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Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XI

This was the pedler's promised story about Mrs. Mudge.

"The last time I was round that way, I stopped, thinking maybe they might have some rags to dispose of for tin-ware. The old lady seemed glad to see me, and pretty soon she brought down a lot of white rags. I thought they seemed quite heavy for their bulk,-- howsomever, I wasn't looking for any tricks, and I let it go. By-and-by, when I happened to be ransacking one of the bags, I came across half a dozen pounds or more of old iron tied up in a white cloth. That let the cat out of the bag. I knew why they were so heavy, then, I reckon I shan't call on Mrs. Mudge next time I go by."

"So you've run off," he continued, after a pause, "I like your spunk,--just what I should have done myself. But tell me how you managed to get off without the old chap's finding it out."

Paul related such of his adventures as he had not before told, his companion listening with marked approval.

"I wish I'd been there," he said. "I'd have given fifty cents, right out, to see how old Mudge looked, I calc'late he's pretty well tired with his wild-goose chase by this time."

It was now twelve o'clock, and both the travelers began to feel the pangs of hunger.

"It's about time to bait, I calc'late," remarked the pedler.

The unsophisticated reader is informed that the word "bait," in New England phraseology, is applied to taking lunch or dining.

At this point a green lane opened out of the public road, skirted on either side by a row of trees. Carpeted with green, it made a very pleasant dining-room. A red-and-white heifer browsing at a little distance looked up from her meal and surveyed the intruders with mild attention, but apparently satisfied that they contemplated no invasion of her rights, resumed her agreeable employment. Over an irregular stone wall our travelers looked into a thrifty apple-orchard laden with fruit. They halted beneath a spreading chestnut-tree which towered above its neighbors, and offered them a grateful shelter from the noonday sun.

From the box underneath the seat, the pedler took out a loaf of bread, a slice of butter, and a tin pail full of doughnuts. Paul, on his side, brought out his bread and gingerbread.

"I most generally carry round my own provisions," remarked the pedler, between two mouthfuls. "It's a good deal cheaper and more convenient, too. Help yourself to the doughnuts. I always calc'late to have some with me. I'd give more for 'em any day than for rich cake that ain't fit for anybody. My mother used to beat everybody in the neighborhood on making doughnuts. She made 'em so good that we never knew when to stop eating. You wouldn't hardly believe it, but, when I was a little shaver, I remember eating twenty- three doughnuts at one time. Pretty nigh killed me."

"I should think it might," said Paul, laughing.

"Mother got so scared that she vowed she wouldn't fry another for three months, but I guess she kinder lost the run of the almanac, for in less than a week she turned out about a bushel more."

All this time the pedler was engaged in practically refuting the saying, that a man cannot do two things at once. With a little assistance from Paul, the stock of doughnuts on which he had been lavishing encomiums, diminished rapidly. It was evident that his attachment to this homely article of diet was quite as strong as ever.

"Don't be afraid of them," said he, seeing that Paul desisted from his efforts, "I've got plenty more in the box."

Paul signified that his appetite was already appeased.

"Then we might as well be jogging on. Hey, Goliah," said he, addressing the horse, who with an air of great content, had been browsing while his master was engaged in a similar manner. "Queer name for a horse, isn't it? I wanted something out of the common way, so I asked mother for a name, and she gave me that. She's great on scripture names, mother is. She gave one to every one of her children. It didn't make much difference to her what they were as long as they were in the Bible. I believe she used to open the Bible at random, and take the first name she happened to come across. There are eight of us, and nary a decent name in the lot. My oldest brother's name is Abimelech. Then there's Pharaoh, and Ishmael, and Jonadab, for the boys, and Leah and Naomi, for the girls; but my name beats all. You couldn't guess it?"

Paul shook his head.

"I don't believe you could," said the pedler, shaking his head in comic indignation. "It's Jehoshaphat. Ain't that a respectable name for the son of Christian parents?"

Paul laughed.

"It wouldn't be so bad," continued the pedler, "if my other name was longer; but Jehoshaphat seems rather a long handle to put before Stubbs. I can't say I feel particularly proud of the name, though for use it'll do as well as any other. At any rate, it ain't quite so bad as the name mother pitched on for my youngest sister, who was lucky enough to die before she needed a name."

"What was it?" inquired Paul, really curious to know what name could be considered less desirable than Jehoshaphat.

"It was Jezebel," responded the pedler.

"Everybody told mother 'twould never do; but she was kind of superstitious about it, because that was the first name she came to in the Bible, and so she thought it was the Lord's will that that name should be given to the child."

As Mr. Stubbs finished his disquisition upon names, there came in sight a small house, dark and discolored with age and neglect. He pointed this out to Paul with his whip-handle.

"That," said he, "is where old Keziah Onthank lives. Ever heard of him?"

Paul had not.

"He's the oldest man in these parts," pursued his loquacious companion. "There's some folks that seem a dyin' all the time, and for all that manage to outlive half the young folks in the neighborhood. Old Keziah Onthank is a complete case in p'int. As long ago as when I was cutting my teeth he was so old that nobody know'd how old he was. He was so bowed over that he couldn't see himself in the looking-glass unless you put it on the floor, and I guess even then what he saw wouldn't pay him for his trouble. He was always ailin' some way or other. Now it was rheumatism, now the palsy, and then again the asthma. He had THAT awful.

"He lived in the same tumble-down old shanty we have just passed,--so poor that nobody'd take the gift of it. People said that he'd orter go to the poorhouse, so that when he was sick--which was pretty much all the time --he'd have somebody to take care of him. But he'd got kinder attached to the old place, seein' he was born there, and never lived anywhere else, and go he wouldn't.

"Everybody expected he was near his end, and nobody'd have been surprised to hear of his death at any minute. But it's strange how some folks are determined to live on, as I said before. So Keziah, though he looked so old when I was a boy that it didn't seem as if he could look any older, kept on livin,' and livin', and arter I got married to Betsy Sprague, he was livin' still.

"One day, I remember I was passin' by the old man's shanty, when I heard a dreadful groanin', and thinks I to myself, `I shouldn't wonder if the old man was on his last legs.' So in I bolted. There he was, to be sure, a lyin', on the bed, all curled up into a heap, breathin' dreadful hard, and lookin' as white and pale as any ghost. I didn't know exactly what to do, so I went and got some water, but he motioned it away, and wouldn't drink it, but kept on groanin'.

"`He mustn't be left here to die without any assistance,' thinks I, so I ran off as fast I could to find the doctor.

"I found him eatin' dinner----

"Come quick," says I, "to old Keziah Onthank's. He's dyin', as sure as my name is Jehoshaphat."

"Well," said the doctor, "die or no die, I can't come till I've eaten my dinner."

"But he's dyin', doctor."

"Oh, nonsense. Talk of old Keziah Onthank's dyin'. He'll live longer than I shall."

"I recollect I thought the doctor very unfeelin' to talk so of a fellow creetur, just stepping into eternity, as a body may say. However, it's no use drivin' a horse that's made up his mind he won't go, so although I did think the doctor dreadful deliberate about eatin' his dinner (he always would take half an hour for it), I didn't dare to say a word for fear he wouldn't come at all. You see the doctor was dreadful independent, and was bent on havin' his own way, pretty much, though for that matter I think it's the case with most folks. However, to come back to my story, I didn't feel particularly comfortable while I was waitin' his motions.

"After a long while the doctor got ready. I was in such a hurry that I actilly pulled him along, he walked so slow; but he only laughed, and I couldn't help thinkin' that doctorin' had a hardinin' effect on the heart. I was determined if ever I fell sick I wouldn't send for him.

"At last we got there. I went in all of a tremble, and crept to the bed, thinkin' I should see his dead body. But he wasn't there at all. I felt a little bothered you'd better believe."

"Well," said the doctor, turning to me with a smile, "what do you think now?"

"I don't know what to think," said I.

"Then I'll help you," said he.

"So sayin', he took me to the winder, and what do you think I see? As sure as I'm alive, there was the old man in the back yard, a squattin' down and pickin' up chips."

"And is he still living?"

"Yes, or he was when I come along last. The doctor's been dead these ten years. He told me old Keziah would outlive him, but I didn't believe him. I shouldn't be surprised if he lived forever."

Paul listened with amused interest to this and other stories with which his companion beguiled the way. They served to divert his mind from the realities of his condition, and the uncertainty which hung over his worldly prospects.