The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xxvi

The Syllable of Doom

I alit

On a great ship lightning-split,

And speeded hither on the sigh

Of one who gave an enemy

His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Prometheus Unbound.

Recess followed. Clifton and I had the opportunity of exchanging a few words. He was voluble; I was reticent. I felt obliged to hide from him the true cause of the deep agitation under which I was labouring. Attached as he was to me, keenly as he must have felt my anomalous position, he was too full of Moffat’s unwarrantable introduction of testimony damaging to his client, to think or talk of anything else.

“He has laid him open to attack on every side. Fox has but to follow his lead, and the thing is done. Poor Arthur may be guilty, but he certainly should have every chance a careful lawyer could give him. You can see — he makes it very evident — that he has no further use for Moffat. I wonder under whose advice he chose him for his counsel. I have never thought much of Moffat, myself. He wins his cases but —”

“He will win this,” I muttered.

Clifton started; looked at me very closely for a minute, paled a little — I fear that I was very pale myself — but did not ask the question rising to his lips.

“There is method in the madness of a man like that,” I pursued with a gloom I could not entirely conceal. “He has come upon some evidence which he has not even communicated to his client. At least, I fear so. We must be prepared for any untoward event.” Then, noticing Clifton’s alarm and wishing to confine it within safe bounds, I added: “I feel that I am almost as much on trial as Arthur himself. Naturally I am anxious at the appearance of anything I do not understand.”

Clifton frowned. We were quite alone. Leaning forward, he touched my arm.

“Elwood,” said he, “you’ve not been quite open with me.”

I smiled. If half the bitterness and sorrow in my heart went into that smile, it must have been a sad and bitter one indeed.

“You have a right to reproach me,” said I, “but not wholly. I did not deceive you in essentials. You may still believe me as guiltless of Adelaide’s violent death as a man can be who drove her and hers into misery which death alone could end.”

“I will believe it,” he muttered, “I must.” And he dropped the subject, as he made me see, forever.

I drew a deep breath of relief. I had come very near to revealing my secret.

When we returned to the court-room, we found it already packed with a very subdued and breathless crowd. It differed somewhat from the one which had faced us in the morning; but Ella and her parents were there and many others of the acknowledged friends of the accused and of his family.

He, himself, wore the heavy and dogged air which became him least. Physically refreshed, he carried himself boldly, but it was a boldness which convinced me that any talk he may have had with his lawyer, had been no more productive of comfort than the one I had held with mine.

As he took the witness chair, and prepared to meet the cross-examination of the district attorney, a solemn hush settled upon the room. Would the coming ordeal rob his brow of its present effrontery, or would he continue to bear himself with the same surly dignity, which, misunderstood as it was, produced its own effect, and at certain moments seemed to shake even the confidence of Mr. Fox, settled as he seemed to be in his belief in the integrity of his cause and the rights of the prosecution.

Shaken or not, his attack was stern, swift, and to the point.

“Was the visit you made to the wine-vault on the evening of the second of December, the first one you had ever paid there?”

“No; I had been there once before. But I always paid for my depredations,” he added, proudly.

“The categorical answer, Mr. Cumberland. Anything else is superfluous.”

Arthur’s lip curled, but only for an instant; and nothing could have exceeded the impassiveness of his manner as Mr. Fox went on.

“Then you knew the way?”

“Perfectly.”

“And the lock?”

“Sufficiently well to open it without difficulty.”

“How long do you think you were in entering the house and procuring these bottles?”

“I cannot say. I have no means of knowing; I never thought of looking at my watch.”

“Not when you started? Not when you left Cuthbert Road?”

“No, sir.”

“But you know when you left the club-house to go back?”

“Only by this — it had not yet begun to snow. I’m told that the first flakes fell that night at ten minutes to eleven. I was on the golf-links when this happened. You can fix the time yourself. Pardon me,” he added, with decided ill-grace as he met Mr. Fox’s frown. “I forgot your injunction.”

Mr. Fox smiled an acrid smile, as he asked: “Whereabouts on the golf-links? They extend for some distance, you remember.”

“They are six hundred yards across from first tee to the third hole, which is the nearest one to Cuthbert Road,” Arthur particularised. “I was — no, I can’t tell you just where I was at that moment. It was a good ways from the house. The snow came on very fiercely. For a little while I could not see my way.”

“How, not see your way?”

“The snow flew into my eyes.”

“Crossing the links?”

“Yes, sir, crossing the links.”

“But the storm came from the west. It should have beaten against your back.”

“Back or front, it bothered me. I could not get on as fast as I wished.”

Mr. Fox cast a look at the jury. Did they remember the testimony of the landlord that Mr. Cumberland’s coat was as thickly plastered with snow on the front as it had been on the back. He seemed to gather that they did, for he went on at once to say:

“You are accustomed to the links? You have crossed them often?”

“Yes, I play golf there all summer.”

“I’m not alluding to the times when you play. I mean to ask whether or not you had ever before crossed them directly to Cuthbert Road?”

“Yes, I had.”

“In a storm?”

“No, not in a storm.”

“How long did it take you that time to reach Cuthbert Road from The Whispering Pines?”

Mr. Moffat bounded to his feet, but the prisoner had answered before he could speak.

“Just fifteen minutes.”

“How came you to know the time so exactly?”

“Because that day I did look at my watch. I had an engagement in the lower town, and had only twenty minutes in which to keep it. I was on time.”

Honest at the core. This boy was growing rapidly in my favour. But this frank but unwise answer was not pleasing to his counsel, who would have advised, no doubt, a more general and less precise reply. However, it had been made and Moffat was not a man to cry over spilled milk. He did not even wince when the district attorney proceeded to elicit from the prisoner that he was a good walker, not afraid in the least of snow-storms and had often walked, in the teeth of the gale twice that distance in less than half an hour. Now, as the storm that night had been at his back, and he was in a hurry to reach his destination, it was evidently incumbent upon him to explain how he had managed to use up the intervening time of forty minutes before entering the hotel at half-past eleven.

“Did you stop in the midst of the storm to take a drink?” asked the district attorney.

As the testimony of the landlord in Cuthbert Road had been explicit as to the fact of his having himself uncorked the bottle which the prisoner had brought into the hotel, Arthur could not plead yes. He must say no, and he did.

“I drank nothing; I was too busy thinking. I was so busy thinking I wandered all over those links.”

“In the blinding snow?”

“Yes, in the snow. What did I care for the snow? I did not understand my sister being in the club-house. I did not like it; I was tempted at times to go back.”

“And why didn’t you?”

“Because I was more of a brute than a brother — because Cuthbert Road drew me in spite of myself — because —” He stopped with the first hint of emotion we had seen in him since the morning. “I did not know what was going on there or I should have gone back,” he flashed out, with a defiant look at his counsel.

Again sympathy was with him. Mr. Fox had won but little in this first attempt. He seemed to realise this, and shifted his attack to a point more vulnerable.

“When you heard your sister’s voice in the club-house, how did you think she had got into the building?”

“By means of the keys Ranelagh had left at the house.”

“When, instead of taking the whole bunch, you took the one key you wanted from the ring, did you do so with any idea she might want to make use of the rest?”

“No, I never thought of it. I never thought of her at all.”

“You took your one key, and let the rest lie?”

“You’ve said it.”

“Was this before or after you put on your overcoat?”

“I’m not sure; after, I think. Yes, it was after; for I remember that I had a deuce of a time unbuttoning my coat to get at my trousers’ pocket.”

“You dropped this key into your trousers’ pocket?”

“I did.”

“Mr. Cumberland, let me ask you to fix your memory on the moments you spent in the hall. Did you put on your hat before you pocketed the key, or afterwards?”

“My hat? How can I tell? My mind wasn’t on my hat. I don’t know when I put it on.”

“You absolutely do not remember?”

“No.”

“Nor where you took it from?”

“No.”

“Whether you saw the keys first, and then went for your hat; or having pocketed the key, waited —”

“I did not wait.”

“Did not stand by the table thinking?”

“No, I was in too much of a hurry.”

“So that you went straight out?”

“Yes, as quickly as I could.”

The district attorney paused, to be sure of the attention of the jury. When he saw that every eye of that now thoroughly aroused body was on him, he proceeded to ask: “Does that mean immediately, or as soon as you could after you had made certain preparations, or held certain talk with some one you called, or who called to you?”

“I called to nobody. I— I went out immediately.”

It was evident that he lied; evident, too, that he had little hope from his lie. Uneasiness was taking the place of confidence in his youthful, untried, undisciplined mind. Carmel had spoken to him in the hall — I guessed it then, I knew it afterward — and he thought to deceive this court and blindfold a jury, whose attention had been drawn to this point by his own counsel.

District Attorney Fox smiled. “How then did you get into the stable?”

“The stable! Oh, I had no trouble in getting into the stable.”

“Was it unlocked?”

A slow flush broke over the prisoner’s whole face. He saw where he had been landed and took a minute to pull himself together before he replied: “I had the key to that door, too. I got it out of the kitchen.”

“You have not spoken of going into the kitchen.”

“I have not spoken of coming downstairs.”

“You went into the kitchen?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“When I first came down.”

“That is not in accordance with your direct testimony. On the contrary, you said that on coming downstairs you went straight to the rack for your overcoat. Stenographer read what the prisoner said on this topic.”

A rustling of leaves, distinctly to be heard in the deathlike silence of the room, was followed by the reading of this reply and answer:

Yet you cannot say which of these two overcoats you put on when you left your home an hour or so after finishing your dinner?

I cannot. I was in no condition to notice. I was bent on going into town and, on coming downstairs, I went straight to the rack and pulled on the first things that offered.

The prisoner stood immobile but with a deepening line gathering on his brow until the last word fell. Then he said: “I forgot. I went for the key before I put on my overcoat. I wanted to see how the sick horse looked.”

“Did you drop this key into your pocket, too?”

“No, I carried it into the hall.”

“What did you do with it there?”

“I don’t know. Put it on the table, I suppose.”

“Don’t you remember? There were other keys lying on this table. Don’t you remember what you did with the one in your hand while you took the club-house key from the midst of Mr. Ranelagh’s bunch?”

“I laid it on the table. I must have — there was no other place to put it.”

“Laid it down by itself?”

“Yes.”

“And took it up when you went out?”

“Of course.”

“Carrying it straight to the stable?”

“Naturally.”

“What did you do with it when you came out?”

“I left it in the stable-door.”

“You did? What excuse have you to give for that?”

“None. I was reckless, and didn’t care for anything — that’s all.”

“Yet you took several minutes, for all your hurry and your indifference, to get the stable key and look in at a horse that wasn’t sick enough to keep your coachman home from a dance.”

The prisoner was silent.

“You have no further explanation to give on this subject?”

“No. All fellows who love horses will understand.”

The district attorney shrugged this answer away before he went on to say: “You have listened to Zadok Brown’s testimony. When he returned at three, he found the stable-door locked, and the key hanging up on its usual nail in the kitchen. How do you account for this?”

“There are two ways.”

“Mention them, if you please.”

“Zadok had been to a dance, and may not have been quite clear as to what he saw. Or, finding the stable door open, may have blamed himself for the fact and sought to cover up his fault with a lie.”

“Have you ever caught him in a lie?”

“No; but there’s always a first time.”

“You would impeach his testimony then?”

“No. You asked me how this discrepancy could be explained, and I have tried to show you.”

“Mr. Cumberland, the grey mare was out that night; this has been amply proved.”

“If you believe Zadok, yes.”

“You have heard other testimony corroborative of this fact. She was seen on the club-house road that night, by a person amply qualified to identify her.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“The person driving this horse wore a hat, identified as an old one of yours, which hat was afterwards found at your house on a remote peg in a seldom-used closet. If you were not this person, how can you explain the use of your horse, the use of your clothes, the locking of the stable-door — which you declare yourself to have left open — and the hanging up of the key on its own nail?”

It was a crucial question — how crucial no one knew but our two selves. If he answered at all, he must compromise Carmel. I had no fear of his doing this, but I had great fear of what Ella might do if he let this implication stand and made no effort to exonerate himself by denying his presence in the cutter, and consequent return to the Cumberland home. The quick side glances I here observed cast in her direction by both father and mother, showed that she had made some impulsive demonstration visible to them, if not to others and fearful of the consequences if I did not make some effort to hold her in check, I kept my eyes in her direction, and so lost Arthur’s look and the look of his counsel as he answered, with just the word I had expected — a short and dogged:

“I cannot explain.”

It was my death warrant. I realised this even while I held Ella’s eye with mine and smoothed my countenance to meet the anguish in hers, in the effort to hold her back for a few minutes longer till I could quite satisfy myself that Arthur’s case was really lost and that I must speak or feel myself his murderer.

The gloom which followed this recognition of his inability, real or fancied, to explain away the most damning feature of the case against him, taken with his own contradictions and growing despondency, could not escape my eye, accustomed as I was to the habitual expression of most every person there. But it was not yet the impenetrable gloom presaging conviction; and directing Ella’s gaze towards Mr. Moffat, who seemed but little disturbed either by Mr. Fox’s satisfaction or the prisoner’s open despair, I took heart of grace and waited for the district attorney’s next move. It was a fatal one. I began to recognise this very soon, simple as was the subject he now introduced.

“When you went into the kitchen, Mr. Cumberland, to get the stable-door key, was the gas lit, or did you have to light it?”

“It — it was lit, I think.”

“Don’t you know?”

“It was lit, but turned low. I could see well enough.”

“Why, then, didn’t you take both keys?”

“Both keys?”

“You have said you went down town by the short cut through your neighbour’s yard. That cut is guarded by a door, which was locked that night. You needed the key to that door more than the one to the stable. Why didn’t you take it?”

“I— I did.”

“You haven’t said so.”

“I— I took it when I took the other.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes; they both hung on one nail. I grabbed them both at the same time.”

“It does not appear so in your testimony. You mentioned a key, not keys, in all your answers to my questions.”

“There were two; I didn’t weigh my words. I needed both and I took both.”

“Which of the two hung foremost?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“You took both?”

“Yes, I took both.”

“And went straight out with them?”

“Yes, to the stable.”

“And then where?”

“Through the adjoining grounds downtown.”

“You are sure you went through Mr. Fulton’s grounds at this early hour in the evening?”

“I am positive.”

“Was it not at a later hour, much later, a little before eleven instead of a little before nine?”

“No, sir. I was on the golf-links then.”

“But some one drove into the stable.”

“So you say.”

“Unharnessed the horse, drew up the cutter, locked the stable-door, and, entering the house, hung up the key where it belonged.”

No answer this time.

“Mr. Cumberland, you admitted in your direct examination that you took with you out of the clubhouse only one bottle of the especial brand you favoured, although you carried up two into the kitchen?”

“No, I said that I only had one when I got to Cuthbert Road. I don’t remember anything about the other.”

“But you know where the other — or rather remnants of the other, was found?”

“In my own stable, taken there by my man Zadok Brown, who says he picked it out of one of our waste barrels.”

“This is the part of bottle referred to. Do you recognise the label still adhering to it as similar to the one to be found on the bottle you emptied in Cuthbert Road?”

“It is like that one.”

“Had you carried that other bottle off, and had it been broken as this has been broken would it not have presented an exactly similar appearance to this?”

“Possibly.”

“Only possibly?”

“It would have looked the same. I cannot deny it. What’s the use fooling?”

“Mr. Cumberland, the only two bottles known to contain this especial brand of wine were in the clubhouse at ten o’clock that night. How came one of them to get into the barrel outside your stable before your return the next day?”

“I cannot say.”

“This barrel stood where?”

“In the passage behind the stable.”

“The passage you pass through on your way to the door leading into your neighbour’s grounds?”

“Yes.”

The dreaded moment had come. This “Yes” had no sooner left Arthur’s lips than I saw Ella throw out her innocent arms, and leap impetuously to her feet, with a loud “No, no, I can tell —”

She did not say what, for at the hubbub roused by this outbreak in open court, she fainted dead away and was carried out in her dismayed father’s arms.

This necessarily caused a break in the proceedings. Mr. Fox suspended his cross-examination and in a few minutes more, the judge adjourned the court. As the prisoner rose and turned to pass out, I cast him a hurried glance to see what effect had been made upon him by this ingenuous outburst from one he had possibly just a little depreciated. A great one, evidently. His features were transformed, and he seemed almost as oblivious of the countless eyes upon him as she had been when she rose to testify for him in her self-forgetful enthusiasm. As I observed this and the satisfaction with which Mr. Moffat scented this new witness — a satisfaction which promised little consideration for her if she ever came upon the stand — I surrendered to fate.

Inwardly committing Carmel’s future to the God who made her and who knew better than we the story of her life and what her fiery temper had cost her, I drew a piece of paper from my pocket, and, while the courtroom was slowly emptying, hastily addressed the following lines to Mr. Moffat who had lingered to have a few words with his colleague:

“There is a witness in this building who can testify more clearly and definitely than Miss Fulton, that Arthur Cumberland, for all we have heard in seeming contradiction to the same, might have been on the golf-links at the time he swears to. That witness is myself.

“ELWOOD RANELAGH.”

The time which elapsed between my passing over this note and his receiving and reading it, was to me like the last few moments of a condemned criminal. How gladly would I have changed places with Arthur, and with what sensations of despair I saw flitting before me in my mind’s eye, the various visions of Carmel’s loveliness which had charmed me out of myself. But the die had been cast, and I was ready to meet the surprised lawyer’s look when his eve rose from the words I had written and settled steadily on my face. Next minute he was writing busily and in a second later I was reading these words:

“Do you absolutely wish to be recalled as a witness, and by the defence? M.”

My answer was brief:

“I do. Not to make a confession of crime. I have no such confession to make. But I know who drove that horse. R.”

I had sacrificed Carmel to my sense of right. Never had I loved her as I did at that moment.

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