The Letter
by W. Somerset Maugham

 

She grew confused about what happened then. All that had been said before she remembered accurately, but now his words assailed her ears through a mist of horror and fear. He seemed to plead for her love. He broke into violent protestations of passion. And all the time he held her in his tempestuous embrace. She was helpless, for he was a strong, powerful man, and her arms were pinioned to her sides; her struggles were unavailing, and she felt herself grow weaker; she was afraid she would faint, and his hot breath on her face made her feel desperately sick. He kissed her mouth, her eyes, her cheeks, her hair. The pressure of his arms was killing her. He lifted her off her feet. She tried to kick him, but he only held her more closely. He was carrying her now. He wasn’t speaking any more, but she knew that his face was pale and his eyes hot with desire. He was taking her into the bedroom. He was no longer a civilized man, but a savage. And as he ran he stumbled against a table which was in the way. His stiff knee made him a little awkward on his feet, and with the burden of the woman in his arms he fell. In a moment she had snatched herself away from him. She ran round the sofa. He was up in a flash, and flung himself towards her. There was a revolver on the desk. She was not a nervous woman, but Robert was to be away for the night, and she had meant to take it into her room when she went to bed. That was why it happened to be there. She was frantic with terror now. She did not know what she was doing. She heard a report. She saw Hammond stagger. He gave a cry. He said something, she didn’t know what. He lurched out of the room on to the veranda. She was in a frenzy now, she was beside herself, she followed him out, yes, that was it, she must have followed him out, though she remembered nothing of it, she followed firing automatically, shot after shot, till the six chambers were empty. Hammond fell down on the floor of the veranda. He crumpled up into a bloody heap.

When the boys, startled by the reports, rushed up, they found her standing over Hammond with the revolver still in her hand and Hammond lifeless. She looked at them for a moment without speaking. They stood in a frightened, huddled bunch. She let the revolver fall from her hand, and without a word turned and went into the sitting–room. They watched her go into her bedroom and turn the key in the lock. They dared not touch the dead body, but looked at it with terrified eyes, talking excitedly to one another in undertones. Then the head–boy collected himself; he had been with them for many years, he was Chinese and a level–headed fellow. Robert had gone into Singapore on his motor–cycle, and the car stood in the garage. He told the seis to get it out; they must go at once to the Assistant District Officer and tell him what had happened. He picked up the revolver and put it in his pocket. The A.D.O., a man called Withers, lived on the outskirts of the nearest town, which was about thirty–five miles away. It took them an hour and a half to reach him. Everyone was asleep, and they had to rouse the boys. Presently Withers came out and they told him their errand. The head–boy showed him the revolver in proof of what he said. The A.D.O. went into his room to dress, sent for his car, and in a little while was following them back along the deserted road. The dawn was just breaking as he reached the Crosbies’ bungalow. He ran up the steps of the veranda, and stopped short as he saw Hammond’s body lying where he fell. He touched the face. It was quite cold.
‘Where’s mem?’ he asked the house–boy.
The Chinese pointed to the bedroom. Withers went to the door and knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again.
‘Mrs Crosbie,’ he called.
‘Who is it?’
‘Withers.’
There was another pause. Then the door was unlocked and slowly opened. Leslie stood before him. She had not been to bed, and wore the tea–gown in which she had dined. She stood and looked silently at the A.D.O.

‘Your house–boy fetched me,’ he said. ‘Hammond. What have you done?’
‘He tried to rape me, and I shot him.’
‘My God. I say, you’d better come out here. You must tell me exactly what happened.’
‘Not now. I can’t. You must give me time. Send for my husband.’
Withers was a young man, and he did not know exactly what to do in an emergency which was so out of the run of his duties. Leslie refused to say anything till at last Robert arrived. Then she told the two men the story, from which since then, though she had repeated it over and over again, she had never in the slightest degree diverged.
The point to which Mr Joyce recurred was the shooting. As a lawyer he was bothered that Leslie had fired not once, but six times, and the examination of the dead man showed that four of the shots had been fired close to the body. One might almost have thought that when the man fell she stood over him and emptied the contents of the revolver into him. She confessed that her memory, so accurate for all that had preceded, failed her here. Her mind was blank. It pointed to an uncontrollable fury; but uncontrollable fury was the last thing you would have expected from this quiet and demure woman. Mr Joyce had known her a good many years, and had always thought her an unemotional person; during the weeks that had passed since the tragedy her composure had been amazing.
Mr Joyce shrugged his shoulders.
‘The fact is, I suppose,’ he reflected, ‘that you can never tell what hidden possibilities of savagery there are in the most respectable of women.’
There was a knock at the door.
‘Come in.’
The Chinese clerk entered and closed the door behind him. He closed it gently, with deliberation, but decidedly, and advanced to the table at which Mr Joyce was sitting.
‘May I trouble you, sir, for a few words’ private conversation?’ he said. The elaborate accuracy with which the clerk expressed himself always faintly amused Mr Joyce, and now he smiled.
‘It’s no trouble, Chi Seng,’ he replied.
‘The matter on which I desire to speak to you, sir, is delicate and confidential.’
‘Fire away.’
Mr Joyce met his clerk’s shrewd eyes. As usual Ong Chi Seng was dressed in the height of local fashion. He wore very shiny patent–leather shoes and gay silk socks. In his black tie was a pearl and ruby pin, and on the fourth finger of his left hand a diamond ring. From the pocket of his neat white coat protruded a gold fountain pen and a gold pencil. He wore a gold wrist–watch, and on the bridge of his nose invisible pince–nez. He gave a little cough.
‘The matter has to do with the case R. v. Crosbie, sir.’
‘Yes?’
‘A circumstance has come to my knowledge, sir, which seems to me to put a different complexion on it.’
‘What circumstance?’
‘It has come to my knowledge, sir, that there is a letter in existence from the defendant to the unfortunate victim of the tragedy.’
‘I shouldn’t be at all surprised. In the course of the last seven years I have no doubt that Mrs Crosbie often had occasion to write to Mr Hammond.’

Mr Joyce had a high opinion of his clerk’s intelligence and his words were designed to conceal his thoughts.
‘That is very probable, sir. Mrs Crosbie must have communicated with the deceased frequently, to invite him to dine with her for example, or to propose a tennis game. That was my first thought when the matter was brought to my notice. This letter, however, was written on the day of the late Mr Hammond’s death.’
Mr Joyce did not flicker an eyelash. He continued to look at Ong Chi Seng with the smile of faint amusement with which he generally talked to him.
‘Who has told you this?’
‘The circumstances were brought to my knowledge, sir, by a friend of mine.’
Mr Joyce knew better than to insist.
‘You will no doubt recall, sir, that Mrs Crosbie has stated that until the fatal night she had had no communication with the deceased for several weeks.’
‘Have you got the letter?’
‘No, sir.’
‘What are its contents?’
‘My friend gave me a copy. Would you like to peruse it, sir?’
‘I should.’
Ong Chi Seng took from an inside pocket a bulky wallet. It was filled with papers, Singapore dollar notes and cigarette cards. From the confusion he presently extracted a half–sheet of thin notepaper and placed it before Mr Joyce. The letter read as follows:

R. will be away for the night. I absolutely must see you. I shall expect you at eleven. I am desperate, and if you don’t come I won’t answer for the consequences. Don’t drive up.–L.

It was written in the flowing hand which the Chinese were taught at the foreign schools. The writing, so lacking in character, was oddly incongruous with the ominous words.
‘What makes you think that this note was written by Mrs Crosbie?’
‘I have every confidence in the veracity of my informant, sir,’ replied Ong Chi Seng. ‘And the matter can very easily be put to the proof. Mrs Crosbie will, no doubt, be able to tell you at once whether she wrote such a letter or not.’
Since the beginning of the conversation Mr Joyce had not taken his eyes off the respectable countenance of his clerk. He wondered now if he discerned in it a faint expression of mockery.
‘It is inconceivable that Mrs Crosbie should have written such a letter,’ said Mr Joyce.
‘If that is your opinion, sir, the matter is of course ended. My friend spoke to me on the subject only because he thought, as I was in your office, you might like to know of the existence of this letter before a communication was made to the Deputy Public Prosecutor.’
‘Who has the original?’ asked Mr Joyce sharply.
Ong Chi Seng made no sign that he perceived in this question and its manner a change of attitude.
‘You will remember, sir, no doubt, that after the death of Mr Hammond it was discovered that he had had relations with a Chinese woman. The letter is at present in her possession.’
That was one of the things which had turned public opinion most vehemently against Hammond. It came to be known that for several months he had had a Chinese woman living in his house.

For a moment neither of them spoke. Indeed everything had been said and each understood the other perfectly.
‘I’m obliged to you, Chi Seng. I will give the matter my consideration.’
‘Very good, sir. Do you wish me to make a communication to that effect to my friend?’
‘I dare say it would be as well if you kept in touch with him,’ Mr Joyce answered with gravity. ‘Yes, sir.’
The clerk noiselessly left the room, shutting the door again with deliberation, and left Mr Joyce to his reflections. He stared at the copy, in its neat, impersonal writing, of Leslie’s letter. Vague suspicions troubled him. They were so disconcerting that he made an effort to put them out of his mind. There must be a simple explanation of the letter, and Leslie without doubt could give it at once, but, by heaven, an explanation was needed. He rose from his chair, put the letter in his pocket, and took his topee. When he went out Ong Chi Seng was busily writing at his desk.
‘I’m going out for a few minutes, Chi Seng,’ he said.
‘Mr George Reed is coming by appointment at twelve o’clock, sir. Where shall I say you’ve gone?’
Mr Joyce gave him a thin smile.
‘You can say that you haven’t the least idea.’
But he knew perfectly well that Ong Chi Seng was aware that he was going to the gaol. Though the crime had been committed in Belanda and the trial was to take place at Belanda Bharu, since there was in the gaol no convenience for the detention of a white woman Mrs Crosbie had been brought to Singapore.
When she was led into the room in which he waited she held out her thin, distinguished hand, and gave him a pleasant smile. She was as ever neatly and simply dressed, and her abundant, pale hair was arranged with care.
‘I wasn’t expecting to see you this morning,’ she said, graciously.
She might have been in her own house, and Mr Joyce almost expected to hear her call the boy and tell him to bring the visitor a gin pahit.
‘How are you?’ he asked.
‘I’m in the best of health, thank you.’ A flicker of amusement flashed across her eyes. ‘This is a wonderful place for a rest cure.’
The attendant withdrew and they were left alone.
‘Do sit down,’ said Leslie.
He took a chair. He did not quite know how to begin. She was so cool that it seemed almost impossible to say to her the thing he had come to say. Though she was not pretty there was something agreeable in her appearance. She had elegance, but it was the elegance of good breeding in which there was nothing of the artifice of society. You had only to look at her to know what sort of people she had and what kind of surroundings she had lived in. Her fragility gave her a singular refinement. It was impossible to associate her with the vaguest idea of grossness.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing Robert this afternoon,’ she said, in her good–humoured, easy voice. (It was a pleasure to hear her speak, her voice and her accent were so distinctive of her class.) ‘Poor dear, it’s been a great trial to his nerves. I’m thankful it’ll all be over in a few days.’
‘It’s only five days now.’
‘I know. Each morning when I awake I say to myself, “one less.”’ She smiled then. ‘Just as I used to do at school and the holidays were coming.’

‘By the way, am I right in thinking that you had no communication whatever with Hammond for several weeks before the catastrophe?’
‘I’m quite positive of that. The last time we met was at a tennis–party at the MacFarrens. I don’t think I said more than two words to him. They have two courts, you know, and we didn’t happen to be in the same sets.’
‘And you haven’t written to him?’
‘Oh, no.’
‘Are you quite sure of that?’
‘Oh, quite,’ she answered, with a little smile. ‘There was nothing I should write to him for except to ask him to dine or to play tennis, and I hadn’t done either for months.’
‘At one time you’d been on fairly intimate terms with him. How did it happen that you had stopped asking him to anything?’
Mrs Crosbie shrugged her thin shoulders.
‘One gets tired of people. We hadn’t anything very much in common. Of course, when he was ill Robert and I did everything we could for him, but the last year or two he’d been quite well, and he was very popular. He had a good many calls on his time, and there didn’t seem to be any need to shower invitations upon him.’
‘Are you quite certain that was all?’
Mrs Crosbie hesitated for a moment.
‘Well, I may just as well tell you. It had come to our ears that he was living with a Chinese woman, and Robert said he wouldn’t have him in the house.
I had seen her myself.’
Mr Joyce was sitting in a straight–backed arm–chair, resting his chin on his hand, and his eyes were fixed on Leslie. Was it his fancy that, as she made this remark, her black pupils were filled on a sudden, for the fraction of a second, with a dull red light? The effect was startling. Mr Joyce shifted in his chair. He placed the tips of his ten fingers together. He spoke very slowly, choosing his words.
‘I think I should tell you that there is in existence a letter in your handwriting to Geoff Hammond.’
He watched her closely. She made no movement, nor did her face change colour, but she took a noticeable time to reply.
‘In the past I’ve often sent him little notes to ask him to something or other, or to get me something when I knew he was going to Singapore.’
‘This letter asks him to come and see you because Robert was going to Singapore.’
‘That’s impossible. I never did anything of the kind.’
‘You’d better read it for yourself.’
He took it out of his pocket and handed it to her. She gave it a glance and with a smile of scorn handed it back to him.
‘That’s not my handwriting.’
‘I know, it’s said to be an exact copy of the original.’
She read the words now, and as she read a horrible change came over her. Her colourless face grew dreadful to look at. It turned green. The flesh seemed on a sudden to fall away and her skin was tightly stretched over the bones. Her lips receded, showing her teeth, so that she had the appearance of making a grimace. She stared at Mr Joyce with eyes that started from their sockets. He was looking now at a gibbering death’s head.
‘What does it mean?’ she whispered.

Her mouth was so dry that she could utter no more than a hoarse sound. It was no longer a human voice.
‘That is for you to say,’ he answered.
‘I didn’t write it. I swear I didn’t write it.’
‘Be very careful what you say. If the original is in your handwriting it would be useless to deny it.’
‘It would be a forgery.’
‘It would be difficult to prove that. It would be easy to prove that it was genuine.’
A shiver passed through her lean body. But great beads of sweat stood on her forehead. She took a handkerchief from her bag and wiped the palms of her hands. She glanced at the letter again and gave Mr Joyce a sidelong look.
‘It’s not dated. If I had written it and forgotten all about it, it might have
been written years ago. If you’ll give me time, I’ll try and remember the circumstances.’
‘I noticed there was no date. If this letter were in the hands of the prosecution they would cross–examine the boys. They would soon find out whether someone took a letter to Hammond on the day of his death.’
Mrs Crosbie clasped her hands violently and swayed in her chair so that he thought she would faint.
‘I swear to you that I didn’t write that letter.’
Mr Joyce was silent for a little while. He took his eyes from her distraught face, and looked down on the floor. He was reflecting.


 

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning