Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 6
Leaving the mistress of Elmhurst among her flowers, Silas Watson walked slowly and thoughtfully along the paths until he reached the extreme left wing of the rambling old mansion. Here, half hidden by tangled vines of climbing roses, he came to a flight of steps leading to an iron-railed balcony, and beyond this was a narrow stairway to the rooms in the upper part of the wing.
Miss Merrick, however ungenerous she might have been to others, had always maintained Elmhurst in a fairly lavish manner. There were plenty of servants to look after the house and gardens, and there were good horses in the stables. Whenever her health permitted she dined in state each evening in the great dining-room, solitary and dignified, unless on rare occasions her one familiar, Silas Watson, occupied the seat opposite her. "The boy," as he was contemptuously called, was never permitted to enter this room. Indeed, it would be difficult to define exactly Kenneth Forbes' position at Elmhurst. He had lived there ever since his mother's death, when, a silent and unattractive lad of eight, Mr. Watson had brought him to Jane Merrick and insisted upon her providing a home for Tom Bradley's orphaned nephew.
She accepted the obligation reluctantly enough, giving the child a small room in the left wing, as far removed from her own apartments as possible, and transferring all details of his care to Misery Agnew, the old housekeeper. Misery endeavored to "do her duty" by the boy, but appreciating the scant courtesy with which he was treated by her mistress, it is not surprising the old woman regarded him merely as a dependent and left him mostly to his own devices.
Kenneth, even in his first days at Elmhurst, knew that his presence was disagreeable to Miss Jane, and as the years dragged on he grew shy and retiring, longing to break away from his unpleasant surroundings, but knowing of no other place where he would be more welcome. His only real friend was the lawyer, who neglected no opportunity to visit the boy and chat with him, in his cheery manner. Mr. Watson also arranged with the son of the village curate to tutor Kenneth and prepare him for college; but either the tutor was incompetent or the pupil did not apply himself, for at twenty Kenneth Forbes was very ignorant, indeed, and seemed not to apply himself properly to his books.
He was short of stature and thin, with a sad drawn face and manners that even his staunch friend, Silas Watson, admitted were awkward and unprepossessing. What he might have been under different conditions or with different treatment, could only be imagined. Slowly climbing the stairs to the little room Kenneth inhabited, Mr. Watson was forced to conclude, with a sigh of regret, that he could not blame Miss Jane for wishing to find a more desirable heir to her estate than this graceless, sullen youth who had been thrust upon her by a thoughtless request contained in the will of her dead lover—a request that she seemed determined to fulfil literally, as it only required her to "look after" Tom's relatives and did not oblige her to leave Kenneth her property.
Yet, strange as it may seem, the old lawyer was exceedingly fond of the boy, and longed to see him the master of Elmhurst. Sometimes, when they were alone, Kenneth forgot his sense of injury and dependence, and spoke so well and with such animation that Mr. Watson was astonished, and believed that hidden underneath the mask of reserve was another entirely different personality, that in the years to come might change the entire nature of the neglected youth and win for him the respect and admiration of the world. But these fits of brightness and geniality were rare. Only the lawyer had as yet discovered them.
Today he found the boy lying listlessly upon the window-seat, an open book in his hand, but his eyes fixed dreamily upon the grove of huge elm trees that covered the distant hills.
"Morning, Ken," said he, briefly, sitting beside his young friend and taking the book in his own hand. The margins of the printed pages were fairly covered with drawings of every description. The far away trees were there and the near-by rose gardens. There was a cat spitting at an angry dog, caricatures of old Misery and James, the gardener, and of Aunt Jane and even Silas Watson himself—all so clearly depicted that the lawyer suddenly wondered if they were not clever, and an evidence of genius. But the boy turned to look at him, and the next moment seized the book from his grasp and sent it flying through the open window, uttering at the same time a rude exclamation of impatience.
The lawyer quietly lighted his pipe.
"Why did you do that, Kenneth?" he asked. "The pictures are clever enough to be preserved. I did not know you have a talent for drawing."
The boy glanced at him, but answered nothing, and the lawyer thought best not to pursue the subject After smoking a moment in silence he remarked:
"Your aunt is failing fast." Although no relative, Kenneth had been accustomed to speak of Jane Merrick as his aunt.
Getting neither word nor look in reply the lawyer presently continued:
"I do not think she will live much longer."
The boy stared from the window and drummed on the sill with his fingers.
"When she dies," said Mr. Watson, in a musing tone, "there will be a new mistress at Elmhurst and you will have to move out."
The boy now turned to look at him, enquiringly.
"You are twenty, and you are not ready for college. You would be of no use in the commercial world. You have not even the capacity to become a clerk. What will you do, Kenneth? Where will you go?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
"When will Aunt Jane die?" he asked.
"I hope she will live many days yet. She may die tomorrow."
"When she does, I'll answer your question." said the boy, roughly. "When I'm turned out of this place—which is part prison and part paradise—I'll do something. I don't know what, and I won't bother about it till the time comes. But I'll do something."
"Could you earn a living?" asked the old lawyer.
"Perhaps not; but I'll get one. Will I be a beggar?"
"I don't know. It depends on whether Aunt Jane leaves you anything in her will."
"I hope she won't leave me a cent!" cried the boy, with sudden fierceness. "I hate her, and will be glad when she is dead and out of my way!"
"I hate her!" he persisted, with blazing eyes. "She has insulted me, scorned me, humiliated me every moment since I have known her. I'll be glad to have her die, and I don't want a cent of her miserable money."
"Money," remarked the old man, knocking the ashes from his pipe, "is very necessary to one who is incompetent to earn his salt. And the money she leaves you—if she really does leave you any—won't be, remember, but your Uncle Tom's."
"Uncle Tom was good to my father," said the boy, softening.
"Well, Uncle Tom gave his money to Aunt Jane, whom he had expected to marry; but he asked her to care for his relatives, and she'll doubtless give you enough to live on. But the place will go to some one else, and that means you must move on."
"Who will have Elmhurst?" asked the boy.
"One of your aunt's nieces, probably. She has three, it seems, all of them young girls, and she has invited them to come here to visit her."
"Girls! Girls at Elmhurst?" cried the boy, shrinking back with a look of terror in his eyes.
"To be sure. One of the nieces, it seems, refuses to come; but there will be two of them to scramble for your aunt's affection."
"She has none," declared the boy.
"Or her money, which is the same thing. The one she likes the best will get the estate."
Kenneth smiled, and with the change of expression his face lighted wonderfully.
"Poor Aunt!" he said. "Almost I am tempted to be sorry for her. Two girls—fighting one against the other for Elmhurst—and both fawning before a cruel and malicious old woman who could never love anyone but herself."
"And her flowers," suggested the lawyer.
"Oh, yes; and perhaps James. Tell me, why should she love James, who is a mere gardener, and hate me?"
"James tends the flowers, and the flowers are Jane Merrick's very life. Isn't that the explanation?"
"I don't know."
"The girls need not worry you, Kenneth. It will be easy for you to keep out of their way."
"When will they come?"
"Next week, I believe."
The boy looked around helplessly, with the air of a caged tiger.
"Perhaps they won't know I'm here," he said.
"Perhaps not. I'll tell Misery to bring all your meals to this room, and no one ever comes to this end of the garden. But if they find you, Kenneth, and scare you out of your den, run over to me, and I'll keep you safe until the girls are gone."
"Thank you, Mr. Watson," more graciously than was his wont. "It isn't that I'm afraid of girls, you know; but they may want to insult me, just as their aunt does, and I couldn't bear any more cruelty."
"I know nothing about them," said the lawyer, "so I can't vouch in any way for Aunt Jane's nieces. But they are young, and it is probable they'll be as shy and uncomfortable here at Elmhurst as you are yourself. And after all, Kenneth boy, the most important thing just now is your own future. What in the world is to become of you?"
"Oh, that," answered the boy, relapsing into his sullen mood; "I can't see that it matters much one way or another. Anyhow, I'll not bother my head about it until the time comes and as far as you're concerned, it's none of your business."