The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xviii

On it was Written —

Can this avail thee? Look to it!

Prometheus Bound.

The district attorney was right; Sweetwater was not happy. His night’s rest had not benefited him. He had seemed natural enough when he first appeared at the coroner’s office in the early morning, and equally natural all through the lengthy conference which followed; but a half hour later, any one who knew him well — any of his fellow detectives in New York; especially Mr. Gryce, who had almost fathered him since he came among them, a raw and inexperienced recruit — would have seen at first glance that his spirits were no longer at par, and that the cheer he displayed in manner and look was entirely assumed, and likely to disappear as soon as he found himself alone.

And it did so disappear. When, at two o’clock, he entered the club-house grounds, it was without buoyancy or any of the natural animation with which he usually went about his work. Each step seemed weighted with thought, or, at least, heavy with inner dissatisfaction. But his eye was as keen as ever, and he began to use that eye from the moment he passed the gates. What was in his mind? Was he hunting for new clews, or was he merely seeking to establish the old?

The officers on guard knew him, by this time, and let him pass hither, thither, and where he would, unmolested. He walked up and down the driveways, peering continuously at the well-trodden snow. He studied the spaces between. He sauntered to the rear, and looked out over the golf-links. Then he began to study the ground in this direction, as he had already studied it in front. The few mutterings which left his lips continued to speak of discontent. “If I had only had Clarke’s chance, or even Hexford’s,” was among his complaints. “But what can I hope now? The snow has been trampled till it is one solid cake of ice, to the very edge of the golf-links. Beyond that, the distance is too great for minute inspection. Yet it will have to be gone over, inch by inch, before I shall feel satisfied. I must know how much of his story is to be believed, and how much of it we can safely set aside.”

He ended by wandering down on the golf-links. Taking out his watch, he satisfied himself that he had time for an experiment, and immediately started for Cuthbert Road. An hour later, he came wandering back, on a different line. He looked soured, disappointed. When near the building again, he cast his eye over its rear, and gazed long and earnestly at the window which had been pointed out to him as the one from which a possible light had shone forth that night. There were no trees on this side of the house — only vines. But the vines were bare of leaves and offered no obstruction to his view. “If there had been a light in that window, any one leaving this house by the rear would have seen it, unless he had been drunk or a fool,” muttered Sweetwater, in contemptuous comment to himself. “Arthur Cumberland’s story is one lie. I’ll take the district attorney’s suggestion and return to New York to-night. My work’s done here.”

Yet he hung about the links for a long time, and finally ended by entering the house, and taking up his stand beneath the long, narrow window of the closet overlooking the golf-links. With chin resting on his arms, he stared out over the sill and sought from the space before him, and from the intricacies of his own mind, the hint he lacked to make this present solution of the case satisfactory to all his instincts.

“Something is lacking.” Thus he blurted out after a look behind him into the adjoining room of death. “I can’t say what; nor can I explain my own unrest, or my disinclination to leave this spot. The district attorney is satisfied, and so, I’m afraid is the coroner; but I’m not, and I feel as guilty —”

Here he threw open the window for air, and, thrusting his head out, glanced over the links, then aside at the pines, showing beyond the line of the house on the southern end, and then out of mere idleness, down at the ground beneath him. “As guilty,” he went on, “as Ranelagh appears to be, and some one really is. I—”

Starting, he leaned farther out. What was that he saw in the vines — not on the snow of the ground, but half way up in the tangle of small branches clinging close to the stone of the lower story, just beneath this window? He would see. Something that glistened, something that could only have got there by falling from this window. Could he reach it? No; he would have to climb up from below to do that. Well, that was easy enough. With the thought, he rushed from the room. In another minute he was beneath that window; had climbed, pulled, pushed his way up; had found the little pocket of netted vines observable from above; had thrust in his fingers and worked a small object out; had looked at it, uttered an exclamation curious in its mixture of suppressed emotions, and let himself down again into the midst of the two or three men who had scented the adventure and hastened to be witnesses of its outcome.

“A phial!” he exclaimed, “An empty phial, but —” Holding the little bottle up between his thumb and forefinger, he turned it slowly about until the label faced them.

On it was written one word, but it was a word which invariably carries alarm with it.

That word was: Poison.

Sweetwater did not return to New York that night.

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