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- Agatha Webb - 10/53 -
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:"
Son of Philemon and Agatha Webb,
Died, Aged Six Weeks.
God be merciful to me a sinner!
"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.
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