Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 22

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CHAPTER XXII
JAMES TELLS A STRANGE STORY

Uncle John followed the coachman up the stairs to the little room above the tool-house, where the old man had managed to crawl after old Sam had given him a vicious kick in the chest.

"Is he dead?" he asked.

"No, sir; but mortally hurt, I'm thinkin'. It must have happened while we were at the funeral."

He opened the door, outside which Susan and Oscar watched with frightened faces, and led John Merrick into the room.

James lay upon his bed with closed eyes. His shirt, above the breast, was reeking with blood.

"The doctor should be sent for," said Uncle John.

"He'll be here soon, for one of the stable boys rode to fetch him. But I thought you ought to know at once, sir."

"Quite right, Donald."

As they stood there the wounded man moved and opened his eyes, looking from one to the other of them wonderingly. Finally he smiled.

"Ah, it's Donald," he said.

"Yes, old friend," answered the coachman. "And this is Mr. John."

"Mr. John? Mr. John? I don't quite remember you, sir," with a slight shake of the gray head. "And Donald, lad, you've grown wonderful old, somehow."

"It's the years, Jeemes," was the reply. "The years make us all old, sooner or later."

The gardener seemed puzzled, and examined his companions more carefully. He did not seem to be suffering any pain. Finally he sighed.

"The dreams confuse me," he said, as if to explain something. "I can't always separate them, the dreams from the real. Have I been sick, Donald?"

"Yes, lad. You're sick now."

The gardener closed his eyes, and lay silent.

"Do you think he's sane?" whispered Uncle John.

"I do, sir. He's sane for the first time in years."

James looked at them again, and slowly raised his hand to wipe the damp from his forehead.

"About Master Tom," he said, falteringly. "Master Tom's dead, ain't he?"

"Yes, Jeemes."

"That was real, then, an' no dream. I mind it all, now—the shriek of the whistle, the crash, and the screams of the dying. Have I told you about it, Donald?"

"No, lad."

"It all happened before we knew it. I was on one side the car and Master Tom on the other. My side was on top, when I came to myself, and Master Tom was buried in the rubbish. God knows how I got him out, but I did. Donald, the poor master's side was crushed in, and both legs splintered. I knew at once he was dying, when I carried him to the grass and laid him down; and he knew it, too. Yes, the master knew he was done; and him so young and happy, and just about to be married to—to—the name escapes me, lad!"

His voice sank to a low mumble, and he closed his eyes wearily.

The watchers at his side stood still and waited. It might be that death had overtaken the poor fellow. But no; he moved again, and opened his eyes, continuing his speech in a stronger tone.

"It was hard work to get the paper for Master Tom," he said; "but he swore he must have it before he died. I ran all the way to the station house and back—a mile or more—and brought the paper and a pen and ink, besides. It was but a telegraph blank—all I could find. Naught but a telegraph blank, lad."

Again his voice trailed away into a mumbling whisper, but now Uncle John and Donald looked into one another's eyes with sudden interest.

"He mustn't die yet!" said the little man; and the coachman leaned over the wounded form and said, distinctly:

"Yes, lad; I'm listening."

"To be sure," said James, brightening a bit. "So I held the paper for him, and the brakeman supported Master Tom's poor body, and he wrote out the will as clear as may be."

"The will!"

"Sure enough; Master Tom's last will. Isn't my name on it, too, where I signed it? And the conductor's beside it, for the poor brakeman didn't dare let him go? Of course. Who should sign the will with Master Tom but me—his old servant and friend? Am I right, Donald?"

"Yes, lad."

"'Now,' says Master Tom, 'take it to Lawyer Watson, James, and bid him care for it. And give my love to Jane—that's the name, Donald; the one I thought I'd forgot—'and now lay me back and let me die.' His very words, Donald. And we laid him back and he died. And he died. Poor Master Tom. Poor, poor young Master. And him to—be married—in a—"

"The paper, James!" cried Uncle John, recalling the dying man to the present. "What became of it?"

"Sir, I do not know you," answered James, suspiciously. "The paper's for Lawyer Watson. It's he alone shall have it."

"Here I am, James," cried the lawyer, thrusting the others aside and advancing to the bed. "Give me the paper. Where is it? I am Lawyer Watson!"

The gardener laughed—a horrible, croaking laugh that ended with a gasp of pain.

"You Lawyer Watson?" he cried, a moment later, in taunting tones. "Why, you old fool, Si Watson's as young as Master Tom—as young as I am! You—you Lawyer Watson! Ha, ha, ha!"

"Where is the paper?" demanded the lawyer fiercely.

James stared at him an instant, and then suddenly collapsed and fell back inert upon the bed.

"Have you heard all?" asked John Merrick, laying his hand on the lawyer's shoulder.

"Yes; I followed you here as soon as I could. Tom Bradley made another will, as he lay dying. I must have it, Mr. Merrick."

"Then you must find it yourself," said Donald gravely, "for Jemes is dead."

The doctor, arriving a few minutes later, verified the statement. It was evident that the old gardener, for years insane, had been so influenced by Miss Merrick's death that he had wandered into the stables where he received his death blow. When he regained consciousness the mania had vanished, and in a shadowy way he could remember and repeat that last scene of the tragedy that had deprived him of his reason. The story was logical enough, and both Mr. Watson and John Merrick believed it.

"Tom Bradley was a level-headed fellow until he fell in love with your sister," said the lawyer to his companion. "But after that he would not listen to reason, and perhaps he had a premonition of his own sudden death, for he made a will bequeathing all he possessed to his sweetheart. I drew up the will myself, and argued against the folly of it; but he had his own way. Afterward, in the face of death, I believe he became more sensible, and altered his will."

"Yet James' story may all be the effect of a disordered mind," said Uncle John.

"I do not think, so; but unless he has destroyed the paper in his madness, we shall he able to find it among his possessions."

With this idea in mind, Mr. Watson ordered the servants to remove the gardener's body to a room in the carriage-house, and as soon as this was done he set to work to search for the paper, assisted by John Merrick.

"It was a telegraph blank, he said."

"Yes."

"Then we cannot mistake it, if we find any papers at all," declared the lawyer.

The most likely places in James' room for anything to be hidden were a small closet, in which were shelves loaded with odds and ends, and an old clothes-chest that was concealed underneath the bed.

This last was first examined, but found to contain merely an assortment of old clothing. Having tossed these in a heap upon the floor the lawyer begun an examination of the closet, the shelves promising well because of several bundles of papers they contained.

While busy over these, he heard Uncle John say, quietly:

"I've got it."

The lawyer bounded from the closet. The little man had been searching the pockets of the clothing taken from the chest, and from a faded velvet coat he drew out the telegraph blank.

"Is it the will?" asked the lawyer, eagerly.

"Read it yourself," said Uncle John.

Mr. Watson put on his glasses.

"Yes; this is Tom Bradley's handwriting, sure enough. The will is brief, but it will hold good in law. Listen: 'I bequeath to Jane Merrick, my affianced bride, the possession and use of my estate during the term of her life. On her death all such possessions, with their accrument, shall be transferred to my sister, Katherine Bradley, if she then survives, to have and to hold by her heirs and assignees forever. But should she die without issue previous to the death of Jane Merrick, I then appoint my friend and attorney, Silas Watson, to distribute the property among such organized and worthy charities as he may select.' That is all."

"Quite enough," said Uncle John, nodding approval.

"And it is properly signed and witnessed. The estate is Kenneth's, sir, after all, for he is the sole heir of his mother. Katherine Bradley Forbes. Hurrah!" ended the lawyer, waving the yellow paper above his head.

"Hurrah!" echoed Uncle John, gleefully; and the two men shook hands.