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- The Grey Lady - 10/45 -
heart," he said. "I regret to trouble you so soon after the great loss sustained by your excellency, indeed, by the whole island of Majorca. But it is a matter of business. Such things cannot be delayed. Have I your excellency's permission to proceed?"
The man's clean-shaven face was like a mask. The expressions seemed to come and go as if worked by machinery. Sympathy was turned off, and in its place Polite-Attention-to-Business appeared. From under his arm he drew a leather portfolio, which he placed upon the table.
"The affairs of the late Cavalier Challoner were perhaps known to your excellency?"
"No; I knew nothing of my father's affairs."
Sympathy seemed to be struggling behind "Polite-Attention-to- Business," while for a moment a real look of distress flitted over the parchment face. He paused for an instant, reflecting while he assorted his papers.
"I am," he said, "the lawyer of his excellency the Count de Lloseta."
Eve and Fitz exchanged a glance, and as silence was kept the lawyer went on.
"Three generations ago," he said, "a Count de Lloseta, the grandfather of this present excellency, made over on 'rotas' the estate and house known as the Val d'Erraha to the grandfather of the late Cavalier Challoner--a Captain Challoner, one of Admiral Byng's men."
Again he paused, arranging his papers.
"The Majorcan system 'rotas' is known to your excellency?"
"On this system an estate is made over for one or two or three generations by the proprietor to the lessee who farms or sublets the land, and in lieu of rent hands over to the proprietor a certain proportion of the crops. Does your excellency follow me?"
Eve did not answer at once. Then the lawyer's meaning seemed to dawn upon her.
"Then," she said, "the Casa d'Erraha never belonged to my father?"
"Never"--with a grave bow.
"And I have nothing--nothing at all! I am penniless?"
The lawyer looked from her to Fitz, who was standing beside her listening to the conversation, but not offering to take part in it.
"Unless your excellency has private means--in England, perhaps."
"I do not know--I know nothing. And we must leave the Casa d'Erraha. When, senor? Tell me when."
The lawyer avoided her distressed eyes.
"Well," he said slowly, "the law is rather summary. I--your excellency understands I only do my duty. I am not the principal. I have no authority whatever--except the law."
"You mean that I must go at once?"
The lawyer's parchment face was generously expressive of grief now.
"Excellency, the lease terminated at the death of the late Caballero Challoner."
Eve stood for a moment, breathing hard. Fate seemed suddenly to have turned against her at every point. At this moment Captain Bontnor made bold--one could see him doing it--to take her hand.
"My dear," he said, "I don't quite understand what this foreign gentleman and you are talkin' about. But if it's trouble, dear, if it's trouble--just let me try."
CHAPTER VII. IN THE STREET OF THE PEACE.
Measure thy life by loss instead of gain, Not by the wine drunk, but the wine poured forth.
"MY DEAR MISS CHALLONER,--I learn that you are in Barcelona, and at the same time I find with some indignation that my lawyer in Mallorca, with a deplorable excess of zeal, has been acting without my orders in respect to the property of the Val d'Erraha. I hasten to place myself and possessions at your disposition, and take the liberty of writing to request an interview, instead of calling on you at your hotel, for reasons which you will readily understand, knowing as you do the gossiping ways of hotels. As an old friend of your father's, and one who moved and lived in neighbourly intercourse with him before your birth, and before the deplorable death of your mother, I now waive ceremony, and beg that you and your uncle will come and take tea with me this afternoon at my humble abode in the 'Calle de la Paz.'--Believe me, dear Miss Challoner, yours very sincerely, "CIPRIANI DE LLOSETA DE MALLORCA."
Eve read this letter in her room in the Hotel of the Four Nations at Barcelona. She had only been on the mainland twenty-four hours when it was delivered to her by a servant of the Count's, who came to her apartment and delivered it into her own hands, as is the custom of Spanish servants.
Eve Challoner had grown older during the last few days. She had been brought face to face with life as it really is, and not as we dream it in the dreams of youth. She was not surprised to receive this letter, although she had no idea that the Count de Lloseta was in Spain. But the varying emotions of the last week had, as it were, undermined the confident hopefulness with which we look forward when we are young, and sometimes when we are old, to the management of our own lives here below. She was beginning to understand certain terms which she had heard applied to human existence, and to which she had hitherto attached no special meaning as relating to herself. More especially did she understand at this time that life may be compared to a stream, for she was vaguely conscious of drifting she knew not whither.
Fitz had come suddenly into her life; Captain Bontnor had come into it; and now this man, Cipriani de Lloseta, seemed to be asserting his right to come into it too. And she did not know quite what to do with them all. She had never, in the quiet, dreamy days of her youth, pictured a life with any of these men in it, and the future was suddenly tremendous, unfathomable. There were vast possibilities in it of misery, of danger, of difficulty; and behind these a vague, new feeling of a possible happiness far exceeding the happiness of her peaceful childhood.
Without consulting her uncle, who had gone out into the street to walk backwards and forwards before the door, as he had walked backwards and forwards on his deck for forty years, she sat down and accepted the Count's informal invitation. She seemed to do it without reflection, as if impelled thereto by something stronger than pro or con, as if acknowledging the Spaniard's right to come into her life, bringing to bear upon it an influence which she never attempted to fathom.
Thus it came about that Eve and Captain Bontnor found themselves awaiting their host in the massive, gloomy drawing-room of the Palace in the Calle de la Paz at five o'clock that afternoon.
Captain Bontnor had learnt a great deal during the last few days; among other things he had learnt to love his niece with a simple, dog-like devotion, which had a vein of pathos in it for those who see such things. He placed himself well behind Eve, and looked around him with a wondering awe.
"I think, my dear," he said, "that it would have been better if you had come alone. I--you know I am getting too old to learn manners now--eh--he! he! Yes. Having been so long at sea, you know."
"I think the sea teaches men manners, uncle," said Eve, with a little smile which he did not understand. "At any rate," she went on, touching his rough sleeve affectionately, "it teaches them something that I like."
"Does it, now? What, now? Tell me."
"I do not know," answered the girl, as if speaking to herself, and at this moment the door was opened. The man who came in was of medium height, with a long, narrow face, and singularly patient eyes.
"I should have known you," he said, approaching Eve, and holding out his hand. "You do not remember your mother? I do, however. You are like her--and she was a good woman. And this is Captain Bontnor--your uncle."
He shook hands with the old sailor without the faintest flicker of surprise at his somewhat incongruous appearance.
"I am glad," he said suavely, "to make Captain Bontnor's acquaintance."
He turned to draw forward a chair, and the light from the high, barred window falling full on his head, betrayed the fact that his hair, close cut as an English soldier's, was touched and flecked with grey. His lithe youthfulness of frame rather surprised Eve, who knew him to be a contemporary of her father's.
"It is very good of you to come," he went on in a low voice. "I took the privilege of the elder generation, you see! Captain, pray take that chair."
He did the honours with a British ease of manner, strangely touched by a Spanish dignity.
"When I heard of your great bereavement," he said, turning to Eve with a grave bow, "I ought perhaps to have gone to Mallorca at once to offer you what poor assistance was in my power. But circumstances, over which I had no control, prevented my doing so. My offer of help is tardy, I know, but it is none the less sincere."
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