Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Purple Orchid
XVIII. Some Leading Questions
Frederick rose early. He had slept but little. The words he had overheard at the end of the lot the night before were still ringing in his ears. Going down the back stairs, in his anxiety to avoid Amabel, he came upon one of the stablemen.
"Been to the village this morning?" he asked.
"No, sir, but Lem has. There's great news there. I wonder if anyone has told Mr. Sutherland."
"What news, Jake? I don't think my father is up yet."
"Why, sir, there were two more deaths in town last night--the brothers Zabel; and folks do say (Lem heard it a dozen times between the grocery and the fish market) that it was one of these old men who killed Mrs. Webb. The dagger has been found in their house, and most of the money. Why, sir, what's the matter? Are you sick?"
Frederick made an effort and stood upright. He had nearly fallen.
"No; that is, I am not quite myself. So many horrors, Jake. What did they die of? You say they are both dead--both?"
"Yes, sir, and it's dreadful to think of, but it was hunger, sir. Bread came too late. Both men are mere skeletons to look at. They have kept themselves close for weeks now, and nobody knew how bad off they were. I don't wonder it upset you, sir. We all feel it a bit, and I just dread to tell Mr. Sutherland."
Frederick staggered away. He had never in his life been so near mental and physical collapse. At the threshold of the sitting-room door he met his father. Mr. Sutherland was looking both troubled and anxious; more so, Frederick thought, than when he signed the check for him on the previous night. As their eyes met, both showed embarrassment, but Frederick, whose nerves had been highly strung by what he had just heard, soon controlled himself, and surveying his father with forced calmness, began:
"This is dreadful news, sir."
But his father, intent on his own thought, hurriedly interrupted him.
"You told me yesterday that everything was broken off between you and Miss Page. Yet I saw you reenter the house together last night a little while after I gave you the money you asked for."
"I know, and it must have had a bad appearance. I entreat you, however, to believe that this meeting between Miss Page and myself was against my wish, and that the relations between us have not been affected by anything that passed between us."
"I am glad to hear it, my son. You could not do worse by yourself than to return to your old devotion."
"I agree with you, sir." And then, because he could not help it, Frederick inquired if he had heard the news.
Mr. Sutherland, evidently startled, asked what news; to which Frederick replied:
"The news about the Zabels. They are both dead, sir,--dead from hunger. Can you imagine it!"
This was something so different from what his father had expected to hear, that he did not take it in at first. When he did, his surprise and grief were even greater than Frederick had anticipated. Seeing him so affected, Frederick, who thought that the whole truth would be no harder to bear than the half, added the suspicion which had been attached to the younger one's name, and then stood back, scarcely daring to be a witness to the outraged feelings which such a communication could not fail to awaken in one of his father's temperament.
But though he thus escaped the shocked look which crossed his father's countenance, he could not fail to hear the indignant exclamation which burst from his lips, nor help perceiving that it would take more than the most complete circumstantial evidence to convince his father of the guilt of men he had known and respected for so many years.
For some reason Frederick experienced great relief at this, and was bracing himself to meet the fire of questions which his statement must necessarily call forth, when the sound of approaching steps drew the attention of both towards a party of men coming up the hillside.
Among them was Mr. Courtney, Prosecuting Attorney for the district, and as Mr. Sutherland recognised him he sprang forward, saying, "There's Courtney; he will explain this."
Frederick followed, anxious and bewildered, and soon had the doubtful pleasure of seeing his father enter his study in company with the four men considered to be most interested in the elucidation of the Webb mystery.
As he was lingering in an undecided mood in the small passageway leading up-stairs he felt the pressure of a finger on his shoulder. Looking up, he met the eyes of Amabel, who was leaning toward him over the banisters. She was smiling, and, though her face was not without evidences of physical languor, there was a charm about her person which would have been sufficiently enthralling to him twenty-four hours before, but which now caused him such a physical repulsion that he started back in the effort to rid his shoulder from her disturbing touch.
She frowned. It was an instantaneous expression of displeasure which was soon lost in one of her gurgling laughs.
"Is my touch so burdensome?" she demanded. "If the pressure of one finger is so unbearable to your sensitive nerves, how will you relish the weight of my whole hand?"
There was a fierceness in her tone, a purpose in her look, that for the first time in his struggle with her revealed the full depth of her dark nature. Shrinking from her appalled, he put up his hand in protest, at which she changed again in a twinkling, and with a cautious gesture toward the room into which Mr. Sutherland and his friends had disappeared, she whispered significantly:
"We may not have another chance to confer together. Understand, then, that it will not be necessary for you to tell me, in so many words, that you are ready to link your fortunes to mine; the taking off of the ring you wear and your slow putting of it on again, in my presence, will be understood by me as a token that you have reconsidered your present attitude and desire my silence and--myself."
Frederick could not repress a shudder.
For an instant he was tempted to succumb on the spot and have the long agony over. Then his horror of the woman rose to such a pitch that he uttered an execration, and, turning away from her face, which was rapidly growing loathsome to him, he ran out of the passageway into the garden, seeing as he ran a persistent vision of himself pulling off the ring and putting it back again, under the spell of a look he rebelled against even while he yielded to its influence.
"I will not wear a ring, I will not subject myself to the possibility of obeying her behest under a sudden stress of fear or fascination," he exclaimed, pausing by the well-curb and looking over it at his reflection in the water beneath. "If I drop it here I at least lose the horror of doing what she suggests, under some involuntary impulse." But the thought that the mere absence of the ring from his finger would not stand in the way of his going through the motions to which she had just given such significance, deterred him from the sacrifice of a valuable family jewel, and he left the spot with an air of frenzy such as a man displays when he feels himself on the verge of a doom he can neither meet nor avert.
As he re-entered the house, he felt himself enveloped in the atmosphere of a coming crisis. He could hear voices in the upper hall, and amongst them he caught the accents of her he had learned so lately to fear. Impelled by something deeper than curiosity and more potent even than dread, he hastened toward the stairs. When half-way up, he caught sight of Amabel. She was leaning back against the balustrade that ran across the upper hall, with her hands gripping the rail on either side of her and her face turned toward the five men who had evidently issued from Mr. Sutherland's study to interview her.
As her back was to Frederick he could not judge of the expression of that face save by the effect it had upon the different men confronting her. But to see them was enough. From their looks he could perceive that this young girl was in one of her baffling moods, and that from his father down, not one of the men present knew what to make of her.
At the sound his feet made, a relaxation took place in her body and she lost something of the defiant attitude she had before maintained. Presently he heard her voice:
"I am willing to answer any questions you may choose to put to me here; but I cannot consent to shut myself in with you in that small study; I should suffocate."
Frederick could perceive the looks which passed between the five men assembled before her, and was astonished to note that the insignificant fellow they called Sweetwater was the first to answer.
"Very well," said he; "if you enjoy the publicity of the open hall, no one here will object. Is not that so, gentlemen?"
Her two little fingers, which were turned towards Frederick, ran up and down the rail, making a peculiar rasping noise, which for a moment was the only sound to be heard. Then Mr. Courtney said:
"How came you to have the handling of the money taken from Agatha Webb's private drawer?"
It was a startling question, but it seemed to affect Amabel less than it did Frederick. It made him start, but she only turned her head a trifle aside, so that the peculiar smile with which she prepared to answer could be seen by anyone standing below.
"Suppose you ask something less leading than that, to begin with," she suggested, in her high, unmusical voice. "From the searching nature of this inquiry, you evidently believe I have information of an important character to give you concerning Mrs. Webb's unhappy death. Ask me about that; the other question I will answer later."
The aplomb with which this was said, mixed as it was with a feminine allurement of more than ordinary subtlety, made Mr. Sutherland frown and Dr. Talbot look perplexed, but it did not embarrass Mr. Courtney, who made haste to respond in his dryest accents:
"Very well, I am not particular as to what you answer first. A flower worn by you at the dance was found near Batsy's skirts, before she was lifted up that morning. Can you explain this, or, rather, will you?"
"You are not obliged to, you know," put in Mr. Sutherland, with his inexorable sense of justice. "Still, if you would, it might rob these gentlemen of suspicions you certainly cannot wish them to entertain."
"What I say," she remarked slowly, "will be as true to the facts as if I stood here on my oath. I can explain how a flower from my hair came to be in Mrs. Webb's house, but not how it came to be found under Batsy's feet. That someone else must clear up." Her little finger, lifted from the rail, pointed toward Frederick, but no one saw this, unless it was that gentleman himself. "I wore a purple orchid in my hair that night, and there would be nothing strange in its being afterward picked up in Mrs. Webb's house, because I was in that house at or near the time she was murdered."
"You in that house?"
"Yes, as far as the ground floor; no farther." Here the little finger stopped pointing. "I am ready to tell you about it, sirs, and only regret I have delayed doing so so long, but I wished to be sure it was necessary. Your presence here and your first question show that it is."
There was suavity in her tone now, not unmixed with candour. Sweetwater did not seem to relish this, for he moved uneasily and lost a shade of his self-satisfied attitude. He had still to be made acquainted with all the ins and outs of this woman's remarkable nature.
"We are waiting," suggested Dr. Talbot.
She turned to face this new speaker, and Frederick was relieved from the sight of her tantalising smile.
"I will tell my story simply," said she, "with the simple suggestion that you believe me; otherwise you will make a mistake. While I was resting from a dance the other night, I heard two of the young people talking about the Zabels. One of them was laughing at the old men, and the other was trying to relate some half-forgotten story of early love which had been the cause, she thought, of their strange and melancholy lives. I was listening to them, but I did not take in much of what they were saying till I heard behind me an irascible voice exclaiming: 'You laugh, do you? I wonder if you would laugh so easily if you knew that these two poor old men haven't had a decent meal in a fortnight?' I didn't know the speaker, but I was thrilled by his words. Not had a good meal, these men, for a fortnight! I felt as if personally guilty of their suffering, and, happening to raise my eyes at this minute and seeing through an open door the bountiful refreshments prepared for us in the supper room, I felt guiltier than ever. Suddenly I took a resolution. It was a queer one, and may serve to show you some of the oddities of my nature. Though I was engaged for the next dance, and though I was dressed in the flimsy garments suitable to the occasion, I decided to leave the ball and carry some sandwiches down to these old men. Procuring a bit of paper, I made up a bundle and stole out of the house without having said a word to anybody of my intention. Not wishing to be seen, I went out by the garden door, which is at the end of the dark hall--"
"Just as the band was playing the Harebell mazurka," interpolated Sweetwater.
Startled for the first time from her careless composure by an interruption of which it was impossible for her at that time to measure either the motive or the meaning, she ceased to play with her fingers on the baluster rail and let her eyes rest for a moment on the man who had thus spoken, as if she hesitated between her desire to annihilate him for his impertinence and a fear of the cold hate she saw actuating his every word and look. Then she went on, as if no one had spoken:
"I ran down the hill recklessly. I was bent on my errand and not at all afraid of the dark. When I reached that part of the road where the streets branch off, I heard footsteps in front of me. I had overtaken someone. Slackening my pace, so that I should not pass this person, whom I instinctively knew to be a man, I followed him till I came to a high board fence. It was that surrounding Agatha Webb's house, and when I saw it I could not help connecting the rather stealthy gait of the man in front of me with a story I had lately heard of the large sum of money she was known to keep in her house. Whether this was before or after this person disappeared round the corner I cannot say, but no sooner had I become certain that he was bent upon entering this house than my impulse to follow him became greater than my precaution, and turning aside from the direct path to the Zabels', I hurried down High Street just in time to see the man enter Mrs. Webb's front gateway.
"It was a late hour for visiting, but as the house had lights in both its lower and upper stories, I should by good rights have taken it for granted that he was an expected guest and gone on my way to the Zabels'. But I did not. The softness with which this person stepped and the skulking way in which he hesitated at the front gate aroused my worst fears, and after he had opened that gate and slid in, I was so pursued by the idea that he was there for no good that I stepped inside the gate myself and took my stand in the deep shadow cast by the old pear tree on the right- hand side of the walk. Did anyone speak?"
There was a unanimous denial from the five gentlemen before her, yet she did not look satisfied.
"I thought I heard someone make a remark," she repeated, and paused again for a half-minute, during which her smile was a study, it was so cold and in such startling contrast to the vivid glances she threw everywhere except behind her on the landing where Frederick stood listening to her every word.
"We are very much interested," remarked Mr. Courtney. "Pray, go on."
Drawing her left hand from the balustrade where it had rested, she looked at one of her fingers with an odd backward gesture.
"I will," she said, and her tone was hard and threatening. "Five minutes, no longer, passed, when I was startled by a loud and terrible cry from the house, and looking up at the second-story window from which the sound proceeded, I saw a woman's figure hanging out in a seemingly pulseless condition. Too terrified to move, I clung trembling to the tree, hearing and not hearing the shouts and laughter of a dozen or more men, who at that minute passed by the corner on their way to the wharves. I was dazed, I was choking, and only came to myself when, sooner or later, I do not know how soon or how late, a fresh horror happened. The woman whom I had just seen fall almost from the window was a serving woman, but when I heard another scream I knew that the mistress of the house was being attacked, and rivetting my eyes on those windows, I beheld the shade of one of them thrown back and a hand appear, flinging out something which fell in the grass on the opposite side of the lawn. Then the shade fell again, and hearing nothing further, I ran to where the object flung out had fallen, and feeling for it, found and picked up an old-fashioned dagger, dripping with blood. Horrified beyond all expression, I dropped the weapon and retreated into my former place of concealment.
"But I was not satisfied to remain there. A curiosity, a determination even, to see the man who had committed this dastardly deed, attacked me with such force that I was induced to leave my hiding-place and even to enter the house where in all probability he was counting the gains he had just obtained at the price of so much precious blood. The door, which he had not perfectly closed behind him, seemed to invite me in, and before I had realised my own temerity, I was standing in the hall of this ill-fated house."
The interest, which up to this moment had been breathless, now expressed itself in hurried ejaculations and broken words; and Mr. Sutherland, who had listened like one in a dream, exclaimed eagerly, and in a tone which proved that he, for the moment at least, believed this more than improbable tale:
"Then you can tell us if Philemon was in the little room at the moment when you entered the house?"
As everyone there present realised the importance of this question, a general movement took place and each and all drew nearer as she met their eyes and answered placidly:
"Yes; Mr. Webb was sitting in a chair asleep. He was the only person I saw."
"Oh, I know he never committed this crime," gasped his old friend, in a relief so great that one and all seemed to share it.
"Now I have courage for the rest. Go on, Miss Page."
But Miss Page paused again to look at her finger, and give that sideways toss to her head that seemed so uncalled for by the situation to any who did not know of the compact between herself and the listening man below.
"I hate to go back to that moment," said she; "for when I saw the candles burning on the table, and the husband of the woman who at that very instant was possibly breathing her last breath in the room overhead, sitting there in unconscious apathy, I felt something rise in my throat that made me deathly sick for a moment. Then I went right in where he was, and was about to shake his arm and wake him, when I detected a spot of blood on my finger from the dagger I had handled. That gave me another turn, and led me to wipe off my finger on his sleeve."
"It's a pity you did not wipe off your slippers too," murmured Sweetwater.
Again she looked at him, again her eyes opened in terror upon the face of this man, once so plain and insignificant in her eyes, but now so filled with menace she inwardly quaked before it, for all her apparent scorn.
"Slippers," she murmured.
"Did not your feet as well as your hands pass through the blood on the grass?"
She disdained to answer him.
"I have accounted for the blood on my hand," she said, not looking at him, but at Mr. Courtney. "If there is any on my slippers it can be accounted for in the same way." And she rapidly resumed her narrative. "I had no sooner made my little finger clean I never thought of anyone suspecting the old gentleman when I heard steps on the stairs and knew that the murderer was coming down, and in another instant would pass the open door before which I stood.
"Though I had been courageous enough up to that minute, I was seized by a sudden panic at the prospect of meeting face to face one whose hands were perhaps dripping with the blood of his victim. To confront him there and then might mean death to me, and I did not want to die, but to live, for I am young, sirs, and not without a prospect of happiness before me. So I sprang back, and seeing no other place of concealment in the whole bare room, crouched down in the shadow of the man you call Philemon. For one, two minutes, I knelt there in a state of mortal terror, while the feet descended, paused, started to enter the room where I was, hesitated, turned, and finally left the house."
"Miss Page, wait, wait," put in the coroner. "You saw him; you can tell who this man was?"
The eagerness of this appeal seemed to excite her. A slight colour appeared in her cheeks and she took a step forward, but before the words for which they so anxiously waited could leave her lips, she gave a start and drew back with, an ejaculation which left a more or less sinister echo in the ears of all who heard it.
Frederick had just shown himself at the top of the staircase.
"Good-morning, gentlemen," said he, advancing into their midst with an air whose unexpected manliness disguised his inward agitation. "The few words I have just heard Miss Page say interest me so much, I find it impossible not to join you."
Amabel, upon whose lips a faint complacent smile had appeared as he stepped by her, glanced up at these words in secret astonishment at the indifference they showed, and then dropped her eyes to his hands with an intent gaze which seemed to affect him unpleasantly, for he thrust them immediately behind him, though he did not lower his head or lose his air of determination.
"Is my presence here undesirable?" he inquired, with a glance towards his father.
Sweetwater looked as if he thought it was, but he did not presume to say anything, and the others being too interested in the developments of Miss Page's story to waste any time on lesser matters, Frederick remained, greatly to Miss Page's evident satisfaction.
"Did you see this man's face?" Mr. Courtney now broke in, in urgent inquiry.
Her answer came slowly, after another long look in Frederick's direction.
"No, I did not dare to make the effort. I was obliged to crouch too close to the floor. I simply heard his footsteps."
"See, now!" muttered Sweetwater, but in so low a tone she did not hear him. "She condemns herself. There isn't a woman living who would fail to look up under such circumstances, even at the risk of her life."
Knapp seemed to agree with him, but Mr. Courtney, following his one idea, pressed his former question, saying:
"Was it an old man's step?"
"It was not an agile one."
"And you did not catch the least glimpse of the man's face or figure?"
"Not a glimpse."
"So you are in no position to identify him?"
"If by any chance I should hear those same footsteps coming down a flight of stairs, I think I should be able to recognise them," she allowed, in the sweetest tones at her command.
"She knows it is too late for her to hear those of the two dead Zabels," growled the man from Boston.
"We are no nearer the solution of this mystery than we were in the beginning," remarked the coroner.
"Gentlemen, I have not yet finished my story," intimated Amabel, sweetly. "Perhaps what I have yet to tell may give you some clew to the identity of this man."
"Ah, yes; go on, go on. You have not yet explained how you came to be in possession of Agatha's money."
"Just so," she answered, with another quick look at Frederick, the last she gave him for some time. "As soon, then, as I dared, I ran out of the house into the yard. The moon, which had been under a cloud, was now shining brightly, and by its light I saw that the space before me was empty and that I might venture to enter the street. But before doing so I looked about for the dagger I had thrown from me before going in, but I could not find it. It had been picked up by the fugitive and carried away. Annoyed at the cowardice which had led me to lose such a valuable piece of evidence through a purely womanish emotion, I was about to leave the yard, when my eyes fell on the little bundle of sandwiches which I had brought down from the hill and which I had let fall under the pear tree, at the first scream I had heard from the house. It had burst open and two or three of the sandwiches lay broken on the ground. But those that were intact I picked up, and being more than ever anxious to cover up by some ostensible errand my absence from the party, I rushed away toward the lonely road where these brothers lived, meaning to leave such fragments as remained on the old doorstep, beyond which I had been told such suffering existed.
"It was now late, very late, for a girl like myself to be out, but, under the excitement of what I had just seen and heard, I became oblivious to fear, and rushed into those dismal shadows as into transparent daylight. Perhaps the shouts and stray sounds of laughter that came up from the wharves where a ship was getting under way gave me a certain sense of companionship. Perhaps--but it is folly for me to dilate upon my feelings; it is my errand you are interested in, and what happened when I approached the Zabels' dreary dwelling."
The look with which she paused, ostensibly to take breath, but in reality to weigh and criticise the looks of those about her, was one of those wholly indescribable ones with which she was accustomed to control the judgment of men who allowed themselves to watch too closely the ever-changing expression of her weird yet charming face. But it fell upon men steeled against her fascinations, and realising her inability to move them, she proceeded with her story before even the most anxious of her hearers could request her to do so.
"I had come along the road very quietly," said she, "for my feet were lightly shod, and the moonlight was too bright for me to make a misstep. But as I cleared the trees and came into the open place where the house stands I stumbled with surprise at seeing a figure crouching on the doorstep I had anticipated finding as empty as the road. It was an old man's figure, and as I paused in my embarrassment he slowly and with great feebleness rose to his feet and began to grope about for the door. As he did so, I heard a sharp tinkling sound, as of something metallic falling on the doorstone, and, taking a quick step forward, I looked over his shoulder and espied in the moonlight at his feet a dagger so like the one I had lately handled in Mrs. Webb's yard that I was overwhelmed with astonishment, and surveyed the aged and feeble form of the man who had dropped it with a sensation difficult to describe. The next moment he was stooping for the weapon, with a startled air that has impressed itself distinctly upon my memory, and when, after many feeble attempts, he succeeded in grasping it, he vanished into the house so suddenly that I could not be sure whether or not he had seen me standing there.
"All this was more than surprising to me, for I had never thought of associating an old man with this crime. Indeed, I was so astonished to find him in possession of this weapon that I forgot all about my errand and only wondered how I could see and know more. Fearing detection, I slid in amongst the bushes and soon found myself under one of the windows. The shade was down and I was about to push it aside when I heard someone moving about inside and stopped. But I could not restrain my curiosity, so pulling a hairpin from my hair, I worked a little hole in the shade and through this I looked into a room brightly illumined by the moon which shone in through an adjoining window. And what did I see there?" Her eye turned on Frederick. His right hand had stolen toward his left, but it paused under her look and remained motionless. "Only an old man sitting at a table and--" Why did she pause, and why did she cover up that pause with a wholly inconsequential sentence? Perhaps Frederick could have told, Frederick, whose hand had now fallen at his side. But Frederick volunteered nothing, and no one, not even Sweetwater, guessed all that lay beyond that and which was left hovering in the air to be finished---when? Alas! had she not set the day and the hour?
What she did say was in seeming explanation of her previous sentence. "It was not the same old man I had seen on the doorstep, and while I was looking at him I became aware of someone leaving the house and passing me on the road up-hill. Of course this ended my interest in what went on within, and turning as quickly as I could I hurried into the road and followed the shadow I could just perceive disappearing in the woods above me. I was bound, gentlemen, as you see, to follow out my adventure to the end. But my task now became very difficult, for the moon was high and shone down upon the road so distinctly that I could not follow the person before me as closely as I wished without running the risk of being discovered by him. I therefore trusted more to my ear than to my eye, and as long as I could hear his steps in front of me I was satisfied. But presently, as we turned up this very hill, I ceased to hear these steps and so became confident that he had taken to the woods. I was so sure of this that I did not hesitate to enter them myself, and, knowing the paths well, as I have every opportunity of doing, living, as we do, directly opposite this forest, I easily found my way to the little clearing that I have reason to think you gentlemen have since become acquainted with. But though from the sounds I heard I was assured that the person I was following was not far in advance of me, I did not dare to enter this brilliantly illumined space, especially as there was every indication of this person having completed whatever task he had set for himself. Indeed, I was sure that I heard his steps coming back. So, for the second time, I crouched down in the darkest place I could find and let this mysterious person pass me. When he had quite disappeared, I made my own retreat, for it was late, and I was afraid of being missed at the ball. But later, or rather the next day, I recrossed the road and began a search for the money which I was confident had been left in the woods opposite, by the person I had been following. I found it, and when the man here present who, though a mere fiddler, has presumed to take a leading part in this interview, came upon me with the bills in my hand, I was but burying deeper the ill-gotten gains I had come upon."
"Ah, and so making them your own," quoth Sweetwater, stung by the sarcasm in that word fiddler.
But with a suavity against which every attack fell powerless, she met his significant look with one fully as significant, and quietly said:
"If I had wanted the money for myself I would not have risked leaving it where the murderer could find it by digging up a few handfuls of mould and a bunch of sodden leaves. No, I had another motive for my action, a motive with which few, if any, of you will be willing to credit me. I wished to save the murderer, whom I had some reason, as you see, for thinking I knew, from the consequences of his own action."
Mr. Courtney, Dr. Talbot, and even Mr. Sutherland, who naturally believed she referred to Zabel, and who, one and all, had a lingering tenderness for this unfortunate old man, which not even this seeming act of madness on his part could quite destroy, felt a species of reaction at this, and surveyed the singular being before them with, perhaps, the slightest shade of relenting in their severity. Sweetwater alone betrayed restlessness, Knapp showed no feeling at all, while Frederick stood like one petrified, and moved neither hand nor foot.
"Crime is despicable when it results from cupidity only," she went on, with a deliberateness so hard that the more susceptible of her auditors shuddered. "But crime that springs from some imperative and overpowering necessity of the mind or body might well awaken sympathy, and I am not ashamed of having been sorry for this frenzied and suffering man. Weak and impulsive as you may consider me, I did not want him to suffer on account of a moment's madness, as he undoubtedly would if he were ever found with Agatha Webb's money in his possession, so I plunged it deeper into the soil and trusted to the confusion which crime always awakens even in the strongest mind, for him not to discover its hiding-place till the danger connected with it was over."
"Ha! wonderful! Devilish subtle, eh? Clever, too clever!" were some of the whispered exclamations which this curious explanation on her part brought out. Yet only Sweetwater showed his open and entire disbelief of the story, the others possibly remembering that for such natures as hers there is no governing law and no commonplace interpretation.
To Sweetwater, however, this was but so much display of feminine resource and subtlety. Though he felt he should keep still in the presence of men so greatly his superiors, he could not resist saying:
"Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. I should never have attributed any such motive as you mention to the young girl I saw leaving this spot with many a backward glance at the hole from which we afterwards extracted the large sum of money in question. But say that this reburying of stolen funds was out of consideration for the feeble old man you describe as having carried them there, do you not see that by this act you can be held as an accessory after the fact?"
Her eyebrows went up and the delicate curve of her lips was not without menace as she said:
"You hate me, Mr. Sweetwater. Do you wish me to tell these gentlemen why?"
The flush which, notwithstanding this peculiar young man's nerve, instantly crimsoned his features, was a surprise to Frederick. So was it to the others, who saw in it a possible hint as to the real cause of his persistent pursuit of this young girl, which they had hitherto ascribed entirely to his love of justice. Slighted love makes some hearts venomous. Could this ungainly fellow have once loved and been disdained by this bewitching piece of unreliability?
It was a very possible assumption, though Sweetwater's blush was the only answer he gave to her question, which nevertheless had amply served its turn.
To fill the gap caused by his silence, Mr. Sutherland made an effort and addressed her himself.
"Your conduct," said he, "has not been that of a strictly honourable person. Why did you fail to give the alarm when you re- entered my house after being witness to this double tragedy?"
Her serenity was not to be disturbed.
"I have just explained," she reminded him, "that I had sympathy for the criminal."
"We all have sympathy for James Zabel, but--"
"I do not believe one word of this story," interposed Sweetwater, in reckless disregard of proprieties. "A hungry, feeble old man, like Zabel, on the verge of death, could not have found his way into these woods. You carried the money there yourself, miss; you are the--"
"Hush!" interposed the coroner, authoritatively; "do not let us go too fast--yet. Miss Page has an air of speaking the truth, strange and unaccountable as it may seem. Zabel was an admirable man once, and if he was led into theft and murder, it was not until his faculties had been weakened by his own suffering and that of his much-loved brother."
"Thank you," was her simple reply; and for the first time every man there thrilled at her tone. Seeing it, all the dangerous fascination of her look and manner returned upon her with double force. "I have been unwise," said she, "and let my sympathy run away with my judgment. Women have impulses of this kind sometimes, and men blame them for it, till they themselves come to the point of feeling the need of just such blind devotion. I am sure I regret my short-sightedness now, for I have lost esteem by it, while he--" With a wave of the hand she dismissed the subject, and Dr. Talbot, watching her, felt a shade of his distrust leave him, and in its place a species of admiration for the lithe, graceful, bewitching personality before them, with her childish impulses and womanly wit which half mystified and half imposed upon them.
Mr. Sutherland, on the contrary, was neither charmed from his antagonism nor convinced of her honesty. There was something in this matter that could not be explained away by her argument, and his suspicion of that something he felt perfectly sure was shared by his son, toward whose cold, set face he had frequently cast the most uneasy glances. He was not ready, however, to probe into the subject more deeply, nor could he, for the sake of Frederick, urge on to any further confession a young woman whom his unhappy son professed to love, and in whose discretion he had so little confidence. As for Sweetwater, he had now fully recovered his self-possession, and bore himself with great discretion when Dr. Talbot finally said:
"Well, gentlemen, we have got more than we expected when we came here this morning. There remains, however, a point regarding which we have received no explanation. Miss Page, how came that orchid, which I am told you wore in your hair at the dance, to be found lying near the hem of Batsy's skirts? You distinctly told us that you did not go up-stairs when you were in Mrs. Webb's house."
"Ah, that's so!" acquiesced the Boston detective dryly. "How came that flower on the scene of the murder?"
She smiled and seemed equal to the emergency.
"That is a mystery for us all to solve," she said quietly, frankly meeting the eyes of her questioner.
"A mystery it is your business to solve," corrected the district attorney. "Nothing that you have told us in support of your innocence would, in the eyes of the law, weigh for one instant against the complicity shown by that one piece of circumstantial evidence against you."
Her smile carried a certain high-handed denial of this to one heart there, at least. But her words were humble enough.
"I am aware of that," said she. Then, turning to where Sweetwater stood lowering upon her from out his half-closed eyes, she impetuously exclaimed: "You, sir, who, with no excuse an honourable person can recognise, have seen fit to arrogate to yourself duties wholly out of your province, prove yourself equal to your presumption by ferreting out, alone and unassisted, the secret of this mystery. It can be done, for, mark, I did not carry that flower into the room where it was found. This I am ready to assert before God and before man!"
Her hand was raised, her whole attitude spoke defiance and--hard as it was for Sweetwater to acknowledge it--truth. He felt that he had received a challenge, and with a quick glance at Knapp, who barely responded by a shrug, he shifted over to the side of Dr. Talbot.
Amabel at once dropped her hand.
"May I go?" she now cried appealingly to Mr. Courtney. "I really have no more to say, and I am tired."
"Did you see the figure of the man who brushed by you in the wood? Was it that of the old man you saw on the doorstep?"
At this direct question Frederick quivered in spite of his dogged self-control. But she, with her face upturned to meet the scrutiny of the speaker, showed only a childish kind of wonder. "Why do you ask that? Is there any doubt about its being the same?"
What an actress she was! Frederick stood appalled. He had been amazed at the skill with which she had manipulated her story so as to keep her promise to him, and yet leave the way open for that further confession which would alter the whole into a denunciation of himself which he would find it difficult, if not impossible, to meet. But this extreme dissimulation made him lose heart. It showed her to be an antagonist of almost illimitable resource and secret determination.
"I did not suppose there could be any doubt," she added, in such a natural tone of surprise that Mr. Courtney dropped the subject, and Dr. Talbot turned to Sweetwater, who for the moment seemed to have robbed Knapp of his rightful place as the coroner's confidant.
"Shall we let her go for the present?" he whispered. "She does look tired, poor girl."
The public challenge which Sweetwater had received made him wary, and his reply was a guarded one:
"I do not trust her, yet there is much to confirm her story. Those sandwiches, now. She says she dropped them in Mrs. Webb's yard under the pear tree, and that the bag that held them burst open. Gentlemen, the birds were so busy there on the morning after the murder that I could not but notice them, notwithstanding my absorption in greater matters. I remember wondering what they were all pecking at so eagerly. But how about the flower whose presence on the scene of guilt she challenges me to explain? And the money so deftly reburied by her? Can any explanation make her other than accessory to a crime on whose fruits she lays her hand in a way tending solely to concealment? No, sirs; and so I shall not relax my vigilance over her, even if, in order to be faithful to it, I have to suggest that a warrant be made out for her imprisonment."
"You are right," acquiesced the coroner, and turning to Miss Page, he told her she was too valuable a witness to be lost sight of, and requested her to prepare to accompany him into town.
She made no objection. On the contrary her cheeks dimpled, and she turned away with alacrity towards her room. But before the door closed on her she looked back, and, with a persuasive smile, remarked that she had told all she knew, or thought she knew at the time. But that perhaps, after thinking the matter carefully over, she might remember some detail that would throw some extra light on the subject.
"Call her back!" cried Mr. Courtney. "She is withholding something. Let us hear it all."
But Mr. Sutherland, with a side look at Frederick, persuaded the district attorney to postpone all further examination of this artful girl until they were alone. The anxious father had noted, what the rest were too preoccupied to observe, that Frederick had reached the limit of his strength and could not be trusted to preserve his composure any longer in face of this searching examination into the conduct of a woman from whom he had so lately detached himself.