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- The Grey Lady - 2/45 -
moment speaking of the FitzHenrys. It was quite easy to see that the smaller lady of the two was the mistress of the house, as also of that vague abstract called the situation. She sat in the most comfortable chair, which was, by the way, considerably too spacious for her, and there was a certain aggressive sense of possession about her attitude and manner.
Had she been a man, one would have said at once that here was a nouveau riche, ever heedful of the fact that the big room and all the appurtenances thereof were the fruits of toil and perseverance. There was a distinct suggestion of self-manufacture about Mrs. Harrington--distinct, that is to say, to the more subtle-minded. For she was not vulgar, neither did she boast. But the expression of her keen and somewhat worldly countenance betokened the intention of holding her own.
The Honourable Mrs. Harrington was not only beautifully dressed, but knew how to wear her clothes en grande dame.
"Yes," she was saying, "Luke has failed to pass off the Britannia. It is a rare occurrence. I suppose the boy is a fool."
Mrs. Harrington was rather addicted to the practice of calling other people names. If the butler made a mistake she dubbed him an idiot at once. She did not actually call her present companion, Mrs. Ingham-Baker, a fool, possibly because she considered the fact too apparent to require note.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker, stout and cringing, smoothed out the piece of silken needlework with which she moved through life, and glanced at her companion. She wanted to say the right thing. And Mrs. Harrington was what the French call "difficult." One could never tell what the right thing might be. The art of saying it is, moreover, like an ear for music, it is not to be acquired. And Mrs. Ingham-Baker had not been gifted thus.
"And yet," she said, "their father was a clever man--as I have been told."
"By whom?" inquired Mrs. Harrington blandly.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker paused in distress.
"I wonder who it was," she pretended to reflect.
"So do I," snapped Mrs. Harrington.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker's imagination was a somewhat ponderous affair, and, when she trusted to it, it usually ran her violently down a steep place. She concluded to say nothing more about the late Admiral FitzHenry.
"The boy," said Mrs. Harrington, returning to the hapless Luke, "has had every advantage. I suppose he will try to explain matters when he comes. I could explain it in one word--stupidity."
"Perhaps," put in Mrs. Ingham-Baker nervously, "the brains have all gone to the other brother, Henry. It is sometimes so with twins."
Mrs. Harrington laughed rather derisively.
"Stupid woman to have twins," she muttered.
This was apparently one of several grievances against the late Mrs. FitzHenry.
"They have a little money of their own, have they not?" inquired Mrs. Ingham-Baker, with the soft blandness of one for whom money has absolutely no attraction.
"About enough to pay their washerwoman."
There was a pause, and then Mrs. Ingham-Baker heaved a little sigh.
"I am sure, dear," she said, "that in some way you will be rewarded for your great kindness to these poor orphan boys."
She shook her head wisely, as if reflecting over the numerous cases of rewarded virtue which had come under her notice, and the action made two jet ornaments in her cap wobble, in a ludicrous manner, from side to side.
"That may be," admitted the lady of the house, "though I wish I felt as sure about it as you do."
"But then," continued Mrs. Ingham-Baker, in a low and feeling tone, "you always were the soul of generosity."
The "soul of generosity" gave an exceedingly wise little smile-- almost as if she knew better--and looked up sharply towards the door. At the same moment the butler appeared.
"Mr. Pawson, ma'am," he said.
The little nod with which this information was received seemed to indicate that Mr. Pawson had been expected.
Beneath her black curls Mrs. Ingham-Baker's beady eyes were very much on the alert.
"In the library, James," said Mrs. Harrington--and the two jet ornaments bending over the silken needlework gave a little throb of disappointment.
"Mr. Pawson," announced the lady of the house, "is the legal light who casts a shadow of obscurity over my affairs."
And with that she left the room.
As soon as the door was closed Mrs. Ingham-Baker was on her feet. She crossed the room to where her hostess's key-basket and other belongings stood upon a table near the window. She stood looking eagerly at these without touching them. She even stooped down to examine the address of an envelope.
"Mr. Pawson!" she said, in a breathless whisper. "Mr. Pawson--what does that mean? Can she be going to alter her--no! But--yes, it may be! Perhaps Susan knows."
Mrs. Ingham-Baker then rang the bell twice, and resumed her seat.
Presently an aged servant came into the room. It was easy to see at a glance that she was a very old woman, but the years seemed to weigh less on her mind than on her body.
"Yes," she said composedly.
"Oh--eh, Susan," began Mrs. Ingham-Baker almost cringingly. "I rang because I wanted to know if a parcel has come for me--a parcel of floss-silk--from that shop in Buckingham Palace Road, you know."
"If it had come," replied Susan, with withering composure, "it would have been sent up to you."
"Yes, yes, of course I know that, Susan. But I thought that perhaps it might have been insufficiently addressed or something--that you or Mary might have thought that it was for Mrs. Harrington."
"She don't use floss silks," replied the imperturbable Susan.
"I was just going to ask her about it, when she was called away by some one. I think she said that it was her lawyer."
"Yes, Mr. Pawson."
Susan's manner implied--very subtly and gently--that her place in this pleasant house was more assured than that of Mrs. Ingham-Baker, and perhaps that stout diplomatist awoke to this implication, for she pulled herself up with considerable dignity.
"I hope that nothing is wrong," she said, in a tone that was intended to disclaim all intention of discussing such matters with a menial. "I should be sorry if Mrs. Harrington was drawn into any legal difficulty; the law is so complicated."
Susan was engaged in looking for a speck of dust on the mantelpiece, not for its own intrinsic value, but for the sake of Mary's future. She had apparently no observation of value to offer upon the vexed subject of the law.
"I was rather afraid," pursued Mrs. Ingham-Baker gravely, "that Mrs. Harrington might be unduly incensed against that poor boy, Luke FitzHenry; that in a moment of disappointment, you know, she might be making some--well, some alteration in her will to the detriment of the boy."
Susan stood for a moment in front of the lady, with a strange little smile of amusement among the wrinkles of her face.
"Yes, that may be," she said, and quietly left the room.
CHAPTER II. A MAN DOWN.
Caress the favourites, avoid the unfortunate, and trust nobody.
The atmosphere of Mrs. Harrington's drawing-room seemed to absorb the new-found manhood of the two boys, for they came forward shyly, overawed by the consciousness of their own boots, by the conviction that they carried with them the odour of cigarette smoke and failure.
"Well, my dears," said the Honourable Mrs. Harrington, suddenly softened despite herself by the sight of their brown young faces. "Well, come here and kiss me."
All the while she was vaguely conscious that she was surprising herself and others. She had not intended to treat them thus. Mrs. Harrington was a woman who had a theory of life--not a theory to talk about, but to act upon. Her theory was that "heart" is all nonsense. She looked upon existence here below as a series of contracts entered into with one's neighbour for purposes of mutual enjoyment or advantage. She thought that life could be put down in black and white. Which was a mistake. She had gone through fifty years of it without discovering that for the sake of some memory-- possibly a girlish one--hidden away behind her cold grey eyes, she could never be sure of herself in dealing with man or boy whose being bore the impress of the sea.
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