Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 10
MISS BRENT'S STRATEGY
HAVING become reconciled to what she regarded as Patricia's matrimonial plans, although strongly disapproving of her deplorable flippancy, Miss Brent decided that her niece's position must be established in the eyes of her prospective relatives-in-law.
Miss Brent was proud of her family, but still prouder of the fact that the founder had come over with that extremely dubious collection of notables introduced into England by William of Normandy. To Miss Brent, William the Conqueror was what The Mayflower is to all ambitious Americans—a social jumping-off point. There were no army lists in 1066, or passengers' lists in 1620.
No one could say with any degree of certainty what it was that Geoffrey Brent did for, or knew about his ducal master; but it was sufficiently important to gain for him a grant of lands, which he had no more right to occupy than the Norman had to bestow.
After careful thought Miss Brent had decided upon her line of operations. Geoffrey Brent was to be used as a corrective to Patricia's occupation. No family, Miss Brent argued, could be expected to welcome with open arms a girl who earned her living as the secretary of an unknown member of parliament. She foresaw complications, fierce opposition, possibly an attempt to break off the engagement. To defeat this Geoffrey Brent was to be disinterred and flung into the conflict, and Patricia was to owe to her aunt the happiness that was to be hers. Incidentally Miss Brent saw in this circumstance a very useful foundation upon which to build for herself a position in the future.
Miss Brent had made up her mind upon two points. One that she would call upon Lady Meyfield, the other that Patricia's engagement must be announced. Debrett told her all she wanted to know about the Bowens, and she strongly disapproved of what she termed "hole-in-the-corner engagements." The marriage of a Brent to a Bowen was to her an alliance, carrying with it certain social responsibilities, consequently Society must be advised of what was impending. Romance was a by-product that did not concern either Miss Brent or Society.
Purpose and decision were to Miss Brent what wings and tail are to the swallow: they propelled and directed her. Her mind once made up, to change it would have appeared to Miss Brent an unpardonable sign of weakness. Circumstances might alter, thrones totter, but Miss Brent's decisions would remain unshaken.
On the day following her meeting with Lady Tanagra and Bowen, Miss Brent did three things. She transferred to "The Mayfair Hotel" for one night, she prepared an announcement of the engagement for The Morning Post, and she set out to call upon Lady Meyfield in Grosvenor Square.
The transference to "The Mayfair Hotel" served a double purpose. It would impress the people at the newspaper office, and it would also show that Patricia's kinswoman was of some importance.
As Patricia was tapping out upon a typewriter the halting eloquence of Mr. Arthur Bonsor, Miss Brent was being whirled in a taxi first to the office of The Morning Post and then on to Grosvenor Square.
"I fully appreciate," tapped Patricia with wandering attention, "the national importance of pigs."
"Miss Brent!" announced Lady Meyfield's butler.
Miss Brent found herself gazing into a pair of violet eyes that were smiling a greeting out of a gentle face framed in white hair.
"How do you do!" Lady Meyfield was endeavouring to recall where she could have met her caller.
"I felt it was time the families met," announced Miss Brent.
Lady Meyfield smiled, that gentle reluctant smile so characteristic of her. She was puzzled; but too well-bred to show it.
"Won't you have some tea?" She looked about her, then fixing her eyes upon a dark man in khaki, with smouldering eyes, called to him, introduced him, and had just time to say:
"Godfrey, see that Miss Brent has some tea," when a rush of callers swept Miss Brent and Captain Godfrey Elton further into the room.
Miss Brent looked about her with interest. She had read of how Lady Meyfield had turned her houses, both town and country, into convalescent homes for soldiers; but she was surprised to see men in hospital garb mixing freely with the other guests. Elton saw her surprise.
"Lady Meyfield has her own ideas of what is best," he remarked as he handed her a cup of tea.
Miss Brent looked up interrogatingly.
"She had some difficulty at first," continued Elton; "but eventually she got her own way as she always does. Now the official hospitals send her their most puzzling cases and she cures them."
"How?" enquired Miss Brent with interest.
"Imagination," said Elton, bowing to a pretty brunette at the other side of the room. "She is too wise to try and fatten a canary on a dog biscuit."
"Does she keep canaries then?" enquired Miss Brent.
"I'm afraid that was only my clumsy effort at metaphor," responded Elton with a disarming smile. "She adopts human methods. They are generally successful."
Elton went on to describe something of the success that had attended Lady Meyfield's hostels, as she called them. They were famous throughout the Service. When war broke out someone had suggested that she should use her tact and knowledge of human nature in treating cases that defied the army M.O.'s. "A tyrant is the first victim of tact," Godfrey Elton had said of Lord Meyfield, and in his ready acquiescence in his lady's plans Lord Meyfield had tacitly concurred.
Lady Meyfield had conferred with her lord in respect to all her plans and arrangements, until he had come to regard the hostels as the children of his own brain, admirably controlled and conducted by his wife. He seldom appeared, keeping to the one place free from the flood of red, white, and blue—his library. Here with his books and terra-cottas he "grew old with a grace worthy of his rank," as Elton phrased it.
Lady Meyfield's "cases" were mostly those of shell-shock, or nervous troubles. She studied each patient's needs, and decided whether he required diversion or quiet: if diversion, he was sent to her town house; if quiet, he went to one of her country houses.
At first it had been thought that a woman could not discipline a number of men; but Lady Meyfield had settled this by allowing them to discipline themselves. All misdemeanours were reported to and judged by a committee of five elected by ballot from among the patients. Their decisions were referred to Lady Meyfield for ratification. The result was that in no military hospital, or convalescent home, in the country was the discipline so good.
Miss Brent listened perfunctorily to Elton's description of Lady Meyfield's success. She had not come to Grosvenor Square to hear about hostels, or the curing of shell-shocked soldiers, and her eyes roved restlessly about the room.
"You know Lord Peter?" she enquired at length.
"Intimately." Elton replied as he took her cup from her.
"Do you like him?" Miss Brent was always direct.
"Unquestionably." Elton's tone was that of a man who found nothing unusual either in the matter or method of interrogation.
"Is he steady?" was the next question.
"As a rock," responded Elton, beginning to enjoy a novel experience.
"Why doesn't he live here?" demanded Miss Brent.
Miss Brent nodded.
"No room. The soldiers, you know," he added.
"No room for her own son?" Miss Brent's tone was in itself an accusation against Lady Meyfield of unnaturalness.
"Oh! Peter understands," was Elton's explanation.
"Oh!" Miss Brent looked sharply at him. For a minute there was silence.
"You have been wounded?" Miss Brent indicated the blue band upon his arm. Her question arose, not from any interest she felt; but she required time in which to reorganise her attack.
"I am only waiting for my final medical board, as I hope," Elton replied.
"You know Lady Tanagra?" Miss Brent was feeling some annoyance with this extremely self-possessed young man.
"Yes," was Elton's reply. He wondered if the next question would deal with her steadiness.
"I suppose you are a friend of the family?" was Miss Brent's next question.
"Good afternoon, sir." The speaker was a soldier in hospital blue, a rugged little man known among his fellows as "Uncle."
"Hullo! Uncle, how are you?" said Elton, shaking hands.
Miss Brent noticed a warmth in Elton's tone that was in marked contrast to the even tone of courtesy with which he had answered her questions.
"Oh, just 'oppin' on to 'eaven, sir," replied Uncle. "Sort of sittin' up an' takin' notice."
Elton introduced Uncle to Miss Brent, an act that seemed to her quite unnecessary.
"And where were you wounded?" asked Miss Brent conventionally.
"Clean through the buttocks, mum," replied Uncle simply.
Miss Brent flushed and cast a swift glance at Elton, whose face showed no sign. She turned to Uncle and regarded him severely; but he was blissfully unaware of having offended.
"Can't sit down now, mum, without it 'urtin'" added Uncle, interpreting Miss Brent's steady gaze as betokening interest.
"Oh, Goddy! I've been trying to fight my way across to you for hours." The pretty brunette to whom Elton had bowed joined the group. "I've been giving you the glad eye all the afternoon and you merely bow. Well, Uncle, how's the wound?"
Miss Brent gasped. She was unaware that Uncle's wound was the standing joke among all Lady Meyfield's guests.
"Oh! I'm gettin' on, thank you," said Uncle cheerfully. "Mustn't complain."
"Isn't he a darling?" The girl addressed herself to Miss Brent, who merely stared.
"Do you refer to Uncle or to me?" enquired Elton.
"Why both, of course; but—" she paused and, screwing up her piquante little face in thought she added, "but I think Uncle's the darlinger though, don't you?"
Again she challenged Miss Brent.
"Good job my missis can't 'ear 'er," was Uncle's comment to Elton.
"There, you see!" cried the girl gaily, "Uncle talks about his wife when I make love to him, and as for Goddy," she turned and regarded Elton with a quizzical expression, "he treats my passion with a look that clearly says prunes and prisms."
Miss Brent's head was beginning to whirl. Somewhere at the back of her mind was the unuttered thought, What would Little Milstead think of such conversation? She was brought back to Lady Meyfield's drawing-room by hearing the brunette once more addressing her.
"They're the two most interesting men in the room. I call them the Dove and the Serpent. Uncle has the guilelessness of the dove, whilst Godfrey has all the wisdom of the serpent. The three of us together would make a most perfect Garden of Eden. Wouldn't we, Goddy?"
"You are getting a little confused, Peggy," said Elton. "This is not a fancy dress——"
"Stop him, someone!" cried the brunette, "he's going to say something naughty."
Elton smiled, Miss Brent continued to stare, whilst Uncle with a grin of admiration cried:
"Lor', don't she run on!"
"Now come along, Uncle!" cried the girl. "I've found some topping chocolates, a new kind. They're priceless," and she dragged Uncle off to the end of the table.
"Who was that?" demanded Miss Brent of Elton, disapproval in her look and tone.
"Lady Peggy Bristowe," replied Elton.
Miss Brent was impressed. The Bristowes traced their ancestry so far back as to make William the Norman's satellites look almost upstarts.
"She is a little overpowering at first, isn't she?" remarked Elton, smiling in spite of himself at the conflicting emotions depicted upon Miss Brent's face; but Lady Peggy gave her no time to reply. She was back again like a shaft of April sunshine.
"Here, open your mouth, Goddy," she cried, "they're delicious."
Elton did as he was bid, and Lady Peggy popped a chocolate in, then wiping her finger and thumb daintily upon a ridiculously small piece of cambric, she stood in front of Elton awaiting his verdict.
"Like it?" she demanded, her head on one side like a bird, and her whole attention concentrated upon Elton.
"Apart from a suggestion of furniture polish," began Elton, "it is——"
"Hun!" cried Lady Peggy as she whisked over to where she had left Uncle.
"Lady Peggy is rather spoiled," said Elton to Miss Brent. "I fear she trades upon having the prettiest ankles in London."
Miss Brent turned upon Elton one glance, then with head in air and lips tightly compressed, she stalked away. Elton watched her in surprise, unconscious that his casual reference to the ankles of the daughter of a peer had been to Miss Brent the last straw.
"Hate at the prow and virtue at the helm," he murmured as she disappeared.
Miss Brent was now convinced beyond all power of argument to the contrary that her call had landed her in the very midst of an ultra-fast set. She was unaware that Godfrey Elton was notorious among his friends for saying the wrong thing to the right people.
"You never know what Godfrey will say," his Aunt Caroline had remarked on one occasion when he had just confided to the vicar that all introspective women have thick ankles, "and the dear vicar is so sensitive."
It seemed that whenever Elton elected to emerge from the mantle of silence with which he habitually clothed himself, it was in the presence of either a sensitive vicar or someone who was sensitive without being a vicar.
Once when Lady Gilcray had rebuked him for openly admiring Jenny Adam's legs, which were displayed each night to an appreciative public at the Futility Theatre, Elton had replied, "A woman's legs are to me what they are to God," which had silenced her Ladyship, who was not quite sure whether it was rank blasphemy or a classical quotation; but she never forgave him.
Miss Brent made several efforts to approach Lady Meyfield to have a few minutes' talk with her about the subject of her call; but without success. She was always surrounded either by arriving or departing guests, and soldiers seemed perpetually hovering about ready to pounce upon her at the first opportunity.
At last Miss Brent succeeded in attracting her hostess' attention, and before she knew exactly what had happened, Lady Meyfield had shaken hands, thanked her for coming, hoped she would come again soon, and Miss Brent was walking downstairs her mission unaccomplished. Her only consolation was the knowledge that within the next day or two The Morning Post would put matters upon a correct footing.
A mile away Patricia was tapping out upon her typewriter that "pigs are the potential saviours of the Empire."