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The Missing Letter by Jennie Chappell

 

The Briars was a very old-fashioned house, standing in its own grounds, about ten miles from Smokeytown. It was much dilapidated, for Miss Clare the owner and occupier, had not the necessary means for repairing it, and as she had lived there from her birth—a period of nearly sixty years—did not like to have the old place pulled down. Not more than half the rooms were habitable, and in one of them—-the former dining-room—there sat, one January afternoon, Miss Clare, with her young nephew and niece. They were having tea, and the firelight danced cosily on the worn, once handsome furniture, and the portly metal teapot, which replaced the silver one, long since parted with for half its value in current coin. The only modern article in the room, excepting the aforesaid nephew and niece, was a pretty, though inexpensive, pianoforte, which stood under a black-looking portrait of a severe-visaged lady with her waist just under her arms, and a general resemblance, as irreverent Aubrey said, to a yard and a half of pump water.

Just now Miss Clare was consuming toast in silence, and Kate was wondering if there was any way of making bows that had been washed twice and turned three times look like new; while Aubrey's handsome head was bent over a book, for he was addicted to replenishing mind and body at the same time. Suddenly Miss Clare exclaimed, “Dear me; it is fifty years to-day since Marjorie Westford died!”

Kate glanced up at the pump-water lady, with the laconic remark, “Fancy!”

“It's very likely that on such an interesting anniversary the fair Miss Marjorie may revisit her former haunts,” said Aubrey, raising a pair of glorious dark eyes with a mischievous smile; “so if you hear an unearthly bumping and squealing in the small hours, you may know who it is.”

“The idea of a ghost 'bumping and squealing,'“ laughed Kate. “And Miss Marjorie, too! The orthodox groan and glide would be more like her style.” Then her mind wandered to a story connected with that lady, which had given rise to much speculation on the part of the young Clares. Half a century ago there lived at the Briars a family consisting of a brother and two sisters; the former a gay young spendthrift of twenty-five; the girls, Anna, aged twenty, and Lucy, the present Miss Clare, nine years old respectively. With them resided a maiden sister of their mother's, Marjorie Westford, an eccentric person, whose property at her death reverted to a distant relative. A short time before she died she divided her few trinkets and personal possessions between the three young people, bequeathing to Anna, in addition, a sealed letter, to be read on her twenty-first birthday. The girl hid the packet away lest she should be tempted to read it before the appointed time; but ere that arrived she was drowned by the upsetting of a boat, and never since had the concealed letter been found, although every likely place had been searched for it. Lucy never married, and George had but one son, whose wife died soon after the birth of Kate, and in less than a year he married again, this time to a beautiful young heiress, subsequently mother to Aubrey, who was thus rather more than two years Kate's junior.

The younger George Clare, a spendthrift like his father, speedily squandered his wife's fortune, and died, leaving her with barely sufficient to keep herself and little son from want. Yet such was Mrs. Clare's undying love for the husband who had treated her so badly, that in their greatest straits she refused to part with a locket containing his likeness and hers which was valuable by reason of the diamonds and sapphires with which it was encrusted. This locket was the only thing she had to leave her little Aubrey when she died, and he, a lovely boy of nine summers, went with his half-sister (who had a small sum of money settled on her by her maternal grandfather) to reside with their great-aunt, Miss Clare.

Presently the quietness at the tea-table was disturbed by a loud single knock at the front door, and Aubrey bounced out of the room.

“A note from Mr. Green,” he said, returning. “I wonder what's up now? No good, I'm afraid.”

This foreboding was only too fully realised. The agent for Miss Clare's little property at Smokeytown wrote to tell her that during a recent gale one of her best houses had been so much injured by the falling of a factory chimney, that the repairs would cost quite £30 before it could again be habitable. This was a dire misfortune. So closely was their income cut, and so carefully apportioned to meet the household expenses, that, after fullest consideration, Miss Clare could only see her way clear for getting together about £15 towards meeting this unexpected demand, and three very anxious faces bent around the table in discussion.

Presently Aubrey slipped away and ran upstairs to his own room. He then lit a candle, and pulling a box from under an old horse-hair chair, unlocked it, taking out a small morocco case, which, when opened, revealed something that sparkled and scintillated even in the feeble rays of the cheap “composite.” It was the precious locket, placed in his hands by his dying mother four years before. Inside were two exquisite miniatures on ivory—the one a handsome, careless-looking man, the other, on which the boy's tender gaze was now fixed, was the portrait of a lady, with just such pure, bright features, and sweet, dark-grey eyes as Aubrey himself.

“Mother, my own darling,” he murmured, pressing the picture to his lips, “how can I part with you?” And dropping his head on the hard, prickly cushion, by which he knelt, he cried in a way that would considerably have astonished the youths with whom he had, a few hours earlier, engaged in a vigorous snowball fight. They only knew a bright, mirthful Aubrey Clare, the cleverest lad in his class, and the “jolliest fellow out;” none but Kate had any idea of the deepest affections of his boyish heart, and she truly sympathised with her half-brother in his love for the only portrait and souvenir remaining of the gentle creature who had so well supplied a mother's place for her. Something in Aubrey's face when he left the room had told her of his thoughts, so presently she followed him and tapped at the half-open door. Obtaining no answer, she entered, and saw the boy kneeling before the old chair with his head bent. The open case lay beside him, and Kate easily guessed what it was held so tightly in his clenched hand. She stooped beside him, and stroked his wavy hair caressingly as she said, “It can't be that, Aubrey.”

“It must,” replied a muffled voice from the chair cushion.

“It sha'n't be,” said Kate firmly. “I've thought of a plan——”

But Aubrey sprang to his feet. “See here, Katie,” he said excitedly, but with quivering voice; “I've been making an idol of this locket. It ought to have gone before, when aunt lost so much money by those Joneses; but you both humoured my selfishness.”

“Being fond of anything, especially anything like that, isn't making an idol of it, I'm sure,” said Katie.

“It is if it prevents you doing what you ought, I tell you, Katie; it's downright dishonest of me to keep this,” he continued, with burning cheeks, “living as I am upon charity, and aunt so poor. I see it plainly now. Mr. Wallis offered to buy it of me last summer, and if he likes he shall have it now.”

“He is gone to Rillford,” said Kate, in whose mind an idea was beginning to hatch.

“He'll be back on Saturday, and then I'll ask him. It won't be really losing mamma's likeness, you know,” he added, with a pathetic attempt at his own bright smile. “Whenever I shut my eyes I can see her face, just as she looked when——” but he was stopped by a queer fit of coughing and rubbed the curl of his hair that always tumbled over his forehead; so Katie couldn't see his face, but she knew what the sacrifice must cost him, and, girl-like, exalted him to a pedestal of heroism immediately; but when she would have bestowed an enthusiastic embrace, he slipped away from her and ran downstairs.

Left alone, Kate stood long at the uncurtained window, gazing at the unearthlike beauty of the moonlit snow. When at last she turned away, the afore mentioned idea was fully fledged and strong.

She found her hero with his nose ungracefully tucked into an uncut magazine, and his chair tilted at a perilous angle with the floor, just like any ordinary boy, and felt a tiny bit disappointed. Presently she turned to the piano, which was to her a companion and never failing delight. She had a taste for music, which Miss Clare had, as far as was practicable, cultivated; and although Kate had not received much instruction, she played with a sweetness and expression that quite made up for any lack of brilliant execution. This evening her touch was very tender, and the tunes she played were sad.

By-and-bye Katie lingered, talking earnestly with her aunt long after Aubrey had gone to bed; and when at last she wished her good-night, she added, anxiously, “Then I really may, auntie; you are sure you don't mind?”

And Miss Clare said, “I give you full permission to do what you like, dear. If you love Aubrey well enough to make so great a sacrifice for him, I hope he will appreciate your generosity as he ought; but whether he does or not, you will surely not lose your reward. I am more grieved than I can tell you to know that it is necessary.”

Two days later, Aubrey was just going to tear a piece off the Smokeytown Standard to do up a screw of ultramarine, when his eye was arrested by an advertisement which he read two or three times before he could believe the evidence of his senses; it was this,—

“To be sold immediately, a pretty walnut-wood cottage pianoforte, in excellent condition, and with all the latest improvements. Price 15_l. Apply at 'The Briars,' London Road.”

He rushed upstairs to Kate, who, with her head adorned by a check duster, was busy sweeping (for they had no servant), and burst in upon her with, “What on earth are you going to sell it for?”

There was no need to inquire what “it” was, and Kate, without pausing in her occupation, replied, “To help make up the money aunt wants.”

“But if Mr. Wallis buys the locket;” then the truth flashed upon him, and he broke off suddenly, “Oh, Katie, you're never going to——”

“Sell the piano because I don't want the locket to go,” finished Katie, with a smile, that in spite of the check duster made her look quite angelic.

Aubrey flew at her, and hugging her, broom and all, exclaimed,—

“Oh, how could you! You are too good; I didn't half deserve it. Was there ever such a darling sister before?” and a great deal more in the same strain, as he showered kisses upon her till he took away her breath, one moment declaring that she shouldn't do it and he wouldn't have it, and the next assuring her that he could never thank her enough, and never forget it as long as he lived. And Katie was as happy as he was.

It was rather a damper, however, when that day passed, and the next, and no one came to look even at the bargain. Aubrey said that if no purchaser appeared before the following Wednesday, he should certainly go to Mr. Wallis about the locket; and it really seemed as if Katie's sacrifice was not to be made after all.

Tuesday afternoon came, still nobody had been in answer to the advertisement. It was a pouring wet day, and Aubrey's holiday hung heavily on his hands. He had read every book he could get at, painted two illuminations, constructed several “patent” articles for Kate, which would have been great successes, but for sundry “ifs,” and abandoned as hopeless the task of teaching Cæsar, Miss Clare's asthmatic old dog, to stand upon his hind legs, and was now gazing drearily out on the soaked garden, almost wishing the vacation over. Suddenly he turned to his sister, who was holding a skein of worsted for her aunt to wind, exclaiming, “Katie, I've struck a bright!”

“What is it?” she asked, understanding that he had had an inspiration of some sort. “An apparatus for getting at nuts without cracking them; or a chest-protector for Cæsar to wear in damp weather?”

“Neither; I'm going to rummage in the old bookcase upstairs, and see if I can come across anything fit to read, or an adventure.” And not being in the habit of letting the grass grow under his feet (if vegetation was ever known to develop in such unfavourable circumstances), he bounded away; while Miss Clare observed, rather anxiously, “When that boy goes adventure-seeking, it generally ends in a catastrophe; but I don't think he can do much mischief up there.”

Ten minutes afterwards, Katie went to see how Aubrey was getting on, and found him doing nothing worse than polishing the covers of some very dirty old books with one of his best pocket-handkerchiefs. When she remonstrated with him, he recommended her to get a proper, ordained duster, and undertake that part of the programme herself. So presently she was quite busy, for Aubrey tossed the books out much faster than she could dust and examine them. Very discoloured, mouldy-smelling old books they were, of a remarkably uninteresting character generally, which perhaps accounted for their long abandonment to the dust and damp of that unused apartment. When the case was emptied, and the contents piled upon the floor, Aubrey said, “Now lend us a hand to pull the old thing out, and see what's behind.”

“Spiders,” replied Katie promptly, edging back.

“I'll have the satisfaction of a gentleman of the first spider that looks at you,” said Aubrey, reassuringly. “Come, catch hold!”

So Katie “caught hold;” and between them they managed to drag the cumbrous piece of furniture sufficiently far out of the recess in which it stood for the boy to slip behind. The half-high wainscoting had in one place dissolved partnership with the wall; and obeying an impulse for which he could never account, Aubrey dived behind, fishing out, among several odd leaves and dilapidated covers, a small hymn-book bound in red leather. Kate took it to the window to examine, for the light was fading fast. On the fly-leaf was written in childish, curly-tailed letters, “Anna Clare; July 1815,” followed by the exquisite poetical stanza commencing,—

    “The grass is green, the rose is red;
    Think of me when I am dead,”

which she read aloud to her brother. A minute afterwards, as she turned the brown-spotted leaves, there fell out a packet, a letter superscribed, “Miss Anna Clare; to be read on her twenty-first birthday, and when quite alone.” Katie gasped, “Oh, look!” and dropped the paper as if it burned her fingers. Aubrey sprang forward, prepared to slay a giant spider, but when his eyes fell upon the writing which had so startled his sister, he too seemed petrified. They gazed fixedly into each other's eyes for a minute, then Aubrey said emphatically,—

“It's that!” And both rushed precipitately downstairs, exclaiming, “Auntie, auntie, we've found it!”

Now Miss Clare was just partaking of that popular refreshment “forty winks,” and was some time before she could understand what had so greatly excited her young relations; but when at last it dawned upon her, she hastily brought out her spectacles, and lit the lamp, while every moment seemed an hour to the impatient children. When would she leave off turning the yellow packet in her fingers, and poring over the faded writing outside? At last the seal is broken, and two pairs of eager eyes narrowly watch Miss Clare's face as she scans the contents.

“It is the long-lost letter!” she exclaimed in astonishment. “Where did you find it?”

Both quickly explained, adding, “Do read it, auntie; what does Miss Marjorie say?”

So in a trembling voice Miss Clare read the words penned by a dying hand fifty years before,—

     “MY DEAREST ANNA,—I feel that I have but a short time
     longer to live, and but one thing disturbs my peace. It is
     the presentiment that sooner or later the thoughtless
     extravagance of your brother George will bring you all into
     trouble. It is little I can do to avert this calamity, but
     years of economy have enabled me to save 280_l. (which is
     concealed beneath the floor in my room, under the third
     plank from the south window, about ten inches from the
     wall). I wish you, niece Anna, to hold this money in trust,
     as a profound secret, and to be used only in case of an
     emergency such as I have hinted. In the event of none such
     taking place before your sister is of age, you are then to
     divide the money, equally between yourself, George and
     Lucy, to use as you each may please. Hoping that I have
     made my purpose clear, and that my ever trustworthy Anna
     will faithfully carry out my wishes, I pray that the
     blessing of God may rest richly on my nephew and nieces,
     and bid you, dearest girl, farewell.

                     “MARJORIE WESTFORD.
     “January 2nd, 1825.”

Miss Clare's eyes were dim when she finished these words, sounding, as they did, like a voice from the grave, while Kate and Aubrey sat in spellbound silence. The boy was the first to speak.

“Do you think it is still there?”

“There is no reason why it should not be,” replied Miss Clare; “indeed it seems that this legacy, so strangely hidden for half a century, and as strangely brought to light, is to be the means by which our Father will bring us out of our present difficulties.”

“Get a light, Katie, and let's look for the treasure; that will be the best way of making sure that our adventure isn't the result of a mince-pie supper,” suggested Aubrey, producing his tool-box.

So they all proceeded to the room, now seldom entered, where Marjorie Westford breathed her last. It was almost empty, and the spot indicated in the letter was soon determined upon. Aubrey knelt down on the floor, and commenced, in a most unsystematic way, his task of raising the board; while Katie, trembling with excitement, dropped grease spots on his head from her tilted candlestick.

Aubrey's small tools were wholly inadequate to their task, and many were the cuts and bruises his inexperienced hands received before he at length succeeded in prising the stubborn plank.

There lay the mahogany box, which, with some trouble, owing to its weight, they succeeded in bringing to the surface. It fastened by a simple catch, and was filled with golden guineas.

When Kate bade Aubrey good-night upon the stairs, he detained her a minute to murmur with a soft light in his dusky eyes,—

“I'm so very, very glad your sacrifice isn't to be made, darling, but the will is just the same as the deed. I shall love you for it as long as you live; and better still,” he added, with deepening colour and lowered voice, “God knows, and will love you too.”

 
 
 

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