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The Mayor is running for Governor and his wife is troubled about something but he doesn't know what. He hires a companion for her, and asks the companion to help him get to the bottom of it.
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The Mayor's Wife
Anna Katharine Green
A SPY'S DUTY
I am not without self-control, yet when Miss Davies entered the room with that air of importance she invariably assumes when she has an unusually fine position to offer, I could not hide all traces of my anxiety.
I needed a position, needed it badly, while the others--
But her eyes are on our faces, she is scanning us all with that close and calculating gaze which lets nothing escape. She has passed me by--my heart goes down, down--when suddenly her look returns and she singles me out.
"Miss Saunders." Then, "I have a word to say to you"
There is a rustle about me; five disappointed girls sink back into their seats as I quickly rise and follow Miss Davies out.
In the hall she faced me with these words:
"You are discreet, and you evidently desire a position. You will find a gentleman in my sitting-room. If you come to terms with him, well and good. If not, I shall expect you to forget all about him and his errand the moment you leave his presence. You understand me?"
"I think so," I replied, meeting her steady look with one equally composed. Part of my strength--and I think I have some strength --lies in the fact that I am quietest when most deeply roused. "I am not to talk whatever the outcome."
"Not even to me," she emphasized.
Stirred still further and therefore outwardly even more calm than before, I stopped her as she was moving on and ventured a single query.
"This position--involving secrecy--is it one you would advise me to take, even if I did not stand in need of it so badly?"
"Yes. The difficulties will not be great to a discreet person. It is a first-class opportunity for a young woman as experienced as yourself."
"Thank you," was my abrupt but grateful rejoinder; and, obeying her silent gesture, I opened the door of the sitting-room and passed in. A gentleman standing at one of the windows turned quickly at the sound of my step and came forward. Instantly whatever doubt I may have felt concerning the nature of the work about to be proposed to me yielded to the certainty that, however much it might involve of the strange and difficult, the man whose mission it was to seek my aid was one to inspire confidence and respect.
He was also a handsome man, or no, I will not go so far as that; he was only one in whom the lines of form and visage were fine enough not to interfere with the impression made by his strong nature and intense vitality. A man to sway women and also quite capable of moving men (this was evident at a glance); but a man under a cloud just at present,--a very heavy cloud which both irked and perplexed him.
Pausing in the middle of the room, he surveyed me closely for an instant before speaking. Did I impress him as favorably as he did me? I soon had reason to think so, for the nervous trembling of his hands ceased after the first moment or two of silent scrutiny, and I was sure I caught the note of hope in his voice as he courteously remarked:
"You are seeking a place, young lady. Do you think you can fill the one I have to offer? It has its difficulties, but it is not an onerous one. It is that of companion to my wife."
I bowed; possibly I smiled. I do smile sometimes when a ray of real sunshine darts across my pathway.
"I should be very glad to try such a situation," I replied.
A look of relief, so vivid that it startled me, altered at once the whole character of his countenance; and perceiving how intense was the power and fascination underlying his quiet exterior, I asked myself who and what this man was; no ordinary personage, I was sure, but who? Had Miss Davies purposely withheld his name? I began to think so.
"I have had some experience," I was proceeding--
But he waved this consideration aside, with a change back to his former gloomy aspect, and a careful glance at the door which did not escape me.
"It is not experience which is so much needed as discretion."
Again that word.
"The case is not a common one, or, rather,"--he caught himself up quickly, "the circumstances are not. My wife is well, but--she is not happy. She is very unhappy, deeply, unaccountably so, and I do not know why."
Anxious to watch the effect of these words, he paused a moment, then added fervently:
"Would to God I did! It would make a new man of me."
The meaning, the deep meaning in his tone, if not in the adjuration itself, was undeniable; but my old habit of self-control stood me in good stead and I remained silent and watchful, weighing every look and word.
"A week ago she was the lightest hearted woman in town,--the happiest wife, the merriest mother. To-day she is a mere wreck of her former self, pallid, drawn, almost speechless, yet she is not ill. She will not acknowledge to an ache or a pain; will not even admit that any change has taken place in her. But you have only to see her. And I am as ignorant of the cause of it all--as you are!" he burst out.
Still I remained silent, waiting, watchful.
"I have talked with her physician. He says there is something serious the matter with her, but he can not help her, as it is not in any respect physical, and advises me to find out what is on her mind. As if that had not been my first care! I have also consulted her most intimate friends all who know her well, but they can give me no clue to her distress. They see the difference in her, but can not tell the cause. And I am obliged to go away and leave her in this state. For two weeks, three weeks now, my movements will be very uncertain. I am at the beck and call of the State Committee. At any other time I would try change of scene, but she will neither consent to leave home without me nor to interrupt my plans in order that I may accompany her."
"Miss Davies has not told me your name," I made bold to interpolate.
He stared, shook himself together, and quietly, remarked:
"I am Henry Packard."
The city's mayor! and not only that, the running candidate for governor. I knew him well by name, even if I did not know, or rather had not recognized his face.
"I beg pardon," I somewhat tremulously began, but he waved the coming apology aside as easily, as he had my first attempt at ingratiation. In fact, he appeared to be impatient of every unnecessary word. This I could, in a dim sort of way, understand. He was at the crisis of his fate, and so was his party. For several years a struggle had gone on between the two nearly matched elements in this western city, which, so far, had resulted in securing him two terms of office--possibly because his character appealed to men of all grades and varying convictions. But the opposite party was strong in the state, and the question whether he could carry his ticket against such odds, and thus give hope to his party in the coming presidential election, was one yet to be tested. Forceful as a speaker, he was expected to reap hundreds of votes from the mixed elements that invariably thronged to hear him, and, ignorant as I necessarily was of the exigencies of such a campaign, I knew that not only his own ambition, but the hopes of his party, depended on the speeches he had been booked to make in all parts of the state. And now, three weeks before election, while every opposing force was coming to the surface, this trouble had come upon him. A mystery in his home and threatened death in his heart! For he loved his wife--that was apparent to me from the first; loved her to idolatry, as such men sometimes do love,-- often to their own undoing.
All this, the thought of an instant. Meanwhile he had been studying me well.
"You understand my position," he commented. "Wednesday night I speak in C---, Thursday, in R---, while she--" With an effort he pulled himself together. "Miss--"
"Saunders," I put in.
"Miss Saunders, I can not leave her alone in the house. Some one must be there to guard and watch--"
"Has she no mother?" I suggested in the pause he made.
"She has no living relatives, and mine are uncongenial to her."
This to save another question. I understood him perfectly.
"I can not ask any of them to stay with her," he pursued decisively. "She would not consent to it. Nor can I ask any of her friends. That she does not wish, either. But I can hire a companion. To that she has already consented. That she will regard as a kindness, if the lady chosen should prove to be one of those rare beings who carry comfort in their looks without obtruding their services or displaying the extent of their interest. You know there are some situations in which the presence of a stranger may be more grateful than that of a friend. Apparently, my wife feels herself so placed now."
Here his eyes again read my face, an ordeal out of which I came triumphant; the satisfaction he evinced rightly indicated his mind.
"Will you accept the position?" he asked. "We have one little child. You will have no charge of her save as you may wish to make use of her in reaching the mother."
The hint conveyed in the last phrase gave me courage to say:
"You wish me to reach her?"
"With comfort," said he.
"And if in doing so I learn her trouble?"
"You will win my eternal gratitude by telling it to one who would give ten years of his life to assuage it."
My head rose. I began to feel that my next step must strike solid ground.
"In other words to be quite honest--you wish me to learn her trouble if I can"
"I believe you can be trusted to do so."
"And then to reveal it to you?"
"If your sense of duty permits,--which I think it will."
I might have uttered in reply, "A spy's duty?" but the high- mindedness of his look forbade. Whatever humiliation his wishes put upon me, there could be no question of the uprightness of his motives regarding his wife.
I ventured one more question.
"How far shall I feel myself at liberty to go in this attempt?"
"As far as your judgment approves and circumstances seem to warrant. I know that you will come upon nothing dishonorable to her, or detrimental to our relations as husband and wife, in this secret which is destroying our happiness. Her affection for me is undoubted, but something--God knows what--has laid waste her life. To find and annihilate that something is my first and foremost duty. It does not fit well with those other duties pressing upon me from the political field, does it? That is why I have called in help. That is why I have called you in."
The emphasis was delicately but sincerely given. It struck my heart and entered it. Perhaps he had calculated upon this. If so, it was because he knew that a woman like myself works better when her feelings are roused.
Answering with a smile, I waited patiently while he talked terms and other equally necessary details, then dropping all these considerations, somewhat in his own grand manner, I made this remark:
"If your wife likes me, which very possibly she may fail to do, I shall have a few questions to ask you before I settle down to my duties. Will you see that an opportunity is given me for doing this?"
His assent was as frank as all the rest, and the next moment he left the room.
As he passed out I heard him remark to Miss Davies:
"I expect Miss Saunders at my house before nightfall. I shall reserve some minutes between half-past five and six in which to introduce her to Mrs. Packard."
I knew all the current gossip about Mrs. Packard before I had parted with Miss Davies. Her story was a simple one. Bred in the West, she had come, immediately after her mother's death, to live with that mother's brother in Detroit. In doing this she had walked into a fortune. Her uncle was a rich man and when he died, which was about a year after her marriage with Mr. Packard and removal to C--, she found herself the recipient of an enormous legacy. She was therefore a woman of independent means, an advantage which, added to personal attractions of a high order, and manners at once dignified and winning, caused her to be universally regarded as a woman greatly to be envied by all who appreciated a well-founded popularity.
So much for public opinion. It differs materially from that just given me by her husband.
The mayor lived on Franklin Street in a quarter I had seldom visited. As I entered this once aristocratic thoroughfare from Carlton Avenue, I was struck as I had been before by its heterogeneous appearance. Houses of strictly modern type neighbored those of a former period, and it was not uncommon to see mansion and hovel confronting each other from the opposite side of the street. Should I find the number I sought attached to one of the crude, unmeaning dwellings I was constantly passing, or to one of mellower aspect and possibly historic association?
I own that I felt a decided curiosity on this point, and congratulated myself greatly when I had left behind me a peculiarly obnoxious monstrosity in stone, whose imposing proportions might reasonably commend themselves to the necessities, if not to the taste of the city's mayor.
A little shop, one story in height and old enough for its simple wooden walls to cry aloud for paint, stood out from the middle of a row of cheap brick houses. Directly opposite it were two conspicuous dwellings, neither of them new and one of them ancient as the street itself. They stood fairly close together, with an alley running between. From the number I had now reached it was evident that the mayor lived in one of these. Happily it was in the fresher and more inviting one. As I noted this, I paused in admiration of its spacious front and imposing doorway. The latter was in the best style of Colonial architecture, and though raised but one step from the walk, was so distinguished by the fan-tailed light overhead and the flanking casements glazed with antique glass, that I felt myself carried back to the days when such domiciles were few and denoted wealth the most solid, and hospitality the most generous.
A light wall, painted to match the house, extended without break to the adjoining building, a structure equal to the other in age and dimensions, but differing in all other respects as much as neglect and misuse could make it. Gray and forbidding, it towered in its place, a perfect foil to the attractive dwelling whose single step I now amounted with cheerful composure.
What should I have thought if at that moment I had been told that appearances were deceitful, and that there were many persons then living who, if left to their choice, would prefer life in the dismal walls from which I had instinctively turned, to a single night spent in the promising house I was so eager to enter.
An old serving-man, with a countenance which struck me pleasantly enough at the time, opened the door in response to my ring, only to make instant way for Mayor Packard, who advanced from some near-by room to greet me. By this thoughtful attention I was spared the embarrassment from which I might otherwise have suffered.
His few words of greeting set me entirely at my ease, and I was quite ready to follow him when a moment later he invited me to meet Mrs. Packard.
"I can not promise you just the reception you naturally look for," said he, as he led me around the stairs toward an opening at their rear, "but she's a kind woman and can not but be struck with your own kind spirit and quiet manner."
Happily, I was not called upon to answer, for at that moment the door swung open and he ushered me into a room flooded brilliantly with the last rays of the setting sun. The woman who sat in its glow made an instant and permanent impression upon me. No one could look intently upon her without feeling that here was a woman of individuality and power, overshadowed at present by the deepest melancholy. As she rose and faced us I decided instantly that her husband had not exaggerated her state of mind. Emotion of no ordinary nature disturbed the lines of her countenance and robbed her naturally fine figure of a goodly portion of its dignity and grace; and though she immediately controlled herself and assumed the imposing aspect of a highly trained woman, ready, if not eager, to welcome an intruding guest, I could not easily forget the drawn look about mouth and eyes which, in the first instant of our meeting, had distorted features naturally harmonious and beautifully serene.
I am sure her husband had observed it also, for his voice trembled slightly as he addressed her.
"I have brought you a companion, Olympia, one whose business and pleasure it will be to remain with you while I am making speeches a hundred miles away. Do you not see reason for thanking me?" This last question he pointed with a glance in my direction, which drew her attention and caused her to give me a kindly look.
I met her eyes fairly. They were large and gray and meant for smiling; eyes that, with a happy heart behind them, would illumine her own beauty and create joy in those upon whom they fell. But to-day, nothing but question lived in their dark and uneasy depths, and it was for me to face that question and give no sign of what the moment was to me.
"I think--I am sure, that my thanks are due you," she courteously replied, with a quick turn toward her husband, expressive of confidence, and, as I thought, of love. "I dreaded being left alone."
He drew a deep breath of relief; we both did; then we talked a little, after which Mayor Packard found some excuse for taking me from the room.
"Now for the few words you requested," said he; and, preceding me down the hall, he led me into what he called his study.
I noted one thing, and only one thing, on entering this place. That was the presence of a young man who sat at a distant table reading and making notes. But as Mayor Packard took no notice of him, knowing and expecting him to be there, no doubt, I, with a pardonable confusion, withdrew my eyes from the handsomest face I had ever seen, and, noting that my employer had stopped before a type-writer's table, I took my place at his side, without knowing very well what this move meant or what he expected me to do there.
I was not long left in doubt. With a gesture toward the type-writer, he asked me if I was accustomed to its use; and when I acknowledged some sort of acquaintance with it, he drew an unanswered letter from a pile on the table and requested me to copy it as a sample.
I immediately sat down before the type-writer. I was in something of a maze, but felt that I must follow his lead. As I proceeded to insert the paper and lay out the copy to hand, he crossed over to the young man at the other end of the room and began a short conversation which ended in some trivial demand that sent the young man from the room. As the door closed behind him Mayor Packard returned to my side.
"Keep on with your work and never mind mistakes," said he. "What I want is to hear the questions you told me to expect from you if you stayed."
Seemingly Mayor Packard did not wish this young man to know my position in the house. Was it possible he did not wholly trust him? My hands trembled from the machine and I was about to turn and give my full thought to what I had to say. But pride checked the impulse. "No," I muttered in quick dissuasion, to myself. "He must see that I can do two things at once and do both well." And so I went on with the letter.
"When," I asked, "did you first see the change in Mrs. Packard?"
"On Tuesday afternoon at about this time."
"What had happened on that day? Had she been out?"
"Yes, I think she told me later that she had been out."
"Do you know where?"
"To some concert, I believe. I did not press her with questions, Miss Saunders; I am a poor inquisitor."
Click, click; the machine was working admirably.
"Have you reason to think," I now demanded, "that she brought her unhappiness in with her, when she returned from that concert?"
"No; for when I returned home myself, as I slid earlier than usual that night, I heard her laughing with the child in the nursery. It was afterward, some few minutes afterward, that I came upon her sitting in such a daze of misery, that she did not recognize me when I spoke to her. I thought it was a passing mood at the time; she is a sensitive woman and she had been reading--I saw the book lying on the floor at her side; but when, having recovered from her dejection--a dejection, mind you, which she would' neither acknowledge nor explain--she accompanied me out to dinner, she showed even more feeling on our return, shrinking unaccountably, from leaving the carriage and showing, not only in this way but in others, a very evident distaste to reenter her own house. Now, whatever hold I still retain upon her is of so slight a nature that I am afraid every day she will leave me."
"Leave you !"
My fingers paused; my astonishment had got the better of me.
"Yes; it is as bad as that. I don't know what day you will send me a telegram of three words, 'She has gone.' Yet she loves me, really and truly loves me. That is the mystery of it. More than this, her very heart-strings are knit up with those of our child."
"Mayor Packard,"--I had resumed work,--"was any letter delivered to her that day?"
"That I can not say."
Fact one for me to establish.
"The wives of men like you--men much before the world, men in the thick of strife, social and political--often receive letters of a very threatening character."
"She would have shown me any such, if only to put me on my guard. She is physically a very, brave woman and not at all nervous."
"Those letters sometimes assume the shape of calumny. Your character may have been attacked."
"She believes in my character and would have given me an opportunity to vindicate myself. I have every confidence in my wife's sense of justice."
I experienced a thrill of admiration for the appreciation he evinced in those words. Yet I pursued the subject resolutely.
"Have you an enemy, Mayor Packard? Any real and downright enemy capable of a deep and serious attempt at destroying your happiness?"
"None that I know of, Miss Saunders. I have political enemies, of course men, who, influenced by party feeling, are not above attacking methods and possibly my official reputation; but personal ones--wretches willing to stab me in my home-life and affections, that I can not believe. My life has been as an open book. I have harmed no man knowingly and, as far as I know, no man has ever cherished a wish to injure me."
"Who constitute your household? How many servants do you keep and how long have they been with you?"
"Now you exact details with which only Mrs. Packard is conversant. I don't know anything about the servants. I do not interest myself much in matters purely domestic, and Mrs. Packard spares me. You will have to observe the servants yourself."
I made another note in my mind while inquiring:
"Who is the young man who was here just now? He has an uncommon face."
"A handsome one, do you mean?"
"Yes, and--well, what I should call distinctly clever."
"He is clever. My secretary, Miss Saunders. He helps me in my increased duties; has, in a way, charge of my campaign; reads, sorts and sometimes answers my letters. Just now he is arranging my speeches--fitting them to the local requirements of the several audiences I shall be called upon to address. He knows mankind like a book. I shall never give the wrong speech to the wrong people while he is with me."
"Do you like him?--the man, I mean, not his work."
"Well-yes. He is very good company, or would have been if, in the week he has been in the house, I had been in better mood to enjoy him. He's a capital story-teller."
"He has been here a week?"
"Yes, or almost."
"Came on last Tuesday, didn't he?"
"Yes, I believe that was the day."
"No; he came early; soon after breakfast, in fact."
"Does your wife like him?"
His Honor gave a start, flushed (I can sometimes see a great deal even while very busily occupied) and answered without anger, but with a good deal of pride:
"I doubt if Mrs. Packard more than knows of his presence. She does not come to this room."
"And he does not sit at your table?"
"No; I must have some few minutes in the day free from the suggestion of politics. Mr. Steele can safely be left out of our discussion. He does not even sleep in the house."
The note I made at this was very emphatic. "You should know," said I; then quickly "Tuesday was the day Mrs. Packard first showed the change you observed in her."
"Yes, I think so; but that is a coincidence only. She takes no interest in this young man; scarcely noticed him when I introduced him; just bowed to him over her shoulder; she was fastening on our little one's cap. Usually she is extremely, courteous to strangers, but she was abstracted, positively abstracted at that moment. I wondered at it, for he usually makes a stir wherever he goes. But my wife cares little for beauty in a man; I doubt if she noticed his looks at all. She did not catch his name, I remember."
"Pardon me what is that you say?"
"She did not catch his name, for later she asked me what it was."
"Tell me about that, Mr. Packard."
"It is immaterial; but I am ready to answer all your questions. It was while we were out dining. Chance threw us together, and to fill up the moment she asked the name of the young man I had brought into the library that morning. I told her and explained his position and the long training he had had in local politics. She listened, but not as closely as she did to the music. Oh, she takes no interest in him. I wish she did; his stories might amuse her."
I did not pursue the subject. Taking out the letter I had been writing, I held it out for his inspection, with the remark:
"More copy, please, Mayor Packard."
IN THE GABLE WINDOW
A few minutes later I was tripping up-stairs in the wake of a smart young maid whom Mayor Packard had addressed as Ellen. I liked this girl at first sight and, as I followed her up first one flight, then another, to the room which had been chosen for me, the hurried glimpses I had of her bright and candid face suggested that in this especial member of the household I might hope to find a friend and helper in case friendship and help were needed in the blind task to which I stood committed. But I soon saw cause--or thought I did--to change this opinion. When she turned on me at the door of my room, a small one at the extreme end of the third floor, I had an opportunity of meeting her eyes. The interest in her look was not the simple one to be expected. In another person in other circumstances I should have characterized her glance as one of inquiry and wonder. But neither inquiry nor wonder described the present situation, and I put myself upon my guard.
Seeing me look her way, she flushed, and, throwing wide the door, remarked in the pleasantest of tones:
"This is your room. Mrs. Packard says that if it is not large enough or does not seem pleasant to you, she will find you another one to-morrow."
"It's very pleasant and quite large enough," I confidently replied, after a hasty look about me. "I could not be more comfortable."
She smiled, a trifle broadly for the occasion, I thought, and patted a pillow here and twitched a curtain there, as she remarked with a certain emphasis:
"I'm sure you will be comfortable. There's nobody else on this floor but Letty and the baby, but you don't look as if you would be easily frightened." Astonished, not so much by her words as by the furtive look she gave me, I laughed as I repeated "Frightened? What should frighten me?"
"Oh, nothing." Her back was to me now, but I felt that I knew her very look. "Nothing, of course. If you're not timid you won't mind sleeping so far away from every one. Then, we are always within call. The attic door is just a few steps off. We'll leave it unlocked and you can come up if--if you feel like it at any time. We'll understand."
Understand! I eyed her as she again looked my way, with some of her own curiosity if not wonder.
"Mrs. Packard must have had some very timorous guests," I observed. "Or, perhaps, you have had experiences here which have tended to alarm you. The house is so large and imposing for the quarter it is in I can readily imagine it to attract burglars."
"Burglars! It would be a brave burglar who would try to get in here. I guess you never heard about this house."
"No," I admitted, unpleasantly divided between a wish to draw her out and the fear of betraying Mayor Packard's trust in me by showing the extent of my interest.
"Well, it's only gossip," she laughingly assured me. "You needn't think of it, Miss. I'm sure you'll be all right. We girls have been, so far, and Mrs. Packard--"
Here she doubtless heard a voice outside or some summons from below, for she made a quick start toward the door, remarking in a different and very pleasant tone of voice:
"Dinner at seven, Miss. There'll be no extra company to-night. I'm coming." This to some one in the hall as she hastily passed through the door.
Dropping the bag I had lifted to unpack, I stared at the door which had softly closed under her hand, then, with an odd impulse, turned to look at my own face in the glass before which I chanced to be standing. Did I expect to find there some evidence of the excitement which this strange conversation might naturally produce in one already keyed up to an expectation of the mysterious and unusual? If so, I was not disappointed. My features certainly betrayed the effect of this unexpected attack upon my professional equanimity. What did the girl mean? What was she hinting at? What underlay--what could underlie her surprising remark, "I guess you never heard about this house" Something worth my knowing; something which might explain Mayor Packard's fears and Mrs. Packard's--
There I stopped. It was where the girl had stopped. She and not I must round out this uncompleted sentence.
Meanwhile I occupied myself in unpacking my two bags and making acquaintance with the room which, I felt, was destined to be the scene of many, anxious thoughts. Its first effect had been a cheerful one, owing to its two large windows, one looking out on a stretch of clear sky above a mass of low, huddled buildings, and the other on the wall of the adjacent house which, though near enough to obstruct the view, was not near enough to exclude all light. Another and closer scrutiny of the room did not alter the first impression. To the advantages of light were added those of dainty furnishing and an exceptionally pleasing color scheme. There was no richness anywhere, but an attractive harmony which gave one an instantaneous feeling of home. From the little brass bedstead curtained with cretonne, to the tiny desk filled with everything needful for immediate use, I saw evidences of the most careful housekeeping, and was vainly asking myself what could have come into Mrs. Packard's life to disturb so wholesome a nature, when my attention was arrested by a picture hanging at the right of the window overlooking the next house.
It gave promise of being a most interesting sketch, and I crossed over to examine it; but instead of doing so, found my eyes drawn toward something more vital than any picture and twice as enchaining.
It was a face, the face of an old woman staring down at me from a semicircular opening in the gable of the adjoining house. An ordinary circumstance in itself, but made extraordinary by the fixity of her gaze, which was leveled straight on mine, and the uncommon expression of breathless eagerness which gave force to her otherwise commonplace features. So remarkable was this expression and so apparently was it directed against myself, that I felt like throwing up my window and asking the poor old creature what I could do for her. But her extreme immobility deterred me. For all the intentness of her look there was no invitation in it warranting such an advance on my part. She simply stared down at me in unbroken anxiety, nor, though I watched her for some minutes with an intensity equal to her own, did I detect any, change either in her attitude or expression.
"Odd," thought I, and tested her with a friendly bow. The demonstration failed to produce the least impression. "A most uncanny neighbor," was my mental comment on finally turning away. Truly I was surrounded by mysteries, but fortunately this was one with which I had no immediate concern. It did not take me long to put away my few belongings and prepare for dinner. When quite ready, I sat down to write a letter. This completed, I turned to go downstairs. But before leaving the room I cast another look up at my neighbor's attic window. The old woman was still there. As our glances met I experienced a thrill which was hardly one of sympathy, yet was not exactly one of fear. My impulse was to pull down the shade between us, but I had not the heart. She was so old, so feeble and so, evidently the prey of some strange and fixed idea. What idea? It was not for me to say, but I found it impossible to make any move which would seem to shut her out; so I left the shade up; but her image followed me and I forgot it only when confronted once again with Mrs. Packard.
That lady was awaiting me at the dining-room door. She had succeeded in throwing off her secret depression and smiled quite naturally as I approached. Her easy, courteous manners became her wonderfully. I immediately recognized how much there was to admire in our mayor's wife, and quite understood his relief when, a few minutes later, we sat at table and conversation began. Mrs. Packard, when free and light-hearted, was a delightful companion and the meal passed off cheerily. When we rose and the mayor left us for some necessary business it was with a look of satisfaction in my direction which was the best possible preparation for my approaching tete-a-tete with his moody and incomprehensible wife.
But I was not destined to undergo the contemplated ordeal this evening. Guests were announced whom Mrs. Packard kindly invited me to meet, but I begged to be allowed to enjoy the library. I had too much to consider just now, to find any pleasure in society. Three questions filled my mind.
What was Mrs. Packard's secret trouble?
Why were people afraid to remain in this houses?
Why did the old woman next door show such interest in the new member of her neighbor's household?
Would a single answer cover all? Was there but one cause for each and every one of these peculiarities? Probably, and it was my duty to ferret out this cause. But how should I begin? I remembered what I had read about detectives and their methods, but the help I thus received was small. Subtler methods were demanded here and subtler methods I must find. Meantime, I would hope for another talk with Mayor Packard. He might clear up some of this fog. At least, I should like to give him the opportunity. But I saw no way of reaching him at present. Even Mrs. Packard did not feel at liberty to disturb him in his study. I must wait for his reappearance, and in the meantime divert myself as best I could. I caught up a magazine, but speedily dropped it to cast a quick glance around the room. Had I heard anything? No. The house was perfectly still, save for the sound of conversation in the drawing-room. Yet I found it hard to keep my eyes upon the page. Quite without my, volition they flew, first to one corner, then to another. The room was light, there were no shadowy nooks in it, yet I felt an irresistible desire to peer into every place not directly under my eye. I knew it to be folly, and, after succumbing to the temptation of taking a sly look behind a certain tall screen, I resolutely set myself to curb my restlessness and to peruse in good earnest the article I had begun. To make sure of myself, I articulated each word aloud, and to my exceeding satisfaction had reached the second column when I found my voice trailing off into silence, and every sense alarmingly alert. Yet there was nothing, absolutely nothing in this well-lighted, cozy family-room to awaken fear. I was sure of this the next minute, and felt correspondingly irritated with myself and deeply humiliated. That my nerves should play me such a trick at the very outset of my business in this house! That I could not be left alone, with life in every part of the house, and the sound of the piano and cheerful talking just across the hall, without the sense of the morbid and unearthly entering my matter-of-fact brain!
Uttering an ejaculation of contempt, I reseated myself. The impulse came again to look behind me, but I mastered it this time without too great an effort. I already knew every feature of the room: its old-fashioned mantel, large round center-table, its couches and chairs, and why should I waste my attention again upon them?
"Is there anything you wish, Miss?" asked a voice directly over my shoulder.
I wheeled about with a start. I had heard no one approach; it was not sound which had disturbed me.
"The library bell rang," continued the voice. "Is it ice-water you want?"
Then I saw that it was Nixon, the butler, and shook my head in mingled anger and perplexity; for not only had he advanced quite noiselessly, but he was looking at me with that curious concentrated gaze which I had met twice before since coming into this house.
"I need nothing," said I, with all the mildness I could summon into my voice; and did not know whether to like or not like the quiet manner in which he sidled out of the room.
"Why do they all look at me so closely?" I queried, in genuine confusion. "The man had no business here. I did not ring, and I don't believe he thought I did. He merely wanted to see what I was doing and whether I was enjoying myself. Why this curiosity? I have never roused it anywhere else. It is not myself they are interested in, but the cause and purpose of my presence under this roof." I paused to wonder over the fact that the one member of the family who might be supposed to resent my intrusion most was the one who took it most kindly and with least token of surprise--Mrs. Packard.
"She accepts me easily enough," thought I. "To her I am a welcome companion. What am I to these?"
The answer, or rather a possible answer, came speedily. At nine o'clock Mayor Packard entered the room from his study across the hall, and, seeing me alone, came forward briskly. "Mrs. Packard has company and I am on my way to the drawing-room, but I am happy to have the opportunity of assuring you that already she looks better, and that I begin to hope that your encouraging presence may stimulate her to throw aside her gloom and needless apprehensions. I shall be eternally grateful to you if it will. It is the first time in a week that she has consented to receive visitors." I failed to feel the same elation over this possibly temporary improvement in his wife's condition, but I carefully refrained from betraying my doubts. On the contrary, I took advantage of the moment to clear my mind of one of the many perplexities disturbing it.
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