Old Mustard

Old Mustard was feeling annoyed. First, his reading glass could not be found, and now his recently filled brandy snifter had disappeared, and he hadn’t even had a chance to snift of it yet.  

“Penfield!” he bellowed down the hallway. He was a large man and stoutly built. In his youth few could rival his strength, and even now, when his remaining hair was snowy white, his voice carried the booming weight of authority. This was true of all the Old Mustards before him as well, for he was far from the first. He was in fact the fifth. His great-great-great grandfather had been the first. It was Henry Johnston Cabbott who had brought the first mustard seeds from the old world to the new. It was he who had planted, cultivated, and ground them. He who had built up their family business, and he who had first obtained the nickname of Old Mustard. It was now an inherited title and the new Old Mustard carried it with as much dignity as he could muster. “And muster it you must,” he remembered his father saying on his deathbed. 

“Penfield!” he bellowed again, more loudly and unnecessarily. The butler had arrived in the drawing room somewhere between the syllables “Pen-” and “-field” and was waiting patiently as usual. The Old Mustard’s nose was still so good as to tell if you had enjoyed a dijon or a spicy brown on your noon time sausage, even if it were half past eight and you were already in your pajamas with your teeth brushed and flossed (another ability he had inherited from his forefathers). Unfortunately, the same could not be said of his eyesight, which had faded considerably in the last few decades. 

“Yes sir?” answered Penfield. A younger man, tall and slender with a pencil-thin mustache. He had darker hair than his master but even less of it. He of course didn’t mention that he’d arrived immediately when first called. He had been a butler for the better part of 30 years now and was quite good at buteling.

“Oh there you are!” exclaimed Old Mustard. “It seems the ghost has returned. Be a good man and fetch a wizard will you? I simply cannot deal with anymore shenanigans this evening, and lord help me if there’s a hijink!” 

Penfield knew that the ghost had been back for several days now and had in that time gotten as far as tomfoolery, but the butler thought it was better to keep that knowledge to himself. No reason to make the old boy “drop his seeds,” as they said in the business. 

“Very good sir,” said Penfield. “I shall call the guild forthwith.”

Penfield despised calling the wizards’ guild. They always transferred him a dozen times or more and asked him questions he was fairly certain had nothing to do with the case at hand but were more likely designed to embarrass and confuse him. Still the Old Mustard had asked him and there was no sense in delaying the inevitable. He went to the kitchen phone, picked it up, and thought the word “wizard.” This was a system the wizards had devised years ago, and he had to admit was extremely efficient, although occasionally they did receive calls from people trying to contact their grandmothers who were thinking the word “wizened.”

“Hello,” said a voice on the other end. “Thank you for contacting the wizard and sorcerers’ guild. Please spell the name of your favorite horse at the beep.” 

Penfield waited but heard no beep. “Please spell the name of your favorite horse at the beep,” said the voice again.

“S-E-A-B-I-S…” began Penfield.

“Please wait for the beep,” interrupted the voice.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” sighed Penfield.

“Heavens Sake,” said the voice, “winner of the 321st running of the Silver Kingdom Derby. If this is your favorite horse, press or think one now.”

“One,” thought Penfield, who in actuality did not have a favorite horse.

“Did you think ‘one’ or ‘won’?” asked the voice. “Think ‘one’ for ‘won’ and think ‘two’ for ‘one’.”

“One,” said Penfield out loud.

“Please wait for the beep,” answered the voice.

Penfield waited a full minute and heard nothing.

“Look,” he said at last, “I just nee-”

BOOP!”

Penfield knew better than to fall for that.

“CHIRP! CLANG! SPRONG! CRASH!” went the phone. Penfield waited patiently.

“BUZZ! BASH! WIZ! MOO! BOOM! VROOM! RIBBIT! SPLASH! SMASH! ZING! ZANG! SWEET POON TANG! POOF! HIDEY HIDEY HEE! HA HA HA! SPLAT! SLAP! CRACK! BANG!” continued the phone. “ZIP, ZAP, BEEP, BUZ-”

“One! One!” shouted Penfield.

“I’m sorry sir,” said the voice. “You just missed it. We’re afraid you’ll just have to wait for it to come back round. SMASH! BASH! SLAM! BAM! WIFF! WAFF!…

This went on for some time, and it wasn’t until the fourth go around that the butler was finally able to get the timing right.

“ONE!” he shouted triumphantly right as he heard the beep.

“Penfield!” cried Old Mustard from the drawing room. “What’s all that shouting about?!”

“Nothing sir!” answered Penfield.

“Well then why are you calling?” asked the voice on the phone.

“I’m sorry,” answered Penfield. “I was talking to someone else.”

“Rude,” said the voice.

“My deepest apologies,” said Penfield, who knew that if he lost his temper the best he could hope for was to be hung up on and the worst was…well whatever the wizard on the other end would decide to do to him.

“Very well,” sighed the voice, which sounded suspiciously like the so-called recording. “Now it says here your favorite horse is Seabis. Is that still correct?”

“Still correct from five minutes ago?” asked Penfield before he could stop himself.

“Please hold,” said the voice.

“NO!” shouted Penfield, but it was too late. 

“Penfield!” yelled Old Mustard again. “Must you shout like that?!”

“Sorry sir!” answered the butler.

It was several more hours before Penfield was able to finally talk to a person again. When he did get someone on the line he was forced to explain what had gone wrong in his last romantic relationship, describe a sunset as if it were a sunrise, and help a wizard out with the ending of her novel (which actually sounded fascinating, although he never heard the beginning). At last he was allowed to describe his problem to someone who listened, although they sounded completely uninterested. 

“Thank you for your call,” said the wizard when he had finished. “Please know that we care about your situation and will do our best to resolve it. A wizard will be dispatched to your location and will arrive 10 seconds ago.” Then the line went dead.

Penfield hung up and returned to the drawing room to find Old Mustard deep in conversation with a tall, gangly wizard dressed in shimmering, red robes. 

“Ah Penfield,” said his employer, “so glad you could join us. I was just explaining to Mister… um Mister…”

“Evertrom,” said the wizard, turning to Penfield.

“Yes, Mister, um, Evertrom, that this ghost has been bothering us on and off for some time now, and we’d be most grateful if it could be gotten rid of as soon as possible.”

“Yes,” agreed Penfield. “It has been quite a bother. Last month it trimmed all the hedges into giant phalluses. The effect was quite subtle but deeply disturbing once one recognized it.”

“Yes,” continued Old Mustard, “and only last week it spoiled a half dozen eggs I was meaning to soft boil by leaving them out on the counter top.”

Penfield suspected that Old Mustard himself had left those eggs out, having caught him asleep at the butcher block with the eggs in front of him, but it hardly seemed the time to mention it. For the next 15 minutes the two men rattled off a list of the ghost’s mischief and pranks. 

“Yes, mhm, I see,” said the wizard, jotting everything down with what seemed to be an invisible pen on an invisible notepad.

“Well then,” he said at last, “it seems this ghost has caused quite a stir around the place. Now what exactly have you done to it?”

“Done to IT?”” puffed the Old Mustard. “Why, nothing much unless you count silently cursing it in my head every night!”

“I do count that,” said Evertrom. “Ghosts are extremely sensitive. I’m sure it’s feelings were quite hurt.”

Old Mustard puffed and harrumphed, which is a special type of pouting that only the very old and rich can pull off. 

“There’s no need for such harrumphing,” said the wizard.  “Let us just ask the ghost itself and get to the bottom of things.”

“I think we were hoping for something more along the lines of an exorcism or whatnot,” volunteered Penfield.

“I suppose you were,” said Evertrom, “but exorcisms are only carried out in the most dire of circumstances, and I hardly feel a whatnot is warranted, but we shall see. What do you say, madam?”

“Oh I don’t think a whatnot will be necessary, but I reserve the right to ask for one if the situation deteriorates, I do believe that’s within my rights?” said a woman’s voice.

“Yes, very well within,” answered Evertrom.

Penfield and Old Mustard spun around to see a young woman sitting in a highbacked chair by the bookcase. She looked to be in her early twenties and was wearing a long, puffy dress that might have been blue, but she was translucent now, so it was difficult to be sure.

“Millicent!” gasped Old Mustard.

“Yes Archie, it’s me,” answered the ghost, “and a fine way to treat your sister, this is. Sending for a wizard and all. I really thought such behavior was beneath you.”

“Why Millie!” said Old Mustard. “I had no idea it was you! But why have you come now? And why are you tormenting me so?”

“Tormenting you? Tormenting YOU?!” cried Millicent. “Why, I’ll have you know, Archibald J. Cabbot, that I’ve been immensely enjoying my time in purgatory. All the best philosophers are there, and the grey skies are highly suitable for my complexion.”

Old Mustard nodded. His younger sister had always been fair skinned and interested in metaphysics. 

“And now,” she continued, “Papa and grandfather have sent me all the way back here to deal with you, and so it should come as no surprise that I’m a bit put out. I suppose it was childish to leave your eggs out like that, but I was feeling annoyed, plus it seems to me that you’ve had quite enough of them in the past few years.” This last bit was addressed directly to the old boy’s waistline.

Penfield swallowed nervously and was now doubly glad he hadn’t said anything about the eggs.

“But Millicent,” implored Old Mustard, “why have father and grandfather sent you back? Surely not just to ruin my lunch and desecrate the hedges?”

The ghost gave him a sidelong glance. “Don’t play dumb with me Archie,” she said. “I don’t have the time… or rather I do have the time, but I’d rather not spend it here.”

“I assure you Millie, I have no idea what you’re referring to,” said Old Mustard, looking away and harrumphing unconvincingly.

“Really Archie?” said Millicent, staring at her now visibly uncomfortable brother. “Ketchup?”

“Well, now,” said Old Mustard, squirming in his chair, “that was a business decision. Diversification and all that. It is, after all, the most common condiment in the world, and well, we couldn’t just ignore such a huge market now, could we?  And, um, we got a very good deal on vinegar this year and had a bit leftover after all the jars were sealed so… you know… um, well, we couldn’t just let it go to waste, right? Even vinegar can go bad after too long you know… Look, there’s no need to be a snob. It’s actually rather tasty on certain meats, I’m told. Not that I’d ever use it on ham of course! Hahaha!”

The ghost looked on, unamused.

“Now see here Millie!” said Old Mustard, sitting up in his chair. “We’ve made quite a bit of money selling ketchup, and since you’re all dead, I don’t see how exactly it’s any of your business!” 

“I’ll have you know, ‘Old Ketchup’,” said Millicent (the name seemed to send an electric shock through the old man’s body), “that great, great, great grandfather Henry has officially rolled over in his grave. I’ve seen it. He’s literally an upside-down skeleton. I suppose that means nothing to you, but it’s the laughing stock of the beyond, and nothing we can say can convince him to turn back up the right way again. It’s causing quite the scandal. I’m told that in life he was just as stubborn, and it seems that streak runs though all the men in this family.”

“Be that as it may,” said Old Mustard, who seemed to be recovering from his shock, “I’m not going to close down a successful branch of the business just because some bag of bones chooses to sleep on his stomach.”

“You know very well he hasn’t any stomach!” cried Millicent, leaning forward and shouting in her brother’s face. “You’re quite unbelievable, and if you refuse to listen to reason, then I think –”

“I think,” interrupted Evertrom, “that we could all do with a break and a bit of food. Perhaps then we can start fresh and in a better mood.”

“I’ll fetch something from the pantry,” said Penfield, striding toward the kitchen.

“No no! Don’t stir yourself,” said Evertrom, stepping to cut him off. “I know where everything is. Besides, I’d prefer you keep an eye on these two. Cross-planar fights can get messy, and I’d rather not have a divine arbitrator appear. They’re always cranky at this time of night.”

Penfield was left alone with the two fuming siblings, but to his relief they were content to glare at each other. Evertrom was gone for a good 20 minutes, and the butler was thinking about risking leaving his charges alone and searching for him, when the wizard came crashing back into the room carrying a large cutting board loaded down with meats and cheeses.

“Here we are!” he beamed. “Nothing like a little late night snack to lift the spirits!”

He sat the board down on a small tray in front of Old Mustard. (Ghosts don’t eat, and wizards and butlers avoid doing so in front of their employers). 

He began pointing out the contents of the tray to the master of the house. “Here we have a nice assortment of wild grain breads and crackers. Over here are your hard cheeses. Naturally, there’s an aged cheddar and also some very nice swiss. For soft cheeses, I’ve included a mild bleu and a lovely brie I found unopened in the cupboard. (I hope you’ll excuse my taking of that small liberty, but I do feel that this is something of an occasion). As for meats, there are some strips of cold steak that I’ve sliced thin and a few bits of chicken. I also boiled a few eggs, as this evening’s conversation has revealed that you’re rather fond of them. There’s also a small bowl of nuts and dried fruit, should you wish for something sweet. And of course,” and here the wizard produced a small bottle from his sleeve, “what would a charcuterie board be without a dipping sauce?”

Evertrom set the bottle of ketchup down in the center of the board, and sat down on the sofa to wait.

Everyone stared transfixed on the shiny, red bottle. 

“Bon appetit!” said the wizard encouragingly.

Old Mustard looked around but found no help in the gazes of his companions. With a shaky hand, he reached for the bottle and twisted off the cap. Immediately, the tangy aroma of vinegar and tomato filled the room. He tilted the bottle ever so slightly above the strips of steak, and a red gob plopped down onto the meat. He tightened the cap back onto the bottle and placed it so far away from himself that it looked as if it might topple off the tray and create a thick, blood-red puddle on the floor.

With a look of supreme concentration, the proud captain of industry picked up the small fork from the board and stabbed at the meat, but it slipped away from the tines as if recoiling from its imminent fate. But the old man had come too far now, and there was no turning back. He stabbed it true on the second go and raised it slowly towards his withered lips. All the air seemed to have left the room, and everyone scooted towards the edge of their seats. Old Mustard’s mouth opened the tiniest of fractions, and an ancient pink tongue poked out like a rabbit ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. Slowly, inch by inch, the meat made its way towards the old man’s face. Finally, as it seemed to almost be touching his tongue, a drip of the sauce ran down it’s side and splashed noiselessly onto his pant leg.

“FINE!” he screamed, hurling the fork across the room and knocking the entire table to the floor. “I’ll shut down the factory! But we still have to ship the remaining bottles out to retailers. We can’t just write the whole thing off as a loss!”

“Very well,” said Millicent, “I’ll relay this news to father and grandpa. They won’t be fully satisfied, but I imagine we’ll at least be able to get grandpa Henry on his side. It’s not exactly dignified, but I hear the common folk do rest that way if they died from some sort of facial injury.”

“Please explain to them that I’m only trying my best,” said Old Mustard with his head bowed.

“They know Archie,” said the ghost, with actual kindness in her voice, “and between you and me, father used to mix his dijon with mayonnaise when he thought no one was looking. We all have our secrets, I suppose.” And with that, she faded and was gone. 

“Well that seems resolved and none too soon for my taste,” said Evertrom, rising from the couch. “Now there’s just the small matter of my fee. For a few extra silver, I can also change the hedges back to normal. I can even do a dragon pattern if you like. I hear they’re all the rage this year.”

Old Mustard instructed Penfield to pay the wizard, along with the extra silver. He chose to have the hedges reverted back to a simple wave pattern though. He felt they’d had quite enough excitement in the household as of late.

Later that night, Madam Regina, the family’s great, grey tabby, snuck into the drawing room and carried the steak behind the curtains, where she devoured it greedily, ketchup and all. It wasn’t that she was a disloyal beast. Lord knows they’d treated her well enough throughout her long life. It’s just that she was a cat, and meat, after all, was meat, regardless of the sauce.

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