Myrtle Reed.

At the sign of the Jack o'Lantern online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and Harlan, coming out of the library with the furtive step of a wild
beast from its lair, met her inopportunely at the foot of the stairs.

She smiled at him in a timid, but friendly fashion, and at the precise
moment, Dorothy appeared in the dining-room door.

"Harlan, dear," she said, in her sweetest tones, "will you give our guest
your arm and escort her out to luncheon? I have it all ready!"

Miss St. Clair clutched timidly at Harlan's rigid coat sleeve, wondering
what strange custom of the house would be evident next, and the fog was
thick before Mr. Carr's eyes, when he took his accustomed seat at the head
of the table. As a sign of devotion, he tried to step on Dorothy's foot
under the table, after a pleasing habit of their courtship in the New York
boarding-house, but he succeeded only in drawing an unconscious "ouch" and
a vivid blush from Miss St. Clair, by which he impressed Dorothy more
deeply than he could have hoped to do otherwise.

"Have you come far, Miss St. Clair?" asked Dorothy, conventionally.

"From New York," answered the guest, taking a plate of fried chicken from
Harlan's shaky hand.

"I know," said Dorothy sweetly. "We come from New York, too." Then she
took a bold, daring plunge. "I have often heard my husband speak of you."

"Of me, Mrs. Carr? Surely not! It must have been some other Elaine."

"Perhaps," smiled Dorothy, shrugging her shoulders. "No doubt I am
mistaken, but you may have heard of me?"

"Indeed I haven't," Elaine assured her. "I never heard of you in my life
before. Why should I?" A sudden and earnest crow under the window behind
her startled her so that she dropped her knife. Harlan stooped for it at
the same time she did and their heads bumped together smartly.

"Our gentleman chicken," went on Dorothy, tactfully. "We call him 'Abdul
Hamid.' You know the masculine nature is instinctively polygamous."

Harlan cackled mirthlessly, wondering, subconsciously, how Abdul Hamid
could have escaped from the coop. After that there was silence, save as
Dorothy, in her most hospitable manner, occasionally urged the guest to
have more of something. Throughout luncheon, she never once spoke to
Harlan, nor took so much as a single glance at his red, unhappy face. Even
his ears were scarlet, and the delicious fried chicken which he was eating
might have been a section of rag carpet, for all he knew to the contrary.

"And now, Miss St. Clair," said Dorothy, kindly, as they rose from the
table, "I am sure you will wish to lie down and rest after your long
journey. Which room did you choose?"

"I looked at all of them," responded Elaine, touched to the heart by this
unexpected kindness from strangers, "and finally chose the suite in the
south wing. It's a nice large room, with such a darling little
sitting-room attached, and such a dear work basket."

Harlan nearly burst, for the description was of Dorothy's own particular

"Yes," said Mrs. Carr, very quietly; "I thought my husband would choose
that room for you - dear Harlan is always so thoughtful! I will go up with
you and take out a few of my things which have been unfortunately left

Shortly afterward, Mr. Carr also climbed the stairs, his head swimming and
his knees knocking together. Nervously, he turned over the few pages of
his manuscript, then, hearing Dorothy coming, grabbed it and fled like a
thief to the library on the first floor. In his panic he bolted the doors
and windows of Uncle Ebeneezer's former retreat. It was unnecessary,
however, for no one came near him.

Throughout the long, sweet Spring afternoon, Miss St. Clair slept the
dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion, Harlan worked fruitlessly at _The
Quest of Lady Elaine_, and Dorothy busied herself about her household
tasks, singing with forced cheerfulness whenever she was within hearing of
the library.

"I'll explain" thought Harlan, wretchedly. But after all what was there to
explain, except that he had never seen Miss St. Clair before, never in all
his life heard of her, never knew there was such a person, or had never
met anybody who knew anything about her? "Besides," he continued to
himself "even then, what excuse have I got for stroking a strange woman's
hand and telling her I'm married?"

As the afternoon wore on, he decided that it would be policy to ignore the
whole matter. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding all around, which
could not be cleared away by speech, unless Dorothy should ask him about
it - which he was very certain she would not do. "She ought to trust me,"
he said to himself, resentfully, forgetting the absolute openness of
thought and deed upon which a woman's trust is founded. "I'll read her the
book to-night," he thought, happily, "and that will please her."

But it was fated not to. After dinner, which was much the same as
luncheon, as far as conversation was concerned, Harlan invited Dorothy to
come into the library.

She followed him, obediently enough, and he closed the door.

"Dearest," he began, with a grin which was meant to be cheerful and was
merely ridiculous, "I've begun the book - I actually have! I've been
working on it all day. Just listen!"

Hurriedly possessing himself of the manuscript, he read it in an unnatural
voice, down to the flower-like hands.

"I don't see how you can say that, Harlan," interrupted Dorothy, coolly
critical; "I particularly noticed her hands and they're not nice at all.
They're red and rough and nearly the size of a policeman's."

"Whose hands?" demanded Harlan, in genuine astonishment.

"Why, Elaine's - Miss St. Clair's. If you're going to do a book about her,
you might at least try to make it truthful."

Mrs. Carr went out, closing the door carefully, but firmly. Then, for the
first time, the whole wretched situation dawned upon the young and
aspiring author.


An Uninvited Guest

Dorothy sat alone in her room, facing the first heartache of her married
life. She repeatedly told herself that she was not jealous; that the
primitive, unlovely emotion was far beneath such as she. But if Harlan had
only told her, instead of leaving her to find out in this miserable way!
It had never entered her head that the clear-eyed, clean-minded boy whom
she had married, could have anything even remotely resembling a past, and
here it was in her own house! Moreover, it had inspired a book, and she
herself had been unable to get him to work at all.

Just why women should be concerned in regard to old loves has never been
wholly clear. One might as well fancy a clean slate, freshly and
elaborately dedicated to noble composition, being bothered by the addition
and subtraction which was once done upon its surface.

With her own eyes she had seen Miss St. Clair weeping, while Harlan held
her hands and explained that he was married. Undoubtedly Miss St. Clair
accounted for various metropolitan delays and absences which she had
joyously forgiven on the score of Harlan's "work." Bitterest of all was
the thought that she must endure it - that the long years ahead of her
offered no escape, no remedy, except the ignoble, painful one which she
would not for a moment consider.

A sudden flash of resentment stiffened her backbone, metaphorically
speaking. In spite of Miss St. Clair, Harlan had married her, and it was
Miss St. Clair who was weeping over the event, not Harlan. She had seen
that the visitor made Harlan unhappy - very well, she would generously
throw them together and make him painfully weary of her, for Love's
certain destroyer is Satiety. Deep in Dorothy's consciousness was the
abiding satisfaction that she had never once, as she put it to herself,
"chased him." Never a note, never a telephone call, never a question as to
his coming and going appeared now to trouble her. The ancient, primeval
relation of the Seeker and the Sought had not for a single moment been
altered through her.

Meanwhile, Elaine had settled down peacefully enough. Having been regaled
since infancy with tales of Uncle Ebeneezer's generous hospitality, it
seemed only fitting and proper that his relatives should make her welcome,
even though Elaine's mother had been only a second cousin of Mrs.
Judson's. Elaine had been deeply touched by Harlan's solicitude and
Dorothy's kindness, seeing in it nothing more than the manifestation of a
beautiful spirit toward one who was helpless and ill.

A modest wardrobe and a few hundred dollars, saved from the wreck of her
mother's estate, and the household furniture in storage, represented
Elaine's worldly goods. As too often happens in a material world, she had
been trained to do nothing but sing a little, play a little, and paint
unspeakably. She planned, vaguely, to stay where she was during the
Summer, and in the Autumn, when she had quite recovered her former
strength, to take her money and learn some method of self-support.

Just now she was resting. A late breakfast, a walk through the country, a
light luncheon, and a long nap accounted for Elaine's day until
dinner-time. After dinner, for an hour, she exchanged commonplaces with
the Carrs, then retired to her own room with a book from Uncle Ebeneezer's
library. Even Dorothy was forced to admit that she made very little

The train rumbled into the station - the very same train which had brought
the Serpent into Paradise. Dorothy smiled a little at the idea of a snake
travelling on a train unless it belonged to a circus, and wiped her eyes.
Having mapped out her line of conduct, the rest was simple enough - to
abide by it even to the smallest details, and patiently await results.

When she went downstairs again she was outwardly quite herself, but
altogether unprepared for the surprise that awaited her in the parlour.

"Hello," cried a masculine voice, cheerily, as she entered the room. "I've
never seen you before, have I?"

"Not that I know of," replied Dorothy, startled, but not in the least

The young man who rose to greet her was not at all unpleasant to look
upon. He was taller than Harlan, smooth-shaven, had nice brown eyes, and a
mop of curly brown hair which evidently annoyed him. Moreover, he was
laughing, as much from sheer joy of living as anything else.

"Which side of the house are you a relative of?" he asked.

"The inside," returned Dorothy. "I keep house here."

"You don't say so! What's become of Sally? Uncle shoo her off the lot?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," answered Dorothy, with a
fruitless effort to appear matronly and dignified. "If by 'uncle' you mean
Uncle Ebeneezer, he's dead."

"You don't tell me! Reaped at last, after all this delay! Then how did you
come here?"

"By train," responded Dorothy, enjoying the situation to the utmost.
"Uncle Ebeneezer left the house and furniture to my husband."

The young man sank into a chair and wiped the traces of deep emotion from
his ruddy face. "Hully Gee!" he said, when he recovered speech. "I suppose
that's French for 'Dick, chase yourself.'"

"Perhaps not," suggested Mrs. Carr, strangely loath to have this breezy
individual take his departure. "You might tell me who you are; don't you
think so?"

"Not a bad notion at all. I'm the Dick of the firm of 'Tom, Dick, and
Harry,' you've doubtless heard about from your childhood. My other name is
Chester, but few know it. I'm merely 'Dick' to everybody, yourself
included, I trust," he added with an elaborate bow. "If you will sit down,
and make yourself comfortable, I will now unfold to you the sad story of
my life.

"I was born of poor but honest parents about twenty-three years ago,
according to the last official census. They brought me up until I reached
the ripe age of twelve, then got tired of their job and went to heaven.
Since then I've brought myself up. I've just taught a college all it can
learn from me, and been put out. Prexy confided to me that I wasn't going
to graduate, so I shook the classic dust from my weary feet and fled
hither as to a harbour of refuge. I've always spent my Summers with Uncle
Ebeneezer, because it was cheap for me and good for him, but I can't
undertake to follow him up this Summer, not knowing exactly where he is,
and not caring for a warm climate anyway."

Inexpressibly shocked, Dorothy looked up to the portrait over the mantel
half fearfully, but there was no change in the stern, malicious old face.

"You're afraid of him, aren't you?" asked Dick, with a hearty laugh.

"I always have been," admitted Dorothy. "He scared me the first time we
came here - it was at night, and raining."

"I've known him to scare people in broad daylight, and they weren't always
women either. He used to be a pleasant old codger, but he got over it, and
after he learned to swear readily, he was a pretty tough party to buck up
against. It took nerve to stay here when uncle was in a bad mood, but most
people have more nerve than they think they have. You haven't told me your
name yet."

"Mrs. Carr - Dorothy Carr."

"Pretty name," remarked Dick, with evident admiration. "If you don't mind,
I'll call you 'Dorothy' till the train goes back. It will be something for
me to remember in the desert waste of my empty years to come."

A friendly, hospitable impulse seized Mrs. Carr. "Why should you go?" she
inquired, smiling. "If you've been in the habit of spending your Summers
here, you needn't change on our account. We'd be glad to have you, I'm
sure. A dear old friend of my husband's is already here."

"Fine or superfine?"

"Superfine," returned Dorothy, feeling very much as though the clock had
been turned back twenty years or more and she was at a children's party

"You can bet your sweet life I'll stay," said Dick, "and if I bother you
at any time, just say so and I'll skate out, with no hard feelings on
either side. You may need me when the rest of the bunch gets here."

"The rest of - oh Harlan, come here a minute!"

She had caught him as he was going into the library with his work,
thinking that a change of environment might possibly produce an acceptable
change in the current of his thoughts.

"Dick," said Dorothy, when Harlan came to the door, "this is my husband.
Mr. Chester, Mr. Carr."

For days Harlan had not seen Dorothy with such rosy cheeks, such dancing
eyes, nor half as many dimples. Bewildered, and not altogether pleased, he
awkwardly extended his hand to Mr. Chester, with a conventional "how do
you do?"

Dick wrung the offered hand in a mighty grip which made Harlan wince. "I
congratulate you, Mr. Carr," he said gallantly, "upon possessing the
fairest ornament of her sex. Guess this letter is for you, isn't it? I
found it in the post-office while the keeper was out, and just took it. If
it doesn't belong here, I'll skip back with it."

"Thanks," murmured Harlan, rubbing the injured hand with the other.
"I - where did you come from?"

"The station," explained Dick, pleasantly. "I never trace myself back of
where I was last seen."

"He's going to stay with us, Harlan," put in Dorothy, wickedly, "so you
mustn't let us keep you away from your work. Come along, Dick, and I'll
show you our cow."

They went out, followed by a long, low whistle of astonishment from Harlan
which Dorothy's acute ears did not miss. Presently Mr. Carr retreated into
the library, and locked the door, but he did not work. The book was at a
deadlock, half a paragraph beyond "the flower-like hands of Elaine," of
which, indeed, the author had confessed his inability to write.

"Dick," thought Harlan. "Mr. Chester. A young giant with a grip like an
octopus. 'The fairest ornament of her sex.' Never, never heard of him
before. Some old flame of Dorothy's, who has discovered her whereabouts
and brazenly followed her, even on her honeymoon."

And he, Harlan, was absolutely prevented from speaking of it by an unhappy
chain of circumstances which put him in a false light! For the first time
he fully perceived how a single thoughtless action may bind all one's
future existence.

"Just because I stroked the hand of a distressed damsel," muttered Harlan,
"and told her I was married, I've got to sit and see a procession of my
wife's old lovers marking time here all Summer!" In his fevered fancy, he
already saw the Jack-o'-Lantern surrounded by Mrs. Carr's former admirers,
heard them call her "Dorothy," and realised that there was not a single
thing he could do.

"Unless, of course," he added, mentally, "it gets too bad, and I have an
excuse to order 'em out. And then, probably, Dorothy will tell Elaine to
take her dolls and go home, and the poor thing's got nowhere to
go - nowhere in the wide world.

"How would Dorothy like to be a lonely orphan, with no husband, no
friends, and no job? She wouldn't like it much, but women never have any
sympathy for each other, nor for their husbands, either. I'd give twenty
dollars this minute not to have stroked Elaine's hand, and fifty not to
have had Dorothy see it, but there's no use in crying over spilt milk nor
in regretting hands that have already been stroked."

In search of diversion, he opened his letter, which was in answer to the
one he had written some little time ago, inquiring minutely, of an
acquaintance who was supposed to be successful, just what the prospects
were for a beginner in the literary craft.

"Dear Carr," the letter read. "Sorry not to have answered before, but I've
been away and things got mixed up. Wouldn't advise anybody but an enemy to
take up writing as a steady job, but if you feel the call, go in and win.
You can make all the way from eight dollars a year, which was what I made
when I first struck out, up to five thousand, which was what I averaged
last year. I've always envied you fellows who could turn in your stuff and
get paid for it the following Tuesday. In my line, you work like the devil
this year for what you're going to get next, and live on the year after.

"However, if you're bitten with it, there's no cure. You'll see magazine
articles in stones and books in running brooks all the rest of your life.
When you get your book done, I'll trot you around to my publisher, who
enjoys the proud distinction of being an honest one, and if he likes your
stuff, he'll take it, and if he doesn't, he'll turn you down so pleasantly
that you'll feel as though he'd made you a present of something. If you
think you've got genius, forget it, and remember that nothing takes the
place of hard work. And, besides, it's a pretty blamed poor book that
can't get itself printed these days.

"Yours as usual,
"C. J."

The communication was probably intended as encouragement, but the effect
was depressing, and at the end of an hour, Harlan had written only two
lines more in his book, neither of which pleased him.

Meanwhile, Dick was renewing his old acquaintance with Mrs. Smithers, much
to that lady's pleasure, though she characteristically endeavoured to
conceal it. She belonged to a pious sect which held all mirth to be

"Sally," Dick was saying, "I've dreamed of your biscuits night and day
since I ate the last one. Are we going to have 'em for lunch?"

"No biscuits in this house to-day," grumbled the deity of the kitchen, in
an attempt to be properly stern, "and as I've told you more than once, my
name ain't 'Sally.' It's Mis' Smithers, that's wot it is, and I'll thank
you to call me by it."

"Between those who love," continued Dick, with a sidelong glance at
Dorothy, who stood near by, appalled at his daring, "the best is none too
good for common use. If my heart breaks the bonds of conventional
restraint, and I call you by the name under which you always appear to me
in my longing dreams, why should you not be gracious, and forgive me? Be
kind to me, Sally, be just a little kind, and throw together a pan of
those biscuits in your own inimitable style!"

"Run along with you, you limb of Satan," cried Mrs. Smithers, brandishing
a floury spoon.

"Come along, Dorothy," said Dick, laying a huge but friendly paw upon Mrs.
Carr's shoulder; "we're chased out." He put his head back into the
kitchen, however, to file a parting petition for biscuits, which was
unnecessary, for Mrs. Smithers had already found her rolling-pin and had
begun to sift her flour.

Outside, he duly admired Maud, who was chewing the cud of reflection under
a tree, created a panic in the chicken yard by lifting Abdul Hamid
ignominiously by the legs, to see how heavy he was, and chased Claudius
Tiberius under the barn.

"If that cat turns up missing some day," he said, "don't blame me. He
looks so much like Uncle Ebeneezer that I can't stand for him."

"There's something queer about Claudius, anyway," ventured Dorothy. "Mrs.
Smithers says that uncle killed him the week before he died, and - - "

"Before who died?"

"Claudius - no, before uncle died, and she buried him, and he's come to
life again."

"Uncle, or Claudius?"

"Claudius, you goose," laughed Dorothy.

"If I knew just how nearly related we were," remarked Dick, irrelevantly
enough, "I believe I'd kiss you. You look so pretty with all your dimples
hung out and your hair blowing in the wind."

Dorothy glanced up, startled, and inclined to be angry, but it was
impossible to take offence at such a mischievous youth as Dick was at that
moment. "We're not related," she said, coolly, "except by marriage."

"Well, that's near enough," returned Dick, who was never disposed to be
unduly critical. "Your husband is only related to you by marriage. Don't
be such a prude. Come to the waiting arms of your uncle, or cousin, or
brother-in-law, or whatever it is that I happen to be."

"Go and kiss your friend Sally in the kitchen," laughed Dorothy. "You have
my permission." Dick made a wry face. "I don't hanker to do it," he said,
"but if you want me to, I will. I suppose she isn't pleased with her place
and you want to make it more homelike for her."

"What relation were you to Uncle Ebeneezer?" queried Dorothy, curiously.

"Uncle and I," sighed Dick, "were connected by the closest ties of blood
and marriage. Nobody could be more related than we were. I was the only
child of Aunt Rebecca's sister's husband's sister's husband's sister. Say,
on the dead, if I ever bother you will you tell me so and invite me to

"Of course I will."

"Shake hands on it, then; that's a good fellow. And say, did you say there
was another skirt stopping here?"

"A - a what?"

"Petticoat," explained Dick, patiently; "mulier, as the ancient dagoes had
it. They've been getting mulier ever since, too. How old is she?"

"Oh," answered Dorothy. "She's not more than twenty or twenty-one." Then,
endeavouring to be just to Elaine, she added: "And a very pretty girl,

"Lead me to her," exclaimed Dick ecstatically. "Already she is mine!"

"You'll see her at luncheon. There's the bell, now."

Mr. Chester was duly presented to Miss St. Clair, and from then on,
appeared to be on his good behaviour. Elaine's delicate, fragile beauty
appealed strongly to the susceptible Dick, and from the very beginning, he
was afraid of her - a dangerous symptom, if he had only known it.

Harlan, making the best of a bad bargain, devoted himself to his guests
impartially, and, upon the whole, the luncheon went off very well, though
the atmosphere was not wholly festive.

Afterward, when they sat down in the parlour, there was an awkward pause
which no one seemed inclined to relieve. At length Dorothy, mindful of her
duty as hostess, asked Miss St. Clair if she would not play something.

Willingly enough, Elaine went to the melodeon, which had not been opened
since the Carrs came to live at the Jack-o'-Lantern, and lifted the lid.
Immediately, however, she went off into hysterics, which were so violent
that Harlan and Dorothy were obliged to assist her to her room.

Dick strongly desired to carry Elaine upstairs, but was forbidden by the
hampering conventionalities. So he lounged over to the melodeon, somewhat
surprised to find that "It" was still there.

"It" was a brown, wavy, false front of human hair, securely anchored to
the keys underneath by a complicated system of loops of linen thread.
Pinned to the top was a faded slip of paper on which Uncle Ebeneezer had
written, long ago: "Mrs. Judson always kept her best false front in the
melodeon. I do not desire to have it disturbed. - E. J."

"His Nibs never could bear music," thought Dick, as he closed the
instrument, little guessing that a vein of sentiment in Uncle Ebeneezer's
hard nature had impelled him to keep the prosaic melodeon forever sacred

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 5 of 16)