Chapter 6




THE STEP-MOTHER.

"Jasper!" exclaimed his father, in surprise, but showing pleasure, nevertheless, at his son's unexpected presence.

The boy went straight up to his father, passing within two feet of his father's wife, but without even looking at her.

"Father!" he burst forth, impulsively, "is it true?"

"Is what true?" asked his father, embarrassed, for he guessed what Jasper meant.

"Are you married—to her?" pointing to Mrs. Kent, who looked indignant at the reference.

"Yes, Jasper," answered his father, nervously. "Shake hands with your—with Mrs. Kent."

He was about to say "your mother," but something in his memory, perhaps something in his son's face, led him to change the expression.

Jasper did not apparently heed the suggestion. Instead, he said, reproachfully:

"Why was it, father, that you left me in ignorance of your intention?"

"She thought it best," said his father, in an apologetic tone.

Mrs. Kent spoke for the first time.

"Yes, Jasper, we thought it would only interrupt your studies."

Jasper could not help a slight sneer, as he answered:

"You were very considerate, madam; but it seems to me that such an important event in my father's life would justify an interruption."

Mrs. Kent repressed her real feelings of anger and vexation, and answered mildly, and with an affectation of good humor:

"I don't know but you are right, Jasper, and we were wrong. At any rate, since you have come it is a pity you were not here earlier, so that you could have been present at the ceremony. It was quite private, as your father can tell you."

"Yes, Jasper, there were no invitations issued," said his father.

"I wish that I had come earlier," said Jasper, slowly.

"At any rate, now that you are here," said Mrs. Kent, with well-feigned cordiality, for it was politic to keep on good terms with Jasper, since he was his father's favorite, "you will stay a day or two."

"You forget, madam, the interruption to my studies," said Jasper.

"I should like to wring the boy's neck," thought Mrs. Kent, her eyes contracting slightly, but she answered, amiably: "I am afraid I have thought too much of that already. Let me make amends by welcoming you, and asking you to stay as long as you can."

Mr. Kent nodded approvingly at these words of his wife.

"I ought not to complain," said Jasper, "since you treated me no worse than you did your own son."

"Nicholas has betrayed my secret!" thought Mrs. Kent, turning pale.

"What are you talking about, Jasper?" demanded Mr. Kent, surprised. "My wife has no son."

"Jasper means my nephew," explained Mrs. Kent, recovering her assurance.

"He said you were his mother," said Jasper.

"Yes," said Mrs. Kent, with admirable composure, "the poor boy has always looked upon me as a mother, though such is not our relationship. Indeed, I may say, orphan as he is, I have been a mother to him."

"And it is very much to your credit, my dear," said Mr. Kent, kindly. "We must have him here on a visit. As Jasper's schoolmate, and your nephew, he shall be doubly welcome."

"You are very kind, Mr. Kent," said his wife, in a tone which might well be mistaken for that of grateful emotion. "It will, indeed, be a treat to my poor Nicholas to come here, even for a day."

"He must spend his next vacation here, eh, Jasper? It will be pleasant for you to have a boy of your own age here."

"Do as you like, father," said Jasper, who didn't care to say how distasteful the proposition was to him, or to explain the nature of the relations between Nicholas and himself.

Mrs. Kent looked at him sharply as he spoke, and understood better how he felt. But, as he did not openly object, she was satisfied. It was what she had wished to bring about, and she felt pleased that the proposal had come from Mr. Kent, and that Jasper had not spoken against it.

"I will go and order your room to be made ready for you, Jasper," she said. "You had better write to Dr. Benton that you will stay with us a day or two."

So saying, she left the room, and Jasper was left alone with his father.

"Don't you like this marriage, Jasper?" asked his father, anxiously, seeing that his son looked sober.

"No, father," answered Jasper, frankly. "I have not yet got over the shock of the first news."

"You think I ought to have told you about it."

"You are not accustomed to keep secrets from me, father."

"I did it for the best, Jasper; I wanted to tell you, but she—Mrs. Kent—thought it best not."

"I am afraid, father," said Jasper, sadly, "it will not be the only time that she is destined to come between us."

"No, Jasper," answered his father, with more energy than was usual with him, "that shall not be. I am sure she would not wish it, and I know I wouldn't permit it. I hope, my dear boy, that you will become reconciled to the new state of things."

"One thing would reconcile me to it," said Jasper.

"What is it?"

"To be assured that it would promote your happiness."

"I feel sure that it will," said Mr. Kent, but he did not speak very confidently.

"If it be so, it is all I ask. But tell me, father, did you marry for love?"

Mr. Kent hesitated.

"I am too old for that, Jasper," he answered, pleasantly. "The fact is, I need a nurse and Miss Thorne needed a home; and, in fact, without pretending to any sentimental reason, we concluded that it would be the best thing under the circumstances."

"Was she very much surprised when you made the proposal, father?" asked Jasper, significantly.

"No, I can't say she was," answered his father, embarrassed.

"It is as I thought," Jasper said to himself; "she inveigled my father into the marriage."

He said aloud:

"Well, father, I heartily hope it will be for your happiness; and now let us talk about something else. Shall I tell you about the school?"

"Yes, Jasper."

So Jasper gossiped about school matters in a way that interested his father, and the two forgot for a time that a new tie had been formed that might possibly make a difference between them.

Meanwhile Mrs. Kent, instead of giving directions about Jasper's room, opened her writing-desk and wrote a hurried note to Nicholas. In this she said:

"Remember, Nicholas, you are to pass for my nephew. Why were you so imprudent as to tell Jasper I was your mother? I have explained that you regard me as a mother, though really my nephew. You must give the same explanation. Jasper is at home now, not very well pleased to find that he has a step-mother. But it is done, and he will find it can't be undone. Be prudent, follow my directions implicitly, and you will find it to your account.

"Your devoted aunt,

"Matilda Thorne Kent.

"P.S.—I have told Mr. Kent about you, and he authorizes me to invite you here to spend the next vacation."



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