Chapter XXIV. The Sins of the Fathers

The suspense which had held us tense and speechless was for the moment relieved and Mr. Steele allowed himself the following explanation:

"My hand trembled and the bullet, penetrated an inch too high."

Then he relapsed again into silence.

Mrs. Packard shuddered and went on:

"It may seem incredible to you, it seems incredible now to myself, but I completed my journey, entered my uncle's house, was made welcome there and started upon my new life without letting my eyes fall for one instant on the columns of a newspaper. I did not dare to see what they contained. That short but bitter episode of my sixteenth year was a nightmare of horror, to be buried with my old name and all that could interfere with the delights of the cultured existence which my uncle's means and affection opened before me. Two years and I hardly remembered; three years and it came to me only in dreams; four and even dreams failed to suggest it; the present, the glorious present was all. I had met you, Henry, and we had loved and married.

"Did any doubts come to disturb my joy? Very few. I had never received a word from Minnesota. I was as dead to every one there as they all were to me. I believed myself free and that the only wrong I did was in not taking you into my confidence. But this, the very nature of my secret forbade. How could I tell you what would inevitably alienate your affections? That act of my early girlhood by which I had gained an undeserved freedom had been too base; sooner than let you know this blot on my life, I was content to risk the possibility--the inconceivable possibility--of Mr. Brainard's having survived the attack he had made upon his own life. Can you understand such temerity? I can not, now that I see its results before me.

"So the die was cast and I became a wife instead of the mere shadow of one. You were prosperous, and not a sorrow came to disturb my sense of complete security till that day two weeks ago, when, looking up in my own library, I saw, gleaming between me and the evening lamp, a face, which, different as it was in many respects, tore my dead past out of the grave and sent my thoughts reeling back to a lonely road on a black hillside with a lighted window in view, and behind that window the outstretched form of a man with his head among leaves not redder than his blood.

"I have said to you, I have said to others, that a specter rose upon me that day in the library. It was such to me,--an apparition and nothing else. Perhaps he meant to impress himself as such, for I had heard no footfall and only looked up because of the constraining force of the look which awaited me. I knew afterward that it was a man whom I had seen, a man whom you yourself had introduced into the house; but at the instant I thought it a phantom of my forgotten past sent to shock and destroy me; and, struck speechless with the horror of it, I lost that opportunity of mutual explanation which might have saved me an unnecessary and cruel experience. For this man, who recognized me more surely than I did him, who perhaps knew who I was before he ever entered my house, has sported for two weeks with my fears and hopes as a tiger with his prey. Maintaining his attitude of stranger--you have been witness to his manner in my presence--he led me slowly but surely to believe myself deceived by an extraordinary resemblance; a resemblance, moreover, which did not hold at all times, and which frequently vanished altogether, as I recalled the straight-featured but often uncouth aspect of the man who had awakened the admiration of Boone. Memory had been awakened and my sleep filled with dreams, but the unendurable had been spared me and I was thanking God with my whole heart, when suddenly one night, when an evening spent with friends in the old way had made me feel safe, my love safe, my husband and my child safe, there came to my ears from below the sound of a laugh, loud, coarse and deriding,--such a laugh as could spring from no member of my own household, such a laugh as I heard but once before and that in the by-gone years when some one asked Mr. Brainard if he meant to live always in Boone. The shock was terrible, and when I learned that the secretary, and the secretary only, was below, I knew who that secretary was and yielded to the blow.

"Yet hope dies hard with the happy. I knew, but it was not enough to know,--I must be sure. There was a way--it came to me with my first fluttering breath as I recovered from my faint. In those old days when I was thrown much with this man, he had shown me a curious cipher and taught me how to use it. It was original with himself, he said, and some day we might be glad of a method of communication which would render our correspondence inviolable. I could not see why he considered this likely ever to be desirable, but I took the description of it which he gave me and promised that I would never let it leave my person. I even allowed him to solder about my neck the chain which held the locket in which he had placed it. Consequently I had it with me when I fled from Boone, and for the first few weeks after arriving at my uncle's house in Detroit. Then, wishing to banish every reminder of days I was so anxious to forget, I broke that chain, destroyed the locket and hid away from every one's sight the now useless and despised cipher. Why I retained the cipher I can not explain. Now, that cipher must prove my salvation. If I could find it again I was sure that the shock of receiving from my hand certain words written in the symbols he had himself taught me would call from him, an involuntary revelation. I should know what I had to fear. But so many changes had taken place and so long a time elapsed since I hid this slip of paper away that I was not even sure I still retained it; but after spending a good share of the night in searching for it, I finally came across it in one of my old trunks.

"The next morning I made my test. Perhaps, Henry, you remember my handing Mr. Steele an empty envelope to mail which he returned with an air of surprise so natural and seemingly unfeigned that he again forced me to believe that he was the stranger he appeared. Though he must have recognized at a glance for he was an adept in this cipher once--the seven simple symbols in which I had expressed the great cry of my soul 'Is it you?' he acted the innocent secretary so perfectly that all my old hopes returned and I experienced one hour of perfect joy. Then came another reaction. Letty brought in the baby with a paper pinned to her coat. She declared to us that a woman had been the instrument of this outrage, though the marks inside, suggesting the cipher but with characteristic variations bespeaking malice, could only have been made by one hand.

"How I managed to maintain sufficient hold upon my mind to drag the key from my breast and by its means to pick out the meaning of the first three words--words which once read suggested all the rest--I can not now imagine. Death was in my heart and the misery of it all more than human strength could bear; yet I compared paper with paper carefully, intelligently, till these words from the prayer- book with all their threatening meaning to me and mine started into life before me: 'Visiting the sins--' Henry, you know the words 'Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.' Upon the children! Henry, he meant Laura! our little Laura! I had wakened vengeance in a fiend. The man who had calmly smiled in my face as he handed me back that empty envelope inscribed with the wild appeal, 'Is it you?' was the man I had once driven to the verge of the grave and who had come back now to destroy us all.

"Yet, such is the reaching out of the drowning for straws, I did not utterly despair till Nixon brought me from this man's lodging-house, where I had sent him, a specimen of his handwriting.

"Nixon is the only confidant I have had. Nixon knew me as a girl when he worked in my uncle's home, and has always had the most unbounded, I may say jealous, affection for me. To him I had dared impart that I did not trust your new secretary; that he looked like a man I once knew who was a determined opponent of the party now trying to elect you; that a specimen of his writing would make me quite sure, and begged him to get it. I thought he might pick up such in the little office below, but he was never able to do so--Mr. Steele has taken care not to leave a line written in this house--but he did find a few lines signed with his name in his own room at the boarding-house, and these he showed me before he told me the result of his errand. They settled all doubts. What is to be my fate? Surely this man has no real claim on me, after all these years, when I thought myself your true and honest wife. He may ruin your campaign, defeat your hopes, overwhelm me with calumny and a loss of repute, but surely, surely he can not separate us. The law will not uphold him in that; will it, Henry? Say that it will not, say--oh, say that--it--will not--do--that, or we shall live to curse the day, not when we were born; but when our little innocent child came to us !"