Running Water

Chapter X

A Little Round Game of Cards

A.E.W. Mason

SYLVIA sat down in a chair and waited. She waited impatiently, for she knew that she had almost reached the limits of her self-command, and needed the presence of others to keep her from breaking down. But her native courage came to her aid, and in half an hour she heard the steps of her father and his guests in the passage. She noticed that her father looked anxiously toward her as he came in.

“Do you mind if we bring in our cigars?” he asked.

“Not at all,” said she; and he came in, carrying in his hand a box of cigars, which he placed in the middle of the table. Wallie Hine at once stumbled across the room to Sylvia; he walked unsteadily, his features were more flushed than before. She shrank a little from him. But he had not the time to sit down beside her, for Captain Barstow exclaimed jovially:

“I say, Garratt, I have an idea. There are five of us here. Let us have a little round game of cards.”

Sylvia started. In her heart she knew that just some such proposal as this she had been dreading all the evening. Her sinking hopes died away altogether.

This poor witless youth, plied with champagne; the older men who flattered him with lies; the suggestion of champagne made as though it were a sudden inspiration, and the six bottles standing ready in the cupboard; and now the suggestion of a little round game of cards made in just the same tone! Sylvia had a feeling of horror. She had kept herself unspotted from her world, but not through ignorance. She knew it. She knew those little round games of cards and what came of them, sometimes merely misery and ruin, sometimes a pistol shot in the early morning. She turned very pale, but she managed to say:

“Thank you. I don’t play cards.”

And then she heard a sudden movement by her father, who at the moment when Barstow spoke had been lighting a fresh cigar. She looked up. Garratt Skinner was staring in astonishment at Captain Barstow.

“Cards!” he cried. “In my house? On a Sunday evening?”

With each question his amazement grew, and he ended in a tone of remonstrance.

“Come, Barstow, you know me too well to propose that. I am rather hurt. A friendly talk, and a smoke, yes. Perhaps a small whisky and soda. I don’t say no. But cards on a Sunday evening! No indeed.”

“Oh, I say, Skinner,” objected Wallie Hine. “There’s no harm in a little game.”

Garratt Skinner shook his head at Hine in a grave friendly way.

“Better leave cards alone, Wallie, always. You are young, you know.”

Hine flushed.

“I am old enough to hold my own against any man,” he cried, hotly. He felt that Garratt Skinner had humiliated him, and before this wonderful daughter of his in whose good favors Mr. Hine had been making such inroads during supper. Barstow apologized for his suggestion at once, but Hine was now quite unwilling that he should withdraw it.

“There’s no harm in it,” he cried. “I really think you are too Puritanical, isn’t he, Miss—Miss Sylvia?”

Hine had been endeavoring to pluck up courage to use her Christian name all the evening. His pride that he had actually spoken it was so great that he did not remark at all her little movement of disgust.

Garratt Skinner seemed to weaken in his resolution.

“Well, of course, Wallie,” he said, “I want you to enjoy yourselves. And if you especially want it—”

Did he notice that Sylvia closed her eyes and really shivered? She could not tell. But he suddenly spoke in a tone of revolt:

“But card-playing on Sunday. Really no!”

“It’s done nowadays at the West-End Clubs,” said Archie Parminter.

“Oh, is it?” said Garratt Skinner, again grown doubtful. “Is it, indeed? Well, if they do it in the Clubs—” And then with an exclamation of relief—“I haven’t got a pack of cards in the house. That settles the point.”

“There’s a public house almost next door,” replied Barstow. “If you send out your servant, I am sure she could borrow one.”

“No,” said Garratt Skinner, indignantly. “Really, Barstow, your bachelor habits have had a bad effect on you. I would not think of sending a girl out to a public house on any consideration. It might be the very first step downhill for her, and I should be responsible.”

“Oh well, if you are so particular, I’ll go myself,” cried Barstow, petulantly. He got up and walked to the door.

“I don’t mind so much if you go yourself. Only please don’t say you come from this house,” said Garratt Skinner, and Barstow went out from the room. He came back in a very short time, and Sylvia noticed at once that he held two quite new and unopened packs of cards in his hand.

“A stroke of luck,” he cried. “The landlord had a couple of new packs, for he was expecting to give a little party to-night. But a relation of his wife died rather suddenly yesterday, and he put his guests off. A decent-minded fellow, I think. What?”

“Yes. It’s not every one who would have shown so much good feeling,” said Garratt Skinner, seriously. “One likes to know that there are men about like that. One feels kindlier to the whole world”; and he drew up his chair to the table.

Sylvia was puzzled. Was this story of the landlord a glib lie of Captain Barstow’s to account, with a detail which should carry conviction, for the suspiciously new pack of cards? And if so, did her father believe in its truth? Had the packs been waiting in Captain Barstow’s coat pocket in the hall until the fitting moment for their appearance? If so, did her father play a part in the conspiracy? His face gave no sign. She was terribly troubled.

“Penny points,” said Garratt Skinner. “Nothing more.”

“Oh come, I say,” cried Hine, as he pulled out a handful of sovereigns.

“Nothing more than penny points in my house. Put that money away, Wallie. We will use counters.”

Garratt Skinner had a box of counters if he had no pack of cards.

“Penny points, a sixpenny ante and a shilling limit,” he said. “Then no harm will be done to any one. The black counters a shilling, the red sixpence, and the white ones a penny. You have each a pound’s worth,” he said as he dealt them out.

Sylvia rose from her chair.

“I think I will go to bed.”

Wallie Hine turned round in his chair, holding his counters in his hand. “Oh, don’t do that, Miss Sylvia. Sit beside me, please, and bring me luck.”

“You forget, Wallie, that my daughter has just come from a long journey. No doubt she is tired,” said Garratt Skinner, with a friendly reproach in his voice. He got up and opened the door for his daughter. After she had passed out he followed her.

“I shall take a hand for a little while, Sylvia, to see that they keep to the stakes. I think young Hine wants looking after, don’t you? He doesn’t know any geography. Good-night, my dear. Sleep well!”

He took her by the elbow and drew her toward him. He stooped to her, meaning to kiss her. Sylvia did not resist, but she drooped her head so that her forehead, not her lips, was presented to his embrace. And the kiss was never given. She remained standing, her face lowered from his, her attitude one of resignation and despondency. She felt her father’s hand shake upon her arm, and looking up saw his eyes fixed upon her in pity. He dropped her arm quickly, and said in a sharp voice:

“There! Go to bed, child!”

He watched her as she went up the stairs. She went up slowly and without turning round, and she walked like one utterly tired out. Garratt Skinner waited until he heard her door close. “She should never have come,” he said. “She should never have come.” Then he went slowly back to his friends.

Sylvia went to bed, but she did not sleep. The excitement which had buoyed her up had passed; and her hopes had passed with it. She recalled the high anticipations with which she had set out from Chamonix only yesterday—yes, only yesterday. And against them in a vivid contrast she set the actual reality, the supper party, Red-hot Barstow, Archie Parminter, and the poor witless Wallie Hine, with his twang and his silly boasts. She began to wonder whether there was any other world than that which she knew, any other people than those with whom she had lived. Her father was different—yes, but—but—Her father was too perplexing a problem to her at this moment. Why had he so clearly pitied her just now in the passage? Why had he checked himself from the kiss? She was too tired to reason it out. She was conscious that she was very wretched, and the tears gathered in her eyes; and in the darkness of her room she cried silently, pressing the sheet to her lips lest a sob should be heard. Were all her dreams mere empty imaginings? she asked. If so, why should they ever have come to her? she inquired piteously; why should she have found solace in them—why should they have become her real life? Did no one walk the earth of all that company which went with her in her fancies?

Upon that her thoughts flew to the Alps, to the evening in the Pavillon de Lognan, the climb upon the rocks and the glittering ice-slope, the perfect hour upon the sunlit top of the Aiguille d’Argentière. The memory of the mountains brought her consolation in her bad hour, as her friend had prophesied it would. Her tears ceased to flow, she lived that day—her one day—over again, jealous of every minute. After all that had been real, and more perfect than any dream. Moreover, there had been with her through the day a man honest and loyal as any of her imagined company. She began to take heart a little; she thought of the Col Dolent with its broad ribbon of ice set in the sheer black rocks, and always in shadow. She thought of herself as going up some such hard, cold road in the shadow, and remembered that on the top of the Col one came out into sunlight and looked southward into Italy. So comforted a little, she fell asleep.

It was some hours before she woke. It was already day, and since she had raised her blinds before she had got into bed, the light streamed into the room. She thought for a moment that it was the light which had waked her. But as she lay she heard a murmur of voices, very low, and a sound of people moving stealthily. She looked out of the window. The streets were quite empty and silent. In the houses on the opposite side the blinds were drawn; a gray clear light was spread over the town; the sun had not yet risen. She looked at her watch. It was five o’clock. She listened again, gently opening her door for an inch or so. She heard the low voices more clearly now. Those who spoke were speaking almost in whispers. She thought that thieves had broken in. She hurried on a few clothes, cautiously opened her door wider, slipped through, and crept with a beating heart down the stairs.

Half way down the stairs she looked over the rail of the banister, turning her head toward the back part of the house whence the murmurs came. At the end of the passage was the little room in which the round game of cards was played the night before. The door stood open now, and she looked right into the room.

And this is what she saw:

Wallie Hine was sitting at the table. About him the carpet was strewn with crumpled pieces of paper. There was quite a number of them littered around his chair. He was writing, or rather, trying to write. For Archie Parminter leaning over the back of the chair held his hand and guided it. Captain Barstow stood looking intently on, but of her father there was no sign. She could not see the whole room, however. A good section of it was concealed from her. Wallie Hine was leaning forward on the table, with his head so low and his arms so spread that she could not see in what book he was writing. But apparently he did not write to the satisfaction of his companions. In spite of Parminter’s care his pen spluttered. Sylvia saw Archie look at Barstow, and she heard Barstow answer “No, that won’t do.” Archie Parminter dropped Hine’s hand, tore a slip of paper out of the book, crumpled it, and threw it down with a gesture of anger on to the carpet.

“Try again, old fellow,” said Barstow, eagerly, bending down toward Hine with a horrid smile upon his face, a smile which tried to conceal an intense exasperation, an intense desire to strike. Again Parminter leaned over the chair, again he took Wallie Hine’s hand and guided the pen, very carefully lifting it from the paper at the end of an initial or a word, and spacing the letters. This time he seemed content.

“That will do, I think,” he said, in a whisper.

Captain Barstow bent down and examined the writing carefully with his short-sighted eyes.

“Yes, that’s all right.”

Parminter tore the leaf out, but this time he did not crumple it. He blotted it carefully, folded it, and laid it on the mantle-shelf.

“Let us get him up,” he said, and with Barstow’s help they lifted Hine out of his chair. Sylvia caught a glimpse of his face. His mouth was loose, his eyes half shut, and the lids red; he seemed to be in a stupor. His head rolled upon his shoulders. He swayed as his companions held him up; his knees gave under him. He began incoherently to talk.

“Hush!” said Parminter. “You’ll wake the house. You don’t want that pretty girl to see you in this state, do you, Wallie? After the impression you made on her, too! Get his hat and coat out of the passage, Barstow.”

He propped Hine against the table, and holding him upright turned to the door. He saw “the pretty girl” leaning over the banister and gazing with horror-stricken eyes into the room. Sylvia drew back on the instant. With a gesture of his hand, Archie Parminter stopped Barstow on his way to the door.

Sylvia leaned back against the wall of the staircase, holding her breath, and tightly pressing a hand upon her heart. Had they seen her? Would they come out into the passage? What would happen? Would they kill her? The questions raced through her mind. She could not have moved, she thought, had Death stood over her. But nothing happened. She could not now see into the room, and she heard no whisper, no footsteps creeping stealthily along the passage toward her, no sound at all. Presently she recovered her breath, and crept up-stairs. Once in her room, with great care she locked the door, and sank upon her bed, shaking and trembling. There she lay until the noise of the hall door closing very gently roused her. She crept along the wall till she was by the side of the window. Then she raised herself against the wall and peered out. She saw Barstow and Parminter supporting Hine along the street, each with an arm through his. A hansom-cab drove up, they lifted Hine into it, got in themselves, and drove off. As the cab turned, Archie Parminter glanced up to the windows of the house. But Sylvia was behind the curtains at the side. He could not have seen her. Sylvia leaned her head against the panels of the door and concentrated all her powers so that not a movement in the house might escape her ears. She listened for the sound of some one else moving in the room below, some one who had been left behind. She listened for a creak of the stairs, the brushing of a coat against the stair rail, the sound of some one going stealthily to his room. She stood at the door, with her face strangely set for a long while. Her mind was quite made up. If she heard her father moving from that room, she would just wait until he was asleep, and then she would go—anywhere. She could not go back to her mother, that she knew. She had no one to go to; nevertheless, she would go.

But no sound reached her. Her father was not in the room below. He must have gone to bed and left the others to themselves. The pigeon had been plucked that night, not a doubt of it, but her father had had no hand in the plucking. She laid herself down upon her bed, exhausted, and again sleep came to her. And in a moment the sound of running water was in her ears.

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XI - Sylvia’s Father Makes a Mistake

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