"I will accept your assurance that as the true friend to Ada Reynolds I may remain in this house without stain to her memory or love."
"Then you think—"
"No," said I, with a burst I could not control, "I do not think; I do not want to think; do not make me, I entreat."
He smiled, a sad and fearful smile, and took another turn up and down the seemingly darkening room. When he came back I was cold as marble, and almost as insensible.
"Miss Sterling," were his words, "do you remember a conversation we had this morning?"
I bowed, with a sudden rush of hope that almost melted me again.
"In that conversation I made a solemn assertion; do you recollect what it was?"
"Yes," I looked, if I did not audibly reply.
"I make that assertion again—is it sufficient?" he asked.
At that moment it seemed to me that it was. I looked and felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my heart, and though he flushed deeply, as any man of spirit, let alone one of such a proud and aristocratic nature as his, would be apt to under the circumstances, I saw that he experienced a relief also, and giving way to an impulse I do not yet know whether to regret or not, I held out my hand, saying calmly:
"I will remain, Mr. Pollard."
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.
AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY.
Hold, hold my heart! And you, my sinews, grow not instant old. But bear me stiffly up!
Whether intentionally or unintentionally, I was saved the embarrassment of meeting Guy Pollard at the breakfast-table the next morning. I was, therefore, left in ignorance as to the result of the conversation between the brothers, though from the softened manner of Dwight, and the quiet assurance with which he surrounded me with the delicate atmosphere of his homage, I could not but argue that he had come out master of the situation.
It was, therefore, with mingled feelings of pleasure and apprehension that I left the house at the hour appointed for the double funeral; feelings that would have been yet more alive had I realized that I should not re-enter those gates again, or see the interior of that fatal house, till I had passed through many bitter experiences.
The ceremonies, in spite of the latent suspicion of the community that Mr. Barrows' death had been one of his own seeking, were of the most touching and impressive description. I was overcome by them, and left the churchyard before the final prayer was said, feeling as if the life of the last three days had been a dream, and that here in the memory of my lovely Ada and her griefs lay my true existence and the beginning and ending of my most sacred duty.
Pursuant to this thought I did not turn immediately back to the gloomy mansion which claimed me for the present as its own, but wandered away in an opposite direction, soothing my conscience by the thought that it was many hours yet before the services would be held for Mrs. Pollard, and that neither the brothers nor Mrs. Harrington could have any use for me till that time.
The road I had taken was a sequestered one, and strange as it may seem to some, did not awaken special memories in my mind till I came to a point where an opening in the trees gave to my view the vision of two tall chimneys; when like a flash it came across me that I was on the mill road, and within a few short rods of the scene of Mr. Barrows' death.
The sensation that seized me at this discovery was of the strangest kind. I felt that I had been led there; and without a thought of what I was doing, pressed on with ever-increasing rapidity till I came to the open doorway with its dismantled entrance.
To pass over the now much-trodden grass and take my stand by the dismal walls was the work of an instant; but when I had done this and experienced in a rush the loneliness and ghostly influence of the place, I was fain to turn back and leave it to the dream of its own fearful memories. But the sight of a small piece of paper pinned or pasted on the board that had been nailed in futile precaution across the open doorway deterred me. It was doubtless nothing more important than a notice from the town authorities, or possibly from the proprietors of the place, but my curiosity was excited, and I desired to see it. So I hastened over to where it was, and with little apprehension of the shock that was destined to overwhelm me, read these words:
"Those who say Mr. Barrows committed suicide lie. He was murdered, and by parties whose position places them above suspicion, as their wealth and seeming prosperity rob them of even the appearance of motive for such a terrible deed."
No names mentioned; but O God! And that word murdered. It swam before my eyes; it burned itself into every thing upon which I looked, it settled like a weight of iron upon my heart, pressing me nearer and nearer and nearer to the ground, till finally——Ah! can it be that this is really I, and that I am standing here in a desolate place alone, with no human being in sight, and with a paper in my hand that seems to grow larger and larger as I gaze, and ask me what I mean to do now, and whether in tearing it from the wall where it hung, I allied myself to the accused, or by one stroke proclaimed myself that avenger which, if the words on this paper were true, I owed it to my Ada and the promise which I had given her to be? The cloud that enveloped my brain pressed upon me too closely for me to give an answer to questions so vital and terrific. I was in a maze,—a horrible dream; I could not think, I could only suffer, and at last creep away like a shadow of guiltiness to where a cluster of pine-trees made a sort of retreat into which I felt I could thrust my almost maddened head and be lost.
For great shocks reveal deep secrets, and in the light of this pitiless accusation, this fact had revealed itself without disguise to my eyes, that it was love I felt for Dwight Pollard; not admiration, not curiosity, not even the natural desire to understand one so seemingly impenetrable, but love, real, true, yearning, and despotic love, which if well founded might have made my bliss for a lifetime, and which now——I thrust the paper between my lips to keep down the cry that rose there, and hiding my face deep down in the turf, mourned the weakness that made me so ready a victim, while at the same time I prepared to sustain the struggle which I knew must there and then be waged and decided if I was ever to face the world again with the strength and calmness which my nature demanded, and the extraordinary circumstances of my position imposed.
The result was an hour of misery, with a sensation of triumph at the end; though I do not pretend to say that in this one effort I overcame the admiration and interest which attached my thoughts to this man. The accusation was as yet too vague, and its source too doubtful, to blot his image with ineffaceable stains; but I did succeed in gaining sufficient mastery over myself to make it possible to review the situation and give what I meant should be an unbiased judgment as to the duty it imposed upon me.
The result was a determination to hold myself neutral till I had at least discovered the author of the lines I held in my hand. If they came from a credible person—but how could they do so and be written and posted up in the manner they were? An honest man does not seek any such roundabout way to strike his blow. Only a coward or a villain would take this method to arouse public curiosity, and perhaps create public suspicion.
And yet who could say that a coward and a villain might not be speaking the truth even in an accusation of this nature? The very fact that it met and gave form and substance to my own dim and unrecognized fears, proved that something as yet unknown and unsounded connected the mysterious death of Mr. Barrows with the family towards which this accusation evidently pointed. While my own heart beat with dread, how could I ignore the possibility of these words being the work of an accomplice disgusted with his crime, or of a tool anxious to save himself, and at the same time to avenge some fancied slight? I could not. If peace and hope were lost in the effort, I must learn the truth and satisfy myself, once and for all, as to whose hatred and fear the Pollards were indebted for insinuations at once so tremendous and so veiled.
That I was the only person who had probably seen and read these fatal words, lent purpose to my resolution. If, as I madly hoped, they were but the expression of suspicion, rather than of knowledge, what a satisfaction it would be for me to discover the fact, and possibly unmask the cowardly author, before the public mind had been infected by his doubts.
But how could I, a woman and a stranger, with no other talisman than my will and patience, accomplish a purpose which would be, perhaps, no easy one for a trained detective to carry out to a successful issue? The characters in which the fatal insinuations had been conveyed offered no clue. They were printed, and in so rough and commonplace a manner that the keenest mind would have found itself baffled if it had attempted to trace its way to the writer through the mere medium of the lines he had transcribed. I must, therefore, choose some other means of attaining my end; but what one?
I had never, in spite of the many trials and embarrassments of my life, been what is called an intriguing woman. Nor had I ever amused myself with forming plots or devising plans for extricating imaginary characters out of fancied difficulties by the mere exercise of their wits. Finesse was almost an unknown word to me, and yet, as I sat there with this fatal bit of paper in my hand, I felt that a power hitherto unguessed was awakening within me, and that if I could but restrain the emotions which threatened to dissipate my thoughts, I should yet hit upon a plan by which my design could be attained with satisfaction to myself and safety to others.
For—and this was my first idea—the paper had not been on the wall long. It was too fresh to have hung there overnight, and had, moreover, been too poorly secured to have withstood even for an hour the assaults of a wind as keen as that which had been blowing all the morning. It had, therefore, been put up a few moments before I came, or, in other words, while the funeral services were being held; a fact which, to my mind, argued a deep calculation on the part of the writer, for the hour was one to attract all wanderers to the other end of the town, while the following one would, on the contrary, see this quarter overflow with human beings, anxious to complete the impression made by the funeral services, by a visit to the scene of the tragedy.
That the sky had clouded over very much in the last half-hour, and that the first drops of a heavy thunder-shower were even now sifting through the branches over my head, was doubtless the reason why no one besides myself had yet arrived upon the scene; and, should the storm continue, this evil might yet be averted, and the one person I was most anxious to see, have an opportunity to show himself at the place, without being confounded with a mass of disinterested people. For I felt he would return, and soon, to note the result of his daring action. In the crowd, if a crowd assembled, or alone, if it so chanced that no one came to the spot, he would draw near the mill, and, if he found the notice gone, would betray, must betray, an interest or an alarm that would reveal him to my watchful eye. For I intended to take up my stand within the doorway, using, if necessary, the storm as my excuse for desiring its shelter; while as a precaution against suspicions that might be dangerous to me, as well as a preventive against any one else ever reading these accusatory lines, I determined to dip the paper in the stream, and then drop it near the place where it had been tacked, that it might seem as if it had been beaten off by the rain, now happily falling faster and faster.
All this I did, not without some apprehension of being observed by a watchful eye. For what surety had I that the writer of these words was not even now in hiding, or had not been looking at me from some secret retreat at the very moment I tore the paper off the wall and fled with it into the bushes?
But this fear, if fear it was, was gradually dispelled as the moments sped by, and nothing beyond the wind and the fast driving rain penetrated to where I stood. Nor did it look as if any break in what seemed likely to become a somewhat dread monotony would ever occur. The fierce dash of the storm was like a barrier, shutting me off from the rest of the world, and had my purpose been less serious, my will less nerved, I might have succumbed to the dreariness of the outlook and taken myself away while yet the gruesome influences that lay crouched in the darkness at my back remained in abeyance, and neither ghost's step nor man's step had come to shake the foundations of my courage and make of my silent watch a struggle and a fear.
But an intent like mine was not to be relinquished at the first call of impatience or dread. Honor, love, and duty were at stake, and I held to my resolution, though each passing moment made it more difficult to maintain my hope as well as to sustain my composure.
At last—oh, why did that hollow of darkness behind me reverberate so continually in my fancy?—there seemed, there was, a movement in the bushes by the road, and a form crept gradually into sight that, when half seen, made the blood cease coursing through my veins; and, when fully in view, sent it in torrents to heart and brain; so deep, so vivid, so peculiar was the relief I felt. For—realize the effect upon me if you can—the figure that now stole towards me through the dank grass, looking and peering for the notice I had torn from the wall, was no other than my friend—or was it my enemy?—the idiot boy.
He was soaked with the rain, but he seemed oblivious of the fact. For him the wind had evidently no fierceness, the wet no chill. All his energies—and he seemed, as in that first moment when I saw him in the summer-house, to be alive with them—were concentrated in the gaze of his large eyes, as, coming nearer and nearer, he searched the wall, then the ground, and finally, with a leap, picked up the soaked and useless paper which I had dropped there.
His expression as he raised himself and looked fiercely about almost made me reveal myself. This an idiot, this trembling, wrathful, denunciatory figure, with its rings of hair clinging to a forehead pale with passion and corrugated with thought! Were these gestures, sudden, determined, and full of subdued threatening, the offspring of an erratic brain or the expression of a fool's hatred? I could not believe it, and stood as if fascinated before this vision, that not only upset every past theory which my restless mind had been able to form of the character and motives of the secret denunciator of the Pollards, but awakened new thoughts and new inquiries of a nature which I vaguely felt to be as mysterious as any which had hitherto engaged my attention.
Meantime the boy had crushed the useless paper in his hand, and, flinging it aside, turned softly about as if to go. I had no wish to detain him. I wished to make inquiries first, and learn if possible all that was known of his history and circumstances before I committed myself to an interview. If he were an idiot—well, that would simplify matters much; but, if he were not, or, being one, had moments of reason, then a mystery appeared that would require all the ingenuity and tact of a Machiavelli to elucidate. The laugh which had risen from the shrubbery the night before, and the look which Dwight Pollard had given when he heard it, proved that a mystery did exist, and gave me strength to let the boy vanish from my sight with his secret unsolved and his purposes unguessed.
I spare you common curses. —MRS. BROWNING.
It was not long after this that the storm began to abate. Sunshine took the place of clouds, and I was enabled to make my way back to the town at the risk of nothing worse than wet feet. I went at once to my boarding-house. Though I was expected back at the Pollards', though my presence seemed almost necessary there, I felt that it would be impossible for me to enter their door till something of the shadow that now enveloped their name had fallen away. I therefore sent them word that unlooked-for circumstances compelled me to remain at home for the present; and having thus dismissed one anxiety from my mind, set myself to the task of gleaning what knowledge I could of the idiot boy.
The result was startling. He was, it seemed, a real idiot—or so had always been regarded by those who had known him from his birth. Not one of the ugly, mischievous sort, but a gentle, chuckling vacant- brained boy, who loved to run the streets and mingle his harmless laughter with the shouts of playing children and the noise of mills and manufactories.
He was an orphan, but was neither poor nor dependent, for—and here was where the fact came in that astonished me—he had for protector a twin sister whose wits were as acute as his were dull; a sister who through years of orphanage had cherished and supported him, working sometimes for that purpose in the factories, and sometimes simply with her needle at home. They lived in a nest of a cottage on the edge of the town, and had the sympathy of all, though not perhaps the full liking of any. For Rhoda, the sister, was a being of an unique order, who, while arousing the interest of a few, baffled the comprehension of the many. She was a problem; a creature out of keeping with her belongings and the circumstances in which she was placed. An airy, lissom, subtle specimen of woman, whose very beauty was of an unknown order, causing as much inquiry as admiration. A perfect blonde like her brother, she had none of the sweetness and fragility that usually accompanies this complexion. On the contrary, there was something bizarre in her whole appearance, and especially in the peculiar expression of her eye, that awakened the strangest feelings and produced even in the minds of those who saw her engaged in the most ordinary occupations of life an impression of remoteness that almost amounted to the uncanny. The fact that she affected brilliant colors and clothed both herself and brother in garments of a wellnigh fantastic make, added to this impression, and gave perhaps some excuse to those persons who regarded her as being as abnormally constituted as her brother, finding it impossible, I suppose, to reconcile waywardness with industry, and a taste for the rich and beautiful with a poverty so respectable, it scarcely made itself known for the reality it was. A blonde gypsy some called her, a dangerous woman some others; and the latter would undoubtedly have been correct had the girl possessed less pride of independence or been unhampered, as she was untrammelled, by the sense of responsibility towards her imbecile brother. As it was, more than one mother had had reason to ask why her son wore such a moody brow after returning from a certain quarter of the town, and at one time gossip had not hesitated to declare that Dwight Pollard—the haughty Dwight Pollard—had not been ashamed to be seen entering her door, though every one knew that no one stepped under its wreath of vines except their intentions were as honorable as the beauty, if not the poverty, of its owner demanded.
When I heard this, and heard also that he visited her no more, I seemed to have gained some enlightenment as to the odd and contradictory actions of my famous idiot boy. He loved his sister, and was in some way imbued with a sense that she had been wronged. He was, therefore, jealous of any one who had, or seemed to have, gained the attention of the man who had possibly forsaken her. Yet even with this explanation of his conduct, there was much for which I could not account, making my intended interview with the sister a matter to be more or less apprehended.
It was therefore with a composure altogether outward and superficial that I started for the quaint and tiny cottage which had been pointed out to me as the abode of these remarkable twins. I reached it just as the clock struck three, and was immediately impressed, as my informants evidently expected me to be, by the air of poetry and refinement that characterized even its humble exterior. But it was not till I had knocked at the door and been ushered into the house by the idiot brother, that my real astonishment began. For though the room in which I found myself did not, as I was afterwards assured, contain a single rich article, it certainly had the effect of luxuriousness upon the eye; and had it not been for my inward agitation and suspense, would have produced a sense of languid pleasure, scarcely to be looked for in the abode of a simple working-girl. As it was, I was dimly conscious of a slight relief in the keen tension of my feelings, and turned with almost a sensation of hope to the boy who was smiling and grimacing beside me. But here another shock awaited me, for this boy was not the one I had seen at the mill barely two hours ago, or, rather, if it were the same—and the identity of his features, figure, and dress with those I knew so well, seemed to proclaim him to be—he was in such a different mood now as to appear like another being. Laughing, merry, and inane, he bore on his brow no sign nor suggestion of the fierce passion I had seen there, nor did his countenance change, though I looked at him steadily and long with a gaze that was any thing but in keeping with his seemingly innocent mirth.
"It is not the boy I have known," I suddenly decided in my mind; and I cannot say in what wild surmises I might have indulged, if at that moment the door at my back had not opened and a figure stepped in which at the first glance attracted my whole attention and absorbed all my thought.
Imagine a woman, lithe, blonde, beautiful, intense; with features regular as the carver's hand could make them, but informed with a spirit so venomous, passionate, and perverse, that you lost sight of her beauty in your wonder at the formidable nature of the character she betrayed. Then see her dressed as no other woman ever dressed before, in a robe of scarlet of a cut and make quite its own, and conceive, if you can, the agitation I felt as I realized that in her I beheld my rival, my antagonist, the enemy of Dwight Pollard's peace and mine.
That her face, even the hatred that visibly contracted it as her eyes met mine, were familiar to me in the countenance and expression of the boy I had met, went for nothing. The beauty and malice of a seeming imbecile, and the same characteristics in a woman subtle and decided as this, awaken very different emotions in the mind. Though I had seen that same brow corrugated before, it was like a revelation to behold it now, and watch how the rosy lips took a straight line and the half-shut, mysterious eyes burned like a thread of light, as she stretched out one white hand and asked half imperiously, half threateningly:
"Who are you, and for what do you come to me?"
"I am Constance Sterling," I retorted, satisfied that nothing short of the heroic treatment would avail with this woman; "and if I do not mistake, I think you know very well why I come here."
"Indeed!" came in something like a hiss from between her set lips. And in one short instant all that was best in her and all that was worst became suddenly visible, as turning to her softly chuckling brother, she motioned him gently out of the room, and then turning to me, advanced a step and said: "Will you explain yourself, Miss— or is it Mrs. Constance Sterling?"
"I will explain myself," I returned, wondering, as I saw her cheeks pale and her eyes emit strange and fitful sparks, if I exerted any such influence over her as she did over me. "I said I thought you knew why I came here. I said this, because this is not the first time we have met, nor am I the first one who has presumed to address the other in a tone that to a sensitive ear sounded like menace. The idiot boy——"
"We will leave my brother out of the discussion," she broke in, in a voice so distinct I scarcely noticed that it was nothing but a whisper.
"I am not alluding to your brother," I declared, meeting her eyes with a look steady as her own, and I hope more open.
"Oh, I see," she murmured; and she took another step, while the flash of her glance cut like a knife. "You accuse me then——"
"Of assuming a disguise to spy upon Dwight Pollard."
It was a well-sped shaft, and quivered alive and burning in her heart of hearts. She gave a spring like the panther she seemed at that minute, but instantly recovered herself, and launching, upon me the strangest smile, mockingly exclaimed:
"You are a brave woman." Then as I did not quail before her passion, drew up her slight figure to its height and said: "We are worthy of each other, you and I. Tell me what you want."
Then I felt my own cheek turn pale, and I was fain to sit upon the pile of cushions that were arranged in one corner for a seat.
"What I want?" I repeated. "I want to know how you dared put in language the insinuations which you hung up on the door of the old mill this morning?"
Her eyes, narrowed, as I have said, in her seemingly habitual desire to keep their secrets to herself, flashed wide open at this, while a low and mirthless laugh escaped her lips.
"So my labor was not entirely wasted!" she cried. "You saw—"
"Both the lines and the writer," I completed, relentlessly preserving the advantage I felt myself to have gained—"the lines before they were defaced by the storm, the writer as she picked up the useless paper and went away."
"So!" she commented, with another echo of that joyless laughter; "there are two spies instead of one in this game!"
"There are two women instead of one who know your enmity and purpose," I retorted.
"How came you at the mill?" she suddenly asked, after a moment of silent communion with her own repressed soul.
"By accident," was all my reply.
"Were you alone?"
"Then no one but yourself saw the paper?"
"No one but myself."
She gave me a look I made no sign of understanding.
"Have you told any one of what you saw and read?" she inquired at last, as she perceived I meant to volunteer nothing.
"That I am not called upon to state," I returned.
"Oh, you would play the lawyer!" was her icy and quiet remark.
"I would play nothing," was the answer that came from my lips.
She drew back, and a change passed over her.
Slowly as a fire is kindled, the passion grew and grew on her face. When it was at its height she leaned her two hands on a table that stood between us, and, bending forward, whispered:
"Do you love him? Are you going to fight to keep his name free from stain and his position unassailed before the world?"
Believe me if you can, but I could not answer; possibly because I had as yet no answer to the question in my soul.
She took advantage of my hesitation.
"Perhaps you think it is not worth while to fight me; that I have no real weapons at my command?" and her eyes shot forth a flame that devoured my rising hopes and seared my heart as with a fiery steel.
"I think you are a cruel woman," I declared, "anxious to destroy what no longer gives you pleasure."
"You know my story then?" she whispered. "He has talked about me, and to you?"
"No," I replied, in quiet disdain. "I know nothing save what your own eyes and your conduct tell me."
"Then you shall," she murmured, after a moment's scrutiny of my face. "You shall hear how I have been loved, and how I have been forsaken. Perhaps it will help you to appreciate the man who is likely to wreck both our lives."
I must have lifted my head at this, for she paused and gave me a curious look.
"You don't love him?" she cried.
"I shall not let him wreck my life," I responded.
Her lip curled and her two hands closed violently at her sides.
"You have not known him long," she declared. "You have not seen him at your feet, or heard his voice, as day by day he pleaded more and more passionately for a word or smile? You have not known his touch!"
"No," I impetuously cried, fascinated by her glance and tone.
I thought she looked relieved, and realized that her words might have been as much an inquiry as an assertion.
"Then do not boast," she said.
The blood that was in my cheeks went out of them. I felt my eyes close spasmodically, and hurriedly turned away my head. She watched me curiously.
"Do you think I succumbed without a struggle?" she vehemently asked, after a moment or two of this silent torture "Look at me. Am I a woman to listen to the passionate avowals of the first man that happens to glance my way and imagine he would like to have me for his wife? Is a handsome face and honeyed tongue sufficient to gain my good graces, even when it is backed by the wealth. I love and the position to which I feel myself equal? I tell you you do not know Rhoda Colwell, if you think she could be won easily. Days and days he haunted this room before I let his words creep much beyond my ears. I had a brother who needed all my care and all my affection, and I did not mean to marry, much less to love. But slowly and by degrees he got a hold upon my heart, and then, like the wretch who trusts himself to the maelstrom, I was swept round and round into the whirlpool of passion till not earth nor heaven could save me or make me again the free and light-hearted girl I was. This was two years ago, and today—"
She stopped, choked. I had never seen greater passion, as I had never seen a more fiery nature.
"It is his persistency I complain of," she murmured at last. "He forced me to love him. Had he left me when I first said 'No,' I could have looked down on his face to-day with contempt. But, no, he had a fancy that I was his destiny, and that he must possess me or die. Die? He would not even let me die when I found that my long-sought 'Yes' turned his worship into indifference, and his passion into constraint. But—" she suddenly cried, with a repetition of that laugh which now sounded so fearful in my ears— "all this does not answer your question as to how I dared publish the insinuations I tacked up on the mill-door this morning."
"No," I shudderingly cried.
"Ah! I have waited long," she passionately asserted. "Wrongs like mine are very patient, and are very still, but the time comes at last when even a woman weak and frail as I am can lift her hand in power; and when she does lift it—"
"Hush!" I exclaimed, bounding from my seat and seizing her upraised arm; for her vivid figure seemed to emit a flame like death. "Hush! we want no tirades, you nor I; only let me hear what Dwight Pollard has done, and whether you knew what you were saying when you called him and his family—"
"Murderers!" she completed.
I shook, but bowed my head. She loosed her arm from my grasp and stood for one moment contemplating me.
"You are a powerful rival," she murmured. "He will love you just six months longer than he did me."
I summoned up at once my pride and my composure.
"And that would be just six months too long," I averred, "if he is what you declare him to be."
"What?" came from between her set teeth, and she gave a spring that brought her close to my side. "You would hate him, if I proved to you that he and his brother and his mother were the planners, if not the executors, of Mr. Barrows' death."
"Hate him?" I repeated, recoiling, all my womanhood up in arms before the fearful joy expressed in her voice and attitude. "I should try and forget such a man ever existed. But I shall not be easily convinced," I continued, as I saw her lips open with a sort of eager hope terrible to witness. "You are too anxious to kill my love."
"Oh, you will be convinced," she asserted. "Ask Dwight Pollard what sort of garments those are which lie under the boards of the old mill, and see if he can answer you without trembling."
"Garments?" I repeated, in astonishment; "garments?"
"Yes," said she. "If he can hear you ask that question and not turn pale, stop me in my mad assertions, and fear his doom no more. But if he flinches—"
A frightful smile closed up the gap, and she seemed by a look to motion me towards the door.
"But is that all you are going to tell me?" I queried, dismayed at the prospect of our interview terminating thus.
"Is it not enough?" she asked. "When you have seen him, I will see you again. Can you not wait for that hour?"
I might have answered No. I was tempted to do so, as I had been tempted more than once to exert the full force of my spirit and crush her. But I had an indomitable pride of my own, and did not wish to risk even the semblance of defeat. So I controlled myself and merely replied:
"I do not desire to see Dwight Pollard again. I am not intending to return to his house."
"And yet you will see him," she averred. "I can easily be patient till then." And she cast another look of dismissal towards the door.
"You are a demon!" I felt tempted to respond, but my own dignity restrained me as well as her beauty, which was something absolutely dazzling in its intensity and fire. "I will have the truth from you yet," was what I did say, as I moved, heart-sick and desponding, from her side.
And her slow "No doubt," seemed to fill up the silence like a knell, and give to my homeward journey a terror and a pang which proved that however I had deceived myself, hope had not quite given up its secret hold upon my heart.
And I dreamed of her that night, and in my dream her evil beauty shone so triumphantly that my greatest wonder was not that Dwight Pollard had succumbed to her fascinations, but that having once seen the glint of that subtle soul shine from between those half-shut lids, he could ever have found strength to turn aside and let the fire he had roused burn itself away.
UNDER THE MILL FLOOR.
I know, this act shows terrible and grim. —OTHELLO.
I had never considered myself a courageous person. I was therefore surprised at my own temerity when, with the morning light, came an impulse to revisit the old mill, and by an examination of its flooring, satisfy myself to whether it held in hiding any such articles as had been alluded to by Rhoda Colwell in the remarkable interview just cited. Not that I intended to put any such question to Dwight Pollard as she had suggested, or, indeed, had any intentions at all beyond the present. The outlook was too vague, my own mind too troubled, for me to concoct plans or to make any elaborate determinations. I could only perform the duty of the moment, and this visit seemed to me to be a duty, though not one of the pleasantest or even of the most promising character.
I had therefore risen and was preparing myself in an abstracted way for breakfast, when I was violently interrupted by a resounding knock at the door. Alarmed, I scarcely knew why, I hastened to open it, and fell back in very visible astonishment when I beheld standing before me no less a person than Anice, the late Mrs. Pollard's maid.
"I wanted to see you, miss," she said, coming in without an invitation, and carefully closing the door behind her. "So, as I had leave to attend early mass this morning, I just slipped over here, which, if it is a liberty, I hope you will pardon, seeing it is for your own good."
Not much encouraged by this preamble, I motioned her to take a seat, and then, turning my back to her, went on arranging my hair.
"I cannot imagine what errand you have with me, Anice," said I; "but if it is any thing important, let me hear it at once, as I have an engagement this morning, and am in haste."
A smile, which I could plainly see in the mirror before which I stood, passed slyly over her face. She took up her parasol from her lap, then laid it down again, and altogether showed considerable embarrassment. But it did not last long, and in another moment she was saying, in quite a bold way:
"You took my place beside the mistress I loved, but I don't bear you no grudge, miss. On the contrary, I would do you a good turn; for what are we here for, miss, if it's not to help one another?"
As I had no answer for this worthy sentiment, she lapsed again into her former embarrassed state and as speedily recovered from it. Simpering in a manner that unconsciously put me on my guard, she remarked:
"You left us very suddenly yesterday, miss. Of course that is your own business, and I have nothing to say against it. But I thought if you knew what might be gained by staying—" She paused and gave me a look that was almost like an appeal.
But I would not help her out.
"Why," she went on desperately, with a backward toss of her head, "you might think as how we was not such very bad folks after all. I am sure you would make a very nice mistress to work for, Miss Sterling," she simpered; "and if you would just let me help you with your hair as I did old Mrs. Pollard—"
Angry, mortified, and ashamed of myself that I had listened to her so far, I turned on her with a look that seemed to make some impression even upon her.
"How dare you—" I began, then paused, shocked at my own imprudence in thus betraying the depth of the feelings she had aroused. "I beg your pardon," I immediately added, recovering my composure by a determined effort; "you doubtless did not consider that you are not in a position to speak such words to me. Even if your insinuations meant any thing serious, which I will not believe, our acquaintance"—I am afraid I threw some sarcasm into that word—"has scarcely been long enough to warrant you in approaching me on any subject of a personal nature, least of all one that involves the names of those you live with and have served so long. If you have nothing better to say—"
She rose with a jerk that seemed to my eyes as much an expression of disappointment as anger, and took a reluctant step or two towards the door.
"I am sure I meant no offence, miss," she stammered, and took another step still more reluctantly than before.
I trembled. Outrageous as it may seem, I wished at this moment that honor and dignity would allow me to call her back and question her as to the motive and meaning of her extraordinary conduct. For the thought had suddenly struck me that she might be a messenger—a most unworthy and humiliating one it is true,—and yet in some sort of a way a messenger, and my curiosity rose just in proportion as my pride rebelled.
Anice, who was not lacking in wit, evidently felt, if she could not see, the struggle she had awakened in my mind, for she turned and gave me a look I no longer had the courage to resent.
"It is only something I overheard Mr. Guy say to his brother," she faltered, opening and shutting her parasol with a nervous hand; then, as I let my hair suddenly fall from my grasp, in the rush of relief I felt, blurted out: "You have beautiful hair, miss; I don't wonder Mr. Guy should say, 'One of us two must marry that girl,'" and was gone like a flash from the room, leaving me in a state that bordered on stupefaction.
This incident, so suggestive, and, alas! so degrading to my self- esteem, produced a deep and painful effect on my mind. For hours I could not rid my ears of that final sentence: "One of us two must marry that girl." Nor could the events that speedily followed quite remove from my mind and heart the sting which this knowledge of the Pollards' base calculation and diplomacy had implanted. It had one favorable consequence, however. It nerved me to carry out the expedition I had planned, and gave to my somewhat failing purpose a heart of steel.
The old mill to which I have twice carried you, and to which I must carry you again, was, as I have already said, a dilapidated and much-dismantled structure. Though its walls were intact, many of its staircases were rotten, while its flooring was, as I knew, heavily broken away in spots, making it a dangerous task to walk about its passage-ways, or even to enter the large and solitary rooms which once shook to the whirr and hum of machinery.
But it was not from such dangers as these I recoiled. If Heaven would but protect me from discovery and the possible intrusion of unwelcome visitants, I would willingly face the peril of a fall even in a place so lonesome and remote. Indeed, my one source of gratitude as I sped through the streets that morning lay in the fact, I was so little known in S——, I could pass and re-pass without awakening too much comment, especially when I wore a close veil, as I did on this occasion.
Rhoda Colwell's house lay in my way. I took especial pains not to go by it, great as the relief would have been to know she was at home and not wandering the streets in the garb and character of the idiot boy. Though I felt I could not be deceived as to her identity, the mere thought of meeting her, with that mock smile of imbecility upon her lip, filled me with a dismay that made my walk any thing but agreeable. It was consequently a positive relief when the entrance to the mill broke upon my view, and I found myself at my journey's end unwatched and unfollowed; nor could the unpromising nature of my task quite dash the spirit with which I began my search.
My first efforts were in a room which had undoubtedly been used as an office. But upon inspecting the floor I found it firm, and, convinced I should have to go farther for what I was seeking, I hastily passed into the next room. This was of much larger dimensions, and here I paused longer, for more than one board tilted as I passed over it, and not a few of them were loose and could be shifted aside by a little extra exertion of strength. But, though I investigated every board that rocked under my step, I discovered nothing beneath them but the dust and debris of years, and so was forced to leave this room as I had the other, without gaining any thing beyond a sense of hopelessness and the prospect of a weary back. And so on and on I went for an hour, and was beginning to realize the giant nature of my undertaking, when a sudden low sound of running water broke upon my ears, and going to one of the many windows that opened before me, I looked out and found I was at the very back of the mill, and in full sight of the dark and sullen stream that in times of yore used to feed the great wheel and run the machinery. Consequently I was in the last room upon the ground- floor, and, what struck me still more forcibly, near, if not directly over, that huge vat in the cellar which had served so fatal a purpose only a few short days before.
The sight of a flight of stairs descending at my right into the hollow darkness beneath intensified my emotion. I seemed to be in direct communication with that scene of death; and the thought struck me that here, if anywhere in the whole building, must be found the mysterious hiding-place for which I was in search.
It was therefore with extra care that I directed my glances along the uneven flooring, and I was scarcely surprised when, after a short examination of the various loose boards that rattled beneath me, I discovered one that could be shifted without difficulty. But scarcely had I stooped to raise it when an emotion of fear seized me, and I started back alert and listening, though I was unconscious of having heard any thing more than the ordinary swash of the water beneath the windows and the beating of my own overtaxed heart. An instant's hearkening gave me the reassurance I needed, and convinced that I had alarmed myself unnecessarily, I bent again over the board, and this time succeeded in moving it aside. A long, black garment, smoothly spread out to its full extent, instantly met my eye. The words of Rhoda Colwell were true; the mill did contain certain articles of clothing concealed within it.
I do not know what I expected when, a few minutes later, I pulled the garment out of the hole in which it lay buried, and spread it out before me. Not what I discovered, I am sure; for when I had given it a glance, and found it was nothing more nor less than a domino, such as is worn by masqueraders, I experienced a shock that the mask, which fell out of its folds, scarcely served to allay. It was like the introduction of farce into a terrible tragedy; and as I stood in a maze and surveyed the garment before me till its black outline swam before my eyes, I remember thinking of the effect which had been produced, at a certain trial I had heard of, by the prisoner suddenly bursting into a laugh when the sentence of death was pronounced. But presently this feeling of incongruity gave way to one of hideous dread. If Dwight Pollard could explain the presence of a domino and mask in this spot, then what sort of a man was Dwight Pollard, and what sort of a crime could it have been that needed for its perpetration such adjuncts as these? The highwaymen of olden time, with their "Stand and deliver!" seemed out of place in this quiet New England town; nor was the character of any of the parties involved, of a nature to make the association of this masquerade gear with the tragedy gone by seem either possible or even probable. And yet, there they lay; and not all my wonder, nor all the speculations which their presence evoked, would serve to blot them from the floor or explain the mystery of which they were the sign and seal.
So impressed was I at last by this thought that I broke the spell which bound me, and began to restore the articles to their place. I was just engaged in throwing the mask into the hole, when the low but unmistakable sound of an approaching foot-fall broke upon my ears, startling me more than a thunder-clap would have done, and filling me with a fear that almost paralyzed my movements. I controlled myself, however, and hastily pulled the board back to its place, after which I frantically looked about me for some means of concealment or escape. I found but one. The staircase which ran down to the cellar was but a few feet off, and if I could summon courage to make use of it, would lead to a place of comparative safety. But the darkness of that spot seemed worse than the light of this, and I stood hesitating on the brink of the staircase till the footsteps drew so near I dared not linger longer, and plunged below with such desperate haste, I wonder I did not trip and fall headlong to the cellar-floor. I did not, however, nor do I seem to have made any special noise, for the footsteps above did not hasten. I had, therefore, the satisfaction of feeling myself saved from what might have been a very special danger, and was moving slowly away, when the fascination which all horrible objects exert upon the human soul seized me with a power I could not resist, and I turned slowly but irresistibly towards the corner where I knew the fatal vat to be.
One glimpse and I would have fled; but just at the instant I turned I heard a sound overhead that sent the current of my thoughts in a fresh direction, and lent to my failing courage a renewed strength which made flight at that moment seem nothing more nor less than an impulse of cowardice. This was nothing more nor less than a faint creaking, such as had followed my own lifting of the board which hid the domino and mask; a noise that was speedily followed by one yet more distinct and of a nature to convince me beyond a doubt that my own action was being repeated by some unknown hand. Whose? Curiosity, love, honor, every impulse of my being impelled me to find out. I moved like a spirit towards the stairs. I placed my foot on one step, and then on another, mounting in silence and without a fear, so intent was I upon the discovery which now absorbed me. But just as I reached the top, just when another movement would lift my head above the level of the floor, I paused, realizing as in a flash what the consequences might be if the intruder should prove to be another than Rhoda Colwell, and should have not his back but his face turned towards the place where I stood. The sounds I heard, feeble as they were, did not seem to indicate the presence of a woman, and in another instant a low exclamation, smothered in the throat almost before it was uttered, assured me that it was a man who stood not six feet from me, handling the objects which I had been told were in some way connected with a murder which I was by every instinct of honor bound to discover, if not avenge.
A man! and ah, he was so quiet, so careful! I could not even guess what he was doing, much less determine his identity, by listening. I had a conviction that he was taking the articles out of their place of concealment, but I could not be sure; and in a matter like this, certainty was indispensable. I resolved to risk all, and took another step, clinging dizzily to the first support that offered. It was well I had the presence of mind to do this, or I might have had a serious fall. For no sooner had I raised my head above the level of the floor than my eyes fell upon the well-known form of him I desired least of all men to see in this place—my lover, if you may call him so—Dwight Pollard.
Oh, 'tis too true! how smart A lash that speech doth give my conscience! —HAMLET.
He was standing with his back to me, and to all appearance was unconscious that he was under the surveillance of any eye. I had thus a moment in which to collect my energies and subdue my emotions; and I availed myself of it to such good purpose that by the time he had put the board back into its place I was ready to face him. He did not turn round, however; so, after a moment of silent suspense, I mounted the last stair, and thinking of nothing, hoping for nothing, wishing for nothing, stood waiting, with my eyes fixed on the domino he was now rapidly folding into smaller compass.
And thus I stood, like a pallid automaton, when the instant came for him to change his position, and he saw me. The cry that rose to his lips but did not escape them, the reel which his figure gave before it stiffened into marble, testified to the shock he had received, and also to the sense of unreality with which my appearance in this wise must have impressed him. His look, his attitude were those of a man gazing upon a spectre, and as I met his glance with mine, I was conscious of a feeling of unreality myself, as if the whole occurrence were a dream, and he and I but shadows which another moment would dissolve.
But alas! this was no more a dream than were the other strange and tragic events which had gone before; and in an instant we both knew it, and were standing face to face with wretched inquiry in the looks we fixed upon each other across the domino which had fallen from his hands. He was the first to speak.
"Miss Sterling!" he exclaimed, in a light tone, cruelly belied by the trembling lips from which it issued, "by what fortunate chance do I see you again, and in a place I should have thought to be the last you would be likely to visit?"
"By the same chance," I rejoined, "which appears to have brought you here. The desire to make sure if what I heard about the mill having been used as a secreting place for certain mysterious articles, was true." And I pointed to the mask and domino lying at my feet.
His eye, which had followed the direction of my finger, grew dark and troubled.
"Then it was your hand—" he impetuously began.
"Which disturbed these garments before you? Yes. And I shall make no apology for the action," I continued, "since it was done in the hope of proving false certain insinuations which had been made to me in your regard."
"Insinuations?" he repeated.
"Yes," I declared, in an agony between my longing to hear him vindicate himself and the desire to be true to the obligations I was under to Ada Reynolds. "Insinuations of the worst, the most terrible, character." Then, as I saw him fall back, stricken in something more than his pride, I hastened to inquire: "Have you an enemy in town, Mr. Pollard?"
He composed himself with a start, looked at me fixedly, and replied in what struck me as a strange tone even for such an occasion as this:
"One who out of revenge," I proceeded, "might be induced to attach your name to suspicions calculated to rob you of honor, if not life?"
"Perhaps," he again returned; but this time with a fierceness that almost made me recoil, though I knew it was directed against some one besides myself.
"Then it may be," I said, "that you have but to speak to relieve my mind of the heaviest weight which has ever fallen upon it. These articles," I pursued, "have they, or have they not, any connection with the tragedy which makes the place in which we stand memorable?"
"I cannot answer you, Miss Sterling."
"Cannot answer me?"
"Cannot answer you," he reiterated, turning haggard about the eyes and lips.
"Then," I brokenly rejoined, "I had better leave this place; I do not see what more I have to do or say here."
"O God!" he cried, detaining me with a gesture full of agony and doubt. "Do not leave me so; let me think. Let me weigh the situation and see where I stand, in your eyes at least. Tell me what my enemy has said!" he demanded, his face, his very form, flashing with a terrible rage that seemed to have as much indignation as fear in it.
"Your enemy," I replied, in the steady voice of despair, "accuses you in so many words—of murder."
I expected to see him recoil, burst forth into cursing or frenzied declamation, by which men betray their inward consternation and remorse; but he did none of these things. Instead of that he laughed; a hideous laugh that seemed to shake the rafters above us and echoed in and out of the caverned recesses beneath.
"Accuses me?" he muttered; and it is not in language to express the scorn he infused into the words.
Stunned, and scarcely knowing what to think, I gazed at him helplessly. He seemed to feel my glance, for, after a moment's contemplation of my face, his manner suddenly changed, and bowing with a grim politeness full of sarcasm, he asked:
"And when did you see my enemy and hold this precious conversation in which I was accused of murder?"
"Yesterday afternoon," I answered. "During the time of your mother's funeral," I subjoined, startled by the look of stupefaction which crossed his face at my words.
"I don't understand you," he murmured, sweeping his hand in a dazed way over his brow. "You saw him then? Spoke to him? Impossible!"
"It is not a man to whom I allude," I returned, almost as much agitated as himself. "It is a woman who is your accuser, a woman who seems to feel she has a right to make you suffer, possibly because she has suffered so much herself."
"A woman!" was all he said; "a woman!" turning pale enough now, God knows.
"Have you no enemies among the women?" I asked, wearied to the soul with the position in which my cruel fate had forced me.
"I begin to think I have," he answered, giving me a look that somehow broke down the barriers of ice between us and made my next words come in a faltering tone:
"And could you stop to bestow a thought upon a man while a woman held your secret? Did you think our sex was so long-suffering, or this special woman so generous——"
I did not go on, for he had leaped the gap which separated us and had me gently but firmly by the arm.
"Of whom are you speaking?" he demanded. "What woman has my secret— if secret I have? Let me hear her name, now, at once."
"Is it possible," I murmured, "that you do not know?"
"The name! the name!" he reiterated, his eyes ablaze, his hand shaking where it grasped my arm.
"Rhoda Colwell," I returned, looking him steadily in the eye.
"Impossible!" his lips seemed to breathe, and his clasp slowly unloosed from my arm like a ring of ice which melts away. "Rhoda Colwell! Good God!" he exclaimed, and staggered back with ever- growing wonder and alarm till half the room lay between us.
"I am not surprised at your emotion," I said; "she is a dangerous woman."
He looked at me with dull eyes; he did not seem to hear what I said.
"How can it be?" he muttered; and his glance took a furtive aspect as it travelled slowly round the room and finally settled upon the mask and domino at my feet. "Was it she who told you where to look for those?" he suddenly queried in an almost violent tone.
I bowed; I had no wish to speak.
"She is an imp, a witch, an emissary of the Evil One," he vehemently declared; and turned away, murmuring, as it seemed to me, those sacred words of Scripture, "Be sure your sin find you out."
I felt the sobs rise in my throat. I could bear but little more. To recover myself, I looked away from him, even passed to a window and gazed out. Any thing but the sight of this humiliation in one who could easily have been my idol. I was therefore standing with my back to him when he finally approached, and touching me with the tip of his finger, calmly remarked;
"I did not know you were acquainted with Miss Colwell."
"Nor was I till yesterday," I rejoined. "Fate made us know each other at one interview, if could be said to ever know such a woman as she is."
"Fate is to blame for much; is it also to blame for the fact that you sought her? Or did she seek you?"
"I sought her," I said; and, not seeing any better road to a proper explanation of my conduct than the truth, I told him in a few words of the notice I had seen posted upon the mill, and of how I had afterwards surprised Rhoda Colwell there, and what the conclusions were which I had thereby drawn; though, from some motive of delicacy I do not yet understand, I refrained from saying any thing about her disguise, and left him to infer that it was in her own proper person I had seen her.
He seemed to be both wonder-stricken and moved by the recital, and did not rest till he had won from me the double fact that Rhoda Colwell evidently knew much more than she revealed, while I, on the contrary, knew much less. The latter discovery seemed to greatly gratify him, and while his brow lost none of the look of heavy anxiety which had settled upon it with the introduction of this woman's name into our colloquy, I noticed that his voice was lighter, and that he surveyed me with less distrust and possibly with less fear. His next words showed the direction his thoughts were taking.
"You have shown an interest in my fate, Miss Sterling, in spite of the many reasons you had for thinking it a degraded one, and for this I thank you with all my heart. Will you prove your womanliness still further by clinging to the belief which I have endeavored to force upon you, that notwithstanding all you have heard and seen, I stand in no wise amenable to the law, neither have I uttered, in your hearing at least, aught but the truth in regard to this whole matter?"
"And you can swear this to me?" I uttered, joyfully.
"By my father's grave, if you desire it," he returned.
A flood of hope rushed through my heart. I was but a weak woman, and his voice and look at that moment would have affected the coldest nature.
"I am bound to believe you," I said; "though there is much I do not understand—much which you ought to explain if you wish to disabuse my mind of all doubt in your regard. I would be laying claim to a cynicism I do not possess, if I did not trust your words just so far as you will allow me. But——" And I must have assumed an air of severity, for I saw his head droop lower and lower as I gazed at him and forbore to finish my sentence.
"But you believe I am a villain," he stammered.
"I would fain believe you to be the best and noblest of men," I answered, pointedly.
He lifted his head, and the flush of a new emotion swept over his face.
"Why did I not meet you two years ago?" he cried.
The tone was so bitter, the regret expressed so unutterable, I could not help my heart sinking again with the weight of fresh doubt which it brought.
"Would it have been better for me if you had?" I inquired. "Is the integrity which is dependent upon one's happiness, or the sympathy of friends, one that a woman can trust to under all circumstances of temptation or trial?"
"I do not know," he muttered. "I think it would stand firm with you for its safeguard and shield." Then, as he saw me draw back with an assumption of coldness I was far from feeling, added gently: "But it was not you, but Rhoda Colwell, I met two years ago, and I know you too well, appreciate you too well, to lay aught but my sincerest homage at your feet, in the hope that, whatever I may have been in the past, the future shall prove me to be not unworthy of your sympathy, and possibly of your regard."
And, as if he felt the stress of the interview becoming almost too great for even his strength, he turned away from me and began gathering up the toggery that lay upon the floor.
"These must not remain here," he observed, bitterly.
But I, drawn this way and that by the most contradictory emotions, felt that all had not been said which should be in this important and possibly final interview. Accordingly, smothering personal feeling and steeling myself to look only at my duty, I advanced to his side, and, indicating with a gesture the garments he was now rolling up into a compact mass, remarked:
"This may or may not involve you in some unpleasantness. Rhoda Colwell, who evidently attaches much importance to her discoveries, is not the woman to keep silent in their regard. If she speaks and forces me to speak, I must own the truth, Mr. Pollard. Neither sympathy nor regard could hold me back; for my honor is pledged to the cause of Mr. Barrows, and not even the wreck of my own happiness could deter me from revealing any thing that would explain his death or exonerate his memory. I wish you to understand this. God grant I may never be called upon to speak!"
It was a threat, a warning, or a danger for which he was wholly unprepared. He stared at me for a moment from his lowly position on the floor, then slowly rose and mechanically put his hand to his throat, as if he felt himself choking.
"I thank you for your frankness," he murmured, in almost inaudible tones. "It is no more than I ought to have expected; and yet—" He turned abruptly away. "I am evidently in a worse situation than I imagined," he continued, after a momentary pacing of the floor. "I thought only my position in your eyes was assailed; I see now that I may have to defend myself before the world." And, with a sudden change that was almost alarming, he asked if Rhoda Colwell had intimated in any way the source of whatever information she professed to have.
I told him no, and felt my heart grow cold with new and undefined fears as he turned his face toward the front of the building, and cried, in a suppressed tone, full of ire and menace:
"It could have come but in one way; I am to be made a victim if——" He turned upon me with a wild look in which there was something personal. "Are you worth the penalty which my good name must suffer?" he violently cried. "For I swear that to you and you only I owe the position in which I now stand!"
"God help me then!" I murmured, dazed and confounded by this unexpected reproach.
"Had you been less beautiful, less alluring in your dignity and grace, my brother——" He paused and bit his lip. "Enough!" he cried. "I had wellnigh forgotten that generosity and forbearance are to actuate my movements in the future. I beg your pardon—and his!" he added, with deep and bitter sarcasm, under his breath.
This allusion to Guy, unpleasant and shocking as it was, gave me a peculiar sensation that was not unlike that of relief, while at the same moment the glimpse of something, which I was fain to call a revelation, visited my mind and led me impetuously to say:
"I hope you are not thinking of sacrificing yourself for another less noble and less generous than yourself. If such is the clew to actions which certainly have looked dubious till now, I pray that you will reconsider your duty and not play the Don Quixote too far."
But Dwight Pollard, instead of accepting this explanation of his conduct with the eagerness of a great relief, only shook his head and declared:
"My brother—for I know who you mean, Miss Sterling—is no more amenable to the law than myself. Neither of us were guilty of the action that terminated Mr. Barrows' life."
"And yet," came in the strange and unexpected tones of a third person, "can you say, in the presence of her you profess to respect and of me whom you once professed to love, that either you or your brother are guiltless of his death?" and turning simultaneously toward the doorway, we saw gleaming in its heavy frame the vivid form and glittering eyes of his most redoubtable enemy and mine— Rhoda Colwell.
He fell back before this apparition and appeared to lose his power of speech. She advanced like an avenging Nemesis between us.
"Speak!" she vehemently exclaimed. "Are you—I say nothing of your brother, who is nothing to me or to her—are you guiltless, in the sense in which she would regard guilt, of David Barrows' death?" And her fierce eyes, shining through her half-closed lashes like lurid fires partly veiled, burned upon his face, which, turning paler and paler, drooped before her gaze till his chin settled upon his breast and we could barely hear the words that fell from his lips:
"God knows I would not dare to say I am."
I will tell you why. —HAMLET.
There was a silence, then Dwight Pollard spoke again. "I have made a confession which I never expected to hear pass my lips. She who has forced it from me doubtless knows how much and how little it means. Let her explain herself, then. I have no further business in this place." And, without lifting his head or meeting the eye of either of us, he strode past us towards the door.
But there he paused, for Rhoda Colwell's voice had risen in words that must be answered.
"And where, then, have you business if not here? Do you not know I hold your good name, if not your life, in my hands?"
"My good name," he slowly rejoined, without turning his head, "is already lost in the eyes I most valued. As for my life, it stands in no jeopardy. Would I could say the same for his!" was his fierce addition.
"His?" came from Rhoda Colwell's lips, in surprise. "His?" and with a quick and subtle movement she glided to his side and seized him imperatively by the arm. "Whom do you mean?" she asked.
He turned on her with a dark look.
"Whom do I mean?" he retorted. "Whom should I mean but the base and unnatural wretch who, for purposes of his own, has made you the arbitrator of my destiny and the avenger of my sin—my brother, my vile, wicked brother, whom may Heaven——"
"Stop! Your brother has had nothing to do with this. Do you suppose I would stoop to take information from him? What I know I know because my eyes have seen it, Dwight Pollard! And now, what do you think of the clutch I hold upon your life?" and she held out those two milk-white hands of hers with a smile such as I hope never to see on mortal face again.
He looked at them, then at her, and drew back speechless. She burst into a low but ringing laugh of immeasurable triumph.
"And you thought such a blow as this could come from a man! Dullard and fool you must be, Dwight Pollard, or else you have never known me. Why should he risk his honor and his safety in an action as dangerous to him as ungrateful to you? Because he admires her? Guy Pollard is not so loving. But I—I whom you taught to be a woman, only to fling aside like a weed—Ah, that is another thing! Reason for waiting and watching here; reason for denouncing, when the time came, the man who could take advantage of another man's fears! Ah, you see I know what I am talking about."'