The House of the Whispering Pines, by Anna Katharine Green

viii

A Chance! I Take it

I entreat you then

From one that so imperfectly conjects,

You’d take no notice; nor build yourself a trouble

Out of his scattering and unsure observance:

It were not for your quiet, nor your good,

Nor for my manhood, honesty or wisdom,

To let you know my thoughts.

Othello

I slept, though a question of no small importance was agitating my mind, demanding instant consideration and a definite answer before I again saw this friend and adviser. I woke to ask if the suggestion which had come to me in our brief conversation about the bottles taken from the wine-vault, was the promising one it had then appeared, or only a fool’s trick bound to end in disaster. I weighed the matter in every conceivable way, and ended by trusting to the instinct which impelled me to have resource to the one and only means by which the scent might be diverted from its original course, confusion be sown in the minds of the police, and Carmel, as well as myself, be saved from the pit gaping to receive us.

This was my plan. I would acknowledge to having seen a horse and cutter leave the club-house by the upper gateway, simultaneously with my entrance through the lower one. I would even describe the appearance of the person driving this cutter. No one by the greatest stretch of imagination would be apt to associate this description with Carmel; but it might set the authorities thinking, and if by any good chance a cutter containing a person wearing a derby hat and a coat with an extra high collar should have been seen on this portion of the road, or if, as I earnestly hoped, the snow had left any signs of another horse having been tethered in the clump of trees opposite the one where I had concealed my own, enough of the truth might be furnished to divide public opinion and start fresh inquiry.

That a woman’s form had sought concealment under these masculine habiliments would not, could not, strike anybody’s mind. Nothing in the crime had suggested a woman’s presence, much less a woman’s active agency.

On the contrary, all the appearances, save such as I believed known to myself alone, spoke so openly of a man’s strength, a man’s methods, a man’s appetite, and a man’s brutal daring that the suspicion which had naturally fallen on myself as the one and only person implicated, would in shifting pass straight to another man, and, if he could not be found, return to me, or be lost in a maze of speculation. This seemed so evident after a long and close study of the situation that I was ready with my confession when Mr. Clifton next came. I had even forestalled it in a short interview forced upon me by the assistant district attorney and Chief Hudson. That it had made an altogether greater impression upon the latter than I had expected, gave me additional courage when I came to discuss this new line of defence with the young lawyer. I was even able to tell him that, to all appearance, my long silence on a point so favourable to my own interests had not militated against me to the extent one would expect from men so alive to the subterfuges and plausible inventions of suspected criminals.

“Chief Hudson believes me, late as my statement is. I saw it in his eye.” Thus I went on. “And the assistant district attorney, too. At least, the latter is willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, which was more than I expected. What do you suppose has happened? Some new discovery on their part? If so, I ought to know what it is. Believe me, Charles, I ought to know what it is.”

“I have heard of no new discovery,” he coldly replied, not quite pleased, as I could see, either with my words or my manner. “An old one may have served your purpose. If another cutter besides yours passed through the club-house grounds at the time you mention, it left tracks which all the fury of the storm would not have entirely obliterated in the fifteen minutes elapsing between that time and the arrival of the police. Perhaps they remember these tracks, and if you had been entirely frank that night —”

“I know, I know,” I put in, “but I wasn’t. Lay it to my confusion of mind — to the great shock I had received, to anything but my own blood-guiltiness, and take up the matter as it now stands. Can’t you follow up my suggestion? A witness can certainly be found who encountered that cutter and its occupant somewhere on the long stretch of open road between The Whispering Pines and the resident district.”

“Possibly. It would help. You have not asked for news from the Hill.”

The trembling which seized and shook me at these words testified to the shock they gave me. “Carmel!” I cried. “She is worse — dead!”

“No. She’s not worse and she’s not dead. But the doctors say it will be weeks before they can allow a question of any importance to be put to her. You can see what that will do for us. Her testimony is too important to the case to be ignored. A delay will follow which may or may not be favourable to you. I am inclined to think now that it will redound to your interests. You are ready to swear to the sleigh you speak of; that you saw it leave the club-house grounds and turn north?”

“Quite ready; but you must not ask me to describe or in any way to identify its occupant. I saw nothing but the hat and coat I have told you about. It was just before the moon went under a cloud, or I could not have seen that much.”

Is it so hard to preserve a natural aspect in telling or suggesting a lie that Charles’s look should change as I uttered the last sentence? I do not easily flush, and since my self-control had been called upon by the dreadful experiences of the last few days, I had learned to conceal all other manifestations of feeling except under some exceptional shock. But a lie embodied in so many words, never came easy to my lips, and I suppose my voice fell, for his glance became suddenly penetrating, and his voice slightly sarcastic as he remarked:

“Those clouds obscured more than the moon, I fancy. I only wish that they had not risen between you and me. This is the blindest case that has ever been put in my hands. All the more credit to me if I see you through it, I suppose; but —”

“Tell me,” I broke in, with equal desire to cut these recriminations short and to learn what was going on at the Cumberland house, “have you been to the Hill or seen anybody who has? Can’t you give me some details of — of Carmel’s condition; of the sort of nurse who cares for her, and how Arthur conducts himself under this double affliction?”

“I was there last night. Miss Clifford was in the house and received me. She told me that Arthur’s state of mind was pitiful. He was never a very affectionate brother, you know, but now they cannot get him away from Carmel’s door. He sits or stands all day just outside the threshold and casts jealous and beseeching looks at those who are allowed to enter. They say you wouldn’t know him. I tried to get him to come down and see me, but he wouldn’t leave his post.”

“Doesn’t he grieve for Adelaide? I always thought that of the two she had the greater influence over him.”

“Yes, but they cannot get him to enter the place where she lies. His duty is to the living, he says; at least, his anxiety is there. He starts at every cry Carmel utters.”

“She — cries out — then?”

“Very often. I could hear her from where I sat downstairs.”

“And what does she say?”

“The one thing constantly. ‘Lila! Lila!’ Nothing more.”

I kept my face in shadow. If he saw it at all, it must have looked as cold and hard as stone. After a moment, I went on with my queries:

“Does he — Arthur — mention me at all?”

“I did not discuss you greatly with Miss Clifford. I saw that she was prejudiced, and I preferred not to risk an argument; but she let fall this much: that Arthur felt very hard towards you and loudly insisted upon your guilt. She seemed to think him justified in this. You don’t mind my telling you? It is better for you to know what is being said about you in town.”

I understood his motive. He was trying to drive me into giving him my full confidence. But I would not be driven. I simply retorted quietly but in a way to stop all such future attempts:

“Miss Clifford is a very good girl and a true friend of the whole Cumberland family; but she is not the most discriminating person in the world, and even if she were, her opinion would not turn me from the course I have laid out for myself. Does the doctor — Dr. Carpenter, I presume — venture to say how long Carmel’s present delirium will hold?”

“He cannot, not knowing its real cause. Carmel fell ill before the news of her sister’s death arrived at the house, you remember. Some frightful scene must have occurred between the two, previous to Adelaide’s departure for The Whispering Pines. What that scene was can only be told by Carmel and for her account we must wait. Happily you have an alibi which will serve you in this instance. You were at the station during the time we are speaking of.”

“Has that been proved?”

“Yes; several men saw you there.”

“And the gentleman who brought me the — her letter?” It was more than difficult for me to speak Carmel’s name. “He has not come forward?”

“Not yet; not to my knowledge, at least.”

“And the ring?”

“No news.”

“The nurse — you have told me nothing about her,” I now urged, reverting to the topic of gravest interest to me. “Is she any one we know or an importation of the doctor’s?”

“I did not busy myself with that. She’s a competent woman, of course. I suppose that is what you mean?”

Could I tell him that this was not what I meant at all — that it was her qualities as woman rather than her qualifications as nurse which were important in this case? If she were of a suspicious, prying disposition, given to weighing every word and marking every gesture of a delirious patient, what might we not fear from her circumspection when Carmel’s memory asserted itself and she grew more precise in the frenzy which now exhausted itself in unintelligible cries, or the ceaseless repetition of her sister’s name. The question seemed of such importance to me that I was tempted to give expression to my secret apprehension on this score, but I bethought myself in time and passed the matter over with the final remark:

“Watch her, watch them all, and bring me each and every detail of the poor girl’s sickness. You will never regret humouring me in this. You ordered the flowers for — Adelaide?”

“Yes; lilies, as you requested.”

A short silence, then I observed:

“There will be no autopsy the papers say. The evidences of death by strangulation are too well defined.”

“Very true. Yet I wonder at their laxity in this. There were signs of some other agency having been at work also. Those two empty glasses smelling of cordial — innocent perhaps — yet —”

“Don’t! I can bear no more to-day. I shall be stronger to-morrow.”

Another feeler turned aside. His cheek showed his displeasure, but the words were kind enough with which he speedily took his leave and left me to solitude and a long night of maddening thought.

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