Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII
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.

"What?"

"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?"

"Yes, Miss."

"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?"

P 143--Aunt Jane's nieces.jpg

"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?"

"My nieces?"

"Yes."

"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."

"No?"

"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."