Running Water

Chapter XVII

Sylvia Tells More Than She Knows

A.E.W. Mason

HILARY CHAYNE stayed away from Dorsetshire for ten complete days; and though the hours crept by, dilatory as idlers at a street corner, he obtained some poor compensation by reflecting upon his fine diplomacy. In less than a week he would surely be missed; by the time that ten days had passed the sensation might have become simply poignant. So for ten days he wandered about the Downs of Sussex with an aching heart, saying the while, “It serves her right.” On the morning of the eleventh he received a letter from the War Office, bidding him call on the following afternoon.

“That will just do,” he said. “I will go down to Weymouth to-day, and I will return to London to-morrow.” And with an unusual lightness of spirit, which he ascribed purely to his satisfaction that he need punish Sylvia no longer, he started off upon his long journey. He reached the house of the Running Water by six o’clock in the evening; and at the outset it seemed that his diplomacy had been sagacious.

He was shown into the library, and opposite to him by the window Sylvia stood alone. She turned to him a white terror-haunted face, gazed at him for a second like one dazed, and then with a low cry of welcome came quickly toward him. Chayne caught her outstretched hands and all his joy at her welcome lay dead at the sight of her distress. “Sylvia!” he exclaimed in distress. He was hurt by it as he had never thought to be hurt.

“I am afraid!” she said, in a trembling whisper. He drew her toward him and she yielded. She stood close to him and very still, touching him, leaning to him like a frightened child. “Oh, I am afraid,” she repeated; and her voice appealed piteously for sympathy and a little kindness.

In Chayne’s mind there was suddenly painted a picture of the ice-slope on the Aiguille d’Argentière. A girl had moved from step to step, across that slope, looking down its steep glittering incline without a tremor. It was the same girl who now leaned to him and with shaking lips and eyes tortured with fear cried, “I am afraid.” By his recollection of that day upon the heights Chayne measured the greatness of her present trouble.

“Why, Sylvia? Why are you afraid?”

For answer she looked toward the open window. Chayne followed her glance and this was what he saw: The level stretch of emerald lawn, the stream running through it and catching in its brown water the red light of the evening sun, the great beech trees casting their broad shadows, the high garden walls with the dusky red of their bricks glowing amongst fruit trees, and within that enclosure pacing up and down, in and out among the shadows of the trees, Garratt Skinner and Walter Hine. Yet that sight she must needs have seen before. Why should it terrify her beyond reason now?

“Do you see?” Sylvia said in a low troubled voice. For once distress had mastered her and she spoke without her usual reticence. “There can be no friendship between those two. No real friendship! You have but to see them side by side to be sure of it. It is pretence.”

Yet that too she must have known before. Why then should the pretence now so greatly trouble her? Chayne watched the two men pacing in the garden. Certainly he had never seen them in so intimate a comradeship. Garratt Skinner had passed his arm through Walter Hine’s and held him so, plying him with stories, bending down his keen furrowed aquiline face toward him as though he had no thought in the world but to make him his friend and bind him with affection; and Walter Hine looked up and listened and laughed, a vain, weak wisp of a creature, flattered to the skies and defenceless as a rabbit.

“Why the pretence?” said Sylvia. “Why the linked arms? The pretence has grown during these last days. What new thing is intended?” Her eyes were on the garden, and as she looked it seemed that her terror grew. “My father went away a week ago. Since he has returned the pretence has increased. I am afraid! I am afraid!”

Garratt Skinner turned in his walk and led Walter Hine back toward the house. Sylvia shrank from his approach as from something devilish. When he turned again, she drew her breath like one escaped from sudden peril.

“Sylvia! Of what are you afraid?”

“I don’t know!” she cried. “That’s just the trouble. I don’t know!” She clenched her hands together at her breast. Chayne caught them in his and was aware that in one shut palm she held something which she concealed. Her clasp tightened upon it as his hands touched hers. Sylvia had more reason for her fears than she had disclosed. Barstow came no more. There were no more cards, no more bets; and this change taken together with Garratt Skinner’s increased friendship added to her apprehensions. She dreaded some new plot more sinister, more terrible than that one of which she was aware.

“If only I knew,” she cried. “Oh, if only I knew!”

Archie Parminter had paid one visit to the house, had stayed for one night; and he and Garratt Skinner and Walter Hine had sat up till morning, talking together in the library. Sylvia waking up from a fitful sleep, had heard their voices again and again through the dark hours; and when the dawn was gray, she had heard them coming up to bed as on the first night of her return; and as on that night there was one who stumbled heavily. It was since that night that terror had distracted her.

“I have no longer any power,” she said. “Something has happened to destroy my power. I have no longer any influence. Something was done upon that night,” and she shivered as though she guessed; and she looked at her clenched hand as though the clue lay hidden in its palm. There lay her great trouble. She had lost her influence over Walter Hine. She had knowledge of the under side of life—yes, but her father had a greater knowledge still. He had used his greater knowledge. Craftily and with a most ingenious subtlety he had destroyed her power, he had blunted her weapons. Hine was attracted by Sylvia, fascinated by her charm, her looks, and the gentle simplicity of her manner. Very well. On the other side Garratt Skinner had held out a lure of greater attractions, greater fascination; and Sylvia was powerless.

“He has changed,” Sylvia went on, with her eyes fixed on Walter Hine. “Oh, not merely toward me. He has changed physically. Can you understand? He has grown nervous, restless, excitable, a thing of twitching limbs. Oh, and that’s not all. I will tell you. This morning it seemed to me that the color of his eyes had changed.”

Chayne stared at her. “Sylvia!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, I have not lost my senses,” she answered, and she resumed: “I only noticed that there was an alteration at first. I did not see in what the alteration lay. Then I saw. His eyes used to be light in color. This morning they were dark. I looked carefully to make sure, and so I understood. The pupils of his eyes were so dilated that they covered the whole eyeball. Can you think why?” and even as she asked, she looked at that clenched hand of hers as though the answer to that question as well lay hidden there. “I am afraid,” she said once more; and upon that Chayne committed the worst of the many indiscretions which had signalized his courtship.

“You are afraid? Sylvia! Then let me take you away!”

At once Sylvia drew back. Had Chayne not spoken, she would have told him all that there was to tell. She was in the mood at this unguarded moment. She would have told him that during these last days Walter Hine had taken to drink once more. She would have opened that clenched fist and showed the thing it hid, even though the thing condemned her father beyond all hope of exculpation. But Chayne had checked her as surely as though he had laid the palm of his hand upon her lips. He would talk of love and flight, and of neither had she any wish to hear. She craved with a great yearning for sympathy and a little kindness. But Chayne was not content to offer what she needed. He would add more, and what he added marred the whole gift for Sylvia. She shook her head, and looking at him with a sad and gentle smile, said:

“Love is for the happy people.”

“That is a hard saying, Sylvia,” Chayne returned, “and not a true one.”

“True to me,” said Sylvia, with a deep conviction, and as he advanced to her she raised her hand to keep him off. “No, no,” she cried, and had he listened, he might have heard a hint of exasperation in her voice. But he would not be warned.

“You can’t go on, living here, without sympathy, without love, without even kindness. Already it is evident. You are ill, and tired. And you think to go on all your life or all your father’s life. Sylvia, let me take you away!”

And each unwise word set him further and further from his aim. It seemed to her that there was no help anywhere. Chayne in front of her seemed to her almost as much her enemy as her father, who paced the lawn behind her arm in arm with Walter Hine. She clasped her hands together with a quick sharp movement.

“I will not let you take me away,” she cried. “For I do not love you”; and her voice had lost its gentleness and grown cold and hard. Chayne began again, but whether it was with a renewal of his plea, she did not hear. For she broke in upon him quickly:

“Please, let me finish. I am, as you said, a little over-wrought! Just hear me out and leave me to bear my troubles by myself. You will make it easier for me”; she saw that the words hurt her lover. But she did not modify them. She was in the mood to hurt. She had been betrayed by her need of sympathy into speaking words which she would gladly have recalled; she had been caught off her guard and almost unawares; and she resented it. Chayne had told her that she looked ill and tired; and she resented that too. No wonder she looked tired when she had her father with his secret treacheries on one side and an importunate lover upon the other! She thought for a moment or two how best to put what she had still to stay:

“I have probably said to you,” she resumed, “more than was right or fair—I mean fair to my father. I have no doubt exaggerated things. I want you to forget what I have said. For it led you into a mistake.”

Chayne looked at her in perplexity.

“A mistake?”

“Yes,” she answered. She was standing in front of him with her forehead wrinkled and a somber, angry look in her eyes. “A mistake which I must correct. You said that I was living here without kindness. It is not true. My father is kind!” And as Chayne raised his eyes in a mute protest, she insisted on the word. “Yes, kind and thoughtful—thoughtful for others besides myself.” A kind of obstinacy forced her on to enlarge upon the topic. “I can give you an instance which will surprise you.”

“There is no need,” Chayne said, gently, but Sylvia was implacable.

“But there is need,” she returned. “I beg you to hear me. When my father and I were at Weymouth we drove one afternoon across the neck of the Chesil beach to Portland.”

Chayne looked at Sylvia quickly.

“Yes?” he said, and there was an indefinable change in his voice. He had consented to listen, because she wished it. Now he listened with a keen attention. For a strange thought had crept into his mind.

“We drove up the hill toward the plateau at the top of the island, but as we passed through the village—Fortune’s Well I think they call it—my father stopped the carriage at a tobacconist’s, and went into the shop. He came out again with some plugs of tobacco—a good many—and got into the carriage. You won’t guess why he bought them. I didn’t.”

“Well?” said Chayne, and now he spoke with suspense. Suspense, too, was visible in his quiet attitude. There was a mystery which for Sylvia’s sake he wished to unravel. Why did Gabriel Strood now call himself Garratt Skinner? That was the mystery. But he must unravel it without doing any hurt to Sylvia. He could not go too warily—of that he had been sure, ever since Kenyon had refused to speak of it. There might be some hidden thing which for Sylvia’s sake must not be brought to light. Therefore he must find out the truth without help from any one. He wondered whether unconsciously Sylvia herself was going to give him the clue. Was she to tell him what she did not know herself—why Gabriel Strood was now Garratt Skinner? “Well?” he repeated.

“As we continued up the hill,” she resumed, “my father cut up the tobacco into small pieces with his pocket knife. ‘Why are you doing that?’ I asked, and he laughed and said, ‘Wait, you will see.’ At the top of the hill we got out of the carriage and walked across the open plateau. In front of us, rising high above a little village, stood out a hideous white building. My father asked if I knew what it was. I said I guessed.”

“It was the prison,” Chayne interrupted, quickly.


“You went to it?”

Upon the answer to the question depended whether or no Chayne was to unravel his mystery, to-day.

“No,” replied Sylvia, and Chayne drew a breath. Had she answered “Yes,” the suspicion which had formed within his mind must needs be set aside, as clearly and finally disproved. Since she answered “No,” the suspicion gathered strength. “We went, however, near to it. We went as close to it as the quarries. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, and as we came to the corner of the wall which surrounds the quarries, my father said, ‘They have stopped work now.’”

“He knew that?” asked Chayne.

“Yes. We turned into a street which runs down toward the prison. On one side are small houses, on the other the long wall of the Government quarries. The street was empty; only now and then—very seldom—some one passed along it. On the top of the wall, there were sentry-boxes built at intervals, for the warders to overlook the convicts. But these were empty too. The wall is not high; I suppose—in fact my father said—the quarry was deep on the other side.”

“Yes,” said Chayne, quietly. “And then?”

“Then we walked slowly along the street, and whenever there was no one near, my father threw some tobacco over the wall. ‘I don’t suppose they have a very enjoyable time,’ he said. ‘They will be glad to find the tobacco there to-morrow.’ We walked up the street and turned and came back, and when we reached the corner he said with a laugh, ‘That’s all, Sylvia. My pockets are empty.’ We walked back to the carriage and drove home again to Weymouth.”

Sylvia had finished her story, and the mystery was clear to Chayne. She had told him the secret which she did not know herself. He was sure now why Gabriel Strood had changed his name; he knew now why Gabriel Strood no longer climbed the Alps; and why Kenyon would answer no question as to the disappearance of his friend.

“I have told you this,” said Sylvia, “because you accused my father of unkindness and want of thought. Would you have thought of those poor prisoners over there in the quarries? If you had, would you have taken so much trouble just to give them a small luxury? I think they must have blessed the unknown man who thought for them and showed them what so many want—a little sympathy and a little kindness.”

Chayne bowed his head.

“Yes,” he said, gently. “I was unjust.”

Indeed even to himself he acknowledged that Garratt Skinner had shown an unexpected kindness, although he was sure of the reason for the act. He had no doubt that Garratt Skinner had labored in those quarries himself, and perhaps had himself picked up in bygone days, as he stooped over his work, tobacco thrown over the walls by some more fortunate man.

“I am glad you acknowledge that,” said Sylvia, but her voice did not relent from its hostility. She stood without further word, expecting him to take his leave. Chayne recollected with how hopeful a spirit he had traveled down from London. His fine diplomacy had after all availed him little. He had gained certainly some unexpected knowledge which convinced him still more thoroughly that the sooner he took Sylvia away from her father and his friends the better it would be. But he was no nearer to his desire. It might be that he was further off than ever.

“You are returning to London?” she asked.

“Yes. I have to call at the War Office to-morrow.”

Sylvia had no curiosity as to that visit. She took no interest in it whatever, he noticed with a pang.

“And then?” she asked slowly, as she crossed the hall with him to the door. “You will go home?”

Chayne smiled rather bitterly.

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Into Sussex?”


She opened the door, and as he came out on to the steps she looked at him with a thoughtful scrutiny for a few moments. But whether her thoughts portended good or ill for him, he could not tell.

“When I was a boy,” he said abruptly, “I used to see from the garden of my house, far away in a dip of the downs, a dark high wall standing up against the sky. I never troubled myself as to how it came to have been built there. But I used to wonder, being a boy, whether it could be scaled or no. One afternoon I rode my pony over to find out, and I discovered—What do you think?—that my wall was a mere hedge just three feet high, no more.”

“Well!” said Sylvia.

“Well, I have not forgotten—that’s all,” he replied.

“Good-by,” she said, and he learned no more from her voice than he had done from her looks. He walked away down the lane, and having gone a few yards he looked back. Sylvia was still standing in the doorway, watching him with grave and thoughtful eyes. But there was no invitation to him to return, and turning away again he walked on.

Sylvia went up-stairs to her room. She unclenched her hand at last. In its palm there lay a little phial containing a colorless solution. But there was a label upon the phial, and on the label was written “cocaine.” It was that which had struck at her influence over Walter Hine. It was to introduce this drug that Archie Parminter had been brought down from London and the West End clubs.

“It’s drunk a good deal in a quiet way,” Archie had said, as he made a pretence himself to drink it.

“You leave such drugs to the aristocracy, Walter,” Garratt Skinner had chimed in. “Just a taste if you like. But go gently.”

Sylvia had not been present. But she conjectured the scene, and her conjecture was not far from the truth. But why? she asked, and again fear took hold of her. “What was to be gained?” There were limits to Sylvia’s knowledge of the under side of life. She did not guess.

She turned to her mirror and looked at herself. Yes, she looked tired, she looked ill. But she was not grateful for having the fact pointed out to her. And while she still looked, she heard her father’s voice calling her. She shivered, as though her fear once more laid hold on her. Then she locked the bottle of cocaine away in a drawer and ran lightly down the stairs.

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XVIII - Both Sides of the Question

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