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- The Mill Mystery - 20/43 -

"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

The Mill Mystery - 20/43

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