Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxx

What Followed the Steiking of the Clock

It was the last day of the inquest, and to many it bade fair to be the least interesting. All the witnesses who had anything to say had long ago given in their testimony, and when at or near noon Sweetwater slid into the inconspicuous seat he had succeeded in obtaining near the coroner, it was to find in two faces only any signs of the eagerness and expectancy which filled his own breast to suffocation. But as these faces were those of Agnes Halliday and Amabel Page, he soon recognised that his own judgment was not at fault, and that notwithstanding outward appearances and the languid interest shown in the now lagging proceedings, the moment presaged an event full of unseen but vital consequence.

Frederick was not visible in the great hall; but that he was near at hand soon became evident from the change Sweetwater now saw in Amabel. For while she had hitherto sat under the universal gaze with only the faint smile of conscious beauty on her inscrutable features, she roused as the hands of the clock moved toward noon, and glanced at the great door of entrance with an evil expectancy that startled even Sweetwater, so little had he really understood the nature of the passions labouring in that venomous breast.

Next moment the door opened, and Frederick and his father came in. The air of triumphant satisfaction with which Amabel sank back into her seat was as marked in its character as her previous suspense. What did it mean? Sweetwater, noting it, and the vivid contrast it offered to Frederick’s air of depression, felt that his return had been well timed.

Mr. Sutherland was looking very feeble. As he took the chair offered him, the change in his appearance was apparent to all who knew him, and there were few there who did not know him. And, startled by these evidences of suffering which they could not understand and feared to interpret even to themselves, more than one devoted friend stole uneasy glances at Frederick to see if he too were under the cloud which seemed to envelop his father almost beyond recognition.

But Frederick was looking at Amabel, and his erect head and determined aspect made him a conspicuous figure in the room. She who had called up this expression, and alone comprehended it fully, smiled as she met his eye, with that curious slow dipping of her dimples which had more than once confounded the coroner, and rendered her at once the admiration and abhorrence of the crowd who for so long a time had had the opportunity of watching her.

Frederick, to whom this smile conveyed a last hope as well as a last threat, looked away as soon as possible, but not before her eyes had fallen in their old inquiring way to his hands, from which he had removed the ring which up to this hour he had invariably worn on his third finger. In this glance of hers and this action of his began the struggle that was to make that day memorable in many hearts.

After the first stir occasioned by the entrance of two such important persons the crowd settled back into its old quietude under the coroner’s hand. A tedious witness was having his slow say, and to him a full attention was being given in the hope that some real enlightenment would come at last to settle the questions which had been raised by Amabel’s incomplete and unsatisfactory testimony. But no man can furnish what he does not possess, and the few final minutes before noon passed by without any addition being made to the facts which had already been presented for general consideration.

As the witness sat down the clock began to strike. As the slow, hesitating strokes rang out, Sweetwater saw Frederick yield to a sudden but most profound emotion. The old fear, which we understand, if Sweetwater did not, had again seized the victim of Amabel’s ambition, and under her eye, which was blazing full upon him now with a fell and steady purpose, he found his right hand stealing toward the left in the significant action she expected. Better to yield than fall headlong into the pit one word of hers would open. He had not meant to yield, but now that the moment had come, now that he must at once and forever choose between a course that led simply to personal unhappiness and one that involved not only himself, but those dearest to him, in disgrace and sorrow, he felt himself weaken to the point of clutching at whatever would save him from the consequences of confession. Moral strength and that tenacity of purpose which only comes from years of self-control were too lately awakened in his breast to sustain him now. As stroke after stroke fell on the ear, he felt himself yielding beyond recovery, and had almost touched his finger in the significant action of assent which Amabel awaited with breathless expectation, when — was it miracle or only the suggestion of his better nature? — the memory of a face full of holy pleading rose from the past before his eyes and with an inner cry of “Mother!” he flung his hand out and clutched his father’s arm in a way to break the charm of his own dread and end forever the effects of the intolerable fascination that was working upon him. Next minute the last stroke of noon rang out, and the hour was up which Amabel had set as the limit of her silence.

A pause, which to their two hearts if to no others seemed strangely appropriate, followed the cessation of these sounds, then the witness was dismissed, and Amabel, taking advantage of the movement, was about to lean toward Mr. Courtney, when Frederick, leaping with a bound to his feet, drew all eyes towards himself with the cry:

“Let me be put on my oath. I have testimony to give of the utmost importance in this case.”

The coroner was astounded; everyone was astounded. No one had expected anything from him, and instinctively every eye turned towards Amabel to see how she was affected by his action.

Strangely, evidently, for the look with which she settled back in her seat was one which no one who saw it ever forgot, though it conveyed no hint of her real feelings, which were somewhat chaotic.

Frederick, who had forgotten her now that he had made up his mind to speak, waited for the coroner’s reply.

“If you have testimony,” said that gentleman after exchanging a few hurried words with Mr. Courtney and the surprised Knapp, “you can do no better than give it to us at once. Mr. Frederick Sutherland, will you take the stand?”

With a noble air from which all hesitation had vanished, Frederick started towards the place indicated, but stopped before he had taken a half-dozen steps and glanced back at his father, who was visibly succumbing under this last shock.

“Go!” he whispered, but in so thrilling a tone it was heard to the remotest corner of the room. “Spare me the anguish of saying what I have to say in your presence. I could not bear it. You could not bear it. Later, if you will wait for me in one of these rooms, I will repeat my tale in your ears, but go now. It is my last entreaty.”

There was a silence; no one ventured a dissent, no one so much as made a gesture of disapproval. Then Mr. Sutherland struggled to his feet, cast one last look around him, and disappeared through a door which had opened like magic before him. Then and not till then did Frederick move forward.

The moment was intense. The coroner seemed to share the universal excitement, for his first question was a leading one and brought out this startling admission:

“I have obtruded myself into this inquiry and now ask to be heard by this jury, because no man knows more than I do of the manner and cause of Agatha Webb’s death. This you will believe when I tell you that I was the person Miss Page followed into Mrs. Webb’s house and whom she heard descend the stairs during the moment she crouched behind the figure of the sleeping Philemon.”

It was more, infinitely more, than anyone there had expected. It was not only an acknowledgment but a confession, and the shock, the surprise, the alarm, which it occasioned even to those who had never had much confidence in this young man’s virtue, was almost appalling in its intensity. Had it not been for the consciousness of Mr. Sutherland’s near presence the feeling would have risen to outbreak; and many voices were held in subjection by the remembrance of this venerated man’s last look, that otherwise would have made themselves heard in despite of the restrictions of the place and the authority of the police.

To Frederick it was a moment of immeasurable grief and humiliation. On every face, in every shrinking form, in subdued murmurs and open cries, he read instant and complete condemnation, and yet in all his life from boyhood up to this hour, never had he been so worthy of their esteem and consideration. But though he felt the iron enter his soul, he did not lose his determined attitude. He had observed a change in Amabel and a change in Agnes, and if only to disappoint the vile triumph of the one and raise again the drooping courage of the other, he withstood the clamour and began speaking again, before the coroner had been able to fully restore quiet.

“I know,” said he, “what this acknowledgment must convey to the minds of the jury and people here assembled. But if anyone who listens to me thinks me guilty of the death I was so unfortunate as to have witnessed, he will be doing me a wrong which Agatha Webb would be the first to condemn. Dr. Talbot, and you, gentlemen of the jury, in the face of God and man, I here declare that Mrs. Webb, in my presence and before my eyes, gave to herself the blow which has robbed us all of a most valuable life. She was not murdered.”

It was a solemn assertion, but it failed to convince the crowd before him. As by one impulse men and women broke into a tumult. Mr. Sutherland was forgotten and cries of “Never! She was too good! It’s all calumny! A wretched lie!” broke in unrestrained excitement from every part of the large room. In vain the coroner smote with his gavel, in vain the local police endeavoured to restore order; the tide was up and over-swept everything for an instant till silence was suddenly restored by the sight of Amabel smoothing out the folds of her crisp white frock with an incredulous, almost insulting, smile that at once fixed attention again on Frederick. He seized the occasion and spoke up in a tone of great resolve.

“I have made an assertion,” said he, “before God and before this jury. To make it seem a credible one I shall have to tell my own story from the beginning. Am I allowed to do so, Mr. Coroner?”

“You are,” was the firm response.

“Then, gentlemen,” continued Frederick, still without looking at Amabel, whose smile had acquired a mockery that drew the eyes of the jury toward her more than once during the following recital, “you know, and the public generally now know, that Mrs. Webb has left me the greater portion of the money of which she died possessed. I have never before acknowledged to anyone, not even to the good man who awaits this jury’s verdict on the other side of that door yonder, that she had reasons for this, good reasons, reasons of which up to the very evening of her death I was myself ignorant, as I was ignorant of her intentions in my regard, or that I was the special object of her attention, or that we were under any mutual obligations in any way. Why, then, I should have thought of going to her in the great strait in which I found myself on that day, I cannot say. I knew she had money in her house; this I had unhappily been made acquainted with in an accidental way, and I knew she was of kindly disposition and quite capable of doing a very unselfish act. Still, this would not seem to be reason enough for me to intrude upon her late at night with a plea for a large loan of money, had I not been in a desperate condition of mind, which made any attempt seem reasonable that promised relief from the unendurable burden of a pressing and disreputable debt. I was obliged to have money, a great deal of money, and I had to have it at once; and while I know that this will not serve to lighten the suspicion I have brought upon myself by my late admissions, it is the only explanation I can give you for leaving the ball at my father’s house and hurrying down secretly and alone into town to the little cottage where, as I had been told early in the evening, a small entertainment was being given, which would insure its being open even at so late an hour as midnight. Miss Page, who will, I am sure, pardon the introduction of her name into this narrative, has taken pains to declare to you that in the expedition she herself made into town that evening, she followed some person’s steps down-hill. This is very likely true, and those steps were probably mine, for after leaving the house by the garden door, I came directly down the main road to the corner of the lane running past Mrs. Webb’s cottage. Having already seen from the hillside the light burning in her upper windows, I felt encouraged to proceed, and so hastened on till I came to the gate on High Street. Here I had a moment of hesitation, and thoughts bitter enough for me to recall them at this moment came into my mind, making that instant, perhaps, the very worst in my life; but they passed, thank God, and with no more desperate feeling than a sullen intention of having my own way about this money, I lifted the latch of the front door and stepped in.

“I had expected to find a jovial group of friends in her little ground parlour, or at least to hear the sound of merry voices and laughter in the rooms above; but no sounds of any sort awaited me; indeed the house seemed strangely silent for one so fully lighted, and, astonished at this, I pushed the door ajar at my left and looked in. An unexpected and pitiful sight awaited me. Seated at a table set with abundance of untasted food, I saw the master of the house with his head sunk forward on his arms, asleep. The expected guests had failed to arrive, and he, tired out with waiting, had fallen into a doze at the board.

“This was a condition of things for which I was not prepared. Mrs. Webb, whom I wished to see, was probably up-stairs, and while I might summon her by a sturdy rap on the door beside which I stood, I had so little desire to wake her husband, of whose mental condition I was well aware, that I could not bring myself to make any loud noise within his hearing. Yet I had not the courage to retreat. All my hope of relief from the many difficulties that menaced me lay in the generosity of this great-hearted woman, and if out of pusillanimity I let this hour go by without making my appeal, nothing but shame and disaster awaited me. Yet how could I hope to lure her down-stairs without noise? I could not, and so, yielding to the impulse of the moment, without any realisation, I here swear, of the effect which my unexpected presence would have on the noble woman overhead, I slipped up the narrow staircase, and catching at that moment the sound of her voice calling out to Batsy, I stepped up to the door I saw standing open before me and confronted her before she could move from the table before which she was sitting, counting over a large roll of money.

“My look (and it was doubtless not a common look, for the sight of a mass of money at that moment, when money was everything to me, roused every lurking demon in my breast) seemed to appall, if it did not frighten her, for she rose, and meeting my eye with a gaze in which shock and some strange and poignant agony totally incomprehensible to me were strangely blended, she cried out:

“‘No, no, Frederick! You don’t know what you are doing. If you want my money, take it; if you want my life, I will give it to you with my own hand. Don’t stain yours — don’t —’

“I did not understand her. I did not know until I thought it over afterward that my hand was thrust convulsively into my breast in a way which, taken with my wild mien, made me look as if I had come to murder her for the money over which she was hovering. I was blind, deaf to everything but that money, and bending madly forward in a state of mental intoxication awful enough for me to remember now, I answered her frenzied words by some such broken exclamations as these:

“‘Give, then! I want hundreds — thousands — now, now, to save myself! Disgrace, shame, prison await me if I don’t have them. Give, give!’ And my hand went out toward it, not toward her; but she mistook the action, mistook my purpose, and, with a heart-broken cry, to save me, ME, from crime, the worst crime of which humanity is capable, she caught up a dagger lying only too near her hand in the open drawer against which she leaned, and in a moment of fathomless anguish which we who can never know more than the outward seeming of her life can hardly measure, plunged against it and — I can tell you no more. Her blood and Batsy’s shriek from the adjoining room swam through my consciousness, and then she fell, as I supposed, dead upon the floor, and I, in scarcely better case, fell also.

“This, as God lives, is the truth concerning the wound found in the breast of this never-to-be-forgotten woman.”

The feeling, the pathos, the anguish even, to be found in his tone made this story, strange and incredible as it seemed, appear for the moment plausible.

“And Batsy?” asked the coroner.

“Must have fallen when we did, for I never heard her voice after the first scream. But I shall speak of her again. What I must now explain is how the money in Mrs. Webb’s drawer came into my possession, and how the dagger she had planted in her breast came to be found on the lawn outside. When I came to myself, and that must have been very soon, I found that the blow of which I had been such a horrified witness had not yet proved fatal. The eyes I had seen close, as I had supposed, forever, were now open, and she was looking at me with a smile that has never left my memory, and never will.

“‘There is no blood on you,’ she murmured. ‘You did not strike the blow. Was it money only that you wanted, Frederick? If so, you could have had it without crime. There are five hundred dollars on that table. Take them and let them pave your way to a better life. My death will help you to remember.’ Do these words, this action of hers, seem incredible to you, sirs? Alas! alas! they will not when I tell you”— and here he cast one anxious, deeply anxious, glance at the room in which Mr. Sutherland was hidden —“that unknown to me, unknown to anyone living but herself, unknown to that good man from whom it can no longer be kept hidden, Agatha Webb was my mother. I am Philemon’s son and not the offspring of Charles and Marietta Sutherland!”

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