The Two Weird Sisters
Ellen seemed to understand my anxiety about Mrs. Packard and to sympathize with it. That afternoon as I passed her in the hall she whispered softly:
"I have just been unpacking that bag and putting everything back into place. She told me she had packed it in readiness to go with Mr. Packard if he desired it at the last minute."
I doubted this final statement, but the fact that the bag had been unpacked gave me great relief. I began to look forward with much pleasure to a night of unbroken rest.
Alas! rest was not for me yet. Relieved as to Mrs. Packard, I found my mind immediately reverting to the topic which had before engrossed it, though always before in her connection. The mystery of the so-called ghosts had been explained, but not the loss of the bonds, which had driven my poor neighbors mad. This was still a fruitful subject of thought, though I knew that such well-balanced and practical minds as Mayor Packard's or Mr. Steele's would have but little sympathy with the theory ever recurring to me. Could this money be still in the house?--the possibility of such a fact worked and worked upon my imagination till I grew as restless as I had been over the mystery of the ghosts and presently quite as ready for action.
Possibly the hurried glimpse I had got of Miss Thankful's countenance a little while before, in the momentary visit she paid to the attic window at which I had been accustomed to see either her or her sister constantly sit, inspired me with my present interest in this old and wearing trouble of theirs and the condition into which it had thrown their minds. I thought of their nights of broken rest while they were ransacking the rooms below and testing over and over the same boards, the same panels for the secret hiding-place of their lost treasure, of their foolish attempts to scare away all other intruders, and the racking of nerve and muscle which must have attended efforts so out of keeping with their age and infirmities.
It would be natural to regard the whole matter as an hallucination on their part, to disbelieve in the existence of the bonds, and to regard Miss Thankful's whole story to Mrs. Packard as the play of a diseased imagination.
But I could not, would not, carry my own doubts to this extent. The bonds had been in existence; Miss Thankful had seen them; and the one question calling for answer now was, whether they had been long ago found and carried off, or whether they were still within the reach of the fortunate hand capable of discovering their hiding-place.
The nurse who, according to Miss Thankful, had wakened such dread in the dying man's breast as to drive him to the attempt which had ended in this complete loss of the whole treasure, appeared to me the chief factor in the first theory. If any one had ever found these bonds, it was she; how, it was not for me to say, in my present ignorant state of the events following the reclosing of the house after this old man's death and burial. But the supposition of an utter failure on the part of this woman and of every other subsequent resident of the house to discover this mysterious hiding-place, wakened in me no real instinct of search. I felt absolutely and at once that any such effort in my present blind state of mind would be totally unavailing. The secret trap and the passage it led to, with all the opportunities they offered for the concealment of a few folded documents, did not, strange as it may appear at first blush, suggest the spot where these papers might be lying hid. The manipulation of the concealed mechanism and the difficulties attending a descent there, even on the part of a well man, struck me as precluding all idea of any such solution to this mystery. Strong as dying men sometimes are in the last flickering up of life in the speedily dissolving frame, the lowering of this trap, and, above all, the drawing of it back into place, which I instinctively felt would be the hardest act of the two, would be beyond the utmost fire or force conceivable in a dying man. No, even if he, as a member of the family, knew of this subterranean retreat, he could not have made use of it. I did not even accept the possibility sufficiently to approach the place again with this new inquiry in mind. Yet what a delight lay in the thought of a possible finding of this old treasure, and the new life which would follow its restoration to the hands which had once touched it only to lose it on the instant.
The charm of this idea was still upon me when I woke the next morning. At breakfast I thought of the bonds, and in the hour which followed, the work I was doing for Mrs. Packard in the library was rendered difficult by the constant recurrence of the one question into my mind: "What would a man in such a position do with the money he was anxious to protect from the woman he saw coming and secure to his sister who had just stepped next door?" When a moment came at last in which I could really indulge in these intruding thoughts, I leaned back in my chair and tried to reconstruct the room according to Mrs. Packard's description of it at that time. I even pulled my chair over to that portion of the room where his bed had stood, and, choosing the spot where his head would naturally lie, threw back my own on the reclining chair I had chosen, and allowed my gaze to wander over the walls before me in a vague hope of reproducing, in my mind, the ideas which must have passed through his before he rose and thrust those papers into their place of concealment. Alas! those walls were barren of all suggestion, and my eyes went wandering through the window before me in a vague appeal, when a sudden remembrance of his last moments struck me sharply and I bounded up with a new thought, a new idea, which sent me in haste to my room and brought me down again in hat and jacket. Mrs. Packard had once said that the ladies next door were pleased to have callers, and advised me to visit them. I would test her judgment in the matter. Early though it was, I would present myself at the neighboring door and see what my reception would be. The discovery I had made in my unfortunate accident in the old entry way should be my excuse. Apologies were in order from us to them; I would make these apologies.
I was prepared to confront poverty in this bare and comfortless-looking abode of decayed gentility. But I did not expect quite so many evidences of it as met my eyes as the door swung slowly open some time after my persistent knock, and I beheld Miss Charity's meager figure outlined against walls and a flight of uncarpeted stairs such as I had never seen before out of a tenement house. I may have dropped my eyes, but I recovered myself immediately. Marking the slow awakening of pleasure in the wan old face as she recognized me, I uttered some apology for my early call and then waited to see if she would welcome me in.
She not only did so, but did it with such a sudden breaking up of her rigidity into the pliancy of a naturally hospitable nature, that my heart was touched, and I followed her into the great bare apartment, which must have once answered the purposes of a drawing-room, with very different feelings from those with which I had been accustomed to look upon her face in the old attic window.
"I should like to see your sister, too," I said, as she hastily, but with a certain sort of ceremony, too, pushed forward one of the ancient chairs which stood at long intervals about the room. "I have not been your neighbor very long, but I should like to pay my respects to both of you." I had purposely spoken with the formal precision she had been accustomed to in her earlier days, and I could see how perceptibly her self-respect returned at this echo of the past, giving her a sudden dignity which made me forget for the moment her neglected appearance.
"I will summon my sister," she returned, disappearing quietly from the room.
I waited fifteen minutes, then Miss Thankful entered, dressed in her very best, followed by my first acquaintance in her same gown, but with a little cap on her head. The cap, despite its faded ribbons carefully pressed out but with too cold an iron, gave her an old-time fashionable air which for the moment created the impression that she might have been a beauty and a belle in her early days, which I afterward discovered to be true.
It was Miss Thankful, however, who had the personal presence, and it was she who now expressed their sense of the honor, pushing forward another chair than that from which I had risen, with the remark:
"Take this, I pray. Many an honored guest has occupied this seat. Let us see you in it."
I could detect no difference between the one she offered and the one in which I had just sat, but I at once stepped forward and took the chair she proffered. She bowed and Miss Charity bowed, and then they seated themselves side by side on the hair-cloth sofa, which was the only other article of furniture in the room.
"We are--we are preparing to move," stammered Miss Charity, a faint flush tingeing her faded cheeks, as she caught the involuntary glance I had cast about me.
Miss Thankful bridled and gave her sister a look of open rebuke. She had, as one could instantly see from her strong features and purposeful ways, been a woman of decided parts and of strict, upright character. Weakened as she was, the shadow of an untruth disturbed her. Her pride ran in a different groove from that of her once over-complimented, over-fostered sister. She was going to add a protest in words to that expressed by her gesture, but I hastily prevented this by coming at once to the point of my errand.
"My excuse for this early call," I said, this time addressing Miss Thankful, "lies in an adventure which occurred to me yesterday in the adjoining house." It was painful to see how they both started, and how they instinctively caught each at the other's hand as they sat side by side on the sofa, as if only thus they could bear the shock of what might be coming next. I had to nerve myself to proceed. "You know, or rather I gather from your kind greetings that you know that I am at present staying with Mrs. Packard. She is very kind and we spend many pleasant hours together; but of course some of the time I have to be alone, and then I try to amuse myself by looking about at the various interesting things which are scattered through the house."
A gasp from Miss Charity, a look still more expressive from Miss Thankful. I hastened to cut their suspense short.
"You know the little cabinet they have placed in the old entrance pointing this way? Well, I was looking at that when the whim seized me--I hardly know how--to press one of the knobs in the molding which runs about the doorway, when instantly everything gave way under me and I fell into a deep hole which had been scooped out of the alley-way--nobody knows for what."
A cry and they were on their feet, still holding hands and endeavoring to show nothing but concern for my disaster.
"Oh, I wasn't hurt," I smiled. "I was frightened, of course, but not so much as to lose my curiosity. When I got to my feet again, I looked about in this surprising hole--"
"It was our uncle's way of reaching his winecellar," Miss Thankful explained with great dignity as she and her sister sank back into their seats. "He had some remarkable old wine, and, as he was covetous of it, he conceived this way of securing it from everybody's knowledge but his own. It was a strange way, but he was a little touched," she added, laying a slow impressive finger on her forehead, "just a little touched here."
The short, significant glance she cast at Charity as she said this, and the little smile she gave were to give me to understand that this weakness had descended in the family. I felt my heart contract; my self-imposed task was a harder one than I had anticipated, but I could not shirk it now. "Did this wine-cellar you mention run all the way to this house?" I lightly inquired. "I stumbled on a passage leading here, which I thought you ought to know is now open to any one in Mayor Packard's house. Of course, it will be closed soon," I hastened to add as Miss Charity hurriedly rose at her sister's quick look and anxiously left the room. "Mrs. Packard will see to that."
"Yes, yes, I have no doubt; she's a very good woman, a very fair woman, don't you think so, Miss--"
"My name is Saunders."
"A very good name. I knew a fine family of that name when I was younger. There was one of them--his name was Robert--" Here she rambled on for several minutes as if this topic and no other filled her whole mind; then, as if suddenly brought back to what started it, she uttered in sudden anxiety, "You think well of Mrs. Packard? You have confidence in her?"
I allowed myself to speak with all the enthusiasm she so greedily desired.
"Indeed I have," I cried. "I think she can be absolutely depended on to do the right thing every time. You are fortunate in having such good neighbors at the time of this mishap."
At this minute Miss Charity reentered. Her panting condition, as well as the unsettled position of the cap on her head, told very plainly where she had been. Reseating herself, she looked at Miss Thankful and Miss Thankful looked at her, but no word passed. They evidently understood each other.
"I'm obliged to Mrs. Packard," now fell from Miss Thankful's lips, "and to you, too, young lady, for acquainting us with this accident. The passage we extended ourselves after taking up our abode in this house. We--we did not see why we should not profit by our ancestor's old and undiscovered wine-cellar to secure certain things which were valuable to us."
Her hesitation in uttering this final sentence--a sentence all the more marked because naturally, she was a very straightforward person--awoke my doubt and caused me to ask myself what she meant by this word "secure." Did she mean, as circumstances went to show and as I had hitherto believed, that they had opened up this passage for the purpose of a private search in their old home for the lost valuables they believed to be concealed there? Or had they, under some temporary suggestion of their disorganized brains, themselves hidden away among the rafters of this unexplored spot the treasure they believed lost and now constantly bewailed?
The doubt thus temporarily raised in my mind made me very uneasy for a moment, but I soon dismissed it and dropping this subject for the nonce, began to speak of the houses as they now looked and of the changes which had evidently been made in them since they had left the one and entered the other.
"I understand," I ventured at last, "that in those days this house also had a door opening on the alley-way. Where did it lead--do you mind my asking?--into a room or into a hallway? I am so interested in old houses."
They did not resent this overt act of curiosity; I had expected Miss Thankful to, but she didn't. Some recollection connected with the name of Saunders had softened her heart toward me and made her regard with indulgence an interest which she might otherwise have looked upon as intrusive.
"We long ago boarded up that door," she answered. "It was of very little use to us from our old library."
"It looked into one of the rooms then?" I persisted, but with a wary gentleness which I felt could not offend.
"No; there is no room there, only a passageway. But it has closets in it, and we did not like to be seen going to them any time of day. The door had glass panes in it, you know, just like a window. It made the relations so intimate with people only a few feet away."
"Naturally," I cried, "I don't wonder you wanted to shut them off if you could." Then with a sudden access of interest which I vainly tried to hide, I thought of the closets and said with a smile, "The closets were for china, I suppose; old families have so much china."
Miss Charity nodded, complacency in every feature; but Miss Thankful thought it more decorous to seem to be indifferent in this matter.
"Yes, china; old pieces, not very valuable. We gave what we had of worth to our sister when she married. We keep other things there, too, but they are not important. We seldom go to those closets now, so we don't mind the darkness."
"I--I dote on old china," I exclaimed, carefully restraining myself from appearing unduly curious. "Won't you let me look at it? I know that it is more valuable than you think. It will make me happy for the whole day, if you will let me see these old pieces. They may not look beautiful to you, you are so accustomed to them; but to me every one must have a history, or a history my imagination will supply."
Miss Charity looked gently but perceptibly frightened. She shook her head, saying in her weak, fond tones:
"They are too dusty; we are not such housekeepers as we used to be; I am ashamed--"
But Miss Thankful's peremptory tones cut her short.
"Miss Saunders will excuse a little dust. We are so occupied," she explained, with her eye fixed upon me in almost a challenging way, "that we can afford little time for unnecessary housework. If she wants to see these old relics of a former day, let her. You, Charity, lead the way."
I was trembling with gratitude and the hopes I had suppressed, but I managed to follow the apologetic figure of the humiliated old lady with a very good grace. As we quitted the room we were in, through a door at the end leading into the dark passageway, I thought of the day when, according to Mrs. Packard's story, Miss Thankful had come running across the alley and through this very place to astound her sister and nephew in the drawing-room with the news of the large legacy destined so soon to be theirs. That was two years ago, and to-day--I proceeded no further with what was in my mind, for my interest was centered in the closet whose door Miss Charity had just flung open.
"You see," murmured that lady, "that we haven't anything of extraordinary interest to show you. Do you want me to hand some of them down? I don't believe that it will pay you."
I cast a look at the shelves and felt a real disappointment. Not that the china was of too ordinary a nature to attract, but that the pieces I saw, and indeed the full contents of the shelves, failed to include what I was vaguely in search of and had almost brought my mind into condition to expect.
"Haven't you another closet here?" I faltered. "These pieces are pretty, but I am sure you have some that are larger and with the pattern more dispersed--a platter or a vegetable dish."
"No, no," murmured Miss Charity, drawing back as she let the door slip from her hand. "Really, Thankful,"--this to her sister who was pulling open another door,--"the look of those shelves is positively disreputable--all the old things we have had in the house for years. Don't--"
"Oh, do let me see that old tureen up on the top shelf," I put in. "I like that."
Miss Thankful's long arm went up, and, despite Miss Charity's complaint that it was too badly cracked to handle, it was soon down and placed in my hands. I muttered my thanks, gave utterance to sundry outbursts of enthusiasm, then with a sudden stopping of my heart-beats, I lifted the cover and--
"Let me set it down," I gasped, hurriedly replacing the cover. I was really afraid I should drop it. Miss Thankful took it from me and rested it on the edge of the lower shelf.
"Why, how you tremble, child!" she cried. "Do you like old Colonial blue ware as well as that? If you do, you shall have this piece. Charity, bring a duster, or, better, a damp cloth. You shall have it, yes, you shall have it."
"Wait!" I could hardly speak. "Don't get a cloth yet. Come with me back into the parlor, and bring the tureen. I want to see it in full light."
They looked amazed, but they followed me as I made a dash for the drawing-room, Miss Thankful with the tureen in her hands. I was quite Mistress of myself before I faced them again, and, sitting down, took the tureen on my lap, greatly to Miss Charity's concern as to the injury it might do my frock.
"There is something I must tell you about myself before I can accept your gift," I said.
"What can you have to tell us about yourself that could make us hesitate to bestow upon you such an insignificant piece of old cracked china?" Miss Thankful asked as I sat looking up at them with moist eyes and wildly beating heart.
"Only this," I answered. "I know what perhaps you had rather have had me ignorant of. Mrs. Packard told me about the bonds you lost, and how you thought them still in the house where your brother died, though no one has ever been able to find them there. Oh, sit down," I entreated, as they both turned very pale and looked at each other in affright. "I don't wonder that you have felt their loss keenly; I don't wonder that you have done your utmost to recover them, but what I do wonder at is that you were so sure they were concealed in the room where he lay that you never thought of looking elsewhere. Do you remember, Miss Quinlan, where his eyes were fixed at the moment of death?"
"On the window directly facing his bed."
"Gazing at what?"
"Sky--no, the walls of our house."
"Be more definite; at the old side door through which he could see the closet shelves where this old tureen stood. During the time you had been gone, he had realized his sinking condition, and, afraid of the nurse he saw advancing down the street, summoned all his strength and rushed with his treasure across the alley-way and put it in the first hiding-place his poor old eyes fell on. He may have been going to give it to you; but you had company, you remember, in here, and he may have heard voices. Anyhow, we know that he put it in the tureen because--" here I lifted the lid--"because--" I was almost as excited and trembling and beside myself as they were--"because it is here now."
They looked, then gazed in each other's face and bowed their heads. Silence alone could express the emotion of that moment. Then with a burst of inarticulate cries, Miss Charity rose and solemnly began dancing up and down the great room. Her sister looked on with grave disapproval till the actual nature of the find made its way into her bewildered mind, then she reached over and plunged her hand into the tureen and drew out the five bonds which she clutched first to her breast and then began proudly to unfold.
"Fifty thousand dollars!" she exclaimed. "We are rich women from to-day," and as she said it I saw the shrewdness creep beck into her eyes and the long powerful features take on the expressive character which they had so pitifully lacked up to the moment. I realized that I had been the witness of a miracle. The reason, shattered, or, let us say, disturbed by one shock, had been restored by another. The real Miss Thankful stood before me. Meanwhile the weaker sister, dancing still, was uttering jubilant murmurs to which her feet kept time with almost startling precision. But as the other let the words I have recorded here leave her lips, she came to a sudden standstill and approaching her lips to Miss Thankful's ear said joyfully:
"We must tell--oh," she hastily interpolated as she caught her sister's eyes and followed the direction of her pointing finger, "we have not thanked our little friend, our good little friend who has done us such an inestimable service." I felt her quivering arms fall round my neck, as Miss Thankful removed the tureen and in words both reasonable and kind expressed the unbounded gratitude which she herself felt.
"How came you to think? How came you to care enough to think?" fell from her lips as she kissed me on the forehead. "You are a jewel, little Miss Saunders, and some day--"
But I need not relate all that she said or all the extravagant things Miss Charity did, or even my own delight, so much greater even than any I had anticipated, when I first saw this possible ending of my suddenly inspired idea. However, Miss Thankful's words as we parted at the door struck me as strange, showing that it would be a little while yet before the full balance of her mind was restored.
"Tell everybody," she cried; "tell Mrs. Packard and all who live in the house; but keep it secret from the woman who keeps that little shop. We are afraid of her; she haunts this neighborhood to get at these very bonds. She was the nurse who cared for my brother, and it was to escape her greed that he hid this money. If she knew that we had found these our lives wouldn't be safe. Wait till we have them in the bank."
"Assuredly. I shall tell no one."
"But you must tell those at home," she smiled; and the beaming light in her kindled eye followed me the few steps I had to take, and even into the door.
So Bess had been the old man's nurse'!