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   Chapter 4 No.4

At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 15096

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Finances

"I've ordered the typewriter," said Dorothy, brightly, "and some nice new note-paper, and a seal. I've just been reading about making virtue out of necessity, so I've ordered 'At the Sign of the Jack-o'-Lantern' put on our stationery, in gold, and a yellow pumpkin on the envelope flap, just above the seal. And I want you to make a funny sign-board to flap from a pole, the way they did in 'Rudder Grange.' If you could make a wooden Jack-o'-Lantern, we could have a candle inside it at night, and then the sign would be just like the house. We can get the paint and things down in the village. Won't it be cute? We're farmers, now, so we'll have to pretend we like it."

Harlan repressed an exclamation, which could not have been wholly inspired by pleasure.

"What's the matter?" asked Dorothy, easily. "Don't you like the design for the note-paper? If you don't, you won't have to use it. Nobody's going to make you write letters on paper you don't like, so cheer up."

"It isn't the paper," answered Harlan, miserably; "it's the typewriter." Up to the present moment, sustained by a false, but none the less determined pride, he had refrained from taking his wife into his confidence regarding his finances. With characteristic masculine short-sightedness, he had failed to perceive that every moment of delay made matters worse.

"Might I inquire," asked Mrs. Carr, coolly, "what is wrong with the typewriter?"

"Nothing at all," sighed Harlan, "except that we can't afford it." The whole bitter truth was out, now, and he turned away wretchedly, ashamed to meet her eyes.

It seemed ages before she spoke. Then she said, in smooth, icy tones: "What was your object in offering to get it for me?"

"I spoke impulsively," explained Harlan, forgetting that he had never suggested buying a typewriter. "I didn't stop to think. I'm sorry," he concluded, lamely.

"I suppose you spoke impulsively," snapped Dorothy, "when you asked me to marry you. You're sorry for that, too, aren't you?"

"Dorothy!"

"You're not the only one who's sorry," she rejoined, her cheeks flushed and her eyes blazing. "I had no idea what an expense I was going to be!"

"Dorothy!" cried Harlan, angrily; "you didn't think I was a millionaire, did you? Were you under the impression that I was an active branch of the United States Mint?"

"No," she answered, huskily; "I merely thought I was marrying a gentleman instead of a loafer, and I beg your pardon for the mistake!" She slammed the door on the last word, and he heard her light feet pattering swiftly down the hall, little guessing that she was trying to gain the shelter of her own room before giving way to a tempest of sobs.

Happy are they who can drown all pain, sorrow, and disappointment in a copious flood of tears. In an hour, at the most, Dorothy would be her sunny self again, penitent, and wholly ashamed of her undignified outburst. By to-morrow she would have forgotten it, but Harlan, made of sterner clay, would remember it for days.

"Loafer!" The cruel word seemed written accusingly on every wall of the room. In a sudden flash of insight he perceived the truth of it-and it hurt.

"Two months," bethought; "two months of besotted idleness. And I used to chase news from the Battery to the Bronx every day from eight to six! Murders, smallpox, East Side scraps, and Tammany Hall. Why in the hereafter can't they have a fire at the sanitarium, or something that I can wire in?"

"The Temple of Healing," as Dorothy had christened it in a happier moment, stood on a distant hill, all but hidden now by trees and shrubbery. A column of smoke curled lazily upward against the blue, but there was no immediate prospect of a fire of the "news" variety.

Harlan stood at the window for a long time, deeply troubled. The call of the city dinned relentlessly into his ears. Oh, for an hour in the midst of it, with the rumble and roar and clatter of ceaseless traffic, the hurrying, heedless throng rushing in every direction, the glare of the sun on the many-windowed cliffs, the fever of the struggle in his veins!

And yet-was two months so long, when a fellow was just married, and hadn't had more than a day at a time off for six years? Since the "cub reporter" was first "licked into shape" in the office of The Thunderer, there had been plenty of work for him, year in and year out.

"I wonder," he mused, "if the old man would take me back on my job?

"I can see 'em in the office now," went on Harlan, mentally, "when I go back and tell 'em I want my place again. The old man will look up and say: 'The hell you do! Thought you'd accepted a position on the literary circuit as manager of the nine muses! Better run along and look after 'em before they join the union.'

"And the exchange man will yell at me not to slam the door as I go out, and I'll be pointed out to the newest kid as a horrible example of misdirected ambition. Brinkman will say: 'Sonny, there's a bloke that got too good for his job and now he's come back, willing to edit The Mother's Corner.'

"It'd be about the same in the other offices, too," he thought. "'Sorry, nothing to-day, but there might be next month. Drop in again sometime after six weeks or so and meanwhile I'll let you know if anything turns up. Yes, I can remember your address. Don't slam the door as you go out. Most people seem to have been born in a barn.'

"Besides," he continued to himself, fiercely, "what is there in it? They'll take your youth, all your strength and energy, and give you a measly living in exchange. They'll fill you with excitement till you're never good for anything else, any more than a cavalry horse is fitted to pull a vegetable wagon. Then, when you're old, they've got no use for you!"

Before his mental vision, in pitiful array, came that unhappy procession of hacks that files, day in and day out, along Newspaper Row, drawn by every instinct to the arena that holds nothing for them but a meagre, uncertain pittance, dwindling slowly to charity.

"That's where I'd be at the last of it," muttered Harlan, savagely, "with even the cubs offering me the price of a drink to get out. And Dorothy-good God! Where would Dorothy be?"

He clenched his fists and marched up and down the room in utter despair. "Why," he breathed, "why wasn't I taught to do something honest, instead of being cursed with this itch to write? A carpenter, a bricklayer, a stone-mason,-any one of 'em has a better chance than I!"

And yet, even then, Harlan saw clearly that save where some vast cathedral reared its unnumbered spires, the mason and the bricklayer were without significance; that even the builders were remembered only because of the great uses to which their buildings were put. "That, too, through print," he murmured. "It all comes down to the printed page at last."

On a table, near by, was a sheaf of rough copy paper, and six or eight carefully sharpened pencils-the dull, meaningless stone waiting for the flint that should strike it into flame. Day after day the table had stood by the window, without result, save in Harlan's uneasy conscience.

"I'm only a tramp," he said, aloud, "and I've known it, all along."

He sat down by the table and took up a pencil, but no words came. Remorsefully, he wrote to an acquaintance-a man who had a book published every year and filled in the intervening time with magazine work and newspaper specials. He sealed the letter and addressed it idly, then tossed it aside purposelessly.

"Loafer!" The m

emory of it stung him like a lash, and, completely overwhelmed with shame, he hid his face in his hands.

Suddenly, a pair of soft arms stole around his neck, a childish, tear-wet cheek was pressed close to his, and a sweet voice whispered, tenderly: "Dear, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry I can't live another minute unless you tell me you forgive me!"

* * *

"Am I really a loafer?" asked Harlan, half an hour later.

"Indeed you're not," answered Dorothy, her trustful eyes looking straight into his; "you're absolutely the most adorable boy in the whole world, and it's me that knows it!"

"As long as you know it," returned Harlan, seriously, "I don't care a hang what other people think."

"Now, tell me," continued Dorothy, "how near are we to being broke?"

Obediently, Harlan turned his pockets inside out and piled his worldly wealth on the table.

"Three hundred and seventy-four dollars and sixteen cents," she said, when she had finished counting. "Why, we're almost rich, and a little while ago you tried to make me think we were poor!"

"It's all I have, Dorothy-every blooming cent, except one dollar in the savings bank. Sort of a nest egg I had left," he explained.

"Wait a minute," she said, reaching down into her collar and drawing up a loop of worn ribbon. "Straight front corset," she observed, flushing, "makes a nice pocket for almost everything." She drew up a chamois-skin bag, of an unprepossessing mouse colour, and emptied out a roll of bills. "Two hundred and twelve dollars," she said, proudly, "and eighty-three cents and four postage stamps in my purse.

"I saved it," she continued, hastily, "for an emergency, and I wanted some silk stockings and a French embroidered corset and some handmade lingerie worse than you can ever know. Wasn't I a brave, heroic, noble woman?"

"Indeed you were," he cried, "but, Dorothy, you know I can't touch your money!"

"Why not?" she demanded.

"Because-because-because it isn't right. Do you think I'm cad enough to live on a woman's earnings?"

"Harlan," said Dorothy, kindly, "don't be a fool. You'll take my whole heart and soul and life-all that I have been and all that I'm going to be-and be glad to get it, and now you're balking at ten cents that I happened to have in my stocking when I took the fatal step."

"Dear heart, don't. It's different-tremendously different. Can't you see that it is?"

"Do you mean that I'm not worth as much as two hundred and twelve dollars and eighty-three cents and four postage stamps?"

"Darling, you're worth more than all the rest of the world put together. Don't talk to me like that. But I can't touch your money, truly, dear, I can't; so don't ask me."

"Idiot," cried Dorothy, with tears raining down her face, "don't you know I'd go with you if you had to grind an organ in the street, and collect the money for you in a tin cup till we got enough for a monkey? What kind of a dinky little silver-plated wedding present do you think I am, anyway? You--"

The rest of it was sobbed out, incoherently enough, on his hitherto immaculate shirt-front. "You don't mind," she whispered, "if I cry down your neck, do you?"

"If you're going to cry," he answered, his voice trembling, "this is the one place for you to do it, but I don't want you to cry."

"I won't, then," she said, wiping her eyes on a wet and crumpled handkerchief. In a time astonishingly brief to one hitherto unfamiliar with the lachrymal function, her sobs had ceased.

"You've made me cry nearly a quart since morning," she went on, with assumed severity, "and I hope you'll behave so well from now on that I'll never have to do it again. Look here."

She led him to the window, where a pair of robins were building a nest in the boughs of a maple close by. "Do you see those birds?" she demanded, pointing at them with a dimpled, rosy forefinger.

"Yes, what of it?"

"Well, they're married, aren't they?"

"I hope they are," laughed Harlan, "or at least engaged."

"Who's bringing the straw and feathers for the nest?" she asked.

"Both, apparently," he replied, unwillingly.

"Why isn't she rocking herself on a bough, and keeping her nails nice, and fixing her feathers in the latest style, or perhaps going off to some fool bird club while he builds the nest by himself?"

"Don't know."

"Nor anybody else," she continued, with much satisfaction. "Now, if she happened to have two hundred and twelve feathers, of the proper size and shape to go into that nest, do you suppose he'd refuse to touch them, and make her cry because she brought them to him?"

"Probably he wouldn't," admitted Harlan.

There was a long silence, then Dorothy edged up closer to him. "Do you suppose," she queried, "that Mr. Robin thinks more of his wife than you do of yours?"

"Indeed he doesn't!"

"And still, he's letting her help him."

"But--"

"Now, listen, Harlan. We've got a house, with more than enough furniture to make it comfortable, though it's not the kind of furniture either of us particularly like. Instead of buying a typewriter, we'll rent one for three or four dollars a month until we have enough money to buy one. And I'm going to have a cow and some chickens and a garden, and I'm going to sell milk and butter and cream and fresh eggs and vegetables and chickens and fruit to the sanitarium, and--"

"The sanitarium people must have plenty of those things."

"But not the kind I'm going to raise, nor put up as I'm going to put it up, and we'll be raising most of our own living besides. You can write when you feel like it, and be helping me when you don't feel like it, and before we know it, we'll be rich. Oh, Harlan, I feel like Eve all alone in the Garden with Adam!"

The prospect fired his imagination, for, in common with most men, a chicken-ranch had appealed strongly to Harlan ever since he could remember.

"Well," he began, slowly, in the tone which was always a signal of surrender.

"Won't it be lovely," she cried ecstatically, "to have our own bossy cow mooing in the barn, and our own chickens for Sunday dinner, and our own milk, and butter, and cream? And I'll drive the vegetable waggon and you can take the things in--"

"I guess not," interrupted Harlan, firmly. "If you're going to do that sort of thing, you'll have people to do the work when I can't help you. The idea of my wife driving a vegetable cart!"

"All right," answered Dorothy, submissively, wise enough to let small points settle themselves and have her own way in things that really mattered. "I've not forgotten that I promised to obey you."

A gratified smile spread over Harlan's smooth, boyish face, and, half-fearfully, she reached into her sleeve for a handkerchief which she had hitherto carefully concealed.

"That's not all," she smiled. "Look!"

"Twenty-three dollars," he said. "Why, where did you get that?"

"It was in my dresser. There was a false bottom in one of the small drawers, and I took it out and found this."

"What in-" began Harlan.

"It's a present to us from Uncle Ebeneezer," she cried, her eyes sparkling and her face aglow. "It's for a coop and chickens," she continued, executing an intricate dance step. "Oh, Harlan, aren't you awfully glad we came?"

Seeing her pleasure he could not help being glad, but afterward, when he was alone, he began to wonder whether they had not inadvertently moved into a bank.

"Might be worse places," he reflected, "for the poor and deserving to move into. Diamonds and money-what next?"

* * *

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