Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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I. A CRY ON THE HILL
The dance was over. From the great house on the hill the guests had all departed and only the musicians remained. As they filed out through the ample doorway, on their way home, the first faint streak of early dawn became visible in the east. One of them, a lank, plain-featured young man of ungainly aspect but penetrating eye, called the attention of the others to it.
"Look!" said he; "there is the daylight! This has been a gay night for Sutherlandtown."
"Too gay," muttered another, starting aside as the slight figure of a young man coming from the house behind them rushed hastily by. "Why, who's that?"
As they one and all had recognised the person thus alluded to, no one answered till he had dashed out of the gate and disappeared in the woods on the other side of the road. Then they all spoke at once.
"It's Mr. Frederick!"
"He seems in a desperate hurry."
"He trod on my toes."
"Did you hear the words he was muttering as he went by?"
As only the last question was calculated to rouse any interest, it alone received attention.
"No; what were they? I heard him say something, but I failed to catch the words."
"He wasn't talking to you, or to me either, for that matter; but I have ears that can hear an eye wink. He said: 'Thank God, this night of horror is over!' Think of that! After such a dance and such a spread, he calls the night horrible and thanks God that it is over. I thought he was the very man to enjoy this kind of thing."
"So did I."
"And so did I." The five musicians exchanged looks, then huddled in a group at the gate.
"He has quarrelled with his sweetheart," suggested one.
"I'm not surprised at that," declared another. "I never thought it would be a match."
"Shame if it were!" muttered the ungainly youth who had spoken first.
As the subject of this comment was the son of the gentleman whose house they were just leaving, they necessarily spoke low; but their tones were rife with curiosity, and it was evident that the topic deeply interested them. One of the five who had not previously spoken now put in a word:
"I saw him when he first led out Miss Page to dance, and I saw him again when he stood up opposite her in the last quadrille, and I tell you, boys, there was a mighty deal of difference in the way he conducted himself toward her in the beginning of the evening and the last. You wouldn't have thought him the same man. Reckless young fellows like him are not to be caught by dimples only. They want cash."
"Or family, at least; and she hasn't either. But what a pretty girl she is! Many a fellow as rich as he and as well connected would be satisfied with her good looks alone."
"Good looks!" High scorn was observable in this exclamation, which was made by the young man whom I have before characterised as ungainly. "I refuse to acknowledge that she has any good looks. On the contrary, I consider her plain."
"Oh! Oh!" burst in protest from more than one mouth. "And why does she have every fellow in the room dangling after her, then?" asked the player on the flageolet.
"She hasn't a regular feature."
"What difference does that make when it isn't her features you notice, but herself?"
"I don't like her."
A laugh followed this.
"That won't trouble her, Sweetwater. Sutherland does, if you don't, and that's much more to the point. And he'll marry her yet; he can't help it. Why, she'd witch the devil into leading her to the altar if she took a notion to have him for her bridegroom."
"There would be consistency in that," muttered the fellow just addressed. "But Mr. Frederick--"
"Hush! There's some one on the doorstep. Why, it's she!"
They all glanced back. The graceful figure of a young girl dressed in white was to be seen leaning toward them from the open doorway. Behind her shone a blaze of light--the candles not having been yet extinguished in the hall--and against this brilliant background her slight form, with all its bewitching outlines, stood out in plain relief.
"Who was that?" she began in a high, almost strident voice, totally out of keeping with the sensuous curves of her strange, sweet face. But the question remained unanswered, for at that moment her attention, as well as that of the men lingering at the gate, was attracted by the sound of hurrying feet and confused cries coming up the hill.
"Murder! Murder!" was the word panted out by more than one harsh voice; and in another instant a dozen men and boys came rushing into sight in a state of such excitement that the five musicians recoiled from the gate, and one of them went so far as to start back toward the house. As he did so he noticed a curious thing. The young woman whom they had all perceived standing in the door a moment before had vanished, yet she was known to possess the keenest curiosity of any one in town.
"Murder! Murder!" A terrible and unprecedented cry in this old, God-fearing town. Then came in hoarse explanation from the jostling group as they stopped at the gate: "Mrs. Webb has been killed! Stabbed with a knife! Tell Mr. Sutherland!"
As the musicians heard this name, so honoured and so universally beloved, they to a man uttered a cry. Mrs. Webb! Why, it was impossible. Shouting in their turn for Mr. Sutherland, they all crowded forward.
"Not Mrs. Webb!" they protested. "Who could have the daring or the heart to kill HER?"
"God knows," answered a voice from the highway. "But she's dead-- we've just seen her!"
"Then it's the old man's work," quavered a piping voice. "I've always said he would turn on his best friend some day. 'Sylum's the best place for folks as has lost their wits. I--"
But here a hand was put over his mouth, and the rest of the words was lost in an inarticulate gurgle. Mr. Sutherland had just appeared on the porch.
He was a superb-looking man, with an expression of mingled kindness and dignity that invariably awakened both awe and admiration in the spectator. No man in the country--I was going to say no woman was more beloved, or held in higher esteem. Yet he could not control his only son, as everyone within ten miles of the hill well knew.
At this moment his face showed both pain and shock.
"What name are you shouting out there?" he brokenly demanded. "Agatha Webb? Is Agatha Webb hurt?"
"Yes, sir; killed," repeated a half-dozen voices at once. "We've just come from the house. All the town is up. Some say her husband did it."
"No, no!" was Mr. Sutherland's decisive though half-inaudible response. "Philemon Webb might end his own life, but not Agatha's. It was the money--"
Here he caught himself up, and, raising his voice, addressed the crowd of villagers more directly.
"Wait," said he, "and I will go back with you. Where is Frederick?" he demanded of such members of his own household as stood about him.
No one knew.
"I wish some one would find my son. I want him to go into town with me."
"He's over in the woods there," volunteered a voice from without.
"In the woods!" repeated the father, in a surprised tone.
"Yes, sir; we all saw him go. Shall we sing out to him?"
"No, no; I will manage very well without him." And taking up his hat Mr. Sutherland stepped out again upon the porch.
Suddenly he stopped. A hand had been laid on his arm and an insinuating voice was murmuring in his ear:
"Do you mind if I go with you? I will not make any trouble."
It was the same young lady we have seen before.
The old gentleman frowned--he who never frowned and remarked shortly:
"A scene of murder is no place for women."
The face upturned to his remained unmoved.
"I think I will go," she quietly persisted. "I can easily mingle with the crowd."
He said not another word against it. Miss Page was under pay in his house, but for the last few weeks no one had undertaken to contradict her. In the interval since her first appearance on the porch, she had exchanged the light dress in which she had danced at the ball, for a darker and more serviceable one, and perhaps this token of her determination may have had its influence in silencing him. He joined the crowd, and together they moved down- hill. This was too much for the servants of the house. One by one they too left the house till it stood absolutely empty. Jerry snuffed out the candles and shut the front door, but the side entrance stood wide open, and into this entrance, as the last footstep died out on the hillside, passed a slight and resolute figure. It was that of the musician who had questioned Miss Page's attractions.
II. ONE NIGHT'S WORK
Sutherlandtown was a seaport. The village, which was a small one, consisted of one long street and numerous cross streets running down from the hillside and ending on the wharves. On one of the corners thus made, stood the Webb house, with its front door on the main street and its side door on one of the hillside lanes. As the group of men and boys who had been in search of Mr. Sutherland entered this last-mentioned lane, they could pick out this house from all the others, as it was the only one in which a light was still burning. Mr. Sutherland lost no time in entering upon the scene of tragedy. As his imposing figure emerged from the darkness and paused on the outskirts of the crowd that was blocking up every entrance to the house, a murmur of welcome went up, after which a way was made for him to the front door.
But before he could enter, some one plucked him by the sleeve.
"Look up!" whispered a voice into his ear.
He did so, and saw a woman's body hanging half out of an upper window. It hung limp, and the sight made him sick, notwithstanding his threescore years of experience.
"Who's that?" he cried. "That's not Agatha Webb."
"No, that's Batsy, the cook. She's dead as well as her mistress. We left her where we found her for the coroner to see."
"But this is horrible," murmured Mr. Sutherland. "Has there been a butcher here?"
As he uttered these words, he felt another quick pressure on his arm. Looking down, he saw leaning against him the form of a young woman, but before he could address her she had started upright again and was moving on with the throng. It was Miss Page.
"It was the sight of this woman hanging from the window which first drew attention to the house," volunteered a man who was standing as a sort of guardian at the main gateway. "Some of the sailors' wives who had been to the wharves to see their husbands off on the ship that sailed at daybreak, saw it as they came up the lane on their way home, and gave the alarm. Without that we might not have known to this hour what had happened."
"But Mrs. Webb?"
"Come in and see."
There was a board fence about the simple yard within which stood the humble house forever after to be pointed out as the scene of Sutherlandtown's most heartrending tragedy. In this fence was a gate, and through this gate now passed Mr. Sutherland, followed by his would-be companion, Miss Page. A path bordered by lilac bushes led up to the house, the door of which stood wide open. As soon as Mr. Sutherland entered upon this path a man approached him from the doorway. It was Amos Fenton, the constable.
"Ah, Mr. Sutherland," said he, "sad business, a very sad business! But what little girl have you there?"
"This is Miss Page, my housekeeper's niece. She would come. Inquisitiveness the cause. I do not approve of it."
"Miss Page must remain on the doorstep. We allow no one inside excepting yourself," he said respectfully, in recognition of the fact that nothing of importance was ever undertaken in Sutherland town without the presence of Mr. Sutherland.
Miss Page curtsied, looking so bewitching in the fresh morning light that the tough old constable scratched his chin in grudging admiration. But he did not reconsider his determination. Seeing this, she accepted her defeat gracefully, and moved aside to where the bushes offered her more or less protection from the curiosity of those about her. Meanwhile Mr. Sutherland had stepped into the house.
He found himself in a small hall with a staircase in front and an open door at the left. On the threshold of this open door a man stood, who at sight of him doffed his hat. Passing by this man, Mr. Sutherland entered the room beyond. A table spread with eatables met his view, beside which, in an attitude which struck him at the moment as peculiar, sat Philemon Webb, the well-known master of the house.
Astonished at seeing his old friend in this room and in such a position, he was about to address him, when Mr. Fenton stopped him.
"Wait!" said he. "Take a look at poor Philemon before you disturb him. When we broke into the house a half-hour ago he was sitting just as you see him now, and we have let him be for reasons you can easily appreciate. Examine him closely, Mr. Sutherland; he won't notice it."
"But what ails him? Why does he sit crouched against the table? Is he hurt too?"
"No; look at his eyes."
Mr. Sutherland stooped and pushed aside the long grey locks that half concealed the countenance of his aged friend.
"Why," he cried, startled, "they are closed! He isn't dead?"
"No, he is asleep."
"Yes. He was asleep when we came in and he is asleep yet. Some of the neighbours wanted to wake him, but I would not let them. His wits are not strong enough to bear a sudden shock."
"No, no, poor Philemon! But that he should sit sleeping here while she--But what do these bottles mean and this parade of supper in a room they were not accustomed to eat in?"
"We don't know. It has not been eaten, you see. He has swallowed a glass of port, but that is all. The other glasses have had no wine in them, nor have the victuals been touched."
"Seats set for three and only one occupied," murmured Mr. Sutherland. "Strange! Could he have expected guests?"
"It looks like it. I didn't know that his wife allowed him such privileges; but she was always too good to him, and I fear has paid for it with her life."
"Nonsense! he never killed her. Had his love been anything short of the worship it was, he stood in too much awe of her to lift his hand against her, even in his most demented moments."
"I don't trust men of uncertain wits," returned the other. "You have not noticed everything that is to be seen in this room."
Mr. Sutherland, recalled to himself by these words, looked quickly about him. With the exception of the table and what was on and by it there was nothing else in the room. Naturally his glance returned to Philemon Webb.
"I don't see anything but this poor sleeping man," he began.
"Look at his sleeve."
Mr. Sutherland, with a start, again bent down. The arm of his old friend lay crooked upon the table, and on its blue cotton sleeve there was a smear which might have been wine, but which was-- blood.
As Mr. Sutherland became assured of this, he turned slightly pale and looked inquiringly at the two men who were intently watching him.
"This is bad," said he. "Any other marks of blood below stairs?"
"No; that one smear is all."
"Oh, Philemon!" burst from Mr. Sutherland, in deep emotion. Then, as he looked long and shudderingly at his friend, he added slowly:
"He has been in the room where she was killed; so much is evident. But that he understood what was done there I cannot believe, or he would not be sleeping here like a log. Come, let us go up-stairs."
Fenton, with an admonitory gesture toward his subordinate, turned directly toward the staircase. Mr. Sutherland followed him, and they at once proceeded to the upper hall and into the large front room which had been the scene of the tragedy.
It was the parlour or sitting-room of this small and unpretentious house. A rag carpet covered the floor and the furniture was of the plainest kind, but the woman who lay outstretched on the stiff, old-fashioned lounge opposite the door was far from being in accord with the homely type of her surroundings. Though the victim of a violent death, her face and form, both of a beauty seldom to be found among women of any station, were so majestic in their calm repose, that Mr. Sutherland, accustomed as he was to her noble appearance, experienced a shock of surprise that found vent in these words:
"Murdered! she? You have made some mistake, my friends. Look at her face!"
But even in the act of saying this his eyes fell on the blood which had dyed her cotton dress and he cried:
"Where was she struck and where is the weapon which has made this ghastly wound?"
"She was struck while standing or sitting at this table," returned the constable, pointing to two or three drops of blood on its smooth surface. "The weapon we have not found, but the wound shows that it was inflicted by a three-sided dagger."
"A three-sided dagger?"
"I didn't know there was such a thing in town. Philemon could have had no dagger."
"It does not seem so, but one can never tell. Simple cottages like these often contain the most unlooked-for articles."
"I cannot imagine a dagger being among its effects," declared Mr. Sutherland. "Where was the body of Mrs. Webb lying when you came in?"
"Where you see it now. Nothing has been moved or changed."
"She was found here, on this lounge, in the same position in which we see her now?"
"But that is incredible. Look at the way she lies! Hands crossed, eyes closed, as though made ready for her burial. Only loving hands could have done this. What does it mean?"
"It means Philemon; that is what it means Philemon." Mr. Sutherland shuddered, but said nothing. He was dumbfounded by these evidences of a crazy man's work. Philemon Webb always seemed so harmless, though he had been failing in mind for the last ten years.
"But" cried Mr. Sutherland, suddenly rousing, "there is another victim. I saw old woman Batsy hanging from a window ledge, dead."
"Yes, she is in this other room; but there is no wound on Batsy."
"How was she killed, then?"
"That the doctors must tell us."
Mr. Sutherland, guided by Mr. Fenton's gesture, entered a small room opening into the one in which they stood. His attention was at once attracted by the body of the woman he had seen from below, lying half in and half out of the open window. That she was dead was evident; but, as Mr. Fenton had said, no wound was to be seen upon her, nor were there any marks of blood on or about the place where she lay.
"This is a dreadful business," groaned Mr. Sutherland, "the worst I have ever had anything to do with. Help me to lift the woman in; she has been long enough a show for the people outside."
There was a bed in this room (indeed, it was Mrs. Webb's bedroom), and upon this poor Batsy was laid. As the face came uppermost both gentlemen started and looked at each other in amazement. The expression of terror and alarm which it showed was in striking contrast to the look of exaltation to be seen on the face of her dead mistress.
III. THE EMPTY DRAWER
As they re-entered the larger room, they were astonished to come upon Miss Page standing in the doorway. She was gazing at the recumbent figure of the dead woman, and for a moment seemed unconscious of their presence.
"How did you get in? Which of my men was weak enough to let you pass, against my express instructions?" asked the constable, who was of an irritable and suspicious nature.
She let the hood drop from her head, and, turning, surveyed him with a slow smile. There was witchery in that smile sufficient to affect a much more cultivated and callous nature than his, and though he had been proof against it once he could not quite resist the effect of its repetition.
"I insisted upon entering," said she. "Do not blame the men; they did not want to use force against a woman." She had not a good voice and she knew it; but she covered up this defect by a choice of intonations that carried her lightest speech to the heart. Hard-visaged Amos Fenton gave a grunt, which was as near an expression of approval as he ever gave to anyone.
"Well! well!" he growled, but not ill-naturedly, "it's a morbid curiosity that brings you here. Better drop it, girl; it won't do you any good in the eyes of sensible people."
"Thank you," was her demure reply, her lips dimpling at the corners in a way to shock the sensitive Mr. Sutherland.
Glancing from her to the still outlines of the noble figure on the couch, he remarked with an air of mild reproof:
"I do not understand you, Miss Page. If this solemn sight has no power to stop your coquetries, nothing can. As for your curiosity, it is both ill-timed and unwomanly. Let me see you leave this house at once, Miss Page; and if in the few hours which must elapse before breakfast you can find time to pack your trunks, you will still farther oblige me."
"Oh, don't send me away, I entreat you."
It was a cry from her inner heart, which she probably regretted, for she instantly sought to cover up her inadvertent self-betrayal by a submissive bend of the head and a step backward. Neither Mr. Fenton nor Mr. Sutherland seemed to hear the one or see the other, their attention having returned to the more serious matter in hand.
"The dress which our poor friend wears shows her to have been struck before retiring," commented Mr. Sutherland, after another short survey of Mrs. Webb's figure. "If Philemon--"
"Excuse me, sir," interrupted the voice of the young man who had been left in the hall, "the lady is listening to what you say. She is still at the head of the stairs."
"She is, is she!" cried Fenton, sharply, his admiration for the fascinating stranger having oozed out at his companion's rebuff. "I will soon show her--" But the words melted into thin air as he reached the door. The young girl had disappeared, and only a faint perfume remained in the place where she had stood.
"A most extraordinary person," grumbled the constable, turning back, but stopping again as a faint murmur came up from below.
"The gentleman is waking," called up a voice whose lack of music was quite perceptible at a distance.
With a bound Mr. Fenton descended the stairs, followed by Mr. Sutherland.
Miss Page stood before the door of the room in which sat Philemon Webb. As they reached her side, she made a little bow that was half mocking, half deprecatory, and slipped from the house. An almost unbearable sensation of incongruity vanished with her, and Mr. Sutherland, for one, breathed like a man relieved.
"I wish the doctor would come," Fenton said, as they watched the slow lifting of Philemon Webb's head. "Our fastest rider has gone for him, but he's out Portchester way, and it may be an hour yet before he can get here."
Mr. Sutherland had advanced and was standing by his old friend's side.
"Philemon, what has become of your guests? You've waited for them here until morning."
The old man with a dazed look surveyed the two plates set on either side of him and shook his head.
"James and John are getting proud," said he, "or they forget, they forget."
James and John. He must mean the Zabels, yet there were many others answering to these names in town. Mr. Sutherland made another effort.
"Philemon, where is your wife? I do not see any place set here for her!"
"Agatha's sick, Agatha's cross; she don't care for a poor old man like me."
"Agatha's dead and you know it," thundered back the constable, with illjudged severity. "Who killed her? tell me that. Who killed her?"
A sudden quenching of the last spark of intelligence in the old man's eye was the dreadful effect of these words. Laughing with that strange gurgle which proclaims an utterly irresponsible mind, he cried:
"The pussy cat! It was the pussy cat. Who's killed? I'm not killed. Let's go to Jericho."
Mr. Sutherland took him by the arm and led him up-stairs. Perhaps the sight of his dead wife would restore him. But he looked at her with the same indifference he showed to everything else.
"I don't like her calico dresses," said he. "She might have worn silk, but she wouldn't. Agatha, will you wear silk to my funeral?"
The experiment was too painful, and they drew him away. But the constable's curiosity had been roused, and after they had found some one to take care of him, he drew Mr. Sutherland aside and said:
"What did the old man mean by saying she might have worn silk? Are they better off than they seem?" Mr. Sutherland closed the door before replying.
"They are rich," he declared, to the utter amazement of the other. "That is, they were; but they may have been robbed; if so, Philemon was not the wretch who killed her. I have been told that she kept her money in an oldfashioned cupboard. Do you suppose they alluded to that one?"
He pointed to a door set in the wall over the fireplace, and Mr. Fenton, perceiving a key sticking in the lock, stepped quickly across the floor and opened it. A row of books met his eyes, but on taking them down a couple of drawers were seen at the back.
"Are they locked?" asked Mr. Sutherland.
"One is and one is not."
"Open the one that is unlocked."
Mr. Fenton did so.
"It is empty," said he.
Mr. Sutherland cast a look toward the dead woman, and again the perfect serenity of her countenance struck him.
"I do not know whether to regard her as the victim of her husband's imbecility or of some vile robber's cupidity. Can you find the key to the other drawer?"
"I will try."
"Suppose you begin, then, by looking on her person. It should be in her pocket, if no marauder has been here."
"It is not in her pocket." "Hanging to her neck, then, by a string?"
"No; there is a locket here, but no key. A very handsome locket, Mr. Sutherland, with a child's lock of golden hair--"
"Never mind, we will see that later; it is the key we want just now."
"What is it?"
"It is in her hand; the one that lies underneath."
"Ah! A point, Fenton."
"A great point."
"Stand by her, Fenton. Don't let anyone rob her of that key till the coroner comes, and we are at liberty to take it."
"I will not leave her for an instant."
"Meanwhile, I will put back these books."
He had scarcely done so when a fresh arrival occurred. This time it was one of the village clergymen.
IV. THE FULL DRAWER
This gentleman had some information to give. It seems that at an early hour of this same night he had gone by this house on his way home from the bedside of a sick parishioner. As he was passing the gate he was run into by a man who came rushing out of the yard, in a state of violent agitation. In this man's hand was something that glittered, and though the encounter nearly upset them both, he had not stopped to utter an apology, but stumbled away out of sight with a hasty but infirm step, which showed he was neither young nor active. The minister had failed to see his face, but noticed the ends of a long beard blowing over his shoulder as he hurried away.
Philemon was a clean-shaven man.
Asked if he could give the time of this encounter, he replied that it was not far from midnight, as he was in his own house by half- past twelve.
"Did you glance up at these windows in passing?" asked Mr. Fenton. "I must have; for I now remember they were both lighted."
"Were the shades up?"
"I think not. I would have noticed it if they had been."
"How were the shades when you broke into the house this morning?" inquired Mr. Sutherland of the constable.
"Just as they are now; we have moved nothing. The shades were both down-one of them over an open window."
"Well, we may find this encounter of yours with this unknown man a matter of vital importance, Mr. Crane."
"I wish I had seen his face."
"What do you think the object was you saw glittering in his hand?"
"I should not like to say; I saw it but an instant."
"Could it have been a knife or an old-fashioned dagger?"
"It might have been."
"Alas! poor Agatha! That she, who so despised money, should fall a victim to man's cupidity! Unhappy life, unhappy death! Fenton, I shall always mourn for Agatha Webb."
"Yet she seems to have found peace at last," observed the minister. "I have never seen her look so contented." And leading Mr. Sutherland aside, he whispered: "What is this you say about money? Had she, in spite of appearances, any considerable amount? I ask, because in spite of her humble home and simple manner of living, she always put more on the plate than any of her neighbours. Besides which, I have from time to time during my pastorate received anonymously certain contributions, which, as they were always for sick or suffering children--"
"Yes, yes; they came from her, I have no doubt of it. She was by no means poor, though I myself never knew the extent of her means till lately. Philemon was a good business man once; but they evidently preferred to live simply, having no children living--"
"They have lost six, I have been told." "So the Portchester folks say. They probably had no heart for display or for even the simplest luxuries. At all events, they did not indulge in them."
"Philemon has long been past indulging in anything."
"Oh, he likes his comfort, and he has had it too. Agatha never stinted him."
"But why do you think her death was due to her having money?"
"She had a large sum in the house, and there are those in town who knew this."
"And is it gone?"
"That we shall know later."
As the coroner arrived at this moment, the minister's curiosity had to wait. Fortunately for his equanimity, no one had the presumption to ask him to leave the room.
The coroner was a man of but few words, and but little given to emotion. Yet they were surprised at his first question:
"Who is the young woman standing outside there, the only one in the yard?"
Mr. Sutherland, moving rapidly to the window, drew aside the shade.
"It is Miss Page, my housekeeper's niece," he explained. "I do not understand her interest in this affair. She followed me here from the house and could hardly be got to leave this room, into which she intruded herself against my express command."
"But look at her attitude!" It was Mr. Fenton who spoke. "She's crazier than Philemon, it seems to me."
There was some reason for this remark. Guarded by the high fence from the gaze of the pushing crowd without, she stood upright and immovable in the middle of the yard, like one on watch. The hood, which she had dropped from her head when she thought her eyes and smile might be of use to her in the furtherance of her plans, had been drawn over it again, so that she looked more like a statue in grey than a living, breathing woman. Yet there was menace in her attitude and a purpose in the solitary stand she took in that circle of board-girded grass, which caused a thrill in the breasts of those who looked at her from that chamber of death.
"A mysterious young woman," muttered the minister. "And one that I neither countenance nor under-stand," interpolated Mr. Sutherland. "I have just shown my displeasure at her actions by dismissing her from my house."
The coroner gave him a quick look, seemed about to speak, but changed his mind and turned toward the dead woman.
"We have a sad duty before us," said he.
The investigations which followed elicited one or two new facts. First, that all the doors of the house were found unlocked; and, secondly, that the constable had been among the first to enter, so that he could vouch that no disarrangement had been made in the rooms, with the exception of Batsy's removal to the bed.
Then, his attention being drawn to the dead woman, he discovered the key in her tightly closed hand.
"Where does this key belong?" he asked.
They showed him the drawers in the cupboard.
"One is empty," remarked Mi. Sutherland. "If the other is found to be in the same condition, then her money has been taken. That key she holds should open both these drawers."
"Then let it be made use of at once. It is important that we should know whether theft has been committed here as well as murder." And drawing the key out, he handed it to Mr. Fenton.
The constable immediately unlocked the drawer and brought it and its contents to the table.
"No money here," said he.
"But papers as good as money," announced the doctor. "See! here are deeds and more than one valuable bond. I judge she was a richer woman than any of us knew."
Mr. Sutherland, meantime, was looking with an air of disappointment into the now empty drawer.
"Just as I feared," said he. "She has been robbed of her ready money. It was doubtless in the other drawer."
"How came she by the key, then?" "That is one of the mysteries of the affair; this murder is by no means a simple one. I begin to think we shall find it full of mysteries."
"Batsy's death, for instance?"
"O yes, Batsy! I forgot that she was found dead too."
"Without a wound, doctor."
"She had heart disease. I doctored her for it. The fright has killed her."
"The look of her face confirms that."
"Let me see! So it does; but we must have an autopsy to prove it."
"I would like to explain before any further measures are taken, how I came to know that Agatha Webb had money in her house," said Mr. Sutherland, as they stepped back into the other room. "Two days ago, as I was sitting with my family at table, old gossip Judy came in. Had Mrs. Sutherland been living, this old crone would not have presumed to intrude upon us at mealtime, but as we have no one now to uphold our dignity, this woman rushed into our presence panting with news, and told us all in one breath how she had just come from Mrs. Webb; that Mrs. Webb had money; that she had seen it, she herself; that, going into the house as usual without knocking, she had heard Agatha stepping overhead and had gone up; and finding the door of the sitting-room ajar, had looked in, and seen Agatha crossing the room with her hands full of bills; that these bills were big bills, for she heard Agatha cry, as she locked them up in the cupboard behind the book-shelves, 'A thousand dollars! That is too much money to have in one's house'; that she, Judy, thought so too, and being frightened at what she had seen, had crept away as silently as she had entered and run away to tell the neighbours. Happily, I was the first she found up that morning, but I have no doubt that, in spite of my express injunctions, she has since related the news to half the people in town."
"Was the young woman down yonder present when Judy told this story?" asked the coroner, pointing towards the yard.
Mr. Sutherland pondered. "Possibly; I do not remember. Frederick was seated at the table with me, and my housekeeper was pouring out the coffee, but it was early for Miss Page. She has been putting on great airs of late."
"Can it be possible he is trying to blind himself to the fact that his son Frederick wishes to marry this girl?" muttered the clergyman into the constable's ear.
The constable shook his head. Mr. Sutherland was one of those debonair men, whose very mildness makes them impenetrable.
V. A SPOT ON THE LAWN
The coroner, on leaving the house, was followed by Mr. Sutherland. As the fine figures of the two men appeared on the doorstep, a faint cheer was heard from the two or three favoured persons who were allowed to look through the gate. But to this token of welcome neither gentleman responded by so much as a look, all their attention being engrossed by the sight of the solitary figure of Miss Page, who still held her stand upon the lawn. Motionless as a statue, but with her eyes fixed upon their faces, she awaited their approach. When they were near her she thrust one hand from under her cloak, and pointing to the grass at her feet, said quietly:
They hastened towards her and bent down to examine the spot she indicated.
"What do you find there?" cried Mr. Sutherland, whose eyesight was not good.
"Blood," responded the coroner, plucking up a blade of grass and surveying it closely.
"Blood," echoed Miss Page, with so suggestive a glance that Mr. Sutherland stared at her in amazement, not understanding his own emotion.
"How were you able to discern a stain so nearly imperceptible?" asked the coroner.
"Imperceptible? It is the only thing I see in the whole yard," she retorted, and with a slight bow, which was not without its element of mockery, she turned toward the gate.
"A most unaccountable girl," commented the doctor. "But she is right about these stains. Abel," he called to the man at the gate, "bring a box or barrel here and cover up this spot. I don't want it disturbed by trampling feet."
Abel started to obey, just as the young girl laid her hand on the gate to open it.
"Won't you help me?" she asked. "The crowd is so great they won't let me through."
"Won't they?" The words came from without. "Just slip out as I slip in, and you'll find a place made for you."
Not recognising the voice, she hesitated for a moment, but seeing the gate swaying, she pushed against it just as a young man stepped through the gap. Necessarily they came face to face.
"Ah, it's you," he muttered, giving her a sharp glance.
"I do not know you," she haughtily declared, and slipped by him with such dexterity she was out of the gate before he could respond.
But he only snapped his finger and thumb mockingly at her, and smiled knowingly at Abel, who had lingered to watch the end of this encounter.
"Supple as a willow twig, eh?" he laughed. "Well, I have made whistles out of willows before now, and hallo! where did you get that?"
He was pointing to a rare flower that hung limp and faded from Abel's buttonhole.
"This? Oh, I found it in the house yonder. It was lying on the floor of the inner room, almost under Batsy's skirts. Curious sort of flower. I wonder where she got it?"
The intruder betrayed at once an unaccountable emotion. There was a strange glitter in his light green eyes that made Abel shift rather uneasily on his feet. "Was that before this pretty minx you have just let out came in here with Mr. Sutherland?"
"O yes; before anyone had started for the hill at all. Why, what has this young lady got to do with a flower dropped by Batsy?"
"She? Nothing. Only--and I have never given you bad advice, Abel-- don't let that thing hang any longer from your buttonhole. Put it into an envelope and keep it, and if you don't hear from me again in regard to it, write me out a fool and forget we were ever chums when little shavers."
The man called Abel smiled, took out the flower, and went to cover up the grass as Dr. Talbot had requested. The stranger took his place at the gate, toward which the coroner and Mr. Sutherland were now advancing, with an air that showed his great anxiety to speak with them. He was the musician whom we saw secretly entering the last-mentioned gentleman's house after the departure of the servants.
As the coroner paused before him he spoke. "Dr. Talbot," said he, dropping his eyes, which were apt to betray his thoughts too plainly, "you have often promised that you would give me a job if any matter came up where any nice detective work was wanted. Don't you think the time has come to remember me?"
"You, Sweetwater? I'm afraid the affair is too deep for an inexperienced man's first effort. I shall have to send to Boston for an expert. Another time, Sweetwater, when the complications are less serious."
The young fellow, with a face white as milk, was turning away.
"But you'll let me stay around here?" he pleaded, pausing and giving the other an imploring look.
"O yes," answered the good-natured coroner. "Fenton will have work enough for you and half a dozen others. Go and tell him I sent you."
"Thank you," returned the other, his face suddenly losing its aspect of acute disappointment. "Now I shall see where that flower fell," he murmured.
VI. BREAKFAST IS SERVED, GENTLEMEN!
Mr. Sutherland returned home. As he entered the broad hall he met his son, Frederick. There was a look on the young man's face such as he had not seen there in years.
"Father," faltered the youth, "may I have a few words with you?"
The father nodded kindly, though it is likely he would have much preferred his breakfast; and the young man led him into a little sitting-room littered with the faded garlands and other tokens of the preceding night's festivities.
"I have an apology to make," Frederick began, "or rather, I have your forgiveness to ask. For years" he went on, stumbling over his words, though he gave no evidence of a wish to restrain them--"for years I have gone contrariwise to your wishes and caused my mother's heart to ache and you to wish I had never been born to be a curse to you and her."
He had emphasised the word mother, and spoke altogether with force and deep intensity. Mr. Sutherland stood petrified; he had long ago given up this lad as lost.
"I--I wish to change. I wish to be as great a pride to you as I have been a shame and a dishonour. I may not succeed at once; but I am in earnest, and if you will give me your hand--"
The old man's arms were round the young man's shoulders at once.
"Frederick!" he cried, "my Frederick!"
"Do not make me too much ashamed," murmured the youth, very pale and strangely discomposed. "With no excuse for my past, I suffer intolerable apprehension in regard to my future, lest my good intentions should fail or my self-control not hold out. But the knowledge that you are acquainted with my resolve, and regard it with an undeserved sympathy, may suffice to sustain me, and I should certainly be a base poltroon if I should disappoint you or her twice."
He paused, drew himself from his father's arms, and glanced almost solemnly out of the window. "I swear that I will henceforth act as if she were still alive and watching me."
There was strange intensity in his manner. Mr. Sutherland regarded him with amazement. He had seen him in every mood natural to a reckless man, but never in so serious a one, never with a look of awe or purpose in his face. It gave him quite a new idea of Frederick.
"Yes," the young man went on, raising his right hand, but not removing his eyes from the distant prospect on which they were fixed, "I swear that I will henceforth do nothing to discredit her memory. Outwardly and inwardly, I will act as though her eye were still upon me and she could again suffer grief at my failures or thrill with pleasure at my success."
A portrait of Mrs. Sutherland, painted when Frederick was a lad of ten, hung within a few feet of him as he spoke. He did not glance at it, but Mr. Sutherland did, and with a look as if he expected to behold a responsive light beam from those pathetic features.
"She loved you very dearly," was his slow and earnest comment. "We have both loved you much more deeply than you have ever seemed to realise, Frederick."
"I believe it," responded the young man, turning with an expression of calm resolve to meet his father's eye. "As proof that I am no longer insensible to your affection, I have made up my mind to forego for your sake one of the dearest wishes of my heart. Father" he hesitated before he spoke the word, but he spoke it firmly at last,--"am I right in thinking you would not like Miss Page for a daughter?"
"Like my housekeeper's niece to take the place in this house once occupied by Marietta Sutherland? Frederick, I have always thought too well of you to believe you would carry your forgetfulness of me so far as that, even when I saw that you were influenced by her attractions."
"You did not do justice to my selfishness, father. I did mean to marry her, but I have given up living solely for myself, and she could never help me to live for others. Father, Amabel Page must not remain in this house to cause division between you and me."
"I have already intimated to her the desirability of her quitting a home where she is no longer respected," the old gentleman declared. "She leaves on the 10.45 train. Her conduct this morning at the house of Mrs. Webb--who perhaps you do not know was most cruelly and foully murdered last night-was such as to cause comment and make her an undesirable adjunct to any gentleman's family."
Frederick paled. Something in these words had caused him a great shock. Mr. Sutherland was fond enough to believe that it was the news of this extraordinary woman's death. But his son's words, as soon as lie could find any, showed that his mind was running on Amabel, whom he perhaps had found it difficult to connect even in the remotest way with crime.
"She at this place of death? How could that be? Who would take a young girl there?"
The father, experiencing, perhaps, more compassion for this soon- to-bedisillusioned lover than he thought it incumbent upon him to show, answered shortly, but without any compromise of the unhappy truth:
"She went; she was not taken. No one, not even myself, could keep her back after she had heard that a murder had been committed in the town. She even intruded into the house; and when ordered out of the room of death took up her stand in the yard in front, where she remained until she had the opportunity of pointing out to us a stain of blood on the grass, which might otherwise have escaped our attention."
"Impossible!" Frederick's eye was staring; he looked like a man struck dumb by surprise or fear. "Amabel do this? You are mocking me, sir, or I may be dreaming, which may the good God grant."
His father, who had not looked for so much emotion, eyed his son in surprise, which rapidly changed to alarm as the young man faltered and fell back against the wall.
"You are ill, Frederick; you are really ill. Let me call down Mrs. Harcourt. But no, I cannot summon her. She is this girl's aunt."
Frederick made an effort and stood up.
"Do not call anybody," he entreated. "I expect to suffer some in casting this fascinating girl out of my heart. Ultimately I will conquer the weakness; indeed I will. As for her interest in Mrs. Webb's death"--how low his voice sank and how he trembled!" she may have been better friends with her than we had any reason to suppose. I can think of no other motive for her conduct. Admiration for Mrs. Webb and horror---"
"Breakfast is served, gentlemen!" cried a thrilling voice behind them. Amabel Page stood smiling in the doorway.
VII. MARRY ME
"Wait a moment, I must speak to you." It was Amabel who was holding Frederick back. She had caught him by the arm as he was about leaving the room with his father, and he felt himself obliged to stop and listen.
"I start for Springfield to-day," she announced. "I have another relative there living at the house. When shall I have the pleasure of seeing you in my new home?"
"Never." It was said regretfully, and yet with a certain brusqueness, occasioned perhaps by over-excited feeling. "Hard as it is for me to say it, Amabel, it is but just for me to tell you that after our parting here to-day we will meet only as strangers. Friendship between us would be mockery, and any closer relationship has become impossible."
It had cost him an immense effort to say these words, and he expected, fondly expected, I must admit, to see her colour change and her head droop. But instead of this she looked at him steadily for a moment, then slipped her hand down his arm till she reached his palm, which she pressed with sudden warmth, drawing him into the room as she did so, and shutting the door behind them. He was speechless, for she never had looked so handsome or so glowing. Instead of showing depression or humiliation even, she confronted him with a smile more dangerous than any display of grief, for it contained what it had hitherto lacked, positive and irresistible admiration. Her words were equally dangerous.
"I kiss your hand, as the Spaniards say." And she almost did so, with a bend of her head, which just allowed him to catch a glimpse of two startling dimples.
He was astounded. He thought he knew this woman well, but at this moment she was as incomprehensible to him as if he had never made a study of her caprices and sought an explanation for her ever- shifting expressions. "I am sensible of the honour," said he, "but hardly understand how I have earned it."
Still that incomprehensible look of admiration continued to illumine her face.
"I did not know I could ever think so well of you," she declared. "If you do not take care, I shall end by loving you some day."
"Ah!" he ejaculated, his face contracting with sudden pain; "your love, then, is but a potentiality. Very well, Amabel, keep it so and you will be spared much misery. As for me, who have not been as wise as you---"
"Frederick!" She had come so near he did not have the strength to finish. Her face, with its indefinable charm, was raised to his, as she dropped these words one by one from her lips in lingering cadence: "Frederick--do you love me, then, so very much?"
He was angry; possibly because he felt his resolution failing him. "You know!" he hotly began, stepping back. Then with a sudden burst of feeling, that was almost like prayer, he resumed: "Do not tempt me, Amabel. I have trouble enough, without lamenting the failure of my first steadfast purpose."
"Ah!" she said, stopping where she was, but drawing him toward her by every witchery of which her mobile features were capable; "your generous impulse has strengthened into a purpose, has it? Well, I'm not worth it, Frederick."
More and more astounded, understanding her less than ever, but charmed by looks that would have moved an anchorite, he turned his head away in a vain attempt to escape an influence that was so rapidly undermining his determination.
She saw the movement, recognised the weakness it bespoke, and in the triumph of her heart allowed a low laugh to escape her.
Her voice, as I have before said, was unmusical though effective; but her laugh was deliciously sweet, especially when it was restrained to a mere ripple, as now.
"You will come to Springfield soon," she avowed, slipping from before him so as to leave the way to the door open.
"Amabel!" His voice was strangely husky, and the involuntary opening and shutting of his hands revealed the emotion under which he was labouring. "Do you love me? You have acknowledged it now and then, but always as if you did not mean it. Now you acknowledge that you may some day, and this time as if you did mean it. What is the truth? Tell me, without coquetry or dissembling, for I am in dead earnest, and---" He paused, choked, and turned toward the window where but a few minutes before he had taken that solemn oath. The remembrance of it seemed to come back with the movement. Flushing with a new agitation, he wheeled upon her sharply. "No, no," he prayed, "say nothing. If you swore you did not love me I should not believe it, and if you swore that you did I should only find it harder to repeat what must again be said, that a union between us can never take place. I have given my solemn promise to---"
"Well, well. Why do you stop? Am I so hard to talk to that the words will not leave your lips?"
"I have promised my father I will never marry you. He feels that he has grounds of complaint against you, and as I owe him everything---"
He stopped amazed. She was looking at him intently, that same low laugh still on her lips.
"Tell the truth," she whispered. "I know to what extent you consider your father's wishes. You think you ought not to marry me after what took place last night. Frederick, I like you for this evidence of consideration on your part, but do not struggle too relentlessly with your conscience. I can forgive much more in you than you think, and if you really love me---"
"Stop! Let us understand each other." He had turned mortally pale, and met her eyes with something akin to alarm. "What do you allude to in speaking of last night? I did not know there was anything said by us in our talk together---"
"I do not allude to our talk."
"Or--or in the one dance we had---"
"Frederick, a dance is innocent."
The word seemed to strike him with the force of a blow.
"Innocent," he repeated, "innocent?" becoming paler still as the full weight of her meaning broke gradually upon him.
"I followed you into town," she whispered, coming closer, and breathing the words into his ear. "But what I saw you do there will not prevent me from obeying you if you say: 'Follow me wherever I go, Amabel; henceforth our lives are one.'"
"My God!" It was all he said, but it seemed to create a gulf between them. In the silence that followed, the evil spirit latent beneath her beauty began to make itself evident even in the smile which no longer called into view the dimples which belong to guileless mirth, while upon his face, after the first paralysing effect of her words had passed, there appeared an expression of manly resistance that betrayed a virtue which as yet had never appeared in his selfish and altogether reckless life.
That this was more than a passing impulse he presently made evident by lifting his hand and pushing her slowly back.
"I do not know what you saw me do," said he; "but whatever it was, it can make no difference in our relations."
Her whisper, which had been but a breath before, became scarcely audible.
"I did not pause at the gate you entered," said she. "I went in after you."
A gasp of irresistible feeling escaped him, but he did not take his eyes from her face.
"It was a long time before you came out," she went on, "but previous to that time the shade of a certain window was thrust aside, and---"
"Hush!" he commanded, in uncontrollable passion, pressing his hand with impulsive energy against her mouth. "Not another word of that, or I shall forget you are a woman or that I have ever loved you."
Her eyes, which were all she had remaining to plead with, took on a peculiar look of quiet satisfaction, and power. Seeing it, he let his hand fall and for the first time began to regard her with anything but a lover's eyes.
"I was the only person in sight at that time," she continued. "You have nothing to fear from the world at large."
The word made its own echo; she had no need to emphasise it even by a smile. But she watched him as it sunk into his consciousness with an intentness it took all his strength to sustain. Suddenly her bearing and expression changed. The few remains of sweetness in her face vanished, and even the allurement which often lasts when the sweetness is gone, disappeared in the energy which now took possession of her whole threatening and inflexible personality.
"Marry me," she cried, "or I will proclaim you to be the murderer of Agatha Webb."
She had seen the death of love in his eyes.
VIII. A DEVIL THAT UNDERSTANDS MEN
Frederick Sutherland was a man of finer mental balance than he himself, perhaps, had ever realised. After the first few moments of stupefaction following the astounding alternative which had been given him, he broke out with the last sentence she probably expected to hear:
"What do you hope from a marriage with me, that to attain your wishes you thus sacrifice every womanly instinct?"
She met him on his own ground.
"What do I hope?" She actually glowed with the force of her secret desire. "Can you ask a poor girl like me, born in a tenement house, but with tastes and ambitions such as are usually only given to those who can gratify them? I want to be the rich Mr. Sutherland's daughter; acknowledged or unacknowledged, the wife of one who can enter any house in Boston as an equal. With a position like that I can rise to anything. I feel that I have the natural power and aptitude. I have felt it since I was a small child."
"And for that---" he began.
"And for that," she broke in, "I am quite willing to overlook a blot on your record. Confident that you will never repeat the risk of last night, I am ready to share the burden of your secret through life. If you treat me well, I am sure I can make that burden light for you."
With a quick flush and an increase of self-assertion, probably not anticipated by her, he faced the daring girl with a desperate resolution that showed how handsome he could be if his soul once got control of his body.
"Woman," he cried, "they were right; you are little less than a devil."
Did she regard it as a compliment? Her smile would seem to say so.
"A devil that understands men," she answered, with that slow dip of her dimples that made her smile so dangerous. "You will not hesitate long over this matter; a week, perhaps."
"I shall not hesitate at all. Seeing you as you are, makes my course easy. You will never share any burden with me as my wife."
Still she was not abashed.
"It is a pity," she whispered; "it would have saved you such unnecessary struggle. But a week is not long to wait. I am certain of you then. This day week at twelve o'clock, Frederick."
He seized her by the arm, and lost to everything but his rage, shook her with a desperate hand.
"Do you mean it?" he cried, a sudden horror showing itself in his face, notwithstanding his efforts to conceal it.
"I mean it so much," she assured him, "that before I came home just now I paid a visit to the copse over the way. A certain hollow tree, where you and I have held more than one tryst, conceals within its depths a package containing over one thousand dollars. Frederick, I hold your life in my hands."
The grasp with which he held her relaxed; a mortal despair settled upon his features, and recognising the impossibility of further concealing the effect of her words upon him, he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands. She viewed him with an air of triumph, which brought back some of her beauty. When she spoke it was to say:
"If you wish to join me in Springfield before the time I have set, well and good. I am willing that the time of our separation should be shortened, but it must not be lengthened by so much as a day. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and pack my trunks."
He shuddered; her voice penetrated him to the quick.
Drawing herself up, she looked down on him with a strange mixture of passion and elation.
"You need fear no indiscretion on my part, so long as our armistice lasts," said she. "No one can drag the truth from me while any hope remains of your doing your duty by me in the way I have suggested."
And still he did not move.
Was it her voice that was thus murmuring his name? Can the tiger snarl one moment and fawn the next?
"Frederick, I have a final word to say--a last farewell. Up to this hour I have endured your attentions, or, let us say, accepted them, for I always found you handsome and agreeable, if not the master of my heart. But now it is love that I feel, love; and love with me is no fancy, but a passion--do you hear?--a passion which will make life a heaven or hell for the man who has inspired it. You should have thought of this when you opposed me."
And with a look in which love and hatred contended for mastery, she bent and imprinted a kiss upon his forehead. Next moment she was gone.
Or so he thought. But when, after an interval of nameless recoil, he rose and attempted to stagger from the place, he discovered that she had been detained in the hall by two or three men who had just come in by the front door.
"Is this Miss Page?" they were asking.
"Yes, I am Miss Page--Amabel Page" she replied with suave politeness. "If you have any business with me, state it quickly, for I am about to leave town."
"That is what we wish to prevent," declared a tall, thin young man who seemed to take the lead. "Till the inquest has been held over the remains of Mrs. Webb, Coroner Talbot wishes you to regard yourself as a possible witness."
"Me?" she cried, with an admirable gesture of surprise and a wide opening of her brown eyes that made her look like an astonished child. "What have I got to do with it?"
"You pointed out a certain spot of blood on the grass, and--well, the coroner's orders have to be obeyed, miss. You cannot leave the town without running the risk of arrest"
"Then I will stay in it," she smiled. "I have no liking for arrests," and the glint of her eye rested for a moment on Frederick. "Mr. Sutherland," she continued, as that gentleman appeared at the dining-room door, "I shall have to impose upon your hospitality for a few days longer. These men here inform me that my innocent interest in pointing out to you that spot of blood on Mrs. Webb's lawn has awakened some curiosity, and that I am wanted as a witness by the coroner."
Mr. Sutherland, with a quick stride, lessened the distance between himself and these unwelcome intruders. "The coroner's wishes are paramount just now," said he, but the look he gave his son was not soon forgotten by the spectators.
IX. A GRAND WOMAN
There was but one topic discussed in the country-side that day, and that was the life and character of Agatha Webb.
Her history had not been a happy one. She and Philemon had come from Portchester some twenty or more years before to escape the sorrows associated with their native town. They had left behind them six small graves in Portchester churchyard; but though evidences of their affliction were always to be seen in the countenances of either, they had entered with so much purpose into the life of their adopted town that they had become persons of note there till Philemon's health began to fail, when Agatha quit all outside work and devoted herself exclusively to him. Of her character and winsome personality we can gather some idea from the various conversations carried on that day from Portchester Green to the shipyards in Sutherlandtown.
In Deacon Brainerd's cottage, the discussion was concerning Agatha's lack of vanity; a virtue not very common at that time among the women of this busy seaport.
"For a woman so handsome," the good deacon was saying "(and I think I can safely call her the finest-featured woman who ever trod these streets), she showed as little interest in dress as anyone I ever knew. Calico at home and calico at church, yet she looked as much of a lady in her dark-sprigged gowns as Mrs. Webster in her silks or Mrs. Parsons in her thousand-dollar sealskin."
As this was a topic within the scope of his eldest daughter's intelligence she at once spoke up: "I never thought she needed to dress so plainly. I don't believe in such a show of poverty myself. If one is too poor to go decent, all right; but they say she had more money than most anyone in town. I wonder who is going to get the benefit of it?"
"Why, Philemon, of course; that is, as long as he lives. He doubtless had the making of it."
"Is it true that he's gone clean out of his head since her death?" interposed a neighbour who had happened in.
"So they say. I believe widow Jones has taken him into her house."
"Do you think," asked a second daughter with becoming hesitation, "that he had anything to do with her death? Some of the neighbours say he struck her while in one of his crazy fits, while others declare she was killed by some stranger, equally old and almost as infirm."
"We won't discuss the subject," objected the deacon. "Time will show who robbed us of the greatest-hearted and most capable woman in these parts." "And will time show who killed Batsy?" It was a morsel of a girl who spoke; the least one of the family, but the brightest. "I'm sorry for Batsy; she always gave me cookies when I went to see Mrs. Webb."
"Batsy was a good girl for a Swede," allowed the deacon's wife, who had not spoken till now. "When she first came into town on the spars of that wrecked ship we all remember, there was some struggle between Agatha and me as to which of us should have her. But I didn't like the task of teaching her the name of every pot and pan she had to use in the kitchen, so I gave her up to Agatha; and it was fortunate I did, for I've never been able to understand her talk to this day."
"I could talk with her right well," lisped the little one. "She never called things by their Swedish names unless she was worried; and I never worried her."
"I wonder if she would have worshipped the ground under your feet, as she did that under Agatha's?" asked the deacon, eying his wife with just the suspicion of a malicious twinkle in his eye.
"I am not the greatest-hearted and most capable woman in town," retorted his wife, clicking her needles as she went on knitting.
In Mr. Sprague's house on the opposite side of the road, Squire Fisher was relating some old tales of bygone Portchester days. "I knew Agatha when she was a girl," he avowed. "She had the grandest manners and the most enchanting smile of any rich or poor man's daughter between the coast and Springfield. She did not dress in calico then. She wore the gayest clothes her father could buy. her, and old Jacob was not without means to make his daughter the leading figure in town. How we young fellows did adore her, and what lengths we went to win one of her glorious smiles! Two of us, John and James Zabel, have lived bachelors for her sake to this very day; but I hadn't courage enough for that; I married and"-- something between a sigh and a chuckle filled out the sentence.
"What made Philemon carry off the prize? His good looks?"
"Yes, or his good luck. It wasn't his snap; of that you may be sure. James Zabel had the snap, and he was her first choice, too, but he got into some difficulty--I never knew just what it was, but it was regarded as serious at the time--and that match was broken off. Afterwards she married Philemon. You see, I was out of it altogether; had never been in it, perhaps; but there were three good years of my life in which I thought of little else than Agatha. I admired her spirit, you see. There was something more taking in her ways than in her beauty, wonderful as that was. She ruled us with a rod of iron, and yet we worshipped her. I have wondered to see her so meek of late. I never thought she would be satisfied with a brick-floored cottage and a husband of failing wits. But no one, to my knowledge, has ever heard a complaint from her lips; and the dignity of her afflicted wife-hood has far transcended the haughtiness of those days when she had but to smile to have all the youth of Portchester at her feet."
"I suppose it was the loss of so many children that reconciled her to a quiet life. A woman cannot close the eyes of six children, one after the other, without some modification taking place in her character."
"Yes, she and Philemon have been unfortunate; but she was a splendid looking girl, boys. I never see such grand-looking women now."
In a little one-storied cottage on the hillside a woman was nursing a baby and talking at the same time of Agatha Webb.
"I shall never forget the night my first baby fell sick," she faltered; "I was just out of bed myself, and having no nearer neighbours then than now, I was all alone on the hillside, Alec being away at sea. I was too young to know much about sickness, but something told me that I must have help before morning or my baby would die. Though I could just walk across the floor, I threw a shawl around me, took my baby in my arms, and opened the door. A blinding gust of rain blew in. A terrible storm was raging and I had not noticed it, I was so taken up with the child.
"I could not face that gale. Indeed, I was so weak I fell on my knees as it struck me and became dripping wet before I could drag myself inside. The baby began to moan and everything was turning dark before me, when I heard a strong, sweet voice cry out in the roadway:
"'Is there room in this house for me till the storm has blown by? I cannot see my way down the hillside.'
"With a bursting heart I looked up. A woman was standing in the doorway, with the look of an angel in her eyes. I did not know her, but her face was one to bring comfort to the saddest heart. Holding up my baby, I cried:
"'My baby is dying; I tried to go for the doctor, but my knees bent under me. Help me, as you are a mother--I---'
"I must have fallen again, for the next thing I remember I was lying by the hearth, looking up into her face, which was bending over me. She was white as the rag I had tied about my baby's throat, and by the way her breast heaved she was either very much frightened or very sorry.
"'I wish you had the help of anyone else,' said she. 'Babies perish in my arms and wither at my breast. I cannot touch it, much as I yearn to. But let me see its face; perhaps I can tell you what is the matter with it.'
"I showed her the baby's face, and she bent over it, trembling very much, almost as much indeed as myself.
"'It is very sick,' she said, 'but if you will use the remedies I advise, I think you can save it.' And she told me what to do, and helped me all she could; but she did not lay a finger on the little darling, though from the way she watched it I saw that her heart was set on his getting better. And he did; in an hour he was sleeping peacefully, and the terrible weight was gone from my heart and from hers. When the storm stopped, and she could leave the house, she gave me a kiss; but the look she gave him meant more than kisses. God must have forgotten her goodness to me that night when He let her die so pitiable a death."
At the minister's house they were commenting upon the look of serenity observable in her dead face.
"I have known her for thirty years," her pastor declared, "and never before have I seen her wear a look of real peace. It is wonderful, considering the circumstances. Do you think she was so weary of her life's long struggle that she hailed any release from it, even that of violence?"
A young man, a lawyer, visiting them from New York, was the only one to answer.
"I never saw the woman you are talking about," said he, "and know nothing of the circumstances of her death beyond what you have told me. But from the very incongruity between her expression and the violent nature of her death, I argue that there are depths to this crime which have not yet been sounded."
"What depths? It is a simple case of murder followed by theft. To be sure we do not yet know the criminal, but money was his motive; that is clear enough."
"Are you ready to wager that that is all there is to it?"
This was a startling proposition to the minister.
"You forget my cloth," said he.
The young man smiled. "That is true. Pardon me. I was only anxious to show how strong my conviction was against any such easy explanation of a crime marked by such contradictory features."
Two children on the Portchester road were exchanging boyish confidences.
"Do you know what I think about it?" asked one.
"Naw! How should I?"
"Wall, I think old Mrs. Webb got the likes of what she sent. Don't you know she had six children once, and that she killed every one of them?"
"Yes, I heard her tell granny once all about it. She said there was a blight on her house--I don't know what that is; but I guess it's something big and heavy -and that it fell on every one of her children, as fast as they came, and killed 'em."
"Then I'm glad I ben't her child."
Very different were the recollections interchanged between two middle-aged Portchester women.
"She was drinking tea at my house when her sister Sairey came running in with the news that the baby she had left at home wasn't quite right. That was her first child, you know."
"Yes, yes, for I was with her when that baby came," broke in the other, "and such joy as she showed when they told her it was alive and well I never saw. I do not know why she didn't expect it to be alive, but she didn't, and her happiness was just wonderful to see."
"Well, she didn't enjoy it long. The poor little fellow died young. But I was telling you of the night when she first heard he was ailing. Philemon had been telling a good story, and we were all laughing, when Sairey came in. I can see Agatha now. She always had the most brilliant eyes in the county, but that day they were superbly dazzling. They changed, though, at the sight of Sairey's face, and she jumped to meet her just as if she knew what Sairey was going to say before ever a word left her lips. 'My baby!' (I can hear her yet.) 'Something is the matter with the baby!' And though Sairey made haste to tell her that he was only ailing and not at all ill, she turned upon Philemon with a look none of us ever quite understood; he changed so completely under it, just as she had under Sairey's; and to neither did the old happiness ever return, for the child died within a week, and when the next came it died also, and the next, till six small innocents lay buried in yonder old graveyard." "I know; and sad enough it was too, especially as she and Philemon were both fond of children. Well, well, the ways of Providence are past rinding out! And now she is gone and Philemon---"
"Ah, he'll follow her soon; he can't live without Agatha."
Nearer home, the old sexton was chattering about the six gravestones raised in Portchester churchyard to these six dead infants. He had been sent there to choose a spot in which to lay the mother, and was full of the shock it gave him to see that line of little stones, telling of a past with which the good people of Sutherlandtown found it hard to associate Philemon and Agatha Webb.
"I'm a digger of graves," he mused, half to himself and half to his old wife watching him from the other side of the hearthstone. "I spend a good quarter of my time in the churchyard; but when I saw those six little mounds, and read the inscriptions over them, I couldn't help feeling queer. Think of this! On the first tiny headstone I read these words:"
Son of Philemon and Agatha Webb,
Died, Aged Six Weeks.
God be merciful to me a sinner!
"Now what does that mean? Did you ever hear anyone say?"
"No," was his old wife's answer. "Perhaps she was one of those Calvinist folks who believe babies go to hell if they are not baptised."
"But her children were all baptised. I've been told so; some of them before she was well out of her bed. 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' And the chick not six weeks old! Something queer about that, dame, if it did happen more than thirty years ago."
"What did you see over the grave of the child who was killed in her arms by lightning?"
"'And he was not, for God took him.'"
Farmer Waite had but one word to say: "She came to me when my Sissy had the smallpox; the only person in town who would enter my doors. More than that; when Sissy was up and I went to pay the doctor's bill I found it had been settled. I did not know then who had enough money and compassion to do this for me; now I do."
Many an act of kindness which had been secretly performed in that town during the last twenty years came to light on that day, the most notable of which was the sending of a certain young lad to school and his subsequent education as a minister.
But other memories of a sweeter and more secret nature still came up likewise, among them the following:
A young girl, who was of a very timid but deeply sensitive nature, had been urged into an engagement with a man she did not like. Though the conflict this occasioned her and the misery which accompanied it were apparent to everybody, nobody stirred in her behalf but Agatha. She went to see her, and, though it was within a fortnight of the wedding, she did not hesitate to advise the girl to give him up, and when the poor child said she lacked the courage, Agatha herself went to the man and urged him into a display of generosity which saved the poor, timid thing from a life of misery. They say this was no easy task for Agatha, and that the man was sullen for a year. But the girl's gratitude was boundless.
Of her daring, which was always on the side of right and justice, the stories were numerous; so were the accounts, mostly among the women, of her rare tenderness and sympathy for the weak and the erring. Never was a man talked to as she talked to Jake Cobleigh the evening after he struck his mother, and if she had been in town on the day when Clarissa Mayhew ran away with that Philadelphia adventurer many said it would never have happened, for no girl could stand the admonition, or resist the pleading, of this childless mother.
It was reserved for Mr. Halliday and Mr. Sutherland to talk of her mental qualities. Her character was so marked and her manner so simple that few gave attention to the intellect that was the real basis of her power. The two mentioned gentlemen, however, appreciated her to the full, and it was while listening to their remarks that Frederick was suddenly startled by some one saying to him:
"You are the only person in town who have nothing to say about Agatha Webb. Didn't you ever exchange any words with her?--for I can hardly believe you could have met her eye to eye without having some remark to make about her beauty or her influence."
The speaker was Agnes Halliday, who had come in with her father for a social chat. She was one of Frederick's earliest playmates, but one with whom he had never assimilated and who did not like him. He knew this, as did everyone else in town, and it was with some hesitation he turned to answer her.
"I have but one recollection," he began, and for the moment got no farther, for in turning his head to address his young guest he had allowed his gaze to wander through the open window by which she sat, into the garden beyond, where Amabel could be seen picking flowers. As he spoke, Amabel lifted her face with one of her suggestive looks. She had doubtless heard Miss Halliday's remark.
Recovering himself with an effort, he repeated his words: "I have but one recollection of Mrs. Webb that I can give you. Years ago when I was a lad I was playing on the green with several other boys. We had had some dispute about a lost ball, and I was swearing angrily and loud when I suddenly perceived before me the tall form and compassionate face of Mrs. Webb. She was dressed in her usual simple way, and had a basket on her arm, but she looked so superior to any other woman I had ever met that I did not know whether to hide my face in her skirts or to follow my first impulse and run away. She saw the emotion she had aroused, and lifting up my face by the chin, she said: 'Little boy, I have buried six children, all of them younger than you, and now my husband and myself live alone. Often and often have I wished that one at least of these darling infants might have been spared us. But had God given me the choice of having them die young and innocent, or of growing up to swear as I have heard you to-day, I should have prayed God to take them, as He did. You have a mother. Do not break her heart by taking in vain the name of the God she reveres.' And with that she kissed me, and, strange as it may seem to you, in whatever folly or wickedness I have indulged, I have never made use of an oath from that day to this--and I thank God for it."
There was such unusual feeling in his voice, a feeling that none had ever suspected him capable of before, that Miss Halliday regarded him with astonishment and quite forgot to indulge in her usual banter. Even the gentlemen sat still, and there was a momentary silence, through which there presently broke the incongruous sound of a shrill and mocking laugh.
It came from Amabel, who had just finished gathering her bouquet in the garden outside.
X. DETECTIVE KNAPP ARRIVES
Meanwhile, in a small room at the court-house, a still more serious conversation was in progress. Dr. Talbot, Mr. Fenton, and a certain able lawyer in town by the name of Harvey, were in close discussion. The last had broken the silence of years, and was telling what he knew of Mrs. Webb's affairs.
He was a shrewd man, of unblemished reputation. When called upon to talk, he talked well, but he much preferred listening, and was, as now appeared, the safest repository of secrets to be found in all that region. He had been married three times, and could still count thirteen children around his board, one reason, perhaps, why he had learned to cultivate silence to such a degree. Happily, the time had come for him to talk, and he talked. This is what he said:
"Some fifteen years ago Philemon Webb came to me with a small sum of money, which he said he wished to have me invest for his wife. It was the fruit of a small speculation of his and he wanted it given unconditionally to her without her knowledge or that of the neighbours. I accordingly made out a deed of gift, which he signed with joyful alacrity, and then after due thought and careful investigation, I put the money into a new enterprise then being started in Boston. It was the best stroke of business I ever did in my life. At the end of a year it paid double, and after five had rolled away the accumulated interest had reached such a sum that both Philemon and myself thought it wisest to let her know what she was worth and what was being done with the money. I was in hopes it would lead her to make some change in her mode of living, which seemed to me out of keeping with her appearance and mental qualifications; while he, I imagine, looked for something more important still--a smile on the face which had somehow lost the trick of merriment, though it had never acquired that of ill nature. But we did not know Agatha; at least I did not. When she learned that she was rich, she looked at first awestruck and then heart-pierced. Forgetting me, or ignoring me, it makes no matter which, she threw herself into Philemon's arms and wept, while he, poor faithful fellow, looked as distressed as if he had brought news of failure instead of triumphant success. I suppose she thought of her buried children, and what the money would have been to her if they had lived; but she did not speak of them, nor am I quite sure they were in her thoughts when, after the first excitement was over, she drew back and said quietly, but in a tone of strong feeling, to Philemon: 'You meant me a happy surprise, and you must not be disappointed. This is heart money; we will use it to make our townsfolk happy.' I saw him glance at her dress, which was a purple calico. I remember it because of that look and because of the sad smile with which she followed his glance. 'Can we not afford now,' he ventured, 'a little show of luxury, or at least a ribbon or so for this beautiful throat of yours?' She did not answer him; but her look had a rare compassion in it, a compassion, strange to say, that seemed to be expended upon him rather than upon herself. Philemon swallowed his disappointment. 'Agatha is right,' he said to me. 'We do not need luxury. I do not know how I so far forgot myself as to mention it.' That was ten years ago, and every day since then her property has increased. I did not know then, and I do not know now, why they were both so anxious that all knowledge of their good fortune should be kept from those about them; but that it was to be &o kept was made very evident to me; and, notwithstanding all temptations to the contrary, I have refrained from uttering a word likely to give away their secret. The money, which to all appearance was the cause of her tragic and untimely death, was interest money which I was delegated to deliver her. I took it to her day before yesterday, and it was all in crisp new notes, some of them twenties, but most of them tens and fives. I am free to say there was not such another roll of fresh money in town."
"Warn all shopkeepers to keep a sharp lookout for new bills in the money they receive," was Dr. Talbot's comment to the constable. "Fresh ten-and twentydollar bills are none too common in this town. And now about her will. Did you draw that up, Harvey?"
"No. I did not know she had made one. I often spoke to her about the advisability of her doing so, but she always put me off. And now it seems that she had it drawn up in Boston. Could not trust her old friend with too many secrets, I suppose."
"So you don't know how her money has been left?"
"No more than you do."
Here an interruption occurred. The door opened and a slim young man, wearing spectacles, came in. At sight of him they all rose.
"Well?" eagerly inquired Dr. Talbot.
"Nothing new," answered the young man, with a consequential air. "The elder woman died from loss of blood consequent upon a blow given by a small, three-sided, slender blade; the younger from a stroke of apoplexy, induced by fright."
"Good! I am glad to hear my instincts were not at fault. Loss of blood, eh? Death, then, was not instantaneous?"
"Strange!" fell from the lips of his two listeners. "She lived, yet gave no alarm."
"None that was heard," suggested the young doctor, who was from another town.
"Or, if heard, reached no ears but Philemon's," observed the constable. "Something must have taken him upstairs."
"I am not so sure," said the coroner, "that Philemon is not answerable for the whole crime, notwithstanding our failure to find the missing money anywhere in the house. How else account for the resignation with which she evidently met her death? Had a stranger struck her, Agatha Webb would have struggled. There is no sign of struggle in the room."
"She would have struggled against Philemon had she had strength to struggle. I think she was asleep when she was struck."
"Ah! And was not standing by the table? How about the blood there, then?"
"Shaken from the murderer's fingers in fright or disgust."
"There was no blood on Philemon's fingers."
"No; he wiped them on his sleeve."
"If he was the one to use the dagger against her, where is the dagger? Should we not be able to find it somewhere about the premises?"
"He may have buried it outside. Crazy men are super naturally cunning."
"When you can produce it from any place inside that board fence, I will consider your theory. At present I limit my suspicions of Philemon to the halfunconscious attentions which a man of disordered intellect might give a wife bleeding and dying under his eyes. My idea on the subject is---"
"Would you be so kind as not to give utterance to your ideas until I have been able to form some for myself?" interrupted a voice from the doorway.
As this voice was unexpected, they all turned. A small man with sleek dark hair and expressionless features stood before them. Behind him was Abel, carrying a hand-bag and umbrella.
"The detective from Boston," announced the latter. Coroner Talbot rose.
"You are in good time," he remarked. "We have work of no ordinary nature for you."
The man failed to look interested. But then his countenance was not one to show emotion.
"My name is Knapp," said he. "I have had my supper, and am ready to go to work. I have read the newspapers; all I want now is any additional facts that have come to light since the telegraphic dispatches were sent to Boston. Facts, mind you; not theories. I never allow myself to be hampered by other persons' theories."
Not liking his manner, which was brusque and too self-important for a man of such insignificant appearance, Coroner Talbot referred him to Mr. Fenton, who immediately proceeded to give him the result of such investigations as he and his men had been able to make; which done, Mr. Knapp put on his hat and turned toward the door.
"I will go to the house and see for myself what is to be learned there," said he. "May I ask the privilege of going alone?" he added, as Mr. Fenton moved. "Abel will see that I am given admittance."
"Show me your credentials," said the coroner. He did so. "They seem all right, and you should be a man who understands his business. Go alone, if you prefer, but bring your conclusions here. They may need some correcting."
"Oh, I will return," Knapp nonchalantly remarked, and went out, having made anything but a favourable impression upon the assembled gentlemen.
"I wish we had shown more grit and tried to handle this thing ourselves," observed Mr. Fenton. "I cannot bear to think of that cold, bloodless creature hovering over our beloved Agatha."
"I wonder at Carson. Why should he send us such a man? Could he not see the matter demanded extraordinary skill and judgment?"
"Oh, this fellow may have skill. But he is so unpleasant. I hate to deal with folks of such fish-like characteristics. But who is this?" he asked as a gentle tap was heard at the door. "Why, it's Loton. What can he want here?"
The man whose presence in the doorway had called out this exclamation started at the sound of the doctor's heavy voice, and came very hesitatingly forward. He was of a weak, irritable type, and seemed to be in a state of great excitement.
"I beg pardon," said he, "for showing myself. I don't like to intrude into such company, but I have something to tell you which may be of use, sirs, though it isn't any great thing, either."
"Something about the murder which has taken place?" asked the coroner, in a milder tone. He knew Loton well, and realised the advisability of encouragement in his case.
"The murder! Oh, I wouldn't presume to say anything about the murder. I'm not the man to stir up any such subject as that. It's about the money--or some money--more money than usually falls into my till. It--it was rather queer, sirs, and I have felt the flutter of it all day. Shall I tell you about it? It happened last night, late last night, sirs, so late that I was in bed with my wife, and had been snoring, she said, four hours."
"What money? New money? Crisp, fresh bills, Loton?" eagerly questioned Mr. Fenton.
Loton, who was the keeper of a small confectionery and bakery store on one of the side streets leading up the hill, shifted uneasily between his two interrogators, and finally addressed himself to the coroner:
"It was new money. I thought it felt so at night, but I was sure of it in the morning. A brand-new bill, sir, a--But that isn't the queerest thing about it. I was asleep, sir, sound asleep, and dreaming of my courting days (for I asked Sally at the circus, sirs, and the band playing on the hill made me think of it), when I was suddenly shook awake by Sally herself, who says she hadn't slept a wink for listening to the music and wishing she was a girl again. 'There's a man at the shop door,' cries she. 'He's a- calling of you; go and see what he wants.' I was mad at being wakened. Dreaming is pleasant, specially when clowns and kissing get mixed up in it, but duty is duty, and so into the shop I stumbled, swearing a bit perhaps, for I hadn't stopped for a light and it was as dark as double shutters could make it. The hammering had become deafening. No let up till I reached the door, when it suddenly ceased.
"'What is it?' I cried. 'Who's there and what do you want?'
"A trembling voice answered me. 'Let me in,' it said. 'I want to buy something to eat. For God's sake, open the door!'
"I don't know why I obeyed, for it was late, and I did not know the voice, but something in the impatient rattling of the door which accompanied the words affected me in spite of myself, and I slowly opened my shop to this midnight customer.
"'You must be hungry,' I began. But the person who had crowded in as soon as the opening was large enough wouldn't let me finish.
"'Bread! I want bread, or crackers, or anything that you can find easiest,' he gasped, like a man who had been running. 'Here's money'; and he poked into my hand a bill so stiff that it rattled. 'It's more than enough,' he hastened to say, as I hesitated over it, 'but never mind that; I'll come for the change in the morning.'
"'Who are you? I cried. 'You are not Blind Willy, I'm sure.'
"But his only answer was 'Bread!' while he leaned so hard against the counter I felt it shake.
"I could not stand that cry of 'Bread!' so I groped about in the dark, and found him a stale loaf, which I put into his arms, with a short, 'There! Now tell me what your name is.'
"But at this he seemed to shrink into himself; and muttering something that might pass for thanks, he stumbled towards the door and rushed hastily out. Running after him, I listened eagerly to his steps. They went up the hill."
"And the money? What about the money?" asked the coroner. "Didn't he come back for the change?"
"No. I put it in the till, thinking it was a dollar bill. But when I came to look at it in the morning, it was a twenty; yes, sirs, a twenty!"
This was startling. The coroner and the constable looked at each other before looking again at him.
"And where is that bill now?" asked the former. "Have you brought it with you?"
"I have, sir. It's been in and out of the till twenty times to- day. I haven't known what to do with it. I don't like to think wrong of anybody, but when I heard that Mrs. Webb (God bless her!) was murdered last night for money, I couldn't rest for the weight of this thing on my conscience. Here's the bill, sir. I wish I had let the old man rap on my door till morning before I had taken it from him."
They did not share this feeling. A distinct and valuable clew seemed to be afforded them by the fresh, crisp bill they saw in his hand. Silently Dr. Talbot took it, while Mr. Fenton, with a shrewd look, asked:
"What reasons have you for calling this mysterious customer old? I thought it was so dark you could not see him."
The man, who looked relieved since he had rid himself of the bill, eyed the constable in some perplexity.
"I didn't see a feature of his face," said he, "and yet I'm sure he was old. I never thought of him as being anything else."
"Well, we will see. And is that all you have to tell us?" His nod was expressive, and they let him go.
An hour or so later Detective Knapp made his reappearance.
"Well," asked the coroner, as he came quietly in and closed the door behind him, "what's your opinion?"
"Simple case, sir. Murdered for money. Find the man with a flowing beard."
XI. THE MAN WITH A BEARD
There were but few men in town who wore long beards. A list was made of these and handed to the coroner, who regarded it with a grim smile.
"Not a man whose name is here would be guilty of a misdemeanour, let alone a crime. You must look outside of our village population for the murderer of Agatha Webb."
"Very likely, but tell me something first about these persons," urged Knapp. "Who is Edward Hope?"
"A watch repairer; a man of estimable character."
"And Sylvester Chubb?"
"A farmer who, to support his mother, wife, and seven children, works from morning till sundown on his farm, and from sundown till 11 o'clock at night on little fancy articles he cuts out from wood and sells in Boston."
"John Barker, Thomas Elder, Timothy Sinn?"
"All good men; I can vouch for every one of them."
"And John Zabel, James Zabel?"
"Irreproachable, both of them. Famous shipbuilders once, but the change to iron shipbuilding has thrown them out of business. Pity, too, for they were remarkable builders. By the by, Fenton, we don't see them at church or on the docks any more."
"No, they keep very much to themselves; getting old, like ourselves, Talbot."
"Lively boys once. We must hunt them up, Fenton. Can't bear to see old friends drop away from good company. But this isn't business. You need not pause over their names, Knapp."
But Knapp had slipped out.
We will follow him.
Walking briskly down the street, he went up the steps of a certain house and rang the bell. A gentleman with a face not entirely unknown to us came to the door.
The detective did not pause for preliminaries.
"Are you Mr. Crane?" he asked,--"the gentleman who ran against a man coming out of Mrs. Webb's house last night?"
"I am Mr. Crane," was the slightly surprised rejoinder, "and I was run against by a man there, yes."
"Very well," remarked the detective, quietly, "my name is Knapp. I have been sent from Boston to look into this matter, and I have an idea that you can help me more than any other man here in Sutherlandtown. Who was this person who came in contact with you so violently? You know, even if you have been careful not to mention any names."
"You are mistaken. I don't know; I can't know. He wore a sweeping beard, and walked and acted like a man no longer young, but beyond that---"
"Mr. Crane, excuse me, but I know men. If you had no suspicion as to whom that person was you would not look so embarrassed. You suspect, or, at least, associate in your own mind a name with the man you met. Was it either of these you see written here?"
Mr. Crane glanced at the card on which the other had scribbled a couple of names, and started perceptibly.
"You have me," said he; "you must be a man of remarkable perspicacity."
The detective smiled and pocketed his card. The names he thus concealed were John Zabel, James Zabel.
"You have not said which of the two it was," Knapp quietly suggested.
"No," returned the minister, "and I have not even thought. Indeed, I am not sure that I have not made a dreadful mistake in thinking it was either. A glimpse such as I had is far from satisfactory; and they are both such excellent men---"
"Eight! You did make a mistake, of course, I have not the least doubt of it. So don't think of the matter again. I will find out who the real man was; rest easy."
And with the lightest of bows, Knapp drew off and passed as quickly as he could, without attracting attention, round the corner to the confectioner's.
Here his attack was warier. Sally Loton was behind the counter with her husband, and they had evidently been talking the matter over very confidentially. But Knapp was not to be awed by her small, keen eye or strident voice, and presently succeeded in surprising a knowing look on the lady's face, which convinced him that in the confidences between husband and wife a name had been used which she appeared to be less unwilling to impart than he. Knapp, consequently, turned his full attention towards her, using in his attack that oldest and subtlest weapon against the sex-- flattery.
"My dear madam," said he, "your good heart is apparent; your husband has confided to you a name which you, out of fear of some mistake, hesitate to repeat. A neighbourly spirit, ma'am, a very neighbourly spirit; but you should not allow your goodness to defeat the ends of justice. If you simply told us whom this man resembled we would be able to get some idea of his appearance."
"He didn't resemble anyone I know," growled Loton. "It was too dark for me to see how he looked."
"His voice, then? People are traced by their voices."
"I didn't recognise his voice."
Knapp smiled, his eye still on the woman.
"Yet you have thought of someone he reminded you of?"
The man was silent, but the wife tossed her head ever so lightly.
"Now, you must have had your reasons for that. No one thinks of a good and respectable neighbour in connection with the buying of a loaf of bread at midnight with a twenty-dollar bill, without some positive reason."
"The man wore a beard. I felt it brush my hand as he took the loaf."
"Good! That is a point."
"Which made me think of other men who wore beards."
"As, for instance---" The detective had taken from his pocket the card which he had used with such effect at the minister's, and as he said these words twirled it so that the two names written upon it fell under Sally Loton's inquisitive eyes. The look with which she read them was enough. John Zabel, James Zabel.
"Who told you it was either of these men?" she asked.
"You did," he retorted, pocketing the card with a smile.
"La, now! Samuel, I never spoke a word," she insisted, in anxious protest to her husband, as the detective slid quietly from the store.
XII. WATTLES COMES
The Hallidays lived but a few rods from the Sutherlands. Yet as it was dusk when Miss Halliday rose to depart, Frederick naturally offered his services as her escort.
She accepted them with a slight blush, the first he had ever seen on her face, or at least had ever noted there. It caused him such surprise that he forgot Amabel's presence in the garden till they came upon her at the gate.
"A pleasant evening," observed that young girl in her high, unmusical voice.
"Very," was Miss Halliday's short reply; and for a moment the two faces were in line as he held open the gate before his departing guest.
They were very different faces in feature and expression, and till that night he had never thought of comparing them. Indeed, the fascination which beamed from Amabel Page's far from regular features had put all others out of his mind, but now, as he surveyed the two girls, the candour and purity which marked Agnes's countenance came out so strongly under his glance that Amabel lost all attraction for him, and he drew his young neighbour hastily away.
Amabel noted the movement and smiled. Her contempt for Agnes Halliday's charms amounted to disdain.
She might have felt less confidence in her own had she been in a position to note the frequent glances Frederick cast at his old playmate as they proceeded slowly up the road. Not that there was any passion in them--he was too full of care for that; but the curiosity which could prompt him to turn his head a dozen times in the course of so short a walk, to see why Agnes Halliday held her face so persistently away from him, had an element of feeling in it that was more or less significant. As for Agnes, she was so unlike her accustomed self as to astonish even herself. Whereas she had never before walked a dozen steps with him without indulging in some sharp saying, she found herself disinclined to speak at all, much less to speak lightly. In mutual silence, then, they reached the gateway leading into the Halliday grounds. But Agnes having passed in, they both stopped and for the first time looked squarely at each other. Her eyes fell first, perhaps because his had changed in his contemplation of her. He smiled as he saw this, and in a halfcareless, half-wistful tone, said quietly:
"Agnes, what would you think of a man who, after having committed little else but folly all his life, suddenly made up his mind to turn absolutely toward the right and to pursue it in face of every obstacle and every discouragement?"
"I should think," she slowly replied, with one quick lift of her eyes toward his face, "that he had entered upon the noblest effort of which man is capable, and the hardest. I should have great sympathy for that man, Frederick."
"Would you?" he said, recalling Amabel's face with bitter aversion as he gazed into the womanly countenance he had hitherto slighted as uninteresting. "It is the first kind word you have ever given me, Agnes. Possibly it is the first I have ever deserved."
And without another word he doffed his hat, saluted her, and vanished down the hillside.
She remained; remained so long that it was nearly nine when she entered the family parlour. As she came in her mother looked up and was startled at her unaccustomed pallor.
"Why, Agnes," cried her mother, "what is the matter?"
Her answer was inaudible. What was the matter? She dreaded, even feared, to ask herself.
Meantime a strange scene was taking place in the woods toward which she had seen Frederick go. The moon, which was particularly bright that night, shone upon a certain hollow where a huge tree lay. Around it the underbrush was thick and the shadow dark, but in this especial place the opening was large enough for the rays to enter freely. Into this circlet of light Frederick Sutherland had come. Alone and without the restraint imposed upon him by watching eyes, he showed a countenance so wan and full of trouble that it was well it could not be seen by either of the two women whose thoughts were at that moment fixed upon him. To Amabel it would have given a throb of selfish hope, while to Agnes it would have brought a pang of despair which might have somewhat too suddenly interpreted to her the mystery of her own sensations.
He had bent at once to the hollow space made by the outspreading roots just mentioned, and was feeling with an air of confidence along the ground for something he had every reason to expect to find, when the shock of a sudden distrust seized him, and he flung himself down in terror, feeling and feeling again among the fallen leaves and broken twigs, till a full realisation of his misfortune reached him, and he was obliged to acknowledge that the place was empty.
Overwhelmed at his loss, aghast at the consequences it must entail upon him, he rose in a trembling sweat, crying out in his anger and dismay:
"She has been here! She has taken it!" And realising for the first time the subtlety and strength of the antagonist pitted against him, he forgot his new resolutions and even that old promise made in his childhood to Agatha Webb, and uttered oath after oath, cursing himself, the woman, and what she had done, till a casual glance at the heavens overhead, in which the liquid moon hung calm and beautiful, recalled him to himself. With a sense of shame, the keener that it was a new sensation in his breast, he ceased his vain repinings, and turning from the unhallowed spot, made his way with deeper and deeper misgivings toward a home made hateful to him now by the presence of the woman who was thus bent upon his ruin.
He understood her now. He rated at its full value both her determination and her power, and had she been so unfortunate as to have carried her imprudence to the point of surprising him by her presence, it would have taken more than the memory of that day's solemn resolves to have kept him from using his strength against her. But she was wise, and did not intrude upon him in his hour of anger, though who could say she was not near enough to hear the sigh which broke irresistibly from his lips as he emerged from the wood and approached his father's house?
A lamp was still burning in Mr. Sutherland's study over the front door, and the sight of it seemed to change for a moment the current of Frederick's thoughts. Pausing at the gate, he considered with himself, and then with a freer countenance and a lighter step was about to proceed inward, when he heard the sound of a heavy breather coming up the hill, and hesitated--why he hardly knew, except that every advancing step occasioned him more or less apprehension.
The person, whoever it was, stopped before reaching the brow of the hill, and, panting heavily, muttered an oath which Frederick heard. Though it was no more profane than those which had just escaped his own lips in the forest, it produced an effect upon him which was only second in intensity to the terror of the discovery that the money he had so safely hidden was gone. Trembling in every limb, he dashed down the hill and confronted the person standing there.
"You!" he cried, "you!" And for a moment he looked as if he would like to fell to the ground the man before him.
But this man was a heavyweight of no ordinary physical strength and adroitness, and only smiled at Frederick's heat and threatening attitude.
"I thought I would be made welcome," he smiled, with just the hint of sinister meaning in his tone. Then, before Frederick could speak: "I have merely saved you a trip to Boston; why so much anger, friend? You have the money; of that I am positive."
"Hush! We can't talk here," whispered Frederick. "Come into the grounds, or, what would be better, into the woods over there."
"I don't go into any woods with you," laughed the other; "not after last night, my friend. But I will talk low; that's no more than fair; I don't want to put you into any other man's power, especially if you have the money."
"Wattles,"--Frederick's tone was broken, almost unintelligible,-- "what do you mean by your allusion to last night? Have you dared to connect me---"
"Pooh! Pooh!" interrupted the other, good-humouredly. "Don't let us waste words over a chance expression I may have dropped. I don't care anything about last night's work, or who was concerned in it. That's nothing to me. All I want, my boy, is the money, and that I want devilish bad, or I would not have run up here from Boston, when I might have made half a hundred off a countryman Lewis brought in from the Canada wilds this morning."
"Wattles, I swear---"
But the hand he had raised was quickly drawn down by the other.
"Don't," said the older man, shortly. "It won't pay, Sutherland. Stage-talk never passed for anything with me. Besides, your white face tells a truer story than your lips, and time is precious. I want to take the 11 o'clock train back. So down with the cash. Nine hundred and fifty-five it is, but, being friends, we will let the odd five go."
"Wattles, I was to bring it to you to-morrow, or was it the next day? I do not want to give it to you to-night; indeed, I cannot, but--Wattles, wait, stop! Where are you going?"
"To see your father. I want to tell him that his son owes me a debt; that this debt was incurred in a way that lays him liable to arrest for forgery; that, bad as he thinks you, there are facts which can be picked up in Boston which would render Frederick Sutherland's continued residence under the parental roof impossible; that, in fact, you are a scamp of the first water, and that only my friendship for you has kept you out of prison so long. Won't that make a nice story for the old gentleman's ears!"
"Wattles--I--oh, my God! Wattles, stop a minute and listen to me. I have not got the money. I had enough this morning to pay you, had it legitimately, Wattles, but it has been stolen from me and-- -"
"I will also tell him," the other broke in, as quietly as if Frederick had not uttered a word, "that in a certain visit to Boston you lost five hundred dollars on one hand; that you lost it unfairly, not having a dollar to pay with; that to prevent scandal I be came your security, with the understanding that I was to be paid at the end of ten days from that night; that you thereupon played again and lost four hundred and odd more, so that your debt amounted to nine hundred and fifty-five dollars; that the ten days passed without payment; that, wanting money, I pressed you and even resorted to a threat or two; and that, seeing me in earnest, you swore that the dollars should be mine within five days; that instead of remaining in Boston to get them, you came here; and that this morning at a very early hour you telegraphed that the funds were to hand and that you would bring them down to me to- morrow. The old gentleman may draw conclusions from this, Sutherland, which may make his position as your father anything but grateful to him. He may even--Ah, you would try that game, would you?"
The young man had flung himself at the older man's throat as if he would choke off the words he saw trembling on his lips. But the struggle thus begun was short. In a moment both stood panting, and Frederick, with lowered head, was saying humbly:
"I beg pardon, Wattles, but you drive me mad with your suggestions and conclusions. I have not got the money, but I will try and get it. Wait here."
"For ten minutes, Sutherland; no longer! The moon is bright, and I can see the hands of my watch distinctly. At a quarter to ten, you will return here with the amount I have mentioned, or I will seek it at your father's hands in his own study."
Frederick made a hurried gesture and vanished up the walk. Next moment he was at his father's study door.
XIII. WATTLES GOES
Mr. Sutherland was busily engaged with a law paper when his son entered his presence, but at sigh of that son's face, he dropped the paper with an alacrity which Frederick was too much engaged with his own thoughts to notice.
"Father," he began without preamble or excuse, "I am in serious and immediate need of nine hundred and fifty dollars. I want it so much that I ask you to make me a check for that amount to-night, conscious though I am that you have every right to deny me this request, and that my debt to you already passes the bound of presumption on my part and indulgence on yours. I cannot tell you why I want it or for what. That belongs to my past life, the consequences of which I have not yet escaped, but I feel bound to state that you will not be the loser by this material proof of confidence in me, as I shall soon be in a position to repay all my debts, among which this will necessarily stand foremost."
The old gentleman looked startled and nervously fingered the paper he had let fall. "Why do you say you will soon be in a position to repay me? What do you mean by that?"
The flash, which had not yet subsided from the young man's face, ebbed slowly away as he encountered his father's eye.
"I mean to work," he murmured. "I mean to make a man of myself as soon as possible."
The look which Mr. Sutherland gave him was more inquiring than sympathetic.
"And you need this money for a start?" said he.
Frederick bowed; he seemed to be losing the faculty of speech. The clock over the mantel had told off five of the precious moments.
"I will give it to you," said his father, and drew out his check- book. But he did not hasten to open it; his eyes still rested on his son.
"Now," murmured the young man. "There is a train leaving soon. I wish to get it away on that train."
His father frowned with natural distrust.
"I wish you would confide in me," said he.
Frederick did not answer. The hands of the clock were moving on.
"I will give it to you; but I should like to know what for." "It is impossible for me to tell you," groaned the young man, starting as he heard a step on the walk without.
"Your need has become strangely imperative," proceeded the other. "Has Miss Page---"
Frederick took a step forward and laid his hand on his father's arm.
"It is not for her," he whispered. "It goes into other hands."
Mr. Sutherland, who had turned over the document as his son approached, breathed more easily. Taking up his pen, he dipped it in the ink. Frederick watched him with constantly whitening cheek. The step on the walk had mounted to the front door.
"Nine hundred and fifty?" inquired the father.
"Nine hundred and fifty," answered the son.
The judge, with a last look, stooped over the book. The hands of the clock pointed to a quarter to ten.
"Father, I have my whole future in which to thank you," cried Frederick, seizing the check his father held out to him and making rapidly for the door. "I will be back before midnight." And he flung himself down-stairs just as the front door opened and Wattles stepped in.
"Ah," exclaimed the latter, as his eye fell on the paper fluttering in the other's hand, "I expected money, not paper."
"The paper is good," answered Frederick, drawing him swiftly out of the house. "It has my father's signature upon it."
"Your father's signature?"
Wattles gave it a look, then slowly shook his head at Frederick.
"Is it as well done as the one you tried to pass off on Brady?"
Frederick cringed, and for a moment looked as if the struggle was too much for him. Then he rallied and eying Wattles firmly, said:
"You have a right to distrust me, but you are on the wrong track, Wattles.
What I did once, I can never do again; and I hope I may live to prove myself a changed man. As for that check, I will soon prove its value in your eyes. Follow me up-stairs to my father."
His energy--the energy of despair, no doubt seemed to make an impression on the other.
"You might as well proclaim yourself a forger outright, as to force your father to declare this to be his signature," he observed.
"I know it," said Frederick.
"Yet you will run that risk?"
"If you oblige me."
Wattles shrugged his shoulders. He was a magnificent-looking man and towered in that old colonial hall like a youthful giant.
"I bear you no ill will," said he. "If this represents money, I am satisfied, and I begin to think it does. But listen, Sutherland. Something has happened to you. A week ago you would have put a bullet through my head before you would have been willing to have so compromised yourself. I think I know what that something is. To save yourself from being thought guilty of a big crime you are willing to incur suspicion of a small one. It's a wise move, my boy, but look out! No tricks with me or my friendship may not hold. Meantime, I cash this check to-morrow." And he swung away through the night with a grand-opera selection on his lips.
XIV. A FINAL TEMPTATION
Frederick looked like a man thoroughly exhausted when the final echo of this hateful voice died away on the hillside. For the last twenty hours he had been the prey of one harrowing emotion after another, and human nature could endure no more without rest.
But rest would not come. The position in which he found himself, between Amabel and the man who had just left, was of too threatening a nature for him to ignore. But one means of escape presented itself. It was a cowardly one; but anything was better than to make an attempt to stand his ground against two such merciless antagonists; so he resolved upon flight.
Packing up a few necessaries and leaving a letter behind him for his father, he made his way down the stairs of the now darkened house to a door opening upon the garden. To his astonishment he found it unlocked, but, giving little heed to this in his excitement, he opened it with caution, and, with a parting sigh for the sheltering home he was about to leave forever, stepped from the house he no longer felt worthy to inhabit.
His intention was to take the train at Portchester, and that he might reach that place without inconvenient encounters, he decided to proceed by a short cut through the fields. This led him north along the ridge that overlooks the road running around the base of the hill. He did not think of this road, however, or of anything, in fact, but the necessity of taking the very earliest train out of Portchester. As this left at 3.30 A.M., he realised that he must hasten in order to reach it. But he was not destined to take it or any other train out of Portchester that night, for when he reached the fence dividing Mr. Sutherland's grounds from those of his adjoining neighbour, he saw, drawn up in the moonlight just at the point where he had intended to leap the fence, the form of a woman with one hand held out to stop him.
It was Amabel.
Confounded by this check and filled with an anger that was nigh to dangerous, he fell back and then immediately sprang forward.
"What are you doing here?" he cried. "Don't you know that it is eleven o'clock and that my father requires the house to be closed at that hour?"
"And you?" was her sole retort; "what are you doing here? Are you searching for flowers in the woods, and is that valise you carry the receptacle in which you hope to put your botanical specimens?"
With a savage gesture he dropped the valise and took her fiercely by the shoulders.
"Where have you hidden my money?" he hissed. "Tell me, or---"
"Or what?" she asked, smiling into his face in a way that made him lose his grip.
"Or--or I cannot answer for myself," he proceeded, stammering. "Do you. think I can endure everything from you because you are a woman? No; I will have those bills, every one of them, or show myself your master. Where are they, you incarnate fiend?"
It was an unwise word to use, but she did not seem to heed it.
"Ah," she said softly, and with a lingering accent, as if his grasp of her had been a caress to which she was not entirely averse. "I did not think you would discover its loss so soon. When did you go to the woods, Frederick? And was Miss Halliday with you?"
He had a disposition to strike her, but controlled himself. Blows would not avail against the softness of this suave, yet merciless, being. Only a will as strong as her own could hope to cope with this smiling fury; and this he was determined to show, though, alas! he had everything to lose in a struggle that robbed her of nothing but a hope which was but a baseless fabric at best; for he was more than ever determined never to marry her.
"A man does not need to wait long to miss his own," said he. "And if you have taken this money, which, you do not deny, you have shown yourself very short-sighted, for danger lies closer to the person holding this money than to the one you vilify by your threats. This you will find, Amabel, when you come to make use of the weapon with which you have thought to arm yourself."
"Tut, tut!" was her contemptuous reply. "Do you consider me a child? Do I look like a babbling infant, Frederick?"
Her face, which had been lifted to his in saying this, was so illumined, both by her smile, which was strangely enchanting for one so evil, and by the moonlight, which so etherialises all that it touches, that he found himself forced to recall that other purer, truer face he had left at the honeysuckle porch to keep down a last wild impulse toward her, which would have been his undoing, both in this world and the next, as he knew.
"Or do I look simply like a woman?" she went on, seeing the impression she had made, and playing upon it. "A woman who understands herself and you and all the secret perils of the game we are both playing? If I am a child, treat me as a child; but if I am a woman---"
"Stand out of my way!" he cried, catching up his valise and striding furiously by her. "Woman or child, know that I will not be your plaything to be damned in this world and in the next."
"Are you bound for the city of destruction?" she laughed, not moving, but showing such confidence in her power to hold him back that he stopped in spite of himself. "If so, you are taking the direct road there and have only to hasten. But you had better remain in your father's house; even if you are something of a prisoner there, like my very insignificant self. The outcome will be more satisfactory, even if you have to share your future with me."
"And what course will you take," he asked, pausing with his hand on the fence, "if I decide to choose destruction without you, rather than perdition with you?"
"What course? Why, I shall tell Dr. Talbot just enough to show you to be as desirable a witness in the impending inquest as myself. The result I leave to your judgment. But you will not drive me to this extremity. You will come back and--"
"Woman, I will never come back. I shall have to dare your worst in a week and will begin by daring you now. I--"
But he did not leap the fence, though he made a move to do so, for at that moment a party of men came hurrying by on the lower road, one of whom was heard to say:
"I will bet my head that we will put our hand on Agatha Webb's murderer tonight. The man who shoves twenty-dollar bills around so heedlessly should not wear a beard so long it leads to detection."
It was the coroner, the constable, Knapp, and Abel on their way to the forest road on which lived John and James Zabel.
Frederick and Amabel confronted each other, and after a moment's silence returned as if by a common impulse towards the house.
"What have they got in their heads?" queried she. "Whatever it is, it may serve to occupy them till the week of your probation is over."
He did not answer. A new and overwhelming complication had been added to the difficulties of his situation.
XV. THE ZABELS VISITED
Let us follow the party now winding up the hillside.
In a deeply wooded spot on a side road stood the little house to which John and James Zabel had removed when their business on the docks had terminated. There was no other dwelling of greater or lesser pretension on the road, which may account for the fact that none of the persons now approaching it had been in that neighbourhood for years, though it was by no means a long walk from the village in which they all led such busy lives.
The heavy shadows cast by the woods through which the road meandered were not without their effect upon the spirits of the four men passing through them, so that long before they reached the opening in which the Zabel cottage stood, silence had fallen upon the whole party. Dr. Talbot especially looked as if he little relished this late visit to his old friends, and not till they caught a glimpse of the long sloping roof and heavy chimney of the Zabel cottage did he shake off the gloom incident to the nature of his errand. "Gentlemen," said he, coming to a sudden halt, "let us understand each other. We are about to make a call on two of our oldest and most respectable townsfolk. If in the course of that call I choose to make mention of the twentydollar bill left with Loton, well and good, but if not, you are to take my reticence as proof of my own belief that they had nothing to do with it."
Two of the party bowed; Knapp, only, made no sign.
"There is no light in the window," observed Abel. "What if we find them gone to bed?"
"We will wake them," said the constable. "I cannot go back without being myself assured that no more money like that given to Loton remains in the house."
"Very well," remarked Knapp, and going up to the door before him, he struck a resounding knock sufficiently startling in that place of silence.
But loud as the summons was it brought no answer. Not only the moonlighted door, but the little windows on each side of it remained shut, and there was no evidence that the knock had been heard.
"Zabel! John Zabel!" shouted the constable, stepping around the side of the house. "Get up, my good friends, and let an old crony in. James! John! Late as it is, we have business with you. Open the door; don't stop to dress."
But this appeal received no more recognition than the first, and after rapping on the window against which he had flung the words, he came back and looked up and down the front of the house.
It had a solitary aspect and was much less comfortable-looking than he had expected. Indeed, there were signs of poverty, or at least of neglect, about the place that astonished him. Not only had the weeds been allowed to grow over the doorstep, but from the unpainted front itself bits of boards had rotted away, leaving great gaps about the window-ledges and at the base of the sunken and well-nigh toppling chimney. The moon flooding the roof showed up all these imperfections with pitiless insistence, and the torn edges of the green paper shades that half concealed the rooms within were plainly to be seen, as well as the dismantled knocker which hung by one nail to the old cracked door. The vision of Knapp with his ear laid against this door added to the forlorn and sinister aspect of the scene, and gave to the constable, who remembered the brothers in their palmy days when they were the life and pride of the town, a by no means agreeable sensation, as he advanced toward the detective and asked him what they should do now.
"Break down the door!" was the uncompromising reply. "Or, wait! The windows of country houses are seldom fastened; let me see if I cannot enter by some one of them."
"Better not," said the coroner, with considerable feeling. "Let us exhaust all other means first." And he took hold of the knob of the door to shake it, when to his surprise it turned and the door opened. It had not been locked.
Rather taken aback by this, he hesitated. But Knapp showed less scruple. Without waiting for any man's permission, he glided in and stepped cautiously, but without any delay, into a room the door of which stood wide open before him. The constable was about to follow when he saw Knapp come stumbling back.
"Devilish work," he muttered, and drew the others in to see.
Never will any of these men forget the sight that there met their eyes.
On the floor near the entrance lay one brother, in a streak of moonlight, which showed every feature of his worn and lifeless face, and at a table drawn up in the centre of the room sat the other, rigid in death, with a book clutched in his hand.
Both, had been dead some time, and on the faces and in the aspects of both was visible a misery that added its own gloom to the pitiable and gruesome scene, and made the shining of the great white moon, which filled every corner of the bare room, seem a mockery well-nigh unendurable to those who contemplated it. John, dead in his chair! James, dead on the floor!
Knapp, who of all present was least likely to feel the awesome nature of the tragedy, was naturally the first to speak.
"Both wear long beards," said he, "but the one lying on the floor was doubtless Loton's customer. Ah!" he cried, pointing at the table, as he carefully crossed the floor. "Here is the bread, and- -" Even he had his moments of feeling. The appearance of that loaf had stunned him; one corner of it had been gnawed off.
"A light! let us have a light!" cried Mr. Fenton, speaking for the first time since his entrance. "These moonbeams are horrible; see how they cling to the bodies as if they delighted in lighting up these wasted and shrunken forms."
"Could it have been hunger?" began Abel, tremblingly following Knapp's every movement as he struck a match and lit a lantern which he had brought in his pocket.
"God help us all if it was!" said Fenton, in a secret remorse no one but Dr. Talbot understood. "But who could have believed it of men who were once so prosperous? Are you sure that one of them has gnawed this bread? Could it not have been--"
"These are the marks of human teeth," observed Knapp, who was examining the loaf carefully. "I declare, it makes me very uncomfortable, notwithstanding it's in the line of regular experiences." And he laid the bread down hurriedly.
Meantime, Mr. Fenton, who had been bending over another portion of the table, turned and walked away to the window.
"I am glad they are dead," he muttered. "They have at least shared the fate of their victims. Take a look under that old handkerchief lying beside the newspaper, Knapp."
The detective did so. A three-edged dagger, with a curiously wrought handle, met his eye. It had blood dried on its point, and was, as all could see, the weapon with which Agatha Webb had been killed.
XVI. LOCAL TALENT AT WORK
"Gentlemen, we have reached the conclusion of this business sooner than I expected," announced Knapp. "If you will give me just ten minutes I will endeavour to find that large remainder of money we have every reason to think is hidden away in this house."
"Stop a minute," said the coroner. "Let me see what book John is holding so tightly. Why," he exclaimed, drawing it out and giving it one glance, "it is a Bible."
Laying it reverently down he met the detective's astonished glance and seriously remarked:
"There is some incongruity between the presence of this book and the deed we believe to have been performed down yonder."
"None at all," quoth the detective. "It was not the man in the chair, but the one on the floor, who made use of that dagger. But I wish you had left it to me to remove that book, sir."
"You? and why? What difference would it have made?"
"I would have noticed between what pages his finger was inserted. Nothing like making yourself acquainted with every detail in a case like this." Dr. Talbot gazed wistfully at the book. He would have liked to know himself on what especial passage his friend's eyes had last rested.
"I will stand aside," said he, "and hear your report when you are done."
The detective had already begun his investigations.
"Here is a spot of blood," said he. "See! on the right trouser leg of the one you call James. This connects him indisputably with the crime in which this dagger was used. No signs of violence on his body. She was the only one to receive a blow. His death is the result of God's providence."
"Or man's neglect," muttered the constable.
"There is no money in any of their pockets, or on either wasted figure," the detective continued, after a few minutes of silent search. "It must be hidden in the room, or--look through that Bible, sirs."
The coroner, glad of an opportunity to do something, took up the book, and ran hurriedly through its leaves, then turned it and shook it out over the table. Nothing fell out; the bills must be looked for elsewhere.
"The furniture is scanty," Abel observed, with an inquiring look about him.
"Very, very scanty," assented the constable, still with that biting remorse at his heart.
"There is nothing in this cupboard," pursued the detective, swinging open a door in the wall, "but a set of old china more or less nicked."
Abel started. An old recollection had come up. Some weeks before, he had been present when James had made an effort to sell this set. They were all in Warner's store, and James Zabel (he could see his easy attitude yet, and hear the off-hand tones with which he tried to carry the affair off) had said, quite as if he had never thought of it before: "By the by, I have a set of china at the house which came over in the Mayflower. John likes it, but it has grown to be an eyesore to me, and if you hear of anybody who has a fancy for such things, send him up to the cottage. I will let it go for a song." Nobody answered, and James disappeared. It was the last time, Abel remembered, that he had been seen about town.
"I can't stand it," cried the lad. "I can't stand it. If they died of hunger I must know it. I am going to take a look at their larder." And before anyone could stop him he dashed to the rear of the house.
The constable would have liked to follow him, but he looked about the walls of the room instead. John and James had been fond of pictures and had once indulged their fancy to the verge of extravagance, but there were no pictures on the walls now, nor was there so much as a candlestick on the empty and dust-covered mantel. Only on a bracket in one corner there was a worthless trinket made out of cloves and beads which had doubtless been given them by some country damsel in their young bachelor days. But nothing of any value anywhere, and Mr. Fenton felt that he now knew why they had made so many visits to Boston at one time, and why they always returned with a thinner valise than they took away. He was still dwelling on the thought of the depths of misery to which highly respectable folks can sink without the knowledge of the nearest neighbours, when Abel came back looking greatly troubled.
"It is the saddest thing I ever heard of," said he. "These men must have been driven wild by misery. This room is sumptuous in comparison to the ones at the back; and as for the pantry, there is not even a scrap there a mouse could eat. I struck a match and glanced into the flour barrel. It looked as if it had been licked. I declare, it makes a fellow feel sick."
The constable, with a shudder, withdrew towards the door.
"The atmosphere here is stifling," said he. "I must have a breath of out-door air."
But he was not destined to any such immediate relief. As he moved down the hall the form of a man darkened the doorway and he heard an anxious voice exclaim:
"Ah, Mr. Fenton, is that you? I have been looking for you everywhere."
It was Sweetwater, the young man who had previously shown so much anxiety to be of service to the coroner.
Mr. Fenton looked displeased.
"And how came you to find me here?" he asked.
"Oh, some men saw you take this road, and I guessed the rest."
"Oh, ah, very good. And what do you want, Sweetwater?"
The young man, who was glowing with pride and all alive with an enthusiasm which he had kept suppressed for hours, slipped up to the constable and whispered in his ear: "I have made a discovery, sir. I know you will excuse the presumption, but I couldn't bring myself to keep quiet and follow in that other fellow's wake. I had to make investigations on my own account, and--and"-stammering in his eagerness "they have been successful, sir. I have found out who was the murderer of Agatha Webb."
The constable, compassionating the disappointment in store for him, shook his head, with a solemn look toward the room from which he had just emerged. "You are late, Sweetwater," said he. "We have found him out ourselves, and he lies there, dead."
It was dark where they stood and Sweetwater's back was to the moonlight, so that the blank look which must have crossed his face at this announcement was lost upon the constable. But his consternation was evident from the way he thrust out either hand to steady himself against the walls of the narrow passageway, and Mr. Fenton was not at all surprised to hear him stammer out:
"Dead! He! Whom do you mean by he, Mr. Fenton?"
"The man in whose house we now are," returned the other. "Is there anyone else who can be suspected of this crime?"
Sweetwater gave a gulp that seemed to restore him to himself.
"There are two men living here, both very good men, I have heard. Which of them do you mean, and why do you think that either John or James Zabel killed Agatha Webb?"
For reply Mr. Fenton drew him toward the room in which such a great hearttragedy had taken place.
"Look," said he, "and see what can happen in a Christian land, in the midst of Christian people living not fifty rods away. These men are dead, Sweetwater, dead from hunger. The loaf of bread you see there came too late. It was bought with a twenty-dollar bill, taken from Agatha Webb's cupboard drawer."
Sweetwater, to whom the whole scene seemed like some horrible nightmare, stared at the figure of James lying on the floor, and then at the figure of John seated at the table, as if his mind had failed to take in the constable's words.
"Dead!" he murmured. "Dead! John and James Zabel. What will happen next? Is the town under a curse?" And he fell on his knees before the prostrate form of James, only to start up again as he saw the eyes of Knapp resting on him.
"Ah," he muttered, "the detective!" And after giving the man from Boston a close look he turned toward Mr. Fenton.
"You said something about this good old man having killed Agatha Webb. What was it? I was too dazed to take it in."
Mr. Fenton, not understanding the young man's eagerness, but willing enough to enlighten him as to the situation, told him what reasons there were for ascribing the crime in the Webb cottage to the mad need of these starving men. Sweetwater listened with open eyes and confused bearing, only controlling himself when his eyes by chance fell upon the quiet figure of the detective, now moving softly to and fro through the room.
"But why murder when he could have had his loaf for the asking?" remonstrated Sweetwater. "Agatha Webb would have gone without a meal any time to feed a wandering tramp; how much more to supply the necessities of two of her oldest and dearest friends!"
"Yes," remarked Fenton, "but you forget or perhaps never knew that the master passion of these men was pride. James Zabel ask for bread! I can much sooner imagine him stealing it; yes, or striking a blow for it, so that the blow shut forever the eyes that saw him do it."
"You don't believe your own words, Mr. Fenton. How can you?" Sweetwater's hand was on the breast of the accused man as he spoke, and his manner was almost solemn. "You must not take it for granted," he went on, his green eyes twinkling with a curious light, "that all wisdom comes from Boston. We in Sutherlandtown have some sparks of it, if they have not yet been recognised. You are satisfied"--here he addressed himself to Knapp--"that the blow which killed Agatha Webb was struck by this respectable old man?"
Knapp smiled as if a child had asked him this question; but he answered him good-humouredly enough.
"You see the dagger lying here with which the deed was done, and you see the bread that was bought from Loton with a twenty-dollar bill of Agatha Webb's money. In these you can read my answer."
"Good evidence," acknowledged Sweetwater--"very good evidence, especially when we remember that Mr. Crane met an old man rushing from her gateway with something glittering in his hand. I never was so beat in my life, and yet--and yet--if I could have a few minutes of quiet thought all by myself I am certain I could show you that there is more to this matter than you think. Indeed, I know that there is, but I do not like to give my reasons till I have conquered the difficulties presented by these men having had the twenty-dollar bill."
"What fellow is this?" suddenly broke in Knapp. "A fiddler, a nobody," quietly whispered Mr. Fenton in his ear.
Sweetwater heard him and changed in a twinkling from the uncertain, halfbaffled, wholly humble person they had just seen, to a man with a purpose strong enough to make him hold up his head with the best.
"I am a musician," he admitted, "and I play on the violin for money whenever the occasion offers, something which you will yet congratulate yourselves upon if you wish to reach the root of this mysterious and dastardly crime. But that I am a nobody I deny, and I even dare to hope that you will agree with me in this estimate of myself before this very night is over. Only give me an opportunity for considering this subject, and the permission to walk for a few minutes about this house."
"That is my prerogative," protested the detective firmly, but without any display of feeling. "I am the man employed to pick up whatever clews the place may present."
"Have you picked up all that are to be found in this room?" asked Sweetwater calmly.
Knapp shrugged his shoulders. He was very well satisfied with himself.
"Then give me a chance," prayed Sweetwater. "Mr. Fenton," he urged more earnestly, "I am not the fool you take me for. I feel, I know, I have a genius for this kind of thing, and though I am not prepossessing to look at, and though I do play the fiddle, I swear there are depths to this affair which none of you have as yet sounded. Sirs, where are the nine hundred and eighty dollars in bills which go to make up the clean thousand that was taken from the small drawer at the back of Agatha Webb's cupboard?"
"They are in some secret hiding-place, no doubt, which we will presently come upon as we go through the house," answered Knapp.
"Umph! Then I advise you to put your hand on them as soon as possible," retorted Sweetwater. "I will confine myself to going over the ground you have already investigated." And with a sudden ignoring of the others' presence, which could only have sprung from an intense egotism or from an overwhelming belief in his own theory, he began an investigation of the room that threw the other's more commonplace efforts entirely in the shade.
Knapp, with a slight compression of his lips, which was the sole expression of anger he ever allowed himself, took up his hat and made his bow to Mr. Fenton.
"I see," said he, "that the sympathy of those present is with local talent. Let local talent work, then, sir, and when you feel the need of a man of training and experience, send to the tavern on the docks, where I will be found till I am notified that my services are no longer required."
"No, no!" protested Mr. Fenton. "This boy's enthusiasm will soon evaporate. Let him fuss away if he will. His petty business need not interrupt us."
"But he understands himself," whispered Knapp. "I should think he had been on our own force for years."
"All the more reason to see what he's up to. Wait, if only to satisfy your curiosity. I shan't let many minutes go by before I pull him up."
Knapp, who was really of a cold and unimpressionable temperament, refrained from further argument, and confined himself to watching the young man, whose movements seemed to fascinate him.
"Astonishing!" Mr. Fenton heard him mutter to himself. "He's more like an eel than a man." And indeed the way Sweetwater wound himself out and in through that room, seeing everything that came under his eye, was a sight well worth any professional's attention. Pausing before the dead man on the floor, he held the lantern close to the white, worn face. "Ha!" said he, picking something from the long beard, "here's a crumb of that same bread. Did you see that, Mr. Knapp?"
The question was so sudden and so sharp that the detective came near replying to it; but he bethought himself, and said nothing.
"That settles which of the two gnawed the loaf," continued Sweetwater.
The next minute he was hovering over the still more pathetic figure of John, sitting in the chair.
"Sad! Sad!" he murmured.
Suddenly he laid his finger on a small rent in the old man's faded vest. "You saw this, of course," said he, with a quick glance over his shoulder at the silent detective.
No answer, as before.
"It's a new slit," declared the officious youth, looking closer, "and--yes--there's blood on its edges. Here, take the lantern, Mr. Fenton, I must see how the skin looks underneath. Oh, gentlemen, no shirt! The poorest dockhand has a shirt! Brocaded vest and no shirt; but he's past our pity now. Ah, only a bruise over the heart. Sirs, what did you make out of this?"
As none of them had even seen it, Knapp was not the only one to remain silent.
"Shall I tell you what I make out of it?" said the lad, rising hurriedly from the floor, which he had as hurriedly examined. "This old man has tried to take his life with the dagger already wet with the blood of Agatha Webb. But his arm was too feeble. The point only pierced the vest, wiping off a little blood in its passage, then the weapon fell from his hand and struck the floor, as you will see by the fresh dent in the old board I am standing on. Have you anything to say against these simple deductions?"
Again the detective opened his lips and might have spoken, but Sweetwater gave him no chance.
"Where is the letter he was writing?" he demanded. "Have any of you seen any paper lying about here?"
"He was not writing," objected Knapp; "he was reading; reading in that old Bible you see there."
Sweetwater caught up the book, looked it over, and laid it down, with that same curious twinkle of his eye they had noted in him before.
"He was writing," he insisted. "See, here is his pencil." And he showed them the battered end of a small lead-pencil lying on the edge of his chair.
"Writing at some time," admitted Knapp.
"Writing just before the deed," insisted Sweetwater. "Look at the fingers of his right hand. They have not moved since the pencil fell out of them."
"The letter, or whatever it was, shall be looked for," declared the constable.
Sweetwater bowed, his eyes roving restlessly into every nook and corner of the room.
"James was the stronger of the two," he remarked; "yet there is no evidence that he made any attempt at suicide."
"How do you know that it was suicide John attempted?" asked someone. "Why might not the dagger have fallen from James's hand in an effort to kill his brother?"
"Because the dent in the floor would have been to the right of the chair instead of to the left," he returned. "Besides, James's hand would not have failed so utterly, since he had strength to pick up the weapon afterward and lay it where you found it."
"True, we found it lying on the table," observed Abel, scratching his head in forced admiration of his old schoolmate.
"All easy, very easy," Sweetwater remarked, seeing the wonder in every eye. "Matters like those are for a child's reading, but what is difficult, and what I find hard to come by, is how the twenty- dollar bill got into the old man's hand. He found it here, but how--"
"Found it here? How do you know that?"
"Gentlemen, that is a point I will make clear to you later, when I have laid my hand on a certain clew I am anxiously seeking. You know this is new work for me and I have to advance warily. Did any of you gentlemen, when you came into this room, detect the faintest odour of any kind of perfume?"
"Perfume?" echoed Abel, with a glance about the musty apartment. "Rats, rather."
Sweetwater shook his head with a discouraged air, but suddenly brightened, and stepping quickly across the floor, paused at one of the windows. It was that one in which the shade had been drawn.
Peering at this shade he gave a grunt.
"You must excuse me for a minute," said he; "I have not found what I wanted in this room and now must look outside for it. Will someone bring the lantern?"
"I will," volunteered Knapp, with grim good humour. Indeed, the situation was almost ludicrous to him.
"Bring it round the house, then, to the ground under this window," ordered Sweetwater, without giving any sign that he noticed or even recognised the other's air of condescension. "And, gentlemen, please don't follow. It's footsteps I am after, and the fewer we make ourselves, the easier will it be for me to establish the clew I am after."
Mr. Fenton stared. What had got into the fellow?
The lantern gone, the room resumed its former appearance. Abel, who had been much struck by Sweetwater's mysterious manoeuvres, drew near Dr. Talbot and whispered in his ear: "We might have done without that fellow from Boston."
To which the coroner replied:
"Perhaps so, and perhaps not. Sweetwater has not yet proved his case; let us wait till he explains himself." Then, turning to the constable, he showed him an old-fashioned miniature, which he had found lying on James's breast, when he made his first examination. It was set with pearls and backed with gold and was worth many meals, for the lack of which its devoted owner had perished.
"Agatha Webb's portrait," explained Talbot, "or rather Agatha Gilchrist's; for I presume this was painted when she and James were lovers."
"She was certainly a beauty," commented Fenton, as he bent over the miniature in the moonlight. "I do not wonder she queened it over the whole country."
"He must have worn it where I found it for the last forty years," mused the doctor. "And yet men say that love is a fleeting passion. Well, after coming upon this proof of devotion, I find it impossible to believe James Zabel accountable for the death of one so fondly remembered. Sweetwater's instinct was truer than Knapp's."
"Or ours," muttered Fenton.
"Gentlemen," interposed Abel, pointing to a bright spot that just then made its appearance in the dark outline of the shade before alluded to, "do you see that hole? It was the sight of that prick in the shade which sent Sweetwater outside looking for footprints. See! Now his eye is to it" (as the bright spot became suddenly eclipsed). "We are under examination, sirs, and the next thing we will hear is that he's not the only person who's been peering into this room through that hole."
He was so far right that the first words of Sweetwater on his re- entrance were: "It's all O. K., sirs. I have found my missing clew. James Zabel was not the only person who came up here from the Webb cottage last night." And turning to Knapp, who was losing some of his supercilious manner, he asked, with significant emphasis: "If, of the full amount stolen from Agatha Webb, you found twenty dollars in the possession of one man and nine hundred and eighty dollars in the possession of another, upon which of the two would you fix as the probable murderer of the good woman?"
"Upon him who held the lion's share, of course." "Very good; then it is not in this cottage you will find the person most wanted. You must look--But there! first let me give you a glimpse of the money. Is there anyone here ready to accompany me in search of it? I shall have to take him a quarter of a mile farther up-hill."
"You have seen the money? You know where it is?" asked Dr. Talbot and Mr. Fenton in one breath.
"Gentlemen, I can put my hand on it in ten minutes."
At this unexpected and somewhat startling statement Knapp looked at Dr. Talbot and Dr. Talbot looked at the constable, but only the last spoke.
"That is saying a good deal. But no matter. I am willing to credit the assertion. Lead on, Sweetwater; I'll go with you."
Sweetwater seemed to grow an inch taller in his satisfied vanity. "And Dr. Talbot?" he suggested.
But the coroner's duty held him to the house and he decided not to accompany them. Knapp and Abel, however, yielded to the curiosity which had been aroused by these extraordinary promises, and presently the four men mentioned started on their small expedition up the hill.
Sweetwater headed the procession. He had admonished silence, and his wish in this regard was so well carried out that they looked more like a group of spectres moving up the moon-lighted road, than a party of eager and impatient men. Not till they turned into the main thoroughfare did anyone speak. Then Abel could no longer restrain himself and he cried out:
"We are going to Mr. Sutherland's."
But Sweetwater quickly undeceived him.
"No," said he, "only into the woods opposite his house."
But at this Mr. Fenton drew him back.
"Are you sure of yourself?" he said. "Have you really seen this money and is it concealed in this forest?"
"I have seen the money," Sweetwater solemnly declared, "and it is hidden in these woods."
Mr. Fenton dropped his arm, and they moved on till their way was blocked by the huge trunk of a fallen tree.
"It is here we are to look," cried Sweetwater, pausing and motioning Knapp to turn his lantern on the spot where the shadows lay thickest. "Now, what do you see?" he asked.
"The upturned roots of a great tree," said Mr. Fenton.
"And under them?"
"A hole, or, rather, the entrance to one."
"Very good; the money is in that hole. Pull it out, Mr. Fenton."
The assurance with which Sweetwater spoke was such that Mr. Fenton at once stooped and plunged his hand into the hole. But when, after a hurried search, he drew it out again, there was nothing in it; the place was empty. Sweetwater stared at Mr. Fenton amazed.
"Don't you find anything?" he asked. "Isn't there a roll of bills in that hole?"
"No," was the gloomy answer, after a renewed attempt and a second disappointment. "There is nothing to be found here. You are labouring under some misapprehension, Sweetwater."
"But I can't be. I saw the money; saw it in the hand of the person who hid it there. Let me look for it, constable. I will not give up the search till I have turned the place topsy-turvy."
Kneeling down in Mr. Fenton's place, he thrust his hand into the hole. On either side of him peered the faces of Mr. Fenton and Knapp. (Abel had slipped away at a whisper from Sweetwater.) They were lit with a similar expression of anxious interest and growing doubt. His own countenance was a study of conflicting and by no means cheerful emotions. Suddenly his aspect changed. With a quick twist of his lithe, if awkward, body, he threw himself lengthwise on the ground, and began tearing at the earth inside the hole, like a burrowing animal.
"I cannot be mistaken. Nothing will make me believe it is not here. It has simply been buried deeper than I thought. Ah! What did I tell you? See here! And see here!"
Bringing his hands into the full blaze of the light, he showed two rolls of new, crisp bills.
"They were lying under half a foot of earth," said he, "but if they had been buried as deep as Grannie Fuller's well, I'd have unearthed them." Meantime Mr. Fenton was rapidly counting one roll and Knapp the other. The result was an aggregate sum of nine hundred and eighty dollars, just the amount Sweetwater had promised to show them.
"A good stroke of business," cried Mr. Fenton. "And now, Sweetwater, whose is the hand that buried this treasure? Nothing is to be gained by preserving silence on this point any longer."
Instantly the young man became very grave. With a quick glance around which seemed to embrace the secret recesses of the forest rather than the eager faces bending towards him, he lowered his voice and quietly said:
"The hand that buried this money under the roots of this old tree is the same which you saw pointing downward at the spot of blood in Agatha Webb's front yard."
"You do not mean Annabel Page!" cried Mr. Fenton, with natural surprise.
"Yes, I do; and I am glad it is you who have named her."
XVII. THE SLIPPERS, THE FLOWER, AND WHAT SWEETWATER MADE OF THEM
A half-hour later these men were all closeted with Dr. Talbot in the Zabel kitchen. Abel had rejoined them, and Sweetwater was telling his story with great earnestness and no little show of pride.
"Gentlemen, when I charge a young woman of respectable appearance and connections with such a revolting crime as murder, I do so with good reason, as I hope presently to make plain to you all.
"Gentlemen, on the night and at the hour Agatha Webb was killed, I was playing with four other musicians in Mr. Sutherland's hallway. From the place where I sat I could see what went on in the parlour and also have a clear view of the passageway leading down to the garden door. As the dancing was going on in the parlour I naturally looked that way most, and this is how I came to note the eagerness with which, during the first part of the evening, Frederick Sutherland and Amabel Page came together in the quadrilles and country dances. Sometimes she spoke as she passed him, and sometimes he answered, but not always, although he never failed to show he was pleased with her or would have been if something--perhaps it was his lack of confidence in her, sirs--had not stood in the way of a perfect understanding. She seemed to notice that he did not always respond, and after a while showed less inclination to speak herself, though she did not fail to watch him, and that intently. But she did not watch him any more closely than I did her, though I little thought at the time what would come of my espionage. She wore a white dress and white shoes, and was as coquettish and seductive as the evil one makes them. Suddenly I missed her. She was in the middle of the dance one minute and entirely out of it the next. Naturally I supposed her to have slipped aside with Frederick Sutherland, but he was still in sight, looking so pale and so abstracted, however, I was sure the young miss was up to some sort of mischief. But what mischief? Watching and waiting, but no longer confining my attention to the parlour, I presently espied her stealing along the passageway I have mentioned, carrying a long cloak which she rolled up and hid behind the open door. Then she came back humming a gay little song which didn't deceive me for a moment. 'Good!' thought I, 'she and that cloak will soon join company.' And they did. As we were playing the Harebell mazurka I again caught sight of her stealthy white figure in that distant doorway. Seizing the cloak, she wrapped it round her, and with just one furtive look backwards, seen, I warrant, by no one but myself, she vanished in the outside dark. 'Now to note who follows her!' But nobody followed her. This struck me as strange, and having a natural love for detective work, in spite of my devotion to the arts, I consulted the clock at the foot of the stairs, and noting that it was half-past eleven, scribbled the hour on the margin of my music, with the intention of seeing how long my lady would linger outside alone. Gentlemen, it was two hours before I saw her face again. How she got back into the house I do not know. It was not by the garden door, for my eye seldom left it; yet at or near half-past one I heard her voice on the stair above me and saw her descend and melt into the crowd as if she had not been absent from it for more than five minutes. A half-hour later I saw her with Frederick again. They were dancing, but not with the same spirit as before, and even while I watched them they separated. Now where was Miss Page during those two long hours? I think I know, and it is time I unburdened myself to the police.
"But first I must inform you of a small discovery I made while the dance was still in progress. Miss Page had descended the stairs, as I have said, from what I now know to have been her own room. Her dress was, in all respects, the same as before, with one exception--her white slippers had been exchanged for blue ones. This seemed to show that they had been rendered unserviceable, or at least unsightly, by the walk she had taken. This in itself was not remarkable nor would her peculiar escapade have made more than a temporary impression upon my curiosity if she had not afterward shown in my presence such an unaccountable and extraordinary interest in the murder which had taken place in the town below during the very hours of her absence from Mr. Sutherland's ball. This, in consideration of her sex, and her being a stranger to the person attacked, was remarkable, and, though perhaps I had no business to do what I did, I no sooner saw the house emptied of master and servants than I stole softly back, and climbed the stairs to her room. Had no good followed this intrusion, which, I am quite ready to acknowledge, was a trifle presumptuous, I would have held my peace in regard to it; but as I did make a discovery there, which has, as I believe, an important bearing on this affair, I have forced myself to mention it. The lights in the house having been left burning, I had no difficulty in finding her apartment. I knew it by the folderols scattered about. But I did not stop to look at them. I was on a search for her slippers, and presently came upon them, thrust behind an old picture in the dimmest corner of the room. Taking them down, I examined them closely. They were not only soiled, gentlemen, but dreadfully cut and rubbed. In short, they were ruined, and, thinking that the young lady herself would be glad to be rid of them, I quietly put them into my pocket, and carried them to my own home. Abel has just been for them, so you can see them for yourselves, and if your judgment coincides with mine, you will discover something more on them than mud."
Dr. Talbot, though he stared a little at the young man's confessed theft, took the slippers Abel was holding out and carefully turned them over. They were, as Sweetwater had said, grievously torn and soiled, and showed, beside several deep earth-stains, a mark or two of a bright red colour, quite unmistakable in its character.
"Blood," declared the coroner. "There is no doubt about it. Miss Page was where blood was spilled last night."
"I have another proof against her," Sweetwater went on, in full enjoyment of his prominence amongst these men, who, up to now, had barely recognised his existence. "When, full of the suspicion that Miss Page had had a hand in the theft which had taken place at Mrs. Webb's house, if not in the murder that accompanied it, I hastened down to the scene of the tragedy, I met this young woman issuing from the front gate. She had just been making herself conspicuous by pointing out a trail of blood on the grass plot. Dr. Talbot, who was there, will remember how she looked on that occasion; but I doubt if he noticed how Abel here looked, or so much as remarked the faded flower the silly boy had stuck in his buttonhole."
"--me if I did!" ejaculated the coroner.
"Yet that flower has a very important bearing on this case. He had found it, as he will tell you, on the floor near Batsy's skirts, and as soon as I saw it in his coat, I bade him take it out and keep it, for, gentlemen, it was a very uncommon flower, the like of which can only be found in this town in Mr. Sutherland's conservatory. I remember seeing such a one in Miss Page's hair, early in the evening. Have you that flower about you, Abel?"
Abel had, and being filled with importance too, showed it to the doctor and to Mr. Fenton. It was withered and faded in hue, but it was unmistakably an orchid of the rarest description.
"It was lying near Batsy," explained Abel. "I drew Mr. Fenton's attention to it at the time, but he scarcely noticed it."
"I will make up for my indifference now," said that gentleman.
"I should have been shown that flower," put in Knapp.
"So you should," acknowledged Sweetwater, "but when the detective instinct is aroused it is hard for a man to be just to his rivals; besides, I was otherwise occupied. I had Miss Page to watch. Happily for me, you had decided that she should not be allowed to leave town till after the inquest, and so my task became easy. This whole day I have spent in sight of Mr. Sutherland's house, and at nightfall I was rewarded by detecting her end a prolonged walk in the garden by a hurried dash into the woods opposite. I followed her and noted carefully all that she did. As she had just seen Frederick Sutherland and Miss Halliday disappear up the road together, she probably felt free to do as she liked, for she walked very directly to the old tree we have just come from, and kneeling down beside it pulled from the hole underneath something which rattled in her hand with that peculiar sound we associate with fresh banknotes. I had approached her as near as I dared, and was peering around a tree trunk, when she stooped down again and plunged both hands into the hole. She remained in this position so long that I did not know what to make of it. But she rose at last and turned toward home, laughing to herself in a wicked but pleased way that did not tend to make me think any more of her. The moon was shining very brightly by this time and I could readily perceive every detail of her person. She held her hands out before her and shook them more than once as she trod by me, so I was sure there was nothing in them, and this is why I was so confident we should find the money still in the hole.
"When I saw her enter the house, I set out to find you, but the court-house room was empty, and it was a long time before I learned where to look for you. But at last a fellow at Brighton's corner said he saw four men go by on their way to Zabel's cottage, and on the chance of finding you amongst them, I turned down here. The shock you gave me in announcing that you had discovered the murderer of Agatha Webb knocked me over for a moment, but now I hope you realise, as I do, that this wretched man could never have had an active hand in her death, notwithstanding the fact that one of the stolen bills has been found in his possession. For, and here is my great point, the proof is not wanting that Miss Page visited this house as well as Mrs. Webb's during her famous escapade; or at least stood under the window beneath which I have just been searching. A footprint can be seen there, sirs, a very plain footprint, and if Dr. Talbot will take the trouble to compare it with the slipper he holds in his hand, he will find it to have been made by the foot that wore that slipper."
The coroner, with a quick glance from the slipper in his hand up to Sweetwater's eager face, showed a decided disposition to make the experiment thus suggested. But Mr. Fenton, whose mind was full of the Zabel tragedy, interrupted them with the question:
"But how do you explain by this hypothesis the fact of James Zabel trying to pass one of the twenty-dollar bills stolen from Mrs. Webb's cupboard? Do you consider Miss Page generous enough to give him that money?"
"You ask ME that, Mr. Fenton. Do you wish to know what I think of the connection between these two great tragedies?"
"Yes; you have earned a voice in this matter; speak, Sweetwater."
"Well, then, I think Miss Page has made an effort to throw the blame of her own misdoing on one or both of these unfortunate old men. She is sufficiently cold-blooded and calculating to do so; and circumstances certainly favoured her. Shall I show how?"
Mr. Fenton consulted Knapp, who nodded his head. The Boston detective was not without curiosity as to how Sweetwater would prove the case.
"Old James Zabel had seen his brother sinking rapidly from inanition; this their condition amply shows. He was weak himself, but John was weaker, and in a moment of desperation he rushed out to ask a crumb of bread from Agatha Webb, or possibly--for I have heard some whispers of an old custom of theirs to join Philemon at his yearly merry-making and so obtain in a natural way the bite for himself and brother he perhaps had not the courage to ask for outright. But death had been in the Webb cottage before him, which awful circumstance, acting on his already weakened nerves, drove him half insane from the house and sent him wandering blindly about the streets for a good half-hour before he reappeared in his own house. How do I know this? From a very simple fact. Abel here has been to inquire, among other things, if Mr. Crane remembers the tune we were playing at the great house when he came down the main street from visiting old widow Walker. Fortunately he does, for the trip, trip, trip in it struck his fancy, and he has found himself humming it over more than once since. Well, that waltz was played by us at a quarter after midnight, which fixes the time of the encounter at Mrs. Webb's gateway pretty accurately. But, as you will soon see, it was ten minutes to one before James Zabel knocked at Loton's door. How do I know this? By the same method of reasoning by which I determined the time of Mr. Crane's encounter. Mrs. Loton was greatly pleased with the music played that night, and had all her windows open in order to hear it, and she says we were playing 'Money Musk' when that knocking came to disturb her. Now, gentlemen, we played 'Money Musk' just before we were called out to supper, and as we went to supper promptly at one, you can see just how my calculation was made. Thirty-five minutes, then, passed between the moment James Zabel was seen rushing from Mrs. Webb's gateway and that in which he appeared at Loton's bakery, demanding a loaf of bread, and offering in exchange one of the bills which had been stolen from the murdered woman's drawer. Thirty-five minutes! And he and his brother were starving. Does it look, then, as if that money was in his possession when he left Mrs. Webb's house? Would any man who felt the pangs of hunger as he did, or who saw a brother perishing for food before his eyes, allow thirty-five minutes to elapse before he made use of the money that rightfully or wrongfully had come into his hand? No; and so I say that he did not have it when Mr. Crane met him. That, instead of committing crime to obtain it, he found it in his own home, lying on his table, when, after his frenzied absence, he returned to tell his dreadful news to the brother he had left behind him. But how did it come there? you ask. Gentlemen, remember the footprints under the window. Amabel Page brought it. Having seen or perhaps met this old man roaming in or near the Webb cottage during the time she was there herself, she conceived the plan of throwing upon him the onus of the crime she had herself committed, and with a slyness to be expected from one so crafty, stole up to his home, made a hole in the shade hanging over an open window, looked into the room where John sat, saw that he was there alone and asleep, and, creeping in by the front door, laid on the table beside him the twenty-dollar bill and the bloody dagger with which she had just slain Agatha Webb. Then she stole out again, and in twenty minutes more was leading the dance in Mr. Sutherland's parlour."
"Well reasoned!" murmured Abel, expecting the others to echo him. But, though Mr. Fenton and Dr. Talbot looked almost convinced, they said nothing, while Knapp, of course, was quiet as an oyster.
Sweetwater, with an easy smile calculated to hide his disappointment, went on as if perfectly satisfied.
"Meanwhile John awakes, sees the dagger, and thinks to end his misery with it, but finds himself too feeble. The cut in his vest, the dent in the floor, prove this, but if you call for further proof, a little fact, which some, if not all, of you seem to have overlooked, will amply satisfy you that this one at least of my conclusions is correct. Open the Bible, Abel; open it, not to shake it for what will never fall from between its leaves, but to find in the Bible itself the lines I have declared to you he wrote as a dying legacy with that tightly clutched pencil. Have you found them?"
"No," was Abel's perplexed retort; "I cannot see any sign of writing on flyleaf or margin."
"Are those the only blank places in the sacred book? Search the leaves devoted to the family record. Now! what do you find there?"
Knapp, who was losing some of his indifference, drew nearer and read for himself the scrawl which now appeared to every eye on the discoloured page which Abel here turned uppermost.
"Almost illegible," he said; "one can just make out these words: 'Forgive me, James--tried to use dagger--found lying--but hand wouldn't--dying without-don't grieve--true men--haven't disgraced ourselves--God bless--' That is all."
"The effort must have overcome him," resumed Sweetwater in a voice from which he carefully excluded all signs of secret triumph, "and when James returned, as he did a few minutes later, he was evidently unable to ask questions, even if John was in a condition to answer them. But the fallen dagger told its own story, for James picked it up and put it back on the table, and it was at this minute he saw, what John had not, the twenty-dollar bill lying there with its promise of life and comfort. Hope revives; he catches up the bill, flies down to Loton's, procures a loaf of bread, and comes frantically back, gnawing it as he runs; for his own hunger is more than he can endure. Re-entering his brother's presence, he rushes forward with the bread. But the relief has come too late; John has died in his absence; and James, dizzy with the shock, reels back and succumbs to his own misery. Gentlemen, have you anything to say in contradiction to these various suppositions?"
For a moment Dr. Talbot, Mr. Fenton, and even Knapp stood silent; then the last remarked, with pardonable dryness:
"All this is ingenious, but, unfortunately, it is up set by a little fact which you yourself have overlooked. Have you examined attentively the dagger of which you have so often spoken, Mr. Sweetwater?"
"Not as I would like to, but I noticed it had blood on its edge, and was of the shape and size necessary to inflict the wound from which Mrs. Webb died."
"Very good, but there is something else of interest to be observed on it. Fetch it, Abel."
Abel, hurrying from the room, soon brought back the weapon in question. Sweetwater, with a vague sense of disappointment disturbing him, took it eagerly and studied it very closely. But he only shook his head.
"Bring it nearer to the light," suggested Knapp, "and examine the little scroll near the top of the handle."
Sweetwater did so, and at once changed colour. In the midst of the scroll were two very small but yet perfectly distinct letters; they were J. Z. "How did Amabel Page come by a dagger marked with the Zabel initials?" questioned Knapp. "Do you think her foresight went so far as to provide herself with a dagger ostensibly belonging to one of these brothers? And then, have you forgotten that when Mr. Crane met the old man at Mrs. Webb's gateway he saw in his hand something that glistened? Now what was that, if not this dagger?"
Sweetwater was more disturbed than he cared to acknowledge.
"That just shows my lack of experience," he grumbled. "I thought I had turned this subject so thoroughly over in my mind that no one could bring an objection against it."
Knapp shook his head and smiled. "Young enthusiasts like yourself are great at forming theories which well-seasoned men like myself must regard as fantastical. However," he went on, "there is no doubt that Miss Page was a witness to, even if she has not profited by, the murder we have been considering. But, with this palpable proof of the Zabels' direct connection with the affair, I would not recommend her arrest as yet."
"She should be under surveillance, though," intimated the coroner.
"Most certainly," acquiesced Knapp.
As for Sweetwater, he remained silent till the opportunity came for him to whisper apart to Dr. Talbot, when he said:
"For all the palpable proof of which Mr. Knapp speaks--the J. Z. on the dagger, and the possibility of this being the object he was seen carrying out of Philemon Webb's gate--I maintain that this old man in his moribund condition never struck the blow that killed Agatha Webb. He hadn't strength enough, even if his lifelong love for her had not been sufficient to prevent him."
The coroner looked thoughtful.
"You are right," said he; "he hadn't strength enough. But don't expend too much energy in talk. Wait and see what a few direct questions will elicit from Miss Page."
XVIII. SOME LEADING QUESTIONS
Frederick rose early. He had slept but little. The words he had overheard at the end of the lot the night before were still ringing in his ears. Going down the back stairs, in his anxiety to avoid Amabel, he came upon one of the stablemen.
"Been to the village this morning?" he asked.
"No, sir, but Lem has. There's great news there. I wonder if anyone has told Mr. Sutherland."
"What news, Jake? I don't think my father is up yet."
"Why, sir, there were two more deaths in town last night--the brothers Zabel; and folks do say (Lem heard it a dozen times between the grocery and the fish market) that it was one of these old men who killed Mrs. Webb. The dagger has been found in their house, and most of the money. Why, sir, what's the matter? Are you sick?"
Frederick made an effort and stood upright. He had nearly fallen.
"No; that is, I am not quite myself. So many horrors, Jake. What did they die of? You say they are both dead--both?"
"Yes, sir, and it's dreadful to think of, but it was hunger, sir. Bread came too late. Both men are mere skeletons to look at. They have kept themselves close for weeks now, and nobody knew how bad off they were. I don't wonder it upset you, sir. We all feel it a bit, and I just dread to tell Mr. Sutherland."
Frederick staggered away. He had never in his life been so near mental and physical collapse. At the threshold of the sitting-room door he met his father. Mr. Sutherland was looking both troubled and anxious; more so, Frederick thought, than when he signed the check for him on the previous night. As their eyes met, both showed embarrassment, but Frederick, whose nerves had been highly strung by what he had just heard, soon controlled himself, and surveying his father with forced calmness, began:
"This is dreadful news, sir."
But his father, intent on his own thought, hurriedly interrupted him.
"You told me yesterday that everything was broken off between you and Miss Page. Yet I saw you reenter the house together last night a little while after I gave you the money you asked for."
"I know, and it must have had a bad appearance. I entreat you, however, to believe that this meeting between Miss Page and myself was against my wish, and that the relations between us have not been affected by anything that passed between us."
"I am glad to hear it, my son. You could not do worse by yourself than to return to your old devotion."
"I agree with you, sir." And then, because he could not help it, Frederick inquired if he had heard the news.
Mr. Sutherland, evidently startled, asked what news; to which Frederick replied:
"The news about the Zabels. They are both dead, sir,--dead from hunger. Can you imagine it!"
This was something so different from what his father had expected to hear, that he did not take it in at first. When he did, his surprise and grief were even greater than Frederick had anticipated. Seeing him so affected, Frederick, who thought that the whole truth would be no harder to bear than the half, added the suspicion which had been attached to the younger one's name, and then stood back, scarcely daring to be a witness to the outraged feelings which such a communication could not fail to awaken in one of his father's temperament.
But though he thus escaped the shocked look which crossed his father's countenance, he could not fail to hear the indignant exclamation which burst from his lips, nor help perceiving that it would take more than the most complete circumstantial evidence to convince his father of the guilt of men he had known and respected for so many years.
For some reason Frederick experienced great relief at this, and was bracing himself to meet the fire of questions which his statement must necessarily call forth, when the sound of approaching steps drew the attention of both towards a party of men coming up the hillside.
Among them was Mr. Courtney, Prosecuting Attorney for the district, and as Mr. Sutherland recognised him he sprang forward, saying, "There's Courtney; he will explain this."
Frederick followed, anxious and bewildered, and soon had the doubtful pleasure of seeing his father enter his study in company with the four men considered to be most interested in the elucidation of the Webb mystery.
As he was lingering in an undecided mood in the small passageway leading up-stairs he felt the pressure of a finger on his shoulder. Looking up, he met the eyes of Amabel, who was leaning toward him over the banisters. She was smiling, and, though her face was not without evidences of physical languor, there was a charm about her person which would have been sufficiently enthralling to him twenty-four hours before, but which now caused him such a physical repulsion that he started back in the effort to rid his shoulder from her disturbing touch.
She frowned. It was an instantaneous expression of displeasure which was soon lost in one of her gurgling laughs.
"Is my touch so burdensome?" she demanded. "If the pressure of one finger is so unbearable to your sensitive nerves, how will you relish the weight of my whole hand?"
There was a fierceness in her tone, a purpose in her look, that for the first time in his struggle with her revealed the full depth of her dark nature. Shrinking from her appalled, he put up his hand in protest, at which she changed again in a twinkling, and with a cautious gesture toward the room into which Mr. Sutherland and his friends had disappeared, she whispered significantly:
"We may not have another chance to confer together. Understand, then, that it will not be necessary for you to tell me, in so many words, that you are ready to link your fortunes to mine; the taking off of the ring you wear and your slow putting of it on again, in my presence, will be understood by me as a token that you have reconsidered your present attitude and desire my silence and--myself."
Frederick could not repress a shudder.
For an instant he was tempted to succumb on the spot and have the long agony over. Then his horror of the woman rose to such a pitch that he uttered an execration, and, turning away from her face, which was rapidly growing loathsome to him, he ran out of the passageway into the garden, seeing as he ran a persistent vision of himself pulling off the ring and putting it back again, under the spell of a look he rebelled against even while he yielded to its influence.
"I will not wear a ring, I will not subject myself to the possibility of obeying her behest under a sudden stress of fear or fascination," he exclaimed, pausing by the well-curb and looking over it at his reflection in the water beneath. "If I drop it here I at least lose the horror of doing what she suggests, under some involuntary impulse." But the thought that the mere absence of the ring from his finger would not stand in the way of his going through the motions to which she had just given such significance, deterred him from the sacrifice of a valuable family jewel, and he left the spot with an air of frenzy such as a man displays when he feels himself on the verge of a doom he can neither meet nor avert.
As he re-entered the house, he felt himself enveloped in the atmosphere of a coming crisis. He could hear voices in the upper hall, and amongst them he caught the accents of her he had learned so lately to fear. Impelled by something deeper than curiosity and more potent even than dread, he hastened toward the stairs. When half-way up, he caught sight of Amabel. She was leaning back against the balustrade that ran across the upper hall, with her hands gripping the rail on either side of her and her face turned toward the five men who had evidently issued from Mr. Sutherland's study to interview her.
As her back was to Frederick he could not judge of the expression of that face save by the effect it had upon the different men confronting her. But to see them was enough. From their looks he could perceive that this young girl was in one of her baffling moods, and that from his father down, not one of the men present knew what to make of her.
At the sound his feet made, a relaxation took place in her body and she lost something of the defiant attitude she had before maintained. Presently he heard her voice:
"I am willing to answer any questions you may choose to put to me here; but I cannot consent to shut myself in with you in that small study; I should suffocate."
Frederick could perceive the looks which passed between the five men assembled before her, and was astonished to note that the insignificant fellow they called Sweetwater was the first to answer.
"Very well," said he; "if you enjoy the publicity of the open hall, no one here will object. Is not that so, gentlemen?"
Her two little fingers, which were turned towards Frederick, ran up and down the rail, making a peculiar rasping noise, which for a moment was the only sound to be heard. Then Mr. Courtney said:
"How came you to have the handling of the money taken from Agatha Webb's private drawer?"
It was a startling question, but it seemed to affect Amabel less than it did Frederick. It made him start, but she only turned her head a trifle aside, so that the peculiar smile with which she prepared to answer could be seen by anyone standing below.
"Suppose you ask something less leading than that, to begin with," she suggested, in her high, unmusical voice. "From the searching nature of this inquiry, you evidently believe I have information of an important character to give you concerning Mrs. Webb's unhappy death. Ask me about that; the other question I will answer later."
The aplomb with which this was said, mixed as it was with a feminine allurement of more than ordinary subtlety, made Mr. Sutherland frown and Dr. Talbot look perplexed, but it did not embarrass Mr. Courtney, who made haste to respond in his dryest accents:
"Very well, I am not particular as to what you answer first. A flower worn by you at the dance was found near Batsy's skirts, before she was lifted up that morning. Can you explain this, or, rather, will you?"
"You are not obliged to, you know," put in Mr. Sutherland, with his inexorable sense of justice. "Still, if you would, it might rob these gentlemen of suspicions you certainly cannot wish them to entertain."
"What I say," she remarked slowly, "will be as true to the facts as if I stood here on my oath. I can explain how a flower from my hair came to be in Mrs. Webb's house, but not how it came to be found under Batsy's feet. That someone else must clear up." Her little finger, lifted from the rail, pointed toward Frederick, but no one saw this, unless it was that gentleman himself. "I wore a purple orchid in my hair that night, and there would be nothing strange in its being afterward picked up in Mrs. Webb's house, because I was in that house at or near the time she was murdered."
"You in that house?"
"Yes, as far as the ground floor; no farther." Here the little finger stopped pointing. "I am ready to tell you about it, sirs, and only regret I have delayed doing so so long, but I wished to be sure it was necessary. Your presence here and your first question show that it is."
There was suavity in her tone now, not unmixed with candour. Sweetwater did not seem to relish this, for he moved uneasily and lost a shade of his selfsatisfied attitude. He had still to be made acquainted with all the ins and outs of this woman's remarkable nature.
"We are waiting," suggested Dr. Talbot.
She turned to face this new speaker, and Frederick was relieved from the sight of her tantalising smile.
"I will tell my story simply," said she, "with the simple suggestion that you believe me; otherwise you will make a mistake. While I was resting from a dance the other night, I heard two of the young people talking about the Zabels. One of them was laughing at the old men, and the other was trying to relate some half-forgotten story of early love which had been the cause, she thought, of their strange and melancholy lives. I was listening to them, but I did not take in much of what they were saying till I heard behind me an irascible voice exclaiming: 'You laugh, do you? I wonder if you would laugh so easily if you knew that these two poor old men haven't had a decent meal in a fortnight?' I didn't know the speaker, but I was thrilled by his words. Not had a good meal, these men, for a fortnight! I felt as if personally guilty of their suffering, and, happening to raise my eyes at this minute and seeing through an open door the bountiful refreshments prepared for us in the supper room, I felt guiltier than ever. Suddenly I took a resolution. It was a queer one, and may serve to show you some of the oddities of my nature. Though I was engaged for the next dance, and though I was dressed in the flimsy garments suitable to the occasion, I decided to leave the ball and carry some sandwiches down to these old men. Procuring a bit of paper, I made up a bundle and stole out of the house without having said a word to anybody of my intention. Not wishing to be seen, I went out by the garden door, which is at the end of the dark hall--"
"Just as the band was playing the Harebell mazurka," interpolated Sweetwater.
Startled for the first time from her careless composure by an interruption of which it was impossible for her at that time to measure either the motive or the meaning, she ceased to play with her fingers on the baluster rail and let her eyes rest for a moment on the man who had thus spoken, as if she hesitated between her desire to annihilate him for his impertinence and a fear of the cold hate she saw actuating his every word and look. Then she went on, as if no one had spoken:
"I ran down the hill recklessly. I was bent on my errand and not at all afraid of the dark. When I reached that part of the road where the streets branch off, I heard footsteps in front of me. I had overtaken someone. Slackening my pace, so that I should not pass this person, whom I instinctively knew to be a man, I followed him till I came to a high board fence. It was that surrounding Agatha Webb's house, and when I saw it I could not help connecting the rather stealthy gait of the man in front of me with a story I had lately heard of the large sum of money she was known to keep in her house. Whether this was before or after this person disappeared round the corner I cannot say, but no sooner had I become certain that he was bent upon entering this house than my impulse to follow him became greater than my precaution, and turning aside from the direct path to the Zabels', I hurried down High Street just in time to see the man enter Mrs. Webb's front gateway.
"It was a late hour for visiting, but as the house had lights in both its lower and upper stories, I should by good rights have taken it for granted that he was an expected guest and gone on my way to the Zabels'. But I did not. The softness with which this person stepped and the skulking way in which he hesitated at the front gate aroused my worst fears, and after he had opened that gate and slid in, I was so pursued by the idea that he was there for no good that I stepped inside the gate myself and took my stand in the deep shadow cast by the old pear tree on the right- hand side of the walk. Did anyone speak?"
There was a unanimous denial from the five gentlemen before her, yet she did not look satisfied.
"I thought I heard someone make a remark," she repeated, and paused again for a half-minute, during which her smile was a study, it was so cold and in such startling contrast to the vivid glances she threw everywhere except behind her on the landing where Frederick stood listening to her every word.
"We are very much interested," remarked Mr. Courtney. "Pray, go on."
Drawing her left hand from the balustrade where it had rested, she looked at one of her fingers with an odd backward gesture.
"I will," she said, and her tone was hard and threatening. "Five minutes, no longer, passed, when I was startled by a loud and terrible cry from the house, and looking up at the second-story window from which the sound proceeded, I saw a woman's figure hanging out in a seemingly pulseless condition. Too terrified to move, I clung trembling to the tree, hearing and not hearing the shouts and laughter of a dozen or more men, who at that minute passed by the corner on their way to the wharves. I was dazed, I was choking, and only came to myself when, sooner or later, I do not know how soon or how late, a fresh horror happened. The woman whom I had just seen fall almost from the window was a serving woman, but when I heard another scream I knew that the mistress of the house was being attacked, and rivetting my eyes on those windows, I beheld the shade of one of them thrown back and a hand appear, flinging out something which fell in the grass on the opposite side of the lawn. Then the shade fell again, and hearing nothing further, I ran to where the object flung out had fallen, and feeling for it, found and picked up an oldfashioned dagger, dripping with blood. Horrified beyond all expression, I dropped the weapon and retreated into my former place of concealment.
"But I was not satisfied to remain there. A curiosity, a determination even, to see the man who had committed this dastardly deed, attacked me with such force that I was induced to leave my hiding-place and even to enter the house where in all probability he was counting the gains he had just obtained at the price of so much precious blood. The door, which he had not perfectly closed behind him, seemed to invite me in, and before I had realised my own temerity, I was standing in the hall of this ill-fated house."
The interest, which up to this moment had been breathless, now expressed itself in hurried ejaculations and broken words; and Mr. Sutherland, who had listened like one in a dream, exclaimed eagerly, and in a tone which proved that he, for the moment at least, believed this more than improbable tale:
"Then you can tell us if Philemon was in the little room at the moment when you entered the house?"
As everyone there present realised the importance of this question, a general movement took place and each and all drew nearer as she met their eyes and answered placidly:
"Yes; Mr. Webb was sitting in a chair asleep. He was the only person I saw."
"Oh, I know he never committed this crime," gasped his old friend, in a relief so great that one and all seemed to share it.
"Now I have courage for the rest. Go on, Miss Page."
But Miss Page paused again to look at her finger, and give that sideways toss to her head that seemed so uncalled for by the situation to any who did not know of the compact between herself and the listening man below.
"I hate to go back to that moment," said she; "for when I saw the candles burning on the table, and the husband of the woman who at that very instant was possibly breathing her last breath in the room overhead, sitting there in unconscious apathy, I felt something rise in my throat that made me deathly sick for a moment. Then I went right in where he was, and was about to shake his arm and wake him, when I detected a spot of blood on my finger from the dagger I had handled. That gave me another turn, and led me to wipe off my finger on his sleeve."
"It's a pity you did not wipe off your slippers too," murmured Sweetwater.
Again she looked at him, again her eyes opened in terror upon the face of this man, once so plain and insignificant in her eyes, but now so filled with menace she inwardly quaked before it, for all her apparent scorn.
"Slippers," she murmured.
"Did not your feet as well as your hands pass through the blood on the grass?"
She disdained to answer him.
"I have accounted for the blood on my hand," she said, not looking at him, but at Mr. Courtney. "If there is any on my slippers it can be accounted for in the same way." And she rapidly resumed her narrative. "I had no sooner made my little finger clean I never thought of anyone suspecting the old gentleman when I heard steps on the stairs and knew that the murderer was coming down, and in another instant would pass the open door before which I stood.
"Though I had been courageous enough up to that minute, I was seized by a sudden panic at the prospect of meeting face to face one whose hands were perhaps dripping with the blood of his victim. To confront him there and then might mean death to me, and I did not want to die, but to live, for I am young, sirs, and not without a prospect of happiness before me. So I sprang back, and seeing no other place of concealment in the whole bare room, crouched down in the shadow of the man you call Philemon. For one, two minutes, I knelt there in a state of mortal terror, while the feet descended, paused, started to enter the room where I was, hesitated, turned, and finally left the house."
"Miss Page, wait, wait," put in the coroner. "You saw him; you can tell who this man was?"
The eagerness of this appeal seemed to excite her. A slight colour appeared in her cheeks and she took a step forward, but before the words for which they so anxiously waited could leave her lips, she gave a start and drew back with, an ejaculation which left a more or less sinister echo in the ears of all who heard it.
Frederick had just shown himself at the top of the staircase.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," said he, advancing into their midst with an air whose unexpected manliness disguised his inward agitation. "The few words I have just heard Miss Page say interest me so much, I find it impossible not to join you."
Amabel, upon whose lips a faint complacent smile had appeared as he stepped by her, glanced up at these words in secret astonishment at the indifference they showed, and then dropped her eyes to his hands with an intent gaze which seemed to affect him unpleasantly, for he thrust them immediately behind him, though he did not lower his head or lose his air of determination.
"Is my presence here undesirable?" he inquired, with a glance towards his father.
Sweetwater looked as if he thought it was, but he did not presume to say anything, and the others being too interested in the developments of Miss Page's story to waste any time on lesser matters, Frederick remained, greatly to Miss Page's evident satisfaction.
"Did you see this man's face?" Mr. Courtney now broke in, in urgent inquiry.
Her answer came slowly, after another long look in Frederick's direction.
"No, I did not dare to make the effort. I was obliged to crouch too close to the floor. I simply heard his footsteps."
"See, now!" muttered Sweetwater, but in so low a tone she did not hear him. "She condemns herself. There isn't a woman living who would fail to look up under such circumstances, even at the risk of her life."
Knapp seemed to agree with him, but Mr. Courtney, following his one idea, pressed his former question, saying:
"Was it an old man's step?"
"It was not an agile one."
"And you did not catch the least glimpse of the man's face or figure?"
"Not a glimpse."
"So you are in no position to identify him?"
"If by any chance I should hear those same footsteps coming down a flight of stairs, I think I should be able to recognise them," she allowed, in the sweetest tones at her command.
"She knows it is too late for her to hear those of the two dead Zabels," growled the man from Boston.
"We are no nearer the solution of this mystery than we were in the beginning," remarked the coroner.
"Gentlemen, I have not yet finished my story," intimated Amabel, sweetly. "Perhaps what I have yet to tell may give you some clew to the identity of this man."
"Ah, yes; go on, go on. You have not yet explained how you came to be in possession of Agatha's money."
"Just so," she answered, with another quick look at Frederick, the last she gave him for some time. "As soon, then, as I dared, I ran out of the house into the yard. The moon, which had been under a cloud, was now shining brightly, and by its light I saw that the space before me was empty and that I might venture to enter the street. But before doing so I looked about for the dagger I had thrown from me before going in, but I could not find it. It had been picked up by the fugitive and carried away. Annoyed at the cowardice which had led me to lose such a valuable piece of evidence through a purely womanish emotion, I was about to leave the yard, when my eyes fell on the little bundle of sandwiches which I had brought down from the hill and which I had let fall under the pear tree, at the first scream I had heard from the house. It had burst open and two or three of the sandwiches lay broken on the ground. But those that were intact I picked up, and being more than ever anxious to cover up by some ostensible errand my absence from the party, I rushed away toward the lonely road where these brothers lived, meaning to leave such fragments as remained on the old doorstep, beyond which I had been told such suffering existed.
"It was now late, very late, for a girl like myself to be out, but, under the excitement of what I had just seen and heard, I became oblivious to fear, and rushed into those dismal shadows as into transparent daylight. Perhaps the shouts and stray sounds of laughter that came up from the wharves where a ship was getting under way gave me a certain sense of companionship. Perhaps--but it is folly for me to dilate upon my feelings; it is my errand you are interested in, and what happened when I approached the Zabels' dreary dwelling."
The look with which she paused, ostensibly to take breath, but in reality to weigh and criticise the looks of those about her, was one of those wholly indescribable ones with which she was accustomed to control the judgment of men who allowed themselves to watch too closely the ever-changing expression of her weird yet charming face. But it fell upon men steeled against her fascinations, and realising her inability to move them, she proceeded with her story before even the most anxious of her hearers could request her to do so.
"I had come along the road very quietly," said she, "for my feet were lightly shod, and the moonlight was too bright for me to make a misstep. But as I cleared the trees and came into the open place where the house stands I stumbled with surprise at seeing a figure crouching on the doorstep I had anticipated finding as empty as the road. It was an old man's figure, and as I paused in my embarrassment he slowly and with great feebleness rose to his feet and began to grope about for the door. As he did so, I heard a sharp tinkling sound, as of something metallic falling on the doorstone, and, taking a quick step forward, I looked over his shoulder and espied in the moonlight at his feet a dagger so like the one I had lately handled in Mrs. Webb's yard that I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and surveyed the aged and feeble form of the man who had dropped it with a sensation difficult to describe. The next moment he was stooping for the weapon, with a startled air that has impressed itself distinctly upon my memory, and when, after many feeble attempts, he succeeded in grasping it, he vanished into the house so suddenly that I could not be sure whether or not he had seen me standing there.
"All this was more than surprising to me, for I had never thought of associating an old man with this crime. Indeed, I was so astonished to find him in possession of this weapon that I forgot all about my errand and only wondered how I could see and know more. Fearing detection, I slid in amongst the bushes and soon found myself under one of the windows. The shade was down and I was about to push it aside when I heard someone moving about inside and stopped. But I could not restrain my curiosity, so pulling a hairpin from my hair, I worked a little hole in the shade and through this I looked into a room brightly illumined by the moon which shone in through an adjoining window. And what did I see there?" Her eye turned on Frederick. His right hand had stolen toward his left, but it paused under her look and remained motionless. "Only an old man sitting at a table and--" Why did she pause, and why did she cover up that pause with a wholly inconsequential sentence? Perhaps Frederick could have told, Frederick, whose hand had now fallen at his side. But Frederick volunteered nothing, and no one, not even Sweetwater, guessed all that lay beyond that AND which was left hovering in the air to be finished---when? Alas! had she not set the day and the hour?
What she did say was in seeming explanation of her previous sentence. "It was not the same old man I had seen on the doorstep, and while I was looking at him I became aware of someone leaving the house and passing me on the road up-hill. Of course this ended my interest in what went on within, and turning as quickly as I could I hurried into the road and followed the shadow I could just perceive disappearing in the woods above me. I was bound, gentlemen, as you see, to follow out my adventure to the end. But my task now became very difficult, for the moon was high and shone down upon the road so distinctly that I could not follow the person before me as closely as I wished without running the risk of being discovered by him. I therefore trusted more to my ear than to my eye, and as long as I could hear his steps in front of me I was satisfied. But presently, as we turned up this very hill, I ceased to hear these steps and so became confident that he had taken to the woods. I was so sure of this that I did not hesitate to enter them myself, and, knowing the paths well, as I have every opportunity of doing, living, as we do, directly opposite this forest, I easily found my way to the little clearing that I have reason to think you gentlemen have since become acquainted with. But though from the sounds I heard I was assured that the person I was following was not far in advance of me, I did not dare to enter this brilliantly illumined space, especially as there was every indication of this person having completed whatever task he had set for himself. Indeed, I was sure that I heard his steps coming back. So, for the second time, I crouched down in the darkest place I could find and let this mysterious person pass me. When he had quite disappeared, I made my own retreat, for it was late, and I was afraid of being missed at the ball. But later, or rather the next day, I recrossed the road and began a search for the money which I was confident had been left in the woods opposite, by the person I had been following. I found it, and when the man here present who, though a mere fiddler, has presumed to take a leading part in this interview, came upon me with the bills in my hand, I was but burying deeper the ill-gotten gains I had come upon."
"Ah, and so making them your own," quoth Sweetwater, stung by the sarcasm in that word fiddler.
But with a suavity against which every attack fell powerless, she met his significant look with one fully as significant, and quietly said:
"If I had wanted the money for myself I would not have risked leaving it where the murderer could find it by digging up a few handfuls of mould and a bunch of sodden leaves. No, I had another motive for my action, a motive with which few, if any, of you will be willing to credit me. I wished to save the murderer, whom I had some reason, as you see, for thinking I knew, from the consequences of his own action."
Mr. Courtney, Dr. Talbot, and even Mr. Sutherland, who naturally believed she referred to Zabel, and who, one and all, had a lingering tenderness for this unfortunate old man, which not even this seeming act of madness on his part could quite destroy, felt a species of reaction at this, and surveyed the singular being before them with, perhaps, the slightest shade of relenting in their severity. Sweetwater alone betrayed restlessness, Knapp showed no feeling at all, while Frederick stood like one petrified, and moved neither hand nor foot.
"Crime is despicable when it results from cupidity only," she went on, with a deliberateness so hard that the more susceptible of her auditors shuddered. "But crime that springs from some imperative and overpowering necessity of the mind or body might well awaken sympathy, and I am not ashamed of having been sorry for this frenzied and suffering man. Weak and impulsive as you may consider me, I did not want him to suffer on account of a moment's madness, as he undoubtedly would if he were ever found with Agatha Webb's money in his possession, so I plunged it deeper into the soil and trusted to the confusion which crime always awakens even in the strongest mind, for him not to discover its hiding-place till the danger connected with it was over."
"Ha! wonderful! Devilish subtle, eh? Clever, too clever!" were some of the whispered exclamations which this curious explanation on her part brought out. Yet only Sweetwater showed his open and entire disbelief of the story, the others possibly remembering that for such natures as hers there is no governing law and no commonplace interpretation.
To Sweetwater, however, this was but so much display of feminine resource and subtlety. Though he felt he should keep still in the presence of men so greatly his superiors, he could not resist saying:
"Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. I should never have attributed any such motive as you mention to the young girl I saw leaving this spot with many a backward glance at the hole from which we afterwards extracted the large sum of money in question. But say that this reburying of stolen funds was out of consideration for the feeble old man you describe as having carried them there, do you not see that by this act you can be held as an accessory after the fact?"
Her eyebrows went up and the delicate curve of her lips was not without menace as she said:
"You hate me, Mr. Sweetwater. Do you wish me to tell these gentlemen why?"
The flush which, notwithstanding this peculiar young man's nerve, instantly crimsoned his features, was a surprise to Frederick. So was it to the others, who saw in it a possible hint as to the real cause of his persistent pursuit of this young girl, which they had hitherto ascribed entirely to his love of justice. Slighted love makes some hearts venomous. Could this ungainly fellow have once loved and been disdained by this bewitching piece of unreliability?
It was a very possible assumption, though Sweetwater's blush was the only answer he gave to her question, which nevertheless had amply served its turn.
To fill the gap caused by his silence, Mr. Sutherland made an effort and addressed her himself.
"Your conduct," said he, "has not been that of a strictly honourable person. Why did you fail to give the alarm when you re- entered my house after being witness to this double tragedy?"
Her serenity was not to be disturbed.
"I have just explained," she reminded him, "that I had sympathy for the criminal."
"We all have sympathy for James Zabel, but--"
"I do not believe one word of this story," interposed Sweetwater, in reckless disregard of proprieties. "A hungry, feeble old man, like Zabel, on the verge of death, could not have found his way into these woods. You carried the money there yourself, miss; you are the--"
"Hush!" interposed the coroner, authoritatively; "do not let us go too fast--yet. Miss Page has an air of speaking the truth, strange and unaccountable as it may seem. Zabel was an admirable man once, and if he was led into theft and murder, it was not until his faculties had been weakened by his own suffering and that of his much-loved brother."
"Thank you," was her simple reply; and for the first time every man there thrilled at her tone. Seeing it, all the dangerous fascination of her look and manner returned upon her with double force. "I have been unwise," said she, "and let my sympathy run away with my judgment. Women have impulses of this kind sometimes, and men blame them for it, till they themselves come to the point of feeling the need of just such blind devotion. I am sure I regret my short-sightedness now, for I have lost esteem by it, while he--" With a wave of the hand she dismissed the subject, and Dr. Talbot, watching her, felt a shade of his distrust leave him, and in its place a species of admiration for the lithe, graceful, bewitching personality before them, with her childish impulses and womanly wit which half mystified and half imposed upon them.
Mr. Sutherland, on the contrary, was neither charmed from his antagonism nor convinced of her honesty. There was something in this matter that could not be explained away by her argument, and his suspicion of that something he felt perfectly sure was shared by his son, toward whose cold, set face he had frequently cast the most uneasy glances. He was not ready, however, to probe into the subject more deeply, nor could he, for the sake of Frederick, urge on to any further confession a young woman whom his unhappy son professed to love, and in whose discretion he had so little confidence. As for Sweetwater, he had now fully recovered his self-possession, and bore himself with great discretion when Dr. Talbot finally said:
"Well, gentlemen, we have got more than we expected when we came here this morning. There remains, however, a point regarding which we have received no explanation. Miss Page, how came that orchid, which I am told you wore in your hair at the dance, to be found lying near the hem of Batsy's skirts? You distinctly told us that you did not go up-stairs when you were in Mrs. Webb's house."
"Ah, that's so!" acquiesced the Boston detective dryly. "How came that flower on the scene of the murder?"
She smiled and seemed equal to the emergency.
"That is a mystery for us all to solve," she said quietly, frankly meeting the eyes of her questioner.
"A mystery it is your business to solve," corrected the district attorney. "Nothing that you have told us in support of your innocence would, in the eyes of the law, weigh for one instant against the complicity shown by that one piece of circumstantial evidence against you."
Her smile carried a certain high-handed denial of this to one heart there, at least. But her words were humble enough.
"I am aware of that," said she. Then, turning to where Sweetwater stood lowering upon her from out his half-closed eyes, she impetuously exclaimed: "You, sir, who, with no excuse an honourable person can recognise, have seen fit to arrogate to yourself duties wholly out of your province, prove yourself equal to your presumption by ferreting out, alone and unassisted, the secret of this mystery. It can be done, for, mark, I did not carry that flower into the room where it was found. This I am ready to assert before God and before man!"
Her hand was raised, her whole attitude spoke defiance and--hard as it was for Sweetwater to acknowledge it--truth. He felt that he had received a challenge, and with a quick glance at Knapp, who barely responded by a shrug, he shifted over to the side of Dr. Talbot.
Amabel at once dropped her hand.
"May I go?" she now cried appealingly to Mr. Courtney. "I really have no more to say, and I am tired."