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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTristram Of Blent - Chapter 9. The Man In Possession
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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 9. The Man In Possession Post by :John_Piteo Category :Long Stories Author :Anthony Hope Date :May 2012 Read :1741

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Tristram Of Blent - Chapter 9. The Man In Possession

CHAPTER IX. THE MAN IN POSSESSION

In these days Janie Iver would have been lonely but for the Major's attentions. Her father had gone to London on business--showing, to Mr Neeld's relief, no disposition to take the Journal with him to read on the way--Neeld was absurdly nervous about the Journal now. Her mother was engrossed in a notable scheme which Miss Swinkerton had started for the benefit of the poor of Blentmouth. Bible-readings, a savings-bank, and cottage-gardens were so inextricably mingled in it that the beneficiary, if she liked one, had to go in for them all. "Just my object," Miss Swinkerton would remark triumphantly as she set the flower-pots down on the Bibles, only to find that the bank-books had got stored away with the seed. Clearly Mrs Iver, chief aide-de-camp, had no leisure. Harry was at Blent; no word and no sign came from him. Bob Broadley never made advances. The field was clear for the Major. Janie, grateful for his attentions, yet felt vaguely that he was more amusing as one of two attentive cavaliers than when he was her only resource. A sense of flatness came over her sometimes. In fact the centre of interest had shifted from her; she no longer held the stage; it was occupied now, for the few days she had still to live, by Lady Tristram. Moreover, Duplay was puzzling. Although not a girl who erected every attention or every indication of liking into an obligation to propose matrimony, Janie knew that after a certain point things of this kind were supposed to go either forward or backward, not to remain _in statu quo_. If her own bearing toward Bob contradicted this general rule--well, that was an exceptional case. In Duplay's instance she could see nothing exceptional. She herself was not eager for a final issue--indeed that would probably be brought about in another way--but, knowing nothing of his diplomatic reasons for delay, she thought he ought to be. It is not very flattering when a gentleman takes too long over considering such a matter; a touch of impetuosity is more becoming. She would have preferred that he should need to be put off, and failed to understand why (if it may be so expressed) he put himself off from day to day.

But Duplay's reasons were, in fact, overwhelming. Lady Tristram lived still, and he had the grace to count that as the strongest motive for holding his hand. Harry's campaign was for the moment at a standstill; Duplay had no doubt he would resume it as soon as his mother was buried; on its apparent progress the Major's action would depend. It was just possible that he could defeat his enemy without his secret weapon; in that event he pictured himself writing a letter to Harry, half sorrowful, half magnanimous, in which he would leave that young man to settle matters with his conscience, and, for his own part, wash his hands of the whole affair. But his conviction was that there would come a critical moment at which he could go to Iver, not (as he must now) without any compelling reason, but in the guise of a friend who acts reluctantly yet under an imperious call. What would happen if he did? Victory, he used to repeat to himself. But often his heart sank. Mina was with him no more; he never thought of Neeld as a possible ally; Harry's position was strong. Among the reasons for inactivity which Duplay did not acknowledge to himself was the simple and common one that he was in his heart afraid to act. He meant to act, but he shrank from it and postponed the hour as long as he could. Defeat would be very ignominious; and he could not deny that defeat was possible merely from want of means to carry on the war. When the Major recognized this fact he was filled with a sombre indignation at the inequalities of wealth, and at the ways of a world wherein not even Truth shall triumph unless she commands a big credit at the bank.

And Mina annoyed him intensely, assuming an aggrieved air, and hinting severe moral condemnation in every glance of her eye. She behaved for all the world as though the Major had begun the whole thing, and entirely ignored her own responsibility. She conveyed the view that he was the unscrupulous assailant, she the devoted defender, of the Tristrams. Such a _volte-face as this was not only palpably unjust, it was altogether too nimble a bit of gymnastics for Duplay to appreciate. The general unreasonableness of woman was his only refuge; but the dogma could not bring understanding, much less consolation, with it.

"What did you tell me for, then?" he cried at last. "You were hot on it then. Now you say you won't help me, you'll have nothing more to do with it!"

"I only told it you as--as a remarkable circumstance," the Imp alleged, with a wanton disregard for truth.

"Nonsense, Mina. You were delighted to have a weapon against young Tristram then."

"I can't help it if you insist on misunderstanding me, uncle; and, anyhow, I suppose I can change my mind if I like, can't I?"

"No," he declared, "it's not fair to me. I can't make you out at all. You're not in love with Harry Tristram, are you?"

"With that boy?" asked Mina, attempting to be superb.

"That's women's old nonsense," observed Duplay, twirling his mustache knowingly. "They often fall in love with young men and always try to pass it off by calling them boys."

"Of course I haven't your experience, uncle," she rejoined, passing into the sarcastic vein.

"And if you are," he went on, reverting to the special case, "I don't see why you make his path smooth to Janie Iver."

"Some people are capable of self-sacrifice in their love."

"Yes, but I shouldn't think you'd be one of them," said the Major rather rudely. He looked at her curiously. Her interest in Harry was unmistakable, her championship of him had become thorough-going, fierce, and (to the Major's mind) utterly unscrupulous. Was he faced with a situation so startlingly changed? Did his niece object to turning Harry off his throne because she harbored a hope of sharing it with him? If that were so, and if the hope had any chance of becoming a reality, Duplay would have to reconsider his game. But what chance of success could there be? She would (he put it bluntly in his thoughts) only be making a fool of herself.

The Imp screwed up her little lean face into a grimace which served effectually to cover any sign of her real feelings. She neither admitted nor denied the charge levied against her. She was bewildering her uncle, and she found, as usual, a genuine pleasure in the pursuit. If she were also bewildering herself a little with her constant thoughts of Harry Tristram and her ardent championship of his cause, well, in the country there is such a thing as being too peaceful, and up to the present time the confusion of feeling had been rather pleasant than painful.

"I don't really know what I feel," she remarked the next moment. "But you can read women, uncle, you've often said so, and I dare say you really know more about what I feel than I do myself." A grossness of innocence was her new assumption. "Now judging from what I do and look--that's the way to judge, isn't it, not from what I say?--what do you think my real inmost feelings are about Mr Tristram?"

If the Major had been asked what his real inmost feelings about his niece were at the moment, he would have been at some difficulty to express them decorously. She was back at fifteen--a particularly exasperating child of fifteen. Her great eyes, with their mock gravity, were fixed on his irritated face. He would have agreed absolutely with Mr Cholderton's estimate of the evil in her, and of its proper remedy.

Wherein Duplay was derided his niece made very plain to him; wherein his words had any effect was studiously concealed. Yet she repeated the words when he had, with a marked failure of temper, gone his way and slammed the door behind him. "In love with Harry Tristram!" Mina found the idea at once explanatory and picturesque. Why otherwise was she his champion? She paused (as they say) for a reply. How better could she draw to herself a part and a share in the undoubtedly romantic situation in which she grouped the facts of the case? By being in love with Harry she became part of the drama; and she complicated the drama most delightfully. Janie knew nothing--she knew everything. Janie hesitated--what if she did not hesitate? A big _rôle opened before her eyes. What if it were very unlikely that Harry would reciprocate her proposed feelings? The Imp hesitated between a natural vexation and an artistic pleasure. Such a failure on his part would wound the woman, but it would add pathos to the play. She became almost sure that she could love Harry; she remained uncertain whether he should return the compliment. And, after all, to be Lady Tristram of Blent! That was attractive. Or (in case Harry suffered defeat) to be Lady Tristram of Blent in the sight of heaven (a polite and time-honored way of describing an arrangement not recognized on earth, and quite adaptable to the present circumstances); that had a hardly less alluring, and at least a rarer, flavor. The Imp looked down on Blent with an access of interest. Monsieur Zabriska had left her with unexhausted reserves of feeling. Moreover she could not be expected to help her uncle if she were seriously attached to Harry. The moral of all this for the Major was that it is unwise to suggest courses of action unless you are willing to see them carried out, or channels of emotion unless you are prepared to find them filled.

"Some people are capable of self-sacrifice in their love." That would mean being his champion still, and letting him marry Janie Iver. She did not object much to her own part, but she cavilled suddenly at Janie's--or at Harry's relation to Janie. Would it be better to share adversity with him? Perhaps. But, after all, she did not fancy him in adversity. The third course recommended itself--victory for him, but not Janie. Who then?

At this point Mina became sensible of no more than the vaguest visions, not at all convincing even to herself. By a sad deficiency of imagination, she could give no definiteness to a picture of Harry Tristram making love. He had never, to her mind, looked like it with Janie Iver, even while he had purported to be doing it. He never looked like it at all, not even as though he could do it. Stay, though! That new way of his, which she had marked when he came up the hill to thank her for the flowers, was an exception. But the new way had been for his mother's sake. Now a man cannot be in love with his mother. The question grew more puzzling, more annoying, more engrossing still.

While full of these problems, refusing indeed to be anything else, Mina was surprised by a visit from Miss Swinkerton, who sought a subscription for the scheme of which an inadequate account has already been given. Miss Swinkerton (for some reason she was generally known as Miss S., a vulgar style of description possessing sometimes an inexplicable appropriateness) was fifty-five, tall and bony, the daughter of a Rear-Admiral, the sister of an Archdeacon. She lived for good works and by gossip. Mina's sovereign (foreigners will not grasp the cheap additional handsomeness of a guinea) duly disbursed, conversation became general--that is to say, they talked about their neighbors.

"A hard young man," said Miss S. (Why be more genteel than her friends?) "And if Janie Iver thinks he's in love with her----"

"What do you mean by being in love, Miss Swinkerton?"

Miss Swinkerton had always been rather surprised, not to say hurt, when the Catechism asked for an explanation of what she meant by the Lord's Prayer. This question of Mina's was still more uncalled for.

"You know enough English, my dear----"

"It's not a question of English," interrupted Mina, "but of human nature, Miss Swinkerton."

"When I was a girl there were no such questions."

"What about Lady Tristram, then?"

There was flattery in this, ten or fifteen years of flattery. Miss S. was unmoved.

"I am happy to say that Lady Tristram never called at Seaview." Miss S.'s house was called Seaview--Sea-Backview would have been a more precise description.

"I call him in love with Janie Iver. He must want to marry her or----"

"They do say that money isn't very plentiful at Blent. And there'll be the Death Duties, you know."

"What are they?" asked Mina.

"Like stamps," explained Miss S., vaguely. "For my part, I think it's lucky he is what he is. There's been enough of falling in love in the Tristram family. If you ask me who is in love with her, of course it's poor young Broadley. Well, you know that, as you're always driving up to Mingham with her."

"We've only been three or four times, Miss Swinkerton."

"Six, I was told," observed Miss S., with an air of preferring accuracy. "Oh, I should be very pleased to see him married to Janie--Mr Tristram, I mean, of course--but she mustn't expect too much, my dear. Where's your uncle?"

"At Fairholme, I expect," answered the Imp demurely. As a matter of fact the Major had gone to Exeter on a business errand.

"Fairholme?" Miss S.'s air was significant, Mina's falsehood rewarded. Mina threw out a smile; her visitor's pursed lips responded to it.

"He goes there a lot," pursued Mina, "to play golf with Mr Iver."

"So I've heard." Her tone put the report in its proper place. To play golf indeed!

"I think Janie's rather fond of Mr Tristram, anyhow." This was simply a feeler on Mina's part.

"Well, my dear, the position! Blent's been under a cloud--though people don't seem to mind that much nowadays, to be sure. But the new Lady Tristram! They've always been the heads of the neighborhood. She'll have him, no doubt, but as for being in love with him--well, could you, Madame Zabriska?"

"Yes," said the Imp, without the least hesitation. "I think he's most attractive--mysterious, you know. I'm quite taken with him."

"He always looks at me as if I wanted to pick his pocket."

"Well, you generally do--for your charities." The laugh was confined to Mina herself. "But I know the manner you mean."

"Poor young man! I'm told he's very sensitive about his mother. That's it perhaps." The guess was at all events as near as gossip generally gets to truth. "It would make him a very uncomfortable sort of husband though, even if one didn't mind having that kind of story in the family."

With a flash of surprise--really she had not been thinking about herself, in spite of her little attempts to mystify Miss S.--Mina caught that lady indulging in a very intent scrutiny of her, which gave an obvious point to her last words and paved the way (as it appeared in a moment) for a direct approach to the principal object of Miss S.'s visit. That this object did not come to the front till Miss S. was on her feet to go was quite characteristic.

"I'm really glad, my dear," she observed, hanging her silk bag on her arm, "to have had this talk with you. They do say such things, and now I shall be able to contradict them on the best authority."

"What do they say?"

"Well, I never repeat things; still I think perhaps you've a right to know. They do say that you're more interested in Harry Tristram than a mere neighbor would be, and--well, really, I don't quite know how to put it."

"Oh, I do!" cried Mina, delightedly hitting the mark. "That uncle and I are working together, I suppose?"

"I don't listen to such gossip, but it comes to my ears," Miss S. admitted.

"What diplomatists we are!" said the Imp. "I didn't know we were so clever. But why do I take Janie to Mingham?"

"They'd say that Bob Broadley's no real danger, and if it _should disgust Harry Tristram----"

"I am clever! Dear Miss Swinkerton, I never thought of anything half so good myself. I'll tell uncle about it directly."

Miss S. looked at her suspiciously. The innocence seemed very much over-done.

"I knew you'd laugh at it," she observed.

"I should do that even if it was true," said Mina, thoroughly enjoying herself.

Miss S. took her leave, quite undecided whether to announce on the best authority that the idea was true, or that it was quite unfounded. One thing only was certain; whatever she decided to say, she would say on the best authority. If it turned out incorrect in the end, Miss S. would take credit for an impenetrable discretion and an unswerving loyalty to the friends who had given her their confidence.

Mina was left very unquiet. Miss S. chimed in with the Major; the neighborhood too seemed in the same tune. She could laugh at the ingenuities attributed to her, yet the notions which had given them birth found, as she perceived more and more clearly, a warrant in her feelings, if not in her conduct. Look at it how she would, she was wrapped up in Harry Tristram; she spent her days watching his fortunes, any wakeful hour of the night found her occupied in thinking of him. Was she a traitor to her friend Janie Iver? Was that treachery bringing her back, by a roundabout way, to a new alliance with her uncle? Did it involve treason to Harry himself? For certainly it was hard to go on helping him toward a marriage with Janie Iver.

"But I will all the same if he wants it," she exclaimed, as she paced about on the terrace, glancing now and then down at Blent. And again she stood aghast at the thorough-going devotion which such an attitude as that implied. "If only I could keep out of things!" she murmured. "But I never can."

Major Duplay drove up the hill in a Blentmouth station fly; he had met the doctor on the road, and the news was that in all probability Lady Tristram would not live out the night. The tidings gained added solemnity from Duplay's delivery of them, even though a larger share of his impressiveness was directed to the influence the event might have on his fortunes than to the event itself.

"Then we shall see. He'll assume the title, I suppose. That's no affair of mine. And then he'll go to Fairholme. That is." He turned suddenly, almost threateningly, upon her. "I hope you've come to your senses, Mina," said he. "You'll have to speak, you know. If I can't make you, Iver will." He paused and laughed. "But you'll speak fast enough when you find yourself in the lawyer's office."

Mina refused to be frightened by the threatened terrors of the law.

"Who's going to take me to a lawyer's office?" she demanded.

"Why, Iver will, of course." He showed contemptuous surprise. "Oh, you've gone too far to think you can get out of it now."

She studied him attentively for a moment or two. The result was reassuring; his blustering manner hid, she believed, a sinking heart.

"You can't frighten me, uncle. I've made up my mind what to do, and I shall do it."

She was not afraid of him now. She was wondering how she had come to be bullied into telling her secret at all, looking back with surprise to that scene in the library when, with sullen obedience and childish fear, she had obeyed his command to speak. Why was it all different now? Why was his attempt to take the same line with her not only a failure, but a ridiculous effort? She knew the angry answer he would give. Could she give any other answer herself? A new influence had come into her life. She had not ceased to be afraid, but she was afraid of somebody else. A domination was over her still, but it was no longer his. Like some turbulent little city of old Greece, she had made her revolution: the end had been to saddle her with a new tyrant. There seemed no more use in denying it; the Major said it, Miss S. said it, the neighborhood was all agreed. What she herself was most conscious of, and most oppressed by, was a sense of audacity. How dared she devote herself to Harry Tristram? He had asked nothing of her. No, but he had imposed something on her. She had volunteered for his service. It was indeed "women's nonsense" when she spoke of him as "That Boy."

Duplay turned away from her, disheartened and disgusted. Things looked well for the enemy. He was alone with his unsupported story of a conversation which Mina would not repeat, with his empty purse which could supply no means of proving what he said. He ran the risk of losing what chance he had of Janie Iver's favor, and he was in sore peril of coming off second-best again in his wrestling-bout with Harry Tristram. The Man in Possession was strong. The perils that had seemed so threatening were passing away. Mina was devoted; Neeld would be silent. Who would there be who could effectively contest his claim, or oust him from his place? Thus secure, he would hardly need the check always by him. Yet he was a cautious wary young man. There is little doubt that he would still like to have the check by him, and that he would take the only means of getting it.

Now that the moment had come for which all his life had been a preparation, Harry Tristram had little reason to be afraid.

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