The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XXIII. The Wife's Tale
Ten minutes later this woman was pleading her cause. She had left the side of the man who had just assumed the greatest of all rights over her and was standing in a frenzy of appeal before him she loved so deeply and yet had apparently wronged.
Mayor Packard was sitting with his head in his hands in the chair into which he had dropped when the blow fell which laid waste his home, his life, the future of his child and possibly the career which was as much, perhaps more, to him than all these. He had not uttered a word since that dreadful moment. To all appearance her moans of contrition fell upon deaf ears, and she had reached the crisis of her misery without knowing the extent of the condemnation hidden in his persistent silence. Collapse seemed inevitable, but I did not know the woman or the really wonderful grip she held on herself. Seeing that he was moved by nothing she had said, she suddenly paused, and presently I heard her observe in quite a different tone:
"There is one thing you must know--which I thought you would know without my telling you. I have never lived with this man, and I believe him dead when I gave my hand to you."
The mayor's fingers twitched. She had touched him at last. "Speak! tell me," he murmured hoarsely. "I do not want to do you any injustice."
"I shall have to begin far, far back; tell about my early life and all its temptations," she faltered, "or you will never understand."
Sensible at this point of the extreme impropriety, of my presence, I rose, with an apology, to leave. But she shook her head quickly, determinedly, saying that as I had heard so much I must hear more. Then she went on with her story.
"I have committed a great fault," said she, "but one not so deep or inexcusable as now appears, whatever that man may say," she added with a slow turn toward the silent secretary.
Did she expect to provoke a reply from the man who, after the first triumphant assertion of his claim, had held himself as removed from her and as unresponsive to her anguish as had he whom she directly addressed? If so, she must have found her disappointment bitter, for he did not respond with so much as a look. He may have smiled, but if so, it was not a helpful smile; for she turned away with a shudder and henceforth faced and addressed the mayor only.
"My mother married against the wishes of all her family and they never forgave her. My father died early--he had never got on in the world--and before I was fifteen I became the sole support of my invalid mother as well as of myself. We lived in Boone, Minnesota.
"You can imagine what sort of support it was, as I had no special talent, no training and only the opportunity given by a crude western, town of two or three hundred inhabitants. I washed dishes in the hotel kitchen--I who had a millionaire uncle in Detroit and had been fed on tales of wealth and culture by a mother who remembered her own youth and was too ignorant of my real nature to see the harm she was doing. I washed dishes and ate my own heart out in shame and longing--bitter shame and frenzied longing, which you must rate at their full force if you would know my story and how I became linked to this man.
"I was sixteen when we first met. He was not then what he is now, but he was handsome enough to create an excitement in town and to lift the girl he singled out into an enviable prominence. Unfortunately, I was that girl. I say unfortunately, because his good looks failed to arouse in me more than a passing admiration; and in accepting his attentions, I consulted my necessities and pride rather than the instincts of my better nature. When he asked me to marry him I recoiled. I did not know why then, nor did I know why later; but know why now. However, I let this premonition pass and engaged myself to him, and the one happy moment I knew was when I told my mother what I had done, and saw her joy and heard the hope with which she impulsively cried: 'It is something I can write your uncle. Who knows? Perhaps he may forgive me my marriage when he hears that my child is going to do so well!' Poor mother! she had felt the glamour of my lover's good looks and cleverness much more than I had. She saw from indications to which I was blind that I was going to marry a man of mark, and was much more interested in the possible reply she might receive to the letter with which she had broken the silence of years between herself and her family than in the marriage itself.
"But days passed, a week, and no answer came. My uncle--the only relative remaining in which we could hope to awaken any interest, or rather, the only one whose interest would be worth awakening, he being a millionaire and unmarried--declined, it appeared, any communication with one so entirely removed from his sympathies; and the disappointment of it broke my mother's heart. Before my wedding-day came she was lying in the bare cemetery I had passed so often with a cold dread in my young and bounding heart.
"With her loss the one true and unselfish bond which held me to my lover was severed, and, unknown to him--(perhaps he hears it now for the first time)--I had many hours of secret hesitation which might have ended in a positive refusal to marry him if I had not been afraid of his anger and the consequences of an open break. With all his protestations of affection and the very ardent love he made me, he had not succeeded in rousing my affections, but he had my fears. I knew that to tell him to his face I would not marry him would mean death to him and possibly to myself. Such intuition, young as I was, did I have of his character, though I comprehended so little the real range of his mind and the unswerving trend of his ambitious nature.
"So my, wedding-day came and we were united. in the very hotel where I had so long served in a menial capacity. The social distinctions in such a place being small and my birth and breeding really placing me on a par with my employer and his family, I was given the parlor for this celebration and never, never, shall I forget its mean and bare look, even to my untutored eyes; or how lonely those far hills looked, through the small-paned window I faced; or what a shadow seemed to fall across them as the parson uttered those fateful words, so terrible to one whose heart is not in them: What God bath joined together let no man put asunder. Death and not life awaited me on that bleak hillside, or so I thought, though the bridegroom at my side was the handsomest man I had ever seen and had rather exceeded than failed in his devotion to me as a lover.
"The ceremony over, I went up-stairs to make my final preparations for departure. No bridesmaids or real friends had lent joy to the occasion; and when I closed that parlor door upon my bridegroom and the two or three neighbors and boon companions with whom he was making merry, I found myself alone with my dead heart and a most unwelcome future. I remember, as the lock clicked and the rude hall, ruder even than the wretched half-furnished room I had just left, opened before me, a sensation of terror at leaving even this homely refuge and a half-formed wish that I was going back to my dish-washing in the kitchen. It was therefore with a shock, which makes my brain reel yet, that I saw, lying on a little table which I had to pass, a letter directed to myself, bearing the postmark, Detroit. What might there not be in it? What? What?
"Gasping as much with fear as delight, I caught up the letter, and, rushing with it to my room, locked myself in and tore open the envelope. A single sheet fell out; it was signed with the name I had heard whispered in my ear from early childhood, and always in connection with riches and splendor and pleasures,--it was rapture to dream of. This was an agitation in itself, but the words the words! I have never told them to mortal being, but I must tell them now; I remember them as I remember the look of my child's face when she was first put in my arms, the child--"
She had underrated her strength. She broke into a storm of weeping which shook to the very soul one of the two men who listened to her, though he made no move to comfort her or allay it. The alienation thus expressed produced its effect, and, stricken deeper than the fount of tears, she suddenly choked back every sob and took up the thread of her narrative with the calmness born of despair,
"These were the words, these and no others:
"'If my niece will break all ties and come to me completely unhampered, she may hope to find a permanent home in my house and a close hold upon my affections.
IRA T. HOUGHTALING.'
"Unhampered! with the marriage-vow scarcely cold on my lips! Without tie! and a husband waiting below to take me to his home on the hillside--a hillside so bare and bleak that the sight of it has sent a shudder to my heart as the wedding ring touched my finger. The irony of the situation was more than I could endure, and alone, with my eyes fixed on the comfortless heavens, showing gray and cold through the narrow panes of my windows, I sank to the floor insensible.
"When I came to myself I was still alone, and the twilight a little more pronounced than when my misery had turned it to blackest midnight. Rising, I read that letter again, and, plainly as the acknowledgment betrays the selfishness lying at the basis of my character, the temptation which thereupon seized me had never an instant of relenting or one conscientious scruple to combat it. I simply, at that stage in my life and experience, could not do otherwise than I did. Saying to myself that vows, as empty of heart as mine, were void before God and man, I sat down and wrote a few words to the man whose step on the stair I dreaded above everything else in the world; and, leaving the note on the table, unlocked my door and looked out. The hall connecting with my room was empty, but not so the lower one. There I could hear voices and laughter, Mr. Brainard's loud above all the rest,--a fatal sound to me, cutting off all escape in that direction. But another way offered and that one near at hand. Communicating with the very hall in which I stood was an outside staircase running down to the road--a means of entering and leaving a house which I never see now wherever I may encounter it, without a gush of inward shame and terror, so instinctive and so sharp that I have never been able to hide it from any one whose eye might chance to be upon me at the moment. But that night I was conscious of no shame, barely of any terror, only of the necessity for haste. The train on which I was determined to fly was due in a little less than an hour at a station two miles down the road.
"That I should be followed farther than the turbulent stream which crossed the road only a quarter of a mile from the hotel, I did not fear. For in the hurried note I had left behind me, I had bidden them to look for me there, saying that I had been precipitate in marrying one I did not really love, and, overcome by a sense of my mistake, I was resolved on death.
"A lie! but what was a lie to me then, who saw in my life with this man an amelioration of my present state, but an amelioration only, while in the prospects held out to me by my uncle I foresaw not only release from a hated union, but every delight which my soul had craved since my mother could talk to me of wealth and splendor.
"Behold me, then, stealing down the side of the house in a darkness which during the last few minutes had become impenetrable. A shadow, where all was shadowy, I made for the woods and succeeded in reaching their shelter just as there rose in the distance behind me that most terrible of all sounds to a woman's ear, a man's loud cry of anguish and rage."
She was not looking at that man now, but I was. As these words left her lips, Mr. Steele's hand crept up and closed over his heart, though his face was like that of a marble image set in immovable lines. I feared him, I admired him, and found myself still looking at him as she went gaspingly on:
"Reckless of the dangers of the road, fearing nothing but what pressed upon me from behind, I flew straight for the stream, on whose verge I meant then to stop, and, having by some marvel of good luck or Providence reached it without a mishap, I tore the cloak from my shoulders, and, affixing one end to the broken edge of the bridge, flung the other into the water. Then with one loud ear-piercing shriek thrown back on the wind--see! I tell all--I leave out nothing--I fled away in the direction of the station.
"For some reason I had great confidence in the success of this feint and soon was conscious of but one fear, and that was being recognized by the station-master, who knew my face and figure even if he did not know my new city-made dress. So when I had made sure by the clock visible from the end window that I was in ample time for the expected train, I decided to remain in the dark at the end of the platform till the cars were about starting, and then to jump on and buy my ticket from the conductor.
"But I never expected such an interminable wait. Minute after minute went by without a hint of preparation for the advancing train. The hour for leaving arrived, passed, and not a man had shown himself on the platform. Had a change been made in the time-table? If so, what a prospect lay before me! Autumn nights are chill in Minnesota, and, my cloak having been sacrificed, I found poor protection in my neat but far from warm serge dress. However, I did not fully realize my position till another passenger arrived late and panting, and I heard some one shout out to him from the open door that an accident had occurred below and that it would be five hours at least before the train would come through.
"Five hours! and no shelter in sight save the impossible one of the station itself. How could I pass away that time! How endure the cold and fatigue? By pacing to and fro in the road? I tried it, resolutely tried it, for an hour, then a new terror, a new suspense, gripped me, and I discovered that I could never live through the hours; never, in fact, take the train when it came without knowing what had happened in Boone and whether the feint on which I relied had achieved its purpose. There was time to steal back, time to see and hear what would satisfy me of my own safety; and then to have some purpose in my movement! How much better than this miserable pacing back and forth just to start the stagnating blood and make the lagging moments endurable!
"So I turned again toward Boone. I was not in the mood to fear darkness or any encounter save one, and experienced hesitation only when I found myself reapproaching the bridge. Shadows which had protected me until now failed me there, and it was with caution I finally advanced and emerged upon the open spot where the road crossed the river. But even this was not needed. In the wide stretch before me cut by the inky stream, I saw no signs of life, and it was not till I was on the bridge itself that I discerned in the black hollows below the glint of a lantern, lighting up the bending fortes of two or three men who were dragging at something which heaved under their hands with the pull of the stream.
"It was a sight which has never left me, but one which gave wings to my feet that night and sent me flying on till a fork in the road brought me to a standstill. To the left lay the hotel. I could see its windows glimmering with faint lights, while, away to the right, there broke upon me from the hillside a solitary sparkle; but this sparkle came from the house where, but for the letter hidden in my heart, I should be sitting at this moment before my own fireside.
"What moved me? God knows. It may have been duty; it may have been curiosity; it may have been only dread to know the worst and know it at once; but seeing that single gleam I began to move toward it, and, before I was aware, I had reached the house, edged up to its unshaded window and taken a frightened look within.
"I was prepared and yet unprepared for what I saw. Within, standing alone, with garments dripping, gazing in frenzy at a slip of paper which clung wet about his hand, stood my husband. My words to him! I could see it in his eyes and the desperation which lit up all his features.
"Drawing back in terror from the road, I watched him fling that letter of from his fingers as he would a biting snake, and, striding to a cupboard high up on the wall, take down something I could not see and did not guess at till the sharp sound of a pistol-shot cleft my car, and I beheld him fall face downward on the carpet of fresh autumn leaves with which he had hidden the bare floor in expectation of his bride.
"The shriek which involuntarily went up from my lips must have rung far and wide, but only the groaning of the night-wind answered me. Driven by my fears to do something to save him if he was not yet dead, I tried the door, but it was locked; so was the window. Yet I might have battered my way in at that moment had I not heard two men coming down the road, one of whom was shouting to the other: 'I did not like his face. I shan't sleep till I've seen him again.'
"Somewhat relieved, I drew back from the road, but did not quit the spot till those men, seeing through the window what had happened, worked their way in and lifted him up in their arms. The look with which they let him fall back again was eloquent, and convinced me that it was death I saw. I started again upon my shuddering flight from Boone, secure in the belief that while my future would surely hold remorse for me, it would nevermore burden me with a hindrance in the shape of an unloved husband,"