The stranger was in rather an awkward predicament. However, he betrayed neither embarrassment nor alarm. Blowing out the candle, he advanced to the table and set it down. This movement brought him nearer Paul Nichols, who, with the timidity natural to an old man, anticipated an immediate attack.
"Don't kill me! Spare my life!" he exclaimed, hastily stepping back.
"I see you don't know me, Uncle Paul?" said the intruder, familiarly.
"Who are you that call me Uncle Paul?" asked the old man, somewhat reassured.
"Benjamin Haley, your sister's son. Do you know me now?"
"You Ben Haley!" exclaimed the old man, betraying surprise. "Why, you are old enough to be his father."
"Remember, Uncle Paul, I am eighteen years older than when you saw me last. Time brings changes, you know. When I saw you last, you were a man in the prime of life, now you are a feeble old man."
"Are you really Ben Haley?" asked the old man, doubtfully.
"To be sure I am. I suppose I look to you more like a bearded savage. Well, I'm not responsible for my looks. Not finding you at home, I took the liberty of coming in on the score of relationship."
"What, were you doing with that candle?" asked Paul, suspiciously.
"I went down cellar with it."
"Down cellar!" repeated his uncle, with a look of alarm which didn't escape his nephew. "What for?"
"In search of something to eat. All I could find in the closet was a dry loaf, which doesn't look very appetizing."
"There's nothing down cellar. Don't go there again," said the old man, still uneasy.
His nephew looked at him shrewdly.
"Ha, Uncle Paul! I've guessed your secret so quick," he said to himself. "Some of your money is hidden away in the cellar, I'm thinking."
"Where do you keep your provisions, then?" he said aloud.
"The loaf is all I have."
"Come, Uncle Paul, you don't mean that. That's a scurvy welcome to give a nephew you haven't seen for eighteen years. I'm going to stay to dinner with you, and you must give me something better than that. Haven't you got any meat in the house?"
Just then Ben Haley, looking from the window, saw some chickens in the yard. His eye lighted up at the discovery.
"Ah, there is a nice fat chicken," he said. "We'll have a chicken dinner. Shall it be roast or boiled?"
"No, no," said the old farmer, hastily. "I can't spare them. They'll bring a good price in the market by and by."
"Can't help it, Uncle Paul. Charity begins at home. Excuse me a minute, I'll be back directly."
He strode to the door and out into the yard. Then, after a little maneuvering, he caught a chicken, and going to the block, seized the ax, and soon decapitated it.
"What have you done?" said Paul, ruefully, for the old man had followed his nephew, and was looking on in a very uncomfortable frame of mind.
"Taken the first step toward a good dinner," said the other, coolly. "I am not sure but we shall want two."
"No, no!" said Paul, hastily. "I haven't got much appetite."
"Then perhaps we can make it do. I'll just get it ready, and cook it myself. I've knocked about in all sorts of places, and it won't be the first time I've served as cook. I've traveled some since I saw you last."
"Have you?" said the old man, who seemed more interested in the untimely death of the pullet than in his nephew's adventures.
"Yes, I've been everywhere. I spent a year in Australia at the gold diggings."
"Did you find any?" asked his uncle, for the first time betraying interest.
"Some, but I didn't bring away any."
Ben Haley meanwhile was rapidly stripping the chicken of its feathers. When he finished, he said, "Now tell me where you keep your vegetables, Uncle Paul?"
"They're in the corn barn. You can't get in. It's locked."
"Where's the key?"
"I'll get in, never fear," said the intruder, and he led the way to the corn barn, his uncle unwillingly following and protesting that it would be quite impossible to enter.
Reaching the building, he stepped back and was about to kick open the door, when old Paul hurriedly interposed, saying, "No, no, I've found the key."
His nephew took it from his hand, and unlocking the door, brought out a liberal supply of potatoes, beets and squashes.
"We'll have a good dinner, after all," he said. "You don't half know how to live, Uncle Paul. You need me here. You've got plenty around you, but you don't know how to use it."
The free and easy manner in which his nephew conducted himself was peculiarly annoying and exasperating to the old man, but as often as he was impelled to speak, the sight of his nephew's resolute face and vigorous frame, which he found it difficult to connect with his recollections of young Ben, terrified him into silence, and he contented himself with following his nephew around uneasily with looks of suspicion.
When the dinner was prepared both sat down to partake of it, but Ben quietly, and, as a matter of course, assumed the place of host and carved the fowl. Notwithstanding the shock which his economical notions had received, the farmer ate with appetite the best meal of which he had partaken for a long time. Ben had not vaunted too highly his skill as a cook. Wherever he had acquired it, he evidently understood the preparation of such a dinner as now lay before them.
"Now, Uncle Paul, if we only had a mug of cider to wash down the dinner. Haven't you got some somewhere?"
"Not a drop."
"Don't you think I might find some stored away in the cellar, for instance?" asked Ben, fixing his glance upon his uncle's face.
"No, no; didn't I tell you I hadn't got any?" returned Paul Nichols, with petulance and alarm.
"I mean to see what else you have in the cellar," said Ben, to himself, "before I leave this place. There's a reason for that pale face of yours." But he only said aloud, "Well, if you haven't got any we must do without it. There's a little more of the chicken left. As you don't want it I'll appropriate it. Nothing like clearing up things. Come, this is rather better than dry bread, isn't it?"
"It's very expensive," said the miser, ruefully.
"Well, you can afford it, Uncle Paul--there's a comfort in that. I suppose you are pretty rich, eh?"
"Rich!" repeated Paul, in dismay. "What put such a thing into your head?"
"Not your style of living, you may be sure of that."
"I am poor, Benjamin. You mustn't think otherwise. I live as well as I can afford."
"Then what have you been doing with your savings all these years?"
"My savings! It has taken all I had to live. There isn't any money to be made in farming. It's hard work and poor pay."
"You used to support your family comfortably when you had one."
"Don't--don't speak of them. I can't bear it," said Paul, his countenance changing. "When I had them I was happy."
"And now you're not. Well, I don't wonder at it. It must be dismal enough living alone. You need somebody with you. I am your nephew and nearest relation. I feel that it is my duty to stay with you."
The expression of dismay which overspread the old man's face at this declaration was ludicrous.
"You stay with me?" he repeated, in a tone of alarm.
"Yes, for a time at least. We'll be company for each other, won't we, Uncle Paul?"
"No, no; there's no room."
"No room? You don't mean to say that you need the whole house?"
"I mean I cannot afford to have you here. Besides I'm used to being alone. I prefer it."
"That's complimentary, at any rate. You prefer to be alone rather than to have me with you?"
"Don't be offended, Benjamin. I've been alone so many years. Besides you'd feel dull here. You wouldn't like it."
"I'll try it and see. What room are you going to give me?"
"You'd better go away."
"Well, uncle, we'll talk about that to-morrow. You're very considerate in fearing it will be dull for me, but I've roamed about the world so much that I shall be glad of a little dullness. So it's all settled. And now, Uncle Paul, if you don't object I'll take out my pipe and have a smoke. I always smoke after dinner."
He lit his pipe, and throwing himself back in a chair, began to puff away leisurely, his uncle surveying him with fear and embarrassment. Why should his graceless nephew turn up, after so many years, in the form of this big, broad-shouldered, heavy-bearded stranger, only to annoy him, and thrust his unwelcome company upon him?
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