The Mill Mystery by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight;
I think but dare not speak.
That day was a marked one in my life. It was not only the longest I have ever known, but it was by far the dreariest, and, if I may use the word in this connection, the most unearthly. Indeed, I cannot think of it to this day without a shudder; its effect being much the same upon my memory as that of a vigil in some underground tomb, where each moment was emphasized with horror lest the dead lying before me might stir beneath their cerements and wake. The continual presence of one or both of the brothers at my side did not tend to alleviate the dread which the silence, the constant suspense, the cold gloom of the ever dimly-lighted chamber were calculated to arouse; for the atmosphere of unreality and gloom was upon them too, and, saving the quick, short sigh that escaped from their lips now and then, neither of them spoke nor relaxed for an instant from that strain of painful attention which had for its focus their mother's stony face. Mrs. Harrington, who, in her youthful freshness and dimpled beauty, might have relieved the universal sombreness of the scene, was not in the room all day; but whether this was on account of her inability to confront sickness and trouble, or whether it was the result of the wishes of her brothers, I have never been able to decide; probably the latter, for, though she was a woman of frivolous mind, she had a due sense of the proprieties, and was never known to violate them except under the stress of another will more powerful than her own. At last, as the day waned, and what light there was gradually vanished from the shadowy chamber, Guy made a movement of discouragement, and, rising from his place, approached his brother, dropped a word in his ear, and quietly left the room. The relief I felt was instantaneous. It was like having one coil of an oppressive nightmare released from my breast. Dwight, on the contrary, who had sat like a statue ever since the room began to darken, showed no evidence of being influenced by this change, and, convinced that any movement towards a more cheerful order of things must come from me, I rose, and, without consulting his wishes, dropped the curtains and lighted the lamp. The instant I had done so I saw why he was so silent and immovable. Overcome by fatigue, and possibly by a long strain of suppressed emotion, he had fallen asleep, and, ignorant of the fact that Guy had left the room, slumbered as peacefully as if no break had occurred in the mysterious watch they had hitherto so uninterruptedly maintained over their mother and me.
The peacefulness of his sleeping face made a deep impression upon me. Though I knew that with his waking the old look would come back, it was an indescribable pleasure to me to see him, if but for an instant, free from that shadowy something which dropped a vail of mistrust between us. It seemed to show me that evil was not innate in this man, and explained, if it did not justify, the weakness which had made me more lenient to what was doubtful in his appearance and character than I had been to that of his equally courteous but less attractive brother.
The glances I allowed myself to cast in his direction were fleeting enough, however. Even if womanly delicacy had not forbidden me to look too often and too long that way, the sense of the unfair advantage I was possibly taking of his weakness made the possibility of encountering his waking eye a matter of some apprehension. I knew that honor demanded I should rouse him, that he would not thank me for letting him sleep after his brother had left the room; and yet, whether from too much heart--he was in such sore need of rest--or from too little conscience--I was in such sore need of knowledge--I let him slumber on, and never made so much as a move after my first startled discovery of his condition. And so five minutes, ten minutes, went by, and, imperceptibly to myself, the softening influence which his sleeping countenance exerted upon me deepened and strengthened till I began to ask if I had not given too much scope to my, imagination since I had been in this house, and foolishly attributed a meaning to expressions and events that in my calmer moments would show themselves to possess no special significance.
The probability was that I had, and once allowing myself to admit this idea, it is astonishing how rapidly it gained possession of my judgment, altering the whole tenor of my thoughts, and if not exactly transforming the situation into one of cheerfulness and ease, at least robbing it of much of that sepulchral character which had hitherto made it so nearly unbearable to me. The surroundings, too, seemed to partake of the new spirit of life which had seized me. The room looked less shadowy, and lost some of that element of mystery which had made its dimly seen corners the possible abode of supernatural visitants. Even the clock ticked less lugubriously, and that expressionless face on the pillow-Great God! it is looking at me! With two wide open, stony eyes it is staring into my very soul like a spirit from the tomb, awakening there a horror infinitely deeper than any I had felt before, though I knew it was but the signal of returning life to the sufferer, and that I ought to rouse myself and welcome it with suitable ministrations, instead of sitting there like a statue of fear in the presence of an impending fate. But do what I would, say to myself what I would, I could not stir. A nightmare of terror was upon me, and not till I saw the stony lips move and the face take a look of life in the effort made to speak, did I burst the spell that held me and start to my feet. Even then I dared not look around nor raise my voice to warn the sleeper behind me that the moment so long waited for had come. A power behind myself seemed to hold me silent, waiting, watching for those words that struggled to life so painfully before me. At last they came, filling the room with echoes hollow as they were awful!
"Dwight! Guy! If you do not want me to haunt you, swear you will never divulge what took place between you and Mr. Barrows at the mill."
"Mother!" rang in horror through the room. And before I could turn my head, Dwight Pollard leaped by me, and hiding the face of the dying woman on his breast, turned on me a gaze that was half wild, half commanding, and said: "Go for my brother! He is in the northwest room. Tell him our mother raves." Then, as I took a hurried, though by no means steady, step towards the door, he added: "I need not ask you to speak to no one else?"
"No," my cold lips essayed to utter, but an unmeaning murmur was all that left them. The reaction from hope and trust to a now really tangible fear had been too sudden and overwhelming.
But by the time I had reached the room to which I had been directed, I had regained in a measure my self-control. Guy Pollard at least should not see that I could be affected by any thing which could happen in this house. Yet when, in answer to my summons, he joined me in the hall, I found it difficult to preserve the air of respectful sympathy I had assumed, so searching was his look, and so direct the question with which he met his brother's message.
"My mother raves, you say; will you be kind enough to tell me what her words were?"
"Yes," returned I, scorning to prevaricate in a struggle I at least meant should be an honest one. "She called upon her sons, and said that she would haunt them if ever they divulged what took place between them and Mr. Barrows at the mill."
"Ah!" he coldly laughed; "she does indeed rave." And while I admired his selfcontrol, I could not prevent myself from experiencing an increased dread of this nature that was so ready for all emergencies and so panoplied against all shock. I might have felt a more vivid apprehension still, had I known what was passing in his mind as we traversed the hall back to the sick- chamber. But the instinct which had warned me of so much, did not warn me of that, and it was with no other feeling than one of surprise that I noted the extreme deference with which he opened his mother's door for me, and waited even in that moment of natural agitation and suspense for me to pass over the threshold before he presumed to enter himself.
Dwight Pollard, however, did not seem to be so blind, for a change passed over his face as he saw us, and he half rose from the crouching position he still held over his mother's form. He subsided back, however, as I drew to one side and let Guy pass unheeded to the bed, and it was in quite a natural tone he bade me seat myself in the alcove towards which he pointed, till his mother's condition required my services.
That there was really nothing to be done for her, I saw myself in the one glimpse I caught of her face as he started up. She was on the verge of death, and her last moments were certainly due to her children. So I passed into the alcove, which was really a small room opening out of the large one, and flinging myself on the lounge I saw there, asked myself whether I ought to shut the door between us, or whether my devotion to Ada's cause bade me listen to whatever came directly in my way to hear? The fact that I was in a measure prisoned there, there being no other outlet to the room than the one by which I had entered, determined me to ignore for once the natural instincts of my ladyhood; and pale and trembling to a degree I would not have wished seen by either of these two mysterious men, I sat in a dream of suspense, hearing and not hearing the low hum of their voices as they reasoned with or consoled the mother, now fast drifting away into an endless night.
Suddenly--shall I ever forget the thrill it gave me?--her voice rose again in those tones whose force and commanding power I have found it impossible to describe.
"The oath! the oath! Dwight, Guy, by my dying head----"
"Yes, mother," I heard one voice interpose; and by the solemn murmur that followed, I gathered that Guy had thought it best to humor her wishes. The long-drawn sigh which issued from her lips testified to the relief he had given her, and the "Now Dwight!" which followed was uttered in tones more gentle and assured.
But to this appeal no solemn murmur ensued, for at that instant a scream arose from the bed, and to the sound of an opening door rang out the words: "Keep her away! What do you let her come in here for, to confound me and make me curse the day she was born! Away! I say, away!"
Horrified, and unable to restrain the impulse that moved me, I sprang to my feet and rushed upon the scene. The picture that met my eyes glares at me now from the black background of the past. On the bed, that roused figure, awful with the shadows of death, raised, in spite of the constraining hands of her two sons, into an attitude expressive of the most intense repulsion, terror, and dread; and at the door, the fainting form of the pretty, dimpled, care-shunning daughter, who, struck to the heart by this poisoned dart from the hand that should have been lifted in blessing, stood swaying in dismay, her wide blue eyes fixed on the terrible face before her, and her hands outstretched and clutching in vague fear after some support that would sustain her, and prevent her falling crushed to the floor.
To bound to her side, and lift her gently out of her mother's sight, was the work of a moment. But in that moment my eyes had time to see such a flash of infinite longing take the place of the fierce passions upon that mother's face, that my heart stood still, and I scarcely knew whether to bear my burden from the room, or to rush with it to that bedside and lay it, in all its childlike beauty, on that maddened mother's dying breast. A low, deep groan from the bed decided me. With that look of love on her face, otherwise distorted by every evil passion, Mrs. Pollard had fallen back into the arms of her two sons, and quietly breathed her last.