The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XV. Hardly a Coincidence
The old lady's eyes met ours without purpose or intelligence. It was plain that she did not see us; also plain that she was held back in her advance by some doubt in her beclouded brain. We could see her hover, as it were, at her end of the dark passage, while I held my breath and Mr. Steele panted audibly. Then gradually she drew back and disappeared behind the door, which she forgot to shut, as we could tell from the gradually receding light and the faint fall of her footsteps after the last dim flicker had faded away.
When she was quite gone, Mr. Steele spoke:
"You must be satisfied now," he said. "Do you still wish to go on, or shall we return and explain this accident to the girls whose voices I certainly hear in the hall overhead?"
"We must go back," I reluctantly consented. A wild idea lead crossed my brain of following out my first impulse and of charging Miss Charity in her own house with the visits which had from time to time depopulated this house.
"I shall leave you to make the necessary explanations," said he. "I am really rushed with business and should be down-town on the mayor's affairs at this very moment."
"I am quite ready," said I. Then as I squeezed my way through between the corner of the cabinet and the foundation wall, I could not help asking him how he thought it possible for these old ladies to mount to the halls above from the bottom of the four-foot hole in which we now stood.
"The same way in which I now propose that you should," he replied, lifting into view the object we had seen at one side of the passage, and which now showed itself to be a pair of folding steps. "Canny enough to discover or perhaps to open this passage, they were canny enough to provide themselves with means of getting out of it. Shall I help you?"
"In a minute," I said. "I am so curious. How do you suppose they worked this trap from here? They did not press the spring in the molding."
He pointed to one side of the opening, where part of the supporting mechanism was now visible.
"They worked that. It is all simple enough on this side of the trap; the puzzle is about the other. How did they manage to have all this mechanism put in without rousing any one's attention? And why so much trouble?"
"Some time I will tell you," I replied, putting my foot on the step. "O girls!" I exclaimed, as two screams rang out above and two agitated faces peered down upon us. "I've had an accident and a great adventure, but I've solved the mystery of the ghost. It was just one of the two poor old ladies next door. They used to come up through this trap. Where is Mrs. Packard?"
They were too speechless with wonder to answer me. I had to reach up my arms twice before either of them would lend me a helping hand. But when I was once up and Mr. Steele after me, the questions they asked came so thick and fast that I almost choked in my endeavor to answer them and to get away. Nixon appeared in the middle of it, and, congratulating myself that Mr. Steele had been able to slip away to the study while I was talking to the girls, I went over the whole story again for his benefit, after which I stopped abruptly and asked again where Mrs. Packard was.
Nixon, with a face as black as the passage from which I had just escaped, muttered some words about queer doings for respectable people, but said nothing about his mistress unless the few words he added to his final lament about the cabinet contained some allusion to her fondness for the articles it held. We could all see that they had suffered greatly from their fall. Annoyed at his manner, which was that of a man personally aggrieved, I turned to Ellen. "You have just been up-stairs," I said. "Is Mrs. Packard still in the nursery?"
"She was, but not more than five minutes ago she slipped down- stairs and went out. It was just before the noise you made falling down into this hole."
Out! I was sorry; I wanted to disburden myself at once.
"Well, leave everything as it is," I commanded, despite the rebellion in Nixon's eye. "I will wait in the reception-room till she returns and then tell her at once. She can blame nobody but me, if she is displeased at what she sees."
Nixon grumbled something and moved off. The girls, full of talk, ran up-stairs to have it out in the nursery with Letty, and I went toward the front. How long I should have to stay there before Mrs. Packard's return I did not know. She might stay away an hour and she might stay away all day. I could simply wait. But it was a happy waiting. I should see a renewal of joy in her and a bounding hope for the future when once I told any tale. It was enough to keep me quiet for the three long hours I sat there with my face to the window, watching for the first sight of her figure on the crossing leading into our street.
When it came, it was already lunch-time, but there was no evidence of hurry in her manner; there was, rather, an almost painful hesitation. As she drew nearer, she raised her eyes to the house- front and I saw with what dread she approached it, and what courage it took for her to enter it at all.
The sight of my face at the window altered her expression, however, and she came quite cheerfully up the steps. Careful to forestall Nixon in his duty, I opened the front door, and, drawing her into the room where I had been waiting, I blurted out my whole story before she could remove her hat.
"O Mrs. Packard," I cried, "I have such good news for you. The thing you feared hasn't any meaning. The house was never haunted; the shadows which have been seen here were the shadows of real beings. There is a secret entrance to this house, and through it the old ladies next door, have come from time to time in search of their missing bonds, or else to frighten off all other people from the chance of finding them. Shall I show you where the place is?"
Her face, when I began, had shown such changes I was startled; but by the time I had finished a sort of apathy had fallen across it and her voice sounded hollow as she cried: "What are you telling me? A secret entrance we knew nothing about and the Misses Quinlan using it to hunt about these halls at night! Romantic, to be sure. Yes, let me see the place. It is very interesting and very inconvenient. Will you tell Nixon, please, to have this passage closed?"
I felt a chill. If it was interest she felt it was a very forced one. She even paused to take off her hat. But when I had drawn her through the library into the side hall, and shown her the great gap where the cabinet had stood, I thought she brightened a little and showed some of the curiosity I expected. But it was very easily appeased, and before I could have made the thing clear to her she was back in the library, fingering her hat and listening, as it seemed to me, to everything but my voice.
I did not understand it.
Making one more effort I came up close to her and impetuously cried out:
"Don't you see what this does to the phantasm you professed to have seen yourself once in this very spot? It proves it a myth, a product of your own imagination, something which it must certainly be impossible for you ever to fear again. That is why I made the search which has ended in this discovery. I wanted to rid you of your forebodings. Do assure me that I have. It will be such a comfort to me--and how much more to the mayor!"
Her lack-luster eyes fell; her fingers closed on the hat whose feathers she had been trifling with, and, lifting it, she moved softly into the reception-room and from there into the hall and up the front stairs. I stood aghast; she had not even heard what I had been saying.
By the time I had recovered my equanimity enough to follow, she had disappeared into her own room. It could not have been in a very comfortable condition, for there were evidences about the hall that it was being thoroughly swept. As I endeavored to pass the door, I inadvertently struck the edge of a little taboret standing in my way. It toppled and a little book lying on it slid to the floor; as I stooped to pick it up my already greatly disconcerted mind was still further affected by the glimpse which was given me of its title. It was this
THE ECCENTRICITIES OF GHOSTS AND COINCIDENCES
Struck forcibly by a coincidence suggesting something quite different from spiritual interference, I allowed the book to open in my hand, which it did at this evidently frequently conned passage:
I closed the little volume with very strange thoughts. If Mayor Packard had believed himself to have received an explanation of his wife's strange condition in the confession she had made of having seen an apparition such as this in her library, or if I had believed myself to have touched the bottom of the mystery absorbing this unhappy household in my futile discoveries of the human and practical character of the visitants who had haunted this house, then Mayor Packard and I had made a grave mistake.