The Mill Mystery, by Anna Katherine Green

viii.

A Flower from the Pollard Conservatory.

You may wear your rue with a difference.

HAMLET.

Mrs. Harrington did not immediately recover from the shock she had received. I therefore found myself fully employed the next day. Towards evening, however, a respite came, and I took the opportunity for a stroll up-street, as much for the sake of hearing the gossip of the town as to escape from the atmosphere of sorrow and perplexity by which I was surrounded.

My walk down to the gate was full of a certain uneasy apprehension. I had made no secret of my intentions at the supper-table, and for the reason that neither of the brothers had ventured upon any reply to my remark, I expected one, if not both, of them to join me on the way. But I reached the last turn of the path without meeting any one, and I was congratulating myself upon the prospect of having an hour of perfect freedom, when I detected, leaning on the gate before me, the firm, well-knit figure of a man.

As the two Pollards were more or less alike in form, I could not distinguish at first glance which of the brothers it was. I therefore faltered back a step, and was indeed debating whether I should not give up my project and return to the house, when I saw the gentleman’s head turn, and realized that it was too late to retreat. I therefore advanced with as much calmness as I could assume, determined not to vary my conduct, no matter which of the brothers it should turn out to be. But, to my great surprise, the gentleman before me gave me no opportunity to test my resolution. No sooner did he perceive me than he made a hurried gesture that I did not at that moment understand; and, just lifting his hat in courteous farewell, vanished from my sight in the thick bushes which at that place encumbered the grounds.

“It was Dwight; it was Guy,” I alternately explained to myself, and knew not whether it would give me most relief to find myself shunned by the one or the other. My final conclusion, that I wished to have nothing further to do with either of them, received, notwithstanding, a rude shock when I arrived at the gate-post. For there, on its broad top, lay a magnificent blossom, the choicest fruit of the hot-house, and it was to beg my acceptance of this that the gentleman had made the peculiar gesture I had noticed — an act which, if it came from Dwight, certainly possessed a significance which I was not yet ready to ignore; while, if it proceeded from his cold and crafty brother — But I would not allow myself to dwell upon that possibility. The flower must be mine, and if afterwards I found that it was to Guy I owed its possession, it would be time enough then for me to determine what to do. So I took the gorgeous blossom off the post and was speeding away down the street, when I was suddenly stopped by the thought that only Guy would have the egotism to bestow a gift upon me in this way; that Dwight, if he had wished to present it at all, would have done so with his own hand, and not left it lying on a gate-post with the assurance it would be gathered up by the fortunate recipient of his favor.

Disgusted with myself, and instantly alive to the possible consequences of my act, I opened my fingers with the laudable intention of dropping the flower to the ground, when I saw standing in the road directly in front of me the beautiful idiot boy whose peculiarities of appearance and conduct had so attracted my attention in the summer-house the day before. He was looking at me with a strange gaze of mingled curiosity and imbecile good-nature, and his hands, white as milk, trembled in the air before him, as if he could scarcely restrain himself from snatching out of my grasp the superb flower I seemed so willing to throw away.

A happy impulse seized me.

“Here,” said I, proffering him the blossom. “This will give you more pleasure than it will me.”

But, to my great astonishment, he turned on his heel with a loud laugh, and then, shaking his head, and rolling it curiously from side to side, exclaimed, with his usual repetition:

“No, no, it is a lover’s gift, a lover’s gift; you will wear it in your hair.” And he danced about me with grotesque gayety for a moment, then flitted away to a position from which he could still see me without being within reach of my hand.

Under these circumstances I was too proud to fling the flower away; so I dropped it into a basket I held, and walked swiftly down the street. The idiot boy followed me; now skipping a pace or two in advance, and now falling back till I had passed far beyond him. As he flashed back and forth, I saw that his eyes were always on my face, and once, as I confronted him with mine, he broke out into a series of chuckles, and cried: “Do they like you now? do they like you now?” and laughed and danced, and laughed again, till I began to find the situation somewhat embarrassing, and was glad enough when at the corner of a street he disappeared from my view, with the final cry of: “One day, two days; wait till you have been there ten; wait till you have been there twenty!”

Hot and trembling with apprehension lest his foolish speeches had been heard by some passer-by, I hurried on my way to the house where I lived. I reached it in a few minutes, and being so fortunate as to find my landlady in, succeeded before another half-hour had passed in learning all that was generally known about the serious occurrences in which I was just then so profoundly interested.

I heard first that the vat in the old mill had been examined for the purpose of ascertaining how it came to be full enough of water to drown a man; and it was found that, owing to a heavy storm which had lately devastated the country, a portion of the wall above the vat had been broken in by a falling tree, allowing the rain to enter in floods from a jutting portion of the roof. Next, that although an inquest had been held over Mr. Barrows’ remains, and a verdict been given of accidental death, the common judgment of the community ascribed his end to suicide. This was mainly owing to the fact that the woman in whose house he had lived had testified to having observed a great change in his appearance during the last few weeks; a change which many were now ready to allow they had themselves perceived; though, from the fact of its having escaped the attention of Ada, I cannot but think they were greatly helped to this conclusion by their own imagination.

The last thing I made sure of was that the two deaths which had followed his so tragically had awakened on all sides the deepest interest and pity, but nothing more. That although the general features of Mrs. Pollard’s end were well enough known, no whisper of suspicion had been breathed against her or hers, that showed in the faintest way that any doubt mingled with the general feeling of commiseration. And yet it was too evident she was no favorite with the world at large, and that the respect with which she was universally mentioned was rather the result of the pride felt in her commanding manners and position, than from any personal liking for the woman herself.

As for the sons, they were fine young men in their way, and had the sympathy of everybody in their bereavement; but gossip, if it busied itself with their names at all, was much more interested in wondering what disposition they would make of the property now coming to them, than in inquiring whether or not they could have had any secret relations with the man now dead, which were calculated to explain in any way his mysterious end.

Finally I learned that Ada and Mr. Barrows were to be buried the next day.

Satisfied with the information obtained, I started immediately for the Pollard mansion. It was my wish to re-enter it before dark. But the twilight fell fast, and by the time I reached the gate I could barely discern that a masculine figure was again leaning there, waiting, as it appeared, for my return. The discovery caused me a sensation of relief. Now I should at least learn which of the two brothers showed this interest in my movements, for this time the gentleman betrayed no disposition to leave at my approach; on the contrary, he advanced, and in the mellow accents I had learned in so short a time to listen for, observed:

“I knew you wished to go alone, Miss Sterling, or I should have offered you my protection in your dismal walk. I am glad to see you return before it is quite dark.”

“Thank you,” I responded, with almost a degree of joyousness in my tone, I was so glad to be rid of the perplexity that had weighed down my spirits for the last half-hour. “It is not pleasant to walk the streets at dusk alone, but necessity has accustomed me to it, and I scarcely think of its dangers now.”

“You utter that in a proud tone,” he declared, reaching out and taking the basket that hung on my arm.

“I have reason to,” I replied, glad it was so dark he could not see the blush which his action had caused. “It was no slight struggle for me to overcome certain prejudices in which I have been reared. That I have been able to do so gives me wholesome satisfaction. I am no longer ashamed to own that I stand by myself, and work for every benefit I obtain.”

“Nor need you be,” he murmured. “In this age and in this country a woman like you forfeits nothing by maintaining her own independence. On the contrary, she gains something, and that is the respect of every true-hearted man that knows her.” And his step lagged more and more in spite of my conscientious efforts to maintain the brisk pace in which I had indulged before I had encountered him at the gate.

“This is a grand old place,” I remarked, vaguely anxious to change the drift of the conversation.

“Yes,” he answered, moodily; “but it is shadowed.” And with a sudden relapse into his most sombre self, he walked at my side in silence, till the sight of the high porch showing itself through the trees warned him that if he had any thing further to say to me, it must be said soon. He therefore paused, forcing me by the action to pause too, and earnestly observed: “I know, however you may address me, Miss Sterling, you cherish a doubt of me in your heart. I cannot resent this, much as my natural pride might prompt me to do so. During the short time in which I have known you, you have won so deeply upon my esteem, that the utmost which I feel able to ask of you under the circumstances is, that, in the two or three days you will yet remain with us, you will allow yourself but one thought concerning me, and that is, that I aspire to be an honest man, and to do not only what the world thinks right, but even what such a conscientious soul as yours must consider so. Are you willing to regard me in this light, and will my mere word be sufficient to cause you to do so?”

It was a searching question after his proffer, and my acceptance of the flower I held concealed, and I hesitated a moment before replying to it. I am so intensely proud; and then I could not but acknowledge to myself that, whatever my excuse, I was certainly running a risk of no ordinary nature in listening to the addresses of a man who could inspire me, or ever had inspired me, with the faintest element of distrust.

He noted my silence and drew back, uttering a sigh that was half impatient and half sorrowful. I felt this sigh, nondescript as it was, re-echo painfully in my heart, and hung my head in remorse; but not before I had caught a glimpse of his face, and been struck by its expression of deep melancholy.

“You have no favor to show me, then?” he asked.

Instantly and without premeditation I seized upon the basket he held in his hand, and impetuously opened the lid.

“Have I not shown you one?” I inquired.

A sound — it never came from him or from me — made us both start. With a fierce expression he turned towards the bushes at our right, but not before I had seen, by the look of astonishment he had cast upon the flower, that, notwithstanding the coincidence of finding him at the gate, he had had nothing to do with its culling or presentation.

“Some one is presuming to play the spy upon us,” said he, and drawing my hand through his arm, he led me swiftly towards the porch. “You need not tremble so,” he whispered, as we halted an instant between the cedars before mounting the steep steps. “No one in this house wishes to annoy you — or if there should be any one who does,” he corrected in a quick tone, while he cast a glance of quick suspicion at the basket in my hand, “that person and I will soon come to an understanding.”

“I was only startled,” was my quick rejoinder, glad to explain my tremulousness in this way. “Let us go in,” I added, feeling that I must escape to some place of solitude, if only to hide my shame and chagrin from every eye.

He acquiesced in my wishes at once, and we were proceeding slowly up the steps, when suddenly a shrill, strange laugh broke from amid the bushes, and the weird voice of the idiot boy, whom I thought had been left behind me in the town, rose once more to my ear, uttering those same words which had so annoyed me earlier in the evening.

“Oh, do you think they like you now? Say, say, do you think they like you now?” But the tone with which he addressed me this time had a ring of menace in it, and I was not surprised to see Dwight Pollard start, though I was somewhat affected by the deep agitation he showed as I tried to explain:

“Oh, it is only the little idiot boy whom you must have seen running about the streets. He seems to have taken a fancy to me, for he followed me nearly all the while I was gone, with something of the same senseless remarks as now.”

“The idiot boy!” repeated Mr. Pollard. “Well, we will leave the idiot boy outside.” And he held the door open till I had hurried in, when he vehemently closed it, looking at the same time as if he had shut the door on a threatening evil, or, at the most, on a bitter and haunting memory.

That night I did an unworthy thing; I listened to conversation which was not intended for my ears. It happened in this wise: I had been down-stairs on an errand for Mrs. Harrington, and was coming back through the dimly lighted hall, when I saw Dwight Pollard step out of a room in front of me and accost a man that was locking and bolting the front door.

“Simon,” I heard him say, “you remember that beautiful flower I noticed yesterday in the conservatory?”

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, with some embarrassment in his voice.

“Well, I want it picked to-morrow for my mother’s funeral. You will bring it to my room.”

“Oh, sir,” I heard the man hurriedly interpose, “I’m sure I’m very sorry, sir; but it has already been picked, and there won’t be another out before next week.”

I knew I ought not to stay there and listen, especially as I could easily have gone on my way without attracting attention; but having heard thus much, I found it impossible to go on till I had at least learned if Mr. Pollard had the motive I suspected in these inquiries of his. His next words satisfied me on this point.

“And who was the fortunate one to obtain this flower?” he asked, in an accent indifferent enough to deceive a merely casual listener.

“Mr. Guy, sir.”

“Ah, so he noticed it too!” was the remark with which Mr. Pollard dropped the subject, and hurried away from the gardener’s side.

The next instant I perceived him pass into Guy’s room, and I saw that an explanation of some kind was about to take place between the brothers.

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