And, indeed, I now think that if this simple plan had presented itself to his subtle mind, of stunning, if not disabling me, and thus making it possible for them to obtain his father's will without an open assault, he would not have hesitated to embrace it. But he evidently did not calculate, as I did, the chances of such an act, or perhaps he felt that I was likely to be too much upon my guard to fall a victim to this expedient, for I met no one as I advanced, and was well down the stairs and on my way to the front door, before I perceived any signs of life in the sombre house. Then a sudden glare of light across my path betrayed the fact that a door had been swung wide in a certain short passage that opened ahead of me; and while I involuntarily stopped, a shadow creeping along the further wall of that passage warned me that some one—I could not doubt it to be Guy Pollard—had come out to meet me.
The profound stillness, and the sudden pause which the shadow made as I inconsiderately stumbled in my hesitation, assured me that I was right in attributing a sinister motive to this encounter. Naturally, therefore, I drew back, keeping my eyes upon the shadow. It did not move. Convinced now that danger of some kind lay ahead of me, I looked behind and about me for some means of escaping from the house without passing by my half-seen enemy. But none presented themselves. Either I must slink away into the kitchen region—a proceeding from which my whole manhood revolted,—or I must advance and face whatever evil awaited me. Desperation drove me to the latter course. Making one bound, I stood before that lighted passage. A slim, firm figure confronted me; but it was not that of Guy, but of his older brother, Dwight.
The surprise of the shock, together with a certain revelation which came to me at the same moment, and of which I will speak hereafter, greatly unnerved me. I had not been thinking of Dwight Pollard. Strange as it may seem, I had not even missed him from the bedside of his father. To see him, then, here and now, caused many thoughts to spring into my mind, foremost among which was the important one as to whether he was of a nature to lend himself to any scheme of violence. The quickness with which I decided to the contrary proved to me in what different estimation I had always held him from what I had his mother and brother.
It was consequently no surprise to me when he leaned forward and spoke to me with consideration and force. I was only surprised at a his words:
"Don't stop, Mr. Barrows," said he. "Go home at once; only"—and here he paused, listened, then proceeded with increased emphasis, "don't go by the way of Orchard Street." And without waiting for my reply, he stepped back and noiselessly regained the apartment he had left, while I, in a confusion of emotions difficult to analyze at the moment, hastily accepted his advice, and withdrew from the house.
The relief of breathing the fresh air again was indescribable. If I had not escaped the miasma and oppression of a prison, I certainly had left behind me influences of darkness and sinister suggestion, which, in the light of the calm moonbeams that I found flooding the world without, had the effect upon me of a vanished horror. Only I was still haunted by that last phrase which I had heard uttered, "Don't go by the way of Orchard Street," an injunction which simply meant, "Don't go with that document to the lawyer's to-night."
Now was this order, given as it was by Dwight Pollard, one of warning or of simple threat? My good-will toward this especial member of the Pollard family inclined me to think it the former.
There was danger, then, lurking for me somewhere on the road to Mr. Nicholls' house. Was it my duty to encounter this danger? It appeared to me not, especially as it was not necessary for me to acquit myself so instantly of the commission with which I had been intrusted. I accordingly proceeded directly home.
But once again in my familiar study, I became conscious of a strong dissatisfaction with myself. Indeed, I may speak more forcibly and say I was conscious of a loss of trust in my own manhood, which was at once so new and startling that it was as if a line had been drawn between my past and present. This was due to the discovery I had made at the moment I had confronted Dwight Pollard—a discovery so humiliating in its character that it had shaken me, body and soul. I had found in the light of that critical instant that I, David Barrows, was a coward! Yes, gloss it over as I would, the knowledge was deep in my mind that I lacked manhood's most virile attribute; that peril, real or imaginary, could awaken in me fear; and that the paling cheek and trembling limbs of which I had been so bitterly conscious at that instant were but the outward signs of a weakness that extended deep down into my soul.
It was a revelation calculated to stagger any man, how much more, then, one who had so relied upon his moral powers as to take upon himself the sacred name of minister. But this was not all. I had not only found myself to be a coward, but I had shown myself such to another's eyes. By the searching look which Dwight Pollard had given me before he spoke, and the quiet, half-disdainful curve which his lips took at the close of his scrutiny, I was convinced that he saw the defect in my nature, and despised me for it, even while he condescended to offer me the protection which my fears seemed to demand. Or—the thought could come now that I was at home, and had escaped the dangers lying in wait for me on the road to my duty—he had made use of my weakness to gain his own ends. The carrying of that document to Mr. Nicholls meant loss of property to them all perhaps, and he had but taken means, consistent with his character, to insure the delay which his brother had possibly planned to gain in some more reprehensible manner. And I had yielded to my fears and let his will have its way. I hated myself as I considered my own weakness. I could find no excuse either for my pusillanimity or for that procrastination of my duty into which it had betrayed me. I found I could not face my own scorn; and, rising from my study- chair, I took my hat and went out. I had determined to make amends for my fault by going at once to Orchard Street.
And I did; but alas! for the result! The half-hour I had lost was fatal. To be sure I met with no adventure on my way, but I found Mr. Nicholls out. He had been summoned by a telegram to Boston, and had been absent from the house only fifteen minutes. I meditated following him to the station, but the whistle sounded just as I turned away from his door, and I knew I should be too late. Humiliated still further in my own estimation, I went home to wait with what patience I could for the two or three days which must elapse before his return.
Before I went to bed that night I opened the book which Mr. Pollard had given me, in the expectation of finding a letter in it, or, at least, some writing on the title-page or the blank pages of the book. But I was disappointed in both regards. With the exception of some minute pencil-marks scattered here and there along the text—indications, doubtless, of favorite passages—I perceived nothing in the volume to account for the extreme earnestness with which he had presented it.
THE OLD MILL.
Whither wilt thou lead me? speak; I'll go no farther. —HAMLET.
I did not sleep well that night, but this did not prevent me from beginning work early in the morning. The sermon I had been interrupted in the afternoon before, had to be completed that day; and I was hard at work upon it when there came a knock at my study- door. I arose with any thing but alacrity and opened it. Dwight Pollard stood before me.
It was a surprise that called up a flush to my cheeks; but daylight was shining upon this interview, and I knew none of those sensations which had unnerved me the night before. I was simply on my guard, and saw him seat himself in my own chair, without any other feeling than that of curiosity as to the nature of his errand. He likewise was extremely self-possessed, and looked at me calmly for some instants before speaking.
"Last night," he began, "you refused a request which my mother made of you."
"It was a mistake," he continued. "The paper which my father gave you cannot be one which he in his right senses would wish seen by the public. You should have trusted my mother, who knew my father much better than you did."
"It was not a matter of trust," I protest. "A document had been given me by I a dying man, with an injunction to put it into certain hands. I had no choice but to fulfil his wishes in this regard. Your mother herself would have despised me if I had yielded to her importunities and left it behind me."
"My mother," he commenced.
"Your mother is your mother," I put in. "Let us have respect for her widowhood, and leave her out of this conversation."
He looked at me closely, and I understood his glance.
"I cannot return you your father's will," I declared, firmly.
He held my glance with his.
"Have you it still?" he asked.
"I cannot return it to you," I repeated.
He arose and approached me courteously. "You are doing what you consider to be your duty," said he. "In other words than my mother used, I simply add, on our heads must be the consequences." And his grave look, at once half-sad and half-determined, impressed me for the first time with a certain sort of sympathy for this unhappy family. "And this leads me to the purpose of my call," he proceeded, deferentially. "I am here at my mothers wish, and I bring you her apologies. Though you have done and are doing wrong by your persistence in carrying out my poor father's wishes to the detriment of his memory, my mother regrets that she spoke to you in the manner she did, and hopes you will not allow it to stand in the way of your conducting the funeral services."
"Mr. Pollard," I replied, "your father was my friend, and to no other man could I delegate the privilege of uttering prayers over his remains. But I would not be frank to you nor true to myself if I did not add that it will take more than an apology from your mother to convince me that she wishes me well, or is, indeed, any thing but the enemy her looks proclaimed her to be last night."
"I am sorry——" he began, but meeting my eye, stopped. "You possess a moral courage which I envy you," he declared. And waiving the subject of his mother, he proceeded to inform me concerning the funeral and the arrangements which had been made.
I listened calmly. In the presence of this man I felt strong. Though he knew the secret of my weakness, and possibly despised me for it, he also knew what indeed he had just acknowledged, that in some respects I was on a par with him.
The arrangements were soon made, and he took his leave without any further allusion to personal matters. But I noticed that at the door he stopped and cast a look of inquiry around the room. It disconcerted me somewhat; and while I found it difficult to express to myself the nature of the apprehensions which it caused, I inwardly resolved to rid myself as soon as possible of the responsibility of holding Mr. Pollard's will. If Mr. Nicholls did not return by the day of the funeral, I would go myself to Boston and find him.
No occurrence worth mentioning followed this interview with Dwight Pollard. I conducted the services as I had promised, but found nothing to relate concerning them, save the fact that Mrs. Pollard was not present. She had been very much prostrated by her husband's death, and was not able to leave her room, or so it was said. I mistrusted the truth of this, however, but must acknowledge I was glad to be relieved of a presence not only so obnoxious to myself, but so out of tune with the occasion. I could ignore Guy, subtle and secret as he was, but this woman could not be ignored. Where she was, there brooded something dark, mysterious, and threatening; and whether she smiled or frowned, the influence of her spirit was felt by a vague oppression at once impossible to analyze or escape from.
From the cemetery I went immediately to my house. The day was a dreary one, and I felt, chilled. The gray of the sky was in my spirit, and every thing seemed unreal and dark and strange. I was in a mood, I suppose, and, unlike myself on other similar occasions, did not feel that drawing towards the one dear heart which hitherto had afforded me solace and support. I had not got used to my new self as yet, and till I did, the smile of her I loved was more of a reproach to me than consolation.
I was stopped at the gate by Mrs. Banks. She is my next-door neighbor, and in the absence of my landlady who had gone to visit some friends, took charge of any message which might be left for me while I was out. She looked flurried and mysterious.
"You have had a visitor," she announced.
As she paused and looked as if she expected to be questioned, I naturally asked who it was.
"She said she was your sister," she declared. "A tall woman with a thick veil over her face. She went right up to your study, but I think she must have got tired of waiting, for she went away again a few moments ago."
My sister! I had no sister. I looked at Mrs. Banks in amazement
"Describe her more particularly," said I.
"That I cannot do," she returned. "Her veil hid her features too completely for me to see them. I could not even tell her age, but I should say, from the way she walked that she was older than you."
A chill, which did not come entirely from the east wind then blowing, ran sharply through my veins.
"I thank you," said I, somewhat incoherently, and ran hastily upstairs. I had a presentiment as to the identity of this woman.
At the door of my study I paused and looked hurriedly around. No signs of any disturbance met my eye. Crossing over to my desk, I surveyed the papers which I had left scattered somewhat loosely over it. They had been moved. I knew it by the position of the blotter, which I had left under a certain sheet of paper, and which now lay on top. Hot and cold at once, I went immediately to the spot where I had concealed Mr. Pollard's will. It was in my desk, but underneath a drawer instead of in it, and by this simple precaution, perhaps, I had saved it from destruction; for I found it lying in its place undisturbed, though the hand which had crept so near its hiding- place was, as I felt certain, no other than that of Mrs. Pollard, searching for this very document.
It gave me a shuddering sense of disquiet to think that the veiled figure of this portentous woman had glided over my floors, reflected itself in my mirrors, and hung, dark and mysterious in its veiling drapery, over my desk and the papers which I had handled myself so lately.
I was struck, too, by the immovable determination to compass her own ends at any and every risk, which was manifested by this incident; and, wondering more and more as to what had been the nature of the offence for which Mr. Pollard sought to make reparation in his will, I only waited for a moment of leisure in order to make another effort at enlightenment by a second study of the prayer-book which my dying friend had placed so earnestly in my hands.
It came, as I supposed, about eight o'clock that evening. The special duties of the day were done, and I knew of nothing else that demanded my attention. I therefore took the book from my pocket, where I had fortunately kept it, and was on the point of opening its pages, when there came a ring at the door-bell below.
As I have said before, my landlady was away. I consequently went to the door myself, where I was met by an unexpected visitor in the shape of the idiot boy, Colwell. Somewhat disconcerted at the sight of a face so repugnant to me, I was still more thrown off my balance when I heard his errand. He had been sent, he said, by a man who had been thrown from his wagon on the north road, and was now lying in a dying condition inside the old mill, before which he was picked up. Would I come and see him? He had but an hour or so to live, and wished very much for a clergyman's consolation.
It was a call any thing but agreeable to me. I was tired; I was interested in the attempt which I was about to make to solve a mystery that was not altogether disconnected with my own personal welfare, and—let me acknowledge it, since events have proved I had reason to fear this spot—I did not like the old mill. But I was far from conceiving what a wretched experience lay before me, nor did the fact that the unwelcome request came through the medium of an imbecile arouse any suspicion in my mind as to the truth of the message he brought. For, foolish as he is in some regards, his reliability as an errand-boy is universally known, while his partiality for roaming, as well as for excitements of all kinds, fully accounted for the fact of his being upon the scene of accident.
I had, then, nothing but my own disinclinations to contend with, and these, strong as they were, could not, at that time, and in the mood which my late experience had induced, long stand in the way of a duty so apparent.
I consequently testified my willingness to go to the mill, and in a few minutes later set out for that spot with a mind comparatively free from disagreeable forebodings. But as we approached the mill, and I caught a glimpse of its frowning walls glooming so darkly from out the cluster of trees that environed them, I own that a sensation akin to that which had been awakened in me by Mrs. Pollard's threats, and the portentous darkness of her sombre mansion, once again swept with its chilling effect over my nerves.
Shocked, disgusted with myself at the recurrence of a weakness for which I had so little sympathy, I crushed down the feelings I experienced, and advanced at once to the door. A tall and slim figure met me, clothed in some dark enveloping garment, and carrying a lantern.
"The injured man is within," said he.
Something in the voice made me look up. His face was entirely in shadow.
"Who are you?" I asked.
He did not reply.
"Let us go in," he said.
A week before I would have refused to do this without knowing more of my man. But the shame from which I had suffered for the last few days had made me so distrustful of myself that I was ready to impute to cowardice even the most ordinary instinct of self-preservation.
I accordingly followed the man, though with each step that I took I felt my apprehensions increase. To pierce in this manner a depth of sombre darkness, with only the dim outline of an unknown man moving silently before me, was any thing but encouraging in itself. Then the way was too long, and the spot we sought too far from the door. A really injured man would not be carried beyond the first room, I thought, and we had already taken steps enough to be half-way through the building. At last I felt that even cowardice was excusable under these circumstances, and, putting out my hand, I touched the man before me on the shoulder.
"Where are we going?" I demanded.
He continued to move on without reply.
"I shall follow you no longer if you do not speak," I cried again. "This midnight journey through an old building ready to fall into ruins seems to me not only unpleasant but hazardous."
Still no answer.
"I warned you," I said, and stopped, but the next moment I gave an almost frantic bound forward. A form had come up against me from behind, and I found that a man was following as closely upon my steps as I had been following those of the person who stalked before me.
The thrill of this discovery will never be forgotten by me. For a moment I could not speak, and when I did, the sound of my voice only added to my terrors.
"You have me in a trap," said I; "who are you, and what are your intentions with me?"
"We have you where we can reason with you," exclaimed the voice of him who pressed against my back; and at the sound of those gentlemanly tones with their underlying note of sarcasm, I understood that my hour had come. It was the voice and intonation of Guy Pollard.
Des.—Talk you of killing?' Oth.—Ay, I do. Des.—Then, heaven Have mercy on me! —OTHELLO.
I quivered with shame, for I felt my heart sink. But there was no pause in the smooth, sarcastic tones behind me. "When a man persists in judging of his duty contrary to the dictates of reason, he must expect restraint from those who understand his position better than he does himself."
"Then," quoth I, with suddenly acquired strength, "I am to understand that the respectable family of Pollard finds itself willing to resort to the means and methods of highwaymen in order to compass its ends and teach me my duty."
"You are," a determined voice returned.
At that word, uttered as it was in a tone inexorable as fate, my last ray of hope went out. The voice was that of a woman.
I however, made a strong effort for the preservation of my dignity and person.
"And will Samuel Pollard's oldest and best-beloved son, the kind- hearted and honest Dwight, lend himself to a scheme of common fraud and violence?" I asked.
The reply came in his brother's most sarcastic tones. "Dwight has left us," he declared. "We have no need of honesty or kind- heartedness here. What we want for this business is an immovable determination."
Startled, I looked up. The lantern which had hitherto swung from the hand of my guide stood on the floor. By its light three things were visible. First, that we stood at the head of a staircase descending into a depth of darkness which the eye could not pierce; secondly, that in all the area about me but two persons stood; and third, that of these two persons one of them was masked and clad in a long black garment, such as is worn at masquerade balls under the name of a domino. Struck with an icy chill, I looked down again. Why had I allowed myself to be caught in such a trap? Why had I not followed Mr. Nicholls immediately to Boston when I heard that he was no longer in town? Or, better still, why had I not manufactured for myself a safeguard in the form of a letter to that gentleman, informing him of the important document which I held, and the danger in which it possibly stood from the family into whose toils I had now fallen? I could have cursed myself for my dereliction.
"David Barrows," came in imperative tones from the masked figure, "will you tell us where this will is?"
"No," I returned.
"Is it not on your person?" the inquisitorial voice pursued.
"It is not," I answered, firmly, thankful that I spoke the truth in this.
"It is in your rooms, then; in your desk, perhaps?"
I remained silent.
"Is it in your rooms?" the indomitable woman proceeded.
"You who have been there should know," I replied, feeling my courage rise, as I considered that they could not assail my honor, while my life without my secret would benefit them so little that it might be said to stand in no danger.
"I do not understand you," the icy voice declared; while Guy, stepping forward, planted his hand firmly on my shoulder and said:
"Wherever it is, it shall be delivered to our keeping to-night. We are in no mood for dallying. Either you will give us your solemn promise to obtain this will, and hand it over to us without delay and without scandal, or the free light of heaven is shut out from you forever. You shall never leave this mill."
"But," I faltered, striving in vain to throw off the incubus of horror which his words invoked, "what good would my death do you? Could it put Mr. Pollard's will in your hands?"
"Yes," was the brief and decided reply, "if it is anywhere in your rooms."
It was a word that struck home. The will was in my rooms, and I already saw it, in my imagination, torn from its hiding-place by the unscrupulous hand that held me.
Mastering my emotion with what spirit I could, I looked quickly about me. Was there no means of escape? I saw none. In the remote and solitary place which they had chosen for this desperate attempt, a cry would be but waste breath, even if we were in that part of the mill which looked toward the road. But we were not; on the contrary, I could see by the aid of the faint glimmer which the lantern sent forth, that the room in which we had halted was as far as possible from the front of the building, for its windows were obscured by the brush-wood which only grew against the back of the mill. To call out, then, would be folly, while to seek by any force or strategy to break away from the two relentless beings that controlled me could only end in failure, unless darkness would come to my aid and hide my road of escape. But darkness could only come by the extinguishing of the lantern, and that it was impossible for me to effect; for I was not strong enough to struggle in its direction with Guy Pollard, nor could I reach it by any stretch of foot or hand. The light must burn and I must stay there, unless—the thought came suddenly—I could take advantage of the flight of steps at the head of which I stood, and by a sudden leap, gain the cellar, where I would stand a good chance of losing myself amid intricacies as little known to them as to myself. But to do this I must be free to move, and there was no shaking myself loose from the iron clutch that held me.
"You see you are in our power," hissed the voice of the woman from between the motionless lips of her black mask.
"I see I am," I acknowledged, "but I also see that you are in that of God." And I looked severely towards her, only to drop my eyes again with an irrepressible shudder.
For, lay it to my weakness or to the baleful influence which emanated from the whole ghostly place, there was something absolutely appalling in this draped and masked figure with its gleaming eyes and cold, thin voice.
"Shall we have what we want before your death or after?" proceeded Guy Pollard, with a calm but cold ignoring of my words that was more threatening than any rudeness.
I did not answer at first, and his grip upon me tightened; but next moment, from what motive I cannot say, it somewhat relaxed; and, startled, with the hope of freedom, I exclaimed with a vehemence for which my former speech must have little prepared them:
"You shall not have it at all. I cannot break my word with your father, and I will not stay here to be threatened and killed;" and making a sudden movement, I slipped from his grasp, and plunged down the steps into the darkness below.
But, scarcely had my feet touched the cellar floor, before I heard the warning cry shrill out from above:
"Take care! There is an open vat before you. If you fall into that, we shall be free of your interference without lifting a hand."
An open vat! I had heard of the vats in the old mill's cellar. Instinctively recoiling, I stood still, not knowing whether to advance or retreat. At the same moment I heard the sound of steps descending the stairs.
"So you think this a better place for decision than the floor above?" exclaimed Guy Pollard, drawing up by my side. "Well, I not sure but you are right," he added; and I saw by the light of the lantern which his companion now brought down the stairs, the cold glimmer of a smile cross his thin lips and shine for a moment from his implacable eyes. Not knowing what he meant, I glanced anxiously about, and shrank with dismay as I discerned the black hole of the vat he had mentioned, yawning within three feet of my side. Was it a dream, my presence in this fearful spot? I looked at the long stretch of arches before me glooming away into the darkness beyond us, and felt the chill of a nameless horror settle upon my spirit.
Was it because I knew those circles of blackness held many another such pit of doom as that into which I had so nearly stumbled? Or was it that the grisly aspect of the scene woke within me that slumbering demon of the imagination which is the bane of natures like mine.
Whatever it was, I felt the full force of my position, and scarcely cared whether my voice trembled or not as I replied:
"You surely have me in your hands; but that does not mean that it is I who must make a decision. If I understand the situation, it is for you to say whether you will be murderers or not."
"Then you do not intend to put us in possession of my father's will?"
"No," I murmured, and bowed my head for the blow I expected from him.
But he dealt me no blow. Instead of that he eyed me with a look which grew more and more sinister as I met his glance with one which I meant should convey my indomitable resolution. At last he spoke again:
"I think you will reconsider your determination," said he, with a meaning I did not even then fathom, and exchanging a quick glance with the silent figure at his right, he leaned towards me and—what happened? For a moment I could not tell, but soon, only too soon, I recognized by my stunned and bleeding body, by the closeness of the air I suddenly breathed, and by the circle of darkness that shut about me, and the still more distinct circle of light that glimmered above, that I had been pushed into the pit whose yawning mouth had but a few short moments before awakened in me such dismay.
Aghast, almost mad with the horror of a fate so much more terrible than any I had anticipated, I strove to utter a cry; but my tongue refused its office, and nothing but an inarticulate murmur rose from my lips. It was not piercing enough to clear the edge of the vat, and my soul sunk with despair as I heard its fruitless gurgle and realized by the sound of departing steps, and the faint and fainter glimmer of the circle of light which at my first glance had shone quite brightly above my hideous prison-house, that my persecutors had done their worst and were now leaving me alone in my trap to perish.
God! what an instant it was! To speak, to shriek, to call, nay plead for aid, was but the natural outcome of the overwhelming anguish I felt, but the sound of steps had died out into an awful stillness, and the glimmering circle upon which my staring eyes were fixed had faded into a darkness so utter and complete, that had the earth been piled above my head, I could not have been more wholly hidden from the light.
I had fallen on my knees, and desperate as I was, had made no attempt to rise. Not that I thought of prayer, unless my whole dazed and horrified being was a prayer. The consolations which I had offered to others did not seem to meet this case. Here was no death in the presence of friends and under the free light of heaven. This was a horror. The hand of God which could reach every other mortal, whatever their danger or doom, seemed to stop short at this gate of hell. I could not even imagine my soul escaping thence. I was buried; body and soul, I was buried and yet I was alive and knew that I must remain alive for days if not for weeks.
I do not suppose that I remained in this frightful condition of absolute hopelessness for more than five minutes, but it seemed to me an eternity. If a drowning man can review his life in an instant, what was there not left for me to think and suffer in the lapse of those five horrible minutes? I was young when the unscrupulous hand of this daring murderer pushed me into this pit; I was old when with a thrill of joy such as passes over the body but once In a life- time, I heard a voice issue from the darkness, saying severely, "David Barrows, are you prepared for a decision now?" and realized that like the light which now sprang into full brilliance above my head, hope had come again into my life, and that I had to speak but a dozen words to have sunshine and liberty restored to me.
The rush of emotion which this startling change brought was almost too much for my reason. Looking up into the sardonic face, I could now discern peering over the edge of the vat, I asked with a frantic impulse that left me no time for thought, if an immediate restoration to freedom would follow my compliance with his wishes, and when he answered: "Yes," I beheld such a vision of sunshiny fields and a happy, love-lighted home, that my voice almost choked as I responded, that I did not think his father would have wished me to sacrifice my life or force a son of his into the crime of murder, for the sake of any reparation which money could offer. And as I saw the face above me grow impatient, I told in desperate haste where I had concealed the will and how it could be obtained without arousing the suspicions of my neighbors.
He seemed satisfied and hastily withdrew his face; but soon returned and asked for the key of my house. I had it in my pocket and hurriedly pitched it up to him, when he again disappeared.
"When shall I be released?" I anxiously called out after him.
But no answer came back, and presently the light began to fade as before, and the sound of steps grow fainter and fainter till silence and darkness again settled upon my dreadful prison-house.
But this time I had hope to brighten me, and shutting my eyes, I waited patiently. But at last, as no change came and the silence and darkness remained unbroken, I became violently alarmed and cried to myself: "Am I the victim of their treachery? Have they obtained what they want and now am I to be left here to perish?"
The thought made my hair stand on end and had I not been a God- fearing man I should certainly have raised my voice in curses upon my credulity and lack of courage. But before my passion could reach its height, hope shone again in the shape of returning light. Some one had entered the cellar and drawn near the edge of the vat; but though I strained my gaze upward, no face met my view, and presently I heard a voice which was not that of Guy Pollard utter in tones of surprise and apprehension:
"Where is the clergyman? Guy said I should find him here in good condition?"
The masked figure, who was doubtless the one addressed, must have answered with a gesture towards the hole in which I lay, for I heard him give vent to a horrified exclamation and then say in accents of regret and shame: "Was it necessary?" and afterwards: "Are you sure he is not injured?"
The answer, which I did not hear, seemed to satisfy him, for he said no more, and soon, too soon, walked away again, carrying the light and leaving me, as I now knew, with that ominous black figure for my watch and guardian,—a horror that lent a double darkness to the situation which was only relieved now by the thought that Dwight Pollard's humanity was to be relied on, and that he would never wantonly leave me there to perish after the will had been discovered and destroyed.
It was well that I had this confidence, for the time I now had to wait was long. But I lived it through and at last had the joy of hearing footsteps and the voice of Guy saying in a dry and satisfied tone: "It is all right," after which the face of Dwight looked over the edge of the vat and he gave me the help which was needed to lift me out.
I was a free man again. I had slipped from the gates of hell, and the world with all its joys and duties lay before me bright and beautiful as love and hope could make it. Yet whether it was the gloom of the cellar in which we still lingered, or the baleful influence that emanated, from the three persons in whose presence I once more stood, I felt a strange sinking at my heart and found myself looking back at the pit from which I had just escaped, with a sensation of remorse, as if in its horrid depths I had left or lost something which must create a void within me forever.
My meditations in this regard were interrupted by the voice of Guy.
"David Barrows," said he, "we hold the paper which was given you by my father."
I bowed with a slight intimation of impatience.
"We have looked at it and it is as he said, his will. But it is not such a one as we feared, and to-morrow, or as soon as we can restore the seal, we shall return it to you for such disposition as your judgment suggests."
I stared at him in an amazement that made me forget my shame.
"You will give it back?" I repeated.
"To-morrow," he laconically replied.
Ah, my false heart, what hast thou done?
This is a story of fact; it is also a story of mental struggle. I shall not, therefore, be considered too diffuse if I say that this unlooked for ending to my unhappy adventure threw me into a strange turmoil of feeling, from which I had no rest until the next day came. That they should promise to restore the will, to obtain which they had resorted to measures almost criminal in their severity, awoke in me the greatest astonishment. What could it mean? I waited to see the will before replying.
It came, as Guy Pollard had promised, at noon of the following day. It was in a new envelope, and was sealed just as it had been before it left my possession. Had I not known into what unscrupulous hands it had fallen, I should have doubted if it had ever been opened. As it was, I was not only confident that it had been read from end to end, but fearful that it had been tampered with, and perhaps altered. To get it out of my hands, and if possible, my mind also, I carried it at once to Mr. Nicholls, who, I had ascertained that morning, had returned to town the day before.
He received me with affability, but looked a little surprised when he learned my errand.
"I was just going to call on the family," said he; "I drew up Mr. Pollard's will myself, and—-"
"You drew up Mr. Pollard's will?" I hastily interrupted. "You know, then, its contents, and can tell me—-"
"Pardon me," he as hastily put in, "the family have the first right to a knowledge of what Mr. Pollard has done for them."
I felt myself at a loss. To explain my rights and the great desire which I experienced to ascertain whether the tenor of the paper he now held coincided with that which he had submitted to Mr. Pollard for his signature, necessitated a full relation of facts which I was not yet certain ought to be made public. For if the will had not been meddled with, and Mr. Pollard's wishes stood in no danger of being slighted or ignored, what else but a most unhappy scandal could accrue from the revelation which I should be forced to make? Then, my own part in the miserable affair. If not productive of actual evil, it was still something to blush for, and I had not yet reached that stage of repentance or humility which made it easy to show the world a weakness for which I had no pity nor sympathy myself. Yet to guard the interests with which I had been entrusted, it was absolutely necessary that the question which so much disturbed me should be answered. For, if any change had been made in this important paper by which the disposition of Mr. Pollard's property should be turned aside from the channel in which he had ordered it, I felt that no consideration for the public welfare or my own good fame should hinder me from challenging its validity.
My embarrassment evidently showed itself, for the acute lawyer, after a momentary scrutiny of my face, remarked:
"You say Mr. Pollard gave you this will to hand to me. Do you know the cause of this rather extraordinary proceeding, or have you any suspicion why, in the event of his desiring me to have in charge a paper which ought to be safe enough in his own house, he choose his pastor for his messenger instead of one of his own sons?"
"Mr. Nicholls," I returned, with inward satisfaction for the opportunity thus given me for reply, "the secrets which are confided to a clergyman are as sacred as those which are entrusted to a lawyer. I could not tell you my suspicions if I had any; I can only state the facts. One thing, however, I will add. That owing to circumstances which I cannot explain, but greatly regret, this paper has been out of my hands for a short time, and in speaking as I did, I wished merely to state that it would be a satisfaction to me to know that no harm has befallen it, and that this is the very will in spirit and detail which you drew up and saw signed by Mr. Pollard."
"Oh," exclaimed the lawyer, "if that is all, I can soon satisfy you." And tearing open the envelope, he ran his eye over the document and quietly nodded.
"It is the same," he declared. "There has been no meddling here."
And feeling myself greatly relieved, I rose without further conversation and hastily took my leave.
But when I came to think of it all again in my own room, I found my equanimity was not yet fully restored. A doubt of some kind remained, and though, in consideration of the manifold duties that pressed upon me, I relentlessly put it aside, I could not help its lingering in my mind, darkening my pleasures, and throwing a cloud over my work and the operations of my mind. The sight which I now and then caught of the Pollards did not tend to allay my anxieties. There was satisfaction in their countenances, and in that of Guy, at least, a certain triumphant disdain which could only be partly explained by the victory which he had won over me through my fears. I awaited the proving of the will with anxiety. If there were no seeming reparation made in it, I should certainly doubt its being the expression of Mr. Pollard's wishes.
What was my surprise, then, when the will having been proved, I obtained permission to read it and found that it not only contained mention of reparation, but that this reparation was to be made to Margaret his wife.
"For sums loaned by her to me and lost, I desire to make reparation by an added bequest—" so it read; and I found myself nonplussed and thrown entirely out in all my calculations and conjectures. The anxiety he had shown lest the will should fall into this very woman's hands, did not tally with this expression of justice and generosity, nor did the large sums which he had left to his three children show any of that distrust which his countenance had betrayed towards the one who was present with him at the time of his death. Could it be that he had given me the wrong paper or was he, as Mrs. Pollard had intimated, not responsible for his actions and language at that time. I began to think the latter conjecture might be true, and was only hindered in the enjoyment of my old tranquility by the remembrance of the fearful ordeal I had been subjected to in the mill, and the consideration which it brought of the fears and suspicions which must have existed to make the perpetration of such an outrage possible.
But time, which dulls all things, soon began to affect my memory of that hideous nightmare, and with it my anxiety lest in my unfaithfulness to my trust, I had committed a wrong upon some unknown innocent. Life with its duties and love with its speedy prospect of marriage gradually pushed all unpleasant thoughts from my mind, and I was beginning to enjoy the full savor of my happy and honorable position again, when my serenity was again, and this time forever, destroyed by a certain revelation that was accidentally made to me.
The story of it was this. I had taken by mistake with me to a funeral the prayer-book with which Mr. Pollard had presented me. I was listening to the anthem which was being sung, and being in a nervous frame of mind, was restlessly fingering the leaves of the book which I held in my hand, when my eye, running over the page that happened to open before me, caught sight of some of the marks with which the text was plentifully bestowed. Mechanically I noticed the words under which they stood, and mechanically I began reading them, when, to my great astonishment and subsequent dismay, I perceived they made sense, in short had a connection which, when carried on from page to page of the book, revealed sentences which promised to extend themselves into a complete communication. This is the page I happened upon, with its lines and dots. Note the result which accrues from reading the marked words alone.
with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The same Collect, Epistle, and Gospel shall serve for every day after, unto the Epiphany.
Or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE EPISTLE. Eph iii. I.
For this cause, I Paul the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God, which is given me to you ward. How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly]
It was but one of many, and you can imagine how difficult I found it to continue with the service and put the subject from my mind till the funeral was over and I could return to solitude and my third and final examination into the meaning of this mysterious gift.
You can also imagine my wonder when by following out the plan I have indicated, the subjoined sentences appeared, which, if somewhat incoherent at times—as could only be expected from the limited means at his command—certainly convey a decided meaning, especially after receiving the punctuation and capital letters, which, after long study and some after-knowledge of affairs, I have ventured upon giving them:
"My sin is ever before me.
"Correct, lest thou bring me to nothing.
"Do those things which are requisite and necessary for a pure and humble one, Grace by name, begotten by son, he born of first wife and not obedient to the law abroad, a prisoner.
"Revelation made known in few words whereby when ye read ye may understand the mystery which was made known unto the sons, fellow- heirs of Grace.
"Go and search diligently for the young child.
"The higher powers resist and are a terror to good works.
"Do that which is good and thou shalt have praise, minister of God.
"Wherefore ye must needs be subject for wrath, for they are attending continually upon this thing.
"Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute; honor to whom honor.
"Two possessed of devils, exceeding fierce of the household, hope Grace may evermore be cast away.
"They murmur against the good man of the house, and do not agree to mercifully defend against perils in the city an honest and good heart.
"My will leave(s) heritage to Grace.
"The devil is against me.
"Behold a woman grievously vexed with lost sheep of the house.
"Then came she, saying: 'It is not mete to take the children's bread and to cast it to the dogs. Be unto, us an offering named as becometh saints. For this ye know, that no unclean person hath any inheritance because of disobedience and fellowship with works of darkness. For it is a shame to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.'
"Beelzebub, the chief of devils, and sons cast out man; taketh from him all wherein he trusteth and divideth the spoils against me.
"To purge conscience, the new testament means redemption of the transgressions under first testament.
"Said a devil: 'Father, ye do dishonor me. Say ye know him not, thy son, and suffer that a notable prisoner, his wife and child, were not called by thy name.' 'I will,' said I. But I deny all here. My soul is sorrowful unto death, as I bear false witness against them.
"The hand that betrayeth me is with me.
"I appoint you to sift as wheat.
"This must be accomplished, for the things concerning me have an end.
"Words sent unto me out of prison, said: 'Daughter weep(s). Beseech thee graciously to fetch home to thee my child in tribulation. For lo, the ungodly bend their bow and make ready their arrows within the quiver, that they may privily shoot at them which are true of heart. Show I thy marvellous loving-kindness unto an undefined soul forsaken on every side of mother and friendly neighbors. Make haste to deliver and save. I am clean forgotten, as a dead man out of mind. I am become as a broken vessel.'
"Whilst I held my tongue, my bones consumed away daily.
"I will inform thee and teach thee ill the way wherein thou shalt go.
"Blessed are folk chosen to inheritance; the children of them that dwell under the king.
"Poor Grac(e) come over the see (sea), unaware that I were sick.
"Deliver my darling from the lions, so will I give thee thanks.
"O let not them that are mine enemies triumph that hate me.
"They imagine deceitful words against them that are quiet in the land.
"Child is in thy land.
"Look after daughter among honorable women. House in City of the East Wind.
[Footnote: Number omitted for obvious reasons.]"—C-H-A-R-L-E-S-S- T-R-E-E-T.
"Child I have looked upon not.
"I promised with my lips and spake with my mouth, but God turned his mercy upon me, and upon health hath sent forth his voice, yea, and that a mighty voice.
"I sink, and the deep waters drown me.
"Mine adversaries hath broken my heart.
"Let the things that should have been for them be for the poor prisoner's posterity.
"Break down the carved work and search out my will.
"Walk to table under southwest borders of room, take the wood that hath in it operations of the law, and cleave.
"For my days are gone like a shadow, and I am withered as grass."
What fear is this, which startles in our ears? —ROMEO AND JULIET.
The conclusion which I drew from these sentences after a close and repeated perusal of them was to this effect:
That Mr. Pollard instead of possessing only two sons, as was generally supposed, had in reality been the father of three. That the eldest, born in all probability before Mr. Pollard's removal to this country (he was an Englishman by birth), had, by some act of violence or fraud, incurred the penalty of the law, and was even now serving out a term of imprisonment in his native land. That this son had a daughter innocent and virtuous, whom he desired to commit to the care of her grandfather; that he had even sent her over here for that purpose, but that Mr. Pollard, taken down with the illness which afterwards ended in death, had not only failed to be on hand to receive her, but that, surrounded and watched by his wife and sons, who, in their selfish pride, were determined to ignore all claims of kinship on the part of one they despised, he had not even had the chance to take such measures for her safety and happiness as his love and regard for her lonely and desolate position seemed to demand. That the will, whose concealment in his desk he had managed to describe, had been made in recompense for this neglect, and that by it she would receive that competence and acknowledgment of her rights which the hatred of her unscrupulous relatives would otherwise deny her.
And this was the will I had weakly given up, and it was upon the head of this innocent child that the results of my weakness must fall.
When I first recognized this fact I felt stupefied. That I, David Barrows, should be the cause of misery and loss to a guileless and pure soul! I could not realize it, nor believe that consequences so serious and irremediable could follow upon an act into which I had been betrayed by mere cowardice. But soon, too soon, the matter became plain to me. I saw what I had done and was overwhelmed, for I could no longer doubt that the real will had been destroyed and that the one which had been returned to me was a substituted one, perhaps the very same which I had seen among the papers of Mr. Pollard's desk.
The result of my remorse was an immediate determination on my part to search out the young girl, left in this remarkable manner to my care, and by my efforts in her behalf do what I could to remedy the great evil which, through my instrumentality, had befallen her.
The purpose was no sooner taken than I prepared to carry it out. S—— could hold no duty for me now paramount to this. I was a father and my child lingered solitary and uncared-for in a strange place. I took the first train the next morning for the "city of the east- wind."
The hour at which I arrived at number — Charles Street, was one of deep agitation to me, I had thought so continually upon my journey of the young waif I was seeking. Would she be the embodiment of ingenuousness which her grandfather had evidently believed her to be? Should I find her forgiving and tractable; or were the expectations I had formed false in their character and founded rather upon Mr. Pollard's wishes than any knowledge he had of her disposition and acquirements?
The house was, as far as I could judge from the exterior, of a most respectable character, and the lady who answered my somewhat impatient summons was one of those neat and intelligent-looking persons who inspire confidence at first glance. To my inquiries as to whether there was living in her house a young English lady by the name of Grace—I did not like to venture upon that of Pollard, there being some phrases in the communication I have shown you which led me to think that Mr. Pollard had changed his name on coming to this country,—she gave me a look of such trouble and anxiety that I was instantly struck with dismay.
"Miss Merriam?" she exclaimed; then, as I bowed with seeming acquiescence, continued in a tone that conveyed still more disquiet than her face, "She was here; but she is gone, sir; a woman took her away."
A woman! I must have grown pale, for she swung wide the door and asked me to come in.
"We can talk better in the hall," she remarked, and pointed to a chair into which I half fell.
"I have a great interest in this young lady," I observed; "in short, I am her guardian. Can you tell me the name of the person with whom she went away, or where she can be found now?"
"No sir," she answered, with the same expression of trouble. "The woman gave us no name nor address, and the young lady seemed too much frightened to speak. We have felt anxious ever since she went, sir; for the letter she showed us from the captain of the ship which brought her over, told us to take great care of her. We did not know she had a guardian or we should not have let her go. The woman seemed very pleasant, and paid all the bills, but——"
"But what?" I cried, too anxious to bear a moment's delay.
"She did not lift her veil, and this seemed to me a suspicious circumstance."
Torn with apprehension and doubt, I staggered to my feet.
"Tell me all about this woman," I demanded. "Give me every detail you can remember. I have a dreadful fear that it is some one who should never have seen this child."
"Well, sir, she came at about eleven in the morning——"
"What day?" I interrupted her to ask.
"Thursday," she replied, "a week ago yesterday."
The very day after the will was returned to me. If she were the woman I feared, she had evidently lost no time.
"She asked for Miss Merriam," the lady before me pursued, evidently greatly pitying my distress, "and as we knew no reason why our young boarder should not receive visitors, we immediately proceeded to call her down. But the woman, with a muttered excuse, said she would not trouble us; that she knew the child well, and would go right up to her room if we would only tell her where it was. This we did and should have thought no more of the matter, if in a little while she had not reappeared in the hall, and, inquiring the way to my room, told me that Miss Merriam had decided to leave my house; that she had offered her a home with her, and that they were to go immediately.
"I was somewhat taken aback by this, and inquired if I could not see Miss Merriam. She answered 'What for?' and when I hinted that money was owing me for her board, she drew out her pocket-book and paid me on the spot. I could say nothing after this, 'But are you a relative, ma'am?' to which her quick and angry negative, hidden, however, next moment, by a suave acknowledgment of friendship, gave me my first feeling of alarm. But I did not dare to ask her any further questions, much as I desired to know who she was and where she was going to take the young girl. There was something in her manner that overawed me, at the same time it filled me with dread. But if I could not speak to her I meant to have some words with Miss Merriam before she left the house. This the woman seemed to wish to prevent, for she stood close by me when the young girl came down, and when I stepped forward to say good-by, pushed me somewhat rudely aside and took Miss Merriam by the arm. 'Come, my dear,' she cried, and would have hurried her out without a word. But I would not have that. The sorrow and perplexity in Miss Merriam's face were too marked for me to let her depart in silence. So I persisted in speaking, and after saying how sorry I was to have her go, asked her if she would not leave her new address with me in case any letters should come for her. Her answer was a frightened look at her companion who immediately spoke for her. 'I have told you,' said she, 'that Miss Merriam goes home with me. It is not likely she will have any letters, but if she should, you can send them to the place mentioned on this card,' and she pulled a visiting card from her bag and gave it to me, after which she immediately went away, dragging Miss Merriam after her."
"And you have that card?" I cried. "Why did you not show it to me at once?"
"O, sir," she responded with a sorrowful shake of her head, "it was a fraud, a deception. The card was not hers but another person's, and its owner don't even know Miss Merriam."
"How do you know this?" I asked. "Have you seen this other person?"
"Yes, sir, I had occasion to, for a letter did come for Miss Merriam only a short time after she left. So thinking it a good opportunity to see where she had gone, I carried it to the address which was on the card given me, and found as I have told you that it was not the same lady at all who lived there, and that there was not only no Miss Merriam in the house but that her name was not even known there."
"And you saw the lady herself?"
"And are you sure it was not the same as the one who was here?"
"Oh yes; she was short and stout and had a frank way of speaking, totally unlike that of the veiled woman."
"And the latter? How was she shaped? You have not told me."
I asked this in trembling tones. Though I was sure what the answer would be, I dreaded to have my fears confirmed.
"Well, sir, she was tall and had a full commanding figure, very handsome to look at. She was dressed all in gray and had a way of holding her head that made an ordinary sized woman like myself feel very small and insignificant. Yet she was not agreeable in her appearance; and I am sure that if I could have seen her face I should have disliked her still more, though I do not doubt it was in keeping with her figure, and very handsome."
I could have no doubts as to whom this described, yet I made one final effort to prove my suspicions false.
"You have given me the description of a person of some pretensions to gentility," I remarked, "yet from the first you have forborne to speak of her as a lady."
"An involuntary expression of my distrust and dislike I suppose. Then her dress was very plain, and the veil she wore quite common."
I thought of the dress and veil which my self-designated "sister" had worn in the visit she paid to my rooms and wondered if they would not answer to the description of these.
"What was the color of her veil?" I inquired.
That was the color of the one which had been worn by my mysterious visitor, as I had found from subsequent questions put to my neighbor, and I could no longer have the least uncertainty as to who the woman was who had carried off Mr. Pollard's grandchild. Sick at heart and fearing I scarcely knew what, I asked for the letter which had been left for Miss Merriam, and receiving it from the hand of this amiable woman in whom I appeared to have inspired as much confidence as her former visitor had alarm, I tore it open, and in my capacity of guardian read what it contained. Here it is:
MY DEAR MISS MERRIAM:
The gentleman, in the hope of whose protection you came to this country, is dead. I am his son and naturally feel it incumbent upon me to look after your interests. I am therefore, coming shortly to see you; but till I do so, remember that you are not to receive any one who may call, no matter what their name, sex, or apparent business. If you disobey me in this regard you may do yourself a permanent injury. Wait till my card is brought you, and then judge for yourself whether I am a person in whom you can trust. Hoping to find you in good health, and as happy as your bereaved condition will admit of, I remain sincerely yours,
DWIGHT GAYLORD POLLARD.
"Ah, he wrote a day too late!" I involuntarily exclaimed; then perceiving the look of curiosity which this unguarded expression had awakened on the face of my companion, folded the letter up and put it quietly in my pocket. "It is an unhappy piece of business," I now observed, "but I shall hope to find Miss Merriam very soon, and place her where she will be both safe and happy."
And feeling that I ought to know something of the appearance and disposition of one I so fully intended to befriend, I inquired whether she was a pretty girl.
The reply I received was almost enthusiastic.
"I do not know as you would call her pretty, sir, she is so pale and fragile; but if her features are not regular nor her color good, she has something unusually attractive in her face, and I have heard more than one gentleman here say, 'Miss Merriam is lovely.'"
"And her manners?"
"Very modest, sir, and timid. She seems to have a secret sorrow, for I have often seen her eyes fill when she thought no one was looking at her."
"Do you know her history or connections?"
"Then she never talked to you about herself?"
"No, sir; though so young, she was strangely like a woman in many things. An uncommonly sweet child, sir, an uncommonly sweet child."
I felt the sting of a great reproach in my heart, and, anxious to hide the depth of my emotion, rose to leave. But the good woman, detaining me, Inquired what she should do with Miss Merriam's trunk.
"What," I exclaimed, "is that still here?" "Yes, sir; she took, as I noticed, a bag of some size with her, but she left her trunk. In the flurry of their departure I forgot to speak about it. I have expected an expressman after it every day, but none has come. That is another reason why I have felt anxious."
"I do not wonder," I exclaimed. "Sometimes," she observed, "I have thought it was my duty to speak to the police about the matter; it would be such a dreadful thing if any harm had come to her."
"I will speak to the police if necessary," said I. And determined as I had never been before in my life, I left the house and proceeded directly to the depot, where I took the first train for S——.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse; That no compunctious visitings of nature Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between The effect and it! —MACBETH.
Being in the confessional, I have not forborne to tell the worst of myself; I will not, therefore, hesitate to tell the best. When on that very afternoon I entered Mrs. Pollard's grounds, it was with a resolve to make her speak out, that had no element of weakness in it. Not her severest frown, nor that diabolical look from Guy's eye, which had hitherto made me quail, should serve to turn me aside from my purpose, or thwart those interests of right and justice which I felt were so deeply at stake. If my own attempt, backed by the disclosures which had come to me through the prayer-book I had received from Mr. Pollard, should fail, then the law should take hold of the matter and wrench the truth from this seemingly respectable family, even at the risk of my own happiness and the consideration which I had always enjoyed in this town.
The house, when I approached it, struck me with an odd sense of change. I did not stop at the time to inquire why this was, but I have since concluded, in thinking over the subject, that the parlor curtains must have been drawn up, something which I do not remember ever having seen there before or since. The front door also was ajar, and when I rang the bell it was so speedily answered that I had hardly time to summon up the expression of determination which I felt would alone gain me admittance to the house. But my presence instead of seeming unwelcome, seemed to be almost expected by the servant who opened to me. He bowed, smiled, and that, too, in almost a holiday fashion; and when I would have asked for Mrs. Pollard, interrupted me by a request to lay off my overcoat in a side room, which he courteously pointed out to me.
There was something in this and in the whole aspect of the place which astonished me greatly. If this sombre dwelling with its rich but dismally dark halls and mysterious recesses could be said to ever wear an air of cheer, the attempt certainly had been made to effect this to-day. From the hand of the bronze figure that capped the newel-post hung wreaths of smilax and a basket full of the most exquisite flowers; while from a half-open door at my right came a streak of positive light, and the sound of several voices animated with some sentiment that was strangely out of accord with the solemn scene to which this very room had so lately been a witness. Can they be having a reception? I asked myself; and almost ashamed of the surmise, ever in the house of one so little respected, I, nevertheless, turned to the civil servant before me and remarked:
"There is something going on here of which I was ignorant. Is Mrs. Pollard entertaining guests to-day?"
"Did you not know, sir?" he inquired. "I thought you had been invited, perhaps; Miss Pollard is going to be married this afternoon."
Miss Pollard going to be married! Could any thing have been worse? Shocked, I drew back; Miss Pollard was a beautiful girl and totally innocent, in as far as I knew, of any of the wrong which had certainly been perpetrated by some members of her family. It would never do to mortify her or to mar the pleasure of her wedding-day by any such scene as my errand probably involved. She must be saved sorrow even if her mother—But at that instant the vague but pathetic form of another young girl flitted in imagination before my eyes, and I asked myself if I had not already done enough injury to the helpless and the weak, without putting off for another hour even that attempt at rescue, which the possibly perilous position of Mr. Pollard's grandchild so imperatively demanded. As I thought this and remembered that the gentleman to whom Miss Pollard was engaged was an Englishman of lordly connections and great wealth, I felt my spirit harden and my purpose take definite form. Turning, therefore to the servant before me I inquired if Mrs. Pollard was above or below; and learning that she had not yet come down-stairs, I tore a leaf out of my note-book and wrote on it the following lines:
I know your daughter is on the point of descending to her marriage. I know also that you do not want to see me. But the interests of Miss Merriam demand that you should do so, and that immediately. If you do not come, I shall instantly enter the parlor and tell a story to the assembled guests which will somewhat shake your equanimity when you come to appear before them. My moral courage is not to be judged by my physical, madam, and I shall surely do this thing.
The servant, who still lingered before me, took this note.
"Give it to Mrs. Pollard," I requested. "Tell her it is upon a matter of pressing importance, but do not mention my name, if you please; she will find it in the note." And seeing by the man's face that my wishes would be complied with, I took up my stand in a certain half-curtained recess and waited with loudly beating heart for the issue.
She came. I saw her when she first put foot on the stairs, and notwithstanding my strong antipathy, I could not repress a certain feeling of admiration from mixing with the dread the least sight of her always occasioned me. Her form, which was of the finest, was clad in heavy black velvet, without a vestige of ornament to mar its sombre richness, and her hair, now verging towards gray, was piled up in masses on the top of her haughty head, adding inches to a height that in itself was almost queenly. But her face! and her cruel eye and the smile of her terrible lip. I grew cold as I saw her approach, but I did not move from my place or meditate the least change in the plan I had laid for her subjection.
She stopped just two feet from where I stood, and without the least bend of her head or any gesture of greeting, looked at me. I bore it with quietude, and even answered glance with glance, until I saw her turn pale with the first hint of dismay which she had possibly ever betrayed; then I bowed and waited for her to speak. She did so with a hiss like a serpent.
"What does this mean?" she cried. "What do you hope to gain from me, that you presume to write me such a letter on an occasion like this?"
"Madam," I rejoined, "you are in haste, and so am I; so, without expressing any opinion of the actions which have driven me to this step, I will merely say that I want but one thing of you, but that I want immediately, without hesitation and without delay. I allude to Miss Merriam's address, which you have, and which you must give me on the spot."
She shrank. This cold, confident, imperious woman shrank, and this expression of emotion, while it showed she was not entirely without sensation, awoke within me a strange fear, since how dark must be her secret, if she could tremble at the thought of its discovery. She must have seen that I was affected, for her confidence immediately returned.
"I do not know,—" she began to say.
But I mercilessly interrupted her.
"But I know," said I, with an emphasis on the pronoun, "and know so much that I am sure the company within would be glad to hear what I could tell them. Mr. Harrington, for instance, who I hear is of a very honorable family in England, would be pleased to learn—"
"Hush!" she whispered, seizing my wrist with a hand of steel. "If I must tell you I will, but no more words from you, do you hear, no more words."
I took out my note-book and thrust it into her hand.
"Write," I, commanded; "her full address, mind you, that I may find her before the day is over."
She gave me a strange glance but took the book and pencil without a word.
"There!" she cried, hurriedly writing a line and passing the book back to me. "And now go; our time for further conversation will come later."
But I did not stir. I read aloud the line she had given me and then said:
"Madam, this address is either a true or a false one. Which, I shall soon know. For upon leaving here, I shall proceed immediately to the telegraph-office, from which I shall telegraph to the police station nearest to this address, for the information I desire. I shall receive an answer within the hour; and if I find you have deceived me I shall not hesitate to return here, and so suitably accompanied that you will not only open to me, but rectify whatever mistake you may have made. Your guests will not be gone in an hour," I ruthlessly added.
Her face, which had been pale, turned ghastly. Glancing up at a clock which stood a few feet from the recess in which we stood, she gave an involuntary shudder and looked about for Guy.
"Your son, fertile as he is in resources, cannot help you," I remarked. "There is no pit of darkness here; besides I have learned a lesson, madam; and not death itself would deter me now from doing my duty by this innocent child. So if you wish to change this address—"
I stopped; a strain of music had risen from the parlor. It was Mendelssohn's Wedding March. Mrs. Pollard started, cast a hurried look above and tore the note-book out of my hands.
"You are a fiend," she hissed, and hurriedly scratching out the words she had written, she wrote another number and name. "You will find she is there," she cried, "and since I have complied with your desire, you will have no need to return here till you bring the young girl home."
The emphasis she placed on the last word startled me. I looked at her and wondered if Medea wore such a countenance when she stabbed her children to the heart. But it flashed and was gone, and the next moment she had moved away from my side and I had stepped to the door. As I opened it to pass out I caught one glimpse of the bride as she came down the stairs. She looked exquisite in her simple white dress, and her face was wreathed in smiles.
THE FINAL BLOW.
It was a deadly blow! A blow like that Which swooping unawares from out the night, Dashes a man from some high starlit peak Into a void of cold and hurrying waves.
The distrust which I felt for Mrs. Pollard was so great that I was still uncertain as to whether she had given me the right address. I therefore proceeded to carry out my original design and went at once to the telegraph-office. The message I sent was peremptory and in the course of half an hour this answer was returned.
Person described, found. Condition critical. Come at once.
There was a train that left in fifteen minutes. Though I had just come from Boston, I did not hesitate to return at once. By six o'clock of that day I stood before the house to which I had been directed. My first sight of it struck me like death. God, what was I about to encounter! What sort of a spot was this, and what was the doom that had befallen the child committed to my care. Numb with horror, I rang the door-bell with difficulty, and when I was admitted by a man in the guise of an officer, I felt something like an instantaneous relief, though I saw by his countenance that he had any thing but good news to give me.
"Are you the gentleman who telegraphed from S——?" he asked.
I bowed, not feeling able to speak.
"Relative or friend?" he went on.
"Friend," I managed to reply.
"Do you guess what has happened?" he inquired.
"I dare not," I answered, with a fearful look about me on walls that more than confirmed my suspicions.
"Miss Merriam is dead," he answered.
I drew a deep breath. It was almost a relief.
"Come in," he said, and opened the door of a room at our right. When we were seated and I had by careful observation made sure we were alone, I motioned for him to go on. He immediately complied. "When we received your telegram, we sent a man here at once. He had some difficulty in entering and still more in finding the young lady, who was hidden in the most remote part of the house. But by perseverance and some force he at last obtained entrance to her room where he found—pardon my abruptness, it will be a mercy to you for me to cut the story short—that he had been ordered here too late; the young lady had taken poison and was on the point of death."
The horror in my face reflected itself faintly in his.
"I do not know how she came to this house," he proceeded; "but she must have been a person of great purity and courage; for though she died almost immediately upon his entrance, she had time to say that she had preferred death to the fate that threatened her, and that no one would mourn her for she had no friends in this country, and her father would never hear how she died."
I sprang wildly to my feet.
"Did she mention no names?" I asked.
"Did she not say who brought her to this hell of hells, or murmur even with her dying breath, one word that would guide us in fixing this crime upon the head of her who is guilty of it?"
"No," answered the officer, "no; but you are right in thinking it was a woman, but what woman, the creature below evidently does not know."
Feeling that the situation demanded thought, I composed myself to the best of my ability.
"I am the Rev. David Barrows of S——," said I, "and my interest in this young girl is purely that of a humanitarian. I have never seen her. I do not even know how long she has been in this country. But I learned that a girl by the name of Grace Merriam had been beguiled from her boarding-place here in this city, and fearing that some terrible evil had befallen her, I telegraphed to the police to look her up."
The officer bowed.
"The number of her boarding-place?" asked he.
I told him, and not waiting for any further questions, demanded if I might not see the body of the young girl.
He led me at once to the room in which it lay, and stood respectfully at the door while I went in alone. The sight I saw has never left me. Go where I will, I see ever before me that pure young face, with its weary look hushed in the repose of death. It haunts me, it accuses me. It asks me where is the noble womanhood that might have blossomed from this sweet bud, had it not been for my pusillanimity and love of life? But when I try to answer, I am stopped by that image of death, with its sealed lips and closed eyes never to open again—never, never, whatever my longing, my anguish, or my despair.
But the worst shock was to come yet. As I left the room and went stumbling down the stairs, I was met by the officer and led again into the apartment I had first entered on the ground floor.
"There is some one here," he began, "whom you may like to question."
Thinking it to be the woman of the house, I advanced, though somewhat reluctantly, when a sight met my eyes that made me fall back in astonishment and dread. It was the figure of a woman dressed all in gray, with a dark-blue veil drawn tightly over her features.
"Good God!" I murmured, "who is this?"
"The woman who brought her here," observed the officer. "Farrell, there, has just found her."
And then I perceived darkly looming in the now heavy dusk the form of another man, whose unconscious and business-like air proclaimed him to be a member of the force.
"Her name is Sophie Preston," the officer continued, motioning to the woman to throw up her veil. "She is a hard character, and some day will have to answer for her many crimes."
Meanwhile, I stood rooted to the ground; the name, the face were strange, and neither that of her whom I had inwardly accused of this wrong.
"I should like to ask the woman—" I commenced, but here my eyes fell upon her form. It was tall and it was full, but it was not by any means handsome. A fearful possibility crossed my mind. Approaching the woman closely, I modified my question.
"Are you the person who took this young lady from her boarding place?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," was the reply, uttered in smooth but by no means cultivated tones.
"And by what arts did you prevail upon this young and confiding creature to leave her comfortable home and go out into the streets with you?"
She did not speak, she smiled. O heaven! what depths of depravity opened before me in that smile!
"Answer!" the officer cried.
"Well, sir, I told her," she now replied, "that I was such and such a relative, grandmother, I think I said; and being a dutiful child—"
But I was now up close to her side, and, leaning to her very ear I interrupted her.
"Tell me on which side of the hall was the parlor into which you went."
"The right," she answered, without the least show of hesitation.
"Wrong," I returned; "you have never been there."
She looked frightened.
"O, sir," she whispered, "hush! hush! If you know—" And there she stopped; and instantly cried aloud, in a voice that warned me I should make nothing by pressing my suspicions at this time and in this place, "I lured the young lady from her home and I brought her here. If it is a criminal act I shall have to answer for it. We all run such risks now and then."
To me, with my superior knowledge of all the mysteries which lay behind this pitiful tragedy, her meaning was evident. Whether she had received payment sufficient for the punishment possibly awaiting her, or whether she had been frightened into assuming the responsibility of another, she was evidently resolved to sustain her role of abductress to the end.
The look she gave me at the completion of her words intensified this conviction, and not feeling sufficiently sure of my duty to dispute her at the present time, I took advantage of her determination, and outwardly, if not inwardly, accepted her confession as true.
I therefore retreated from her side, and being anxious to avoid the coroner, who was likely to enter at any minute, I confined myself to asking a few leading questions, which being answered in a manner seemingly frank, I professed myself satisfied with the result, and hastily withdrew.
A FELINE TOUCH.
Thou hast not half the power to do me harm, as I have to be hurt. —OTHELLO.
The tumult in my mind and heart were great, but my task was not yet completed, and till it was I could neither stop to analyze my emotions nor measure the depths of darkness into which I had been plunged by an occurrence as threatening to my peace as it was pitiful to my heart. Mrs. Pollard was to be again, interviewed, and to that formidable duty every thing bowed, even my need of rest and the demand which my whole body made for refreshment.
It was eight o'clock when I stood for the second time that day at her door; and, contrary to my expectations, I found as little difficulty in entering as I had before. Indeed, the servant was even more affable and obliging than he had been in the afternoon, and persisted in showing me into a small room off the parlor, now empty of guests, and going at once for Mrs. Pollard.