The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

xxvi.

A Feline Touch.

Thou hast not half the power to do me harm,

as I have to be hurt.

OTHELLO.

The tumult in my mind and heart were great, but my task was not yet completed, and till it was I could neither stop to analyze my emotions nor measure the depths of darkness into which I had been plunged by an occurrence as threatening to my peace as it was pitiful to my heart. Mrs. Pollard was to be again, interviewed, and to that formidable duty every thing bowed, even my need of rest and the demand which my whole body made for refreshment.

It was eight o’clock when I stood for the second time that day at her door; and, contrary to my expectations, I found as little difficulty in entering as I had before. Indeed, the servant was even more affable and obliging than he had been in the afternoon, and persisted in showing me into a small room off the parlor, now empty of guests, and going at once for Mrs. Pollard.

“She will see you, sir, I am sure,” was his last remark as he went out of the door, “for, though she is so very tired, she told me if you called to ask you to wait.”

I looked around on the somewhat desolate scene that presented itself, and doubtingly shook my head. This seeming submission on the part of a woman so indomitable as she, meant something. Either she was thoroughly frightened or else she meditated some treachery. In either case I needed all my self-command. Happily, the scene I had just quitted was yet vividly impressed upon my mind, and while it remained so, I felt as strong and unassailable as I had once felt weak and at the mercy of my fears.

I did not have to wait long. Almost immediately upon the servant’s call, Mrs. Pollard entered the room and stood before me. Her first glance told me all. She was frightened.

“Well?” she said, in a hard whisper, and with a covert look around as if she feared the very walls might hear us. “You have found the girl and you have come to ask for money. It is a reasonable request, and if you do not ask too much you shall have it. I think it will heal all wounds.”

My indignation flared up through all my horror and dismay.

“Money?” I cried, “money? what good will money do the dead; you have killed her, madam.”

“Killed her?” No wonder she grew pale, no wonder she half gasped. “Killed her?” she repeated.

“Yes,” I returned, not giving her time to think, much less speak. “Lured by you to a den of evil, she chose to die rather than live on in disgrace. The woman who lent you her clothes has been found, and — I see I have reached you at last,” I broke in. “I thought God’s justice would work.”

“I— I—” She had to moisten her lips before she could speak. “I don’t understand what you mean. You say I lured her, that is a lie. I never took her to this den of evil as you call it.”

“But you knew the street and number of the house, and you gave her into the hand of the woman who did take her there.”

“I knew the number of the house but I did not know it was a den of evil. I thought it was a respectable place, cheaper than the one she was in. I am sorry —”

“Madam,” I interrupted, “you will find it difficult to make the world believe you so destitute of good sense as not to know the character of the house to which such a woman as you entrusted her with would be likely to lead her. Besides, how will you account for the fact that, you wore a dress precisely like that of this creature when you enticed Miss Merriam away from her home. Is there any jury who will believe it to be a coincidence, especially when they learn that you kept your veil down in the presence of every one there?”

“But what proof have you that it was I who went for Miss Merriam? The word of this woman whom you yourself call a creature?

“The word of the landlady, who described Miss Merriam’s visitor as tall and of a handsome figure, and my own eyesight, which assured me that the woman who came with her to her place of death was not especially tall nor of a handsome figure. Besides, I talked to the latter, and found she could tell me nothing of the interior of the house where Miss Merriam boarded. She did not even know if the parlors were on the right or the left side of the hall.”

“Indeed!” came in Mrs. Pollard’s harshest and most cutting tones. But the attempted sarcasm failed. She was shaken to the core, and there was no use in her trying to hide it. I did not, therefore, seek to break the silence which followed the utterance of this bitter exclamation; for the sooner she understood the seriousness of her position the sooner I should see what my own duty was. Suddenly she spoke, but not in her former tones. The wily woman had sounded the depths of the gulf upon the brink of which she had inadvertently stumbled, and her voice, which had been harsh? and biting, now took on all the softness which hypocrisy could give it.

But her words were sarcastic as ever.

“I asked you a moment ago,” said she, “what money you wanted. I do not ask that now, as the girl is dead and a clergyman is not supposed to take much interest in filthy lucre. But you want something, or you would not be here. Is it revenge? It is a sentiment worthy of your cloth, and I can easily understand the desire you may have to indulge in it.”

“Madam,” I cried, “can you think of no other motive than a desire for vengeance or gain? Have you never heard of such a thing as justice?”

“And do you intend —” she whispered.

“There will be an inquest held,” I continued. “I shall be called as a witness, and so doubtless will you. Are you prepared to answer all and every question that will be put you?”

“An inquest?” Her face was quite ghastly now. “And have you taken pains to publish abroad my connection with this girl?”

“Not yet.”

“She is known, however, to be a grandchild of Mr. Pollard?”

“No,” said I.

“What is known?” she inquired.

“That she was Mr. Pollard’s protege.”

“And you, you alone, hold the key to her real history?”

“Yes,” I assented, “I.”

She advanced upon me with all the venom of her evil nature sparkling in her eye. I met the glance unmoved. For a reason I will hereafter divulge, I no longer felt any fear of what either she or hers might do.

“I alone know her history and what she owes to you,” I repeated. She instantly fell back. Whether she understood me or not, she saw that her hold upon me was gone, that the cowardice she had been witness to was dead, and that she, not I, must plead for mercy.

“Mr. Barrows,” said she; “what is this girl to you that you should sacrifice the living to her memory?”

“Mrs. Pollard,” I returned with equal intensity, “shall I tell you? She is the victim of my pusillanimity. That is what she is to me, and that is what makes her memory more to me than the peace or good name of her seemingly respectable murderers.”

Was it the word I used or did some notion of the effect which a true remorse can have upon a conscientious soul, pierce her cold heart at last? I cannot tell; I only know that she crouched for an instant as if a blow had fallen upon her haughty head, then rising erect again — she was a proud woman still and would be to her death, whatever her fate or fortune — she gave me an indescribable look, and in smothered tones remarked:

“Your sympathies are with the innocent. That is well; now come with me, I have another innocence to show you, and after you have seen it tell me whether innocence living or innocence dead has the most claim upon your pity and regard.” And before I realized what she was doing, she had led me across the room to a window, from which she hastily pulled aside the curtain that hung across it.

The sight that met my eyes was like a dream of fairyland let into the gloom and terror of a nightmare. The window overlooked the conservatory, and the latter being lighted, a vision of tropical verdure and burning blossoms flashed before us. But it was not upon this wealth of light and color that the gaze rested in the fullest astonishment and delight. It was upon two figures seated in the midst of these palm-trees and cacti, whose faces, turned the one towards the other, made a picture of love and joy that the coldest heart must feel, and the most stolid view with delight. It was the bridegroom and his bride, Mr. Harrington and the beautiful Agnes Pollard.

I felt the hand that lay upon my arm tremble.

“Have you the heart to dash such happiness as that?” murmured a voice in my ear.

Was it Mrs. Pollard speaking? I had never heard such a tone as that from her before. Turning, I looked at her. Her face was as changed as her voice; there was not only softness in it but appeal. It was no longer Mrs. Pollard who stood beside me, but the mother.

She has never made a mistake,” continued this terrible being, all the more terrible to me now that I saw capabilities of feeling in her. “She is young and has her whole life before her. If you pursue the claims of justice as you call them, her future will be wrecked. It is no fool she has married but a proud man, the proudest of his race. If he had known she had for a brother one whom his own country had sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, he would not have married her had his love been ten times what it is. It was because her family was honored and could bestow a small fortune upon her in dowry that he braved his English prejudices at all. What then do you think would be the result if he knew that not only was her brother a convict, but her mother ——” She did not finish, but broke in upon herself with a violence that partook of frenzy. “He would first ignore her, then hate her. I know these Englishmen well.”

It was true. The happiness or misery of this young creature hung upon my decision. A glance at her husband’s face made this evident. He would love her while he could be proud of her; he would hate her the moment her presence suggested shame or opprobrium.

My wily antagonist evidently saw I was impressed, for her face grew still softer and her tone more insinuating.

“She was her father’s darling,” she whispered. “He could never bear to see a frown upon her face or a tear in her eye. Could he know now what threatened her do you think he would wish you to drag disgrace upon her head for the sake of justice to a being who is dead?”

I did not reply. The truth was I felt staggered.

“See what an exquisite creature she is,” the mother now murmured in my ear. “Look at her well — she can bear it — and tell me where in the world you will find beauty more entrancing or a nature lovelier and more enticing?”

“Madam,” said I, turning upon her with a severity the moment seemed to deserve, “In a den of contamination, amid surroundings such as it will not do for me to mention even before her who could make use of them to destroy the innocence that trusted in her, there lies the dead body of one as pure, as lovely, and as attractive as this; indeed her beauty is more winning for it has not the stamp of worldliness upon it.”

The mother before me grew livid. Her brows contracted and she advanced upon me with a menacing gesture almost as if she would strike me. In all my experience of the world and of her I had never seen such rage; it was all but appalling. Involuntarily I raised my hand, in defence.

But she had already remembered her position and by a violent change now stood before me calm and collected as of old.

“You have been injured by me and have acquired the right to insult me,” cried she. Then as I made no move, said: “It is not of the dead we were speaking. It was of her, Samuel Pollard’s child. Do you intend to ruin her happiness or do you not? Speak, for it is a question I naturally desire to have settled.”

“Madam,” I now returned, edging away from that window with its seductive picture of youthful joy, “before I can settle it I must know certain facts. Not till I understand how you succeeded in enticing her from her home, and by what means you transferred her into the care of the vile woman who took your place, will I undertake to consider the possibility of withholding the denunciation which it is in my power to make.”

“And you expect me to tell —” she began.

“Every thing,” I finished, firmly.

She smiled with a drawing in of her lips that was feline. Then she glared; then she looked about her and approached nearer to me by another step.

“I wish I could kill you,” her look said. “I wish by the lifting of my finger you would fall dead.” But her lips made use of no such language. She was caught in the toils, and lioness as she was, found herself forced to obey the will that ensnared her.

“You want facts; well, you shall have them. You want to know how I managed to induce Miss Merriam to leave the house where my husband had put her. It is a simple question. Was I not her grandfather’s wife, and could I not be supposed to know what his desires were concerning her?”

“And the second fact?”

She looked at me darkly.

“You are very curious,” said she.

“I am,” said I.

Her baleful smile repeated itself.

“You think that by these confessions I will place myself in a position which will make it impossible for me, to press my request. You do not understand me, sir. Had I committed ten times the evil I have done, that would not justify you in wantonly destroying the happiness of the innocent.”

“I wish to know the facts,” I said.

“She went with me to a respectable eating house,” Mrs. Pollard at once explained. “Leave her to eat her lunch, I went to a place near by, where the woman you saw, met me by appointment, and putting on the clothes I had worn, went back for the girl in my stead. As I had taken pains not to raise my veil except just at the moment when I wanted to convince her I was her natural guardian, the woman had only to hold her tongue to make the deception successful. That she did this is evident from the result. Is there any thing more you would like to know?”

“Yes,” I replied, inwardly quaking before this revelation of an inconceivable wickedness, yet steadily resolved to probe it to the very depths. “What did you hope to gain by this deliberate plan of destruction? The girl’s death, or simply her degradation?”

The passion in this woman’s soul found its vent at last.

“I hoped to lose her; to blot her out of my path — and hers,” she more gently added, pointing with a finger that trembled with more than one fierce emotion, at the daughter for whom she had sacrificed so much. “I did not think the girl would die; I am no murderess whatever intimation you may make to that effect. I am simply a mother.”

A mother! O horrible! I looked at her and recoiled. That such a one as this should have the right to lay claim to so holy a title and asperse it thus!

She viewed my emotion but made no sign of understanding it. Her words poured forth like a stream of burning liquid.

“Do you realize what this girl’s living meant? It meant recognition, and consequently disgrace and a division of our property, the loss of my daughter’s dowry, and of all the hopes she had built on it. Was I, who had given to Samuel Pollard the very money by means of which he had made his wealth, to stand this? Not if a hundred daughters of convicts must perish.”

“And your sons?”

“What of them?”

“Had they no claim upon your consideration. When you plunged them into this abyss of greed and deceit did no phantom of their lost manhood rise and confront you with an unanswerable reproach?”

But she remained unmoved.

“My sons are men; they can take care of themselves.”

“But Dwight —”

Her self-possession vanished.

“Hush!” she whispered with a quick look around her. “Do not mention him. I have sent him away an hour ago but he may have come back. I do not trust him.”

This last clause she uttered beneath her breath and with a spasmodic clutch of her hand which showed she spoke involuntarily. I was moved at this. I began to hope that Dwight at least, was not all that his mother would have him.

“And yet I must speak of him,” said I, taking out the letter he had written to Miss Merriam. “This letter addressed to one you have so successfully destroyed seems to show that he returns your mistrust.”

She almost tore it out of my hands.

“When was this letter received?” she asked, reading it with burning eyes and writhing lips.

“The day after Miss Grace left her home.”

“Then she never saw it?”

“No.”

“Who has seen it?”

“Myself and you.”

“No one else?”

“No one but the writer.”

She laughed.

“We will destroy it,” she said; and deliberately tore it up.

I stooped and picked up the fragments.

“You forget,” said I, “this letter may be called for by the coroner. It is known that I took it in charge.”

“I might better have burnt it,” she hissed.

“Not so, I should then have had to explain its loss.”

Her old fear came back into her eyes.

“Now I have merely to give it up and leave it to Mr. Dwight Pollard to explain it. He doubtless can.”

“My son will never betray his mother.”

“Yet he could write this letter.”

She frowned.

“Dwight has his weakness,” said she.

“It is a pity his weakness did not lead him to send this letter a few hours sooner.”

“That is where his very weakness fails. He struggles because he knows his mother partly, and fails because he does not know her wholly.”

“And Guy?”

“He knows me better.”

The smile with which this was said was the culminating point in a display of depravity such as I had never beheld, even in hovels of acknowledged vice. Feeling that I could not endure much more, I hastened to finish the interview.

“Madam,” said I, “by your own acknowledgment you deserve neither consideration nor mercy. What leniency I then show will be for your daughter alone, who, in so far as I can see, is innocent and undeserving of the great retribution which I could so easily bring upon this family. But do not think because I promise to suppress your name from the account I may be called upon to give the coroner, that your sin will be forgotten by Heaven, or this young girl’s death go unavenged. As sure as you are the vilest woman I ever met, will suffering and despair overtake you. I do not know when, and I do not know by what means, but it will be bitter when it comes, and the hand of man will not be able to save you.”

But it was as if I had not spoken. All she seemed to hear, all, at least, that she paid the least attention to, was the promise I had made.

“You are decided, then, upon secrecy?” she asked.

“I am decided upon saying nothing that will bring your name into public notice.”

Her proud manner immediately returned. You would have thought she had never suffered a humiliation.

“But how will you account for your interest in this young person?”

“By telling a portion of the truth. I shall say that my attention was called to her by a letter from Mr. Pollard requesting me to hunt her up and take care of her after he was dead. I shall not say he called her his grandchild unless I am positively forced to do so, nor will I mention the treatment I have received at your hands.”

“And the woman you saw?”

“Is your business. I have nothing to do with her.”

The shadow which till this moment rested upon her haughty brow, cleared away. With a quick gesture, from which she could not entirely exclude a betrayal of triumph, she dropped the curtain across that charming picture of bridal felicity by which she had won so much, and turning upon me with all the condescension of a conqueror, she exclaimed:

“I once did you an injustice, Mr. Barrows, and called you a name that was but little complimentary to your cloth. Allow me to make such amends as I can and call you what you most surely are — the most generous and least vindictive of men.”

This was intolerable. I made haste to leave the room.

“Mrs. Pollard,” said I, “no amenities can take place between us. From this hour on we are strangers, till the time conies when we shall appear before the judgment-seat of God. In that day, neither you nor I can hold back one iota of the truth. Think of this, and repent your part in this awful tragedy of sin, if you can.” And I turned away toward the door.

But just as I was about to open it, it swung slowly aside, and in the frame-work made by the lintels, I saw Guy Pollard standing with a quiet look of inquiry on his face.

“Mother,” said he, in the calmest and most courteous of tones, “shall I let this gentleman pass?”

The reply came in accents equally calm and courteous:

“Certainly, my son.”

And Guy Pollard made me a deep bow, and drew softly aside from my path.

I had been within an inch of my death, but it scarcely ruffled me.

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