Chapter XVIII. Sibyl Andres and the Butterflies
 

On the following day, the artist was putting away his things, at the close of the afternoon's work, when the girl appeared.

The long, slanting bars of sunshine and the deepening shadows marked the lateness of the hour. As he bent over his paint-box, the man was thinking with regret that she would not come--that, perhaps, she would never come. And at the thought that he might not see her again, an odd fear gripped his heart. His thoughts were interrupted by a low, musical laugh; and he sprang to his feet, to search the glade with careful eyes.

"Come out," he cried, as though adjuring an invisible spirit. "I know you are here; come out."

With another laugh, she stepped from behind the trunk of one of the largest trees, within a few feet of where he stood. As she went toward him, she carried in her outstretched hands a graceful basket, woven of sycamore leaves and ferns, and filled with the ripest sweetest blackberries. She did not speak as she held out her offering; but the man, looking into her laughing eyes, fancied that there was a meaning and a purpose in the gift that did not appear upon the surface of her simple action.

Expressing his pleasure, as he received the dainty basket, he could not refrain from adding, "But why do you bring me things?"

She answered with that wayward, mocking humor that so often seized her; "Because I like to. I told you that I always do what I like--up here in the mountains."

"I hope you always will," he returned, "if your likes are all as delicious as this one."

With the manner of a child playfully making a mystery yet anxious to have the secret discussed, she said, "I have one more gift to bring you, yet."

"I knew you meant something by your presents," he cried. "It isn't just because you want me to have the things you bring."

"Oh, yes it is," she retorted, laughing mischievously at his triumphant and expectant tone. "If I didn't want you to have the things I bring--why--I wouldn't bring them, would I?"

"But that isn't all," he insisted. "Tell me--why do you say you have one more gift to bring?"

She shook her head with a delightful air of mystery "Not until I come again. When I come again, I will tell you."

"And you will come to-morrow?"

She laughed teasingly at his eagerness. "How can I tell?" she answered. "I do not know, myself, what I will do to-morrow--when I am up here in the mountains--when the canyon gates are shut and the world is left outside." Even as she spoke, her mood changed and the last words were uttered wistfully, as a captive spirit--that, by nature wild and free, was permitted, for a brief time only, to go beyond its prison walls--might have spoken.

The artist--puzzled by her flash-like change of moods, and by her manner as she spoke of the world beyond the canyon gates--had no words to reply. As he stood there,--in that little glade where the light fell as in a quiet cathedral and the air trembled with the deep organ-tones of the distant waters--holding in his hands the basket of leaves and ferns with its wild fruit, and looking at the beautiful girl who had brought her offering with the naturalness of a child of the mountains and the air of a woodland spirit,--he again felt that the world he had always known was very far away.

The girl, too, was silent--as though, by some subtle power, she knew his thoughts and did not wish to interrupt.

So still were they, that a wild bird--darting through the screen of alder boughs--stopped to swing on a limb above their heads, with a burst of wild-wood melody. In the arroyo beyond the willow wall, a quail called his evening call, and was answered by his mate from the top of the bank under the mistletoe oak. A pair of gray squirrels crept down the gray trunks of the trees and slipped around the granite boulder to drink at the spring; then scampered away again--half in frolic, half in fright--as they caught sight of the man and the maid. As the squirrels disappeared, the girl laughed--a low laugh of fellowship with the creatures of the wilderness--in complete understanding of their humor. Then--as though following the path of a sunbeam--two gorgeously brown and yellow winged butterflies came flitting through the draperies of virgin's-bower, and floated in zigzag flight about the glade--now high among the alder boughs; now low over the tops of the roses and berry-bushes; down to the fragrant mint at the water's edge; and up again to the tops of the willows, as if to leave the glade; but only to return again to the vines that covered the bank, and to the flowers that, here and there, starred the grassy sward.

"Oh!"--cried the girl impulsively, as the beautiful winged creatures disappeared at last,--"if people could only be like that! It's so hard to be yourself in the world. Everybody, there, seems trying to be something they are not. No one dares to be just themselves. Everything, up here, is so right--so true--so just what it is--and down there, everything tries so hard to be just what it is not. The world even sees so crooked that it can't believe when a thing is just what it is."

While watching the butterflies, she had turned away from the artist and, in following their flight with her eyes, had taken a few light steps that brought her into the open, grassy center of the glade. With her face upturned to the opening in the foliage through which the butterflies had disappeared, she had spoken as if thinking aloud, rather than as addressing her companion.

Before the artist could reply, the beautiful creatures came floating back as they had gone. With a low exclamation of delight, the girl watched them as they circled, now, above her head, in their aerial waltz among the sunbeams and leafy boughs. Then the man, watching, saw her--unheeding his presence--stretch her arms upward. For a moment she stood, lightly poised, and then, with her wide, shining eyes fixed upon those gorgeously winged spirits whirling in the fragrant air, with her lips parted in smiling delight, she danced upon the smooth turf of the glade--every step and movement in perfect harmony with the spirit of care-free abandonment that marked the movements of the butterflies that danced above her head. Unmindful of the watching man, as her dainty companions themselves,--forgetful of his presence,--she yielded to the impulse to express her emotions in free, rhythmic movement.

Instinctively, Aaron King was silent--standing motionless, as if he feared to startle her into flight.

Suddenly, as the girl danced--her eyes always upon her winged companions--the insects floated above the artist's head, and she became conscious of his presence. Her cheeks flushed and, laughing low,--as she danced, lightly as a spirit,--she impulsively stretched out her arms to him, in merry invitation--as though challenging him to join her.

The gesture was as spontaneous and as innocent, in its freedom, as had been her offering of the gifts from mountain stream and bush. But the man--lured into forgetfulness of everything save the wild loveliness of the scene--started toward her. At his movement, a look of bewildered fear came into her face; but--too startled to control her movements on the instant, and as though impelled by some hidden power--she moved toward him--blindly, unconsciously--her eyes wide with that look of questioning fright. He had almost reached her when, as though by an effort of her will, she stopped and stood still--gazing into his face--trembling in every limb. Then, with a low cry, she sank down in a frightened, cowering, pleading attitude, and buried her crimson face in her hands.

As though some unseen hand checked him, the man halted, and the girl's cheeks were not more crimson than his own.

A moment he stood, then a step brought him to her side. Putting out his hand, he touched her upon the shoulder, and was about to speak. But at his touch, with another cry, she sprang to her feet and, whirling with the flash-like quickness of a wild thing, vanished into the undergrowth that walled in the glade.

With a startled exclamation, the man tried to follow calling to her, reassuring her, begging her to come back. But there was no answer to his words; nor did he catch a glimpse of her; though once or twice he thought he heard her in swift flight up the canyon.

All the way to the place where he had first seen her, he followed; but at the cedar thicket he stopped. For a long time, he stood there; while the twilight failed and the night came. Slowly,--in the soft darkness with bowed head, as one humbled and ashamed,--he went back down the canyon to the little glade, and to the camp.