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Ben knocked at the door of the Poorhouse. In due time Mrs. Mudge appeared. She was a little alarmed on seeing Ben, not knowing how Squire Newcome might be affected by the reception she had given him on his last visit. Accordingly she received him with unusual politeness.
"How do you do, Master Newcome?" she inquired.
"As well as could be expected," said Ben, hesitatingly.
"Why, is there anything the matter with you?" inquired Mrs. Mudge, her curiosity excited by his manner of speaking.
"No one can tell what I suffer from rheumatism," said Ben, sadly.
This was very true, since not even Ben himself could have told.
"You are very young to be troubled in that way," said Mrs. Mudge, "and how is your respected father, to-day?" she inquired, with some anxiety.
"I was just going to ask you, Mrs. Mudge," said Ben, "whether anything happened to disturb him when he called here day before yesterday?"
"Why," said Mrs. Mudge, turning a little pale, "Nothing of any consequence,--that is, not much. What makes you ask?"
"I thought it might be so from his manner," said Ben, enjoying Mrs. Mudge's evident alarm.
"There was a little accident," said Mrs. Mudge, reluctantly. "Some mischievous boy had been knocking and running away; so, when your father knocked, I thought it might be he, and--and I believe I threw some water on him. But I hope he has forgiven it, as it wasn't intentional. I should like to get hold of that boy," said Mrs. Mudge, wrathfully, "I should like to shake him up."
"Have you any idea who it was?" asked Ben, gravely.
"No," said Mrs. Mudge, "I haven't, but I shall try to find out. Whoever it is, he's a scamp."
"Very complimentary old lady," thought Ben. He said in a sober tone, which would have imposed upon any one, "There are a good many mischievous boys around here."
Mrs. Mudge grimly assented.
"Oh, by the way, Mrs. Mudge," asked Ben, suddenly, "have you ever heard anything of Paul Prescott since he left you?"
"No," snapped Mrs. Mudge, her countenance growing dark, "I haven't. But I can tell pretty well where he is."
"In the penitentiary. At any rate, if he isn't, he ought to be. But what was you wanting?"
"I want to see Mrs. Lee."
"Aunt Lucy Lee?"
"Yes. I've got a letter for her."
"If you'll give me the letter I'll carry it to her."
"Thank you," said Ben, "but I would like to see her."
"Never mind," thought Mrs. Mudge, "I'll get hold of it yet. I shouldn't wonder at all if it was from that rascal, Paul."
Poor Paul! It was fortunate that he had some better friends than Mr. and Mrs. Mudge, otherwise he would have been pretty poorly off.
Aunt Lucy came to the door. Ben placed the letter in her hands.
"Is it from Paul?" she asked, hopefully.
"Yes," said Ben.
She opened it eagerly. "Is he well?" she asked.
"Yes, well and happy," said Ben, who treated the old lady, for whom he had much respect, very differently from Mrs. Mudge.
"I'm truly thankful for that," said Aunt Lucy; "I've laid awake more than one night thinking of him."
"So has Mrs. Mudge, I'm thinking," said Ben, slyly.
Aunt Lucy laughed.
"There isn't much love lost between them," said Aunt Lucy, smiling. "He was very badly treated here, poor boy."
"Was he, though?" repeated Mrs. Mudge? who had been listening at the keyhole, but not in an audible voice. "Perhaps he will be again, if I get him back. I thought that letter was from Paul. I must get hold of it some time to-day."
"I believe I must go," said Ben. "If you answer the letter, I will put it into the office for you. I shall be passing here to-morrow."
"You are very kind," said Aunt Lucy. "I am very much obliged to you for bringing me this letter to-day. You can't tell how happy it makes me. I have been so afraid the dear boy might be suffering."
"It's no trouble at all," said Ben.
"She's a pretty good woman," thought he, as he left the house. "I wouldn't play a trick on her for a good deal. But that Mrs. Mudge is a hard case. I wonder what she would have said if she had known that I was the "scamp" that troubled her so much Monday. If I had such a mother as that, by jingo, I'd run away to sea."
Mrs. Mudge was bent upon reading Aunt Lucy's letter. Knowing it to be from Paul, she had a strong curiosity to know what had become of him. If she could only get him back! Her heart bounded with delight as she thought of the annoyances to which, in that case, she could subject him. It would be a double triumph over him and Aunt Lucy, against whom she felt that mean spite with which a superior nature is often regarded by one of a lower order.
After some reflection, Mrs. Mudge concluded that Aunt Lucy would probably leave the letter in the little chest which was appropriated to her use, and which was kept in the room where she slept. The key of this chest had been lost, and although Aunt Lucy had repeatedly requested that a new one should be obtained, Mrs. Mudge had seen fit to pay no attention to her request, as it would interfere with purposes of her own, the character of which may easily be guessed.
As she suspected, Paul's letter had been deposited in this chest.
Accordingly, the same afternoon, she left her work in the kitchen in order to institute a search for it. As a prudent precaution, however, she just opened the door of the common room, to make sure that Aunt Lucy was at work therein.
She made her way upstairs, and entering the room in which the old lady lodged, together with two others, she at once went to the chest and opened it.
She began to rummage round among the old lady's scanty treasures, and at length, much to her joy, happened upon the letter, laid carefully away in one corner of the chest. She knew it was the one she sought, from the recent postmark, and the address, which was in the unformed handwriting of a boy. To make absolutely certain, she drew the letter from the envelope and looked at the signature.
She was right, as she saw at a glance. It was from Paul.
"Now I'll see what the little rascal has to say for himself," she muttered, "I hope he's in distress; oh, how I'd like to get hold of him."
Mrs. Mudge began eagerly to read the letter, not dreaming of interruption. But she was destined to be disappointed. To account for this we must explain that, shortly after Mrs. Mudge looked into the common room, Aunt Lucy was reminded of something essential, which she had left upstairs. She accordingly laid down her work upon the chair in which she had been sitting, and went up to her chamber.
Mrs. Mudge was too much preoccupied to hear the advancing steps.
As the old lady entered the chamber, what was her mingled indignation and dismay at seeing Mrs. Mudge on her knees before her chest, with the precious letter, whose arrival had gladdened her so much, in her hands.
"What are you doing there, Mrs. Mudge?" she said, sternly.
Mrs. Mudge rose from her knees in confusion. Even she had the grace to be ashamed of her conduct.
"Put down that letter," said the old lady in an authoritative voice quite new to her.
Mrs. Mudge, who had not yet collected her scattered senses, did as she was requested.
Aunt Lucy walked hastily to the chest, and closed it, first securing the letter, which she put in her pocket.
"I hope it will be safe, now," she said, rather contemptuously. "Ain't you ashamed of yourself, Mrs. Mudge?"
"Ashamed of myself!" shrieked that amiable lady, indignant with herself for having quailed for a moment before the old lady.
"What do you mean--you--you pauper?"
"I may be a pauper," said Aunt Lucy, calmly, "But I am thankful to say that I mind my own business, and don't meddle with other people's chests."
A red spot glowed on either cheek of Mrs. Mudge. She was trying hard to find some vantage- ground over the old lady.
"Do you mean to say that I don't mind my business?" she blustered, folding her arms defiantly.
"What were you at my trunk for?" said the old lady, significantly.
"Because it was my duty," was the brazen reply.
Mrs. Mudge had rapidly determined upon her line of defense, and thought it best to carry the war into the enemy's country.
"Yes, I felt sure that your letter was from Paul Prescott, and as he ran away from my husband and me, who were his lawful guardians, it was my duty to take that means of finding out where he is. I knew that you were in league with him, and would do all you could to screen him. This is why I went to your chest, and I would do it again, if necessary."
"Perhaps you have been before," said Aunt Lucy, scornfully. "I think I understand, now, why you were unwilling to give me another key. Fortunately there has been nothing there until now to reward your search."
"You impudent trollop!" shrieked Mrs. Mudge, furiously.
Her anger was the greater, because Aunt Lucy was entirely correct in her supposition that this was not the first visit her landlady had made to the little green chest.
"I'll give Paul the worst whipping he ever had, when I get him back," said Mrs. Mudge, angrily.
"He is beyond your reach, thank Providence," said Aunt Lucy, whose equanimity was not disturbed by this menace, which she knew to be an idle one. "That is enough for you to know. I will take care that you never have another chance to see this letter. And if you ever go to my chest again"--
"Well, ma'am, what then?"
"I shall appeal for protection to 'Squire Newcome."
"Hoity, toity," said Mrs. Mudge, but she was a little alarmed, nevertheless, as such an appeal would probably be prejudicial to her interest.
So from time to time Aunt Lucy received, through Ben, letters from Paul, which kept her acquainted with his progress at school. These letters were very precious to the old lady, and she read them over many times. They formed a bright link of interest which bound her to the outside world, and enabled her to bear up with greater cheerfulness against the tyranny of Mrs. Mudge.
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