Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv’d a blessed time; for from this instant,
There’s nothing serious in mortality:
All is but toys; renown, and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the lees
Is left this vault to brag of.
The lamp in the coroner’s room shone dully on the perturbed faces of three anxious men. They had been talking earnestly and long, but were now impatiently awaiting the appearance of a fourth party, as was shown by the glances which each threw from time to time towards the door leading into the main corridor.
The district attorney courted the light, and sat where he would be the first seen by any one entering. He had nothing to hide, being entirely engrossed in his duty.
Further back and rather behind the lamp than in front of it stood or sat, as his restlessness prompted, Coroner Perry, the old friend of Amasa Cumberland, with whose son he had now to do. Behind him, and still further in the shadow, could be seen the quiet figure of Sweetwater. All counted the minutes and all showed relief — the coroner by a loud sigh — when the door finally opened and an officer appeared, followed by the lounging form of Adelaide’s brother.
Arthur Cumberland had come unwillingly, and his dissatisfaction did not improve his naturally heavy countenance. However, he brightened a little at sight of the two men sitting at the table, and, advancing, broke into speech before either of the two officials had planned their questions.
“I call this hard,” he burst forth. “My place is at home and at the bedside of my suffering sister, and you drag me down here at nine o’clock at night to answer questions about things of which I am completely ignorant. I’ve said all I have to say about the trouble which has come into my family; but if another repetition of the same things will help to convict that scoundrel who has broken up my home and made me the wretchedest dog alive, then I’m ready to talk. So, fire ahead, Dr. Perry, and let’s be done with it.”
“Sit down,” replied the district attorney, gravely, with a gesture of dismissal to the officer. “Mr. Cumberland, we have spared you up to this time, for two very good reasons. You were in great trouble, and you appeared to be in the possession of no testimony which would materially help us. But matters have changed since you held conversation with Dr. Perry on the day following your sister’s decease. You have laid that sister away; the will which makes you an independent man for life has been read in your hearing; you are in as much ease of mind as you can be while your remaining sister’s life hangs trembling in the balance; and, more important still, discoveries not made before the funeral, have been made since, rendering it very desirable for you to enter into particulars at this present moment, which were not thought necessary then.”
“Particulars? What particulars? Don’t you know enough, as it is, to hang the fellow? Wasn’t he seen with his fingers on Adelaide’s throat? What can I tell you that is any more damaging than that? Particulars!” The word seemed to irritate him beyond endurance. Never had he looked more unprepossessing or a less likely subject for sympathy, than when he stumbled into the chair set for him by the district attorney.
The word had a subtle ring. The coroner, who uttered it, waited to watch its effect. Seemingly it had none, after the first sullen glance thrown him by the young man; and the coroner sighed again, but this time softly, and as a prelude to the following speech:
“We can understand,” said he, “why you should feel so strongly against one who has divided the hearts of your sisters, and played with one, if not with both. Few men could feel differently. You have reason for your enmity and we excuse it; but you must not carry it to the point of open denunciation before the full evidence is in and the fact of murder settled beyond all dispute. Whatever you may think, whatever we may think, it has not been so settled. There are missing links still to be supplied, and this is why we have summoned you here and ask you to be patient and give the district attorney a little clearer account of what went on in your own house, before you broke up that evening and you went to your debauch, and your sister Adelaide to her death at The Whispering Pines.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” He brought his fist down on the table with each word. “Nothing went on. That is — ”
“Something went on at dinner-time. It was not a usual meal,” put in the district attorney. “You and your sisters —”
“Stop!” He was at that point of passion which dulls the most self-controlled to all sense of propriety.
“Don’t talk to me about that dinner. I want to forget that dinner. I want to forget everything but the two things I live for — to see that fellow hanged, and to —” The words choked him, and he let his head fall, but presently threw it up again. “That dastard, whom may God confound, passed a letter across Adelaide into Carmel’s hand,” he panted out. “I saw him, but I didn’t take it in; I wasn’t thinking. I was —”
“Who broke the glasses?” urged his relentless inquisitor. “One at your plate, one at Carmel’s, and one at the head of the board where sat your sister Adelaide?”
“God! Must I tell these things?” He had started to his feet and his hand, violent in all it did, struck his forehead impulsively, as he uttered this exclamation. “Have it, then! Heaven knows I think of it enough not to be afraid to speak it out in words. Adelaide”— the name came with passion, but once uttered, produced its own calming effect, so that he went on with more restraint —“Adelaide never had much patience with me. She was a girl who only saw one way. ‘The right! the right!’ was what she dinned into my ears from the time I was a small boy and didn’t know but that all youngsters were brought up by sisters. I grew to hate what she called ‘the right,’ I wanted pleasure, a free time, and a good drink whenever the fancy took me. You know what I am, Dr. Perry, and everybody in town knows; but the impulse which has always ruled me was not a downright evil one; or if it was, I called it natural independence, and let it go at that. But Adelaide suffered. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t care a fig for it, but she did suffer. God forgive me!”
He stopped and mopped his forehead. Sweetwater moved a trifle on his seat, but the others — men who had passed the meridian of life, who had known temptations, possibly had succumbed to them, from time to time — sat like two statues, one in full light and the other in as dark a shadow as he could find.
“That afternoon,” young Cumberland presently resumed, “she was keyed up more than usual. She loved Ranelagh — damn him! — and he had played or was playing her false. She watched him with eyes that madden me, now, when I think of them. She saw him look at Carmel, and she saw Carmel look at him. Then her eyes fell on me. I was angry; angry at them all, and I wanted a drink. It was not her habit to have wine on the table; but sometimes, when Ranelagh was there, she did. She was a slave to Ranelagh, and he could make her do whatever he wished, just as he can make you and everybody else.”
Here he shot insolent glances at his two interlocutors, one of whom changed colour — which, happily, he did not see. “‘Ring the bell,’ I ordered, ‘and have in the champagne. I want to drink to your marriage and the happy days in prospect for us all,’ It was brutal and I knew it; but I was reckless and wild for the wine. So, I guess, was Ranelagh, for he smiled at her, and she rang for the champagne. When the glasses had been set beside each plate, she turned towards Carmel. ‘We will all drink,’ she said, ‘to my coming marriage,’ This made Carmel turn pale; for Adelaide had never been known to drink a drop of liquor in her life. I felt a little queer, myself; and not one of us spoke till the glasses were filled and the maid had left the dining-room and shut the door.
“Then Adelaide rose. ‘We will drink standing,’ said she, and never had I seen her look as she did then. I thought of my evil life when I should have been watching Ranelagh; and when she lifted the glass to her lips and looked at me, almost as earnestly as she did at Ranelagh — but it was a different kind of earnestness — I felt like — like — well, like the wretch I was and always had been; possibly, always will be. She drank; — we wouldn’t call it drinking, for she just touched the wine with her lips; but to her it was debauch. Then she stood waiting, with the strangest gleam in her eyes, while Ranelagh drained his glass and I drained mine. Ranelagh thought she wanted some sentiment, and started to say something appropriate; but his eye fell on Carmel, who had tried to drink and couldn’t, and he bungled over his words and at last came to a pause under the steady stare of Adelaide’s eyes.
“‘Never mind, Elwood,’ she said; ‘I know what you would like to say. But that’s not what I am thinking of now. I am thinking of my brother, the boy who will soon be left to find his way through life without even the unwelcome restraint of my presence. I want him to remember this day. I want him to remember me as I stand here before him with this glass in my hand. You see wine in it, Arthur; but I see poison — poison — nothing else, for one like you who cannot refuse a friend, cannot refuse your own longing. Never from this day on shall another bottle be opened under my roof. Carmel, you have grieved as well as I over what has passed for pleasure in this house. Do as I do, and may Arthur see and remember.’
“Her fingers opened; the glass fell from her hand, and lay in broken fragments beside her plate. Carmel followed suit, and, before I knew it, my own fingers had opened, and my own glass lay in pieces on the table-cloth beneath me. Only Ranelagh’s hand remained steady. He did not choose to please her, or he was planning his perfidy and had not caught her words or understood her action. She held her breath, watching that hand; and I can hear the gasp yet with which she saw him set his glass down quietly on the board. That’s the story of those three broken glasses. If she had not died that night, I should be laughing at them now; but she did die and I don’t laugh! I curse — curse her recreant lover, and sometimes myself! Do you want anything more of me? I’m eager to be gone, if you don’t.”
The district attorney sought out and lifted a paper from the others lying on the desk before him. It was the first movement he had made since Cumberland began his tale.
“I’m sorry,” said he, with a rapid examination of the paper in his hand, “but I shall have to detain you a few minutes longer. What happened after the dinner? Where did you go from the table?”
“I went to my room to smoke. I was upset and thirsty as a fish.”
“Have you liquor in your room?”
“Did you have any that night?”
“Not a drop. I didn’t dare. I wanted that champagne bottle, but Adelaide had been too quick for me. It was thrown out — wasted — I do believe, wasted.”
“So you did not drink? You only smoked in your room?”
“Smoked one cigar. That was all. Then I went down town.”
His tone had grown sulky, the emotion which had buoyed him up till now, seemed suddenly to have left him. With it went the fire from his eye, the quiver from his lip, and it is necessary to add, everything else calculated to awaken sympathy. He was simply sullen now.
“May I ask by which door you left the house?”
“The side door — the one I always take.”
“What overcoat did you wear?”
“I don’t remember. The first one I came to, I suppose.”
“But you can surely tell what hat?”
They expected a violent reply, and they got it.
“No, I can’t. What has my hat got to do with the guilt of Elwood Ranelagh?”
“Nothing, we hope,” was the imperturbable answer. “But we find it necessary to establish absolutely just what overcoat and what hat you wore down street that night.”
“I’ve told you that I don’t remember.” The young man’s colour was rising.
“Are not these the ones?” queried the district attorney, making a sign to Sweetwater, who immediately stepped forward, with a shabby old ulster over his arm, and a battered derby in his hand.
The young man started, rose, then sat again, shouting out with angry emphasis:
“Yet you recognise these?”
“Why shouldn’t I? They’re mine. Only I don’t wear them any more. They’re done for. You must have rooted them out from some closet.”
“We did; perhaps you can tell us what closet.”
“I? No. What do I know about my old clothes? I leave that to the women.”
The slight faltering observable in the latter word conveyed nothing to these men.
“Mr. Cumberland,”— the district attorney was very serious — “this hat and this coat, old as they are, were worn into town from your house that night. This we know, absolutely. We can even trace them to the club-house.”
Mechanically, not spontaneously this time, the young man rose to his feet, staring first at the man who had uttered these words, then at the garments which Sweetwater still held in view. No anger now; he was too deeply shaken for that, too shaken to answer at once — too shaken to be quite the master of his own faculties. But he rallied after an interval during which these three men devoured his face, each under his own special anxiety, and read there possibly what each least wanted to see.
“I don’t know anything about it,” were the words with which Arthur Cumberland sought to escape from the net which had been thus deftly cast about him. “I didn’t wear the things. Anybody can tell you what clothes I came home in. Ranelagh may have borrowed —”
“Ranelagh wore his own coat and hat. We will let the subject of apparel drop, and come to a topic on which you may be better qualified to speak. Mr. Cumberland, you have told us that you didn’t know at the time, and can’t remember now, where you spent that night and most of the next morning. All you can remember is that it was in some place where they let you drink all you wished and leave when the fancy took you, and not before. It was none of your usual haunts. This seemed strange to your friends, at the time; but it is easier for us to understand, now that you have told us what had occurred at your home-table. You dreaded to have your sister know how soon you could escape the influence of that moment. You wished to drink your fill and leave your family none the wiser. Am I not right?”
“Yes; it’s plain enough, isn’t it? Why harp on that string? Don’t you see that it maddens me? Do you want to drive me to drink again?”
The coroner interposed. He had been very willing to leave the burden of this painful inquiry to the man who had no personal feelings to contend with; but at this indignant cry he started forward, and, with an air of fatherly persuasion, remarked kindly:
“You mustn’t mind the official tone, or the official persistence. There is reason for all that Mr. Fox says. Answer him frankly, and this inquiry will terminate speedily. We have no wish to harry you — only to get at the truth.”
“The truth? I thought you had that pat enough. The truth? The truth about what? Ranelagh or me? I should think it was about me, from the kind of questions you ask.”
“It is, just now,” resumed the district attorney, as his colleague drew back out of sight once more. “You cannot remember the saloon in which you drank. That’s possible enough; but perhaps you can remember what they gave you. Was it whiskey, rum, absinthe, or what?”
The question took his irritable listener by surprise. Arthur gasped, and tried to steal some comfort from Coroner Perry’s eye. But that old friend’s face was too much in shadow, and the young man was forced to meet the district attorney’s eye, instead, and answer the district attorney’s question.
“I drank — absinthe,” he cried, at last.
“From this bottle?” queried the other, motioning again to Sweetwater, who now brought forward the bottle he had picked up in Cuthbert Road.
Arthur Cumberland glanced at the bottle the detective held up, saw the label, saw the shape, and sank limply in his chair, his eyes starting, his jaw falling.
“Where did you get that?” he asked, pulling himself together with a sudden desperate self-possession that caused Sweetwater to cast a quick significant glance at the coroner, as he withdrew to his corner, leaving the bottle on the table.
“That,” answered the district attorney, “was picked up at a small hotel on Cuthbert Road, just back of the markets.”
“I don’t know the place.”
“It’s not far from The Whispering Pines. In fact, you can see the club-house from the front door of this hotel.”
“I don’t know the place, I tell you.”
“It’s not a high-class resort; not select enough by a long shot, to have this brand of liquor in its cellar. They tell me that this is of very choice quality. That very few private families, even, indulge in it. That there were only two bottles of it left in the club-house when the inventory was last taken, that those two bottles are now gone, and that —”
“This is one of them? Is that what you want to say? Well, it may be for all I know. I didn’t carry it there. I didn’t have the drinking of it.”
“We have seen the man and woman who keep that hotel. They will talk, if they have to.”
“They will?” His dogged self-possession rather astonished them. “Well, that ought to please you. I’ve nothing to do with the matter.”
A change had taken place in him. The irritability approaching to violence, which had attended every speech and infused itself into every movement since he came into the room, had left him. He spoke quietly, and with a touch of irony in his tone. He seemed more the man, but not a whit more prepossessing, and, if anything, less calculated to inspire confidence. The district attorney showed that he was baffled, and Dr. Perry moved uneasily in his seat, until Sweetwater, coming forward, took up the cue and spoke for the first time since young Cumberland entered the room.
“Then I have no doubt but you will do us this favour,” he volunteered, in his pleasantest manner. “It’s not a long walk from here. Will you go there in my company, with your coat-collar pulled up and your hat well down over your eyes, and ask for a seat in the snuggery and show them this bottle? They won’t know that it’s empty. The man is sharp and the woman intelligent. They will see that you are a stranger, and admit you readily. They are only shy of one man — the man who drank there on the night of your sister’s murder.”
“You ‘re a —” he began, with a touch of his old violence; but realising, perhaps, that his fingers were in a trap, he modified his manner again, and continued more quietly. “This is an odd request to make. I begin to feel as if my word were doubted here; as if my failings and reckless confession of the beastly way in which I spent that night, were making you feel that I have no good in me and am at once a liar and a sneak. I’m not. I won’t go with you to that low drinking hell, unless you make me, but I’ll swear —”
“Don’t swear.” It is unnecessary to say who spoke. “We wouldn’t believe you, and it would be only adding perjury to the rest.”
“You wouldn’t believe me?”
“No; we have reasons, my boy. There were two bottles.”
“The other has been found nearer your home.”
“That’s a trick. You’re all up to tricks —”
“Not in this case, Arthur. Let me entreat you in memory of your father to be candid with us. We have arrested a man. He denies his guilt, but can produce no witnesses in support of his assertions. Yet such witnesses may exist. Indeed, we think that one such does exist. The man who took the bottles from the club-house’s wine-vault did so within a few minutes of the time when this crime was perpetrated on your sister. He should be able to give valuable testimony for or against Elwood Ranelagh. Now, you can see why we are in search of this witness and why we think you can serve us in this secret and extraordinary matter. If you can’t, say so; and we will desist from all further questions. But this will not help you. It will only show that, in our opinion, you have gained the rights of a man suspected of something more than shirking his duty as an unknown and hitherto unsuspected witness.”
“This is awful!” Young Cumberland had risen to his feet and was swaying to and fro before them like a man struck between the eyes by some maddening blow.
“God! if I had only died that night!” he muttered, with his eyes upon the floor and every muscle tense with the shock of this last calamity. “Dr. Perry,” he moaned suddenly, stretching out one hand in entreaty, and clutching at the table for support with the other, “let me go for to-night. Let me think. My brain is all in a whirl. I’ll try to answer to-morrow.” But even as he spoke he realised the futility of his request. His eye had fallen again on the bottle, and, in its shape and tell-tale label, he beheld a witness bound to testify against him if he kept silent himself.
“Don’t answer,” he went on, holding fast to the table, but letting his other hand fall. “I was always a fool. I’m nothing but a fool now. I may as well own the truth, and be done with it. I was in the clubhouse. I did rob the wine-vault; I did carry off the bottles to have a quiet spree, and it was to some place on Cuthbert Road I went. But, when I’ve admitted so much, I’ve admitted all. I saw nothing of my sister’s murder; saw nothing of what went on in the rooms upstairs. I crept in by the open window at the top of the kitchen stairs, and I came out by the same. I only wanted the liquor, and when I got it, I slid out as quickly as I could, and made my way over the golf-links to the Road.”
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he stood trembling. There was something in the silence surrounding him which seemed to go to his heart; for his free right hand rose unconsciously to his breast, and clung there. Sweetwater began to wish himself a million of miles away from this scene. This was not the enjoyable part of his work. This was the part from which he always shrunk with overpowering distaste.
The district attorney’s voice sounded thin, almost piercing, as he made this remark:
“You entered by an open window. Why didn’t you go in by the door?”
“I hadn’t the key. I had only abstracted the one which opens the wine-vault. The rest I left on the ring. It was the sight of this key, lying on our hall-table, which first gave me the idea. I feel like a cad when I think of it, but that’s of no account now. All I really care about is for you to believe what I tell you. I wasn’t mixed up in that matter of my sister’s death. I didn’t know about it — I wish I had. Adelaide might have been saved; we might all have been saved; but it was not to be.”
Flushed, he slowly sank back into his seat. No complaint, now, of being in a hurry, or of his anxiety to regain his sick sister’s bedside. He seemed to have forgotten those fears in the perturbations of the moment. His mind and interest were here; everything else had grown dim with distance.
“Did you try the front door?”
“What was the use? I knew it to be locked.”
“What was the use of trying the window? Wasn’t it also, presumably, locked?”
The red mounted hot and feverish to his cheek.
“You’ll think me no better than a street urchin or something worse,” he exclaimed. “I knew that window; I had been through it before. You can move that lock with your knife-blade. I had calculated on entering that way.”
“Mr. Ranelagh’s story receives confirmation,” commented the district attorney, wheeling suddenly towards the coroner. “He says that he found this window unlocked, when he approached it with the idea of escaping that way.”
Arthur Cumberland remained unmoved.
The district attorney wheeled back.
“There were a number of bottles taken from the wine-vault; some half dozen were left on the kitchen table. Why did you trouble yourself to carry up so many?”
“Because my greed outran my convenience. I thought I could lug away an armful, but there are limits to one’s ability. I realised this when I remembered how far I had to go, and so left the greater part of them behind.”
“Why, when you had a team ready to carry you?”
“A— I had no team.” But the denial cost him something. His cheek lost its ruddiness, and took on a sickly white which did not leave it again as long as the interview lasted.
“You had no team? How then did you manage to reach home in time to make your way back to Cuthbert Road by half-past eleven?”
“I didn’t go home. I went straight across the golf-links. If fresh snow hadn’t fallen, you would have seen my tracks all the way to Cuthbert Road.”
“If fresh snow had not fallen, we should have known the whole story of that night before an hour had passed. How did you carry those bottles?”
“In my overcoat pockets. These pockets,” he blurted out, clapping his hands on either side of him.
“Had it begun to snow when you left the clubhouse?”
“Was it dark?”
“I guess not; the links were bright as day, or I shouldn’t have got over them as quickly as I did.”
“Quickly? How quickly?” The district attorney stole a glance at the coroner, which made Sweetwater advance a step from his corner.
“I don’t know. I don’t understand these questions,” was the sullen reply.
“You walked quickly. Does that mean you didn’t look back?”
“How, look back?”
“Your sister lit a candle in the small room where her coat was found. This light should have been visible from the golf-links.”
“I didn’t see any light.”
He was almost rough in these answers. He was showing himself now at his very worst.
A few more questions followed, but they were of minor import, and aroused less violent feeling. The serious portion of the examination, if thus it might be called, was over, and all parties showed the reaction which follows all unnatural restraint or subdued excitement.
The coroner glanced meaningly at the district attorney, who, tapping with his fingers on the table, hesitated for a moment before he finally turned again upon Arthur Cumberland.
“You wish to return to your sister? You are at liberty to do so; I will trouble you no more to-night. Your sleigh is at the door, I presume.”
The young man nodded, then rising slowly, looked first at the district attorney, then at the coroner, with a glance of searching inquiry which did not escape the watchful eye of Sweetwater, lurking in the rear. There was no display of anger, scarcely of impatience, in him now. If he spoke, they did not hear him; and when he moved, it was heavily and with a drooping head. They watched him go, each as silent as he. The coroner tried to speak, but succeeded no better than the boy himself. When the door opened under his hand, they all showed relief, but were startled back into their former attention by his turning suddenly in the doorway with this final remark:
“What did you say about a bottle with a special label on it being found at our house? It never was, or, if it was, some fellow has been playing you a trick. I carried off those two bottles myself. One you see there; the other is — I can’t tell where; but I didn’t take it home. That you can bet on.”
One more look, followed by a heavy frown and a low growling sound in his throat — which may have been his way of saying good-bye — and he was gone.
Sweetwater came forward and shut the door; then the three men drew more closely together, and the district attorney remarked:
“He is better at the house. I hadn’t the heart on your account, Dr. Perry, to hurry matters faster than necessity compels. What a lout he is! Pardon me, but what a lout he is to have had two such uncommon and attractive sisters.”
“And such a father,” interposed the coroner.
“Just so — and such a father. Sweetwater? Hey! what’s the matter? You don’t look satisfied. Didn’t I cover the ground?”
“Fully, sir, so far as I see now, but —”
“Well, well — out with it.”
“I don’t know what to out with. It’s all right but — I guess I’m a fool, or tired, or something. Can I do anything more for you? If not, I should like to hunt up a bunk. A night’s sleep will make a man of me again.”
“Go then; that is, if Dr. Perry has no orders for you.”
“None. I want my sleep, too.” But Dr. Perry had not the aspect of one who expects to get it.
Sweetwater brightened. A few more words, some understanding as to the morrow, and he was gone. The district attorney and the coroner still sat, but very little passed between them. The clock overhead struck the hour; both looked up but neither moved. Another fifteen minutes, then the telephone rang. The coroner rose and lifted the receiver. The message could be heard by both gentlemen, in the extreme quiet of this midnight hour.
“Yes, I’m listening.”
“He came in at a quarter to twelve, greatly agitated and very white. I ran upon him in the lower hall, and he looked angry enough to knock me down; but he simply let out a curse and passed straight up to his sister’s room. I waited till he came out; then I managed to get hold of the nurse and she told me this queer tale:
“He was all in a tremble when he came in, but she declares he had not been drinking. He went immediately to the bedside; but his sister was asleep, and he didn’t stay there, but went over where the nurse was, and began to hang about her till suddenly she felt a twitch at her side and, looking quickly, saw the little book she carries there, falling back into place. He had lifted it, and probably read what she had written in it during his absence.
“She was displeased, but he laughed when he saw that he had been caught and said boldly: ‘You are keeping a record of my sister’s ravings. Well, I think I’m as interested in them as you are, and have as much right to read as you to write. Thank God! they are innocent enough. Even you must acknowledge that,’ She made no answer, for they were innocent enough; but she’ll keep the book away from him after this — of that you may be sure.”
“And what is he doing now? Is he going into his own room to-night?”
“No. He went there but only to bring out his pillows. He will sleep in the alcove.”
“No, not a drop. He has ordered the whiskey locked up. I hear him moaning sometimes to himself as if he missed it awfully, but not a thimbleful has left the decanter.”
“You heard?” This to the district attorney.
Both went for their overcoats. Only on leaving did they speak again, and then it was to say:
“At ten o’clock to-morrow morning.”
“At ten o’clock.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09