We did not laugh; we did not even question her sanity; at least I did not; there was too much meaning in her manner.
“A specter,” her husband repeated with a suggestive glance at the brilliant sunshine in which we all stood.
“Yes.” The tone was one of utter conviction. “I had never believed in such things — never thought about them, but — it was a week ago — in the library — I have not seen a happy moment since —”
“Yes, yes, I know; but imagine! I was sitting reading. I had just come from the nursery, and the memory of Laura’s good-night kiss was more in my mind than the story I was finishing when — oh, I can not think of it without a shudder! — the page before me seemed to recede and the words fade away in a blue mist; glancing up I beheld the outlines of a form between me and the lamp, which a moment before had been burning brightly. Outlines, Henry — I was conscious of no substance, and the eyes which met mine from that shadowy, blood-curdling Something were those of the grave and meant a grave for you or for me. Oh, I know what I say! There was no mistaking their look. As it burned into and through me, everything which had given reality to my life faded and seemed as far away and as unsubstantial as a dream. Nor has its power over me gone yet. I go about amongst you, I eat, I sleep, or try to; I greet men, talk with women, but it is all unreal, all phantasmagoric, even yourself and your love and, O God, my baby! What is real and distinctive, an absolute part of me and my life, is that shape from the dead, with its threatening eyes which pierce — pierce —”
She was losing her self-control. Her husband, with a soothing touch on her arm, brought her back to the present.
“You speak of a form,” he said, “a shadowy outline. The form of what? A man or a woman?”
“A man! a man!” With the exclamation she seemed to shrink into herself and her eyes, just now deprecating and appealing, took on a hollow stare, as if the vision she described had risen again before her.
In spite of himself and the sympathy he undoubtedly felt for her, an ejaculation of impatience left her husband’s lips. Obligations very far removed from the fantasies of a disturbed mind made these unsubstantial fears of hers seem puerile enough to this virile, outspoken man. No doubt she heard it, and to stop the matter-of-fact protest on his lips added quickly:
“Not the form, face and eyes of a man, as they usually appear. Hell was in his gaze and the message he gave, if it was a message, was one of disaster, if not death. Do you wonder that my happiness vanished before it? That I can not be myself since that dreadful day?”
The mayor was a practical man; he kept close to the subject.
“You saw this form between you and the lighted lamp. How long did it stay there and what became of it?”
“I can not tell you. One moment it was there and the next it was gone, and I found myself staring into vacancy. I seem to be staring there still, waiting for the blow destined to shatter this household.”
“Nonsense! give me a kiss and fix your thoughts on something more substantial. What we have to fear and all we have to fear is that I may lose my election. And that won’t kill me, whatever effect it may have on the party.”
“Henry,”— her voice had changed to one more natural, also her manner. The confidence expressed in this outburst, the vitality, the masculine attitude he took were producing their effect. “You don’t believe in what I saw or in my fears. Perhaps you are right. I am ready to acknowledge this; I will try to look upon it all as a freak of my imagination if you will promise to forget these dreadful days, and if people, other people, will leave me alone and not print such things about me.”
“I am ready to do my part,” was his glad reply, “and as for the other people you mention, we shall soon bring them to book.” Raising his voice, he called out his secretary’s name. As it rang loud and cheery down the hall, the joy and renewed life which had been visible in her manner lost some of their brightness.
“What are you going to do?” she gasped, with the quickness of doubt and strong if reasonless apprehension. “Give an order,” he explained; then, as the secretary appeared at our end of the hall, he held out the journal which he had taken from his wife and indicating the offensive paragraph, said:
“Find out who did that.”
Mr. Steele with a surprised look ran his eyes over the paragraph, knitting his brows as he did.
“It is calumny,” fell from Mrs. Packard’s lips as she watched him.
“Most certainly,” he assented, with an energy which brought a flush of pleasure to the humiliated woman’s cheek. “It will detain me two days or more to follow up this matter,” he remarked, with a look of inquiry directed at Mayor Packard.
“Never mind. Two days or a week, it is all one. I would rather lose votes than pass over such an insult. Pin me down the man who has dared attack me through my wife, and you will do me the greatest favor one man can show another.”
Mr. Steele bowed. “I can not forego the final consultation we had planned to hold on the train. May I ride down with you to the station?”
“Certainly; most happy.”
Mr. Steele withdrew, after casting a glance of entirely respectful sympathy at the woman who up to this hour had faced the world without a shadow between her and it; and, marking the lingering nature of the look with which the mayor now turned on his wife, I followed the secretary’s example and left them to enjoy their few last words alone.
Verily the pendulum of events swung wide and fast in this house.
This conclusion was brought back to me with fresh insistence a few minutes later, when, on hearing the front door shut, I stepped to the balustrade and looked over to see if Mrs. Packard was coming up. She was not, for I saw her go into the library; but plainly on the marble pavement below, just where we had all been standing, in fact, I perceived the piece of paper she had brought with her from the dining-room and had doubtless dropped in the course of the foregoing conversation.
Running down in great haste, I picked it up. This scrap of I knew not what, but which had been the occasion of the enigmatic scene I had witnessed at the breakfast-table, necessarily interested me very much and I could not help giving it a look. I saw that it was inscribed with Hebraic-looking characters as unlike as possible to the scrawl of a little child.
With no means of knowing whether they were legible or not, these characters made a surprising impression upon me, one, indeed, that was almost photographic.
I also noted that these shapes or characters, of which there were just seven, were written on the face of an empty envelope. This decided any doubts I may have had as to its identity with the paper she had brought down from the attic. That had been a square sheet, which even if folded would fail to enter this long and narrow envelope. The interest which I had felt when I thought the two identical was a false interest. Yet I could not but believe that this scrap had a value of its own equal to the one with which, under this misapprehension, I had invested it.
Carrying it back to Mrs. Packard, I handed it over with the remark that I had found it lying in the hall. She cast a quick look at it, gave me another look and tossed the paper into the grate. As it caught fire and flared up, the characters started vividly into view.
This second glimpse of them, added to the one already given me, fixed the whole indelibly in my mind. This is the way they looked.
; V; ;.>; V; [-]; <;
While I watched these cabalistic marks pass from red to black and finally vanish in a wild leap up the chimney, Mrs. Packard remarked:
“I wish I could destroy the memory of all my mistakes as completely as I can that old envelope.”
I did not answer; I was watching the weary droop of her hand over the arm of her chair.
“You are tired, Mrs. Packard,” was my sympathetic observation. “Will you not take a nap? I will gladly sit by you and read you to sleep.”
“No, no,” she cried, at once alert and active; “no sleep. Look at that pile of correspondence, half of it on charitable matters. Now that I feel better, now that I have relieved my mind, I must look over my letters and try to take up the old threads again.”
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Possibly. If you will go to my room up-stairs, I will join you after I have sorted and read my mail.”
I was glad to obey this order. I had a curiosity about her room. It had been the scene of much I did not understand the night before. Should I find any traces there of that search which had finally ended over my head in the attic?
I was met at the door by Ellen. She wore a look of dismay which I felt fully accounted for when I looked inside. Disorder reigned from one end of the room to the other, transcending any picture I may have formed in my own mind concerning its probable condition. Mrs. Packard must have forgotten all this disarray, or at least had supposed it to have yielded to the efforts of the maid, when she proposed my awaiting her there. There were bureau-drawers with their contents half on the floor, boxes with their covers off, cupboard-doors ajar and even the closet shelves showing every mark of a frenzied search among them. Her rich gown, soiled to the width of half a foot around the bottom, lay with cut laces and its trimmings in rags under a chair which had been knocked over and left where it fell. Even her jewels had not been put away, but lay scattered on the dresser. Ellen looked ashamed and, when I retired to the one bare place I saw in the bay of the window, muttered as she plunged to lift one of the great boxes:
“It’s as bad as the attic room up-stairs. All the trunks have been emptied on to the floor and one held her best summer dresses. What shall I do? I have a whole morning’s work before me.”
“Let me help you,” I proposed, rising with sudden alacrity. My eyes had just fallen on a small desk at my right, also on the floor beneath and around it. Here, there and everywhere above and below lay scraps of torn-up paper; and on many, if not on all of them, could be seen the broken squares and inverted angles which had marked so curiously the surface of the envelope she had handed to Mr. Steele, and which I had afterward seen her burn.
“A baby can make a deal of mess,” I remarked, hurriedly collecting these scraps and making a motion of throwing them into the waste-paper basket, but hiding them in my blouse instead.
“The baby! Oh, the baby never did that. She’s too young.”
“Oh, I didn’t know. I haven’t seen much of the child though I heard her cry once in the nursery. How old is she?”
“Twenty months and such a darling! You never saw such curls or such eyes. Why, look at this!”
“What?” I demanded, hurrying to the closet, where Ellen stood bending over something invisible to me. “Oh, nothing,” she answered, coming quickly out. But in another moment, her tongue getting the better of her discretion, she blurted out: “Do you suppose Mrs. Packard had any idea of going with the mayor? Her bag is in there almost packed. I was wondering where all her toilet articles were. That accounts —” Stopping, she cast a glance around the room, ending with a shake of the head and a shrug. “She needn’t have pulled out all her things,” she sharply complained. “Certain, she is a mysterious lady; — as queer as she is kind.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55