Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter VII
Paul ascended the stairs to his hard pallet for the last time. For the last time! There is sadness in the thought, even when the future which lies before us glows with brighter colors than the past has ever worn. But to Paul, whose future was veiled in uncertainty, and who was about to part with the only friend who felt an interest in his welfare, this thought brought increased sorrow.
He stood before the dirt-begrimed window through which alone the struggling sunbeams found an inlet into the gloomy little attic, and looked wistfully out upon the barren fields that surrounded the poorhouse. Where would he be on the morrow at that time? He did not know. He knew little or nothing of the great world without, yet his resolution did not for an instant falter. If it had, the thought of Mrs. Mudge would have been enough to remove all his hesitation.
He threw himself on his hard bed, and a few minutes brought him that dreamless sleep which comes so easily to the young.
Meanwhile Aunt Lucy, whose thoughts were also occupied with Paul's approaching departure, had taken from the pocket of her OTHER dress--for she had but two--something wrapped in a piece of brown paper. One by one she removed the many folds in which it was enveloped, and came at length to the contents.
It was a coin.
"Paul will need some money, poor boy," said she, softly to herself, "I will give him this. It will never do me any good, and it may be of some service to him."
So saying she looked carefully at the coin in the moonlight.
But what made her start, and utter a half exclamation?
Instead of the gold eagle, the accumulation of many years, which she had been saving for some extraordinary occasion like the presents she held in her hand--a copper cent.
"I have been robbed," she exclaimed indignantly in the suddenness of her surprise.
"What's the matter now?" inquired Mrs Mudge, appearing at the door, "Why are you not in bed, Aunt Lucy Lee? How dare you disobey my orders?"
"I have been robbed," exclaimed the old lady in unwonted excitement.
"Of what, pray?" asked Mrs. Mudge, with a sneer.
"I had a gold eagle wrapped up in that paper," returned Aunt Lucy, pointing to the fragments on the floor, "and now, to-night, when I come to open it, I find but this cent."
"A likely story," retorted Mrs. Mudge, "very likely, indeed, that a common pauper should have a gold eagle. If you found a cent in the paper, most likely that's what you put there. You're growing old and forgetful, so don't get foolish and flighty. You'd better go to bed."
"But I did have the gold, and it's been stolen," persisted Aunt Lucy, whose disappointment was the greater because she intended the money for Paul.
"Again!" exclaimed Mrs. Mudge. "Will you never have done with this folly? Even if you did have the gold, which I don't for an instant believe, you couldn't keep it. A pauper has no right to hold property."
"Then why did the one who stole the little I had leave me this?" said the old lady, scornfully, holding up the cent which had been substituted for the gold.
"How should I know?" exclaimed Mrs. Mudge, wrathfully. "You talk as if you thought I had taken your trumpery money."
"So you did!" chimed in an unexpected voice, which made Mrs. Mudge start nervously.
It was the young woman already mentioned, who was bereft of reason, but who at times, as often happens in such cases, seemed gifted with preternatural acuteness.
"So you did. I saw you, I did; I saw you creep up when you thought nobody was looking, and search her pocket. You opened that paper and took out the bright yellow piece, and put in another. You didn't think I was looking at you, ha! ha! How I laughed as I stood behind the door and saw you tremble for fear some one would catch you thieving. You didn't think of me, dear, did you?"
And the wild creature burst into an unmeaning laugh.
Mrs. Mudge stood for a moment mute, overwhelmed by this sudden revelation. But for the darkness, Aunt Lucy could have seen the sudden flush which overspread her face with the crimson hue of detected guilt. But this was only for a moment. It was quickly succeeded by a feeling of intense anger towards the unhappy creature who had been the means of exposing her.
"I'll teach you to slander your betters, you crazy fool," she exclaimed, in a voice almost inarticulate with passion, as she seized her rudely by the arm, and dragged her violently from the room.
She returned immediately.
"I suppose," said she, abruptly, confronting Aunt Lucy, "that you are fool enough to believe her ravings?"
"I bring no accusation," said the old lady, calmly, "If your conscience acquits you, it is not for me to accuse you."
"But what do you think?" persisted Mrs. Mudge, whose consciousness of guilt did not leave her quite at ease.
"I cannot read the heart," said Aunt Lucy, composedly. "I can only say, that, pauper as I am, I would not exchange places with the one who has done this deed."
"Do you mean me?" demanded Mrs. Mudge.
"You can tell best."
"I tell you what, Aunt Lucy Lee," said Mrs. Mudge, her eyes blazing with anger, "If you dare insinuate to any living soul that I stole your paltry money, which I don't believe you ever had, I will be bitterly revenged upon you."
She flaunted out of the room, and Aunt Lucy, the first bitterness of her disappointment over, retired to bed, and slept more tranquilly than the unscrupulous woman who had robbed her.
At a quarter before four Paul started from his humble couch, and hastily dressed himself, took up a little bundle containing all his scanty stock of clothing, and noiselessly descended the two flights of stairs which separated him from the lower story. Here he paused a moment for Aunt Lucy to appear. Her sharp ears had distinguished his stealthy steps as he passed her door, and she came down to bid him good-by. She had in her hands a pair of stockings which she slipped into his bundle.
"I wish I had something else to give you, Paul," she said, "but you know that I am not very rich."
"Dear Aunt Lucy," said Paul, kissing her, "you are my only friend on earth. You have been very kind to me, and I never will forget you, NEVER! By-and-by, when I am rich, I will build a fine house, and you will come and live with me, won't you?"
Paul's bright anticipations, improbable as they were, had the effect of turning his companion's thoughts into a more cheerful channel.
She bent down and kissed him, whispering softly, "Yes, I will, Paul."
"Then it's a bargain," said he, joyously, "Mind you don't forget it. I shall come for you one of these days when you least expect it."
"Have you any money?" inquired Aunt Lucy.
Paul shook his head.
"Then," said she, drawing from her finger a gold ring which had held its place for many long years, "here is something which will bring you a little money if you are ever in distress."
Paul hung back.
"I would rather not take it, indeed I would," he said, earnestly, "I would rather go hungry for two or three days than sell your ring. Besides, I shall not need it; God will provide for me."
"But you need not sell it," urged Aunt Lucy, "unless it is absolutely necessary. You can take it and keep it in remembrance of me. Keep it till you see me again, Paul. It will be a pledge to me that you will come back again some day."
"On that condition I will take it," said Paul, "and some day I will bring it back."
A slight noise above, as of some one stirring in sleep, excited the apprehensions of the two, and warned them that it was imprudent for them to remain longer in conversation.
After a hurried good-by, Aunt Lucy quietly went upstairs again, and Paul, shouldering his bundle, walked rapidly away.
The birds, awakening from their night's repose, were beginning to carol forth their rich songs of thanksgiving for the blessing of a new day. From the flowers beneath his feet and the blossom-laden branches above his head, a delicious perfume floated out upon the morning air, and filled the heart of the young wanderer with a sense of the joyousness of existence, and inspired him with a hopeful confidence in the future.
For the first time he felt that he belonged to himself. At the age of thirteen he had taken his fortune in his own hand, and was about to mold it as best he might.
There were care, and toil, and privations before him, no doubt, but in that bright morning hour he could harbor only cheerful and trusting thoughts. Hopefully he looked forward to the time when he could fulfil his father's dying injunction, and lift from his name the burden of a debt unpaid. Then his mind reverting to another thought, he could not help smiling at the surprise and anger of Mr. Mudge, when he should find that his assistant had taken French leave. He thought he should like to be concealed somewhere where he could witness the commotion excited by his own departure. But as he could not be in two places at the same time, he must lose that satisfaction. He had cut loose from the Mudge household, as he trusted, forever. He felt that a new and brighter life was opening before him.