Determined to know the cause of Mrs. Packard’s anguish, if not of Nixon’s unprovoked anger against myself, I caught him back as he was passing me and peremptorily demanded:
“What message did you carry to Mrs. Packard to throw her into such a state as this? Answer! I am in this house to protect her against all such disturbances. What did you tell her?”
Sullenness itself in the tone.
“Nothing? and you were sent on an errand? Didn’t you fulfil it?”
“And didn’t tell her what you learned?”
“She didn’t give me the chance.”
“I know it sounds queer, Miss, but it’s true. She didn’t give me a chance to talk.”
He muttered the final sentence. Indeed, all that we had said until now had been in a subdued tone, but now my voice unconsciously rose.
“You found Mr. Steele?”
“No, Miss, he was not at home.”
“But they told you where to look for him?”
“No. His landlady thinks he is dead. He has queer spells, and some one had sent her word about a man, handsome like him, who was found dead at Hudson Three Corners last night. Mr. Steele told her he was going over to Hudson Three Corners. She has sent to see if the dead man is he.”
“The dead man!”
Who spoke? Not Mrs. Packard! Surely that voice was another’s. Yet we both looked up to see:
The sight which met our eyes was astonishing, appalling. She had let her baby slip to the floor and had advanced to the stairs, where she stood, clutching at the rail, looking down upon us, with a joy in her face matching the unholy elation we could still hear ringing in that word “dead.”
Such a look might have leaped to life in the eyes of the Medusa when she turned her beauty upon her foredoomed victims.
“Dead!” came again in ringing repetition from Mrs. Packard’s lips, every fiber in her tense form quivering and the gleam of hope shining brighter and brighter in her countenance. “No, not dead!” Then while Nixon trembled and succumbed inwardly to this spectacle of a gentle-hearted woman transformed by some secret and overwhelming emotion into an image of vindictive delight, her hands left the stair-rail and flew straight up over her head in the transcendent gesture which only the greatest crises in life call forth, and she exclaimed with awe-inspiring emphasis: “God could not have been so merciful!”
It is not often, perhaps it is only once in a lifetime, that it is given us to look straight into the innermost recesses of the human soul. Never before had such an opportunity come to me, and possibly never would it come again, yet my first conscious impulse was one of fright at the appalling self-revelation she had made, not only in my hearing, but in that of nearly her whole household. I could see, over her shoulders, Letty’s eyes staring wide in ingenuous dismay, while from the hall below rose the sound of hurrying feet as the girls came running in from the kitchen. Something must be done, and immediately, to recall her to herself, and, if possible, to reinstate her in the eyes of her servants.
Bounding upward to where she still stood forgetful and self-absorbed, I laid my hands softly but firmly on hers, which had fallen back upon the rail, and quietly said:
“You have some very strong reason, I see, for looking upon Mr. Steele as your husband’s enemy rather than friend.”
The appeal was timely. With a start she woke to the realization of her position and of the suggestive words she had just uttered, and with a glance behind her at Letty and another at Nixon and the maids, who by this time had pushed their way to the foot of the stairs, she gathered herself up with a determination born of the necessity of the moment and emphatically replied:
“No; I do not know Mr. Steele well enough for that. My emotion at the unexpected tidings of his possible death springs from another cause.” Here the help, the explanation for which she had been searching, came. “Girls,” she went on, addressing them with an emphasis which drew all eyes, “I am ashamed to tell you what has so deeply disturbed me these last few days. I should blame any one of you for being affected as I was. The great love I bear my husband and child is my excuse — a poor one, I know, but one you will understand. A week ago something happened to me in the library which frightened me very much. I saw — or thought I saw — what some would call an apparition, but what you would call a ghost. Don’t shriek!” (The two girls behind me had begun to scream and make as if to run away.) “It was all imagination, of course — there can not really be any such thing. Ghosts in these days? Pshaw! But I was very, nervous that night and could not help feeling that the mere fact of my thinking of anything so dreadful meant misfortune to some one in this house. Wait!” Her voice was imperious; and the shivering, terrified girls, superstitious to the backbone, stopped in spite of themselves. “You must hear it all, and you, too, Miss Saunders, who have only heard half. I was badly frightened then, especially as the ghost, spirit-man, or whatever it was, wore a look, in the one short moment I stood face to face with it, full of threat and warning. Next day Mr. Packard introduced his new secretary. Girls, he had the face of the Something I had seen, without the threatening look, which had so alarmed me.”
“Bad ‘cess to him!” rang in vigorous denunciation from the cook. “Why didn’t ye send him ‘mejitly about his business? It’s trouble he’ll bring to us all and no mistake!”
“That was what I feared,” assented her now thoroughly composed mistress. “So when Nixon said just now that Mr. Steele was dead, had fallen in a fit at Hudson Three Corners or something like that — I felt such wicked relief at finding that my experience had not meant danger to ourselves, but to him — wicked, because it was so selfish — that I forgot myself and cried out in the way you all heard. Blame me if you will, but don’t frighten yourselves by talking about it. If Mr. Steele is indeed dead, we have enough to trouble us without that.”
And with a last glance at me, which ended in a wavering half-deprecatory smile, she stepped back and passed into her own room.
The mood in which I proceeded to my own quarters was as thoughtful as any I had ever experienced.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09