The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xi.

Under the Mill Floor.

I know, this act shows terrible and grim.

OTHELLO.

I had never considered myself a courageous person. I was therefore surprised at my own temerity when, with the morning light, came an impulse to revisit the old mill, and by an examination of its flooring, satisfy myself to whether it held in hiding any such articles as had been alluded to by Rhoda Colwell in the remarkable interview just cited. Not that I intended to put any such question to Dwight Pollard as she had suggested, or, indeed, had any intentions at all beyond the present. The outlook was too vague, my own mind too troubled, for me to concoct plans or to make any elaborate determinations. I could only perform the duty of the moment, and this visit seemed to me to be a duty, though not one of the pleasantest or even of the most promising character.

I had therefore risen and was preparing myself in an abstracted way for breakfast, when I was violently interrupted by a resounding knock at the door. Alarmed, I scarcely knew why, I hastened to open it, and fell back in very visible astonishment when I beheld standing before me no less a person than Anice, the late Mrs. Pollard’s maid.

“I wanted to see you, miss,” she said, coming in without an invitation, and carefully closing the door behind her. “So, as I had leave to attend early mass this morning, I just slipped over here, which, if it is a liberty, I hope you will pardon, seeing it is for your own good.”

Not much encouraged by this preamble, I motioned her to take a seat, and then, turning my back to her, went on arranging my hair.

“I cannot imagine what errand you have with me, Anice,” said I; “but if it is any thing important, let me hear it at once, as I have an engagement this morning, and am in haste.”

A smile, which I could plainly see in the mirror before which I stood, passed slyly over her face. She took up her parasol from her lap, then laid it down again, and altogether showed considerable embarrassment. But it did not last long, and in another moment she was saying, in quite a bold way:

“You took my place beside the mistress I loved, but I don’t bear you no grudge, miss. On the contrary, I would do you a good turn; for what are we here for, miss, if it’s not to help one another?”

As I had no answer for this worthy sentiment, she lapsed again into her former embarrassed state and as speedily recovered from it. Simpering in a manner that unconsciously put me on my guard, she remarked:

“You left us very suddenly yesterday, miss. Of course that is your own business, and I have nothing to say against it. But I thought if you knew what might be gained by staying —” She paused and gave me a look that was almost like an appeal.

But I would not help her out.

“Why,” she went on desperately, with a backward toss of her head, “you might think as how we was not such very bad folks after all. I am sure you would make a very nice mistress to work for, Miss Sterling,” she simpered; “and if you would just let me help you with your hair as I did old Mrs. Pollard —”

Angry, mortified, and ashamed of myself that I had listened to her so far, I turned on her with a look that seemed to make some impression even upon her.

“How dare you —” I began, then paused, shocked at my own imprudence in thus betraying the depth of the feelings she had aroused. “I beg your pardon,” I immediately added, recovering my composure by a determined effort; “you doubtless did not consider that you are not in a position to speak such words to me. Even if your insinuations meant any thing serious, which I will not believe, our acquaintance”— I am afraid I threw some sarcasm into that word —“has scarcely been long enough to warrant you in approaching me on any subject of a personal nature, least of all one that involves the names of those you live with and have served so long. If you have nothing better to say —”

She rose with a jerk that seemed to my eyes as much an expression of disappointment as anger, and took a reluctant step or two towards the door.

“I am sure I meant no offence, miss,” she stammered, and took another step still more reluctantly than before.

I trembled. Outrageous as it may seem, I wished at this moment that honor and dignity would allow me to call her back and question her as to the motive and meaning of her extraordinary conduct. For the thought had suddenly struck me that she might be a messenger — a most unworthy and humiliating one it is true — and yet in some sort of a way a messenger, and my curiosity rose just in proportion as my pride rebelled.

Anice, who was not lacking in wit, evidently felt, if she could not see, the struggle she had awakened in my mind, for she turned and gave me a look I no longer had the courage to resent.

“It is only something I overheard Mr. Guy say to his brother,” she faltered, opening and shutting her parasol with a nervous hand; then, as I let my hair suddenly fall from my grasp, in the rush of relief I felt, blurted out: “You have beautiful hair, miss; I don’t wonder Mr. Guy should say, ‘One of us two must marry that girl,’” and was gone like a flash from the room, leaving me in a state that bordered on stupefaction.

This incident, so suggestive, and, alas! so degrading to my self~esteem, produced a deep and painful effect on my mind. For hours I could not rid my ears of that final sentence: “One of us two must marry that girl.” Nor could the events that speedily followed quite remove from my mind and heart the sting which this knowledge of the Pollards’ base calculation and diplomacy had implanted. It had one favorable consequence, however. It nerved me to carry out the expedition I had planned, and gave to my somewhat failing purpose a heart of steel.

The old mill to which I have twice carried you, and to which I must carry you again, was, as I have already said, a dilapidated and much-dismantled structure. Though its walls were intact, many of its staircases were rotten, while its flooring was, as I knew, heavily broken away in spots, making it a dangerous task to walk about its passage-ways, or even to enter the large and solitary rooms which once shook to the whirr and hum of machinery.

But it was not from such dangers as these I recoiled. If Heaven would but protect me from discovery and the possible intrusion of unwelcome visitants, I would willingly face the peril of a fall even in a place so lonesome and remote. Indeed, my one source of gratitude as I sped through the streets that morning lay in the fact, I was so little known in S— — I could pass and re-pass without awakening too much comment, especially when I wore a close veil, as I did on this occasion.

Rhoda Colwell’s house lay in my way. I took especial pains not to go by it, great as the relief would have been to know she was at home and not wandering the streets in the garb and character of the idiot boy. Though I felt I could not be deceived as to her identity, the mere thought of meeting her, with that mock smile of imbecility upon her lip, filled me with a dismay that made my walk any thing but agreeable. It was consequently a positive relief when the entrance to the mill broke upon my view, and I found myself at my journey’s end unwatched and unfollowed; nor could the unpromising nature of my task quite dash the spirit with which I began my search.

My first efforts were in a room which had undoubtedly been used as an office. But upon inspecting the floor I found it firm, and, convinced I should have to go farther for what I was seeking, I hastily passed into the next room. This was of much larger dimensions, and here I paused longer, for more than one board tilted as I passed over it, and not a few of them were loose and could be shifted aside by a little extra exertion of strength. But, though I investigated every board that rocked under my step, I discovered nothing beneath them but the dust and debris of years, and so was forced to leave this room as I had the other, without gaining any thing beyond a sense of hopelessness and the prospect of a weary back. And so on and on I went for an hour, and was beginning to realize the giant nature of my undertaking, when a sudden low sound of running water broke upon my ears, and going to one of the many windows that opened before me, I looked out and found I was at the very back of the mill, and in full sight of the dark and sullen stream that in times of yore used to feed the great wheel and run the machinery. Consequently I was in the last room upon the ground~floor, and, what struck me still more forcibly, near, if not directly over, that huge vat in the cellar which had served so fatal a purpose only a few short days before.

The sight of a flight of stairs descending at my right into the hollow darkness beneath intensified my emotion. I seemed to be in direct communication with that scene of death; and the thought struck me that here, if anywhere in the whole building, must be found the mysterious hiding-place for which I was in search.

It was therefore with extra care that I directed my glances along the uneven flooring, and I was scarcely surprised when, after a short examination of the various loose boards that rattled beneath me, I discovered one that could be shifted without difficulty. But scarcely had I stooped to raise it when an emotion of fear seized me, and I started back alert and listening, though I was unconscious of having heard any thing more than the ordinary swash of the water beneath the windows and the beating of my own overtaxed heart. An instant’s hearkening gave me the reassurance I needed, and convinced that I had alarmed myself unnecessarily, I bent again over the board, and this time succeeded in moving it aside. A long, black garment, smoothly spread out to its full extent, instantly met my eye. The words of Rhoda Colwell were true; the mill did contain certain articles of clothing concealed within it.

I do not know what I expected when, a few minutes later, I pulled the garment out of the hole in which it lay buried, and spread it out before me. Not what I discovered, I am sure; for when I had given it a glance, and found it was nothing more nor less than a domino, such as is worn by masqueraders, I experienced a shock that the mask, which fell out of its folds, scarcely served to allay. It was like the introduction of farce into a terrible tragedy; and as I stood in a maze and surveyed the garment before me till its black outline swam before my eyes, I remember thinking of the effect which had been produced, at a certain trial I had heard of, by the prisoner suddenly bursting into a laugh when the sentence of death was pronounced. But presently this feeling of incongruity gave way to one of hideous dread. If Dwight Pollard could explain the presence of a domino and mask in this spot, then what sort of a man was Dwight Pollard, and what sort of a crime could it have been that needed for its perpetration such adjuncts as these? The highwaymen of olden time, with their “Stand and deliver!” seemed out of place in this quiet New England town; nor was the character of any of the parties involved, of a nature to make the association of this masquerade gear with the tragedy gone by seem either possible or even probable. And yet, there they lay; and not all my wonder, nor all the speculations which their presence evoked, would serve to blot them from the floor or explain the mystery of which they were the sign and seal.

So impressed was I at last by this thought that I broke the spell which bound me, and began to restore the articles to their place. I was just engaged in throwing the mask into the hole, when the low but unmistakable sound of an approaching foot-fall broke upon my ears, startling me more than a thunder-clap would have done, and filling me with a fear that almost paralyzed my movements. I controlled myself, however, and hastily pulled the board back to its place, after which I frantically looked about me for some means of concealment or escape. I found but one. The staircase which ran down to the cellar was but a few feet off, and if I could summon courage to make use of it, would lead to a place of comparative safety. But the darkness of that spot seemed worse than the light of this, and I stood hesitating on the brink of the staircase till the footsteps drew so near I dared not linger longer, and plunged below with such desperate haste, I wonder I did not trip and fall headlong to the cellar-floor. I did not, however, nor do I seem to have made any special noise, for the footsteps above did not hasten. I had, therefore, the satisfaction of feeling myself saved from what might have been a very special danger, and was moving slowly away, when the fascination which all horrible objects exert upon the human soul seized me with a power I could not resist, and I turned slowly but irresistibly towards the corner where I knew the fatal vat to be.

One glimpse and I would have fled; but just at the instant I turned I heard a sound overhead that sent the current of my thoughts in a fresh direction, and lent to my failing courage a renewed strength which made flight at that moment seem nothing more nor less than an impulse of cowardice. This was nothing more nor less than a faint creaking, such as had followed my own lifting of the board which hid the domino and mask; a noise that was speedily followed by one yet more distinct and of a nature to convince me beyond a doubt that my own action was being repeated by some unknown hand. Whose? Curiosity, love, honor, every impulse of my being impelled me to find out. I moved like a spirit towards the stairs. I placed my foot on one step, and then on another, mounting in silence and without a fear, so intent was I upon the discovery which now absorbed me. But just as I reached the top, just when another movement would lift my head above the level of the floor, I paused, realizing as in a flash what the consequences might be if the intruder should prove to be another than Rhoda Colwell, and should have not his back but his face turned towards the place where I stood. The sounds I heard, feeble as they were, did not seem to indicate the presence of a woman, and in another instant a low exclamation, smothered in the throat almost before it was uttered, assured me that it was a man who stood not six feet from me, handling the objects which I had been told were in some way connected with a murder which I was by every instinct of honor bound to discover, if not avenge.

A man! and ah, he was so quiet, so careful! I could not even guess what he was doing, much less determine his identity, by listening. I had a conviction that he was taking the articles out of their place of concealment, but I could not be sure; and in a matter like this, certainty was indispensable. I resolved to risk all, and took another step, clinging dizzily to the first support that offered. It was well I had the presence of mind to do this, or I might have had a serious fall. For no sooner had I raised my head above the level of the floor than my eyes fell upon the well-known form of him I desired least of all men to see in this place — my lover, if you may call him so — Dwight Pollard.

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