By this time the Jack-o'-Lantern was nearly stripped of everything which might prove useful, and they were burning the rest of it in the fireplace at night. "Varnished hardwood," as Dick said, "makes a peach of a blaze."
Meanwhile Harlan was labouring steadfastly at his manuscript. The glowing fancy from which the book had sprung was quite gone. Still, as he cut, rearranged, changed, interlined, reconstructed and polished, he was not wholly unsatisfied with his work. "It may not be very good," he said to himself, "but it's the best I can do—now. The next will be better, I'm sure." He knew, even then, that there would be a "next one," for the eternal thirst which knows no quenching had seized upon his inmost soul.
Hereafter, by an inexplicably swift reversion, he should see all life as literature, and literature as life. Friends and acquaintances should all be, in his inmost consciousness, ephemeral. And Dorothy—dearly as he loved her, was separated from him as by a veil.
Still, as he worked, he came gradually to a better adjustment, and was very tenderly anxious that Dorothy should see no change in him. He had not yet reached the point, however, where he would give it all up for the sake of finding things real again, if only for an hour.
Day after day, his work went on. Sometimes he would spend an hour searching for a single word, rightly to express his meaning. Page after page was re-copied upon the typewriter, for, with the nice conscience of a good workman, Harlan desired a perfect manuscript, at least in mechanical details.
Finally, he came to the last page and printed "The End" in capitals with deep satisfaction. "When it's sandpapered," he said to himself, "and the dust blown off, I suppose it will be done."
The "sandpapering" took a week longer. At the end of that time, Harlan concluded that any manuscript was done when the writer had read it carefully a dozen times without making a single change in it. On a Saturday night, just as the hall clock was booming eleven, he pushed it aside, and sat staring blankly at the wall for a long time.
"I don't know what I've got," he thought, "but I've certainly got two hundred and fifty pages of typed manuscript. It should be good for something—even at space rates."
After dinner, Sunday, he told them that the book was ready, and they all went out into the orchard. Dick was resigned, Elaine pleasantly excited, Dorothy eager and aflame with triumphant pride, Harlan self-conscious, and, in a way, ashamed.
As he read, however, he forgot everything else. The mere sound of the words came with caressing music to his ears. At times his voice wavered and his hands trembled, but he kept on, until it grew so dark that he could no longer see.
They went into the house silently, and Dick touched a match to the fire already laid in the fireplace, while Dorothy lighted the candles and the reading lamp. The afterglow faded and the moon rose, yet still they rode with Elaine and her company, through mountain passes and over blossoming fields, past many dangers and strange happenings, and ever away from the Castle of Content.
Harlan's deep, vibrant voice, now stern, now tender, gave new meaning to his work. His secret belief in it gave it a beauty which no one else would ever see. Dorothy, listening so intently that it was almost pain, never took her eyes from his face. In that hour, if Harlan could have known it, her woman's soul was kneeling before his, naked and unashamed.
Dick privately considered the whole thing more or less of a nuisance, but the candlelight touched Elaine's golden hair lovingly, and the glow from the fire seemed to rest caressingly upon her face. All along, he saw a clear resemblance between his Elaine and the lady of the book, also, more keenly, a closer likeness between himself and the fool who rode at her side.
When Harlan came to the song which the fool had written, and which he had so shamelessly revised and read aloud at the table, Dick seriously considered a private and permanent departure, like the nocturnal vanishing of Mr. Perkins, without even a poem for farewell.
Elaine, lost in the story, was heedless of her surroundings. It was only at the last chapter that she became conscious of self at all. Then, suddenly, in her turn, she perceived a parallel, and quivered painfully with a new emotion.
"Some one, perchance," mused the Lady Elaine, "whose beauty my eyes alone should perceive, whose valour only I should guess before there was need to test it. Some one great of heart and clean of mind, in whose eyes there should never be that which makes a woman ashamed. Some one fine-fibred and strong-souled, not above tenderness when a maid was tired. One who should make a shield of his love, to keep her not only from the great hurts but from the little ones as well, and yet with whom she might fare onward, shoulder to shoulder, as God meant mates should fare."
Like the other Elaine, she saw who had served her secretly, asking for no recognition; who had always kept watch over her so unobtrusively and quietly that she never guessed it till now. Like many another woman, Elaine had dreamed of her Prince as a paragon of beauty and perfection, with unconscious vanity deeming such an one her true mate. Now her story-book lover had gone for ever, and in his place was Dick; sunny-hearted, mischievous, whistling, clear-eyed Dick, who had laughed and joked with her all Summer, and now—must never know.
In a fierce agony of shame, she wondered if he had already guessed her secret—if she had betrayed it to him before she was conscious of it herself; if that was why he had been so kind. Harlan was reading the last page, and Elaine shaded her face with her hand, determined, at all costs, to avoid Dick, and to go away to-morrow, somewhere, anywhere.
But Prince Bernard did not hear, read Harlan, nor see the outstretched hand, for Elaine was in his arms for the first time, her sweet lips close on his. "My Prince, Oh, my Prince," she murmured, when at length he set her free; "my eyes did not see but my heart knew!"
So ended the Quest of the Lady Elaine.
The last page of the manuscript fluttered, face downward, upon the table, and Dorothy wiped her eyes. Elaine's mouth was parched, but she staggered to her feet, knowing that she must say some conventional words of congratulation to Harlan, then go to her own room.
Blindly, she put out her hand, trying to speak; then, for a single illuminating instant, her eyes looked into Dick's.
With a little cry, Elaine fled from the room, overwhelmed with shame. In a twinkling, she was out of the house, and flying toward the orchard as fast as her light feet would carry her, her heart beating wildly in her breast.
By the sure instinct of a lover, Dick knew that his hour had come. He dropped out of the window and overtook her just as she reached her little rocking-chair, which, damp with the Autumn dew, was still under the apple tree.
"Elaine!" cried Dick, crushing her into his arms, all the joy of youth and love in his voice. "Elaine! My Elaine!"
"The audience," remarked Harlan, in an unnatural tone, "appears to have gone. Only my faithful wife stands by me."
"Oh, Harlan," answered Dorothy, with a swift rush of feeling, "you'll never know till your dying day how proud and happy I am. It's the very beautifullest book that anybody ever wrote, and I'm so glad! Mrs. Shakespeare could never have been half as pleased as I am! I——," but the rest was lost, for Dorothy was in his arms, crying her heart out for sheer joy.
"There, there," said Harlan, patting her shoulders awkwardly, and rubbing his rough cheek against her tear-wet face; "it wasn't meant to make anybody cry."
"Why can't I cry if I want to?" demanded Dorothy, resentfully, between sobs. Harlan's voice was far from even and his own eyes were misty as he answered: "Because you are my own darling girl and I love you, that's why."
They sat hand in hand for a long time, looking into the embers of the dying fire, in the depths of that wedded silence which has no need of words. The portraits of Uncle Ebeneezer and Aunt Rebecca seemed fully in accord, and, though mute, eloquent with understanding.
"He'd be so proud," whispered Dorothy, looking up at the stern face over the mantel, "if he knew what you had done here in his house. He loved books, and now, because of his kindness, you can always write them. You'll never have to go back on the paper again."
Harlan smiled reminiscently, for the hurrying, ceaseless grind of the newspaper office was, indeed, a thing of the past. The dim, quiet room was his, not the battle-ground of the street. Still, as he knew, the smell of printer's ink in his nostrils would be like the sound of a bugle to an old cavalry horse, and even now, he would not quite trust himself to walk down Newspaper Row.
"I love Uncle Ebeneezer and Aunt Rebecca," went on Dorothy, happily. "I love everybody. I've love enough to-night to spare some for the whole world."
"Dear little saint," said Harlan, softly, "I believe you have."
The clock struck ten and the fire died down. A candle flickered in its socket, then went out. The chill Autumn mist was rising, and through it the new moon gleamed faintly, like veiled pearl.
"I wonder," said Harlan, "where the rest of the audience is? If everybody who reads the book is going to disappear suddenly and mysteriously, I won't be the popular author that I pine to be."
"Hush," responded Dorothy; "I think they are coming now. I'll go and let them in."
Only a single candle was burning in the hall, and when Dorothy opened the door, it went out suddenly, but in that brief instant, she had seen their glorified faces and understood it all. The library door was open, and the dimly lighted room seemed like a haven of refuge to Elaine, radiantly self-conscious, and blushing with sweet shame.
"Hello," said Dick, awkwardly, with a tremendous effort to appear natural, "we've just been out to get a breath of fresh air."
It had taken them two hours, but Dorothy was too wise to say anything. She only laughed—a happy, tender, musical little laugh. Then she impulsively kissed them both, pushed Elaine gently into the library, and went back into the parlour to tell Harlan.