The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

X.

Rhoda Colwell.

I spare you common curses.

MRS. BROWNING.

It was not long after this that the storm began to abate. Sunshine took the place of clouds, and I was enabled to make my way back to the town at the risk of nothing worse than wet feet. I went at once to my boarding-house. Though I was expected back at the Pollards’, though my presence seemed almost necessary there, I felt that it would be impossible for me to enter their door till something of the shadow that now enveloped their name had fallen away. I therefore sent them word that unlooked-for circumstances compelled me to remain at home for the present; and having thus dismissed one anxiety from my mind, set myself to the task of gleaning what knowledge I could of the idiot boy.

The result was startling. He was, it seemed, a real idiot — or so had always been regarded by those who had known him from his birth. Not one of the ugly, mischievous sort, but a gentle, chuckling vacant~brained boy, who loved to run the streets and mingle his harmless laughter with the shouts of playing children and the noise of mills and manufactories.

He was an orphan, but was neither poor nor dependent, for — and here was where the fact came in that astonished me — he had for protector a twin sister whose wits were as acute as his were dull; a sister who through years of orphanage had cherished and supported him, working sometimes for that purpose in the factories, and sometimes simply with her needle at home. They lived in a nest of a cottage on the edge of the town, and had the sympathy of all, though not perhaps the full liking of any. For Rhoda, the sister, was a being of an unique order, who, while arousing the interest of a few, baffled the comprehension of the many. She was a problem; a creature out of keeping with her belongings and the circumstances in which she was placed. An airy, lissom, subtle specimen of woman, whose very beauty was of an unknown order, causing as much inquiry as admiration. A perfect blonde like her brother, she had none of the sweetness and fragility that usually accompanies this complexion. On the contrary, there was something bizarre in her whole appearance, and especially in the peculiar expression of her eye, that awakened the strangest feelings and produced even in the minds of those who saw her engaged in the most ordinary occupations of life an impression of remoteness that almost amounted to the uncanny. The fact that she affected brilliant colors and clothed both herself and brother in garments of a wellnigh fantastic make, added to this impression, and gave perhaps some excuse to those persons who regarded her as being as abnormally constituted as her brother, finding it impossible, I suppose, to reconcile waywardness with industry, and a taste for the rich and beautiful with a poverty so respectable, it scarcely made itself known for the reality it was. A blonde gypsy some called her, a dangerous woman some others; and the latter would undoubtedly have been correct had the girl possessed less pride of independence or been unhampered, as she was untrammelled, by the sense of responsibility towards her imbecile brother. As it was, more than one mother had had reason to ask why her son wore such a moody brow after returning from a certain quarter of the town, and at one time gossip had not hesitated to declare that Dwight Pollard — the haughty Dwight Pollard — had not been ashamed to be seen entering her door, though every one knew that no one stepped under its wreath of vines except their intentions were as honorable as the beauty, if not the poverty, of its owner demanded.

When I heard this, and heard also that he visited her no more, I seemed to have gained some enlightenment as to the odd and contradictory actions of my famous idiot boy. He loved his sister, and was in some way imbued with a sense that she had been wronged. He was, therefore, jealous of any one who had, or seemed to have, gained the attention of the man who had possibly forsaken her. Yet even with this explanation of his conduct, there was much for which I could not account, making my intended interview with the sister a matter to be more or less apprehended.

It was therefore with a composure altogether outward and superficial that I started for the quaint and tiny cottage which had been pointed out to me as the abode of these remarkable twins. I reached it just as the clock struck three, and was immediately impressed, as my informants evidently expected me to be, by the air of poetry and refinement that characterized even its humble exterior. But it was not till I had knocked at the door and been ushered into the house by the idiot brother, that my real astonishment began. For though the room in which I found myself did not, as I was afterwards assured, contain a single rich article, it certainly had the effect of luxuriousness upon the eye; and had it not been for my inward agitation and suspense, would have produced a sense of languid pleasure, scarcely to be looked for in the abode of a simple working-girl. As it was, I was dimly conscious of a slight relief in the keen tension of my feelings, and turned with almost a sensation of hope to the boy who was smiling and grimacing beside me. But here another shock awaited me, for this boy was not the one I had seen at the mill barely two hours ago, or, rather, if it were the same — and the identity of his features, figure, and dress with those I knew so well, seemed to proclaim him to be — he was in such a different mood now as to appear like another being. Laughing, merry, and inane, he bore on his brow no sign nor suggestion of the fierce passion I had seen there, nor did his countenance change, though I looked at him steadily and long with a gaze that was any thing but in keeping with his seemingly innocent mirth.

“It is not the boy I have known,” I suddenly decided in my mind; and I cannot say in what wild surmises I might have indulged, if at that moment the door at my back had not opened and a figure stepped in which at the first glance attracted my whole attention and absorbed all my thought.

Imagine a woman, lithe, blonde, beautiful, intense; with features regular as the carver’s hand could make them, but informed with a spirit so venomous, passionate, and perverse, that you lost sight of her beauty in your wonder at the formidable nature of the character she betrayed. Then see her dressed as no other woman ever dressed before, in a robe of scarlet of a cut and make quite its own, and conceive, if you can, the agitation I felt as I realized that in her I beheld my rival, my antagonist, the enemy of Dwight Pollard’s peace and mine.

That her face, even the hatred that visibly contracted it as her eyes met mine, were familiar to me in the countenance and expression of the boy I had met, went for nothing. The beauty and malice of a seeming imbecile, and the same characteristics in a woman subtle and decided as this, awaken very different emotions in the mind. Though I had seen that same brow corrugated before, it was like a revelation to behold it now, and watch how the rosy lips took a straight line and the half-shut, mysterious eyes burned like a thread of light, as she stretched out one white hand and asked half imperiously, half threateningly:

“Who are you, and for what do you come to me?

“I am Constance Sterling,” I retorted, satisfied that nothing short of the heroic treatment would avail with this woman; “and if I do not mistake, I think you know very well why I come here.”

“Indeed!” came in something like a hiss from between her set lips. And in one short instant all that was best in her and all that was worst became suddenly visible, as turning to her softly chuckling brother, she motioned him gently out of the room, and then turning to me, advanced a step and said: “Will you explain yourself, Miss — or is it Mrs. Constance Sterling?”

“I will explain myself,” I returned, wondering, as I saw her cheeks pale and her eyes emit strange and fitful sparks, if I exerted any such influence over her as she did over me. “I said I thought you knew why I came here. I said this, because this is not the first time we have met, nor am I the first one who has presumed to address the other in a tone that to a sensitive ear sounded like menace. The idiot boy ——”

“We will leave my brother out of the discussion,” she broke in, in a voice so distinct I scarcely noticed that it was nothing but a whisper.

“I am not alluding to your brother,” I declared, meeting her eyes with a look steady as her own, and I hope more open.

“Oh, I see,” she murmured; and she took another step, while the flash of her glance cut like a knife. “You accuse me then ——”

“Of assuming a disguise to spy upon Dwight Pollard.”

It was a well-sped shaft, and quivered alive and burning in her heart of hearts. She gave a spring like the panther she seemed at that minute, but instantly recovered herself, and launching, upon me the strangest smile, mockingly exclaimed:

“You are a brave woman.” Then as I did not quail before her passion, drew up her slight figure to its height and said: “We are worthy of each other, you and I. Tell me what you want.”

Then I felt my own cheek turn pale, and I was fain to sit upon the pile of cushions that were arranged in one corner for a seat.

“What I want?” I repeated. “I want to know how you dared put in language the insinuations which you hung up on the door of the old mill this morning?”

Her eyes, narrowed, as I have said, in her seemingly habitual desire to keep their secrets to herself, flashed wide open at this, while a low and mirthless laugh escaped her lips.

“So my labor was not entirely wasted!” she cried. “You saw —”

“Both the lines and the writer,” I completed, relentlessly preserving the advantage I felt myself to have gained —“the lines before they were defaced by the storm, the writer as she picked up the useless paper and went away.”

“So!” she commented, with another echo of that joyless laughter; “there are two spies instead of one in this game!”

“There are two women instead of one who know your enmity and purpose,” I retorted.

“How came you at the mill?” she suddenly asked, after a moment of silent communion with her own repressed soul.

“By accident,” was all my reply.

“Were you alone?”

“I was.”

“Then no one but yourself saw the paper?”

“No one but myself.”

She gave me a look I made no sign of understanding.

“Have you told any one of what you saw and read?” she inquired at last, as she perceived I meant to volunteer nothing.

“That I am not called upon to state,” I returned.

“Oh, you would play the lawyer!” was her icy and quiet remark.

“I would play nothing,” was the answer that came from my lips.

She drew back, and a change passed over her.

Slowly as a fire is kindled, the passion grew and grew on her face. When it was at its height she leaned her two hands on a table that stood between us, and, bending forward, whispered:

“Do you love him? Are you going to fight to keep his name free from stain and his position unassailed before the world?”

Believe me if you can, but I could not answer; possibly because I had as yet no answer to the question in my soul.

She took advantage of my hesitation.

“Perhaps you think it is not worth while to fight me; that I have no real weapons at my command?” and her eyes shot forth a flame that devoured my rising hopes and seared my heart as with a fiery steel.

“I think you are a cruel woman,” I declared, “anxious to destroy what no longer gives you pleasure.”

“You know my story then?” she whispered. “He has talked about me, and to you?”

“No,” I replied, in quiet disdain. “I know nothing save what your own eyes and your conduct tell me.”

“Then you shall,” she murmured, after a moment’s scrutiny of my face. “You shall hear how I have been loved, and how I have been forsaken. Perhaps it will help you to appreciate the man who is likely to wreck both our lives.”

I must have lifted my head at this, for she paused and gave me a curious look.

“You don’t love him?” she cried.

“I shall not let him wreck my life,” I responded.

Her lip curled and her two hands closed violently at her sides.

“You have not known him long,” she declared. “You have not seen him at your feet, or heard his voice, as day by day he pleaded more and more passionately for a word or smile? You have not known his touch!”

“No,” I impetuously cried, fascinated by her glance and tone.

I thought she looked relieved, and realized that her words might have been as much an inquiry as an assertion.

“Then do not boast,” she said.

The blood that was in my cheeks went out of them. I felt my eyes close spasmodically, and hurriedly turned away my head. She watched me curiously.

“Do you think I succumbed without a struggle?” she vehemently asked, after a moment or two of this silent torture “Look at me. Am I a woman to listen to the passionate avowals of the first man that happens to glance my way and imagine he would like to have me for his wife? Is a handsome face and honeyed tongue sufficient to gain my good graces, even when it is backed by the wealth. I love and the position to which I feel myself equal? I tell you you do not know Rhoda Colwell, if you think she could be won easily. Days and days he haunted this room before I let his words creep much beyond my ears. I had a brother who needed all my care and all my affection, and I did not mean to marry, much less to love. But slowly and by degrees he got a hold upon my heart, and then, like the wretch who trusts himself to the maelstrom, I was swept round and round into the whirlpool of passion till not earth nor heaven could save me or make me again the free and light-hearted girl I was. This was two years ago, and today —”

She stopped, choked. I had never seen greater passion, as I had never seen a more fiery nature.

“It is his persistency I complain of,” she murmured at last. “He forced me to love him. Had he left me when I first said ‘No,’ I could have looked down on his face to-day with contempt. But, no, he had a fancy that I was his destiny, and that he must possess me or die. Die? He would not even let me die when I found that my long-sought ‘Yes’ turned his worship into indifference, and his passion into constraint. But —” she suddenly cried, with a repetition of that laugh which now sounded so fearful in my ears — “all this does not answer your question as to how I dared publish the insinuations I tacked up on the mill-door this morning.”

“No,” I shudderingly cried.

“Ah! I have waited long,” she passionately asserted. “Wrongs like mine are very patient, and are very still, but the time comes at last when even a woman weak and frail as I am can lift her hand in power; and when she does lift it —”

“Hush!” I exclaimed, bounding from my seat and seizing her upraised arm; for her vivid figure seemed to emit a flame like death. “Hush! we want no tirades, you nor I; only let me hear what Dwight Pollard has done, and whether you knew what you were saying when you called him and his family —”

“Murderers!” she completed.

I shook, but bowed my head. She loosed her arm from my grasp and stood for one moment contemplating me.

“You are a powerful rival,” she murmured. “He will love you just six months longer than he did me.”

I summoned up at once my pride and my composure.

“And that would be just six months too long,” I averred, “if he is what you declare him to be.”

“What?” came from between her set teeth, and she gave a spring that brought her close to my side. “You would hate him, if I proved to you that he and his brother and his mother were the planners, if not the executors, of Mr. Barrows’ death.”

“Hate him?” I repeated, recoiling, all my womanhood up in arms before the fearful joy expressed in her voice and attitude. “I should try and forget such a man ever existed. But I shall not be easily convinced,” I continued, as I saw her lips open with a sort of eager hope terrible to witness. “You are too anxious to kill my love.”

“Oh, you will be convinced,” she asserted. “Ask Dwight Pollard what sort of garments those are which lie under the boards of the old mill, and see if he can answer you without trembling.”

“Garments?” I repeated, in astonishment; “garments?”

“Yes,” said she. “If he can hear you ask that question and not turn pale, stop me in my mad assertions, and fear his doom no more. But if he flinches —”

A frightful smile closed up the gap, and she seemed by a look to motion me towards the door.

“But is that all you are going to tell me?” I queried, dismayed at the prospect of our interview terminating thus.

“Is it not enough?” she asked. “When you have seen him, I will see you again. Can you not wait for that hour?”

I might have answered No. I was tempted to do so, as I had been tempted more than once to exert the full force of my spirit and crush her. But I had an indomitable pride of my own, and did not wish to risk even the semblance of defeat. So I controlled myself and merely replied:

“I do not desire to see Dwight Pollard again. I am not intending to return to his house.”

“And yet you will see him,” she averred. “I can easily be patient till then.” And she cast another look of dismissal towards the door.

“You are a demon!” I felt tempted to respond, but my own dignity restrained me as well as her beauty, which was something absolutely dazzling in its intensity and fire. “I will have the truth from you yet,” was what I did say, as I moved, heart-sick and desponding, from her side.

And her slow “No doubt,” seemed to fill up the silence like a knell, and give to my homeward journey a terror and a pang which proved that however I had deceived myself, hope had not quite given up its secret hold upon my heart.

And I dreamed of her that night, and in my dream her evil beauty shone so triumphantly that my greatest wonder was not that Dwight Pollard had succumbed to her fascinations, but that having once seen the glint of that subtle soul shine from between those half-shut lids, he could ever have found strength to turn aside and let the fire he had roused burn itself away.

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