The House of the Whispering Pines by Anna Katharine Green
Book Three. Hidden Surprises
XX. "He or You! There is no Third"
A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, And yet I would not sleep Merciful powers! Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature Gives way to in repose. Macbeth.
For several days I had been ill. They were merciful days to me since I was far too weak for thought. Then there came a period of conscious rest, then renewed interest in life and my own fate and reputation. What had happened during this interval?
I had a confused memory of having seen Clifton's face at my bedside, but I was sure that no words had passed between us. When would he come again? When should I hear about Carmel, and whether she were yet alive, or mercifully dead, like her sister? I might read the papers, but they had been carefully kept from me. Not one was in sight. The nurse would undoubtedly give me the information I desired, but, kind as she had been, I dreaded to consult a stranger about matters which involved my very existence and every remaining hope. Yet I must know; for I could not help thinking, now, and I dreaded to think amiss and pile up misery for myself when I needed support and consolation.
I would risk one question, but no more. I would ask about the inquest. Had it been held? If she said yes--ah, if she said yes!--I should know that Carmel was dead; and the news, coming thus, would kill me. So I asked nothing, and was lying in a sufficiently feverish condition when the doctor came in, saw my state, and thinking to cheer me up, remarked blandly:
"You are well enough this morning to hear good news. Do you recognise the room you are in?"
"I'm in the hospital, am I not?"
"Hardly. You are in one of Mr. O'Hagen's own rooms." (Mr. O'Hagen was the head keeper.) "You are detained, now, simply as a witness."
I was struck to the heart; terrified in an instant.
"What? Why? What has happened?" I questioned, rapidly, half starting up, then falling back on my pillow under his astonished eye.
"Nothing," he parried, seeing his mistake, and resorting to the soothing process. "They simply have had time to think. You're not the sort of man from which criminals are made."
"That's nonsense," I retorted, reckless of his opinion, and mad to know the truth, yet shrinking horribly from it. "Criminals are made from all kinds of men; neither are the police so philosophical. Something has occurred. But don't tell me--" I protested inconsistently, as he opened his lips. "Send for Mr. Clifton. He's my friend; I can better bear--"
"Here he is," said the doctor, as the door softly opened under the nurse's careful hand.
I looked up, saw Charles's faithful face, and stretched out my hand without speaking. Never had I needed a friend more, and never had I been more constrained in my greeting. I feared to show my real heart, my real fears, my real reason for not hailing my release, as every one evidently expected me to!
With a gesture to the nurse, the doctor tiptoed out, muttering to Clifton, as he passed, some word of warning or casual instruction. The nurse followed, and Clifton, coming forward, took a seat at my side. He was cheerful but not too cheerful; and the air of slight constraint which tinged his manner, as much as it did mine, did not escape me.
"Well, old fellow," he began--
My hand went up in entreaty.
"Tell me why they have withdrawn their suspicions. I've heard nothing--read nothing--for days. I don't understand this move."
For reply, he laid his hand on mine.
"You're stanch," he began. "You have my regard, Elwood. Not many men would have stood the racket and sacrificed themselves as you have done. The fact is recognised, now, and your motive--"
I must have turned very white; for he stopped and sprang to his feet, searching for some restorative.
I felt the need of blinding him to my condition. With an effort, which shook me from head to foot, I lifted myself from the depths into which his words had plunged me, and fighting for self-control, faltered forth, feebly enough:
"Don't be frightened. I'm all right again; I guess I'm not very strong yet. Sit down; I don't need anything."
He turned and surveyed me carefully, and finding my colour restored, reseated himself, and proceeded, more circumspectly:
"Perhaps I had better wait till to-morrow before I satisfy your curiosity," said he.
"And leave me to imagine all sorts of horrors? No! Tell me at once. Is--is--has anything happened at the Cumberlands'?"
"Yes. What you feared has happened--No, no; Carmel is not dead. Did you think I meant that? Forgive me. I should have remembered that you had other causes for anxiety than the one weighing on our minds. She is holding her own--just holding it--but that is something, in one so young and naturally healthy."
I could see that I baffled him. It could not be helped. I did not dare to utter the question with which my whole soul was full. I could only look my entreaty. He misunderstood it, as was natural enough.
"She does not know yet what is in store for her," were his words; and I could only lie still, and look at him helplessly, and try not to show the despair that was sinking me deeper and deeper into semi-unconsciousness. "When she comes to herself, she will have to be told; but you will be on your feet, then, and will be allowed, no doubt, to soften the blow for her by your comfort and counsel. The fact that it must have been you, if not he--"
"He!" Did I shout it, or was the shout simply in my own mind? I trembled as I rose on my elbow. I searched his face in terror of my self-betrayal; but his showed only compassion and an eager desire to clear the air between us by telling me the exact facts.
"Yes--Arthur. His guilt has not been proven; he has not even been remanded; the sister's case is too pitiful and Coroner Perry too soft-hearted, where any of that family is involved. But no one doubts his guilt, and he does not deny it himself. You know--probably no one better--that he cannot very consistently do this, in face of the evidence accumulated against him, evidence stronger in many regards, than that accumulated against yourself. The ungrateful boy! The--the--Pardon me, I don't often indulge in invectives against unhappy men who have their punishment before them, but I was thinking of you and what you have suffered in this jail, where you have not belonged--no, not for a day."
"Don't think of me." The words came with a gasp. I was never so hard put to it--not when I first realised that I had been seen with my fingers on Adelaide's throat. Arthur! A booby and a boor, but certainly not the slayer of his sister, unless I had been woefully mistaken in all that had taken place in that club-house previous to my entrance into it on that fatal night. As I caught Clifton's eye fixed upon me, I repeated--though with more self-control, I hope: "Don't think of me. I'm not thinking of myself. You speak of evidence. What evidence? Give me details. Don't you see that I am burning with curiosity? I shan't be myself till I hear."
This alarmed him.
"It's a risk," said he. "The doctor told me to be careful not to excite you too much. But suspense is always more intolerable than certainty, and you have heard too much to be left in ignorance of the rest."
"Yes, yes," I agreed feverishly, pressing his hand.
"It all came about through you," he blundered on. "You told me of the fellow you saw riding away from The Whispering Pines at the time you entered the grounds. I passed the story on to the coroner, and he to a New York detective they have put on this case. He and Arthur's own surly nature did the rest."
I cringed where I lay. This was my work. The person who drove out of the club-house grounds while I stood in the club-house hall was Carmel--and the clew I had given, instead of baffling and confusing them, had led directly to Arthur!
Seeing nothing peculiar--or at all events, giving no evidence of having noted anything peculiar in my movement--Clifton went evenly on, pouring into my astonished ears the whole long story of this detective's investigations.
I heard of his visit at the mechanic's cottage and of the identification of the hat marked by Eliza Simmons's floury thumb, with an old one of Arthur's, fished out from one of the Cumberland closets; then, as I lay dumb, in my secret dismay and perturbation, of Arthur's acknowledged visit to the club-house, and his abstraction of the bottles, which to all minds save my own, perhaps, connected him directly and well-nigh unmistakably, with the crime.
"The finger of God! Nothing else. Such coincidences cannot be natural," was my thought. And I braced myself to meet the further disclosures I saw awaiting me.
But when these disclosures were made, and Arthur's conduct at the funeral was given its natural explanation by the finding of the tell-tale ring in Adelaide's casket, I was so affected, both by the extraordinary nature of the facts and the doubtful position in which they seemed to place one whom, even now, I found it difficult to believe guilty of Adelaide's death, that Clifton, aroused, in spite of his own excitement, to a sudden realisation of my condition, bounded to his feet and impetuously cried out:
"I had to tell you. It was your due and you would not have been satisfied if I had not. But I fear that I rushed my narrative too suddenly upon you; that you needed more preparation, and that the greatest kindness I can show you now, is to leave before I do further mischief."
I believe I answered. I know that his idea of leaving was insupportable to me. That I wanted him to stay until I had had time to think and adjust myself to these new conditions. Instinctively, I did not feel as certain of Arthur's guilt as he did. My own case had taught me the insufficiency of circumstantial evidence to settle a mooted fact. Besides, I knew Arthur even better than I did his sisters. He was as full of faults, and as lacking in amiable and reliable traits as any fellow of my acquaintance. But he had not the inherent snap which makes for crime. He lacked the vigour which,--God forgive me the thought!--lay back of Carmers softer characteristics. I could not imagine him guilty; I could, for all my love, imagine his sister so, and did. The conviction would not leave my mind.
"Charles," said I, at last, struggling for calmness, and succeeding better in my task than either he or I expected; "what motive do they assign for this deed? Why should Arthur follow Adelaide to the club-house and kill her? Now, if he had followed me--"
"You were at dinner with them that night, and know what she did and what she vowed about the wine. He was very angry. Though he dropped his glass, and let it shiver on the board, he himself says that he was desperately put out with her, and could only drown his mad emotions in drink. He knew that she would hear of it if he went to any saloon in town; so he stole the key from your bunch, and went to help himself out of the club-house wine-vault. That's how he came to be there. What followed, who knows? He won't tell, and we can only conjecture. The ring, which she certainly wore that night, might give the secret away; but it is not gifted with speech, though as a silent witness it is exceedingly eloquent."
The episode of the ring confused me. I could make nothing out of it, could not connect it with what I myself knew of the confused experiences of that night. But I could recall the dinner and the sullen aspect, not unmixed with awe, with which this boy contemplated his sister when his own glass fell from his nerveless fingers. My own heart was not in the business; it was on the elopement I had planned; but I could not help seeing what I have just mentioned, and it recurred to me now with fatal distinctness. The awe was as great as the sullenness. Did that offer a good foundation for crime? I disliked Arthur. I had no use for the boy, and I wished with all my heart to detect guilt in his actions, rather than in those of the woman I loved; but I could not forget that tinge of awe on features too heavy to mirror very readily the nicer feelings of the human soul. It would come up, and, under the influence of this impression I said:
"Are you sure that he made no denial of this crime? That does not seem like Arthur, guilty or innocent."
"He made none in my presence and I was in the coroner's office when the ring was produced from its secret hiding-place and set down before him. There was no open accusation made, but he must have understood the silence of all present. He acknowledged some days ago, when confronted with the bottle found in Cuthbert Road, that he had taken both it and another from the club-house just before the storm began to rage that night."
"The hour, the very hour!" I muttered.
"He entered and left by that upper hall window, or so he says; but he is not to be believed in all his statements. Some of his declarations we know to be false."
"Which ones? Give me a specimen, Charlie. Mention something he has said that you know to be false."
"Well, it is hard to accuse a man of a direct lie. But he cannot be telling the truth when he says that he crossed the links immediately to Cuthbert Road, thus cutting out the ride home, of which we have such extraordinary proof."
Under the fear of betraying my thoughts, I hurriedly closed my eyes. I was in an extraordinary position, myself. What seemed falsehood to them, struck me as the absolute truth. Carmel had been the one to go home; he, without doubt, had crossed the links, as he said. As this conviction penetrated deeply and yet more deeply into my mind, I shrank inexpressibly from the renewed mental struggle into which it plunged me. To have suffered, myself,--to have fallen under the ban of suspicion and the disgrace of arrest--had certainly been hard; but it was nothing to beholding another in the same plight through my own rash and ill-advised attempt to better my position and Carmel's by what I had considered a totally harmless subterfuge.
I shuddered as I anticipated the sleepless hours of silent debate which lay before me. The voice which whispered that Arthur Cumberland was not over-gifted with sensitiveness and would not feel the shame of his position like another, did not carry with it an indisputable message, and could not impose on my conscience for more than a passing moment. The lout was human; and I could not stifle my convictions in his favour.
I clenched my hands under the clothes. I wished it were not high noon, but dark night; that Clifton would only arise or turn his eyes away; that something or anything might happen to give me an instant of solitary contemplation, without the threatening possibility of beholding my thoughts and feelings reflected in another's mind.
Was this review instantaneous, or the work of many minutes? Forced by the doubt to open my eyes, I met Clifton's full look turned watchfully on me. The result was calming; even to my apprehensive gaze it betrayed no new enlightenment. My struggle had been all within; no token of it had reached him.
This he showed still more plainly when he spoke.
"There will be a close sifting of evidence at the inquest. You will not enjoy this; but the situation, hard as it may prove, has certainly improved so far as you are concerned. That should hasten your convalescence."
"Poor Arthur!" burst from my lips, and the cry was echoed in my heart. Then, because I could no longer endure the pusillanimity which kept me silent, I rose impulsively into a sitting posture, and, summoning all my faculties into full play, endeavoured to put my finger on the one weak point in the evidence thus raised against Carmel's brother.
"What sort of a man would you make Arthur out to be, when you accuse him of robbing the wine-vault on top of a murderous assault on his sister?"
"I know. It argues a brute, but he--"
"Arthur Cumberland is selfish, unresponsive, and hard, but he is not a brute. I'm disposed to give him the benefit of my good opinion to this extent, Charlie; I cannot believe he first poisoned and then choked that noble woman."
Clifton drew himself up in his turn, astonishment battling with renewed distrust.
"Either he or you, Ranelagh!" he exclaimed, firmly. "There is no third person. This you must realise."