Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XVII

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Paul Prescott's Charge by Horatio Alger
Chapter XVII: Ben's Practical Joke

Mrs. Mudge was in the back room, bending over a tub. It was washing-day, and she was particularly busy. She was a driving, bustling woman, and, whatever might be her faults of temper, she was at least industrious and energetic. Had Mr. Mudge been equally so, they would have been better off in a worldly point of view. But her husband was constitutionally lazy, and was never disposed to do more than was needful.

Mrs. Mudge was in a bad humor that morning. One of the cows had got into the garden through a gap in the fence, and made sad havoc among the cabbages. Now if Mrs. Mudge had a weakness, it was for cabbages. She was excessively fond of them, and had persuaded her husband to set out a large number of plants from which she expected a large crop. They were planted in one corner of the garden, adjoining a piece of land, which, since mowing, had been used for pasturing the cows. There was a weak place in the fence separating the two inclosures, and this Mrs. Mudge had requested her husband to attend to. He readily promised this, and Mrs. Mudge supposed it done, until that same morning, her sharp eyes had detected old Brindle munching the treasured cabbages with a provoking air of enjoyment. The angry lady seized a broom, and repaired quickly to the scene of devastation. Brindle scented the danger from afar, and beat a disorderly retreat, trampling down the cabbages which she had hitherto spared. Leaping over the broken fence, she had just cleared the gap as the broom-handle, missing her, came forcibly down upon the rail, and was snapped in sunder by the blow.

Here was a new vexation. Brindle had not only escaped scot-free, but the broom, a new one, bought only the week before, was broken.

"It's a plaguy shame," said Mrs. Mudge, angrily. "There's my best broom broken; cost forty-two cents only last week."

She turned and contemplated the scene of devastation. This yielded her little consolation.

"At least thirty cabbages destroyed by that scamp of a cow," she exclaimed in a tone bordering on despair. "I wish I'd a hit her. If I'd broken my broom over her back I wouldn't a cared so much. And it's all Mudge's fault. He's the most shiftless man I ever see. I'll give him a dressing down, see if I don't."

Mrs. Mudge's eyes snapped viciously, and she clutched the relics of the broom with a degree of energy which rendered it uncertain what sort of a dressing down she intended for her husband.

Ten minutes after she had re-entered the kitchen, the luckless man made his appearance. He wore his usual look, little dreaming of the storm that awaited him.

"I'm glad you've come," said Mrs. Mudge, grimly.

"What's amiss, now?" inquired Mudge, for he understood her look.

"What's amiss?" blazed Mrs. Mudge. "I'll let you know. Do you see this?"

She seized the broken broom and flourished it in his face.

"Broken your broom, have you? You must have been careless."

"Careless, was I?" demanded Mrs. Mudge, sarcastically. "Yes, of course, it's always I that am in fault."

"You haven't broken it over the back of any of the paupers, have you?" asked her husband, who, knowing his helpmeet's infirmity of temper, thought it possible she might have indulged in such an amusement.

"If I had broken it over anybody's back it would have been yours," said the lady.

"Mine! what have I been doing?"

"It's what you haven't done," said Mrs. Mudge. "You're about the laziest and most shiftless man I ever came across."

"Come, what does all this mean?" demanded Mr. Mudge, who was getting a little angry in his turn.

"I'll let you know. Just look out of that window, will you?"

"Well," said Mr. Mudge, innocently, "I don't see anything in particular."

"You don't!" said Mrs. Mudge with withering sarcasm. "Then you'd better put on your glasses. If you'd been here quarter of an hour ago, you'd have seen Brindle among the cabbages."

"Did she do any harm?" asked Mr. Mudge, hastily.

"There's scarcely a cabbage left," returned Mrs. Mudge, purposely exaggerating the mischief done.

"If you had mended that fence, as I told you to do, time and again, it wouldn't have happened."

"You didn't tell me but once," said Mr. Mudge, trying to get up a feeble defence.

"Once should have been enough, and more than enough. You expect me to slave myself to death in the house, and see to all your work besides. If I'd known what a lazy, shiftless man you were, at the time I married you, I'd have cut off my right hand first."

By this time Mr. Mudge had become angry.

"If you hadn't married me, you'd a died an old maid," he retorted.

This was too much for Mrs. Mudge to bear. She snatched the larger half of the broom, and fetched it down with considerable emphasis upon the back of her liege lord, who, perceiving that her temper was up, retreated hastily from the kitchen; as he got into the yard he descried Brindle, whose appetite had been whetted by her previous raid, re-entering the garden through the gap.

It was an unfortunate attempt on the part of Brindle. Mr. Mudge, angry with his wife, and smarting with the blow from the broomstick, determined to avenge himself upon the original cause of all the trouble. Revenge suggested craft. He seized a hoe, and crept stealthily to the cabbage-plot. Brindle, whose back was turned, did not perceive his approach, until she felt a shower of blows upon her back. Confused at the unexpected attack she darted wildly away, forgetting the gap in the fence, and raced at random over beds of vegetables, uprooting beets, parsnips, and turnips, while Mr. Mudge, mad with rage, followed close in her tracks, hitting her with the hoe whenever he got a chance.

Brindle galloped through the yard, and out at the open gate. Thence she ran up the road at the top of her speed, with Mr. Mudge still pursuing her.

It may be mentioned here that Mr. Mudge was compelled to chase the terrified cow over two miles before he succeeded with the help of a neighbor in capturing her. All this took time. Meanwhile Mrs. Mudge at home was subjected to yet another trial of her temper.

It has already been mentioned that Squire Newcome was Chairman of the Overseers of the Poor. In virtue of his office, he was expected to exercise a general supervision over the Almshouse and its management. It was his custom to call about once a month to look after matters, and ascertain whether any official action or interference was needed.

Ben saw his father take his gold-headed cane from behind the door, and start down the road. He understood his destination, and instantly the plan of a stupendous practical joke dawned upon him.

"It'll be jolly fun," he said to himself, his eyes dancing with fun. "I'll try it, anyway."

He took his way across the fields, so as to reach the Almshouse before his father. He then commenced his plan of operations.

Mrs. Mudge had returned to her tub, and was washing away with bitter energy, thinking over her grievances in the matter of Mr. Mudge, when a knock was heard at the front door.

Taking her hands from the tub, she wiped them on her apron.

"I wish folks wouldn't come on washing day!" she said in a tone of vexation.

She went to the door and opened it.

There was nobody there.

"I thought somebody knocked," thought she, a little mystified. "Perhaps I was mistaken."

She went back to her tub, and had no sooner got her hands in the suds than another knock was heard, this time on the back door.

"I declare!" said she, in increased vexation, "There's another knock. I shan't get through my washing to-day."

Again Mrs. Mudge wiped her hands on her apron, and went to the door.

There was nobody there.

I need hardly say that it was Ben, who had knocked both times, and instantly dodged round the corner of the house.

"It's some plaguy boy," said Mrs. Mudge, her eyes blazing with anger. "Oh, if I could only get hold of him!"

"Don't you wish you could?" chuckled Ben to himself, as he caught a sly glimpse of the indignant woman.

Meanwhile, Squire Newcome had walked along in his usual slow and dignified manner, until he had reached the front door of the Poorhouse, and knocked.

"It's that plaguy boy again," said Mrs. Mudge, furiously. "I won't go this time, but if he knocks again, I'll fix him."

She took a dipper of hot suds from the tub in which she had been washing, and crept carefully into the entry, taking up a station close to the front door.

"I wonder if Mrs. Mudge heard me knock," thought Squire Newcome. "I should think she might. I believe I will knock again."

This time he knocked with his cane.

Rat-tat-tat sounded on the door.

The echo had not died away, when the door was pulled suddenly open, and a dipper full of hot suds was dashed into the face of the astonished Squire, accompanied with, "Take that, you young scamp!"

"Wh--what does all this mean?" gasped Squire Newcome, nearly strangled with the suds, a part of which had found its way into his mouth.

"I beg your pardon, Squire Newcome," said the horrified Mrs. Mudge. "I didn't mean it."

"What did you mean, then?" demanded Squire Newcome, sternly. "I think you addressed me,--ahem!--as a scamp."

"Oh, I didn't mean you," said Mrs. Mudge, almost out of her wits with perplexity.

"Come in, sir, and let me give you a towel. You've no idea how I've been tried this morning."

"I trust," said the Squire, in his stateliest tone, "you will be able to give a satisfactory explanation of this, ahem--extraordinary proceeding."

While Mrs. Mudge was endeavoring to sooth the ruffled dignity of the aggrieved Squire, the "young scamp," who had caused all the mischief, made his escape through the fields.

"Oh, wasn't it bully!" he exclaimed. "I believe I shall die of laughing. I wish Paul had been here to see it. Mrs. Mudge has got herself into a scrape, now, I'm thinking."

Having attained a safe distance from the Poorhouse, Ben doubled himself up and rolled over and over upon the grass, convulsed with laughter.

"I'd give five dollars to see it all over again," he said to himself. "I never had such splendid fun in my life."

Presently the Squire emerged, his tall dicky looking decidedly limp and drooping, his face expressing annoyance and outraged dignity. Mrs. Mudge attended him to the door with an expression of anxious concern.

"I guess I'd better make tracks," said Ben to himself, "it won't do for the old gentleman to see me here, or he may smell a rat."

He accordingly scrambled over a stone wall and lay quietly hidden behind it till he judged it would be safe to make his appearance.