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CHAPTER XI
THE MAD GARDENER

"This seems to be a lazy place," said Louise, as she stood in the doorway of Beth's room to bid her good night. "I shall sleep until late in the morning, for I don't believe Aunt Jane will be on exhibition before noon."

"At home I always get up at six o'clock," answered Beth.

"Six o'clock! Good gracious! What for?"

"To study my lessons and help get the breakfast."

"Don't you keep a maid?"

"No," said Beth, rather surlily; "we have hard work to keep ourselves."

"But you must be nearly through with school by this time. I finished my education ages ago."

"Did you graduate?" asked Beth.

"No; it wasn't worth while," declared Louise, complacently. "I'm sure I know as much as most girls do, and there are more useful lessons to be learned from real life than from books."

"Good night," said Beth.

"Good night," answered the older girl, and shut the door behind her.

Beth sat for a time moodily thinking. She did not like the way in which her cousin assumed superiority over her. The difference in their ages did not account for the greater worldly wisdom Louise had acquired, and in much that she said and did Beth recognized a shrewdness and experience that made her feel humbled and, in a way, inferior to her cousin. Nor did she trust the friendship Louise expressed for her.

Somehow, nothing that the girl said seemed to ring true, and Beth already, in her mind, accused her of treachery and insincerity.

As a matter of fact, however, she failed to understand her cousin. Louise really loved to be nice to people, and to say nice thing's. It is true she schemed and intrigued to advance her personal welfare and position in life; but even her schemes were undertaken lightly and carelessly, and if they failed the girl would be the first to laugh at her disappointment and try to mend her fortunes. If others stood in her way she might not consider them at all; if she pledged her word, it might not always be profitable to keep it; but she liked to be on pleasant terms with everyone, and would be amiable to the last, no matter what happened. Comedy was her forte, rather than tragedy. If tragedy entered her life she would probably turn it into ridicule. Wholly without care, whimsical and generous to a degree, if it suited her mood, Louise Merrick possessed a nature capable of great things, either for good or ill.

It was no wonder her unsophisticated country cousin failed to comprehend her, although Beth's intuition was not greatly at fault.

Six o'clock found Beth wide awake, as usual; so she quietly dressed and, taking her book under her arm, started to make her way into the gardens. Despite Louise's cynicism she had no intention of abandoning her studies. She had decided to fit herself for a teacher before Aunt Jane's invitation had come to her, and this ambition would render it necessary for her to study hard during vacations.

If she became an heiress she would not need to teach, but she was not at all confident of her prospects, and the girl's practical nature prompted her to carry out her plans until she was sure of the future.

In the hall she met Phibbs, shuffling along as if in pain.

"Good morning, miss," said the old servant.

Beth looked at her thoughtfully. This was Aunt Jane's special and confidential attendant.

"Do your feet hurt you?" she asked.

"Yes, miss; in the mornin' they's awful bad. It's being on 'em all the day, 'tendin' to Miss Jane, you know. But after a time I gets more used to the pain, and don't feel it. The mornin's always the worst."

She was passing on, but Beth stopped her.

"Come into my room," she said, and led the way.

Martha Phibbs followed reluctantly. Miss Jane might already be awake and demanding her services, and she could not imagine what the young lady wanted her for.

But she entered the room, and Beth went to a box and brought out a bottle of lotion.

"Mother has the same trouble that you complain of," she said, practically, "and here is a remedy that always gives her relief. I brought it with me in case I should take long tramps, and get sore feet."

She gently pushed the old woman into a chair, and then, to Phibbs' utter amazement, knelt down and unfastened her shoes and drew off her stockings. A moment later she was rubbing the lotion upon the poor creature's swollen feet, paying no attention to Martha's horrified protests.

"There. Now they're sure to feel better," said Beth, pulling the worn and darned stockings upon the woman's feet again. "And you must take this bottle to your room, and use it every night and morning."

"Bless your dear heart!" cried Phibbs, while tears of gratitude stood in her faded eyes. "I'm sure I feel twenty years younger, a'ready. But you shouldn't 'a' done it, miss; indeed you shouldn't."

"I'm glad to help you," said Beth, rinsing her hands at the wash stand and drying them upon a towel. "It would be cruel to let you suffer when I can ease your pain."

"But what would Miss Jane say?" wailed old Martha, throwing up her hands in dismay.

"She'll never know a thing about it. It's our secret, Martha, and I'm sure if I ever need a friend you'll do as much for me."

"I'll do anything for you, Miss Elizabeth," was the reply, as the woman took the bottle of lotion and departed.

Beth smiled.

"That was not a bad thought," she said to herself, again starting for the gardens. "I have made a firm friend and done a kindly action at the same time—and all while Cousin Louise is fast asleep."

The housekeeper let her out at the side door, after Beth had pressed her hand and kissed her good morning.

"You're looking quite bonny, my dear," said the old woman. "Do you feel at home, at all, in this strange place?"

"Not quite, as yet," answered Beth. "But I know I have one good friend here, and that comforts me."

She found a path between high hedges, that wandered away through the grounds, and along this she strolled until she reached a rose arbor with a comfortable bench.

Here she seated herself, looking around her curiously. The place seemed little frequented, but was kept with scrupulous care. Even at this hour, a little way off could be heard the "click-click!" of hedge-shears, and Beth noted how neatly the paths were swept, and how carefully every rose on the arbor was protected.

Elmhurst was a beautiful place. Beth sighed as she wondered if it would ever be hers. Then she opened her book and began to work.

During the next hour the click of the hedge-shears drew nearer, but the girl did not notice this. In another half hour James himself came into view, intent upon his monotonous task. Gradually the motionless form of the girl and the plodding figure of the gardener drew together, until he stood but two yards distant. Then he paused, looked toward the arbor, and uttered an exclamation.

Beth looked up.

"Good morning," she said, pleasantly.

James stared at her, but made no reply save a slight inclination of his head.

"Am I in your way?" she asked.

He turned his back to her, then, and began clipping away as before. Beth sprang up and laid a hand upon his arm, arresting him. Again he turned to stare at her, and in his eyes was a look almost of fear.

She drew back.

"Why won't you speak to me?" enquired the girl, gently. "I'm a stranger at Elmhurst, but I want to be your friend. Won't you let me?"

To her amazement James threw up his hands, letting the shears clatter to the ground, and with a hoarse cry turned and fled up the path as swiftly as he could go.

Beth was really puzzled, but as she stood silently looking after the gardener she heard a soft laugh, and found old Misery beside her.

"It's just his way, Miss; don't you be scared by anything that James does," said the woman. "Why, at times he won't even speak to Miss Jane."

"He isn't dumb, is he?" asked Beth.

"Lor', no! But he's that odd an' contrary he won't talk to a soul. Never did, since the day Master Tom was killed. James was travellin' with Master Tom, you know, and there was an accident, an' the train run off'n the track an' tipped over. James wasn't hurt at all, but he dragged Master Tom out'n the wreck and sat by him until he died. Then James brought Master Tom's body back home again; but his mind seemed to have got a shock, in some way, and he never was the same afterwards. He was powerful fond of young Master Tom. But then, we all was."

"Poor man!" said Beth.

"After that," resumed Misery, "all that James would do was to look after the flowers. Miss Jane, after she came, made him the head gardener, and he's proved a rare good one, too. But James he won't even talk to Miss Jane, nor even to his old friend Lawyer Watson, who used to be Master Tom's special chum an' comrade. He does his duty, and obeys all Miss Jane's orders as faithful as can be; but he won't talk, an' we've all give up tryin' to make him."

"But why should I frighten him?" asked the girl.

"You tried to make him talk, and you're a stranger. Strangers always affect James that way. I remember when Miss Jane first came to Elmhurst he screamed at the sight of her; but when he found out that Master Tom loved her and had given her Elmhurst, James followed her around like a dog, and did everything she told him to. But breakfast is ready, Miss. I came to call you."

"Thank you," said Beth, turning to walk beside the housekeeper.

According to Aunt Jane's instructions the breakfast was served in her own room, and presently Louise, dressed in a light silk kimona, came in bearing her tray "to keep her cousin company," she laughingly announced.

"I should have slept an hour longer," she yawned, over her chocolate, "but old Misery—who seems rightly named—insisted on waking me, just that I might eat. Isn't this a funny establishment?"

"It's different from everything I'm used to," answered Beth, gravely; "but it seems very pleasant here, and everyone is most kind and attentive."

"Now I'll dress," said Louise, "and we'll take a long walk together, and see the place."

So it happened that Kenneth clattered down the road on the sorrel mare just a moment before the girls emerged from the house, and while he was riding off his indignation at their presence at Elmhurst, they were doing just what his horrified imagination had depicted—that is, penetrating to all parts of the grounds, to every nook in the spacious old gardens and even to the stables, where Beth endeavored to make a friend of old Donald the coachman.

However, the gray-whiskered Scotsman was not to be taken by storm, even by a pretty face. His loyalty to "the boy" induced him to be wary in associating with these strange "young females" and although he welcomed them to the stable with glum civility he withheld his opinion of them until he should know them better.

In their rambles the girls found Kenneth's own stair, and were sitting upon it when Phibbs came to summon Louise to attend upon Aunt Jane.

She obeyed with alacrity, for she wished to know more of the queer relative whose guest she had become.

"Sit down," said Aunt Jane, very graciously, as the girl entered.

Louise leaned over the chair, kissed her and patted her cheek affectionately, and then shook up the pillows to make them more comfortable.

"I want you to talk to me," announced Aunt Jane, "and to tell me something of the city and the society in which you live. I've been so long dead to the world that I've lost track of people and things."

"Let me dress your hair at the same time," said Louise, pleadingly. "It looks really frowsy, and I can talk while I work."

"I can't lift my left hand," said the invalid, flushing, "and Phibbs is a stupid ass."

"Never mind, I can make it look beautiful in half a jiffy," said the girl, standing behind the chair and drawing deftly the hairpins from Aunt Jane's scanty grey locks, "and you can't imagine how it pleases me to fuss over anyone."

It was surprising how meekly Aunt Jane submitted to this ordeal, but she plied the girl with many shrewd questions and Louise, busily working in a position where the old woman could not see her face, never hesitated for an answer. She knew all the recent gossip of fashionable society, and retailed it glibly. She had met this celebrity at a ball and that one at a reception, and she described them minutely, realizing that Aunt Jane would never be in a position to contradict any assertion she might choose to make.

Indeed, Aunt Jane was really startled.

"However did your mother manage to gain an entrée into society?" she asked. "Your father was a poor man and of little account. I know, for he was my own brother."

"He left us a very respectable life insurance," said Louise, demurely, "and my mother had many friends who were glad to introduce us to good society when we were able to afford such a luxury. Father died twelve years ago, you know, and for several years, while I was at school, mother lived very quietly. Then she decided it was time I made my debut, but for the last season we have been rather gay, I admit."

"Are you rich?" asked Aunt Jane, sharply.

"Mercy, no!" laughed Louise, who had finished her work and now sat her aunt's feet. "But we have enough for our requirements, and that makes us feel quite independent. By the way, auntie, I want to return that check you sent me. It was awfully good and generous of you, but I didn't need it, you know, and so I want you to take it back."

She drew the slip of paper from her pocket and pressed it into Aunt Jane's hand.

"It's quite enough for you to give me this nice treat in the country," resumed the girl, calmly. "The change from the city will do me a world of good, and as I wanted to be quiet, and rest I declined all my other invitations for the summer to accept yours. Isn't it glorious that we can get acquainted at last? And I quite love Elmhurst, already!"

Aunt Jane was equally surprised and gratified. The return of the check for a hundred dollars was very pleasant. She had drawn a similar check for each of her three nieces, believing that it would be necessary for her to meet their expenses, and she had considered the expenditure in the nature of a business transaction. But Patricia had flung one check in her face, practically, and now Louise had voluntarily returned another, because she did not need the money. Really, Jane Merrick was accomplishing her purpose for less money than she had expected, and she had hoarded her wealth for so many years that she disliked to spend any of it foolishly.

Louise had read her nature correctly. It had been a little hard to return so large a check, but the girl's policy was not to appear before Aunt Jane as a poor relation, but rather as a young lady fitted by social education and position to become a gracious mistress of Elmhurst. This she believed would give her a powerful advantage over all competitors.

Whether she was right or not in this surmise it is certain that she rose several points in Aunt Jane's estimation during this interview, and when she was dismissed it was so graciously that she told herself the money her little plot had cost had been well expended.

Afterward Elizabeth was summoned to attend her aunt.

"I want to be amused. Can you read aloud?" said the invalid.

"Not very well, I'm afraid. But I'll be glad to try," answered Beth. "What do you like?"

"Select your own book," said Aunt Jane, pointing to a heap of volumes beside her.

The girl hesitated. Louise would doubtless have chosen a romance, or some light tale sure to interest for the hour, and so amuse the old lady. But Beth erroneously judged that the aged and infirm love sober and scholarly books, and picked out a treatise that proved ineffably dull and tedious.

Aunt Jane sniffed, and then smiled slyly and proceeded to settle herself for a nap. If the girl was a fool, let her be properly punished.

Beth read for an hour, uncertain whether her aunt were intensely interested or really asleep. At the end of that dreadful period old Misery entered and aroused the sleeper without ceremony.

"What's the matter?" asked Aunt Jane, querrulously, for she resented being disturbed.

"There's a man to see you, Miss."

"Send him about his business!"

"But—"

"I won't see him, I tell you!"

"But he says he's your brother, Miss."

"Who?"

"Your brother."

Miss Jane stared as if bewildered.

"Your brother John, Miss."

The invalid sank back upon her cushions with a sigh of resignation.

"I thought he was dead, long ago; but if he's alive I suppose I'll have to see him," she said. "Elizabeth, leave the room. Misery, send the man here!"