Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxii

Sweetwater Acts

Sweetwater had promised Mr. Sutherland that he would keep counsel in regard to his present convictions concerning Frederick’s guilt; but this he knew he could not do if he remained in Sutherlandtown and fell under the pitiless examination of Mr. Courtney, the shrewd and able prosecuting attorney of the district. He was too young, too honest, and had made himself too conspicuous in this affair to succeed in an undertaking requiring so much dissimulation, if not actual falsehood. Indeed, he was not sure that in his present state of mind he could hear Frederick’s name mentioned without flushing, and slight as such a hint might be, it would be enough to direct attention to Frederick, which once done could but lead to discovery and permanent disgrace to all who bore the name of Sutherland.

What was he to do then? How avoid a consequence he found himself absolutely unable to face? It was a problem which this night must solve for him. But how? As I have said, he went down to his house to think.

Sweetwater was not a man of absolute rectitude. He was not so much high-minded as large-hearted. He had, besides, certain foibles. In the first place, he was vain, and vanity in a very plain man is all the more acute since it centres in his capabilities, rather than in his appearance. Had Sweetwater been handsome, or even passably attractive, he might have been satisfied with the approbation of demure maidens and a comradeship with his fellows. But being one who could hope for nothing of this kind, not even for a decent return to the unreasoning heart-worship he felt himself capable of paying, and which he had once paid for a few short days till warned of his presumption by the insolence of the recipient, he had fixed his hope and his ambition on doing something which would rouse the admiration of those about him and bring him into that prominence to which he felt himself entitled. That he, a skilful musician, should desire to be known as a brilliant detective, is only one of the anomalies of human nature which it would be folly and a waste of time on our part to endeavour to explain. That, having chosen to exercise his wits in this way, he should so well succeed that he dared not for his life continue in the work he had so publicly undertaken, occasioned in him a pang of disappointment almost as insufferable as that brought by the realisation of what his efforts were likely to bring upon the man to whose benevolence he owed his very life. Hence his struggle, which must be measured by the extent of his desires and the limitations which had been set to his nature by his surroundings and the circumstances of his life and daily history.

If we enter with him into the humble cottage where he was born and from which he had hardly strayed more than a dozen miles in the twenty-two years of his circumscribed life, we may be able to understand him better.

It was an unpainted house perched on an arid hillside, with nothing before it but the limitless sea. He had found his way to it mechanically, but as he approached the narrow doorway he paused and turned his face towards the stretch of heaving waters, whose low or loud booming had been first his cradle song and then the ceaseless accompaniment of his later thoughts and aspirations. It was heaving yet, ceaselessly heaving, and in its loud complaint there was a sound of moaning not always to be found there, or so it seemed to Sweetwater in his present troubled mood.

Sighing as this sound reached his ear, and shuddering as its meaning touched his heart, Sweetwater pushed open the door of his small house, and entered.

“It is I, mamsie!” he shouted, in what he meant to be his usual voice; but to a sensitive ear — and what ear is so sensitive as a mother’s? — there was a tremble in it that was not wholly natural.

“Is anything the matter, dear?” called out that mother, in reply.

The question made him start, though he replied quickly enough, and in more guarded tones:

“No, mamsie. Go to sleep. I’m tired, that’s all.”

Would to God that was all! He recalled with envy the days when he dragged himself into the house at sundown, after twelve long hours of work on the docks. As he paused in the dark hallway and listened till he heard the breathing of her who had called him DEAR— the only one in the world who ever had or ever would call him DEAR— he had glimpses of that old self which made him question if his self-tutoring on the violin, and the restless ambition which had driven him out of the ways of his ancestors into strange attempts for which he was not prepared by any previous discipline, had brought him happiness or improved his manhood. He was forced to acknowledge that the sleep of those far-distant nights of his busy boyhood was sweeter than the wakefulness of these later days, and that it would have been better for him, and infinitely better for her, if he had remained at the carpenter’s bench and been satisfied with a repetition of his father’s existence.

His mother was the only person sharing that small house with him, and once assured that she was asleep, he lighted a lamp in the empty kitchen and sat down.

It was just twelve o’clock. This, to anyone accustomed to this peculiar young man’s habits, had nothing unusual in it. He was accustomed to come home late and sit thus by himself for a short time before going up-stairs. But, to one capable of reading his sharp and none too mobile countenance, there was a change in the character of the brooding into which he now sank, which, had that mother been awake to watch him, would have made every turn of his eye and movement of his hand interesting and important.

In the first place, the careless attitude into which he had fallen was totally at variance with the restless glance which took in every object in that well-known room so associated with his mother and her daily work that he could not imagine her in any other surroundings, and wondered sometimes if she would seem any longer his mother if transplanted to other scenes and engaged in other tasks.

Little things, petty objects of household use or ornament, which he had seen all his life without specially noticing them, seemed under the stress of his present mood to acquire a sudden importance and fix themselves indelibly in his memory. There, on a nail driven long before he was born, hung the little round lid-holder he had pieced together in his earliest years and presented to his mother in a gush of pride greater than any he had since experienced. She had never used it, but it always hung upon the one nail in the one place, as a symbol of his love and of hers. And there, higher up on the end of the shelf barren enough of ornaments, God wot, were a broken toy and a much-defaced primer, mementos likewise of his childhood; and farther along the wall, on a sort of raised bench, a keg, the spigot of which he was once guilty of turning on in his infantile longing for sweets, only to find he could not turn it back again until all the floor was covered with molasses, and his appetite for the forbidden gratified to the full. And yonder, dangling from a peg, never devoted to any other use, hung his father’s old hat, just where he had placed it on the fatal morning when he came in and lay down on the sitting-room lounge for the last time; and close to it, lovingly close to it, Sweetwater thought, his mother’s apron, the apron he had seen her wear at supper, and which he would see her wear at breakfast, with all its suggestions of ceaseless work and patient every-day thrift.

Somehow, he could not bear the sight of that apron. With the expectation now forming in his mind, of leaving this home and leaving this mother, this symbol of humble toil became an intolerable grief to him. Jumping up, he turned in another direction; but now another group of objects equally eloquent came under his eye. It was his mother’s work-basket he saw, with a piece of sewing in it intended for him, and as if this were not enough, the table set for two, and at his place a little covered dish which held the one sweetmeat he craved for breakfast. The spectacles lying beside her plate told him how old she was, and as he thought of her failing strength and enfeebled ways, he jumped up again and sought another corner. But here his glances fell on his violin, and a new series of emotions awakened within him. He loved the instrument and played as much from natural intuition as acquired knowledge, but in the plan of action he had laid out for himself his violin could have no part. He would have to leave it behind. Feeling that his regrets were fast becoming too much for him, he left the humble kitchen and went up-stairs. But not to sleep. Locking the door (something he never remembered doing before in all his life), he began to handle over his clothes and other trivial belongings. Choosing out a certain strong suit, he laid it out on the bed and then went to a bureau drawer and drew out an old-fashioned wallet. This he opened, but after he had counted the few bills it contained he shook his head and put them all back, only retaining a little silver, which he slipped into one of the pockets of the suit he had chosen. Then he searched for and found a little Bible which his mother had once given him. He was about to thrust that into another pocket, but he seemed to think better of this, too, for he ended by putting it back into the drawer and taking instead a bit from one of his mother’s old aprons which he had chanced upon on the stairway. This he placed as carefully in his watch pocket as if it had been the picture of a girl he loved. Then he undressed and went to bed.

Mrs. Sweetwater said afterwards that she never knew Caleb to talk so much and eat so little as he did that next morning at breakfast. Such plans as he detailed for unmasking the murderer of Mrs. Webb! Such business for the day! So many people to see! It made her quite dizzy, she said. And, indeed, Sweetwater was more than usually voluble that morning — perhaps because he could not bear his mother’s satisfied smile; and when he went out of the house it was with a laugh and a cheery “Good-bye, mamsie” that was in spiking contrast to the irrepressible exclamation of grief which escaped him when the door was closed between them. Ah, when should he enter those four walls again, and when should he see the old mother?

He proceeded immediately to town. A ship was preparing to sail that morning for the Brazils, and the wharves were alive with bustle. He stopped a moment to contemplate the great hulk rising and falling at her moorings, then he passed on and entered the building where he had every reason to expect to find Dr. Talbot and Knapp in discussion. It was very important to him that morning to learn just how they felt concerning the great matter absorbing him, for if suspicion was taking the direction of Frederick, or if he saw it was at all likely to do so, then would his struggle be cut short and all necessity for leaving town be at an end. It was to save Frederick from this danger that he was prepared to cut all the ties binding him to this place, and nothing short of the prospect of accomplishing this would make him willing to undergo such a sacrifice.

“Well, Sweetwater, any news, eh?” was the half-jeering, half-condescending greeting he received from the coroner.

Sweetwater, who had regained entire control over his feelings as soon as he found himself under the eye of this man and the supercilious detective he had attempted to rival, gave a careless shrug and passed the question on to Knapp. “Have you any news?” he asked.

Knapp, who would probably not have acknowledged it if he had, smiled the indulgent smile of a self-satisfied superior and uttered a few equivocal sentences. This was gall and wormwood to Sweetwater, but he kept his temper admirably and, with an air of bravado entirely assumed for the occasion, said to Dr. Talbot:

“I think I shall have something to tell you soon which will materially aid you in your search for witnesses. By to-morrow, at least, I shall know whether I am right or wrong in thinking I have discovered an important witness in quite an unexpected quarter.”

Sweetwater knew of no new witness, but it was necessary for him not only to have a pretext for the move he contemplated, but to so impress these men with an idea of his extreme interest in the approaching proceedings, that no suspicion should ever arise of his having premeditated an escape from them. He wished to appear the victim of accident; and this is why he took nothing from his home which would betray any intention of leaving it.

“Ha! indeed!” ejaculated the coroner with growing interest. “And may I ask ——”

“Please,” urged Sweetwater, with a side look at Knapp, “do not ask me anything just yet. This afternoon, say, after I have had a certain interview with — What, are they setting sails on the Hesper already?” he burst out, with a quick glance from the window at the great ship riding at anchor a little distance from them in the harbour. “There is a man on her I must see. Excuse me — Oh, Mr. Sutherland!”

He fell back in confusion. That gentleman had just entered the room in company with Frederick.

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