"Yours, Ebeneezer Judson."
"I knowed it," she said to herself, excitedly. "Ebeneezer was a hard man, but he always kep' his word. Dear me! What makes me so trembly!"
She removed all the bedclothes and pounded the pillows and mattress in vain, then turned her attention to the furniture. It was almost one o'clock when Mrs. Dodd finally retired, worn in body and jaded in spirit, but still far from discouraged.
"Ebeneezer must have mistook the room," she said to herself, "but how could he unless his mind was failin'? I've had this now, goin' on ten year."
In the night she dreamed of finding money in the bureau, and got up to see if by chance she had not received mysterious guidance from an unknown source. There was money in the bureau, sure enough, but it was only two worn copper cents wrapped in many thicknesses of old newspaper, and she went unsuspiciously back to bed.
"He's mistook the room," she breathed, drowsily, as she sank into troubled slumber, "an' to-morrer I'll have it changed. It's just as well I've scared them others off, if so be I have."
Mrs. Dodd's Third Husband
Insidiously, a single idea took possession of the entire household. Mrs. Smithers kept a spade near at hand and systematically dug, as opportunity offered. Dorothy became accustomed to an odorous lantern which stood near the back door in the daytime and bobbed about among the shrubbery at night.
There was definite method in the madness of Mrs. Smithers, however, for she had once seen the departed Mr. Judson going out to the orchard with a tin box under his arm and her own spade but partially concealed under his long overcoat. When he came back, he was smiling, which was so unusual that she forgot all about the box, and did not observe whether or not he had brought it back with him. Long afterward, however, the incident assumed greater significance.
"If I'd 'ave 'ad the sense to 'ave gone out there the next day," she muttered, "and 'ave seen where 'e 'ad dug, I might be a rich woman now, that's wot I might. 'E was a clever one, 'e was, and 'e's 'id it. The old skinflint wasn't doin' no work, 'e wasn't, and 'e lived on 'ere from year to year, a-payin' 'is bills like a Christian gent, and it stands to reason there's money 'id somewheres. Findin' is keepin', and it's for me to keep my 'ead shut and a sharp lookout. Them Carrs don't suspect nothink."
She was only half right, however. Harlan, lost in his book, was heedless of everything that went on around him, but Mrs. Dodd's reference to the diamond pin, and her own recollection of the money she had found in the bureau drawer, began to work stealthily upon Dorothy's mind, surrounded, as she was, by people who were continually thinking of the same thing.
Then, too, their funds were getting low. There was little to send to the sanitarium now, for eleven people, as students of domestic economics have often observed, eat more than one or two. Dick was also affected by the current financial depression, and at length conceived the idea that Uncle Ebeneezer's worldly goods were somewhere on the premises.
Mrs. Holmes spent a great deal of time in the attic, while the care-free children, utterly beyond control, rioted madly through the house. Dorothy discovered Mr. Perkins, the poet, half-way up the parlour chimney, and sat down to see what he would do when he came out and found her there. He had seemed somewhat embarrassed when he wiped the soot from his face, but had quickly explained that he was writing a poem on chimney-swallows and had come to a point where original research was essential.
Even Elaine, not knowing what she sought, began to investigate, idly enough, the furniture and hangings in her room, and Mrs. Dodd, eagerly seizing opportunities, was forever keen on the scent. Uncle Israel, owing to the poor state of his health, was one of the last to be affected by the surrounding atmosphere, but when he caught the idea, he made up for lost time.
He was up with the chickens, and invariably took a long afternoon nap, so that, during the night, there was bound to be a wakeful interval. Ordinarily, he took a sleeping potion to tide him over till morning, but soon decided that a little mild exercise with some pleasant purpose animating it, would be far better for his nerves.
Mrs. Dodd was awakened one night by the feeling that some one was in her room. A vague, mysterious Presence gradually made itself known. At first she was frightened, then the Presence wheezed, and reassured her. Across the path of moonlight that lay on her floor, Uncle Israel moved cautiously.
He was clad in a piebald dressing-gown which had been so patched with various materials that the original fabric was uncertain. An old-fashioned nightcap was on his head, the tassel bobbing freakishly in the back, and he wore carpet slippers.
Mrs. Dodd sat up in bed, keenly relishing the situation. When he opened a bureau drawer, she screamed out: "What are you looking for?"
Uncle Israel started violently. "Money," he answered, in a shrill whisper, taken altogether by surprise.
"Then," said Mrs. Dodd, kindly, "I'll get right up and help you!"
"Don't, Belinda," pleaded the old man. "You'll wake up everybody. I am a-walkin' in my sleep, I guess. I was a-dreamin' of money that I was to find and give to you, and I suppose that's why I've come to your room. You lay still, Belinda, and don't tell nobody. I am a-goin' right away."
Before she could answer in a way that seemed suitable, he was gone, and the next day he renewed his explanations. "I dunno, Belinda, how I ever come to be a-walkin' in my sleep. I ain't never done such a thing since I was a child, and then only wunst. How dretful it would have been if I had gone into any other room and mebbe have been shot or have scared some young and unprotected female into fits. To think of me, with my untarnished reputation, and at my age, a-doin' such a thing! You don't reckon it was my new pain-killer, do you?"
"I don't misdoubt it had sunthin' to do with payin'," returned Mrs. Dodd, greatly pleased with her own poor joke, "an', as you say, it might have been dretful. But I am a friend to you, Israel, an' I don't 'low to make your misfortune public, but, by workin' private, help you overcome it."
"What air you a-layin' out to do?" demanded Uncle Israel, fearfully.
"I ain't rightly made up my mind as yet, Israel," she answered, pleasantly enough, "but I don't intend to have it happen to you again. Sunthin' can surely be done that'll cure you of it."
"Don't, Belinda," wheezed her victim; "I don't think I'll ever have it again."
"Don't you fret about it, Israel, 'cause you ain't goin' to have it no more. I'll attend to it. It 's a most distressin' disease an' must be took early, but I think I know how to fix it."
During her various investigations, she had found a huge bunch of keys beneath a pile of rubbish on the floor of a closet in an unoccupied room. It was altogether possible, as she told herself, that one of these keys should fit the somnambulist's door.
While Uncle Israel was brewing a fresh supply of medicine on the kitchen stove, she found, as she had suspected that one of them did fit, and thereafter, every night, when Uncle Israel had retired, she locked him in, letting him out shortly after seven each morning. When he remonstrated with her, she replied, triumphantly, that it was necessary—otherwise he would never have known that the door was locked.
On her first visit to "town" she made it her business to call upon Lawyer Bradford and inquire as to Mr. Judson's last will and testament. She learned that it did not concern her at all, and was to be probated, in accordance with the dead man's instructions, at the Fall term of court.
"Then, as yet," she said, with a gleam of satisfaction in her small, beady eyes, "they ain't holdin' the house legal. Any of us has the same right to stay as them Carrs."
"That's as you look at it," returned Mr. Bradford, squirming uneasily in his chair.
Try as she might, she could extract no further information, but she at least had a bit of knowledge to work on. She went back, earnestly desiring quiet, that she might study the problem without hindrance, but, unfortunately for her purpose, the interior of the Jack-o'-Lantern resembled pandemonium let loose.
Willie was sliding down the railing part of the time, and at frequent intervals coasting downstairs on Mrs. Smithers's tea tray, vocally expressing his pleasure with each trip. The twins, seated in front of the library door, were pounding furiously on a milk-pan, which had not been empty when they dragged it into the hall, but was now. Mrs. Smithers was singing: "We have our trials here below, Oh, Glory, Hallelujah," and a sickening odour from a fresh concoction of Uncle Israel's permeated the premises. Having irreverently detached the false front from the keys of the melodeon, Mr. Perkins was playing a sad, funereal composition of his own, with all the power of the instrument turned loose on it. Upstairs, Dick was whistling, with shrill and maddening persistence, and Dorothy, quite helpless, sat miserably on the porch with her fingers in her ears.
Harlan burst out of the library, just as Mrs. Dodd came up the walk, his temper not improved by stumbling over the twins and the milk-pan, and above their united wails loudly censured Dorothy for the noise and confusion. "How in the devil do you expect me to work?" he demanded, irritably. "If you can't keep the house quiet, I'll go back to New York!"
Too crushed in spirit to reply, Dorothy said nothing, and Harlan whisked back into the library again, barely escaping Mrs. Dodd.
"Poor child," she said to Dorothy; "you look plum beat out."
"I am," confessed Mrs. Carr, the quick tears coming to her eyes.
"There, there, my dear, rest easy. I reckon this is the first time you've been married, ain't it?"
"Yes," returned Dorothy, forcing a pitiful little smile.
"I thought so. Now, when you're as used to it as I be, you won't take it so hard. You may think men folks is all different, but there's a dretful sameness to 'em after they've been through a marriage ceremony. Marriage is just like findin' a new penny on the walk. When you first see it, it's all shiny an' a'most like gold, an' it tickles you a'most to pieces to think you're gettin' it, but after you've picked it up you see that what you've got is half wild Indian, or mebbe more—I ain't never been in no mint. You may depend upon it, my dear, there's two sides to all of us, an' before marriage, you see the wreath—afterwards a savage.
"I've had seven of 'em," she continued, "an' I know. My father give me a cemetery lot for a weddin' present, with a noble grey marble monumint in it shaped like a octagon—leastways that's what a school-teacher what boarded with us said it was, but I call it a eight-sided piece. I'm speakin' of my first marriage now, my dear. My father never give me no weddin' present but the once. An' I can't never marry again, 'cause there's a husband lyin' now on seven sides of the monumint an' only one place left for me. I was told once that I could have further husbands cremationed an' set around the lot in vases, but I don't take to no such heathenish custom as that.
"So I've got to go through my declinin' years without no suitable companion an' I call it hard, when one's so used to marryin' as what I be."
"If they're all savages," suggested Dorothy, "why did you keep on marrying?"
"Because I hadn't no other way to get my livin' an' I was kinder in the habit of it. There's some little variety, even in savages, an' it's human natur' to keep on a-hopin.' I've had 'em stingy an' generous, drunk an' sober, peaceful an' disturbin'. After the first few times, I learned to take real pleasure out'n their queer notions. When you've learned to enjoy seein' your husband make a fool of himself an' have got enough self-control not to tell him he's doin' it, nor to let him see where your pleasure lies, you've got marryin' down to a fine point.
"The third time, it was, I got a food crank, an' let me tell you right now, my dear, them's the worst kind. A man what's queer about his food is goin' to be queerer about a'most everything else. Give me any man that can eat three square meals a day an' enjoy 'em, an' I'll undertake to live with him peaceful, but I don't go to the altar again with no food crank, if I know it.
"It was partly my own fault, too, as I see later. I'd seen him a-carryin' a passel of health food around in his pocket an' a-nibblin' at it, but I supposed it was because the poor creeter had never had no one to cook proper for him, an' I took a lot of pleasure out of thinkin' how tickled he'd be when I made him one of my chicken pies.
"After we was married, we took a honeymoon to his folks, an' I'll tell you right now, my dear, that if there was more honeymoons took beforehand to each other's folks, there'd be less marryin' done than what there is. They was all a-eatin' hay an' straw an' oats just like the dumb creeters they disdained, an' a-carryin' wheat an' corn around in their pockets to piece out with between greens.
"So the day we got home, never knowin' what I was a-stirrin' up for myself, I turned in an' made a chicken an' oyster pie, an' it couldn't be beat, not if I do say it as shouldn't. The crust was as soft an' flaky an' brown an' crisp at the edges as any I ever turned out, an' the inside was all chicken an' oysters well-nigh smothered in a thick, creamy yellow gravy.
"Well, sir, I brung in that pie, an' I set it on the table, an' I chirped out that dinner was ready, an' he come, an'—my dear! You never saw such goins'-on in all your born days! Considerin' that not eatin' animals makes people's dispositions mild an' pleasant, it was sunthin' terrible, an' me all the time as innercent as a lamb!
"I can't begin to tell you the things my new-made husband said to me. If chickens an' oysters was human, I'll bet they'd have sued him for slander. He said that oysters was 'the scavengers of the sea'—yes'm, them's his very words, an' that chickens was even worse. He went on to tell me how they et worms an' potato bugs an' beetles an' goodness knows what else, an' that he wa'n't goin' to turn the temple of his body into no slaughter-house. He asked me if I desired to eat dead animals, an' when he insisted on an answer, I told him I certainly shouldn't care to eat 'em less'n they was dead, and from then on it was worse 'n ever.
"He said that no dead animal was goin' to be interred in the insides of him or his lawful wife, an' he was goin' to see to it. It come out then that he'd never tasted meat an' hadn't rightly sensed what he was missin'.
"Well, my dear, some women would have took the wrong tack an' would have argyfied with him. There's never no use in argyfyin' with a husband, an' never no need to, 'cause if you're set on it, there's all the rest of the world to choose from. When he'd talked himself hoarse an' was beginnin' to calm down again, I took the floor.
"'Say no more,' says I, calm an' collected-like. 'This here is your house an' the things you're accustomed to eatin' can be cooked in it, no matter what they be. If I don't know how to put the slops together, I reckon I can learn, not being a plum idjit. If you want baked chicken feed and boiled hay, I'm here to bake 'em and boil 'em for you. All you have to do is to speak once in a polite manner and it'll be done. I must insist on the politeness, howsumever,' says I. 'I don't propose to live with any man what gets the notion a woman ceases to be a lady when she marries him. A creeter that thinks so poor of himself as that ain't fit to be my husband,' says I, 'nor no other decent woman's.'
"At that he apologised some, an' when a husband apologises, my dear, it's the same as if he'd et dirt at your feet. 'The least said the soonest mended,' says I, an' after that, he never had nothin' to complain of.
"But I knowed what his poor, cranky system needed, an' I knowed how to get it into him, especially as he'd never tasted meat in all his life. From that time on, he never saw no meat on our table, nor no chickens, nor sea scavengers, nor nothin', but all day, while he was gone, I was busy with my soup pot, a-makin' condensed extracts of meat for flavourin' vegetables an' sauces an' so on.
"He took mightily to my cookin' an' frequently said he'd never et such exquisite victuals. I'd make cream soups for him, an' in every one, there'd be over a cupful of solid meat jelly, as rich as the juice you find in the pan when you cook a first-class roast of beef. I'd stew potatoes in veal stock, and cook rice slow in water that had had a chicken boiled to rags in it. Once I put a cupful of raw beef juice in a can of tomatoes I was cookin' and he et a'most all of 'em.
"As he kep' on havin' more confidence in me, I kep' on usin' more an' more, an' a-usin' oyster liquor for flavourin' in most everything durin' the R months. Once he found nearly a bushel of clam-shells out behind the house an' wanted to know what they was an' what they was doin' there. I told him the fish man had give 'em to me for a border for my flower beds, which was true. I'd only paid for the clams—there wa'n't nothin' said about the shells—an' the juice from them clams livened up his soup an' vegetables for over a week. There wa'n't no day that he didn't have the vital elements of from one to four pounds of meat put in his food, an' all the time, he was gettin' happier an' healthier an' more peaceful to live with. When he died, he was as mild as a spring lamb with mint sauce on it.
"Now, my dear, some women would have told him what they was doin', either after he got to likin' the cookin' or when he was on his death-bed an' couldn't help himself, but I never did. I own that it took self-control not to do it, but I'd learned my lesson from havin' been married twicet before an' never havin' fit any to speak of. I had to take my pleasure from seein' him eat a bowl of rice that had a whole chicken in it, exceptin' only the bones and fibres of its mortal frame, an' a-lappin' up mebbe a pint of tomato soup that was founded on eight nice pork chops. I'm a-tellin' you all this merely to show you my point. Every day, Henry was makin' a blame fool of himself without knowin' it. He'd prattle by the hour of slaughter-houses an' human cemeteries an' all the time he'd be honin' for his next meal.
"He used to say as how it was dretful wicked to kill the dumb animals for food, an' I allers said that there was nothin' to hinder his buyin' as many as he could afford to an' savin' their lives by pennin' 'em up in the back yard, an' a-feedin' 'em the things they liked best to eat till they died of old age or sunthin'. I told him they was all vegetarians, the same as he was, an' they could live together peaceful an' happy. I even pointed out that it was his duty to do it, an' that if all believers would do the same, the dread slaughter-houses would soon be a thing of the past, but I ain't never seen no food crank yet that's advanced that far in his humanity.
"I never told him a single word about it, nor even hinted it to him, nor told nobody else, though I often felt wicked to think I was keepin' so much pleasure to myself, but my time is comin'.
"When I'm dead an' have gone to heaven, the first thing I'm goin' to do is to hunt up Henry. They say there ain't no marriage nor givin' in marriage up there, but I reckon there's seven men there that'll at least recognise their wife when they see her a-comin' in. I'm goin' to pick up my skirts an' take off my glasses, so's I'll be all ready to skedaddle, for I expect to leave my rheumatiz behind me, my dear, when I go to heaven—leastways, no place will be heaven for me that's got rheumatiz in it—an' then I'm goin' to say: 'Henry, in all the four years you was livin' with me, you was eatin' meat, an' you never knowed it. You're nothin' but a human cemetery.' Oh, my dear, it's worth while dyin' when you know you're goin' to have pleasure like that at the other end!"
Her Gift to the World
"I regret, my dear madam," said Lawyer Bradford, twisting uneasily in his chair, "that I can offer you no encouragement whatsoever. The will is clear and explicit in every detail, and there are no grounds for a contest. I am, perhaps, trespassing upon the wishes of my client in giving you this information, but if you are remaining here with the hope of pecuniary profit, you are remaining here unnecessarily."
He rose as though to indicate that the interview was at an end, but Mrs. Holmes was not to be put away in that fashion. Her eyes were blazing and her weak chin trembled with anger.
"Do you mean to tell me," she demanded, "that Ebeneezer voluntarily died without making some sort of provision for me and my helpless little children?"
"Your distinguished relation," answered Mr. Bradford, slowly, "certainly died voluntarily. He announced the date of his death some weeks before it actually occurred, and superintended the making of his own coffin. He wrote out minute directions for his obsequies, had his grave dug, and his shroud made, burned his papers, rearranged his books, made his will—and was found dead in his bed on the morning of the day set for his departure. A methodical person," muttered the old man, half to himself; "a most methodical and systematic person."
Mrs. Holmes shuddered. She was not ordinarily a superstitious woman, but there was something uncanny in this open partnership with Death.
"There was a diamond pin," she suggested, moodily, "worth, I should think, some fifteen or sixteen hundred dollars. Ebeneezer gave it to dear Rebecca on their wedding day, and she always said it was to be mine. Have you any idea where it is?"
Mr. Bradford fidgeted. "If it was intended for you," he said, finally, "it will be given to you at the proper time, or you will be directed to its location. Mrs. Judson died, did she not, about three weeks after their marriage?"
"Yes," snapped Mrs. Holmes, readily perceiving the line of his thought, "and I saw her twice in those three weeks. Both times she spoke of the pin, which she wore constantly, and said that if anything happened to her, she wanted me to have it, but that old miser hung on to it."
"Madam," said Mr. Bradford, a faint flush mounting to his temples as he opened the office door, "you are speaking of my Colonel, under whom I served in the war. He was my best friend, and though he is dead, it is still my privilege to protect him. I bid you good afternoon!"
She did not perceive until long afterward that she had practically been ejected from the legal presence. Even then, she was so intent upon the point at issue that she was not offended, as at another time she certainly would have been.
"He's lying," she said to herself, "they're all lying. There's money hidden in that house, and I know it, and what's more, I'm going to have it!"
She had searched her own rooms on the night of her arrival, but found nothing, and the attic, so far, had yielded her naught save discouragement and dust. "To think," she continued, mentally, "that after two of my children were born here and named for them, that we are left in this way! I call it a shame, a disgrace, an outrage!"
Her anger swiftly cooled, however, as she went into the house, and her fond sight rested upon her darlings. Willie had a ball and had already broken two of the front windows. The small Rebecca was under the sofa, tempering the pleasure of life for Claudius Tiberius, while young Ebeneezer, having found a knife somewhere, was diligently scratching the melodeon.
"Just look," said Mrs. Holmes, in delighted awe, as Dorothy entered the room. "Don't make any noise, or you will disturb Ebbie. He is such a sensitive child that the sound of a strange voice will upset him. Did you ever see anything like those figures he is drawing on the melodeon? I believe he's going to be an artist!"
Crushed as she was in spirit by her uncongenial surroundings, Dorothy still had enough temper left to be furiously angry. In these latter days, however, she had gained largely in self-control, and now only bit her lips without answering.
But Mrs. Holmes would not have heard her, even if she had replied. A sudden yowl from the distressed Claudius impelled Dorothy to move the sofa and rescue him.
"How cruel you are!" commented Mrs. Holmes. "The idea of taking Rebbie's plaything away from her! Give it back this instant!"
Mrs. Carr put the cat out and returned with a defiant expression on her face, which roused Mrs. Holmes to action. "Willie," she commanded, "go out and get the kitty for your little sister. There, there, Rebbie, darling, don't cry any more! Brother has gone to get the kitty. Don't cry!"
But "brother" had not gone. "Chase it yourself," he remarked, coolly. "I'm going out to the barn."
"Dear Willie's individuality is developing every day," Mrs. Holmes went on, smoothly. "There, there, Rebbie, don't cry any more. Go and tell Mrs. Smithers to give you a big piece of bread with lots of butter and jam on it. Tell her mamma said so. Run along, that's a nice little girl."
Rude squares, triangles, and circles appeared as by magic on the shining surface of the melodeon, the young artist being not at all disturbed by the confusion about him.
"I am blessed in my children," Mrs. Holmes went on, happily. "I often wonder what I have done that I should have so perfect a boy as Willie for my very own. Everybody admires him so that I dwell in constant fear of kidnappers."
"I wouldn't worry," said Dorothy, with ill-concealed sarcasm. "Anybody who took him would bring him back inside of two hours."
"I try to think so," returned the mother, with a deep sigh. "Willie's indomitable will is my deepest comfort. He gets it from my side of the family. None of the children take after their father at all. Ebbie was a little like his father's folks at first, but I soon got it out of him and made him altogether like my people. I do not think anybody could keep Willie away from me except by superior physical force. He absolutely adores his mother, as my other children do. You never saw such beautiful sentiment as they have. The other day, now, when I went away and left Rebbie alone in my apartment, she took down my best hat and put it on. The poor little thing wanted to be near her mother. Is it not touching?"
"It is indeed," Dorothy assented, dryly.
"My children have never been punished," continued Mrs. Holmes, now auspiciously launched upon her favourite theme. "It has never been necessary. I rule them entirely through love, and they are so accustomed to my methods that they bitterly resent any interference by outsiders. Why, just before we came here, Ebbie, young as he is, put out the left eye of a woman who tried to take his dog away from him. He did it with his little fist and with apparently no effort at all. Is it not wonderful to see such strength and power of direction in one so young? The woman was in the hospital when we came away, and I trust by this time, she has learned not to interfere with Ebbie. No one is allowed to interfere with my children."
"Apparently not," remarked Mrs. Carr, somewhat cynically.
"It is beautiful to be a mother—the most beautiful thing on earth! Just think how much I have done for the world!" Her sallow face glowed with the conscious virtue bestowed by one of the animal functions upon those who have performed it.
"In what way?" queried Mrs. Carr, wholly missing the point.
"Why, in raising Willie and Ebbie and Rebbie! No public service can for a moment be compared with that! All other things sink into insignificance beside the glorious gift of maternity. Look at Willie—a form that a sculptor might dream of for a lifetime and never hope to imitate—a head that already has inspired great artists! The gentleman who took Willie's last tintype said that he had never seen such perfect lines, and insisted on taking several for fear something should happen to Willie. He wanted to keep some of them for himself—it was pathetic, the way he pleaded, but I made him sell me all of them. Willie is mine and I have the first right to his tintypes. And a lady once painted Willie at his play in black and white and sent it to one of the popular weeklies. I have no doubt they gave her a fortune for it, but it never occurred to her to give us anything more than one copy of the paper."
"Which paper was it?"
"One of the so-called comic weeklies. You know they publish superb artistic things. I think they are doing a wonderful work in educating the masses to a true appreciation of art. One of the wonderful parts of it was that Willie knew all about it and was not in the least conceited. Any other child would have been set up at being a model for a great artist, but Willie was not affected at all. He has so much character!"
At this point the small Rebecca entered, dragging her doll by one arm, and munching a thick slice of bread, thinly coated with molasses.
"I distinctly said jam," remarked Mrs. Holmes. "Servants are so heedless. I do not know that molasses is good for Rebbie. What would you think, Mrs. Carr?"
"I don't think it will hurt her if she doesn't get too much of it."
"There's no danger of her getting too much of it. Mrs. Smithers is too stingy for that. Why, only yesterday, Willie told me that she refused to let him dip his dry bread in the cream, and gave him a cup of plain milk instead. Willie knows when his system needs cream and I want him to have all the nourishment he can get. The idea that she should think she knew more about it than Willie! She was properly punished for it, however. I myself saw Willie throw a stick of stove wood at her and hit her foolish head with it. I think Willie is going to be a soldier, a commander of an army. He has so much executive ability and never misses what he aims at.
"Rebbie, don't chew on that side, darling; remember your loose tooth is there. Mamma doesn't want it to come out."
"Why?" asked Dorothy, with a gleam of interest.
"Because I can't bear to have her little baby teeth come out and make her grow up! I want to keep her just as she is. I have all my children's teeth, and some day I am going to have them set into a beautiful bracelet. Look at that! How generous and unselfish of Rebbie! She is trying to share her bread with her doll. I believe Rebbie is going to be a philanthropist, or a college-settlement worker. See, she is trying to give the doll the molasses—the very best part of it. Did you ever see such a beautiful spirit in one so young?"
Before Mrs. Carr could answer, young Ebeneezer had finished his wood carving and had grabbed his protesting twin by the hair.
"There, there, Rebbie," soothed the mother, "don't cry. Brother was only loving little sister. Be careful, Ebbie. You can take hold of sister's hair, but not too hard. They love each other so," she went on. "Ebbie is really sentimental about Rebbie. He loves to touch and stroke her glorious blonde hair. Did you ever see such hair as Rebbie's?"
It came into Mrs. Carr's mind that "Rebbie's" hair looked more like a plate of cold-slaw than anything else, but she was too wise to put the thought into words.
Willie slid down the railing and landed in the hall with a loud whoop of glee. "How beautiful to hear the sounds of childish mirth," said Mrs. Holmes. "How——"
From upstairs came a cry of "Help! Help!"
Muffled though the voice was, it plainly issued from Uncle Israel's room, and under the impression that the bath cabinet had finally set the house on fire, Mrs. Carr ran hastily upstairs, followed closely by Mrs. Holmes, who was flanked at the rear by the grinning Willie and the interested twins.
From a confused heap of bedding, Uncle Israel's scarlet ankles waved frantically. "Help! Help!" he cried again, his voice being almost wholly deadened by the pillows, which had fallen on him after the collapse.
Dorothy helped the trembling old man to his feet. He took a copious draught from the pain-killer, then sat down on his trunk, much perturbed.
Investigation proved that the bed cord had been cut in a dozen places by some one working underneath, and that the entire structure had instantly caved in when Uncle Israel had crept up to the summit of his bed and lain down to take his afternoon nap. When questioned, Willie proudly admitted that he had done it.
"Go down and ask Mrs. Smithers for the clothes-line," commanded Dorothy, sternly.
"I won't," said Willie, smartly, putting his hands in his pockets.
"You had better go yourself, Mrs. Carr," suggested Mrs. Holmes. "Willie is tired. He has played hard all day and needs rest. He must not on any account over-exert himself, and, besides, I never allow any one else to send my children on errands. They obey me and me alone."
"Go yourself," said Willie, having gathered encouragement from the maternal source.
"I'll go," wheezed Uncle Israel. "I can't sleep in no other bed. Ebeneezer's beds is all terrible drafty, and I took two colds at once sleepin' in one of 'em when I knowed better 'n to try it." He tottered out of the room, the very picture of wretchedness.
"Was it not clever of Willie?" whispered Mrs. Holmes, admiringly, to Dorothy. "So much ingenuity—such a fine sense of humor!"
"If he were my child," snapped Dorothy, at last losing her admirable control of a tempestuous temper, "he'd be soundly thrashed at least three times a week!"
"I do not doubt it," replied Mrs. Holmes, contemptuously. "These married old maids, who have no children of their own, are always wholly out of sympathy with a child's nature."
"When I was young," retorted Mrs. Carr, "children were not allowed to rule the entire household. There was a current superstition to the effect that older people had some rights."
"And yet," Mrs. Holmes continued, meditatively, "as the editor of The Ladies' Own so pertinently asks, what is a house for if not to bring up a child in? The purpose of architecture is defeated, where there are no children."
Uncle Israel, accompanied by Dick, hobbled into the room with the clothes-line. Mrs. Holmes discreetly retired, followed by her offspring, and, late in the afternoon, when Dorothy and Dick were well-nigh fagged out, the structure was in place again. Tremulously the exhausted owner lay down upon it, and asked that his supper be sent to his room.
By skilful manoeuvring with Mrs. Smithers, Dick compelled the proud-spirited Willie to take up Uncle Israel's tray and wait for it. "I'll tell my mother," whimpered the sorrowful one.
"I hope you will," replied Dick, significantly; but for some reason of his own, Willie neglected to mention it.
At dinner-time, Mr. Perkins drew a rolled manuscript, tied with a black ribbon, from his breast pocket, and, without preliminary, proceeded to read as follows:
TO THE MEMORY OF EBENEEZER JUDSON
A face we loved has vanished, A voice we adored is now still, There is no longer any music In the tinkling rill.
His hat is empty of his head, His snuff-box has no sneezer, His cane is idle in the hall For gone is Ebeneezer.
Within the house we miss him, Let fall the sorrowing tear, Yet shall we gather as was our wont Year after sunny year.
He took such joy in all his friends That he would have it so; He left his house to relatives But none of us need go.
In fact, we're all related, Sister, friend, and brother; And in this hour of our grief We must console each other.
He would not like to have us sad, Our smiles were once his pleasure And though we cannot smile at him, His memory is our treasure.
When he had finished, there was a solemn silence, which was at last relieved by Mrs. Dodd. "Poetry broke out in my first husband's family," she said, "but with sulphur an' molasses an' quinine an' plenty of wet-sheet packs it was finally cured."
"You do not understand," said the poet, indulgently. "Your aura is not harmonious with mine."
"Your—what?" demanded Mrs. Dodd, pricking up her ears.
"My aura," explained Mr. Perkins, flushing faintly. "Each individuality gives out a spiritual vapour, like a cloud, which surrounds one. These are all in different colours, and the colours change with the thoughts we think. Black and purple are the gloomy, morose colours; deep blue and the paler shades show a sombre outlook on life; green is more cheerful, though still serious; yellow and orange show ambition and envy, and red and white are emblematic of all the virtues—red of the noble, martial qualities of man and white of the angelic disposition of woman," he concluded, with a meaning glance at Elaine, who had been much interested all along.
"What perfectly lovely ideas," she said, in a tone which made Dick's blood boil. "Are they original with you, Mr. Perkins?"
The poet cleared his throat. "I cannot say that they are wholly original with me," he admitted, reluctantly, "though of course I have modified and amplified them to accord with my own individuality. They are doing wonderful things now in the psychological laboratories. They have a system of tubes so finely constructed that by breathing into one of them a person's mental state is actually expressed. An angry person, breathing into one of these finely organised tubes, makes a decided change in the colour of the vapour."
"Humph!" snorted Mrs. Dodd, pushing back her chair briskly. "I've been married seven times, an' I never had to breathe into no tube to let any of my husbands know when I was mad!"
The poet crimsoned, but otherwise ignored the comment. "If you will come into the parlour just as twilight is falling," he said to the others, "I will gladly recite my ode on Spring."
Subdued thanks came from the company, though Harlan excused himself on the score of his work, and Mrs. Holmes was obliged to put the twins to bed. When twilight fell, no one was at the rendezvous but Elaine and the poet.
"It is just as well," he said, in a low tone. "There are several under dear Uncle Ebeneezer's roof who are afflicted with an inharmonious aura. With yours only am I in full accord. It is a great pleasure to an artist to feel such beautiful sympathy with his work. Shall I say it now?"
"If you will," murmured Elaine, deeply honoured by acquaintance with a real poet.
Mr. Perkins drew his chair close to hers, leaned over with an air of loving confidence, and began:
Spring, oh Spring, dear, gentle Spring, My poet's garland do I bring To lay upon thy shining hair Where rests a wreath of flowers so fair. There is a music in the brook Which answers to thy tender look And in thy eyes there is a spell Of soft enchantment too sweet to tell. My heart to thine shall ever turn For thou hast made my soul to burn With rapture far beyond——
Elaine screamed, and in a twinkling was on her chair with her skirts gathered about her. It was only Claudius Tiberius, dressed in Rebecca's doll's clothes, scooting madly toward the front door, but it served effectually to break up the entertainment.
A Sensitive Soul
Uncle Israel was securely locked in for the night, and was correspondingly restless. He felt like a caged animal, and sleep, though earnestly wooed, failed to come to his relief. A powerful draught of his usual sleeping potion had been like so much water, as far as effect was concerned.
At length he got up, his lifelong habit of cautious movement asserting itself even here, and with tremulous, withered hands, lighted his candle. Then he put on his piebald dressing-gown and his carpet slippers, and sat on the declivity of his bed, blinking at the light, as wide awake as any owl.
Presently it came to him that he had not as yet made a thorough search of his own apartment, so he began at the foundation, so to speak, and crawled painfully over the carpet, paying special attention to the edges. Next, he fingered the baseboards carefully, rapping here and there, as though he expected some significant sound to penetrate his deafness. Rising, he went over the wall systematically, and at length, with the aid of a chair, reached up to the picture-moulding. He had gone nearly around the room, without any definite idea of what he was searching for, when his questioning fingers touched a small, metallic object.
A smile of childlike pleasure transfigured Uncle Israel's wizened old face. Trembling, he slipped down from the chair, falling over the bath cabinet in his descent, and tried the key in the lock. It fitted, and the old man fairly chuckled.
"Wait till I tell Belinda," he muttered, delightedly. Then a crafty second thought suggested that it might be wiser to keep "Belinda" in the dark, lest she might in some way gain possession of the duplicate key.
"Lor'," he thought, "but how I pity them husbands of her'n. Bet their graves felt good when they got into 'em, the hull seven graves. What with sneerin' at medicines and things a person eats, it must have been awful, not to mention stealin' of keys and a-lockin' 'em in nights. S'pose the house had got afire, where'd I be now?" Grasping his treasure closely, Uncle Israel blew out his candle and tottered to bed, thereafter sleeping the sleep of the just.
Mrs. Dodd detected subdued animation in his demeanour when he appeared at breakfast the following morning, and wondered what had occurred.
"You look 's if sunthin' pleasant had happened, Israel," she began in a sprightly manner.
"Sunthin' pleasant has happened," he returned, applying himself to his imitation coffee with renewed vigour. "I disremember when I've felt so good about anythin' before."
"Something pleasant happens every day," put in Elaine. The country air had made roses bloom on her pale cheeks. Her blue eyes had new light in them, and her golden hair fairly shone. She was far more beautiful than the sad, frail young woman who had come to the Jack-o'-Lantern not so many weeks before.
"How optimistic you are!" sighed Mr. Perkins, who was eating Mrs. Smithers's crisp, hot rolls with a very unpoetic appetite. "To me, the world grows worse every day. It is only a few noble souls devoted to the Ideal and holding their heads steadfastly above the mire of commercialism that keep our so-called civilisation from becoming an absolute hotbed of greed—yes, a hotbed of greed," he repeated, the words sounding unexpectedly well.
"Your aura seems to have a purple tinge this morning," commented Dorothy, slyly.
"What's a aura, ma?" demanded Willie, with an unusual thirst for knowledge.
"Something that goes with a soft person, Willie, dear," responded Mrs. Holmes, quite audibly. "You know there are some people who have no backbone at all, like the jelly-fish we saw at the seashore the year before dear papa died."
"I've knowed folks," continued Mrs. Dodd, taking up the wandering thread of the discourse, "what was so soft when they was little that their mas had to carry 'em around in a pail for fear they'd slop over and spile the carpet."
"And when they grew up, too," Dick ventured.
"Some people," said Harlan, in a polite attempt to change the conversation, "never grow up at all. Their minds remain at a fixed point. We all know them."
"Yes," sighed Mrs. Dodd, looking straight at the poet, "we all know them."
At this juncture the sensitive Mr. Perkins rose and begged to be excused. It was the small Ebeneezer who observed that he took a buttered roll with him, and gratuitously gave the information to the rest of the company.
Elaine flushed painfully, and presently excused herself, following the crestfallen Mr. Perkins to the orchard, where, entirely unsuspected by the others, they had a trysting-place. At intervals, they met, safely screened by the friendly trees, and communed upon the old, idyllic subject of poetry, especially as represented by the unpublished works of Harold Vernon Perkins.
"I cannot tell you, Mr. Perkins," Elaine began, "how deeply I appreciate your fine, uncommercial attitude. As you say, the world is sordid, and it needs men like you."
The soulful one ran his long, bony fingers through his mane of auburn hair, and assented with a pleased grunt. "There are few, Miss St. Clair," he said, "who have your fine discernment. It is almost ideal."
"Yet it seems too bad," she went on, "that the world-wide appreciation of your artistic devotion should not take some tangible form. Dollars may be vulgar and sordid, as you say, but still, in our primitive era, they are our only expression of value. I have even heard it said," she went on, rapidly, "that the amount of wealth honestly acquired by any individual was, after all, only the measure of his usefulness to his race."
"Miss St. Clair!" exclaimed the poet, deeply shocked; "do I understand that you are actually advising me to sell a poem?"
"Far from it, Mr. Perkins," Elaine reassured him. "I was only thinking that by having your work printed in a volume, or perhaps in the pages of a magazine, you could reach a wider audience, and thus accomplish your ideal of uplifting the multitude."
"I am pained," breathed the poet; "inexpressibly pained."
"Then I am sorry," answered Elaine. "I was only trying to help."
"To think," continued Mr. Perkins, bitterly, "of the soiled fingers of a labouring man, a printer, actually touching these fancies that even I hesitate to pen! Once I saw the fair white page of a book that had been through that painful experience. You never would have known it, my dear Miss St. Clair—it was actually filthy!"
"I see," murmured Elaine, duly impressed, "but are there not more favourable conditions?"
"I have thought there might be," returned the poet, after a significant silence, "indeed, I have prayed there might be. In some little nook among the pines, where the brook for ever sings and the petals of the apple blossoms glide away to fairyland upon its shining surface, while butterflies float lazily here and there, if reverent hands might put the flowering of my genius into a modest little book—I should be tempted, yes, sorely tempted."
"Dear Mr. Perkins," cried Elaine, ecstatically clapping her hands, "how perfectly glorious that would be! To think how much sweetness and beauty would go into the book, if that were done!"
"Additionally," corrected Mr. Perkins, with a slight flush.
"Yes, of course I mean additionally. One could smell the apple blossoms through the printed page. Oh, Mr. Perkins, if I only had the means, how gladly would I devote my all to this wonderful, uplifting work!"
The poet glanced around furtively, then drew closer to Elaine. "I may tell you," he murmured, "in strict confidence, something which my lips have never breathed before, with the assurance that it will be as though unsaid, may I not?"
"Indeed you may!"
"Then," whispered Mr. Perkins, "I am living in that hope. My dear Uncle Ebeneezer, though now departed, was a distinguished patron of the arts. Many a time have I read him my work, assured of his deep, though unexpressed sympathy, and, lulled by the rhythm of our spoken speech, he has passed without a jar from my dreamland to his own. I know he would never speak of it to any one—dear Uncle Ebeneezer was too finely grained for that—but still I feel assured that somewhere within the walls of that sorely afflicted house, a sum of—of money—has been placed, in the hope that I might find it and carry out this beautiful work."
"Have you hunted?" demanded Elaine, her eyes wide with wonder.
"No—not hunted. I beg you, do not use so coarse a word. It jars upon my poet's soul with almost physical pain."
"I beg your pardon," returned Elaine, "but——"
"Sometimes," interrupted the poet, in a low tone, "when I have felt especially near to Uncle Ebeneezer's spirit, I have barely glanced in secret places where I have felt he might expect me to look for it, but, so far, I have been wholly unsuccessful, though I know that I plainly read his thought."
"Some word—some clue—did he give you none?"
"None whatever, except that once or twice he said that he would see that I was suitably provided for. He intimated that he intended me to have a sum apportioned to my deserts."
"Which would be a generous one; but now—Oh, Mr. Perkins, how can I help you?"
"You have never suspected, have you," asked Mr. Perkins, colouring to his temples, "that the room you now occupy might once have been my own? Have no poet's dreams, lingering in the untenanted spaces, claimed your beauteous spirit in sleep?"
"Oh, Mr. Perkins, have I your room? I will so gladly give it up—I——"
The poet raised his hand. "No. The place where you have walked is holy ground. Not for the world would I dispossess you, but——"
A meaning look did the rest. "I see," said Elaine, quickly guessing his thought, "you want to hunt in my room. Oh, Mr. Perkins, I have thoughtlessly pained you again. Can you ever forgive me?"
"My thoughts," breathed Mr. Perkins, "are perhaps too finely phrased for modern speech. I would not trespass upon the place you have made your own, but——"
There was a brief silence, then Elaine understood. "I see," she said, submissively, "I will hunt myself. I mean, I will glance about in the hope that the spirit of Uncle Ebeneezer may make plain to me what you seek. And——"
"And," interjected the poet, quite practical for the moment, "whatever you find is mine, for it was once my room. It is only on account of Uncle Ebeneezer's fine nature and his constant devotion to the Ideal that he did not give it to me direct. He knew it would pain me if he did so. You will remember?"
"I will remember. You need not fear to trust me."
"Then let us shake hands upon our compact." For a moment, Elaine's warm, rosy hand rested in the clammy, nerveless palm of Harold Vernon Perkins. "Last night," he sighed, "I could not sleep. I was distressed by noises which appeared to emanate from the apartment of Mr. Skiles. Did you hear nothing?"
"Nothing," returned Elaine; "I sleep very soundly."
"The privilege of unpoetic souls," commented Mr. Perkins. "But, as usual, my restlessness was not without definite and beautiful result. In the still watches of the night, I achieved a—poem."
"Read it," cried Elaine, rapturously. "Oh, if I might hear it!"
Thus encouraged, Mr. Perkins drew a roll from his breast pocket. A fresh blue ribbon held it in cylindrical form, and the drooping ends waved in careless, artistic fashion.
"As you might expect, if you knew about such things," he began, clearing his throat, and all unconscious of the rapid approach of Mr. Chester, "it is upon sleep. It is done in the sonnet form, a very beautiful measure which I have made my own. I will read it now.
"SONNET ON SLEEP
"O Sleep, that fillst the human breast with peace, When night's dim curtains swing from out the West, In what way, in what manner, could we rest Were thy beneficent offices to cease? O Sleep, thou art indeed the snowy fleece Upon Day's lamb. A welcome guest That comest alike to palace and to nest And givest the cares of life a glad release. O Sleep, I beg thee, rest upon my eyes, For I am weary, worn, and sad,—indeed, Of thy great mercies have I piteous need So come and lead me off to Paradise."
His voice broke at the end, not so much from the intrinsic beauty of the lines as from perceiving Mr. Chester close at hand, grinning like the fabled pussy-cat of Cheshire, except that he did not fade away, leaving only the grin.
Elaine felt the alien presence and looked around. Woman-like, she quickly grasped the situation.
"I have been having a rare treat, Mr. Chester," she said, in her smoothest tones. "Mr. Perkins has very kindly been reading to me his beautiful Sonnet on Sleep, composed during a period of wakefulness last night. Did you hear it? Is it not a most unusual sonnet?"
"It is, indeed," answered Dick, dryly. "I never before had the privilege of hearing one that contained only twelve lines. Dante and Petrarch and Shakespeare and all those other ducks put fourteen lines in every blamed sonnet, for good measure."
Hurt to the quick, the sensitive poet walked away.
"How can you speak so!" cried Elaine, angrily. "Is not Mr. Perkins privileged to create a form?"
"To create a form, yes," returned Dick, easily, "but not to monkey with an old one. There's a difference."
Elaine would have followed the injured one had not Dick interfered. He caught her hand quickly, a new and unaccountable lump in his throat suddenly choking his utterance. "I say, Elaine," he said, huskily, "you're not thinking of hooking up with that red-furred lobster, are you?"
"I do not know," responded Elaine, with icy dignity, "what your uncouth language may mean, but I tolerate no interference whatever with my personal affairs." In a moment she was gone, and Dick watched the slender, pink-clad figure returning to the house with ill-concealed emotion.
All Summer, so far, he and Elaine had been good friends. They had laughed and joked and worked together in a care-free, happy-go-lucky fashion. The arrival of Mr. Perkins and his sudden admiration of Elaine had crystallised the situation. Dick knew now what caused the violent antics of his heart—a peaceful and well-behaved organ which had never before been so disturbed by a woman.
"I've got it," said Dick, to himself, deeply shamed. "Moonlight, poetry, mit-holding, and all the rest of it. Never having had it before, it's going hard with me. Why in the devil wasn't I taught to write doggerel when I was in college? A fellow don't stand any show nowadays unless he's a pocket edition of Byron."
He went on through the orchard at a run, instinctively healing a troubled mind by wearying the body. At the outer edge of it, he paused.
Suspended by a singularly strong bit of twine, a small, grinning skull hung from the lower branch of an apple tree, far out on the limb. "Cat's skull," thought Dick. "Wonder who hung it up there?"
He lingered, idly, for a moment or two, then observed that a small patch of grass directly underneath it was of that season's growth. His curiosity fully awake, he determined to dig a bit, though he had dug fruitlessly in many places since he came to the Jack-o'-Lantern.
"Uncle couldn't do anything conventional," he said to himself, "and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't want any of his relations to have his money. Here goes, just for luck!"
He went back to the barn for the spade, which already had fresh earth on it—the evidence of an early morning excavation privately made by Mrs. Smithers in a spot where she had dreamed gold was hidden. He went off to the orchard with it, whistling, his progress being furtively watched with great interest by the sour-faced handmaiden in the kitchen.
Back in the orchard again, he worked feverishly, possessed by a pleasant thrill of excitement, somewhat similar to that conceivably enlivening the humdrum existence of Captain Kidd. Dick was far from surprised when his spade struck something hard, and, his hands trembling with eagerness, he lifted out a tin box of the kind commonly used for private papers.
It was locked, but a twist of his muscular hands sufficed to break it open. Then he saw that it was a spring lock, and that, with grim, characteristic humour, Uncle Ebeneezer had placed the key inside the box. There were papers there—and money, the coins and bills being loosely scattered about, and the papers firmly sealed in an envelope addressed "To Whom it May Concern."
Dick counted the coins and smoothed out the bills, more puzzled than he had ever been in his life. He was tempted to open the envelope, but refrained, not at all sure that he was among those whom it concerned. For the space of half an hour he stood there, frowning, then he laughed.
"I'll just put it back," he said to himself. "It's not for me to monkey with Uncle Ebeneezer's purposes."
He buried the box in its old place, and even cut a bit of sod from a distant part of the orchard to hide the traces of his work. When all was smooth again, he went back to the barn, swinging the spade carelessly but no longer whistling.
"The old devil," he muttered, with keen appreciation. "The wise old devil!"
Mrs. Dodd's Fifth Fate
Morning lay fair upon the land, and yet the Lady Elaine was weary. Like a drooping lily she swayed in her saddle, sick at heart and cast down. Earnestly her company of gallant knights strove to cheer her, but in vain. Even the merry quips of the fool in motley, who still rode at her side, brought no smile to her beautiful face.
Presently, he became silent, his heart deeply troubled because of her. An hour passed so, and no word was spoken, then, timidly enough, he ventured another jest.
The Lady Elaine turned. "Say no more, fool," she commanded, "but get out thy writing tablet and compose me a poem. I would fain hear something sad and tender in place of this endless folly."
Le Jongleur bowed. "And the subject, Princess?"
Elaine laughed bitterly. "Myself," she cried. "Why not? Myself, Elaine, and this foolish quest of mine!"
Then, for a space, there was silence upon the road, since the fool, with his writing tablet, had dropped back to the rear of the company, and the gallant knights, perceiving the mood of their mistress, spoke not.
At noon, when the white sun trembled at the zenith, Le Jongleur urged his donkey forward, and presented to Elaine a glorious rose which he had found blooming at the wayside.
"The poem is finished, your highness," he breathed, doffing his cap, "but 'tis all unworthy, so I bring thee this rose also, that something in my offering may of a certainty be sweet."
He would have put the scroll into her hand, but she swerved her palfrey aside. "Read it," she said, impatiently; "I have no mind to try my wits with thy poor scrawls."
So, with his voice trembling, and overwhelmed with self-consciousness, the fool read as follows:
The vineyards, purple with their bloom, Elaine, hast thou forgotten? The maidens in thy lonely room, Thy tapestry on silent loom— But hush! Where is Elaine? Elaine, hast thou forgotten?
Thy castle in the valley lies, Elaine, hast thou forgotten? Where swift the homing swallow flies And in the sunset daylight dies— But hush! Where is Elaine? Elaine, hast thou forgotten?
Night comes at last on dreamy wings, Elaine, hast thou forgotten? 'Mid gleaming clouds the pale moon swings, Thy taper light a faint star brings, But hush! Where is Elaine? Elaine, hast thou forgotten?
Harlan had never written any poetry before, but it had always seemed easy. Now, as he read the verses over again, he was tremendously satisfied with his achievement. Unconsciously, he had modelled it upon an exquisite little bit by some one else, which had once been reprinted beneath a "story" of his own when he was on the paper. He read it aloud, to see how it sounded, and was more pleased than ever with the swing of the verse and the music of the words. "It's pretty close to art," he said to himself, "if it isn't the real thing."
Just then the luncheon bell rang, and he went out to the midday "gab-fest," as he inwardly characterised it. The meal proceeded to dessert without any unusual disturbance, then the diminutive Ebeneezer threw the remnants of his cup of milk into his mother's face, and was carried off, howling, to be spanked. Like many other mothers, Mrs. Holmes resented her children's conduct when it incommoded her, but not otherwise, and though milk baths are said to be fine for the complexion, she was not altogether pleased with the manner of application.
Amid the vocal pyrotechnics from the Holmes apartments, Harlan escaped into the library, but his poem was gone. He searched for it vainly, then sat down to write it over before he should forget it. This done, he went on with Elaine and her adventures, and presently forgot all about the lost page.
"Don't that do your heart good?" inquired Mrs. Dodd, of Dorothy, inclining her head toward Mrs. Holmes's door.
"Be it ever so humble," sang Dick, strolling out of the room, "there's no place like Holmes's."
Mrs. Carr admitted that her ears were not yet so calloused but that the sound gave her distinct pleasure.
"If that there little limb of Satan had have throwed his milk in anybody else's face," went on Mrs. Dodd, "all she'd have said would have been: 'Ebbie, don't spill your nice milk. That's naughty.'"
Her imitation of the fond mother's tone and manner was so wickedly exact that Dorothy laughed heartily. The others had fled to a more quiet spot, except Willie and Rebecca, who were fighting for a place at the keyhole of their mother's door. Finally, Willie gained possession of the keyhole, and the ingenious Rebecca, lying flat on her small stomach, peered under the door, and obtained a pleasing view of what was going on inside.
"Listen at that!" cried Mrs. Dodd, her countenance fairly beaming with innocent pleasure. "I'm gettin' most as much good out of it as I would from goin' to the circus. Reckon it's a slipper, for it sounds just like little Jimmie Young's weepin' did the night I come home from my fifth honeymoon.
"That's the only time," she went on, reminiscently, "as I was ever a step-ma to children what wasn't growed up. You'd think a woman as had been married four times afore would have knowed better 'n to get her fool head into a noose like that, but there seems to be only one way for folks to learn things, an' that's by their own experience. If we could only use other folks' experience, this here world would be heaven in about three generations, but we're so constituted that we never believe fire 'll burn till we poke our own fingers into it to see. Other folks' scars don't go no ways at all toward convincin' us.
"You read lots of novels about the sorrers of step-children, but I ain't never come up with no epic as yet portrayin' the sufferin's of a step-ma. If I had a talent like your husband's got, I'll be blest if I wouldn't do it. What I went through with them children aged me ten years in less 'n three.
"It was like this," she prattled on. "I'd never seen a one of 'em, they livin' far away from their pa, as was necessary if their pa was to get any peace an' happiness out 'n life, an' that lyin' creeter I married told me there was only three. My dear, there was eight, an' sixteen ordinary young ones couldn't have been no worse.
"Our courtin' was done mainly in the cemetery. I'd just laid my fourth away in his proper place an' had the letterin' all cut nice on his side of the monumint, an' I was doin' the plantin' on the grave when I met my fate—my fifth fate, I'm speakin' of now. I allers aimed to do right by my husbands when they was dead no less 'n when they was livin', an' I allers planted each one's favourite flower on his last restin'-place, an' planted it thick, so 's when the last trump sounded an' they all riz up, there wouldn't be no one of 'em that could accuse me of bein' partial.
"Some of the flowers was funny for a graveyard. One of 'em loved sunflowers, an' when blossomin'-time come, you could see a spot of light in my lot clear from the gate when you went in, an' on sunny days even from quite a piece outside.
"Geraniums was on the next grave, red an' pink together, as William loved to see 'em, an' most fittin' an' appropriate. He was a queer-lookin' man, William was, all bald except for a little fringe of red hair around his head, an' his bald spot gettin' as pink as anythin' when he got mad. I never could abide red an' pink together, so I did my best not to rile him; but la sakes, my dear, red-haired folks is that touchy that you never can tell what's goin' to rile 'em an' what ain't. Some innercent little remark is as likely to set 'em off as anythin' else. All the time it's like carryin' a light into a fireworks place. Drop it once an' the air 'll be full of sky-rockets, roman candles, pinwheels, an' set pieces till you're that dazed you don't know where you're livin'. Don't never take no red-haired one, my dear, if you're anyways set on peace. I never took but one, but that was enough to set me dead against the breed.
"Well, as I was a-sayin', James begun to woo me in the cemetery. Whenever you see a man in a cemetery, my dear, you can take it for granted that he's a new-made widower. After the first week or two, he ain't got no time to go to no grave, he's so busy lookin' out for the next one. When I see James a-waterin' an' a-weedin' on the next lot to mine, therefore, I knowed his sorrer was new, even though the band of crape on his hat was rusty an' old.
"Bein' fellow-mourners, in a way, we struck up kind of a melancholy friendship, an' finally got to borrerin' water from each other's sprinklin' cans an' exchangin' flower seeds an' slips, an' even hull plants. That old deceiver told me it was his first wife that was a-lyin' there, an' showed me her name on the monumint. She was buried in her own folks' lot, an' I never knowed till it was too late that his own lot was plum full of wives, an' this here was a annex, so to speak. I dunno how I come to be so took in, but anyways, when James's grief had subsided somewhat, we decided to travel on the remainin' stretch through this vale of tears together.
"He told me he had a beautiful home in Taylorville, but was a-livin' where he was so 's to be near the cemetery an' where he could look after dear Annie's grave. The sentiment made me think all the more of him, so 's I didn't hesitate, an' was even willin' to be married with one of my old rings, to save the expense of a new one. James allers was thrifty, an' the way he put it, it sounded quite reasonable, so 's that's how it comes, my dear, that in spite of havin' had seven husbands, I've only got six weddin'-rings.
"I put each one on when its own proper anniversary comes around an' wear it till the next one, when I change again, though for one of the rings it makes only one day, because the fourth and seventh times I was married so near together. That sounds queer, my dear, but if you think it over, you'll see what I mean. It's fortunate, too, in a way, 'cause I found out by accident years afterward that my fourth weddin'-ring come out of a pawn-shop, an' I never took much joy out of wearin' it. Bein' just alike, I wore another one mostly, even when Samuel was alive, but he never noticed. Besides, I reckon 't wouldn't make no difference, for a man that'll go to a pawn-shop for a weddin'-ring ain't one to make a row about his wife's changin' it. When I spoke sharp to him about it, he snickered, an' said it was appropriate enough, though to this day I've never figured out precisely just what the old serpent meant by it.
"Well, as I was sayin', my dear, the minister married us in good an' proper form, an' I must say that, though I've had all kinds of ceremonies, I take to the 'Piscopal one the most, in spite of havin' been brought up Methodis', an' hereafter I'll be married by it if the occasion should arise—an' we drove over to Taylorville.
"The roads was dretful, but bein' experienced in marriage, I could see that it wasn't that that was makin' James drop the whip, an' pull back on the lines when he wanted the horses to go faster, an' not hear things I was a-sayin' to him. Finally, I says, very distinct: 'James, dear, how many children did you say you had?'
"'Eight,' says he, clearin' his throat proud and haughty like.
"'You're lyin',' says I, 'an' you know you're lyin'. You allers told me you had three.'
"'I was speakin' of those by my first wife,' says he. 'My other wives all left one apiece. Ain't I never told you about 'em? I thought I had,' he went on, speakin' quick, 'but if I haven't, it 's because your beauty has made me forget all the pain an' sorrer of the past.'
"With that he clicked to the horses so sudden that I was near threw out of the rig, but it wasn't half so bad as the other jolt he'd just give me. For a long time I didn't say nothin', an' there's nothin' that makes a man so uneasy as a woman that don't say nothin', my dear, so you just write that down in your little book, an' remember it. It'll come in handy long before you're through with your first marriage an' have begun on your second. Havin' been through four, I was well skilled in keepin' my mouth shut, an' I never said a word till we drove into the yard of the most disconsolate-lookin' premises I ever seen since I was took to the poorhouse on a visit.
"'James,' says I, cool but firm, 'is this your magnificent residence?'
"'It is,' says he, very soft, 'an' it is here that I welcome my bride. Have you ever seen anythin' like this view?'
"'No,' says I, 'I never have'; an' it was gospel truth I was speakin', too, for never before had I been to a place where the pigsty was in front.
"'It is a wonderful view,' says I, sarcastic like, 'but before I linger to admire it more, I would love to look upon the scenery inside the house.'
"When we went in, I thought I was either dreamin' or had got to Bedlam. The seven youngest children was raisin' particular Cain, an' the oldest, a pretty little girl of thirteen, was doin' her best to quiet 'em. There was six others besides what had been accounted for, but I soon found that they belonged to a neighbour, an' was just visitin' to relieve the monotony.
"The woman James had left takin' care of 'em had been gone two weeks an' more, with a month's wages still comin' to her, which James never felt called on to pay, on account of her havin' left without notice. James was dretful thrifty. The youngest one was puttin' the cat into the water-pitcher, an' as soon as I found out what his name was, I called him sharp by it an' told him to quit. He put his tongue out at me as sassy as you please, an' says: 'I won't.'
"Well, my dear, I didn't wait to hear no more, but I opened my satchel an' took out one of my slippers an' give that child a lickin' that he'll remember when he's a grandparent. 'Hereafter,' says I, 'when I tell you to do anythin', you'll do it. I'll speak kind the first time an' firm the second, and the third time the whole thing will be illustrated so plain that nobody can't misunderstand it. Your pa has took me into a confidence game,' says I, speakin' to all the children, 'but I was never one to draw back from what I'd put my hand to, an' I aim to do right by you if you do right by me. You mind,' says I, 'an' you won't have no trouble; an' the same thing,' says I to James, 'applies to you.'
"I felt sorry for all those poor little motherless things, with a liar for a pa, an' all the time I lived there, I tried to make up to 'em what I could, but step-mas have their sorrers, my dear, that's what they do, an' I ain't never seen no piece about it in the paper yet, either.
"If you'll excuse me now, my dear, I'll go to my room. It's just come to my mind now that this here is one of my anniversaries, an' I'll have to look up the facts in my family Bible, an' change my ring."
At dinner-time the chastised and chastened twin appeared in freshly starched raiment. His eyes were swollen and his face flushed, but otherwise his recent painful experience had remarkably improved him. He said "please" and "thank you," and did not even resent it when Willie slyly dropped a small piece of watermelon down his neck.
"This afternoon," said Elaine, "Mr. Perkins composed a beautiful poem. I know it is beautiful, though I have not yet heard it. I do not wish to be selfish in my pleasure, so I will ask him to read it to us all."
The poet's face suddenly became the colour of his hair. He dropped his napkin, and swiftly whispered to Elaine, while he was picking it up, that she herself was the subject of the poem.
"How perfectly charming," said Elaine, clearly. "Did you hear, Mrs. Carr? Poor little, insignificant me has actually inspired a great poem. Oh, do read it, Mr. Perkins? We are all dying to hear it!"
Fairly cornered, the poet muttered that he had lost it—some other time—wait until to-morrow—and so on.
"No need to wait," said Dick, with an ironical smile. "It was lost, but now is found. I came upon it myself, blowing around unheeded under the library window, quite like a common bit of paper."
Mr. Perkins was transfixed with amazement, for his cherished poem was at that minute in his breast pocket. He clutched at it spasmodically, to be sure it was still safe.
Very different emotions possessed Harlan, who choked on his food. He instinctively guessed the worst, and saw his home in lurid ruin about him, but was powerless to avert the catastrophe.
"Read it, Dick," said Mrs. Dodd, kindly. "We are all a-perishin' to hear it. I can't eat another bite until I do. I reckon it'll sound like a valentine," she concluded, with a malicious glance at Mr. Perkins.
"I have taken the liberty," chuckled Dick, "of changing a word or two occasionally, to make better sense of it, and of leaving out some lines altogether. Every one is privileged to vary an established form." Without further preliminary, he read the improved version.
"The little doggie sheds his coat, Elaine, have you forgotten? What is it goes around a button? I thought you knew that simple thing, But ideas in your head take wing. Elaine, have you forgotten? The answer is a goat.
"How much is three times humpty-steen? Elaine, have you forgotten? Why does a chicken cross the road? Who carries home a toper's load? You are so very stupid, dear! Elaine, have you forgotten?
"You think a mop of scarlet hair And pale green eyes——"
"That will do," said Miss St. Clair, crisply. "Mr. Perkins, may I ask as a favour that you will not speak to me again?" She marched out with her head high, and Mr. Perkins, wholly unstrung, buried his face in his napkin.
Harlan laughed—a loud, ringing laugh, such as Dorothy had not heard from him for months, and striding around the table, he grasped Dick's hand in tremendous relief.
"Let me have it," he cried, eagerly. "Give me all of it!"
"Sure," said Dick, readily, passing over both sheets of paper.
Harlan went into the library with the composition, and presently, when Dick was walking around the house and saw bits of torn paper fluttering out of the open window, a light broke through his usual density.
"Whew!" he said to himself. "I'll be darned! I'll be everlastingly darned! Idiot!" he continued, savagely. "Oh, if I could only kick myself! Poor Dorothy! I wonder if she knows!"
The August moon swung high in the heavens, and the crickets chirped unbearably. The luminous dew lay heavily upon the surrounding fields, and now and then a stray breeze, amid the overhanging branches of the trees that lined the roadway, aroused in the consciousness of the single wayfarer a feeling closely akin to panic. When he reached the summit of the hill, he was trembling violently.
In the dooryard of the Jack-o'-Lantern, he paused. It was dark, save for a single round window. In an upper front room a night-lamp, turned low, gave one leering eye to the grotesque exterior of the house.
With his heart thumping loudly, Mr. Bradford leaned against a tree and divested himself of his shoes. From a package under his arm, he took out a pair of soft felt slippers, the paper rattling loudly as he did so. He put them on, hesitated, then went cautiously up the walk.
"In all my seventy-eight years," he thought, "I have never done anything like this. If I had not promised the Colonel—but a promise to a dying man is sacred, especially when he is one's best friend."
The sound of the key in the lock seemed almost like an explosion of dynamite. Mr. Bradford wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead, turned the door slowly upon its squeaky hinges, and went in, feeling like a burglar.
"I am not a burglar," he thought, his hands shaking. "I have come to give, not to take away."
Fearfully, he tiptoed into the parlour, expecting at any moment to arouse the house. Feeling his way carefully along the wall, and guided by the moonlight which streamed in at the side windows, he came to the wing occupied by Mrs. Holmes and her exuberant offspring. Here he stooped, awkwardly, and slipped a sealed and addressed letter under the door, heaving a sigh of relief as he got away without having wakened any one.
The sounds which came from Mrs. Dodd's room were reassuringly suggestive of sleep. Hastily, he slipped another letter under her door, then made his way cautiously to the kitchen. The missive intended for Mrs. Smithers was left on the door-mat outside, for, as Mr. Bradford well knew, the ears of the handmaiden were uncomfortably keen.
At the foot of the stairs he hesitated again, but by the time he reached the top, his heart had ceased to beat audibly. He tiptoed down the corridor to Uncle Israel's room, then, further on, to Dick's. The letter intended for Mr. Perkins was slipped under Elaine's door, Mr. Bradford not being aware that the poet had changed his room. Having safely accomplished his last errand, the tension relaxed, and he went downstairs with more assurance, his pace being unduly hastened by a subdued howl from one of the twins.
Bidding himself be calm, he got to the front door, and drew a long breath of relief as he closed it noiselessly. There was a light in Mrs. Holmes's room now, and Mr. Bradford did not wish to linger. He gathered up his shoes and fairly ran downhill, arriving at his office much shaken in mind and body, nearly two hours after he had started.
"I do not know," he said to himself, "why the Colonel should have been so particular as to dates and hours, but he knew his own business best." Then, further in accordance with his instructions, he burned a number of letters which could not be delivered personally.
If Mr. Bradford could have seen the company which met at the breakfast table the following morning, he would have been amply repaid for his supreme effort of the night before, had he been blessed with any sense of humour at all. The Carrs were untroubled, and Elaine appeared as usual, except for her haughty indifference to Mr. Perkins. She thought he had written a letter to himself and slipped it under her door, in order to compel her to speak to him, but she had tactfully avoided that difficulty by leaving it on his own threshold. Dick's eyes were dancing and at intervals his mirth bubbled over, needlessly, as every one else appeared to think.
"I doesn't know wot folks finds to laugh at," remarked Mrs. Smithers, as she brought in the coffee; "that's wot I doesn't. It's a solemn time, I take it, when the sheeted spectres of the dead walks abroad by night, that's wot it is. It's time for folks to be thinkin' about their immortal souls."
This enigmatical utterance produced a startling effect. Mr. Perkins turned a pale green and hastily excused himself, his breakfast wholly untouched. Mrs. Holmes dropped her fork and recovered it in evident confusion. Mrs. Dodd's face was a bright scarlet and appeared about to burst, but she kept her lips compressed into a thin, tight line. Uncle Israel nodded over his predigested food. "Just so," he mumbled; "a solemn time."
Eagerly watching for an opportunity, Mrs. Holmes dived into the barn, and emerged, cautiously, with the spade concealed under her skirts. She carried it into her own apartment and hid it under Willie's bed. Mrs. Smithers went to look for it a little later, and, discovering that it was unaccountably missing, excavated her own private spade from beneath the hay. During the afternoon, the poet was observed lashing the fire-shovel to the other end of a decrepit rake. Uncle Israel, after a fruitless search of the premises, actually went to town and came back with a bulky and awkward parcel, which he hid in the shrubbery.
Meanwhile, Willie had gone whimpering to Mrs. Dodd, who was in serious trouble of her own. "I'm afraid," he admitted, when closely questioned.
"Afraid of what?" demanded his counsellor, sharply.
"I'm afraid of ma," sobbed Willie. "She's a-goin' to bury me. She's got the spade hid under my bed now."
Sudden emotion completely changed Mrs. Dodd's countenance. "There, there, Willie," she said, stroking him kindly. "Where is your ma?"
"She's out in the orchard with Ebbie and Rebbie."
"Well now, deary, don't you say nothin' at all to your ma, an' we'll fool her. The idea of buryin' a nice little boy like you! You just go an' get me that spade an' I'll hide it in my room. Then, when your ma asks for it, you don't know nothin' about it. See?"
Willie's troubled face brightened, and presently the implement was under Mrs. Dodd's own bed, and her door locked. Much relieved in his mind and cherishing kindly sentiments toward his benefactor, Willie slid down the banisters, unrebuked, the rest of the afternoon.
Meanwhile Mrs. Dodd sat on the porch and meditated. "I'd never have thought," she said to herself, "that Ebeneezer would intend that Holmes woman to have any of it, but you never can tell what folks'll do when their minds gets to failin' at the end. Ebeneezer's mind must have failed dretful, for I know he didn't make no promise to her, same as he did to me, an' if she don't suspect nothin', what did she go an' get the spade for? Dretful likely hand it is, for spirit writin'."
Looking about furtively to make sure that she was not observed, Mrs. Dodd drew out of the mysterious recesses of her garments, the crumpled communication of the night before. It was dated, "Heaven, August 12th," and the penmanship was Uncle Ebeneezer's to the life.
"Dear Belinda," it read. "I find myself at the last moment obliged to change my plans. If you will go to the orchard at exactly twelve o'clock on the night of August 13th, you will find there what you seek. Go straight ahead to the ninth row of apple trees, then seven trees to the left. A cat's skull hangs from the lower branch, if it hasn't blown down or been taken away. Dig here and you will find a tin box containing what I have always meant you to have.
"I charge you by all you hold sacred to obey these directions in every particular, and unless you want to lose it all, to say nothing about it to any one who may be in the house.
"I am sorry to put you to this inconvenience, but the limitations of the spirit world cannot well be explained to mortals. I hope you will make a wise use of the money and not spend it all on clothes, as women are apt to do.
"In conclusion, let me say that I am very happy in heaven, though it is considerably more quiet than any place I ever lived in before. I have met a great many friends here, but no relatives except my wife. Farewell, as I shall probably never see you again.
"P.S. All of your previous husbands are here, in the sunny section set aside for martyrs. None of them give you a good reputation.
"Don't it beat all," muttered Mrs. Dodd to herself, excitedly. "Here was Ebeneezer at my door last night, an' I never knowed it. Sakes alive, if I had knowed it, I wouldn't have slep' like I did. Here comes that Holmes hussy. Wonder what she knows!"
"Do you believe in spirits, Mrs. Dodd?" inquired Mrs. Holmes, in a careless tone that did not deceive her listener.
"Depends," returned the other, with an evident distaste for the subject.
"Do you believe spirits can walk?"
"I ain't never seen no spirits walk, but I've seen folks try to walk that was full of spirits, and there wa'n't no visible improvement in their steppin'." This was a pleasant allusion to the departed Mr. Holmes, who was currently said to have "drunk hisself to death."
A scarlet flush, which mounted to the roots of Mrs. Holmes's hair, indicated that the shot had told, and Mrs. Dodd went to her own room, where she carefully locked herself in. She was determined to sit upon her precious spade until midnight, if it were necessary, to keep it.
Mrs. Smithers was sitting up in bed with the cold perspiration oozing from every pore, when the kitchen clock struck twelve sharp, quick strokes. The other clocks in the house took up the echo and made merry with it. The grandfather's clock in the hall was the last to strike, and the twelve deep-toned notes boomed a solemn warning which, to more than one quaking listener, bore a strong suggestion of another world—an uncanny world at that.
"Guess I'll go along," said Dick to himself, yawning and stretching. "I might just as well see the fun."
Mrs. Smithers, with her private spade and her odorous lantern, was at the spot first, closely seconded by Mrs. Dodd, in a voluminous garment of red flannel which had seen all of its best days and not a few of its worst. Trembling from head to foot, came Mrs. Holmes, carrying a pair of shears, which she had snatched up at the last moment when she discovered the spade was missing. Mr. Perkins, fully garbed, appeared with his improvised shovel. Uncle Israel, in his piebald dressing-gown, tottered along in the rear, bearing his spade, still unwrapped, his bedroom candle, and a box of matches. Dick surveyed the scene from a safe, shadowy distance, and on a branch near the skull, Claudius Tiberius was stretched at full length, purring with a loud, resonant purr which could be heard from afar.
After the first shock of surprise, which was especially keen on the part of Mrs. Dodd, when she saw Uncle Israel in the company, Mrs. Smithers broke the silence.
"It's nothink more nor a wild-goose chase," she said, resentfully. "A-gettin' us all out'n our beds at this time o' night! It's a sufferin' and dyin' shame, that's wot it is, and if sperrits was like other folks, 't wouldn't 'ave happened."
"Sarah," said Mrs. Dodd, firmly, "keep your mouth shut. Israel, will you dig?"
"We'll all dig," said Mrs. Holmes, in the voice of authority, and thereafter the dirt flew briskly enough, accompanied by the laboured breathing of perspiring humanity.
It was Uncle Israel's spade that first touched the box, and, with a cry of delight, he stooped for it, as did everybody else. By sheer force of muscle, Mrs. Dodd got it away from him.