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   Chapter 13 THE WOMAN.

Tracy Park By Mary Jane Holmes Characters: 30965

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


They slept later than usual at the park house that morning, and Frank and his family were just sitting down to breakfast, and Arthur was taking his rolls and coffee in his own room, when John, with a white, scared face, looked in and said:

'Excuse me, Mr. Tracy, but-but something dreadful has happened. There's a woman frozen to death in the Tramp House, with a baby, and Harold Hastings found them, and-but he is here, sir; he will tell you himself;' and he went for the boy, who soon entered the room, followed by every servant in the house.

Harold had come upon John first in the stable, and sinking down exhausted upon the hay, had told his story, while the man, John, listened terror-stricken and open-mouthed. Then seeing how weak and tired Harold seemed, and how he sank back upon the hay when he attempted to rise, he took him in his arms, and carrying him to the kitchen, left him there while he went with the news to his master.

'A woman dead in the Tramp House, and a baby!' Frank exclaimed, and for an instant he felt as if he were dying, for there flashed over him a conviction that the woman had come in the train the previous night, and that it was her cry for help which had been borne to him on the winds, and to which he had paid no heed.

'Are you sick? Are you going to faint?' his wife said to him, as she saw how white he grew, and how heavily he leaned back in his chair as Harold related the particulars of his finding the woman and the child.

'I am not going to faint; but it makes me sick and shaky to think of a woman freezing to death so near us that if she had cried for help we might perhaps have heard her,' Frank replied.

Then turning to Harold, he continued:

'How did she look? Was she young? Was she pretty? Was she dark or fair?'

He almost gasped the last word, as if it choked him, and no one guessed how anxiously he waited for Harold's answer, which did not afford him much relief.

'I don't know; it was so dark in there, and cold, and I was afraid some of the time, and in a hurry. I only know that her nose was long and large, for I touched it when I was trying to get at the little girl, and it was so cold-oh, oh!'

And Harold shuddered as if he still felt the icy touch of the dead.

'A long nose and a large one,' Frank said, involuntarily, while a sigh of relief escaped him as he remembered that the nose of the picture in his brother's room was neither long nor large.

Still Harold might be mistaken, and though he had no good cause for believing that the woman lying dead in the Tramp House was Gretchen, there was a horrible feeling in his heart, while a lump came into his throat and affected his speech, which was thick and indistinct, as he rose from his chair at last and said to John:

'We have no time to lose. Hitch up the horses to the long sleigh as quick as you can. We must go to the Tramp House after the woman, and send to the village for a doctor, and telegraph to Springfield for the coroner. I suppose there must be an inquest; and, Dolly, see that a room is prepared for the body.'

'Oh, Frank, must it come here? Why not take it to the cottage? The child is there,' Mrs. Tracy said, not because she cared so much for the trouble, but because of her aversion to having the corpse of a stranger in the house, with all that it involved.

'I tell you that woman must come here,' was Frank's decided reply, as he began to make himself ready for the ride.

'Don't tell Arthur yet,' he said, as he left the house and took his seat in the sleigh, which was soon ploughing its way through the snow banks in the direction of the Tramp House.

It was Harold who acted as master of ceremonies, for John was nervous and hung back from the half open door, while Frank was too much unstrung to know just what he was doing or saying, as he squeezed through the narrow space and then stood for a moment, snow-blind and dizzy, in the cheerless room.

Harold was not afraid now. He had been there before alone, had seen and touched the white face of the corpse, and now, with companionship in its presence, he went fearlessly up to it, followed by Frank, who could scarcely stand, and who laid his hand for support on Harold's shoulder, and then turned curiously and eagerly toward the woman.

John had lingered outside, shovelling the snow from the door which he succeeded in opening wide, so that the full, broad sunlight fell upon the face, which was neither young, nor pretty, nor fair, while the hair was black as night.

Frank noted all these points at a glance, and could have shouted aloud for joy, so great was the revulsion of his feelings. It was not Gretchen lying there before him, and he was not a murderer, as he had accused himself of being, for she did not come by the train; she had no connection with Tracy Park; she was going somewhere else-to Collingwood, perhaps-when, overcome by the storm and the cold, she had sought shelter for the night in this wretched place.

'I suppose the proper thing to do is to leave her here till the coroner can see her,' he said to John; 'but no train can get through from Springfield to-day, I am sure, and I shall have her taken to the park. Bring me the blankets from the sleigh.'

He was very collected now, for a great load was lifted from his mind.

'Had she nothing with her? nothing to cover her?' he asked, as they proceeded to wrap her in the warm blankets, which, had they sooner come, would have saved her life.

Harold told him again of the carpet-bag and the cloak and the shawl, which had covered the child, and added, 'That's all; there don't seem to be anything else. Oh, what's this?' and stooping down, he picked up some hard substance which he had kicked against the table.

It proved to be one of those olive wood candle sticks, so convenient in travelling, as when not in use, they can be made into a small round box or ball, and take but little room. It contained but the remains of a wax candle, which had burned down into the socket and then gone out. Near by, upon the floor, was a tiny box of matches, with two or three charred ones among them.

'The poor woman must have had a light for at least a portion of the time,' Frank said, as he picked up the box.

'She had, I know she had,' Harold cried, excitedly; 'for I saw it and told grandma so. It was like she had opened the door and let out a big blaze, and then everything was dark, as if the door was shut or the wind had blown the candle out.'

'What time was that, do you think?' Frank asked.

'It must have been about eleven,' Harold replied, 'for I remember hearing the clock strike and grandma's saying I must go to bed, it was so late. I was up with her because her foot was so bad, and I warmed the poultices.'

Frank groaned aloud, unmindful of the boy looking so curiously at him, for that was the time when he had heard the sound like a human voice is distress. He had thought it a fancy then communicated to him by his brother's nervousness, but now he was certain it must have been the stranger calling through the storm, in the vain hope that somebody would hear and come. Somebody had heard, but no one had come; and so in the cold and the darkness, with the snow sifting through every crevice and blowing down the wide chimney to the hearth where it made a drift like a grave, she had battled for her own life and that of the child beside her, saving the latter but losing her own.

'If I had only believed it was a cry,' Frank thought, and as he wrapped the body in the blankets and buffalo robe as tenderly and reverently as if the stiffened limbs had belonged to his mother, he saw distinctly before him as if painted upon canvas the driving gale, the inky sky, the half-opened door, through which the sleet was driving, the light behind, and the frantic, freezing woman, screaming for help, while only the winds made answer, and the pitiless storm raged on.

This was the picture which Frank was destined to see in his dreams for many and many a night, until the mystery was solved concerning the woman whom they carried to the sleigh, which was driven back to the park house, where, within fifteen or twenty minutes a crowd of anxious, curious people gathered. The messenger sent to town had done his work rapidly and thoroughly, and half the villagers who heard of the tragedy enacted at their very door started at once for Tracy Park. The boy had stopped at the station and told his story there, making the baggage-master feel as if he, too, were a murderer, or at least an accessory.

'If I had only gone after that woman,' he said, as he told of the stranger who had come on the train and gotten off on the side of the car farthest from the depot-'if I had gone after her and made her take a conveyance to where she was going, this would not have happened; but it was so all-fired cold, and the wind was yelling so, and she walked off so fast, as if she knew her own business. So I just minded mine, or rather I didn't, for I never even seen the box, or trunk, which was pitched out helter-skelter, and which I found this morning, all covered up with snow. It was hers, of course, and I shall send it right over there, as it may tell who the poor critter was.'

This trunk, which was little more than a strong wooden box with two double locks upon it, was still further secured by a bit of rope wound twice around it and tied in a hard knot. There was no name upon it to tell whose it was, or whence it came, except the name of a German steamer, on which its owner had probably crossed the ocean, and the significant word 'Hold,' showing that it had not been used in the state-room. It had been checked at the Grand Central depot in New York for Shannondale, and the check was still attached to the iron handle when it was put down in the kitchen at Tracy Park, where the utmost excitement prevailed, the servants huddling together with scared faces, and talking in whispers of the terrible thing which had happened, while Mrs. Tracy and the housekeeper, scarcely less excited than the servants, gave their attention to the dead.

At the end of the rear hall was a small room, where Frank sometimes received business calls when at home, and there they laid the body, after the physician, who had arrived, declared that life had been extinct for many hours.

Seen in the full daylight, she seemed to be at least thirty-five years of age, and her features, though not unpleasing, were coarse and large, especially the nose. Her hair was black, her complexion dark, and the hands, which lay folded upon her bosom, showed marks of toil, for they were rough and unshapely, though smaller in proportion than the other members of her body. Her woollen dress of grayish blue was short and scant; her knit stockings were black and thick, and her leather shoes were designed fur use rather than ornament. A wide white apron was tied around her waist, and she wore a small black and white plaided shawl pinned about her neck.

And there she lay, not a pleasant picture to contemplate, helpless and defenceless against the curious eyes bent upon her and the remarks concerning her, as one after another of the villagers came in to look at her and speculate as to who she was or how she came in the Tramp House.

Among the crowd was Mr. St. Claire, who gave it as his opinion that she was a Frenchwoman of the lower class, and asked if nothing had been found with her except the clothes she wore. Harold told him of the shawl, and cloak, and carpet-bag which he had carried with the child to the cottage.

'Yes, there is something more-her trunk,' chimed in the baggage-master, who had just entered the room, trembling and breathless.

'Her trunk! Did she come in the cars?' Frank asked, his hands dropping helplessly at his side, and his lips growing pale, as the man replied:

'Yes; last night, on the quarter-past-six from New York; and what is curi's, she got out on the side away from the depot, and I never seen her till the cars went on, when she was lookin' at a paper, and the child cryin' at her feet. I spoke to her, but she did not answer, and snatching up the child, she hurried off, almost on a run. It was storming so I did not see her trunk till this mornin', when I found it on the platform. I wish I had gone after her and made her take a sleigh. If I had she wouldn't now have been dead, and, I swow, I feel as if I had killed her. I wonder why under the sun she turned into the lots, unless she was goin' to Collingwood-'

'Or Tracy Park,' Frank said, involuntarily.

'Were you expecting any one?' Mr. St. Claire asked.

Sinking into a chair, Frank replied:

'No, I was not, but Arthur, who has been worse than usual for a few days, has again a fancy that Gretchen is coming. He says now that she was not in the ship with him, but that he has written her to join him here, and yesterday he took it into his head that she would be here last night, and insisted that the carriage be sent to meet her; but John had hurt his back, and as I had no faith in her coming, he did not go. I wish he had; it might have saved this woman's life, although she is not Gretchen.'

Frank had made his confession, except so far as deceiving his brother was concerned, and he felt his mind eased a little, though there was still a lump in his throat, and a feeling of disquiet in his heart, with a wish that the dead woman had never crossed his path, and a conviction that he had not yet seen the worst of it.

Mr. St. Claire looked at him thoughtfully a moment, and then said:

'I should not accuse myself too much. You could not know that any one would be there, and this woman certainly is not the Gretchen of whom your brother talks so much, and whose picture is in his room. Has he seen her? Does he know of the accident?'

'I have not told him yet. He is not feeling well to-day. Charles says he is still in bed,' was Frank's reply.

'We may find something in her trunk,' Mr. St. Claire continued, 'which will give us a clue to her history. Where do you suppose she kept her key?'

No one volunteered an answer, until Harold suggested that if she had a pocket it was probably there, when half a dozen hands or more at once felt for the pocket, which was found at last, and proved to be one of great capacity, and to contain a heterogeneous mass of contents: A purse, in which were two or three small German coins, an English sovereign, and a five dollar green-back; two handkerchiefs, one soiled and coarse, bearing in German text the initials 'N.B.' the other small and fine, bearing the initial 'J.,' also in German text: a pair of scissors, a thimble, a small needle-case, a child's toy, a worn picture-book, printed in Leipsic, a box of pills, some peanuts, some cloves, a piece of candy, a seed cake, a pocket comb, half a biscuit; and at the very bottom, the brass check whose number corresponded with that upon the trunk; also a ring to which were attached three keys, one belonging to the trunk, another evidently to the carpet-bag, while the third, which was very small and straight, must have been used for fastening some box or dressing-case.

It was Mr. St. Claire who opened the trunk, from which one of the servants had removed the rope, while Frank sat near still trembling in every limb, and watching anxiously as article after article was taken out and examined, but afforded no satisfaction whatever, or gave any sign by which the stranger might be

traced.

There was a black alpaca dress and a few coarse garments which must have belonged to the woman. Some of them bore the initials 'N.B.,' some were without a mark, and all were cheap and plain, like the clothes of a servant before her head is turned and she apes her mistress' wardrobe. The child's dresses were of a better quality, and one embroidered petticoat bore the name 'Jerrine,' while the letter 'J.' was upon them all, except a towel of the finest linen, on one corner of which was the letter 'M.' worked with colored floss.

'Jerrine!' Mr. St. Claire repeated, pronouncing it 'Jerreen.' 'That is a French name, and a pretty one. It is the child's, of course.'

To this no one replied, and he continued his examination of the trunk until it was quite empty.

'That is all,' he said in a tone of disappointment; and Frank, who had been sitting by and holding some of the things in his lap as they were taken from the trunk, answered, faintly:

'No, here is a book. It was done up in a handkerchief,' and he held up what proved to be a German Bible; but he did not tell that he had found something else, which he had thrust into his pocket when no one was looking at him.

What he had found was a photograph, which had slipped from the leaves of the Bible, and at sight of the face, of which he only had a glimpse, every drop of blood seemed to leave his heart and came surging to his brain, making him so giddy and wild that he did not realise what he was doing when he hid away the picture until he could examine it by himself. Once in his pocket he dared not take it out, although he raised his hand two or three times to do so, but was as often deterred by the thought that everybody would think that he had intended to hide it and suspect his motive. So he kept quiet and saw them examine the book, the blank page of which had been torn half off, leaving only the last three letters of what must have been the owner's name, '--ich'-that was all, and might as well not have been there, for any light it shed upon the matter.

Opening the book by chance at 1st Corinthians, 2nd chapter, Mr. St. Claire, who could read German much better than he could speak it, saw pencil-marks around the ninth verse, and read aloud:

'Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.'

On the margin opposite this verse was written, in a girlish hand:

'Think of me as there when you read this, and do not be sorry.'

A lock of soft, golden hair, which might have been cut from a baby's head, and a few faded flowers, which still gave forth a faint perfume like heliotrope, were tied with a bit of thread, and lying between the leaves. And except that the book was full of marked passages, chiefly comforting and conciliatory, there was nothing more to indicate the character of the owner.

'If this Bible were hers, she was a good woman,' Mr. St. Claire said, laying his hand reverently upon the forehead of the dead, while Frank, who saw another meaning between the lines, shook like one in an ague fit, for he did not believe that those hands, so pulseless and cold, had ever traced the words, 'Think of me as there when you read this, and do not be sorry.' She who wrote them might be, and probably was dead, but her grave was far away, and the fact did not at all change the duty which he owed to her and him for whom the message was intended.

'What shall I say to Arthur, and how shall I tell him,' he was wondering to himself, when Mr. St. Claire roused him by saying:

'You seem greatly unstrung by what has happened. I never saw you look so ill.'

'Yes, I feel as if I had murdered her by not sending John to the station,' Frank stammered, glad to offer this as an excuse for his manner, which he knew must seem strange and unnatural.

'You are too sensitive altogether. John might not have seen her, she hurried off so fast, and you have no particular reason to think she was coming here,' Mr. St. Claire said, adding: 'We'd better leave her now. We can do nothing more until the coroner comes, which will hardly be to-day. I hear the roads are all blocked and impassable. Let everything remain in the trunk where he can see them.'

Mechanically Mrs. Tracy, who was present, put the different articles into the trunk, leaving the Bible on the top, and then followed her husband from the room. She knew there was more affecting him than the fact that a dead woman was in the house, or that he had not sent John to the station. But what it was she could not guess, unless, and she, too, felt faint and giddy for a moment, as a new idea entered her mind.

'Frank,' she said to him when they were alone for a few moments, 'Arthur had a fancy that Gretchen was coming last night. You do not think this woman is she?'

'Gretchen? No. Don't be a fool, Dolly. Gretchen is fair and young, and the woman is old and black as the ace of spades. Gretchen! No, indeed!'

He did not show her the picture he had secreted; he knew she would not approve of the act, and if she had no suspicion with regard to the woman and the child he did not care to share his with her, particularly as it was only a suspicion, and so far as he could judge in his perturbed state of mind, nothing he could do would ever make things sure. His wife seemed to have forgotten the child at the cottage, and he would not bring it to her mind until it was necessary to do so. Just then Charles came to the room and said that his master was very much excited and wished to know the reason for so much commotion in the house, and why so many people were coming and going down and up the avenue.

'I thought it better that you should tell him,' Charles added, and with a sinking heart Frank started for his brother's room.

He had not seen him before that day, and now as he looked at him it seemed to him that he had grown older since the previous night, for there were lines about his mouth, and his face was very thin and pale. But his eyes were unusually bright, and his voice rang out clear as a bell as he said:

'What is it, Frank? What has happened that so many people are coming here, banging doors and talking so loud that I heard them here in my room, but I could not distinguish what they said. What's the matter? Any one hurt or dead?'

He put the question direct, and Frank gave a direct reply.

'Yes, a woman was found frozen to death in the Tramp House this morning, and was brought here. She is lying in the office at the end of the back hall.'

'A women frozen to death in the Tramp House!' Arthur repeated. 'Then I did hear a cry. Oh, Frank, who is she? Where did she come from?'

'We do not know who she is, or where she came from!' Frank replied, 'Mr. St. Claire thinks she is French. There is nothing about her person to identify her, but I would like you to see her, and-and-'

'I see her! Why should I see her, and shock my nerves more than they are already shocked?' Arthur said, with a decided shake of his head.

'But you must see her,' Frank continued. 'Perhaps you know her. She came last night. She-'

Before he could utter another word Arthur was at his side, Frank seizing him by the shoulder with the grip of a giant, demanded, fiercely:

'What do you mean by her coming last night? How did she come? Not by train, for John was there. Frank, there is something you are keeping back. I know it by your face. Tell me the truth. Is it Gretchen dead in this house?'

'No,' Frank answered huskily. 'It is not Gretchen, if that picture is like her, for this woman is very dark and old, and, besides that, has Gretchen a child?'

For an instant Arthur stood staring at him, or rather at the space beyond him, as if trying to recall something too distant or too shadowy to assume any tangible form; then bursting into a laugh he said:

'Gretchen a child! That is the best joke I have heard. How should Gretchen have a child? She is little more than one herself, or was when I saw her last. No, Gretchen has no child. Why do you ask?'

'Because,' Frank replied, 'there was a little girl found in the Tramp House with this woman, a girl three or four years old, I judge. She is at the cottage now, where Harold carried her. He found the woman this morning. Will you see her now?'

Arthur answered 'no,' decidedly, and then Frank, who knew that he should never again know peace of mind if his brother did not see her, summoned all his courage and said:

'Arthur, you must. I have not told you all. This woman did come by train from New York.'

'Then why did not John see her?' interrupted Arthur.

'He was not there,' Frank replied. 'Forgive me, Arthur, I did not send him as you thought. It was so cold and stormy, and I had no faith in your presentiments, and so-so-'

'And so you lied to me, and I will never trust you again as long as I live, and if this had been Gretchen, I would kill you, where I stand!' Arthur hissed in a whisper, more terrible to hear than louder tones would have been, 'Yes, I will see this woman whose death lies at your door,' he continued, with a gesture that Frank should precede him.

Arthur was very calm, and collected, and stern, as he followed to the office where the body lay, covered now from view, but showing terribly distinct through the linen sheet folded over it.

'Remove the covering,' he said, in the tone of a master to his slave, and Frank obeyed.

Then bending close to the stiffened form, Arthur examined the face minutely, while Frank looked on alternately between hope and dread, the former of which triumphed as his brother said, quietly:

'Yes, she is French: but I do not know her. I never saw her before. Had she nothing with her to tell who she was?'

His mood had passed, and Frank did not hear him now.

'She had a trunk,' he replied. 'Here it is, with her clothes, and the child's, and-a Bible.'

'He said the last slowly, and, taking up the book, opened it as far as possible from the writing on the margin, which might or might not be dangerous.

'It is a German Bible,' he continued, and then Arthur took it quickly from him as if it had been a long-lost friend, turning the worn pages rapidly, but failing to discover the marked passage and the message for some one.

The lock of baby hair and the faded flowers caught his attention, and his breath came hard and pantingly, as for a moment he held the little golden tress which seemed almost to twine itself lovingly around his fingers.

'That must be her child's hair. You know I told you there was a little girl found with her. Would you like to see her?' Frank said.

'No, no!' Arthur answered, hastily. 'Let her stay where she is, I don't like children as a rule. You know I can't abide the noise yours sometimes make.'

He was leaving the room with the Bible in his hand, but Frank could not suffer that, and he said:

'I suppose all these things must stay here till the coroner sees them; so I will put the Bible where I found it.

Arthur gave it up readily enough, and then, as he reached the door, looked back, and said:

'If forty coroners and undertakers come on this business, don't bother me any more. My head buzzes like a bee-hive. See that everything is done decently for the poor woman, and don't let the town bury her. Do it yourself, and send the bill to me. There is room enough on the Tracy lot; put her in a corner.'

'Yes,' Frank answered, standing in the open door and watching him as he went slowly down the long hall and until he heard him going up stairs.

Then locking the door, which shut him in with the dead, he took the photograph from his pocket and examined it minutely, feeling no shadow of doubt in his heart that it was Gretchen-if the picture in the window was like her. It was the same face, the same sweet mouth and sunny blue eyes, with curls of reddish-golden hair shading the low brow. The dress was different and more in accordance with that of a girl who belonged to the middle class, but this counted for nothing, and Frank felt himself a thief, and a liar, and a murderer as he stood looking at the lovely face; and debating what he should do.

Turning it over he saw on the back a word traced in English letters, in a very uncertain scrawling hand, as if it were the writer's first attempt at English. Spelling it letter by letter he made out what he called 'Wiesbaden,' and knew it was some German town. Did Gretchen live there, he wondered, and how could he find out, and what should he do? He had not yet seen the child at the cottage, but from some things Harold said, he knew she was more like this picture than like the dead woman found with her, and in his heart he felt almost sure who she was, and that his course of duty was plain. He ought to show Arthur the photograph, and tell him his suspicions, and take every possible step to ascertain who the woman was and where she came from.

Frank was not a bad man, nor a hard-hearted man, but he was ambitious and weak. He had enjoyed money, and ease, and position long enough to make him unwilling to part with them now, while for his children he was more ambitious than for himself. To see Tom master of Tracy Park was the great desire of his life, and this could not be, if what he feared were proved true. If Arthur had no wife, no child, no will adverse to him, why, then his interest was safe, for no will his brother could now make would be held as valid, and when he died everything would naturally go to him. Of all this Frank thought during the few minutes he staid in the silent room. Then he said to himself:

'I will see the child first. After all I know nothing for certain-can never know anything for certain, and I should be a fool to give up all my children's interests for a fancy, an idea, which may have no foundation. Arthur does not know half the time what he is saying, and might not tell the truth about Gretchen. She may not have been his wife. On the whole, I do not believe she was. He would never have left her if she had been, and if so, this child, if she is Gretchen's, has no right to come between me and mine. No, I shall wait a little while and think, though in the end I mean to do right.'

With these specious arguments Frank tried to quiet his conscience, but he could not help feeling that Satan had possession of him, and as he hurried through the hall he said aloud, as if speaking to something seen:

'Go away-go away! I shall do right if I only know what right is.

He did not see his brother again that day, or go to the cottage either, but as he was dressing himself next morning he said to his wife:

'That little girl ought to see her mother before she is buried. I shall send for her to-day. The coroner will be here, too. Did I tell you I had a telegram last night? He is coming on the early train.'

Mrs. Tracy passed the allusion to the coroner in silence, but of the little girl she said:

'I suppose the child must come to the funeral, but you surely do not mean to keep her? We are not bound to do that because her mother froze to death on our premises.'

'Would you let her go to the poor-house?' Frank asked, but Dolly did not reply.

As the breakfast-bell just then rang, no more was said of the little waif until the sleigh was brought to the door, and Frank announced his intention of stopping for the child on his way back from the station, where he was going to meet the coroner.

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