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CHAPTER XIII
THE OTHER NIECE

Patricia sat down opposite her Aunt Jane. She still wore her hat and the gray wrap.

"Well, here I am," she exclaimed, with a laugh; "but whether I ought to be here or not I have my doubts."

Aunt Jane surveyed her critically.

"You're a queer little thing," she said, bluntly. "I wonder why I took so much trouble to get you."

"So do I," returned Patsy, her eyes twinkling. "You'll probably be sorry for it."

Lawyer Watson, who had remained standing, now broke in nervously.

"I explained to Miss Doyle," said he, "that you were ill, and wanted to see her. And she kindly consented to come to Elmhurst for a few days."

"You see," said Patsy, "I'd just got Daddy away on his vacation, to visit his old colonel. I've wanted him to go this three years back, but he couldn't afford it until I got a raise this Spring. He'll have a glorious old time with the colonel, and they'll fish and hunt and drink whiskey all day, and fight the war all over again every evening. So I was quite by myself when Mr. Watson came to me and wouldn't take no for his answer."

"Why did you object to come here?" asked Aunt Jane.

"Well, I didn't know you; and I didn't especially want to know you. Not that I bear grudges, understand, although you've been little of a friend to my folks these past years. But you are rich and proud—and I suspect you're a little cross, Aunt Jane—while we are poor and proud and like to live our lives in our own way."

"Are you a working girl?" enquired Miss Merrick.

"Surely," said Patsy, "and drawing a big lump of salary every Saturday night. I'm a hair-dresser, you know—and by the way, Aunt Jane, it puzzles me to find a certain kink in your hair that I thought I'd invented myself."

"Louise dressed my hair this way," said Miss Merrick, a bit stiffly.

"Your maid?"

"My niece, Louise Merrick."

Patsy whistled, and then clapped her hand over her mouth and looked grave.

"Is she here?" she asked, a moment later.

"Yes, and your other cousin, Elizabeth De Graf, is here also."

"That's just the trouble," cried Patsy, energetically. "That's why I didn't want to come, you know."

"I don't understand you, Patricia."

"Why, it's as plain as the nose on your face, even if I hadn't pumped Mr. Watson until I got the truth out of him. You want us girls here just to compare us with each other, and pick out the one you like best."

"Well?"

"The others you'll throw over, and the favorite will get your money."

"Haven't I a right to do that?" asked the invalid, in an amazed tone.

"Perhaps you have. But we may as well understand each other right now, Aunt Jane. I won't touch a penny of your money, under any circumstances."

"I don't think you will, Patricia."

The girl laughed, with a joyous, infectious merriment that was hard to resist.

"Stick to that, aunt, and there's no reason we shouldn't be friends," she said, pleasantly. "I don't mind coming to see you, for it will give me a bit of a rest and the country is beautiful just now. More than that, I believe I shall like you. You've had your own way a long time, and you've grown crochetty and harsh and disagreeable; but there are good lines around your mouth and eyes, and your nature's liable to soften and get sunny again. I'm sure I hope so. So, if you'd like me to stay a few days, I'll take off my things and make myself at home. But I'm out of the race for your money, and I'll pay my way from now on just as I have always done."

Silas Watson watched Aunt Jane's face during this speech with an anxious and half-frightened expression upon his own. No one but himself had ever dared to talk to Jane Merrick as plainly as this before, and he wondered how she would accept such frankness from a young girl.

But Patricia's manner was not at all offensive. Her big eyes were as frank as her words, but they glistened with kindliness and good nature, and it was evident the girl had no doubt at all of her aunt's reply, for she straightway begun to take off her hat.

The invalid had kept her eyes sternly fastened upon her young niece ever since the beginning of the interview. Now she reached out a hand and touched her bell.

"Misery," she said to the old housekeeper, "show my niece, Miss Patricia, to the rose chamber. And see that she is made comfortable." "Thank you," said Patsy, jumping up to go.

"Make yourself perfectly free of the place," continued Aunt Jane, in an even tone, turning to Patricia, "and have as good a time as you can. I'm afraid it's rather stupid here for girls, but that can't be helped. Stay as long as you please, and go home whenever you like; but while you are here, if you ever feel like chatting with a harsh and disagreeable old woman, come to me at any time and you will be welcome."

Patsy, standing before her, looked down into her worn face with a pitying expression.

"Ah! I've been cruel to you," she exclaimed, impulsively, "and I didn't mean to hurt you at all, Aunt Jane. You must forgive me. It's just my blunt Irish way, you see; but if I hadn't been drawn to you from the first I wouldn't have said a word—good or bad!"

"Go now," replied Aunt Jane, turning in her chair rather wearily. "But come to me again whenever you like."

Patsy nodded, and followed the housekeeper to the rose chamber—the prettiest room old Elmhurst possessed, with broad windows opening directly upon the finest part of the garden.

Lawyer Watson sat opposite his old friend for some moments in thoughtful silence.

"The child is impossible." he said, at last.

"You think so?" she enquired, moodily.

"Absolutely. Either of the others would make a better Lady of Elmhurst. Yet I like the little thing, I confess. She quite won my old heart after I had known her for five minutes. But money would ruin her. She's a child of the people, and ought not to be raised from her proper level. Jane, Jane—you're making a grave mistake in all this. Why don't you do the only right thing in your power, and leave Elmhurst to Kenneth?"

"You bore me, Silas," she answered, coldly. "The boy is the most impossible of all."

It was the old protest and the old reply. He had hardly expected anything different.

After a period of thought he asked;

"What is this I hear about John Merrick having returned from the West?"

"He came yesterday. It was a great surprise to me."

"I never knew this brother, I believe."

"No; he had gone away before I became acquainted with either you or Tom."

"What sort of a man is he?"

"Honest and simple, hard-headed and experienced."

"Is he independent?"

"I believe so; he has never mentioned his affairs to me. But he has worked hard all his life, he says, and now means to end his days peacefully. John is not especially refined in his manner, nor did he have much of an education; but he seems to be a good deal of a man, for all that. I am very glad he appeared at Elmhurst just at this time."

"You had believed him dead?"

"Yes. He had passed out of my life completely, and I never knew what became of him."

"He must be an eccentric person," said Mr. Watson, with a smile.

"He is," she acknowledged. "But blood is thicker than water, Silas, and I'm glad brother John is here at last."

A little later the lawyer left her and picked his way through the gardens until he came to Kenneth's wing and the stair that led to his room. Here he paused a moment, finding himself surrounded by a profound stillness, broken only by the chirping of the birds in the shrubbery. Perhaps Kenneth was not in. He half decided to retrace his steps, but finally mounted the stair softly and stood within the doorway of the room.

The boy and a little stout man were playing chess at a table, and both were in a deep study of the game. The boy's back was toward him, but the man observed the newcomer and gave a nod. Then he dropped his eyes again to the table.

Kenneth was frowning sullenly.

"You're bound to lose the pawn, whichever way you play," said the little man quietly.

The boy gave an angry cry, and thrust the table from him, sending the chess-men clattering into a corner. Instantly the little man leaned over and grasped the boy by the collar, and with a sudden jerk landed him across his own fat knees. Then, while the prisoner screamed and struggled, the man brought his hand down with a slap that echoed throughout the room, and continued the operation until Master Kenneth had received a sound spanking.

Then he let the boy slip to the floor, from whence he arose slowly and backed toward the door, scowling and muttering angrily.

"You broke the bargain, and I kept my word," said Uncle John, calmly taking his pipe from his pocket and filling it. "The compact was that if you raised a rough-house, like you did yesterday, and got unruly, that I'd give you a good thrashing. Now, wasn't it?"

"Yes," acknowledged the boy.

"Well, that blamed temper o' your'n got away with you again, and you're well spanked for not heading it off. Pick up the board. Ken, my lad, and let's try it again."

The boy hesitated. Then he looked around and saw Lawyer Watson, who had stood motionless by the doorway, and with a cry that was half a sob Kenneth threw himself into his old friend's arms and burst into a flood of tears.

Uncle John struck a match, and lighted his pipe.

"A bargain's a bargain," he observed, composedly.

"He whipped me!" sobbed the boy. "He whipped me like a child."

"Your own fault," said Uncle John. "You wanted me to play a game with you, and I agreed, providin' you behaved yourself. And you didn't. Now, look here. Do you blame me any?"

"No," said the boy.

"No harm's done, is there?"

"No."

"Then stop blubberin', and introduce me to your friend," continued Uncle John. "Name's Watson, ain't it."

"Silas Watson, sir, at your service," said the lawyer, smiling. "And this must be John Merrick, who I understand has arrived at Elmhurst during my absence."

"Exactly," said Uncle John, and the two men shook hands cordially.

"Glad to welcome you to Elmhurst, sir," continued the lawyer. "I've known it ever since I was a boy, when it belonged to my dear friend Thomas Bradley. And I hope you'll love it as much as I do, when you know it better."

"Bradley must have been a fool to give this place to Jane," said Uncle John, reflectively.

"He was in love, sir," observed the other, and they both smiled. Then the lawyer turned to Kenneth. "How are things going?" he asked. "Have the girls bothered you much, as yet?"

"No," said the boy. "I keep out of their way."

"That's a good idea. By the bye, sir," turning to John Merrick. "I've just brought you a new niece."

"Patricia?"

"She prefers to be called Patsy. A queer little thing; half Irish, you know."

"And half Merrick. That's an odd combination, but the Irish may be able to stand it," said Uncle John. "These nieces are more than I bargained for. I came to see one relative, and find three more—and all women!"

"I think you'll like Patsy, anyhow. And so will you, Kenneth."

The boy gave an indignant roar.

"I hate all girls!" he said.

"You won't hate this one. She's as wild and impulsive as you are, but better natured. She'll make a good comrade, although she may box your ears once in a while."

The boy turned away sulkily, and began picking up the scattered chess-men. The two men walked down the stair and strolled together through the garden.

"A strange boy," said Uncle John, presently.

"I'm glad to see you've made friends with him," replied the lawyer, earnestly. "Until now he has had no one to befriend him but me, and at times he's so unmanageable that it worries me dreadfully."

"There's considerable character about the lad," said John Merrick; "but he's been spoiled and allowed to grow up wild, like a weed. He's got it in him to make a criminal or a gentleman, whichever way his nature happens to develop."

"He ought to go to a military school," replied Lawyer Watson. "Proper training would make a man of Kenneth; but I can't induce Jane to spend the money on him. She gives him food and clothing and lodging—all of the simplest description—but there her generosity ends. With thousands of dollars lying idle, she won't assist the only nephew of Tom Bradley to secure a proper education."

"Jane's queer, too," said that lady's brother, with a sigh. "In fact, Mr. Watson, it's a queer world, and the longer I live in it the queerer I find it. Once I thought it would be a good idea to regulate things myself and run the world as it ought to be run; but I gave it up long ago. The world's a stage, they say; but the show ain't always amusing, by a long chalk, and sometimes I wish I didn't have a reserved seat."