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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTristram Of Blent - Chapter 11. A Phantom By The Pool
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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 11. A Phantom By The Pool Post by :John_Piteo Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :1559

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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 11. A Phantom By The Pool


In a quite little street running between the Fulham and the King's Road, in a row of small houses not yet improved out of existence, there was one house smallest of all, with the smallest front, the smallest back, and the smallest garden. The whole thing was almost impossibly small, a peculiarity properly reflected in the rent which Mr Gainsborough paid to the firm of Sloyd, Sloyd, and Gurney for the fag-end of a long lease. He did some professional work for Sloyds from time to time, and that member of the firm who had let Merrion Lodge to Mina Zabriska was on friendly terms with him; so that perhaps the rent was a little lower still than it would have been otherwise; even trifling reductions counted as important things in the Gainsborough Budget. Being thus small, the house was naturally full; the three people who lived there were themselves enough to account for that. But it was also unnaturally full by reason of Mr Gainsborough's habit of acquiring old furniture of no value, and new bric-à-brac whose worth could be expressed only by minus signs. These things flooded floors and walls, and overflowed on to the strip of gravel behind. From time to time many of them disappeared; there were periodical revolts on Cecily's part, resulting in clearances; the gaps were soon made good by a fresh influx of the absolutely undesirable. When Sloyd came he looked round with a professional despair that there was not a thing in the place which would fetch a sovereign! Such is the end of seeking beauty on an empty purse; some find a pathos in it, but it is more generally regarded as a folly in the seeker, a wrong to his dependents, and a nuisance to his friends.

In no other way could Gainsborough--Melton John Gainsborough, Architect--be called a nuisance, unless by Harry Tristram's capricious pleasure. For he was very unobtrusive, small like his house, lean like his purse, shabby as his furniture, humbler than his bric-à-brac. He asked very little of the world; it gave him half, and he did not complain. He was never proud of anything, but he was gratified by his honorable descent and by his alliance with the Tristrams. The family instinct was very strong in him. Among the rubbish he bought somebody else's pedigree was often to be found. His wife's hung framed on the wall (ending with "Adelaide Louisa Aimée" in large letters for one branch, and "Cecily" in small for the other); his own was the constant subject of unprofitable searchings in county histories--one aspect of his remarkable genius for the unremunerative in all its respectable forms. He worked very hard and gave the impression of doing nothing--and the impression perhaps possessed the higher truth. Anyhow, while he and his had (thanks to a very small property which came with the late Mrs Gainsborough) always just enough to eat, they had always just not enough of anything else; short commons were the rule.

And now they were going to Blent. Sloyd, calling on a matter of business and pleasantly excusing his intrusion by the payment of some fees, had heard about it from Gainsborough. "This'll just take us to Blent!" the little gentleman had observed with satisfaction as he waved the slip of paper. Sloyd knew Blent and could take an interest; he described it, raising his voice so that it travelled beyond the room and reached the hammock in the garden where Cecily lay. She liked a hammock, and her father could not stand china figures and vases on it, so that it secured her where to lay her head. Gainsborough was very fussy over the news; a deeper but quieter excitement glowed in Cecily's eyes as, listening to Sloyd, she feigned to pay no heed. She had designs on the check. Beauty unadorned may mean several things; but moralists cannot be right in twisting the commendation of it into a eulogium on thread-bare frocks. She must have a funeral frock.

Sloyd came to the door which opened on the garden, and greeted her. He was as smart as usual, his tie a new creation, his hat mirroring the sun. Cecily was shabby from necessity and somewhat touzled from lolling in the hammock. She looked up at him, smiling in a lazy amusement.

"Do you ever wear the same hat twice?" she asked.

"Must have a good hat in my profession, Miss Gainsborough. You never know where you'll be sent for. The Duchess of This, or Lady That, loses her money at cards--or the Earl drops a bit at Newmarket--must let the house for the season--sends off for me--mustn't catch me in an old hat!"

"Yes, I see!"

"Besides, you may say what you like, but a gentleman ought to wear a good hat. It stamps him, Miss Gainsborough."

"Yours positively illuminates you. I could find the way by you on the darkest night."

"With just a leetle touch of oil----" he admitted cautiously, not quite sure how far she was serious in the admiration her eyes seemed to express. "What have you been doing with yourself?" he asked, breaking off after his sufficient confession.

"I've been drawing up advertisements of my own accomplishments." She sat up suddenly. "Oh, why didn't I ask you to help me? You'd have made me sound eligible and desirable, and handsome and spacious, and all the rest of it. And I found nothing at all to say!"

"What are you advertising for?"

"Somebody who knows less French than I do. But I shall wait till we come back now." She yawned a little. "I don't in the least want to earn my living, you know," she added candidly, "and there's no way I could honestly. I don't really know any French at all."

Sloyd regarded her with mingled pleasure and pain. His taste was for more robust beauty and more striking raiment, and she--no, she was not neat. Yet he decided that she would, as he put it, pay for dressing; she wanted some process analogous to the thorough repair which he loved to see applied to old houses. Then she would be attractive--not his sort, of course, but still attractive.

"I wonder if you'll meet Madame Zabriska, the lady I let Merrion Lodge to, and the gentleman with her, her uncle."

"I expect not. My cousin invites us for the funeral. It's on Saturday. I suppose we shall stay the Sunday, that's all. And I don't suppose we shall see anybody, to speak to, anyhow." Her air was very careless; the whole thing was represented as rather a bore.

"You should make a longer visit--I'm sure his lordship will be delighted to have you, and it's a charming neighborhood, a very desirable neighborhood indeed."

"I dare say. But desirable things don't generally come our way, Mr Sloyd, or at any rate not much of them."

"It's pretty odd to think it'd all be yours if--if anything happened to Lord Tristram." His tone showed a mixture of amusement and awe. She was what he saw--she might become My Lady! The incongruity reached his sense of humor, while her proximity to a noble status nearly made him take off his hat.

"It may be pretty odd," she said indolently, "but it doesn't do me much good, does it?"

This last remark summed up the attitude which Cecily had always adopted about Blent, and she chose to maintain it now that she was at last to see Blent. Probably her father's family instinct had driven her into an insincere opposition; or she did not consider it dignified to show interest in relatives who had shown none in her. She had never been asked to Blent. If she was asked now it was as a duty; as a duty she would go. Harry did not monopolize the Tristram blood or the Tristram pride. But this attitude was not very comprehensible to her present companion. As a personal taste, Mr Sloyd would have liked to be connected, however remotely, with the aristocracy, and, if he had been, would have let his social circle hear a good deal about it; even a business connection was something, and suffered no loss of importance in his practised hands.

Yet in her heart she was on fire with an excitement which Sloyd would have wondered at, and which made her father's fussy nervousness seem absurd. At last she was to see with her eyes the things she had always heard of. She was to see Blent. Addie Tristram indeed she could no longer see; that had always been denied to her, and the loss was irreparable. But even the dead Lady Tristram she would soon be able to realize far better than she had yet done; she would put her into her surroundings. And Harry would be there, the cousin who had never been cousinly, the young man whom she did not know and who was a factor of such importance in her life. She had dreams in abundance about the expedition; and it was in vain that reason said "It'll be all over in three days. Then back to the little house and the need for that advertisement!" Luckily, this sort of suggestion, made by reason, never sounds probable, however well reason proves to us that it must come to pass. Cecily was sure that at last--ah, at last!--a change in life had come. Life had been always so very much the same; changes generally need money, and money had not been hers. Knowledge usually needs money too, and of the kinds of life outside her own narrow sphere she was very ignorant. Beautiful things also need money; of them she had seen and enjoyed very little; only the parodies came to the small house in the small road. All these things joined to make her feel that a great moment was at hand; she might and did deride herself, but the feeling was there, and at last she admitted it to her father when she said with a little laugh:

"I don't suppose anybody ever was so excited over a funeral before!"

But perhaps there was ignorance in that remark too. It has been seen, for instance, that Miss Swinkerton and her friends could be very excited, although they had not the excuse of youth, of dreams, or of any kinship with the Tristrams.

"It's begun!" Cecily said to herself when, three days afterward, they got out of their third-class carriage and got into the landau that waited for them. The footman, touching his hat, asked if Miss Gainsborough had brought a maid. ("The maid," not "A maid," was the form of reference familiar to Miss Gainsborough.) Her father was in new black, she was in new black, the two trunks had been well polished; and the seats of the landau were very soft.

"They don't use the Fitzhubert crest, I observe," remarked Gainsborough. "Only the Tristram fox. Did you notice it on the harness?"

"I was gazing with all my eyes at the coronet on the panel," she answered, laughing.

A tall and angular lady came up and spoke to the footman, as he was about to mount the box.

"At two on Saturday, miss," they heard him reply. Miss Swinkerton nodded, and walked slowly past the carriage, giving the occupants a leisurely stare. Of course Miss S. had known the time of the funeral quite well; now her intimates would be made equally well acquainted with the appearance of the visitors.

Blent was in full beauty that summer evening, and the girl sat in entranced silence as they drove by the river and came where the old house stood. The blinds were down, the escutcheon, with the Tristram fox again, above the door in the central tower. They were ushered into the library. Gainsborough's eyes ran over the books with a longing envious glance; his daughter turned to the window, to look at the Blent and up to Merrion. A funny remembrance of Sloyd crossed her mind, and she smiled. Had she already so caught the air of the place that Sloyd seemed to her both remote and very plebeian? Turning her head, she saw the left wing with the row of windows that lighted the Long Gallery; she had never seen such a room in a private house, and thought there must be several rooms in that wing. A man-servant brought in tea, and told them that Mr Tristram was engaged in pressing business and begged to be excused; dinner would be at 8.15. Disappointed at her host's invisibility, she gave her father tea with a languid air. The little man was nervous and excited; he walked the carpet carefully; but soon he pounced on a book--a county history--and sat down with it. After a few minutes' idleness Cecily rose, strolled into the hall, and thence out into the garden. The hush of the house had become oppressive to her.

Yes, everything was very beautiful; she felt that again, and drank it in, indulging her thirst so long unsatisfied. She had seen larger places, such palaces as all the folk of London are allowed to see. The present scene was new. And in the room above lay Addie Tristram in her coffin--the lovely strange woman of whom her mother had told her. She would not see Lady Tristram, but she seemed now to see all her life and to be able to picture her, to understand why she did the things they talked of, and what manner of woman she had been. She wandered to the little bridge. The stream below was the Blent! Geographies might treat the rivulet with scanty notice and with poor respect; to her it was Jordan--the sacred river. Might not its god have been ancestor to all the Tristrams? In such a place as this one could have many such fancies; they would come to feed the mind and make it grow, to transform it into something that could appreciate poetry. A big rose-tree climbed the wall of the right wing. Who had picked its blossoms and through how many years? Its flowers must often have adorned Addie Tristram's unsurpassed loveliness. After the years of short commons there came this bountiful feast to her soul. She felt herself a Tristram. A turn of chance might have made all this her own. Her breath seemed to stop as she thought of this. The idea now was far different from what it had sounded when Sloyd gave it utterance in the tiny strip of garden behind the tiny house, and she had greeted it with scorn and a mocking smile. She did not want all this for her own; but she did want--how she wanted!--to be allowed to stop and look at it, to stay long enough to make it part of her and have it to carry back with her to her home between the King's Road and the Fulham Road in London.

She crossed the bridge and walked up the valley. Twenty minutes brought her to the Pool. It opened on her with a new surprise. The sun had just left it and its darkness was touched by mystery. The steep wooded bank opposite cast a dull heavy shadow across half the surface; the low lapping of the water sounded like somebody whispering old secrets that she seemed half to hear, garrulous histories of the dead--the dead whose blood was in her veins--old glories, old scandals, old trifles, all mixed together, all of great importance in the valley of the Blent. Who cares about such things in London, about anybody's family, or anybody himself? There is no time for such things in London. It is very different in the valley of the Blent when the sun is low and the cry of a bird makes a sound too shrill to be welcome.

Turning by chance to look up the road toward Mingham, she saw a man coming down the hill. He was sauntering idly along, beating the grass by the road-side with his stick. Suddenly he stopped short, put his hand above his eyes, and gave her a long look; he seemed to start. Then he began to walk toward her with a rapid eager stride. She turned away and strolled along by the Pool on her way back to Blent Hall. But he would not be denied; his tread came nearer; he overtook her and halted almost by her side, raising his hat and gazing with uncompromising straightness in her face. She knew him at once; he must be Harry Tristram. Was lounging about the roads his pressing business?

"I beg your pardon," he said with a curious appearance of agitation. "I am Harry Tristram, and you must be----?"

"Cecily Gainsborough," said she with a distant manner, inclined to be offended that their meeting should be by accident. Why had he not received his guests if he had nothing to do but lounge about the roads?

"Yes, I was sure. The moment I thought, I was sure." He took no heed of her manner, engrossed in some preoccupation of his own. "At first I was startled." He smiled now, as he offered her his hand. Then he recollected. "You must forgive me for being out. I have been hard at work all day, and the craving for the evening was on me. I went out without thinking."

"They said you were engaged on pressing business."

"They lied for me. I forgot to leave any message. I'm not generally discourteous."

His apology disarmed her and made her resentment seem petty.

"How could you think of us at such a time? It's good of you to have us at all."

"My mother wanted you to come." He added no welcome of his own. "You never saw her, did you?" he asked a moment later.

Cecily shook her head. She was rather confused by the steady gaze of his eyes. Did Cousin Harry always stare at people as hard as that? Yet it was not exactly a stare; it was too thoughtful, too ruminative, too unconscious for that.

"Let's walk back together. You've had a look at the place already perhaps?"

"It's very beautiful."

"Yes," he assented absently, as they began to walk.

If she did not stare, still she used her eyes, curiously studying his face with its suggestion of strength and that somehow rather inconsistent hint of sensitiveness. He was gloomy; that was just now only proper. She saw something that puzzled her; Mina Zabriska could have told her what it was, but she herself did not succeed in identifying Harry's watching look. She was merely puzzled at a certain shade of expression in the eyes. She had not seen it at the first moment, but it was there now as he turned to her from time to time while they sauntered along.

"That's Merrion, our dower-house. But it's let now to a funny little woman, Madame Zabriska. She's rather a friend of mine, but her uncle, who lives with her, doesn't like me." He smiled as he spoke of the Major. "She's very much interested in you."

"In me? Has she heard of me?"

"She hears of most things. She's as sharp as a needle. I like her though."

He said no more till they were back in the garden; then he proposed that they should sit down on the seat by the river.

"My mother used to sit here often," he said. "She always loved to see the sun go down from the garden. She didn't read or do anything; she just sat watching."

"Thinking?" Cecily suggested.

"Well, hardly. Letting thoughts happen if they wanted to, perhaps. She was always rather--rather passive about things, you know. They took hold of her if--well, as I say, if they wanted to." He turned to her quickly as he asked, "Are you at all like that?"

"I believe I'm only just beginning to find out that I'm anything or like anything. And, anyhow, I'm quite different from what I was yesterday."

"From yesterday?"

"Yes. Just by coming here, I think."

"That's what I mean! Things do take hold of you then?"

"This place does apparently," she answered laughing, as she leaned back on the seat, throwing her arm behind her and resting her head on it. She caught him looking at her again with marked and almost startled intensity. He was rather strange with his alternations of apparent forgetfulness and this embarrassing scrutiny.

"Tell me about yourself," he asked, or rather commanded, so brusque and direct was the request.

She told him about the small house and the small life she had led in it, even about the furniture and the bric-à-brac, confessing to her occasional clearances and the deception she had to practise on her father about them. He was very silent, but he was a good listener. Soon he began to smoke, but did not ask leave. This might be rudeness, but seemed a rather cousinly sort of rudeness, and was readily forgiven.

"And suddenly I come to all this!" she murmured. Then with a start she added, "But I'm forgetting your mother's death and what you must feel, and chattering about myself!"

"I asked you to talk about yourself. Is it such a great change to come here?"

"Immense! To come here even for a day! Immense!" She waved her hand a moment and found him following it with his eyes as it moved.

"You don't look," he said slowly, "as if it was any change at all."

"What do you mean?" she asked, interested in what he seemed to suggest.

"You fit in," he murmured, looking up at the house--at the window of Addie Tristram's room. "And you're very poor?" he asked.

"Yes. And you----!"

"Oh, I'm not rich as such things go. The estate has fallen in value very much, you know. But----" He broke off, frowning a little. "Still we're comfortable enough," he resumed.

"I should think so. You'd always have it to look at anyhow. What did you think I should be like?"

"Anything in the world but what you are."

The tone was at once too sincere and too absent for a compliment. Cecily knew herself not to be plain; but he was referring to something else than that.

"In fact I hardly thought of you as an individual at all. You were the Gainsboroughs."

"And you didn't like the Gainsboroughs?" she cried in a flash of intuition.

"No, I didn't," he admitted.

"Why not?"

"A prejudice," answered Harry Tristram after a pause.

She crossed her legs, sticking one foot out in front of her and looking at it thoughtfully. He followed the movement and slowly broke into a smile; it was followed by an impatient shrug. With the feminine instinct she pushed her gown lower down, half over the foot. Harry laughed. She looked up, blushing and inclined to be angry.

"Oh, it wasn't that," he said, laughing again rather contemptuously. "But----" He rose, took some paces along the lawn, and then, coming back, stood beside her, staring at the Blent and frowning rather formidably.

"Did you see me when I first saw you by the Pool?" he asked in a moment.

"Yes. How you hurried after me!"

Another pause followed, Harry's frown giving way to a smile, but a perplexed and reluctant one. Cecily watched him with puzzled interest--still sitting with her foot stuck out in front of her and her head resting on the bend of her arm; her eyes looked upward, and her lips were just parted.

"Have I been staring at you?" he inquired abruptly.

"Well, yes, you have," she answered, laughing. "But a strange cousin expects to be examined rather carefully. Do I pass muster among the Tristrams? Or am I all the hated Gainsborough?"

He looked at her again and earnestly. She met the look without lowering her eyes or altering her position in any particular.

"It's too absurd!" he declared, half fretful, half amused. "You're features aren't so very much alike--except the eyes, they are--and your hair's darker. But you move and carry yourself and turn your head as she did. And that position you're in now--why I've seen her in it a thousand times! Your arm there and your foot stuck out----"

His voice grew louder as he went on, his petulant amusement giving way to an agitation imperfectly suppressed.

"What do you mean?" she asked, catching excitement from him.

"Why, my mother. That's her attitude, and your walk's her walk, and your voice her voice. You're her--all over! Why, when I saw you by the Pool just now, a hundred yards off, strolling on the bank----"

"Yes?" she half-whispered. "You started, didn't you?"

"Yes, I started. I thought for a moment I saw my mother's ghost. I thought my mother had come back to Blent. And it is--you!"

He threw out his hands in a gesture of what seemed despair.

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