Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI
READING THE WILL

Aunt Jane's funeral was extremely simple and quiet. The woman had made no friends during her long residence in the neighborhood, having isolated herself at "the big house" and refused to communicate in any way with the families living near by. Therefore, although her death undoubtedly aroused much interest and comment, no one cared to be present at the obsequies.

So the minister came from Elmwood, and being unable to say much that was good or bad of "the woman who had departed from this vale of tears," he confined his remarks to generalities and made them as brief as possible. Then the body was borne to the little graveyard a mile away, followed by the state carriage, containing the three nieces and Kenneth; the drag with Silas Watson and Uncle John, the former driving; and then came the Elmhurst carryall with the servants. James did not join these last; nor did he appear at the house after that dreadful scene in the garden. He had a little room over the tool-house, which Jane Merrick had had prepared for him years ago, and here he locked himself in day and night, stealthily emerging but to secure the food Susan carried and placed before his door.

No one minded James much, for all the inmates of Elhurst were under severe and exciting strain in the days preceding the funeral.

The girls wept a little, but it was more on account of the solemnity following the shadow of death than for any great affection they bore their aunt. Patsy, indeed, tried to deliver a tribute to Aunt Jane's memory; but it was not an emphatic success.

"I'm sure she had a good heart," said the girl, "and if she had lived more with her own family and cultivated her friends she would have been much less hard and selfish. At the last, you know, she was quite gentle."

"I hadn't noticed it," remarked Beth.

"Oh, I did. And she made a new will, after that awful one she told us of, and tried to be just and fair to all"

"I'm glad to hear that" said Louise. "Tell us, Patsy, what does the will say? You must know all about it."

"Mr. Watson is going to read it, after the funeral," replied the girl, "and then you will know as much about it as I do. I mustn't tell secrets, my dear."

So Louise and Beth waited in much nervous excitement for the final realization of their hopes or fears, and during the drive to the cemetery there was little conversation in the state carriage. Kenneth's sensitive nature was greatly affected by the death of the woman who had played so important a part in the brief story of his life, and the awe it inspired rendered him gloomy and silent. Lawyer Watson had once warned him that Miss Merrick's death might make him an outcast, and he felt the insecurity of his present position.

But Patsy, believing he would soon know of his good fortune, watched him curiously during the ride, and beamed upon him as frequently as her own low spirits would permit.

"You know, Ken," she reminded him, "that whatever happens we are always to remain friends."

"Of course," replied the boy, briefly.

The girl had thrown aside her crutches, by this time, and planned to return to her work immediately after the funeral.

The brief services at the cemetery being concluded, the little cavalcade returned to Elmhurst, where luncheon was awaiting them.

Then Mr. Watson brought into the drawing room the tin box containing the important Elmhurst papers in his possession, and having requested all present to be seated he said:

"In order to clear up the uncertainty that at present exists concerning Miss Merrick's last will and testament, I will now proceed to read to you the document, which will afterward be properly probated according to law."

There was no need to request their attention. An intense stillness pervaded the room.

The lawyer calmly unlocked the tin box and drew out the sealed yellow envelope which Miss Merrick had recently given him. Patsy's heart was beating with eager expectancy. She watched the lawyer break the seal, draw out the paper and then turn red and angry. He hesitated a moment, and then thrust the useless document into its enclosure and cast it aside.

"Is anything wrong?" asked the girl in a low whisper, which was yet distinctly heard by all.

Mr. Watson seemed amazed. Jane Merrick's deceitful trickery, discovered so soon after her death, was almost horrible for him to contemplate. He had borne much from this erratic woman, but had never believed her capable of such an act.

So he said, in irritable tones:

"Miss Merrick gave me this document a few days ago, leading me to believe it was her last will. I had prepared it under her instruction and understood that it was properly signed. But she has herself torn off and destroyed the signature and marked the paper 'void,' so that the will previously made is the only one that is valid."

"What do you mean?" cried Patsy, in amazement. "Isn't Kenneth to inherit Elmhurst, after all?"

"Me! Me inherit?" exclaimed the boy.

"That is what she promised me," declared Patsy, while tears of indignation stood in her eyes, "I saw her sign it, myself, and if she has fooled me and destroyed the signature she's nothing but an old fraud—and I'm glad she's dead!"

With this she threw herself, sobbing, upon a sofa, and Louise and Beth, shocked to learn that after all their cousin had conspired against them, forebore any attempt to comfort her.

But Uncle John, fully as indignant as Patricia, came to her side and laid a hand tenderly on the girl's head.

"Never mind, little one," he said. "Jane was always cruel and treacherous by nature, and we might have expected she'd deceive her friends even in death. But you did the best you could, Patsy, dear, and it can't be helped now."

Meantime the lawyer had been fumbling in the box, and now drew out the genuine will.

"Give me your attention, please," said he.

Patsy sat up and glared at him.

"I won't take a cent of it!" she exclaimed.

"Be silent!" demanded the lawyer, sternly. "You have all, I believe, been told by Miss Merrick of the terms of this will, which is properly signed and attested. But it is my duty to read it again, from beginning to end, and I will do so."

Uncle John smiled when his bequest was mentioned, and Beth frowned. Louise, however, showed no sign of disappointment. There had been a miserable scramble for this inheritance, she reflected, and she was glad the struggle was over. The five thousand dollars would come in handy, after all, and it was that much more than she had expected to have before she received Aunt Jane's invitation. Perhaps she and her mother would use part of it for a European trip, if their future plans seemed to warrant it.

"As far as I am concerned," said Patsy, defiantly, "you may as well tear up this will, too. I won't have that shameful old woman's money."

"That is a matter the law does not allow you to decide," returned the lawyer, calmly. "You will note the fact that I am the sole executor of the estate, and must care for it in your interests until you are of age. Then it will he turned over to you to do as you please with."

"Can I give it away, if I want to?"

"Certainly. It is now yours without recourse, and although you cannot dispose of it until you are of legal age, there will be nothing then to prevent your transfering it to whomsoever you please. I called Miss Merrick's attention to this fact when you refused to accept the legacy."

"What did she say?"

"That you would be more wise then, and would probably decide to keep it."

Patsy turned impulsively to the boy.

"Kenneth," she said, "I faithfully promise, in the presence of these witnesses, to give you Elmhurst and all Aunt Jane's money as soon as I am of age."

"Good for you, Patsy," said Uncle John.

The boy seemed bewildered.

"I don't want the money—really I don't!" he protested. "The five thousand she left me will be enough. But I'd like to live here at Elmhurst for a time, until it's sold or some one else comes to live in the house!"

"It's yours," said Patsy, with a grand air. "You can live here forever."

Mr. Watson seemed puzzled.

"If that is your wish, Miss Patricia," bowing gravely in her direction, "I will see that it is carried out. Although I am, in this matter, your executor, I shall defer to your wishes as much as possible."

"Thank you," she said and then, after a moment's reflection, she added: "Can't you give to Louise and Beth the ten thousand dollars they were to have under the other will, instead of the five thousand each that this one gives them?"

"I will consider that matter," he replied; "perhaps it can be arranged."

Patsy's cousins opened their eyes at this, and began to regard her with more friendly glances. To have ten thousand each instead of five would be a very nice thing, indeed, and Miss Patricia Doyle had evidently become a young lady whose friendship it would pay to cultivate. If she intended to throw away the inheritance, a portion of it might fall to their share.

They were expressing to Patsy their gratitude when old Donald suddenly appeared in the doorway and beckoned to Uncle John.

"Will you please come to see James, sir?" he asked. "The poor fellow's dying."