The Letter
by W. Somerset Maugham

    Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog–trot and shouted to the passer–by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting–place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews, and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones. But inside the office of Messrs Ripley, Joyce, and Naylor it was pleasantly cool; it was dark after the dusty glitter of the street and agreeably quiet after its unceasing din. Mr Joyce sat in his private room, at the table, with an electric fan turned full on him. He was leaning back, his elbows on the arms of the chair, with the tips of the outstretched fingers of one hand resting neatly against the tips of the outstretched fingers of the other. His gaze rested on the battered volumes of the Law Reports which stood on a long shelf in front of him. On the top of a cupboard were square boxes of japanned tin, on which were painted the names of various clients.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Come in.’
A Chinese clerk, very neat in his white ducks, opened it.
‘Mr Crosbie is here, sir.’
He spoke beautiful English, accenting each word with precision, and Mr Joyce had often wondered at the extent of his vocabulary. Ong Chi Seng was a Cantonese, and he had studied law at Gray’s Inn. He was spending a year or two with Messrs Ripley, Joyce, and Naylor in order to prepare himself for practice on his own account. He was industrious, obliging, and of exemplary character.

‘Show him in,’ said Mr Joyce.
He rose to shake hands with his visitor and asked him to sit down. The light fell on him as he did so. The face of Mr Joyce remained in shadow. He was by nature a silent man, and now he looked at Robert Crosbie for quite a minute without speaking. Crosbie was a big fellow, well over six feet high, with broad shoulders, and muscular. He was a rubber–planter, hard with the constant exercise of walking over the estate, and with the tennis which was his relaxation when the day’s work was over. He was deeply sunburned. His hairy hands, his feet in clumsy boots were enormous, and Mr Joyce found himself thinking that a blow of that great fist could easily kill the fragile Tamil. But there was no fierceness in his blue eyes; they were confiding and gentle; and his face, with its big, undistinguished features, was open, frank, and honest. But at this moment it bore a look of deep distress. It was drawn and haggard.
‘You look as though you hadn’t had much sleep the last night or two,’ said Mr Joyce.
‘I haven’t.’
Mr Joyce noticed now the old felt hat, with its broad double brim, which Crosbie had placed on the table; and then his eyes travelled to the khaki shorts he wore, showing his red hairy thighs, the tennis shirt open at the neck, without a tie, and the dirty khaki jacket with the ends of the sleeves turned up. He looked as though he had just come in from a long tramp among the rubber trees. Mr Joyce gave a slight frown.
‘You must pull yourself together, you know. You must keep your head.’
‘Oh, I’m all right.’
‘Have you seen your wife today?’
‘No, I’m to see her this afternoon. You know, it is a damned shame that they should have arrested her.’
‘I think they had to do that,’ Mr Joyce answered in his level, soft tone. ‘I should have thought they’d have let her out on bail.’
‘It’s a very serious charge.’
‘It is damnable. She did what any decent woman would do in her place. Only, nine women out of ten wouldn’t have the pluck. Leslie’s the best woman in the world. She wouldn’t hurt a fly. Why, hang it all, man, I’ve been married to her for twelve years, do you think I don’t know her? God, if I’d got hold of the man I’d have wrung his neck, I’d have killed him without a moment’s hesitation. So would you.’
‘My dear fellow, everybody’s on your side. No one has a good word to say for Hammond. We’re going to get her off. I don’t suppose either the assessors or the judge will go into court without having already made up their minds to bring in a verdict of not guilty.’
‘The whole thing’s a farce,’ said Crosbie violently. ‘She ought never to have been arrested in the first place, and then it’s terrible, after all the poor girl’s gone through, to subject her to the ordeal of a trial. There’s not a soul I’ve met since I’ve been in Singapore, man or woman, who hasn’t told me that Leslie was absolutely justified. I think it’s awful to keep her in prison all these weeks.’
‘The law is the law. After all, she confesses that she killed the man. It is terrible, and I’m dreadfully sorry for both you and her.’
‘I don’t matter a hang,’ interrupted Crosbie.
‘But the fact remains that murder has been committed, and in a civilized community a trial is inevitable.’
‘Is it murder to exterminate noxious vermin? She shot him as she would have shot a mad dog.’
Mr Joyce leaned back again in his chair and once more placed the tips of his ten fingers together. The little construction he formed looked like the skeleton of a roof. He was silent for a moment.
‘I should be wanting in my duty as your legal adviser,’ he said at last, in an even voice, looking at his client with his cool, brown eyes, ‘if I did not tell you that there is one point which causes me just a little anxiety. If your wife had only shot Hammond once, the whole thing would be absolutely plain sailing. Unfortunately she fired six times.’
‘Her explanation is perfectly simple. In the circumstances anyone would have done the same.’
‘I dare say,’ said Mr Joyce, ‘and of course I think the explanation is very reasonable. But it’s no good closing our eyes to the facts. It’s always a good plan to put yourself in another man’s place, and I can’t deny that if I were prosecuting for the Crown that is the point on which I should centre my inquiry.’
‘My dear fellow, that’s perfectly idiotic’
Mr Joyce shot a sharp glance at Robert Crosbie. The shadow of a smile hovered over his shapely lips. Crosbie was a good fellow, but he could hardly be described as intelligent.
‘I dare say it’s of no importance,’ answered the lawyer, ‘I just thought it was a point worth mentioning. You haven’t got very long to wait now, and when it’s all over I recommend you to go off somewhere with your wife on a trip, and forget all about it. Even though we are almost dead certain to get an acquittal, a trial of that sort is anxious work, and you’ll both want a rest.’
For the first time Crosbie smiled, and his smile strangely changed his face. You forgot the uncouthness and saw only the goodness of his soul.
‘I think I shall want it more than Leslie. She’s borne up wonderfully. By God, there’s a plucky little woman for you.’
‘Yes, I’ve been very much struck by her self–control,’ said the lawyer. ‘I should never have guessed that she was capable of such determination.’


His duties as her counsel had made it necessary for him to have a good many interviews with Mrs Crosbie since her arrest. Though things had been made as easy as could be for her, the fact remained that she was in gaol, awaiting her trial for murder, and it would not have been surprising if her nerves had failed her. She appeared to bear her ordeal with composure. She read a great deal, took such exercise as was possible, and by favour of the authorities worked at the pillow lace which had always formed the entertainment of her long hours of leisure. When Mr Joyce saw her, she was neatly dressed in cool, fresh, simple frocks, her hair was carefully arranged, and her nails were manicured. Her manner was collected. She was able even to jest upon the little inconveniences of her position. There was something casual about the way in which she spoke of the tragedy, which suggested to Mr Joyce that only her good breeding prevented her from finding something a trifle ludicrous in a situation which was eminently serious. It surprised him, for he had never thought that she had a sense of humour.
He had known her off and on for a good many years. When she paid visits to Singapore she generally came to dine with his wife and himself, and once or twice she had passed a week–end with them at their bungalow by the sea. His wife had spent a fortnight with her on the estate, and had met Geoffrey Hammond several times. The two couples had been on friendly, if not on intimate, terms, and it was on this account that Robert Crosbie had rushed over to Singapore immediately after the catastrophe and begged Mr Joyce to take charge personally of his unhappy wife’s defence.
The story she told him the first time he saw her she had never varied in the smallest detail. She told it as coolly then, a few hours after the tragedy, as she told it now. She told it connectedly, in a level, even voice, and her only sign of confusion was when a slight colour came into her cheeks as she described one or two of its incidents. She was the last woman to whom one would have expected such a thing to happen. She was in the early thirties, a fragile creature, neither short nor tall, and graceful rather than pretty. Her wrists and ankles were very delicate, but she was extremely thin, and you could see the bones of her hands through the white skin, and the veins were large and blue. Her face was colourless, slightly sallow, and her lips were pale. You did not notice the colour of her eyes. She had a great deal of light brown hair, and it had a slight natural wave; it was the sort of hair that with a little touching–up would have been very pretty, but you could not imagine that Mrs Crosbie would think of resorting to any such device. She was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming woman. Her manner was engaging, and if she was not very popular it was because she suffered from a certain shyness. This was comprehensible enough, for the planter’s life is lonely, and in her own house, with people she knew, she was in her quiet way charming. Mrs Joyce, after her fortnight’s stay, had told her husband that Leslie was a very agreeable hostess. There was more in her, she said, than people thought; and when you came to know her you were surprised how much she had read and how entertaining she could be.
She was the last woman in the world to commit murder.


Mr Joyce dismissed Robert Crosbie with such reassuring words as he could find and, once more alone in his office, turned over the pages of the brief. But it was a mechanical action, for all its details were familiar to him. The case was the sensation of the day, and it was discussed in all the clubs, at all the dinner tables, up and down the Peninsula, from Singapore to Penang. The facts that Mrs Crosbie gave were simple. Her husband had gone to Singapore on business, and she was alone for the night. She dined by herself, late, at a quarter to nine, and after dinner sat in the sitting–room working at her lace. It opened on the veranda. There was no one in the bungalow, for the servants had retired to their own quarters at the back of the compound. She was surprised to hear a step on the gravel path in the garden, a booted step, which suggested a white man rather than a native, for she had not heard a motor drive up, and she could not imagine who could be coming to see her at that time of night. Someone ascended the few stairs that led up to the bungalow, walked across the veranda, and appeared at the door of the room in which she sat. At the first moment she did not recognize the visitor. She sat with a shaded lamp, and he stood with his back to the darkness.
‘May I come in?’ he said.
She did not even recognize the voice.
‘Who is it?’ she asked.
She worked with spectacles, and she took them off as she spoke.
‘Geoff Hammond.’
‘Of course. Come in and have a drink.’
She rose and shook hands with him cordially. She was a little surprised to see him, for though he was a neighbour neither she nor Robert had been lately on very intimate terms with him, and she had not seen him for some weeks.

He was the manager of a rubber estate nearly eight miles from theirs, and she wondered why he had chosen this late hour to come and see them.
‘Robert’s away,’ she said. ‘He had to go to Singapore for the night.’
Perhaps he thought his visit called for some explanation, for he said:
‘I’m sorry. I felt rather lonely tonight, so I thought I’d just come along and see how you were getting on.’
‘How on earth did you come? I never heard a car.’
‘I left it down the road. I thought you might both be in bed and asleep.’
This was natural enough. The planter gets up at dawn in order to take the roll–call of the workers, and soon after dinner he is glad to go to bed. Hammond’s car was in point of fact found next day a quarter of a mile from the bungalow.
Since Robert was away there was no whisky and soda in the room. Leslie did not call the boy, who was probably asleep, but fetched it herself. Her guest mixed himself a drink and filled his pipe.
Geoff Hammond had a host of friends in the colony. He was at this time in the late thirties, but he had come out as a lad. He had been one of the first to volunteer on the outbreak of war, and had done very well. A wound in the knee caused him to be invalided out of the army after two years, but he returned to the Federated Malay States with a D.S.O. and an M.C. He was one of the best billiard–players in the colony. He had been a beautiful dancer and a fine tennis–player, but though able no longer to dance, and his tennis, with a stiff knee, was not so good as it had been, he had the gift of popularity and was universally liked. He was a tall, good–looking fellow, with attractive blue eyes and a fine head of black, curling hair. Old stagers said his only fault was that he was too fond of the girls, and after the catastrophe they shook their heads and vowed that they had always known this would get him into trouble.
He began now to talk to Leslie about the local affairs, the forthcoming races in Singapore, the price of rubber, and his chances of killing a tiger which had been lately seen in the neighbourhood. She was anxious to finish by a certain date a piece of lace on which she was working, for she wanted to send it home for her mother’s birthday, and so put on her spectacles again, and drew towards her chair the little table on which stood the pillow.
‘I wish you wouldn’t wear those great horn–spectacles,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why a pretty woman should do her best to look plain.’
She was a trifle taken aback at this remark. He had never used that tone with her before. She thought the best thing was to make light of it.
‘I have no pretensions to being a raving beauty, you know, and if you ask me point–blank, I’m bound to tell you that I don’t care two pins if you think me plain or not.’
‘I don’t think you’re plain. I think you’re awfully pretty.’
‘Sweet of you,’ she answered, ironically. ‘But in that case I can only think you half–witted.’
He chuckled. But he rose from his chair and sat down in another by her side.
‘You’re not going to have the face to deny that you have the prettiest hands in the world,’ he said.
He made a gesture as though to take one of them. She gave him a little tap.
‘Don’t be an idiot. Sit down where you were before and talk sensibly, or else I shall send you home.’
He did not move.

‘Don’t you know that I’m awfully in love with you?’ he said.
She remained quite cool.
‘I don’t. I don’t believe it for a minute, and even if it were true I don’t want you to say it.’
She was the more surprised at what he was saying, since during the seven years she had known him he had never paid her any particular attention. When he came back from the war they had seen a good deal of one another, and once when he was ill Robert had gone over and brought him back to their bungalow in his car. He had stayed with them for a fortnight. But their interests were dissimilar, and the acquaintance had never ripened into friendship. For the last two or three years they had seen little of him. Now and then he came over to play tennis, now and then they met him at some planter’s who was giving a party, but it often happened that they did not set eyes on him for a month at a time.
Now he took another whisky and soda. Leslie wondered if he had been drinking before. There was something odd about him, and it made her a trifle uneasy. She watched him help himself with disapproval.
‘I wouldn’t drink any more if I were you,’ she said, good–humouredly still.
He emptied his glass and put it down.
‘Do you think I’m talking to you like this because I’m drunk?’ he asked abruptly.
‘That is the most obvious explanation, isn’t it?’
‘Well, it’s a lie. I’ve loved you ever since I first knew you. I’ve held my tongue as long as I could, and now it’s got to come out. I love you, I love you, I love you.’
She rose and carefully put aside the pillow.
‘Good night,’ she said.
‘I’m not going now.’
At last she began to lose her temper.

‘But, you poor fool, don’t you know that I’ve never loved anyone but Robert, and even if I didn’t love Robert you’re the last man I should care for.’
‘What do I care? Robert’s away.’
‘If you don’t go away this minute I shall call the boys, and have you thrown out.’
‘They’re out of earshot.’
She was very angry now. She made a movement as though to go on to
the veranda, from which the house–boy would certainly hear her, but he seized her arm.
‘Let me go,’ she cried furiously.
‘Not much. I’ve got you now.’
She opened her mouth and called ‘Boy, boy,’ but with a quick gesture he put his hand over it. Then before she knew what he was about he had taken her in his arms and was kissing her passionately. She struggled, turning her lips away from his burning mouth.
‘No, no, no,’ she cried. ‘Leave me alone. I won’t.’


 

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