The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XIV. I Seek Help
A bad night, a very bad night, but for all that I was down early the next morning. Bess must have her box and I a breath of fresh air before breakfast, to freshen me up a bit and clear my mind for the decisive act, since my broken rest had failed to refresh me.
As I reached the parlor floor Nixon came out of the reception-room.
"Oh, Miss!" he exclaimed, "going out?" surprised, doubtless, to see me in my hat and jacket.
"A few steps," I answered, and then stopped, not a little disturbed; for in moving to open the door he had discovered that the key was not in it and was showing his amazement somewhat conspicuously.
"Mrs. Packard took the key up to her room," I explained, thinking that some sort of explanation was in order. "She is nervous, you know, and probably felt safer with it there."
The slow shake of his head had a tinge of self-reproach in it.
"I was sorry to go out," he muttered. "I was very sorry to go out,"--but the look which he turned upon me the next minute was of a very different sort. "I don't see how you can go out yet," said he, "unless you go by the back way. That leads into Stanton Street; but perhaps you had just as lief go into Stanton Street."
There was impertinence in his voice as well as aggressiveness in his eye, but I smiled easily enough and was turning toward the back with every expectation of going by way of Stanton Street, when Letty came running down the stairs with the key in her hand. I don't think he was pleased, but he opened the door civilly enough and I gladly went out, taking with me, however, a remembrance of the furtive look with which he had noted the small package in my hand. I pass over the joy with which Bess received the box and its desired contents. I had lost all interest in the matter, which was so entirely personal to herself, and, declining the ten dollars which I knew she could ill afford, made my visit so short that I was able to take a brisk walk down the street and yet be back in time for breakfast.
This, like that of the preceding day, I took alone. Mrs. Packard was well but preferred to eat up-stairs. I did not fret at this; I was really glad, for now I could think and plan my action quite unembarrassed by her presence. The opening under the vestibule floor was to be sounded, and sounded this very morning, but on what pretext? I could not take Mrs. Packard into my counsel, for that would be to lessen the force of the discovery with which I yet hoped to dissipate at one blow the superstitious fears I saw, it was otherwise impossible to combat. I might interest Ellen, and I was quite certain that I could interest the cook; but this meant Nixon, also, who was always around and whose animosity to myself was too mysteriously founded for me to trust him with any of my secrets or to afford him any inkling of my real reason for being in the house.
Yet help I must have and very efficient help, too. Should I telegraph to Mayor Packard for some sort of order which would lead to the tearing up of this end of the house? I could not do this without fuller explanations than I could give in a telegram. Besides, he was under sufficient pressure just now for me to spare him the consideration of so disturbing a matter, especially as he had left a substitute behind whose business it was, not only to relieve Mrs. Packard in regard to the libelous paragraph, but in all other directions to which his attention might be called. I would see Mr. Steele; he would surely be able to think up some scheme by which that aperture might be investigated without creating too much disturbance in the house.
An opportunity for doing this was not long in presenting itself. Mr. Steele came in about nine o'clock and passed at once into the study. The next moment I was knocking at his door, my heart in any mouth, but my determination strung up to the point of daring anything and everything for the end I had in view.
Fortunately he came to the door; I could never have entered without his encouragement. As I met his eye I was ashamed of the color my cheeks undoubtedly showed, but felt reconciled the next minute, for he was not quite disembarrassed himself, though he betrayed it by a little extra paleness rather than by a flush, such as had so disturbed myself. Both of us were quite natural in a moment, however, and answering his courteous gesture I stepped in and at once opened up my business.
"You must pardon me," said I, "for this infringement upon the usual rules of this office. I have something very serious to say about Mrs. Packard--oh, she's quite well; it has to do with a matter I shall presently explain--and I wish to make a request."
"Thank you for the honor," he said, drawing up a chair for me.
But I did not sit, neither did I speak for a moment. I was contemplating his features and thinking how faultless they were.
"I hardly know where to begin," I ventured at last. "I am burdened with a secret, and it may all appear puerile to you. I don't know whether to remind you first of Mayor Packard's intense desire to see his wife's former cheerfulness restored--a task in which I have been engaged to assist--or to plunge at once into my discoveries, which are a little peculiar and possibly important, in spite of my short acquaintance with the people under this roof and the nature of my position here."
"You excite me," were his few quick but sharply accentuated words. "What secret? What discoveries? I didn't know that the house held any that were worth the attention of sensible persons like ourselves."
I had not been looking at him directly, but I looked up at this and was astonished to find that his interest in what I had said was greater than appeared from his tone or even from his manner.
"You know the cause of Mrs. Packard's present uneasiness?" I asked.
"Mayor Packard told me--the paragraph which appeared in yesterday morning's paper. I have tried to find out its author, but I have failed so far."
"That is a trifle," I said. "The real cause--no, I prefer to stand," I put in, for he was again urging me by a gesture to seat myself.
"The real cause--" he repeated.
"--is one you will smile at, but which you must nevertheless respect. She thinks--she has confided to us, in fact--that she has seen, within these walls, what many others profess to have seen. You understand me, Mr. Steele?"
"I don't know that I do, Miss Saunders."
"I find it hard to speak it; you have heard, of course, the common gossip about this house."
"That it is haunted?" he smiled, somewhat disdainfully.
"Yes. Well, Mrs. Packard believes that she has seen what--what gives this name to the house."
"Yes, a ghost--in the library one night."
The ejaculation was eloquent. I did not altogether understand it, but its chief expression seemed to be contempt. I began to fear he would not have sufficient sympathy with such an unreasoning state of mind to give me the attention and assistance I desired. He saw the effect it had upon me and hastened to say:
"The impression Mrs. Packard has made upon me was of a common-sense woman. I'm sorry to hear that she is the victim of an hallucination. What do you propose to do about it?--for I see that you have some project in mind."
Then I told him as much of my story as seemed necessary to obtain his advice and to secure his cooperation. I confided to him my theory of the unexplainable sights and sounds which had so unfortunately aroused Mrs. Packard's imagination, and what I had done so far to substantiate it. I did not mention the bonds, nor tell him of Bess and her box, but led him to think that my experiments in the cellar had been the result of my discoveries in the side entrance.
He listened gravely--I hardly feel justified in saying with a surprise that was complimentary. I am not sure that it was. Such men are difficult to understand. When I had finished, he remarked with a smile:
"So you conclude that the floor of this place is movable and that the antiquated ladies you mention have stretched their old limbs in a difficult climb, just for the game of frightening out tenants they did not desire for neighbors?"
"I know that it sounds ridiculous," I admitted, refraining still, in spite of the great temptation, from mentioning the treasure which it was the one wish of their lives to protect from the discovery of others. "If they were quite sane I should perhaps not have the courage to suggest this explanation of what has been heard and seen here. But they are not quite sane; a glance at their faces is enough to convince one of this, and from minds touched with insanity anything can be expected. Will you go with me to this side entrance and examine the floor for yourself? The condition of things under it I will ask you to take my word for; you will hardly wish to visit the cellar on an exploring expedition till you are reasonably assured of its necessity."
His eye, which had grown curiously cold and unresponsive through this, turned from me toward the desk before which he had been sitting. It was heaped high with a batch of unopened letters, and I could readily understand what was in his mind.
"You will be helping the mayor more by listening to me," I continued earnestly, "than by anything you can do here. Believe me, Mr. Steele, I am no foolish, unadvised girl. I know what I am talking about."
He suppressed an impatient sigh and endeavored to show a proper appreciation of my own estimate of myself and the value of my communication.
"I am at your service," said he.
I wished he had been a little more enthusiastic, but, careful not to show my disappointment, I added, as I led the way to the door:
"I wish we could think of some way of securing ourselves from interruption. Nixon does not like me, and will be sure to interest himself in our movements if he sees us go down that hall together."
"Is there any harm in that?"
"There might be. He is suspicious of me, which makes it impossible for one to count upon his conduct. If he saw us meddling with the cabinet, he would be very apt to rush with his complaints to Mrs. Packard, and I am not ready, yet to take her into our confidence. I want first to be sure that my surmises are correct."
"You are quite right." If any sarcasm tinged this admission, he successfully hid it. "I think I can dispose of Nixon for a short time," he went on. "You are bent upon meddling with that vestibule floor?"
"Even if I should advise not?"
"Yes, Mr. Steele; even if you roused the household and called Mrs. Packard down to witness my folly. But I should prefer to make my experiments quickly and without any other witness than yourself. I am not without some pride to counterbalance my presumption."
We had come to a stand before the door as I said this. As I finished, he laid his hand on the knob, saying kindly:
"Your wishes shall be considered. Take a seat in the library, Miss Saunders, and in a few moments I will join you. I have a task for Nixon which will keep him employed for some time."
At this he opened the door and I glided out. Making my way to the library I hastened in and threw myself into one of its great chairs. In another minute I heard Mr. Steele summon Nixon, and in the short interview which followed between them heard enough to comprehend that he was loading the old butler's arms with a large mass of documents and papers for immediate consumption in the furnace. Nixon was not to leave till they were all safely consumed. The grumble which followed from the old fellow's lips was not the most cheerful sound in the world, but he went back with his pile. Presently I heard the furnace door rattle and caught the smell, which I was careful to explain to Ellen as she went by the library door on her way up-stairs, lest Mrs. Packard should be alarmed and come running down to see what was the matter.
The next moment Mr. Steele appeared in the doorway.
"Now what are we to do?" said he.
I led the way to what I have sometimes called "the recess" for lack of a better name.
"This is the place," I cried, adding a few explanations as I saw the curiosity with which he now surveyed its various features. "Don't you see now that cabinet leans to the left? I declare it leans more than it did yesterday; the floor certainly dips at that point."
He cast a glance where I pointed and instinctively put out his hand, but let it fall as I remarked:
"The cabinet is not so very heavy. If I take out a few of those big pieces of pottery, don't you think we could lift it away from this corner?"
"And what would you do then?"
"Tear up the carpet and see what is the matter with this part of the floor. Perhaps we shall find not only that, but something else of a still more interesting nature"
He was standing on the sill of what had been the inner doorway. As I said these words he fell back in careless grace against the panel and remained leaning there in an easy attitude, assumed possibly just to show me with what incredulity, and yet with what kindly forbearance he regarded my childish enthusiasm.
"I don't understand," said he. "What do you expect to find?"
"Some spring or button by which this floor is made to serve the purpose of a trap. I'm sure that there is an opening underneath--a large opening. Won't you help me--"
I forgot to finish. In my eagerness to impress him I had turned in his direction, and was staring straight at his easy figure and faintly smiling features, when the molding against which he leaned caught my eye. With a total absence of every other thought than the idea which had suddenly come to me, I sprang forward and pressed with my whole weight against one of the edges of the molding which had a darker hue about it than the rest. I felt it give, felt the floor start from under me at the same moment, and in another heard the clatter and felt the force of the toppling cabinet on my shoulder as it and I went shooting down into the hole I had been so anxious to penetrate, though not in just this startling fashion.
The cry, uttered by Mr. Steele as I disappeared from before his eyes, was my first conscious realization of what had happened after I had struck the ground below.
"Are you hurt?" he cried, with real commiseration, as he leaned over to look for me in the hollow at his feet. "Wait and I will drop down to you," he went on, swinging himself into a position to leap.
I was trembling with the shock and probably somewhat bruised, but not hurt enough to prevent myself from scrambling to my feet, as he slid down to my side and offered me his arm for support.
"What did you do?" he asked. "Was it you who made this trap give way? I see that it is a trap now,"--and he pointed to the square boarding hampered by its carpet which hung at one side.
"I pressed one of those round knobs in the molding," I explained, laughing to hide the tears of excitement in my eyes. "It had a loose look. I did it without thinking,--that is, without thinking enough of what I was doing to be sure that I was in a safe enough position for such an experiment. But I'm all right, and so is the cabinet. See!" I pointed to where it stood, still upright, its contents well shaken up but itself in tolerably good condition.
"You are fortunate," said he. "Shall I help you up out of this? Your curiosity must be amply satisfied."
"Not yet, not yet," I cried. "Oh! it is as I thought," I now exclaimed, peering around the corner of the cabinet into a place of total darkness. "The passage is here, running directly under the alley-way. Help me, help me, I must follow it to the end. I'm sure it communicates with the house next door."
He had to humor me. I already had one hand on the cabinet's edge, and should have pushed it aside by my own strength if he had not interfered. The space we were in was so small, some four feet square, I should judge, that the utmost we could do was to shove one corner of it slightly aside, so as to make a narrow passage into the space beyond. Through this I slipped and should have stepped recklessly on if he had not caught me back and suggested that he go first into what might have its own pitfalls and dangers.
I did not fear these, but was glad, nevertheless, to yield to his suggestion and allow him to pass me. As he did so, he took out a match from his pocket and in another moment had lit and held it out. A long, narrow vaulting met our eyes, very rude and propped up with beams in an irregular way. It was empty save for a wooden stool or some such object which stood near our feet. Though the small flame was insufficient to allow us to see very far, I was sure that I caught the outlines of a roughly made door at the extreme end and was making for this door, careless of his judgment and detaining hand, when a quick, strong light suddenly struck me in the face. In the square hollow made by the opening of this door, I saw the figure of Miss Charity with a lighted lantern in her hand. She was coming my way. the secret of the ghostly visitations which had deceived so many people was revealed.