The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xiv.

Correspondence.

Letters, my Lord.

HAMLET.

My illness, though severe, was not of long continuance. In a week I was able to be about my room; and in a fortnight I was allowed to read the letters that had come to me. There were two, either of them calculated to awaken dangerous emotions; and, taken together, making a draft on my powers which my newly gained health found it hard to sustain. The one was signed Rhoda Colwell, and the other Dwight Pollard. I read Rhoda Colwell’s first.

It opened without preamble:

I sought revenge and I have found it. Not in the way I anticipated, perhaps, but still in a way good enough to satisfy both myself and the spirit of justice. You will never trust Dwight Pollard again. You will never come any nearer to him than you have to-day. You have an upright soul, and whether you believe his declarations or not, can be safely relied upon to hold yourself aloof from a man who could lend his countenance to such a cowardly deed as I saw perpetrated in the old cellar a month or so ago. Honor does not wed with dishonor, nor truth with treachery. Constance Sterling may marry whom she may; it will never be Dwight Pollard.

Convinced of this, I have decided to push my vengeance no further. Not that I believe Mr. Barrows committed suicide, any more than I believe that Dwight and Guy Pollard could be saved by any mere alibi, if I chose to speak. Men like them can find ready tools to do their work, and if they had been an hundred miles away instead of some six, I should still think that the will which plunged Mr. Barrows into his dreadful grave was the same which once before had made him taste the horrors of his threatened doom. But public disgrace and execration are not what I seek for my recreant lover. The inner anguish which no eye can see is what I have been forced to endure and what he shall be made to suffer. Guilty or not he can never escape that now; and it is a future which I gloat upon and from which I would not have him escape, no, not at the cost of his life, if that life were mine, and I could shorten it at a stroke.

And yet since human nature is human nature, and good hearts as well as bad yield sometimes to a fatal weakness, I would add that the facts which I suppress are always facts, and that if I see in you or him any forgetfulness of the gulf that separates you, I shall not think it too late to speak, though months have been added to months, and years to years, and I am no longer any thing but old

RHODA COLWELL.

Close upon these words I read these others:

MISS STERLING:— Pardon me that I presume to address you. Pardon the folly, the weakness of a man who, having known you for less than a week, finds the loss of your esteem the hardest of the many miseries he is called upon to bear.

I know that I can never recover this esteem — if, indeed, I ever possessed it. The revelation of the secret which disgraced our family has been fatal; the secret which our mother commanded us on her death-bed to preserve, foreseeing that, if it should become known that we had been guilty of the occurrence of the seventeenth of August, nothing could save us from the suspicion that we were guilty of the real catastrophe of the twenty-fourth of September. Alas! my mother was a keen woman, but she did not reckon upon Rhoda Colwell; she did not reckon upon you. She thought if we kept silence, hell and heaven would find no tongue. But hell and heaven have both spoken, and we stand suspected of crime, if not absolutely accused of it.

Hard as this is to bear — and it is harder than you might think for one in whom the base and cowardly action into which he was betrayed a month ago has not entirely obliterated the sense of honor — I neither dare to complain of it nor of the possible consequences which may follow if Rhoda Colwell slights my brother’s warning and carries out her revenge to the full. Deeds of treachery and shame must bear their natural fruit, and we are but reaping what we sowed on that dreadful night when we allowed David Barrows to taste the horrors of his future grave. But though I do not complain, I would fain say a final word to one whose truth and candor have stood in such conspicuous relief to my own secrecy and repression. Not in way of hope, not in way of explanation even. What we have done we have done, and it would little become me to assign motives and reasons for what in your eyes — and, I must now allow, in my own — no motive or reason can justify or even excuse. I can only place myself before you as one who abhors his own past; regarding it, indeed, with such remorse and detestation that I would esteem myself blessed if it had been my body, instead of that of Mr. Barrows, which had been drawn from the fatal pit. Not that any repentance can rid me of the stain which has fallen upon my manhood, or make me worthy of the honor of your faintest glance; but it may make me a less debased object in your eyes, and I would secure that much grace for myself even at the expense of what many might consider an unnecessary humiliation. For you have made upon my mind in the short time I have known you a deep, and, as I earnestly believe, a most lasting and salutary impression. Truth, candor, integrity, and a genuine loyalty to all that is noblest and best in human nature no longer seem to me like mere names since I have met you. The selfishness that makes dark deeds possible has revealed itself to me in all its hideous deformity since the light of your pure ideal fell upon it; and while naught on earth can restore me to happiness, or even to that equanimity of mind which my careless boyhood enjoyed, it would still afford me something like relief to know that you recognize the beginning of a new life in me, which, if not all you could desire, still has that gleam of light upon it which redeems it from being what it was before I knew you. I will, therefore, ask not a word from you, but a look. If, when I pass your house to-morrow afternoon at six o’clock, I see you standing in the window, I shall know you grant me the encouragement of your sympathy, a sympathy which will help me to endure the worst of all my thoughts, that indirectly, if not directly, Guy and myself may be guilty of Mr. Barrows’ death; that our action may have given him an impetus to destroy himself, or at least have shown him the way to end his life in a seemingly secret manner; though why a man so respected and manifestly happy as he should wish to close his career so suddenly, is as great a mystery to me as it can possibly be to you.

One other word and I am done. If, in the mercy of your gentle and upright nature, you accord me this favor, do not fear that I shall take advantage of it, even in my thoughts. Nor need you think that by so doing you may hamper yourself in the performance of a future duty; since it would be as impossible for me to ask, as for you to grant, the least suppression of the truth on your part; your candor being the charm of all others which has most attracted my admiration and secured my regard.

DWIGHT POLLARD.

Of the emotions produced in me by these, two letters I will say nothing; I will only mention some of my thoughts. The first naturally was, that owing to my illness I had not received the latter letter till a week after it was written; consequently Dwight Pollard had failed to obtain the slight token of encouragement which he had requested. This was a source of deep regret to me, all the more that I did not know how to rectify the evil without running the risk of rousing suspicion in the breast of Rhoda Colwell. For, unreasonable as it may seem, her words had roused in me a dread similar to that which one might feel of a scorpion in the dark. I did not know how near she might be to me, or when she might strike. The least stir, the least turn of my head towards the forbidden object, might reveal her to be close at my side. I neither dared trust the silence nor the fact that all seemed well with me at present. A woman who could disguise herself as she could, and whom no difficulty deterred from gaining her purpose, was not one to brave with impunity, however clear might seem the outlook. I felt as if my very thoughts were in danger from her intuition, and scarcely dared breathe my intentions to the walls, lest the treacherous breeze should carry them to her ears and awaken that formidable antagonism which in her case was barbed with a power which might easily make the most daring quail. And yet she must be braved; for not to save his life could I let such an appeal as he had made me go unanswered; no, though I knew the possibility remained of its being simply the offspring of a keen and calculating mind driven to its last resource. It was enough that I felt him to be true, however much my reason might recognize the possibility of his falsehood. Rather than slight a noble spirit struggling with a great distress, I would incur any penalty which a possible lapse of judgment might bring; my temperament being such that I found less shame in the thought that I might be deceived, than that, out of a spirit of too great caution and self-love, I should fail an unhappy soul at the moment when my sympathy might be of inestimable benefit to its welfare.

The venomous threats and extreme show of power displayed in Rhoda Colwell’s letter had overreached themselves. They roused my pride. They made me question whether it was necessary for us to live under such a dominion of suspense as she had prepared for us. If Dwight Pollard’s asseverations were true, it would be a cruel waste of peace and happiness for him or me to rest under such a subjection, when by a little bravery at the outset her hold upon us might be annihilated and her potency destroyed.

The emotions which I have agreed to ignore came in to give weight to this thought. To save myself it was necessary to prove Dwight Pollard true. Not only my sense of justice, but the very life and soul of my being, demanded the settling of all suspicion and the establishment of my trust upon a sure foundation. While a single doubt remained in my mind I was liable to shame before my best self, and shame and Constance Sterling did not mix easily or well, especially with that leaven of self-interest added, to which I have alluded only a few paragraphs back.

But how, with my lack of resources and the apparent dearth of all means for attaining the end I had in view, I was to prove Rhoda Colwell’s insinuations false, and Dwight Pollard’s assertion true, was a question to which an answer did not come with very satisfactory readiness. Even the simple query as to how I was to explain my late neglect to Dwight Pollard occasioned me an hour of anxious thought; and it was not till I remembered that the simplest course was always the best, and that with a snake in the grass like Rhoda Colwell, the most fearless foot trod with the greatest safety, that I felt my difficulties on that score melt away. I would write to Dwight Pollard, and I would tell Rhoda Colwell I had done so, thus proving to her that I meditated nothing underhanded, and could be trusted to say what I would do, and do what I should say.

This decision taken, I sat down immediately and penned the following two notes:

MISS RHODA COLWELL:— Owing to illness, your letter has just been read by me. To it I will simply reply that you are right in believing my regard could never be given to a guilty man. As long as the faintest doubt of Mr. Pollard remains in my mind we are indeed separated by a gulf. But let that doubt in any way be removed, and I say to you frankly that nothing you could threaten or the world perform, would prevent my yielding to him the fullest sympathy and the most hearty encouragement.

I send him to-day, in the same mail which carries this, a few lines, a copy of which I inclose for your perusal.

Yours, CONSTANCE STERLING.

MR. DWIGHT POLLARD:— For two weeks I have been too ill to cross my room, which must account both for this note and the tardiness I have displayed in writing it.

You assert that you know nothing of the causes or manner of a certain catastrophe. I believe you, and hope some day to have more than a belief, viz., a surety of its truth founded on absolute evidence.

Till that time comes we go our several ways, secure in the thought that to the steadfast mind calumny itself loses its sting when met by an earnest purpose to be and do only what is honest and upright.

CONSTANCE STERLING.

If you have any further communication to make to me, let me request that it be allowed to pass through the hands of Miss Colwell. My reasons for this are well founded.

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