Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxi

Sweetwater Reasons

And what of Sweetwater, in whose thoughts and actions the interest now centres?

When he left Mr. Sutherland it was with feelings such as few who knew him supposed him capable of experiencing. Unattractive as he was in every way, ungainly in figure and unprepossessing of countenance, this butt of the more favoured youth in town had a heart whose secret fires were all the warmer for being so persistently covered, and this heart was wrung with trouble and heavy with a struggle that bade fair to leave him without rest that night, if not for many nights to come. Why? One word will explain. Unknown to the world at large and almost unknown to himself, his best affections were fixed upon the man whose happiness he thus unexpectedly saw himself destined to destroy. He loved Mr. Sutherland.

The suspicion which he now found transferred in his own mind from the young girl whose blood-stained slippers he had purloined during the excitement of the first alarm, to the unprincipled but only son of his one benefactor, had not been lightly embraced or thoughtlessly expressed. He had had time to think it out in all its bearings. During that long walk from Portchester churchyard to Mr. Halliday’s door, he had been turning over in his mind everything that he had heard and seen in connection with this matter, till the dim vision of Frederick’s figure going on before him was not more apparent to his sight than was the guilt he so deplored to his inward understanding.

He could not help but recognise him as the active party in the crime he had hitherto charged Amabel with. With the clew offered by Frederick’s secret anguish at the grave of Agatha, he could read the whole story of this detestable crime as plainly as if it had been written in letters of fire on the circle of the surrounding darkness. Such anguish under such circumstances on the part of such a man could mean but one thing — remorse; and remorse in the breast of one so proverbially careless and corrupt, over the death of a woman who was neither relative nor friend, could have but one interpretation, and that was guilt.

No other explanation was possible. Could one be given, or if any evidence could be adduced in contradiction of this assumption, he would have dismissed his new suspicion with more heartiness even than he had embraced his former one. He did not wish to believe Frederick guilty. He would have purchased an inner conviction of his innocence almost at the price of his own life, not because of any latent interest in the young man himself, but because he was Charles Sutherland’s son, and the dear, if unworthy, centre of all that noble man’s hopes, aims, and happiness. But he could come upon no fact capable of shaking his present belief. Taking for truth Amabel’s account of what she had seen and done on that fatal night — something which he had hesitated over the previous day, but which he now found himself forced to accept or do violence to his own secret convictions — and adding to it such facts as had come to his own knowledge in his self-imposed role of detective, he had but to test the events of that night by his present theory of Frederick’s guilt, to find them hang together in a way too complete for mistake.

For what had been his reasons for charging Amabel herself with the guilt of a crime she only professed to have been a partial witness to?

They were many.

First — The forced nature of her explanations in regard to her motive for leaving a merry ball and betaking herself to the midnight road in her party dress and slippers. A woman of her well-known unsympathetic nature might use the misery of the Zabels as a pretext for slipping into town at night, but never would be influenced by it as a motive.

Second — The equally unsatisfactory nature of the reasons she gave for leaving the course she had marked out for herself and entering upon the pursuit of an unknown man into a house in which she had no personal interest and from which she had just seen a bloody dagger thrown out. The most callous of women would have shrunk from letting her curiosity carry her thus far.

Third — The poverty of her plea that, after having braved so much in her desire to identify this criminal, she was so frightened at his near approach as to fail to lift her head when the opportunity was given her to recognise him.

Fourth — Her professed inability to account for the presence of the orchid from her hair being found in the room with Batsy.

Fifth — Her evident attempt to throw the onus of the crime on an old man manifestly incapable from physical causes of committing it.

Sixth — The improbability, which she herself should have recognised, of this old man, in his extremely weak condition, ignoring the hiding-places offered by the woods back of his own house, for the sake of one not only involving a long walk, but situated close to a much-frequented road, and almost in view of the Sutherland mansion.

Seventh — The transparent excuse of sympathy for the old man and her desire to save him from the consequences of his crime, which she offered in extenuation of her own criminal avowal of having first found and then reburied the ill-gotten gains she had come upon in her persistent pursuit of the flying criminal. So impulsive an act might be consistent with the blind compassion of some weak-headed but warm-hearted woman, but not with her self-interested nature, incapable of performing any heroic deed save from personal motives or the most headlong passion.

Lastly — The weakness of her explanation in regard to the cause which led her to peer into the Zabel cottage through a hole made in the window-shade. Curiosity has its limits even in a woman’s breast, and unless she hoped to see more than was indicated by her words, her action was but the precursor of a personal entrance into a room where we have every reason to believe the twenty-dollar bill was left.

A telling record and sufficient to favour the theory of her personal guilt if, after due thought, certain facts in contradiction to this assumption had not offered themselves to his mind even before he thought of Frederick as the unknown man she had followed down the hillside, as, for instance:

This crime, if committed by her, was done deliberately and with a premeditation antedating her departure from the ballroom. Yet she went upon this errand in slippers, white slippers at that, something which so cool and calculating a woman would have avoided, however careless she might have shown herself in other regards.

Again, guilt awakens cunning, even in the dullest breast; but she, keen beyond most men even, and so self-poised that the most searching examination could not shake her self-control, betrayed an utter carelessness as to what she did with these slippers on her return, thrusting them into a place easily accessible to the most casual search. Had she been conscious of guilt and thus amenable to law, the sight of blood and mud-stains on those slippers would have appalled her, and she would have made some attempt to destroy them, and not put them behind a picture and forgotten them.

Again, would she have been so careless with a flower she knew to be identified with herself? A woman who deliberately involves herself in crime has quick eyes; she would have seen that flower fall. At all events, if she had been immediately responsible for its being on the scene of crime she would, with her quick wit, have found some excuse or explanation for it, instead of defying her examiners with some such words as these: “It is a fact for you to explain. I only know that I did not carry this flower into that room of death.”

Again, had she been actuated in her attempt to fix the crime on old James Zabel by a personal consciousness of guilt and a personal dread, she would not have stopped at suggestion in her allusions to the person she watched burying the treasure in the woods. Instead of speaking of him as a shadow whose flight she had followed at a distance, she would have described his figure as that of the same old man she had seen enter the Zabel cottage a few minutes before, there being no reason for indefiniteness on this point, her conscience being sufficiently elastic for any falsehood that would further her ends. And lastly, her manner, under the examination to which she had been subjected, was not that of one who felt herself under a personal attack. It was a strange, suggestive, hesitating manner, baffling alike to him who had more or less sounded her strange nature and to those who had no previous knowledge of her freaks and subtle intellectual power, and only reaching its height of hateful charm and mysterious daring when Frederick appeared on the scene and joined, or seemed to join, himself to the number of her examiners.

Now, let all suspicion of her as an active agent in this crime be dropped, assume Frederick to be the culprit and she the simple accessory after the fact, and see how inconsistencies vanish, and how much more natural the whole conduct of this mysterious woman appears.

Amabel Page left a merry dance at midnight and stole away into the Sutherland garden in her party dress and slippers — why? Not to fulfil an errand which anyone who knows her cold and unsympathetic nature can but regard as a pretext, but because she felt it imperative to see if her lover (with whose character, temptations, and necessities she was fully acquainted, and in whose excited and preoccupied manner she had probably discovered signs of a secretly growing purpose) meant indeed to elude his guests and slip away to town on the dangerous and unholy enterprise suggested by their mutual knowledge of the money to be obtained there by one daring enough to enter a certain house open like their own to midnight visitors.

She followed at such an hour and into such a place, not an unknown man casually come upon, but her lover, whom she had tracked from the garden of his father’s house, where she had lain in wait for him. It took courage to do this, but a courage no longer beyond the limit of feminine daring, for her fate was bound up in his and she could not but feel the impulse to save him from the consequences of crime, if not from the crime itself.

As for the aforementioned flower, what more natural than that Frederick should have transferred it from her hair to his buttonhole during some of their interviews at the ball, and that it should have fallen from its place to the floor in the midst of his possible struggle with Batsy?

And with this assumption of her perfect knowledge as to who the man was who had entered Mrs. Webb’s house, how much easier it is to understand why she did not lift her head when she heard him descend the stairs! No woman, even one so depraved as she, would wish to see the handsome face of her lover in the glare of a freshly committed crime, and besides she might very easily be afraid of him, for a man has but a blow for the suddenly detected witness of his crime unless that witness is his confidant, which from every indication Sweetwater felt bound to believe Amabel was not.

Her flight to the Zabel cottage, after an experience which would madden most women, can now be understood. She was still following her lover. The plan of making Agatha’s old and wretched friend amenable for her death originated with Frederick and not with Amabel. It was he who first started for the Zabel cottage. It was he who left the bank bill there. This is all clear, and even the one contradictory fact of the dagger having been seen in the old man’s hand was not a stumbling-block to Sweetwater. With the audacity of one confident of his own insight, he explained it to himself thus: The dagger thrown from the window by the assassin, possibly because he knew of Zabel’s expected visit there that night, fell on the grass and was picked up by Amabel, only to be flung down again in the brightest part of the lawn. It was lying there then, when, a few minutes later and before either Frederick or Amabel had left the house, the old man entered the yard in a state of misery bordering on frenzy. He and his brother were starving, had been starving for days. He was too proud to own his want, and too loyal to his brother to leave him for the sake of the food prepared for them both at Agatha’s house, and this was why he had hesitated over his duty till this late hour, when his own secret misery or, perhaps, the hope of relieving his brother drove him to enter the gate he had been accustomed to see open before him in glad hospitality. He finds the lights burning in the house above and below, and encouraged by the welcome they seem to hold out, he staggers up the path, ignorant of the tragedy which was at that very moment being enacted behind those lighted windows. But half-way toward the house he stops, the courage which has brought him so far suddenly fails, and in one of those quick visions which sometimes visit men in extremity, he foresees the astonishment which his emaciated figure is likely to cause in these two old friends, and burying his face in his hands he stops and bitterly communes with himself before venturing farther. Fatal stop! fatal communing! for as he stands there he sees a dagger, his own old dagger, how lost or how found he probably did not stop to ask, lying on the grass and offering in its dumb way suggestions as to how he might end this struggle without any further suffering. Dizzy with the new hope, preferring death to the humiliation he saw before him in Agatha’s cottage, he dashes out of the yard, almost upsetting Mr. Crane, who was passing by on his homeward way from an errand of mercy. A little while later Amabel comes upon him lying across his own doorstep. He has made an effort to enter, but his long walk and the excitement of this last bitter hour have been too much for him. As she watches him he gains strength and struggles to his feet, while she, aghast at the sight of the dagger she had herself flung down in Agatha’s yard, and dreading the encounter between this old man and the lover she had been following to this place, creeps around the house and looks into the first window she finds open. What does she expect to see? Frederick brought face to face with this desperate figure with its uplifted knife. But instead of that she beholds another old man seated at a table and — Amabel had paused when she reached that AND— and Sweetwater had not then seen how important this pause was, but now he understood it. Now he saw that if she had not had a subtle purpose in view, that if she had wished to tell the truth rather than produce false inferences in the minds of those about her calculated to save the criminal as she called him, she would have completed her sentence thus: “I saw an old man seated at a table and Frederick Sutherland standing over him.” For Sweetwater had no longer a doubt that Frederick was in that room at that moment. What further she saw, whether she was witness to an encounter between this intruder and James, or whether by some lingering on the latter’s part Frederick was able to leave the house without running across him, was a matter of comparative unimportance. What is of importance is that he did leave it and that Amabel, knowing it was Frederick, strove to make her auditors believe it was Zabel, who carried the remainder of the money into the woods. Yet she did not say so, and if her words on this subject could be carefully recalled, one would see that it was still her lover she was following and no old man, tottering on the verge of the grave and only surviving because of the task he was bent on performing.

Amabel’s excuse for handling the treasure, and for her reburial of the same, comes now within the bounds of possibility. She hoped to share this money some day, and her greed was too great for her to let such an amount lie there untouched, while her caution led her to bury it deeper, even at the risk of the discovery she was too inexperienced to fear.

That she should forget to feign surprise when the alarm of murder was raised was very natural, and so was the fact that a woman with a soul so blunted to all delicate instincts, and with a mind so intent upon perfecting the scheme entered into by the murderer of throwing the blame upon the man whose dagger had been made use of, should persist in visiting the scene of crime and calling attention to the spot where that dagger had fallen. And so with her manner before her examiners. Baffling as that manner was, it still showed streaks of consistency, when you thought of it as the cloak of a subtle, unprincipled woman, who sees amongst her interlocutors the guilty man whom by a word she can destroy, but whom she exerts herself to save, even at the cost of a series of bizarre explanations. She was playing with a life, a life she loved, but not with sincerity sufficient to rob the game of a certain delicate, if inconceivable, intellectual enjoyment. [Footnote: That Sweetwater in his hate, and with no real clew to the real situation, should come so near the truth as in this last supposition, shows the keenness of his insight.]

And Frederick? Had there been anything in his former life or in his conduct since the murder to give the lie to these heavy doubts against him? On the contrary. Though Sweetwater knew little of the dark record which had made this young man the disgrace of his family, what he did know was so much against him that he could well see that the distance usually existing between simple dissipation and desperate crime might be easily bridged by some great necessity for money. Had there been such a necessity? Sweetwater found it easy to believe so. And Frederick’s manner? Was it that of an honest man simply shocked by the suspicions which had fallen upon the woman he loved? Had he, Sweetwater, not observed certain telltale moments in his late behaviour that required a deeper explanation even than this?

The cry, for instance, with which he had rushed from the empty ballroom into the woods on the opposite side of the road! Was it a natural cry or an easily explainable one? “Thank God! this terrible night is over!” Strange language to be uttered by this man at such a time and in such a place, if he did not already know what was to make this night of nights memorable through all this region. He did know, and this cry which had struck Sweetwater strangely at the time and still more strangely when he regarded it simply as a coincidence, now took on all the force of a revelation and the irresistible bubbling up in Frederick’s breast of that remorse which had just found its full expression on Agatha’s grave.

To some that remorse and all his other signs of suffering might be explained by his passion for the real criminal. But to Sweetwater it was only too evident that an egotist like Frederick Sutherland cannot suffer for another to such an extent as this, and that a personal explanation must be given for so personal a grief, even if that explanation involves the dreadful charge of murder.

It was when Sweetwater reached this point in his reasoning that Frederick disappeared beneath Mr. Halliday’s porch, and Mr. Sutherland came up behind him. After the short conversation in which Sweetwater saw his own doubts more than reflected in the uneasy consciousness of this stricken father, he went home and the struggle of his life began.

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