Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Purple Orchid
IX. A Grand Woman
There was but one topic discussed in the country-side that day, and that was the life and character of Agatha Webb.
Her history had not been a happy one. She and Philemon had come from Portchester some twenty or more years before to escape the sorrows associated with their native town. They had left behind them six small graves in Portchester churchyard; but though evidences of their affliction were always to be seen in the countenances of either, they had entered with so much purpose into the life of their adopted town that they had become persons of note there till Philemon's health began to fail, when Agatha quit all outside work and devoted herself exclusively to him. Of her character and winsome personality we can gather some idea from the various conversations carried on that day from Portchester Green to the shipyards in Sutherlandtown.
In Deacon Brainerd's cottage, the discussion was concerning Agatha's lack of vanity; a virtue not very common at that time among the women of this busy seaport.
"For a woman so handsome," the good deacon was saying "(and I think I can safely call her the finest-featured woman who ever trod these streets), she showed as little interest in dress as anyone I ever knew. Calico at home and calico at church, yet she looked as much of a lady in her dark-sprigged gowns as Mrs. Webster in her silks or Mrs. Parsons in her thousand-dollar sealskin."
As this was a topic within the scope of his eldest daughter's intelligence she at once spoke up: "I never thought she needed to dress so plainly. I don't believe in such a show of poverty myself. If one is too poor to go decent, all right; but they say she had more money than most anyone in town. I wonder who is going to get the benefit of it?"
"Why, Philemon, of course; that is, as long as he lives. He doubtless had the making of it."
"Is it true that he's gone clean out of his head since her death?" interposed a neighbour who had happened in.
"So they say. I believe widow Jones has taken him into her house."
"Do you think," asked a second daughter with becoming hesitation, "that he had anything to do with her death? Some of the neighbours say he struck her while in one of his crazy fits, while others declare she was killed by some stranger, equally old and almost as infirm."
"We won't discuss the subject," objected the deacon. "Time will show who robbed us of the greatest-hearted and most capable woman in these parts."
"And will time show who killed Batsy?" It was a morsel of a girl who spoke; the least one of the family, but the brightest. "I'm sorry for Batsy; she always gave me cookies when I went to see Mrs. Webb."
"Batsy was a good girl for a Swede," allowed the deacon's wife, who had not spoken till now. "When she first came into town on the spars of that wrecked ship we all remember, there was some struggle between Agatha and me as to which of us should have her. But I didn't like the task of teaching her the name of every pot and pan she had to use in the kitchen, so I gave her up to Agatha; and it was fortunate I did, for I've never been able to understand her talk to this day."
"I could talk with her right well," lisped the little one. "She never called things by their Swedish names unless she was worried; and I never worried her."
"I wonder if she would have worshipped the ground under your feet, as she did that under Agatha's?" asked the deacon, eying his wife with just the suspicion of a malicious twinkle in his eye.
"I am not the greatest-hearted and most capable woman in town," retorted his wife, clicking her needles as she went on knitting.
In Mr. Sprague's house on the opposite side of the road, Squire Fisher was relating some old tales of bygone Portchester days. "I knew Agatha when she was a girl," he avowed. "She had the grandest manners and the most enchanting smile of any rich or poor man's daughter between the coast and Springfield. She did not dress in calico then. She wore the gayest clothes her father could buy. her, and old Jacob was not without means to make his daughter the leading figure in town. How we young fellows did adore her, and what lengths we went to win one of her glorious smiles! Two of us, John and James Zabel, have lived bachelors for her sake to this very day; but I hadn't courage enough for that; I married and"-- something between a sigh and a chuckle filled out the sentence.
"What made Philemon carry off the prize? His good looks?"
"Yes, or his good luck. It wasn't his snap; of that you may be sure. James Zabel had the snap, and he was her first choice, too, but he got into some difficulty--I never knew just what it was, but it was regarded as serious at the time--and that match was broken off. Afterwards she married Philemon. You see, I was out of it altogether; had never been in it, perhaps; but there were three good years of my life in which I thought of little else than Agatha. I admired her spirit, you see. There was something more taking in her ways than in her beauty, wonderful as that was. She ruled us with a rod of iron, and yet we worshipped her. I have wondered to see her so meek of late. I never thought she would be satisfied with a brick-floored cottage and a husband of failing wits. But no one, to my knowledge, has ever heard a complaint from her lips; and the dignity of her afflicted wife-hood has far transcended the haughtiness of those days when she had but to smile to have all the youth of Portchester at her feet."
"I suppose it was the loss of so many children that reconciled her to a quiet life. A woman cannot close the eyes of six children, one after the other, without some modification taking place in her character."
"Yes, she and Philemon have been unfortunate; but she was a splendid looking girl, boys. I never see such grand-looking women now."
In a little one-storied cottage on the hillside a woman was nursing a baby and talking at the same time of Agatha Webb.
"I shall never forget the night my first baby fell sick," she faltered; "I was just out of bed myself, and having no nearer neighbours then than now, I was all alone on the hillside, Alec being away at sea. I was too young to know much about sickness, but something told me that I must have help before morning or my baby would die. Though I could just walk across the floor, I threw a shawl around me, took my baby in my arms, and opened the door. A blinding gust of rain blew in. A terrible storm was raging and I had not noticed it, I was so taken up with the child.
"I could not face that gale. Indeed, I was so weak I fell on my knees as it struck me and became dripping wet before I could drag myself inside. The baby began to moan and everything was turning dark before me, when I heard a strong, sweet voice cry out in the roadway:
"'Is there room in this house for me till the storm has blown by? I cannot see my way down the hillside.'
"With a bursting heart I looked up. A woman was standing in the doorway, with the look of an angel in her eyes. I did not know her, but her face was one to bring comfort to the saddest heart. Holding up my baby, I cried:
"'My baby is dying; I tried to go for the doctor, but my knees bent under me. Help me, as you are a mother--I---'
"I must have fallen again, for the next thing I remember I was lying by the hearth, looking up into her face, which was bending over me. She was white as the rag I had tied about my baby's throat, and by the way her breast heaved she was either very much frightened or very sorry.
"'I wish you had the help of anyone else,' said she. 'Babies perish in my arms and wither at my breast. I cannot touch it, much as I yearn to. But let me see its face; perhaps I can tell you what is the matter with it.'
"I showed her the baby's face, and she bent over it, trembling very much, almost as much indeed as myself.
"'It is very sick,' she said, 'but if you will use the remedies I advise, I think you can save it.' And she told me what to do, and helped me all she could; but she did not lay a finger on the little darling, though from the way she watched it I saw that her heart was set on his getting better. And he did; in an hour he was sleeping peacefully, and the terrible weight was gone from my heart and from hers. When the storm stopped, and she could leave the house, she gave me a kiss; but the look she gave him meant more than kisses. God must have forgotten her goodness to me that night when He let her die so pitiable a death."
At the minister's house they were commenting upon the look of serenity observable in her dead face.
"I have known her for thirty years," her pastor declared, "and never before have I seen her wear a look of real peace. It is wonderful, considering the circumstances. Do you think she was so weary of her life's long struggle that she hailed any release from it, even that of violence?"
A young man, a lawyer, visiting them from New York, was the only one to answer.
"I never saw the woman you are talking about," said he, "and know nothing of the circumstances of her death beyond what you have told me. But from the very incongruity between her expression and the violent nature of her death, I argue that there are depths to this crime which have not yet been sounded."
"What depths? It is a simple case of murder followed by theft. To be sure we do not yet know the criminal, but money was his motive; that is clear enough."
"Are you ready to wager that that is all there is to it?"
This was a startling proposition to the minister.
"You forget my cloth," said he.
The young man smiled. "That is true. Pardon me. I was only anxious to show how strong my conviction was against any such easy explanation of a crime marked by such contradictory features."
Two children on the Portchester road were exchanging boyish confidences.
"Do you know what I think about it?" asked one.
"Naw! How should I?"
"Wall, I think old Mrs. Webb got the likes of what she sent. Don't you know she had six children once, and that she killed every one of them?"
"Yes, I heard her tell granny once all about it. She said there was a blight on her house--I don't know what that is; but I guess it's something big and heavy--and that it fell on every one of her children, as fast as they came, and killed 'em."
"Then I'm glad I ben't her child."
Very different were the recollections interchanged between two middle-aged Portchester women.
"She was drinking tea at my house when her sister Sairey came running in with the news that the baby she had left at home wasn't quite right. That was her first child, you know."
"Yes, yes, for I was with her when that baby came," broke in the other, "and such joy as she showed when they told her it was alive and well I never saw. I do not know why she didn't expect it to be alive, but she didn't, and her happiness was just wonderful to see."
"Well, she didn't enjoy it long. The poor little fellow died young. But I was telling you of the night when she first heard he was ailing. Philemon had been telling a good story, and we were all laughing, when Sairey came in. I can see Agatha now. She always had the most brilliant eyes in the county, but that day they were superbly dazzling. They changed, though, at the sight of Sairey's face, and she jumped to meet her just as if she knew what Sairey was going to say before ever a word left her lips. 'My baby!' (I can hear her yet.) 'Something is the matter with the baby!' And though Sairey made haste to tell her that he was only ailing and not at all ill, she turned upon Philemon with a look none of us ever quite understood; he changed so completely under it, just as she had under Sairey's; and to neither did the old happiness ever return, for the child died within a week, and when the next came it died also, and the next, till six small innocents lay buried in yonder old graveyard."
"I know; and sad enough it was too, especially as she and Philemon were both fond of children. Well, well, the ways of Providence are past rinding out! And now she is gone and Philemon---"
"Ah, he'll follow her soon; he can't live without Agatha."
Nearer home, the old sexton was chattering about the six gravestones raised in Portchester churchyard to these six dead infants. He had been sent there to choose a spot in which to lay the mother, and was full of the shock it gave him to see that line of little stones, telling of a past with which the good people of Sutherlandtown found it hard to associate Philemon and Agatha Webb.
"I'm a digger of graves," he mused, half to himself and half to his old wife watching him from the other side of the hearthstone. "I spend a good quarter of my time in the churchyard; but when I saw those six little mounds, and read the inscriptions over them, I couldn't help feeling queer. Think of this! On the first tiny headstone I read these words:"
"Now what does that mean? Did you ever hear anyone say?"
"No," was his old wife's answer. "Perhaps she was one of those Calvinist folks who believe babies go to hell if they are not baptised."
"But her children were all baptised. I've been told so; some of them before she was well out of her bed. 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' And the chick not six weeks old! Something queer about that, dame, if it did happen more than thirty years ago."
"What did you see over the grave of the child who was killed in her arms by lightning?"
"'And he was not, for God took him.'"
Farmer Waite had but one word to say:
"She came to me when my Sissy had the smallpox; the only person in town who would enter my doors. More than that; when Sissy was up and I went to pay the doctor's bill I found it had been settled. I did not know then who had enough money and compassion to do this for me; now I do."
Many an act of kindness which had been secretly performed in that town during the last twenty years came to light on that day, the most notable of which was the sending of a certain young lad to school and his subsequent education as a minister.
But other memories of a sweeter and more secret nature still came up likewise, among them the following:
A young girl, who was of a very timid but deeply sensitive nature, had been urged into an engagement with a man she did not like. Though the conflict this occasioned her and the misery which accompanied it were apparent to everybody, nobody stirred in her behalf but Agatha. She went to see her, and, though it was within a fortnight of the wedding, she did not hesitate to advise the girl to give him up, and when the poor child said she lacked the courage, Agatha herself went to the man and urged him into a display of generosity which saved the poor, timid thing from a life of misery. They say this was no easy task for Agatha, and that the man was sullen for a year. But the girl's gratitude was boundless.
Of her daring, which was always on the side of right and justice, the stories were numerous; so were the accounts, mostly among the women, of her rare tenderness and sympathy for the weak and the erring. Never was a man talked to as she talked to Jake Cobleigh the evening after he struck his mother, and if she had been in town on the day when Clarissa Mayhew ran away with that Philadelphia adventurer many said it would never have happened, for no girl could stand the admonition, or resist the pleading, of this childless mother.
It was reserved for Mr. Halliday and Mr. Sutherland to talk of her mental qualities. Her character was so marked and her manner so simple that few gave attention to the intellect that was the real basis of her power. The two mentioned gentlemen, however, appreciated her to the full, and it was while listening to their remarks that Frederick was suddenly startled by some one saying to him:
"You are the only person in town who have nothing to say about Agatha Webb. Didn't you ever exchange any words with her?--for I can hardly believe you could have met her eye to eye without having some remark to make about her beauty or her influence."
The speaker was Agnes Halliday, who had come in with her father for a social chat. She was one of Frederick's earliest playmates, but one with whom he had never assimilated and who did not like him. He knew this, as did everyone else in town, and it was with some hesitation he turned to answer her.
"I have but one recollection," he began, and for the moment got no farther, for in turning his head to address his young guest he had allowed his gaze to wander through the open window by which she sat, into the garden beyond, where Amabel could be seen picking flowers. As he spoke, Amabel lifted her face with one of her suggestive looks. She had doubtless heard Miss Halliday's remark.
Recovering himself with an effort, he repeated his words: "I have but one recollection of Mrs. Webb that I can give you. Years ago when I was a lad I was playing on the green with several other boys. We had had some dispute about a lost ball, and I was swearing angrily and loud when I suddenly perceived before me the tall form and compassionate face of Mrs. Webb. She was dressed in her usual simple way, and had a basket on her arm, but she looked so superior to any other woman I had ever met that I did not know whether to hide my face in her skirts or to follow my first impulse and run away. She saw the emotion she had aroused, and lifting up my face by the chin, she said: 'Little boy, I have buried six children, all of them younger than you, and now my husband and myself live alone. Often and often have I wished that one at least of these darling infants might have been spared us. But had God given me the choice of having them die young and innocent, or of growing up to swear as I have heard you to-day, I should have prayed God to take them, as He did. You have a mother. Do not break her heart by taking in vain the name of the God she reveres.' And with that she kissed me, and, strange as it may seem to you, in whatever folly or wickedness I have indulged, I have never made use of an oath from that day to this--and I thank God for it."
There was such unusual feeling in his voice, a feeling that none had ever suspected him capable of before, that Miss Halliday regarded him with astonishment and quite forgot to indulge in her usual banter. Even the gentlemen sat still, and there was a momentary silence, through which there presently broke the incongruous sound of a shrill and mocking laugh.
It came from Amabel, who had just finished gathering her bouquet in the garden outside.