Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 10
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."
"How many, Don?"
"Two, lad. A bonny young thing came on the morning train, an' a nice, wide-awake one by the two o'clock."
"Girls?" with an accent of horror.
"Young females, anyhow," said Donald, polishing a buckle briskly.
The boy glared at him fixedly.
"Will they be running about the place, Don?"
"Most likely, 'Twould be a shame to shut them up with the poor missus this glad weather. But why not? They'll be company for ye, Kenneth lad."
"How long will they stay?"
"Mabbe for aye. Oscar forbys one or the ither o' 'em will own the place when Miss Jane gi'es up the ghost."
The boy sat silent a moment, thinking upon this speech. Then, with a cry that was almost a scream, he dashed the box upon the floor and flew out the door as if crazed, and Donald paused to listen to his footsteps clattering down the stairs.
Then the old man groaned dismally, shaking his side-whiskers with a negative expression that might have conveyed worlds of meaning to one able to interpret it. But his eye fell upon the pine box, which had rolled to his feet, and he stooped to pick it up. Upon the smoothly planed side was his own picture, most deftly drawn, showing him engaged in polishing the harness. Every strap and buckle was depicted with rare fidelity; there was no doubt at all of the sponge and bottle on the stool beside him, or the cloth in his hand. Even his bow spectacles rested upon the bridge of his nose at exactly the right angle, and his under lip protruded just as it had done since he was a lad.
Donald was not only deeply impressed by such an exhibition of art; he was highly gratified at being pictured, and full of wonder that the boy could do such a thing; "wi' a wee pencil an' a bit o' board!" He turned the box this way and that to admire the sketch, and finally arose and brought a hatchet, with which he carefully pried the board away from the box. Then he carried his treasure to a cupboard, where he hid it safely behind a row of tall bottles.
Meantime Kenneth had reached the stable, thrown a bridle over the head of a fine sorrel mare, and scorning to use a saddle leaped upon her back and dashed down the lane and out at the rear gate upon the old turnpike road.
His head was whirling with amazement, his heart full of indignation. Girls! Girls at Elmhurst—nieces and guests of the fierce old woman he so bitterly hated! Then, indeed, his days of peace and quiet were ended. These dreadful creatures would prowl around everywhere; they might even penetrate the shrubbery to the foot of the stairs leading to his own retired room; they would destroy his happiness and drive him mad.
For this moody, silent youth had been strangely happy in his life at Elmhurst, despite the neglect of the grim old woman who was its mistress and the fact that no one aside from Lawyer Watson seemed to care whether he lived or died.
Perhaps Donald did. Good old Don was friendly and seldom bothered him by talking. Perhaps old Misery liked him a bit, also. But these were only servants, and almost as helpless and dependent as himself.
Still, he had been happy. He began to realize it, now that these awful girls had come to disturb his peace. The thought filled him with grief and rebellion and resentment; yet there was nothing he could do to alter the fact that Donald's "young females" were already here, and prepared, doubtless, to stay.
The sorrel was dashing down the road at a great pace, but the boy clung firmly to his seat and gloried in the breeze that fanned his hot cheeks. Away and away he raced until he reached the crossroads, miles away, and down this he turned and galloped as recklessly as before. The sun was hot, today, and the sorrel's flanks begun to steam and show flecks of white upon their glossy surface. He turned again to the left, entering upon a broad highway that would lead him straight home at last; but he had almost reached the little village of Elmwood, which was the railway station, before he realized his cruelty to the splendid mare he bestrode. Then indeed, he fell to a walk, patting Nora's neck affectionately and begging her to forgive him for his thoughtlessness. The mare tossed her head in derision. However she might sweat and pant, she liked the glorious pace even better than her rider.
Through the village he paced moodily, the bridle dangling loosely on the mare's neck. The people paused to look at him curiously, but he had neither word nor look for any.
He did not know one of them by name, and cared little how much they might speculate upon his peculiar position at "the big house."
Then, riding slowly up the hedge bordered road, his troubles once more assailed him, and he wondered if there was not some spot upon the broad earth to which he could fly for retirement until the girls had left Elmhurst for good.
Nora shied, and he looked up to discover that he had nearly run down a pedestrian—a stout little man with a bundle under his arm, who held up one hand as if to arrest him.
Involuntarily he drew rein, and stopped beside the traveler with a look of inquiry.
"Sorry to trouble you, sir," remarked the little man, in a cheery voice, "but I ain't just certain about my way."
"Where do you want to go?" asked the boy.
"To Jane Merrick's place. They call it Elmhurst, I guess."
"It's straight ahead," said Kenneth, as the mare walked on. His questioner also started and paced beside him.
"Far from here?"
"A mile, perhaps."
"They said it was three from the village, but I guess I've come a dozen a'ready."
The boy did not reply to this. There was nothing offensive in the man's manner. He spoke with an easy familiarity that made it difficult not to respond with equal frank cordiality, and there was a shrewd expression upon his wrinkled, smooth-shaven face that stamped him a man who had seen life in many of its phases.
Kenneth, who resented the companionship of most people, seemed attracted by the man, and hesitated to gallop on and leave him.
"Know Jane Merrick?" asked the stranger.
The boy nodded.
"I hate her," he said, savagely.
The man laughed, a bit uneasily.
"Then it's the same Jane as ever," he responded, with a shake of his grizzled head. "Do you know, I sort o' hoped she'd reformed, and I'd be glad to see her again. They tell me she's got money."
"Then it's the same Jane as ever"
The boy looked at him in surprise.
"She owns Elmhurst, and has mortgages on a dozen farms around here, and property in New York, and thousands of dollars in the bank," he said. "Aunt Jane's rich."
"Aunt Jane?" echoed the man, quickly. "What's your name, lad?"
A shake of the head.
"Don't recollect any Forbeses in the family."
"She isn't really my aunt," said the boy, "and she doesn't treat me as an aunt, either; but she's my guardian, and I've always called her Aunt, rather than say Miss Merrick."
"She's never married, has she?"
"No. She was engaged to my Uncle Tom, who owned Elmhurst. He was killed in a railway accident, and then it was found he'd left her all he had."
"So, when my parents died, Aunt Jane took me for Uncle Tom's sake, and keeps me out of charity."
"I see." Quite soberly, this time.
The boy slid off the mare and walked beside the little man, holding the bridle over his arm. They did not speak again for some moments.
Finally the stranger asked:
"Are Jane's sisters living—Julia and Violet?"
"I don't know. But there are two of her nieces at Elmhurst."
"Ha! Who are they?"
"Girls," with bitterness. "I haven't seen them."
The stranger whistled.
"Don't like girls, I take it?"
"No; I hate them."
Another long pause. Then the boy suddenly turned questioner.
"You know Aunt—Miss Merrick, sir?"
"I used to, when we were both younger."
"Any relation, sir?"
"Just a brother, that's all."
Kenneth stopped short, and the mare stopped, and the little man, with a whimsical smile at the boy's astonishment, also stopped.
"I didn't know she had a brother, sir—that is, living."
"She had two; but Will's dead, years ago, I'm told. I'm the other."
"That's me. I went west a long time ago; before you were born, I guess. We don't get much news on the coast, so I sort of lost track of the folks back east, and I reckon they lost track of me, for the same reason."
"You were the tinsmith?"
"The same. Bad pennies always return, they say. I've come back to look up the family and find how many are left. Curious sort of a job, isn't it."
"I don't know. Perhaps it's natural," replied the boy, reflectively. "But I'm sorry you came to Aunt Jane first."
"She's in bad health—quite ill, you know—and her temper's dreadful. Perhaps she—she—"
"I know. But I haven't seen her in years; and, after all, she's my sister. And back at the old home, where I went first, no one knew anything about what had become of the family except Jane. They kept track of her because she suddenly became rich, and a great lady, and that was a surprising thing to happen to a Merrick. We've always been a poor lot, you know."
The boy glanced at the bundle, pityingly, and the little man caught the look and smiled his sweet, cheery smile.
"My valise was too heavy to carry," he said; "so I wrapped up a few things in case Jane wanted me to stay over night. And that's why I didn't get a horse at the livery, you know. Somebody'd have to take it back again."
"I'm sure she'll ask you to stay, sir. And if she doesn't, you come out to the stable and let me know, and I'll drive you to town again. Donald—that's the coachman—is my friend, and he'll let me have the horse if I ask him."
"Thank you, lad," returned the man, gratefully. "I thought a little exercise would do me good, but this three miles has seemed like thirty to me!"
"We're here at last," said the boy, turning: into the drive-way. "Seeing that you're her brother, sir, I advise you to go right up to the front door and ring the bell."
"I will," said the man.
"I always go around the back way, myself."
The boy turned away, but in a moment halted again. His interest in Miss Jane's brother John was extraordinary.
"Another thing," he said, hesitating.
"You'd better not say you met me, you know. It wouldn't be a good introduction. She hates me as much as I hate her."
"Very good, my lad. I'll keep mum."
The boy nodded, and turned away to lead Nora to the stable. The man looked after him a moment, and shook his head, sadly.
"Poor boy!" he whispered.
Then he walked up to the front door and rang the bell.