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- The Grey Lady - 30/45 -


go ashore. Instead, he sat on a long chair on deck and read the Commentator. He naturally concluded that at last Cipriani de Lloseta had acceded to John Craik's wish.

The Ingham-Bakers had come home from Malta and were at this time staying with Mrs. Harrington in London. Agatha had of late taken to reading the newspapers somewhat exhaustively. She read such columns as are usually passed over by the majority of womankind--such as naval intelligence and those uninteresting details of maritime affairs printed in small type, and stated to emanate from Lloyd's, wherever that vague source may be.

From these neglected corners of the Morning Post Agatha Ingham-Baker had duly learnt that Henry FitzHenry had been appointed navigating- lieutenant to the Terrific, lying at Chatham, which would necessitate his leaving the Kittiwake at Gibraltar and returning to England at once. She also read that the Indian liner Croonah had sailed from Malta for Gibraltar and London, with two hundred and five passengers and twenty-six thousand pounds in specie.

And John Craik had written to Eve to come to London, where she had a permanent invitation to stay with Mrs. Harrington.

From over the wide world these people seemed to be drifting together like leaves upon a pond--borne hither and thither by some unseen current, swirled suddenly by a passing breath--at the mercy of wind and weather and chance, each occupied in his or her small daily life, looking no further ahead than the next day or the next week. And yet they were drifting surely and steadily towards each other, driven by the undercurrent of Fate, against which the strongest will may beat itself in vain.

CHAPTER IV. FOR THE HIGHEST BIDDER.

Let thine eyes look right on.

"How handsome Fitz looks in his uniform!" Mrs. Ingham-Baker said, with that touch of nervous apprehension which usually affected all original remarks addressed by her to Mrs. Harrington.

Mrs. Ingham-Baker had been to Malta and back, but the wonders of the deep had failed to make a wiser woman of her. If one wishes to gain anything by seeing the world, it is best to go and look at it early in life.

"Yes," answered Mrs. Harrington, with a glance in the direction of Agatha, the only other occupant of the drawing-room--"yes; he is a good-looking young fellow."

Agatha was reading the Globe, sitting upright and stiff, for she was wearing a new ball-dress.

"I think," went on Mrs. Ingham-Baker volubly, "that I have never seen a naval uniform before--in a room close at hand, you know. Of course, on board the Croonah the officers wore a sort of uniform, but they had not a sword."

Agatha turned over her newspaper impatiently. Mrs. Harrington was listening with an air of the keenest interest, which might have been sarcastic.

"Poor Luke had not quite so much gold braid--"

Agatha looked up, and Mrs. Ingham-Baker collapsed.

"I should think," she added, after some nervous shufflings in her seat, "that a sword is a great nuisance. Should you not think so, Marion dear?"

"I do not know," replied Mrs. Harrington; "I never wore one."

Mrs. Ingham-Baker laughed eagerly at herself, after the manner of persons who cannot afford to keep up a decent self-respect.

"But I always rather think," she went on, with an apprehensive glance towards her daughter, "that a sword is out of place in a drawing-room, or--or anywhere where there are carpets, you know."

"I thought you had never seen one before," put in Agatha, without looking up from her newspaper. "In a room--close at hand, you know."

"No--no, of course not; but I knew, dear, that they were worn. Of course, in warfare it is different."

"In warfare," said Mrs. Harrington patiently, "they are usually supposed to come in rather handy."

"Yes--he-he!" acquiesced Mrs. Ingham-Baker, adjusting a bracelet on her arm with something approaching complacency. She thought she began to see daylight through the conversational maze in which--with the best intentions--she had involved herself. "But I was only thinking that for a lady's drawing-room I think I like Luke's quiet black clothes just as much."

"I am glad of that," said Mrs. Harrington; "because I expect you will see several other men in the same dress this evening."

Mrs. Harrington had got up a party to go to the great naval ball of the season--a charity ball. Her party consisted of the Ingham- Bakers and the FitzHenrys, and for the first time for eight years the twin brothers met in the house in Grosvenor Gardens. They were at this moment in the dining-room together, where they had been left by their hostess with a kindly injunction to finish the port wine, duly tempered--as was all Mrs. Harrington's kindness--by instructions not to smoke.

Agatha's feelings were rather mixed, so, like a wise young woman of the world, she read the evening paper with great assiduity and refused to think.

The evening had been one of comparisons. Fitz and Luke had come together, for they were sharing rooms in Jermyn Street. Fitz, smart, upright, essentially a naval officer and an unquestionable gentleman. Luke, a trifle browner, more weather-beaten, with a faint, subtle suggestion of a rougher life. Fitz, easy, good- natured, calmly sure of himself--utterly without self-consciousness. Luke, conscious of inferior grade, not quite at ease, jealously on the alert for the comparison.

And Agatha had known from the first moment that in the eyes of the world--and Mrs. Harrington looked through those eyes--there was no comparison. Fitz carried all before him. All except Agatha. The girl was puzzled. Luke could not be compared with Fitz, and the whole world did not compare with Luke. She was fully awake to the contradiction, and she could not reconcile her facts. She had been very properly brought up at the Brighton Boarding School, receiving a good, practical, modern, nineteenth-century education--a curriculum of solid facts culled from the latest school books, from which Love had very properly been omitted.

And now, as she pretended to read the Globe Agatha was puzzling vaguely and numbly over the contradictions that come into human existence with the small adjunct called love. She was wondering how it was that she saw Luke's faults and the thousand ways in which he was inferior to his brother, and yet that with all these to stay him up Fitz did not compare with Luke. After all, there must have been some small defect in the education which she had received, for instead of thinking these futile things she ought to have been attempting to discover--as was her mother at that moment--which of the two brothers seemed more likely to inherit Mrs. Harrington's money.

Agatha's thoughts went back to the moment on the deck of the Croonah, when the sea breeze swept over her and Luke, and the strength of it, the simple, open force, seemed to be part and parcel of him--of the strong arms around her in which she was content to lie quiescent. She wondered for a moment whether it had all been true.

For Agatha Ingham-Baker was essentially human and womanly, in that she was, and ever would be, a creature of possibilities. She took up her long gloves and began slowly to draw them on. They were quite new, and she smoothed them with a distinct satisfaction, under which there brooded the sense of a new possibility. In all her calculations of life--and these had been many--she had never thought of the possibility of misery. She buttoned the gloves, she drew them cunningly up over her rounded arms, and she wondered whether she was going to be a miserable woman all her life. She saw herself suddenly with those inward eyes which are sometimes vouchsafed to us momentarily, and she saw Misery--in its best dress.

She looked up as Fitz and Luke came into the room. Luke's eyes were only for her. Fitz, with the unconcealed absorption which was often his, absolutely ignored her presence. And the little incident roused something contradictory in Agatha--something evil and, alas! feminine. She awoke to the very matter-of-factness of the present moment, and she determined to make a conquest of Fitz.

Agatha was not quite on her guard, and Mrs. Harrington's cold grey eyes were alert. It had once been this lady's intention to use Agatha as a means of subjecting Luke to her own capricious will-- Agatha being the alternative means where money had failed. She had almost forgotten this when Luke came into the room with eyes only for Agatha--and the girl was looking at Fitz.

"I suppose, Agatha," said Mrs. Harrington, "you will not be at a loss for partners to-night? You will know plenty of dancing men?"

"Oh, I suppose so," replied Agatha indifferently. She turned over her newspaper and retreated, as it were, behind her first line of defence--the sure line of audacious silence.

"The usual throng?"

"The usual throng," answered Agatha imperturbably.

Luke was biting his nails impatiently. His jealousy was patent to any woman. Fitz was talking to Mrs. Ingham-Baker.

"I should advise you young men to secure your dances now," continued Mrs. Harrington, with her usual fatal persistence. "Once Agatha gets into the room she will be snapped up."

Fitz turned round with his good-natured smile--the smile that indicates a polite attention to an indifferent conversation--and Mrs. Ingham-Baker was free to thrust in her awkward oar. She splashed in.


The Grey Lady - 30/45

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