That evening I was made a heroine of by Mrs. Packard and all the other members of the household. Even Nixon thawed and showed me his genial side. I had to repeat my story above stairs — and below, and relate just what the old ladies had done and said, and how they bore their joy, and whatever I thought they would do with their money now they had it. When I at last reached my room, my first act was to pull aside my shade and take a peep at the old attic window. Miss Charity’s face was there, but so smiling and gay I hardly knew it. She kissed her hand to me as I nodded my head, and then turned away with her light as if to show me she had only been waiting to give me this joyous good night.
This was a much better picture to sleep on than the former one had been.
Next day I settled back into my old groove. Mrs. Packard busied herself with her embroidery and I read to her or played on the piano. Happier days seemed approaching, nay, had come. We enjoyed two days of it, then trouble settled down on us once more.
It began on Friday afternoon. Mrs. Packard and I had been out making some arrangements for the projected dinner-party and I had stopped for a minute in the library before going up-stairs.
A pile of mail lay on the table. Running this over with a rapid hand, she singled out several letters which she began to open. Their contents seemed far from satisfactory. Exclamation after exclamation left her lips, her agitation increasing with each one she read, and her haste, too, till finally it seemed sufficient for her just to glance at the unfolded sheet before letting it drop. When the last one had left her hand, she turned and, encountering my anxious look, bitterly remarked:
“We need not have made those arrangements this morning. Seven regrets in this mail and two in the early one. Nine regrets in all! and I sent out only ten invitations. What is the meaning of it? I begin to feel myself ostracized.”
I did not understand it any more than she did.
“Invite others,” I suggested, and was sorry for my presumption the next minute.
Her poor lip trembled.
“I do not dare,” she whispered. “Oh, what will Mr. Packard say! Some one or something is working against us. We have enemies — enemies, and Mr. Packard will never get his election.”
Her trouble was natural and so was her expression of it. Feeling for her, and all the more that the cause of this concerted action against her was as much a mystery to me as it was to herself, I made some attempt to comfort her, which was futile enough, God knows. She heard my voice, no doubt, but she gave no evidence of noting what I said. When I had finished — that is, when she no longer heard me speaking — she let her head droop and presently I heard her murmur:
“It seems to me that if for any reason he fails to get his election I shall wish to die.”
She was in this state of dejection, with the echo of this sad sentence in both our ears, when a light tap at the door was followed by the entrance of Letty, the nurse-maid. She wore an unusual look of embarrassment and held something crushed in her hand. Mrs. Packard advanced hurriedly to meet her.
“What is it?” she interrogated sharply, like one expectant of evil tidings.
“Nothing! that is, not much,” stammered the frightened girl, attempting to thrust her hand behind her back.
But Mrs. Packard was too quick for her.
“You have something there! What is it? Let me see.”
The girl’s hand moved forward reluctantly. “A paper which I found pinned to the baby’s coat when I took her out of the carriage,” she faltered. “I— I don’t know what it means.”
Mrs. Packard’s eyes opened wide with horror. She seized the paper and staggered with it to one of the windows. While she looked at it, I cast a glance at Letty. She was crying, from what looked like pure fear; but it was the fear of ignorance rather than duplicity; she appeared as much mystified as ourselves.
Meanwhile I felt, rather than saw, the old shadow settling fast upon the head of her who an hour before had been so bright. She had chosen a place where her form could not fail of being more or less concealed by the curtain, and though I heard the paper rattle I could not see it or the hand which held it. But the time she spent over it seemed interminable before I heard her utter a sharp cry and saw the curtains shake as she clutched them.
It seemed the proper moment to proffer help, but before either Letty or I could start forward, her command rang out in smothered but peremptory tones:
“Keep back! I want no one here!” and we stopped, each looking at the other in very natural consternation. And when, after another seemingly interminable interval, she finally stepped forth, I noted a haggard change in her face, and that her coat had been torn open and even the front of her dress wrenched apart as if she felt herself suffocating, or as if — but this alternative only suggested itself to me later and I shall refrain from mentioning it now.
Crossing the floor with a stumbling step, with the paper which had roused all this indignation still in her hand, she paused before the now seriously alarmed Letty, and demanded in great excitement:
“Who pinned that paper on my child? You know; you saw it done. Was it a man or —”
“Oh no, ma’am, no, ma’am,” protested the girl. “No man came near her. It was a woman — a nice-looking woman.”
Mrs. Packard’s tone was incredulous. But the girl insisted.
“Yes, ma’am; there was no man there at all. I was on one of the park benches resting, with the baby in my arms, and this woman passed by and saw us. She smiled at the baby’s ways, and then stopped and took to talking about her — how pretty she was and how little afraid of strangers. I saw no harm in the woman, ma’am, and let her sit down on the same bench with me for a few minutes. She must have pinned the paper on the baby’s coat then, for it was the only time anybody was near enough to do it.”
Mrs. Packard, with an irrepressible gesture of anger or dismay, turned and walked back to the window. The movement was a natural one. Certainly she was excusable for wishing to hide from the girl the full extent of the agitation into which this misadventure had thrown her.
“You may go.” The words came after a moment of silent suspense. “Give the baby her supper — I know that you will never let any one else come so near her again.”
Letty probably did not catch the secret anguish hidden in her tone, but I did, and after the nurse-maid was gone, I waited anxiously for what Mrs. Packard would say.
It came from the window and conveyed nothing. Would I do so and so? I forget what her requests were, only that they necessitated my leaving the room. There seemed no alternative but to obey, yet I felt loath to leave her and was hesitating near the doorway when a new interruption occurred. Nixon brought in a telegram, and, as Mrs. Packard advanced to take it, she threw on the table the slip of paper which she had been poring over behind the curtains.
As I stepped back at Nixon’s entrance I was near the table and the single glance I gave this paper as it fell showed me that it was covered with the same Hebrew-like characters of which I already possessed more than one example. The surprise was acute, but the opportunity which came with it was one I could not let slip. Meeting her eye as the door closed on Nixon, I pointed at the scrawl she had thrown down, and wonderingly asked her if that was what Letty had found pinned to the baby’s coat.
With a surprised start, she paused in her act of opening the telegram and made a motion as if to repossess herself of this, but seeming to think better of it she confined herself to giving me a sharp look.
“Yes,” was her curt assent.
I summoned up all my courage, possibly all my powers of acting.
“Why, what is there in unreadable characters like these to alarm you?”
She forgot her telegram, she forgot everything but that here was a question she must answer in a way to disarm all suspicion.
“The fact,” she accentuated gravely, “that they are unreadable. What menace may they not contain? I am afraid of them, as I am of all obscure and mystifying things.”
In a flash, at the utterance of these words, I saw, my way to the fulfillment of the wish which had actuated me from the instant my eyes had fallen on this paper.
“Do you think it a cipher?” I asked.
“I have always been good at puzzles. I wish you would let me see what I can make out of these rows of broken squares and topsy-turvy angles. Perhaps I can prove to you that they contain nothing to alarm you.”
The gleam of something almost ferocious sprang into this gentle woman’s eyes. Her lips moved and I expected an angry denial, but fear kept her back. She did not dare to appear to understand this paper any better than I did. Besides, she was doubtless conscious that its secret was not one to yield to any mere puzzle-reader. She could safely trust it to my curiosity. All this I detected in her changing expression, before she made the slightest gesture which allowed me to secure what I felt to be the most valuable acquisition in the present exigency.
Then she turned to her telegram. It was from her husband, and I was not prepared for the cry of dismay which left her lips as she read it, nor for the increased excitement into which she was thrown by its few and seemingly simple words.
With apparent forgetfulness of what had just occurred — a forgetfulness which insensibly carried her back to the moment when she had given me some order which involved my departure from the room — she impetuously called out over her shoulder which she had turned on opening her telegram:
“Miss Saunders! Miss Saunders! are you there? Bring me the morning papers; bring me the morning papers!”
Instantly I remembered that we had not read the papers. Contrary to our usual habit we had gone about a pressing piece of work without a glance at any of the three dailies laid to hand in their usual place on the library table. “They are here on the table,” I replied, wondering as much at the hectic flush which now enlivened her features as at the extreme paleness that had marked them the moment before.
“Search them! There is something new in them about me. There must be. Read Mr. Packard’s message.”
I took it from her hand; only eight words in all.
Here they are — the marks of separation being mine:
I am coming — libel I know — where is S.
“Search the columns,” she repeated, as I laid the telegram down. “Search! Search!”
I hastily obeyed. But it took me some time to find the paragraph I sought. The certainty that others in the house had read these papers, if we had not, disturbed me. I recalled certain glances which I had seen pass between the servants behind Mrs. Packard’s back — glances which I had barely noted at the time, but which returned to my mind now with forceful meaning; and if these busy girls had read, all the town had read — what? Suddenly I found it. She saw my eyes stop in their hurried scanning and my fingers clutch the sheet more firmly, and, drawing up behind me, she attempted to follow with her eyes the words I reluctantly read out. Here they are, just as they left my trembling lips that day — words that only the most rabid of opponents could have instigated:
Apropos of the late disgraceful discoveries, by which a woman of apparent means and unsullied honor has been precipitated from her proud preeminence as a leader of fashion, how many women, known and admired to-day, could stand the test of such an inquiry as she was subjected to? We know one at least, high in position and aiming at a higher, who, if the merciful veil were withdrawn which protects the secrets of the heart, would show such a dark spot in her life, that even the aegis of the greatest power in the state would be powerless to shield her from the indignation of those who now speak loudest in her praise.
“A lie!” burst in vehement protest from Mrs. Packard, as I finished. “A lie like the rest! But oh, the shame of it! a shame that will kill me.” Then suddenly and with a kind of cold horror: “It is this which has destroyed my social prestige in town. I understand those nine declinations now. Henry! my poor Henry!”
There was little comfort to offer, but I tried to divert her mind to the practical aspect of the case by saying:
“What can Mr. Steele be doing? He does not seem to be very successful in his attempts to carry out the mayor’s orders. See! your husband asks where he is. He can mean no other by the words ‘Where is S—?’ He knew that your mind would supply the name.”
Her eyes had become fixed; her whole face betrayed a settled despair. Quickly, violently, she rang the bell.
She advanced hurriedly to meet him.
“Nixon, you have Mr. Steele’s address?”
“Yes, Mrs. Packard.”
“Then go to it at once. Find Mr. Steele if you can, but if that is not possible, learn where he has gone and come right back and tell me. Mr. Packard telegraphs to know where he is. He has not joined the mayor in C——.”
“Yes, Mrs. Packard; the house is not far. I shall be back in fifteen minutes.”
The words were respectful, but the sly glint in his blinking eyes as he hastened out fixed my thoughts again on this man and the uncommon attitude he maintained toward the mistress whose behests he nevertheless flew to obey.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50