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Chapter Fifteen B (continued)

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« on: December 22, 2022, 06:54:47 am »

Here Marlowe paused and walked to the oaken desk before the window. Opening a drawer full of miscellaneous objects, he took out a box of odd keys, and selected a small one distinguished by a piece of pink tape.

He handed it to Trent. “I keep that by me as a sort of morbid memento. It is the key to the lock I smashed. I might have saved myself the trouble, if I had known that this key was at that moment in the left-hand side-pocket of my overcoat. Manderson must have slipped it in, either while the coat was hanging in the hall or while he sat at my side in the car. I might not have found the tiny thing there for weeks: as a matter of fact I did find it two days after Manderson was dead, but a police search would have found it in five minutes. And then I—I with the case and its contents in my pocket, my false name and my sham spectacles and the rest of it—I should have had no explanation to offer but the highly convincing one that I didn’t know the key was there.”

Trent dangled the key by its tape idly. Then: “How do you know this is the key of that case?” he asked quickly.

“I tried it. As soon as I found it I went up and fitted it to the lock. I knew where I had left the thing. So do you, I think, Mr. Trent. Don’t you?” There was a faint shade of mockery in Marlowe’s voice.

Touché,” Trent said, with a dry smile. “I found a large empty letter-case with a burst lock lying with other odds and ends on the dressing-table in Manderson’s room. Your statement is that you put it there. I could make nothing of it.” He closed his lips.

“There was no reason for hiding it,” said Marlowe. “But to get back to my story. I burst the lock of the strap. I opened the case before one of the lamps of the car. The first thing I found in it I ought to have expected, of course, but I hadn’t.” He paused and glanced at Trent.

“It was—” began Trent mechanically, and then stopped himself. “Try not to bring me in any more, if you don’t mind,” he said, meeting the other’s eye. “I have complimented you already in that document on your cleverness. You need not prove it by making the judge help you out with your evidence.”

“All right,” agreed Marlowe. “I couldn’t resist just that much. If you had been in my place you would have known before I did that Manderson’s little pocket-case was there. As soon as I saw it, of course, I remembered his not having had it about him when I asked for money, and his surprising anger. He had made a false step. He had already fastened his note-case up with the rest of what was to figure as my plunder, and placed it in my hands. I opened it. It contained a few notes as usual, I didn’t count them.

“Tucked into the flaps of the big case in packets were the other notes, just as I had brought them from London. And with them were two small wash-leather bags, the look of which I knew well. My heart jumped sickeningly again, for this, too, was utterly unexpected. In those bags Manderson kept the diamonds in which he had been investing for some time past. I didn’t open them; I could feel the tiny stones shifting under the pressure of my fingers. How many thousands of pounds’ worth there were there I have no idea. We had regarded Manderson’s diamond-buying as merely a speculative fad. I believe now that it was the earliest movement in the scheme for my ruin. For any one like myself to be represented as having robbed him, there ought to be a strong inducement shown. That had been provided with a vengeance.

“Now, I thought, I have the whole thing plain, and I must act. I saw instantly what I must do. I had left Manderson about a mile from the house. It would take him twenty minutes, fifteen if he walked fast, to get back to the house, where he would, of course, immediately tell his story of robbery, and probably telephone at once to the police in Bishopsbridge. I had left him only five or six minutes ago; for all that I have just told you was as quick thinking as I ever did. It would be easy to overtake him in the car before he neared the house. There would be an awkward interview. I set my teeth as I thought of it, and all my fears vanished as I began to savour the gratification of telling him my opinion of him. There are probably few people who ever positively looked forward to an awkward interview with Manderson; but I was mad with rage. My honour and my liberty had been plotted against with detestable treachery. I did not consider what would follow the interview. That would arrange itself.

“I had started and turned the car, I was already going fast toward White Gables, when I heard the sound of a shot in front of me, to the right.

“Instantly I stopped the car. My first wild thought was that Manderson was shooting at me. Then I realized that the noise had not been close at hand. I could see nobody on the road, though the moonlight flooded it. I had left Manderson at a spot just round the corner that was now about a hundred yards ahead of me. After half a minute or so, I started again, and turned the corner at a slow pace. Then I stopped again with a jar, and for a moment I sat perfectly still.

“Manderson lay dead a few steps from me on the turf within the gate, clearly visible to me in the moonlight.”

Marlowe made another pause, and Trent, with a puckered brow, enquired, “On the golf-course?”

“Obviously,” remarked Mr. Cupples. “The eighth green is just there.” He had grown more and more interested as Marlowe went on, and was now playing feverishly with his thin beard.

“On the green, quite close to the flag,” said Marlowe. “He lay on his back, his arms were stretched abroad, his jacket and heavy overcoat were open; the light shone hideously on his white face and his shirt-front; it glistened on his bared teeth and one of the eyes. The other... you saw it. The man was certainly dead. As I sat there stunned, unable for the moment to think at all, I could even see a thin dark line of blood running down from the shattered socket to the ear. Close by lay his soft black hat, and at his feet a pistol.

“I suppose it was only a few seconds that I sat helplessly staring at the body. Then I rose and moved to it with dragging feet; for now the truth had come to me at last, and I realized the fullness of my appalling danger. It was not only my liberty or my honour that the maniac had undermined. It was death that he had planned for me; death with the degradation of the scaffold. To strike me down with certainty, he had not hesitated to end his life; a life which was, no doubt, already threatened by a melancholic impulse to self-destruction; and the last agony of the suicide had been turned, perhaps, to a devilish joy by the thought that he dragged down my life with his. For as far as I could see at the moment my situation was utterly hopeless. If it had been desperate on the assumption that Manderson meant to denounce me as a thief, what was it now that his corpse denounced me as a murderer?

“I picked up the revolver and saw, almost without emotion, that it was my own. Manderson had taken it from my room, I suppose, while I was getting out the car. At the same moment I remembered that it was by Manderson’s suggestion that I had had it engraved with my initials, to distinguish it from a precisely similar weapon which he had of his own.

“I bent over the body and satisfied myself that there was no life left in it. I must tell you here that I did not notice, then or afterwards, the scratches and marks on the wrists, which were taken as evidence of a struggle with an assailant. But I have no doubt that Manderson deliberately injured himself in this way before firing the shot; it was a part of his plan.

“Though I never perceived that detail, however, it was evident enough as I looked at the body that Manderson had not forgotten, in his last act on earth, to tie me tighter by putting out of court the question of suicide. He had clearly been at pains to hold the pistol at arm’s length, and there was not a trace of smoke or of burning on the face. The wound was absolutely clean, and was already ceasing to bleed outwardly. I rose and paced the green, reckoning up the points in the crushing case against me.

“I was the last to be seen with Manderson. I had persuaded him—so he had lied to his wife and, as I afterwards knew, to the butler—to go with me for the drive from which he never returned. My pistol had killed him. It was true that by discovering his plot I had saved myself from heaping up further incriminating facts—flight, concealment, the possession of the treasure. But what need of them, after all? As I stood, what hope was there? What could I do?”

Marlowe came to the table and leaned forward with his hands upon it. “I want,” he said very earnestly, “to try to make you understand what was in my mind when I decided to do what I did. I hope you won’t be bored, because I must do it. You may both have thought I acted like a fool. But after all the police never suspected me. I walked that green for a quarter of an hour, I suppose, thinking the thing out like a game of chess. I had to think ahead and think coolly; for my safety depended on upsetting the plans of one of the longest-headed men who ever lived. And remember that, for all I knew, there were details of the scheme still hidden from me, waiting to crush me.

“Two plain courses presented themselves at once. Either of them, I thought, would certainly prove fatal. I could, in the first place, do the completely straightforward thing: take back the dead man, tell my story, hand over the notes and diamonds, and trust to the saving power of truth and innocence. I could have laughed as I thought of it. I saw myself bringing home the corpse and giving an account of myself, boggling with sheer shame over the absurdity of my wholly unsupported tale, as I brought a charge of mad hatred and fiendish treachery against a man who had never, as far as I knew, had a word to say against me. At every turn the cunning of Manderson had forestalled me. His careful concealment of such a hatred was a characteristic feature of the stratagem; only a man of his iron self-restraint could have done it. You can see for yourselves how every fact in my statement would appear, in the shadow of Manderson’s death, a clumsy lie. I tried to imagine myself telling such a story to the counsel for my defence. I could see the face with which he would listen to it; I could read in the lines of it his thought, that to put forward such an impudent farrago would mean merely the disappearance of any chance there might be of a commutation of the capital sentence.

“True, I had not fled. I had brought back the body; I had handed over the property. But how did that help me? It would only suggest that I had yielded to a sudden funk after killing my man, and had no nerve left to clutch at the fruits of the crime; it would suggest, perhaps, that I had not set out to kill but only to threaten, and that when I found that I had done murder the heart went out of me. Turn it which way I would, I could see no hope of escape by this plan of action.

“The second of the obvious things that I might do was to take the hint offered by the situation, and to fly at once. That too must prove fatal. There was the body. I had no time to hide it in such a way that it would not be found at the first systematic search. But whatever I should do with the body, Manderson’s not returning to the house would cause uneasiness in two or three hours at most. Martin would suspect an accident to the car, and would telephone to the police. At daybreak the roads would be scoured and enquiries telegraphed in every direction. The police would act on the possibility of there being foul play. They would spread their nets with energy in such a big business as the disappearance of Manderson. Ports and railway termini would be watched. Within twenty-four hours the body would be found, and the whole country would be on the alert for me—all Europe, scarcely less; I did not believe there was a spot in Christendom where the man accused of Manderson’s murder could pass unchallenged, with every newspaper crying the fact of his death into the ears of all the world. Every stranger would be suspect; every man, woman, and child would be a detective. The car, wherever I should abandon it, would put people on my track. If I had to choose between two utterly hopeless courses, I decided, I would take that of telling the preposterous truth.

“But now I cast about desperately for some tale that would seem more plausible than the truth. Could I save my neck by a lie? One after another came into my mind; I need not trouble to remember them now. Each had its own futilities and perils; but every one split upon the fact—or what would be taken for fact—that I had induced Manderson to go out with me, and the fact that he had never returned alive. Notion after notion I swiftly rejected as I paced there by the dead man, and doom seemed to settle down upon me more heavily as the moments passed. Then a strange thought came to me.

“Several times I had repeated to myself half-consciously, as a sort of refrain, the words in which I had heard Manderson tell his wife that I had induced him to go out. ‘Marlowe has persuaded me to go for a moonlight run in the car. He is very urgent about it.’ All at once it struck me that, without meaning to do so, I was saying this in Manderson’s voice.

“As you found out for yourself, Mr. Trent, I have a natural gift of mimicry. I had imitated Manderson’s voice many times so successfully as to deceive even Bunner, who had been much more in his company than his own wife. It was, you remember”—Marlowe turned to Mr. Cupples—“a strong, metallic voice, of great carrying power, so unusual as to make it a very fascinating voice to imitate, and at the same time very easy. I said the words carefully to myself again, like this—” he uttered them, and Mr. Cupples opened his eyes in amazement—“and then I struck my hand upon the low wall beside me. ‘Manderson never returned alive?’ I said aloud. ‘But Manderson shall return alive!’”

“In thirty seconds the bare outline of the plan was complete in my mind. I did not wait to think over details. Every instant was precious now. I lifted the body and laid it on the floor of the car, covered with a rug. I took the hat and the revolver. Not one trace remained on the green, I believe, of that night’s work. As I drove back to White Gables my design took shape before me with a rapidity and ease that filled me with a wild excitement. I should escape yet! It was all so easy if I kept my pluck. Putting aside the unusual and unlikely, I should not fail. I wanted to shout, to scream!

“Nearing the house I slackened speed, and carefully reconnoitred the road. Nothing was moving. I turned the car into the open field on the other side of the road, about twenty paces short of the little door at the extreme corner of the grounds. I brought it to rest behind a stack. When, with Manderson’s hat on my head and the pistol in my pocket, I had staggered with the body across the moonlit road and through that door, I left much of my apprehension behind me. With swift action and an unbroken nerve I thought I ought to succeed.”

With a long sigh Marlowe threw himself into one of the deep chairs at the fireside and passed his handkerchief over his damp forehead. Each of his hearers, too, drew a deep breath, but not audibly.

“Everything else you know,” he said. He took a cigarette from a box beside him and lighted it. Trent watched the very slight quiver of the hand that held the match, and privately noted that his own was at the moment not so steady.

“The shoes that betrayed me to you,” pursued Marlowe after a short silence, “were painful all the time I wore them, but I never dreamed that they had given anywhere. I knew that no footstep of mine must appear by any accident in the soft ground about the hut where I laid the body, or between the hut and the house, so I took the shoes off and crammed my feet into them as soon as I was inside the little door. I left my own shoes, with my own jacket and overcoat, near the body, ready to be resumed later. I made a clear footmark on the soft gravel outside the French window, and several on the drugget round the carpet. The stripping off of the outer clothing of the body, and the dressing of it afterwards in the brown suit and shoes, and putting the things into the pockets, was a horrible business; and getting the teeth out of the mouth was worse. The head—but you don’t want to hear about it. I didn’t feel it much at the time. I was wriggling my own head out of a noose, you see. I wish I had thought of pulling down the cuffs, and had tied the shoes more neatly. And putting the watch in the wrong pocket was a bad mistake. It had all to be done so hurriedly.

“You were wrong, by the way, about the whisky. After one stiffish drink I had no more; but I filled up a flask that was in the cupboard, and pocketed it. I had a night of peculiar anxiety and effort in front of me and I didn’t know how I should stand it. I had to take some once or twice during the drive. Speaking of that, you give rather a generous allowance of time in your document for doing that run by night. You say that to get to Southampton by half-past six in that car, under the conditions, a man must, even if he drove like a demon, have left Marlstone by twelve at latest. I had not got the body dressed in the other suit, with tie and watch-chain and so forth, until nearly ten minutes past; and then I had to get to the car and start it going. But then I don’t suppose any other man would have taken the risks I did in that car at night, without a headlight. It turns me cold to think of it now.

“There’s nothing much to say about what I did in the house. I spent the time after Martin had left me in carefully thinking over the remaining steps in my plan, while I unloaded and thoroughly cleaned the revolver using my handkerchief and a penholder from the desk. I also placed the packets of notes, the note-case, and the diamonds in the roll-top desk, which I opened and relocked with Manderson’s key. When I went upstairs it was a trying moment, for though I was safe from the eyes of Martin, as he sat in his pantry, there was a faint possibility of somebody being about on the bedroom floor. I had sometimes found the French maid wandering about there when the other servants were in bed. Bunner, I knew, was a deep sleeper. Mrs. Manderson, I had gathered from things I had heard her say, was usually asleep by eleven; I had thought it possible that her gift of sleep had helped her to retain all her beauty and vitality in spite of a marriage which we all knew was an unhappy one. Still it was uneasy work mounting the stairs, and holding myself ready to retreat to the library again at the least sound from above. But nothing happened.

“The first thing I did on reaching the corridor was to enter my room and put the revolver and cartridges back in the case. Then I turned off the light and went quietly into Manderson’s room.

“What I had to do there you know. I had to take off the shoes and put them outside the door, leave Manderson’s jacket, waistcoat, trousers, and black tie, after taking everything out of the pockets, select a suit and tie and shoes for the body, and place the dental plate in the bowl, which I moved from the washing-stand to the bedside, leaving those ruinous finger-marks as I did so. The marks on the drawer must have been made when I shut it after taking out the tie. Then I had to lie down in the bed and tumble it. You know all about it—all except my state of mind, which you couldn’t imagine and I couldn’t describe.

“The worst came when I had hardly begun my operations: the moment when Mrs Manderson spoke from the room where I supposed her asleep. I was prepared for it happening; it was a possibility; but I nearly lost my nerve all the same. However....

“By the way, I may tell you this: in the extremely unlikely contingency of Mrs. Manderson remaining awake, and so putting out of the question my escape by way of her window, I had planned simply to remain where I was a few hours, and then, not speaking to her, to leave the house quickly and quietly by the ordinary way. Martin would have been in bed by that time. I might have been heard to leave, but not seen. I should have done just as I had planned with the body, and then made the best time I could in the car to Southampton. The difference would have been that I couldn’t have furnished an unquestionable alibi by turning up at the hotel at 6.30. I should have made the best of it by driving straight to the docks, and making my ostentatious enquiries there. I could in any case have got there long before the boat left at noon. I couldn’t see that anybody could suspect me of the supposed murder in any case; but if any one had, and if I hadn’t arrived until ten o’clock, say, I shouldn’t have been able to answer, ‘It is impossible for me to have got to Southampton so soon after shooting him.’ I should simply have had to say I was delayed by a breakdown after leaving Manderson at half-past ten, and challenged any one to produce any fact connecting me with the crime. They couldn’t have done it. The pistol, left openly in my room, might have been used by anybody, even if it could be proved that that particular pistol was used. Nobody could reasonably connect me with the shooting so long as it was believed that it was Manderson who had returned to the house. The suspicion could not, I was confident, enter any one’s mind. All the same, I wanted to introduce the element of absolute physical impossibility; I knew I should feel ten times as safe with that. So when I knew from the sound of her breathing that Mrs. Manderson was asleep again, I walked quickly across her room in my stocking feet, and was on the grass with my bundle in ten seconds. I don’t think I made the least noise. The curtain before the window was of soft, thick stuff and didn’t rustle, and when I pushed the glass doors further open there was not a sound.”

“Tell me,” said Trent, as the other stopped to light a new cigarette, “why you took the risk of going through Mrs. Manderson’s room to escape from the house. I could see when I looked into the thing on the spot why it had to be on that side of the house; there was a danger of being seen by Martin, or by some servant at a bedroom window, if you got out by a window on one of the other sides. But there were three unoccupied rooms on that side; two spare bedrooms and Mrs. Manderson’s sitting-room. I should have thought it would have been safer, after you had done what was necessary to your plan in Manderson’s room, to leave it quietly and escape through one of those three rooms.... The fact that you went through her window, you know,” he added coldly, “would have suggested, if it became known, various suspicions in regard to the lady herself. I think you understand me.”

Marlowe turned upon him with a glowing face. “And I think you will understand me, Mr. Trent,” he said in a voice that shook a little, “when I say that if such a possibility had occurred to me then, I would have taken any risk rather than make my escape by that way.... Oh well!” he went on more coolly, “I suppose that to any one who didn’t know her, the idea of her being privy to her husband’s murder might not seem so indescribably fatuous. Forgive the expression.” He looked attentively at the burning end of his cigarette, studiously unconscious of the red flag that flew in Trent’s eyes for an instant at his words and the tone of them.

That emotion, however, was conquered at once. “Your remark is perfectly just,” Trent said with answering coolness. “I can quite believe, too, that at the time you didn’t think of the possibility I mentioned. But surely, apart from that, it would have been safer to do as I said; go by the window of an 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 Célestine 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. As 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?”

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