Trent's Last Case/Chapter 16

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Trent's Last Case by Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Chapter 16: The Last Straw

'What was that you said about our having an appointment at half-past seven?' asked Mr Cupples as the two came out of the great gateway of the pile of flats. 'Have we such an appointment?'

'Certainly we have,' replied Trent. 'You are dining with me. Only one thing can properly celebrate this occasion, and that is a dinner for which I pay. No, no! I asked you first. I have got right down to the bottom of a case that must be unique – a case that has troubled even my mind for over a year – and if that isn't a good reason for standing a dinner, I don't know what is. Cupples, we will not go to my club. This is to be a festival, and to be seen in a London club in a state of pleasurable emotion is more than enough to shatter any man's career. Besides that, the dinner there is always the same, or, at least, they always make it taste the same, I know not how. The eternal dinner at my club hath bored millions of members like me, and shall bore; but tonight let the feast be spread in vain, so far as we are concerned. We will not go where the satraps throng the hall. We will go to Sheppard's.'

'Who is Sheppard?' asked Mr Cupples mildly, as they proceeded up Victoria Street. His companion went with an unnatural lightness, and a policeman, observing his face, smiled indulgently at a look of happiness which he could only attribute to alcohol.

'Who is Sheppard?' echoed Trent with bitter emphasis. 'That question, if you will pardon me for saying so, Cupples, is thoroughly characteristic of the spirit of aimless enquiry prevailing in this restless day. I suggest our dining at Sheppard's, and instantly you fold your arms and demand, in a frenzy of intellectual pride, to know who Sheppard is before you will cross the threshold of Sheppard's. I am not going to pander to the vices of the modern mind. Sheppard's is a place where one can dine. I do not know Sheppard. It never occurred to me that Sheppard existed. Probably he is a myth of totemistic origin. All I know is that you can get a bit of saddle of mutton at Sheppard's that has made many an American visitor curse the day that Christopher Columbus was born.... Taxi!'

A cab rolled smoothly to the kerb, and the driver received his instructions with a majestic nod.

'Another reason I have for suggesting Sheppard's,' continued Trent, feverishly lighting a cigarette, 'is that I am going to be married to the most wonderful woman in the world. I trust the connection of ideas is clear.'

'You are going to marry Mabel!' cried Mr Cupples. 'My dear friend, what good news this is! Shake hands, Trent; this is glorious! I congratulate you both from the bottom of my heart. And may I say – I don't want to interrupt your flow of high spirits, which is very natural indeed, and I remember being just the same in similar circumstances long ago – but may I say how earnestly I have hoped for this? Mabel has seen so much unhappiness, yet she is surely a woman formed in the great purpose of humanity to be the best influence in the life of a good man. But I did not know her mind as regarded yourself. Your mind I have known for some time,' Mr Cupples went on, with a twinkle in his eye that would have done credit to the worldliest of creatures. 'I saw it at once when you were both dining at my house, and you sat listening to Professor Peppmuller and looking at her. Some of us older fellows have our wits about us still, my dear boy.'

'Mabel says she knew it before that,' replied Trent, with a slightly crestfallen air. 'And I thought I was acting the part of a person who was not mad about her to the life. Well, I never was any good at dissembling. I shouldn't wonder if even old Peppmuller noticed something through his double convex lenses. But however crazy I may have been as an undeclared suitor,' he went on with a return to vivacity, 'I am going to be much worse now. As for your congratulations, thank you a thousand times, because I know you mean them. You are the sort of uncomfortable brute who would pull a face three feet long if you thought we were making a mistake. By the way, I can't help being an ass tonight; I'm obliged to go on blithering. You must try to bear it. Perhaps it would be easier if I sang you a song – one of your old favourites. What was that song you used always to be singing? Like this, wasn't it?' He accompanied the following stave with a dexterous clog-step on the floor of the cab:

'There was an old nigger, and he had a wooden leg. He had no tobacco, no tobacco could he beg. Another old nigger was as cunning as a fox, And he always had tobacco in his old tobacco-box.

'Now for the chorus!

'Yes, he always had tobacco in his old tobacco-box.

'But you're not singing. I thought you would be making the welkin ring.'

'I never sang that song in my life,' protested Mr Cupples. 'I never heard it before.'

'Are you sure?' enquired Trent doubtfully. 'Well, I suppose I must take your word for it. It is a beautiful song, anyhow: not the whole warbling grove in concert heard can beat it. Somehow it seems to express my feelings at the present moment as nothing else could; it rises unbidden to the lips. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells said when listening to a speech of Mr Balfour's.'

'When was that?' asked Mr Cupples.

'On the occasion,' replied Trent, 'of the introduction of the Compulsory Notification of Diseases of Poultry Bill, which ill-fated measure you of course remember. Hullo!' he broke off, as the cab rushed down a side street and swung round a corner into a broad and populous thoroughfare, 'we're there already.' The cab drew up.

'Here we are,' said Trent, as he paid the man, and led Mr Cupples into a long, panelled room set with many tables and filled with a hum of talk. 'This is the house of fulfilment of craving, this is the bower with the roses around it. I see there are three bookmakers eating pork at my favourite table. We will have that one in the opposite corner.'

He conferred earnestly with a waiter, while Mr Cupples, in a pleasant meditation, warmed himself before the great fire. 'The wine here,' Trent resumed, as they seated themselves, 'is almost certainly made out of grapes. What shall we drink?'

Mr Cupples came out of his reverie. 'I think,' he said, 'I will have milk and soda water.'

'Speak lower!' urged Trent. 'The head-waiter has a weak heart, and might hear you. Milk and soda water! Cupples, you may think you have a strong constitution, and I don't say you have not, but I warn you that this habit of mixing drinks has been the death of many a robuster man than you. Be wise in time. Fill high the bowl with Samian wine, leave soda to the Turkish hordes. Here comes our food.' He gave another order to the waiter, who ranged the dishes before them and darted away. Trent was, it seemed, a respected customer. 'I have sent,' he said, 'for wine that I know, and I hope you will try it. If you have taken a vow, then in the name of all the teetotal saints drink water, which stands at your elbow, but don't seek a cheap notoriety by demanding milk and soda.'

'I have never taken any pledge,' said Mr Cupples, examining his mutton with a favourable eye. 'I simply don't care about wine. I bought a bottle once and drank it to see what it was like, and it made me ill. But very likely it was bad wine. I will taste some of yours, as it is your dinner, and I do assure you, my dear Trent, I should like to do something unusual to show how strongly I feel on the present occasion. I have not been so delighted for many years. To think,' he reflected aloud as the waiter filled his glass, 'of the Manderson mystery disposed of, the innocent exculpated, and your own and Mabel's happiness crowned – all coming upon me together! I drink to you, my dear friend.' And Mr Cupples took a very small sip of the wine.

'You have a great nature,' said Trent, much moved. 'Your outward semblance doth belie your soul's immensity. I should have expected as soon to see an elephant conducting at the opera as you drinking my health. Dear Cupples! May his beak retain ever that delicate rose-stain!— No, curse it all!' he broke out, surprising a shade of discomfort that flitted over his companion's face as he tasted the wine again. 'I have no business to meddle with your tastes. I apologize. You shall have what you want, even if it causes the head-waiter to perish in his pride.'

When Mr Cupples had been supplied with his monastic drink, and the waiter had retired, Trent looked across the table with significance. 'In this babble of many conversations,' he said, ' we can speak as freely as if we were on a bare hillside. The waiter is whispering soft nothings into the ear of the young woman at the pay-desk. We are alone. What do you think of that interview of this afternoon?' He began to dine with an appetite.

Without pausing in the task of cutting his mutton into very small pieces Mr Cupples replied: 'The most curious feature of it, in my judgement, was the irony of the situation. We both held the clue to that mad hatred of Manderson's which Marlowe found so mysterious. We knew of his jealous obsession; which knowledge we withheld, as was very proper, if only in consideration of Mabel's feelings. Marlowe will never know of what he was suspected by that person. Strange! Nearly all of us, I venture to think, move unconsciously among a network of opinions, often quite erroneous, which other people entertain about us. I remember, for instance, discovering quite by accident some years ago that a number of people of my acquaintance believed me to have been secretly received into the Church of Rome. This absurd fiction was based upon the fact, which in the eyes of many appeared conclusive, that I had expressed myself in talk as favouring the plan of a weekly abstinence from meat. Manderson's belief in regard to his secretary probably rested upon a much slighter ground. It was Mr Bunner, I think you said, who told you of his rooted and apparently hereditary temper of suspicious jealousy.... With regard to Marlowe's story, it appeared to me entirely straightforward, and not, in its essential features, especially remarkable, once we have admitted, as we surely must, that in the case of Manderson we have to deal with a more or less disordered mind.'

Trent laughed loudly. 'I confess,' he said, 'that the affair struck me as a little unusual.'

'Only in the development of the details,' argued Mr Cupples. 'What is there abnormal in the essential facts? A madman conceives a crazy suspicion; he hatches a cunning plot against his fancied injurer; it involves his own destruction. Put thus, what is there that any man with the least knowledge of the ways of lunatics would call remarkable? Turn now to Marlowe's proceedings. He finds himself in a perilous position from which, though he is innocent, telling the truth will not save him. Is that an unheard-of situation? He escapes by means of a bold and ingenious piece of deception. That seems to me a thing that might happen every day, and probably does so.' He attacked his now unrecognizable mutton.

'I should like to know,' said Trent, after an alimentary pause in the conversation, 'whether there is anything that ever happened on the face of the earth that you could not represent as quite ordinary and commonplace by such a line of argument as that.'

A gentle smile illuminated Mr Cupples's face. 'You must not suspect me of empty paradox,' he said. 'My meaning will become clearer, perhaps, if I mention some things which do appear to me essentially remarkable. Let me see.... Well, I would call the life history of the liver-fluke, which we owe to the researches of Poulton, an essentially remarkable thing.'

'I am unable to argue the point,' replied Trent. 'Fair science may have smiled upon the liver-fluke's humble birth, but I never even heard it mentioned.'

'It is not, perhaps, an appetizing subject,' said Mr Cupples thoughtfully, 'and I will not pursue it. All I mean is, my dear Trent, that there are really remarkable things going on all round us if we will only see them; and we do our perceptions no credit in regarding as remarkable only those affairs which are surrounded with an accumulation of sensational detail.'

Trent applauded heartily with his knife-handle on the table, as Mr Cupples ceased and refreshed himself with milk and soda water. 'I have not heard you go on like this for years,' he said. 'I believe you must be almost as much above yourself as I am. It is a bad case of the unrest which men miscall delight. But much as I enjoy it, I am not going to sit still and hear the Manderson affair dismissed as commonplace. You may say what you like, but the idea of impersonating Manderson in those circumstances was an extraordinarily ingenious idea.'

'Ingenious – certainly!' replied Mr Cupples. 'Extraordinarily so – no! In those circumstances (your own words) it was really not strange that it should occur to a clever man. It lay almost on the surface of the situation. Marlowe was famous for his imitation of Manderson's voice; he had a talent for acting; he had a chess-player's mind; he knew the ways of the establishment intimately. I grant you that the idea was brilliantly carried out; but everything favoured it. As for the essential idea, I do not place it, as regards ingenuity, in the same class with, for example, the idea of utilizing the force of recoil in a discharged firearm to actuate the mechanism of ejecting and reloading. I do, however, admit, as I did at the outset, that in respect of details the case had unusual features. It developed a high degree of complexity.'

'Did it really strike you in that way?' enquired Trent with desperate sarcasm.

'The affair became complicated,' went on Mr Cupples unmoved, 'because after Marlowe's suspicions were awakened, a second subtle mind came in to interfere with the plans of the first. That sort of duel often happens in business and politics, but less frequently, I imagine, in the world of crime.'

'I should say never,' Trent replied; 'and the reason is, that even the cleverest criminals seldom run to strategic subtlety. When they do, they don't get caught, since clever policemen have if possible less strategic subtlety than the ordinary clever criminal. But that rather deep quality seems very rarely to go with the criminal make-up. Look at Crippen. He was a very clever criminal as they go. He solved the central problem of every clandestine murder, the disposal of the body, with extreme neatness. But how far did he see through the game? The criminal and the policeman are often swift and bold tacticians, but neither of them is good for more than a quite simple plan. After all, it's a rare faculty in any walk of life.'

'One disturbing reflection was left on my mind,' said Mr Cupples, who seemed to have had enough of abstractions for the moment, 'by what we learned today. If Marlowe had suspected nothing and walked into the trap, he would almost certainly have been hanged. Now how often may not a plan to throw the guilt of murder on an innocent person have been practised successfully? There are, I imagine, numbers of cases in which the accused, being found guilty on circumstantial evidence, have died protesting their innocence. I shall never approve again of a death-sentence imposed in a case decided upon such evidence.'

'I never have done so, for my part,' said Trent. 'To hang in such cases seems to me flying in the face of the perfectly obvious and sound principle expressed in the saying that "you never can tell". I agree with the American jurist who lays it down that we should not hang a yellow dog for stealing jam on circumstantial evidence, not even if he has jam all over his nose. As for attempts being made by malevolent persons to fix crimes upon innocent men, of course it is constantly happening. It's a marked feature, for instance, of all systems of rule by coercion, whether in Ireland or Russia or India or Korea; if the police cannot get hold of a man they think dangerous by fair means, they do it by foul. But there's one case in the State Trials that is peculiarly to the point, because not only was it a case of fastening a murder on innocent people, but the plotter did in effect what Manderson did; he gave up his own life in order to secure the death of his victims. Probably you have heard of the Campden Case.'

Mr Cupples confessed his ignorance and took another potato.

'John Masefield has written a very remarkable play about it,' said Trent, 'and if it ever comes on again in London, you should go and see it, if you like having the fan-tods. I have often seen women weeping in an undemonstrative manner at some slab of oleo-margarine sentiment in the theatre. By George! what everlasting smelling-bottle hysterics they ought to have if they saw that play decently acted! Well, the facts were that John Perry accused his mother and brother of murdering a man, and swore he had helped them to do it. He told a story full of elaborate detail, and had an answer to everything, except the curious fact that the body couldn't be found; but the judge, who was probably drunk at the time – this was in Restoration days – made nothing of that. The mother and brother denied the accusation. All three prisoners were found guilty and hanged, purely on John's evidence. Two years after, the man whom they were hanged for murdering came back to Campden. He had been kidnapped by pirates and taken to sea. His disappearance had given John his idea. The point about John is, that his including himself in the accusation, which amounted to suicide, was the thing in his evidence which convinced everybody of its truth. It was so obvious that no man would do himself to death to get somebody else hanged. Now that is exactly the answer which the prosecution would have made if Marlowe had told the truth. Not one juryman in a million would have believed in the Manderson plot.'

Mr Cupples mused upon this a few moments. 'I have not your acquaintance with that branch of history,' he said at length; 'in fact, I have none at all. But certain recollections of my own childhood return to me in connection with this affair. We know from the things Mabel told you what may be termed the spiritual truth underlying this matter: the insane depth of jealous hatred which Manderson concealed. We can understand that he was capable of such a scheme. But as a rule it is in the task of penetrating to the spiritual truth that the administration of justice breaks down. Sometimes that truth is deliberately concealed, as in Manderson's case. Sometimes, I think, it is concealed because simple people are actually unable to express it, and nobody else divines it. When I was a lad in Edinburgh the whole country went mad about the Sandyford Place murder.'

Trent nodded. 'Mrs M'Lachlan's case. She was innocent right enough.'

'My parents thought so,' said Mr Cupples. 'I thought so myself when I became old enough to read and understand that excessively sordid story. But the mystery of the affair was so dark, and the task of getting at the truth behind the lies told by everybody concerned proved so hopeless, that others were just as fully convinced of the innocence of old James Fleming. All Scotland took sides on the question. It was the subject of debates in Parliament. The press divided into two camps, and raged with a fury I have never seen equalled. Yet it is obvious, is it not? for I see you have read of the case – that if the spiritual truth about that old man could have been known there would have been very little room for doubt in the matter. If what some surmised about his disposition was true, he was quite capable of murdering Jessie M'Pherson and then casting the blame on the poor feeble-minded creature who came so near to suffering the last penalty of the law.'

'Even a commonplace old dotard like Fleming can be an unfathomable mystery to all the rest of the human race,' said Trent, 'and most of all in a court of justice. The law certainly does not shine when it comes to a case requiring much delicacy of perception. It goes wrong easily enough over the Flemings of this world. As for the people with temperaments who get mixed up in legal proceedings, they must feel as if they were in a forest of apes, whether they win or lose. Well, I dare say it's good for their sort to have their noses rubbed in reality now and again. But what would twelve red-faced realities in a jury-box have done to Marlowe? His story would, as he says, have been a great deal worse than no defence at all. It's not as if there were a single piece of evidence in support of his tale. Can't you imagine how the prosecution would tear it to rags? Can't you see the judge simply taking it in his stride when it came to the summing up? And the jury – you've served on juries, I expect – in their room, snorting with indignation over the feebleness of the lie, telling each other it was the clearest case they ever heard of, and that they'd have thought better of him if he hadn't lost his nerve at the crisis, and had cleared off with the swag as he intended. Imagine yourself on that jury, not knowing Marlowe, and trembling with indignation at the record unrolled before you – cupidity, murder, robbery, sudden cowardice, shameless, impenitent, desperate lying! Why, you and I believed him to be guilty until—'

'I beg your pardon! I beg your pardon!' interjected Mr Cupples, laying down his knife and fork. 'I was most careful, when we talked it all over the other night, to say nothing indicating such a belief. I was always certain that he was innocent.'

'You said something of the sort at Marlowe's just now. I wondered what on earth you could mean. Certain that he was innocent! How can you be certain? You are generally more careful about terms than that, Cupples.'

'I said "certain",' Mr Cupples repeated firmly.

Trent shrugged his shoulders. 'If you really were, after reading my manuscript and discussing the whole thing as we did,' he rejoined, 'then I can only say that you must have totally renounced all trust in the operations of the human reason; an attitude which, while it is bad Christianity and also infernal nonsense, is oddly enough bad Positivism too, unless I misunderstand that system. Why, man—'

'Let me say a word,' Mr Cupples interposed again, folding his hands above his plate. 'I assure you I am far from abandoning reason. I am certain he is innocent, and I always was certain of it, because of something that I know, and knew from the very beginning. You asked me just now to imagine myself on the jury at Marlowe's trial. That would be an unprofitable exercise of the mental powers, because I know that I should be present in another capacity. I should be in the witness-box, giving evidence for the defence. You said just now, "If there were a single piece of evidence in support of his tale." There is, and it is my evidence. And,' he added quietly, 'it is conclusive.' He took up his knife and fork and went contentedly on with his dinner.

The pallor of sudden excitement had turned Trent to marble while Mr Cupples led laboriously up to this statement. At the last word the blood rushed to his face again, and he struck the table with an unnatural laugh. 'It can't be!' he exploded. 'It's something you fancied, something you dreamed after one of those debauches of soda and milk. You can't really mean that all the time I was working on the case down there you knew Marlowe was innocent.'

Mr Cupples, busy with his last mouthful, nodded brightly. He made an end of eating, wiped his sparse moustache, and then leaned forward over the table. 'It's very simple,' he said. 'I shot Manderson myself.'

'I am afraid I startled you,' Trent heard the voice of Mr Cupples say. He forced himself out of his stupefaction like a diver striking upward for the surface, and with a rigid movement raised his glass. But half of the wine splashed upon the cloth, and he put it carefully down again untasted. He drew a deep breath, which was exhaled in a laugh wholly without merriment. 'Go on,' he said.

'It was not murder,' began Mr Cupples, slowly measuring off inches with a fork on the edge of the table. 'I will tell you the whole story. On that Sunday night I was taking my before-bedtime constitutional, having set out from the hotel about a quarter past ten. I went along the field path that runs behind White Gables, cutting off the great curve of the road, and came out on the road nearly opposite that gate that is just by the eighth hole on the golf-course. Then I turned in there, meaning to walk along the turf to the edge of the cliff, and go back that way. I had only gone a few steps when I heard the car coming, and then I heard it stop near the gate. I saw Manderson at once. Do you remember my telling you I had seen him once alive after our quarrel in front of the hotel? Well, this was the time. You asked me if I had, and I did not care to tell a falsehood.'

A slight groan came from Trent. He drank a little wine, and said stonily, 'Go on, please.'

'It was, as you know,' pursued Mr Cupples, 'a moonlight night, but I was in shadow under the trees by the stone wall, and anyhow they could not suppose there was any one near them. I heard all that passed just as Marlowe has narrated it to us, and I saw the car go off towards Bishopsbridge. I did not see Manderson's face as it went, because his back was to me, but he shook the back of his left hand at the car with extraordinary violence, greatly to my amazement. Then I waited for him to go back to White Gables, as I did not want to meet him again. But he did not go. He opened the gate through which I had just passed, and he stood there on the turf of the green, quite still. His head was bent, his arms hung at his sides, and he looked some-how – rigid. For a few moments he remained in this tense attitude, then all of a sudden his right arm moved swiftly, and his hand was at the pocket of his overcoat. I saw his face raised in the moonlight, the teeth bared, and the eyes glittering, and all at once I knew that the man was not sane. Almost as quickly as that flashed across my mind, something else flashed in the moonlight. He held the pistol before him, pointing at his breast.

'Now I may say here I shall always be doubtful whether Manderson really meant to kill himself then. Marlowe naturally thinks so, knowing nothing of my intervention. But I think it quite likely he only meant to wound himself, and to charge Marlowe with attempted murder and robbery.

'At that moment, however, I assumed it was suicide. Before I knew what I was doing I had leapt out of the shadows and seized his arm. He shook me off with a furious snarling noise, giving me a terrific blow in the chest, and presenting the revolver at my head. But I seized his wrists before he could fire, and clung with all my strength – you remember how bruised and scratched they were. I knew I was fighting for my own life now, for murder was in his eyes. We struggled like two beasts, without an articulate word, I holding his pistol-hand down and keeping a grip on the other. I never dreamed that I had the strength for such an encounter. Then, with a perfectly instinctive movement – I never knew I meant to do it – I flung away his free hand and clutched like lightning at the weapon, tearing it from his fingers. By a miracle it did not go off. I darted back a few steps, he sprang at my throat like a wild cat, and I fired blindly in his face. He would have been about a yard away, I suppose. His knees gave way instantly, and he fell in a heap on the turf.

'I flung the pistol down and bent over him. The heart's action ceased under my hand. I knelt there staring, struck motionless; and I don't know how long it was before I heard the noise of the car returning.

'Trent, all the time that Marlowe paced that green, with the moonlight on his white and working face, I was within a few yards of him, crouching in the shadow of the furze by the ninth tee. I dared not show myself. I was thinking. My public quarrel with Manderson the same morning was, I suspected, the talk of the hotel. I assure you that every horrible possibility of the situation for me had rushed across my mind the moment I saw Manderson fall. I became cunning. I knew what I must do. I must get back to the hotel as fast as I could, get in somehow unperceived, and play a part to save myself. I must never tell a word to any one. Of course I was assuming that Marlowe would tell every one how he had found the body. I knew he would suppose it was suicide; I thought every one would suppose so.

'When Marlowe began at last to lift the body, I stole away down the wall and got out into the road by the clubhouse, where he could not see me. I felt perfectly cool and collected. I crossed the road, climbed the fence, and ran across the meadow to pick up the field path I had come by that runs to the hotel behind White Gables. I got back to the hotel very much out of breath.'

'Out of breath,' repeated Trent mechanically, still staring at his companion as if hypnotized.

'I had had a sharp run,' Mr Cupples reminded him. 'Well, approaching the hotel from the back I could see into the writing-room through the open window. There was nobody in there, so I climbed over the sill, walked to the bell and rang it, and then sat down to write a letter I had meant to write the next day. I saw by the clock that it was a little past eleven. When the waiter answered the bell I asked for a glass of milk and a postage stamp. Soon afterwards I went up to bed. But I could not sleep.'

Mr Cupples, having nothing more to say, ceased speaking. He looked in mild surprise at Trent, who now sat silent, supporting his bent head in his hands.

'He could not sleep,' murmured Trent at last in a hollow tone. 'A frequent result of over-exertion during the day. Nothing to be alarmed about.' He was silent again, then looked up with a pale face. 'Cupples, I am cured. I will never touch a crime-mystery again. The Manderson affair shall be Philip Trent's last case. His high-blown pride at length breaks under him.' Trent's smile suddenly returned. 'I could have borne everything but that last revelation of the impotence of human reason. Cupples, I have absolutely nothing left to say, except this: you have beaten me. I drink your health in a spirit of self-abasement. And you shall pay for the dinner."



the end.