The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xiv

The Motionless Figure

‘S blood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.

Hamlet.

“The coat is here, too,” whispered Sweetwater, after a moment of considerate silence. “I had searched the hall-rack for them; I had searched his closets; and was about owning myself to be on a false trail, when I spied this little door. We had better lock it, now, had we not, till you make up your mind what to do with this conclusive bit of evidence.”

“Yes, lock it. I’m not quite myself, Sweetwater. I’m no stranger to this house, or to the unfortunate young people in it. I wish I had not been re-elected last year. I shall never survive the strain if —” He turned away.

Sweetwater carefully returned the hat to its peg, turned the key in the door, and softly followed his superior back into the dining-room, and thence to their former retreat.

“I can see that it’s likely to be a dreadful business,” he ventured to remark, as the two stood face to face again. “But we’ve no choice. Facts are facts, and we’ve got to make the best of them. You mean me to go on?”

“Go on?”

“Following up the clews which you have yourself given me? I’ve only finished with one; there’s another —”

“The bottles?”

“Yes, the bottles. I believe that I shall not fail there if you’ll give me a little time. I’m a stranger in town, you remember, and cannot be expected to move as fast as a local detective.”

“Sweetwater, you have but one duty — to follow both clews as far as they will take you. As for my duty, that is equally plain, to uphold you in all reasonable efforts and to shrink at nothing which will save the innocent and bring penalty to the guilty. Only be careful. Remember the evidence against Ranelagh. You will have to forge an exceedingly strong chain to hold your own against the facts which have brought this recreant lover to book. You see — O, I wish that poor girl could get ease!” he impetuously cried, as “Lila! Lila!” rang again through the house.

“There can never be any ease for her,” murmured Sweetwater. “Whatever the truth, she’s bound to suffer if ever she awakens to reality again. Do you agree with the reporters that she knew why and for what her unhappy sister left this house that night?”

“If not, why this fever?”

“That’s sound.”

She—” the coroner was emphatic, “she is the only one who is wholly innocent in this whole business. Consider her at every point. Her life is invaluable to every one concerned. But she must not be roused to the fact; not yet. Nor must he be startled either; you know whom I mean. Quiet does it, Sweetwater. Quiet and a seeming deference to his wishes as the present head of the house.”

“Is the place his? Has Miss Cumberland made a will?”

“Her will will be read to-morrow. For to-night, Arthur Cumberland’s position here is the position of a master.”

“I will respect it, sir, up to all reasonable bounds. I don’t think he meditates giving any trouble. He’s not at all impressed by our presence. All he seems to care about is what his sister may be led to say in her delirium.”

“That’s how you look at it?” The coroner’s tone was one of gloom. Then, after a moment of silence: “You may call my carriage, Sweetwater. I can do nothing further here to-day. The atmosphere of this house stifles me. Dead flowers, dead hopes, and something worse than death lowering in the prospect. I remember my old friend — this was his desk. Let us go, I say.”

Sweetwater threw open the door, but his wistful look did not escape the older man’s eye.

“You’re not ready to go? Wish to search the house, perhaps.”

“Naturally.”

“It has already been done in a general way.”

“I wish to do it thoroughly.”

The coroner sighed.

“I should be wrong to stand in your way. Get your warrant and the house is yours. But remember the sick girl.”

“That’s why I wish to do the job my self.”

“You’re a good fellow, Sweetwater.” Then as he was passing out, “I’m going to rely on you to see this thing through, quietly if you can, openly and in the public eye if you must. The keys tell the tale — the keys and the hat. If the former had been left in the club-house and the latter found without the mark set on it by the mechanic’s wife, Ranelagh’s chances would look as slim to-day as they did immediately after the event. But with things as they are, he may well rest easily to-night; the clouds are lifting for him.”

Which shows how little we poor mortals realise what makes for the peace even of those who are the nearest to us and whose lives and hearts we think we can read like an open book.

The coroner gone, Sweetwater made his way to the room where he had last seen Mr. Clifton. He found it empty and was soon told by Hexford that the lawyer had left. This was welcome news to him; he felt that he had a fair field before him now; and learning that it would be some fifteen minutes yet before he could hope to see the carriages back, he followed Hexford upstairs.

“I wish I had your advantages,” he remarked as they reached the upper floor.

“What would you do?”

“I’d wander down that hall and take a long look at things.”

“You would?”

“I’d like to see the girl and I’d like to see the brother when he thought no one was watching him.”

“Why see the girl?”

“I don’t know. I’m afraid that’s just curiosity. I’ve heard she was a wonder for beauty.”

“She was, once.”

“And not now?”

“You cannot tell; they have bound up her cheeks with cloths. She fell on the grate and got burned.”

“But I say that’s dreadful, if she was so beautiful.”

“Yes, it’s bad, but there are worse things than that. I wonder what she meant by that wild cry of ‘Tear it open! See if her heart is there?’ Tear what open? the coffin?”

“Of course. What else could she have meant?”

“Well! delirium is a queer thing; makes a fellow feel creepy all over. I don’t reckon on my nights here.”

“Hexford, help me to a peep. I’ve got a difficult job before me and I need all the aid I can get.”

“Oh, there’s no trouble about that! Walk boldly along; he won’t notice —”

He won’t notice?”

“No, he notices nothing but what comes from the sick room.”

“I see.” Sweetwater’s jaw had fallen, but it righted itself at this last word.

“Listening, eh?”

“Yes — as a fellow never listened before.”

“Expectant like?”

“Yes, I should call it expectant.”

“Does the nurse know this?”

“The nurse is a puzzler.”

“How so?”

“Half nurse and half — but go see for yourself. Here’s a package to take in — medicine from the drug store. Tell her there was no one else to bring it up. She’ll show no surprise.”

Muttering his thanks, Sweetwater seized the proffered package, and hastened with it down the hall. He had been as far as the turn before, but now he passed the turn to find, just as he expected, a closed door on the left and an open alcove on the right. The door led into Miss Cumberland’s room; the alcove, circular in shape and lighted by several windows, projected from the rear of the extension, and had for its outlook the stable and the huge sycamore tree growing beside it.

Sweetwater’s fingers passed thoughtfully across his chin as he remarked this and took in the expressive outline of its one occupant. He could not see his face; that was turned towards the table before which he sat. But his drooping head, rigid with desperate thinking; his relaxed hand closed around the neck of a decanter which, nevertheless, he did not lift, made upon Sweetwater an impression which nothing he saw afterwards ever quite effaced.

“When I come back, that whiskey will be half gone,” thought he, and lingered to see the tumbler filled and the first draught taken.

But no. The hand slowly unclasped and fell away from the decanter; his head sank forward until his chin rested on his breast; and a sigh, startling to Sweetwater, fell from his lips. Hexford was right; only one thing could arouse him.

Sweetwater now tried that thing. He knocked softly on the sick-room door.

This reached the ear oblivious to all else. Young Cumberland started to his feet; and for a moment Sweetwater saw again the heavy features which, an hour before, had produced such a repulsive effect upon him in the rooms below. Then the nerveless figure sank again into place, with the same constraint in its lines, and the same dejection.

Sweetwater’s hand, lifted in repetition of his knock, hung suspended. He had not expected quite such indifference as this. It upset his calculations just a trifle. As his hand fell, he reminded himself of the coroner’s advice to go easy. “Easy it is,” was his internal reply. “I’ll walk as lightly as if eggshells were under my feet.”

The door was opened to him, this time. As it swung back, he saw, first, a burst of rosy color as a room panelled in exquisite pink burst upon his sight; then the great picture of his life — the bloodless features of Carmel, calmed for the moment into sleep.

Perfect beauty is so rare, its effect so magical! Not even the bandage which swathed one cheek could hide the exquisite symmetry of the features, or take from the whole face its sweet and natural distinction. Frenzy, which had distorted the muscles and lit the eyes with a baleful glare, was lacking at this moment. Repose had quieted the soul and left the body free to express its natural harmonies.

Sweetwater gazed at the winsome, brown head over the nurse’s shoulder, and felt that for him a new and important factor had entered into this case, with his recognition of this woman’s great beauty. How deep a factor, he was far from suspecting, or he would not have met the nurse’s eye with quite so cheery and self-confident a smile.

“Excuse the intrusion,” he said. “We thought you might need these things. Hexford signed for them.”

“I’m obliged to you. Are you — one of them?” she sharply asked.

“Would it disturb you if I were? I hope not. I’ve no wish to seem intrusive.”

“What do you want? Something, I know. Give it a name before there’s a change there.”

She nodded towards the bed, and Sweetwater took advantage of the moment to scrutinise more closely the nurse herself. She was a robust, fine-looking woman, producing an impression of capability united to kindness. Strength of mind and rigid attendance to duty dominated the kindness, however. If crossed in what she considered best for her patient, possibly for herself, she could be severe, if not biting, in her speech and manner. So much Sweetwater read in the cold, clear eye and firm, self-satisfied mouth of the woman awaiting his response to the curt demand she had made.

“I want another good look at your patient, and I want your confidence since you and I may have to see much of each other before this matter is ended. You asked me to speak plainly and I have done so.”

“You are from headquarters?”

“Coroner Perry sent me.” Throwing back his coat, he showed his badge. “The coroner has returned to his office. He was quite upset by the outcry which came from this room at an unhappy moment during the funeral.”

“I know. It was my fault; I opened the door just for an instant, and in that instant my patient broke through her torpor and spoke.”

She had drawn him in, by this time, and, after another glance at her patient, softly closed the door behind him.

“I have nothing to report,” said she, “but the one sentence everybody heard.”

Sweetwater took in the little memorandum book and pencil which hung at her side, and understood her position and extraordinary amenability to his wishes. Unconsciously, a low exclamation escaped him. He was young and had not yet sunk the man entirely in the detective.

“A cruel necessity to watch so interesting a patient, for anything but her own good,” he remarked. Yet, because he was a detective as well as a man, his eye went wandering all over the room as he spoke until it fell upon a peculiar-looking cabinet or closet, let into the wall directly opposite the bed. “What’s that?” he asked.

“I don’t know; I can’t make it out, and I don’t like to ask.”

Sweetwater examined it for a moment from where he stood; then crossed over, and scrutinised it more particularly. It was a unique specimen. What it lacked in height — it could not have measured more than a foot from the bottom to the top — it made up in length, which must have exceeded five feet. The doors, of which it had two, were both tightly locked; but as they were made of transparent glass, the objects behind them were quite visible. It was the nature of these objects which made the mystery. The longer Sweetwater examined them, the less he understood the reason for their collection, much less for their preservation in a room which in all other respects, expressed the quintessence of taste.

At one end he saw a stuffed canary, not perched on a twig, but lying prone on its side. Near it was a doll, with scorched face and limbs half-consumed. Next this, the broken pieces of a china bowl and what looked like the torn remnants of some very fine lace. Further along, his eye lighted on a young girl’s bonnet, exquisite in colour and nicety of material, but crushed out of all shape and only betraying its identity by its dangling strings. The next article, in this long array of totally unhomogeneous objects, was a metronome, with its pendulum wrenched half off and one of its sides lacking. He could not determine the character of what came next, and only gave a casual examination to the rest. The whole affair was a puzzle to him, and he had no time for puzzles disconnected with the very serious affair he was engaged in investigating.

“Some childish nonsense,” he remarked, and moved towards the door. “The servants will be coming back, and I had rather not be found here. You’ll see me again — I cannot tell just when. Perhaps you may want to send for me. If so, my name is Sweetwater.”

His hand was on the knob, and he was almost out of the room when he started and looked back. A violent change in the patient had occurred. Disturbed by his voice or by some inner pulsation of the fever which devoured her, Carmel had risen from the pillow and now sat, staring straight before her with every feature working and lips opened as if to speak. Sweetwater held his breath, and the nurse leaped towards her and gently encircled her with protecting arms.

“Lie down,” she prayed; “lie down. Everything is all right: I am looking after things. Lie down, little one, and rest.”

The young girl drooped, and, yielding to the nurse’s touch, sank slowly back on the pillow; but in an instant she was up again, and flinging out her hand, she cried out loudly just as she had cried an hour before:

“Break it open! Break the glass and look in. Her heart should be there — her heart — her heart!”

“Go, or I cannot quiet her!” ordered the nurse, and Sweetwater turned to obey.

But a new obstacle offered. The brother had heard this cry, and now stood in the doorway.

“Who are you?” he impatiently demanded, surveying Sweetwater in sudden anger.

“I brought up the drugs,” was the quiet explanation of the ever-ready detective. “I didn’t mean to alarm the young lady, and I don’t think I did. It’s the fever, sir, which makes her talk so wildly.”

“We want no strangers here,” was young Cumberland’s response. “Remember, nurse, no strangers.” His tone was actually peremptory.

Sweetwater observed him in real astonishment as he slid by and made his quiet escape. He was still more astonished when, on glancing towards the alcove, he perceived that, contrary to his own prognostication, the whiskey stood as high in the decanter as before.

“I’ve got a puzzler this time,” was his comment, as he made his way downstairs. “Even Mr. Gryce would say that. I wonder how I’ll come out. Uppermost!” he finished in secret emphasis to himself. “Uppermost! It would never do for me to fail in the first big affair I’ve undertaken on my own account.”

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