Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Trent's Last Case The Woman in Black by E.C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

unoccupied room.'

'Do you think so?' said Marlowe. 'All I can say is, I hadn't the nerve to do
it. I tell you, when I entered Manderson's room I shut the door of it on more
than half my terrors. I had the problem confined before me in a closed space,
with only one danger in it, and that a known danger: the danger of Mrs
Manderson. The thing was almost done; I had only to wait until she was
certainly asleep after her few moments of waking up, for which, as I told you,
I was prepared as a possibility. Barring accidents, the way was clear. But now
suppose that I, carrying Manderson's clothes and shoes, had opened that door
again and gone in my shirt-sleeves and socks to enter one of the empty rooms.
The moonlight was flooding the corridor through the end window. Even if my
face was concealed, nobody could mistake my standing figure for Manderson's.
Martin might be going about the house in his silent way. Bunner might come out
of his bedroom. One of the servants who were supposed to be in bed might come
round the corner from the other passage--I had found Celestine prowling about
quite as late as it was then. None of these things was very likely; but they
were all too likely for me. They were uncertainties. Shut off from the
household in Manderson's room I knew exactly what I had to face. As I lay in
my clothes in Manderson's bed and listened for the almost inaudible breathing
through the open door, I felt far more ease of mind, terrible as my anxiety
was, than I had felt since I saw the dead body on the turf. I even
congratulated myself that I had had the chance, through Mrs Manderson's
speaking to me, of tightening one of the screws in my scheme by repeating the
statement about my having been sent to Southampton.'

Marlowe looked at Trent, who nodded as who should say that his point was met.

'As for Southampton,' pursued Marlowe, 'you know what I did when I got there,
I have no doubt. I had decided to take Manderson's story about the mysterious
Harris and act it out on my own lines. It was a carefully prepared lie, better
than anything I could improvise. I even went so far as to get through a trunk
call to the hotel at Southampton from the library before starting, and ask if
Harris was there. I expected, he wasn't.'

Was that why you telephoned?' Trent enquired quickly.

'The reason for telephoning was to get myself into an attitude in which Martin
couldn't see my face or anything but the jacket and hat, yet which was a
natural and familiar attitude. But while I was about it, it was obviously
better to make a genuine call. If I had simply pretended to be telephoning,
the people at the exchange could have told at once that there hadn't been a
call from White Gables that night.'

'One of the first things I did was to make that enquiry,' said Trent. 'That
telephone call, and the wire you sent from Southampton to the dead man to say
Harris hadn't turned up, and you were returning-I particularly appreciated
both those.'

A constrained smile lighted Marlowe's face for a moment. 'I don't know that
there's anything more to tell. I returned to Marlstone, and faced your friend
the detective with such nerve as I had left. The worst was when I heard you
had been put on the case--no, that wasn't the worst. The worst was when I saw
you walk out of the shrubbery the next day, coming away from the shed where I
had laid the body. For one ghastly moment I thought you were going to give me
in charge on the spot. Now I've told you everything, you don't look so
terrible.'

He closed his eyes, and there was a short silence. Then Trent got suddenly to
his feet.

'Cross-examination?' enquired Marlowe, looking at him gravely.

'Not at all,' said Trent, stretching his long limbs. 'Only stiffness of the
legs. I don't want to ask any questions. I believe what you have told us. I
don't believe it simply because I always liked your face, or because it saves
awkwardness, which are the most usual reasons for believing a person, but
because my vanity will have it that no man could lie to me steadily for an
hour without my perceiving it. Your story is an extraordinary one; but
Manderson was an extraordinary man, and so are you. You acted like a lunatic
in doing what you did; but I quite agree with you that if you had acted like a
sane man you wouldn't have had the hundredth part of a dog's chance with a
judge and jury. One thing is beyond dispute on any reading of the affair: you
are a man of courage.'

The colour rushed into Marlowe's face, and he hesitated for words. Before he
could speak Mr Cupples arose with a dry cough.

'For my part,' he said, 'I never supposed you guilty for a moment.' Marlowe
turned to him in grateful amazement, Trent with an incredulous stare. 'But,'
pursued Mr Cupples, holding up his hand, 'there is one question which I should
like to put.'

Marlowe bowed, saying nothing.

'Suppose,' said Mr Cupples, 'that some one else had been suspected of the
crime and put upon trial. What would you have done?'

'I think my duty was clear. I should have gone with my story to the lawyers
for the defence, and put myself in their hands.'

Trent laughed aloud. Now that the thing was over, his spirits were rapidly
becoming ungovernable. 'I can see their faces!' he said. 'As a matter of fact,
though, nobody else was ever in danger. There wasn't a shred of evidence
against any one. I looked up Murch at the Yard this morning, and he told me he
had come round to Bunner's view, that it was a case of revenge on the part of
some American black-hand gang. So there's the end of the Manderson case. Holy,
suffering Moses! What an ass a man can make of himself when he thinks he's
being preternaturally clever!' He seized the bulky envelope from the table and
stuffed it into the heart of the fire. 'There's for you, old friend! For want
of you the world's course will not fail. But look here! It's getting
late--nearly seven, and Cupples and I have an appointment at half-past. We
must go. Mr Marlowe, goodbye.' He looked into the other's eyes. 'I am a man
who has worked hard to put a rope round your neck. Considering the
circumstances, I don't know whether you will blame me. Will you shake hands?'

CHAPTER XVI: 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.'

Book of the day: