Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xx

A Surprise for Mr. Sutherland

Meanwhile Mr. Sutherland and Frederick stood facing each other in the former’s library. Nothing had been said during their walk down the hill, and nothing seemed likely to proceed from Frederick now, though his father waited with great and growing agitation for some explanation that would relieve the immense strain on his heart. At last he himself spoke, dryly, as we all speak when the heart is fullest and we fear to reveal the depth of our emotions.

“What papers were those you gave into Agnes Halliday’s keeping? Anything which we could not have more safely, not to say discreetly, harboured in our own house?”

Frederick, taken aback, for he had not realised that his father had seen these papers, hesitated for a moment; then he boldly said:

“They were letters — old letters — which I felt to be better out of this house than in it. I could not destroy them, so I gave them into the guardianship of the most conscientious person I know. I hope you won’t demand to see those letters. Indeed, sir, I hope you won’t demand to see them. They were not written for your eye, and I would rather rest under your displeasure than have them in any way made public.”

Frederick showed such earnestness, rather than fear, that Mr. Sutherland was astonished.

“When were these letters written?” he asked. “Lately, or before — You say they are old; how old?”

Frederick’s breath came easier.

“Some of them were written years ago — most of them, in fact. It is a personal matter — every man has such. I wish I could have destroyed them. You will leave them with Agnes, sir?”

“You astonish me,” said Mr. Sutherland, relieved that he could at least hope that these letters were in nowise connected with the subject of his own frightful suspicions. “A young girl, to whom you certainly were most indifferent a week ago, is a curious guardian of letters you decline to show your father.”

“I know it,” was Frederick’s sole reply.

Somehow the humility with which this was uttered touched Mr. Sutherland and roused hopes he had supposed dead. He looked his son for the first time directly in the eye, and with a beating heart said:

“Your secrets, if you have such, might better be entrusted to your father. You have no better friend —” and there he stopped with a horrified, despairing feeling of inward weakness. If Frederick had committed a crime, anything would be better than knowing it. Turning partially aside, he fingered the papers on the desk before which he was standing. A large envelope, containing some legal document, lay before him. Taking it up mechanically, he opened it. Frederick as mechanically watched him.

“I know,” said the latter, “that I have no better friend. You have been too good, too indulgent. What is it, father? You change colour, look ill, what is there in that paper?”

Mr. Sutherland straightened himself; there was a great reserve of strength in this broken-down man yet. Fixing Frederick with a gaze more penetrating than any he had yet bestowed upon him, he folded his hands behind him with the document held tightly between them, and remarked:

“When you borrowed that money from me you did it like a man who expected to repay it. Why? Whence did you expect to receive the money with which to repay me? Answer, Frederick; this is your hour for confession.”

Frederick turned so pale his father dropped his eyes in mercy.

“Confess?” he repeated. “What should I confess? My sins? They are too many. As for that money, I hoped to return it as any son might hope to reimburse his father for money advanced to pay a gambler’s debt. I said I meant to work. My first money earned shall be offered to you. I—”

“Well? Well?” His father was holding the document he had just read, opened out before his eyes.

“Didn’t you expect THIS?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that that poor woman, that wretchedly murdered, most unhappy woman, whose death the whole town mourns, had made you her heir? That by the terms of this document, seen by me here and now for the first time, I am made executor and you the inheritor of the one hundred thousand dollars or more left by Agatha Webb?”

“No!” cried Frederick, his eyes glued to the paper, his whole face and form expressing something more akin to terror than surprise. “Has she done this? Why should she? I hardly knew her.”

“No, you hardly knew her. And she? She hardly knew you; if she had she would have abhorred rather than enriched you. Frederick, I had rather see you dead than stand before me the inheritor of Philemon and Agatha Webb’s hard-earned savings.”

“You are right; it would be better,” murmured Frederick, hardly heeding what he said. Then, as he encountered his father’s eye resting upon him with implacable scrutiny, he added, in weak repetition: “Why should she give her money to me? What was I to her that she should will me her fortune?”

The father’s finger trembled to a certain line in the document, which seemed to offer some explanation of this; but Frederick did not follow it. He had seen that his father was expecting a reply to the question he had previously put, and he was casting about in his mind how to answer it.

“When did you know of this will?” Mr. Sutherland now repeated. “For know of it you did before you came to me for money.”

Frederick summoned up his full courage and confronted his father resolutely.

“No,” said he, “I did not know of it. It is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.”

He lied. Mr. Sutherland knew that he lied and Frederick knew that he knew it. A shadow fell between them, which the older, with that unspeakable fear upon him roused by Sweetwater’s whispered suspicions, dared no longer attempt to lift.

After a few minutes in which Frederick seemed to see his father age before his eyes, Mr. Sutherland coldly remarked:

“Dr. Talbot must know of this will. It has been sent here to me from Boston by a lawyer who drew it up two years ago. The coroner may not as yet have heard of it. Will you accompany me to his office to-morrow? I should like to have him see that we wish to be open with him in an affair of such importance.”

“I will accompany you gladly,” said Frederick, and seeing that his father neither wished nor was able to say anything further, he bowed with distant ceremony as to a stranger and quietly withdrew. But when the door had closed between them and only the memory of his father’s changed countenance remained to trouble him, he paused and laid his hand again on the knob, as if tempted to return. But he left without doing so, only to turn again at the end of the hall and gaze wistfully back. Yet he went on.

As he opened his own door and disappeared within, he said half audibly:

“Easy to destroy me now, Amabel. One word and I am lost!”

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