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At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 17903

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The End of the Honeymoon

It was certainly a queer house. Even through the blinding storm they could distinguish its eccentric outlines as they alighted from the stage. Dorothy laughed happily, heedless of the fact that her husband's umbrella was dripping down her neck. "It's a dear old place," she cried; "I love it already!"

For an instant a flash of lightning turned the peculiar windows into sheets of flame, then all was dark again. Harlan's answer was drowned by a crash of thunder and the turning of the heavy wheels on the gravelled road.

"Don't stop," shouted the driver; "I'll come up to-morrer for the money. Good luck to you-an' the Jack-o'-Lantern!"

"What did he mean?" asked Dorothy, shaking out her wet skirts, when they were safely inside the door. "Who's got a Jack-o'-Lantern?"

"You can search me," answered Harlan, concisely, fumbling for a match. "I suppose we've got it. Anyhow, we'll have a look at this sepulchral mansion presently."

His deep voice echoed and re-echoed through the empty rooms, and Dorothy laughed; a little hysterically this time. Match after match sputtered and failed. "Couldn't have got much wetter if I'd been in swimming," he grumbled. "Here goes the last one."

By the uncertain light they found a candle and Harlan drew a long breath of relief. "It would have been pleasant, wouldn't it?" he went on. "We could have sat on the stairs until morning, or broken our admirable necks in falling over strange furniture. The next thing is a fire. Wonder where my distinguished relative kept his wood?"

Lighting another candle, he went off on a tour of investigation, leaving Dorothy alone.

She could not repress a shiver as she glanced around the gloomy room. The bare loneliness of the place was accentuated by the depressing furniture, which belonged to the black walnut and haircloth period. On the marble-topped table, in the exact centre of the room, was a red plush album, flanked on one side by a hideous china vase, and on the other by a basket of wax flowers under a glass shade.

Her home-coming! How often she had dreamed of it, never for a moment guessing that it might be like this! She had fancied a little house in a suburb, or a cosy apartment in the city, and a lump came into her throat as her air castle dissolved into utter ruin. She was one of those rare, unhappy women whose natures are so finely attuned to beauty that ugliness hurts like physical pain.

She sat down on one of the slippery haircloth chairs, facing the mantel where the single candle threw its tiny light afar. Little by little the room crept into shadowy relief-the melodeon in the corner, the what-not, with its burden of incongruous ornaments, and even the easel bearing the crayon portrait of the former mistress of the house, becoming faintly visible.

Presently, from above the mantel, appeared eyes. Dorothy felt them first, then looked up affrighted. From the darkness they gleamed upon her in a way that made her heart stand still. Human undoubtedly, but not in the least friendly, they were the eyes of one who bitterly resented the presence of an intruder. The light flickered, then flamed up once more and brought into view the features that belonged with the eyes.

Dorothy would have screamed, had it not been for the lump in her throat. A step came nearer and nearer, from some distant part of the house, accompanied by a cheery, familiar whistle. Still the stern, malicious face held her spellbound, and even when Harlan came in with his load of wood, she could not turn away.

"Now," he said, "we'll start a fire and hang ourselves up to dry."

"What is it?" asked Dorothy, her lips scarcely moving.

His eyes followed hers. "Uncle Ebeneezer's portrait," he answered. "Why, Dorothy Carr! I believe you're scared!"

"I was scared," she admitted, reluctantly, after a brief silence, smiling a little at her own foolishness. "It's so dark and gloomy in here, and you were gone so long--"

Her voice trailed off into an indistinct murmur, but she still shuddered in spite of herself.

"Funny old place," commented Harlan, kneeling on the hearth and laying kindlings, log-cabin fashion, in the fireplace. "If an architect planned it, he must have gone crazy the week before he did it."

"Or at the time. Don't, dear-wait a minute. Let's light our first fire together."

He smiled as she slipped to her knees beside him, and his hand held hers while the blazing splinter set the pine kindling aflame. Quickly the whole room was aglow with light and warmth, in cheerful contrast to the stormy tumult outside.

"Somebody said once," observed Harlan, as they drew their chairs close to the hearth, "that four feet on a fender are sufficient for happiness."

"Depends altogether on the feet," rejoined Dorothy, quickly. "I wouldn't want Uncle Ebeneezer sitting here beside me-no disrespect intended to your relation, as such."

"Poor old duck," said Harlan, kindly. "Life was never very good to him, and Death took away the only thing he ever loved.

"Aunt Rebecca," he continued, feeling her unspoken question. "She died suddenly, when they had been married only three or four weeks."

"Like us," whispered Dorothy, for the first time conscious of a tenderness toward the departed Mr. Judson, of Judson Centre.

"It was four weeks ago to-day, wasn't it?" he mused, instinctively seeking her hand.

"I thought you'd forgotten," she smiled back at him. "I feel like an old married woman, already."

"You don't look it," he returned, gently. Few would have called her beautiful, but love brings beauty with it, and Harlan saw an exquisite loveliness in the deep, dark eyes, the brown hair that rippled and shone in the firelight, the smooth, creamy skin, and the sensitive mouth that betrayed every passing mood.

"None the less, I am," she went on. "I've grown so used to seeing 'Mrs. James Harlan Carr' on my visiting cards that I've forgotten there ever was such a person as 'Miss Dorothy Locke,' who used to get letters, and go calling when she wasn't too busy, and have things sent to her when she had the money to buy them."

"I hope-" Harlan stumbled awkwardly over the words-"I hope you'll never be sorry."

"I haven't been yet," she laughed, "and it's four whole weeks. Come, let's go on an exploring expedition. I'm dry both inside and out, and most terribly hungry."

Each took a candle and Harlan led the way, in and out of unexpected doors, queer, winding passages, and lonely, untenanted rooms. Originally, the house had been simple enough in structure, but wing after wing had been added until the first design, if it could be dignified by that name, had been wholly obscured. From each room branched a series of apartments-a sitting-room, surrounded by bedrooms, each of which contained two or sometimes three beds. A combined kitchen and dining-room was in every separate wing, with an outside door.

"I wonder," cried Dorothy, "if we've come to an orphan asylum!"

"Heaven knows what we've come to," muttered Harlan. "You know I never was here before."

"Did Uncle Ebeneezer have a large family?"

"Only Aunt Rebecca, who died very soon, as I told you. Mother was his only sister, and I her only child, so it wasn't on our side."

"Perhaps," observed Dorothy, "Aunt Rebecca had relations."

"One, two, three, four, five," counted Harlan. "There are five sets of apartments on this side, and three on the other. Let's go upstairs."

From the low front door a series of low windows extended across the house on each side, abundantly lighting the two front rooms, which were separated by the wide hall. A high, narrow window in the lower hall, seemingly with no purpose whatever, began far above the low door and ended abruptly at the ceiling. In the upper hall, a similar window began at the floor and extended upward no higher than Harlan's knees. As Dorothy said, "one would have to lie down to look out of it," but it lighted the hall, which, after all, was the main thing.

In each of the two front rooms, upstairs, was a single round window, too high for one to look out of without standing on a chair, though in both rooms there was plenty of side light. One wing on each side of the house had been carried up to the second story, and the arrangement of rooms was the same as below, outside stairways leading from the kitchens to the ground.

"I never saw so many beds in my life," cried Dorothy.

"Seems to be a perfect Bedlam," rejoined Harlan, making a poor attempt at a joke and laughing mirthlessly. In his heart he began to doubt the wisdom of marrying on six hundred dollars, an unexplored heirloom in Judson Centre, and an overweening desire to write books.

For the first time, his temerity appeared to him in its proper colours. He had been a space writer and Dorothy the private secretary of a Personage, when they met, in the dreary basement dining-room of a New York boarding-house, an

d speedily fell in love. Shortly afterward, when Harlan received a letter which contained a key, and announced that Mr. Judson's house, fully furnished, had been bequeathed to his nephew, they had light-heartedly embarked upon matrimony with no fears for the future.

Two hundred dollars had been spent upon a very modest honeymoon, and the three hundred and ninety-seven dollars and twenty-three cents remaining, as Harlan had accurately calculated, seemed pitifully small. Perplexity, doubt, and foreboding were plainly written on his face, when Dorothy turned to him.

"Isn't it perfectly lovely," she asked, "for us to have this nice, quiet place all to ourselves, where you can write your book?"

Woman-like, she had instantly touched the right chord, and the clouds vanished.

"Yes," he cried, eagerly. "Oh, Dorothy, do you think I can really write it?"

"Write it," she repeated; "why, you dear, funny goose, you can write a better book than anybody has ever written yet, and I know you can! By next week we'll be settled here and you can get down to work. I'll help you, too," she added, generously. "If you'll buy me a typewriter, I can copy the whole book for you."

"Of course I'll buy you a typewriter. We'll send for it to-morrow. How much does a nice one cost?"

"The kind I like," she explained, "costs a hundred dollars without the stand. I don't need the stand-we can find a table somewhere that will do."

"Two hundred and ninety-seven dollars and twenty-three cents," breathed Harlan, unconsciously.

"No, only a hundred dollars," corrected Dorothy. "I don't care to have it silver mounted."

"I'd buy you a gold one if you wanted it," stammered Harlan, in some confusion.

"Not now," she returned, serenely. "Wait till the book is done."

Visions of fame and fortune appeared before his troubled eyes and set his soul alight with high ambition. The candle in his hand burned unsteadily and dripped tallow, unheeded. "Come," said Dorothy, gently, "let's go downstairs again."

An open door revealed a tortuous stairway at the back of the house, descending mysteriously into cavernous gloom. "Let's go down here," she continued. "I love curly stairs."

"These are kinky enough to please even your refined fancy," laughed Harlan. "It reminds me of travelling in the West, where you look out of the window and see your engine on the track beside you, going the other way."

"This must be the kitchen," said Dorothy, when the stairs finally ceased. "Uncle Ebeneezer appears to have had a pronounced fancy for kitchens."

"Here's another wing," added Harlan, opening the back door. "Sitting-room, bedroom, and-my soul and body! It's another kitchen!"

"Any more beds?" queried Dorothy, peering into the darkness. "We can't keep house unless we can find more beds."

"Only one more. I guess we've come down to bed rock at last."

"In other words, the cradle," she observed, pulling a little old-fashioned trundle bed out into the light.

"Oh, what a joke!" cried Harlan. "That's worth three dollars in the office of any funny paper in New York!"

"Sell it," commanded Dorothy, inspired by the prospect of wealth, "and I'll give you fifty cents for your commission."

Outside, the storm still raged and the old house shook and creaked in the blast. The rain swirled furiously against the windows, and a swift rush of hailstones beat a fierce tattoo on the roof. Built on the summit of a hill and with only a few trees near it, the Judson mansion was but poorly protected from the elements.

None the less, there was a sense of warmth and comfort inside. "Let's build a fire in the kitchen," suggested Dorothy, "and then we'll try to find something to eat."

"Which kitchen?" asked Harlan.

"Any old kitchen. The one the back stairs end in, I guess. It seems to be the principal one of the set."

Harlan brought more wood and Dorothy watched him build the fire with a sense that a god-like being was here put to base uses. Hampered in his log-cabin design by the limitations of the fire box, he handled the kindlings awkwardly, got a splinter into his thumb, said something under his breath which was not meant for his wife to hear, and powdered his linen with soot from the stove pipe. At length, however, a respectable fire was started.

"Now," he asked, "what shall I do next?"

"Wind all the clocks. I can't endure a dead clock. While you're doing it, I'll get out the remnants of our lunch and see what there is in the pantry that is still edible."

In the lunch basket which the erratic ramifications of the road leading to Judson Centre had obliged them to carry, there was still, fortunately, a supply of sandwiches and fruit. A hasty search through the nearest pantry revealed jelly, marmalade, and pickles, a box of musty crackers and a canister of tea. When Harlan came back, Dorothy had the kitchen table set for two, with a lighted candle dispensing odorous good cheer from the centre of it, and the tea kettle singing merrily over the fire.

"Seems like home, doesn't it?" he asked, pleasantly imbued with the realisation of the home-making quality in Dorothy. Certain rare women with this gift take their atmosphere with them wherever they go.

"To-morrow," he went on, "I'll go into the village and buy more things to eat."

"The ruling passion," she smiled. "It's-what's that!"

Clear and high above the sound of the storm came an imperious "Me-ow!"

"It's a cat," said Harlan. "You don't suppose the poor thing is shut up anywhere, do you?"

"If it had been, we'd have found it. We've opened every door in the house, I'm sure. It must be outside."

"Me-ow! Me-ow! Me-ow!" The voice was not pleading; it was rather a command, a challenge.

"Kitty, kitty, kitty," she called. "Where are you, kitty?"

Harlan opened the outside door, and in rushed a huge black cat, with the air of one returning home after a long absence.

"Poor kitty," said Dorothy, kindly, stooping to stroke the sable visitor, who instinctively dodged the caress, and then scratched her hand.

"The ugly brute!" she exclaimed. "Don't touch him, Harlan."

Throughout the meal the cat sat at a respectful distance, with his greenish yellow eyes fixed unwaveringly upon them. He was entirely black, save for a white patch under his chin, which, in the half-light, carried with it an uncanny suggestion of a shirt front. Dorothy at length became restless under the calm scrutiny.

"I don't like him," she said. "Put him out."

"Thought you liked cats," remarked Harlan, reaching for another sandwich.

"I do, but I don't like this one. Please put him out."

"What, in all this storm? He'll get wet."

"He wasn't wet when he came in," objected Dorothy. "He must have some warm, dry place of his own outside."

"Come, kitty," said Harlan, pleasantly.

"Kitty" merely blinked, and Harlan rose.

"Come, kitty."

With the characteristic independence of cats, the visitor yawned. The conversation evidently bored him.

"Come, kitty," said Harlan, more firmly, with a low swoop of his arm. The cat arched his back, erected an enlarged tail, and hissed threateningly. In a dignified but effective manner, he eluded all attempts to capture him, even avoiding Dorothy and her broom.

"There's something more or less imperial about him," she remarked, wiping her flushed cheeks, when they had finally decided not to put the cat out. "As long as he's adopted us, we'll have to keep him. What shall we name him?"

"Claudius Tiberius," answered Harlan. "It suits him down to the ground."

"His first name is certainly appropriate," laughed Dorothy, with a rueful glance at her scratched hand. Making the best of a bad bargain, she spread an old grey shawl, nicely folded, on the floor by the stove, and requested Claudius Tiberius to recline upon it, but he persistently ignored the invitation.

"This is jolly enough," said Harlan. "A cosy little supper in our own house, with a gale blowing outside, the tea kettle singing over the fire, and a cat purring on the hearth."

"Have you heard Claudius purr?" asked Dorothy, idly.

"Come to think of it, I haven't. Perhaps something is wrong with his purrer. We'll fix him to-morrow."

From a remote part of the house came twelve faint, silvery tones. The kitchen clock struck next, with short, quick strokes, followed immediately by a casual record of the hour from the clock on the mantel beneath Uncle Ebeneezer's portrait. Then the grandfather's clock in the hall boomed out twelve, solemn funereal chimes. Afterward, the silence seemed acute.

"The end of the honeymoon," said Dorothy, a little sadly, with a quick, inquiring look at her husband.

"The end of the honeymoon!" repeated Harlan, gathering her into his arms. "To-morrow, life begins!"

Several hours later, Dorothy awoke from a dreamless sleep to wonder whether life was any different from a honeymoon, and if so, how and why.

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