Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter IX
Mr. Mudge was accustomed to call Paul at five o'clock, to milk the cows and perform other chores. He himself did not rise till an hour later. During Paul's sickness, he was obliged to take his place,--a thing he did not relish overmuch. Now that our hero had recovered, he gladly prepared to indulge himself in an extra nap.
"Paul!" called Mr. Mudge from the bottom of the staircase leading up into the attic, "it's five o'clock; time you were downstairs."
Mr. Mudge waited for an answer, but none came.
"Paul!" repeated Mr. Mudge in a louder tone, "it's time to get up; tumble out there."
Again there was no answer.
At first, Mr. Mudge thought it might be in consequence of Paul's sleeping so soundly, but on listening attentively, he could not distinguish the deep and regular breathing which usually accompanies such slumber.
"He must be sullen," he concluded, with a feeling of irritation. "If he is, I'll teach him----"
Without taking time to finish the sentence, he bounded up the rickety staircase, and turned towards the bed with the intention of giving our hero a smart shaking.
He looked with astonishment at the empty bed. "Is it possible," he thought, "that Paul has already got up? He isn't apt to do so before he is called."
At this juncture, Mrs. Mudge, surprised at her husband's prolonged absence, called from below, "Mr. Mudge!"
"What in the name of wonder keeps you up there so long?"
"Just come up and see."
Mrs. Mudge did come up. Her husband pointed to the empty bed.
"What do you think of that?" he asked.
"What about it?" she inquired, not quite comprehending.
"About that boy, Paul. When I called him I got no answer, so I came up, and behold he is among the missing."
"You don't think he's run away, do you?" asked Mrs. Mudge startled.
"That is more than I know."
"I'll see if his clothes are here," said his wife, now fully aroused.
Her search was unavailing. Paul's clothes had disappeared as mysteriously as their owner.
"It's a clear case," said Mr. Mudge, shaking his head; "he's gone. I wouldn't have lost him for considerable. He was only a boy, but I managed to get as much work out of him as a man. The question is now, what shall we do about it?"
"He must be pursued," said Mrs. Mudge, with vehemence, "I'll have him back if it costs me twenty dollars. I'll tell you what, husband," she exclaimed, with a sudden light breaking in upon her, "if there's anybody in this house knows where he's gone, it is Aunt Lucy Lee. Only last week I caught her knitting him a pair of stockings. I might have known what it meant if I hadn't been a fool."
"Ha, ha! So you might, if you hadn't been a fool!" echoed a mocking voice.
Turning with sudden anger, Mrs. Mudge beheld the face of the crazy girl peering up at her from below.
This turned her thoughts into a different channel.
"I'll teach you what I am," she exclaimed, wrathfully descending the stairs more rapidly than she had mounted them, "and if you know anything about the little scamp, I'll have it out of you."
The girl narrowly succeeded in eluding the grasp of her pursuer. But, alas! for Mrs. Mudge. In her impetuosity she lost her footing, and fell backward into a pail of water which had been brought up the night before and set in the entry for purposes of ablution. More wrathful than ever, Mrs. Mudge bounced into her room and sat down in her dripping garments in a very uncomfortable frame of mind. As for Paul, she felt a personal dislike for him, and was not sorry on some accounts to have him out of the house. The knowledge, however, that he had in a manner defied her authority by running away, filled her with an earnest desire to get him back, if only to prove that it was not to be defied with impunity.
Hoping to elicit some information from Aunt Lucy, who, she felt sure, was in Paul's confidence, she paid her a visit.
"Well, here's a pretty goings on," she commenced, abruptly. Finding that Aunt Lucy manifested no curiosity on the subject, she continued, in a significant tone, "Of course, YOU don't know anything about it."
"I can tell better when I know what you refer to," said the old lady calmly.
"Oh, you are very ignorant all at once. I suppose you didn't know Paul Prescott had run away?"
"I am not surprised," said the old lady, in the same quiet manner.
Mrs. Mudge had expected a show of astonishment, and this calmness disconcerted her.
"You are not surprised!" she retorted. "I presume not, since you knew all about it beforehand. That's why you were knitting him some stockings. Deny it, if you dare."
"I have no disposition to deny it."
"You haven't!" exclaimed the questioner, almost struck dumb with this audacity.
"No," said Aunt Lucy. "Why should I? There was no particular inducement for him to stay here. Wherever he goes, I hope he will meet with good friends and good treatment."
"As much as to say he didn't find them here. Is that what you mean?"
"I have no charges to bring."
"But I have," said Mrs. Mudge, her eyes lighting with malicious satisfaction. "Last night you missed a ten-dollar gold piece, which you saw was stolen from you. This morning it appears that Paul Prescott has run away. I charge him with the theft."
"You do not, can not believe this," said the old lady, uneasily.
"Of course I do," returned Mrs. Mudge, triumphantly, perceiving her advantage. "I have no doubt of it, and when we get the boy back, he shall be made to confess it."
Aunt Lucy looked troubled, much to the gratification of Mrs. Mudge. It was but for a short time, however. Rising from her seat, she stood confronting Mrs. Mudge, and said quietly, but firmly, "I have no doubt, Mrs. Mudge, you are capable of doing what you say. I would advise you, however, to pause. You know, as well as I do, that Paul is incapable of this theft. Even if he were wicked enough to form the idea, he would have no need, since it was my intention to GIVE him this money. Who did actually steal the gold, you PERHAPS know better than I. Should it be necessary, I shall not hesitate to say so. I advise you not to render it necessary."
The threat which lay in these words was understood. It came with the force of a sudden blow to Mrs. Mudge, who had supposed it would be no difficult task to frighten and silence Aunt Lucy. The latter had always been so yielding in all matters relating to herself, that this intrepid championship of Paul's interests was unlooked for. The tables were completely turned. Pale with rage, and a mortified sense of having been foiled with her own weapons, Mrs. Mudge left the room.
Meanwhile her husband milked the cows, and was now occupied in performing certain other duties that could not be postponed, being resolved, immediately after breakfast was over, to harness up and pursue the runaway.
"Well, did you get anything out of the old lady?" he inquired, as he came from the barn with the full milk-pails.
"She said she knew beforehand that he was going."
"Eh!" said Mr. Mudge, pricking up his ears, "did she say where?"
"No, and she won't. She knit him a pair of stockings to help him off, and doesn't pretend to deny it. She's taken a wonderful fancy to the young scamp, and has been as obstinate as could be ever since he has been here."
"If I get him back," said Mr. Mudge, "he shall have a good flogging, if I am able to give him one, and she shall be present to see it."
"That's right," said Mrs. Mudge, approvingly, "when are you going to set out after him?"
"Right after breakfast. So be spry, and get it ready as soon as you can."
Under the stimulus of this inspiring motive, Mrs. Mudge bustled about with new energy, and before many minutes the meal was in readiness. It did not take long to dispatch it. Immediately afterwards, Mr. Mudge harnessed up, as he had determined, and started off in pursuit of our hero.
In the meantime the two boys had walked leisurely along, conversing on various subjects.
"When you get to the city, Paul," said John, "I shall want to hear from you. Will you write to me?"
Paul promised readily.
"You can direct to John Burges, Burrville. The postmaster knows me, and I shall be sure to get it."
"I wish you were going with me," said Paul.
"Sometimes when I think that I am all alone it discourages me. It would be so much pleasanter to have some one with me."
"I shall come sometime," said John, "when I am a little older. I heard father say something the other day about my going into a store in the city. So we may meet again."
"I hope we shall."
They were just turning a bend of the road, when Paul chanced to look backward. About a quarter of a mile back he descried a horse and wagon wearing a familiar look. Fixing his eyes anxiously upon them, he was soon made aware that his suspicions were only too well founded. It was Mr. Mudge, doubtless in quest of him.
"What shall I do?" he asked, hurriedly of his companion.
"What's the matter?"
This was quickly explained.
John was quickwitted, and he instantly decided upon the course proper to be pursued. On either side of the road was a growth of underbrush so thick as to be almost impenetrable.
"Creep in behind there, and be quick about it," directed John, "there is no time to lose."
"There," said he, after Paul had followed his advice, "if he can see you now he must have sharp eyes."
"Won't you come in too?"
"Not I," said John, "I am anxious to see this Mr. Mudge, since you have told me so much about him. I hope he will ask me some questions."
"What will you tell him?"
"Trust me for that. Don't say any more. He's close by."