The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xxiii

At Ten Instead of Twelve

Forget the world around you. Meantime friendship

Shall keep strict vigils for you, anxious, active,

Only be manageable when that friendship

Points you the road to full accomplishment.

Coleridge.

“I don’t care a rush what you do to me. If you are so besotted by your prejudices that you refuse to see the nose before your face; if you don’t believe your own officer who swore he saw Ranelagh’s hands upon my sister’s throat, then this world is all a jumble and it makes very little difference to me whether I’m alive or dead.”

When these words of Arthur Cumberland were repeated to me, I echoed them in my inmost soul. I, too, cared very little whether I lived or died.

The grand jury reeled off its cases and finally took up ours. To the last I hoped — sincerely I think — that I should be the man to suffer indictment. But I hoped in vain. A true bill was brought against Arthur, and his trial was set for the eighteenth of January.

The first use I made of my liberty was to visit Adelaide’s grave. In that sacred place I could best review my past and gather strength for the future. The future! Was it under my control? Did Arthur’s fate hang upon my word? I believed so. But had I strength to speak that word? I had expected to; I had seen my duty clearly enough before the sitting of the grand jury. But now that Arthur was indicted — now that it was an accepted fact that he would have to stand trial instead of myself, I was conscious of such a recoil from my contemplated action that I lost all confidence in myself and my stoical adherence to what I considered the claims of justice.

Standing in the cemetery grounds with my eyes upon the snow-covered mound beneath which lay the doubly injured Adelaide, I had it out with myself, for good and all.

I trusted Arthur; I distrusted Carmel. But she had claims to consideration, which he lacked. She was a woman. Her fall would mean infinitely more to her than any disgrace to him. Even he had seemed to recognise this. Miserable and half-hearted as his life had been, he had shown himself man enough not to implicate his young sister in the crime laid to his charge. What then was I that I should presume to disregard his lead in the difficult maze in which we were both lost. Yet, because of the self-restraint he manifested, he had my sympathy and when I left the cemetery and took my mournful way back into town, it was with the secret resolution to stand his friend if I saw the case really going against him. Till then, I would consider the helpless girl, tongue-tied by her condition, and injured enough already by my misplaced love and its direful consequences.

The only change I now allowed myself was an occasional midnight stroll up Huested Street. This was as near as I dared approach Carmel’s windows. I feared some watchful police spy. Perhaps I feared my own hardly-to-be-restrained longings.

Mr. Fulton’s house and extensive grounds lay between this street and the dismal walls beyond the huge sycamore which lifted itself like a beacon above the Cumberland estate. But I allowed myself the doubtful pleasure of traversing this course, and this course only, and if I obtained one glimpse through bush and tree of the spot whither all my thoughts ran continuously, I went home satisfied.

This was before Carmel left with her nurse for Lakewood. After that event, I turned my head no more, in taking my midnight stroll. I was not told the day or hour of her departure. Happily, perhaps, for us both, for I could never have kept away from the station. I should have risked everything for one glimpse of her face, if only to satisfy my own judgment as to whether she would ever recognise me again, or remember what had occurred on that doleful night when the light of her intellect set in the darkness of sin and trouble.

The police had the same idea, I think, for I heard later that she was deliberately driven past The Whispering Pines, though the other road was more direct and less free, if anything, from possible spectators. They thought, no doubt, that a sight of the place might reawaken whatever memories remained of the last desperate scene preceding her brother and sister’s departure for this out-of-the-way spot. They little knew how cruel was the test, or what a storm of realisation might have overwhelmed her mind as her eye fell on those accursed walls, peering from their bower of snow-laden, pines. But I did, and I never rested till I learned how she had borne herself in her slow drive by the two guarded gateways: merrily, it seems, and with no sign of the remembrances I feared. The test, if it were meant for such, availed them nothing; no more, indeed, than an encounter with her on the road, or at the station would have availed me. For the veil she begged for had shrouded her features completely, and it was only from her manner that those who accompanied her, perceived her light-heartedness and delight in this change.

One sentence, and one only, reached my ears of all she said before she disappeared from town.

“If Adelaide were only going, too! But I suppose I shall meet her and Mr. Ranelagh somewhere before my return. She must be very happy. But not so peaceful as I am. She will see that when we meet. I can hardly wait for the day.”

Words which set me thinking; but which I was bound to acknowledge could be only the idle maunderings of a diseased mind from which all impressions had fled, save those of innocence and futile hope.

One incident more before I enter upon the serious business of the trial. I had no purpose in what I did. I merely followed the impulse of the moment, as I had so often done before in my selfish and thoughtless life, when I started one night for my walk at ten o’clock instead of twelve. I went the old way; and the old longing recurring at the one charmed spot on the road, I cast a quick look at the towering sycamore and the desolated house beneath, which, short as it was, roused feelings which kept my head lowered for the remainder of my walk north and to the very moment, when, on my return, the same chimneys and overhanging roofs came again into view through the wintry branches. Then habit lifted my head, and I paused to look again, when the low sound of a human voice, suppressed into a moan or sob, caused me to glance about for the woman or child who had uttered this note of sorrow. No one was in sight; but as I started to move on, I heard my name uttered in choked tones from behind the hedge separating the Fulton grounds from the city sidewalk.

I halted instantly. A lamp from the opposite side of the street threw a broad illumination across the walk where I stood, but the gate-posts behind threw a shadow. Had the voice issued from this isolated point of darkness? I went back to see. A pitiful figure was crouching there, a frail, agitated little being, whom I had no sooner recognised than my manner instantly assumed an air of friendly interest, called out by her timid and appealing attitude.

“Ella Fulton!” I exclaimed. “You wish to speak to me?”

“Hush!” she prayed, with a frightened gesture towards the house. “No one knows I am here. Mamma thinks me in bed, and papa, who is out, may come home any minute. Oh, Mr. Ranelagh, I’m in such misery and no one but you can give me any help. I have watched you go by night after night, and I have wanted to call out and beg you to come in and see me, or let me go and meet you somewhere, and I have not dared, it was so late. To-night you have come earlier, and I have slipped out and — O, Elwood, you won’t think badly of me? It’s all about Arthur, and I shall die if some one does not help me and tell me how I can reach him with a message.”

As she spoke the last words, she caught at the gatepost which was too broad and ponderous to offer her any hold. Gravely I held out my arm, which she took; we were old friends and felt no necessity of standing on any sort of ceremony.

“You don’t wish to bother,” was her sensitive cry. “You had rather not stop; rather not listen to my troubles.”

Had I shown my feelings so plainly as that? I felt mortified. She was a girl of puny physique and nervous manner — the last sort of person you would expect Arthur Cumberland to admire or even to have patience with, and the very last sort who could be expected to endure his rough ways, or find anything congenial to herself in his dissipated and purposeless life. But the freaks of youthful passion are endless, and it was evident that they loved each other sincerely.

Her tremulous condition and meek complaint went to my heart, notwithstanding my growing dread of any conversation between us on this all-absorbing but equally peace-destroying topic. Reassuringly pressing her hand, I was startled to find a small piece of paper clutched convulsively within it.

“For Arthur,” she explained under her breath. “I thought you might find some way of getting it to him. Father and mother are so prejudiced. They have never liked him, and now they believe the very worst. They would lock me up if they knew I was speaking to you about him. Mother is very stern and says that all this nonsense between Arthur and myself must stop. That we must never — no matter whether he is cleared or — or —” Silence, then a little gasp, after which she added with an emphasis which bespoke the death of every hope: “She is very decided about it, Elwood.”

I hardly blamed the mother.

“I— I love Arthur. I don’t think him guilty and I would gladly stand by him if they would let me. I want him to know this. I want him to get such comfort as he can out of my belief and my desire to serve him. I want to sacrifice myself. But I can’t, I can’t,” she moaned. “You don’t know how mother frightens me. When she looks at me, the words falter on my tongue and I feel as if it would be easier to die than to acknowledge what is in my heart.”

I could believe her. Mrs. Fulton was a notable woman, whom many men shrank from encountering needlessly. It was not her tongue, though that could be bitter enough, but a certain way she had of infusing her displeasure into attitude, tone, and manner, which insensibly sapped your self-confidence and forced you to accept her bad opinion of you as your rightful due. This, whether your judgment coincided with hers or not.

“Yet your mother is your very best friend,” I ventured gently, with a realisation of my responsibility which did not add much to my self-possession.

She seemed startled.

“Not in this, not in this,” she objected, with a renewal of her anxious glances, this time up and down the street. “I must get a word to Arthur. I must.”

I saw that she had some deeper reason than appeared, for desiring communication with him. I was debating how best to meet the situation and set her right as to my ability to serve her, without breaking down her spirit too seriously, when I felt her feverish hand pressing her little note into my unwilling palm.

“Don’t read it,” she whispered, innocent of all offence and only anxious to secure my good offices. “It’s for Arthur. I’ve used the thinnest paper, so that you can secrete it in something he will be sure to get. Don’t disappoint me. I was sorry for you, too, and glad when they let you out. Both of you are old playmates of mine, but Arthur —”

I had to tell her; I had to dash her small hopes to the ground.

“Forgive me, Ella,” I said, “but I cannot carry him this message or even get it to him secretly. I am watched myself; I know it, though I have never really detected the man doing it.”

“Oh!” she ejaculated, terror-stricken at once. “Is there any one here, behind these trees or in the street on the other side of the hedge-row?”

I hastened to reassure her.

“No, no. If I’ve been followed, it was not so near as that. I cannot do what you ask for several reasons. Arthur will credit you with the best of impulses without your incurring any such risk.”

“Yes, yes, but that’s not enough. What shall I do? What shall I do?”

I strove to help her.

“There is a man,” said I, “who sees him constantly and may be induced to assure Arthur of your belief and continued interest in him. That man is his lawyer, Mr. Moffat. Any one will tell you how to reach him.”

“No, no,” she disclaimed, hurriedly, breathlessly. “My last hope was in you. You wouldn’t think the worse of me for — for what I’ve done; or let mother know. I couldn’t tell a stranger even if he went right to Arthur with it. I’m not made that way. I couldn’t stand the shame.” Drawing back a step she wrung her small hands together, exclaiming, “What an unhappy girl I am!” Then stepping up to my side, she whispered in my ear: “There is something I could say which might —”

I stopped her. Right or wrong, I stopped her. I hadn’t the courage just then to face the possibilities of what lay at the end of this simple sentence. She possessed evidence, or thought she did, which might help to clear Arthur. Evidence of what? Evidence which would implicate Carmel? The very thought unnerved me.

“I had rather not be the recipient of this confidence if it is at all important or at all in the line of testimony. Remember the man I mentioned. He will be glad to hear of anything helpful to his client.”

Her distress mounted to passion.

“It’s — it’s something that will destroy my mother’s confidence in me. I disobeyed her. I did what she would never have let me do if she had known. I— I used to meet Arthur in the driveway back by the barns. I had a key made to the little side door so that I could do it. I used to meet him late. I would get up out of bed when mother was asleep, and dress myself and sit at the window until I heard him come up the street. Then I would steal down and catch him on his way to the stables. I— I had a good reason for this, Elwood. He knew I would be there, and it brought him home earlier and not quite so — so full of liquor. If he was very bad, he would come up the other way and I would sit waiting and crying till three o’clock struck, then creep into my bed and try to sleep. Nights and nights I have done this. Nothing else in life seemed so important, for it did hold him back a little. But not so much as if he had loved me more. He loved me some, but he couldn’t have loved me very much, or he would have sent me some word, or seen me, if but for a minute, since Adelaide’s death. And he hasn’t, he hasn’t! and that makes it harder for me to acknowledge the watch I kept on him, and how I know he never went through our grounds for the second time that night. He went once, about nine, but not later. I am certain of this, for I was looking out for him till three in the morning. If he came back and then returned afterwards to town, it was through his own street, and that takes so long, he would never have been able to get to the place they said he did at the time they have agreed upon. Oh! I have studied every word of the case, to see if what I had to tell would help him any. Father cannot bear to see me with a newspaper in my hand, and mother comes and takes them out of my room; but I have managed to read every word since they accused him of being at the club-house that night, and I know that he needs some one to come out boldly in his cause, and I want to be that some one, and I will be, too, whatever happens to me, if — if I must,” she faintly added.

I was dumb, but not from lack of interest, God knows, or from unsympathetic feeling for this brave-hearted girl. The significance of the situation was what held me speechless. Here was help for Arthur without my braving all the horrors of Carmel’s downfall by any impulsive act of my own. For a moment, hope in one burning and renewing flame soared high in my breast. I was willing to accept my release in this way. I was willing to shift the load from my own back to the delicate shoulders of this shrinking but ardent girl. Then reason returned, if consideration halted, and I asked myself: “But is the help she offers of any practical worth? Would her timid declarations, trembling as she was between her awe of her parents and her desire to serve the man she loved, weigh in the balance against the evidence accumulated by the district attorney?”

It seemed doubtful. She would not be believed, and I should have to back up her statement with my own hitherto suppressed testimony. It was a hard case, any way I looked at it. A woman to be sacrificed whichever course I took. Contemplating the tremulous, half-fainting figure drooping in the shadows before me, such native chivalry as remained to me, urged me to spare this little friend of mine, so ungifted by nature, so innocent in intention, so sensitive and so shrinking in temperament and habit. Then Carmel’s image rose before me, glorious, impassioned, driven by the fierce onrush of some mighty inherent force into violent deeds undreamed of by most women; but when thus undriven, gentle in manner, elevated in thought, refined as only a few rare characters are refined; and my heart stood still again with doubt, and I could not say: “It is your duty to save him at all hazards. Brave your father, brave your mother, brave public opinion and possibly the wrecking of your whole future, but tell the truth, and rid your days of doubt, your nights of remorse.” I could not say this. So many things might happen to save Arthur, to save Carmel, to save the little woman before me. I would trust that future, temporise a bit and give such advice as would relieve us both from immediate fear without compromising Arthur’s undoubted rights to justice.

Meanwhile, Ella Fulton had become distracted by new fears. The sound of sleigh-bells could be heard on the hill. It might be her father. Should she try to reach the house, or hide her small body, like a trapped animal’s, on the dark side of the hedge? I was conscious of her thoughts, shared her uncertainties, notwithstanding the struggle then going on in my own mind. But I remained quiet and so did she, and the sleigh ultimately flew past us up the road. The sigh which broke from her lips as this terror subsided, brought my disordered thoughts to a focus. I must not keep her longer. Something must be said at once. As soon as she looked my way again, I spoke:

“Ella, this is no easy problem you have offered me. You are right in thinking that this testimony of yours might be of benefit to Arthur, and that you ought to give it in case of extremity. But I cannot advise you to obtrude it yet. I understand what it would cost you, and the sacrifice you would make is too great for the doubtful good which might follow. Neither must you trust me to act for you in this matter. My own position is too unstable for me to be of assistance to any one. I can sympathise with you, possibly as no one else can; but I cannot reach Arthur, either by word or by message. Your father is the man to appeal to in case interference becomes necessary and you must speak. You have not quite the same fear of him that you have of your mother. Take him into your confidence — not now but later when things press and you must have a friend. He’s a just man. You may shock his fatherly susceptibilities, you may even lose some of his regard, but he will do the right thing by you and Arthur. Have confidence that this is so, and rest, little friend, in the hope and help it gives you. Will you?”

“I will try. I could only tell father on my knees, but I will do it if — if I must,” she faltered out, unconsciously repeating her former phrase. “Now, I must go. You have been good; only I asked too much.” And with no other farewell she left me and disappeared up the walk.

I lingered till I heard the faint click of her key in the door she had secretly made her own; then I moved on. As I did so, I heard a rustle somewhere about me on street or lawn. I never knew whence it came, but I felt assured that neither her fears nor mine had been quite unfounded; that a listener had been posted somewhere near us and that a part, if not all, we had said had been overheard. I was furious for an instant, then the soothing thought came that possibly Providence had ordained that the Gordian knot should be cut in just this way.

But the event bore no ostensible fruit. The week ended, and the case of the People against Arthur Cumberland was moved for trial.

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