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At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 16356

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Mrs. Smithers

The chickens were clucking peacefully in their corner of Uncle Ebeneezer's dooryard, and the newly acquired bossy cow mooed unhappily in her improvised stable. Harlan had christened the cow "Maud" because she insisted upon going into the garden, and though Dorothy had vigorously protested against putting Tennyson to such base uses, the name still held, out of sheer appropriateness.

Harlan was engaged in that pleasant pastime known as "pottering." The instinct to drive nails, put up shelves, and to improve generally his local habitation is as firmly seated in the masculine nature as housewifely characteristics are ingrained in the feminine soul. Never before having had a home of his own, Harlan was enjoying it to the full.

Early hours had been the rule at the Jack-o'-Lantern ever since the feathered sultan with his tribe of voluble wives had taken up his abode on the hilltop. Indeed, as Harlan said, they were obliged to sleep when the chickens did-if they slept at all. So it was not yet seven one morning when Dorothy went in from the chicken coop, singing softly to herself, and intent upon the particular hammer her husband wanted, never expecting to find Her in the kitchen.

"I-I beg your pardon?" she stammered, inquiringly.

A gaunt, aged, and preternaturally solemn female, swathed in crape, bent slightly forward in her chair, without making an effort to rise, and reached forth a black-gloved hand tightly grasping a letter, which was tremulously addressed to "Mrs. J. H. Carr."

"My dear Madam," Dorothy read.

"The multitudinous duties in connection with the practice of my profession have unfortunately prevented me, until the present hour, from interviewing Mrs. Sarah Smithers in regard to your requirements. While she is naturally unwilling to commit herself entirely without a more definite idea of what is expected of her, she is none the less kindly disposed. May I hope, my dear madam, that at the first opportunity you will apprise me of ensuing events in this connection, and that in any event I may still faithfully serve you?

"With kindest personal remembrances and my polite salutations to the distinguished author whose wife you have the honour to be, I am, my dear madam,

"Yr. most respectful and obedient servant,

"Jeremiah Bradford.

"Oh," said Dorothy, "you're Sarah. I had almost given you up."

"Begging your parding, Miss," rejoined Mrs. Smithers in a chilly tone of reproof, "but I take it it's better for us to begin callin' each other by our proper names. If we should get friendly, there'd be ample time to change. Your uncle, God rest 'is soul, allers called me 'Mis' Smithers.'"

Somewhat startled at first, Mrs. Carr quickly recovered her equanimity. "Very well, Mrs. Smithers," she returned, lightly, reflecting that when in Rome one must follow Roman customs; "Do you understand all branches of general housework?"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be makin' no attempts in that direction," replied Mrs. Smithers, harshly. "I doesn't allow nobody to do wot I does no better than wot I does it."

Dorothy smiled, for this was distinctly encouraging, from at least one point of view.

"You wear a cap, I suppose?"

"Yes, mum, for dustin'. When I goes out I puts on my bonnet."

"Can you do plain cooking?" inquired Dorothy, hastily, perceiving that she was treading upon dangerous ground.

"Yes, mum. The more plain it is the better all around. Your uncle was never one to fill hisself with fancy dishes days and walk the floor with 'em nights, that's wot 'e wasn't."

"What wages do you have, Sa-Mrs. Smithers?"

"I worked for your uncle for a dollar and a half a week, bein' as we'd knowed each other so long, and on account of 'im bein' easy to get along with and never makin' no trouble, but I wouldn't work for no woman for less 'n two dollars."

"That is satisfactory to me," returned Dorothy, trying to be dignified. "I daresay we shall get on all right. Can you stay now?"

"If you've finished," said Mrs. Smithers, ignoring the question, "there's a few things I'd like to ask. 'Ow did you get that bruise on your face?"

"I-I ran into something," answered Dorothy, unwillingly, and taken quite by surprise.

"Wot was it," demanded Mrs. Smithers. "Your 'usband's fist?"

"No," replied Mrs. Carr, sternly, "it was a piece of furniture."

"I've never knowed furniture," observed Mrs. Smithers, doubtfully, "to get up and 'it people in the face wot wasn't doin' nothink to it. If you disturb a rockin'-chair at night w'en it's restin' quiet, you'll get your ankle 'it, but I've never knowed no furniture to 'it people under the eye unless it 'ad been threw, that's wot I ain't.

"I mind me of my youngest sister," Mrs. Smithers went on, her keen eyes uncomfortably fixed upon Dorothy. "'Er 'usband was one of these 'ere masterful men, 'e was, same as wot yours is, and w'en 'er didn't please 'im, 'e 'd 'it 'er somethink orful. Many's the time I've gone there and found 'er with 'er poor face all cut up and the crockery broke bad. 'I dropped a cup' 'er'd say to me, 'and the pieces flew up and 'it me in the face.' 'Er face looked like a crazy quilt from 'aving dropped so many cups, and wunst, without thinkin' wot I might be doin' of, I gave 'er a chiny tea set for 'er Christmas present.

"Wen I went to see 'er again, the tea set was all broke and 'er 'ad court plaster all over 'er face. The pieces must 'ave flew more 'n common from the tea set, cause 'er 'usband's 'ed was laid open somethink frightful and they'd 'ad in the doctor to take a seam in it. From that time on I never 'eard of no more cups bein' dropped and 'er face looked quite human and peaceful like w'en 'e died. God rest 'is soul, 'e ain't a-breakin' no tea sets now by accident nor a-purpose neither. I was never one to interfere between man and wife, Miss Carr, but I want you to tell your 'usband that should 'e undertake to 'it me, 'e'll get a bucket of 'ot tea throwed in 'is face."

"It's not at all likely," answered Dorothy, biting her lip, "that such a thing will happen." She was swayed by two contradictory impulses-one to scream with laughter, the other to throw something at Mrs. Smithers.

"'E's been at peace now six months come Tuesday," continued Mrs. Smithers, "and on account of 'is 'avin' broke the tea set, I don't feel no call to wear mourning for 'im more 'n a year, though folks thinks as 'ow it brands me as 'eartless for takin' it off inside of two. Sakes alive, wot's that?" she cried, drawing her sable skirts more closely about her as a dark shadow darted across the kitchen.

"It's only the cat," answered Dorothy, reassuringly. "Come here, Claudius."

Mrs. Smithers repressed an exclamation of horror as Claudius, purring pleasantly, came out into the sunlight, brandishing his plumed tail, and sat down on the edge of Dorothy's skirt, blinking his green eyes at the intruder.

"'E's the very cat," said Mrs. Smithers, hoarsely, "wot your uncle killed the week afore 'e died!"

"Before who died?" asked Dorothy, a chill creeping into her blood.

"Your uncle," whispered Mrs. Smithers, her eyes still fixed upon Claudius Tiberius. "'E killed that very cat, 'e did, 'cause 'e couldn't never abide 'im, and now 'e's come back!"

"Nonsense!" cried Dorothy, trying to be severe. "If he killed the cat, it couldn't come back-you must know that."

"I don't know w'y not, Miss. Anyhow, 'e killed the cat, that's wot 'e did, and I saw 'is dead body, and even buried 'im, on account of your uncle not bein' able to abide cats, and 'ere 'e is. Somebody 's dug 'im up, and 'e 's come to life again, thinkin' to 'aunt your uncle, and your uncle 'as follered 'im, that's wot 'e 'as, and there bein' nobody 'ere to 'aunt but us, 'e's a 'auntin' us and a-doin' it 'ard."

"Mrs. Smithers," said Dorothy, rising, "I desire to hear no more of this nonsense. The cat happens to be somewhat similar to the dead one, that's all."

"Begging your parding, Miss, for askin', but did you bring that there cat with you from the city?"

Affecting not to hear, Dorothy went out, followed by Claudius Tiberius, who appeared anything but ghostly.

"I knowed it," muttered Mrs. Smithers, gloomily, to herself. "'E was 'ere w'en 'er come, and 'e's the same cat. 'E's come back to 'aunt us, that's wot 'e 'as!"

"Harlan," said Dorothy, half-way between smiles and tears, "she's come."

Harlan dropped his saw and took up his hammer. "Who's come?" he asked. "From your tone, it might be Mrs. Satan, or somebody else from the infernal regions."

"You're not far out of the way," rejoined Dorothy. "It's Sa-Mrs. Smithers."

"Oh, our maid of all work?"

"I don't know what she's made of," giggled Dorothy, hysterically. "She looks like a tombstone dressed in deep mourning, and carries with her the atmosphere of a graveyard. We have to call her 'Mrs. Smithers,' if we don't want her to call us by our first names, and she has two dollars a week. She says Claudius is a cat that uncle killed the week before he died, and she thinks you hit me and gave me this bruise on my cheek."

"The old lizard," said Harlan, indignantly. "She sha'n't stay!"

"Now don't be cross," interrupted Dorothy. "It's all in the family, for your uncle hit me, as you well know. Besides, we can't expect all the virtues for two dollars a week and I'm tired almost to death from trying to do the housework in this big house and take care of the chickens, too. We'll get on with her as best we can until we see a chance to do better."

"Wise little woman," responded Harlan, admiringly. "Can she milk the cow?"

"I don't know-I'll go in and ask her."

"Excuse me, Miss," began Mrs. Smithers, before Dorothy had a chance to speak, "but am I to 'ave my old rooms?"

"Which rooms were they?"

"These 'ere, back of the kitchen. My own settin' room and bedroom and kitchen and pantry and my own private door outside. Your uncle was allers a great hand for bein' private and insistin' on other folks keepin' private, that 's wot 'e was, but God rest 'is soul, it didn't do the poor old gent much good."

"Certainly," said Dorothy, "take your old rooms. And can you milk a cow?"

Mrs. Smithers sighed. "I ain't never 'ad it put on me, Miss," she said, with the air of a martyr trying to make himself comfortable up against the stake, "not as a regler thing, I ain't, but wotever I'm asked to do in the line of duty whiles I'm dwellin' in this sufferin' and dyin' world, I aims to do the best wot I can, w'ether it's milkin' a cow, drownin' kittens, or buryin' a cat wot can't stay buried."

"We have breakfast about half-past seven," went on Dorothy, quickly; "luncheon at noon and dinner at six."

"Wot at six?" demanded Mrs. Smithers, pricking up her ears.

"Dinner! Dinner at six."

"Lord preserve us," said Mrs. Smithers, half to herself. "Your uncle allers 'ad 'is dinner at one o'clock, sharp, and 'e wouldn't like it to 'ave such scandalous goin's on in 'is own 'ouse."

"You're working for me," Dorothy reminded her sharply, "and not for my uncle."

There was a long silence, during which Mrs. Smithers peered curiously at her young mistress over her steel-bowed spectacles. "I'm not so sure as you," she said. "On account of the cat 'avin come back from 'is grave, it wouldn't surprise me none to see your uncle settin' 'ere at any time in 'is shroud, and a-askin' to 'ave mush and milk for 'is supper, the which 'e was so powerful fond of that I was more 'n 'alf minded at the last minute to put some of it in 's coffin."

"Mrs. Smithers," said Dorothy, severely, "I do not want to hear any more about dead people, or resurrected cats, or anything of that nature. What's gone is gone, and there's no use in continually referring to it."

At this significant moment, Claudius Tiberius paraded somewhat ostentatiously through the kitchen and went outdoors.

"You see, Miss?" asked Mrs. Smithers, with ill-concealed satisfaction. "Wot's gone ain't always gone for long, that's wot it ain't."

Dorothy retreated, followed by a sepulchral laugh which grated on her nerves. "Upon my word, dear," she said to Harlan, "I don't know how we're going to stand having that woman in the house. She makes me feel as if I were an undertaker, a grave digger, and a cemetery, all rolled into one."

"You're too imaginative," said Harlan, tenderly, stroking her soft cheek. He had not yet seen Mrs. Smithers.

"Perhaps," Dorothy admitted, "when she gets that pyramid of crape off her head, she'll seem more nearly human. Do you suppose she expects to wear it in the house all the time?"

"Miss Carr!"

The gaunt black shadow appeared in the doorway of the kitchen and the high, harsh voice shrilled imperiously across the yard.

"I'm coming," answered Dorothy, submissively, for in the tone there was that which instinctively impels obedience. "What is it?" she asked, when she entered the kitchen.

"Nothink. I only wants to know wot it is you're layin' out to 'ave for your-luncheon, if that's wot you call it."

"Poached eggs on toast, last night's cold potatoes warmed over, hot biscuits, jam, and tea."

Mrs. Smithers's articulate response resembled a cluck more closely than anything else.

"You can make biscuits, can't you?" went on Dorothy, hastily.

"I 'ave," responded Mrs. Smithers, dryly. "Begging your parding, Miss, but is that there feller sawin' wood out by the chicken coop your 'usband?"

"The gentleman in the yard," said Dorothy, icily, "is Mr. Carr."

"Be n't you married to 'im?" cried Mrs. Smithers, dropping a fork. "I understood as 'ow you was, else I wouldn't 'ave come. I was never one to--"

"I most assuredly am married to him," answered Dorothy, with due emphasis on the verb.

"Oh! 'E's the build of my youngest sister's poor dead 'usband; the one wot broke the tea set wot I give 'er over 'er poor 'ed. 'E can 'it powerful 'ard, can't 'e?"

Quite beyond speech, Dorothy went outdoors again, her head held high and a dangerous light in her eyes. To-morrow, or next week at the latest, should witness the forced departure of Mrs. Smithers. Mrs. Carr realised that the woman did not intend to be impertinent, and that the social forms of Judson Centre were not those of New York. Still, some things were unbearable.

The luncheon that was set before them, however, went far toward atonement. With the best intentions in the world, Dorothy's cooking nearly always went wide of the mark, and Harlan welcomed the change with unmistakable pleasure.

"I say, Dorothy," he whispered, as they rose from the table; "get on with her if you can. Anybody who can make such biscuits as these will go out of the house only over my dead body."

The latter part of the speech was unfortunate. "My surroundings are so extremely cheerful," remarked Dorothy, "that I've decided to spend the afternoon in the library reading Poe. I've always wanted to do it and I don't believe I'll ever feel any creepier than I do this blessed minute."

In spite of his laughing protest, she went into the library, locked the door, and curled up in Uncle Ebeneezer's easy chair with a well-thumbed volume of Poe, finding a two-dollar bill used in one place as a book mark. She read for some time, then took down another book, which opened of itself at "The Gold Bug."

The pages were thickly strewn with marginal comments in the fine, small, shaky hand she had learned to associate with Uncle Ebeneezer. The paragraph about the skull, in the tree above the treasure, had evidently filled the last reader with unprecedented admiration, for on the margin was written twice, in ink: "A very, very pretty idea."

She laughed aloud, for her thoughts since morning had been persistently directed toward things not of this world. "I'm glad I'm not superstitious," she thought, then jumped almost out of her chair at the sound of an ominous crash in the kitchen.

"I won't go," she thought, settling back into her place. "I'll let that old monument alone just as much as I can."

Upon the whole, it was just as well, for the "old monument" was on her bony knees, with her head and shoulders quite lost in the secret depths of the kitchen range. "I wonder," she was muttering, "where 'e could 'ave put it. It would 'ave been just like that old skinflint to 'ave 'id it in the stove!"

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