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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 23875

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

The sea broke raging upon the foot of the cliff under a good breeze; the sun flooded the land with life from a dappled blue sky. In this perfection of English weather Trent, who had slept ill, went down before eight o'clock to a pool among the rocks, the direction of which had been given him, and dived deep into clear water. Between vast grey boulders he swam out to the tossing open, forced himself some little way against a coast-wise current, and then returned to his refuge battered and refreshed. Ten minutes later he was scaling the cliff again, and his mind, cleared for the moment of a heavy disgust for the affair he had in hand, was turning over his plans for the morning.

It was the day of the inquest, the day after his arrival in the place. He had carried matters not much further after parting with the American on the road to Bishopsbridge. In the afternoon he had walked from the inn into the town, accompanied by Mr. Cupples, and had there made certain purchases at a chemist's shop, conferred privately for some time with a photographer, sent off a reply-paid telegram, and made an enquiry at the telephone exchange. He had said but little about the case to Mr. Cupples, who seemed incurious on his side, and nothing at all about the results of his investigation or the steps he was about to take. After their return from Bishopsbridge, Trent had written a long dispatch for the Record and sent it to be telegraphed by the proud hands of the paper's local representative. He had afterwards dined with Mr. Cupples, and had spent the rest of the evening in meditative solitude on the veranda.

This morning as he scaled the cliff he told himself that he had never taken up a case he liked so little, or which absorbed him so much. The more he contemplated it in the golden sunshine of this new day, the more evil and the more challenging it appeared. All that he suspected and all that he almost knew had occupied his questing brain for hours to the exclusion of sleep; and in this glorious light and air, though washed in body and spirit by the fierce purity of the sea, he only saw the more clearly the darkness of the guilt in which he believed, and was more bitterly repelled by the motive at which he guessed. But now at least his zeal was awake again, and the sense of the hunt quickened. He would neither slacken nor spare; here need be no compunction. In the course of the day, he hoped, his net would be complete. He had work to do in the morning; and with very vivid expectancy, though not much serious hope, he awaited the answer to the telegram which he had shot into the sky, as it were, the day before.

The path back to the hotel wound for some way along the top of the cliff, and on nearing a spot he had marked from the sea level, where the face had fallen away long ago, he approached the edge and looked down, hoping to follow with his eyes the most delicately beautiful of all the movements of water-the wash of a light sea over broken rock. But no rock was there. A few feet below him a broad ledge stood out, a rough platform as large as a great room, thickly grown with wiry grass and walled in steeply on three sides. There, close to the verge where the cliff at last dropped sheer, a woman was sitting, her arms about her drawn-up knees, her eyes fixed on the trailing smoke of a distant liner, her face full of some dream.

This woman seemed to Trent, whose training had taught him to live in his eyes, to make the most beautiful picture he had ever seen. Her face of southern pallor, touched by the kiss of the wind with colour on the cheek, presented to him a profile of delicate regularity in which there was nothing hard; nevertheless the black brows bending down toward the point where they almost met gave her in repose a look of something like severity, strangely redeemed by the open curves of the mouth. Trent said to himself that the absurdity or otherwise of a lover writing sonnets to his mistress's eyebrow depended after all on the quality of the eyebrow. Her nose was of the straight and fine sort, exquisitely escaping the perdition of too much length, which makes a conscientious mind ashamed that it cannot help, on occasion, admiring the tip-tilted. Her hat lay pinned to the grass beside her, and the lively breeze played with her thick dark hair, blowing backward the two broad bandeaux that should have covered much of her forehead, and agitating a hundred tiny curls from the mass gathered at her nape. Everything about this lady was black, from her shoes of suede to the hat that she had discarded; lustreless black covered her to her bare throat. All she wore was fine and well put on. Dreamy and delicate of spirit as her looks declared her, it was very plain that she was long-practised as only a woman grown can be in dressing well, the oldest of the arts, and had her touch of primal joy in the excellence of the body that was so admirably curved now in the attitude of embraced knees. With the suggestion of French taste in her clothes, she made a very modern figure seated there, until one looked at her face and saw the glow and triumph of all vigorous beings that ever faced sun and wind and sea together in the prime of the year. One saw, too, a womanhood so unmixed and vigorous, so unconsciously sure of itself, as scarcely to be English, still less American.

Trent, who had halted only for a moment in the surprise of seeing the woman in black, had passed by on the cliff above her, perceiving and feeling as he went the things set down. At all times his keen vision and active brain took in and tasted details with an easy swiftness that was marvellous to men of slower chemistry; the need to stare, he held, was evidence of blindness. Now the feeling of beauty was awakened and exultant, and doubled the power of his sense. In these instants a picture was printed on his memory that would never pass away.

As he went by unheard on the turf the woman, still alone with her thoughts, suddenly moved. She unclasped her long hands from about her knees, stretched her limbs and body with feline grace, then slowly raised her head and extended her arms with open, curving fingers, as if to gather to her all the glory and overwhelming sanity of the morning. This was a gesture not to be mistaken: it was a gesture of freedom, the movement of a soul's resolution to be, to possess, to go forward, perhaps to enjoy.

So he saw her for an instant as he passed, and he did not turn. He knew suddenly who the woman must be, and it was as if a curtain of gloom were drawn between him and the splendour of the day.


During breakfast at the hotel Mr. Cupples found Trent little inclined to talk. He excused himself on the plea of a restless night. Mr. Cupples, on the other hand, was in a state of bird-like alertness. The prospect of the inquest seemed to enliven him. He entertained Trent with a disquisition upon the history of that most ancient and once busy tribunal, the coroner's court, and remarked upon the enviable freedom of its procedure from the shackles of rule and precedent. From this he passed to the case that was to come before it that morning.

'Young Bunner mentioned to me last night,' he said, 'when I went up there after dinner, the hypothesis which he puts forward in regard to the crime. A very remarkable young man, Trent. His meaning is occasionally obscure, but in my opinion he is gifted with a clearheaded knowledge of the world quite unusual in one of his apparent age. Indeed, his promotion by Manderson to the position of his principal lieutenant speaks for itself. He seems to have assumed with perfect confidence the control at this end of the wire, as he expresses it, of the complicated business situation caused by the death of his principal, and he has advised very wisely as to the steps I should take on Mabel's behalf, and the best course for her to pursue until effect has been given to the provisions of the will. I was accordingly less disposed than I might otherwise have been to regard his suggestion of an industrial vendetta as far-fetched. When I questioned him he was able to describe a number of cases in which attacks of one sort or another-too often successful-had been made upon the lives of persons who had incurred the hostility of powerful labour organizations. This is a terrible time in which we live, my dear boy. There is none recorded in history, I think, in which the disproportion between the material and the moral constituents of society has been so great or so menacing to the permanence of the fabric. But nowhere, in my judgement, is the prospect so dark as it is in the United States.'

'I thought,' said Trent listlessly, 'that Puritanism was about as strong there as the money-getting craze.'

'Your remark,' answered Mr. Cupples, with as near an approach to humour as was possible to him, 'is not in the nature of a testimonial to what you call Puritanism-a convenient rather than an accurate term; for I need not remind you that it was invented to describe an Anglican party which aimed at the purging of the services and ritual of their Church from certain elements repugnant to them. The sense of your observation, however, is none the less sound, and its truth is extremely well illustrated by the case of Manderson himself, who had, I believe, the virtues of purity, abstinence, and self-restraint in their strongest form. No, Trent, there are other and more worthy things among the moral constituents of which I spoke; and in our finite nature, the more we preoccupy ourselves with the bewildering complexity of external apparatus which science places in our hands, the less vigour have we left for the development of the holier purposes of humanity within us. Agricultural machinery has abolished the festival of the Harvest Home. Mechanical travel has abolished the inn, or all that was best in it. I need not multiply instances. The view I am expressing to you,' pursued Mr. Cupples, placidly buttering a piece of toast, 'is regarded as fundamentally erroneous by many of those who think generally as I do about the deeper concerns of life, but I am nevertheless firmly persuaded of its truth.'

'It needs epigrammatic expression,' said Trent, rising from the table. 'If only it could be crystallized into some handy formula, like "No Popery", or "Tax the Foreigner", you would find multitudes to go to the stake for it. But you were planning to go to White Gables before the inquest, I think. You ought to be off if you are to get back to the court in time. I have something to attend to there myself, so we might walk up together. I will just go and get my camera.'

'By all means,' Mr. Cupples answered; and they set off at once in the ever-growing warmth of the morning. The roof of White Gables, a surly patch of dull red against the dark trees, seemed to harmonize with Trent's mood; he felt heavy, sinister, and troubled. If a blow must fall that might strike down that creature radiant of beauty and life whom he had seen that morning, he did not wish it to come from his hand. An exaggerated chivalry had lived in Trent since the first teachings of his mother; but at this moment the horror of bruising anything so lovely was almost as much the artist's revulsion as the gentleman's. On the other hand, was the hunt to end in nothing? The quality of the affair was such that the thought of forbearance was an agony. There never was such a case; and he alone, he was confident, held the truth of it under his hand. At least, he determined, that day should show whether what he believed was a delusion. He would trample his compunction underfoot until he was quite sure that there was any call for it. That same morning he would know.

As they entered at the gate of the drive they saw Marlowe and the American standing in talk before the front door. In the shadow of the porch was the lady in black.

She saw them, and came gravely forwa

rd over the lawn, moving as Trent had known that she would move, erect and balanced, stepping lightly. When she welcomed him on Mr. Cupples's presentation her eyes of golden-flecked brown observed him kindly. In her pale composure, worn as the mask of distress, there was no trace of the emotion that had seemed a halo about her head on the ledge of the cliff. She spoke the appropriate commonplace in a low and even voice. After a few words to Mr. Cupples she turned her eyes on Trent again.

'I hope you will succeed,' she said earnestly. 'Do you think you will succeed?'

He made his mind up as the words left her lips. He said, 'I believe I shall do so, Mrs. Manderson. When I have the case sufficiently complete I shall ask you to let me see you and tell you about it. It may be necessary to consult you before the facts are published.'

She looked puzzled, and distress showed for an instant in her eyes. 'If it is necessary, of course you shall do so,' she said.

On the brink of his next speech Trent hesitated. He remembered that the lady had not wished to repeat to him the story already given to the inspector-or to be questioned at all. He was not unconscious that he desired to hear her voice and watch her face a little longer, if it might be; but the matter he had to mention really troubled his mind, it was a queer thing that fitted nowhere into the pattern within whose corners he had by this time brought the other queer things in the case. It was very possible that she could explain it away in a breath; it was unlikely that any one else could. He summoned his resolution.

'You have been so kind,' he said, 'in allowing me access to the house and every opportunity of studying the case, that I am going to ask leave to put a question or two to yourself-nothing that you would rather not answer, I think. May I?'

She glanced at him wearily. 'It would be stupid of me to refuse, Ask your questions, Mr. Trent.' 'It's only this,' said Trent hurriedly. 'We know that your husband lately drew an unusually large sum of ready money from his London bankers, and was keeping it here. It is here now, in fact. Have you any idea why he should have done that?'

She opened her eyes in astonishment. 'I cannot imagine,' she said. 'I did not know he had done so. I am very much surprised to hear it.'

'Why is it surprising?'

'I thought my husband had very little money in the house. On Sunday night, just before he went out in the motor, he came into the drawing-room where I was sitting. He seemed to be irritated about something, and asked me at once if I had any notes or gold I could let him have until next day. I was surprised at that, because he was never without money; he made it a rule to carry a hundred pounds or so about him always in a note-case. I unlocked my escritoire, and gave him all I had by me. It was nearly thirty pounds.'

'And he did not tell you why he wanted it?'

'No. He put it in his pocket, and then said that Mr. Marlowe had persuaded him to go for a run in the motor by moonlight, and he thought it might help him to sleep. He had been sleeping badly, as perhaps you know. Then he went off with Mr. Marlowe. I thought it odd he should need money on Sunday night, but I soon forgot about it. I never remembered it again until now.'

'It was curious, certainly,' said Trent, staring into the distance. Mr Cupples began to speak to his niece of the arrangements for the inquest, and Trent moved away to where Marlowe was pacing slowly upon the lawn. The young man seemed relieved to talk about the coming business of the day. Though he still seemed tired out and nervous, he showed himself not without a quiet humour in describing the pomposities of the local police and the portentous airs of Dr Stock. Trent turned the conversation gradually toward the problem of the crime, and all Marlowe's gravity returned.

'Bunner has told me what he thinks,' he said when Trent referred to the American's theory. 'I don't find myself convinced by it, because it doesn't really explain some of the oddest facts. But I have lived long enough in the United States to know that such a stroke of revenge, done in a secret, melodramatic way, is not an unlikely thing. It is quite a characteristic feature of certain sections of the labour movement there. Americans have a taste and a talent for that sort of business. Do you know Huckleberry Finn?'

'Do I know my own name?' exclaimed Trent.

'Well, I think the most American thing in that great American epic is Tom Sawyer's elaboration of an extremely difficult and romantic scheme, taking days to carry out, for securing the escape of the nigger Jim, which could have been managed quite easily in twenty minutes. You know how fond they are of lodges and brotherhoods. Every college club has its secret signs and handgrips. You've heard of the Know-Nothing movement in politics, I dare say, and the Ku Klux Klan. Then look at Brigham Young's penny-dreadful tyranny in Utah, with real blood. The founders of the Mormon State were of the purest Yankee stock in America; and you know what they did. It's all part of the same mental tendency. Americans make fun of it among themselves. For my part, I take it very seriously.'

'It can have a very hideous side to it, certainly,' said Trent, 'when you get it in connection with crime-or with vice-or even mere luxury. But I have a sort of sneaking respect for the determination to make life interesting and lively in spite of civilization. To return to the matter in hand, however; has it struck you as a possibility that Manderson's mind was affected to some extent by this menace that Bunner believes in? For instance, it was rather an extraordinary thing to send you posting off like that in the middle of the night.'

'About ten o'clock, to be exact,' replied Marlowe. 'Though, mind you, if he'd actually roused me out of my bed at midnight I shouldn't have been very much surprised. It all chimes in with what we've just been saying. Manderson had a strong streak of the national taste for dramatic proceedings. He was rather fond of his well-earned reputation for unexpected strokes and for going for his object with ruthless directness through every opposing consideration. He had decided suddenly that he wanted to have word from this man Harris-'

'Who is Harris?' interjected Trent.

'Nobody knows. Even Bunner never heard of him, and can't imagine what the business in hand was. All I know is that when I went up to London last week to attend to various things I booked a deck-cabin, at Manderson's request, for a Mr. George Harris on the boat that sailed on Monday. It seems that Manderson suddenly found he wanted news from Harris which presumably was of a character too secret for the telegraph; and there was no train that served; so I was sent off as you know.'

Trent looked round to make sure that they were not overheard, then faced the other gravely, 'There is one thing I may tell you,' he said quietly, 'that I don't think you know. Martin the butler caught a few words at the end of your conversation with Manderson in the orchard before you started with him in the car. He heard him say, "If Harris is there, every moment is of importance." Now, Mr. Marlowe, you know my business here. I am sent to make enquiries, and you mustn't take offence. I want to ask you if, in the face of that sentence, you will repeat that you know nothing of what the business was.'

Marlowe shook his head. 'I know nothing, indeed. I'm not easily offended, and your question is quite fair. What passed during that conversation I have already told the detective. Manderson plainly said to me that he could not tell me what it was all about. He simply wanted me to find Harris, tell him that he desired to know how matters stood, and bring back a letter or message from him. Harris, I was further told, might not turn up. If he did, "every moment was of importance". And now you know as much as I do.'

'That talk took place before he told his wife that you were taking him for a moonlight run. Why did he conceal your errand in that way, I wonder.'

The young man made a gesture of helplessness. 'Why? I can guess no better than you.'

'Why,' muttered Trent as if to himself, gazing on the ground, 'did he conceal it-from Mrs. Manderson?' He looked up at Marlowe.

'And from Martin,' the other amended coolly. 'He was told the same thing.'

With a sudden movement of his head Trent seemed to dismiss the subject. He drew from his breast-pocket a letter-case, and thence extracted two small leaves of clean, fresh paper.

'Just look at these two slips, Mr. Marlowe,' he said. 'Did you ever see them before? Have you any idea where they come from?' he added as Marlowe took one in each hand and examined them curiously.

'They seem to have been cut with a knife or scissors from a small diary for this year from the October pages,' Marlowe observed, looking them over on both sides. 'I see no writing of any kind on them. Nobody here has any such diary so far as I know. What about them?'

'There may be nothing in it,' Trent said dubiously. 'Any one in the house, of course, might have such a diary without your having seen it. But I didn't much expect you would be able to identify the leaves-in fact, I should have been surprised if you had.'

He stopped speaking as Mrs. Manderson came towards them. 'My uncle thinks we should be going now,' she said.

'I think I will walk on with Mr. Bunner,' Mr. Cupples said as he joined them. 'There are certain business matters that must be disposed of as soon as possible. Will you come on with these two gentlemen, Mabel? We will wait for you before we reach the place.'

Trent turned to her. 'Mrs. Manderson will excuse me, I hope,' he said. 'I really came up this morning in order to look about me here for some indications I thought I might possibly find. I had not thought of attending the-the court just yet.'

She looked at him with eyes of perfect candour. 'Of course, Mr. Trent. Please do exactly as you wish. We are all relying upon you. If you will wait a few moments, Mr. Marlowe, I shall be ready.'

She entered the house. Her uncle and the American had already strolled towards the gate.

Trent looked into the eyes of his companion. 'That is a wonderful woman,' he said in a lowered voice.

'You say so without knowing her,' replied Marlowe in a similar tone. 'She is more than that.'

Trent said nothing to this. He stared out over the fields towards the sea. In the silence a noise of hobnailed haste rose on the still air. A little distance down the road a boy appeared trotting towards them from the direction of the hotel. In his hand was the orange envelope, unmistakable afar off, of a telegram. Trent watched him with an indifferent eye as he met and passed the two others. Then he turned to Marlowe. 'A propos of nothing in particular,' he said, 'were you at Oxford?'

'Yes,' said the young man. 'Why do you ask?'

'I just wondered if I was right in my guess. It's one of the things you can very often tell about a man, isn't it?'

'I suppose so,' Marlowe said. 'Well, each of us is marked in one way or another, perhaps. I should have said you were an artist, if I hadn't known it.'

'Why? Does my hair want cutting?'

'Oh, no! It's only that you look at things and people as I've seen artists do, with an eye that moves steadily from detail to detail-rather looking them over than looking at them.'

The boy came up panting. 'Telegram for you, sir,' he said to Trent. 'Just come, sir.'

Trent tore open the envelope with an apology, and his eyes lighted up so visibly as he read the slip that Marlowe's tired face softened in a smile.

'It must be good news,' he murmured half to himself.

Trent turned on him a glance in which nothing could be read. 'Not exactly news,' he said. 'It only tells me that another little guess of mine was a good one.'

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