This gentleman had some information to give. It seems that at an early hour of this same night he had gone by this house on his way home from the bedside of a sick parishioner. As he was passing the gate he was run into by a man who came rushing out of the yard, in a state of violent agitation. In this man’s hand was something that glittered, and though the encounter nearly upset them both, he had not stopped to utter an apology, but stumbled away out of sight with a hasty but infirm step, which showed he was neither young nor active. The minister had failed to see his face, but noticed the ends of a long beard blowing over his shoulder as he hurried away.
Philemon was a clean-shaven man.
Asked if he could give the time of this encounter, he replied that it was not far from midnight, as he was in his own house by half-past twelve.
“Did you glance up at these windows in passing?” asked Mr. Fenton.
“I must have; for I now remember they were both lighted.”
“Were the shades up?”
“I think not. I would have noticed it if they had been.”
“How were the shades when you broke into the house this morning?” inquired Mr. Sutherland of the constable.
“Just as they are now; we have moved nothing. The shades were both down — one of them over an open window.”
“Well, we may find this encounter of yours with this unknown man a matter of vital importance, Mr. Crane.”
“I wish I had seen his face.”
“What do you think the object was you saw glittering in his hand?”
“I should not like to say; I saw it but an instant.”
“Could it have been a knife or an old-fashioned dagger?”
“It might have been.”
“Alas! poor Agatha! That she, who so despised money, should fall a victim to man’s cupidity! Unhappy life, unhappy death! Fenton, I shall always mourn for Agatha Webb.”
“Yet she seems to have found peace at last,” observed the minister. “I have never seen her look so contented.” And leading Mr. Sutherland aside, he whispered: “What is this you say about money? Had she, in spite of appearances, any considerable amount? I ask, because in spite of her humble home and simple manner of living, she always put more on the plate than any of her neighbours. Besides which, I have from time to time during my pastorate received anonymously certain contributions, which, as they were always for sick or suffering children —”
“Yes, yes; they came from her, I have no doubt of it. She was by no means poor, though I myself never knew the extent of her means till lately. Philemon was a good business man once; but they evidently preferred to live simply, having no children living —”
“They have lost six, I have been told.”
“So the Portchester folks say. They probably had no heart for display or for even the simplest luxuries. At all events, they did not indulge in them.”
“Philemon has long been past indulging in anything.”
“Oh, he likes his comfort, and he has had it too. Agatha never stinted him.”
“But why do you think her death was due to her having money?”
“She had a large sum in the house, and there are those in town who knew this.”
“And is it gone?”
“That we shall know later.”
As the coroner arrived at this moment, the minister’s curiosity had to wait. Fortunately for his equanimity, no one had the presumption to ask him to leave the room.
The coroner was a man of but few words, and but little given to emotion. Yet they were surprised at his first question:
“Who is the young woman standing outside there, the only one in the yard?”
Mr. Sutherland, moving rapidly to the window, drew aside the shade.
“It is Miss Page, my housekeeper’s niece,” he explained. “I do not understand her interest in this affair. She followed me here from the house and could hardly be got to leave this room, into which she intruded herself against my express command.”
“But look at her attitude!” It was Mr. Fenton who spoke. “She’s crazier than Philemon, it seems to me.”
There was some reason for this remark. Guarded by the high fence from the gaze of the pushing crowd without, she stood upright and immovable in the middle of the yard, like one on watch. The hood, which she had dropped from her head when she thought her eyes and smile might be of use to her in the furtherance of her plans, had been drawn over it again, so that she looked more like a statue in grey than a living, breathing woman. Yet there was menace in her attitude and a purpose in the solitary stand she took in that circle of board-girded grass, which caused a thrill in the breasts of those who looked at her from that chamber of death.
“A mysterious young woman,” muttered the minister.
“And one that I neither countenance nor understand,” interpolated Mr. Sutherland. “I have just shown my displeasure at her actions by dismissing her from my house.”
The coroner gave him a quick look, seemed about to speak, but changed his mind and turned toward the dead woman.
“We have a sad duty before us,” said he.
The investigations which followed elicited one or two new facts. First, that all the doors of the house were found unlocked; and, secondly, that the constable had been among the first to enter, so that he could vouch that no disarrangement had been made in the rooms, with the exception of Batsy’s removal to the bed.
Then, his attention being drawn to the dead woman, he discovered the key in her tightly closed hand.
“Where does this key belong?” he asked.
They showed him the drawers in the cupboard.
“One is empty,” remarked Mi. Sutherland. “If the other is found to be in the same condition, then her money has been taken. That key she holds should open both these drawers.”
“Then let it be made use of at once. It is important that we should know whether theft has been committed here as well as murder.” And drawing the key out, he handed it to Mr. Fenton.
The constable immediately unlocked the drawer and brought it and its contents to the table.
“No money here,” said he.
“But papers as good as money,” announced the doctor. “See! here are deeds and more than one valuable bond. I judge she was a richer woman than any of us knew.”
Mr. Sutherland, meantime, was looking with an air of disappointment into the now empty drawer.
“Just as I feared,” said he. “She has been robbed of her ready money. It was doubtless in the other drawer.”
“How came she by the key, then?”
“That is one of the mysteries of the affair; this murder is by no means a simple one. I begin to think we shall find it full of mysteries.”
“Batsy’s death, for instance?”
“O yes, Batsy! I forgot that she was found dead too.”
“Without a wound, doctor.”
“She had heart disease. I doctored her for it. The fright has killed her.”
“The look of her face confirms that.”
“Let me see! So it does; but we must have an autopsy to prove it.”
“I would like to explain before any further measures are taken, how I came to know that Agatha Webb had money in her house,” said Mr. Sutherland, as they stepped back into the other room. “Two days ago, as I was sitting with my family at table, old gossip Judy came in. Had Mrs. Sutherland been living, this old crone would not have presumed to intrude upon us at mealtime, but as we have no one now to uphold our dignity, this woman rushed into our presence panting with news, and told us all in one breath how she had just come from Mrs. Webb; that Mrs. Webb had money; that she had seen it, she herself; that, going into the house as usual without knocking, she had heard Agatha stepping overhead and had gone up; and finding the door of the sitting-room ajar, had looked in, and seen Agatha crossing the room with her hands full of bills; that these bills were big bills, for she heard Agatha cry, as she locked them up in the cupboard behind the book-shelves, ‘A thousand dollars! That is too much money to have in one’s house’; that she, Judy, thought so too, and being frightened at what she had seen, had crept away as silently as she had entered and run away to tell the neighbours. Happily, I was the first she found up that morning, but I have no doubt that, in spite of my express injunctions, she has since related the news to half the people in town.”
“Was the young woman down yonder present when Judy told this story?” asked the coroner, pointing towards the yard.
Mr. Sutherland pondered. “Possibly; I do not remember. Frederick was seated at the table with me, and my housekeeper was pouring out the coffee, but it was early for Miss Page. She has been putting on great airs of late.”
“Can it be possible he is trying to blind himself to the fact that his son Frederick wishes to marry this girl?” muttered the clergyman into the constable’s ear.
The constable shook his head. Mr. Sutherland was one of those debonair men, whose very mildness makes them impenetrable.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50