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- The Mill Mystery - 40/43 -
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
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