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- The Mill Mystery - 5/43 -
staircase that rose at our left. He at once came forward, and as the light from the lamp above us fell fully upon him, I saw his face, and started.
Why? I could not tell. Not because his handsome features struck me pleasantly, for they did not. There was something in their expression which I did not like, and yet as I looked at them a sudden sensation swept over me that made my apprehensions of a moment back seem like child's play, and I became conscious that if a sudden call of life or death were behind me urging me on the instant to quit the house, I could not do it while that face was before me to be fathomed, and, if possible, understood.
"Ah, I see you have brought the nurse," were the words with which he greeted Dr. Farnham. And the voice was as thrilling in its tone as the face was in its expression. "But," he suddenly exclaimed, as his eyes met mine, "this is not Mrs. Gannon." And he hurriedly drew the doctor down the hall. "Why have you brought this young girl?" he asked, in tones which, however lowered, I could easily distinguish. "Didn't you know there were reasons why we especially wanted an elderly person?"
"No," I heard the doctor say, and then, his back being towards me, I lost the rest of his speech till the words, "She is no gossip," came to salute me and make me ask myself if there was a secret skeleton in this house, that they feared so much the eyes of a stranger.
"But," the young man went hurriedly on, "she is not at all the kind of person to have over my mother. How could we----" and there his voice fell so as to become unintelligible.
But the doctor's sudden exclamation helped me out.
"What!" he wonderingly cried, "do you intend to sit up too?"
"I or my brother," was the calm response, "Would you expect us to leave her alone with a stranger?"
The doctor made no answer, and the young man, taking a step sidewise, threw me a glance full of anxiety and trouble.
"I don't like it," he murmured; "but there must be a woman of some kind in the room, and a stranger----"
He did not finish his words, but it seemed as if he were going to say: "And a stranger may, after all, be preferable to a neighbor." But I cannot be sure of this, for he was not a man easy to sound. But what I do know is that he stepped forward, to me with an easy grace, and giving me a welcome as courteous as if I had been the one of all others he desired to see, led me up the stairs to a room which he announced to be mine, saying, as he left me at the door:
"Come out in five minutes, and my brother will introduce you to your duties."
So far I had seen no woman in the house, and I was beginning to wonder if Mrs. Pollard had preferred to surround herself with males, when the door was suddenly opened and a rosy-cheeked girl stepped in.
"Ah, excuse me," she said, with a stare; "I thought it was the nurse as was here."
"And it is the nurse," I returned, smiling in spite of myself at her look of indignant surprise. "Do you want any thing of me?" I hastened to ask, for her eyes were like saucers and her head was tossing airily.
"No," she said, almost with spite. "I came to see if you wanted any thing?"
I shook my head with what good nature I could, for I did not wish to make an enemy in this house, even of a chambermaid.
"And you are really the nurse?" she asked, coming nearer and looking at me in the full glare of the gas.
"Yes," I assured her, "really and truly the nurse."
"Well, I don't understand it!" she cried. "I was always Mrs. Pollard's favorite maid, and I was with her when she was took, and would be with her now, but they won't let me set a foot inside the door. And when I asked why they keep me out, who was always attentive and good to her, they say I am too young. And here you be younger than I, and a stranger too. I don't like it," she cried, tossing her head again and again. "I haven't deserved it, and I think it is mighty mean."
I saw the girl was really hurt, so I hastened to explain that I was not the nurse they expected, and was succeeding, I think, in mollifying her, when a step was heard in the hall, and she gave a frightened start, and hurried towards the door.
"So you are sure you don't want anything?" she cried, and was out of my sight before I could answer.
There was nothing to detain me, and I hastened to follow. As I crossed the sill I almost started too, at sight of the tall, slim, truly sinister figure that awaited me, leaning against the opposite wall. He was younger than his brother, and had similar features, but there was no charm here to make you forget that the eye was darkly glittering, and the lip formidable in its subtlety and power. He advanced with much of the easy nonchalance that had so characterized the other.
"Miss Sterling, I believe," said he; and with no further word, turned and led me down the hall to the sick-room. I noticed even then that he paused and listened before he pushed open the door, and that with our first step inside he cast a look of inquiry at the bed that had something beside a son's loving anxiety in it. And I hated the man as I would a serpent, though he bowed as he set me a chair, and was careful to move a light he thought shone a little too directly in my eyes.
The other brother was not present, and I could give my undivided attention to my charge. I found her what report had proclaimed her to be, a handsome woman of the sternly imposing type. Even with her age against her and the shadow of death lying on her brow and cheek, there was something strangely attractive in the features and the stately contour of her form. But it was attraction that was confined to the eye, and could by no means allure the heart, for the same seal of mysterious reserve was upon her that characterized her sons, and in her, as in the younger one of these, it inspired a distrust which I could imagine no smile as dissipating. She lay in a state of coma, and her heavy breathing was the only sound that broke the silence of the great room. "God help me!" thought I; but had no wish to leave. Instead of that, I felt a fearful pleasure in the prospect before me--such effect had a single look had upon me from eyes I trembled to meet again or read.
I do not know how long I sat there gazing in the one direction for that faint sign of life for which the doctor had bid me watch. That he who inspired me with dread was behind me, I knew; but I would not turn my head towards him. I was determined to resist the power of this man, even if I must succumb a trifle to that of the other.
I was, therefore, surprised when a hand was thrust over my shoulder, and a fan dropped into my lap.
"It is warm here," was the comment which accompanied the action.
I thanked him, but felt that his sole object had been to cover his change of position. For, when he sat down again, it was where he could see my face. I therefore felt justified in plying the fan he had offered me, in such a way as to shut off his somewhat basilisk gaze. And so a dreary hour went by.
It was now well on towards morning, and I was beginning to suffer from the languor natural after so many harrowing excitements, when the door opened behind me, and the electric thrill shooting through all my members, testified as to whose step it was that entered. At the same moment the young man at my side arose, and with what I felt to be a last sharp look in my direction, hastened to where his brother stood, and entered into a whispered conversation with him. Then I heard the door close again, and almost at the same instant Mr. Pollard the elder advanced, and without seeking an excuse for his action, sat down close by my side. The fan at once dropped; I had no wish to avoid this man's scrutiny.
And yet when with a secret bracing of my nerves I looked up and met his eyes fixed with that baffling expression upon mine, I own that I felt an inward alarm, as if something vaguely dangerous had reared itself in my path, which by its very charm instinctively bade me beware. I, however, subdued my apprehensions, thinking, with a certain haughty pride which I fear will never be eliminated from my nature, of the dangers I had already met with and overcome in my brief but troubled life; and meeting his look with a smile which I knew to contain a spice of audacity, I calmly waited for the words I felt to be hovering upon his lips. They were scarcely the ones I expected.
"Miss Sterling," said he, "you have seen Anice, my mother's waiting- maid?"
I bowed. I was too much disconcerted to speak.
"And she has told you her story of my mother's illness?" he went on, pitilessly holding me with his glance. "You need not answer," he again proceeded, as I opened my lips. "I know Anice; she has not the gift of keeping her thoughts to herself."
"An unfortunate thing in this house," I inwardly commented, and made a determination on the spot that whatever emotions I might experience from the mysteries surrounding me, this master of reserve should find there was one who could keep her thoughts to herself, even, perhaps, to his own secret disappointment and chagrin.
"She told you my mother was stricken at the sudden news of Mr. Barrows' death?"
"That was told me," I answered; for this was a direct question, put, too, with an effort I could not help but feel, notwithstanding the evident wish on his part to preserve an appearance of calmness.
"Then some explanation is needed," he remarked, his eyes flashing from his mother's face to mine with equal force and intentness. "My mother"--his words were low, but it was impossible not to hear them--"has not been well since my father died, two months ago. It needed but the slightest shock to produce the result you unhappily see before you. That shock this very girl supplied by the inconsiderate
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