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At the sign of the Jack o'Lantern online

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"I put each one on when its own proper anniversary comes around an' wear
it till the next one, when I change again, though for one of the rings it
makes only one day, because the fourth and seventh times I was married so
near together. That sounds queer, my dear, but if you think it over,
you'll see what I mean. It's fortunate, too, in a way, 'cause I found out
by accident years afterward that my fourth weddin'-ring come out of a
pawn-shop, an' I never took much joy out of wearin' it. Bein' just alike,
I wore another one mostly, even when Samuel was alive, but he never
noticed. Besides, I reckon 't wouldn't make no difference, for a man
that'll go to a pawn-shop for a weddin'-ring ain't one to make a row about
his wife's changin' it. When I spoke sharp to him about it, he snickered,
an' said it was appropriate enough, though to this day I've never figured
out precisely just what the old serpent meant by it.

"Well, as I was sayin', my dear, the minister married us in good an'
proper form, an' I must say that, though I've had all kinds of ceremonies,
I take to the 'Piscopal one the most, in spite of havin' been brought up
Methodis', an' hereafter I'll be married by it if the occasion should
arise - an' we drove over to Taylorville.

"The roads was dretful, but bein' experienced in marriage, I could see
that it wasn't that that was makin' James drop the whip, an' pull back on
the lines when he wanted the horses to go faster, an' not hear things I
was a-sayin' to him. Finally, I says, very distinct: 'James, dear, how
many children did you say you had?'

"'Eight,' says he, clearin' his throat proud and haughty like.

"'You're lyin',' says I, 'an' you know you're lyin'. You allers told me
you had three.'

"'I was speakin' of those by my first wife,' says he. 'My other wives all
left one apiece. Ain't I never told you about 'em? I thought I had,' he
went on, speakin' quick, 'but if I haven't, it 's because your beauty has
made me forget all the pain an' sorrer of the past.'

"With that he clicked to the horses so sudden that I was near threw out of
the rig, but it wasn't half so bad as the other jolt he'd just give me.
For a long time I didn't say nothin', an' there's nothin' that makes a man
so uneasy as a woman that don't say nothin', my dear, so you just write
that down in your little book, an' remember it. It'll come in handy long
before you're through with your first marriage an' have begun on your
second. Havin' been through four, I was well skilled in keepin' my mouth
shut, an' I never said a word till we drove into the yard of the most
disconsolate-lookin' premises I ever seen since I was took to the
poorhouse on a visit.

"'James,' says I, cool but firm, 'is this your magnificent residence?'

"'It is,' says he, very soft, 'an' it is here that I welcome my bride.
Have you ever seen anythin' like this view?'

"'No,' says I, 'I never have'; an' it was gospel truth I was speakin',
too, for never before had I been to a place where the pigsty was in

"'It is a wonderful view,' says I, sarcastic like, 'but before I linger to
admire it more, I would love to look upon the scenery inside the house.'

"When we went in, I thought I was either dreamin' or had got to Bedlam.
The seven youngest children was raisin' particular Cain, an' the oldest, a
pretty little girl of thirteen, was doin' her best to quiet 'em. There was
six others besides what had been accounted for, but I soon found that they
belonged to a neighbour, an' was just visitin' to relieve the monotony.

"The woman James had left takin' care of 'em had been gone two weeks an'
more, with a month's wages still comin' to her, which James never felt
called on to pay, on account of her havin' left without notice. James was
dretful thrifty. The youngest one was puttin' the cat into the
water-pitcher, an' as soon as I found out what his name was, I called him
sharp by it an' told him to quit. He put his tongue out at me as sassy as
you please, an' says: 'I won't.'

"Well, my dear, I didn't wait to hear no more, but I opened my satchel an'
took out one of my slippers an' give that child a lickin' that he'll
remember when he's a grandparent. 'Hereafter,' says I, 'when I tell you to
do anythin', you'll do it. I'll speak kind the first time an' firm the
second, and the third time the whole thing will be illustrated so plain
that nobody can't misunderstand it. Your pa has took me into a confidence
game,' says I, speakin' to all the children, 'but I was never one to draw
back from what I'd put my hand to, an' I aim to do right by you if you do
right by me. You mind,' says I, 'an' you won't have no trouble; an' the
same thing,' says I to James, 'applies to you.'

"I felt sorry for all those poor little motherless things, with a liar for
a pa, an' all the time I lived there, I tried to make up to 'em what I
could, but step-mas have their sorrers, my dear, that's what they do, an'
I ain't never seen no piece about it in the paper yet, either.

"If you'll excuse me now, my dear, I'll go to my room. It's just come to
my mind now that this here is one of my anniversaries, an' I'll have to
look up the facts in my family Bible, an' change my ring."

At dinner-time the chastised and chastened twin appeared in freshly
starched raiment. His eyes were swollen and his face flushed, but
otherwise his recent painful experience had remarkably improved him. He
said "please" and "thank you," and did not even resent it when Willie
slyly dropped a small piece of watermelon down his neck.

"This afternoon," said Elaine, "Mr. Perkins composed a beautiful poem. I
know it is beautiful, though I have not yet heard it. I do not wish to be
selfish in my pleasure, so I will ask him to read it to us all."

The poet's face suddenly became the colour of his hair. He dropped his
napkin, and swiftly whispered to Elaine, while he was picking it up, that
she herself was the subject of the poem.

"How perfectly charming," said Elaine, clearly. "Did you hear, Mrs. Carr?
Poor little, insignificant me has actually inspired a great poem. Oh, do
read it, Mr. Perkins? We are all dying to hear it!"

Fairly cornered, the poet muttered that he had lost it - some other
time - wait until to-morrow - and so on.

"No need to wait," said Dick, with an ironical smile. "It was lost, but
now is found. I came upon it myself, blowing around unheeded under the
library window, quite like a common bit of paper."

Mr. Perkins was transfixed with amazement, for his cherished poem was at
that minute in his breast pocket. He clutched at it spasmodically, to be
sure it was still safe.

Very different emotions possessed Harlan, who choked on his food. He
instinctively guessed the worst, and saw his home in lurid ruin about him,
but was powerless to avert the catastrophe.

"Read it, Dick," said Mrs. Dodd, kindly. "We are all a-perishin' to hear
it. I can't eat another bite until I do. I reckon it'll sound like a
valentine," she concluded, with a malicious glance at Mr. Perkins.

"I have taken the liberty," chuckled Dick, "of changing a word or two
occasionally, to make better sense of it, and of leaving out some lines
altogether. Every one is privileged to vary an established form." Without
further preliminary, he read the improved version.

"The little doggie sheds his coat,
Elaine, have you forgotten?
What is it goes around a button?
I thought you knew that simple thing,
But ideas in your head take wing.
Elaine, have you forgotten?
The answer is a goat.

"How much is three times humpty-steen?
Elaine, have you forgotten?
Why does a chicken cross the road?
Who carries home a toper's load?
You are so very stupid, dear!
Elaine, have you forgotten?

"You think a mop of scarlet hair
And pale green eyes - - "

"That will do," said Miss St. Clair, crisply. "Mr. Perkins, may I ask as a
favour that you will not speak to me again?" She marched out with her head
high, and Mr. Perkins, wholly unstrung, buried his face in his napkin.

Harlan laughed - a loud, ringing laugh, such as Dorothy had not heard from
him for months, and striding around the table, he grasped Dick's hand in
tremendous relief.

"Let me have it," he cried, eagerly. "Give me all of it!"

"Sure," said Dick, readily, passing over both sheets of paper.

Harlan went into the library with the composition, and presently, when
Dick was walking around the house and saw bits of torn paper fluttering
out of the open window, a light broke through his usual density.

"Whew!" he said to himself. "I'll be darned! I'll be everlastingly darned!
Idiot!" he continued, savagely. "Oh, if I could only kick myself! Poor
Dorothy! I wonder if she knows!"



The August moon swung high in the heavens, and the crickets chirped
unbearably. The luminous dew lay heavily upon the surrounding fields, and
now and then a stray breeze, amid the overhanging branches of the trees
that lined the roadway, aroused in the consciousness of the single
wayfarer a feeling closely akin to panic. When he reached the summit of
the hill, he was trembling violently.

In the dooryard of the Jack-o'-Lantern, he paused. It was dark, save for a
single round window. In an upper front room a night-lamp, turned low, gave
one leering eye to the grotesque exterior of the house.

With his heart thumping loudly, Mr. Bradford leaned against a tree and
divested himself of his shoes. From a package under his arm, he took out a
pair of soft felt slippers, the paper rattling loudly as he did so. He put
them on, hesitated, then went cautiously up the walk.

"In all my seventy-eight years," he thought, "I have never done anything
like this. If I had not promised the Colonel - but a promise to a dying man
is sacred, especially when he is one's best friend."

The sound of the key in the lock seemed almost like an explosion of
dynamite. Mr. Bradford wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead,
turned the door slowly upon its squeaky hinges, and went in, feeling like
a burglar.

"I am not a burglar," he thought, his hands shaking. "I have come to give,
not to take away."

Fearfully, he tiptoed into the parlour, expecting at any moment to arouse
the house. Feeling his way carefully along the wall, and guided by the
moonlight which streamed in at the side windows, he came to the wing
occupied by Mrs. Holmes and her exuberant offspring. Here he stooped,
awkwardly, and slipped a sealed and addressed letter under the door,
heaving a sigh of relief as he got away without having wakened any one.

The sounds which came from Mrs. Dodd's room were reassuringly suggestive
of sleep. Hastily, he slipped another letter under her door, then made his
way cautiously to the kitchen. The missive intended for Mrs. Smithers was
left on the door-mat outside, for, as Mr. Bradford well knew, the ears of
the handmaiden were uncomfortably keen.

At the foot of the stairs he hesitated again, but by the time he reached
the top, his heart had ceased to beat audibly. He tiptoed down the
corridor to Uncle Israel's room, then, further on, to Dick's. The letter
intended for Mr. Perkins was slipped under Elaine's door, Mr. Bradford not
being aware that the poet had changed his room. Having safely accomplished
his last errand, the tension relaxed, and he went downstairs with more
assurance, his pace being unduly hastened by a subdued howl from one of
the twins.

Bidding himself be calm, he got to the front door, and drew a long breath
of relief as he closed it noiselessly. There was a light in Mrs. Holmes's
room now, and Mr. Bradford did not wish to linger. He gathered up his
shoes and fairly ran downhill, arriving at his office much shaken in mind
and body, nearly two hours after he had started.

"I do not know," he said to himself, "why the Colonel should have been so
particular as to dates and hours, but he knew his own business best."
Then, further in accordance with his instructions, he burned a number of
letters which could not be delivered personally.

If Mr. Bradford could have seen the company which met at the breakfast
table the following morning, he would have been amply repaid for his
supreme effort of the night before, had he been blessed with any sense of
humour at all. The Carrs were untroubled, and Elaine appeared as usual,
except for her haughty indifference to Mr. Perkins. She thought he had
written a letter to himself and slipped it under her door, in order to
compel her to speak to him, but she had tactfully avoided that difficulty
by leaving it on his own threshold. Dick's eyes were dancing and at
intervals his mirth bubbled over, needlessly, as every one else appeared
to think.

"I doesn't know wot folks finds to laugh at," remarked Mrs. Smithers, as
she brought in the coffee; "that's wot I doesn't. It's a solemn time, I
take it, when the sheeted spectres of the dead walks abroad by night,
that's wot it is. It's time for folks to be thinkin' about their immortal

This enigmatical utterance produced a startling effect. Mr. Perkins turned
a pale green and hastily excused himself, his breakfast wholly untouched.
Mrs. Holmes dropped her fork and recovered it in evident confusion. Mrs.
Dodd's face was a bright scarlet and appeared about to burst, but she kept
her lips compressed into a thin, tight line. Uncle Israel nodded over his
predigested food. "Just so," he mumbled; "a solemn time."

Eagerly watching for an opportunity, Mrs. Holmes dived into the barn, and
emerged, cautiously, with the spade concealed under her skirts. She
carried it into her own apartment and hid it under Willie's bed. Mrs.
Smithers went to look for it a little later, and, discovering that it was
unaccountably missing, excavated her own private spade from beneath the
hay. During the afternoon, the poet was observed lashing the fire-shovel
to the other end of a decrepit rake. Uncle Israel, after a fruitless
search of the premises, actually went to town and came back with a bulky
and awkward parcel, which he hid in the shrubbery.

Meanwhile, Willie had gone whimpering to Mrs. Dodd, who was in serious
trouble of her own. "I'm afraid," he admitted, when closely questioned.

"Afraid of what?" demanded his counsellor, sharply.

"I'm afraid of ma," sobbed Willie. "She's a-goin' to bury me. She's got
the spade hid under my bed now."

Sudden emotion completely changed Mrs. Dodd's countenance. "There, there,
Willie," she said, stroking him kindly. "Where is your ma?"

"She's out in the orchard with Ebbie and Rebbie."

"Well now, deary, don't you say nothin' at all to your ma, an' we'll fool
her. The idea of buryin' a nice little boy like you! You just go an' get
me that spade an' I'll hide it in my room. Then, when your ma asks for it,
you don't know nothin' about it. See?"

Willie's troubled face brightened, and presently the implement was under
Mrs. Dodd's own bed, and her door locked. Much relieved in his mind and
cherishing kindly sentiments toward his benefactor, Willie slid down the
banisters, unrebuked, the rest of the afternoon.

Meanwhile Mrs. Dodd sat on the porch and meditated. "I'd never have
thought," she said to herself, "that Ebeneezer would intend that Holmes
woman to have any of it, but you never can tell what folks'll do when
their minds gets to failin' at the end. Ebeneezer's mind must have failed
dretful, for I know he didn't make no promise to her, same as he did to
me, an' if she don't suspect nothin', what did she go an' get the spade
for? Dretful likely hand it is, for spirit writin'."

Looking about furtively to make sure that she was not observed, Mrs. Dodd
drew out of the mysterious recesses of her garments, the crumpled
communication of the night before. It was dated, "Heaven, August 12th,"
and the penmanship was Uncle Ebeneezer's to the life.

"Dear Belinda," it read. "I find myself at the last moment obliged to
change my plans. If you will go to the orchard at exactly twelve o'clock
on the night of August 13th, you will find there what you seek. Go
straight ahead to the ninth row of apple trees, then seven trees to the
left. A cat's skull hangs from the lower branch, if it hasn't blown down
or been taken away. Dig here and you will find a tin box containing what I
have always meant you to have.

"I charge you by all you hold sacred to obey these directions in every
particular, and unless you want to lose it all, to say nothing about it to
any one who may be in the house.

"I am sorry to put you to this inconvenience, but the limitations of the
spirit world cannot well be explained to mortals. I hope you will make a
wise use of the money and not spend it all on clothes, as women are apt to

"In conclusion, let me say that I am very happy in heaven, though it is
considerably more quiet than any place I ever lived in before. I have met
a great many friends here, but no relatives except my wife. Farewell, as I
shall probably never see you again.


"Ebeneezer Judson.

"P.S. All of your previous husbands are here, in the sunny section set
aside for martyrs. None of them give you a good reputation.

"E. J."

"Don't it beat all," muttered Mrs. Dodd to herself, excitedly. "Here was
Ebeneezer at my door last night, an' I never knowed it. Sakes alive, if I
had knowed it, I wouldn't have slep' like I did. Here comes that Holmes
hussy. Wonder what she knows!"

"Do you believe in spirits, Mrs. Dodd?" inquired Mrs. Holmes, in a
careless tone that did not deceive her listener.

"Depends," returned the other, with an evident distaste for the subject.

"Do you believe spirits can walk?"

"I ain't never seen no spirits walk, but I've seen folks try to walk that
was full of spirits, and there wa'n't no visible improvement in their
steppin'." This was a pleasant allusion to the departed Mr. Holmes, who
was currently said to have "drunk hisself to death."

A scarlet flush, which mounted to the roots of Mrs. Holmes's hair,
indicated that the shot had told, and Mrs. Dodd went to her own room,
where she carefully locked herself in. She was determined to sit upon her
precious spade until midnight, if it were necessary, to keep it.

Mrs. Smithers was sitting up in bed with the cold perspiration oozing from
every pore, when the kitchen clock struck twelve sharp, quick strokes. The
other clocks in the house took up the echo and made merry with it. The
grandfather's clock in the hall was the last to strike, and the twelve
deep-toned notes boomed a solemn warning which, to more than one quaking
listener, bore a strong suggestion of another world - an uncanny world at

"Guess I'll go along," said Dick to himself, yawning and stretching. "I
might just as well see the fun."

Mrs. Smithers, with her private spade and her odorous lantern, was at the
spot first, closely seconded by Mrs. Dodd, in a voluminous garment of red
flannel which had seen all of its best days and not a few of its worst.
Trembling from head to foot, came Mrs. Holmes, carrying a pair of shears,
which she had snatched up at the last moment when she discovered the spade
was missing. Mr. Perkins, fully garbed, appeared with his improvised
shovel. Uncle Israel, in his piebald dressing-gown, tottered along in the
rear, bearing his spade, still unwrapped, his bedroom candle, and a box of
matches. Dick surveyed the scene from a safe, shadowy distance, and on a
branch near the skull, Claudius Tiberius was stretched at full length,
purring with a loud, resonant purr which could be heard from afar.

After the first shock of surprise, which was especially keen on the part
of Mrs. Dodd, when she saw Uncle Israel in the company, Mrs. Smithers
broke the silence.

"It's nothink more nor a wild-goose chase," she said, resentfully.
"A-gettin' us all out'n our beds at this time o' night! It's a sufferin'
and dyin' shame, that's wot it is, and if sperrits was like other folks,
't wouldn't 'ave happened."

"Sarah," said Mrs. Dodd, firmly, "keep your mouth shut. Israel, will you

"We'll all dig," said Mrs. Holmes, in the voice of authority, and
thereafter the dirt flew briskly enough, accompanied by the laboured
breathing of perspiring humanity.

It was Uncle Israel's spade that first touched the box, and, with a cry of
delight, he stooped for it, as did everybody else. By sheer force of
muscle, Mrs. Dodd got it away from him.

"This wrangle," sighed Mr. Perkins, "is both unseemly and sordid. Let us
all agree to abide by dear Uncle Ebeneezer's last bequests."

"There won't be no desire not to abide by 'em," snorted Mrs. Smithers,
"wot with cats as can't stay buried and sheeted spectres of the dead
a-walkin' through the house by night!"

By this time, Mrs. Dodd had the box open, and a cry of astonishment broke
from her lips. Several heads were badly bumped in the effort to peep into
the box, and an unprotected sneeze from Uncle Israel added to the general

"You can all go away," cried Mrs. Dodd, shrilly. "There's two one-dollar
bills here, two quarters, an' two nickels an' eight pennies. 'T aint
nothin' to be fit over."

"But the letter," suggested Mr. Perkins, hopefully. "Is there not a letter
from dear Uncle Ebeneezer? Let us gather around the box in a reverent
spirit and listen to dear Uncle Ebeneezer's last words."

"You can read 'em," snapped Mrs. Holmes, "if you're set on hearing."

Uncle Israel wheezed so loudly that for the moment he drowned the deep
purr of Claudius Tiberius. When quiet was restored, Mr. Perkins broke the
seal of the envelope and unfolded the communication within. Uncle Israel
held the dripping candle on one side and Mrs. Smithers the smoking lantern
on the other, while near by, Dick watched the midnight assembly with an
unholy glee which, in spite of his efforts, nearly became audible.

"How beautiful," said Mr. Perkins, "to think that dear Uncle Ebeneezer's
last words should be given to us in this unexpected but original way."

"Shut up," said Mrs. Smithers, emphatically, "and read them last words.
I'm gettin' the pneumony now, that's wot I am."

"You're the only one," chirped Mrs. Dodd, hysterically. "The money in this
here box is all old." It was, indeed. Mr. Judson seemed to have purposely
chosen ragged bills and coins worn smooth.

"'Dear Relations,'" began Mr. Perkins. "'As every one of you have at one
time or another routed me out of bed to let you in when you have come to
my house on the night train, and always uninvited - - '"

"I never did," interrupted Mrs. Holmes. "I always came in the daytime."

"Nobody ain't come at night," explained Mrs. Smithers, "since 'e fixed the
'ouse over into a face. One female fainted dead away when 'er started up
the hill and see it a-winkin' at 'er, yes sir, that's wot 'er did!"

"'It seems only fitting and appropriate,'" continued Mr. Perkins, "'that
you should all see how it seems.'" The poet wiped his massive brow with
his soiled handkerchief. "Dear uncle!" he commented.

"Yes," wheezed Uncle Israel, "'dear uncle!' Damn his stingy old soul," he
added, with uncalled-for emphasis.

"It gives me pleasure to explain in this fashion my disposal of my
estate," the reader went on, huskily.

"Of all the connection on both sides, there is only one that has never
been to see me, unless I've forgotten some, and that is my beloved nephew,
James Harlan Carr."

"Him," creaked Uncle Israel. "Him, as never see Ebeneezer."

"He has never," continued the poet, with difficulty, "rung my door bell at
night, nor eaten me out of house and home, nor written begging letters - "
this phrase was well-nigh inaudible - "nor had fits on me - - "

Here there was a pause and all eyes were fastened upon Uncle Israel.

"'T wa'n't a fit!" he screamed. "It was a involuntary spasm brought on by
takin' two searchin' medicines too near together. 'T wa'n't a fit!"

"Nor children - - "

"The idea!" snapped Mrs. Holmes. "Poor little Ebbie and Rebbie had to be
born somewhere."

"Nor paralysis - - "

"That was Cousin Si Martin," said Mrs. Dodd, half to herself. "He was took
bad with it in the night."

"He has never come to spend Christmas with me and remained until the
ensuing dog days, nor sent me a crayon portrait of himself" - Mr. Perkins
faltered here, but nobly went on - "nor had typhoid fever, nor finished up

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Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 11 of 16)