MoboReader> Literature > Trent's Last Case

   Chapter 13 13

Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 38209

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


The following two months were a period in Trent's life that he has never since remembered without shuddering. He met Mrs. Manderson half a dozen times, and each time her cool friendliness, a nicely calculated mean between mere acquaintance and the first stage of intimacy, baffled and maddened him. At the opera he had found her, to his further amazement, with a certain Mrs. Wallace, a frisky matron whom he had known from childhood. Mrs. Manderson, it appeared, on her return from Italy, had somehow wandered into circles to which he belonged by nurture and disposition. It came, she said, of her having pitched her tent in their hunting-grounds; several of his friends were near neighbours. He had a dim but horrid recollection of having been on that occasion unlike himself, ill at ease, burning in the face, talking with idiot loquacity of his adventures in the Baltic provinces, and finding from time to time that he was addressing himself exclusively to Mrs. Wallace. The other lady, when he joined them, had completely lost the slight appearance of agitation with which she had stopped him in the vestibule. She had spoken pleasantly to him of her travels, of her settlement in London, and of people whom they both knew.

During the last half of the opera, which he had stayed in the box to hear, he had been conscious of nothing, as he sat behind them, but the angle of her cheek and the mass of her hair, the lines of her shoulder and arm, her hand upon the cushion. The black hair had seemed at last a forest, immeasurable, pathless and enchanted, luring him to a fatal adventure.... At the end he had been pale and subdued, parting with them rather formally.

The next time he saw her-it was at a country house where both were guests-and the subsequent times, he had had himself in hand. He had matched her manner and had acquitted himself, he thought, decently, considering-

Considering that he lived in an agony of bewilderment and remorse and longing. He could make nothing, absolutely nothing, of her attitude. That she had read his manuscript and understood the suspicion indicated in his last question to her at White Gables was beyond the possibility of doubt. Then how could she treat him thus and frankly, as she treated all the world of men who had done no injury?

For it had become clear to his intuitive sense, for all the absence of any shade of differentiation in her outward manner, that an injury had been done, and that she had felt it. Several times, on the rare and brief occasions when they had talked apart, he had warning from the same sense that she was approaching this subject; and each time he had turned the conversation with the ingenuity born of fear. Two resolutions he made. The first was that when he had completed a commissioned work which tied him to London he would go away and stay away. The strain was too great. He no longer burned to know the truth; he wanted nothing to confirm his fixed internal conviction by faith, that he had blundered, that he had misread the situation, misinterpreted her tears, written himself down a slanderous fool. He speculated no more on Marlowe's motive in the killing of Manderson. Mr. Cupples returned to London, and Trent asked him nothing. He knew now that he had been right in those words-Trent remembered them for the emphasis with which they were spoken-'So long as she considered herself bound to him... no power on earth could have persuaded her.' He met Mrs. Manderson at dinner at her uncle's large and tomb-like house in Bloomsbury, and there he conversed most of the evening with a professor of archaeology from Berlin.

His other resolution was that he would not be with her alone.

But when, a few days after, she wrote asking him to come and see her on the following afternoon, he made no attempt to excuse himself. This was a formal challenge.

***

While she celebrated the rites of tea, and for some little time thereafter, she joined with such natural ease in his slightly fevered conversation on matters of the day that he began to hope she had changed what he could not doubt had been her resolve, to corner him and speak to him gravely. She was to all appearance careless now, smiling so that he recalled, not for the first time since that night at the opera, what was written long ago of a Princess of Brunswick: 'Her mouth has ten thousand charms that touch the soul.' She made a tour of the beautiful room where she had received him, singling out this treasure or that from the spoils of a hundred bric-a-brac shops, laughing over her quests, discoveries, and bargainings. And when he asked if she would delight him again with a favourite piece of his which he had heard her play at another house, she consented at once.

She played with a perfection of execution and feeling that moved him now as it had moved him before. 'You are a musician born,' he said quietly when she had finished, and the last tremor of the music had passed away. 'I knew that before I first heard you.'

'I have played a great deal ever since I can remember. It has been a great comfort to me,' she said simply, and half-turned to him smiling. 'When did you first detect music in me? Oh, of course: I was at the opera. But that wouldn't prove much, would it?'

'No,' he said abstractedly, his sense still busy with the music that had just ended. 'I think I knew it the first time I saw you.' Then understanding of his own words came to him, and turned him rigid. For the first time the past had been invoked.

There was a short silence. Mrs. Manderson looked at Trent, then hastily looked away. Colour began to rise in her cheeks, and she pursed her lips as if for whistling. Then with a defiant gesture of the shoulders which he remembered she rose suddenly from the piano and placed herself in a chair opposite to him.

'That speech of yours will do as well as anything,' she began slowly, looking at the point of her shoe, 'to bring us to what I wanted to say. I asked you here today on purpose, Mr. Trent, because I couldn't bear it any longer. Ever since the day you left me at White Gables I have been saying to myself that it didn't matter what you thought of me in that affair; that you were certainly not the kind of man to speak to others of what you believed about me, after what you had told me of your reasons for suppressing your manuscript. I asked myself how it could matter. But all the time, of course, I knew it did matter. It mattered horribly. Because what you thought was not true.' She raised her eyes and met his gaze calmly. Trent, with a completely expressionless face, returned her look.

'Since I began to know you,' he said, 'I have ceased to think it.' 'Thank you,' said Mrs. Manderson; and blushed suddenly and deeply. Then, playing with a glove, she added, 'But I want you to know what was true.

'I did not know if I should ever see you again,' she went on in a lower voice, 'but I felt that if I did I must speak to you about this. I thought it would not be hard to do so, because you seemed to me an understanding person; and besides, a woman who has been married isn't expected to have the same sort of difficulty as a young girl in speaking about such things when it is necessary. And then we did meet again, and I discovered that it was very difficult indeed. You made it difficult.'

'How?' he asked quietly.

'I don't know,' said the lady. 'But yes-I do know. It was just because you treated me exactly as if you had never thought or imagined anything of that sort about me. I had always supposed that if I saw you again you would turn on me that hard, horrible sort of look you had when you asked me that last question-do you remember?-at White Gables. Instead of that you were just like any other acquaintance. You were just'-she hesitated and spread out her hands-'nice. You know. After that first time at the opera when I spoke to you I went home positively wondering if you had really recognized me. I mean, I thought you might have recognized my face without remembering who it was.'

A short laugh broke from Trent in spite of himself, but he said nothing.

She smiled deprecatingly. 'Well, I couldn't remember if you had spoken my name; and I thought it might be so. But the next time, at the Iretons', you did speak it, so I knew; and a dozen times during those few days I almost brought myself to tell you, but never quite. I began to feel that you wouldn't let me, that you would slip away from the subject if I approached it. Wasn't I right? Tell me, please.' He nodded. 'But why?' He remained silent.

'Well,' she said, 'I will finish what I had to say, and then you will tell me, I hope, why you had to make it so hard. When I began to understand that you wouldn't let me talk of the matter to you, it made me more determined than ever. I suppose you didn't realize that I would insist on speaking even if you were quite discouraging. I dare say I couldn't have done it if I had been guilty, as you thought. You walked into my parlour today, never thinking I should dare. Well, now you see.'

Mrs. Manderson had lost all her air of hesitancy. She had, as she was wont to say, talked herself enthusiastic, and in the ardour of her purpose to annihilate the misunderstanding that had troubled her so long she felt herself mistress of the situation.

'I am going to tell you the story of the mistake you made,' she continued, as Trent, his hands clasped between his knees, still looked at her enigmatically. 'You will have to believe it, Mr. Trent; it is utterly true to life, with its confusions and hidden things and cross-purposes and perfectly natural mistakes that nobody thinks twice about taking for facts. Please understand that I don't blame you in the least, and never did, for jumping to the conclusion you did. You knew that I was estranged from my husband, and you knew what that so often means. You knew before I told you, I expect, that he had taken up an injured attitude towards me; and I was silly enough to try and explain it away. I gave you the explanation of it that I had given myself at first, before I realized the wretched truth; I told you he was disappointed in me because I couldn't take a brilliant lead in society. Well, that was true; he was so. But I could see you weren't convinced. You had guessed what it took me much longer to see, because I knew how irrational it was. Yes; my husband was jealous of John Marlowe; you divined that.

'Then I behaved like a fool when you let me see you had divined it; it was such a blow, you understand, when I had supposed all the humiliation and strain was at an end, and that his delusion had died with him. You practically asked me if my husband's secretary was not my lover, Mr. Trent-I have to say it, because I want you to understand why I broke down and made a scene. You took that for a confession; you thought I was guilty of that, and I think you even thought I might be a party to the crime, that I had consented.... That did hurt me; but perhaps you couldn't have thought anything else-I don't know.'

Trent, who had not hitherto taken his eyes from her face, hung his head at the words. He did not raise it again as she continued. 'But really it was simple shock and distress that made me give way, and the memory of all the misery that mad suspicion had meant to me. And when I pulled myself together again you had gone.'

She rose and went to an escritoire beside the window, unlocked a drawer, and drew out a long, sealed envelope.

'This is the manuscript you left with me,' she said. 'I have read it through again and again. I have always wondered, as everybody does, at your cleverness in things of this kind.' A faintly mischievous smile flashed upon her face, and was gone. 'I thought it was splendid, Mr. Trent-I almost forgot that the story was my own, I was so interested. And I want to say now, while I have this in my hand, how much I thank you for your generous, chivalrous act in sacrificing this triumph of yours rather than put a woman's reputation in peril. If all had been as you supposed, the facts must have come out when the police took up the case you put in their hands. Believe me, I understood just what you had done, and I never ceased to be grateful even when I felt most crushed by your suspicion.'

As she spoke her thanks her voice shook a little, and her eyes were bright. Trent perceived nothing of this. His head was still bent. He did not seem to hear. She put the envelope into his hand as it lay open, palm upwards, on his knee. There was a touch of gentleness about the act which made him look up.

'Can you-' he began slowly.

She raised her hand as she stood before him. 'No, Mr. Trent; let me finish before you say anything. It is such an unspeakable relief to me to have broken the ice at last, and I want to end the story while I am still feeling the triumph of beginning it.' She sank down into the sofa from which she had first risen. 'I am telling you a thing that nobody else knows. Everybody knew, I suppose, that something had come between us, though I did everything in my power to hide it. But I don't think any one in the world ever guessed what my husband's notion was. People who know me don't think that sort of thing about me, I believe. And his fancy was so ridiculously opposed to the facts. I will tell you what the situation was. Mr. Marlowe and I had been friendly enough since he came to us. For all his cleverness-my husband said he had a keener brain than any man he knew-I looked upon him as practically a boy. You know I am a little older than he is, and he had a sort of amiable lack of ambition that made me feel it the more. One day my husband asked me what I thought was the best thing about Marlowe, and not thinking much about it I said, "His manners." He surprised me very much by looking black at that, and after a silence he said, "Yes, Marlowe is a gentleman; that's so", not looking at me.

'Nothing was ever said about that again until about a year ago, when I found that Mr. Marlowe had done what I always expected he would do-fallen desperately in love with an American girl. But to my disgust he had picked out the most worthless girl, I do believe, of all those whom we used to meet. She was the daughter of wealthy parents, and she did as she liked with them; very beautiful, well educated, very good at games-what they call a woman-athlete-and caring for nothing on earth but her own amusement. She was one of the most unprincipled flirts I ever knew, and quite the cleverest. Every one knew it, and Mr. Marlowe must have heard it; but she made a complete fool of him, brain and all. I don't know how she managed it, but I can imagine. She liked him, of course; but it was quite plain to me that she was playing with him. The whole affair was so idiotic, I got perfectly furious. One day I asked him to row me in a boat on the lake-all this happened at our house by Lake George. We had never been alone together for any length of time before. In the boat I talked to him. I was very kind about it, I think, and he took it admirably, but he didn't believe me a bit. He had the impudence to tell me that I misunderstood Alice's nature. When I hinted at his prospects-I knew he had scarcely anything of his own-he said that if she loved him he could make himself a position in the world. I dare say that was true, with his abilities and his friends-he is rather well connected, you know, as well as popular. But his enlightenment came very soon after that.

'My husband helped me out of the boat when we got back. He joked with Mr Marlowe about something, I remember; for through all that followed he never once changed in his manner to him, and that was one reason why I took so long to realize what he thought about him and myself. But to me he was reserved and silent that evening-not angry. He was always perfectly cold and expressionless to me after he took this idea into his head. After dinner he only spoke to me once. Mr. Marlowe was telling him about some horse he had bought for the farm in Kentucky, and my husband looked at me and said, "Marlowe may be a gentleman, but he seldom quits loser in a horse-trade." I was surprised at that, but at that time-and even on the next occasion when he found us together-I didn't understand what was in his mind. That next time was the morning when Mr Marlowe received a sweet little note from the girl asking for his congratulations on her engagement. It was in our New York house. He looked so wretched at breakfast that I thought he was ill, and afterwards I went to the room where he worked, and asked what was the matter. He didn't say anything, but just handed me the note, and turned away to the window. I was very glad that was all over, but terribly sorry for him too, of course. I don't remember what I said, but I remember putting my hand on his arm as he stood there staring out on the garden and just then my husband appeared at the open door with some papers. He just glanced at us, and then turned and walked quietly back to his study. I thought that he might have heard what I was saying to comfort Mr. Marlowe, and that it was rather nice of him to slip away. Mr. Marlowe neither saw nor heard him. My husband left the house that morning for the West while I was out. Even then I did not understand. He used often to go off suddenly like that, if some business project called him.

'It was not until he returned a week later that I grasped the situation. He was looking white and strange, and as soon as he saw me he asked me where Mr. Marlowe was. Somehow the tone of his question told me everything in a flash.

'I almost gasped; I was wild with indignation. You know, Mr. Trent, I don't think I should have minded at all if any one had thought me capable of openly breaking with my husband and leaving him for somebody else. I dare say I might have done that. But that coarse suspicion... a man whom he trusted... and the notion of concealment. It made me see scarlet. Every shred of pride in me was strung up till I quivered, and I swore to myself on the spot that I would never show by any word or sign that I was conscious of his having such a thought about me. I would behave exactly as I always had behaved, I determined-and that I did, up to the very last. Though I knew that a wall had been made between us now that could never be broken down-even if he asked my pardon and obtained it-I never once showed that I noticed any change.

'And so it went on. I never could go through such a time again. My husband showed silent and cold politeness to me always when we were alone-and that was only when it was unavoidable. He never once alluded to what was in his mind; but I felt it, and he knew that I felt it. Both of us were stubborn in our different attitudes. To Mr. Marlowe he was more friendly, if anything, than before-Heaven only knows why. I fancied he was planning some sort of revenge; but that was only a fancy. Certainly Mr Marlowe never knew what was suspected of him. He and I remained good friends, though we never spoke of anything intimate

after that disappointment of his; but I made a point of seeing no less of him than I had always done. Then we came to England and to White Gables, and after that followed-my husband's dreadful end.'

She threw out her right hand in a gesture of finality. 'You know about the rest-so much more than any other man,' she added, and glanced up at him with a quaint expression.

Trent wondered at that look, but the wonder was only a passing shadow on his thought. Inwardly his whole being was possessed by thankfulness. All the vivacity had returned to his face. Long before the lady had ended her story he had recognized the certainty of its truth, as from the first days of their renewed acquaintance he had doubted the story that his imagination had built up at White Gables, upon foundations that seemed so good to him.

He said, 'I don't know how to begin the apologies I have to make. There are no words to tell you how ashamed and disgraced I feel when I realize what a crude, cock-sure blundering at a conclusion my suspicion was. Yes, I suspected-you! I had almost forgotten that I was ever such a fool. Almost-not quite. Sometimes when I have been alone I have remembered that folly, and poured contempt on it. I have tried to imagine what the facts were. I have tried to excuse myself.'

She interrupted him quickly. 'What nonsense! Do be sensible, Mr. Trent. You had only seen me on two occasions in your life before you came to me with your solution of the mystery.' Again the quaint expression came and was gone. 'If you talk of folly, it really is folly for a man like you to pretend to a woman like me that I had innocence written all over me in large letters-so large that you couldn't believe very strong evidence against me after seeing me twice.'

'What do you mean by "a man like me"?' he demanded with a sort of fierceness. 'Do you take me for a person without any normal instincts? I don't say you impress people as a simple, transparent sort of character-what Mr. Calvin Bunner calls a case of open-work; I don't say a stranger might not think you capable of wickedness, if there was good evidence for it: but I say that a man who, after seeing you and being in your atmosphere, could associate you with the particular kind of abomination I imagined, is a fool-the kind of fool who is afraid to trust his senses.... As for my making it hard for you to approach the subject, as you say, it is true. It was simply moral cowardice. I understood that you wished to clear the matter up; and I was revolted at the notion of my injurious blunder being discussed. I tried to show you by my actions that it was as if it had never been. I hoped you would pardon me without any words. I can't forgive myself, and I never shall. And yet if you could know-' He stopped short, and then added quietly, 'Well, will you accept all that as an apology? The very scrubbiest sackcloth made, and the grittiest ashes on the heap.... I didn't mean to get worked up,' he ended lamely.

Mrs. Manderson laughed, and her laugh carried him away with it. He knew well by this time that sudden rush of cascading notes of mirth, the perfect expression of enjoyment; he had many times tried to amuse her merely for his delight in the sound of it.

'But I love to see you worked up,' she said. 'The bump with which you always come down as soon as you realize that you are up in the air at all is quite delightful. Oh, we're actually both laughing. What a triumphant end to our explanations, after all my dread of the time when I should have it out with you. And now it's all over, and you know; and we'll never speak of it any more.'

'I hope not,' Trent said in sincere relief. 'If you're resolved to be so kind as this about it, I am not high-principled enough to insist on your blasting me with your lightnings. And now, Mrs. Manderson, I had better go. Changing the subject after this would be like playing puss-in-the-corner after an earthquake.' He rose to his feet.

'You are right,' she said. 'But no! Wait. There is another thing-part of the same subject; and we ought to pick up all the pieces now while we are about it. Please sit down.' She took the envelope containing Trent's manuscript dispatch from the table where he had laid it. 'I want to speak about this.'

His brows bent, and he looked at her questioningly. 'So do I, if you do,' he said slowly. 'I want very much to know one thing.'

'Tell me.'

'Since my reason for suppressing that information was all a fantasy, why did you never make any use of it? When I began to realize that I had been wrong about you, I explained your silence to myself by saying that you could not bring yourself to do a thing that would put a rope round a man's neck, whatever he might have done. I can quite understand that feeling. Was that what it was? Another possibility I thought of was that you knew of something that was by way of justifying or excusing Marlowe's act. Or I thought you might have a simple horror, quite apart from humanitarian scruples, of appearing publicly in connection with a murder trial. Many important witnesses in such cases have to be practically forced into giving their evidence. They feel there is defilement even in the shadow of the scaffold.'

Mrs. Manderson tapped her lips with the envelope without quite concealing a smile. 'You didn't think of another possibility, I suppose, Mr. Trent,' she said.

'No.' He looked puzzled.

'I mean the possibility of your having been wrong about Mr. Marlowe as well as about me. No, no; you needn't tell me that the chain of evidence is complete. I know it is. But evidence of what? Of Mr. Marlowe having impersonated my husband that night, and having escaped by way of my window, and built up an alibi. I have read your dispatch again and again, Mr. Trent, and I don't see that those things can be doubted.'

Trent gazed at her with narrowed eyes. He said nothing to fill the brief pause that followed. Mrs. Manderson smoothed her skirt with a preoccupied air, as one collecting her ideas.

'I did not make any use of the facts found out by you,' she slowly said at last, 'because it seemed to me very likely that they would be fatal to Mr Marlowe.'

'I agree with you,' Trent remarked in a colourless tone.

'And,' pursued the lady, looking up at him with a mild reasonableness in her eyes, 'as I knew that he was innocent I was not going to expose him to that risk.'

There was another little pause. Trent rubbed his chin, with an affectation of turning over the idea. Inwardly he was telling himself, somewhat feebly, that this was very right and proper; that it was quite feminine, and that he liked her to be feminine. It was permitted to her-more than permitted-to set her loyal belief in the character of a friend above the clearest demonstrations of the intellect. Nevertheless, it chafed him. He would have had her declaration of faith a little less positive in form. It was too irrational to say she 'knew'. In fact (he put it to himself bluntly), it was quite unlike her. If to be unreasonable when reason led to the unpleasant was a specially feminine trait, and if Mrs. Manderson had it, she was accustomed to wrap it up better than any woman he had known.

'You suggest,' he said at length, 'that Marlowe constructed an alibi for himself, by means which only a desperate man would have attempted, to clear himself of a crime he did not commit. Did he tell you he was innocent?'

She uttered a little laugh of impatience. 'So you think he has been talking me round. No, that is not so. I am merely sure he did not do it. Ah! I see you think that absurd. But see how unreasonable you are, Mr Trent! Just now you were explaining to me quite sincerely that it was foolishness in you to have a certain suspicion of me after seeing me and being in my atmosphere, as you said.' Trent started in his chair. She glanced at him, and went on: 'Now, I and my atmosphere are much obliged to you, but we must stand up for the rights of other atmospheres. I know a great deal more about Mr. Marlowe's atmosphere than you know about mine even now. I saw him constantly for several years. I don't pretend to know all about him; but I do know that he is incapable of a crime of bloodshed. The idea of his planning a murder is as unthinkable to me as the idea of your picking a poor woman's pocket, Mr. Trent. I can imagine you killing a man, you know... if the man deserved it and had an equal chance of killing you. I could kill a person myself in some circumstances. But Mr. Marlowe was incapable of doing it, I don't care what the provocation might be. He had a temper that nothing could shake, and he looked upon human nature with a sort of cold magnanimity that would find excuses for absolutely anything. It wasn't a pose; you could see it was a part of him. He never put it forward, but it was there always. It was quite irritating at times.... Now and then in America, I remember, I have heard people talking about lynching, for instance, when he was there. He would sit quite silent and expressionless, appearing not to listen; but you could feel disgust coming from him in waves. He really loathed and hated physical violence. He was a very strange man in some ways, Mr. Trent. He gave one a feeling that he might do unexpected things-do you know that feeling one has about some people? What part he really played in the events of that night I have never been able to guess. But nobody who knew anything about him could possibly believe in his deliberately taking a man's life.' Again the movement of her head expressed finality, and she leaned back in the sofa, calmly regarding him.

'Then,' said Trent, who had followed this with earnest attention, 'we are forced back on two other possibilities, which I had not thought worth much consideration until this moment. Accepting what you say, he might still conceivably have killed in self-defence; or he might have done so by accident.'

The lady nodded. 'Of course I thought of those two explanations when I read your manuscript.'

'And I suppose you felt, as I did myself, that in either of those cases the natural thing, and obviously the safest thing, for him to do was to make a public statement of the truth, instead of setting up a series of deceptions which would certainly stamp him as guilty in the eyes of the law, if anything went wrong with them.'

'Yes,' she said wearily, 'I thought over all that until my head ached. And I thought somebody else might have done it, and that he was somehow screening the guilty person. But that seemed wild. I could see no light in the mystery, and after a while I simply let it alone. All I was clear about was that Mr. Marlowe was not a murderer, and that if I told what you had found out, the judge and jury would probably think he was. I promised myself that I would speak to you about it if we should meet again; and now I've kept my promise.'

Trent, his chin resting on his hand, was staring at the carpet. The excitement of the hunt for the truth was steadily rising in him. He had not in his own mind accepted Mrs. Manderson's account of Marlowe's character as unquestionable. But she had spoken forcibly; he could by no means set it aside, and his theory was much shaken.

'There is only one thing for it,' he said, looking up. 'I must see Marlowe. It worries me too much to have the thing left like this. I will get at the truth. Can you tell me,' he broke off, 'how he behaved after the day I left White Gables?'

'I never saw him after that,' said Mrs. Manderson simply. 'For some days after you went away I was ill, and didn't go out of my room. When I got down he had left and was in London, settling things with the lawyers. He did not come down to the funeral. Immediately after that I went abroad. After some weeks a letter from him reached me, saying he had concluded his business and given the solicitors all the assistance in his power. He thanked me very nicely for what he called all my kindness, and said goodbye. There was nothing in it about his plans for the future, and I thought it particularly strange that he said not a word about my husband's death. I didn't answer. Knowing what I knew, I couldn't. In those days I shuddered whenever I thought of that masquerade in the night. I never wanted to see or hear of him again.'

'Then you don't know what has become of him?'

'No, but I dare say Uncle Burton-Mr. Cupples, you know-could tell you. Some time ago he told me that he had met Mr. Marlowe in London, and had some talk with him. I changed the conversation.' She paused and smiled with a trace of mischief. 'I rather wonder what you supposed had happened to Mr. Marlowe after you withdrew from the scene of the drama that you had put together so much to your satisfaction.'

Trent flushed. 'Do you really want to know?' he said.

'I ask you,' she retorted quietly.

'You ask me to humiliate myself again, Mrs. Manderson. Very well. I will tell you what I thought I should most likely find when I returned to London after my travels: that you had married Marlowe to live abroad.'

She heard him with unmoved composure. 'We certainly couldn't have lived very comfortably in England on his money and mine,' she observed thoughtfully. 'He had practically nothing then.'

He stared at her-'gaped', she told him some time afterwards. At the moment she laughed with a little embarrassment.

'Dear me, Mr. Trent! Have I said anything dreadful? You surely must know.... I thought everybody understood by now.... I'm sure I've had to explain it often enough... if I marry again I lose everything that my husband left me.'

The effect of this speech upon Trent was curious. For an instant his face was flooded with the emotion of surprise. As this passed away he gradually drew himself together, as he sat, into a tense attitude. He looked, she thought as she saw his knuckles grow white on the arms of the chair, like a man prepared for pain under the hand of the surgeon. But all he said, in a voice lower than his usual tone, was, 'I had no idea of it.'

'It is so,' she said calmly, trifling with a ring on her finger. 'Really, Mr. Trent, it is not such a very unusual thing. I think I am glad of it. For one thing, it has secured me-at least since it became generally known-from a good many attentions of a kind that a woman in my position has to put up with as a rule.'

'No doubt,' he said gravely. 'And... the other kind?'

She looked at him questioningly. 'Ah!' she laughed. 'The other kind trouble me even less. I have not yet met a man silly enough to want to marry a widow with a selfish disposition, and luxurious habits and tastes, and nothing but the little my father left me.'

She shook her head, and something in the gesture shattered the last remnants of Trent's self-possession.

'Haven't you, by Heaven!' he exclaimed, rising with a violent movement and advancing a step towards her. 'Then I am going to show you that human passion is not always stifled by the smell of money. I am going to end the business-my business. I am going to tell you what I dare say scores of better men have wanted to tell you, but couldn't summon up what I have summoned up-the infernal cheek to do it. They were afraid of making fools of themselves. I am not. You have accustomed me to the feeling this afternoon.' He laughed aloud in his rush of words, and spread out his hands. 'Look at me! It is the sight of the century! It is one who says he loves you, and would ask you to give up very great wealth to stand at his side.'

She was hiding her face in her hands. He heard her say brokenly, 'Please... don't speak in that way.'

He answered: 'It will make a great difference to me if you will allow me to say all I have to say before I leave you. Perhaps it is in bad taste, but I will risk that; I want to relieve my soul; it needs open confession. This is the truth. You have troubled me ever since the first time I saw you-and you did not know it-as you sat under the edge of the cliff at Marlstone, and held out your arms to the sea. It was only your beauty that filled my mind then. As I passed by you it seemed as if all the life in the place were crying out a song about you in the wind and the sunshine. And the song stayed in my ears; but even your beauty would be no more than an empty memory to me by now if that had been all. It was when I led you from the hotel there to your house, with your hand on my arm, that-what was it that happened? I only knew that your stronger magic had struck home, and that I never should forget that day, whatever the love of my life should be. Till that day I had admired as I should admire the loveliness of a still lake; but that day I felt the spell of the divinity of the lake. And next morning the waters were troubled, and she rose-the morning when I came to you with my questions, tired out with doubts that were as bitter as pain, and when I saw you without your pale, sweet mask of composure-when I saw you moved and glowing, with your eyes and your hands alive, and when you made me understand that for such a creature as you there had been emptiness and the mere waste of yourself for so long. Madness rose in me then, and my spirit was clamouring to say what I say at last now: that life would never seem a full thing again because you could not love me, that I was taken for ever in the nets of your black hair and by the incantation of your voice-'

'Oh, stop!' she cried, suddenly throwing back her head, her face flaming and her hands clutching the cushions beside her. She spoke fast and disjointedly, her breath coming quick. 'You shall not talk me into forgetting common sense. What does all this mean? Oh, I do not recognize you at all-you seem another man. We are not children; have you forgotten that? You speak like a boy in love for the first time. It is foolish, unreal-I know that if you do not. I will not hear it. What has happened to you?' She was half sobbing. 'How can these sentimentalities come from a man like you? Where is your self-restraint?'

'Gone!' exclaimed Trent, with an abrupt laugh. 'It has got right away. I am going after it in a minute.' He looked gravely down into her eyes. 'I don't care so much now. I never could declare myself to you under the cloud of your great fortune. It was too heavy. There's nothing creditable in that feeling, as I look at it; as a matter of simple fact it was a form of cowardice-fear of what you would think, and very likely say-fear of the world's comment too, I suppose. But the cloud being rolled away, I have spoken, and I don't care so much. I can face things with a quiet mind now that I have told you the truth in its own terms. You may call it sentimentality or any other nickname you like. It is quite true that it was not intended for a scientific statement. Since it annoys you, let it be extinguished. But please believe that it was serious to me if it was comedy to you. I have said that I love you, and honour you, and would hold you dearest of all the world. Now give me leave to go.'

But she held out her hands to him.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares