The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter V. The Strange Neighbors Next Door
When I joined Mrs. Packard I found her cheerful and in all respects quite unlike the brooding woman she had seemed when I first met her. From the toys scattered about her feet I judged that the child had been with her, and certainly the light in her eyes had the beaming quality we associate with the happy mother. She was beautiful thus and my hopes of her restoration to happiness rose.
"I have had a good night," were her first words as she welcomed me to a seat in her own little nook. "I'm feeling very well this morning. That is why I have brought out this big piece of work." She held up a baby's coat she was embroidering. "I can not do it when I am nervous. Are you ever nervous?"
Delighted to enter into conversation with her, I answered in a way to lead her to talk about herself, then, seeing she was in a favorable mood for gossip, was on the point of venturing all in a leading question, when she suddenly forestalled me by putting one to me.
"Were you ever the prey of an idea?" she asked; "one which you could not shake off by any ordinary means, one which clung to you night and day till nothing else seemed real or would rouse the slightest interest? I mean a religious idea," she stammered with anxious attempt of to hide her real thought. "One of those doubts which come to you in the full swing of life to--to frighten and unsettle you."
"Yes," I answered, as naturally and quietly as I knew how; "I have had such ideas--such doubts."
"And were you able to throw them off?--by your will, I mean."
She was leaning forward, her eyes fixed eagerly on mine. How unexpected the privilege! I felt that in another moment her secret would be mine.
"In time, yes," I smiled back. "Everything yields to time and persistent conscientious work."
"But if you can not wait for time, if you must be relieved at once, can the will be made to suffice, when the day is dark and one is alone and not too busy?"
"The will can do much," I insisted. "Dark thoughts can be kept down by sheer determination. But it is better to fill the mind so full with what is pleasant that no room is left for gloom. There is so much to enjoy it must take a real sorrow to disturb a heart resolved to be happy."
"Yes, resolved to be happy. I am resolved to be happy." And she laughed merrily for a moment. "Nothing else pays. I will not dwell on anything but the pleasures which surround me." Here she took up her work again. "I will forget--I will--" She stopped and her eyes left her work to flash a rapid and involuntary glance over her shoulder. Had she heard a step? I had not. Or had she felt a draft of which I in my bounding health was unconscious?
"Are you cold?" I asked, as her glance stole back to mine. "You are shivering--"
"Oh, no," she answered coldly, almost proudly. "I'm perfectly warm. I don't feel slight changes. I thought some one was behind me. I felt'--Is Ellen in the adjoining room?"
I jumped up and moved toward the door she indicated. It was slightly ajar, but Ellen was not behind it.
"There's no one here," said I.
She did not answer. She was bending again over, her work, and gave no indication of speaking again on that or the more serious topic we had previously been discussing.
Naturally I felt disappointed. I had hoped much from the conversation, and now these hopes bade fair to fail me. How could I restore matters to their former basis? Idly I glanced out of the side window I was passing, and the view of the adjoining house I thus gained acted like an inspiration. I would test her on a new topic, in the hope of reintroducing the old. The glimpse I had gained into Mrs. Packard's mind must not be lost quite as soon as this.
"You asked me a moment ago if I were ever nervous," I began, as I regained my seat at her side. "I replied, 'Sometimes'; but I might have said if I had not feared being too abrupt, 'Never till I came into this house.'"
Her surprise partook more of curiosity than I expected.
"You are nervous here," she repeated. "What is the reason of that, pray? Has Ellen been chattering to you? I thought she knew enough not to do that. There's nothing to fear here, Miss Saunders; absolutely nothing for you to fear. I should not have allowed you to remain here a night if there had been. No ghost will visit you."
"No, I hear they never wander above the second story," I laughed. "If they did I should hardly anticipate the honor of a visit. It is not ghosts I fear; it is something quite different which affects me,--living eyes, living passions, the old ladies next door," I finished falteringly, for Mrs. Packard was looking at me with a show of startling alarm. "They stare into my room night and day. I never look out but I encounter the uncanny glance of one or the other of them. Are they live women or embodied memories of the past? They don't seem to belong to the present. I own that they frighten me."
I had exaggerated my feelings in order to mark their effect upon her. The result disappointed me; she was not afraid of these two poor old women. Far from it.
"Draw your curtains," she laughed. "The poor things are crazy and not really accountable. Their odd ways and manners troubled me at first, but I soon got over it. I have even been in to see them. That was to keep them from coming here. I think if you were to call upon them they would leave you alone after that. They are very fond of being called on. They are persons of the highest gentility, you know. They owned this house a few years ago, as well as the one they are now living in, but misfortunes overtook them and this one was sold for debt. I am very sorry for them myself. Sometimes I think they have not enough to eat."
"Tell me about them," I urged. Lightly as she treated the topic I felt convinced that these strange neighbors of hers were more or less involved in the mystery of her own peculiar moods and unaccountable fears.
"It's a great secret," she announced naively. "That is, their personal history. I have never told it to any one. I have never told it to my husband. They confided it to me in a sort of desperation, perhaps because my husband's name inspired them with confidence. Immediately after, I could see that they regretted the impulse, and so I have remained silent. But I feel like telling you; feel as if it would divert me to do so--keep me from thinking of other things. You won't want to talk about it and the story will cure your nervousness."
"Do you want me to promise not to talk about it?" I inquired in some anxiety.
"No. You have a good, true face; a face which immediately inspires confidence. I shall exact no promises. I can rely on your judgment."
I thanked her. I was glad not to be obliged to promise secrecy. It might become my imperative duty to disregard such a promise.
"You have seen both of their faces?" she asked.
"Then you must have observed the difference between them. There is the same difference in their minds, though both are clouded. One is weak almost to the point of idiocy, though strong enough where her one settled idea is concerned. The other was once a notable character, but her fine traits have almost vanished under the spell which has been laid upon them by the immense disappointment which has wrecked both their lives. I heard it all from Miss Thankful the day after we entered this house. Miss Thankful is the older and more intellectual one. I had known very little about them before; no more, in fact, than I have already told you. I was consequently, much astonished when they called, for I had supposed them to be veritable recluses, but I was still wore astonished when I noted their manner and the agitated and strangely penetrating looks they cast about them as I ushered them into the library, which was the only room I had had time to arrange. A few minutes' further observation of them showed me that neither of them was quite right. Instead of entering into conversation with me they continued to cast restless glances at the walls, ceilings, and even at the floor of the room in which we sat, and when, in the hope of attracting their attention to myself, I addressed them on some topic which I thought would be interesting to them, they not only failed to listen, but turned upon each other with slowly wagging heads, which not only revealed their condition but awakened me to its probable cause. They were between walls rendered dear by old associations. Till their first agitation was over I could not hope for their attention.
"But their agitation gave no signs of diminishing and I soon saw that their visit was far from being a ceremonial one; that it was one of definite purpose. Preparing myself for I knew not what, I regarded them with such open interest that before I knew it, and quite before I was ready for any such exhibition, they were both on their knees before me, holding up their meager arms with beseeching and babbling words which I did not understand till later.
"I was shocked, as you may believe, and quickly raised them, at which Miss Thankful told me their story, which I will now tell you.
"There were four of them originally, three sisters and one brother. The brother early went West and disappeared out of their lives, and the third sister married. This was years and years ago, when they were all young. From this marriage sprang all their misfortune. The nephew which this marriage introduced to their family became their bane as well as their delight. From being a careless spendthrift boy he became a reckless, scheming man, adding extravagance to extravagance, till, to support him and meet his debts, these poor aunts gave up first their luxuries, then their home and finally their very livelihood. Not that they acknowledged this. The feeling they both cherished for him was more akin to infatuation than to ordinary family love. They did not miss their luxuries, they did not mourn their home, they, did not even mourn their privations; but they, were broken-hearted and had been so for a long time, because they could no longer do for him as of old. Shabby themselves, and evidently ill-nourished, they grieved not over their own changed lot, but over his. They could not be reconciled to his lack of luxuries, much less to the difficulties in which he frequently found himself, who was made to ruffle it with the best and be the pride of their lives as he was the darling of their hearts. All this the poor old things made apparent to me, but their story did not become really interesting till they began to speak of this house we are in, and of certain events which followed their removal to the ramshackle dwelling next door. The sale of this portion of the property had relieved them from their debts, but they were otherwise penniless, and were just planning the renting of their rooms at prices which would barely serve to provide them with a scanty living, when there came a letter from their graceless nephew, asking for a large amount of money to save him from complete disgrace. They had no money, and were in the midst of their sorrow and perplexity, when a carriage drove up to the door of this house and from it issued an old and very sick man their long absent and almost forgotten brother. He had come home to die, and when told his sisters' circumstances, and how soon the house next door would be filled with lodgers, insisted upon having this place of his birth, which was empty at the time, opened for his use. The owner, after long continued entreaties from the poor old sisters, finally, consented to the arrangement. A bed was made up in the library, and the old man laid on it."
Mrs. Packard's voice fell, and I cast her a humorous look.
"Were there ghosts in those days?" I lightly asked.
Her answer was calm enough. "Not yet, but the place must have been desolate enough for one. I have sometimes tried to imagine the scene surrounding that broken-down old man. There was no furniture in the room, save what was indispensable to his bare comfort. Miss Thankful expressly said there was no carpet,--you will presently see why. Even the windows had no other protection than the bare shutters. But he was in his old home, and seemed content till Miss Charity fell sick, and they had to call in a nurse to assist Miss Thankful, who by this time had a dozen lodgers to look after. Then he grew very restless. Miss Thankful said he seemed to be afraid of this nurse, and always had a fever after having been left alone with her; but he gave no reason for his fears, and she herself was too straitened in means and in too much trouble otherwise to be affected by such mere whims, and went on doing her best, sitting with him whenever the opportunity offered, and making every effort to conceal the anxiety she felt for her poor nephew from her equally poor brother. The disease under which the brother labored was a fatal one, and he had not many days to live. She was startled when one day her brother greeted her appearance, with an earnest entreaty for the nurse to be sent out for a little while, as this was his last day, and he had something of great importance to communicate to her before he died.
"She had not dreamed of his being so low as this, but when she came to look at him, she saw, that he had not misstated his case, and that he was really very near death. She was in a flurry and wanted to call in the neighbors and rout her sister up from her own sick bed to care for him. But he wanted nothing and nobody, only to be left alone with her.
"So she sent the nurse out and sat down on the side of the bed to hear what he had to say to her, for he looked very eager and was smiling in a way to make her heart ache.
"You must remember," continued Mrs. Packard, "that at the time Miss Thankful was telling this story we were in the very room where it had all happened. As she reached this part of her narration, she pointed to the wall partitioning off the corridor, and explained that this was where the bed stood,--an old wooden one brought down from her own attic.
"'It creaked when I sat down on it,' said she, 'and I remember that I felt ashamed of its shabby, mattress and the poor sheets. But we had no better,' she moaned, 'and he did not seem to mind.' I tell you this that you may understand what must have taken place in her heart when, a few minutes later, he seized her hand in his and said that he had a great secret to communicate to her. Though he had seemed the indifferent brother for years, his heart had always been with his home and his people, and he was going to prove it to her now; he had made money, and this money was to be hers and Charity's. He had saved it for them, brought it to them from the far West; a pile of money all honestly earned, which he hoped would buy back their old house and make them happy again in the old way. He said nothing of his nephew. They had not mentioned him, and possibly he did not even know of his existence. All was to be for them and the old house, this old house. This was perhaps why he was content to lie in the midst of its desolation. He foresaw better days for those he loved, and warmed his heart at his precious secret.
"But his sister sat aghast. Money! and so little done for his comfort! That was her first thought. The next, oh, the wonder and the hope of it! Now the boy could be saved; now he could have his luxuries. If only it might be enough! Five thousand, ten thousand. But no, it could not be so much. Her brother was daft to think she could restore the old home on what he had been able to save. She said something to show her doubt, at which he laughed; and, peering slowly and painfully about him, drew her hands toward his left side. 'Feel,' said he, 'I have it all here. I would trust nobody. Fifty, thousand dollars.'
"Fifty thousand dollars! Miss Thankful sprang to her feet, then sat again, overcome by, her delight. Placing her hand on the wallet he held tied about his body, she whispered, 'Here?'
"He nodded and bade her look. She told me she did so; that she opened the wallet under his eye and took out five bonds each for ten thousand dollars. She remembers them well; there was no mistake in the figures. She held fifty thousand dollars in her hands for the space of half a minute; then he bade her put them back, with an injunction to watch over him well and not to let that woman nurse come near him till she had taken away the wallet immediately after his death. He could not bear to part with it while alive.
"She promised. She was in a delirium of joy. In one minute her life of poverty had changed to one of ecstatic hope. She caressed her brother. He smiled contentedly, and sank into coma or heavy sleep. She remained a few minutes watching him. Picture after picture of future contentment passed before her eyes; phantasmagoria of joy which held her enthralled till chance drew her eyes towards the window, and she found herself looking out upon what for the moment seemed the continuation of her dream. This was the figure of her nephew, standing in the doorway of the adjoining house. This entrance into the alley is closed up now, but in those days it was a constant source of communication between the two houses, and, being directly opposite the left-hand library window, would naturally fall under her eye as she looked up from her brother's bedside. Her nephew! the one person of whom she was dreaming, for whom she was planning, older by many years than when she saw him last, but recognizable at once, as the best, the handsomest--but I will spare you her ravings. She was certainly in her dotage as concerned this man.
"He was not alone. At his side stood her sister, eagerly pointing across the alley to herself. It was the appearance of the sister which presently convinced her that what she saw was reality and no dream. Charity had risen from her bed to greet the newcomer, and her hasty toilet was not one which could have been easily imagine even by her sister. The long-absent one had returned. He was there, and he did not know what these last five minutes had done for them all. The joy of what she had to tell him was too much for her discretion. Noting how profoundly her brother slept, she slipped out of the room to the side door and ran across the alley to her own house. Her nephew was no longer in the doorway where she had seen him, but he had left the door ajar and she rushed in to find him. He was in the parlor with Miss Charity, and no sooner did her eyes fall on them both than her full heart overflowed, and she blurted out their good fortune. Their wonder was immense and in the conversation which ensued unnoted minutes passed. Not till the clock struck did she realize that she had left her brother alone for a good half-hour: This was not right and she went hurrying back, the happiest woman in town. But it was a short- lived happiness. As she reentered the sick-room she realized that something was amiss. Her brother had moved from where she had left him, and now lay stretched across the foot of the bed, where he had evidently fallen from a standing position. He was still breathing, but in great gasps which shook the bed. When she bent over him in anxious questioning, he answered her with a ghastly stare, and that was all. Otherwise, everything looked the same.
"'What has happened? What have you done?' she persisted, trying to draw him up on the pillow. He made a motion. It was in the direction of the front door. 'Don't let her in,' he muttered. 'I don't trust her, I don't trust her. Let me die in peace.' Then, as Miss Thankful became conscious of a stir at the front door, and caught the sound of a key turning in the lock, which could only betoken the return of the nurse, he raised himself a little and she saw the wallet hanging out of his dressing gown. 'I have hidden it,' he whispered, with a nervous look toward the door: 'I was afraid she might come and take it from me, so I put it in--' He never said where. His eyes, open and staring straight before him, took on a look of horror, then slowly glazed under the terrified glance of Miss Thankful. Death had cut short that vital sentence, and simultaneously with the entrance of the nurse, whose return he had so much feared, he uttered his last gasp and sank back lifeless on his pillow. "With a cry Miss Thankful pounced on the wallet. It opened out flat in her hand, as empty as her life seemed at that minute. But she was a brave woman and in another instant her courage had revived. The money could not be far away; she would find it at the first search. Turning on the nurse, she looked her full in the face. The woman was gazing at the empty wallet. 'You know what was in that?' queried Miss Thankful. A fierce look answered her. 'A thousand dollars!' announced Miss Thankful. The nurse's lip curled. 'Oh, you knew that it was five,' was Miss Thankful's next outburst. Still no answer, but a look which seemed to devour the empty wallet. This look had its effect. Miss Thankful dropped her accusatory tone, and attempted cajolery. 'It was his legacy to us,' she explained. 'He gave it to me just before he died. You shall be paid out of it. Now will you call my sister? She's up and with my nephew, who came an hour ago. Call them both; I am not afraid to remain here for a few moments with my brother's body.' This appeal, or perhaps the promise, had its effect. The nurse disappeared, after another careful look at her patient, and Miss Thankful bounded to her feet and began a hurried search for the missing bonds. They could not be far away. They must be in the room, and the room was so nearly empty that it would take but a moment to penetrate every hiding-place. But alas! the matter was not so simple as she thought. She looked here, she looked there; in the bed, in the washstand drawer, under the cushions of the only chair, even in the grate and up the chimney; but she found nothing--nothing! She was standing stark and open- mouthed in the middle of the floor, when the others entered, but recovered herself at sight of their surprise, and, explaining what had happened, set them all to search, sister, nephew, even the nurse, though she was careful to keep close by the latter with a watchfulness that let no movement escape her. But it was all fruitless. The bonds were not to be found, either in that room or in any place near. They ransacked, they rummaged; they went upstairs, they, went down; they searched every likely and every, unlikely place of concealment, but without avail. They failed to come upon the place where he had hidden them; nor did Miss Thankful or her sister ever see them again from that day to this."
"Oh!" I exclaimed; "and the nephew? the nurse ?"
"Both went away disappointed; he to face his disgrace about which his aunts were very reticent, and she to seek work which was all the more necessary, to her, since she had lost her pay, with the disappearance of these bonds, whose value I have no doubt she knew and calculated on."
"And the aunts, the two poor old creatures who stare all day out of their upper window at these walls, still believe that money to be here," I cried.
"Yes, that is their mania. Several tenants have occupied these premises--tenants who have not stayed long, but who certainly filled all the rooms, and must have penetrated every secret spot the house contains, but it has made no difference to them. They believe the bonds to be still lying in some out-of-the-way place in these old walls, and are jealous of any one who comes in here. This you can understand better when I tell you that one feature of their mania is this: they have lost all sense of time. It is two years since their brother died, yet to them it is an affair of yesterday. They showed this when they talked to me. What they wanted was for me to give up these bonds to them as soon as I found them. They seemed to think that I might run across them in settling, and made me promise to wake them day or night if I came across them unexpectedly."
"How pathetic!" I exclaimed. "Do you suppose they have appealed in the same way to every, one who has come in here?"
"No, or some whisper of this lost money would have become current in the neighborhood. And it never has. The traditions associated with the house," here her manner changed a little, "are of quite another nature. I suppose the old gentleman has walked--looking, possibly, for his lost bonds."
"That would be only natural," I smiled, for her mood was far from serious. "But," I quietly pursued, "how much of this old woman's story do you believe? Can not she have been deceived as to what she saw? You say she is more or less demented. Perhaps there never was any old wallet, and possibly never any money."
"I have seen the wallet. They brought it in to show me. Not that that proves anything; but somehow I do believe in the money, and, what is more, that it is still in this house. You will think me as demented as they."
"No, no," I smiled, "for I am inclined to think the same; it lends such an interest to the place. I wouldn't disbelieve it now for anything."
"Nor I," she cried, taking up her work. "But we shall never find it. The house was all redecorated when we came in. Not one of the workmen has become suddenly wealthy."
"I shall no longer begrudge these poor old souls their silent watch over these walls that holds their treasure," I now remarked.
"Then you have lost your nervousness?"
"So have I," laughed Mrs. Packard, showing me for the first time a face of complete complacency and contentment.