The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

ii.

A Fearful Question.

Nay, yet there’s more in this:

I pray thee, speak to me as to thy thinkings,

As thou dost ruminate; and give thy worst of thoughts

The worst of words.

OTHELLO.

My room-mate was, as I have intimated, exceedingly frail and unobtrusive in appearance; yet when we came upon this scene, the group of men about the inanimate form of her lover parted involuntarily as if a spirit had come upon them; though I do not think one of them, until that moment, had any suspicion of the relations between her and their young pastor. Being close behind her, I pressed forward too, and so it happened that I stood by her side when her gaze first fell upon her dead lover. Never shall I forget the cry she uttered, or the solemn silence that fell over all, as her hand, rigid and white as that of a ghost’s, slowly rose and pointed with awful question at the pallid brow upturned before her. It seemed as if a spell had fallen, enchaining the roughest there from answering, for the truth was terrible, and we knew it; else why those dripping locks and heavily soaked garments oozing, not with the limpid waters of the stream we could faintly hear gurgling in the distance, but with some fearful substance that dyed the forehead blue and left upon the grass a dark stain that floods of rain would scarcely wash away?

“What is it? Oh, what does it mean?” she faintly gasped, shuddering backward with wondering dread as one of those tiny streams of strange blue moisture found its way to her feet.

Still that ominous silence.

“Oh, I must know!” she whispered. “I was his betrothed”; and her eyes wandered for a moment with a wild appeal upon those about her.

Whereupon a kindly voice spoke up. “He has been drowned, miss. The blue ——” and there he hesitated.

“The blue is from the remains of some old dye that must have been in the bottom of the vat out of which we drew him,” another voice went on.

“The vat!” she repeated. “The vat! Was he found ——”

“In the vat? Yes, miss.” And there the silence fell again.

It was no wonder. For a man like him, alert, busy, with no time nor inclination for foolish explorations, to have been found drowned in the disused vat of a half-tumbled-down old mill on a lonesome and neglected road meant —— But what did it mean? What could it mean? The lowered eyes of those around seemed to decline to express even a conjecture.

My poor friend, so delicate, so tender, reeled in my arms. “In the vat!” she reiterated again and again, as if her mind refused to take in a fact so astounding and unaccountable.

“Yes, miss, and he might never have been discovered,” volunteered a voice at last, over my shoulder, “if a parcel of school-children hadn’t strayed into the mill this afternoon. It is a dreadful lonesome spot, you see, and ——”

“Hush!” I whispered; “hush!” and I pointed to her face, which at these words had changed as if the breath of death had blown across it; and winding my arms still closer about her, I endeavored to lead her away.

But I did not know my room-mate. Pushing me gently aside, she turned to a stalwart man near by, whose face seemed to invite confidence, and said:

“Take me in and show me the vat.”

He looked at her amazed; so did we.

“I must see it,” she said, simply; and she herself took the first step towards the mill.

There was no alternative but to follow. This we did in terror and pity, for the look with which she led the way was not the look of any common determination, and the power which seemed to force her feeble body on upon its fearful errand was of that strained and unnatural order which might at any moment desert her, and lay her a weak and helpless burden at our feet.

“It must be dark by this time down there,” objected the man she had appealed to, as he stepped doubtfully forward.

But she did not seem to heed. Her eyes were fixed upon the ruined walls before her, rising drear and blank against the pale-green evening sky.

“He could have had no errand here,” I heard her murmur. “How then be drowned here? — how? how?”

Alas! that was the mystery, dear heart, with which every mind was busy!

The door of the mill had fallen down and rotted away years before, so we had no difficulty in entering. But upon crossing the threshold and making for the steps that led below, we found that the growing twilight was any thing but favorable to a speedy or even safe advance. For the flooring was badly broken in places, and the stairs down which we had to go were not only uneven, but strangely rickety and tottering.

But the sprite that led us paused for nothing, and long before I had passed the first step she had reached the bottom one, and was groping her way towards the single gleam of light that infused itself through the otherwise pitchy darkness.

“Be careful, miss; you may fall into the vat yourself!” exclaimed more than one voice behind her.

But she hurried on, her slight form showing like a spectre against the dim gleam towards which she bent her way, till suddenly she paused and we saw her standing with clasped hands, and bent head, looking down into what? We could readily conjecture.

“She will throw herself in,” whispered a voice; but as, profoundly startled, I was about to hasten forward, she hurriedly turned and came towards us.

“I have seen it,” she quietly said, and glided by us, and up the stairs, and out of the mill to where that still form lay in its ghostly quietude upon the sodden grass.

For a moment she merely looked at it, then she knelt, and, oblivious to the eyes bent pityingly upon her, kissed the brow and then the cheeks, saying something which I could not hear, but which lent a look of strange peace to her features, that were almost as pallid and set now as his. Then she arose, and holding out her hand to me, was turning away, when a word uttered by some one, I could not tell whom, stopped her, and froze her, as it were, to the spot.

That word was suicide!

I think I see her yet, the pale-green twilight on her forehead, her lips parted, and her eyes fixed in an incredulous stare.

“Do you mean,” she cried, “that he deserves any such name as that? That his death here was not one of chance or accident, mysterious, if you will, but still one that leaves no stigma on his name as a man and a clergyman?”

“Indeed, miss,” came in reply, “we would not like to say.”

“Then, I say, that unless Mr. Barrows was insane, he never premeditated a crime of this nature. He was too much of a Christian. And if that does not strike you as good reasoning, he was too — happy.”

The last word was uttered so low that if it had not been for the faint flush that flitted into her cheek, it would scarcely have been understood. As it was, the furtive looks of the men about showed that they comprehended all that she would say; and, satisfied with the impression made, she laid her hand on my arm, and for the second time turned towards home.

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