He took the gun from a corner where it stood against the wall, opened the breech, shut it again, and turning to the open window lifted the stock to his shoulder.
“I wonder whether I could hit anything nowadays,” he said, taking careful aim at a tulip in the garden. “Any cartridges, Skinner?”
“I don’t know, I am sure,” Garratt Skinner replied, testily. The newspapers had only this moment been brought into the room, and he did not wish to be disturbed. Sylvia had never noticed that double-barreled gun before; and she wondered whether it had been brought into the room that morning. She watched Captain Barstow bustle into the hall and back again. Finally he pounced upon an oblong card-box which lay on the top of a low book-case. He removed the lid and pulled out a cartridge.
“Hullo!” said he. “No. 6. The very thing! I am going to take a pot at the starlings, Skinner. There are too many of them about for your fruit-trees.”
“Very well,” said Garratt Skinner, lazily lifting his eyes from his newspaper and looking out across the lawn. “Only take care you don’t wing my new gardener.”
“No fear of that,” said Barstow, and filling his pockets with cartridges he took the gun in his hand and skipped out into the garden. In a moment a shot was heard, and Walter Hine rose from his chair and walked to the window. A second shot followed.
“Old Barstow can’t shoot for nuts,” said Hine, with a chuckle, and in his turn he stepped out into the garden. Sylvia made no attempt to hinder him, but she took his place at the window ready to intervene. A flight of starlings passed straight and swift over Barstow’s head. He fired both barrels and not one of the birds fell. Hine spoke to him, and the gun at once changed hands. At the next flight Hine fired and one of the birds dropped. Barstow’s voice was raised in jovial applause.
“That was a good egg, Wallie. A very good egg. Let me try now!” and so alternately they shot as the birds darted overhead across the lawn. Sylvia waited for the moment when Barstow’s aim would suddenly develop a deadly precision, but that moment did not come. If there was any betting upon this match, Hine would not be the loser. She went quietly back to a writing-desk and wrote her letters. She had no wish to rouse in her father’s mind a suspicion that she had guessed his design and was setting herself to thwart it. She must work secretly, more secretly than he did himself. Meanwhile the firing continued in the garden; and unobserved by Sylvia, Garratt Skinner began to take in it a stealthy interest. His chair was so placed that, without stirring, he could look into the garden and at the same time keep an eye on Sylvia; if she moved an elbow or raised her head, Garratt Skinner was at once reading his paper with every appearance of concentration. On the other hand, her back was turned toward him, so that she saw neither his keen gaze into the garden nor the good-tempered smile of amusement with which he turned his eyes upon his daughter.
In this way perhaps an hour passed; certainly no more. Sylvia had, in fact, almost come to the end of her letters, when Garratt Skinner suddenly pushed back his chair and stood up. At the noise, abrupt as a startled cry, Sylvia turned swiftly round. She saw that her father was gazing with a look of perplexity into the garden, and that for the moment he had forgotten her presence. She crossed the room quickly and noiselessly, and standing just behind his elbow, saw what he saw. The blood flushed her throat and mounted into her cheeks, her eyes softened, and a smile of welcome transfigured her grave face. Her friend Hilary Chayne was standing under the archway of the garden door. He had closed the door behind him, but he had not moved thereafter, and he was not looking toward the house. His attention was riveted upon the shooting-match. Sylvia gave no thought to his attitude at the moment. He had come—that was enough. And Garratt Skinner, turning about, saw the light in his daughter’s face.
“You know him!” he cried, roughly.
“He has come to see you?”
“You should have told me,” said Garratt Skinner, angrily. “I dislike secrecies.” Sylvia raised her eyes and looked her father steadily in the face. But Garratt Skinner was not so easily abashed. He returned her look as steadily.
“Who is he?” he continued, in a voice of authority.
“Captain Hilary Chayne.”
It seemed for a moment that the name was vaguely familiar to Garratt Skinner, and Sylvia added:
“I met him this summer in Switzerland.”
“Oh, I see,” said her father, and he looked with a new interest across the garden to the door. “He is a great friend.”
“My only friend,” returned Sylvia, softly; and her father stepped forward and called aloud, holding up his hand:
Sylvia noticed then, and not till then, that the coming of her friend was not the only change which had taken place since she had last looked out upon the garden. The new gardener was now shooting alternately with Walter Hine, while Captain Barstow, standing a few feet behind them, recorded the hits in a little book. He looked up at the sound of Garratt Skinner’s voice and perceiving Chayne at once put a stop to the match. Garratt Skinner turned again to his daughter, and spoke now without any anger at all. There was just a hint of reproach in his voice, but as though to lessen the reproof he laid his hand affectionately upon her arm.
“Any friend of yours is welcome, of course, my dear. But you might have told me that you expected him. Let us have no secrets from each other in the future? Now bring him in, and we will see if we can give him a cup of tea.”
He rang the bell. Sylvia did not think it worth while to argue that Chayne’s coming was a surprise to her as much as to her father. She crossed the garden toward her friend. But she walked slowly and still more slowly. Her memories had flown back to the evening when they had bidden each other good-by on the little platform in front of the Chalet de Lognan. Not in this way had she then planned that they should meet again, nor in such company. The smile had faded from her lips, the light of gladness had gone from her eyes. Barstow and Walter Hine were moving toward the house. It mortified her exceedingly that her friend should find her amongst such companions. She almost wished that he had not found her out at all. And so she welcomed him with a great restraint.
“It was kind of you to come,” she said. “How did you know I was here?”
“I called at your house in London. The caretaker gave me the address,” he replied. He took her hand and, holding it, looked with the careful scrutiny of a lover into her face.
“You have needed those memories of your one day to fall back upon,” he said, regretfully. “Already you have needed them. I am very sorry.”
Sylvia did not deny the implication of the words that “troubles” had come. She turned to him, grateful that he should so clearly have remembered what she had said upon that day.
“Thank you,” she answered, gently. “My father would like to know you. I wrote to you that I had come to live with him.”
“You were surprised?” she asked.
“No,” he answered, quietly. “You came to some important decision on the very top of the Aiguille d’Argentière. That I knew at the time, for I watched you. When I got your letter, I understood what the decision was.”
To leave Chamonix—to break completely with her life—it was just to that decision she would naturally have come just on that spot during that one sunlit hour. So much his own love of the mountains taught him. But Sylvia was surprised at his insight; and what with that and the proof that their day together had remained vividly in his thoughts, she caught back something of his comradeship. As they crossed the lawn to the house her embarrassment diminished. She drew comfort, besides, from the thought that whatever her friend might think of Captain Barstow and Walter Hine, her father at all events would impress him, even as she had been impressed. Chayne would see at once that here was a man head and shoulders above his companions, finer in quality, different in speech.
But that afternoon her humiliation was to be complete. Her father had no fancy for the intrusion of Captain Chayne into his quiet and sequestered house. The flush of color on his daughter’s face, the leap of light into her eyes, had warned him. He had no wish to lose his daughter. Chayne, too, might be inconveniently watchful. Garratt Skinner desired no spy upon his little plans. Consequently he set himself to play the host with an offensive geniality which was calculated to disgust a man with any taste for good manners. He spoke in a voice which Sylvia did not know, so coarse it was in quality, so boisterous and effusive; and he paraded Walter Hine and Captain Barstow with the pride of a man exhibiting his dearest friends.
“You must know ‘red-hot’ Barstow, Captain Chayne,” he cried, slapping the little man lustily on the back. “One of the very best. You are both brethren of the sword.”
Barstow sniggered obsequiously and screwed his eye-glass into his eye.
“Delighted, I am sure. But I sheathed the sword some time ago, Captain Chayne.”
“And exchanged it for the betting book,” Chayne added, quietly.
Barstow laughed nervously.
“Oh, you refer to our little match in the garden,” he said. “We dragged the gardener into it.”
“So I saw,” Chayne replied. “The gardener seemed to be a remarkable shot. I think he would be a match for more than one professional.”
And turning away he saw Sylvia’s eyes fixed upon him, and on her face an expression of trouble and dismay so deep that he could have bitten off his tongue for speaking. She had been behind him while he had spoken; and though he had spoken in a low voice, she had heard every word. She bent her head over the tea-table and busied herself with the cups. But her hands shook; her face burned, she was tortured with shame. She had set herself to do battle with her father, and already in the first skirmish she had been defeated. Chayne’s indiscreet words had laid bare to her the elaborate conspiracy. The new gardener, the gun in the corner, the cartridges which had to be looked for, Barstow’s want of skill, Hine’s superiority which had led Barstow so naturally to offer to back the gardener against him—all was clear to her. It was the little round game of cards all over again; and she had not possessed the wit to detect the trick! And that was not all. Her friend had witnessed it and understood!
She heard her father presenting Walter Hine, and with almost intolerable pain she realized that had he wished to leave Chayne no single opportunity of misapprehension, he would have spoken just these words and no others.
“Wallie is the grandson—and indeed the heir—of old Joseph Hine. You know his name, no doubt. Joseph Hine’s Château Marlay, what? A warm man, Joseph Hine. I don’t know a man more rich. Treats his grandson handsomely into the bargain, eh, Wallie?”
Sylvia felt that her heart would break. That Garrett Skinner’s admission was boldly and cunningly deliberate did not occur to her. She simply understood that here was the last necessary piece of evidence given to Captain Chayne which would convince him that he had been this afternoon the witness of a robbery and swindle.
She became aware that Chayne was standing beside her. She did not lift her face, for she feared that it would betray her. She wished with all her heart that he would just replace his cup upon the tray and go away without a word. He could not want to stay; he could not want to return. He had no place here. If he would go away quietly, without troubling to take leave of her, she would be very grateful and do justice to him for his kindness.
But though he had the mind to go, it was not without a word.
“I want you to walk with me as far as the door,” he said, gently.
Sylvia rose at once. Since after all there must be words, the sooner they were spoken the better. She followed him into the garden, making her little prayer that they might be very few, and that he would leave her to fight her battle and to hide her shame alone.
They crossed the lawn without a word. He held open the garden door for her and she passed into the lane. He followed and closed the door behind them. In the lane a hired landau was waiting. Chayne pointed to it.
“I want you to come away with me now,” he said, and since she looked at him with the air of one who does not understand, he explained, standing quietly beside her with his eyes upon her face. And though he spoke quietly, there was in his eyes a hunger which belied his tones, and though he stood quietly, there was a tension in his attitude which betrayed extreme suspense. “I want you to come away with me, I want you never to return. I want you to marry me.”
The blood rushed into her cheeks and again fled from them, leaving her very white. Her face grew mutinous like an angry child’s, but her eyes grew hard like a resentful woman’s.
“You ask me out of pity,” she said, in a low voice.
“That’s not true,” he cried, and with so earnest a passion that she could not but believe him. “Sylvia, I came here meaning to ask you to marry me. I ask you something more now, that is all. I ask you to come to me a little sooner—that is all. I want you to come with me now.”
Sylvia leaned against the wall and covered her face with her hands.
“Please!” he said, making his appeal with a great simplicity. “For I love you, Sylvia.”
She gave him no answer. She kept her face still hid, and only her heaving breast bore witness to her stress of feeling. Gently he removed her hands, and holding them in his, urged his plea.
“Ever since that day in Switzerland, I have been thinking of you, Sylvia, remembering your looks, your smile, and the words you spoke. I crossed the Col Dolent the next day, and all the time I felt that there was some great thing wanting. I said to myself, ‘I miss my friend.’ I was wrong, Sylvia. I missed you. Something ached in me—has ached ever since. It was my heart! Come with me now!”
Sylvia had not looked at him, though she made no effort to draw her hands away, and still not looking at him, she answered in a whisper:
“I can’t, I can’t.”
“Why?” he asked, “why? You are not happy here. You are no happier than you were at Chamonix. And I would try so very hard to make you happy. I can’t leave you here—lonely, for you are lonely. I am lonely too; all the more lonely because I carry about with me—you—you as you stood in the chalet at night looking through the open window, with the candle-light striking upward on your face, and with your reluctant smile upon your lips—you as you lay on the top of the Aiguille d’Argentière with the wonder of a new world in your eyes—you as you said good-by in the sunset and went down the winding path to the forest. If you only knew, Sylvia!”
“Yes, but I don’t know,” she answered, and now she looked at him. “I suppose that, if I loved, I should know, I should understand.”
Her hands lay in his, listless and unresponsive to the pressure of his. She spoke slowly and thoughtfully, meeting his gaze with troubled eyes.
“Yet you were glad to see me when I came,” he urged.
“Glad, yes! You are my friend, my one friend. I was very glad. But the gladness passed. When you asked me to come with you across the garden, I was wanting you to go away.”
The words hurt him. They could not but hurt him. But she was so plainly unconscious of offence, she was so plainly trying to straighten out her own tangled position, that he could feel no anger.
“Why?” he asked; and again she frankly answered him.
“I was humbled,” she replied, “and I have had so much humiliation in my life.”
The very quietude of her voice and the wistful look upon the young tired face hurt him far more than her words had done.
“Sylvia,” he cried, and he drew her toward him. “Come with me now! My dear, there will be an end of all humiliation. We can be married, we can go down to my home on the Sussex Downs. That old house needs a mistress, Sylvia. It is very lonely.” He drew a breath and smiled suddenly. “And I would like so much to show you it, to show you all the corners, the bridle-paths across the downs, the woods, and the wide view from Arundel to Chichester spires. Sylvia, come!”
Just for a moment it seemed that she leaned toward him. He put his arm about her and held her for a moment closer. But her head was lowered, not lifted up to his; and then she freed herself gently from his clasp.
She faced him with a little wrinkle of thought between her brows and spoke with an air of wisdom which went very prettily with the childlike beauty of her face.
“You are my friend,” she said, “a friend I am very grateful for, but you are not more than that to me. I am frank. You see, I am thinking now of reasons which would not trouble me if I loved you. Marriage with me would do you no good, would hurt you in your career.”
“No,” he protested.
“But I am thinking that it would,” she replied, steadily, “and I do not believe that I should give much thought to it, if I really loved you. I am thinking of something else, too—” and she spoke more boldly, choosing her words with care—“of a plan which before you came I had formed, of a task which before you came I had set myself to do. I am still thinking of it, still feeling that I ought to go on with it. I do not think that I should feel that if I loved. I think nothing else would count at all except that I loved. So you are still my friend, and I cannot go with you.”
Chayne looked at her for a moment sadly, with a mist before his eyes.
“I leave you to much unhappiness,” he said, “and I hate the thought of it.”
“Not quite so much now as before you came,” she answered. “I am proud, you know, that you asked me,” and putting her troubles aside, she smiled at him bravely, as though it was he who needed comforting. “Good-by! Let me hear of you through your success.”
So again they said good-by at the time of sunset. Chayne mounted into the landau and drove back along the road to Weymouth. “So that’s the end,” said Sylvia. She opened the door and passed again into the garden. Through the window of the library she saw her father and Walter Hine, watching, it seemed, for her appearance. It was borne in upon her suddenly that she could not meet them or speak with them, and she ran very quickly round the house to the front door, and escaped unaccosted to her room.
In the library Hine turned to Garratt Skinner with one of his rare flashes of shrewdness.
“She didn’t want to meet us,” he said, jealously. “Do you think she cares for him?”
“I think,” replied Garratt Skinner with a smile, “that Captain Chayne will not trouble us with his company again.”