The House of the Whispering Pines by Anna Katharine Green
Book Four. What the Pines Whispered
XXXVI. The Surcharged Moment
For Justice, when triumphant, will weep down Pity, not punishment, on her own wrongs, Too much avenged by those who err. I wait, Enduring thus, the retributive hour Which since we spake is even nearer now. Prometheus Unbound.
The moment I felt Sweetwater's hand lifted from my shoulder I sprang into the first hack I could find, and bade the driver follow the Cumberland sleigh post-haste. I was determined to see Carmel and have Carmel see me. Whatever cold judgment might say against the meeting, I could not live in my present anxiety. If the thunderbolt which had struck her had spared her life and reason she must know from my own lips that I was not only a free man, but as innocent of the awful charge conveyed in Sweetwater's action as was the brother, who had just been acquitted of it by the verdict of his peers.
I must declare this, and she must believe me. Nothing else mattered--nothing else in all the world. That Arthur might stop me, that anything could stop me, did not disturb my mind for a minute. All that I dreaded was that I might find myself too late; that this second blow might have proved to be too much for her, and that I should find my darling dead or passed from me into that living death which were the harder punishment of the two. But I was spared this killing grief. When our two conveyances stopped, it was in the driveway of her old home; and as I bounded upon the walk, it was to see her again in Arthur's arms, but this time with open eyes and horror-drawn features.
"Carmel!" rushed in a cry from my lips. "Don't believe what they say. I cannot bear it--I cannot bear it!"
She roused; she looked my way, and struggling to her feet, held back Arthur with one hand while she searched my face--and possibly searched her own soul--for answer to my plea. Never was moment more surcharged. Further word I could not speak; I could only meet her eyes with the steady, demanding look of a despairing heart, while Arthur moved in every fibre of his awakened manhood, waited--thinking, perhaps, how few minutes had passed since he hung upon the words of a fellow being for his condemnation to death, or release to the freedom which he now enjoyed.
A moment! But what an eternity before I saw the rigid lines of her white, set face relax--before I marked the play of human, if not womanly, emotion break up the misery of her look and soften her youthful lips into some semblance of their old expression. Love might be dead--friendship, even, be a thing of the far past--but consideration was still alive and in another instant it spoke in these trembling sentences, uttered across a threshold made sacred by a tragedy involving our three lives:
"Come in and explain yourself. No man should go unheard. I know you will not come where Adelaide's spirit yet lingers, if you cannot bring hands clean from all actual violence."
I motioned my driver away, and as Carmel drew back out of sight, I caught at Arthur's arm and faced him with the query:
"Are you willing that I should enter? I only wish to declare to her, and to you, an innocence I have no means of proving, but which you cannot disbelieve if I swear it, here and now, by your sister Carmel's sacred disfigurement. Such depravity could not exist, as such a vow from the lips guilty of the crime you charge me with. Look at me, Arthur. I considered you--now consider me."
Quickly he stepped back. "Enter," said he.
It was some minutes later--I cannot say how many--that one of the servants disturbed us by asking if we knew anything about Zadok.
"He has not come home," said he, "and here is a man who wants him."
"What man?" asked Arthur.
"Oh, that detective chap. He never will leave us alone."
I arose. In an instant enlightenment had come to me. "It's nothing," said I with my eyes on Carmel; but the gesture I furtively made Arthur, said otherwise.
A few minutes later we were both in the driveway. "We are on the brink of a surprise," I whispered. "I think I understand this Sweetwater now."
Arthur looked bewildered, but he took the lead in the interview which followed with the man who had made him so much trouble and was now doing his best to make us all amends.
Zadok could not be found; he was wanted by the district attorney, who wished to put some questions to him. Were there any objections to his searching the stable-loft for indications of his whereabouts?
Arthur made none; and the detective, after sending the Cumberlands' second man before him to light up the stable, disappeared beneath the great door, whither we more slowly followed him.
"Not here!" came in a shout from above, as we stepped in from the night air; and in a few minutes the detective came running down the stairs, baffled and very ill at ease. Suddenly he encountered my eye. "Oh--I know!" he cried, and started for the gate.
"I am going to follow him," I confided to Arthur. "Look for me again to-night; or, at least, expect a message. If fortune favours us, as I now expect, we two shall sleep to-night as we have not slept for months." And waiting for no answer, not even to see if he comprehended my meaning, I made a run for the gate, and soon came up with Sweetwater.
"To the cemetery?" I asked.
"Yes, to the cemetery."
And there we found him, in the same place where we had seen him before, but not in the same position. He was sunken now to the ground; but his face was pressed against the rails, and in his stiff, cold hand was clutched a letter which afterwards we read.
Let it be read by you here. It will explain the mystery which came near destroying the lives of more than Adelaide.
* * * * *
No more unhappy wretch than I goes to his account. I killed her who had shown me only goodness, and will be the death of others if I do not confess my dreadful, my unsuspected secret. This is how it happened. I cannot give reasons; I cannot even ask for pardon.
That night, just as I was preparing to leave the stable to join the other servants on their ride to Tibbitt's Hall, the telephone rang and I heard Miss Cumberland's voice. "Zadok," she said--and at first I could hardly understand her,--"I am in trouble; I want help, and you are the only one who can aid me. Answer; do you hear me and are you quite alone in the stable?" I told her yes, and that I was listening to all she said. I suspected her trouble, and was ready to stand by her, if a man like me could do anything.
I had been with her many years, and I loved her as well as I could love anybody; though you won't think it when I tell you my whole story. What she wanted was this: I was to go to the ball just as if nothing had happened, but I was not to stay there. As soon as I could, I was to slip out, get a carriage from some near-by stable, and hurry back up the road to meet her and take her where she would tell me; or, if I did not meet her, to wait two houses below hers, till she came along. She would not want me long, and very soon I could go back and have as good a time as I pleased. But she would like me to be secret, for her errand was not one for gossip, even among her own servants.
It was the first time she had ever asked me to do anything for her which any one else might not have done, and I was proud of her confidence, and happy to do just what she asked. I even tried to do better, and be even more secret about it than she expected. Instead of going to a stable, I took one of the rigs which I found fastened up in the big shed alongside the hall; and being so fortunate as not to attract anybody's attention by this business, I was out on the road and half way to The Whispering Pines, before Helen and Maggie could wonder why I had not asked them to dance.
A few minutes later I was on the Hill, for the horse I had chosen was a fast one; and I was just turning into our street when I was passed by Mr. Arthur's grey mare and cutter. This made me pull up for a minute, for I hadn't expected this; but on looking ahead and seeing Miss Cumberland peering from our own gateway, I drove quickly on and took her up.
I was not so much astonished as you would think, to be ordered to follow fast after the mare and cutter, and to stop where it stopped. That was all she wanted--to follow that cutter, and to stop where it stopped. Well, it stopped at the club-house; and when she saw it turn in there, I heard her give a little gasp.
"Wait," she whispered. "Wait till she has had time to get out and go in; then drive in, too, and help me to find my way into the building after her."
And then I knew it was Miss Carmel we had been following. Before, I thought it was Mr. Arthur.
Presently, she pulled me by the sleeve. "I heard the door shut," said she--and I was a little frightened at her voice, but I was full of my importance, and went on doing just as she bade me. Driving in after the cutter, I drew up into the shadows where the grey mare was hid, and then, reaching out my hand to Miss Cumberland, I helped her out, and went with her as far as the door. "You may go back now," said she. "If I survive the night, I shall never forget this service, my good Zadok." And I saw her lift her hand to the door, then fall back white and trembling in the moonlight. "I can't," she whispered, over and over; "I can't--I can't."
"Shall I knock?" I asked.
"No, no," she whispered back. "I want to go in quietly; let's see if there's no other way. Run about the house, Zadok; I will submit to any humiliation; only find me some entrance other than this." She was shaking so and her face looked so ghastly in the moonlight that I was afraid to leave her; but she made me a gesture of such command that I ran quickly down the steps, and so round the house till I came to a shed over the top of which I saw a window partly open.
Could I get her up on to the shed? I thought I could, and went hurrying back to the big entrance where I had left her. She was still there, shivering with the cold, but just as determined as ever. "Come," I whispered; "I have found a way."
She gave me her hand and I led her around to the shed. She was like a snow woman and her touch was ice itself. "Wait till I get a box or board or something," I said. Hunting about, I found a box leaning against the kitchen side, and, bringing it, I helped her up and soon had her on a level with the window.
As she made her way in, she turned and whispered to me: "Go back now. Carmel has a horse, and will see me home. You have served me well, Zadok."
I nodded, and she vanished into the darkness. Then I should have gone; but my curiosity was too great. I wanted to know just a little more. Two women in this desolate and bitterly cold club-house! What did it mean?
I could not restrain myself from following her in and listening, for a few minutes, to what they had to say. But I did not catch much of it; and when I heard other sounds from some place below, and recognised these sounds as a man's heavy footsteps coming up the rear stairs, I got a fright at being where I should not be, and slipped into the first door I found, expecting this man to come out and join the ladies.
But he did not; he just lingered for a moment in the hall I had left, then I heard him clamber out of the window and go. I now know that this was Mr. Arthur. But I did not know it then, and I was frightened for the horse I had run off with, and so got out of the building as quickly as I could.
And all might yet have been well if I had not found, lying on the snow at the foot of the shed, a bottle of whiskey such as I had never drunk and did not know how to resist. Catching it up, I ran about the house to where I had left my rig. It was safe, and in my relief at finding it, I knocked off the head of the bottle and took a long drink.
Then I drank again; then I sat down in the snow and drank again. In short, I nearly finished it; then I became confused; I looked at the piece of broken bottle in my hand, took a fancy to its shape, and breaking off a bit more, thrust it into one of my big pockets. Then I staggered up to the horse; but I did not untie him.
Curiosity seized me again, and I thought I would take another look at the ladies--perhaps they might want me--perhaps--I was pretty well confused, but I went back and crawled once more into the window.
This time the place was silent--not a sound, not a breath,--but I could see a faint glimmer of light. I followed this glimmer. Still there was no sound.
I came to an open door. A couch was before me, heaped with cushions. A long ray of moonlight had shot in through a communicating door, and I could see everything by it. This was where the ladies had been when I listened before, but they were not here now.
Weren't they? Why did I tremble so, then, and stare and stare at those cushions? Why did I feel I must pull them away, as I presently did? I was mad with liquor and might easily have imagined what I there saw; but I did not think of this then. I believed what I saw instantly. Miss Cumberland was dead, and I had discovered the crime. She had killed herself--no, she had been killed!
Should I yell out murder? No, no; I could be sorry without that. I would not yell--mistresses were plenty. I had liked her, but I need not yell. There was something else I could do.
She had a ring on her finger--a ring that for months I had gloated over and watched, as I had never watched and gloated over any other beautiful thing in my life. I wanted it--I had always wanted it. It was before me, for the taking now--I should be a fool to leave it there for some other wretch to pilfer. I had loved her--I would love the ring.
Reaching down, I took it. I drew it from her finger; I put it in my pocket; I--God in heaven! The eyes I had seen glassed in death were looking at me.
She was not dead--she had been witness of the theft. Without a thought of what I was doing, my hands closed round her throat. It was drink--fright--terror at the look she gave me--which made me kill her; not my real self. My real self could have shrieked when, in another instant, I saw my work.
But shrieking would not bring her back and it would quite ruin me. Miss Carmel was somewhere near. I heard her now at the telephone; in another minute she would come out and meet me. I dared not linger.
Tossing back the pillows, I stumbled from the place. Why I was not heard by my young mistress, I do not know; her ears were deaf, just as my eyes were half-blind. In a half hour I was dancing with the maids, telling them of the pretty stranger with whom I had been sitting out an hour of fun in a quiet corner. They believed me, and not a particle of suspicion has any man ever had of me since.
But others have had to suffer, and that has made hell of my nights. I restored the ring to my poor mistress; but even that brought harm to one I had no quarrel with. But he has escaped conviction; and if I thought Mr. Ranelagh would also escape, I might have courage to live out my miserable life, and seek to make amends in the way she would have me.
But I fear for him; I fear for Miss Carmel. Never could I testify in another trial which threatened her peace of mind. I see that, instead of being the selfish stealer of her sister's happiness, as I had thought, she is an angel from whom all future suffering should be kept.
This is my way of sparing her. Perhaps it will help her sister to forgive me when we meet in the world to which I am now going.