I bent to lift the prostrate form of the unhappy woman who had been placed in my care. As I did so I heard something like a snarl over my shoulder, and, turning, saw Nixon stretching eager arms toward his mistress, whose fall he had doubtless heard.
“Let me! let me!” he cried, his old form trembling almost to the point of incapacity.
“We will lift her together,” I rejoined; and though his eyes sparkled irefully, he accepted my help and together we carried her into her own room and laid her on a lounge. I have had some training as a nurse and, perceiving that Mrs. Packard had simply fainted, I was not at all alarmed, but simply made an effort to restore her with a calmness that for some reason greatly irritated the old man.
“Shall I call Ellen? Shall I call Letty?” he kept crying, shifting from one foot to another in a frightened and fussy way that exasperated me almost beyond endurance. “She doesn’t breathe; she is white, white! Oh, what will the mayor say? I will call Letty.”
But I managed to keep him under control and finally succeeded in restoring Mrs. Packard — a double task demanding not a little self-control and discretion. When the flutter of her eyelids showed that she would soon be conscious, I pointed out these signs of life to my uneasy companion and hinted very broadly that the fewer people Mrs. Packard found about her on coming to herself, the better she would be pleased. His aspect grew quite ferocious at this, and for a moment I almost feared him; but as I continued to urge the necessity of avoiding any fresh cause of agitation in one so weak, he gradually shrank back from my side where he had kept a jealous watch until now, and reluctantly withdrew into the hall.
Another moment and Mrs. Packard had started to rise; but, on seeing me and me only standing before her, she fell wearily back, crying in a subdued way, which nevertheless was very intense:
“Don’t, don’t let him come in — see me — or know. I must be by myself; I must be! Don’t you see that I am frightened?”
The words came out with such force I was startled. Leaning over her, with the natural sympathy her condition called for, I asked quietly but firmly:
“Whom do you mean by him? There is only one person in the hall, and that is your butler.”
“Hasn’t Mr. Packard returned?”
“But I thought I saw him looking at me.”
Her eyes were wild, her body shaking with irrepressible agitation.
“You were mistaken. Mayor Packard has not yet come home.”
At this double assurance, she sank back satisfied, but still trembling and very white.
“It is Mr. Packard I meant,” she whispered presently. “Stay with me and, when he comes in, tell him what will keep him from looking in or speaking to me. Promise!” She was growing wild again. “Promise, if you would be of any use to me.”
“I do promise.” At which I felt her hand grasp mine with grateful pressure. “Don’t you wish some assistance from me? Your dress — I tried to loosen it, but failed to find the end of the cord. Shall I try again?”
“No, no; that is, I will do it myself.”
I did not see how she could, for her waist was laced up the back, but I saw that she was too eager to have me go to remember this, and recognizing the undesirability of irritating her afresh, I simply asked if she wished me to remain within call.
But even this was more than she wanted.
“No. I am better now. I shall be better yet when quite alone.” Then suddenly: “Who knows of this — this folly of mine?”
“Only Nixon and myself. The girls have gone to bed.”
“Nixon I can trust not to speak of it. Tell him to go. You, I know, will remember only long enough to do for me what I have just asked.”
“Mrs. Packard, you may trust me.” The earnest, confiding look, which for a moment disturbed the melancholy of her large eyes, touched me closely as I shut the door between us.
“Now what is the meaning of this mystery?” I asked myself after I had seen Nixon go downstairs, shaking his head and casting every now and then a suspicious glance behind him. “It is not as trivial as it appears. That laugh was tragedy to her, not comedy.” And when I paused to recollect its tone I did not wonder at its effect upon her mind, strained as it undoubtedly was by some secret sorrow or perplexity.
And from whose lips had that laugh sprung? Not from ghostly ones. Such an explanation I could not accept, and how could Mrs. Packard? From whose, then? If I could settle this fact I might perhaps determine to what extent its effect was dependent upon its source. The butler denied having even heard it. Was this to be believed? Did not this very denial prove that it was he and no other who had thus shocked the proprieties of this orderly household? It certainly seemed so; yet where all was strange, this strange and incomprehensible denial of a self-evident fact by the vindictive Nixon might have its source in some motive unsuggested by the circumstances. Certainly, Nixon’s mistress appeared to have a great deal of confidence in him.
I wished that more had been told me about the handsome secretary. I wished that fate would give me another opportunity for seeing that gentleman and putting the same direct question to him I had put to Nixon.
Scarcely had this thought crossed my mind before a loud ring at the telephone disturbed the quiet below and I heard the secretary’s voice in reply. A minute after he appeared at the foot of the stairs. His aspect was one of embarrassment, and he peered aloft in a hesitating way, as if he hardly knew how to proceed.
Taking advantage of this hesitation, I ran softly down to meet him.
“Any message for Mrs. Packard?” I asked.
He looked relieved.
“Yes, from his Honor. The mayor is unavoidably detained and may not be home till morning.”
“I will tell her.” Then, as he reached for his overcoat, I risked all on one venture, and enlarging a little on the facts, said:
“Excuse me, but was it you we heard laughing down-stairs a few minutes ago? Mrs. Packard feared it might be some follower of the girls’.”
Pausing in the act of putting on his coat, he met my look with an air of some surprise.
“I am not given to laughing,” he remarked; “certainly not when alone.”
“But you heard this laugh?”
He shook his head. His manner was perfectly courteous, almost cordial.
“If I did, it made no impression on my mind. I am extremely busy just now, working up the mayor’s next speech.” And with a smile and bow in every way suited to his fine appearance, he took his hat from the rack and left the house.
I drew back more mystified than ever. Which of these two men had told me a lie? One, both, or neither? Impossible to determine. As I try never to waste gray matter, I resolved to spend no further energy on this question, but simply to await the next development.
It came unexpectedly and was of an entirely different nature from any I had anticipated.
I had not retired, not knowing at what moment the mayor might return or what I might be called upon to do when he did. It will be remembered that one of my windows looked out upon the next house. I approached it to see if my ever watchful neighbors had retired. Their window was dark, but I observed what was of much more vital interest to me at that moment. It was that I was not the only one awake and stirring in our house. The light from a room diagonally below me poured in a stream on the opposite wall, and it took but a moment’s consideration for me to decide that the shadow I saw crossing and recrossing this brilliant square was cast by Mrs. Packard.
My first impulse was to draw back —(that was the lady’s impulse not quite crushed out of me by the occupation circumstances had compelled me to take up)— my next, to put out my own light and seat myself at the post of observation thus afforded me. The excuse I gave myself for this was plausible enough. Mrs. Packard had been placed in my charge and, if all was not right with her, it was my business to know it.
Accordingly I sat and watched each movement of my mysterious charge as it was outlined on the telltale wall before me, and saw enough in one half-hour to convince me that something very vigorous and purposeful was going on in the room so determinedly closed against every one, even her own husband.
The moving silhouette of her figure, which was all that I could see, was not perfect enough in detail for me to determine. She was busy at some occupation which took her from one end of the room to the other; but after watching her shadow for an hour I was no surer than at first as to what that occupation was. It was a serious one, I saw, and now and then the movements I watched gave evidence of frantic haste, but their character stood unrevealed till suddenly the thought came:
“She is rummaging bureau-drawers and emptying boxes — in other words, packing a bag or trunk.”
Should I be witness to a flight? I thought it very likely, especially when I heard the faint sound of a door opening below, followed by the swish of silken skirts. I recalled Mayor Packard’s fears and began to suspect that they were not groundless.
This called for action, and I was about to open my door and rush out when I was deterred by the surprising discovery that the steps I heard were coming up rather than going down, and that in another moment she would be in the hall outside, possibly on her way to the nursery, possibly with the intention of coming to my own room.
Greatly taken aback, I stood with my ear to the door, listening intently. Yes, she has reached the top of the stairs and is stopping no, she passes the nursery door, she is coming my way. What shall I say to her — how account for my comfortable wrapper and the fact that I have not yet been abed? Had I but locked my door! Could I but lock it now, unseen and unheard before the nearing step should pause! But the very attempt were folly; no, I must stand my ground and — Ah! the step has paused, but not at my door. There is a third one on this hall, communicating, as I knew, with a covered staircase leading to the attic. It was at this she stopped and it was up this staircase she went as warily and softly as its creaking boards would allow; and while I marveled as to what had taken her aloft so late, I heard her steps over my head and knew that she had entered the room directly above mine.
Striking a match, I consulted my watch. It was just ten minutes to three. Hardly knowing what my duty was in the circumstances, I blew out the match and stood listening while the woman who was such a mystery to all her friends moved about overhead in much the same quick and purposeful way as had put life into her shadow while she was in her own room.
“Packing! Nothing less and nothing more,” was my now definite decision. “That is a trunk she is dragging forward. What a hurry she is in, and how little she cares whether anybody hears her!”
So little did she care that during the next few minutes of acute attention I distinguished the flinging down of article after article on to the floor, as well as many other movements betraying haste or irritation.
Suddenly I heard her give a bound, then the sound of a heavy lid falling and then, after a minute or two of complete silence, the soft pat-pat of her slippered feet descending the stair.
Waiting till she was well down the second flight, I pushed my door ajar and, flying down the hall, peered over the balustrade in time to see her entering her room. She held a lighted candle in her hand and by its small flame I caught a full glimpse of her figure. To my astonishment and even to my dismay she was still in the gown she had refused to have me unlace — a rich yellow satin in which she must have shone resplendent a few hours before. She had not even removed the jewels from her neck. Whatever had occupied her, whatever had taken her hither and thither through the house, moving furniture out of her way, lifting heavy boxes, opening dust-covered trunks, had been of such moment to her as to make her entirely oblivious of the rich and delicate apparel she thus wantonly sacrificed. But it was not this alone which attracted my attention. In her hand she held a paper, and the sight of that paper and the way she clutched it rather disturbed my late conclusions. Had her errand been one of search rather than of arrangement? and was this crumpled letter the sole result of a half-hour’s ransacking in an attic room at the dead of night? I was fain to think so, for in the course of another half-hour her light went out. Relieved that she had not left the house, I was still anxious as to the cause of her strange conduct.
Mayor Packard did not come in till daybreak. He found me waiting for him in the lower hall.
“Well?” he eagerly inquired.
“Mrs. Packard is asleep, I hope. A shrill laugh, ringing through the house shortly after her return, gave her a nervous shock and she begged that she might be left undisturbed till morning.”
He turned from hanging up his overcoat, and gave me a short stare.
“A laugh!” he repeated. “Who could have laughed like that? We are not a very jolly crowd here.”
“I don’t know, sir. I thought it must have been either Mr. Steele or Nixon, the butler, but each denied it. There was no one else in this part of the house.”
“Mrs. Packard is very sensitive just now,” he remarked. Then as he turned away toward the library door: “I will throw myself on a lounge. I have but an hour or two before me, as I have my preparations to make for leaving town on the early morning train. I shall have some final instructions to give you.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50