Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

viii

“A Devil that Understands Men”

Frederick Sutherland was a man of finer mental balance than he himself, perhaps, had ever realised. After the first few moments of stupefaction following the astounding alternative which had been given him, he broke out with the last sentence she probably expected to hear:

“What do you hope from a marriage with me, that to attain your wishes you thus sacrifice every womanly instinct?”

She met him on his own ground.

“What do I hope?” She actually glowed with the force of her secret desire. “Can you ask a poor girl like me, born in a tenement house, but with tastes and ambitions such as are usually only given to those who can gratify them? I want to be the rich Mr. Sutherland’s daughter; acknowledged or unacknowledged, the wife of one who can enter any house in Boston as an equal. With a position like that I can rise to anything. I feel that I have the natural power and aptitude. I have felt it since I was a small child.”

“And for that ——” he began.

“And for that,” she broke in, “I am quite willing to overlook a blot on your record. Confident that you will never repeat the risk of last night, I am ready to share the burden of your secret through life. If you treat me well, I am sure I can make that burden light for you.”

With a quick flush and an increase of self-assertion, probably not anticipated by her, he faced the daring girl with a desperate resolution that showed how handsome he could be if his soul once got control of his body.

“Woman,” he cried, “they were right; you are little less than a devil.”

Did she regard it as a compliment? Her smile would seem to say so.

“A devil that understands men,” she answered, with that slow dip of her dimples that made her smile so dangerous. “You will not hesitate long over this matter; a week, perhaps.”

“I shall not hesitate at all. Seeing you as you are, makes my course easy. You will never share any burden with me as my wife.”

Still she was not abashed.

“It is a pity,” she whispered; “it would have saved you such unnecessary struggle. But a week is not long to wait. I am certain of you then. This day week at twelve o’clock, Frederick.”

He seized her by the arm, and lost to everything but his rage, shook her with a desperate hand.

“Do you mean it?” he cried, a sudden horror showing itself in his face, notwithstanding his efforts to conceal it.

“I mean it so much,” she assured him, “that before I came home just now I paid a visit to the copse over the way. A certain hollow tree, where you and I have held more than one tryst, conceals within its depths a package containing over one thousand dollars. Frederick, I hold your life in my hands.”

The grasp with which he held her relaxed; a mortal despair settled upon his features, and recognising the impossibility of further concealing the effect of her words upon him, he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands. She viewed him with an air of triumph, which brought back some of her beauty. When she spoke it was to say:

“If you wish to join me in Springfield before the time I have set, well and good. I am willing that the time of our separation should be shortened, but it must not be lengthened by so much as a day. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and pack my trunks.”

He shuddered; her voice penetrated him to the quick.

Drawing herself up, she looked down on him with a strange mixture of passion and elation.

“You need fear no indiscretion on my part, so long as our armistice lasts,” said she. “No one can drag the truth from me while any hope remains of your doing your duty by me in the way I have suggested.”

And still he did not move.

“Frederick?”

Was it her voice that was thus murmuring his name? Can the tiger snarl one moment and fawn the next?

“Frederick, I have a final word to say — a last farewell. Up to this hour I have endured your attentions, or, let us say, accepted them, for I always found you handsome and agreeable, if not the master of my heart. But now it is love that I feel, love; and love with me is no fancy, but a passion — do you hear? — a passion which will make life a heaven or hell for the man who has inspired it. You should have thought of this when you opposed me.”

And with a look in which love and hatred contended for mastery, she bent and imprinted a kiss upon his forehead. Next moment she was gone.

Or so he thought. But when, after an interval of nameless recoil, he rose and attempted to stagger from the place, he discovered that she had been detained in the hall by two or three men who had just come in by the front door.

“Is this Miss Page?” they were asking.

“Yes, I am Miss Page — Amabel Page” she replied with suave politeness. “If you have any business with me, state it quickly, for I am about to leave town.”

“That is what we wish to prevent,” declared a tall, thin young man who seemed to take the lead. “Till the inquest has been held over the remains of Mrs. Webb, Coroner Talbot wishes you to regard yourself as a possible witness.”

“Me?” she cried, with an admirable gesture of surprise and a wide opening of her brown eyes that made her look like an astonished child. “What have I got to do with it?”

“You pointed out a certain spot of blood on the grass, and — well, the coroner’s orders have to be obeyed, miss. You cannot leave the town without running the risk of arrest”

“Then I will stay in it,” she smiled. “I have no liking for arrests,” and the glint of her eye rested for a moment on Frederick. “Mr. Sutherland,” she continued, as that gentleman appeared at the dining-room door, “I shall have to impose upon your hospitality for a few days longer. These men here inform me that my innocent interest in pointing out to you that spot of blood on Mrs. Webb’s lawn has awakened some curiosity, and that I am wanted as a witness by the coroner.”

Mr. Sutherland, with a quick stride, lessened the distance between himself and these unwelcome intruders. “The coroner’s wishes are paramount just now,” said he, but the look he gave his son was not soon forgotten by the spectators.

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