Trent's Last Case/Chapter 11

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Trent's Last Case by Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Chapter 11: Hitherto Unpublished

My Dear Molloy:— This is in case I don't find you at your office. I have found out who killed Manderson, as this dispatch will show. This was my problem; yours is to decide what use to make of it. It definitely charges an unsuspected person with having a hand in the crime, and practically accuses him of being the murderer, so I don't suppose you will publish it before his arrest, and I believe it is illegal to do so afterwards until he has been tried and found guilty. You may decide to publish it then; and you may find it possible to make some use or other before then of the facts I have given. That is your affair. Meanwhile, will you communicate with Scotland Yard, and let them see what I have written? I have done with the Manderson mystery, and I wish to God I had never touched it. Here follows my dispatch. —P.T.

Marlstone, June 16th. I begin this, my third and probably my final dispatch to the Record upon the Manderson murder, with conflicting feelings. I have a strong sense of relief, because in my two previous dispatches I was obliged, in the interests of justice, to withhold facts ascertained by me which would, if published then, have put a certain person upon his guard and possibly have led to his escape; for he is a man of no common boldness and resource. These facts I shall now set forth. But I have, I confess, no liking for the story of treachery and perverted cleverness which I have to tell. It leaves an evil taste in the mouth, a savour of something revolting in the deeper puzzle of motive underlying the puzzle of the crime itself, which I believe I have solved.

It will be remembered that in my first dispatch I described the situation as I found it on reaching this place early on Tuesday morning. I told how the body was found, and in what state; dwelt upon the complete mystery surrounding the crime, and mentioned one or two local theories about it; gave some account of the dead man's domestic surroundings; and furnished a somewhat detailed description of his movements on the evening before his death. I gave, too, a little fact which may or may not have seemed irrelevant: that a quantity of whisky much larger than Manderson habitually drank at night had disappeared from his private decanter since the last time he was seen alive. On the following day, the day of the inquest, I wired little more than an abstract of the proceedings in the coroner's court, of which a verbatim report was made at my request by other representatives of the Record. That day is not yet over as I write these lines; and I have now completed an investigation which has led me directly to the man who must be called upon to clear himself of the guilt of the death of Manderson.

Apart from the central mystery of Manderson's having arisen long before his usual hour to go out and meet his death, there were two minor points of oddity about this affair which, I suppose, must have occurred to thousands of those who have read the accounts in the newspapers: points apparent from the very beginning. The first of these was that, whereas the body was found at a spot not thirty yards from the house, all the people of the house declared that they had heard no cry or other noise in the night. Manderson had not been gagged; the marks on his wrists pointed to a struggle with his assailant; and there had been at least one pistol-shot. (I say at least one, because it is the fact that in murders with firearms, especially if there has been a struggle, the criminal commonly misses his victim at least once.) This odd fact seemed all the more odd to me when I learned that Martin the butler was a bad sleeper, very keen of hearing, and that his bedroom, with the window open, faced almost directly toward the shed by which the body was found.

The second odd little fact that was apparent from the outset was Manderson's leaving his dental plate by the bedside. It appeared that he had risen and dressed himself fully, down to his necktie and watch and chain, and had gone out of doors without remembering to put in this plate, which he had carried in his mouth every day for years, and which contained all the visible teeth of the upper jaw. It had evidently not been a case of frantic hurry; and even if it had been, he would have been more likely to forget almost anything than this denture. Any one who wears such a removable plate will agree that the putting it in on rising is a matter of second nature. Speaking as well as eating, to say nothing of appearances, depend upon it.

Neither of these queer details, however, seemed to lead to anything at the moment. They only awakened in me a suspicion of something lurking in the shadows, something that lent more mystery to the already mysterious question how and why and through whom Manderson met his end.

With this much of preamble I come at once to the discovery which, in the first few hours of my investigation, set me upon the path which so much ingenuity had been directed to concealing.

I have already described Manderson's bedroom, the rigorous simplicity of its furnishing, contrasted so strangely with the multitude of clothes and shoes, and the manner of its communication with Mrs Manderson's room. On the upper of the two long shelves on which the shoes were ranged I found, where I had been told I should find them, the pair of patent leather shoes which Manderson had worn on the evening before his death. I had glanced over the row, not with any idea of their giving me a clue, but merely because it happens that I am a judge of shoes, and all these shoes were of the very best workmanship. But my attention was at once caught by a little peculiarity in this particular pair. They were the lightest kind of lace-up dress shoes, very thin in the sole, without toe-caps, and beautifully made, like all the rest. These shoes were old and well worn; but being carefully polished, and fitted, as all the shoes were, upon their trees, they looked neat enough. What caught my eye was a slight splitting of the leather in that part of the upper known as the vamp – a splitting at the point where the two laced parts of the shoe rise from the upper. It is at this point that the strain comes when a tight shoe of this sort is forced upon the foot, and it is usually guarded with a strong stitching across the bottom of the opening. In both the shoes I was examining this stitching had parted, and the leather below had given way. The splitting was a tiny affair in each case, not an eighth of an inch long, and the torn edges having come together again on the removal of the strain, there was nothing that a person who was not something of a connoisseur of shoe-leather would have noticed. Even less noticeable, and indeed not to be seen at all unless one were looking for it, was a slight straining of the stitches uniting the upper to the sole. At the toe and on the outer side of each shoe this stitching had been dragged until it was visible on a close inspection of the join.

These indications, of course, could mean only one thing – the shoes had been worn by some one for whom they were too small.

Now it was clear at a glance that Manderson was always thoroughly well shod, and careful, perhaps a little vain, of his small and narrow feet. Not one of the other shoes in the collection, as I soon ascertained, bore similar marks; they had not belonged to a man who squeezed himself into tight shoe-leather. Some one who was not Manderson had worn these shoes, and worn them recently; the edges of the tears were quite fresh.

The possibility of some one having worn them since Manderson's death was not worth considering; the body had only been found about twenty-six hours when I was examining the shoes; besides, why should any one wear them? The possibility of some one having borrowed Manderson's shoes and spoiled them for him while he was alive seemed about as negligible. With others to choose from he would not have worn these. Besides, the only men in the place were the butler and the two secretaries. But I do not say that I gave those possibilities even as much consideration as they deserved, for my thoughts were running away with me, and I have always found it good policy, in cases of this sort, to let them have their heads. Ever since I had got out of the train at Marlstone early that morning I had been steeped in details of the Manderson affair; the thing had not once been out of my head. Suddenly the moment had come when the daemon wakes and begins to range.

Let me put it less fancifully. After all, it is a detail of psychology familiar enough to all whose business or inclination brings them in contact with difficult affairs of any kind. Swiftly and spontaneously, when chance or effort puts one in possession of the key-fact in any system of baffling circumstances, one's ideas seem to rush to group themselves anew in relation to that fact, so that they are suddenly rearranged almost before one has consciously grasped the significance of the key-fact itself. In the present instance, my brain had scarcely formulated within itself the thought, 'Somebody who was not Manderson has been wearing these shoes,' when there flew into my mind a flock of ideas, all of the same character and all bearing upon this new notion. It was unheard-of for Manderson to drink much whisky at night. It was very unlike him to be untidily dressed, as the body was when found – the cuffs dragged up inside the sleeves, the shoes unevenly laced; very unlike him not to wash when he rose, and to put on last night's evening shirt and collar and underclothing; very unlike him to have his watch in the waistcoat pocket that was not lined with leather for its reception. (In my first dispatch I mentioned all these points, but neither I nor any one else saw anything significant in them when examining the body.) It was very strange, in the existing domestic situation, that Manderson should be communicative to his wife about his doings, especially at the time of his going to bed, when he seldom spoke to her at all. It was extraordinary that Manderson should leave his bedroom without his false teeth.

All these thoughts, as I say, came flocking into my mind together, drawn from various parts of my memory of the morning's enquiries and observations. They had all presented themselves, in far less time than it takes to read them as set down here, as I was turning over the shoes, confirming my own certainty on the main point. And yet when I confronted the definite idea that had sprung up suddenly and unsupported before me – 'It was not Manderson who was in the house that night' – it seemed a stark absurdity at the first formulating. It was certainly Manderson who had dined at the house and gone out with Marlowe in the car. People had seen him at close quarters. But was it he who returned at ten? That question too seemed absurd enough. But I could not set it aside. It seemed to me as if a faint light was beginning to creep over the whole expanse of my mind, as it does over land at dawn, and that presently the sun would be rising. I set myself to think over, one by one, the points that had just occurred to me, so as to make out, if possible, why any man masquerading as Manderson should have done these things that Manderson would not have done.

I had not to cast about very long for the motive a man might have in forcing his feet into Manderson's narrow shoes. The examination of footmarks is very well understood by the police. But not only was the man concerned to leave no footmarks of his own: he was concerned to leave Manderson's, if any; his whole plan, if my guess was right, must have been directed to producing the belief that Manderson was in the place that night. Moreover, his plan did not turn upon leaving footmarks. He meant to leave the shoes themselves, and he did so. The maidservant had found them outside the bedroom door, as Manderson always left his shoes, and had polished them, replacing them on the shoe-shelves later in the morning, after the body had been found.

When I came to consider in this new light the leaving of the false teeth, an explanation of what had seemed the maddest part of the affair broke upon me at once. A dental plate is not inseparable from its owner. If my guess was right, the unknown had brought the denture to the house with him, and left it in the bedroom, with the same object as he had in leaving the shoes: to make it impossible that any one should doubt that Manderson had been in the house and had gone to bed there. This, of course, led me to the inference that Manderson was dead before the false Manderson came to the house, and other things confirmed this.

For instance, the clothing, to which I now turned in my review of the position. If my guess was right, the unknown in Manderson's shoes had certainly had possession of Manderson's trousers, waistcoat, and shooting jacket. They were there before my eyes in the bedroom; and Martin had seen the jacket – which nobody could have mistaken – upon the man who sat at the telephone in the library. It was now quite plain (if my guess was right) that this unmistakable garment was a cardinal feature of the unknown's plan. He knew that Martin would take him for Manderson at the first glance.

And there my thinking was interrupted by the realization of a thing that had escaped me before. So strong had been the influence of the unquestioned assumption that it was Manderson who was present that night, that neither I nor, as far as I know, any one else had noted the point. Martin had not seen the man's face, nor had Mrs Manderson.

Mrs Manderson (judging by her evidence at the inquest, of which, as I have said, I had a full report made by the Record stenographers in court) had not seen the man at all. She hardly could have done, as I shall show presently. She had merely spoken with him as she lay half asleep, resuming a conversation which she had had with her living husband about an hour before. Martin, I perceived, could only have seen the man's back, as he sat crouching over the telephone; no doubt a characteristic pose was imitated there. And the man had worn his hat, Manderson's broad-brimmed hat! There is too much character in the back of a head and neck. The unknown, in fact, supposing him to have been of about Manderson's build, had had no need for any disguise, apart from the jacket and the hat and his powers of mimicry.

I paused there to contemplate the coolness and ingenuity of the man. The thing, I now began to see, was so safe and easy, provided that his mimicry was good enough, and that his nerve held. Those two points assured, only some wholly unlikely accident could unmask him.

To come back to my puzzling out of the matter as I sat in the dead man's bedroom with the tell-tale shoes before me. The reason for the entrance by the window instead of by the front door will already have occurred to any one reading this. Entering by the door, the man would almost certainly have been heard by the sharp-eared Martin in his pantry just across the hall; he might have met him face to face.

Then there was the problem of the whisky. I had not attached much importance to it; whisky will sometimes vanish in very queer ways in a household of eight or nine persons; but it had seemed strange that it should go in that way on that evening. Martin had been plainly quite dumbfounded by the fact. It seemed to me now that many a man – fresh, as this man in all likelihood was, from a bloody business, from the unclothing of a corpse, and with a desperate part still to play – would turn to that decanter as to a friend. No doubt he had a drink before sending for Martin; after making that trick with ease and success, he probably drank more.

But he had known when to stop. The worst part of the enterprise was before him: the business – clearly of such vital importance to him, for whatever reason – of shutting himself in Manderson's room and preparing a body of convincing evidence of its having been occupied by Manderson; and this with the risk – very slight, as no doubt he understood, but how unnerving! – of the woman on the other side of the half-open door awaking and somehow discovering him. True, if he kept out of her limited field of vision from the bed, she could only see him by getting up and going to the door. I found that to a person lying in her bed, which stood with its head to the wall a little beyond the door, nothing was visible through the doorway but one of the cupboards by Manderson's bed-head. Moreover, since this man knew the ways of the household, he would think it most likely that Mrs Manderson was asleep. Another point with him, I guessed, might have been the estrangement between the husband and wife, which they had tried to cloak by keeping up, among other things, their usual practice of sleeping in connected rooms, but which was well known to all who had anything to do with them. He would hope from this that if Mrs Manderson heard him, she would take no notice of the supposed presence of her husband.

So, pursuing my hypothesis, I followed the unknown up to the bedroom, and saw him setting about his work. And it was with a catch in my own breath that I thought of the hideous shock with which he must have heard the sound of all others he was dreading most: the drowsy voice from the adjoining room.

What Mrs Manderson actually said, she was unable to recollect at the inquest. She thinks she asked her supposed husband whether he had had a good run in the car. And now what does the unknown do? Here, I think, we come to a supremely significant point. Not only does he – standing rigid there, as I picture him, before the dressing-table, listening to the sound of his own leaping heart – not only does he answer the lady in the voice of Manderson; he volunteers an explanatory statement. He tells her that he has, on a sudden inspiration, sent Marlowe in the car to Southampton; that he has sent him to bring back some important information from a man leaving for Paris by the steamboat that morning. Why these details from a man who had long been uncommunicative to his wife, and that upon a point scarcely likely to interest her? Why these details about Marlowe?

Having taken my story so far, I now put forward the following definite propositions: that between a time somewhere about ten, when the car started, and a time somewhere about eleven, Manderson was shot – probably at a considerable distance from the house, as no shot was heard; that the body was brought back, left by the shed, and stripped of its outer clothing; that at some time round about eleven o'clock a man who was not Manderson, wearing Manderson's shoes, hat, and jacket, entered the library by the garden window; that he had with him Manderson's black trousers, waistcoat, and motor-coat, the denture taken from Manderson's mouth, and the weapon with which he had been murdered; that he concealed these, rang the bell for the butler, and sat down at the telephone with his hat on and his back to the door; that he was occupied with the telephone all the time Martin was in the room; that on going up to the bedroom floor he quietly entered Marlowe's room and placed the revolver with which the crime had been committed – Marlowe's revolver – in the case on the mantelpiece from which it had been taken; and that he then went to Manderson's room, placed Manderson's shoes outside the door, threw Manderson's garments on a chair, placed the denture in the bowl by the bedside, and selected a suit of clothes, a pair of shoes, and a tie from those in the bedroom.

Here I will pause in my statement of this man's proceedings to go into a question for which the way is now sufficiently prepared:

Who was the false Manderson?

Reviewing what was known to me, or might almost with certainty be surmised, about that person, I set down the following five conclusions:

(1.) He had been in close relations with the dead man. In his acting before Martin and his speaking to Mrs Manderson he had made no mistake.
(2.) He was of a build not unlike Manderson's, especially as to height and breadth of shoulder, which mainly determine the character of the back of a seated figure when the head is concealed and the body loosely clothed. But his feet were larger, though not greatly larger, than Manderson's.
(3.) He had considerable aptitude for mimicry and acting – probably some experience too.
(4.) He had a minute acquaintance with the ways of the Manderson household.
(5.) He was under a vital necessity of creating the belief that Manderson was alive and in that house until some time after midnight on the Sunday night.

So much I took as either certain or next door to it. It was as far as I could see. And it was far enough.

I proceed to give, in an order corresponding with the numbered paragraphs above, such relevant facts as I was able to obtain about Mr John Marlowe, from himself and other sources:

(1.) He had been Mr Manderson's private secretary, upon a footing of great intimacy, for nearly four years.
(2.) The two men were nearly of the same height, about five feet eleven inches; both were powerfully built and heavy in the shoulder. Marlowe, who was the younger by some twenty years, was rather slighter about the body, though Manderson was a man in good physical condition. Marlowe's shoes (of which I examined several pairs) were roughly about one shoemaker's size longer and broader than Manderson's.
(3.) In the afternoon of the first day of my investigation, after arriving at the results already detailed, I sent a telegram to a personal friend, a Fellow of a college at Oxford, whom I knew to be interested in theatrical matters, in these terms:
My friend replied in the following telegram, which reached me next morning (the morning of the inquest):
I had been led to send the telegram which brought this very helpful answer by seeing on the mantel-shelf in Marlowe's bedroom a photograph of himself and two others in the costume of Falstaff's three followers, with an inscription from The Merry Wives, and by noting that it bore the imprint of an Oxford firm of photographers.
(4.) During his connection with Manderson, Marlowe had lived as one of the family. No other person, apart from the servants, had his opportunities for knowing the domestic life of the Mandersons in detail.
(5.) I ascertained beyond doubt that Marlowe arrived at a hotel in Southampton on the Monday morning at 6.30, and there proceeded to carry out the commission which, according to his story, and according to the statement made to Mrs Manderson in the bedroom by the false Manderson, had been entrusted to him by his employer. He had then returned in the car to Marlstone, where he had shown great amazement and horror at the news of the murder.

These, I say, are the relevant facts about Marlowe. We must now examine fact number 5 ( as set out above) in connection with conclusion number 5 about the false Manderson.

I would first draw attention to one important fact. The only person who professed to have heard Manderson mention Southampton at all before he started in the car was Marlowe. His story – confirmed to some extent by what the butler overheard – was that the journey was all arranged in a private talk before they set out, and he could not say, when I put the question to him, why Manderson should have concealed his intentions by giving out that he was going with Marlowe for a moonlight drive. This point, however, attracted no attention. Marlowe had an absolutely air-tight alibi in his presence at Southampton by 6.30; nobody thought of him in connection with a murder which must have been committed after 12.30 – the hour at which Martin the butler had gone to bed. But it was the Manderson who came back from the drive who went out of his way to mention Southampton openly to two persons. He even went so far as to ring up a hotel at Southampton and ask questions which bore out Marlowe's story of his errand. This was the call he was busy with when Martin was in the library.

Now let us consider the alibi. If Manderson was in the house that night, and if he did not leave it until some time after 12.30, Marlowe could not by any possibility have had a direct hand in the murder. It is a question of the distance between Marlstone and Southampton. If he had left Marlstone in the car at the hour when he is supposed to have done so – between 10 and 10.30 – with a message from Manderson, the run would be quite an easy one to do in the time. But it would be physically impossible for the car – a 15 h.p. four-cylinder Northumberland, an average medium-power car – to get to Southampton by half-past six unless it left Marlstone by midnight at latest. Motorists who will examine the road-map and make the calculations required, as I did in Manderson's library that day, will agree that on the facts as they appeared there was absolutely no case against Marlowe.

But even if they were not as they appeared; if Manderson was dead by eleven o'clock, and if at about that time Marlowe impersonated him at White Gables; if Marlowe retired to Manderson's bedroom – how can all this be reconciled with his appearance next morning at Southampton? He had to get out of the house, unseen and unheard, and away in the car by midnight. And Martin, the sharp-eared Martin, was sitting up until 12.30 in his pantry, with the door open, listening for the telephone bell. Practically he was standing sentry over the foot of the staircase, the only staircase leading down from the bedroom floor.

With this difficulty we arrive at the last and crucial phase of my investigation. Having the foregoing points clearly in mind, I spent the rest of the day before the inquest in talking to various persons and in going over my story, testing it link by link. I could only find the one weakness which seemed to be involved in Martin's sitting up until 12.30; and since his having been instructed to do so was certainly a part of the plan, meant to clinch the alibi for Marlowe, I knew there must be an explanation somewhere. If I could not find that explanation, my theory was valueless. I must be able to show that at the time Martin went up to bed the man who had shut himself in Manderson's bedroom might have been many miles away on the road to Southampton.

I had, however, a pretty good idea already – as perhaps the reader of these lines has by this time, if I have made myself clear – of how the escape of the false Manderson before midnight had been contrived. But I did not want what I was now about to do to be known. If I had chanced to be discovered at work, there would have been no concealing the direction of my suspicions. I resolved not to test them on this point until the next day, during the opening proceedings at the inquest. This was to be held, I knew, at the hotel, and I reckoned upon having White Gables to myself so far as the principal inmates were concerned.

So in fact it happened. By the time the proceedings at the hotel had begun I was hard at work at White Gables. I had a camera with me. I made search, on principles well known to and commonly practised by the police, and often enough by myself, for certain indications. Without describing my search, I may say at once that I found and was able to photograph two fresh fingerprints, very large and distinct, on the polished front of the right-hand top drawer of the chest of drawers in Manderson's bedroom; five more (among a number of smaller and less recent impressions made by other hands) on the glasses of the French window in Mrs Manderson's room, a window which always stood open at night with a curtain before it; and three more upon the glass bowl in which Manderson's dental plate had been found lying.

I took the bowl with me from White Gables. I took also a few articles which I selected from Marlowe's bedroom, as bearing the most distinct of the innumerable fingerprints which are always to be found upon toilet articles in daily use. I already had in my possession, made upon leaves cut from my pocket diary, some excellent fingerprints of Marlowe's which he had made in my presence without knowing it. I had shown him the leaves, asking if he recognized them; and the few seconds during which he had held them in his fingers had sufficed to leave impressions which I was afterwards able to bring out.

By six o'clock in the evening, two hours after the jury had brought in their verdict against a person or persons unknown, I had completed my work, and was in a position to state that two of the five large prints made on the window-glasses, and the three on the bowl, were made by the left hand of Marlowe; that the remaining three on the window and the two on the drawer were made by his right hand.

By eight o'clock I had made at the establishment of Mr H. T. Copper, photographer, of Bishopsbridge, and with his assistance, a dozen enlarged prints of the finger-marks of Marlowe, clearly showing the identity of those which he unknowingly made in my presence and those left upon articles in his bedroom, with those found by me as I have described, and thus establishing the facts that Marlowe was recently in Manderson's bedroom, where he had in the ordinary way no business, and in Mrs Manderson's room, where he had still less. I hope it may be possible to reproduce these prints for publication with this dispatch.

At nine o'clock I was back in my room at the hotel and sitting down to begin this manuscript. I had my story complete. I bring it to a close by advancing these further propositions: that on the night of the murder the impersonator of Manderson, being in Manderson's bedroom, told Mrs Manderson, as he had already told Martin, that Marlowe was at that moment on his way to Southampton; that having made his dispositions in the room, he switched off the light, and lay in the bed in his clothes; that he waited until he was assured that Mrs Manderson was asleep; that he then arose and stealthily crossed Mrs Manderson's bedroom in his stocking feet, having under his arm the bundle of clothing and shoes for the body; that he stepped behind the curtain, pushing the doors of the window a little further open with his hands, strode over the iron railing of the balcony, and let himself down until only a drop of a few feet separated him from the soft turf of the lawn.

All this might very well have been accomplished within half an hour of his entering Manderson's bedroom, which, according to Martin, he did at about half-past eleven.

What followed your readers and the authorities may conjecture for themselves. The corpse was found next morning clothed – rather untidily. Marlowe in the car appeared at Southampton by half-past six.

I bring this manuscript to an end in my sitting-room at the hotel at Marlstone. It is four o'clock in the morning. I leave for London by the noon train from Bishopsbridge, and immediately after arriving I shall place these pages in your hands. I ask you to communicate the substance of them to the Criminal Investigation Department.