Thus the vulgarity which Garratt Skinner chose to assume, the unattractive figure of “red-hot” Barstow, and the obvious swindle which was being perpetrated on Walter Hine, had the opposite effect to that which Skinner expected. Chayne, instead of turning his back upon so distasteful a company, frequented it in the resolve to take Sylvia out of its grasp. It did not need a lover to see that she slept little of nights and passed distressful days. She had fled from her mother’s friends at Chamonix, only to find herself helpless amongst a worse gang in her father’s house. Very well. She must be released. He had proposed to take her away then and there. She had refused. Well, he had been blunt. He would go about the business in the future in a more delicate way. And so he came again and again to the little house under the hill where the stream babbled through the garden, and every day the apples grew redder upon the boughs.
But it was disheartening work. His position indeed became difficult, and it needed all his tenacity to enable him to endure it. The difficulty became very evident one afternoon early in August, and the afternoon was, moveover, remarkable in that Garratt Skinner was betrayed into a revelation of himself which was to bear consequences of gravity in a future which he could not foresee. Chayne rode over upon that afternoon, and found Garratt Skinner alone and, according to his habit, stretched at full-length in his hammock with a cigar between his lips. He received Captain Chayne with the utmost geniality. He had long since laid aside his ineffectual vulgarity of manner.
“You must put up with me, Captain Chayne,” he said. “My daughter is out. However, she—I ought more properly to say, they—will be back no doubt before long.”
“Sylvia and Walter Hine.”
Chayne nodded his head. He had known very well who “they” must be, but he had not been able to refrain from the question. Jealousy had hold of him. He knew nothing of Sylvia’s determination to acquire a power greater than her father’s over the vain and defenceless youth. The words with which she had hinted her plan to him had been too obscure to convey their meaning. He was simply aware that Sylvia more and more avoided him, more and more sought the companionship of Walter Hine; and such experience as he had, taught him that women were as apt to be blind in their judgment of men as men in their estimation of women.
He sought now to enlist Garratt Skinner on his side, and drawing a chair nearer to the hammock he sat down.
“Mr. Skinner,” he said, speaking upon an impulse, “you have no doubt in your mind, I suppose, as to why I come here so often.”
Garratt Skinner smiled.
“I make a guess, I admit.”
“I should be very glad if your daughter would marry me,” Chayne continued, “and I want you to give me your help. I am not a poor man, Mr. Skinner, and I should certainly be willing to recognize that in taking her away from you I laid myself under considerable obligations.”
Chayne spoke with some natural hesitation, but Garratt Skinner was not in the least offended.
“I will not pretend to misunderstand you,” he replied. “Indeed, I like your frankness. Please take what I say in the same spirit. I cannot give you any help, Captain Chayne.”
Garratt Skinner raised himself upon his elbow, and fixing his eyes upon his companion’s face, said distinctly and significantly:
“Because Sylvia has her work to do here.”
Chayne in his turn made no pretence to misunderstand. He was being told clearly that Sylvia was in league with her father and Captain Barstow to pluck Walter Hine. But he was anxious to discover how far Garratt Skinner’s cynicism would carry him.
“Will you define the work?” he asked.
“If you wish it,” replied Garratt Skinner, falling back in his hammock. “I should have thought it unnecessary myself. The work is the reclaiming of Wallie Hine from the very undesirable company in which he has mixed. Do you understand?”
“Quite,” said Chayne. He understood very well. He had been told first the real design—to pluck Walter Hine—and then the excuse which was to cloak it. He understood, too, the reason why this information had been given to him with so cynical a frankness. He, Chayne, was in the way. Declare the swindle and persuade him that Sylvia was a party to it—what more likely way could be discovered for getting rid of Captain Chayne? He looked at his smiling companion, took note of his strong aquiline face, his clear and steady eyes. He recognized a redoubtable antagonist, but he leaned forward and said with a quiet emphasis:
“Mr. Skinner, I have, nevertheless, not lost heart.”
Garratt Skinner laughed in a friendly way.
“I suppose not. It is only in the wisdom of middle age that we lose heart. In youth we lose our hearts—a very different thing.”
“I propose still to come to this house.”
“As often as you will, Captain Chayne,” said Garratt Skinner, gaily. “My doors are always open to you. I am not such a fool as to give you a romantic interest by barring you out.”
Garratt Skinner had another reason for his hospitality which he kept to himself. He was inclined to believe that a few more visits from Captain Chayne would settle his chances without the necessity of any interference. It was Garratt Skinner’s business, as that of any other rogue, to play with simple artifices upon the faults and vanities of men. He had, therefore, cultivated a habit of observation; he had become naturally attentive to trifles which others might overlook; and he was aware that he needed to go very warily in the delicate business on which he was now engaged. He was fighting Sylvia for the possession of Walter Hine—that he had recognized—and Chayne for the possession of Sylvia. It was a three-cornered contest, and he had in consequence kept his eyes alert. He had noticed that Chayne was growing importunate, and that his persistence was becoming troublesome to Sylvia. She gave him a less warm welcome each time that he came to the house. She made plans to prevent herself being left alone with him, and if by chance the plans failed she listened rather than talked and listened almost with an air of boredom.
“Come as often as you please!” consequently said Garratt Skinner from his hammock. “And now let us talk of something else.”
He talked of nothing for a while. But it was plain that he had a subject in his thoughts. For twice he turned to Chayne and was on the point of speaking; but each time he thought silence the better part and lay back again. Chayne waited and at last the subject was broached, but in a queer, hesitating, diffident way, as though Garratt Skinner spoke rather under a compulsion of which he disapproved.
“Tell me!” he said. “I am rather interested. A craze, an infatuation which so masters people must be interesting even to the stay-at-homes like myself. But I am wrong to call it a craze. From merely reading books I think it a passion which is easily intelligible. You are wondering what I am talking about. My daughter tells me that you are a famous climber. The Aiguille d’Argentière, I suppose, up which you were kind enough to accompany her, is not a very difficult mountain.”
“It depends upon the day,” said Chayne, “and the state of the snow.”
“Yes, that is what I have gathered from the books. Every mountain may become dangerous.”
“Each mountain,” said Garratt Skinner, thoughtfully, “may reward its conquerors with death”; and for a little while he lay looking up to the green branches interlaced above his head. “Thus each mountain on the brightest day holds in its recesses mystery, and also death.”
There had come a change already in the manner of the two men. They found themselves upon neutral ground. Their faces relaxed from wariness; they were no longer upon their guard. It seemed that an actual comradeship had sprung up between them.
“There is a mountain called the Grépon,” said Skinner. “I have seen pictures of it—a strange and rather attractive pinnacle, with its knife-like slabs of rock, set on end one above the other—black rock splashed with red—and the overhanging boulder on the top. Have you climbed it?”
“There is a crack, I believe—a good place to get you into training.”
Chayne laughed with the enjoyment of a man who recollects a stiff difficulty overcome.
“Yes, to the right of the Col between the Grépon and the Charmoz. There is a step half way up—otherwise there is very little hold and the crack is very steep.”
They talked of other peaks, such as the Charmoz, where the first lines of ascent had given place to others more recently discovered, of new variations, new ascents and pinnacles still unclimbed; and then Garratt Skinner said:
“I saw that a man actually crossed the Col des Nantillons early this summer. It used to be called the Col de Blaitière. He was killed with his guide, but after the real dangers were passed. That seems to happen at times.”
Chayne looked at Garratt Skinner in surprise.
“It is strange that you should have mentioned John Lattery’s death,” he said, slowly.
“Why?” asked Garratt Skinner, turning quietly toward his companion. “I read of it in ‘The Times.’”
“Oh, yes. No doubt it was described. What I meant was this. John Lattery was my great friend, and he was a distant kind of cousin to your friend Walter Hine, and indeed co-heir with him to Joseph Hine’s great fortune. His death, I suppose, has doubled your friend’s inheritance.”
Garratt Skinner raised himself up on his elbow. The announcement was really news to him.
“Is that so?” he asked. “It is true, then. The mountains hold death too in their recesses—even on the clearest day—yes, they hold death too!” And letting himself fall gently back upon his cushions, he remained for a while with a very thoughtful look upon his face. Twice Chayne spoke to him, and twice he did not hear. He lay absorbed. It seemed that a new and engrossing idea had taken possession of his mind, and when he turned his eyes again to Chayne and spoke, he appeared to be speaking with reference to that idea rather than to any remarks of his companion.
“Did you ever ascend Mont Blanc by the Brenva route?” he asked. “There’s a thin ridge of ice—I read an account in Moore’s ‘Journal’—you have to straddle across the ridge with a leg hanging down either precipice.”
Chayne shook his head.
“Lattery and I meant to try it this summer. The Dent du Requin as well.”
“Ah, that is one of the modern rock scrambles, isn’t it? The last two or three hundred feet are the trouble, I believe.”
And so the talk went on and the comradeship grew. But Chayne noticed that always Garratt Skinner came back to the great climbs of the earlier mountaineers, the Brenva ascent of Mont Blanc, the Col Dolent, the two points of the Aiguille du Dru and the Aiguille Verte.
“But you, too, have climbed,” Chayne cried at length.
“On winter nights by my fireside,” replied Garratt Skinner, with a smile. “I have a lame leg which would hinder me.”
“Nevertheless, you left Miss Sylvia and myself behind when you led us over the hills to Dorchester.”
It was Walter Hine who interrupted. He had come across the grass from behind, and neither of the two men had noticed his approach. But the moment when he did interrupt marked a change in their demeanor. The comradeship which had so quickly bloomed as quickly faded. It was the flower of an idle moment. Antagonism preceded and followed it. Thus, one might imagine, might sentries at the outposts of opposing armies pile their arms for half an hour and gossip of their homes or their children, or of something dear to both of them and separate at the bugle sound. Garratt Skinner swung himself out of his hammock.
“Where’s Sylvia, Wallie?”
“She went up to her room.”
Chayne waited for ten minutes, and for another ten, and still Sylvia did not appear. She was avoiding him. She could spend the afternoon with Walter Hine, but she must run to her room when he came upon the scene. Jealousy flamed up in him. Every now and then a whimsical smile of amusement showed upon Garratt Skinner’s face and broadened into a grin. Chayne was looking a fool, and was quite conscious of it. He rose abruptly from his chair.
“I must be going,” he said, over loudly, and Garratt Skinner smiled.
“I’m afraid she won’t hear that,” he said softly, measuring with his eyes the distance between the group and the house. “But come again, Captain Chayne, and sit it out.”
Chayne flushed with anger. He said, “Thank you,” and tried to say it jauntily and failed. He took his leave and walked across the lawn to the garden, trying to assume a carriage of indifference and dignity. But every moment he expected to hear the two whom he had left laughing at his discomfiture. Neither, however, did laugh. Walter Hine was, indeed, indignant.
“Why did you ask him to come again?” he asked, angrily, as the garden door closed upon Chayne.
Garratt Skinner laid his hand on Walter Hine’s arm.
“Don’t you worry, Wallie,” he said, confidentially. “Every time Chayne comes here he loses ten marks. Give him rope! He does not, after all, know a great deal of geography.”