Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII
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."

"Jane!"

"Did you hear me?"

"Yes."

"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.