The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

i.

The Alarm.

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.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37