The Letter
by W. Somerset Maugham

 

‘In these circumstances we need not go into the matter further,’ he said slowly, at last breaking the silence. ‘If the possessor of this letter sees fit to place it in the hands of the prosecution you will be prepared.’
His words suggested that he had nothing more to say to her, but he made no movement of departure. He waited. To himself he seemed to wait a very long time. He did not look at Leslie, but he was conscious that she sat very still. She made no sound. At last it was he who spoke.
‘If you have nothing more to say to me I think I’ll be getting back to my office.’
‘What would anyone who read the letter be inclined to think that it meant?’ she asked then.
‘He’d know that you had told a deliberate lie,’ answered Mr Joyce sharply.
‘When?’
‘You have stated definitely that you had had no communication with Hammond for at least three months.’
‘The whole thing has been a terrible shock to me. The events of that dreadful night have been a nightmare. It’s not very strange if one detail has escaped my memory.’
‘It would be unfortunate, when your memory has reproduced so exactly every particular of your interview with Hammond, that you should have forgotten so important a point as that he came to see you in the bungalow on the night of his death at your express desire.’
‘I hadn’t forgotten. After what happened I was afraid to mention it. I thought you’d none of you believe my story if I admitted that he’d come at my invitation. I dare say it was stupid of me; but I lost my head, and after I’d said once that I’d had no communication with Hammond I was obliged to stick
to it.’
By now Leslie had recovered her admirable composure, and she met Mr Joyce’s appraising glance with candour. Her gentleness was very disarming.

‘You will be required to explain, then, why you asked Hammond to come and see you when Robert was away for the night.’
She turned her eyes full on the lawyer. He had been mistaken in thinking them insignificant, they were rather fine eyes, and unless he was mistaken they were bright now with tears. Her voice had a little break in it.
‘It was a surprise I was preparing for Robert. His birthday is next month.
I knew he wanted a new gun and you know I’m dreadfully stupid about sporting things. I wanted to talk to Geoff about it. I thought I’d get him to order it for me.’
‘Perhaps the terms of the letter are not very clear to your recollection. Will you have another look at it?’
‘No, I don’t want to,’ she said quickly.
‘Does it seem to you the sort of letter a woman would write to a somewhat distant acquaintance because she wanted to consult him about buying a gun?’
‘I dare say it’s rather extravagant and emotional. I do express myself like that, you know. I’m quite prepared to admit it’s very silly.’ She smiled. ‘And after all, Geoff Hammond wasn’t quite a distant acquaintance. When he was ill I’d nursed him like a mother. I asked him to come when Robert was away, because Robert wouldn’t have him in the house.’
Mr Joyce was tired of sitting so long in the same position. He rose and walked once or twice up and down the room, choosing the words he proposed to say; then he leaned over the back of the chair in which he had been sitting. He spoke slowly in a tone of deep gravity.
‘Mrs Crosbie, I want to talk to you very, very seriously. This case was comparatively plain sailing. There was only one point which seemed to me to require explanation: as far as I could judge, you had fired no less than four shots into Hammond when he was lying on the ground. It was hard to accept the possibility that a delicate, frightened, and habitually self–controlled woman, of gentle nature and refined instincts, should have surrendered to an absolutely uncontrolled frenzy. But of course it was admissible. Although Geoffrey Hammond was much liked and on the whole thought highly of, I was prepared to prove that he was the sort of man who might be guilty of the crime which in justification of your act you accused him of. The fact, which was discovered after his death, that he had been living with a Chinese woman gave us something very definite to go upon. That robbed him of any sympathy which might have been felt for him. We made up our minds to make use of the odium which such a connexion cast upon him in the minds of all respectable people. I told your husband this morning that I was certain of an acquittal, and I wasn’t just telling him that to give him heart. I do not believe the assessors would have left the court.’
They looked into one another’s eyes. Mrs Crosbie was strangely still. She was like a little bird paralysed by the fascination of a snake. He went on in the same quiet tones.
‘But this letter has thrown an entirely different complexion on the case. I am your legal adviser, I shall represent you in court. I take your story as you tell it me, and I shall conduct your defence according to its terms. It may be that I believe your statements, and it may be that I doubt them. The duty of counsel is to persuade the court that the evidence placed before it is not such as to justify it in bringing in a verdict of guilty, and any private opinion he may have of the guilt or innocence of his client is entirely beside the point.’
He was astonished to see in Leslie’s eyes the flicker of a smile. Piqued, he went on somewhat dryly:

‘You’re not going to deny that Hammond came to your house at your urgent, and I may even say, hysterical invitation?’
Mrs Crosbie, hesitating for an instant, seemed to consider.
‘They can prove that the letter was taken to his bungalow by one of the house–boys. He rode over on his bicycle.’
‘You mustn’t expect other people to be stupider than you. The letter will put them on the track of suspicions which have entered nobody’s head. I will not tell you what I personally thought when I saw the copy. I do not wish you to tell me anything but what is needed to save your neck.’
Mrs Crosbie gave a shrill cry. She sprang to her feet, white with terror.
‘You don’t think they’d hang me?’
‘If they came to the conclusion that you hadn’t killed Hammond in self–
defence, it would be the duty of the assessors to bring in a verdict of guilty. The charge is murder. It would be the duty of the judge to sentence you to death.’
‘But what can they prove?’ she gasped.
‘I don’t know what they can prove. You know. I don’t want to know. But if their suspicions are aroused, if they begin to make inquiries, if the natives are questioned–what is it that can be discovered?’
She crumpled up suddenly. She fell on the floor before he could catch her. She had fainted. He looked round the room for water, but there was none there, and he did not want to be disturbed. He stretched her out on the floor, and kneeling beside her waited for her to recover. When she opened her eyes he was disconcerted by the ghastly fear that he saw in them.
‘Keep quite still,’ he said. ‘You’ll be better in a moment.’
‘You won’t let them hang me,’ she whispered.
She began to cry, hysterically, while in undertones he sought to quieten her.
‘For goodness sake pull yourself together,’ he said.
‘Give me a minute.’
Her courage was amazing. He could see the effort she made to regain her self–control, and soon she was once more calm.
‘Let me get up now.’
He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. Taking her arm, he led her to the chair. She sat down wearily.
‘Don’t talk to me for a minute or two,’ she said.
‘Very well.’
When at last she spoke it was to say something which he did not expect. She gave a little sigh.
‘I’m afraid I’ve made rather a mess of things,’ she said.
He did not answer, and once more there was a silence.
‘Isn’t it possible to get hold of the letter?’ she said at last.
‘I do not think anything would have been said to me about it if the person in whose possession it is was not prepared to sell it.’
‘Who’s got it?’
‘The Chinese woman who was living in Hammond’s house.’
A spot of colour flickered for an instant on Leslie’s cheek–bones.
‘Does she want an awful lot for it?’
‘I imagine that she has a very shrewd idea of its value. I doubt if it would be possible to get hold of it except for a very large sum.’
‘Are you going to let me be hanged?’
‘Do you think it’s so simple as all that to secure possession of an unwelcome piece of evidence? It’s no different from suborning a witness. You have no right to make any such suggestion to me.’

‘Then what is going to happen to me?’
‘Justice must take its course.’
She grew very pale. A little shudder passed through her body.
‘I put myself in your hands. Of course I have no right to ask you to do anything that isn’t proper.’
Mr Joyce had not bargained for the little break in her voice which her habitual self–restraint made quite intolerably moving. She looked at him with humble eyes, and he thought that if he rejected their appeal they would haunt him for the rest of his life. After all, nothing could bring poor Hammond back to life again. He wondered what really was the explanation of that letter. It was not fair to conclude from it that she had killed Hammond without provocation. He had lived in the East a long time and his sense of professional honour was not perhaps so acute as it had been twenty years before. He stared at the floor. He made up his mind to do something which he knew was unjustifiable, but it stuck in his throat and he felt dully resentful towards Leslie. It embarrassed him a little to speak.
‘I don’t know exactly what your husband’s circumstances are?’
Flushing a rosy red, she shot a swift glance at him.
‘He has a good many tin shares and a small share in two or three rubber estates. I suppose he could raise money.’
‘He would have to be told what it was for.’
She was silent for a moment. She seemed to think.
‘He’s in love with me still. He would make any sacrifice to save me. Is there any need for him to see the letter?’
Mr Joyce frowned a little, and, quick to notice, she went on.
‘Robert is an old friend of yours. I’m not asking you to do anything for me, I’m asking you to save a rather simple, kind man who never did you any harm from all the pain that’s possible.’
Mr Joyce did not reply. He rose to go and Mrs Crosbie, with the grace that was natural to her, held out her hand. She was shaken by the scene, and her look was haggard, but she made a brave attempt to speed him with courtesy.
‘It’s so good of you to take all this trouble for me. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am.’
Mr Joyce returned to his office. He sat in his own room, quite still, attempting to do no work, and pondered. His imagination brought him many strange ideas. He shuddered a little. At last there was the discreet knock on the door which he was expecting. Ong Chi Seng came in.
‘I was just going out to have my tiffin, sir,’ he said.
‘All right.’
‘I didn’t know if there was anything you wanted before I went, sir.’
‘I don’t think so. Did you make another appointment for Mr Reed?’
‘Yes, sir. He will come at three o’clock.’
‘Good.’
Ong Chi Seng turned away, walked to the door, and put his long slim fingers on the handle. Then, as though on an afterthought, he turned back.
‘Is there anything you wish me to say to my friend, sir?’
Although Ong Chi Seng spoke English so admirably he had still a difficulty with the letter R, and he pronounced it ‘fliend’.
‘What friend?’
‘About the letter Mrs Crosbie wrote to Hammond deceased, sir.’
‘Oh! I’d forgotten about that. I mentioned it to Mrs Crosbie and she denies having written anything of the sort. It’s evidently a forgery.’

Mr Joyce took the copy from his pocket and handed it to Ong Chi Seng. Ong Chi Seng ignored the gesture.
‘In that case, sir, I suppose there would be no objection if my fliend delivered the letter to the Deputy Public Prosecutor.’
‘None. But I don’t quite see what good that would do your friend.’
‘My fliend, sir, thought it was his duty in the interests of justice.’
‘I am the last man in the world to interfere with anyone who wishes to do his duty, Chi Seng.’
The eyes of the lawyer and of the Chinese clerk met. Not the shadow of a smile hovered on the lips of either, but they understood each other perfectly.
‘I quite understand, sir,’ said Ong Chi Seng, ‘but from my study of the case R. v. Crosbie I am of opinion that the production of such a letter would be damaging to our client.’
‘I have always had a very high opinion of your legal acumen, Chi Seng.’
‘It had occurred to me, sir, that if I could persuade my fliend to induce the Chinese woman who has the letter to deliver it into our hands it would save a great deal of trouble.’
Mr Joyce idly drew faces on his blotting–paper.
‘I suppose your friend is a business man. In what circumstances do you think he would be induced to part with the letter?’
‘He has not got the letter. The Chinese woman has the letter. He is only a relation of the Chinese woman. She is ignorant woman; she did not know the value of that letter till my friend told her.’
‘What value did he put on it?’
‘Ten thousand dollars, sir.’
‘Good God! Where on earth do you suppose Mrs Crosbie can get ten thousand dollars! I tell you the letter’s a forgery.’
He looked up at Ong Chi Seng as he spoke. The clerk was unmoved by the outburst. He stood at the side of the desk, civil, cool, and observant.
‘Mr Crosbie owns an eighth share of the Betong Rubber Estate and a sixth share of the Selantan River Rubber Estate. I have a fliend who will lend him the money on the security of–his property.’
‘You have a large circle of acquaintance, Chi Seng.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Well, you can tell them all to go to hell. I would never advise Mr Crosbie
to give a penny more than five thousand for a letter that can be very easily explained.’
‘The Chinese woman does not want to sell the letter, sir. My fliend took a long time to persuade her. It is useless to offer her less than the sum mentioned.’
Mr Joyce looked at Ong Chi Seng for at least three minutes. The clerk bore the searching scrutiny without embarrassment. He stood in a respectful attitude with downcast eyes. Mr Joyce knew his man. Clever fellow, Chi Seng, he thought, I wonder how much he’s going to get out of it.
‘Ten thousand dollars is a very large sum.’
‘Mr Crosbie will certainly pay it rather than see his wife hanged, sir.’
Again Mr Joyce paused. What more did Chi Seng know than he had said? He must be pretty sure of his ground if he was obviously so unwilling to bargain. That sum had been fixed because whoever it was that was managing the affair knew it was the largest amount that Robert Crosbie could raise.
‘Where is the Chinese woman now?’ asked Mr Joyce.

‘She is staying at the house of my fliend, sir.’
‘Will she come here?’
‘I think it more better if you go to her, sir. I can take you to the house tonight and she will give you the letter. She is very ignorant woman, sir, and she does not understand cheques.’
‘I wasn’t thinking of giving her a cheque. I will bring bank notes with me.’
‘It would only be waste of valuable time to bring less than ten thousand dollars, sir.’
‘I quite understand.’
‘I will go and tell my fliend after I have had my tiffin, sir.’
‘Very good. You’d better meet me outside the club at ten o’clock tonight.’
‘With pleasure, sir,’ said Ong Chi Seng.
He gave Mr Joyce a little bow and left the room. Mr Joyce went out to have luncheon, too. He went to the club and here, as he had expected, he saw Robert Crosbie. He was sitting at a crowded table, and as he passed him, looking for a place, Mr Joyce touched him on the shoulder.
‘I’d like a word or two with you before you go,’ he said.
‘Right you are. Let me know when you’re ready.’
Mr Joyce had made up his mind how to tackle him. He played a rubber of bridge after luncheon in order to allow time for the club to empty itself. He did not want on this particular matter to see Crosbie in his office. Presently Crosbie came into the card–room and looked on till the game was finished. The other players went on their various affairs, and the two were left alone.
‘A rather unfortunate thing has happened, old man,’ said Mr Joyce, in a tone which he sought to render as casual as possible. ‘It appears that your wife sent a letter to Hammond asking him to come to the bungalow on the night he was killed.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ cried Crosbie. ‘She’s always stated that she had had
no communication with Hammond. I know from my own knowledge that she hadn’t set eyes on him for a couple of months.’
‘The fact remains that the letter exists. It’s in the possession of the Chinese woman Hammond was living with. Your wife meant to give you a present on your birthday, and she wanted Hammond to help her to get it. In the emotional excitement that she suffered from after the tragedy, she forgot all about it, and having once denied having any communication with Hammond she was afraid to say that she had made a mistake. It was, of course, very unfortunate, but
I dare say it was not unnatural.’
Crosbie did not speak. His large, red face bore an expression of complete bewilderment, and Mr Joyce was at once relieved and exasperated by his lack of comprehension. He was a stupid man, and Mr Joyce had no patience with stupidity. But his distress since the catastrophe had touched a soft spot in the lawyer’s heart; and Mrs Crosbie had struck the right note when she asked him to help her, not for her sake, but for her husband’s.


 

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