The Letter
by W. Somerset Maugham

 

‘I need not tell you that it would be very awkward if this letter found its way into the hands of the prosecution. Your wife has lied, and she would be asked to explain the lie. It alters things a little if Hammond did not intrude, an unwanted guest, but came to your house by invitation. It would be easy to arouse in the assessors a certain indecision of mind.’
Mr Joyce hesitated. He was face to face now with his decision. If it had been a time for humour, he could have smiled at the reflection that he was taking so grave a step, and that the man for whom he was taking it had not the smallest conception of its gravity. If he gave the matter a thought, he probably imagined that what Mr Joyce was doing was what any lawyer did in the ordinary run of business.

‘My dear Robert, you are not only my client, but my friend. I think we must get hold of that letter. It’ll cost a good deal of money. Except for that I should have preferred to say nothing to you about it.’
‘How much?’
‘Ten thousand dollars.’
‘That’s a devil of a lot. With the slump and one thing and another it’ll take just about all I’ve got.’
‘Can you get it at once?’
‘I suppose so. Old Charlie Meadows will let me have it on my tin shares and on those two estates I’m interested in.’
‘Then will you?’
‘Is it absolutely necessary?’
‘If you want your wife to be acquitted.’
Crosbie grew very red. His mouth sagged strangely.
‘But . . .’ he could not find words, his face now was purple. ‘But I don’t understand. She can explain. You don’t mean to say they’d find her guilty? They couldn’t hang her for putting a noxious vermin out of the way.’
‘Of course they wouldn’t hang her. They might only find her guilty of manslaughter. She’d probably get off with two or three years.’
Crosbie started to his feet and his red face was distraught with horror.
‘Three years.’
Then something seemed to dawn in that slow intelligence of his. His mind was darkness across which shot suddenly a flash of lightning, and though the succeeding darkness was as profound, there remained the memory of something not seen but perhaps just descried. Mr Joyce saw that Crosbie’s big red hands, coarse and hard with all the odd jobs he had set them to, trembled.
‘What was the present she wanted to make me?’
‘She says she wanted to give you a new gun.’
Once more that great red face flushed a deeper red.
‘When have you got to have the money ready?’
There was something odd in his voice now. It sounded as though he spoke with invisible hands clutching at his throat.
‘At ten o’clock tonight. I thought you could bring it to my office at about six.’
‘Is the woman coming to you?’
‘No, I’m going to her.’
‘I’ll bring the money. I’ll come with you.’
Mr Joyce looked at him sharply.
‘Do you think there’s any need for you to do that? I think it would be better if you left me to deal with this matter by myself.’
‘It’s my money, isn’t it? I’m going to come.’
Mr Joyce shrugged his shoulders. They rose and shook hands. Mr Joyce looked at him curiously.
At ten o’clock they met in the empty club.
‘Everything all right?’ asked Mr Joyce.
‘Yes. I’ve got the money in my pocket.’
‘Let’s go then.’

They walked down the steps. Mr Joyce’s car was waiting for them in the square, silent at that hour, and as they came to it Ong Chi Seng stepped out of the shadow of a house. He took his seat beside the driver and gave him a direction. They drove past the Hotel de l’Europe and turned up by the Sailor’s Home to get into Victoria Street. Here the Chinese shops were still open, idlers lounged about, and in the roadway rickshaws and motor–cars and gharries gave a busy air to the scene. Suddenly their car stopped and Chi Seng turned round.
‘I think it more better if we walk here, sir,’ he said.
They got out and he went on. They followed a step or two behind. Then he asked them to stop.
‘You wait here, sir. I go in and speak to my friend.’
He went into a shop, open to the street, where three or four Chinese were standing behind the counter. It was one of those strange shops where nothing was on view, and you wondered what it was they sold there. They saw him address a stout man in a duck suit with a large gold chain across his breast, and the man shot a quick glance out into the night. He gave Chi Seng a key and Chi Seng came out. He beckoned to the two men waiting and slid into a doorway at the side of the shop. They followed him and found themselves at the foot of a flight of stairs.

‘If you wait a minute I will light a match,’ he said, always resourceful. ‘You come upstairs, please.’
He held a Japanese match in front of them, but it scarcely dispelled the darkness and they groped their way up behind him. On the first floor he unlocked a door and going in lit a gas–jet.
‘Come in, please,’ he said.
It was a small square room, with one window, and the only furniture consisted of two low Chinese beds covered with matting. In one corner was a large chest, with an elaborate lock, and on this stood a shabby tray with an opium pipe on it and a lamp. There was in the room the faint, acrid scent of the drug. They sat down and Ong Chi Seng offered them cigarettes. In a moment the door was opened by the fat Chinaman whom they had seen behind the counter. He bade them good evening in very good English, and sat down by the side of his fellow–countryman.
‘The Chinese woman is just coming,’ said Chi Seng.
A boy from the shop brought in a tray with a teapot and cups and the Chinaman offered them a cup of tea. Crosbie refused. The Chinese talked to one another in undertones, but Crosbie and Mr Joyce were silent. At last there was the sound of a voice outside; someone was calling in a low tone; and the Chinaman went to the door. He opened it, spoke a few words, and ushered a woman in. Mr Joyce looked at her. He had heard much about her since Hammond’s death, but he had never seen her. She was a stoutish person, not very young, with a broad, phlegmatic face, she was powdered and rouged and her eyebrows were a thin black line, but she gave you the impression of a woman of character. She wore a pale blue jacket and a white skirt, her costume was not quite European nor quite Chinese, but on her feet were little Chinese silk slippers. She wore heavy gold chains round her neck, gold bangles on her wrists, gold ear–rings, and elaborate gold pins in her black hair. She walked in slowly, with the air of a woman sure of herself, but with a certain heaviness of tread, and sat down on the bed beside Ong Chi Seng. He said something to her and nodding she gave an incurious glance at the two white men.
‘Has she got the letter?’ asked Mr Joyce.

‘Yes, sir.’
Crosbie said nothing, but produced a roll of five–hundred–dollar notes.
He counted out twenty and handed them to Chi Seng.
‘Will you see if that is correct?’
The clerk counted them and gave them to the fat Chinaman.
‘Quite correct, sir.’
The Chinaman counted them once more and put them in his pocket. He spoke again to the woman and she drew from her bosom a letter. She gave it to Chi Seng who cast his eyes over it.
‘This is the right document, sir,’ he said, and was about to give it to Mr Joyce when Crosbie took it from him.
‘Let me look at it,’ he said.
Mr Joyce watched him read and then held out his hand for it.
‘You’d better let me have it.’
Crosbie folded it up deliberately and put it in his pocket.
‘No, I’m going to keep it myself. It’s cost me enough money.’
Mr Joyce made no rejoinder. The three Chinese watched the little passage, but what they thought about it, or whether they thought, it was impossible to tell from their impassive countenances. Mr Joyce rose to his feet.
‘Do you want me any more tonight, sir?’ said Ong Chi Seng.
‘No.’ He knew that the clerk wished to stay behind in order to get his agreed share of the money, and he turned to Crosbie. ‘Are you ready?’
Crosbie did not answer, but stood up. The Chinaman went to the door and opened it for them. Chi Seng found a bit of candle and lit it in order to light them down, and the two Chinese accompanied them to the street. They left the woman sitting quietly on the bed smoking a cigarette. When they reached the street the Chinese left them and went once more upstairs.
‘What are you going to do with that letter?’ asked Mr Joyce.
‘Keep it.’
They walked to where the car was waiting for them and here Mr Joyce offered his friend a lift. Crosbie shook his head.
‘I’m going to walk.’ He hesitated a little and shuffled his feet. ‘I went to Singapore on the night of Hammond’s death partly to buy a new gun that a man I knew wanted to dispose of. Good night.’
He disappeared quickly into the darkness.
Mr Joyce was quite right about the trial. The assessors went into court fully determined to acquit Mrs Crosbie. She gave evidence on her own behalf.
She told her story simply and with straightforwardness. The D.P.P. was a kindly man and it was plain that he took no great pleasure in his task. He asked the necessary questions in a deprecating manner. His speech for the prosecution might really have been a speech for the defence, and the assessors took less than five minutes to consider their popular verdict. It was impossible to prevent the great outburst of applause with which it was received by the crowd that packed the courthouse. The judge congratulated Mrs Crosbie and she was a free woman.
No one had expressed a more violent disapprobation of Hammond’s behaviour than Mrs Joyce; she was a woman loyal to her friends and she had insisted on the Crosbies staying with her after the trial, for she in common with everyone else had no doubt of the result, till they could make arrangements to go away. It was out of the question for poor, dear, brave Leslie to return to the bungalow at which the horrible catastrophe had taken place.


The trial was over by half past twelve and when they reached the Joyces’ house a grand luncheon was awaiting them. Cocktails were ready, Mrs Joyce’s million–dollar cocktail was celebrated through all the Malay States, and Mrs Joyce drank Leslie’s health. She was a talkative, vivacious woman, and now she was in the highest spirits. It was fortunate, for the rest of them were silent. She did not wonder; her husband never had much to say, and the other two were naturally exhausted from the long strain to which they had been subjected. During luncheon she carried on a bright and spirited monologue. Then coffee was served.
‘Now, children,’ she said in her gay, bustling fashion, ‘you must have a rest and after tea I shall take you both for a drive to the sea.’
Mr Joyce, who lunched at home only by exception, had of course to go back to his office.
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mrs Joyce,’ said Crosbie. ‘I’ve got to get back to the estate at once.’
‘Not today?’ she cried.
‘Yes, now. I’ve neglected it for too long and I have urgent business. But I shall be very grateful if you will keep Leslie until we have decided what to do.’ Mrs Joyce was about to expostulate, but her husband prevented her. ‘If he must go, he must, and there’s an end of it.’
There was something in the lawyer’s tone which made her look at him quickly. She held her tongue and there was a moment’s silence. Then Crosbie spoke again.
‘If you’ll forgive me, I’ll start at once so that I can get there before dark.’ He rose from the table. ‘Will you come and see me off, Leslie?’
‘Of course.’
They went out of the dining–room together.
‘I think that’s rather inconsiderate of him,’ said Mrs Joyce. ‘He must know that Leslie wants to be with him just now.’
‘I’m sure he wouldn’t go if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.’
‘Well, I’ll just see that Leslie’s room is ready for her. She wants a complete rest, of course, and then amusement.’
Mrs Joyce left the room and Joyce sat down again. In a short time he heard Crosbie start the engine of his motor–cycle and then noisily scrunch over the gravel of the garden path. He got up and went into the drawing–room. Mrs Crosbie was standing in the middle of it, looking into space, and in her hand was an open letter. He recognized it. She gave him a glance as he came in and he saw that she was deathly pale.
‘He knows,’ she whispered.


Mr Joyce went up to her and took the letter from her hand. He lit a match and set the paper afire. She watched it burn. When he could hold it no longer he dropped it on the tiled floor and they both looked at the paper curl and blacken. Then he trod it into ashes with his foot.
‘What does he know?’
She gave him a long, long stare and into her eyes came a strange look. Was it contempt or despair? Mr Joyce could not tell.
‘He knows that Geoff was my lover.’
Mr Joyce made no movement and uttered no sound.
‘He’d been my lover for years. He became my lover almost immediately after he came back from the war. We knew how careful we must be. When we became lovers I pretended I was tired of him, and he seldom came to the house when Robert was there. I used to drive out to a place we knew and he met me, two or three times a week, and when Robert went to Singapore he used to come to the bungalow late, when the boys had gone for the night. We saw one another constantly, all the time, and not a soul had the smallest suspicion of it. And then lately, a year ago, he began to change. I didn’t know what was the matter. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t care for me any more. He always denied it. I was frantic. I made him scenes. Sometimes I thought he hated me. Oh, if you knew what agonies I endured. I passed through hell. I knew he didn’t want me any more and I wouldn’t let him go. Misery! Misery! I loved him. I’d given him everything. He was my life. And then I heard he was living with a Chinese woman. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. At last I saw her, I saw her with my own eyes, walking in the village, with her gold bracelets and her necklaces, an old, fat Chinese woman. She was older than I was. Horrible!
They all knew in the kampong that she was his mistress. And when I passed her, she looked at me and I knew that she knew I was his mistress too. I sent for him. I told him I must see him. You’ve read the letter. I was mad to write it. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t care. I hadn’t seen him for ten days. It was a lifetime. And when last we’d parted he took me in his arms and kissed me, and told me not to worry. And he went straight from my arms to hers.’


She had been speaking in a low voice, vehemently, and now she stopped and wrung her hands.
‘That damned letter. We’d always been so careful. He always tore up any word I wrote to him the moment he’d read it. How was I to know he’d leave that one? He came, and I told him I knew about the Chinawoman. He denied it. He said it was only scandal. I was beside myself. I don’t know what I said to him. Oh, I hated him then. I tore him limb from limb. I said everything I could
to wound him. I insulted him. I could have spat in his face. And at last he turned on me. He told me he was sick and tired of me and never wanted to see me again. He said I bored him to death. And then he acknowledged that it was true about the Chinawoman. He said he’d known her for years, before the war, and she was the only woman who really meant anything to him, and the rest was just pastime. And he said he was glad I knew and now at last I’d leave him alone. And then I don’t know what happened, I was beside myself, I saw red.
I seized the revolver and I fired. He gave a cry and I saw I’d hit him. He staggered and rushed for the veranda. I ran after him and fired again. He fell and then I stood over him and I fired till the revolver went click, click, and
I knew there were no more cartridges.’
At last she stopped, panting. Her face was no longer human, it was distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such fiendish passion. Mr Joyce took a step backwards. He was absolutely aghast at the sight of her. It was not a face, it was a gibbering, hideous mask. Then they heard a voice calling from another room, a loud, friendly, cheerful voice. It was Mrs Joyce.
‘Come along, Leslie darling, your room’s ready. You must be dropping with sleep.’
Mrs Crosbie’s features gradually composed themselves. Those passions, so clearly delineated, were smoothed away as with your hand you would smooth crumpled paper, and in a minute the face was cool and calm and unlined. She was a trifle pale, but her lips broke into a pleasant, affable smile. She was once more the well–bred and even distinguished woman.
‘I’m coming, Dorothy dear. I’m sorry to give you so much trouble.’


 

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