The House of the Whispering Pines by Anna Katharine Green
Book Two. Sweetwater to the Front
XI. In the Coach House
All things that we ordained festival Turn from their office to black funeral; Our instruments to melancholy bells; Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast; And all things change them to the contrary. Romeo and Juliet.
Fifteen minutes later, he stood in a finely wooded street before an open gateway guarded by a policeman. Showing his badge, he passed in, and entered a long and slightly curved driveway. As he did so, he took a glance at the house. It was not as pretentious as he expected, but infinitely more inviting. Low and rambling, covered with vines, and nestling amid shrubbery which even in winter gave it a habitable air, it looked as much the abode of comfort as of luxury, and gave--in outward appearance at least--no hint of the dark shadow which had so lately fallen across it.
The ceremonies had been set for three o'clock, and it was now half past two. As Sweetwater reached the head of the driveway, he saw the first of a long file of carriages approaching up the street.
"Lucky that my business takes me to the stable," thought he. "What is the coachman's name? I ought to remember it. Ah--Zadok! Zadok Brown. There's a combination for you!"
He had reached this point in his soliloquy (a bad habit of his, for it sometimes took audible expression) when he ran against another policeman set to guard the side door. A moment's parley, and he left this man behind; but not before he had noted this door and the wide and hospitable verandah which separated it from the driveway.
"I am willing to go all odds that I shall find that verandah the most interesting part of the house," he remarked, in quiet conviction, to himself, as he noted its nearness to the stable and the ease with which one could step from it into a vehicle passing down the driveway.
It had another point of interest, or, rather the wing had to which it was attached. As his eye travelled back across this wing, in his lively walk towards the stable, he caught a passing glimpse of a nurse's face and figure in one of its upper windows. This located the sick chamber, and unconsciously he hushed his step and moved with the greatest caution, though he knew that this sickness was not one of the nerves, and that the loudest sound would fail to reach ears lapsed in a blessed, if alarming, unconsciousness.
Once around the corner, he resumed a more natural pace, and perceiving that the stable-door was closed but that a window well up the garden side was open, he cast a look towards the kitchen windows at his back, and, encountering no watchful eye, stepped up to the former one and peered in.
A man sat with his back to him, polishing a bit of harness. This was probably Zadok, the coachman. As his interest was less with him than with the stalls beyond, he let his eye travel on in their direction, when he suddenly experienced a momentary confusion by observing the head and shoulders of Hexford leaning towards him from an opposite window--in much the same fashion, and certainly with exactly the same intent, as himself. As their glances crossed, both flushed and drew back, only to return again, each to his several peep-hole. Neither meant to lose the advantage of the moment. Both had heard of the grey horse and wished to identify it; Hexford for his own satisfaction, Sweetwater as the first link of the chain leading him into the mysterious course mapped out for him by fate. That each was more or less under the surveillance of the other did not trouble either.
There were three stalls, and in each stall a horse stamped and fidgeted. Only one held their attention. This was a mare on the extreme left, a large grey animal with a curious black patch on its near shoulder. The faces of both men changed as they recognised this distinguishing mark, and instinctively their eyes met across the width of the open space separating them. Hexford's finger rose to his mouth, but Sweetwater needed no such hint. He stood, silent as his own shadow, while the coachman rubbed away with less and less purpose, until his hands stood quite still and his whole figure drooped in irresistible despondency. As he raised his face, moved perhaps by that sense of a watchful presence to which all of us are more or less susceptible, they were both surprised to see tears on it. The next instant he had started to his feet and the bit of harness had rattled from his hands to the floor.
"Who are you?" he asked, with a touch of anger, quite natural under the circumstances. "Can't you come in by the door, and not creep sneaking up to take a man at disadvantage?"
As he spoke, he dashed away the tears with which his cheeks were still wet.
"I thought a heap of my young mistress," he added, in evident apology for this display of what such men call weakness. "I didn't know that it was in me to cry for anything, but I find that I can cry for her."
Hexford left his window, and Sweetwater slid from his; next minute they met at the stable door.
"Had luck?" whispered the local officer.
"Enough to bring me here," acknowledged the other.
"Do you mean to this house or to this stable?"
"To this stable."
"Have you heard that the horse was out that night?"
"Yes, she was out."
"Ah, that's the question!"
"This man can't tell you."
A jerk of Hexford's thumb in Zadok's direction emphasised this statement.
"But I'm going to talk to him, for all that."
"He wasn't here that night; he was at a dance. He only knows that the mare was out."
"But I'm going to talk to him."
"May I come in, too? I'll not interrupt. I've just fifteen minutes to spare."
"You can do as you please. I've nothing to hide--from you, at any rate."
Which wasn't quite true; but Sweetwater wasn't a stickler for truth, except in the statements he gave his superiors.
Hexford threw open the stable-door, and they both walked in. The coachman was not visible, but they could hear him moving about above, grumbling to himself in none too encouraging a way.
Evidently he was in no mood for visitors.
"I'll be down in a minute," he called out, as their steps sounded on the hardwood floor.
Hexford sauntered over to the stalls. Sweetwater stopped near the doorway and glanced very carefully about him. Nothing seemed to escape his eye. He even took the trouble to peer into a waste-bin, and was just on the point of lifting down a bit of broken bottle from an open cupboard when Brown appeared on the staircase, dressed in his Sunday coat and carrying a bunch of fresh, hot-house roses.
He stopped midway as Sweetwater turned towards him from the cupboard, but immediately resumed his descent and was ready with his reply when Hexford accosted him from the other end of the stable:
"An odd beast, this. They don't drive her for her beauty, that's evident."
"She's fast and she's knowing," grumbled the coachman. "Reason enough for overlooking her spots. Who's that man?" he grunted, with a drop of his lantern jaws, and a slight gesture towards the unknown interloper.
"Another of us," replied Hexford, with a shrug. "We're both rather interested in this horse."
"Wouldn't another time do?" pleaded the coachman, looking gravely down at the flowers he held. "It's most time for the funeral and I don't feel like talking, indeed I don't, gentlemen."
"We won't keep you." It was Sweetwater who spoke. "The mare's company enough for us. She knows a lot, this mare. I can see it in her eye. I understand horses; we'll have a little chat, she and I, when you are gone."
Brown cast an uneasy glance at Hexford.
"He'd better not touch her," he cautioned. "He don't know the beast well enough for that."
"He won't touch her," Hexford assured him. "She does look knowing, don't she? Would like to tell us something, perhaps. Was out that night, I've heard you say. Curious! How did you know it?"
"I've said and said till I'm tired," Brown answered, with sudden heat. "This is pestering a man at a very unfortunate time. Look! the people are coming. I must go. My poor mistress! and poor Miss Carmel! I liked 'em, do ye understand? Liked 'em--and I do feel the trouble at the house, I do."
His distress was so genuine that Hexford was inclined to let him go; but Sweetwater with a cock of his keen eye put in his word and held the coachman where he was.
"The old gal is telling me all about it," muttered this sly, adaptable fellow. He had sidled up to the mare and their heads were certainly very close together. "Not touch her? See here!" Sweetwater had his arm round the filly's neck and was looking straight into her fiery and intelligent eye. "Shall I pass her story on?" he asked, with a magnetic smile at the astonished coachman, which not only softened him but seemed to give the watchful Hexford quite a new idea of this gawky interloper.
"You'll oblige me if you can put her knowledge into words," the man Zadok declared, with one fascinated eye on the horse and the other on the house where he evidently felt that his presence was wanted. "She was out that night, and I know it, as any coachman would know, who doesn't come home stone drunk. But where she was and who took her, get her to tell if you can, for I don't know no more 'n the dead."
"The dead!" flashed out Sweetwater, wheeling suddenly about and pointing straight through the open stable-door towards the house where the young mistress the old servant mourned, lay in her funeral casket. "Do you mean her--the lady who is about to be buried? Could she tell if her lips were not sealed by a murderer's hand?"
"She!" The word came low and awesomely. Rude and uncultured as the man was, he seemed to be strangely affected by this unexpected suggestion. "I haven't the wit to answer that," said he. "How can we tell what she knew. The man who killed her is in jail. He might talk to some purpose. Why don't you question him?"
"For a very good reason," replied Sweetwater, with an easy good-nature that was very reassuring. "He was arrested on the spot; so that it wasn't he who drove this mare home, unharnessed her, put her back in her stall, locked the stable-door and hung up the key in its place in the kitchen. Somebody else did that."
"That's true enough, and what does it show? That the mare was out on some other errand than the one which ended in blood and murder," was the coachman's unexpected retort.
"Is that so?" whispered Sweetwater into the mare's cocked ear. "She's not quite ready to commit herself," he drawled, with another enigmatical smile at the lingering Zadok. "She's keeping something back. Are you?" he pointedly inquired, leaving the stalls and walking briskly up to Zadok.
The coachman frowned and hastily retreated a step; but in another moment he leaped in a rage upon Sweetwater, when the sight of the flowers he held recalled him to himself and he let his hand fall again with the quiet remark:
"You're overstepping your dooty. I don't know who you are or what you want with me, but you're overstepping your dooty."
"He's right," muttered Hexford. "Better let the fellow go. See! one of the maids is beckoning to him."
"He shall go, and welcome, if he will tell me where he gets his taste for this especial brand of whiskey." Sweetwater had crossed to the cupboard and taken down the lower half of the broken bottle which had attracted his notice on his first entrance, and was now holding it out, with a quizzical look at the departing coachman.
Hexford was at his shoulder with a spring, and together they inspected the label still sticking to it--which was that of the very rare and expensive spirit found missing from the club-house vault.
"This is a find," muttered Hexford into his fellow detective's ear. Then, with a quick move towards Zadok, he shouted out:
"You'd better answer that question. Where did this bit of broken bottle come from? They don't give you whiskey like this to drink."
"That they don't," muttered the coachman, not so much abashed as they had expected. "And I wouldn't care for it if they did. I found that bit of bottle in the ash-barrel outside, and fished it out to put varnish in. I liked the shape."
"Broken this way?"
"Yes; it's just as good."
"Is it? Well, never mind, run along. We'll close the stable-door for you."
"I'd rather do it myself and carry in the key."
"Here then; we're going to the funeral, too. You'd like to?" This latter in a whisper to Sweetwater.
The answer was a fervent one. Nothing in all the world would please this protean-natured man quite so well.