The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xii

“Lila — Lila!”

O, treble woe

Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,

Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense

Depriv’d thee of! — Hold off the earth awhile,

Till I have caught her once more in my arms.

Hamlet.

“Let us enter by the side door,” suggested Sweetwater, as the two moved towards the house. “And be sure you place me where I can see without being seen. I have no wish to attract attention to myself, or to be identified with the police until the necessity is forced upon me.”

“Then we won’t go in together,” decided Hexford. “Find your own place; you won’t have any difficulty. A crowd isn’t expected. Miss Cumberland’s condition forbids it.”

Sweetwater nodded and slid in at the side door.

He found himself at once in a narrow hall, from the end of which opened a large room. A few people were to be seen in this latter place, and his first instinct was to join them; but finding that a few minutes yet remained before the hour set for the services, he decided to improve them by a rapid glance about this hall, which, for certain reasons hardly as yet formulated in his own mind, had a peculiar interest for him.

The most important object within view, according to his present judgment, was the staircase which connected it with the floor above; but if you had asked his reason for this conclusion, he would not have told you, as Ranelagh might have done, that it was because it was the most direct and convenient approach to Carmel Cumberland’s room. His thoughts were far from this young girl, intimately connected as she was with this crime; which shows through what a blind maze he was insensibly working. With his finger on the thread which had been put in his hand, he was feeling his way along inch by inch. It had brought him to this staircase, and it led him next to a rack upon which hung several coats and a gentleman’s hat.

He inspected the former and noted that one was finished with a high collar; but he passed the latter by — it was not a derby. The table stood next the rack, and on its top lay nothing more interesting than a clothes-brush and one or two other insignificant objects; but, with his memory for details, he had recalled the keys which one of the maids had picked up somewhere about this house, and laid on a hall table. If this were the hall and this the table, then was every inch of the latter’s simple cloth-covered top of the greatest importance in his eyes.

He had no further time for even these cursory investigations; Hexford’s step could be heard on the verandah, and Sweetwater was anxious to locate himself before the officer came in. Entering the room before him, he crossed to the small group clustered in its further doorway. There were several empty chairs in sight; but he passed around them all to a dark and inconspicuous corner, from which, without effort, he could take in every room on that floor — from the large parlour in which the casket stood, to the remotest region of the servants’ hall.

The clergyman had not yet descended, and Sweetwater had time to observe the row of little girls sitting in front of the bearers, each with a small cluster of white flowers in her hand. Miss Cumberland’s Sunday-school class, he conjectured, and conjectured rightly. He also perceived that some of these children loved her.

Near them sat a few relatives and friends. Among these was a very, very old man, whom he afterwards heard was a great-uncle and a centenarian. Between him and one of the little girls, there apparently existed a strong sympathy; for his hand reached out and drew her to him when the tears began to steal down her cheeks, and the looks which passed between the two had all the appeal and all the protection of a great love.

Sweetwater, who had many a soft spot in his breast, felt his heart warm at this one innocent display of natural feeling in an assemblage otherwise frozen by the horror of the occasion. His eyes dwelt lingeringly on the child, and still more lingeringly on the old, old man, before passing to that heaped-up mound of flowers, under which lay a murdered body and a bruised heart. He could not see the face, but the spectacle was sufficiently awe-compelling without that.

Would it have seemed yet more so, had he known at whose request the huge bunch of lilies had been placed over that silent heart?

The sister sick, the brother invisible, there was little more to hold his attention in this quarter; so he let it roam across the heads of the people about him, to the distant hall communicating with the kitchen.

Several persons were approaching from this direction, among them Zadok. The servants of the house, no doubt, for they came in all together and sat down, side by side, in the chairs Sweetwater had so carefully passed by. There were five persons in all: two men and three women. Only two interested him — Zadok, with whom he had already made a superficial acquaintance and had had one bout; and a smart, bright-eyed girl with a resolute mouth softened by an insistent dimple, who struck him as possessing excellent sense and some natural cleverness. A girl to know and a girl to talk to, was his instantaneous judgment. Then he forgot everything but the solemnity of the occasion, for the clergyman had entered and taken his place, and a great hush had fallen upon the rooms and upon every heart there present.

I am the resurrection and the life.”

Never had these consoling words sounded more solemn than when they rang above the remains of Adelaide Cumberland, in this home where she had reigned as mistress ever since her seventeenth year. The nature of the tragedy which had robbed the town of one of its most useful young women; the awful fate impending over its supposed author — a man who had come and gone in these rooms with a spell of fascination to which many of those present had themselves succumbed — the brooding sense of illness, if not of impending death, in the room above; gave to these services a peculiar poignancy which in some breasts of greater susceptibility than the rest, took the form of a vague expectancy bordering on terror.

Sweetwater felt the poignancy, but did not suffer from the terror. His attention had been attracted in a new direction, and he found himself watching, with anxious curiosity, the attitude and absorbed expression of a good-looking young man whom he was far from suspecting to be the secret representative of the present suspect, whom nobody could forget, yet whom nobody wished to remember at this hallowed hour.

Had this attitude and this absorption been directed towards the casket over which the clergyman’s words rose and fell with ever increasing impressiveness, he might have noted the man but would scarcely have been held by him. But this interest, sincere and strong as it undoubtedly was, centred not so much in the services, careful as he was to maintain a decorous attitude towards the same, but in the faint murmurs which now and then came down from above where unconsciousness reigned and the stricken brother watched over the delirious sister, with a concentration and abandonment to fear which made him oblivious of all other duties, and almost as unconscious of the rites then being held below over one who had been as a mother to him, as the sick girl herself with her ceaseless and importunate “Lila! Lila!” The detective, watching this preoccupied stranger, shared in some measure his secret emotions, and thus was prepared for the unexpected occurrence of a few minutes later.

No one else had the least forewarning of any break in the services. There had been nothing in the subdued but impressive rendering of the prayers to foreshadow a dramatic episode; yet it came, and in this manner:

The final words had been said, and the friends present invited to look their last on the calm face which, to many there, had never worn so sweet a smile in life. Some had hesitated; but most had obeyed the summons, among them Sweetwater. But he had not much time in which to fix those features in his mind; for the little girls, who had been waiting patiently for this moment, now came forward; and he stepped aside to watch them as they filed by, dropping as they did so, a tribute of fragrant flowers upon the quiet breast. They were followed by the servants, among whom Zadok had divided his roses. As the last cluster fell from the coachman’s trembling hand, the undertaker advanced with the lid, and, pausing a moment to be sure that all were satisfied, began to screw it on.

Suddenly there was a cry, and the crowd about the door leading into the main hall started back, as wild steps were heard on the stairs and a young man rushed into the room where the casket stood, and advanced upon the officiating clergyman and the astonished undertaker with a fierceness which was not without its suggestion of authority.

“Take it off!” he cried, pointing at the lid which had just been fastened down. “I have not seen her — I must see her. Take it off!”

It was the brother, awake at last to the significance of the hour!

The clergyman, aghast at the sacrilegious look and tone of the intruder, stepped back, raising one arm in remonstrance, and instinctively shielding the casket with the other. But the undertaker saw in the frenzied eye fixed upon his own, that which warned him to comply with the request thus harshly and peremptorily uttered. Unscrewing the lid, he made way for the intruder, who, drawing near, pushed aside the roses which had fallen on the upturned face, and, laying his hand on the brow, muttered a few low words to himself. Then he withdrew his hand, and without glancing to right or left, staggered back to the door amid a hush as unbroken as that which reigned behind him in that open casket. Another moment and his white, haggard face and disordered figure would be blotted from sight by the door-jamb.

The minister recovered his poise and the bearers their breath; the men stirred in their seats and the women began to cast frightened looks at each other, and then at the children, some of whom had begun to whimper, when in an instant all were struck again into stone. The young man had turned and was facing them all, with his hands held out in a clench which in itself was horrible.

“If they let the man go,” he called out in loud and threatening tones, “I will strangle him with these two hands.”

The word, and not the shriek which burst irrepressibly from more than one woman before him, brought him to himself. With a ghastly look on his bloated features, he scanned for one moment the row of deeply shocked faces before him, then tottered back out of sight, and fled towards the staircase. All thought that an end had come to the harrowing scene, and minister and people faced each other once more; when, loud and sharp from above, there rang down the shrill cry of delirium, this time in articulate words which even the children could understand:

“Break it open, I say! break it open, and see if her heart is there!”

It was too awful. Men and women and children leaped to their feet and dashed away into the streets, uttering smothered cries and wild ejaculations. In vain the clergyman raised his voice and bade them respect the dead; the rooms were well-nigh empty before he had finished his appeal. Only the very old uncle and the least of the children remained of all who had come there in memory of their departed kinswoman and friend.

The little one had fled to the old man’s arms before he could rise, and was now held close to his aged and shaking knees, while he strove to comfort her and explain.

Soon these, too, were gone, and the casket was refastened and carried out by the shrinking bearers, leaving in those darkened rooms a trail of desolation which was only broken from time to time by the now faint and barely heard reiteration of the name of her who had just been borne away!

“Lila! Lila!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/house_of_the_whispering_pines/chapter12.html

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