Meanwhile, in a small room at the court-house, a still more serious conversation was in progress. Dr. Talbot, Mr. Fenton, and a certain able lawyer in town by the name of Harvey, were in close discussion. The last had broken the silence of years, and was telling what he knew of Mrs. Webb’s affairs.
He was a shrewd man, of unblemished reputation. When called upon to talk, he talked well, but he much preferred listening, and was, as now appeared, the safest repository of secrets to be found in all that region. He had been married three times, and could still count thirteen children around his board, one reason, perhaps, why he had learned to cultivate silence to such a degree. Happily, the time had come for him to talk, and he talked. This is what he said:
“Some fifteen years ago Philemon Webb came to me with a small sum of money, which he said he wished to have me invest for his wife. It was the fruit of a small speculation of his and he wanted it given unconditionally to her without her knowledge or that of the neighbours. I accordingly made out a deed of gift, which he signed with joyful alacrity, and then after due thought and careful investigation, I put the money into a new enterprise then being started in Boston. It was the best stroke of business I ever did in my life. At the end of a year it paid double, and after five had rolled away the accumulated interest had reached such a sum that both Philemon and myself thought it wisest to let her know what she was worth and what was being done with the money. I was in hopes it would lead her to make some change in her mode of living, which seemed to me out of keeping with her appearance and mental qualifications; while he, I imagine, looked for something more important still — a smile on the face which had somehow lost the trick of merriment, though it had never acquired that of ill nature. But we did not know Agatha; at least I did not. When she learned that she was rich, she looked at first awestruck and then heart-pierced. Forgetting me, or ignoring me, it makes no matter which, she threw herself into Philemon’s arms and wept, while he, poor faithful fellow, looked as distressed as if he had brought news of failure instead of triumphant success. I suppose she thought of her buried children, and what the money would have been to her if they had lived; but she did not speak of them, nor am I quite sure they were in her thoughts when, after the first excitement was over, she drew back and said quietly, but in a tone of strong feeling, to Philemon: ‘You meant me a happy surprise, and you must not be disappointed. This is heart money; we will use it to make our townsfolk happy.’ I saw him glance at her dress, which was a purple calico. I remember it because of that look and because of the sad smile with which she followed his glance. ‘Can we not afford now,’ he ventured, ‘a little show of luxury, or at least a ribbon or so for this beautiful throat of yours?’ She did not answer him; but her look had a rare compassion in it, a compassion, strange to say, that seemed to be expended upon him rather than upon herself. Philemon swallowed his disappointment. ‘Agatha is right,’ he said to me. ‘We do not need luxury. I do not know how I so far forgot myself as to mention it.’ That was ten years ago, and every day since then her property has increased. I did not know then, and I do not know now, why they were both so anxious that all knowledge of their good fortune should be kept from those about them; but that it was to be &o kept was made very evident to me; and, notwithstanding all temptations to the contrary, I have refrained from uttering a word likely to give away their secret. The money, which to all appearance was the cause of her tragic and untimely death, was interest money which I was delegated to deliver her. I took it to her day before yesterday, and it was all in crisp new notes, some of them twenties, but most of them tens and fives. I am free to say there was not such another roll of fresh money in town.”
“Warn all shopkeepers to keep a sharp lookout for new bills in the money they receive,” was Dr. Talbot’s comment to the constable. “Fresh ten-and twenty-dollar bills are none too common in this town. And now about her will. Did you draw that up, Harvey?”
“No. I did not know she had made one. I often spoke to her about the advisability of her doing so, but she always put me off. And now it seems that she had it drawn up in Boston. Could not trust her old friend with too many secrets, I suppose.”
“So you don’t know how her money has been left?”
“No more than you do.”
Here an interruption occurred. The door opened and a slim young man, wearing spectacles, came in. At sight of him they all rose.
“Well?” eagerly inquired Dr. Talbot.
“Nothing new,” answered the young man, with a consequential air. “The elder woman died from loss of blood consequent upon a blow given by a small, three-sided, slender blade; the younger from a stroke of apoplexy, induced by fright.”
“Good! I am glad to hear my instincts were not at fault. Loss of blood, eh? Death, then, was not instantaneous?”
“Strange!” fell from the lips of his two listeners. “She lived, yet gave no alarm.”
“None that was heard,” suggested the young doctor, who was from another town.
“Or, if heard, reached no ears but Philemon’s,” observed the constable. “Something must have taken him up-stairs.”
“I am not so sure,” said the coroner, “that Philemon is not answerable for the whole crime, notwithstanding our failure to find the missing money anywhere in the house. How else account for the resignation with which she evidently met her death? Had a stranger struck her, Agatha Webb would have struggled. There is no sign of struggle in the room.”
“She would have struggled against Philemon had she had strength to struggle. I think she was asleep when she was struck.”
“Ah! And was not standing by the table? How about the blood there, then?”
“Shaken from the murderer’s fingers in fright or disgust.”
“There was no blood on Philemon’s fingers.”
“No; he wiped them on his sleeve.”
“If he was the one to use the dagger against her, where is the dagger? Should we not be able to find it somewhere about the premises?”
“He may have buried it outside. Crazy men are super naturally cunning.”
“When you can produce it from any place inside that board fence, I will consider your theory. At present I limit my suspicions of Philemon to the half-unconscious attentions which a man of disordered intellect might give a wife bleeding and dying under his eyes. My idea on the subject is ——”
“Would you be so kind as not to give utterance to your ideas until I have been able to form some for myself?” interrupted a voice from the doorway.
As this voice was unexpected, they all turned. A small man with sleek dark hair and expressionless features stood before them. Behind him was Abel, carrying a hand-bag and umbrella.
“The detective from Boston,” announced the latter. Coroner Talbot rose.
“You are in good time,” he remarked. “We have work of no ordinary nature for you.”
The man failed to look interested. But then his countenance was not one to show emotion.
“My name is Knapp,” said he. “I have had my supper, and am ready to go to work. I have read the newspapers; all I want now is any additional facts that have come to light since the telegraphic dispatches were sent to Boston. Facts, mind you; not theories. I never allow myself to be hampered by other persons’ theories.”
Not liking his manner, which was brusque and too self-important for a man of such insignificant appearance, Coroner Talbot referred him to Mr. Fenton, who immediately proceeded to give him the result of such investigations as he and his men had been able to make; which done, Mr. Knapp put on his hat and turned toward the door.
“I will go to the house and see for myself what is to be learned there,” said he. “May I ask the privilege of going alone?” he added, as Mr. Fenton moved. “Abel will see that I am given admittance.”
“Show me your credentials,” said the coroner. He did so. “They seem all right, and you should be a man who understands his business. Go alone, if you prefer, but bring your conclusions here. They may need some correcting.”
“Oh, I will return,” Knapp nonchalantly remarked, and went out, having made anything but a favourable impression upon the assembled gentlemen.
“I wish we had shown more grit and tried to handle this thing ourselves,” observed Mr. Fenton. “I cannot bear to think of that cold, bloodless creature hovering over our beloved Agatha.”
“I wonder at Carson. Why should he send us such a man? Could he not see the matter demanded extraordinary skill and judgment?”
“Oh, this fellow may have skill. But he is so unpleasant. I hate to deal with folks of such fish-like characteristics. But who is this?” he asked as a gentle tap was heard at the door. “Why, it’s Loton. What can he want here?”
The man whose presence in the doorway had called out this exclamation started at the sound of the doctor’s heavy voice, and came very hesitatingly forward. He was of a weak, irritable type, and seemed to be in a state of great excitement.
“I beg pardon,” said he, “for showing myself. I don’t like to intrude into such company, but I have something to tell you which may be of use, sirs, though it isn’t any great thing, either.”
“Something about the murder which has taken place?” asked the coroner, in a milder tone. He knew Loton well, and realised the advisability of encouragement in his case.
“The murder! Oh, I wouldn’t presume to say anything about the murder. I’m not the man to stir up any such subject as that. It’s about the money — or some money — more money than usually falls into my till. It — it was rather queer, sirs, and I have felt the flutter of it all day. Shall I tell you about it? It happened last night, late last night, sirs, so late that I was in bed with my wife, and had been snoring, she said, four hours.”
“What money? New money? Crisp, fresh bills, Loton?” eagerly questioned Mr. Fenton.
Loton, who was the keeper of a small confectionery and bakery store on one of the side streets leading up the hill, shifted uneasily between his two interrogators, and finally addressed himself to the coroner:
“It was new money. I thought it felt so at night, but I was sure of it in the morning. A brand-new bill, sir, a — But that isn’t the queerest thing about it. I was asleep, sir, sound asleep, and dreaming of my courting days (for I asked Sally at the circus, sirs, and the band playing on the hill made me think of it), when I was suddenly shook awake by Sally herself, who says she hadn’t slept a wink for listening to the music and wishing she was a girl again. ‘There’s a man at the shop door,’ cries she. ‘He’s a-calling of you; go and see what he wants.’ I was mad at being wakened. Dreaming is pleasant, specially when clowns and kissing get mixed up in it, but duty is duty, and so into the shop I stumbled, swearing a bit perhaps, for I hadn’t stopped for a light and it was as dark as double shutters could make it. The hammering had become deafening. No let up till I reached the door, when it suddenly ceased.
“‘What is it?’ I cried. ‘Who’s there and what do you want?’
“A trembling voice answered me. ‘Let me in,’ it said. ‘I want to buy something to eat. For God’s sake, open the door!’
“I don’t know why I obeyed, for it was late, and I did not know the voice, but something in the impatient rattling of the door which accompanied the words affected me in spite of myself, and I slowly opened my shop to this midnight customer.
“‘You must be hungry,’ I began. But the person who had crowded in as soon as the opening was large enough wouldn’t let me finish.
“‘Bread! I want bread, or crackers, or anything that you can find easiest,’ he gasped, like a man who had been running. ‘Here’s money’; and he poked into my hand a bill so stiff that it rattled. ‘It’s more than enough,’ he hastened to say, as I hesitated over it, ‘but never mind that; I’ll come for the change in the morning.’
“‘Who are you? I cried. ‘You are not Blind Willy, I’m sure.’
“But his only answer was ‘Bread!’ while he leaned so hard against the counter I felt it shake.
“I could not stand that cry of ‘Bread!’ so I groped about in the dark, and found him a stale loaf, which I put into his arms, with a short, ‘There! Now tell me what your name is.’
“But at this he seemed to shrink into himself; and muttering something that might pass for thanks, he stumbled towards the door and rushed hastily out. Running after him, I listened eagerly to his steps. They went up the hill.”
“And the money? What about the money?” asked the coroner. “Didn’t he come back for the change?”
“No. I put it in the till, thinking it was a dollar bill. But when I came to look at it in the morning, it was a twenty; yes, sirs, a twenty!”
This was startling. The coroner and the constable looked at each other before looking again at him.
“And where is that bill now?” asked the former. “Have you brought it with you?”
“I have, sir. It’s been in and out of the till twenty times to-day. I haven’t known what to do with it. I don’t like to think wrong of anybody, but when I heard that Mrs. Webb (God bless her!) was murdered last night for money, I couldn’t rest for the weight of this thing on my conscience. Here’s the bill, sir. I wish I had let the old man rap on my door till morning before I had taken it from him.”
They did not share this feeling. A distinct and valuable clew seemed to be afforded them by the fresh, crisp bill they saw in his hand. Silently Dr. Talbot took it, while Mr. Fenton, with a shrewd look, asked:
“What reasons have you for calling this mysterious customer old? I thought it was so dark you could not see him.”
The man, who looked relieved since he had rid himself of the bill, eyed the constable in some perplexity.
“I didn’t see a feature of his face,” said he, “and yet I’m sure he was old. I never thought of him as being anything else.”
“Well, we will see. And is that all you have to tell us?”
His nod was expressive, and they let him go.
An hour or so later Detective Knapp made his reappearance.
“Well,” asked the coroner, as he came quietly in and closed the door behind him, “what’s your opinion?”
“Simple case, sir. Murdered for money. Find the man with a flowing beard.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09