Running Water

Chapter XVIII

Both Sides of the Question

A.E.W. Mason

CHAYNE’S HOUSE stood high upon a slope of the Sussex Downs. Built of stone two centuries ago, it seemed gradually to have taken on the brown color of the hill behind it, subduing itself to the general scheme, even as birds and animals will do; so that strangers who searched for it in the valley discovered it by the upward swirl of smoke from its wide chimneys. On its western side and just beneath the house, there was a cleft in the downs through which the high road ran and in the cleft the houses of a tiny village clustered even as at the foot of some old castle in Picardy. On the east the great ridge with its shadow-holding hollows, its rounded gorse-strewn slopes of grass, rolled away for ten miles and then dipped suddenly to the banks of the River Arun. The house faced the south, and from its high-terraced garden, a great stretch of park and forest land was visible, where amidst the green and russet of elm and beach, a cluster of yews set here and there gave the illusion of a black and empty space. Beyond the forest land a lower ridge of hills rose up, and over that ridge one saw the spires of Chichester and the level flats of Selsea reaching to the sea.

Into this garden Chayne came on the next afternoon, and as he walked along its paths alone he could almost fancy that his dead father paced with the help of his stick at his side, talking, as had been his wont, of this or that improvement needed by the farms, pointing out to him a meadow in the hollow beneath which might soon be coming into the market, and always ending up with the same plea.

“Isn’t it time, Hilary, that you married and came home to look after it all yourself?”

Chayne had turned a deaf ear to that plea, but it made its appeal to him to-night. Wherever his eyes rested, he recaptured something of his boyhood; the country-side was alive with memories. He looked south, and remembered how the perished cities of history had acquired reality for him by taking on the aspect of Chichester lying low there on the flats; and how the spires of the fabled towns of his storybooks had caught the light of the setting sun, just as did now the towers of the cathedral. Eastward, in the dip between the shoulder of the downs, and the trees of Arundel Park, a long black hedge stood out with a remarkable definition against the sky—the hedge of which he had spoken to Sylvia—the great dark wall of brambles guarding the precincts of the Sleeping Beauty. He recalled the adventurous day when he had first ridden alone upon his pony along the great back of the downs and had come down to it through a sylvan country of silence and ferns and open spaces; and had discovered it to be no more than a hedge waist-high. The dusk came upon him as he loitered in that solitary garden; the lights shone out in cottage and farm-house; and more closely still his memories crowded about him weaving spells. Some one to share them with! Chayne had no need to wait for old age before he learnt the wisdom of Michel Revailloud. For his heart leaped now, as he dreamed of exploring once more with Sylvia at his side the enchanted country of his boyhood; gallops in the quiet summer mornings along that still visible track across the downs, by which the Roman legions had marched in the old days from London straight as a die to Chichester; winter days with the hounds; a rush on windy afternoons in a sloop-rigged boat down the Arun to Littlehampton. Chayne’s heart leaped with a passionate longing as he dreamed, and sank as he turned again to the blank windows of the empty house.

He dined alone, and while he dined evoked Sylvia’s presence at the table, setting her, not at the far end, but at the side and close, so that a hand might now and then touch hers; calling up into her face her slow hesitating smile; seeing her still gray eyes grow tender; in a word watching the Madonna change into the woman. He went into the library where, since the night had grown chilly, a fire was lit. It was a place of comfort, with high bookshelves, deep-cushioned chairs, and dark curtains. But, no less than the dining-room it needed another presence, and lacking that lacked everything. It needed the girl with the tired and terror-haunted face. Here, surely the fear would die out of her soul, the eyes would lose their shadows, the feet regain the lightness of their step.

Chayne took down his favorite books, but they failed him. Between the pages and his eyes one face would shape itself. He looked into the fire and sought as of old to picture in the flames some mountain on which his hopes were set and to discover the right line for its ascent. But even that pastime brought no solace for his discontent. The house oppressed him. It was empty, it was silent. He drew aside the curtains and looking down into the valley through the clear night air watched the lights in cottage and farm with the envy born of his loneliness.

In spite of the brave words he had used, he wondered to-night whether the three-foot hedge was not after all to prove the unassailable wall. And it was important that he should know. For if it were so, why then he had not called at the War Office in vain. A proposal had been made to him—that he should join a commission for the delimitation of a distant frontier. A year’s work and an immediate departure—those were the conditions. Within two days he must make up his mind—within ten days he must leave England.

Chayne pondered over the decision which he must make. If he had lost Sylvia, here was the mission to accept. For it meant complete severance, a separation not to be measured by miles alone, but by the nature of the work, and the comrades, and even the character of the vegetation. He went to bed in doubt, thinking that the morning might bring him counsel. It brought him a letter from Sylvia instead.

The letter was long; it was written in haste, it was written in great distress, so that words which were rather unkind were written down. But the message of the letter was clear. Chayne was not to come again to the House of the Running Water; nor to the little house in London when she returned to it. They were not to meet again. She did not wish for it.

Chayne burnt the letter as soon as he had read it, taking no offence at the hasty words. “I seem to have worried her more than I thought,” he said to himself with a wistful smile. “I am sorry,” and again as the sparks died out from the black ashes of the letter he repeated: “Poor little girl. I am very sorry.”

So the house would always be silent and empty.

Sylvia had written the letter in haste on the very evening of Chayne’s visit, and had hurried out to post it in fear lest she might change her mind in the morning. But in the morning she was only aware of a great lightness of spirit. She could now devote herself to the work of her life; and for two long tiring days she kept Walter Hine at her side. But now he sought to avoid her. The little energy he had ever had was gone, he alternated between exhilaration and depression; he preferred, it seemed, to be alone. For two days, however, Sylvia persevered, and on the third her lightness of spirit unaccountably deserted her.

She drove with Walter Hine that morning, and something of his own irritability seemed to have passed into her; so that he turned to her and asked:

“What have I done? Aren’t you pleased with me? Why are you angry?”

“I am not angry,” she replied, turning her great gray eyes upon him. “But if you wish to know, I miss something.”

So much she owned. She missed something, and she knew very well what it was that she missed. Even as Chayne in his Sussex home had ached to know that the house lacked a particular presence, so it began to be with Sylvia in Dorsetshire.

“Yet he has been absent for a longer time,” she argued with herself, “and I have not missed him. Indeed, I have been glad of his absence.” And the answer came quickly from her thoughts.

“At any time you could have called him to your side, and you knew it. Now you have sent him away for always.”

During the week the sense of loss, the feeling that everything was unbearably incomplete, grew stronger and stronger within her. She had no heart for the losing battle in which she was engaged. A dangerous question began to force itself forward in her mind whenever her eyes rested upon Walter Hine. “Was he worth while?” she asked herself: though as yet she did not define all that the “while” connoted. The question was most prominent in her mind on the seventh day after the letter had been sent. She had persuaded Walter Hine to mount with her on to the down behind the house; they came to the great White Horse, and Hine, pleading fatigue, a plea which during these last days had been ever on his lips, flung himself down upon the grass. For a little time Sylvia sat idly watching the great battle ships at firing-practice in the Bay. It was an afternoon of August; a light haze hung in the still air softening the distant promontories; and on the waveless sparkling sea the great ships, coal-black to the eye, circled about the targets, with now and then a roar of thunder and a puff of smoke, like some monstrous engines of heat—heat stifling and oppressive. By sheer contrast, Sylvia began to dream of the cool glaciers; and the Chalet de Lognan suddenly stood visible before her eyes. She watched the sunlight die off the red rocks of the Chardonnet, the evening come with silent feet across the snow, and the starlit night follow close upon its heels; night fled as she dreamed. She saw the ice-slope on the Aiguille d’Argentière, she could almost hear the chip-chip of the axes as the steps were cut and the perpetual hiss as the ice-fragments streamed down the slope. Then she looked toward Walter Hine with the speculative inquiry which had come so often into her eyes of late. And as she looked, she saw him furtively take from a pocket a tabloid or capsule and slip it secretly into his mouth.

“How long have you been taking cocaine?” she asked, suddenly.

Walter Hine flushed scarlet and turned to her with a shrinking look.

“I don’t,” he stammered.

“Yet you left a bottle of the drug where I found it.”

“That was not mine,” said he, still more confused. “That was Archie Parminter’s. He left it behind.”

“Yes,” said Sylvia, finding here a suspicion confirmed. “But he left it for you?”

“And if I did take it,” said Hine, turning irritably to her, “what can it matter to you? I believe that what your father says is true.”

“What does he say?”

“That you care for Captain Chayne, and that it’s no use for any one else to think of you.”

Sylvia started.

“Oh, he says that!”

She understood now one of the methods of the new intrigue. Sylvia was in love with Chayne; therefore Walter Hine may console himself with cocaine. It was not Garratt Skinner who suggested it. Oh, no! But Archie Parminter is invited for the night, takes the drug himself, or pretends to take it, praises it, describes how the use of it has grown in the West End and amongst the clubs, and then conveniently leaves the drug behind, and no doubt supplies it as it is required.

Sylvia began to dilate upon its ill-effects, and suddenly broke off. A great disgust was within her and stopped her speech. She got to her feet. “Let us go home,” she said, and she went very quickly down the hill. When she came to the house she ran up-stairs to her room, locked the door and flung herself upon her bed. Walter Hine, her father, their plots and intrigues, were swept clean from her mind as of no account. Her struggle for the mastery became unimportant in her thoughts—a folly, a waste. For what her father had said was true; she cared for Chayne. And what she herself had said to Chayne when first he came to the House of the Running Water was no less true. “If I loved, I think nothing else would count at all except that I loved.”

She had judged herself aright. She knew that, as she lay prone upon her bed, plunged in misery, while the birds called upon the boughs in the garden and the mill stream filled the room with its leaping music. In a few minutes a servant knocked upon the door and told her that tea was ready in the library; but she returned no answer. And in a few minutes more—or so it seemed, but meanwhile the dusk had come—there came another knock and she was told that dinner had been served. But to that message again she returned no answer. The noises of the busy day ceased in the fields, the birds were hushed upon the branches, quiet and darkness took and refreshed the world. Only the throbbing music of the stream beat upon the ears, and beat with a louder significance, since all else was still. Sylvia lay staring wide-eyed into the darkness. To the murmur of this music, in perhaps this very room, she had been born. “Why,” she asked piteously, “why?” Of what use was it that she must suffer?

Of all the bad hours of her life, these were the worst. For the yearning for happiness and love throbbed and cried at her heart, louder and louder, just as the music of the stream swelled to importance with the coming of the night. And she learned that she had had both love and happiness within her grasp and that she had thrown them away for a shadow. She thought of the letter which she had written, recalling its phrases with a sinking heart.

“No man could forgive them. I must have been mad,” she said, and she huddled herself upon her bed and wept aloud.

She ran over in her mind the conversations which she and Hilary Chayne had exchanged, and each recollection accused her of impatience and paid a tribute to his gentleness. On the very first day he had asked her to go with him and her heart cried out now:

“Why didn’t I go?”

He had been faithful and loyal ever since, and she had called his faithfulness importunity and his loyalty a humiliation. She struck a match and looked at her watch and by habit wound it up. And she drearily wondered on how many, many nights she would have to wind it up and speculate in ignorance what he, her lover, was doing and in what corner of the world, before the end of her days was reached. What would become of her? she asked. And she raised the corner of a curtain and glanced at the bright picture of what might have been. And glancing at it, the demand for happiness raised her in revolt.

She lit her candle and wrote another letter, of the shortest. It contained but these few words:

“Oh, please forgive me! Come back and forgive. Oh, you must!—SYLVIA.”

And having written them, Sylvia stole quietly down-stairs, let herself out at the door and posted them.

Two nights afterward she leaned out of her window at midnight, wondering whether by the morrow’s post she would receive an answer to her message. And while she wondered she understood that the answer would not come that way. For suddenly in the moonlit road beneath her, she saw standing the one who was to send it. Chayne had brought his answer himself. For a moment she distrusted her own eyes, believing that her thoughts had raised this phantom to delude her. But the figure in the road moved beneath her window and she heard his voice call to her:

“Sylvia! Sylvia!”

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XIX - The Shadow in the Room

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