Meanwhile Sweetwater had been witness to a series of pantomimic actions that interested him more than Amabel’s conduct under this final examination. Frederick, who had evidently some request to make or direction to give, had sent a written line to the coroner, who, on reading it, had passed it over to Knapp, who a few minutes later was to be seen in conference with Agnes Halliday. As a result, the latter rose and left the room, followed by the detective. She was gone a half-hour, then simultaneously with her reappearance, Sweetwater saw Knapp hand a bundle of letters to the coroner, who, upon opening them, chose out several which he proceeded to read to the jury. They were the letters referred to by Frederick as having been given to him by his mother. The first was dated thirty-five years previously and was in the handwriting of Agatha herself. It was directed to James Zabel, and was read amid a profound hush.
You are too presumptuous. When I let you carry me away from John in that maddening reel last night, I did not mean you to draw the inference you did. That you did draw it argues a touch of vanity in a man who is not alone in the field where he imagines himself victor. John, who is humbler, sees some merit in — well, in Frederick Snow, let us say. So do I, but merit does not always win, any more than presumption. When we meet, let it be as friends, but as friends only. A girl cannot be driven into love. To ride on your big mare, Judith, is bliss enough for my twenty years. Why don’t you find it so too? I think I hear you say you do, but only when she stops at a certain gate on Portchester highway. Folly! there are other roads and other gates, though if I should see you enter one — There! my pen is galloping away with me faster than Judith ever did, and it is time I drew rein. Present my regards to John — But no; then he would know I had written you a letter, and that might hurt him. How could he guess it was only a scolding letter, such as it would grieve him to receive, and that it does not count for anything! Were it to Frederick Snow, now — There! some horses are so hard to pull up — and so are some pens. I will come to a standstill, but not before your door.
Respectfully your neighbour,
I know I have a temper, a wicked temper, and now you know it too. When it is roused, I forget love, gratitude, and everything else that should restrain me, and utter words I am myself astonished at. But I do not get roused often, and when all is over I am not averse to apologising or even to begging forgiveness. My father says my temper will undo me, but I am much more afraid of my heart than I am of my temper. For instance, here I am writing to you again just because I raised my riding-whip and said — But you know what I said, and I am not fond of recalling the words, for I cannot do so without seeing your look of surprise and contrasting it with that of Philemon’s. Yours had judgment in it, while Philemon’s held only indulgence. Yet I liked yours best, or should have liked it best if it were not for the insufferable pride which is a part of my being. Temper such as mine OUGHT to surprise you, yet would I be Agatha Gilchrist without it? I very much fear not. And not being Agatha Gilchrist, should I have your love? Again I fear not. James, forgive me. When I am happier, when I know my own heart, I will have less provocation. Then, if that heart turns your way, you will find a great and bountiful serenity where now there are lowering and thunderous tempests. Philemon said last night that he would be content to have my fierce word o’ mornings, if only I would give him one drop out of the honey of my better nature when the sun went down and twilight brought reflection and love. But I did not like him any the better for saying this. YOU would not halve the day so. The cup with which you would refresh yourself must hold no bitterness. Will it not have to be proffered, then, by other hands than those of
MR. PHILEMON WEBB.
You are persistent. I am willing to tell YOU, though I shall never confide so much to another, that it will take a stronger nature than yours, and one that loves me less, to hold me faithful and make me the happy, devoted wife which I must be if I would not be a demon. I cannot, I dare not, marry where I am not held in a passionate, self-forgetful subjection. I am too proud, too sensitive, too little mistress of myself when angry or aroused. If, like some strong women, I loved what was weaker than myself, and could be controlled by goodness and unlimited kindness, I might venture to risk living at the side of the most indulgent and upright man I know. But I am not of that kind. Strength only can command my admiration or subdue my pride. I must fear where I love, and own for husband him who has first shown himself my master.
So do not fret any more for me, for you, less than any man I know, will ever claim my obedience or command my love. Not that I will not yield my heart to you, but that I cannot; and, knowing that I cannot, feel it honest to say so before any more of your fine, young manhood is wasted. Go your ways, then, Philemon, and leave me to the rougher paths my feet were made to tread. I like you now and feel something like a tender regard for your goodness, but if you persist in a courtship which only my father is inclined to smile upon, you will call up an antagonism that can lead to nothing but evil, for the serpent that lies coiled in my breast has deadly fangs, and is to be feared, as you should know who have more than once seen me angry.
Do not blame John or James Zabel, or Frederick Snow, or even Samuel Barton for this. It would be the same if none of these men existed. I was not made to triumph over a kindly nature, but to yield the haughtiest heart in all this county to the gentle but firm control of its natural master. Do you want to know who that master is? I cannot tell you, for I have not yet named him to myself.
I am going away. I am going to leave Portchester for several months. I am going to see the world. I did not tell you this last night for fear of weakening under your entreaties, or should I say commands? Lately I have felt myself weakening more than once, and I want to know what it means. Absence will teach me, absence and the sight of new faces. Do you quarrel with this necessity? Do you think I should know my mind without any such test? Alas! James, it is not a simple mind and it baffles me at times. Let us then give it a chance. If the glow and glamour of elegant city life can make me forget certain snatches of talk at our old gate, or that night when you drew my hand through your arm and softly kissed my fingertips, then I am no mate for you, whose love, however critical, has never wavered, but has made itself felt, even in rebuke, as the strongest, sweetest thing that has entered my turbulent life. Because I would be worthy of you, I submit to a separation which will either be a permanent one or the last that will ever take place between you and me. John will not bear this as well as you, yet he does not love me as well, possibly because to him I am simply a superior being, while to you I am a loving but imperfect woman who wishes to do right but can only do so under the highest guidance.
I feel that I owe you a letter because you have been so patient. You may show it to James if you like, but I mean it for you as an old and dear friend who will one day dance at my wedding.
I am living in a whirl of enjoyment. I am seeing and tasting of pleasures I have only dreamed about till now. From a farmhouse kitchen to Mrs. Andrews’s drawing-room is a lively change for a girl who loves dress and show only less than daily intercourse with famous men and brilliant women. But I am bearing it nobly and have developed tastes I did not know I possessed; expensive tastes, John, which I fear may unfit me for the humble life of a Portchester matron. Can you imagine me dressed in rich brocade, sitting in the midst of Washington’s choicest citizens and exchanging sallies with senators and judges? You may find it hard, yet so it is, and no one seems to think I am out of place, nor do I feel so, only — do not tell James — there are movements in my heart at times which make me shut my eyes when the lights are brightest, and dream, if but for an instant, of home and the tumble-down gateway where I have so often leaned when someone (you know who it is now, John, and I shall not hurt you too deeply by mentioning him) was saying good-night and calling down the blessings of Heaven upon a head not worthy to receive them.
Does this argue my speedy return? Perhaps. Yet I do not know. There are fond hearts here also, and a life in this country’s centre would be a great life for me if only I could forget the touch of a certain restraining hand which has great power over me even as a memory. For the sake of that touch shall I give up the grandeur and charm of this broad life? Answer, John. You know him and me well enough now to say.
I do not understand your letter. You speak in affectionate terms of everybody, yet you beg me to wait and not be in a hurry to return. Why? Do you not realise that such words only make me the more anxious to see old Portchester again? If there is anything amiss at home, or if James is learning to do without me — but you do not say that; you only intimate that perhaps I will be better able to make up my mind later than now, and hint of great things to come if I will only hold my affections in check a little longer. This is all very ambiguous and demands a fuller explanation. So write to me once more, John, or I shall sever every engagement I have made here and return.
Your letter is plain enough this time. James read the letter I wrote you about my pleasure in the life here and was displeased at it. He thinks I am growing worldly and losing that simplicity which he has always looked upon as my most attractive characteristic. So! so! Well, James is right; I am becoming less the country girl and more the woman of the world every day I remain here. That means I am becoming less worthy of him. So — But whatever else I have to say on this topic must be said to him. For this you will pardon me like the good brother you are. I cannot help my preference. He is nearer my own age; besides, we were made for each other.
I am not worldly; I am not carried away by the pleasures and satisfactions of this place — at least not to the point of forgetting what is dearer and better. I have seen Washington, I have seen gay life; I like it, but I LOVE Portchester. Consequently I am going to return to Portchester, and that very soon. Indeed I cannot stay away much longer, and if you are glad of this, and if you wish to be convinced that a girl who has been wearing brocade and jewels can content herself quite gaily again with calico, come up to the dear old gate a week from now and you will have the opportunity. Do you object to flowers? I may wear a flower in my hair.
Your wayward but ever-constant
Why must I write? Why am I not content with the memory of last night? When one’s cup is quite full, a cup that has been so long in filling — must some few drops escape just to show that a great joy like mine is not satisfied to be simply quiescent? I have suffered so long from uncertainty, have tried you and tried myself with so tedious an indecision, that, now I know no other man can ever move my heart as you have done, the ecstasy of it makes me over-demonstrative. I want to tell you that I love you; that I do not simply accept your love, but give you back in fullest measure all the devotion you have heaped upon me in spite of my many faults and failings. You took me to your heart last night, and seemed satisfied; but it does not satisfy me that I just let you do it without telling you that I am proud and happy to be the chosen one of your heart, and that as I saw your smile and the proud passion which lit up your face, I felt how much sweeter was the dear domestic bliss you promised me than the more brilliant but colder life of a statesman’s wife in Washington.
I missed the flower from my hair when I went back to my room last night. Did you take it, dear? If so, do not cherish it. I hate to think of anything withering on your breast. My love is deathless, James, and owns no such symbol as that. But perhaps you are not thinking of my love, but of my faults. If so, let the flower remain where you have put it; and when you gaze on it say, “Thus is it with the defects of my darling; once in full bloom, now a withered remembrance. When I gathered her they began to fade.” O James, I feel as if I never could feel anger again.
I do not, I cannot, believe it. Though you said to me on going out, “Your father will explain,” I cannot content myself with his explanations and will never believe what he said of you except you confirm his accusations by your own act. If, after I have told you exactly what passed between us, you return me this and other letters, then I shall know that I have leaned my weight on a hollow staff, and that henceforth I am to be without protector or comforter in this world.
O James, were we not happy! I believed in you and felt that you believed in me. When we stood heart to heart under the elm tree (was it only last night?) and you swore that if it lay in the power of earthly man to make me happy, I should taste every sweet that a woman’s heart naturally craved, I thought my heaven had already come and that now it only remained for me to create yours. Yet that very minute my father was approaching us, and in another instant we heard these words:
“James, I must talk with you before you make my daughter forget herself any further.” Forget herself! What had happened? This was not the way my father had been accustomed to talk, much as he had always favoured the suit of Philemon Webb, and pleased as he would have been had my choice fallen on him. Forget herself! I looked at you to see how these insulting words would affect you. But while you turned pale, or seemed to do so in the fading moonlight, you were not quite so unprepared for them as I was myself, and instead of showing anger, followed my father into the house, leaving me shivering in a spot which had held no chill for me a moment before. You were gone — how long? To me it seemed an hour, and perhaps it was. It would seem to take that long for a man’s face to show such change as yours did when you confronted me again in the moonlight. Yet a lightning stroke makes quick work, and perhaps my countenance in that one minute showed as great a change as yours. Else why did you shudder away from me, and to my passionate appeal reply with this one short phrase: “Your father will explain”? Did you think any other words than yours would satisfy me, or that I could believe even him when he accused you of a base and dishonest act? Much as I have always loved and revered my father, I find it impossible not to hope that in his wish to see me united to Philemon he has resorted to an unworthy subterfuge to separate us; therefore I give you our interview word for word. May it shock you as much as it shocked me. Here is what he said first:
“Agatha, you cannot marry James Zabel. He is not an honest man. He has defrauded me, ME, your father, of several thousand dollars. In a clever way, too, showing him to be as subtle as he is unprincipled. Shall I tell you the wretched story, my girl? He has left me to do so. He sees as plainly as I do that any communication between you two after the discovery I have this day made would be but an added offence. He is at least a gentleman, which is something, considering how near he came to being my son-in-law.”
I may have answered. People do cry out when they are stabbed, sometimes, but I rather think I did not say a word, only looked a disdain which at that minute was as measureless as my belief in you. YOU dishonest? YOU— Or perhaps I laughed; that would have been truer to my feeling; yes, I must have laughed.
My father’s next words indicated that I did something.
“You do not believe in his guilt,” he went on, and there was a kindness in his tone which gave me my first feeling of real terror. “I can readily comprehend that, Agatha. He has been in my office and acted under my eye for several years now, and I had almost as much confidence in him as you had, notwithstanding the fact that I liked him much better as my confidential clerk than as your probable or prospective husband. He has never held the key to my heart; would God he never had to yours! But he was a good and reliable man in the office, or so I thought, and I gave into his hand much of the work I ought to have done myself, especially since my health has more or less failed me. My trust he abused. A month ago — it was during that ill turn you remember I received a letter from a man I had never expected to hear from again. He was in my debt some ten thousand dollars, and wrote that he had brought with him as much of this sum as he had been able to save in the last five years, to Sutherlandtown, where he was now laid up with a dangerous illness from which he had small hope of recovering. Would I come there and get it? He was a stranger and wished to take no one into his confidence, but he had the money and would be glad to place it in my hands. He added that as he was a lone man, without friends or relatives to inherit from him, he felt a decided pleasure at the prospect of satisfying his only creditor, and devoutly hoped he would be well enough to realise the transaction and receive my receipt. But if his fever increased and he should be delirious or unconscious when I reached him, then I was to lift up the left-hand corner of the mattress on which he lay and take from underneath his head a black wallet in which I would find the money promised me. He had elsewhere enough to pay all his expenses, so that the full contents of the wallet were mine.
“I remembered the man and I wanted the money; so, not being able to go for it myself, I authorised James Zabel to collect it for me. He started at once for Sutherlandtown, and in a few hours returned with the wallet alluded to. Though I was suffering intensely at the time, I remember distinctly the air with which he laid it down and the words with which he endeavoured to carry off a certain secret excitement visible in him. ‘Mr. Orr was alive, sir, and fully conscious; but he will not outlive the night. He seemed quite satisfied with the messenger and gave up the wallet without any hesitation.’ I roused up and looked at him. ‘What has shaken you up so?’ I asked. He was silent a moment before replying. ‘I have ridden fast,’ said he; then more slowly, ‘One feels sorry for a man dying alone and amongst strangers.’ I thought he showed an unnecessary emotion, but paid no further heed to it at the time.
“The wallet held two thousand and more dollars, which was less than I expected, but yet a goodly sum and very welcome. As I was counting it over I glanced at the paper accompanying it. It was an acknowledgment of debt and mentioned the exact sum I should find in the wallet —$2753.67. Pointing them out to James, I remarked, ‘The figures are in different ink from the words. How do you account for that?’ I thought his answer rather long in coming, though when it did come it was calm, if not studied. ‘I presume,’ said he, ‘that the sum was inserted at Sutherlandtown, after Mr. Orr was quite sure just how much he could spare for the liquidation of this old debt.’ ‘Very likely,’ I assented, not bestowing another thought upon the matter.
“But to-day it has been forced back upon my attention in a curious if not providential way. I was over in Sutherlandtown for the first time since my illness, and having some curiosity about my unfortunate but honest debtor, went to the hotel and asked to see the room in which he died. It being empty they at once showed it to me; and satisfied that he had been made comfortable in his last hours, I was turning away, when I espied on a table in one corner an inkstand and what seemed to be an old copy-book. Why I stopped and approached this table I do not know, but once in front of it I remembered what Zabel had said about the figures, and taking up the pen I saw there, I dipped it in the ink-pot and attempted to scribble a number or two on a piece of loose paper I found in the copy-book. The ink was thick and the pen corroded, so that it was not till after several ineffectual efforts that I succeeded in making any strokes that were at all legible. But when I did, they were so exactly similar in colour to the numbers inserted in Mr. Orr’s memorandum (which I had fortunately brought with me) that I was instantly satisfied this especial portion of the writing had been done, as James had said, in this room, and with the very pen I was then handling. As there was nothing extraordinary in this, I was turning away, when a gust of wind from the open window lifted the loose sheet of paper I had been scribbling on and landed it, the other side up, on the carpet. As I stooped for it I saw figures on it, and feeling sure that they had been scrawled there by Mr. Orr in his attempt to make the pen write, I pulled out the memorandum again and compared the two minutely. They were the work of the same hand, but the figures on the stray leaf differed from those in the memorandum in a very important particular. Those in the memorandum began with a 2, while those on the stray sheet began with a 7 — a striking difference. Look, Agatha, here is the piece of paper just as I found it. You see here, there, and everywhere the one set of figures, 7753.67. Here it is hardly legible, here it is blotted with too much ink, here it is faint but sufficiently distinct, and here — well, there can be no mistake about these figures, 7753.67; yet the memorandum reads, $2753.67, and the money returned to me amounts to $2753.67 — a clean five thousand dollars’ difference.”
Here, James, my father paused, perhaps to give me a commiserating look, though I did not need it; perhaps to give himself a moment in which to regain courage for what he still had to say. I did not break the silence; I was too sure of your integrity; besides, my tongue could not have moved if it would; all my faculties seemed frozen except that instinct which cried out continually within me: “No! there is no fault in James. He has done no wrong. No one but himself shall ever convince me that he has robbed anyone of anything except poor me of my poor heart.” But inner cries of this kind are inaudible and after a moment’s interval my father went on:
“Five thousand dollars is no petty sum, and the discrepancy in the two sets of figures which seemed to involve me in so considerable a loss set me thinking. Convinced that Mr. Orr would not be likely to scribble one number over so many times if it was not the one then in his mind, I went to Mr. Forsyth’s office and borrowed a magnifying-glass, through which I again subjected the figures in the memorandum to a rigid scrutiny. The result was a positive conviction that they had been tampered with after their first writing, either by Mr. Orr himself or by another whom I need not name. The 2 had originally been a 7, and I could even see where the top line of the 7 had been given a curl and where a horizontal stroke had been added at the bottom.
“Agatha, I came home as troubled a man as there was in all these parts. I remembered the suppressed excitement which had been in James Zabel’s face when he handed me over the money, and I remembered also that you loved him, or thought you did, and that, love or no love, you were pledged to marry him. If I had not recalled all this I might have proceeded more warily. As it was, I took the bold and open course and gave James Zabel an opportunity to explain himself. Agatha, he did not embrace it. He listened to my accusations and followed my finger when I pointed out the discrepancy between the two sets of figures, but he made no protestations of innocence, nor did he show me the front of an honest man when I asked if he expected me to believe that the wallet had held only two thousand and over when Mr. Orr handed it over to him. On the contrary he seemed to shrink into himself like a person whose life has been suddenly blasted, and replying that he would expect me to believe nothing except his extreme contrition at the abuse of confidence of which he had been guilty, begged me to wait till to-morrow before taking any active steps in the matter. I replied that I would show him that much consideration if he would immediately drop all pretensions to your hand. This put him in a bad way; but he left, as you see, with just a simple injunction to you to seek from me an explanation of his strange departure. Does that look like innocence or does it look like guilt?”
I found my tongue at this and passionately cried: “James Zabel’s life, as I have known it, shows him to be an honest man. If he has done what you suggest, given you but a portion of the money entrusted to him and altered the figures in the memorandum to suit the amount he brought you, then there is a discrepancy between this act and all the other acts of his life which I find it more difficult to reconcile than you did the two sets of figures in Mr. Orr’s handwriting. Father, I must hear from his own lips a confirmation of your suspicions before I will credit them.”
And this is why I write you so minute an account of what passed between my father and myself last night. If his account of the matter is a correct one, and you have nothing to add to it in way of explanation, then the return of this letter will be token enough that my father has been just in his accusations and that the bond between us must be broken. But if — O James, if you are the true man I consider you, and all that I have heard is a fabrication or mistake, then come to me at once; do not delay, but come at once, and the sight of your face at the gate will be enough to establish your innocence in my eyes.
The letter that followed this was very short:
The package of letters has been received. God help me to bear this shock to all my hopes and the death of all my girlish beliefs. I am not angry. Only those who have something left to hold on to in life can be angry.
My father tells me he has received a packet too. It contained five thousand dollars in ten five-hundred-dollar notes. James! James! was not my love enough, that you should want my father’s money too?
I have begged my father, and he has promised me, to keep the cause of this rupture secret. No one shall know from either of us that James Zabel has any flaw in his nature.
The next letter was dated some months later. It is to Philemon:
The gloves are too small; besides, I never wear gloves. I hate their restraint and do not feel there is any good reason for hiding my hands, in this little country town where everyone knows me. Why not give them to Hattie Weller? She likes such things, while I have had my fill of finery. A girl whose one duty is to care for a dying father has no room left in her heart for vanities.
It is impossible. I have had my day of love and my heart is quite dead. Show your magnanimity by ceasing to urge me any longer to forget the past. It is all you can do for
You WILL have my hand though I have told you that my heart does not go with it. It is hard to understand such persistence, but if you are satisfied to take a woman of my strength against her will, then God have mercy upon you, for I will be your wife.
But do not ask me to go to Sutherlandtown. I will live here. And do not expect to keep up your intimacy with the Zabels. There is no tie of affection remaining between James and myself, but if I am to shed that half-light over your home which is all I can promise and all that you can hope to receive, then keep me from all influence but your own. That this in time may grow sweet and dear to me is my earnest prayer to-day, for you are worthy of a true wife.
I am going to be married. My father exacts it and there is no good reason why I should not give him this final satisfaction. At least I do not think there is; but if you or your brother differ from me — Say good-bye to James from me. I pray that his life may be peaceful. I know that it will be honest.
My father is worse. He fears that if we wait till Tuesday he will not be able to see us married. Decide, then, what our duty is; I am ready to abide by your pleasure.
The following is from John Zabel to his brother James, and is dated one day after the above:
When you read this I will be far away, never to look in your face again, unless you bid me. Brother, brother, I meant it for the best, but God was not with me and I have made four hearts miserable without giving help to anyone.
When I read Agatha’s letter — the last for more reasons than one that I shall ever receive from her — I seemed to feel as never before what I had done to blast your two lives. For the first time I realised to the full that but for me she might have been happy and you the respected husband of the one grand woman to be found in Portchester. That I had loved her so fiercely myself came back to me in reproach, and the thought that she perhaps suspected that the blame had fallen where it was not deserved roused me to such a pitch that I took the sudden and desperate resolution of telling her the truth before she gave her hand to Philemon. Why the daily sight of your misery should not have driven me before to this act, I cannot tell. Some remnants of the old jealousy may have been still festering in my heart; or the sense of the great distance between your self-sacrificing spirit and the selfishness of my weaker nature risen like a barrier between me and the only noble act left for a man in my position. Whatever the cause, it was not till to-day the full determination came to brave the obloquy of a full confession; but when it did come I did not pause till I reached Mr. Gilchrist’s house and was ushered into his presence.
He was lying on the sitting-room lounge, looking very weak and exhausted, while on one side of him stood Agatha and on the other Philemon, both contemplating him with ill-concealed anxiety. I had not expected to find Philemon there, and for a moment I suffered the extreme agony of a man who has not measured the depth of the plunge he is about to take; but the sight of Agatha trembling under the shock of my unexpected presence restored me to myself and gave me firmness to proceed. Advancing with a bow, I spoke quickly the one word I had come there to say.
“Agatha, I have done you a great wrong and I am here to undo it. For months I have felt driven to confession, but not till to-day have I possessed the necessary courage. NOW, nothing shall hinder me.”
I said this because I saw in both Mr. Gilchrist and Philemon a disposition to stop me where I was. Indeed Mr. Gilchrist had risen on his elbow and Philemon was making that pleading gesture of his which we know so well.
Agatha alone looked eager. “What is it?” she cried. “I have a right to know.” I went to the door, shut it, and stood with my back against it, a figure of shame and despair; suddenly the confession burst from me. “Agatha,” said I, “why did you break with my brother James? Because you thought him guilty of theft; because you believed he took the five thousand dollars out of the sum entrusted to him by Mr. Orr for your father. Agatha, it was not James who did this it was I; and James knew it, and bore the blame of my misdoing because he was always a loyal soul and took account of my weakness and knew, alas! too well, that open shame would kill me.”
It was a weak plea and merited no reply. But the silence was so dreadful and lasted so long that I felt first crushed and then terrified. Raising my head, for I had not dared to look any of them in the face, I cast one glance at the group before me and dropped my head again, startled. Only one of the three was looking at me, and that was Agatha. The others had their heads turned aside, and I thought, or rather the passing fancy took me, that they shrank from meeting her gaze with something of the same shame and dread I myself felt. But she! Can I ever hope to make you realise her look, or comprehend the pang of utter self-abasement with which I succumbed before it? It was so terrible that I seemed to hear her utter words, though I am sure she did not speak; and with some wild idea of stemming the torrent of her reproaches, I made an effort at explanation, and impetuously cried: “It was not for my own good, Agatha, not for self altogether, I did this. I too loved you, madly, despairingly, and, good brother as I seemed, I was jealous of James and hoped to take his place in your regard if I could show a greater prosperity and get for you those things his limited prospects denied him. You enjoy money, beauty, ease; I could see that by your letters, and if James could not give them to you and I could — Oh, do not look at me like that! I see now that millions could not have bought you.”
“Despicable!” was all that came from her lips. At which I shuddered and groped about for the handle of the door. But she would not let me go. Subduing with an unexpected grand self-restraint the emotions which had hitherto swelled too high in her breast for either speech or action, she thrust out one arm to stay me and said in short, commanding tones: “How was this thing done? You say you took the money, yet it was James who was sent to collect it — or so my father says.” Here she tore her looks from me and cast one glance at her father. What she saw I cannot say, but her manner changed and henceforth she glanced his way as much as mine and with nearly as much emotion. “I am waiting to hear what you have to say,” she exclaimed, laying her hand on the door over my head so as to leave me no opportunity for escape. I bowed and attempted an explanation.
“Agatha,” said I, “the commission was given to James and he rode to Sutherlandtown to perform it. But it was on the day when he was accustomed to write to you, and he was not easy in his mind, for he feared he would miss sending you his usual letter. When, therefore, he came to the hotel and saw me in Philemon’s room — I was often there in those days, often without Philemon’s knowing it — he saw, or thought he did, a way out of his difficulties. Entering where I was, he explained to me his errand, and we being then — though never, alas! since — one in everything but the secret hopes he enjoyed, he asked me if I would go in his stead to Mr. Orr’s room, present my credentials, and obtain the money while he wrote the letter with which his mind was full. Though my jealousy was aroused and I hated the letter he was about to write, I did not see how I could refuse him; so after receiving such credentials as he himself carried, and getting full instructions how to proceed, I left him writing at Philemon’s table and hastened down the hall to the door he had pointed out. If Providence had been on the side of guilt, the circumstances could not have been more favourable for the deception I afterwards played. No one was in the hall, no one was with Mr. Orr to note that it was I instead of James who executed Mr. Gilchrist’s commission. But I was thinking of no deception then. I proceeded quite innocently on my errand, and when the feeble voice of the invalid bade me enter, I experienced nothing but a feeling of compassion for a man dying in this desolate way, alone. Of course Mr. Orr was surprised to see a stranger, but after reading Mr. Gilchrist’s letter which I handed him, he seemed quite satisfied and himself drew out the wallet at the head of his bed and handed it over. ‘You will find,’ said he, ‘a memorandum inside of the full amount, $7758.67. I should like to have returned Mr. Gilchrist the full ten thousand which I owe him, but this is all I possess, barring a hundred dollars which I have kept for my final expenses.’ ‘Mr. Gilchrist will be satisfied,’ I assured him. ‘Shall I make you out a receipt?’ He shook his head with a sad smile. ‘I shall be dead in twenty-four hours. What good will a receipt do me?’ But it seemed unbusinesslike not to give it, so I went over to the table, where I saw a pen and paper, and recognising the necessity of counting the money before writing a receipt, I ran my eye over the bills, which were large, and found the wallet contained just the amount he had named. Then I glanced at the memorandum. It had evidently been made out by him at some previous time, for the body of the writing was in firm characters and the ink blue, while the figures were faintly inscribed in muddy black. The 7 especially was little more than a straight line, and as I looked at it the devil that is in every man’s nature whispered at first carelessly, then with deeper and deeper insistence: ‘How easy it would be to change that 7 to a 2! Only a little mark at the top and the least additional stroke at the bottom and these figures would stand for five thousand less. It might be a temptation to some men.’ It presently became a temptation to me; for, glancing furtively up, I discovered that Mr. Orr had fallen either into a sleep or into a condition of insensibility which made him oblivious to my movements. Five thousand dollars! just the sum of the ten five-hundred-dollar bills that made the bulk of the amount I had counted. In this village and at my age this sum would raise me at once to comparative independence. The temptation was too strong for resistance. I succumbed to it, and seizing the pen before me, I made the fatal marks. When I went back to James the wallet was in my hand, and the ten five-hundred-dollar bills in my breast pocket.”
Agatha had begun to shudder. She shook so she rattled the door against which I leaned.
“And when you found that Providence was not so much upon your side as you thought, when you saw that the fraud was known and that your brother was suspected of it —”
“Don’t!” I pleaded, “don’t make me recall that hour!”
But she was inexorable. “Recall that and every hour,” she commanded. “Tell me why he sacrificed himself, why he sacrificed me, to a cur —”
She feared her own tongue, she feared her own anger, and stopped. “Speak,” she whispered, and it was the most ghastly whisper that ever left mortal lips. I was but a foot from her and she held me as by a strong enchantment. I could not help obeying her.
“To make it all clear,” I pursued, “I must go back to the time I rejoined James in Philemon’s room. He had finished his letter when I entered and was standing with it, sealed, in his hand. I may have cast it a disdainful glance. I may have shown that I was no longer the same man I had been when I left him a half-hour before, for he looked curiously at me for a moment previous to saying:
“‘Is that the wallet you have there? Was Mr. Orr conscious, and did he give it to you himself?’ ‘Mr. Orr was conscious,’ I returned — and I didn’t like the sound of my own voice, careful as I was to speak naturally — ’ but he fainted just before I came out, and I think you had better ask the clerk as you go down to send someone up to him.’
“James was weighing the pocket-book in his hand. ‘How much do you think there is in here? The debt was ten thousand.’ I had turned carelessly away and was looking out of the window. ‘The memorandum inside gives the figures as two thousand,’ I declared. ‘He apologises for not sending the full amount. He hasn’t it.’ Again I felt James looking at me. Why? Could he see that guilty wad of bills lying on my breast? ‘How came you to read the memorandum?’ he asked. ‘Mr. Orr wished me to. I looked at it to please him.’ This was a lie — the first I had ever uttered. James’s eyes had not moved. ‘John,’ said he, ‘this little bit of business seems to have disturbed you. I ought to have attended to it myself. I am quite sure I ought to have attended to it myself.’ ‘The man is dying,’ I muttered. ‘You escaped a sad sight. Be satisfied that you have got the money. Shall I post that letter for you?’ He put it jealously in his pocket, and again I saw him look at me, but he said nothing more except that he repeated that same phrase, ‘I ought to have attended to it myself. Agatha might better have waited.’ Then he went out; but I remained till Philemon came home. My brother and myself were no longer companions; a crime divided us — a crime he could not suspect, yet which made itself felt in both our hearts and prepared him for the revelation made to him by Mr. Gilchrist some weeks after. That night he came to Sutherlandtown, where I was, and entered my bedroom — not in the fraternal way of the old days, but as an elder enters the presence of a younger. ‘John,’ he said, without any preamble or preparation, ‘where are the five thousand dollars you kept back from Mr. Gilchrist? The memorandum said seven and you delivered to me only two.’ There are death-knells sounded in every life; those words sounded mine, or would have if he had not immediately added: ‘There! I knew you had no stamina. I have taken your crime on myself, who am really to blame for it, since I delegated my duty to another, and you will only have to bear the disgrace of having James Zabel for a brother. In exchange, give me the money; it shall be returned to-morrow. You cannot have disposed of it already. After which, you, or rather I, will be in the eyes of the world only a thief in intent, not in fact.’ Had he only stopped there! — but he went on: ‘Agatha is lost to me, John. In return, be to me the brother I always thought you up to the unhappy day the sin of Achan came between us.’
“YOU were lost to him! It was all I heard. YOU were lost to him! Then, if I acknowledged the crime I should not only take up my own burden of disgrace, but see him restored to his rights over the only woman I had ever loved. The sacrifice was great and my virtue was not equal to it. I gave him back the money, but I did not offer to assume the responsibility of my own crime.”
In what a hard tone she spoke!
“I have had to see Philemon gradually assume the rights James once enjoyed.”
“John,” she asked — she was under violent self-restraint — “why do you come now?”
I cast my eyes at Philemon. He was standing, as before, with his eyes turned away. There was discouragement in his attitude, mingled with a certain grand patience. Seeing that he was better able to bear her loss than either you or myself, I said to her very low, “I thought you ought to know the truth before you gave your final word. I am late, but I would have been TOO LATE a week from now.”
Her hand fell from the door, but her eyes remained fixed on my face. Never have I sustained such a look; never will I encounter such another.
“It is too late NOW,” she murmured. “The clergyman has just gone who united me to Philemon.”
The next minute her back was towards me; she had faced her father and her new-made husband.
“Father, you knew this thing!” Keen, sharp, incisive, the words rang out. “I saw it in your face when he began to speak.”
Mr. Gilchrist drooped slightly; he was a very sick man and the scene had been a trying one.
“If I did,” was his low response, “it was but lately. You were engaged then to Philemon. Why break up this second match?”
She eyed him as if she found it difficult to credit her ears. Such indifference to the claims of innocence was incredible to her. I saw her grand profile quiver, then the slow ebbing from her cheek of every drop of blood indignation had summoned there.
“And you, Philemon?” she suggested, with a somewhat softened aspect. “You committed this wrong ignorantly. Never having heard of this crime, you could not know on what false grounds I had been separated from James.”
I had started to escape, but stopped just beyond the threshold of the door as she uttered these words. Philemon was not as ignorant as she supposed. This was evident from his attitude and expression.
“Agatha,” he began, but at this first word, and before he could clasp the hands held helplessly out before her, she gave a great cry, and staggering back, eyed both her father and himself in a frenzy of indignation that was all the more uncontrollable from the superhuman effort which she had hitherto made to suppress it.
“You too!” she shrieked. “You too! and I have just sworn to love, honour, and obey you! Love YOU! Honour YOU! the unconscionable wretch who —”
But here Mr. Gilchrist rose. Weak, tottering, quivering with something more than anger, he approached his daughter and laid his finger on her lips.
“Be quiet!” he said. “Philemon is not to blame. A month ago he came to me and prayed that as a relief to his mind I would tell him why you had separated yourself from James. He had always thought the match, had fallen through on account of some foolish quarrel or incompatibility, but lately he had feared there was something more than he suspected in this break, something that he should know. So I told him why you had dismissed James; and whether he knew James better than we did, or whether he had seen something in his long acquaintance with these brothers which influenced his judgment, he said at once: ‘This cannot be true of James. It is not in his nature to defraud any man; but John — I might believe it of John. Isn’t there some complication here?’ I had never thought of John, and did not see how John could be mixed up with an affair I had supposed to be a secret between James and myself, but when we came to locate the day, Philemon remembered that on returning to his room that night, he had found John awaiting him. As his room was not five doors from that occupied by Mr. Orr, he was convinced that there was more to this matter than I had suspected. But when he laid the matter before James, he did not deny that John was guilty, but was peremptory in wishing you not to be told before your marriage. He knew that you were engaged to a good man, a man that your father approved, a man that could and would make you happy. He did not want to be the means of a second break, and besides, and this, I think, was at the bottom of the stand he took, for James Zabel was always the proudest man I ever knew — he never could bear, he said, to give to one like Agatha a name which he knew and she knew was not entirely free from reproach. It would stand in the way of his happiness and ultimately of hers; his brother’s dishonour was his. So while he still loved you, his only prayer was that after you were safely married and Philemon was sure of your affection, he should tell you that the man you once regarded so favourably was not unworthy of that regard. To obey him, Philemon has kept silent, while I— Agatha, what are you doing? Are you mad, my child?”
She looked so for the moment. Tearing off the ring which she had worn but an hour, she flung it on the floor. Then she threw her arms high up over her head and burst out in an awful voice:
“Curses on the father, curses on the husband, who have combined to make me rue the day I was born! The father I cannot disown, but the husband —”
It was Mr. Gilchrist who dared her fury. Philemon said nothing.
“Hush! he may be the father of your children. Don’t curse —”
But she only towered the higher and her beauty, from being simply majestic, became appalling.
“Children!” she cried. “If ever I bear children to this man, may the blight of Heaven strike them as it has struck me this day. May they die as my hopes have died, or, if they live, may they bruise his heart as mine is bruised, and curse their father as —”
Here I fled the house. I was shaking as if this awful denunciation had fallen on my own head. But before the door closed behind me, a different cry called me back. Mr. Gilchrist was lying lifeless on the floor, and Philemon, the patient, tender Philemon, had taken Agatha to his breast and was soothing her there as if the words she had showered upon him had been blessings instead of the most fearful curses which had ever left the lips of mortal woman.
The next letter was in Agatha’s handwriting. It was dated some months later and was stained and crumpled more than any other in the whole packet. Could Philemon once have told why? Were these blotted lines the result of his tears falling fast upon them, tears of forty years ago, when he and she were young and love had been, doubtful? Was the sheet so yellowed and so seamed because it had been worn on his breast and folded and unfolded so often? Philemon, thou art in thy grave, sleeping sweetly at last by thy deeply idolised one, but these marks of feeling still remain indissolubly connected with the words that gave them birth.
You are gone for a day and a night only, but it seems a lengthened absence to me, meriting a little letter. You have been so good to me, Philemon, ever since that dreadful hour following our marriage, that sometimes — I hardly dare yet to say always — I feel that I am beginning to love you and that God did not deal with me so harshly when He cast me into your arms. Yesterday I tried to tell you this when you almost kissed me at parting. But I was afraid it was a momentary sentimentality and so kept still. But to-day such a warm well-spring of joy rises in my heart when I think that to-morrow the house will be bright again, and that in place of the empty wall opposite me at table I shall see your kindly and forbearing face, I know that the heart I had thought impregnable has begun to yield, and that daily gentleness, and a boundless consideration from one who had excuse for bitter thoughts and recrimination, are doing what all of us thought impossible a few short months ago.
Oh, I am so happy, Philemon, so happy to love where it is now my duty to love; and if it were not for that dreadful memory of a father dying with harsh words in his ears, and the knowledge that you, my husband, yet not my husband, are bearing ever about with you echoes of words that in another nature would have turned tenderness into gall, I could be merry also and sing as I go about the house making it pleasant and comfortable against your speedy return. As it is I can but lay my hand softly on my heart as its beatings grow too impetuous and say, “God bless my absent Philemon and help him to forgive me! I forgive him and love him as I never thought I could.”
That you may see that these are not the weak outpourings of a lonely woman, I will here write that I heard to-day that John and James Zabel have gone into partnership in the ship-building business, John’s uncle having left him a legacy of several thousand dollars. I hope they will do well. James, they say, is full of business and is, to all appearance, perfectly cheerful. This relieves me from too much worry in his regard. God certainly knew what kind of a husband I needed. May you find yourself equally blessed in your wife.
Another letter to Philemon, a year later:
Hasten home, Philemon; I do not like these absences. I am just now too weak and fearful. Since we knew the great hope before us, I have looked often in your face for a sign that you remembered what this hope cannot but recall to my shuddering memory. Philemon, Philemon, was I mad? When I think what I said in my rage, and then feel the little life stirring about my heart, I wonder that God did not strike me dead rather than bestow upon me the greatest blessing that can come to woman. Philemon, Philemon, if anything should happen to the child! I think of it by day, I think of it by night. I know you think of it too, though you show me such a cheerful countenance and make such great plans for the future. “Will God remember my words, or will He forget? It seems as if my reason hung upon this question.”
A note this time in answer to one from John Zabel:
Thank you for words which could have come from nobody else. My child is dead. Could I expect anything different? If I did, God has rebuked me.
Philemon thinks only of me. We understand each other so perfectly now that our greatest suffering comes in seeing each other’s pain. My load I can bear, but HIS— Come and see me, John; and tell James our house is open to him. We have all done wrong, and are caught in one net of misfortune. Let it make us friends again.
Below this in Philemon’s hand:
My wife is superstitious. Strong and capable as she is, she has regarded this sudden taking off of our first-born as a sign that certain words uttered by her on her marriage day, unhappily known to you and, as I take it, to James also, have been remembered by the righteous God above us. This is a weakness which I cannot combat. Can you, who alone of all the world beside know both it and its cause, help me by a renewed friendship, whose cheerful and natural character may gradually make her forget? If so, come like old neighbours, and dine with us on our wedding day. If God sees that we have buried the past and are ready to forgive each other the faults of our youth, perhaps He will further spare this good woman. I think she will be able to bear it. She has great strength except where a little child is concerned. That alone can henceforth stir the deepest recesses of her heart.
After this, a gap of years. One, two, three, four, five children were laid away to rest in Portchester churchyard, then Philemon and she came to Sutherlandtown; but not till after a certain event had occurred, best made known by this last letter to Philemon:
Our babe is born, our sixth and our dearest, and the reproach of its first look had to be met by me alone. Oh, why did I leave you and come to this great Boston where I have no friend but Mrs. Sutherland? Did I think I could break the spell of fate or providence by giving birth to my last darling among strangers? I shall have to do something more than that if I would save this child to our old age. It is borne in upon me like fate that never will a child prosper at my breast or survive the clasp of my arms. If it is to live it must be reared by others. Some woman who has not brought down the curse of Heaven upon her by her own blasphemies must nourish the tender frame and receive the blessing of its growing love. Neither I nor you can hope to see recognition in our babe’s eye. Before it can turn upon us with love, it will close in its last sleep and we will be left desolate. What shall we do, then, with this little son? To whose guardianship can we entrust it? Do you know a man good enough or a woman sufficiently tender? I do not, but if God wills that our little Frederick should live, He will raise up someone. By the pang of possible separation already tearing my heart, I believe that He WILL raise up someone. Meanwhile I do not dare to kiss the child, lest I should blight it. He is so sturdy, Philemon, so different from all the other five.
I open this to add that Mrs. Sutherland has just been in — with her five-weeks-old infant. His father is away, too, and has not yet seen his boy; and this is their first after ten years of marriage. Oh, that my future opened before me as brightly as hers!
The next letter opens with a cry:
Philemon! Come to me, Philemon! I have done what I threatened. I have made the sacrifice. Our child is no longer ours, and now, perhaps, he may live. But oh, my breaking heart! my empty arms! Help me to bear my desolation, for it is for life. We will never have another child.
And where is it? Ah, that is the wonder of it. Near you, Philemon, yet not too near. Mrs. Sutherland has it, and you may have seen its little face through the car window if you were in the station last night when the express passed through to Sutherlandtown. Ah! but she has her burden to bear too. An awful, secret burden like my own, only she will have the child — for, Philemon, she has taken it in lieu of her own, which died last night in my sight; and Mr. Sutherland does not know what she has done, and never will, if you keep the secret as I shall, for the sake of the life our little innocent has thus won.
What do I mean and how was it all? Philemon, it was God’s work, all but the deception, and that is for the good of all, and to save four broken hearts. Listen. Yesterday, only yesterday — it seems a month ago — Mrs. Sutherland came again to see me with her baby in her arms. Mr. Sutherland is expected home, as you know, this week, and she was about to start out for Sutherlandtown so as to be in her own house when he came. The baby was looking well and she was the happiest of women; for the one wish of his heart and hers had been fulfilled and she was soon going to have the bliss of showing the child to his father. My own babe was on the bed asleep, and I, who am feeling wonderfully strong, was sitting up in a little chair as far away from him as possible, not out of hatred or indifference — oh, no! — but because he seemed to rest better when left entirely by himself and not under the hungry look of my eye. Mrs. Sutherland went over to look at it. “Oh, he is fair like my baby,” she said, “and almost as sturdy, though mine is a month older.” And she stooped down and kissed him. Philemon, he smiled for her, though he never had for me. I saw it with a greedy longing that almost made me cry out. Then I turned to her and we talked.
Of what? I cannot remember now. At home we had never been intimate friends. She is from Sutherlandtown and I am from Portchester, and the distance of nine miles is enough to estrange people. But here, each with a husband absent and a darling infant lying asleep under our eyes, interests we have never thought identical drew us to one another and we chatted with ever-increasing pleasure — when suddenly Mrs. Sutherland jumped up in a terrible fright. The infant she had been rocking on her breast was blue; the next minute it shuddered; the next — it lay in her arms DEAD!
I hear the shriek yet with which she fell with it still in her arms to the floor. Fortunately no other ears were open to her cry. I alone saw her misery. I alone heard her tale. The child had been poisoned, Philemon, poisoned by her. She had mistaken a cup of medicine for a cup of water and had given the child a few drops in a spoon just before setting out from her hotel. She had not known at the time what she had done, but now she remembered that the fatal cup was just like the other and that the two stood very near together. Oh, her innocent child, and oh, her husband!
It seemed as if the latter thought would drive her wild. “He has so wished for a child,” she moaned. “We have been married ten years and this baby seemed to have been sent from heaven. He will curse me, he will hate me, he will never be able after this to bear me in his sight.” This was not true of Mr. Sutherland, but it was useless to argue with her. Instead of attempting it, I took another way to stop her ravings. Lifting the child out of her hands, I first listened at its heart, and then, finding it was really dead — Philemon, I have seen too many lifeless children not to know — I began slowly to undress it. “What are you doing?” she cried. “Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Webb, what are you doing?” For reply I pointed to the bed, where two little arms could be seen feebly fluttering. “You shall have my child,” I whispered. “I have carried too many babies to the tomb to dare risk bringing up another.” And catching her poor wandering spirit with my eye, I held her while I told her my story.
Philemon, I saved that woman. Before I had finished speaking I saw the reason return to her eye and the dawning of a pitiful hope in her passion-drawn face. She looked at the child in my arms and then she looked at the one in the bed, and the long-drawn sigh with which she finally bent down and wept over our darling told me that my cause was won. The rest was easy. When the clothes of the two children had been exchanged, she took our baby in her arms and prepared to leave. Then I stopped her. “Swear,” I cried, holding her by the arm and lifting my other hand to heaven, “swear you will be a mother to this child! Swear you will love it as your own and rear it in the paths of truth and righteousness!” The convulsive clasp with which she drew the baby to her breast assured me more than her shuddering “I swear!” that her heart had already opened to it. I dropped her arm and covered my face with my hands. I could not see my darling go; it was worse than death for the moment it was worse than death. “O God, save him!” I groaned. “God, make him an honour —” But here she caught me by the arm. Her clutch was frenzied, her teeth were chattering. “Swear in your turn!” she gasped. “Swear that if I do a mother’s duty by this boy, you will keep my secret and never, never reveal to my husband, to the boy, or to the world that you have any claims upon him!” It was like tearing the heart from my breast with my own hand, but I swore, Philemon, and she in her turn drew back. But suddenly she faced me again, terror and doubt in all her looks. “Your husband!” she whispered. “Can you keep such a secret from him? You will breathe it in your dreams.” “I shall tell him,” I answered. “Tell him!” The hair seemed to rise on her forehead and she shook so that I feared she would drop the babe. “Be careful!” I cried. “See! you frighten the babe. My husband has but one heart with me. What I do he will subscribe to. Do not fear Philemon.” So I promised in your name. Gradually she grew calmer. When I saw she was steady again, I motioned her to go. Even my more than mortal strength was failing, and the baby — Philemon, I had never kissed it and I did not kiss it then. I heard her feet draw slowly towards the door, I heard her hand fall on the knob, heard it turn, uttered one cry, and then ——
They found me an hour after, lying along the floor, clasping the dead infant in my arms. I was in a swoon, and they all think I fell with the child, as perhaps I did, and that its little life went out during my insensibility. Of its features, like and yet unlike our boy’s, no one seems to take heed. The nurse who cared for it is gone, and who else would know that little face but me? They are very good to me, and are full of self-reproaches for leaving me so long in my part of the building alone. But though they watch me now, I have contrived to write this letter, which you will get with the one telling of the baby’s death and my own dangerous condition. Destroy it, Philemon, and then COME. Nothing in all the world will give me comfort but your hand laid under my head and your true eyes looking into mine. Ah, we must love each other now, and live humbly! All our woe has come from my early girlish delight in gay and elegant things. From this day on I eschew all vanities and find in your affection alone the solace which Heaven will not deny to our bewildered hearts. Perhaps in this way the blessing that has been denied us will be visited on our child, who will live. I am now sure, to be the delight of our hearts and the pride of our eyes, even though we are denied the bliss of his presence and affection.
Mrs. Sutherland was not seen to enter or go out of my rooms. Being on her way to the depot, she kept on her way, and must be now in her own home. Her secret is safe, but ours — oh, you will help me to preserve it! Help me not to betray — tell them I have lost five babies before this one — delirious — there may be an inquest — she must not be mentioned — let all the blame fall on me if there is blame — I fell — there is a bruise on the baby’s forehead — and — and — I am growing incoherent — I will try and direct this and then love — love — O God!
[A scrawl for the name.]
Under it these words:
Though bidden to destroy this, I have never dared to do so. Some day it may be of inestimable value to us or our boy. PHILEMON WEBB.
This was the last letter found in the first packet. As it was laid down, sobs were heard all over the room, and Frederick, who for some time now had been sitting with his head in his hands, ventured to look up and say: “Do you wonder that I endeavoured to keep this secret, bought at such a price and sealed by the death of her I thought my mother and of her who really was? Gentlemen, Mr. Sutherland loved his wife and honoured her memory. To tell him, as I shall have to within the hour, that the child she placed in his arms twenty-five years ago was an alien, and that all his love, his care, his disappointment, and his sufferings had been lavished on the son of a neighbour, required greater courage than to face doubt on the faces of my fellow-townsmen, or anything, in short, but absolute arraignment on the charge of murder. Hence my silence, hence my indecision, till this woman”— here he pointed a scornful finger at Amabel, now shrinking in her chair —“drove me to it by secretly threatening me with a testimony which would have made me the murderer of my mother and the lasting disgrace of a good man who alone has been without blame from the beginning to the end of this desperate affair. She was about to speak when I forestalled her. My punishment, if I deserve such, will be to sit and hear in your presence the reading of the letters still remaining in the coroner’s hands.”
These letters were certain ones written by Agatha to her unacknowledged son. They had never been sent. The first one dated from his earliest infancy, and its simple and touching hopefulness sent a thrill through every heart. It read as follows:
Three years old, my darling! and the health flush has not faded from your cheek nor the bright gold from your hair.
Oh, how I bless Mrs. Sutherland that she did not rebuke me when your father and I came to Sutherlandtown and set up our home where I could at least see your merry form toddling through the streets, holding on to the hand of her who now claims your love. My darling, my pride, my angel, so near and yet so far removed, will you ever know, even in the heaven to which we all look for joy after our weary pilgrimage is over, how often in this troublous world, and in these days of your early infancy, I have crept out of my warm bed, dressed myself, and, without a word to your father, whose heart it would break, gone out and climbed the steep hillside just to look at the window of your room to see if it were light or dark and you awake or sleeping? To breathe the scent of the eglantine which climbs up to your nursery window, I have braved the night-damps and the watching eyes of Heaven; but you have a child’s blissful ignorance of all this; you only grow and grow and live, my darling, LIVE! — which is the only boon I crave, the only recompense I ask.
Have I but added another sin to my account and brought a worse vengeance on myself than that of seeing you die in your early infancy? Frederick, my son, my son, I heard you swear to-day! Not lightly, thoughtlessly, as boys sometimes will in imitation of their elders, but bitterly, revengefully, as if the seeds of evil passions were already pushing to life in the boyish breast I thought so innocent. Did you wonder at the strange woman who stopped you? Did you realise the awful woe from which my commonplace words sprang? No, no, what grown mind could take that in, least of all a child’s? To have forsworn the bliss of motherhood and entered upon a life of deception for THIS! Truly Heaven is implacable and my last sin is to be punished more inexorably than my first.
There are worse evils than death. This I have always heard, but now I know it. God was merciful when He slew my babes, and I, presumptous in my rebellion, and the efforts with which I tried to prevent His work. Frederick, you are weak, dissipated, and without conscience. The darling babe, the beautiful child, has grown into a reckless youth whose impulses Mr. Sutherland will find it hard to restrain, and over whom his mother — do I call her your mother? — has little influence, though she tries hard to do a mother’s part and save herself and myself from boundless regret. My boy, my boy, do you feel the lack of your own mother’s vigour? Might you have lived under my care and owned a better restraint and learned to work and live a respectable life in circumstances less provocative of self-indulgence? Such questions, when they rise, are maddening. When I see them form themselves in Philemon’s eyes I drive them out with all the force of my influence, which is still strong over him. But when they make way in my own breast, I can find no relief, not even in prayer. Frederick, were I to tell you the truth about your parentage, would the shock of such an unexpected revelation make a man of you? I have been tempted to make the trial, at times. Deep down in my heart I have thought that perhaps I should best serve the good man who is growing grey under your waywardness, by opening up before you the past and present agonies of which you are the unconscious centre. But I cannot do this while SHE lives. The look she gave me one day when I approached you a step too near at the church door, proves that it would be the killing of her to reveal her long-preserved secret now. I must wait her death, which seems near, and then — No, I cannot do it. Mr. Sutherland has but one staff to lean on, and that is you. It may be a poor one, a breaking one, but it is still a staff. I dare not take it away — I dare not. Ah, if Philemon was the man he was once, he might counsel me, but he is only a child now; just as if God had heard my cry for children and had given me — HIM.
More money, and still more money! and I hate it except for what it will do for the poor and incapable about me. How strange are the ways of Providence! To us who have no need of aught beyond a competence, money pours in almost against our will, while to those who long and labour for it, it comes not, or comes so slowly the life wears out in the waiting and the working. The Zabels, now! Once well-to-do ship-builders, with a good business and a home full of curious works of art, they now appear to find it hard to obtain even the necessities of life. Such are the freaks of fortune; or should I say, the dealings of an inscrutable Providence? Once I tried to give something out of my abundance to these old friends, but their pride stood in the way and the attempt failed. Worse than that. As if to show that benefits should proceed from them to me rather than from me to them, James bestowed on me a gift. It is a strange one — nothing more nor less than a quaint Florentine dagger which I had often admired for its exquisite workmanship. Was it the last treasure he possessed? I am almost afraid so. At all events it shall lie here in my table-drawer where I alone can see it. Such sights are not good for Philemon. He must have cheerful objects before him, happy faces such as mine tries to be. But ah!
I would gladly give my life if I could once hold you in my arms, my erring but beloved son. Will the day ever come when I can? Will you have strength enough to hear my story and preserve your peace and let me go down to the grave with the memory of one look, one smile, that is for me alone? Sometimes I foresee this hour and am happy for a few short minutes; and then some fresh story of your recklessness is wafted through the town and —
What stopped her at this point we shall never know. Some want of Philemon’s, perhaps. At all events she left off here and the letter was never resumed. It was the last secret outpouring of her heart. With this broken sentence Agatha’s letters terminated..
That afternoon, before the inquiry broke up, the jury brought in their verdict. It was:
“Death by means of a wound inflicted upon herself in a moment of terror and misapprehension.”
It was all his fellow-townsmen could do for Frederick.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09