Chapter IX. Conrad Lagrange's Adventure
 

Certainly, when Conrad Lagrange fled so precipitately from Louise Taine, that afternoon, he had no thought that the trivial incident was to mark the beginning of a new era in his life; or that it would work out in the life of his dearest friend such far reaching results. His only purpose was to escape an hour of the frothy vaporings of the poor, young creature who believed herself so interested in art and letters, and who succeeded so admirably in expressing the spirit of her environment and training.

With his pipe and book, the novelist hid himself in the rose garden; finding a seat on the ground, in an angle of the studio wall and the Ragged Robin hedge, where any one entering the enclosure would be least likely to observe him. Czar, heartily approving of his master's action, stretched himself comfortably under the nearest rose-bush, and waited further developments.

Presently, the novelist heard his friend, with Mrs. Taine, come from the house and enter the studio. For a moment, he entertained the uncomfortable fear that the artist, in a spirit of sheer boyish fun that so often moved him, would bring Mrs. Taine to the garden. But the moment passed, and the novelist,--mentally blessing the young man for his forbearance,--with a chuckle of satisfaction, lighted his pipe and opened his book. Scarcely had he found his place in the pages, however, when he was again interrupted--this time, by the welcome tones of their neighbor's violin. Putting his book aside, the man reclining in the shelter of the roses, with half-closed eyes, yielded himself to the fancy of the spirit that called from the depths of the fragrant orange grove.

The mass of roses in the hedge and on the wall of the studio above his head dropped their lovely petals down upon him. The warm, slanting rays of the afternoon sun, softened by the screen of shining leaves and branches, played over the bewildering riot of color. Here and there, golden-bodied bees and velvet-winged butterflies flitted about their fairy-like duties. Far above, in the deep blue, a hawk floated on motionless wings and a lonely crow laid his course toward the distant mountain peaks that gleamed, silvery white, above the blue and purple of the lower ridges and the tawny yellow of their foothills. The air was saturated with the fragrance of the rose and orange blossoms, of eucalyptus and pepper trees, and with the thousand other perfumes of a California spring.

The music ceased. The man waited--hoping that it would begin again. But it did not; and he was about to take up his book, once more, when Czar arose, stretched himself, stood for a moment in a picturesque, listening attitude, then trotted off among the roses; leaving the novelist with an odd feeling of uneasy expectancy--half resolved to stay, half determined to go. The thought of Louise in the house decided him, and he kept his place, hidden as he was, in the corner--a whimsical smile hovering over his world-lined features as though, after all, he felt himself entering upon some enjoyable adventure.

Presently, he heard indistinctly, somewhere in the other end of the garden, a low murmuring voice. As it came nearer, the man's smile grew more pronounced It was a wonderfully attractive voice, clear and full in its pure-toned sweetness. The unseen speaker was talking to the novelist's dog. The smile on the man's face was still more pronounced, as he whispered to himself, "The rascal! So this is what he has been up to!" Rising quietly to his knees, he peered through the flower-laden bushes.

A young woman of rare and exquisite beauty was moving about the garden--bending over the roses, and talking in low tones to Czar, who--to his hidden master--appeared to appreciate fully the favor of his gentle companion's intimacy. The novelist--old in the study of character and trained by his long years of observation and experience in the world of artificiality--was fascinated by the loveliness of the scene.

Dressed simply, in some soft clinging material of white, with a modestly low-cut square at the throat, and sleeves that ended in filmy lace just below the elbow--her lithe, softly rounded form, as she moved here and there, had all the charm of girlish grace with the fuller beauty of ripening womanhood. As she bent over the roses, or stooped to caress the dog, in gentle comradeship, her step, her poise, her every motion, was instinct with that strength and health that is seldom seen among those who wear the shackles of a too conventionalized society. Her face,--warmly tinted by the golden out-of-doors, firm fleshed and clear,--in its unconscious naturalness and in its winsome purity was like the flowers she stooped to kiss.

As he watched, the man noticed--with a smile of understanding--that she kept rather to the side of the garden toward the house; where the artist, at his easel by the big, north light, could not see her through the small window in the end of the room; and where, hidden by the tall hedge, she would not be noticed from Yee Kee's kitchen. Often, too, she paused to listen, as if for any chance approaching step--appearing, to the fancy of the man, as some creature from another world--poised lightly, ready to vanish if any rude observer came too near. Soon,--after a cautious, hesitating, listening look about,--she slipped, swift footed as a fawn, across the garden, and--followed by the dog--disappeared into the latticed rose-covered arbor against the southern wall.

With a chuckle to himself, Conrad Lagrange crept quietly along the hedge to the door of her retreat.

When she saw him there, she gave a little cry and started as though to escape. But the novelist, smiling barred her way; while Czar, joyfully greeting his master, turned from the man to the girl and back to the man again, as if, by dividing his attention equally between the two, he was bent upon assuring each that the other was a friend of the right sort. There was no mistaking the facts that the dog was introducing them, and that he was as proud of his new acquaintance as he was pleased to present his older and more intimate companion.

A sunny smile broke over the girl's winsome face, as she caught the meaning of Czar's behavior. "O," she said, "are you his master?" Her manner was as natural and unrestrained as a child's--her voice, musically sweet and low, as one unaccustomed to the speech of noisy, crowded cities or shrill chattering crowds.

"I am his most faithful and humble subject," returned the man, whimsically.

She was studying his face openly, while her own countenance--unschooled to hide emotions, untrained to deceive--frankly betrayed each passing thought and mood. The daintily turned chin, sensitive lips, delicate nostrils, and large, blue eyes,--with that wide, unafraid look of a child that has never been taught to fear,--revealed a spirit fine and rare; while the low, broad forehead, shaded by a wealth of soft brown hair,--that, arranged deftly in some simple fashion, seemed to invite the caress of every wayward breath of air,--gave the added charm of strength and purpose. The man, seeing these things and knowing--as few men ever know--their value, waited her verdict.

It came with a smile and a pretty fancy, as though she caught the mood of the novelist's reply. "He has told me so much about you--how kind you are to him, and how he loves you. I hope you don't mind that he and I have learned to be good friends. Won't you tell me his name? I have tried everything, but nothing seems to fit. To call such a royal fellow, 'doggie', doesn't do at all, does it?"

Conrad Lagrange laughed--and it was the laugh of a Conrad Lagrange unknown to the world. "No," he said with mock seriousness, "'doggie,' doesn't do at all. He's not that kind of a dog. His name is Czar. That is"--he added, giving full rein to his droll humor--"I gave it to him for a name. He has made it his title. He did that, you know, so I would always remember that he is my superior."

She laughed--low, full-throated and clear--as a girl who has not sadly learned that she is a woman, laughs. Then she fell to caressing the dog and calling him by name; while Czar--in his efforts to express his delight and satisfaction--was as nearly undignified as it was possible for him to be.

As he watched them, the rugged, world-worn features of the famous novelist were lighted with an expression that transformed them.

"And I suppose," she said,--still responding to the novelist's playful mood,--"that Czar told you I was trespassing in your garden. Of course it was his duty to tell. I hope he told you, also, that I do not steal your roses."

The man shook his head, and his sharp, green-gray eyes were twinkling merrily, now--as a boy in the spirit of some amusing venture. "Oh, no! Czar said nothing at all about trespassers. He did tell me, though, about a wonderful creature that comes every day to visit the garden. A nymph, he thought it was--a beautiful Oread from away up there among the silver peaks and purple canyons--or, perhaps, a lovely Dryad from among the oaks and pines. I felt quite sure, though, that the nymph must be an Oread; because he said that she comes to gather colors from the roses, and that every morning and every evening she uses these colors to tint the highest peaks and crests of her mountains--making them so beautiful that mortals would always begin and end each day by looking up at them. Of course, the moment I saw, you I knew who you were."

Unaffectedly pleased as a child at his quaint fancy, she answered merrily, "And so you hid among the roses to trap me, I suppose."

"Indeed, I did not," he retorted indignantly. "I was forced to fly from a wicked Flibbertigibbet who seeks to torment me. I barely escaped with my life, and came into the garden to hide and recover from my fright. Then I heard the most wonderful music and guessed that you must be somewhere around. Then Czar, who had come with me to hide from the Flibbertigibbet in the house, left me. I looked to see where he had gone, and so I saw, sure enough, that it was you. All my life, you know, I have wanted to catch a real nymph; but never could. So when you came into the arbor, I couldn't resist trying again. And, now, here we are--with Czar to say it is all right."

At his fanciful words, she laughed again, and her cheeks flushed with pleasure. Then, with grave sweetness, she said, "Won't you sit down, please, and let me explain seriously?"

"I suppose you must pretend to be like the rest of us," he returned with an air of resignation, "but all the same, Czar and I know you are not."

When they were seated, she said simply, "My name is Sibyl Andres. This place used to be my home. My mother planted this garden with her own hands. Many of these roses were brought from our home in the mountains, where I was born, and where I lived with father and mother until five years ago. I feel, still, as though the old place in the hills were my real home, and every summer, when nearly every one goes away from Fairlands and there is nothing for me to do, Myra Willard and I go up there, for as long as we can. You see, I teach music and play in the churches. Miss Willard taught me. She and mother are the only teachers I have ever had. After father's death, mother and Myra and I lived here for two years; then mother died, and Myra and I moved to that little house over there, because we could not afford to keep this place. But the man who bought it gave me permission to care for the garden; so I come almost every day--through that little gate in the corner of the hedge, there--to tend the roses. Since you men moved in, though, I come, mostly, in the morning--early--before you are up. I only slip in, sometimes, for a few minutes, in the afternoon--when I think it will be safe. You see, being strangers, I--I feared you would think me bold--if I--if I asked to come. So many people really wouldn't understand, you know."

Conrad Lagrange's deep voice was very gentle as he said, "Mr. King and I have known, all the time, that we had no real claim upon this garden, Miss Andres." Then, with his whimsical smile, he added, "You see, we felt, from the very first, that it was haunted by a lovely spirit that would vanish utterly if we intruded. That is why we have been so careful. We did not want to frighten you away. And besides, you know, Czar told us that it was all right!"

The blue eyes shone through a bright mist as she answered the man's kindly words. "You are good, Mr. Lagrange. And all the time it was really you of whom I was so afraid."

"Why me, more than my friend?" he asked, regarding her thoughtfully.

She colored a little under his searching gaze, but answered with that childlike frankness that was so much a part of her winsome charm, "Why, because your friend is an artist--I thought he would be sure to understand. I knew, of course, that you were the famous author; everybody talks about your living here." She seemed to think that her words explained.

"You mean that you were afraid of me because I am famous?" he asked doubtfully.

"Oh no," she answered, "not because you are famous. I mean--I was not afraid of your fame," she smiled.

"And now," said the novelist decisively, "you must tell me at once--do you read my books?" He waited, as though much depended upon her answer.

The blue eyes were gazing at him with that wide, unafraid look as she answered sadly, "No, sir. I have tried, but I can't. They spoil my music. They hurt me, somehow, all over."

Conrad Lagrange received her words with mingled emotions--with pleased delight at her ingenuous frankness; with bitter shame, sorrow, and humiliation and, at the last, with genuine gladness and relief. "I knew it"--he said triumphantly--"I knew it. It was because of my books that you were so afraid of me?" He asked eagerly, as one would ask to have a deep conviction verified.

"You see," she said,--smiling at the manner of his words,--"I did not know that an author could be so different from the things he writes about." Then, with a puzzled air--"But why do you write the horrid things that spoil my music and make me afraid? Why don't you write as you talk--about--about the mountains? Why don't you make books like--like"--she seemed to be searching for a word, and smiled with pleasure when she found it--"like yourself?"

"Listen"--said the novelist impressively, taking refuge in his fanciful humor--"listen--I'll tell you a secret that must always be for just you and me--you like secrets don't you?"--anxiously.

She laughed with pleasure--responding instantly to his mood. "Of course I like secrets."

He nodded approval. "I was sure you did. Now listen--I am not really Conrad Lagrange, the man who wrote those books that hurt you so--not when I am here in your rose garden, or when I am listening to your music, or when I am away up there in your mountains, you know. It is only when I am in the unclean world that reads and likes my books that I am the man who wrote them."

Her eyes shone with quick understanding. "Of course," she agreed, "you couldn't be that kind of a man, and love the music, and like to be here among the roses or up in the mountains, could you?"

"No, and I'll tell you something else that goes with our secret. Your name is not really Sibyl Andres, you know--any more than you really live over there in that little house. Your real home is in the mountains--just as you said--you really live among the glowing peaks, under the dark pines, on the ridges, and in the purple shadows of the canyons. You only come down here to the Fairlands folk with a message from your mountains--and we call your message music. Your name is--"

She was leaning forward, her face glowing with eagerness. "What is my name?"

"What can it be but 'Nature'," he said softly. "That's it, 'Nature'."

"And you? Who are you when you are not--when you are not in that other world?"

"Me? Oh, my real name is 'Civilization'. Can't you guess why?"

She shook her head. "Tell me."

"Because,--in spite of all that the world that reads my books can give,--poor old 'Civilization' cannot be happy without the message that 'Nature' brings from her mountains."

"And you, too, love the mountains and--and this garden, and my music?" she asked half doubtingly. "You are not pretending that too--just to amuse me?"

"No, I am not pretending that," he said.

"Then why--how can you do the--the other thing? I can't understand."

"Of course, you can't understand--how could you? You are 'Nature' and 'Nature' must often be puzzled by the things that 'Civilization' does."

"Yes. I think that is true," she agreed. "But I'm glad you like my music, anyway."

"And so am I glad--that I can like it. That's the only thing that saves me."

"And your friend, the artist,--does he like my mountain music, do you think?"

"Very much. He needs it too."

"I am glad," she answered simply. "I hoped he would like it, and that it would help him. It was really for him that I have played."

"You played for him?"

"Yes," she returned without confusion. "You see, I did not know about you--then. I thought you were altogether the man who wrote those books--and so I could not play for you. That is--I mean--you understand--I could not play--" again she seemed to search for a word, and finding it, smiled--"I could not play myself for you. But I thought that because he was an artist he would understand; and that if I could make the music tell him of the mountains it would, perhaps, help him a little to make his work beautiful and right--do you see?"

"Yes," he answered smilingly, "I see. I might have known that it was for him that you brought your message from the hills. But poor old 'Civilization' is frightfully stupid sometimes, you know."

Laughingly, she turned to the lattice wall of the arbor, and parting the screen of vines a little, said to him, "Look here!"

Standing beside her, Conrad Lagrange, through the window in the end of the studio next the garden, saw Aaron King at his easel; the artist's position in the light of the big, north window being in a direct line between the two openings and the arbor. Mrs. Taine was sitting too far out of line to be seen.

The girl laughed gleefully. "Do you see him at his work? At first, I only hid here to find what kind of people were going to live in my old home. But when he was making our old barn into a studio, and I heard who you both were, I came because I love to watch him; as I try to make the music I think he would love to hear."

The novelist studied her intently. She was so artless--so unaffected by the conventions of the world--in a word, so natural in expressing her thoughts, that the man who had given the best years of his life to feed the vicious, grossly sensual and bestial imaginations of his readers was deeply moved. He was puzzled what to say. At last, he murmured haltingly, "You like the artist, then?"

Her eyes were full of curious laughter as she answered, "Why, what a funny question--when I have never even talked with him. How could I like any one I have never known?"

"But you make your music for him; and you come here to watch him?"

"Oh, but that is for the work he is doing; that is for his pictures." She turned to look through the tiny opening in the arbor. "How I wish I could see inside that beautiful room. I know it must be beautiful. Once, when you were all gone, I tried to steal in; but, of course, he keeps it locked."

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said the man, suddenly--prompted by her confession to resume his playful mood.

"What?" she asked eagerly, in a like spirit of fun.

"First," he answered, half teasingly, "I must know if you could, now, make your music for me as well as for him."

"For the you that loves the mountains and the garden I'm sure I could," she answered promptly.

"Well then, if you will promise to do that--if you will promise not to play yourself for just him alone but for me too--I'll fix it so that you can go into the studio yonder."

"Oh, I will always play for you, too, anyway--now that I know you."

"Of course," he said, "we could just walk up to the door, and I could introduce you; but that would not be proper for us would it?"

She shook her head positively, "I wouldn't like to do that. He would think I was intruding, I am sure."

"Well then, we will do it this way--the first day that Mr. King and I are both away, and Tee Kee is gone, too; I'll slip out here and leave a letter and a key on your gate. The letter will tell you just the time when we go, and when we will return--so you will know whether it is safe for you or not, and how long you can stay. Only"--he became very serious--"only, you must promise one thing."

"What?"

"That you won't look at the picture on the easel."

"But why must I promise that?"

"Because that picture will not be finished for a long time yet, and you must not look at it until I say it is ready. Mr. King wouldn't like you to see that picture, I am sure. In fact, he doesn't like for any one to see the picture he is working on just now."

"How funny," she said, with a puzzled look. "What is he painting it for? I like for people to hear my music."

The man answered before he thought--"But I don't like people to read my books."

She shrank back, with troubled eyes, "Oh! is he--is he that kind of an artist?"

"No, no, no!" exclaimed the novelist, hastily. "You must not think that. I did not mean you to think that. If he was that kind of an artist, I wouldn't let you go into the studio at all. Mr. King is a good man--the best man I have ever known. He is my friend because he knows the secret about me that you know. He does not read my books. He would not read one of them for anything. It is only that this picture is not finished. When it is finished, he will not care who sees it."

"I'm glad," she said. "You frightened me, for a minute--I understand, now."

"And you promise not to look at the picture on the easel?"

She nodded,--"Of course. And when I come out I'll lock the door and put the key back on the gate again; and no one but you and I will ever know."

"No one but you and I will know," he answered.

As he spoke, Czar, who had been lying quietly in the doorway of the arbor, rose quickly to his feet, with a low growl.

The girl, peering through the screen on the side toward the house, uttered an exclamation of fear and drew back, turning to her companion appealingly. "O please, please don't let that man find me here."

Conrad Lagrauge looked and saw James Rutlidge coming down the path toward the arched entrance to the garden, which was directly across from the arbor.

"Stop him, please stop him," whispered the girl, her hand upon his arm.

"Stay here until I get him out of sight," said the novelist quickly. "I won't let him come into the garden. When we are gone, you can make your escape. Don't forget the music for me, and the key at the gate."

He spoke to Czar, and with the dog obediently at heel went forward to meet Mr. Rutlidge, who had called for Mrs. Taine and Louise.

But all the while that Conrad Lagrange was talking to the man, and leading him toward the door of the studio, he was wondering--why that look of fear upon the face of the girl in the garden? What had Sibyl Andres to do with James Rutlidge?