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At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern By Myrtle Reed Characters: 17217

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Coming of Elaine

There is no state of mental wretchedness akin to that which precedes the writing of a book. Harlan was moody and despairing, chiefly because he could not understand what it all meant. Something hung over him like a black cloud, completely obscuring his usual sunny cheerfulness.

He burned with the desire to achieve, yet from the depths of his soul came only emptiness. Vague, purposeless aspirations, like disembodied spirits, haunted him by night and by day. Before his inner vision came unfamiliar scenes, detached fragments of conversation, the atmosphere, the feeling of an old romance, then, by a swift change, darkness from which there seemed no possible escape.

A woman with golden hair, mounted upon a white horse, gay with scarlet and silver trappings-surely her name was Elaine? And the company of gallant knights who followed her as she set forth upon her quest-who were they, and from whence did they hail? The fool of the court, with his bauble and his cracked, meaningless laughter, danced in and out of the picture with impish glee. Behind it all was the sunset, such a sunset as was never seen on land or sea. Ribbons of splendid colour streamed from the horizon to the zenith and set the shields of the knights aglow with shimmering flame. Clashing cymbals sounded from afar, then, clear and high, a bugle call, the winding silvery notes growing fainter and fainter till they were lost in the purple silence of the hills. Elaine turned, smiling-was not her name Elaine? And then--

Darkness fell and the picture was utterly wiped out. Harlan turned away with a sigh.

To take the dead, dry bones of words, the tiny black things that march in set spaces across the page; to set each where it inevitably belongs-truly, it seems simple enough. But from the vast range of our written speech to select those which fittingly clothe the thought is quite another matter, and presupposes the thought. Even then, by necessity, the outcome is uncertain.

Within the mind of the writer, the Book lives and breathes; a child of the brain, yearning for birth. At a white heat, after long waiting, the words come-merely a commentary, an index, a marginal note of that within. Reading afterward the written words, the fine invisible links, the colour and the music, are treacherously supplied by the imagination, which is at once the best friend and the worst enemy. How is one to know that only a small part of it has been written, that the best of it, far past writing, lingers still unborn?

Long afterward, when the original picture has faded as though it had never been, one may read his printed work, and wonder, in abject self-abasement, by what miracle it was ever printed. He has trusted to some unknown psychology which strongly savours of the Black Art to reproduce in the minds of his readers the picture which was in his, and from which these fragmentary, marginal notes were traced. Only the words, the dead, meaningless words, stripped of all the fancy which once made them fair, to make for the thousands the wild, delirious bliss that the writer knew! To write with the tears falling upon the page, and afterward to read, in some particularly poignant and searching review, that "the book fails to convince!" Happy is he whose written pages reproduce but faintly the glow from whence they came. For "whoso with blood and tears would dig Art out of his soul, may lavish his golden prime in pursuit of emptiness, or, striking treasure, find only fairy gold, so that when his eyes are purged of the spell of morning, he sees his hands are full of withered leaves."

A meadow-lark, rising from a distant field, dropped golden notes into the still, sunlit air, then vanished into the blue spaces beyond. A bough of apple bloom, its starry petals anchored only by invisible cobwebs, softly shook white fragrance into the grass. Then, like a vision straight from the golden city with the walls of pearl, came Elaine, the beautiful, her blue eyes laughing, and her scarlet lips parted in a smile.

Harlan's heart sang within him. His trembling hands grasped feverishly at the sheaf of copy-paper which had waited for this, week in and week out. The pencil was ready to his hand, and the words fairly wrote themselves:

It came to pass that when the year was at the Spring, the Lady Elaine fared forth upon the Heart's Quest. She was mounted upon a snowy palfrey, whose trappings of scarlet and silver gleamed brightly in the sun. Her gown was of white satin, wondrously embroidered in fine gold thread, which was no less gold than her hair, falling in unchecked splendour about her.

Blue as sapphires were the eyes of Elaine, and her fair cheek was like that of an apple-blossom. Set like a rose upon pearl was the dewy, fragrant sweetness of her mouth, and her breath was like that of the rose itself. Her hands-but how shall I write of the flower-like hands of Elaine? They-

The door-bell pealed portentously through the house, echoing and re-echoing through the empty rooms. No answer. Presently it rang again, insistently, and Elaine, with her snowy palfrey, whisked suddenly out of sight.

Gone, except for these few lines! Harlan stifled a groan and the bell rang once more.

Heavens! Where was Dorothy? Where was Mrs. Smithers? Was there no one in the house but himself? Apparently not, for the bell rang determinedly, and with military precision.

"March, march, forward march!" grumbled Harlan, as he ran downstairs, the one-two, one-two-three being registered meanwhile on the bell-wire.

It was not a pleasant person who violently wrenched the door open, but in spite of his annoyance, Harlan could not be discourteous to a lady. She was tall, and slender, and pale, with blue eyes and yellow hair, and so very fragile that it seemed as though a passing zephyr might almost blow her away.

"How do you do," she said, wearily. "I thought you were never coming."

"I was busy," said Harlan, in extenuation. "Will you come in?" She was evidently a friend of Dorothy's, and, as such, demanded proper consideration.

The invitation was needless, however, for even as he spoke, she brushed past him, and went into the parlour. "I'm so tired," she breathed. "I walked up that long hill."

"You shouldn't have done it," returned Harlan, standing first on one foot and then on the other. "Couldn't you find the stage?"

"I didn't look for it. I never had any ambition to go on the stage," she concluded, with a faint smile. "Where is Uncle Ebeneezer?"

"No friend of Dorothy's," thought Harlan, shifting to the other foot. "Uncle Ebeneezer," he said, clearing his throat, "is at peace."

"What do you mean?" demanded the girl, sinking into one of the haircloth chairs. "Where is Uncle Ebeneezer?"

"Uncle Ebeneezer is dead," explained Harlan, somewhat tartly. Then, as he remembered the utter ruin of his work, he added, viciously, "never having known him intimately, I can't say just where he is."

She leaned back in her chair, her face as white as death. Harlan thought she had fainted, when she relieved his mind by bursting into tears. He was more familiar with salt water, but, none the less, the situation was awkward.

There were no signs of Dorothy, so Harlan, in an effort to be consoling, took the visitor's cold hands in his. "Don't," he said, kindly; "cheer up. You are among friends."

"I have no friends," she answered, between sobs. "I lost the last when my dear mother died. She made me promise, during her last illness, that if anything happened to her, I would come to Uncle Ebeneezer. She said she had never imposed upon him and that he would gladly take care of me, for her sake. I was ill a long, long time, but as soon as I was able to, I came, and now-and now--"

"Don't," said Harlan, again, awkwardly patting her hands, and deeply touched by the girl's distress. "We are your friends. You can stay here just as well as not. I am married and--"

Upon his back, Harlan felt eyes. He turned quickly, and saw Dorothy standing in the door-quite a new Dorothy, indeed; very tall, and stately, and pale.

Through sheer nervousness, Mr. Carr laughed-an unfortunate, high-pitched laugh with no mirth in it. "Let me present my wife," he said, sobering suddenly. "Mrs. Carr, Miss--"

Here he coughed, and the guest, rising, filled the pause. "I am Elaine St. Clair," she explained, offering a white, tremulous hand which Dorothy did not seem to see. "It is very good of your husband to ask me to stay with you."

"Very," replied Dorothy, in a tone altogether new to her husband. "He is alwa

ys doing lovely things for people. And now, Harlan, if you will show Miss St. Clair to her room, I will speak with Mrs. Smithers about luncheon, which should be nearly ready by this time."

"Thunder," said Harlan to himself, as Dorothy withdrew. "What in the devil do I know about 'her room'? Have you ever been here before?" he inquired of the guest.

"Never in my life," answered Miss St. Clair, wiping her eyes.

"Well," replied Harlan, confusedly, "just go on upstairs, then, and help yourself. There are plenty of rooms, and cribs to burn in every blamed one of 'em," he added, savagely, remembering the look in Dorothy's eyes.

"Thank you," said Miss St. Clair, diffidently; "it is very kind of you to let me choose. Can some one bring my trunk up this afternoon?"

"I'll attend to it," replied her host, brusquely.

She trailed noiselessly upstairs, carrying her heavy suit case, and Harlan, not altogether happy at the prospect, went in search of Dorothy. At the kitchen door he paused, hearing voices within.

"They've usually et by themselves," Mrs. Smithers was saying. "Is this a new one, or a friend of yours?"

The sentence was utterly without meaning, either to Harlan or Dorothy, but the answer was given, as quick as a flash. "A friend, Mrs. Smithers-a very dear old friend of Mr. Carr's."

"'Mr. Carr's,'" repeated Harlan, miserably, tiptoeing away to the library, where he sat down and wiped his forehead. "'A very dear old friend.'" Disconnectedly, and with pronounced emphasis, Harlan mentioned the place which is said to be paved with good intentions.

The clock struck twelve, and it was just eleven when he had begun on The Quest of the Lady Elaine. "'One crowded hour of glorious life is worth'-what idiot said it was worth anything?" groaned Harlan, inwardly. "Anyway, I've had the crowded hour. 'Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay'"-the line sang itself into his consciousness. "Europe be everlastingly condemned," he muttered. "Oh, how my head aches!"

He leaned back in his chair, wondering where "Cathay" might be. It sounded like a nice, quiet place, with no "dear old friends" in it-a peaceful spot where people could write books if they wanted to. "Just why," he asked himself more than once, "was I inspired to grab the shaky paw of that human sponge? 'Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean'-oh, the devil! She must have a volume of Tennyson in her grip, and it's soaking through!"

Mrs. Smithers came out into the hall, more sepulchral and grim-visaged than ever, and rang the bell for luncheon. To Harlan's fevered fancy, it sounded like a sexton tolling a bell for a funeral. Miss St. Clair, with the traces of tears practically removed, floated gracefully downstairs, and Harlan, coming out of the library with the furtive step of a wild beast from its lair, met her inopportunely at the foot of the stairs.

She smiled at him in a timid, but friendly fashion, and at the precise moment, Dorothy appeared in the dining-room door.

"Harlan, dear," she said, in her sweetest tones, "will you give our guest your arm and escort her out to luncheon? I have it all ready!"

Miss St. Clair clutched timidly at Harlan's rigid coat sleeve, wondering what strange custom of the house would be evident next, and the fog was thick before Mr. Carr's eyes, when he took his accustomed seat at the head of the table. As a sign of devotion, he tried to step on Dorothy's foot under the table, after a pleasing habit of their courtship in the New York boarding-house, but he succeeded only in drawing an unconscious "ouch" and a vivid blush from Miss St. Clair, by which he impressed Dorothy more deeply than he could have hoped to do otherwise.

"Have you come far, Miss St. Clair?" asked Dorothy, conventionally.

"From New York," answered the guest, taking a plate of fried chicken from Harlan's shaky hand.

"I know," said Dorothy sweetly. "We come from New York, too." Then she took a bold, daring plunge. "I have often heard my husband speak of you."

"Of me, Mrs. Carr? Surely not! It must have been some other Elaine."

"Perhaps," smiled Dorothy, shrugging her shoulders. "No doubt I am mistaken, but you may have heard of me?"

"Indeed I haven't," Elaine assured her. "I never heard of you in my life before. Why should I?" A sudden and earnest crow under the window behind her startled her so that she dropped her knife. Harlan stooped for it at the same time she did and their heads bumped together smartly.

"Our gentleman chicken," went on Dorothy, tactfully. "We call him 'Abdul Hamid.' You know the masculine nature is instinctively polygamous."

Harlan cackled mirthlessly, wondering, subconsciously, how Abdul Hamid could have escaped from the coop. After that there was silence, save as Dorothy, in her most hospitable manner, occasionally urged the guest to have more of something. Throughout luncheon, she never once spoke to Harlan, nor took so much as a single glance at his red, unhappy face. Even his ears were scarlet, and the delicious fried chicken which he was eating might have been a section of rag carpet, for all he knew to the contrary.

"And now, Miss St. Clair," said Dorothy, kindly, as they rose from the table, "I am sure you will wish to lie down and rest after your long journey. Which room did you choose?"

"I looked at all of them," responded Elaine, touched to the heart by this unexpected kindness from strangers, "and finally chose the suite in the south wing. It's a nice large room, with such a darling little sitting-room attached, and such a dear work basket."

Harlan nearly burst, for the description was of Dorothy's own particular sanctum.

"Yes," said Mrs. Carr, very quietly; "I thought my husband would choose that room for you-dear Harlan is always so thoughtful! I will go up with you and take out a few of my things which have been unfortunately left there."

Shortly afterward, Mr. Carr also climbed the stairs, his head swimming and his knees knocking together. Nervously, he turned over the few pages of his manuscript, then, hearing Dorothy coming, grabbed it and fled like a thief to the library on the first floor. In his panic he bolted the doors and windows of Uncle Ebeneezer's former retreat. It was unnecessary, however, for no one came near him.

Throughout the long, sweet Spring afternoon, Miss St. Clair slept the dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion, Harlan worked fruitlessly at The Quest of Lady Elaine, and Dorothy busied herself about her household tasks, singing with forced cheerfulness whenever she was within hearing of the library.

"I'll explain" thought Harlan, wretchedly. But after all what was there to explain, except that he had never seen Miss St. Clair before, never in all his life heard of her, never knew there was such a person, or had never met anybody who knew anything about her? "Besides," he continued to himself "even then, what excuse have I got for stroking a strange woman's hand and telling her I'm married?"

As the afternoon wore on, he decided that it would be policy to ignore the whole matter. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding all around, which could not be cleared away by speech, unless Dorothy should ask him about it-which he was very certain she would not do. "She ought to trust me," he said to himself, resentfully, forgetting the absolute openness of thought and deed upon which a woman's trust is founded. "I'll read her the book to-night," he thought, happily, "and that will please her."

But it was fated not to. After dinner, which was much the same as luncheon, as far as conversation was concerned, Harlan invited Dorothy to come into the library.

She followed him, obediently enough, and he closed the door.

"Dearest," he began, with a grin which was meant to be cheerful and was merely ridiculous, "I've begun the book-I actually have! I've been working on it all day. Just listen!"

Hurriedly possessing himself of the manuscript, he read it in an unnatural voice, down to the flower-like hands.

"I don't see how you can say that, Harlan," interrupted Dorothy, coolly critical; "I particularly noticed her hands and they're not nice at all. They're red and rough and nearly the size of a policeman's."

"Whose hands?" demanded Harlan, in genuine astonishment.

"Why, Elaine's-Miss St. Clair's. If you're going to do a book about her, you might at least try to make it truthful."

Mrs. Carr went out, closing the door carefully, but firmly. Then, for the first time, the whole wretched situation dawned upon the young and aspiring author.

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