TRISTRAM of BLENT
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
A MAN OF MARK MR WITT'S WIDOW FATHER STAFFORD A CHANGE OF AIR HALF A HERO THE PRISONER OF ZENDA THE GOD IN THE CAR THE DOLLY DIALOGUES COMEDIES OF COURTSHIP THE CHRONICLES OF COUNT ANTONIO THE HEART OF PRINCESS OSRA PHROSO SIMON DALE RUPERT OF HENTZAU THE KING'S MIRROR QUISANTE
TRISTRAM of BLENT
An Episode in the Story of an Ancient House
By ANTHONY HOPE
New York MCCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO. MCMI
Copyright, 1900 and 1901, by ANTHONY HOPE HAWKINS
Trow Directory Printing & Bookbinding Company New York
A TABLE of the CONTENTS Page
I. A SUPPRESSED PASSAGE 1 II. MR CHOLDERTON'S IMP 10 III. ON GUARD 22 IV. SHE COULD AN' SHE WOULD 34 V. THE FIRST ROUND 48 VI. THE ATTRACTION OF IT 61 VII. THE MOMENT DRAWS NEAR 74 VIII. DUTY AND MR NEELD 88 IX. THE MAN IN POSSESSION 101 X. BEHOLD THE HEIR! 114 XI. A PHANTOM BY THE POOL 129 XII. FIGHTERS AND DOUBTERS 143 XIII. IN THE LONG GALLERY 158 XIV. THE VERY SAME DAY 173 XV. AN INQUISITION INTERRUPTED 190 XVI. THE NEW LIFE 205 XVII. RIVER SCENES AND BRIC-A-BRAC 220 XVIII. CONSPIRATORS AND A CRUX 233 XIX. IN THE MATTER OF BLINKHAMPTON 248 XX. THE TRISTRAM WAY—A SPECIMEN 264 XXI. THE PERSISTENCE OF BLENT 279 XXII. AN INSULT TO THE BLOOD 296 XXIII. A DECREE OF BANISHMENT 312 XXIV. AFTER THE END OF ALL 328 XXV. THERE'S THE LADY TOO! 342 XXVI. A BUSINESS CALL 358 XXVII. BEFORE TRANSLATION 375 XXVIII. THE CAT AND THE BELL 391 XXIX. THE CURMUDGEON 407 XXX. TILL THE NEXT GENERATION 420
A SUPPRESSED PASSAGE
Mr Jenkinson Neeld was an elderly man of comfortable private means; he had chambers in Pall Mall, close to the Imperium Club, and his short stoutish figure, topped by a chubby spectacled face, might be seen entering that dignified establishment every day at lunch time, and also at the hour of dinner on the evenings when he had no invitation elsewhere. He had once practised at the Bar, and liked to explain that he had deserted his profession for the pursuit of literature. He did not, however, write on his own account; he edited. He would edit anything provided there was no great public demand for an edition of it. Regardless of present favor, he appealed to posterity—as gentlemen with private means are quite entitled to do. Perhaps he made rather high demands on posterity; but that was his business—and its. At any rate his taste was curious and his conscience acute. He was very minute and very scrupulous, very painstaking and very discreet, in the exercise of his duties. Posterity may perhaps like these qualities in an editor of memoirs and diaries; for such were Mr Neeld's favorite subjects. Sometimes he fell into a sore struggle between curiosity and discretion, having impulses in himself which he forbore to attribute to posterity.
He was in just such a fix now—so he thought to himself—as he perused the manuscript before him. It was the Journal of his deceased friend Josiah Cholderton, sometime Member of Parliament (in the Liberal interest) for the borough of Baxton in Yorkshire, Commercial Delegate to the Congress of Munich in '64, and Inventor of the Hygroxeric Method of Dressing Wool. No wonder posterity was to be interested in Cholderton! Yet at times—and especially during his visits to the Continent—the diarist indulged himself in digressions about people he encountered; and these assumed now and then a character so personal, or divulged episodes so private, that the editor had recourse to his blue pencil and drew it with a sigh through pages which he had himself found no small relief from the severer record of Cholderton's services to the commerce of his country. Mr Neeld sat now with blue pencil judicially poised, considering the following passage in his friend's recollections. The entry bore date Heidelberg, 1875.
"At the widow's" (Mr Cholderton is speaking of a certain Madame de Kries) "pleasant villa I became acquainted with a lady who made something of a sensation in her day, and whom I remember both for her own sake and because of a curious occurrence connected with her. A year and a half before (or thereabouts) society had been startled by the elopement of Miss T. with Sir R. E. They were married, went to France, and lived together a month or two. Suddenly Sir R. went off alone; whose the fault was nobody knew, or at least it never came to my ears. The lady was not long left in solitude, and, when I met her, she passed as Mrs F., wife of Captain F. The Captain seemed to me an ordinary good-looking reckless young fellow; but Mrs F. was a more striking person. She was tall, graceful, and very fair, a beautiful woman (I might rather say girl) beyond question. Talk revealed her as an absolute child in a moral sense, with a child's infinite candor, a child's infinite deceit, a child's love of praise, a child's defiance of censure where approval would be too dearly earned. She was hardly a reasonable being, as we men of the world understand the term; she was however an exceedingly attractive creature. The natural feelings of a woman, at least, were strong in her, and she was fretting over the prospects of the baby who was soon to be born to her. Captain F. shared her anxiety. I understood their feelings even more fully (in any case the situation was distressing) when I learnt from Madame de Kries that in certain events (which happened later) the lady and her child after her would become persons of rank and importance.
Now comes the scene which has stamped itself on my memory. I was sitting in Madame de Kries' parlor with her and her daughter—an odd dark little thing, five or six years old. Suddenly Mrs F. came in. She was in a state of agitation and excitement by no means healthy (I should suppose) for one in her condition. She held a letter in her hand and waved it in the air, crying, 'Sir R.'s dead, Sir R.'s dead! We can be married! Oh, we're in time, in time, in time!' Extraordinary as such exclamations may appear when the circumstances and my own presence are considered, I have repeated them verbatim. Then she sank down on the sofa, Madame de Kries kneeling by her, while the Imp (as I called the child, whom I disliked) stared at her open-eyed, wondering no doubt what the fuss was about. Directly after F. came in, almost as upset as Mrs F., and the pair between them managed to explain to us that she had received a letter from Sir R.'s servant (with whom she had apparently maintained some communication), announcing that his master had, after two days' illness, died of heart complaint on the 6th June. 'Think of the difference it makes, the enormous difference!' she gasped, jumping up again and standing in the middle of the room. She was so full of this idea that she did not spare a thought to the dead man or to anything which might strike us as peculiar or distasteful in her own attitude and the way in which she received the news. 'We shall be married directly,' she continued with that strange absence of shame or pretence which always marked her, 'and then it'll be all right, and nobody'll be able to say a word in the future.' She went on in this strain for a long while, until Madame de Kries at last insisted on her calming herself, and proposed to accompany her to her own house. At this point I made my excuses and retired, the Imp following me to the door and asking me, as I went out, why people had to be married again when other people died; she was a child who needed wiser and firmer bringing-up than her mother gave her.
I did not myself see Captain and Mrs F. again, as I left Heidelberg the next day, 22nd June. I learnt however from Madame de Kries that the wedding was hurried on and took place on the day following my departure; after this the pair went to Baden, and there, a fortnight later, the child—a boy—was born. I must confess that I was glad the young couple had avoided the calamity they were in dread of, although I am not sure that I had a right to wish that they should escape the full consequences of their fault.
My feelings were abruptly changed when, on paying a flying visit to Madame de Kries a few months later, I heard the sequel of the story, told to me in the strictest confidence, and in violation, I fear, of the old lady's pledge of secrecy. (She was a sad gossip, a failing with which I have no sympathy.) Sir R. E. did not, in fact, die on the date reported. He fell into a collapse, mistaken for death by those about him, and even by his medical attendant; after lying in this state for twenty-four hours he revived and lived nearly a week longer. A second letter, apprising Mrs F. of this fact, and announcing the correct date of his death as June 12th, reached her at Baden on the 28th. By this time she was married, but the validity of her new union (solemnized on the 23rd) did not appear to be affected. Nothing more was done, and the boy was born, as I have stated, early in July. Only after this event, which naturally engrossed the parents' attention, did the mistake into which they had fallen come to be discovered. As a matter of form, and to avoid doubts in the future, Captain F. wrote for the official certificate of Sir R.'s death. When it came, it came as a thunderbolt. Sir R. had been residing in a small Russian town near the frontier; he was interested, I understood, in some business there. The servant to whom I have referred was an uneducated man and could not write; he had picked up a little French but spoke no Russian. Wishing to inform Mrs F. of what had occurred, he had recourse to a professional letter-writer, who perhaps knew as little French, or almost as little, as himself, and was entirely ignorant of English. The servant gave the dates I have set down—June 6th in the first letter, the 12th in the second. The letter-writer put them down; and Mrs F. read and immediately accepted them. It did not cross her mind or Captain F.'s that the dates used were the ordinary Russian dates—were in fact 'Old Style,' and consequently twelve days behind the reckoning of Germany or of England. They might have been put on inquiry by the long interval between the date of the death as it was given and the receipt of the news; in their excitement they paid no heed to it, and it did not occur either to Madame de Kries or to myself to raise the question. Indeed who thinks of the 'Old Style' at this period of the world's history? Besides, I did not know at that time, and I do not think that Madame de Kries did, where the first letter came from; Mrs F. said nothing about it. But when the certificate arrived—about the middle of July, as I understood—the mistake was clear; for a note in the official's hand translated the dates into New Style for the benefit of the foreigners to whom he was supplying the document. Sir R. E., first reported dead on June 6th Old Style, otherwise June 18th New Style, had actually died on the 12th Old Style, or 24th New Style.
I have always thought this one of the most perverse little incidents which I have met with in the course of my life, and I think it such still, when I consider how easily it might have done no harm, and how serious, and indeed irreparable, its actual consequences were. The mistake as to the date of death was the first source of confusion, since it caused Mrs F.'s wedding to take place while her husband, Sir R., had still a day to live. But this error would not in itself have proved fatal, since there would still have been time to repeat the ceremony and make a valid marriage of it before the birth of the child. Here the misapprehension about the Old Style came in. Led to believe that, although Sir R. lived six days longer than was originally reported, yet none the less he died on June 12th, the F.'s did not have the ceremony repeated. But he died, in fact, on the 24th as his wife reckoned time, and her wedding to Captain F. on the 23rd was an idle and useless form. When the discovery was made, the boy was born—and born out of lawful wedlock.
What did they do then? I was pardonably interested in the matter, and inquired of Madame de Kries. She was reticent, but I extracted from her the information that they were hurriedly married again. One could laugh if the matter had not been so terribly serious to them and to their boy. For by now those events had actually happened, and Mrs F. was not indeed in possession of but next in succession to a considerable estate and an ancient title. Marrying again could not mend the matter. What else they did to mend or try to mend it, Madame de Kries professed not to know. I myself do not know either. There is only one thing to say. They could not alter the date of the death; they could not alter the date of the wedding; perhaps it would seem rather more possible to alter the date of the birth. At any rate, that is no business of mine. I have set the story down because it seemed a curious and interesting episode, but it is nothing to me who succeeds or ought to succeed to this or that title or estate. For my own part, I am inclined to hope that the baby's prospects in life will not be wrecked by the absurd Russian habit of using the Old Style.
To return to serious questions, the customs-barrier between——"
Mr Jenkinson Neeld laid down his friend's Journal and leant back in his chair.
"Really!" he murmured to himself. "Really, really!"
Frowning in a perplexed fashion, he pushed the manuscript aside and twiddled the blue pencil between his fingers. The customs-barrier of which Josiah Cholderton was about to speak had no power to interest him. The story which he had read interested him a good deal; it was an odd little bit of human history, a disastrous turn of human fortunes. Besides, Mr Neeld knew his London. He shook his head at the Journal reprovingly, rose from his chair, went to his book-case, and took down a Peerage. A reminiscence was running in his head. He turned to the letter T (Ah, those hollowly discreet, painfully indiscreet initials of Josiah Cholderton's! Mysteries perhaps in Baxton, Yorks, but none in Pall Mall!) and searched the pages. This was the entry at which his finger stopped—or rather part of the entry, for the volume had more to say on the family than it is needful either to believe or to repeat:—
"Tristram of Blent—Adelaide Louisa Aimee, in her own right Baroness—23rd in descent, the barony descending to heirs general. Born 17th December 1853. Married first Sir Randolph Edge, Bart.—no issue. Secondly, Captain Henry Vincent Fitzhubert (late Scots Guards), died 1877. Issue—one son (and heir) Hon. Henry Austen Fitzhubert Tristram, born 20th July 1875. The name of Tristram was assumed in lieu of Fitzhubert by Royal Licence 1884. Seat—Blent Hall, Devon——"
Here Mr Neeld laid down the book. He had seen what he wanted, and had no further concern with the ancestry, the ramifications, the abodes or possessions of the Tristrams of Blent. To him who knew, the entry itself was expressive in what it said and in what it omitted; read in conjunction with Josiah Cholderton's Journal it was yet more eloquent. By itself it hinted a scandal—else why no dates for the marriages? With the Journal it said something more. For the 20th is not "early in July." Yet Mr Neeld had never heard—! He shut the book hastily and put it back on the shelf. Returning to his desk, he took up the blue pencil. But on second thoughts this instrument did not content him. Scissors were to his hand; with them he carefully cut out from the manuscript the whole account of Mr Cholderton's visit to Heidelberg (he would run no risks, and there was nothing important in it), dated it, marked it with the page to which it belonged in the Journal, and locked it away in a drawer.
He felt resentful toward his dead friend Josiah Cholderton. If there be a safe pastime, one warranted to lead a man into no trouble and to entangle him in no scandals, it would seem to lie in editing the Journal of a Member of Parliament, a Commercial Delegate, an Inventor of the Hygroxeric Method of Dressing Wool. Josiah Cholderton had—not quite for the first time—played him false. But never so badly as this before!
"Good gracious me!" he muttered. "The thing is nothing more nor less than an imputation on the legitimacy of the son and heir!"
That same afternoon he went over to the Imperium to vote at the election of members. It struck him as one of the small coincidences of life that among the candidates who faced the ballot was a Colonel Wilmot Edge, R.E.
"Any relation, I wonder?" mused Mr Neeld as he dropped in an affirmative ball. But it may be added, since not even the secrets of club ballots are to be held sacred, that he bestowed one of a different sort on a certain Mr William Iver, who was described as a "Contractor," and whose name was familiar and conspicuous on the hoardings that screened new buildings in London, and was consequently objectionable to Mr Neeld's fastidious mind.
"I don't often blackball," he remarked to Lord Southend as they were sitting down to whist, "but, really, don't you think the Imperium should maintain—er—a certain level?"
"Iver's a devilish rich fellow and not a bad fellow either," grunted my lord.
MR CHOLDERTON'S IMP
"Yes, madame, an elegant and spacious residence, Filton Park. The photo? Here it is, madame. And Notts is a very eligible county—socially speaking, remarkably eligible; I've sent several families to Notts. That photo, madame? Hatchley Manor, in Sussex. Yes, good position—a trifle low perhaps—I have heard complaints of—er—effluvium from the river—I'm anxious to give you perfect satisfaction, madame. It wouldn't pay me not to. I want you to come back, madame, another summer. I play for the break, if I may so put it—I beg your pardon! Yes, Birdcup is really a palatial residence—Hants, yes—a beautiful county. But between ourselves, madame, his lordship is a little hard to deal with. Dilapidations I refer to, yes—his lordship is exacting as to dilapidations. On the whole, I should prefer to recommend Winterhurst—near Maidstone—a pleasant town, Maidstone, and the clergy, I'm informed, extremely active and sympathetic."
"It's a very ugly house," remarked Madame Zabriska, throwing away the photograph of Winterhurst with a gesture of decided refusal.
Mr Sloyd stroked his sleek hair and smiled deprecatingly.
"With residences as with—er—ladies, beauty is only skin deep," said he. "A thoroughly modern residence, madame—hot and cold—south aspect." He stopped suddenly, perceiving that the queer dark little woman in the big chair was laughing at him. "I don't intend to convey," he resumed with dignity, "that the mansion is hot and cold, but the bath-rooms——"
"Oh, I know," she interrupted, her great black eyes still deriding him, while her thin face was screwed up into seriousness, as she regarded Mr Sloyd's blameless garments of springtime gray, his black-and-white tie, his hair so very sleek, his drooping mustache, and his pink cheeks. She had taken his measure as perfectly as the tailor himself, and was enjoying the counterfeit presentment of a real London dandy who came to her in the shape of a house-agent. "I don't want a big place," she explained in English, with a foreign touch about it. "There's only myself and my uncle, Major Duplay—he'll be in directly, I expect—and we've no more money than we want, Mr Sloyd."
Sloyd's eyes wandered round the large and handsome sitting-room in Berridge's Hotel, where he found his client established.
"Oh, it doesn't matter for a few days," she added, detecting his idea and smiling again.
This explanation of her position had the effect of making Sloyd's manner rather less florid and his language less flowery.
"Among second-class but eminently genteel residences," he began, "I could confidently recommend——"
"Where's this?" she interrupted, picking up another photograph, and regarding it with apparent liking. Looking at the foot, she read aloud, "Merrion Lodge, property of the Right Honorable Baroness Tristram of Blent." She looked up sharply at Sloyd.
"Ye-es, ye-es," said Sloyd, without much enthusiasm. "A very pretty neighborhood—a few miles from Blentmouth—rising place, Blentmouth. And it's a cheap house—small, you see, and old-fashioned."
"Not hot and cold?" she asked with apparent innocence.
Sloyd smiled uncomfortably. "I could ascertain all that for you, madame."
He waited for her to speak again, but she had turned thoughtful as she sat fingering the photograph. Presently she smiled again and said, "Yes, find out about Merrion Lodge for me, Mr Sloyd."
He began to gather up his pictures and papers.
"Is Baron Tristram alive?" she asked suddenly.
Sloyd recovered his air of superiority.
"Her ladyship is a peeress in her own right," he explained.
"She's not married then?"
"A widow, madame."
"And wasn't her husband Baron Tristram?"
"Her husband would not have been Lord—excuse me, madame, we say Lord—Tristram of Blent. Her son will succeed to the title, of course. The family reside at Blent Hall, only a few hundred yards from Merrion Lodge, a picturesque mansion in the valley. The Lodge, you perceive, stands high."
"I don't understand the family arrangements," remarked Madame Zabriska, "but I daresay I shall learn it all if I go."
"If you had a 'Peerage,' madame——" he suggested, being himself rather vague about the mysteries of a barony by writ.
"I'll get one from the waiter presently. Good-morning, Mr Sloyd."
Sloyd was making his bow when the door opened and a man came in. He was tall, erect, and good-looking. Both air and manner were youthful, although perhaps with a trace of artifice; he would pass for thirty-five on a casual glance, but not after a longer one.
"My uncle, Major Duplay," said the little woman. "This is Mr Sloyd, who's come about the house, uncle."
Duplay greeted the house-agent with grave courtesy, and entered into conversation with him, while Madame Zabriska, relapsed again into an alert silence, watched the pair.
The last thing that Madame Zabriska—the style sat oddly on her child-like face and figure, but Mina Zabriska at the age of twenty-eight had been a widow three years—desired to do was harm; the thing she best loved to make was mischief. The essence of mischief lay for her—perhaps for everybody—in curiosity; it was to put people in the situations in which they least expected to find themselves, and to observe how they comported themselves therein. As for hurting their interests or even their feelings—no; she was certain that she did not want that; was she not always terribly sorry when that happened, as it sometimes, and quite unaccountably, did? She would weep then—but for their misfortune, be it understood, not for any fault of hers. People did not always understand her; her mother had understood her perfectly, and consequently had never interfered with her ways. Mina loved a mystification too, and especially to mystify uncle Duplay, who thought himself so clever—was clever indeed as men went, she acknowledged generously; but men did not go far. It would be fun to choose Merrion Lodge for her summer home, first because her uncle would wonder why in the world she took it, and secondly because she had guessed that somebody might be surprised to see her there. So she laid her plan, even as she had played her tricks in the days when she was an odd little girl, and Mr Cholderton, not liking her, had with some justice christened her the Imp.
Major Duplay bowed Mr Sloyd to the door with the understanding that full details of Merrion Lodge were to be furnished in a day or two. Coming back to the hearth-rug he spoke to his niece in French, as was the custom with the pair when they were alone.
"And now, dear Mina," said he, "what has made you set your mind on what seems distinctly the least desirable of these houses?"
"It's the cheapest, I expect, and I want to economize."
"People always do as soon as they've got any money," reflected Duplay in a puzzled tone. "If you were on half-pay as I am, you'd never want to do it."
"Well, I've another reason." This was already saying more than she had meant to say.
"Which you don't mean to tell me?"
With a shrug he took out his cigarette-case and handed it to her.
"You and your secrets!" he exclaimed good-humoredly. "Really, Mina, I more than earn my keep by the pleasure I give you in not telling me things. And then you go and do it!"
"Shan't this time," said Mr Cholderton's Imp, seeming not a day more than ten, in spite of her smoking cigarette and her smart costume.
"Luckily I'm not curious—and I can trust you to do nothing wrong."
"Well, I suppose so," she agreed with scornful composure. "Did you ever hear mother speak of a Mrs Fitzhubert?"
The major smiled under his heavy mustache as he answered, "Never."
"Well, I have," said Mina with a world of significance. "I heard her first through the door," she added with a candid smile. "I was listening."
"You often were in those days."
"Oh, I am still—but on the inside of the door now. And she told me about it afterward of her own accord. But it wouldn't interest you, uncle."
"Not in its present stage of revelation," he agreed, with a little yawn.
"The funny old Englishman—you never saw him, did you?—Mr Cholderton—he knew her. He rather admired her too. He was there when she rushed in and—— Never mind! I was there too—such a guy! I had corkscrew curls, you know, and a very short frock, and very long—other things. Oh, those frills!—And I suppose I really was the ugliest child ever born. Old Cholderton hated me—he'd have liked to box my ears, I know. But I think he was a little in love with Mrs Fitzhubert. Oh, I've never asked for that 'Peerage!'"
Major Duplay had resigned himself to a patient endurance of inadequate hints. His wits were not equal to putting together the pieces or conducting a sort of "missing word," or missing link, exercise to a triumphant issue. In time he would know all—supposing, that is, that there were really anything to know. Meanwhile he was not curious about other people's affairs; he minded his own business. Keeping young occupied much of his time; and then there was always the question of how it might prove possible to supplement the half-pay to which his years of service in the Swiss Army entitled him; it was scanty, and but for his niece's hospitality really insufficient. He thought that he was a clever man, he had remained an honest man, and he saw no reason why Fortune should not some day make him a comfortable man; she had never done so yet, having sent him into the world as the fifth child of a Protestant pastor in a French-speaking canton, and never having given him so much as a well-to-do relative (even Madame de Kries' villa was on a modest scale) until Mina married Adolf Zabriska and kept that gentleman's money although she had the misfortune to lose his company. His death seemed to Duplay at least no great calamity; that he had died childless did not appear to have disappointed Mina and was certainly no ground of complaint on her uncle's part.
Presumably Mr Sloyd's inquiries elicited satisfactory information; perhaps Mina was not hard to please. At all events, a week later she and the Major got out at Blentmouth station and found Sloyd himself waiting to drive with them to Merrion Lodge; he had insisted on seeing them installed; doubtless he was, as he put it, playing for the break again. He sat in the landau with his back to the horses and pointed out the features of interest on the road; his couple of days' stay in the neighborhood seemed to have made him an old inhabitant.
"Five hundred population five years ago," he observed, waving his hand over Blentmouth in patronizing encouragement. "Two thousand winter, three five summer months now—largely due to William Iver, Esquire, of Fairholme—we shall pass Fairholme directly—a wealthy gentleman who takes great interest in the development of the town."
It was all Greek to the Major, but he nodded politely. Mina was looking about her with keen eyes.
"That's Fairholme," Sloyd went on, as they came to a large and rather new house situated on the skirts of Blentmouth. "Observe the glass—those houses cost thousands of pounds—grows peaches all the year, they tell me. At this point, Madame Zabriska, we turn and pursue the road by the river." And so he ceased not to play guide-book till he landed them at the door of Merrion Lodge itself, after a slow crawl of a quarter of a mile uphill. Below them in the valley lay the little Blent, sparkling in the sunshine of a summer afternoon, and beyond the river, facing them on the opposite bank, no more perhaps than five hundred yards away, was Blent Hall. Mina ran to the parapet of the levelled terrace on which the Lodge stood, and looked down. Blent Hall made three sides of a square of old red-brick masonry, with a tower in the centre; it faced the river, and broad gravel-walks and broader lawns of level close-shaven turf ran down to the water's edge.
"Among the minor seats of the nobility Blent is considered a very perfect example," she heard Sloyd say to the Major, who was unobtrusively but steadily urging him in the direction of the landau. She turned to bid him good-by, and he came up to her, hat in hand.
"Thank you. I like the place," she said. "Do you—do you think we shall make acquaintance with the people at Blent Hall?"
"Her ladyship's in poor health, I hear, but I should imagine she would make an effort to call or at least send cards. Good-by, madame."
Duplay succeeded in starting the zealous man on his homeward journey and then went into the house, Mina remaining still outside, engaged in the contemplation of her new surroundings, above all of Blent Hall, which was invested with a special interest for her eyes. It was the abode of Mrs Fitzhubert.
With a little start she turned to find a young man standing just on the other side of the parapet; she had not noticed his approach till he had given a low cough to attract her attention. As he raised his hat her quick vision took him in as it were in a complete picture—the thin yet well-made body, the slight stoop in the shoulders, the high forehead bordered with thick dark hair growing in such a shape that the brow seemed to rise almost to a peak, a long nose, a sensitive mouth, a pointed chin, dark eyes with downward lids. The young man—she would have guessed him at twenty-two or three—had a complete composure of manner; somehow she felt herself in the presence of the lord of the soil—an absurd thing to feel, she told herself.
"Madame Zabriska? My mother, Lady Tristram, has sent me to bid you welcome in her name, but not to disturb you by coming in so soon after your journey. It is our tradition to welcome guests at the moment of their arrival."
He spoke rather slowly, in a pleasant voice, but with something in his air that puzzled Mina. It seemed like a sort of watchfulness—not a slyness (that would have fitted so badly with the rest of him), but perhaps one might say a wariness—whether directed against her or himself it was too soon for her even to conjecture.
Still rather startled, she forgot to express her thanks, and said simply:
"You're Mr Fitzhubert Tristram?"
"Mr Tristram," he corrected her; and she noticed now for the first time the slow-moving smile which soon became his leading characteristic in her thoughts. It took such a time to spread, it seemed to feel its way; but it was a success when it came. "I use my father's name only as a Christian name now. Tristram is my surname; that also, if I may repeat myself, is one of our traditions."
"What, to change your names? The men, I mean?" she asked, laughing a little.
"For anybody in the direct line to take the name of Tristram—so that, in spite of the failure of male heirs from time to time, the Tristrams of Blent should always be Tristrams, you know, and not Fitzhuberts, or Leighs, or Merrions——"
"My great-great—I forget how many greats—grandfather was a Merrion and——"
"Built this house?"
"Oh, no—a house where this stands. The old house was burnt down in '95."
"As recently as that?" she exclaimed in surprise.
"1795," he explained, "and this house was run up then."
Mina felt that there was here a touch of pride; with a more complete mastery of idiomatic English she might have called it "swagger." Nothing counted that was less than a century old, it seemed, and he spoke of a house of a hundred years' standing as she might of a wooden shanty. Decidedly he was conscious of his position—over-conscious.
"I'm glad it was run up in time for us to take it," she said, thinking she would try the effect of a little chaff.
The effect was nothing; Harry Tristram took no notice of the remark.
"I see," he observed, "from your calling me Fitzhubert that you've been looking up our recent history."
"Oh, just what there is in the 'Peerage.'" Her look was mischievous now, but she restrained herself from any hint of special knowledge. "I'll tell you as much of ours some day."
She broke into a laugh, and then, carried away by the beauty of the scene, the river and the stately peaceful old house by it, she stretched out her hands toward Blent Hall, exclaiming:
"But we haven't anything like that in our history!"
He turned to look with her, and stood in silence for a minute or two. Then he spoke softly.
"Yes, I love it," he said.
She glanced at him; his eyes were tender. Turning, he saw her glance. In a moment he seemed to veil his eyes and to try to excuse the sentimental tone of his remark by a matter-of-fact comment:
"But of course a man comes to like a place when he's been accustomed to think of it as his home for all his life past and to come."
"What would you do if you lost it?" she asked.
"I've no intention of losing it," he answered, laughing, but looking again from her and toward his home. "We've had it six hundred years; we shan't lose it now, I think."
"No, I suppose not." He was holding out his hand. "Good-by, Mr Tristram. May I come and thank your mother?"
"Oh, but she'll come here, if she's well enough."
"I'll save her the journey up the hill."
He bowed in courteous acceptance of her offer as he shook hands.
"You see the foot-bridge over the river there? There's a gate at each end, but the gates are never locked, so you can reach us from the road that way if you're walking. If you want to drive, you must go a quarter of a mile higher up, just below the Pool. Good-by, Madame Zabriska."
Mina watched him all the way down the hill. He had made an impression on her—an intellectual impression, not a sentimental one. There was nothing of the boy about him, unless it were in that little flourish over the antiquity of his house and its surroundings; even that might be the usual thing—she had not seen enough of his class to judge. There was too that love of the place which he had shown. Lastly, there was the odd air of wariness and watching; such it seemed to her, and it consented to seem nothing else.
"I wonder," she thought, "if he knows anything about Mrs Fitzhubert—and I wonder if it would make any difference to him!" Memory carried her back in an instant to the moment when she, Mr Cholderton's Imp, heard that beautiful woman cry, "Think of the difference it makes, the enormous difference!" She drew in her breath in a sudden gasp. An idea had flashed into her mind, showing her for the first time the chance of a situation which had never yet crossed her thoughts.
"Good gracious, is it possible that he couldn't keep it, or that his mother couldn't give it to him, all the same?"
Harry Tristram was just on twenty-three; to others, and to himself too perhaps (if a man himself can attain any clear view), he seemed older. Even the externals of his youth had differed from the common run. Sent to school like other boys, he had come home from Harrow one Easter for the usual short holiday. He had never returned; he had not gone to the University; he had been abroad a good deal, travelling and studying, but always in his mother's company. It was known that she was in bad health; it was assumed that either she was very exacting or he very devoted, since to separate him from her appeared impossible. Yet those who observed them together saw no imperiousness on her part and no excess of sentiment on his. Friendliness based on a thorough sympathy of mind was his attitude if his demeanor revealed it truly; while Lady Tristram was to her son as she was to all the world at this time, a creature of feelings now half cold and of moods that reflected palely the intense impulses of her youth. But a few years over forty, she grew faded and faint in mind, it seemed, as well as in body, and was no longer a merry comrade to the boy who never left her. Yet he did not wish to leave her. To her, indeed, he was not a boy, and nobody about the place regarded him as other than a man. He had been actually and effectively master of the house for years, just as he was master of his own doings, of his friendships, recreations, and pursuits. And he had managed all well, except that he was not thought to be very happy or to get much enjoyment from his life. That was just an idea he gave of himself, and gave involuntarily—in spite of taking his fair share in the amusements of the neighborhood, and holding his own well in its sports and athletics. But he was considered cold and very reserved. Had Mina Zabriska remembered this use of "reserve," perhaps she would have employed the word instead of "wariness." Or perhaps, if his acquaintances had looked more keenly, they would have come over to Mina's side and found her term the more accurate. She spoke from a fresher and sharper impression of him.
His childhood at least had been happy, while Lady Tristram was still the bewilderingly delightful companion who had got into so much hot water and made so many people eager to get in after her. Joy lasted with her as long as health did, and her health began to fail only when her son approached fifteen. Another thing happened about then, which formed the prelude to the most vivid scene in the boy's life. Lady Tristram was not habitually a religious woman; that temper of mind was too abstract for her; she moved among emotions and images, and had small dealings with meditation or spiritual conceptions. But happening to be in a mood that laid her open to the influence, she heard in London one day a sermon preached by a young man famous at the time, a great searcher of fashionable hearts. She drove straight from the church (it was a Friday morning) to Paddington and took the first train home. Harry was there—back from school for his holiday—and she found him in the smoking-room, weighing a fish which he had caught in the pool that the Blent forms above the weir. There and then she fell on her knees on the floor and poured forth to him the story of that Odyssey of hers which had shocked London society and is touched upon in Mr Cholderton's Journal. He listened amazed, embarrassed, puzzled up to a point; a boy's normal awkwardness was raised to its highest pitch; he did not want to hear his mother call herself a wicked woman; and anyhow it was a long while ago, and he did not understand it all very well. The woman lifted her eyes and looked at him; she was caught by the luxury of confession, of humiliation, of offering her back to the whip. She told him he was not her heir—that he would not be Tristram of Blent. For a moment she laid her head on the floor at his feet. She heard no sound from him, and presently looked up at him again. His embarrassment had gone; he was standing rigidly still, his eyes gazing out toward the river, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. He was thinking. She went on kneeling there, saying no more, staring at her son. It was characteristic of her that she did not risk diminishing the effectiveness of the scene, or the tragedy of her avowal, by explaining the perverse accident owing to which her fault had entailed such an aggravation of evil. Harry learnt that later.
Later—and in a most different sort of interview. From the first Harry had no thought of surrender; his mother had none either as soon as she had forgotten her preacher. The discussion was resumed after a week (Lady Tristram had spent the interval in bed) on a business footing. She found in him the same carelessness of the world and its obligations that there was in herself, but found it carried to the point of scorn and allied to a tenacity of purpose and a keenness of vision which she had never owned. Not a reproach escaped him—less, she thought, from generosity than because he chose to concentrate his mind on something useful. It was no use lamenting the past; it might be possible to undo it for all practical purposes. The affair was never again referred to between them except as a factor recommending or dictating some course of action; its private side—its revelation of her and its effect (or what might have been its effect) on his feelings toward her—was never spoken of. Lady Tristram thought that the effect was nothing, and the revelation not very surprising to her son. He accepted without argument her own view—that she had done nothing very strange but had fallen on very bad luck. But he told her at once that he was not going back to Harrow. She understood; she agreed to be watched, she abdicated her rule, she put everything in his hands and obeyed him.
Thus, at fifteen, Harry Tristram took up his burden and seemed to take up his manhood too. He never wavered; he always assumed that right and justice were on his side, that he was not merely justified in holding his place but bound in duty to keep it. Such practical steps as could be taken were taken. The confederates set no limit to their preparations against danger and their devices to avoid detection. If lies were necessary, they would lie; where falsification was wanted, they falsified. There was no suspicion; not a hint of it had reached their ears. Things were so quiet that Lady Tristram often forgot the whole affair; her son watched always, his eyes keen for a sight, his ear down to the earth for a sound, of danger. No security relaxed his vigilance, but his vigilance became so habitual, so entered into him, that his mother ceased to notice it and it became a second nature to himself. That it might miss nothing, it was universal; the merest stranger came within its ken. He watched all mankind lest some one among men should be seeking to take his treasure from him. Mr Cholderton's Imp had not used her eyes in vain; but Harry's neighbors, content to call him reserved, had no idea that there was anything in particular that he had to hide.
There was one little point which, except for his persuasion of his own rectitude, might have seemed to indicate an uneasy conscience, but was in fact only evidence of a natural dislike to having an unwelcome subject thrust under his notice. About a year after the disclosure Lady Tristram had a letter from Mr Gainsborough. This gentleman had married her cousin, and the cousin, a woman of severe principles, had put an end to all acquaintance in consequence of the "Odyssey." She was dead, and her husband proposed to renew friendly relations, saying that his daughter knew nothing of past differences and was anxious to see her kinsfolk. The letter was almost gushing, and Lady Tristram, left to herself, would have answered it in the same kind; for while she had pleased herself she bore no resentment against folk who had blamed her. Moreover Gainsborough was poor, and somebody had told her that the girl was pleasant; she pitied poverty and liked being kind to pleasant people.
"Shall we invite them to stay for a week or two?" she had asked.
"Never," he said. "They shall never come here. I don't want to know them, I won't see them." His face was hard, angry, and even outraged at the notion.
His mother said no more. If the barony and Blent departed from Harry, on Lady Tristram's death they would go to Cecily Gainsborough. If Harry had his way, that girl should not even see his darling Blent. If distrust of his mother entered at all into his decision, if he feared any indiscreet talk from her, he gave no hint of it. It was enough that the girl had some odious pretensions which he could and would defeat but could not ignore—pretensions for his mind, in her own she had none.
The sun had sunk behind the tower, and Lady Tristram sat in a low chair by the river, enjoying the cool of the evening. The Blent murmured as it ran; the fishes were feeding; the midges were out to feed, but they did not bite Lady Tristram; they never did; the fact had always been a comfort to her, and may perhaps be allowed here to assume a mildly allegorical meaning. If the cool of the evening may do the same, it will serve very well to express the stage of life and of feeling to which no more than the beginning of middle age had brought her. It was rather absurd, but she did not want to do or feel very much more; and it seemed as though her wishes were to be respected. A certain distance from things marked her now; only Harry was near to her, only Harry's triumph was very important. She had outrun her vital income and mortgaged future years; if foreclosure threatened, she maintained her old power of taking no heed of disagreeable things, however imminent. She was still very handsome and wished to go on being that to the end; fortunately fragility had always been her style and always suited her.
Harry leant his elbow on a great stone vase which stood on a pedestal and held a miniature wilderness of flowers.
"I lunched at Fairholme," he was saying. "The paint's all wet still, of course, and the doors stick a bit, but I liked the family. He's genuine, she's homely, and Janie's a good girl. They were very civil."
"I suppose so."
"Not overwhelmed," he added, as though wishing to correct a wrong impression which yet might reasonably have arisen.
"I didn't mean that. I've met Mr Iver, and he wasn't at all overwhelmed. Mrs Iver was—out—when I called, and I was—out—when she called." Lady Tristram was visibly, although not ostentatiously, allowing for the prejudices of a moral middle-class.
"Young Bob Broadley was there—you know who I mean? At Mingham Farm, up above the Pool."
"I know—a handsome young man."
"I forgot he was handsome. Of course you know him then! What a pity I'm not handsome, mother!"
"Oh, you've the air, though," she observed contentedly. "Is he after Janie Iver?"
"So I imagine. I'm not sure that I'm not too. Have I any chance against Bob Broadley?"
She did not seem to take him seriously.
"They wouldn't look at Mr Broadley." (She was pleasantly punctilious about all titles and courteous methods of reference or address.) "Janie Iver's a great heiress."
"And what about me?" he insisted, as he lit his pipe and sat down opposite her.
"You mean it, Harry?"
"There's no reason why I shouldn't marry, is there?"
"Why, you must marry, of course. But——"
"We can do the blue blood business enough for both."
"Yes, I didn't mean that."
"You mean—am I at all in love with her?"
"No, not quite. Oh, my dear Harry, I mean wouldn't you like to be in love a little with somebody? You could do it after you marry, of course, and you certainly will if you marry now, but it's not so—so comfortable." She looked at him with a sort of pity: her feeling was that he gave himself no holidays.
He sat silent a moment seeming to consider some picture which her suggestion conjured up.
"No good waiting for that," was his conclusion. "Somehow if I married and had children, it would seem to make everything more settled." His great pre-occupation was on him again. "We could do with some more money too," he added, "and, as I say, I'm inclined to like the girl."
"What's she like?"
"What you call a fine girl—tall—well made——"
"She'll be fat some day, I expect."
"Straight features, broadish face, dark, rather heavy brows—you know the sort of thing."
"Oh, Harry, I hate all that!"
"I don't; I rather like it." He was smoking meditatively, and jerked out what he had to say between the puffs. "I shouldn't like to mortgage Blent," he went on a moment later.
"Mortgage Blent? What for?"
He raised a hand to ask to be heard out. "But I should like to feel that I could at any moment lay my hand on a big lump of ready money—say fifty, or even a hundred, thousand pounds. I should like to be able to pull it out of my breeches' pocket and say, 'Take that and hold your tongue!'" He looked at her to see if she followed what was in his mind. "I think they'd take it," he ended. "I mean if things got as far as that, you know."
"You mean the Gainsboroughs?"
"Yes. Oh, anybody else would be cheaper than that. Fifty thousand would be better than a very doubtful case. But it would have to be done directly—before a word was heard about it. I should like to live with the check by me."
He spoke very simply, as another man might speak of being ready to meet an improvement-rate or an application from an impecunious brother.
"Don't you think it would be a good precaution?" he asked. Whether he meant the marriage, the check, or the lady, was immaterial; it came to the same thing.
"It's all very troublesome," Lady Tristram complained. "It really half spoils our lives, doesn't it, Harry? One always has to be worrying."
The smile whose movements had excited Mina Zabriska's interest made its appearance on Harry's face. He had never been annoyed by his mother's external attitude toward the result of her own doings, but he was often amused at it.
"Why do you smile?" she asked innocently.
"Well, worrying's a mild term," he explained evasively. "It's my work in the world, you know—or it seems as if it was going to be."
"You'd better think about it," Lady Tristram concluded, not wishing to think about it any more herself. "You wouldn't tell Mr Iver anything about the difficulty, would you?" "The difficulty" had become her usual way of referring to their secret.
"Not a word. I'm not called upon to justify my position to Iver." No shadow of doubt softened the clearness of Harry's conviction on this point.
He rose, filled his pipe again, and began to walk up and down. He was at his old game, counting chances, one by one, every chance, trying to eliminate risks, one by one, every risk, so that at last he might take his ease and say without fear of contradiction, "Here sits Tristram of Blent." To be thus was—something; but to be safely thus was so much more that it did not seem to him a great thing to carry out the plan which he had suggested to Lady Tristram. To be sure, he was not in love with anybody else, which makes a difference, though it is doubtful whether it would have made any to him. Had the question arisen at that moment he would have said that nothing could make any difference.
"Did you go up to the Lodge, Harry?" his mother called to him as one of his turns brought him near her.
"Oh, yes; I forgot to tell you. I did, and I found Madame Zabriska having a look at us from the terrace, so I had a little talk with her. I didn't see the uncle."
"What's she like?" This was a favorite question of Lady Tristram's.
Harry paused a moment, looking for a description.
"Well, if you can imagine one needle with two very large eyes, you'd get some idea of her. She's sharp, mother—mind and body. Pleasant enough though. She's coming to see you, so you needn't bother to go up." He added with an air of impatience, "She's been hunting in the Peerage."
"Of course she would; there's nothing in that."
"No, I suppose not," he admitted almost reluctantly.
"I can't help thinking I've heard the name before—not Zabriska, but the uncle's."
"Duplay, isn't it? I never heard it."
"Well, I can't remember anything about it, but it sounds familiar. I'm confusing it with something else, I suppose. They look like being endurable, do they?"
"Oh, yes, as people go," he answered, resuming his walk.
If a determination to keep for yourself what according to your own conviction belongs by law to another makes a criminal intent—and that irrespective of the merits of the law—it would be hard to avoid classing Lady Tristram and her son as criminals in contemplation, if not yet in action. And so considered they afforded excellent specimens of two kinds of criminals which a study of assize courts reveals—the criminal who drifts and the criminal who plans; the former usually termed by counsel and judge "unhappy," the latter more sternly dubbed "dangerous." Lady Tristram had always drifted and was drifting still; Harry had begun to plan at fifteen and still was busy planning. One result of this difference was that whereas she was hardly touched or affected in character he had been immensely influenced. In her and to her the whole thing seemed almost accidental, a worry, as she put it, and not much more; with him it was the governing fact in life, and had been the force most potent in moulding him. The trouble came into her head when something from outside put it there; it never left his brain. And she had no adequate conception of what it was to him. Even his scheme of marrying Janie Iver and his vivid little phrase about living with the check by him failed to bring it home to her. This very evening, as soon as he was out of sight, both he and his great question were out of the mind of the woman who had brought both him and it into existence. There are people who carry the doctrine of free-will so far in their own persons as to take the liberty of declining to allow causes to work on and in them, what are logically, morally, and on every other ground conceivable, their necessary effects; reasoning from what they have done to what they must be, from what they have been responsible for to what they must feel, breaks down; they are arbitrary, unconditioned, themselves as it were accidental. With this comes a sort of innocence, sometimes attractive, sometimes uncommonly exasperating to the normal man.
So Lady Tristram went back to her novel, and Harry walked by the river, moodily meditating and busily scheming. Meanwhile Mina Zabriska had flown to the library at Merrion Lodge, and, finding books that had belonged to a legal member of the family in days gone by, was engaged in studying the law relating to the succession to lands and titles in England. She did not make quick progress. Nevertheless in a day or two she had reached a point when she was bubbling over with curiosity and excitement; she felt that she could not go on sitting opposite Major Duplay at meals without giving him at least a hint or two of the wonderful state of things on which she had hit, and without asking him to consider the facts and to have a look at the books which were so puzzling and exercising her brain. Yet Harry Tristram, wary sentinel as he was, did not dream of any attack or scent any danger from the needle with two very large eyes, as he had called the lady at Merrion Lodge.
SHE COULD AN' SHE WOULD
In spite of Mrs Iver's secret opinion that people with strange names were likely to be strange themselves, and that, for all she saw, foreigners were—not fools, as Dr Johnson's friend thought—but generally knaves, an acquaintance was soon made between Fairholme and Merrion Lodge. Her family was against Mrs Iver; her husband was boundlessly hospitable, Janie was very sociable. The friendship grew and prospered. Mr Iver began to teach the Major to play golf. Janie took Mina Zabriska out driving in the highest dog-cart on the countryside: they would go along the road by the river, and get out perhaps for a wander by the Pool, or even drive higher up the valley and demand tea from Bob Broadley at his pleasant little place—half farm, half manor-house—at Mingham, three miles above the Pool. Matters moved so quick that Mina understood in a week why Janie found it pleasant to have a companion under whose aegis she could drop in at Mingham; in little more than a fortnight she began to understand why her youthful uncle (the Major was very young now) grunted unsympathetically when she observed that the road to Mingham was the prettiest in the neighborhood. The Imp was accumulating other people's secrets, and was accordingly in a state of high satisfaction.
The situation developed fast, and for the time at least Janie Iver was heroine and held the centre of the stage. A chance of that state of comfort which was his remaining and modest ambition had opened before the Major—and the possibility of sharing it with a congenial partner: the Major wasted no time in starting his campaign. Overtures from Blent, more stately but none the less prompt, showed that Harry Tristram had not spoken idly to his mother. And what about Bob Broadley? He seemed to be out of the running, and indeed to have little inclination, or not enough courage, to press forward. Yet the drives to Mingham went on. Mina was puzzled. She began to observe the currents in the Fairholme household. Iver was for Harry, she thought, though he maintained a dignified show of indifference; Mrs Iver—the miraculous occurring in a fortnight, as it often does—was at least very much taken with the Major. Bob Broadley had no friend, unless in Janie herself. And Janie was inscrutable by virtue of an open pleasure in the attention of all three gentlemen and an obvious disinclination to devote herself exclusively to any one of them. She could not flirt with Harry Tristram, because he had no knowledge of the art, but she accepted his significant civilities. She did flirt with the Major, who had many years' experience of the pastime. And she was kind to Bob Broadley, going to see him, as has been said, sending him invitations, and seeming in some way to be fighting against his own readiness to give up the battle before it was well begun. But it is hard to help a man who will not help himself; on the other hand, it is said to be amusing sometimes.
They all met at Fairholme one afternoon, Harry appearing unexpectedly as the rest were at tea on the lawn. This was his first meeting with the Major. As he greeted that gentleman, even more when he shook hands with Bob, there was a touch of regality in his manner; the reserve was prominent, and his prerogative was claimed. Very soon he carried Janie off for a solitary walk in the shrubberies. Mina enjoyed her uncle's frown and chafed at Bob's self-effacement; he had been talking to Janie when Harry calmly took her away. The pair were gone half an hour, and conversation flagged. They reappeared, Janie looking rather excited, Harry almost insolently calm, and sat down side by side. The Major walked across and took a vacant seat on the other side of Janie. The slightest look of surprise showed on Harry Tristram's face. A duel began. Duplay had readiness, suavity, volubility, a trick of flattering deference; on Harry's side were a stronger suggestion of power and an assumption, rather attractive, that he must be listened to. Janie liked this air of his, even while she resented it; here, in his own county at least, a Tristram of Blent was somebody. Bob Broadley was listening to Iver's views on local affairs; he was not in the fight at all, but he was covertly watching it. Perhaps Iver watched too, but it was not easy to penetrate the thoughts of that astute man of business. The fortune of battle seemed to incline to Harry's side; the Major was left out of the talk for minutes together. More for fun than from any loyalty to her kinsman, Mina rose and walked over to Harry.
"Do take me to see the greenhouses, Mr Tristram," she begged. "You're all right with uncle, aren't you, Janie?"
Janie nodded rather nervously. After a pause of a full half-minute, Harry Tristram rose without a word and began to walk off; it was left for Mina to join him in a hurried little run.
"Oh, wait for me, anyhow," she cried, with a laugh.
They walked on some way in silence.
"You're not very conversational, Mr Tristram, I suppose you're angry with me?"
He turned and looked at her. Presently he began to smile, even more slowly, it seemed, than usual.
"I must see that my poor uncle has fair play—what do you call it?—a fair show—mustn't I?"
"Oh, that's what you meant, Madame Zabriska? It wasn't the pleasure of my company?"
"Do you know, I think you rather exaggerate the pleasure—no, not the pleasure, I mean the honor—of your company? You were looking as if you couldn't understand how anybody could want to talk to uncle when you were there. But he's better-looking than you are, and much more amusing."
"I don't set up for a beauty or a wit either," Harry observed, not at all put out by the Imp's premeditated candor.
"No—and still she ought to want to talk to you! Why? Because you're Mr Tristram, I suppose?" Mina indulged in a very scornful demeanor.
"It's very friendly of you to resent my behavior on Miss Iver's behalf."
"There you are again! That means she doesn't resent it! I think you give yourself airs, Mr Tristram, and I should like——"
"To take me down a peg?" he asked, in a tone of rather contemptuous amusement.
She paused a minute, and then nodded significantly.
"Exactly; and to make you feel a little uncomfortable—not quite so sure of yourself and everything about you." Again she waited a minute, her eyes set on his face and watching it keenly. "I wonder if I could," she ended slowly.
"Upon my word, I don't see how it's to be done." He was openly chaffing her now.
"Oh, I don't know that you're invulnerable," she said, with a toss of her head. "Don't defy me, Mr Tristram. I don't mind telling you that it would be very good for you if you weren't——"
"Appreciated?" he suggested ironically.
"No; I was going to say if you weren't Mr Tristram, or the future Lord Tristram of Blent."
If she had hoped to catch him off his guard, she was mistaken. Not a quiver passed over his face as he remarked:
"I'm afraid Providence can hardly manage that now, either for my good or for your amusement, Madame Zabriska, much as it might conduce to both."
The Imp loved fighting, and her blood was getting up. He was a good foe, but he did not know her power. He must not either—not yet, anyhow. If he patronized her much more, she began to feel that he would have to know it some day—not to his hurt, of course; merely for the reformation of his manners.
"Meanwhile," he continued, as he lit a cigarette, "I'm not seriously disappointed that attentions paid to one lady fail to please another. That's not uncommon, you know. By the way, we're not on the path to the greenhouses; but you don't mind that? They were a pretext, no doubt? Oh, I don't want to hurry back. Your uncle shall have his fair show. How well you're mastering English!"
At this moment Mina hated him heartily; she swore to humble him—before herself, not before the world, of course; she would give him a fright anyhow—not now, but some day; if her temper could not stand the strain better, it would be some day soon, though.
"You see," Harry's calm exasperating voice went on, "it's just possible that you're better placed at present as an observer of our manners than as a critic of them. I hope I don't exceed the limits of candor which you yourself indicated as allowable in this pleasant conversation of ours?"
"Oh well, we shall see," she declared, with another nod. The vague threat (for it seemed that or nothing) elicited a low laugh from Harry Tristram.
"We shall," he said. "And in the meantime a little sparring is amusing enough. I don't confess to a hit at present; do you, Madame Zabriska?"
Mina did not confess, but she felt the hit all the same; if she were to fight him, she must bring her reserves into action.
"By the way, I'm so sorry you couldn't see my mother when you called the other day. She's not at all well, unhappily. She really wants to see you."
"How very kind of Lady Tristram!" There was kept for the mother a little of the sarcastic humility which was more appropriate when directed against the son. Harry smiled still as he turned round and began to escort her back to the lawn. The smile annoyed Mina; it was a smile of victory. Well, the victory should not be altogether his.
"I want to see Lady Tristram very much," she went on, in innocent tones and with a face devoid of malice, "because I can't help thinking I must have seen her before—when I was quite a little girl."
"You've seen my mother before? When and where?"
"She was Mrs Fitzhubert, wasn't she?"
"Yes, of course she was—before she came into the title."
"Well, a Mrs Fitzhubert used to come and see my mother long ago at Heidelberg. Do you know if your mother was ever at Heidelberg?"
"I fancy she was—I'm not sure."
Still the Imp was very innocent, although the form of Harry's reply caused her inward amusement and triumph.
"My mother was Madame de Kries. Ask Lady Tristram if she remembers the name."
It was a hit for her at last, though Harry took it well. He turned quickly toward her, opened his lips to speak, repented, and did no more than give her a rather long and rather intense look. Then he nodded carelessly. "All right, I'll ask her," said he. The next moment he put a question. "Did you know about having met her before you came to Merrion?"
"Oh well, I looked in the 'Peerage,' but it really didn't strike me till a day or two ago that it might be the same Mrs Fitzhubert. The name's pretty common, isn't it?"
"No, it's very uncommon."
"Oh, I didn't know," murmured Mina apologetically; but the glance which followed him as he turned away was not apologetic; it was triumphant.
She got back in time to witness—to her regret (let it be confessed) she could not overhear—Janie's farewell to Bob Broadley. They had been friends from youth; he was "Bob" to her, she was now to him "Miss Janie."
"You haven't said a word to me, Bob."
"I haven't had a chance; you're always with the swells now."
"How can I help it, if—if nobody else comes?"
"I really shouldn't have the cheek. Harry Tristram was savage enough with the Major—what would he have been with me?"
"Why should it matter what he was?"
"Do you really think that, Miss Janie?" Bob was almost at the point of an advance.
"I mean—why should it matter to you?"
The explanation checked the advance.
"Oh, I—I see. I don't know, I'm sure. Well then, I don't know how to deal with him."
"Good-by, Miss Janie."
"Are you coming to see us again, ever?"
"If you ask me, I——"
"And am I coming again to Mingham? Although you don't ask me."
"Will you really?"
"Oh, you do ask me? When I ask you to ask me!"
"Any day you'll——"
"No, I'll surprise you. Good-by. Good-by really."
The conversation, it must be admitted, sounds commonplace when verbally recorded. Yet he would be a despondent man who considered it altogether discouraging; Mina did not think Janie's glances discouraging either. But Bob Broadley, a literal man, found no warrant for fresh hope in any of the not very significant words which he repeated to himself as he rode home up the valley of the Blent. He suffered under modesty; it needed more than coquetry to convince him that he exercised any attraction over the rich and brilliant (brilliance also is a matter of comparison) Miss Iver, on whose favor Mr Tristram waited and at whose side Major Duplay danced attendance.
"You're a dreadful flirt, Janie," said Mina, as she kissed her friend.
Janie was not a raw girl; she was a capable young woman of two-and-twenty.
"Nonsense," she said rather crossly. "It's not flirting to take time to make up your mind."
"It looks like it, though."
"And I've no reason to suppose they've any one of them made up their minds."
"I should think you could do that for them pretty soon. Besides, uncle has, anyhow."
"I'm to be your aunt, am I?"
"Oh, he's only an uncle by accident."
"Yes, I think that's true. Shall we have a drive soon?"
"To Mingham? Or to Blent Hall?"
"Not Blent. I wait my lord's pleasure to see me."
"Yes, that's just how I feel about him," cried Mina eagerly.
"But all the same——"
"No, I won't hear a word of good about him. I hate him!"
Janie smiled in an indulgent but rather troubled way. Her problem was serious; she could not afford the Imp's pettish treatment of the world and the people in it. Janie had responsibilities—banks and buildings full of them—and a heart to please into the bargain. Singularly complicated questions are rather cruelly put before young women, who must solve them on peril of—— It would sound like exaggeration to say what.
There was Mrs Iver to be said good-by to—plump, peaceful, proper Mrs Iver, whom nothing had great power to stir save an unkindness and an unconventionality; before either of these she bristled surprisingly.
"I hope you've all enjoyed this lovely afternoon," she said to Mina.
"Oh, yes, we have, Mrs Iver—not quite equally perhaps, but still——"
Mrs Iver sighed and kissed her.
"Men are always the difficulty, aren't they?" said the Imp.
"Poor child, and you've lost yours!"
"Yes, poor Adolf!" There was a touch of duty in Mina's sigh. She had been fond of Adolf, but his memory was not a constant presence. The world for the living was Madame Zabriska's view.
"I'm so glad Janie's found a friend in you—and a wise one, I'm sure."
Mina did her best to look the part thus charitably assigned to her; her glance at Janie was matronly, almost maternal.
"Not that I know anything about it," Mrs Iver pursued, following a train of thought obvious enough. "I hope she'll act for her happiness, that's all. There's the dear Major looking for you—don't keep him waiting, dear. How lucky he's your uncle—he can always be with you."
"Until he settles and makes a home for himself," smiled Mina irrepressibly; the rejuvenescence—nay, the unbroken youth—of her relative appeared to her quaintly humorous, and it was her fancy to refer to him as she might to a younger brother.
There was Mr Iver to be said good-by to.
"Come again soon—you're always welcome; you wake us up, Madame Zabriska."
"You promised to say Mina!"
"So I did, but my tongue's out of practice with young ladies' Christian names. Why, I call my wife 'Mother'—only Janie says I mustn't. Yes, come and cheer us up. I shall make the uncle a crack player before long. Mustn't let him get lazy and spend half the day over five o'clock tea, though."
This was hardly a hint, but it was an indication of the trend of Mr Iver's thoughts. So it was a dangerous ball, and that clever little cricketer, the Imp, kept her bat away from it. She laughed; that committed her to nothing—and left Iver to bowl again.
"It's quite a change to find Harry Tristram at a tea-party, though! Making himself pleasant too!"
"Not to me," observed Mina decisively.
"You chaffed him, I expect. He stands a bit on his dignity. Ah well, he's young, you see."
"No, he chaffed me. Oh, I think I—I left off even, you know."
"They get a bit spoilt." He seemed to be referring to the aristocracy. "But there's plenty of stuff in him, or I'm much mistaken. He's a born fighter, I think."
"I wonder!" said Mina, her eyes twinkling again.
Finally there was the Major to be walked home with—not a youthful triumphant Major, but a rather careworn, undisguisedly irritated one. If Mina wanted somebody to agree with her present mood about Harry Tristram, her longing was abundantly gratified. The Major roundly termed him an overbearing young cub, and professed a desire—almost an intention—to teach him better manners. This coincidence of views was a sore temptation to the Imp; to resist it altogether would seem superhuman.
"I should like to cut his comb for him," growled Duplay.
Whatever the metaphor adopted, Mina was in essential agreement. She launched on an account of how Harry had treated her: they fanned one another's fires, and the flames burnt merrily.
Mina's stock of discretion was threatened with complete consumption. From open denunciations she turned to mysterious hintings.
"I could bring him to reason if I liked," she said.
"What, make him fall in love with you?" cried Duplay, with a surprise not very complimentary.
"Oh no," she laughed; "better than that—by a great deal."
He eyed her closely: probably this was only another of her whimsical tricks, with which he was very familiar; if he showed too much interest she would laugh at him for being taken in. But she had hinted before to-day's annoyances; she was hinting again. He had yawned at her hints till he became Harry Tristram's rival; he was ready to be eager now, if only he could be sure that they pointed to anything more than folly or delusion.
"Oh, my dear child," he exclaimed, "you mustn't talk nonsense. We mayn't like him, but what in the world could you do to him?"
"I don't want to hurt him, but I should like to make him sing small."
They had just reached the foot of the hill. Duplay waved his arm across the river toward the hall. Blent looked strong and stately.
"That's a big task, my dear," he said, recovering some of his good-humor at the sight of Mina's waspish little face. "I fancy it'll need a bigger man than you to make Tristram of Blent sing small." He laughed at her indulgently. "Or than me either, I'm afraid," he added, with a ruefulness that was not ill-tempered. "We must fight him in fair fight, that's all."
"He doesn't fight fair," she cried angrily. The next instant she broke into her most malicious smile. "Tristram of Blent!" she repeated. "Oh well——"
"Mina, dear, do you know you rather bore me? If you mean anything at all——"
"I may mean what I like without telling you, I suppose?"
"Certainly—but don't ask me to listen."
"You think it's all nonsense?"
"I do, my dear," confessed the Major.
How far he spoke sincerely he himself could hardly tell. Perhaps he had an alternative in his mind: if she meant nothing, she would hold her peace and cease to weary him; if she meant anything real, his challenge would bring it out. But for the moment she had fallen into thought.
"No, he doesn't fight fair," she repeated, as though to herself. She glanced at her uncle in a hesitating, undecided way. "And he's abominably rude," she went on, with a sudden return of pettishness.
The Major's shrug expressed an utter exhaustion of patience, a scornful irritation, almost a contempt for her. She could not endure it; she must justify herself, revenge herself at a blow on Harry for his rudeness and on her uncle for his scepticism. The triumph would be sweet; she could not for the moment think of any seriousness in what she did. She could not keep her victory to herself; somebody else now must look on at Harry's humiliation, at least must see that she had power to bring it about. With the height of malicious exultation she looked up at Duplay and said:
"Suppose he wasn't Tristram of Blent at all?"
Duplay stopped short where he stood—on the slope of the hill above Blent itself.
"What? Is this more nonsense?"
"No, it isn't nonsense."
He looked at her steadily, almost severely. Under his regard her smile disappeared; she grew uncomfortable.
"Then I must know more about it. Come, Mina, this is no trifle, you know."
"I shan't tell you any more," she flashed out, in a last effort of petulance.
"You must," he said calmly. "All you know, all you think. Come, we'll have it out now at once."
She followed like a naughty child. She could have bitten her tongue out, as the old phrase goes. Her feelings went round like a weather-cock; she was ashamed of herself, sorry for Harry—yes, and afraid of Harry. And she was afraid of Duplay too. She had run herself into something serious—that she saw; something serious in which two resolute men were involved. She did not know where it would end. But now she could not resist. The youthful uncle seemed youthful no more; he was old, strong, authoritative. He made her follow him, and he bade her speak.
She followed, like the naughty child she now seemed even to herself; and presently, in the library, beside those wretched books of hers, her old law-books and her Peerages, reluctantly, stumblingly, sullenly, still like the naughty child who would revolt but dare not, she spoke. And when at last he let her go with her secret told, she ran up to her own room and threw herself on the bed, sobbing. She had let herself in for something dreadful. It was all her own fault—and she was very sorry.
Those were her two main conclusions.
Her whole behavior was probably just what the gentleman to whom she owed her nickname would have expected and prophesied.
THE FIRST ROUND
Within the last few days there were ominous rumors afloat as to Lady Tristram's health. It was known that she could see nobody and kept her room; it was reported that the doctors (a specialist had been down from town) were looking very grave; it was agreed that her constitution had not the strength to support a prolonged strain. There was sympathy—the neighborhood was proud in its way of Lady Tristram—and there was the usual interest to which the prospect of a death and a succession gives rise. They canvassed Harry's probable merits and demerits, asking how he would fill the vacant throne, and, more particularly, whether he would be likely to entertain freely. Lavish hospitality at Blent would mean much to their neighborhood, and if it were indeed the case (as was now prophesied in whispers) that Miss Iver of Fairholme was to be mistress at the Hall, there would be nothing to prevent the hospitalities from being as splendid as the mind of woman could conceive. There were spinster ladies in small villas at Blentmouth who watched the illness and the courtship as keenly as though they were to succeed the sick Lady Tristram and to marry the new Lord. Yet a single garden-party in the year would represent pretty accurately their personal stake in the matter. If you live on crumbs, a good big crumb is not to be despised.
Harry Tristram was sorry that his mother must die and that he must lose her; the confederates had become close friends, and nobody who knew her intimately could help feeling that his life and even the world would be poorer by the loss of a real, if not striking, individuality. But neither he nor she thought of her death as the main thing; it no more than ushered in the great event for which they had spent years preparing. And he was downright glad that she could see no visitors; that fact saved him added anxieties, and spared her the need of being told about Mina Zabriska and warned to bear herself warily toward the daughter of Madame de Kries. Harry did not ask his mother whether she remembered the name—the question was unnecessary; nor did he tell his mother that one who had borne the name was at Merrion Lodge. He waited, vaguely expecting that trouble would come from Merrion, but entirely confident in his ability to fight, and worst, the tricky little woman whom he had not feared to snub; and in his heart he thought well of her, and believed she had as little inclination to hurt him as she seemed to have power. His only active step was to pursue his attentions to Janie Iver.
Yet he was not happy about his attentions. He meant to marry the girl, and thought she would marry him. He did not believe that she was inclined to fall in love with him. He had no right to expect it, since he was not falling in love with her. But it hurt that terrible pride of his; he was in a way disgusted with the part he had chosen, and humiliated to think that he might not be accepted for himself. A refusal would have hurt him incalculably; such an assent as he counted upon would wound him somewhat too. He had keen eyes, and he had formed his own opinion about Bob Broadley. None the less, he held straight on his course; and the spinster ladies were a little shocked to observe that Lady Tristram's illness did not interfere at all with her son's courtship; people in that position of life were certainly curious.
A new vexation had come upon him, the work of his pet aversions, the Gainsboroughs. He had seen Mr Gainsborough once, and retained a picture of a small ineffectual man with a ragged tawny-brown beard and a big soft felt hat, who had an air of being very timid, rather pressed for money, and endowed with a kind heart. Now, it seemed, Mr Gainsborough was again overflowing with family affection (a disposition not always welcomed by its objects), and wanted to shake poor Lady Tristram's hand, and wanted poor Lady Tristram to kiss his daughter—wanted, in fact, a thorough-going burying of hatchets and a touching reconciliation. With that justice of judgment of which neither youth nor prejudice quite deprived him, Harry liked the letter; but he was certain that the writer would be immensely tiresome. And again—in the end as in the beginning—he did not want the Gainsboroughs at Blent; above all not just at the time when Blent was about to pass into his hands. It looked, however, as though it would be extremely difficult to keep them away. Mr Gainsborough was obviously a man who would not waste his chance of a funeral; he might be fenced with till then, but it would need startling measures to keep him from a funeral.
"I hate hearsey people," grumbled Harry, as he threw the letter down. But the Gainsboroughs were soon to be driven out of his head by something more immediate and threatening.
Blent Pool is a round basin, some fifty or sixty feet in diameter; the banks are steep and the depth great: on the Blent Hall side there is no approach to it, except through a thick wood overhanging the water; on the other side the road up the valley runs close by, leaving a few yards of turf between itself and the brink. The scene is gloomy except in sunshine, and the place little frequented. It was a favorite haunt of Harry Tristram's, and he lay on the grass one evening, smoking and looking down on the black water; for the clouds were heavy above and rain threatened. His own mood was in harmony, gloomy and dark, in rebellion against the burden he carried, yet with no thought of laying it down. He did not notice a man who came up the road and took his stand just behind him, waiting there for a moment in silence and apparent irresolution.
Harry turned his head and saw Major Duplay; the Major was grave, almost solemn, as he raised his hat a trifle in formal salute.
"Do I interrupt you?"
"You couldn't have found a man more at leisure." Harry did not rise, but gathered his knees up, clasping his hands round them and looking up in Duplay's face. "You want to speak to me?"
"Yes, on a difficult matter." A visible embarrassment hung about the Major; he seemed to have little liking for his task. "I'm aware," he went on, "that I may lay myself open to some misunderstanding in what I'm about to say. I shall beg you to remember that I am in a difficult position, and that I am a gentleman and a soldier."
Harry said nothing; he waited with unmoved face and no sign of perturbation.
"It's best to be plain," Duplay proceeded. "It's best to be open with you. I have taken the liberty of following you here for that purpose." He came a step nearer, and stood over Harry. "Certain facts have come to my knowledge which concern you very intimately."
A polite curiosity and a slight scepticism were expressed in Harry's "Indeed!"
"And not only you, or—I need hardly say—I shouldn't feel it necessary to occupy myself with the matter. A word about my own position you will perhaps forgive."
Harry frowned a little; certainly Duplay was inclined to prolixity; he seemed to be rolling the situation round his tongue and making the most of its flavor.
"Since we came here we have made many acquaintances, your own among the number; we are in a sense your guests."
"Not in a sense that puts you under any obligation," observed Harry.
"I'm sincerely glad to hear you say that; it relieves my position to some extent. But we have made friends too. In one house I myself (I may leave my niece out of the question) have been received with a hearty, cordial, warm friendship that seems already an old friendship. Now that does put me under an obligation, Mr Tristram."
"You refer to our friends the Ivers? Yes?"
"In my view, under a heavy obligation. I am, I say, in my judgment bound to serve them in all ways in my power, and to deal with them as I should wish and expect them to deal with me in a similar case."
Harry nodded a careless assent, and turned his eyes away toward the Pool; even already he seemed to know what was coming, or something of it.
"Facts have come to my knowledge of which it might be—indeed I must say of which it is—of vital importance that Mr Iver should be informed."
"I thought the facts concerned me?" asked Harry, with brows a little raised.
"Yes, and as matters now stand they concern him too for that very reason." Duplay had gathered confidence; his tone was calm and assured as he came step by step near his mark, as he established position after position in his attack.
"You are paying attentions to Miss Iver—with a view to marriage, I presume?"
Harry made no sign. Duplay proceeded, slowly and with careful deliberation.
"Those attentions are offered and received as from Mr Tristram—as from the future Lord Tristram of Blent. I can't believe that you're ignorant of what I'm about to say. If you are, I must beg forgiveness for the pain I shall inflict on you. You, sir, are not the future Lord Tristram of Blent."
A silence followed: a slight drizzle had begun to fall, speckling the waters of the Pool; neither man heeded it.
"It would be impertinent in me," the Major resumed, "to offer you any sympathy on the score of that misfortune; believe me, however, that my knowledge—my full knowledge—of the circumstances can incline me to nothing but a deep regret. But facts are facts, however hardly they may bear on individuals." He paused. "I have asserted what I know. You are entitled to ask me for proofs, Mr Tristram."
Harry was silent a moment, thinking very hard. Many modes of defence came into his busy brain and were rejected. Should he be tempestuous? No. Should he be amazed? Again no. Even on his own theory of the story, Duplay's assertion hardly entitled him to be amazed.
"As regards my part in this matter," he said at last, "I have only this to say. The circumstances of my birth—with which I am, as you rightly suppose, quite familiar—were such as to render the sort of notion you have got hold of plausible enough. I don't want what you call proofs—though you'll want them badly if you mean to pursue your present line. I have my own proofs—perfectly in order, perfectly satisfactory. That's all I have to say about my part of the matter. About your part in it I can, I think, be almost equally brief. Are you merely Mr Iver's friend, or are you also, as you put it, paying attentions to Miss Iver?"