Mrs. Packard came in very soon after this. She was accompanied by two friends and I could hear them talking and laughing in her room upstairs all the afternoon. It gave me leisure, but leisure was not what I stood in need of, just now. I desired much more an opportunity to pursue my inquiries, for I knew why she had brought these friends home with her and lent herself to a merriment that was not natural to her. She wished to forestall thought; to keep down dread; to fill the house so full of cheer that no whisper should reach her from that spirit-world she had come to fear. She had seen — or believed that she had seen — a specter, and she had certainly heard a laugh that had come from no explicable human source.
The brightness of the sunshiny day aided her unconsciously in this endeavor. But I foresaw the moment when this brightness would disappear and her friends say good-by. Then the shadows must fall again more heavily than ever, because of their transient lifting. I almost wished she had indeed gone with her husband, and found myself wondering why he had not asked her to do so when he found what it was that depressed her. Perhaps he had, and it was she who had held back. She may have made up her mind to conquer this weakness, and to conquer it where it had originated and necessarily held the strongest sway. At all events, he was gone and she was here, and I had done nothing as yet to relieve that insidious dread with which she must anticipate a night in this house without his presence.
I wondered if it would be any relief to her to have Mr. Steele remain upon the premises. I had heard him come in about three o’clock and go into the study, and when the time came for her friends to take their leave, and their voices in merry chatter came up to my ear from the open boudoir door, I stole down to ask her if I could suggest it to him. But I was too late. Just as I reached the head of the stairs on the second floor he came out of the study below and passed, hat in hand, toward the front door.
“What a handsome man!” came in an audible whisper from one of the ladies, who now stood in the lower hall.
“Who is he?” asked the other.
I thought he held the door open one minute longer than was necessary to catch her reply. It was a very cold and unenthusiastic one.
“That is Mr. Packard’s secretary,” said she. “He will join the mayor just as soon as he has finished certain preparations intrusted to him.”
“Oh!” was their quiet rejoinder, but a note of disappointment rang in both voices as the door shut behind him.
“One does not often see a perfectly handsome man.”
I stepped down to meet her when she in turn had shut the door upon them.
But I stopped half-way. She was standing with her head turned away from me and the knob still in her hand. I saw that she was thinking or was the prey of some rapidly growing resolve.
Suddenly she seized the key and turned it.
“The house is closed for the night,” she announced as she looked up and met my astonished gaze. “No one goes out or comes in here again till morning. I have seen all the visitors I have strength for.”
And though she did not know I saw it, she withdrew the key and slipped it into her pocket. “This is Nixon’s night out,” she murmured, as she led the way to the library. “Ellen will wait on us and we’ll have the baby down and play games and be as merry as ever we can be — to keep the ghosts away,” she cried in fresh, defiant tones that had just the faintest suggestion of hysteria in them. “We shall succeed; I don’t mean to think of it again. I’m right in that, am I not? You look as if you thought so. Ah, Mr. Packard was kind to secure me such a companion. I must prove my gratitude to him by keeping you close to me. It was a mistake to have those light-headed women visit me to-day. They tired more than they comforted me.”
I smiled, and put the question which concerned me most nearly.
“Does Nixon stay late when he goes out?”
She threw herself into a chair and took up her embroidery.
“He will to-night,” was her answer. “A little grandniece of his is coming on a late train from Pittsburgh. I don’t think the train is due till midnight, and after that he’s got to take her to his daughter’s on Carey Street. It will be one o’clock at least before he can be back.”
I hid my satisfaction. Fate was truly auspicious. I would make good use of his absence. There was nobody else in the house whose surveillance I feared.
“Pray send for the baby now,” I exclaimed. “I am eager to begin our merry evening.”
She smiled and rang the bell for Letty, the nurse.
Late that night I left my room and stole softly down-stairs. Mrs. Packard had ordered a bed made up for herself in the nursery and had retired early. So had Ellen and Letty. The house was therefore clear below stairs, and after I had passed the second story I felt myself removed from all human presence as though I were all alone in the house.
This was a relief to me, yet the experience was not a happy one. Ellen had asked permission to leave the light burning in the hall during the mayor’s absence, so the way was plain enough before me; but no parlor floor looks inviting after twelve o’clock at night, and this one held a secret as yet unsolved, which did not add to its comfort or take the mysterious threat from the shadows lurking in corners and under stairways which I had to pass. As I hurried past the place where the clock had once stood, I thought of the nurses’ story and of the many frightened hearts which had throbbed on the stairway I had just left and between the walls I was fast approaching; but I did not turn back. That would have been an acknowledgment of the truth of what I was at this very time exerting my full faculties to disprove.
I knew little about the rear of the house and nothing about the cellar. But when I had found my way into the kitchen and lit the candle I had brought from my room, I had no difficulty in deciding which of the many doors led below. There is something about a cellar door which is unmistakable, but it took me a minute to summon up courage to open it after I had laid my hand on its old-fashioned latch. Why do we so hate darkness and the chill of unknown regions, even when we know they are empty of all that can hurt or really frighten us? I was as safe there as in my bed up-stairs, yet I had to force myself to consider more than once the importance of my errand and the positive result it might have in allaying the disturbance in more than one mind, before I could lift that latch and set my foot on the short flight which led into the yawning blackness beneath me.
But once on my way I took courage. I pictured to myself the collection of useful articles with which the spaces before me were naturally filled, and thought how harmless were the sources of the grotesque shadows which bowed to me from every side and even from the cement floor toward the one spot where the stones of the foundation showed themselves clear of all encumbering objects. As I saw how numerous these articles were, and how small a portion of the wall itself was really visible, I had my first practical fear, and a practical fear soon puts imaginary ones to flight. What if some huge box or case of bottles should have been piled up in front of the marked brick I was seeking? I am strong, but I could not move such an object alone, and this search was a solitary one; I had been forbidden to seek help.
The anxiety this possibility involved nerved me to instant action. I leaped forward to the one clear spot singled out for me by chance and began a hurried scrutiny of the short strip of wall which was all that was revealed to me on the right-hand side. Did it hold the marked brick? My little candle shook with eagerness and it was with difficulty I could see the face of the brick close enough to determine. But fortune favored, and presently my eye fell on one whose surface showed a ruder, scratched cross. It was in the lowest row and well within reach of my hand. If I could move it the box would soon be in my possession — and what might that box not contain!
Looking about, I found the furnace and soon the gas-jet which made attendance upon it possible. This lit, I could set my candle down, and yet see plainly enough to work. I had shears in my pocket. I have had a man’s training in the handling of tools and felt quite confident that I could pry this brick out if it was as easily loosened as Bess had given me to understand. My first thrust at the dusty cement inclosing it encouraged me greatly. It was very friable and so shallow that my scissors’-point picked it at once. In five minutes’ time the brick was clear, so that I easily lifted it out and set it on the floor. The small black hole which was left was large enough to admit my hand. I wasted no time thrusting it in, expecting to feel the box at once and draw it out. But it was farther back than I expected, and while I was feeling about something gave way and fell with a slight, rustling noise down out of my reach. Was it the box? No, for in another instant I had come in contact with its broken edges and had drawn it out; the falling object must have been some extra mortar, and it had gone where? I did not stop to consider then. The object in my hand was too alluring; the size, the shape too suggestive of a package of folded bonds for me to think of anything but the satisfaction of my curiosity and the consequent clearing of a very serious mystery.
Just at this moment, one of intense excitement, I heard, or thought I heard, a stealthy step behind me. Forcing myself to calmness, however, I turned and, holding the candle high convinced myself that I was alone in the cellar.
Carrying the box nearer the light, I pulled off its already loosened string and lifted the cover. In doing this I suffered from no qualms of conscience. My duty seemed very clear to me, and the end, a totally impersonal one, more than justified the means.
A folded paper met my eyes — one — not of the kind I expected; then some letters whose address I caught at a glance. “Elizabeth Brainard”— a discovery which might have stayed my hand at another time, but nothing could stay it now. I opened the paper and looked at it. Alas! it was only her marriage certificate; I had taken all this trouble and all this risk, only to rescue for her the proof of her union with one John Silverthorn Brainard. The same name was on her letters. Why had Bess so strongly insisted on a secret search, and why had she concealed her license in so strange a place?
Greatly sobered, I restored the paper to its place in the box, slipped on the string and prepared to leave the cellar with it. Then I remembered the brick on the floor and the open hole where it had been, and afterward the something which had fallen over within and what this space might mean in a seemingly solid wall.
More excited now even than I had been at any time before, I thrust my hand in again and tried to sound the depth of this unexpected far-reaching hole; but the size of my arm stood in the way of my experiment, and, drawing out my hand, I looked about for a stick and finding one, plunged that in. To my surprise and growing satisfaction it went in its full length — about three feet. There was a cavity on the other side of this wall of very sizable dimensions. Had I struck the suspected passage? I had great hope of it. Nothing else would account for so large a space on the other side of a wall which gave every indication of being one with the foundation. Catching up my stick I made a rude estimate of its location, after which I replaced the brick, put out the gas, and caught up Bess’ box. Trembling, and more frightened now than at my descent at my own footfall and tremulous pursuing shadow, I went up-stairs.
As I passed the corridor leading to the converted vestibule which had so excited my interest in the afternoon, I paused and made a hurried calculation. If the stick had been three feet long, as I judged, and my stride was thirty inches, then the place of that hole in the wall below was directly in a line with where I now stood — in other words, under the vestibule floor, as I had already, suspected.
How was I to verify this without disturbing Mrs. Packard? That was a question to sleep on. But it took me a long time to get to sleep.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55