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Early detective novelist Anna Katharine Green was a unique writer in several respects, including the fact that many of the detectives featured in her novels are women. In The Mill Mystery, protagonist Constance Sterling takes on the seemingly impossible task of uncovering the true culprits behind the drowning death of a popular young pastor who is believed to have killed himself.
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The Mill Mystery
Anna Katharine Green
Life, struck sharp on death, Makes awful lightning. --MRS. BROWNING.
I had just come in from the street. I had a letter in my hand. It was for my fellow-lodger, a young girl who taught in the High School, and whom I had persuaded to share my room because of her pretty face and quiet ways. She was not at home, and I flung the letter down on the table, where it fell, address downwards. I thought no more of it; my mind was too full, my heart too heavy with my own trouble.
Going to the window, I leaned my cheek against the pane. Oh, the deep sadness of a solitary woman's life! The sense of helplessness that comes upon her when every effort made, every possibility sounded, she realizes that the world has no place for her, and that she must either stoop to ask the assistance of friends or starve! I have no words for the misery I felt, for I am a proud woman, and----But no lifting of the curtain that shrouds my past. It has fallen for ever, and for you and me and the world I am simply Constance Sterling, a young woman of twenty-five, without home, relatives, or means of support, having in her pocket seventy-five cents of change, and in her breast a heart like lead, so utterly had every hope vanished in the day's rush of disappointments.
How long I stood with my face to the window I cannot say. With eyes dully fixed upon the blank walls of the cottages opposite, I stood oblivious to all about me till the fading sunlight--or was it some stir in the room behind me?--recalled me to myself, and I turned to find my pretty room-mate staring at me with a troubled look that for a moment made me forget my own sorrows and anxieties.
"What is it?" I asked, going towards her with an irresistible impulse of sympathy.
"I don't know," she murmured; "a sudden pain here," laying her hand on her heart.
I advanced still nearer, but her face, which had been quite pale, turned suddenly rosy; and, with a more natural expression, she took me by the hand, and said:
"But you look more than ill, you look unhappy. Would you mind telling me what worries you?"
The gentle tone, the earnest glance of modest yet sincere interest, went to my heart. Clutching her hand convulsively, I burst into tears.
"It is nothing," said I; "only my last resource has failed, and I don't know where to get a meal for to-morrow. Not that this is any thing in itself," I hastened to add, my natural pride reasserting itself; "but the future! the future!--what am I to do with my future?"
She did not answer at first. A gleam--I can scarcely call it a glow--passed over her face, and her eyes took a far-away look that made them very sweet. Then a little flush stole into her cheek, and, pressing my hand, she said:
"Will you trust it to me for a while?"
I must have looked my astonishment, for she hastened to add:
"Your future I have little concern for. With such capabilities as yours, you must find work. Why, look at your face!" and she drew me playfully before the glass. "See the forehead, the mouth, and tell me you read failure there! But your present is what is doubtful, and that I can certainly take care of."
"But----" I protested, with a sensation of warmth in my cheeks.
The loveliest smile stopped me before I could utter a word more.
"As you would take care of mine," she completed, "if our positions were reversed." Then, without waiting for a further demur on my part, she kissed me, and as if the sweet embrace had made us sisters at once, drew me to a chair and sat down at my feet. "You know," she naively murmured, "I am almost rich; I have five hundred dollars laid up in the bank, and----"
I put my hand over her lips; I could not help it. She was such a frail little thing, so white and so ethereal, and her poor five hundred had been earned by such weary, weary work.
"But that is nothing, nothing," I said. "You have a future to provide for, too, and you are not as strong as I am, if you have been more successful."
She laughed, then blushed, then laughed again, and impulsively cried:
"It is, however, more than I need to buy a wedding-dress with, don't you think?" And as I looked up surprised, she flashed out: "Oh, it's my secret; but I am going to be married in a month, and--and then I won't need to count my pennies any more; and, so I say, if you will stay here with me without a care until that day comes, you will make me very happy, and put me at the same time under a real obligation; for I shall want a great many things done, as you can readily conceive."
What did I say--what could I say, with her sweet blue eyes looking so truthfully into mine, but--"Oh, you darling girl!" while my heart filled with tears, which only escaped from overflowing my eyes, because I would not lessen her innocent joy by a hint of my own secret trouble.
"And who is the happy man?" I asked, at last, rising to pull down the curtain across a too inquisitive ray of afternoon sunshine.
"Ah, the noblest, best man in town!" she breathed, with a burst of gentle pride. "Mr. B----"
She went no further, or if she did, I did not hear her, for just then a hubbub arose in the street, and lifting the window, I looked out.
"What is it?" she cried, coming hastily towards me.
"I don't know," I returned. "The people are all rushing in one direction, but I cannot see what attracts them."
"Come away then!" she murmured; and I saw her hand go to her heart, in the way it did when she first entered the room a half-hour before. But just then a sudden voice exclaimed below: "The clergyman! It is the clergyman!" And giving a smothered shriek, she grasped me by the arm, crying: "What do they say? 'The clergyman'? Do they say 'The clergyman'?"
"Yes," I answered, turning upon her with alarm. But she was already at the door. "Can it be?" I asked myself, as I hurriedly followed, "that it is Mr. Barrows she is going to marry?"
For in the small town of S---- Mr. Barrows was the only man who could properly be meant by "The clergyman"; for though Mr. Kingston, of the Baptist Church, was a worthy man in his way, and the Congregational minister had an influence with his flock that was not to be despised, Mr. Barrows, alone of all his fraternity, had so won upon the affections and confidence of the people as to merit the appellation of "The clergyman."
"If I am right," thought I, "God grant that no harm has come to him!" and I dashed down the stairs just in time to see the frail form of my room-mate flying out of the front door.
I overtook her at last; but where? Far out of town on that dark and dismal road, where the gaunt chimneys of the deserted mill rise from a growth of pine-trees. But I knew before I reached her what she would find; knew that her short dream of love was over, and that stretched amongst the weeds which choked the entrance to the old mill lay the dead form of the revered young minister, who, by his precept and example, had won not only the heart of this young maiden, but that of the whole community in which he lived and labored.
A FEARFUL QUESTION.
Nay, yet there's more in this: I pray thee, speak to me as to thy thinkings, As thou dost ruminate; and give thy worst of thoughts The worst of words. --OTHELLO.
My room-mate was, as I have intimated, exceedingly frail and unobtrusive in appearance; yet when we came upon this scene, the group of men about the inanimate form of her lover parted involuntarily as if a spirit had come upon them; though I do not think one of them, until that moment, had any suspicion of the relations between her and their young pastor. Being close behind her, I pressed forward too, and so it happened that I stood by her side when her gaze first fell upon her dead lover. Never shall I forget the cry she uttered, or the solemn silence that fell over all, as her hand, rigid and white as that of a ghost's, slowly rose and pointed with awful question at the pallid brow upturned before her. It seemed as if a spell had fallen, enchaining the roughest there from answering, for the truth was terrible, and we knew it; else why those dripping locks and heavily soaked garments oozing, not with the limpid waters of the stream we could faintly hear gurgling in the distance, but with some fearful substance that dyed the forehead blue and left upon the grass a dark stain that floods of rain would scarcely wash away?
"What is it? Oh, what does it mean?" she faintly gasped, shuddering backward with wondering dread as one of those tiny streams of strange blue moisture found its way to her feet.
Still that ominous silence.
"Oh, I must know!" she whispered. "I was his betrothed"; and her eyes wandered for a moment with a wild appeal upon those about her.
Whereupon a kindly voice spoke up. "He has been drowned, miss. The blue----" and there he hesitated.
"The blue is from the remains of some old dye that must have been in the bottom of the vat out of which we drew him," another voice went on.
"The vat!" she repeated. "The vat! Was he found----"
"In the vat? Yes, miss." And there the silence fell again.
It was no wonder. For a man like him, alert, busy, with no time nor inclination for foolish explorations, to have been found drowned in the disused vat of a half-tumbled-down old mill on a lonesome and neglected road meant----But what did it mean? What could it mean? The lowered eyes of those around seemed to decline to express even a conjecture.
My poor friend, so delicate, so tender, reeled in my arms. "In the vat!" she reiterated again and again, as if her mind refused to take in a fact so astounding and unaccountable.
"Yes, miss, and he might never have been discovered," volunteered a voice at last, over my shoulder, "if a parcel of school-children hadn't strayed into the mill this afternoon. It is a dreadful lonesome spot, you see, and----"
"Hush!" I whispered; "hush!" and I pointed to her face, which at these words had changed as if the breath of death had blown across it; and winding my arms still closer about her, I endeavored to lead her away.
But I did not know my room-mate. Pushing me gently aside, she turned to a stalwart man near by, whose face seemed to invite confidence, and said:
"Take me in and show me the vat."
He looked at her amazed; so did we.
"I must see it," she said, simply; and she herself took the first step towards the mill.
There was no alternative but to follow. This we did in terror and pity, for the look with which she led the way was not the look of any common determination, and the power which seemed to force her feeble body on upon its fearful errand was of that strained and unnatural order which might at any moment desert her, and lay her a weak and helpless burden at our feet.
"It must be dark by this time down there," objected the man she had appealed to, as he stepped doubtfully forward.
But she did not seem to heed. Her eyes were fixed upon the ruined walls before her, rising drear and blank against the pale-green evening sky.
"He could have had no errand here," I heard her murmur. "How then be drowned here?--how? how?"
Alas! that was the mystery, dear heart, with which every mind was busy!
The door of the mill had fallen down and rotted away years before, so we had no difficulty in entering. But upon crossing the threshold and making for the steps that led below, we found that the growing twilight was any thing but favorable to a speedy or even safe advance. For the flooring was badly broken in places, and the stairs down which we had to go were not only uneven, but strangely rickety and tottering.
But the sprite that led us paused for nothing, and long before I had passed the first step she had reached the bottom one, and was groping her way towards the single gleam of light that infused itself through the otherwise pitchy darkness.
"Be careful, miss; you may fall into the vat yourself!" exclaimed more than one voice behind her.
But she hurried on, her slight form showing like a spectre against the dim gleam towards which she bent her way, till suddenly she paused and we saw her standing with clasped hands, and bent head, looking down into what? We could readily conjecture.
"She will throw herself in," whispered a voice; but as, profoundly startled, I was about to hasten forward, she hurriedly turned and came towards us.
"I have seen it," she quietly said, and glided by us, and up the stairs, and out of the mill to where that still form lay in its ghostly quietude upon the sodden grass.
For a moment she merely looked at it, then she knelt, and, oblivious to the eyes bent pityingly upon her, kissed the brow and then the cheeks, saying something which I could not hear, but which lent a look of strange peace to her features, that were almost as pallid and set now as his. Then she arose, and holding out her hand to me, was turning away, when a word uttered by some one, I could not tell whom, stopped her, and froze her, as it were, to the spot.
That word was suicide!
I think I see her yet, the pale-green twilight on her forehead, her lips parted, and her eyes fixed in an incredulous stare.
"Do you mean," she cried, "that he deserves any such name as that? That his death here was not one of chance or accident, mysterious, if you will, but still one that leaves no stigma on his name as a man and a clergyman?"
"Indeed, miss," came in reply, "we would not like to say."
"Then, I say, that unless Mr. Barrows was insane, he never premeditated a crime of this nature. He was too much of a Christian. And if that does not strike you as good reasoning, he was too-- happy."
The last word was uttered so low that if it had not been for the faint flush that flitted into her cheek, it would scarcely have been understood. As it was, the furtive looks of the men about showed that they comprehended all that she would say; and, satisfied with the impression made, she laid her hand on my arm, and for the second time turned towards home.
For, in my sense, 't is happiness to die. --OTHELLO.
There was death in her face; I saw it the moment we reached the refuge of our room. But I was scarcely prepared for the words which she said to me.
"Mr. Barrows and I will be buried in one grave. The waters which drowned him have gone over my head also. But before the moment comes which proves my words true, there is one thing I wish to impress upon you, and that is: That no matter what people may say, or what conjectures they may indulge in, Mr. Barrows never came to his end by any premeditation of his own. And that you may believe me, and uphold his cause in the face of whatever may arise, I will tell you something of his life and mine. Will you listen?"
Would I listen? I could not speak, but I drew up the lounge, and sitting down by her side, pressed my cheek close to hers. She smiled faintly, all unhappiness gone from her look, and in sweet, soft tones, began:
"We are both orphans. As far as I know, neither of us have any nearer relatives than distant cousins; a similarity of condition that has acted as a bond between us since we first knew and loved each other. When I came to S---- he was just settled here, a young man full of zeal and courage. Whatever the experience of his college days had been--and he has often told me that at that time ambition was the mainspring of his existence,--the respect and appreciation which he found here, and the field which daily opened before him for work, had wakened a spirit of earnest trust that erelong developed that latent sweetness in his disposition which more than his mental qualities, perhaps, won him universal confidence and love.
"You have heard him preach, and you know he was not lacking in genius; but you have not heard him speak, eye to eye and hand to hand. It was there his power came in, and there, too, perhaps, his greatest temptation. For he was one for women to love, and it is not always easy to modify a naturally magnetic look and tone because the hand that touches yours is shy and white, and the glance which steals up to meet your own has within it the hint of unconscious worship. Yet what he could do he did; for, unknown, perhaps, to any one here, he was engaged to be married, as so many young ministers are, to a girl he had met while at college.
"I do not mean to go into too many particulars, Constance. He did not love this girl, but he meant to be true to her. He was even contented with the prospect of marrying her, till----Oh, Constance, I almost forget that he is gone, and that my own life is at an end, when I think of that day, six months ago--the day when we first met, and, without knowing it, first loved. And then the weeks which followed when each look was an event, and a passing word the making or the marring of a day. I did not know what it all meant; but he realized only too soon the precipice upon which we stood, and I began to see him less, and find him more reserved when, by any chance, we were thrown together. His cheek grew paler, too, and his health wavered. A struggle was going on in his breast--a struggle of whose depth and force I had little conception then, for I dared not believe he loved me, though I knew by this time he was bound to another who would never be a suitable companion for him.
"At last he became so ill, he was obliged to quit his work, and for a month I did not see him, though only a short square separated us. He was slowly yielding to an insidious disease, some said; and I had to bear the pain of this uncertainty, as well as the secret agony of my own crushed and broken heart.
"But one morning--shall I ever forget it?--the door opened, and he, he came in where I was, and without saying a word, knelt down by my side, and drew my head forward and laid it on his breast. I thought at first it was a farewell, and trembled with a secret anguish that was yet strangely blissful, for did not the passionate constraint of his arms mean love? But when, after a moment that seemed a lifetime, I drew back and looked into his face, I saw it was not a farewell, but a greeting, he had brought me, and that we had not only got our pastor back to life, but that this pastor was a lover as well, who would marry the woman he loved.
"And I was right. In ten minutes I knew, that a sudden freak on the part of the girl he was engaged to had released him, without fault of his own, and that with this release new life had entered his veins, for the conflict was over and love and duty were now in harmony.
"Constance, I would not have you think he was an absolutely perfect man. He was too sensitively organized for that. A touch, a look that was not in harmony with his thoughts, would make him turn pale at times, and I have seen him put to such suffering by petty physical causes, that I have sometimes wondered where his great soul got its strength to carry him through the exigencies of his somewhat trying calling. But whatever his weaknesses--and they were very few,--he was conscientious in the extreme, and suffered agony where other men would be affected but slightly. You can imagine his joy, then, over this unexpected end to his long pain; and remembering that it is only a month previous to the day set apart by us for our marriage, ask yourself whether he would be likely to seek any means of death, let alone such a horrible and lonesome one as that which has robbed us of him to-day?"
"No!" I burst out, for she waited for my reply. "A thousand times, no, no, no!"
"He has not been so well lately, and I have not seen as much of him as usual; but that is because he had some literary work he wished to finish before the wedding-day. Ah, it will never be finished now! and our wedding-day is to-day! and the bride is almost ready. But!" she suddenly exclaimed, "I must not go yet--not till you have said again that he was no suicide. Tell me," she vehemently continued-- "tell me from your soul that you believe he is not answerable for his death!"
"I do!" I rejoined, alarmed and touched at once by the fire in her cheek and eye.
"And that," she went, "you will hold to this opinion in the face of all opposition! That, whatever attack men may make upon his memory, you will uphold his honor and declare his innocence! Say you will be my deputy in this, and I will love you even in my cold grave, and bless you as perhaps only those who see the face of the Father can bless!"
"Ada!" I murmured, "Ada!"
"You will do this, will you not?" she persisted. "I can die knowing I can trust you as I would myself."
I took her cold hand in mine and promised, though I felt how feeble would be any power of mine to stop the tide of public opinion if once it set in any definite direction.
"He had no enemies," she whispered; "but I would sooner believe he had, than that he sought this fearful spot of his own accord."
And seemingly satisfied to have dropped this seed in my breast, she tremblingly arose, and going for her writing-desk, brought it back and laid it on the lounge by her side. "Go for Mrs. Gannon," she said.
Mrs. Gannon was our neighbor in the next room, a widow who earned her livelihood by nursing the sick; and I was only too glad to have her with me at this time, for my poor Ada's face was growing more and more deathly, and I began to fear she had but prophesied the truth when she said this was her wedding-day.
I was detained only a few minutes, but when I came back with Mrs. Gannon, I found my room-mate writing.
"Come!" said she, in a voice so calm, my companion started and hastily looked at her face for confirmation of the fears I had expressed; "I want you both to witness my signature."
With one last effort of strength she wrote her name, and then handed the pen to Mrs. Gannon, who took it without a word.
"It is my will," she faintly smiled, watching me as I added my name at the bottom. "We have had to do without lawyers, but I don't think there will be any one to dispute my last wishes." And taking the paper in her hand, she glanced hastily at it, then folded it, and handed it back to me with a look that made my heart leap with uncontrollable emotion. "I can trust you," she said, and fell softly back upon the pillow.
"You had better go for Dr. Farnham," whispered Mrs. Gannon in my ear, with an ominous shake of her head.
And though I felt it to be futile, I hastened to comply.
But Dr. Farnham was out, attending to a very urgent case, I was told; and so, to my growing astonishment and dismay, were Dr. Spaulding and Dr. Perry. I was therefore obliged to come back alone, which I did with what speed I could; for I begrudged every moment spent away from the side of one I had so lately learned to love, and must so soon lose.
Mrs. Gannon met me at the door, and with a strange look, drew me in and pointed towards the bed. There lay Ada, white as the driven snow, with closed eyes, whose faintly trembling lids alone betokened that she was not yet fled to the land of quiet shadows. At her side was a picture of the man she loved, and on her breast lay a bunch of withered roses I could easily believe had been his last gift. It was a vision of perfect peace, and I could not but contrast it with what my imagination told me must have been the frenzied anguish of that other death.
My approach, though light, disturbed her. Opening her eyes, she gave me one long, long look. Then, as if satisfied, she softly closed them again, breathed a little sigh, and in another moment was no more.
There's something in his soul, O'er which his melancholy sits on brood. --HAMLET.
Fearful as the experiences of this day had been, they were not yet at an end for me. Indeed, the most remarkable were to come. As I sat in this room of death--it was not far from midnight--I suddenly heard voices at the door, and Mrs. Gannon came in with Dr. Farnham.
"It is very extraordinary," I heard him mutter as he crossed the threshold. "One dying and another dead, and both struck down by the same cause."
I could not imagine what he mean, so I looked at him with some amazement. But he did not seem to heed me. Going straight to the bed, he gazed silently at Ada's pure features, with what I could not but consider a troubled glance. Then turning quickly to Mrs. Gannon, he said, in his somewhat brusque way:
"All is over here; you can therefore leave. I have a patient who demands your instant care."
"But----" she began.
"I have come on purpose for you," he put in, authoritatively. "It is an urgent case; do not keep me waiting."
"But, sir," she persisted, "it is impossible. I am expected early in the morning at Scott's Corners, and was just going to bed when you came in, in order to get a little sleep before taking the train."
"Dr. Perry's case?"
He frowned, and I am not sure but what he uttered a mild oath. At all events, he seemed very much put out.
I immediately drew near.
"Oh, sir," I cried, "if you would have confidence in me. I am not unused to the work, and----"
His stare frightened me, it was so searching and so keen.
"Who are you?" he asked.
I told him, and Mrs. Gannon put in a word for me. I was reliable, she said, and if too much experience was not wanted, would do better than such and such a one--naming certain persons, probably neighbors.
But the doctor's steady look told me he relied more on his own judgment than on anything she or I could say.
"Can you hold your tongue?" he asked.
I started. Who would not have done so?
"I see that you can," he muttered, and glanced down at my dress. "When can you be ready?" he inquired. "You may be wanted for days, and it may be only for hours."
"Will ten minutes be soon enough?" I asked.
A smile difficult to fathom crossed his firm lip.
"I will give you fifteen," he said, and turned towards the door. But on the threshold he paused and looked back. "You have not asked who or what your patient is," he grimly suggested.
"No," I answered shortly.
"Well," said he, "it is Mrs. Pollard, and she is going to die."
Mrs. Pollard! Mrs. Gannon and I involuntarily turned and looked at each other.
"Mrs. Pollard!" repeated the good nurse, wonderingly. "I did not know she was sick"
"She wasn't this noon. It is a sudden attack. Apoplexy we call it. She fell at the news of Mr. Barrows' death."
And with this parting shot, he went out and closed the door behind him.
I sank, just a little bit weakened, on the lounge, then rose with renewed vigor. "The work has fallen into the right hands," thought I. "Ada would wish me to leave her for such a task as this."
And yet I was troubled. For though this sudden prostration of Mrs. Pollard, on the hearing of her young pastor's sorrowful death, seemed to betoken a nature of more than ordinary sensibility, I had always heard that she was a hard woman, with an eye of steel and a heart that could only be reached through selfish interests. But then she was the magnate of the place, the beginning and end of the aristocracy of S----; and when is not such a one open to calumny? I was determined to reserve my judgment.
In the fifteen minutes allotted me, I was ready. Suitable arrangements had already been made for the removal of my poor Ada's body to the house that held her lover. For the pathos of the situation had touched all hearts, and her wish to be laid in the same grave with him met with no opposition. I could therefore leave with a clear conscience; Mrs. Gannon promising to do all that was necessary, even if she were obliged to take a later train than she had expected to.
Dr. Farnham was in the parlor waiting for me, and uttered a grunt of satisfaction as he saw me enter, fully equipped.
"Come; this is business," he said, and led the way at once to his carriage.
We did not speak for the first block. He seemed meditating, and I was summoning up courage for the ordeal before me. For, now that we were started, I began to feel a certain inward trembling not to be entirely accounted for by the fact that I was going into a strange house to nurse a woman of whom report did not speak any too kindly. Nor did the lateness of the hour, and the desolate aspect of the unlighted streets, tend greatly to reassure me.
Indeed, something of the weird and uncanny seemed to mingle with the whole situation, and I found myself dreading our approach to the house, which from its old-time air and secluded position had always worn for me an aspect of gloomy reserve, that made it even in the daylight, a spot of somewhat fearful interest.
Dr. Farnham, who may have suspected my agitation, though he gave no token of doing so, suddenly spoke up.
"It is only right to tell you," he said, "that I should never have accepted the service of an inexperienced girl like you, if any thing was necessary but watchfulness and discretion. Mrs. Pollard lies unconscious, and all you will have to do is to sit at her side and wait for the first dawning of returning reason. It may come at any moment, and it may never come at all. She is a very sick woman."
"I understand," I murmured, plucking up heart at what did not seem so very difficult a task.
"Her sons will be within call; so will I. By daybreak we hope to have her daughter from Newport with her. You do not know Mrs. Harrington?"
I shook my head. Who was I, that I should know these grand folks? And yet----But I promised I would say nothing about days now so completely obliterated.
"She will not be much of an assistance," he muttered. "But it is right she should come--quite right."
I remembered that I had heard that Mrs. Pollard's daughter was a beauty, and that she had made a fine match; which, said of Mrs. Pollard's daughter, must have meant a great deal. I, however, said nothing, only listened in a vague hope of hearing more, for my curiosity was aroused in a strange way about these people, and nothing which the good doctor could have said about them would have come amiss at this time.
But our drive had been too rapid, and we were too near the house for him to think of any thing but turning into the gateway with the necessary caution. For the night was unusually dark, and it was difficult to tell just where the gate-posts were. We, however, entered without accident, and in another moment a gleam of light greeted us from the distant porch.
"They are expecting us," he said, and touched up his horse. We flew up the gravelled road, and before I could still the sudden heart- beat that attacked me at sight of the grim row of cedars which surrounded the house, we were hurrying up between the two huge lions rampant that flanked the steps, to where a servant stood holding open the door. A sense of gloom and chill at once overwhelmed me. From the interior, which I faintly saw stretching before me, there breathed even in that first moment of hurried entrance a cold and haughty grandeur that, however rich and awe-inspiring, was any thing but attractive to a nature like mine.
Drawing back, I let Dr. Farnham take the lead, which he did in his own brusque way. And then I saw what the dim light had not revealed before, a young man's form standing by the newel-post of the wide staircase that rose at our left. He at once came forward, and as the light from the lamp above us fell fully upon him, I saw his face, and started.
Why? I could not tell. Not because his handsome features struck me pleasantly, for they did not. There was something in their expression which I did not like, and yet as I looked at them a sudden sensation swept over me that made my apprehensions of a moment back seem like child's play, and I became conscious that if a sudden call of life or death were behind me urging me on the instant to quit the house, I could not do it while that face was before me to be fathomed, and, if possible, understood.
"Ah, I see you have brought the nurse," were the words with which he greeted Dr. Farnham. And the voice was as thrilling in its tone as the face was in its expression. "But," he suddenly exclaimed, as his eyes met mine, "this is not Mrs. Gannon." And he hurriedly drew the doctor down the hall. "Why have you brought this young girl?" he asked, in tones which, however lowered, I could easily distinguish. "Didn't you know there were reasons why we especially wanted an elderly person?"
"No," I heard the doctor say, and then, his back being towards me, I lost the rest of his speech till the words, "She is no gossip," came to salute me and make me ask myself if there was a secret skeleton in this house, that they feared so much the eyes of a stranger.
"But," the young man went hurriedly on, "she is not at all the kind of person to have over my mother. How could we----" and there his voice fell so as to become unintelligible.
But the doctor's sudden exclamation helped me out.
"What!" he wonderingly cried, "do you intend to sit up too?"
"I or my brother," was the calm response, "Would you expect us to leave her alone with a stranger?"
The doctor made no answer, and the young man, taking a step sidewise, threw me a glance full of anxiety and trouble.
"I don't like it," he murmured; "but there must be a woman of some kind in the room, and a stranger----"
He did not finish his words, but it seemed as if he were going to say: "And a stranger may, after all, be preferable to a neighbor." But I cannot be sure of this, for he was not a man easy to sound. But what I do know is that he stepped forward, to me with an easy grace, and giving me a welcome as courteous as if I had been the one of all others he desired to see, led me up the stairs to a room which he announced to be mine, saying, as he left me at the door:
"Come out in five minutes, and my brother will introduce you to your duties."
So far I had seen no woman in the house, and I was beginning to wonder if Mrs. Pollard had preferred to surround herself with males, when the door was suddenly opened and a rosy-cheeked girl stepped in.
"Ah, excuse me," she said, with a stare; "I thought it was the nurse as was here."
"And it is the nurse," I returned, smiling in spite of myself at her look of indignant surprise. "Do you want any thing of me?" I hastened to ask, for her eyes were like saucers and her head was tossing airily.
"No," she said, almost with spite. "I came to see if you wanted any thing?"
I shook my head with what good nature I could, for I did not wish to make an enemy in this house, even of a chambermaid.
"And you are really the nurse?" she asked, coming nearer and looking at me in the full glare of the gas.
"Yes," I assured her, "really and truly the nurse."
"Well, I don't understand it!" she cried. "I was always Mrs. Pollard's favorite maid, and I was with her when she was took, and would be with her now, but they won't let me set a foot inside the door. And when I asked why they keep me out, who was always attentive and good to her, they say I am too young. And here you be younger than I, and a stranger too. I don't like it," she cried, tossing her head again and again. "I haven't deserved it, and I think it is mighty mean."
I saw the girl was really hurt, so I hastened to explain that I was not the nurse they expected, and was succeeding, I think, in mollifying her, when a step was heard in the hall, and she gave a frightened start, and hurried towards the door.
"So you are sure you don't want anything?" she cried, and was out of my sight before I could answer.
There was nothing to detain me, and I hastened to follow. As I crossed the sill I almost started too, at sight of the tall, slim, truly sinister figure that awaited me, leaning against the opposite wall. He was younger than his brother, and had similar features, but there was no charm here to make you forget that the eye was darkly glittering, and the lip formidable in its subtlety and power. He advanced with much of the easy nonchalance that had so characterized the other.
"Miss Sterling, I believe," said he; and with no further word, turned and led me down the hall to the sick-room. I noticed even then that he paused and listened before he pushed open the door, and that with our first step inside he cast a look of inquiry at the bed that had something beside a son's loving anxiety in it. And I hated the man as I would a serpent, though he bowed as he set me a chair, and was careful to move a light he thought shone a little too directly in my eyes.
The other brother was not present, and I could give my undivided attention to my charge. I found her what report had proclaimed her to be, a handsome woman of the sternly imposing type. Even with her age against her and the shadow of death lying on her brow and cheek, there was something strangely attractive in the features and the stately contour of her form. But it was attraction that was confined to the eye, and could by no means allure the heart, for the same seal of mysterious reserve was upon her that characterized her sons, and in her, as in the younger one of these, it inspired a distrust which I could imagine no smile as dissipating. She lay in a state of coma, and her heavy breathing was the only sound that broke the silence of the great room. "God help me!" thought I; but had no wish to leave. Instead of that, I felt a fearful pleasure in the prospect before me--such effect had a single look had upon me from eyes I trembled to meet again or read.
I do not know how long I sat there gazing in the one direction for that faint sign of life for which the doctor had bid me watch. That he who inspired me with dread was behind me, I knew; but I would not turn my head towards him. I was determined to resist the power of this man, even if I must succumb a trifle to that of the other.
I was, therefore, surprised when a hand was thrust over my shoulder, and a fan dropped into my lap.
"It is warm here," was the comment which accompanied the action.
I thanked him, but felt that his sole object had been to cover his change of position. For, when he sat down again, it was where he could see my face. I therefore felt justified in plying the fan he had offered me, in such a way as to shut off his somewhat basilisk gaze. And so a dreary hour went by.
It was now well on towards morning, and I was beginning to suffer from the languor natural after so many harrowing excitements, when the door opened behind me, and the electric thrill shooting through all my members, testified as to whose step it was that entered. At the same moment the young man at my side arose, and with what I felt to be a last sharp look in my direction, hastened to where his brother stood, and entered into a whispered conversation with him. Then I heard the door close again, and almost at the same instant Mr. Pollard the elder advanced, and without seeking an excuse for his action, sat down close by my side. The fan at once dropped; I had no wish to avoid this man's scrutiny.
And yet when with a secret bracing of my nerves I looked up and met his eyes fixed with that baffling expression upon mine, I own that I felt an inward alarm, as if something vaguely dangerous had reared itself in my path, which by its very charm instinctively bade me beware. I, however, subdued my apprehensions, thinking, with a certain haughty pride which I fear will never be eliminated from my nature, of the dangers I had already met with and overcome in my brief but troubled life; and meeting his look with a smile which I knew to contain a spice of audacity, I calmly waited for the words I felt to be hovering upon his lips. They were scarcely the ones I expected.
"Miss Sterling," said he, "you have seen Anice, my mother's waiting- maid?"
I bowed. I was too much disconcerted to speak.
"And she has told you her story of my mother's illness?" he went on, pitilessly holding me with his glance. "You need not answer," he again proceeded, as I opened my lips. "I know Anice; she has not the gift of keeping her thoughts to herself."
"An unfortunate thing in this house," I inwardly commented, and made a determination on the spot that whatever emotions I might experience from the mysteries surrounding me, this master of reserve should find there was one who could keep her thoughts to herself, even, perhaps, to his own secret disappointment and chagrin.
"She told you my mother was stricken at the sudden news of Mr. Barrows' death?"
"That was told me," I answered; for this was a direct question, put, too, with an effort I could not help but feel, notwithstanding the evident wish on his part to preserve an appearance of calmness.
"Then some explanation is needed," he remarked, his eyes flashing from his mother's face to mine with equal force and intentness. "My mother"--his words were low, but it was impossible not to hear them--"has not been well since my father died, two months ago. It needed but the slightest shock to produce the result you unhappily see before you. That shock this very girl supplied by the inconsiderate relation of Mr. Barrows' fearful fate. We have taken a prejudice against the girl, in consequence. Do you blame us? This is our mother."
What could I feel or say but No? What could any one, under the circumstances? Why then did a sudden vision of Ada's face, as she gave me that last look, rise up before me, bidding me remember the cause to which I was pledged, and not put too much faith in this man and his plausible explanations.
"I only hope death will not follow the frightful occurrence," he concluded; and do what he would, his features became drawn, and his face white, as his looks wandered back to his mother.
A sudden impulse seized me.
"Another death, you mean," said I; "one already has marked the event, though it happened only a few short hours ago."
His eyes flashed to mine, and a very vivid and real horror blanched his already pallid cheek till it looked blue in the dim light.
"What do you mean?" he gasped; and I saw the doctor had refrained from telling him of Ada's pitiful doom.
"I mean," said I, with a secret compunction I strove in vain to subdue, "that Mr. Barrows' betrothed could not survive his terrible fate--that she died a few hours since, and will be buried in the same grave as her lover."
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