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.
A MOVING SHADOW
I bent to lift the prostrate form of the unhappy woman who had been placed in my care. As I did so I heard something like a snarl over my shoulder, and, turning, saw Nixon stretching eager arms toward his mistress, whose fall he had doubtless heard.
“Let me! let me!” he cried, his old form trembling almost to the point of incapacity.
“We will lift her together,” I rejoined; and though his eyes sparkled irefully, he accepted my help and together we carried her into her own room and laid her on a lounge. I have had some training as a nurse and, perceiving that Mrs. Packard had simply fainted, I was not at all alarmed, but simply made an effort to restore her with a calmness that for some reason greatly irritated the old man.