The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xii.

Dwight Pollard.

Oh, ’tis too true! how smart

A lash that speech doth give my conscience!

HAMLET.

He was standing with his back to me, and to all appearance was unconscious that he was under the surveillance of any eye. I had thus a moment in which to collect my energies and subdue my emotions; and I availed myself of it to such good purpose that by the time he had put the board back into its place I was ready to face him. He did not turn round, however; so, after a moment of silent suspense, I mounted the last stair, and thinking of nothing, hoping for nothing, wishing for nothing, stood waiting, with my eyes fixed on the domino he was now rapidly folding into smaller compass.

And thus I stood, like a pallid automaton, when the instant came for him to change his position, and he saw me. The cry that rose to his lips but did not escape them, the reel which his figure gave before it stiffened into marble, testified to the shock he had received, and also to the sense of unreality with which my appearance in this wise must have impressed him. His look, his attitude were those of a man gazing upon a spectre, and as I met his glance with mine, I was conscious of a feeling of unreality myself, as if the whole occurrence were a dream, and he and I but shadows which another moment would dissolve.

But alas! this was no more a dream than were the other strange and tragic events which had gone before; and in an instant we both knew it, and were standing face to face with wretched inquiry in the looks we fixed upon each other across the domino which had fallen from his hands. He was the first to speak.

“Miss Sterling!” he exclaimed, in a light tone, cruelly belied by the trembling lips from which it issued, “by what fortunate chance do I see you again, and in a place I should have thought to be the last you would be likely to visit?”

“By the same chance,” I rejoined, “which appears to have brought you here. The desire to make sure if what I heard about the mill having been used as a secreting place for certain mysterious articles, was true.” And I pointed to the mask and domino lying at my feet.

His eye, which had followed the direction of my finger, grew dark and troubled.

“Then it was your hand —” he impetuously began.

“Which disturbed these garments before you? Yes. And I shall make no apology for the action,” I continued, “since it was done in the hope of proving false certain insinuations which had been made to me in your regard.”

“Insinuations?” he repeated.

“Yes,” I declared, in an agony between my longing to hear him vindicate himself and the desire to be true to the obligations I was under to Ada Reynolds. “Insinuations of the worst, the most terrible, character.” Then, as I saw him fall back, stricken in something more than his pride, I hastened to inquire: “Have you an enemy in town, Mr. Pollard?”

He composed himself with a start, looked at me fixedly, and replied in what struck me as a strange tone even for such an occasion as this:

“Perhaps.”

“One who out of revenge,” I proceeded, “might be induced to attach your name to suspicions calculated to rob you of honor, if not life?”

“Perhaps,” he again returned; but this time with a fierceness that almost made me recoil, though I knew it was directed against some one besides myself.

“Then it may be,” I said, “that you have but to speak to relieve my mind of the heaviest weight which has ever fallen upon it. These articles,” I pursued, “have they, or have they not, any connection with the tragedy which makes the place in which we stand memorable?”

“I cannot answer you, Miss Sterling.”

“Cannot answer me?”

“Cannot answer you,” he reiterated, turning haggard about the eyes and lips.

“Then,” I brokenly rejoined, “I had better leave this place; I do not see what more I have to do or say here.”

“O God!” he cried, detaining me with a gesture full of agony and doubt. “Do not leave me so; let me think. Let me weigh the situation and see where I stand, in your eyes at least. Tell me what my enemy has said!” he demanded, his face, his very form, flashing with a terrible rage that seemed to have as much indignation as fear in it.

“Your enemy,” I replied, in the steady voice of despair, “accuses you in so many words — of murder.”

I expected to see him recoil, burst forth into cursing or frenzied declamation, by which men betray their inward consternation and remorse; but he did none of these things. Instead of that he laughed; a hideous laugh that seemed to shake the rafters above us and echoed in and out of the caverned recesses beneath.

“Accuses me?” he muttered; and it is not in language to express the scorn he infused into the words.

Stunned, and scarcely knowing what to think, I gazed at him helplessly. He seemed to feel my glance, for, after a moment’s contemplation of my face, his manner suddenly changed, and bowing with a grim politeness full of sarcasm, he asked:

“And when did you see my enemy and hold this precious conversation in which I was accused of murder?”

“Yesterday afternoon,” I answered. “During the time of your mother’s funeral,” I subjoined, startled by the look of stupefaction which crossed his face at my words.

“I don’t understand you,” he murmured, sweeping his hand in a dazed way over his brow. “You saw him then? Spoke to him? Impossible!”

“It is not a man to whom I allude,” I returned, almost as much agitated as himself. “It is a woman who is your accuser, a woman who seems to feel she has a right to make you suffer, possibly because she has suffered so much herself.”

“A woman!” was all he said; “a woman!” turning pale enough now, God knows.

“Have you no enemies among the women?” I asked, wearied to the soul with the position in which my cruel fate had forced me.

“I begin to think I have,” he answered, giving me a look that somehow broke down the barriers of ice between us and made my next words come in a faltering tone:

“And could you stop to bestow a thought upon a man while a woman held your secret? Did you think our sex was so long-suffering, or this special woman so generous ——”

I did not go on, for he had leaped the gap which separated us and had me gently but firmly by the arm.

“Of whom are you speaking?” he demanded. “What woman has my secret — if secret I have? Let me hear her name, now, at once.”

“Is it possible,” I murmured, “that you do not know?”

“The name! the name!” he reiterated, his eyes ablaze, his hand shaking where it grasped my arm.

“Rhoda Colwell,” I returned, looking him steadily in the eye.

“Impossible!” his lips seemed to breathe, and his clasp slowly unloosed from my arm like a ring of ice which melts away. “Rhoda Colwell! Good God!” he exclaimed, and staggered back with ever~growing wonder and alarm till half the room lay between us.

“I am not surprised at your emotion,” I said; “she is a dangerous woman.”

He looked at me with dull eyes; he did not seem to hear what I said.

“How can it be?” he muttered; and his glance took a furtive aspect as it travelled slowly round the room and finally settled upon the mask and domino at my feet. “Was it she who told you where to look for those?” he suddenly queried in an almost violent tone.

I bowed; I had no wish to speak.

“She is an imp, a witch, an emissary of the Evil One,” he vehemently declared; and turned away, murmuring, as it seemed to me, those sacred words of Scripture, “Be sure your sin find you out.”

I felt the sobs rise in my throat. I could bear but little more. To recover myself, I looked away from him, even passed to a window and gazed out. Any thing but the sight of this humiliation in one who could easily have been my idol. I was therefore standing with my back to him when he finally approached, and touching me with the tip of his finger, calmly remarked;

“I did not know you were acquainted with Miss Colwell.”

“Nor was I till yesterday,” I rejoined. “Fate made us know each other at one interview, if could be said to ever know such a woman as she is.”

“Fate is to blame for much; is it also to blame for the fact that you sought her? Or did she seek you?”

“I sought her,” I said; and, not seeing any better road to a proper explanation of my conduct than the truth, I told him in a few words of the notice I had seen posted upon the mill, and of how I had afterwards surprised Rhoda Colwell there, and what the conclusions were which I had thereby drawn; though, from some motive of delicacy I do not yet understand, I refrained from saying any thing about her disguise, and left him to infer that it was in her own proper person I had seen her.

He seemed to be both wonder-stricken and moved by the recital, and did not rest till he had won from me the double fact that Rhoda Colwell evidently knew much more than she revealed, while I, on the contrary, knew much less. The latter discovery seemed to greatly gratify him, and while his brow lost none of the look of heavy anxiety which had settled upon it with the introduction of this woman’s name into our colloquy, I noticed that his voice was lighter, and that he surveyed me with less distrust and possibly with less fear. His next words showed the direction his thoughts were taking.

“You have shown an interest in my fate, Miss Sterling, in spite of the many reasons you had for thinking it a degraded one, and for this I thank you with all my heart. Will you prove your womanliness still further by clinging to the belief which I have endeavored to force upon you, that notwithstanding all you have heard and seen, I stand in no wise amenable to the law, neither have I uttered, in your hearing at least, aught but the truth in regard to this whole matter?”

“And you can swear this to me?” I uttered, joyfully.

“By my father’s grave, if you desire it,” he returned.

A flood of hope rushed through my heart. I was but a weak woman, and his voice and look at that moment would have affected the coldest nature.

“I am bound to believe you,” I said; “though there is much I do not understand — much which you ought to explain if you wish to disabuse my mind of all doubt in your regard. I would be laying claim to a cynicism I do not possess, if I did not trust your words just so far as you will allow me. But ——” And I must have assumed an air of severity, for I saw his head droop lower and lower as I gazed at him and forbore to finish my sentence.

“But you believe I am a villain,” he stammered.

“I would fain believe you to be the best and noblest of men,” I answered, pointedly.

He lifted his head, and the flush of a new emotion swept over his face.

“Why did I not meet you two years ago?” he cried.

The tone was so bitter, the regret expressed so unutterable, I could not help my heart sinking again with the weight of fresh doubt which it brought.

“Would it have been better for me if you had?” I inquired. “Is the integrity which is dependent upon one’s happiness, or the sympathy of friends, one that a woman can trust to under all circumstances of temptation or trial?”

“I do not know,” he muttered. “I think it would stand firm with you for its safeguard and shield.” Then, as he saw me draw back with an assumption of coldness I was far from feeling, added gently: “But it was not you, but Rhoda Colwell, I met two years ago, and I know you too well, appreciate you too well, to lay aught but my sincerest homage at your feet, in the hope that, whatever I may have been in the past, the future shall prove me to be not unworthy of your sympathy, and possibly of your regard.”

And, as if he felt the stress of the interview becoming almost too great for even his strength, he turned away from me and began gathering up the toggery that lay upon the floor.

“These must not remain here,” he observed, bitterly.

But I, drawn this way and that by the most contradictory emotions, felt that all had not been said which should be in this important and possibly final interview. Accordingly, smothering personal feeling and steeling myself to look only at my duty, I advanced to his side, and, indicating with a gesture the garments he was now rolling up into a compact mass, remarked:

“This may or may not involve you in some unpleasantness. Rhoda Colwell, who evidently attaches much importance to her discoveries, is not the woman to keep silent in their regard. If she speaks and forces me to speak, I must own the truth, Mr. Pollard. Neither sympathy nor regard could hold me back; for my honor is pledged to the cause of Mr. Barrows, and not even the wreck of my own happiness could deter me from revealing any thing that would explain his death or exonerate his memory. I wish you to understand this. God grant I may never be called upon to speak!”

It was a threat, a warning, or a danger for which he was wholly unprepared. He stared at me for a moment from his lowly position on the floor, then slowly rose and mechanically put his hand to his throat, as if he felt himself choking.

“I thank you for your frankness,” he murmured, in almost inaudible tones. “It is no more than I ought to have expected; and yet —” He turned abruptly away. “I am evidently in a worse situation than I imagined,” he continued, after a momentary pacing of the floor. “I thought only my position in your eyes was assailed; I see now that I may have to defend myself before the world.” And, with a sudden change that was almost alarming, he asked if Rhoda Colwell had intimated in any way the source of whatever information she professed to have.

I told him no, and felt my heart grow cold with new and undefined fears as he turned his face toward the front of the building, and cried, in a suppressed tone, full of ire and menace:

“It could have come but in one way; I am to be made a victim if ——” He turned upon me with a wild look in which there was something personal. “Are you worth the penalty which my good name must suffer?” he violently cried. “For I swear that to you and you only I owe the position in which I now stand!”

“God help me then!” I murmured, dazed and confounded by this unexpected reproach.

“Had you been less beautiful, less alluring in your dignity and grace, my brother ——” He paused and bit his lip. “Enough!” he cried. “I had wellnigh forgotten that generosity and forbearance are to actuate my movements in the future. I beg your pardon — and his!” he added, with deep and bitter sarcasm, under his breath.

This allusion to Guy, unpleasant and shocking as it was, gave me a peculiar sensation that was not unlike that of relief, while at the same moment the glimpse of something, which I was fain to call a revelation, visited my mind and led me impetuously to say:

“I hope you are not thinking of sacrificing yourself for another less noble and less generous than yourself. If such is the clew to actions which certainly have looked dubious till now, I pray that you will reconsider your duty and not play the Don Quixote too far.”

But Dwight Pollard, instead of accepting this explanation of his conduct with the eagerness of a great relief, only shook his head and declared:

“My brother — for I know who you mean, Miss Sterling — is no more amenable to the law than myself. Neither of us were guilty of the action that terminated Mr. Barrows’ life.”

“And yet,” came in the strange and unexpected tones of a third person, “can you say, in the presence of her you profess to respect and of me whom you once professed to love, that either you or your brother are guiltless of his death?” and turning simultaneously toward the doorway, we saw gleaming in its heavy frame the vivid form and glittering eyes of his most redoubtable enemy and mine — Rhoda Colwell.

He fell back before this apparition and appeared to lose his power of speech. She advanced like an avenging Nemesis between us.

“Speak!” she vehemently exclaimed. “Are you — I say nothing of your brother, who is nothing to me or to her — are you guiltless, in the sense in which she would regard guilt, of David Barrows’ death?” And her fierce eyes, shining through her half-closed lashes like lurid fires partly veiled, burned upon his face, which, turning paler and paler, drooped before her gaze till his chin settled upon his breast and we could barely hear the words that fell from his lips:

“God knows I would not dare to say I am.”

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