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Aunt Jane's Nieces by Edith Van Dyne

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AUNT JANE'S NIECES

By

EDITH VAN DYNE

1906

A LIST OF CHAPTERS

CHAPTER

I BETH RECEIVES AN INVITATION
II MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
III PATSY
IV LOUISE MAKES A DISCOVERY
V AUNT JANE
VI THE BOY
VII THE FIRST WARNING
VIII THE DIPLOMAT
IX COUSINS
X THE MAN WITH THE BUNDLE
XI THE MAD GARDENER
XII UNCLE JOHN GETS ACQUAINTED
XIII THE OTHER NIECE
XIV KENNETH IS FRIGHTENED
XV PATSY MEETS WITH AN ACCIDENT
XVI GOOD RESULTS
XVII AUNT JANE'S HEIRESS
XVIII PATRICIA SPEAKS FRANKLY
XIX DUPLICITY
XX IN THE GARDEN
XXI READING THE WILL
XXII JAMES TELLS A STRANGE STORY
XXIII PATSY ADOPTS AN UNCLE
XXIV HOME AGAIN
XXV UNCLE JOHN ACTS QUEERLY
XXVI A BUNCH OF KEYS
XXVII LOUISE MAKES A DISCOVERY
XXVIII PATSY LOSES HER JOB
XXIX THE MAJOR DEMANDS AN EXPLANATION

CHAPTER I.

BETH RECEIVES AN INVITATION.

Professor De Graf was sorting the mail at the breakfast table.

"Here's a letter for you, Beth," said he, and tossed it across the
cloth to where his daughter sat.

The girl raised her eyebrows, expressing surprise. It was something
unusual for her to receive a letter. She picked up the square envelope
between a finger and thumb and carefully read the inscription, "Miss
Elizabeth De Graf, Cloverton, Ohio." Turning the envelope she found on
the reverse flap a curious armorial emblem, with the word "Elmhurst."

Then she glanced at her father, her eyes big and somewhat startled
in expression. The Professor was deeply engrossed in a letter from
Benjamin Lowenstein which declared that a certain note must be paid at
maturity. His weak, watery blue eyes stared rather blankly from behind
the gold-rimmed spectacles. His flat nostrils extended and compressed
like those of a frightened horse; and the indecisive mouth was
tremulous. At the best the Professor was not an imposing personage.
He wore a dressing-gown of soiled quilted silk and linen not too
immaculate; but his little sandy moustache and the goatee that
decorated his receding chin were both carefully waxed into sharp
points--an indication that he possessed at least one vanity. Three
days in the week he taught vocal and instrumental music to the
ambitious young ladies of Cloverton. The other three days he rode to
Pelham's Grove, ten miles away, and taught music to all who wished to
acquire that desirable accomplishment. But the towns were small and
the fees not large, so that Professor De Graf had much difficulty in
securing an income sufficient for the needs of his family.

The stout, sour-visaged lady who was half-hidden by her newspaper at
the other end of the table was also a bread-winner, for she taught
embroidery to the women of her acquaintance and made various articles
of fancy-work that were sold at Biggar's Emporium, the largest store
in Cloverton. So, between them, the Professor and Mrs. DeGraf managed
to defray ordinary expenses and keep Elizabeth at school; but there
were one or two dreadful "notes" that were constantly hanging over
their heads like the sword of Damocles, threatening to ruin them at
any moment their creditors proved obdurate.

Finding her father and mother both occupied, the girl ventured to open
her letter. It was written in a sharp, angular, feminine hand and read
as follows:

"My Dear Niece: It will please me to have you spend the months of July
and August as my guest at Elmhurst. I am in miserable health, and
wish to become better acquainted with you before I die. A check for
necessary expenses is enclosed and I shall expect you to arrive
promptly on the first of July.

"Your Aunt,

"JANE MERRICK."

A low exclamation from Elizabeth caused her father to look in her
direction. He saw the bank check lying beside her plate and the sight
lent an eager thrill to his voice.

"What is it, Beth?"

"A letter from Aunt Jane."

Mrs. De Graf gave a jump and crushed the newspaper into her lap.

"What!" she screamed.

"Aunt Jane has invited me to spend two months at Elmhurst" said
Elizabeth, and passed the letter to her mother, who grabbed it
excitedly.

"How big is the check, Beth?" enquired the Professor, in a low tone.

"A hundred dollars. She says it's for my expenses.

"Huh! Of course you won't go near that dreadful old cat, so we can use
the money to better advantage."

"Adolph!"

The harsh, cutting voice was that of his wife, and the Professor
shrank back in his chair.

"Your sister Jane is a mean, selfish, despicable old female," he
muttered. "You've said so a thousand times yourself, Julia."

"My sister Jane is a very wealthy woman, and she's a Merrick,"
returned the lady, severely. "How dare you--a common De Graf--asperse
her character?"

"The De Grafs are a very good family," he retorted.

"Show me one who is wealthy! Show me one who is famous!"

"I can't," said the Professor. "But they're decent, and they're
generous, which is more than can be said for your tribe."

"Elizabeth must go to Elmhurst," said Mrs. De Graf, ignoring her
husband's taunt.

"She shan't. Your sister refused to loan me fifty dollars last year,
when I was in great trouble. She hasn't given you a single cent since
I married you. No daughter of mine shall go In Elmhurst to be bullied
and insulted by Jane Merrick."

"Adolph, try to conceal the fact that you're a fool," said his wife.
"Jane is in a desperate state of health, and can't live very long at
the best. I believe she's decided to leave her money to Elizabeth, or
she never would have invited the child to visit her. Do you want to
fly in the face of Providence, you doddering old imbecile?"

"No," said the Professor, accepting the doubtful appellation without a
blush. "How much do you suppose Jane is worth?"

"A half million, at the very least. When she was a girl she inherited
from Thomas Bradley, the man she was engaged to marry, and who was
suddenly killed in a railway accident, more than a quarter of a
million dollars, besides that beautiful estate of Elmhurst. I don't
believe Jane has even spent a quarter of her income, and the fortune
must have increased enormously. Elizabeth will be one of the
wealthiest heiresses in the country!"

"If she gets the money, which I doubt," returned the Professor,
gloomily.

"Why should you doubt it, after this letter?"

"You had another sister and a brother, and they both had children,"
said he.

"They each left a girl. I admit. But Jane has never favored them
any more than she has me. And this invitation, coming; when Jane is
practically on her death bed, is a warrant that Beth will get the
money."

"I hope she will," sighed the music teacher. "We all need it bad
enough, I'm sure."

During this conversation Elizabeth, who might be supposed the one most
interested in her Aunt's invitation, sat silently at her place, eating
her breakfast with her accustomed calmness of demeanor and scarcely
glancing at her parents.

She had pleasant and quite regular features, for a girl of fifteen,
with dark hair and eyes--the "Merrick eyes," her mother proudly
declared--and a complexion denoting perfect health and colored with
the rosy tints of youth. Her figure was a bit slim and unformed,
and her shoulders stooped a little more than was desirable; but in
Cloverton Elizabeth had the reputation of being "a pretty girl," and a
sullen and unresponsive one as well.

Presently she rose from her seat, glanced at the clock, and then went
into the hall to get her hat and school-books. The prospect of being
an heiress some day had no present bearing on the fact that it was
time to start for school.

Her father came to the door with the check in his hand.

"Just sign your name on the back of this, Beth," said he, "and I'll
get it cashed for you."

The girl shook her head.

"No, father," she answered. "If I decide to go to Aunt Jane's I must
buy some clothes; and if you get the money I'll never see a cent of
it."

"When will you decide?" he asked.

"There's no hurry. I'll take time to think it over," she replied. "I
hate Aunt Jane, of course; so if I go to her I must be a hypocrite,
and pretend to like her, or she never will leave me her property.

"Well, Beth?"

"Perhaps it will be worth while; but if I go into that woman's house
I'll be acting a living lie."

"But think of the money!" said her mother.

"I do think of it. That's why I didn't tell you at once to send the
check back to Aunt Jane. I'm going to think of everything before I
decide. But if I go--if I allow this money to make me a hypocrite--I
won't stop at trifles, I assure you. It's in my nature to be
dreadfully wicked and cruel and selfish, and perhaps the money isn't
worth the risk I run of becoming depraved."

"Elizabeth!"

"Good-bye; I'm late now," she continued, in the same quiet tone, and
walked slowly down the walk.

The Professor twisted his moustache and looked into his wife's eyes
with a half frightened glance.

"Beth's a mighty queer girl," he muttered.

"She's very like her Aunt Jane," returned Mrs. De Graf, thoughtfully
gazing after her daughter. "But she's defiant and wilful enough for
all the Merricks put together. I do hope she'll decide to go to
Elmhurst."

CHAPTER II.

MOTHER AND DAUGHTER.

In the cosy chamber of an apartment located in a fashionable quarter
of New York Louise Merrick reclined upon a couch, dressed in a
dainty morning gown and propped and supported by a dozen embroidered
cushions.

Upon a taboret beside her stood a box of bonbons, the contents of
which she occasionally nibbled as she turned the pages of her novel.

The girl had a pleasant and attractive face, although its listless
expression was singular in one so young. It led you to suspect that
the short seventeen years of her life had robbed her of all the
anticipation and eagerness that is accustomed to pulse in strong young
blood, and filled her with experiences that compelled her to accept
existence in a half bored and wholly matter-of-fact way.

The room was tastefully though somewhat elaborately furnished; yet
everything in it seemed as fresh and new as if it had just come from
the shop--which was not far from the truth. The apartment itself
was new, with highly polished floors and woodwork, and decorations
undimmed by time. Even the girl's robe, which she wore so gracefully,
was new, and the books upon the center-table were of the latest
editions.

The portiere was thrust aside and an elderly lady entered the room,
seating herself quietly at the window, and, after a single glance at
the form upon the couch, beginning to embroider patiently upon some
work she took from a silken bag. She moved so noiselessly that the
girl did not hear her and for several minutes absolute silence
pervaded the room.

Then, however, Louise in turning a leaf glanced up and saw the head
bent over the embroidery. She laid down her book and drew an open
letter from between the cushions beside her, which she languidly
tossed into the other's lap.

"Who is this woman, mamma?" she asked.

Mrs. Merrick glanced at the letter and then read it carefully through,
before replying.

"Jane Merrick is your father's sister," she said, at last, as she
thoughtfully folded the letter and placed it upon the table.

"Why have I never heard of her before?" enquired the girl, with a
slight accession of interest in her tones.

"That I cannot well explain. I had supposed you knew of your poor
father's sister Jane, although you were so young when he died that it
is possible he never mentioned her name in your presence."

"They were not on friendly terms, you know. Jane was rich, having
inherited a fortune and a handsome country place from a young man whom
she was engaged to marry, but who died on the eve of his wedding day."

"How romantic!" exclaimed Louise.

"It does seem romantic, related in this way," replied her mother. "But
with the inheritance all romance disappeared from your aunt's life.
She became a crabbed, disagreeable woman, old before her time and
friendless because she suspected everyone of trying to rob her of her
money. Your poor father applied to her in vain for assistance, and I
believe her refusal positively shortened his life. When he died, after
struggling bravely to succeed in his business, he left nothing but his
life-insurance."

"Thank heaven he left that!" sighed Louise.

"Yes; we would have been beggared, indeed, without it," agreed Mrs.
Merrick. "Yet I often wonder, Louise, how we managed to live upon the
interest of that money for so many years."

"We didn't live--we existed," corrected the girl, yawning. "We
scrimped and pinched, and denied ourselves everything but bare
necessities. And had it not been for your brilliant idea, mater dear,
we would still be struggling in the depths of poverty."

Mrs. Merrick frowned, and leaned back in her chair.

"I sometimes doubt if the idea was so brilliant, after all," she
returned, with a certain grimness of expression. "We're plunging,
Louise; and it may be into a bottomless pit."

"Don't worry, dear," said the girl, biting into a bonbon. "We are
only on the verge of our great adventure, and there's no reason to
be discouraged yet, I assure you. Brilliant! Of course the idea
was brilliant, mamma. The income of that insurance money was
insignificant, but the capital is a very respectable sum. I am just
seventeen years of age--although I feel that I ought to be thirty, at
the least--and in three years I shall be twenty, and a married woman.
You decided to divide our capital into three equal parts, and spend a
third of it each year, this plan enabling us to live in good style and
to acquire a certain social standing that will allow me to select a
wealthy husband. It's a very brilliant idea, my dear! Three years is a
long time. I'll find my Croesus long before that, never fear."

"You ought to," returned the mother, thoughtfully. "But if you fail,
we shall be entirely ruined."

"A strong incentive to succeed." said Louise, smiling. "An ordinary
girl might not win out; but I've had my taste of poverty, and I don't
like it. No one will suspect us of being adventurers, for as long as
we live in this luxurious fashion we shall pay our bills promptly and
be proper and respectable in every way. The only chance we run lies in
the danger that eligible young men may prove shy, and refuse to take
our bait; but are we not diplomats, mother dear? We won't despise a
millionaire, but will be content with a man who can support us in good
style, or even in comfort, and in return for his money I'll be a very
good wife to him. That seems sensible and wise, I'm sure, and not at
all difficult of accomplishment."

Mrs. Merrick stared silently out of the window, and for a few moments
seemed lost in thought.

"I think, Louise," she said at last, "you will do well to cultivate
your rich aunt, and so have two strings to your bow."

"You mean that I should accept her queer invitation to visit her?"

"Yes."

"She has sent me a check for a hundred dollars. Isn't it funny?"

"Jane was always a whimsical woman. Perhaps she thinks we are quite
destitute, and fears you would not be able to present a respectable
appearance at Elmhurst without this assistance. But it is an evidence
of her good intentions. Finding death near at hand she is obliged to
select an heir, and so invites you to visit her that she may study
your character and determine whether you are worthy to inherit her
fortune."

The girl laughed, lightly.

"It will be easy to cajole the old lady," she said. "In two days I can
so win her heart that she will regret she has neglected me so long."

"Exactly."

"If I get her money we will change our plans, and abandon the
adventure we were forced to undertake. But if, for any reason, that
plan goes awry, we can fall back upon this prettily conceived scheme
which we have undertaken. As you say, it is well to have two strings
to one's bow; and during July and August everyone will be out of town,
and so we shall lose no valuable time."

Mrs. Merrick did not reply. She stitched away in a methodical manner,
as if abstracted, and Louise crossed her delicate hands behind her
head and gazed at her mother reflectively. Presently she said:

"Tell me more of my father's family. Is this rich aunt of mine the
only relative he had?"

"No, indeed. There were two other sisters and a brother--a very
uninteresting lot, with the exception, of your poor father. The eldest
was John Merrick, a common tinsmith, if I remember rightly, who went
into the far west many years ago and probably died there, for he was
never heard from. Then came Jane, who in her young days had some
slight claim to beauty. Anyway, she won the heart of Thomas Bradley,
the wealthy young man I referred to, and she must have been clever to
have induced him to leave her his money. Your father was a year or so
younger than Jane, and after him came Julia, a coarse and
disagreeable creature who married a music-teacher and settled in some
out-of-the-way country town. Once, while your father was alive, she
visited us for a few days, with her baby daughter, and nearly drove us
all crazy. Perhaps she did not find us very hospitable, for we were
too poor to entertain lavishly. Anyway, she went away suddenly after
you had a fight with her child and nearly pulled its hair out by the
roots, and I have never heard of her since."

"A daughter, eh," said Louise, musingly. "Then this rich Aunt Jane has
another niece besides myself."

"Perhaps two," returned Mrs. Merrick; "for her youngest sister, who
was named Violet, married a vagabond Irishman and had a daughter
about a year younger than you. The mother died, but whether the child
survived her or not I have never learned."

"What was her name?" asked Louise.

"I cannot remember. But it is unimportant. You are the only Merrick of
them all, and that is doubtless the reason Jane has sent for you."

The girl shook her blonde head.

"I don't like it," she observed.

"Don't like what?"

"All this string of relations. It complicates matters."

Mrs. Merrick seemed annoyed.

"If you fear your own persuasive powers," she said, with almost a
sneer in her tones, "you'd better not go to Elmhurst. One or the
other of your country cousins might supplant you in your dear aunt's
affections."

The girl yawned and took up her neglected novel.

"Nevertheless, mater dear," she said briefly, "I shall go."

CHAPTER III.

PATSY.

"Now, Major, stand up straight and behave yourself! How do you expect
me to sponge your vest when you're wriggling around in that way?"

"Patsy, dear, you're so sweet this evening, I just had to kiss your
lips."

"Don't do it again, sir," replied Patricia, severely, as she scrubbed
the big man's waistcoat with a damp cloth. "And tell me, Major, how
you ever happened to get into such a disgraceful condition."

"The soup just shpilled," said the Major, meekly.

Patricia laughed merrily. She was a tiny thing, appearing to be no
more than twelve years old, although in reality she was sixteen. Her
hair was a decided red--not a beautiful "auburn," but really red--and
her round face was badly freckled. Her nose was too small and her
mouth too wide to be beautiful, but the girl's wonderful blue eyes
fully redeemed these faults and led the observer to forget all else
but their fascinations. They could really dance, these eyes, and send
out magnetic, scintillating sparks of joy and laughter that were
potent to draw a smile from the sourest visage they smiled upon.
Patricia was a favorite with all who knew her, but the big,
white-moustached Major Doyle, her father, positively worshipped her,
and let the girl rule him as her fancy dictated.

"Now, sir, you're fairly decent again," she said, after a few vigorous
scrubs. "So put on your hat and we'll go out to dinner."

They occupied two small rooms at the top of a respectable but
middle-class tenement building, and had to descend innumerable flights
of bare wooden stairs before they emerged upon a narrow street
thronged with people of all sorts and descriptions except those who
were too far removed from the atmosphere of Duggan street to know that
it existed.

The big major walked stiffly and pompously along, swinging his
silver-trimmed cane in one hand while Patricia clung to his other arm.
The child wore a plain grey cloak, for the evening was chill. She had
a knack of making her own clothes, all of simple material and fashion,
but fitting neatly and giving her an air of quiet refinement that made
more than one passer-by turn to look back at her curiously.

After threading their way for several blocks they turned in at the
open door of an unobtrusive restaurant where many of the round white
tables were occupied by busy and silent patrons.

The proprietor nodded to the major and gave Patricia a smile. There
was no need to seat them, for they found the little table in the
corner where they were accustomed to eat, and sat down.

"Did you get paid tonight?" asked the girl.

"To be sure, my Patsy."

"Then hand over the coin," she commanded.

The major obeyed. She counted it carefully and placed it in her
pocketbook, afterwards passing a half-dollar back to her father.

"Remember, Major, no riotous living! Make that go as far as you can,
and take care not to invite anyone to drink with you."

"Yes, Patsy."

"And now I'll order the dinner."

The waiter was bowing and smiling beside her. Everyone smiled at
Patsy, it seemed.

They gave the usual order, and then, after a moment's hesitation, she
added:

"And a bottle of claret for the Major."

Her father fairly gasped with amazement.

"Patsy!"

People at the near-by tables looked up as her gay laugh rang out, and
beamed upon her in sympathy.

"I'm not crazy a bit. Major," said she, patting the hand he had
stretched toward her, partly in delight and partly in protest. "I've
just had a raise, that's all, and we'll celebrate the occasion."

Her father tucked the napkin under his chin then looked at her
questioningly.

"Tell me, Patsy."

"Madam Borne sent me to a swell house on Madison Avenue this morning,
because all her women were engaged. I dressed the lady's hair in
my best style, Major, and she said it was much more becoming than
Juliette ever made it. Indeed, she wrote a note to Madam, asking her
to send me, hereafter, instead of Juliette, and Madam patted my head
and said I would be a credit to her, and my wages would be ten dollars
a week, from now on. Ten dollars. Major! As much as you earn yourself
at that miserable bookkeeping!"

"Sufferin' Moses!" ejaculated the astonished major, staring back into
her twinkling eyes, "if this kapes on, we'll be millionaires, Patsy."

"We're millionaires, now." responded Patsy, promptly, "because we've
health, and love, and contentment--and enough money to keep us from
worrying. Do you know what I've decided, Major, dear? You shall go to
make that visit to your colonel that you've so long wanted to have.
The vacation will do you good, and you can get away all during July,
because you haven't rested for five years. I went to see Mr. Conover
this noon, and he said he'd give you the month willingly, and keep the
position for you when you returned."

"What! You spoke to old Conover about me?"

"This noon. It's all arranged, daddy, and you'll just have a glorious
time with the old colonel. Bless his dear heart, he'll be overjoyed to
have you with him, at last."

The major pulled out his handkerchief, blew his nose vigorously, and
then surreptitiously wiped his eyes.

"Ah, Patsy, Patsy; it's an angel you are, and nothing less at all, at
all."

"Rubbish, Major. Try your claret, and see if it's right. And eat your
fish before it gets cold. I'll not treat you again, sir, unless you
try to look happy. Why, you seem as glum as old Conover himself!"

The major was positively beaming.

"Would it look bad for me to kiss you, Patsy?"

"Now?"

"Now and right here in this very room!"

"Of course it would. Try and behave, like the gentleman you are, and
pay attention to your dinner!"

It was a glorious meal. The cost was twenty-five cents a plate, but
the gods never feasted more grandly in Olympus than these two simple,
loving souls in that grimy Duggan street restaurant.

Over his coffee the major gave a sudden start and looked guiltily into
Patricia's eyes.

"Now, then," she said, quickly catching the expression, "out with it."

"It's a letter," said the major. "It came yesterday, or mayhap the day
before. I don't just remember."

"A letter! And who from?" she cried, surprised.

"An ould vixen."

"And who may that be?"

"Your mother's sister Jane. I can tell by the emblem on the flap of
the envelope," said he, drawing a crumpled paper from his breast
pocket.

"Oh, _that_ person," said Patsy, with scorn. "Whatever induced her to
write to _me?_" "You might read it and find out," suggested the major.

Patricia tore open the envelope and scanned the letter. Her eyes
blazed.

"What is it, Mavoureen?"

"An insult!" she answered, crushing the paper in her hand and then
stuffing it into the pocket of her dress. "Light your pipe, daddy,
dear. Here--I'll strike the match."

CHAPTER IV.

LOUISE MAKES A DISCOVERY.

"How did you enjoy the reception, Louise?"

"Very well, mamma. But I made the discovery that my escort. Harry
Wyndham, is only a poor cousin of the rich Wyndham family, and will
never have a penny he doesn't earn himself."

"I knew that," said Mrs. Merrick. "But Harry has the entree into some
very exclusive social circles. I hope you treated him nicely, Louise.
He can be of use to us."

"Oh, yes, I think I interested him; but he's a very stupid boy. By the
way, mamma, I had an adventure last evening, which I have had no time
to tell you of before."

"Yes?"

"It has given me quite a shock. You noticed the maid you ordered to
come from Madam Borne to dress my hair for the reception?"

"I merely saw her. Was she unsatisfactory?"

"She was very clever. I never looked prettier, I am sure. The maid is
a little, demure thing, very young for such a position, and positively
homely and common in appearance. But I hardly noticed her until she
dropped a letter from her clothing. It fell just beside me, and I saw
that it was addressed to no less a personage than my rich aunt, Miss
Jane Merrick, at Elmhurst. Curious to know why a hair-dresser should
be in correspondence with Aunt Jane, I managed to conceal the letter
under my skirts until the maid was gone. Then I put it away until
after the reception. It was sealed and stamped, all ready for the
post, but I moistened the flap and easily opened it. Guess what I
read?"

"I've no idea," replied Mrs. Merrick.

"Here it is," continued Louise, producing a letter and carefully
unfolding it. "Listen to this, if you please: 'Aunt Jane.' She doesn't
even say 'dear' or 'respected,' you observe."

'Your letter to me, asking me to visit you, is almost an insult
after your years of silence and neglect and your refusals to assist
my poor mother when she was in need. Thank God we can do without
your friendship and assistance now, for my honored father, Major
Gregory Doyle, is very prosperous and earns all we need. I return your
check with my compliments. If you are really ill, I am sorry for you,
and would go to nurse you were you not able to hire twenty nurses,
each of whom would have fully as much love and far more respect for
you than could ever

'Your indignant niece,

'Patricia Doyle.'

"What do you think of that, mamma?'"

"It's very strange, Louise. This hair-dresser is your own cousin."

"So it seems. And she must be poor, or she wouldn't go out as a sort
of lady's maid. I remember scolding her severely for pulling my hair
at one time, and she was as meek as Moses, and never answered a word."

"She has a temper though, as this letter proves," said Mrs. Merrick;
"and I admire her for the stand she has taken."

"So do I," rejoined Louise with a laugh, "for it removes a rival from
my path. You will notice that Aunt Jane has sent her a check for the
same amount she sent me. Here it is, folded in the letter. Probably my
other cousin, the De Graf girl, is likewise invited to Elmhurst? Aunt
Jane wanted us all, to see what we were like, and perhaps to choose
between us."

"Quite likely," said Mrs. Merrick, uneasily watching her daughter's
face.

"That being the case," continued Louise, "I intend to enter the
competition. With this child Patricia out of the way, it will be a
simple duel with my unknown De Graf cousin for my aunt's favor, and
the excitement will be agreeable even if I am worsted."

"There's no danger of that," said her mother, calmly. "And the stakes
are high, Louise. I've learned that your Aunt Jane is rated as worth a
half million dollars."

"They shall be mine," said the daughter, with assurance. "Unless,
indeed, the De Graf girl is most wonderfully clever. What is her
name?"

"Elizabeth, if I remember rightly. But I am not sure she is yet alive,
my dear. I haven't heard of the De Grafs for a dozen years.'"

"Anyway I shall accept my Aunt Jane's invitation, and make the
acceptance as sweet as Patricia Doyle's refusal is sour. Aunt Jane
will be simply furious when she gets the little hair-dresser's note."

"Will you send it on?"

"Why not? It's only a question of resealing the envelope and mailing
it. And it will be sure to settle Miss Doyle's chances of sharing the
inheritance, for good and all."

"And the check?"

"Oh, I shall leave the check inside the envelope. It wouldn't be at
all safe to cash it, you know."

"But if you took it out Jane would think the girl had kept tit money,
after all, and would be even more incensed against her."

"No," said Louise, after a moment's thought, "I'll not do a single act
of dishonesty that could ever by any chance be traced to my door. To
be cunning, to be diplomatic, to play the game of life with the best
cards we can draw, is every woman's privilege. But if I can't win
honestly, mater dear, I'll quit the game, for even money can't
compensate a girl for the loss of her self-respect."

Mrs. Merrick cast a fleeting glance at her daughter and smiled.
Perhaps the heroics of Louise did not greatly impress her.

CHAPTER V.

AUNT JANE.

"Lift me up, Phibbs--no, not that way! Confound your awkwardness--do
you want to break my back? There! That's better. Now the pillow at my
head. Oh--h. What are you blinking at, you old owl?"

"Are you better this morning, Miss Jane?" asked the attendant, with
grave deference.

"No; I'm worse."

"You look brighter, Miss Jane."

"Don't be stupid, Martha Phibbs. I know how I am, better than any
doctor, and I tell you I'm on my last legs."

"Anything unusual, Miss?"

"Of course. I can't be on my last legs regularly, can I?"

"I hope not, Miss."

"What do you mean by that? Are you trying to insult me, now that I'm
weak and helpless? Answer me, you gibbering idiot!"

"I'm sure you'll feel better soon, Miss. Can't I wheel you into the
garden? It's a beautiful day, and quite sunny and warm already."

"Be quick about it, then; and don't tire me out with your eternal
doddering. When a thing has to be done, do it. That's my motto."

"Yes, Miss Jane."

Slowly and with care the old attendant wheeled her mistress's invalid
chair through the doorway of the room, along a stately passage,
and out upon a broad piazza at the back of the mansion. Here were
extensive and carefully tended gardens, and the balmy morning air was
redolent with the odor of flowers.

Jane Merrick sniffed the fragrance with evident enjoyment, and her
sharp grey eyes sparkled as she allowed them to roam over the gorgeous
expanse of colors spread out before her.

"I'll go down, I guess, Phibbs. This may be my last day on earth,
and I'll spend an hour with my flowers before I bid them good-bye
forever."

Phibbs pulled a bell-cord, and a soft faraway jingle was heard. Then
an old man came slowly around the corner of the house. His bare
head was quite bald. He wore a short canvas apron and carried
pruning-shears in one hand. Without a word of greeting to his mistress
or scarce a glance at her half recumbent form, he mounted the steps of
the piazza and assisted Phibbs to lift the chair to the ground.

"How are the roses coming on, James?"

"Poorly, Miss," he answered, and turning his back returned to his work
around the corner. If he was surly, Miss Jane seemed not to mind it.
Her glance even softened a moment as she followed his retreating form.

But now she was revelling amongst the flowers, which she seemed to
love passionately. Phibbs wheeled her slowly along the narrow paths
between the beds, and she stopped frequently to fondle a blossom or
pull away a dead leaf or twig from a bush. The roses were magnificent,
in spite of the old gardener's croaking, and the sun was warm and
grateful and the hum of the bees musical and sweet.

"It's hard to die and leave all this, Phibbs," said the old woman, a
catch in her voice. "But it's got to be done."

"Not for a while yet, I hope, Miss Jane."

"It won't be long, Phibbs. But I must try to live until my nieces
come, and I can decide which of them is most worthy to care for the
old place when I am gone."

"Yes, Miss."

"I've heard from two of them, already. They jumped at the bait I held
out quickly enough; but that's only natural. And the letters are very
sensible ones, too. Elizabeth DeGraf says she will be glad to come,
and thanks me for inviting her. Louise Merrick is glad to come, also,
but hopes I am deceived about my health and that she will make me more
than one visit after we become friends. A very proper feeling; but I'm
not deceived, Phibbs. My end's in plain sight."

"Yes, Miss Jane."

"And somebody's got to have my money and dear Elmhurst when I'm
through with them. Who will it be, Phibbs?"

"I'm sure I don't know, Miss."

"Nor do I. The money's mine, and I can do what I please with it; and
I'm under no obligation to anyone."

"Except Kenneth," said a soft voice behind her.

Jane Merrick gave a start at the interruption and turned red and angry
as, without looking around, she answered:

"Stuff and nonsense! I know my duties and my business, Silas Watson."

"To be sure," said a little, withered man, passing around the chair
and facing the old woman with an humble, deprecating air. He was
clothed in black, and his smooth-shaven, deeply lined face was
pleasant of expression and not without power and shrewd intelligence.
The eyes, however, were concealed by heavy-rimmed spectacles, and his
manner was somewhat shy and reserved. However, he did not hesitate to
speak frankly to his old friend, nor minded in the least if he aroused
her ire.

"No one knows better than you, dear Miss Jane, her duties and
obligations; and no one performs them more religiously. But your
recent acts, I confess, puzzle me. Why should you choose from a lot
of inexperienced, incompetent girls a successor to Thomas Bradley's
fortune, when he especially requested you in his will to look after
any of his relatives, should they need assistance? Kenneth Forbes, his
own nephew, was born after Tom's death, to be sure; but he is alone in
the world now, an orphan, and has had no advantages to help him along
in life since his mother's death eight years ago. I think Tom Bradley
must have had a premonition of what was to come even though his sister
was not married at the time of his death, and I am sure he would want
you to help Kenneth now."

"He placed me under no obligations to leave the boy any money,"
snapped the old woman, white with suppressed wrath, "you know that
well enough, Silas Watson, for you drew up the will."

The old gentleman slowly drew a pattern upon the gravelled walk with
the end of his walking-stick.

"Yes, I drew up the will," he said, deliberately, "and I remember that
he gave to you, his betrothed bride, all that he possessed--gave it
gladly and lovingly, and without reserve. He was very fond of you,
Miss Jane. But perhaps his conscience pricked him a bit, after all,
for he added the words: 'I shall expect you to look after the welfare
of my only relative, my sister. Katherine Bradley--or any of her
heirs.' It appears to me, Miss Jane, that that is a distinct
obligation. The boy is now sixteen and as fine a fellow as one often
meets."

"Bah! An imbecile--an awkward, ill-mannered brat who is only fit for a
stable-boy! I know him, Silas, and I know he'll never amount to a hill
of beans. Leave _him_ my money? Not if I hadn't a relative on earth!"

"You misjudge him, Jane. Kenneth is all right if you'll treat him
decently. But he won't stand your abuse and I don't think the less of
him for that."

"Why abuse? Haven't I given him a home and an education, all because
Thomas asked me to look after his relatives? And he's been rebellious
and pig-headed and sullen in return for my kindness, so naturally
there's little love lost between us."

"You resented your one obligation, Jane; and although you fulfilled it
to the letter you did not in the spirit of Tom Bradley's request. I
don't blame the boy for not liking you."

"Sir!"

"All right, Jane; fly at me if you will," said the little man, with a
smile; "but I intend to tell you frankly what I think of your actions,
just as long as we remain friends."

Her stern brows unbent a trifle.

"That's why we are friends, Silas; and it's useless to quarrel with
you now that I'm on my last legs. A few days more will end me, I'm
positive; so bear with me a little longer, my friend."

He took her withered hand in his and kissed it gently.

"You're not so very bad, Jane," said he, "and I'm almost sure you
will be with us for a long time to come. But you're more nervous and
irritable than usual, I'll admit, and I fear this invasion of your
nieces won't be good for you. Are they really coming?"

"Two of them are, I'm sure, for they've accepted my invitation," she
replied.

"Here's a letter that just arrived," he said, taking it from his
pocket. "Perhaps it contains news from the third niece."

"My glasses, Phibbs!" cried Miss Jane, eagerly, and the attendant
started briskly for the house to get them.

"What do you know about these girls?" asked the old lawyer curiously.

"Nothing whatever. I scarcely knew of their existence until you hunted
them out for me and found they were alive. But I'm going to know them,
and study them, and the one that's most capable and deserving shall
have my property."

Mr. Watson sighed.

"And Kenneth?" he asked.

"I'll provide an annuity for the boy, although it's more than he
deserves. When I realized that death was creeping upon me I felt a
strange desire to bequeath my fortune to one of my own flesh and
blood. Perhaps I didn't treat my brothers and sisters generously in
the old days, Silas."

"Perhaps not," he answered.

"So I'll make amends to one of their children. That is, if any one of
the three nieces should prove worthy."

"I see. But if neither of the three is worthy?"

"Then I'll leave every cent to charity--except Kenneth's annuity."

The lawyer smiled.

"Let us hope," said he, "that they will prove all you desire. It would
break my heart, Jane, to see Elmhurst turned into a hospital."

Phibbs arrived with the spectacles, and Jane Merrick read her letter,
her face growing harder with every line she mastered. Then she
crumpled the paper fiercely in both hands, and a moment later smoothed
it out carefully and replaced it in the envelope.

Silas Watson had watched her silently.

"Well," said he, at last, "another acceptance?"

"No, a refusal," said she. "A refusal from the Irishman's daughter,
Patricia Doyle."

"That's bad," he remarked, but in a tone of relief.

"I don't see it in that light at all," replied Miss Jane. "The girl
is right. It's the sort of letter I'd have written myself, under the
circumstances. I'll write again, Silas, and humble myself, and try to
get her to come."

"You surprise me!" said the lawyer.

"I surprise myself," retorted the old woman, "but I mean to know more
of this Patricia Doyle. Perhaps I've found a gold mine, Silas Watson!"

CHAPTER VI.

THE BOY.

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!"

"Kenneth--Kenneth, lad!"

"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
her's, 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."

CHAPTER VII.

THE FIRST WARNING.

For a day or two Jane Merrick seemed to improve in health. Indeed,
Martha Phibbs declared her mistress was better than she had been for
weeks. Then, one night, the old attendant was awakened by a scream,
and rushed to her mistress' side.

"What is it, ma'am?" she asked, tremblingly.

"My leg! I can't move my leg," gasped the mistress of Elmhurst. "Rub
it, you old fool! Rub it till you drop, and see if you can bring back
the life to it."

Martha rubbed, of course, but the task was useless. Oscar the groom
was sent on horseback for the nearest doctor, who came just as day
was breaking. He gave the old woman a brief examination and shook his
head.

"It's the first warning," said he; "but nothing to be frightened
about. That is, for the present."

"Is it paralysis?" asked Jane Merrick.

"Yes; a slight stroke."

"But I'll have another?"

"Perhaps, in time."

"How long?"

"It may be a week--or a month--or a year. Sometimes there is
never another stroke. Don't worry, ma'am. Just lie still and be
comfortable."

"Huh!" grunted the old woman. But she became more composed and obeyed
the doctor's instructions with unwonted meekness. Silas Watson arrived
during the forenoon, and pressed her thin hand with real sympathy,
for these two were friends despite the great difference in their
temperaments.

"Shall I draw your will, Jane?" he asked. "No!" she snapped. "I'm not
going to die just yet, I assure you. I shall live to carry out my
plans, Silas."

She did live, and grew better as the days wore on, although she never
recovered the use of the paralyzed limb.

Each day Phibbs drew the invalid chair to the porch and old James
lifted it to the garden walk, where his mistress might enjoy the
flowers he so carefully and skillfully tended. They seldom spoke
together, these two; yet there seemed a strange bond of sympathy
between them.

At last the first of July arrived, and Oscar was dispatched to the
railway station, four miles distant, to meet Miss Elizabeth De
Graf, the first of the nieces to appear in answer to Jane Merrick's
invitation.

Beth looked very charming and fresh in her new gown, and she greeted
her aunt with a calm graciousness that would have amazed the professor
to behold. She had observed carefully the grandeur and beauty of
Elmhurst, as she drove through the grounds, and instantly decided the
place was worth an effort to win.

"So, this is Elizabeth, is it?" asked Aunt June, as the girl stood
before her for inspection. "You may kiss me, child."

Elizabeth advanced, striving to quell the antipathy she felt to kiss
the stern featured, old woman, and touched her lips to the wrinkled
forehead.

Jane Merrick laughed, a bit sneeringly, while Beth drew back, still
composed, and looked at her relative enquiringly.

"Well, what do you think of me?" demanded Aunt Jane, as if embarrassed
at the scrutiny she received.

"Surely, it is too early to ask me that," replied Beth, gently. "I am
going to try to like you, and my first sight of my new aunt leads me
to hope I shall succeed."

"Why shouldn't you like me?" cried the old woman. "Why must you try to
like your mother's sister?"

Beth flushed. She had promised herself not to become angry or
discomposed, whatever her aunt might say or do; but before she could
control herself an indignant expression flashed across her face and
Jane Merrick saw it.

"There are reasons," said Beth, slowly, "why your name is seldom
mentioned in my father's family. Until your letter came I scarcely
knew I possessed an aunt. It was your desire we should become better
acquainted, and I am here for that purpose. I hope we shall become
friends, Aunt Jane, but until then, it is better we should not discuss
the past."

The woman frowned. It was not difficult for her to read the character
of the child before her, and she knew intuitively that Beth was
strongly prejudiced against her, but was honestly trying not to allow
that prejudice to influence her. She decided to postpone further
interrogations until another time.

"Your journey has tired you," she said abruptly. "I'll have Misery
show you to your room."

She touched a bell beside her.

"I'm not tired, but I'll go to my room, if you please," answered Beth,
who realized that she had in some way failed to make as favorable an
impression as she had hoped. "When may I see you again?"

"When I send for you," snapped Aunt Jane, as the housekeeper entered.
"I suppose you know I am a paralytic, and liable to die at any time?"

"I am very sorry," said Beth, hesitatingly. "You do not seem very
ill."

"I'm on my last legs. I may not live an hour. But that's none of your
business, I suppose. By the way, I expect your cousin on the afternoon
train."

Beth gave a start of surprise.

"My cousin?" she asked.

"Yes, Louise Merrick."

"Oh!" said Beth, and stopped short.

"What do you mean by that?" enquired Aunt Jane, with a smile that was
rather malicious.

"I did not know I had a cousin," said the girl. "That is," correcting
herself, "I did not know whether Louise Merrick was alive or not.
Mother has mentioned her name once or twice in my presence; but not
lately."

"Well, she's alive. Very much alive, I believe. And she's coming to
visit me, while you are here. I expect you to be friends."

"To be sure," said Beth, nevertheless discomfited at the news.

"We dine at seven," said Aunt Jane. "I always lunch in my own room,
and you may do the same," and with a wave of her thin hand she
dismissed the girl, who thoughtfully followed the old housekeeper
through the halls.

It was not going to be an easy task to win this old woman's affection.
Already she rebelled at the necessity of undertaking so distasteful a
venture and wondered if she had not made a mistake in trying to curb
her natural frankness, and to conciliate a creature whose very nature
seemed antagonistic to her own. And this new cousin, Louise Merrick,
why was she coming to Elmhurst? To compete for the prize Beth had
already determined to win? In that case she must consider carefully
her line of action, that no rival might deprive her of this great
estate. Beth felt that she could fight savagely for an object she so
much desired. Her very muscles hardened and grew tense at the thought
of conflict as she walked down the corridor in the wake of old Misery
the housekeeper. She had always resented the sordid life at Cloverton.
She had been discontented with her lot since her earliest girlhood,
and longed to escape the constant bickerings of her parents and their
vain struggles to obtain enough money to "keep up appearances" and
drive the wolf from the door. And here was an opportunity to win a
fortune and a home beautiful enough for a royal princess. All that was
necessary was to gain the esteem of a crabbed, garrulous old woman,
who had doubtless but a few more weeks to live. It must be done,
in one way or another; but how? How could she out-wit this unknown
cousin, and inspire the love of Aunt Jane?

"If there's any stuff of the right sort in my nature," decided the
girl, as she entered her pretty bedchamber and threw herself into a
chair, "I'll find a way to win out. One thing is certain--I'll never
again have another chance at so fine a fortune, and if I fail to get
it I shall deserve to live in poverty forever afterward."

Suddenly she noticed the old housekeeper standing before her and
regarding her with a kindly interest. In an instant she sprang up,
threw her arms around Misery and kissed her furrowed cheek.

"Thank you for being so kind," said she. "I've never been away from
home before and you must be a mother to me while I'm at Elmhurst."

Old Misery smiled and stroked the girl's glossy head.

"Bless the child!" she said, delightedly; "of course I'll be a mother
to you. You'll need a bit of comforting now and then, my dear, if
you're going to live with Jane Merrick."

"Is she cross?" asked Beth, softly.

"At times she's a fiend," confided the old housekeeper, in almost a
whisper. "But don't you mind her tantrums, or lay 'em to heart, and
you'll get along with her all right."

"Thank you," said the girl. "I'll try not to mind."

"Do you need anything else, deary?" asked Misery, with a glance around
the room.

"Nothing at all, thank you."

The housekeeper nodded and softly withdrew.

"That was one brilliant move, at any rate," said Beth to herself, as
she laid aside her hat and prepared to unstrap her small trunk. "I've
made a friend at Elmhurst who will be of use to me; and I shall make
more before long. Come as soon as you like, Cousin Louise! You'll have
to be more clever than I am, if you hope to win Elmhurst."

CHAPTER VIII.

THE DIPLOMAT.

Aunt Jane was in her garden, enjoying the flowers. This was her
especial garden, surrounded by a high-box hedge, and quite distinct
from the vast expanse of shrubbery and flower-beds which lent so much
to the beauty of the grounds at Elmhurst. Aunt Jane knew and loved
every inch of her property. She had watched the shrubs personally for
many years, and planned all the alterations and the construction of
the flower-beds which James had so successfully attended to. Each
morning, when her health permitted, she had inspected the greenhouses
and issued her brief orders--brief because her slightest word to the
old gardener incurred the fulfillment of her wishes. But this bit of
garden adjoining her own rooms was her especial pride, and contained
the choicest plants she had been able to secure. So, since she had
been confined to her chair, the place had almost attained to the
dignity of a private drawing-room, and on bright days she spent many
hours here, delighting to feast her eyes with the rich coloring of the
flowers and to inhale their fragrance. For however gruff Jane Merrick
might be to the people with whom she came in contact, she was always
tender to her beloved flowers, and her nature invariably softened when
in their presence.

By and by Oscar, the groom, stepped through an opening in the hedge
and touched his hat.

"Has my niece arrived?" asked his mistress, sharply.

"She's on the way, mum," the man answered, grinning. "She stopped
outside the grounds to pick wild flowers, an' said I was to tell you
she'd walk the rest o' the way."

"To pick wild flowers?"

"That's what she said, mum. She's that fond of 'em she couldn't
resist it. I was to come an' tell you this, mum; an' she'll follow me
directly."

Aunt Jane stared at the man sternly, and he turned toward her an
unmoved countenance. Oscar had been sent to the station to meet Louise
Merrick, and drive her to Elmhurst; but this strange freak on the part
of her guest set the old woman thinking what her object could be. Wild
flowers were well enough in their way; but those adjoining the grounds
of Elmhurst were very ordinary and unattractive, and Miss Merrick's
aunt was expecting her. Perhaps--

A sudden light illumined the mystery.

"See here, Oscar; has this girl been questioning you?"

"She asked a few questions, mum."

"About me?"

"Some of 'em, if I remember right, mum, was about you."

"And you told her I was fond of flowers?"

"I may have just mentioned that you liked 'em, mum."

Aunt Jane gave a scornful snort, and the man responded in a curious
way. He winked slowly and laboriously, still retaining the solemn
expression on his face.

"You may go, Oscar. Have the girl's luggage placed in her room."

"Yes, mum."

He touched his hat and then withdrew, leaving Jane Merrick with a
frown upon her brow that was not caused by his seeming impertinence.

Presently a slight and graceful form darted through the opening in the
hedge and approached the chair wherein Jane Merrick reclined.

"Oh, my dear, dear aunt!" cried Louise. "How glad I am to see you at
last, and how good of you to let me come here!" and she bent over and
kissed the stern, unresponsive face with an enthusiasm delightful to
behold.

"This is Louise, I suppose," said Aunt Jane, stiffly. "You are welcome
to Elmhurst."

"Tell me how you are," continued the girl, kneeling beside the chair
and taking the withered hands gently in her own. "Do you suffer any?
And are you getting better, dear aunt, in this beautiful garden with
the birds and the sunshine?"

"Get up," said the elder woman, roughly. "You're spoiling your gown."

Louise laughed gaily.

"Never mind the gown," she answered. "Tell me about yourself. I've
been so anxious since your last letter."

Aunt Jane's countenance relaxed a trifle. To speak of her broken
health always gave her a sort of grim satisfaction.

"I'm dying, as you can plainly see," she announced. "My days are
numbered, Louise. If you stay long enough you can gather wild flowers
for my coffin."

Louise flushed a trifle. A bunch of butter-cups and forget-me-nots was
fastened to her girdle, and she had placed a few marguerites in her
hair.

"Don't laugh at these poor things!" she said, deprecatingly. "I'm so
fond of flowers, and we find none growing wild in the cities, you
know."

Jane Merrick looked at her reflectively.

"How old are you, Louise," she asked.

"Just seventeen, Aunt."

"I had forgotten you are so old as that. Let me see; Elizabeth cannot
be more than fifteen."

"Elizabeth?"

"Elizabeth De Graf, your cousin. She arrived at Elmhurst this morning,
and will be your companion while you are here."

"That is nice," said Louise.

"I hope you will be friends."

"Why not, Aunt? I haven't known much of my relations in the past, you
know, so it pleases me to find an aunt and a cousin at the same time.
I am sure I shall love you both. Let me fix your pillow--you do not
seem comfortable. There! Isn't that better?" patting the pillow
deftly. "I'm afraid you have needed more loving care than a paid
attendant can give you," glancing at old Martha Phibbs, who stood some
paces away, and lowering her voice that she might not be overheard.
"But for a time, at least, I mean to be your nurse, and look after
your wants. You should have sent for me before, Aunt Jane."

"Don't trouble yourself; Phibbs knows my ways, and does all that is
required," said the invalid, rather testily. "Run away, now, Louise.
The housekeeper will show you to your room. It's opposite Elizabeth's,
and you will do well to make her acquaintance at once. I shall expect
you both to dine with me at seven."

"Can't I stay here a little longer?" pleaded Louise. "We haven't
spoken two words together, as yet, and I'm not a bit tired or anxious
to go to my room. What a superb oleander this is! Is it one of your
favorites, Aunt Jane?"

"Run away," repeated the woman. "I want to be alone."

The girl sighed and kissed her again, stroking the gray hair softly
with her white hand.

"Very well; I'll go," she said. "But I don't intend to be treated as
a strange guest, dear Aunt, for that would drive me to return home at
once. You are my father's eldest sister, and I mean to make you love
me, if you will give me the least chance to do so."

She looked around her, enquiringly, and Aunt Jane pointed a bony
finger at the porch.

"That is the way. Phibbs will take you to Misery, the housekeeper, and
then return to me. Remember, I dine promptly at seven."

"I shall count the minutes," said Louise, and with a laugh and a
graceful gesture of adieu, turned to follow Martha into the house.

Jane Merrick looked after her with a puzzled expression upon her face.

"Were she in the least sincere," she muttered, "Louise might prove a
very pleasant companion. But she's not sincere; she's coddling me to
win my money, and if I don't watch out she'll succeed. The girl's a
born diplomat, and weighed in the balance against sincerity, diplomacy
will often tip the scales. I might do worse than to leave Elmhurst to
a clever woman. But I don't know Beth yet. I'll wait and see which
girl is the most desirable, and give them each an equal chance."

CHAPTER IX.

COUSINS.

"Come in," called Beth, answering a knock at her door.

Louise entered, and with a little cry ran forward and caught Beth in
her arms, kissing her in greeting.

"You must be my new cousin--Cousin Elizabeth--and I'm awfully glad to
see you at last!" she said, holding the younger girl a little away,
that she might examine her carefully.

Beth did not respond to the caress. She eyed her opponent sharply,
for she knew well enough, even in that first moment, that they were
engaged in a struggle for supremacy in Aunt Jane's affections, and
that in the battles to come no quarter could be asked or expected.

So they stood at arm's length, facing one another and secretly forming
an estimate each of the other's advantages and accomplishments.

"She's pretty enough, but has no style whatever," was Louise's
conclusion. "Neither has she tact nor self-possession, or even a
prepossessing manner. She wears her new gown in a dowdy manner and one
can read her face easily. There's little danger in this quarter, I'm
sure, so I may as well be friends with the poor child."

As for Beth, she saw at once that her "new cousin" was older and more
experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore liable to prove
a dangerous antagonist. Slender and graceful of form, attractive
of feature and dainty in manner, Louise must be credited with
many advantages; but against these might be weighed her evident
insincerity--the volubility and gush that are so often affected to
hide one's real nature, and which so shrewd and suspicious a woman as
Aunt Jane could not fail to readily detect. Altogether, Beth was not
greatly disturbed by her cousin's appearance, and suddenly realizing
that they had been staring at one another rather rudely, she said,
pleasantly enough:

"Won't you sit down?"

"Of course; we must get acquainted," replied Louise, gaily, and
perched herself cross-legged upon the window-seat, surrounded by a
mass of cushions.

"I didn't know you were here, until an hour ago," she continued. "But
as soon as Aunt Jane told me I ran to my room, unpacked and settled
the few traps I brought with me, and here I am--prepared for a good
long chat and to love you just as dearly as you will let me."

"I knew you were coming, but not until this morning," answered Beth,
slowly. "Perhaps had I known, I would not have accepted our Aunt's
invitation."

"Ah! Why not?" enquired the other, as if in wonder.

Beth hesitated.

"Have you known Aunt Jane before today?" she asked.

"No."

"Nor I. The letter asking me to visit her was the first I have ever
received from her. Even my mother, her own sister, does not correspond
with her. I was brought up to hate her very name, as a selfish,
miserly old woman. But, since she asked me to visit her, we judged she
had softened and might wish to become friendly, and so I accepted the
invitation. I had no idea you were also invited."

"But why should you resent my being here?" Louise asked, smiling.
"Surely, two girls will have a better time in this lonely old place
than one could have alone. For my part, I am delighted to find you at
Elmhurst."

"Thank you," said Beth. "That's a nice thing to say, but I doubt if
it's true. Don't let's beat around the bush. I hate hypocrisy, and if
we're going to be friends let's be honest with one another from the
start."

"Well?" queried Louise, evidently amused.

"It's plain to me that Aunt Jane has invited us here to choose which
one of us shall inherit her money--and Elmhurst. She's old and feeble,
and she hasn't any other relations."

"Oh, yes, she has" corrected Louise.

"You mean Patricia Doyle?"

"Yes."

"What do you know of her?"

"Nothing at all."

"Where does she live?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

Louise spoke as calmly as if she had not mailed Patricia's defiant
letter to Aunt Jane, or discovered her cousin's identity in the little
hair-dresser from Madame Borne's establishment.

"Has Aunt Jane mentioned her?" continued Beth.

"Not in my presence."

"Then we may conclude she's left out of the arrangement," said Beth,
calmly. "And, as I said, Aunt Jane is likely to choose one of us to
succeed her at Elmhurst. I hoped I had it all my own way, but it's
evident I was mistaken. You'll fight for your chance and fight mighty
hard!"

Louise laughed merrily.

"How funny!" she exclaimed, after a moment during which Beth frowned
at her darkly. "Why, my dear cousin, I don't want Aunt Jane's money."

"You don't?"

"Not a penny of it; nor Elmhurst; nor anything you can possibly lay
claim to, my dear. My mother and I are amply provided for, and I am
only here to find rest from my social duties and to get acquainted
with my dead father's sister. That is all."

"Oh!" said Beth, lying back in her chair with a sigh of relief.

"So it was really a splendid idea of yours to be frank with me at our
first meeting," continued Louise, cheerfully; "for it has led to your
learning the truth, and I am sure you will never again grieve me by
suggesting that I wish to supplant you in Aunt Jane's favor. Now tell
me something about yourself and your people. Are you poor?"

"Poor as poverty," said Beth, gloomily. "My father teaches music, and
mother scolds him continually for not being able to earn enough money
to keep out of debt."

"Hasn't Aunt Jane helped you?"

"We've never seen a cent of her money, although father has tried at
times to borrow enough to help him out of his difficulties."

"That's strange. She seems like such a dear kindly old lady," said
Louise, musingly.

"I think she's horrid," answered Beth, angrily; "but I mustn't let her
know it. I even kissed her, when she asked me to, and it sent a shiver
all down my back."

Louise laughed with genuine amusement.

"You must dissemble, Cousin Elizabeth," she advised, "and teach our
aunt to love you. For my part, I am fond of everyone, and it delights
me to fuss around invalids and assist them. I ought to have been a
trained nurse, you know; but of course there's no necessity of my
earning a living."

"I suppose not," said Beth. Then, after a thoughtful silence, she
resumed abruptly; "What's to prevent Aunt Jane leaving you her
property, even if you are rich, and don't need it? You say you like to
care for invalids, and I don't. Suppose Aunt Jane prefers you to me,
and wills you all her money?"

"Why, that would be beyond my power to prevent," answered Louise, with
a little yawn.

Beth's face grew hard again.

"You're deceiving me," she declared, angrily. "You're trying to make
me think you don't want Elmhurst, when you're as anxious to get it as
I am."

"My dear Elizabeth--by the way, that's an awfully long name; what do
they call you, Lizzie, or Bessie, or--"

"They call me Beth," sullenly.

"Then, my dear Beth, let me beg you not to borrow trouble, or to doubt
one who wishes to be your friend. Elmhurst would be a perfect bore
to me. I wouldn't know what to do with it. I couldn't live in this
out-of-the-way corner of the world, you know."

"But suppose she leaves it to you?" persisted Beth. "You wouldn't
refuse it, I imagine."

Louise seemed to meditate.

"Cousin," she said, at length, "I'll make a bargain with you. I can't
refuse to love and pet Aunt Jane, just because she has money and my
sweet cousin Beth is anxious to inherit it. But I'll not interfere in
any way with your chances, and I'll promise to sing your praises to
our aunt persistently. Furthermore, in case she selects me as her
heir, I will agree to transfer half of the estate to you--the half
that consists of Elmhurst."

"Is there much more?" asked Beth.

"I haven't any list of Aunt Jane's possessions, so I don't know. But
you shall have Elmhurst, if I get it, because the place would be of no
use to me."

"It's a magnificent estate," said Beth, looking at her cousin
doubtfully.

"It shall be yours, dear, whatever Aunt Jane decides. See, this is a
compact, and I'll seal it with a kiss."

She sprang up and, kneeling beside Beth, kissed her fervently.

"Now shall we be friends?" she asked, lightly. "Now will you abandon
all those naughty suspicions and let me love you?"

Beth hesitated. The suggestion seemed preposterous. Such generosity
savored of play acting, and Louise's manner was too airy to be
genuine. Somehow she felt that she was being laughed at by this
slender, graceful girl, who was scarcely older than herself; but she
was too unsophisticated to know how to resent it. Louise insisted upon
warding off her enmity, or at least establishing a truce, and Beth,
however suspicious and ungracious, could find no way of rejecting the
overtures.

"Were I in your place," she said, "I would never promise to give up a
penny of the inheritance. If I win it, I shall keep it all."

"To be sure. I should want you to, my dear."

"Then, since we have no cause to quarrel, we may as well become
friends," continued Beth, her features relaxing a little their set
expression.

Louise laughed again, ignoring the other's brusqueness, and was soon
chatting away pleasantly upon other subjects and striving to draw Beth
out of her natural reserve.

The younger girl had no power to resist such fascinations. Louise
knew the big world, and talked of it with charming naivete, and
Beth listened rapturously. Such a girl friend it had never been her
privilege to have before, and when her suspicions were forgotten she
became fairly responsive, and brightened wonderfully.

They dressed in time for dinner, and met Aunt Jane and Silas Watson,
the lawyer, in the great drawing-room. The old gentleman was very
attentive and courteous during the stately dinner, and did much to
relieve the girls' embarrassment. Louise, indeed, seemed quite at home
in her new surroundings, and chatted most vivaciously during the meal;
but Aunt Jane was strangely silent, and Beth had little to say and
seemed awkward and ill at ease.

The old lady retired to her own room shortly after dinner, and
presently sent a servant to request Mr. Watson to join her.

"Silas," she said, when he entered, "what do you think of my nieces?"

"They are very charming girls," he answered, "although they are at
an age when few girls show to good advantage. Why did you not invite
Kenneth to dinner, Jane?"

"The boy?"

"Yes. They would be more at ease in the society of a young gentleman
more nearly their own age."

"Kenneth is a bear. He is constantly saying disagreeable things. In
other words, he is not gentlemanly, and the girls shall have nothing
to do with him."

"Very well," said the lawyer, quietly.

"Which of my nieces do you prefer?" asked the old lady, after a pause.

"I cannot say, on so short an acquaintance," he answered, with
gravity. "Which do you prefer, Jane?"

"They are equally unsatisfactory," she answered. "I cannot imagine
Elmhurst belonging to either, Silas." Then she added, with an abrupt
change of manner: "You must go to New York for me, at once."

"Tonight?"

"No; tomorrow morning. I must see that other niece--the one who defies
me and refuses to answer my second letter."

"Patricia Doyle?"

"Yes. Find her and argue with her. Tell her I am a crabbed old woman
with a whim to know her, and that I shall not die happy unless she
comes to Elmhurst. Bribe her, threaten her--kidnap her if necessary,
Silas; but get her to Elmhurst as quickly as possible."

"I'll do my best, Jane. But why are you so anxious?"

"My time is drawing near, old friend," she replied, less harshly than
usual, "and this matter of my will lies heavily on my conscience. What
if I should die tonight?"

He did not answer.

"There would be a dozen heirs to fight for my money, and dear old
Elmhurst would be sold to strangers," she resumed, with bitterness.
"But I don't mean to cross over just yet, Silas, even if one limb is
dead already. I shall hang on until I get this matter settled, and I
can't settle it properly without seeing all three of my nieces. One of
these is too hard, and the other too soft. I'll see what Patricia is
like."

"She may prove even more undesirable," said the lawyer.

"In that case, I'll pack her back again and choose between these two.
But you must fetch her, Silas, that I may know just what I am doing.
And you must fetch her at once!"

"I'll do the best I can, Jane," repeated the old lawyer.

CHAPTER X.

THE MAN WITH THE BUNDLE.

In the harness-room above the stable sat Duncan Muir, the coachman and
most important servant, with the exception of the head gardener, in
Miss Merrick's establishment. Duncan, bald-headed but with white and
bushy side-whiskers, was engaged in the serious business of oiling and
polishing the state harness, which had not been used for many months
past. But that did not matter. Thursday was the day for oiling the
harness, and so on Thursday he performed the task, never daring to
entrust a work so important to a subordinate.

In one corner of the little room Kenneth Forbes squatted upon a bench,
with an empty pine box held carelessly in his lap. While Duncan worked
the boy was busy with his pencil, but neither had spoken for at least
a half hour.

Finally the aged coachman, without looking up, enquired:

"What do ye think o' 'em, Kenneth lad?"

"Think o' whom, Don?"

"The young leddies."

"What young ladies?"

"Miss Jane's nieces, as Oscar brought from the station yesterday."

The boy looked astonished, and leaned over the box in his lap eagerly.

"Tell me, Don," he said. "I was away with my gun all yesterday, and
heard nothing of it."

"Why, it seems Miss Jane's invited 'em to make her a visit."

"But not yet, Don! Not so soon."

"Na'theless, they're here."

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