The House of the Whispering Pines by Anna Katharine Green
Book Two. Sweetwater to the Front
XIX. "It's Not What You Will Find"
I am not mad;--I would to heaven I were! For then, 't is like I should forget myself: O, if I could, what grief should I forget!-- Preach some philosophy to make me mad, For being not mad, but sensible of grief, My reasonable part produces reason How I may be delivered of these woes. King John.
"I regret to disturb you, Arthur; but my business is of great importance, and should be made known to you at once. This I say as a friend. I might have waited for the report to have reached you from hearsay, or through the evening papers; but I preferred to be the one to tell you. You can understand why."
Sullen and unmollified, the young man thus addressed eyed, apprehensively, his father's old friend, placed so unfortunately in his regard, and morosely exclaimed:
"Out with it! I'm a poor hand at guessing. What has happened now?"
"A discovery. A somewhat serious one I fear; at least, it will force the police to new action. Your sister may not have died entirely from strangulation; other causes may have been at work!"
"Now, what do you mean by that?" Arthur Cumberland was under his own roof and in presence of one who should have inspired his respect; but he made no effort to hide the fury which these words called up. "I should like to know what deviltry is in your minds now. Am I never to have peace?"
"Peace and tragedy do not often run together," came in the mild tones of his would-be friend. "A great crime has taken place. All the members of this family are involved--to say nothing of the man who lies, now, under the odium of suspicion, in our common county jail. Peace can only come with the complete clearing up of this crime, and the punishment of the guilty. But the clearing up must antedate the punishment. Mr. Ranelagh's assertion that he found Miss Cumberland dead when he approached her, may not be, as so many now believe, the reckless denial of a criminal, disturbed in his act. It may have had a basis in fact."
"I don't believe it. Nothing will make me believe it," stormed the other, jumping up, and wildly pacing the drawing-room floor. "It is all a scheme for saving the most popular man in society. Society! That for society!" he shouted out, snapping his fingers. "He is president of the club; the pet of women; the admired of all the dolts and gawks who are taken with his style, his easy laughter, and his knack at getting at men's hearts. He won't laugh so easily when he's up before a jury for murder; and he'll never again fool women or bulldoze men, even if they are weak enough to acquit him of this crime. Enough of the smirch will stick to prevent that. If it doesn't, I'll--"
Again his hands went out in the horribly suggestive way they had done at his sister's funeral. The coroner sat appalled,--confused, almost distracted between his doubts, his convictions, his sympathy for the man and his recoil from the passions he would be only too ready to pardon if he could feel quite sure of their real root and motive. Cumberland may have felt the other's silence, or he may have realised the imprudence of his own fury; for he dropped his hands with an impatient sigh, and blurted out:
"But you haven't told me your discovery. It seems to me it is a little late to make discoveries now."
"This was brought about by the persistence of Sweetwater. He seems to have an instinct for things. He was leaning out of the window at the rear of the clubhouse--the window of that small room where your sister's coat was found--and he saw, caught in the vines beneath, a--"
"Why don't you speak out? I cannot tell what he found unless you name it."
"A little bottle--an apothecary's phial. It was labelled 'Poison,' and it came from this house."
Arthur Cumberland reeled; then he caught himself up and stood, staring, with a very obvious intent of getting a grip on himself before he spoke.
The coroner waited, a slight flush deepening on his cheek.
"How do you know that phial came from this house?"
Dr. Perry looked up, astonished. He was prepared for the most frantic ebullitions of wrath, for violence even; or for dull, stupid, blank silence. But this calm, quiet questioning of fact took him by surprise. He dropped his anxious look, and replied:
"It has been seen on the shelves by more than one of your servants. Your sister kept it with her medicines, and the druggist with whom you deal remembers selling it some time ago to a member of your family."
"Which member? I don't believe this story; I don't believe any of your--" He was fast verging on violence now.
"You will have to, Arthur. Facts are facts, and we cannot go against them. The person who bought it was yourself. Perhaps you can recall the circumstance now."
"I cannot." He did not seem to be quite master of himself. "I don't know half the things I do; at least, I didn't use to. But what are you coming to? What's in your mind, and what are your intentions? Something to shame us further, I've no doubt. You're soft on Ranelagh and don't care how I feel, or how Carmel will feel when she comes to herself--poor girl. Are you going to call it suicide? You can't, with those marks on her throat."
"We're going to carry out our investigations to the full. We're going to hold the autopsy, which we didn't think necessary before. That's why I am here, Arthur. I thought it your due to know our intentions in regard to this matter. If you wish to be present, you have only to say so; if you do not, you may trust me to remember that she was your father's daughter, as well as my own highly esteemed friend."
Shaken to the core, the young man sat down amid innumerable tokens of the two near, if not dear, ones just mentioned; and for a moment had nothing to say. Gone was his violence, gone his self-assertion, and his insolent, captious attitude towards his visitor. The net had been drawn too tightly, or the blow fallen too heavily. He was no longer a man struggling with his misery, but a boy on whom had fallen a man's responsibilities, sufferings, and cares.
"My duty is here," he said at last. "I cannot leave Carmel."
"The autopsy will take place to-morrow. How is Carmel to-day?"
"No better." The words came with a shudder. "Doctor, I've been a brute to you. I am a brute! I have misused my life and have no strength with which to meet trouble. What you propose to do with--with Adelaide is horrible to me. I didn't love her much while she was living; I broke her heart and shamed her, from morning till night, every day of her life; but good-for-nothing as I am and good-for-nothing as I've always been, if I could save her body this last humiliation, I would willingly die right here and now, and be done with it. Must this autopsy take place?"
"Then--" He raised his arm; the blood swept up, dyeing his cheeks, his brow, his very neck a vivid scarlet. "Tell them to lock up every bottle the house holds, or I cannot answer for myself. I should like to drink and drink till I knew nothing, cared for nothing, was a madman or a beast."
"You will not drink." The coroner's voice rang deep; he was greatly moved. "You will not drink, and you will come to the office at five o'clock to-morrow. We may have only good news to impart. We may find nothing to complicate the situation."
Arthur Cumberland shook his head. "It's not what you will find--" said he, and stopped, biting his lips and looking down.
The coroner uttered a few words of consolation forced from him by the painfulness of the situation. The young man did not seem to hear them. The only sign of life he gave was to rush away the moment the coroner had taken his leave, and regain his seat within sight and hearing of his still unconscious sister. As he did so, these words came to his ears through the door which separated them:
"Flowers--I smell flowers! Lila, you always loved flowers; but I never saw your hands so full of them."
Arthur uttered a sharp cry; then, bowing his face upon his aims, he broke into sobs which shook the table where he sat.
Twenty-four hours later, in the coroner's office, sat an anxious group discussing the great case and the possible revelations awaiting them. The district attorney, Mr. Clifton, the chief of police, and one or two others--among them Sweetwater--made up the group, and carried on the conversation. Dr. Perry only was absent. He had undertaken to make the autopsy and had been absent, for this purpose, several hours.
Five o'clock had struck, and they were momentarily looking for his reappearance; but, when the door opened, as it did at this time, it was to admit young Cumberland, whose white face and shaking limbs betrayed his suspense and nervous anxiety.
He was welcomed coldly, but not impolitely, and sat down in very much the same place he had occupied during his last visit, but in a very different, and much more quiet state of mind. To Sweetwater, his aspect was one of despair, but be made no remark upon it; only kept all his senses alert for the coming moment, of so much importance to them all. But even he failed to guess how important, until the door opened again, and the coroner appeared, looking not so much depressed as stunned. Picking out Arthur from the group, he advanced towards him with some commonplace remark; but desisted suddenly and turned upon the others instead.
"I have finished the autopsy," said he. "I knew just what poison the phial had held, and lost no time in my tests. A minute portion of this drug, which is dangerous only in large quantities, was found in the stomach of the deceased; but not enough to cause serious trouble, and she died, as we had already decided, from the effect of the murderous clutch upon her throat. But," he went on sternly, as young Cumberland moved, and showed signs of breaking in with one of his violent invectives against the supposed assassin, "I made another discovery of still greater purport. When we lifted the body out of its resting-place, something beside withered flowers slid from her breast and fell at our feet. The ring, gentlemen--the ring which Ranelagh says was missing from her hand when he came upon her, and which certainly was not on her finger when she was laid in the casket,--rolled to the floor when we moved her. Here it is; there is one person here, at least, who can identify it. But I do not ask that person to speak. That we may well spare him."
He laid the ring on the table, not too near Arthur, not within reach of his hand, but close enough for him to see it. Then he sat down, and hid his face in his hands. The last few days had told on him. He looked older, by ten years, than he had at the beginning of the month.
The silence which followed these words and this action, was memorable to everybody there concerned. Some had seen, and all had heard of young Cumberland's desperate interruption of the funeral, and the way his hand had invaded the flowers which the children had cast in upon her breast. As the picture, real or fancied, rose before their eyes, one man rose and left his place at the table; then another, and presently another. Even Charles Clifton drew back. The district attorney remained where he was, and so did young Cumberland. The latter had reached out his hand, but he had not touched the ring, and he sat thus, frozen. What went on in his heart, no man there could guess, and he did not enlighten them. When at last he looked up, it was with a dazed air and an almost humble mien:
"Providence has me this time," he muttered. "I don't understand these mysteries. You will have to deal with them as you think best." His eyes, still glued to the jewel, dilated and filled with fierce light as he said this. "Damn the ring, and damn the man who gave it to her! However it came into her casket, he's at the bottom of the business, just as he was at the bottom of her death. If you think anything else, you will think a lie."
Turning away, he made for the door. There was in his manner, desperation approaching to bravado, but no man made the least effort to detain him. Not till he was well out of the room did any one move, then the district attorney raised his finger, and Arthur Cumberland did not ride back to his home alone.