Running Water

Chapter XXVI

Running Water

A.E.W. Mason

IN TWO DAYS’ TIME Walter Hine was sufficiently recovered to be carried down to Courmayeur. He had been very near to death upon the Brenva ridge, certainly the second night upon which Garratt Skinner had counted would have ended his life; he was frostbitten; and for a long while the shock and the exposure left him weak. But he gained strength with each day, and Chayne had opportunities to admire the audacity and the subtle skill with which Garratt Skinner had sought his end. For Walter Hine was loud in his praises of his friend’s self-sacrifice. Skinner had denied himself his own share of food, had bared his breast to the wind that he might give the warmth of his own body to keep his friend alive—these instances lost nothing in the telling. And they were true! Chayne could not deny to Garratt Skinner a certain criminal grandeur. He had placed Hine in no peril which he had not shared himself; he had taken him, a man fitted in neither experience nor health, on an expedition where inexperience or weakness on the part of one was likely to prove fatal to all. There was, moreover, one incident, not contemplated by Garratt Skinner in his plan, which made his position absolutely secure. He had actually saved Walter Hine’s life on the rocky path of the Mont de la Brenva. There was no doubt of it. He had reached out his hand and saved him. Chayne made much of this incident to his wife.

“I was wrong you see, Sylvia,” he argued. “For your father could have let him fall, and did not. I have been unjust to him, and to you, for you have been troubled.”

But Sylvia shook her head.

“You were not wrong,” she answered. “It is only because you are very kind that you want me to believe it. But I see the truth quite clearly”; and she smiled at him. “If you wanted me to believe, you should never have told me of the law, a year ago in the Chalet de Lognan. My father obeyed the law—that was all. You know it as well as I. He had no time to think; he acted upon the instinct of the moment; he could not do otherwise. Had there been time to think, would he have reached out his hand? We both know that he would not. But he obeyed the law. What he knew, that he did, obeying the law upon the moment. He could save, and knowing it he did save, even against his will.”

Chayne did not argue the point. Sylvia saw the truth too clearly.

“Walter Hine is getting well,” he said. “Your father is still at another hotel in Courmayeur. There’s the future to be considered.”

“Yes,” she said, and she waited.

“I have asked your father to come over to-night after dinner,” said Chayne.

And into their private sitting-room Garratt Skinner entered at eight o’clock that evening. It was the first time that Sylvia had seen him since she had learned the whole truth, and she found the occasion one of trial. But Garratt Skinner carried it off.

There was nothing of the penitent in his manner, but on the other hand he no longer affected the manner of a pained and loving parent. He greeted her from the door, and congratulated her quietly and simply upon her marriage. Then he turned to Chayne.

“You wished to speak to me? I am at your service.”

“Yes,” replied Chayne. “We—and I speak for Sylvia—we wish to suggest to you that your acquaintanceship with Walter Hine should end altogether—that it should already have ended.”

“Really!” said Garratt Skinner, with an air of surprise. “Captain Chayne, the laws of England, revolutionary as they have no doubt become to old-fashioned people like myself, have not yet placed fathers under the guardianship of their sons-in-law. I cannot accept your suggestion.”

“We insist upon its acceptance,” said Chayne, quietly.

Garratt Skinner smiled.

“Insist perhaps! But how enforce it, my friend? That’s another matter.”

“I think we have the means to do that,” said Chayne. “We can point out to Walter Hine, for instance, that your ascent from the Brenva Glacier was an attempt to murder him.”

“An ugly word, Captain Chayne. You would find it difficult of proof.”

“The story is fairly complete,” returned Chayne. “There is first of all a telegram from Mr. Jarvice couched in curious language.”

Garratt Skinner’s face lost its smile of amusement.

“Indeed?” he said. He was plainly disconcerted.

“Yes.” Chayne produced the telegram from his letter case, read it aloud with his eyes upon Garratt Skinner, and replaced it. “’What are you waiting for? Hurry up! Jarvice.’ There is no need at all events to ask Mr. Jarvice what he was waiting for, is there? He wanted to lay his hands upon the money for which Hine’s life was insured.”

Garratt Skinner leaned back in his chair. His eyes never left Chayne’s face, his face grew set and stern. He had a dangerous look, the look of a desperate man at bay.

“Then there is a certain incident to be considered which took place in the house near Weymouth. You must at times have been puzzled by it—perhaps a little alarmed too. Do you remember one evening when a whistle from the shadows on the road and a yokel’s shout drove you out of Walter Hine’s room, sent you creeping out of it as stealthily as you entered—nay, did more than that, for that whistle and that shout drove you out of Dorsetshire. Ah! I see you remember.”

Garratt Skinner indeed had often enough been troubled by the recollection of that night. The shout, the whistle ringing out so suddenly and abruptly from the darkness and the silence had struck upon his imagination and alarmed him by their mystery. Who was the man who had seen? And what had he seen? Garratt Skinner had never felt quite safe since that evening. There was some one, a stranger, going about the world with the key to his secret, even if he had not guessed the secret.

“It was I who whistled. I who shouted.”

“You!” cried Garratt Skinner. “You!”

“Yes. Sylvia was with me. You thought to do that night what you thought to do a few days ago above the Brenva ridge. Both times together we were able to hinder you. But once Sylvia hindered you alone. There is the affair of the cocaine.”

Chayne looked toward his wife with a look of great pride for the bravery which she had shown. She was sitting aloof in the embrasure of the window with her face averted and a hand pressed over her eyes and forehead. Chayne looked back to Garratt Skinner, and there was more anger in his face than he had ever shown.

“I will never forgive you the distress you have caused to Sylvia,” he said.

But Garratt Skinner’s eyes were upon Sylvia, and in his face, too, there was a humorous look of pride. She had courage. He remembered how she had confronted him when Walter Hine lay sick. He said no word to her, however, and again he turned to Chayne, who went on:

“There is also your past career to add weight to the argument, Mr.—Strood.”

Point by point Chayne set out in detail the case for the prosecution. Garratt Skinner listened without interruption, but he knew that he was beaten. The evidence against him was too strong. It might not be enough legally to secure his conviction at a public trial—though even upon that question there would be the gravest doubt—but it would be enough to carry certitude to every ear which listened and to every eye which read.

“The game is played out,” Chayne continued. “We have Walter Hine, and we shall not let him slip back into your hands. How much of the story we shall tell him we are not yet sure—but all if it be necessary. And, if it be necessary, to others beside.”

There was a definite threat in the last words. But Garratt Skinner had already made up his mind. Since the game was played out, since defeat had come, he took it without anger or excuse.

“Very well,” he said. “Peace in the family circle is after all very desirable—eh, Sylvia? I agree with the deepest regret to part from my young friend, Walter Hine. I leave him in your hands.” He was speaking with a humorous magnanimity. But his eyes wandered back to Sylvia, who sat some distance away in the embrasure of the window, with her face in her hands; and his voice changed.

“Sylvia,” he said, gently, “come here.”

Sylvia rose and walked over to the table.

The waiting, the knowledge which had come to her during the last few days, had told their tale. She had the look which Chayne too well remembered, the dark shadows beneath her eyes, the languor in her walk, the pallor in her cheeks, the distress and shame in her expression.

“Sit down,” he said; and she obeyed him reluctantly, seating herself over against him. She gazed at the table-cloth with that mutinous look upon her face which took away from her her womanhood and gave to her the aspect of a pretty but resentful child. Garratt Skinner for the life of him could not but smile at her.

“Well, Sylvia, you have beaten me. You fought your fight well, and I bear you no malice,” he said, lightly. “But,” and his voice became serious again, “you sit in judgment on me.”

Sylvia raised her eyes quickly.

“No!” she cried.

“I think so,” he persisted. “I don’t blame you. Only I should like you to bear this in mind; that you have in your own life a reason to go gently in your judgments of other people.”

Chayne stepped forward, as though he would interfere, but Sylvia laid her hand upon his arm and checked him.

“I don’t think you understand, Hilary,” she said, quickly. She turned to her father and looked straight at him with an eager interest.

“I wonder whether we are both thinking of the same thing,” she said, curiously.

“Perhaps,” replied her father. “All your life you have dreamed of running water.”

And Sylvia nodded her head.

“Yes, yes,” she said, with a peculiar intentness.

“The dream is part of you, part of your life. For all you know, it may have modified your character.”

“Yes,” said Sylvia.

“It is a part of you of which you could not rid yourself if you tried. When you are asleep, this dream comes to you. It is as much a part of you as a limb.”

And again Sylvia answered: “Yes.”

“Well, you are not responsible for it,” and Sylvia leaned forward.

“Ah!” she said. She had been wondering whether it was to this point that he was coming.

“You know now why you hear it, why it’s part of you. You were born to the sound of running water in that old house in Dorsetshire. Before you were born, in the daytime and in the stillness of the night your mother heard it week after week. Perhaps even when she was asleep the sound rippled through her dreams. Thus you came by it. It was born in you.”

“Yes,” she answered, following his argument step by step very carefully, but without a sign of the perplexity which was evident in Hilary Chayne. Chayne stood a little aloof, looking from Sylvia’s face to the face of her father, in doubt whither the talk was leading. Sylvia, on the other hand, recognized each sentence which her father spoke as the embodiment of a thought with which she was herself familiar.

“Well, then, here’s a definite thing, an influence most likely, a characteristic most certainly, and not of your making! One out of how many influences, characteristics which are part of you but not of your making! But we can lay our finger on it. Well, it is a pleasant and a pretty quality—this dream of yours, Sylvia—yes, a very pleasant one to be born with. But suppose that instead of that dream you had been born with a vice, an instinct of crime, of sin, would you have been any the more responsible for it? If you are not responsible for the good thing, are you responsible for the bad? An awkward question, Sylvia—awkward enough to teach you to go warily in your judgments.”

“Yes,” said Sylvia. “I was amongst the fortunate. I don’t deny it.”

“But that’s not all,” and as Chayne moved restively, Garratt Skinner waved an indulgent hand.

“I don’t expect you, Captain Chayne, to take an interest in these problems. For a military man, discipline and the penal code are the obvious unalterable solutions. But it is possible that I may never see my daughter again and—I am speaking to her”; and he went back to the old vexed question.

“It’s not only that you are born with qualities, definite characteristics, definite cravings, for which you are no more responsible than the man in the moon, and which are part of you. But there’s something else. How much of your character, how much of all your life to come is decided for you during the first ten or fifteen years of your life—decided for you, mind, not by you? Upon my soul, I think the whole of it. You don’t agree? Well, it’s an open question. I believe that at the age of fifteen the lines along which you will move are already drawn, your character formed, your conduct for the future a settled thing.”

To that Sylvia gave no assent. But she did not disagree. She only looked at her father with a questioning and a troubled face. If it were so, she asked, why had she hated from the first the circle in which her mother and herself had moved. And the answer—or at all events an answer—came as she put the question to herself. She had lived amongst her dreams. She was in doubt.

“Well, hear something of my boyhood, Sylvia!” cried her father, and for the first time his voice became embittered. “I was brought up by a respectable father. Yes, respectable,” he said, with a sneer. “Everything about us was respectable. We lived in a respectable house in a respectable neighborhood, and twice every Sunday we went to church and listened to a respectable clergyman. But!—Well, here’s a chapter out of the inside. I would go to bed and read in bed by a candle. Not a very heinous offence, but contrary to the rule of the house. Sooner or later I would hear a faint scuffling sound in the passage. That was my father stealing secretly along to listen at my door and see what I was doing. I covered the light of the candle with my hand, or perhaps blew it out—but not so quickly but that he would see the streak of light beneath the door. Then the play would begin. ‘You are not reading in bed, are you?’ he would say. ‘Certainly not,’ I would reply. ‘You are sure?’ he would insist. ‘Of course, father,’ I would answer. Then back he would go, but only for a little way, and I would hear him come stealthily scuffling back again. Perhaps the candle would be lit again already, or at all events uncovered. Would he say anything? Oh, no! He had found out I was lying. He felt that he had scored a point, and he would save it up. So we would meet the next morning at breakfast, he knowing that I was a liar, I knowing that he knew that I was a liar, and both pretending that we were all in all to each other. A small thing, Sylvia. But crowd your life with such small things? Spying and deceit and a game of catch-as-catch-can played by the father and son! My letters were read—I used to know, for roundabout questions would be put leading up to the elucidation of a sentence which to any one but myself would be obscure! Do you think any child could grow up straight, if his boyhood passed in that atmosphere of trickery? I don’t know. Only I think that before I was fifteen my way of life was a sure and settled thing. It was certain that I should develop upon the lines on which I was trained.”

Garratt Skinner rose from his seat.

“There, I have done,” he said. He looked at his daughter for a little while, his eyes dwelling upon her beauty with a certain pleasure, and even a certain wistfulness; he looked at her now much as she had been wont to look at him in the early days of the house in Dorsetshire. It was very plain that they were father and daughter.

“You are too good for your military man, my dear,” he said, with a smile. “Too pretty and too good. Don’t you let him forget it!” And suddenly he cried out with a burst of passion. “I wish to God you had never come near me!” And Sylvia, hearing the cry, remembered that on the Sunday evening when she had first come to the house in Hobart Place, her father had shown a particular hesitation, had felt some of that remorse of which she heard the full expression now, in welcoming her to his house and adapting her to his ends. She raised her downcast eyes and with outstretched hands took a step forward.

“Father!” she said. But her father was already gone. She heard his step upon the stairs.

Chayne, however, followed her father from the room and caught him up as he was leaving the hotel.

“I want to say,” he began with some difficulty, “that, if you are pressed at all for money—”

Garratt Skinner stopped him. He pulled some sovereigns out of one pocket and some banknotes out of another.

“You see, I have enough to go on with. In fact—” and he looked northward toward the mountains. Dimly they could be seen under the sickle of a new moon. “In fact, I propose to-morrow to take your friend Simond and cross on the high-level to Zermatt.”

“But afterward?” asked Chayne.

Garratt Skinner laughed and laughed like a boy. There was a rich anticipation of enjoyment in the sound.

“Afterward? I shall have a great time. I shall squeeze Mr. Jarvice. It’s what they call in America a cinch.”

And with a cheery good-night Garratt Skinner betook himself down the road.

Running Water - Contents

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