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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTristram Of Blent - Chapter 2. Mr Cholderton's Imp
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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 2. Mr Cholderton's Imp Post by :John_Piteo Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :1046

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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 2. Mr Cholderton's Imp

CHAPTER II. 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?"

"Certainly not."

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----"

"Merrion?"

"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?"

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