Aunt Jane's Nieces/Chapter 9
"Come in," called Beth, answering a knock at her door.
Louise entered, and with a little cry ran forward and caught Beth in her arms, kissing her in greeting.
"You must be my new cousin—Cousin Elizabeth—and I'm awfully glad to see you at last!" she said, holding the younger girl a little away, that she might examine her carefully.
Beth did not respond to the caress. She eyed her opponent sharply, for she knew well enough, even in that first moment, that they were engaged in a struggle for supremacy in Aunt Jane's affections, and that in the battles to come no quarter could be asked or expected.
So they stood at arm's length, facing one another and secretly forming an estimate each of the other's advantages and accomplishments.
"She's pretty enough, but has no style whatever," was Louise's conclusion. "Neither has she tact nor self-possession, or even a prepossessing manner. She wears her new gown in a dowdy manner and one can read her face easily. There's little danger in this quarter, I'm sure, so I may as well be friends with the poor child."
As for Beth, she saw at once that her "new cousin" was older and more experienced in the ways of the world, and therefore liable to prove a dangerous antagonist. Slender and graceful of form, attractive of feature and dainty in manner, Louise must be credited with many advantages; but against these might be weighed her evident insincerity—the volubility and gush that are so often affected to hide one's real nature, and which so shrewd and suspicious a woman as Aunt Jane could not fail to readily detect. Altogether, Beth was not greatly disturbed by her cousin's appearance, and suddenly realizing that they had been staring at one another rather rudely, she said, pleasantly enough:
"Won't you sit down?"
"Of course; we must get acquainted," replied Louise, gaily, and perched herself cross-legged upon the window-seat, surrounded by a mass of cushions.
"I didn't know you were here, until an hour ago," she continued. "But as soon as Aunt Jane told me I ran to my room, unpacked and settled the few traps I brought with me, and here I am—prepared for a good long chat and to love you just as dearly as you will let me."
"I knew you were coming, but not until this morning," answered Beth, slowly. "Perhaps had I known, I would not have accepted our Aunt's invitation."
"Ah! Why not?" enquired the other, as if in wonder.
"Have you known Aunt Jane before today?" she asked.
"Nor I. The letter asking me to visit her was the first I have ever received from her. Even my mother, her own sister, does not correspond with her. I was brought up to hate her very name, as a selfish, miserly old woman. But, since she asked me to visit her, we judged she had softened and might wish to become friendly, and so I accepted the invitation. I had no idea you were also invited."
"But why should you resent my being here?" Louise asked, smiling. "Surely, two girls will have a better time in this lonely old place than one could have alone. For my part, I am delighted to find you at Elmhurst."
"Thank you," said Beth. "That's a nice thing to say, but I doubt if it's true. Don't let's beat around the bush. I hate hypocrisy, and if we're going to be friends let's be honest with one another from the start."
"Well?" queried Louise, evidently amused.
"It's plain to me that Aunt Jane has invited us here to choose which one of us shall inherit her money—and Elmhurst. She's old and feeble, and she hasn't any other relations."
"Oh, yes, she has" corrected Louise.
"You mean Patricia Doyle?"
"What do you know of her?"
"Nothing at all."
"Where does she live?"
"I haven't the faintest idea."
Louise spoke as calmly as if she had not mailed Patricia's defiant letter to Aunt Jane, or discovered her cousin's identity in the little hair-dresser from Madame Borne's establishment.
"Has Aunt Jane mentioned her?" continued Beth.
"Not in my presence."
"Then we may conclude she's left out of the arrangement," said Beth, calmly. "And, as I said, Aunt Jane is likely to choose one of us to succeed her at Elmhurst. I hoped I had it all my own way, but it's evident I was mistaken. You'll fight for your chance and fight mighty hard!"
Louise laughed merrily.
"How funny!" she exclaimed, after a moment during which Beth frowned at her darkly. "Why, my dear cousin, I don't want Aunt Jane's money."
"Not a penny of it; nor Elmhurst; nor anything you can possibly lay claim to, my dear. My mother and I are amply provided for, and I am only here to find rest from my social duties and to get acquainted with my dead father's sister. That is all."
"Oh!" said Beth, lying back in her chair with a sigh of relief.
"So it was really a splendid idea of yours to be frank with me at our first meeting," continued Louise, cheerfully; "for it has led to your learning the truth, and I am sure you will never again grieve me by suggesting that I wish to supplant you in Aunt Jane's favor. Now tell me something about yourself and your people. Are you poor?"
"Poor as poverty," said Beth, gloomily. "My father teaches music, and mother scolds him continually for not being able to earn enough money to keep out of debt."
"Hasn't Aunt Jane helped you?"
"We've never seen a cent of her money, although father has tried at times to borrow enough to help him out of his difficulties."
"That's strange. She seems like such a dear kindly old lady," said Louise, musingly.
"I think she's horrid," answered Beth, angrily; "but I mustn't let her know it. I even kissed her, when she asked me to, and it sent a shiver all down my back."
Louise laughed with genuine amusement.
"You must dissemble, Cousin Elizabeth," she advised, "and teach our aunt to love you. For my part, I am fond of everyone, and it delights me to fuss around invalids and assist them. I ought to have been a trained nurse, you know; but of course there's no necessity of my earning a living."
"I suppose not," said Beth. Then, after a thoughtful silence, she resumed abruptly; "What's to prevent Aunt Jane leaving you her property, even if you are rich, and don't need it? You say you like to care for invalids, and I don't. Suppose Aunt Jane prefers you to me, and wills you all her money?"
"Why, that would be beyond my power to prevent," answered Louise, with a little yawn.
Beth's face grew hard again.
"You're deceiving me," she declared, angrily. "You're trying to make me think you don't want Elmhurst, when you're as anxious to get it as I am."
"My dear Elizabeth—by the way, that's an awfully long name; what do they call you, Lizzie, or Bessie, or—"
"They call me Beth," sullenly.
"Then, my dear Beth, let me beg you not to borrow trouble, or to doubt one who wishes to be your friend. Elmhurst would be a perfect bore to me. I wouldn't know what to do with it. I couldn't live in this out-of-the-way corner of the world, you know."
"But suppose she leaves it to you?" persisted Beth. "You wouldn't refuse it, I imagine."
Louise seemed to meditate.
"Cousin," she said, at length, "I'll make a bargain with you. I can't refuse to love and pet Aunt Jane, just because she has money and my sweet cousin Beth is anxious to inherit it. But I'll not interfere in any way with your chances, and I'll promise to sing your praises to our aunt persistently. Furthermore, in case she selects me as her heir, I will agree to transfer half of the estate to you—the half that consists of Elmhurst."
"Is there much more?" asked Beth.
"I haven't any list of Aunt Jane's possessions, so I don't know. But you shall have Elmhurst, if I get it, because the place would be of no use to me."
"It's a magnificent estate," said Beth, looking at her cousin doubtfully.
"It shall be yours, dear, whatever Aunt Jane decides. See, this is a compact, and I'll seal it with a kiss."
She sprang up and, kneeling beside Beth, kissed her fervently.
"Now shall we be friends?" she asked, lightly. "Now will you abandon all those naughty suspicions and let me love you?"
Beth hesitated. The suggestion seemed preposterous. Such generosity savored of play acting, and Louise's manner was too airy to be genuine. Somehow she felt that she was being laughed at by this slender, graceful girl, who was scarcely older than herself; but she was too unsophisticated to know how to resent it. Louise insisted upon warding off her enmity, or at least establishing a truce, and Beth, however suspicious and ungracious, could find no way of rejecting the overtures.
"Were I in your place," she said, "I would never promise to give up a penny of the inheritance. If I win it, I shall keep it all."
"To be sure. I should want you to, my dear."
"Then, since we have no cause to quarrel, we may as well become friends," continued Beth, her features relaxing a little their set expression.
Louise laughed again, ignoring the other's brusqueness, and was soon chatting away pleasantly upon other subjects and striving to draw Beth out of her natural reserve.
The younger girl had no power to resist such fascinations. Louise knew the big world, and talked of it with charming naivete, and Beth listened rapturously. Such a girl friend it had never been her privilege to have before, and when her suspicions were forgotten she became fairly responsive, and brightened wonderfully.
They dressed in time for dinner, and met Aunt Jane and Silas Watson, the lawyer, in the great drawing-room. The old gentleman was very attentive and courteous during the stately dinner, and did much to relieve the girls' embarrassment. Louise, indeed, seemed quite at home in her new surroundings, and chatted most vivaciously during the meal; but Aunt Jane was strangely silent, and Beth had little to say and seemed awkward and ill at ease.
The old lady retired to her own room shortly after dinner, and presently sent a servant to request Mr. Watson to join her.
"Silas," she said, when he entered, "what do you think of my nieces?"
"They are very charming girls," he answered, "although they are at an age when few girls show to good advantage. Why did you not invite Kenneth to dinner, Jane?"
"Yes. They would be more at ease in the society of a young gentleman more nearly their own age."
"Kenneth is a bear. He is constantly saying disagreeable things. In other words, he is not gentlemanly, and the girls shall have nothing to do with him."
"Very well," said the lawyer, quietly.
"Which of my nieces do you prefer?" asked the old lady, after a pause.
"I cannot say, on so short an acquaintance," he answered, with gravity. "Which do you prefer, Jane?"
"They are equally unsatisfactory," she answered. "I cannot imagine Elmhurst belonging to either, Silas." Then she added, with an abrupt change of manner: "You must go to New York for me, at once."
"No; tomorrow morning. I must see that other niece—the one who defies me and refuses to answer my second letter."
"Yes. Find her and argue with her. Tell her I am a crabbed old woman with a whim to know her, and that I shall not die happy unless she comes to Elmhurst. Bribe her, threaten her—kidnap her if necessary, Silas; but get her to Elmhurst as quickly as possible."
"I'll do my best, Jane. But why are you so anxious?"
"My time is drawing near, old friend," she replied, less harshly than usual, "and this matter of my will lies heavily on my conscience. What if I should die tonight?"
He did not answer.
"There would be a dozen heirs to fight for my money, and dear old Elmhurst would be sold to strangers," she resumed, with bitterness. "But I don't mean to cross over just yet, Silas, even if one limb is dead already. I shall hang on until I get this matter settled, and I can't settle it properly without seeing all three of my nieces. One of these is too hard, and the other too soft. I'll see what Patricia is like."
"She may prove even more undesirable," said the lawyer.
"In that case, I'll pack her back again and choose between these two. But you must fetch her, Silas, that I may know just what I am doing. And you must fetch her at once!"
"I'll do the best I can, Jane," repeated the old lawyer.