Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xiv

A Final Temptation

Frederick looked like a man thoroughly exhausted when the final echo of this hateful voice died away on the hillside. For the last twenty hours he had been the prey of one harrowing emotion after another, and human nature could endure no more without rest.

But rest would not come. The position in which he found himself, between Amabel and the man who had just left, was of too threatening a nature for him to ignore. But one means of escape presented itself. It was a cowardly one; but anything was better than to make an attempt to stand his ground against two such merciless antagonists; so he resolved upon flight.

Packing up a few necessaries and leaving a letter behind him for his father, he made his way down the stairs of the now darkened house to a door opening upon the garden. To his astonishment he found it unlocked, but, giving little heed to this in his excitement, he opened it with caution, and, with a parting sigh for the sheltering home he was about to leave forever, stepped from the house he no longer felt worthy to inhabit.

His intention was to take the train at Portchester, and that he might reach that place without inconvenient encounters, he decided to proceed by a short cut through the fields. This led him north along the ridge that overlooks the road running around the base of the hill. He did not think of this road, however, or of anything, in fact, but the necessity of taking the very earliest train out of Portchester. As this left at 3.30 A.M., he realised that he must hasten in order to reach it. But he was not destined to take it or any other train out of Portchester that night, for when he reached the fence dividing Mr. Sutherland’s grounds from those of his adjoining neighbour, he saw, drawn up in the moonlight just at the point where he had intended to leap the fence, the form of a woman with one hand held out to stop him.

It was Amabel.

Confounded by this check and filled with an anger that was nigh to dangerous, he fell back and then immediately sprang forward.

“What are you doing here?” he cried. “Don’t you know that it is eleven o’clock and that my father requires the house to be closed at that hour?”

“And you?” was her sole retort; “what are you doing here? Are you searching for flowers in the woods, and is that valise you carry the receptacle in which you hope to put your botanical specimens?”

With a savage gesture he dropped the valise and took her fiercely by the shoulders.

“Where have you hidden my money?” he hissed. “Tell me, or ——”

“Or what?” she asked, smiling into his face in a way that made him lose his grip.

“Or — or I cannot answer for myself,” he proceeded, stammering. “Do you. think I can endure everything from you because you are a woman? No; I will have those bills, every one of them, or show myself your master. Where are they, you incarnate fiend?”

It was an unwise word to use, but she did not seem to heed it.

“Ah,” she said softly, and with a lingering accent, as if his grasp of her had been a caress to which she was not entirely averse. “I did not think you would discover its loss so soon. When did you go to the woods, Frederick? And was Miss Halliday with you?”

He had a disposition to strike her, but controlled himself. Blows would not avail against the softness of this suave, yet merciless, being. Only a will as strong as her own could hope to cope with this smiling fury; and this he was determined to show, though, alas! he had everything to lose in a struggle that robbed her of nothing but a hope which was but a baseless fabric at best; for he was more than ever determined never to marry her.

“A man does not need to wait long to miss his own,” said he. “And if you have taken this money, which, you do not deny, you have shown yourself very short-sighted, for danger lies closer to the person holding this money than to the one you vilify by your threats. This you will find, Amabel, when you come to make use of the weapon with which you have thought to arm yourself.”

“Tut, tut!” was her contemptuous reply. “Do you consider me a child? Do I look like a babbling infant, Frederick?”

Her face, which had been lifted to his in saying this, was so illumined, both by her smile, which was strangely enchanting for one so evil, and by the moonlight, which so etherialises all that it touches, that he found himself forced to recall that other purer, truer face he had left at the honeysuckle porch to keep down a last wild impulse toward her, which would have been his undoing, both in this world and the next, as he knew.

“Or do I look simply like a woman?” she went on, seeing the impression she had made, and playing upon it. “A woman who understands herself and you and all the secret perils of the game we are both playing? If I am a child, treat me as a child; but if I am a woman ——”

“Stand out of my way!” he cried, catching up his valise and striding furiously by her. “Woman or child, know that I will not be your plaything to be damned in this world and in the next.”

“Are you bound for the city of destruction?” she laughed, not moving, but showing such confidence in her power to hold him back that he stopped in spite of himself. “If so, you are taking the direct road there and have only to hasten. But you had better remain in your father’s house; even if you are something of a prisoner there, like my very insignificant self. The outcome will be more satisfactory, even if you have to share your future with me.”

“And what course will you take,” he asked, pausing with his hand on the fence, “if I decide to choose destruction without you, rather than perdition with you?”

“What course? Why, I shall tell Dr. Talbot just enough to show you to be as desirable a witness in the impending inquest as myself. The result I leave to your judgment. But you will not drive me to this extremity. You will come back and —”

“Woman, I will never come back. I shall have to dare your worst in a week and will begin by daring you now. I—”

But he did not leap the fence, though he made a move to do so, for at that moment a party of men came hurrying by on the lower road, one of whom was heard to say:

“I will bet my head that we will put our hand on Agatha Webb’s murderer to-night. The man who shoves twenty-dollar bills around so heedlessly should not wear a beard so long it leads to detection.”

It was the coroner, the constable, Knapp, and Abel on their way to the forest road on which lived John and James Zabel.

Frederick and Amabel confronted each other, and after a moment’s silence returned as if by a common impulse towards the house.

“What have they got in their heads?” queried she. “Whatever it is, it may serve to occupy them till the week of your probation is over.”

He did not answer. A new and overwhelming complication had been added to the difficulties of his situation.

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