Running Water

Chapter XX

On the Down

A.E.W. Mason

SYLVIA led the way to a little hollow just beneath the ridge of the downs, a sheltered spot open to the sea. On the three other sides bushes grew about it and dry branches and leaves deeply carpeted the floor. Here they rested and were silent. Upon Sylvia’s troubled heart there had fallen a mantle of deep peace. The strife, the fears, the torturing questions had become dim like the small griefs of childhood. Even the incident of the lighted window vexed her not at all.

“Hilary,” she said softly, lingering on the name, since to frame it and utter it and hear her lips speaking it greatly pleased her, “Hilary,” and her hand sought his, and finding it she was content.

It was a warm night of August. Overhead the moon sailed in a cloudless summer sky, drowning the stars. To the right, far below, the lamps of Weymouth curved about the shore; and in front the great bay shimmered like a jewel. Seven miles across it the massive bluff of Portland pushed into the sea; and even those rugged cliffs were subdued to the beauty of the night. Beneath them the riding-lights shone steady upon the masts of the battle ships. Sylvia looked out upon the scene with an overflowing heart. Often she had gazed on it before, and she marveled now how quickly she had turned aside. Her eyes were now susceptible to beauty as they had never been. There was a glory upon land and sea, a throbbing tenderness in the warm air of which she had not known till now. It seemed to her that she had lived until this night in a prison. Once the doors had been set ajar for a little while—just for a night and a day in the quiet of the High Alps. But only now had they been opened wide. Only to-night had she passed through and looked forth with an unhindered vision upon the world; and she discovered it to be a place of wonders and sweet magic.

“They were true, then,” she said, with a smile on her lips.

“Of what do you speak?” asked Chayne.

“My dreams,” Sylvia answered, knowing that she was justified of them. “For I have come awake into the land of my dreams, and I know it at last to be a real land, even to the sound of running water.”

For from the hollow at her feet the music of the mill stream rose to her ears through the still night, very clear and with a murmur of laughter. Sylvia looked down toward it. She saw it flashing like a riband of silver in the garden of the dark quiet house. There was no breath of wind in that garden, and all the great trees were still. She saw the intricate pattern of their boughs traced upon the lawn in black and silver.

“In that house I was born,” she said softly, “to the noise of that stream. I am very glad to know that in that house, too, my great happiness has come to me.”

Chayne leaned forward, and sitting side by side with Sylvia, gazed down upon it with rapture. Oh, wonderful house where Sylvia was born! How much the world owed to it!

“It was there!” he said with awe.

“Yes,” replied Sylvia. She was not without a proper opinion of herself, and it seemed rather a wonderful house to her, too.

“Perhaps on some such night as this,” he said, and at once took the words back. “No! You were born on a sunny morning of July and the blackbirds on the branches told the good news to the blackbirds on the lawn, and the stream took up the message and rippled it out to the ships upon the sea. There were no wrecks that day.”

Sylvia turned to him, her face made tender by a smile, her dark eyes kind and bright.

“Hilary!” she whispered. “Oh, Hilary!”

“Sylvia!” he replied, mimicking her tone. And Sylvia laughed with the clear melodious note of happiness. All her old life was whirled away upon those notes of laughter. She leaned to her lover with a sigh of contentment, her hair softly touching his cheek; her eyes once more dropped to the still garden and the dark square house at the down’s foot.

“There you asked me to marry you, to go away with you,” she said, and she caught his hand and held it close against her breast.

“Yes, there I first asked you,” he said, and some distress, forgotten in these first perfect moments, suddenly found voice. “Sylvia, why didn’t you come with me then? Oh, my dear, if you only had!”

But Sylvia’s happiness was as yet too fresh, too loud at her throbbing heart for her to mark the jarring note.

“I did not want to then,” she replied lightly, and then tightening her clasp upon his hand. “But now I do. Oh, Hilary, I do!”

“If only you had wanted then!”

Though he spoke low, the anguish of his voice was past mistaking. Sylvia looked at him quickly and most anxiously; and as quickly she looked away.

“Oh, no,” she whispered hurriedly.

Her happiness could not be so short-lived a thing. Her heart stood still at the thought. It could not be that she had set foot actually within the dreamland, to be forthwith cast out again. She thought of the last week, its aching lonely hours. She needed her lover at her side, longed for him with a great yearning, and would not let him go.

“I’ll not listen, Hilary,” she said stubbornly. “I will not hear! No”; and Chayne drew her close to his side.

“There is bad news, Sylvia.”

The outcry died away upon her lips. The words crushed the rebellion in her heart, they were so familiar. It seemed to her that all her life bad news had been brought to her by every messenger. She shivered and was silent, looking straight out across the moonlit sea. Then in a small trembling voice, like a child’s, she pleaded, still holding her face averted:

“Don’t go away from me, Hilary! Oh, please! Don’t go away from me now!”

Her voice, her words, went to Chayne’s heart. He knew that pride and a certain reticence were her natural qualities. That she should throw aside the one, break through the other, proved to him indeed how very much she cared, how very much she needed him.

“Sylvia,” he cried, “it will only be for a little while”; and again silence followed upon his words.

Since bad news was to be imparted, strength was needed to bear it; and habit had long since taught Sylvia that silence was the best nurse of strength. She did not turn her face toward her lover; but she drooped her head and clenched her hands tightly together upon her knees, nerving herself for the blow. The movement, slight though it was, stirred Chayne to pity and hurt him with an intolerable pain. It betrayed so unmistakably the long habit of suffering. She sat silent, motionless, with the dumb patience of a wounded animal.

“Oh, Sylvia, why did you not come with me on that first day?” he cried.

“Tell me your bad news, dear,” she replied, gently.

“I cannot help it,” he began in broken tones. “Sylvia, you will see that there is no escape, that I must go. An appointment was offered to me—by the War Office. It was offered to me, pressed on me, the day after I last came here, the day after we were together in the library. I did not know what to do. I did not accept it. But it seemed to me that each time I came to see you we became more and more estranged. I was given two days to make up my mind, and within the two days, my dear, your letter came, telling me you did not wish to see me any more.”

“Oh, Hilary!” she whispered.

“I accepted the appointment at once. There were reasons why I welcomed it. It would take me abroad!”

“Abroad!” she cried.

“Yes, I welcomed that. To be near you and not to see you—to be near you and know that others were talking with you, any one, every one except me—to be near you and know that you were unhappy and in trouble, and that I could not even tell you how deeply I was sorry—I dreaded that, Sylvia. And yet I dreaded one thing more. Here, in England, at each turn of the street, I should think to come upon you suddenly. To pass you as a stranger, or almost as a stranger. No! I could not do it!”

“Oh, Hilary!” she whispered, and lifting his hand she laid it against her cheek.

“So for a week I was glad. But this morning I received your second letter, Sylvia. It came too late, my dear. There was no time to obtain a substitute.”

Sylvia turned to him with a startled face.

“When do you go?”

“Very soon.”


The words had to be spoken.

“To-morrow morning. I catch the first train from Weymouth to Southampton. We sail from Southampton at noon.”

Habit came again to her assistance. She turned away from him so that he might not see her face, and he went on:

“Had there been more time, I could have made arrangements. Some one else could have gone. As it is—” He broke off suddenly, and bending toward her cried: “Sylvia, say that I must go.”

But she could not bring herself to that. She was minded to hold with both hands the good thing which had come to her this night. She shook her head. He sought to turn her face to his, but she looked stubbornly away.

“And when will you return?” she asked.

“In a few months, Sylvia.”


“In June.” And she counted off the months upon her fingers.

“So after to-night,” she said, in a low voice, “I shall not see you any more for all these months. The winter must pass, and the spring, too. Oh, Hilary!” and she turned to him with a quivering face and whispered piteously: “Don’t go, my dear. Don’t go!”

“Say that I must go!” he insisted, and she laughed with scorn. Then the laughter ceased and she said:

“There will be danger?”

“None,” he cried.

“Yes—from sickness, and—” her voice broke in a sob—“I shall not be near.”

“I will take great care, Sylvia. Be sure of that,” he answered. “Now that I have you, I will take great care,” and leaning toward her, as she sat with her hands clasped upon her knees, he touched her hair with his lips very tenderly.

“Oh, Hilary, what will I do? Till you come back to me! What will I do?”

“I have thought of it, Sylvia. I thought this. It might be better if, for these months—they will not pass quickly, my dear, either for you or me. They will be long slow months for both of us. That’s the truth, my dear. But since they must be got through, I thought it might be better if you went back to your mother.”

Sylvia shook her head.

“It would be better,” he urged, with a look toward the house.

“I can’t do that. Afterward, in a year’s time—when we are together, I should like very much for us both to go to her. But my mother forbade it when I went away from Chamonix. I was not to come whining back to her, those were her words. We parted altogether that night.”

She spoke with an extreme simplicity. There was neither an appeal for pity nor a hint of any bitterness in her voice. But the words moved Chayne all the more on that account. He would be leaving a very lonely, friendless girl to battle through the months of his absence by herself; and to battle with what? He was not sure. But he had not taken so lightly the shadow on the ceiling and the opening door.

“If only you had come with me on that first day,” he cried.

“I will have to-night to look back upon, my dear,” she said. “That will be something. Oh, if I had not asked you to come back! If you had gone away and said nothing! What would I have done then? As it is, I will know that you are thinking of me—” and suddenly she turned to him, and held him away from her in a spasm of fear while her eyes searched his face. But in a moment they melted and a smile made her lips beautiful. “Oh, yes, I can trust you,” she said, and she nestled against him contentedly like a child.

For a little while they sat thus, and then her eyes sought the garden and the house at her feet. It seemed that the sinister plot was not, after all, to develop in that place of quiet and old peace without her for its witness. It seemed that she was to be kept by some fatality close-fettered to the task, the hopeless task, which she would now gladly have foregone. And she wondered whether, after all, she was in some way meant to watch the plot, perhaps, after all, to hinder it.

“Hilary,” she said, “you remember that evening at the Chalet de Lognan?”

“Do I remember it?”

“You explained to me a law—that those who know must use their knowledge, if by using it they can save a soul, or save a life.”

“Yes,” he said, vaguely remembering that he had spoken in this strain.

“Well, I have been trying to obey that law. Do you understand? I want you to understand. For when I have been unkind, as I have been many times, it was, I think, because I was not obeying it with very much success. And I should like you to believe and know that. For when you are away, you will remember, in spite of yourself, the times when I was bitter.”

Her words made clear to him many things which had perplexed him during these last weeks. Her friendship for Walter Hine became intelligible, and as though to leave him no shadow of doubt, she went on.

“You see, I knew the under side of things, and I seemed to see the opportunity to use the knowledge. So I tried to save”; and whether it was life or soul, or both, she did not say. She did not add that so far she had tried in vain; she did not mention the bottle of cocaine, or the dread which of late had so oppressed her. She was careful of her lover. Since he had to go, since he needs must be absent, she would spare him anxieties and dark thoughts which he could do nothing to dispel. But even so, he obtained a clearer insight into the distress which she had suffered in that house, and the bravery with which she had borne it.

“Sylvia,” he said, “I had no thought, no wish, that what I said should stay with you.”

“Yet it did,” she answered, “and I was thankful. I am thankful even now. For though I would gladly give up all the struggle now, if I had you instead; since I have not you, I am thankful for the law. It was your voice which spoke it, it came from you. It will keep you near to me all through the black months until you come back. Oh, Hilary!” and the brave argument spoken to enhearten herself and him ended suddenly in a most wistful cry. Chayne caught her to him.

“Oh, Sylvia!” and he added: “The life is not yet saved!”

“Perhaps I am given to the summer,” she answered, and then, with a whimsical change of humor, she laughed tenderly. “Oh, but I wish I wasn’t. You will write? Letters will come from you.”

“As often as possible, my dear. But they won’t come often.”

“Let them be long, then,” she whispered, “very long,” and she leaned her head against his shoulder.

“Lie close, my dear,” said he. “Lie close!”

For a while longer they talked in low voices to one another, the words which lovers know and keep fragrant in their memories. The night, warm and clear, drew on toward morning, and the passage of the hours was unremarked. For both of them there was a glory upon the moonlit land and sea which made of it a new world. And into this new world both walked for the first time—walked in their youth and hand in hand. Each for the first time knew the double pride of loving and being loved. In spite of their troubles they were not to be pitied, and they knew it. The gray morning light flooded the sky and turned the moon into a pale white disk.

“Lie close, my dear,” said he. “It is not time.”

In the trees in the garden below the blackbirds began to bustle amongst the leaves, and all at once their clear, sweet music thrilled upward to the lovers in the hollow of the down.

“Lie close, my dear,” he repeated.

They watched the sun leap into the heavens and flash down the Channel in golden light.

“The night has gone,” said Chayne.

“Nothing can take it from us while we live,” answered Sylvia, very softly. She raised herself from her couch of leaves.

Then from one of the cottages in the tiny village a blue coil of smoke rose into the air.

“It is time,” said Chayne, and they rose and hand in hand walked down the slope of the hill to the house. Sylvia unlatched the door noiselessly and went in. Chayne stepped in after her; and in the silent hall they took farewell of one another.

“Good-by, my dear,” she whispered, with the tears in her eyes and in her voice, and she clung to him a little and so let him go. She held the door ajar until the sound of his footsteps had died away—and after that. For she fancied that she heard them still, since, she so deeply wished to hear them. Then with a breaking heart she went up the stairs to her room.

Running Water - Contents    |     Chapter XXI - Chayne Comes to Conclusions

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