The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green


“Break in the Glass!”

This inundation of mistempered humour

Rests by you only to be qualified.

King John.

It was some time before I learned the particulars of this awakening.

It had occurred at sunset. A level beam of light had shot across the bed, and the nurse had moved to close the blind, when a low exclamation from the doctor drew her back, to mark the first faint fluttering of the snowy lids over the long-closed eyes. Afterwards she remembered what a picture her youthful patient made, with the hue of renewed life creeping into her cheeks, in faint reflection of the nest of roseate colour in which she lay.

Carmel’s hair was dark; so were her exquisitely pencilled eye-brows, and the long lashes which curled upward from her cheek. In her surroundings of pink — warm pink, such as lives in the heart of the sea-shell — their duskiness took on an added beauty; and nothing, not even the long, dark scar running from eye to chin could rob the face of its individuality and suggestion of charm. She was lovely; but it was the loveliness of line and tint, just as a child is lovely. Soul and mind were still asleep, but momentarily rousing, as all thought, to conscious being — and, if to conscious being, then to conscious suffering as well.

It was a solemn moment. If the man who loved her had been present — or even her brother, who, sullen as he was, must have felt the tie of close relationship rise superior even to his fears at an instant so critical — it would have been more solemn yet. But with the exception of the doctor and possibly the nurse, only those interested in her as a witness in the most perplexing case on the police annals, were grouped in silent watchfulness about the room, waiting for the word or look which might cut the Gordian knot which none of them, as yet, had been able to untangle.

It came suddenly, as all great changes come. One moment her lids were down, her face calm, her whole figure quiet in its statue-like repose; the next, her big violet eyes had flashed open upon the world, and lips and limbs were moving feebly, but certainly, in their suddenly recovered freedom. It was then — and not at a later moment when consciousness had fully regained its seat — that her face, to those who stood nearest wore the aspect of an angel’s. What she saw, or what vision remained to her from the mysterious world of which she had so long been a part, none ever knew — nor could she, perhaps, have told. But the rapture which informed her features and elevated her whole expression but poorly prepared them for the change which followed her first glance around on nurse and doctor. The beam which lay across the bed had been no brighter than her eye during that first tremulous instant of renewed life. But the clouds fell speedily and very human feelings peered from between those lids as she murmured, half petulantly:

“Why do you look at me so? Oh, I remember, I remember!”

And a flush, of which they little thought her weakened heart capable, spread over her features, hiding the scar and shaming her white lips. “What’s the matter?” she complained again, as she tried to raise her hands, possibly to hide her face. “I cannot move as I used to do, and I feel — I feel —”

“You have been ill,” came soothingly from the doctor. “You have been in bed many days; now you are better and will soon be well. This is your nurse.” He said nothing of the others, who were so placed behind screens as to be invisible to her.

She continued to gaze, first at one, then at the other; confidently at the doctor, doubtfully at the nurse. As she did so, the flush faded and gave way to an anxious, troubled expression. Not just the expression anticipated by those who believed that, with returning consciousness, would come returning memory of the mysterious scene which had taken place between herself and sister, or between her sister and her brother, prior to Adelaide’s departure for The Whispering Pines. Had they shared my knowledge — had they even so much as dreamed that their patient had been the companion of one or both of the others in this tragic escapade — how much greater would have been their wonder at the character of this awakening.

“You have the same kind look for me as always,” were her next words, as her glance finally settled on the doctor. “But hers — Bring me the mirror,” she cried. “Let me see with my own eyes what I have now to expect from every one who looks at me. I want to know before Lila comes in. Why isn’t she here? Is she with — with —” She was breaking down, but caught herself back with surprising courage, and almost smiled, I was told. Then in the shrill tones which will not be denied, she demanded again, “The mirror!”

Nurse Unwin brought it. Her patient evidently remembered the fall she had had in her sister’s room, and possibly the smart to her cheek when it touched the hot iron.

“I see only my forehead,” she complained, as the nurse held the mirror before her. “Move it a little. Lower — lower,” she commanded. Then suddenly “Oh!”

She was still for a long time, during which the nurse carried off the glass.

“I— I don’t like it,” she acknowledged quaintly to the doctor, as he leaned over her with compassionate words. “I shall have to get acquainted with myself all over again. And so I have been ill! I shouldn’t have thought a little burn like that would make me ill. How Adelaide must have worried.”

“Adelaide is — is not well herself. It distressed her to have been out when you fell. Don’t you remember that she went out that night?”

“Did she? She was right. Adelaide must have every pleasure. She had earned her good times. I must be the one to stay home now, and look after things, and learn to be useful. I don’t expect anything different. Call Adelaide, and let me tell her how — how satisfied I am.”

“But she’s ill. She cannot come. Wait till tomorrow, dear child. Rest is what you need now. Take these few drops and go to sleep again, and you’ll not know yourself to-morrow.”

“I don’t know myself now,” she repeated, glancing with slowly dilating eyes at the medicine glass he proffered. “I can’t take it,” she protested. “I forget now why, but I can’t take anything more from a glass. I’ve promised not to, I think. Take it away; it makes me feel queer. Where is Adelaide?”

Her memory was defective. She could not seem to take in what the doctor told her. But he tried her again. Once more he spoke of illness as the cause of Adelaide’s absence. Her attention wandered while he spoke of it.

“How it did hurt!” she cried. “But I didn’t think much about it. I thought only of —” Next moment her voice rose in a shriek, thin but impetuous, and imbued with a note of excited feeling which made every person there start. “There should be two,” she cried. “Two! Why is there only one?”

This sounded like raving. The doctor’s face took on a look of concern, and the nurse stirred uneasily.

“One is not enough! That is why Adelaide is not satisfied; why she does not come and love and comfort me, as I expected her to. Tell her it is not too late yet, not too late yet, not too late —”

The doctor’s hand was on her forehead. This “not too late,” whatever she meant by it, was indescribably painful to the listeners, oppressed as they were by the knowledge that Adelaide lay in her grave, and that all fancies, all hopes, all meditated actions between these two were now, so far as this world goes, forever at an end.

“Rest,” came in Dr. Carpenter’s most soothing tones. “Rest, my little Carmel; forget everything and rest.” He thought he knew the significance of her revolt from the glass he had offered her. She remembered the scene at the Cumberland dinner-table on that fatal night and shrank from anything that reminded her of it. Ordering the medicine put in a cup, he offered it to her again, and she drank it without question. As she quieted under its influence, the disappointed listeners, now tip-toeing carefully from the room, heard her murmur in final appeal:

“Cannot Adelaide spare one minute from — from her company downstairs, to wish me health and kiss me good night?”

Was it weakness, or a settled inability to remember anything but that which filled her own mind?

It proved to be a settled inability to take in any new ideas or even to remember much beyond the completion of that dinner. As the days passed and news of her condition came to me from time to time, I found that she had not only forgotten what had passed between herself and the rest of the family previous to their departure for the club-house, but all that had afterwards occurred at The Whispering Pines, even to her own presence there and the ride home. She could not even retain in her mind for any appreciable length of time the idea of Adelaide’s death. Even after Dr. Carpenter, with infinite precautions, revealed to her the truth — not that Adelaide had been murdered, but that Adelaide had passed away during the period of her own illness, Carmel gave but one cry of grief, then immediately burst forth in her old complaint that Adelaide neglected her. She had lost her happiness and hope, and Adelaide would not spare her an hour.

This expression, when I heard of it, convinced me, as I believe it did some others, that her act of self-denial in not humouring my whim and flying from home and duty that night, had made a stronger impression on her mind than all that came after.

She never asked for Arthur. This may have grieved him; but, according to my faithful friend and attorney, it appeared to have the contrary effect, and to bring him positive relief. When it was borne in on him, as it was soon to be borne in on all, that her mind was not what it was, and that the beautiful Carmel had lost something besides her physical perfection in the awful calamity which had made shipwreck of the whole family, he grew noticeably more cheerful and less suspicious in his manner. Was it because the impending inquiry must go on without her, and proceedings, which had halted till now, be pushed with all possible speed to a finish? So those who watched him interpreted his changed mood, with a result not favourable to him.

With this new shock of Carmel’s inability to explain her own part in this tragedy and thus release my testimony and make me a man again in my own eyes, I lost the sustaining power which had previously held me up. I became apathetic; no longer counting the hours, and thankful when they passed. Arthur had not been arrested; but he understood — or allowed others to see that he understood, the reason for the surveillance under which he was now strictly kept; and, though he showed less patience than myself under the shameful suspicion which this betokened, he did not break out into open conflict with the authorities, nor did he protest his innocence, or take any other stand than the one he had assumed from the first.

All this gave me much food for thought, but I declined to think. I had made up my mind from the moment I realised Carmel’s condition, that there was nothing for me to do till after the inquest. The public investigation which this would involve, would show the trend of popular opinion, and thus enlighten me as to my duty. Meanwhile, I would keep to the old lines and do the best I could for myself without revealing the fact of Carmel’s near interest in a matter she was in no better condition to discuss now than when in a state of complete unconsciousness.

Of that inquest, which was held in due course, I shall not say much. Only one new fact was elicited by its means, and that of interest solely as making clear how there came to be evidences of poison in Adelaide’s stomach, without the quantity being great enough for more than a temporary disturbance.

Maggie, the second girl, had something to say about this when the phial which had held the poison was handed about for inspection. She had handled that phial many times on the shelf where it was kept. Once she had dropped it, and the cork coming out, some of the contents had escaped. Frightened at the mishap, she had filled the phial up with water, and put it, thus diluted, back on the shelf. No one had noticed the difference, and she had forgotten all about the matter until now. From her description, there must have been very little of the dangerous drug left in the phial; and the conclusions of Dr. Perry’s autopsy received a confirmation which ended, after a mass of testimony tending rather to confuse than enlighten, the jury, in the non-committal verdict:

Death by strangulation at the hands of some person unknown.

I had expected this. The evidence, pointing as it did in two opposing directions, presented a problem which a coroner’s jury could hardly be expected to solve. What followed, showed that not only they but the police authorities as well, acknowledged the dilemma. I was allowed one sweet half hour of freedom, then I was detained to await the action of the grand jury, and so was Arthur.

When I was informed of this latter fact, I made a solemn vow to myself. It was this: If it falls to my lot to be indicted for this murderous offence, I will continue to keep my own counsel, as I have already done, in face of lesser provocation and at less dangerous risk. But, if I escape and a true bill should be found against Arthur, then will I follow my better instinct, and reveal what I have hitherto kept concealed, even if the torment of the betrayal drive me to self-destruction afterwards. For I no longer cherished the smallest doubt, that to Carmel’s sudden rage and to that alone, the death of Adelaide was due.

My reason for this change from troubled to absolute conviction can be easily explained. It dated from the inquest, and will best appear in the relation of an interview I held with my attorney, Charles Clifton, very soon after my second incarceration.

We had discussed the situation till there seemed to be nothing left to discuss. I understood him, and he thought he understood me. He believed Arthur guilty, and credited me with the same convictions. Thus only could he explain my inconceivable reticence on certain points he was very well assured I could make clear if I would. That he was not the only man who had drawn these same conclusions from my attitude both before and during the inquest, troubled me greatly and deeply disturbed my conscience, but I could indulge in no protests — or, rather would indulge in no protests — as yet. There was an unsolved doubt connected with some facts which had come out at the inquest — or perhaps, I should call it a circumstance not as yet fully explained — which disturbed me more than did my conscience, and upon this circumstance I must have light before I let my counsel leave me.

I introduced the topic thus:

“You remember the detached sentences taken down by the nurse during the period of Carmel’s unconsciousness. They were regarded as senseless ravings, and such they doubtless were; but there was one of them which attracted my attention, and of which I should like an explanation. I wish I had that woman’s little book here; I should like to read for myself those wandering utterances.”

“You can,” was the unexpected and welcome reply. “I took them all down in shorthand as they fell from Dr. Perry’s lips. I have not had time since to transcribe them, but I can read some of them to you, if you will give me an idea as to which ones you want.”

“Read the first — what she said on the day of the funeral. I do not think the rest matter very much.”

Clifton took a paper from his pocket, and, after only a short delay, read out these words:

December the fifth: Her sister’s name, uttered many times and with greatly varied expression — now in reproach, now in terror, now in what seemed to me in tones of wild pleading and even despair. This continued at intervals all through the day.

“At three P.M., just as people were gathering for the funeral, the quick, glad cry: ‘I smell flowers, sweet, sweet flowers!’”

Alas! she did.

“At three-forty P.M., as the services neared their close, a violent change took place in her appearance, and she uttered in shrill tones those astonishing words which horrified all below and made us feel that she had a clairvoyant knowledge of the closing of the casket, then taking place:

“‘Break it open! Break it open! and see if her heart is there!’”

“Pause there,” I said; “that is what I mean. It was not the only time she uttered that cry. If you will glance further down, you will come across a second exclamation of the like character.”

“Yes; here it is. It was while the ubiquitous Sweetwater was mousing about the room.”

“Read the very words he heard. I have a reason, Clifton. Humour me for this once.”

“Certainly — no trouble. She cried, this time: ‘Break it open! Break the glass and look in. Her heart should be there — her heart — her heart!” Horrible! but you insisted, Ranelagh.”

“I thought I heard that word glass,” I muttered, more to myself than to him. Then, with a choking fear of giving away my thought, but unable to resist the opportunity of settling my own fears, I asked: “Was there glass in the casket lid?”

“No; there never is.”

“But she may have thought there was,” I suggested hastily. “I’m much obliged to you, Clifton. I had to hear those sentences again. Morbidness, no doubt; the experience of the last three weeks would affect a stronger-minded man than myself.” Then before he could reply: “What do you think the nurse meant by a violent change in her patient?”

“Why, she roused up, I suppose — moved, or made some wild or feverish gesture.”

“That is what I should like to know. I may seem foolish and unnecessarily exacting about trifles; but I would give a great deal to learn precisely where she looked, and what she did at the moment she uttered those wild words. Is the detective Sweetwater still in town?”

“I believe so. Came up for the inquest but goes back to-night.”

“See him, Clifton. Ask him to relate this scene. He was present, you know. Get him to talk about it. You can, and without rousing his suspicion, keen as they all say he is. And when he talks, listen and remember what he says. But don’t ask questions. Do this for me, Clifton. Some day I may be able to explain my request, but not now.”

“I’m at your service,” he replied; but he looked hurt at being thus set to work in the dark, and I dared say nothing to ease the situation. I did not dare even to prolong the conversation on this subject, or on any other subject. In consequence, he departed speedily, and I spent the afternoon wondering whether he would return before the day ended, or leave me to the endurance of a night of suspense. I was spared this final distress. He came in again towards evening, and this was what he told me:

“I have seen Sweetwater, and was more fortunate in my interview than I expected. He talked freely, and in the course of the conversation, described the very occurrence in which you are so interested. Carmel had been lying quietly previous to this outbreak, but suddenly started into feverish life and, raising herself up in her bed, pointed straight before her and uttered the words we have so often repeated. That’s all there was to it, and I don’t see for my part, what you have gained by a repetition of the same, or why you lay so much stress upon her gesture. What she said was the thing, though even that is immaterial from a legal point of view — which is the only view of any importance to you or to me, at this juncture.”

“You’re a true friend to me,” I answered, “and never more so than in this instance. Forgive me that I cannot show my appreciation of your goodness, or thank you properly for your performance of an uncongenial task. I am sunk deep in trouble. I’m not myself and cannot be till I know what action will be taken by the grand jury.”

If he replied, I have no remembrance of it; neither do I recall his leave-taking. But I was presently aware that I was alone and could think out my hideous thought, undisturbed.

Carmel had pointed straight before her, shouting out: “Break in the glass!”

I knew her room; I had been taken in there once by Adelaide, as a sequence to a long conversation about Carmel, shortly after her first return from school. Adelaide wished to show me the cabinet in the wall, the cabinet at which Carmel undoubtedly pointed, if her bed stood as it had stood then. It was not quite full, at that time. It did not contain Adelaide’s heart among the other broken toys which Carmel had destroyed with her own hand or foot, in her moments of frenzied passion — the canary, that would not pick from her hand, the hat she hated, the bowl which held only bread and milk when she wanted meat or cake. Adelaide had kept them all, locked behind glass and in full view of the child’s eyes night and day, that the shame of those past destructive moments might guard her from their repetition and help her to understand her temper and herself. I had always thought it cruel of Adelaide, one of the evidences of the flint-like streak which ran through her otherwise generous and upright nature. But its awful prophecy was what affected me most now; for destruction had fallen on something more tender than aught that cabinet held.

Adelaide’s heart! And Carmel acknowledged it — acknowledged that it should be there, with what else she had trampled upon and crushed in her white heat of rage. I could not doubt her guilt, after this. Whatever peace her forgetfulness had brought — whatever innocent longing after Adelaide — the wild cry of those first few hours, ere yet the impressions of her awful experience had succumbed to disease, revealed her secret and showed the workings of her conscience. It had not been understood; it had passed as an awesome episode. But for me, since hearing of it, she stood evermore convicted out of her own mouth — that lovely mouth which angels might kiss in her hours of joyous serenity; but from whose caress friends would fly, when the passion reigned in her heart and she must break, crush, kill, or go mad.

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