Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter IV
Everything was "at sixes and sevens," as the saying is, in the room Mr. Mudge and Paul had just entered. In the midst of the scene was a large stout woman, in a faded calico dress, and sleeves rolled up, working as if her life or the world's destiny depended upon it.
It was evident from the first words of Mr. Mudge that this lady was his helpmeet.
"Well, wife," he said, "I've brought you another boarder. You must try to make him as happy and contented as the rest of 'em are."
From the tone of the speaker, the last words might be understood to be jocular.
Mrs. Mudge, whose style of beauty was not improved by a decided squint, fixed a scrutinizing gaze upon Paul, and he quite naturally returned it.
"Haven't you ever seen anybody before, boy? I guess you'll know me next time."
"Shouldn't wonder if he did," chuckled Mr. Mudge.
"I don't know where on earth we shall put him," remarked the lady. "We're full now."
"Oh, put him anywhere. I suppose you won't be very particular about your accommodations?" said Mr. Mudge turning to Paul.
Paul very innocently answered in the negative, thereby affording Mr. Mudge not a little amusement.
"Well, that's lucky," he said, "because our best front chamber's occupied just now. We'd have got it ready for you if you'd only wrote a week ago to tell us you were coming. You can just stay round here," he said in a different tone as he was about leaving the room, "Mrs. Mudge will maybe want you to do something for her. You can sit down till she calls on you."
It was washing day with Mrs. Mudge, and of course she was extremely busy. The water was to be brought from a well in the yard, and to this office Paul was at once delegated. It was no easy task, the full pails tugging most unmercifully at his arms. However, this was soon over, and Mrs. Mudge graciously gave him permission to go into the adjoining room, and make acquaintance with his fellow-boarders.
There were nine of them in all, Paul, the newcomer making the tenth. They were all advanced in years, except one young woman, who was prevented by mental aberration from supporting herself outside the walls of the Institution.
Of all present, Paul's attention was most strongly attracted towards one who appeared more neatly and scrupulously attired than any of the rest.
Aunt Lucy Lee, or plain Aunt Lucy, for in her present abode she had small use for her last name, was a benevolent-looking old lady, who both in dress and manners was distinguished from her companions. She rose from her knitting, and kindly took Paul by the hand. Children are instinctive readers of character, and Paul, after one glance at her benevolent face, seated himself contentedly beside her.
"I suppose," said the old lady, socially, "you've come to live with us. We must do all we can to make you comfortable. Your name is Paul Prescott, I think Mrs. Mudge said."
"Yes, ma'am" answered Paul, watching the rapid movement of the old lady's fingers.
"Mine is Aunt Lucy," she continued, "that is what everybody calls me. So now we know each other, and shall soon be good friends, I hope. I suppose you have hardly been here long enough to tell how you shall like it."
Paul confessed that thus far he did not find it very pleasant.
"No, I dare say not," said Aunt Lucy, "I can't say I think it looks very attractive myself. However, it isn't wholly the fault of Mr. and Mrs. Mudge. They can't afford to do much better, for the town allows them very little."
Aunt Lucy's remarks were here interrupted by the apparition of the worthy landlady at the door.
"Dinner's ready, folks," said that lady, with little ceremony, "and you must come out quick if you want any, for I'm drove with work, and can't be hindered long."
The summons was obeyed with alacrity, and the company made all haste to the dining-room, or rather the kitchen, for it was here that the meals were eaten.
In the center of the room was set a table without a cloth, a table-cloth being considered a luxury quite superfluous. Upon this were placed several bowls of thin, watery liquid, intended for soup, but which, like city milk, was diluted so as hardly to be distinguishable. Beside each bowl was a slice of bread.
Such was the bill of fare.
"Now, folks, the sooner you fall to the better," exclaimed the energetic Mrs. Mudge, who was one of those driving characters, who consider any time spent at the table beyond ten minutes as so much time wasted.
The present company appeared to need no second invitation. Their scanty diet had the positive advantage of giving them a good appetite; otherwise the quality of their food might have daunted them.
Paul took his place beside Aunt Lucy. Mechanically he did as the rest, carrying to his mouth a spoonful of the liquid. But his appetite was not sufficiently accustomed to Poor House regime to enable him to relish its standing dish, and he laid down his spoon with a disappointed look.
He next attacked the crust of bread, but found it too dry to be palatable.
"Please, ma'am," said he to Mrs. Mudge, "I should like some butter."
Paul's companions dropped their spoons in astonishment at his daring, and Mrs. Mudge let fall a kettle she was removing from the fire, in sheer amazement.
"What did you ask for?" she inquired, as if to make sure that her ears did not deceive her.
"A little butter," repeated Paul, unconscious of the great presumption of which he had been guilty.
"You want butter, do you?" repeated Mr. Mudge. "Perhaps you'd like a slice of beefsteak and a piece of plum-pudding too, wouldn't you?"
"I should very much," said Paul, resolved to tell the truth, although he now began to perceive the sarcasm in his landlady's tone.
"There isn't anything more you would like, is there?" inquired the lady, with mock politeness.
"No, ma'am," returned Paul after a pause, "I believe not, to-day."
"Very moderate, upon my word," exclaimed Mrs. Mudge, giving vent at length to her pent- up indignation. "You'll be contented with butter and roast beef and plum-pudding! A mighty fine gentleman, to be sure. But you won't get them here, I'll be bound."
"So will I," thought Aunt Lucy.
"If you ain't satisfied with what I give you," pursued Mrs. Mudge, "you'd better go somewhere else. You can put up at some of the great hotels. Butter, forsooth!"
Having thus given expression to her feelings, she left the room, and Paul was left to finish his dinner with the best appetite he could command. He was conscious that he had offended Mrs. Mudge, but the thoughts of his recent great sorrow swallowed up all minor annoyances, so that the words of his estimable landlady were forgotten almost as soon as they were uttered. He felt that he must henceforth look for far different treatment from that to which he had been accustomed during his father's lifetime.
His thoughts were interrupted in a manner somewhat ludicrous, by the crazy girl who sat next to him coolly appropriating to herself his bowl of soup, having already disposed of her own.
"Look," said Aunt Lucy, quickly, calling Paul's attention, "you are losing your dinner."
"Never mind," said Paul, amused in spite of his sadness, "she is quite welcome to it if she likes it; I can't eat it."
So the dinner began and ended. It was very brief and simple, occupying less than ten minutes, and comprising only one course-- unless the soup was considered the first course, and the bread the second. Paul left the table as hungry as he came to it. Aunt Lucy's appetite had become accustomed to the Mudge diet, and she wisely ate what was set before her, knowing that there was no hope of anything better.
About an hour after dinner Ben Newcome came to the door of the Poor House and inquired for Paul.
Mrs. Mudge was in one of her crusty moods.
"You can't see him," said she.
"And why not?" said Ben, resolutely.
"Because he's busy."
"You'd better let me see him," said Ben, sturdily.
"I should like to know what's going to happen if I don't," said Mrs. Mudge, with wrathful eyes, and arms akimbo.
"I shall go home and report to my father," said Ben, coolly.
"Who is your father?" asked Mrs. Mudge, for she did not recognize her visitor.
"My father's name is Newcome--Squire Newcome, some call him."
Now it so happened that Squire Newcome was Chairman of the Overseers of the Poor, and in that capacity might remove Mr. Mudge from office if he pleased. Accordingly Mrs. Mudge softened down at once, on learning that Ben was his son.
"Oh," said she, "I didn't know who it was. I thought it might be some idle boy from the village who would only take Paul from his work, but if you have a message from your father----"
This she said to ascertain whether he really had any message or not, but Ben, who had in fact come without his father's knowledge, only bowed, and said, in a patronizing manner, "I accept your apology, Mrs. Mudge. Will you have the goodness to send Paul out?"
"Won't you step in?" asked Mrs. Mudge with unusual politeness.
"No, I believe not."
Paul was accordingly sent out.
He was very glad to meet his schoolmate and playfellow, Ben, who by his gayety, spiced though it was with roguery, had made himself a general favorite in school.
"I say, Paul," said Ben, "I'm sorry to find you in such a place."
"It isn't very pleasant," said Paul, rather soberly.
"And that woman--Mrs. Mudge--she looks as if she might be a regular spitfire, isn't she?"
"I only wish the old gentleman--meaning of course, the Squire--would take you to live with me. I want a fellow to play with. But I say, Paul, go and get your hat, and we'll go out for a walk."
"I don't know what Mrs. Mudge will say," said Paul, who had just come from turning the handle of a churn.
"Just call Mrs. Mudge, and I'll manage it."
Mrs. Mudge being summoned, made her appearance at the door.
"I presume, ma'am," said Ben, confidently, "you will have no objection to Paul's taking a walk with me while I deliver the message I am entrusted with."
"Certainly," said Mrs. Mudge, rather unwillingly, but not venturing to refuse.
"It takes me to come it over the old lady," said Ben, when they were out of hearing.
"Now, we'll go a fishing."