Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

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 ship — builders once, but the change to iron ship-building 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.

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