She had her boxes placed upon a cab and drove off to Hobart Place. The sense of loneliness soon left her. She was buoyed up by excitement. The novelty of the streets amused her. Moreover, she had invented her father, clothed him with many qualities as with shining raiment, and set him high among the persons of her dreams. Would he be satisfied with his daughter? That was her fear, and with the help of the looking-glass at the side of her hansom, she tried to remove the traces of travel from her young face.
The cab stopped at a door in a narrow wall between two houses, and she got out. Over the wall she saw the green leaves and branches of a few lime trees which rose from a little garden, and at the end of the garden, in the far recess between the two side walls, the upper windows of a little neat white house. Sylvia was charmed with it. She rang the bell, and a servant came to the door.
“Is Mr. Skinner in?” asked Sylvia.
“Yes,” she said, doubtfully, “but—”
Sylvia, however, had made her plans.
“Thank you,” she said. She made a sign to the cabman, and walked on through the doorway into a little garden of grass with a few flowers on each side against the walls. A tiled path led through the middle of the grass to the glass door of the house. Sylvia walked straight down, followed by the cabman who brought her boxes in one after the other. The servant, giving way before the composure of this strange young visitor, opened the door of a sitting-room upon the left hand, and Sylvia, followed by her trunks, entered and took possession.
“What name shall I say?” asked the servant in perplexity. She had had no orders to expect a visitor. Sylvia paid the cabman and waited until she heard the garden door close and the jingle of the cab as it was driven away. Then, and not till then, she answered the question.
“No name. Just please tell Mr. Skinner that some one would like to see him.”
The servant stared, but went slowly away. Sylvia seated herself firmly upon one of the boxes. In spite of her composed manner, her heart was beating wildly. She heard a door open and the firm tread of a man along the passage. Sylvia clung to her box. After all she was in the house, she and her baggage. The door opened and a tall broad-shouldered man, who seemed to fill the whole tiny room, came in and stared at her. Then he saw her boxes, and he frowned in perplexity. As he appeared to Sylvia, he was a man of about forty-five, with a handsome, deeply-lined aquiline face. He had thick, dark brown hair, a mustache of a lighter brown and eyes of the color of hers—a man rather lean but of an athletic build. Sylvia watched him intently, but the only look upon his face was one of absolute astonishment. He saw a young lady, quite unknown to him, perched upon her luggage in a sitting-room of his house.
“You wanted to see me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied, getting on to her feet. She looked at him gravely. “I am Sylvia,” she said.
A smile, rather like her own smile, hesitated about his mouth.
“Who is Sylvia? What is she?
Her trunks do not proclaim her!”
he said. “Beyond that Sylvia has apparently come to stay, I am rather in the dark.”
“You are Mr. Garratt Skinner?”
“I am your daughter Sylvia.”
“My daughter Sylvia!” he exclaimed in a daze. Then he sat down and held his head between his hands.
“Yes, by George. I have got a daughter Sylvia,” he said, obviously recollecting the fact with surprise. “But you are at Chamonix.”
“I was at Chamonix yesterday.”
Garratt Skinner looked sharply at Sylvia.
“Did your mother send you to me?”
“No,” she answered. “But she let me go. I came of my own accord. A letter came from you—”
“Did you see it?” interrupted her father. “Did she show it you?”
“No, but she gave me your address when I told her that I must come away.”
“Did she? I think I recognize my wife in that kindly act,” he said, with a sudden bitterness. Then he looked curiously at his daughter.
“Why did you want to come away?”
“I was unhappy. For a long time I had been thinking over this. I hated it all—the people we met, the hotels we stayed at, the life altogether. Then at Chamonix I went up a mountain.”
“Oho,” said her father, sitting up alertly. “So you went up a mountain? Which one?”
“The Aiguille d’Argentière. Do you know it, father?”
“I have heard of it,” said Garratt Skinner.
“Well, somehow that made a difference. It is difficult to explain. But I felt the difference. I felt something had happened to me which I had to recognize—a new thing. Climbing that mountain, staying for an hour upon its summit in the sunlight with all those great still pinnacles and ice-slopes about me—it was just like hearing very beautiful music.” She was sitting now leaning forward with her hands clasped in front of her and speaking with great earnestness. “All the vague longings which had ever stirred within me, longings for something beyond, and beyond, came back upon me in a tumult. There was a place in shadow at my feet far below, the only place in shadow, a wall of black rock called the Col Dolent. It seemed to me that I was living in that cold shadow. I wanted to get up on the ridge, with the sunlight. So I came to you.”
It seemed to Sylvia, that intently as she spoke, her words were and must be elusive to another, unless that other had felt what she felt or were moved by sympathy to feel it. Her father listened without ridicule, without a smile. Indeed, once or twice he nodded his head to her words. Was it comprehension, she wondered, or was it only patience?
“When I came down from that summit, I felt that what I had hated before was no longer endurable at all. So I came to you.”
Her father got up from his chair and stood for a little while looking out of the window. He was clearly troubled by her words. He turned away with a shrug of his shoulders.
“But—but—what can I do for you here?” he cried. “Sylvia, I am a very poor man. Your mother, on the other hand, has some money.”
“Oh, father, I shan’t cost you much,” she replied, eagerly. “I might perhaps by looking after things save you money. I won’t cost you much.”
Garratt Skinner looked at her with a rueful smile.
“You look to me rather an expensive person to keep up,” he said.
“Mother dressed me like this. It’s not my choice,” she said. “I let her do as she wished. It did not seem to matter much. Really, if you will let me stay, you will find me useful,” she said, in a pathetic appeal.
“Useful?” said Garratt Skinner, suddenly. He again took stock of her, but now with a scrutiny which caused her a vague discomfort. He seemed to be appraising her from the color of her hair and eyes to the prettiness of her feet, almost as though she was for sale, and he a doubtful purchaser. She looked down on the carpet and slowly her blood colored her neck and rose into her face. “Useful,” he said, slowly. “Perhaps so, yes, perhaps so.” And upon that he changed his tone. “We will see, Sylvia. You must stay here for the present, at all events. Luckily, there is a spare room. I have some friends here staying to supper—just a bachelor’s friends, you know, taking pot-luck without any ceremony, very good fellows, not polished, perhaps, but sound of heart, Sylvia my girl, sound of heart.” All his perplexity had vanished; he had taken his part; and he rattled along with a friendly liveliness which cleared the shadows from Sylvia’s thoughts and provoked upon her face her rare and winning smile. He rang the bell for the housemaid.
“My daughter will stay here,” he said, to the servant’s astonishment. “Get the spare room ready at once. You will be hostess to-night, Sylvia, and sit at the head of the table. I become a family man. Well, well!”
He took Sylvia up-stairs and showed her a little bright room with a big window which looked out across the garden. He carried her boxes up himself. “We don’t run to a butler,” he said. “Got everything you want? Ring if you haven’t. We have supper at eight and we shan’t dress. Only—well, you couldn’t look dowdy if you tried.”
Sylvia had not the slightest intention to try. She put on a little frock of white lace, high at the throat, dressed her hair, and then having a little time to spare she hurriedly wrote a letter. This letter she gave to the servant and she ran down-stairs.
“You will be careful to have it posted, please!” she said, and at that moment her father came out into the passage, so quickly that he might have been listening for her approach.
She stopped upon the staircase, a few steps above him. The evening was still bright, and the daylight fell upon her from a window above the hall door.
“Shall I do?” she asked, with a smile.
The staircase was paneled with a dark polished wood, and she stood out from that somber background, a white figure, delicate and dainty and wholesome, from the silver buckle on her satin slipper to the white flower she had placed in her hair. Her face, with its remarkable gentleness, its suggestion of purity as of one unspotted by the world, was turned to him with a confident appeal. Her clear gray eyes rested quietly on his. Yet she saw his face change. It seemed that a spasm of pain or revolt shook him. Upon her face there came a blank look. Why was he displeased? But the spasm passed. He shrugged his shoulders and threw off his doubt.
“You are very pretty,” he said.
Sylvia’s smile just showed about the corners of her lips and her face cleared.
“Yes,” she said, with satisfaction.
Garratt Skinner laughed.
“Oh, you know that?”
“Yes,” she replied, nodding her head at him.
He led the way down the passage toward the back of the house, and throwing open a door introduced her to his friends.
“Captain Barstow,” he said, and Sylvia found herself shaking hands with a little middle-aged man with a shiny bald head and a black square beard. He had an eye-glass screwed into his right eye, and that whole side of his face was distorted by the contraction of the muscles and drawn upward toward the eye. He did not look at her directly, but with an oblique and furtive glance he expressed his sense of the honor which the introduction conferred on him. However, Sylvia was determined not to be disappointed. She turned to the next of her father’s guests.
“Mr. Archie Parminter.”
He at all events looked her straight in the face. He was a man of moderate height, youthful in build, but old of face, upon which there sat always a smirk of satisfaction. He was of those whom no beauty in others, no grace, no sweetness, could greatly impress, so filled was he with self-complacency. He had no time to admire, since always he felt that he was being admired, and to adjust his pose, and to speak so that his words, carried to the right distance, occupied too much of his attention. He seldom spoke to the person he talked with but generally to some other, a woman for choice, whom he believed to be listening to the important sentences he uttered. For the rest, he had grown heavy in jaw and his face (a rather flat face in which were set a pair of sharp dark eyes) narrowed in toward the top of his head like a pear.
He bowed suavely to Sylvia, with the air of one showing to the room how a gentleman performed that ceremony, but took little note of her.
But Sylvia was determined not to be disappointed.
Her father took her by the elbow and turned her about.
Sylvia was confronted with a youth who reddened under her greeting and awkwardly held out a damp coarse hand, a poor creature with an insipid face, coarse hair, and manner of great discomfort. He was as tall as Parminter, but wore his good clothes with Sunday air, and having been introduced to Sylvia could find no word to say to her.
“Well, let us go in to supper,” said her father, and he held open the door for her to pass.
Sylvia went into the dining-room across the narrow hall, where a cold supper was laid upon a round table. In spite of her resolve to see all things in a rosy light, she grew conscious, in spite of herself, that she was disappointed in her father’s friends. She was perplexed, too. He was so clearly head and shoulders above his associates, that she wondered at their presence in his house. Yet he seemed quite content, and in a most genial mood.
“You sit here, Sylvia, my dear,” he said, pointing to a chair. “Wallie”—this to the youth Hine—“sit beside my daughter and keep her amused. Barstow, you on the other side; Parminter next to me.”
He sat opposite Sylvia and the rest took their places, Hine sidling timidly into his chair and tortured by the thought that he had to amuse this delicate being at his side.
“The supper is on the table,” said Garratt Skinner. “Parminter, will you cut up this duck? Hine, what have you got in front of you? Really, this is so exceptional an occasion that I think—” he started up suddenly, as a man will with a new and happy idea—“I certainly think that for once in a way we might open a bottle of champagne.”
Surprise and applause greeted this brilliant idea, and Hine cried out:
“I think champagne fine, don’t you, Miss Skinner?”
He collapsed at his own boldness. Parminter shrugged his shoulders to show that champagne was an every-day affair with him.
“It’s drunk a good deal at the clubs nowadays,” he said.
Meanwhile Garratt Skinner had not moved. He stood looking across the table to his daughter.
“What do you say, Sylvia? It’s an extravagance. But I don’t have such luck every day. It’s in your honor. Shall we? Yes, then!”
He did not wait for an answer, but opened the door of a cupboard in the sideboard, and there, quite ready, stood half a dozen bottles of champagne. A doubt flashed into Sylvia’s mind—a doubt whether her father’s brilliant idea was really the inspiration which his manner had suggested. Those bottles looked so obviously got in for the occasion. But Garratt Skinner turned to her apologetically, as though he divined her thought.
“We don’t run to a wine cellar, Sylvia. We have to keep what little stock we can afford in here.”
Her doubt vanished, but in an instant it returned again, for as her father came round the table with the bottle in his hand, she noticed that shallow champagne glasses were ready laid at every place. Garratt Skinner filled the glasses and returned to his place.
“Sylvia,” he said, and, smiling, he drank to her. He turned to his companions. “Congratulate me!” Then he sat down.
The champagne thawed the tongues of the company, and as they spoke Sylvia’s heart sank more and more. For in word and thought and manner her father’s guests were familiar to her. She refused to acknowledge it, but the knowledge was forced upon her. She had thought to step out of a world which she hated, against which her delicacy and her purity revolted, and lo! she had stepped out merely to take a stride and step down into it again at another place.
The obsequious attentiveness of Captain Barstow, the vanity of Mr. Parminter and his affected voice, suggesting that he came out of the great world to this little supper party, really without any sense of condescension at all, and the behavior of Walter Hine, who, to give himself courage, gulped down his champagne—it was all horribly familiar. Her one consolation was her father. He sat opposite to her, his strong aquiline face a fine contrast to the faces of the others; he had an ease of manner which they did not possess; he talked with a quietude of his own, and he had a watchful eye and a ready smile for his daughter. Indeed, it seemed that what she felt his guests felt too. For they spoke to him with a certain deference, almost as if they spoke to their master. He alone apparently noticed no unsuitability in his guests. He sat at his ease, their bosom friend.
Meanwhile, plied with champagne by Archie Parminter, who sat upon the other side of him, “Wallie” Hine began to boast. Sylvia tried to check him, but he was not now to be stopped. His very timidity pricked him on to extravagance, and his boasting was that worst form of boasting—the vaunt of the innocent weakling anxious to figure as a conqueror of women. With a flushed face he dropped his foolish hints of Mrs. This and Lady That, with an eye upon Sylvia to watch the impression which he made, and a wise air which said “If only I were to tell you all.”
Garratt Skinner opened a fresh bottle of champagne—the supply by now was getting low—and came round the table with it. As he held the neck of the bottle to the brim of Hine’s glass he caught an appealing look from his daughter. At once he lifted the bottle and left the glass unfilled. As he passed Sylvia, she said in a low voice:
“Thank you,” and he whispered back:
“You are quite right, my dear. Interest him so that he doesn’t notice that I have left his glass empty.”
Sylvia set herself then to talk to Wallie Hine. But he was intent on making her understand what great successes had been his. He would talk, and it troubled her that all listened, and listened with an air of admiration. Even her father from his side of the table smiled indulgently. Yet the stories, or rather the hints of stories, were certainly untrue. For this her wanderings had taught her—the man of many successes never talks. It seemed that there was a conspiracy to flatter the wretched youth.
“Yes, yes. You have been a devil of a fellow among the women, Wallie,” said Captain Barstow. But at once Garratt Skinner interfered and sharply:
“Come, come, Barstow! That’s no language to use before my daughter.”
Captain Barstow presented at the moment a remarkable gradation of color. On the top was the bald head, very shiny and white, below that a face now everywhere a deep red except where the swollen veins stood out upon the surface of his cheeks, and those were purple, and this in its turn was enclosed by the black square beard. He bowed at once to Garratt Skinner’s rebuke.
“I apologize. I do indeed, Miss Sylvia! But when I was in the service we still clung to the traditions of Wellington by—by George. And it’s hard to break oneself of the habit. ‘Red-hot,’” he said, with a chuckle. “That’s what they called me in the regiment. Red-hot Barstow. I’ll bet that Red-hot Barstow is still pretty well remembered among the boys at Cheltenham.”
“Swearing’s bad form nowadays,” said Archie Parminter, superciliously. “They have given it up at the clubs.”
Sylvia seized the moment and rose from the table. Her father sprang forward and opened the door.
“We will join you in a few minutes,” he said.
Sylvia went down the passage to the room at the back of the house in which she had been presented by her father to his friends. She rang the bell at once and when the servant came she said:
“I gave you a letter to post this evening. I should like to have it back.”
“I am sorry, miss, but it’s posted.”
“I am sorry, too,” said Sylvia, quietly.
The letter had been written to Chayne, and gave him the address of this house as the place where he might find her if he called. She had no thought of going away. She had made her choice for good or ill and must abide by it. That she knew. But she was no longer sure that she wished Captain Chayne to come and find her there.