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At the sign of the Jack o'Lantern online

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to the slender, girlish fingers that had last brought music from its
yellowed keys.

From upstairs still came the sound of crying, which was not altogether to
be wondered at, considering Miss St. Clair's weak, nervous condition.
Harlan came down, scowling, and took back the brandy flask, moving none
too hastily.

"They don't like Elaine," murmured Dick to himself, vaguely troubled. "I
wonder why - oh, I wonder why!"



_Blue as sapphires were the eyes of Elaine, and her fair cheek was like
that of an apple blossom. Set like a rose upon pearl was the dewy,
fragrant sweetness of her mouth, and her breath was that of the rose
itself. Her hands - but how shall I write of the flower-like hands of
Elaine? They seemed all too frail to hold the reins of her palfrey, much
less to guide him along the rocky road that lay before her._

_Safely sheltered in a sunny valley was the Castle of Content, wherein
Elaine's father reigned as Lord. Upon the hills close at hand were the
orchards, which were now in bloom. A faint, unearthly sweetness came with
every passing breeze, and was wafted through the open windows of the
Castle, where, upon the upper floor, Elaine was wont to sit with her maids
at the tapestry frames._

_But, of late, a strange restlessness was upon her, and the wander-lust
surged through her veins._

_"My father," she said, "I am fain to leave the Castle of Content, and set
out upon the Heart's Quest. Among the gallant knights of thy retinue,
there is none whom I would wed, and it is seemly that I should set out to
find my lord and master, for behold, father, as thou knowest, twenty years
and more have passed over my head, and my beauty hath begun to fade."_

_The Lord of the Castle of Content smiled in amusement, that Elaine, the
beautiful, should fancy her charms were on the wane. But he was ever eager
to gratify the slightest wish of this only child of his, and so he gave
his ready consent._

_"Indeed, Elaine," he answered, "and if thou choosest, thou shalt go, but
these despised knights shall attend thee, and also our new fool, who hath
come from afar to make merry in our court. His motley is of an unfamiliar
pattern, his quips and jests savour not so much of antiquity, and his
songs are pleasing. He shall lighten the rigours of thy journey and cheer
thee when thou art sad."_

_"But, father, I do not choose to have the fool."_

_"Say no more, Elaine, for if thou goest, thou shall have the fool. It is
most fitting that in thy retinue there shouldst be more than one to wear
the cap and bells, and it is in my mind to consider this quest of thine
somewhat more than mildly foolish. Unnumbered brave and faithful knights
are at thy feet and yet thou canst not choose, but must needs fare onward
in search of a stranger to be thy lord and master."_

_Elaine raised her hand. "As thou wilt, father," she said, submissively.
"Thou canst not understand the way of a maid. Bid thy fool to prepare
himself quickly for a long journey, since we start at sunset."_

_"But why at sunset, daughter? The way is long. Mayst not thy mission wait
until sunrise?"_

_"Nay, father, for it is my desire to sleep to-night upon the ground. The
tapestried walls of my chamber stifle me and I would fain lie in the fresh
air with only the green leaves for my canopy and the stars for my taper

_"As thou wilt, Elaine, but my heart is sad at the prospect of losing
thee. Thou art my only child, the image of thy dead mother, and my old
eyes shall be misty for the sight of thee long before my gallant knights
bring thee back again."_

_"So shall I gain some hours, father," she answered. "Perhaps my sunset
journeying shall bring my return a day nearer. Cross me not in this wish,
father, for it is my fancy to go."_

_So it was that the cavalcade was made ready and Elaine and her company
left the Castle of Content at sunset. Two couriers rode at the head, to
see that the way was clear, and with a silver bugle to warn travellers to
stand aside until the Lady Elaine and her attendants had passed._

_Upon a donkey, caparisoned in a most amusing manner, rode Le Jongleur,
the new fool of whom the Lord of the Castle of Content had spoken. His
motley, as has been said, was of an unfamiliar pattern, but was none the
less striking, being made wholly of scarlet and gold. The Lady Elaine
could not have guessed that it was assumed as a tribute to the trappings
of her palfrey, for Le Jongleur's heart was most humble and loyal, though
leaping now with the joy of serving the fair Lady Elaine._

_The Lord of Content stood at the portal of the Castle to bid the retinue
Godspeed, and as the cymbals crashed out a sounding farewell, he
impatiently wiped away the mist, which already had clouded his vision.
Long he waited, straining his eyes toward the distant cliffs, where, one
by one, the company rode upward. The valley was in shadow, but the long
light lay upon the hills, changing the crags to a wonder of purple and
gold. To him, too, came the breath of apple bloom, but it brough no joy to
his troubled heart._

_What dangers lay in wait for Elaine as she fared forth upon her wild
quest? What monsters haunted the primeval forests through which her path
must lie? And where was the knight who should claim her innocent and
maidenly heart? At this thought, the Lord of Content shuddered, then was
quickly ashamed._

_"I am as foolish," he muttered, "as he in motley, who rides at the side
of Elaine. Surely my daughter, the child of a soldier, can make no
unworthy choice."_

_The cavalcade had reached the summit of the cliff, now, and at the brink,
turned back. The cymbals and the bugles pealed forth another sounding
farewell to the Lord of the Castle of Content, whom Elaine well knew was
waiting in the shadow of the portal till her company should be entirely
lost to sight._

_The last light shone upon the wonderful mass of gold which rippled to her
waist, unbound, from beneath her close-fitting scarlet cap, and gave her
an unearthly beauty. Le Jongleur held aloft his bauble, making it to nod
in merry fashion, but the Lord of Content did not see, his eyes being
fixed upon Elaine. She waved her hand to him, but he could not answer, for
his shoulders were shaking with grief, nor, indeed, across the merciless
distance that lay between, could he guess at Elaine's whispered prayer:
"Dear Heavenly Father, keep thou my earthly father safe and happy, till
his child comes back again."_

_Over the edge of the cliff and out upon a wide plain they fared. Ribbons
of glorious colour streamed from the horizon to the zenith, and touched to
flame the cymbals and the bugles and the trappings of the horses and the
shields of the knights. Piercingly sweet, across the fields of blowing
clover, came the even song of a feathered chorister, and_ - what on earth
was that noise?

Harlan went to the window impatiently, like one wakened from a dream by a
blind impulse of action.

The village stage, piled high with trunks, was at his door, and from the
cavernous depths of the vehicle, shrieks of juvenile terror echoed and
re-echoed unceasingly. Mr. Blake, driving, merely waited in supreme

"What in the hereafter," muttered Harlan, savagely. "More old lovers of
Dorothy's, I suppose, or else the - Good Lord, it's twins!"

A child of four or five fell out of the stage, followed by another, who
lit unerringly on top of the prostrate one. In the meteoric moment of the
fall, Harlan had seen that the two must have discovered America at about
the same time, for they were exactly alike, making due allowance for the
slight difference made by masculine and feminine attire.

An enormous doll, which to Harlan's troubled sight first appeared to be an
infant in arms, was violently ejected from the stage and added to the
human pile which was wriggling and weeping upon the gravelled walk. A cub
of seven next leaped out, whistling shrilly, then came a querulous,
wailing, feminine voice from the interior.

"Willie," it whined, "how can you act so? Help your little brother and
sister up and get Rebbie's doll."

To this the lad paid no attention whatever, and the mother herself
assorted the weeping pyramid on the walk. Harlan ran downstairs, feeling
that the hour had come to defend his hearthstone from outsiders. Dick and
Dorothy were already at the door.

"Foundlings' Home," explained Dick, briefly, with a wink at Harlan.
"They're late this year."

Dorothy was speechless with amazement and despair. Before Harlan had begun
to think connectedly, one of the twins had darted into the house and
bumped its head on the library door, thereupon making the Jack-o'-Lantern
hideous with much lamentation.

The mother, apparently tired out, came in as though she had left something
of great value there and had come to get it, pausing only to direct Harlan
to pay the stage driver, and have her trunks taken into the rooms opening
off the dining-room on the south side.

Willie took a mouth-organ out of his pocket and rendered a hitherto
unknown air upon it with inimitable vigour. In the midst of the confusion,
Claudius Tiberius had the misfortune to appear, and, immediately
perceiving his mistake, whisked under the sofa, from whence the other twin
determinedly haled him, using the handle which Nature had evidently
intended for that purpose.

"Will you kindly tell me," demanded Mrs. Carr, when she could make herself
heard, "what is the meaning of all this?"

"I do not understand you," said the mother of the twins, coldly. "Were you
addressing me?"

"I was," returned Mrs. Carr, to Dick's manifest delight. "I desire to know
why you have come to my house, uninvited, and made all this disturbance."

"The idea!" exclaimed the woman, trembling with anger. "Will you please
send for Mr. Judson?"

"Mr. Judson," said Dorothy, icily, "has been dead for some time. This
house is the property of my husband."

"Indeed! And who may your husband be?" The tone of the question did not
indicate even faint interest in the subject under discussion.

Dorothy turned, but Harlan had long since beat an ignominious retreat,
closely followed by Dick, whose idea, as audibly expressed, was that the
women be allowed to "fight it out by themselves."

"I can readily understand," went on Dorothy, with a supreme effort at
self-control, "that you have made a mistake for which you are not in any
sense to blame. You are tired from your journey, and you are quite welcome
to stay until to-morrow."

"To-morrow!" shrilled the woman. "I guess you don't know who I am! I am
Mrs. Holmes, Rebecca Judson's own cousin, and I have spent the Summer here
ever since Rebecca was married! I guess if Ebeneezer knew you were
practically ordering his wife's own cousin out of his house, he'd rise
from his grave to haunt you!"

Dorothy fancied that Uncle Ebeneezer's portrait moved slightly. Aunt
Rebecca still surveyed the room from the easel, gentle, sweet-faced, and
saintly. There was no resemblance whatever between Aunt Rebecca and the
sallow, hollow-cheeked, wide-eyed termagant, with a markedly receding
chin, who stood before Mrs. Carr and defied her.

"This is my husband's house," suggested Dorothy, pertinently.

"Then let your husband do the talking," rejoined Mrs. Holmes,
sarcastically. "If he was sure it was his, I guess he wouldn't have run
away. I've always had my own rooms here, and I intend to go and come as I
please, as I always have done. You can't make me believe that Ebeneezer
gave my apartments to your husband, nor him either, and I wouldn't advise
any of you to try it."

Sounds of fearful panic came from the chicken yard, and Dorothy rushed
out, swiftly laying avenging hands on the disturber of the peace. One of
the twins was chasing Abdul Hamid around the coop with a lath, as he
explained between sobs, "to make him lay." Mrs. Holmes bore down upon
Dorothy before any permanent good had been done.

"How dare you!" she cried. "How dare you lay hands on my child! Come,
Ebbie, come to mamma. Bless his little heart, he shall chase the chickens
if he wants to, so there, there. Don't cry, Ebbie. Mamma will get you
another lath and you shall play with the chickens all the afternoon.
There, there!"

Harlan appeared at this juncture, and in a few quiet, well-chosen words
told Mrs. Holmes that the chicken coop was his property, and that neither
now nor at any other time should any one enter it without his express

"Upon my word," remarked Mrs. Holmes, still soothing the unhappy twin.
"How high and mighty we are when we're living off our poor dead uncle's
bounty! Telling his wife's own cousin what she's to do, and what she
isn't! Upon my word!"

So saying, Mrs. Holmes retired to the house, her pace hastened by howls
from the other twin, who was in trouble with her older brother somewhere
in her "apartment."

Dorothy looked at Harlan, undecided whether to laugh or to cry. "Poor
little woman," he said, softly; "don't you fret. We'll have them out of
the house no later than to-morrow."

"All of them?" asked Dorothy, eagerly, as Miss St. Clair strolled into the
front yard.

Harlan's brow clouded and he shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.
"I don't know," he said, slowly, "whether I've got nerve enough to order a
woman out of my house or not. Let's wait and see what happens."

A sob choked Dorothy, and she ran swiftly into the house, fortunately
meeting no one on her way to her room. Dick ventured out of the barn and
came up to Harlan, who was plainly perplexed.

"Very, very mild arrival," commented Mr. Chester, desiring to put his host
at his ease. "I've never known 'em to come so peacefully as they have
to-day. Usually there's more or less disturbance."

"Disturbance," repeated Harlan. "Haven't we had a disturbance to-day?"

"We have not," answered Dick, placidly. "Wait till young Ebeneezer and
Rebecca get more accustomed to their surroundings, and then you'll have a
Fourth of July every day, with Christmas, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick's
Day thrown in. Willie is the worst little terror that ever went unlicked,
and the twins come next."

"Perhaps you don't understand children," remarked Harlan, with a
patronising air, and more from a desire to disagree with Dick than from
anything else. "I've always liked them."

"If you have," commented Dick, with a knowing chuckle, "you're in a fair
way to get cured of it."

"Tell me about these people," said Harlan, ignoring the speech, and
dominated once more by healthy human curiosity. "Who are they and where do
they come from?"

"They're dwellers from the infernal regions," explained Dick, with an air
of truthfulness, "and they came from there because the old Nick turned 'em
out. They were upsetting things and giving the place a bad name. Mrs.
Holmes says she's Aunt Rebecca's cousin, but nobody knows whether she is
or not. She's come here every Summer since Aunt Rebecca died, and poor old
uncle couldn't help himself. He hinted more than once that he'd enjoy her
absence if she could be moved to make herself scarce, but it had no more
effect than a snowflake would in the place she came from. The most he
could do was to build a wing on the house with a separate kitchen and
dining-room in it, and take his own meals in the library, with the door

"Willie is a Winter product and Judson Centre isn't a pleasant place in
the cold months, but the twins were born here, five years ago this Summer.
They came in the night, but didn't make any more trouble then than they
have every day since."

"What would you do?" asked Harlan, after a thoughtful silence, "if you
were in my place?"

"I'd be tickled to death because a kind Providence had married me to
Dorothy instead of to Mrs. Holmes. Poor old Holmes is in his well-earned

With great dignity, Harlan walked into the house, but Dick, occupied with
his own thoughts, did not guess that his host was offended.

After the first excitement was over, comparative peace settled down upon
the Jack-o'-Lantern. Mrs. Holmes decided the question of where she should
eat, by setting four more places at the table when Mrs. Smithers's back
was turned. Dorothy did not appear at luncheon, and Mrs. Smithers
performed her duties with such pronounced ungraciousness that Elaine felt
as though something was about to explode.

A long sleep, born of nervous exhaustion, came at last to Dorothy's
relief. When she awoke, it was night and the darkness dazed her at first.
She sat up and rubbed her eyes, wondering whether she had been dead, or
merely ill.

There was not a sound in the Jack-o'-Lantern, and the events of the day
seemed like some hideous nightmare which waking had put to rout. She
bathed her face in cool water, then went to look out of the window.

A lantern moved back and forth under the trees in the orchard, and a tall,
dark figure, armed with a spade, accompanied it. "It's Harlan," thought
Dorothy. "I'll go down and see what he's burying."

But it was only Mrs. Smithers, who appeared much startled when she saw her
mistress at her side.

"What are you doing?" demanded Dorothy, seeing that Mrs. Smithers had dug
a hole at least a foot and a half each way.

"Just a-satisfyin' myself," explained the handmaiden, with a note of
triumph in her voice, "about that there cat. 'Ere's where I buried 'im,
and 'ere's where there ain't no signs of 'is dead body. 'E's come back to
'aunt us, that's wot 'e 'as, and your uncle'll be the next."

"Don't be so foolish," snapped Dorothy. "You've forgotten the place,
that's all, and I don't wish to hear any more of this nonsense."

"'Oo was it?" asked Mrs. Smithers, "as come out of a warm bed at midnight
to see as if folks wot was diggin' for cats found anythink? 'T warn't me,
Miss, that's wot it warn't, and I take it that them as follers is as
nonsensical as them wot digs. Anyhow, Miss, 'ere's where 'e was buried,
and 'ere's where 'e ain't now. You can think wot you likes, that's wot you

Claudius Tiberius suddenly materialised out of the surrounding darkness,
and after sniffing at the edge of the hole, jumped in to investigate.

"You see that, Miss?" quavered Mrs. Smithers. "'E knows where 'e's been,
and 'e knows where 'e ain't now."

"Mrs. Smithers," said Dorothy, sternly, "will you kindly fill up that hole
and come into the house and go to bed? I don't want to be kept awake all

"You don't need to be kept awake, Miss," said Mrs. Smithers, slowly
filling up the hole. "The worst is 'ere already and wot's comin' is comin'
anyway, and besides," she added, as an afterthought, "there ain't a
blessed one of 'em come 'ere at night since your uncle fixed over the



For the first time in her life, Mrs. Carr fully comprehended the
sensations of a wild animal caught in a trap. In her present painful
predicament, she was absolutely helpless, and she realised it. It was
Harlan's house, as he had said, but so powerful and penetrating was the
personality of the dead man that she felt as though it was still largely
the property of Uncle Ebeneezer.

The portrait in the parlour gave her no light upon the subject, though she
studied it earnestly. The face was that of an old man, soured and
embittered by what Life had brought him, who seemed now to have a
peculiarly malignant aspect. Dorothy fancied, in certain morbid moments,
that Uncle Ebeneezer, from some safe place, was keenly relishing the whole

Upon her soul, too, lay heavily that ancient Law of the House, which
demands unfailing courtesy to the stranger within our gates. Just why the
eating of our bread and salt by some undesired guest should exert any
particular charm of immunity, has long been an open question, but the Law

She felt, dimly, that the end was not yet - that still other strangers were
coming to the Jack-o'-Lantern for indefinite periods. She saw, now, why
wing after wing had been added to the house, but could not understand the
odd arrangement of the front windows. Through some inner sense of loyalty
to Uncle Ebeneezer, she forebore to question either Mrs. Smithers or
Dick - two people who could probably have given her some light on the
subject. She had gathered, however, from hints dropped here and there, as
well as from the overpowering evidence of recent events, that a horde of
relatives swarmed each Summer at the queer house on the hilltop and
remained until late Autumn.

Harlan said nothing, and nowadays Dorothy saw very little of him. Most of
the time he was at work in the library, or else taking long, solitary
rambles through the surrounding country. At meals he was moody and
taciturn, his book obliterating all else from his mind.

He doubtless knew, subconsciously, that his house was disturbed by alien
elements, but he dwelt too securely in the upper regions to be troubled by
the obvious fact. Once in the library, with every door securely bolted, he
could afford to laugh at the tumult outside, if, indeed, he should ever
become aware of its existence. The children might make the very air vocal
with their howls, Elaine might have hysterics, Mrs. Smithers render hymns
in a cracked, squeaky voice, and Dick whistle eternally, but Harlan was in
a strange new country, with a beautiful lady, a company of gallant
knights, and a jester.

The rest was all unreal. He seemed to see people through a veil, to hear
what they said without fully comprehending it, and to walk through his
daily life blindly, without any sort of emotion. Worst of all, Dorothy
herself seemed detached and dream-like. He saw that her face was white and
her eyes sad, but it affected him not at all. He had yet to learn that in
this, as in everything else, a price must inevitably be paid, and that the
sudden change of all his loved realities to hazy visions was the terrible
penalty of his craft.

Yet there was compensation, which is also inevitable. To him, the book was
vital, reaching down into the very heart of the world. Fancy took his
work, and, to the eyes of its creator, made it passing fair. At times he
would sit for an hour or more, nibbling at the end of his pencil, only
negatively conscious, like one who stares fixedly at a blank wall.
Presently, Elaine and her company would come back again, and he would go
on with them, writing down only what he saw and felt.

Chapter after chapter was written and tossed feverishly aside. The words
beat in his pulses like music, each one with its own particular
significance. In return for his personal effacement came moments of
supremest joy, when his whole world was aflame with light, and colour, and
sound, and his physical body fairly shook with ecstasy.

Little did he know that the Cup was in his hands, and that he was draining
it to the very dregs of bitterness. For this temporary intoxication, he
must pay in every hour of his life to come. Henceforward he was set apart
from his fellows, painfully isolated, eternally alone. He should have
friends, but only for the hour. The stranger in the street should be the
same to him as one he had known for many years, and he should be equally
ready, at any moment, to cast either aside. With a quick, merciless
insight, like the knife of a surgeon used without an anæsthetic, he should
explore the inmost recesses of every personality with which he came in
contact, involuntarily, and find himself interested only as some new trait
or capacity was revealed. Calm and emotionless, urged by some hidden
power, he should try each individual to see of what he was made; observing
the man under all possible circumstances, and at times enmeshing new
circumstances about him. He should sacrifice himself continually if by so
doing he could find the deep roots of the other man's selfishness, and,
conversely, be utterly selfish if necessary to discover the other's power
of self-sacrifice.

Unknowingly, he had ceased to be a man and had become a ferret. It was no
light payment exacted in return for the pleasure of writing about Elaine.
He had the ability to live in any place or century he pleased, but he had
paid for it by putting his present reality upon precisely the same
footing. Detachment was his continually. Henceforth he was a spectator
merely, without any particular concern in what passed before his eyes.
Some people he should know at a glance, others in a week, a month, or a
year. Across the emptiness between them, some one should clasp his hand,
yet share no more his inner life than one who lies beside a dreamer and
thinks thus to know where the other wanders on the strange trails of

In the dregs of the Cup lay the potential power to cast off his present

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Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 6 of 16)