As they re-entered the larger room, they were astonished to come upon Miss Page standing in the doorway. She was gazing at the recumbent figure of the dead woman, and for a moment seemed unconscious of their presence.
“How did you get in? Which of my men was weak enough to let you pass, against my express instructions?” asked the constable, who was of an irritable and suspicious nature.
She let the hood drop from her head, and, turning, surveyed him with a slow smile. There was witchery in that smile sufficient to affect a much more cultivated and callous nature than his, and though he had been proof against it once he could not quite resist the effect of its repetition.
“I insisted upon entering,” said she. “Do not blame the men; they did not want to use force against a woman.” She had not a good voice and she knew it; but she covered up this defect by a choice of intonations that carried her lightest speech to the heart. Hard-visaged Amos Fenton gave a grunt, which was as near an expression of approval as he ever gave to anyone.
“Well! well!” he growled, but not ill-naturedly, “it’s a morbid curiosity that brings you here. Better drop it, girl; it won’t do you any good in the eyes of sensible people.”
“Thank you,” was her demure reply, her lips dimpling at the corners in a way to shock the sensitive Mr. Sutherland.
Glancing from her to the still outlines of the noble figure on the couch, he remarked with an air of mild reproof:
“I do not understand you, Miss Page. If this solemn sight has no power to stop your coquetries, nothing can. As for your curiosity, it is both ill-timed and unwomanly. Let me see you leave this house at once, Miss Page; and if in the few hours which must elapse before breakfast you can find time to pack your trunks, you will still farther oblige me.”
“Oh, don’t send me away, I entreat you.”
It was a cry from her inner heart, which she probably regretted, for she instantly sought to cover up her inadvertent self-betrayal by a submissive bend of the head and a step backward. Neither Mr. Fenton nor Mr. Sutherland seemed to hear the one or see the other, their attention having returned to the more serious matter in hand.
“The dress which our poor friend wears shows her to have been struck before retiring,” commented Mr. Sutherland, after another short survey of Mrs. Webb’s figure. “If Philemon —”
“Excuse me, sir,” interrupted the voice of the young man who had been left in the hall, “the lady is listening to what you say. She is still at the head of the stairs.”
“She is, is she!” cried Fenton, sharply, his admiration for the fascinating stranger having oozed out at his companion’s rebuff. “I will soon show her —” But the words melted into thin air as he reached the door. The young girl had disappeared, and only a faint perfume remained in the place where she had stood.
“A most extraordinary person,” grumbled the constable, turning back, but stopping again as a faint murmur came up from below.
“The gentleman is waking,” called up a voice whose lack of music was quite perceptible at a distance.
With a bound Mr. Fenton descended the stairs, followed by Mr. Sutherland.
Miss Page stood before the door of the room in which sat Philemon Webb. As they reached her side, she made a little bow that was half mocking, half deprecatory, and slipped from the house. An almost unbearable sensation of incongruity vanished with her, and Mr. Sutherland, for one, breathed like a man relieved.
“I wish the doctor would come,” Fenton said, as they watched the slow lifting of Philemon Webb’s head. “Our fastest rider has gone for him, but he’s out Portchester way, and it may be an hour yet before he can get here.”
Mr. Sutherland had advanced and was standing by his old friend’s side.
“Philemon, what has become of your guests? You’ve waited for them here until morning.”
The old man with a dazed look surveyed the two plates set on either side of him and shook his head.
“James and John are getting proud,” said he, “or they forget, they forget.”
James and John. He must mean the Zabels, yet there were many others answering to these names in town. Mr. Sutherland made another effort.
“Philemon, where is your wife? I do not see any place set here for her!”
“Agatha’s sick, Agatha’s cross; she don’t care for a poor old man like me.”
“Agatha’s dead and you know it,” thundered back the constable, with ill-judged severity. “Who killed her? tell me that. Who killed her?”
A sudden quenching of the last spark of intelligence in the old man’s eye was the dreadful effect of these words. Laughing with that strange gurgle which proclaims an utterly irresponsible mind, he cried:
“The pussy cat! It was the pussy cat. Who’s killed? I’m not killed. Let’s go to Jericho.”
Mr. Sutherland took him by the arm and led him up-stairs. Perhaps the sight of his dead wife would restore him. But he looked at her with the same indifference he showed to everything else.
“I don’t like her calico dresses,” said he. “She might have worn silk, but she wouldn’t. Agatha, will you wear silk to my funeral?”
The experiment was too painful, and they drew him away. But the constable’s curiosity had been roused, and after they had found some one to take care of him, he drew Mr. Sutherland aside and said:
“What did the old man mean by saying she might have worn silk? Are they better off than they seem?” Mr. Sutherland closed the door before replying.
“They are rich,” he declared, to the utter amazement of the other. “That is, they were; but they may have been robbed; if so, Philemon was not the wretch who killed her. I have been told that she kept her money in an old-fashioned cupboard. Do you suppose they alluded to that one?”
He pointed to a door set in the wall over the fireplace, and Mr. Fenton, perceiving a key sticking in the lock, stepped quickly across the floor and opened it. A row of books met his eyes, but on taking them down a couple of drawers were seen at the back.
“Are they locked?” asked Mr. Sutherland.
“One is and one is not.”
“Open the one that is unlocked.”
Mr. Fenton did so.
“It is empty,” said he.
Mr. Sutherland cast a look toward the dead woman, and again the perfect serenity of her countenance struck him.
“I do not know whether to regard her as the victim of her husband’s imbecility or of some vile robber’s cupidity. Can you find the key to the other drawer?”
“I will try.”
“Suppose you begin, then, by looking on her person. It should be in her pocket, if no marauder has been here.”
“It is not in her pocket.”
“Hanging to her neck, then, by a string?”
“No; there is a locket here, but no key. A very handsome locket, Mr. Sutherland, with a child’s lock of golden hair —”
“Never mind, we will see that later; it is the key we want just now.”
“What is it?”
“It is in her hand; the one that lies underneath.”
“Ah! A point, Fenton.”
“A great point.”
“Stand by her, Fenton. Don’t let anyone rob her of that key till the coroner comes, and we are at liberty to take it.”
“I will not leave her for an instant.”
“Meanwhile, I will put back these books.”
He had scarcely done so when a fresh arrival occurred. This time it was one of the village clergymen.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09