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   Chapter 12 THE TRAMP HOUSE.

Tracy Park By Mary Jane Holmes Characters: 15341

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


About midway between the entrance to the park and the Collingwood grounds, and fifty rods or more from the cross-road which the strange woman had taken on the night of the storm, stood a small stone building, which had been used as a school-house until the Shannondale turnpike was built and the cross-road abandoned. After that it was occupied by one poor family after another, until the property of which it was a part came into the hands of the elder Mr. Tracy, who, with his English ideas, thought to make it a lodge and bring the gates of his park down to it. But this he did not do, and the house was left to the mercy of the winds, and the storms, and the boys, until Arthur became master there, and with his artistic taste thought to beautify it a little and turn it to some use.

'I would tear it down,' he said to his neighbor, Mr. St. Claire, who stood with him one day looking at it, 'I would tear it down, and have once or twice given orders to that effect, but as often countermanded them. I do not know that I am exactly superstitious, but I am subject to fancies, or presentiments, or whatever you choose to call those moods which take possession of you and which you cannot shake off, and, singularly enough, one of these fancies is connected with this old hut, and as often as I decide to remove it something tells me not to; and once I actually dreamed that a dead woman's hand clutched me by the arm and bade me leave it alone. A case of "Woodman spare that tree," you see.'

And Arthur laughed lightly at his own morbid fancies, but he left the house and planted around it quantities of woodbine, which soon crept up its sides to the chimney-top and made it look like the ivy-covered cottages so common in Ireland. It was the nicest kind of rendezvous for lovers, who frequently availed themselves of its seclusion to whisper their secrets to each other, and it was sometimes used as a dining-room by the people of Shannondale, where in summer they held picnics in the pretty pine grove not far away. But during Arthur's absence it had been suffered to go to decay, for Frank cared little for lovers or picnics, and less for the tramps who often slept there at night, and for whom it came at last to be called the Tramp House. So the winds, and the storms, and the boys did their work upon it unmolested, and when Arthur returned, the door hung upon one hinge, and there was scarcely a whole light of glass in the six windows.

'Better tear the old rookery down. It is of no earthly use except to harbor rats and tramps. I've known two or three to spend the night in it at a time, and once a lot of gipsies quartered themselves here for a week and nearly scared Dolly to death,' Frank said to his brother as they were walking past it a few days after his return, and Arthur was commenting upon its dilapidated appearance.

'Oh, the tramps sleep here, do they?' Arthur said. 'Well, let them. If any poor, homeless wretches want to stay here nights they are very welcome, I am sure, and I will see that the door is rehung and glass put in the windows. May as well make them comfortable.'

'Do as you like,' Frank replied, and there, so far as he was concerned, the matter ended.

But while the carpenters were at work at the Park Arthur sent one of them to the old stone house and had the door fixed and glass put in two of the windows, while rude but close shutters were nailed before the others, and then Arthur went himself into the room and pushed a long table which the picnic people had used for their refreshments and the tramps for a bed into a corner, where one sleeping upon it would be more sheltered from the draught. All this seemed nonsense to Frank, who laughingly suggested that Arthur should place in it a stove and a ton of coal for the benefit of his lodgers. But Arthur cared little for his brother's jokes. His natural kindness of heart, which was always seeking another's good, had prompted him to this care for the Tramp House, in which he felt a strange interest, never dreaming that what he was doing would reach forward to the future and influence not only his life but that of many others.

The storm which had raged so fiercely around the house in the park had not spared the cottage in the lane, which rocked like a cradle as gust after gust of wind struck it with a force which made every timber quiver, and sent the boy Harold close to his grandmother's side as he asked, tremblingly:

'Do you think we shall be blown away?'

The rheumatism from which Mrs. Crawford had been suffering in the fall had troubled her more or less during the entire winter, and now, aggravated by a cold, it was worse than it had ever been before, and on the night of the storm she was suffering intense pain, which was only relieved by the hot poultices which Harold made under her direction and applied to the swollen limb. This kept him up later than usual, and the clock was striking eleven when his grandmother declared herself easier, and bade him go to bed.

It was at this hour that Arthur Tracy had fancied he heard the cry for help, and the snow was sweeping past the cottage in great billows of white when Harold went to the window and looked out into the night. In the summer when the leaves were upon the trees the old stone house could not he seen from the cottage, from which it was distant a quarter of a mile or more, but in the winter when the trees were stripped of their foliage it was plainly discernible, and as Harold glanced that way a gleam of light appeared suddenly, as if the door had been opened and the flickering rays of a candle had for a moment shone out into the darkness. Then it disappeared, but not until Harold had cried out:

'Oh, grandma, there's a light in the Tramp House; I saw it plain as day. Somebody is in there.'

'God pity them.' was Mrs. Crawford's reply, though she did not quite credit Harold's statement, or think of it again that night.

It was late next morning when Harold awoke to find the sun shining into the room, and without any sign of the terrible storm, except the snow, which lay in great piles everywhere and came almost to the window's edge. But Harold was not afraid of snow, and soon had the walks cleared around the cottage, and when, after breakfast, which he prepared himself, for his grandmother could not step, he was told that a doctor must be had and he must go for him, he did not demur at all, but commenced his preparations at once for the long and wearisome walk.

'Better go through the park,' his grandmother said to him, as he was tying his warm comforter about his ears and putting on his mittens. 'It is a little farther that way, but somebody has broken a path by this time, and the cross-road, which is nearer, must be impassable.'

Harold made no reply, but remembering the light he had seen in the Tramp House, resolved within himself to take the cross-road and investigate the mystery. Bidding his grandmother good-by, and telling her he should be back before she had time to miss him, he started on his journey, and was soon plunging through the snow, which, in some places, was up to his armpits, so that his progress was very slow, but by kicking with his feet and throwing out his arms like the paddles of a boat, he managed to get on until he was opposite the Tramp House, which looked like an immense snow-heap, so completely was it covered. Only the chimney and the slanting roof showed any semblance to a house as Harold made his way toward it, still beating the snow with his arms, and thinking it was not quite the fun he had fancied it might be.

He was close to the house at last, and stood for a moment loo

king at it, while a faint thrill of fear stirred in his veins as he remembered to have heard that burglars and thieves sometimes made it their rendezvous after a night's marauding. What if they were there now, and should rush upon him if he ventured to disturb them!

'I don't believe I will try it,' he thought, as he glanced nervously at the door, which was blockaded by a great bank of snow; and he was about to retrace his steps, when a sound met his ear which made him stand still and listen until it was repeated a second time.

Then forgetting both burglar and thief, he started forward quickly, and was soon at the door, from which he dug away the snow with a desperate energy, as if working for his life. For the sound was the cry of a little child, frightened and pleading.

'Mah-nee! mah-nee!' it seemed to say; and Harold, thinking it was mamma, answered, cheerily:

'I am coming as fast I can.'

Then the crying ceased, and all was still inside, while Harold worked on until enough snow was cleared away to allow of his opening the door about a foot, and through this narrow opening he forced his way into the cold, damp room, where for a moment he could see nothing distinctly, for the sunlight outside had blinded him, and there was but little light inside, owing to the barred and snow-bound windows.

Gradually, however, as he became accustomed to the place, he saw upon the long table in the corner where Arthur Tracy had moved it months before, what looked like a human form stretched at full length and lying upon its back, with its white, stony face upturned to the rafters above, and no sound or motion to tell that it still lived.

With an exclamation of surprise, Harold sprang forward and laid his hand upon the pale forehead of the woman, but started back as quickly with a cry of horror, for by the touch of the ice-cold flesh he knew the woman was dead.

'Frozen to death!' he whispered, with ashen lips; and then, as something stirred under the gray cloak which partly covered the woman, he conquered his terror and went forward again to the table, over which he bent curiously.

Again the cry, which was more like 'mah-nee' now than 'mamma,' met his ear, and, stooping lower, he saw a curly head nestle close to the bosom of the woman, while a little fat white hand was clasping the neck as if for warmth and protection.

At this sight all Harold's fear vanished, and, bending down so that his lips almost touched the bright, wavy hair, he said:

'Poor little girl!'-he felt instinctively that it was a girl-'poor little girl! come with me away from this dreadful place!' and he tried to lift up her head, but she drew it away from him, and repeated the piteous cry of 'Mah-nee, mah-nee!'

At last, however, as Harold continued to talk to her, the cries ceased, and, cautiously lifting her head, she turned toward him a fat, chubby face and a pair of soft, blue eyes in which the great tears were standing. Then her lips began to quiver in a grieved kind of way, as if the horror of the previous night had stamped itself upon her tender mind and she were asking for sympathy.

'Mah-nee!' she said again, placing one hand on the cold, dead face, and stretching the other toward Harold, who put out his arms to take her.

But something resisted all his efforts, and a closer inspection showed him a long, old-fashioned carpet-bag, which enveloped her body from her neck to her feet, and into which she had evidently been put to protect her from the cold.

'Not a bad idea either,' Harold said, as he comprehended the situation; 'and your poor mother gave you the most of her cloak, too, and her shawl,' he continued, as he saw how carefully the child had been wrapped, while the mother, if it were her mother, had paid for her unselfishness with her life.

'What is your name, little girl?' he asked.

The child, who had been staring at him while he talked as if he were a lunatic, made no reply until he had her in his arms, when she, too, began to talk in a half-frightened way. Then he looked at her as if she were the lunatic, for never had he heard such speech as hers.

'I do believe you are a Dutchman,' he said, as he wrapped both shawl and cloak around her and started for the door, which he kicked against some time in order to make an opening wide enough to allow of his egress with his burden.

When at last they emerged from the cold, dark room into the bright sunshine, the child gave a great cry of delight, and the blue eyes fairly danced with joy as they fell upon the dazzling snow. Then she put both arms around Harold's neck, and nestling her face close to his, kissed him as fondly as if she had known him all her life, while the boy paid her back kiss after kiss as he proceeded slowly toward home.

The child was heavy, and the bag and shawl made such an unwieldy bundle that his progress was very slow, and he stopped more than once to rest and take breath, and as often as he stopped the blue eyes would look up enquiringly at him with an expression which made his boyish heart beat faster as he thought what pretty eyes they were and wondered who she was. Once he fell down, and bag and baby rolled in the snow; but only the vigorous kicking of a pair of little legs inside the bag showed that the child disapproved of the proceeding, for she made no sound, and when he picked her up she brushed the snow from his hair, and laughed as if the thing had been done for fun.

He reached the cottage at last, and bursting into the room where his grandmother was sitting with her foot in a chair, exclaimed, as he put down the child, who, as she was still enveloped in the bag, stood with difficulty:

'Oh grandma, what do you think? I did see a light in the Tramp House, and there is somebody there-a woman-dead-frozen to death, with nothing over her, for she had given her cloak and shawl to her little girl. I went there. I found her, and brought the baby home in the carpet-bag, and now I must go back to the woman. Oh, it was dreadful to see her white face, and it is so cold there and dark;' and if the horror of what he had seen had just impressed itself upon him, the boy turned pale and faint, and, staggering to a chair, burst into tears.

Too much astonished to utter a word, Mrs. Crawford stared at him a moment in a bewildered kind of way, and then when the child, seeing him cry, began also to cry for "Mah-nee," and struggle in the bag, she forgot her lame foot, on which she had not stepped for a week, and going to the little girl, released her from the bag, and taking her upon her lap, began to untie the soft woollen cloak and to chafe the cold fingers, while she questioned her grandson.

Having recovered himself somewhat, Harold repeated his story, and asked with a shudder:

'Must I go for her alone? I can't, I can't. I was not afraid with the baby there, but it is so awful, and I never saw any one dead before.'

'Go back alone! Of course not!' his grandmother replied. 'But you must go to the park at once and tell them; go as fast as you can. She may not be dead.'

'Yes, she is,' Harold answered, decidedly. 'I touched her face, and nothing alive could feel like that.'

He was buttoning his overcoat preparatory to a fresh start, but before he went he kissed the little girl who was sitting on his grandmother's lap, and who, as she saw him leaving her, began to cry for him and to utter curious sounds unintelligible to them both. But Harold brought her a piece of bread, which she began to devour ravenously, and then he stepped quietly out and was soon breaking through the drifts which lay between the cottage and the park.

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