Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 1
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.
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."
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.
"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."
"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."