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Tristram of Blent Part 22

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"Pray be reasonable," he urged. "You must perceive that the situation I have always contemplated----"

"Well, you can go on contemplating it, can't you, uncle? It won't do much good, but still----"

"The situation, I say, has arisen." She heard him get up, walk to the hearth-rug, and strike a match. Of course he was going to have a cigarette! He would smoke it all through with exasperating slowness and then arrive at an odious conclusion. Mina had not been married for nothing; she knew men's ways. He justified her forecast; it was minutes before he spoke again.

"The terms of this letter," he resumed at last, "fortify me in my purpose. It is evident that Miss Iver is influenced--largely influenced--by--er--the supposed position of--er--Mr Tristram."

"Of who?"

"Of the present possessor of Blent."

"If you want people to know who you mean, you'd better say Lord Tristram."

"For the present, if you wish it. I say, she is----" Duplay's pompous formality suddenly broke down. "She's taking him for his t.i.tle, that's all."

"Oh, if you choose to say things like that about your friends!"

"You know it's true. What becomes my duty then?"

"I don't know and I don't care. Only I hate people to talk about duty when they're going to----" Well, one must stop somewhere in describing one's relatives' conduct. The Imp stopped there. But the sentence really lost nothing; Duplay could guess pretty accurately what she had been going to say.

Fortunately, although he was very dependent on her help, he cared little about her opinion. She neither would nor could judge his position fairly; she would not perceive how he felt, how righteous was his anger, how his friends were being cheated and he was being jockeyed out of his chances by one and the same unscrupulous bit of imposture. He had brought himself round to a more settled state of mind and had got his conscience into better order. If he were acting unselfishly, he deserved commendation. But even if self-interest guided him he was free of blame.

No man is bound to let himself be swindled. He doubted seriously of nothing now except his power to upset Harry Tristram's plans. He was resolved to try; Mina must speak--and if money were needed, it must come from somewhere. The mere a.s.sertion of what he meant to allege must at least delay this hateful marriage. It must be added--though the Major was careful not to add--that it would also give Harry Tristram a very unpleasant shock; the wrestling bout by the Pool and the loss of that s.h.i.+lling were not forgotten. It may further be observed--though the Major could not be expected to observe--that he had such an estimate of his own attractions as led him to seize very eagerly on any evidences of liking for Harry's position, rather than of preference for Harry himself, which Janie's letter might be considered to afford. The Major, in fact, had a case; good argument made it seem a good case. It is something to have a case that can be argued at all; morality has a sad habit of leaving us without a leg to stand on. In the afternoon of that day Duplay went down to Fairholme. Miss Swinkerton pa.s.sed him on the road and smiled sagaciously. Oh, if Miss S. had known the truth about his errand! A gossip in ignorance has pathos as a spectacle.

Mr Neeld was still at Fairholme; he had been pressed to stay and needed little pressing; in fact, in default of the pressure he would probably have taken lodgings in the town. He could not go away; he had seen Addie Tristram buried, and her son walking behind the coffin, clad in his new dignity. His mind was full of the situation. Yet he had shrunk from discussing it further with Mina Zabriska. The family anxiety about Janie's love affair had been all round him. Now he suspected strongly that some issue was being decided upon. He ought to speak, to break his word to Mina and speak--or he ought to go. From day to day he meant to go and cease to accept the hospitality which his silence seemed to abuse. But he did not go. These internal struggles were new in his placid and estimable life; this affair of Harry Tristram's had a way of putting people in strange and difficult positions.

"Mind you say nothing--nothing--nothing." That sentence had reached him on the reverse side of an invitation to take tea at Merrion--a vague some-day-when-you're-pa.s.sing sort of invitation, in Neeld's eyes plainly and merely a pretext for writing and an opportunity of conveying the urgent little scrawl on the other side. It arrived at mid-day; in the afternoon Duplay had come and was now alone with Iver.

The outward calm of the gray-haired old gentleman who sat on the lawn at Fairholme, holding a weekly review upside down, was no index to the alarming and disturbing questions which were agitating him within. At the end of a blameless life it is hard to discover that you must do one of two things and that, whichever you do, you will feel like a villain.

The news that Josiah Cholderton's Journal was going off very fairly well with the trade had been unable to give its editor any consolation; he did not care about the Journal now.

Iver came out and sat down beside him without speaking. Neeld hastily restored his paper to a position more befitting its dignity and became apparently absorbed in an article on _Shyness in Elephants_; the subject was treated with a wealth of ill.u.s.tration and in a vein of introspective philosophy exceedingly instructive. But it was all wasted on Mr Neeld.

He was waiting for Iver; no man could be so silent unless he had something important to say or to leave unsaid. And Iver was not even smoking the cigar which he always smoked after tea. Neeld could bear it no longer; he got up and was about to move away.

"Stop, Neeld. Do you mind sitting down again for a moment?"

Neeld could do nothing but comply. The review fell on the ground by him and he ceased to struggle with the elephants.

"I want to ask your opinion----"

"My dear Iver, my opinion! Oh, I'm not a business man, and----"

"It's not business. You know Major Duplay? What do you think of him?"

"I--I've always found him very agreeable."

"Yes, so have I. And I've always thought him honest, haven't you?"

Neeld admitted that he had no reason to impugn the Major's character.

"And I suppose he's sane," Iver pursued. "But he's just been telling me the most extraordinary thing." He paused a moment. "I dare say you've noticed something between Janie and young Tristram? I may as well tell you that she has just consented to marry him. But I don't want to talk about that except so far as it comes into the other matter--which it does very considerably." He laid his hand on Neeld's knee. "Neeld, Duplay came and told me that Harry Tristram has no t.i.tle to the peerage or to Blent. I'm not going to trouble you with the details now. It comes to this--Harry was born before, not after, the marriage of his parents.

Duplay says Mina knows all about it, and will give us information that will make the proof easy. That's a tolerably startling story, eh? One's prepared for something where Lady Tristram was involved, but this----!"

It was fortunate that he did not glance at Neeld; Neeld had tried to appear startled, but had succeeded only in looking supremely miserable.

But Iver's eyes were gazing straight in front of him under brows that frowned heavily.

"Now, what I want you to do," he resumed, "and I'm sure you won't refuse me, is this. I'm inclined to dismiss the whole thing as a blunder. I believe Duplay's honest, but I think certain facts in his own position have led him to be too ready to believe a mere yarn. But I've consented to see Mina and hear what she has to say. And I said I should bring you as a witness. I go to Merrion Lodge to-morrow for this purpose, and I shall rely on you to accompany me." With that the cigar made its appearance; Iver lit it and lay back in his chair, frowning still in perplexity and vexation. He had not asked his friend's opinion but his services. It was characteristic of him not to notice this fact. And the fact did nothing to relieve Neeld's piteous embarra.s.sment.

"I knew it all along;" he might say that. "I know nothing about it;" he might act that. Or he might temporize for a little while. This was what he did.

"It would make a great difference if this were true?" His voice shook, but Iver was absorbed.

"An enormous difference," said Iver (Lady Tristram herself had once said the same). "I marry my daughter to Lord Tristram of Blent or to--to whom? You'll call that sn.o.bbishness, or some people would. I say it's not sn.o.bbish in us new men to consider that. It's the right thing for us to do, Neeld. Other things equal--if the man's a decent fellow and the girl likes him--I say it's the right thing for us to do. That's the way it always has happened, and the right way too."

Mr Neeld nodded. He had sympathy with these opinions.

"But if it's true, why, who's Harry Tristram? Oh, I know it's all a fluke, a d.a.m.ned fluke, if you like, Neeld, and uncommonly hard on the boy. But the law's the law, and for my own part I'm not in favor of altering it. Now do you suppose I want my daughter to marry him, if it's true?"

"I suppose you wouldn't," murmured Neeld.

"And there's another thing. Duplay says Harry knows it--Duplay swears he knows it. Well then, what's he doing? In my opinion he's practising a fraud. He knows he isn't what he pretends to be. He deceives me, he deceives Janie. If the thing ever comes out, where is she? He's treated us very badly if it's true."

The man, ordinarily so calm and quiet in his reserved strength, broke out into vehemence as he talked of what Harry Tristram had done if the Major's tale were true. Neeld asked himself what his host would say of a friend who knew the story to be true and yet said nothing of it. He perceived too that although Iver would not have forced his daughter's inclination, yet the marriage was very good in his eyes, the proper end and the finest crown to his own career. This had never come home to Neeld with any special force before. Iver was English of the English in his repression, in his habit of meeting both good and bad luck with--well, with something like a grunt. But he was stirred now; the suddenness of the thing had done it. And in face of his feelings how stood Mr Neeld? He saw nothing admirable in how and where he stood.

"Well, we'll see Mina and hear if she's got anything to say. Fancy that little monkey being drawn into a thing like this! Meanwhile we'll say nothing. I don't believe it, and I shall want a lot of convincing. Until I am convinced everything stands as it did. I rely on you for that, Neeld--and I rely on you to come to Merrion to-morrow. Not a word to my wife--above all not a word to Janie!" He got up, took possession of Neeld's review, and walked off into the house with his business-like quick stride.

Neeld sat there, slowly rubbing his hands against one another between his knees. He was realizing what he had done, or rather what had happened to him. When his life, his years, and what he conceived to be his character were considered, it was a very surprising thing, this silence of his--the conspiracy he had entered into with Mina Zabriska, the view of duty which the Imp, or Harry, or the thought of beautiful Addie Tristram, or all of them together, had made him take. So strange a view for him! To run counter to law, to outrage good sense, to slight the claims of friends.h.i.+p, to suppress the truth, to aid what Iver so relentlessly called a fraud--all these were strange doings for him to be engaged in. And why had he done it? The explanation was as strange as the things that he invoked it to explain. Still rubbing his hands, palm against palm, to and fro, he said very slowly, with wonder and reluctance:

"I was carried away. I was carried away by--by romance."

The word made him feel a fool. Yet what other word was there for the overwhelming unreasoning feeling that at the cost of everything the Tristrams, mother and son, must keep Blent, the son living and the mother dead, that the son must dwell there and the spirit of the mother be about him she loved in the spot that she had graced? It was very rank romance indeed--no other word for it! And--wildest paradox--it all came out of editing Josiah Cholderton's Journal.

Before he had made any progress in unravelling his skein of perplexities he saw Janie coming across the lawn. She took the chair her father had left and seemed to take her father's mood with it; the same oppressive silence settled on her. Neeld broke it this time.

"You don't look very merry, Miss Janie," he said, smiling at her and achieving a plausible jocularity.

"Why should I, Mr Neeld?" She glanced at him. "Oh, has father told you anything?"

"Yes, that you're engaged. You know how truly I desire your happiness, my dear." With a pretty courtesy the old man took her hand and kissed it, baring his gray hair the while.

"You're very, very kind. Yes, I've promised to marry Harry Tristram. Not yet, you know. And it isn't to be announced. But I've promised."

He stole a glance at her, and then another. She did not look merry indeed. Neeld knew his ignorance of feminine things, and made guesses with proper diffidence; but he certainly fancied she had been crying--or very near it--not so long ago. Yet the daughter of William Iver was sensible and not given to silly tears.

"I think I've done right," she said--as she had said when she wrote to Mina. "Everybody will be pleased. Father's very pleased." Suddenly she put out her hand and took hold of his, giving it a tight grip. "Oh, but, Mr Neeld, I've made somebody so unhappy."

"I dare say, my dear, I dare say. I was a young fellow once. I dare say."

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