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   Chapter 41 WHAT JERRIE FOUND UNDER THE FLOOR.

Tracy Park By Mary Jane Holmes Characters: 26161

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Meantime Jerrie had gone back to the wreck of the table, which she tried to straighten up, handling it as carefully and as reverently as if it had been her mother's coffin she was touching. One of the legs had been broken off before, and she and Harold has fastened it on and turned it to the side of the house where it would be more out of the way of harm, and it was this leg which had succumbed first to the force of Peterkin's fist, and as the entire pressure of the table was brought to bear upon it in falling, it had been precipitated through a hole in the base board, which had been there as long as she could remember the place, not so large at first, but growing larger each year, as the decaying boards crumbled or were eaten away by rats.

Jerrie called it a rat-hole, and had several times put a trap there to catch the marauders, who sometimes scampered across her very feet, so accustomed were they to her presence. But the rats would not go into the trap, and then she pasted a newspaper over the hole, but this had been torn, and hung in shreds, while the hole grew gradually larger.

Taking up the top of the table, Jerrie dragged it to the centre of the room, and, putting three of the legs upon it, went to search for the fourth, one end of which was just visible at the aperture in the wall. As she stooped to take it out, a bit of the floor under her feet gave way, making the opening so large that the table leg disappeared from view entirely. Then Jerrie went down upon her knees, and, thrusting her hand under the floor, felt for the missing leg, striking against stones, and brushes, and bits of mortar, and finally touching something from which she recoiled for an instant, it was so cold and slimy.

But she struck it again in her search, this time more squarely, and, grasping it hard in her hand, brought it out to the light, while an undefinable thrill, half of terror, half of joy, ran through her frame, as she held it up and examined it carefully.

It was a small hand-bag of Russian leather, covered with mold and stained with the damp of its long hiding-place, while a corner of it showed that the rats had tested its properties, but, disliking either the taste or the smell had left it in quiet. And there under the floor, not two feet from where Jerrie had often played, it had lain ever since the wintry night years before when on the table a strange woman had struggled with death, and in her struggle the bag, which held so much that was important to the child beside her, had probably fallen from her rude bed into the hole just behind it, and which was then large enough to receive it. Then the rats, attracted by this novel appearance in their midst, had investigated and dragged it so far from the opening that it could not been seen unless one went down upon the floor to look for it.

This was the conviction that flashed upon Jerrie as she stood, with widely dilated eyes and quivering nostrils, staring at the bag, without the power at first to speak or move.

The music was gone now-Gretchen's voice and Arthur's-and there was only in her ears a roaring sound like the rushing of distant waters falling heavily, while the objects in the room swam around her, and she experienced again that ringing sensation as if the top of her head were leaving her. She was so sure that here at last was a message from the dead-that she had the mystery of her babyhood in her grasp-and yet, for full two minutes she hesitated and held back, until at last the sweet, pale face which had haunted her so often seemed about to touch her own with a caress which brought the hot tears to her eyes, and the spell which had bound her hands and feet was broken.

The bag was clasped, but not locked, although there was a lock, and Jerrie thought involuntarily of the little key lying with the other articles on the dead woman's person. To unclasp the bag required a little strength, for the steel was covered with rust; but it yielded at last to Jerrie's strong fingers; and the bag came open, disclosing first some square object carefully wrapped in a silk handkerchief which had been white in its day, but which now was yellow and soiled by time. At this, however, Jerrie scarcely looked, for her eye had fallen upon a package of papers lying beneath it-papers folded with care, and securely tied with a bit of faded blue ribbon.

Seating herself upon the bench where she had been sleeping when Peterkin's voice aroused her, Jerrie untied the package, and then began to read, first slowly, as if weighing every word and sentence, then faster and faster, until at last it seemed that her burning eyes, from which the hot tears were streaming like rain, fairly leaped from page to page, taking in the contents at a glance, and comprehending everything.

When she had finished, she sat for a moment rigid as a corpse, and then, with a loud, glad cry, which made the very rafters ring, and went floating out upon the summer air, "Thank Heaven, I have found my mother!" she fell upon her face, insensible to everything.

How long she lay thus she did not know, but when she came back to consciousness the sunlight had changed its position in the room, and she felt it was growing late.

Starting suddenly up, and wiping from her face a drop of blood which has oozed from a cut in her forehead caused by her striking it against some hard substance when she fell, she looked about her for a moment in a bewildered kind of way, not realizing at first what had happened; and even when she remembered, she was too much stunned and astonished to take it all in as she would afterward when she was calmer and could think more clearer.

Taking up the papers one by one, in the order in which she had found them, she tied them again with the blue ribbon, and put them into the bag.

'There was something more,' she whispered, trying to think what it was.

Then, as her eye fell upon the first package she had taken out, and which was wrapped in a silk handkerchief, she took it up, and removing the covering, started as suddenly as if a blow had been dealt her, for there was the tortoise-shell box, with its blue satin lining, and its diamonds, which seemed to her like so many sparks of fire flashing in her eyes and dazzling her with their brilliancy.

Just such a box as this, and just such diamonds as these, Mrs. Frank Tracy had lost years ago, and as Jerrie held them in her hand and turned them to the light, till they showed all the hues of the rainbow, she experienced a feeling of terror as if she were a thief and had been convicted of the theft. Then, as she remembered what she had read, she burst into a hysterical fit of laughing and crying together, and whispered to herself:

'I believe I am going mad like him.'

After a time she arose, and with the bag on her arm and the diamonds in her hand, she started for home, with only one thought in her mind:

'I must tell Harold, and ask him what to do.'

She had forgotten that he was to leave that afternoon on the train-forgotten everything, except the one subject which affected her so strongly, so that in one sense she might be said to be thinking of nothing, when, as she was walking with her head bent down, she came suddenly face to face with Harold, who, with his satchel in his hand, was starting for the train due now in a few minutes.

'Jerrie,' he exclaimed, 'how late you are! I waited until the last minute to say good-bye. Why, what ails you, and where have you been?' he continued, as she raised her head and he saw the bruise on her forehead and the strange pallor of her face.

'In the Tramp House,' the answered, in a voice which was not hers at all, and made Harold look more curiously at her.

As he did so he saw peeping from a fold of the silk handkerchief the corner of the tortoise-shell box which he remembered so well, and the sight of which brought back all the shame and humiliation and pain of that memorable morning when he had been suspected of taking it.

'What is it? What have you in your hand?' he asked.

Then Jerrie's face, so pale before, flushed scarlet, and her eyes had in them a wild look which Harold construed into fear, as, without a word, she laid the box in his hand, and then stood watching him is he opened it.

Harold's face was whiter than Jerrie's had been, and his voice trembled as he said, in a whisper:

'Mrs. Tracy's diamonds!'

'Yes, Mrs. Tracy's diamonds,' Jerrie replied, with a marked emphasis on the Mrs. Tracy.

'How came you by them, and where did you find them,' Harold asked next, shrinking a little from the glittering stones which seemed like fiery eyes confronting him.

'I can't tell you now. Put them up quick. Don't let any one see them. Somebody is coming,' Jerrie said, hurriedly, as her ear caught a sound and her eye an object which Harold neither saw nor heard as he mechanically thrust the box into his side pocket and then turned just as Tom Tracy came up on horseback.

'Hallo, Jerrie! hallo, Hal!' he cried, dismounting quickly and throwing the bridle-rein over his arm. 'And so you are off to that suit?' he continued, addressing himself to Harold. 'By George, I wish I were a witness. I'd swear the old man's head off; for, upon my soul, I believe he is an old liar?' Then turning to Jerrie, he continued: 'Are you better than you were this morning? Upon my word, you look worse. It's that infernal watching last night that ails you. I told mother you ought not to do it.'

Just then a whistle was heard in the distance; the train was at Truesdale, four miles away.

'You will never catch it,' Tom said, as Harold snatched up his bag and started to run, 'Here, jump on to Beaver, and leave him at the station. I can go there for him.'

Harold knew it was impossible for him to make time against the train, and, accepting Tom's offer, he vaulted into the saddle and galloped rapidly away, reaching the station just in time to give his horse to the care of a boy and to leap upon the train as it was moving away.

Meanwhile Tom walked on with Jerrie to the cottage, where he would have stopped if she had not said to him:

'I would ask you to come in, but my head is aching so badly that I must go straight to bed. Good-bye, Tom,' and she offered him her hand, a most unusual thing for her to do on an ordinary occasion like this.

What ailed her, Tom wondered, that she spoke so kindly to him and looked at him so curiously? Was she sorry for her decision, and did she wish to revoke it?

'Then, by Jove, I'll give her a chance, for every time I see her I find myself more and more in love,' Tom thought, as he left her and started for the station after Beaver, whom he found hitched to a post and pawing the ground impatiently.

Mrs. Crawford was in the garden when Jerrie entered the house, and thus there was no one to see her as she hurried up stairs and hid the leather bag away upon a shelf in her dressing-room. First, however, she took out two of the papers and read them again, as if to make assurance doubly sure; then she tried the little key to the lock, which it fitted perfectly.

'There is no mistake,' she whispered; 'but I can't think about it now, for this terrible pain in my head. I must wait till Harold comes home; he will tell me what to do, and be so glad for me. Dear Harold; his days of labor are over, and grandmother's, too. Those diamonds are a fortune in themselves, and they are mine! my own! she said so! Oh, mother, I have found you at last, but I can't make it real; my head is so strange. What if I should be crazy?' and she started suddenly. 'What if that dreadful taint should be in my blood, or what if I should die just as I have found my mother! Oh, Heaven, don't let me die; don't let me lose my reason, and I will try to do right; only show me what right is.'

She was praying now upon her knees with her throbbing head upon the side of the bed, into which she finally crept with her clothes on, even to her boots, for Jerrie was herself no longer. The fever with which for days she had been threatened, and which had been induced by over-study at Vassar, and the excitement which had followed her return home, could be kept at bay no longer, and when Mrs. Crawford, who had seen her enter the house, went up after a while to see why she did not come down to tea, she found her sleeping heavily, with spots of crimson upon her cheeks, while her hands, which moved incessantly, were burning with fever. Occasionally she moaned and talked in her sleep of the Tramp House, and rats, and Peterkin, who had struck the blow and knocked something or somebody down, Mrs. Crawford could not tell what, unless it were Jerrie herself, on whose forehead there was a bunch the size now of a walnut.

'Jerrie, Jerrie,' Mrs. Crawford cried in alarm, as she tried to remove the girl's clothes. 'What is it, Jerrie? What has happened? Who hurt you? Who struck the blow?'

'Peterkin,' was the faint response, as for an instant Jerrie opened her eyelids only to close them again and sink away into a heavier sl

eep or stupefaction. It seemed the latter, and as Mrs. Crawford could not herself go for a physician, and as no one came down the lane that evening, she sat all night, by Jerrie's bed, bathing the feverish hands and trying to lessen the lump on the forehead, which, in spite of all her efforts, continued to swell until it seemed to her it was as large as a hen's egg.

'Did Peterkin strike you, and what for?' she kept asking; but Jerrie only moaned and muttered something she could not understand, except once when she said, distinctly:

'Yes, Peterkin. Such a blow; it was like a blacksmith's hammer, and knocked the table to pieces. I am glad he did it.'

What did she mean? Mrs. Crawford asked herself in vain, and when at last the early summer morning broke, she was almost as crazy as Jerrie, who was steadily growing worse, and who was saying the strangest things about arrests and blows, and Peterkin, and Harold, and Mr. Arthur, whose name she always mentioned with a sob and stretching out of her hands, as to some invisible presence. Help must be had from some quarter; and for two hours, which seemed to her years, Mrs. Crawford watched for the coming of someone, until at last she saw Tom Tracy galloping up on Beaver.

'Tom, Tom,' she screamed from the window, as she saw him dismounting at the gate, 'don't get off, but ride for your life and fetch the doctor, quick. Jerrie is very sick; has been crazy all night, and has a bunch on her head as big as a bowl, where she says Peterkin struck her.

'Peterkin struck Jerrie! I'll kill him!' Tom said as he tore down the lane and out upon the highway in quest of the physician, who was soon found and at Jerrie's side, where Tom stood with him, gazing awe struck upon the fever stricken girl, who was tossing and talking all the time, and whose bright eyes unclosed once and fixed themselves on him, as he spoke her name and laid his hand on one of hers.

'Oh, Tom, Tom,' she said, 'you told me you'd kill her. Will you kill her? Will you kill her?' And a wild, hysterical laugh echoed through the room, as she kept repeating the words, 'Will you kill her? Will you kill her?' which conveyed no meaning to Tom, who had forgotten what he had said he would do if a claimant to Tracy Park should appear in the shape of a young lady.

Whatever Jerrie took up she repeated rapidly until something else came into her mind, and when Mrs. Crawford, referring to the bunch on her head, said to the physician, 'Peterkin struck the blow, she says,' she began at once like a parrot. 'Peterkin struck the blow! Peterkin struck the blow!' until another idea suggested itself, and she began to ring changes on the sentence. 'In the rat-hole; in the Tramp House; in the Tramp House; in the rat-hole,' talking so fast that sometimes it was impossible to follow her.

The blow on her head alone could not have produced this state of things; it was rather over-excitement, added to some great mental shock, the nature of which he could not divine, the doctor said to Tom, who in his wrath at Peterkin was ready to flay him alive, or at least to ride him on a rail the instant he entered town.

It was a puzzling case, though not a dangerous one as yet, the physician said. Jerrie's strong constitution could stand an attack much more severe than this one; and prescribing perfect quiet, with strict orders that she should see no more people than was necessary, he left, promising to return in the afternoon, when he hoped to find her better. Tom lingered a while after the doctor had left, and showed himself so thoughtful and kind that Mrs. Crawford forgave him much which she had harbored against him for his treatment of Harold.

All night Tom's dreams had been haunted with Jerrie's voice and Jerrie's look as she gave him her hand and said, 'Good-bye, Tom,' and he had ridden over early to see if the look and tone were still there, and if they were, and he had a chance, he meant to renew his offer. But words of love would have been sadly out of place to this restless, feverish girl, whose incoherent babblings puzzled and bewildered him.

One fact, however, was distinct in his mind-Peterkin had struck her a terrible blow in the Tramp House. Of that he was sure, though why he should have done so he could not guess; and vowing vengeance upon the man, he left the cottage at last and rode down to the Tramp House, where he found the table in a state of ruin upon the door, three of the legs upon it and the other one nowhere to be seen.

'He struck her with it and then threw it away, I'll bet,' he said to himself, as he hunted for the missing leg; 'and it was some quarrel he picked with her about Hal, who is going to swear against him. Jerrie would never hear Hal abused, and I've no doubt she aggravated the wretch until he forgot himself and dealt her that blow. I'll have him arrested for assault and battery, as sure as I am born.'

Hurrying home, he told the story to his mother, who smiled incredulously and said she did not believe it, bidding him say nothing of it to Maude, who was not as well as usual that day. Then he told his father, who started at once for the cottage, where Mrs. Crawford refused to let him see Jerrie, saying that the doctor's orders were that she should be kept perfectly quiet. But as they stood talking together near the open door, Jerrie's voice was heard calling:

'Let Mr. Frank come up.'

So Frank went up, and, notwithstanding all he had heard from Tom, he was surprised at Jerrie's flushed face and the unnatural expression of her eyes, which turned so eagerly toward him as he came in.

'Oh, Mr. Tracy,' she said, as he sat down beside her and took one of her burning hands in his, 'you have always been kind to me, haven't you?'

'Yes,' he replied, with a keen pang of remorse, and wondering if she would call it kindness if she knew all that he did.

'And I think you like me some,' she continued: 'don't you?'

'Like you!' he repeated; 'yes, more than you can ever know. Why, sometimes I think I like you almost as much as I do Maude.'

As if the mention of Maude had sent her thoughts backward in a very different channel, she said abruptly, while she held his gaze steadily with her bright eyes:

'You posted that letter?'

Frank knew perfectly well that she meant the letter which, together with the photograph, and the Bible, and the lock of the baby's golden hair, had lain for years in his private drawer-the letter whose superscription he had studied so many times, and which had seldom been absent from his thoughts an hour since that night when, from her perch on the gate-post, Jerrie had startled him with the question she was asking him now. But be affected ignorance and said, as indifferently as he could, with those blue eyes upon him seeming to read his inmost thoughts:

'What letter do you mean?'

'Why, the one Mr. Arthur wrote to Gretchen, or her friends, in Wiesbaden, and gave me to post. You took it for me to the office, and I sat on the gate so long in the darkness waiting for you to come and tell me you had posted it sure.'

'Oh, yes, I remember it perfectly, and how you frightened me sitting up there so high like a goblin,' Frank answered, falteringly, his face as crimson now as Jerrie's, and his eyes dropping beneath her gaze.

'Gretchen's friends never got that letter,' Jerrie continued.

'No, they never got it,' Frank answered, mechanically.

'If they had,' Jerrie went on, 'they would have answered it, for she had friends there.'

Frank looked up quickly and curiously at the girl talking so strangely to him. What had she heard? What did she know? or was this only an outburst of insanity? She certainly looked crazy as she lay there talking to him. He was sure of it a moment after when, as if the nature of her thoughts had changed suddenly, she said to him:

'Yes, you have been very kind to me, you and Maude-you and Maude-and I shan't forget it. Tell her I shan't forget it.-I shan't forget it.'

She repeated this rapidly, and was growing so wild and excited that Frank thought it advisable to leave her. As he arose to go she looked up pleadingly at him, and said:

'Kiss me, Mr. Tracy, please.'

Had he been struck by lightning, Frank could hardly have been more astonished than he was at this singular request, and for a moment he stared blankly at the girl who had made it, not because he was at all averse to granting it, but because he doubted the propriety of the act, even if she were crazy. But something in Jerrie's face, like Arthur's, mastered him, and, stooping down, he kissed the parched lips through which the breath came so hotly, wondering as he did so what Dolly would say if she could see him, a white-haired man of forty-five, kissing a young girl of nineteen, and that girl Jerrie Crawford.

'Thanks,' Jerrie said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. 'I think you have been chewing tobacco, haven't you? But I sha'nt forget it; I sha'nt forget it. I shall do right. I shall do right. Tell Maude so; tell Maude so.'

She was certainly growing worse, Frank thought, as he went down to confer with Mrs. Crawford as to what ought to be done, and to offer his services. He would remain there that afternoon, he said, and send a servant over to be in the house during the night.

'She is very sick,' he said; 'but it does not seem as if her sickness could be caused wholly by that bruise on her head. Do you think Peterkin struck her?'

'She says so,' was Mrs. Crawford's reply, 'though why he should do it, I cannot guess.'

Then she added that a servant would not be necessary, as Harold would be home by seven.

'But he may not,' Frank replied. 'Squire Harrington came at two, and reported that the suit was not called until so late that they would not probably get through with the witnesses to-day, so Hal may not be here, and I will send Rob anyway.'

On his way home Frank, too, looked in at the Tramp House, and saw the broken-down table, and hunted for the missing leg, and with Tom concluded that something unusual had taken place there, though he could not guess what.

That evening, as Jerrie grew more and more restless and talkative, Mrs. Crawford listened anxiously for the train, and when it came, waited and watched for Harold, but watched in vain, for Harold did not come. Several of her neighbors, however, did come; those who had gone to the city out of curiosity to attend the lawsuit, and 'see old Peterkin squirm and hear him swear;' and could she have looked into the houses in the village that night, she would have heard some startling news, for almost before the train rolled away from the platform, everybody at or near the station had been told that Mrs. Tracy's diamonds, lost nine or ten years ago, had been found in Harold Hastings' pocket, and that he was under arrest.

Such news travels fast, and it reached the Park House just as the family were finishing their late dinner.

'I told you so! I always thought he was guilty, or knew something about them,' Mrs. Frank exclaimed, with a look of exultation on her face as she turned to her husband. 'What do you think now of your fine young man, who has been hanging around here after your daughter until she is half-betwaddled after him?'

Frank's face was very grave as he answered, decidedly:

'I do not believe it. Harold Hastings never took your diamonds.'

'How came he by them, then?' she asked, in a loud, angry voice.

'I don't know,' her husband replied; 'there is some mistake; it will be cleared in time. But keep it from Maude; I think the news would kill her.'

Meantime Tom had sat with his brows knit together, as if intently thinking; and when at last he spoke he said to his father:

'I shall go to Springfield on the ten o'clock train, and you'd better go with me.'

To this Frank made no objections. If his wife's diamonds were really found, he ought to be there to receive them; and, besides, he might say a word in Harold's defence, if necessary. So ten o'clock found him and Tom at the station, where also was Dick St. Claire, with several other young men, pacing up and down the platform and excitedly discussing the news, of which they did not believe a word.

'I almost feel as if they were hurting me when they touch Hal, he's such a noble fellow,' Dick said to Mr. Tracy and Tom. 'We are all as mad as can be, and so a lot of us fellows, who have always known him, are going over to speak a good word for him, and go his bail if necessary. I don't believe, though, they can do anything after all these years; but father will know. He is there with him.'

And so the night train to Springfield carried fourteen men from Shannondale, thirteen of whom were going to stand by Harold, while the fourteenth hardly knew why he was going or what he believed. Arrived in the city, their first inquiry was for Harold, who, instead of being in the charge of an officer as they had feared, was quietly sleeping in his room at the hotel, while Judge St. Claire had the diamonds in his possession.

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