The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxiv

“Steady!”

I am a tainted wether of the flock,

Meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit

Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.

You cannot better be employ’d, Bassanio,

Than to live still, and write my epitaph.

Merchant of Venice.

Why linger over the result. Arthur Cumberland’s case was won before Mr. Fox arose to his feet. The usual routine was gone through. The district attorney made the most of the three facts which he declared inconsistent with the prisoner’s innocence, just as Mr. Moffat said he would; but the life was gone from his work, and the result was necessarily unsatisfactory.

The judge’s charge was short, but studiously impartial. When the jury filed out, I said to myself, “They will return in fifteen minutes.” They returned in ten, with a verdict of acquittal.

The demonstrations of joy which followed filled my ears, and doubtless left their impression upon my other senses; but my mind took in nothing but the apparition of my own form taking his place at the bar, under circumstances less favourable to acquittal than those which had exonerated him. It was a picture which set my brain whirling. A phantom judge, a phantom jury, a phantom circle of faces, lacking the consideration and confidence of those I saw before me; but not a phantom prisoner, or any mere dream of outrageous shame and suffering.

That shame and that suffering had already seized hold of me. With the relief of young Arthur’s acquittal my faculties had cleared to the desperate position in which this very acquittal had placed me.

I saw, as never before, how the testimony which had reinstated Carmel in my heart and won for her and through her the sympathies of the whole people, had overthrown every specious reason which I and those interested in me had been able to advance in contradiction of the natural conclusion to be drawn from the damning fact of my having been seen with my fingers on Adelaide’s throat.

Mr. Moffat’s words rang in my ears: “Some one entered that room; some one stilled the fluttering life still remaining in that feeble breast; but that some one was not her brother. You must look further for the guilty perpetrator of this most inhuman act; some one who had not been a witness to the scene preceding this tragedy, some one —” he had not said this but every mind had supplied the omission — “some one who had come in later, who came in after Carmel had gone, some one who knew nothing of the telephone message which was even then hastening the police to the spot; some one who had every reason for lifting those cushions and, on meeting life—”

The horror stifled me; I was reeling in my place on the edge of the crowd, when I heard a quiet voice in my ear:

“Steady! Their eyes will soon be off of Arthur, and then they will look at you.”

It was Clifton, and his word came none too soon. I stiffened under its quiet force, and, taking his arm, let him lead me out of a side door, where the crowd was smaller and its attention even more absorbed.

I soon saw its cause — Carmel was entering the doorway from the street. She had come to greet her brother; and her face, quite unveiled, was beaming with beauty and joy. In an instant I forgot myself, forgot everything but her and the effect she produced upon those about her. No noisy demonstration here; admiration and love were shown in looks and the low-breathed prayer for her welfare which escaped from more than one pair of lips. She smiled and their hearts were hers; she essayed to move forward and the people crowded back as if at a queen’s passage; but there was no noise.

When she reappeared, it was on Arthur’s arm. I had not been able to move from the place in which we were hemmed; nor had I wished to. I was hungry for a glance of her eye. Would it turn my way, and, if it did, would it leave a curse or a blessing behind it? In anxiety for the blessing, I was willing to risk the curse; and I followed her every step with hungry glances, until she reached the doorway and turned to give another shake of the hand to Mr. Moffat, who had followed them. But she did not see me.

“I cannot miss it! I must catch her eye!” I whispered to Clifton. “Get me out of this; it will be several minutes before they can reach the sleigh. Let me see her, for one instant, face to face.”

Clifton disapproved, and made me aware of it; but he did my bidding, nevertheless. In a few moments we were on the sidewalk, and quite by ourselves; so that, if she turned again she could not fail to observe me. I had small hope, however, that she would so turn. She and Arthur were within a few feet of the curb and their own sleigh.

I had just time to see this sleigh, and note the rejoicing face of Zadok leaning sideways from the box, when I beheld her pause and slowly turn her head around and peer eagerly — and with what divine anxiety in her eyes — back over the heads of those thronging about her, until her gaze rested fully and sweetly on mine. My heart leaped, then sank down, down into unutterable depths; for in that instant her face changed, horror seized upon her beauty, and shook her frantic hold on Arthur’s arm.

I heard words uttered very near me, but I did not catch them. I did feel, however, the hand which was laid strongly and with authority upon my shoulder; and, tearing my eyes from her face only long enough to perceive that it was Sweetwater who had thus arrested me, I looked back at her, in time to see the questions leap from her lips to Arthur, whose answers I could well understand from the pitying movement in the crowd and the low hum of restrained voices which ran between her sinking figure and the spot where I stood apart, with the detective’s hand on my shoulder.

She had never been told of the incriminating position in which I had been seen in the club-house. It had been carefully kept from her, and she had supposed that my acquittal in the public mind was as certain as Arthur’s. Now she saw herself undeceived, and the reaction into doubt and misery was too much for her, and I saw her sinking under my eyes.

“Let me go to her!” I shrieked, utterly unconcerned with anything in the world but this tottering, fainting girl.

But Sweetwater’s hand only tightened on my shoulder, while Arthur, with an awful look at me, caught his sister in his arms, just as she fell to the ground before the swaying multitude.

But he was not the only one to kneel there. With a sound of love and misery impossible to describe, Zadok had leaped from the box and had grovelled at those dear feet, kissing the insensible hands and praying for those shut eyes to open. Even after Arthur had lifted her into the sleigh, the man remained crouching where she had fallen, with his eyes roaming back and forth in a sightless stare from her to myself, muttering and groaning, and totally unheedful of Arthur’s commands to mount the box and drive home. Finally some one else stepped from the crowd and mercifully took the reins. I caught one more glimpse of her face, with Arthur’s bent tenderly over it; then the sleigh slipped away.

An officer shook Zadok by the arm and he got up and began to move aside. Then I had mind to face my own fate, and, looking up, I met Sweetwater’s eye.

It was quietly apologetic.

“I only wished to congratulate you,” said he, “on the conclusion of a case in which I know you are highly interested.” Lifting his hat, he nodded affably and was gone before I could recover from my stupor.

It was for Clifton to show his indignation. I was past all feeling. Farce as an after-piece never appealed to me.

Would I have considered it farce if I could have heard the words which this detective was at that moment whispering into the district attorney’s ears:

“Do you want to know who throttled Adelaide Cumberland? It was not her brother; it was not her lover; it was her old and trusted coachman.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/house_of_the_whispering_pines/chapter34.html

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