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- The Mill Mystery - 43/43 -

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.


The Mill Mystery - 43/43

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