Chapter XIX. The Three Gifts and Their Meanings
 

The next day, Aaron King--too distracted to paint--idled all the afternoon in the glade. But the girl did not come. When it was dark, he returned to camp; telling himself that she would never come again; that his rude yielding to the lure of her wild beauty had rightly broken forever the charm of their intimacy--and he cursed himself--as many a man has cursed--for that momentary lack of self-control.

But the following afternoon, as the artist worked,--bent upon quickly finishing his picture of the place that seemed now to reproach him with its sweet atmosphere of sacred purity,--he heard, as he had heard that first day, the low music of her voice blending with the music of the mountain stream. Scarce daring to move, he sat as though absorbed in his work--listening with all his heart, for some sound of her approach, other than the melody of her song that grew more and more distinct. At last, he knew that she was standing just the other side of the willows, beyond the little spring. He felt her hidden eyes upon him, but dared not look that way--feeling sure that if he betrayed himself in too eager haste she would vanish. Bending forward toward his canvas, he made show of giving close attention to his work and waited.

For some minutes, she remained concealed; singing low, as though to try him with temptation. Then, all at once,--as the painter, with poised brush, glanced from his canvas to the scene,--she stood in full view beside the spring; her graceful, brown-clad figure framed by the willow's green. Her arms were filled with wild flowers that she had gathered from the mountainside--from nook and glade and glen.

"If you will not seek me, there is no use to hide," she called, still holding her place on the other side of the spring, and regarding him seriously; and the man felt under her words, and saw in her wide, blue eyes a troubled question.

"I sought you all the way to your home," he said, gently, "but you would not let me come near."

"I was frightened," she returned, not lowering her eyes but regarding him steadily with that questioning appeal.

"I am sorry,"--he said,--"won't you forgive me? I will never frighten you so again. I did not mean to do it."

"Why," she answered, "I have to forgive myself as well as you. You see, I frightened myself quite as much as you frightened me. I can't feel that you were really to blame--any more than I. I have tried, but I can't--so I came back. Only, I--I must never dance for you again, must I?"

The man could not answer.

As though fully reassured, and quite satisfied to take his answer for granted, she sprang over the tiny stream at her feet, and came to him across the glade, holding out her arms full of blossoms. "See," she said with a smile, "I have brought you the last one of the three gifts." Gracefully, she knelt and placed the flowers on the ground, beside his box of colors.

Deeply moved by her honesty and by her simple trust in him; and charmed by the air of quiet, natural dignity with which she spoke of her gifts; the artist tried to thank her.

"And now," he added, "the meaning--tell me the meaning of your gifts. You promised--you remember--that you would read the pretty riddle, when you came again."

She laughed merrily. "And haven't you guessed the meaning?" she said in her teasing mood.

"How could I?" he retorted. "I was not schooled in your mountains, you know. Your world up here is still a strange world to me."

Still smiling with the pleasure of her fancy, she replied, "But didn't you ask me again and again to help you to know the mountains as I know them?"

"Yes," he said, "but you would not promise."

"I did better than promise"--she returned--"I brought you, from the mountains themselves, their three greatest gifts."

He shook his head, with the air of a backward schoolboy--"Won't you read the lesson?"

"If you will work while I talk, I will," she answered--amused by the hopelessness of his manner and tone.

Obediently, he took up his brushes, and turned toward his picture.

Removing her hat, she seated herself on the ground, where she had woven the willow basket for the fish.

After a moment's silence, she began--timidly, at first, then with increasing confidence as she found words to express her charming fancy. "First, you must know, that in all the wild life of the mountains there is no creature so strong--in proportion to its size and weight, I mean--as the trout that lives in the mountain streams. Its home is in the icy torrents that are fed by the snows of the highest peaks and canyons. It lives, literally, in the innermost heart and life of the hills. It seeks its food at the foot of the falls, where the water boils in fierce fury; where the current swirls and leaps among the boulders; and where the stream rushes with all its might down the rocky channels. With its muscles, fine as tempered steel, it forces its way against the strength of the stream--conquering even the fifty-foot downward pour of a cataract. Its strength is a silent strength. It has no voice other than the voice of its own beautiful self. And all its gleaming colors you may see, in the morning and in the evening, tinting the mighty heads and shoulders and sides of the hills themselves. And so, the first gift that I brought you--fresh from the mountain's heart--was the gift of the mountain's strength.

"The second gift was gathered from bushes that were never planted by the hand of man. They grow as free and untamed as the rains that water them, and the earth that feeds them, and the sunshine that sweetens hem. In them is the flavor of mountain mists, and low hung clouds, and shining dew; the odor of moist leaf-mould, and unimpoverished soil; the pleasant tang of the sunshine; and the softer sweetness of the shady nooks where they grow. In the second gift, I brought you the purity, and the flavor of the mountains."

"And to-day"--she finished simply--"to-day I have brought you the beauty of the hills."

"You have brought me more than the strength and purity and beauty of the mountains," exclaimed the painter. "You have brought me their mystery."

She looked at him questioningly.

"In your own beautiful self," he continued sincerely "you have brought me the mystery of these hills. You are wonderful! I have never known any one like you."

She was wholly unconscious of the compliment--if indeed, he meant it as such. "I suppose I must be different," she returned with just a touch, of sadness in her voice. "You see I have never been taught like other girls. I know nothing at all of the world where you live--except what Myra has told me." Then, as if to change the subject, she asked shyly, "Would you care for my music to-day?"

He assented eagerly--thinking she meant to sing. But, rising, she crossed the glade, and disappeared behind the willows--returning, a moment later, with her violin.

In answer to his exclamation of pleased surprise, she said smiling, "I brought my violin because I thought, if you would let me play, the music would perhaps help us both to forget what--what happened when I danced."

Standing by the gray boulder, with her face up turned to the mountains, she placed the instrument under her chin and drew the bow softly across the strings.

For an hour or more she played. Then, as Czar trotted sedately into the glade, she lowered her instrument and, with a smile, called merrily to Conrad Lagrange who, attracted by the music, was standing at the gate on the bank--from the artist's position invisible; "Come down, good genie,--come down! You have been watching there quite long enough. Come, instantly; or with my magic I'll turn you into a fantastic, dancing bug, such as those that straddle there upon the waters of the spring, or else into a fat pollywog that wiggles in the black ooze among the dead leaves and rotting bits of wood."

With a quick movement, she tucked her violin under her chin and played a few measures of the worst sort of ragtime, in perfect imitation of a popular performer. The effect, following the music she had just been making, was grotesque and horrible.

"Mercy, mercy!" cried the man at the gate. "I beg! I beg! Do not, I pray, good nymph, torture me with thy dreadful power. I swear that I will obey thy every wish and whim."

Pointing with her bow--as with a wand--to the boulder, she sternly commanded, "Come, then, and sit here upon this rock; and give to me an account of all that thou hast done since I left thee in the rose garden or I will split thy ears and stretch thy soul upon a torture rack of hideous noise."

She lifted her violin again, threateningly. The novelist came down the path, on a run, to seat himself upon the gray boulder.

The artist shouted with laughter. But the novelist and the girl paid no heed to his unseemly merriment.

"Speak,"--she commanded, waving her wand,--"what hast thou done?"

"Did I not obey thy will and, under such terms as I could procure, open for thee the treasure room of thy desire?" growled the man on the rock.

"And still," she retorted, "when I made myself subject to those terms, and obediently looked not upon the hidden mystery--still the room of my desires became a trap betraying me into rude hands from which I narrowly escaped. And you--you fled the scene of your wrong-doing, without so much as by-your-leave, and for these long weeks have wandered, irresponsible, among my hills. Did you not say that my home was under these glowing peaks, and in the purple shadows of these canyons? Did you think that I would not find you here, and charm you again within reach of my power?"

"And what is thy will, good spirit?"--he asked, humbly--"tell me thy will and it shall be done--if thou wilt but make music only upon the instrument that is in thy hand."

With a laugh, she ended the play, saying, "My will is that you and Mr. King come, to-morrow evening, for supper with Miss Willard and me. Brian Oakley and Mrs. Oakley will be there. I want you too."

The men looked at each other in doubt.

"Really, Miss Andres," said the artist, "we--"

The girl interrupted with one of her flash-like changes. "I have invited you. You must come. I shall expect you." And before either of the men could speak again, she sprang lightly across the little stream, and disappeared through the willow wall.

"Well, I'll be--" The novelist checked himself, solemnly--staring blankly at the spot where she had disappeared.

The artist laughed.

"What do you think of it?" demanded Conrad Lagrange, turning to his friend.

Aaron King, packing up his things, answered, "I think we'd better go."

Which opinion was concurred in by Brian Oakley who dropped in on them that evening.