“Where is my wife?”
“Sleeping, sir, after a day of exhausting emotion.”
“She didn’t wire me?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t able?”
“She was not, Mayor Packard.”
“I must see her. I came as soon as I could. Left Warner to fill my place on the platform, and it is the night of nights, too. Why, what’s the matter?”
He had caught me staring over his shoulder at the form drawn up in the doorway.
“Nothing; I thought you had come alone.”
“No, Mr. Steele is with me. He joined me at noon, just after I had telegraphed home. He has come back to finish the work I assigned him. He has at last discovered — or thinks he has — the real author of those libels. You have something special to say to me?” he whispered, as I followed him upstairs.
“Yes, and I think, if I were you, that I should say nothing to Mrs. Packard about Mr. Steele’s having returned.” And I rapidly detailed the occurrence of the afternoon, ending with Mrs. Packard’s explanation to her servants.
The mayor showed impatience. “Oh, I can not bother with such nonsense as that,” he declared; “the situation is too serious.”
I thought so, too, when in another moment his wife’s door opened and she stepped out upon the landing to meet him. Her eyes fell on Mr. Steele, standing at the foot of the stairs, before they encountered her husband; and though she uttered no cry and hardly paused in her approach toward the mayor, I saw the heart within her die as suddenly and surely as the flame goes out in a gust of wind.
“You!” There was hysteria in the cry. Pray God that the wild note in it was not that of incipient insanity! “How good of you to give up making your great speech to-night, just to see how I have borne this last outrage! You do see, don’t you?” Here she drew her form to its full height. “My husband believes in me, and it gives me courage to face the whole world. Ah! is that Mr. Steele I see below there? Pardon me, Mr. Steele, if I show surprise. We heard a false report of your illness this afternoon. Henry, hadn’t Mr. Steele better come up-stairs? I presume you are here to talk over this last dreadful paragraph with me.”
“It is not necessary for Mr. Steele to join us if you do not wish him to,” I heard the mayor whisper in his wife’s ear.
“Oh, I do not mind,” she returned with an indifference whose reality I probably gauged more accurately than he did.
“That is good.” And he called Mr. Steele up. “You see she is reasonable enough,” he muttered in my ear as he motioned me to follow them into the up-stairs sitting-room to which she had led the way. “The more heads the better in a discussion of this kind,” was the excuse he gave his wife and Mr. Steele as he ushered me in.
As neither answered, I considered my presence accepted and sat down in as remote a corner as offered. Verily the fates were active in my behalf.
Mayor Packard was about to close the door, when Mrs. Packard suddenly leaped by him with the cry:
“There’s the baby! She must have heard your voice.” And rushing into the hall she came back with the child whom she immediately placed in its father’s arms. Then she slowly seated herself. Not until she had done so did she turn to Mr. Steele.
“Sit,” said she, with a look and gesture her husband would have marveled at had he not been momentarily occupied with the prattling child.
The secretary bowed and complied. Surely men of such great personal attractions are few. Instantly the light, shaded though it seemingly was in all directions, settled on his face, making him, to my astonished gaze, the leading personality in the group. Was this on account of the distinction inherent in extreme beauty or because of a new and dominating expression which had insensibly crept into his features?
The mayor, and the mayor only, seemed oblivious to the fact. Glancing up from the child, he opened the conference by saying: “Tell Mrs. Packard, Steele, what you have just told me.”
With a quiet shifting of his figure which brought him into a better line with the woman he was asked to address, the secretary opened his lips to reply when she, starting, reached out one hand and drew toward herself the little innocent figure of her child, which she at once placed between herself and him. Seeing this, I recalled the scraps of cipher left in my room above and wished I had succeeded in determining their meaning, if only to understand the present enigmatical situation.
Meanwhile Mr. Steele was saying in the mellow tone of a man accustomed to tune his voice to suit all occasions: “Mrs. Packard will excuse me if I seem abrupt. In obedience to commands laid upon me by his Honor, I spent both Tuesday and Wednesday in inquiries as to the origin of the offensive paragraph which appeared in Monday’s issue of the Leader. Names were given me, but too many of them. It took me two days to sift these down to one, and when I had succeeded in doing this, it was only to find that the man I sought was ninety miles away. Madam, I journeyed those ninety miles to learn that meanwhile he had returned to this city. While I was covering those miles for the second time, to-day’s paragraph appeared. I hastened to accuse its author of libel, but the result was hardly what I expected. Perhaps you know what he said.”
“No,” she harshly returned, “I do not.” And with the instinctive gesture of one awaiting attack she raised her now sleepy and nodding child in front of her laboring breast, with a look in her eyes which I see yet.
“He said — pardon me, your Honor, pardon me, Madam — that I was at liberty to point out what was false in it.”
With a leap she was on her feet, towering above us all in her indignation and overpowering revolt against the man who was the conscious instrument of this insult. The child, loosened so suddenly from her arms, tottered and would have fallen, had not Mr. Steele leaned forward and drawn the little one across to himself. Mr. Packard, who, we must remember, had been more or less prepared for what his secretary had to say, cast a glance at his wife, teeming with varied emotions.
“And what did you reply to that?” were the words she hurled at the unabashed secretary.
“Nothing,” was his grave reply. “I did not know myself what was false in it.”
With sudden faltering, Mrs. Packard reseated herself, while the mayor, outraged by what was evidently a very unexpected answer, leaned forward in great anger, crying:
“That was not the account you gave me of this wretched interview. Explain yourself, Mr. Steele. Don’t you see that your silence at such a moment, to say nothing of the attitude you at present assume, is an insult to Mrs. Packard?”
The smile he met in reply was deprecatory enough; so were the words his outburst had called forth.
“I did not mean, and do not mean to insult Mrs. Packard. I am merely showing you how hampered a man is, whatever his feelings, when it comes to a question of facts known only to a lady with whom he has not exchanged fifty words since he came into her house. If Mrs. Packard will be good enough to inform me just how much and how little is true in the paragraph we are considering, I shall see this rascally reporter again and give him a better answer.”
Mayor Packard looked unappeased. This was not the way to soothe a woman whom he believed to be greatly maligned. With an exclamation indicative of his feelings, he was about to address some hasty words to the composed, almost smiling, man who confronted him, when Mrs. Packard herself spoke with unexpected self-control, if not disdain.
“You are a very honest man, Mr. Steele. I commend the nicety of your scruples and am quite ready to trust myself to them. I own to no blot, in my past or present life, calling for public arraignment. If my statement of the fact is not enough, I here swear on the head of my child —”
“No, no,” he quickly interpolated, “don’t frighten the baby. Swearing is not necessary; I am bound to believe your word, Mrs. Packard.” And lifting a sheet of paper from a pile lying on the table before him, he took a pencil from his pocket and began making lines to amuse the child dancing on his knee.
Mrs. Packard’s eyes opened in wonder mingled with some emotion deeper than distaste, but she said nothing, only watched in a fascinated way his moving fingers. The mayor, mollified possibly by his secretary’s last words, sank back again in his chair with the remark:
“You have heard Mrs. Packard’s distinct denial. You are consequently armed for battle. See that you fight well. It is all a part of the scheme to break me up. One more paragraph of that kind and I shall be a wreck, even if my campaign is not.”
“There will not be any more.”
“Ah! you can assure me of that?”
“What are you playing there?” It was Mrs. Packard who spoke. She was pointing at the scribble he was making on the paper.
“Tit-tat-to,” he smiled, “to amuse the baby.”
Did she hate to see him so occupied, or was her own restlessness of a nature demanding a like outlet? Tearing her eyes away from him and the child, she looked about her in a wild way, till she came upon a box of matches standing on the large center-table around which they were all grouped. Taking some in her hand, she commenced to lay them out on the table before her, possibly in an attempt to attract the baby’s attention to herself. Puerile business, but it struck me forcibly, possibly from the effect it appeared to have upon the mayor. Looking from one to the other in an astonishment which was not without its hint of some new and overmastering feeling on his own part, he remarked:
“Isn’t it time for the baby to go to bed? Surely, our talk is too serious to be interrupted by games to please a child.”
Without a word Mr. Steele rose and put the protesting child in the mother’s arms. She, rising, carried it to the door, and, coming slowly back, reseated herself before the table and began to push the matches about again with fingers that trembled beyond her control. The mayor proceeded as if no time had elapsed since his last words.
“You had some words then with this Brainard — I think you called him Brainard — exacted some promise from him?”
“Yes, your Honor,” was the only reply.
Did not Mrs. Packard speak, too? We all seemed to think so, for we turned toward her; but she gave no evidence of having said anything, though an increased nervousness was visible in her fingers as she pushed the matches about.
“I thought I was warranted in doing so much,” continued Mr. Steele. “I could not buy the man with money, so I used threats.”
“Right! anything to squelch him,” exclaimed the mayor, but not with the vigor I expected from him. Some doubt, some dread — caught perhaps from his wife’s attitude or expression — seemed to interpose between his indignation and the object of it. “You are our good friend, Steele, in spite of the shock you gave us a moment ago.”
As no answer was made to this beyond a smile too subtle and too fine to be understood by his openhearted chief, the mayor proceeded to declare:
“Then that matter is at an end. I pray that it may have done us no real harm. I do not think it has. People resent attacks on women, especially, on one whose reputation has never known a shadow, as girl, wife, or mother.”
“Yes,” came in slow assent from the lips which had just smiled, and he glanced at Mrs. Packard whose own lips seemed suddenly to become dry, for I saw her try to moisten them as her right hand groped about for something on the tabletop and finally settled on a small paper-weight which she set down amongst her matches. Was it then or afterward that I began to have my first real doubt whether some shadow had not fallen across her apparently unsullied life?
“Yes, you are right,” repeated Mr. Steele more energetically. “People do resent such insinuations against a woman, though I remember one case where the opposite effect was produced. It was when Collins ran for supervisor in Cleveland. He was a good fellow himself, and he had a wife who was all that was beautiful and charming, but who had once risked her reputation in an act which did call for public arraignment. Unfortunately, there was a man who knew of this act and he published it right and left and —”
“Olympia!” Mayor Packard was on his feet, pointing in sudden fury and suspicion at the table where the matches lay about in odd and, as I now saw, seemingly set figures. “You are doing something besides playing with those matches. I know Mr. Steele’s famous cipher; he showed it to me a week ago; and so, evidently, do you, in spite of the fact that you have had barely fifty words with him since he came to the house. Let me read — ah! — give over that piece of paper you have there, Steele, if you would not have me think you as great a dastard as we know that Brainard to be!”
And while his wife drooped before his eyes and a cynical smile crept about the secretary’s fine mouth, he caught up the sheet on which Steele had been playing tit-tat-to with the child, and glanced from the table to it and back again to the table on which the matches lay in the following device, the paper-weight answering for the dot:
7; L;.)7; [-]; ^V. “M,” suddenly left the mayor’s writhing lips; then slowly, letter by letter, “E-R-C-Y. Mercy!” he vociferated. “Why does my wife appeal for mercy to you — a stranger — and in your own cipher! Miserable woman! What secret’s here? Either you are —”
“Hush! some one’s at the door!” admonished the secretary.
Mr. Packard turned quickly, and, smoothing his face rapidly, as such men must, started for the door. Mrs. Packard, flinging her whole soul into a look, met the secretary’s eyes for a moment and then let her head sink forward on her hands above those telltale matches, from whose arrangement she had reaped despair in place of hope.
Mr. Steele smiled again, his fine, false smile, but after her head had fallen; not before. Indeed, he had vouchsafed no reply to her eloquent look. It was as if it had met marble till her eyes were bidden; then —
But Nixon was in the open doorway and Nixon was speaking:
“A telegram, your Honor.”
The old man spoke briskly, even a little crisply — perhaps he always did when he addressed the mayor. But his eyes roamed eagerly and changed to a burning, red color when they fell upon the dejected figure of his mistress. I fancied that, had he dared, he would have leaped into the room and taken his own part — and who could rightly gage what that was? — in the scene which may have been far more comprehensive to him than to me. But he did not dare, and my eyes passed from him to the mayor.
“From Haines,” that gentleman announced, forgetting the suggestive discovery he had just made in the great and absorbing interest of his campaign. “‘Speech good — great applause becoming thunderous at flash of your picture. All right so far if —’” he read out, ceasing abruptly at the “if” which, as I afterward understood, really ended the message. “No answer,” he explained to Nixon as he hurriedly, dismissed him. “That ‘if’ concerns you,” he now declared, coming back to his wife and to his troubles at the same instant. “Explain the mystery which seems likely to undo me. Why do you sit there bowed under my accusations? Why should Henry Packard’s wife cry for mercy, to any man? Because those damnable accusations are true? Because you have a secret in your past and this man knows it?”
Slowly she rose, slowly she met his eyes, and even he started back at her pallor and the drawn misery in her face. But she did not speak. Instead of that she simply reached out and laid her hand on Mr. Steele’s arm, drooping almost to the ground as she did so. “Mercy!” she suddenly wailed, but this time to the man who had so relentlessly accused her. The effect was appalling. The mayor reeled, then sprang forward with his hand outstretched for his secretary’s throat. But his words were for his wife. “What does this mean? Why do you take your stand by the side of another man than myself? What have I done or what have you done that I should live to face such an abomination as this?”
It was Steele who answered, with a lift of his head as full of assertion as it was of triumph.
“You? nothing; she? everything. You do not know this woman, Mayor Packard; for instance, you do not know her name.”
“Not know her name? My wife’s?”
“Not in the least. This lady’s name is Brainard. So is mine. Though she has lived with you several years in ignorance of my continued existence, no doubt, she is my wife and not yours. We were married in Boone, Minnesota, six years ago.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55