Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxxiv

“Not when They are Young Girls”

But, alas! all tides have their ebb as well as flow, and before Mr. Sutherland and Frederick were well out of the main street the latter became aware that notwithstanding the respect with which his explanations had been received by the jury, there were many of his fellow-townsmen who were ready to show dissatisfaction at his being allowed to return in freedom to that home where he had still every prospect of being called the young master. Doubt, that seed of ramifying growth, had been planted in more than one breast, and while it failed as yet to break out into any open manifestation, there were evidences enough in the very restraint visible in such groups of people as they passed that suspicion had not been suppressed or his innocence established by the over-favourable verdict of the coroner’s jury.

To Mr. Sutherland, suffering now from the reaction following all great efforts, much, if not all, of this quiet but significant display of public feeling passed unnoticed. But to Frederick, alive to the least look, the least sign that his story had not been accepted unquestioned, this passage through the town was the occasion of the most poignant suffering.

For not only did these marks of public suspicion bespeak possible arraignment in the future, but through them it became evident that even if he escaped open condemnation in the courts, he could never hope for complete reinstatement before the world, nor, what was to him a still deeper source of despair, anticipate a day when Agnes’s love should make amends to him for the grief and errors of his more than wayward youth. He could never marry so pure a being while the shadow of crime separated him from the mass of human beings. Her belief in his innocence and the exact truth of his story (and he was confident she did believe him) could make no difference in this conclusion. While he was regarded openly or in dark corners or beside the humblest fireside as a possible criminal, neither Mr. Sutherland nor her father, nor his own heart even, would allow him to offer her anything but a friend’s gratitude, or win from her anything but a neighbour’s sympathy; yet in bidding good-bye to larger hopes and more importunate desires, he parted with the better part of his heart and the only solace remaining in this world for the boundless griefs and tragic experiences of his still young life. He had learned to love through suffering, only to realise that the very nature of his suffering forbade him to indulge in love.

And this seemed a final judgment, even in this hour of public justification. He had told his story and been for the moment believed, but what was there in his life, what was there in the facts as witnessed by others, what was there in his mother’s letters and the revelation of their secret relationship, to corroborate his assertions, or to prove that her hand and not his had held the weapon when the life-blood gushed from her devoted breast? Nothing, nothing; only his word to stand against all human probabilities and natural inference; only his word and the generous nature of the great-hearted woman who had thus perished! Though a dozen of his fellow-citizens had by their verdict professed their belief in his word and given him the benefit of a doubt involving his life as well as his honour, he, as well as they, knew that neither the police nor the general public were given to sentimentality, and that the question of his guilt still lay open and must remain so till his dying day. For from the nature of things no proof of the truth was probable. Batsy being dead, only God and his own heart could know that the facts of that awful half-hour were as he had told them.

Had God in His justice removed in this striking way his only witness, as a punishment for his sins and his mad indulgence in acts so little short of crime as to partake of its guilt and merit its obloquy?

He was asking himself this question as he bent to fasten the gate. His father had passed in, the carriage had driven off, and the road was almost solitary — but not quite. As he leaned his arm over the gate and turned to take a final glance down the hillside, he saw, with what feelings no one will ever know, the light figure of Agnes advancing on the arm of her father.

He would have drawn back, but a better impulse intervened and he stood his ground. Mr. Halliday, who walked very close to Agnes, cast her an admonitory glance which Frederick was not slow in interpreting, then stopped reluctantly, perhaps because he saw her falter, perhaps because he knew that an interview between these two was unavoidable and had best be quickly over.

Frederick found his voice first.

“Agnes,” said he, “I am glad of this opportunity for expressing my gratitude. You have acted like a friend and have earned my eternal consideration, even if we never speak again.”

There was a momentary silence. Her head, which had drooped under his greeting, rose again. Her eyes, humid with feeling, sought his face.

“Why do you speak like that?” said she. “Why shouldn’t we meet? Does not everyone recognise your innocence, and will not the whole world soon see, as I have, that you have left the old life behind and have only to be your new self to win everyone’s regard?”

“Agnes,” returned Frederick, smiling sadly as he observed the sudden alarm visible in her father’s face at these enthusiastic words, “you know me perhaps better than others do and are prepared to believe my words and my more than unhappy story. But there are few like you in the world. People in general will not acquit me, and if there was only one person who doubted “— Mr. Halliday began to look relieved —“I would fail to give any promise of the new life you hope to see me lead, if I allowed the shadow under which I undoubtedly rest to fall in the remotest way across yours. You and I have been friends and will continue such, but we will hold little intercourse in future, hard as I find it to say so. Does not Mr. Halliday consider this right? As your father he must.”

Agnes’s eyes, leaving Frederick’s for a moment, sought her father’s. Alas! there was no mistaking their language. Sighing deeply, she again hung her head.

“Too much care for people’s opinion,” she murmured, “and too little for what is best and noblest in us. I do not recognise the necessity of a farewell between us any more than I recognise that anyone who saw and heard you to-day can believe in your guilt.”

“But there are so many who did not hear and see me. Besides” (here he turned a little and pointed to the garden in his rear), “for the past week a man — I need not state who, nor under what authority he acts — has been in hiding under that arbour, watching my every movement, and almost counting my sighs. Yesterday he left for a short space, but to-day he is back. What does that argue, dear friend? Innocence, completely recognised, does not call for such guardianship.”

The slight frame of the young girl bending so innocently toward him shuddered involuntarily at this, and her eyes, frightened and flashing, swept over the arbour before returning to his face.

“If there is a watcher there, and if such a fact proves you to be in danger of arrest for a crime you never committed, then it behooves your friends to show where they stand in this matter, and by lending their sympathy give you courage and power to meet the trials before you.”

“Not when they are young girls,” murmured Frederick, and casting a glance at Mr. Halliday, he stepped softly back.

Agnes flushed and yielded to her father’s gentle pressure. “Good-bye, my friend,” she said, the quiver in her tones sinking deep into Frederick’s heart. “Some day it will be good-morrow,” and her head, turned back over her shoulder, took on a beautiful radiance that fixed itself forever in the hungry heart of him who watched it disappear. When she was quite gone, a man not the one whom Frederick had described, as lying in hiding in the arbour, but a different one, in fact, no other than our old friend the constable — advanced around the corner of the house and presented a paper to him.

It was the warrant for his arrest on a charge of murder.

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