The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xiii

“What We Want is Here”

I’ll tell you, by the way,

The greatest comfort in the world.

You said

There was a clew to all.

Remember, Sweet,

He said there was a clew!

I hold it.

Come!

A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon.

Sweetwater, however affected by this scene, had not lost control of himself or forgotten the claims of duty. He noted at a glance that, while the candid looking stranger, whose lead he had been following, was as much surprised as the rest at the nature of the interruption — which he had possibly anticipated and for which he was in some measure prepared — he was, of all present, the most deeply and peculiarly impressed by it. No element of fear had entered into his emotion; nor had it been heightened by any superstitious sense. Something deeper and more important by far had darkened his thoughtful eye and caused that ebb and flow of colour in a cheek unused, if Sweetwater read the man aright, to such quick and forcible changes.

Sweetwater took occasion, likewise, while the excitement was at its height, to mark what effect had been made on the servants by the action and conduct of young Cumberland. “They know him better than we do,” was his inner comment; “what do they think of his words, and what do they think of him?”

It was not so easy to determine as the anxious detective might wish. Only one of them showed a simple emotion, and that one was, without any possibility of doubt, the cook. She was a Roman Catholic, and was simply horrified by the sacrilege of which she had been witness. There was no mistaking her feelings. But those of the other two women were more complex.

So were those of the men. Zadok specially watched each movement of his young master with open mistrust; and very nearly started upright, in his repugnance and dismay, when that intruding hand fell on the peaceful brow of her over whose fate, to his own surprise, he had been able to shed tears. Some personal prejudice lay back of this or some secret knowledge of the man from whose touch even the dead appeared to shrink.

And the women! Might not the same explanation account for that curious droop of the eye with which the two younger clutched at each other’s hands, to keep from screaming, and interchanged whispered words which Sweetwater would have given considerable out of his carefully cherished hoard to have heard.

It was impossible to tell, at present; but he was confident that it would not be long before he understood these latter, at least. He had great confidence in his success with women, homely as he was. He was not so sure of himself with men; and he felt that some difficulties and not a few pitfalls lay between him and, for instance, the uncommunicative Zadok. “But I’ve the whole long evening before me,” he added in quiet consolation to himself. “It will be a pity if I can’t work some of them in that time.”

The last thing he had remarked, before Carmel’s unearthly cry had sent the horrified guests in disorder from the house, was the presence of Dr. Perry in a small room which Sweetwater had supposed empty, until the astonishing events I have endeavoured to describe brought its occupant to the door. What the detective then read in the countenance of the family’s best friend, he kept to himself; but his own lost a trace of its former anxiety, as the official slipped back out of sight and remained so, even after the funeral cortege had started on its course.

Plans had been made for carrying the servants to the cemetery, and, despite the universal disturbance consequent upon these events, these plans were adhered to. Sweetwater watched them all ride away in the last two carriages.

This gave him the opportunity he wanted. Leaving his corner, he looked up Hexford, and asked who was left in the house.

“Dr. Perry, Mr. Clifton, the lawyer, Mr. Cumberland, his sick sister, and the nurse.”

“Mr. Cumberland! Didn’t he go to the grave?”

“Did you expect him to, after that?”

Sweetwater’s shoulders rose, and his voice took on a tone of indifference.

“There’s no telling. Where is he now, do you think? Upstairs?”

“Yes. It seems he spends all his time in a little alcove opposite his sister’s door. They won’t let him inside, for fear of disturbing the patient; so he just sits where I’ve told you, doing nothing but listening to every sound that comes through the door.”

“Is he there now?”

“Yes, and shaking just like a leaf. I walked by him a moment ago and noticed particularly.”

“Where’s his room? In sight of the alcove you mention?”

“No; there’s a partition or two between. If you go up by the side staircase, you can slip into it without any one seeing you. Coroner Perry and Mr. Clifton are in front.”

“Is the side door locked?”

“No.”

“Lock it. The back door, of course, is.”

“Yes, the cook attended to that.”

“I want a few minutes all by myself. Help me, Hexford. If Dr. Perry has given you no orders, take your stand upstairs where you can give me warning if Mr. Cumberland makes a move to leave his post, or the nurse her patient.”

“I’m ready; but I’ve been in that room and I’ve found nothing.”

“I don’t know that I shall. You say that it is near the head of the stairs running up from the side door?”

“Just a few feet away.”

“I would have sworn to that fact, even if you hadn’t told me,” muttered Sweetwater.

Five minutes later, he had slipped from sight; and for some time not even Hexford knew where he was.

“Dr. Perry, may I have a few words with you?”

The coroner turned quickly. Sweetwater was before him; but not the same Sweetwater he had interviewed some few hours before in his office. This was quite a different looking personage. Though nothing could change his features, the moment had come when their inharmonious lines no longer obtruded themselves upon the eye; and the anxious, nay, deeply troubled official whom he addressed, saw nothing but the ardour and quiet self-confidence they expressed.

“It’ll not take long,” he added, with a short significant glance in the direction of Mr. Clifton.

Dr. Perry nodded, excused himself to the lawyer and followed the detective into the small writing-room which he had occupied during the funeral. In the decision with which Sweetwater closed the door behind them there was something which caused the blood to mount to the coroner’s brow.

“You have made some discovery?” said he.

“A very important one,” was the quick, emphatic reply. And in a few brief words the detective related his interview with the master mechanic’s wife on the highroad. Then with an eager, “Now let me show you something,” he led the coroner through the dining-room into the side hall, where he paused before the staircase.

“Up?” queried the coroner, with an obvious shrinking from what he might encounter above.

“No,” was the whispered reply. “What we want is here.” And, pushing open a small door let into the under part of the stairway (if Ranelagh in his prison cell could have seen and understood this movement!), he disclosed a closet and in that closet a coat or two, and one derby hat. He took down the latter and, holding it out to the light, pointed to a spot on the under side of its brim.

The coroner staggered as he saw it, and glanced helplessly about him. He had known this family all their lives and the father had been his dearest friend. But he could say nothing in face of this evidence. The spot was a flour-mark, in which could almost be discerned the outline of a woman’s thumb.

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