I was still in Mrs. Packard’s room, brooding over the enigma offered by the similarity between the account I had just read and the explanation she had given of the mysterious event which had thrown such a cloud over her life, when, moved by some unaccountable influence, I glanced up and saw Nixon standing in the open doorway, gazing at me with an uneasy curiosity I was sorry enough to have inspired.
“Mrs. Packard wants you,” he declared with short ceremony. “She’s in the library.” And, turning on his heel, he took his deliberate way down-stairs.
I followed hard after him, and, being brisk in my movements, was at his back before he was half-way to the bottom. He seemed to resent this, for he turned a baleful look back at me and purposely delayed his steps without giving me the right of way.
“Is Mrs. Packard in a hurry?” I asked. “If so, you had better let me pass.”
He gave no appearance of having heard me; his attention had been caught by something going on at the rear of the hall we were now approaching. Following his anxious glance, I saw the door of the mayor’s study open and Mrs. Packard come out. As we reached the lower step, she passed us on her way to the library. Wondering what errand had taken her to the study, which she was supposed not to visit, I turned to join her and caught a glimpse of the old man’s face. It was more puckered, scowling and malignant of aspect than usual. I was surprised that Mrs. Packard had not noticed it. Surely it was not the countenance of a mere disgruntled servant. Something not to be seen on the surface was disturbing this old man; and, moving in the shadows as I was, I questioned whether it would not conduce to some explanation between Mrs. Packard and myself if I addressed her on the subject of this old serving-man’s peculiar ways.
But the opportunity for doing this did not come that morning. On entering the library I was met by Mrs. Packard with the remark:
“Have you any interest in politics? Do you know anything about the subject?”
“I have an interest in Mayor Packard’s election,” I smilingly assured her; “and I know that in this I represent a great number of people in this town if not in the state.”
“You want to see him governor? You desired this before you came to this house? You believe him to be a good man — the right man for the place?”
“I certainly do, Mrs. Packard.”
“And you represent a large class who feel the same?”
“I think so, Mrs. Packard.”
“I am so glad!” Her tone was almost hysterical. “My heart is set on this election,” she ardently explained. “It means so much this year. My husband is very ambitious. So am I— for him. I would give —” there she paused, caught back, it would seem, by some warning thought. I took advantage of her preoccupation to scrutinize her features more closely than I had dared to do while she was directly addressing me. I found them set in the stern mold of profound feeling — womanly feeling, no doubt, but one actuated by causes far greater than the subject, serious as it was, apparently called for. She would give —
What lay beyond that give?
I never knew, for she never finished her sentence.
Observing the breathless interest her manner evoked, or possibly realizing how nearly she had come to an unnecessary if not unwise self-betrayal, she suddenly smoothed her brow and, catching up a piece of embroidery from the table, sat down with it in her hand.
“A wife is naturally heart and soul with her husband,” she observed, with an assumption of composure which restored some sort of naturalness to the conversation. “You are a thinking person, I see, and what is more, a conscientious one. There are many, many such in town; many amongst the men as well as amongst the women. Do you think I am in earnest about this — that Mr. Packard’s chances could be affected by — by anything that might be said about me? You saw, or heard us say, at least, that my name had been mentioned in the morning paper in a way not altogether agreeable to us. It was false, of course, but —” She started, and her work fell from her hands. The door-bell had rung and we could hear Nixon in the hall hastening to answer it.
“Miss Saunders,” she hurriedly interposed with a great effort to speak naturally, “I have told Nixon that I wish to see Mr. Steele if he comes in this morning. I wish to speak to him about the commission intrusted to him by my husband. I confess Mr. Steele has not inspired me with the confidence that Mr. Packard feels in him and I rather shrink from this interview. Will you be good enough — rather will you show me the great kindness of sitting on that low divan by the fireplace where you will not be visible — see, you may have my work to busy yourself with — and if — he may not, you know — if he should show the slightest disposition to transgress in any way, rise and show yourself?”
I was conscious of flushing slightly, but she was not looking my way, and the betrayal cost me only a passing uneasiness. She had, quite without realizing it, offered me the one opportunity I most desired. In my search for a new explanation of Mrs. Packard’s rapidly changing moods, I had returned to my first suspicion — the attraction and possibly the passion of the handsome secretary for herself. I had very little reason for entertaining such a possibility. I had seen nothing on his part to justify it and but little on hers.
Yet in the absence of every other convincing cause of trouble I allowed myself to dwell on this one, and congratulated myself upon the chance she now offered me of seeing and hearing how he would comport himself when he thought that he was alone with her. Assured by the sounds in the hall that Mr. Steele was approaching, I signified my acquiescence with her wishes, and, taking the embroidery from her hand, sat down in the place she had pointed out.
I heard the deep breath she drew, forgot in an instant my purpose of questioning her concerning Nixon, and settled myself to listen, not only to such words as must inevitably pass between them, but to their tones, to the unconscious sigh, to whatever might betray his feeling toward her or hers toward him, convinced as I now was that feeling of some kind lay back of an interview which she feared to hold without the support of another’s secret presence.
The calm even tones of the gentleman himself, modulated to an expression of utmost deference, were the first to break the silence.
“You wish to see me, Mrs. Packard?”
“Yes.” The tremble in this ordinary monosyllable was slight but quite perceptible. “Mr. Packard has given you a task, concerning the necessity of which I should be glad to learn your opinion. Do you think it wise to — to probe into such matters? Not that I mean to deter you. You are under Mr. Packard’s orders, but a word from so experienced a man would be welcome, if only to reconcile me to an effort which must lead to the indiscriminate use of my name in quarters where it hurts a woman to imagine it used at all.”
This, with her eyes on his face, of this I felt sure. Her tone was much too level for her not to be looking directly at him. To any response he might give of the same nature I had no clue, but his tone when he answered was as cool and deferentially polite as was to be expected from a man chosen by Mayor Packard for his private secretary. “Mrs. Packard, your fears are very natural. A woman shrinks from such inquiries, even when sustained by the consciousness that nothing can rob her name of its deserved honor. But if we let one innuendo pass, how can we prevent a second? The man who did this thing should be punished. In this I agree with Mayor Packard.”
She stirred impulsively. I could hear the rustle of her dress as she moved, probably to lessen the distance between them. “You are honest with me?” she urged. “You do agree with Mr. Packard in this?”
His answer was firm, straightforward, and, as far as I could judge, free from any objectionable feature. “I certainly do, Mrs. Packard. The hesitation I expressed when he first spoke was caused by the one consideration mentioned — my fear lest something might go amiss in C—— to-night if I busied myself otherwise than with the necessities of the speech with which he is about to open his campaign.”
“I see. You are very desirous that Mr. Packard should win in this election?”
“I am his secretary, and was largely instrumental in securing his nomination for governor,” was the simple reply. There was a pause — how filled, I would have given half my expected salary to know. Then I heard her ask him the very question she had asked me.
“Do you think that in the event of your not succeeding in forcing an apology from the man who inserted that objectionable paragraph against myself — that — that such hints of something being wrong with me will in any way affect Mr. Packard’s chances — lose him votes, I mean? Will the husband suffer because of some imagined lack in his wife?”
“One can not say.” Thus appealed to, the man seemed to weigh his words carefully, out of consideration for her, I thought. “No real admirer of the mayor’s would go over to the enemy from any such cause as that. Only the doubtful — the half-hearted — those who are ready to grasp at any excuse for voting with the other party, would allow a consideration of the mayor’s domestic relations to interfere with their confidence in him as a public officer.”
“But these —” How I wish I could have seen her face! “These half-hearted voters, their easily stifled convictions are what make majorities,” she stammered. Mr. Steele may have bowed; he probably did, for she went on confidently and with a certain authority not observable in the tone of her previous remarks. “You are right. The paragraph reflecting on me must be traced to its source. The lie must be met and grappled with. I was not well last week and showed it, but I am perfectly well to-day and am resolved to show that, too. No skeleton hangs in the Packard closet. I am a happy wife and a happy mother. Let them come here and see. This morning I shall issue invitations for a dinner to be given the first night you can assure me Mr. Packard will be at home. Do you know of any such night?”
“On Friday week he has no speech to make.” Mrs. Packard seemed to consider. Finally she said: “When you see him, tell him to leave that evening free. And, Mr. Steele, if you will be so good, give me the names of some of those halfhearted ones — critical people who have to see in order to believe. I shall have them at my table — I shall let them see that the shadow which enveloped me was ephemeral; that a woman can rise above all weakness in the support of a husband she loves and honors as I do Mr. Packard.”
She must have looked majestic. Her voice thrilling with anticipated triumph rang through the room, awaking echoes which surely must have touched the heart of this man if, as I had sometimes thought, he cherished an unwelcome admiration for her.
But when he answered, there was no hint in his finely modulated tones of any chord having been touched in his breast, save the legitimate one of respectful appreciation of a woman who fulfilled the expectation of one alive to what is admirable in her sex.
“Your idea is a happy one,” said he. “I can give you three names now. Those of Judge Whittaker, Mr. Dumont, the lawyer, and the two Mowries, father and son.”
“Thank you. I am indebted to you, Mr. Steele, for the patience with which you have met and answered my doubts.”
He made some reply, added something about not seeing her again till he returned with the mayor, then I heard the door open and quietly shut. The interview was over, without my having felt called upon to show myself. An interval of silence, and then I heard her voice. She had thrown herself down at the piano and was singing gaily, ecstatically.
Approaching her in undisguised wonder at this new mood, I stood at her back and listened. I do not suppose she had what is called a great voice, but the feeling back of it at this moment of reaction gave it a great quality. The piece — some operatic aria — was sung in a way to thrill the soul. Opening with a burst, it ended with low notes of an intense sweetness like sobs, not of grief, but happiness. In their midst and while the tones sank deepest, a child’s voice rose in the hall and we heard, uttered at the very door:
“Mama busy; mama sing.”
With a cry she sprang from the piano and, bounding to the door, flung it open and caught her child in her arms.
“Darling! darling! my darling!” she exclaimed in a burst of mother-rapture, crushing the child to her breast and kissing it repeatedly.
Then she began to dance, holding the baby in her arms and humming a waltz. As I stood on one side in my own mood of excited sympathy, I caught fleeting glimpses of their two faces, as she went whirling about. Hers was beautiful in her new relief — if it was a relief — the child’s dimpled with delight at the rapid movement — a lovely picture. Letty, who stood waiting in the doorway, showed a countenance full of surprise. Mrs. Packard was the first to feel tired. Stopping her dance, she peered round at the baby’s face and laughed.
“Was that good?” she asked. “Are you glad to have mama merry again? I am going to be merry all the time now. With such a dear, dear dearie of a baby, how can I help it?” And whirling about in my direction, she held up the child for inspection, crying: “Isn’t she a darling! Do you wonder at my happiness?”
Indeed I did not; the sweet baby-face full of glee was irresistible; so was the pat-pat of the two dimpled hands on her mother’s shoulders. With a longing all women can understand, I held out my own arms.
“I wonder if she will come to me?” said I.
But though I got a smile, the little hands closed still more tightly round the mother’s neck.
“Mama dear!” she cried, “mama dear!” and the tender emphasis on the endearing word completed the charm. Tears sprang to Mrs. Packard’s eyes, and it was with difficulty that she passed the clinging child over to the nurse waiting to take her out.
“That was the happiest moment of my life!” fell unconsciously from Mrs. Packard’s lips as the two disappeared; but presently, meeting my eyes, she blushed and made haste to remark:
“I certainly did Mr. Steele an arrant injustice. He was very respectful; I wonder how I ever got the idea he could be anything else.”
Anxious myself about this very fact, I attempted to reply, but she gave me no opportunity.
“And now for those dinner invitations!” she gaily suggested. “While I feel like it I must busy myself in making out my list. It will give me something new to think about.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50