The Mill Mystery by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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Hold, hold my heart!
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old.
But bear me stiffly up!
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I was saved the embarrassment of meeting Guy Pollard at the breakfast-table the next morning. I was, therefore, left in ignorance as to the result of the conversation between the brothers, though from the softened manner of Dwight, and the quiet assurance with which he surrounded me with the delicate atmosphere of his homage, I could not but argue that he had come out master of the situation.
It was, therefore, with mingled feelings of pleasure and apprehension that I left the house at the hour appointed for the double funeral; feelings that would have been yet more alive had I realized that I should not re-enter those gates again, or see the interior of that fatal house, till I had passed through many bitter experiences.
The ceremonies, in spite of the latent suspicion of the community that Mr. Barrows' death had been one of his own seeking, were of the most touching and impressive description. I was overcome by them, and left the churchyard before the final prayer was said, feeling as if the life of the last three days had been a dream, and that here in the memory of my lovely Ada and her griefs lay my true existence and the beginning and ending of my most sacred duty.
Pursuant to this thought I did not turn immediately back to the gloomy mansion which claimed me for the present as its own, but wandered away in an opposite direction, soothing my conscience by the thought that it was many hours yet before the services would be held for Mrs. Pollard, and that neither the brothers nor Mrs. Harrington could have any use for me till that time.
The road I had taken was a sequestered one, and strange as it may seem to some, did not awaken special memories in my mind till I came to a point where an opening in the trees gave to my view the vision of two tall chimneys; when like a flash it came across me that I was on the mill road, and within a few short rods of the scene of Mr. Barrows' death.
The sensation that seized me at this discovery was of the strangest kind. I felt that I had been led there; and without a thought of what I was doing, pressed on with ever-increasing rapidity till I came to the open doorway with its dismantled entrance.
To pass over the now much-trodden grass and take my stand by the dismal walls was the work of an instant; but when I had done this and experienced in a rush the loneliness and ghostly influence of the place, I was fain to turn back and leave it to the dream of its own fearful memories. But the sight of a small piece of paper pinned or pasted on the board that had been nailed in futile precaution across the open doorway deterred me. It was doubtless nothing more important than a notice from the town authorities, or possibly from the proprietors of the place, but my curiosity was excited, and I desired to see it. So I hastened over to where it was, and with little apprehension of the shock that was destined to overwhelm me, read these words:
"Those who say Mr. Barrows committed suicide lie. He was murdered, and by parties whose position places them above suspicion, as their wealth and seeming prosperity rob them of even the appearance of motive for such a terrible deed."
No names mentioned; but O God! And that word murdered. It swam before my eyes; it burned itself into every thing upon which I looked, it settled like a weight of iron upon my heart, pressing me nearer and nearer and nearer to the ground, till finally----Ah! can it be that this is really I, and that I am standing here in a desolate place alone, with no human being in sight, and with a paper in my hand that seems to grow larger and larger as I gaze, and ask me what I mean to do now, and whether in tearing it from the wall where it hung, I allied myself to the accused, or by one stroke proclaimed myself that avenger which, if the words on this paper were true, I owed it to my Ada and the promise which I had given her to be? The cloud that enveloped my brain pressed upon me too closely for me to give an answer to questions so vital and terrific. I was in a maze,--a horrible dream; I could not think, I could only suffer, and at last creep away like a shadow of guiltiness to where a cluster of pine-trees made a sort of retreat into which I felt I could thrust my almost maddened head and be lost.
For great shocks reveal deep secrets, and in the light of this pitiless accusation, this fact had revealed itself without disguise to my eyes, that it was love I felt for Dwight Pollard; not admiration, not curiosity, not even the natural desire to understand one so seemingly impenetrable, but love, real, true, yearning, and despotic love, which if well founded might have made my bliss for a lifetime, and which now----I thrust the paper between my lips to keep down the cry that rose there, and hiding my face deep down in the turf, mourned the weakness that made me so ready a victim, while at the same time I prepared to sustain the struggle which I knew must there and then be waged and decided if I was ever to face the world again with the strength and calmness which my nature demanded, and the extraordinary circumstances of my position imposed.
The result was an hour of misery, with a sensation of triumph at the end; though I do not pretend to say that in this one effort I overcame the admiration and interest which attached my thoughts to this man. The accusation was as yet too vague, and its source too doubtful, to blot his image with ineffaceable stains; but I did succeed in gaining sufficient mastery over myself to make it possible to review the situation and give what I meant should be an unbiased judgment as to the duty it imposed upon me.
The result was a determination to hold myself neutral till I had at least discovered the author of the lines I held in my hand. If they came from a credible person--but how could they do so and be written and posted up in the manner they were? An honest man does not seek any such roundabout way to strike his blow. Only a coward or a villain would take this method to arouse public curiosity, and perhaps create public suspicion.
And yet who could say that a coward and a villain might not be speaking the truth even in an accusation of this nature? The very fact that it met and gave form and substance to my own dim and unrecognized fears, proved that something as yet unknown and unsounded connected the mysterious death of Mr. Barrows with the family towards which this accusation evidently pointed. While my own heart beat with dread, how could I ignore the possibility of these words being the work of an accomplice disgusted with his crime, or of a tool anxious to save himself, and at the same time to avenge some fancied slight? I could not. If peace and hope were lost in the effort, I must learn the truth and satisfy myself, once and for all, as to whose hatred and fear the Pollards were indebted for insinuations at once so tremendous and so veiled.
That I was the only person who had probably seen and read these fatal words, lent purpose to my resolution. If, as I madly hoped, they were but the expression of suspicion, rather than of knowledge, what a satisfaction it would be for me to discover the fact, and possibly unmask the cowardly author, before the public mind had been infected by his doubts.
But how could I, a woman and a stranger, with no other talisman than my will and patience, accomplish a purpose which would be, perhaps, no easy one for a trained detective to carry out to a successful issue? The characters in which the fatal insinuations had been conveyed offered no clue. They were printed, and in so rough and commonplace a manner that the keenest mind would have found itself baffled if it had attempted to trace its way to the writer through the mere medium of the lines he had transcribed. I must, therefore, choose some other means of attaining my end; but what one?
I had never, in spite of the many trials and embarrassments of my life, been what is called an intriguing woman. Nor had I ever amused myself with forming plots or devising plans for extricating imaginary characters out of fancied difficulties by the mere exercise of their wits. Finesse was almost an unknown word to me, and yet, as I sat there with this fatal bit of paper in my hand, I felt that a power hitherto unguessed was awakening within me, and that if I could but restrain the emotions which threatened to dissipate my thoughts, I should yet hit upon a plan by which my design could be attained with satisfaction to myself and safety to others.
For--and this was my first idea--the paper had not been on the wall long. It was too fresh to have hung there overnight, and had, moreover, been too poorly secured to have withstood even for an hour the assaults of a wind as keen as that which had been blowing all the morning. It had, therefore, been put up a few moments before I came, or, in other words, while the funeral services were being held; a fact which, to my mind, argued a deep calculation on the part of the writer, for the hour was one to attract all wanderers to the other end of the town, while the following one would, on the contrary, see this quarter overflow with human beings, anxious to complete the impression made by the funeral services, by a visit to the scene of the tragedy.
That the sky had clouded over very much in the last half-hour, and that the first drops of a heavy thunder-shower were even now sifting through the branches over my head, was doubtless the reason why no one besides myself had yet arrived upon the scene; and, should the storm continue, this evil might yet be averted, and the one person I was most anxious to see, have an opportunity to show himself at the place, without being confounded with a mass of disinterested people. For I felt he would return, and soon, to note the result of his daring action. In the crowd, if a crowd assembled, or alone, if it so chanced that no one came to the spot, he would draw near the mill, and, if he found the notice gone, would betray, must betray, an interest or an alarm that would reveal him to my watchful eye. For I intended to take up my stand within the doorway, using, if necessary, the storm as my excuse for desiring its shelter; while as a precaution against suspicions that might be dangerous to me, as well as a preventive against any one else ever reading these accusatory lines, I determined to dip the paper in the stream, and then drop it near the place where it had been tacked, that it might seem as if it had been beaten off by the rain, now happily falling faster and faster.
All this I did, not without some apprehension of being observed by a watchful eye. For what surety had I that the writer of these words was not even now in hiding, or had not been looking at me from some secret retreat at the very moment I tore the paper off the wall and fled with it into the bushes? But this fear, if fear it was, was gradually dispelled as the moments sped by, and nothing beyond the wind and the fast driving rain penetrated to where I stood. Nor did it look as if any break in what seemed likely to become a somewhat dread monotony would ever occur. The fierce dash of the storm was like a barrier, shutting me off from the rest of the world, and had my purpose been less serious, my will less nerved, I might have succumbed to the dreariness of the outlook and taken myself away while yet the gruesome influences that lay crouched in the darkness at my back remained in abeyance, and neither ghost's step nor man's step had come to shake the foundations of my courage and make of my silent watch a struggle and a fear.
But an intent like mine was not to be relinquished at the first call of impatience or dread. Honor, love, and duty were at stake, and I held to my resolution, though each passing moment made it more difficult to maintain my hope as well as to sustain my composure.
At last--oh, why did that hollow of darkness behind me reverberate so continually in my fancy?--there seemed, there was, a movement in the bushes by the road, and a form crept gradually into sight that, when half seen, made the blood cease coursing through my veins; and, when fully in view, sent it in torrents to heart and brain; so deep, so vivid, so peculiar was the relief I felt. For--realize the effect upon me if you can--the figure that now stole towards me through the dank grass, looking and peering for the notice I had torn from the wall, was no other than my friend--or was it my enemy?--the idiot boy.
He was soaked with the rain, but he seemed oblivious of the fact. For him the wind had evidently no fierceness, the wet no chill. All his energies--and he seemed, as in that first moment when I saw him in the summer-house, to be alive with them--were concentrated in the gaze of his large eyes, as, coming nearer and nearer, he searched the wall, then the ground, and finally, with a leap, picked up the soaked and useless paper which I had dropped there.
His expression as he raised himself and looked fiercely about almost made me reveal myself. This an idiot, this trembling, wrathful, denunciatory figure, with its rings of hair clinging to a forehead pale with passion and corrugated with thought! Were these gestures, sudden, determined, and full of subdued threatening, the offspring of an erratic brain or the expression of a fool's hatred? I could not believe it, and stood as if fascinated before this vision, that not only upset every past theory which my restless mind had been able to form of the character and motives of the secret denunciator of the Pollards, but awakened new thoughts and new inquiries of a nature which I vaguely felt to be as mysterious as any which had hitherto engaged my attention.
Meantime the boy had crushed the useless paper in his hand, and, flinging it aside, turned softly about as if to go. I had no wish to detain him. I wished to make inquiries first, and learn if possible all that was known of his history and circumstances before I committed myself to an interview. If he were an idiot--well, that would simplify matters much; but, if he were not, or, being one, had moments of reason, then a mystery appeared that would require all the ingenuity and tact of a Machiavelli to elucidate. The laugh which had risen from the shrubbery the night before, and the look which Dwight Pollard had given when he heard it, proved that a mystery did exist, and gave me strength to let the boy vanish from my sight with his secret unsolved and his purposes unguessed.