Chapter XXII. Shadows of Coming Events
 

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange were idling in their camp, after breakfast the next morning, when Czar turned his head, quickly, in a listening attitude. With a low growl that signified disapproval, he moved forward a step or two and stood stiffly erect, gazing toward the lower end of the orchard.

"Some one coming, Czar?" asked the artist.

The dog answered with another growl, while the hair on his neck bristled in anger.

"Some one we don't like, heh!" commented the novelist. "Or"--he added as if musing upon the animal's instinct--"some one we ought not to like."

A bark from Czar greeted James Rutlidge who at that moment appeared at the foot of the slope leading up to their camp.

The two men--remembering the occasion of their visitor's last call at their home in Fairlands, when he had seen Sibyl in the studio--received the man with courtesy, but with little warmth. Czar continued to manifest his sentiments until rebuked by his master. The coolness of the reception, however, in no way disconcerted James Rutlidge; who, on his part, rather overdid his assumption of pleasure at meeting them again.

Explaining that he had come with a party of friends on a hunting trip, he told them how he had met Brian Oakley, and so had learned of their camp hidden behind the old orchard. The rest of his party, he said, had gone on up the canyon. They would stop at Burnt Pine on Laurel Creek, where he could easily join them before night. He could not think, he declared, of passing so near without greeting his friends.

"You two certainly are expert when it comes to finding snug, out-of-the-way quarters," he commented, searching the camp and the immediate surroundings with a careful and, ostensibly, an appreciative eye. "A thousand people might pass this old, deserted place without ever dreaming that you were so ideally hidden back here."

As he finished speaking, his roving eye came to rest upon a pair of gloves that Sibyl--the last time she had called--had carelessly left lying upon a stump close by a giant sycamore where, in camp fashion, the rods and creels and guns were kept. The artist had intended to return the gloves the day before, together with a book of trout-flies which the girl had also forgotten; but, in his eagerness for the day's outing, he had gone off without them.

The observing Conrad Lagrange did not fail to note that James Rutlidge had seen the telltale gloves. Fixing his peculiar eyes upon the visitor, he asked abruptly, with polite but purposeful interest, after the health of Mr. and Mrs. Taine and Louise.

The faint shadow of a suggestive smile that crossed the heavy features of James Rutlidge, as he turned his gaze from the gloves to meet the look of the novelist was maddening.

"The old boy is steadily going down," he said without feeling. "The doctors tell me that he can't last through the winter. It'll be a relief to everybody when he goes. Mrs. Taine is well and beautiful, as always--remarkable how she keeps up appearances, considering her husband's serious condition. Louise is quite as usual. They will all be back in Fairlands in another month. They sent regards to you both--in case I should run across you."'

The two men made the usual conventional replies, adding that they were returning to Fairlands the next day.

"So soon?" exclaimed their visitor, with another meaning smile. "I don't see how you can think of leaving your really delightful retreat. I understand you have such charming neighbors too. Perhaps though, they are also returning to the orange groves and roses."

Aaron King's face flushed hotly, and he was about to reply with vigor to the sneering words, when Conrad Lagrange silenced him with a quick look. Ignoring the reference to their neighbors, the novelist replied suavely that they felt they must return to civilization as some matters in connection with the new edition of his last novel demanded his attention, and the artist wished to get back to his studio and to his work.

"Really," urged Rutlidge, mockingly, "you ought not to go down now. The deer season opens in two days. Why not join our party for a hunt? We would be delighted to have you."

They were coolly thanking him for the invitation,--that, from the tone in which it was given, was so evidently not meant,--when Czar, with a joyful bark, dashed away through the grove. A moment, and a clear, girlish voice called from among the trees that bordered the cienaga, "Whoo-ee." It was the signal that Sibyl always gave when she approached their camp.

James Rutlidge broke into a low laugh while Sibyl's friends looked at each other in angry consternation as the girl, following her hail and accompanied by the delighted dog, appeared in full view; her fishing-rod in hand, her creel swung over her shoulder.

The girl's embarrassment, when, too late, she saw and recognized their visitor, was pitiful. As she came slowly forward, too confused to retreat, Rutlidge started to laugh again, but Aaron King, with an emphasis that checked the man's mirth, said in a low tone, "Stop that! Be careful!"

As he spoke, the artist arose and with Conrad Lagrange went forward to greet Sibyl in--as nearly as they could--their customary manner.

Formally, Rutlidge was presented to the girl; and, under the threatening eyes of the painter, greeted her with no hint of rudeness in his voice or manner; saying courteously, with a smile, "I have had the pleasure of Miss Andres' acquaintance for--let me see--three years now, is it not?" he appealed to her directly.

"It was three years ago that I first saw you, sir," she returned coolly.

"It was my first trip into the mountains, I remember," said Rutlidge, easily. "I met you at Brian Oakley's home."

Without replying, she turned to Aaron King appealingly. "I--I left my gloves and fly-book. I was going fishing and called to get them."

The artist gave her the articles with a word of regret for having so carelessly forgotten to return them to her. With a simple "good-by" to her two friends but without even a glance toward their caller, she went back up the canyon, in the direction from which she had come.

When the girl had disappeared among the trees, James Rutlidge said, with his meaning smile, "Really, I owe you an apology for dropping in so unexpectedly. I--"

Conrad Lagrange interrupted him, curtly. "No apology is due, sir."

"No?" returned Rutlidge, with a rising inflection and a drawling note in his voice that was almost too much for the others. "I really must be going, anyway," he continued. "My party will be some distance ahead. Sure you wouldn't care to join us?"

"Thanks! Sorry! but we cannot this time. Good of you to ask us," came from Aaron King and the novelist.

"Can't say that I blame you," their caller returned. "The fishing used to be fine in this neighborhood. You must have had some delightful sport. Don't blame you in the least for not joining our stag party. Delightful young woman, that Miss Andres. Charming companion--either in the mountains or in civilization Good-by--see you in Fairlands, later."

When he was out of hearing the two men relieved their feelings in language that perhaps it would be better not to put in print.

"And the worst of it is," remarked the novelist, "it's so damned dangerous to deny something that does not exist or make explanations in answer to charges that are not put into words."

"I could scarcely refrain from kicking the beast down the hill," said Aaron King, savagely.

"Which"--the other returned--"would have complicated matters exceedingly, and would have accomplished nothing at all. For the girl's sake, store your wrath against the day of judgment which, if I read the signs aright, is sure to come."

       *       *       *       *       *

When Sibyl Andres went down the canyon to the camp in the sycamores, that morning, the world, to her, was very bright. Her heart sang with joyous freedom amid the scenes that she so loved. Care-free and happy, as when, in the days of her girlhood, she had gone to visit the spring glade, she still was conscious of a deeper joy than in her girlhood she had ever known.

When she returned again up the canyon, all the brightness of her day was gone. Her heart was heavy with foreboding fear. She was oppressed with a dread of some impending evil which she could not understand. At every sound in the mountain wild-wood, she started. Time and again, as if expecting pursuit, she looked over her shoulder--poised like a creature of the woods ready for instant panic-stricken flight. So, without pausing to cast for trout, or even to go down to the stream, she returned home; where Myra Willard, seeing her come so early and empty handed, wondered. But to the woman's question, the girl only answered that she had changed her mind--that, after recovering her gloves and fly-book at the camp of their friends, she had decided to come home. The woman with the disfigured face, knowing that Aaron King was leaving the hills the next day, thought that she understood the girl's mood, and wisely made no comment.

The artist and Conrad Lagrange went to spend their last evening in the hills with their friends. Brian Oakley, too, dropped in. But neither of the three men mentioned the name of James Rutlidge in the presence of the women; while Sibyl was, apparently, again her own bright and happy self--carrying on a fanciful play of words with the novelist, singing with the artist, and making music for them all with her violin. But before the evening was over, Conrad Lagrange found an opportunity to tell the Ranger of the incident of the morning, and of the construction that James Rutlidge had evidently put upon Sibyl's call at the camp. Brian Oakley,--thinking of the night before, and how the man must have seen the artist and the girl coming down the Oak Knoll trail in the twilight,--swore softly under his breath.