It is a damned and a bloody work;
The graceless action of a heavy hand,
If that it be the work of any hand.
The two men eyed me quietly, then Hexford pointed to my shoeless feet and sternly retorted:
“Permit us to doubt your last assertion. You seem to be in better position than ourselves to explain the circumstances which puzzle you.”
They were right. It was for me to talk, not for them. I conceded the point in these words:
“Perhaps — but you cannot always trust appearances. I can explain my own presence here and the condition in which you find me, but I cannot explain this tragedy, near and dear as Miss Cumberland was to me. I did not know she was in the building, alive or dead. I came upon her here covered with the cushions just as you found her. I have felt the shock. I do not look like myself — I do not feel like myself; it was enough —” Here real emotion seized me and I almost broke down. I was in a position much more dreadful than any they could imagine or should be allowed to.
Their silence led me to examine their faces. Hexford’s mouth had settled into a stiff, straight line and the other man’s wore a cynical smile I did not like. At this presage of the difficulties awaiting me, I felt one strand of the rope sustaining me above this yawning gulf of shame and ignominy crack and give way. Oh, for a better record in the past! — a staff on which to lean in such an hour as this! But while nothing serious clouded my name, I had more to blush for than to pride myself upon in my career as prince of good fellows — and these men knew it, both of them, and let it weigh in the scale already tipped far off its balance by coincidences which a better man than myself would have found it embarrassing to explain. I recognised all this, I say, in the momentary glance I cast at their stern and unresponsive figures; but the courage which had served me in lesser extremities did not fail me now, and, kneeling down before my dead betrothed, I kissed her cold white hand with sincere compunction, before attempting the garbled and probably totally incoherent story with which I endeavoured to explain the inexplainable situation.
They listened — I will do them that much justice; but it was with such an air of incredulity that my words fell with less and less continuity and finally lost themselves in a confused stammer as I reached the point where I pulled the cushions from the couch and made my ghastly discovery.
“You see — see for yourselves — what confronted me. My betrothed — a dainty, delicate woman — dead — alone — in this solitary, far-away spot — the victim of what? I asked myself then — I ask myself now. I cannot understand it — or those glasses yonder — or those marks!“ They were black by this time — unmistakable — not to be ignored by them or by me.
“We understand those marks, and you ought to,” came from the second man, the one I did not know.
My head fell forward; my lips refused to speak the words. I saw as in a flash, a picture of the one woman bending over the other; terror, reproach, anguish in the eyes whose fixed stare would never more leave my consciousness, an access of rage or some such sadden passion animating the other whose every curve spoke tenderness, whose every look up to this awful day had been as an angel’s look to me. The vision was a maddening one. I shook myself free from it by starting to my feet.” It’s — it’s —” I gasped.
“She has been strangled,” quoth Hexford, doggedly.
“A dog’s death,” mumbled the other.
My hands came together involuntarily. At that instant, with the memory before me of the vision I have just described, I almost wished that it had been my hate, my anger which had brought those tell-tale marks out upon that livid skin. I should have suffered less. I should only have had to pay the penalty of my crime and not be forced to think of Carmel with terrible revulsion, as I was now thinking, minute by minute, fight with it as I would.
“You had better sit down,” Hexford suddenly suggested, pushing a chair my way. “Clarke, look up the telephone and ask for three more men. I am going into this matter thoroughly. Perhaps you will tell us where the telephone is,” he asked, turning my way.
It was some little time before I took in these words. When I did, I became conscious of his keen look, also of a change in my own expression. I had forgotten the telephone. It had not yet been taken out. If only I had remembered this before these men came — I might have saved — No, nothing could have saved her or me, except the snow, except the snow. That may already have saved her. All this time I was trying to tell where the telephone was.
That I succeeded at last I judged from the fact that the second man left the room. As he did so, Hexford lit the candle. Idly watching, for nothing now could make me look at the lounge again, I noticed the candlestick. It was of brass and rare in style and workmanship — a candlestick to be remembered; one of a pair perhaps. I felt my hair stir as I took in the details of its shape and ornamentation. If its mate were in her house — No, no, no! I would not have it so. I could not control my emotion if I let my imagination stray too far. The candlestick must be the property of the club. I had only forgotten. It was bought when? While thinking, planning, I was conscious of Hexford’s eyes fixed steadily upon me.
“Did you go into the kitchen in your wanderings below?” he asked.
“No,” I began, but seeing that I had made a mistake, I bungled and added weakly: “Yes; after matches.”
“And did you get them?”
“In the dark? You must have had trouble in finding them?”
“Not at all. Only safety matches are allowed here, and they are put in a receptacle at the side of each door. I had but to open the kitchen door, feel along the jamb, find this receptacle, and pull the box out. I’m well used to all parts of the house.”
“And you did this?”
“I have said so.”
“May I ask which door you allude to?”
“The one communicating with the front hall.”
“Where did you light your first match?”
“Not in the kitchen?”
“You are sure?”
“That’s a pity. I thought you might be able to tell me how so many wine and whiskey bottles came to be standing on the kitchen table.”
I stared at him, dazed. Then I remembered the two small glasses on the little table across the room, and instinctively glanced at them. But no whiskey had been drunk out of them — the odor of anisette is unmistakable.
“You carry the key to the wine-cellar?” he asked.
I considered a moment. I did not know what to make of bottles on the kitchen table. These women and bottles! They abhorred wine; they had reason to, God knows; T remembered the dinner and all that had signalised it, and felt my confusion grow. But a question had been asked, and I must answer it. It would not do for me to hesitate about a matter of this kind. Only what was the question. Something about a key. I had no key; the cellar had been ransacked without my help; should I acknowledge this?
“The keys were given up by the janitor yesterday,” I managed to stammer at last. “But I did not bring them here to-night. They are in my rooms at home.”
I finished with a gasp. I had suddenly remembered that these keys were not in my rooms. I had had them with me at Miss Cumberland’s and being given to fooling with something when embarrassed, I had fooled with them and dropped them while talking with Adelaide and watching Carmel. I had meant to pick them up but I forgot and —
“You need say nothing more about it,” remarked Hexford. “I have no right to question you at all.” And stepping across the room, he took up the glasses one after the other and smelled of them. “Some sweet stuff,” he remarked. “Cordial, I should say anisette. There wasn’t anything like that on the kitchen table. Let us see what there is in here,” he added, stepping into the adjoining small room into which I had simply peered in my own investigation of the place.
As he did so, a keen blast blew in; a window in the adjoining room was open. He cast me a hurried glance and with the door in his hand, made the following remark:
“Your lady love — the victim here — could not have come through the snow with no more clothing on her than we see now. She must have worn a hat and coat or furs or something of that nature. Let us look for them.”
I rose, stumbling. I saw that he did not mean to leave me alone for a moment. Indeed, I did not wish to be so left. Better any companionship than that of my own thoughts and of her white upturned face. As I followed him into this closet he pushed the door wide, pulling out an electric torch as he did so. By its light we saw almost at first glance the coat and hat he professed to seek, lying in a corner of the floor, beside an overturned chair.
“Good!” left my companion’s lips. “That’s all straight. You recognise these garments?”
I nodded, speechless. A thousand memories rushed upon me at the sight of the long plush coat which I had so often buttoned about her, with a troubled heart. How her eyes would seek mine as we stood thus close together, searching, searching for the old love or the fancied love of which the ashes only remained. Torment, all torment to remember now, as Hexford must have seen, if the keenness of his intelligence equalled that of his eye at this moment.
The window which stood open was a small one,-a mere slit in the wall; but it let in a stream of zero air and I saw Hexford shiver as he stepped towards it and looked out. But I felt hot rather than cold, and when I instinctively put my hand to my forehead, it came away wet.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55