She gently pushed the old woman into a chair, and then, to Phibbs' utter amazement, knelt down and unfastened her shoes and drew off her stockings. A moment later she was rubbing the lotion upon the poor creature's swollen feet, paying no attention to Martha's horrified protests.
"There. Now they're sure to feel better," said Beth, pulling the worn and darned stockings upon the woman's feet again. "And you must take this bottle to your room, and use it every night and morning."
"Bless your dear heart!" cried Phibbs, while tears of gratitude stood in her faded eyes. "I'm sure I feel twenty years younger, a'ready. But you shouldn't 'a' done it, miss; indeed you shouldn't."
"I'm glad to help you," said Beth, rinsing her hands at the wash stand and drying them upon a towel. "It would be cruel to let you suffer when I can ease your pain."
"But what would Miss Jane say?" wailed old Martha, throwing up her hands in dismay.
"She'll never know a thing about it. It's our secret, Martha, and I'm sure if I ever need a friend you'll do as much for me."
"I'll do anything for you, Miss Elizabeth," was the reply, as the woman took the bottle of lotion and departed.
"That was not a bad thought," she said to herself, again starting for the gardens. "I have made a firm friend and done a kindly action at the same time—and all while Cousin Louise is fast asleep."
The housekeeper let her out at the side door, after Beth had pressed her hand and kissed her good morning.
"You're looking quite bonny, my dear," said the old woman. "Do you feel at home, at all, in this strange place?"
"Not quite, as yet," answered Beth. "But I know I have one good friend here, and that comforts me."
She found a path between high hedges, that wandered away through the grounds, and along this she strolled until she reached a rose arbor with a comfortable bench.
Here she seated herself, looking around her curiously. The place seemed little frequented, but was kept with scrupulous care. Even at this hour, a little way off could be heard the "click-click!" of hedge-shears, and Beth noted how neatly the paths were swept, and how carefully every rose on the arbor was protected.
Elmhurst was a beautiful place. Beth sighed as she wondered if it would ever be hers. Then she opened her book and began to work.
During the next hour the click of the hedge-shears drew nearer, but the girl did not notice this. In another half hour James himself came into view, intent upon his monotonous task. Gradually the motionless form of the girl and the plodding figure of the gardener drew together, until he stood but two yards distant. Then he paused, looked toward the arbor, and uttered an exclamation.
Beth looked up.
"Good morning," she said, pleasantly.
James stared at her, but made no reply save a slight inclination of his head.
"Am I in your way?" she asked.
He turned his back to her, then, and began clipping away as before. Beth sprang up and laid a hand upon his arm, arresting him. Again he turned to stare at her, and in his eyes was a look almost of fear.
She drew back.
"Why won't you speak to me?" enquired the girl, gently. "I'm a stranger at Elmhurst, but I want to be your friend. Won't you let me?"
To her amazement James threw up his hands, letting the shears clatter to the ground, and with a hoarse cry turned and fled up the path as swiftly as he could go.
Beth was really puzzled, but as she stood silently looking after the gardener she heard a soft laugh, and found old Misery beside her.
"It's just his way, Miss; don't you be scared by anything that James does," said the woman. "Why, at times he won't even speak to Miss Jane."
"He isn't dumb, is he?" asked Beth.
"Lor', no! But he's that odd an' contrary he won't talk to a soul. Never did, since the day Master Tom was killed. James was travellin' with Master Tom, you know, and there was an accident, an' the train run off'n the track an' tipped over. James wasn't hurt at all, but he dragged Master Tom out'n the wreck and sat by him until he died. Then James brought Master Tom's body back home again; but his mind seemed to have got a shock, in some way, and he never was the same afterwards. He was powerful fond of young Master Tom. But then, we all was."
"Poor man!" said Beth.
"After that," resumed Misery, "all that James would do was to look after the flowers. Miss Jane, after she came, made him the head gardener, and he's proved a rare good one, too. But James he won't even talk to Miss Jane, nor even to his old friend Lawyer Watson, who used to be Master Tom's special chum an' comrade. He does his duty, and obeys all Miss Jane's orders as faithful as can be; but he won't talk, an' we've all give up tryin' to make him."
"But why should I frighten him?" asked the girl.
"You tried to make him talk, and you're a stranger. Strangers always affect James that way. I remember when Miss Jane first came to Elmhurst he screamed at the sight of her; but when he found out that Master Tom loved her and had given her Elmhurst, James followed her around like a dog, and did everything she told him to. But breakfast is ready, Miss. I came to call you."
"Thank you," said Beth, turning to walk beside the housekeeper.
According to Aunt Jane's instructions the breakfast was served in her own room, and presently Louise, dressed in a light silk kimona, came in bearing her tray "to keep her cousin company," she laughingly announced.
"I should have slept an hour longer," she yawned, over her chocolate, "but old Misery—who seems rightly named—insisted on waking me, just that I might eat. Isn't this a funny establishment?"
"It's different from everything I'm used to," answered Beth, gravely; "but it seems very pleasant here, and everyone is most kind and attentive."
"Now I'll dress," said Louise, "and we'll take a long walk together, and see the place."
So it happened that Kenneth clattered down the road on the sorrel mare just a moment before the girls emerged from the house, and while he was riding off his indignation at their presence at Elmhurst, they were doing just what his horrified imagination had depicted—that is, penetrating to all parts of the grounds, to every nook in the spacious old gardens and even to the stables, where Beth endeavored to make a friend of old Donald the coachman.
However, the gray-whiskered Scotsman was not to be taken by storm, even by a pretty face. His loyalty to "the boy" induced him to be wary in associating with these strange "young females" and although he welcomed them to the stable with glum civility he withheld his opinion of them until he should know them better.
In their rambles the girls found Kenneth's own stair, and were sitting upon it when Phibbs came to summon Louise to attend upon Aunt Jane.
She obeyed with alacrity, for she wished to know more of the queer relative whose guest she had become.
"Sit down," said Aunt Jane, very graciously, as the girl entered.
Louise leaned over the chair, kissed her and patted her cheek affectionately, and then shook up the pillows to make them more comfortable.
"I want you to talk to me," announced Aunt Jane, "and to tell me something of the city and the society in which you live. I've been so long dead to the world that I've lost track of people and things."
"Let me dress your hair at the same time," said Louise, pleadingly. "It looks really frowsy, and I can talk while I work."
"I can't lift my left hand," said the invalid, flushing, "and Phibbs is a stupid ass."
"Never mind, I can make it look beautiful in half a jiffy," said the girl, standing behind the chair and drawing deftly the hairpins from Aunt Jane's scanty grey locks, "and you can't imagine how it pleases me to fuss over anyone."
It was surprising how meekly Aunt Jane submitted to this ordeal, but she plied the girl with many shrewd questions and Louise, busily working in a position where the old woman could not see her face, never hesitated for an answer. She knew all the recent gossip of fashionable society, and retailed it glibly. She had met this celebrity at a ball and that one at a reception, and she described them minutely, realizing that Aunt Jane would never be in a position to contradict any assertion she might choose to make.
Indeed, Aunt Jane was really startled.
"However did your mother manage to gain an entree into society?" she asked. "Your father was a poor man and of little account. I know, for he was my own brother."
"He left us a very respectable life insurance," said Louise, demurely, "and my mother had many friends who were glad to introduce us to good society when we were able to afford such a luxury. Father died twelve years ago, you know, and for several years, while I was at school, mother lived very quietly. Then she decided it was time I made my debut, but for the last season we have been rather gay, I admit."
"Are you rich?" asked Aunt Jane, sharply.
"Mercy, no!" laughed Louise, who had finished her work and now sat her aunt's feet. "But we have enough for our requirements, and that makes us feel quite independent. By the way, auntie, I want to return that check you sent me. It was awfully good and generous of you, but I didn't need it, you know, and so I want you to take it back."
She drew the slip of paper from her pocket and pressed it into Aunt Jane's hand.
"It's quite enough for you to give me this nice treat in the country," resumed the girl, calmly. "The change from the city will do me a world of good, and as I wanted to be quiet, and rest I declined all my other invitations for the summer to accept yours. Isn't it glorious that we can get acquainted at last? And I quite love Elmhurst, already!"
Aunt Jane was equally surprised and gratified. The return of the check for a hundred dollars was very pleasant. She had drawn a similar check for each of her three nieces, believing that it would be necessary for her to meet their expenses, and she had considered the expenditure in the nature of a business transaction. But Patricia had flung one check in her face, practically, and now Louise had voluntarily returned another, because she did not need the money. Really, Jane Merrick was accomplishing her purpose for less money than she had expected, and she had hoarded her wealth for so many years that she disliked to spend any of it foolishly.
Louise had read her nature correctly. It had been a little hard to return so large a check, but the girl's policy was not to appear before Aunt Jane as a poor relation, but rather as a young lady fitted by social education and position to become a gracious mistress of Elmhurst. This she believed would give her a powerful advantage over all competitors.
Whether she was right or not in this surmise it is certain that she rose several points in Aunt Jane's estimation during this interview, and when she was dismissed it was so graciously that she told herself the money her little plot had cost had been well expended.
Afterward Elizabeth was summoned to attend her aunt.
"I want to be amused. Can you read aloud?" said the invalid.
"Not very well, I'm afraid. But I'll be glad to try," answered Beth. "What do you like?"
"Select your own book," said Aunt Jane, pointing to a heap of volumes beside her.
The girl hesitated. Louise would doubtless have chosen a romance, or some light tale sure to interest for the hour, and so amuse the old lady. But Beth erroneously judged that the aged and infirm love sober and scholarly books, and picked out a treatise that proved ineffably dull and tedious.
Aunt Jane sniffed, and then smiled slyly and proceeded to settle herself for a nap. If the girl was a fool, let her be properly punished.
Beth read for an hour, uncertain whether her aunt were intensely interested or really asleep. At the end of that dreadful period old Misery entered and aroused the sleeper without ceremony.
"What's the matter?" asked Aunt Jane, querrulously, for she resented being disturbed.
"There's a man to see you, Miss."
"Send him about his business!"
"I won't see him, I tell you!"
"But he says he's your brother, Miss."
Miss Jane stared as if bewildered.
"Your brother John, Miss."
The invalid sank back upon her cushions with a sigh of resignation.
"I thought he was dead, long ago; but if he's alive I suppose I'll have to see him," she said. "Elizabeth, leave the room. Misery, send the man here!"
UNCLE JOHN GETS ACQUAINTED.
Beth went out to find Louise, and discovered her standing near the stables, where a boy was rubbing down the sides of a sorrel mare with wisps of straw.
"Something has happened," she said to Louise in a troubled voice.
"A man has arrived who says he is Aunt Jane's brother."
"Impossible! Have you seen him?"
"No; he says he's Aunt Jane's brother John."
"Oh; I know. The peddler, or tinker, or something or other who disappeared years ago. But it doesn't matter."
"It may matter a good deal," said practical Beth. "Aunt Jane may leave him her money."
"Why, he's older than she is. I've heard mother say he was the eldest of the family. Aunt Jane wont leave her money to an old man, you may be sure."
Beth felt a little reassured at this, and stood for a moment beside Louise watching the boy. Presently Oscar came to him, and after touching his hat respectfully took the mare and led her into the stable. The boy turned away, with his hands in his pockets, and strolled up a path, unaware that the two dreaded girls had been observing him.
"I wonder who that is," said Beth.
"We'll find out," returned Louise. "I took him for a stable boy, at first. But Oscar seemed to treat him as a superior."
She walked into the stable, followed by her cousin, and found the groom tying the mare.
"Who was the young man?" she asked.
"Which young man, Miss?"
"The one who has just arrived with the horse."
"Oh; that's Master Kenneth, Miss," answered Oscar, with a grin.
"Where did he come from?"
"Master Kenneth? Why, he lives here."
"At the house?"
"Who is he?"
"Master Tom's nephew—he as used to own Elmhurst, you know."
"Mr. Thomas Bradley?"
"The same, Miss."
"Ah. How long has Master Kenneth lived here?"
"A good many years. I can't just remember how long."
"Thank you, Oscar."
The girls walked away, and when they were alone Louise remarked:
"Here is a more surprising discovery than Uncle John, Beth. The boy has a better right than any of us to inherit Elmhurst."
"Then why did Aunt Jane send for us?"
"It's a mystery, dear. Let us try to solve it."
"Come; we'll ask the housekeeper," said Beth. "I'm sure old Misery will tell us all we want to know."
So they returned to the house and, with little difficulty, found the old housekeeper.
"Master Kenneth?" she exclaimed. "Why, he's just Master Tom's nephew, that's all."
"Is this his home?" asked Beth.
"All the home he's got, my dear. His father and mother are both dead, and Miss Jane took him to care for just because she thought Master Tom would 'a' liked it."
"Is she fond of him?" enquired Louise.
"Fond of the boy? Why, Miss Jane just hates him, for a fact. She won't even see him, or have him near her. So he keeps to his little room in the left wing, and eats and sleeps there."
"It's strange," remarked Beth, thoughtfully. "Isn't he a nice boy?"
"We're all very fond of Master Kenneth," replied the housekeeper, simply. "But I'll admit he's a queer lad, and has a bad temper. It may be due to his lack of bringin' up, you know; for he just runs wild, and old Mr. Chase, who comes from the village to tutor him, is a poor lot, and lets the boy do as he pleases. For that reason he won't study, and he won't work, and I'm sure I don't know whatever will become of him, when Miss Jane dies."
"Thank you," said Beth, much relieved, and the girls walked away with lighter hearts.
"There's no danger in that quarter, after all," said Louise, gaily. "The boy is a mere hanger-on. You see, Aunt Jane's old sweetheart, Thomas Bradley, left everything to her when he died, and she can do as she likes with it."
After luncheon, which they ate alone and unattended save by the maid Susan, who was old Misery's daughter, the girls walked away to the rose arbor, where Beth declared they could read or sew quite undisturbed.
But sitting upon the bench they found a little old man, his legs extended, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, and a look of calm meditation upon his round and placid face. Between his teeth was a black brier pipe, which he puffed lazily.
Beth was for drawing back, but Louise took her arm and drew her forward.
"Isn't this Uncle John?" she asked.
The little man turned his eyes upon them, withdrew his hands from his pockets and his pipe from his mouth, and then bowed profoundly.
"If you are my nieces, then I am Uncle John," he said, affably. "Sit down, my dears, and let us get acquainted."
Louise smiled, and her rapid survey took in the man's crumpled and somewhat soiled shirt-front, the frayed black necktie that seemed to have done years of faithful service, and the thick and dusty cow-hide boots. His clothing was old and much worn, and the thought crossed her mind that Oscar the groom was far neater in appearance than this newly-found relative.
Beth merely noticed that Uncle John was neither dignified nor imposing in appearance. She sat down beside him—leaving a wide space between them—with a feeling of disappointment that he was "like all the rest of the Merricks."
"You have just arrived, we hear," remarked Louise.
"Yes. Walked up from the station this forenoon," said Uncle John. "Come to see Jane, you know, but hadn't any idea I'd find two nieces. Hadn't any idea I possessed two nieces, to be honest about it."
"I believe you have three," said Louise, in an, amused tone.
"Three? Who's the other?"
"Why, Patricia Doyle."
"Doyle? Doyle? Don't remember the name."
"I believe your sister Violet married a man named Doyle."
"So she did. Captain Doyle—or Major Doyle—or some such fellow. But what is your name?"
"I am Louise Merrick, your brother Will's daughter."
"Oh! And you?" turning to Beth.
"My mother was Julia Merrick," said Beth, not very graciously. "She married Professor DeGraf. I am Elizabeth DeGraf."
"Yes, yes," observed Uncle John, nodding his head. "I remember Julia very well, as a girl. She used to put on a lot of airs, and jaw father because he wouldn't have the old top-buggy painted every spring. Same now as ever, I s'pose?"
Beth did not reply.
"And Will's dead, and out of his troubles, I hope," continued Uncle John, reflectively. "He wrote me once that his wife had nearly driven him crazy. Perhaps she murdered him in his sleep—eh, Louise?"
"Sir," said Louise, much offended, "you are speaking of my mother."
"Ah, yes. It's the same one your father spoke of," he answered, unmoved. "But that's neither here nor there. The fact is, I've found two nieces," looking shrewdly from one face into the other, "and I seem to be in luck, for you're quite pretty and ladylike, my dears."
"Thank you," said Louise, rather coldly. "You're a competent judge, sir, I suppose."
"Tolerable," he responded, with a chuckle. "So good a judge that I've kep' single all my life."
"Where did you come from?" asked the girl.
"From out on the coast," tossing his grizzled head toward the west.
"What brought you back here, after all these years?"
"Family affection, I guess. Wanted to find out what folks yet belonged to me."
An awkward silence followed this, during which Uncle John relighted his pipe and Beth sat in moody silence. Louise drew a pattern in the gravel with the end of her parasol. This new uncle, she reflected, might become an intolerable bore, if she encouraged his frank familiarity.
"Now that you are here," she said, presently, "what are you going to do?"
"Nothing, my dear."
"Have you any money?"
He looked at her with a droll expression.
"Might have expected that question, my dear," said he; "but it's rather hard to answer. If I say no, you'll be afraid I'll want to borrow a little spendin' money, now an' then; and if I say yes, you'll take me for a Rockyfeller."
"Not exactly," smiled Louise.
"Well, then, if I figure close I won't have to borrow," he responded, gravely. "And here's Jane, my sister, just rolling in wealth that she don't know what to do with. And she's invited me to stay a while. So let's call the money question settled, my dear."
Another silence ensued. Louise had satisfied her curiosity concerning her new uncle, and Beth had never had any. There was nothing more to say, and as Uncle John showed no intention of abandoning the arbored seat, it was evident they must go themselves. Louise was about to rise when the man remarked:
"Jane won't last long".
"You think not?" she asked.
"She says she's half dead a'ready, and I believe it. It's about time, you know. She's let her temper and restless disposition wear her out. Pretty soon she'll blow out, like a candle. All that worries her is to keep alive until she can decide who to leave her money to. That's why you're here, I s'pose, my dears. How do you like being on exhibition, an' goin' through your paces, like a bunch o' trotting hosses, to see which is worth the most?"
"Uncle John," said Beth, "I had hoped I would like you. But if you are going to be so very disagreeable, I'll have nothing more to do with you!"
With this she arose and marched up the path, vastly indignant, and Louise marched beside her. At the bend in the walk they glanced back, and saw Uncle John sitting upon the bench all doubled up and shaking with silent laughter.
"He's a queer old man," said Beth, flushing; "but he's impudent and half a fool."
"Don't judge hastily, Beth," replied Louise, reflectively. "I can't make up my mind, just yet, whether Uncle John is a fool or not."
"Anyhow," snapped Beth, "he's laughing at us."
"And that," said her cousin, softly, "is the strongest evidence of his sanity. Beth, my love, Aunt Jane has placed us in a most ridiculous position."
That evening at dinner they met Uncle John again, seated opposite Aunt Jane in the great dining hall. The mistress of Elmhurst always dressed for this meal and tonight she wore a rich black silk and had her invalid chair wheeled to her place at the head of the table. Uncle John had simply changed his old black necktie for a soiled white one. Otherwise his apparel was the same as before, and his stubby gray hair was in a sad state of disarray. But his round face wore a cheerful smile, nevertheless, and Aunt Jane seemed not to observe anything outre in her brother's appearance. And so the meal passed pleasantly enough.
After it was finished Uncle John strolled into the garden to smoke his pipe under the stars and Louise sang a few songs for Aunt Jane in the dimly-lit drawing room. Beth, who was a music teacher's daughter, could not sing at all.
It was some time later when John Merrick came to his sister's room to bid her good night.
"Well," she asked him, "what do you think of the girls?"
"During my lifetime," said the old man, "I've always noticed that girls are just girls—and nothing more. Jane, your sex is a puzzle that ain't worth the trouble solving. You're all alike, and what little I've seen of my nieces convinces me they're regulation females—no better nor worse than their kind."
"Louise seems a capable girl," declared Aunt Jane, musingly. "I didn't care much for her, at first; but she improves on acquaintance. She has been well trained by her mother, and is very ladylike and agreeable."
"She's smarter than the other one, but not so honest," said Uncle John.
"Beth has no tact at all," replied Aunt Jane. "But then, she's younger than Louise."
"If you're trying to figure out what they are, and what they are not," returned the man, "you've got a hard job on your hands, Jane, and like as not you'll make a mistake in the end. Where's the other niece? Aren't there three of them?"
"Yes. The other's coming. Silas Watson, my lawyer, has just telegraphed from New York that he's bringing Patricia back with him."
"Had to send for her, eh?"
"Yes. She's Irish, and if I remember rightly her father is a disgraceful old reprobate, who caused poor Violet no end of worry. The girl may be like him, for she wrote me a dreadful letter, scolding me because I hadn't kept her parents supplied with money, and refusing to become my guest."
"But she's changed her mind?"
"I sent Watson after her, and he's bringing her. I wanted to see what the girl is like."
Uncle John whistled a few bars of an ancient tune.
"My advice is," he said, finally, "to let 'em draw cuts for Elmhurst. If you want to leave your money to the best o' the lot, you're as sure of striking it right that way as any other."
"Nonsense!" said Jane Merrick, sharply. "I don't want to leave my money to the best of the lot."
"By no means. I want to leave it to the one I prefer—whether she's the best or not."
"I see. Jane, I'll repeat my former observation. Your sex is a puzzle that isn't worth solving. Good night, old girl."
"Good night, John."
THE OTHER NIECE.
Patricia sat down opposite her Aunt Jane. She still wore her hat and the gray wrap.
"Well, here I am," she exclaimed, with a laugh; "but whether I ought to be here or not I have my doubts."
Aunt Jane surveyed her critically.
"You're a queer little thing," she said, bluntly. "I wonder why I took so much trouble to get you."
"So do I," returned Patsy, her eyes twinkling. "You'll probably be sorry for it."
Lawyer Watson, who had remained standing, now broke in nervously.
"I explained to Miss Doyle," said he, "that you were ill, and wanted to see her. And she kindly consented to come to Elmhurst for a few days."
"You see," said Patsy, "I'd just got Daddy away on his vacation, to visit his old colonel. I've wanted him to go this three years back, but he couldn't afford it until I got a raise this Spring. He'll have a glorious old time with the colonel, and they'll fish and hunt and drink whiskey all day, and fight the war all over again every evening. So I was quite by myself when Mr. Watson came to me and wouldn't take no for his answer."
"Why did you object to come here?" asked Aunt Jane.
"Well, I didn't know you; and I didn't especially want to know you. Not that I bear grudges, understand, although you've been little of a friend to my folks these past years. But you are rich and proud—and I suspect you're a little cross, Aunt Jane—while we are poor and proud and like to live our lives in our own way."
"Are you a working girl?" enquired Miss Merrick.
"Surely," said Patsy, "and drawing a big lump of salary every Saturday night. I'm a hair-dresser, you know—and by the way, Aunt Jane, it puzzles me to find a certain kink in your hair that I thought I'd invented myself."
"Louise dressed my hair this way," said Miss Merrick, a bit stiffly.
"My niece, Louise Merrick."
Patsy whistled, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked grave.
"Is she here?" she asked, a moment later.
"Yes, and your other cousin, Elizabeth De Graf, is here also."
"That's just the trouble," cried Patsy, energetically. "That's why I didn't want to come, you know."
"I don't understand you, Patricia."
"Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face, even if I hadn't pumped Mr. Watson until I got the truth out of him. You want us girls here just to compare us with each other, and pick out the one you like best."
"The others you'll throw over, and the favorite will get your money."
"Haven't I a right to do that?" asked the invalid, in an amazed tone.
"Perhaps you have. But we may as well understand each other right now, Aunt Jane. I won't touch a penny of your money, under any circumstances."
"I don't think you will, Patricia."
The girl laughed, with a joyous, infectious merriment that was hard to resist.
"Stick to that, aunt, and there's no reason we shouldn't be friends," she said, pleasantly. "I don't mind coming to see you, for it will give me a bit of a rest and the country is beautiful just now. More than that, I believe I shall like you. You've had your own way a long time, and you've grown crochetty and harsh and disagreeable; but there are good lines around your mouth and eyes, and your nature's liable to soften and get sunny again. I'm sure I hope so. So, if you'd like me to stay a few days, I'll take off my things and make myself at home. But I'm out of the race for your money, and I'll pay my way from now on just as I have always done."
Silas Watson watched Aunt Jane's face during this speech with an anxious and half-frightened expression upon his own. No one but himself had ever dared to talk to Jane Merrick as plainly as this before, and he wondered how she would accept such frankness from a young girl.
But Patricia's manner was not at all offensive. Her big eyes were as frank as her words, but they glistened with kindliness and good nature, and it was evident the girl had no doubt at all of her aunt's reply, for she straightway begun to take off her hat.
The invalid had kept her eyes sternly fastened upon her young niece ever since the beginning of the interview. Now she reached out a hand and touched her bell.
"Misery," she said to the old housekeeper, "show my niece, Miss Patricia, to the rose chamber. And see that she is made comfortable."
"Thank you," said Patsy, jumping up to go.
"Make yourself perfectly free of the place," continued Aunt Jane, in an even tone, turning to Patricia, "and have as good a time as you can. I'm afraid it's rather stupid here for girls, but that can't be helped. Stay as long as you please, and go home whenever you like; but while you are here, if you ever feel like chatting with a harsh and disagreeable old woman, come to me at any time and you will be welcome."
Patsy, standing before her, looked down into her worn face with a pitying expression.
"Ah! I've been cruel to you," she exclaimed, impulsively, "and I didn't mean to hurt you at all, Aunt Jane. You must forgive me. It's just my blunt Irish way, you see; but if I hadn't been drawn to you from the first I wouldn't have said a word—good or bad!"
"Go now," replied Aunt Jane, turning in her chair rather wearily. "But come to me again whenever you like."
Patsy nodded, and followed the housekeeper to the rose chamber—the prettiest room old Elmhurst possessed, with broad windows opening directly upon the finest part of the garden.
Lawyer Watson sat opposite his old friend for some moments in thoughtful silence. "The child is impossible." he said, at last.
"You think so?" she enquired, moodily.
"Absolutely. Either of the others would make a better Lady of Elmhurst. Yet I like the little thing, I confess. She quite won my old heart after I had known her for five minutes. But money would ruin her. She's a child of the people, and ought not to be raised from her proper level. Jane, Jane—you're making a grave mistake in all this. Why don't you do the only right thing in your power, and leave Elmhurst to Kenneth?"
"You bore me, Silas," she answered, coldly. "The boy is the most impossible of all."
It was the old protest and the old reply. He had hardly expected anything different.
After a period of thought he asked;
"What is this I hear about John Merrick having returned from the West?"
"He came yesterday. It was a great surprise to me."
"I never knew this brother, I believe."
"No; he had gone away before I became acquainted with either you or Tom."
"What sort of a man is he?"
"Honest and simple, hard-headed and experienced."
"Is he independent?"
"I believe so; he has never mentioned his affairs to me. But he has worked hard all his life, he says, and now means to end his days peacefully. John is not especially refined in his manner, nor did he have much of an education; but he seems to be a good deal of a man, for all that. I am very glad he appeared at Elmhurst just at this time."
"You had believed him dead?"
"Yes. He had passed out of my life completely, and I never knew what became of him."
"He must be an eccentric person," said Mr. Watson, with a smile.
"He is." she acknowledged. "But blood is thicker than water, Silas, and I'm glad brother John is here at last."
A little later the lawyer left her and picked his way through the gardens until he came to Kenneth's wing and the stair that led to his room. Here he paused a moment, finding himself surrounded by a profound stillness, broken only by the chirping of the birds in the shrubbery. Perhaps Kenneth was not in. He half decided to retrace his steps, but finally mounted the stair softly and stood within the doorway of the room.
The boy and a little stout man were playing chess at a table, and both were in a deep study of the game. The boy's back was toward him, but the man observed the newcomer and gave a nod. Then he dropped his eyes again to the table.
Kenneth was frowning sullenly.
"You're bound to lose the pawn, whichever way you play," said the little man quietly.
The boy gave an angry cry, and thrust the table from him, sending the chess-men clattering into a corner. Instantly the little man leaned over and grasped the boy by the collar, and with a sudden jerk landed him across his own fat knees. Then, while the prisoner screamed and struggled, the man brought his hand down with a slap that echoed throughout the room, and continued the operation until Master Kenneth had received a sound spanking.
Then he let the boy slip to the floor, from whence he arose slowly and backed toward the door, scowling and muttering angrily.
"You broke the bargain, and I kept my word," said Uncle John, calmly taking his pipe from his pocket and filling it. "The compact was that if you raised a rough-house, like you did yesterday, and got unruly, that I'd give you a good thrashing. Now, wasn't it?"
"Yes," acknowledged the boy.
"Well, that blamed temper o' your'n got away with you again, and you're well spanked for not heading it off. Pick up the board. Ken, my lad, and let's try it again."
The boy hesitated. Then he looked around and saw Lawyer Watson, who had stood motionless by the doorway, and with a cry that was half a sob Kenneth threw himself into his old friend's arms and burst into a flood of tears.
Uncle John struck a match, and lighted his pipe.
"A bargain's a bargain," he observed, composedly.
"He whipped me!" sobbed the boy. "He whipped me like a child."
"Your own fault," said Uncle John. "You wanted me to play a game with you, and I agreed, providin' you behaved yourself. And you didn't. Now, look here. Do you blame me any?"
"No," said the boy.
"No harm's done, is there?"
"Then stop blubberin', and introduce me to your friend," continued Uncle John. "Name's Watson, ain't it."
"Silas Watson, sir, at your service," said the lawyer, smiling. "And this must be John Merrick, who I understand has arrived at Elmhurst during my absence."
"Exactly," said Uncle John, and the two men shook hands cordially.
"Glad to welcome you to Elmhurst, sir," continued the lawyer. "I've known it ever since I was a boy, when it belonged to my dear friend Thomas Bradley. And I hope you'll love it as much as I do, when you know it better."
"Bradley must have been a fool to give this place to Jane," said Uncle John, reflectively.
"He was in love, sir," observed the other, and they both smiled. Then the lawyer turned to Kenneth. "How are things going?" he asked. "Have the girls bothered you much, as yet?"
"No," said the boy. "I keep out of their way."
"That's a good idea. By the bye, sir," turning to John Merrick. "I've just brought you a new niece."
"She prefers to be called Patsy. A queer little thing; half Irish, you know."
"And half Merrick. That's an odd combination, but the Irish may be able to stand it," said Uncle John. "These nieces are more than I bargained for. I came to see one relative, and find three more—and all women!"
"I think you'll like Patsy, anyhow. And so will you, Kenneth."
The boy gave an indignant roar.
"I hate all girls!" he said.
"You won't hate this one. She's as wild and impulsive as you are, but better natured. She'll make a good comrade, although she may box your ears once in a while."
The boy turned away sulkily, and began picking up the scattered chess-men. The two men walked down the stair and strolled together through the garden.
"A strange boy," said Uncle John, presently.
"I'm glad to see you've made friends with him," replied the lawyer, earnestly. "Until now he has had no one to befriend him but me, and at times he's so unmanageable that it worries me dreadfully."
"There's considerable character about the lad," said John Merrick; "but he's been spoiled and allowed to grow up wild, like a weed. He's got it in him to make a criminal or a gentleman, whichever way his nature happens to develop."
"He ought to go to a military school," replied Lawyer Watson. "Proper training would make a man of Kenneth; but I can't induce Jane to spend the money on him. She gives him food and clothing and lodging—all of the simplest description—but there her generosity ends. With thousands of dollars lying idle, she won't assist the only nephew of Tom Bradley to secure a proper education."
"Jane's queer, too," said that lady's brother, with a sigh. "In fact, Mr. Watson, it's a queer world, and the longer I live in it the queerer I find it. Once I thought it would be a good idea to regulate things myself and run the world as it ought to be run; but I gave it up long ago. The world's a stage, they say; but the show ain't always amusing, by a long chalk, and sometimes I wish I didn't have a reserved seat."
KENNETH IS FRIGHTENED.
Lawyer Watson, unable to direct events at Elmhurst, became a silent spectator of the little comedy being enacted there, and never regretted that, as Uncle John expressed it, he "had a reserved seat at the show."
Jane Merrick, formerly the most imperious and irrascible of women, had become wonderfully reserved since the arrival of her nieces, and was evidently making a sincere effort to study their diverse characters. Day by day the invalid's health was failing visibly. She had no more strokes of paralysis, but her left limb did not recover, and the numbness was gradually creeping upward toward her heart.
Perhaps the old woman appreciated this more fully than anyone else. At any event, she became more gentle toward Phibbs and Misery, who mostly attended her, and showed as much consideration as possible for her nieces and her brother. Silas Watson she kept constantly by her side. He was her oldest and most trusted friend, and the only differences they had ever had were over the boy Kenneth, whom she stubbornly refused to favor.
Uncle John speedily became an established fixture at the place. The servants grew accustomed to seeing him wander aimlessly about the grounds, his pipe always in his mouth, his hands usually in his pockets. He had a pleasant word always for Donald or Oscar or James, but was not prone to long conversations. Every evening, when he appeared at dinner, he wore his soiled white tie; at other times the black one was always in evidence; but other than this his dress underwent no change. Even Kenneth came to wonder what the bundle had contained that Uncle John brought under his arm to Elmhurst.
The little man seemed from the first much attracted by his three nieces. Notwithstanding Louise's constant snubs and Beth's haughty silence he was sure to meet them when they strolled out and try to engage them in conversation. It was hard to resist his simple good nature, and the girls came in time to accept him as an inevitable companion, and Louise mischievously poked fun at him while Beth conscientiously corrected him in his speech and endeavored to improve his manners. All this seemed very gratifying to Uncle John. He thanked Beth very humbly for her kind attention, and laughed with Louise when she ridiculed his pudgy, round form and wondered if his bristly gray hair wouldn't make a good scrubbing brush.
Patsy didn't get along very well with her cousins. From the first, when Louise recognized her, with well assumed surprise, as "the girl who had been sent to dress her hair," Patricia declared that their stations in life were entirely different.
"There's no use of our getting mixed up, just because we're cousins and all visiting Aunt Jane," she said. "One of you will get her money, for I've told her I wouldn't touch a penny of it, and she has told me I wouldn't get the chance. So one of you will be a great lady, while I shall always earn my own living. I'll not stay long, anyhow; so just forget I'm here, and I'll amuse myself and try not to bother you."
Both Beth and Louise considered this very sensible, and took Patricia at her word. Moreover, Phibbs had related to Beth, whose devoted adherent she was, all of the conversation between Aunt Jane and Patricia, from which the girls learned they had nothing to fear from their cousin's interference. So they let her go her way, and the three only met at the state dinners, which Aunt Jane still attended, in spite of her growing weakness.
Old Silas Watson, interested as he was in the result, found it hard to decide, after ten days, which of her nieces Jane Merrick most favored. Personally he preferred that Beth should inherit, and frankly told his old friend that the girl would make the best mistress of Elmhurst. Moreover, all the servants sang Beth's praises, from Misery and Phibbs down to Oscar and Susan. Of course James the gardener favored no one, as the numerous strangers at Elmhurst kept him in a constant state of irritation, and his malady seemed even worse than usual. He avoided everyone but his mistress, and although his work was now often neglected Miss Merrick made no complaint. James' peculiarities were well understood and aroused nothing but sympathy.
Louise, however, had played her cards so well that all Beth's friends were powerless to eject the elder girl from Aunt Jane's esteem. Louise had not only returned the check to her aunt, but she came often to sit beside her and cheer her with a budget of new social gossip, and no one could arrange the pillows so comfortably or stroke the tired head so gently as Louise. And then, she was observing, and called Aunt Jane's attention to several ways of curtailing the household expenditures, which the woman's illness had forced her to neglect.
So Miss Merrick asked Louise to look over the weekly accounts, and in this way came to depend upon her almost as much as she did upon Lawyer Watson.
As for Patsy, she made no attempt whatever to conciliate her aunt, who seldom mentioned her name to the others but always brightened visibly when the girl came into her presence with her cheery speeches and merry laughter. She never stayed long, but came and went, like a streak of sunshine, whenever the fancy seized her; and Silas Watson, shrewdly looking on, saw a new light in Jane's eyes as she looked after her wayward, irresponsible niece, and wondered if the bargain between them, regarding the money, would really hold good.
It was all an incomprehensible problem, this matter of the inheritance, and although the lawyer expected daily to be asked to draw up Jane Merrick's will, and had, indeed, prepared several forms, to be used in case of emergency, no word had yet passed her lips regarding her intentions.
Kenneth's life, during this period, was one of genuine misery. It seemed to his morbid fancy that whatever path he might take, he was sure of running upon one or more of those detestable girls who were visiting at Elmhurst. Even in Donald's harness-room he was not secure from interruption, for little Patsy was frequently perched upon the bench there, watching with serious eyes old Donald's motions, and laughing joyously when in his embarrassment he overturned a can of oil or buckled the wrong straps together.
Worse than all, this trying creature would saddle Nora, the sorrel mare, and dash away through the lanes like a tom-boy, leaving him only old Sam to ride—for Donald would allow no one to use the coach horses. Sam was tall and boney, and had an unpleasant gait, so that the boy felt he was thoroughly justified in hating the girl who so frequently interfered with his whims.
Louise was at first quite interested in Kenneth, and resolved to force him to talk and become more sociable.
She caught him in a little summer-house one morning, from whence, there being but one entrance, he could not escape, and at once entered into conversation.
"Ah, you are Kenneth Forbes, I suppose," she began, pleasantly. "I am very glad to make your acquaintance. I am Louise Merrick, Miss Merrick's niece, and have come to visit her."
The boy shrank back as fur as possible, staring her full in the face, but made no reply.
"You needn't be afraid of me," continued Louise. "I'm very fond of boys, and you must be nearly my own age."
Still no reply.
"I suppose you don't know much of girls and are rather shy," she persisted. "But I want to be friendly and I hope you'll let me. There's so much about this interesting old place that you can tell me, having lived here so many years. Come, I'll sit beside you on this bench, and we'll have a good talk together."
"Go away!" cried the boy, hoarsely, raising his hands as if to ward off her approach.
Louise looked surprised and pained.
"Why, we are almost cousins," she said. "Cannot we become friends and comrades?"
With a sudden bound he dashed her aside, so rudely that she almost fell, and an instant later he had left the summer house and disappear among the hedges.
Louise laughed at her own discomfiture and gave up the attempt to make the boy's acquaintance.
"He's a regular savage," she told Beth, afterward, "and a little crazy, too, I suspect."
"Never mind," said Beth, philosophically. "He's only a boy, and doesn't amount to anything, anyway. After Aunt Jane dies he will probably go somewhere else to live. Don't let us bother about him."
Kenneth's one persistent friend was Uncle John. He came every day to the boy's room to play chess with him, and after that one day's punishment, which, singularly enough, Kenneth in no way resented, they got along very nicely together. Uncle John was a shrewd player of the difficult game, but the boy was quick as a flash to see an advantage and use it against his opponent; so neither was ever sure of winning and the interest in the game was constantly maintained. At evening also the little man often came to sit on the stair outside the boy's room and smoke his pipe, and frequently they would sit beneath the stars, absorbed in thought and without exchanging a single word.
Unfortunately, Louise and Beth soon discovered the boy's secluded retreat, and loved to torment him by entering his own bit of garden and even ascending the stairs to his little room. He could easily escape them by running through the numerous upper halls of the mansion; but here he was liable to meet others, and his especial dread was encountering old Miss Merrick. So he conceived a plan for avoiding the girls in another way.
In the hallway of the left wing, near his door, was a small ladder leading to the second story roof, and a dozen feet from the edge of the roof stood an old oak tree, on the further side of a tall hedge. Kenneth managed to carry a plank to the roof, where, after several attempts, he succeeded in dropping one end into a crotch of the oak, thus connecting the edge of the roof with the tree by means of the narrow plank. After this, at first sight of the girls in his end of the garden, he fled to the roof, ran across the improvised bridge, "shinned" down the tree and, hidden by the hedge, made good his escape.
The girls discovered this plan, and were wicked enough to surprise the boy often and force him to cross the dizzy plank to the tree. Having frightened him away they would laugh and stroll on, highly amused at the evident fear they aroused in the only boy about the place.
Patricia, who was not in the other girls' secret, knew nothing of this little comedy and really disturbed Kenneth least of the three. But he seemed to avoid her as much as he did the others.
She sooned learned from Oscar that the boy loved to ride as well as she did, and once or twice she met him on a lonely road perched on top of big Sam. This led her to suspect she had thoughtlessly deprived him of his regular mount. So one morning she said to the groom:
"Doesn't Kenneth usually ride Nora?"
"Yes, Miss," answered the man.
"Then I'd better take Sam this morning," she decided.
But the groom demurred.
"You won't like Sam, Miss," he said, "and he gets ugly at times and acts bad. Master Kenneth won't use Nora today, I'm sure."
"I think I'll ask him," said she, after a moment, and turned away into the garden, anxious to have this plausible opportunity to speak to the lonely boy.
PATSY MEETS WITH AN ACCIDENT.
"Get out of here!" shouted the boy, angrily, as Patsy appeared at the foot of his stair.
"I won't!" she answered indignantly. "I've come to speak to you about the mare, and you'll just treat me decently or I'll know the reason why!"
But he didn't wait to hear this explanation. He saw her advancing up the stairs, and fled in his usual hasty manner to the hall and up the ladder to the roof.
Patsy stepped back into the garden, vexed at his flight, and the next instant she saw him appear, upon the sloping roof and start to run down the plank.
Even as she looked the boy slipped, fell headlong, and slid swiftly downward. In a moment he was over the edge, clutching wildly at the plank, which was a foot or more beyond his reach. Headforemost he dove into space, but the clutching hand found something at last—the projecting hook of an old eaves-trough that had long since been removed—and to this he clung fast in spite of the jerk of his arrested body, which threatened to tear away his grip.
But his plight was desperate, nevertheless. He was dangling in space, the hard pavement thirty feet below him, with no possible way of pulling himself up to the roof again. And the hook was so small that there was no place for his other hand. The only way he could cling to it at all was to grasp his wrist with the free hand as a partial relief from the strain upon his arm.
"Hold fast!" called Patsy. "I'm coming."
She sprang up the steps, through the boy's room and into the hallway. There she quickly perceived the ladder, and mounted it to the roof. Taking in the situation at a glance she ran with steady steps down the sloping roof to where the plank lay, and stepped out upon it far enough to see the boy dangling beside her. Then she decided instantly what to do.
"Hang on!" she called, and returning to the roof dragged the end of the plank to a position directly over the hook. Then she lay flat upon it, an arm on either side of the plank, and reaching down seized one of the boy's wrists firmly in each hand.
"Now, then," said she, "let go the hook."
"If I do," answered the boy, his white face upturned to hers, "I'll drag you down with me."
"No you won't. I'm very strong, and I'm sure I can save you. Let go," she said, imperatively.
"I'm not afraid to die," replied the boy, his voice full of bitterness. "Take away your hands, and I'll drop."
But Patsy gripped him more firmly than ever.
"Don't be a fool!" she cried. "There's no danger whatever, if you do just what I tell you."
His eyes met hers in a mute appeal; but suddenly he gained confidence, and resolved to trust her. In any event, he could not cling to the hook much longer.
He released his hold, and swung in mid-air just beneath the plank, where the girl lay holding him by his wrists.
"Now, then," she said, quietly, "when I lift you up, grab the edges of the plank."
Patricia's strength was equal to her courage, and under the excitement of that desperate moment she did what few other girls of her size could ever have accomplished. She drew the boy up until his eager hands caught the edges of the plank, and gripped it firmly. Then she released him and crept a little back toward the roof.
"Now swing your legs up and you're safe!" she cried.
He tried to obey, but his strength was failing him, and he could do no more than touch the plank with his toes.
"Once more," called the girl.
This time she caught his feet as they swung upward, and drew his legs around the plank.
"Can you climb up, now?" she asked, anxiously.
"I'll try," he panted.
The plank upon which this little tragedy was being enacted was in full view of the small garden where Aunt Jane loved to sit in her chair and enjoy the flowers and the sunshine. She could not see Kenneth's wing at all, but she could see the elevated plank leading from the roof to the oak tree, and for several days had been puzzled by its appearance and wondered for what purpose it was there.
Today, as she sat talking with John Merrick and Silas Watson, she suddenly gave a cry of surprise, and following her eyes the two men saw Kenneth step out upon the roof, fall, and slide over the edge. For a moment all three remained motionless, seized with fear and consternation, and then they saw Patsy appear and run down to the plank.
This they watched her move, and saw her lie down upon it.
"She's trying to save him—he must be caught somewhere!" cried the lawyer, and both men started at full speed to reach the spot by the round-about paths through the garden.
Aunt Jane sat still and watched. Suddenly the form of the boy swung into view beneath the plank, dangling from the girl's outstretched arms. The woman caught her breath, wondering what would happen next. Patricia drew him up, until he seized the plank with his hands. Then the girl crept back a little, and as the boy swung his feet upward she caught them and twined his legs over the plank.
And now came the supreme struggle. The girl could do little more to help him. He must manage to clamber upon the top of the plank himself.
Ordinarily Kenneth might have done this easily; but now his nerves were all unstrung, and he was half exhausted by the strain of the past few minutes. Almost he did it; but not quite. The next effort would be even weaker. But now Patricia walked out upon the plank and Aunt Jane saw her lean down, grasp the boy's collar and drag him into a position of safety.
"Bravely done!" she murmured, but even as the sound came from her lips the girl upon the bridge seemed in the exertion of the struggle to lose her balance. She threw out her arms, leaned sidewise, and then fell headlong into the chasm and disappeared from view.
Aunt Jane's agonized scream brought Phibbs running to her side. At a glance she saw that her mistress had fainted, and looking hastily around to discover the cause she observed the boy crawl slowly across the plank, reach the tree, and slide down its trunk to pass out of view behind the high hedge.
"Drat the boy!" growled the old servant, angrily, "he'll be the death of Miss Jane, yet."
Uncle John could not run so swiftly as the lawyer, but he broke through a gap in the hedge and arrived at a point just beneath the plank at the same time that Silas Watson did.
One glance showed them the boy safely perched on top of the plank, but the girl was bending backward. She threw out her arms in a vain endeavor to save herself, and with a low cry toppled and plunged swiftly toward the ground.
There was little time for the men to consider their actions. Involuntarily they tried to catch Patricia, whose body struck them sharply, felling them to the ground, and then bounded against the hedge and back to the pavement.
When, half dazed, they scrambled to their feet, the girl lay motionless before them, a stream of red blood welling from a deep cut in her forhead, her eyes closed as if in sleep.
A moment more and the boy was kneeling beside her, striving to stay the bleeding with his handkerchief.
"Do something! For God's sake try to do something," he wailed, piteously. "Can't you see she's killed herself to save me?"
Uncle John knelt down and took the still form in his arms.
"Quiet, my lad," he said. "She isn't dead. Get Nora, and fetch the doctor as soon as you can."
The boy was gone instantly, his agony relieved by the chance of action, and followed by the lawyer, Uncle John carried his niece to the rose chamber and laid her upon her white bed.
Misery met them, then, and following her came Louise and Beth, full of horror and pity for the victim of the dreadful accident.
Jane Merrick had promptly recovered consciousness, for fainting spells were foreign to her nature. Her first words to Phibbs, who was bending over her, were:
"Is she dead?"
"Who, Miss Jane?"
"I don't know, Miss Jane. Why should she be dead?"
"Run, you idiot! Run at once and find out. Ask my brother—ask anyone—if Patricia is dead!"
And so Phibbs came to the rose chamber and found the little group bending over the girl's unconscious form.
"Is she dead, sir? Miss Jane wants to know," said the old servant, in awe-struck tones.
"No," answered Uncle John, gravely. "She isn't dead, I'm sure; but I can't tell how badly she is hurt. One of her legs—the right one—is broken, I know, for I felt it as I carried the child in my arms; but we must wait until the doctor comes before I can tell more."
Misery was something of a nurse, it seemed, and with the assistance of Louise, who proved most helpful in the emergency, she bathed the wound in the girl's forehead and bandaged it as well as she was able. Between them the women also removed Patricia's clothing and got her into bed, where she lay white and still unconscious, but breathing so softly that they knew she was yet alive.
The doctor was not long in arriving, for Kenneth forced him to leap upon Nora's back and race away to Elmhurst, while the boy followed as swiftly as he could on the doctor's sober cob.
Dr. Eliel was only a country practitioner, but his varied experiences through many years had given him a practical knowledge of surgery, and after a careful examination of Patricia's injuries he was able to declare that she would make a fine recovery.
"Her leg is fractured, and she's badly bruised," he reported to Aunt Jane, who sent for him as soon as he could leave the sick room. "But I do not think she has suffered any internal injuries, and the wound on her forehead is a mere nothing. So, with good care, I expect the young lady to get along nicely."
"Do everything you can for her," said the woman, earnestly. "You shall be well paid, Dr. Eliel."
Before Patricia recovered her senses the doctor had sewn up her forehead and set the fractured limb, so that she suffered little pain from the first.
Louise and Beth hovered over her constantly, ministering to every possible want and filled with tenderest sympathy for their injured cousin. The accident seemed to draw them out of their selfishness and petty intrigues and discovered in them the true womanly qualities that had lurked beneath the surface.
Patsy was not allowed to talk, but she smiled gratefully at her cousins, and the three girls seemed suddenly drawn nearer together than any of them would have thought possible a few hours before.
The boy paced constantly up and down outside Patricia's door, begging everyone who left the room, for news of the girl's condition. All his reserve and fear of women seemed to have melted away as if by magic. Even Beth and Louise were questioned eagerly, and they, having learned the story of Patricia's brave rescue of the boy, were very gentle with him and took pains not to frighten or offend him.
Toward evening Louise asked Patricia if she would see Kenneth for a moment, and the girl nodded a ready assent.
He came in awkward and trembling, glancing fearfully at the bandaged forehead and the still white face. But Patricia managed to smile reassuringly, and held out a little hand for him to take. The boy grasped it in both his own, and held it for several minutes while he stood motionless beside her, his wide eyes fixed intently upon her own.
Then Louise sent him away, and he went to his room and wept profusely, and then quieted down into a sort of dull stupor.
The next morning Uncle John dragged him away from Patricia's door and forced him to play chess. The boy lost every game, being inattentive and absorbed in thought, until finally Uncle John gave up the attempt to amuse him and settled himself on the top stair for a quiet smoke. The boy turned to the table, and took a sheet of paper from the drawer. For an hour, perhaps, neither of these curious friends spoke a word, but at the end of that time Uncle John arose and knocked the ashes from his pipe. Kenneth did not notice him. The man approached the table and looked over the boy's shoulder, uttering an exclamation of surprise. Upon the paper appeared a cleverly drawn pencil sketch of Patricia lying in her bed, a faint smile upon her face and her big blue eyes turned pleasantly upon a shadowy form that stood beside her holding her hand. The likeness was admirable, and if there were faults in the perspective and composition Uncle John did not recognize them.
He gave a low whistle and turned thoughtfully away, and the young artist was so absorbed that he did not even look up.
Strolling away to the stables, Uncle John met old Donald, who enquired:
"How is Miss Patsy this morning, sir?" It was the name she had given, and preferred to be called by.
"She's doing finely," said Uncle John.
"A brave girl, sir!"
"And the boy?"
"Why, he seems changed, in some way, Donald. Not so nervous and wild as usual, you know. I've just left him drawing a picture. Curious. A good picture, too."
"Ah, he can do that, sir, as well as a real artist."
"Have you known him to draw, before this?"
"Why, he's always at it, sir, in his quieter moods. I've got a rare good likeness o' myself, as he did long ago, in the harness-room."
"May I see it?"
"With pleasure, sir."
Donald led the way to the harness-room, and took from the cupboard the precious board he had so carefully preserved.
Uncle John glanced at it and laughed aloud. He could well appreciate the humor of the sketch, which Donald never had understood, and the caricature was as clever as it was amusing. He handed the treasure back to Donald and went away even more thoughtful than before.
A few days later a large package arrived at Elmhurst addressed to Kenneth Forbes, and Oscar carried it at once to the boy's room, who sat for an hour looking at it in silent amazement. Then he carefully unwrapped it, and found it to contain a portable easel, a quantity of canvas and drawing-paper, paints and oils of every description (mostly all unknown to him) and pencils, brushes and water colors in profusion.
Kenneth's heart bounded with joy. Here was wealth, indeed, greater than he had ever hoped for. He puzzled his brain for weeks to discover how this fairy gift had ever come to him, but he was happier in its possession than he had ever been before in all his life.
Patricia improved rapidly. Had it not been for the broken leg she would have been out of the house in a week, as good as ever; but broken limbs take time to heal, and Dr. Eliel would not permit the girl to leave her bed until ten days had passed.
Meantime everyone delighted to attend her. Louise and Beth sat with her for hours, reading or working, for the rose chamber was cheery and pleasant, and its big windows opened upon the prettiest part of the gardens. The two girls were even yet suspicious of one another, each striving to win an advantage with Aunt Jane; but neither had the slightest fear that Patricia would ever interfere with their plans. So they allowed their natural inclinations to pet and admire the heroine of the hour full sway, and Patsy responded so sweetly and frankly to their advances that they came to love her dearly, and wondered why they had not discovered from the first how lovable their Irish cousin could be.
Kenneth, also came daily to the sick room for a visit, and Patsy had a way of drawing the boy out and making him talk that was really irresistible. After his fairy gift arrived he could not help telling the girls all about it and then he brought the things down and displayed them, and promised Patsy he would make a picture of the garden for her.
Then, after the girl got better, he brought his easel down to her room, where she could watch him work, and began upon the picture, while the cousins joined him in speculations as to who the mysterious donor could he.
"At first," said Kenneth, "I thought it was Mr. Watson, for he's alway been very good to me; but he says he knows nothing about it. Then I though it might be Uncle John; but Uncle John is too poor to afford such an expensive present."
"I don't believe he has a penny in the world," said Louise, who sat by with some needle-work.
"All he owns," remarked Beth, with a laugh, "is an extra necktie, slightly damaged."
"But he's a dear old man," said Patsy, loyally, "and I'm sure he would have given all those things to Kenneth had he been able."
"Then who was it?" asked the boy.
"Why, Aunt Jane, to be sure," declared Patsy.
The boy scowled, and shook his head.
"She wouldn't do anything to please me, even to save her life," he growled. "She hates me, I know that well enough."
"Oh, no; I'm sure she doesn't," said Patsy. "Aunt Jane has a heap of good in her; but you've got to dig for it, like you do for gold. 'Twould be just like her to make you this present and keep it a secret."
"If she really did it," replied the boy, slowly, "and it seems as if she is the only one. I know who could afford such a gift, it stands to reason that either Uncle John or Mr. Watson asked her to, and she did it to please them. I've lived here for years, and she has never spoken a kindly word to me or done me a kindly act. It isn't likely she'd begin now, is it?"
Unable to make a reassuring reply, Patsy remained silent, and the boy went on with his work. He first outlined the picture in pencil, and then filled it in with water color. They all expressed admiration for the drawing; but the color effect was so horrible that even Patsy found no words to praise it, and the boy in a fit of sudden anger tore the thing to shreds and so destroyed it.
"But I must have my picture, anyhow," said the girl. "Make it in pen and ink or pencil, Ken. and I'm sure it will be beautiful."
"You need instruction, to do water color properly," suggested Louise.
"Then I can never do it," he replied, bitterly. But he adopted Patsy's suggestion and sketched the garden very prettily in pen and ink. By the time the second picture was completed Patsy had received permission to leave her room, which she did in Aunt Jane's second-best wheel chair.
Her first trip was to Aunt Jane's own private garden, where the invalid, who had not seen her niece since the accident, had asked her to come.
Patsy wanted Kenneth to wheel her, but the boy, with a touch of his old surly demeanor, promptly refused to meet Jane Merrick face to face. So Beth wheeled the chair and Louise walked by Patsy's side, and soon the three nieces reached their aunt's retreat.
Aunt Jane was not in an especially amiable mood.
"Well, girl, how do you like being a fool?" she demanded, as Patsy's chair came to a stand just opposite her own.
"It feels so natural that I don't mind it," replied Patsy, laughing.
"You might have killed yourself, and all for nothing," continued the old woman, querulously.
Patsy looked at her pityingly. Her aunt's face had aged greatly in the two weeks, and the thin gray hair seemed now almost white.
"Are you feeling better, dear?" asked the girl.
"I shall never be better," said Jane Merrick, sternly. "The end is not far off now."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear you say that!" said Patsy; "but I hope it is not true. Why, here are we four newly found relations all beginning to get acquainted, and to love one another, and we can't have our little party broken up, auntie dear."
"Five of us—five relations," cried Uncle John, coming around the corner of the hedge. "Don't I count, Patsy, you rogue? Why you're looking as bright and as bonny as can be. I wouldn't be surprised if you could toddle."
"Not yet," she answered, cheerfully. "But I'm doing finely, Uncle John, and it won't be long before I can get about as well as ever."
"And to think," said Aunt Jane, bitterly, "that all this trouble was caused by that miserable boy! If I knew where to send him he'd not stay at Elmhurst a day longer."
"Why, he's my best friend, aunt," announced Patsy, quietly. "I don't think I could be happy at Elmhurst without Kenneth."
"He has quite reformed," said Louise, "and seems like a very nice boy."
"He's a little queer, yet, at times," added Beth, "but not a bit rude, as he used to be."
Aunt Jane looked from one to the other in amazement. No one had spoken so kindly of the boy before in years. And Uncle John, with a thoughtful look on his face, said slowly:
"The fact is, Jane, you've never given the boy a chance. On the contrary, you nearly ruined him by making a hermit of him and giving him no schooling to speak of and no society except that of servants. He was as wild as a hawk when I first came, but these girls are just the sort of companions he needs, to soften him and make him a man. I've no doubt he'll come out all right, in the end."
"Perhaps you'd like to adopt him yourself, John," sneered the woman, furious at this praise of the one person she so greatly disliked.
Her brother drew his hands from his pockets, looked around in a helpless and embarrassed way, and then tried fumblingly to fill his pipe.
"I ain't in the adopting business, Jane," he answered meekly. "And if I was," with a quaint smile, "I'd adopt one or two of these nieces o' mine, instead of Tom Bradley's nephew. If Bradley hadn't seen you, Jane, and loved your pretty face when you were young, Kenneth Forbes would now be the owner of Elmhurst. Did you ever think of that?"
Did she ever think of it? Why, it was this very fact that made the boy odious to her. The woman grew white with rage.
"John Merrick, leave my presence."
"All right, Jane."
He stopped to light his pipe, and then slowly walked away, leaving an embarrassed group behind him.
Patsy, however, was equal to the occasion. She began at once to chatter about Dr. Eliel, and the scar that would always show on her forehead; and how surprised the Major, her father, would be when he returned from the visit to his colonel and found his daughter had been through the wars herself, and bore the evidence of honorable wounds. Louise gracefully assisted her cousin to draw Aunt Jane into a more genial mood, and between them they presently succeeded. The interview that had begun so unfortunately ended quite pleasantly, and when Patricia returned to her room her aunt bade her adieu almost tenderly.
"In fact," said Louise to Beth, in the privacy of the latter's chamber, "I'm getting rather worried over Aunt Jane's evident weakness for our Cousin Patsy. Once or twice today I caught a look in her eye when she looked at Patsy that she has never given either you or me. The Irish girl may get the money yet."
"Nonsense," said Beth. "She has said she wouldn't accept a penny of it, and I'm positive she'll keep her word."
AUNT JANE'S HEIRESS.
"Silas," said Aunt Jane to her lawyer, the next morning after her interview with Patsy, "I'm ready to have you draw up my will."
Mr. Watson gave a start of astonishment. In his own mind he had arrived at the conclusion that the will would never be executed, and to have Miss Merrick thus suddenly declare her decision was enough to startle even the lawyer's natural reserve.
"Very well, Jane," he said, briefly.
They were alone in the invalid's morning room, Phibbs having been asked to retire.
"There is no use disguising the fact, Silas, that I grow weaker every day, and the numbness is creeping nearer and nearer to my heart," said Miss Merrick, in her usual even tones. "It is folly for me to trifle with these few days of grace yet allowed me, and I have fully made up my mind as to the disposition of my property."
"Yes?" he said, enquiringly, and drew from his pocket a pencil and paper.
"I shall leave to my niece Louise five thousand dollars."
"Yes, Jane," jotting down the memorandum.
"And to Elizabeth a like sum."
The lawyer seemed disappointed. He tapped the pencil against his teeth, musingly, for a moment, and then wrote down the amount.
"Also to my brother, John Merrick, the sum of five thousand dollars," she resumed.
"To your brother?"
"Yes. That should be enough to take care of him as long as he lives. He seems quite simple in his tastes, and he is an old man."
The lawyer wrote it down.
"All my other remaining property, both real and personal, I shall leave to my niece, Patricia Doyle."
"Did you hear me?"
"Then do as I bid you, Silas Watson."
He leaned back in his chair and looked at her thoughtfully.
"I am not only your lawyer, Jane; I am also your friend and counsellor. Do you realize what this bequest means?" he asked, gently.
"It means that Patricia will inherit Elmhurst—and a fortune besides. Why not, Silas? I liked the child from the first. She's frank and open and brave, and will do credit to my judgment."
"She is very young and unsophisticated," said the lawyer, "and of all your nieces she will least appreciate your generosity."
"You are to be my executor, and manage the estate until the girl comes of age. You will see that she is properly educated and fitted for her station in life. As for appreciation, or gratitude, I don't care a snap of my finger for such fol-de-rol."
The lawyer sighed.
"But the boy, Jane? You seem to have forgotten him," he said.
"Drat the boy! I've done enough for him already."
"Wouldn't Tom like you to provide for Kenneth in some way, however humbly?"
She glared at him angrily.
"How do you know what Tom would like, after all these years?" she asked, sternly. "And how should I know, either? The money is mine, and the boy is nothing to me. Let him shift for himself."
"There is a great deal of money, Jane," declared the lawyer, impressively. "We have been fortunate in our investments, and you have used but little of your ample income. To spare fifty thousand dollars to Kenneth, who is Tom's sole remaining relative, would be no hardship to Patricia. Indeed, she would scarcely miss it."
"You remind me of something, Silas," she said, looking at him with friendly eyes. "Make a memorandum of twenty thousand dollars to Silas Watson. You have been very faithful to my interests and have helped materially to increase my fortune."
"Thank you, Jane."
He wrote down the amount as calmly as he had done the others.
"And the boy?" he asked, persistently.
Aunt Jane sighed wearily, and leaned against her pillows.
"Give the boy two thousand," she said.
"Make it ten, Jane."
"I'll make it five, and not a penny more," she rejoined. "Now leave me, and prepare the paper at once. I want to sign it today, if possible."
He bowed gravely, and left the room.
Toward evening the lawyer came again, bringing with him a notary from the village. Dr. Eliel, who had come to visit Patricia, was also called into Jane Merrick's room, and after she had carefully read the paper in their presence the mistress of Elmhurst affixed her signature to the document which transferred the great estate to the little Irish girl, and the notary and the doctor solemnly witnessed it and retired.
"Now, Silas," said the old woman, with a sigh of intense relief, "I can die in peace."
Singularly enough, the signing of the will seemed not to be the end for Jane Merrick, but the beginning of an era of unusual comfort. On the following morning she awakened brighter than usual, having passed a good night, freed from the worries and anxieties that had beset her for weeks. She felt more like her old self than at any time since the paralysis had overtaken her, and passed the morning most enjoyably in her sunshiney garden. Here Patricia was also brought in her wheel chair by Beth, who then left the two invalids together.
They conversed genially enough, for a time, until an unfortunate remark of Aunt Jane's which seemed to asperse her father's character aroused Patricia's ire. Then she loosened her tongue, and in her voluable Irish way berated her aunt until poor Phibbs stood aghast at such temerity, and even Mr. Watson, who arrived to enquire after his client and friend, was filled with amazement.
He cast a significant look at Miss Merrick, who answered it in her usual emphatic way.
"Patricia is quite right, Silas," she declared, "and I deserve all that she has said. If the girl were fond enough of me to defend me as heartily as she does her father, I would be very proud, indeed."
Patricia cooled at once, and regarded her aunt with a sunny smile.
"Forgive me!" she begged. "I know you did not mean it, and I was wrong to talk to you in such a way."
So harmony was restored, and Mr. Watson wondered more and more at this strange perversion of the old woman's character. Heretofore any opposition had aroused in her intense rage and a fierce antagonism, but now she seemed delighted to have Patsy fly at her, and excused the girl's temper instead of resenting it.
But Patsy was a little ashamed of herself this morning, realizing perhaps that Aunt Jane had been trying to vex her, just to enjoy her indignant speeches; and she also realized the fact that her aunt was old and suffering, and not wholly responsible for her aggravating and somewhat malicious observations. So she firmly resolved not to be so readily entrapped again, and was so bright and cheery during the next hour that Aunt Jane smiled more than once, and at one time actually laughed at her niece's witty repartee.
After that it became the daily program for Patsy to spend her mornings in Aunt Jane's little garden, and although they sometimes clashed, and, as Phibbs told Beth, "had dreadful fights," they both enjoyed these hours very much.
The two girls became rather uneasy during the days their cousin spent in the society of Aunt Jane. Even the dreadful accounts they received from Phibbs failed wholly to reassure them, and Louise redoubled her solicitious attentions to her aunt in order to offset the influence Patricia seemed to be gaining over her.
Louise had also become, by this time, the managing housekeeper of the establishment, and it was certain that Aunt Jane looked upon her eldest and most competent niece with much favor.
Beth, with all her friends to sing her praises, seemed to make less headway with her aunt than either of the others, and gradually she sank into a state of real despondency.
"I've done the best I could," she wrote her mother, "but I'm not as clever as Louise nor as amusing as Patricia; so Aunt Jane pays little attention to me. She's a dreadful old woman, and I can't bring myself to appear to like her. That probably accounts for my failure; but I may as well stay on here until something happens."
In a fortnight more Patricia abandoned her chair and took to crutches, on which she hobbled everywhere as actively as the others walked. She affected her cousins' society more, from this time, and Aunt Jane's society less, for she had come to be fond of the two girls who had nursed her so tenderly, and it was natural that a young girl would prefer to be with those of her own age rather than a crabbed old woman like Aunt Jane.
Kenneth also now became Patsy's faithful companion, for the boy had lost his former bashfulness and fear of girls, and had grown to feel at ease even in the society of Beth and Louise. The four had many excursions and picnics into the country together; but Kenneth and Patsy were recognized as especial chums, and the other girls did not interfere in their friendship except to tease them, occasionally, in a good natured way.
The boy's old acquaintances could hardly recognize him as the same person they had known before Patricia's adventure on the plank. His fits of gloomy abstraction and violent bursts of temper had alike vanished, or only prevailed at brief intervals. Nor was he longer rude and unmannerly to those with whom he came in contact. Awkward he still was, and lacking in many graces that education and good society can alone confer; but he was trying hard to be, as he confided to old Uncle John, "like other people," and succeeded in adapting himself very well to his new circumstances.
Although he had no teacher, as yet, he had begun to understand color a little, and succeeded in finishing one or two water-color sketches which Patsy, who knew nothing at all of such things, pronounced "wonderfully fine." Of course the boy blushed with pleasure and was encouraged to still greater effort.
The girl was also responsible for Kenneth's sudden advancement in the household at Elmhurst.
One day she said calmly to Aunt Jane:
"I've invited Kenneth to dinner this evening."
The woman flew angry in an instant.
"Who gave you such authority?" she demanded.
"No one. I just took it," said Patsy, saucily.
"He shall not come," declared Aunt Jane, sternly. "I'll have no interference from you, Miss, with my household arrangements. Phibbs, call Louise!"
Patsy's brow grew dark. Presently Louise appeared.
"Instruct the servants to forbid that boy to enter my dining room this evening," she said to Louise.
"Also, Louise," said Patsy, "tell them not to lay a plate for me, and ask Oscar to be ready with the wagon at five o'clock. I'm going home."
Louise hesitated, and looked from Miss Jane to Patsy, and back again. They were glaring upon each other like two gorgons.
Then she burst into laughter; she could not help it, the sight was too ridiculous. A moment later Patsy was laughing, too, and then Aunt Jane allowed a grim smile to cross her features.
"Never mind, Louise," she said, with remarkable cheerfulness; "We'll compromise matters."
"How?" asked Patsy.
"By putting a plate for Kenneth," said her aunt, cooly. "I imagine I can stand his society for one evening."
So the matter was arranged to Patricia's satisfaction, and the boy came to dinner, trembling and unhappy at first, but soon placed at ease by the encouragements of the three girls. Indeed, he behaved so well, in the main, and was so gentle and unobstrusive, that Aunt Jane looked at him with surprise, and favored him with one or two speeches which he answered modestly and well.
Patsy was radiant with delight, and the next day Aunt Jane remarked casually that she did not object to the boy's presence at dinner, at all, and he could come whenever he liked.
This arrangement gave great pleasure to both Uncle John and Mr. Watson, the latter of whom was often present at the "state dinner," and both men congratulated Patsy upon the distinct victory she had won. No more was said about her leaving Elmhurst. The Major wrote that he was having a splendid time with the colonel, and begged for an extension of his vacation, to which Patsy readily agreed, she being still unable on account of her limb to return to her work at Madam Borne's.
And so the days glided pleasantly by, and August came to find a happy company of young folks at old Elmhurst, with Aunt Jane wonderfully improved in health and Uncle John beaming complacently upon everyone he chanced to meet.
PATRICIA SPEAKS FRANKLY.
It was Lawyer Watson's suggestion that she was being unjust to Beth and Louise, in encouraging them to hope they might inherit Elmhurst, that finally decided Aunt Jane to end all misunderstandings and inform her nieces of the fact that she had made a final disposition of her property.
So one morning she sent word asking them all into her room, and when the nieces appeared they found Uncle John and the lawyer already in their aunt's presence. There was an air of impressive formality pervading the room, although Miss Merrick's brother, at least, was as ignorant as her nieces of the reason why they had been summoned.
Patsy came in last, hobbling actively on her crutches, although the leg was now nearly recovered, and seated herself somewhat in the rear of the apartment.
Aunt Jane looked into one expectant face after another with curious interest, and then broke the silence by saying, gravely, but in more gentle tones than she was accustomed to use:
"I believe, young ladies, that you have understood from the first my strongest reason for inviting you to visit Elmhurst this summer. I am old, and must soon pass away, and instead of leaving you and your parents, who would be my legitimate heirs, to squabble over my property when I am gone, I decided to excute a will bequeathing my estate to some one who would take proper care of it and maintain it in a creditable manner. I had no personal acquaintance with any of you, but judged that one out of the three might serve my purpose, and therefore invited you all here."
By this time the hearts of Louise and Beth were fluttering with excitement, and even Patsy looked interested. Uncle John sat a little apart, watching them with an amused smile upon his face, and the lawyer sat silent with his eyes fixed upon a pattern in the rug.