Trent's Last Case/Chapter 8
THE coroner, who fully realized that for that one day of his life as a provincial solicitor he was living in the gaze of the world, had resolved to be worthy of the fleeting eminence. He was a large man of jovial temper, with a strong interest in the dramatic aspects of his work, and the news of Manderson's mysterious death within his jurisdiction had made him the happiest coroner in England. A respectable capacity for marshalling facts was fortified in him by a copiousness of impressive language that made juries as clay in his hands, and sometimes disguised a doubtful interpretation of the rules of evidence.
The court was held in a long, unfurnished room lately built on to the hotel, and intended to serve as a ballroom or concert-hall. A regiment of reporters was entrenched in the front seats, and those who were to be called on to give evidence occupied chairs to one side of the table behind which the coroner sat, while the jury, in double row, with plastered hair and a spurious ease of manner, flanked him on the other side. An undistinguished public filled the rest of the space, and listened, in an awed silence, to the opening solemnities. The newspaper men, well used to these, muttered among themselves. Those of them who knew Trent by sight assured the rest that he was not in the court.
The identity of the dead man was proved by his wife, the first witness called, from whom the coroner, after some enquiry into the health and circumstances of the deceased, proceeded to draw an account of the last occasion on which she had seen her husband alive. Mrs. Manderson was taken through her evidence by the coroner with the sympathy which every man felt for that dark figure of grief. She lifted her thick veil before beginning to speak, and the extreme paleness and unbroken composure of the lady produced a singular impression. This was not an impression of hardness. Interesting femininity was the first thing to be felt in her presence. She was not even enigmatic. It was only clear that the force of a powerful character was at work to master the emotions of her situation. Once or twice as she spoke she touched her eyes with her handkerchief, but her voice was low and clear to the end.
Her husband, she said, had come up to his bedroom about his usual hour for retiring on Sunday night. His room was really a dressing-room attached to her own bedroom, communicating with it by a door which was usually kept open during the night. Both dressing-room and bedroom were entered by other doors giving on the passage. Her husband had always had a preference for the greatest simplicity in his bedroom arrangements, and liked to sleep in a small room. She had not been awake when he came up, but had been half-aroused, as usually happened, when the light was switched on in her husband's room. She had spoken to him. She had no clear recollection of what she had said, as she had been very drowsy at the time; but she had remembered that he had been out for a moonlight run in the car, and she believed she had asked whether he had had a good run, and what time it was. She had asked what the time was because she felt as if she had only been a very short time asleep, and she had expected her husband to be out very late. In answer to her question he had told her it was half-past eleven, and had gone on to say that he had changed his mind about going for a run.
'Did he say why?' the coroner asked.
'Yes,' replied the lady, 'he did explain why. I remember very well what he said, because—' she stopped with a little appearance of confusion.
'Because—' the coroner insisted gently.
'Because my husband was not as a rule communicative about his business affairs,' answered the witness, raising her chin with a faint touch of defiance. 'He did not–did not think they would interest me, and as a rule referred to them as little as possible. That was why I was rather surprised when he told me that he had sent Mr. Marlowe to Southampton to bring back some important information from a man who was leaving for Paris by the next day's boat. He said that Mr. Marlowe could do it quite easily if he had no accident. He said that he had started in the car, and then walked back home a mile or so, and felt all the better for it.'
'Did he say any more?'
'Nothing, as well as I remember,' the witness said. 'I was very sleepy, and I dropped off again in a few moments. I just remember my husband turning his light out, and that is all. I never saw him again alive.'
'And you heard nothing in the night?'
'No: I never woke until my maid brought my tea in the morning at seven o'clock. She closed the door leading to my husband's room, as she always did, and I supposed him to be still there. He always needed a great deal of sleep. He sometimes slept until quite late in the morning. I had breakfast in my sitting-room. It was about ten when I heard that my husband's body had been found.' The witness dropped her head and silently waited for her dismissal.
But it was not to be yet.
'Mrs. Manderson.' The coroner's voice was sympathetic, but it had a hint of firmness in it now. 'The question I am going to put to you must, in these sad circumstances, be a painful one; but it is my duty to ask it. Is it the fact that your relations with your late husband had not been, for some time past, relations of mutual affection and confidence? Is it the fact that there was an estrangement between you?'
The lady drew herself up again and faced her questioner, the colour rising in her cheeks. 'If that question is necessary,' she said with cold distinctness, 'I will answer it so that there shall be no misunderstanding. During the last few months of my husband's life his attitude towards me had given me great anxiety and sorrow. He had changed towards me; he had become very reserved, and seemed mistrustful. I saw much less of him than before; he seemed to prefer to be alone. I can give no explanation at all of the change. I tried to work against it; I did all I could with justice to my own dignity, as I thought. Something was between us, I did not know what, and he never told me. My own obstinate pride prevented me from asking what it was in so many words; I only made a point of being to him exactly as I had always been, so far as he would allow me. I suppose I shall never know now what it was.' The witness, whose voice had trembled in spite of her self-control over the last few sentences, drew down her veil when she had said this, and stood erect and quiet.
One of the jury asked a question, not without obvious hesitation. 'Then was there never anything of the nature of what they call Words between you and your husband, ma'am?'
'Never.' The word was colourlessly spoken; but every one felt that a crass misunderstanding of the possibilities of conduct in the case of a person like Mrs. Manderson had been visited with some severity.
Did she know, the coroner asked, of any other matter which might have been preying upon her husband's mind recently?
Mrs. Manderson knew of none whatever. The coroner intimated that her ordeal was at an end, and the veiled lady made her way to the door. The general attention, which followed her for a few moments, was now eagerly directed upon Martin, whom the coroner had proceeded to call.
It was at this moment that Trent appeared at the doorway and edged his way into the great room. But he did not look at Martin. He was observing the well-balanced figure that came quickly towards him along an opening path in the crowd, and his eye was gloomy. He started, as he stood aside from the door with a slight bow, to hear Mrs. Manderson address him by name in a low voice. He followed her a pace or two into the hall.
'I wanted to ask you,' she said in a voice now weak and oddly broken, 'if you would give me your arm a part of the way to the house. I could not see my uncle near the door, and I suddenly felt rather faint. . . . I shall be better in the air. . . . No, no; I cannot stay here–please, Mr Trent!' she said, as he began to make an obvious suggestion. 'I must go to the house.' Her hand tightened momentarily on his arm as if, for all her weakness, she could drag him from the place; then again she leaned heavily upon it, and with that support, and with bent head, she walked slowly from the hotel and along the oak-shaded path toward White Gables.
Trent went in silence, his thoughts whirling, dancing insanely to a chorus of 'Fool! fool!' All that he alone knew, all that he guessed and suspected of this affair, rushed through his brain in a rout; but the touch of her unnerved hand upon his arm never for an instant left his consciousness, filling him with an exaltation that enraged and bewildered him. He was still cursing himself furiously behind the mask of conventional solicitude that he turned to the lady when he had attended her to the house and seen her sink upon a couch in the morning-room. Raising her veil, she thanked him gravely and frankly, with a look of sincere gratitude in her eyes. She was much better now, she said, and a cup of tea would work a miracle upon her. She hoped she had not taken him away from anything important. She was ashamed of herself; she thought she could go through with it, but she had not expected those last questions. 'I am glad you did not hear me,' she said when he explained. 'But of course you will read it all in the reports. It shook me so to have to speak of that,' she added simply; 'and to keep from making an exhibition of myself took it out of me. And all those staring men by the door! Thank you again for helping me when I asked you. . . . I thought I might,' she ended queerly, with a little tired smile; and Trent took himself away, his hand still quivering from the cool touch of her fingers.
The testimony of the servants and of the finder of the body brought nothing new to the reporters' net. That of the police was as colourless and cryptic as is usual at the inquest stage of affairs of the kind. Greatly to the satisfaction of Mr. Bunner, his evidence afforded the sensation of the day, and threw far into the background the interesting revelation of domestic difficulty made by the dead man's wife. He told the court in substance what he had already told Trent. The flying pencils did not miss a word of the young American's story, and it appeared with scarcely the omission of a sentence in every journal of importance in Great Britain and the United States.
Public opinion next day took no note of the faint suggestion of the possibility of suicide which the coroner, in his final address to the jury, had thought it right to make in connection with the lady's evidence. The weight of evidence, as the official had indeed pointed out, was against such a theory. He had referred with emphasis to the fact that no weapon had been found near the body.
'This question, of course, is all-important, gentlemen,' he had said to the jury. 'It is, in fact, the main issue before you. You have seen the body for yourselves. You have just heard the medical evidence; but I think it would be well for me to read you my notes of it in so far as they bear on this point, in order to refresh your memories. Dr. Stock told you–I am going to omit all technical medical language and repeat to you merely the plain English of his testimony–that in his opinion death had taken place six or eight hours previous to the finding of the body. He said that the cause of death was a bullet wound, the bullet having entered the left eye, which was destroyed, and made its way to the base of the brain, which was quite shattered. The external appearance of the wound, he said, did not support the hypothesis of its being self-inflicted, inasmuch as there were no signs of the firearm having been pressed against the eye, or even put very close to it; at the same time it was not physically impossible that the weapon should have been discharged by the deceased with his own hand, at some small distance from the eye. Dr Stock also told us that it was impossible to say with certainty, from the state of the body, whether any struggle had taken place at the time of death; that when seen by him, at which time he understood that it had not been moved since it was found, the body was lying in a collapsed position such as might very well result from the shot alone; but that the scratches and bruises upon the wrists and the lower part of the arms had been very recently inflicted, and were, in his opinion, marks of violence.
'In connection with this same point, the remarkable evidence given by Mr. Bunner cannot be regarded, I think, as without significance. It may have come as a surprise to some of you to hear that risks of the character described by this witness are, in his own country, commonly run by persons in the position of the deceased. On the other hand, it may have been within the knowledge of some of you that in the industrial world of America the discontent of labour often proceeds to lengths of which we in England happily know nothing. I have interrogated the witness somewhat fully upon this. At the same time, gentlemen, I am by no means suggesting that Mr. Bunner's personal conjecture as to the cause of death can fitly be adopted by you. That is emphatically not the case. What his evidence does is to raise two questions for your consideration. First, can it be said that the deceased was to any extent in the position of a threatened man–of a man more exposed to the danger of murderous attack than an ordinary person? Second, does the recent alteration in his demeanour, as described by this witness, justify the belief that his last days were overshadowed by a great anxiety? These points may legitimately be considered by you in arriving at a conclusion upon the rest of the evidence.'
Thereupon the coroner, having indicated thus clearly his opinion that Mr. Bunner had hit the right nail on the head, desired the jury to consider their verdict.