Chapter XVI. When the Canyon Gates Are Shut
 

If Aaron King had questioned what it was that had held him in the cedar thicket until Brian Oakley's heavy hand broke the spell, he would probably have answered that it was his artistic appreciation of the beautiful scene. But--deep down in the man's inner consciousness--there was a still, small voice--declaring, with an insistency not to be denied, that--for him--there was a something in that picture that was not to be put into the vernacular of his profession.

Had he acted without his habitual self-control, the day following the Ranger's visit, he would, again, have gone fishing--up Clear Creek--at least, to the pool where that master trout had broken his leader. But he did not. Instead, he roamed aimlessly about the vicinity of the camp--explored the sycamore grove; climbed a little way up the mountain spur, and down again; circled the cienaga; and so came, finally, to the ruins of the house and barn on the creek side of the orchard.

Not far from the lonely fireplace with its naked chimney, a little, old gate of split palings, in an ancient tumble-down fence, under a great mistletoe-hung oak, at the top of a bank--attracted his careless attention. From the gate, he saw what once had been a path leading down the bank to a spring, where the tiny streamlet that crossed the road a hundred yards away, on its course to Clear Creek, began. Pushing open the gate that sagged dejectedly from its leaning post, the artist went down the path, and found himself in a charming nook--shut in on every side by the forest vegetation that, watered by the spring, grew rank and dense.

For a space on the gate side of the spring, the sod was firm and smooth--with a gray granite boulder in the center of the little glade, and, here and there, wild rose-bushes and the slender, gray trunks of alder trees breaking through. From the higher branches of the alders that shut out the sky with their dainty, silvery-green leaves, hung--with many a graceful loop and knot--ropes of wild grape-vine and curtains of virgin's-bower. Along the bank below the old fence, the wild blackberries disputed possession with the roses; while the little stream was mottled with the tender green of watercress and bordered with moss and fragrant mint. Above the arroyo willows, on the farther side of the glade, Oak Knoll, with bits of the pine-clad Galenas, could be glimpsed; but on the orchard side, the vine-dressed bank with the old gate under the mistletoe oak shut out the view. Through the screen of alder and grape and willow and virgin's-bower the sunlight fell, as through the delicate traceries of a cathedral window. The bright waters of the spring, softly held by the green sod, crept away under the living wall, without a sound; but the deep murmur of the distant, larger stream, reached the place like the low tones of some great organ. A few regularly placed stones, where once had stood the family spring-house; with the names, initials, hearts and dates carved upon the smooth bark of the alders--now grown over and almost obliterated--seemed to fill the spot with ghostly memories.

All that afternoon, the artist remained in the little retreat. The next day, equipped with easel, canvas and paint-box, he went again to the glade--determined to make a picture of the charming scene.

For a month, now, uninterrupted by the distractions of social obligations or the like, Aaron King had been subjected to influences that had aroused the creative passion of his artist soul to its highest pitch. With his genius clamoring for expression, he had denied himself the medium that was his natural language. Forbidding his friend to accompany him, he worked now in the spring glade with a delight--with an ecstasy--that he had seldom, before, felt. And Conrad Lagrange, wisely, was content to let him go uninterrupted.

As the hours of each day passed, the artist became more and more engrossed with his art. His spirit sang with the joy of receiving the loveliness of the scene before him, of making it his own, and of giving it forth again--a literal part of himself. The memories suggested by the stones of the spring-house foundation and the old carvings on the trees; the sunlight, falling so softly into the hushed seclusion of the glade, as through the traceried windows of a church; and the deep organ-tones of the distant creek; all served to give to the spot the religious atmosphere of a sanctuary; while the artist's abandonment in his work was little short of devotion.

It was the third afternoon, when the painter became conscious that he had been hearing for some time--he could not have said how long--a low-sung melody--so blending with the organ-tones of the mountain stream that it seemed to come out of the music of the tumbling waters.

With his brush poised between palette and canvas, the artist paused,--turning his head to listen,--half inclined to the belief that his fancy was tricking him. But no; the singer was coming nearer; the melody was growing more distinct; but still the voice was in perfect harmony with the deep-toned accompaniment of the distant creek.

Then he saw her. Dressed in soft brown that blended subtly with the green of the willows, the gray of the alder trunks, the russet of rose and blackberry-bush, and the umber of the swinging grape-vines--in the flickering sunshine, the soft changing half-lights, and deep shadows--she appeared to grow out of the scene itself; even as her low-sung melody grew out of the organ-sound of the waters.

To get the effect that satisfied him best, the painter had placed his easel a little back from the grassy, open spot. Seated as he was, on a low camp-stool, among the bushes, he would not have been easily observed--even by eyes trained to the quickness of vision that belongs to those reared in the woods and hills. As the girl drew closer, he saw that she carried a basket on her arm, and that she was picking the wild blackberries that grew in such luscious profusion in the rich, well watered ground at the foot of the sheltering bank. Unconscious of any listener, as she gathered the fruit of Nature's offering, she sang to the accompaniment of Nature's music, with the artless freedom of a wild thing unafraid in its native haunts.

The man kept very still. Presently, when the girl had moved so that he could not see her, he turned to his canvas as if, again, absorbed in his work--but hearing still, behind him, the low-voiced melody of her song.

Then the music ceased; not abruptly, but dying away softly--losing itself, again, in the organ-tones of the distant waters, as it had come. For a while, the artist worked on; not daring to take his eyes from his picture; but feeling, in every tingling nerve of him, that she was there. At last, as if compelled, he abruptly turned his head--and looked straight into her face.

The man had been, apparently, so absorbed in his work, when first the girl caught sight of him, that she had scarcely been startled. When she had ceased her song, and he, still, had not looked around; drawn by her interest in the picture, she had softly approached until she was standing quite close. Her lips were slightly parted, her face was flushed, and her eyes were shining with delight and excited pleasure, as she stood leaning forward, her basket on her arm. So interested was she in the painting, that she seemed to have quite forgotten the painter, and was not in the least embarrassed when he so suddenly looked directly into her face.

"It is beautiful," she said, as though in answer to his question. And no one--hearing her, and watching her face as she spoke--could have doubted her sincerity. "It is so true, so--so"--she searched for a word, and smiled in triumph when she found it--"so right--so beautifully right. It--it makes me feel as--as I feel when I am at church--and the organ plays soft and low, and the light comes slanting through the window, and some one reads those beautiful words, 'The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him'."

"Why!" exclaimed the artist, "that is exactly what I wanted it to say. When I saw this place, and heard the waters over there, like a great organ; and saw how the sunshine falls through the trees; I felt as you say, and I am trying to paint the picture so that those who see it will feel that way too."

Her face was aglow with enthusiastic understanding as she cried eagerly, "Oh, I know! I know! I'm like that with my music! When I look at the mountains sometimes--or at the trees and flowers, or hear the waters sing, or the winds call--I--I get so full and so--so kind of choked up inside that it hurts; and I feel as though I must try to tell it--and then I take my violin and try and try to make the music say what I feel. I never can though--not altogether. But you have made your picture say what you feel. That's what makes it so right, isn't it? They said in Fairlands that you were a great artist, and I understand why, now. It must be wonderful to put what you see and feel into a picture like that--where nothing can ever change or spoil it."

Aaron King laughed with boyish embarrassment. "Oh, but I'm not a great artist, you know. I am scarcely known at all."

She looked at him with her great, blue eyes sincerely troubled. "And must one be known--to be great?" she asked. "Might not an artist be great and still be unknown? Or, might not one who was really very, very"--again she seemed to search for a word and as she found it, smiled--"very small, be known all over the world? The newspapers make some really bad people famous, sometimes, don't they? No, no, you are joking. You do not really think that being known to the world and greatness are the same."

The man, studying her closely, saw that she was speaking her thoughts as openly as a child. Experimentally, he said, "If putting what you feel into your work is greatness, then you are a great artist, for your music does make one feel as though it came from the mountains, themselves."

She was frankly pleased, and cried intimately, "Oh! do you like my music? I so wanted you to."

It did not occur to her to ask when he had heard her music. It did not occur to him to explain. They, neither of them, thought to remember that they had not been introduced. They really should have pretended that they did not know each other.

"Sometimes," she continued with winsome confidence, "I think, myself, that I am really a great violinist--and then, again,"--she added wistfully,--"I know that I am not. But I am sure that I wouldn't like to be famous, at all."

He laughed. "Fame doesn't seem to matter so much, does it; when one is up here in the hills and the canyon gates are closed."

She echoed his laughter with quick delight. "Did you see that? Did you see those great doors open to let you in, and then close again behind you as if to shut the world outside? But of course you would. Any one who could do that"--she pointed to the canvas--"would not fail to see the canyon gates." With her eyes again upon the picture, she seemed once more to forget the presence of the painter.

Watching her face,--that betrayed her every passing thought and emotion as an untroubled pool mirrors the flowers that grow on its banks or the song-bird that pauses to drink,--the artist--to change her mood--said, "You love the mountains, don't you?"

She turned her face toward him, again, as she answered simply, "Yes, I love the mountains."

"If you were a painter,"--he smiled,--"you would paint them, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know that I would,"--she answered thoughtfully,--"but I would try to get the mountains into my picture, whatever it was. I wonder if you know what I mean?"

"Yes," he answered, "I think I know what you mean; and it is a beautiful thought. You wouldn't paint portraits, would you?"

"I don't think I could," she answered. "It seems to me it would be so hard to get the mountains into a portrait of just anybody. An artist--a great artist, I mean--must make his picture right, mustn't he? And if his picture was a portrait of some one who wasn't very good, and he made it right; he wouldn't be liked very well, would he? No, I don't think I would paint portraits--unless I could paint just the people who would want me to make my picture right."

Aaron King's face flushed at the words that were spoken so artlessly; and he looked at her keenly. But the girl was wholly innocent of any purpose other than to express her thoughts. She did not dream of the force with which her simple words had gone home.

"You love the mountains, too, don't you?" she asked suddenly.

"Yes," he answered, "I love the mountains. I am learning to love them more and more. But I fear I don't know them as well as you do."

"I was born up here," she said, "and lived here until a few years ago. I think, sometimes, that the mountains almost talk to me."

"I wonder if you would help me to know the mountains as you know them," he asked eagerly.

She drew a little back from him, but did not answer.

"We are neighbors, you see," he continued smiling. "I heard your violin, the other evening, when I was fishing up the creek, near where you live; and so I know it is you who live next door to us in the orange grove. Mr. Lagrange and I are camped just over there back of the orchard. May we not be friends? Won't you help me to know your mountains?"

"I know about you," she said. "Brian Oakley told us that you and Mr. Lagrange were camped down here. Mr. Lagrange said that you are a good man; Brian Oakley says that you are too--are you?"

The artist flushed. In his embarrassment, he did not note the significance of her reference to the novelist. "At least," he said gently, "I am not a very bad man."

A smile broke over her face--her mood changing as quickly as the sunlight breaks through a cloud. "I know you are not"--she said--"a bad man wouldn't have wanted to paint this place as you have painted it."

She turned to go.

"But wait!" he cried, "you haven't told me--will you teach me to know your mountains as you know them?"

"I'm sure I cannot say," she answered smiling, as she moved away.

"But at least, we will meet again," he urged.

She laughed gaily, "Why not? The mountains are for you as well as for me; and though the hills are so big, the trails are narrow, and the passes very few."

With another laugh, she slipped away--her brown dress, that, in the shifty lights under the thick foliage, so harmonized with the colors of bush and vine and tree and rock, being so quickly lost to the artist's eye that she seemed almost to vanish into the scene before him.

But presently, from beyond the willow wall, he heard her voice again--singing to the accompaniment of the mountain stream. Softly, the melody died away in the distance--losing itself, at last, in the deeper organ-tones of the mountain waters.

For some minutes, the artist stood listening--thinking he heard it still.

Aaron King did not, that night, tell Conrad Lagrange of his adventure in the spring glade.