Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII
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.

"In arriving at a decision, which I may say I have succeeded in doing," continued Aunt Jane, calmly, "I do not claim to have acted with either wisdom or discernment. I have simply followed my own whim, as I have the right to do, and selected the niece I prefer to become my heiress. You cannot accuse of injustice, because none of you had a right to expect anything of me; but I will say this, that I am well pleased with all three of you, and now wish that I had taken pains to form your acquaintance earlier in life. You might have cheered my old age and rendered it less lonely and dull."

"Well said, Jane," remarked Uncle John, nodding his head approvingly.

She did not notice the interruption, but presently continued:

"Some days ago I asked my lawyer, Mr. Watson, to draw up my will. It was at once prepared and signed, and now stands as my last will and testament. I have given to you, Louise, the sum of five thousand dollars."

Louise laughed nervously, and threw out her hands with an indifferent gesture.

"Many thanks, Aunt," she said, lightly.

"To you, Beth," continued Miss Merrick, "I have given the same sum."

Beth's heart sank, and tears forced themselves into her eyes in spite of her efforts to restrain them. She said nothing.

Aunt Jane turned to her brother.

"I have also provided for you, John, in the sum of five thousand dollars."

"Me!" he exclaimed, astounded. "Why, suguration, Jane, I don't—"

"Silence!" she cried, sternly. "I expect neither thanks nor protests. If you take care of the money, John, it will last you as long as you live."

Uncle John laughed. He doubled up in his chair and rocked back and forth, shaking his little round body as if he had met with the most amusing thing that had ever happened in his life. Aunt Jane stared at him, while Louise and Beth looked their astonishment, but Patsy's clear laughter rang above Uncle John's gasping chuckles.

"I hope, dear Uncle," said she, mischievously, "that when poor Aunt Jane is gone you'll be able to buy a new necktie."

He looked at her whimsically, and wiped the tears from his eyes.

"Thank you, Jane," said the little man to his sister. "It's a lot of money, and I'll be proud to own it."

"Why did you laugh." demanded Aunt Jane.

"I just happened to think that our old Dad once said I'd never be worth a dollar in all my life. What would he say now, Jane, if he knew I stood good to have five thousand—if I can manage to outlive you?"

She turned from him with an expression of scorn.

"In addition to these bequests," said she, "I have left five thousand to the boy and twenty thousand to Mr. Watson. The remainder of the property will go to Patricia."

For a moment the room was intensely still. Then Patricia said, with quiet determination:

"You may as well make another will, Aunt. I'll not touch a penny of your money."

"Why not?" asked the woman, almost fiercely.

"You have been kind to me, and you mean well," said Patricia. "I would rather not tell you my reasons."

"I demand to know them!"

"Ah, aunt; can't you understand, without my speaking?"

"No," said the other; but a flush crossed her pale cheek, nevertheless.

Patsy arose and stumped to a position directly in front of Jane Merrick, where she rested on her crutches. Her eyes were bright and full of indignation, and her plain little face was so white that every freckle showed distinctly.

"There was a time, years ago," she began in a low voice, "when you were very rich and your sister Violet, my mother, was very poor. Her health was bad, and she had me to care for, while my father was very ill with a fever. She was proud, too, and for herself she would never have begged a penny of anyone; but for my sake she asked her rich sister to loan her a little money to tide her over her period of want. What did you do, Jane Merrick, you who lived in a beautiful mansion, and had more money than you could use? You insulted her, telling her she belonged to a family of beggars, and that none of them could wheedle your money away from you!"

"It was true," retorted the elder woman, stubbornly. "They were after me like a drove of wolves—every Merrick of them all—and they would have ruined me if I had let them bleed me as they wished."

"So far as my mother is concerned, that's a lie," said Patsy, quietly. "She never appealed to you but that once, but worked as bravely as she could to earn money in her own poor way. The result was that she died, and I was left to the care of strangers until my father was well enough to support me."

She paused, and again the room seemed unnaturally still.

"I'm sorry, girl," said Aunt Jane, at last, in trembling tones. "I was wrong. I see it now, and I am sorry I refused Violet."

"Then I forgive you!" said Patsy, impulsively. "I forgive you all, Aunt Jane; for through your own selfishness you cut yourself off from all your family—from all who might have loved you—and you have lived all these years a solitary and loveless life. There'll be no grudge of mine to follow you to the grave, Aunt Jane. But," her voice hardening, "I'll never touch a penny of the money that was denied my poor dead mother. Thank God the old Dad and I are independent, and can earn our own living."

Uncle John came to where Patsy stood and put both arms around her, pressing her—crutches and all—close to his breast. Then he released her, and without a word stalked from the room.

"Leave me, now," said Aunt Jane, in a husky voice. "I want time to think."

Patricia hobbled forward, placed one hand caressingly upon the gray head, and then bent and kissed Aunt Jane's withered cheek.

"That's right," she whispered. "Think it over, dear. It's all past and done, now, and I'm sorry I had to hurt you. But—not a penny, aunt—remember, not a penny will I take!"

Then she left the room, followed by Louise and Beth, both of whom were glad to be alone that they might conquer their bitter disappointment.

Louise, however, managed to accept the matter philosophically, as the following extract from her letter to her mother will prove:

"After all, it isn't so bad as it might be, mater, dear," she wrote. "I'll get five thousand, at the very worst, and that will help us on our way considerably. But I am quite sure that Patsy means just what she says, and that she will yet induce Aunt Jane to alter her will. In that case I believe the estate will either be divided between Beth and me, or I will get it all. Anyway, I shall stay here and play my best cards until the game is finished."