Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. The Man of no Reputation
XXIII. A Sinister Pair
"I beg your pardon," stammered Sweetwater, starting aside and losing on the instant all further disposition to leave the room.
Indeed, he had not the courage to do so, even if he had had the will. The joint appearance of these two men in this place, and at an hour so far in advance of that which usually saw Mr. Sutherland enter the town, was far too significant in his eyes for him to ignore it. Had any explanation taken place between them, and had Mr. Sutherland's integrity triumphed over personal considerations to the point of his bringing Frederick here to confess?
Meanwhile Dr. Talbot had risen with a full and hearty greeting which proved to Sweetwater's uneasy mind that notwithstanding Knapp's disquieting reticence no direct suspicion had as yet fallen on the unhappy Frederick. Then he waited for what Mr. Sutherland had to say, for it was evident he had come there to say something. Sweetwater waited, too, frozen almost into immobility by the fear that it would be something injudicious, for never had he seen any man so changed as Mr. Sutherland in these last twelve hours, nor did it need a highly penetrating eye to detect that the relations between him and Frederick were strained to a point that made it almost impossible for them to more than assume their old confidential attitude. Knapp, knowing them but superficially, did not perceive this, but Dr. Talbot was not blind to it, as was shown by the inquiring look he directed towards them both while waiting.
Mr. Sutherland spoke at last.
"Pardon me for interrupting you so early," said he, with a certain tremble in his voice which Sweetwater quaked to hear. "For certain reasons, I should be very glad to know, we should be very glad to know, if during your investigations into the cause and manner of Agatha Webb's death, you have come upon a copy of her will."
Talbot was at once interested, so was Knapp, while Sweetwater withdrew further into his corner in anxious endeavour to hide his blanching cheek. "We have found nothing. We do not even know that she has made a will."
"I ask," pursued Mr. Sutherland, with a slight glance toward Frederick, who seemed, at least in Sweetwater's judgment, to have braced himself up to bear this interview unmoved, "because I have not only received intimation that she made such a will, but have even been entrusted with a copy of it as chief executor of the same. It came to me in a letter from Boston yesterday. Its contents were a surprise to me. Frederick, hand me a chair. These accumulated misfortunes--for we all suffer under the afflictions which have beset this town--have made me feel my years."
Sweetwater drew his breath more freely. He thought he might understand by this last sentence that Mr. Sutherland had come here for a different cause than he had at first feared. Frederick, on the contrary, betrayed a failing ability to hide his emotion. He brought his father a chair, placed it, and was drawing back out of sight when Mr. Sutherland prevented him by a mild command to hand the paper he had brought to the coroner.
There was something in his manner that made Sweetwater lean forward and Frederick look up, so that the father's and son's eyes met under that young man's scrutiny. But while he saw meaning in both their regards, there was nothing like collusion, and, baffled by these appearances, which, while interesting, told him little or nothing, he transferred his attention to Dr. Talbot and Knapp, who had drawn together to see what this paper contained.
"As I have said, the contents of this will are a surprise to me," faltered Mr. Sutherland. "They are equally so to my son. He can hardly be said to have been a friend even of the extraordinary woman who thus leaves him her whole fortune."
"I never spoke with her but twice," exclaimed Frederick with a studied coldness, which was so evidently the cloak of inner agitation that Sweetwater trembled for its effect, notwithstanding the state of his own thoughts, which were in a ferment. Frederick, the inheritor of Agatha Webb's fortune! Frederick, concerning whom his father had said on the previous night that he possessed no motive for wishing this good woman's death! Was it the discovery that such a motive existed which had so aged this man in the last twelve hours? Sweetwater dared not turn again to see. His own face might convey too much of his own fears, doubts, and struggle.
But the coroner, for whose next words Sweetwater listened with acute expectancy, seemed to be moved simply by the unexpectedness of the occurrence. Glancing at Frederick with more interest than he had ever before shown him, he cried with a certain show of enthusiasm:
"A pretty fortune! A very pretty fortune!" Then with a deprecatory air natural to him in addressing Mr. Sutherland, "Would it be indiscreet for me to ask to what our dear friend Agatha alludes in her reference to your late lamented wife?" His finger was on a clause of the will and his lips next minute mechanically repeated what he was pointing at:
"'In remembrance of services rendered me in early life by Marietta Sutherland, wife of Charles Sutherland of Sutherlandtown, I bequeath to Frederick, sole child of her affection, all the property, real and personal, of which I die possessed.' Services rendered! They must have been very important ones," suggested Dr. Talbot.
Mr. Sutherland's expression was one of entire perplexity and doubt.
"I do not remember my wife ever speaking of any special act of kindness she was enabled to show Agatha Webb. They were always friends, but never intimate ones. However, Agatha could be trusted to make no mistake. She doubtless knew to what she referred. Mrs. Sutherland was fully capable of doing an extremely kind act in secret."
For all his respect for the speaker, Dr. Talbot did not seem quite satisfied. He glanced at Frederick and fumbled the paper uneasily.
"Perhaps you were acquainted with the reason for this legacy--this large legacy," he emphasised.
Frederick, thus called upon, nay, forced to speak, raised his head, and without perhaps bestowing so much as a thought on the young man behind him who was inwardly quivering in anxious expectancy of some betrayal on his part which would precipitate disgrace and lifelong sorrow on all who bore the name of Sutherland, met Dr. Talbot's inquiring glance with a simple earnestness surprising to them all, and said:
"My record is so much against me that I am not surprised that you wonder at my being left with Mrs. Webb's fortune. Perhaps she did not fully realise the lack of estimation in which I am deservedly held in this place, or perhaps, and this would be much more like her, she hoped that the responsibility of owing my independence to so good and so unfortunate a woman might make a man of me."
There was a manliness in Frederick's words and bearing that took them all by surprise. Mr. Sutherland's dejection visibly lightened, while Sweetwater, conscious of the more than vital interests hanging upon the impression which might be made by this event upon the minds of the men present, turned slightly so as to bring their faces into the line of his vision.
The result was a conviction that as yet no real suspicion of Frederick had seized upon either of their minds. Knapp's face was perfectly calm and almost indifferent, while the good coroner, who saw this and every other circumstance connected with this affair through the one medium of his belief in Amabel's guilt, was surveying Frederick with something like sympathy.
"I fear," said he, "that others were not as ignorant of your prospective good fortune as you were yourself," at which Frederick's cheek turned a dark red, though he said nothing, and Sweetwater, with a sudden involuntary gesture indicative of resolve, gazed for a moment breathlessly at the ship, and then with an unexpected and highly impetuous movement dashed from the room crying loudly:
"I've seen him! I've seen him! he's just going on board the ship. Wait for me, Dr. Talbot. I'll be back in fifteen minutes with such a witness--"
Here the door slammed. But they could hear his hurrying footsteps as he plunged down the stairs and rushed away from the building.
It was an unexpected termination to an interview fast becoming unbearable to the two Sutherlands, but no one, not even the old gentleman himself, took in its full significance.
He was, however, more than agitated by the occurrence and could hardly prevent himself from repeating aloud Sweetwater's final word, which after their interview at Mr. Halliday's gate, the night before, seemed to convey to him at once a warning and a threat. To keep himself from what he feared might prove a self- betrayal, he faltered out in very evident dismay:
"What is the matter? What has come over the lad?"
"Oh!" cried Dr. Talbot, "he's been watching that ship for an hour. He is after some man he has just seen go aboard her. Says he's a new and important witness in this case. Perhaps he is. Sweetwater is no man's fool, for all his small eyes and retreating chin. If you want proof of it, wait till he comes back. He'll be sure to have something to say."
Meanwhile they had all pressed forward to the window. Frederick, who carefully kept his face out of his father's view, bent half- way over the sill in his anxiety to watch the flying figure of Sweetwater, who was making straight for the dock, while Knapp, roused at last, leaned over his shoulder and pointed to the sailors on the deck, who were pulling in the last ropes, preparatory to sailing.
"He's too late: they won't let him aboard now. What a fool to hang around here till he saw his man, instead of being at the dock to nab him! That comes of trusting a country bumpkin. I knew he'd fail us at the pinch. They lack training, these would-be detectives. See, now! He's run up against the mate, and the mate pushes him back. His cake is all dough, unless he's got a warrant. Has he a warrant, Dr. Talbot?"
"No," said the coroner, "he didn't ask for one. He didn't even tell me whom he wanted. Can it be one of those two passengers you see on the forward deck, there?"
It might well be. Even from a distance these two men presented a sinister appearance that made them quite marked figures among the crowd of hurrying sailors and belated passengers.
"One of them is peering over the rail with a very evident air of anxiety. His eye is on Sweetwater, who is dancing with impatience. See, he is gesticulating like a monkey, and--By the powers, they are going to let him go aboard!"
Mr. Sutherland, who had been leaning heavily against the window- jamb in the agitation of doubt and suspense which Sweetwater's unaccountable conduct had evoked, here crossed to the other side and stole a determined look at Frederick. Was his son personally interested in this attempt of the amateur detective? Did he know whom Sweetwater sought, and was he suffering as much or more than himself from the uncertainty and fearful possibilities of the moment? He thought he knew Frederick's face, and that he read dread there, but Frederick had changed so completely since the commission of this crime that even his father could no longer be sure of the correct meaning either of his words or expression.
The torture of the moment continued.
"He climbs like a squirrel," remarked Dr. Talbot, with a touch of enthusiasm. "Look at him now--he's on the quarterdeck and will be down in the cabins before you can say Jack Robinson. I warrant they have told him to hurry. Captain Dunlap isn't the man to wait five minutes after the ropes are pulled in."
"Those two men have shrunk away behind some mast or other," cried Knapp. "They are the fellows he's after. But what can they have to do with the murder? Have you ever seen them here about town, Dr. Talbot?"
"Not that I remember; they have a foreign air about them. Look like South Americans."
"Well, they're going to South America. Sweetwater can't stop them. He has barely time to get off the ship himself. There goes the last rope! Have they forgotten him? They're drawing up the ladder."
"No: the mate stops them; see, he's calling the fellow. I can hear his voice, can't you? Sweetwater's game is up. He'll have to leave in a hurry. What's the rumpus now?"
"Nothing, only they've scattered to look for him; the fox is down in the cabins and won't come up, laughing in his sleeve, no doubt, at keeping the vessel waiting while he hunts up his witness."
"If it's one of those two men he's laying a trap for he won't snare him in a hurry. They're sneaks, those two, and--Why, the sailors are coming back shaking their heads. I can almost hear from here the captain's oaths."
"And such a favourable wind for getting out of the harbour! Sweetwater, my boy, you are distinguishing yourself. If your witness don't pan out well you won't hear the last of this in a hurry."
"It looks as if they meant to sail without waiting to put him ashore," observed Frederick in a low tone, too carefully modulated not to strike his father as unnatural.
"By jingoes, so it does!" ejaculated Knapp. "There go the sails! The pilot's hand is on the wheel, and Dr. Talbot, are you going to let your cunning amateur detective and his important witness slip away from you like this?"
"I cannot help myself," said the coroner, a little dazed himself at this unexpected chance. "My voice wouldn't reach them from this place; besides they wouldn't heed me if it did. The ship is already under way and we won't see Sweetwater again till the pilot's boat comes back."
Mr. Sutherland moved from the window and crossed to the door like a man in a dream. Frederick, instantly conscious of his departure, turned to follow him, but presently stopped and addressing Knapp for the first time, observed quietly:
"This is all very exciting, but I think your estimate of this fellow Sweetwater is just. He's a busybody and craves notoriety above everything. He had no witness on board, or, if he had, it was an imaginary one. You will see him return quite crestfallen before night, with some trumped-up excuse of mistaken identity."
The shrug which Knapp gave dismissed Sweetwater as completely from the affair as if he had never been in it.
"I think I may now regard myself as having this matter in my sole charge," was his curt remark, as he turned away, while Frederick, with a respectful bow to Dr. Talbot, remarked in leaving:
"I am at your service, Dr. Talbot, if you require me to testify at the inquest in regard to this will. My testimony can all be concentrated into the one sentence, 'I did not expect this bequest, and have no theories to advance in explanation of it.' But it has made me feel myself Mrs. Webb's debtor, and given me a justifiable interest in the inquiry which, I am told, you open to- morrow into the cause and manner of her death. If there is a guilty person in this case, I shall raise no barrier in the way of his conviction."
And while the coroner's face still showed the embarrassment which this last sentence called up, his mind being now, as ever, fixed on Amabel, Frederick offered his arm to his father, whose condition was not improved by the excitements of the last half- hour, and proceeded to lead him from the building.
Whatever they thought, or however each strove to hide their conclusions from the other, no words passed between them till they came in full sight of the sea, on a distant billow of which the noble-ship bound for the Brazils rode triumphantly on its outward course. Then Mr. Sutherland remarked, with a suggestive glance at the vessel:
"The young man who has found an unexpected passage on that vessel will not come back with the pilot."
Was the sigh which was Frederick's only answer one of relief? It certainly seemed so.