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CHAPTER III


UNCLE EZRA THREATENS


Dick had not paid a visit to his Uncle Ezra since he could remember. He dimly recalled being there when a small boy, and had a hazy memory of a fine big house, but very gloomy, standing in the midst of large grounds that seemed more like a cemetery than anything else. Of his uncle and aunt he had but a faint recollection, and when he stood on the depot platform the next morning, waiting for his train, he was in no very happy frame of mind.

For Dick liked fun, and jolly companions, and did not relish being sent off to visit relatives who were almost strangers to him, even though Mr. Larabee was his mother's only brother.

"I don't fancy I'm going to have a very good time," mused the youth, as the train was whizzing him along toward Dankville. "Still, I'm going to fulfill the conditions of the will as far as I can. Make a paying investment, eh? I wonder if I can do it? But, of course, I can. I'll buy some building lots, stocks or bonds, and sell 'em at a profit. I'll do it as soon as I get home, and then I'll not have to worry aoout the matter any more," he added lightly, as if making money was the easiest thing in the world.

Dankville was a country village about a hundred miles from Hamilton Corners. When Dick alighted at the station he looked around in some surprise. The place seemed to be absolutely deserted. There was no one in sight but the station agent, and, as soon as the train pulled out, he disappeared into his office.

"Not a very pleasant reception," mused Dick, as he sat down on the upturned end of his dress-suit case. "Not exactly a brass band out to meet me. I wonder how I get to Uncle Ezra's place? Guess I'll ask the man."

He started toward the ticket office, but, as he approached it, he saw a carriage driving up to the platform. In the vehicle sat an elderly man with a little tuft of white chin whiskers, which moved to and fro in a curious manner every time he spoke to the horse, which was frequently necessary, as the animal seemed to need much urging to induce it to continue its journey.

"Whoa!" exclaimed the man, though there was no occasion for the command, as the horse was glad enough to stop. "Are you Richard Hamilton, son of Mortimer Hamilton?"

"I'm Dick. Are you Uncle Ezra?"

"Dick!" fairly snorted the elderly man. "You're Richard, that's what you were christened and that's what you must be called! I can't abide nicknames and I won't have 'em. You're Richard, do you hear?"

"Yes, sir," answered Dick, meekly enough, though there was an angry light in his eyes.

"Now, then, Richard, you've come to visit us for a certain purpose," went on his uncle. "What it is we needn't discuss now. The train was a little ahead of time or I'd been here sooner." Mr. Larabee did not seem to think that he might be a little late. "I always make it a point to be on time," he added. "Now, jump in. Your aunt has a meal ready and she musn't be kept waiting. I want you to understand from the start that everything is done on time in my house. We rise at a certain hour, and we have our meals at certain hours. Folks that come to see us have to do as we do or they don't get any meals. I hope you understand that."

"Yes, sir," replied Dick, his heart sinking down deeper than ever. It was worse than he had thought. Still the idea of a meal, after his long ride, seemed good.

Mr. Larabee's fine country home was considered one of the best places in that part of the state. There was not a crooked fence on it, the gravel walks were as trim as though no one had ever stepped on their surface, and the grass was always cut to a certain length. The house was always painted at a certain time of the year, as were also the barns, and the place looked almost like a picture in a book.

In fact, Mr. Larabee's neighbors used to say he never took any pleasure in it, as he was always so busy looking to see if a stick or a stone had not become misplaced, or if the paint on the house or barn was not chipping off.

"So this is Nephew Richard, is it?" asked a small, prim, rather thin-faced woman, as she came to the door when the carriage containing Dick and his uncle drove up the path. "I'm glad to see you, Nephew Richard," she went on, extending a cold and clammy hand, and giving Dick a little peck that seemed more like a nip from a bird than a kiss.

"Is dinner ready?" asked Mr. Larabee.

"You know it is, Ezra," replied his wife. "I'll serve it as soon as you put the horse up. Come in, Nephew Richard, but be sure and wipe your feet."

She watched Dick while he scraped off an invisible quantity of dust from his shoes that had scarcely touched the ground that morning. After giving them what he thought was a good polishing on the mat, he started to enter the front hall.

"Wait!" almost screamed his aunt. "There's a little mud on that left heel!"

Dick obligingly gave it another scrape on the mat and started in.

"One moment, Nephew Richard," said Mrs. Larabee, in almost imploring accents. "Let me wipe your satchel off before you go in. I'm afraid it's dusty from the drive, and I can't bear dust in my house."

She kept Dick waiting on the front steps while she went in and got a cloth, with which she carefull wiped off the dress-suit case, though Dick did not see how there could be any dust on it, as it had been covered with the lap robe all the way.

"Now you may come in," Aunt Samantha said, as graciously as was possible. "Welcome to The Firs. We call our place The Firs," she went on, "because there are so many fir trees around it. It makes it dark and keeps the flies out."

It certainly made it dark, for as Dick entered the hall he could hardly see, and had to proceed by the sense of feeling.

"We never open this part of the house, except for company," Mrs. Larabee went on. "Ezra and I use the back door, as it saves wear and tear. Now, if you'll come with me, I'll show you to your room and you can take off your good clothes and put on a rough suit."

"I haven't any rougher suit than this," said Dick, looking at the garments he wore. "I've got another suit in the case, but it's newer than this."

"Mercy, child!" exclaimed his aunt. "Would you wear such clothes around every day?"

"I always have," replied Dick simply.

"Well, I never heard tell the like of that! What does your father—but, there, I forgot. I know Mortimer Hamilton. He doesn't care how he throws money away!"

"My father never throws money away!" exclaimed Dick, always ready to champion his parent. "He thinks it pays to buy good clothes, as they wear better than cheap ones."

"Such wastefulness," sighed the aunt, as she led the way upstairs. "But it's no use talking. However, if you come to live here—"

She did not finish the sentence, but Dick registered a mental vow that it would be a long day before he would voluntarily come to live at The Firs.

He was shown into a small room, plainly furnished, containing a small cot bed.

"As you are only to stay a week, I thought it would make less work for me if you had this room," said Mrs. Larabee. "It used to be the servant's, but I don't keep any now. They are too expensive. Now be very careful. Always take your shoes off when you come upstairs, as I can't be always cleaning and dusting. Don't throw your things around, and keep the shutters closed so the flies won't get in. When you are ready come down to dinner."

"Well, if this doesn't get me!" exclaimed Dick, when his aunt had left him alone and he had dropped down on the edge of the cot. "This certainly is the limit. If I didn't know differently I'd say Uncle Ezra had lost all his money. I guess he's got it salted down and hates to take it out of the brine. Well, I'll see what they have for dinner before I make up my mind any further."

The meal, though plain, was good, and to a boy with Dick's appetite, nothing came amiss. But it was small pleasure to dine when two pair of eyes were almost constantly watching him.

"Don't get any of the gravy on the table cloth," cautioned Mrs. Larabee. "It was clean this week, and I don't want to have to put another one on before Sunday."

Dick felt a guilty flush come over his face as he saw that he had dropped a small piece of butter on the cloth. But he thought it wisest to say nothing.

"Aren't you going to eat that crust of bread?" asked his uncle, as Dick laid aside a portion that was burned black.

"It's a little too—too brown," replied the boy, who did not fancy burned bread.

"That makes it all the better," said Mr. Larabee. "Bread should be well cooked to be digestible. Always eat your crusts. 'Sinful waste makes woeful want,' as the proverb says. I had to eat my crusts when I was young."

Dick managed to get it down, and the meal finally came to a close. He felt considerably better after it, and when his uncle proposed a walk around the place, he was ready to accompany Mr. Larabee.

Dick found much to admire in the well-kept grounds. Several men were at work, and the manner in which they hastened with their tasks when their employer approached spoke volumes for the way in which they regarded him.

Dick paused in the stable to admire the horses, of which his uncle kept several. Without thinking he pulled a wisp of hay from a bale and offered it to one of the animals.

"Don't do that!" exclaimed his uncle sharply. "You'll scatter it all over the barn. The man has just swept the place up, and I don't like a litter of dirt around."

He stopped to pick up some pieces of hay Dick had inadvertently dropped, and looked so cross that the boy wished he had kept out of the stable.

However, Mr. Larabee seemed a bit ashamed of himself a little later, for he showed Dick where he could find some withered apples to feed to the pigs.

"Only don't scatter 'em on the ground," he cautioned. "I hate to see apples thrown about. I keep a man to look after the orchard, and I like it nice and tidy."

Now Dick was not a careless youth, but he thought this was carrying things a little too far. However, he brightened up a bit when his uncle announced that he had to leave his nephew to his own devices for a time, as he had some duties to attend to.

Dick managed to while away the afternoon looking at the sights around the place, for his uncle had a large farm, though he was wealthy enough not to need the income from it. Still he was the kind of a man who can not own the smallest bit of land without putting it to some use.

Dick looked about for a sight of some lads of his own age with whom he might become acquainted and enjoy his enforced visit to Dankville, but boys seemed a scarce article around The Firs.

He strolled back to the house, and, not seeing his aunt about, and being desirous of exploring the rather stately mansion, he started on a tour of it. Through the darkened hall he went until he came to what he thought would be the parlor. He opened the door, though it creaked on rusty hinges.

The room was so dark he could see nothing, and, having heard his father say that there were some choice oil paintings at The Firs, he opened a window to get light enough to view them. He had a hard task, as it seemed the sash and shutters had not been moved since they were built, but finally a stream of light entered the gloomy apartment, with the horse-hair furniture arranged stiffly against the wall.

Dick caught sight of a large painting and was going closer to examine it when he heard a shriek in the open doorway.

"Mercy sakes, Richard! Whatever have you done?" he heard his aunt call.

"Why, I just opened a window to let some light in, so I could see the pictures," he answered.

"Light? In this room? Why, Richard Hamilton! This room hasn't been opened in years! We never think of letting light in the parlor. The carpet might fade. Oh, Richard, I am so sorry! If I thought you would have opened a window I would have locked the door. Shut it and come out at once! Mercy sakes!"

Much abashed, Dick closed the shutters and window and walked out. His aunt ran and got a broom, with which she brushed the carpet where he had stepped, though how she could see any dust in that gloom was more than the boy could understand.

"Never, never go in there again," cautioned his aunt. "We never open that room except—for funerals."

"I guess that's all it's good for," thought Dick.

He sat around, very miserable, the remainder of the afternoon, and had little appetite for supper, which was rather a scant meal; some preserves, bread and weak tea making up the repast.

"I think I'll take a stroll to the village," remarked the youth, as he arose from the table.

"Where?" asked his aunt, as if she had not heard aright.

"To the village. I'd like to see what's going on."

"There's nothing going on," replied his uncle. "The village is five miles from here. Besides, we go to bed early, and I don't allow any one in my house, visitor or otherwise, to come in with a latch key. You'd better stay here, read some good book to improve your mind, and retire early. That's what I do, and I find it pays."

Dick groaned. He now knew the meaning of his father's queer smile.

"Then I'll walk around outside the house for a while to get some air," proposed Dick.

"I'd rather you wouldn't," came from Mr. Larabee, as he squirmed uneasily in his chair. "The gravel walks have just been raked smooth, and I hate to have 'em disturbed."

Dick did not answer, but sat in his chair silently, while his aunt cleared off the supper table. When the lamps were lighted, which was not done until it was quite dark, Mr. Larabee handed Dick a book. The boy hoped it might be some tale of adventures that would help pass away the hours, but on looking at the title he saw it was "Pilgrim's Progress."

"I guess I'll go to bed," he announced, and his aunt and uncle gave an audible sigh of relief.

The next morning Dick, without saying anything to Mr. or Mrs. Larabee, walked to the railroad station. There he sent a telegram to his father. It read:


"Dear Dad. This place is fierce. Can't I come home? Wire me quick."

He said he would wait at the station for an answer, and he was a little sorry when it came, as it meant he would have to go back to the dismal house. His father's reply was:


"Dear Dick. To fulfill the conditions you must remain a week. Do the best you can and let it be a lesson to you."


"Be a lesson to me?" mused Dick. "Oh, I see! He means I must make that investment so I won't have to come here and live."

On his return Dick entered the house at the rear door, pausing momentarily to wipe his feet. But his aunt was watching for him.

"Richard," she said severely. "They're not half clean. I can see dirt on them."

"Oh," he began, but he kept silent, and, instead of entering, turned into the orchard. There, at least, he would not be corrected. His uncle found him there a little later, as Dick was sitting idly under a tree.

"Haven't you anything to occupy yourself with?" asked Mr. Larabee severely.

"No," answered Dick. "There's no one to get up a baseball game with around here, as far as I can see."

"Boys shouldn't always be playing," commented Mr. Larabee. "You should labor to improve your mind. Why don't you read that book I gave you last night?"

"I don't care for it."

"That's the way with the rising generation. Frivolous! frivolous!"

"School has closed for the term," said Dick. "I'm done with studying, and that book looked as if it was to be studied."

"It was," replied his uncle. "It merits being well studied. But it's what I expected of you. It's the way that you have been brought up."

"I guess my father brought me up in the way he thought best," fired back Dick.

"Well, his way is very different from mine—very different," and Mr. Larabee shook his head as though to indicate that a great mistake had been made. "Then there's your mother's will," he went on. "The idea of leaving that big fortune to a boy like you. It's wicked! It's a terrible risk! A terrible risk! What a foolish woman she was! But then it's all you can expect of a woman!"

"Look here, Uncle Ezra!" exclaimed Dick, rising to his feet, his brown eyes sparkling in a dangerous way, and a red flush showing on his cheeks. "I don't want you to speak that way of my mother!"

"She was my sister, and I say she made a foolish will!" stormed the old man.

"She was my mother!" replied Dick hotly, "and I'll not have her spoken of in that way! She knew what she was doing! She was the best woman that ever lived and—and much better than you are with your ideas of what is good. You musn't speak so of her! I'll not stand it!"

"Look here, young man!" exclaimed Mr. Larabee. "I guess you forget who you're talking to."

"No, I don't!"

"I won't have such language used toward me. I say your mother made a foolish will, and I know what I'm talking about."

"If you say that again I'll—I'll—" and then Dick paused. After all this man was his mother's brother, and he knew how his parent would have gently reproved him had she been alive. The memory of her took all the hard feeling out of his heart.

"I'm sorry I spoke so hastily, Uncle Ezra," he said in a low voice. "But I can't bear to have my mother referred to in that way. I think she did what was right, and I know my father does also."

"Humph, little he knows about it," snorted Mr. Larabee. "Just you wait until you come under my care, young man, and I'll show you what's what! I'll teach you how to behave to your elders," and, in great indignation, the old man trudged off.

Dick started. He had, for the moment, forgotten that portion of his mother's will which, under certain conditions, would compel him to live with his uncle and aunt.

"Live with them?" thought the boy. "Go to a boarding school they might select? Not much! I must make some kind of a paying investment within a year, if only to escape their clutches!"