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- The Grey Lady - 20/45 -
"Not overlooking that fact, marm," he said, "if you choose to take it so."
Mrs. Harrington turned to Eve again with a faint reflex of her overbearing manner towards the Ingham-Bakers and other persons who found it expedient to submit.
"You will see at a glance," she said, "that it is impossible for you to live with Captain Bontnor."
"I have already accepted his kind offer," returned the girl. "Thank you, nevertheless."
"But," said Mrs. Harrington, "that was before you knew that I was ready to make a home for you."
Captain Bontnor had turned away. He blew his nose so loudly that Mrs. Harrington frowned. There was something trumpet-like and defiant in the sound. Opposition had ever a strange effect on this spoilt woman. She liked it, as serving to enhance the value of the wish which she rarely failed to gratify in the end.
"You must remember your position," she continued. "These are very democratic days, when silly people think that all men are equal. A lady is nevertheless still a lady, and a gentleman a gentleman, though one does not often meet them. I wish you to come and live with me."
Eve's dark eyes flashed suddenly. She glanced at her uncle, and said nothing.
"A girl with money is a ready dupe to designing persons," added Mrs. Harrington.
"I am saved that danger, for I have no money," replied Eve.
"Nonsense, child! I know the value of land in Mallorca. I see already that you are being deceived."
She glanced significantly towards the captain, who was again smiling blandly.
"The matter has been fully gone into," explained Eve, "by competent persons. The Val d'Erraha does not belong to me. It was held by my father only on 'rotas'--the Minorcan form of lease--and it has now been returned to the proprietor."
Mrs. Harrington's keen face dropped. She prided herself upon being a woman of business, and as such had always taken a deep interest in the affairs of other people. It is to be presumed that women have a larger mental grasp than men. They crave for more business when they are business-like, and thus by easy steps descend to mere officiousness.
Eve's story was so very simple and, to the ears of one who had known her father, so extremely likely, that Mrs. Harrington had for the moment nothing to say. She knew the working of the singular system on which land is to this day held in tenure in Majorca and Minorca, and there was no reason to suppose that there was any mistake or deception respecting the estate of the Val d'Erraha.
A dramatist of considerable talent, who is not sufficiently studied in these modern times, has said that a man in his time plays many parts. He left it to be understood that a woman plays only one. The business woman is the business woman all through her life--she is never the charitable lady, even for a moment.
Mrs. Harrington had wished to have the bringing out of a beautiful heiress. She had no desire to support a penniless orphan. The matter had, in her mind, taken the usual form of a contract in black and white. Mrs. Harrington would supply position and a suitable home--Eve was to have paid for her own dresses--chosen by the elder contractor--and to have filled gracefully the gratifying, if hollow, position of a young person of means looking for a husband.
Mrs. Harrington's business habits had, in fact, kept her fully alive to the advantages likely to accrue to herself; and the small fact that Eve was penniless reduced these advantages to a mythical reward in the hereafter. And business people have not time to think of the hereafter.
It is possible that simple old Captain Bontnor in part divined these thoughts in the set grey eyes, the grey wrinkled face.
"You'll understand, marm," he said, "that my niece will not be in a position to live the sort o' life"--he paused, and looked round the vast room, quite without admiration--"the sort o' life you're livin' here. She couldn't keep up the position."
"It would not be for long," said Mrs. Harrington, already weighing an alternative plan. She looked critically at Eve, noting, with the appraising eye of a middle-aged woman of the world, the grace of her straight young form, the unusual beauty of her face. "If you could manage to allow her sufficient to dress suitably for one season, I dare say she would make a suitable marriage."
Eve turned on her with a flash of bright dark eyes. "Thank you; I do not want to make a suitable marriage."
Captain Bontnor laid his hand on her arm.
"My dear," he said, "don't take any heed of her. She doesn't know any better. I have heard tell of such women, but"--he looked round the room--"I did not look to meet with one in a house like this. I did not know they called themselves ladies."
Mrs. Harrington gasped. She lived in a world where people think such things as these, but do not say them. Captain Bontnor, on the other hand, had not yet encountered a person of whom he was so much afraid as to conceal a hostile opinion, should he harbour such.
He was patting Eve's gloved hand as if she had been physically hurt, and Eve smiled down into his sympathetic old face. It is a singular fact that utter worldliness in a woman seems to hurt women less than it does men.
Mrs. Harrington, with frigid dignity, ignored Captain Bontnor, and addressed herself exclusively to Eve.
"You must be good enough to remember," she said, "that I can scarcely have other motives than those of kindness."
A woman is so conscious of the weak links in her chain of argument, that she usually examines them publicly.
"I do remember that," replied Eve, rather softened by the grey loneliness of this woman's life--a loneliness which seemed to be sitting on all the empty chairs--"and I am very grateful to you. I think, perhaps, my uncle misunderstood you. But--"
"Under the circumstances, I think it will be wiser for me to accept his kind offer, and make my home with him. I hope to be able to find some work which will enable me to--to help somewhat towards the household expenses."
Mrs. Harrington shrugged her shoulders.
"As you like," she said. "After a few months of a governess's life perhaps you may reconsider your decision. I know--"
She was going to say that she knew what it was, but she recollected herself in time.
"I know," she said instead, "girls who have lived such lives."
With the air of Spain Eve Challoner seemed to have inhaled some of the Spanish pride, which is as a stone wall against which charity and pity may alike beat in vain. From her superior height the girl looked down on the keen-faced little woman.
"I am not in a position to choose," she said. "I am prepared for some small hardships."
Mrs. Harrington turned to ring the bell. With the sudden caprice which her money had enabled her to cultivate, she had taken a liking to Eve.
"You will have some tea?" she said.
Eve turned to thank her, and suddenly her heart leaped to her throat. She caught her breath, and did not answer for a moment.
"Thank you," she said; and her eyes stole back to the mantelpiece, where a large photograph of Fitz seemed to watch her with a quiet, thoughtful smile.
The whole room appeared to be different after that. Mrs. Harrington seemed to be a different woman--the world seemed suddenly to be a smaller place and less lonely.
During the remainder of the short visit they talked of indifferent topics, while Captain Bontnor remained silent. Mrs. Harrington's caprice grew stronger, and before tea was over she said -
"My dear, if you will not come and live with me, at all events make use of me. Your uncle will, no doubt, have to make some small changes in his household. I propose that you stay with me a week or ten days, until he is ready for you."
This with a slight conciliatory bow towards Captain Bontnor, who stared remorselessly at the clock.
"Thank you; I should very much like to," said Eve, mindful of the mantelpiece.
CHAPTER XIV. A QUATRE.
There is so much that no one knows, So much unreached that none suppose.
"I want you to put on a nice dress to-night. I have two friends coming to dine."
Eve looked up from the book she was reading, and Mrs. Harrington tempered her curt manner of expressing her wishes with a rare smile.
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