The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green


All this Stood

It’s fit this royal session do proceed;

And that, without delay, their arguments

Be now produc’d and heard

King Henry VIII.

There was difficulty, as you will conceive, in selecting an unprejudiced jury. But this once having been accomplished, the case went quickly and smoothly on under the able guidance of the prosecuting attorney.

I shall spare you the opening details, also much of the preliminary testimony. Enough that at the close of the sixth day, the outlook was a serious one for Arthur Cumberland. The prosecution appeared to be making good its claims. The quiet and unexpectedly dignified way in which, at the beginning, the defendant had faced the whole antagonistic court-room, with the simple plea of “Not Guilty,” was being slowly but surely forgotten in the accumulated proofs of his discontented life under his sister’s dominating influence, his desire for independence and a free use of the money held in trust for him by this sister under their father’s will, the quarrels which such a situation would naturally evoke between characters cast in such different moulds and actuated by such opposing tastes and principles, and the final culmination of the same at the dinner-table when Adelaide forced him, as it were, to subscribe to her prohibition of all further use of liquor in their house. Following this evidence of motive, came the still more damaging one of opportunity. He was shown to have been in the club-house at or near the time of Adelaide’s death. The matter of the bottles was gone into and the event in Cuthbert Road. Then I was called to the stand, and my testimony asked for.

I had prepared myself for the ordeal and faced it unflinchingly. That I might keep intact the one point necessary to Carmel’s safety, I met my inquisitors, now as before, with the utmost candour in all other respects. Indeed, in one particular I was even more exact in my details than at any previous examination. Anxious to explain my agitated and hesitating advance through the club-house, prior to my discovery of the crime which had been committed there, I acknowledged what I had hitherto concealed, that in my first entrance into the building, I had come upon a man’s derby hat and coat hanging in the lower hall, and when questioned more minutely on the subject, allowed it to appear that it was owing to the disappearance of these articles during my stay upstairs, that I had been led into saying that some one had driven away from The Whispering Pines before the coming of the police.

This, as you will see, was in open contradiction of my former statements that I had seen an unknown party, thus attired, driving away through the upper gateway just as I entered by the lower. But it was a contradiction which while noted by Mr. Moffat, failed to injure me with the jury, and much less with the spectators. The impression had become so firmly fixed in the public mind and in that of certain officials as well, that my early hesitations and misstatements were owing to a brotherly anxiety to distract attention from Arthur whose clothing they believed me to have recognised in these articles I have mentioned — that I rather gained than lost by what, under other circumstances would have seriously damaged my testimony. That I should prevaricate even to my own detriment, at a preliminary examination, only to tell the truth openly and like a man when in court and under the sanctity of an oath was, in the popular estimation, something to my credit; and Mr. Moffat, whose chief recommendation as counsel lay in his quick appreciation of the exigencies of the moment, did not press me too sharply on this point when he came to his cross-examination.

But in other respects he drove me hard. An effort was made by him, first of all, to discredit me as a witness. My lack of appreciation for Adelaide and my secret but absorbing love for Carmel were inexorably brought out: also the easy, happy-go-lucky tenor of my life, and my dogged persistence in any course I thought consistent with my happiness. My character was well known in this town of my birth, and it would have been folly for me to attempt to gloss it over. I had not even the desire to do so. If my sins exacted penance, I would pay it here and now and to the full. Only Carmel should not suffer. I refused to admit that she had given any evidences of returning my reckless passion. My tongue would not speak the necessary words, and it was not made to. It was not her character but mine which Mr. Moffat was endeavouring to assail.

But though I was thus shown up for what I was, in a manner most public and undesirable, neither the rulings of the court, nor the attitude of the jury betrayed any loss of confidence in me as a credible witness, and seeing this, the wily lawyer shifted his ground and confined himself to an endeavour to shake me on certain definite and important points. How were the pillows heaped upon the couch? What ones at top, what ones at bottom? Which did I remove first, and why did I remove any of them? What had I expected to find? These questions answered, the still more-to-be-dreaded ones followed of just how my betrothed looked at the moment I uncovered her face. Were the marks very plain upon her throat? How plain; and what did I mean by saying that I felt forced to lay my thumbs upon them? Was that a natural thing to do? Where was the candle at that moment? How many feet away? A candle does not give much light at that distance, was I sure that I saw those marks immediately; that they were dark enough and visible enough to draw my eyes from her face which would naturally attract my gaze first? It was horrible, devilish, but I won through, only to meet the still more disturbing question as to whether I saw any other evidences of strangulation besides the marks. I could only mention the appearance of the eyes; and when Mr. Moffat found that he could not shake me on this point, he branched off into a less harrowing topic and cross-examined me in regard to the ring. I had said that it was on her hand when I bade good-bye to her in her own house, and that it was not there when I came upon her dead. Had the fact made me curious to examine her hand? No. Then I could not tell whether the finger on which she wore it gave any evidence of this ring having been pulled off with violence? No. I could not swear that in my opinion it was? I could not.

The small flask of cordial and the three glasses, one clean and the others showing signs of having been used, were next taken up, but with no result for the defence. I had told all I knew about these in my direct examination; also about such matters as the bottles found on the kitchen table, the leaving of my keys at the Cumberland house, and the fact, well known, that the two bottles of wine left in the wine-vault and tabulated by the steward as so left in the list found in my apartments, were of an exclusive brand unlikely to be found anywhere else in town. I could add nothing more, and, having spoken the exact truth concerning them, from the very first, I ran no chance of contradicting myself even under the close fire of the opposing counsel.

But there was a matter I dreaded to see him approach, and, which, I was equally sure, with an insight unshared I believe by any one else in the whole courtroom, was equally dreaded by the prisoner.

This was the presence in the club-house chimney of the half-burned letter I had long ago been compelled, in my own defence, to acknowledge having written to the victim’s young sister, Carmel Cumberland. As I saw District Attorney Fox about to enter upon this topic, I gathered myself together to meet the onslaught, for in this matter I could not be strictly truthful, since the least slip on my part might awaken the whole world to the fact that it could only have come there through the agency of Carmel herself.

What Mr. Moffat thought of it — what he hoped to prove in the prisoner’s behalf by raking this subject over — it was left for me to discover later. The prisoner was an innocent man, in his eyes. I was not; and, while the time had not come for him to make this openly apparent, he was not above showing even now that the case contained a factor which weakened the prosecution — a factor totally dissociated with the openly accepted theory that the crime was simply the result of personal cupidity and drunken spite.

And in this he was right. It did weaken it — weakened it to the point of collapse, if the counsel for the defence had fully acted up to his opportunity. But something withheld him. Just at the moment when I feared the truth must come out, he hesitated and veered gradually away from this subject. In his nervous pacings to and fro before the witness stand, his eye had rested for a moment on Arthur’s, and with this result. The situation was saved, but at a great loss to the defendant.

I began to cherish softened feelings towards Arthur Cumberland, from this moment. Was it then, or later, that he began in his turn to cherish new and less hostile feelings towards myself? He had hated me and vowed my death if I escaped the fate he could now dimly see opening out before himself; yet I could see that he was glad to see me slip from my tormentor’s hands with my story unimpeached, and that he drew his breath more deeply and with much more evidence of freedom, now that my testimony had been thoroughly sifted and nothing had come to light implicating Carmel. I even thought I caught a kindly gleam in his eye as it met mine at this critical juncture, and by its light I understood my man and what he hoped from me. He wished me at any risk to himself, to unite with him in saving Carmel’s good name. That I should accede to this; that I should respect his generous wishes and let him go to unmerited destruction for even so imperative an obligation as we both lay under, was a question for the morrow. I could not decide upon it to-day — not while the smallest hope remained that he would yet escape conviction by other means than the one which would wreck the life we were both intent on saving.

Several short examinations followed mine, all telling in their nature, all calculated to fix in the minds of the jury the following facts:

(Pray pardon the repetition. It is necessary to present the case to you just as it stood at this period of my greatest struggle.)

1. — That Arthur, swayed by cupidity and moved to rage by the scene at the dinner-table, had, by some unknown means of a more or less violent character, prevailed upon Adelaide to accompany him to The Whispering Pines, in the small cutter, to which, in the absence of every servant about the place, he himself had harnessed the grey mare.

2. — That in preparation for this visit to a spot remote from observation and closed against all visitors, they, still for some unknown reason, had carried between them a candlestick and candle, a flask of cordial, three glasses, and a small bottle marked “Poison”; also some papers, letters, or scraps of correspondence, among them the compromising line I had written to Carmel.

3. — That, while in this building, at an hour not yet settled, a second altercation had arisen between them, or some attempt been made by the brother which had alarmed Adelaide and sent her flying to the telephone, in great agitation, with an appeal to the police for help. This telephone was in a front room and the jury was led to judge that she had gained access to it while her companion ransacked the wine-vault and brought the six bottles of spirit up from the cellar.

4. — That her outcry had alarmed the prisoner in his turn, causing him to leave most of the bottles below, and hasten up to the room, where he completed the deed with which he had previously threatened her.

5. — That poison having failed, he resorted to strangulation; after which — or before — came the robbery of her ring, the piling up of the cushions over the body in a vain endeavour to hide the deed, or to prolong the search for the victim. Then the departure — the locking of the front door behind the perpetrator; the flight of the grey horse and cutter through the blinding storm; the blowing off of the driver’s hat; the identification of the same by means of the flour-mark left on its brim by the mechanic’s wife; the presence of a portion of one of the two abstracted bottles in the stable where the horse was put up; and the appearance of Arthur with the other bottle at the door of the inn in Cuthbert Road, just as the clock was striking half-past eleven.

This latter fact might have been regarded as proving an alibi, owing to the length of road between the Cumberland house and the place just mentioned, if there had not been a short cut to town open to him by means of a door in the wall separating the Cumberland and Fulton grounds — a door which was found unlocked, and with the key in it, by Zadok Brown, the coachman, when he came home about three next morning.

All this stood; not an item of this testimony could be shaken. Most of it was true; some of it false; but what was false, so unassailable by any ordinary means, that, as I have already said, the clouds seemed settling heavily over Arthur Cumberland when, at the end of the sixth day, the proceedings closed.

The night that followed was a heavy one for me. Then came the fateful morrow, and, after that, the day of days destined to make a life-long impression on all who attended this trial.

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