Chapter 9




A DECLARATION OF WAR.

Half an hour later Jasper left the room where his father lay dead. He did not seek the presence of his step-mother, who, he felt, had done him wrong in keeping from him his father's condition. He went instead to the kitchen, where he found Margaret.

"This is a sad day for you, Master Jasper," said the sympathizing servant.

"It is, indeed, Margaret. I have lost my best friend."

"True for you."

"But for your telegram, I should not have known even now that he was dangerously ill, I thought at first Mrs. Kent asked you to telegraph."

"No, she didn't. I asked her would she send for you, and she told me it was none of my business."

"It was lucky you didn't heed her," said Jasper. "She is a cold, unfeeling woman."

"That she is, Master Jasper," assented Margaret, with emphasis.

"How long has my father been so sick?"

"For a week or more, but he took a sudden turn at the last. I think he got worse after the new doctor came."

"I wanted to ask you about that. Why was Dr. Graham dismissed? He has attended my father for years."

"Shall I tell you what I think, Master Jasper?" said Margaret, stopping short in her work, and looking mysterious.

"Yes."

"Let me whisper it, then. Come nearer, Master Jasper."

Rather surprised at her manner, Jasper obeyed.

"It's my belief," she whispered, "that your step-mother didn't want your father to get well."

Jasper looked horror-struck.

"Are you crazy, Margaret?" he ejaculated.

She nodded her head positively.

"I know what I'm saying," she answered.

"But what can make you believe such a horrible thing?" he asked.

She answered in the same low voice:

"A month ago she got your father to make his will. What there is in it I don't know, but it is likely it suits her. After that she had nothing to gain by his living."

"You don't think she'd—" Jasper hesitated to proceed.

"Poison him? No, I don't. It wasn't needful; but your papa was that delicate, it would be enough if he was not rightly treated, and I don't believe this new doctor did the right thing by him. Dr. Graham and Mrs. Kent never could agree, but she and the new doctor have been as thick as can be. They understand one another, I'll be bound."

Jasper looked shocked, and was silent for a moment.

"I don't like Mrs. Kent," he said, "but, Margaret, I hope you're wrong in this. That any one could wish my dear, gentle father dead I find it hard to believe."

"You haven't seen as much of your step-mother as I have, Master Jasper."

"Heaven grant you are wrong, Margaret! If I thought it were true I should never want to look at the woman again."

"Hush!" said Margaret, suddenly putting her hand on her lip.

Jasper understood her caution, when he saw his step-mother enter the kitchen. She looked from one to the other with a suspicious glance.

"This is a strange place for you, Jasper," said she, in slow, cold accents.

"I don't see why, madam," he answered, in a voice equally cold.

"I find you—a young gentleman—conferring with a servant."

"With a trusted servant, who has been in our family for years. Nothing could be more natural."

"I don't agree with you," said Mrs. Kent, in a chilly tone.

"I am unfortunate in not winning your approbation," said Jasper, not caring to suppress the sarcasm.

"It strikes me you are impertinent," said Mrs. Kent.

She had thrown off the mask. During her husband's life she had taken special pains to be polite to Jasper, though in so doing she did violence to her feelings. There was no more to be gained by it, and she had changed suddenly. Jasper could not help alluding to it.

"How happens it, madam," he said, "that your treatment of me has changed so entirely since my father's death? Brief as the interval is, you have lost no time."

There was hatred in the glance she shot at him.

"I was silent out of regard to your father, who was blind to your faults," she answered. "You must not expect me to be equally blind."

"I don't, madam."

"Do you intend to remain in the kitchen?" demanded Mrs. Kent

"I was questioning Margaret about my father's last days."

"I am the proper one to question."

"Would you have afforded me the information I desired?"

"If the questions you asked were of a proper character."

"Mrs. Kent, I will take you at your word. How does it happen that you dismissed Dr. Graham, my father's old family physician?"

His step-mother hesitated and looked angry, but she replied, after a brief pause:

"He did not understand the case."

"What makes you think so? He certainly ought to understand my father's constitution."

"Perhaps he ought, but he didn't," said Mrs. Kent, sharply.

"You haven't given any reason."

"I have given all I choose. I don't mean to be catechised by a boy."

"Who is this Dr. Kenyon whom you called in afterward?"

"A very skilful physician."

"He looks young."

"He has a high reputation."

"When did he assume charge of my father's case?"

"A week ago."

"And since then he has grown steadily worse."

"Who told you that?" demanded Mrs. Kent, sharply.

"Is it not true?"

"Did Margaret tell you this?"

"I did," said Margaret, quietly.

"I shall remember this," said Mrs. Kent, spitefully.

"I didn't need to ask Margaret," said Jasper, "when my father lies dead after a week's treatment by this skilful physician."

Mrs. Kent was white with anger.

"You ought to know that life and death are in the power of no doctor," she said, for, angry as she was, she saw that it was necessary to reply to what Jasper said. "In sending for Dr. Kenyon I did not much expect that he would cure your father, but I felt that it was my duty to give him this last chance. Unfortunately he was too far gone."

"You thought that matters were as bad as that a week ago, and yet you didn't send for me?" exclaimed Jasper.

"It would have done no good," said she, coldly.

"But it would have been a satisfaction to me to see something of him in his last sickness. Mrs. Kent, you haven't treated me right in this matter."

"Is that the way for a boy to talk to his—elder?"

"Yes, if he says only what is strictly true."

"I shall not continue this conversation," said Mrs. Kent, haughtily, "nor shall I submit to be talked to in this style. It is not for your interest to make me your enemy," she added, significantly.

Jasper was frank and fearless by temperament, and anything in the shape of a menace roused his high spirit.

"That consideration doesn't weigh with me a particle," he said, hastily.

"We will see," she retorted, and with a look of anger she swept from the room.

"Margaret," said Jasper, abruptly, "did you go into my father's sick-chamber at any time?"

"Yes, Master Jasper."

"Did you ever hear my father inquire after me?"

"I heard him say more than once, with a sigh like, that he wished to see you."

"And she wouldn't send for me!" exclaimed Jasper, bitterly.

"She always opposed it, saying it wouldn't do no good, and would only take you off your studies."

"Much she cared for my studies! Margaret, I will never forgive that woman, never!"

"Well, I can't blame you, Master Jasper."

Here Margaret heard her name called in a loud voice, and was forced to obey.

"She wants to separate us," thought Jasper, as he slowly and sadly went up to his own chamber.



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