Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Purple Orchid
XYI. Local Talent at Work
"Gentlemen, we have reached the conclusion of this business sooner than I expected," announced Knapp. "If you will give me just ten minutes I will endeavour to find that large remainder of money we have every reason to think is hidden away in this house."
"Stop a minute," said the coroner. "Let me see what book John is holding so tightly. Why," he exclaimed, drawing it out and giving it one glance, "it is a Bible."
Laying it reverently down he met the detective's astonished glance and seriously remarked:
"There is some incongruity between the presence of this book and the deed we believe to have been performed down yonder."
"None at all," quoth the detective. "It was not the man in the chair, but the one on the floor, who made use of that dagger. But I wish you had left it to me to remove that book, sir."
"You? and why? What difference would it have made?"
"I would have noticed between what pages his finger was inserted. Nothing like making yourself acquainted with every detail in a case like this."
Dr. Talbot gazed wistfully at the book. He would have liked to know himself on what especial passage his friend's eyes had last rested.
"I will stand aside," said he, "and hear your report when you are done."
The detective had already begun his investigations.
"Here is a spot of blood," said he. "See! on the right trouser leg of the one you call James. This connects him indisputably with the crime in which this dagger was used. No signs of violence on his body. She was the only one to receive a blow. His death is the result of God's providence."
"Or man's neglect," muttered the constable.
"There is no money in any of their pockets, or on either wasted figure," the detective continued, after a few minutes of silent search. "It must be hidden in the room, or--look through that Bible, sirs."
The coroner, glad of an opportunity to do something, took up the book, and ran hurriedly through its leaves, then turned it and shook it out over the table. Nothing fell out; the bills must be looked for elsewhere.
"The furniture is scanty," Abel observed, with an inquiring look about him.
"Very, very scanty," assented the constable, still with that biting remorse at his heart.
"There is nothing in this cupboard," pursued the detective, swinging open a door in the wall, "but a set of old china more or less nicked."
Abel started. An old recollection had come up. Some weeks before, he had been present when James had made an effort to sell this set. They were all in Warner's store, and James Zabel (he could see his easy attitude yet, and hear the off-hand tones with which he tried to carry the affair off) had said, quite as if he had never thought of it before: "By the by, I have a set of china at the house which came over in the Mayflower. John likes it, but it has grown to be an eyesore to me, and if you hear of anybody who has a fancy for such things, send him up to the cottage. I will let it go for a song." Nobody answered, and James disappeared. It was the last time, Abel remembered, that he had been seen about town.
"I can't stand it," cried the lad. "I can't stand it. If they died of hunger I must know it. I am going to take a look at their larder." And before anyone could stop him he dashed to the rear of the house.
The constable would have liked to follow him, but he looked about the walls of the room instead. John and James had been fond of pictures and had once indulged their fancy to the verge of extravagance, but there were no pictures on the walls now, nor was there so much as a candlestick on the empty and dust-covered mantel. Only on a bracket in one corner there was a worthless trinket made out of cloves and beads which had doubtless been given them by some country damsel in their young bachelor days. But nothing of any value anywhere, and Mr. Fenton felt that he now knew why they had made so many visits to Boston at one time, and why they always returned with a thinner valise than they took away. He was still dwelling on the thought of the depths of misery to which highly respectable folks can sink without the knowledge of the nearest neighbours, when Abel came back looking greatly troubled.
"It is the saddest thing I ever heard of," said he. "These men must have been driven wild by misery. This room is sumptuous in comparison to the ones at the back; and as for the pantry, there is not even a scrap there a mouse could eat. I struck a match and glanced into the flour barrel. It looked as if it had been licked. I declare, it makes a fellow feel sick."
The constable, with a shudder, withdrew towards the door.
"The atmosphere here is stifling," said he. "I must have a breath of out-door air."
But he was not destined to any such immediate relief. As he moved down the hall the form of a man darkened the doorway and he heard an anxious voice exclaim:
"Ah, Mr. Fenton, is that you? I have been looking for you everywhere."
It was Sweetwater, the young man who had previously shown so much anxiety to be of service to the coroner.
Mr. Fenton looked displeased.
"And how came you to find me here?" he asked.
"Oh, some men saw you take this road, and I guessed the rest."
"Oh, ah, very good. And what do you want, Sweetwater?"
The young man, who was glowing with pride and all alive with an enthusiasm which he had kept suppressed for hours, slipped up to the constable and whispered in his ear: "I have made a discovery, sir. I know you will excuse the presumption, but I couldn't bring myself to keep quiet and follow in that other fellow's wake. I had to make investigations on my own account, and--and"--stammering in his eagerness "they have been successful, sir. I have found out who was the murderer of Agatha Webb."
The constable, compassionating the disappointment in store for him, shook his head, with a solemn look toward the room from which he had just emerged. "You are late, Sweetwater," said he. "We have found him out ourselves, and he lies there, dead."
It was dark where they stood and Sweetwater's back was to the moonlight, so that the blank look which must have crossed his face at this announcement was lost upon the constable. But his consternation was evident from the way he thrust out either hand to steady himself against the walls of the narrow passageway, and Mr. Fenton was not at all surprised to hear him stammer out:
"Dead! He! Whom do you mean by he, Mr. Fenton?"
"The man in whose house we now are," returned the other. "Is there anyone else who can be suspected of this crime?"
Sweetwater gave a gulp that seemed to restore him to himself.
"There are two men living here, both very good men, I have heard. Which of them do you mean, and why do you think that either John or James Zabel killed Agatha Webb?"
For reply Mr. Fenton drew him toward the room in which such a great heart-tragedy had taken place.
"Look," said he, "and see what can happen in a Christian land, in the midst of Christian people living not fifty rods away. These men are dead, Sweetwater, dead from hunger. The loaf of bread you see there came too late. It was bought with a twenty-dollar bill, taken from Agatha Webb's cupboard drawer."
Sweetwater, to whom the whole scene seemed like some horrible nightmare, stared at the figure of James lying on the floor, and then at the figure of John seated at the table, as if his mind had failed to take in the constable's words.
"Dead!" he murmured. "Dead! John and James Zabel. What will happen next? Is the town under a curse?" And he fell on his knees before the prostrate form of James, only to start up again as he saw the eyes of Knapp resting on him.
"Ah," he muttered, "the detective!" And after giving the man from Boston a close look he turned toward Mr. Fenton.
"You said something about this good old man having killed Agatha Webb. What was it? I was too dazed to take it in."
Mr. Fenton, not understanding the young man's eagerness, but willing enough to enlighten him as to the situation, told him what reasons there were for ascribing the crime in the Webb cottage to the mad need of these starving men. Sweetwater listened with open eyes and confused bearing, only controlling himself when his eyes by chance fell upon the quiet figure of the detective, now moving softly to and fro through the room.
"But why murder when he could have had his loaf for the asking?" remonstrated Sweetwater. "Agatha Webb would have gone without a meal any time to feed a wandering tramp; how much more to supply the necessities of two of her oldest and dearest friends!"
"Yes," remarked Fenton, "but you forget or perhaps never knew that the master passion of these men was pride. James Zabel ask for bread! I can much sooner imagine him stealing it; yes, or striking a blow for it, so that the blow shut forever the eyes that saw him do it."
"You don't believe your own words, Mr. Fenton. How can you?" Sweetwater's hand was on the breast of the accused man as he spoke, and his manner was almost solemn. "You must not take it for granted," he went on, his green eyes twinkling with a curious light, "that all wisdom comes from Boston. We in Sutherlandtown have some sparks of it, if they have not yet been recognised. You are satisfied"--here he addressed himself to Knapp--"that the blow which killed Agatha Webb was struck by this respectable old man?"
Knapp smiled as if a child had asked him this question; but he answered him good-humouredly enough.
"You see the dagger lying here with which the deed was done, and you see the bread that was bought from Loton with a twenty-dollar bill of Agatha Webb's money. In these you can read my answer."
"Good evidence," acknowledged Sweetwater--"very good evidence, especially when we remember that Mr. Crane met an old man rushing from her gateway with something glittering in his hand. I never was so beat in my life, and yet--and yet--if I could have a few minutes of quiet thought all by myself I am certain I could show you that there is more to this matter than you think. Indeed, I know that there is, but I do not like to give my reasons till I have conquered the difficulties presented by these men having had the twenty-dollar bill."
"What fellow is this?" suddenly broke in Knapp.
"A fiddler, a nobody," quietly whispered Mr. Fenton in his ear.
Sweetwater heard him and changed in a twinkling from the uncertain, half-baffled, wholly humble person they had just seen, to a man with a purpose strong enough to make him hold up his head with the best.
"I am a musician," he admitted, "and I play on the violin for money whenever the occasion offers, something which you will yet congratulate yourselves upon if you wish to reach the root of this mysterious and dastardly crime. But that I am a nobody I deny, and I even dare to hope that you will agree with me in this estimate of myself before this very night is over. Only give me an opportunity for considering this subject, and the permission to walk for a few minutes about this house."
"That is my prerogative," protested the detective firmly, but without any display of feeling. "I am the man employed to pick up whatever clews the place may present."
"Have you picked up all that are to be found in this room?" asked Sweetwater calmly.
Knapp shrugged his shoulders. He was very well satisfied with himself.
"Then give me a chance," prayed Sweetwater. "Mr. Fenton," he urged more earnestly, "I am not the fool you take me for. I feel, I know, I have a genius for this kind of thing, and though I am not prepossessing to look at, and though I do play the fiddle, I swear there are depths to this affair which none of you have as yet sounded. Sirs, where are the nine hundred and eighty dollars in bills which go to make up the clean thousand that was taken from the small drawer at the back of Agatha Webb's cupboard?"
"They are in some secret hiding-place, no doubt, which we will presently come upon as we go through the house," answered Knapp.
"Umph! Then I advise you to put your hand on them as soon as possible," retorted Sweetwater. "I will confine myself to going over the ground you have already investigated." And with a sudden ignoring of the others' presence, which could only have sprung from an intense egotism or from an overwhelming belief in his own theory, he began an investigation of the room that threw the other's more commonplace efforts entirely in the shade.
Knapp, with a slight compression of his lips, which was the sole expression of anger he ever allowed himself, took up his hat and made his bow to Mr. Fenton.
"I see," said he, "that the sympathy of those present is with local talent. Let local talent work, then, sir, and when you feel the need of a man of training and experience, send to the tavern on the docks, where I will be found till I am notified that my services are no longer required."
"No, no!" protested Mr. Fenton. "This boy's enthusiasm will soon evaporate. Let him fuss away if he will. His petty business need not interrupt us."
"But he understands himself," whispered Knapp. "I should think he had been on our own force for years."
"All the more reason to see what he's up to. Wait, if only to satisfy your curiosity. I shan't let many minutes go by before I pull him up."
Knapp, who was really of a cold and unimpressionable temperament, refrained from further argument, and confined himself to watching the young man, whose movements seemed to fascinate him.
"Astonishing!" Mr. Fenton heard him mutter to himself. "He's more like an eel than a man." And indeed the way Sweetwater wound himself out and in through that room, seeing everything that came under his eye, was a sight well worth any professional's attention. Pausing before the dead man on the floor, he held the lantern close to the white, worn face. "Ha!" said he, picking something from the long beard, "here's a crumb of that same bread. Did you see that, Mr. Knapp?"
The question was so sudden and so sharp that the detective came near replying to it; but he bethought himself, and said nothing.
"That settles which of the two gnawed the loaf," continued Sweetwater.
The next minute he was hovering over the still more pathetic figure of John, sitting in the chair.
"Sad! Sad!" he murmured.
Suddenly he laid his finger on a small rent in the old man's faded vest. "You saw this, of course," said he, with a quick glance over his shoulder at the silent detective.
No answer, as before.
"It's a new slit," declared the officious youth, looking closer, "and--yes--there's blood on its edges. Here, take the lantern, Mr. Fenton, I must see how the skin looks underneath. Oh, gentlemen, no shirt! The poorest dockhand has a shirt! Brocaded vest and no shirt; but he's past our pity now. Ah, only a bruise over the heart. Sirs, what did you make out of this?"
As none of them had even seen it, Knapp was not the only one to remain silent.
"Shall I tell you what I make out of it?" said the lad, rising hurriedly from the floor, which he had as hurriedly examined. "This old man has tried to take his life with the dagger already wet with the blood of Agatha Webb. But his arm was too feeble. The point only pierced the vest, wiping off a little blood in its passage, then the weapon fell from his hand and struck the floor, as you will see by the fresh dent in the old board I am standing on. Have you anything to say against these simple deductions?"
Again the detective opened his lips and might have spoken, but Sweetwater gave him no chance.
"Where is the letter he was writing?" he demanded. "Have any of you seen any paper lying about here?"
"He was not writing," objected Knapp; "he was reading; reading in that old Bible you see there."
Sweetwater caught up the book, looked it over, and laid it down, with that same curious twinkle of his eye they had noted in him before.
"He was writing," he insisted. "See, here is his pencil." And he showed them the battered end of a small lead-pencil lying on the edge of his chair.
"Writing at some time," admitted Knapp.
"Writing just before the deed," insisted Sweetwater. "Look at the fingers of his right hand. They have not moved since the pencil fell out of them."
"The letter, or whatever it was, shall be looked for," declared the constable.
Sweetwater bowed, his eyes roving restlessly into every nook and corner of the room.
"James was the stronger of the two," he remarked; "yet there is no evidence that he made any attempt at suicide."
"How do you know that it was suicide John attempted?" asked someone. "Why might not the dagger have fallen from James's hand in an effort to kill his brother?"
"Because the dent in the floor would have been to the right of the chair instead of to the left," he returned. "Besides, James's hand would not have failed so utterly, since he had strength to pick up the weapon afterward and lay it where you found it."
"True, we found it lying on the table," observed Abel, scratching his head in forced admiration of his old schoolmate.
"All easy, very easy," Sweetwater remarked, seeing the wonder in every eye. "Matters like those are for a child's reading, but what is difficult, and what I find hard to come by, is how the twenty- dollar bill got into the old man's hand. He found it here, but how--"
"Found it here? How do you know that?"
"Gentlemen, that is a point I will make clear to you later, when I have laid my hand on a certain clew I am anxiously seeking. You know this is new work for me and I have to advance warily. Did any of you gentlemen, when you came into this room, detect the faintest odour of any kind of perfume?"
"Perfume?" echoed Abel, with a glance about the musty apartment. "Rats, rather."
Sweetwater shook his head with a discouraged air, but suddenly brightened, and stepping quickly across the floor, paused at one of the windows. It was that one in which the shade had been drawn.
Peering at this shade he gave a grunt.
"You must excuse me for a minute," said he; "I have not found what I wanted in this room and now must look outside for it. Will someone bring the lantern?"
"I will," volunteered Knapp, with grim good humour. Indeed, the situation was almost ludicrous to him.
"Bring it round the house, then, to the ground under this window," ordered Sweetwater, without giving any sign that he noticed or even recognised the other's air of condescension. "And, gentlemen, please don't follow. It's footsteps I am after, and the fewer we make ourselves, the easier will it be for me to establish the clew I am after."
Mr. Fenton stared. What had got into the fellow?
The lantern gone, the room resumed its former appearance.
Abel, who had been much struck by Sweetwater's mysterious manoeuvres, drew near Dr. Talbot and whispered in his ear: "We might have done without that fellow from Boston."
To which the coroner replied:
"Perhaps so, and perhaps not. Sweetwater has not yet proved his case; let us wait till he explains himself." Then, turning to the constable, he showed him an old-fashioned miniature, which he had found lying on James's breast, when he made his first examination. It was set with pearls and backed with gold and was worth many meals, for the lack of which its devoted owner had perished.
"Agatha Webb's portrait," explained Talbot, "or rather Agatha Gilchrist's; for I presume this was painted when she and James were lovers."
"She was certainly a beauty," commented Fenton, as he bent over the miniature in the moonlight. "I do not wonder she queened it over the whole country."
"He must have worn it where I found it for the last forty years," mused the doctor. "And yet men say that love is a fleeting passion. Well, after coming upon this proof of devotion, I find it impossible to believe James Zabel accountable for the death of one so fondly remembered. Sweetwater's instinct was truer than Knapp's."
"Or ours," muttered Fenton.
"Gentlemen," interposed Abel, pointing to a bright spot that just then made its appearance in the dark outline of the shade before alluded to, "do you see that hole? It was the sight of that prick in the shade which sent Sweetwater outside looking for footprints. See! Now his eye is to it" (as the bright spot became suddenly eclipsed). "We are under examination, sirs, and the next thing we will hear is that he's not the only person who's been peering into this room through that hole."
He was so far right that the first words of Sweetwater on his re- entrance were: "It's all O. K., sirs. I have found my missing clew. James Zabel was not the only person who came up here from the Webb cottage last night." And turning to Knapp, who was losing some of his supercilious manner, he asked, with significant emphasis: "If, of the full amount stolen from Agatha Webb, you found twenty dollars in the possession of one man and nine hundred and eighty dollars in the possession of another, upon which of the two would you fix as the probable murderer of the good woman?"
"Upon him who held the lion's share, of course."
"Very good; then it is not in this cottage you will find the person most wanted. You must look--But there! first let me give you a glimpse of the money. Is there anyone here ready to accompany me in search of it? I shall have to take him a quarter of a mile farther up-hill."
"You have seen the money? You know where it is?" asked Dr. Talbot and Mr. Fenton in one breath.
"Gentlemen, I can put my hand on it in ten minutes."
At this unexpected and somewhat startling statement Knapp looked at Dr. Talbot and Dr. Talbot looked at the constable, but only the last spoke.
"That is saying a good deal. But no matter. I am willing to credit the assertion. Lead on, Sweetwater; I'll go with you."
Sweetwater seemed to grow an inch taller in his satisfied vanity. "And Dr. Talbot?" he suggested.
But the coroner's duty held him to the house and he decided not to accompany them. Knapp and Abel, however, yielded to the curiosity which had been aroused by these extraordinary promises, and presently the four men mentioned started on their small expedition up the hill.
Sweetwater headed the procession. He had admonished silence, and his wish in this regard was so well carried out that they looked more like a group of spectres moving up the moon-lighted road, than a party of eager and impatient men. Not till they turned into the main thoroughfare did anyone speak. Then Abel could no longer restrain himself and he cried out:
"We are going to Mr. Sutherland's."
But Sweetwater quickly undeceived him.
"No," said he, "only into the woods opposite his house."
But at this Mr. Fenton drew him back.
"Are you sure of yourself?" he said. "Have you really seen this money and is it concealed in this forest?"
"I have seen the money," Sweetwater solemnly declared, "and it is hidden in these woods."
Mr. Fenton dropped his arm, and they moved on till their way was blocked by the huge trunk of a fallen tree.
"It is here we are to look," cried Sweetwater, pausing and motioning Knapp to turn his lantern on the spot where the shadows lay thickest. "Now, what do you see?" he asked.
"The upturned roots of a great tree," said Mr. Fenton.
"And under them?"
"A hole, or, rather, the entrance to one."
"Very good; the money is in that hole. Pull it out, Mr. Fenton."
The assurance with which Sweetwater spoke was such that Mr. Fenton at once stooped and plunged his hand into the hole. But when, after a hurried search, he drew it out again, there was nothing in it; the place was empty. Sweetwater stared at Mr. Fenton amazed.
"Don't you find anything?" he asked. "Isn't there a roll of bills in that hole?"
"No," was the gloomy answer, after a renewed attempt and a second disappointment. "There is nothing to be found here. You are labouring under some misapprehension, Sweetwater."
"But I can't be. I saw the money; saw it in the hand of the person who hid it there. Let me look for it, constable. I will not give up the search till I have turned the place topsy-turvy."
Kneeling down in Mr. Fenton's place, he thrust his hand into the hole. On either side of him peered the faces of Mr. Fenton and Knapp. (Abel had slipped away at a whisper from Sweetwater.) They were lit with a similar expression of anxious interest and growing doubt. His own countenance was a study of conflicting and by no means cheerful emotions. Suddenly his aspect changed. With a quick twist of his lithe, if awkward, body, he threw himself lengthwise on the ground, and began tearing at the earth inside the hole, like a burrowing animal.
"I cannot be mistaken. Nothing will make me believe it is not here. It has simply been buried deeper than I thought. Ah! What did I tell you? See here! And see here!"
Bringing his hands into the full blaze of the light, he showed two rolls of new, crisp bills.
"They were lying under half a foot of earth," said he, "but if they had been buried as deep as Grannie Fuller's well, I'd have unearthed them."
Meantime Mr. Fenton was rapidly counting one roll and Knapp the other. The result was an aggregate sum of nine hundred and eighty dollars, just the amount Sweetwater had promised to show them.
"A good stroke of business," cried Mr. Fenton. "And now, Sweetwater, whose is the hand that buried this treasure? Nothing is to be gained by preserving silence on this point any longer."
Instantly the young man became very grave. With a quick glance around which seemed to embrace the secret recesses of the forest rather than the eager faces bending towards him, he lowered his voice and quietly said:
"The hand that buried this money under the roots of this old tree is the same which you saw pointing downward at the spot of blood in Agatha Webb's front yard."
"You do not mean Annabel Page!" cried Mr. Fenton, with natural surprise.
"Yes, I do; and I am glad it is you who have named her."