The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XXV. The Finger on the Wall
At this appeal the mayor rose and faced his secretary and the spectacle was afforded me of seeing two strong men drawn up in conflict over a woman both had cherished above all else. And it was characteristic of the forceful men, as well as the extreme nature of the conflict, that both were quiet in manner and speech--perhaps the mayor the more so, as he began the struggle by saying:
"Is what Mrs. Packard says of your playing with her fears during these two weeks true, Mr. Steele?"
Without a droop of his eye, or a tremor in his voice, the answer came short, sharp and emphatic:
"Then, you are a villain! and I shall not feel myself called upon to show you any consideration beyond what justice demands. Have you any plea to urge beyond the natural one of her seemingly unprovoked desertion of you? Has not my wife--" the nobility with which he emphasized those two words made my heart swell--"spoken the truth?"
Ah! then the mask of disdainful serenity with which the other had hitherto veiled the burning anguish of his soul fell in one burst of irresistible passion.
"True! yes, it is true. But what does that truth involve for me? Not two weeks, but seven years of torture, five of them devoted to grief for her, loss, and two to rage and bitter revulsion against her whole sex when I found her alive, and myself the despised victim of her deception."
"She wronged you--she acknowledges that--but it was the wrong of an unthinking child--not of a realizing woman. Would you, a realizing man, tear her now from home, from her child, from her place in the community and my heart--make her despicable as well as unhappy, just to feed your revenge?"
"Yes, I would do that."
"Jeopardize interests you have so often professed in my hearing to be far above personal consideration--the success of your party, the triumph of your political principles?"
"My political principles!" Oh, the irony of his voice, the triumph in his laugh! "And what do you know of them? What I have said. Mayor Packard, your education as a politician has yet to be completed before you will be fit for the governorship of a state. I am an adept at the glorification of the party, of the man that it suits my present exigencies to promote, but it is a faculty which should have made you pause before you trusted me with the furtherance and final success of a campaign which may outlast those exigencies. I have not always been of your party; I am not so now at heart."
The mayor, outraged in every sentiment of honor as well as in the most cherished feelings of his heart, lowered upon his unmoved secretary with a wrath which would have borne down any other man before it.
"Do you mean to say, you, that your work is a traitor's work? That the glorification you speak of is false? That you may talk in my favor, but that when you come to the issue, you will vote according to your heart; that is, for Stanton?"
"I have succeeded in making myself intelligible."
The mayor flushed; indignation gave him vehemence.
"Then," he cried, "I take back the word by which I qualified you a moment ago. You are not a villain, you are a dastard."
Mr. Steele bowed in a way which turned the opprobrium into a seeming compliment.
"I have suffered so many wrongs at your hands that I can not wonder at suffering this one more."
Then slowly and with a short look at her: "The woman who has queened it so long in C--- society can not wish to undergo the charge of bigamy?"
"You will bring such a charge?"
"Certainly, if she does not voluntarily quit her false position, and, accepting the protection of the man whose name is really hers, go from this house at once."
At this alternative, uttered with icy deliberation, Mrs. Packard recoiled with a sharp cry; but the mayor thrust a sudden sarcastic query at his opponent:
"Which name? Steele or Brainard? You acknowledged both."
"My real name is Brainard; therefore, it is also hers. But I shall be content if she will take my present one of Steele. More than that, I shall be content if she will honestly accept from my hands a place of refuge where I swear she shall remain unmolested by me till this matter can be legally settled. I do not wish to make myself hateful to her, for I anticipate the day when she will be my wife in heart as she is now in law."
The word rang out in true womanly revolt. "I will die before that day ever comes to separate me from the man I love and the child who calls me mother. You may force me from this house, you may plunge me into poverty, into contumely, but you shall never make me look upon myself as other than the wife of this good man, whom I have wronged but will never disgrace."
"Madam," declared the inflexible secretary with a derisive appreciation which bowed her once proud head upon her shamed breast, "you are all I thought you when I took you from Crabbe's back-pantry in Boone to make you the honor and glory of a life which I knew then, as well as I do now, would not long run in obscure channels."
It was a sarcasm calculated to madden the proud man who, only a few minutes before, had designated the object of it by the sacred name of wife. But beyond a hasty glance at the woman it had bowed almost to the ground, the mayor gave no evidence of feeling either its force or assumption. Other thoughts were in his mind than those roused by jealous anger. "How old were you then?" he demanded with alarming incongruity. The secretary started. He answered, however, calmly enough:
"I? Seven years ago I was twenty-five. I am thirty-two now."
"So I have heard you say. A man of twenty-five is old enough to have made a record, Mr. Steele--" The mayor's tone hardened, so did his manner; and I saw why he had been such a power in the courts before he took up politics and an office. "Mr. Steele, I do not mean you to disturb my house or to rob me of my wife. What was your life before you met Olympia Brewster?"
A pause, the slightest in the world,--but the keen eye of the astute lawyer noted it, and his tone grew in severity and assurance. "You have known for two years that this woman whom you called yours was within your reach, if not under your very eye, and you forbore to claim her. Has this delay had anything to do with the record of those years to which I have just alluded?"
Had the random shot told? The secretary's eye did not falter, nor his figure lose an inch of its height, yet the impression made by his look and attitude were not the same; the fire had gone out of them; a blight had struck his soul--the flush of his triumph was gone.
Mayor Packard was merciless.
"Only two considerations could hold back a man like you from urging a claim he regarded as a sacred right; the fact of a former marriage or the remembrance of a forfeited citizenship--pardon me, we can not mince matters in a strait like this--which would delegalize whatever contract you may have entered into."
Still the secretary's eye did not swerve, though he involuntarily stretched forth his hand toward the table as if afraid of betraying a tremor in his rigidly drawn-up figure.
"Was there the impediment of a former marriage?"
No answer from the sternly set lips.
"Or was it that you once served a term--a very short term, cut short by a successful attempt at escape in a Minnesota prison?"
"Insults!" broke from those set lips and nothing more.
"Mr. Steele, I practised law in that state for a period of three years. All the records of the office and of the prison register are open to me. Over which of them should I waste my time?"
Then the tiger broke loose in the man who from the aggressor had become the attacked, and he cried:
"I shall never answer; the devil has whispered his own suggestions in your ear; the devil and nothing else."
But the mayor, satisfied that he made his point, smiled calmly, saying:
"No, not the devil, but yourself. You, even the you of seven years back, would not have lived in any country town if necessity, or let us say, safety, had not demanded it. You, with your looks and your ambitions,--to marry at twenty-five a girl from the kitchen! any girl, even if she had the making of an Olympia Packard, if you did not know that it was in your power to shake her off when you got ready to assert yourself, or better prospects offered? The cipher and the desirability you expressed of a means of communication unreadable save by you two,--all this was enough to start the suspicion; your own manner has done the rest. Mr. Steele, you are both a villain and a Bastard, and have no right in law to this woman. Contradict me if you dare."
"I dare, but will not," was the violent reply. "I shall not give you even that satisfaction. This woman who has gone through the ceremony of marriage with both of us shall never know to which of us she is the legal wife. Perhaps it is as good a revenge as the other. It certainly will interfere as much with her peace."
"Oh, oh, not that! I can not bear that!" leaped in anguish from her lips. "I am a pure woman, let no such torture be inflicted upon me. Speak! tell the truth as you are the son of a woman you would have us believe honest."
A smile then, cold but alive with gloating triumph, altered the straight line of his lips for an instant as he advanced toward the door. "A woman over the possession of whom it is an honor to quarrel!" were his words as he passed the mayor with a bow.
I looked to see the mayor spring and grasp him, by the throat, but that was left for another hand. As the secretary bent to touch the door it suddenly flew violently open and Nixon, quivering in every limb and with his face afire, sprang in and seized upon the other with a violence of passion which would have been deadly had there been any strength behind it.
It was but child's play for so strong a man as Mr. Steele to shake off so futile a grasp, and he did so with a rasping laugh. But the next moment he was tottering, blanched and helpless, and while struggling to right himself and escape, yielded more and more to a sudden weakness sapping his life-vigor, till he fell prone and apparently lifeless on the lounge toward which, with a final effort, he had thrown himself.
"Good! Good!" rang thrilling through the room, as the old man reeled back from the wall against which he had been cast. "God has finished what these old arms had only strength enough to begin. He is dead this time, and it's a mercy! Thank God, Miss Olympia! thank God as I do now on my knees!" But here catching the mayor's eye, he faltered to his feet again, saying humbly as he crept away:
"I couldn't help it, your Honor. I shouldn't have been listening at the door; but I have loved Miss Olympia, as we used to call her, more than anything in the world ever since she came to make my old master's house a place of sunshine, and all I'm sorry for is that God had to do the finishing which twenty years ago I could have done myself."