BY ANNA KATHARINE GREEN (MRS. CHARLES ROHLFS)
AUTHOR OF "THE LEAVENWORTH CASE," "THAT AFFAIR NEXT DOOR" "LOST MAN'S LANE," ETC.
THIS BOOK IS INSCRIBED TO MY FRIEND
PROFESSOR A. V. DICEY
OF OXFORD, ENGLAND
THE PURPLE ORCHID
I—A Cry on the Hill II—One Night's Work III—The Empty Drawer IV—The Full Drawer V—A Spot on the Lawn VI—"Breakfast is Served, Gentlemen!" VII—"Marry Me" VIII—"A Devil That Understands Men" IX—A Grand Woman X—Detective Knapp Arrives XI—The Man with a Beard XII—Wattles Comes XIII—Wattles Goes XIV—A Final Temptation XV—The Zabels Visited XVI—Local Talent at Work XVII—The Slippers, the Flower, and What Sweetwater Made of Them XVIII—Some Leading Questions XIX—Poor Philemon XX—A Surprise for Mr. Sutherland
THE MAN OF NO REPUTATION
XXI—Sweetwater Reasons XXII—Sweetwater Acts XXIII—A Sinister Pair XXIV—In the Shadow of the Mast XXV—In Extremity XXVI—The Adventure of the Parcel XXVII—The Adventure of the Scrap of Paper and the Three Words XXVIII—"Who Are You?" XXIX—Home Again
HAD BATSY LIVED!
XXX—What Followed the Striking of the Clock XXXI—A Witness Lost XXXII—Why Agatha Webb will Never be Forgotten in Sutherlandtown XXXIII—Father and Son XXXIV—"Not When They Are Young Girls" XXXV—Sweetwater Pays His Debt at Last to Mr. Sutherland
THE PURPLE ORCHID
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.
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.
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 ill-judged 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 old-fashioned 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.
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.
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.
"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-be-disillusioned 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.
"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.'"
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.
"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.
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.
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 twenty-dollar 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 half-unconscious 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?"