The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xxv.

The Final Blow.

It was a deadly blow! A blow like that

Which swooping unawares from out the night,

Dashes a man from some high starlit peak

Into a void of cold and hurrying waves.

The distrust which I felt for Mrs. Pollard was so great that I was still uncertain as to whether she had given me the right address. I therefore proceeded to carry out my original design and went at once to the telegraph-office. The message I sent was peremptory and in the course of half an hour this answer was returned.

Person described, found. Condition critical. Come at once.

There was a train that left in fifteen minutes. Though I had just come from Boston, I did not hesitate to return at once. By six o’clock of that day I stood before the house to which I had been directed. My first sight of it struck me like death. God, what was I about to encounter! What sort of a spot was this, and what was the doom that had befallen the child committed to my care. Numb with horror, I rang the door-bell with difficulty, and when I was admitted by a man in the guise of an officer, I felt something like an instantaneous relief, though I saw by his countenance that he had any thing but good news to give me.

“Are you the gentleman who telegraphed from S——?” he asked.

I bowed, not feeling able to speak.

“Relative or friend?” he went on.

“Friend,” I managed to reply.

“Do you guess what has happened?” he inquired.

“I dare not,” I answered, with a fearful look about me on walls that more than confirmed my suspicions.

“Miss Merriam is dead,” he answered.

I drew a deep breath. It was almost a relief.

“Come in,” he said, and opened the door of a room at our right. When we were seated and I had by careful observation made sure we were alone, I motioned for him to go on. He immediately complied. “When we received your telegram, we sent a man here at once. He had some difficulty in entering and still more in finding the young lady, who was hidden in the most remote part of the house. But by perseverance and some force he at last obtained entrance to her room where he found — pardon my abruptness, it will be a mercy to you for me to cut the story short — that he had been ordered here too late; the young lady had taken poison and was on the point of death.”

The horror in my face reflected itself faintly in his.

“I do not know how she came to this house,” he proceeded; “but she must have been a person of great purity and courage; for though she died almost immediately upon his entrance, she had time to say that she had preferred death to the fate that threatened her, and that no one would mourn her for she had no friends in this country, and her father would never hear how she died.”

I sprang wildly to my feet.

“Did she mention no names?” I asked.

“Did she not say who brought her to this hell of hells, or murmur even with her dying breath, one word that would guide us in fixing this crime upon the head of her who is guilty of it?”

“No,” answered the officer, “no; but you are right in thinking it was a woman, but what woman, the creature below evidently does not know.”

Feeling that the situation demanded thought, I composed myself to the best of my ability.

“I am the Rev. David Barrows of S— — ” said I, “and my interest in this young girl is purely that of a humanitarian. I have never seen her. I do not even know how long she has been in this country. But I learned that a girl by the name of Grace Merriam had been beguiled from her boarding-place here in this city, and fearing that some terrible evil had befallen her, I telegraphed to the police to look her up.”

The officer bowed.

“The number of her boarding-place?” asked he.

I told him, and not waiting for any further questions, demanded if I might not see the body of the young girl.

He led me at once to the room in which it lay, and stood respectfully at the door while I went in alone. The sight I saw has never left me. Go where I will, I see ever before me that pure young face, with its weary look hushed in the repose of death. It haunts me, it accuses me. It asks me where is the noble womanhood that might have blossomed from this sweet bud, had it not been for my pusillanimity and love of life? But when I try to answer, I am stopped by that image of death, with its sealed lips and closed eyes never to open again — never, never, whatever my longing, my anguish, or my despair.

But the worst shock was to come yet. As I left the room and went stumbling down the stairs, I was met by the officer and led again into the apartment I had first entered on the ground floor.

“There is some one here,” he began, “whom you may like to question.”

Thinking it to be the woman of the house, I advanced, though somewhat reluctantly, when a sight met my eyes that made me fall back in astonishment and dread. It was the figure of a woman dressed all in gray, with a dark-blue veil drawn tightly over her features.

“Good God!” I murmured, “who is this?”

“The woman who brought her here,” observed the officer. “Farrell, there, has just found her.”

And then I perceived darkly looming in the now heavy dusk the form of another man, whose unconscious and business-like air proclaimed him to be a member of the force.

“Her name is Sophie Preston,” the officer continued, motioning to the woman to throw up her veil. “She is a hard character, and some day will have to answer for her many crimes.”

Meanwhile, I stood rooted to the ground; the name, the face were strange, and neither that of her whom I had inwardly accused of this wrong.

“I should like to ask the woman —” I commenced, but here my eyes fell upon her form. It was tall and it was full, but it was not by any means handsome. A fearful possibility crossed my mind. Approaching the woman closely, I modified my question.

“Are you the person who took this young lady from her boarding place?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” was the reply, uttered in smooth but by no means cultivated tones.

“And by what arts did you prevail upon this young and confiding creature to leave her comfortable home and go out into the streets with you?”

She did not speak, she smiled. O heaven! what depths of depravity opened before me in that smile!

“Answer!” the officer cried.

“Well, sir, I told her,” she now replied, “that I was such and such a relative, grandmother, I think I said; and being a dutiful child —”

But I was now up close to her side, and, leaning to her very ear I interrupted her.

“Tell me on which side of the hall was the parlor into which you went.”

“The right,” she answered, without the least show of hesitation.

“Wrong,” I returned; “you have never been there.”

She looked frightened.

“O, sir,” she whispered, “hush! hush! If you know —” And there she stopped; and instantly cried aloud, in a voice that warned me I should make nothing by pressing my suspicions at this time and in this place, “I lured the young lady from her home and I brought her here. If it is a criminal act I shall have to answer for it. We all run such risks now and then.”

To me, with my superior knowledge of all the mysteries which lay behind this pitiful tragedy, her meaning was evident. Whether she had received payment sufficient for the punishment possibly awaiting her, or whether she had been frightened into assuming the responsibility of another, she was evidently resolved to sustain her role of abductress to the end.

The look she gave me at the completion of her words intensified this conviction, and not feeling sufficiently sure of my duty to dispute her at the present time, I took advantage of her determination, and outwardly, if not inwardly, accepted her confession as true.

I therefore retreated from her side, and being anxious to avoid the coroner, who was likely to enter at any minute, I confined myself to asking a few leading questions, which being answered in a manner seemingly frank, I professed myself satisfied with the result, and hastily withdrew.

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