Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

vi

“Breakfast is Served, Gentlemen!”

Mr. Sutherland returned home. As he entered the broad hall he met his son, Frederick. There was a look on the young man’s face such as he had not seen there in years.

“Father,” faltered the youth, “may I have a few words with you?”

The father nodded kindly, though it is likely he would have much preferred his breakfast; and the young man led him into a little sitting-room littered with the faded garlands and other tokens of the preceding night’s festivities.

“I have an apology to make,” Frederick began, “or rather, I have your forgiveness to ask. For years” he went on, stumbling over his words, though he gave no evidence of a wish to restrain them —“for years I have gone contrariwise to your wishes and caused my mother’s heart to ache and you to wish I had never been born to be a curse to you and her.”

He had emphasised the word mother, and spoke altogether with force and deep intensity. Mr. Sutherland stood petrified; he had long ago given up this lad as lost.

“I— I wish to change. I wish to be as great a pride to you as I have been a shame and a dishonour. I may not succeed at once; but I am in earnest, and if you will give me your hand —”

The old man’s arms were round the young man’s shoulders at once.

“Frederick!” he cried, “my Frederick!”

“Do not make me too much ashamed,” murmured the youth, very pale and strangely discomposed. “With no excuse for my past, I suffer intolerable apprehension in regard to my future, lest my good intentions should fail or my self-control not hold out. But the knowledge that you are acquainted with my resolve, and regard it with an undeserved sympathy, may suffice to sustain me, and I should certainly be a base poltroon if I should disappoint you or her twice.”

He paused, drew himself from his father’s arms, and glanced almost solemnly out of the window. “I swear that I will henceforth act as if she were still alive and watching me.”

There was strange intensity in his manner. Mr. Sutherland regarded him with amazement. He had seen him in every mood natural to a reckless man, but never in so serious a one, never with a look of awe or purpose in his face. It gave him quite a new idea of Frederick.

“Yes,” the young man went on, raising his right hand, but not removing his eyes from the distant prospect on which they were fixed, “I swear that I will henceforth do nothing to discredit her memory. Outwardly and inwardly, I will act as though her eye were still upon me and she could again suffer grief at my failures or thrill with pleasure at my success.”

A portrait of Mrs. Sutherland, painted when Frederick was a lad of ten, hung within a few feet of him as he spoke. He did not glance at it, but Mr. Sutherland did, and with a look as if he expected to behold a responsive light beam from those pathetic features.

“She loved you very dearly,” was his slow and earnest comment. “We have both loved you much more deeply than you have ever seemed to realise, Frederick.”

“I believe it,” responded the young man, turning with an expression of calm resolve to meet his father’s eye. “As proof that I am no longer insensible to your affection, I have made up my mind to forego for your sake one of the dearest wishes of my heart. Father” he hesitated before he spoke the word, but he spoke it firmly at last — “am I right in thinking you would not like Miss Page for a daughter?”

“Like my housekeeper’s niece to take the place in this house once occupied by Marietta Sutherland? Frederick, I have always thought too well of you to believe you would carry your forgetfulness of me so far as that, even when I saw that you were influenced by her attractions.”

“You did not do justice to my selfishness, father. I did mean to marry her, but I have given up living solely for myself, and she could never help me to live for others. Father, Amabel Page must not remain in this house to cause division between you and me.”

“I have already intimated to her the desirability of her quitting a home where she is no longer respected,” the old gentleman declared. “She leaves on the 10.45 train. Her conduct this morning at the house of Mrs. Webb — who perhaps you do not know was most cruelly and foully murdered last night — was such as to cause comment and make her an undesirable adjunct to any gentleman’s family.”

Frederick paled. Something in these words had caused him a great shock. Mr. Sutherland was fond enough to believe that it was the news of this extraordinary woman’s death. But his son’s words, as soon as he could find any, showed that his mind was running on Amabel, whom he perhaps had found it difficult to connect even in the remotest way with crime.

“She at this place of death? How could that be? Who would take a young girl there?”

The father, experiencing, perhaps, more compassion for this soon-to-be-disillusioned lover than he thought it incumbent upon him to show, answered shortly, but without any compromise of the unhappy truth:

“She went; she was not taken. No one, not even myself, could keep her back after she had heard that a murder had been committed in the town. She even intruded into the house; and when ordered out of the room of death took up her stand in the yard in front, where she remained until she had the opportunity of pointing out to us a stain of blood on the grass, which might otherwise have escaped our attention.”

“Impossible!” Frederick’s eye was staring; he looked like a man struck dumb by surprise or fear. “Amabel do this? You are mocking me, sir, or I may be dreaming, which may the good God grant.”

His father, who had not looked for so much emotion, eyed his son in surprise, which rapidly changed to alarm as the young man faltered and fell back against the wall.

“You are ill, Frederick; you are really ill. Let me call down Mrs. Harcourt. But no, I cannot summon her. She is this girl’s aunt.”

Frederick made an effort and stood up.

“Do not call anybody,” he entreated. “I expect to suffer some in casting this fascinating girl out of my heart. Ultimately I will conquer the weakness; indeed I will. As for her interest in Mrs. Webb’s death”— how low his voice sank and how he trembled!” she may have been better friends with her than we had any reason to suppose. I can think of no other motive for her conduct. Admiration for Mrs. Webb and horror ——”

“Breakfast is served, gentlemen!” cried a thrilling voice behind them. Amabel Page stood smiling in the doorway.

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