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NICHOLAS APPEARS UPON THE SCENE.
The funeral was over. Mrs. Kent was considered by those present to display a great deal of fortitude. As she felt no real grief for the death of her husband, this was not remarkable. Jasper looked pale and sorrowful, but gave way to no violent demonstrations of sorrow, though he began to understand that he had not only lost his best friend, but become at the same time exposed to the machinations of a resolute and relentless enemy.
In due time the will was read.
It was very brief, and clear in its provisions.
To Mrs. Kent was left one-third of the estate, real and personal, of which the deceased was possessed, and the balance was willed to his only child and dear son Jasper, of whom his step-mother was left guardian.
When this clause was read Mrs. Kent directed a brief and triumphant glance at Jasper. He met the glance, and understood what it meant. He knew that it boded him no good.
The company assembled gradually dispersed, and Jasper was left alone with his step-mother.
"You see that I am left your guardian," she said.
"Yes," answered Jasper, briefly.
"Perhaps you would have chosen a different one if the choice had been left to you," she continued, with a sneer.
"I should," said Jasper, promptly.
"Well, that is plain language."
"I suppose you expected a plain answer," said the boy, firmly.
"I did not expect a polite one. You appear to forget that I am a lady."
"You are mistaken, madam. I am ready to treat you as well as you treat me. I won't pretend that I like your guardianship, as I fear that we shall not agree."
"If we don't, you will have to yield," said his step-mother.
"I would rather not dispute till it is absolutely necessary," said Jasper. "May I ask whether you desire me to return to school?"
"I have not made up my mind. I may be able to tell you to-morrow."
"Until you make up your mind you expect me to remain at home, I suppose?"
Jasper bowed and turned away. He went down stairs into the hall just as the front door was opened, and the familiar voice of Nicholas Thorne was heard. Jasper stared in some surprise at the intruder, not knowing that he was expected.
"Halloo, Jasper!" said Thorne, boisterously. "How are you?"
"I am well," said Jasper, distantly.
"Your mother? Your aunt, you mean."
"No, I don't. That's all gammon. She's my mother."
"She is!" exclaimed Jasper. "What made you deny it, then?"
"Policy," said Thorne, laughing. "Your father might not have liked it. Now it's all right."
"Did your mother send for you?" asked Jasper.
"Yes, of course she did. This is to be my home now."
Jasper made no comment. What could he say? If Thorne were his step-mother's son, it was only natural that he should live in the house of which she was mistress.
But it seemed to him as if he were being pushed out of his own father's house, and these strangers were coming in to occupy it He felt that it would no longer seem like home to him.
"Well, where's my mother?" asked Thorne.
"She's up stairs. Shall I show you the way?"
"If you're a mind to. I guess I'll know my own way round here pretty soon."
"What a detestable fellow!" thought Jasper. "I am afraid we shall quarrel soon."
He led the way up stairs, and ushered Nicholas into his mother's presence.
This uncouth boy was the one object this selfish woman loved. She uttered an exclamation of delight.
"Welcome home, my dear Nicholas!" she exclaimed, advancing hastily and throwing her arms round his neck.
He received the embrace apathetically, but made no opposition, as at another time he might have done. He felt on good terms with his mother and the whole world, in the face of the brilliant improvement of his prospects.
"Are you well, my dear boy?" asked Mrs. Kent.
"Oh, I'm well enough, mother. This is a splendid old place, isn't it?"
Mrs. Kent laughed at Jasper.
"Yes, it is a fine country-place."
Jasper left the two, and went down stairs.
"Say, mother, how about the will?" asked Thorne. "Is it all right?"
"A third of the estate is left to me."
"Only a third! Does Jasper get the rest?"
"That's a shame. You ought to have had half."
"I shall have control of the whole till Jasper is of age. I am left his guardian."
"That's good, anyhow. You must make him toe the mark, mother."
"I mean to."
"He's always had his own way, and he may give you trouble. He feels high and mighty. I can tell you."
"I shall know how to deal with him," said Mrs. Kent, closing her thin lips resolutely. "He will find me as firm as himself."
"I guess that's so, mother. You'll prove a tough customer."
Mrs. Kent smiled, as if she enjoyed the compliment.
"I'll stand by you, mother. If you have any trouble, just call me in."
"I don't expect to need any help, Nicholas; but I am glad to find I have a brave son, who will stand by his mother."
Certainly no one believed in Nicholas so thoroughly as his mother. To the world generally he was a cowardly bully, rough, brutal, and selfish. In his mother's eyes he was manly and a paragon of youthful virtue. I have already said that Thorne's affection for his mother was far less disinterested, as is very apt to be the case with boys. His intention to benefit by the change of circumstances was shown at once.
"What allowance are you going to give me, mother?" he asked.
"I have not thought, yet, Nicholas."
"Then I want you to think, mother."
"How much do you want?"
"I want as much as Jasper gets."
"You shall receive as much," said his mother, promptly. "Do you know how much he has received?"
"Yes—he has had five dollars a week."
"That's too much."
"It isn't too much for me."
"I shall reduce his allowance to three dollars a week."
"You don't expect me to get along on three dollars?" grumbled Thorne.
"I will give you five."
"And Jasper only three?"
"Won't he be mad!" exclaimed Nicholas, with malicious satisfaction. "What'll you say to him about it?"
"I shall merely announce my decision," said Mrs. Kent, coolly. "I am not bound to assign any reasons."
"Won't there be a precious row!" said Thorne.
"I presume he will complain, but he has not conducted himself toward me in a manner to secure any favors."
"I say, mother, can you give me my first week's allowance in advance? I'm awful hard up."
"Here, my son," said Mrs. Kent, drawing out her pocket-book and placing a five-dollar bill in her son's hand.
"Good for you, mother. When are you going to have supper?"
"In an hour."
"How much property did the old man leave?"
"The estate is probably fully up to one hundred thousand dollars. This place is worth fifteen thousand. The rest is in good interest-paying stocks and bonds."
"And a third belongs to you! I say, mother, you've feathered your nest well. I guess I'll go out and take a look round."
In the rear of the house, in front of the stable, Nicholas caught sight of Jasper.
He smiled maliciously.
"I'll go and tell him about the reduction in his allowance," he said to himself.
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