The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xv

Helen Surprises Sweetwater

Lurk, lurk.

King Lear.

The returning servants drove up just as Sweetwater reached the lower floor. He was at the side door when they came in, and a single glance convinced him that all had gone off decorously at the grave, and that nothing further had occurred during their absence to disturb them.

He followed them as they filed away into the kitchen, and, waiting till the men had gone about their work, turned his attention to the girls who stood about very much as if they did not know just what to do with themselves.

“Sit, ladies,” said he, drawing up chairs quite as if he were doing the honours of the house. Then with a sly, compassionate look into each woe-begone face, he artfully remarked: “You’re all upset, you are, by what Mr. Cumberland said in such an unbecoming way at the funeral. He’d like to strangle Mr. Ranelagh! Why couldn’t he wait for the sheriff. It looks as if that gentleman would have the job, all right.”

“Oh! don’t!” wailed out one of the girls, the impressionable, warm-hearted Maggie. “The horrors of this house’ll kill me. I can’t stand it a minute longer. I’ll go — I’ll go to-morrow.”

“You won’t; you’re too kind-hearted to leave Mr. Cumberland and his sister in their desperate trouble,” Sweetwater put in, with a decision as suggestive of admiration as he dared to assume.

Her eyes filled, and she said no more. Sweetwater shifted his attention to Helen. Working around by her side, he managed to drop these words into her ear:

“She talks most, but she doesn’t feel her responsibilities any more than you do. I’ve had my experience with women, and you’re of the sort that stays.”

She rolled her eyes towards him, in a slow, surprised way, that would have abashed most men.

“I don’t know your name, or your business here,” said she; “but I do know that you take a good deal upon yourself when you say what I shall do or shan’t do. I don’t even know, myself.”

“That’s because your eye is not so keen to your own virtues as — well, I won’t say as mine, but as those of any appreciative stranger. I can’t help seeing what you are, you know.”

She turned her shoulder but not before he caught a slight disdainful twitch of her rosy, non-communicative mouth.

“Ah, ah, my lady, not quick enough!” thought he; and, with the most innocent air in the world, he launched forth in a tirade against the man then in custody, as though his guilt were an accepted fact and nothing but the formalities of the law stood between him and his final doom. “It must make you all feel queer,” he wound up, “to think you have waited on him and seen him tramping about these rooms for months, just as if he had no wicked feelings in his heart and meant to marry Miss Cumberland, not to kill her.”

“Oh, oh,” Maggie sobbed out. “And a perfect gentleman he was, too. I can’t believe no bad of him. He wasn’t like —” Her breath caught, and so suddenly that Sweetwater was always convinced that the more cautious Helen had twitched her by her skirt. “Like — like other gentlemen who came here. It was a kind word he had or a smile. I— I—” She made no attempt to finish but bounded to her feet, pulling up the more sedate Helen with her. “Let’s go,” she whispered, “I’m afeared of the man.”

The other yielded and began to cross the floor behind the impetuous Maggie.

Sweetwater summoned up his courage.

“One moment,” he prayed. “Will you not tell me, before you go, whether the candlestick I have noticed on the dining-room mantel is not one of a pair?”

“Yes, there were two —once,” said Helen, resisting Maggie’s effort to drag her out through the open door.

Once,” smiled Sweetwater; “by which you mean, three days ago.”

A lowering of her head and a sudden make for the door.

Sweetwater changed his tone to one of simple inquiry.

“And was that where they always stood, the pair of them, one on each end of the dining-room mantel?”

She nodded; involuntarily, perhaps, but decisively.

Sweetwater hid his disappointment. The room mentioned was a thoroughfare for the whole family. Any member of it could have taken the candlestick.

“I’m obliged to you,” said he; and might have ventured further had she given him the opportunity. But she was too near the door to resist the temptation of flight. In another moment she was gone, and Sweetwater found himself alone with his reflections.

They were not altogether unpleasing. He was sure that he read the evidences of struggle in her slowly working lips and changing impulses.

“So, so!” thought he. “The good seed has found its little corner of soil. I’ll leave it to take root and sprout. Perhaps the coroner will profit by it. If not, I’ve a way of coaxing tender plants which should bring this one to fruit. We’ll see.”

The moon shone that night, much to Sweetwater’s discomforture. As he moved about the stable-yard, he momentarily expected to see the window of the alcove thrown up and to hear Mr. Cumberland’s voice raised in loud command for him to quit the premises. But no such interruption came. The lonely watcher, whose solitary figure he could just discern above the unshaded sill, remained immovable, with his head buried in his arms, but whether in sleep or in brooding misery, there was naught to tell.

The rest of the house presented an equally dolorous and forsaken appearance. There were lights in the kitchen and lights in the servants’ rooms at the top of the house, but no sounds either of talking or laughing. All voices had sunk to a whisper, and if by chance a figure passed one of the windows, it was in a hurried, frightened way, which Sweetwater felt very ready to appreciate.

In the stable it was no better. Zadok had bought an evening paper, and was seeking solace from its columns. Sweetwater had attempted the sociable but had been met by a decided rebuff. The coachman could not forget his attitude before the funeral and nothing, not even the pitcher of beer the detective proposed to bring in, softened the forbidding air with which this old servant met the other’s advances.

Soon Sweetwater realised that his work was over for the night and planned to leave. But there was one point to be settled first. Was there any other means of exit from these grounds save that offered by the ordinary driveway?

He had an impression that in one of his strolls about, he had detected the outlines of a door in what looked like a high brick wall in the extreme rear. If so, it were well worth his while to know where that door led. Working his way along in the shadow cast by the house and afterward by the stable itself, he came upon what was certainly a wall and a wall with a door in it. He could see the latter plainly from where he halted in the thick of the shadows. The moonlight shone broadly on it, and he could detect the very shape and size of its lock. It might be as well to try that lock, but he would have to cross a very wide strip of moonlight in order to do so, and he feared to attract attention to his extreme inquisitiveness. Yet who was there to notice him at this hour? Mr. Cumberland had not moved, the girls were upstairs, Zadok was busy with his paper, and the footman dozing over his pipe in his room over the stable. Sweetwater had just come from that room, and he knew.

A quiet stable-yard and a closed door only ten feet away! He glanced again at the latter, and made up his mind. Advancing in a quiet, sidelong way he had, he laid his hand on the small knob above the lock and quickly turned it. The door was unlocked and swung under his gentle push. An alley-way opened before him, leading to what appeared to be another residence street. He was about to test the truth of this surmise when he heard a step behind him, and turning, encountered the heavy figure of the coachman advancing towards him, with a key in his hand.

Zadok was of an easy turn, but he had been sorely tried that day, and his limit had been reached.

“You snooper!” he bawled. “What do you want here? Won’t the run of the house content ye? Come! I want to lock that door. It’s my last duty before going to bed.”

Sweetwater assumed the innocent.

“And I was just going this way. It looks like a short road into town. It is, isn’t it?”

“No! Yes,” growled the other. “Whichever it is, it isn’t your road to-night. That’s private property, sir. The alley you see, belongs to our neighbours. No one passes through there but myself and —”

He caught himself in time, with a sullen grunt which may have been the result of fatigue or of that latent instinct of loyalty which is often the most difficult obstacle a detective has to encounter.

“And Mr. Ranelagh, I suppose you would say?” was Sweetwater’s easy finish.

No answer; the coachman simply locked the door and put the key in his pocket.

Sweetwater made no effort to deter him. More than that he desisted from further questions though he was dying to ask where this key was kept at night, and whether it had been in its usual place on the evening of the murder. He had gone far enough, he thought. Another step and he might rouse this man’s suspicion, if not his enmity. But he did not leave the shadows into which he again receded until he had satisfied himself that the key went into the stable with the coachman, where it probably remained for this night, at least.

It was after ten when Sweetwater re-entered the house to say good night to Hexford. He found him on watch in the upper hall, and the man, Clarke, below. He had a word with the former:

“What is the purpose of the little door in the wall back of the stable?”

“It connects these grounds with those of the Fultons. The Fultons live on Huested Street.”

“Are the two families intimate?”

“Very. Mr. Cumberland is sweet on the young lady there. She was at the funeral to-day. She fainted when — you know when.”

“I can guess. God! What complications arise! You don’t say that any woman can care for him?”

Hexford gave a shrug. He had seen a good deal of life.

“He uses that door, then?” Sweetwater pursued, after a minute.

“Probably.”

“Did he use it that night?”

“He didn’t visit her

“Where did he go?”

“We can’t find out. He was first seen on Garden Street, coming home after a night of debauch. He had drunk hard. Asked where he got the liquor, he maundered out something about a saloon; but none of the places which he usually frequents had seen him that night. I have tried them all and some that weren’t in his books. It was no good.”

“That door is supposed to be locked at night. Zadok says that’s his duty. Was it locked that night?”

“Can’t say. Perhaps the coroner can. You see the inquiry ran in such a different direction, at first, that a small matter like that may have been overlooked.”

Sweetwater subdued the natural retort, and, reverting to the subject of the saloons, got some specific information in regard to them. Then he passed thoughtfully down-stairs, only to come upon Helen who was just extinguishing the front-hall light.

“Good night!” he said, in passing.

“Good night, Mr. Sweetwater.”

There was something in her tone which made him stop and look back. She had stepped into the library and was blowing out the lamp there. He paused a moment and sighed softly. Then he started towards the door, only to stop again and cast another look back. She was standing in one of the doorways, anxiously watching him and twisting her fingers in and out in an irresolute way truly significant in one of her disposition.

He felt his heart leap.

Returning softly, he took up his stand before her, looking her straight in the eye.

“Good night,” he repeated, with an odd emphasis.

“Good night,” she answered, with equal force and meaning.

But the next moment she was speaking rapidly, earnestly.

“I can’t sleep,” said she. “I never can when I’m not certain of my duty. Mr. Ranelagh is an injured man. Ask what was said and done at their last dinner here. I can’t tell you. I didn’t listen and I didn’t see what happened, but it was something out of the ordinary. Three broken wineglasses lay on the tablecloth when I went in to clear away. I heard the clatter when they fell and smashed, but I said nothing. I have said nothing since; but I know there was a quarrel, and that Mr. Ranelagh was not in it, for his glass was the only one which remained unbroken. Am I wrong in telling you? I wouldn’t if — if it were not for Mr. Ranelagh. He didn’t do right by Miss Cumberland, but he don’t deserve to be in prison; and so would Miss Carmel tell you if she knew what was going on and could speak. She loved him and — I’ve said enough; I’ve said enough,” the agitated girl protested, as he leaned eagerly towards her. “I couldn’t tell the priest any more. Good night.”

And she was gone.

He hesitated a moment, then pursued his way to the side door, and so out of the house into the street. As he passed along the front of the now darkened building, he scanned it with a new interest and a new doubt. Soon he returned to his old habit of muttering to himself. “We don’t know the half of what has taken place within those walls during the last four weeks,” said he. “But one thing I will solve, and that is where this miserable fellow spent the hours between this dinner they speak of and the time of his return next day. Hexford has failed at it. Now we’ll see what a blooming stranger can do.”

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