that the clue of the footprints, which was such a damning point in the case against Penreath, was quite an accidental one so far as the murderer was concerned. The thought that the boots would leave footprints which would subsequently be identified as Penreath's was altogether too subtle to have occurred to a man like Benson. That is the touch of a master criminal--of a much higher order of criminal brain than Benson's.
"It is my belief that he originally intended to leave the murdered man in his room, thinking that the match-box and knife would point suspicion to Penreath. But after killing Mr. Glenthorpe he was overcome with the fear that his guilt would be discovered, in spite of his precautions to throw suspicions on another man, and he decided to throw the body into the pit in the hope that the crime would never be found out. The fact that he had entered the room in his stocking feet supports this theory, because he would be well aware that he would not be able to carry the body over several hundred yards of rough ground in his bare feet. He took Penreath's boots, which were close at hand, in preference to the danger and delay which he would have incurred in going to his own room, some distance away, for his own boots. Having put on the boots, he took the body on his shoulders and conveyed it to the pit.
"There are two or three points in this case which I am unable to clear up to my complete satisfaction. Why did Benson leave the key in the outside of the door? Was it merely one of those mistakes--those oversights--which all murderers are liable to commit, or did he do it deliberately, in the hope of conveying the impression that Mr. Glenthorpe had gone out and left the key in the outside of the door. In the next place, I cannot account for the mark of the box underneath the window. There is a third point--the direction of the wound in the murdered man's body, which gave me some ideas at the time that I am now compelled to dismiss as erroneous. But these are points that I hope will be cleared up by Benson's arrest, and confession, for I am convinced, by my observation of the man, that he will confess.
"There are one or two more points. Benson is an ardent fisherman, who spends all his spare time fishing on the marshes. The stolen pocket-book was suspended in the pit by a piece of fishing line. But I attach more importance to the second point, which is that since the murder has been committed the nightly conversation at the inn tap-room has centred around a local ghost, known as the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit, who is supposed from time immemorial to have haunted the pit where the body was thrown, and to bring death to anybody who encounters her at night. This spectre, which is profoundly believed in by the villagers, had not been seen for at least two years before the murder, but she made a reappearance a night or two after the crime, and is supposed to have been seen frequently ever since. It looks to me as though Benson set the story going again in order to keep the credulous villagers away from the pit where the money was concealed.
"This morning, in company with Mr. Oakham, I saw Penreath in the gaol, and by a ruse induced him to break his stubborn silence. His story, which it is not necessary for me to give you in detail, testifies to his innocence, and supports my own theory of the crime. He did not see the murder committed, but he saw the girl go into the room, and subsequently he saw her father enter and remove the body. It was the latter spectacle that robbed him of any lingering doubts he may have had of the girl's guilt, and forced him to the conclusion that she and her father were accomplices in the crime. But he loved her so much that he determined to keep silence and shield her."