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Tristram of Blent Part 60

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panted Gainsborough, hugging his brown-paper-covered prize. "You'll be interested to see the changes we're making, Mr Neeld. Cecily has begun to take an enormous interest in the house, and I--I'm settling down."

"You don't regret London ever?"

"I shall run up now and then. My duty is to my daughter. Of course her life is changed." He sighed as he added, "We're getting quite used to that."

"She has come to love the place, I dare say?"

"Yes, yes. She's in very good spirits and quite happy in her position now, I think." He glanced over his shoulder. Miss S. was in sight.

"Good-by. So glad we shall see you to-night." He made his escape at a run. Neeld, having been interrogated at lunch already, was allowed to pa.s.s by with a lift of his hat.

Janie was very happy. She at least thought no more of that bygone episode. She asked no questions about Harry Tristram. He had dropped out of her life. He seemed to have dropped out of the life of the countryside too. That was strange anyhow, when it was remembered how large a local figure the young man had cut when Neeld came first to Fairholme; it was stranger still in view of what must soon be. The announcement of the engagement seemed to a.s.sume to write _Finis_ to Harry as a factor in Blentmouth society. In that point of view the moment chosen for it was full of an unconscious irony. Janie would not have gone back to him now, and Neeld did not suspect her of any feeling which could have made that possible. It was merely odd that she should be putting an appropriate finish to a thing which in the meantime had been suddenly, absolutely, and radically undone. Neeld was loyal to his word; but none may know the terrible temptation he suffered; a nod, a wink, a hint, an ambiguity--anything would have given him some relief.

Harry was mentioned only once--in connection with his letter to Iver about the Arbitration. Iver was not inclined to let him go.

"He has great business ability. It's a pity to waste his time. He can make money, Neeld."

"Disney's a good friend to have," Neeld suggested.

"If he stays in, yes. But this thing won't be popular."

Neeld could maintain no interest in the conversation. It had to proceed all along on a baseless presumption, to deal with a state of things which did not exist. What might be wise for Harry--Harry Nothing-at-all--might be unwise for Tristram of Blent, and conversely.

"I must leave it to him," Iver concluded. "But I shall tell him that I hope he won't go. He's got his way in the world to make first. He can try politics later on, if he likes."

"No doubt you're right," murmured old Neeld, both uneasy and uninterested. He was feeling something of what he had experienced once before; he knew the truth and he had to keep his friend in the dark. In those earlier days he had one confidant, one accomplice, in Mina Zabriska. The heavy secret was all his own to carry now.

As a consequence of his preoccupation Janie Iver found him rather unsympathetic, and with her usual candor she told him so.

"You don't really appreciate Bob," said she. "n.o.body quite knows him except me. I didn't use to, but now I know what a strong character he has."

Unwontedly cynical thoughts rose in old Mr Neeld. Had he come down to Fairholme to listen to the plat.i.tudes of virtuous love? Indeed he had come for no such thing. All young men have strong characters while they are engaged.

"And it's such a comfort to have a man one can lean upon," Janie pursued, looking, however, admirably capable of standing without extraneous support.

There it was again! She'd be calling him her "master" next--as the heroine does in the Third Act, to unfailing applause. What was all this to ears that listened for a whisper of Harry Tristram?

"The most delightful thing is," Janie pursued, "that our marriage is to make no change at all in his way of life. We're going to live at Mingham just as he has lived all his life--a real country life on a farm!" There was no hint that other ideals of existence had ever possessed an alluring charm; the high life with Harry, the broad and cosmopolitan life with the Major--where were they? "I've insisted on it, the one thing I've had my own way in."

Bob was being transmogrified into a Man of Iron, if not of Blood. Vainly Mr Neeld consulted his memories.

"And Mingham's so bound up with it all. I used to go there with Mina Zabriska." She smiled in retrospect; it would have been pardonable if Neeld had smiled too. "I haven't seen her for ever so long," Janie added, "but she'll be at Blent to-night."

Ah, if he might give just the barest hint to Mina now!

"Bob isn't particularly fond of her, you see, so we don't meet much now.

He thinks she's rather spiteful."

"Not at all," said Neeld, almost sharply. "She's a very intelligent woman."

"Oh yes, intelligent!" She said no more. If people did not agree with Bob--well, there it was.

Bob bore his idealization very well. It was easy to foresee a happy and a remarkably equable married life. But the whole thing had no flavor for Mr Neeld's palate, spoilt by the spices of Tristram vagaries. A decent show of friendliness was all he could muster. It was all that Iver himself seemed to expect; he was resigned but by no means exultant.

"The girl's very happy, and that's the thing. For myself--well, I've got most of the things I started to get, and if this isn't quite what I looked forward to--Well, you remember how things fell out?"

Neeld nodded. He remembered that very well.

"And, as I say, it's all very satisfactory." He shrugged his shoulders and relighted his cigar. He was decidedly a reasonable man, thought Neeld.

The evening came--Neeld had been impatient for it--and they drove over to Blent, where Bob was to meet them.

"It's a fine place for a girl to have," said Iver, stirred to a sudden sense of the beauty of the old house as it came into view.

They were all silent for a moment. Such a place to have, such a place to lose! Neeld heard Mrs Iver sighing in her good-natured motherly fas.h.i.+on. But still Harry was not mentioned.

"And if they had a business man--with his head on his shoulders--to manage the estate, it'd be worth half as much again." This time it was Iver who sighed; the idea of anything not having all the money made out of it that could be made offended his instincts.

"She'll have a husband, dear," his wife reminded him.

"I wonder if Bob'll get there before we do," said Janie, with the air of starting a subject of real interest in lieu of continuing idle talk.

The evening was hot and the hall-door of Blent stood open. Cecily was sitting in the hall, and came out to greet them. She seemed to Neeld to complete the picture as she stood there in her young fairness, graciously welcoming her guests. She was pale, but wore a gay air and did the honors with natural dignity. No sign of strangeness to the place, and no embarra.s.sment, were visible.

"Oh, my dear, how you remind me of Lady Tristram!" good Mrs Iver broke out.

Neeld pressed the girl's hand with a grip that she noticed; she looked at him in a sort of question and for a moment flushed a little.

"It's very kind of you to come," she said to him softly.

"How are you, Mr Neeld?" The Imp had suddenly darted out from somewhere and was offering her hand. "I'm staying here, you know." And in a whisper she added, "That young man of Janie's has been here a quarter of an hour, and Cecily wasn't dressed, and I've had to talk to him. Oh, dear!" She had her hand on his arm and drew him apart. "Any news of Harry Tristram?" she whispered.

"Er--no--none."

Her quick eyes looked at him in suspicion; he had hesitated a little.

"You've seen him?" she asked.

"Just casually, Madame Zabriska."

She turned away with a peevish little pout. "Then you're not very interesting," she seemed to say. But Neeld forgave her: she had asked him about Harry. He could forgive more easily because he had deluded her.

Addie Tristram's picture was at one end of the dining-room now, and Cecily's place was under it.

"My first dinner-party! Although it's a small one," she said to Iver as she sat down.

"Your first at Blent?"

"The first anywhere--actually!" she laughed, and then grew thoughtful for a moment, glancing out into the dark and listening to the flap of a bat's wing against the window.

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