Chapter VIII. The Paragraph

I was up betimes. Would Mrs. Packard appear at breakfast? I hardly thought so. Yet who knows? Such women have great recuperative powers, and from one so mysteriously affected anything might be expected. Ready at eight, I hastened down to the second floor to find the lady, concerning whom I had had these doubts, awaiting me on the threshold of her room. She was carefully dressed and looked pale enough to have been up for hours. An envelope was in her hand, and the smile which hailed my approach was cold and constrained.

"Good morning," said she. "Let us go down. Let us go down together. I slept wretchedly and do not feel very strong. When did Mr. Packard come in?"

"Late. He went directly to the library. He said that he had but a short time in which to rest, and would take what sleep he could get on the lounge, when I told him of your very natural nervous attack."

She sighed--a sigh which came from no inconsiderable depths--then with a proud and resolute gesture preceded me down-stairs.

Her husband was already in the breakfast-room. I could hear his voice as we turned at the foot of the stairs. Mrs. Packard, hearing it, too, drew herself up still more firmly and was passing bravely forward, when Nixon's gray head protruded from the doorway and I heard him say:

"There's company for breakfast, ma'am. His Honor could not spare Mr. Steele and asked me to set a place for him."

I noted a momentary hesitation on Mrs. Packard's part, then she silently acquiesced and we both passed on. In another instant we were receiving the greetings and apologies of the gentlemen. If Mr. Steele had expected that his employer's wife would offer him her hand, he was disappointed.

"I am happy to welcome one who has proved so useful to my husband," she remarked with cool though careful courtesy as we all sat down at the table; and, without waiting for an answer, she proceeded to pour the coffee with a proud grace which gave no hint of the extreme feeling by which I had seen her moved the night before.

Had I known her better I might have found something extremely unnatural in her manner and the very evident restraint she put upon herself through the whole meal; but not having any acquaintance with her ordinary bearing under conditions purely social, I was thrown out of my calculations by the cold ease with which she presided at her end of the table, and the set smile with which she greeted all remarks, whether volunteered by her husband or by his respectful but affable secretary. I noticed, however, that she ate little.

Nixon, whom I dared not watch, did not serve with his usual precision,--this I perceived from the surprised look cast at him by Mayor Packard on at least two occasions. Though to the ordinary eye a commonplace meal, it had elements of tragedy in it which made the least movement on the part of those engaged in it of real moment to me. I was about to leave the table unenlightened, however, when Mrs. Packard rose and, drawing a letter from under the tray before which she sat, let her glances pass from one gentleman to the other with a look of decided inquiry. I drew in my breath and by dropping my handkerchief sought an excuse for lingering in the room an instant longer.

"Will--may I ask one of you," she stammered with her first show of embarrassment during the meal, "to--to post this letter for me?"

Both gentlemen were standing and both gentlemen reached for it; but it was into the secretary's hand she put it, though her husband's was much the nearer. As Mr. Steele received it he gave it the casual glance natural under the circumstances,--a glance which instantly, however, took on an air of surprise that ended in a smile.

"Have you not made some mistake?" he asked.

"This does not look like a letter." And he handed her back the paper she had given him. With an involuntary ingathering of her breath, she seemed to wake out of some dream and, looking down at the envelope she held, she crushed it in her hand with a little laugh in which I heard the note of real gaiety for the first time.

"Pardon me," she exclaimed; and, meeting his amused gaze with one equally expressive, she carelessly added: "I certainly brought a letter down with me."

Bowing pleasantly, but with that indefinable air of respect which bespeaks the stranger, he waited while she hastened back to the tray and drew from under it a second paper.

"Pardon my carelessness," she said. "I must have caught up a scrawl of the baby's in taking this from my desk."

She brought forward a letter and ended the whole remarkable episode by handing it now to her husband, who, with an apologetic glance at the other, put it in his pocket.

I say remarkable; for in the folded slip which had passed back and forth between her and the secretary, I saw, or thought I saw, a likeness to the paper she had brought the night before out of the attic.

If Mayor Packard saw anything unusual in his wife's action he made no mention of it when I went into his study at nine o'clock. And it was so much of an enigma to me that I was not ready to venture a question regarding it.

Her increased spirits and more natural conduct were the theme of the few sentences he addressed me, and while he urged precaution and a continued watch upon his wife, he expressed the fondest hope that he should find her fully restored on his return at the end of two weeks.

I encouraged his hopes, and possibly shared them; but I changed my mind, as he probably did his, when a few minutes later we met her in the hall hurrying toward us with a newspaper in her hand and a ghastly look on her face. "See! see! what they have dared to print!" she cried, with a look, full of anguish, into his bewildered face.

He took the sheet, read, and flushed, then suddenly grew white. "Outrageous!" he exclaimed. Then tenderly, "My poor darling! that they should dare to drag your name into this abominable campaign!"

"And for no reason," she faltered; "there is nothing wrong with me. You believe that; you are sure of that," she cried. I saw the article later. It ran something like this:

"Rumor has it that not even our genial mayor's closet is free from the proverbial skeleton. Mrs. Packard's health is not what it was,--and some say that the causes are not purely physical."

He tried to dissimulate. Putting his arm about her, he kissed her fondly and protested with mingled energy and feeling:

"I believe you to be all you should be--a true woman and true wife."

Her face lighted and she clung for a moment in passionate delight to his breast; then she caught his look, which was tender but not altogether open, and the shadows fell again as she murmured:

"You are not satisfied. Oh, what do you see what do others see, that I should be the subject of doubt? Tell me! I can never right myself till I know."

"I see a troubled face when I should see a happy one," he answered lightly; then, as she still clung in very evident question to his arm, he observed gravely: "Two weeks ago you were the life of this house, and of every other house into which your duties carried you. Why shouldn't you be the same to-day? Answer me that, dear, and all my doubts will vanish, I assure you."

"Henry,"--drooping her head and lacing her fingers in and out with nervous hesitation,--"you will think me very foolish,--I know that it will sound foolish, childish even, and utterly ridiculous; but I can explain myself no other way. I have had a frightful experience--here--in my own house--on the spot where. I have been so happy, so unthinkingly happy. Henry--do not laugh--it is real, very real, to me. The specter which is said to haunt these walls has revealed itself to me. I have seen the ghost."