The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxiii

The Arrow of Death

O if you rear this house against this house,

It will the wofulest division prove

That ever fell upon this cursed earth.

Prometheus Unbound.

In my first glance around the court-room the next morning, I sought first for Carmel and then for the detective Sweetwater. Neither was visible. But this was not true of Ella. She had come in on her father’s arm, closely followed by the erect figure of her domineering mother. As I scrutinised the latter’s bearing, I seemed to penetrate the mystery of her nature. Whatever humiliation she may have felt at the public revelation of her daughter’s weakness, it had been absorbed by her love for that daughter, or had been forced, through the agency of her indomitable will, to become a ministrant to her pride which was unassailable. She had accepted the position exacted from her by the situation, and she looked for no loss of prestige, either on her daughter’s or her own account. Such was the language of her eyes; and it was a language which should have assured Ella that she had a better friend in her mother than she had ever dreamed of. The entrance of the defendant cut short my contemplation of any mere spectator. The change in him was so marked that I was conscious of it before I really saw him. Every eye had reflected it, and it was no surprise to me when I noted the relieved, almost cheerful aspect of his countenance as he took his place and met his counsel’s greeting with a smile — the first, I believe, which had been seen on his face since his sister’s death. That counsel I had already noted. He was cheerful also, but with a restrained cheerfulness. His task was not yet over, and the grimness of Mr. Fox, and the non-committal aspect of the jurymen, proved that it was not to be made too easy for him.

The crier announced the opening of the court, and the defence proceeded by the calling of Ella Fulton to the witness stand.

I need not linger over her testimony. It was very short and contained but one surprise. She had stated under direct examination that she had waited and watched for Arthur’s return that whole night, and was positive that he had not passed through their grounds again after that first time in the early evening. This was just what I had expected from her. But the prosecution remembered the snowfall, and in her cross-examination on this point, she acknowledged that it was very thick, much too thick for her to see her own gate distinctly; but added, that this only made her surer of the fact she had stated; for finding that she could not see, she had dressed herself for the storm and gone out into the driveway to watch there, and had so watched until the town clock struck three.

This did not help the prosecution. Sympathy could not fail to be with this young and tremulous girl, heroic in her love, if weak in other respects, and when on her departure from the stand, she cast one deprecatory glance at the man for whom she had thus sacrificed her pride, and, meeting his eye fixed upon her with anything but ingratitude, flushed and faltered till she with difficulty found her way, the sentiments of the onlookers became so apparent that the judge’s gavel was called into requisition before order could be restored and the next witness summoned to testify.

This witness was no less a person than Arthur himself. Recalled by his counsel, he was reminded of his former statement that he had left the club-house in a hurry because he heard his sister Adelaide’s voice, and was now asked if hers was the only voice he had heard.

His answer revealed much of his mind.

“No, I heard Carmel’s answering her.”

This satisfying Mr. Moffat, he was passed over to Mr. Fox, and a short cross-examination ensued on this point.

“You heard both your sisters speaking?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Any of their words, or only their voices?”

“I heard one word.”

“What word?”

“The word, ‘Elwood.’”

“In which voice?”

“In that of my sister Adelaide.”

“And you fled?”

“Immediately.”

“Leaving your two sisters alone in this cold and out-of-the-way house?”

“I did not think they were alone.”

“Who did you think was with them?”

“I have already mentioned the name.”

“Yet you left them?”

“Yes, I’ve already explained that. I was engaged in a mean act. I was ashamed to be caught at it by Adelaide. I preferred flight. I had no premonition of tragedy — any such tragedy as afterwards occurred. I understood neither of my sisters and my thoughts were only for myself.”

“Didn’t you so much as try to account for their both being there?”

“Not then.”

“Had you expected Adelaide to accompany your younger sister when you harnessed the horse for her?”

“No, sir.”

“Had not this younger sister even enjoined secrecy upon you in asking you to harness the horse?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yet you heard the two together in this remote building without surprise?”

“No, I must have felt surprise, but I didn’t stop to analyse my feelings. Afterward, I turned it over in my mind and tried to make something out of the whole thing. But that was when I was far out on the links.”

A losing game thus far. This the district attorney seemed to feel; but he was not an ungenerous man though cursed (perhaps, I should say blessed, considering the position he held) by a tenacity which never let him lose his hold until the jury gave their verdict.

“You have a right to explain yourself fully,” said he, after a momentary struggle in which his generosity triumphed over his pride. “When you did think of your sisters, what explanation did you give yourself of the facts we have just been considering?”

“I could not imagine the truth, so I just satisfied myself that Adelaide had discovered Carmel’s intentions to ride into town and had insisted on accompanying her. They were having it out, I thought, in the presence of the man who had made all this trouble between them.”

“And you left them to the task?”

“Yes, sir, but not without a struggle. I was minded several times to return. This I have testified to before.”

“Did this struggle consume forty minutes?”

“It must have and more, if I entered the hold in Cuthbert Road at the hour they state.”

Mr. Fox gave up the game, and I looked to be the next person called. But it was not a part of Mr. Moffat’s plan to weaken the effect of Carmel’s testimony by offering any weak corroboration of facts which nobody showed the least inclination to dispute. Satisfied with having given the jury an opportunity to contrast his client’s present cheerfulness and manly aspect with the sullenness he had maintained while in doubt of Carmel’s real connection with this crime, Mr. Moffat rested his case.

There was no testimony offered in rebuttal and the court took a recess.

When it reassembled I cast another anxious glance around. Still no Carmel, nor any signs of Sweetwater. I could understand her absence, but not his, and it was in a confusion of feeling which was fast getting the upper hand of me, that I turned my attention to Mr. Moffat and the plea he was about to make for his youthful client.

I do not wish to obtrude myself too much into this trial of another man for the murder of my betrothed. But when, after a wait during which the prisoner had a chance to show his mettle under the concentrated gaze of an expectant crowd, the senior counsel for the defence slowly rose, and, lifting his ungainly length till his shoulders lost their stoop and his whole presence acquired a dignity which had been entirely absent from it up to this decisive moment, I felt a sudden slow and creeping chill seize and shake me, as I have heard people say they experienced when uttering the common expression, “Some one is walking over my grave.”

It was not that he glanced my way, for this he did not do; yet I received a subtle message from him, by some telepathic means I could neither understand nor respond to — a message of warning, or, possibly of simple preparation for what his coming speech might convey.

It laid my spirits low for a moment; then they rose as those of a better man might rise at the scent of danger. If he could warn, he could also withhold. I would trust him, or I would, at least, trust my fate. And so, good-bye to self. Arthur’s life and Carmel’s future peace were trembling in the balance. Surely these were worth the full attention of the man who loved the woman, who pitied the man.

At the next moment I heard these words, delivered in the slow and but slightly raised tones with which Mr. Moffat invariably began his address:

“May it please the court and gentlemen of the jury, my learned friend of the prosecution has shown great discretion in that, so far as appears from the trend of his examinations, he is planning no attempt to explain the many silences and the often forbidding attitude of my young client by any theory save the obvious one — the natural desire of a brother to hide his only remaining sister’s connection with a tragedy of whose details he was ignorant, and concerning which he had formed a theory derogatory to her position as a young and well-bred woman.

“I am, therefore, spared the task of pressing upon your consideration these very natural and, I may add, laudable grounds for my client’s many hesitations and suppressions — which, under other circumstances, would militate so deeply against him in the eyes of an upright and impartial jury. Any man with a heart in his breast, and a sense of honour in his soul, can understand why this man — whatever his record, and however impervious he may have seemed in the days of his prosperity and the wilfulness of his youth — should recoil from revelations which would attack the honour, if not the life, of a young and beautiful sister, sole remnant of a family eminent in station, and in all those moral and civic attributes which make for the honour of a town and lend distinction to its history.

“Fear for a loved one, even in one whom you will probably hear described as a dissipated man, of selfish tendencies and hitherto unbrotherly qualities, is a great miracle-worker. No sacrifice seems impossible which serves as a guard for one so situated and so threatened.

“Let us review his history. Let us disentangle, if we can, our knowledge of what occurred in the clubhouse, from his knowledge of it at the time he showed these unexpected traits of self-control and brotherly anxiety, which you will yet hear so severely scored by my able opponent. His was a nature in which honourable instincts had forever battled with the secret predilections of youth for independence and free living. He rebelled at all monition; but this did not make him altogether insensible to the secret ties of kinship, or the claims upon his protection of two highly gifted sisters. Consciously or unconsciously, he kept watch upon the two; and when he saw that an extraneous influence was undermining their mutual confidence, he rebelled in his heart, whatever restraint he may have put upon his tongue and actions. Then came an evening, when, with heart already rasped by a personal humiliation, he saw a letter passed. You have heard the letter and listened to its answer; but he knew nothing beyond the fact — a fact which soon received a terrible significance from the events which so speedily followed.”

Here Mr. Moffat recapitulated those events, but always from the standpoint of the defendant — a standpoint which necessarily brought before the jury the many excellent reasons which his client had for supposing this crime to have resulted solely from the conflicting interests represented by that furtively passed note, and the visit of two girls instead of one to The Whispering Pines. It was very convincing, especially his picture of Arthur’s impulsive flight from the club-house at the first sound of his sisters’ voices.

“The learned counsel for the people may call this unnatural,” he cried. “He may say that no brother would leave the place under such circumstances, whether sober or not sober, alive to duty or dead to it — that curiosity would hold him there, if nothing else. But he forgets, if thus he thinks and thus would have you think, that the man who now confronts you from the bar is separated by an immense experience from the boy he was at that hour of surprise and selfish preoccupation.

“You who have heard the defendant tell how he could not remember if he carried up one or two bottles from the kitchen, can imagine the blank condition of this untutored mind at the moment when those voices fell upon his ear, calling him to responsibilities he had never before shouldered, and which he saw no way of shouldering now. In that first instant of inconsiderate escape, he was alarmed for himself — afraid of the discovery of the sneaking act of which he had just been guilty — not fearful for his sisters. You would have done differently; but you are all men disciplined to forget yourselves and think first of others, taught, in the school of life to face responsibility rather than shirk it. But discipline had not yet reached this unhappy boy — the slave, so far, of his unfortunate habits. It began its work later; yet not much later. Before he had half crossed the golf-links, the sense of what he had done stopped him in middle course, and, reckless of the oncoming storm, he turned his back upon the place he was making for, only to switch around again, as craving got the better of his curiosity, or of that deeper feeling to which my experienced opponent will, no doubt, touchingly allude when he comes to survey this situation with you.

“The storm, continuing, obliterated his steps as fast as the ever whitening spaces beneath received them; but if it had stopped then and there, leaving those wandering imprints to tell their story, what a tale we might have read of the first secret conflict in this awakening soul! I leave you to imagine this history, and pass to the bitter hour when, racked by a night of dissipation, he was aroused, indeed, to the magnitude of his fault and the awful consequences of his self-indulgence, by the news of his elder sister’s violent death and the hardly less pitiful condition of the younger.

“The younger!” The pause he here made was more eloquent than any words. “Is it for me to laud her virtues, or to seek to impress upon you in this connection, the overwhelming nature of the events which in reality had laid her mind and body low? You have seen her; you have heard her; and the memory of the tale she has here told will never leave you, or lose its hold upon your sympathies or your admiration. If everything else connected with this case is forgotten, the recollection of that will remain. You, and I, and all who wait upon your verdict, will in due time pass from among the living, and leave small print behind us on the sands of time. But her act will not die, and to it I now offer the homage of silence, since that would best please her heroic soul, which broke the bonds of womanly reserve only to save from an unmerited charge a falsely arraigned brother.”

The restraint and yet the fire with which Mr. Moffat uttered these simple words, lifted all hearts and surcharged the atmosphere with an emotion rarely awakened in a court of law. Not in my pulses alone was started the electric current of renewed life. The jury, to a man, glowed with enthusiasm, and from the audience rose one long and suppressed sigh of answering feeling, which was all the tribute he needed for his eloquence — or Carmel for her uncalculating, self-sacrificing deed. I could have called upon the mountains to cover me; but — God be praised — no one thought of me in that hour. Every throb, every thought was for her.

At the proper moment of subsiding feeling, Mr. Moffat again raised his voice:

“Gentlemen of the jury, you have seen point after point of the prosecution’s case demolished before your eyes by testimony which no one has had the temerity to attempt to controvert. What is left? Mr. Fox will tell you — three strong and unassailable facts. The ring found in the murdered woman’s casket, the remnants of the tell-tale bottle discovered in the Cumberland stable, and the opportunity for crime given by the acknowledged presence of the defendant on or near the scene of death. He will harp on these facts; he will make much of them; and he will be justified in doing so, for they are the only links remaining of the strong chain forged so carefully against my client.

“But are these points so vital as they seem? Let us consider them, and see. My client has denied that he dropped anything into his sister’s casket, much less the ring missing from that sister’s finger. Dare you, then, convict on this point when, according to count, ten other persons were seen to drop flowers into this very place — any one of which might have carried this object with it?

“And the bit of broken bottle found in or near the defendant’s own stable! Is he to be convicted on the similarity it offers to the one known to have come from the club-house wine-vault, while a reasonable doubt remains of his having been the hand which carried it there? No! Where there is a reasonable doubt, no high-minded jury will convict; and I claim that my client has made it plain that there is such a reasonable doubt.”

All this and more did Mr. Moffat dilate upon. But I could no longer fix my mind on details, and much of this portion of his address escaped me.

But I do remember the startling picture with which he closed. His argument so far, had been based on the assumption of Arthur’s ignorance of Carmers purpose in visiting the club-house, or of Adelaide’s attempt at suicide. His client had left the building when he said he did, and knew no more of what happened there afterward than circumstances showed, or his own imagination conceived. But now the advocate took a sudden turn, and calmly asked the jury to consider with him the alternative outlined by the prosecution in the evidence set before them.

“My distinguished opponent,” said he, “would have you believe that the defendant did not fly at the moment declared, but that he waited to fulfil the foul deed which is the only serious matter in dispute in his so nearly destroyed case. I hear as though he were now speaking, the attack which he will make upon my client when he comes to review this matter with you. Let me see if I cannot make you hear those words, too.” And with a daring smile at his discomforted adversary, Alonzo Moffat launched forth into the following sarcasm:

“Arthur Cumberland, coming up the kitchen stairs, hears voices where he had expected total silence — sees light where he had left total darkness. He has two bottles in his hands, or in his large coat-pockets. If they are in his hands, he sets them down and steals forward to listen. He has recognised the voices. They are those of his two sisters, one of whom had ordered him to hitch up the cutter for her to escape, as he had every reason to believe, the other. Curiosity — or is it some nobler feeling — causes him to draw nearer and nearer to the room in which they have taken up their stand. He can hear their words now and what are the words he hears? Words that would thrill the most impervious heart, call for the interference of the most indifferent. But he is made of ice, welded together with steel. He sees — for no place save one from which he can watch and see, viz.: the dark dancing hall, would satisfy any man of such gigantic curiosity — Adelaide fall at Carmel’s feet, in recognition of the great sacrifice she has made for her. But he does not move; he falls at no one’s feet; he recognises no nobility, responds to no higher appeal. Stony and unmoved, he crouches there, and watches and watches — still curious, or still feeding his hate on the sufferings of the elder, the forbearance of the younger.

“And on what does he look? You have already heard, but consider it. Adelaide, despairing of happiness, decides on death for herself or sister. Both loving one man, one of the two must give way to the other. Carmel has done her part; she must now do hers. She has brought poison; she has brought glasses — three glasses, for three persons, but only two are on the scene, and so she fills but two. One has only cordial in it, but the other is, as she believes, deadly. Carmel is to have her choice; but who believes that Adelaide would ever have let her drink the poisoned glass?

“And this man looks on, as the two faces confront each other — one white with the overthrow of every earthly hope, the other under the stress of suffering and a fascination of horror sufficient to have laid her dead, without poison, at the other one’s feet. This is what he sees —a brother!— and he makes no move, then or afterwards, when, the die cast, Adelaide succumbs to her fear and falls into a seemingly dying state on the couch.

“Does he go now? Is his hate or his cupidity satisfied? No! He remains and listens to the tender interchange of final words, and all the late precautions of the elder to guard the younger woman’s good name. Still he is not softened; and when, the critical moment passed, Carmel rises and totters about the room in her endeavour to fulfil the tasks enjoined upon her by her sister, he gloats over a death which will give him independence and gluts himself with every evil thought which could blind him to the pitiful aspects of a tragedy such as few men in this world could see unmoved. A brother!

“But this is not the worst. The awful cup of human greed and hatred is but filled to the brim; it has not yet overflowed. Carmel leaves the room; she has a telephonic message to deliver. She may be gone a minute; she may be gone many. Little does he care which; he must see the dead, look down on the woman who has been like a mother to him, and see if her influence is forever removed, if his wealth is his, and his independence forever assured.

“Safe in the darkness of the gloomy recesses of the dancing hall, he steals slowly forward. Drawn as by a magnet, he enters the room of seeming death, draws up to the pillow-laden couch, pulls off first one cushion, and then another, till face and hands are bare and —

“Ah! — there is a movement! death has not, then, done its work. She lives — the hated one —lives! And he is no longer rich, no longer independent. With a clutch, he seizes her at the feeble seat of life; and as the breath ceases and her whole body becomes again inert, he stoops to pull off the ring, which can have no especial value or meaning for him — and then, repiling the cushions over her, creeps forth again, takes up the bottles, and disappears from the house.

“Gentlemen of the jury, this is what my opponent would have you believe. This will be his explanation of this extraordinary murder. But when his eloquence meets your ears — when you hear this arraignment, and the emphasis he will place upon the few points remaining to his broken case, then ask yourself if you see such a monster in the prisoner now confronting you from the bar. I do not believe it. I do not believe that such a monster lives.

“But you say, some one entered that room —some one stilled the fluttering life still remaining in that feeble breast. Some one may have, but that some one was not my client, and it is his guilt or innocence we are considering now, and it is his life and freedom for which you are responsible. No brother did that deed; no witness of the scene which hallowed this tragedy ever lifted hand against the fainting Adelaide, or choked back a life which kindly fate had spared.

“Go further for the guilty perpetrator of this most inhuman act; he stands not in the dock. Guilt shows no such relief as you see in him to-day. Guilt would remember that his sister’s testimony, under the cross-examination of the people’s prosecutor, left the charge of murder still hanging over the defendant’s head. But the brother has forgotten this. His restored confidence in one who now represents to him father, mother, and sister has thrown his own fate into the background. Will you dim that joy — sustain this charge of murder?

“If in your sense of justice you do so, you forever place this degenerate son of a noble father, on the list of the most unimaginative and hate-driven criminals of all time. Is he such a demon? Is he such a madman? Look in his face to-day, and decide. I am willing to leave his cause in your hands. It could be placed in no better.

“May it please your Honour, and gentlemen of the jury, I am done.”

If any one at that moment felt the arrow of death descending into his heart, it was not Arthur Cumberland.

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