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At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 17210

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The Day Afterward

By the pitiless light of early morning, the house was even uglier than at night. With an irreverence essentially modern, Dorothy decided, while she was dressing, to have all the furniture taken out into the back yard, where she could look it over at her leisure. She would make a bonfire of most of it, or, better yet, have it cut into wood for the fireplace. Thus Uncle Ebeneezer's cumbrous bequest might be quickly transformed into comfort.

"And," thought Dorothy, "I'll take down that hideous portrait over the mantel before I'm a day older."

But when she broached the subject to Harlan, she found him unresponsive and somewhat disinclined to interfere with the existing order of things. "We'll be here only for the Summer," he said, "so what's the use of monkeying with the furniture and burning up fifty or sixty beds? There's plenty of wood in the cellar."

"I don't like the furniture," she pouted.

"My dear," said Harlan, with patronising kindness, "as you grow older, you'll find lots of things on the planet which you don't like. Moreover, it'll be quite out of your power to cremate 'em, and it's just as well to begin adjusting yourself now."

This bit of philosophy irritated Mrs. Carr unbearably. "Do you mean to say," she demanded, with rising temper, "that you won't do as I ask you to?"

"Do you mean to say," inquired Harlan, wickedly, in exact imitation of her manner, "that you won't do as I ask you to? Four weeks ago yesterday, if I remember rightly, you promised to obey me!"

"Don't remind me of what I'm ashamed of!" flashed Dorothy. "If I'd known what a brute you were, I'd never have married you! You may be sure of that!"

Claudius Tiberius insinuated himself between Harlan's feet and rubbed against his trousers, leaving a thin film of black fur in his wake. Being fastidious about his personal appearance, Harlan kicked Claudius Tiberius vigorously, grabbed his hat and went out, slamming the door, and whistling with an exaggerated cheerfulness.

"Brute!" The word rankled deeply as he went downhill with his hands in his pockets, whistling determinedly. So Dorothy was sorry she had married him! After all he'd done for her, too. Giving up a good position in New York, taking her half-way around the world on a honeymoon, and bringing her to a magnificent country residence in a fashionable locality for the Summer!

Safely screened by the hill, he turned back to look at the "magnificent country residence," then swore softly under his breath, as, for the first time, he took in the full meaning of the eccentric architecture.

Perched high upon the hill, with intervening shrubbery carefully cut down, the Judson mansion was not one to inspire confidence in its possessor. Outwardly, it was grey and weather-worn, with the shingles dropping off in places. At the sides, the rambling wings and outside stairways, branching off into space, conveyed the impression that the house had been recently subjected to a powerful influence of the centrifugal sort. But worst of all was the front elevation, with its two round windows, its narrow, long window in the centre, and the low windows on either side of the front door-the grinning, distorted semblance of a human face.

The bare, uncurtained windows loomed up boldly in the searching sunlight, which spared nothing. The blue smoke rising from the kitchen chimney appeared strangely like a plume streaming out from the rear. Harlan noted, too, that the railing of the narrow porch extended almost entirely across the front of the house, and remembered, dimly, that they had found the steps at one side of the porch the night before. Not a single unpleasant detail was in any way hidden, and he clutched instinctively at a tree as he realised that the supports of the railing were cunningly arranged to look like huge teeth.

"No wonder," he said to himself "that the stage driver called it the Jack-o'-Lantern! That's exactly what it is! Why didn't he paint it yellow and be done with it? The old devil!" The last disrespectful allusion, of course, being meant for Uncle Ebeneezer.

"Poor Dorothy," he thought again. "I'll burn the whole thing, and she shall put every blamed crib into the purifying flames. It's mine, and I can do what I please with it. We'll go away to-morrow, we'll go--"

Where could they go, with less than four hundred dollars? Especially when one hundred of it was promised for a typewriter? Harlan had parted with his managing editor on terms of great dignity, announcing that he had forsworn journalism and would hereafter devote himself to literature. The editor had remarked, somewhat cynically, that it was a better day for journalism than for literature, the fine, inner meaning of the retort not having been fully evident to Harlan until he was some three squares away from the office.

Much chastened in spirit, and fully ready to accept his wife's estimate of him, he went on downhill into Judson Centre.

It was the usual small town, the post-office, grocery, meat market, and general loafing-place being combined under one roof. Near by was the blacksmith shop, and across from it was the inevitable saloon. Far up in the hills was the Judson Centre Sanitarium, a worthy institution of some years standing, where every human ailment from tuberculosis to fits was more or less successfully treated.

Upon the inmates of the sanitarium the inhabitants of Judson Centre lived, both materially and mentally. Few of them had ever been nearer to it than the back door, but tales of dark doings were widely prevalent throughout the community, and mothers were wont to frighten their young offspring into obedience with threats of the "san-tor-i-yum."

"Now what do you reckon ails him?" asked the blacksmith of the stage-driver, as Harlan went into the village store.

"Wouldn't reckon nothin' ailed him to look at him, would you?" queried the driver, in reply.

Indeed, no one looking at Mr. Carr would have suspected him of an "ailment." He was tall and broad-shouldered and well set up, with clear grey eyes and a rosy, smooth-shaven, boyish face which had given him the nickname of "The Cherub" all along Newspaper Row. In his bearing there was a suggestion of boundless energy, which needed only proper direction to accomplish wonders.

"You can't never tell," continued the driver, shifting his quid. "Now, I've took folks up there goin' on ten year now, an' some I've took up looked considerable more healthy than I be when I took 'em up. Comin' back, howsumever, it was different. One young feller rode up with me in the rain one night, a-singin' an' a-whistlin' to beat the band, an' when I took him back, a month or so arterward, he had a striped nurse on one side of him an' a doctor on t' other, an' was wearin' a shawl. Couldn't hardly set up, but he was a-tryin' to joke just the same. 'Hank,' says he, when we got a little way off from the place, 'my book of life has been edited by the librarians an' the entire appendix removed.' Them's his very words. 'An',' says he, 'the time to have the appendix took out is before it does much of anythin' to your table of contents.'

"The doctor shut him up then, an' I didn't hear no more, but I remembered the language, an' arterwards, when I got a chanst, I looked in the school-teacher's dictionary. It said as how the appendix was sunthin' appended or added to, but I couldn't get no more about it. I've hearn tell of a 'devil child' with a tail to it what was travellin' with the circus one year, an' I've surmised as how mebbe a tail had begun to grow on this young feller an' it was took off."

"You don't say!" ejaculated the blacksmith.

By reason of his professional connection with the sanitarium, Mr. Henry Blake was, in a sense, the oracle of Judson Centre, and he enjoyed his proud distinction to the full. Ordinarily, he was taciturn, but the present hour found him in a conversational mood.

"He's married," he went on, returning to the original subject. "I took him an' his wife up to the Jack-o'-Lantern last night. Come in on the nine forty-seven from the Junction. Reckon they're goin' to stay a spell, 'cause they've got trunks-one of a reasonable size, an' 'nother that looks like a dog-house. Box, too, that's got lead in it."

"Books, maybe," suggested the blacksmith, with unexpected discernment. "Schoolteacher boarded to our house wunst an' she had most a car-load of 'em. Educated folks has to have books to keep from losin' their education."

"Don't take much stock in it myself," remarked the driver. "It spiles most folks. As s

oon as they get some, they begin to pine an' hanker for more. I knowed a feller wunst that begun with one book dropped on the road near the sanitarium, an' he never stopped till he was plum through college. An' a woman up there sent my darter a book wunst, an' I took it right back to her. 'My darter's got a book,' says I, 'an' she ain't a-needin' of no duplicates. Keep it,' says I, 'fer somebody that ain't got no book."

"Do you reckon," asked the blacksmith, after a long silence, "that they're goin' to live in the Jack-o'-Lantern?"

"I ain't a-sayin'," answered Mr. Blake, cautiously. "They're educated, an' there's no tellin' what educated folks is goin' to do. This young lady, now, that come up with him last night, she said it was 'a dear old place an' she loved it a'ready.' Them's her very words!"

"Do tell!"

"That's c'rrect, an' as I said before, when you're dealin' with educated folks, you're swimmin' in deep water with the shore clean out o' sight. Education was what ailed him." By a careless nod Mr. Blake indicated the Jack-o'-Lantern, which could be seen from the main thoroughfare of Judson Centre.

"I've hearn," he went on, taking a fresh bite from his morning purchase of "plug," "that he had one hull room mighty nigh plum full o' nothin' but books, an' there was always more comin' by freight an' express an' through the post-office. It's all on account o' them books that he's made the front o' his house into what it is. My wife had a paper book wunst, a-tellin' 'How to Transfer a Hopeless Exterior,' with pictures of houses in it like they be here an' more arter they'd been transferred. You bet I burnt it while she was gone to sewin' circle, an' there ain't no book come into my house since."

Mr. Blake spoke with the virtuous air of one who has protected his home from contamination. Indeed, as he had often said before, "you can't never tell what folks'll do when books gets a holt of 'em."

"Do you reckon," asked the blacksmith, "that there'll be company?"

"Company," snickered Mr. Blake, "oh, my Lord, yes! A little thing like death ain't never going to keep company away. Ain't you never hearn as how misery loves company? The more miserable you are the more company you'll have, an' vice versey, etcetery an' the same."

"Hush!" warned the blacksmith, in a harsh whisper. "He's a-comin'!"

"City feller," grumbled Mr. Blake, affecting not to see.

"Good-morning," said Harlan, pleasantly, though not without an air of condescension. "Can you tell me where I can find the stage-driver?"

"That's me," grunted Mr. Blake. "Be you wantin' anythin'?"

"Only to pay you for taking us up to the house last night, and to arrange about our trunks. Can you deliver them this afternoon?"

"I ain't a-runnin' of no livery, but I can take 'em up, if that's what you're wantin'."

"Exactly," said Harlan, "and the box, too, if you will. And the things I've just ordered at the grocery-can you bring them, too?"

Mr. Blake nodded helplessly, and the blacksmith gazed at Harlan, open-mouthed, as he started uphill. "Must sure have a ailment," he commented, "but I hear tell, Hank, that in the city they never carry nothin' round with 'em but perhaps an umbrell. Everythin' else they have 'sent.'"

"Reckon it's true enough. I took a ham wunst up to the sanitarium for a young sprig of a doctor that was too proud to carry it himself. He was goin' that way, too-walkin' up to save money-so I charged him for carryin' up the ham just what I'd have took both for. 'Pigs is high,' I told him, 'same price for one as for 'nother,' but he didn't pay no attention to it an' never raised no kick about the price. Thinkin' 'bout sunthin' else, most likely-most of 'em are."

Harlan, most assuredly, was "thinkin' 'bout sunthin' else." In fact, he was possessed by portentous uneasiness. There was well-defined doubt in his mind regarding his reception at the Jack-o'-Lantern. Dorothy's parting words had been plain-almost to the point of rudeness, he reflected, unhappily, and he was not sure that "a brute" would be allowed in her presence again.

The bare, uncurtained windows gave no sign of human occupancy. Perhaps she had left him! Then his reason came to the rescue-there was no way for her to go but downhill, and he would certainly have seen her had she taken that path.

When he entered the yard, he smelled smoke, and ran wildly into the house. A hasty search through all the rooms revealed nothing-even Dorothy had disappeared. From the kitchen window, he saw her in the back yard, poking idly through a heap of smouldering rubbish with an old broomstick.

"What are you doing?" he demanded, breathlessly, before she knew he was near her.

Dorothy turned, disguising her sudden start by a toss of her head. "Oh," she said, coolly, "it's you, is it?"

Harlan bit his lips and his eyes laughed. "I say, Dorothy," he began, awkwardly; "I was rather a beast, wasn't I?"

"Of course," she returned, in a small, unnatural voice, still poking through the ruins. "I told you so, didn't I?"

"I didn't believe you at the time," Harlan went on, eager to make amends, "but I do now."

"That's good." Mrs. Carr's tone was not at all reassuring.

There was an awkward pause, then Harlan, putting aside his obstinate pride, said the simple sentence which men of all ages have found it hardest to say-perhaps because it is the sign of utter masculine abasement. "I'm sorry, dear, will you forgive me?"

In a moment, she was in his arms. "It was partly my fault," she admitted, generously, from the depths of his coat collar. "I think there must be something in the atmosphere of the house. We never quarrelled before."

"And we never will again," answered Harlan, confidently. "What have you been burning?"

"It was a mattress," whispered Dorothy, much ashamed. "I tried to get a bed out, but it was too heavy."

"You funny, funny girl! How did you ever get a mattress out, all alone?"

"Dragged it to an upper window and dumped it," she explained, blushing, "then came down and dragged it some more. Claudius Tiberius didn't like to have me do it."

"I don't wonder," laughed Harlan. "That is," he added hastily, "he couldn't have been pleased to see you doing it all by yourself. Anybody would love to see a mattress burn."

"Shall we get some more? There are plenty."

"Let's not take all our pleasure at once," he suggested, with rare tact. "One mattress a day-how'll that do?"

"We'll have it at night," cried Dorothy, clapping her hands, "and when the mattresses are all gone, we'll do the beds and bureaus and the haircloth furniture in the parlour. Oh, I do so love a bonfire!"

Harlan's heart grew strangely tender, for it had been this underlying childishness in her that he had loved the most. She was stirring the ashes now, with as much real pleasure as though she were five instead of twenty-five.

As it happened, Harlan would have been saved a great deal of trouble if he had followed out her suggestion and burned all of the beds in the house except two or three, but the balance between foresight and retrospection has seldom been exact.

"Beast of a smudge you're making," he commented, choking.

"Get around to the other side, then. Why, Harlan, what's that?"

"What's what?"

She pointed to a small metal box in the midst of the ashes.

"Poem on Spring, probably, put into the corner-stone by the builder of the mattress."

"Don't be foolish," she said, with assumed severity. "Get me a pail of water."

With two sticks they lifted it into the water and waited, impatiently enough, until they were sure it was cool. Then Dorothy, asserting her right of discovery, opened it with trembling fingers.

"Why-ee!" she gasped.

Upon a bed of wet cotton lay a large brooch, made wholly of clustered diamonds, and a coral necklace, somewhat injured by the fire.

"Whose is it?" demanded Dorothy, when she recovered the faculty of speech.

"I should say," returned Harlan, after due deliberation, "that it belonged to you."

"After this," she said, slowly, her eyes wide with wonder, "we'll take everything apart before we burn it."

Harlan was turning the brooch over in his hand and roughly estimating its value at two thousand dollars. "Here's something on the back," he said. "'R. from E., March 12, 1865.'"

"Rebecca from Ebeneezer," cried Dorothy. "Oh, Harlan, it's ours! Don't you remember the letter said: 'my house and all its contents to my beloved nephew, James Harlan Carr'?"

"I remember," said Harlan. But his conscience was uneasy, none the less.

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