The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xviii.

A Last Request.

‘T is she

That tempers him to this extremity.

Richard III.

The night had fallen. I was in a strange and awe-struck mood. The manuscript, which after some difficulty I had succeeded in finding, lay before, me unopened. A feeling as of an invisible presence was in the air. I hesitated to turn the page, written, as I already felt, with the life-blood of the man in whose mysterious doom the happiness of my own life had become entangled.

Waiting for courage, I glanced mechanically about the room. How strangely I had been led in this affair! How from the first I seemed to have been picked out and appointed for the solving of this mystery, till now I sat in the very room, at the very desk, in front of the very words, of its victim. I thought of Dwight Pollard struggling with his fate, and unconscious that in a few minutes the secret of Mr. Barrows’ death would be known; of Rhoda Colwell, confident of her revenge and blind to the fact that I held in my hand what might possibly blunt her sharpest weapon, and make her most vindictive effort useless. Then each and every consideration of a purely personal nature vanished, and I thought only of the grand and tortured soul of him upon whose solemn and awesome history I was about to enter. Was it, as his letter seemed to imply, a martyr’s story? I looked at the engraving of Cranmer, which had been a puzzle to me a few days before, and understanding it now, gathered fortitude by what it seemed to suggest, and hastily unrolled the manuscript.

This is what I read:

He that would save his life shall lose it.

In order that the following tale of sin and its expiation may be understood, I must give a few words to the motives and hopes under which I entered the ministry.

I am a believer in the sacred character of my profession, and the absolute and unqualified devotion of those embracing it to the aims and purposes of the Christian religion. Though converted, as it is called, in my sixteenth year, I cannot remember the time my pulse did not beat with appreciation for those noble souls who had sacrificed every joy and comfort of this temporal life for the sake of their faith and the glory of God. I delighted in Fox’s “Book of Martyrs,” and while I shuddered over its pages in a horror I did not wholly understand, I read them again and again, till there was not a saint whose life I did not know by heart, with just the death he died and the pangs he experienced. Such a mania did this become with me at one time, that I grew visibly ill, and had to have the book taken away from me and more cheerful reading substituted in its stead.

Feeling thus strongly in childhood, when half, if not all, my interest sprang from the fascination which horrors have upon the impressible mind, what were my emotions and longings when the real meaning of the Christian life was revealed to me, and I saw in this steadfastness of the spirit unto death the triumph of the immortal soul over the weaknesses of the flesh and the terrors of a purely transitory suffering!

That the days for such display of firmness in the fiery furnace were over was almost a matter of regret to me in the first flush of my enthusiasm for the cause I had espoused. I wished so profoundly to show my love, and found all modern ways so tame in comparison to those which demanded the yielding up of one’s very blood and life. Poor fool! did I never think that those who are the bravest in imagination fail often the most lamentably when brought face to face with the doom they have invoked.

I have never been a robust man, and consequently have never entered much into those sports and exercises incident to youth and early manhood that show a man of what stuff he is made. I have lived in my books till I came to S— — since which I have tried to live in the joys and sorrows of my fellow-beings.

The great rule of Christian living has seemed to me imperative. Love your neighbor as yourself, or, as I have always interpreted it, more than yourself. For a man, then, to sacrifice that neighbor to save himself from physical or mental distress, has always seemed to me not only the height of cowardice, but a direct denial of those truths upon which are founded the Christian’s ultimate hope. As a man myself, I despise with my whole heart such weaklings; as a Christian minister I denounce them. Nothing can excuse a soul for wavering in its duty because that duty is hard. It is the hard things we should take delight in facing; otherwise we are babes and not men, and our faith a matter of expediency, and not that stern and immovable belief in God and His purposes which can alone please Deity and bring us into that immediate communion with His spirit which it should be the end and aim of every human soul to enjoy.

Such are my principles. Let us see how I have illustrated them in the events of the last six weeks.

On the sixteenth of August, five weeks ago to-day, I was called to the bedside of Samuel Pollard. He had been long sinking with an incurable disease, and now the end was at hand and my Christian offices required. I was in the full tide of sermon-writing when the summons came, and I hesitated at first whether to follow the messenger at once or wait till the daylight had quite disappeared, and with it my desire to place on paper the thoughts that were inspiring me with more than ordinary fervor.

But a question to my own heart decided me. Not my sermon, but the secret disinclination I always felt to enter this special family, was what in reality held me back; and this was a reason which, as you will have seen from the words I have already written, I could not countenance. I accordingly signified to the messenger that I would be with Mr. Pollard in a few moments, and putting away my papers, prepared to leave the room.

There, is a saying in the Bible to the effect that no man liveth to himself, nor dieth to himself. If in the course of this narrative I seem to show little consideration for the secrets of others, let this be at once my explanation and excuse: That only in the cause of truth do I speak at all; and that in holding up before you the follies and wrong-doings of persons you know, I subject them to no heavier penalty than that which I have incurred through my own sin. I shall therefore neither gloss over nor suppress any fact bearing upon a full explanation of my fate; and when I say I hesitated to go to Mr. Pollard because of my inherent dislike to enter his house, I will proceed to give as my reason for this dislike, my unconquerable distrust of his wife, who, if a fine-looking and capable woman, is certainly one to be feared by every candid and truth-loving nature.

But, as I said before, I did not yield to the impulse I had within me to stay; and, merely stopping to cast a parting glance about my room — why, I do not know, for I could have had no premonition of the fact that I was bidding good-by to the old life of hope and peace forever — I hastened after the messenger whom I had sent on before me to Mr. Pollard’s home.

Small occurrences sometimes make great impressions on the mind. As I was turning the corner at Halsey Street, the idiot boy Colwell came rushing by, and almost fell into my arms. I started back, shuddering, as if some calamity had befallen me. An invincible repugnance to any thing deformed or half-witted has always been one of my weaknesses, and for him to have touched me — I hate myself as I write it, but I cannot think of it now without a chill in my veins and an almost unbearable feeling of physical contamination. Yet as I would be as just to myself as I hope to be to others, I did not let this incident pass, without a struggle to conquer my lower nature. Standing still, I called the boy back, and deliberately, and with a reverential thought of the Christ, I laid my hand on his arm, and, stooping, kissed him. It cost me much, but I could never have passed that corner without doing it; nor were I to live years on this earth, instead of a few short days, should I ever let another week go by without forcing my body into some such contact with what nature has afflicted and man contemned.

The pallor which I therefore undoubtedly showed upon entering Mr. Pollard’s room was owing to the memory of this incident rather than to any effect which the sight of the dying man had upon me. But before I had been many minutes in the room, I found my pulse thrilling with new excitement and my manhood roused to repel a fresh influence more dangerous, if less repulsive, than the last.

Let me see if I can make it plain to you. Mr. Pollard, whom we have all known as an excellent but somewhat weak man, lay with his face turned towards the room, and his gaze fixed with what I felt to be more than the common anxiety of the dying upon mine. At his side sat his wife, cold, formidable, alert, her hand on his hand, her eye on his eye, and all her icy and implacable will set, as I could plainly see, between him and any comfort or encouragement I might endeavor to impart. She even allowed her large and commanding figure to usurp the place usually accorded me on such occasions, and when, after a futile effort or so on my part to break down the barrier of restraint that such a presence necessarily imposed, I arose from my seat at the foot of the bed, and, approaching closer, would have leaned over her husband, she put out her other hand and imperatively waved me aside, remarking:

“The doctor says he must have air.”

There are some persons whose looks and words are strangely controlling. Mrs. Pollard is one of these, and I naturally drew back. But a glance at Mr. Pollard’s face made me question if I was doing right in this. Such disappointment, such despair even, I had seldom seen expressed in a look; and convinced that he had something of real purport to say to me, I turned towards his wife, and resolutely remarked:

“The dying frequently have communications to make to which only their pastor’s ear is welcome. Will you excuse me, then, if I request a moment’s solitude with Mr. Pollard, that I may find out if his soul is at rest before I raise my prayers in its behalf?”

But, before I had finished, I saw that any such appeal would be unavailing. If her immovable expression had not given me this assurance, the hopeless closing of his weak and fading eyes would have sufficiently betrayed the fact.

“I cannot leave Mr. Pollard,” were the words with which she tempered her refusal. “If he has any communication to make, let him make it in my presence. I am his wife.” And her hand pressed more firmly upon his, and her eyes, which had not stirred from his face even when I addressed her, assumed a dark, if not threatening look, which gradually forced his to open and meet them.

I felt that something must be done.

“Mr. Pollard,” said I, “is there any thing you wish to impart to me before you die? If so, speak up freely and with confidence, for I am here to do a friend and a pastor’s duty by you, even to the point of fulfilling any request you may have to make, so it be only actuated by right feeling and judgment.” And determinedly ignoring her quick move of astonishment, I pressed forward and bent above him, striving with what I felt to be a purely righteous motive, to attract his glance from hers, which was slowly withering him away as if it were a basilisk’s.

And I succeeded. After an effort that brought the sweat out on his brow, he turned his look on mine, and, gathering strength from my expression, probably, gave me one eager and appealing glance, and thrust his left hand under his pillow.

His wife, who saw every thing, leaned forward with an uneasy gesture.

“What have you there?” she asked.

But he had already drawn forth a little book and placed it in my hand.

“Only my old prayer-book,” he faltered. “I felt as if I should like Mr. Barrows to have it.”

She gave him an incredulous stare, and allowed her glance to follow the book. I immediately put it in my pocket.

“I shall take a great deal of pleasure in possessing it,” I remarked.

“Read it,” he murmured; “read it carefully.” And a tone of relief was in his voice that seemed to alarm her greatly; for she half rose to her feet and made a gesture to some one I did not see, after which she bent again towards the dying man and whispered in his ear.

But, though her manner had all its wonted force, and her words, whatever they were, were lacking in neither earnestness nor purpose, he did not seem to be affected by them. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he rose superior to that insidious influence, and, nerved by the near approach of death, kept his gaze fixed on mine, and finally stammered:

“Will you do some thing else for me?”

“I will,” I began, and might have said more, but he turned from me and with sudden energy addressed his wife.

“Margaret,” said he, “bring me my desk.”

Had a thunderbolt fallen at her feet, she could not have looked more astonished. I myself was somewhat surprised; I had never heard that tone from him before.

“My desk!” he cried again; “I want it here.”

At this repetition of his request, uttered this time with all the vehemence of despair. Mrs. Pollard moved, though she did not rise. At the same moment a quick, soft step was heard, and through the gloom of the now rapidly darkening chamber I saw their younger son draw near and take his stand at the foot of the bed.

“I have but a few minutes,” murmured the sick man. “Will you refuse to make them comfortable, Margaret?”

“No, no,” she answered hastily, guided as I could not but see by an almost imperceptible movement of her son’s hand; and rising with a great show of compliance, she proceeded to the other end of the room. I at once took her place by the side of his pillow.

“Is there no word of comfort I can give you?” said I, anxious for the soul thus tortured by earthly anxieties on the very brink of the grave.

But his mind, filled with one thought, refused to entertain any other.

“Pray God that my strength hold out,” he whispered. “I have an act of reparation to make.” Then, as his son made a move as if to advance, he caught my hand in his, and drew my ear down to his mouth. “The book,” he gasped; “keep it safely — they may try to take it away — don’t —”

But here his son intervened with some word of warning; and Mrs. Pollard, hurriedly approaching, laid the desk on the bed in such a way that I was compelled to draw back.

But this did not seem to awaken in him any special distress. From the instant his eyes fell upon the desk, a feverish strength seemed to seize him, and looking up at me with something of his old brightness of look and manner, he asked to have it opened and its contents taken out.

Naturally embarrassed at such a request, I turned to Mrs. Pollard.

“It seems a strange thing for me to do,” I began; but a lightning glance had already passed between her and her son, and with the cold and haughty dignity for which she is remarkable, she calmly stopped me with a quiet wave of her hand.

“The whims of the dying must be respected,” she remarked, and reseated herself in her old place at his side.

I at once proceeded to empty the desk. It contained mainly letters, and one legal-looking document, which I took to be his will. As I lifted this out, I saw mother and son both cast him a quick glance, as if they expected some move on his part. But though his hands trembled somewhat, he made no special sign of wishing to see or touch it, and at once I detected on their faces a look of surprise that soon took on the character of dismay, as with the lifting of the last paper from the desk he violently exclaimed:

“Now break in the bottom and take out the paper you will find there. It is my last will and testament, and by every sacred right you hold in this world, I charge you to carry it to Mr. Nicholls, and see that no man nor woman touches it till you give it into his hands.”

“His will!” echoed Mrs. Pollard, astonished.

“He don’t know what he says. This is his will,” she was probably going to assert, for her hand was pointing to the legal-looking document I have before mentioned; but a gesture from her son made her stop before the last word was uttered. “He must be wandering in his mind,” she declared. “We know of no will hidden away in his desk. Ah!”

The last exclamation was called forth by the sudden slipping into view of a folded paper from between the crevices of the desk. I had found the secret spring. The next instant the bottom fell out, and the paper slipped to the floor. I was quick to recover it. Had I not been, Mrs. Pollard would have had it in her grasp. As it was, our hands met, not without a shock, I fear, on either side. A gasp of intense suspense came from the bed.

“Keep it,” the dying eyes seemed to say; and if mine spoke as plainly as his did, they answered with full as much meaning and force:

“I will.”

Guy Pollard and his mother looked at each other, then at the pocket into which I had already thrust the paper. The dying man followed their glances, and with a final exertion of strength, raised himself on his elbow.

“My curse on him or her who seeks to step between me and the late reparation I have sought to make. Weaker than most men, I have submitted to your will, Margaret, up to this hour, but your reign is over at last, and — and —” The passionate words died away, the feverish energy succumbed, and with one last look into my face, Samuel Pollard fell back upon his pillow, dead.

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