The Shrieking Pit by Arthur J. Rees
"This is a remarkable story, Mr. Colwyn," said the chief constable, breaking the rather lengthy silence which followed the conclusion of the detective's reconstruction of the crime. "It has been quite entrancing to listen to your syllogistical skill. You would have made an excellent Crown Prosecutor." The chief constable's official mind could conceive no higher compliment. "Your statements seem almost too incredible for belief, but undoubtedly you have made out a case for the further investigation of this crime. What do you think, Galloway?"
"The question, to my mind, is what Mr. Colwyn's discoveries really represent," replied Galloway. "He has built up a very ingenious and plausible reconstruction, but let us discard mere theory, and stick to the facts. What do they amount to? Apart from Penreath's statement in the gaol that he saw the body carried down stairs----"
"You can leave that out of the question," said the detective curtly. "My reconstruction of the crime is independent of Penreath's testimony, which is open to the objection that it should have been made before."
"Exactly what I was going to point out," rejoined Galloway bluntly. "Well, then, let us examine the fresh facts. There are five as I see them. The recovery of Penreath's match-box, the discovery of the door between the two rooms, the wound on the innkeeper's forehead, the additional key, and the finding of the pocket-book in the pit. Exclude the idea of conspiracy, and the recovery of the match-box becomes an additional point against Penreath, because it strikes me as guess work to assume that he had no other matches in his possession except that particular box and the loose one he found in his vest pocket. Smokers frequently carry two or three boxes of matches. The discovery of the hidden door is interesting, but has no direct bearing on the crime. The wound on the innkeeper's head looks suspicious, but there is no proof that it was caused by his knocking his head against the gas globe in the murdered man's room on the night of the murder. As Mr. Colwyn himself has pointed out, there is not much in Benson having a second key of Glenthorpe's room. Many hotel-keepers and innkeepers keep duplicate keys of bedrooms. The significance of this discovery is that Benson kept silence about the existence of this key. Undoubtedly he should have told us about it, but I am not prepared to accept, offhand, that his silence was the silence of a guilty man. He may have kept silence regarding it through a foolish fear of directing suspicion to himself. That theory seems to me quite as probable as Mr. Colwyn's theory. There remains the recovery of the money in the pit. In considering that point I find it impossible to overlook that Penreath returned to the wood after making his escape. That suggests, to my mind, that he hid the money in the pit himself, and took the risk of returning in order to regain possession of it."
"You are worthier of the chief constable's compliment than I, my dear Galloway," said Colwyn genially. "Your gift of overcoming points which tell against you by ignoring them, and your careful avoidance of tell-tale inferences, would make you an ideal Crown Prosecutor."
"I don't believe in inferences in crime," replied Galloway, flushing under the detective's sarcasm. "I am a plain man, and I like to stick to facts."
"What was the whole of your case against Penreath but a series of inferences?" retorted Colwyn. "Circumstantial evidence, and the circumstances on which you depended in this case, were never fully established. Furthermore, your facts were not consistent with your original hypothesis, and had to be altered when the case went to trial. Now that I have discovered other facts and inferences which are consistent with another hypothesis, you strive to shut your eyes to them, or draw wrong conclusions from them. Your suggestion that Penreath must have hidden the money in the pit because he was arrested near it is a choice example of false deduction based on the wrong premise that Penreath hid the money there on the night of the murder. He could not have done so because he had no rope, and how was he, a stranger to the place, to know that the inside of the pit was covered with creeping plants of sufficient strength to bear a man's weight? The choice of the pit as a hiding place for the money argues an intimate local knowledge."
"You have not yet told us how you came to deduce that the money was in the pit," said Mr. Cromering, who had been examining the pocket-book and money.
"While I was examining the mouth of the pit the previous afternoon I found this piece of paper at the brink, trodden into the clay. Later on I recognised the peculiar watermark of waving lines as the Government watermark in the first issue of Treasury war notes. From that I deduced that the money was hidden in the pit. It was all in Treasury notes, as you see."
"I'm afraid I don't quite follow you now," said the chief constable, with a puzzled glance at the piece of dirty paper in his hand. "This piece of paper is not a Treasury note."
"Not now, perhaps, but it was once," said the detective with a smile. "It puzzled me at first. I could not account for the Treasury watermark, designed to prevent forgery of the notes, appearing on a piece of blank paper. Then it came to me. The first issue of Treasury notes were very badly printed. Ordinary black ink was used, which would disappear if the note was immersed in water. It was an official at Somerset House who told me this. He informed me that they had several cases of munition workers who, after being paid in Treasury notes, had put them into the pockets of their overalls, and forgotten about them until the overalls came back from the wash with every vestige of printing washed out from the notes, leaving nothing but the watermarks. It occurred to me that the same thing had happened in this case. The murderer, when about to descend to the pit to conceal the money, had accidentally dropped a note and trodden it underfoot, and it had lain out in the open exposed to heavy rains and dew until every scrap of printing was obliterated."
"By Jove, that's very clever, very clever indeed!" exclaimed Galloway. He picked up a magnifying glass which was lying on the table, and closely examined the dirty piece of white paper which Colwyn had found at the mouth of the pit. "It was once a Treasury note, sure enough--the watermark is unmistakable. You've scored a point there that I couldn't have made, and I'm man enough to own up to it. You see more deeply into things than I do, Mr. Colwyn. And I'm willing to admit that you've made some new and interesting discoveries about this case, though in my opinion you are inclined to read too much into them. But I certainly think they ought to be investigated further. If Penreath's statement to you this morning is true, Benson is the murderer, and there has been a miscarriage of justice. But what makes me doubt the truth of it is Penreath's refusal to speak before. I mistrust confessions made out at the last moment. And his explanation that he kept silence to save the girl strikes me as rather thin. It is too quixotic."
"There is more than that in it," replied Colwyn. "He had a double motive. Penreath heard Sir Henry Durwood depose at the trial that he believed him to be suffering from epilepsy."
"How does that constitute a second motive?"
"In this way. Penreath has a highly-strung, introspective temperament. He went to the front from a high sense of duty, but he was temperamentally unfit for the ghastly work of modern warfare, and broke down under the strain. Men like Penreath feel it keenly when they are discharged through shell-shock. They feel that the carefully hidden weaknesses of their temperaments have been dragged out into the light of day, and imagine they have been branded as cowards in the eyes of their fellow men. I suspect that the real reason why Penreath left London and sought refuge in Norfolk under another name was because he had been discharged from the Army through shell-shock. He wanted to get away from London and hide himself from those who knew him. To his wounded spirit the condolences of his friends would be akin to taunts and sneers. When Sir Henry Durwood questioned him he was careful to conceal the fact that he had been a victim of shell-shock. As a matter of fact, Penreath's behaviour in the breakfast room that morning was nothing more than the effects of the air raid on his disordered nerves, but he would sooner have died than admit that to strangers. After listening to the evidence for the defence at the trial, he came to the conclusion that he was an epileptic as well as a neurasthenic. He might well believe that life held little for him in these circumstances, and that conviction would strengthen him in his determination to sacrifice his life as a thing of little value for the girl he loved."
"If that is true he must be a very manly young fellow," said the chief constable.
"Supposing it is true, what is to be done?" asked Galloway, earnestly. "Penreath has been tried and convicted for the murder."
"The conviction will be upset on appeal," replied the detective decisively.
"But I do not see that carries us much further forward as regards Benson," persisted Galloway. "If he is the murderer, as you say, he will clear out as soon as he hears that Penreath is appealing."
"He will not be able to clear out if you arrest him."
"On what grounds? I cannot arrest him for a murder for which another man has been sentenced to death."
"True. But you can arrest him as accessory after the fact, on the ground that he carried the body downstairs and threw it into the pit."
"And suppose he denies having done so? Look here, Mr. Colwyn, I want to help you all I can, but if I have made one mistake, I do not want to make a second one. Frankly, I do not know what to think of your story. It may be true, or it may not. But speaking from a police point of view, we have mighty little to go on if we arrest Benson. If he likes to bluff us we may find ourselves in an awkward position. Nobody saw him commit the murder."
"I realise the truth of what you say because I thought it all over before coming to see you," replied Colwyn. "If Benson denies the truth of the points I have discovered against him, or gives them a different interpretation, it may be difficult to prove them. But he will not--he will confess all he knows."
"What makes you think so?"
"Because his nerve has gone. If I had confronted him that night when I saw him in the room I would have got the whole truth from him."
"Why did you not do so?"
"Because I had not the power to detain him. I am merely a private detective, and can neither arrest a man nor threaten him with arrest. That is why I have come to you. You, with the powers of the law behind you, can frighten Benson into a confession much more effectually than I could."
"I don't half like it," grumbled Galloway. "There's a risk about it----"
"It's a risk that must be taken, nevertheless." It was Mr. Cromering who intervened in the discussion between the two, and he spoke with unusual decision. "I agree with Mr. Colwyn that this is the best course to pursue. I will go with you and take full responsibility, Galloway."
"There is no need for that," said Galloway quickly. "I am quite willing to go."
"I will accompany you and Mr. Colwyn. It has been a remarkable case throughout, and I want to see the end--if this is the end. I feel keenly interested in this young man's fate."
"I should like to go also, but an engagement prevents me," said Mr. Oakham. "I am quite content to leave Penreath's interests in Mr. Colwyn's capable hands." He rose as he spoke, and held out his hand to the detective. "We have all been in error, but you have saved us from having an irreparable wrong on our consciences. I cannot forgive myself for my blindness. Perhaps you will acquaint me with the result of your visit when you return. I shall be anxious to know."
"I will not fail to do so," replied Colwyn, grasping the solicitor's hand. "We had better catch the five o'clock train to Heathfield and walk across to Flegne," he added, turning to the others. "It will be as quick as motoring across, and the sound of the car might put Benson on his guard. We want to take him unawares."
"He'll have got wind of something already if he finds the pocket-book gone," said Galloway. "He may have bolted while we have been talking over things here."
"I've seen to that," replied the detective. "I tied my own pocket-book to the fishing line in the pit, and left Queensmead watching the pit. If Benson tries to escape with my pocket-book Queensmead will arrest him for robbery. I've made a complaint of the loss."
"You haven't left much to chance," replied Galloway, with a grim smile.