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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 15912

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

'Calvin C. Bunner, at your service,' amended the newcomer, with a touch of punctilio, as he removed an unlighted cigar from his mouth. He was used to finding Englishmen slow and ceremonious with strangers, and Trent's quick remark plainly disconcerted him a little. 'You are Mr. Trent, I expect,' he went on. 'Mrs. Manderson was telling me a while ago. Captain, good-morning.' Mr. Murch acknowledged the outlandish greeting with a nod. 'I was coming up to my room, and I heard a strange voice in here, so I thought I would take a look in.' Mr. Bunner laughed easily. 'You thought I might have been eavesdropping, perhaps,' he said. 'No, sir; I heard a word or two about a pistol-this one, I guess-and that's all.'

Mr. Bunner was a thin, rather short young man with a shaven, pale, bony, almost girlish face, and large, dark, intelligent eyes. His waving dark hair was parted in the middle. His lips, usually occupied with a cigar, in its absence were always half open with a curious expression as of permanent eagerness. By smoking or chewing a cigar this expression was banished, and Mr. Bunner then looked the consummately cool and sagacious Yankee that he was.

Born in Connecticut, he had gone into a broker's office on leaving college, and had attracted the notice of Manderson, whose business with his firm he had often handled. The Colossus had watched him for some time, and at length offered him the post of private secretary. Mr. Bunner was a pattern business man, trustworthy, long-headed, methodical, and accurate. Manderson could have found many men with those virtues; but he engaged Mr Bunner because he was also swift and secret, and had besides a singular natural instinct in regard to the movements of the stock market.

Trent and the American measured one another coolly with their eyes. Both appeared satisfied with what they saw. 'I was having it explained to me,' said Trent pleasantly, 'that my discovery of a pistol that might have shot Manderson does not amount to very much. I am told it is a favourite weapon among your people, and has become quite popular over here.'

Mr. Bunner stretched out a bony hand and took the pistol from its case. 'Yes, sir,' he said, handling it with an air of familiarity; 'the captain is right. This is what we call out home a Little Arthur, and I dare say there are duplicates of it in a hundred thousand hip-pockets this minute. I consider it too light in the hand myself,' Mr. Bunner went on, mechanically feeling under the tail of his jacket, and producing an ugly looking weapon. 'Feel of that, now, Mr. Trent-it's loaded, by the way. Now this Little Arthur-Marlowe bought it just before we came over this year to please the old man. Manderson said it was ridiculous for a man to be without a pistol in the twentieth century. So he went out and bought what they offered him, I guess-never consulted me. Not but what it's a good gun,' Mr. Bunner conceded, squinting along the sights. 'Marlowe was poor with it at first, but I've coached him some in the last month or so, and he's practised until he is pretty good. But he never could get the habit of carrying it around. Why, it's as natural to me as wearing my pants. I have carried one for some years now, because there was always likely to be somebody laying for Manderson. And now,' Mr. Bunner concluded sadly, 'they got him when I wasn't around. Well, gentlemen, you must excuse me. I am going into Bishopsbridge. There is a lot to do these days, and I have to send off a bunch of cables big enough to choke a cow.'

'I must be off too,' said Trent. 'I have an appointment at the "Three Tuns" inn.'

Let me give you a lift in the automobile,' said Mr. Bunner cordially. 'I go right by that joint. Say, cap., are you coming my way too? No? Then come along, Mr. Trent, and help me get out the car. The chauffeur is out of action, and we have to do 'most everything ourselves except clean the dirt off her.'

Still tirelessly talking in his measured drawl, Mr. Bunner led Trent downstairs and through the house to the garage at the back. It stood at a little distance from the house, and made a cool retreat from the blaze of the midday sun.

Mr. Bunner seemed to be in no hurry to get out the car. He offered Trent a cigar, which was accepted, and for the first time lit his own. Then he seated himself on the footboard of the car, his thin hands clasped between his knees, and looked keenly at the other.

'See here, Mr. Trent,' he said, after a few moments. 'There are some things I can tell you that may be useful to you. I know your record. You are a smart man, and I like dealing with smart men. I don't know if I have that detective sized up right, but he strikes me as a mutt. I would answer any questions he had the gumption to ask me-I have done so, in fact-but I don't feel encouraged to give him any notions of mine without his asking. See?'

Trent nodded. 'That is a feeling many people have in the presence of our police,' he said. 'It's the official manner, I suppose. But let me tell you, Murch is anything but what you think. He is one of the shrewdest officers in Europe. He is not very quick with his mind, but he is very sure. And his experience is immense. My forte is imagination, but I assure you in police work experience outweighs it by a great deal.'

'Outweigh nothing!' replied Mr. Bunner crisply. 'This is no ordinary case, Mr. Trent. I will tell you one reason why. I believe the old man knew there was something coming to him. Another thing: I believe it was something he thought he couldn't dodge.'

Trent pulled a crate opposite to Mr. Bunner's place on the footboard and seated himself. 'This sounds like business,' he said. 'Tell me your ideas.'

'I say what I do because of the change in the old man's manner this last few weeks. I dare say you have heard, Mr. Trent, that he was a man who always kept himself well in hand. That was so. I have always considered him the coolest and hardest head in business. That man's calm was just deadly-I never saw anything to beat it. And I knew Manderson as nobody else did. I was with him in the work he really lived for. I guess I knew him a heap better than his wife did, poor woman. I knew him better than Marlowe could-he never saw Manderson in his office when there was a big thing on. I knew him better than any of his friends.'

'Had he any friends?' interjected Trent.

Mr. Bunner glanced at him sharply. 'Somebody has been putting you next, I see that,' he remarked. 'No: properly speaking, I should say not. He had many acquaintances among the big men, people he saw, most every day; they would even go yachting or hunting together. But I don't believe there ever was a man that Manderson opened a corner of his heart to. But what I was going to say was this. Some months ago the old man began to get like I never knew him before-gloomy and sullen, just as if he was everlastingly brooding over something bad, something that he couldn't fix. This went on without any break; it was the same down town as it was up home, he acted just as if there was something lying heavy on his mind. But it wasn't until a few weeks back that his self-restraint began to go; and let me tell you this, Mr. Trent'-the American laid his bony claw on the other's knee-'I'm the only man that knows it. With every one else he would be just morose and dull; but when he was alone with me in his office, or anywhere where we would be working together, if the least little thing went wrong, by George! he would fly off the handle to beat the Dutch. In this library here I have seen him open a letter with something that didn't just suit him in it, and he would rip around and carry on like an Indian, saying he wished he had the man that wrote it here, he wouldn't do a thing to him, and so on, till it was just pitiful. I never saw such a change. And here's another thing. For a week before he died Manderson neglected his work, for the first time in

my experience. He wouldn't answer a letter or a cable, though things looked like going all to pieces over there. I supposed that this anxiety of his, whatever it was, had got on to his nerves till they were worn out. Once I advised him to see a doctor, and he told me to go to hell. But nobody saw this side of him but me. If he was having one of these rages in the library here, for example, and Mrs. Manderson would come into the room, he would be all calm and cold again in an instant.'

'And you put this down to some secret anxiety, a fear that somebody had designs on his life?' asked Trent.

The American nodded.

'I suppose,' Trent resumed, 'you had considered the idea of there being something wrong with his mind-a break-down from overstrain, say. That is the first thought that your account suggests to me. Besides, it is what is always happening to your big business men in America, isn't it? That is the impression one gets from the newspapers.'

'Don't let them slip you any of that bunk,' said Mr. Bunner earnestly. 'It's only the ones who have got rich too quick, and can't make good, who go crazy. Think of all our really big men-the men anywhere near Manderson's size: did you ever hear of any one of them losing his senses? They don't do it-believe me. I know they say every man has his loco point,' Mr. Bunner added reflectively, 'but that doesn't mean genuine, sure-enough craziness; it just means some personal eccentricity in a man ... like hating cats ... or my own weakness of not being able to touch any kind of fish-food.'

'Well, what was Manderson's?'

'He was full of them-the old man. There was his objection to all the unnecessary fuss and luxury that wealthy people don't kick at much, as a general rule. He didn't have any use for expensive trifles and ornaments. He wouldn't have anybody do little things for him; he hated to have servants tag around after him unless he wanted them. And although Manderson was as careful about his clothes as any man I ever knew, and his shoes-well, sir, the amount of money he spent on shoes was sinful-in spite of that, I tell you, he never had a valet. He never liked to have anybody touch him. All his life nobody ever shaved him.'

'I've heard something of that,' Trent remarked. 'Why was it, do you think?'

'Well,' Mr. Bunner answered slowly, 'it was the Manderson habit of mind, I guess; a sort of temper of general suspicion and jealousy.

'They say his father and grandfather were just the same.... Like a dog with a bone, you know, acting as if all the rest of creation was laying for a chance to steal it. He didn't really think the barber would start in to saw his head off; he just felt there was a possibility that he might, and he was taking no risks. Then again in business he was always convinced that somebody else was after his bone-which was true enough a good deal of the time; but not all the time. The consequence of that was that the old man was the most cautious and secret worker in the world of finance; and that had a lot to do with his success, too.... But that doesn't amount to being a lunatic, Mr. Trent; not by a long way. You ask me if Manderson was losing his mind before he died. I say I believe he was just worn out with worrying over something, and was losing his nerve.'

Trent smoked thoughtfully. He wondered how much Mr. Bunner knew of the domestic difficulty in his chief's household, and decided to put out a feeler. 'I understood that he had trouble with his wife.'

'Sure,' replied Mr. Bunner. 'But do you suppose a thing like that was going to upset Sig Manderson that way? No, sir! He was a sight too big a man to be all broken up by any worry of that kind.'

Trent looked half-incredulously into the eyes of the young man. But behind all their shrewdness and intensity he saw a massive innocence. Mr. Bunner really believed a serious breach between husband and wife to be a minor source of trouble for a big man.

'What was the trouble between them, anyhow?' Trent enquired.

'You can search me,' Mr. Bunner replied briefly. He puffed at his cigar. 'Marlowe and I have often talked about it, and we could never make out a solution. I had a notion at first,' said Mr. Bunner in a lower voice, leaning forward, 'that the old man was disappointed and vexed because he had expected a child; but Marlowe told me that the disappointment on that score was the other way around, likely as not. His idea was all right, I guess; he gathered it from something said by Mrs. Manderson's French maid.'

Trent looked up at him quickly. 'Célestine!' he said; and his thought was, 'So that was what she was getting at!'

Mr. Bunner misunderstood his glance. 'Don't you think I'm giving a man away, Mr. Trent,' he said. 'Marlowe isn't that kind. Célestine just took a fancy to him because he talks French like a native, and she would always be holding him up for a gossip. French servants are quite unlike English that way. And servant or no servant,' added Mr. Bunner with emphasis, 'I don't see how a woman could mention such a subject to a man. But the French beat me.' He shook his head slowly.

'But to come back to what you were telling me just now,' Trent said. 'You believe that Manderson was going in terror of his life for some time. Who should threaten it? I am quite in the dark.'

'Terror-I don't know,' replied Mr. Bunner meditatively. 'Anxiety, if you like. Or suspense-that's rather my idea of it. The old man was hard to terrify, anyway; and more than that, he wasn't taking any precautions-he was actually avoiding them. It looked more like he was asking for a quick finish-supposing there's any truth in my idea. Why, he would sit in that library window, nights, looking out into the dark, with his white shirt just a target for anybody's gun. As for who should threaten his life well, sir,' said Mr. Bunner with a faint smile, 'it's certain you have not lived in the States. To take the Pennsylvania coal hold-up alone, there were thirty thousand men, with women and children to keep, who would have jumped at the chance of drilling a hole through the man who fixed it so that they must starve or give in to his terms. Thirty thousand of the toughest aliens in the country, Mr. Trent. There's a type of desperado you find in that kind of push who has been known to lay for a man for years, and kill him when he had forgotten what he did. They have been known to dynamite a man in Idaho who had done them dirt in New Jersey ten years before. Do you suppose the Atlantic is going to stop them?... It takes some sand, I tell you, to be a big business man in our country. No, sir: the old man knew-had always known-that there was a whole crowd of dangerous men scattered up and down the States who had it in for him. My belief is that he had somehow got to know that some of them were definitely after him at last. What licks me altogether is why he should have just laid himself open to them the way he did-why he never tried to dodge, but walked right down into the garden yesterday morning to be shot at.'

Mr. Bunner ceased to speak, and for a little while both men sat with wrinkled brows, faint blue vapours rising from their cigars. Then Trent rose. 'Your theory is quite fresh to me,' he said. 'It's perfectly rational, and it's only a question of whether it fits all the facts. I mustn't give away what I'm doing for my newspaper, Mr. Bunner, but I will say this: I have already satisfied myself that this was a premeditated crime, and an extraordinarily cunning one at that. I'm deeply obliged to you. We must talk it over again.' He looked at his watch. 'I have been expected for some time by my friend. Shall we make a move?'

'Two o'clock,' said Mr. Bunner, consulting his own, as he got up from the foot-board. 'Ten a.m. in little old New York. You don't know Wall Street, Mr. Trent. Let's you and I hope we never see anything nearer hell than what's loose in the Street this minute.'

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