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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 17579

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


'I am returning the cheque you sent for what I did on the Manderson case,' Trent wrote to Sir James Molloy from Munich, whither he had gone immediately after handing in at the Record office a brief dispatch bringing his work on the case to an unexciting close. 'What I sent you wasn't worth one-tenth of the amount; but I should have no scruple about pocketing it if I hadn't taken a fancy-never mind why-not to touch any money at all for this business. I should like you, if there is no objection, to pay for the stuff at your ordinary space-rate, and hand the money to some charity which does not devote itself to bullying people, if you know of any such. I have come to this place to see some old friends and arrange my ideas, and the idea that comes out uppermost is that for a little while I want some employment with activity in it. I find I can't paint at all: I couldn't paint a fence. Will you try me as your Own Correspondent somewhere? If you can find me a good adventure I will send you good accounts. After that I could settle down and work.'

Sir James sent him instructions by telegram to proceed at once to Kurland and Livonia, where Citizen Browning was abroad again, and town and countryside blazed in revolt. It was a roving commission, and for two months Trent followed his luck. It served him not less well than usual. He was the only correspondent who saw General Dragilew killed in the street at Volmar by a girl of eighteen. He saw burnings, lynchings, fusillades, hangings; each day his soul sickened afresh at the imbecilities born of misrule. Many nights he lay down in danger. Many days he went fasting. But there was never an evening or a morning when he did not see the face of the woman whom he hopelessly loved.

He discovered in himself an unhappy pride at the lasting force of this infatuation. It interested him as a phenomenon; it amazed and enlightened him. Such a thing had not visited him before. It confirmed so much that he had found dubious in the recorded experience of men.

It was not that, at thirty-two, he could pretend to ignorance of this world of emotion. About his knowledge let it be enough to say that what he had learned had come unpursued and unpurchased, and was without intolerable memories; broken to the realities of sex, he was still troubled by its inscrutable history. He went through life full of a strange respect for certain feminine weakness and a very simple terror of certain feminine strength. He had held to a rather lukewarm faith that something remained in him to be called forth, and that the voice that should call would be heard in its own time, if ever, and not through any seeking.

But he had not thought of the possibility that, if this proved true some day, the truth might come in a sinister shape. The two things that had taken him utterly by surprise in the matter of his feeling towards Mabel Manderson were the insane suddenness of its uprising in full strength and its extravagant hopelessness. Before it came, he had been much disposed to laugh at the permanence of unrequited passion as a generous boyish delusion. He knew now that he had been wrong, and he was living bitterly in the knowledge.

Before the eye of his fancy the woman always came just as she was when he had first had sight of her, with the gesture which he had surprised as he walked past unseen on the edge of the cliff; that great gesture of passionate joy in her new liberty which had told him more plainly than speech that her widowhood was a release from torment, and had confirmed with terrible force the suspicion, active in his mind before, that it was her passport to happiness with a man whom she loved. He could not with certainty name to himself the moment when he had first suspected that it might be so. The seed of the thought must have been sown, he believed, at his first meeting with Marlowe; his mind would have noted automatically that such evident strength and grace, with the sort of looks and manners that the tall young man possessed, might go far with any woman of unfixed affections. And the connection of this with what Mr. Cupples had told him of the Mandersons' married life must have formed itself in the unconscious depths of his mind. Certainly it had presented itself as an already established thing when he began, after satisfying himself of the identity of the murderer, to cast about for the motive of the crime. Motive, motive! How desperately he had sought for another, turning his back upon that grim thought, that Marlowe-obsessed by passion like himself, and privy perhaps to maddening truths about the wife's unhappiness-had taken a leaf, the guiltiest, from the book of Bothwell. But in all his investigations at the time, in all his broodings on the matter afterwards, he had been able to discover nothing that could prompt Marlowe to such a deed-nothing but that temptation, the whole strength of which he could not know, but which if it had existed must have pressed urgently upon a bold spirit in which scruple had been somehow paralysed. If he could trust his senses at all, the young man was neither insane nor by nature evil. But that could not clear him. Murder for a woman's sake, he thought, was not a rare crime, Heaven knew! If the modern feebleness of impulse in the comfortable classes, and their respect for the modern apparatus of detection, had made it rare among them, it was yet far from impossible. It only needed a man of equal daring and intelligence, his soul drugged with the vapours of an intoxicating intrigue, to plan and perform such a deed.

A thousand times, with a heart full of anguish, he had sought to reason away the dread that Mabel Manderson had known too much of what had been intended against her husband's life. That she knew all the truth after the thing was done he could not doubt; her unforgettable collapse in his presence when the question about Marlowe was suddenly and bluntly put, had swept away his last hope that there was no love between the pair, and had seemed to him, moreover, to speak of dread of discovery. In any case, she knew the truth after reading what he had left with her; and it was certain that no public suspicion had been cast upon Marlowe since. She had destroyed his manuscript, then, and taken him at his word to keep the secret that threatened her lover's life.

But it was the monstrous thought that she might have known murder was brewing, and guiltily kept silence, that haunted Trent's mind. She might have suspected, have guessed something; was it conceivable that she was aware of the whole plot, that she connived? He could never forget that his first suspicion of Marlowe's motive in the crime had been roused by the fact that his escape was made through the lady's room. At that time, when he had not yet seen her, he had been ready enough to entertain the idea of her equal guilt and her co-operation. He had figured to himself some passionate hysterique, merciless as a cat in her hate and her love, a zealous abettor, perhaps even the ruling spirit in the crime.

Then he had seen her, had spoken with her, had helped her in her weakness; and such suspicions, since their first meeting, had seemed the vilest of infamy. He had seen her eyes and her mouth; he had breathed the woman's atmosphere. Trent was one of those who fancy they can scent true wickedness in the air. In her presence he had felt an inward certainty of her ultimate goodness of heart; and it was nothing against this that she had abandoned herself a moment, that day on the cliff, to the sentiment of relief at the ending of her bondage, of her years of starved sympathy and unquickened motherhood. That she had turned to Marlowe in her destitution he believed; that she had any knowledge of his deadly purpose he did not believe.

And yet, morning and evening the sickening doubts returned, and he recalled again that it was almost in her presence that Marlowe had made his preparations in the bedroom of the murdered man, that it was by the window of her own chamber that he had escaped from the house. Had he forgotten his cunning and taken the risk of telling her then? Or had he, as Trent thought more likely, still played his part with her then, and stolen off while she slept? He did not think she had known of the masquerade when she gave evidence at the inquest; it read like honest evidence. Or-the question would never be silenced, though he scorned it-had she lain expecting the footsteps in the room and the whisper that should tell her that it was done? Among the foul possibilities of human nature, was it possible that black ruthlessness and black deceit as well were hidden behind that good and straight and gentle seeming?

These thoughts would scarcely leave him when he was alone.

***

Tren

t served Sir James, well earning his pay for six months, and then returned to Paris where he went to work again with a better heart. His powers had returned to him, and he began to live more happily than he had expected among a tribe of strangely assorted friends, French, English, and American, artists, poets, journalists, policemen, hotel-keepers, soldiers, lawyers, business men, and others. His old faculty of sympathetic interest in his fellows won for him, just as in his student days, privileges seldom extended to the Briton. He enjoyed again the rare experience of being taken into the bosom of a Frenchman's family. He was admitted to the momentous confidence of les jeunes, and found them as sure that they had surprised the secrets of art and life as the departed jeunes of ten years before had been.

The bosom of the Frenchman's family was the same as those he had known in the past, even to the patterns of the wallpaper and movables. But the jeunes, he perceived with regret, were totally different from their forerunners. They were much more shallow and puerile, much less really clever. The secrets they wrested from the Universe were not such important and interesting secrets as had been wrested by the old jeunes. This he believed and deplored until one day he found himself seated at a restaurant next to a too well-fed man whom, in spite of the ravages of comfortable living, he recognized as one of the jeunes of his own period. This one had been wont to describe himself and three or four others as the Hermits of the New Parnassus. He and his school had talked outside cafes and elsewhere more than solitaries do as a rule; but, then, rules were what they had vowed themselves to destroy. They proclaimed that verse, in particular, was free. The Hermit of the New Parnassus was now in the Ministry of the Interior, and already decorated: he expressed to Trent the opinion that what France needed most was a hand of iron. He was able to quote the exact price paid for certain betrayals of the country, of which Trent had not previously heard.

Thus he was brought to make the old discovery that it was he who had changed, like his friend of the Administration, and that les jeunes were still the same. Yet he found it hard to say what precisely he had lost that so greatly mattered; unless indeed it were so simple a thing as his high spirits.

One morning in June, as he descended the slope of the Rue des Martyrs, he saw approaching a figure that he remembered. He glanced quickly round, for the thought of meeting Mr. Bunner again was unacceptable. For some time he had recognized that his wound was healing under the spell of creative work; he thought less often of the woman he loved, and with less pain. He would not have the memory of those three days reopened.

But the straight and narrow thoroughfare offered no refuge, and the American saw him almost at once.

His unforced geniality made Trent ashamed, for he had liked the man. They sat long over a meal, and Mr. Bunner talked. Trent listened to him, now that he was in for it, with genuine pleasure, now and then contributing a question or remark. Besides liking his companion, he enjoyed his conversation, with its unending verbal surprises, for its own sake.

Bunner was, it appeared, resident in Paris as the chief Continental agent of the Manderson firm, and fully satisfied with his position and prospects. He discoursed on these for some twenty minutes. This subject at length exhausted, he went on to tell Trent, who confessed that he had been away from England for a year, that Marlowe had shortly after the death of Manderson entered his father's business, which was now again in a flourishing state, and had already come to be practically in control of it. They had kept up their intimacy, and were even now planning a holiday for the summer. Mr. Bunner spoke with generous admiration of his friend's talent for affairs. 'Jack Marlowe has a natural big head,' he declared, 'and if he had more experience, I wouldn't want to have him up against me. He would put a crimp in me every time.'

As the American's talk flowed on, Trent listened with a slowly growing perplexity. It became more and more plain that something was very wrong in his theory of the situation; there was no mention of its central figure. Presently Mr. Bunner mentioned that Marlowe was engaged to be married to an Irish girl, whose charms he celebrated with native enthusiasm.

Trent clasped his hands savagely together beneath the table. What could have happened? His ideas were sliding and shifting. At last he forced himself to put a direct question.

Mr. Bunner was not very fully informed. He knew that Mrs. Manderson had left England immediately after the settlement of her husband's affairs, and had lived for some time in Italy. She had returned not long ago to London, where she had decided not to live in the house in Mayfair, and had bought a smaller one in the Hampstead neighbourhood; also, he understood, one somewhere in the country. She was said to go but little into society. 'And all the good hard dollars just waiting for some one to spraddle them around,' said Mr. Bunner, with a note of pathos in his voice. 'Why, she has money to burn-money to feed to the birds-and nothing doing. The old man left her more than half his wad. And think of the figure she might make in the world. She is beautiful, and she is the best woman I ever met, too. But she couldn't ever seem to get the habit of spending money the way it ought to be spent.'

His words now became a soliloquy: Trent's thoughts were occupying all his attention. He pleaded business soon, and the two men parted with cordiality.

Half an hour later Trent was in his studio, swiftly and mechanically 'cleaning up'. He wanted to know what had happened; somehow he must find out. He could never approach herself, he knew; he would never bring back to her the shame of that last encounter with him; it was scarcely likely that he would even set eyes on her. But he must get to know!... Cupples was in London, Marlowe was there.... And, anyhow, he was sick of Paris.

Such thoughts came and went; and below them all strained the fibres of an unseen cord that dragged mercilessly at his heart, and that he cursed bitterly in the moments when he could not deny to himself that it was there. The folly, the useless, pitiable folly of it!

In twenty-four hours his feeble roots in Paris had been torn out. He was looking over a leaden sea at the shining fortress-wall of the Dover cliffs.

***

But though he had instinctively picked out the lines of a set purpose from among the welter of promptings in his mind, he found it delayed at the very outset.

He had decided that he must first see Mr. Cupples, who would be in a position to tell him much more than the American knew. But Mr. Cupples was away on his travels, not expected to return for a month; and Trent had no reasonable excuse for hastening his return. Marlowe he would not confront until he had tried at least to reconnoitre the position. He constrained himself not to commit the crowning folly of seeking out Mrs. Manderson's house in Hampstead; he could not enter it, and the thought of the possibility of being seen by her lurking in its neighbourhood brought the blood to his face.

He stayed at an hotel, took a studio, and while he awaited Mr. Cupples's return attempted vainly to lose himself in work.

At the end of a week he had an idea that he acted upon with eager precipitancy. She had let fall some word at their last meeting, of a taste for music. Trent went that evening, and thenceforward regularly, to the opera. He might see her; and if, in spite of his caution, she caught sight of him, they could be blind to each other's presence-anybody might happen to go to the opera.

So he went alone each evening, passing as quickly as he might through the people in the vestibule; and each evening he came away knowing that she had not been in the house. It was a habit that yielded him a sort of satisfaction along with the guilty excitement of his search; for he too loved music, and nothing gave him so much peace while its magic endured.

One night as he entered, hurrying through the brilliant crowd, he felt a touch on his arm. Flooded with an incredible certainty at the touch, he turned.

It was she: so much more radiant in the absence of grief and anxiety, in the fact that she was smiling, and in the allurement of evening dress, that he could not speak. She, too, breathed a little quickly, and there was a light of daring in her eyes and cheeks as she greeted him.

Her words were few. 'I wouldn't miss a note of Tristan,' she said, 'nor must you. Come and see me in the interval.' She gave him the number of the box.

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