The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

iv.

The Pollards.

There’s something in his soul,

O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.

HAMLET.

Fearful as the experiences of this day had been, they were not yet at an end for me. Indeed, the most remarkable were to come. As I sat in this room of death — it was not far from midnight — I suddenly heard voices at the door, and Mrs. Gannon came in with Dr. Farnham.

“It is very extraordinary,” I heard him mutter as he crossed the threshold. “One dying and another dead, and both struck down by the same cause.”

I could not imagine what he mean, so I looked at him with some amazement. But he did not seem to heed me. Going straight to the bed, he gazed silently at Ada’s pure features, with what I could not but consider a troubled glance. Then turning quickly to Mrs. Gannon, he said, in his somewhat brusque way:

“All is over here; you can therefore leave. I have a patient who demands your instant care.”

“But ——” she began.

“I have come on purpose for you,” he put in, authoritatively. “It is an urgent case; do not keep me waiting.”

“But, sir,” she persisted, “it is impossible. I am expected early in the morning at Scott’s Corners, and was just going to bed when you came in, in order to get a little sleep before taking the train.”

“Dr. Perry’s case?”

“Yes.”

He frowned, and I am not sure but what he uttered a mild oath. At all events, he seemed very much put out.

I immediately drew near.

“Oh, sir,” I cried, “if you would have confidence in me. I am not unused to the work, and ——”

His stare frightened me, it was so searching and so keen.

“Who are you?” he asked.

I told him, and Mrs. Gannon put in a word for me. I was reliable, she said, and if too much experience was not wanted, would do better than such and such a one — naming certain persons, probably neighbors.

But the doctor’s steady look told me he relied more on his own judgment than on anything she or I could say.

“Can you hold your tongue?” he asked.

I started. Who would not have done so?

“I see that you can,” he muttered, and glanced down at my dress. “When can you be ready?” he inquired. “You may be wanted for days, and it may be only for hours.”

“Will ten minutes be soon enough?” I asked.

A smile difficult to fathom crossed his firm lip.

“I will give you fifteen,” he said, and turned towards the door. But on the threshold he paused and looked back. “You have not asked who or what your patient is,” he grimly suggested.

“No,” I answered shortly.

“Well,” said he, “it is Mrs. Pollard, and she is going to die.”

Mrs. Pollard! Mrs. Gannon and I involuntarily turned and looked at each other.

“Mrs. Pollard!” repeated the good nurse, wonderingly. “I did not know she was sick”

“She wasn’t this noon. It is a sudden attack. Apoplexy we call it. She fell at the news of Mr. Barrows’ death.”

And with this parting shot, he went out and closed the door behind him.

I sank, just a little bit weakened, on the lounge, then rose with renewed vigor. “The work has fallen into the right hands,” thought I. “Ada would wish me to leave her for such a task as this.”

And yet I was troubled. For though this sudden prostration of Mrs. Pollard, on the hearing of her young pastor’s sorrowful death, seemed to betoken a nature of more than ordinary sensibility, I had always heard that she was a hard woman, with an eye of steel and a heart that could only be reached through selfish interests. But then she was the magnate of the place, the beginning and end of the aristocracy of S——; and when is not such a one open to calumny? I was determined to reserve my judgment.

In the fifteen minutes allotted me, I was ready. Suitable arrangements had already been made for the removal of my poor Ada’s body to the house that held her lover. For the pathos of the situation had touched all hearts, and her wish to be laid in the same grave with him met with no opposition. I could therefore leave with a clear conscience; Mrs. Gannon promising to do all that was necessary, even if she were obliged to take a later train than she had expected to.

Dr. Farnham was in the parlor waiting for me, and uttered a grunt of satisfaction as he saw me enter, fully equipped.

“Come; this is business,” he said, and led the way at once to his carriage.

We did not speak for the first block. He seemed meditating, and I was summoning up courage for the ordeal before me. For, now that we were started, I began to feel a certain inward trembling not to be entirely accounted for by the fact that I was going into a strange house to nurse a woman of whom report did not speak any too kindly. Nor did the lateness of the hour, and the desolate aspect of the unlighted streets, tend greatly to reassure me.

Indeed, something of the weird and uncanny seemed to mingle with the whole situation, and I found myself dreading our approach to the house, which from its old-time air and secluded position had always worn for me an aspect of gloomy reserve, that made it even in the daylight, a spot of somewhat fearful interest.

Dr. Farnham, who may have suspected my agitation, though he gave no token of doing so, suddenly spoke up.

“It is only right to tell you,” he said, “that I should never have accepted the service of an inexperienced girl like you, if any thing was necessary but watchfulness and discretion. Mrs. Pollard lies unconscious, and all you will have to do is to sit at her side and wait for the first dawning of returning reason. It may come at any moment, and it may never come at all. She is a very sick woman.”

“I understand,” I murmured, plucking up heart at what did not seem so very difficult a task.

“Her sons will be within call; so will I. By daybreak we hope to have her daughter from Newport with her. You do not know Mrs. Harrington?”

I shook my head. Who was I, that I should know these grand folks? And yet —— But I promised I would say nothing about days now so completely obliterated.

“She will not be much of an assistance,” he muttered. “But it is right she should come — quite right.”

I remembered that I had heard that Mrs. Pollard’s daughter was a beauty, and that she had made a fine match; which, said of Mrs. Pollard’s daughter, must have meant a great deal. I, however, said nothing, only listened in a vague hope of hearing more, for my curiosity was aroused in a strange way about these people, and nothing which the good doctor could have said about them would have come amiss at this time.

But our drive had been too rapid, and we were too near the house for him to think of any thing but turning into the gateway with the necessary caution. For the night was unusually dark, and it was difficult to tell just where the gate-posts were. We, however, entered without accident, and in another moment a gleam of light greeted us from the distant porch.

“They are expecting us,” he said, and touched up his horse. We flew up the gravelled road, and before I could still the sudden heart~beat that attacked me at sight of the grim row of cedars which surrounded the house, we were hurrying up between the two huge lions rampant that flanked the steps, to where a servant stood holding open the door. A sense of gloom and chill at once overwhelmed me. From the interior, which I faintly saw stretching before me, there breathed even in that first moment of hurried entrance a cold and haughty grandeur that, however rich and awe-inspiring, was any thing but attractive to a nature like mine.

Drawing back, I let Dr. Farnham take the lead, which he did in his own brusque way. And then I saw what the dim light had not revealed before, a young man’s form standing by the newel-post of the wide staircase that rose at our left. He at once came forward, and as the light from the lamp above us fell fully upon him, I saw his face, and started.

Why? I could not tell. Not because his handsome features struck me pleasantly, for they did not. There was something in their expression which I did not like, and yet as I looked at them a sudden sensation swept over me that made my apprehensions of a moment back seem like child’s play, and I became conscious that if a sudden call of life or death were behind me urging me on the instant to quit the house, I could not do it while that face was before me to be fathomed, and, if possible, understood.

“Ah, I see you have brought the nurse,” were the words with which he greeted Dr. Farnham. And the voice was as thrilling in its tone as the face was in its expression. “But,” he suddenly exclaimed, as his eyes met mine, “this is not Mrs. Gannon.” And he hurriedly drew the doctor down the hall. “Why have you brought this young girl?” he asked, in tones which, however lowered, I could easily distinguish. “Didn’t you know there were reasons why we especially wanted an elderly person?”

“No,” I heard the doctor say, and then, his back being towards me, I lost the rest of his speech till the words, “She is no gossip,” came to salute me and make me ask myself if there was a secret skeleton in this house, that they feared so much the eyes of a stranger.

“But,” the young man went hurriedly on, “she is not at all the kind of person to have over my mother. How could we ——” and there his voice fell so as to become unintelligible.

But the doctor’s sudden exclamation helped me out.

“What!” he wonderingly cried, “do you intend to sit up too?”

“I or my brother,” was the calm response, “Would you expect us to leave her alone with a stranger?”

The doctor made no answer, and the young man, taking a step sidewise, threw me a glance full of anxiety and trouble.

“I don’t like it,” he murmured; “but there must be a woman of some kind in the room, and a stranger ——”

He did not finish his words, but it seemed as if he were going to say: “And a stranger may, after all, be preferable to a neighbor.” But I cannot be sure of this, for he was not a man easy to sound. But what I do know is that he stepped forward, to me with an easy grace, and giving me a welcome as courteous as if I had been the one of all others he desired to see, led me up the stairs to a room which he announced to be mine, saying, as he left me at the door:

“Come out in five minutes, and my brother will introduce you to your duties.”

So far I had seen no woman in the house, and I was beginning to wonder if Mrs. Pollard had preferred to surround herself with males, when the door was suddenly opened and a rosy-cheeked girl stepped in.

“Ah, excuse me,” she said, with a stare; “I thought it was the nurse as was here.”

“And it is the nurse,” I returned, smiling in spite of myself at her look of indignant surprise. “Do you want any thing of me?” I hastened to ask, for her eyes were like saucers and her head was tossing airily.

“No,” she said, almost with spite. “I came to see if you wanted any thing?”

I shook my head with what good nature I could, for I did not wish to make an enemy in this house, even of a chambermaid.

“And you are really the nurse?” she asked, coming nearer and looking at me in the full glare of the gas.

“Yes,” I assured her, “really and truly the nurse.”

“Well, I don’t understand it!” she cried. “I was always Mrs. Pollard’s favorite maid, and I was with her when she was took, and would be with her now, but they won’t let me set a foot inside the door. And when I asked why they keep me out, who was always attentive and good to her, they say I am too young. And here you be younger than I, and a stranger too. I don’t like it,” she cried, tossing her head again and again. “I haven’t deserved it, and I think it is mighty mean.”

I saw the girl was really hurt, so I hastened to explain that I was not the nurse they expected, and was succeeding, I think, in mollifying her, when a step was heard in the hall, and she gave a frightened start, and hurried towards the door.

“So you are sure you don’t want anything?” she cried, and was out of my sight before I could answer.

There was nothing to detain me, and I hastened to follow. As I crossed the sill I almost started too, at sight of the tall, slim, truly sinister figure that awaited me, leaning against the opposite wall. He was younger than his brother, and had similar features, but there was no charm here to make you forget that the eye was darkly glittering, and the lip formidable in its subtlety and power. He advanced with much of the easy nonchalance that had so characterized the other.

“Miss Sterling, I believe,” said he; and with no further word, turned and led me down the hall to the sick-room. I noticed even then that he paused and listened before he pushed open the door, and that with our first step inside he cast a look of inquiry at the bed that had something beside a son’s loving anxiety in it. And I hated the man as I would a serpent, though he bowed as he set me a chair, and was careful to move a light he thought shone a little too directly in my eyes.

The other brother was not present, and I could give my undivided attention to my charge. I found her what report had proclaimed her to be, a handsome woman of the sternly imposing type. Even with her age against her and the shadow of death lying on her brow and cheek, there was something strangely attractive in the features and the stately contour of her form. But it was attraction that was confined to the eye, and could by no means allure the heart, for the same seal of mysterious reserve was upon her that characterized her sons, and in her, as in the younger one of these, it inspired a distrust which I could imagine no smile as dissipating. She lay in a state of coma, and her heavy breathing was the only sound that broke the silence of the great room. “God help me!” thought I; but had no wish to leave. Instead of that, I felt a fearful pleasure in the prospect before me — such effect had a single look had upon me from eyes I trembled to meet again or read.

I do not know how long I sat there gazing in the one direction for that faint sign of life for which the doctor had bid me watch. That he who inspired me with dread was behind me, I knew; but I would not turn my head towards him. I was determined to resist the power of this man, even if I must succumb a trifle to that of the other.

I was, therefore, surprised when a hand was thrust over my shoulder, and a fan dropped into my lap.

“It is warm here,” was the comment which accompanied the action.

I thanked him, but felt that his sole object had been to cover his change of position. For, when he sat down again, it was where he could see my face. I therefore felt justified in plying the fan he had offered me, in such a way as to shut off his somewhat basilisk gaze. And so a dreary hour went by.

It was now well on towards morning, and I was beginning to suffer from the languor natural after so many harrowing excitements, when the door opened behind me, and the electric thrill shooting through all my members, testified as to whose step it was that entered. At the same moment the young man at my side arose, and with what I felt to be a last sharp look in my direction, hastened to where his brother stood, and entered into a whispered conversation with him. Then I heard the door close again, and almost at the same instant Mr. Pollard the elder advanced, and without seeking an excuse for his action, sat down close by my side. The fan at once dropped; I had no wish to avoid this man’s scrutiny.

And yet when with a secret bracing of my nerves I looked up and met his eyes fixed with that baffling expression upon mine, I own that I felt an inward alarm, as if something vaguely dangerous had reared itself in my path, which by its very charm instinctively bade me beware. I, however, subdued my apprehensions, thinking, with a certain haughty pride which I fear will never be eliminated from my nature, of the dangers I had already met with and overcome in my brief but troubled life; and meeting his look with a smile which I knew to contain a spice of audacity, I calmly waited for the words I felt to be hovering upon his lips. They were scarcely the ones I expected.

“Miss Sterling,” said he, “you have seen Anice, my mother’s waiting~maid?”

I bowed. I was too much disconcerted to speak.

“And she has told you her story of my mother’s illness?” he went on, pitilessly holding me with his glance. “You need not answer,” he again proceeded, as I opened my lips. “I know Anice; she has not the gift of keeping her thoughts to herself.”

“An unfortunate thing in this house,” I inwardly commented, and made a determination on the spot that whatever emotions I might experience from the mysteries surrounding me, this master of reserve should find there was one who could keep her thoughts to herself, even, perhaps, to his own secret disappointment and chagrin.

“She told you my mother was stricken at the sudden news of Mr. Barrows’ death?”

“That was told me,” I answered; for this was a direct question, put, too, with an effort I could not help but feel, notwithstanding the evident wish on his part to preserve an appearance of calmness.

“Then some explanation is needed,” he remarked, his eyes flashing from his mother’s face to mine with equal force and intentness. “My mother”— his words were low, but it was impossible not to hear them —“has not been well since my father died, two months ago. It needed but the slightest shock to produce the result you unhappily see before you. That shock this very girl supplied by the inconsiderate relation of Mr. Barrows’ fearful fate. We have taken a prejudice against the girl, in consequence. Do you blame us? This is our mother.”

What could I feel or say but No? What could any one, under the circumstances? Why then did a sudden vision of Ada’s face, as she gave me that last look, rise up before me, bidding me remember the cause to which I was pledged, and not put too much faith in this man and his plausible explanations.

“I only hope death will not follow the frightful occurrence,” he concluded; and do what he would, his features became drawn, and his face white, as his looks wandered back to his mother.

A sudden impulse seized me.

“Another death, you mean,” said I; “one already has marked the event, though it happened only a few short hours ago.”

His eyes flashed to mine, and a very vivid and real horror blanched his already pallid cheek till it looked blue in the dim light.

“What do you mean?” he gasped; and I saw the doctor had refrained from telling him of Ada’s pitiful doom.

“I mean,” said I, with a secret compunction I strove in vain to subdue, “that Mr. Barrows’ betrothed could not survive his terrible fate — that she died a few hours since, and will be buried in the same grave as her lover.”

“His betrothed?” Young Mr. Pollard had risen to his feet, and was actually staggering under the shock of his emotions. “I did not know he had any betrothed. I thought she had jilted him ——”

“It is another woman,” I broke in, jealous for my poor dead Ada’s fame. “The woman he was formerly engaged to never loved him; but this one ——” I could not finish the sentence. My own agitation was beginning to master me.

He looked at me, horrified, and I could have sworn the hair rose on his forehead.

“What was her name?” he asked. “Is it — is it any one I know?” Then, as if suddenly conscious that he was betraying too keen an emotion for the occasion, pitiful as it was, he forced his lips into a steadier curve, and quietly said: “After what has happened here, I am naturally overcome by a circumstance so coincident with our own trouble.”

“Naturally,” I assented with a bow, and again felt that secret distrust warring with a new feeling that was not unlike compassion.

“Her name is Ada Reynolds,” I continued, remembering his last question. “She lived ——”

“I know,” he interrupted; and without another word walked away, and for a long time stood silent at the other end of the room. Then he came back and sat down, and when I summoned up courage to glance at his face, I saw that a change had passed over it, that in all probability was a change for life.

And my heart sank — sank till I almost envied that unconscious form before which we sat, and from which alone now came the one sound which disturbed the ghostly silence of that dread chamber.

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