Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xix

Poor Philemon

The next day was the day of Agatha’s funeral. She was to be buried in Portchester, by the side of her six children, and, as the day was fine, the whole town, as by common consent, assembled in the road along which the humble cortege was to make its way to the spot indicated.

From the windows of farmhouses, from between the trees of the few scattered thickets along the way, saddened and curious faces looked forth till Sweetwater, who walked as near as he dared to the immediate friends of the deceased, felt the impossibility of remembering them all and gave up the task in despair.

Before one house, about a mile out of town, the procession paused, and at a gesture from the minister everyone within sight took off their hats, amid a hush which made almost painfully apparent the twittering of birds and the other sounds of animate and inanimate nature, which are inseparable from a country road. They had reached widow Jones’s cottage in which Philemon was then staying.

The front door was closed, and so were the lower windows, but in one of the upper casements a movement was perceptible, and in another instant there came into view a woman and man, supporting between them the impassive form of Agatha’s husband. Holding him up in plain sight of the almost breathless throng below, the woman pointed to where his darling lay and appeared to say something to him.

Then there was to be seen a strange sight. The old man, with his thin white locks fluttering in the breeze, leaned forward with a smile, and holding out his arms, cried in a faint but joyful tone: “Agatha!” Then, as if realising for the first time that it was death he looked upon, and that the crowd below was a funeral procession, his face altered and he fell back with a low heartbroken moan into the arms of those who supported him.

As his white head disappeared from sight, the procession moved on, and from only one pair of lips went up that groan of sorrow with which every heart seemed surcharged. One groan. From whose lips did it come? Sweetwater endeavoured to ascertain, but was not able, nor could anyone inform him, unless it was Mr. Sutherland, whom he dared not approach.

This gentleman was on foot like the rest, with his arm fast linked in that of his son Frederick. He had meant to ride, for the distance was long for men past sixty; but finding the latter resolved to walk, he had consented to do the same rather than be separated from his son.

He had fears for Frederick — he could hardly have told why; and as the ceremony proceeded and Agatha was solemnly laid away in the place prepared for her, his sympathies grew upon him to such an extent that he found it difficult to quit the young man for a moment, or even to turn his eyes away from the face he had never seemed to know till now. But as friends and strangers were now leaving the yard, he controlled himself, and assuming a more natural demeanour, asked his son if he were now ready to ride back. But, to his astonishment, Frederick replied that he did not intend to return to Sutherland town at present; that he had business in Portchester, and that he was doubtful as to when he would be ready to return. As the old gentleman did not wish to raise a controversy, he said nothing, but as soon as he saw Frederick disappear up the road, he sent back the carriage he had ordered, saying that he would return in a Portchester gig as soon as he had settled some affairs of his own, which might and might not detain him there till evening.

Then he proceeded to a little inn, where he hired a room with windows that looked out on the high-road. In one of these windows he sat all day, watching for Frederick, who had gone farther up the road.

But no Frederick appeared, and with vague misgivings, for which as yet he had no name, he left the window and set out on foot for home.

It was now dark, but a silvery gleam on the horizon gave promise of the speedy rising of a full moon. Otherwise he would not have attempted to walk over a road proverbially dark and dismal.

The churchyard in which they had just laid away Agatha lay in his course. As he approached it he felt his heart fail, and stopping a moment at the stone wall that separated it from the high-road, he leaned against the trunk of a huge elm that guarded the gate of entrance. As he did so he heard a sound of repressed sobbing from some spot not very far away, and, moved by some undefinable impulse stronger than his will, he pushed open the gate and entered the sacred precincts.

Instantly the weirdness and desolation of the spot struck him. He wished, yet dreaded, to advance. Something in the grief of the mourner whose sobs he had heard had seized upon his heart-strings, and yet, as he hesitated, the sounds came again, and forgetting that his intrusion might not prove altogether welcome, he pressed forward, till he came within a few feet of the spot from which the sobs issued.

He had moved quietly, feeling the awesomeness of the place, and when he paused it was with a sensation of dread, not to be entirely explained by the sad and dismal surroundings. Dark as it was, he discerned the outline of a form lying stretched in speechless misery across a grave; but when, impelled by an almost irresistible compassion, he strove to speak, his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth and he only drew back farther into the shadow.

He had recognised the mourner and the grave. The mourner was Frederick and the grave that of Agatha Webb.

A few minutes later Mr. Sutherland reappeared at the door of the inn, and asked for a gig and driver to take him back to Sutherlandtown. He said, in excuse for his indecision, that he had undertaken to walk, but had found his strength inadequate to the exertion. He was looking very pale, and trembled so that the landlord, who took his order, asked him if he were ill. But Mr. Sutherland insisted that he was quite well, only in a hurry, and showed the greatest impatience till he was again started upon the road.

For the first half-mile he sat perfectly silent. The moon was now up, and the road stretched before them, flooded with light. As long as no one was to be seen on this road, or on the path running beside it, Mr. Sutherland held himself erect, his eyes fixed before him, in an attitude of anxious inquiry. But as soon as any sound came to break the silence, or there appeared in the distance ahead of them the least appearance of a plodding wayfarer, he drew back, and hid himself in the recesses of the vehicle. This happened several times. Then his whole manner changed. They had just passed Frederick, walking, with bowed head, toward Sutherlandtown.

But he was not the only person on the road at this time. A few minutes previously they had passed another man walking in the same direction. As Mr. Sutherland mused over this he found himself peering through the small window at the back of the buggy, striving to catch another glimpse of the two men plodding behind him. He could see them both, his son’s form throwing its long shadow over the moonlit road, followed only too closely by the man whose ungainly shape he feared to acknowledge to himself was growing only too familiar in his eyes.

Falling into a troubled reverie, he beheld the well-known houses, and the great trees under whose shadow he had grown from youth to manhood, flit by him like phantoms in a dream. But suddenly one house and one place drew his attention with a force that startled him again into an erect attitude, and seizing with one hand the arm of the driver, he pointed with the other at the door of the cottage they were passing, saying in choked tones:

“See! see! Something dreadful has happened since we passed by here this morning. That is crape, Samuel, crape, hanging from the doorpost yonder!”

“Yes, it is crape,” answered the driver, jumping out and running up the path to look. “Philemon must be dead; the good Philemon.”

Here was a fresh blow. Mr. Sutherland bowed before it for a moment, then he rose hurriedly and stepped down into the road beside the driver.

“Get in again,” said he, “and drive on. Ride a half-mile, then come back for me. I must see the widow Jones.”

The driver, awed both by the occasion and the feeling it had called up in Mr. Sutherland, did as he was bid and drove away. Mr. Sutherland, with a glance back at the road he had just traversed, walked painfully up the path to Mrs. Jones’s door.

A moment’s conversation with the woman who answered his summons proved the driver’s supposition to be correct. Philemon had passed away. He had never rallied from the shock he had received. He had joined his beloved Agatha on the day of her burial, and the long tragedy of their mutual life was over.

“It is a mercy that no inheritor of their misfortune remains,” quoth the good woman, as she saw the affliction her tidings caused in this much-revered friend.

The assent Mr. Sutherland gave was mechanical. He was anxiously studying the road leading toward Portchester.

Suddenly he stepped hastily into the house.

“Will you be so good as to let me sit down in your parlour for a few minutes?” he asked. “I should like to rest there for an instant alone. This final blow has upset me.”

The good woman bowed. Mr. Sutherland’s word was law in that town. She did not even dare to protest against the ALONE which he had so pointedly emphasised, but left him after making him, as she said, comfortable, and went back to her duties in the room above.

It was fortunate she was so amenable to his wishes, for no sooner had her steps ceased to be heard than Mr. Sutherland rose from the easy-chair in which he had been seated, and, putting out the lamp widow Jones had insisted on lighting, passed directly to the window, through which he began to peer with looks of the deepest anxiety.

A man was coming up the road, a young man, Frederick. As Mr. Sutherland recognised him he leaned forward with increased anxiety, till at the appearance of his son in front his scrutiny grew so strained and penetrating that it seemed to exercise a magnetic influence upon Frederick, causing him to look up.

The glance he gave the house was but momentary, but in that glance the father saw all that he had secretly dreaded. As his son’s eye fell on that fluttering bit of crape, testifying to another death in this already much-bereaved community, he staggered wildly, then in a pause of doubt drew nearer and nearer till his fingers grasped this symbol of mourning and clung there. Next moment he was far down the road, plunging toward home in a state of great mental disorder.

A half-hour afterwards Mr. Sutherland reached home. He had not overtaken Frederick again, or even his accompanying shadow. Ascertaining at his own door that his son had not yet come in, but had been seen going farther up the hill, he turned back again into the road and proceeded after him on foot.

The next place to his own was occupied by Mr. Halliday. As he approached it he caught sight of a man standing half in and half out of the honeysuckle porch, whom he at first thought to be Frederick. But he soon saw that it was the fellow who had been following his son all the way from Portchester, and, controlling his first movement of dislike, he stepped up to him and quietly said:

“Sweetwater, is this you?”

The young man fell back and showed a most extraordinary agitation, quickly suppressed, however. “Yes, sir, it is no one else. Do you know what I am doing here?”

“I fear I do. You have been to Portchester. You have seen my son —”

Sweetwater made a hurried, almost an entreating, gesture.

“Never mind that, Mr. Sutherland. I had rather you wouldn’t say anything about that. I am as much broken up by what I have seen as you are. I never suspected him of having any direct connection with this murder; only the girl to whom he has so unfortunately attached himself. But after what I have seen, what am I to think? what am I to do? I honour you; I would not grieve you; but — but — oh, sir, perhaps you can help me out of the maze into which I have stumbled. Perhaps you can assure me that Mr. Frederick did not leave the ball at the time she did. I missed him from among the dancers. I did not see him between twelve and three, but perhaps you did; and — and —”

His voice broke. He was almost as profoundly agitated as Mr. Sutherland. As for the latter, who found himself unable to reassure the other on this very vital point, having no remembrance himself of having seen Frederick among his guests during those fatal hours, he stood speechless, lost in abysses, the depth and horror of which only a father can appreciate. Sweetwater respected his anguish and for a moment was silent himself. Then he burst out:

“I had rather never lived to see this day than be the cause of shame or suffering to you. Tell me what to do. Shall I be deaf, dumb —”

Here Mr. Sutherland found voice.

“You make too much of what you saw,” said he. “My boy has faults and has lived anything but a satisfactory life, but he is not as bad as you would intimate. He can never have taken life. That would be incredible, monstrous, in one brought up as he has been. Besides, if he were so far gone in evil as to be willing to attempt crime, he had no motive to do so; Sweetwater, he had no motive. A few hundred dollars but these he could have got from me, and did, but —”

Why did the wretched father stop? Did he recall the circumstances under which Frederick had obtained these last hundreds from him? They were not ordinary circumstances, and Frederick had been in no ordinary strait. Mr. Sutherland could not but acknowledge to himself that there was something in this whole matter which contradicted the very plea he was making, and not being able to establish the conviction of his son’s innocence in his own mind, he was too honourable to try to establish it in that of another. His next words betrayed the depth of his struggle:

“It is that girl who has ruined him, Sweetwater. He loves but doubts her, as who could help doing after the story she told us day before yesterday? Indeed, he has doubted her ever since that fatal night, and it is this which has broken his heart, and not — not —” Again the old gentleman paused; again he recovered himself, this time with a touch of his usual dignity and self-command. “Leave me,” he cried. “Nothing that you have seen has escaped me; but our interpretations of it may differ. I will watch over my son from this hour, and you may trust my vigilance.”

Sweetwater bowed.

“You have a right to command me,” said he. “You may have forgotten, but I have not, that I owe my life to you. Years ago — perhaps you can recall it — it was at the Black Pond — I was going down for the third time and my mother was screaming in terror on the bank, when you plunged in and — Well, sir, such things are never forgotten, and, as I said before, you have only to command me.” He turned to go, but suddenly came back. There were signs of mental conflict in his face and voice. “Mr. Sutherland, I am not a talkative man. If I trust your vigilance you may trust my discretion. Only I must have your word that you will convey no warning to your son.”

Mr. Sutherland made an indefinable gesture, and Sweetwater again disappeared, this time not to return. As for Mr. Sutherland, he remained standing before Mr. Halliday’s door. What had the young man meant by this emphatic repetition of his former suggestion? That he would be quiet, also, and not speak of what he had seen? Why, then — But to the hope thus given, this honest-hearted gentleman would yield no quarter, and seeing a duty before him, a duty he dare not shirk, he brought his emotions, violent as they were, into complete and absolute subjection, and, opening Mr. Halliday’s door, entered the house. They were old neighbours, and ceremony was ignored between them.

Finding the hall empty and the parlour door open he walked immediately into the latter room. The sight that met his eyes never left his memory. Agnes, his little Agnes, whom he had always loved and whom he had vainly longed to call by the endearing name of daughter, sat with her face towards him, looking up at Frederick. That young gentleman had just spoken to her, or she had just received something from his hand for her own was held out and her expression was one of gratitude and acceptance. She was not a beautiful girl, but she had a beautiful look, and at this moment it was exalted by a feeling the old gentleman had once longed, but now dreaded inexpressibly, to see there. What could it mean? Why did she show at this unhappy crisis, interest, devotion, passion almost, for one she had regarded with open scorn when it was the dearest wish of his heart to see them united? It was one of the contradictions of our mysterious human nature, and at this crisis and in this moment of secret heart-break and miserable doubt it made the old gentleman shrink, with his first feeling of actual despair.

The next moment Agnes had risen and they were both facing him.

“Good-evening, Agnes.”

Mr. Sutherland forced himself to speak lightly.

“Ah, Frederick, do I find you here?” The latter question had more constraint in it.

Frederick smiled. There was an air of relief about him, almost of cheerfulness.

“I was just leaving,” said he. “I was the bearer of a message to Miss Halliday.” He had always called her Agnes before.

Mr. Sutherland, who had found his faculties confused by the expression he had surprised on the young girl’s face, answered with a divided attention:

“And I have a message to give you. Wait outside on the porch for me, Frederick, till I exchange a word with our little friend here.”

Agnes, who had thrust something she held into a box that lay beside her on a table, turned with a confused blush to listen.

Mr. Sutherland waited till Frederick had stepped into the hall. Then he drew Agnes to one side and remorselessly, persistently, raised her face toward him till she was forced to meet his benevolent but searching regard.

“Do you know,” he whispered, in what he endeavoured to make a bantering tone, “how very few days it is since that unhappy boy yonder confessed his love for a young lady whose name I cannot bring myself to utter in your presence?”

The intent was kind, but the effect was unexpectedly cruel. With a droop of her head and a hurried gasp which conveyed a mixture of entreaty and reproach, Agnes drew back in a vague endeavour to hide her sudden uneasiness. He saw his mistake, and let his hands drop.

“Don’t, my dear,” he whispered. “I had no idea it would hurt you to hear this. You have always seemed indifferent, hard even, toward my scapegrace son. And this was right, for — for —” What could he say, how express one-tenth of that with which his breast was labouring! He could not, he dared not, so ended, as we have intimated, by a confused stammering.

Agnes, who had never before seen this object of her lifelong admiration under any serious emotion, felt an impulse of remorse, as if she herself had been guilty of occasioning him embarrassment. Plucking up her courage, she wistfully eyed him.

“Did you imagine,” she murmured, “that I needed any warning against Frederick, who has never honoured me with his regard, as he has the young lady you cannot mention? I’m afraid you don’t know me, Mr. Sutherland, notwithstanding I have sat on your knee and sometimes plucked at your beard in my infantile insistence upon attention.”

“I am afraid I don’t know you,” he answered. “I feel that I know nobody now, not even my son.”

He had hoped she would look up at this, but she did not.

“Will my little girl think me very curious and very impertinent if I ask her what my son Frederick was saying when I came into the room?”

She looked up now, and with visible candour answered him immediately and to the point:

“Frederick is in trouble, Mr. Sutherland. He has felt the need of a friend who could appreciate this, and he has asked me to be that friend. Besides, he brought me a packet of letters which he entreated me to keep for him. I took them, Mr. Sutherland, and I will keep them as he asked me to do, safe from everybody’s inspection, even my own.”

Oh! why had he questioned her? He did not want to know of these letters; he did not want to know that Frederick possessed anything which he was afraid to retain in his own possession.

“My son did wrong,” said he, “to confide anything to your care which he did not desire to retain in his own home. I feel that I ought to see these letters, for if my son is in trouble, as you say, I, his father, ought to know it.”

“I am not sure about that,” she smiled. “His trouble may be of a different nature than you imagine. Frederick has led a life that he regrets. I think his chief source of suffering lies in the fact that it is so hard for him to make others believe that he means to do differently in the future.”

“Does he mean to do differently?”

She flushed. “He says so, Mr. Sutherland. And I, for one, cannot help believing him. Don’t you see that he begins to look like another man?”

Mr. Sutherland was taken aback. He had noticed this fact, and had found it a hard one to understand. To ascertain what her explanation of it might be, he replied at once:

“There is a change in him — a very evident change. What is the occasion of it? To what do you ascribe it, Agnes?”

How breathlessly he waited for her answer! Had she any suspicion of the awful doubts which were so deeply agitating himself that night? She did not appear to have.

“I hesitate,” she faltered, “but not from any doubt of Frederick, to tell you just what I think lies at the bottom of the sudden change observable in him. Miss Page (you see, I can name her, if you cannot) has proved herself so unworthy of his regard that the shock he has received has opened his eyes to certain failings of his own which made his weakness in her regard possible. I do not know of any other explanation. Do you?”

At this direct question, breathed though it was by tender lips, and launched in ignorance of the barb which carried it to his heart, Mr. Sutherland recoiled and cast an anxious look upon the door. Then with forced composure he quietly said: “If you who are so much nearer his age, and, let me hope, his sympathy, do not feel sure of his real feelings, how should I, who am his father, but have never been his confidant?”

“Oh,” she cried, holding out her hands, “such a good father! Some day he will appreciate that fact as well as others. Believe it, Mr. Sutherland, believe it.” And then, ashamed of her glowing interest, which was a little more pronounced than became her simple attitude of friend toward a man professedly in love with another woman, she faltered and cast the shyest of looks upward at the face she had never seen turned toward her with anything but kindness. “I have confidence in Frederick’s good heart,” she added, with something like dignity.

“Would God that I could share it!” was the only answer she received. Before she could recover from the shock of these words, Mr. Sutherland was gone.

Agnes was more or less disconcerted by this interview. There was a lingering in her step that night, as she trod the little white-embowered chamber sacred to her girlish dreams, which bespake an overcharged heart; a heart that, before she slept, found relief in these few words whispered by her into the night air, laden with the sweetness of honeysuckles:

“Can it be that he is right? Did I need such a warning — I, who have hated this man, and who thought that it was my hatred which made it impossible for me to think of anything or anybody else since we parted from each other last night? O me, if it is so!”

And from the great, wide world without, tremulous with moonlight, the echo seemed to come back:

“Woe to thee, Agnes Halliday, if this be so!”

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