"She will see you, sir, I am sure," was his last remark as he went out of the door, "for, though she is so very tired, she told me if you called to ask you to wait."
I looked around on the somewhat desolate scene that presented itself, and doubtingly shook my head. This seeming submission on the part of a woman so indomitable as she, meant something. Either she was thoroughly frightened or else she meditated some treachery. In either case I needed all my self-command. Happily, the scene I had just quitted was yet vividly impressed upon my mind, and while it remained so, I felt as strong and unassailable as I had once felt weak and at the mercy of my fears.
I did not have to wait long. Almost immediately upon the servant's call, Mrs. Pollard entered the room and stood before me. Her first glance told me all. She was frightened.
"Well?" she said, in a hard whisper, and with a covert look around as if she feared the very walls might hear us. "You have found the girl and you have come to ask for money. It is a reasonable request, and if you do not ask too much you shall have it. I think it will heal all wounds."
My indignation flared up through all my horror and dismay.
"Money?" I cried, "money? what good will money do the dead; you have killed her, madam."
"Killed her?" No wonder she grew pale, no wonder she half gasped. "Killed her?" she repeated.
"Yes," I returned, not giving her time to think, much less speak. "Lured by you to a den of evil, she chose to die rather than live on in disgrace. The woman who lent you her clothes has been found, and—I see I have reached you at last," I broke in. "I thought God's justice would work."
"I—I—" She had to moisten her lips before she could speak. "I don't understand what you mean. You say I lured her, that is a lie. I never took her to this den of evil as you call it."
"But you knew the street and number of the house, and you gave her into the hand of the woman who did take her there."
"I knew the number of the house but I did not know it was a den of evil. I thought it was a respectable place, cheaper than the one she was in. I am sorry—"
"Madam," I interrupted, "you will find it difficult to make the world believe you so destitute of good sense as not to know the character of the house to which such a woman as you entrusted her with would be likely to lead her. Besides, how will you account for the fact that, you wore a dress precisely like that of this creature when you enticed Miss Merriam away from her home. Is there any jury who will believe it to be a coincidence, especially when they learn that you kept your veil down in the presence of every one there?"
"But what proof have you that it was I who went for Miss Merriam? The word of this woman whom you yourself call a creature?"
"The word of the landlady, who described Miss Merriam's visitor as tall and of a handsome figure, and my own eyesight, which assured me that the woman who came with her to her place of death was not especially tall nor of a handsome figure. Besides, I talked to the latter, and found she could tell me nothing of the interior of the house where Miss Merriam boarded. She did not even know if the parlors were on the right or the left side of the hall."
"Indeed!" came in Mrs. Pollard's harshest and most cutting tones. But the attempted sarcasm failed. She was shaken to the core, and there was no use in her trying to hide it. I did not, therefore, seek to break the silence which followed the utterance of this bitter exclamation; for the sooner she understood the seriousness of her position the sooner I should see what my own duty was. Suddenly she spoke, but not in her former tones. The wily woman had sounded the depths of the gulf upon the brink of which she had inadvertently stumbled, and her voice, which had been harsh? and biting, now took on all the softness which hypocrisy could give it.
But her words were sarcastic as ever.
"I asked you a moment ago," said she, "what money you wanted. I do not ask that now, as the girl is dead and a clergyman is not supposed to take much interest in filthy lucre. But you want something, or you would not be here. Is it revenge? It is a sentiment worthy of your cloth, and I can easily understand the desire you may have to indulge in it."
"Madam," I cried, "can you think of no other motive than a desire for vengeance or gain? Have you never heard of such a thing as justice?"
"And do you intend—" she whispered.
"There will be an inquest held," I continued. "I shall be called as a witness, and so doubtless will you. Are you prepared to answer all and every question that will be put you?"
"An inquest?" Her face was quite ghastly now. "And have you taken pains to publish abroad my connection with this girl?"
"She is known, however, to be a grandchild of Mr. Pollard?"
"No," said I.
"What is known?" she inquired.
"That she was Mr. Pollard's protege."
"And you, you alone, hold the key to her real history?"
"Yes," I assented, "I."
She advanced upon me with all the venom of her evil nature sparkling in her eye. I met the glance unmoved. For a reason I will hereafter divulge, I no longer felt any fear of what either she or hers might do.
"I alone know her history and what she owes to you," I repeated. She instantly fell back. Whether she understood me or not, she saw that her hold upon me was gone, that the cowardice she had been witness to was dead, and that she, not I, must plead for mercy.
"Mr. Barrows," said she; "what is this girl to you that you should sacrifice the living to her memory?"
"Mrs. Pollard," I returned with equal intensity, "shall I tell you? She is the victim of my pusillanimity. That is what she is to me, and that is what makes her memory more to me than the peace or good name of her seemingly respectable murderers."
Was it the word I used or did some notion of the effect which a true remorse can have upon a conscientious soul, pierce her cold heart at last? I cannot tell; I only know that she crouched for an instant as if a blow had fallen upon her haughty head, then rising erect again—she was a proud woman still and would be to her death, whatever her fate or fortune—she gave me an indescribable look, and in smothered tones remarked:
"Your sympathies are with the innocent. That is well; now come with me, I have another innocence to show you, and after you have seen it tell me whether innocence living or innocence dead has the most claim upon your pity and regard." And before I realized what she was doing, she had led me across the room to a window, from which she hastily pulled aside the curtain that hung across it.
The sight that met my eyes was like a dream of fairyland let into the gloom and terror of a nightmare. The window overlooked the conservatory, and the latter being lighted, a vision of tropical verdure and burning blossoms flashed before us. But it was not upon this wealth of light and color that the gaze rested in the fullest astonishment and delight. It was upon two figures seated in the midst of these palm-trees and cacti, whose faces, turned the one towards the other, made a picture of love and joy that the coldest heart must feel, and the most stolid view with delight. It was the bridegroom and his bride, Mr. Harrington and the beautiful Agnes Pollard.
I felt the hand that lay upon my arm tremble.
"Have you the heart to dash such happiness as that?" murmured a voice in my ear.
Was it Mrs. Pollard speaking? I had never heard such a tone as that from her before. Turning, I looked at her. Her face was as changed as her voice; there was not only softness in it but appeal. It was no longer Mrs. Pollard who stood beside me, but the mother.
"She has never made a mistake," continued this terrible being, all the more terrible to me now that I saw capabilities of feeling in her. "She is young and has her whole life before her. If you pursue the claims of justice as you call them, her future will be wrecked. It is no fool she has married but a proud man, the proudest of his race. If he had known she had for a brother one whom his own country had sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, he would not have married her had his love been ten times what it is. It was because her family was honored and could bestow a small fortune upon her in dowry that he braved his English prejudices at all. What then do you think would be the result if he knew that not only was her brother a convict, but her mother——" She did not finish, but broke in upon herself with a violence that partook of frenzy. "He would first ignore her, then hate her. I know these Englishmen well."
It was true. The happiness or misery of this young creature hung upon my decision. A glance at her husband's face made this evident. He would love her while he could be proud of her; he would hate her the moment her presence suggested shame or opprobrium.
My wily antagonist evidently saw I was impressed, for her face grew still softer and her tone more insinuating.
"She was her father's darling," she whispered. "He could never bear to see a frown upon her face or a tear in her eye. Could he know now what threatened her do you think he would wish you to drag disgrace upon her head for the sake of justice to a being who is dead?"
I did not reply. The truth was I felt staggered.
"See what an exquisite creature she is," the mother now murmured in my ear. "Look at her well—she can bear it—and tell me where in the world you will find beauty more entrancing or a nature lovelier and more enticing?"
"Madam," said I, turning upon her with a severity the moment seemed to deserve, "In a den of contamination, amid surroundings such as it will not do for me to mention even before her who could make use of them to destroy the innocence that trusted in her, there lies the dead body of one as pure, as lovely, and as attractive as this; indeed her beauty is more winning for it has not the stamp of worldliness upon it."
The mother before me grew livid. Her brows contracted and she advanced upon me with a menacing gesture almost as if she would strike me. In all my experience of the world and of her I had never seen such rage; it was all but appalling. Involuntarily I raised my hand, in defence.
But she had already remembered her position and by a violent change now stood before me calm and collected as of old.
"You have been injured by me and have acquired the right to insult me," cried she. Then as I made no move, said: "It is not of the dead we were speaking. It was of her, Samuel Pollard's child. Do you intend to ruin her happiness or do you not? Speak, for it is a question I naturally desire to have settled."
"Madam," I now returned, edging away from that window with its seductive picture of youthful joy, "before I can settle it I must know certain facts. Not till I understand how you succeeded in enticing her from her home, and by what means you transferred her into the care of the vile woman who took your place, will I undertake to consider the possibility of withholding the denunciation which it is in my power to make."
"And you expect me to tell—" she began.
"Every thing," I finished, firmly.
She smiled with a drawing in of her lips that was feline. Then she glared; then she looked about her and approached nearer to me by another step.
"I wish I could kill you," her look said. "I wish by the lifting of my finger you would fall dead." But her lips made use of no such language. She was caught in the toils, and lioness as she was, found herself forced to obey the will that ensnared her.
"You want facts; well, you shall have them. You want to know how I managed to induce Miss Merriam to leave the house where my husband had put her. It is a simple question. Was I not her grandfather's wife, and could I not be supposed to know what his desires were concerning her?"
"And the second fact?"
She looked at me darkly.
"You are very curious," said she.
"I am," said I.
Her baleful smile repeated itself.
"You think that by these confessions I will place myself in a position which will make it impossible for me, to press my request. You do not understand me, sir. Had I committed ten times the evil I have done, that would not justify you in wantonly destroying the happiness of the innocent."
"I wish to know the facts," I said.
"She went with me to a respectable eating house," Mrs. Pollard at once explained. "Leave her to eat her lunch, I went to a place near by, where the woman you saw, met me by appointment, and putting on the clothes I had worn, went back for the girl in my stead. As I had taken pains not to raise my veil except just at the moment when I wanted to convince her I was her natural guardian, the woman had only to hold her tongue to make the deception successful. That she did this is evident from the result. Is there any thing more you would like to know?"
"Yes," I replied, inwardly quaking before this revelation of an inconceivable wickedness, yet steadily resolved to probe it to the very depths. "What did you hope to gain by this deliberate plan of destruction? The girl's death, or simply her degradation?"
The passion in this woman's soul found its vent at last.
"I hoped to lose her; to blot her out of my path—and hers," she more gently added, pointing with a finger that trembled with more than one fierce emotion, at the daughter for whom she had sacrificed so much. "I did not think the girl would die; I am no murderess whatever intimation you may make to that effect. I am simply a mother."
A mother! O horrible! I looked at her and recoiled. That such a one as this should have the right to lay claim to so holy a title and asperse it thus!
She viewed my emotion but made no sign of understanding it. Her words poured forth like a stream of burning liquid.
"Do you realize what this girl's living meant? It meant recognition, and consequently disgrace and a division of our property, the loss of my daughter's dowry, and of all the hopes she had built on it. Was I, who had given to Samuel Pollard the very money by means of which he had made his wealth, to stand this? Not if a hundred daughters of convicts must perish."
"And your sons?"
"What of them?"
"Had they no claim upon your consideration. When you plunged them into this abyss of greed and deceit did no phantom of their lost manhood rise and confront you with an unanswerable reproach?"
But she remained unmoved.
"My sons are men; they can take care of themselves."
Her self-possession vanished.
"Hush!" she whispered with a quick look around her. "Do not mention him. I have sent him away an hour ago but he may have come back. I do not trust him."
This last clause she uttered beneath her breath and with a spasmodic clutch of her hand which showed she spoke involuntarily. I was moved at this. I began to hope that Dwight at least, was not all that his mother would have him.
"And yet I must speak of him," said I, taking out the letter he had written to Miss Merriam. "This letter addressed to one you have so successfully destroyed seems to show that he returns your mistrust."
She almost tore it out of my hands.
"When was this letter received?" she asked, reading it with burning eyes and writhing lips.
"The day after Miss Grace left her home."
"Then she never saw it?"
"Who has seen it?"
"Myself and you."
"No one else?"
"No one but the writer."
"We will destroy it," she said; and deliberately tore it up.
I stooped and picked up the fragments.
"You forget," said I, "this letter may be called for by the coroner. It is known that I took it in charge."
"I might better have burnt it," she hissed.
"Not so, I should then have had to explain its loss."
Her old fear came back into her eyes.
"Now I have merely to give it up and leave it to Mr. Dwight Pollard to explain it. He doubtless can."
"My son will never betray his mother."
"Yet he could write this letter."
"Dwight has his weakness," said she.
"It is a pity his weakness did not lead him to send this letter a few hours sooner."
"That is where his very weakness fails. He struggles because he knows his mother partly, and fails because he does not know her wholly."
"He knows me better."
The smile with which this was said was the culminating point in a display of depravity such as I had never beheld, even in hovels of acknowledged vice. Feeling that I could not endure much more, I hastened to finish the interview.
"Madam," said I, "by your own acknowledgment you deserve neither consideration nor mercy. What leniency I then show will be for your daughter alone, who, in so far as I can see, is innocent and undeserving of the great retribution which I could so easily bring upon this family. But do not think because I promise to suppress your name from the account I may be called upon to give the coroner, that your sin will be forgotten by Heaven, or this young girl's death go unavenged. As sure as you are the vilest woman I ever met, will suffering and despair overtake you. I do not know when, and I do not know by what means, but it will be bitter when it comes, and the hand of man will not be able to save you."
But it was as if I had not spoken. All she seemed to hear, all, at least, that she paid the least attention to, was the promise I had made.
"You are decided, then, upon secrecy?" she asked.
"I am decided upon saying nothing that will bring your name into public notice."
Her proud manner immediately returned. You would have thought she had never suffered a humiliation.
"But how will you account for your interest in this young person?"
"By telling a portion of the truth. I shall say that my attention was called to her by a letter from Mr. Pollard requesting me to hunt her up and take care of her after he was dead. I shall not say he called her his grandchild unless I am positively forced to do so, nor will I mention the treatment I have received at your hands."
"And the woman you saw?"
"Is your business. I have nothing to do with her."
The shadow which till this moment rested upon her haughty brow, cleared away. With a quick gesture, from which she could not entirely exclude a betrayal of triumph, she dropped the curtain across that charming picture of bridal felicity by which she had won so much, and turning upon me with all the condescension of a conqueror, she exclaimed:
"I once did you an injustice, Mr. Barrows, and called you a name that was but little complimentary to your cloth. Allow me to make such amends as I can and call you what you most surely are—the most generous and least vindictive of men."
This was intolerable. I made haste to leave the room.
"Mrs. Pollard," said I, "no amenities can take place between us. From this hour on we are strangers, till the time conies when we shall appear before the judgment-seat of God. In that day, neither you nor I can hold back one iota of the truth. Think of this, and repent your part in this awful tragedy of sin, if you can." And I turned away toward the door.
But just as I was about to open it, it swung slowly aside, and in the frame-work made by the lintels, I saw Guy Pollard standing with a quiet look of inquiry on his face.
"Mother," said he, in the calmest and most courteous of tones, "shall I let this gentleman pass?"
The reply came in accents equally calm and courteous:
"Certainly, my son."
And Guy Pollard made me a deep bow, and drew softly aside from my path.
I had been within an inch of my death, but it scarcely ruffled me.
If hearts are weak, souls should at least be strong. I will be brief, for my short date of breath Is not so long as is a tedious tale. —ROMEO AND JULIET.
Let me hasten to the end.
When I told Mrs. Pollard that I would suppress that portion of the truth which connected her name with this fatal affair, I did not of course mean that I would resort to any falsehood or even prevarication. I merely relied upon the improbability of my being questioned close enough to necessitate my being obliged to reveal the astounding facts which made this matter a destructive one for the Pollards. And I was right in my calculations. Neither socially, nor at the formal inquiry before the coroner, was any question raised of relationship between the dead girl and the family in S——; and this fact, taken with the discreet explanations accorded by Dwight Pollard of his father's, and afterwards of his own interest in her, as shown in the letter which he had sent to her address, is the reason why this affair passed without scandal to the parties concerned.
But not without results for deep down in the heart of one person an influence was at work, destined ere long to eventuate in the tragedy to which these lines are the clue. Remorse deep as my nature and immovable as my sin, has gotten hold upon me, and nothing short of death, and death in the very shape from which I fled in such a cowardly manner, will ever satisfy my soul or allay that burning sense of shame and regret which makes me fear the eye of man and quake at the thought of eternal justice.
For in a final interview with Dwight Pollard I have become convinced that, however unprincipled his brother might be, it was with no intention of carrying out his threats that he plunged me into the vat on that fatal night; that, recognizing the weakness in me, he had resorted to intimidation to ensure his ends; and that all the consequences which followed might have been averted, if I had but remained true to my trust.
Being a Christian minister, and bound by my creed and faith to resist the devil and face the wrath of men, my dereliction in this regard acquires an importance not to be measured by the ordinary standard of law or social usage. For, when I failed to support my principles under trial, Christian faith was betrayed and the avowed power of God put to mockery and shame. I go, therefore, to the death I then shunned, deliberately, conscientiously, determinedly. For the sake of God, for the sake of honor, for the sake of those higher principles which it should be the glory of men to sustain at all risk and in every furnace of affliction, I lay down youth, love, and life, confident that if in so doing I rob one sweet soul of its happiness, I sow anew in other hearts the seed of that stern belief in God and the requirements of our faith which my cowardly act must have gone so far to destroy.
May God accept the sacrifice in the spirit in which I perform it, and in His gracious mercy make light, not the horrors of the pit into which I am about to descend, but the heart of him who must endure them. Whether long or short, they will be such as He sends me, and the end must be peace.
TWO OR ONE.
How all the other passions fleet to air, As doubtful thoughts and rash embrac'd despair, And shuddering fear, and green-ey'd jealousy. O love, be moderate; allay thy ecstasy. —MER. OF VENICE.
I had finished it; the last line had been read, and I sat in a maze of astonishment and awe. What my thoughts were, what my judgment upon this astounding act of self-destruction for conscience sake, it will not interest you to know. In a matter so complicated with questions of right and wrong, each man must feel for himself, and out of his own nature adjudge praise, or express censure; I, Constance Sterling, shall do neither; I can only wonder and be still.
One point, however, in this lengthy confession I will allude to, as it involves a fact. Mr. Barrows says that he goes to his death, the same death from which he fled when he yielded to the threats of Guy Pollard and gave up the will. He expected, therefore, to find the vat dry, and looked forward to hours, if not days, of long-drawn suffering in a spot devoid of warmth, light, water, and food. His injunction to Ada in that last letter of his—not to make any move to find him for ten days—favors this idea, and proves what his expectations were.
But, by the mercy of God, the vat had been half filled with water in the interim which had elapsed between his first and last visit to the mill, and the prison thus becoming a cistern, he must have come to his end in a few moments after his fatal plunge. It was the one relief which a contemplation of this tragedy brought to my overwrought mind.
But with the next day came a reaction; and with a heart full of rejoicing, I prepared to communicate to Dwight Pollard the fact of his release from the dominion of Rhoda Colwell. For whether this record of the past showed him to be a man worthy of full honor or not, it certainly sufficed to exonerate him from all suspicion of being the direct cause of David Barrow's death, and I knew her well enough, or thought I did, to feel certain that no revenge, unless the greatest, would ever satisfy her, and that in losing her hold upon his life and love, she would make no attempt that would merely darken his name before the world. It was therefore with a fearless heart I penned the following lines.
Your suspicions were unfounded. I have Mr. Barrows' own words to the effect that he meditated death by imprisonment in the vat. I go to acquaint Dwight Pollard with the fact that any accusation on your part must fail before the minute and circumstantial confession which Mr. Barrows has left behind him.
Signing this letter, I despatched it at once to its destination; then taking the important manuscript in my hand, I set out for the Pollard mansion.
It was a day full of sunshine and promise. As I sped through the streets and approached that end of the town which hitherto it had taken all my courage to face, I was astonished at the lightness of my own heart and the beneficent aspect which every object about me seemed to have acquired. Even the place I had come to visit looked less dreary than usual, and I found myself in the grounds and half way up the stoop, before I realized the least falling of that shadow which seemed inseparable from this particular spot. And even now it only came with the thought of Guy, whose possible presence at the door would be any thing but desirable. But my errand being one of peace I was enabled to contemplate even this contingency with equanimity, and was about to ring the bell with a trembling but determined hand, when the door suddenly opened and Dwight Pollard stood before me.
The look of surprise and delight which he gave me brought the color to my cheeks.
"Ah, what a pleasure!" he murmured. Then with a quick look in my face, added earnestly, "You bring good news."
"The best," I answered cheerily, and following him in, I took my stand once more in that dismal parlor where weeks ago I had received my first intimation of the feeling which his every look and gesture now conveyed.
"Mr. Pollard," I now managed to say with a certain dignity, "you see me here because Providence has lately put into my hands a document which completely exonerates you from the charges which Rhoda Colwell has threatened to make against you. Read it, and when you understand the tragedy we so much deplore, we will see how much or how little can be done with the lives it has so deeply affected." And placing the thickly written sheets in his hands I withdrew to the first window I saw and mechanically threw aside the curtains that hid it.
The sight that met my gaze made me for an instant forget the importance of what I had just done. The window I had chosen was the one which looked into the conservatory, and the picture which Mr. Barrows describes as having seen from this spot was then and there before my eyes. The tropical growth, the gorgeous blossoms, even the beautiful woman and the sturdy man. Mr. and Mrs. Harrington were lovers, then, still. The mother's death and that of the devoted clergyman had not served to reveal the secret which secured the happiness of this bright, attractive, if somewhat worldly, pair. I own I was glad of this, little as I felt myself in sympathy with the radiant but superficial Agnes. Youth, love, and joy are so precious that it lightens the heart to behold their sunshine even on the faces of those whose characters we do not envy.
Nevertheless, the thoughts suggested by this unexpected scene did not long serve to distract me from the more serious matter in hand. Dropping the curtains, I cast one look, toward Mr. Pollard. He was sitting with his face bent over the manuscript, a deep corrugation marked his brow, and a settled look of pain his mouth. I turned away again; I could not bear that look; all my strength was needed for the effort which it might possibly be my duty to make. I sat down in a remote corner and diligently set my soul to patience.
It was well, for my suspense was long, so long that hope and courage began to fail and an inward trembling to take the place of the joyous emotions with which I had placed this confession in his hands. Nevertheless, it came to an end at last, and, with an agitation easy to conceive, I heard him roll the manuscript up, rise, and approach to where I sat. I did not look up, I could not; but I felt his gaze burning through my half-closed lids, and terrified lest I should reveal my weakness and my hopes, I set my lips together, and stilled the beatings of my heart, till I must have struck his sense with the chill and immobility of a totally insensible woman. The despair which the sight caused him, showed itself in his tone when he spoke.
"You share my own opinion of myself," said he. "You consider me the destroyer of Mr. Barrows."
I looked up. What grief, what shame, what love I beheld in the face above me. Slowly I shook my head.
"Mr. Barrows does not accuse you," said I. Then, determined to be truthful to the core at all risks and at all hazards, I added earnestly, "But you were to blame; greatly to blame; I shall never hide that fact from you or from myself. I should be unworthy of your esteem if I did."
"Yes," he earnestly assented, "and I would be less than a man if I did not agree with you." Then, in a lower tone and with greater earnestness yet, continued, "It is not pleasant for a man to speak ill of his own flesh and blood; but after having read words as condemnatory as these, it may be pardoned me, perhaps, if I speak as much of the truth as is necessary to present myself in a fair light to the woman upon whose good opinion rests all my future happiness. Constance, I love you—"
But at this word I had hurriedly risen.
"Oh!" I somewhat incoherently exclaimed; "not here! not under your own roof!"
But at his look I sank back.
"Yes," he imperatively cried, "here and now. I cannot wait another day, another hour. My love for you is too great, too absorbing, for any paltry considerations to interpose themselves upon my attention now. I must tell you what you are to me, and ask you, as you are a just and honest woman, to listen while I lay bare to you my life— the life I long to consecrate to your happiness, Constance."
I looked up.
"Thank you," he murmured; but whether in return for my look or the smile which his look involuntarily called up, I cannot say, for he went on instantly in continuation of his former train of thought, "Constance, you have read this confession from Mr. Barrows which you have just placed in my hands?"
"Yes," I nodded gravely.
"You can, then, understand what a dilemma we were in some three months ago. My sister had attracted the notice of an English aristocrat. He loved her and wished to marry her. We admired him—or rather we admired his position (I would be bitterly true at this hour) and wished to see the union effected. But there was a secret in our family, which if known, would make such a marriage impossible. A crime perpetrated before my birth had attached disgrace to our name and race, and Mr. Harrington is a man to fly disgrace quicker than he would death. Miss Sterling, it would be useless for me to try to make myself out better than I am. When I heard that my father, whom I am just beginning to revere but of whom in those days I had rather a careless opinion, was determined to acknowledge his convict son through the daughter which had been sent over here, I revolted. Not that I begrudged this young girl the money he wished to leave her,—though from a somewhat morbid idea of reparation which my father possessed, he desired to give her an amount that would materially affect our fortunes—but that I loved my sister, and above all loved the proud and isolated position we had obtained in society, and could not endure the results which the revelation of such a stain in, our family must produce. Not my mother, whose whole life since her marriage had been one haughty protest against this secret shame, nor Guy, with all his cynicism and pride, felt stronger on this point than I. To my warped judgment any action within the bounds of reason seemed justifiable that would prevent my dying father from bringing this disgrace upon his children; and being accustomed to defer to my mother's judgments and desires,—she was not only a powerful woman, Constance, but possessed of a strange fascination for those she loved and sought to govern—I lent myself sufficiently to her schemes to stand neutral in the struggle between my father's wishes and her determination, though that father would often turn upon me with a gaze of entreaty that went to my heart. That he had taken advantage of his last journey to Boston to have a new will drawn, and that his only desire now was for an opportunity to get this same safely transferred into the hands of his lawyer, I never suspected any more than did my mother or brother. We thought that as far as the past was concerned we were secure, and that if we could prevent an interview between him and Mr. Nicholls, the future would likewise be safe from a discovery of our secret It was therefore a terrible shock to my mother and afterwards to me when we learned that he had already accomplished the act we so much dreaded and that the clergyman we had called in at my father's urgent request, had been entrusted with the paper that was to proclaim our shame to the world. But the disappointment, great as it was, had little time to exert its force on me, for with my brother's recital of what had taken place at my father's death-bed there came a new dread which I find it difficult to name but which you will understand when I say that it led me to give Mr. Barrows the warning of which he has spoken. My brother—I cannot speak of him with calmness—is a man to be feared, Miss Sterling. Not that I would not be a match for him in all matters of open enmity; but in ways of secrecy and deep dealing, he is master, and all the more to be dreaded that he makes it impossible for one to understand him or measure the depths of turpitude to which he would descend. When, therefore I heard him say he should have that will back before it could pass into the hands of Mr. Nicholls, I trembled; and as the night passed and morning came without showing any diminution in the set determination of his expression, I decided upon visiting Mr. Barrows, in the hope of influencing him to return the will of his own accord. But I soon saw that in spite of the weakness I detected in him there was small prospect of his doing this; and turning my steps home again, I confronted my mother and my brother and asked them what they meant to do; they told me, that is, they told me partly; and I, with that worse dread in my soul, was fain to be satisfied with the merely base and dishonorable scheme they meditated. To take Mr. Barrows at a disadvantage, to argue with him, threaten him, and perhaps awe him by place and surroundings to surrender to them the object of their desires, did not seem to me so dreadful, when I thought of what they might have done or might yet attempt to do if I stood in their way too much. So, merely stipulating that they would allow me to accompany them to the mill, I let matters take their course, and true to my own secret desire to retain their confidence and so save him, and if possible them, from any act that would entail consequences of a really serious nature, I gave them my assistance to the extent of receiving Mr. Barrows at the door and conducting him through the mill to the room which my brother had designated to me as the one in which they proposed to hold their conference.
"But the task was uncongenial, and at the first words which Guy chose to employ against Mr. Barrows, I set down my lantern on the floor and escaped to the outer air again. Money, station, fame before the world, seemed to me but light matters at that moment, and if I had followed my first impulse I should have rushed back to the assistance of Mr. Barrows. But considerations terrible and strange prevented me from following this impulse. In the first place I was not myself free from a desire to see the contents of the will and judge for myself to what extent my father had revealed our disgrace to the world; and secondly, the habit of years is not broken in an instant, and this mother who gave her countenance to an act I so heartily disapproved, had for all her reserve and a nature seriously differing from my own, ever been the dominator of my actions and the controlling force of my life. I could not brave her, not yet, not while any hope remained of righting matters, without a demonstration that would lead to open hostilities. So with a weakness I now wonder at, I let the minutes go by till the sound of coming steps warned me that my brother was at hand. What he told me was brief and to the point He had obtained the clergyman's consent to read the will and was on his way to get it. "But, Mr. Barrows?" I inquired. "Is in the cellar there with mother." "The cellar!" I repeated. But he was already in the yard, on his way to the town. I was disturbed. The calmness of his tone had not deceived me. I felt that something was wrong; what I could not tell. Taking the lantern he had left behind him, I made my way to the cellar. It seemed empty. But when I had reached the other end I found myself confronted by a ghostly figure in which I was forced to recognize my mother, though the sight of her in the masquerade costume she had adopted; gave me a shock serious as the interests involved. But this surprise, great as it was, was soon lost in that of finding her alone; and when to my hurried inquiry as to where Mr. Barrows was, she pointed to the vat, you can imagine the tide of emotions that swept over me. But no, that is impossible. They were not what you would have felt, they were not what I would feel now. Mingled with my shame and the indignant protest of my manhood against so unworthy an exercise of power, was that still dominating instinct of dread which any interference with my mother's plans or wishes had always inspired; and so when I learned that the worst was over and that Mr. Barrows would be released on Guy's return, I subdued my natural desire to rescue him and went away, little realizing that in thus allying myself with his persecutors, I had laid the foundations of a remorse that would embitter my whole after existence. The return of my brother with the will caused me fresh emotions. As soon as I saw him I knew there was a struggle before me; and in handing him back the lantern, I took occasion to ask if he had opened the document. He looked at me a moment before replying and his lip took a sinister curl. 'I have,' he said. 'And what does it contain?' 'What we wish,' he answered, with a strange emphasis. I was too much astonished to speak. I could not believe this to be true, and when, Mr. Barrows having been released, we had all returned home, I asked to see the will and judge for myself. But Guy refused to show it. 'We are going to return it,' he said, and said no more. Nor would my mother give me any further information. Either I had betrayed myself in the look I gave Guy on his return to the mill, or else some underlying regard for my feelings had constrained her to spare me actual participance in a fraud. At all events, I did not know the truth till the real will had been destroyed and the substituted one placed in Mr. Nicholls' hands, and then it was told to me in a way to confound my sense of right and make me think it would be better to let matters proceed to this false issue, than by a public acknowledgment of the facts, bring down upon me and mine the very disgrace from which I had been so desirous of escaping. I was caught in the toils you see, and though it would have been a man's part to have broken through every constraint and proclaimed myself once and for all on the side of right, I had nothing whereby to show what the last wishes of my father had been, and could only say what would ruin us without benefiting the direct object of those wishes. I therefore kept their counsel and my own; stilling my conscience when it spoke too loud, by an inward promise to be not only a friend to my older brother's child, but to part with the bulk of my fortune to her. That she would need my friendship I felt, as the letter I wrote to her shows, but that such evil would come upon her as did, or that my delay to see her would make it impossible for me ever to behold her in this world, I had yet too much filial regard to imagine. I was consequently overwhelmed by the news of her death, and though I never knew the whole truth till now, I was conscious of a distrust so great that from that day to the worser ones which followed, I never looked at those nearest to me without a feeling of deep separation such as is only made by some dark and secret crime. I was alone, or so I felt, and was gradually becoming morbid from a continual brooding on this subject, when the great blow fell which changed whatever vague distress I felt into an active remorse and positive fear. Mr. Barrows was found dead, drowned in the very vat into which my brother had forced him a month or so before. What did it mean? It was impossible for me to guess the truth, but I could not but recognize the fact that we were more or less responsible for his death; that the frenzy which had doubtless led to this tragedy was the outcome of the strain which had been put upon his nerves, and though personally I had had nothing to do with placing him in the vat, I was certainly responsible for allowing him to remain there a moment after I knew where he was. It was, therefore, with the deepest horror and confusion that I rushed home with this news, only to find that it had outstripped me, and that my mother, foreseeing the dangers which this death might bring upon us, had succumbed to the shock, and lay, as you know, in a most alarming condition herself. The perilous position into which we were thrown by these two fatal occurrences necessitated a certain confidence between my brother and myself. To watch our mother, and stifle any unguarded expressions into which she might be betrayed, to watch you, and when we saw it was too late to prevent your sharing our secret, to make our hold upon you such that you would feel it to your own advantage to keep it with us, was perhaps only pardonable in persons situated as we were. But, Constance, while with Guy the feeling that made this last task easy was one of selfish passion only, mine from the first possessed a depth and fervency which made the very thought of wooing you seem a desecration and a wrong. For already had your fine qualities produced their effect, and in the light of your high and lofty nature, my own past looked deformed and dark. And when the worst came, and Rhoda Colwell's threats put a seemingly immovable barrier between us, this love which had sprung up in a very nightmare of trouble, only seemed to take deeper and more lasting root, and I vowed that whether doomed to lifelong regret or not, I would live worthy of you, and be in misery what I could so easily be in joy, the man you could honor, if not love. That this hour would ever come I dared not dream, but now that it has, can you, will you give me so much as you have, and not give me more? I know I have no right to ask any thing from you; that the secrets of our family are a burden which any woman might well shrink from sharing, but if you do not turn from me, will you turn from them? Love is such a help to the burdened, and I love you so fondly, so reverently."
He was on his knees; his forehead was pressed against my arm. The emotion which shook his whole body communicated itself to me. I felt that whatever his past weaknesses had been, he possessed a character capable of the noblest development, and, yielding to the longing with which my whole being was animated, I was about to lay my hand upon his head, when he lifted his face and, gazing earnestly at me, said:
"One moment; there is yet a cloud which ought to be blown away from between us—Rhoda Colwell. I loved her; I sought her love; but once gained, my eyes opened. I saw her imperfections; I felt the evil in her nature. I knew if I married her, I should ruin my life. I left her. I seemed to have no choice, for my love died with my esteem, and she was not a woman to marry without love. Could I have done differently, Constance?"
I answered as my whole heart inclined me to. I could not refuse this love coming into my desolate life. It seemed to be mine. Whatever trials, fear, or disquietude it might bring, the joy of it was great enough to make these very trials desirable, if only to prove to him and me that the links which bound us were forged from truest metal, without any base alloy to mar their purity and undermine their strength.
And so that spot of gloom, which had been the scene of so much that was dark and direful, became the witness of a happiness which seemed to lift it out of the veil of reserve in which it had been shrouded for so long, and make of the afternoon sun, which at that moment streamed in through the western windows, a signal of peace, whose brightness as yet has never suffered change or eclipse.