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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTristram Of Blent - Chapter 28. The Cat And The Bell
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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 28. The Cat And The Bell Post by :bjorn Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :3082

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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 28. The Cat And The Bell

CHAPTER XXVIII. THE CAT AND THE BELL

Mr Gainsborough lost his head. He might have endured the note that had been left for him--it said only that his daughter had gone to town for a couple of days with Mina Zabriska; besides he had had notes left for him before. But there was Mason's account of the evening and of the morning--of Harry's arrival, of the conference in the Long Gallery, of the sandwiches and the old brown, of the departure of the ladies at seven o'clock. Mason was convinced that something was up; knowing Mr Harry as he did, and her late Ladyship as he had, he really would not like to hazard an opinion what; Mr Gainsborough, however, could see for himself that candles had been left to burn themselves out and that china had been broken in the Long Gallery. Availing himself dexterously of his subordinate position, Mason was open to state facts but respectfully declined to draw inferences. Gainsborough rushed off to the Long Gallery. There lay his bit of Chelsea on the floor--upset, smashed, not picked up! There must have been a convulsion indeed, he declared, as ruefully and tenderly he gathered the fragments.

Quite off his balance and forgetful of perils, he ordered the pony-chaise and had himself driven into Blentmouth. He felt that he must tell somebody, and borrow some conclusions--he was not equal to making any of his own. He must carry the news.

He deceived himself and did gross injustice to the neighborhood. Fillingford is but twelve miles inland from Blentmouth, and there are three hours between eight and eleven. He was making for Fairholme. While yet half a mile off he overtook Miss Swinkerton, heading in the same direction, ostentatiously laden with savings-bank books. With much decision she requested a lift, got in, and told him all about how Harry had escorted Cecily and Madame Zabriska from Fillingford that morning. The milkman had told the butcher, the butcher had told the postman, the postman had told her, and--well, she had mentioned it to Mrs Trumbler. Mrs Trumbler was at Fairholme now.

"Mr Tristram had been staying with you, of course? How nice to think there's no feeling of soreness!" observed Miss S.

In Gainsborough at least there was no feeling save of bewilderment.

"Staying with us? No, I haven't so much as seen him," he stammered out.

Immediately Miss S. was upon him, and by the time they reached Fairholme had left him with no more than a few rags of untold details. Then with unrivalled effrontery she declared that she had forgotten to call at the grocer's, and marched off. In an hour the new and complete version of the affair was all over the town. Mrs Trumbler had got first to Fairholme, but she did not wrest the laurels from Miss S.'s brow. The mere departure from Fillingford shrank to nothing in comparison with the attendant circumstances supplied by Mr Gainsborough.

"They don't know what to think at Fairholme," Mrs Trumbler reported.

"I dare say not, my dear," said Miss S. grimly.

"They were dining there that very night, and not a word was said about it; and none of them saw Mr Tristram. He came quite suddenly, and went off again with Lady Tristram."

"And Mina Zabriska, my dear."

Mina complicated the case. Those who were inclined to believe, against all common-sense, that Cecily had eloped with her cousin--Why, in heaven's name, elope, when you have all the power and a negligible parent?--stumbled over Mina. Well then, was it with Mina Harry had eloped? Miss S. threw out hints in this direction. Why then Cecily? Miss S. was not at a loss. She said nothing, no; but if it should turn out that Cecily's presence was secured as a protection against the wrath of Major Duplay (who, everybody knew, hated Harry), she, Miss S., would be less surprised than many of those who conceived themselves to know everything. A Cecily party and a Mina party grew up--and a third party, who would have none of either, and declared that they had their own ideas, and that time would show.

Gossip raged, and old Mr Neeld sat in the middle of the conflagration. How his record of evasion, nay, of downright falsehood, mounted up! False facts and fictitious reasons flowed from his lips. There was pathos in the valor with which he maintained his position; he was hard pressed, but he did not fall. There was a joy too in the fight. For he alone of all Blentmouth knew the great secret, and guessed that what was happening had to do with the secret. Harry had asked silence for a week; before two days of it were gone came this news.

"If they do mean to be married," said Janie, "why couldn't they do it decently?" She meant with the respectable deliberation of her own alliance.

"Tristram's a queer fellow," pondered Bob Broadley.

"I only hope he isn't rushing her into it--on purpose. What do you think, Mr Neeld?"

"My dear Janie----"

"He may not want to give her time to think. It's not a good match for her now, is it?"

"I--I can't think that Harry Tristram would----"

"Well, Neeld," said Iver judicially, "I'm not so sure. Master Harry can play a deep game when he likes. I know that very well--and to my cost too."

What Janie hinted and Iver did not discard was a view which found some supporters; and where it was entertained, poor Mina Zabriska's character was gone. Miss S. herself was all but caught by the idea, and went so far as to say that she had never thought highly of Madame Zabriska, while the Major was known to be impecunious. There was a nefariousness about the new suggestion that proved very attractive in Blentmouth.

Late in the day came fresh tidings, new fuel for the flames. Mr Gainsborough had driven again into Blentmouth and taken the train for London. Two portmanteaus and a wicker-crate, plausibly conjectured to contain between them all his worldly possessions, had accompanied him on the journey. He was leaving Blent then, if not for ever, at least for a long while. He had evaded notice in his usual fashion, and nearly driven over Miss S. when she tried to get in the way. Miss S. was partly consoled by a bit of luck that followed. She met Mina's cook, come down from Merrion to buy household stores; her mistress was to return to her own house on the morrow! There seemed no need to search for inferences. They leapt to light. Either Blent was to be shut up, or it was to receive a wedded pair. On this alternative the factions split, and the battle was furious. Mrs Trumbler definitely fought Miss S. for the first time in her life. On one point only the whole town agreed; it was being cheated--either out of the wedding which was its right, or else out of the ball in the winter to which Miss S. had irrevocably committed Lady Tristram. The popularity of Blent fell to nothing in the neighborhood.

The next morning Mr Neeld gained the reward of virtue, and became a hero in spite of his discretion. At breakfast he received a telegram. Times were critical, and all eyes were on him as he read, and re-read, and frowned perplexedly. Then he turned to Iver.

"Can you let me have a trap this afternoon, Iver?"

"Of course, of course. But you're not going to leave us, I hope?"

"Only just for the evening; I--in fact I have to go to Blent."

There was a moment's silence. Glances were exchanged, while Neeld made half-hearted efforts to grapple with an egg. Then Bob Broadley broke out with a laugh,

"Oh, hang it all, out with it, Mr Neeld!"

"Well, I'm not told to be silent; and it must become known immediately. Madame Zabriska telegraphs to me that they are to be married early this morning, and will come to Blent by the 1.30 train. She herself leaves by the 11 o'clock, will be there at five, and wishes me to join her."

"By Jove, he's done it then!" exclaimed Iver.

Everybody looked very solemn except Neeld, who was sadly confused.

"Dear, dear!" murmured Mrs Iver.

"She must be very much in love with him," remarked Janie.

"It's his conduct more than hers which needs explanation," Iver observed dryly. "And what do they want you for, Neeld?" If his tone and his question were not very flattering, they were excused by the obvious fact that there was no sort of reason for wanting Mr Neeld--or at any rate seemed to all that party to be none.

"Oh--er--why--why no doubt it's--it's only a fancy of Mina Zabriska's."

"A very queer fancy," said Janie Iver coldly. It was really a little annoying that old Mr Neeld should be the person wanted at Blent.

"I'll drive you over," Bob kindly volunteered.

"Er--thank you, Broadley, but she asks me to come alone."

"Well, I'm hanged!" muttered Bob, who had seen a chance of being in at the death.

They were coming straight down to Blent. That fact assumed an important place in Neeld's review of the situation. And his presence was requested. He put these two things together. They must mean that the secret was to be told that evening at Blent, and that he was to be vouched as evidence, if by chance Cecily asked for it. On the very day of the wedding the truth was to be revealed. In ignorance, perhaps in her own despite, she had been made in reality what she had conceived herself to be; to-day she was Lady Tristram in law. Now she was to be told. Neeld saw the choice that would be laid before her, and, at the same time, the use that had been made of his silence. He fell into a sore puzzle. Yes, Harry could play a deep game when he chose.

"It's quite impossible to justify either the use he's made of me or the way he's treated her," he concluded sadly. "I shall speak very seriously to him about it." But he knew that the serious speaking, however comforting it might be to himself as a protest, would fall very lightly on Harry Tristram's ears; their listening would be for the verdict of another voice.

"Do you think Disney will repeat his offer--will give him a chance of reconsidering now?" asked Iver, who had heard of that affair from Lord Southend.

"I'm sure he wouldn't accept anything," Neeld answered with remarkable promptitude and conviction. It was a luxury to find an opportunity of speaking the truth.

"The least he could do would be to leave that to her."

"She'd say just the same," Neeld assured him. "I'm convinced there'll be no question of anything of the kind."

"Then it's very awkward," Iver grumbled crossly.

In all his varied experience of the Imp--which included, it may be remembered, a good deal of plain-speaking and one embrace--Neeld had never found her in such a state as governed her this evening. Mason gave him tea while she walked restlessly about; he gathered that Mason was dying to talk but had been sore wounded in an encounter with Mina already, and was now perforce holding his tongue.

"They'll be here by seven, and you and I are to dine with them," she told him. "Quite informally."

"Dear me, I--I don't think I want----" he began.

"Hush!" she interrupted. "Are you going to be all day with those things, Mason?"

"I hope I haven't been slower than usual, ma'am," said Mason very stiffly.

At last he went. In an instant Mina darted across to Neeld, and caught him by the arm. "What have you to tell me?" she cried.

"To tell you? I? Oh, dear, no, Madame Zabriska! I assure you----"

"Oh, there's no need for that! Harry said you were to tell me before they arrived; that's why I sent for you now."

"He said I was to tell you----?"

"Yes, yes. Something you knew and I didn't; something that would explain it all."

She stood before him with clasped hands. "It's quite true; he did say so," she pleaded. "It's all been so delightful, and yet so strange; and he told me to be ready either to stay here or to go home to-night! Tell me, tell me, Mr Neeld!"

"Why didn't he tell you himself?"

"I only saw him alone for an instant after the wedding; and before it he didn't say a word about there being anything to tell. There's a secret. What is it?"

He was glad to tell it. He had carried his burden long enough.

"We've all made a great blunder. Harry is Lord Tristram after all."

Mina stood silent for a moment. "Oh!" she gasped. "And he's married Cecily without telling her?"

"That's what he has done, I regret to say. And I take it that he means to tell her to-night."

Mina sank into a chair. "What will she do?" she murmured. "What will she do?"

"There was a mistake--or rather a fraud--about the date of Sir Randolph Edge's death; his brother knew it. I'll tell you the details if you like. But that's the end and the sum of it. As to why he didn't tell--er--his wife sooner, perhaps you know better than I."

"Yes, I know that," she said. And then--it was most inconsiderate, most painful to Mr Neeld--she began to cry. Unable to bear this climax of excitement coming on the top of her two days' emotion, she sobbed hysterically. "They'll be here at seven!" she moaned. "What will happen? Oh, Mr Neeld! And I know he'll expect me to be calm and--and to carry it off--and be composed. How can I be?"

"Perhaps a glass of sherry----?" was Mr Neeld's not unreasonable suggestion.

No, the old brown would not serve here. But without its aid a sudden change came over Mina. She sprang to her feet and left the tears to roll down her cheeks untended as she cried,

"What a splendid thing to do! Oh, how like Harry! And it's to be settled to-night! What can we do to make it go right?"

"I intend to take no responsibility at all," protested Neeld. "I'm here to speak to the facts if I'm wanted, but----"

"Oh, bother the facts! What are we to do to make her take it properly?" She gave another sob. "Oh, I'm an idiot!" she cried. "Haven't you anything to suggest, Mr Neeld?"

He shrugged his shoulders peevishly. Her spirits fell again.

"I see! Yes, if she--if she doesn't take it properly, he'll go away again, and I'm to be ready to stay here." Another change in the barometer came in a flash. "But she can't help being Lady Tristram now!"

"It's all a most unjustifiable proceeding. He tricks the girl----"

"Yes, he had to. That was the only chance. If he'd told her before----"

"But isn't she in love with him?"

"Oh, you don't know the Tristrams! Oh, what are we to do?" Save running through every kind and degree of emotion Mina seemed to find nothing to do.

"And I'm bound to say that I consider our position most embarrassing." Mr Neeld spoke with some warmth, with some excuse too perhaps. To welcome a newly married couple home may be thought always to require some tact; when it is a toss-up whether they will not part again for ever under your very eyes the situation is not improved. Such trials should not be inflicted on quiet old bachelors; Josiah Cholderton had not done with his editor yet.

"We must treat it as a mere trifle," the Imp announced, fixing on the thing which above all others she could not achieve. Yet her manner was so confident that Neeld gasped. "And if that doesn't do, we must tell her that the happiness of her whole life depends on what she does to-night." Variety of treatment was evidently not to be lacking.

"I intend to take no responsibility of any kind. He's got himself into a scrape. Let him get out of it," persisted Neeld.

"I thought you were his friend?"

"I may be excused if I consider the lady a little too."

"I suppose I don't care for Cecily? Do you mean that, Mr Neeld?"

"My dear friend, need we quarrel too?"

"Don't be stupid. Who's quarrelling? I never knew anybody so useless as you are. Can't you do anything but sit there and talk about responsibilities?" She was ranging about, a diminutive tiger of unusually active habits. She had wandered round the room again before she burst out:

"Oh, but it's something to see the end of it!"

That was his feeling too, however much he might rebuke himself for it. Human life at first-hand had not been too plentiful with him. The Imp's excitement infected him. "And he's back here after all!" she cried. "At least--Heavens, they'll be here directly, Mr Neeld!"

"Yes, it's past seven," said he.

"Come into the garden. We'll wait for them on the bridge." She turned to him as they passed through the hall. "Wouldn't you like something of this sort to happen to you?" she asked.

No. He was perturbed enough as a spectator; he would not have been himself engaged in the play.

"Why isn't everybody here?" she demanded, with a laugh that was again nervous and almost hysterical. "Why isn't Addie Tristram here? Ah, and your old Cholderton?"

"Hark, I hear wheels on the road," said Mr Neeld.

Mina looked hard at him. "She shall do right," she said, "and Harry shall not go."

"Surely they'll make the best of a----?"

"Oh, we're not talking of your Ivers and your Broadleys!" she interrupted indignantly. "If they were like that, we should never have been where we are at all."

How true it was, how lamentably true! One had to presuppose Addie Tristram, and turns of fortune or of chance wayward as Addie herself--and to reckon with the same blood, now in young and living veins.

"I can't bear it," whispered Mina.

"He'll expect you to be calm and composed," Neeld reminded her.

"Then give me a cigarette," she implored despairingly.

"I am not a smoker," said Mr Neeld.

"Oh, you really are the very last man----! Well, come on the bridge," groaned Mina.

They waited on the bridge, and the wheels drew near. They spoke no more. They had found nothing to do. They could only wait. A fly came down the road.

There they sat, side by side. Cecily was leaning forward, her eyes were eager, and there was a bright touch of color on her cheeks; Harry leant back, looking at her, not at Blent. He wore a quiet smile; his air was very calm. He saw Mina and Neeld, and waved his hand to them. The fly stopped opposite the bridge. He jumped out and assisted Cecily to alight. In a moment she was in Mina's arms. The next, she recognized Neeld's presence with a little cry of surprise. At a loss to account for himself, the old man stood there in embarrassed wretchedness.

"I want you to wait," said Harry to the driver. "Put up in the stables, and they'll give you something to eat. You must wait till I send you word."

"Wait? Why is he to wait, Harry?" asked Cecily. Her tone was gay; she was overflowing with joy and merriment. "Who's going away? Oh, is it you, Mr Neeld?"

"I--I have a trap from Mr Iver's," he stammered.

"I may want to send a message," Harry explained. "Kind of you to come, Mr Neeld."

"I--I must wish you joy," said Neeld, taking refuge in conventionality.

"We've had a capital journey down, haven't we, Cecily? And I'm awfully hungry. What time is it?"

Mason was rubbing his hands in the doorway.

"Dinner's ordered at eight, sir," said he.

"And it's half-past seven now. Just time to wash our hands. No dress to-night, you know."

"I'll go to my room," said Cecily. "Will you come with me, Mina?"

A glance from Harry made the Imp excuse herself. "I'll keep Mr Neeld company," she said.

Cecily turned to her husband. She smiled and blushed a little.

"I'll take you as far as your room," said he.

Mina and Neeld watched them go upstairs; then each dropped into a chair in the hall. Mason passed by, chuckling to himself; Neeld looked harmless, and he dared to speak to him.

"Well, this is the next best thing to Mr Harry coming back to his own, sir," said he.

That was it. That was the feeling. Mason had got it!

"I'm glad of it after all," Neeld confessed to Mina.

"Wait, wait!" she urged, sitting straight in her chair, apparently listening for any sound. Her obvious anxiety extended its contagion to him; he understood better how nice the issue was.

"Will you come in the garden with me after dinner?" asked Harry, as Cecily and he went upstairs.

"Of course--when they've gone."

"No, directly. I want to say a word to you."

"We must escape then!" she laughed. "Oh, well, they'll expect that, I suppose." Her delight in her love bubbled over in her laugh.

They came to the door of her room, and she stopped.

"Here?" asked Harry. "Yes, it was my mother's room. You reign now in my mother's stead."

His voice had a ring of triumph in it. He kissed her hand. "Dinner as soon as you're ready," said he.

She laughed again and blushed as she opened the door and stood holding the handle.

"Won't you come in--just for a minute, Harry? I--I haven't changed this room at all."

"All is yours to change or to keep unchanged," said he.

"Oh, I've no reason for changing anything now. Everything's to be put back in the Long Gallery!" She paused, and then said again, "Won't you come in for just a minute, Harry?"

"I must go back to our friends downstairs," he answered.

The pretext was threadbare. What did the guests matter? They would do well enough. It had cost her something to ask--a little effort--since the request still seemed so strange, since its pleasure had a fear in it. And now she was refused.

"I ask you," she said, with a sudden haughtiness.

He stood looking at her a moment. There was a brisk step along the corridor.

"Oh, I beg your Ladyship's pardon. I didn't know your Ladyship had come upstairs." It was Cecily's maid.

"In about twenty minutes," said Harry with a nod. Slowly Cecily followed the maid inside.

After he had washed his hands Harry rejoined his friends. They were still sitting in the hall with an air of expectancy.

"You've told her?" cried Mina. "Oh, yes, Mr Neeld has told me everything."

"Well, I've mentioned the bare fact----" Neeld began.

"Yes, yes, that's the only thing that matters. You've told her, Harry?" The last two days made him "Harry" and her "Mina."

"No, I had a chance and I--funked it," said Harry, slow in speech and slow in smile. "She asked me into her room. Well, I wouldn't go."

He laughed as he spoke, laughed rather scornfully.

"It's rather absurd. I shall be all right after dinner," he added, laughing still. "Or would you like to do the job for me, Mina?"

The Imp shook her head with immense determination. "I'll throw myself into the Blent if you like," she said.

"What about you, Mr Neeld?"

"My dear friend, oh, my dear friend!" Undisguised panic took possession of Mr Neeld. He tried to cover it by saying sternly, "This--er--preposterous position is entirely your own fault, you know. You have acted----"

"Yes, I know," nodded Harry, not impatiently but with a sombre assent. He roused himself the next moment, saying, "Well, somebody's got to bell the cat, you know."

"Really it's not my business," protested Neeld and Mina in one breath, both laughing nervously.

"You like the fun, but you don't want any of the work," remarked Harry.

That was true, true to their disgrace. They both felt the reproach. How were they better than the rest of the neighborhood, who were content to gossip and gape and take the fortunes of the Tristrams as mere matter for their own entertainment?

"I've made you look ashamed of yourselves now," he laughed. "Well, I must do the thing myself, I suppose. What a pity Miss Swinkerton isn't here!"

Cecily came down. She passed Harry with a rather distant air and took Neeld's arm.

"They say dinner's ready," said she. "Mina, will you come with Harry?"

Harry sank into the chair opposite Cecily--and opposite the picture of Addie Tristram on the wall. "Well, somehow I've managed to get back here," said he.

The shadow had passed from Cecily's face. She looked at him, blushing and laughing.

"At a terrible price, poor Harry?" she said.

"At a big price," he answered.

She looked round at the three. Harry was composed, but there was no mistaking the perturbation of the Imp and Mr Neeld.

"A big price?" she asked wonderingly. "Isn't that a queer compliment, Harry?" Then a light seemed to break in on her, and she cried: "You mean the cost of your pride? I should never let that stand between you and me!"

"Will you make a note of that admission, Mina?" said Harry with a smile. "Because you didn't say so always, Cecily. Do you recollect what you once said? 'If ever the time comes, I shall remember!' That was what you said."

She looked at him with a glance that was suddenly troubled. There seemed a meaning in his words. She pushed back her chair and rose from the table.

"I don't want dinner. I'm going into the garden," she said.

They sat still as she went out. Harry refolded his napkin and slowly rose to his feet. "I should have liked it better after dinner," he observed.

Mina and Mr Neeld sat on.

"Are we to dine?" whispered Neeld. There is the body, after all.

"Oh, yes, sir," came in Mason's soothing tones over his shoulder. "We never waited for her late Ladyship." And he handed soup.

"Really Mason is rather a comfort," thought Mr Neeld. The Imp drank a glass of champagne.

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