The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xxx

“Choose”

Let me have

A dram of poison; such soon speeding geer

As will disperse itself through all the veins,

That the life-weary taker may fall dead.

Come, bitter conduct, come unsavoury guide!

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark.

Romeo and Juliet

“I have not finished,” were the first words we heard, when order was restored, and we were all in a condition to listen again.

“I had to relate what you have just heard, that you might understand what happened next. I was not used to pain, and I could never have kept on pressing those irons to my cheek if I had not had the strength given me by my own reflection in the glass. When I thought the burn was quite deep enough, I tore the tongs away, and was lifting them to the other cheek when I saw the door behind me open, inch by inch, as thought pushed by hesitating touches.

“Instantly, I forgot my pain, almost my purpose, watching that door. I saw it slowly swing to its full width, and disclose my sister standing in the gap, with a look and in an attitude which terrified me more than the fire had done. Dropping the tongs, I turned and faced her, covering my cheek instinctively with my hand.

“I saw her eyes run over my elaborate dinner dress — my little hand-bag, and the candle burning in a room made warm with a fire on the hearth. This, before she spoke a single word. Then, with a deep labouring breath, she looked me in the eye again, with the simple question:

“‘And where is he?’”

Carmel’s head had drooped at this, but she raised it almost instantly. Mine did not rise so readily.

“‘Do you mean Elwood?’ I asked. ‘You know!’ said she. ‘The veil is down between us, Carmel; we will speak plainly now. I saw him give you the letter. I heard you ask Arthur to harness up the horse. I have demeaned myself to follow you, and we will have no subterfuges now. You expect him here?’

“‘No,’ I cried. ‘I am not so bad as that, Adelaide — nor is he. Here is the note. You will see by it what he expects, and at what place I should have joined him, if I had been the selfish creature you think,’ I had the note hidden in my breast. I took it out, and held it towards her. I did not feel the burn at all, but I kept it covered. She glanced down at the words; and I felt like falling at her feet, she looked so miserable. I am told that I must keep to fact, and must not express my feelings, or those of others. I will try to remember this; but it is hard for a sister, relating such a frightful scene.

“She glanced down at the paper and let it drop, almost immediately, from her hand, ‘I cannot read his words!’ she cried; ‘I do not need to; we both know which of us he loves best. You cannot say that it is I, his engaged wife.’ I was silent, and her face took on an awful pallor. ‘Carmel,’ said she, ‘do you know what this man’s love has been to me? You are a child, a warm-hearted and passionate child; but you do not know a woman’s heart. Certainly, you do not know mine. I doubt if any one does — even he. Cares have warped my life. I do not quarrel with these cares; I only say that they have robbed me of what makes girlhood lovely. Duty is a stern task-master; and sternness, coming early into one’s life, hardens its edges, but does not sap passion from the soul or devotion from the heart. I was ready for joy when it came, but I was no longer capable of bestowing it. I thought I was, but I soon saw my mistake. You showed it to me — you with your beauty, your freshness, your warm and untried heart. I have no charms to rival these; I have only love, such love as you cannot dream of at your age. And this is no longer desirable to him!’

“You see that I remember every word she spoke. They burned more fiercely than the iron. That did not burn at all, just then. I was cold instead — bitterly, awfully cold. My very heart seemed frozen, and the silence was dreadful. But I could not speak, I could not answer her.

“‘You have everything,’ she now went on. ‘Why did you rob me of my one happiness? And you have robbed me. I have seen your smile when his head turned your way. It was the smile which runs before a promise. I know it; I have had that smile in my heart a long, long time — but it never reached my lips. Carmel, do you know why I am here?’ I shook my head. Was it her teeth that were chattering or mine? ‘I am here to end it all,’ said she. ‘With my hope gone, my heart laid waste, life has no prospect for me. I believe in God, and I know that my act is sinful; but I can no more live than can a tree stricken at the root. To-morrow he will not need to write notes; he can come and comfort you in our home. But never let him look at me. As we are sisters, and I almost a mother to you, shut my face away from his eyes — or I shall rise in my casket and the tangle of our lives will be renewed.’

“I tell you this — I bare my sister’s broken heart to you, giving you her very words, sacred as they are to me and — and to others, who are present, and must listen to all I say — because it is right that you should understand her frenzy, and know all that passed between us in that awful hour.”

This was irregular, highly irregular — but District Attorney Fox sat on, unmoved. Possibly he feared to prejudice the jury; possibly he recognised the danger of an interruption now, not only to the continuity of her testimony, but to the witness herself; or — what is just as likely — possibly he cherished a hope that, in giving her a free rein and allowing her to tell her story thus artlessly, she would herself supply the clew he needed to reconstruct his case on the new lines upon which it was being slowly forced by these unexpected revelations. Whatever the cause, he let these expressions of feeling pass.

At a gesture from Mr. Moffat, Carmel proceeded:

“I tottered at this threat; and she, a mother to me from my cradle, started instinctively to catch me; but the feeling left her before she had taken two steps, and she stopped still. ‘Drop your hand,’ she cried. ‘I want to see your whole face while I ask you one last question. I could not read the note. Why did you come here? I dropped my hand, and she stood staring; then she uttered a cry and ran quickly towards me. ‘What is it?’ she cried. ‘What has happened to you? Is it the shadow or —’

“I caught her by the hand. I could speak now. ‘Adelaide,’ said I, ‘you are not the only one to love to the point of hurt. I love you. Let this little scar be witness,’ Then, as her eyes opened and she staggered, I caught her to my breast and hid my face on her shoulder. ‘You say that to-morrow I shall be free to receive notes. He will not wish to write them, tomorrow. The beauty he liked is gone. If it weighed overmuch with him, then you and I are on a plane again — or I am on an inferior one. Your joy will be sweeter for this break!’

“She started, raised my head from her shoulder, looked at me and shuddered — but no longer with hate. ‘Carmel!’ she whispered, ‘the story — the story I read you of Francis the First and —’

“‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘that made me think,’ Her knees bent under her; she sank at my feet, but her eyes never left my face. ‘And — and Elwood?’ ‘He knows nothing. I did not make up my mind till to-night. Adelaide, it had to be. I hadn’t the strength to — to leave you all, or — or to say no, if he ever asked me to my face what he asked me in that note,’

“And then I tried to lift her; but she was kissing my feet, kissing my dress, sobbing out her life on my hands. Oh, I was happy! My future looked very simple to me. But my cheek began to burn, and instinctively I put up my hand. This brought her to her feet. ‘You are suffering,’ she cried. ‘You must go home, at once, at once, while I telephone to Dr. Carpenter,’ ‘We will go together,’ I said. ‘We can telephone from there.’ But at this, the awful look came back into her face, and seeing her forget my hurt, I forgot it, too, in dread of what she would say when she found strength to speak.

“It was worse than anything I had imagined; she refused absolutely to go back home. ‘Carmel,’ said she, ‘I have done injustice to your youth. You love him, too — not like a child but a woman. The tangle is worse than I thought; your heart is caught in it, as well as mine, and you shall have your chance. My death will give it to you.’ I shook my head, pointing to my cheek. She shook hers, and quietly, calmly said, ‘You have never looked so beautiful. Should we go back together and take up the old life, the struggle which has undermined my conscience and my whole existence would only begin again. I cannot face that ordeal, Carmel. The morning light would bring me daily torture, the evening dusk a night of blasting dreams. We three cannot live in this world together. I am the least loved and so I should be the one to die. I am determined, Carmel. Life, with me, has come to this.’

“I tried to dissuade her. I urged every plea, even that of my own sacrifice. But she was no more her natural self. She had taken up the note and read it during my entreaties, and my words fell on deaf ears. ‘Why, these words have killed me,’ she cried crumpling the note in her hand. ‘What will a little poison do? It can only finish what he has begun.’

“Poison! I remembered how I had heard her pushing about bottles in the medicine cabinet, and felt my legs grow weak and my head swim. ‘You will not!’ I cried, watching her hand, in terror of seeing it rise to her breast. ‘You are crazed to-night; to-morrow you will feel differently.’

“But the fixed set look of her bleak face gave me no hope. ‘I shall never feel differently. If I do not end it to-night, I shall do so soon. When a heart like mine goes down, it goes down forever,’ I could only shudder. I did not know what to do, or which way to turn. She stood between me and the door, and her presence was terrible. ‘When I came here,’ she said, ‘I brought a bottle of cordial with me and three glasses. I brought a little phial of poison too, once ordered for sickness. I expected to find Elwood here. If I had, I meant to drop the poison into one glass, and then fill them all up with the cordial. We should have drunk, each one of us his glass, and one of us would have fallen. I did not care which, you or Elwood or myself. But he is not here, and the cast of the die is between us two, unless you wish a certainty, Carmel — in which case I will pour out but one glass and drink that myself.’

“She was in a fever, now, and desperate. Death was in the room; I felt it in my lifted hair, and in her strangely drawn face. If I screamed, who would hear me? I never thought of the telephone, and I doubt if she would have let me use it then. The power she had always exerted over me was very strong in her at this moment; and not till afterwards did it cross my mind that I had never asked her how she got to the house, or whether we were as much alone in the building as I believed.

“‘Shall I drink alone?’ she repeated, and I cried out ‘No’; at which her hand went to her breast, as I had so long expected, and I saw the glitter of a little phial as she drew it forth.

“‘Oh, Adelaide!’ I began; but she heeded me no more than the dead.

“On leaving home, she had put on a long coat with pockets and this coat was still on her, and the pockets gaping. Thrusting her other hand into one of these, she drew out a little flask covered with wicker, and set it on a stand beside her. Then she pulled out two small glasses, and set them down also, and then she turned her back. I could hear the drop, drop of the liquor; and, dark as the room was, it seemed to turn darker, till I put out my hands like one groping in a sudden night. But everything cleared before me when she turned around again. Features set like hers force themselves to be seen.

“She advanced, a glass in either hand. As she came, the floor swayed, and the walls seemed to bow together; but they did not sway her. Step by step, she drew near, and when she reached my side she smiled in my face once. Then she said: ‘Choose aright, dear heart. Leave the poisoned one for me.’

“Fascinated, I stared at one glass, then at the other. Had either of her hands trembled, I should have grasped at the glass it held; but not a tremor shook those icy fingers, nor did her eyes wander to the right hand or to the left. ‘Adelaide!’ I shrieked out. ‘Toss them behind you. Let us live — live!’ But she only reiterated that awful word: ‘Choose!’ and I dare not hesitate longer, lest I lose my chance to save her. Groping, I touched a glass — I never knew which one — and drawing it from her fingers, I lifted it to my mouth. Instantly her other hand rose. ‘I don’t know which is which, myself,’ she said, and drank. That made me drink, also.

“The two glasses sent out a clicking sound as we set them back on the stand. Then we waited, looking at each other. ‘Which?’ her lips seemed to say. ‘Which?’ In another moment we knew. ‘Your choice was the right one,’ said she, and she sank back into a chair. ‘Don’t leave me!’ she called out, for I was about to run shrieking out into the night. ‘I— I am happy now that it is all settled; but I do not want to die alone. Oh, how hot I am!’ And leaping up, she flung off her coat, and went gasping about the room for air. When she sank down again, it was on the lounge; and again I tried to fly for help, and again she would not let me. Suddenly she started up, and I saw a great change in her. The heavy, leaden look was gone; tenderness had come back to her eyes, and a human anxious expression to her whole face. ‘I have been mad!’ she cried. ‘Carmel, Carmel, what have I done to you, my more than sister — my child, my child!’

“I tried to soothe her — to keep down my awful fear and soothe her. But the nearness of death had calmed her poor heart into its old love and habitual thoughtfulness. She was terrified at my position. She recalled our mother, and the oath she had taken at that mother’s death-bed to protect me and care for me and my brother. ‘And I have failed to do either,’ she cried. ‘Arthur, I have alienated, and you I am leaving to unknown trouble and danger,’

“She was not to be comforted. I saw her life ebbing and could do nothing. She clung to me while she called up all her powers, and made plans for me and showed me a way of escape. I was to burn the note, fling two of the glasses from the window and leave the other and the deadly phial near her hand. This, before I left the room. Then I was to call up the police and say there was something wrong at the club-house, but I was not to give my name or ever acknowledge I was there. ‘Nothing can save trouble,’ she said, ‘but that trouble must not come near you. Swear that you will heed my words — swear that you will do what I say,’

“I swore. All that she asked I promised. I was almost dying, too; and had the light gone out and the rafters of the house fallen in and buried us both, it would have been better. But the light burned on, and the life in her eyes faded out, and the hands grasping mine relaxed. I heard one little gasp; then a low prayer: ‘Tell Arthur never — never — again to —’ Then — silence!”

Sobs — cries — veiled faces — then silence in the courtroom, too. It was broken but by one sound, a heartrending sigh from the prisoner. But nobody looked at him, and thank God! — nobody looked at me. Every eye was on the face of this young girl, whose story bore such an impress of truth, and yet was so contradictory of all former evidence. What revelations were yet to follow. It would seem that she was speaking of her sister’s death.

But her sister had not died that way; her sister had been strangled. Could this dainty creature, with beauty scarred and yet powerfully triumphant, be the victim of an hallucination as to the cause of that scar and the awesome circumstances which attended its infliction? Or, harder still to believe, were these soul-compelling tones, these evidences of grief, this pathetic yielding to the rights of the law in face of the heart’s natural shrinking from disclosures sacred as they were tragic — were these the medium by which she sought to mislead justice and to conceal truth?

Even I, with my memory of her looks as she faltered down the staircase on that memorable night — pale, staring, her left hand to her cheek and rocking from side to side in pain or terror — could not but ask if this heart-rending story did not involve a still more terrible sequel. I searched her face, and racked my very soul, in my effort to discern what lay beneath this angelic surface — beneath this recital which if it were true and the whole truth, would call not only for the devotion of a lifetime, but a respect transcending love and elevating it to worship.

But, in her cold and quiet features, I could detect nothing beyond the melancholy of grief; and the suspense from which all suffered, kept me also on the rack, until at a question from Mr. Moffat she spoke again, and we heard her say:

“Yes, she died that way, with her hands in mine. There was no one else by; we were quite alone.”

That settled it, and for a moment the revulsion of feeling threatened to throw the court into tumult. But one thing restrained them. Not the look of astonishment on her face, not the startled uplift of Arthur’s head, not the quiet complacency which in an instant replaced the defeated aspect of the district attorney; but the gesture and attitude of Mr. Moffat, the man who had put her on the stand, and who now from the very force of his personality, kept the storm in abeyance, and by his own composure, forced back attention to his witness and to his own confidence in his case. This result reached, he turned again towards Carmel, with renewed respect in his manner and a marked softening in his aspect and voice.

“Can you fix the hour of this occurrence?” he asked. “In any way can you locate the time?”

“No; for I did not move at once. I felt tied to that couch; I am very young, and I had never seen death before. When I did get up, I hobbled like an old woman and almost went distracted; but came to myself as I saw the note on the floor — the note I was told to burn. Lifting it, I moved towards the fireplace, but got a fright on the way, and stopped in the middle of the floor and looked back. I thought I had heard my sister speak!

“But the fancy passed as I saw how still she lay, and I went on, after a while, and threw the note into the one small flame which was all that was left of the fire. I saw it caught by a draught from the door behind me, and go flaming up the chimney.

“Some of my trouble seemed to go with it, but a great one yet remained. I didn’t know how I could ever turn around again and see my sister lying there behind me, with her face fixed in death, for which I was, in a way, responsible. I was abjectly frightened, and knelt there a long time, praying and shuddering, before I could rise again to my feet and move about as I had to, since God had not stricken me and I must live my life and do what my sister had bidden me. Courage — such courage as I had had — was all gone from me now; and while I knew there was something else for me to do before I left the room, I could not remember what it was, and stood hesitating, dreading to lift my eyes and yet feeling that I ought to, if only to aid my memory by a look at my sister’s face.

“Suddenly I did look up, but it did not aid my memory; and, realising that I could never think with that lifeless figure before me, I lifted a pillow from the window-seat near by and covered her face. I must have done more; I must have covered the whole lounge with pillows and cushions; for, presently my mind cleared again, and I recollected that it was something about the poison. I was to put the phial in her hand — or was I to throw it from the window? Something was to be thrown from the window — it must be the phial. But I couldn’t lift the window, so having found the phial standing on the table beside the little flask, I carried it into the closet where there was a window opening inward, and I dropped it out of that, and thought I had done all. But when I came back and saw Adelaide’s coat lying in a heap where she had thrown it, I recalled that she had said something about this but what, I didn’t know. So I lifted it and put it in the closet — why, I cannot say. Then I set my mind on going home.

“But there was something to do first — something not in that room. It was a long time before it came to me; then the sight of the empty hall recalled it. The door by which Adelaide had come in had never been closed, and as I went towards it I remembered the telephone, and that I was to call up the police. Lifting the candle, I went creeping towards the front hall. Adelaide had commanded me, or I could never have accomplished this task. I had to open a door; and when it swung to behind me and latched, I turned around and looked at it, as if I never expected it to open again. I almost think I fainted, if one can faint standing, for when I knew anything, after the appalling latching of that door, I was in quite another part of the room and the candle which I still held, looked to my dazed eyes shorter than when I started with it from the place where my sister lay.

“I was wasting time. The thought drove me to the table. I caught up the receiver and when central answered, I said something about The Whispering Pines and wanting help. This is all I remember about that.

“Some time afterward — I don’t know when — I was stumbling down the stairs on my way out. I had gone to — to the room again for my little bag; for the keys were in it, and I dared not leave them. But I didn’t stay a minute, and I cast but one glance at the lounge. What happened afterward is like a dream to me. I found the horse; the horse found the road; and some time later I reached home. As I came within sight of the house I grew suddenly strong again. The open stable door reminded me of my duty, and driving in, I quickly unharnessed Jenny and put her away. Then I dragged the cutter into place, and hung up the harness. Lastly, I locked the door and carried the key with me into the house and hung it up on its usual nail in the kitchen. I had obeyed Adelaide, and now I would go to my room. That is what she would wish; but I don’t know whether I did this or not. My mind was full of Adelaide till confusion came — then darkness — and then a perfect blank.”

She had finished; she had done as she had been asked; she had told the story of that evening as she knew it, from the family dinner till her return home after midnight — and the mystery of Adelaide’s death was as great as ever. Did she realise this? Had I wronged this lovely, tempestuous nature by suspicions which this story put to blush? I was happy to think so — madly, unreasonably happy. Whatever happened, whatever the future threatening Arthur or myself, it was rapture to be restored to right thinking as regards this captivating and youthful spirit, who had suffered and must suffer always — and all through me, who thought it a pleasant pastime to play with hearts, and awoke to find I was playing with souls, and those of the two noblest women I had ever known!

The cutting in of some half dozen questions from Mr. Moffat, which I scarcely heard and which did not at all affect the status of the case as it now stood, served to cool down the emotional element, which had almost superseded the judicial, in more minds than those of the jury; and having thus prepared his witness for an examination at other and less careful hands, he testified his satisfaction at her replies, and turned her over to the prosecution, with the time-worn phrase:

“Mr. District Attorney, the witness is yours.”

Mr. Fox at once arose; the moment was ripe for conquest. He put his most vital question first:

“In all this interview with your sister, did you remark any discoloration on her throat?”

The witness’s lips opened; surprise spoke from her every feature. “Discoloration?” she repeated. “I do not know what you mean.”

“Any marks darker than the rest of her skin on her throat or neck?”

“No. Adelaide had a spotless skin. It looked like marble as she lay there. No, I saw no marks.”

“Miss Cumberland, have you heard or read a full account of this trial?”

She was trembling, now. Was it from fear of the truth, or under that terror of the unknown embodied in this question.

“I do not know,” said she. “What I heard was from my nurse and Mr. Moffat. I read very little, and that was only about the first days of the trial and the swearing in of jurors. This is the first time I have heard any mention made of marks, and I do not understand yet what you allude to.”

District Attorney Fox cast at Mr. Moffat an eloquent glance, which that gentleman bore unmoved; then turning back to the witness, he addressed her in milder and more considerate tones than were usually heard from him in cross-examination, and asked: “Did you hold your sister’s hands all the time she lay dying, as you thought, on the lounge?”

“Yes, yes.”

“And did not see her raise them once?”

“No, no.”

“How was it when you let go of them? Where did they fall then?”

“On her breast. I laid them down softly and crossed them. I did not leave her till I had done this and closed her eyes.”

“And what did you do then?”

“I went for the note, to burn it.”

“Miss Cumberland, in your direct examination, you said that you stopped still as you crossed the floor at the time, thinking that your sister called, and that you looked back at her to see.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Were her hands crossed then?”

“Yes, sir, just the same.”

“And afterward, when you came from the fire after waiting some little time for courage?”

“Yes, yes. There were no signs of movement. Oh, she was dead — quite dead.”

“No statements, Miss Cumberland. She looked the same, and you saw no change in the position of her hands?”

“None; they were just as I left them.”

“Miss Cumberland, you have told us how, immediately after taking the poison, she staggered about the room, and sank first on a chair and then on the lounge. Were you watching her then?”

“Oh, yes — every moment.”

“Her hands as well as her face?”

“I don’t know about her hands. I should have observed it if she had done anything strange with them.”

“Can you say she did not clutch or grip her throat during any of this time?”

“Yes, yes. I couldn’t have forgotten it, if she had done that. I remember every move she made so well. She didn’t do that.”

Mr. Fox’s eye stole towards the jury. To a man, they were alert, anxious for the next question, and serious, as the arbitrators of a man’s life ought to be.

Satisfied, he put the question: “When, after telephoning, you returned to the room where your sister lay, you glanced at the lounge?”

“Yes, I could not help it.”

“Was it in the same condition as when you left — the pillows, I mean?”

“I— I think so. I cannot say; I only half looked; I was terrified by it.”

“Can you say they had not been disturbed?”

“No. I can say nothing. But what does —”

“Only the answer, Miss Cumberland. Can you tell us how those pillows were arranged?”

“I’m afraid not. I threw them down quickly, madly, just as I collected them. I only know that I put the window cushion down first. The rest fell anyhow; but they quite covered her — quite.”

“Hands and face?”

“Her whole body.”

“And did they cover her quite when you came back?”

“They must have — Wait — wait! I know I have no right to say that, but I cannot swear that I saw any change.”

“Can you swear that there was no change — that the pillows and the window cushion lay just as they did when you left the room?”

She did not answer. Horror seemed to have seized hold of her. Her eyes, fixed on the attorney’s face, wavered and, had they followed their natural impulse, would have turned towards her brother, but her fear — possibly her love — was her counsellor and she brought them back to Mr. Fox. Resolutely, but with a shuddering insight of the importance of her reply, she answered with that one weighty monosyllable which can crush so many hopes, and even wreck a life:

“No.”

At the next moment she was in Dr. Carpenter’s arms. Her strength had given way for the time, and the court was hastily adjourned, to give her opportunity for rest and recuperation.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/house_of_the_whispering_pines/chapter30.html

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