Chapter XVII. Confessions in the Spring Glade
 

All the next day, while he worked upon his picture in the glade, Aaron King listened for that voice in the organ-like music of the distant waters. Many times, he turned to search the flickering light and shade of the undergrowth, behind him, for a glimpse of the girl's brown dress and winsome face.

The next day she came.

The artist had been looking long at a splash of sunlight that fell upon the gray granite boulder which was set in the green turf, and had turned to his canvas for--it seemed to him--only an instant. When he looked again at the boulder, she was standing there--had, apparently, been standing there for some time, waiting with smiling lips and laughing eyes for him to see her.

A light creel hung by its webbed strap from her shoulder; in her hand, she carried a slender fly rod of good workmanship. Dressed in soft brown, with short skirts and high laced boots, and her wavy hair tucked under a wide, felt hat; with her blue eyes shining with fun, and her warmly tinted skin glowing with healthful exercise; she appeared--to the artist--more as some mythical spirit of the mountains, than as a maiden of flesh and blood. The manner of her coming, too, heightened the impression. He had heard no sound of her approach--no step, no rustle of the underbrush. He had seen no movement among the bushes--no parting of the willows in the wall of green. There had been no hint of her nearness. He could not even guess the direction from which she had come.

At first, he could scarce believe his eyes, and sat motionless in his surprise. Then her merry laugh rang out--breaking the spell.

Springing from his seat, he went forward. "Are you a spirit?" he cried. "You must be something unreal, you know--the way you appear and disappear. The last time, you came out of the music of the waters, and went again the same way. To-day, you come out of the air, or the trees, or, perhaps, that gray boulder that is giving me such trouble."

Laughing, she answered, "My father and Brian Oakley taught me. If you will watch the wild things in the woods, you can learn to do it too. I am no more a spirit than the cougar, when it stalks a rabbit in the chaparral; or a mink, as it slips among the rocks along the creek; or a fawn, when it crouches to hide in the underbrush."

"You have been fishing?" he asked.

She laughed mockingly, "You are so observing! I think you might have taken that for granted, and asked what luck."

"I believe I might almost take that for granted too," he returned.

"I took a few," she said carelessly. Then, with a charming air of authority--"And now, you must go back to your work. I shall vanish instantly, if you waste another moment's time because I am here."

"But I want to talk," he protested. "I have been working hard since noon."

"Of course you have," she retorted. "But presently the light will change again, and you won't be able to do any more to-day; so you must keep busy while you can."

"And you won't vanish--if I go on with my work?" he asked doubtfully. She was smiling at him with such a mischievous air, that he feared, if he turned away, she would disappear.

She laughed aloud; "Not if you work," she said. "But if you stop--I'm gone."

As she spoke, she went toward his easel, and, resting her fly rod carefully against the trunk of a near-by alder, slipped the creel from her shoulder, placing the basket on the ground with her hat. Then, while the painter watched her, she stood silently looking at the picture. Presently, she faced him, and, with an impulsive stamp of her foot, said, "Why don't you work? How can you waste your time and this light, looking at me? I shall go, if you don't come back to your picture, this minute."

With a laugh, he obeyed.

For a moment, she watched him; then turned away; and he heard her moving about, down by the tiny stream, where it disappeared under the willows.

Once, he paused and turned to look in her direction "What are you up to, now?" he said.

"I shall be up to leaving you,"--she retorted,--"if you look around, again."

He promptly turned once more to his picture.

Soon, she came back, and seated herself beside her creel and rod, where she could see the picture under the artist's brush. "Does it bother, if I watch?" she asked softly.

"No, indeed," he answered. "It helps--that is, it helps when it is you who watch." Which--to the painter's secret amazement--was a literal truth. The gray rock with the splash of sunshine that would not come right, ceased to trouble him, now. Stimulated by her presence, he worked with a freedom and a sureness that was a delight.

When he could not refrain from looking in her direction, he saw that she was bending, with busy hands, over some willow twigs in her lap. "What in the world are you doing?" he asked curiously.

"You are not supposed to know that I am doing anything," she retorted. "You have been peeking again."

"You were so still--I feared you had vanished," he laughed. "If you'll keep talking to me, I'll know you are there, and will be good."

"Sure it won't bother?"

"Sure," he answered.

"Well, then, you talk to me, and I'll answer."

"I have a confession to make," he said, carefully studying the gray tones of the alder trunk beyond the gray boulder.

"A confession?"

"Yes, I want to get it over--so it won't bother me."

"Something about me?"

"Yes."

"Why, that's what I am trying so hard to make you keep your eyes on your work for--because I have to make a confession to you."

"To me?"

"Yes--don't look around, please."

"But what under the sun can you have to confess to me?"

"You started yours first," she answered. "Go on. Maybe it will make it easier for me."

Studiously keeping his eyes upon his canvas, he told her how he had watched her from the cedar thicket. When he had finished,--and she was silent,--he thought that she was angry, and turned about--expecting to see her gathering up her things to go.

She was struggling to suppress her laughter. At the look of surprise on his face, she burst forth in such a gale of merriment that the little glade was filled with the music of her glee; while, in spite of himself, the painter joined.

"Oh!" she cried, "but that is funny! I am glad, glad!"

"Now, what do you mean by that?" he demanded.

"Why--why--that's exactly what I was trying to get courage enough to confess to you!" she gasped. And then she told him how she had spied upon him from the arbor in the rose garden; and how, in his absence, she had visited his studio.

"But how in the world did you get in? The place was always locked, when I was away."

"Oh," she said quaintly, "there was a good genie who let me in through the keyhole. I didn't meddle with anything, you know--I just looked at the beautiful room where you work. And I didn't glance, even, at the picture on the easel. The genie told me you wouldn't like that. I would not have drawn the curtain anyway, even if I hadn't been told. At least, I don't think I would--but perhaps I might--I can't always tell what I'm going to do, you know."

Suddenly, the artist remembered finding the studio door open with Conrad Lagrange's key in the lock, and how the novelist had berated himself with such exaggerated vehemence; and, in a flash, came the thought of James Rutlidge's visit, that afternoon, and of his strange manner and insinuating remarks.

"I think I know the name of your good genie," said the painter, facing the girl, seriously. "But tell me, did no one disturb you while you were in the studio?"

Her cheeks colored painfully, and all the laughter was gone from her voice as she replied, "I didn't want you to know that part."

"But I must know," he insisted gravely.

"Yes," she said, "Mr. Rutlidge found me there; and I ran away through the garden. I don't like him. He frightens me. Please, is it necessary for us to talk about it any more? I had to make my confession of course, but must we talk about that part?"

"No," he answered, "we need not talk about it. It was necessary for me to know; but we will never mention that part, again. When we are back in the orange groves, you shall come to the rose garden and to the studio, as often as you like; your good genie and I will see to it that you are not disturbed--by any one."

Her face brightened at his words. "And do you really like for me to make music for you--as Mr. Lagrange says you do?"

"I can't begin to tell you how much I like it," he answered smiling.

"And it doesn't bother you in your work?"

"It helps me," he declared--thinking of that portrait of Mrs. Taine.

"Oh, I am glad, glad!" she cried. "I wanted it to help. It was for that I played."

"You played to help me?" he asked wonderingly.

She nodded. "I thought it might--if I could get enough of the mountains into my music, you know."

"And will you dance for me, sometimes too?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I cannot tell about that. You see, I only dance when I must--when the music, somehow, doesn't seem quite enough. When I--when I"--she searched for a word, then finished abruptly--"oh, I can't tell you about it--it's just something you feel--there are no words for it. When I first come to the mountains,--after living in Fairlands all winter,--I always dance--the mountains feel so big and strong. And sometimes I dance in the moonlight--when it feels so soft and light and clean; or in the twilight--when it's so still, and the air is so--so full of the day that has come home to rest and sleep; and sometimes when I am away up under the big pines and the wind, from off the mountain tops, under the sky, sings through the dark branches."

"But don't you ever dance to please your friends?"

"Oh, no--I don't dance to please any one--only just when it's for myself--when nothing else will do--when I must. Of course, sometimes, Myra or Brian Oakley or Mrs. Oakley are with me--but they don't matter, you know. They are so much a part of me that I don't mind."

"I wonder if you will ever dance for me?"

Again, she shook her head. "I don't think so. How could I? You see, you are not like anybody that I have ever known."

"But I saw you the other evening, you remember."

"Yes, but I didn't know you were there. If I had known, I wouldn't have danced."

All the while--as she talked--her fingers had been busy with the slender, willow branches. "And now"--she said, abruptly changing the subject, and smiling as she spoke--"and now, you must turn back to your work."

"But the light is not right," he protested.

"Never mind, you must pretend that it is," she retorted. "Can't you pretend?"

To humor her, he obeyed, laughing.

"You may look, now," she said, a minute later.

He turned to see her standing close beside him, holding out a charming little basket that she had woven of the green willows and decorated with moss and watercress. In the basket, on the cool, damp moss, and lightly covered with the cress, lay a half dozen fine rainbow trout.

"How pretty!" he exclaimed. "So that is what you have been doing!"

"They are for you," she said simply.

"For me?" he cried.

She nodded brightly; "For you and Mr. Lagrange. I know you like them because you said you were fishing when you heard my violin. And I thought that you wouldn't want to leave your picture, to fish for yourself, so I took them for you."

The artist concealed his embarrassment with difficulty; and, while expressing his thanks and appreciation in rather formal words, studied her face keenly. But she had tendered her gift with a spontaneous naturalness, an unaffected kindliness, and an innocent disregard of conventionalities, that would have disarmed a man with much less native gentleness than Aaron King.

Leaving the basket of trout in his hand, she turned, and swung the empty creel over her shoulder. Then, putting on her hat, she picked up her rod.

"Oh--are you going?" he said.

"You have finished your work for to-day," she answered

"But let me go with you, a little way."

She shook her head. "No, I don't want you."

"But you will come again?"

"Perhaps--if you won't stop work--but I can't promise--you see I never know what I am going to do up here in the mountains," she answered whimsically. "I might go to the top of old 'Berdo' in the morning; or I might be here, waiting for you, when you come to paint."

He was putting his things in the box--thinking he would persuade her to let him accompany her a little way; if she saw that he really would paint no more. When he bent over the box, she was speaking. "I hope you will," he answered.

There was no reply.

He straightened up and looked around.

She was gone.

For some time, he stood searching the glade with his eyes, carefully; listening to catch a sound--a puzzled, baffled look upon his face. Taking his things, at last, he started up the little path. But before he reached the old gate, a low laugh caused him to whirl quickly about.

There she stood, beside the spring--a teasing smile on her face. Before he could command himself, she danced a step or two, with an elfish air, and slipped away through the green willow wall. Another merry laugh came back to him and then--the silence of the little glade, and the sound of the distant waters.

With the basket of fish in his hand, Aaron King went slowly to camp; where, when Conrad Lagrange saw what the artist carried so carefully, explanations were in order.