The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xix.

A Fatal Delay.

Would’st thou have that

Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,

And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting “I dare not,” wait upon “I would,”

Like the poor cat i’ the adage?

MACBETH.

He was to all appearance immediately forgotten. As with mutual consent we all turned and faced each other, Mrs. Pollard with a stern, inexorable look in her dark eye, which, while it held me enchained, caused me to involuntarily lay my hand upon the document which I had hidden in my breast She noticed the movement, and smiled darkly with a sidelong look at her son. The smile and the look affected me strangely. In them I seemed to detect something deeper than hatred and baffled rage, and when in a moment later her son responded to her glance by quietly withdrawing from the room, I felt such revolt against their secrecy that for a moment I was tempted to abandon an undertaking that promised to bring me in conflict with passions of so deep and unrelenting a nature.

But the impression which the pain and despair of my dead friend had made upon me was as yet too recent for me to yield to my first momentary apprehensions; and summoning up what resolution I possessed, I took my leave of Mrs. Pollard, and was hastening towards the door, when her voice, rising cold and clear, arrested me.

“You think, then, that it is your duty to carry this paper from the house, Mr. Barrows?”

“Yes, madam, I do,” was my short reply.

“In spite of my protest and that of my son?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Then upon your head be the consequences!” she exclaimed, and turned her back upon me with a look which went with me as I closed the door between us; lending a gloom to the unlighted halls and sombre staircases that affected me almost with an impulse of fear.

I dreaded crossing to where the stairs descended; I dreaded going down them into the darkness which I saw below. Not that I anticipated actual harm, but that I felt I was in the house of those who longed to see me the victim of it; and my imagination being more than usually alert, I even found myself fancying the secret triumph with which Guy Pollard would hail an incautious slip on my part, that would precipitate me from the top to the bottom of this treacherous staircase. That he was somewhere between me and the front door, I felt certain. The deadly quiet behind and before me seemed to assure me of this; and, ashamed as I was of the impulse that moved me, I could not prevent myself from stepping cautiously as I prepared to descend, saying as some sort of excuse to myself: “He is capable of seeing me trip without assistance,” and as my imagination continued its work: “He is even capable of putting out his foot to help forward such a catastrophe.”

And, indeed, I now think that if this simple plan had presented itself to his subtle mind, of stunning, if not disabling me, and thus making it possible for them to obtain his father’s will without an open assault, he would not have hesitated to embrace it. But he evidently did not calculate, as I did, the chances of such an act, or perhaps he felt that I was likely to be too much upon my guard to fall a victim to this expedient, for I met no one as I advanced, and was well down the stairs and on my way to the front door, before I perceived any signs of life in the sombre house. Then a sudden glare of light across my path betrayed the fact that a door had been swung wide in a certain short passage that opened ahead of me; and while I involuntarily stopped, a shadow creeping along the further wall of that passage warned me that some one — I could not doubt it to be Guy Pollard — had come out to meet me.

The profound stillness, and the sudden pause which the shadow made as I inconsiderately stumbled in my hesitation, assured me that I was right in attributing a sinister motive to this encounter. Naturally, therefore, I drew back, keeping my eyes upon the shadow. It did not move. Convinced now that danger of some kind lay ahead of me, I looked behind and about me for some means of escaping from the house without passing by my half-seen enemy. But none presented themselves. Either I must slink away into the kitchen region — a proceeding from which my whole manhood revolted — or I must advance and face whatever evil awaited me. Desperation drove me to the latter course. Making one bound, I stood before that lighted passage. A slim, firm figure confronted me; but it was not that of Guy, but of his older brother, Dwight.

The surprise of the shock, together with a certain revelation which came to me at the same moment, and of which I will speak hereafter, greatly unnerved me. I had not been thinking of Dwight Pollard. Strange as it may seem, I had not even missed him from the bedside of his father. To see him, then, here and now, caused many thoughts to spring into my mind, foremost among which was the important one as to whether he was of a nature to lend himself to any scheme of violence. The quickness with which I decided to the contrary proved to me in what different estimation I had always held him from what I had his mother and brother.

It was consequently no surprise to me when he leaned forward and spoke to me with consideration and force. I was only surprised at a his words:

“Don’t stop, Mr. Barrows,” said he. “Go home at once; only”— and here he paused, listened, then proceeded with increased emphasis, “don’t go by the way of Orchard Street.” And without waiting for my reply, he stepped back and noiselessly regained the apartment he had left, while I, in a confusion of emotions difficult to analyze at the moment, hastily accepted his advice, and withdrew from the house.

The relief of breathing the fresh air again was indescribable. If I had not escaped the miasma and oppression of a prison, I certainly had left behind me influences of darkness and sinister suggestion, which, in the light of the calm moonbeams that I found flooding the world without, had the effect upon me of a vanished horror. Only I was still haunted by that last phrase which I had heard uttered, “Don’t go by the way of Orchard Street,” an injunction which simply meant, “Don’t go with that document to the lawyer’s to-night.”

Now was this order, given as it was by Dwight Pollard, one of warning or of simple threat? My good-will toward this especial member of the Pollard family inclined me to think it the former.

There was danger, then, lurking for me somewhere on the road to Mr. Nicholls’ house. Was it my duty to encounter this danger? It appeared to me not, especially as it was not necessary for me to acquit myself so instantly of the commission with which I had been intrusted. I accordingly proceeded directly home.

But once again in my familiar study, I became conscious of a strong dissatisfaction with myself. Indeed, I may speak more forcibly and say I was conscious of a loss of trust in my own manhood, which was at once so new and startling that it was as if a line had been drawn between my past and present. This was due to the discovery I had made at the moment I had confronted Dwight Pollard — a discovery so humiliating in its character that it had shaken me, body and soul. I had found in the light of that critical instant that I, David Barrows, was a coward! Yes, gloss it over as I would, the knowledge was deep in my mind that I lacked manhood’s most virile attribute; that peril, real or imaginary, could awaken in me fear; and that the paling cheek and trembling limbs of which I had been so bitterly conscious at that instant were but the outward signs of a weakness that extended deep down into my soul.

It was a revelation calculated to stagger any man, how much more, then, one who had so relied upon his moral powers as to take upon himself the sacred name of minister. But this was not all. I had not only found myself to be a coward, but I had shown myself such to another’s eyes. By the searching look which Dwight Pollard had given me before he spoke, and the quiet, half-disdainful curve which his lips took at the close of his scrutiny, I was convinced that he saw the defect in my nature, and despised me for it, even while he condescended to offer me the protection which my fears seemed to demand. Or — the thought could come now that I was at home, and had escaped the dangers lying in wait for me on the road to my duty — he had made use of my weakness to gain his own ends. The carrying of that document to Mr. Nicholls meant loss of property to them all perhaps, and he had but taken means, consistent with his character, to insure the delay which his brother had possibly planned to gain in some more reprehensible manner. And I had yielded to my fears and let his will have its way. I hated myself as I considered my own weakness. I could find no excuse either for my pusillanimity or for that procrastination of my duty into which it had betrayed me. I found I could not face my own scorn; and, rising from my study~chair, I took my hat and went out. I had determined to make amends for my fault by going at once to Orchard Street.

And I did; but alas! for the result! The half-hour I had lost was fatal. To be sure I met with no adventure on my way, but I found Mr. Nicholls out. He had been summoned by a telegram to Boston, and had been absent from the house only fifteen minutes. I meditated following him to the station, but the whistle sounded just as I turned away from his door, and I knew I should be too late. Humiliated still further in my own estimation, I went home to wait with what patience I could for the two or three days which must elapse before his return.

Before I went to bed that night I opened the book which Mr. Pollard had given me, in the expectation of finding a letter in it, or, at least, some writing on the title-page or the blank pages of the book. But I was disappointed in both regards. With the exception of some minute pencil-marks scattered here and there along the text — indications, doubtless, of favorite passages — I perceived nothing in the volume to account for the extreme earnestness with which he had presented it.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/mill_mystery/chapter19.html

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