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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 17078

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


Mrs. Manderson stood at the window of her sitting-room at White Gables gazing out upon a wavering landscape of fine rain and mist. The weather had broken as it seldom does in that part in June. White wreathings drifted up the fields from the sullen sea; the sky was an unbroken grey deadness shedding pin-point moisture that was now and then blown against the panes with a crepitation of despair. The lady looked out on the dim and chilling prospect with a woeful face. It was a bad day for a woman bereaved, alone, and without a purpose in life.

There was a knock, and she called 'Come in,' drawing herself up with an unconscious gesture that always came when she realized that the weariness of the world had been gaining upon her spirit. Mr. Trent had called, the maid said; he apologized for coming at such an early hour, but hoped that Mrs. Manderson would see him on a matter of urgent importance. Mrs Manderson would see Mr. Trent. She walked to a mirror, looked into the olive face she saw reflected there, shook her head at herself with the flicker of a grimace, and turned to the door as Trent was shown in.

His appearance, she noted, was changed. He had the jaded look of the sleepless, and a new and reserved expression, in which her quick sensibilities felt something not propitious, took the place of his half smile of fixed good-humour.

'May I come to the point at once?' he said, when she had given him her hand. 'There is a train I ought to catch at Bishopsbridge at twelve o'clock, but I cannot go until I have settled this thing, which concerns you only, Mrs. Manderson. I have been working half the night and thinking the rest; and I know now what I ought to do.'

'You look wretchedly tired,' she said kindly. 'Won't you sit down? This is a very restful chair. Of course it is about this terrible business and your work as correspondent. Please ask me anything you think I can properly tell you, Mr. Trent. I know that you won't make it worse for me than you can help in doing your duty here. If you say you must see me about something, I know it must be because, as you say, you ought to do it.'

'Mrs. Manderson,' said Trent, slowly measuring his words, 'I won't make it worse for you than I can help. But I am bound to make it bad for you-only between ourselves, I hope. As to whether you can properly tell me what I shall ask you, you will decide that; but I tell you this on my word of honour: I shall ask you only as much as will decide me whether to publish or to withhold certain grave things that I have found out about your husband's death, things not suspected by any one else, nor, I think, likely to be so. What I have discovered-what I believe that I have practically proved-will be a great shock to you in any case. But it may be worse for you than that; and if you give me reason to think it would be so, then I shall suppress this manuscript,' he laid a long envelope on the small table beside him, 'and nothing of what it has to tell shall ever be printed. It consists, I may tell you, of a short private note to my editor, followed by a long dispatch for publication in the Record. Now you may refuse to say anything to me. If you do refuse, my duty to my employers, as I see it, is to take this up to London with me today and leave it with my editor to be dealt with at his discretion. My view is, you understand, that I am not entitled to suppress it on the strength of a mere possibility that presents itself to my imagination. But if I gather from you-and I can gather it from no other person-that there is substance in that imaginary possibility I speak of, then I have only one thing to do as a gentleman and as one who'-he hesitated for a phrase-'wishes you well. I shall not publish that dispatch of mine. In some directions I decline to assist the police. Have you followed me so far?' he asked with a touch of anxiety in his careful coldness; for her face, but for its pallor, gave no sign as she regarded him, her hands clasped before her, and her shoulders drawn back in a pose of rigid calm. She looked precisely as she had looked at the inquest.

'I understand quite well,' said Mrs. Manderson in a low voice. She drew a deep breath, and went on: 'I don't know what dreadful thing you have found out, or what the possibility that has occurred to you can be, but it was good, it was honourable of you to come to me about it. Now will you please tell me?'

'I cannot do that,' Trent replied. 'The secret is my newspaper's if it is not yours. If I find it is yours, you shall have my manuscript to read and destroy. Believe me,' he broke out with something of his old warmth, 'I detest such mystery-making from the bottom of my soul; but it is not I who have made this mystery. This is the most painful hour of my life, and you make it worse by not treating me like a hound. The first thing I ask you to tell me,' he reverted with an effort to his colourless tone, 'is this: is it true, as you stated at the inquest, that you had no idea at all of the reason why your late husband had changed his attitude toward you, and become mistrustful and reserved, during the last few months of his life?'

Mrs. Manderson's dark brows lifted and her eyes flamed; she quickly rose from her chair. Trent got up at the same moment, and took his envelope from the table; his manner said that he perceived the interview to be at an end. But she held up a hand, and there was colour in her cheeks and quick breathing in her voice as she said: 'Do you know what you ask, Mr Trent? You ask me if I perjured myself.'

'I do,' he answered unmoved; and he added after a pause, 'you knew already that I had not come here to preserve the polite fictions, Mrs. Manderson. The theory that no reputable person, being on oath, could withhold a part of the truth under any circumstances is a polite fiction.' He still stood as awaiting dismissal, but she was silent. She walked to the window, and he stood miserably watching the slight movement of her shoulders until it subsided. Then with face averted, looking out on the dismal weather, she spoke at last clearly.

'Mr. Trent,' she said, 'you inspire confidence in people, and I feel that things which I don't want known or talked about are safe with you. And I know you must have a very serious reason for doing what you are doing, though I don't know what it is. I suppose it would be assisting justice in some way if I told you the truth about what you asked just now. To understand that truth you ought to know about what went before-I mean about my marriage. After all, a good many people could tell you as well as I can that it was not... a very successful union. I was only twenty. I admired his force and courage and certainty; he was the only strong man I had ever known. But it did not take me long to find out that he cared for his business more than for me, and I think I found out even sooner that I had been deceiving myself and blinding myself, promising myself impossible things and wilfully misunderstanding my own feelings, because I was dazzled by the idea of having more money to spend than an English girl ever dreams of. I have been despising myself for that for five years. My husband's feeling for me... well, I cannot speak of that... what I want to say is that along with it there had always been a belief of his that I was the sort of woman to take a great place in society, and that I should throw myself into it with enjoyment, and become a sort of personage and do him great credit-that was his idea; and the idea remained with him after other delusions had gone. I was a part of his ambition. That was his really bitter disappointment, that I failed him as a social success. I think he was too shrewd not to have known in his heart that such a man as he was, twenty years older than I, with great business responsibilities that filled every hour of his life, and caring for nothing else-he must have felt that there was a risk of great unhappiness in marrying the sort of girl I was, brought up to music and books and unpractical ideas, always enjoying myself in my own way. But he had really reckoned on me as a wife who would do the honours of his position in the world; and I found I couldn't.'

Mrs. Manderson had talked herself into a more emotional mood than she had yet shown to Trent. Her words flowed freely, and her voice had begun to ring and give play to a natural expressiveness that must hitherto have been dulled, he thought, by the shock and self-restraint of the past few days. Now she turne

d swiftly from the window and faced him as she went on, her beautiful face flushed and animated, her eyes gleaming, her hands moving in slight emphatic gestures, as she surrendered herself to the impulse of giving speech to things long pent up.

'The people,' she said. 'Oh, those people! Can you imagine what it must be for any one who has lived in a world where there was always creative work in the background, work with some dignity about it, men and women with professions or arts to follow, with ideals and things to believe in and quarrel about, some of them wealthy, some of them quite poor; can you think what it means to step out of that into another world where you have to be very rich, shamefully rich, to exist at all-where money is the only thing that counts and the first thing in everybody's thoughts-where the men who make the millions are so jaded by the work, that sport is the only thing they can occupy themselves with when they have any leisure, and the men who don't have to work are even duller than the men who do, and vicious as well; and the women live for display and silly amusements and silly immoralities; do you know how awful that life is? Of course I know there are clever people, and people of taste in that set, but they're swamped and spoiled, and it's the same thing in the end; empty, empty! Oh! I suppose I'm exaggerating, and I did make friends and have some happy times; but that's how I feel after it all. The seasons in New York and London-how I hated them! And our house-parties and cruises in the yacht and the rest-the same people, the same emptiness.

'And you see, don't you, that my husband couldn't have an idea of all this. His life was never empty. He did not live it in society, and when he was in society he had always his business plans and difficulties to occupy his mind. He hadn't a suspicion of what I felt, and I never let him know; I couldn't, it wouldn't have been fair. I felt I must do something to justify myself as his wife, sharing his position and fortune; and the only thing I could do was to try, and try, to live up to his idea about my social qualities... I did try. I acted my best. And it became harder year by year... I never was what they call a popular hostess, how could I be? I was a failure; but I went on trying... I used to steal holidays now and then. I used to feel as if I was not doing my part of a bargain-it sounds horrid to put it like that, I know, but it was so-when I took one of my old school-friends, who couldn't afford to travel, away to Italy for a month or two, and we went about cheaply all by ourselves, and were quite happy; or when I went and made a long stay in London with some quiet people who had known me all my life, and we all lived just as in the old days, when we had to think twice about seats at the theatre, and told each other about cheap dressmakers. Those and a few other expeditions of the same sort were my best times after I was married, and they helped me to go through with it the rest of the time. But I felt my husband would have hated to know how much I enjoyed every hour of those returns to the old life.

'And in the end, in spite of everything I could do, he came to know.... He could see through anything, I think, once his attention was turned to it. He had always been able to see that I was not fulfilling his idea of me as a figure in the social world, and I suppose he thought it was my misfortune rather than my fault. But the moment he began to see, in spite of my pretending, that I wasn't playing my part with any spirit, he knew the whole story; he divined how I loathed and was weary of the luxury and the brilliancy and the masses of money just because of the people who lived among them-who were made so by them, I suppose.... It happened last year. I don't know just how or when. It may have been suggested to him by some woman-for they all understood, of course. He said nothing to me, and I think he tried not to change in his manner to me at first; but such things hurt-and it was working in both of us. I knew that he knew. After a time we were just being polite and considerate to each other. Before he found me out we had been on a footing of-how can I express it to you?-of intelligent companionship, I might say. We talked without restraint of many things of the kind we could agree or disagree about without its going very deep... if you understand. And then that came to an end. I felt that the only possible basis of our living in each other's company was going under my feet. And at last it was gone.

'It had been like that,' she ended simply, 'for months before he died.' She sank into the corner of a sofa by the window, as though relaxing her body after an effort. For a few moments both were silent. Trent was hastily sorting out a tangle of impressions. He was amazed at the frankness of Mrs. Manderson's story. He was amazed at the vigorous expressiveness in her telling of it. In this vivid being, carried away by an impulse to speak, talking with her whole personality, he had seen the real woman in a temper of activity, as he had already seen the real woman by chance in a temper of reverie and unguarded emotion. In both she was very unlike the pale, self-disciplined creature of majesty that she had been to the world. With that amazement of his went something like terror of her dark beauty, which excitement kindled into an appearance scarcely mortal in his eyes. Incongruously there rushed into his mind, occupied as it was with the affair of the moment, a little knot of ideas... she was unique not because of her beauty but because of its being united with intensity of nature; in England all the very beautiful women were placid, all the fiery women seemed to have burnt up the best of their beauty; that was why no beautiful woman had ever cast this sort of spell on him before; when it was a question of wit in women he had preferred the brighter flame to the duller, without much regarding the lamp. 'All this is very disputable,' said his reason; and instinct answered, 'Yes, except that I am under a spell'; and a deeper instinct cried out, 'Away with it!' He forced his mind back to her story, and found growing swiftly in him an irrepressible conviction. It was all very fine; but it would not do.

'I feel as if I had led you into saying more than you meant to say, or than I wanted to learn,' he said slowly. 'But there is one brutal question which is the whole point of my enquiry.' He braced his frame like one preparing for a plunge into cold waters. 'Mrs. Manderson, will you assure me that your husband's change toward you had nothing to do with John Marlowe?'

And what he had dreaded came. 'Oh!' she cried with a sound of anguish, her face thrown up and open hands stretched out as if for pity; and then the hands covered the burning face, and she flung herself aside among the cushions at her elbow, so that he saw nothing but her heavy crown of black hair, and her body moving with sobs that stabbed his heart, and a foot turned inward gracelessly in an abandonment of misery. Like a tall tower suddenly breaking apart she had fallen in ruins, helplessly weeping.

Trent stood up, his face white and calm. With a senseless particularity he placed his envelope exactly in the centre of the little polished table. He walked to the door, closed it noiselessly as he went out, and in a few minutes was tramping through the rain out of sight of White Gables, going nowhere, seeing nothing, his soul shaken in the fierce effort to kill and trample the raving impulse that had seized him in the presence of her shame, that clamoured to him to drag himself before her feet, to pray for pardon, to pour out words-he knew not what words, but he knew that they had been straining at his lips-to wreck his self-respect for ever, and hopelessly defeat even the crazy purpose that had almost possessed him, by drowning her wretchedness in disgust, by babbling with the tongue of infatuation to a woman with a husband not yet buried, to a woman who loved another man.

Such was the magic of her tears, quickening in a moment the thing which, as his heart had known, he must not let come to life. For Philip Trent was a young man, younger in nature even than his years, and a way of life that kept his edge keen and his spirit volcanic had prepared him very ill for the meeting that comes once in the early manhood of most of us, usually-as in his case, he told himself harshly-to no purpose but the testing of virtue and the power of the will.

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