The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

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Comments and Reflections

There is no agony and no solace left;

Earth can console, Heaven can torment, no more

Prometheus Unbound

The coroner’s intent look which had more or less sustained me through this ordeal, remained fixed upon my face as though he were still anxious to see me exonerate myself. How much did he know? That was the question. How much did he know?

Having no means of telling, I was forced to keep silent. I had revealed all I dared to. As I came to this conclusion, his eyes fell and I knew that the favorable minute had passed.

The question he now asked proved it.

“You say that you were not blind to surrounding objects, even if they conveyed but little meaning to you. You must have seen, then, that the room where Miss Cumberland lay contained two small cordial glasses, both still moist with some liqueur.”

“I noticed that, yes.”

“Some one must have drunk with her?”

“I cannot contradict you.”

“Was Miss Cumberland fond of that sort of thing?”

“She detested liquor of all kinds. She never drank I never saw a woman so averse to wine.” I spoke before I thought. I might better have been less emphatic, but the mystery of those glasses had affected me from the first. Neither she nor Carmel ever allowed themselves so much as a social glass, yet those glasses had been drained. “Perhaps the cold —”

“There was a third glass. We found it in the adjoining closet. It had not been used. That third glass has a meaning if only we could find it out.”

A possibility which had risen in my mind faded at these words.

“Three glasses,” I dully repeated.

“And a small flask of cordial. The latter seems pure enough.”

“I cannot understand it.” The phrase had become stereotyped. No other suggested itself to me.

“The problem would be simple enough if it were not for those-marks on her neck. You saw those, too, I take it?”

“Yes. Who made them? What man —”

The lie, or rather the suggestion of a lie, flushed my face. I was conscious of this, but it did not trouble me. I was panting for relief. I could not rest till I knew the nature of the doubt in this man’s mind. If these words, or any words I could use, would serve to surprise his secret, then welcome the lie or suggestion of a lie. “It was a brute’s act,” I went on, bungling with my sentences in anxiety to see if my conclusions fitted in with his own. “Who was the brute? Do you know, Dr. Perry?”

“There were three glasses in those rooms. Only two were drank from,” he answered, steadily. “Tomorrow I may be in a position to answer your question. I am not to-night.”

Why did I take heart? Not a change, not the flicker of one had passed over his countenance at my utterance of the word man. Either his official habit had stood him in wonderful stead, or the police had failed so far to see any connection between this murder and the young girl whose footprints, for all I knew, still lingered on the stairs.

Would the morrow arm them with completer knowledge? As I turned from his retreating figure and flung myself down before the hearth, this was the question I continually propounded to myself, in vain repetition. Would the morrow reveal the fact that Adelaide’s young sister had been with her in the hour of death, or would the fates propitiously aid her in preserving this secret as they had already aided her in selecting for the one man who shared it, him who of all others was bound by honour and personal consideration for her not to divulge what he knew.

Thus the hours between two and seven passed when I fell into a fitful sleep, from which I was rudely wakened by a loud rattle at my door, followed by the entrance of the officer who had walked up and down the corridor all night.

“The waggon is here,” said he. “Breakfast will be given you at the station.”

To which Hexford, looking over his shoulder, added: “I’m sorry to say that we have here the warrant for your arrest. Can I do anything for you?”

“Warrant!” I burst out, “what do you want of a warrant? It is as a witness you seek to detain me, I presume?”

“No,” was his brusque reply. “The charge upon which you are arrested is one of murder. You will have to appear before a magistrate. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the evidence against you is very strong, and the police must do their duty.”

“But I am innocent, absolutely innocent,” I protested, the perspiration starting from every pore as the full meaning of the charge burst upon me. “What I have told you was correct. I, myself, found her dead —”

Hexford gave me a look.

“Don’t talk,” he kindly suggested. “Leave that to the lawyers.” Then, as the other man turned aside for a moment, he whispered in my ear, “It’s no go; one of our men saw you with your fingers on her throat. He had clambered into a pine tree and the shade of the window was up. You had better come quietly. Not a soul believes you innocent.”

This, then, was what had doomed me from the start; this, and that partly burned letter. I understood now why the kind-hearted coroner, who loved my father, had urged me to tell my tale, hoping that I would explain this act and give him some opportunity to indulge in a doubt. And I had failed to respond to the hint he had given me. The act itself must appear so sinister and the impulse which drove me to it so incomprehensible, without the heart-rending explanation I dare not subjoin, that I never questioned the wisdom of silence in its regard.

Yet this silence had undone me. I had been seen fingering my dead betrothed’s throat, and nothing I could now say or do would ever convince people that she was dead before my hands touched her, strangled by another’s clutch. One person only in the whole world would know and feel how false this accusation was. And yesterday that one’s trust in my guiltlessness would have thrown a ray of light upon the deepest infamy which could befall me. But to-day there had settled over that once innocent spirit, a cloud of too impenetrable a nature for any light to struggle to and fro between us.

I could not contemplate that cloud. I could not dwell upon her misery, or upon the revulsion of feeling which follows such impetuous acts. And it had been an impetuous act — the result of one of her rages. I had been told of these rages. I had even seen her in one. When they passed she was her lovable self once more and very penitent and very downcast. If all I feared were true, she was suffering acutely now. But I gave no thought to this. I could dream of but one thing — how to save her from the penalty of crime, a penalty I might be forced to suffer myself and would prefer to suffer rather than see it fall upon one so young and so angelically beautiful.

Turning to the officer next me, I put the question which had been burning in my mind for hours:

“Tell me, how you came to know there was trouble here? What brought you to this house? There can be nothing wrong in telling me that.”

“Well, if you don’t know —” he began.

“I do not,” I broke in.

“I guess you’d better wait till the chief has had a word with you.”

I suppressed all tokens of my disappointment, and by a not unnatural reaction, perhaps, began to take in, and busy myself with, the very considerations I had hitherto shunned. Where was Carmel, and how was she enduring these awful hours? Had repentance come, and with it a desire to own her guilt? Did she think of me and the effect this unlooked-for death would have upon my feelings? That I should suffer arrest for her crime could not have entered her mind. I had seen her, but she had not seen me, in the dark hall which I must now traverse as a prisoner and a suspect. No intimation of my dubious position or its inevitable consequences had reached her yet. When it did, what would she do? I did not know her well enough to tell. The attraction she had felt for me had not been strong enough to lead her to accommodate herself to my wishes and marry me off-hand, but it had been strong enough to nerve her arm in whatever altercation she may have had with her jealous-minded sister. It was the temper and not the strength of the love which would tell in a strait like this. Would it prove of a generous kind? Should I have to combat her desire to take upon herself the full blame of her deed, with all its shames and penalties? Or should I have the still deeper misery of finding her callous to my position and welcoming any chance which diverted suspicion from herself? Either supposition might be possible, according to my judgment in this evil hour. All communication between us, in spite of our ardent and ungovernable passion, had been so casual and so slight. Looks, a whispered word or so, one furtive clasp in which our hands seemed to grow together, were all I had to go upon as tests of her feeling towards me. Her character I had judged from her face, which was lovely. But faces deceive, and the loveliness of youth is not like the loveliness of age — an absolute mirror of the soul within. Was not Medusa captivating, for all her snaky locks? Hide those locks and one might have thought her a Daphne.

What would relieve my doubts? As Hexford drew near me again on our way to the head of the staircase, I summoned up courage to ask:

“Have you heard anything from the Hill? Has the news of this tragedy been communicated to Miss Cumberland’s family, and if so, how are they bearing this affliction?”

His lip curled, and for a minute he hesitated; then something in my aspect or the straight-forward look I gave him, softened him and he answered frankly, if coldly:

“Word has gone there, of course, but only the servants are affected by it so far. Miss Cumberland, the younger, is very ill, and the boy — I don’t know his name — has not shown up since last evening. He’s very dissipated, they say, and may be in any one of the joints in the lower part of the town.”

I stopped in dismay, clutching wildly at the railing of the stairs we were descending. I had hardly heard the latter words, all my mind was on what he had said first.

“Miss Carmel Cumberland ill?” I stammered, “too ill to be told?”

I was sufficiently master of myself to put it this way.

“Yes,” he rejoined, kindly, as he urged me down the very stairs I had seen her descend in such a state of mind a few hours before. “A servant who had been out late, heard the fall of some heavy body as she was passing Miss Cumberland’s rooms, and rushing in found Miss Carmel, as she called her, lying on the floor near the open fire. Her face had struck the bars of the grate in falling, and she was badly burned. But that was not all; she was delirious with fever, brought on, they think, by anxiety about her sister, whose name she was constantly repeating. They had a doctor for her and the whole house was up before ever the word came of what had happened here.”

I thanked him with a look. I had no opportunity for more. Half a dozen officers were standing about the front door, and in another moment I was bustled into the conveyance provided and was being driven away from the death-haunted spot.

I had heard the last whisper of those pines for many, many days. But not in my dreams; it ever came back at night, sinister, awesome, haunted with dead hopes and breathing of an ever doubtful future.

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