THE CRY FROM THE STAIRS
I was alone in the library when Nixon returned. He must have seen Mrs. Packard go up before he left, for he passed by without stopping, and the next moment I heard his foot on the stairs.
Some impulse made me step into the hall and cast a glance at his ascending figure. I could see only his back, but there was something which I did not like in the curve of that back and the slide of his hand as it moved along the stair-rail.
His was not an open nature at the best. I almost forgot the importance of his errand in watching the man himself. Had he not been a servant—but he was, and an old and foolishly fussy one. I would not imagine follies, only I wished I could follow him into Mrs. Packard’s presence.
His stay, however, was too short for much to have been gained thereby. Almost immediately he reappeared, shaking his head and looking very much disturbed, and I was watching his pottering descent when he was startled, and I was startled, by two cries which rang out simultaneously from above, one of pain and distress from the room he had just left, and one expressive of the utmost glee from the lips of the baby whom the nursemaid was bringing down from the upper hall.
Appalled by the anguish expressed in the mother’s cry, I was bounding up-stairs when my course was stopped by one of the most poignant sights it has ever been my lot to witness. Mrs. Packard had heard her child’s laugh, and flying from her room had met the little one on the threshold of her door and now, crying and sobbing, was kneeling with the child in her arms in the open space at the top of the stairs. Her paroxysm of grief, wild and unconstrained as it was, gave less hint of madness than of intolerable suffering.
Wondering at an abandonment which bespoke a grief too great for all further concealment, I glanced again at Nixon. He had paused in the middle of the staircase and was looking back in a dubious way denoting hesitation. But as the full force of the tragic scene above made itself felt in his slow mind, he showed a disposition to escape and tremblingly continued his descent. He was nearly upon me when he caught my eye. A glare awoke in his, and seeing his right arm rise threateningly, I thought he would certainly strike me. But he slid by without doing so.
What did it mean? Oh, what did it all mean?
Determined to know the cause of Mrs. Packard’s anguish, if not of Nixon’s unprovoked anger against myself, I caught him back as he was passing me and peremptorily demanded:
“What message did you carry to Mrs. Packard to throw her into such a state as this? Answer! I am in this house to protect her against all such disturbances. What did you tell her?”