The Mayor's Wife by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter VI. At the Stair-Head
I spent the evening alone. Mrs. Packard went to the theater with friends and Mayor Packard attended a conference of politicians. I felt my loneliness, but busied myself trying to sift the impressions made upon me by the different members of the household.
It consisted, as far as my present observation went, of seven persons, the three principals and four servants. Of the servants I had seen three, the old butler, the nurse, and the housemaid, Ellen. I now liked Ellen; she appeared equally alive and trustworthy; of the butler I could not say as much. He struck me as secretive. Also, he had begun to manifest a certain antagonism to myself. Whence sprang this antagonism? Did it have its source in my temperament, or in his? A question possibly not worth answering and yet it very well might be. Who could know?
Pondering this and other subjects, I remained in my cozy little room up-stairs, till the clock verging on to twelve told me that it was nearly time for Mrs. Packard's return.
Hardly knowing my duties as yet, or what she might expect of me, I kept my door open, meaning to speak to her when she came in. The thought had crossed my mind that she might not return at all, but remain away with her friends. Some fear of this kind had been in Mr. Packard's mind and naturally found lodgment in mine. I was therefore much relieved when, sharp on the stroke of midnight, I heard the front door-bell ring, followed by the sound of her voice speaking to the old butler. I thought its tone more cheer ful than before she went out. At all events, her face had a natural look when, after a few minutes' delay, she came upstairs and stepped into the nursery-a room on the same floor as mine, but nearer the stair-head.
From what impulse did I put out my light? I think now, on looking back, that I hoped to catch a better glimpse of her face when she came out again, and so be in a position to judge whether her anxiety or secret distress was in any special way connected with her child. But I forgot the child and any motive of this kind which I may have had; for when Mrs. Packard did reappear in the hall, there rang up from some place below a laugh, so loud and derisive and of so raucous and threatening a tone that Mrs. Packard reeled with the shock and I myself was surprised in spite of my pride and usual impassibility. This, had it been all, would not be worth the comment. But it was not all. Mrs. Packard did not recover from the shock as I expected her to. Her fine figure straightened itself, it is true, but only to sink again lower and lower, till she clung crouching to the stair-rail at which she had caught for support, while her eyes, turning slowly in her head, moved till they met mine with that unseeing and glassy stare which speaks of a soul-piercing terror--not fear in any ordinary sense, but terror which lays bare the soul and allows one to see into depths which--
But here my compassion drove me to action. Advancing quietly, I caught at her wrap which was falling from her shoulders. She grasped my hand as I did so.
"Did you hear that laugh?" she panted. "Whose was it? Who is down-stairs?"
I thought, "Is this one of the unaccountable occurrences which have given the house its blighted reputation?" but I said: "Nixon let you in. I don't know whether any one else is below. Mayor Packard has not yet come home."
"I know; Nixon told me. Would you-would you mind,"--how hard she strove to show only the indignant curiosity natural to the situation--"do you object, I mean, to going down and seeing?"
"Not at all," I cheerfully answered, glad enough of this chance to settle my own doubts. And with a last glance at her face, which was far too white and drawn to please me, I hastened below.
The lights had not yet been put out in the halls, though I saw none in the drawing-room or library. Indeed, I ran upon Nixon coming from the library, where he had evidently been attending to his final duties of fastening windows and extinguishing lights. Alive to the advantage of this opportune meeting, I addressed him with as little aggressiveness as possible.
"Mrs. Packard has sent me down to see who laughed just now so loudly. Was it you?"
Strong and unmistakable dislike showed in his eyes, but his voice was restrained and apparently respectful as he replied: "No, Miss. I didn't laugh. There was nothing to laugh at."
"You heard the laugh? It seemed to come from somewhere here. I was on the third floor and I heard it plainly."
His face twitched--a habit of his when under excitement, as I have since learned--as with a shrug of his old shoulders he curtly answered:
"You were listening; I was not. If any one laughed down here I didn't hear 'em."
Confident that he was lying, I turned quietly away and proceeded down the hall toward Mayor Packard's study.
"I wish to speak to the mayor," I explained.
"He's not there." The man had eagerly followed me. "He's not come home yet, Miss."
"But the gas is burning brightly inside and the door ajar. Some one is there."
"It is Mr. Steele. He came in an hour ago. He often works here till after midnight."
I had heard what I wanted to know, but, being, by this time at the very threshold, I could not forbear giving the door a slight push, so as to catch at least a momentary glimpse of the man he spoke of.
He was sitting at his post, and as he neither looked up nor stirred at my intrusion, I had an excellent opportunity for observing again the clear-cut profile which had roused my admiration the day before.
Certainly, seen as I saw it now, in the concentrated glow of a lamp shaded from every other corner of the room, it was a face well worth looking at. Seldom, perhaps never, had I beheld one cast in a more faultless mold. Smooth-shaven, with every harmonious line open to view, it struck the eye with the force and beauty of a cameo; masculine strength and feminine grace equally expressed in the expansive forehead and the perfectly modeled features. Its effect upon the observer was instantaneous, but the heart was not warmed nor the imagination awakened by it. In spite of the perfection of the features, or possibly because of this perfection, the whole countenance had a cold look, as cold as the sculpture it suggested; and, though incomparable in pure physical attraction, it lacked the indefinable something which gives life and meaning to such faces as Mayor Packard's, for instance. Yet it was not devoid of expression, nor did it fail to possess a meaning of its own. Indeed, it was the meaning in it which held my attention. Abstracted as the man appeared to be, even to the point of not perceiving my intruding figure in the open doorway, the thoughts which held him were not common thoughts, nor were they such as could be easily read, even by an accustomed eye. Having noted this, I softly withdrew, not finding any excuse for breaking in upon a man so occupied.
The butler stood awaiting me not three feet from the door. But taking a lesson from the gentleman I had just left, I ignored his presence completely, and, tripping lightly up-stairs, found Mrs. Packard awaiting me at the head of the first flight instead of the second.
Her fears, or whatever it was which moved her, had not diminished in my absence. She stood erect, but it was by the help of her grasp on the balustrade; and though her diamonds shone and her whole appearance in her sweeping dinner-dress was almost regal, there was mortal apprehension in her eye and a passion of inquiry in her whole attitude which I was glad her husband was not there to see.
I made haste to answer that inquiry by immediately observing:
"I saw Nixon. He was just coming out of the library. He says that he heard no laugh. The only other person I came upon down-stairs was Mr. Steele. He was busy over some papers and I did not like to interrupt him; but he did not look as if a laugh of any sort had come from him."
The words were hoarsely uttered and the tone unnatural, though she tried to carry it off with an indifferent gesture and a quick movement toward her room. I admired her self-control, for it was self-control, and was contrasting the stateliness of her present bearing with the cringing attitude of a few minutes before--when, without warning or any premonitory sound, all that beauty and pride and splendor collapsed before my eyes, and she fell at my feet, senseless.