And that well might
Advise him to a caution, to hold what distance
His wisdom can provide.
At daybreak the doctor came in. Taking advantage of the occasion, I slipped away for a few minutes to my own room, anxious for any change that would relieve me from the gloom and oppression caused by this prolonged and silent tete-a-tete with a being that at once so interested and repelled me. Observing that my windows looked towards the east, I hastened to throw wide the blinds and lean out into the open air. A burst of rosy sunlight greeted me. “Ah!” thought I, “if I have been indulging in visions, this will dispel them”; and I quaffed deeply and long of the fresh and glowing atmosphere before allowing my thoughts to return for an instant to the strange and harrowing experiences I had just been through. A sense of rising courage and renewed power rewarded me; and blessing the Providence that had granted us a morning of sunshine after a night of so much horror, I sat down and drew from my breast the little folded paper which represented my poor Ada’s will. Opening it with all the reverent love which I felt for her memory, I set myself to decipher the few trembling lines which she had written, in the hope they would steady my thoughts and suggest, if not reveal, the way I should take in the more than difficult path I saw stretching before me.
My agitation may be conceived when I read the following:
“It is my last wish that all my personal effects, together with the sum of five hundred dollars, now credited to my name in the First National Bank of S— — should be given to my friend, Constance Sterling, who I hope will not forget the promise I exacted from her.”
Five hundred dollars! and yesterday I had nothing. Ah, yes, I had a friend!
The thoughts awakened by this touching memorial from the innocent dead distracted me for a few moments from further consideration of present difficulties, but soon the very nature of the bequest recalled them to my mind, by that allusion to a promise which more than any thing else lay at the bottom of the dilemma in which I found myself. For, humiliating as it is to confess, the persistency with which certain impressions remained in my mind, in spite of the glowing daylight that now surrounded me, warned me that it would be for my peace to leave this house before my presentiments became fearful realities; while on the other hand my promise to Ada seemed to constrain me to remain in it till I had at least solved some of those mysteries of emotion which connected one and all of this family so intimately with the cause to which I had pledged myself.
“If the general verdict in regard to Mr. Barrows’ death should be one of suicide,” thought I, “how could I reconcile myself to the fact that I fled at the first approaching intimation that all was not as simple in his relations as was supposed, and that somewhere, somehow, in the breast of certain parishioners of his, a secret lay hidden, which, if known, would explain the act which otherwise must imprint an ineffaceable stain upon his memory?”
My heart and brain were still busy with this question when the sound of Mr. Pollard’s footsteps passing my door recalled me to a sense of my present duty. Rising, I hurried across the hall to the sick~chamber, and was just upon the point of entering, when the doctor appeared before me, and seeing me, motioned me back, saying:
“Mrs. Harrington has just arrived. As she will doubtless wish to see her mother at once, you had better wait a few moments till the first agitation is over.”
Glad of any respite, and particularly glad to escape an introduction to Mrs. Harrington at this time, I slipped hastily away, but had not succeeded in reaching my room before the two brothers and their sister appeared at the top of the stairs. I had thus a full opportunity of observing them, and being naturally quick to gather impressions, took in with a glance the one member of the Pollard family who was likely to have no mystery about her.
I found her pretty; prettier, perhaps, than any woman it had ever been my lot to meet before, but with a doll’s prettiness that bespoke but little dignity or force of mind. Dressed with faultless taste and with an attention to detail that at a moment like the present struck one with a sense of painful incongruity, she advanced, a breathing image of fashion and perhaps folly; her rustling robes, and fresh, if troubled face, offering a most striking contrast to the gloom and reserve of the two sombre figures that walked at her side.
Knowing as by instinct that nothing but humiliation would follow any obtrusion of myself upon this petted darling of fortune, I withdrew as much as possible into the shadow, receiving for my reward a short look from both the brothers; the one politely deprecating in its saturnine courtesy, the other full of a bitter demand for what I in my selfish egotism was fain to consider sympathy. The last look did not tend to calm my already disturbed thoughts, and, anxious to efface its impression, I impulsively descended the stairs and strolled out on the lawn, asking myself what was meant by the difference in manner which I had discerned in these two brothers towards their sister. For while the whole bearing of the younger had expressed interest in this pretty, careless butterfly of a woman thus brought suddenly face to face with a grave trouble, the elder had only averted looks to offer, and an arm that seemed to shrink at her touch as if the weight of her light hand on his was almost more than he could bear. Could it be that affection and generosity were on the side of the younger after all, and that in this respect, at least, he was the truer man and more considerate brother?
I could find no more satisfactory answer for this question than for the many others that had suggested themselves since I had been in this house; and being determined not to allow myself to fall into a reverie which at this moment might be dangerous, I gave up consideration of all kinds, and yielded myself wholly to the pleasure of my ramble. And it was a pleasure! For however solemn and austere might be the interior of the Pollard mansion, without here on the lawn all was cheeriness, bloom, and verdure; the grim row of cedars encircling the house seeming to act as a barrier beyond which its gloom and secrecy could not pass. At all events such was the impression given to my excited fancy at the time, and, filled with the sense of freedom which this momentary escape from the house and its influences had caused, I hastened to enjoy the beauties of walk and parterre, stopping only when some fairer blossom than ordinary lured me from my path to inspect its loveliness or inhale its perfume.
The grounds were not large, though, situated as they were in the midst of a thickly populated district, they appeared so. It did not, therefore, take me long to exhaust their attractions, and I was about to return upon my course, when I espied a little summer-house before me, thickly shrouded in vines. Thinking what a charming retreat it offered, I stepped forward to observe it more closely, when to my great surprise I saw it was already occupied, and by a person whose attitude and appearance were such as to at once arouse my strongest curiosity. This person was a boy, slight of build, and fantastic in his dress, with a face like sculptured marble, and an eye which, if a little contracted, had a strange glitter in it that made you look and look again. He was kneeling on the floor of the summer-house, and his face, seen by me in profile, was turned with the fixedness of an extreme absorption towards a small opening in the vines, through which he was intently peering. What he saw or wished to see I could not imagine, for nothing but the blank end of the house lay before him, and there could be very little which was interesting in that, for not one of its windows were open, unless you except the solitary one in my room. His expression, however, showed that he was engaged in watching something, and by the corrugation in his white brow and the peculiar compression of his fresh red lip, that something showed itself to be of great importance to him; a fact striking enough in itself if you consider the earliness of the hour and the apparent immaturity of his age, which did not appear to be more than fourteen.
Resolved to solve this simple mystery, I gave an admonitory cough, and stepped into the summer-house. He at once started to his feet, and faced me with a look I am pondering upon yet, there was so much in it that was wrathful, curious, dismayed, and defiant. The next moment a veil seemed to fall over his vision, the rich red lip relaxed from its expressive curve, and from being one of the most startling visions I ever saw, he became — what? It would be hard to tell, only not a fully responsible being, I am sure, however near he had just strayed to the border-land of judgment and good sense. Relieved, I scarcely knew why, and remembering almost at the same instant some passing gossip I had once heard about the pretty imbecile boy that ran the streets of S— — I gave him a cheerful smile, and was about to bestow some encouraging word upon him, when he suddenly broke into a laugh, and looking at me with a meaningless stare, asked:
“Who are you?”
I was willing enough to answer, so I returned: “I am Constance Sterling”; and almost immediately added: “And who are you?”
“I am the cat that mews in the well.” Then suddenly, “Do you live here?”
“No,” I replied, “I am only staying here. Mrs. Pollard is sick —”
“Do they like you?”
The interruption was quick, like all his speech, and caused me a curious sensation. But I conquered it with a laugh, and cheerily replied:
“As I only came last night, it would be hard to say”— and was going to add more, when the curious being broke out:
“She only came last night!” and, repeating the phrase again and again, suddenly darted from my side on to the lawn, where he stood for an instant, murmuring and laughing to himself before speeding away through the shrubbery that led to the gate.
This incident, trivial as it seemed, made a vivid impression upon me, and it was with a mind really calmed from its past agitation that I re-entered the house and took up my watch in the sick-room. I found every thing as I had left it an hour or so before, with the exception of my companion; the younger Mr. Pollard having taken the place of his brother. Mrs. Harrington was nowhere to be seen, but as breakfast had been announced I did not wonder at this, nor at the absence of the elder son, who was doubtless engaged in doing the honors of the house.
My own call to breakfast came sooner than I anticipated; soon enough, indeed, for me to expect to find Mr. Pollard and his sister still at the table. It therefore took some courage for me to respond to the summons, especially as I had to go alone, my companion, of course, refusing to leave his mother. But a glance in the hall-mirror, as I went by, encouraged me, for it was no weak woman’s face I encountered, and if Mrs. Harrington was as beautiful as she was haughty, and as haughty as she was beautiful, Constance Sterling at least asked no favors and showed no embarrassment. Indeed, I had never felt more myself than when I lifted the portiere from before the dining-room door and stepped in under the gaze of these two contradictory beings, either of which exerted an influence calculated to overawe a person in my position. The past —— But what have I promised myself and you? Not the past, then, but my present will and determination made the ordeal easy.
Mr. Pollard, who is certainly a man to attract any woman’s eye, rose gravely as I approached, and presented me with what struck me as a somewhat emphasized respect, to his sister. Her greeting was nothing more nor less than what I expected — that is, indifferently civil — though I thought I detected a little glimmer of curiosity in the corner of her eye, as if some words had passed in regard to me that made her anxious to know what sort of a woman I was.
But my faculty for observation was very wide-awake that morning, and I may have imagined this, especially as she did not look at me again till she had finished her breakfast and rose to quit the room. Then, indeed, she threw me a hurried glance, half searching, half doubtful in its character, as if she hesitated whether she ought to leave us alone together. Instantly a wild thrill passed through me, and I came perilously near blushing. But the momentary emotion, if emotion it could be called, was soon lost in the deeper feeling which ensued when Mrs. Harrington, pausing at the door, observed, with a forced lightness:
“By-the-way, where is Mr. Barrows? I thought he was always on hand in time of trouble.”
I looked at her; somehow, I dared not look at her brother; and, while making to myself such trivial observations as, “She has not been told the truth,” and, “They took good care she should overhear no gossip at the station,” I was inwardly agitating myself with the new thought, “Can she have had any thing to do with Mr. Barrows? Can she be the woman he was engaged to before he fell in love with Ada?”
The expression of her face, turned though
It was full upon us, told nothing, and my attention, though not my glances, passed to Mr. Pollard, who, motionless in his place, hesitated what reply to give to this simple question.
“Guy has not told you, then,” said he, “what caused the shock that has prostrated our mother?”
“No,” she returned, coming quickly back.
“It was the news of Mr. Barrows’ death, Agnes; the servants say so, and the servants ought to know.”
“Mr. Barrows’ death! Is Mr. Barrows dead, then?” she asked, in a tone of simple wonder, which convinced me that my surmise of a moment ago was without any foundation. “I did not know he was sick,” she went on. “Was his death sudden, that it should affect mother so?”
A short nod was all her brother seemed to be able to give to this question. At sight of it I felt the cold chills run through my veins, and wished that fate had not obliged me to be present at this conversation.
“How did Mr. Barrows die?” queried Mrs. Harrington, after waiting in manifest surprise and impatience for her brother to speak.
“He was drowned.”
This time the answer was not forthcoming. Was it because he knew the place too well? I dared not lift my eyes to see.
“Was it in the mill-stream?” she asked.
This time he uttered a hollow “No.” Then, as if he felt himself too weak to submit to this cross-questioning, he pushed back his chair, and, hurriedly rising, said:
“It is a very shocking affair, Agnes. Mr. Barrows was found in a vat in the cellar of the old mill. He drowned himself. No one knows his motive.”
“Drowned himself?” Did she speak or I? I saw her lips move, and I heard the words uttered as I thought in her voice; but it was to me he directed his look, and to me he seemed to reply:
“Yes; how else account for the circumstances? Is he a man to have enemies? — or is that a place a man would be likely to seek for pleasure?”
“But —” the trembling little woman at my side began.
“I say it is a suicide,” he broke in, imperiously, giving his sister one look, and then settling his eyes back again upon my face. “No other explanation fits the case, and no other explanation will ever be given. Why he should have committed such a deed,” he went on, in a changed voice, and after a momentary pause, “it would be impossible for me, and perhaps for any other man, to say; but that he did do it is evident, and that is all I mean to assert. The rest I leave for wiser heads than mine.” And turning from me with an indescribable look that to my reason, if not to my head, seemed to belie his words, he offered his arm to his bewildered sister and quietly led her towards the door.
The breath of relief I gave as the portiere closed behind them was, however, premature, for scarcely had he seen her on her way upstairs than he came back, and taking his stand directly before me, said:
“You and I do not agree on this question; I see it in your eyes. Now what explanation do you give of Mr. Barrows’ death?”
The suddenness of the attack brought the blood to my cheeks, while the necessity of answering drove it as quickly away. He saw I was agitated, and a slight tremble — it could not be called a smile — disturbed the set contour of his lips. The sight of it gave me courage. I let my own curl as I replied:
“You do me too much honor to ask my opinion. But since you wish to know what I think, I consider it only justice to say that it would be easier for an unprejudiced mind to believe that Mr. Barrows had a secret enemy, or that his death was owing to some peculiar and perhaps unexplainable accident, than that he should seek it himself, having, as he did, every reason for living.”
“He was very happy, then?” murmured my companion, looking for an instant away, as if he could not bear the intensity of my gaze.
“He loved deeply a noble woman; they were to have been married in a month; does that look like happiness?” I asked.
The roving eye came back, fixed itself upon me, and turned dangerously dark and deep.
“It looks like it,” he emphasized, and a strange smile passed over his lips, the utter melancholy of which was all that was plain to me.
“And it was!” I persisted, determined not to yield an iota of my convictions to the persuasiveness of this man. “The woman who knew him best declared it to be so as she was dying; and I am forced to trust in her judgment, whatever the opinion of others may be.”
“But happy men ——” he began.
“Sometimes meet with accidents,” I completed.
“And your credulity is sufficient to allow you to consider Mr. Barrows’ death as the result of accident?”
Lightly as the question was put, I felt that nothing but a deep anxiety had prompted it, else why that earnest gaze from which my own could not falter, or that white line showing about the lip he essayed in vain to steady? Recoiling inwardly, though I scarcely knew why, I forced myself to answer with the calmness of an inquisitor:
“My credulity is not sufficient for me to commit myself to that belief. If investigation should show that Mr. Barrows had an enemy ——”
“Mr. Barrows had no enemy!” flashed from Mr. Pollard’s lips. “I mean,” he explained, with instant composure, “that he was not a man to awaken jealousy or antagonism; that, according to all accounts, he had the blessing, and not the cursing, of each man in the community.”
“Yes,” I essayed.
“He never came to his death through the instrumentality of another person,” broke in Mr. Pollard, with a stern insistence. “He fell into the vat intentionally or unintentionally, but no man put him there. Do you believe me, Miss Sterling?”
Did I believe him? Was he upon trial, then, and was he willing I should see he understood it? No, no, that could not be; yet why asseverate so emphatically a fact of which no man could be sure unless he had been present at the scene of death, or at least known more of the circumstances attending it than was compatible with the perfect ignorance which all men professed to have of them. Did he not see that such words were calculated to awaken suspicion, and that it would be harder, after such a question, to believe he spoke from simple conviction, than from a desire to lead captive the will of a woman whose intuitions, his troubled conscience told him, were to be feared? Rising, as an intimation that the conversation was fast becoming insupportable to me, I confronted him with my proudest look.
“You must excuse me,” said I, “if I do not linger to discuss a matter whose consequences just now are more important to us than the fact itself. While your mother lies insensible I cannot rest comfortable away from her side. You will therefore allow me to return to her.”
“In a moment,” he replied. “There are one or two questions it would please me to have you answer first.” And his manner took on a charm that robbed his words of all peremptoriness, and made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to move. “You have spoken of Miss Reynolds,” he resumed; “have told me that she declared upon her dying bed that the relations between Mr. Barrows and herself were very happy. Were you with her then? Did you know her well?”
“She was my room-mate,” I returned.
It was a blow; I saw it, though not a muscle of his face quivered. He had not expected to hear that I was upon terms of intimacy with her.
“I loved her,” I went on, with a sense of cruel pleasure that must have sprung from the inward necessity I felt to struggle with this strong nature. “The proof that she loved me lies in the fact that she has made me heir to all her little savings. We were friends,” I added, seeing he was not yet under sufficient control to speak.
“I see,” he now said, moving involuntarily between me and the door. “And by friends you mean confidantes, I presume?”
“Perhaps,” I answered, coolly, dropping my eyes.
His voice took a deeper tone; it was steel meeting steel, he saw.
“And she told you Mr. Barrows was happy?”
“That has been already discussed,” said I.
“Miss Sterling”— I think I never heard such music in a human voice — “you think me inquisitive, presuming, ungentlemanly, persistent, perhaps. But I have a great wish to know the truth about this matter, if only to secure myself from forming false impressions and wrongfully influencing others by them. Bear with me, then, strangers though we are, and if you feel you can trust me”— here he forced me to look at him — “let me hear, I pray, what reasons you have for declaring so emphatically that Mr. Barrows did not commit suicide?”
“My reasons, Mr. Pollard? Have I not already given them to you? Is it necessary for me to repeat them?”
“No,” he earnestly rejoined, charming me, whether I would or not, by the subtle homage he infused into his look, “if you will assure me that you have no others — that the ones you have given form the sole foundation for your conclusions. Will you?” he entreated; and while his eyes demanded the truth, his lip took a curve which it would have been better for me not to have seen if I wished to preserve unmoved my position as grand inquisitor.
I was compelled, or so it seemed to me, to answer without reserve. I therefore returned a quiet affirmative, adding only in qualification of the avowal, “What other reasons were necessary?”
“None, none,” was the quick reply, “for you to believe as you do. A woman but proves her claim to our respect when she attaches such significance to the master-passion as to make it the argument of a perfect happiness.”
I do not think he spoke in sarcasm, though to most minds it might appear so. I think he spoke in relief, a joyous relief, that was less acceptable to me at that moment than the sarcasm would have been. I therefore did not blush, but rather grew pale, as with a bow I acknowledged his words, and took my first step towards the doorway.
“I have wounded you,” he murmured, softly, following me.
“You do not know me well enough,” I answered, turning with a sense of victory in the midst of my partial defeat.
“It is a misfortune that can be remedied,” he smiled.
“Your brother waits for us,” I suggested, and, lifting the portiere out of his hand, I passed through, steady as a dart, but quaking, oh, how fearfully quaking within! for this interview had not only confirmed me in my belief that something dark and unknown connected the life of this household with that which had suddenly gone out in the vat at the old mill, but deepened rather than effaced the fatal charm which, contrary to every instinct of my nature, held me in a bondage that more than all things else must make any investigation into this mystery a danger and a pain from which any woman might well recoil, even though she bore in her heart memories of a past like mine.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09