The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter X. A Glimmer of the Truth
This was a sentiment I could thoroughly indorse. Mrs. Packard was certainly an enigma to me. Leaving Ellen to finish her work, I went upstairs to my own room, and, taking out the scraps of paper I had so carefully collected, spread them out before me on the lid of the desk.
They were absolutely unintelligible to me--marks and nothing more. Useless to waste time over such unmeaning scrawls when I had other and more tangible subjects to consider. But I should not destroy them. There might come a time when I should be glad to give them the attention which my present excitement forbade. Putting them back in my desk, I settled myself into a serious contemplation of the one fact which seemed to give a partial if not wholly satisfactory explanation of Mrs. Packard's peculiar conduct during the last two weeks--her belief that she had been visited by a specter of an unholy, threatening aspect.
That it was a belief and nothing more seemed sufficiently clear to me in the cold-blooded analysis to which I now subjected the whole matter.
Phantoms have no place in the economy of nature. That Mrs. Packard thought herself the victim of one was simply a proof of how deeply, though perhaps unconsciously, she had been affected by the traditions of the house. Such sensitiveness in a mind naturally firm and uncommonly well poised, called for attention. Yet a physician had asserted that he could do nothing for her. Granting that he was mistaken, would an interference of so direct and unmistakable a character be wise in the present highly strung condition of her nerves? I doubted it. It would show too plainly the light in which we regarded her. I dared not undertake the responsibility of such a course in Mayor Packard's absence. Some other way must be found to quiet her apprehensions and bring her into harmony again with her surroundings. I knew of only one course. If the influence of the house had brought on this hallucination, then the influence of the house must be destroyed. She must be made to see that, despite its unfortunate reputation, no specter had ever visited it; that some purely natural cause was at the bottom of the various manifestations which had successively driven away all previous tenants.
Could I hope to effect this? It was an undertaking of no small moment. Had I the necessary judgment? I doubted it, but my ambition was roused. While Mr. Steele was devoting himself to the discovery of Mayor and Mrs. Packard's political enemy, I would essay the more difficult task of penetrating the mystery threatening their domestic peace. I could but fail; a few inquiries would assure me of the folly or the wisdom of my course.
Having reached this point and satisfied myself as to my real duty, I rose to leave my room for another word or two with Ellen. As I did so my eyes fell on the shade still drawn between me and the next house. The impulse to raise it was irresistible. I must see if either of the two old faces still occupied that gable window. It was not likely. It was not in ordinary human nature to keep up so unremitting a watch. Yet as the shade flew up at my touch I realized that my astonishment would have been great and my expectations altogether disappointed if I had not encountered the fixed countenance and the set stare with which I had come to connect this solitary window. Miss Charity was there, and, though I now knew what underlay her senile, if not utterly mad watch, the impression made upon me by her hopeless countenance was as keen as it had ever been, and lent point and impetus to the task I had just set for myself.
It was apparent that Mrs. Packard had forgotten or changed her mind about joining me in her own room, but nevertheless I went out, to discover what possible duties she might have laid out for me. Ascertaining from Ellen that Mrs. Packand had engagements which would take her out at noon, I waited for that hour to pass, then excused myself and went out also.
The owner of the house whose shaded history I was now determined to learn was John Searles, a real estate agent. To his office in Main Street I at once proceeded, not without doubts and much inward trepidation, but buoyed up by the assurance of Mayor Packard's approval of any attempt, however far-fetched or unpromising, which held out the least possibility of relieving Mrs. Packard from her superstitious fears and restoring the peace and happiness of the household. If only Mr. Searles should prove to be an approachable man!
I had never seen him or heard him spoken of, or I should not have encouraged myself with this hope. At my first glimpse of his tall, gaunt figure, hard features, and brisk impatient movements, I knew that my wit and equanimity would be put to their full test in the interview.
He was engaged, at my entrance, in some harsh dispute with a couple of other men, but came forward quickly enough when he saw me. Recognizing at once that any attempt at ingratiation would fail with this man, I entered at once upon my errand by asking a question direct enough to command his attention, if it did not insure the desired reply.
"Mr. Searles, when you purchased the house on Franklin Street, did you know enough about it to have an answer ready for any one who might declare it haunted?"
The abruptness of the attack produced its effect. Annoyance swept every hint of patience from face and manner, and he exclaimed in a tone which conveyed, only too openly, how disagreeable the subject was to him.
I smiled. It would not do to show how much I felt the total lack of sympathy in his manner.
"You will have trouble," said I, "until it is proved that the occurrences which have provoked this report have a very natural and quite human source."
He stopped in his nervous fidgeting and gave me a quick hard look.
"Who are you?" he asked, "and why has Mrs. Packard made you her messenger instead of coming herself?"
"I am her companion, engaged by Mayor Packard to stay with her during his contemplated absence. I am here instead of Mrs. Packard because it is she herself who is the present sufferer from the disagreeable experiences which attend life in the Franklin Street house."
"Mrs. Packard?" His tone betrayed a complete incredulity. "Mrs. Packard? a woman of such strong good sense! I think you must have been misled by some foolish attempt at humor on her part. Does she know that you have come to me with this complaint?"
"She does not. She is not in a condition to be consulted on the subject. I am Mayor Packard's emissary. He is very anxious about his wife." Then as Mr. Searles continued unmoved, I added in a straightforward manner, and with all the earnestness I felt: "Mrs. Packard believes herself to have come face to face with an undoubted specter in the library of the house they have rented from you. She related the circumstances to her husband and to myself this very morning. It occurred, according to her story, several days ago; meantime her manner and appearance have shown a great change. Mayor Packard is not the only one who has noticed it. The whole household has been struck by her condition, though no one knew its cause until to-day. Of course, we do not believe in the specter; that was pure hallucination on her part. This we no more doubt than you do."
"Then what do you want here?" he asked, after a moment of harsh scrutiny.
"Proof which will convince her that it was an hallucination and without the least basis in any, spiritual fact," I returned. "If you will give me a few minutes of your time, I will explain just what I mean and also make known to you my wishes. I can wait till you have finished your business with the gentlemen I see over there."
He honored me with a look, which for the first time showed any appreciation of my feelings, and pushing open a door near by, called out to some one within:
"Here, Robinson, talk with this lady. Her business is not in my line." Then, turning to me with a quick, "Step in, Madam," he left me with the greatest abruptness and hurried back to the gentlemen awaiting him on the other side of the room.
I was considerably taken aback by this move, but knew no other course than to enter the room he had pointed out and pursue my conversation with whomever I should find there.
Alas! the gentleman who rose at my entrance was also one of the tall, thin and nervous type. But he was not without heart, like the other, as was soon made apparent to me. Very few human faces are plainer than the one I now searched for the encouragement of which I stood in such sore need, but also very few faces, handsome or otherwise, have the attraction of so pleasant a smile. Its affable greeting was followed by the hasty pushing forward of a chair and a kind inquiry as to what he could do for me.
My answer woke an immediate interest. "My name is Saunders," I said. "I am at present an inmate of Mayor Packard's house--a house belonging to Mr. Searles, and one which has its drawbacks."
The meaning look with which I uttered the last sentence called forth an answering one. A flash of excitement broke over his features and he cast a quick glance at the door which fortunately had swung to at my entrance.
"Has--have they--has anything of a disagreeable nature happened to any one in this house?" he asked with ill-concealed perturbation. "I did not expect it during their tenantry, but if such has occurred, I am obliged to Mrs. Packard for letting me know. She promised to, you see, and--"
"She promised!" I cried.
"Yes; in joke no doubt, being at the time in a very incredulous state of mind. She vowed that she would let me know the very day she saw the lights or encountered anything in the house, which could be construed into a spiritual visitation. Has such a manifestation occurred?" he eagerly inquired. "Has it? has it? Am I to add her name to the list of those who have found the house uninhabitable?"
"That I am not ready to say," was my cautious response. "Mrs. Packard, during the period of her husband's candidacy, would scarcely wish to draw public attention to herself or these supernatural happenings by any such move. I hope that what I say to you on this subject will go no further."
"You may rest assured that it will never become public property," he assured me. "One person I am bound to tell; but that is all. That person is too much interested in the house's good name to spread so damaging a story. An experience, more or less disagreeable, must have occurred to some member of the family," continued Mr. Robinson. "Your presence here assures me of that. What kind of experience? The--manifestations have not always been of the same nature."
"No; and that is what so engages my attention. These experiences differ so much in their character. Do you happen to know the exact nature of each? I have a theory which I long to substantiate. May I trust you with it?"
"You certainly may, Miss. No one has thought over this matter more earnestly than I have. Not because of any superstitious tendency on my part; rather from the lack of it. I don't believe in spirits. I don't believe in supernatural agencies of any kind; yet strange things do happen in that house, things which we find it hard to explain."
"Mrs. Packard's experience was this. She believes herself to have encountered in the library the specter of a man; a specter with a gaze so terrifying that it impressed itself upon her as an omen of death, or some other dire disaster. What have your other tenants seen?"
"Shadows mostly; but not always. Sometimes the outline of an arm projecting out of darkness; sometimes, the trace of steps on the hall floors, or the discovery in the morning of an open door which had been carefully closed at bedtime. Once it was the trailing of ghostly fingers across the sleeper's face, and once a succession of groans rising from the lower halls and drawing the whole family from their beds, to find no one but themselves within the whole four walls. A clearly outlined phantom has been scarce. But Mrs. Packard has seen one, you say."
"Thinks she has seen one," I corrected. "Mayor Packard and myself both look upon the occurrence as a wholly imaginary one, caused by her secret brooding over the very manifestations you mention. If she could be convinced that these manifestations had a physical origin, she would immediately question the reality of the specter she now believes herself to have seen. To bring her to this point I am ready to exert myself to the utmost. Are you willing to do the same? If so, I can assure you of Mayor Packard's appreciation."
"How? What? You believe the whole thing a fraud? That all these tenants coming from various quarters manufactured all these stories and submitted to endless inconvenience to perpetuate a senseless lie?"
"No, I don't think that. The tenants were honest enough, but Who owned the house before Mr. Searles?" I was resolved to give no hint of the information imparted to me by Mrs. Packard.
"The Misses Quinlan, the two maiden ladies who live next door to Mayor Packard."
"I don't know them," said I truthfully.
"Very worthy women," Mr. Robinson assured me. "They are as much disturbed and as completely puzzled as the rest of us over the mysterious visitations which have lessened the value of their former property. They have asked me more than once for an explanation of its marked unpopularity. I felt foolish to say ghosts, but finally I found myself forced to do so, much to my lasting regret."
"How? Why?" I asked, with all the force of a very rapidly increasing curiosity.
"Because its effect upon them has been so disastrous. They were women of intelligence previous to this, one of them quite markedly so, but from that day they have given evidence of mental weakness which can only be attributed to their continual brooding over this mysterious topic. The house, whose peculiarities we are now discussing, was once their family homestead, and they shrink from the reproach of its unfortunate reputation. What! you don't think so?" he impetuously asked, moved, perhaps, by my suggestive silence. "You are suspicious of these two poor old women? What reason have you for that, Miss Saunders? What motive could they have for depreciating the value of what was once their own property?"
So he knew nothing of the lost bonds! Mrs. Packard had made no mistake when she assured me of the secrecy with which they had endured their misfortune. It gave me great relief; I could work more safely with this secret unshared. But the situation called for dissimulation. It was with anything but real openness that I declared:
"You can not calculate the impulses of an affected mind. Jealousy of the past may influence these unfortunate women. They possibly hate to see strangers in the rooms made sacred by old associations."
"That is possible, but how could they, shut up in a house, separated from yours by a distance of several feet, be held accountable for the phenomena observed in 393? There are no means of communication between the two buildings; even the doors, which once faced each other across the dividing alley, have been closed up. Interference from them is impossible."
"No more impossible than from any other outside source. Is it a fact that the doors and windows of this strangely haunted house were always found securely locked after each occurrence of the phenomena you have mentioned?"
"So I have been told by every tenant I have questioned, and I was careful to question them, I assure you."
"That settles the matter in my, mind," I asserted. "These women know of some means of entrance that has escaped general discovery. Cunning is a common attribute of the unsettled brain."
"And they are very cunning. Miss Saunders, you have put a totally new idea into my head. I do not place much stress upon the motive you have attributed to them, nor do I see how the appearances noted could have been produced by these two antiquated women; but the interest they, have displayed in the effect these have had upon others has been of the most decided nature. They, have called here after the departure of every fresh tenant, and it was all that I could do to answer their persistent inquiries. It is to them and not to Mr. Searles I feel bound to report the apparition seen by Mrs. Packard."
"To them!" I ejaculated in amazement. "Why to them? They no longer have a proprietary interest in the house."
"Very true, but they long ago exacted a promise from me to keep a strict account of such complaints as were raised against the house. They, in short, paid me to do so. From time to time they have come here to read this account. It annoys Mr. Searles, but I have had considerable patience with them for reasons which your kind heart will instantly suggest."
I thought of the real pathos of the situation, and how much I might increase his interest by giving him the full details of their pitiful history, and the maddening hopes it engendered of a possible discovery of the treasure they still believed to be hidden in the house. What I said, however, was this:
"You have kept an account, you say, of the varied phenomena seen in this house? You have that account now?"
"Yes, Miss Saunders."
"Let us look it over together. Let us see if it does not give us some clue to the mystery puzzling us."
He eyed me doubtfully, or as much so as his great nature would allow. Meantime, I gauged my man. Was he to be thoroughly and unequivocally trusted? His very hesitation in face of his undoubted sympathy with me seemed to insure that he was. At all events, the occasion warranted some risk on my part. At least I persuaded myself that it did; so without waiting for his reply, I earnestly, remarked:
"The matter is more serious than you suppose. If the mayor were not unavoidably called away by his political obligations, he would add his entreaties to mine for a complete sifting of this whole affair. The Misses Quinlan may very well be innocent of inciting these manifestations; if so, we can do them no harm by a little confidential consideration of the affair from the standpoint I have given you. If they are not, then Mr. Searles and Mayor Packard should know it."
It appeared to convince him. His homely face shone with the fire of sudden interest and resolve, and, reaching for a small drawer at the right of his desk, he opened it and drew forth a folded paper which he proceeded to open before me with the remark:
"Here is a report that I have kept for my own satisfaction. I do not feel that in showing it to you I am violating any trust reposed in me by the Misses Quinlan. I never promised secrecy in the matter."
I glanced at the paper, all eagerness. He smiled and pushed it toward me. This is what I read:
This finished the report.
"So Mr. Searles has had his own experiences of these Mysteries!" I exclaimed.
"As you see. Perhaps that is why he is so touchy on the subject."
"Did he ever give you any fuller account of his experience than is detailed here?"
"No; he won't talk about it."
"He tried to let the house, however."
"Yes, but he did not succeed for a long time. Finally the mayor took it."
Refolding the paper, I handed it back to Mr. Robinson. I had its contents well in mind.
"There is one fact to which I should like to call your attention," said I. "The manifestations, as here recorded, have all taken place in the lower part of the house. I should have had more faith in them, if they had occurred above stairs. There are no outlets through the roof."
"Nor any visible ones below. At least no visible one was ever found open."
"What about the woman, Bess?" I asked. "How do you account for her persistency in clinging to a place her employers invariably fled from? She seems to have been always on hand with an offer of her services."
"Bess is not a young woman, but she is a worker of uncommon ability, very rigid and very stoical. She herself accounts for her willingness to work in this house by her utter disbelief in spirits, and the fact that it is the one place in the world which connects her with her wandering and worthless husband. Their final parting occurred during Mr. Dennison's tenancy, and as she had given the wanderer the Franklin Street address, you could not reason her out of the belief that on his return he would expect to find here there. That is what she explained to Mr. Searles."
"You interest me, Mr. Robinson. Is she a plain woman? Such a one as a man would not be likely, to return to?"
"No, she is a very good-looking woman, refined and full of character, but odd, very odd,--in fact, baffling."
"I never knew her to look any one directly in the eye. Her manner is abstracted and inspires distrust. There is also a marked incongruity between her employment and her general appearance. She looks out of place in her working apron, yet she is not what you would call a lady."
"Did her husband come back?"
"No, not to my knowledge."
"And where is she now?"
"Very near you, Miss Saunders, when you are at your home in Franklin Street. Not being able to obtain a situation in the house itself, she has rented the little shop opposite, where you can find her any day selling needles and thread."
"I have noticed that shop," I admitted, not knowing whether to give more or less weight to my suspicions in thus finding the mayor's house under the continued gaze of another watchful eye.
"You will find two women there," the amiable Mr. Robinson hastened to explain. "The one with a dark red spot just under her hair is Bess. But perhaps she doesn't interest you. She always has me. If it had not been for one fact, I should have suspected her of having been in some way connected with the strange doings we have just been considering. She was not a member of the household during the occupancy of Mrs. Crispin and the Westons, yet these unusual manifestations went on just the same."
"Yes, I noted that."
"So her connivance is eliminated."
"Undoubtedly. I am still disposed to credit the Misses Quinlan with the whole ridiculous business. They could not bear to see strangers in the house they had once called their own, and took the only means suggested to their crazy old minds to rid the place of them."
Mr. Robinson shook his head, evidently unconvinced. The temptation was great to strengthen my side of the argument by a revelation of their real motive. Once acquainted with the story of the missing bonds he could not fail to see the extreme probability that the two sisters, afflicted as they were with dementia, should wish to protect the wealth which was once so near their grasp, from the possibility of discovery by a stranger. But I dared not take him quite yet into my full confidence. Indeed, the situation did not demand it. I had learned from him what I was most anxious to know, and was now in a position to forward my own projects without further aid from him. Almost as if he had read my thoughts, Mr. Robinson now hastened to remark:
"I find it difficult to credit these poor old souls with any such elaborate plan to empty the house, even had they possessed the most direct means of doing so, for no better reason than this one you state. Had money been somehow involved, or had they even thought so, it would be different. They are a little touched in the head on the subject of money; which isn't very strange considering their present straits. They even show an interest in other people's money. They have asked me more than once if any of their former neighbors have seemed to grow more prosperous since leaving Franklin Street."
"I see; touched, touched!" I laughed, rising in my anxiety to hide any show of feeling at the directness of this purely accidental attack. But the item struck me as an important one. Mr. Robinson gave me a keen look as I uttered the usual commonplaces and prepared to take my leave.
"May I ask your intentions in this matter?" said he.
"I wish I knew them myself," was my perfectly candid answer. "It strikes me now that my first step should be to ascertain whether there exists any secret connection between the two houses which would enable the Misses Quinlan or their emissaries to gain access to their old home, without ready detection. I know of none, and--"
"There is none," broke in its now emphatic agent. "A half-dozen tenants, to say nothing of Mr. Searles himself, have looked it carefully over. All the walls are intact; there is absolutely no opening anywhere for surreptitious access."
"Possibly not. You certainly discourage me very much. I had hoped much from my theory. But we are not done with the matter. Mrs. Packard's mind must be cleared of its fancies, if it is in my power to do it. You will hear from me again, Mr. Robinson. Meanwhile, I may be sure of your good will?"
"Certainly, certainly, and of my cooperation also, if you want it."
"Thank you," said I, and left the office.
His last look was one of interest not untinged by compassion.