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Tristram of Blent Part 61

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"You'll have plenty now," said he, as he watched her admiringly. He forgot, man that he was, that girls do not find permanent happiness in dinner-parties.

It was evident that Neeld ought never to have come to Blent that evening. For the talk was of futures, and, out of deference to the young hostess, even more of hers than of the engaged couple's. Theirs indeed was not provocative of discussion; if satisfactory, it was also obvious.

Cecily's opened more topics, and she herself was willing and seemed even eager to discuss it. She fell in with Mrs Iver's suggestion that she ought to be a centre of good works in the district, and in pursuance of this idea should accept the position of Patron to Miss Swinkerton's complicated scheme of benevolence. She agreed with Iver that the affairs of the estate probably wanted overhauling, and that a capable man should be engaged for the task, even at some expense. She professed herself ready to cooperate with Bob in protecting the fis.h.i.+ng of the Blent. She was, in a word, very much the proprietor. It was difficult for Neeld to sit and hear all this. And opposite to him sat Mina Zabriska, rather silent and demure, but losing no chance of reminding him by a stealthy glance that this ordinary talk covered a remarkable situation--as indeed it did, but not of the precise nature that Mina supposed. Neeld felt as though he were behind the scenes of fate's theatre, and he did not find the place comfortable. He saw the next tableau in preparation and had to ask himself what its effect would be on an unsuspecting audience. He came to the conclusion that foreknowledge was an attribute not likely to make human beings happy; it could not easily make terms with sympathy.

When dessert was on the table, Iver, true to his habits and traditions, felt that it was the occasion for a few friendly informal words; the birthday and the majority of young Lady Tristram demanded so much recognition. Admirably concise and simple in ordinary conversation, he became, like so many of his countrymen, rather heavy and pompous when he got on his legs. Yet he made what everybody except Mina Zabriska considered a very appropriate little speech. Gainsborough grew quite enthusiastic over it; and Neeld thought it was wonderfully good (if it had not happened, of course, to be by force of circ.u.mstances an absurdity from beginning to end). Cecily was content to say, "Thank you," but her father could not refuse himself the privilege of reply; the reply was on her behalf, but it was mainly about himself--also a not uncommon characteristic of after-dinner oratory. However he agreed with Iver that everything was for the best, and that they were ent.i.tled to congratulate their hostess and themselves on things at large. Then Neeld had a turn over the engagement (a subject dull but safe!) and the proceedings were stopped only by Bob Broadley's headlong flight when the question of his response arose.

"Thank goodness, that's over!" said Mina snappishly, as she stepped out into the garden, followed by Mr Neeld. The rest went off to see the treasures of the Long Gallery. Mina turned to him with a quick question: "You saw Mr Tristram, how is he?"

"Harry Tristram is quite well and in very good spirits. I never saw a man better in my life."

Mina was silent for a moment. Then she broke out: "I call it disgusting.

He's in good spirits, and she's in good spirits, and--and there's an end of it, I suppose! The next thing will be----"

"It's not the end if there's a next thing," Neeld suggested timidly.

"Oh, don't be tiresome. The next thing'll be some stupid girl for him and some idiot of a man for her. How I wish I'd never come to Merrion!"

"Don't despair; things may turn out better than you think."

"They can't," she declared fretfully. "I shall go away."

"What a pity! Miss Gainsborough--Lady Tristram, I mean--will miss you so much."

"Let her!" said the Imp ungraciously. "I've put myself out enough about the Tristrams."

Neeld forbore to remind her of the entirely voluntary nature of her sacrifices; after all he was not the man to throw stones on that account.

"Wait a few days anyhow," he urged her. In a few days something must happen.

"A few days? Oh, yes!" As a matter of fact she meant to stay all the winter. "She's started," she went on, with an irritated jerk of her head toward the Long Gallery, "putting all the things in different places and rearranging everything."

"I should imagine that Mr Gainsborough's enjoying himself then?"

"She doesn't let him touch a thing," replied Mina with a fleeting smile.

"He just stands about with a duster. That contents him well enough, though. Oh, yes, I shall go. The Broadleys won't care about me, and Cecily won't want me long."

Neeld could give real comfort only at the price of indiscretion.

Moreover he was not at all sure that a disclosure of the truth would bring any comfort, for Mina wanted to be on both sides and to harmonize devotion to Cecily with zeal for Harry. Neeld did not quite see how this was to be done, since it was understood that as Harry would take nothing from Cecily, so Cecily would refuse anything from Harry.

"We must wait and see how it all turns out," said he.

"I hate people who say that," grumbled Mina disconsolately. "And I do think that the Ivers have grown extraordinarily stupid--caught it from Bob Broadley, I suppose."

When injustice springs not from judgment but from temper, it is not worth arguing against. Neeld held his tongue and they sat silent on the seat by the river, looking across to Merrion and hearing the voices of their friends through the open windows of the Long Gallery.

Presently there came to them through the stillness of the night the sound of wheels, not on the Blentmouth side, but up the valley, on the Mingham and Fillingford road. The sound ceased without the appearance of any vehicle, but it had reminded Neeld of the progress of time.

"It must be getting late," he said, rising. "I'll go and see if they think of starting home. Did you hear wheels on the road--toward the Pool?"

"Bob Broadley's cart coming for him, I suppose."

"No, I don't think so. He's going back to Fairholme with us. I heard him say so."

Mina was languidly indifferent, and Mr Neeld trotted off into the house.

Mina sat on, frowning at the idea that in a few minutes she would have to go in and say good-by; for the voices came no more from the Long Gallery and she heard the guests laughing and chattering in the hall, as they prepared for departure. Suddenly she discerned the figure of a man coming into sight across the river. He walked slowly, as it seemed stealthily, till he came to the end of the footbridge. Then he halted and looked up at the house. It was gayly lighted. After waiting a moment the man turned back and disappeared up the road in the direction of Mingham. Mina rose and strolled to the bridge. She crossed it and looked up the road. She could make out dimly the stranger's retreating form.

She heard Cecily calling to her, and ran back to the house. A wonderful idea had come into her head, born of a vaguely familiar aspect that the bearing of the man had for her. But she laughed at it, telling herself that it was all nonsense; and as she joined in the talk and farewells it grew faint and was almost forgotten. Yet she whispered to old Neeld with a laugh:

"I saw a man on the road just now who looked rather like Harry. I couldn't see him properly, you know."

Neeld started and looked at her with obvious excitement. She repaid his stare with one of equal intensity.

"Why, you don't think----?" she began in amazement.

"Come, Neeld, we're waiting for you," cried Iver from the wagonette, while Bob in irrepressible spirits burst into song as he gathered up the reins. He had deposed the coachman and had Janie with him on the box.

They drove off, waving their hands and shouting good-night. Mina ran a little way after them and saw Neeld turning his head this way and that, as though he thought there might be something to see. When she returned she found Gainsborough saying good-night to his daughter; at the same moment the lights in the Long Gallery were put out. Cecily slipped her arm through hers and they walked out again into the garden. After three or four minutes the wagonette, having made the circuit necessary to reach the carriage-bridge, drove by on the road across the river, with more waving of hands and shouts of good-night. An absolute stillness came as the noise of its wheels died away.

"I've got through that all right," said Cecily with a laugh, drawing her friend with her toward the bridge. "I suppose I shall be quite accustomed to it soon."

They went on to the bridge and halted in the middle of it, by a common impulse as it seemed.

"The sound of a river always says to me that it all doesn't matter much," Cecily went on, leaning on the parapet. "I believe that's been expressed more poetically!"

"It's great nonsense, however it's expressed," observed Mina scornfully.

"I sometimes feel as if it was true." Probably Cecily thought that n.o.body--no girl--no girl in love--had ever had the feeling before. A delusive appearance of novelty is one of the most dangerous weapons of Cupid. But Mina was an experienced woman--had been married too!

"Don't talk stuff, my dear," she cried crossly. "And why are we standing on this horrid little bridge?"

She turned round; Cecily still gazed in melancholy abstraction into the stream. Cecily, then, faced down the valley, Mina looked up it; and at the moment the moon showed a quarter of her face and illuminated a streak of the Fillingford road.

The man was there. He was there again. The moonlight fell on his face.

He smiled at Mina, pointed a hand toward Blentmouth, and smiled again.

He seemed to mock the ignorance of the vanished wagonette. Mina made no sign. He laid his finger on his lips, and nodded slightly toward Cecily.

The clouds covered the moon again, and there was no more on the Fillingford road than a black blotch on the deep gray of the night; even this vanished a moment after. And still Cecily gazed down into the Blent.

Presently she turned round. "I suppose we must go in," she said grudgingly. "It's getting rather chilly." They were both in low-cut frocks, and had come out without any wraps. With the intuition of a born schemer Mina seized on the chance.

"Oh, it's so lovely!" she cried, with an apparently overwhelming enthusiasm for nature. "Too perfectly lovely! I'll run in and get some cloaks. Wait here till I come back, Cecily."

"Well, don't be long," said Cecily, crossing her bare arms with a little s.h.i.+ver.

Off the Imp ran, and vanished into the house. But she made no search for wraps. After a moment's hesitation in the hall, the deceitful creature ran into the library. All was dark there; a window was open and showed the bridge, with Cecily's figure on it making a white blur in the darkness. Mina crouched on the window-sill and waited. The absolute unpardonableness of her conduct occurred to her; with a smile she dismissed the consideration. He--and she--who desires the end must needs put up with the means; it is all the easier when the means happen to be uncommonly thrilling.

Harry was humbled! That was the conclusion which shot through her mind.

What else could his coming mean? If it meant less than that, it was mere cruelty. If it meant that---- A keen pang of disappointment shot through her. It was the only way to what she desired, but it was not the way which she would have preferred him to tread. Yet because it was the only way, she wished it--with the reservation that it would have been much better if it could have happened in some other fas.h.i.+on. But anyhow the position, not to say her position, had every element of excitement.

"Poor old Mr Neeld!" she murmured once. It was hard on him to miss this.

At the moment Neeld was smiling over the ignorance in which he had been bound to keep her. It is never safe to suppose, however pleasant it may be to believe, that n.o.body is pitying us; either of his knowledge or of his ignorance someone is always at it.

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