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CHAPTER XIV
KENNETH IS FRIGHTENED

Lawyer Watson, unable to direct events at Elmhurst, became a silent spectator of the little comedy being enacted there, and never regretted that, as Uncle John expressed it, he "had a reserved seat at the show."

Jane Merrick, formerly the most imperious and irrascible of women, had become wonderfully reserved since the arrival of her nieces, and was evidently making a sincere effort to study their diverse characters. Day by day the invalid's health was failing visibly. She had no more strokes of paralysis, but her left limb did not recover, and the numbness was gradually creeping upward toward her heart.

Perhaps the old woman appreciated this more fully than anyone else. At any event, she became more gentle toward Phibbs and Misery, who mostly attended her, and showed as much consideration as possible for her nieces and her brother. Silas Watson she kept constantly by her side. He was her oldest and most trusted friend, and the only differences they had ever had were over the boy Kenneth, whom she stubbornly refused to favor.

Uncle John speedily became an established fixture at the place. The servants grew accustomed to seeing him wander aimlessly about the grounds, his pipe always in his mouth, his hands usually in his pockets. He had a pleasant word always for Donald or Oscar or James, but was not prone to long conversations. Every evening, when he appeared at dinner, he wore his soiled white tie; at other times the black one was always in evidence; but other than this his dress underwent no change. Even Kenneth came to wonder what the bundle had contained that Uncle John brought under his arm to Elmhurst.

The little man seemed from the first much attracted by his three nieces. Notwithstanding Louise's constant snubs and Beth's haughty silence he was sure to meet them when they strolled out and try to engage them in conversation. It was hard to resist his simple good nature, and the girls came in time to accept him as an inevitable companion, and Louise mischievously poked fun at him while Beth conscientiously corrected him in his speech and endeavored to improve his manners. All this seemed very gratifying to Uncle John. He thanked Beth very humbly for her kind attention, and laughed with Louise when she ridiculed his pudgy, round form and wondered if his bristly gray hair wouldn't make a good scrubbing brush.

Patsy didn't get along very well with her cousins. From the first, when Louise recognized her, with well assumed surprise, as "the girl who had been sent to dress her hair," Patricia declared that their stations in life were entirely different.

"There's no use of our getting mixed up, just because we're cousins and all visiting Aunt Jane," she said. "One of you will get her money, for I've told her I wouldn't touch a penny of it, and she has told me I wouldn't get the chance. So one of you will be a great lady, while I shall always earn my own living. I'll not stay long, anyhow; so just forget I'm here, and I'll amuse myself and try not to bother you."

Both Beth and Louise considered this very sensible, and took Patricia at her word. Moreover, Phibbs had related to Beth, whose devoted adherent she was, all of the conversation between Aunt Jane and Patricia, from which the girls learned they had nothing to fear from their cousin's interference. So they let her go her way, and the three only met at the state dinners, which Aunt Jane still attended, in spite of her growing weakness.

Old Silas Watson, interested as he was in the result, found it hard to decide, after ten days, which of her nieces Jane Merrick most favored. Personally he preferred that Beth should inherit, and frankly told his old friend that the girl would make the best mistress of Elmhurst. Moreover, all the servants sang Beth's praises, from Misery and Phibbs down to Oscar and Susan. Of course James the gardener favored no one, as the numerous strangers at Elmhurst kept him in a constant state of irritation, and his malady seemed even worse than usual. He avoided everyone but his mistress, and although his work was now often neglected Miss Merrick made no complaint. James' peculiarities were well understood and aroused nothing but sympathy.

Louise, however, had played her cards so well that all Beth's friends were powerless to eject the elder girl from Aunt Jane's esteem. Louise had not only returned the check to her aunt, but she came often to sit beside her and cheer her with a budget of new social gossip, and no one could arrange the pillows so comfortably or stroke the tired head so gently as Louise. And then, she was observing, and called Aunt Jane's attention to several ways of curtailing the household expenditures, which the woman's illness had forced her to neglect.

So Miss Merrick asked Louise to look over the weekly accounts, and in this way came to depend upon her almost as much as she did upon Lawyer Watson.

As for Patsy, she made no attempt whatever to conciliate her aunt, who seldom mentioned her name to the others but always brightened visibly when the girl came into her presence with her cheery speeches and merry laughter. She never stayed long, but came and went, like a streak of sunshine, whenever the fancy seized her; and Silas Watson, shrewdly looking on, saw a new light in Jane's eyes as she looked after her wayward, irresponsible niece, and wondered if the bargain between them, regarding the money, would really hold good.

It was all an incomprehensible problem, this matter of the inheritance, and although the lawyer expected daily to be asked to draw up Jane Merrick's will, and had, indeed, prepared several forms, to be used in case of emergency, no word had yet passed her lips regarding her intentions.

Kenneth's life, during this period, was one of genuine misery. It seemed to his morbid fancy that whatever path he might take, he was sure of running upon one or more of those detestable girls who were visiting at Elmhurst. Even in Donald's harness-room he was not secure from interruption, for little Patsy was frequently perched upon the bench there, watching with serious eyes old Donald's motions, and laughing joyously when in his embarrassment he overturned a can of oil or buckled the wrong straps together.

Worse than all, this trying creature would saddle Nora, the sorrel mare, and dash away through the lanes like a tom-boy, leaving him only old Sam to ride—for Donald would allow no one to use the coach horses. Sam was tall and boney, and had an unpleasant gait, so that the boy felt he was thoroughly justified in hating the girl who so frequently interfered with his whims.

Louise was at first quite interested in Kenneth, and resolved to force him to talk and become more sociable.

She caught him in a little summer-house one morning, from whence, there being but one entrance, he could not escape, and at once entered into conversation.

"Ah, you are Kenneth Forbes, I suppose," she began, pleasantly. "I am very glad to make your acquaintance. I am Louise Merrick, Miss Merrick's niece, and have come to visit her."

The boy shrank back as far as possible, staring her full in the face, but made no reply.

"You needn't be afraid of me," continued Louise. "I'm very fond of boys, and you must be nearly my own age."

Still no reply.

"I suppose you don't know much of girls and are rather shy," she persisted. "But I want to be friendly and I hope you'll let me. There's so much about this interesting old place that you can tell me, having lived here so many years. Come, I'll sit beside you on this bench, and we'll have a good talk together."

"Go away!" cried the boy, hoarsely, raising his hands as if to ward off her approach.

Louise looked surprised and pained.

"Why, we are almost cousins," she said. "Cannot we become friends and comrades?"

With a sudden bound he dashed her aside, so rudely that she almost fell, and an instant later he had left the summer house and disappeared among the hedges.

Louise laughed at her own discomfiture and gave up the attempt to make the boy's acquaintance.

"He's a regular savage," she told Beth, afterward, "and a little crazy, too, I suspect."

"Never mind," said Beth, philosophically. "He's only a boy, and doesn't amount to anything, anyway. After Aunt Jane dies he will probably go somewhere else to live. Don't let us bother about him."

Kenneth's one persistent friend was Uncle John. He came every day to the boy's room to play chess with him, and after that one day's punishment, which, singularly enough, Kenneth in no way resented, they got along very nicely together. Uncle John was a shrewd player of the difficult game, but the boy was quick as a flash to see an advantage and use it against his opponent; so neither was ever sure of winning and the interest in the game was constantly maintained. At evening also the little man often came to sit on the stair outside the boy's room and smoke his pipe, and frequently they would sit beneath the stars, absorbed in thought and without exchanging a single word.

Unfortunately, Louise and Beth soon discovered the boy's secluded retreat, and loved to torment him by entering his own bit of garden and even ascending the stairs to his little room. He could easily escape them by running through the numerous upper halls of the mansion; but here he was liable to meet others, and his especial dread was encountering old Miss Merrick. So he conceived a plan for avoiding the girls in another way.

In the hallway of the left wing, near his door, was a small ladder leading to the second story roof, and a dozen feet from the edge of the roof stood an old oak tree, on the further side of a tall hedge. Kenneth managed to carry a plank to the roof, where, after several attempts, he succeeded in dropping one end into a crotch of the oak, thus connecting the edge of the roof with the tree by means of the narrow plank. After this, at first sight of the girls in his end of the garden, he fled to the roof, ran across the improvised bridge, "shinned" down the tree and, hidden by the hedge, made good his escape.

The girls discovered this plan, and were wicked enough to surprise the boy often and force him to cross the dizzy plank to the tree. Having frightened him away they would laugh and stroll on, highly amused at the evident fear they aroused in the only boy about the place.

Patricia, who was not in the other girls' secret, knew nothing of this little comedy and really disturbed Kenneth least of the three. But he seemed to avoid her as much as he did the others.

She sooned learned from Oscar that the boy loved to ride as well as she did, and once or twice she met him on a lonely road perched on top of big Sam. This led her to suspect she had thoughtlessly deprived him of his regular mount. So one morning she said to the groom:

"Doesn't Kenneth usually ride Nora?"

"Yes, Miss," answered the man.

"Then I'd better take Sam this morning," she decided.

But the groom demurred.

"You won't like Sam, Miss," he said, "and he gets ugly at times and acts bad. Master Kenneth won't use Nora today, I'm sure."

She hesitated.

"I think I'll ask him," said she, after a moment, and turned away into the garden, anxious to have this plausible opportunity to speak to the lonely boy.