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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTristram Of Blent - Chapter 3. On Guard
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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 3. On Guard Post by :John_Piteo Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :1941

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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 3. On Guard

CHAPTER III. ON GUARD

Harry Tristram was just on twenty-three; to others, and to himself too perhaps (if a man himself can attain any clear view), he seemed older. Even the externals of his youth had differed from the common run. Sent to school like other boys, he had come home from Harrow one Easter for the usual short holiday. He had never returned; he had not gone to the University; he had been abroad a good deal, travelling and studying, but always in his mother's company. It was known that she was in bad health; it was assumed that either she was very exacting or he very devoted, since to separate him from her appeared impossible. Yet those who observed them together saw no imperiousness on her part and no excess of sentiment on his. Friendliness based on a thorough sympathy of mind was his attitude if his demeanor revealed it truly; while Lady Tristram was to her son as she was to all the world at this time, a creature of feelings now half cold and of moods that reflected palely the intense impulses of her youth. But a few years over forty, she grew faded and faint in mind, it seemed, as well as in body, and was no longer a merry comrade to the boy who never left her. Yet he did not wish to leave her. To her, indeed, he was not a boy, and nobody about the place regarded him as other than a man. He had been actually and effectively master of the house for years, just as he was master of his own doings, of his friendships, recreations, and pursuits. And he had managed all well, except that he was not thought to be very happy or to get much enjoyment from his life. That was just an idea he gave of himself, and gave involuntarily--in spite of taking his fair share in the amusements of the neighborhood, and holding his own well in its sports and athletics. But he was considered cold and very reserved. Had Mina Zabriska remembered this use of "reserve," perhaps she would have employed the word instead of "wariness." Or perhaps, if his acquaintances had looked more keenly, they would have come over to Mina's side and found her term the more accurate. She spoke from a fresher and sharper impression of him.

His childhood at least had been happy, while Lady Tristram was still the bewilderingly delightful companion who had got into so much hot water and made so many people eager to get in after her. Joy lasted with her as long as health did, and her health began to fail only when her son approached fifteen. Another thing happened about then, which formed the prelude to the most vivid scene in the boy's life. Lady Tristram was not habitually a religious woman; that temper of mind was too abstract for her; she moved among emotions and images, and had small dealings with meditation or spiritual conceptions. But happening to be in a mood that laid her open to the influence, she heard in London one day a sermon preached by a young man famous at the time, a great searcher of fashionable hearts. She drove straight from the church (it was a Friday morning) to Paddington and took the first train home. Harry was there--back from school for his holiday--and she found him in the smoking-room, weighing a fish which he had caught in the pool that the Blent forms above the weir. There and then she fell on her knees on the floor and poured forth to him the story of that Odyssey of hers which had shocked London society and is touched upon in Mr Cholderton's Journal. He listened amazed, embarrassed, puzzled up to a point; a boy's normal awkwardness was raised to its highest pitch; he did not want to hear his mother call herself a wicked woman; and anyhow it was a long while ago, and he did not understand it all very well. The woman lifted her eyes and looked at him; she was caught by the luxury of confession, of humiliation, of offering her back to the whip. She told him he was not her heir--that he would not be Tristram of Blent. For a moment she laid her head on the floor at his feet. She heard no sound from him, and presently looked up at him again. His embarrassment had gone; he was standing rigidly still, his eyes gazing out toward the river, his forehead wrinkled in a frown. He was thinking. She went on kneeling there, saying no more, staring at her son. It was characteristic of her that she did not risk diminishing the effectiveness of the scene, or the tragedy of her avowal, by explaining the perverse accident owing to which her fault had entailed such an aggravation of evil. Harry learnt that later.

Later--and in a most different sort of interview. From the first Harry had no thought of surrender; his mother had none either as soon as she had forgotten her preacher. The discussion was resumed after a week (Lady Tristram had spent the interval in bed) on a business footing. She found in him the same carelessness of the world and its obligations that there was in herself, but found it carried to the point of scorn and allied to a tenacity of purpose and a keenness of vision which she had never owned. Not a reproach escaped him--less, she thought, from generosity than because he chose to concentrate his mind on something useful. It was no use lamenting the past; it might be possible to undo it for all practical purposes. The affair was never again referred to between them except as a factor recommending or dictating some course of action; its private side--its revelation of her and its effect (or what might have been its effect) on his feelings toward her--was never spoken of. Lady Tristram thought that the effect was nothing, and the revelation not very surprising to her son. He accepted without argument her own view--that she had done nothing very strange but had fallen on very bad luck. But he told her at once that he was not going back to Harrow. She understood; she agreed to be watched, she abdicated her rule, she put everything in his hands and obeyed him.

Thus, at fifteen, Harry Tristram took up his burden and seemed to take up his manhood too. He never wavered; he always assumed that right and justice were on his side, that he was not merely justified in holding his place but bound in duty to keep it. Such practical steps as could be taken were taken. The confederates set no limit to their preparations against danger and their devices to avoid detection. If lies were necessary, they would lie; where falsification was wanted, they falsified. There was no suspicion; not a hint of it had reached their ears. Things were so quiet that Lady Tristram often forgot the whole affair; her son watched always, his eyes keen for a sight, his ear down to the earth for a sound, of danger. No security relaxed his vigilance, but his vigilance became so habitual, so entered into him, that his mother ceased to notice it and it became a second nature to himself. That it might miss nothing, it was universal; the merest stranger came within its ken. He watched all mankind lest some one among men should be seeking to take his treasure from him. Mr Cholderton's Imp had not used her eyes in vain; but Harry's neighbors, content to call him reserved, had no idea that there was anything in particular that he had to hide.

There was one little point which, except for his persuasion of his own rectitude, might have seemed to indicate an uneasy conscience, but was in fact only evidence of a natural dislike to having an unwelcome subject thrust under his notice. About a year after the disclosure Lady Tristram had a letter from Mr Gainsborough. This gentleman had married her cousin, and the cousin, a woman of severe principles, had put an end to all acquaintance in consequence of the "Odyssey." She was dead, and her husband proposed to renew friendly relations, saying that his daughter knew nothing of past differences and was anxious to see her kinsfolk. The letter was almost gushing, and Lady Tristram, left to herself, would have answered it in the same kind; for while she had pleased herself she bore no resentment against folk who had blamed her. Moreover Gainsborough was poor, and somebody had told her that the girl was pleasant; she pitied poverty and liked being kind to pleasant people.

"Shall we invite them to stay for a week or two?" she had asked.

"Never," he said. "They shall never come here. I don't want to know them, I won't see them." His face was hard, angry, and even outraged at the notion.

His mother said no more. If the barony and Blent departed from Harry, on Lady Tristram's death they would go to Cecily Gainsborough. If Harry had his way, that girl should not even see his darling Blent. If distrust of his mother entered at all into his decision, if he feared any indiscreet talk from her, he gave no hint of it. It was enough that the girl had some odious pretensions which he could and would defeat but could not ignore--pretensions for his mind, in her own she had none.

The sun had sunk behind the tower, and Lady Tristram sat in a low chair by the river, enjoying the cool of the evening. The Blent murmured as it ran; the fishes were feeding; the midges were out to feed, but they did not bite Lady Tristram; they never did; the fact had always been a comfort to her, and may perhaps be allowed here to assume a mildly allegorical meaning. If the cool of the evening may do the same, it will serve very well to express the stage of life and of feeling to which no more than the beginning of middle age had brought her. It was rather absurd, but she did not want to do or feel very much more; and it seemed as though her wishes were to be respected. A certain distance from things marked her now; only Harry was near to her, only Harry's triumph was very important. She had outrun her vital income and mortgaged future years; if foreclosure threatened, she maintained her old power of taking no heed of disagreeable things, however imminent. She was still very handsome and wished to go on being that to the end; fortunately fragility had always been her style and always suited her.

Harry leant his elbow on a great stone vase which stood on a pedestal and held a miniature wilderness of flowers.

"I lunched at Fairholme," he was saying. "The paint's all wet still, of course, and the doors stick a bit, but I liked the family. He's genuine, she's homely, and Janie's a good girl. They were very civil."

"I suppose so."

"Not overwhelmed," he added, as though wishing to correct a wrong impression which yet might reasonably have arisen.

"I didn't mean that. I've met Mr Iver, and he wasn't at all overwhelmed. Mrs Iver was--out--when I called, and I was--out--when she called." Lady Tristram was visibly, although not ostentatiously, allowing for the prejudices of a moral middle-class.

"Young Bob Broadley was there--you know who I mean? At Mingham Farm, up above the Pool."

"I know--a handsome young man."

"I forgot he was handsome. Of course you know him then! What a pity I'm not handsome, mother!"

"Oh, you've the air, though," she observed contentedly. "Is he after Janie Iver?"

"So I imagine. I'm not sure that I'm not too. Have I any chance against Bob Broadley?"

She did not seem to take him seriously.

"They wouldn't look at Mr Broadley." (She was pleasantly punctilious about all titles and courteous methods of reference or address.) "Janie Iver's a great heiress."

"And what about me?" he insisted, as he lit his pipe and sat down opposite her.

"You mean it, Harry?"

"There's no reason why I shouldn't marry, is there?"

"Why, you must marry, of course. But----"

"We can do the blue blood business enough for both."

"Yes, I didn't mean that."

"You mean--am I at all in love with her?"

"No, not quite. Oh, my dear Harry, I mean wouldn't you like to be in love a little with somebody? You could do it after you marry, of course, and you certainly will if you marry now, but it's not so--so comfortable." She looked at him with a sort of pity: her feeling was that he gave himself no holidays.

He sat silent a moment seeming to consider some picture which her suggestion conjured up.

"No good waiting for that," was his conclusion. "Somehow if I married and had children, it would seem to make everything more settled." His great pre-occupation was on him again. "We could do with some more money too," he added, "and, as I say, I'm inclined to like the girl."

"What's she like?"

"What you call a fine girl--tall--well made----"

"She'll be fat some day, I expect."

"Straight features, broadish face, dark, rather heavy brows--you know the sort of thing."

"Oh, Harry, I hate all that!"

"I don't; I rather like it." He was smoking meditatively, and jerked out what he had to say between the puffs. "I shouldn't like to mortgage Blent," he went on a moment later.

"Mortgage Blent? What for?"

He raised a hand to ask to be heard out. "But I should like to feel that I could at any moment lay my hand on a big lump of ready money--say fifty, or even a hundred, thousand pounds. I should like to be able to pull it out of my breeches' pocket and say, 'Take that and hold your tongue!'" He looked at her to see if she followed what was in his mind. "I think they'd take it," he ended. "I mean if things got as far as that, you know."

"You mean the Gainsboroughs?"

"Yes. Oh, anybody else would be cheaper than that. Fifty thousand would be better than a very doubtful case. But it would have to be done directly--before a word was heard about it. I should like to live with the check by me."

He spoke very simply, as another man might speak of being ready to meet an improvement-rate or an application from an impecunious brother.

"Don't you think it would be a good precaution?" he asked. Whether he meant the marriage, the check, or the lady, was immaterial; it came to the same thing.

"It's all very troublesome," Lady Tristram complained. "It really half spoils our lives, doesn't it, Harry? One always has to be worrying."

The smile whose movements had excited Mina Zabriska's interest made its appearance on Harry's face. He had never been annoyed by his mother's external attitude toward the result of her own doings, but he was often amused at it.

"Why do you smile?" she asked innocently.

"Well, worrying's a mild term," he explained evasively. "It's my work in the world, you know--or it seems as if it was going to be."

"You'd better think about it," Lady Tristram concluded, not wishing to think about it any more herself. "You wouldn't tell Mr Iver anything about the difficulty, would you?" "The difficulty" had become her usual way of referring to their secret.

"Not a word. I'm not called upon to justify my position to Iver." No shadow of doubt softened the clearness of Harry's conviction on this point.

He rose, filled his pipe again, and began to walk up and down. He was at his old game, counting chances, one by one, every chance, trying to eliminate risks, one by one, every risk, so that at last he might take his ease and say without fear of contradiction, "Here sits Tristram of Blent." To be thus was--something; but to be safely thus was so much more that it did not seem to him a great thing to carry out the plan which he had suggested to Lady Tristram. To be sure, he was not in love with anybody else, which makes a difference, though it is doubtful whether it would have made any to him. Had the question arisen at that moment he would have said that nothing could make any difference.

"Did you go up to the Lodge, Harry?" his mother called to him as one of his turns brought him near her.

"Oh, yes; I forgot to tell you. I did, and I found Madame Zabriska having a look at us from the terrace, so I had a little talk with her. I didn't see the uncle."

"What's she like?" This was a favorite question of Lady Tristram's.

Harry paused a moment, looking for a description.

"Well, if you can imagine one needle with two very large eyes, you'd get some idea of her. She's sharp, mother--mind and body. Pleasant enough though. She's coming to see you, so you needn't bother to go up." He added with an air of impatience, "She's been hunting in the Peerage."

"Of course she would; there's nothing in that."

"No, I suppose not," he admitted almost reluctantly.

"I can't help thinking I've heard the name before--not Zabriska, but the uncle's."

"Duplay, isn't it? I never heard it."

"Well, I can't remember anything about it, but it sounds familiar. I'm confusing it with something else, I suppose. They look like being endurable, do they?"

"Oh, yes, as people go," he answered, resuming his walk.

If a determination to keep for yourself what according to your own conviction belongs by law to another makes a criminal intent--and that irrespective of the merits of the law--it would be hard to avoid classing Lady Tristram and her son as criminals in contemplation, if not yet in action. And so considered they afforded excellent specimens of two kinds of criminals which a study of assize courts reveals--the criminal who drifts and the criminal who plans; the former usually termed by counsel and judge "unhappy," the latter more sternly dubbed "dangerous." Lady Tristram had always drifted and was drifting still; Harry had begun to plan at fifteen and still was busy planning. One result of this difference was that whereas she was hardly touched or affected in character he had been immensely influenced. In her and to her the whole thing seemed almost accidental, a worry, as she put it, and not much more; with him it was the governing fact in life, and had been the force most potent in moulding him. The trouble came into her head when something from outside put it there; it never left his brain. And she had no adequate conception of what it was to him. Even his scheme of marrying Janie Iver and his vivid little phrase about living with the check by him failed to bring it home to her. This very evening, as soon as he was out of sight, both he and his great question were out of the mind of the woman who had brought both him and it into existence. There are people who carry the doctrine of free-will so far in their own persons as to take the liberty of declining to allow causes to work on and in them, what are logically, morally, and on every other ground conceivable, their necessary effects; reasoning from what they have done to what they must be, from what they have been responsible for to what they must feel, breaks down; they are arbitrary, unconditioned, themselves as it were accidental. With this comes a sort of innocence, sometimes attractive, sometimes uncommonly exasperating to the normal man.

So Lady Tristram went back to her novel, and Harry walked by the river, moodily meditating and busily scheming. Meanwhile Mina Zabriska had flown to the library at Merrion Lodge, and, finding books that had belonged to a legal member of the family in days gone by, was engaged in studying the law relating to the succession to lands and titles in England. She did not make quick progress. Nevertheless in a day or two she had reached a point when she was bubbling over with curiosity and excitement; she felt that she could not go on sitting opposite Major Duplay at meals without giving him at least a hint or two of the wonderful state of things on which she had hit, and without asking him to consider the facts and to have a look at the books which were so puzzling and exercising her brain. Yet Harry Tristram, wary sentinel as he was, did not dream of any attack or scent any danger from the needle with two very large eyes, as he had called the lady at Merrion Lodge.

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