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- Agatha Webb - 51/53 -


who long and labour for it, it comes not, or comes so slowly the life wears out in the waiting and the working. The Zabels, now! Once well-to-do ship-builders, with a good business and a home full of curious works of art, they now appear to find it hard to obtain even the necessities of life. Such are the freaks of fortune; or should I say, the dealings of an inscrutable Providence? Once I tried to give something out of my abundance to these old friends, but their pride stood in the way and the attempt failed. Worse than that. As if to show that benefits should proceed from them to me rather than from me to them, James bestowed on me a gift. It is a strange one,--nothing more nor less than a quaint Florentine dagger which I had often admired for its exquisite workmanship. Was it the last treasure he possessed? I am almost afraid so. At all events it shall lie here in my table- drawer where I alone can see it. Such sights are not good for Philemon. He must have cheerful objects before him, happy faces such as mine tries to be. But ah!

I would gladly give my life if I could once hold you in my arms, my erring but beloved son. Will the day ever come when I can? Will you have strength enough to hear my story and preserve your peace and let me go down to the grave with the memory of one look, one smile, that is for me alone? Sometimes I foresee this hour and am happy for a few short minutes; and then some fresh story of your recklessness is wafted through the town and--

What stopped her at this point we shall never know. Some want of Philemon's, perhaps. At all events she left off here and the letter was never resumed. It was the last secret outpouring of her heart. With this broken sentence Agatha's letters terminated. .

. . . . . .

That afternoon, before the inquiry broke up, the jury brought in their verdict. It was:

"Death by means of a wound inflicted upon herself in a moment of terror and misapprehension."

It was all his fellow-townsmen could do for Frederick.

XXXIII

FATHER AND SON

But Frederick's day of trial was not yet over. There was a closed door to open and a father to see (as in his heart he still called Mr. Sutherland). Then there were friends to face, and foes, under conditions he better than anyone else, knew were in some regards made worse rather than better by the admissions and revelations of this eventful day--Agnes, for instance. How could he meet her pure gaze? But it was his father he must first confront, his father to whom he would have to repeat in private the tale which robbed the best of men of a past, and took from him a son, almost a wife, without leaving him one memory calculated to console him. Frederick was so absorbed in this anticipation that he scarcely noticed the two or three timid hands stretched out in encouragement toward him, and was moving slowly toward the door behind which his father had disappeared so many hours before, when he was recalled to the interests of the moment by a single word, uttered not very far from him. It was simply, "Well?" But it was uttered by Knapp and repeated by Mr. Courtney.

Frederick shuddered, and was hurrying on when he found himself stopped by a piteous figure that, with appealing eyes and timid gestures, stepped up before him. It was Amabel.

"Forgive!" she murmured, looking like a pleading saint. "I did not know--I never dreamed--you were so much of a man, Frederick: that you bore such a heart, cherished such griefs, were so worthy of love and a woman's admiration. If I had--"

Her expression was eloquent, more eloquent than he had ever seen it, for it had real feeling in it; but he put her coldly by.

"When my father's white hairs become black again, and the story of my shame is forgotten in this never-forgetting world, then come back and I will forgive you."

And he was passing on when another touch detained him. He turned, this time in some impatience, only to meet the frank eyes of Sweetwater. As he knew very little of this young man, save that he was the amateur detective who had by some folly of his own been carried off on the Hesper, and who was probably the only man saved from its wreck, he was about to greet him with some commonplace phrase of congratulation, when Sweetwater interrupted him with the following words:

"I only wanted to say that it may be easier for you to approach your father with the revelations you are about to make if you knew that in his present frame of mind he is much more likely to be relieved by such proofs of innocence as you can give him than overwhelmed by such as show the lack of kinship between you. For two weeks Mr. Sutherland has been bending under the belief of your personal criminality in this matter. This was his secret, which was shared by me."

"By you?"

"Yes, by me! I am more closely linked to this affair than you can readily imagine. Some day I may be able to explain myself, but not now. Only remember what I have said about your father--pardon me, I should perhaps say Mr. Sutherland--and act accordingly. Perhaps it was to tell you this that I was forced back here against my will by the strangest series of events that ever happened to a man. But," he added, with a sidelong look at the group of men still hovering about the coroner's table, "I had rather think it was for some more important office still. But this the future will show,--the future which I seem to see lowering in the faces over there."

And, waiting for no reply, he melted into the crowd.

Frederick passed at once to his father.

No one interrupted them during this solemn interview, but the large crowd that in the halls and on the steps of the building awaited Frederick's reappearance showed that the public interest was still warm in a matter affecting so deeply the heart and interests of their best citizen. When, therefore, that long-closed door finally opened and Frederick was seen escorting Mr. Sutherland on his arm, the tide of feeling which had not yet subsided since Agatha's letters were read vented itself in one great sob of relief. For Mr. Sutherland's face was calmer than when they had last seen it, and his step more assured, and he leaned, or made himself lean, on Frederick's arm, as if to impress upon all who saw them that the ties of years cannot be shaken off so easily, and that he still looked upon Frederick as his son.

But he was not contented with this dumb show, eloquent as it was. As the crowd parted and these two imposing figures took their way down the steps to the carriage which had been sent for them, Mr. Sutherland cast one deep and long glance about him on faces he knew and on faces he did not know, on those who were near and those who were far, and raising his voice, which did not tremble as much as might have been expected, said deliberately:

"My son accompanies me to his home. If he should afterwards be wanted, he will be found at his own fireside. Good-day, my friends. I thank you for the goodwill you have this day shown us both."

Then he entered the carriage.

The solemn way in which Frederick bared his head in acknowledgment of this public recognition of the hold he still retained on this one faithful heart, struck awe into the hearts of all who saw it. So that the carriage rolled off in silence, closing one of the most thrilling and impressive scenes ever witnessed in that time- worn village.

XXXIV

"NOT WHEN THEY ARE YOUNG GIRLS"

But, alas! all tides have their ebb as well as flow, and before Mr. Sutherland and Frederick were well out of the main street the latter became aware that notwithstanding the respect with which his explanations had been received by the jury, there were many of his fellow-townsmen who were ready to show dissatisfaction at his being allowed to return in freedom to that home where he had still every prospect of being called the young master. Doubt, that seed of ramifying growth, had been planted in more than one breast, and while it failed as yet to break out into any open manifestation, there were evidences enough in the very restraint visible in such groups of people as they passed that suspicion had not been suppressed or his innocence established by the over-favourable verdict of the coroner's jury.

To Mr. Sutherland, suffering now from the reaction following all great efforts, much, if not all, of this quiet but significant display of public feeling passed unnoticed. But to Frederick, alive to the least look, the least sign that his story had not been accepted unquestioned, this passage through the town was the occasion of the most poignant suffering.

For not only did these marks of public suspicion bespeak possible arraignment in the future, but through them it became evident that even if he escaped open condemnation in the courts, he could never hope for complete reinstatement before the world, nor, what was to him a still deeper source of despair, anticipate a day when Agnes's love should make amends to him for the grief and errors of his more than wayward youth. He could never marry so pure a being while the shadow of crime separated him from the mass of human beings. Her belief in his innocence and the exact truth of his story (and he was confident she did believe him) could make no difference in this conclusion. While he was regarded openly or in dark corners or beside the humblest fireside as a possible criminal, neither Mr. Sutherland nor her father, nor his own heart even, would allow him to offer her anything but a friend's gratitude, or win from her anything but a neighbour's sympathy; yet in bidding good-bye to larger hopes and more importunate


Agatha Webb - 51/53

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