"Speak!" he gasped. "How do you know? You say you saw. How could you see? Where were you, demon and witch in one?"
She smiled, not as before, but yet with a sense of power that only the evil glitter of her sidelong eye kept from making her wholly adorable.
"Will you come into the cellar below?" said she. "Or stay; that may be asking too much. A glance from one of these windows will do." And moving rapidly across the room, she threw up one of the broken sashes before her, and pointed to a stunted tree that grew up close against the wall. "Do you see that limb?" she inquired, indicating one that branched put towards a window we could faintly see defined beneath. "A demon or a witch might sit there for a half-hour and see, without so much as craning her neck, all that went on in the cellar below. That the leaves are thick, and, to those within, apparently hang like a curtain between them and the outer world, would make no difference to a demon's eyes, you know. Such folk can see where black walls intervene; how much more when only a fluttering screen like that shuts off the view." And, drawing back, she looked into his dazed face, and then into mine, as though she would ask: "Have I convinced you that I am a woman to be feared?"
His white cheek seemed to answer Yes, but his eyes, when he raised them, did not quail before her mocking glance, though I thought they drooped a little when, in another moment, they flashed in my direction.
"Miss Sterling," he inquired, "do you understand what Miss Colwell has been saying?"
I shook my head and faltered back. I had only one wish, and that was to be effaced from this spot of misery.
He turned again to her.
"Do you intend to explain yourself further?" he demanded.
She did not answer; her look and her attention were fixed upon me.
"You are not quite convinced he is all that I have declared him to be?" she said, moving towards me. "You want to know what I saw and whether there is not some loophole by which you can escape from utterly condemning him. Well, you shall have my story. I ask nothing more of you than that." And with a quiet ignoring of his presence that was full of contempt, she drew up to my side and calmly began: "You have seen me in the streets in the garb of my brother?"
"Your brother?" cried a startled voice.
It was Dwight Pollard who spoke. He had sprung to her side and grasped her fiercely by the wrist. It was a picture; all the more that neither of them said any thing further, but stood so, surveying each other, till he thought fit to drop her arm and draw back, when she quietly went on as though no interruption had occurred.
"It was a convenient disguise, enabling me to do and learn many things. It also made it possible for me to be out in the evening alone, and allowed me to visit certain places where otherwise I should have been any thing but welcome. It also satisfied a spirit of adventure which I possess, and led to the experience which I am now about to relate. Miss Sterling, my brother has one peculiarity. He can be intrusted to carry a message, and forget it ten minutes after it is delivered. This being generally known in town, I was not at all surprised when one evening, as I was traversing a very dark street, I was met and accosted by a muffled figure, who asked me if I would run to Mr. Barrows' house for him. I was about to say No, when something in his general air and manner deterred me, and I changed it into the half-laughing, half-eager assent which my brother uses on such occasions. The man immediately stooped to my ear and whispered:
"'Tell Mr. Barrows to come with all speed to the old mill. A man has been thrown from his carriage and is dying there. He wants Mr. Barrows' prayers and consolation. Can you remember?'
"I nodded my head and ran off. I was fearful, if I stayed, I would betray myself; for the voice, with all its attempted disguise, was that of Guy Pollard, and the man injured might for all I knew be his brother. Before I reached Mr. Barrows' door, however, I began to have my doubts. Something in the man's manner betrayed mystery, and as Guy Pollard had never been a favorite of mine, I naturally gave to this any thing but a favorable interpretation. I did not stop, though, because I doubted. On the contrary, I pushed forward, for if there was a secret, I must know it; and how could I learn it so readily or so well as by following Mr. Barrows on his errand of mercy?
"The person who came to the door in answer to my summons was fortunately Mr. Barrows himself; fortunately for me, that is; I cannot say it was altogether fortunately for him. He had a little book in his hand, and seemed disturbed when I gave him my message. He did not hesitate, however. Being of an unsuspicious nature, he never dreamed that all was not as I said, especially as he knew my brother well, and was thoroughly acquainted with the exactness with which he always executed an errand. But he did not want to go; that I saw clearly, and laid it all to the little book; for he was the kindest man who ever lived, and never was known to shirk a duty because it was unpleasant or hard.
"I have said he knew my brother well. Remembering this when he came down stairs again ready to accompany me, I assumed the wildest manner in which my brother ever indulged, that I might have some excuse for not remaining at his side while still accompanying him in his walk. The consequence was that not a dozen words passed between us, and I had the satisfaction of seeing him draw near the old mill in almost complete forgetfulness of my proximity. This was what I wanted, for in the few minutes I had to think, many curious surmises had risen in my mind, and I wished to perform my little part in this adventure without hindrance from his watchfulness or care.
"It was a very dark night, as you remember, Dwight Pollard, and it is no wonder that neither he nor the man who came out of the doorway to meet him saw the slight figure that crouched against the wall close by the door they had to enter. And if they had seen it, what would they have thought? That the idiot boy was only more freakish than usual, or was waiting about for the dime which was the usual pay for his services. Neither the clouds, nor the trees, nor the surrounding darkness would have whispered that an eager woman's heart beat under that boy's jacket, and that they had better trust the wind in its sweep, the water in its rush, or the fire in its ravaging, than the will that lay coiled behind the feebly moving lip and wandering, restless eye of the seeming idiot who knelt there.
"So I was safe and for the moment could hear and see. And this was what I saw: A tall and gentlemanly form, carrying a lantern which he took pains should shine on Mr. Barrows' face and not on his own. The expression of the former was, therefore, plain to me, and in it I read something more than reluctance, something which I dimly felt to be fear. His anxiety, however, did not seem to spring from his companion, but from the building he was about to enter, for it was when he looked up at its frowning walls and shadowy portal that I saw him shudder and turn pale. They went in, however. Not without a question or two from Mr. Barrows as to whom his guide was and where the sick man lay, to all of which the other responded shortly or failed to respond at all, facts which went far to convince me that a deception of some kind was being practised upon the confiding clergyman.
"I was consequently in a fever of impatience to follow them in, and had at last made up my mind to do so, when I heard a deep sigh, and glancing up towards the doorway, saw that it was again occupied by the dark figure which I had so lately seen pass in with Mr. Barrows. He had no lantern now, and I could not even discern the full outlines of his form, but his sigh being repeated, I knew who he was as certainly as if I had seen him, for it was one which had often been breathed in my ears, and was as well known to me as the beatings of my own heart. This discovery, as you may believe, Miss Sterling, did not tend to allay either my curiosity or my impatience, and when in a few minutes the watcher drew back, I stole from my hiding-place, and creeping up to the open doorway, listened. A sound of pacing steps came to my ears. The entrance was guarded.
"For a moment I stood baffled, then remembering the lantern which had been carried into the building, I withdrew quietly from the door, and began a tour of inspection round about the mill in the hope of spying some glimmer of light from one or more of the many windows, and in this way learn the exact spot to which Mr. Barrows had been taken. It was a task of no mean difficulty, Miss Sterling, for the bushes cluster thick about those walls, and I had no light to warn me of their whereabouts or of the many loose stones that lay in heaps here and there along the way. But I would not have stopped if firebrands had been under my feet, nor did I cease my exertions or lose my hope till I reached the back of the mill and found it as dark as the side and front. Then indeed I did begin to despair, for the place was so solitary and remote from observation, I could not conceive of any better being found for purposes that required secrecy or concealment. Yet the sombre walls rose before me, dark and unrelieved against the sky; and nothing remained for me but to press on to the broad west end and see if that presented as unpromising an aspect as the rest.
"I accordingly recommenced my toilsome journey, rendered positively dangerous now by the vicinity of the water and the steepness of the banks that led down to it. But I did not go far, for as, in my avoidance of the stream, I drew nearer and nearer the walls, I caught glimpses of what I at first thought to be the flash of a fire-fly in the bushes, but in another moment discovered to be the fitful glimmer of a light through a window heavily masked with leaves. You can imagine what followed from what I told you. How I climbed the tree, and seated myself on the limb that ran along by the window, and pushing aside the leaves, looked in upon the scene believed by those engaged in it to be as absolutely unwitnessed as if it had taken place in the bowels of the earth.
"And what did I see there, Miss Sterling? At first little. The light within was so dim and the window itself so high from the floor, that nothing save a moving shadow or two met my eye. But presently becoming accustomed to the position, I discovered first that I was looking in on a portion of the cellar, and next that three figures stood before me, two of which I immediately recognized as those of Mr. Barrows and Guy Pollard. But the third stood in shadow, and I did not know then, nor do I know now, who it was, though I have my suspicions, incredible as they may seem even to myself. Mr. Barrows, whose face was a study of perplexity, if not horror, seemed to be talking. He was looking Guy Pollard straight in the face when I first saw him, but presently I perceived him turn and fix his eyes on that mysterious third figure which he seemed to study for some signs of relenting. But evidently without success, for I saw his eyes droop and his hands fall helplessly to his side as if he felt that he had exhausted every argument, and that nothing was left to him but silence.
"All this, considering the circumstances and the scene, was certainly startling enough even to one of my nature and history, but when in a few minutes later I saw Guy Pollard step forward, and seizing Mr. Barrows by the hand, draw him forward to what seemed to be the verge of a pit, I own that I felt as if I were seized by some deadly nightmare, and had to turn myself away and look at the skies and trees for a moment to make sure I was not the victim of a hallucination. When I looked back they were still standing there, but a change had come over Mr. Barrows' face. From being pale it had become ghastly, and his eyes, fixed and fascinated, were gazing into those horrid depths, as if he saw there the horrible fate which afterwards befell him. Suddenly he drew back, covering his face with his hands, and I saw a look pass from Guy Pollard to that watchful third figure, which, if it had not been on the face of a gentleman, I should certainly call demoniacal. The next instant the third figure stepped forward, and before I could move or utter the scream that rose to my lips, Mr. Barrows had disappeared from view in the horrid recesses of that black hole, and only Guy Pollard and that other mysterious one, who I now saw wore a heavy black domino and mask, remained standing on its dark verge.
"A cry, so smothered that it scarcely came to my ears, rose for an instant from the pit, then I saw Guy Pollard stoop forward and put what seemed to be a question to the victim below. From the nature of the smile that crossed his lip as he drew back, I judged it had not been answered satisfactorily; and was made yet more sure of this when the third person, stooping, took up the light, and beckoning to Guy Pollard, began to walk away. Yes, Miss Sterling, I am telling no goblin tale, as you can see if you will cast your eyes on our companion over there. They walked away, and the light grew dimmer and dimmer and the sense of horror deeper and deeper, till a sudden cry, rising shrill enough now from that deadly hole, drew the two conspirators slowly back to stand again upon its fatal brink, and, as it seemed to me, propound again that question, for answer to which they appeared ready to barter their honor, if not their souls.
"And this time they got it. The decisive gesture of the masked figure, and the speed with which Guy Pollard disappeared from the spot, testified that the knowledge they wanted was theirs, and that only some sort of action remained to be performed. What that action was I could not imagine, for, though Mr. Pollard carried away the lantern, the masked figure had remained.
"Meantime darkness was ours; a terrible darkness, as you may imagine, Miss Sterling, in which it was impossible not to wait for a repetition of that smothered cry from the depths of this unknown horror. But it did not come; and amid a silence awful as the grave, the minutes went by till at last, to my great relief, the light appeared once more in the far recesses of the cellar, and came twinkling on till it reached the masked figure, which, to all appearance, had not moved hand or foot since it went away.
"Miss Sterling, you have doubtless consoled yourself during this narration with the thought that the evil which I had seen done had been the work of Guy and a person who need not necessarily have been our friend here. But I must shatter whatever satisfaction you may have derived from the possible absence of Dwight Pollard from this scene, by saying that when the lantern paused and I had the opportunity to see who carried it, I found that it was no longer in the hand of the younger brother, but had been transferred to that of Dwight, and that he, not Guy, now stood in the cellar before me.
"As I realize that we are not alone, I will not dilate upon his appearance, much as it struck me at the time. I will merely say he offered a contrast to Guy, who, if I may speak so plainly in this presence, had seemed much at home in the task he had set himself, uncongenial as one might consider it to the usual instincts and habits of a gentleman. But Dwight—you see I can be just, Miss Sterling—looked anxious and out of place; and, instead of seeming to be prepared for the situation, turned and peered anxiously about him, as if in search of the clergyman he expected to find standing somewhere on this spot. His surprise and horror when the masked figure pointed to the pit were evident, Miss Sterling; but it was a surprise and a horror that immediately settled into resignation, if not apathy; and after his first glance and shuddering start in that direction he did not stir again, but stood quite like a statue while the masked figure spoke, and when he did move it was to return the way he had come, without a look or a gesture toward the sombre hole where so much that was manly and kind lay sunk in a darkness that must have seemed to that sensitive nature the prototype of his grave."
"And is that all, Miss Colwell?" came with a strange intonation from Dwight Pollard's lips, as she paused, with a triumphant look in my direction.
"It is all I have to tell," was the reply; and it struck me that her tone was as peculiar as his. "Minutes, seconds even, spent under such circumstances, seem like hours; and after a spell of what appeared an interminable waiting, I allowed myself to be overcome by the disquiet and terror of my situation, and dropping from my perch, crept home."
"You should have stayed another hour," he dryly observed. "I wonder at an impatience you had never manifested till then."
The meaning with which she said this, the gesture with which she gave it weight, struck us both aback.
"Woman!" he thundered, coming near to her with the mingled daring and repugnance with which one advances to crush a snake, "do you mean to say that you are going to publish this much of your story and publish no more? That you will tell the world this and not tell——"
"What I did not see?" she interpolated, looking him straight in the eye as might the serpent to which I have compared her.
"Good God!" was his horrified exclamation; "and yet you know——"
"Pardon me," her voice broke in again. "You have heard what I know," and she bowed with such an inimitable and mocking grace, and yet with such an air of sinister resolve, that he stood like one fascinated, and let her move away towards the door without seeking by word or look to stop her. "I hold you tight, you see," were her parting words to him as she paused just upon the threshold to give us a last and scornful look. "So tight," she added, shaking her close-shut hand, "that I doubt if even your life could escape should I choose to remember in court what I have remembered before you two here to-day."
"And forget——" he began.
"And forget," she repeated, "what might defeat the ends of that justice which demands a life for the one so wantonly sacrificed in the vat whose hideous depths now open almost under your feet." And, having said these words, she turned to go, when, looking up, she found her passage barred by the dark form of Guy Pollard, who, standing in the doorway with his hands upon either lintel, surveyed her with his saturnine smile, in which for this once I saw something that did not make me recoil, certain as I now was of his innate villainy and absolute connection with Mr. Barrows' death.
She herself seemed to feel that she had met her master; for, with a hurried look in his face, she drew slowly back, and, folding her arms, waited for him to move with a patience too nonchalant not to be forced.
But he did not seem inclined to move, and I beheld a faint blush as of anger break out on her cheek, though her attitude retained its air of superb indifference, and her lips, where they closed upon each other, did not so much as break their lines for an instant.
"You are not going, Miss Colwell," were the words with which he at last broke the almost intolerable suspense of the moment; "at least, not till you have given us the date of this remarkable experience of yours."
"The date?" she repeated, icily. "What day was it that Mr. Barrows was found in the vat?" she inquired, turning to me with an indifferent look.
His hand fell like iron on her arm.
"You need not appeal to Miss Sterling," he remarked. "I am asking you this question, and I am not a man to be balked nor frightened by you when my life itself is at stake. What night was it on which you saw me place Mr. Barrows in the vat? I command you to tell me, or——"
His hands closed on her arm, and—she did not scream, but I did; for the look of the inquisitor was in his face, and I saw that she must succumb, or be broken like a reed before our eyes.
She chose to succumb. Deadly pale and shaking with the terror with which he evidently inspired her, she turned like a wild creature caught in the toils, and gasped out:
"It was a night in August—the seventeenth, I think. I wish you and your brother much joy of the acknowledgment."
He did not answer, only dropped her arm, and, looking at me, remarked:
"I think that puts a different face upon the matter."
It did indeed. For Mr. Barrows had only been dead four days, and to- day was the twenty-eight of September.
* * * * *
I do not know how long it was before I allowed the wonder and perplexity which this extraordinary disclosure aroused in me to express itself in words. The shock which had been communicated to me was so great, I had neither thought nor feeling left, and it was not till I perceived every eye fixed upon me that I found the power to say:
"Then Mr. Barrows' death was not the result of that night's work. The hand that plunged him into the vat drew him out again. But—but——" Here my tongue failed me. I could only look the question with which my mind was full.
Dwight Pollard immediately stepped forward.
"But whose were the hands that thrust him back four days ago? That is what you would ask, is it not, Miss Sterling?" he inquired, with a force and firmness he had not before displayed.
"Yes," I endeavored to say, though I doubt if a sound passed my lips.
His face took a more earnest cast, his voice a still deeper tone.
"Miss Sterling," he began, meeting my eye with what might have been the bravado of despair, but which I was fain to believe the courage of truth, "after what you have just heard, it would be strange, perhaps, if you should place much belief in any thing we may say upon this subject. And yet it is my business to declare, and that with all the force and assurance of which I am capable, that we know no more than you, how Mr. Barrows came to find himself again in that place; that we had nothing to do with it, and that his death, occurring in the manner and at the spot it did, was a surprise to us which cost my mother her life, and me——well, almost my reason," he added, in a lower tone, turning away his face.
"Can this be true?" I asked myself, unconsciously taking on an air of determination, as I remembered I was prejudiced in his favor, and wished to believe him innocent of this crime.
This movement on my part, slight as it was, was evidently seen and misinterpreted by them all. For a look of disappointment came into Dwight Pollard's face, while from his brother's eye flashed a dangerous gleam that almost made me oblivious to the fact that Rhoda. Colwell was speaking words full of meaning and venom.
"A specious declaration!" she exclaimed. "A jury would believe such assertions, of course; so would the world at large, It is so easy to credit that this simple and ordinary method of disposing of a valuable life should enter the mind of another person!"
"It is as easy to credit that," answered Dwight Pollard, with an emphasis which showed that he, if not I, felt the force of this sarcasm, "as it would be to believe that Mr. Barrows would return to a spot so fraught with hideous memories, except under the influence of a purpose which made him blind to all but its accomplishment. The fact that he died there, proves to my mind that no other will than his own plunged him anew into that dreadful vat."
"Ah! and so you are going to ascribe his death to suicide?" she inquired, with a curl of her lip that was full of disdain.
"Yes," he sternly responded with no signs of wavering now, though her looks might well have stung the stoutest soul into some show of weakness.
"It is a wise stroke," she laughed, with indescribable emphasis. "It has so much in Mr. Barrows' life and character to back it. And may I ask," she went on, with a look that included Guy Pollard's silent and contemptuous figure in its scope, "whether you have anything but words wherewith to impress your belief upon the public? I have heard that judge and jury like facts, or, at the least, circumstantial proof that a man's denial is a true one."
"And proofs we have!"
It was Guy Pollard who spoke this time, and with an icy self- possession that made her shiver in spite of herself.
"Proofs?" she repeated.
"That we were not near the mill the night before Mr. Barrows was found. We were both out of town, and did not return till about the time the accident was discovered."
"Ah!" was her single sarcastic rejoinder; but I saw—we all saw— that the blow had told, bravely as she tried to hide it.
"You, can make nothing by accusing us of this crime," he continued; "and if I might play the part of a friend to you, I would advise you not to attempt it." And his cold eye rested for a moment on hers before he turned and walked away to the other end of the room.
The look, the action, was full of contempt, but she did not seem to feel it. Following him with her gaze for a minute, she murmured, quietly: "We will see"; then turning her look upon Dwight and myself, added slowly: "I think you are effectually separated at all events," and was gone almost without our realizing how or where.
I did not linger long behind. What I said or what they said I cannot remember. I only know that in a few minutes I too was flying along the highway, eager for the refuge which my solitary home offered me. Events had rushed upon me too thickly and too fast. I felt ill as I passed the threshold of my room, and was barely conscious when a few hours later the landlady came in to see why I had not made my appearance at the supper-table.
Letters, my Lord. —HAMLET.
My illness, though severe, was not of long continuance. In a week I was able to be about my room; and in a fortnight I was allowed to read the letters that had come to me. There were two, either of them calculated to awaken dangerous emotions; and, taken together, making a draft on my powers which my newly gained health found it hard to sustain. The one was signed Rhoda Colwell, and the other Dwight Pollard. I read Rhoda Colwell's first.
It opened without preamble:
I sought revenge and I have found it. Not in the way I anticipated, perhaps, but still in a way good enough to satisfy both myself and the spirit of justice. You will never trust Dwight Pollard again. You will never come any nearer to him than you have to-day. You have an upright soul, and whether you believe his declarations or not, can be safely relied upon to hold yourself aloof from a man who could lend his countenance to such a cowardly deed as I saw perpetrated in the old cellar a month or so ago. Honor does not wed with dishonor, nor truth with treachery. Constance Sterling may marry whom she may; it will never be Dwight Pollard.
Convinced of this, I have decided to push my vengeance no further. Not that I believe Mr. Barrows committed suicide, any more than I believe that Dwight and Guy Pollard could be saved by any mere alibi, if I chose to speak. Men like them can find ready tools to do their work, and if they had been an hundred miles away instead of some six, I should still think that the will which plunged Mr. Barrows into his dreadful grave was the same which once before had made him taste the horrors of his threatened doom. But public disgrace and execration are not what I seek for my recreant lover. The inner anguish which no eye can see is what I have been forced to endure and what he shall be made to suffer. Guilty or not he can never escape that now; and it is a future which I gloat upon and from which I would not have him escape, no, not at the cost of his life, if that life were mine, and I could shorten it at a stroke.
And yet since human nature is human nature, and good hearts as well as bad yield sometimes to a fatal weakness, I would add that the facts which I suppress are always facts, and that if I see in you or him any forgetfulness of the gulf that separates you, I shall not think it too late to speak, though months have been added to months, and years to years, and I am no longer any thing but old
Close upon these words I read these others:
MISS STERLING:—Pardon me that I presume to address you. Pardon the folly, the weakness of a man who, having known you for less than a week, finds the loss of your esteem the hardest of the many miseries he is called upon to bear.
I know that I can never recover this esteem—if, indeed, I ever possessed it. The revelation of the secret which disgraced our family has been fatal; the secret which our mother commanded us on her death-bed to preserve, foreseeing that, if it should become known that we had been guilty of the occurrence of the seventeenth of August, nothing could save us from the suspicion that we were guilty of the real catastrophe of the twenty-fourth of September. Alas! my mother was a keen woman, but she did not reckon upon Rhoda Colwell; she did not reckon upon you. She thought if we kept silence, hell and heaven would find no tongue. But hell and heaven have both spoken, and we stand suspected of crime, if not absolutely accused of it.
Hard as this is to bear—and it is harder than you might think for one in whom the base and cowardly action into which he was betrayed a month ago has not entirely obliterated the sense of honor—I neither dare to complain of it nor of the possible consequences which may follow if Rhoda Colwell slights my brother's warning and carries out her revenge to the full. Deeds of treachery and shame must bear their natural fruit, and we are but reaping what we sowed on that dreadful night when we allowed David Barrows to taste the horrors of his future grave. But though I do not complain, I would fain say a final word to one whose truth and candor have stood in such conspicuous relief to my own secrecy and repression. Not in way of hope, not in way of explanation even. What we have done we have done, and it would little become me to assign motives and reasons for what in your eyes—and, I must now allow, in my own—no motive or reason can justify or even excuse. I can only place myself before you as one who abhors his own past; regarding it, indeed, with such remorse and detestation that I would esteem myself blessed if it had been my body, instead of that of Mr. Barrows, which had been drawn from the fatal pit. Not that any repentance can rid me of the stain which has fallen upon my manhood, or make me worthy of the honor of your faintest glance; but it may make me a less debased object in your eyes, and I would secure that much grace for myself even at the expense of what many might consider an unnecessary humiliation. For you have made upon my mind in the short time I have known you a deep, and, as I earnestly believe, a most lasting and salutary impression. Truth, candor, integrity, and a genuine loyalty to all that is noblest and best in human nature no longer seem to me like mere names since I have met you. The selfishness that makes dark deeds possible has revealed itself to me in all its hideous deformity since the light of your pure ideal fell upon it; and while naught on earth can restore me to happiness, or even to that equanimity of mind which my careless boyhood enjoyed, it would still afford me something like relief to know that you recognize the beginning of a new life in me, which, if not all you could desire, still has that gleam of light upon it which redeems it from being what it was before I knew you. I will, therefore, ask not a word from you, but a look. If, when I pass your house to-morrow afternoon at six o'clock, I see you standing in the window, I shall know you grant me the encouragement of your sympathy, a sympathy which will help me to endure the worst of all my thoughts, that indirectly, if not directly, Guy and myself may be guilty of Mr. Barrows' death; that our action may have given him an impetus to destroy himself, or at least have shown him the way to end his life in a seemingly secret manner; though why a man so respected and manifestly happy as he should wish to close his career so suddenly, is as great a mystery to me as it can possibly be to you.
One other word and I am done. If, in the mercy of your gentle and upright nature, you accord me this favor, do not fear that I shall take advantage of it, even in my thoughts. Nor need you think that by so doing you may hamper yourself in the performance of a future duty; since it would be as impossible for me to ask, as for you to grant, the least suppression of the truth on your part; your candor being the charm of all others which has most attracted my admiration and secured my regard.
Of the emotions produced in me by these, two letters I will say nothing; I will only mention some of my thoughts. The first naturally was, that owing to my illness I had not received the latter letter till a week after it was written; consequently Dwight Pollard had failed to obtain the slight token of encouragement which he had requested. This was a source of deep regret to me, all the more that I did not know how to rectify the evil without running the risk of rousing suspicion in the breast of Rhoda Colwell. For, unreasonable as it may seem, her words had roused in me a dread similar to that which one might feel of a scorpion in the dark. I did not know how near she might be to me, or when she might strike. The least stir, the least turn of my head towards the forbidden object, might reveal her to be close at my side. I neither dared trust the silence nor the fact that all seemed well with me at present. A woman who could disguise herself as she could, and whom no difficulty deterred from gaining her purpose, was not one to brave with impunity, however clear might seem the outlook. I felt as if my very thoughts were in danger from her intuition, and scarcely dared breathe my intentions to the walls, lest the treacherous breeze should carry them to her ears and awaken that formidable antagonism which in her case was barbed with a power which might easily make the most daring quail. And yet she must be braved; for not to save his life could I let such an appeal as he had made me go unanswered; no, though I knew the possibility remained of its being simply the offspring of a keen and calculating mind driven to its last resource. It was enough that I felt him to be true, however much my reason might recognize the possibility of his falsehood. Rather than slight a noble spirit struggling with a great distress, I would incur any penalty which a possible lapse of judgment might bring; my temperament being such that I found less shame in the thought that I might be deceived, than that, out of a spirit of too great caution and self-love, I should fail an unhappy soul at the moment when my sympathy might be of inestimable benefit to its welfare.
The venomous threats and extreme show of power displayed in Rhoda Colwell's letter had overreached themselves. They roused my pride. They made me question whether it was necessary for us to live under such a dominion of suspense as she had prepared for us. If Dwight Pollard's asseverations were true, it would be a cruel waste of peace and happiness for him or me to rest under such a subjection, when by a little bravery at the outset her hold upon us might be annihilated and her potency destroyed.
The emotions which I have agreed to ignore came in to give weight to this thought. To save myself it was necessary to prove Dwight Pollard true. Not only my sense of justice, but the very life and soul of my being, demanded the settling of all suspicion and the establishment of my trust upon a sure foundation. While a single doubt remained in my mind I was liable to shame before my best self, and shame and Constance Sterling did not mix easily or well, especially with that leaven of self-interest added, to which I have alluded only a few paragraphs back.
But how, with my lack of resources and the apparent dearth of all means for attaining the end I had in view, I was to prove Rhoda Colwell's insinuations false, and Dwight Pollard's assertion true, was a question to which an answer did not come with very satisfactory readiness. Even the simple query as to how I was to explain my late neglect to Dwight Pollard occasioned me an hour of anxious thought; and it was not till I remembered that the simplest course was always the best, and that with a snake in the grass like Rhoda Colwell, the most fearless foot trod with the greatest safety, that I felt my difficulties on that score melt away. I would write to Dwight Pollard, and I would tell Rhoda Colwell I had done so, thus proving to her that I meditated nothing underhanded, and could be trusted to say what I would do, and do what I should say.
This decision taken, I sat down immediately and penned the following two notes:
MISS RHODA COLWELL:—Owing to illness, your letter has just been read by me. To it I will simply reply that you are right in believing my regard could never be given to a guilty man. As long as the faintest doubt of Mr. Pollard remains in my mind we are indeed separated by a gulf. But let that doubt in any way be removed, and I say to you frankly that nothing you could threaten or the world perform, would prevent my yielding to him the fullest sympathy and the most hearty encouragement.
I send him to-day, in the same mail which carries this, a few lines, a copy of which I inclose for your perusal.
Yours, CONSTANCE STERLING.
MR. DWIGHT POLLARD:—For two weeks I have been too ill to cross my room, which must account both for this note and the tardiness I have displayed in writing it.
You assert that you know nothing of the causes or manner of a certain catastrophe. I believe you, and hope some day to have more than a belief, viz., a surety of its truth founded on absolute evidence.
Till that time comes we go our several ways, secure in the thought that to the steadfast mind calumny itself loses its sting when met by an earnest purpose to be and do only what is honest and upright.
If you have any further communication to make to me, let me request that it be allowed to pass through the hands of Miss Colwell. My reasons for this are well founded.
This something settled matter in his heart, Whereon his brains still beating, puts him thus From fashion of himself. —HAMLET.
I had not taken this tone with both my correspondents without a secret hope of being able to do something myself towards the establishment of Mr. Pollard's innocence. How, I could not very plainly perceive that day or the next, but as time elapsed and my brain cleared and my judgment returned, I at last saw the way to an effort which might not be without consequences of a satisfactory nature. What that effort was you may perhaps conjecture from the fact that the first walk that I took was in the direction of the cottage where Mr. Barrows had formerly lived. The rooms which he had occupied were for rent, and my ostensible errand was to hire them. The real motive of my visit, however, was to learn something more of the deceased clergyman's life and ways than I then knew; if happily out of some hitherto unnoticed event in his late history I might receive a hint which should ultimately lead me to the solution of the mystery which was involving my happiness.
I was not as unsuccessful in this attempt as one might anticipate. The lady of the house was a gossip, and the subject of Mr. Barrows' death was an inexhaustible topic of interest to her. I had but to mention his name, and straightway a tide of words flowed from her lips, which, if mostly words, contained here and there intimations of certain facts which I felt it was well enough for me to know, even if they did not amount to any thing like an explanation of the tragedy. Among these was one which only my fear of showing myself too much interested in her theme prevented me from probing to the bottom. This was, that for a month at least before his death Mr. Barrows had seemed to her like a changed man. A month—that was about the interval which had elapsed between his first visit to the mill and his last; and the evidence that he showed an alteration of demeanor in that time might have its value and might hot. I resolved to cultivate Mrs. Simpson's acquaintance, and sometime put her a question or two that would satisfy me upon this point.
This determination was all the easier to make in that I found the rooms I had come to see sufficiently to my liking to warrant me in taking them. Not that I should have hesitated to do this had they been as unattractive as they were pleasant. It was not their agreeableness that won me, but the fact that Mr. Barrows personal belongings had not yet been moved, and that for a short time at least I should find myself in possession of his library, and face to face with the same articles of taste and study which had surrounded him in his lifetime, and helped to mould, if not to make, the man. I should thus obtain a knowledge of his character, and some day, who knows, might flash upon his secret. For that he possessed one, and was by no means the plain and simple character I had been led to believe was apparent to me from the first glimpse I had of these rooms; there being in every little object that marked his taste a certain individuality and purpose that betrayed a stern and mystic soul; one that could hide itself, perhaps, beneath a practical exterior, but which, in ways like this, must speak, and speak loudly too, of its own inward promptings and tendency.
The evening when I first brought these objects under a close and conscientious scrutiny, was a memorable one to me. I had moved in early that day, and with a woman's unreasoning caprice had forborne to cast more than the most cursory glance around, being content to see that all was as I left it at my first visit, and that neither desk nor library had been disturbed. But when supper was over, and I could set myself with a free mind to a contemplation of my new surroundings, I found that my curiosity could no longer delay the careful tour of inspection to which I felt myself invited by the freshness and beauty of the pictures, and one or two of the statuettes which adorned the walls about me. One painting in especial attracted me, and made me choose for my first contemplation that side of the room on which it hung. It was a copy of some French painting, and represented the temptation of a certain saint. A curious choice of subject, you may think, to adorn a Protestant clergyman's wall, but if you could have seen it, and marked the extreme expression of mortal struggle on the face of the tempted one, who, with eyes shut, and hands clutching till it bent the cross of twigs stuck in the crevices of the rocks beneath which he writhed, waited for the victory over self that was just beginning to cast its light upon his brow, you would have felt that it was good to hang before the eyes of any one in whom conflict of any kind was waging. Upon me the effect was instantaneous, and so real that I have never been able to think of that moment without a sense of awe and rending of the heart. Human passion assumed a new significance in my mind, and the will and faith of a strong man suffering from its power, yet withstanding it to the very last gasp by the help of his trust in God, rose to such an exalted position in my mind, that I felt then, as I feel now whenever I remember this picture, that my whole moral nature had received, from its contemplation, an impetus towards religion and self-denial. While I was still absorbed in gazing at it, my landlady entered the room, and seeing me posed before the picture, quite sympathizingly exclaimed:
"Isn't that a dreadful painting, Miss Sterling, to have in any one's room? I don't wonder Mr. Barrows wanted to cover it up."
"Cover it up?" I repeated, turning hastily in my surprise.
"Yes," she replied, going to a drawer in his desk and taking out a small engraving, which she brought me. "For nearly a month before his death he had this picture stuck up over the other with pins. You can see the pin-holes now, if you look; they went right through the canvas. I thought it a very sensible thing to do, myself; but when I spoke of it to him one day, remarking that I had always thought the picture unfit for any one to see, he gave me such a look that I thought then he must be crazy. But no one else saw any thing amiss in him, and, as I did not want to lose a good lodger, I let him stay on, though my mind did sometimes misgive me."
The engraving she had handed me was almost as suggestive as the painting it had been used to conceal; but at this remarkable statement front Mrs. Simpson's lips I laid it quickly down.
"You think he was crazy?" I asked.
"I think he committed suicide," she affirmed.
I turned to the engraving again, and took it up. What a change had come over me that a statement against which I had once so honestly rebelled for Ada's sake should now arouse something like a sensation of joy in my breast!
Mrs. Simpson, too much interested in her theme to notice me, went confidently on.
"You see, folks that live in the same house with a person, learn to know them as other folks can't. Not that Mr. Barrows ever talked to me; he was a deal too much absorbed in his studies for that; but he ate at my table, and went in and out of my front door, and if a woman cannot learn something about a man under those circumstances, then she is no good, that is all I have got to say about her."
I was amused and slightly smiled, but she needed no encouragement to proceed.
"The way he would drop into a brown study over his meat and potatoes was a caution to my mind. A minister that don't eat is—an anomaly," she burst out. "I have boarded them before, and I know they like the good things of life as well as anybody. But Mr. Barrows, latterly at least, never seemed to see what was on the table before him, but ate because his plate of food was there, and had to be disposed of in some way. One day, I remember in particular, I had baked dumplings, for he used to be very fond of them, and would eat two without any urging; but this day he either did not put enough sauce on them, or else his whole appetite had changed; for he suddenly looked down at his plate and shuddered, almost as if he were in a chill, and, getting up, was going away, when I summoned up courage to ask if the dumplings were not as good as usual. He turned at the door—I can see him now,—and mechanically shaking his head, seemed to be trying to utter some apology. But he presently stopped in that attempt, and, pointing quickly at the table, said, in his accustomed tones: 'You need not make me any more desserts, Mrs. Simpson, I shall not indulge in them in the future'; and went out, without saying whether he was sick or what. And that was the end of the dumplings, and of many a good thing besides."
"And is that all—" I began; but she broke in before the words were half out of my mouth.
"But the strangest thing I ever see in him was this: I have not said much about it, for the people that went to his church are a high and mighty lot, and wouldn't bear a word said against his sanity, even by one as had more opportunities than they of knowing him. But you are a stranger in town, and can't have no such foolish touchiness about a person that is nothing to you, so I will just tell you all about it. You see, when he had visitors—and off and on a good many came—I used to seat them in the parlor below, till I was sure he was ready to receive them. This had happened one evening, and I had gone up to his door to notify him that a stranger was down-stairs, when I heard such a peculiar noise issuing from his room, that I just stood stock-still on the door-mat to listen. It was a swishing sound, followed by a—Miss Sterling," she suddenly broke in, in a half awe-struck, half-frightened tone, "did you ever hear any one whipped? If you have, you will know why I stood shuddering at that door full two minutes before I dared lift my hand and knock. Not that I could believe Mr. Barrows was whipping any body, but the sound was so like it, and I was so certain besides that I had heard something like a smothered cry follow it, that nothing short of the most imperative necessity would have given me the courage to call him; my imagination filling the room with all sorts of frightful images; images that did not fade away in a hurry," she went on, with a look of shrinking terror about her which I am not sure was not reflected in my own face, "when, after the longest waiting I ever had at his door, he slowly came across the room and opened it, showing me a face as white as a sheet, and a hand that trembled so that he dropped the card I gave him and had to pick it up. Had there been a child there——"
"But there wasn't!" I interrupted, shocked and forced to defend him in spite of myself.
"No, nor anybody else. For when he went down-stairs, I looked in and there was no one there, and nothing uncommon about the room, except that I thought his bookcase looked as if it had been moved. And it had; for next day when I swept this room—it did not need sweeping, but one can't wait for ever to satisfy their curiosity—I just looked behind that case, and what do you think I found? A strap—a regular leather strap—just such as——"
"Good God!" I interrupted; "you do not think he had been using it when you went to the door?"
"I do," she said. "I think he had a fit of something like insanity upon him, and had been swinging that strap——Well, I will not say against what, for I do not know, but might it not have been against the fiends and goblins with which crazy people sometimes imagine they are surrounded?"
"Possibly," I acquiesced, though my tone could not have been one of any strong conviction.
"Insane persons sometimes do strange things," she continued; "and that he did not show himself violent before folks is no sign he did not let himself out sometimes when he was alone. The very fact that he restrained himself when he went into the pulpit and visited among his friends, may have made him wilder when he got all by himself. I am sure I remember having heard of a case where a man lived for ten years in a town without a single neighbor suspecting him of insanity; yet his wife suffered constantly from his freaks, and finally fell a victim to his violence."
"But Mr. Barrows was such a brilliant man," I objected. "His sermons up to the last were models of eloquence."
"Oh, he could preach," she assented.
Seeing that she was not to be moved in her convictions, I ventured upon a few questions.
"Have you ever thought," I asked, "what it was that created such a change in him? You say you noticed it for a month before his death; could any thing have happened to disturb him at that time?"
"Not that I know of," she answered, with great readiness. "I was away for a week in August, and it was when I first came back that I observed how different he was from what he had been before. I thought at first it was the hot weather, but heat don't make one restless and unfit to sit quiet in one's chair. Nor does it drive a man to work as if the very evil one was in him, keeping the light burning sometimes till two in the morning, while he wrote and walked, and walked and wrote, till I thought my head would burst with sympathy for him."
"He was finishing a book, was he not? I think I have heard he left a completed manuscript behind him?"
"Yes; and don't you think it very singular that the last word should have been written, and the whole parcel done up and sent away to his publisher, two days before his death, if he did not know what was going to happen to him?"
"And was it?" I inquired.
"Yes, it was; for I was in the room when he signed his name to it, and heard his sigh of relief, and saw him, too, when, a little while afterwards, he took the bundle out to the post-office. I remember thinking, 'Well, now for some rest nights!' little imagining what rest was in store for him, poor soul!"
"Did you know that Mr. Barrows was engaged?" I suddenly asked, unable to restrain my impatience any longer.
"No, I did not," she rather sharply replied, as if her lack of knowledge on that subject had been rather a sore point with her. "I may have suspected there was some one he was interested in, but I am sure nobody ever imagined her as being the one. Poor girl, she must have thought a heap of him to die in that way."
She looked at me as she said this, anticipating, perhaps, a return of the confidences she had made me. But I could not talk of Ada to her, and after a moment of silent waiting she went eagerly on.
"Perhaps a lover's quarrel lay at the bottom of the whole matter," she suggested. "Miss Reynolds was a sweet girl and loved him very devotedly, of course; but they might have had a tiff for all that, and in a nature as sensitive as his, the least thing will sometimes unhinge the mind."
But I could only shake my head at this; the supposition was at once too painful and absurd.
"Well, well," the garrulous woman went on, in no wise abashed, "there are some things that come easy and some things that come hard. Why Mr. Barrows went the way he did is one of the hard things to understand, but that he did go, and that of his own frenzied will, I am as sure as that two and two make four, and four from four leaves nothing."
I thought of all the others who secretly or openly expressed the same opinion, and felt my heart grow lighter. Then I thought of Rhoda Colwell, and then——
"Just what time was it," I asked, "when you were away in August? Was it before the seventeenth, or after? I inquire, because——"
But evidently she did not care why I inquired.
"It was during that week," she broke in. "I remember because it was on the sixteenth that Mr. Pollard died, and I was not here to attend the funeral. I came back——"
But it was no matter to me now when she came back. She had not been at home the night when Mr. Barrows was beguiled into his first visit to the mill, and she had mentioned a name I had long been eager to have introduced into the conversation.
"You knew Mr. Pollard?" I therefore interposed without ceremony. "He was a very rich man, was he not?"
"Yes," she assented. "I suppose the children will have the whole property, now that the old lady is gone. I hope Mr. Harrington will be satisfied. He just married that girl for her money. That, I am sure, you will hear everybody say."
"Yet she is exceedingly pretty," I suggested.
"Oh, yes, too pretty; she makes one think of a wax doll. But these English lords don't care for beauty without there is a deal of hard cash to back it, and if Agnes Pollard had been as poor as—what other beauty have we in town?"
"There is a girl called Rhoda Colwell," I ventured.
"Rhoda Colwell! Do you call her a beauty? I know some folks think she is—well, then, let us say as Rhoda Colwell, he would have made her any proposal sooner than that of his hand."
"And is Mr. Harrington a lord?" I asked, feeling that I was lighting upon some very strange truths.
"He is the next heir to one. A nephew I believe, or else a cousin. I cannot keep track of all those fine distinctions in people I never saw."
"They were married privately and right after Mr. Pollard's death, I have heard."
"Yes, and for no other earthly reason that one ever heard of than to have it settled and done; for Mr. Harrington did not take away his wife from the country; nor does he intend to as far as I can learn. Everybody thought it a very strange proceeding, and none too respectful to Mr. Pollard's memory either."
I thought of all I had heard and seen in that house, and wondered.
"Mr. Pollard was such a nice man, too," she pursued, in a musing tone. "Not a commanding person, like his wife, but so good and kind and attentive to poor folks like me. I never liked a man more than I did Mr. Pollard, and I have always thought that if he had had a different kind of mother for his children—but what is the use of criticising the poor woman now. She is dead and so is he, and the children will do very well now with all that money to back them in any caprice they may have."
"You seem to know them well," I remarked, fearful she would observe the emotion I could not quite keep out of my face.
"No," she returned, with an assumption of grimness, which was evidently meant for sarcasm, "not well. Every one knows the Pollards, but I never heard any one say they knew them well."
"Didn't Mr. Barrows?" I tremblingly inquired, anxious for her reply, yet fearful of connecting those two names.
"Not that I ever saw," she returned, showing no special interest in the question, or in the fact that it was seemingly of some importance to me.
"Didn't they use to come here to see him?" I proceeded, emboldened by her evident lack of perspicuity. "None of them?" I added, seeing her about to shake her head.
"Oh, Dwight or Guy would come here if they had any business with him," she allowed. "But that isn't intimacy; the Pollards are intimate with nobody."
She seemed to be rather proud of it, and as I did not see my way just then to acquire any further information, I sank with a weary air into a chair, turning the conversation as I did so upon other and totally irrelevant topics. But no topic was of much interest to her, that did not in some way involve Mr. Barrows; and after a few minutes of desultory chat, she pleaded the excuse of business and hurriedly left the room.
THE GREEN ENVELOPE.
Sir, you shall understand what hath befall'n, Which, as I think, you know not. Here is a letter. —OTHELLO.
Her departure was a relief to me. First, because I had heard so much, I wanted an opportunity of digesting it; and, secondly, because of my interest in the engraving she had shown me, and the impatience I felt to study it more closely. I took it up the moment she closed the door.
It was the picture of a martyr, and had evidently been cut from some good-sized book. It represented a man clothed in a long white garment, standing with his back to the stake, and his hand held out to the flames, which were slowly consuming it. As a work of art, it was ordinary; as the illustration of some mighty fact, it was full of suggestion. I gazed at it for a long time, and then turned to the bookcase. Was the book from which it had been taken there? I eagerly hoped so. For, ignorant as I may seem to you, I did not know the picture or the incident it represented; and I was anxious to know both. For Mr. Barrows was not the man to disfigure a work of art by covering it with a coarse print like this unless he had a motive; and how could even a suspicion of that motive be mine, without a full knowledge of just what this picture implied?
But though I looked from end to end of the various shelves before me, I did not succeed in finding the volume from which this engraving had been taken. Large books were there in plenty, but none of the exact size of the print I held in my hand. I own I was disappointed, and turned away from the bookcase at last with a feeling of having been baffled on the verge of some very interesting discovery.
The theory advanced with so much assurance by Mrs. Simpson had not met with much credence on my part. I believed her facts, but not the conclusions she drew from them. Nothing she had related to me convinced me that Mr. Barrows was in any way insane; nor could I imagine for a moment that he could be so without the knowledge of Ada, if not of his associates and friends.
At the same time I was becoming more and more assured in my own mind that his death was the result of his own act, and, had it not been for the difficulty of imagining a reason for it, could have retired to rest that night with a feeling of real security in the justness of a conclusion that so exonerated the man I loved. As it was, that secret doubt still remained like a cloud over my hopes, a doubt which I had promised myself should be entirely removed before I allowed my partiality for Mr. Pollard to take upon itself the character of partisanship. I therefore continued my explorations through the room.
Mr. Barrows' desk presented to me the greatest attraction of any thing there; one that was entirely of the imagination, of course, since nothing could have induced me to open it, notwithstanding every key stood in its lock, and one of the drawers was pulled a little way out. Only the law had a right to violate his papers; and hard as it was to deny myself a search into what was possibly the truest exponent of his character, I resolutely did so, consoling myself with the thought that if any open explanation of his secret had been in these drawers, it would have been produced at the inquest.
As for his books, I felt no such scruples. But then, what could his books tell me? Nothing, save that he was a wide student and loved the delicate and imaginative in literature. Besides, I had glanced at many of the volumes, in my search after the one which had held the engraving. Yet I did pause a minute and run my eye along the shelves, vaguely conscious, perhaps, that often in the most out-of- the-way corners lurks the secret object for which we are so carefully seeking. But I saw nothing to detain me, and after one brief glance at a strong and spirited statuette that adorned the top shelf, I hurried on to a small table upon which I thought I saw a photographic album.
I was not mistaken; and it was with considerable interest I took it up and began to run over its pages in search for that picture of Ada which I felt ought to be there. And which was there; but which I scarcely looked at twice, so much was my attention attracted by an envelope that fell out from between the leaves as I turned them eagerly over. That envelope, with its simple direction, "Miss Ada Reynolds, Monroe Street, S——," made an era in my history. For I no sooner perceived it than I felt confident of having seen it or its like before; and presently, with almost the force of an electric shock, I recollected the letter which I had brought Ada the afternoon of the day she died, and which, as my startled conscience now told me, had not only never been given her, but had not been so much as seen by me since, though all her belongings had passed into my hands, and the table where I had flung it had been emptied of its contents more than once. That letter and this empty envelope were, in style, handwriting, and direction, facsimiles. It had, therefore, come from Mr. Barrows; a most significant fact, and one which I had no sooner realized than I was seized by the most intense excitement, and might have done some wild and foolish thing, had not the lateness of the hour restrained me, and kept my passionate hopes and fears within their proper bounds. As it was, I found myself obliged to take several turns up and down the room, and even to open the window for a breath of fresh air, before I could face the subject with any calmness, or ask myself what had become of this letter, with any hope of receiving a rational reply.
That in the startling and tragic events of that day it had been overlooked and forgotten, I did not wonder. But that it should have escaped my notice afterwards, or if mine, that of the landlady who took charge of the room in my absence, was what I could not understand. As far as I could remember, I left the letter lying in plain view on the table. Why, then, had not some one seen and produced it? Could it be that some one more interested than I knew had stolen it? Or was the landlady of my former home alone to blame for its being lost or mislaid?
Had it been daylight I should have at once gone down to my former boarding-place to inquire; but as it was ten o'clock at night, I could only satisfy my impatience by going carefully over the incidents of that memorable day, in the hope of rousing some memory which would lead to an elucidation of this new mystery. First, then, I distinctly recollected receiving the letter from the postman. I had met him at the foot of the steps as I came home from my unsuccessful search for employment, and he had handed me the letter, simply saying: "For Miss Reynolds." I scarcely looked at it, certainly gave it no thought, for we had been together but a week, and I had as yet taken no interest in her concerns. So mechanical, indeed, had been my whole action in the matter, that I doubt if the sight of Mr. Barrows' writing alone, even though it had been used in transcribing her name, would have served to recall the incident to my mind. But the shade of the envelope—it was of a peculiar greenish tint—gave that unconscious spur to the memory which was needed to bring back the very look of the writing which had been on the letter I had so carelessly handled; and I found, as others have found before me, that there is no real forgetfulness in this world; that the most superficial glance may serve to imprint images upon the mind, which only await time and occasion to reappear before us with startling distinctness.
My entrance into my own room, my finding it empty, and the consequent flinging of the letter down on the table, all came back to me with the utmost clearness; even the fact that the letter fell face downwards and that I did not stop to turn it over. But beyond that all was blank to me up to the moment when I found myself confronting Ada standing with her hand on her heart in that sudden spasm of pain which had been the too sure precursor of her rapidly approaching doom.
But wait! Where was I standing when I first became conscious of her presence in the room? Why, in the window, of course. I remembered now just how hot the afternoon sun looked to me as I stared at the white walls of the cottage over the way. And she—where was she?— between me and the table? Yes! She had, therefore, passed by the letter, and might have picked it up, might even have opened it, and read it before the spell of my revery was broken, and I turned to find her standing there before my eyes. Her pallor, the evident distress under which she was laboring, even the sudden pain which had attacked her heart, might thus be accounted for, and what I had always supposed to be a purely physical attack prove to be the result of a mental and moral shock. But, no. Had she opened and read the letter it would have been found there; or if not there, at least upon her person after death. Besides, her whole conduct between the moment I faced her and that of the alarm in the street below precluded the idea that any thing of importance to her and her love had occurred to break her faith in the future and the man to whose care she was pledged. Could I not remember the happy smile which accompanied her offer of assistance and home to me? And was there any thing but hope and trust in the tone with which she had designated her lover as being the best and noblest man in town? No; if she had read his communication and afterwards disposed of it in some way I did not observe, then it was not of the nature I suspected; but an ordinary letter, similar in character to others she had received, foretelling nothing, and only valuable in the elucidation of the mystery before me from the fact of its offering proof presumptive that he did not anticipate death, or at all events did not meditate it.
An important enough fact to establish, certainly; but it was not the fact in which I had come to believe, and so I found it difficult to give it a place in my mind, or even to entertain the possibility of Ada's having seen the letter at all. I preferred rather to indulge in all sorts of wild conjectures, having the landlady, the servant, even Dr. Farnham, at their base; and it was not till I was visited by some mad thought of Rhoda Colwell's possible connivance in the disappearance of this important bit of evidence, that I realized the enormity of my selfish folly, and endeavored to put an end to its further indulgence by preparing stoically for bed.
But sleep, which would have been so welcome, did not come; and after a long and weary night, I arose in any thing but a refreshed state, to meet the exigencies of what might possibly prove to be a most important day.
The first thing to be done was undoubtedly to visit my old home and interview its landlady. If nothing came of that, to hunt up the nurse, Mrs. Gannon, whom, as you will remember, I had left in charge of my poor Ada's remains when sudden duty in the shape of Dr. Farnham carried me away to the bedside of Mrs. Pollard; and if this also came to naught, to burst the bonds of secrecy which I had maintained, and by taking this same Dr. Farnham into my confidence obtain at least an adviser who would relieve me, if only partially, from the weight of responsibility, which I now felt to be pressing rather too heavily upon my strength.
But though I carried out this programme as far as seeking for and procuring an interview with Mrs. Gannon at her place of nursing, I did not succeed in obtaining the least clew to the fate of this mysteriously lost letter. Neither of the women mentioned had seen it, nor was it really believed by them to have been on the table when they arranged the room after my Ada's peaceful death. Yet even to this they could not swear, nor would the landlady admit but that it might still have been lying there when they came to carry Ada away, though she would say that it could not have been anywhere in view the next day, for she had thoroughly cleaned and tidied up the room herself, and as in doing this she had been obliged to shift every article off the table on to the bed and back again, she must not only have seen, but handled the letter twice; and this she was morally certain she did not do.
I was therefore in as great perplexity as ever, and was seriously meditating a visit to Dr. Farnham, when I bethought me of making one final experiment before resorting to this last and not altogether welcome alternative.
This was to examine every thing which had been on the table, in the hope of discovering in some out-of-the-way receptacle the missing letter for which I had such need. To be sure it was an effort that promised little, there having been but few articles on the table capable of concealing even such a small object as this I was in search of; but when one is at their wits' ends, they do not stop to discuss probabilities, or even to weigh in too nice a scale the prospect of success.
Recalling, therefore, just what had been on the table, I went to the trunk in which these articles were packed, and laid them out one by one on the floor. They were as follows: A work-basket of Ada's; a box of writing-paper; a copy of Harper's Magazine; an atlas; and two volumes of poetry, one belonging to Ada and one to me.
A single glance into the work-basket was sufficient, also into the box of stationery. But the atlas was well shaken, and the magazine carefully looked through, before I decided it was not in them. As for the two books of poetry, I disdained them so completely, I was about to toss them back unopened, when there came upon me a disposition to be thorough, and I looked at them both, only to find snugly ensconced in my own little copy of Mrs. Browning the long- sought and despaired-of letter, with its tell-tale green envelope unbroken, and its contents, in so far as I could see, unviolated and undisturbed.
"I have lived long enough." —MACBETH.
Before I proceeded to open this letter, I reasoned some time with myself. The will by which I had come into possession of Ada's effects was, as I knew, informal and possibly illegal. But it was the expression of her wishes, and there had been no one to dispute them or question my right to the inheritance she had so innocently bequeathed me. At the same time I felt a hesitation about opening this letter, as I had about using her money; and it was not till I remembered the trust she had reposed in me, and the promise I had given her to support Mr. Barrows' good name before the world, that I summoned up sufficient determination to break its seal. My duty once clear to me, however, I no longer hesitated. This is the result:
My Beloved Ada:—Could I by any means mitigate the blow which I am forced to deal you, believe me it should be done. But no words can prepare you for the terrible fact I am about to reveal, and I think from what I know of you, and of your delicate but strong soul, that in a matter of life and death like this the most direct language is what you would choose me to employ.
Know then, dearest of all women, that a duty I dare not fly from condemns me to death; that the love we have cherished, the hopes in which we have indulged, can have no fulfilment in this world, but must be yielded as a sacrifice to the inexorable claim of conscience and that ideal of right which has been mine since I took upon myself the lofty vocation of a Christian minister.
You, my people, my own self even, have thought me an honest man. God knows I meant to be, even to the point of requiring nothing from others I was not willing to give myself. But our best friends do not know us; we do not know ourselves. When the hour of trial came, and a sudden call was made upon my faith and honor, I failed to sustain myself, failed ignominiously, showing myself to be no stronger than the weakest of my flock—ay, than the child that flies before a shadow because it is black, and he does not or will not see that it is his father's form that casts it.
Such lapses on the part of men professing to lead others demand heavy penalties. I feared to lose my life, therefore my life must go. Nothing short of this would reinstate me in my own eyes, or give to my repentance that stern and absolute quality which the nature of my sin imperatively demands.
That I must involve you in my sorrow and destruction is the bitterest drop in my cup. But dainty and flower-like as you are, you have a great nature, and would not hold me back from an act necessary to the welfare and honor of my eternal soul. I see you rather urging me on, giving me your last kiss, and smiling upon me with your own inspiring smile. So sure am I of this, that I can bear not to see you again; bear to walk for the last time by your house, leaving only my blessing in the air. For it is a part of my doom that I may not see you; since, were I to find myself in your presence, I could scarcely forbear telling you whither I was going, and that no man must know till all has been accomplished.
I go, then, without other farewell than these poor words can give you. Be strong, and bear my loss as many a noble woman before you has borne the wreck of all her hopes. When I am found—as some day I shall be—tell my people I died in the Christian faith, and for the simple reason that my honor as a man and a minister demanded it. If they love me they will take my word for it; but if questions should arise, and a fuller knowledge of my fate and the reasons which led me to such an act should in your judgment seem to be required, then go to my desk, and, in a secret drawer let into the back, you will find a detailed confession which will answer every inquiry and set straight any false or unworthy suspicions that may arise.
But heed these words and mark them well: Till such a need should arise, the manuscript is to be kept inviolate even from you; and no matter what the seeming need, or by what love or anxiety you may be driven, touch not that desk nor drawer till ten days have elapsed, or I shall think you love my body more than me, and the enjoyment of temporal comfort to the eternal weight of glory which is laid up for those who hold out steadfast to the end.
And now, my dear, my dear, with all the affection of my poor, weak, erring heart, I hold out arms of love towards you. Farewell for a short space. When we meet again may it be on equal terms once more, the heavy sin blotted out, the grievous wrong expiated.
Till then, God bless you.
Do not wonder at my revealing nothing of this in our late interviews. You were so happy, I dared not drop a shadow one day sooner than was necessary into your young life. Besides, my struggle was dark and secret, and could brook no eye upon it save that of the eternal God.
A LAST REQUEST.
'T is she That tempers him to this extremity. —Richard III.
The night had fallen. I was in a strange and awe-struck mood. The manuscript, which after some difficulty I had succeeded in finding, lay before, me unopened. A feeling as of an invisible presence was in the air. I hesitated to turn the page, written, as I already felt, with the life-blood of the man in whose mysterious doom the happiness of my own life had become entangled.
Waiting for courage, I glanced mechanically about the room. How strangely I had been led in this affair! How from the first I seemed to have been picked out and appointed for the solving of this mystery, till now I sat in the very room, at the very desk, in front of the very words, of its victim. I thought of Dwight Pollard struggling with his fate, and unconscious that in a few minutes the secret of Mr. Barrows' death would be known; of Rhoda Colwell, confident of her revenge and blind to the fact that I held in my hand what might possibly blunt her sharpest weapon, and make her most vindictive effort useless. Then each and every consideration of a purely personal nature vanished, and I thought only of the grand and tortured soul of him upon whose solemn and awesome history I was about to enter. Was it, as his letter seemed to imply, a martyr's story? I looked at the engraving of Cranmer, which had been a puzzle to me a few days before, and understanding it now, gathered fortitude by what it seemed to suggest, and hastily unrolled the manuscript.
This is what I read:
"He that would save his life shall lose it."
In order that the following tale of sin and its expiation may be understood, I must give a few words to the motives and hopes under which I entered the ministry.
I am a believer in the sacred character of my profession, and the absolute and unqualified devotion of those embracing it to the aims and purposes of the Christian religion. Though converted, as it is called, in my sixteenth year, I cannot remember the time my pulse did not beat with appreciation for those noble souls who had sacrificed every joy and comfort of this temporal life for the sake of their faith and the glory of God. I delighted in Fox's "Book of Martyrs," and while I shuddered over its pages in a horror I did not wholly understand, I read them again and again, till there was not a saint whose life I did not know by heart, with just the death he died and the pangs he experienced. Such a mania did this become with me at one time, that I grew visibly ill, and had to have the book taken away from me and more cheerful reading substituted in its stead.
Feeling thus strongly in childhood, when half, if not all, my interest sprang from the fascination which horrors have upon the impressible mind, what were my emotions and longings when the real meaning of the Christian life was revealed to me, and I saw in this steadfastness of the spirit unto death the triumph of the immortal soul over the weaknesses of the flesh and the terrors of a purely transitory suffering!
That the days for such display of firmness in the fiery furnace were over was almost a matter of regret to me in the first flush of my enthusiasm for the cause I had espoused. I wished so profoundly to show my love, and found all modern ways so tame in comparison to those which demanded the yielding up of one's very blood and life. Poor fool! did I never think that those who are the bravest in imagination fail often the most lamentably when brought face to face with the doom they have invoked.
I have never been a robust man, and consequently have never entered much into those sports and exercises incident to youth and early manhood that show a man of what stuff he is made. I have lived in my books till I came to S——, since which I have tried to live in the joys and sorrows of my fellow-beings.
The great rule of Christian living has seemed to me imperative. Love your neighbor as yourself, or, as I have always interpreted it, more than yourself. For a man, then, to sacrifice that neighbor to save himself from physical or mental distress, has always seemed to me not only the height of cowardice, but a direct denial of those truths upon which are founded the Christian's ultimate hope. As a man myself, I despise with my whole heart such weaklings; as a Christian minister I denounce them. Nothing can excuse a soul for wavering in its duty because that duty is hard. It is the hard things we should take delight in facing; otherwise we are babes and not men, and our faith a matter of expediency, and not that stern and immovable belief in God and His purposes which can alone please Deity and bring us into that immediate communion with His spirit which it should be the end and aim of every human soul to enjoy.
Such are my principles. Let us see how I have illustrated them in the events of the last six weeks.
On the sixteenth of August, five weeks ago to-day, I was called to the bedside of Samuel Pollard. He had been long sinking with an incurable disease, and now the end was at hand and my Christian offices required. I was in the full tide of sermon-writing when the summons came, and I hesitated at first whether to follow the messenger at once or wait till the daylight had quite disappeared, and with it my desire to place on paper the thoughts that were inspiring me with more than ordinary fervor.
But a question to my own heart decided me. Not my sermon, but the secret disinclination I always felt to enter this special family, was what in reality held me back; and this was a reason which, as you will have seen from the words I have already written, I could not countenance. I accordingly signified to the messenger that I would be with Mr. Pollard in a few moments, and putting away my papers, prepared to leave the room.
There, is a saying in the Bible to the effect that no man liveth to himself, nor dieth to himself. If in the course of this narrative I seem to show little consideration for the secrets of others, let this be at once my explanation and excuse: That only in the cause of truth do I speak at all; and that in holding up before you the follies and wrong-doings of persons you know, I subject them to no heavier penalty than that which I have incurred through my own sin. I shall therefore neither gloss over nor suppress any fact bearing upon a full explanation of my fate; and when I say I hesitated to go to Mr. Pollard because of my inherent dislike to enter his house, I will proceed to give as my reason for this dislike, my unconquerable distrust of his wife, who, if a fine-looking and capable woman, is certainly one to be feared by every candid and truth-loving nature.
But, as I said before, I did not yield to the impulse I had within me to stay; and, merely stopping to cast a parting glance about my room—why, I do not know, for I could have had no premonition of the fact that I was bidding good-by to the old life of hope and peace forever—I hastened after the messenger whom I had sent on before me to Mr. Pollard's home.
Small occurrences sometimes make great impressions on the mind. As I was turning the corner at Halsey Street, the idiot boy Colwell came rushing by, and almost fell into my arms. I started back, shuddering, as if some calamity had befallen me. An invincible repugnance to any thing deformed or half-witted has always been one of my weaknesses, and for him to have touched me—I hate myself as I write it, but I cannot think of it now without a chill in my veins and an almost unbearable feeling of physical contamination. Yet as I would be as just to myself as I hope to be to others, I did not let this incident pass, without a struggle to conquer my lower nature. Standing still, I called the boy back, and deliberately, and with a reverential thought of the Christ, I laid my hand on his arm, and, stooping, kissed him. It cost me much, but I could never have passed that corner without doing it; nor were I to live years on this earth, instead of a few short days, should I ever let another week go by without forcing my body into some such contact with what nature has afflicted and man contemned.
The pallor which I therefore undoubtedly showed upon entering Mr. Pollard's room was owing to the memory of this incident rather than to any effect which the sight of the dying man had upon me. But before I had been many minutes in the room, I found my pulse thrilling with new excitement and my manhood roused to repel a fresh influence more dangerous, if less repulsive, than the last.
Let me see if I can make it plain to you. Mr. Pollard, whom we have all known as an excellent but somewhat weak man, lay with his face turned towards the room, and his gaze fixed with what I felt to be more than the common anxiety of the dying upon mine. At his side sat his wife, cold, formidable, alert, her hand on his hand, her eye on his eye, and all her icy and implacable will set, as I could plainly see, between him and any comfort or encouragement I might endeavor to impart. She even allowed her large and commanding figure to usurp the place usually accorded me on such occasions, and when, after a futile effort or so on my part to break down the barrier of restraint that such a presence necessarily imposed, I arose from my seat at the foot of the bed, and, approaching closer, would have leaned over her husband, she put out her other hand and imperatively waved me aside, remarking:
"The doctor says he must have air."
There are some persons whose looks and words are strangely controlling. Mrs. Pollard is one of these, and I naturally drew back. But a glance at Mr. Pollard's face made me question if I was doing right in this. Such disappointment, such despair even, I had seldom seen expressed in a look; and convinced that he had something of real purport to say to me, I turned towards his wife, and resolutely remarked:
"The dying frequently have communications to make to which only their pastor's ear is welcome. Will you excuse me, then, if I request a moment's solitude with Mr. Pollard, that I may find out if his soul is at rest before I raise my prayers in its behalf?"
But, before I had finished, I saw that any such appeal would be unavailing. If her immovable expression had not given me this assurance, the hopeless closing of his weak and fading eyes would have sufficiently betrayed the fact.
"I cannot leave Mr. Pollard," were the words with which she tempered her refusal. "If he has any communication to make, let him make it in my presence. I am his wife." And her hand pressed more firmly upon his, and her eyes, which had not stirred from his face even when I addressed her, assumed a dark, if not threatening look, which gradually forced his to open and meet them.
I felt that something must be done.
"Mr. Pollard," said I, "is there any thing you wish to impart to me before you die? If so, speak up freely and with confidence, for I am here to do a friend and a pastor's duty by you, even to the point of fulfilling any request you may have to make, so it be only actuated by right feeling and judgment." And determinedly ignoring her quick move of astonishment, I pressed forward and bent above him, striving with what I felt to be a purely righteous motive, to attract his glance from hers, which was slowly withering him away as if it were a basilisk's.
And I succeeded. After an effort that brought the sweat out on his brow, he turned his look on mine, and, gathering strength from my expression, probably, gave me one eager and appealing glance, and thrust his left hand under his pillow.
His wife, who saw every thing, leaned forward with an uneasy gesture.
"What have you there?" she asked.
But he had already drawn forth a little book and placed it in my hand.
"Only my old prayer-book," he faltered. "I felt as if I should like Mr. Barrows to have it."
She gave him an incredulous stare, and allowed her glance to follow the book. I immediately put it in my pocket.
"I shall take a great deal of pleasure in possessing it," I remarked.
"Read it," he murmured; "read it carefully." And a tone of relief was in his voice that seemed to alarm her greatly; for she half rose to her feet and made a gesture to some one I did not see, after which she bent again towards the dying man and whispered in his ear.
But, though her manner had all its wonted force, and her words, whatever they were, were lacking in neither earnestness nor purpose, he did not seem to be affected by them. For the first time in his life, perhaps, he rose superior to that insidious influence, and, nerved by the near approach of death, kept his gaze fixed on mine, and finally stammered:
"Will you do some thing else for me?"
"I will," I began, and might have said more, but he turned from me and with sudden energy addressed his wife.
"Margaret," said he, "bring me my desk."
Had a thunderbolt fallen at her feet, she could not have looked more astonished. I myself was somewhat surprised; I had never heard that tone from him before.
"My desk!" he cried again; "I want it here."
At this repetition of his request, uttered this time with all the vehemence of despair. Mrs. Pollard moved, though she did not rise. At the same moment a quick, soft step was heard, and through the gloom of the now rapidly darkening chamber I saw their younger son draw near and take his stand at the foot of the bed.
"I have but a few minutes," murmured the sick man. "Will you refuse to make them comfortable, Margaret?"
"No, no," she answered hastily, guided as I could not but see by an almost imperceptible movement of her son's hand; and rising with a great show of compliance, she proceeded to the other end of the room. I at once took her place by the side of his pillow.
"Is there no word of comfort I can give you?" said I, anxious for the soul thus tortured by earthly anxieties on the very brink of the grave.
But his mind, filled with one thought, refused to entertain any other.
"Pray God that my strength hold out," he whispered. "I have an act of reparation to make." Then, as his son made a move as if to advance, he caught my hand in his, and drew my ear down to his mouth. "The book," he gasped; "keep it safely—they may try to take it away—don't—"
But here his son intervened with some word of warning; and Mrs. Pollard, hurriedly approaching, laid the desk on the bed in such a way that I was compelled to draw back.
But this did not seem to awaken in him any special distress. From the instant his eyes fell upon the desk, a feverish strength seemed to seize him, and looking up at me with something of his old brightness of look and manner, he asked to have it opened and its contents taken out.
Naturally embarrassed at such a request, I turned to Mrs. Pollard.
"It seems a strange thing for me to do," I began; but a lightning glance had already passed between her and her son, and with the cold and haughty dignity for which she is remarkable, she calmly stopped me with a quiet wave of her hand.
"The whims of the dying must be respected," she remarked, and reseated herself in her old place at his side.
I at once proceeded to empty the desk. It contained mainly letters, and one legal-looking document, which I took to be his will. As I lifted this out, I saw mother and son both cast him a quick glance, as if they expected some move on his part. But though his hands trembled somewhat, he made no special sign of wishing to see or touch it, and at once I detected on their faces a look of surprise that soon took on the character of dismay, as with the lifting of the last paper from the desk he violently exclaimed:
"Now break in the bottom and take out the paper you will find there. It is my last will and testament, and by every sacred right you hold in this world, I charge you to carry it to Mr. Nicholls, and see that no man nor woman touches it till you give it into his hands."
"His will!" echoed Mrs. Pollard, astonished.
"He don't know what he says. This is his will," she was probably going to assert, for her hand was pointing to the legal-looking document I have before mentioned; but a gesture from her son made her stop before the last word was uttered. "He must be wandering in his mind," she declared. "We know of no will hidden away in his desk. Ah!"
The last exclamation was called forth by the sudden slipping into view of a folded paper from between the crevices of the desk. I had found the secret spring. The next instant the bottom fell out, and the paper slipped to the floor. I was quick to recover it. Had I not been, Mrs. Pollard would have had it in her grasp. As it was, our hands met, not without a shock, I fear, on either side. A gasp of intense suspense came from the bed.
"Keep it," the dying eyes seemed to say; and if mine spoke as plainly as his did, they answered with full as much meaning and force:
Guy Pollard and his mother looked at each other, then at the pocket into which I had already thrust the paper. The dying man followed their glances, and with a final exertion of strength, raised himself on his elbow.
"My curse on him or her who seeks to step between me and the late reparation I have sought to make. Weaker than most men, I have submitted to your will, Margaret, up to this hour, but your reign is over at last, and—and—" The passionate words died away, the feverish energy succumbed, and with one last look into my face, Samuel Pollard fell back upon his pillow, dead.
A FATAL DELAY.
Would'st thou have that Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting "I dare not," wait upon "I would," Like the poor cat i' the adage? —MACBETH.
He was to all appearance immediately forgotten. As with mutual consent we all turned and faced each other, Mrs. Pollard with a stern, inexorable look in her dark eye, which, while it held me enchained, caused me to involuntarily lay my hand upon the document which I had hidden in my breast She noticed the movement, and smiled darkly with a sidelong look at her son. The smile and the look affected me strangely. In them I seemed to detect something deeper than hatred and baffled rage, and when in a moment later her son responded to her glance by quietly withdrawing from the room, I felt such revolt against their secrecy that for a moment I was tempted to abandon an undertaking that promised to bring me in conflict with passions of so deep and unrelenting a nature.
But the impression which the pain and despair of my dead friend had made upon me was as yet too recent for me to yield to my first momentary apprehensions; and summoning up what resolution I possessed, I took my leave of Mrs. Pollard, and was hastening towards the door, when her voice, rising cold and clear, arrested me.
"You think, then, that it is your duty to carry this paper from the house, Mr. Barrows?"
"Yes, madam, I do," was my short reply.
"In spite of my protest and that of my son?"
"Then upon your head be the consequences!" she exclaimed, and turned her back upon me with a look which went with me as I closed the door between us; lending a gloom to the unlighted halls and sombre staircases that affected me almost with an impulse of fear.
I dreaded crossing to where the stairs descended; I dreaded going down them into the darkness which I saw below. Not that I anticipated actual harm, but that I felt I was in the house of those who longed to see me the victim of it; and my imagination being more than usually alert, I even found myself fancying the secret triumph with which Guy Pollard would hail an incautious slip on my part, that would precipitate me from the top to the bottom of this treacherous staircase. That he was somewhere between me and the front door, I felt certain. The deadly quiet behind and before me seemed to assure me of this; and, ashamed as I was of the impulse that moved me, I could not prevent myself from stepping cautiously as I prepared to descend, saying as some sort of excuse to myself: "He is capable of seeing me trip without assistance," and as my imagination continued its work: "He is even capable of putting out his foot to help forward such a catastrophe."