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Whom the Gods Destroyed (collection)/The Maid of the Mill

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THE MAID OF THE MILL

 

 

THE MAID OF THE MILL

I

THE only objection I have to ghost stories," said young Sanford, "is from a literary point of view. They're so badly done, you know."

"In what way?" said the clerk of the hotel, settling back in his office chair, and smiling at young Sanford and the circle of men who had come down for their keys from the billiard-room.

"Well, in this way. I'm not considering the little harmless stories where the heroes are only frightened, or even those where their heads are grey in the morning. I'm thinking of those where they never live to tell the awful tale, you know; the ones in which they tell their friends to come if they call, and then they never call; the ones in which, although they scream and scream, nobody hears them.

"And yet the old trembling man who points them to the haunted room knows perfectly well that five men have entered that room on five nineteenths of October, and never come out alive. Yet he only warns them, or at most only beseeches them not to go in. He has no police force—not that police could seriously harm the ghosts, but somehow they never appear to the police; he does not arrange with the victim's friend to burst in the door at twelve-thirty, anyhow, whether they are summoned or not; he doesn't—but then, what do any of them do that they might be expected to? And all this forced condition of things so that the ghost may have all the evening to work quietly in. Do you mean to tell me that if I were frightened to the extent of grey hair in the morning, I couldn't scream loud enough to be heard any distance?"

This speech drew nods of approval from several of the men. "I've thought of that, too," said the clerk. In a dark corner behind the stove sat a man, hunched over his knees, silent, and apparently unknown to any of the others. At this point he looked up, cleared his throat, and said in a strange, husky voice:

"Do you really suppose that that is anything else than nonsense?" Young Sanford flushed. "Sir"—he began. The other continued in his rough, thick voice:

"Do you suppose they don't try to scream? Do you suppose they don't think they're screaming?"

A little silence of discomfort fell on the circle. There was something disagreeably suggestive in the question. Suddenly the man spoke again.

"I had a friend," he said, "in fact, I had two friends. One was young—about your age," nodding to Sanford. "The other was older. He was not so clever nor so attractive nor so brilliant nor so jolly as the younger, but he had a characteristic—perhaps his only one—for he was a very ordinary man. He had an iron will. His determination was as unbreakable as anything human could be. And he was devoted to his friend, who, somehow, loved him. I don't know why, because he had so many other admirers—but he stuck to his friend—Joan. They called the two Darby and Joan. Their real names were not unlike those, and it was rather funny. Darby used to talk as you were talking, sir," he nodded again to Sanford, "and he was sure, cock sure, that what he said was right. He would tell what things were possible and what were not, and prove what he said very nicely. Joan wasn't clever, but he knew that it does no good to call a thing impossible. He knew, in fact, that nothing is more possible than the most impossible things."

The man coughed and cleared his throat and waited a moment as if to see whether he were intruding. No one spoke, so he went on.

"One day Darby rushed into Joan's study and told him of a haunted mill he'd discovered. It was one of the old mills where the farmers used to bring their sacks before the big concerns in the West swallowed all the little trades. It was dusty and cobwebbed and broken down and unused and haunted. And there was a farmhouse directly across the road and a house on either side of it not a hundred feet away.

"'Was it always haunted?' asked Joan. 'No,' said Darby, 'only once a year.' On Christmas eve every year for nineteen years there had appeared, late at night, a little light in one of the windows; and that side of the house had an odd look, somehow it seemed to look fresher and newer, and at one o'clock or so a horrible piercing shriek would ring out from the mill, and then a kind of crashing fall, and then all was still, and the light would disappear.

"'Had nobody investigated?' Oh, yes. The first year it was noticed was when houses were built up around it. It used to stand away from everything else, and the miller and his family lived there. Then, long after they were dead, people moved out there and heard the noises and saw the light. They thought of tramps and escaped criminals and everything one suggests till it had occurred too repeatedly for that, and then a young farmer went over one Christmas eve, not telling any one, and they found him roaming about the mill, a hopeless wreck the next day; he had gone quite mad.

"And the next year a man came up from the city, and his friends were in the next room to help him if he called, and he didn't call, and they were afraid to startle him by knocking, so they got a ladder and peeped into the window at ten minutes to one, and he lay peacefully on the bed with his eyes closed and his hands stretched loosely out, and they thought it was a great joke that he should sleep through it, so they went home, and in the morning they found him in horrible convulsions, and he never recovered.

"And there were two young divinity students that went once together, and they had a crowd along with instructions to break in the door at one exactly. And at the stroke of one the crowd beat in the great door and burst into an empty room! They had gone up a flight too far, somehow, and as they stood staring at each other, from the room beneath them came a dreadful shriek and a crash, and when they rushed down they found the boys in a dead faint. They brought them to and got them home, and they muttered nonsense about a dog and a sash and would say no more. And they escaped with severe nervous prostration. But later they lost what little nerve they had and couldn't sleep at night, and joined the Catholic Church, because they said that there were things they found it difficult to reconcile.…

"'And what was the story of it all?' asked Joan. Oh, the story was disagreeable enough. The miller's daughter wanted to marry a poor young man, but her father would not let her. And she refused to accept his rich nephew. So he locked her in her room till she should consent. And she stayed there a week. And one night the nephew came home late and saw a tiny light in her window, and presently he saw some one place a ladder and go softly up, and the miller's daughter leaned out and helped him in. So he told her father, who came into her room the next night with a bloodhound, and bound her to the bed and hushed her cries with her sash, and lit the little light. And when her lover had climbed the ladder—the dog was there. And that was Christmas eve.

"'Do the people suffer this without complaint—these deaths and convulsions and apostasies?' asked Joan. Well, no. But if they destroyed the mill a liquor saloon would go up immediately. The proprietor was simply waiting. And they didn't want that. So they kept it quiet. And nobody need go there. Nobody had been alarmed or hurt except the meddlers. And in villages the people have less scientific curiosity. But Darby was going immediately. It was December twenty-third now. Joan must come, too; it would be most exciting. Joan argued against it, but he too was curious, so they agreed to go. And the next day they went."


II


By this time the circle was absolutely silent, concentrated to ears and eyes. They stared and leaned towards the shadowy corner behind the stove where the dimly defined figure crouched. The clerk got up and turned down the gas, which flared in his face, and the room was almost wholly dark. The man spoke in a dull, mechanical way, as one speaks who clears his mind, once for all. At intervals he waited fully ten seconds to rest his voice, strangely impressive, with its strained, choked tones.

"The next day they went," he repeated. "Darby was not only clever—he was extremely sensitive. Ridicule was unbearable to him. And though he was a literary fellow, and artistic and all that, he was practical, too, for all he was so brilliant and winning. It actually troubled him that people should believe anything but what he called 'the strictly logical,' and he thought Joan's ideas far too flexible and credulous. It was really for Joan's sake, he said in joke, whom he rather suspected of spiritualistic leanings, that he intended to make the excursion into the country. And he would tell nobody. He would make no inquiries. He would conduct the search along somewhat unusual lines, he declared. One of them should sleep in the room. At one o'clock precisely the other should quietly mount a ladder fixed just where the mythical ladder had been and enter the room in that way, thus preventing any mischievous practical jokes from without, and insuring help to the man within, should he need it.

"And Joan agreed to this. He was interested himself, and he'd have been as eager and scornful as Darby if it hadn't occurred to him—for he was a terribly literal fellow—that four tragedies, sad as these had been, and all unexplained, couldn't be accounted for by chance nor made less sad even by a good logician like Darby. So he suggested one or two friends to fall back upon in case of foul play of any kind. And Darby looked at him and laughed a little sneering laugh and called him——" The man choked and bent lower. He seemed to be unable to speak for some seconds. Then he hurried on, speaking from this point very rapidly and using a kind of clumsy gesture that brought the scenes he spoke of strangely clear to the men around him.

"He called him a coward. So Joan agreed to go. And on the afternoon of the day before Christmas they took a long ladder and a lantern and some sandwiches and two revolvers and drove in a butcher's cart to the little village. And Joan was as eager as Darby that no one should know. You see, Darby called him a coward.

"They slipped into the old, dingy mill at dusk, and went over it with the greatest thoroughness. Everything was open and empty. Only the corner bedroom and one of the living rooms were furnished at all. The dust lay thick in the mill proper, but the living rooms were singularly free from it. Darby noticed this and remarked it to Joan. 'It doesn't smell half so musty, either,' he said. 'I'm glad of that. I hate old, musty smells.'

"Then a queer, crawly feeling came over Joan, and he said: 'Darby, let's go home. Life's short enough, heaven knows. If anything——' And then Darby told him once for all that if he wanted to go home he might, and otherwise he might shut up.

"'Do you want it dusty and smelly?' said he.

"'Yes,' said Joan, 'I do. I don't see why it isn't, either. It's just as old and just as deserted as the other part.'

"'You might get a little dust from the other side and scatter it about,' said Darby, and before Joan could reply he had scooped a handful of dry, brown dust from the bagroom of the mill and laid it about on the bureau and chairs of the bedroom. 'Now come out for our last patrol,' he said. They went out and studied the mill carefully. As they came around to the house side, keeping carefully in the shadow, Joan looked surprised and pointed to the door by which they had entered.

"'That door's shut,' he said.

"'Well?' asked Darby.

"'We left it ajar.'

"'Oh, the wind!' said Darby, and went up to the door softly, listening for any escaping joker. He rattled the knob and pushed it inward, but the door did not yield. 'Why, you couldn't have left it ajar,' he said, 'it's locked!'

"Joan stared at the house, wondering if it was possible that the window-panes really shone so brightly. And the cobwebs about the blinds, where were they? He could have sworn that the porch was full of dead leaves and sticks when they went in—it was as clean as his hand now.

"'We'll go in by the window, the broken one, at the back,' he said quietly. They went around the house and hunted for the broken window, but did not find it. The window was not only whole but locked. Then Joan set his teeth.

"'The broken window must have been at the mill side,' he said, we'll go there.' So they went around and clambered in by a paneless window and went to the bedroom. The room was dim, but they could distinguish objects fairly well. Darby looked queerly at Joan.

"'So you cleared away the dust,' he asked.

"'What dust?' asked Joan. Then he followed Darby's eyes, and where the little piles of brown dust had lain were only clean, bare boards.

"Outside, the teams of the home-coming farmers rolled by. A dog barked, and now a child called. But they seemed far away—in another country. Where the two young fellows stood, there was a strange lonely belt of silence.

"'Perhaps I brushed the chair as we went out,' said Darby slowly. But he looked at Joan queerly.

"They took their supper, and then Joan announced his intention of staying in the room while Darby patrolled the house, and climbed the ladder at one. At first Darby demurred. He had planned to stay. But Joan was inflexible. It was utterly useless to argue with him, so Darby agreed. If Joan wanted help he was to call. At eleven and twelve Darby was to climb the ladder and look in, and at one he was to come in, whatever the situation. At the slightest intimation of danger of any kind Joan was to fire his revolver and Darby was to call for help and rush up the ladder. For all that the people were so quiet round about, they were probably uneasy—they knew that things might happen on the night before Christmas.

"Joan sat for some time after Darby had left him, staring about the room. It was simply furnished with a large bed, a table, and two deal chairs. Thrown over the bed was a moth-eaten blanket, checked white and red. Joan swept it off from the bed and shook it, closing his eyes instinctively to avoid the dust. But no dust came. He shook it again. It was as fresh and clean as his handkerchief. He threw it back on the bed and looked out at Darby walking quietly around in the shadow.

"He was glad Darby was out there. He got to thinking of ghosts and strange preparations for their coming. The boards of the window creaked, and he gasped and stared, only to see Darby's face at the window. 'Anything happened?' he signalled. Joan shook his head. It must be eleven o'clock. How was it possible? The time had seemed so short. He stared at a big star till his eyes swam. He felt dull and drowsy. He had sat up late the night before, and he needed sleep.

"A thought came to him, and it seemed somehow very original and striking. He tapped on the pane to Darby.

"'I'll lie down and take a little nap,' he whispered, opening the window softly. 'You can call me at twelve.' Darby nodded.

"'How do you feel, old fellow? All right?' he asked."

The man choked again and was silent for a time. The strain was growing. The men waited for something to happen as one awaits the falling of the red, snapping embers.

"Joan lay down in that bed," said the stranger hoarsely, and from this point he hurried on almost too quickly for clearness, "on that hideous checked blanket, and fell asleep. He fell asleep thinking of Darby's words and how thoughtful they were: 'How do you feel, old fellow? All right?'

He had bad dreams. He dreamed a woman stood at the foot of the bed and stared at him and motioned him to go. And she was an unnatural woman. She kept changing colour, from red to yellow, from yellow to cream colour, from cream colour to white, from white to—ah! she was a dead woman!

"She motioned him to go, but he refused. She came to the side of the bed and took off her long red sash and bound him down. Then he was willing to go indeed, and strained his muscles in useless efforts to break away, but she laughed at him and then breathed in his face till her damp, icy breath chilled his very soul—and he woke, covered with the sweat of terror—to see her standing at the foot of the bed, looking, looking into his staring eyes!


III


"So it was true. There were such things. But at least his limbs were free, and to his joy he discovered that he was not afraid. No; he had a dull feeling of coming disaster, but no fear. She was a young woman, with big shadowy eyes and a strange mouth. She had on a long, loose white night-gown, open at the throat, and she carried a little lamp. 'Go!' he saw in her eyes as plainly as if she said it. He looked about the room—he could have sworn it was changed. It had the air of a woman's room, that she is living in and keeps her things in. He had no right there—none. He should have gone. But he was proud because he wasn't afraid, and he answered her with his eyes that he would not go. A tired, puzzled look came into her face, a kind of frown, and she leaned over the footboard and begged him with those big dark eyes, begged him hard to go. He had his chance—oh, yes, the fool had his chance!

But he was so proud that he could master her, master a returned soul—for lovely as she was, he knew she wasn't human—that he only set his teeth and started up to come nearer her. But she raised her hand and he fell back, feeling queer and drowsy. Then she came to the edge of the bed and sat down and took from behind her a soft red silk sash and drew it across his face. A sweet, languid feeling stole over him; the bed seemed like a cloud of down, her sash smelled like spice and sandalwood in a warm wind. He felt he was being drugged and weakened, and he tried to stumble up, but the soft silk smothered him, and he became almost unconscious.

"He only wanted one thing—to feel her fingers touch his face and to hold her long brown hair. And while she drew the sash across his mouth he stretched out his hands on either side to catch it and reach her fingers. There was nothing ghostly about her—she was only a lovely dream-woman. Maybe he was asleep.…

"And then she pulled the sash away, and he caught her eye and awoke with a start—her look was full of triumph. She didn't beg him any longer. This was no helpless, gentle spirit of a woman; this was a weird elemental creature; she hadn't any soul or any pity; something made her act out all this dreadful tragedy, without any regard for human life or reason. He knew somehow that she couldn't help his weakness; that though in some fiendish way she had bound him hand and foot, she did it not of herself, but in obedience to some awful law that she couldn't help any more than he. And then he began to be afraid. Slowly great waves of horror rose and grew and broke over him. He tried to move his feet and hands, but he could not so much as will the muscles to contract. He strained till the drops stood on his forehead, but still his arms lay stretched motionless across the bed.

"Just then he met her eyes again, and his heart sank, they were so mocking and bitter. 'Fool! fool!' they said. They were so malignant, and yet so impersonal—he could have sworn that she was afraid too. What was to happen? Would she kill him.' His tongue was helpless. He worked his lips weakly, but they made no words. And she turned down her mouth scornfully and played with the sash. Why did she wait? For she was waiting for a time to come—her eyes told that. What was that time? A great joy that Darby was safe outdoors came to him, and he remembered that Darby would come at twelve! He would break the spell. And just then she left the bed and bent down over the little lamp, and when she took it up it was lighted. She moved across to the window and set it in the sill. Then she glided to the door and locked it. Joan heard the bolt slip.

"Steps sounded on the ladder outside. Into Joan's half-dulled thought came a kind of comfort. Darby was coming. Some one knocked on the pane and the window was raised from the outside.

"'Joan! Joan!' whispered Darby, 'are you all right? Why did you light the lamp? Where are you?' And then Joan, the fool, forgot that if he had not answered. Darby would surely have come in. It seemed to him that if he did not speak now, he was lost. He strained his throat to say four words—only four: 'All right. Come in.' Just that. The first two to reassure Darby, the second to bring him. He made a mighty effort. 'A11—all right!' he shouted, 'c—c—,' and then her eyes were on him and he faded into unconsciousness. He saw in them a terror and surprise. He understood that she wondered at his speaking. There was a stinging pain in his throat, and he heard Darby whisper angrily,

"'Keep still, can't you? Don't howl so! It's quarter to one. I looked in at twelve, and didn't want to wake you. You'd better get up now—who's that down there?' and with a sickening despair he heard Darby hurry down the ladder.

"The leaves rustled a little and then all was still. He didn't struggle any longer. It was clear to him now. He was to play the lover in this ill-fated tragedy, whose actors offered themselves, fools that they were, unasked, each time. And what happened to the lover? Why, he was killed. Well, rather that he should die than Darby. It seemed to him so reasonable, now. No one had asked him to suffer. He had had his chance to go and refused it. No one could help him now. Not even she. They must play it out, puppets of an inexorable drama.

"And then the girl dashed to the bed, and sank beside it as if to pray. And he felt her hair on his face, as he had hoped, but it brought no joy to him. For something was coming up from the floor below. Something that sent a thrill before it, that advanced, slowly, slowly, surely. The girl shuddered and grasped the bed and tried to pull herself up, but she sank helplessly back. And slowly the bolt of the door pushed back. No one pushed it, but it slipped back. Then slowly, inch by inch, the door opened. Joan grew stiff and cold, and would not have looked but that his eyes were fixed. Wider, wider, till it stood flat against the wall.

"Then up the stairs came steps. And with them others, quick and pattering. What was that? Who walked so quickly, with padding, thudding feet? He longed for them to come in—he dreaded their coming. The door was ready for them. The room was swept and clean.

"Up, up, they came, the heavy steps and the scratching, pattering feet. Nearer, nearer—they came in. The man, large, dark, heavy-jawed; the stone-grey, snarling hound, licking its frothing jaws, straining at its chain. The girl writhed against the bed in terror—she opened her lips, but with a stride the man was upon her, his heavy hand was over her mouth. He dragged her up, shaking and sinking, he snatched the sash and bound her mouth, he held her at arm's length and stared once in her eyes. Scorn and rage and murder were in his.

"Joan forgot his own danger in terrified pity. He struggled a moment, but it was useless. His dreadful bonds still held. The man came to the bed, dragging the hound, and Joan shut his eyes, not to see the dark evil face. He would die in the dark, alone, unaided. Oh! to call once! To hear a human voice! But there was no sound but the panting of the great, eager dog.

"The man seemed not to see him. He seized the girl, and turning her toward the light that burned at the pane, he bound her to the bed-post with the silken sash. She writhed and bent and tried to grasp his feet; she pleaded with her eyes till their agony cut Joan like a knife, but the man tied her straight and fast. Then he walked to the pane and crouched down by it and held the dog's muzzle, and became like a stone image.

"And suddenly it flashed across Joan's mind, with a passion of fear to which all that had gone before was as nothing, that Darby was coming up that ladder to that light! Darby, whom he had thought so safe, was to come unknowing, unwarned, to that straining, panting beast. He turned faint for a moment. And then with all the power of his soul he tried to scream. He felt his throat strain and bend and all but burst with the tremendous effort. He tried again, and the pain blinded him. At his feet there the girl strained and twisted, great tears rolling down her cheeks. And yet there was a ghastly silence. The stifled panting of that hound echoed in a deadly quiet. It was horrible, pitiful! The girl's white gown was torn and mussed; her soft naked shoulder quivered when she strained against the cruel sash. He could see that her arm was red where it was tied.

"She trembled and bent and bit her lip till the blood stained her chin. He cursed and prayed and shrieked till the sound, had it come, would have deafened him—but it was all a ghastly mockery! It was as still as a quiet summer afternoon—and the dog and the man waited at the window.

"There was a sound of scraping. Someone was coming up the ladder—someone who whistled softly under his breath, and came nearer every moment. Up, up—the ladder rattled against the window-frame. The man at the window slipped his hand slowly, slowly from the dog's muzzle. The dog stiffened and drew back his black, dripping jaws from his yellow teeth. The man's fingers sunk in the beast's wrinkled neck and he held him back, while he threw one look of hate and triumph at the tortured woman behind him.

"The man bound to the bed couldn't bear it any longer. As a hand grasped the window-sill from outside, he summoned all his iron will, and with a rasping, rending effort that brought a sickly, warm taste to his mouth, he gave a hoarse cry.

"Then the woman leaned over till the sash sunk into her soft flesh, and shrieked with a high, shrill note that cut the air like a knife. But even as she shrieked, a form rose over the sill, there was a rush from inside, and their voices were drowned in a cry of terror, a scream so broken and despairing that Joan could not recognise the voice. And then there was a horrid crashing fall, and the light went out, and something snapped in the brain of the man chained to the bed, and he dropped for miles into a deep, black gulf."


There was a dead silence in the room. No one dared to speak. The stranger's voice had quavered and broken, and in a hoarse whisper he said, rising and stumbling to the door while they made way for him silently:

"And when he knew his friends again, Darby had been buried a long time. Joan did not know whether a broken neck is so much worse than anything else in the world. He hadn't any curiosity about the mill—he didn't care to hear the details of how they burned it to the ground. Perhaps after a while he will be too tired to contradict ignorant people. But he thinks—he has said, that when a man has not slept five hours in a week, nor spoken for days together without agony, much may be forgiven him in the line of intolerance of other people's ignorance—a blessed ignorance gentlemen, a blessed ignorance."

The door closed behind him and the men drew a long breath. No one turned out the gas and it burned till morning, for they took their keys in silence and went upstairs, for the most part arm in arm, haunted by the hoarse, rough voice of the stranger, whom they never saw again.

And indeed they did not care to see him. "For what could one say?" as young Sanford demanded, the next day. "It either happened, or it didn't. If it didn't, he can say no more; if it did, then he is right, and we are in blessed ignorance." And no one of the circle but nodded and looked for a moment at the chair behind the stove.