Running Water

Chapter XIX

The Shadow in the Room

A.E.W. Mason

SYLVIA raised her hand suddenly, enjoining silence, and turned back into the room. She had heard a door slam violently within the house; and now from the hall voices rose. Her father and Walter Hine were coming up early to-night from the library, and it seemed in anger. At all events Walter Hine was angry. His voice rang up the stairway shrill and violent.

“Why do you keep it from me? I will have it, I tell you. I am not a child,” and an oath or two garnished the sentences.

Sylvia heard her father reply with the patronage which never failed to sting the vanity of his companion, which was the surest means to provoke a quarrel, if a quarrel he desired.

“Go to bed, Wallie! Leave such things to Archie Parminter! You are too young.”

His voice was friendly, but a little louder than he generally used, so that Sylvia clearly distinguished every word; so clearly indeed, that had he wished her to hear, thus he would have spoken. She heard the two men mount the stairs, Hine still protesting with the violence which had grown on him of late; Garratt Skinner seeking apparently to calm him, and apparently oblivious that every word he spoke inflamed Walter Hine the more. She had a fear there would be blows—blows struck, of course, by Hine. She knew the reason of the quarrel. Her father was depriving Hine of his drug. They passed up-stairs, however, and on the landing above she heard their doors close. Then coming back to the window she made a sign to Chayne, slipped a cloak about her shoulders and stole quietly down the dark stairs to the door. She unlocked the door gently and went out to her lover. Upon the threshold she hesitated, chilled by a fear as to how he would greet her. But he turned to her and in the moonlight she saw his face and read it. There was no anger there. She ran toward him.

“Oh, my dear,” she cried, in a low, trembling voice, and his arms enclosed her. As she felt them hold her to him, and knew indeed that it was he, her lover, whose lips bent down to hers, there broke from her a long sigh of such relief and such great uplifting happiness as comes but seldom, perhaps no more than once, in the life of any man or woman. Her voice sank to a whisper, and yet was very clear and, to the man who heard it, sweet as never music was.

“Oh, my dear, my dear! You have come then?” and she stroked his face, and her hands clung about his neck to make very sure.

“Were you afraid that I wouldn’t come, Sylvia?” he asked, with a low, quiet laugh.

She lifted her face into the moonlight, so that he saw at once the tears bright in her eyes and the smile trembling upon her lips.

“No,” she said, “I rather thought that you would come,” and she laughed as she spoke. Or did she sob? He could hardly tell, so near she was to both. “Oh, but I could not be sure! I wrote with so much unkindness,” and her eyes dropped from his in shame.

“Hush!” he said, and he held her close.

“Have you forgiven me? Oh, please forgive me!”

“Long since,” said he.

But Sylvia was not reassured.

“Ah, but you won’t forget,” she said, ruefully. “One can forgive, but one can’t forget what one forgives,” and then since, even in her remorse, hope was uppermost with her that night, she cried, “Oh, Hilary, do you think you ever will forget what I wrote to you?”

And again Chayne laughed quietly at her fears.

“What does it matter what you wrote a week ago, since to-night we are here, you and I—together, in the moonlight, for all the world to see that we are lovers.”

She drew him quickly aside into the shadow of the wall.

“Are you afraid we should be seen?” he asked.

“No, but afraid we may be interrupted,” she replied, with a clear trill of laughter which showed to her lover that her fears had passed.

“The whole village is asleep, Sylvia,” he said in a whisper; and as he spoke a blind was lifted in an upper story of the house, a window was flung wide, and the light streamed out from it into the moonlit air and spread over their heads like a great, yellow fan. Walter Hine leaned his elbows on the sill and looked out.

Sylvia moved deeper into the shadow.

“He cannot see us,” said Chayne, with a smile, and he set his arm about her waist; and so they stood very quietly.

The house was built a few yards back from the road, and on each side of it the high wall of the garden curved in toward it, making thus an open graveled space in front of its windows. Sylvia and her lover stood at one of the corners where the wall curved in; the shadow reached out beyond their feet and lay upon the white road in a black triangle; they could hardly be seen from any window of the house, and certainly they could not be recognized. But on the other hand they could see. From behind Walter Hine the light streamed out clear. The ceiling of the room was visible and the shadow of the lamp upon it, and even the top part of the door in the far corner.

“We will wait until he turns back into the room,” Sylvia whispered; and for a little while they stood and watched. Then she felt Chayne’s arm tighten about her and hold her still.

“Do you see?” he cried, in a low, quick voice. “Sylvia, do you see?”


“The door. Look! Behind him! The door!” And Sylvia, looking as he bade her, started, and barely stifled the cry which rose to her lips. For behind Walter Hine, the door in the far corner of the room was opening—very slowly, very stealthily, as though the hand which opened it feared to be detected. So noiselessly had the latch been loosed that Walter Hine did not so much as turn his head. Nor did he turn it now. He heard nothing. He leaned from the window with his elbows on the sill, and behind him the gap between the door and the wall grew wider and wider. The door opened into the room and toward the window, so that the two people in the shadow below could see nothing of the intruder. But the secrecy of his coming had something sinister and most alarming. Sylvia joined her hands above her lover’s arm, holding her breath.

“Shout to him!” she whispered. “Cry out that there’s danger.”

“Not yet!” said Chayne, with his eyes fixed upon the lighted room; and then, in spite of herself, a low and startled cry broke from Sylvia’s lips. A great shadow had been suddenly flung upon the ceiling of the room, the shadow of a man, bloated and made monstrous by the light. The intruder had entered the room; and with so much stealth that his presence was only noticed by the two who watched in the road below. But even they could not see who the intruder was, they only saw the shadow on the ceiling.

Walter Hine, however, heard Sylvia’s cry, faint though it was. He leaned forward from the window and peered down.

“Now!” said Sylvia. “Now!”

But Chayne did not answer. He was watching with an extraordinary suspense. He seemed not to hear. And on the ceiling the shadow moved, and changed its shape, now dwindling, now growing larger again, now disappearing altogether as though the intruder stooped below the level of the lamp; and once there was flung on the white plaster the huge image of an arm which had something in its hand. Was the arm poised above the lamp, on the point of smashing it with the thing it held? Chayne waited, with a cry upon his lips, expecting each moment that the room would be plunged in darkness. But the cry was not uttered, the arm was withdrawn. It had not been raised to smash the lamp, the thing which the hand held was for some other purpose. And once more the shadow appeared moving and changing as the intruder crept nearer to the window. Sylvia stood motionless. She had thought to cry out, now she was fascinated. A spell of terror constrained her to silence. And then, suddenly, behind Walter Hine there stood out clearly in the light the head and shoulders of Garratt Skinner.

“My father,” said Sylvia, in relief. Her clasp upon Chayne’s arm relaxed; her terror passed from her. In the revulsion of her feelings she laughed quietly at her past fear. Chayne looked quickly and curiously at her. Then as quickly he looked again to the window. Both men in the room were now lit up by the yellow light; their attitudes, their figures were very clear but small, like marionettes upon the stage of some tiny theater. Chayne watched them with no less suspense now that he knew who the intruder was. Unlike Sylvia he had betrayed no surprise when he had seen Garratt Skinner’s head and shoulders rise into view behind Walter Hine; and unlike Sylvia, he did not relax his vigilance. Suddenly Garratt Skinner stepped forward, very quickly, very silently. With one step he was close behind his friend; and then just as he was about to move again—it seemed to Sylvia that he was raising his arm, perhaps to touch his friend upon the shoulder—Chayne whistled—whistled sharply, shrilly and with a kind of urgency which Sylvia did not understand.

Walter Hine leaned forward out of the window. That was quite natural. But on the other hand Garratt Skinner did nothing of the kind. To Sylvia’s surprise he stepped back, and almost out of sight. Very likely he thought that he was out of sight. But to the watchers in the road his head was just visible. He was peering over Walter Hine’s shoulder.

Again Chayne whistled and, not content with whistling, he cried out in a feigned bucolic accent:

“I see you.”

At once Garratt Skinner’s head disappeared altogether.

Walter Hine peered down into the darkness whence the whistle came, curving his hands above his forehead to shut out the light behind him; and behind him once more the shadow appeared upon the ceiling and the wall. A third time Chayne whistled; and Walter Hine cried out:

“What is it?”

And behind him the shadow vanished from the ceiling and the door began to close, softly and stealthily, just as softly and stealthily as it had been opened.

Again, Hine cried out:

“Who’s there? What is it?”

And Chayne laughed aloud derisively, as though he were some yokel practising a joke. Hine turned back into the room. The room was empty, but the door was unlatched. He disappeared from the window, and the watchers below saw the door slammed to, heard the sound of the slamming and then another sound, the sound of a key turning in the lock.

It seemed almost that Chayne had been listening for that sound. For he turned at once to Sylvia.

“We puzzled them fairly, didn’t we?” he said, with a smile. But the smile somehow seemed hardly real, and his face was very white.

“It’s the moonlight,” he explained. “Come!”

They walked quietly through the silent village where the thick eaves of the cottages threw their black shadows on the white moonlit road, past the mill and the running water, to a gate which opened on the down. They unlatched the gate noiselessly and climbed the bare slope of grass. Half way up Chayne turned and looked down upon the house. There was no longer any light in any window. He turned to Sylvia and slipped his arm through hers.

“Come close,” said he, and now there was no doubt the smile was real. “Shall we keep step, do you think?”

“If we go always like this, we might,” said Sylvia, with a smile.

“At times there will be a step to be cut, no doubt,” said he.

“You once said that I could stand firm while the step was being cut,” she answered. Always at the back of both their minds, evident from time to time in some such phrase as this, was the thought of the mountain upon which their friendship had been sealed. Friendship had become love here in the quiet Dorsetshire village, but in both their thoughts it had another background—ice-slope and rock-spire and the bright sun over all.

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XX - On the Down

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