Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxi

A Witness Lost

Impossible! Incredible!

Like a wave suddenly lifted the whole assemblage rose in surprise if not in protest. But there was no outburst. The very depth of the feelings evoked made all ebullition impossible, and as one sees the billow pause ere it breaks, and gradually subside, so this crowd yielded to its awe, and man by man sank back into his seat till quiet was again restored, and only a circle of listening faces confronted the man who had just stirred a whole roomful to its depths. Seeing this, and realising his opportunity, Frederick at once entered into the explanations for which each heart there panted.

“This will be overwhelming news to him who has cared for me since infancy. You have heard him call me son; with what words shall I overthrow his confidence in the truth and rectitude of his long-buried wife and make him know in his old age that he has wasted years of patience upon one who was not of his blood or lineage? The wonder, the incredulity you manifest are my best excuse for my long delay in revealing the secret entrusted to me by this dying woman.”

An awed silence greeted these words. Never was the interest of a crowd more intense or its passions held in greater restraint. Yet Agnes’s tears flowed freely, and Amabel’s smiles — well, their expression had changed; and to Sweetwater, who alone had eyes for her now, they were surcharged with a tragic meaning, strange to see in one of her callous nature.

Frederick’s voice broke as he proceeded in his self-imposed task.

“The astounding fact which I have just communicated to you was made known by my mother, with the dagger still plunged in her breast. She would not let me draw it out. She knew that death would follow that act, and she prized every moment remaining to her because of the bliss she enjoyed of seeing and having near her her only living child. The love, the passion, the boundless devotion she showed in those last few minutes transformed me in an instant from a selfish brute into a deeply repentant man. I knelt before her in anguish. I made her feel that, wicked as I had been, I was not the conscienceless wretch she had imagined, and that she was mistaken as to the motives which led me into her presence. And when I saw, by her clearing brow and peaceful look, that I had fully persuaded her of this, I let her speak what words she would, and tell, as she was able, the secret tragedy of her life.

“It is a sacred story to me, and if you must know it, let it be from her own words in the letters she left behind her. She only told me that to save me from the fate of the children who had preceded me, the five little girls and boys who had perished almost at birth in her arms, she had parted from me in early infancy to Mrs. Sutherland, then mourning the sudden death of her only child; that this had been done secretly and under circumstances calculated to deceive Mr. Sutherland, consequently he had never known I was not his own child, and in terror of the effect which the truth might have upon him she enjoined me not to enlighten him now, if by any sacrifice on my part I could rightfully avoid it; that she was happy in having me hear the truth before she died; that the joy which this gave her was so great she did not regret her fatal act, violent and uncalled for as it was, for it had showed her my heart and allowed me to read hers. Then she talked of my father, by whom I mean him whom you call Philemon; and she made me promise I would care for him to the last with tenderness, saying that I would be able to do this without seeming impropriety, since she had willed me all her fortune under this proviso. Finally, she gave me a key, and pointing out where the money lay hidden, bade me carry it away as her last gift, together with the package of letters I would find with it. And when I had taken these and given her back the key, she told me that but for one thing she would die happy. And though her strength and breath were fast failing her, she made me understand that she was worried about the Zabels, who had not come according to a sacred custom between them, to celebrate the anniversary of her wedding, and prayed me to see the two old gentlemen before I slept, since nothing but death or dire distress would have kept them from gratifying the one whim of my father’s failing mind. I promised, and with perfect peace in her face, she pointed to the dagger in her breast.

“But before I could lay my hand upon it she called for Batsy. ‘I want her to hear me declare before I go,’ said she, ‘that this stroke was delivered by myself upon myself.’ But when I rose to look for Batsy I found that the shock of her mistress’s fatal act had killed her and that only her dead body was lying across the window-sill of the adjoining room. It was a chance that robbed me of the only witness who could testify to my innocence, in case my presence in this house of death should become known, and realising all the danger in which it threw me, I did not dare to tell my mother, for fear it would make her last moments miserable. So I told her that the poor woman had understood what she wished, but was too terrified to move or speak; and this satisfied my mother and made her last breath one of trust and contented love. She died as I drew the dagger from her breast, and seeing this, I was seized with horror of the instrument which had cost me such a dear and valuable life and flung it wildly from the window. Then I lifted her and laid her where you found her, on the sofa. I did not know that the dagger was an old-time gift of her former lover, James Zabel, much less that it bore his initials on the handle.”

He paused, and the awe occasioned by the scene he had described was so deep and the silence so prolonged that a shudder passed over the whole assemblage when from some unknown quarter a single cutting voice arose in this one short, mocking comment:

“Oh, the fairy tale!”

Was it Amabel who spoke? Some thought so and looked her way, but they only beheld a sweet, tear-stained face turned with an air of moving appeal upon Frederick as if begging pardon for the wicked doubts which had driven him to this defence.

Frederick met that look with one so severe it partook of harshness; then, resuming his testimony, he said:

“It is of the Zabel brothers I must now speak, and of how one of them, James by name, came to be involved in this affair.

“When I left my dead mother’s side I was in such a state of mind that I passed with scarcely so much as a glance the room where my new-found father sat sleeping. But as I hastened on toward the quarter where the Zabels lived, I was seized by such compunction for his desolate state that I faltered in my rapid flight and did not arrive at the place of my destination as quickly as I intended. When I did I found the house dark and the silence sepulchral. But I did not turn away. Remembering my mother’s anxiety, an anxiety so extreme it disturbed her final moments, I approached the front door and was about to knock when I found it open. Greatly astonished, I at once passed in, and, seeing my way perfectly in the moonlight, entered the room on the left, the door of which also stood open. It was the second house I had entered unannounced that night, and in this as in the other I encountered a man sitting asleep by the table.

“It was John, the elder of the two, and, perceiving that he was suffering for food and in a condition of extreme misery, I took out the first bill my hand encountered in my overfull pockets and laid it on the table by his side. As I did so he gave a sigh, but did not wake; and satisfied that I had done all that was wise and all that even my mother would expect of me under the circumstances, and fearing to encounter the other brother if I lingered, I hastened away and took the shortest path home. Had I been more of a man, or if my visit to Mrs. Webb had been actuated by a more communicable motive, I would have gone at once to the good man who believed me to be of his own flesh and blood, and told him of the strange and heart-rending adventure which had changed the whole tenor of my thoughts and life, and begged his advice as to what I had better do under the difficult circumstances in which I found myself placed. But the memory of a thousand past ingratitudes, together with the knowledge of the shock which he could not fail to receive on learning at this late day, and under conditions at once so tragic and full of menace, that the child which his long-buried wife had once placed in his arms as his own was neither of her blood nor his, rose up between us and caused me not only to attempt silence, but to secrete in the adjoining woods the money I had received, in the vain hope that all visible connection between myself and my mother’s tragic death would thus be lost. You see I had not calculated on Miss Amabel Page.”

The flash he here received from that lady’s eyes startled the crowd, and gave Sweetwater, already suffering under shock after shock of mingled surprise and wonder, his first definite idea that he had never rightly understood the relations between these two, and that something besides justice had actuated Amabel in her treatment of this young man. This feeling was shared by others, and a reaction set in in Frederick’s favour, which even affected the officials who were conducting the inquiry. This was shown by the difference of manner now assumed by the coroner and by the more easily impressed Sweetwater, who had not yet learned the indispensable art of hiding his feelings. Frederick himself felt the change and showed it by the look of relief and growing confidence he cast at Agnes.

Of the questions and answers which now passed between him and the various members of the jury I need give no account. They but emphasised facts already known, and produced but little change in the general feeling, which was now one of suppressed pity for all who had been drawn into the meshes of this tragic mystery. When he was allowed to resume his seat, the name of Miss Amabel Page was again called.

She rose with a bound. Nought that she had anticipated had occurred; facts of which she could know nothing had changed the aspect of affairs and made the position of Frederick something so remote from any she could have imagined, that she was still in the maze of the numberless conflicting emotions which these revelations were calculated to call out in one who had risked all on the hazard of a die and lost. She did not even know at this moment whether she was glad or sorry he could explain so cleverly his anomalous position. She had caught the look he had cast at Agnes, and while this angered her, it did not greatly modify her opinion that he was destined for herself. For, however other people might feel, she did not for a moment believe his story. She had not a pure enough heart to do so. To her all self-sacrifice was an anomaly. No woman of the mental or physical strength of Agatha Webb would plant a dagger in her own breast just to prevent another person from committing a crime, were he lover, husband, or son. So Amabel believed and so would these others believe also when once relieved of the magnetic personality of this extraordinary witness. Yet how thrilling it had been to hear him plead his cause so well! It was almost worth the loss of her revenge to meet his look of hate, and dream of the possibility of turning it later into the old look of love. Yes, yes, she loved him now; not for his position, for that was gone; not even for his money, for she could contemplate its loss; but for himself, who had so boldly shown that he was stronger than she and could triumph over her by the sheer force of his masculine daring.

With such feelings, what should she say to these men; how conduct herself under questions which would be much more searching now than before? She could not even decide in her own mind. She must let impulse have its way.

Happily, she took the right stand at first. She did not endeavour to make any corrections in her former testimony, only acknowledging that the flower whose presence on the scene of death had been such a mystery, had fallen from her hair at the ball and that she had seen Frederick pick it up and put it in his buttonhole. Beyond this, and the inferences it afterward awakened in her mind, she would not go, though many present, and among them Frederick, felt confident that her attitude had been one of suspicion from the first, and that it was to follow him rather than to supply the wants of the old man, Zabel, she had left the ball and found her way to Agatha Webb’s cottage.

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