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- Agatha Webb - 30/53 -
Mr. Halliday's door, he had been turning over in his mind everything that he had heard and seen in connection with this matter, till the dim vision of Frederick's figure going on before him was not more apparent to his sight than was the guilt he so deplored to his inward understanding.
He could not help but recognise him as the active party in the crime he had hitherto charged Amabel with. With the clew offered by Frederick's secret anguish at the grave of Agatha, he could read the whole story of this detestable crime as plainly as if it had been written in letters of fire on the circle of the surrounding darkness. Such anguish under such circumstances on the part of such a man could mean but one thing--remorse; and remorse in the breast of one so proverbially careless and corrupt, over the death of a woman who was neither relative nor friend, could have but one interpretation, and that was guilt.
No other explanation was possible. Could one be given, or if any evidence could be adduced in contradiction of this assumption, he would have dismissed his new suspicion with more heartiness even than he had embraced his former one. He did not wish to believe Frederick guilty. He would have purchased an inner conviction of his innocence almost at the price of his own life, not because of any latent interest in the young man himself, but because he was Charles Sutherland's son, and the dear, if unworthy, centre of all that noble man's hopes, aims, and happiness. But he could come upon no fact capable of shaking his present belief. Taking for truth Amabel's account of what she had seen and done on that fatal night--something which he had hesitated over the previous day, but which he now found himself forced to accept or do violence to his own secret convictions--and adding to it such facts as had come to his own knowledge in his self-imposed role of detective, he had but to test the events of that night by his present theory of Frederick's guilt, to find them hang together in a way too complete for mistake.
For what had been his reasons for charging Amabel herself with the guilt of a crime she only professed to have been a partial witness to?
They were many.
First--The forced nature of her explanations in regard to her motive for leaving a merry ball and betaking herself to the midnight road in her party dress and slippers. A woman of her well-known unsympathetic nature might use the misery of the Zabels as a pretext for slipping into town at night, but never would be influenced by it as a motive.
Second--The equally unsatisfactory nature of the reasons she gave for leaving the course she had marked out for herself and entering upon the pursuit of an unknown man into a house in which she had no personal interest and from which she had just seen a bloody dagger thrown out. The most callous of women would have shrunk from letting her curiosity carry her thus far.
Third--The poverty of her plea that, after having braved so much in her desire to identify this criminal, she was so frightened at his near approach as to fail to lift her head when the opportunity was given her to recognise him.
Fourth--Her professed inability to account for the presence of the orchid from her hair being found in the room with Batsy.
Fifth--Her evident attempt to throw the onus of the crime on an old man manifestly incapable from physical causes of committing it.
Sixth--The improbability, which she herself should have recognised, of this old man, in his extremely weak condition, ignoring the hiding-places offered by the woods back of his own house, for the sake of one not only involving a long walk, but situated close to a much-frequented road, and almost in view of the Sutherland mansion.
Seventh--The transparent excuse of sympathy for the old man and her desire to save him from the consequences of his crime, which she offered in extenuation of her own criminal avowal of having first found and then reburied the ill-gotten gains she had come upon in her persistent pursuit of the flying criminal. So impulsive an act might be consistent with the blind compassion of some weak-headed but warm-hearted woman, but not with her self- interested nature, incapable of performing any heroic deed save from personal motives or the most headlong passion.
Lastly--The weakness of her explanation in regard to the cause which led her to peer into the Zabel cottage through a hole made in the window-shade. Curiosity has its limits even in a woman's breast, and unless she hoped to see more than was indicated by her words, her action was but the precursor of a personal entrance into a room where we have every reason to believe the twenty- dollar bill was left.
A telling record and sufficient to favour the theory of her personal guilt if, after due thought, certain facts in contradiction to this assumption had not offered themselves to his mind even before he thought of Frederick as the unknown man she had followed down the hillside, as, for instance:
This crime, if committed by her, was done deliberately and with a premeditation antedating her departure from the ballroom. Yet she went upon this errand in slippers, white slippers at that, something which so cool and calculating a woman would have avoided, however careless she might have shown herself in other regards.
Again, guilt awakens cunning, even in the dullest breast; but she, keen beyond most men even, and so self-poised that the most searching examination could not shake her self-control, betrayed an utter carelessness as to what she did with these slippers on her return, thrusting them into a place easily accessible to the most casual search. Had she been conscious of guilt and thus amenable to law, the sight of blood and mud-stains on those slippers would have appalled her, and she would have made some attempt to destroy them, and not put them behind a picture and forgotten them.
Again, would she have been so careless with a flower she knew to be identified with herself? A woman who deliberately involves herself in crime has quick eyes; she would have seen that flower fall. At all events, if she had been immediately responsible for its being on the scene of crime she would, with her quick wit, have found some excuse or explanation for it, instead of defying her examiners with some such words as these: "It is a fact for you to explain. I only know that I did not carry this flower into that room of death."
Again, had she been actuated in her attempt to fix the crime on old James Zabel by a personal consciousness of guilt and a personal dread, she would not have stopped at suggestion in her allusions to the person she watched burying the treasure in the woods. Instead of speaking of him as a shadow whose flight she had followed at a distance, she would have described his figure as that of the same old man she had seen enter the Zabel cottage a few minutes before, there being no reason for indefiniteness on this point, her conscience being sufficiently elastic for any falsehood that would further her ends. And lastly, her manner, under the examination to which she had been subjected, was not that of one who felt herself under a personal attack. It was a strange, suggestive, hesitating manner, baffling alike to him who had more or less sounded her strange nature and to those who had no previous knowledge of her freaks and subtle intellectual power, and only reaching its height of hateful charm and mysterious daring when Frederick appeared on the scene and joined, or seemed to join, himself to the number of her examiners.
Now, let all suspicion of her as an active agent in this crime be dropped, assume Frederick to be the culprit and she the simple accessory after the fact, and see how inconsistencies vanish, and how much more natural the whole conduct of this mysterious woman appears.
Amabel Page left a merry dance at midnight and stole away into the Sutherland garden in her party dress and slippers--why? Not to fulfil an errand which anyone who knows her cold and unsympathetic nature can but regard as a pretext, but because she felt it imperative to see if her lover (with whose character, temptations, and necessities she was fully acquainted, and in whose excited and preoccupied manner she had probably discovered signs of a secretly growing purpose) meant indeed to elude his guests and slip away to town on the dangerous and unholy enterprise suggested by their mutual knowledge of the money to be obtained there by one daring enough to enter a certain house open like their own to midnight visitors.
She followed at such an hour and into such a place, not an unknown man casually come upon, but her lover, whom she had tracked from the garden of his father's house, where she had lain in wait for him. It took courage to do this, but a courage no longer beyond the limit of feminine daring, for her fate was bound up in his and she could not but feel the impulse to save him from the consequences of crime, if not from the crime itself.
As for the aforementioned flower, what more natural than that Frederick should have transferred it from her hair to his buttonhole during some of their interviews at the ball, and that it should have fallen from its place to the floor in the midst of his possible struggle with Batsy?
And with this assumption of her perfect knowledge as to who the man was who had entered Mrs. Webb's house, how much easier it is to understand why she did not lift her head when she heard him descend the stairs! No woman, even one so depraved as she, would wish to see the handsome face of her lover in the glare of a freshly committed crime, and besides she might very easily be afraid of him, for a man has but a blow for the suddenly detected witness of his crime unless that witness is his confidant, which from every indication Sweetwater felt bound to believe Amabel was not.
Her flight to the Zabel cottage, after an experience which would madden most women, can now be understood. She was still following her lover. The plan of making Agatha's old and wretched friend amenable for her death originated with Frederick and not with Amabel. It was he who first started for the Zabel cottage. It was he who left the bank bill there. This is all clear, and even the one contradictory fact of the dagger having been seen in the old man's hand was not a stumbling-block to Sweetwater. With the audacity of one confident of his own insight, he explained it to himself thus: The dagger thrown from the window by the assassin,
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