Chapter XXIII. Outside the Canyon Gates Again
 

Aaron King and Conrad Lagrange determined to go back from the mountains, the way they had come. Said the novelist, "It is as unseemly to rush pell-mell from an audience with the gods as it is to enter their presence irreverently."

To which the artist answered, laughing, "Even criminals under sentence have, at least, the privilege of going to their prisons reluctantly."

So they went down from the mountains, reverently and reluctantly.

Yee Kee, with the more elaborate equipment of the camp, was sent on ahead by wagon. The two men, with Croesus packed for a one night halt, and Czar, would follow. When all was ready, and they could neither of them invent any more excuses for lingering, Conrad Lagrange gave the word to the burro and they set out--down the little slope of grassy land; across the tiny stream from the cienaga; around the lower end of the old orchard, by the ancient weed-grown road--even Czar went slowly, with low-hung head, as if regretful at leaving the mountains that he, too, in his dog way, loved.

At the gate, Aaron King asked the novelist to go on, saying that he would soon overtake him. It was possible, he said, that he might have left something in the spring glade. He thought he had better make sure. Conrad Lagrange, assenting, went through the gate and down the road, with the four-footed members of the party; and Czar must have thought that there was something very funny about old Croesus that morning, from the way his master laughed; when they were safely around the first turn.

There was, of course, no material thing in the spring glade that the artist wanted. He knew that--quite as well as his laughing friend. Under the mistletoe oak, at the top of the bank, he paused, hesitating--as one will often pause when about to enter a sacred building. Softly, he pushed open the old gate, as he might have pushed open the door of a church. Slowly, reverently, he went down the path; baring his head as he went. He did not search for anything that he might have left. He simply stood for a few minutes under the gray-trunked alders that were so marked by the loving hands of long ago men and maidens--beside the mint bordered spring with the scattered stones of that old foundation--where, through the screen of boughs and vines and virgin's-bower the sunlight fell as through the traceries of a cathedral window, and the low, deep tones of the mountain waters came like the music of a great organ.

It is likely that Aaron King, himself, could not, at that time, have told why, as he was leaving the hills, he had paused to visit once more the spot where Sibyl Andres had brought to him her three gifts from the mountains--where, in her pure innocence, she had danced before him the dance of the mating butterflies--and where, with the music of her violin, she had saved their friendship from the perils that threatened it--lifting their intimate comradeship into the pure atmosphere of the higher levels, even as she had shown him the trails that lead from the lower canyon to the summits and peaks of the encircling mountain walls. But when he rejoined his friend there was something in his face that prevented the novelist from making any comment in a laughing vein.

As the two men passed outward through the canyon gates and, looking backward as they went, saw those mighty doors close silently behind them, the artist was moved by emotions that were strange and new to the man who, two months before, had watched those gates open to receive him. This, too, is true; as that man, then, knew, but did not know, the mountains; so this man, now, knew, yet still did not know, himself.

Where the road crosses, for the last time, the tumbling stream from the heart of the hills, they halted; and for one night slept again at the foot of the mountains. The next day they arrived at their little home in the orange grove. To Aaron King, it seemed that they had been away for years.

When the traces of their days upon the road had been removed, and they were garbed again in the conventional costume of the world; when their outfit had been put away, and a home found for patient Croesus; the artist went to his studio. The afternoon passed and Yee Kee called dinner; but Aaron King did not come. Then Conrad Lagrange went to find him. Softly, the older man pushed open the studio door to see the painter sitting before the portrait of Mrs. Taine, with the package of his mother's letters in his hand.

Without a sound, the novelist withdrew, leaving the door ajar. Going to the corner of the house, he whistled low, and in answer, Czar come bounding to him from the porch. "Go find Aaron, Czar," said the man, pointing toward the studio. "Go find Aaron."

Obediently, with waving tail, the dog trotted off, and pushing open the door entered the room; followed a few moments later by his master.

Conrad Lagrange smiled as he saw that the easel was without a canvas. The portrait of Mrs. Taine was turned to the wall.