Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xvii

The Slippers, the Flower, and what Sweetwater Made of Them

A half-hour later these men were all closeted with Dr. Talbot in the Zabel kitchen. Abel had rejoined them, and Sweetwater was telling his story with great earnestness and no little show of pride.

“Gentlemen, when I charge a young woman of respectable appearance and connections with such a revolting crime as murder, I do so with good reason, as I hope presently to make plain to you all.

“Gentlemen, on the night and at the hour Agatha Webb was killed, I was playing with four other musicians in Mr. Sutherland’s hallway. From the place where I sat I could see what went on in the parlour and also have a clear view of the passageway leading down to the garden door. As the dancing was going on in the parlour I naturally looked that way most, and this is how I came to note the eagerness with which, during the first part of the evening, Frederick Sutherland and Amabel Page came together in the quadrilles and country dances. Sometimes she spoke as she passed him, and sometimes he answered, but not always, although he never failed to show he was pleased with her or would have been if something — perhaps it was his lack of confidence in her, sirs — had not stood in the way of a perfect understanding. She seemed to notice that he did not always respond, and after a while showed less inclination to speak herself, though she did not fail to watch him, and that intently. But she did not watch him any more closely than I did her, though I little thought at the time what would come of my espionage. She wore a white dress and white shoes, and was as coquettish and seductive as the evil one makes them. Suddenly I missed her. She was in the middle of the dance one minute and entirely out of it the next. Naturally I supposed her to have slipped aside with Frederick Sutherland, but he was still in sight, looking so pale and so abstracted, however, I was sure the young miss was up to some sort of mischief. But what mischief? Watching and waiting, but no longer confining my attention to the parlour, I presently espied her stealing along the passageway I have mentioned, carrying a long cloak which she rolled up and hid behind the open door. Then she came back humming a gay little song which didn’t deceive me for a moment. ‘Good!’ thought I, ‘she and that cloak will soon join company.’ And they did. As we were playing the Harebell mazurka I again caught sight of her stealthy white figure in that distant doorway. Seizing the cloak, she wrapped it round her, and with just one furtive look backwards, seen, I warrant, by no one but myself, she vanished in the outside dark. ‘Now to note who follows her!’ But nobody followed her. This struck me as strange, and having a natural love for detective work, in spite of my devotion to the arts, I consulted the clock at the foot of the stairs, and noting that it was half-past eleven, scribbled the hour on the margin of my music, with the intention of seeing how long my lady would linger outside alone. Gentlemen, it was two hours before I saw her face again. How she got back into the house I do not know. It was not by the garden door, for my eye seldom left it; yet at or near half-past one I heard her voice on the stair above me and saw her descend and melt into the crowd as if she had not been absent from it for more than five minutes. A half-hour later I saw her with Frederick again. They were dancing, but not with the same spirit as before, and even while I watched them they separated. Now where was Miss Page during those two long hours? I think I know, and it is time I unburdened myself to the police.

“But first I must inform you of a small discovery I made while the dance was still in progress. Miss Page had descended the stairs, as I have said, from what I now know to have been her own room. Her dress was, in all respects, the same as before, with one exception — her white slippers had been exchanged for blue ones. This seemed to show that they had been rendered unserviceable, or at least unsightly, by the walk she had taken. This in itself was not remarkable nor would her peculiar escapade have made more than a temporary impression upon my curiosity if she had not afterward shown in my presence such an unaccountable and extraordinary interest in the murder which had taken place in the town below during the very hours of her absence from Mr. Sutherland’s ball. This, in consideration of her sex, and her being a stranger to the person attacked, was remarkable, and, though perhaps I had no business to do what I did, I no sooner saw the house emptied of master and servants than I stole softly back, and climbed the stairs to her room. Had no good followed this intrusion, which, I am quite ready to acknowledge, was a trifle presumptuous, I would have held my peace in regard to it; but as I did make a discovery there, which has, as I believe, an important bearing on this affair, I have forced myself to mention it. The lights in the house having been left burning, I had no difficulty in finding her apartment. I knew it by the folderols scattered about. But I did not stop to look at them. I was on a search for her slippers, and presently came upon them, thrust behind an old picture in the dimmest corner of the room. Taking them down, I examined them closely. They were not only soiled, gentlemen, but dreadfully cut and rubbed. In short, they were ruined, and, thinking that the young lady herself would be glad to be rid of them, I quietly put them into my pocket, and carried them to my own home. Abel has just been for them, so you can see them for yourselves, and if your judgment coincides with mine, you will discover something more on them than mud.”

Dr. Talbot, though he stared a little at the young man’s confessed theft, took the slippers Abel was holding out and carefully turned them over. They were, as Sweetwater had said, grievously torn and soiled, and showed, beside several deep earth-stains, a mark or two of a bright red colour, quite unmistakable in its character.

“Blood,” declared the coroner. “There is no doubt about it. Miss Page was where blood was spilled last night.”

“I have another proof against her,” Sweetwater went on, in full enjoyment of his prominence amongst these men, who, up to now, had barely recognised his existence. “When, full of the suspicion that Miss Page had had a hand in the theft which had taken place at Mrs. Webb’s house, if not in the murder that accompanied it, I hastened down to the scene of the tragedy, I met this young woman issuing from the front gate. She had just been making herself conspicuous by pointing out a trail of blood on the grass plot. Dr. Talbot, who was there, will remember how she looked on that occasion; but I doubt if he noticed how Abel here looked, or so much as remarked the faded flower the silly boy had stuck in his buttonhole.”

“— me if I did!” ejaculated the coroner.

“Yet that flower has a very important bearing on this case. He had found it, as he will tell you, on the floor near Batsy’s skirts, and as soon as I saw it in his coat, I bade him take it out and keep it, for, gentlemen, it was a very uncommon flower, the like of which can only be found in this town in Mr. Sutherland’s conservatory. I remember seeing such a one in Miss Page’s hair, early in the evening. Have you that flower about you, Abel?”

Abel had, and being filled with importance too, showed it to the doctor and to Mr. Fenton. It was withered and faded in hue, but it was unmistakably an orchid of the rarest description.

“It was lying near Batsy,” explained Abel. “I drew Mr. Fenton’s attention to it at the time, but he scarcely noticed it.”

“I will make up for my indifference now,” said that gentleman.

“I should have been shown that flower,” put in Knapp.

“So you should,” acknowledged Sweetwater, “but when the detective instinct is aroused it is hard for a man to be just to his rivals; besides, I was otherwise occupied. I had Miss Page to watch. Happily for me, you had decided that she should not be allowed to leave town till after the inquest, and so my task became easy. This whole day I have spent in sight of Mr. Sutherland’s house, and at nightfall I was rewarded by detecting her end a prolonged walk in the garden by a hurried dash into the woods opposite. I followed her and noted carefully all that she did. As she had just seen Frederick Sutherland and Miss Halliday disappear up the road together, she probably felt free to do as she liked, for she walked very directly to the old tree we have just come from, and kneeling down beside it pulled from the hole underneath something which rattled in her hand with that peculiar sound we associate with fresh bank-notes. I had approached her as near as I dared, and was peering around a tree trunk, when she stooped down again and plunged both hands into the hole. She remained in this position so long that I did not know what to make of it. But she rose at last and turned toward home, laughing to herself in a wicked but pleased way that did not tend to make me think any more of her. The moon was shining very brightly by this time and I could readily perceive every detail of her person. She held her hands out before her and shook them more than once as she trod by me, so I was sure there was nothing in them, and this is why I was so confident we should find the money still in the hole.

“When I saw her enter the house, I set out to find you, but the court-house room was empty, and it was a long time before I learned where to look for you. But at last a fellow at Brighton’s corner said he saw four men go by on their way to Zabel’s cottage, and on the chance of finding you amongst them, I turned down here. The shock you gave me in announcing that you had discovered the murderer of Agatha Webb knocked me over for a moment, but now I hope you realise, as I do, that this wretched man could never have had an active hand in her death, notwithstanding the fact that one of the stolen bills has been found in his possession. For, and here is my great point, the proof is not wanting that Miss Page visited this house as well as Mrs. Webb’s during her famous escapade; or at least stood under the window beneath which I have just been searching. A footprint can be seen there, sirs, a very plain footprint, and if Dr. Talbot will take the trouble to compare it with the slipper he holds in his hand, he will find it to have been made by the foot that wore that slipper.”

The coroner, with a quick glance from the slipper in his hand up to Sweetwater’s eager face, showed a decided disposition to make the experiment thus suggested. But Mr. Fenton, whose mind was full of the Zabel tragedy, interrupted them with the question:

“But how do you explain by this hypothesis the fact of James Zabel trying to pass one of the twenty-dollar bills stolen from Mrs. Webb’s cupboard? Do you consider Miss Page generous enough to give him that money?”

“You ask ME that, Mr. Fenton. Do you wish to know what I think of the connection between these two great tragedies?”

“Yes; you have earned a voice in this matter; speak, Sweetwater.”

“Well, then, I think Miss Page has made an effort to throw the blame of her own misdoing on one or both of these unfortunate old men. She is sufficiently cold-blooded and calculating to do so; and circumstances certainly favoured her. Shall I show how?”

Mr. Fenton consulted Knapp, who nodded his head. The Boston detective was not without curiosity as to how Sweetwater would prove the case.

“Old James Zabel had seen his brother sinking rapidly from inanition; this their condition amply shows. He was weak himself, but John was weaker, and in a moment of desperation he rushed out to ask a crumb of bread from Agatha Webb, or possibly — for I have heard some whispers of an old custom of theirs to join Philemon at his yearly merry-making and so obtain in a natural way the bite for himself and brother he perhaps had not the courage to ask for outright. But death had been in the Webb cottage before him, which awful circumstance, acting on his already weakened nerves, drove him half insane from the house and sent him wandering blindly about the streets for a good half-hour before he reappeared in his own house. How do I know this? From a very simple fact. Abel here has been to inquire, among other things, if Mr. Crane remembers the tune we were playing at the great house when he came down the main street from visiting old widow Walker. Fortunately he does, for the trip, trip, trip in it struck his fancy, and he has found himself humming it over more than once since. Well, that waltz was played by us at a quarter after midnight, which fixes the time of the encounter at Mrs. Webb’s gateway pretty accurately. But, as you will soon see, it was ten minutes to one before James Zabel knocked at Loton’s door. How do I know this? By the same method of reasoning by which I determined the time of Mr. Crane’s encounter. Mrs. Loton was greatly pleased with the music played that night, and had all her windows open in order to hear it, and she says we were playing ‘Money Musk’ when that knocking came to disturb her. Now, gentlemen, we played ‘Money Musk’ just before we were called out to supper, and as we went to supper promptly at one, you can see just how my calculation was made. Thirty-five minutes, then, passed between the moment James Zabel was seen rushing from Mrs. Webb’s gateway and that in which he appeared at Loton’s bakery, demanding a loaf of bread, and offering in exchange one of the bills which had been stolen from the murdered woman’s drawer. Thirty-five minutes! And he and his brother were starving. Does it look, then, as if that money was in his possession when he left Mrs. Webb’s house? Would any man who felt the pangs of hunger as he did, or who saw a brother perishing for food before his eyes, allow thirty-five minutes to elapse before he made use of the money that rightfully or wrongfully had come into his hand? No; and so I say that he did not have it when Mr. Crane met him. That, instead of committing crime to obtain it, he found it in his own home, lying on his table, when, after his frenzied absence, he returned to tell his dreadful news to the brother he had left behind him. But how did it come there? you ask. Gentlemen, remember the footprints under the window. Amabel Page brought it. Having seen or perhaps met this old man roaming in or near the Webb cottage during the time she was there herself, she conceived the plan of throwing upon him the onus of the crime she had herself committed, and with a slyness to be expected from one so crafty, stole up to his home, made a hole in the shade hanging over an open window, looked into the room where John sat, saw that he was there alone and asleep, and, creeping in by the front door, laid on the table beside him the twenty-dollar bill and the bloody dagger with which she had just slain Agatha Webb. Then she stole out again, and in twenty minutes more was leading the dance in Mr. Sutherland’s parlour.”

“Well reasoned!” murmured Abel, expecting the others to echo him. But, though Mr. Fenton and Dr. Talbot looked almost convinced, they said nothing, while Knapp, of course, was quiet as an oyster.

Sweetwater, with an easy smile calculated to hide his disappointment, went on as if perfectly satisfied.

“Meanwhile John awakes, sees the dagger, and thinks to end his misery with it, but finds himself too feeble. The cut in his vest, the dent in the floor, prove this, but if you call for further proof, a little fact, which some, if not all, of you seem to have overlooked, will amply satisfy you that this one at least of my conclusions is correct. Open the Bible, Abel; open it, not to shake it for what will never fall from between its leaves, but to find in the Bible itself the lines I have declared to you he wrote as a dying legacy with that tightly clutched pencil. Have you found them?”

“No,” was Abel’s perplexed retort; “I cannot see any sign of writing on flyleaf or margin.”

“Are those the only blank places in the sacred book? Search the leaves devoted to the family record. Now! what do you find there?”

Knapp, who was losing some of his indifference, drew nearer and read for himself the scrawl which now appeared to every eye on the discoloured page which Abel here turned uppermost.

“Almost illegible,” he said; “one can just make out these words: ‘Forgive me, James — tried to use dagger — found lying — but hand wouldn’t — dying without — don’t grieve — true men — haven’t disgraced ourselves — God bless —’ That is all.”

“The effort must have overcome him,” resumed Sweetwater in a voice from which he carefully excluded all signs of secret triumph, “and when James returned, as he did a few minutes later, he was evidently unable to ask questions, even if John was in a condition to answer them. But the fallen dagger told its own story, for James picked it up and put it back on the table, and it was at this minute he saw, what John had not, the twenty-dollar bill lying there with its promise of life and comfort. Hope revives; he catches up the bill, flies down to Loton’s, procures a loaf of bread, and comes frantically back, gnawing it as he runs; for his own hunger is more than he can endure. Re-entering his brother’s presence, he rushes forward with the bread. But the relief has come too late; John has died in his absence; and James, dizzy with the shock, reels back and succumbs to his own misery. Gentlemen, have you anything to say in contradiction to these various suppositions?”

For a moment Dr. Talbot, Mr. Fenton, and even Knapp stood silent; then the last remarked, with pardonable dryness:

“All this is ingenious, but, unfortunately, it is up set by a little fact which you yourself have overlooked. Have you examined attentively the dagger of which you have so often spoken, Mr. Sweetwater?”

“Not as I would like to, but I noticed it had blood on its edge, and was of the shape and size necessary to inflict the wound from which Mrs. Webb died.”

“Very good, but there is something else of interest to be observed on it. Fetch it, Abel.”

Abel, hurrying from the room, soon brought back the weapon in question. Sweetwater, with a vague sense of disappointment disturbing him, took it eagerly and studied it very closely. But he only shook his head.

“Bring it nearer to the light,” suggested Knapp, “and examine the little scroll near the top of the handle.”

Sweetwater did so, and at once changed colour. In the midst of the scroll were two very small but yet perfectly distinct letters; they were J. Z.

“How did Amabel Page come by a dagger marked with the Zabel initials?” questioned Knapp. “Do you think her foresight went so far as to provide herself with a dagger ostensibly belonging to one of these brothers? And then, have you forgotten that when Mr. Crane met the old man at Mrs. Webb’s gateway he saw in his hand something that glistened? Now what was that, if not this dagger?”

Sweetwater was more disturbed than he cared to acknowledge.

“That just shows my lack of experience,” he grumbled. “I thought I had turned this subject so thoroughly over in my mind that no one could bring an objection against it.”

Knapp shook his head and smiled. “Young enthusiasts like yourself are great at forming theories which well-seasoned men like myself must regard as fantastical. However,” he went on, “there is no doubt that Miss Page was a witness to, even if she has not profited by, the murder we have been considering. But, with this palpable proof of the Zabels’ direct connection with the affair, I would not recommend her arrest as yet.”

“She should be under surveillance, though,” intimated the coroner.

“Most certainly,” acquiesced Knapp.

As for Sweetwater, he remained silent till the opportunity came for him to whisper apart to Dr. Talbot, when he said:

“For all the palpable proof of which Mr. Knapp speaks — the J. Z. on the dagger, and the possibility of this being the object he was seen carrying out of Philemon Webb’s gate — I maintain that this old man in his moribund condition never struck the blow that killed Agatha Webb. He hadn’t strength enough, even if his lifelong love for her had not been sufficient to prevent him.”

The coroner looked thoughtful.

“You are right,” said he; “he hadn’t strength enough. But don’t expend too much energy in talk. Wait and see what a few direct questions will elicit from Miss Page.”

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