Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxiv

In the Shadow Op the Mast

Mr. Sutherland was right. Sweetwater did not return with the pilot. According to the latter there was no Sweetwater on board the ship to return. At all events the minutest search had not succeeded in finding him in the cabins, though no one had seen him leave the vessel, or, indeed, seen him at all after his hasty dash below decks. It was thought on board that he had succeeded in reaching shore before the ship set sail, and the pilot was suitably surprised at learning this was not so. So were Sweetwater’s friends and associates with the exception of a certain old gentleman living on the hill, and Knapp the detective. He, that is the latter, had his explanation at his tongue’s end:

“Sweetwater is a fakir. He thought he could carry off the honours from the regular force, and when he found he couldn’t he quietly disappeared. We shall hear of him again in the Brazils.”

An opinion that speedily gained ground, so that in a few hours Sweetwater was all but forgotten, save by his mother, whose heart was filled with suspense, and by Mr. Sutherland, whose breast was burdened by gratitude. The amazing fact of Frederick, the village scapegrace and Amabel’s reckless, if aristocratic, lover, having been made the legatee of the upright Mrs. Webb’s secret savings had something to do with this. With such a topic at hand, not only the gossips, but those who had the matter of Agatha’s murder in hand, found ample material to occupy their thoughts and tongues, without wasting time over a presumptuous busybody, who had not wits enough to know that five minutes before sailing-time is an unfortunate moment in which to enter a ship.

And where was Sweetwater, that he could not be found on the shore or on the ship? We will follow him and see. Accustomed from his youth to ramble over the vessels while in port, he knew this one as well as he did his mother’s house. It was, therefore, a surprise to the sailors when, shortly after the departure of the pilot, they came upon him lying in the hold, half buried under a box which had partially fallen upon him. He was unconscious, or appeared to be so, and when brought into open light showed marks of physical distress and injury; but his eye was clear and his expression hardly as rueful as one would expect in a man who finds himself en route for the Brazils with barely a couple of dollars in his pocket and every prospect of being obliged to work before the mast to earn his passage. Even the captain noticed this and eyed him with suspicion. But Sweetwater, rousing to the necessities of the occasion, forthwith showed such a mixture of discouragement and perplexity that the honest sailor was deceived and abated half at least of his oaths. He gave Sweetwater a hammock and admitted him to the mess, but told him that as soon as his bruises allowed him to work he should show himself on deck or expect the rough treatment commonly bestowed on stowaways.

It was a prospect to daunt some men, but not Sweetwater. Indeed it was no more than he had calculated upon when he left his savings behind with his old mother and entered upon this enterprise with only a little change in his pocket. He had undertaken out of love and gratitude to Mr. Sutherland to rid Frederick of a dangerous witness and he felt able to complete the sacrifice. More than that, he was even strangely happy for a time. The elation of the willing victim was his, that is for a few short hours, then he began to think of his mother. How had she borne his sudden departure? What would she think had befallen him, and how long would he have to wait before he could send her word of his safety? If he was to be of real service to the man he venerated, he must be lost long enough for the public mind to have become settled in regard to the mysteries of the Webb murder and for his own boastful connection with it to be forgotten. This might mean years of exile. He rather thought it did; meanwhile his mother! Of himself he thought little.

By sundown he felt himself sufficiently recovered from his bruises to go up on deck. It was a mild night, and the sea was running in smooth long waves that as yet but faintly presaged the storm brewing on the distant horizon. As he inhaled the fresh air, the joy of renewed health began to infuse its life into his veins and lift the oppression from his heart, and, glad of a few minutes of quiet enjoyment, he withdrew to a solitary portion of the deck and allowed himself to forget his troubles in contemplation of the rapidly deepening sky and boundless stretch of waters.

But such griefs and anxieties as weighed upon this man’s breast are not so easily shaken off. Before he realised it his thoughts had recurred to the old theme, and he was wondering if he was really of sufficient insignificance in the eyes of his fellow-townsmen not to be sought for and found in that distant country to which he was bound. Would they, in spite of his precautions, suspect that he had planned this evasion and insist on his return, or would he be allowed to slip away and drop out of sight like the white froth he was watching on the top of the ever-shifting waves? He had boasted of possessing a witness. Would they believe that boast and send a detective in search of him, or would they take his words for the bombast they really were and proceed with their investigations in happy relief at the loss of his intrusive assistance?

As this was a question impossible for him to answer, he turned to other thoughts and fretted himself for a while with memories of Amabel’s disdain and Frederick’s careless acceptance of a sacrifice he could never know the cost of, mixed strangely with relief at being free of it all and on the verge of another life. As the dark settled, his head fell farther and farther forward on the rail he was leaning against, till he became to any passing eye but a blurred shadow mixing with other shadows equally immovable.

Unlike them, however, his shadow suddenly shifted. Two men had drawn near him, one speaking pure Spanish and the other English. The English was all that Sweetwater could understand, and this half of the conversation was certainly startling enough. Though he could not, of coarse, know to what or whom it referred, and though it certainly had nothing to do with him, or any interest he represented or understood, he could not help listening and remembering every word. The English-speaking man uttered the first sentence he comprehended. It was this:

“Shall it be to-night?”

The answer was in Spanish.

Again the English voice:

“He has come up. I saw him distinctly as he passed the second mast.”

More Spanish; then English:

“You may if you want to, but I’ll never breathe easy while he’s on the ship. Are you sure he’s the fellow we fear?”

A rapid flow of words from which Sweetwater got nothing. Then slowly and distinctly in the sinister tones he had already begun to shiver at:

“Very good. The R. F. A. should pay well for this,” with the quick addition following a hurried whisper: “All right! I’d send a dozen men to the bottom for half that money. But ‘ware there! Here’s a fellow watching us! If he has heard —”

Sweetwater turned, saw two desperate faces projected toward him, realised that something awful, unheard of, was about to happen, and would have uttered a yell of dismay, but that the very intensity of his fright took away his breath. The next minute he felt himself launched into space and enveloped in the darkness of the chilling waters. He had been lifted bodily and flung headlong into the sea.

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