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At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 18383

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The First Caller

As Mr. Blake had heard, there was "one hull room mighty nigh plum full o' nothin' but books"; a grievous waste, indeed, when one already "had a book." It was the front room, opposite the parlour, and every door and window in it could be securely bolted from the inside. If any one desired unbroken privacy, it could be had in the library as nowhere else in the house.

The book-shelves were made of rough pine, unplaned, unpainted, and were scarcely a seemly setting for the treasure they bore. But in looking at the books, one perceived that their owner had been one who passed by the body in his eager search for the soul.

Here were no fine editions, no luxurious, costly volumes in full levant. Illuminated pages, rubricated headings, and fine illustrations were conspicuous by their absence. For the most part, the books were simply but serviceably bound in plain cloth covers. Many a paper-covered book had been bound by its purchaser in pasteboard, flimsy enough in quality, yet further strengthened by cloth at the back. Cheap, pirated editions were so many that Harlan wondered whether his uncle had not been wholly without conscience in the matter of book-buying.

Shelf after shelf stretched across the long wall, with its company of mute consolers whose master was no more. The fine flowering of the centuries, like a single precious drop of imperishable perfume, was hidden in this rude casket. The minds and hearts of the great, laid pitilessly bare, were here in this one room, shielded merely by pasteboard and cloth.

Far up in the mountains, amid snow-clad steeps and rock-bound fastnesses, one finds, perchance, a shell. It is so small a thing that it can be held in the hollow of the hand; so frail that a slight pressure of the finger will crush it to atoms, yet, held to the ear, it brings the surge and sweep of that vast, primeval ocean which, in the inconceivably remote past, covered the peak. And so, to the eye of the mind, the small brown book, with its hundred printed pages, brings back the whole story of the world.

A thin, piping voice, to which its fellows have paid no heed, after a time becomes silent, and, ceaselessly marching, the years pass on by. Yet that trembling old hand, quietly laid at last upon the turbulent heart, in the solitude of a garret has guided a pen, and the manuscript is left. Ragged, worn, blotted, spotted with candle drippings and endlessly interlined, why should these few sheets of paper be saved?

Because, as it happens, the only record of the period is there-a record so significant that fifty years can be reconstructed, as an entire language was brought to light by a triple inscription upon a single stone. Thrown like the shell upon Time's ever-receding shore, it is, nevertheless, the means by which unborn thousands shall commune with him who wrote in his garret, see his whole life mirrored in his book, know his philosophy, and take home his truth. For by way of the printed page comes Immortality.

There was no book in the library which had not been read many times. Some were falling apart, and others had been carefully sewn together and awkwardly rebound. Still open, on a rickety table in the corner, was that ponderous volume with an extremely limited circulation: The Publishers' Trade List Annual. Pencilled crosses here and there indicated books to be purchased, or at least sent on approval, to "customers known to the House."

"Some day," said Dorothy, "when it's raining and we can't go out, we'll take down all these books, arrange them in something like order, and catalogue them."

"How optimistic you are!" remarked Harlan. "Do you think it could be done in one day?"

"Oh, well," returned Dorothy; "you know what I mean."

Harlan paced restlessly back and forth, pausing now and then to look out of the window, where nothing much was to be seen except the orchard, at a little distance from the house, and Claudius Tiberius, sunning himself pleasantly upon the porch. Four weeks had been a pleasant vacation, but two weeks of comparative idleness, added to it, were too much for an active mind and body to endure. Three or four times he had tried to begin the book that was to bring fame and fortune, and as many times had failed. Hitherto Harlan's work had not been obliged to wait for inspiration, and it was not so easy as it had seemed the day he bade his managing editor farewell.

"Somebody is coming," announced Dorothy, from the window.

"Nonsense! Nobody ever comes here."

"A precedent is about to be established, then. I feel it in my bones that we're going to have company."

"Let's see." Harlan went to the window and looked over her shoulder. A little man in a huge silk hat was toiling up the hill, aided by a cane. He was bent and old, yet he moved with a certain briskness, and, as Dorothy had said, he was inevitably coming.

"Who in thunder-" began Harlan.

"Our first company," interrupted Dorothy, with her hand over his mouth. "The very first person who has called on us since we were married!"

"Except Claudius Tiberius," amended Harlan. "Isn't a cat anybody?"

"Claudius is. I beg his imperial pardon for forgetting him."

The rusty bell-wire creaked, then a timid ring came from the rear depths of the house. "You let him in," said Dorothy, "and I'll go and fix my hair."

"Am I right," queried the old gentleman, when Harlan opened the door, "in presuming that I am so fortunate as to address Mr. James Harlan Carr?"

"My name is Carr," answered Harlan, politely. "Will you come in?"

"Thank you," answered the visitor, in high staccato, oblivious of the fact that Claudius Tiberius had scooted in between his feet; "it will be my pleasure to claim your hospitality for a few brief moments.

"I had hoped," he went on, as Harlan ushered him into the parlour, "to be able to make your acquaintance before this, but my multitudinous duties--"

He fumbled in his pocket and produced a card, cut somewhat irregularly from a sheet of white cardboard, and bearing in tremulous autographic script: "Jeremiah Bradford, Counsellor at Law."

"Oh," said Harlan, "it was you who wrote me the letter. I should have hunted you up when I first came, shouldn't I?"

"Not at all," returned Mr. Bradford. "It is I who have been remiss. It is etiquette that the old residents should call first upon the newcomers. Many and varied duties in connection with the practice of my profession have hitherto-" His eyes sought the portrait over the mantel. "A most excellent likeness of your worthy uncle," he continued, irrelevantly, "a gentleman with whom, as I understand, you never had the pleasure and privilege of becoming acquainted."

"I never met Uncle Ebeneezer," rejoined Harlan, "but mother told me a great deal about him and we had one or two pictures-daguerreotypes, I believe they were."

"Undoubtedly, my dear sir. This portrait was painted from his very last daguerreotype by an artist of renown. It is a wonderful likeness. He was my Colonel-I served under him in the war. It was my desire to possess a portrait of him in uniform, but he would never consent, and would not allow anyone save myself to address him as Colonel. An eccentric, but very estimable gentleman."

"I cannot understand," said Harlan, "why he should have left the house to me. I had never even seen him."

"Perhaps," smiled Mr. Bradford, enigmatically, "that was his reason, or rather, perhaps I should say, if you had known your uncle more intimately and had visited him here, or, if he had had the privilege of knowing you-quite often, as you know, a personal acquaintance proves disappointing, though, of course, in this case--"

The old gentleman was floundering helplessly when Harlan rescued him. "I want you to meet my wife, Mr. Bradford. If you will excuse me, I will call her."

Left to himself, the visitor slipped back and forth uneasily upon his haircloth chair, and took occasion to observe Claudius Tiberius, who sat near by and regarded the guest unblinkingly. Hearing approaching footsteps, he took out his worn silk handkerchief, unfolded it, and wiped the cold perspiration from his legal brow. In his heart of hearts, he wished he had not come, but Dorothy's kindly greeting at once relieved him of all embarrassment.

"We have been wondering," she said, brightly, "who would be the first to call upon us, and you have come at exactly the right time. New residents are always given two weeks, are they not, in which to get settled?"

"Quite so, my dear madam, quite so, and I trust that you are by this time fully accustomed to your changed environment. Judson Centre, while possessing few metropolitan advantages, has distinct and peculiar recommendations of an individual character which endear the locality to those residing therein."

"I think I shall like it here," said Dorothy. "At least I shall try to."

"A very commendable spirit," rejoined the old gentleman, warmly, "and rather remarkable in one so young."

Mrs. Carr graciously acknowledged the compliment, and the guest flushed with pleasure. To perception less fine, there would have been food for unseemly mirth in his attire.

Never in all her life before had Dorothy seen rough cow-hide boots, and grey striped trousers worn with a rusty and moth-eaten dress-coat in the middle of the afternoon. An immaculate expanse of shirt-front and a general air of extreme cleanliness went far toward redeeming the unfamiliar costume. The silk hat, with a bell-shaped crown and wide, rolling brim, belonged to a much earlier period, and had been brushed to look like new. Even Harlan noted that the ravelled edges of his linen had been carefully trimmed and the worn binding of the hat brim inked wherever necessary.

His wrinkled old face was kindly, though somewhat sad. His weak blue eyes were sheltered by an enormous pair of spectacles, which he took off and wiped continually. He was smooth-shaven and his scanty hair was as white as the driven snow. Now, as he sat in Uncle Ebeneezer's parlour, he seemed utterly friendless and forlorn-a complete failure of that pitiful type which never for a moment guesses that it has failed.

"It will be my delight," the old man was saying, his hollow cheeks faintly flushed, "to see that the elite of Judson Centre pay proper respect to you at an early date. If I were not most unfortunately a single gentleman, my wife would do herself the honour of calling upon you immediately and of tendering you some sort of hospitality approximately commensurate with your worth. As it is--"

"As it is," said Harlan, taking up the wandering thread of the discourse, "that particular pleasure must be on our side. We both hope that you will come often, and informally."

"It would be a solace to me," rejoined the old gentleman, tremulously, "to find the niece and nephew of my departed friend both congenial and companionable. He was my Colonel-I served under him in the war-and until the last, he allowed me to address him as Colonel-a privilege accorded to no one else. He very seldom left his own estate, but at his request I often spent an evening or a Sunday afternoon in his society, and after his untimely death, I feel the loss of his companionship very keenly. He was my Colonel-I--"

"I should imagine so," said Harlan, kindly, "though, as I have told you, I never knew him at all."

"A much-misunderstood gentleman," continued Mr. Bradford, carefully wiping his spectacles. "My grief is too recent, at present, to enable me to discourse freely of his many virtues, but at some future time I shall hope to make you acquainted with your benefactor. He was my Colonel, and in serving under him in the war, I had an unusual opportunity to know him as he really was. May I ask, without intruding upon your private affairs, whether or not it is your intention to reside here permanently?"

"We have not made up our minds," responded Harlan. "We shall stay here this Summer, anyway, as I have some work to do which can be done only in a quiet place."

"Quiet!" muttered the old gentleman, "quiet place! If I might venture to suggest, I should think you would find any other season more agreeable for prolonged mental effort. In Summer there are distractions--"

"Yes," put in Dorothy, "in Summer, one wants to be outdoors, and I am going to keep chickens and a cow, but my husband hopes to have his book finished by September."

"His book!" repeated Mr. Bradford, in genuine astonishment. "Am I actually addressing an author?"

He beamed upon Harlan in a way which that modest youth found positively disconcerting.

"A would-be author only," laughed Harlan, the colour mounting to his temples. "I've done newspaper work heretofore, and now I'm going to try something else."

"My dear sir," said Mr. Bradford, rising, "I must really beg the privilege of clasping your hand. It is a great honour for Judson Centre to have an author residing in its midst!"

Taking pity upon Harlan, Dorothy hastened to change the subject. "We hope it may be," she observed, lightly, "and I wonder, Mr. Bradford, if you could not give me some good advice?"

"I shall be delighted, my dear madam. Any knowledge I may possess is trebly at your service, for the sake of the distinguished author whose wife you have the honour to be, for the sake of your departed relative, who was my friend, my Colonel, and last, but not least, for your own sake."

"It is only about a maid," said Dorothy.

"A -- my dear madam, I beg your pardon?"

"A maid," repeated Dorothy; "a servant."

"Oh! A hired girl, or more accurately, in the parlance of Judson Centre, the help. Do I understand that it is your desire to become an employer of help?"

"It is," answered Dorothy, somewhat awed by the solemnity of his tone, "if help is to be found. I thought you might know where I could get some one."

"If I might be permitted to suggest," replied Mr. Bradford, after due deliberation, "I should unhesitatingly recommend Mrs. Sarah Smithers, who did for your uncle during the entire period of his residence here and whose privilege it was to close his eyes in his last sleep. She is at present without prospect of a situation, and I believe would be very ready to accept a new position, especially so desirable a position as this, in your service."

"Thank you. Could you-could you send her to me?"

"I shall do so, most assuredly, providing she is willing to come, and should she chance not to be agreeably disposed toward so pleasing a project, it will be my happiness to endeavour to persuade her." Drawing out a memorandum book and a pencil, the old gentleman made an entry upon a fresh page. "The multitudinous duties in connection with the practice of my profession," he began-"there, my dear madam, it is already attended to, since it is placed quite out of my power to forget."

"I am greatly obliged," said Dorothy.

"And now," continued the visitor, "I must go. I fear I have already outstayed the limitation of a formal visit, such as the first should be, and it is not my desire to intrude upon an author's time. Moreover, my own duties, slight and unimportant as they are in comparison, must ultimately press upon my attention."

"Come again," said Harlan, kindly, following him to the door.

"It will be my great pleasure," rejoined the guest, "not only on your own account, but because your personality reminds me of that of my departed friend. You favour him considerably, more particularly in the eyes, if I may be permitted to allude to details. I think I told you, did I not, that he was my Colonel and I was privileged to serve under him in the war? My-oh, I walked, did I not? I remember that it was my intention to come in a carriage, as being more suitable to a formal visit, but Mr. Blake had other engagements for his vehicle. Dear sir and madam, I bid you good afternoon."

So saying, he went downhill, briskly enough, yet stumbling where the way was rough. They watched him until the bobbing, bell-shaped crown of the ancient head-gear was completely out of sight.

"What a dear old man!" said Dorothy. "He's lonely and we must have him come up often."

"Do you think," asked Harlan, "that I look like Uncle Ebeneezer?"

"Indeed you don't!" cried Dorothy, "and that reminds me. I want to take that picture down."

"To burn it?" inquired Harlan, slyly.

"No, I wouldn't burn it," answered Dorothy, somewhat spitefully, "but there's no law against putting it in the attic, is there?"

"Not that I know of. Can we reach it from a chair?"

Together they mounted one of the haircloth monuments, slipping, as Dorothy said, until it was like walking on ice.

"Now then," said Harlan, gaily, "come on down, Uncle! You're about to be moved into the attic!"

The picture lunged forward, almost before they had touched it, the heavy gilt frame bruising Dorothy's cheek badly. In catching it, Harlan turned it completely around, then gave a low whistle of astonishment.

Pasted securely to the back was a fearsome skull and cross-bones, made on wrapping paper with a brush and India ink. Below it, in great capitals, was the warning inscription: "LET MY PICTURE ALONE!"

"What shall we do with it?" asked Harlan, endeavouring to laugh, though, as he afterward admitted, he "felt creepy." "Shall I take it up to the attic?"

"No," answered Dorothy, in a small, unnatural voice, "leave it where it is."

While Harlan was putting it back, Dorothy, trembling from head to foot, crept around to the back of the easel which bore Aunt Rebecca's portrait. She was not at all surprised to find, on the back of it, a notice to this effect: "ANYONE DARING TO MOVE MRS. JUDSON'S PICTURE WILL BE HAUNTED FOR LIFE BY US BOTH."

"I don't doubt it," said Dorothy, somewhat viciously, when Harlan had joined her. "What kind of a woman do you suppose she could have been, to marry him? I'll bet she's glad she's dead!"

Dorothy was still wiping blood from her face and might not have been wholly unprejudiced. Aunt Rebecca was a gentle, sweet-faced woman, if her portrait told the truth, possessed of all the virtues save self-assertion and dominated by habitual, unselfish kindness to others. She could not have been discourteous even to Claudius Tiberius, who at this moment was seated in state upon the sofa and purring industriously.

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