“Quite, quite charming,” she cried, and she rippled with enthusiasm over the artificial lake and the artificial rocks amongst which she seemed so appropriate a figure; and she shrugged her pretty shoulders over the eccentricities of her daughter, who was undoubtedly burning her complexion to the color of brick-dust among those stupid mountains. She came back a trifle flushed in the cool of the afternoon, and in the evening slipped discreetly into the little Cercle at the back of the Casino, where she played baccarat in a company which flattery could hardly have termed doubtful. She was indeed not displeased to be rid of her unsatisfactory daughter for a night and a couple of days.
“Sylvia won’t fit in.”
Thus for a long time she had been accustomed piteously to complain; and with ever more reason. Less and less did Sylvia fit in with Mrs. Thesiger’s scheme of life. It was not that the girl resisted or complained. Mrs. Thesiger would have understood objections and complaints. She would not have minded them; she could have coped with them. There would have been little scenes, with accusations of ingratitude, of undutifulness, and Mrs. Thesiger was not averse to the excitement of little scenes. But Sylvia never complained; she maintained a reserve, a mystery which her mother found very uncomfortable. “She has no sympathy,” said Mrs. Thesiger. Moreover, she would grow up, and she would grow up in beauty and in freshness. Mrs. Thesiger did her best. She kept her dressed in a style which suited a younger girl, or rather, which would have suited a younger girl had it been less decorative and extreme. Again Sylvia did not complain. She followed her usual practice and shut her mind to the things which displeased her so completely, that they ceased to trouble her. But Mrs. Thesiger never knew that secret; and often, when in the midst of her chatter she threw a glance at the elaborate figure of her daughter, sitting apart with her lace skirts too short, her heels too high, her hat too big and too fancifully trimmed, she would see her madonna-like face turned toward her, and her dark eyes thoughtfully dwelling upon her. At such times there would come an uncomfortable sensation that she was being weighed and found wanting; or a question would leap in her mind and bring with it fear, and the same question which she had asked herself in the train on the way to Chamonix.
“You ask me about my daughter?” she once exclaimed pettishly to Monsieur Pettigrat. “Upon my word, I really know nothing of her except one ridiculous thing. She always dreams of running water. Now, I ask you, what can you do with a daughter so absurd that she dreams of running water?”
Monsieur Pettigrat was a big, broad, uncommon man; he knew that he was uncommon, and dressed accordingly in a cloak and a brigand’s hat; he saw what others did not, and spoke in a manner suitably impressive.
“I will tell you, madame, about your daughter,” he said somberly. “To me she has a fated look.”
Mrs. Thesiger was a little consoled to think that she had a daughter with a fated look.
“I wonder if others have noticed it,” she said, cheerfully.
“No,” replied Monsieur Pettigrat. “No others. Only I.”
“There! That’s just like Sylvia,” cried Mrs. Thesiger, in exasperation. “She has a fated look and makes nothing of it.”
But the secret of her discontent was just a woman’s jealousy of a younger rival. Men were beginning to turn from her toward her daughter. That Sylvia never competed only made the sting the sharper. The grave face with its perfect oval, which smiled so rarely, but in so winning a way, its delicate color, its freshness, were points which she could not forgive her daughter. She felt faded and yellow beside her, she rouged more heavily on account of her, she looked with more apprehension at the crow’s-feet which were beginning to show about the corners of her eyes, and the lines which were beginning to run from the nostrils to the corners of her mouth.
Sylvia reached the hotel in time for dinner, and as she sat with her mother, drinking her coffee in the garden afterward, Monsieur Pettigrat planted himself before the little iron table.
He shook his head, which was what his friends called “leonine.”
“Mademoiselle,” he said, in his most impressive voice, “I envy you.”
Sylvia looked up at him with a little smile of mischief upon her lips.
“And why, monsieur?”
He waved his arm magnificently.
“I watched you at dinner. You are of the elect, mademoiselle, for whom the snow peaks have a message.”
Sylvia’s smile faded from her face.
“Perhaps so, monsieur,” she said, gravely, and her mother interposed testily:
“A message! Ridiculous! There are only two words in the message, my dear. Cold-cream! and be sure you put it on your face before you go to bed.”
Sylvia apparently did not hear her mother’s comment. At all events she disregarded it, and Monsieur Pettigrat once again shook his head at Sylvia with a kindly magnificence.
“They have no message for me, mademoiselle,” he said, with a sigh, as though he for once regretted that he was so uncommon. “I once went up there to see.” He waved his hand generally to the chain of Mont Blanc and drifted largely away.
Mrs. Thesiger, however, was to hear more definitely of that message two days later. It was after dinner. She was sitting in the garden with her daughter on a night of moonlight; behind them rose the wall of mountains, silent and shadowed, in front were the lights of the little town, and the clatter of its crowded streets. Between the town and the mountains, at the side of the hotel this garden lay, a garden of grass and trees, where the moonlight slept in white brilliant pools of light, or dripped between the leaves of the branches. It partook alike of the silence of the hills and the noise of the town, for a murmur of voices was audible from this and that point, and under the shadows of the trees could be seen the glimmer of light-colored frocks and the glow of cigars waxing and waning. A waiter came across the garden with some letters for Mrs. Thesiger. There were none for Sylvia and she was used to none, for she had no girl friends, and though at times men wrote her letters she did not answer them.
A lamp burned near at hand. Mrs. Thesiger opened her letters and read them. She threw them on to the table when she had read them through. But there was one which angered her, and replacing it in its envelope, she tossed it so petulantly aside that it slid off the iron table and fell at Sylvia’s feet. Sylvia stooped and picked it up. It had fallen face upward.
“This is from my father.”
Mrs. Thesiger looked up startled. It was the first time that Sylvia had ever spoken of him to her. A wariness come into her eyes.
“Well?” she asked.
“I want to go to him.”
Sylvia spoke very simply and gently, looking straight into her mother’s face with that perplexing steadiness of gaze which told so very little of what thoughts were busy behind it. Her mother turned her face aside. She was rather frightened. For a while she made no reply at all, but her face beneath its paint looked haggard and old in the white light, and she raised her hand to her heart. When she did speak, her voice shook.
“You have never seen your father. He has never seen you. He and I parted before you were born.”
“But he writes to you.”
“Yes, he writes to me,” and for all that she tried, she could not altogether keep a tone of contempt out of her voice. She added with some cruelty: “But he never mentions you. He has never once inquired after you, never once.”
Sylvia looked very wistfully at the letter, but her purpose was not shaken.
“Mother, I want to go to him,” she persisted. Her lips trembled a little, and with a choke of the voice, a sob half caught back, she added: “I am most unhappy here.”
The rarity of a complaint from Sylvia moved her mother strangely. There was a forlornness, moreover, in her appealing attitude. Just for a moment Mrs. Thesiger began to think of early days of which the memory was at once a pain and a reproach. A certain little village underneath the great White Horse on the Dorsetshire Downs rose with a disturbing vividness before her eyes. She almost heard the mill stream babble by. In that village of Sutton Poyntz she had herself been born, and to it she had returned, caught back again for a little while by her own country and her youth, that Sylvia might be born there too. These months had made a kind of green oasis in her life. She had rested there in a farm-house, after a time of much turbulence, with the music of running water night and day in her ears, a high-walled garden of flowers and grass about her, and the downs with the shadow-filled hollows, and brown treeless slopes rising up from her very feet. She could not but think of that short time of peace, and her voice softened as she answered her daughter.
“We don’t keep step, Sylvia,” she said, with an uneasy laugh. “I know that. But, after all, would you be happier with your father, even if he wants to keep you! You have all you want here—frocks, amusement, companions. Try to be more friendly with people.”
But Sylvia merely shook her head.
“I can’t go on any longer like this,” she said, slowly. “I can’t, mother. If my father won’t have me, I must see what I can do. Of course, I can’t do much. I don’t know anything. But I am too unhappy here. I cannot endure the life we are living without a home or—respect,—” Sylvia had not meant to use that word. But it had slipped out before she was aware. She broke off and turned her eyes again to her mother. They were very bright, for the moonlight glistened upon tears. But the softness had gone from her mother’s face. She had grown in a moment hard, and her voice rang hard as she asked:
“Why do you think that your father and I parted? Come, let me hear!”
Sylvia turned her head away.
“I don’t think about it,” she said, gently. “I don’t want to think about it. I just think that he left you, because you did not keep step either.”
“Oh, he left me? Not I him? Then why does he write to me?”
The voice was growing harder with every word.
“I suppose because he is kind”; and at that simple explanation Sylvia’s mother laughed with a bitter amusement. Sylvia sat scraping the gravel with her slipper.
“Don’t do that!” cried her mother, irritably. Then she asked suddenly a question which startled her daughter.
“Did you meet any one last night on the mountain, at the inn?”
Sylvia’s face colored, but the moonlight hid the change.
“Yes,” she said.
“Who was it?”
“A Captain Chayne. He was at the hotel all last week. It was his friend who was killed on the Glacier des Nantillons.”
“Were you alone at the inn, you and he?”
“Did he know your father?”
Sylvia stared at her mother.
“I don’t know. I suppose not. How should he?”
“It’s not impossible,” replied Mrs. Thesiger. Then she leaned on the table. “It was he who put these ideas into your head about going away, about leaving me.” She made an accusation rather than put a question, and made it angrily.
“No, mother,” Sylvia replied. “He never spoke of you. The ideas have been growing in my mind for a long time, and to-day—” She raised her head, and turning slightly, looked up to where just behind her the ice-peaks of the Aiguilles du Midi and de Blaitière soared into the moonlit sky. “To-day the end came. I became certain that I must go away. I am very sorry, mother.”
“The message of the mountains!” said her mother with a sneer, and Sylvia answered quietly:
“Very well,” said Mrs. Thesiger. She had been deeply stung by her daughter’s words, by her wish to go, and if she delayed her consent, it was chiefly through a hankering to punish Sylvia. But the thought came to her that she would punish Sylvia more completely if she let her go. She smiled cruelly as she looked at the girl’s pure and gentle face. And, after all, she herself would be free—free from Sylvia’s unconscious rivalry, free from the competition of her freshness and her youth, free from the grave criticism of her eyes.
“Very well, you shall go to your father. But remember! You have made your choice. You mustn’t come whining back to me, because I won’t have you,” she said, brutally. “You shall go to-morrow.”
She took the letter from its envelope but she did not show it to her daughter.
“I don’t use your father’s name,” she said. “I have not used it since”—and again the cruel smile appeared upon her lips—“since he left me, as you say. He is called Garratt Skinner, and he lives in a little house in Hobart Place. Yes, you shall start for your home to-morrow.”
Sylvia stood up.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked wistfully at her mother, asking her pardon with the look. But she did not approach her. She stood sadly in front of her. Mrs. Thesiger made no advance.
“Well?” she asked, in her hard, cold voice.
“Thank you, mother,” Sylvia repeated, and she walked slowly to the door of the hotel. She looked up to the mountains. Needle spires of rock, glistening pinnacles of ice, they stood dreaming to the moonlight and the stars. The great step had been taken. She prayed for something of their calm, something of their proud indifference to storm and sunshine, solitude and company. She went up to her room and began to pack her trunks. And as she packed, the tears gathered in her eyes and fell.
Meanwhile, her mother sat in the garden. So Sylvia wanted a home; she could not endure the life she lived with her mother. Afar off a band played; the streets beyond were noisy as a river; beneath the trees of the garden here people talked quietly. Mrs. Thesiger sat with a little vindictive smile upon her face. Her rival was going to be punished. Mrs. Thesiger had left her husband, not he her. She read through the letter which she had received from him this evening. It was a pressing request for money. She was not going to send him money. She wondered how he would appreciate the present of a daughter instead.