“Did you sleep well, Sylvia?”
“Not very well, father,” she answered, as she watched his face. “I woke up in the early morning.”
But nothing could have been more easy or natural than his comment on her words.
“Yet you look like a good sleeper. A strange house, I suppose, Sylvia.”
“Voices in the strange house,” she answered.
Garratt Skinner’s face darkened.
“Did those fellows stay so late?” he asked with annoyance. “What time was it when they woke you up, Sylvia?”
“A little before five.”
Garratt Skinner’s annoyance increased.
“That’s too bad,” he cried. “I left them and went to bed. But they promised me faithfully only to stay another half-hour. I am very sorry, Sylvia.” And as she poured out the tea, he continued: “I will speak pretty sharply to Barstow. It’s altogether too bad.”
Garratt Skinner breakfasted with an eye on the clock, and as soon as the hands pointed to five minutes to nine, he rose from the table.
“I must be off—business, my dear.” He came round the table to her and gently laid a hand upon her shoulder. “It makes a great difference, Sylvia, to have a daughter, fresh and young and pretty, sitting opposite to me at the breakfast table—a very great difference. I shall cut work early to-day on account of it; I’ll come home and fetch you, and we’ll go out and lunch somewhere together.”
He spoke with every sign of genuine feeling; and Sylvia, looking up into his face, was moved by what he said. He smiled down at her, with her own winning smile; he looked her in the face with her own frankness, her own good humor.
“I have been a lonely man for a good many years, Sylvia,” he said, “too lonely. I am glad the years have come to an end”; and this time he did what yesterday night he had checked himself from doing. He stooped down and kissed her on the forehead. Then he went from the room, took his hat, and letting himself out of the house closed the door behind him. He called a passing cab, and, as he entered it, he said to the driver:
“Go to the London and County Bank in Victoria Street,” and gaily waving his hand to his daughter, who stood behind the window, he drove off.
At one o’clock he returned in the same high spirits. Sylvia had spent the morning in removing the superfluous cherries and roses from her best hat and making her frock at once more simple and more suitable to her years. Garratt Skinner surveyed her with pride.
“Come on,” he said. “I have kept the cab waiting.”
For a poor man he seemed to Sylvia rather reckless. They drove to the Savoy Hotel and lunched together in the open air underneath the glass roof, with a bank of flowers upon one side of them and the windows of the grill-room on the other. The day was very hot, the streets baked in an arid glare of sunlight; a dry dust from the wood pavement powdered those who passed by in the Strand. Here, however, in this cool and shaded place the pair lunched happily together. Garratt Skinner had the tact not to ask any questions of his daughter about her mother, or how they had fared together. He talked easily of unimportant things, and pointed out from time to time some person of note or some fashionable actress who happened to pass in or out of the hotel. He could be good company when he chose, and he chose on this morning. It was not until coffee was set before them, and he had lighted a cigar, that he touched upon themselves, and then not with any paternal tone, but rather as one comrade conferring with another. There, indeed, was his great advantage with Sylvia. Her mother had either disregarded her or treated her as a child. She could not but be won by a father who laid bare his plans to her and asked for her criticism as well as her assent. Her suspicions of yesterday died away, or, at all events, slept so soundly that they could not have troubled her less had they been dead.
“Sylvia,” he said, “I think London in August, and in such an August, is too hot. I don’t want to see you grow pale, and for myself I haven’t had a holiday for a long time. You see there is not much temptation for a lonely man to go away by himself.”
For the second time that day he appealed to her on the ground of his loneliness; and not in vain. She began even to feel remorseful that she had left him to his loneliness so long. There rose up within her an almost maternal feeling of pity for her father. She did not stop to think that he had never sent for her; had never indeed shown a particle of interest in her until they had met face to face.
“But since you are here,” he continued, “well—I have been doing fairly well in my business lately, and I thought we might take a little holiday together, at some quiet village by the sea. You know nothing of England. I have been thinking it all out this morning. There is no country more beautiful or more typical than Dorsetshire. Besides, you were born there. What do you say to three weeks or so in Dorsetshire? We will stay at an hotel in Weymouth for a few days and look about for a house.”
“Father!” exclaimed Sylvia, leaning forward with shining eyes. “It will be splendid. Just you and I!”
“Well, not quite,” he answered, slowly; and as he saw his daughter sink back with a pucker of disappointment on her forehead, he knocked the ash off his cigar and in his turn leaned forward over the table.
“Sylvia, I want to talk to you seriously,” he said, and glanced around to make sure that no one overheard him. “I should very much like one person to come and stay with us.”
Sylvia made no answer. Her face was grave and very still, her eyes dwelt quietly upon him and betrayed nothing of what she thought.
“You have guessed who the one person is?”
Again Sylvia did not answer.
“Yes. It is Wallie Hine,” he continued.
Her suspicions were stirring again from their sleep. She waited in fear upon his words. She looked out, through the opening at the mouth of the court into the glare of the Strand. The bright prospect which her vivid fancies had pictured there a minute since, transforming the dusky street into fields of corn and purple heather, the omnibuses into wagons drawn by teams of great horses musical with bells, had all grown dark. A real horror was gripping her. But she turned her eyes quietly back upon her father’s face and waited.
“His presence will spoil our holiday a little,” Garratt Skinner continued with an easy assurance. “You saw, no doubt, what Wallie Hine is, last night—a weak, foolish youth, barely half-educated, awkward, with graces of neither mind nor body, and in the hands of two scoundrels.”
Sylvia started, and she leaned forward with a look of bewilderment plain to see in her dark eyes.
“Yes, that’s the truth, Sylvia. He has come into a little money, and he is in the hands of two scoundrels who are leading him by the nose. My poor girl,” he cried, suddenly breaking off, “you must have found yourself in very strange and disappointing company last night. I was very sorry for you, and sorry for myself, too. All the evening I was saying to myself, ‘I wonder what my little girl is thinking of me.’ But I couldn’t help it. I had not the time to explain. I had to sit quiet, knowing that you must be unhappy, certain that you must be despising me for the company I kept.”
Sylvia blushed guiltily.
“Despising you? No, father,” she said, in a voice of apology. “I saw how much above the rest you were.”
“Blaming me, then,” interrupted Garratt Skinner, with an easy smile. He was not at all offended. “Let us say blaming me. And it was quite natural that you should, judging by the surface. And there was nothing but the surface for you to judge by.”
While in this way defending Sylvia against her own self-reproach, he only succeeded in making her feel still more that she had judged hastily where she should have held all judgment in abeyance, that she had lacked faith where by right she should have shown most faith. But he wished to spare her from confusion.
“I was so proud of you that I could not but suffer all the more. However, don’t let us talk of it, my dear”; and waving with a gesture of the hand that little misunderstanding away forever, he resumed:
“Well, I am rather fond of Wallie Hine. I don’t know why, perhaps because he is so helpless, because he so much stands in need of a steady mentor at his elbow. There is, after all, no accounting for one’s likings. Logic and reason have little to do with them. As a woman you know that. And being rather fond of Wallie Hine, I have tried to do my best for him. It would not have been of any use to shut my door on Barstow and Archie Parminter. They have much too firm a hold on the poor youth. I should have been shutting it on Wallie Hine, too. No, the only plan was to welcome them all, to play Parminter’s game of showing the youth about town, and Barstow’s game of crude flattery, and gradually, if possible, to dissociate him from his companions, before they had fleeced him altogether. So you were let in, my dear, for that unfortunate evening. Of course I was quite sure that you would not attribute to me designs upon Wallie Hine, otherwise I should have turned them all out at once.”
He spoke with a laugh, putting aside, as it were, a quite incredible suggestion. But he looked at her sharply as he laughed. Sylvia’s face grew crimson, her eyes for once wavered from his face, and she lowered her head. Garratt Skinner, however, seemed not to notice her confusion.
“You remember,” he continued, “that I tried to stop them playing cards at the beginning. I yielded in the end, because it became perfectly clear that if I didn’t they would go away and play elsewhere, while I at all events could keep the points down in my own house. I ought to have stayed up, I suppose, until they went away. I blame myself there a little. But I had no idea they would stay so late. Are you sure it was their voices you heard and not the servants moving?”
He asked the question almost carelessly, but his eyes rather belied his tone, for they watched her intently.
“Quite sure,” she answered.
“You might have made a mistake.”
“No; for I saw them.”
Garratt Skinner covered his mouth with his hand. It seemed to Sylvia that he smiled. A suspicion flashed across her mind, in spite of herself. Was he merely testing her to see whether she would speak the truth or not? Did he know that she had come down the stairs in the early morning? She thrust the suspicion aside, remembering the self-reproach which suspicion had already caused her at this very luncheon table. If it were true that her father knew, why then Barstow or Parminter must have told him this very morning. And if he had seen either of them this morning, all his talk to her in this cool and quiet place was a carefully prepared hypocrisy. No, she would not believe that.
“You saw them?” he exclaimed. “Tell me how.”
She told him the whole story, how she had come down the staircase, what she had seen, as she leaned over the balustrade, and how Parminter had turned.
“Do you think he saw you?” asked her father.
Sylvia looked at him closely. But he seemed really anxious to know.
“I think he saw something,” she answered. “Whether he knew that it was I whom he saw, I can’t tell.”
Garratt Skinner sat for a little while smoking his cigar in short, angry puffs.
“I wouldn’t have had that happen for worlds,” he said, with a frown. “I have no doubt whatever that the slips of paper on which poor Hine was trying to write were I.O.U’s. Heaven knows what he lost last night.”
“I know,” returned Sylvia. “He lost £480 last night.”
“Impossible,” cried Garratt Skinner, with so much violence that the people lunching at the tables near-by looked up at the couple with surprise. “Oh, no! I’ll not believe it, Sylvia.” And as he lowered his voice, he seemed to be making an appeal to her to go back upon her words, so distressed was he at the thought that Wallie Hine should be jockeyed out of so much money at his house.
“Four hundred and eighty pounds,” Sylvia repeated.
Garratt Skinner caught at a comforting thought.
“Well, it’s only in I.O.U’s. That’s one thing. I can stop the redemption of them. You see, he has been robbed—that’s the plain English of it—robbed.”
“Mr. Hine was not writing an I.O.U. He was writing a check, and Mr. Parminter was guiding his hand as he wrote the signature.”
Garratt Skinner fell back in his chair. He looked about him with a dazed air, as though he expected the world falling to pieces around him.
“Why, that’s next door to forgery!” he whispered, in a voice of horror. “Guiding the hand of a man too drunk to write! I knew Archie Parminter was pretty bad, but I never thought that he would sink to that. I am not sure that he could not be laid by the heels for forgery.” And then he recovered a little from the shock. “But you can’t be sure, Sylvia! This is guesswork of yours—yes, guesswork.”
“It’s not,” she answered. “I told you that the floor was littered with slips of the paper on which Mr. Hine had been trying to write.”
There came an indefinable change in Garratt Skinner’s face. He leaned forward with his mouth sternly set and his eyes very still. One might almost have believed that for the first time during that luncheon he was really anxious, really troubled.
“Well, this morning the carpet had been swept. The litter had gone. But just underneath the hearth-rug one of those crumpled slips of paper lay not quite hidden. I picked it up. It was a check.”
“Have you got it? Sylvia, have you got it?” and Garratt Skinner’s voice in steady quietude matched his face.
Sylvia opened the little bag which she carried at her wrist and took out the slip of paper. She unfolded it and spread it on the table before her. The inside was pink.
“A check for £480 on the London and County Bank, Victoria Street,” she said.
Garrett Skinner looked over the table at the paper. There was Wallie Hine’s wavering, unfinished signature at the bottom right-hand corner. Parminter had guided his hand as far as the end of the Christian name, before he tore the check out and threw it away. The amount of the body of the check had been filled in in Barstow’s hand.
“You had better give it to me, Sylvia,” he said, his fingers moving restlessly on the table-cloth. “That check would be a very dangerous thing if Parminter ever came to hear of it. Better give it to me.”
He leaned over and took it gently from before her, and put it carefully away in his pocket.
“Now, you see, there’s more reason ever why we should get Wallie Hine away from those two men. He is living a bad life here. Three weeks in the country may set his thoughts in a different grove. Will you make this sacrifice, Sylvia? Will you let me ask him? It will be a good action. You see he doesn’t know any geography.”
“Very well; ask him, father.”
Garrett Skinner reached over the table and patted her hand.
“Thank you, my dear! Then that’s settled. I propose that you and I go down this afternoon. Can you manage it? We might catch the four o’clock train from Waterloo if you go home now, pack up your traps and tell the housemaid to pack mine. I will just wind up my business and come home in time to pick you and the luggage up.”
He rose from the table, and calling a hansom, put Sylvia into it. He watched the cab drive out into the Strand and turn the corner. Then he went back to the table and asked for his bill. While he waited for it, he lit a match and drawing from his pocket the crumpled check, he set fire to it. He held it by the corner until the flame burnt his fingers. Then he dropped it in his plate and pounded it into ashes with a fork.
“That was a bad break,” he said to himself. “Left carelessly under the edge of the hearth-rug. A very bad break.”
He paid his bill, and taking his hat, sauntered out into the Strand. The carelessness which had left the check underneath the hearth-rug was not, however, the only bad break made in connection with this affair. At a certain moment during luncheon Garratt Skinner had unwisely smiled and had not quite concealed the smile with his hand. Against her every wish, that smile forced itself upon Sylvia’s recollections as she drove home. She tried to interpret it in every pleasant sense, but it kept its true character in her thoughts, try as she might. It remained vividly a very hateful thing—the smile of the man who had gulled her.