The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xxi.

The Vat.

Des. — Talk you of killing?’

Oth. — Ay, I do.

Des. — Then, heaven

Have mercy on me!

OTHELLO.

I quivered with shame, for I felt my heart sink. But there was no pause in the smooth, sarcastic tones behind me. “When a man persists in judging of his duty contrary to the dictates of reason, he must expect restraint from those who understand his position better than he does himself.”

“Then,” quoth I, with suddenly acquired strength, “I am to understand that the respectable family of Pollard finds itself willing to resort to the means and methods of highwaymen in order to compass its ends and teach me my duty.”

“You are,” a determined voice returned.

At that word, uttered as it was in a tone inexorable as fate, my last ray of hope went out. The voice was that of a woman.

I however, made a strong effort for the preservation of my dignity and person.

“And will Samuel Pollard’s oldest and best-beloved son, the kind~hearted and honest Dwight, lend himself to a scheme of common fraud and violence?” I asked.

The reply came in his brother’s most sarcastic tones. “Dwight has left us,” he declared. “We have no need of honesty or kind~heartedness here. What we want for this business is an immovable determination.”

Startled, I looked up. The lantern which had hitherto swung from the hand of my guide stood on the floor. By its light three things were visible. First, that we stood at the head of a staircase descending into a depth of darkness which the eye could not pierce; secondly, that in all the area about me but two persons stood; and third, that of these two persons one of them was masked and clad in a long black garment, such as is worn at masquerade balls under the name of a domino. Struck with an icy chill, I looked down again. Why had I allowed myself to be caught in such a trap? Why had I not followed Mr. Nicholls immediately to Boston when I heard that he was no longer in town? Or, better still, why had I not manufactured for myself a safeguard in the form of a letter to that gentleman, informing him of the important document which I held, and the danger in which it possibly stood from the family into whose toils I had now fallen? I could have cursed myself for my dereliction.

“David Barrows,” came in imperative tones from the masked figure, “will you tell us where this will is?”

“No,” I returned.

“Is it not on your person?” the inquisitorial voice pursued.

“It is not,” I answered, firmly, thankful that I spoke the truth in this.

“It is in your rooms, then; in your desk, perhaps?”

I remained silent.

“Is it in your rooms?” the indomitable woman proceeded.

“You who have been there should know,” I replied, feeling my courage rise, as I considered that they could not assail my honor, while my life without my secret would benefit them so little that it might be said to stand in no danger.

“I do not understand you,” the icy voice declared; while Guy, stepping forward, planted his hand firmly on my shoulder and said:

“Wherever it is, it shall be delivered to our keeping to-night. We are in no mood for dallying. Either you will give us your solemn promise to obtain this will, and hand it over to us without delay and without scandal, or the free light of heaven is shut out from you forever. You shall never leave this mill.”

“But,” I faltered, striving in vain to throw off the incubus of horror which his words invoked, “what good would my death do you? Could it put Mr. Pollard’s will in your hands?”

“Yes,” was the brief and decided reply, “if it is anywhere in your rooms.”

It was a word that struck home. The will was in my rooms, and I already saw it, in my imagination, torn from its hiding-place by the unscrupulous hand that held me.

Mastering my emotion with what spirit I could, I looked quickly about me. Was there no means of escape? I saw none. In the remote and solitary place which they had chosen for this desperate attempt, a cry would be but waste breath, even if we were in that part of the mill which looked toward the road. But we were not; on the contrary, I could see by the aid of the faint glimmer which the lantern sent forth, that the room in which we had halted was as far as possible from the front of the building, for its windows were obscured by the brush-wood which only grew against the back of the mill. To call out, then, would be folly, while to seek by any force or strategy to break away from the two relentless beings that controlled me could only end in failure, unless darkness would come to my aid and hide my road of escape. But darkness could only come by the extinguishing of the lantern, and that it was impossible for me to effect; for I was not strong enough to struggle in its direction with Guy Pollard, nor could I reach it by any stretch of foot or hand. The light must burn and I must stay there, unless — the thought came suddenly — I could take advantage of the flight of steps at the head of which I stood, and by a sudden leap, gain the cellar, where I would stand a good chance of losing myself amid intricacies as little known to them as to myself. But to do this I must be free to move, and there was no shaking myself loose from the iron clutch that held me.

“You see you are in our power,” hissed the voice of the woman from between the motionless lips of her black mask.

“I see I am,” I acknowledged, “but I also see that you are in that of God.” And I looked severely towards her, only to drop my eyes again with an irrepressible shudder.

For, lay it to my weakness or to the baleful influence which emanated from the whole ghostly place, there was something absolutely appalling in this draped and masked figure with its gleaming eyes and cold, thin voice.

“Shall we have what we want before your death or after?” proceeded Guy Pollard, with a calm but cold ignoring of my words that was more threatening than any rudeness.

I did not answer at first, and his grip upon me tightened; but next moment, from what motive I cannot say, it somewhat relaxed; and, startled, with the hope of freedom, I exclaimed with a vehemence for which my former speech must have little prepared them:

“You shall not have it at all. I cannot break my word with your father, and I will not stay here to be threatened and killed;” and making a sudden movement, I slipped from his grasp, and plunged down the steps into the darkness below.

But, scarcely had my feet touched the cellar floor, before I heard the warning cry shrill out from above:

“Take care! There is an open vat before you. If you fall into that, we shall be free of your interference without lifting a hand.”

An open vat! I had heard of the vats in the old mill’s cellar. Instinctively recoiling, I stood still, not knowing whether to advance or retreat. At the same moment I heard the sound of steps descending the stairs.

“So you think this a better place for decision than the floor above?” exclaimed Guy Pollard, drawing up by my side. “Well, I not sure but you are right,” he added; and I saw by the light of the lantern which his companion now brought down the stairs, the cold glimmer of a smile cross his thin lips and shine for a moment from his implacable eyes. Not knowing what he meant, I glanced anxiously about, and shrank with dismay as I discerned the black hole of the vat he had mentioned, yawning within three feet of my side. Was it a dream, my presence in this fearful spot? I looked at the long stretch of arches before me glooming away into the darkness beyond us, and felt the chill of a nameless horror settle upon my spirit.

Was it because I knew those circles of blackness held many another such pit of doom as that into which I had so nearly stumbled? Or was it that the grisly aspect of the scene woke within me that slumbering demon of the imagination which is the bane of natures like mine.

Whatever it was, I felt the full force of my position, and scarcely cared whether my voice trembled or not as I replied:

“You surely have me in your hands; but that does not mean that it is I who must make a decision. If I understand the situation, it is for you to say whether you will be murderers or not.”

“Then you do not intend to put us in possession of my father’s will?”

“No,” I murmured, and bowed my head for the blow I expected from him.

But he dealt me no blow. Instead of that he eyed me with a look which grew more and more sinister as I met his glance with one which I meant should convey my indomitable resolution. At last he spoke again:

“I think you will reconsider your determination,” said he, with a meaning I did not even then fathom, and exchanging a quick glance with the silent figure at his right, he leaned towards me and — what happened? For a moment I could not tell, but soon, only too soon, I recognized by my stunned and bleeding body, by the closeness of the air I suddenly breathed, and by the circle of darkness that shut about me, and the still more distinct circle of light that glimmered above, that I had been pushed into the pit whose yawning mouth had but a few short moments before awakened in me such dismay.

Aghast, almost mad with the horror of a fate so much more terrible than any I had anticipated, I strove to utter a cry; but my tongue refused its office, and nothing but an inarticulate murmur rose from my lips. It was not piercing enough to clear the edge of the vat, and my soul sunk with despair as I heard its fruitless gurgle and realized by the sound of departing steps, and the faint and fainter glimmer of the circle of light which at my first glance had shone quite brightly above my hideous prison-house, that my persecutors had done their worst and were now leaving me alone in my trap to perish.

God! what an instant it was! To speak, to shriek, to call, nay plead for aid, was but the natural outcome of the overwhelming anguish I felt, but the sound of steps had died out into an awful stillness, and the glimmering circle upon which my staring eyes were fixed had faded into a darkness so utter and complete, that had the earth been piled above my head, I could not have been more wholly hidden from the light.

I had fallen on my knees, and desperate as I was, had made no attempt to rise. Not that I thought of prayer, unless my whole dazed and horrified being was a prayer. The consolations which I had offered to others did not seem to meet this case. Here was no death in the presence of friends and under the free light of heaven. This was a horror. The hand of God which could reach every other mortal, whatever their danger or doom, seemed to stop short at this gate of hell. I could not even imagine my soul escaping thence. I was buried; body and soul, I was buried and yet I was alive and knew that I must remain alive for days if not for weeks.

I do not suppose that I remained in this frightful condition of absolute hopelessness for more than five minutes, but it seemed to me an eternity. If a drowning man can review his life in an instant, what was there not left for me to think and suffer in the lapse of those five horrible minutes? I was young when the unscrupulous hand of this daring murderer pushed me into this pit; I was old when with a thrill of joy such as passes over the body but once In a life~time, I heard a voice issue from the darkness, saying severely, “David Barrows, are you prepared for a decision now?” and realized that like the light which now sprang into full brilliance above my head, hope had come again into my life, and that I had to speak but a dozen words to have sunshine and liberty restored to me.

The rush of emotion which this startling change brought was almost too much for my reason. Looking up into the sardonic face, I could now discern peering over the edge of the vat, I asked with a frantic impulse that left me no time for thought, if an immediate restoration to freedom would follow my compliance with his wishes, and when he answered: “Yes,” I beheld such a vision of sunshiny fields and a happy, love-lighted home, that my voice almost choked as I responded, that I did not think his father would have wished me to sacrifice my life or force a son of his into the crime of murder, for the sake of any reparation which money could offer. And as I saw the face above me grow impatient, I told in desperate haste where I had concealed the will and how it could be obtained without arousing the suspicions of my neighbors.

He seemed satisfied and hastily withdrew his face; but soon returned and asked for the key of my house. I had it in my pocket and hurriedly pitched it up to him, when he again disappeared.

“When shall I be released?” I anxiously called out after him.

But no answer came back, and presently the light began to fade as before, and the sound of steps grow fainter and fainter till silence and darkness again settled upon my dreadful prison-house.

But this time I had hope to brighten me, and shutting my eyes, I waited patiently. But at last, as no change came and the silence and darkness remained unbroken, I became violently alarmed and cried to myself: “Am I the victim of their treachery? Have they obtained what they want and now am I to be left here to perish?”

The thought made my hair stand on end and had I not been a God~fearing man I should certainly have raised my voice in curses upon my credulity and lack of courage. But before my passion could reach its height, hope shone again in the shape of returning light. Some one had entered the cellar and drawn near the edge of the vat; but though I strained my gaze upward, no face met my view, and presently I heard a voice which was not that of Guy Pollard utter in tones of surprise and apprehension:

“Where is the clergyman? Guy said I should find him here in good condition?”

The masked figure, who was doubtless the one addressed, must have answered with a gesture towards the hole in which I lay, for I heard him give vent to a horrified exclamation and then say in accents of regret and shame: “Was it necessary?” and afterwards: “Are you sure he is not injured?”

The answer, which I did not hear, seemed to satisfy him, for he said no more, and soon, too soon, walked away again, carrying the light and leaving me, as I now knew, with that ominous black figure for my watch and guardian — a horror that lent a double darkness to the situation which was only relieved now by the thought that Dwight Pollard’s humanity was to be relied on, and that he would never wantonly leave me there to perish after the will had been discovered and destroyed.

It was well that I had this confidence, for the time I now had to wait was long. But I lived it through and at last had the joy of hearing footsteps and the voice of Guy saying in a dry and satisfied tone: “It is all right,” after which the face of Dwight looked over the edge of the vat and he gave me the help which was needed to lift me out.

I was a free man again. I had slipped from the gates of hell, and the world with all its joys and duties lay before me bright and beautiful as love and hope could make it. Yet whether it was the gloom of the cellar in which we still lingered, or the baleful influence that emanated, from the three persons in whose presence I once more stood, I felt a strange sinking at my heart and found myself looking back at the pit from which I had just escaped, with a sensation of remorse, as if in its horrid depths I had left or lost something which must create a void within me forever.

My meditations in this regard were interrupted by the voice of Guy.

“David Barrows,” said he, “we hold the paper which was given you by my father.”

I bowed with a slight intimation of impatience.

“We have looked at it and it is as he said, his will. But it is not such a one as we feared, and to-morrow, or as soon as we can restore the seal, we shall return it to you for such disposition as your judgment suggests.”

I stared at him in an amazement that made me forget my shame.

“You will give it back?” I repeated.

“To-morrow,” he laconically replied.

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