Paul Prescott's Charge/Chapter XXVII
Squire Newcome sat in a high-backed chair before the fire with his heels on the fender. He was engaged in solemnly perusing the leading editorial in the evening paper, when all at once the table at his side gave a sudden lurch, the lamp slid into his lap, setting the paper on fire, and, before the Squire realized his situation, the flames singed his whiskers, and made his face unpleasantly warm.
"Cre-a-tion!" he exclaimed, jumping briskly to his feet.
The lamp had gone out, so that the cause of the accident remained involved in mystery. The Squire had little trouble in conjecturing, however, that Ben was at the bottom of it.
Opening the door hastily, he saw, by the light in the next room, that young gentleman rising from his knees in the immediate vicinity of the table.
"Ben-ja-min," said the Squire, sternly,
"What have you been a-doing?"
Ben looked sheepish, but said nothing.
"I repeat, Benjamin, what have you been a-doing?"
"I didn't mean to," said Ben.
"That does not answer my interrogatory. What have you been a-doing?"
"I was chasing the cat," said Ben, "and she got under the table. I went after her, and somehow it upset. Guess my head might have knocked against the legs."
"How old are you, Benjamin?"
"A boy of fifteen is too old to play with cats. You may retire to your dormitory."
"It's only seven o'clock, father," said Ben, in dismay.
"Boys that play with cats are young enough to retire at seven," remarked the Squire, sagaciously.
There was nothing for Ben but to obey.
Accordingly with reluctant steps he went up to his chamber and went to bed. His active mind, together with the early hour, prevented his sleeping. Instead, his fertile imagination was employed in devising some new scheme, in which, of course, fun was to be the object attained. While he was thinking, one scheme flashed upon him which he at once pronounced "bully."
"I wish I could do it to-night," he sighed.
"Why can't I?" he thought, after a moment's reflection.
The more he thought of it, the more feasible it seemed, and at length he decided to attempt it.
Rising from his bed he quickly dressed himself, and then carefully took the sheet, and folding it up in small compass put it under his arm.
Next, opening the window, he stepped out upon the sloping roof of the ell part, and slid down to the end where he jumped off, the height not being more than four feet from the ground. By some accident, a tub of suds was standing under the eaves, and Ben, much to his disgust, jumped into it.
"Whew!" exclaimed he, "I've jumped into that plaguy tub. What possessed Hannah to put it in a fellow's way?"
At this moment the back door opened, and Hannah called out, in a shrill voice, "Who's there?" Ben hastily hid himself, and thought it best not to answer.
"I guess 'twas the cat," said Hannah, as she closed the door.
"A two-legged cat," thought Ben, to himself; "thunder, what sopping wet feet I've got. Well, it can't be helped."
With the sheet still under his arm, Ben climbed a fence and running across the fields reached the fork of the road. Here he concealed himself under a hedge, and waited silently till the opportunity for playing his practical joke arrived.
I regret to say that Mr. Mudge, with whom we have already had considerable to do, was not a member of the temperance society. Latterly, influenced perhaps by Mrs. Mudge's tongue, which made his home far from a happy one, he had got into the habit of spending his evenings at the tavern in the village, where he occasionally indulged in potations that were not good for him. Generally, he kept within the bounds of moderation, but occasionally he exceeded these, as he had done on the present occasion.
Some fifteen minutes after Ben had taken his station, he saw, in the moonlight, Mr. Mudge coming up the road, on his way home. Judging from his zigzag course, he was not quite himself.
Ben waited till Mr. Mudge was close at hand, when all at once he started from his place of concealment completely enveloped in the sheet with which he was provided. He stood motionless before the astounded Mudge.
"Who are you?" exclaimed Mudge, his knees knocking together in terror, clinging to an overhanging branch for support.
There was no answer.
"Who are you?" he again asked in affright.
"Sally Baker," returned Ben, in as sepulchral a voice as he could command.
Sally Baker was an old pauper, who had recently died. The name occurred to Ben on the spur of the moment. It was with some difficulty that he succeeded in getting out the name, such was his amusement at Mr. Mudge's evident terror.
"What do you want of me?" inquired Mudge, nervously.
"You half starved me when I was alive," returned Ben, in a hollow voice, "I must be revenged."
So saying he took one step forward, spreading out his arms. This was too much for Mr. Mudge. With a cry he started and ran towards home at the top of his speed, with Ben in pursuit.
"I believe I shall die of laughing, exclaimed Ben, pausing out of breath, and sitting down on a stone, "what a donkey he is, to be sure, to think there are such things as ghosts. I'd like to be by when he tells Mrs. Mudge."
After a moment's thought, Ben wrapped up the sheet, took it under his arm, and once more ran in pursuit of Mr. Mudge.
Meanwhile Mrs. Mudge was sitting in the kitchen of the Poorhouse, mending stockings. She was not in the pleasantest humor, for one of the paupers had managed to break a plate at tea-table (if that can be called tea where no tea is provided), and trifles were sufficient to ruffle Mrs. Mudge's temper.
"Where's Mudge, I wonder?" she said, sharply; "over to the tavern, I s'pose, as usual. There never was such a shiftless, good-for- nothing man. I'd better have stayed unmarried all the days of my life than have married him. If he don't get in by ten, I'll lock the door, and it shall stay locked. 'Twill serve him right to stay out doors all night."
Minutes slipped away, and the decisive hour approached.
"I'll go to the door and look out," thought Mrs. Mudge, "if he ain't anywhere in sight I'll fasten the door."
She laid down her work and went to the door.
She had not quite reached it when it was flung open violently, and Mr. Mudge, with a wild, disordered look, rushed in, nearly over- turning his wife, who gazed at him with mingled anger and astonishment.
"What do you mean by this foolery, Mudge?" she demanded, sternly.
"What do I mean?" repeated her husband, vaguely.
"I needn't ask you," said his wife, contemptuously. "I see how it is, well enough. You're drunk!"
"Yes, drunk; as drunk as a beast."
"Well, Mrs. Mudge," hiccoughed her husband, in what he endeavored to make a dignified tone, "you'd be drunk too if you'd seen what I've seen."
"And what have you seen, I should like to know?" said Mrs. Mudge.
Mudge rose with some difficulty, steadied himself on his feet, and approaching his wife, whispered in a tragic tone, "Mrs. Mudge, I've seen a sperrit."
"It's plain enough that you've seen spirit," retorted his wife. "'Tisn't many nights that you don't, for that matter. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Mudge."
"It isn't that," said her husband, shaking his hand, "it's a sperrit,--a ghost, that I've seen."
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Mudge, sarcastically, "perhaps you can tell whose it is."
"It was the sperrit of Sally Baker," said Mudge, solemnly.
"What did she say?" demanded Mrs. Mudge, a little curiously.
"She said that I--that we, half starved her, and then she started to run after me--and-- oh, Lordy, there she is now!"
Mudge jumped trembling to his feet. Following the direction of his outstretched finger, Mrs. Mudge caught a glimpse of a white figure just before the window. I need hardly say that it was Ben, who had just arrived upon the scene.
Mrs. Mudge was at first stupefied by what she saw, but being a woman of courage she speedily recovered herself, and seizing the broom from behind the door, darted out in search of the "spirit." But Ben, perceiving that he was discovered, had disappeared, and there was nothing to be seen.
"Didn't I tell you so?" muttered Mudge, as his wife re-entered, baffled in her attempt, "you'll believe it's a sperrit, now."
"Go to bed, you fool!" retorted his wife.
This was all that passed between Mr. and Mrs. Mudge on the subject. Mr. Mudge firmly believes, to this day, that the figure which appeared to him was the spirit of Sally Baker.