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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 24909

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


There are moments in life, as one might think, when that which is within us, busy about its secret affair, lets escape into consciousness some hint of a fortunate thing ordained. Who does not know what it is to feel at times a wave of unaccountable persuasion that it is about to go well with him?-not the feverish confidence of men in danger of a blow from fate, not the persistent illusion of the optimist, but an unsought conviction, springing up like a bird from the heather, that success is at hand in some great or fine thing. The general suddenly knows at dawn that the day will bring him victory; the man on the green suddenly knows that he will put down the long putt. As Trent mounted the stairway outside the library door he seemed to rise into certainty of achievement. A host of guesses and inferences swarmed apparently unsorted through his mind; a few secret observations that he had made, and which he felt must have significance, still stood unrelated to any plausible theory of the crime; yet as he went up he seemed to know indubitably that light was going to appear.

The bedrooms lay on either side of a broad carpeted passage, lighted by a tall end window. It went the length of the house until it ran at right angles into a narrower passage, out of which the servants' rooms opened. Martin's room was the exception: it opened out of a small landing half-way to the upper floor. As Trent passed it he glanced within. A little square room, clean and commonplace. In going up the rest of the stairway he stepped with elaborate precaution against noise, hugging the wall closely and placing each foot with care; but a series of very audible creaks marked his passage.

He knew that Manderson's room was the first on the right hand when the bedroom floor was reached, and he went to it at once. He tried the latch and the lock, which worked normally, and examined the wards of the key. Then he turned to the room.

It was a small apartment, strangely bare. The plutocrat's toilet appointments were of the simplest. All remained just as it had been on the morning of the ghastly discovery in the grounds. The sheets and blankets of the unmade bed lay tumbled over a narrow wooden bedstead, and the sun shone brightly through the window upon them. It gleamed, too, upon the gold parts of the delicate work of dentistry that lay in water in a shallow bowl of glass placed on a small, plain table by the bedside. On this also stood a wrought-iron candlestick. Some clothing lay untidily over one of the two rush-bottomed chairs. Various objects on the top of a chest of drawers, which had been used as a dressing-table, lay in such disorder as a hurried man might make. Trent looked them over with a questing eye. He noted also that the occupant of the room had neither washed nor shaved. With his finger he turned over the dental plate in the bowl, and frowned again at its incomprehensible presence.

The emptiness and disarray of the little room, flooded by the sunbeams, were producing in Trent a sense of gruesomeness. His fancy called up a picture of a haggard man dressing himself in careful silence by the first light of dawn, glancing constantly at the inner door behind which his wife slept, his eyes full of some terror.

Trent shivered, and to fix his mind again on actualities, opened two tall cupboards in the wall on either side of the bed. They contained clothing, a large choice of which had evidently been one of the very few conditions of comfort for the man who had slept there.

In the matter of shoes, also, Manderson had allowed himself the advantage of wealth. An extraordinary number of these, treed and carefully kept, was ranged on two long low shelves against the wall. No boots were among them. Trent, himself an amateur of good shoe-leather, now turned to these, and glanced over the collection with an appreciative eye. It was to be seen that Manderson had been inclined to pride himself on a rather small and well-formed foot. The shoes were of a distinctive shape, narrow and round-toed, beautifully made; all were evidently from the same last.

Suddenly his eyes narrowed themselves over a pair of patent-leather shoes on the upper shelf.

These were the shoes of which the inspector had already described the position to him; the shoes worn by Manderson the night before his death. They were a well-worn pair, he saw at once; he saw, too, that they had been very recently polished. Something about the uppers of these shoes had seized his attention. He bent lower and frowned over them, comparing what he saw with the appearance of the neighbouring shoes. Then he took them up and examined the line of junction of the uppers with the soles.

As he did this, Trent began unconsciously to whistle faintly, and with great precision, an air which Inspector Murch, if he had been present, would have recognized.

Most men who have the habit of self-control have also some involuntary trick which tells those who know them that they are suppressing excitement. The inspector had noted that when Trent had picked up a strong scent he whistled faintly a certain melodious passage; though the inspector could not have told you that it was in fact the opening movement of Mendelssohn's Lied ohne Worter in A Major.

He turned the shoes over, made some measurements with a marked tape, and looked minutely at the bottoms. On each, in the angle between the heel and the instep, he detected a faint trace of red gravel.

Trent placed the shoes on the floor, and walked with his hands behind him to the window, out of which, still faintly whistling, he gazed with eyes that saw nothing. Once his lips opened to emit mechanically the Englishman's expletive of sudden enlightenment. At length he turned to the shelves again, and swiftly but carefully examined every one of the shoes there.

This done, he took up the garments from the chair, looked them over closely and replaced them. He turned to the wardrobe cupboards again, and hunted through them carefully. The litter on the dressing-table now engaged his attention for the second time. Then he sat down on the empty chair, took his head in his hands, and remained in that attitude, staring at the carpet, for some minutes. He rose at last and opened the inner door leading to Mrs. Manderson's room.

It was evident at a glance that the big room had been hurriedly put down from its place as the lady's bower. All the array of objects that belong to a woman's dressing-table had been removed; on bed and chairs and smaller tables there were no garments or hats, bags or boxes; no trace remained of the obstinate conspiracy of gloves and veils, handkerchiefs and ribbons, to break the captivity of the drawer. The room was like an unoccupied guest-chamber. Yet in every detail of furniture and decoration it spoke of an unconventional but exacting taste. Trent, as his expert eye noted the various perfection of colour and form amid which the ill-mated lady dreamed her dreams and thought her loneliest thoughts, knew that she had at least the resources of an artistic nature. His interest in this unknown personality grew stronger; and his brows came down heavily as he thought of the burdens laid upon it, and of the deed of which the history was now shaping itself with more and more of substance before his busy mind.

He went first to the tall French window in the middle of the wall that faced the door, and opening it, stepped out upon a small balcony with an iron railing. He looked down on a broad stretch of lawn that began immediately beneath him, separated from the house-wall only by a narrow flower-bed, and stretched away, with an abrupt dip at the farther end, toward the orchard. The other window opened with a sash above the garden-entrance of the library. In the farther inside corner of the room was a second door giving upon the passage; the door by which the maid was wont to come in, and her mistress to go out, in the morning.

Trent, seated on the bed, quickly sketched in his notebook a plan of the room and its neighbour. The bed stood in the angle between the communicating-door and the sash-window, its head against the wall dividing the room from Manderson's. Trent stared at the pillows; then he lay down with deliberation on the bed and looked through the open door into the adjoining room.

This observation taken, he rose again and proceeded to note on his plan that on either side of the bed was a small table with a cover. Upon that furthest from the door was a graceful electric-lamp standard of copper connected by a free wire with the wall. Trent looked at it thoughtfully, then at the switches connected with the other lights in the room. They were, as usual, on the wall just within the door, and some way out of his reach as he sat on the bed. He rose, and satisfied himself that the lights were all in order. Then he turned on his heel, walked quickly into Manderson's room, and rang the bell.

'I want your help again, Martin,' he said, as the butler presented himself, upright and impassive, in the doorway. 'I want you to prevail upon Mrs. Manderson's maid to grant me an interview.'

'Certainly, sir,' said Martin.

'What sort of a woman is she? Has she her wits about her?'

'She's French, sir,' replied Martin succinctly; adding after a pause: 'She has not been with us long, sir, but I have formed the impression that the young woman knows as much of the world as is good for her-since you ask me.'

'You think butter might possibly melt in her mouth, do you?' said Trent. 'Well, I am not afraid. I want to put some questions to her.'

'I will send her up immediately, sir.' The butler withdrew, and Trent wandered round the little room with his hands at his back. Sooner than he had expected, a small neat figure in black appeared quietly before him.

The lady's maid, with her large brown eyes, had taken favourable notice of Trent from a window when he had crossed the lawn, and had been hoping desperately that the resolver of mysteries (whose reputation was as great below-stairs as elsewhere) would send for her. For one thing, she felt the need to make a scene; her nerves were overwrought. But her scenes were at a discount with the other domestics, and as for Mr. Murch, he had chilled her into self-control with his official manner. Trent, her glimpse of him had told her, had not the air of a policeman, and at a distance he had appeared sympathique.

As she entered the room, however, instinct decided for her that any approach to coquetry would be a mistake, if she sought to make a good impression at the beginning. It was with an air of amiable candour, then, that she said, 'Monsieur desire to speak with me.' She added helpfully, 'I am called Célestine.'

'Naturally,' said Trent with businesslike calm. 'Now what I want you to tell me, Célestine, is this. When you took tea to your mistress yesterday morning at seven o'clock, was the door between the two bedrooms-this door here-open?'

Célestine became intensely animated in an instant. 'Oh yes!' she said, using her favourite English idiom. 'The door was open as always, monsieur, and I shut it as always. But it is necessary to explain. Listen! When I enter the room of madame from the other door in there-ah! but if monsieur will give himself the pain to enter the other room, all explains itself.' She tripped across to the door, and urged Trent before her into the larger bedroom with a hand on his arm. 'See! I enter the room with the tea like this. I approach the bed. Before I come quite near the bed, here is the door to my right hand-open always-so! But monsieur can perceive that I see nothing in the room of Monsieur Manderson. The door opens to the bed, not to me who approach from down there. I shut it without seeing in. It is the order. Yesterday it was as ordinary. I see nothing of the next room. Madame sleep like an angel-she see nothing. I shut the door. I place the plateau-I open the curtains-I prepare the toilette-I retire-voilà!' Célestine paused for breath and spread her hands abroad.

Trent, who had followed her movements and gesticulations with deepening gravity, nodded his head. 'I see exactly how it was now,' he said. 'Thank you, Célestine. So Mr. Manderson was supposed to be still in his room while your mistress was getting up, and dressing, and having breakfast in her boudoir?'

'Oui, monsieur.'

'Nobody missed him, in fact,' remarked Trent. 'W

ell, Célestine, I am very much obliged to you.' He reopened the door to the outer bedroom.

'It is nothing, monsieur,' said Célestine, as she crossed the small room. 'I hope that monsieur will catch the assassin of Monsieur Manderson. But I not regret him too much,' she added with sudden and amazing violence, turning round with her hand on the knob of the outer door. She set her teeth with an audible sound, and the colour rose in her small dark face. English departed from her. 'Je ne le regrette pas du tout, du tout!' she cried with a flood of words. 'Madame-ah! je me jetterais au leu pour madame-une femme si charmante, si adorable! Mais un homme comme monsieur-maussade, boudeur, impassible! Ah, non!-de ma vie! J'en avais par-dessus la tête, de monsieur! Ah! vrai! Est-ce insupportable, tout de même, qu'il existe des types comme ?a? Je vous jure que-'

'Finissez ce chahut, Célestine!' Trent broke in sharply. Célestine's tirade had brought back the memory of his student days with a rush. 'En voilà une scène! C'est rasant, vous savez. Faut rentret ?a, mademoiselle. Du reste, c'est bien imprudent, croyez-moi. Hang it! Have some common sense! If the inspector downstairs heard you saying that kind of thing, you would get into trouble. And don't wave your fists about so much; you might hit something. You seem,' he went on more pleasantly, as Célestine grew calmer under his authoritative eye, 'to be even more glad than other people that Mr. Manderson is out of the way. I could almost suspect, Célestine, that Mr. Manderson did not take as much notice of you as you thought necessary and right.'

'A peine s'il m'avait regardé!' Célestine answered simply.

'?a, c'est un comble!' observed Trent. 'You are a nice young woman for a small tea-party, I don't think. A star upon your birthday burned, whose fierce, serene, red, pulseless planet never yearned in heaven, Célestine. Mademoiselle, I am busy. Bon jour. You certainly are a beauty!'

Célestine took this as a scarcely expected compliment. The surprise restored her balance. With a sudden flash of her eyes and teeth at Trent over her shoulder, the lady's maid opened the door and swiftly disappeared.

Trent, left alone in the little bedroom, relieved his mind with two forcible descriptive terms in Célestine's language, and turned to his problem. He took the pair of shoes which he had already examined, and placed them on one of the two chairs in the room, then seated himself on the other opposite to this. With his hands in his pockets he sat with eyes fixed upon those two dumb witnesses. Now and then he whistled, almost inaudibly, a few bars. It was very still in the room. A subdued twittering came from the trees through the open window. From time to time a breeze rustled in the leaves of the thick creeper about the sill. But the man in the room, his face grown hard and sombre now with his thoughts, never moved.

So he sat for the space of half an hour. Then he rose quickly to his feet. He replaced the shoes on their shelf with care, and stepped out upon the landing.

Two bedroom doors faced him on the other side of the passage. He opened that which was immediately opposite, and entered a bedroom by no means austerely tidy. Some sticks and fishing-rods stood confusedly in one corner, a pile of books in another. The housemaid's hand had failed to give a look of order to the jumble of heterogeneous objects left on the dressing-table and on the mantelshelf-pipes, penknives, pencils, keys, golf-balls, old letters, photographs, small boxes, tins, and bottles. Two fine etchings and some water-colour sketches hung on the walls; leaning against the end of the wardrobe, unhung, were a few framed engravings. A row of shoes and boots was ranged beneath the window. Trent crossed the room and studied them intently; then he measured some of them with his tape, whistling very softly. This done, he sat on the side of the bed, and his eyes roamed gloomily about the room.

The photographs on the mantelshelf attracted him presently. He rose and examined one representing Marlowe and Manderson on horseback. Two others were views of famous peaks in the Alps. There was a faded print of three youths-one of them unmistakably his acquaintance of the haggard blue eyes-clothed in tatterdemalion soldier's gear of the sixteenth century. Another was a portrait of a majestic old lady, slightly resembling Marlowe. Trent, mechanically taking a cigarette from an open box on the mantel-shelf, lit it and stared at the photographs. Next he turned his attention to a flat leathern case that lay by the cigarette-box.

It opened easily. A small and light revolver, of beautiful workmanship, was disclosed, with a score or so of loose cartridges. On the stock were engraved the initials 'J. M.'

A step was heard on the stairs, and as Trent opened the breech and peered into the barrel of the weapon, Inspector Murch appeared at the open door of the room. 'I was wondering-' he began; then stopped as he saw what the other was about. His intelligent eyes opened slightly. 'Whose is the revolver, Mr. Trent?' he asked in a conversational tone.

'Evidently it belongs to the occupant of the room, Mr. Marlowe,' replied Trent with similar lightness, pointing to the initials. 'I found this lying about on the mantelpiece. It seems a handy little pistol to me, and it has been very carefully cleaned, I should say, since the last time it was used. But I know little about firearms.'

'Well, I know a good deal,' rejoined the inspector quietly, taking the revolver from Trent's outstretched hand. 'It's a bit of a speciality with me, is firearms, as I think you know, Mr. Trent. But it don't require an expert to tell one thing.' He replaced the revolver in its case on the mantel-shelf, took out one of the cartridges, and laid it on the spacious palm of one hand; then, taking a small object from his waistcoat pocket, he laid it beside the cartridge. It was a little leaden bullet, slightly battered about the nose, and having upon it some bright new scratches.

'Is that the one?' Trent murmured as he bent over the inspector's hand.

'That's him,' replied Mr. Murch. 'Lodged in the bone at the back of the skull. Dr Stock got it out within the last hour, and handed it to the local officer, who has just sent it on to me. These bright scratches you see were made by the doctor's instruments. These other marks were made by the rifling of the barrel-a barrel like this one.' He tapped the revolver. 'Same make, same calibre. There is no other that marks the bullet just like this.'

With the pistol in its case between them, Trent and the inspector looked into each other's eyes for some moments. Trent was the first to speak. 'This mystery is all wrong,' he observed. 'It is insanity. The symptoms of mania are very marked. Let us see how we stand. We were not in any doubt, I believe, about Manderson having dispatched Marlowe in the car to Southampton, or about Marlowe having gone, returning late last night, many hours after the murder was committed.'

'There is no doubt whatever about all that,' said Mr. Murch, with a slight emphasis on the verb.

'And now,' pursued Trent, 'we are invited by this polished and insinuating firearm to believe the following line of propositions: that Marlowe never went to Southampton; that he returned to the house in the night; that he somehow, without waking Mrs. Manderson or anybody else, got Manderson to get up, dress himself, and go out into the grounds; that he then and there shot the said Manderson with his incriminating pistol; that he carefully cleaned the said pistol, returned to the house and, again without disturbing any one, replaced it in its case in a favourable position to be found by the officers of the law; that he then withdrew and spent the rest of the day in hiding-with a large motor car; and that he turned up, feigning ignorance of the whole affair, at-what time was it?'

'A little after 9 p.m.' The inspector still stared moodily at Trent. 'As you say, Mr. Trent, that is the first theory suggested by this find, and it seems wild enough-at least it would do if it didn't fall to pieces at the very start. When the murder was done Marlowe must have been fifty to a hundred miles away. He did go to Southampton.'

'How do you know?'

'I questioned him last night, and took down his story. He arrived in Southampton about 6.30 on the Monday morning.'

'Come off' exclaimed Trent bitterly. 'What do I care about his story? What do you care about his story? I want to know how you know he went to Southampton.'

Mr. Murch chuckled. 'I thought I should take a rise out of you, Mr. Trent,' he said. 'Well, there's no harm in telling you. After I arrived yesterday evening, as soon as I had got the outlines of the story from Mrs. Manderson and the servants, the first thing I did was to go to the telegraph office and wire to our people in Southampton. Manderson had told his wife when he went to bed that he had changed his mind, and sent Marlowe to Southampton to get some important information from some one who was crossing by the next day's boat. It seemed right enough, but, you see, Marlowe was the only one of the household who wasn't under my hand, so to speak. He didn't return in the car until later in the evening; so before thinking the matter out any further, I wired to Southampton making certain enquiries. Early this morning I got this reply.' He handed a series of telegraph slips to Trent, who read:

PERSON ANSWERING DESCRIPTION IN MOTOR ANSWERING DESCRIPTION ARRIVED BEDFORD HOTEL HERE 6.30 THIS MORNING GAVE NAME MARLOWE LEFT CAR HOTEL GARAGE TOLD ATTENDANT CAR BELONGED MANDERSON HAD BATH AND BREAKFAST WENT OUT HEARD OF LATER AT DOCKS ENQUIRING FOR PASSENGER NAME HARRIS ON HAVRE BOAT ENQUIRED REPEATEDLY UNTIL BOAT LEFT AT NOON NEXT HEARD OF AT HOTEL WHERE HE LUNCHED ABOUT 1.15 LEFT SOON AFTERWARDS IN CAR COMPANY'S AGENTS INFORM BERTH WAS BOOKED NAME HARRIS LAST WEEK BUT HARRIS DID NOT TRAVEL BY BOAT BURKE INSPECTOR.

'Simple and satisfactory,' observed Mr. Murch as Trent, after twice reading the message, returned it to him. 'His own story corroborated in every particular. He told me he hung about the dock for half an hour or so on the chance of Harris turning up late, then strolled back, lunched, and decided to return at once. He sent a wire to Manderson-"Harris not turned up missed boat returning Marlowe," which was duly delivered here in the afternoon, and placed among the dead man's letters. He motored back at a good rate, and arrived dog-tired. When he heard of Manderson's death from Martin, he nearly fainted. What with that and the being without sleep for so long, he was rather a wreck when I came to interview him last night; but he was perfectly coherent.'

Trent picked up the revolver and twirled the cylinder idly for a few moments. 'It was unlucky for Manderson that Marlowe left his pistol and cartridges about so carelessly,' he remarked at length, as he put it back in the case. 'It was throwing temptation in somebody's way, don't you think?'

Mr. Murch shook his head. 'There isn't really much to lay hold of about the revolver, when you come to think. That particular make of revolver is common enough in England. It was introduced from the States. Half the people who buy a revolver today for self-defence or mischief provide themselves with that make, of that calibre. It is very reliable, and easily carried in the hip-pocket. There must be thousands of them in the possession of crooks and honest men. For instance,' continued the inspector with an air of unconcern, 'Manderson himself had one, the double of this. I found it in one of the top drawers of the desk downstairs, and it's in my overcoat pocket now.'

'Aha! so you were going to keep that little detail to yourself.'

'I was,' said the inspector; 'but as you've found one revolver, you may as well know about the other. As I say, neither of them may do us any good. The people in the house-'

Both men started, and the inspector checked his speech abruptly, as the half-closed door of the bedroom was slowly pushed open, and a man stood in the doorway. His eyes turned from the pistol in its open case to the faces of Trent and the inspector. They, who had not heard a sound to herald this entrance, simultaneously looked at his long, narrow feet. He wore rubber-soled tennis shoes.

'You must be Mr. Bunner,' said Trent.

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