The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xv.

A Gossip.

This something settled matter in his heart,

Whereon his brains still beating, puts him thus

From fashion of himself.

HAMLET.

I had not taken this tone with both my correspondents without a secret hope of being able to do something myself towards the establishment of Mr. Pollard’s innocence. How, I could not very plainly perceive that day or the next, but as time elapsed and my brain cleared and my judgment returned, I at last saw the way to an effort which might not be without consequences of a satisfactory nature. What that effort was you may perhaps conjecture from the fact that the first walk that I took was in the direction of the cottage where Mr. Barrows had formerly lived. The rooms which he had occupied were for rent, and my ostensible errand was to hire them. The real motive of my visit, however, was to learn something more of the deceased clergyman’s life and ways than I then knew; if happily out of some hitherto unnoticed event in his late history I might receive a hint which should ultimately lead me to the solution of the mystery which was involving my happiness.

I was not as unsuccessful in this attempt as one might anticipate. The lady of the house was a gossip, and the subject of Mr. Barrows’ death was an inexhaustible topic of interest to her. I had but to mention his name, and straightway a tide of words flowed from her lips, which, if mostly words, contained here and there intimations of certain facts which I felt it was well enough for me to know, even if they did not amount to any thing like an explanation of the tragedy. Among these was one which only my fear of showing myself too much interested in her theme prevented me from probing to the bottom. This was, that for a month at least before his death Mr. Barrows had seemed to her like a changed man. A month — that was about the interval which had elapsed between his first visit to the mill and his last; and the evidence that he showed an alteration of demeanor in that time might have its value and might hot. I resolved to cultivate Mrs. Simpson’s acquaintance, and sometime put her a question or two that would satisfy me upon this point.

This determination was all the easier to make in that I found the rooms I had come to see sufficiently to my liking to warrant me in taking them. Not that I should have hesitated to do this had they been as unattractive as they were pleasant. It was not their agreeableness that won me, but the fact that Mr. Barrows personal belongings had not yet been moved, and that for a short time at least I should find myself in possession of his library, and face to face with the same articles of taste and study which had surrounded him in his lifetime, and helped to mould, if not to make, the man. I should thus obtain a knowledge of his character, and some day, who knows, might flash upon his secret. For that he possessed one, and was by no means the plain and simple character I had been led to believe was apparent to me from the first glimpse I had of these rooms; there being in every little object that marked his taste a certain individuality and purpose that betrayed a stern and mystic soul; one that could hide itself, perhaps, beneath a practical exterior, but which, in ways like this, must speak, and speak loudly too, of its own inward promptings and tendency.

The evening when I first brought these objects under a close and conscientious scrutiny, was a memorable one to me. I had moved in early that day, and with a woman’s unreasoning caprice had forborne to cast more than the most cursory glance around, being content to see that all was as I left it at my first visit, and that neither desk nor library had been disturbed. But when supper was over, and I could set myself with a free mind to a contemplation of my new surroundings, I found that my curiosity could no longer delay the careful tour of inspection to which I felt myself invited by the freshness and beauty of the pictures, and one or two of the statuettes which adorned the walls about me. One painting in especial attracted me, and made me choose for my first contemplation that side of the room on which it hung. It was a copy of some French painting, and represented the temptation of a certain saint. A curious choice of subject, you may think, to adorn a Protestant clergyman’s wall, but if you could have seen it, and marked the extreme expression of mortal struggle on the face of the tempted one, who, with eyes shut, and hands clutching till it bent the cross of twigs stuck in the crevices of the rocks beneath which he writhed, waited for the victory over self that was just beginning to cast its light upon his brow, you would have felt that it was good to hang before the eyes of any one in whom conflict of any kind was waging. Upon me the effect was instantaneous, and so real that I have never been able to think of that moment without a sense of awe and rending of the heart. Human passion assumed a new significance in my mind, and the will and faith of a strong man suffering from its power, yet withstanding it to the very last gasp by the help of his trust in God, rose to such an exalted position in my mind, that I felt then, as I feel now whenever I remember this picture, that my whole moral nature had received, from its contemplation, an impetus towards religion and self-denial. While I was still absorbed in gazing at it, my landlady entered the room, and seeing me posed before the picture, quite sympathizingly exclaimed:

“Isn’t that a dreadful painting, Miss Sterling, to have in any one’s room? I don’t wonder Mr. Barrows wanted to cover it up.”

“Cover it up?” I repeated, turning hastily in my surprise.

“Yes,” she replied, going to a drawer in his desk and taking out a small engraving, which she brought me. “For nearly a month before his death he had this picture stuck up over the other with pins. You can see the pin-holes now, if you look; they went right through the canvas. I thought it a very sensible thing to do, myself; but when I spoke of it to him one day, remarking that I had always thought the picture unfit for any one to see, he gave me such a look that I thought then he must be crazy. But no one else saw any thing amiss in him, and, as I did not want to lose a good lodger, I let him stay on, though my mind did sometimes misgive me.”

The engraving she had handed me was almost as suggestive as the painting it had been used to conceal; but at this remarkable statement front Mrs. Simpson’s lips I laid it quickly down.

“You think he was crazy?” I asked.

“I think he committed suicide,” she affirmed.

I turned to the engraving again, and took it up. What a change had come over me that a statement against which I had once so honestly rebelled for Ada’s sake should now arouse something like a sensation of joy in my breast!

Mrs. Simpson, too much interested in her theme to notice me, went confidently on.

“You see, folks that live in the same house with a person, learn to know them as other folks can’t. Not that Mr. Barrows ever talked to me; he was a deal too much absorbed in his studies for that; but he ate at my table, and went in and out of my front door, and if a woman cannot learn something about a man under those circumstances, then she is no good, that is all I have got to say about her.”

I was amused and slightly smiled, but she needed no encouragement to proceed.

“The way he would drop into a brown study over his meat and potatoes was a caution to my mind. A minister that don’t eat is — an anomaly,” she burst out. “I have boarded them before, and I know they like the good things of life as well as anybody. But Mr. Barrows, latterly at least, never seemed to see what was on the table before him, but ate because his plate of food was there, and had to be disposed of in some way. One day, I remember in particular, I had baked dumplings, for he used to be very fond of them, and would eat two without any urging; but this day he either did not put enough sauce on them, or else his whole appetite had changed; for he suddenly looked down at his plate and shuddered, almost as if he were in a chill, and, getting up, was going away, when I summoned up courage to ask if the dumplings were not as good as usual. He turned at the door — I can see him now — and mechanically shaking his head, seemed to be trying to utter some apology. But he presently stopped in that attempt, and, pointing quickly at the table, said, in his accustomed tones: ‘You need not make me any more desserts, Mrs. Simpson, I shall not indulge in them in the future’; and went out, without saying whether he was sick or what. And that was the end of the dumplings, and of many a good thing besides.”

“And is that all —” I began; but she broke in before the words were half out of my mouth.

“But the strangest thing I ever see in him was this: I have not said much about it, for the people that went to his church are a high and mighty lot, and wouldn’t bear a word said against his sanity, even by one as had more opportunities than they of knowing him. But you are a stranger in town, and can’t have no such foolish touchiness about a person that is nothing to you, so I will just tell you all about it. You see, when he had visitors — and off and on a good many came — I used to seat them in the parlor below, till I was sure he was ready to receive them. This had happened one evening, and I had gone up to his door to notify him that a stranger was down-stairs, when I heard such a peculiar noise issuing from his room, that I just stood stock-still on the door-mat to listen. It was a swishing sound, followed by a — Miss Sterling,” she suddenly broke in, in a half awe-struck, half-frightened tone, “did you ever hear any one whipped? If you have, you will know why I stood shuddering at that door full two minutes before I dared lift my hand and knock. Not that I could believe Mr. Barrows was whipping any body, but the sound was so like it, and I was so certain besides that I had heard something like a smothered cry follow it, that nothing short of the most imperative necessity would have given me the courage to call him; my imagination filling the room with all sorts of frightful images; images that did not fade away in a hurry,” she went on, with a look of shrinking terror about her which I am not sure was not reflected in my own face, “when, after the longest waiting I ever had at his door, he slowly came across the room and opened it, showing me a face as white as a sheet, and a hand that trembled so that he dropped the card I gave him and had to pick it up. Had there been a child there ——”

“But there wasn’t!” I interrupted, shocked and forced to defend him in spite of myself.

“No, nor anybody else. For when he went down-stairs, I looked in and there was no one there, and nothing uncommon about the room, except that I thought his bookcase looked as if it had been moved. And it had; for next day when I swept this room — it did not need sweeping, but one can’t wait for ever to satisfy their curiosity — I just looked behind that case, and what do you think I found? A strap — a regular leather strap — just such as ——”

“Good God!” I interrupted; “you do not think he had been using it when you went to the door?”

“I do,” she said. “I think he had a fit of something like insanity upon him, and had been swinging that strap —— Well, I will not say against what, for I do not know, but might it not have been against the fiends and goblins with which crazy people sometimes imagine they are surrounded?”

“Possibly,” I acquiesced, though my tone could not have been one of any strong conviction.

“Insane persons sometimes do strange things,” she continued; “and that he did not show himself violent before folks is no sign he did not let himself out sometimes when he was alone. The very fact that he restrained himself when he went into the pulpit and visited among his friends, may have made him wilder when he got all by himself. I am sure I remember having heard of a case where a man lived for ten years in a town without a single neighbor suspecting him of insanity; yet his wife suffered constantly from his freaks, and finally fell a victim to his violence.”

“But Mr. Barrows was such a brilliant man,” I objected. “His sermons up to the last were models of eloquence.”

“Oh, he could preach,” she assented.

Seeing that she was not to be moved in her convictions, I ventured upon a few questions.

“Have you ever thought,” I asked, “what it was that created such a change in him? You say you noticed it for a month before his death; could any thing have happened to disturb him at that time?”

“Not that I know of,” she answered, with great readiness. “I was away for a week in August, and it was when I first came back that I observed how different he was from what he had been before. I thought at first it was the hot weather, but heat don’t make one restless and unfit to sit quiet in one’s chair. Nor does it drive a man to work as if the very evil one was in him, keeping the light burning sometimes till two in the morning, while he wrote and walked, and walked and wrote, till I thought my head would burst with sympathy for him.”

“He was finishing a book, was he not? I think I have heard he left a completed manuscript behind him?”

“Yes; and don’t you think it very singular that the last word should have been written, and the whole parcel done up and sent away to his publisher, two days before his death, if he did not know what was going to happen to him?”

“And was it?” I inquired.

“Yes, it was; for I was in the room when he signed his name to it, and heard his sigh of relief, and saw him, too, when, a little while afterwards, he took the bundle out to the post-office. I remember thinking, ‘Well, now for some rest nights!’ little imagining what rest was in store for him, poor soul!”

“Did you know that Mr. Barrows was engaged?” I suddenly asked, unable to restrain my impatience any longer.

“No, I did not,” she rather sharply replied, as if her lack of knowledge on that subject had been rather a sore point with her. “I may have suspected there was some one he was interested in, but I am sure nobody ever imagined her as being the one. Poor girl, she must have thought a heap of him to die in that way.”

She looked at me as she said this, anticipating, perhaps, a return of the confidences she had made me. But I could not talk of Ada to her, and after a moment of silent waiting she went eagerly on.

“Perhaps a lover’s quarrel lay at the bottom of the whole matter,” she suggested. “Miss Reynolds was a sweet girl and loved him very devotedly, of course; but they might have had a tiff for all that, and in a nature as sensitive as his, the least thing will sometimes unhinge the mind.”

But I could only shake my head at this; the supposition was at once too painful and absurd.

“Well, well,” the garrulous woman went on, in no wise abashed, “there are some things that come easy and some things that come hard. Why Mr. Barrows went the way he did is one of the hard things to understand, but that he did go, and that of his own frenzied will, I am as sure as that two and two make four, and four from four leaves nothing.”

I thought of all the others who secretly or openly expressed the same opinion, and felt my heart grow lighter. Then I thought of Rhoda Colwell, and then ——

“Just what time was it,” I asked, “when you were away in August? Was it before the seventeenth, or after? I inquire, because ——”

But evidently she did not care why I inquired.

“It was during that week,” she broke in. “I remember because it was on the sixteenth that Mr. Pollard died, and I was not here to attend the funeral. I came back ——”

But it was no matter to me now when she came back. She had not been at home the night when Mr. Barrows was beguiled into his first visit to the mill, and she had mentioned a name I had long been eager to have introduced into the conversation.

“You knew Mr. Pollard?” I therefore interposed without ceremony. “He was a very rich man, was he not?”

“Yes,” she assented. “I suppose the children will have the whole property, now that the old lady is gone. I hope Mr. Harrington will be satisfied. He just married that girl for her money. That, I am sure, you will hear everybody say.”

“Yet she is exceedingly pretty,” I suggested.

“Oh, yes, too pretty; she makes one think of a wax doll. But these English lords don’t care for beauty without there is a deal of hard cash to back it, and if Agnes Pollard had been as poor as — what other beauty have we in town?”

“There is a girl called Rhoda Colwell,” I ventured.

“Rhoda Colwell! Do you call her a beauty? I know some folks think she is — well, then, let us say as Rhoda Colwell, he would have made her any proposal sooner than that of his hand.”

“And is Mr. Harrington a lord?” I asked, feeling that I was lighting upon some very strange truths.

“He is the next heir to one. A nephew I believe, or else a cousin. I cannot keep track of all those fine distinctions in people I never saw.”

“They were married privately and right after Mr. Pollard’s death, I have heard.”

“Yes, and for no other earthly reason that one ever heard of than to have it settled and done; for Mr. Harrington did not take away his wife from the country; nor does he intend to as far as I can learn. Everybody thought it a very strange proceeding, and none too respectful to Mr. Pollard’s memory either.”

I thought of all I had heard and seen in that house, and wondered.

“Mr. Pollard was such a nice man, too,” she pursued, in a musing tone. “Not a commanding person, like his wife, but so good and kind and attentive to poor folks like me. I never liked a man more than I did Mr. Pollard, and I have always thought that if he had had a different kind of mother for his children — but what is the use of criticising the poor woman now. She is dead and so is he, and the children will do very well now with all that money to back them in any caprice they may have.”

“You seem to know them well,” I remarked, fearful she would observe the emotion I could not quite keep out of my face.

“No,” she returned, with an assumption of grimness, which was evidently meant for sarcasm, “not well. Every one knows the Pollards, but I never heard any one say they knew them well.”

“Didn’t Mr. Barrows?” I tremblingly inquired, anxious for her reply, yet fearful of connecting those two names.

“Not that I ever saw,” she returned, showing no special interest in the question, or in the fact that it was seemingly of some importance to me.

“Didn’t they use to come here to see him?” I proceeded, emboldened by her evident lack of perspicuity. “None of them?” I added, seeing her about to shake her head.

“Oh, Dwight or Guy would come here if they had any business with him,” she allowed. “But that isn’t intimacy; the Pollards are intimate with nobody.”

She seemed to be rather proud of it, and as I did not see my way just then to acquire any further information, I sank with a weary air into a chair, turning the conversation as I did so upon other and totally irrelevant topics. But no topic was of much interest to her, that did not in some way involve Mr. Barrows; and after a few minutes of desultory chat, she pleaded the excuse of business and hurriedly left the room.

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