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I will tell you why. --HAMLET.
There was a silence, then Dwight Pollard spoke again. "I have made a confession which I never expected to hear pass my lips. She who has forced it from me doubtless knows how much and how little it means. Let her explain herself, then. I have no further business in this place." And, without lifting his head or meeting the eye of either of us, he strode past us towards the door.
But there he paused, for Rhoda Colwell's voice had risen in words that must be answered.
"And where, then, have you business if not here? Do you not know I hold your good name, if not your life, in my hands?"
"My good name," he slowly rejoined, without turning his head, "is already lost in the eyes I most valued. As for my life, it stands in no jeopardy. Would I could say the same for his!" was his fierce addition.
"His?" came from Rhoda Colwell's lips, in surprise. "His?" and with a quick and subtle movement she glided to his side and seized him imperatively by the arm. "Whom do you mean?" she asked.
He turned on her with a dark look.
"Whom do I mean?" he retorted. "Whom should I mean but the base and unnatural wretch who, for purposes of his own, has made you the arbitrator of my destiny and the avenger of my sin--my brother, my vile, wicked brother, whom may Heaven----"
"Stop! Your brother has had nothing to do with this. Do you suppose I would stoop to take information from him? What I know I know because my eyes have seen it, Dwight Pollard! And now, what do you think of the clutch I hold upon your life?" and she held out those two milk-white hands of hers with a smile such as I hope never to see on mortal face again.
He looked at them, then at her, and drew back speechless. She burst into a low but ringing laugh of immeasurable triumph.
"And you thought such a blow as this could come from a man! Dullard and fool you must be, Dwight Pollard, or else you have never known me. Why should he risk his honor and his safety in an action as dangerous to him as ungrateful to you? Because he admires her? Guy Pollard is not so loving. But I--I whom you taught to be a woman, only to fling aside like a weed--Ah, that is another thing! Reason for waiting and watching here; reason for denouncing, when the time came, the man who could take advantage of another man's fears! Ah, you see I know what I am talking about."'
"Speak!" he gasped. "How do you know? You say you saw. How could you see? Where were you, demon and witch in one?"
She smiled, not as before, but yet with a sense of power that only the evil glitter of her sidelong eye kept from making her wholly adorable.
"Will you come into the cellar below?" said she. "Or stay; that may be asking too much. A glance from one of these windows will do." And moving rapidly across the room, she threw up one of the broken sashes before her, and pointed to a stunted tree that grew up close against the wall. "Do you see that limb?" she inquired, indicating one that branched put towards a window we could faintly see defined beneath. "A demon or a witch might sit there for a half-hour and see, without so much as craning her neck, all that went on in the cellar below. That the leaves are thick, and, to those within, apparently hang like a curtain between them and the outer world, would make no difference to a demon's eyes, you know. Such folk can see where black walls intervene; how much more when only a fluttering screen like that shuts off the view." And, drawing back, she looked into his dazed face, and then into mine, as though she would ask: "Have I convinced you that I am a woman to be feared?"
His white cheek seemed to answer Yes, but his eyes, when he raised them, did not quail before her mocking glance, though I thought they drooped a little when, in another moment, they flashed in my direction.
"Miss Sterling," he inquired, "do you understand what Miss Colwell has been saying?"
I shook my head and faltered back. I had only one wish, and that was to be effaced from this spot of misery.
He turned again to her.
"Do you intend to explain yourself further?" he demanded.
She did not answer; her look and her attention were fixed upon me.
"You are not quite convinced he is all that I have declared him to be?" she said, moving towards me. "You want to know what I saw and whether there is not some loophole by which you can escape from utterly condemning him. Well, you shall have my story. I ask nothing more of you than that." And with a quiet ignoring of his presence that was full of contempt, she drew up to my side and calmly began: "You have seen me in the streets in the garb of my brother?"
"Your brother?" cried a startled voice.
It was Dwight Pollard who spoke. He had sprung to her side and grasped her fiercely by the wrist. It was a picture; all the more that neither of them said any thing further, but stood so, surveying each other, till he thought fit to drop her arm and draw back, when she quietly went on as though no interruption had occurred.
"It was a convenient disguise, enabling me to do and learn many things. It also made it possible for me to be out in the evening alone, and allowed me to visit certain places where otherwise I should have been any thing but welcome. It also satisfied a spirit of adventure which I possess, and led to the experience which I am now about to relate. Miss Sterling, my brother has one peculiarity. He can be intrusted to carry a message, and forget it ten minutes after it is delivered. This being generally known in town, I was not at all surprised when one evening, as I was traversing a very dark street, I was met and accosted by a muffled figure, who asked me if I would run to Mr. Barrows' house for him. I was about to say No, when something in his general air and manner deterred me, and I changed it into the half-laughing, half-eager assent which my brother uses on such occasions. The man immediately stooped to my ear and whispered:
"'Tell Mr. Barrows to come with all speed to the old mill. A man has been thrown from his carriage and is dying there. He wants Mr. Barrows' prayers and consolation. Can you remember?'
"I nodded my head and ran off. I was fearful, if I stayed, I would betray myself; for the voice, with all its attempted disguise, was that of Guy Pollard, and the man injured might for all I knew be his brother. Before I reached Mr. Barrows' door, however, I began to have my doubts. Something in the man's manner betrayed mystery, and as Guy Pollard had never been a favorite of mine, I naturally gave to this any thing but a favorable interpretation. I did not stop, though, because I doubted. On the contrary, I pushed forward, for if there was a secret, I must know it; and how could I learn it so readily or so well as by following Mr. Barrows on his errand of mercy?
"The person who came to the door in answer to my summons was fortunately Mr. Barrows himself; fortunately for me, that is; I cannot say it was altogether fortunately for him. He had a little book in his hand, and seemed disturbed when I gave him my message. He did not hesitate, however. Being of an unsuspicious nature, he never dreamed that all was not as I said, especially as he knew my brother well, and was thoroughly acquainted with the exactness with which he always executed an errand. But he did not want to go; that I saw clearly, and laid it all to the little book; for he was the kindest man who ever lived, and never was known to shirk a duty because it was unpleasant or hard.
"I have said he knew my brother well. Remembering this when he came down stairs again ready to accompany me, I assumed the wildest manner in which my brother ever indulged, that I might have some excuse for not remaining at his side while still accompanying him in his walk. The consequence was that not a dozen words passed between us, and I had the satisfaction of seeing him draw near the old mill in almost complete forgetfulness of my proximity. This was what I wanted, for in the few minutes I had to think, many curious surmises had risen in my mind, and I wished to perform my little part in this adventure without hindrance from his watchfulness or care.
"It was a very dark night, as you remember, Dwight Pollard, and it is no wonder that neither he nor the man who came out of the doorway to meet him saw the slight figure that crouched against the wall close by the door they had to enter. And if they had seen it, what would they have thought? That the idiot boy was only more freakish than usual, or was waiting about for the dime which was the usual pay for his services. Neither the clouds, nor the trees, nor the surrounding darkness would have whispered that an eager woman's heart beat under that boy's jacket, and that they had better trust the wind in its sweep, the water in its rush, or the fire in its ravaging, than the will that lay coiled behind the feebly moving lip and wandering, restless eye of the seeming idiot who knelt there.
"So I was safe and for the moment could hear and see. And this was what I saw: A tall and gentlemanly form, carrying a lantern which he took pains should shine on Mr. Barrows' face and not on his own. The expression of the former was, therefore, plain to me, and in it I read something more than reluctance, something which I dimly felt to be fear. His anxiety, however, did not seem to spring from his companion, but from the building he was about to enter, for it was when he looked up at its frowning walls and shadowy portal that I saw him shudder and turn pale. They went in, however. Not without a question or two from Mr. Barrows as to whom his guide was and where the sick man lay, to all of which the other responded shortly or failed to respond at all, facts which went far to convince me that a deception of some kind was being practised upon the confiding clergyman.
"I was consequently in a fever of impatience to follow them in, and had at last made up my mind to do so, when I heard a deep sigh, and glancing up towards the doorway, saw that it was again occupied by the dark figure which I had so lately seen pass in with Mr. Barrows. He had no lantern now, and I could not even discern the full outlines of his form, but his sigh being repeated, I knew who he was as certainly as if I had seen him, for it was one which had often been breathed in my ears, and was as well known to me as the beatings of my own heart. This discovery, as you may believe, Miss Sterling, did not tend to allay either my curiosity or my impatience, and when in a few minutes the watcher drew back, I stole from my hiding-place, and creeping up to the open doorway, listened. A sound of pacing steps came to my ears. The entrance was guarded.
"For a moment I stood baffled, then remembering the lantern which had been carried into the building, I withdrew quietly from the door, and began a tour of inspection round about the mill in the hope of spying some glimmer of light from one or more of the many windows, and in this way learn the exact spot to which Mr. Barrows had been taken. It was a task of no mean difficulty, Miss Sterling, for the bushes cluster thick about those walls, and I had no light to warn me of their whereabouts or of the many loose stones that lay in heaps here and there along the way. But I would not have stopped if firebrands had been under my feet, nor did I cease my exertions or lose my hope till I reached the back of the mill and found it as dark as the side and front. Then indeed I did begin to despair, for the place was so solitary and remote from observation, I could not conceive of any better being found for purposes that required secrecy or concealment. Yet the sombre walls rose before me, dark and unrelieved against the sky; and nothing remained for me but to press on to the broad west end and see if that presented as unpromising an aspect as the rest.
"I accordingly recommenced my toilsome journey, rendered positively dangerous now by the vicinity of the water and the steepness of the banks that led down to it. But I did not go far, for as, in my avoidance of the stream, I drew nearer and nearer the walls, I caught glimpses of what I at first thought to be the flash of a fire-fly in the bushes, but in another moment discovered to be the fitful glimmer of a light through a window heavily masked with leaves. You can imagine what followed from what I told you. How I climbed the tree, and seated myself on the limb that ran along by the window, and pushing aside the leaves, looked in upon the scene believed by those engaged in it to be as absolutely unwitnessed as if it had taken place in the bowels of the earth.
"And what did I see there, Miss Sterling? At first little. The light within was so dim and the window itself so high from the floor, that nothing save a moving shadow or two met my eye. But presently becoming accustomed to the position, I discovered first that I was looking in on a portion of the cellar, and next that three figures stood before me, two of which I immediately recognized as those of Mr. Barrows and Guy Pollard. But the third stood in shadow, and I did not know then, nor do I know now, who it was, though I have my suspicions, incredible as they may seem even to myself. Mr. Barrows, whose face was a study of perplexity, if not horror, seemed to be talking. He was looking Guy Pollard straight in the face when I first saw him, but presently I perceived him turn and fix his eyes on that mysterious third figure which he seemed to study for some signs of relenting. But evidently without success, for I saw his eyes droop and his hands fall helplessly to his side as if he felt that he had exhausted every argument, and that nothing was left to him but silence.
"All this, considering the circumstances and the scene, was certainly startling enough even to one of my nature and history, but when in a few minutes later I saw Guy Pollard step forward, and seizing Mr. Barrows by the hand, draw him forward to what seemed to be the verge of a pit, I own that I felt as if I were seized by some deadly nightmare, and had to turn myself away and look at the skies and trees for a moment to make sure I was not the victim of a hallucination. When I looked back they were still standing there, but a change had come over Mr. Barrows' face. From being pale it had become ghastly, and his eyes, fixed and fascinated, were gazing into those horrid depths, as if he saw there the horrible fate which afterwards befell him. Suddenly he drew back, covering his face with his hands, and I saw a look pass from Guy Pollard to that watchful third figure, which, if it had not been on the face of a gentleman, I should certainly call demoniacal. The next instant the third figure stepped forward, and before I could move or utter the scream that rose to my lips, Mr. Barrows had disappeared from view in the horrid recesses of that black hole, and only Guy Pollard and that other mysterious one, who I now saw wore a heavy black domino and mask, remained standing on its dark verge.
"A cry, so smothered that it scarcely came to my ears, rose for an instant from the pit, then I saw Guy Pollard stoop forward and put what seemed to be a question to the victim below. From the nature of the smile that crossed his lip as he drew back, I judged it had not been answered satisfactorily; and was made yet more sure of this when the third person, stooping, took up the light, and beckoning to Guy Pollard, began to walk away. Yes, Miss Sterling, I am telling no goblin tale, as you can see if you will cast your eyes on our companion over there. They walked away, and the light grew dimmer and dimmer and the sense of horror deeper and deeper, till a sudden cry, rising shrill enough now from that deadly hole, drew the two conspirators slowly back to stand again upon its fatal brink, and, as it seemed to me, propound again that question, for answer to which they appeared ready to barter their honor, if not their souls.
"And this time they got it. The decisive gesture of the masked figure, and the speed with which Guy Pollard disappeared from the spot, testified that the knowledge they wanted was theirs, and that only some sort of action remained to be performed. What that action was I could not imagine, for, though Mr. Pollard carried away the lantern, the masked figure had remained.
"Meantime darkness was ours; a terrible darkness, as you may imagine, Miss Sterling, in which it was impossible not to wait for a repetition of that smothered cry from the depths of this unknown horror. But it did not come; and amid a silence awful as the grave, the minutes went by till at last, to my great relief, the light appeared once more in the far recesses of the cellar, and came twinkling on till it reached the masked figure, which, to all appearance, had not moved hand or foot since it went away.
"Miss Sterling, you have doubtless consoled yourself during this narration with the thought that the evil which I had seen done had been the work of Guy and a person who need not necessarily have been our friend here. But I must shatter whatever satisfaction you may have derived from the possible absence of Dwight Pollard from this scene, by saying that when the lantern paused and I had the opportunity to see who carried it, I found that it was no longer in the hand of the younger brother, but had been transferred to that of Dwight, and that he, not Guy, now stood in the cellar before me.
"As I realize that we are not alone, I will not dilate upon his appearance, much as it struck me at the time. I will merely say he offered a contrast to Guy, who, if I may speak so plainly in this presence, had seemed much at home in the task he had set himself, uncongenial as one might consider it to the usual instincts and habits of a gentleman. But Dwight--you see I can be just, Miss Sterling--looked anxious and out of place; and, instead of seeming to be prepared for the situation, turned and peered anxiously about him, as if in search of the clergyman he expected to find standing somewhere on this spot. His surprise and horror when the masked figure pointed to the pit were evident, Miss Sterling; but it was a surprise and a horror that immediately settled into resignation, if not apathy; and after his first glance and shuddering start in that direction he did not stir again, but stood quite like a statue while the masked figure spoke, and when he did move it was to return the way he had come, without a look or a gesture toward the sombre hole where so much that was manly and kind lay sunk in a darkness that must have seemed to that sensitive nature the prototype of his grave."
"And is that all, Miss Colwell?" came with a strange intonation from Dwight Pollard's lips, as she paused, with a triumphant look in my direction.
"It is all I have to tell," was the reply; and it struck me that her tone was as peculiar as his. "Minutes, seconds even, spent under such circumstances, seem like hours; and after a spell of what appeared an interminable waiting, I allowed myself to be overcome by the disquiet and terror of my situation, and dropping from my perch, crept home."
"You should have stayed another hour," he dryly observed. "I wonder at an impatience you had never manifested till then."
The meaning with which she said this, the gesture with which she gave it weight, struck us both aback.
"Woman!" he thundered, coming near to her with the mingled daring and repugnance with which one advances to crush a snake, "do you mean to say that you are going to publish this much of your story and publish no more? That you will tell the world this and not tell----"
"What I did not see?" she interpolated, looking him straight in the eye as might the serpent to which I have compared her.
"Good God!" was his horrified exclamation; "and yet you know----"
"Pardon me," her voice broke in again. "You have heard what I know," and she bowed with such an inimitable and mocking grace, and yet with such an air of sinister resolve, that he stood like one fascinated, and let her move away towards the door without seeking by word or look to stop her. "I hold you tight, you see," were her parting words to him as she paused just upon the threshold to give us a last and scornful look. "So tight," she added, shaking her close-shut hand, "that I doubt if even your life could escape should I choose to remember in court what I have remembered before you two here to-day."
"And forget----" he began.
"And forget," she repeated, "what might defeat the ends of that justice which demands a life for the one so wantonly sacrificed in the vat whose hideous depths now open almost under your feet." And, having said these words, she turned to go, when, looking up, she found her passage barred by the dark form of Guy Pollard, who, standing in the doorway with his hands upon either lintel, surveyed her with his saturnine smile, in which for this once I saw something that did not make me recoil, certain as I now was of his innate villainy and absolute connection with Mr. Barrows' death.
She herself seemed to feel that she had met her master; for, with a hurried look in his face, she drew slowly back, and, folding her arms, waited for him to move with a patience too nonchalant not to be forced.
But he did not seem inclined to move, and I beheld a faint blush as of anger break out on her cheek, though her attitude retained its air of superb indifference, and her lips, where they closed upon each other, did not so much as break their lines for an instant.
"You are not going, Miss Colwell," were the words with which he at last broke the almost intolerable suspense of the moment; "at least, not till you have given us the date of this remarkable experience of yours."
"The date?" she repeated, icily. "What day was it that Mr. Barrows was found in the vat?" she inquired, turning to me with an indifferent look.
His hand fell like iron on her arm.
"You need not appeal to Miss Sterling," he remarked. "I am asking you this question, and I am not a man to be balked nor frightened by you when my life itself is at stake. What night was it on which you saw me place Mr. Barrows in the vat? I command you to tell me, or----"
His hands closed on her arm, and--she did not scream, but I did; for the look of the inquisitor was in his face, and I saw that she must succumb, or be broken like a reed before our eyes.
She chose to succumb. Deadly pale and shaking with the terror with which he evidently inspired her, she turned like a wild creature caught in the toils, and gasped out:
"It was a night in August--the seventeenth, I think. I wish you and your brother much joy of the acknowledgment."
He did not answer, only dropped her arm, and, looking at me, remarked:
"I think that puts a different face upon the matter."
It did indeed. For Mr. Barrows had only been dead four days, and to- day was the twenty-eight of September.
* * * * *
I do not know how long it was before I allowed the wonder and perplexity which this extraordinary disclosure aroused in me to express itself in words. The shock which had been communicated to me was so great, I had neither thought nor feeling left, and it was not till I perceived every eye fixed upon me that I found the power to say:
"Then Mr. Barrows' death was not the result of that night's work. The hand that plunged him into the vat drew him out again. But--but----" Here my tongue failed me. I could only look the question with which my mind was full.
Dwight Pollard immediately stepped forward.
"But whose were the hands that thrust him back four days ago? That is what you would ask, is it not, Miss Sterling?" he inquired, with a force and firmness he had not before displayed.
"Yes," I endeavored to say, though I doubt if a sound passed my lips.
His face took a more earnest cast, his voice a still deeper tone.
"Miss Sterling," he began, meeting my eye with what might have been the bravado of despair, but which I was fain to believe the courage of truth, "after what you have just heard, it would be strange, perhaps, if you should place much belief in any thing we may say upon this subject. And yet it is my business to declare, and that with all the force and assurance of which I am capable, that we know no more than you, how Mr. Barrows came to find himself again in that place; that we had nothing to do with it, and that his death, occurring in the manner and at the spot it did, was a surprise to us which cost my mother her life, and me----well, almost my reason," he added, in a lower tone, turning away his face.
"Can this be true?" I asked myself, unconsciously taking on an air of determination, as I remembered I was prejudiced in his favor, and wished to believe him innocent of this crime.
This movement on my part, slight as it was, was evidently seen and misinterpreted by them all. For a look of disappointment came into Dwight Pollard's face, while from his brother's eye flashed a dangerous gleam that almost made me oblivious to the fact that Rhoda. Colwell was speaking words full of meaning and venom.
"A specious declaration!" she exclaimed. "A jury would believe such assertions, of course; so would the world at large, It is so easy to credit that this simple and ordinary method of disposing of a valuable life should enter the mind of another person!"
"It is as easy to credit that," answered Dwight Pollard, with an emphasis which showed that he, if not I, felt the force of this sarcasm, "as it would be to believe that Mr. Barrows would return to a spot so fraught with hideous memories, except under the influence of a purpose which made him blind to all but its accomplishment. The fact that he died there, proves to my mind that no other will than his own plunged him anew into that dreadful vat."
"Ah! and so you are going to ascribe his death to suicide?" she inquired, with a curl of her lip that was full of disdain.
"Yes," he sternly responded with no signs of wavering now, though her looks might well have stung the stoutest soul into some show of weakness.
"It is a wise stroke," she laughed, with indescribable emphasis. "It has so much in Mr. Barrows' life and character to back it. And may I ask," she went on, with a look that included Guy Pollard's silent and contemptuous figure in its scope, "whether you have anything but words wherewith to impress your belief upon the public? I have heard that judge and jury like facts, or, at the least, circumstantial proof that a man's denial is a true one."
"And proofs we have!"
It was Guy Pollard who spoke this time, and with an icy self- possession that made her shiver in spite of herself.
"Proofs?" she repeated.
"That we were not near the mill the night before Mr. Barrows was found. We were both out of town, and did not return till about the time the accident was discovered."
"Ah!" was her single sarcastic rejoinder; but I saw--we all saw-- that the blow had told, bravely as she tried to hide it.
"You, can make nothing by accusing us of this crime," he continued; "and if I might play the part of a friend to you, I would advise you not to attempt it." And his cold eye rested for a moment on hers before he turned and walked away to the other end of the room.
The look, the action, was full of contempt, but she did not seem to feel it. Following him with her gaze for a minute, she murmured, quietly: "We will see"; then turning her look upon Dwight and myself, added slowly: "I think you are effectually separated at all events," and was gone almost without our realizing how or where.
I did not linger long behind. What I said or what they said I cannot remember. I only know that in a few minutes I too was flying along the highway, eager for the refuge which my solitary home offered me. Events had rushed upon me too thickly and too fast. I felt ill as I passed the threshold of my room, and was barely conscious when a few hours later the landlady came in to see why I had not made my appearance at the supper-table.
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