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- The Grey Lady - 3/45 -
The strange thing was that she had never found it out. We speak pityingly of animals that do not know their own strength. Which of us knows his own weakness? There was a man connected with Mrs. Harrington's life, one of the contractors in black and white, who had found out this effect of a brown face and a blue coat upon a woman otherwise immovable. This man, Cipriani de Lloseta, who contemplated life, as it were, from a quiet corner of the dress circle, kept his knowledge for his own use.
Fitz and Luke obeyed her invitation without much enthusiasm. They were boyish enough to object to kissing on principle. They then shook hands awkwardly with Mrs. Ingham-Baker, and drifted together again with that vague physical attraction which seems to qualify twins for double harness on the road of life. There was trouble ahead of them; and without defining the situation, like soldiers surprised, they instinctively touched shoulders.
It was the psychological moment. There was a little pause, during which Mrs. Harrington seemed to stiffen herself, morally and physically. Had she not stiffened herself, had she only allowed herself, as it were, to go--to call Luke to her and comfort him and sympathise with him--it would have altered every life in that room, and others outside of it. Even blundering, cringing, foolish Mrs. Ingham-Baker would have acted more wisely, for she would have followed the dictates of an exceedingly soft, if shallow, heart.
"I had hoped for a more satisfactory home-coming than this," said Mrs. Harrington in her hardest voice. When she spoke in this tone there was the faintest suggestion of a London accent.
Fitz made a little movement, a step forward, as if she had been unconsciously approaching the brink of some danger, and he wished to warn her. The peculiar twist in Luke's lips became momentarily more visible, and he kept his deep, despondent eyes fixed on the speaker's face.
There are two kinds of rich women. The one spends her money in doing good, the other pays it away to gratify her love of power. Of the Honourable Mrs. Harrington it was never reported that she was lavish in her charities.
"I think," she said, "that I ought to tell you that I have been paying the expenses of your education almost entirely. I was in no way bound to do so. I took charge of you at your father's death because I--because he was a true friend to me. I do not grudge the money, but in return I expected you to work hard and get on in your profession."
She stiffened herself with a rustling sound of silk, proudly conscious of injured virtue, full of the charity that exacteth a high interest.
"We did our best," replied Fitz, with a simple intrepidity which rather spoilt the awesomeness of the situation.
"I am not speaking to you," returned the lady. "You have worked and have passed your examination satisfactorily. You are not clever--I know that; but you have managed to get into the Navy, where your father was before you, and your grandfather before him. I have no doubt you will give satisfaction to your superior officers. I was talking to Luke."
"We all knew that," said Luke, in a dangerous voice, which trite observation she chose to ignore.
"You have had equal advantages," pursued the dispenser of charity. "I have shown no favour; I have treated you alike. It had been my intention to do so all your lives and after my death."
Mrs. Ingham-Baker was so interested at this juncture that she leant forward with parted lips, listening eagerly. The Honourable Mrs. Harrington allowed herself the plebeian pleasure of returning the stare with a questioning glance which broke off into a little laugh.
"Have you," she continued, addressing Luke directly, "any reason to offer for your failure--beyond the usual one of bad luck?"
Luke looked at her in a lowering way and made no reply. Had Mrs. Harrington been a poor woman, she would have recognised that the boy was at the end of his tether. But she had always been surrounded-- as such women are--by men, and more especially by women, who would swallow any insult, any insolence, so long as it was gilded. The world had, in fact, accepted the Honourable Mrs. Harrington because she could afford to gild herself.
"It was bad luck, and nothing else," burst out Fitz, heedless of her sarcastic tones. "Luke is a better sailor than I am. But he always was weak in his astronomy, and it all turned on astronomy."
"I should imagine it all turned on stupidity," said Mrs. Harrington.
"I'm stupid, if you like," said Fitz; "Luke isn't. Luke is clever; ask any chap on board!"
"I do not need to ask any chap on board," said Mrs. Harrington. "My own common sense tells me that he is clever. He has proved it."
"It's like a woman--to hit a fellow when he's down," said Luke, with his hands deep in his pockets.
He turned to Mrs. Ingham-Baker for sympathy in this sentiment, and that soft-hearted lady deemed it expedient to turn hastily away, avoiding his glance, denying all partisanship.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker was not a person given to the disguise of her own feelings. She was plausible enough to the outer world. To herself she was quite frank, and hardly seemed to recognise this as the event she had most desired. It is to be presumed that her heart was like her physical self, a large, unwieldy thing, over which she had not a proper control. The organ mentioned had a way of tripping her up. It tripped her now, and she quite forgot that this quarrel was precisely what she had wanted for years. She had looked forward to it as the turning-point in her daughter Agatha's fortunes.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker had, in fact, wondered more than a thousand times why the Honourable Mrs. Harrington should do all for the FitzHenrys and nothing for Agatha. She did not attempt to attribute reasons. She knew her sex too well for that. She merely wondered, which means that she cherished a question until it grew into a grievance. The end of it she knew would be a quarrel. This might not come until the FitzHenrys should have grown to man's estate and man's privilege of quarrelling with his female relatives about the youthful female relative of some other person. But it would come, surely. Mrs. Ingham-Baker, the parasite, knew her victim, Mrs. Harrington, well enough to be sure of that.
And now that this quarrel had arisen--much sooner than she could have hoped--providentially brought about by an astronomical examination-paper, Mrs. Ingham-Baker was forced to face the humiliating fact that she felt sorry for Luke.
It would have been different had Agatha been present, but that ingenious maiden was at school at Brighton. Had her daughter been in the room, Mrs. Ingham-Baker's motherly instinct would have narrowed itself down to her. But in the absence of her own child, Luke's sorry plight appealed to that larger maternal instinct which makes good women in unlikely places.
Mrs. Ingham-Baker was, however, one of the many who learn to curb the impulse of a charitable intention. She looked out of the window, and pretended not to notice that the culprit had addressed his remark to her. To complete this convenient deafness she gave a simulated little cough of abstraction, which entirely gave her away.
Mrs. Harrington chose to ignore Luke's taunt.
"And," she inquired sweetly, "what do you intend to do now?"
Quite suddenly the boy turned on her.
"I intend," he cried, "to make my own life--whatever it may be. If I am starving I will not come to you. If half-a-crown would save me, I would rather die than borrow it from you. You think that you can buy everything with your cursed money. You can't buy me. You can't buy a FitzHenry. You--you can't--"
He gave a little sob, remembered his new manhood--that sudden, complete manhood which comes of sorrow--pulled himself up, and walked to the door. He opened it, turned once and glanced at his brother, and passed out of the room.
So Luke FitzHenry passed out into his life--a life which he was to make for himself. Passionate--quick to love, to hate, to suffer; deep in his feeling, susceptible to ridicule or sarcasm--an orphan. The stairs were dark as he went down them.
Mrs. Harrington gave a little laugh as the door closed behind him. She had always been able to repurchase the friendship of her friends.
Fitz made a few steps towards the door before her voice arrested him. "Stop!" she cried.
He paused, and the old sense of discipline that was in his blood made him obey. He thought that he would find Luke upstairs on the bed with his face buried in his folded arms, as he had found him a score of times during their short life.
"I think you are too hard on him," he answered hotly. "It is bad enough being ploughed, without having to stand abuse afterwards."
"My dear," said Mrs. Harrington, "just you come here and sit beside me. We will leave Luke to himself for a little. It is much better. Let him think it out alone."
What was there in this fair-haired boy's demeanour, voice, or being that appealed to Mrs. Harrington, despite her sterner self?
So Fitz was pacified by the lady's gentler manner, and consented to remain. He made good use of his time, pleading Luke's cause, explaining his bad fortune, and modestly disclaiming any credit to himself for having succeeded where his brother failed. But all the while the boy was restless, eager to get away and run upstairs to Luke, who he felt sure was living years in every moment, as children do in those griefs which we take upon ourselves to call childish.
At last he rose.
"May I go now?" he asked.
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