Myrtle Reed.

At the sign of the Jack o'Lantern online

. (page 7 of 16)
Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 7 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

life as a mollusk leaves his shell, and as completely forget it. For Love,
and Death, and Pain are only symbols to him who is enslaved by the pen.
Moreover, he suffers always the pangs of an unsatisfied hunger, the
exquisite torture of an unappeased and unappeasable thirst, for something
which, like a will-o'-the-wisp, hovers ever above and beyond him, past the
power of words to interpret or express.

It is often reproachfully said that one "makes copy" of himself and his
friends - that nothing is too intimately sacred to be seized upon and
dissected in print. Not so long ago, it was said that a certain man was
"botanising on his mother's grave," a pardonable confusion, perhaps, of
facts and realities. The bitter truth is that the writer lives his
books - and not much else. From title to colophon, he escapes no pang,
misses no joy. The life of the book is his from beginning to end. At the
close of it, he has lived what his dream people have lived and borne the
sorrows of half a dozen entire lifetimes, mercilessly concentrated into
the few short months of writing.

One by one, his former pleasures vanish. Even the divine consolation of
books is partly if not wholly gone. Behind the printed page, he sees ever
the machinery of composition, the preparation for climax, the repetition
in its proper place, the introduction and interweaving of major and minor,
of theme and contrast. For the fine, glowing fancy of the other man has
not appeared in his book, and to the eye of the fellow-craftsman only the
mechanism is there. Mask-like, the author stands behind his Punch-and-Judy
box, twitching the strings that move his marionettes, heedless of the fact
that in his audience there must be a few who know him surely for what he

If only the transfiguring might of the Vision could be put into print,
there would be little in the world save books. Happily heedless of the
mockery of it all, Harlan laboured on, destined fully to sense his entire
payment much later, suffer vicariously for a few hours on account of it,
then to forget.

Dorothy, meanwhile, was learning a hard lesson. Harlan's changeless
preoccupation hurt her cruelly, but, woman-like, she considered it a
manifestation of genius and endeavoured to be proud accordingly. It had
not occurred to her that there could ever be anything in Harlan's thought
into which she was not privileged to go. She had thought of marriage as a
sort of miraculous welding of two individualities into one, and was
perceiving that it changed nothing very much; that souls went on their way
unaltered. She saw, too, that there was no one in the wide world who could
share her every mood and tense, that ultimately each one of us lives and
dies alone, within the sanctuary of his own inner self, cheered only by
some passing mood of friend or stranger, which chances to chime with his.

It was Dick who, blindly enough, helped her over many a hard place, and
quickened her sense of humour into something upon which she might securely
lean. He was too young and too much occupied with the obvious to look
further, but he felt that Dorothy was troubled, and that it was his duty,
as a man and a gentleman, to cheer her up.

Privately, he considered Harlan an amiable kind of a fool, who shut
himself up needlessly in a musty library when he might be outdoors, or
talking with a charming woman, or both. When he discovered that Harlan had
hitherto earned his living by writing and hoped to continue doing it, he
looked upon his host with profound pity. Books, to Dick, were among the
things which kept life from being wholly pleasant and agreeable. He had
gone through college because otherwise he would have been separated from
his friends, and because a small legacy from a distant relative, who had
considerately died at an opportune moment, enabled him to pay for his
tuition and his despised books.

"I was never a pig, though," he explained to Dorothy, in a confidential
moment. "There was one chump in our class who wanted to know all there was
in the book, and made himself sick trying to cram it in. All of a sudden,
he graduated. He left college feet first, three on a side, with the class
walking slow behind him. I never was like that. I was sort of an epicure
when it came to knowledge, tasting delicately here and there, and never
greedy. Why, as far back as when I was studying algebra, I nobly refused
to learn the binomial theorem. I just read it through once, hastily, like
taking one sniff at a violet, and then let it alone. The other fellows
fairly gorged themselves with it, but I didn't - I had too much sense."

When Mr. Chester had been there a week, he gave Dorothy two worn and
crumpled two-dollar bills.

"What's this?" she asked, curiously. "Where did you find it?"

"'Find it' is good," laughed Dick. "I earned it, my dear lady, in hard and
uncongenial toil. It's my week's board."

"You're not going to pay any board here. You're a guest."

"Not on your life. You don't suppose I'm going to sponge my keep off
anybody, do you? I paid Uncle Ebeneezer board right straight along and
there's no reason why I shouldn't pay you. You can put that away in your
sock, or wherever it is that women keep money, or else I take the next
train. If you don't want to lose me, you have to accept four plunks every
Monday. I've got lots of four plunks," he added, with a winning smile.

"Very well," said Dorothy, quite certain that she could not spare Dick.
"If it will make you feel any better about staying, I'll take it."

He had quickly made friends with Elaine, and the three made a more
harmonious group than might have been expected under the circumstances.
With returning strength and health, Miss St. Clair began to take more of
an interest in her surroundings. She gathered the white clover blossoms in
which Dorothy tied up her pats of sweet butter, picked berries in the
garden, skimmed the milk, helped churn, and fed the chickens.

Dick took entire charge of the cow, thus relieving Mrs. Smithers of an
uncongenial task and winning her heartfelt gratitude. She repaid him with
unnumbered biscuits of his favourite kind and with many a savoury "snack"
between meals. He also helped Dorothy in many other ways. It was Dick who
collected the eggs every morning and took them to the sanitarium, along
with such other produce as might be ready for the market. He secured
astonishing prices for the things he sold, and set it down to man's
superior business ability when questioned by his hostess. Dorothy never
guessed that most of the money came out of his own pocket, and was charged
up, in the ragged memorandum book which he carried, to "Elaine's board."

Miss St. Clair had never thought of offering compensation, and no one
suggested it to her, but Dick privately determined to make good the
deficiency, sure that a woman married to "a writing chump" would soon be
in need of ready money if not actually starving at the time. That people
should pay for what Harlan wrote seemed well-nigh incredible. Besides,
though Dick had never read that "love is an insane desire on the part of a
man to pay a woman's board bill for life," he took a definite satisfaction
out of this secret expenditure, which he did not stop to analyse.

He brought back full price for everything he took to the "repair-shop," as
he had irreverently christened the sanitarium, though he seldom sold much.
On the other side of the hill he had a small but select graveyard where he
buried such unsalable articles as he could not eat. His appetite was
capricious, and Dorothy had frequently observed that when he came back
from the long walk to the sanitarium, he ate nothing at all.

He established a furniture factory under a spreading apple tree at a
respectable distance from the house, and began to remodel the black-walnut
relics which were evidence of his kinsman's poor taste. He took many a bed
apart, scraped off the disfiguring varnish, sandpapered and oiled the
wood, and put it together in new and beautiful forms. He made several
tables, a cabinet, a bench, half a dozen chairs, a set of hanging shelves,
and even aspired to a desk, which, owing to the limitations of the
material, was not wholly successful.

Dorothy and Elaine sat in rocking-chairs under the tree and encouraged him
while he worked. One of them embroidered a simple design upon a burlap
curtain while the other read aloud, and together they planned a shapely
remodelling of the Jack-o'-Lantern. Fortunately, the woodwork was plain,
and the ceilings not too high.

"I think," said Elaine, "that the big living room with the casement
windows will be perfectly beautiful. You couldn't have anything lovelier
than this dull walnut with the yellow walls."

Whatever Mrs. Carr's thoughts might be, this simple sentence was usually
sufficient to turn the current into more pleasant channels. She had
planned to have needless partitions taken out, and make the whole lower
floor into one room, with only a dining-room, kitchen, and pantry back of
it. She would take up the unsightly carpets, over which impossible plants
wandered persistently, and have them woven into rag rugs, with green and
brown and yellow borders. The floor was to be stained brown and the pine
woodwork a soft, old green. Yellow walls and white net curtains, with the
beautiful furniture Dick was making, completed a very charming picture in
the eyes of a woman who loved her home.

Outspeeding it in her fancy was the finer, truer living which she believed
lay beyond. Some day she and Harlan, alone once more, with the cobwebs of
estrangement swept away, should begin a new and happier honeymoon in the
transformed house. When the book was done - ah, when the book was done! But
he was not reading any part of it to her now and would not let her begin
copying it on the typewriter.

"I'll do it myself, when I'm ready," he said, coldly. "I can use a
typewriter just as well as you can."

Dorothy sighed, unconsciously, for the woman's part is always to wait
patiently while men achieve, and she who has learned to wait patiently,
and be happy meanwhile, has learned the finest art of all - the art of

"Now," said Dick, "that's a peach of a table, if I do say it as

They readily agreed with him, for it was low and massive, built on simple,
dignified lines, and beautifully finished. The headboards of three
ponderous walnut beds and the supporting columns of a hideous sideboard
had gone into its composition, thus illustrating, as Dorothy said, that
ugliness may be changed to beauty by one who knows how and is willing to
work for it.

The noon train whistled shrilly in the distance, and Dorothy started out
of her chair. "She's afraid," laughed Dick, instantly comprehending.
"She's afraid somebody is coming on it."

"More twins?" queried Elaine, from the depths of her rocker. "Surely there
can't be any more twins?"

"I don't know," answered Dorothy, vaguely troubled. "Someway, I feel as
though something terrible were going to happen."

Nothing happened, however, until after luncheon, just as she had begun to
breathe peacefully again. Willie saw the procession first and ran back
with gleeful shouts to make the announcement. So it was that the entire
household, including Harlan, formed a reception committee on the front

Up the hill, drawn by two straining horses, came what appeared at first to
be a pyramid of furniture, but later resolved itself into the component
parts of a more ponderous bed than the ingenuity of man had yet contrived.
It was made of black walnut, and was at least three times as heavy as any
of those in the Jack-o'-Lantern. On the top of the mass was perched a
little old man in a skull cap, a slippered foot in a scarlet sock airily
waving at one side. A bright green coil closely clutched in his withered
hands was the bed cord appertaining to the bed - a sainted possession from
which its owner sternly refused to part.

"By Jove!" shouted Dick; "it's Uncle Israel and his crib!"

Paying no heed to the assembled group, Uncle Israel dismounted nimbly
enough, and directed the men to take his bed upstairs, which they did,
while Harlan and Dorothy stood by helplessly. Here, under his profane and
involved direction, the structure was finally set in place, even to the
patchwork quilt, fearfully and wonderfully made, which surmounted it all.

Financial settlement was waved aside by Uncle Israel as a matter in which
he was not interested, and it was Dick who counted out two dimes and a
nickel to secure peace. A supplementary procession appeared with a small,
weather-beaten trunk, a folding bath-cabinet, and a huge case which, from
Uncle Israel's perturbation, evidently contained numerous fragile articles
of great value.

"Tell Ebeneezer," wheezed the newcomer, "that I have arrived."

"Ebeneezer," replied Dick, in wicked imitation of the old man's asthmatic
speech, "has been dead for some time."

"Then," creaked Uncle Israel, waving a tremulous, bony hand suggestively
toward the door, "kindly leave me alone with my grief."


Still More

Uncle Israel, whose other name was Skiles, adjusted himself to his grief
in short order. The sounds which issued from his room were not those
commonly associated with mourning. Dick, fully accustomed to various
noises, explained them for the edification of the Carrs, who at present
were sorely in need of edification.

"That's the bath cabinet," remarked Mr. Chester, with the air of a
connoisseur. "He's setting it up near enough to the door so that if
anybody should come in unexpectedly while it's working, the whole thing
will be tipped over and the house set on fire. Uncle Israel won't have any
lock or bolt on his door for fear he should die in the night. He relies
wholly on the bath cabinet and moral suasion. Nobody knocks on doors here,
anyway - just goes in.

"That's his trunk. He keeps it under the window. The bed is set up first,
then the bath cabinet, then the trunk, and last, but not least, the
medicine chest. He keeps his entire pharmacopoeia on a table at the head
of his bed, with a candle and matches, so that if he feels badly in the
night, the proper remedy is instantly at hand. He prepares some of his
medicines himself, but he isn't bigoted about it. He buys the rest at
wholesale, and I'll eat my hat if he hasn't got a full-sized bottle of
every patent medicine that's on sale anywhere in the United States."

"How old," asked Harlan, speaking for the first time, "is Uncle Israel?"

"Something over ninety, I believe," returned Dick. "I've lost my book of
vital statistics, so I don't know, exactly."

"How long," inquired Dorothy, with a forced smile, "does Uncle Israel

"Lord bless you, my dear lady, Uncle Israel stays all Summer. Hello - there
are some more!"

A private conveyance of uncertain age and purposes drew up before the
door. From it dismounted a very slender young man of medium height, whose
long auburn hair hung over his coat-collar and at times partially obscured
his soulful grey eyes. It resembled the mane of a lion, except in colour.
He carried a small black valise, and a roll of manuscript tied with a
badly soiled ribbon.

An old lady followed, stepping cautiously, but still finding opportunity
to scrutinise the group in the doorway, peering sharply over her
gold-bowed spectacles. It was she who paid the driver, and even before the
two reached the house, it was evident that they were not on speaking

The young man offered Mr. Chester a thin, tremulous hand which lay on
Dick's broad palm in a nerveless, clammy fashion. "Pray," he said, in a
high, squeaky voice, "convey my greetings to dear Uncle Ebeneezer, and
inform him that I have arrived."

"I am at present holding no communication with Uncle Ebeneezer," explained
Dick. "The wires are down."

"Where is Ebeneezer?" demanded the old lady.

"Dead," answered Dorothy, wearily; "dead, dead. He's been dead a long
time. This is our house - he left it to my husband and me."

"Don't let that disturb you a mite," said the old lady, cheerfully. "I
like your looks a whole lot, an' I'd just as soon stay with you as with
Ebeneezer. I dunno but I'd ruther."

She must have been well past sixty, but her scanty hair was as yet
untouched with grey. She wore it parted in the middle, after an ancient
fashion, and twisted at the back into a tight little knob, from which the
ends of a wire hairpin protruded threateningly. Dorothy reflected,
unhappily, that the whole thing was done up almost tight enough to play a
tune on.

For the rest, her attire was neat, though careless. One had always the
delusion that part or all of it was on the point of coming off.

The young man was wiping his weak eyes upon a voluminous silk handkerchief
which had evidently seen long service since its last washing. "Dear Uncle
Ebeneezer," he breathed, running his long, bony fingers through his hair.
"I cannot tell you how heavily this blow falls upon me. Dear Uncle
Ebeneezer was a distinguished patron of the arts. Our country needs more
men like him, men with fine appreciation, vowed to the service of the
Ideal. If you will pardon me, I will now retire to my apartment and remain
there a short time in seclusion."

So saying, he ran lightly upstairs, as one who was thoroughly at home.

"Who in - " began Harlan.

"Mr. Harold Vernon Perkins, poet," said Dick. "He's got his rhyming
dictionary and all his odes with him."

"Without knowing," said Dorothy, "I should have thought his name was
Harold or Arthur or Paul. He looks it."

"It wa'n't my fault," interjected the old lady, "that he come. I didn't
even sense that he was on the same train as me till I hired the carriage
at the junction an' he clim' in. He said he might as well come along as we
was both goin' to the same place, an' it would save him walkin', an' not
cost me no more than 't would anyway."

While she was speaking, she had taken off her outer layer of drapery and
her bonnet. "I'll just put these things in my room, my dear," she said to
Dorothy, "an' then I'll come back an' talk to you. I like your looks

"Who in - ," said Harlan, again, as the old lady vanished into one of the
lower wings.

"Mrs. Belinda something," answered Dick. "I don't know who she's married
to now. She's had bad luck with her husbands."

Mrs. Carr, deeply troubled, was leaning against the wall in the hall, and
Dick patted her hand soothingly. "Don't you fret," he said, cheerily; "I'm
here to see you through."

"That being the case," remarked Harlan, with a certain acidity in his
tone, "I'll go back to my work."

The old lady appeared again as Harlan slammed the library door, and
suggested that Dick should go away.

"Polite hint," commented Mr. Chester, not at all disturbed. "See you
later." He went out, whistling, with his cap on the back of his head and
his hands in his pockets.

"I reckon you're a new relative, be n't you?" asked the lady guest, eyeing
Dorothy closely. "I disremember seein' you before."

"I am Mrs. Carr," repeated Dorothy, mechanically. "My husband, Harlan
Carr, is Uncle Ebeneezer's nephew, and the house was left to him."

"Do tell!" ejaculated the other. "I wouldn't have thought it of Ebeneezer.
I'm Belinda Dodd, relict of Benjamin Dodd, deceased. How many are there
here, my dear?"

"Miss St. Clair, Mr. Chester, Mrs. Holmes and her three children, Uncle
Israel Skiles, and you two, besides Mr. Carr, Mrs. Smithers, and myself."

"Is that all?" asked the visitor, in evident surprise.

"All!" repeated Dorothy. "Isn't that enough?"

"Lord love you, my dear, it's plain to be seen that you ain't never been
here before. Only them few an' so late in the season, too. Why, there's
Cousin Si Martin, an' his wife, an' their eight children, some of the
children bein' married an' havin' other children, an' Sister-in-law Fanny
Wood with her invalid husband, her second husband, that is, an' Rebecca's
Uncle James's third wife with her two daughters, an' Rebecca's sister's
second husband with his new wife an' their little boy, an' Uncle Jason an'
his stepson, the one that has fits, an' Cousin Sally Simmons an' her
daughter, an' the four little Riley children an' their Aunt Lucretia, an'
Step-cousin Betsey Skiles with her two nieces, though I misdoubt their
comin' this year. The youngest niece had typhoid fever here last Summer
for eight weeks, an' Betsey thinks the location ain't healthy, in spite of
it's bein' so near the sanitarium. She was threatenin' to get the health
department or somethin' after Ebeneezer an' have the drinkin' water looked
into, so's they didn't part on the pleasantest terms, but in the main
we've all got along well together.

"If Betsey knowed Ebeneezer was dead, she wouldn't hesitate none about
comin', typhoid or no typhoid. Mebbe it was her fault some, for Ebeneezer
wa'n't to blame for his drinkin' water no more 'n I'd be. Our minister
used to say that there was no discipline for the soul like livin' with
folks, year in an' year out hand-runnin', an' Betsey is naturally that
kind. Ebeneezer always lived plain, but we're all simple folks, not carin'
much for style, so we never minded it. The air's good up here an' I dunno
any better place to spend the Summer. My gracious! You be n't sick, be

"I don't know what to do," murmured Dorothy, her white lips scarcely
moving; "I don't know what to do."

"Well, now," responded Mrs. Dodd, "I can see that I've upset you some.
Perhaps you're one of them people that don't like to have other folks
around you. I've heard of such, comin' from the city. Why, I knew a woman
that lived in the city, an' she said she didn't know the name of the woman
next door to her after livin' there over eight months, - an' their windows
lookin' right into each other, too."

"I hate people!" cried Dorothy, in a passion of anger. "I don't want
anybody here but my husband and Mrs. Smithers!"

"Set quiet, my dear, an' make your mind easy. I'm sure Ebeneezer never
intended his death to make any difference in my spendin' the Summer here,
especially when I'm fresh from another bereavement, but if you're in
earnest about closin' your doors on your poor dead aunt's relations, why
I'll see what I can do."

"Oh, if you could!" Dorothy almost screamed the words. "If you can keep
any more people from coming here, I'll bless you for ever."

"Poor child, I can see that you're considerable upset. Just get me the pen
an' ink an' some paper an' envelopes an' I'll set down right now an' write
to the connection an' tell 'em that Ebeneezer's dead an' bein' of unsound
mind at the last has willed the house to strangers who refuse to open
their doors to the blood relations of poor dead Rebecca. That's all I can
do an' I can't promise that it'll work. Ebeneezer writ several times to us
all that he didn't feel like havin' no more company, but Rebecca's
relatives was all of a forgivin' disposition an' never laid it up against
him. We all kep' on a-comin' just the same."

"Tell them," cried Dorothy her eyes unusually bright and her cheeks
burning, "that we've got smallpox here, or diphtheria, or a lunatic
asylum, or anything you like. Tell them there's a big dog in the yard that
won't let anybody open the gate. Tell them anything!"

"Just you leave it all to me, my dear," said Mrs. Dodd, soothingly. "On
account of the connection bein' so differently constituted, I'll have to
tell 'em all different. Disease would keep away some an' fetch others.
Betsey Skiles, now, she feels to turn her hand to nursin' an' I've knowed
her to go miles in the dead of Winter to set up with a stranger that had
some disease she wa'n't familiar with. Dogs would bring others an' only
scare a few. Just you leave it all to me. There ain't never no use in
borrerin' trouble an' givin' up your peace of mind as security, 'cause you
don't never get the security back. I've been married enough to know that
there's plenty of trouble in life besides what's looked for, an' it'll get
in, without your holdin' open the door an' spreadin' a mat out with
'Welcome' on it. Did Ebeneezer leave any property?"

"Only the house and furniture," answered Dorothy, feeling that the whole
burden of the world had been suddenly shifted to her young shoulders.

"Rebecca had a big diamond pin," said Mrs. Dodd, after a brief silence,
"that she allers said was to be mine when she got through with it.
Ebeneezer give it to her for a weddin' present. You ain't seen it layin'
around, have you?"

"No, I haven't seen it 'laying around,'" retorted Dorothy, conscious that
she was juggling with the truth.

"Well," continued Mrs. Dodd, easily, nibbling her pen holder, "when it

1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryMyrtle ReedAt the sign of the Jack o'Lantern → online text (page 7 of 16)