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CHAPTER VII
THE FIRST WARNING

For a day or two Jane Merrick seemed to improve in health. Indeed, Martha Phibbs declared her mistress was better than she had been for weeks. Then, one night, the old attendant was awakened by a scream, and rushed to her mistress' side.

"What is it, ma'am?" she asked, tremblingly.

"My leg! I can't move my leg," gasped the mistress of Elmhurst. "Rub it, you old fool! Rub it till you drop, and see if you can bring back the life to it."

Martha rubbed, of course, but the task was useless. Oscar the groom was sent on horseback for the nearest doctor, who came just as day was breaking. He gave the old woman a brief examination and shook his head.

"It's the first warning," said he; "but nothing to be frightened about. That is, for the present."

"Is it paralysis?" asked Jane Merrick.

"Yes; a slight stroke."

"But I'll have another?"

"Perhaps, in time."

"How long?"

"It may be a week—or a month—or a year. Sometimes there is never another stroke. Don't worry, ma'am. Just lie still and be comfortable."

"Huh!" grunted the old woman. But she became more composed and obeyed the doctor's instructions with unwonted meekness. Silas Watson arrived during the forenoon, and pressed her thin hand with real sympathy, for these two were friends despite the great difference in their temperaments.

"Shall I draw your will, Jane?" he asked.

"No!" she snapped. "I'm not going to die just yet, I assure you. I shall live to carry out my plans, Silas."

She did live, and grew better as the days wore on, although she never recovered the use of the paralyzed limb.

Each day Phibbs drew the invalid chair to the porch and old James lifted it to the garden walk, where his mistress might enjoy the flowers he so carefully and skillfully tended. They seldom spoke together, these two; yet there seemed a strange bond of sympathy between them.

At last the first of July arrived, and Oscar was dispatched to the railway station, four miles distant, to meet Miss Elizabeth De Graf, the first of the nieces to appear in answer to Jane Merrick's invitation.

Beth looked very charming and fresh in her new gown, and she greeted her aunt with a calm graciousness that would have amazed the professor to behold. She had observed carefully the grandeur and beauty of Elmhurst, as she drove through the grounds, and instantly decided the place was worth an effort to win.

"So, this is Elizabeth, is it?" asked Aunt June, as the girl stood before her for inspection. "You may kiss me, child."

Elizabeth advanced, striving to quell the antipathy she felt to kiss the stern featured, old woman, and touched her lips to the wrinkled forehead.

Jane Merrick laughed, a bit sneeringly, while Beth drew back, still composed, and looked at her relative enquiringly.

"Well, what do you think of me?" demanded Aunt Jane, as if embarrassed at the scrutiny she received.

"Surely, it is too early to ask me that," replied Beth, gently. "I am going to try to like you, and my first sight of my new aunt leads me to hope I shall succeed."

"Why shouldn't you like me?" cried the old woman. "Why must you try to like your mother's sister?"

Beth flushed. She had promised herself not to become angry or discomposed, whatever her aunt might say or do; but before she could control herself an indignant expression flashed across her face and Jane Merrick saw it.

"There are reasons," said Beth, slowly, "why your name is seldom mentioned in my father's family. Until your letter came I scarcely knew I possessed an aunt. It was your desire we should become better acquainted, and I am here for that purpose. I hope we shall become friends, Aunt Jane, but until then, it is better we should not discuss the past."

The woman frowned. It was not difficult for her to read the character of the child before her, and she knew intuitively that Beth was strongly prejudiced against her, but was honestly trying not to allow that prejudice to influence her. She decided to postpone further interrogations until another time.

"Your journey has tired you," she said abruptly. "I'll have Misery show you to your room."

She touched a bell beside her.

"I'm not tired, but I'll go to my room, if you please," answered Beth, who realized that she had in some way failed to make as favorable an impression as she had hoped. "When may I see you again?"

"When I send for you," snapped Aunt Jane, as the housekeeper entered. "I suppose you know I am a paralytic, and liable to die at any time?"

"I am very sorry," said Beth, hesitatingly. "You do not seem very ill."

"I'm on my last legs. I may not live an hour. But that's none of your business, I suppose. By the way, I expect your cousin on the afternoon train."

Beth gave a start of surprise.

"My cousin?" she asked.

"Yes, Louise Merrick."

"Oh!" said Beth, and stopped short.

"What do you mean by that?" enquired Aunt Jane, with a smile that was rather malicious.

"I did not know I had a cousin," said the girl. "That is," correcting herself, "I did not know whether Louise Merrick was alive or not. Mother has mentioned her name once or twice in my presence; but not lately."

"Well, she's alive. Very much alive, I believe. And she's coming to visit me, while you are here. I expect you to be friends."

"To be sure," said Beth, nevertheless discomfited at the news.

"We dine at seven," said Aunt Jane. "I always lunch in my own room, and you may do the same," and with a wave of her thin hand she dismissed the girl, who thoughtfully followed the old housekeeper through the halls.

It was not going to be an easy task to win this old woman's affection. Already she rebelled at the necessity of undertaking so distasteful a venture and wondered if she had not made a mistake in trying to curb her natural frankness, and to conciliate a creature whose very nature seemed antagonistic to her own. And this new cousin, Louise Merrick, why was she coming to Elmhurst? To compete for the prize Beth had already determined to win? In that case she must consider carefully her line of action, that no rival might deprive her of this great estate. Beth felt that she could fight savagely for an object she so much desired. Her very muscles hardened and grew tense at the thought of conflict as she walked down the corridor in the wake of old Misery the housekeeper. She had always resented the sordid life at Cloverton. She had been discontented with her lot since her earliest girlhood, and longed to escape the constant bickerings of her parents and their vain struggles to obtain enough money to "keep up appearances" and drive the wolf from the door. And here was an opportunity to win a fortune and a home beautiful enough for a royal princess. All that was necessary was to gain the esteem of a crabbed, garrulous old woman, who had doubtless but a few more weeks to live. It must be done, in one way or another; but how? How could she out-wit this unknown cousin, and inspire the love of Aunt Jane?

"If there's any stuff of the right sort in my nature," decided the girl, as she entered her pretty bedchamber and threw herself into a chair, "I'll find a way to win out. One thing is certain—I'll never again have another chance at so fine a fortune, and if I fail to get it I shall deserve to live in poverty forever afterward."

Suddenly she noticed the old housekeeper standing before her and regarding her with a kindly interest. In an instant she sprang up, threw her arms around Misery and kissed her furrowed cheek.

"Thank you for being so kind," said she. "I've never been away from home before and you must be a mother to me while I'm at Elmhurst."

Old Misery smiled and stroked the girl's glossy head.

"Bless the child!" she said, delightedly; "of course I'll be a mother to you. You'll need a bit of comforting now and then, my dear, if you're going to live with Jane Merrick."

"Is she cross?" asked Beth, softly.

"At times she's a fiend," confided the old housekeeper, in almost a whisper. "But don't you mind her tantrums, or lay 'em to heart, and you'll get along with her all right."

"Thank you," said the girl. "I'll try not to mind."

"Do you need anything else, deary?" asked Misery, with a glance around the room.

"Nothing at all, thank you."

The housekeeper nodded and softly withdrew.

"That was one brilliant move, at any rate," said Beth to herself, as she laid aside her hat and prepared to unstrap her small trunk. "I've made a friend at Elmhurst who will be of use to me; and I shall make more before long. Come as soon as you like, Cousin Louise! You'll have to be more clever than I am, if you hope to win Elmhurst."