The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XI. Bess
On my way back I took the opposite side of the street from that I usually approached. When I reached the little shop I paused. First glancing at the various petty articles exposed in the window, I quietly stepped in. A contracted and very low room met my eyes, faintly lighted by a row of panes in the upper half of the door and not at all by the window, which was hung on the inside with a heavy curtain. Against two sides of this room were arranged shelves filled with boxes labeled in the usual way to indicate their contents. These did not strike me as being very varied or of a very high order. There was no counter in front, only some tables on which lay strewn fancy boxes of thread and other useless knick- knacks to which certain shopkeepers appear to cling though they can seldom find customers for them. A woman stood at one of these tables untangling a skein of red yarn. Behind her I saw another leaning in an abstracted way over a counter which ran from wall to wall across the extreme end of the shop. This I took to be Bess. She had made no move at my entrance and she made no move now. The woman with the skein appeared, on the contrary, as eager to see as the other seemed indifferent. I had to buy something and I did so in as matter-of-fact a way as possible, considering that my attention was more given to the woman in the rear than to the articles I was purchasing.
"You have a very convenient place here," I casually remarked, as I handed out my money. With this I turned squarely about and looked directly, at her whom I believed to be Bess.
A voluble answer from the woman at my side, but not the wink of an eye from the one whose attention I had endeavored to attract.
"I live in the house opposite," I carelessly went on, taking in, every detail of the strange being I was secretly addressing.
"Oh!" she exclaimed in startled tones, roused into speech at last. "You live opposite; in Mayor Packard's house?"
I approached her, smiling. She had dropped her hands from her chin and seemed very eager now, more eager than the other woman, to interest me in what she had about her and so hold me to the shop.
"Look at this," she cried, holding up an article of such cheap workmanship that I wondered so sensible an appearing woman would cumber her shelves with it. "I am glad you live over there," for I had nodded to her question. "I'm greatly interested in that house. I've worked there as cook and waitress several times."
I met her look; it was sharp and very intelligent.
"Then you know its reputation," I laughingly suggested.
She made a contemptuous gesture. The woman was really very good-looking, but baffling in her manner, as Mr. Robinson had said, and very hard to classify. "That isn't what interests me," she protested. "I've other reasons. You're not a relative of the family, are you?" she asked impetuously, leaning over the table to get a nearer view of my face.
"No, nor even a friend. I am in their employ just now as a companion to Mrs. Packard. Her health is not very good, and the mayor is away a great deal."
"I thought you didn't belong there. I know all who belong there. I've little else to do but stare across the street," she added apologetically and with a deep flush. "Business is very poor in this shop."
I was standing directly in front of her. Turning quickly about, I looked through the narrow panes of the door, and found that my eyes naturally rested on the stoop of the opposite house. Indeed, this stoop was about all that could be seen from the spot where this woman stood.
"Another eve bent in constant watchfulness upon us," I inwardly commented. "We are quite surrounded. The house should certainly hold treasure to warrant all this interest. But what could this one-time domestic know of the missing bonds?"
"An old-fashioned doorway," I remarked. "It is the only one of the kind on the whole street. It makes the house conspicuous, but in a way I like. I don't wonder you enjoy looking at it. To me such a house and such a doorway suggest mystery and a romantic past. If the place is not haunted--and only a fool believes in ghosts --something strange must have happened there or I should never have the nervous feeling I have in going about the halls and up and down the stairways. Did you never have that feeling?"
"Never. I'm not given to feelings. I live one day after another and just wait."
Not given to feelings! With such eyes in such a face! You should have looked down when you said that, Bess; I might have believed you then.
"Wait?" I softly repeated. "Wait for what? For fortune to enter your little shop-door?"
"No, for my husband to come back," was her unexpected answer, uttered grimly enough to have frightened that husband away again, had he been fortunate or unfortunate enough to hear her. "I'm a married woman, Miss, and shouldn't be working like this. And I won't be always; my man'll come back and make a lady of me again. It's that I'm waiting for."
Here a customer came in. Naturally I drew back, For our faces were nearly touching.
"Don't go," she pleaded, catching me by the sleeve and turning astonishingly pale for one ordinarily so ruddy. "I want to ask a favor of you. Come into my little room behind. You won't regret it." This last in an emphatic whisper.
Amazed at the turn which the conversation had taken and congratulating myself greatly upon my success in insuring her immediate confidence, I slipped through the opening she made for me between the tables serving for a counter and followed her into a room at the rear, which from its appearance answered the triple purpose of sleeping-room, parlor and kitchen.
"Pardon my impertinence," said she, as she carefully closed the door behind us. "It's not my habit to make friends with strangers, but I've taken a fancy to you and think you can be trusted. Will--" she hesitated, then burst out, "will you do something for me?"
"If I can," I smiled.
"How long do you expect to stay over there?"
"Oh, that I can't say."
"A month? a week?"
"Probably a week."
"Then you can do what I want. Miss--"
"Saunders," I put in.
"There is something in that house which belongs to me."
I started; this was hardly what I expected her to say.
"Something of great importance to me; something which I must have and have very soon. I don't want to go there for it myself. I hid it in a very safe place one day when my future looked doubtful, and I didn't know where I might be going or what might happen to me. Mrs. Packard would think it strange if she saw where, and might make it very uncomfortable for me. But you can get what I want without trouble if you are not afraid of going about the house at night. It's a little box with my name on it; and it is hidden--"
"Behind a brick I loosened in the cellar wall. I can describe the very place. Oh, you think I am asking too much of you--a stranger and a lady."
"No, I'm willing to do what I can for you. But I think you ought to tell me what's in the box, so that I shall know exactly what I am doing."
"I can't tell; I do not dare to tell till I have it again in my own hand. Then we will look it over together. Do you hesitate? You needn't; no inconvenience will follow to any one, if you are careful to rely on yourself and not let any other person see or handle this box."
"How large is it?" I asked, quite as breathless as herself, as I realized the possibilities underlying this remarkable request.
"It is so small that you can conceal it under an apron or in the pocket of your coat. In exchange for it, I will give you all I can afford--ten dollars."
"No more than that?" I asked, testing her.
"No more at first. Afterward--if it brings me what it ought to, I will give you whatever you think it is worth. Does that satisfy, you? Are you willing to risk an encounter with the ghost, for just ten dollars and a promise?"
The smile with which she said this was indescribable. I think it gave me a more thrilling consciousness of human terror in face of the supernatural than anything which I had yet heard in this connection. Surely her motive for remaining in the haunted house had been extraordinarily strong.
"You are afraid," she declared. "You will shrink, when the time comes, from going into that cellar at night."
I shook my head; I had already regained both my will-power and the resolution to carry out this adventure to the end.
"I will go," said I.
"And get me my box?"
"And bring it to me here as early the next day as you can leave Mrs. Packard?"
"Oh, you don't know what this means to me."
I had a suspicion, but held my peace and let her rhapsodize.
"No one in all my life has ever shown me so much kindness! Are you sure you won't be tempted to tell any one what you mean to do?"
"And will go down into the cellar and get this box for me, all by yourself?"
"Yes, if you demand it."
"I do; you will see why some day."
"Very well, you can trust me. Now tell me where I am to find the brick you designate."
"It's in the cellar wall, about half-way down on the right-hand side. You will see nothing but stone for a foot or two above the floor, but after, that comes the brick wall. On one of these bricks you will detect a cross scratched. That's the one. It will look as well cemented as the rest, but if you throw water against it, you will find that in a little while you will be able to pry it out. Take something to do this with, a knife or a pair of scissors. When the brick falls out, feel behind with your hand and you will find the box."
"A questionable task. What if I should be seen at it?"
"The ghost will protect you!"
Again that smile of mingled sarcasm and innuendo. It was no common servant girl's smile, any more than her language was that of the ignorant domestic.
"I believe the ghost fails to walk since the present tenants came into the house," I remarked.
"But its reputation remains; you'll not be disturbed."
"Possibly not; a good reason why you might safely undertake the business yourself. I can find some way of letting you in."
"No, no. I shall never again cross that threshold!" Her whole attitude showed revolt and bitter determination.
"Yet you have never been frightened by anything there?"
"I know; but I have suffered; that is, for one who has no feelings. The box will have to remain in its place undisturbed if you won't get it for me."
"Yes, Miss; nothing would induce me even to cross the street. But I want the box."
"You shall have it," said I.