“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.
DETECTIVE KNAPP ARRIVES
Meanwhile, in a small room at the court-house, a still more serious conversation was in progress. Dr. Talbot, Mr. Fenton, and a certain able lawyer in town by the name of Harvey, were in close discussion. The last had broken the silence of years, and was telling what he knew of Mrs. Webb’s affairs.