The Mill Mystery by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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Stop up the access and passage to remorse;
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!
Being in the confessional, I have not forborne to tell the worst of myself; I will not, therefore, hesitate to tell the best. When on that very afternoon I entered Mrs. Pollard's grounds, it was with a resolve to make her speak out, that had no element of weakness in it. Not her severest frown, nor that diabolical look from Guy's eye, which had hitherto made me quail, should serve to turn me aside from my purpose, or thwart those interests of right and justice which I felt were so deeply at stake. If my own attempt, backed by the disclosures which had come to me through the prayer-book I had received from Mr. Pollard, should fail, then the law should take hold of the matter and wrench the truth from this seemingly respectable family, even at the risk of my own happiness and the consideration which I had always enjoyed in this town.
The house, when I approached it, struck me with an odd sense of change. I did not stop at the time to inquire why this was, but I have since concluded, in thinking over the subject, that the parlor curtains must have been drawn up, something which I do not remember ever having seen there before or since. The front door also was ajar, and when I rang the bell it was so speedily answered that I had hardly time to summon up the expression of determination which I felt would alone gain me admittance to the house. But my presence instead of seeming unwelcome, seemed to be almost expected by the servant who opened to me. He bowed, smiled, and that, too, in almost a holiday fashion; and when I would have asked for Mrs. Pollard, interrupted me by a request to lay off my overcoat in a side room, which he courteously pointed out to me.
There was something in this and in the whole aspect of the place which astonished me greatly. If this sombre dwelling with its rich but dismally dark halls and mysterious recesses could be said to ever wear an air of cheer, the attempt certainly had been made to effect this to-day. From the hand of the bronze figure that capped the newel-post hung wreaths of smilax and a basket full of the most exquisite flowers; while from a half-open door at my right came a streak of positive light, and the sound of several voices animated with some sentiment that was strangely out of accord with the solemn scene to which this very room had so lately been a witness. Can they be having a reception? I asked myself; and almost ashamed of the surmise, ever in the house of one so little respected, I, nevertheless, turned to the civil servant before me and remarked:
"There is something going on here of which I was ignorant. Is Mrs. Pollard entertaining guests to-day?"
"Did you not know, sir?" he inquired. "I thought you had been invited, perhaps; Miss Pollard is going to be married this afternoon."
Miss Pollard going to be married! Could any thing have been worse? Shocked, I drew back; Miss Pollard was a beautiful girl and totally innocent, in as far as I knew, of any of the wrong which had certainly been perpetrated by some members of her family. It would never do to mortify her or to mar the pleasure of her wedding-day by any such scene as my errand probably involved. She must be saved sorrow even if her mother--But at that instant the vague but pathetic form of another young girl flitted in imagination before my eyes, and I asked myself if I had not already done enough injury to the helpless and the weak, without putting off for another hour even that attempt at rescue, which the possibly perilous position of Mr. Pollard's grandchild so imperatively demanded. As I thought this and remembered that the gentleman to whom Miss Pollard was engaged was an Englishman of lordly connections and great wealth, I felt my spirit harden and my purpose take definite form. Turning, therefore to the servant before me I inquired if Mrs. Pollard was above or below; and learning that she had not yet come down-stairs, I tore a leaf out of my note-book and wrote on it the following lines:
I know your daughter is on the point of descending to her marriage. I know also that you do not want to see me. But the interests of Miss Merriam demand that you should do so, and that immediately. If you do not come, I shall instantly enter the parlor and tell a story to the assembled guests which will somewhat shake your equanimity when you come to appear before them. My moral courage is not to be judged by my physical, madam, and I shall surely do this thing. David Barrows
The servant, who still lingered before me, took this note.
"Give it to Mrs. Pollard," I requested. "Tell her it is upon a matter of pressing importance, but do not mention my name, if you please; she will find it in the note." And seeing by the man's face that my wishes would be complied with, I took up my stand in a certain half-curtained recess and waited with loudly beating heart for the issue.
She came. I saw her when she first put foot on the stairs, and notwithstanding my strong antipathy, I could not repress a certain feeling of admiration from mixing with the dread the least sight of her always occasioned me. Her form, which was of the finest, was clad in heavy black velvet, without a vestige of ornament to mar its sombre richness, and her hair, now verging towards gray, was piled up in masses on the top of her haughty head, adding inches to a height that in itself was almost queenly. But her face! and her cruel eye and the smile of her terrible lip. I grew cold as I saw her approach, but I did not move from my place or meditate the least change in the plan I had laid for her subjection. She stopped just two feet from where I stood, and without the least bend of her head or any gesture of greeting, looked at me. I bore it with quietude, and even answered glance with glance, until I saw her turn pale with the first hint of dismay which she had possibly ever betrayed; then I bowed and waited for her to speak. She did so with a hiss like a serpent.
"What does this mean?" she cried. "What do you hope to gain from me, that you presume to write me such a letter on an occasion like this?"
"Madam," I rejoined, "you are in haste, and so am I; so, without expressing any opinion of the actions which have driven me to this step, I will merely say that I want but one thing of you, but that I want immediately, without hesitation and without delay. I allude to Miss Merriam's address, which you have, and which you must give me on the spot."
She shrank. This cold, confident, imperious woman shrank, and this expression of emotion, while it showed she was not entirely without sensation, awoke within me a strange fear, since how dark must be her secret, if she could tremble at the thought of its discovery. She must have seen that I was affected, for her confidence immediately returned.
"I do not know,--" she began to say.
But I mercilessly interrupted her.
"But I know," said I, with an emphasis on the pronoun, "and know so much that I am sure the company within would be glad to hear what I could tell them. Mr. Harrington, for instance, who I hear is of a very honorable family in England, would be pleased to learn--"
"Hush!" she whispered, seizing my wrist with a hand of steel. "If I must tell you I will, but no more words from you, do you hear, no more words."
I took out my note-book and thrust it into her hand.
"Write," I, commanded; "her full address, mind you, that I may find her before the day is over."
She gave me a strange glance but took the book and pencil without a word. "There!" she cried, hurriedly writing a line and passing the book back to me. "And now go; our time for further conversation will come later."
But I did not stir. I read aloud the line she had given me and then said: "Madam, this address is either a true or a false one. Which, I shall soon know. For upon leaving here, I shall proceed immediately to the telegraph-office, from which I shall telegraph to the police station nearest to this address, for the information I desire. I shall receive an answer within the hour; and if I find you have deceived me I shall not hesitate to return here, and so suitably accompanied that you will not only open to me, but rectify whatever mistake you may have made. Your guests will not be gone in an hour," I ruthlessly added. Her face, which had been pale, turned ghastly. Glancing up at a clock which stood a few feet from the recess in which we stood, she gave an involuntary shudder and looked about for Guy.
"Your son, fertile as he is in resources, cannot help you," I remarked. "There is no pit of darkness here; besides I have learned a lesson, madam; and not death itself would deter me now from doing my duty by this innocent child. So if you wish to change this address--"
I stopped; a strain of music had risen from the parlor. It was Mendelssohn's Wedding March. Mrs. Pollard started, cast a hurried look above and tore the note-book out of my hands.
"You are a fiend," she hissed, and hurriedly scratching out the words she had written, she wrote another number and name. "You will find she is there," she cried, "and since I have complied with your desire, you will have no need to return here till you bring the young girl home."
The emphasis she placed on the last word startled me. I looked at her and wondered if Medea wore such a countenance when she stabbed her children to the heart. But it flashed and was gone, and the next moment she had moved away from my side and I had stepped to the door. As I opened it to pass out I caught one glimpse of the bride as she came down the stairs. She looked exquisite in her simple white dress, and her face was wreathed in smiles.