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   Chapter 23 ARTHUR'S LETTER.

Tracy Park By Mary Jane Holmes Characters: 23528

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Two weeks had passed since Jerry's return to her lessons, and people had ceased to talk of the missing diamonds, although the offered reward of $500 was still in the weekly papers, and a detective still had the matter in charge, without, however, achieving the slightest success. No one had ever been suspected, and the thief, whoever he was, must have been an expert, and managed the affair with the most consummate skill. Now that she had another set, Mrs. Tracy was content, and peace and quiet reigned in the household, except so far as Arthur was concerned. He was restless and nervous, and given to fits of abstraction, which sometimes made him forget the two little girls, one of whom watched him narrowly; and once when they were alone and he seemed unusually absorbed in thought, she asked him if he were trying to think of something.

'Yes,' he said, looking up quickly and eagerly; 'that is it. I am trying to remember something which, it seems to me, I ought to remember; but I cannot, and the more I try, the farther it gets from me. Do you know what it is?'

Jerry hesitated a moment, and then she asked:

'Is it the diamonds?'

'Diamonds! No. What diamonds? Didn't I tell you never to say diamonds to me again? I am tired of it,' he said, and in his eyes there was a gleam which Jerry had never seen there before when they rested upon her. It made her afraid, and she answered, meekly:

'Then I cannot help you to remember.'

'Of course not. No one can,' Arthur replied, in a softened tone. 'It is something long ago, and has to do with Gretchen.'

Then suddenly brightening, as if that name had been the key to unlock his misty brain, he added;

'I have it; I know; it has come to me at last! Gretchen always sets me right. I wrote her a letter long ago-a year, it seems to me-and it has never been posted. Strange that I should forget that; but something came up-I can't tell what-and drove it from my mind.'

As he talked he was opening and looking in the drawer which Jerry had never seen but once before, and that when he took from it the letter in German, a paragraph of which he had bidden her read.

'Here it is!' he said, joyfully, as he took out a sealed envelope and held it up to Jerry. 'This is the letter which you must post to-day. I can trust it to you.'

He gave her the letter, which she took with a beating heart and a sense of shame and regret as she remembered her pledge to Mr. Frank Tracy. She had promised to take him any letter which Mr. Arthur might intrust to her care, and if she took this one from Arthur she must keep her word.

'Oh, I can't do it-I can't! It would be mean to Mr. Arthur,' she thought; and returning him the letter, she said: 'Please post it yourself; then you will be sure, and I might lose it, or forget. I am careless sometimes. Don't ask me to take it.'

She was pleading with her might; but Arthur paid no heed, and only laughed at her fears.

'I know you will not forget, and I'd rather trust you than Charles. Surely, you will not refuse to do so small a favor for me?'

'No,' she said, at last, as she put the letter in her pocket, with the thought that, after all, there might be no harm in showing it to Mr. Frank, who, of course, merely wished to see it, and would not think of keeping it.

But she did not know Frank Tracy or guess how great was his anxiety lest any message should ever reach a friend of Gretchen, if friend there were living. She found him in the room he called his office, where the dead woman had lain in her coffin, and where he often sat alone thinking of the day when the inquest was held, and when he took his first step in the downward road, which had led him so far that now it seemed impossible to turn back, even had he wished to do so, as he sometimes did.

'If I had never secreted the photograph, or the book with the handwriting, if I had shown them to Arthur, everything would have been so different, and I should have been free,' he was thinking, when Jerry knocked timidly at the door, rousing him from his reverie, and making him start with a nameless tsar which was always haunting him.

'Oh, Jerry, it is you,' he said, as the little girl crossed the threshold, and shutting the door, stood with her back against it, and her hands behind her. 'What is it?' he asked, as he saw her hesitating.

With a quick, jerky movement of the head, which set in motion the little rings of hair, now growing so fast, and brought his brother to his mind, Jerry replied:

'I came to tell you that Mr. Arthur has written the letter.'

'What letter?' Frank asked, for the moment forgetting the conversation he had held with the child in the Tramp House.

'The one I promised to bring you to show you-the one to Germany,' was Jerry's answer.

And then Frank remembered at once what, in the excitement of the diamond theft, had passed from his mind.

'Yes, yes, I know; give it to me,' he said, advancing rapidly toward her, and putting out his hand. 'When did he write it? Give it to me, please.'

'But not to keep,' Jerry said, struck by something in his face and manner which, it seemed to her, meant danger to the letter.

'Let me see it,' he continued.

And rather reluctantly Jerry handed him a bulky letter, the direction of which covered nearly the whole of one side of the envelope.

Very nervously Frank scanned the address, which might as well have been in the Fiji language for any idea it conveyed to him.

'To whom is it directed? I cannot read German,' he said

'I don't know,' Jerry replied. 'I have not looked at it, and would rather not.'

'Why, what a little prude you are;' and Frank laughed uneasily. 'What possible harm is there in reading an address? The postmaster has to do it, and any one who took it to the office would do it if he could.'

This sounded reasonable enough, and standing beside him, while he held the letter a little way from her, Jerry read the address in German first, then, as he said to her: 'I don't understand that lingo, put it into English,' she read again:

'To Marguerite Heinrich, if living, and if dead to any of her friends; or to the postmaster at Wiesbaden, Germany. If not delivered within two months, return to Arthur Tracy, Tracy Park, Shannondale, Mass., U.S.A.'

'Marguerite-Marguerite Heinrich!' Frank repeated, 'That is not Gretchen. The letter is not to her.'

'I guess it is,' Jerry replied. 'He told me once that Gretchen was a pet name for Marguerite.'

'Yes,' Frank returned, with a sigh, as this little crumb of hope was swept away, while to himself he added: 'At all events it is not Marguerite Tracy, and that makes me less a scoundrel than I should otherwise be. If he had written a little more it would have run over to the other side of the envelope. Any one would know he was crazy,' he continued, with a sickly attempt at a smile, while Jerry stood waiting to take the letter from him.

He knew she was waiting, and said to her, as he put it in his pocket:

'Thank you for bringing this to me. It is probably some nonsense which ought not to go, even if the sending it would do no harm, as it certainly would.'

Until then Jerry had not realised that he did not mean the letter to go at all. She had remembered her promise to take it to him, and forgotten that he had said it must not be sent lest it should do harm to Maude. But it all came back to her now, and her tears fell like rain as she stood for a moment irresolute. But loyalty to Arthur conquered every other feeling. Surely he would not suffer any wrong to come to his own brother and niece. The letter was harmless, and must go.

'Give it to me, please. You do not mean to keep it?' she said, at last, in a tone and manner she might have borrowed from Arthur himself, it was so like him when on his dignity.

And Frank felt it, and knew that he had more than a child to deal with, and must use duplicity if he would succeed. So he said to her quietly and naturally:

'Why, how excited you are! Do you think I intend to keep the letter? It is as safe with me as with you. It is true that when I talked with you in the Tramp House I thought that it must not be sent, but I have changed my mind since then, and do not care. I am going to the office, and will take it myself. John is saddling my horse now, and if I hurry I shall be in time for the western mail. Good-bye, and do not look so worried. Do you take me for a villain?'

He was leaving the room as he talked, and before he had finished he was in the hall and near the outer door, leaving Jerry stupefied, and perplexed, and only half reassured.

'If I had not sold myself to Satan before, I have now, for sure; and still I did not actually tell her that I would post it, though it amounted to that,' Frank thought, as he galloped through the park toward the highway which led to the town.

Once he took the letter from his pocket and examined it again, wishing so much that he knew its contents.

'If I could read German, I believe I am bad enough now to open it; but I can't, and I dare not take it to any one who can,' he said, as he put it again in his pocket, half resolving to post it and take the chances of its ever reaching Gretchen's friends, or any one who had known her. 'I'll see how I feel when I get inside,' he thought, as he dismounted from his horse before the door of the post-office.

The mail was just in, and the little room was full of people waiting for it to be distributed; and Frank waited with them, leaning against the wall, with his head bent down, and beating his boot with his riding-whip.

'I must decide soon,' he thought, when a voice not far from him caught his ear, and glancing from under his hat, he saw Peterkin coming in, portly and pompous, and with him a dapper little man, who, in the days of the 'Liza Ann, had been a driver for the boat, but who now, like his former employer, was a millionaire, and wore a thousand-dollar diamond ring. To him Peterkin was saying:

'There, that's him-that's Frank Tracy, the biggest swell in town-lives in that handsome place I was telling you about.'

Strange that words like these from a man like old Peterkin should have inflated Frank's pride; but he was weak in many points; and though he detested Peterkin, it gratified him to be pointed out to strangers as a swell who lived in a fine house, and with the puff of vanity came the reflection that, as Frank Tracy of some other place than Tracy Park, with all its appliances of wealth, he would not be a swell whom strangers cared to see, and Jerry's chance was lost again.

'Here is your mail, Mr. Tracy,' the postmistress said; and stepping forward, Frank took his letters from her, just as Peterkin slapped him on the shoulder, and, with a familiarity which made Frank want to knock him down, called out:

'Hallo, Tracy! Just the feller I wanted to see. Let me introduce you to Mr. Bijah Jones, from Pennsylvany; used to drive hosses for me in the days I ain't ashamed of, by a long shot. He's bought him a place out from Philadelphy, and wants to lay it out à la-à la-dumbed if I know the word, but like them old chaps' gardens in Europe, and I told him of Tracy Park, which beats everything holler in this part of the country. Will you let us go over it and take a survey?'

'Certainly; go where you like,' Frank said, struggling to reach the door; but Peterkin button-holed him and held him fast, while he continued:

'I say, Tracy, heard anything from them diamonds?'

'Nothing,' was the reply.

'Didn't hunt in the right quarter,' Peterkin continued, 'leastwise didn't foller it up, or you'd a found 'em without so much advertisin'.'

'What do you mean?' Frank asked.

'Oh, nothin',' Peterkin replied; 'only them diam

onds never went off without hands, and them hands ain't a thousand miles from the park.'

'Perhaps not,' Frank answered, mechanically, more intent upon getting away than upon what Peterkin was saying.

He longed to be in the open air, and as he mounted his horse, he said, as if speaking to some one near him:

'Well, old fellow, I've done it again, and sunk myself still lower. You are bound to get me now some day, unless I have a death-bed repentance and confess everything. The thief was forgiven at the last hour, why not I?'

The black shadow which Frank felt sure was beside him, did not answer, though he could have sworn that he heard a chuckle as he rode on, fast and far, until his horse was tired and he was tired, too. Then he began to retrace his steps, so slowly that it was dark when, he reached the village, and took the road which led by the gate through which the woman had passed to her death on the night of the storm. It was the shortest route to the park, and he intended to take it.

As he drew near to the gate, it seemed to him that there was something on the wide post nearest the fence which had not been there in the afternoon when he rode by-something dark, and large, and peculiar in shape, and motionless as a stone. He was not by nature a coward, and once he had no belief in ghosts or supernatural appearances, but now he did not know what he believed, and this object, whose outline, seen against, the western sky, where a little dim light was lingering, seemed almost like that of a human form, made his heart beat faster than its wont, and he involuntarily checked his horse, just as a clear, shrill voice called out:

'Mr. Tracy, is that you? I have waited so long, and I'm so cold sitting here. Did you post the letter?'

It was Jerry who, after he had left her in his office, had been seized with an indefinable terror lest he might not post the letter after all. It seemed wrong to doubt him, and she did not really think that she did doubt him; still she would feel happier if she knew, and after supper was over she started along the grassy road until she reached the gate. Here she waited a long time, and then, as Mr. Tracy did not appear, she walked up and down the lane until the sun was down and the ground began to feel so damp and cold that she finally climbed up to the top of the gate-post, which was very broad, and where, on her way to town, she had frequently sat for a while. It was very cold and tiresome waiting there, and she was beginning to get impatient and to wonder if it could be possible that he had gone home by some other road, when she heard the sound of a horse's hoofs and felt sure he was coming.

'Why, Jerry, how you frightened me!' Frank said, as he reined his horse close up to her. 'Jump down and get up behind me. I will take you home.'

She obeyed, and with the agility of a little cat, got down from the gate-post and on to the horse's back, putting both arms around Frank's waist to keep herself steady, for the big horse took long steps, and she felt a little afraid.

'Did you post the letter?' she asked again, as they left the gate behind them and struck into the lane.

To lie now was easy enough, and Frank answered without hesitation:

'Of course. Did you think I would forget it?'

'No,' Jerry answered. 'I knew you would not. I only wanted to be sure, because he trusted it to me, and not to have sent it would have been mean, and a sneak, and a lie, and a steal. Don't you think so?'

She emphasized the 'steal,' and the 'lie,' and the 'sneak,' and the 'mean,' with a kick that made the horse jump a little and quicken his steps.

'Yes,' Frank assented; it would be all she affirmed, and more too, and the man who could do such a thing was wholly unworthy the respect of any one, and ought to be punished to the full extent of the law.

'That's so,' Jerry said, with another emphatic kick and a slight tightening of her arm around the conscience-stricken man, who wondered if he should ever reach the cottage and be free from the clasp of those arms, which seemed to him like bands of fire burning to his soul. 'I'd never speak to him again,' Jerry continued, 'and Mr. Arthur wouldn't either. He is so right-up, and hates a trick. I don't believe, either, that any harm will come to Maude from that letter, as you said. If there does, and Mr. Arthur can fix it, he will, I know, for I shall ask him, and he once told me he would do anything for me, because I look as he thinks Gretchen must have looked when she was a little girl like me.'

They had reached the cottage by this time, where they found Harold in the yard looking up and down the lane for Jerry, whose protracted absence at that hour had caused them some anxiety, even though they were accustomed to her long rambles by herself and frequent absences from home. It was not an unusual thing for her to linger in the Tramp House, even after dark, talking to herself, and Gretchen, and Mah-nee, and her mother and a sick woman, whose face was far back in the past. She was there now, Harold supposed, and this belief was confirmed when Mr. Tracy said to him:

'You see I have picked up your little girl and brought her home. Jump down, Jerry, and good-night to you.'

She was on the ground in an instant, and he was soon galloping toward home, saying to himself:

'I don't believe I can even have a death-bed repentance now. I have told too many lies for that, and more than all, must go on lying to the end. I have sold my soul for a life of luxury, which after all is very pleasant,' he continued, as he drew near the house, which was brilliantly lighted up, while through the long windows of the drawing-room he could see the table, with its silver and glass and flowers, and the cheerful blaze upon the hearth of the fire-place, which Dolly had persuaded Arthur to have built. There was every kind of bric-a-brac on the tall mantel, and Frank saw it as he passed, and saw the colored man moving slowly about the room after the manner of a well-trained servant who understands his business. There was company staying in the house, Mr. and Mrs. Raymond, from Kentucky, father and mother to Fred; and Mr. and Mrs. St. Claire, and Grace Atherton, and Squire Harrington had been invited to dinner, and were already in the dining-room when Frank entered it after a hasty toilet.

He had been out in the country and ridden further than he had intended, he said by way of apology, as he greeted his guests, and then took Mrs. Raymond into dinner, which, with the exception of the soup and fish, was served from side tables. This was Dolly's last new kink, as Frank called it, and Dolly was very fine, in claret velvet, with her new diamonds, which were greatly admired, Grace Atherton declaring that she liked them quite as well as the stolen ones, whose setting was rather passé.

'That is just why I liked them so, because they were old-fashioned; it made them look like heir-looms, and showed that one had always had a family,' Dolly said.

Grace Atherton shrugged her still plump shoulders just a little, and thought of the first call she ever made upon Dolly, when she entered through the kitchen and the lady entertained her in her working-apron!

Dolly did not look now as if she had ever seen a working-apron, and was very bright and talkative, and entertaining, and all the more so because of her husband's silence. He was given to moods, and sometimes aggravated his wife to desperation when he left all the conversation to her.

'Do talk,' she would say to him when they were alone. 'Do talk to people and not sit so glum, with that great wrinkle between your eyes as if you were mad at something; and do laugh, too, when anybody tells anything worth laughing at, and not leave it all to me. Why, I actually giggle at times until I feel like a fool, while you never smile or act as if you heard a word. Look at me occasionally, and when I elevate my eyebrows-so-brace up and say something, if it isn't so cunning.'

This elevating of the eyebrows and bracing up were matters of frequent occurrence, as Frank grew more and more silent and abstracted, and now after he had sat through a funny story told by Mr. St. Claire and had not even smiled, or given any sign that he heard it, he suddenly caught Dolly's eye and saw that both eyebrows, and nose, and chin were up as marks of unusual disapprobation, for how could she guess of what he was thinking as he sat with his head bent down, and his eyes seemingly half shut. But they came open wide enough, and his head was high enough when he saw Dolly's frown; and turning to Mrs. Raymond he began to talk rapidly and at random. She had just returned from Germany, where she had left her daughter, Marion, in school, and Frank asked her of the country, and if she had visited Wiesbaden, and had there met or heard of anyone by the name of Marguerite Heinrich.

Mrs. Raymond had spent some months in Wiesbaden, for it was there her daughter was at school, and she was very enthusiastic in her praises of the beautiful town. But she had never seen or heard of Marguerite Heinrich, or of anyone by the name of Heinrich.

'Marguerite Heinrich?' Dolly repeated. 'Who in the world is she-and where did you know her?'

'I never did know her. I have only heard of her,' Frank replied, again lapsing into a silence from which he did not rouse again.

He was thinking of the letter hidden away with the photograph and the book-of the lies he had told since his deception began, and now sure it was that he had sinned beyond forgiveness. When he was a boy he had often listened, with the blood curdling in his veins, to a story his grandmother told him with sundry embellishments, for he was not well versed in German literature, of a man-Foster it seemed to him was the name-who sold his soul to the devil in consideration that for a certain number of years he was to have every pleasure the world could give. It had been very pleasant listening to the recital of the fine things the man enjoyed, for Satan kept his promise well; but the boy's hair had stood on end as the story neared its close, and he heard how, when the probation was ended, the devil came for his victim down the wide-mouthed chimney, scattering bricks and fire-brands over the floor, as he carried the trembling soul out in the blackness of the stormy night.

Strangely enough this story came back to him now, and notwithstanding the horror of the thing he laughed aloud as he glanced up at the tall oak fire-place, wondering if it would be that way he would one day go with his master, and seeing in fancy Dolly's dismay when the tea-cups, and saucers, and vases, and plaques, came tumbling to the floor as he disappeared from sight in a blue flame, which smelled of brimstone.

It was a loud, unnatural laugh, but fortunately for him it came just as Grace Atherton had set the guests in a roar with what she was saying of the Peterkin's final struggle to enter society, and so it passed unnoticed by most of them. But that night in the privacy of his room, where Dolly delivered most of her lectures, she again upbraided him with his taciturnity, telling him that he never laughed but once, and then it sounded more like a groan than a laugh.

'You have hit the nail on the head this time, for it was a groan,' Frank said, as he plunged into bed; and Dolly, as she undressed herself deliberately, and this time put her diamonds carefully away, little dreamed what was passing in the mind of the man, who, all through the long hours of the night, lay awake, seldom stirring lest he should disturb her, but repeating over and over to himself, the words:

'Lost now forever and ever, but if Maude is happy I can bear it.'

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