The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

X

“I Can Help You”

A subtle knave; a finder out of occasions;

That has an eye can stamp and counterfeit

Advantages though true advantage never presents

Itself; A devilish knave!

Othello.

A half hour spent with Hexford in and about the club-house, and Sweetwater was ready for the road. As he made his way through the northern gate, he cast a quick look back at the long, low building he had just left, with its tall chimneys and rows of sightless windows, half hidden, half revealed by the encroaching pines. The mystery of the place fascinated him. To his awakened imagination, there was a breathless suggestion in it — a suggestion which it was his foremost wish, just now, to understand.

And those pines — gaunt, restless, communicative! ready with their secret, if one could only interpret their language. How their heads came together as their garrulous tongues repeated the tale, which would never grow old to them until age nipped their hoary heads and laid them low in the dust, with their horror half expressed, their gruesome tale unfinished.

“Witnesses of it all,” commented the young detective as he watched the swaying boughs rising and dipping before a certain window. “They were peering into that room long before Clarke stole the glimpse which has undone the unfortunate Ranelagh. If I had their knowledge, I’d do something more than whisper.”

Thus musing, thus muttering, he plodded up the road, his insignificant figure an unpromising break in the monotonous white of the wintry landscape. But could the prisoner who had indirectly speeded this young detective on his present course, have read his thoughts and rightly estimated the force of his purpose, would he have viewed with so much confidence the entrance of this unprepossessing stranger upon the no-thoroughfare into which his own carefully studied admissions had blindly sent him?

As has been said before, this road was an outlying one and but little travelled save in the height of summer. Under ordinary circumstances Sweetwater would have met not more than a half-dozen carts or sledges between the club-house gates and the city streets. But to-day, the road was full of teams carrying all sorts of incongruous people, eager for a sight of the spot made forever notorious by a mysterious crime. He noted them all; the faces of the men, the gestures of the women; but he did not show any special interest till he came to that portion of the road where the long line of half-buried fences began to give way to a few scattered houses. Then his spirit woke, and be became quick, alert, and persuasive. He entered houses; he talked with the people. Though evidently not a dissipated man, he stopped at several saloons, taking his time with his glass and encouraging the chatter of all who chose to meet his advances. He was a natural talker and welcomed every topic, but his eye only sparkled at one. This he never introduced himself; he did not need to. Some one was always ready with the great theme; and once it was started, he did not let the conversation languish till every one present had given his or her quota of hearsay or opinion to the general fund.

It seemed a great waste of time, for nobody had anything to say worth the breath expended on it. But Sweetwater showed no impatience, and proceeded to engage the attention of the next man, woman, or child he encountered with undiminished zest and hopefulness.

He had left the country road behind, and had entered upon the jumble of sheds, shops, and streets which marked the beginnings of the town in this direction, when his quick and experienced eye fell on a woman standing with uncovered head in an open doorway, peering up the street in anxious expectation of some one not yet in sight. He liked the air and well-kept appearance of the woman; he appreciated the neatness of the house at her back and gauged at its proper value the interest she displayed in the expected arrival of one whom he hoped would delay that arrival long enough for him to get in the word which by this time dropped almost unconsciously from his lips.

But a second survey of the woman’s face convinced him that his ordinary loquaciousness would not serve him here. There was a refinement in her aspect quite out of keeping with the locality in which she lived, and he was hesitating how to proceed, when fortune favoured him by driving against his knees a small lad on an ill-directed sled, bringing him almost to the ground and upsetting the child who began to scream vociferously.

It was the woman’s child, for she made instantly for the gate which, for some reason, she found difficulty in opening. Sweetwater, seeing this, blessed his lucky stars. He was at his best with children, and catching the little fellow up, he soothed and fondled him and finally brought him with such a merry air of triumph straight to his mother’s arms, that confidence between them was immediately established and conversation started.

He had in his pocket an ingenious little invention which he had exhibited all along the road as an indispensable article in every well-kept house. He wanted to show it to her, but it was too cold a day for her to stop outside. Wouldn’t she allow him to step in and explain how her work could be materially lessened and her labour turned to play by a contrivance so simple that a child could run it?

It was all so ridiculous in face of this woman’s quiet intelligence, that he laughed at his own words, and this laughter, echoed by the child and in another instant by the mother, made everything so pleasant for the moment that she insensibly drew back while he pulled open the gate, only remarking, as she led the way in:

“I was looking for my husband. He may come any minute and I’m afraid he won’t care much about contrivances to save me work — that is, if they cost very much.”

Sweetwater, whose hand was in his pocket, drew it hastily out.

“You were watching for your husband? Do you often stand in the open doorway, looking for him?”

Her surprised eyes met his with a stare that would have embarrassed the most venturesome book agent, but this man was of another ilk.

“If you do,” he went on imperturbably, but with a good-humoured smile which deepened her favourable impression of him, “how much I would give if you had been standing there last Tuesday night when a certain cutter and horse went by on its way up the hill.”

She was a self-contained woman, this wife of a master mechanic in one of the great shops hard by; but her jaw fell at this, and she forgot to chide or resist her child when he began to pull her towards the open kitchen door.

Sweetwater, sensitive to the least change in the human face, prayed that the husband might be detained, if only for five minutes longer, while he, Sweetwater, worked this promising mine.

“You were looking out,” he ventured. “And you did see that horse and cutter. What luck! It may save a man’s life.”

“Save!” she repeated, staggering back a few steps and dragging the child with her. “Save a man’s life! What do you mean by that?”

“Not much if it was any cutter and any horse, and at any hour. But if it was the horse and cutter which left The Whispering Pines at ten or half past ten that night, then it may mean life and death to the man now in jail under the dreadful charge of murder.”

Catching up her child, she slid into the kitchen and sat down with it, in the first chair she came to. Sweetwater following her, took up his stand in the doorway, unobtrusive, but patiently waiting for her to speak. The steaming kettles and the table set for dinner gave warning of the expected presence for which she had been watching, but she seemed to have forgotten her husband; forgotten everything but her own emotions.

“Who are you?” she asked at length. “You have not told me your real business.”

“No, madam, and I ask your pardon. I feared that my real business, if suddenly made known to you, might startle, perhaps frighten you. I am a detective on the look-out for evidence in the case I have just mentioned. I have a theory that a most important witness in the same, drove by here at the hour and on the night I have named. I want to substantiate that theory. Can you help me?”

A sensitiveness to, and quick appreciation of, the character of those he addressed was one of Sweetwater’s most valuable attributes. No glossing of the truth, however skillfully applied, would have served him with this woman so well as this simple statement, followed by its equally simple and direct inquiry. Scrutinising him over the child’s head, she gave but a casual glance at the badge he took pains to show her, then in as quiet and simple tones as he had himself used, she made this reply:

“I can help you some. You make it my duty, and I have never shrunk from duty. A horse and cutter did go by here on its way uphill, last Tuesday night at about eleven o’clock. I remember the hour because I was expecting my husband every minute, just as I am now. He had some extra work on hand that night which he expected to detain him till eleven or a quarter after. Supper was to be ready at a quarter after. To surprise him I had beaten up some biscuits, and I had just put them in the pan when I heard the clock strike the hour. Afraid that he would come before they were baked, I thrust the pan into the oven and ran to the front door to look out. It was snowing very hard, and the road looked white and empty, but as I stood there a horse and cutter came in sight, which, as it reached the gate, drew up in a great hurry, as if something was the matter. Frightened, because I’m always thinking of harm to my husband whose work is very dangerous, I ran out bare-headed to the gate, when I saw why the man in the sleigh was making me such wild gestures. His hat had blown off, and was lying close up against the fence in front of me. Anxious always to oblige, I made haste to snatch at it and carry it out to its owner. I received a sort of thank you, and would never have remembered the occurrence if it had not been for that murder and if —” She paused doubtfully, ran her fingers nervously over her child’s head, looked again at Sweetwater waiting expectantly for her next word, and faltered painfully —“if I had not recognised the horse.”

Sweetwater drew a deep breath; it was such a happy climax. Then, as she showed no signs of saying more, asked as quietly as his rapidly beating heart permitted:

“Didn’t you recognise the man?”

Her answer was short but as candid as her expression.

“No. The snow was blinding; besides he wore a high collar, in which his head was sunk down almost out of sight.”

“But the horse —”

“Was one which is often driven by here. I had rather not tell you whose it is. I have not told any one, not even my husband, about seeing it on the road that night. I couldn’t somehow. But if it will save a man’s life and make clear who killed that good woman, ask any one on the Hill, in what stable you can find a grey horse with a large black spot on his left shoulder, and you will know as much about it as I do. Isn’t that enough, sir? Now, I must dish up my dinner.”

“Yes, yes; it’s almost enough. Just one question, madam. Was the hat what folks call a derby? Like this one, madam,” he explained, drawing his own from behind his back.

“Yes, I think so. As well as I can remember, it was like that. I’m afraid I didn’t do it any good by my handling. I had to clutch it quick and I’m sure I bent the brim, to say nothing of smearing it with flour-marks.”

“How?” Sweetwater had started for the door, but stopped, all eagerness at this last remark.

“I had been cutting out biscuits, and my hands were white with flour,” she explained, simply. “But that brushes off easily; I don’t suppose it mattered.”

“No, no,” he hastily assented. Then while he smiled and waved his hand to the little urchin who had been his means of introduction to this possibly invaluable witness, he made one final plea and that was for her name.

“Eliza Simmons,” was the straightforward reply; and this ended the interview.

The husband, whose anticipated approach had occasioned all this abruptness, was coming down the hill when Sweetwater left the gate. As this detective of ours was as careful in his finish as in all the rest of his work, he called out as he went by:

“I’ve just been trying to sell a wonderful contrivance of mine to the missus. But it was no go.”

The man looked, smiled, and went in at his own gate with the air of one happy in wife, child, and home.

Sweetwater went on up the hill. Towards the top, he came upon a livery-stable. Stopping in his good-humoured way, he entered into talk with a man loitering inside the great door. Before he left him, he had asked him these questions:

“Any grey horse in town?”

“Yes, one.”

“I think I’ve seen it — has a patch of black on its left shoulder.”

“Yes.”

“Whose is it? I’ve a mighty curiosity about the horse. Looks like a trick horse.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that. It belongs to a respectable family. A family you must have heard about if you ever heard anything. There’s a funeral there to-day —”

“Not Miss Cumberland’s?” exclaimed Sweetwater, all agog in a moment.

“Yes, Miss Cumberland’s. I thought you might have heard the name.”

“Yes, I’ve heard it.”

The tone was dry, the words abrupt, but the detective’s heart was dancing like a feather. The next turn he took was toward the handsome residence district crowning the hill.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/house_of_the_whispering_pines/chapter10.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37