Yet on this particular journey she woke while it was yet dark. A noise slight in comparison to the clatter of the train, but distinct in character and quite near, told her at once what had disturbed her. Some one was moving stealthily in the compartment—her daughter. That was all. But Mrs. Thesiger lay quite still, and, as would happen to her at times, a sudden terror gripped her by the heart. She heard the girl beneath her, dressing very quietly, subduing the rustle of her garments, even the sound of her breathing.
“How much does she know?” Mrs. Thesiger asked of herself; and her heart sank and she dared not answer.
The rustling ceased. A sharp click was heard, and the next moment through a broad pane of glass a faint twilight crept into the carriage. The blind had been raised from one of the windows. It was two o’clock on a morning of July and the dawn was breaking. Very swiftly the daylight broadened, and against the window there came into view the profile of a girl’s head and face. Seen as Mrs. Thesiger saw it, with the light still dim behind it, it was black like an ancient daguerreotype. It was also as motionless and as grave.
“How much does she know?”
The question would thrust itself into the mother’s thoughts. She watched her daughter intently from the dark corner where her head lay, thinking that with the broadening of the day she might read the answer in that still face. But she read nothing even when every feature was revealed in the clear dead light, for the face which she saw was the face of one who lived much apart within itself, building amongst her own dreams as a child builds upon the sand and pays no heed to those who pass. And to none of her dreams had Mrs. Thesiger the key. Deliberately her daughter had withdrawn herself amongst them, and they had given her this return for her company. They had kept her fresh and gentle in a circle where freshness was soon lost and gentleness put aside.
Sylvia Thesiger was at this time seventeen, although her mother dressed her to look younger, and even then overdressed her like a toy. It was of a piece with the nature of the girl that, in this matter as in the rest, she made no protest. She foresaw the scene, the useless scene, which would follow upon her protest, exclamations against her ingratitude, abuse for her impertinence, and very likely a facile shower of tears at the end; and her dignity forbade her to enter upon it. She just let her mother dress her as she chose, and she withdrew just a little more into the secret chamber of her dreams. She sat now looking steadily out of the window, with her eyes uplifted and aloof, in a fashion which had become natural to her, and her mother was seized with a pang of envy at the girl’s beauty. For beauty Sylvia Thesiger had, uncommon in its quality rather than in its degree. From the temples to the round point of her chin the contour of her face described a perfect oval. Her forehead was broad and low and her hair, which in color was a dark chestnut, parted in the middle, whence it rippled in two thick daring waves to the ears, a fashion which noticeably became her, and it was gathered behind into a plait which lay rather low upon the nape of her neck. Her eyes were big, of a dark gray hue and very quiet in their scrutiny; her mouth, small and provoking. It provoked, when still, with the promise of a very winning smile, and the smile itself was not so frequent but that it provoked a desire to summon it to her lips again. It had a way of hesitating, as though Sylvia were not sure whether she would smile or not; and when she had made up her mind, it dimpled her cheeks and transfigured her whole face, and revealed in her tenderness and a sense of humor. Her complexion was pale, but clear, her figure was slender and active, but without angularities, and she was of the middle height. Yet the quality which the eye first remarked in her was not so much her beauty, as a certain purity, a look almost of the Madonna, a certainty, one might say, that even in the circle in which she moved, she had kept herself unspotted from the world.
Thus she looked as she sat by the carriage window. But as the train drew near to Ambérieu, the air brightened and the sunlight ministered to her beauty like a careful handmaid, touching her pale cheeks to a rosy warmth, giving a luster to her hair, and humaning her to a smile. Sylvia sat forward a little, as though to meet the sunlight, then she turned toward the carriage and saw her mother’s eyes intently watching her.
“You are awake?” she said in surprise.
“Yes, child. You woke me.”
“I am very sorry. I was as quiet as I could be. I could not sleep.”
“Why?” Mrs. Thesiger repeated the question with insistence. “Why couldn’t you sleep?”
“We are traveling to Chamonix,” replied Sylvia. “I have been thinking of it all night,” and though she smiled in all sincerity, Mrs. Thesiger doubted. She lay silent for a little while. Then she said, with a detachment perhaps slightly too marked:
“We left Trouville in a hurry yesterday, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” replied Sylvia, “I suppose we did,” and she spoke as though this was the first time that she had given the matter a thought.
“Trouville was altogether too hot,” said Mrs. Thesiger; and again silence followed. But Mrs. Thesiger was not content. “How much does she know?” she speculated again, and was driven on to find an answer. She raised herself upon her elbow, and while rearranging her pillow said carelessly:
“Sylvia, our last morning at Trouville you were reading a book which seemed to interest you very much.”
Sylvia volunteered no information about that book.
“You brought it down to the sands. So I suppose you never noticed a strange-looking couple who passed along the deal boards just in front of us.” Mrs. Thesiger laughed and her head fell back upon her pillow. But during that movement her eyes had never left her daughter’s face. “A middle-aged man with stiff gray hair, a stiff, prim face, and a figure like a ramrod. Oh, there never was anything so stiff.” A noticeable bitterness began to sound in her voice and increased as she went on. “There was an old woman with him as precise and old-fashioned as himself. But you didn’t see them? I never saw anything so ludicrous as that couple, austere and provincial as their clothes, walking along the deal boards between the rows of smart people.” Mrs. Thesiger laughed as she recalled the picture. “They must have come from the Provinces. I could imagine them living in a château on a hill overlooking some tiny village in—where shall we say?” She hesitated for a moment, and then with an air of audacity she shot the word from her lips—“in Provence.”
The name, however, had evidently no significance for Sylvia, and Mrs. Thesiger was relieved of her fears.
“But you didn’t see them,” she repeated, with a laugh.
“Yes, I did,” said Sylvia, and brought her mother up on her elbow again. “It struck me that the old lady must be some great lady of a past day. The man bowed to you and—”
She stopped abruptly, but her mother completed the sentence with a vindictiveness she made little effort to conceal.
“And the great lady did not, but stared in the way great ladies have. Yes, I had met the man—once—in Paris,” and she lay back again upon her pillow, watching her daughter. But Sylvia showed no curiosity and no pain. It was not the first time when people passed her mother that she had seen the man bow and the woman ignore. Rather she had come to expect it. She took her book from her berth and opened it.
Mrs. Thesiger was satisfied. Sylvia clearly did not suspect that it was just the appearance of that stiff, old-fashioned couple which had driven her out of Trouville a good month before her time—her, Mrs. Thesiger of the many friends. She fell to wondering what in the world had brought M. de Camours and his mother to that watering place amongst the brilliant and the painted women. She laughed again at the odd picture they had made, and her thoughts went back over twenty years to the time when she had been the wife of M. de Camours in the château overlooking the village in Provence, and M. de Camours’ mother had watched her with an unceasing jealousy. Much had happened since those days. Madame de Camours’ watchings had not been in vain, a decree had been obtained from the Pope annulling the marriage. Much had happened. But even after twenty years the memory of that formal life in the Provencal château was vivid enough; and Mrs. Thesiger yawned. Then she laughed. Monsieur de Camours and his mother had always been able to make people yawn.
“So you are glad that we are going to Chamonix, Sylvia—so glad that you couldn’t sleep?”
It sounded rather unaccountable to Mrs. Thesiger, but then Sylvia was to her a rather unaccountable child. She turned her face to the wall and fell asleep.
Sylvia’s explanation, however, happened to be true. Chamonix meant the great range of Mont Blanc, and Sylvia Thesiger had the passion for mountains in her blood. The first appearance of their distant snows stirred her as no emotion ever had, so that she came to date her life by these appearances rather than by the calendar of months and days. The morning when from the hotel windows at Glion she had first seen the twin peaks of the Dents du Midi towering in silver high above a blue corner of the Lake of Geneva, formed one memorable date. Once, too, in the winter-time, as the Rome express stopped at three o’clock in the morning at the frontier on the Italian side of the Mont Cenis tunnel, she had carefully lifted the blind on the right-hand side of the sleeping compartment and had seen a great wall of mountains tower up in a clear frosty moonlight from great buttresses of black rock to delicate pinnacles of ice soaring infinite miles away into a cloudless sky of blue. She had come near to tears that night as she looked from the window; such a tumult of vague longings rushed suddenly in upon her and uplifted her. She was made aware of dim uncomprehended thoughts stirring in the depths of her being, and her soul was drawn upward to those glittering spires, as to enchanted magnets. Ever afterward Sylvia looked forward, through weeks, to those few moments in her mother’s annual itinerary, and prayed with all her heart that the night might be clear of mist and rain.
She sat now at the window with no thought of Trouville or their hurried flight. With each throb of the carriage-wheels the train flashed nearer to Chamonix. She opened the book which lay upon her lap—the book in which she had been so interested when Monsieur de Camours and his mother passed her by. It was a volume of the “Alpine Journal,” more than twenty years old, and she could not open it but some exploit of the pioneers took her eyes, some history of a first ascent of an unclimbed peak. Such a history she read now. She was engrossed in it, and yet at times a little frown of annoyance wrinkled her forehead. She gave an explanation of her annoyance; for once she exclaimed half aloud, “Oh, if only he wouldn’t be so funny!” The author was indeed being very funny, and to her thinking never so funny as when the narrative should have been most engrossing. She was reading the account of the first ascent of an aiguille in the Chamonix district, held by guides to be impossible and conquered at last by a party of amateurs. In spite of its humor Sylvia Thesiger was thrilled by it. She envied the three men who had taken part in that ascent, envied them their courage, their comradeship, their bivouacs in the open air beside glowing fires, on some high shelf of rock above the snows. But most of all her imagination was touched by the leader of that expedition, the man who sometimes alone, sometimes in company, had made sixteen separate attacks upon that peak. He stared from the pages of the volume—Gabriel Strood. Something of his great reach of limb, of his activity, of his endurance, she was able to realize. Moreover he had a particular blemish which gave to him a particular interest in her eyes, for it would have deterred most men altogether from his pursuit and it greatly hampered him. And yet in spite of it, he had apparently for some seasons stood prominent in the Alpine fraternity. Gabriel Strood was afflicted with a weakness in the muscles of one thigh. Sylvia, according to her custom, began to picture him, began to talk with him.
She wondered whether he was glad to have reached that summit, or whether he was not on the whole rather sorry—sorry for having lost out of his life a great and never-flagging interest. She looked through the subsequent papers in the volume, but could find no further mention of his name. She perplexed her fancies that morning. She speculated whether having made this climb he had stopped and climbed no more; or whether he might not get out of this very train on to the platform at Chamonix. But as the train slowed down near to Annemasse, she remembered that the exploit of which she had read had taken place more than twenty years ago.