The speaker was a tall, pompous-looking man, whose age appeared to vergeclose upon fifty. He was sitting bolt upright in a high-backed chair,and looked as if it would be quite impossible to deviate from hisposition of unbending rigidity.
Squire Benjamin Newcome, as he was called, in the right of his positionas Justice of the Peace, Chairman of the Selectmen, and wealthiestresident of Wrenville, was a man of rule and measure. He was measuredin his walk, measured in his utterance, and measured in all histransactions. He might be called a dignified machine. He had a veryexalted conception of his own position, and the respect which he felt tobe his due, not only from his own household, but from all who approachedhim. If the President of the United States had called upon him, SquireNewcome would very probably have felt that he himself was the party whoconferred distinction, and not received it.
Squire Newcome was a widower. His wife, who was as different fromhimself as could well be conceived, did not live long after marriage.She was chilled to death, as it was thought, by the dignified icebergof whose establishment she had become a part. She had left, however, achild, who had now grown to be a boy of twelve. This boy was a thornin the side of his father, who had endeavored in vain to mould himaccording to his idea of propriety. But Ben was gifted with a spirit offun, sometimes running into mischief, which was constantly bursting outin new directions, in spite of his father's numerous and rather prosylectures.
“Han-nah!” again called Squire Newcome, separating the two syllables bya pause of deliberation, and strongly accenting the last syllable,--ahabit of his with all proper names.
Hannah was the Irish servant of all work, who was just then engaged inmixing up bread in the room adjoining, which was the kitchen.
Feeling a natural reluctance to appear before her employer with herhands covered with dough, she hastily washed them. All this, however,took time, and before she responded to the first summons, the second“Han-nah!” delivered with a little sharp emphasis, had been uttered.
At length she appeared at the door of the sitting-room.
“Han-nah!” said Squire Newcome, fixing his cold gray eye upon her, “whenyou hear my voice a calling you, it is your duty to answer the summonsIMMEJIATELY.”
I have endeavored to represent the Squire's pronunciation of the lastword.
“So I would have come IMMEJOUSLY,” said Hannah, displaying a mostreprehensible ignorance, “but me hands were all covered with flour.”
“That makes no difference,” interrupted the Squire. “Flour is anaccidental circumstance.”
“What's that?” thought Hannah, opening her eyes in amazement.
“And should not be allowed to interpose an obstacle to an IMMEJIATEanswer to my summons.”
“Sir,” said Hannah, who guessed at the meaning though she did notunderstand the words, “you wouldn't have me dirty the door-handle withme doughy hands?”
“That could easily be remedied by ablution.”
“There ain't any ablution in the house,” said the mystified Hannah.
“I mean,” Squire Newcome condescended to explain, “the application ofwater--in short, washing.”
“Shure,” said Hannah, as light broke in upon her mind, “I never knewthat was what they called it before.”
“Is Ben-ja-min at home?”
“Yes, sir. He was out playin' in the yard a minute ago. I guess you cansee him from the winder.”
So saying she stepped forward, and looking out, all at once gave ashrill scream, and rushed from the room, leaving her employer in hisbolt-upright attitude gazing after her with as much astonishment as hewas capable of.
The cause of her sudden exit was revealed on looking out of the window.
Master Benjamin, or Ben, as he was called everywhere except in hisown family, had got possession of the black kitten, and appeared to besubmerging her in the hogshead of rainwater.
“O, you wicked, cruel boy, to drown poor Kitty!” exclaimed the indignantHannah, rushing into the yard and endeavoring to snatch her felinefavorite--an attempt which Ben stoutly resisted.
Doubtless the poor kitten would have fared badly between the two, hadnot the window opened, and the deliberate voice of his father, calledout in tones which Ben saw fit to heed.
“Come into my presence immejiately, and learn to answer me with morerespect.”
Ben came in looking half defiant.
His father, whose perpendicularity made him look like a sittinggrenadier, commenced the examination thus:--
“I wish you to inform me what you was a doing of when I spoke to you.”
It will be observed that the Squire's dignified utterances weresometimes a little at variance with the rule of the best moderngrammarians.
“I was trying to prevent Hannah from taking the kitten,” said Ben.
“What was you a doing of before Hannah went out?”
“Playing with Kitty.”
“Why were you standing near the hogshead, Benjamin?”
“Why,” said Ben, ingenuously, “the hogshead happened to be near me--thatwas all.”
“Were you not trying to drown the kitten?”
“O, I wouldn't drown her for anything,” said Ben with an injuredexpression, mentally adding, “short of a three-cent piece.”
“Then, to repeat my interrogatory, what was you a doing of with thekitten in the hogshead?”
“I was teaching her to swim,” said Ben, looking out of the corner ofhis eye at his father, to see what impression this explanation made uponhim.
“And what advantageous result do you think would be brought about byteaching of the kitten to swim, Benjamin?” persisted his father.
“Advantageous result!” repeated Ben, demurely, pretending not tounderstand.
“What does that mean?”
“Do you not study your dictionary at school, Benjamin?”
“Yes, but I don't like it much.”
“You are very much in error. You will never learn to employ your tonguewith elegance and precision, unless you engage in this beneficialstudy.”
“I can use my tongue well enough, without studying grammar,” said Ben.He proceeded to illustrate the truth of this assertion by twisting histongue about in a comical manner.
“Tongue,” exclaimed his father, “is but another name for language I meanyour native language.”
Ben was about to leave the room to avoid further questions of anembarrassing nature, when his father interrupted his exit by saying--
“Stay, Benjamin, do not withdraw till I have made all the inquirieswhich I intend.”
The boy unwillingly returned.
“You have not answered my question.”
“I've forgotten what it was.”
“What good would it do?” asked the Squire, simplifying his speech toreach Ben's comprehension, “what good would it do to teach the kitten toswim?”
“O, I thought,” said Ben, hesitating, “that some time or other she mighthappen to fall into the water, and might not be able to get out unlessshe knew how.”
“I think,” said his father with an unusual display of sagacity, “thatshe will be in much greater hazard of drowning while learning to swimunder your direction than by any other chance likely to befall her.”
“Shouldn't wonder,” was Ben's mental comment, “Pretty cute for you,dad.”
Fortunately, Ben did not express his thoughts aloud. They would haveimplied such an utter lack of respect that the Squire would have beenquite overwhelmed by the reflection that his impressive manners hadproduced no greater effect on one who had so excellent a chance of beingimpressed by them.
“Benjamin,” concluded his father, “I have an errand for you to execute.You may go to Mr. Prescott's and see if he is yet living. I hear that heis a lying on the brink of the grave.”
An expression of sadness stole over the usually merry face of Ben, as hestarted on his errand.
“Poor Paul!” he thought, “what will he do when his father dies? He'ssuch a capital fellow, too. I just wish I had a wagon load of money, Ido, and I'd give him half. That's so!”