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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPaul Prescott's Charge - Chapter 5. A Crisis
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Paul Prescott's Charge - Chapter 5. A Crisis Post by :Suzanne_Knight Category :Long Stories Author :Horatio Alger Date :May 2012 Read :1638

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Paul Prescott's Charge - Chapter 5. A Crisis

CHAPTER V. A CRISIS

Before sunrise the next morning Paul was awakened by a rude shake from Mr. Mudge, with an intimation that he had better get up, as there was plenty of work before him.

By the light of the lantern, for as yet it was too dark to dispense with it, Paul dressed himself. Awakened from a sound sleep, he hardly had time to collect his thoughts, and it was with a look of bewilderment that he surveyed the scene about him. As Mrs. Mudge had said, they were pretty full already, and accordingly a rude pallet had been spread for him in the attic, of which, with the exception of nocturnal marauders, he was the only occupant. Paul had not, to be sure, been used to very superior accommodations, and if the bed had not been quite so hard, he would have got along very well. As it was he was separated from slats only by a thin straw bed which did not improve matters much. It was therefore with a sense of weariness which slumber had not dissipated, that Paul arose at the summons of Mr. Mudge.

When he reached the kitchen, he found that gentleman waiting for him.

"Do you know how to milk?" was his first salutation.

"I never learned," said Paul.

"Then you'll have to, in double-quick time," was the reply, "for I don't relish getting up so early, and you can take it off my hands."

The two proceeded to the barn, where Paul received his first lesson in this important branch of education.

Mr. Mudge kept five cows. One might have thought he could have afforded a moderate supply of milk to his boarders, but all, with the exception of a single quart, was sold to the milkman who passed the door every morning.

After breakfast, which was on the same economical plan with the dinner of the day previous, Paul was set to work planting potatoes, at which he was kept steadily employed till the dinner-hour.

Poor Paul! his back ached dreadfully, for he had never before done any harder work than trifling services for his father. But the inexorable Mr. Mudge was in sight, and however much he wished, he did not dare to lay aside his hoe even for a moment.

Twelve o'clock found him standing beside the dinner-table. He ate more heartily than before, for his forenoon's labor made even poorhouse fare palatable.

Mrs. Mudge observed the change, and remarked in a satisfied tone. "Well, my fine gentleman, I see you are coming to your appetite. I thought you wouldn't hold out long."

Paul, who had worn off something of his diffidence, could not help feeling indignant at this speech; unaccustomed to be addressed in this way, the taunt jarred upon his feelings, but he only bit his lip and preserved silence.

Aunt Lucy, too, who had come to feel a strong interest in Paul, despite her natural mildness, could not resist the temptation of saying with some warmth, "what's the use of persecuting the child? He has sorrows enough of his own without your adding to them."

Mrs. Mudge was not a little incensed at this remonstrance.

"I should like to know, ma'am, who requested you to put in your oar!" she said with arms akimbo. "Anybody wouldn't think from your lofty airs that you lived in the poorhouse; I'll thank you to mind your own business in the future, and not meddle with what don't concern you."

Aunt Lucy was wise enough to abstain from provoking further the wrath of her amiable landlady, and continued to eat her soup in silence. But Mrs. Mudge neer forgot this interference, nor the cause of it, and henceforth with the malignity of a narrow-minded and spiteful woman, did what she could to make Paul uncomfortable. Her fertile ingenuity always found some new taunt, or some new reproach, to assail him with. But Paul, though at first he felt indignant, learned at last to treat them as they deserved, with silent disdain. Assured of the sympathy of those around him, he did not allow his appetite to be spoiled by any remark which Mrs. Mudge might offer.

This, of course, only provoked her the more, and she strove to have his daily tasks increased, in the amiable hope that his "proud spirit" might be tamed thereby.

Mr. Mudge, who was somewhat under petticoat government, readily acceded to his wife's wishes, and henceforth Paul's strength was taxed to its utmost limit. He was required to be up with the first gray tint of dawn and attend to the cattle. From this time until night, except the brief time devoted to his meals, he was incessantly occupied. Aunt Lucy's society, his chief comfort, was thus taken from him; since, in order to rise early, he was obliged to go to bed as soon as possible after day's work was finished.

The effects of such incessant labor without a sufficient supply of nourishing food, may easily be imagined. The dry bread and meagre soup which constituted the chief articles of diet in Mrs. Mudge's economical household, had but one recommendation,--they were effectual preventives of gluttony. It was reported that on one occasion a beggar, apparently famishing with hunger, not knowing the character of the house, made application at the door for food. In an unusual fit of generosity, Mrs. Mudge furnished him with a slice of bread and a bowl of soup, which, however, proved so far from tempting that the beggar, hungry as he was, left them almost untouched.

One day, as Paul was working in the field at a little distance from Mr. Mudge, he became conscious of a peculiar feeling of giddiness which compelled him to cling to the hoe for support,--otherwise he must have fallen.

"No laziness there," exclaimed Mr. Mudge, observing Paul's cessation from labor, "We can't support you in idleness."

But the boy paid no regard to this admonition, and Mr. Mudge, somewhat surprised, advanced toward him to enforce the command.

Even he was startled at the unusual paleness of Paul's face, and inquired in a less peremptory tone, "what's the matter?"

"I feel sick," gasped Paul.

Without another word, Mr. Mudge took Paul up in his arms and carried him into the house.

"What's the matter, now?" asked his wife, meeting him at the door.

"The boy feels a little sick, but I guess he'll get over it by-and by. Haven't you got a little soup that you can give him? I reckon he's faint, and that'll brighten him up."

Paul evidently did not think so, for he motioned away a bowl of the delightful mixture, though it was proffered him by the fair hands of Mrs. Mudge. The lady was somewhat surprised, and said, roughly, "I shouldn't wonder if he was only trying to shirk."

This was too much even for Mr. Mudge; "The boy's sick," said he, "that's plain enough; if he don't get better soon, I must send for the doctor, for work drives, and I can't spare him."

"There's no more danger of his being sick than mine," said Mrs. Mudge, emphatically; "however, if you're fool enough to go for a doctor, that's none of my business. I've heard of feigning sickness before now, to get rid of work. As to his being pale, I've been as pale as that myself sometimes without your troubling yourself very much about me."

"'Twon't be any expense to us," alleged Mr. Mudge, in a tone of justification, for he felt in some awe of his wife's temper, which was none of the mildest when a little roused, "'Twon't be any expense to us; the town has got to pay for it, and as long as it will get him ready for work sooner, we might as well take advantage of it."

This consideration somewhat reconciled Mrs. Mudge to the step proposed, and as Paul, instead of getting better, grew rapidly worse, Mr. Mudge thought it expedient to go immediately for the village physician. Luckily Dr. Townsend was at home, and an hour afterwards found him standing beside the sick boy.

"I don't know but you'll think it rather foolish, our sending for you, doctor," said Mrs. Mudge, "but Mudge would have it that the boy was sick and so he went for you."

"And he did quite right," said Dr. Townsend, noticing the ghastly pallor of Paul's face. "He is a very sick boy, and if I had not been called I would not have answered for the consequences. How do you feel, my boy?" he inquired of Paul.

"I feel very weak, and my head swims," was the reply.

"How and when did this attack come on?" asked the doctor, turning to Mr. Mudge.

"He was taken while hoeing in the field," was the reply.

"Have you kept him at work much there lately?"

"Well, yes, I've been drove by work, and he has worked there all day latterly."

"At what time has he gone to work in the morning?"

"He has got up to milk the cows about five o'clock. I used to do it, but since he has learned, I have indulged myself a little."

"It would have been well for him if he had enjoyed the same privilege. It is my duty to speak plainly. The sickness of this boy lies at your door. He has never been accustomed to hard labor, and yet you have obliged him to rise earlier and work later than most men. No wonder he feels weak. Has he a good appetite?"

"Well, rather middlin'," said Mrs. Mudge, "but it's mainly because he's too dainty to eat what's set before him. Why, only the first day he was here he turned up his nose at the bread and soup we had for dinner."

"Is this a specimen of the soup?" asked Dr. Townsend, taking from the table the bowl which had been proffered to Paul and declined by him.

Without ceremony he raised to his lips a spoonful of the soup and tasted it with a wry face.

"Do you often have this soup on the table?" he asked abruptly.

"We always have it once a day, and sometimes twice," returned Mrs. Mudge.

"And you call the boy dainty because he don't relish such stuff as this?" said the doctor, with an indignation he did not attempt to conceal. "Why, I wouldn't be hired to take the contents of that bowl. It is as bad as any of my own medicines, and that's saying a good deal. How much nourishment do you suppose such a mixture would afford? And yet with little else to sustain him you have worked this boy like a beast of burden,--worse even, for they at least have abundance of GOOD food."

Mr. and Mrs. Mudge both winced under this plain speaking, but they did not dare to give expression to their anger, for they knew well that Dr. Townsend was an influential man in town, and, by representing the affair in the proper quarter, might render their hold upon their present post a very precarious one. Mr. Mudge therefore contented himself with muttering that he guessed he worked as hard as anybody, and he didn't complain of his fare.

"May I ask you, Mr. Mudge," said the doctor, fixing his penetrating eye full upon him, "whether you confine yourself to the food upon which you have kept this boy?"

"Well," said Mr. Mudge, in some confusion, moving uneasily in his seat, "I can't say but now and then I eat something a little different."

"Do you eat at the same table with the inmates of your house?"

"Well, no," said the embarrassed Mr. Mudge.

"Tell me plainly,--how often do you partake of this soup?"

"I aint your patient," said the man, sullenly, "Why should you want to know what I eat?"

"I have an object in view. Are you afraid to answer?"

"I don't know as there's anything to be afraid of. The fact is, I aint partial to soup; it don't agree with me, and so I don't take it."

"Did you ever consider that this might be the case with others as well as yourself?" inquired the doctor with a glance expressive of his contempt for Mr. Mudge's selfishness. Without waiting for a reply, Dr. Townsend ordered Paul to be put to bed immediately, after which he would leave some medicine for him to take.

Here was another embarrassment for the worthy couple. They hardly knew where to put our hero. It would not do for them to carry him to his pallet in the attic, for they felt sure that this would lead to some more plain speaking on the part of Dr. Townsend. He was accordingly, though with some reluctance, placed in a small bedroom upstairs, which, being more comfortable than those appropriated to the paupers, had been reserved for a son at work in a neighboring town, on his occasional visits home.

"Is there no one in the house who can sit in the chamber and attend to his occasional wants?" asked Dr. Townsend. "He will need to take his medicine at stated periods, and some one will be required to administer it."

"There's Aunt Lucy Lee," said Mrs. Mudge, "she's taken a fancy to the boy, and I reckon she'll do as well as anybody."

"No one better," returned the doctor, who well knew Aunt Lucy's kindness of disposition, and was satisfied that she would take all possible care of his patient.

So it was arranged that Aunt Lucy should take her place at Paul's bedside as his nurse.

Paul was sick for many days,--not dangerously so, but hard work and scanty fare had weakened him to such a degree that exhausted nature required time to recruit its wasted forces. But he was not unhappy or restless. Hour after hour he would lie patiently, and listen to the clicking of her knitting needles. Though not provided with luxurious food, Dr. Townsend had spoken with so much plainness that Mrs. Mudge felt compelled to modify her treatment, lest, through his influence, she with her husband, might lose their situation. This forced forbearance, however, was far from warming her heart towards its object. Mrs. Mudge was a hard, practical woman, and her heart was so encrusted with worldliness and self-interest that she might as well have been without one.

One day, as Paul lay quietly gazing at Aunt Lucy's benevolent face, and mentally contrasting it with that of Mrs. Mudge, whose shrill voice could be heard form below, he was seized with a sudden desire to learn something of her past history.

"How long have you been here, Aunt Lucy?" he inquired.

She looked up from her knitting, and sighed as she answered, "A long and weary time to look back upon, Paul. I have been here ten years."

"Ten years," repeated Paul, thoughtfully, "and I am thirteen. So you have been here nearly all my lifetime. Has Mr. Mudge been here all that time?"

"Only the last two years. Before that we had Mrs. Perkins."

"Did she treat you any better than Mrs. Mudge?"

"Any better than Mrs. Mudge!" vociferated that lady, who had ascended the stairs without being heard by Aunt Lucy of Paul, and had thus caught the last sentence. "Any better than Mrs. Mudge!" she repeated, thoroughly provoked. "So you've been talking about me, you trollop, have you? I'll come up with you, you may depend upon that. That's to pay for my giving you tea Sunday night, is it? Perhaps you'll get some more. It's pretty well in paupers conspiring together because they aint treated like princes and princesses. Perhaps you'd like to got boarded with Queen Victoria."

The old lady sat very quiet during this tirade. She had been the subject of similar invective before, and knew that it would do no good to oppose Mrs. Mudge in her present excited state.

"I don't wonder you haven't anything to say," said the infuriated dame. "I should think you'd want to hide your face in shame, you trollop."

Paul was not quite so patient as his attendant. Her kindness had produced such an impression on him, that Mrs. Mudge, by her taunts, stirred up his indignation.

"She's no more of a trollop than you are," said he, with spirit.

Mrs. Mudge whirled round at this unexpected attack, and shook her fist menacingly at Paul--

"So, you've put in your oar, you little jackanapes," said she, "If you're well enough to be impudent you're well enough to go to work. You aint a goin' to lie here idle much longer, I can tell you. If you deceive Dr. Townsend, and make him believe you're sick, you can't deceive me. No doubt you feel mighty comfortable, lyin' here with nothing to do, while I'm a slavin' myself to death down stairs, waitin' upon you; (this was a slight exaggeration, as Aunt Lucy took the entire charge of Paul, including the preparation of his food;) but you'd better make the most of it, for you won't lie here much longer. You'll miss not bein' able to talk about me, won't you?"

Mrs. Mudge paused a moment as if expecting an answer to her highly sarcastic question, but Paul felt that no advantage would be gained by saying more.. He was not naturally a quick-tempered buy, and had only been led to this little ebullition by the wanton attack by Mrs. Mudge.

This lady, after standing a moment as if defying the twain to a further contest, went out, slamming the door violently after her.

"You did wrong to provoke her, Paul," said Aunt Lucy, gravely.

"How could I help it?" asked Paul, earnestly. "If she had only abused ME, I should not have cared so much, but when she spoke about you, who have been so kind to me, I could not be silent."

"I thank you, Paul, for your kind feeling," said the old lady, gently, "but we must learn to bear and forbear. The best of us have our faults and failings."

"What are yours, Aunt Lucy?"

"O, a great many."

"Such as what?"

"I am afraid I am sometimes discontented with the station which God has assigned me."

"I don't think you can be very much to blame for that. I should never learn to be contented here if I lived to the age of Methuselah."

Paul lay quite still for an hour or more. During that time he formed a determination which will be announced in the next chapter.

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