How all the other passions fleet to air,
As doubtful thoughts and rash embrac’d despair,
And shuddering fear, and green-ey’d jealousy.
O love, be moderate; allay thy ecstasy.
MER. OF VENICE.
I had finished it; the last line had been read, and I sat in a maze of astonishment and awe. What my thoughts were, what my judgment upon this astounding act of self-destruction for conscience sake, it will not interest you to know. In a matter so complicated with questions of right and wrong, each man must feel for himself, and out of his own nature adjudge praise, or express censure; I, Constance Sterling, shall do neither; I can only wonder and be still.
One point, however, in this lengthy confession I will allude to, as it involves a fact. Mr. Barrows says that he goes to his death, the same death from which he fled when he yielded to the threats of Guy Pollard and gave up the will. He expected, therefore, to find the vat dry, and looked forward to hours, if not days, of long-drawn suffering in a spot devoid of warmth, light, water, and food. His injunction to Ada in that last letter of his — not to make any move to find him for ten days — favors this idea, and proves what his expectations were.
But, by the mercy of God, the vat had been half filled with water in the interim which had elapsed between his first and last visit to the mill, and the prison thus becoming a cistern, he must have come to his end in a few moments after his fatal plunge. It was the one relief which a contemplation of this tragedy brought to my overwrought mind.
But with the next day came a reaction; and with a heart full of rejoicing, I prepared to communicate to Dwight Pollard the fact of his release from the dominion of Rhoda Colwell. For whether this record of the past showed him to be a man worthy of full honor or not, it certainly sufficed to exonerate him from all suspicion of being the direct cause of David Barrow’s death, and I knew her well enough, or thought I did, to feel certain that no revenge, unless the greatest, would ever satisfy her, and that in losing her hold upon his life and love, she would make no attempt that would merely darken his name before the world. It was therefore with a fearless heart I penned the following lines.
Your suspicions were unfounded. I have Mr. Barrows’ own words to the effect that he meditated death by imprisonment in the vat. I go to acquaint Dwight Pollard with the fact that any accusation on your part must fail before the minute and circumstantial confession which Mr. Barrows has left behind him.
Signing this letter, I despatched it at once to its destination; then taking the important manuscript in my hand, I set out for the Pollard mansion.
It was a day full of sunshine and promise. As I sped through the streets and approached that end of the town which hitherto it had taken all my courage to face, I was astonished at the lightness of my own heart and the beneficent aspect which every object about me seemed to have acquired. Even the place I had come to visit looked less dreary than usual, and I found myself in the grounds and half way up the stoop, before I realized the least falling of that shadow which seemed inseparable from this particular spot. And even now it only came with the thought of Guy, whose possible presence at the door would be any thing but desirable. But my errand being one of peace I was enabled to contemplate even this contingency with equanimity, and was about to ring the bell with a trembling but determined hand, when the door suddenly opened and Dwight Pollard stood before me.
The look of surprise and delight which he gave me brought the color to my cheeks.
“Ah, what a pleasure!” he murmured. Then with a quick look in my face, added earnestly, “You bring good news.”
“The best,” I answered cheerily, and following him in, I took my stand once more in that dismal parlor where weeks ago I had received my first intimation of the feeling which his every look and gesture now conveyed.
“Mr. Pollard,” I now managed to say with a certain dignity, “you see me here because Providence has lately put into my hands a document which completely exonerates you from the charges which Rhoda Colwell has threatened to make against you. Read it, and when you understand the tragedy we so much deplore, we will see how much or how little can be done with the lives it has so deeply affected.” And placing the thickly written sheets in his hands I withdrew to the first window I saw and mechanically threw aside the curtains that hid it.
The sight that met my gaze made me for an instant forget the importance of what I had just done. The window I had chosen was the one which looked into the conservatory, and the picture which Mr. Barrows describes as having seen from this spot was then and there before my eyes. The tropical growth, the gorgeous blossoms, even the beautiful woman and the sturdy man. Mr. and Mrs. Harrington were lovers, then, still. The mother’s death and that of the devoted clergyman had not served to reveal the secret which secured the happiness of this bright, attractive, if somewhat worldly, pair. I own I was glad of this, little as I felt myself in sympathy with the radiant but superficial Agnes. Youth, love, and joy are so precious that it lightens the heart to behold their sunshine even on the faces of those whose characters we do not envy.
Nevertheless, the thoughts suggested by this unexpected scene did not long serve to distract me from the more serious matter in hand. Dropping the curtains, I cast one look, toward Mr. Pollard. He was sitting with his face bent over the manuscript, a deep corrugation marked his brow, and a settled look of pain his mouth. I turned away again; I could not bear that look; all my strength was needed for the effort which it might possibly be my duty to make. I sat down in a remote corner and diligently set my soul to patience.
It was well, for my suspense was long, so long that hope and courage began to fail and an inward trembling to take the place of the joyous emotions with which I had placed this confession in his hands. Nevertheless, it came to an end at last, and, with an agitation easy to conceive, I heard him roll the manuscript up, rise, and approach to where I sat. I did not look up, I could not; but I felt his gaze burning through my half-closed lids, and terrified lest I should reveal my weakness and my hopes, I set my lips together, and stilled the beatings of my heart, till I must have struck his sense with the chill and immobility of a totally insensible woman. The despair which the sight caused him, showed itself in his tone when he spoke.
“You share my own opinion of myself,” said he. “You consider me the destroyer of Mr. Barrows.”
I looked up. What grief, what shame, what love I beheld in the face above me. Slowly I shook my head.
“Mr. Barrows does not accuse you,” said I. Then, determined to be truthful to the core at all risks and at all hazards, I added earnestly, “But you were to blame; greatly to blame; I shall never hide that fact from you or from myself. I should be unworthy of your esteem if I did.”
“Yes,” he earnestly assented, “and I would be less than a man if I did not agree with you.” Then, in a lower tone and with greater earnestness yet, continued, “It is not pleasant for a man to speak ill of his own flesh and blood; but after having read words as condemnatory as these, it may be pardoned me, perhaps, if I speak as much of the truth as is necessary to present myself in a fair light to the woman upon whose good opinion rests all my future happiness. Constance, I love you —”
But at this word I had hurriedly risen.
“Oh!” I somewhat incoherently exclaimed; “not here! not under your own roof!”
But at his look I sank back.
“Yes,” he imperatively cried, “here and now. I cannot wait another day, another hour. My love for you is too great, too absorbing, for any paltry considerations to interpose themselves upon my attention now. I must tell you what you are to me, and ask you, as you are a just and honest woman, to listen while I lay bare to you my life — the life I long to consecrate to your happiness, Constance.”
I looked up.
“Thank you,” he murmured; but whether in return for my look or the smile which his look involuntarily called up, I cannot say, for he went on instantly in continuation of his former train of thought, “Constance, you have read this confession from Mr. Barrows which you have just placed in my hands?”
“Yes,” I nodded gravely.
“You can, then, understand what a dilemma we were in some three months ago. My sister had attracted the notice of an English aristocrat. He loved her and wished to marry her. We admired him — or rather we admired his position (I would be bitterly true at this hour) and wished to see the union effected. But there was a secret in our family, which if known, would make such a marriage impossible. A crime perpetrated before my birth had attached disgrace to our name and race, and Mr. Harrington is a man to fly disgrace quicker than he would death. Miss Sterling, it would be useless for me to try to make myself out better than I am. When I heard that my father, whom I am just beginning to revere but of whom in those days I had rather a careless opinion, was determined to acknowledge his convict son through the daughter which had been sent over here, I revolted. Not that I begrudged this young girl the money he wished to leave her — though from a somewhat morbid idea of reparation which my father possessed, he desired to give her an amount that would materially affect our fortunes — but that I loved my sister, and above all loved the proud and isolated position we had obtained in society, and could not endure the results which the revelation of such a stain in, our family must produce. Not my mother, whose whole life since her marriage had been one haughty protest against this secret shame, nor Guy, with all his cynicism and pride, felt stronger on this point than I. To my warped judgment any action within the bounds of reason seemed justifiable that would prevent my dying father from bringing this disgrace upon his children; and being accustomed to defer to my mother’s judgments and desires — she was not only a powerful woman, Constance, but possessed of a strange fascination for those she loved and sought to govern — I lent myself sufficiently to her schemes to stand neutral in the struggle between my father’s wishes and her determination, though that father would often turn upon me with a gaze of entreaty that went to my heart. That he had taken advantage of his last journey to Boston to have a new will drawn, and that his only desire now was for an opportunity to get this same safely transferred into the hands of his lawyer, I never suspected any more than did my mother or brother. We thought that as far as the past was concerned we were secure, and that if we could prevent an interview between him and Mr. Nicholls, the future would likewise be safe from a discovery of our secret It was therefore a terrible shock to my mother and afterwards to me when we learned that he had already accomplished the act we so much dreaded and that the clergyman we had called in at my father’s urgent request, had been entrusted with the paper that was to proclaim our shame to the world. But the disappointment, great as it was, had little time to exert its force on me, for with my brother’s recital of what had taken place at my father’s death-bed there came a new dread which I find it difficult to name but which you will understand when I say that it led me to give Mr. Barrows the warning of which he has spoken. My brother — I cannot speak of him with calmness — is a man to be feared, Miss Sterling. Not that I would not be a match for him in all matters of open enmity; but in ways of secrecy and deep dealing, he is master, and all the more to be dreaded that he makes it impossible for one to understand him or measure the depths of turpitude to which he would descend. When, therefore I heard him say he should have that will back before it could pass into the hands of Mr. Nicholls, I trembled; and as the night passed and morning came without showing any diminution in the set determination of his expression, I decided upon visiting Mr. Barrows, in the hope of influencing him to return the will of his own accord. But I soon saw that in spite of the weakness I detected in him there was small prospect of his doing this; and turning my steps home again, I confronted my mother and my brother and asked them what they meant to do; they told me, that is, they told me partly; and I, with that worse dread in my soul, was fain to be satisfied with the merely base and dishonorable scheme they meditated. To take Mr. Barrows at a disadvantage, to argue with him, threaten him, and perhaps awe him by place and surroundings to surrender to them the object of their desires, did not seem to me so dreadful, when I thought of what they might have done or might yet attempt to do if I stood in their way too much. So, merely stipulating that they would allow me to accompany them to the mill, I let matters take their course, and true to my own secret desire to retain their confidence and so save him, and if possible them, from any act that would entail consequences of a really serious nature, I gave them my assistance to the extent of receiving Mr. Barrows at the door and conducting him through the mill to the room which my brother had designated to me as the one in which they proposed to hold their conference.
“But the task was uncongenial, and at the first words which Guy chose to employ against Mr. Barrows, I set down my lantern on the floor and escaped to the outer air again. Money, station, fame before the world, seemed to me but light matters at that moment, and if I had followed my first impulse I should have rushed back to the assistance of Mr. Barrows. But considerations terrible and strange prevented me from following this impulse. In the first place I was not myself free from a desire to see the contents of the will and judge for myself to what extent my father had revealed our disgrace to the world; and secondly, the habit of years is not broken in an instant, and this mother who gave her countenance to an act I so heartily disapproved, had for all her reserve and a nature seriously differing from my own, ever been the dominator of my actions and the controlling force of my life. I could not brave her, not yet, not while any hope remained of righting matters, without a demonstration that would lead to open hostilities. So with a weakness I now wonder at, I let the minutes go by till the sound of coming steps warned me that my brother was at hand. What he told me was brief and to the point He had obtained the clergyman’s consent to read the will and was on his way to get it. “But, Mr. Barrows?” I inquired. “Is in the cellar there with mother.” “The cellar!” I repeated. But he was already in the yard, on his way to the town. I was disturbed. The calmness of his tone had not deceived me. I felt that something was wrong; what I could not tell. Taking the lantern he had left behind him, I made my way to the cellar. It seemed empty. But when I had reached the other end I found myself confronted by a ghostly figure in which I was forced to recognize my mother, though the sight of her in the masquerade costume she had adopted; gave me a shock serious as the interests involved. But this surprise, great as it was, was soon lost in that of finding her alone; and when to my hurried inquiry as to where Mr. Barrows was, she pointed to the vat, you can imagine the tide of emotions that swept over me. But no, that is impossible. They were not what you would have felt, they were not what I would feel now. Mingled with my shame and the indignant protest of my manhood against so unworthy an exercise of power, was that still dominating instinct of dread which any interference with my mother’s plans or wishes had always inspired; and so when I learned that the worst was over and that Mr. Barrows would be released on Guy’s return, I subdued my natural desire to rescue him and went away, little realizing that in thus allying myself with his persecutors, I had laid the foundations of a remorse that would embitter my whole after existence. The return of my brother with the will caused me fresh emotions. As soon as I saw him I knew there was a struggle before me; and in handing him back the lantern, I took occasion to ask if he had opened the document. He looked at me a moment before replying and his lip took a sinister curl. ‘I have,’ he said. ‘And what does it contain?’ ‘What we wish,’ he answered, with a strange emphasis. I was too much astonished to speak. I could not believe this to be true, and when, Mr. Barrows having been released, we had all returned home, I asked to see the will and judge for myself. But Guy refused to show it. ‘We are going to return it,’ he said, and said no more. Nor would my mother give me any further information. Either I had betrayed myself in the look I gave Guy on his return to the mill, or else some underlying regard for my feelings had constrained her to spare me actual participance in a fraud. At all events, I did not know the truth till the real will had been destroyed and the substituted one placed in Mr. Nicholls’ hands, and then it was told to me in a way to confound my sense of right and make me think it would be better to let matters proceed to this false issue, than by a public acknowledgment of the facts, bring down upon me and mine the very disgrace from which I had been so desirous of escaping. I was caught in the toils you see, and though it would have been a man’s part to have broken through every constraint and proclaimed myself once and for all on the side of right, I had nothing whereby to show what the last wishes of my father had been, and could only say what would ruin us without benefiting the direct object of those wishes. I therefore kept their counsel and my own; stilling my conscience when it spoke too loud, by an inward promise to be not only a friend to my older brother’s child, but to part with the bulk of my fortune to her. That she would need my friendship I felt, as the letter I wrote to her shows, but that such evil would come upon her as did, or that my delay to see her would make it impossible for me ever to behold her in this world, I had yet too much filial regard to imagine. I was consequently overwhelmed by the news of her death, and though I never knew the whole truth till now, I was conscious of a distrust so great that from that day to the worser ones which followed, I never looked at those nearest to me without a feeling of deep separation such as is only made by some dark and secret crime. I was alone, or so I felt, and was gradually becoming morbid from a continual brooding on this subject, when the great blow fell which changed whatever vague distress I felt into an active remorse and positive fear. Mr. Barrows was found dead, drowned in the very vat into which my brother had forced him a month or so before. What did it mean? It was impossible for me to guess the truth, but I could not but recognize the fact that we were more or less responsible for his death; that the frenzy which had doubtless led to this tragedy was the outcome of the strain which had been put upon his nerves, and though personally I had had nothing to do with placing him in the vat, I was certainly responsible for allowing him to remain there a moment after I knew where he was. It was, therefore, with the deepest horror and confusion that I rushed home with this news, only to find that it had outstripped me, and that my mother, foreseeing the dangers which this death might bring upon us, had succumbed to the shock, and lay, as you know, in a most alarming condition herself. The perilous position into which we were thrown by these two fatal occurrences necessitated a certain confidence between my brother and myself. To watch our mother, and stifle any unguarded expressions into which she might be betrayed, to watch you, and when we saw it was too late to prevent your sharing our secret, to make our hold upon you such that you would feel it to your own advantage to keep it with us, was perhaps only pardonable in persons situated as we were. But, Constance, while with Guy the feeling that made this last task easy was one of selfish passion only, mine from the first possessed a depth and fervency which made the very thought of wooing you seem a desecration and a wrong. For already had your fine qualities produced their effect, and in the light of your high and lofty nature, my own past looked deformed and dark. And when the worst came, and Rhoda Colwell’s threats put a seemingly immovable barrier between us, this love which had sprung up in a very nightmare of trouble, only seemed to take deeper and more lasting root, and I vowed that whether doomed to lifelong regret or not, I would live worthy of you, and be in misery what I could so easily be in joy, the man you could honor, if not love. That this hour would ever come I dared not dream, but now that it has, can you, will you give me so much as you have, and not give me more? I know I have no right to ask any thing from you; that the secrets of our family are a burden which any woman might well shrink from sharing, but if you do not turn from me, will you turn from them? Love is such a help to the burdened, and I love you so fondly, so reverently.”
He was on his knees; his forehead was pressed against my arm. The emotion which shook his whole body communicated itself to me. I felt that whatever his past weaknesses had been, he possessed a character capable of the noblest development, and, yielding to the longing with which my whole being was animated, I was about to lay my hand upon his head, when he lifted his face and, gazing earnestly at me, said:
“One moment; there is yet a cloud which ought to be blown away from between us — Rhoda Colwell. I loved her; I sought her love; but once gained, my eyes opened. I saw her imperfections; I felt the evil in her nature. I knew if I married her, I should ruin my life. I left her. I seemed to have no choice, for my love died with my esteem, and she was not a woman to marry without love. Could I have done differently, Constance?”
I answered as my whole heart inclined me to. I could not refuse this love coming into my desolate life. It seemed to be mine. Whatever trials, fear, or disquietude it might bring, the joy of it was great enough to make these very trials desirable, if only to prove to him and me that the links which bound us were forged from truest metal, without any base alloy to mar their purity and undermine their strength.
And so that spot of gloom, which had been the scene of so much that was dark and direful, became the witness of a happiness which seemed to lift it out of the veil of reserve in which it had been shrouded for so long, and make of the afternoon sun, which at that moment streamed in through the western windows, a signal of peace, whose brightness as yet has never suffered change or eclipse.
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