Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

ii

One Night’s Work

Sutherlandtown was a seaport. The village, which was a small one, consisted of one long street and numerous cross streets running down from the hillside and ending on the wharves. On one of the corners thus made, stood the Webb house, with its front door on the main street and its side door on one of the hillside lanes. As the group of men and boys who had been in search of Mr. Sutherland entered this last-mentioned lane, they could pick out this house from all the others, as it was the only one in which a light was still burning. Mr. Sutherland lost no time in entering upon the scene of tragedy. As his imposing figure emerged from the darkness and paused on the outskirts of the crowd that was blocking up every entrance to the house, a murmur of welcome went up, after which a way was made for him to the front door.

But before he could enter, some one plucked him by the sleeve.

“Look up!” whispered a voice into his ear.

He did so, and saw a woman’s body hanging half out of an upper window. It hung limp, and the sight made him sick, notwithstanding his threescore years of experience.

“Who’s that?” he cried. “That’s not Agatha Webb.”

“No, that’s Batsy, the cook. She’s dead as well as her mistress. We left her where we found her for the coroner to see.”

“But this is horrible,” murmured Mr. Sutherland. “Has there been a butcher here?”

As he uttered these words, he felt another quick pressure on his arm. Looking down, he saw leaning against him the form of a young woman, but before he could address her she had started upright again and was moving on with the throng. It was Miss Page.

“It was the sight of this woman hanging from the window which first drew attention to the house,” volunteered a man who was standing as a sort of guardian at the main gateway. “Some of the sailors’ wives who had been to the wharves to see their husbands off on the ship that sailed at daybreak, saw it as they came up the lane on their way home, and gave the alarm. Without that we might not have known to this hour what had happened.”

“But Mrs. Webb?”

“Come in and see.”

There was a board fence about the simple yard within which stood the humble house forever after to be pointed out as the scene of Sutherlandtown’s most heart-rending tragedy. In this fence was a gate, and through this gate now passed Mr. Sutherland, followed by his would-be companion, Miss Page. A path bordered by lilac bushes led up to the house, the door of which stood wide open. As soon as Mr. Sutherland entered upon this path a man approached him from the doorway. It was Amos Fenton, the constable.

“Ah, Mr. Sutherland,” said he, “sad business, a very sad business! But what little girl have you there?”

“This is Miss Page, my housekeeper’s niece. She would come. Inquisitiveness the cause. I do not approve of it.”

“Miss Page must remain on the doorstep. We allow no one inside excepting yourself,” he said respectfully, in recognition of the fact that nothing of importance was ever undertaken in Sutherland town without the presence of Mr. Sutherland.

Miss Page curtsied, looking so bewitching in the fresh morning light that the tough old constable scratched his chin in grudging admiration. But he did not reconsider his determination. Seeing this, she accepted her defeat gracefully, and moved aside to where the bushes offered her more or less protection from the curiosity of those about her. Meanwhile Mr. Sutherland had stepped into the house.

He found himself in a small hall with a staircase in front and an open door at the left. On the threshold of this open door a man stood, who at sight of him doffed his hat. Passing by this man, Mr. Sutherland entered the room beyond. A table spread with eatables met his view, beside which, in an attitude which struck him at the moment as peculiar, sat Philemon Webb, the well-known master of the house.

Astonished at seeing his old friend in this room and in such a position, he was about to address him, when Mr. Fenton stopped him.

“Wait!” said he. “Take a look at poor Philemon before you disturb him. When we broke into the house a half-hour ago he was sitting just as you see him now, and we have let him be for reasons you can easily appreciate. Examine him closely, Mr. Sutherland; he won’t notice it.”

“But what ails him? Why does he sit crouched against the table? Is he hurt too?”

“No; look at his eyes.”

Mr. Sutherland stooped and pushed aside the long grey locks that half concealed the countenance of his aged friend.

“Why,” he cried, startled, “they are closed! He isn’t dead?”

“No, he is asleep.”

“Asleep?”

“Yes. He was asleep when we came in and he is asleep yet. Some of the neighbours wanted to wake him, but I would not let them. His wits are not strong enough to bear a sudden shock.”

“No, no, poor Philemon! But that he should sit sleeping here while she — But what do these bottles mean and this parade of supper in a room they were not accustomed to eat in?”

“We don’t know. It has not been eaten, you see. He has swallowed a glass of port, but that is all. The other glasses have had no wine in them, nor have the victuals been touched.”

“Seats set for three and only one occupied,” murmured Mr. Sutherland. “Strange! Could he have expected guests?”

“It looks like it. I didn’t know that his wife allowed him such privileges; but she was always too good to him, and I fear has paid for it with her life.”

“Nonsense! he never killed her. Had his love been anything short of the worship it was, he stood in too much awe of her to lift his hand against her, even in his most demented moments.”

“I don’t trust men of uncertain wits,” returned the other. “You have not noticed everything that is to be seen in this room.”

Mr. Sutherland, recalled to himself by these words, looked quickly about him. With the exception of the table and what was on and by it there was nothing else in the room. Naturally his glance returned to Philemon Webb.

“I don’t see anything but this poor sleeping man,” he began.

“Look at his sleeve.”

Mr. Sutherland, with a start, again bent down. The arm of his old friend lay crooked upon the table, and on its blue cotton sleeve there was a smear which might have been wine, but which was — blood.

As Mr. Sutherland became assured of this, he turned slightly pale and looked inquiringly at the two men who were intently watching him.

“This is bad,” said he. “Any other marks of blood below stairs?”

“No; that one smear is all.”

“Oh, Philemon!” burst from Mr. Sutherland, in deep emotion. Then, as he looked long and shudderingly at his friend, he added slowly:

“He has been in the room where she was killed; so much is evident. But that he understood what was done there I cannot believe, or he would not be sleeping here like a log. Come, let us go up-stairs.”

Fenton, with an admonitory gesture toward his subordinate, turned directly toward the staircase. Mr. Sutherland followed him, and they at once proceeded to the upper hall and into the large front room which had been the scene of the tragedy.

It was the parlour or sitting-room of this small and unpretentious house. A rag carpet covered the floor and the furniture was of the plainest kind, but the woman who lay outstretched on the stiff, old-fashioned lounge opposite the door was far from being in accord with the homely type of her surroundings. Though the victim of a violent death, her face and form, both of a beauty seldom to be found among women of any station, were so majestic in their calm repose, that Mr. Sutherland, accustomed as he was to her noble appearance, experienced a shock of surprise that found vent in these words:

“Murdered! she? You have made some mistake, my friends. Look at her face!”

But even in the act of saying this his eyes fell on the blood which had dyed her cotton dress and he cried:

“Where was she struck and where is the weapon which has made this ghastly wound?”

“She was struck while standing or sitting at this table,” returned the constable, pointing to two or three drops of blood on its smooth surface. “The weapon we have not found, but the wound shows that it was inflicted by a three-sided dagger.”

“A three-sided dagger?”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing in town. Philemon could have had no dagger.”

“It does not seem so, but one can never tell. Simple cottages like these often contain the most unlooked-for articles.”

“I cannot imagine a dagger being among its effects,” declared Mr. Sutherland. “Where was the body of Mrs. Webb lying when you came in?”

“Where you see it now. Nothing has been moved or changed.”

“She was found here, on this lounge, in the same position in which we see her now?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But that is incredible. Look at the way she lies! Hands crossed, eyes closed, as though made ready for her burial. Only loving hands could have done this. What does it mean?”

“It means Philemon; that is what it means Philemon.”

Mr. Sutherland shuddered, but said nothing. He was dumbfounded by these evidences of a crazy man’s work. Philemon Webb always seemed so harmless, though he had been failing in mind for the last ten years.

“But” cried Mr. Sutherland, suddenly rousing, “there is another victim. I saw old woman Batsy hanging from a window ledge, dead.”

“Yes, she is in this other room; but there is no wound on Batsy.”

“How was she killed, then?”

“That the doctors must tell us.”

Mr. Sutherland, guided by Mr. Fenton’s gesture, entered a small room opening into the one in which they stood. His attention was at once attracted by the body of the woman he had seen from below, lying half in and half out of the open window. That she was dead was evident; but, as Mr. Fenton had said, no wound was to be seen upon her, nor were there any marks of blood on or about the place where she lay.

“This is a dreadful business,” groaned Mr. Sutherland, “the worst I have ever had anything to do with. Help me to lift the woman in; she has been long enough a show for the people outside.”

There was a bed in this room (indeed, it was Mrs. Webb’s bedroom), and upon this poor Batsy was laid. As the face came uppermost both gentlemen started and looked at each other in amazement. The expression of terror and alarm which it showed was in striking contrast to the look of exaltation to be seen on the face of her dead mistress.

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