Chapter XIX. A Cool Reception
 

"This isn't quite the reception I expected," thought Ben. He was provoked with the disagreeable woman who persisted in regarding and treating him as an intruder, but he was not nervous or alarmed. He knew that things would come right, and that Mrs. Hill and her promising son would see their mistake. He had half a mind to let Conrad call a policeman, and then turn the tables upon his foes. But, he knew that this would be disagreeable to Mrs. Hamilton, whose feelings he was bound to consider.

"Before you call a policeman," he said quietly, "it may be well for you to read this letter."

As he spoke handed Mrs. Hill the letter he had received from Mrs. Hamilton.

Mrs. Hill took the letter suspiciously, and glared over it. As she read, a spot of red glowed in each pallid check, and she bit her lips in annoyance.

"I don't understand it," she said slowly.

Ben did not feel called upon to explain what was perfectly intelligible. He saw that Mrs. Hill didn't want to understand it.

"What is it, ma?" asked Conrad, his curiosity aroused.

"You can read it for yourself, Conrad," returned his mother.

"Is he coming to live here?" ejaculated Conrad, astonished, indicating Ben with a jerk of his finger.

"If this letter is genuine," said Mrs. Hill, with at significant emphasis on the last word.

"If it is not, Mrs. Hamilton will be sure to tell you so," said Ben, provoked.

"Come out, Conrad; I want to speak to you," said his mother.

Without ceremony, they left Ben in the parlor alone, and withdrew to another part of the house, where they held a conference.

"What does it all mean, ma?" asked Conrad.

"It means that your prospects are threatened, my poor boy. Cousin Hamilton, who is very eccentric, has taken a fancy to this boy, and she is going to confer favors upon him at your expense. It is too bad!"

"I'd like to break his head!" said Conrad, scowling.

"It won't do, Conrad, to fight him openly. We must do what we can in an underhand way to undermine him with Cousin Hamilton. She ought to make you her heir, as she has no children of her own."

"I don't think she likes me," said the boy. "She only gives me two dollars a week allowance, and she scolded me the other day because she met me in the hall smoking a cigarette."

"Be sure not to offend her, Conrad. A great deal depends on it. Two dollars ought to answer for the present. When you are a young man, you may be in very different circumstances."

"I don't know about that," grumbled Conrad. "I may get two dollars a week then, but what's that?"

"You may be a wealthy man!" said his mother impressively. "Cousin Hamilton is not so healthy as she looks. I have a suspicion that her heart is affected. She might die suddenly."

"Do you really think so?" said Conrad eagerly.

"I think so. What you must try to do is to stand well with her, and get her to make her will in your favor. I will attend to that, if you will do as I tell you."

"She may make this boy her heir," said Conrad discontentedly. "Then where would I be?"

"She won't do it, if I can help it," said Mrs. Hill with an emphatic nod. "I will manage to make trouble between them. You will always be my first interest, my dear boy."

She made a motion to kiss her dear boy, but Conrad, who was by no means of an affectionate disposition, moved his head suddenly, with an impatient exclamation, "Oh, bother!"

A pained look came over the mother's face, for she loved her son, unattractive and disagreeable as he was, with a love the greater because she loved no one else in the world. Mother and son were selfish alike, but the son the more so, for he had not a spark of love for any human being.

"There's the bell!" said Mrs. Hill suddenly. "I do believe Cousin Hamilton has come. Now we shall find out whether this boy's story is true."

"Let's go downstairs, ma! I hope it's all a mistake and she'll send me for a policeman."

"I am afraid the boy's story is correct. But his day will be short."

When they reached the hall, Mrs. Hamilton had already been admitted to the house.

"There's a boy in the drawing room, Mrs. Hamilton," said Mrs. Hill, "who says he is to stay here--that you sent for him."

"Has he come already?" returned Mrs. Hamilton. "I am glad of it."

"Then you did send for him?"

"Of course. Didn't I mention it to you? I hardly expected he would come so soon."

She opened the door of the drawing room, and approached Ben, with extended hand and a pleasant smile.

"Welcome to New York, Ben," she said. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting long?"

"Not very long," answered Ben, shaking her hand.

"This is my cousin Mrs. Hill, who relieves me of part of my housekeeping care," continued Mrs. Hamilton, "and this is her son, Conrad. Conrad, this is a companion for you, Benjamin Barclay, who will be a new member of our small family."

"I hope you are well, Conrad," said Ben, with a smile, to the boy who but a short time before was going for a policeman to put him under arrest.

"I'm all right," said Conrad ungraciously.

"Really, Cousin Hamilton, this is a surprise" said Mrs. Hill. "You are quite kind to provide Conrad with a companion, but I don't think he felt the need of any, except his mother--and you."

Mrs. Hamilton laughed. She saw that neither Mrs. Hill nor Conrad was glad to see Ben, and this was only what she expected, and, indeed, this was the chief reason why she had omitted to mention Ben's expected arrival.

"You give me too much credit," she said, "if you think I invited this young gentleman here solely as a companion to Conrad. I shall have some writing and accounts for him to attend to."

"I am sure Conrad would have been glad to serve you in that way, Cousin Hamilton," said Mrs. Hill. "I am sorry you did not give him the first chance."

"Conrad wouldn't have suited me," said Mrs. Hamilton bluntly.

"Perhaps I may not be competent," suggested Ben modestly.

"We can tell better after trying you," said his patroness. "As for Conrad, I have obtained a position for him. He is to enter the offices of Jones & Woodhull, on Pearl Street, to-morrow. You will take an early breakfast, Conrad, for it will be necessary for you to be at the office at eight o'clock."

"How much am I to get?" asked Conrad.

"Four dollars a week. I shall let you have all this in lieu of the weekly allowance I pay you, but will provide you with clothing, as heretofore, so that this will keep you liberally supplied with pocket money."

"Conrad's brow cleared. He was lazy, and did not enjoy going to work, but the increase of his allowance would be satisfactory.

"And now, Ben, Mrs. Hill will kindly show you your room. It is the large hall bedroom on the third floor. When you have unpacked your valise, and got to feel at home, come downstairs, and we will have a little conversation upon business. You will find me in the sitting room, on the next floor."

"Thank you," said Ben politely, and he followed the pallid cousin upstairs. He was shown into a handsomely furnished room, bright and cheerful.

"This is a very pleasant room," he said.

"You won't occupy it long!" said Mrs. Hill to herself. "No one will step into my Conrad's place, if I can help it."