“I have been lucky, Sylvia,” her father had said to her. “I have secured for our summer holiday the very house in which you were born. It cost me some trouble, but I was determined to get it if I could, for I had an idea that you would be pleased. However, you are not to see it until it is quite ready.”
There was a prettiness and a delicacy in this thought which greatly appealed to Sylvia. He had spoken it with a smile of tenderness. Affection, surely, could alone have prompted it; and she thanked him very gratefully. They were now upon their way to take possession. A little white house set back under a hill and looking out across the bay from a thick cluster of trees caught Sylvia’s eye. Was that the house, she wondered? The carriage turned inland and passed the white house, and half a mile further on turned again eastward along the road to Wareham, following the valley, which runs parallel to the sea. They ascended the long steep hill which climbs to Osmington, until upon their left hand a narrow road branched off between hawthorn hedges to the downs. The road dipped to a little hollow and in the hollow a little village nestled. A row of deep-thatched white cottages with leaded window-panes opened on to a causeway of stone flags which was bordered with purple phlox and raised above the level of the road. Farther on, the roof of a mill rose high among trees, and an open space showed to Sylvia the black massive wheel against the yellow wall. And then the carriage stopped at a house on the left-hand side, and Garratt Skinner got out.
“Here we are,” he said.
It was a small square house of the Georgian days, built of old brick, duskily red. You entered it at the side and the big level windows of the living rooms looked out upon a wide and high-walled garden whence a little door under a brick archway in the wall gave a second entrance on to the road. Into this garden Sylvia wandered. If she had met with but few people who matched the delicate company of her dreams, here, at all events, was a mansion where that company might have fitly gathered. Great elms and beeches bent under their load of leaves to the lawn; about the lawn, flowers made a wealth of color, and away to the right of the house twisted stems and branches, where the green of the apples was turning to red, stood evenly spaced in a great orchard. And the mill stream tunneling under the road and the wall ran swiftly between green banks through the garden and the orchard, singing as it ran. There lingered, she thought, an ancient grace about this old garden, some flavor of forgotten days, as in a room scented with potpourri; and she walked the lawn in a great contentment.
The house within charmed her no less. It was a place of many corners and quaint nooks, and of a flooring so unlevel that she could hardly pass from one room to another without taking a step up or a step down. Sylvia went about the house quietly and with a certain thoughtfulness. Here she had been born and a mystery of her life was becoming clear to her. On this summer evening the windows were set wide in every room, and thus in every room, as she passed up and down, she heard the liquid music of running water, here faint, like a whispered melody, there pleasant, like laughter, but nowhere very loud, and everywhere quite audible. In one of these rooms she had been born. In one of these rooms her mother had slept at nights during the weeks before she was born, with that music in her ears at the moment of sleep and at the moment of her waking. Sylvia understood now why she had always dreamed of running water. She wondered in which room she had been born. She tried to remember some corner of the house, some nook in its high-walled garden; and that she could not awoke in her a strange and almost eery feeling. She had come back to a house in which she had lived, to a scene on which her eyes had looked, to sounds which had murmured in her ears, and everything was as utterly new to her and unimagined as though now for the first time she had crossed the threshold. Yet these very surroundings to which her memory bore no testimony had assuredly modified her life, had given to her a particular possession, this dream of running water, and had made it a veritable element of her nature. She could not but reflect upon this new knowledge, and as she walked the garden in the darkness of the evening, she built upon it, as will be seen.
As she stepped back over the threshold into the library where her father sat, she saw that he was holding a telegram in his hand.
“Wallie Hine comes to-morrow, my dear,” he said.
Sylvia looked at her father wistfully.
“It is a pity,” she said, “a great pity. It would have been pleasant if we could have been alone.”
The warmth of her gladness had gone from her; she walked once more in shadows; there was in her voice a piteous appeal for affection, for love, of which she had had too little in her life and for which she greatly craved. She stood by the door, her lips trembling and her dark eyes for a wonder glistening with tears. She had always, even to those who knew her to be a woman, something of the child in her appearance, which made a plea from her lips most difficult to refuse. Now she seemed a child on whom the world pressed heavily before her time for suffering had come; she had so motherless a look. Even Garratt Skinner moved uncomfortably in his chair; even that iron man was stirred.
“I, too, am sorry, Sylvia,” he said, gently; “but we will make the best of it. Between us”—and he laughed gaily, setting aside from him his momentary compassion—“we will teach poor Wallie Hine a little geography, won’t we?”
Sylvia had no smile ready for a reply. But she bowed her head, and into her face and her very attitude there came an expression of patience. She turned and opened the door, and as she opened it, and stood with her back toward her father, she said in a quiet and clear voice, “Very well,” and so passed up the stairs to her room.
It might, after all, merely be kindness in her father which had led him to insist on Wallie Hine’s visit. So she argued, and the more persistently because she felt that the argument was thin. He could be kind. He had been thoughtful for her during the past week in the small attentions which appeal so much to women. Because he saw that she loved flowers, he had engaged a new gardener for their stay; and he had shown, in one particular instance, a quite surprising thoughtfulness for a class of unhappy men with whom he could have had no concern, the convicts in Portland prison. That instance remained for a long time vividly in her mind, and at a later time she spoke of it with consequences of a far-reaching kind. She thought then, as she thought now, only of the kindness of her father’s action, and for the first week of Hine’s visit that thought remained with her. She was on the alert, but nothing occurred to arouse in her a suspicion. There were no cards, little wine was drunk, and early hours were kept by the whole household. Indeed, Garratt Skinner left entirely to his daughter the task of entertaining his guest; and although once he led them both over the great down to Dorchester and back, at a pace which tired his companions out, he preferred, for the most part, to smoke his pipe in a hammock in the garden with a novel at his side. The morning after that one expedition, he limped out into the garden, rubbing the muscles of his thigh.
“You must look after Wallie, my dear,” he said. “Age is beginning to find me out. And after all, he will learn more of the tact and manners which he wants from you than from a rough man like me,” and it did not occur to Sylvia, who was of a natural modesty of thought, that he had any other intention of throwing them thus together than to rid himself of a guest with whom he had little in common.
But a week later she changed her mind. She was driving Walter Hine one morning into Weymouth, and as the dog-cart turned into the road beside the bay, and she saw suddenly before her the sea sparkling in the sunlight, the dark battle-ships at their firing practice, and over against her, through a shimmering haze of heat, the crouching mass of Portland, she drew in a breath of pleasure. It seemed to her that her companion gave the same sign of enjoyment, and she turned to him with some surprise. But Walter Hine was looking to the wide beach, so black with holiday makers that it seemed at that distance a great and busy ant-heap.
“That’s what I like,” he said, with a chuckle of anticipation. “Lot’s o’ people. I’ve knocked about too long in the thick o’ things, you see, Miss Sylvia, kept it up—I have—seen it right through every night till three o’clock in the morning, for months at a time. Oh, that’s the real thing!” he broke off. “It makes you feel good.”
“Then if you dislike the country,” she said, and perhaps rather eagerly, “why did you come to stay with us at all?”
And suddenly Hine leered at her.
“Oh, you know!” he said, and almost he nudged her with his elbow. “I wouldn’t have come, of course, if old Garratt hadn’t particularly told me that you were agreeable.” Sylvia grew hot with shame. She drew away, flicked the horse with her whip and drove on. Had she been used, she wondered, to lure this poor helpless youth to the sequestered village where they stayed?—and a chill struck through her even on that day of July. The plot had been carefully laid if that were so; she was to be hoodwinked no less than Wallie Hine. What sinister thing was then intended?
She tried to shake off the dread which encompassed her, pleading to herself that she saw perils in shadows like the merest child. But she had not yet shaken it off when Walter Hine cried out excitedly to her to stop.
“Look!” he said, and he pointed toward an hotel upon the sea-front which at that moment they were passing.
Sylvia looked, and saw obsequiously smirking upon the steps of the hotel, with his hat lifted from his shiny head, her old enemy, Captain Barstow. Fortunately she had not stopped. She drove quickly on, just acknowledging his salute. It needed but this meeting to confirm her fears. It was not coincidence which had brought Captain Barstow on their heels to Weymouth. He had come with knowledge and a definite purpose.
“Oh, I say,” protested Wallie Hine, “you might have stopped, Miss Sylvia, and let me pass the time of day with old Barstow.”
Sylvia stopped the trap at once.
“I am sorry,” she said. “You will find your own way home. We lunch at half past one.”
Hine looked doubtfully at her and then back toward the hotel.
“I didn’t mean that I wanted to leave you, Miss Sylvia,” he said. “Not by a long chalk.”
“But you must leave me, Mr. Hine,” she said, looking at him with serious eyes, “if you want to pass the time of day with your ‘red-hot’ friend.”
There was no hint of a smile about her lips. She waited for his answer. It came accompanied with a smile which aimed at gallantry and was merely familiar.
“Of course I stay where I am. What do you think?”
Sylvia hurried over her shopping and drove homeward. She went at once to her father, who lay in the hammock in the shade of the trees, reading a book. She came up from behind him across the grass, and he was not aware of her approach until she spoke.
“Father!” she said, and he started up.
“Oh, Sylvia!” he said, and just for a second there was a palpable uneasiness in his manner. He had not merely started. He seemed also to her to have been startled. But he recovered his composure.
“You see, my dear, I have been thinking of you,” he said, and he pointed to a man at work among the flower-beds. “I saw how you loved flowers, how you liked to have the rooms bright with them. So I hired a new gardener as a help. It is a great extravagance, Sylvia, but you are to blame, not I.”
He smiled, confident of her gratitude, and had it been but yesterday he would have had it offered to him in full measure. To-day, however, all her thoughts were poisoned by suspicion. She knew it and was distressed. She knew how much happiness so simple a forethought would naturally have brought to her. She did not indeed suspect any new peril in her father’s action. She barely looked toward the new gardener, and certainly neglected to note whether he worked skilfully or no. But the fears of the morning modified her thanks. Moreover the momentary uneasiness of her father had not escaped her notice and she was wondering upon its cause.
“Father,” she resumed, “I saw Captain Barstow in Weymouth this morning.”
Though her eyes were on his face, and perhaps because her eyes were resting there with so quiet a watchfulness, she could detect no self-betrayal now. Garratt Skinner stared at her in pure astonishment. Then the astonishment gave place to annoyance.
“Barstow!” he said angrily. He lay back in the hammock, looking up to the boughs overhead, his face wrinkled and perplexed. “He has found us out and followed us, Sylvia. I would not have had it happen for worlds. Did he see you?”
“And I thought that here, at all events, we were safe from him. I wonder how he found us out! Bribed the caretaker in Hobart Place, I suppose.”
Sylvia did not accept this suggestion. She sat down upon a chair in a disconcerting silence, and waited. Garratt Skinner crossed his arms behind his head and deliberated.
“Barstow’s a deep fellow, Sylvia,” he said. “I am afraid of him.”
He was looking up to the boughs overhead, but he suddenly glanced toward her and then quietly removed one of his hands and slipped it down to the book which was lying on his lap. Sylvia took quiet note of the movement. The book had been lying shut upon his lap, with its back toward her. Garratt Skinner did not alter its position; but she saw that his hand now hid from her the title on the back. It was a big, and had the appearance of an expensive, book. She noticed the binding—green cloth boards and gold lettering on the back. She was not familiar with the look of it, and it seemed to her that she might as well know—and as quickly as possible—what the book was and the subject with which it dealt.
Meanwhile Garratt Skinner repeated:
“A deep fellow—Captain Barstow,” and anxiously Garratt Skinner debated how to cope with that deep fellow. He came at last to his conclusion.
“We can’t shut our doors to him, Sylvia.”
Even though she had half expected just that answer, Sylvia flinched as she heard it uttered.
“I understand your feelings, my dear,” he continued in tones of commiseration, “for they are mine. But we must fight the Barstows with the Barstows’ weapons. It would never do for us to close our doors. He has far too tight a hold of Wallie Hine as yet. He has only to drop a hint to Wallie that we are trying to separate him from his true friends and keep him to ourselves—and just think, my dear, what a horrible set of motives a mean-minded creature like Barstow could impute to us! Let us be candid, you and I,” cried Garratt Skinner, starting up, as though carried away by candor. “Here am I, a poor man—here are you, my daughter, a girl with the charm and the beauty of the spring, and here’s Wallie Hine, rich, weak, and susceptible. Oh, there’s a story for a Barstow to embroider! But, Sylvia, he shall not so much as hint at the story. For your sake, my dear, for your sake,” cried Garratt Skinner, with all the emphasis of a loving father. He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
“I was carried away by my argument,” he went on in a calmer voice. Sylvia for her part had not been carried away at all, and no doubt her watchful composure helped him to subdue as ineffective the ardor of his tones. “Barstow has only to drop this hint to Wallie Hine, and Wallie will be off like a rabbit at the sound of a gun. And there’s our chance gone of helping him to a better life. No, we must welcome Barstow, if he comes here. Yes, actually welcome him, however repugnant it may be to our feelings. That’s what we must do, Sylvia. He must have no suspicion that we are working against him. We must lull him to sleep. That is our only way to keep Wallie Hine with us. So that, Sylvia, must be our plan of campaign.”
The luncheon bell rang as he ended his oration. He got out of the hammock quickly, as if to prevent discussion of his plan; and the book which he was carrying caught in the netting of the hammock and fell to the ground. Sylvia could read the title now. She did read it, hastily, as Garratt Skinner stooped to pick it up. It was entitled “The Alps in 1864.”
She knew the book by repute and was surprised to find it in her father’s hands. She was surprised still more that he should have been at so much pains to conceal the title from her notice. After all, what could it matter? she wondered.
Sylvia lay deep in misery that night. Her father had failed her utterly. All the high hopes with which she had set out from Chamonix had fallen, all the rare qualities with which her dreams had clothed him as in shining raiment must now be stripped from him. She was not deceived. Parminter, Barstow, Garratt Skinner—there was one “deep fellow” in that trio, but it was neither Barstow nor Parminter. It was her father. She had but to set the three faces side by side in her thoughts, to remember the differences of manner, mind and character. Garratt Skinner was the master in the conspiracy, the other two his mere servants. It was he who to some dark end had brought Barstow down from London. He loomed up in her thoughts as a relentless and sinister figure, unswayed by affection, yet with the power to counterfeit it, long-sighted for evil, sparing no one—not even his daughter. She recalled their first meeting in the little house in Hobart Place, she remembered the thoughtful voice with which, as he had looked her over, he had agreed that she might be “useful.” She thought of his caresses, his smile of affection, his comradeship, and she shuddered. Walter Hine’s words had informed her to-day to what use her father had designed her. She was his decoy.
She lay upon her bed with her hands clenched, repeating the word in horror. His decoy! The moonlight poured through the open window, the music of the stream filled the room. She was in the house in which she had been born, a place mystically sacred to her thoughts; and she had come to it to learn that she was her father’s decoy in a vulgar conspiracy to strip a weakling of his money. The stream sang beneath her windows, the very stream of which the echo had ever been rippling through her dreams. Always she had thought that it must have some particular meaning for her which would be revealed in due time. She dwelt bitterly upon her folly. There was no meaning in its light laughter.
In a while she was aware of a change. There came a grayness in the room. The moonlight had lost its white brilliance, the night was waning. Sylvia rose from her bed, and slowly like one very tired she began to gather together and pack into a bag such few clothes as she could carry. She had made up her mind to go, and to go silently before the house waked. Whither she was to go, and what she was to do once she had gone, she could not think. She asked herself the questions in vain, feeling very lonely and very helpless as she moved softly about the room by the light of her candle. Her friend might write to her and she would not receive his letter. Still she must go. Once or twice she stopped her work, and crouching down upon the bed allowed her tears to have their way. When she had finished her preparations she blew out her candle, and leaning upon the sill of the open window, gave her face to the cool night air.
There was a break in the eastern sky; already here and there a blackbird sang in the garden boughs, and the freshness, the quietude, swept her thoughts back to the Chalet de Lognan. With a great yearning she recalled that evening and the story of the great friendship so quietly related to her in the darkness, beneath the stars. The world and the people of her dreams existed; only there was no door of entrance into that world for her. Below her the stream sang, even as the glacier stream had sung, though without its deep note of thunder. As she listened to it, certain words spoken upon that evening came back to her mind and gradually began to take on a particular application.
“What you know, that you must do, if by doing it you can save a life or save a soul.”
That was the law. “If you can save a life or save a soul.” And she did know. Sylvia raised herself from the window and stood in thought.
Garratt Skinner had made a great mistake that day. He had been misled by the gentleness of her ways, the sweet aspect of her face, and by a look of aloofness in her eyes, as though she lived in dreams. He had seen surely that she was innocent, and since he believed that knowledge must needs corrupt, he thought her ignorant as well. But she was not ignorant. She had detected his trickeries. She knew of the conspiracy, she knew of the place she filled in it herself; and furthermore she knew that as a decoy she had been doing her work. Only yesterday, Walter Hine had been forced to choose between Barstow and herself and he had let Barstow go. It was a small matter, no doubt. Still there was promise in it. What if she stayed, strengthened her hold on Walter Hine and grappled with the three who were ranged against him?
Walter Hine was, of course, and could be, nothing to her. He was the mere puppet, the opportunity of obedience to the law. It was of the law that she was thinking—and of the voice of the man who had uttered it. She knew—by using her knowledge, she could save a soul. She did not think at this time that she might be saving a life too.
Quietly she undressed and slipped into her bed. She was comforted. A smile had come upon her lips. She saw the face of her friend in the darkness, very near to her. She needed sleep to equip herself for the fight, and while thinking so she slept. The moonlight faded altogether, and left the room dark. Beneath the window the stream went singing through the lawn. After all, its message had been revealed to her in its due season.