Before Robert’s entrance Frederic Vernon and his aunt had had a conversation. He had no idea that his aunt contemplated a change in their arrangements. She was a woman of a few words, and had been gradually making up her mind to dismiss her nephew from his post as secretary.
When he entered her presence at five o’clock he said apologetically, “I hope you had no important business for me this afternoon, aunt. I was unavoidably detained.”
“Please explain, Frederic,” she said composedly.
“At the Palmer House I fell in with an old schoolmate who wished me to dine with him.”
“And you accepted?”
“Yes; I am awfully sorry.”
“Your regrets are unavailing. This is not the first, nor the tenth time, that you have neglected your duties without adequate cause.”
Frederic looked at her. She was not in the least excited, but she seemed in earnest.
“I see I shall have to turn over a new leaf,” he said to himself. “My aunt is taking it seriously.”
“It will be the last time,” he said. “I admit that I have been neglectful. Hereafter I will be more attentive.”
“It will not be necessary,” said Mrs. Vernon.
“Why not?” he asked, in surprise.
“Because I shall relieve you from your duties.”
“What do you mean?”
“I shall give you a permanent vacation.”
“Do you discharge me?” asked Frederic quickly, his cheek flushing.
“Yes, if you choose to use that word.”
“But–how am I to live?”
“I will continue your salary–you may hereafter call it an allowance.”
“But how will you manage about your writing?”
“I shall get another secretary–indeed, I have already engaged one.”
Frederic Vernon hardly knew how to take this announcement. It was certainly a favorable change for him, as his salary would be continued, and his time would all be at his own disposal.
“I am afraid you are angry with me, aunt?” he said.
“The fact is, I have thought it best to employ one who was not related to me. You have taken advantage of the relationship to slight my interests. My new secretary is not likely to do that.”
“Who is he? Where did you find him?”
“His name is Robert Frost. As to where I found him, I do not consider it necessary to answer that question.”
“Is he in the house?”
“He will be here to tea.”
Frederic Vernon remained silent for a short time. He was thinking over the new situation. In some respects it was satisfactory. He was naturally lazy, and though his duties had been light, he had no objection to give up work altogether.
“Of course, you will please yourself, aunt,” he said.
“There is one thing more. You had better find another home.”
“What! Leave this house?”
“Yes; you will be more independent elsewhere. While you were in my service it was best for you to have your home here. I shall make you an extra provision to cover the expense of a room elsewhere.”
“You are very kind, aunt.”
“I mean to be. Of course, you are at liberty to come here to meals whenever you like. You will be quite independent as regards that.”
“How long have you been thinking of making a change, aunt?”
“For some weeks. I advise you to find some occupation. It will not be well for you to have your time entirely unoccupied.”
“You are sure this change will not alter your feeling toward me?” he asked anxiously.
“I think not.”
Frederic Vernon went upstairs to prepare for tea. Soon after he came down he met Robert, as already mentioned.
He was certainly very much surprised at the youthful appearance of the new secretary, and he was not altogether free from jealousy.
“Have you ever filled the position of secretary before?” he asked abruptly.
“No, Mr. Vernon.”
“I supposed not. How old are you?”
“Humph! How long since did you lay aside short pants?”
“Frederic!” said his aunt, in a tone of displeasure. “I desire you to drop this tone. I expect you to treat your successor with courtesy. You have nothing to complain of.”
“Very well, aunt. I will be guarded by your wishes.”
On the whole the young man was not sorry to have his duties transferred to another. Though he had seldom been occupied more than three hours daily, even those had been irksome to him.
“When do you wish me to find a new home, aunt?” he asked.
“You can consult your own convenience.”
“I will look around to-morrow, then. Do you wish me to initiate my successor in the duties of his position?”
“It will not be necessary. They are simple, and I will give him all the aid he requires.”
When they rose from the table Frederic Vernon invited Robert to go out with him.
“I will take you to some place of amusement,” he said.
His object was to get better acquainted with his successor, and report unfavorably to his aunt.
“Thank you,” answered Robert. “You are very kind, but I am tired, and I should like to arrange my clothing in my chamber. Some other time I shall be glad to accept your invitation.”
“Very well,” said Vernon indifferently, and soon left.
“I am glad you did not go out with my nephew,” said Mrs. Vernon. “He keeps late hours, which would be even worse for a boy of your age than for him.”
“I am afraid he is not pleased with my taking his place.”
“Probably not; though he won’t object to being relieved from all care. Perhaps I had better tell you something about our relations. He is a son of an older brother of my husband, and should I die without a will, he is my natural heir. I fancy he bears this in mind, and that it prevents his making any exertions in his own behalf. I don’t mind confessing that I am a rich woman, and that my property would be well worth inheriting.”
“Still,” said Robert, “you are likely to live a good many years.”
“Perhaps so, but I am twenty years older than my nephew. He is a young man of fair abilities, and might achieve a creditable success in business if he were not looking forward to my fortune.”
Mrs. Vernon seemed quite confidential, considering their brief acquaintance.
“At any rate,” said Robert, smiling, “I hope I am not likely to be spoiled by any such anticipation.”
“Some time you shall tell me of your family. Now it may be well to go up to your room and arrange your things.”
Robert went upstairs, and retired early, feeling fatigued. He could not help congratulating himself on the favorable change in his circumstances. In the morning he had been despondent and almost penniless. Now he felt almost rich.
The next morning after breakfast Mrs. Vernon said: “Be ready to go downtown with me at two o’clock. I will introduce you at my bank, as I shall have occasion to send you there at times to draw and deposit money.”
“When shall you wish me to write for you, Mrs. Vernon?”
“To-day, just after dinner. It will not always be at the same hour.”
They set out at the time mentioned. Mrs. Vernon introduced Robert to the teller at what we will call the Bank of Chicago, and announced that he would act as her messenger and agent.
As they left the bank she said: “I shall now leave you to your own devices–only stipulating that you be at home at two o’clock.”
“It seems I am to have an easy time,” thought Robert, when left alone.
In one of the cross streets leading from Clark to State Street Robert met Frederic Vernon and a friend.
“Hallo, Frost!” said the former. “Have you been out with my aunt?”
“Cameron, this is Mr. Frost, my aunt’s private secretary.”
“I thought you filled that honorable position,” said Cameron.
“So I did, but I have resigned it–that is, the place, but not the salary.”
“You are in luck. Won’t your friend come in with us and have a drink?”
“Thank you for the invitation,” said Robert, “but I must ask you to excuse me.”
“Oh, you are Puritanical,” said Cameron, with an unpleasant sneer.
Robert bowed and passed on.
“Do you know, Vernon,” said Cameron, “I have seen that kid before, and under peculiar circumstances.”
“Yes; on Tuesday I was in the Bazaar dry goods store, on State Street, when I saw him for the first time.”
“What were the peculiar circumstances?”
“He was charged with stealing a pocket-book.”
“Are you sure of that?” asked Vernon eagerly.
“Yes, I should know him anywhere.”
“How did he get off?”
“Some minister spoke in his favor.”
“I must tell my aunt of this,” said Vernon gleefully. “I think the young man will get his walking papers.”