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Half an hour later, Herbert reentered the cottage, breathless with running.
"Well, mother, what is it?" he asked.
"Uncle Herbert is dead," she answered.
"When did he die?"
"Yesterday morning. They wrote at once. The funeral is to take place to-morrow afternoon, at three o'clock."
"Uncle Herbert was rich, wasn't he, mother?"
"Yes, he must have left nearly a hundred thousand dollars."
"What a pile of money!" said Herbert. "I wonder how a man feels when he is so rich. He ought to be happy."
"Riches don't always bring happiness. Uncle Herbert was disappointed in early life, and that seemed to spoil his career. He gave himself up to money-making, and succeeded in it; but he lived by himself and had few sources of happiness."
"Then he had no family?"
"Do you think he has left us anything, mother?" asked Herbert, with something of hope in his tone.
"I am afraid not. If he had been disposed to do that he would have done something for us before. He knew that we were poor, and that a little assistance would have been very acceptable. But he never offered it. Even when your father was sick for three months, and I wrote to him for a small loan, he refused, saying that we ought to have laid up money to fall back upon at such a time."
"I don't see how a man can be so unfeeling. If he would only leave us a thousand dollars, how much good it would do us! We could pay up the mortgage on the house, and have something left over. It wouldn't have been much for him to do."
"Well, we won't think too much about it," said Mrs. Carter. "It will be wisest, as probably we should be only preparing ourselves for disappointment. Uncle had a right to do what he pleased with his own."
"Shall you go to the funeral, mother?"
"I don't see how I can," said Mrs. Carter, slowly. "It is twenty miles off, and I am very busy just now. Still one of us ought to go, if only to show respect to so near a relation. People would talk if we didn't. I think, as you were named for your Uncle Herbert, I will let you go."
"If you think best, mother. I will walk, and that will save expense."
"It will be too much for you to take such a walk. You had better ride."
"No, mother, I am young and strong. I can walk well enough."
"But it must be twenty miles," objected his mother.
"The funeral doesn't take place till three o'clock in the afternoon. I will get up bright and early, say at five o'clock. By nine I shall be halfway there."
"I am afraid it will be too much for you, Herbert," said Mrs. Carter, irresolutely.
"You don't know how strong I am," said Herbert; "I shan't get tired so easily as you think."
"But twenty miles is a long distance."
"I know that, but I shall take it easy. The stage fare is seventy-five cents, and it's a good way to save it. I wish somebody would offer me seventy-five cents for every twenty miles I would walk. I'd take it up as a profession."
"I am afraid I could earn little that way. I never was a good walker." "You're a woman," said Herbert, patronizingly. "Women are not expected to be good walkers."
"Some are. I remember my Aunt Jane would take walks of five and six miles, and think nothing of it."
"I guess I could match her in walking," said Herbert, confidently. "Is she alive?"
"No, she died three years since."
"Perhaps I take after her, then."
"You don't take after me, I am sure of that. I think, Herbert, you had better take seventy-five cents with you, so that if you get very tired with your walk over, you can come back by stage."
"All right, mother; I'll take the money, but I shall be sure not to need it."
"It is best to be prepared for emergencies, Herbert."
"If I am going to-morrow morning, I must split up enough wood to last you while I am gone."
"I am afraid you will tire yourself. I think I can get along with what wood there is already split."
"Oh, don't be afraid for me. You'll see I'll come back as fresh as when I set out. I expect to have a stunning appetite, though."
"I'll try to cook up enough for you," said his mother, smiling.
Herbert went out into the wood shed, and went to work with great energy at the wood pile. In the course of an hour he had sawed and split several large baskets full, which he brought in and piled up behind the kitchen stove.
Mrs. Carter could not be expected to feel very deep grief for the death of her uncle. It was now more than six years since they had met. He was a selfish man, wholly wrapped up in the pursuit of wealth. Had he possessed benevolent instincts, he would have offered to do something out of his abundance for his niece, who he knew found it very hard to make both ends meet. But he was a man who was very much averse to parting with his money while he lived. He lived on a tenth of his income, and saved up the rest, though for what end he could not well have told. Since the death of Mr. Carter, whose funeral he had not taken the trouble to attend, though invited, he had not even written to his niece, and she had abstained from making any advances, lest it might be thought that she was seeking assistance. Under these circumstances she had little hope of a legacy, though she could not help admitting the thought of how much a few hundred dollars would help her, bridging over the time till Herbert should be old enough to earn fair wages in some employment. If he could study two or three years longer, she would have been very glad, for her son had already shown abilities of no common order; but that was hardly to be thought of.
"There, mother, I guess I've sawed wood enough to last you, unless you are very extravagant," said Herbert, reentering the kitchen, and taking off his cap. "Now is there anything else I can do? You know I shall be gone two days, or a day and a half at any rate."
"I think of nothing, Herbert. You had better go to bed early, and get a good night's rest, for you will have a hard day before you."
"So I will, but eight o'clock will be soon enough. Just suppose we should get a legacy, after all, mother. Wouldn't it be jolly?"
"I wouldn't think too much of it, Herbert. There isn't much chance of it. Besides, it doesn't seem right to be speculating about our own personal advantage when Uncle Herbert lies dead in his house."
There was justice in this suggestion, but Herbert could hardly be expected to take a mournful view of the death of a relative whom he hardly remembered, and who had appeared scarcely to be aware of his existence. It was natural that the thought of his wealth should be uppermost in his young nephew's mind. The reader will hardly be surprised to hear that Herbert, knowing only too well the disadvantages of poverty, should have speculated a little about his uncle's property after he went to bed. Indeed, it did not leave him even with his waking consciousness. He dreamed that his uncle left him a big lump of gold, so big and heavy that he could not lift it. He was considering anxiously how in the world he was going to get it home, when all at once he awoke, and heard the church clock strike five.
"Time I was on my way!" he thought, and, jumping out of bed, he dressed himself as quickly as possible, and went downstairs. But, early as it was, his mother, was down before him. There was a fire in the kitchen stove, and the cloth was laid for breakfast.
"What made you get up so early, mother?" asked Herbert.
"I wouldn't have you go away without breakfast, Herbert, especially for such a long walk."
"I meant to take something from the closet. That would have done well enough."
"You will be all the better for a good, warm cup of tea. Sit right down. It is all ready."
Early as it was, the breakfast tasted good. Herbert ate hastily, for he was anxious to be on his way. Knowing that he could not afford to buy lunch, he put the remnants of the breakfast, including some slices of bread and butter and meat, into his satchel, and started on his long walk.
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