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Trent's Last Case By E. C. Bentley Characters: 11177

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06


'If you insist,' Trent said, 'I suppose you will have your way. But I had much rather write it when I am not with you. However, if I must, bring me a tablet whiter than a star, or hand of hymning angel; I mean a sheet of note-paper not stamped with your address. Don't underestimate the sacrifice I am making. I never felt less like correspondence in my life.'

She rewarded him.

'What shall I say?' he enquired, his pen hovering over the paper. 'Shall I compare him to a summer's day? What shall I say?'

'Say what you want to say,' she suggested helpfully.

He shook his head. 'What I want to say-what I have been wanting for the past twenty-four hours to say to every man, woman, and child I met-is "Mabel and I are betrothed, and all is gas and gaiters." But that wouldn't be a very good opening for a letter of strictly formal, not to say sinister, character. I have got as far as "Dear Mr. Marlowe." What comes next?'

'I am sending you a manuscript,' she prompted, 'which I thought you might like to see.'

'Do you realize,' he said, 'that in that sentence there are only two words of more than one syllable? This letter is meant to impress, not to put him at his ease. We must have long words.'

'I don't see why,' she answered. 'I know it is usual, but why is it? I have had a great many letters from lawyers and business people, and they always begin, "with reference to our communication", or some such mouthful, and go on like that all the way through. Yet when I see them they don't talk like that. It seems ridiculous to me.'

'It is not at all ridiculous to them.' Trent laid aside the pen with an appearance of relief and rose to his feet. 'Let me explain. A people like our own, not very fond of using its mind, gets on in the ordinary way with a very small and simple vocabulary. Long words are abnormal, and like everything else that is abnormal, they are either very funny or tremendously solemn. Take the phrase "intelligent anticipation", for instance. If such a phrase had been used in any other country in Europe, it would not have attracted the slightest attention. With us it has become a proverb; we all grin when we hear it in a speech or read it in a leading article; it is considered to be one of the best things ever said. Why? Just because it consists of two long words. The idea expressed is as commonplace as cold mutton. Then there's "terminological inexactitude". How we all roared, and are still roaring, at that! And the whole of the joke is that the words are long. It's just the same when we want to be very serious; we mark it by turning to long words. When a solicitor can begin a sentence with, "pursuant to the instructions communicated to our representative," or some such gibberish, he feels that he is earning his six-and-eightpence. Don't laugh! It is perfectly true. Now Continentals haven't got that feeling. They are always bothering about ideas, and the result is that every shopkeeper or peasant has a vocabulary in daily use that is simply Greek to the vast majority of Britons. I remember some time ago I was dining with a friend of mine who is a Paris cabman. We had dinner at a dirty little restaurant opposite the central post office, a place where all the clients were cabmen or porters. Conversation was general, and it struck me that a London cabman would have felt a little out of his depth. Words like "functionary" and "unforgettable" and "exterminate" and "independence" hurtled across the table every instant. And these were just ordinary, vulgar, jolly, red-faced cabmen. Mind you,' he went on hurriedly, as the lady crossed the room and took up his pen, 'I merely mention this to illustrate my point. I'm not saying that cab-men ought to be intellectuals. I don't think so; I agree with Keats-happy is England, sweet her artless cabmen, enough their simple loveliness for me. But when you come to the people who make up the collective industrial brain-power of the country.... Why, do you know-'

'Oh no, no, no!' cried Mrs. Manderson. 'I don't know anything at the moment, except that your talking must be stopped somehow, if we are to get any further with that letter to Mr. Marlowe. You shall not get out of it. Come!' She put the pen into his hand.

Trent looked at it with distaste. 'I warn you not to discourage my talking,' he said dejectedly. 'Believe me, men who don't talk are even worse to live with than men who do. O have a care of natures that are mute. I confess I'm shirking writing this thing. It is almost an indecency. It's mixing two moods to write the sort of letter I mean to write, and at the same time to be sitting in the same room with you.'

She led him to his abandoned chair before the escritoire and pushed him gently into it. 'Well, but please try. I want to see what you write, and I want it to go to him at once. You see, I would be contented enough to leave things as they are; but you say you must get at the truth, and if you must, I want it to be as soon as possible. Do it now-you know you can if you will-and I'll send it off the moment it's ready. Don't you ever feel that-the longing to get the worrying letter into the post and off your hands, so that you can't recall it if you would, and it's no use fussing any more about it?'

'I will do as you wish,' he said, and turned to the paper, which he dated as from his hotel. Mrs. Manderson looked down at his bent head with a gentle light in her eyes, and made as if to place a smoothing hand upon his rather untidy crop of hair. But she did not touch it. Going in silence to the piano, she began to play

very softly. It was ten minutes before Trent spoke.

'If he chooses to reply that he will say nothing?'

Mrs. Manderson looked over her shoulder. 'Of course he dare not take that line. He will speak to prevent you from denouncing him.'

'But I'm not going to do that anyhow. You wouldn't allow it-you said so; besides, I won't if you would. The thing's too doubtful now.'

'But,' she laughed, 'poor Mr. Marlowe doesn't know you won't, does he?'

Trent sighed. 'What extraordinary things codes of honour are!' he remarked abstractedly. 'I know that there are things I should do, and never think twice about, which would make you feel disgraced if you did them-such as giving any one who grossly insulted me a black eye, or swearing violently when I barked my shin in a dark room. And now you are calmly recommending me to bluff Marlowe by means of a tacit threat which I don't mean; a thing which hell's most abandoned fiend did never, in the drunkenness of guilt-well, anyhow, I won't do it.' He resumed his writing, and the lady, with an indulgent smile, returned to playing very softly.

In a few minutes more, Trent said: 'At last I am his faithfully. Do you want to see it?' She ran across the twilight room, and turned on a reading lamp beside the escritoire. Then, leaning on his shoulder, she read what follows:

Dear Mr. Marlowe,-You will perhaps remember that we met, under unhappy circumstances, in June of last year at Marlstone.

On that occasion it was my duty, as representing a newspaper, to make an independent investigation of the circumstances of the death of the late Sigsbee Manderson. I did so, and I arrived at certain conclusions. You may learn from the enclosed manuscript, which was originally written as a dispatch for my newspaper, what those conclusions were. For reasons which it is not necessary to state I decided at the last moment not to make them public, or to communicate them to you, and they are known to only two persons beside myself.

At this point Mrs. Manderson raised her eyes quickly from the letter. Her dark brows were drawn together. 'Two persons?' she said with a note of enquiry.

'Your uncle is the other. I sought him out last night and told him the whole story. Have you anything against it? I always felt uneasy at keeping it from him as I did, because I had led him to expect I should tell him all I discovered, and my silence looked like mystery-making. Now it is to be cleared up finally, and there is no question of shielding you, I wanted him to know everything. He is a very shrewd adviser, too, in a way of his own; and I should like to have him with me when I see Marlowe. I have a feeling that two heads will be better than one on my side of the interview.'

She sighed. 'Yes, of course, uncle ought to know the truth. I hope there is nobody else at all.' She pressed his hand. 'I so much want all that horror buried-buried deep. I am very happy now, dear, but I shall be happier still when you have satisfied that curious mind of yours and found out everything, and stamped down the earth upon it all.' She continued her reading.

Quite recently, however [the letter went on], facts have come to my knowledge which have led me to change my decision. I do not mean that I shall publish what I discovered, but that I have determined to approach you and ask you for a private statement. If you have anything to say which would place the matter in another light, I can imagine no reason why you should withhold it.

I expect, then, to hear from you when and where I may call upon you; unless you prefer the interview to take place at my hotel. In either case I desire that Mr. Cupples whom you will remember, and who has read the enclosed document, should be present also.-Faithfully yours, Philip Trent.

What a very stiff letter!' she said. 'Now I am sure you couldn't have made it any stiffer in your own rooms.'

Trent slipped the letter and enclosure into a long envelope. 'Yes,' he said, 'I think it will make him sit up suddenly. Now this thing mustn't run any risk of going wrong. It would be best to send a special messenger with orders to deliver it into his own hands. If he's away it oughtn't to be left.'

She nodded. 'I can arrange that. Wait here for a little.'

***

When Mrs. Manderson returned, he was hunting through the music cabinet. She sank on the carpet beside him in a wave of dark brown skirts. 'Tell me something, Philip,' she said.

'If it is among the few things that I know.'

'When you saw uncle last night, did you tell him about-about us?'

'I did not,' he answered. 'I remembered you had said nothing about telling any one. It is for you-isn't it?-to decide whether we take the world into our confidence at once or later on.'

'Then will you tell him?' She looked down at her clasped hands. 'I wish you to tell him. Perhaps if you think you will guess why.... There! that is settled.' She lifted her eyes again to his, and for a time there was silence between them.

***

He leaned back at length in the deep chair. 'What a world!' he said. 'Mabel, will you play something on the piano that expresses mere joy, the genuine article, nothing feverish or like thorns under a pot, but joy that has decided in favour of the universe? It's a mood that can't last altogether, so we had better get all we can out of it.'

She went to the instrument and struck a few chords while she thought. Then she began to work with all her soul at the theme in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony which is like the sound of the opening of the gates of Paradise.

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