Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 29
THE MAJOR DEMANDS AN EXPLANATION
That was a happy week, indeed. Patsy devoted all her spare time to her lessons, but the house itself demanded no little attention. She would not let Mary dust the ornaments or arrange the rooms at all, but lovingly performed those duties herself, and soon became an ideal housekeeper, as Uncle John approvingly remarked.
And as she flitted from room to room she sang such merry songs that it was a delight to hear her, and the Major was sure to get home from the city in time to listen to the strumming of the piano at three o'clock, from the recess of his own snug chamber.
Uncle John went to the city every morning, and at first this occasioned no remark. Patsy was too occupied to pay much attention to her uncle's coming and going, and the Major was indifferent, being busy admiring Patsy's happiness and congratulating himself on his own good fortune.
The position at the bank had raised the good man's importance several notches. The clerks treated him with fine consideration and the heads of the firm were cordial and most pleasant. His fine, soldierly figure and kindly, white-moustached face, conferred a certain dignity upon his employers, which they seemed to respect and appreciate.
It was on Wednesday that the Major encountered the name of John Merrick on the books. The account was an enormous one, running into millions in stocks and securities. The Major smiled.
"That's Uncle John's name," he reflected. "It would please him to know he had a namesake so rich as this one."
The next day he noted that John Merrick's holdings were mostly in western canning industries and tin-plate factories, and again he recollected that Uncle John had once been a tinsmith. The connection was rather curious.
But it was not until Saturday morning that the truth dawned upon him, and struck him like a blow from a sledge-hammer.
He had occasion to visit Mr. Marvin's private office, but being told that the gentleman was engaged with an important customer, he lingered outside the door, waiting.
Presently the door was partly opened.
"Don't forget to sell two thousand of the Continental stock tomorrow," he heard a familiar voice say.
"I'll not forget, Mr. Merrick," answered the banker.
"And buy that property on Bleeker street at the price offered. It's a fair proposition, and I need the land."
"Very well, Mr. Merrick. Would it not be better for me to send these papers by a messenger to your house?"
"No; I'll take them myself. No one will rob me." And then the door swung open and, chuckling in his usual whimsical fashion, Uncle John came out, wearing his salt-and-pepper suit and stuffing; a bundle of papers into his inside pocket.
The Major stared at him haughtily, but made no attempt to openly recognize the man. Uncle John gave a start, laughed, and then walked away briskly, throwing a hasty "good-bye" to the obsequious banker, who followed him out, bowing low.
The Major returned to his office with a grave face, and sat for the best part of three hours in a brown study. Then he took his hat and went home.
Patsy asked anxiously if anything had happened, when she saw his face; but the Major shook his head.
Uncle John arrived just in time for dinner, in a very genial mood, and he and Patsy kept up a lively conversation at the table while the Major looked stern every time he caught the little man's eye.
But Uncle John never minded. He was not even as meek and humble as usual, but laughed and chatted with the freedom of a boy just out of school, which made Patsy think the new clothes had improved him in more ways than one.
When dinner was over the Major led them into the sitting-room, turned up the lights, and then confronted the little man with a determined and majestic air.
"Sir," said he, "give an account of yourself."
"Give an account of yourself."
"John Merrick, millionaire and impostor, who came into my family under false pretenses and won our love and friendship when we didn't know it, give an account of yourself!"
"What are you up to, Daddy?" she demanded. "What has Uncle John been doing?"
"Deceiving us, my dear."
"Nonsense," said Uncle John, lighting his old briar pipe, "you've been deceiving yourselves."
"Didn't you convey the impression that you were poor?" demanded the Major, sternly.
"Didn't you let Patsy take away your thirty-two dollars and forty-two cents, thinking it was all you had?"
"Aren't you worth millions and millions of dollars—so many that you can't count them yourself?"
"Then, sir," concluded the Major, mopping the perspiration from his forehead and sitting down limply in his chair, "what do you mean by it?"
Patsy stood pale and trembling, her round eyes fixed upon her uncle's composed face.
"Uncle John!" she faltered.
"Yes, my dear."
"Is it all true? Are you so very rich?"
"Yes, my dear."
"And it's you that gave me this house, and—and everything else—and got the Major his fine job, and me discharged, and—and—"
"Of course, Patsy. Why not?"
"Oh, Uncle John!"
She threw herself into his arms, sobbing happily as he clasped her little form to his bosom. And the Major coughed and blew his nose, and muttered unintelligible words into his handkerchief. Then Patsy sprang up and rushed upon her father, crying;
"Oh, Daddy! Aren't you glad it's Uncle John?"
"I have still to hear his explanation," said the Major.
Uncle John beamed upon them. Perhaps he had never been so happy before in all his life.
"I'm willing to explain," he said, lighting his pipe again and settling himself in his chair. "But my story is a simple one, dear friends, and not nearly so wonderful as you may imagine. My father had a big family that kept him poor, and I was a tinsmith with little work to be had in the village where we lived. So I started west, working my way from town to town, until I got to Portland, Oregon.
"There was work in plenty there, making the tin cans in which salmon and other fish is packed, and as I was industrious I soon had a shop of my own, and supplied cans to the packers. The shop grew to be a great factory, employing hundreds of men. Then I bought up the factories of my competitors, so as to control the market, and as I used so much tin-plate I became interested in the manufacture of this product, and invested a good deal of money in the production and perfection of American tin. My factories were now scattered all along the coast, even to California, where I made the cans for the great quantities of canned fruits they ship from that section every year. Of course the business made me rich, and I bought real estate with my extra money, and doubled my fortune again and again.
"I never married, for all my heart was in the business, and I thought of nothing else. But a while ago a big consolidation of the canning industries was effected, and the active management I resigned to other hands, because I had grown old, and had too much money already.
"It was then that I remembered the family, and went back quietly to the village where I was born. They were all dead or scattered, I found; but because Jane had inherited a fortune in some way I discovered where she lived and went to see her. I suppose it was because my clothes were old and shabby that Jane concluded I was a poor man and needed assistance; and I didn't take the trouble to undeceive her.
"I also found my three nieces at Elmhurst, and it struck me it would be a good time to study their characters; for like Jane I had a fortune to leave behind me, and I was curious to find out which girl was the most deserving. No one suspected my disguise. I don't usually wear such poor clothes, you know; but I have grown to be careless of dress in the west, and finding that I was supposed to be a poor man I clung to that old suit like grim death to a grasshopper."
"It was very wicked of you," said Patsy, soberly, from her father's lap.
"As it turned out," continued the little man, "Jane's desire to leave her money to her nieces amounted to nothing, for the money wasn't hers. But I must say it was kind of her to put me down for five thousand dollars—now, wasn't it?"
The Major grinned.
"And that's the whole story, my friends. After Jane's death you offered me a home—the best you had to give—and I accepted it. I had to come to New York anyway, you know, for Isham, Marvin & Co. have been my bankers for years, and there was considerable business to transact with them. I think that's all, isn't it?"
"Then this house is yours?" said Patsy, wonderingly.
"No, my dear; the whole block belongs to you and here's the deed for it," drawing a package of papers from his pocket. "It's a very good property, Patsy, and the rents you get from the other five flats will be a fortune in themselves."
For a time the three sat in silence. Then the girl whispered, softly:
"Why are you so good to me, Uncle John?"
"Just because I like you, Patsy, and you are my niece."
"And the other nieces?"
"Well, I don't mean they shall wait for my death to be made happy," answered Uncle John. "Here's a paper that gives to Louise's mother the use of a hundred thousand dollars, as long as she lives. After that Louise will have the money to do as she pleases with."
"How fine!" cried Patsy, clapping her hands joyfully.
"And here's another paper that gives Professor De Graf the use of another hundred thousand. Beth is to have it when he dies. She's a sensible girl, and will take good care of it."
"Indeed she will!" said Patsy.
"And now," said Uncle John, "I want to know if I can keep my little room in your apartments, Patsy; or if you'd prefer me to find another boarding place."
"Your home is here as long as you live, Uncle John. I never meant to part with you, when I thought you poor, and I'll not desert you now that I know you're rich."
"Well said, Patsy!" cried the Major.
And Uncle John smiled and kissed the girl and then lighted his pipe again, for it had gone out.