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- The Mill Mystery - 3/43 -
"Indeed, miss," came in reply, "we would not like to say."
"Then, _I_ say, that unless Mr. Barrows was insane, he never premeditated a crime of this nature. He was too much of a Christian. And if that does not strike you as good reasoning, he was too-- happy."
The last word was uttered so low that if it had not been for the faint flush that flitted into her cheek, it would scarcely have been understood. As it was, the furtive looks of the men about showed that they comprehended all that she would say; and, satisfied with the impression made, she laid her hand on my arm, and for the second time turned towards home.
For, in my sense, 't is happiness to die. --OTHELLO.
There was death in her face; I saw it the moment we reached the refuge of our room. But I was scarcely prepared for the words which she said to me.
"Mr. Barrows and I will be buried in one grave. The waters which drowned him have gone over my head also. But before the moment comes which proves my words true, there is one thing I wish to impress upon you, and that is: That no matter what people may say, or what conjectures they may indulge in, Mr. Barrows never came to his end by any premeditation of his own. And that you may believe me, and uphold his cause in the face of whatever may arise, I will tell you something of his life and mine. Will you listen?"
Would I listen? I could not speak, but I drew up the lounge, and sitting down by her side, pressed my cheek close to hers. She smiled faintly, all unhappiness gone from her look, and in sweet, soft tones, began:
"We are both orphans. As far as I know, neither of us have any nearer relatives than distant cousins; a similarity of condition that has acted as a bond between us since we first knew and loved each other. When I came to S---- he was just settled here, a young man full of zeal and courage. Whatever the experience of his college days had been--and he has often told me that at that time ambition was the mainspring of his existence,--the respect and appreciation which he found here, and the field which daily opened before him for work, had wakened a spirit of earnest trust that erelong developed that latent sweetness in his disposition which more than his mental qualities, perhaps, won him universal confidence and love.
"You have heard him preach, and you know he was not lacking in genius; but you have not heard him speak, eye to eye and hand to hand. It was there his power came in, and there, too, perhaps, his greatest temptation. For he was one for women to love, and it is not always easy to modify a naturally magnetic look and tone because the hand that touches yours is shy and white, and the glance which steals up to meet your own has within it the hint of unconscious worship. Yet what he could do he did; for, unknown, perhaps, to any one here, he was engaged to be married, as so many young ministers are, to a girl he had met while at college.
"I do not mean to go into too many particulars, Constance. He did not love this girl, but he meant to be true to her. He was even contented with the prospect of marrying her, till----Oh, Constance, I almost forget that he is gone, and that my own life is at an end, when I think of that day, six months ago--the day when we first met, and, without knowing it, first loved. And then the weeks which followed when each look was an event, and a passing word the making or the marring of a day. I did not know what it all meant; but he realized only too soon the precipice upon which we stood, and I began to see him less, and find him more reserved when, by any chance, we were thrown together. His cheek grew paler, too, and his health wavered. A struggle was going on in his breast--a struggle of whose depth and force I had little conception then, for I dared not believe he loved me, though I knew by this time he was bound to another who would never be a suitable companion for him.
"At last he became so ill, he was obliged to quit his work, and for a month I did not see him, though only a short square separated us. He was slowly yielding to an insidious disease, some said; and I had to bear the pain of this uncertainty, as well as the secret agony of my own crushed and broken heart.
"But one morning--shall I ever forget it?--the door opened, and he, _he_ came in where I was, and without saying a word, knelt down by my side, and drew my head forward and laid it on his breast. I thought at first it was a farewell, and trembled with a secret anguish that was yet strangely blissful, for did not the passionate constraint of his arms mean love? But when, after a moment that seemed a lifetime, I drew back and looked into his face, I saw it was not a farewell, but a greeting, he had brought me, and that we had not only got our pastor back to life, but that this pastor was a lover as well, who would marry the woman he loved.
"And I was right. In ten minutes I knew, that a sudden freak on the part of the girl he was engaged to had released him, without fault of his own, and that with this release new life had entered his veins, for the conflict was over and love and duty were now in harmony.
"Constance, I would not have you think he was an absolutely perfect man. He was too sensitively organized for that. A touch, a look that was not in harmony with his thoughts, would make him turn pale at times, and I have seen him put to such suffering by petty physical causes, that I have sometimes wondered where his great soul got its strength to carry him through the exigencies of his somewhat trying calling. But whatever his weaknesses--and they were very few,--he was conscientious in the extreme, and suffered agony where other men would be affected but slightly. You can imagine his joy, then, over this unexpected end to his long pain; and remembering that it is only a month previous to the day set apart by us for our marriage, ask yourself whether he would be likely to seek any means of death, let alone such a horrible and lonesome one as that which has robbed us of him to-day?"
"No!" I burst out, for she waited for my reply. "A thousand times, no, no, no!"
"He has not been so well lately, and I have not seen as much of him as usual; but that is because he had some literary work he wished to finish before the wedding-day. Ah, it will never be finished now! and our wedding-day is to-day! and the bride is almost ready. But!" she suddenly exclaimed, "I must not go yet--not till you have said again that he was no suicide. Tell me," she vehemently continued-- "tell me from your soul that you believe he is not answerable for his death!"
"I do!" I rejoined, alarmed and touched at once by the fire in her cheek and eye.
"And that," she went, "you will hold to this opinion in the face of all opposition! That, whatever attack men may make upon his memory, you will uphold his honor and declare his innocence! Say you will be my deputy in this, and I will love you even in my cold grave, and bless you as perhaps only those who see the face of the Father can bless!"
"Ada!" I murmured, "Ada!"
"You will do this, will you not?" she persisted. "I can die knowing I can trust you as I would myself."
I took her cold hand in mine and promised, though I felt how feeble would be any power of mine to stop the tide of public opinion if once it set in any definite direction.
"He had no enemies," she whispered; "but I would sooner believe he had, than that he sought this fearful spot of his own accord."
And seemingly satisfied to have dropped this seed in my breast, she tremblingly arose, and going for her writing-desk, brought it back and laid it on the lounge by her side. "Go for Mrs. Gannon," she said.
Mrs. Gannon was our neighbor in the next room, a widow who earned her livelihood by nursing the sick; and I was only too glad to have her with me at this time, for my poor Ada's face was growing more and more deathly, and I began to fear she had but prophesied the truth when she said this was her wedding-day.
I was detained only a few minutes, but when I came back with Mrs. Gannon, I found my room-mate writing.
"Come!" said she, in a voice so calm, my companion started and hastily looked at her face for confirmation of the fears I had expressed; "I want you both to witness my signature."
With one last effort of strength she wrote her name, and then handed the pen to Mrs. Gannon, who took it without a word.
"It is my will," she faintly smiled, watching me as I added my name at the bottom. "We have had to do without lawyers, but I don't think there will be any one to dispute my last wishes." And taking the paper in her hand, she glanced hastily at it, then folded it, and handed it back to me with a look that made my heart leap with uncontrollable emotion. "I can trust you," she said, and fell softly back upon the pillow.
"You had better go for Dr. Farnham," whispered Mrs. Gannon in my ear, with an ominous shake of her head.
And though I felt it to be futile, I hastened to comply.
But Dr. Farnham was out, attending to a very urgent case, I was told; and so, to my growing astonishment and dismay, were Dr. Spaulding and Dr. Perry. I was therefore obliged to come back alone, which I did with what speed I could; for I begrudged every moment spent away from the side of one I had so lately learned to love, and must so soon lose.
Mrs. Gannon met me at the door, and with a strange look, drew me in and pointed towards the bed. There lay Ada, white as the driven snow, with closed eyes, whose faintly trembling lids alone betokened that she was not yet fled to the land of quiet shadows. At her side was a picture of the man she loved, and on her breast lay a bunch of
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