Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 12

 

CHAPTER XII

A BOMBSHELL

"GOOD morning, Miss Brent."

Patricia was surprised at the graciousness of Mrs. Bonsor's salutation, particularly after the episode of the Zoo on the previous afternoon.

"Good morning," she responded, and made to go upstairs to take off her hat and coat.

"I congratulate you," proceeded Mrs. Bonsor in honeyed tones; "but I'm just a little hurt that you did not confide in me." Mrs. Bonsor's tone was that of a trusted friend of many years' standing.

"Confide!" repeated Patricia in a matter-of-fact tone. "Confide what, Mrs. Bonsor?"

"Your engagement to Lord Peter Bowen. Such a surprise. You're a very lucky girl. I hope you'll bring Lord Peter to call."

Patricia listened mechanically to Mrs. Bonsor's inanities. Suddenly she realised their import. What had happened? How did she know? Had Mr. Triggs told her?

"How did you know?" Patricia enquired.

"Haven't you seen The Morning Post?" enquired Mrs. Bonsor.

"The Morning Post!" repeated Patricia, in consternation; "but—but I don't understand."

"Then isn't it true?" enquired Mrs. Bonsor, scenting a mystery.

"I—I——" began Patricia, then with inspiration added, "I must be getting on, I've got a lot to do to make up for yesterday."

"But isn't it true, Miss Brent?" persisted Mrs. Bonsor.

Then from half-way up the stairs Patricia turned and, in a spurt of mischief, cried, "If you see it in The Morning Post it is so, Mrs. Bonsor."

When Patricia entered the library Mr. Bonsor was fussing about with letters and papers, a habit he had when nervous.

"I'm so sorry about yesterday afternoon, Mr. Bonsor," said Patricia; "but Mrs. Bonsor seemed to wish me to——"

"Not at all, not at all, Miss Brent," said Mr. Bonsor nervously. "I—I——" then he paused.

"I know what you're going to say, Mr. Bonsor, but please don't say it."

Mr. Bonsor looked at her in surprise. "Not say it?" he said.

"Oh! everybody's congratulating me, and I'm tired. Shall we get on with the letters?"

Mr. Bonsor was disappointed. He had prepared a dainty little speech of congratulation, which he had intended to deliver as Patricia entered the room. Mr. Bonsor was always preparing speeches which he never delivered. There was not an important matter that had been before the House since he had represented Little Dollington upon which he had not prepared a speech. He had criticised every member of the Government and Opposition. He had prepared party speeches and anti-party speeches, patriotic speeches and speeches of protest. He had called upon the House of Commons to save the country, and upon the country to save the House of Commons. He had woven speeches of splendid optimism and speeches of gloomy foreboding. He had attacked ministers and defended ministers, seen himself attacked and had routed his enemies. He had prepared speeches to be delivered to his servants for domestic misdemeanour, speeches for Mr. Triggs, even for Mrs. Bonsor.

He had conceived speeches on pigs, speeches on potatoes, speeches on oil-cake, and speeches on officers' wives; in short, there was nothing in the world of his thoughts about which he had not prepared a speech. The one thing he did not do was to deliver these speeches. They were wonderful things of his imagination, which seemed to defy crystallization into words. So it was with the speech of congratulation that he had prepared for Patricia.

That morning Patricia was distraite. Her thoughts continued to wander to The Morning Post announcement, and she was anxious to get out to lunch in order to purchase a copy and see what was actually said. Then her thoughts ran on to who was responsible for such an outrage; for Patricia regarded it as an outrage. It was obviously Bowen who had done it in order to make her position still more ridiculous. It was mean, she was not sure that it was not contemptible.

Patricia was in the act of transcribing some particulars about infant mortality in England and Wales compared with that of Scotland, when the parlourmaid entered with a note. Mr. Bonsor stretched out his hand for it.

"It is for Miss Brent, sir," said the maid.

Patricia looked up in surprise. It was unusual for her to receive a note at the Bonsors'. She opened the envelope mechanically and read:—

"Dearest,

"I have just seen The Morning Post. It is sweet of you to relent. You have made me very happy. Will you dine with me to-night and when may I take you to Grosvenor Square? My mother will want to see her new daughter-in-law.

"I so enjoyed last night. Surely the gods are on my side.

"Peter."

Patricia read and re-read the note. For a moment she felt ridiculously happy, then, with a swift change of mood she saw the humiliation of her situation. Bowen thought it was she who had inserted the notice of the engagement. What must he think of her? It looked as if she had done it to burn his boats behind him. Then suddenly she seized a pen and wrote:—

"Dear Lord Peter,

"I know nothing whatever about the announcement in The Morning Post, and I only heard of it when I arrived here. I cannot dine with you to-night, and I am very angry and upset that anyone should have had the impertinence to interfere in my affairs. I shall take up the matter with The Morning Post people and insist on a contradiction immediately.

"Yours sincerely,

"Patricia Brent."

With quick, decisive movements Patricia folded the note, addressed the envelope and handed it to the maid, then she turned to Mr. Bonsor.

"I am sorry to interrupt work, Mr. Bonsor; but that was rather an important note that I had to answer."

Mr. Bonsor smiled sympathetically.

At lunch-time Patricia purchased a copy of The Morning Post, and there saw in all its unblushing mendacity the announcement.

"A marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Lord Peter Bowen, D.S.O., m.c., attached to the General Staff, son of the 7th Marquess of Meyfield, and Patricia Brent, daughter of the late John Brent, of Little Milstead."

"Why on earth must the ridiculous people put it at the top of the column?" she muttered aloud. A man occupying an adjoining table at the place where she was lunching turned and looked at her.

"And now I must go back to potatoes, pigs, and babies," said Patricia to herself as she paid her bill and rose. "Ugh!"

She had scarcely settled down to her afternoon's work when the maid entered and announced, "Lord Peter Bowen to see you, miss."

"Oh bother!" exclaimed Patricia. "Tell him I'm busy, will you please?"

The maid's jaw dropped; she was excellently trained, but no maid-servant could be expected to rise superior to such an extraordinary attitude on the part of a newly-engaged girl. Nothing short of a butler who had lived in the best families could have risen to such an occasion.

"But, Miss Brent——" began Mr. Bonsor.

Patricia turned and froze him with a look.

"Will you give him my message, please, Fellers?" she said, and Fellers walked out a disillusioned young woman.

Two minutes later Mrs. Bonsor entered the room, flushed and excited.

"Oh, Miss Brent, that silly girl has muddled up things somehow! Lord Peter Bowen is waiting for you in the morning-room. I have just been talking to him and saying that I hope you will both dine with us one day next week."

"The message was quite correct, Mrs. Bonsor. I am very busy with pigs, and babies, and potatoes. I really cannot add Lord Peter to my responsibilities at the moment."

Mrs. Bonsor looked at Patricia as if she had suddenly gone mad.

"But Miss Brent——" began Mrs. Bonsor, scandalised.

"I suppose I shall have to see him," said Patricia, rising with the air of one who has to perform an unpleasant task. "I wish he'd stay at the War Office and leave me to do my work. I suppose I shall have to write to Lord Derby about it."

Mrs. Bonsor glanced at Mr. Bonsor, who, however, was busily engaged in preparing an appropriate speech upon War Office methods, suggested by Patricia's remark about Lord Derby.

As Patricia entered the morning-room, Bowen came forward.

"Oh, Patricia! why will you persist in being a cold douche? Why this morning I absolutely scandalised Peel by singing at the top of my voice whilst in my bath, and now. Look at me now!"

Patricia looked at him, then she was forced to laugh. He presented such a woebegone appearance.

"But what on earth have I to do with your singing in your bath?" she enquired.

"It was The Morning Post paragraph. I thought everything was going to be all right after last night, and now I'm a door-mat again."

"Who inserted that paragraph?" enquired Patricia.

"I rang up The Morning Post office and they told me that it was handed in by Miss Brent, who is staying at the Mayfair Hotel."

"Aunt Adelaide!" There was a depth of meaning in Patricia's tone as she uttered the two words, then turning to Bowen she enquired, "Did you tell them to contradict it?"

"They asked me whether it were correct," he said, refusing to meet Patricia's eyes.

"What did you say?"

"I said it was." He looked at her quizzically, like a boy who is expecting a severe scolding. Patricia had to bite her lips to prevent herself from laughing.

"You told The Morning Post people that it was correct when you knew that it was wrong?"

Bowen hung his head. "But it isn't wrong," he muttered.

"You know very well that it is wrong and that I am not engaged to you, and that no marriage has been arranged or ever will be arranged. Now I shall have to write to the editor and insist upon the statement being contradicted."

"Good Lord! Don't do that, Patricia," broke in Bowen. "They'll think we've all gone mad."

"And for once a newspaper editor will be right," was Patricia's comment.

"And will you dine to-night, Pat?"

Patricia looked up. This was the first time Bowen had used the diminutive of her name. Somehow it sounded very intimate.

"I am afraid I have an—an——"

The hesitation was her undoing.

"No; don't tell me fibs, please. You will dine with me and then, afterwards, we will go on and see the mater. She is dying to know you."

How boyish and lover-like Bowen was in spite of his twenty-eight years, and and how different everything might have been if—— Patricia was awakened from her thoughts by hearing Bowen say:

"Shall I pick you up here in the car?"

"No, I—I've just told you I am engaged," she said.

"And I've just told you that I won't allow you to be engaged to anyone but me," was Bowen's answer. "If you won't come and dine with me I'll come and play my hooter outside Galvin House until they send you out to get rid of me. You know, Patricia, I'm an awful fellow when I've set my mind on anything, and I'm simply determined to marry you whether you like it or not."

"Very well, I will dine with you to-night at half-past seven."

"I'll pick you up at Galvin House at a quarter-past seven with the car."

"Very well," said Patricia wearily. It seemed ridiculous to try and fight against her fate, and at the back of her mind she had a plan of action, which she meant to put into operation.

"Now I must get back to my work. Good-bye."

Bowen opened the door of the morning-room. Mrs. Bonsor was in the hall. Patricia walked over to the library, leaving Bowen in Mrs. Bonsor's clutches.

"Oh, Lord Peter!" Mrs. Bonsor gushed. "I hope you and Miss Brent will dine with us——"

Patricia shut the library door without waiting to hear Bowen's reply.

At five o'clock she gave up the unequal struggle with infant mortality statistics and walked listlessly across the Park to Galvin House. She was tired and dispirited. It was the weather, she told herself, London in June could be very trying, then there had been all that fuss over The Morning Post announcement. At Galvin House she knew the same ordeal was awaiting her that she had passed through at Eaton Square. Mrs. Craske-Morton would be effusive, Miss Wangle would unbend, Miss Sikkum would simper, Mr. Bolton would be facetious, and all the others would be exactly what they had been all their lives, only a little more so as a result of The Morning Post paragraph.

Only the fact of Miss Wangle taking breakfast in bed had saved Patricia from the ordeal at breakfast. Miss Wangle was the only resident at Galvin House who regularly took The Morning Post, it being "the dear bishop's favourite paper."

Arrived at Galvin House Patricia went straight to her room. Dashing past Gustave, who greeted her with "Oh, mees!" struggling at the same time to extract from his pocket a newspaper Patricia felt that she should scream. Had everyone in Galvin House bought a copy of that day's Morning Post, and would they all bring it out of their pockets and point out the passage to her? She sighed wearily.

Suddenly she jumped up from the bed where she had thrown herself, seized her writing-case and proceeded to write feverishly. At the end of half an hour she read and addressed three letters, stamping two of them. The first was to the editor of The Morning Post, and ran:—

"Dear Sir,

"In your issue of to-day's date you make an announcement regarding a marriage having been arranged between Lord Peter Bowen and myself, which is entirely inaccurate.

"I am given to understand that this announcement was inserted on the authority of my aunt, Miss Adelaide Brent, and I must leave you to take what action you choose in relation to her. As for myself, I will ask you to be so kind as to insert a contradiction of the statement in your next issue.

"I am,
"Yours faithfully,
"Patricia Brent."

Patricia always prided herself on the business-like quality of her letters.

The second letter was to Miss Brent. It ran:—

"Dear Aunt adelaide,

"I have written to the editor of The Morning Post informing him that he must take such action as he sees fit against you for inserting your unauthorised statement that a marriage has been arranged between Lord Peter Bowen and me. It may interest you to know that the engagement has been broken off as a result of your impulsive and ill-advised action. Personally I think you have rather presumed on being my 'sole surviving relative.'

"Your affectionate niece,
"Patricia."

The third letter was to Bowen.

"Dear Lord Peter,

"I have written to the editor of The Morning Post, asking him to contradict the inaccurate statement published in to-day's issue. I am consumed with humiliation that such a thing should have been sent to him by a relative of mine, more particularly by a 'sole surviving relative.' My aunt unfortunately epitomises in her personality all the least desirable characteristics to be found in relatives.

"I cannot tell you how sorry I am about—oh, everything! If you really want to save me from feeling thoroughly ashamed of myself you will not only forget me, but also a certain incident.

"You have done me a great honour, I know, and you will add to it a great service if you will do as I ask and forget all about a folly that I have had cause bitterly to regret.

"Please forgive me for not dining with you to-night and for breaking my word; but I am feeling very unwell and tired and I have gone to bed.

"Yours sincerely,
"Patricia Brent."

Patricia's plan was to post the letters to Aunt Adelaide and The Morning Post, and leave the other with Gustave to be given to Bowen when he called, she would then shut herself in her room and plead a headache as an excuse for not being disturbed. Thus she would escape Miss Wangle and her waves of interrogation.

As Patricia descended the stairs, Gustave was in the act of throwing open the door to Lady Tanagra. It was too late to retreat.

"Ah! there you are," exclaimed Lady Tanagra as she passed the respectful Gustave in the hall.

Patricia descended the remaining stairs slowly and with dragging steps. Lady Tanagra looked at her sharply.

"Aren't we a nuisance?" cried she. "There's nothing more persistent in nature than a Bowen. Bruce's spider is quite a parochial affair in comparison," and she laughed lightly.

Patricia smiled as she welcomed Lady Tanagra. For a moment she hesitated at the door of the lounge, then with a sudden movement she turned towards the stairs.

"Come up to my room," she said, "we can talk there."

There was no cordiality in her voice. Lady Tanagra noticed that she looked worn-out and ill. Once the bedroom door was closed she turned to Patricia.

"My poor Patricia! whatever is the matter? You look thoroughly done up. Now lie down on the bed like a good girl, and I will assume my best bedside manner."

Patricia shook her head wearily, and indicating a chair by the window, seated herself upon the bed.

"I'm afraid I am rather tired," she said. "I was just going to lock myself up for the night."

"Now I'm going to cheer you up," cried Lady Tanagra. "Was there ever a more tactless way of beginning, but I've got something to tell you that is so exquisitely funny that it would cheer up an oyster, or even a radical."

"First," said Patricia, "I think I should like you to read these letters." Slowly and wearily she ripped open the three letters and handed them to Lady Tanagra, who read them through slowly and deliberately. This done, she folded each carefully, returned it to its envelope and handed them to Patricia.

"Well!" said Patricia.

Lady Tanagra smiled. Reaching across to the dressing-table she took a cigarette from Patricia's box and proceeded to light it. Patricia watched her curiously.

"I think you must have been meant for a man, Tanagra," she said after a pause. "You have the gift of silence, and nothing is more provoking to a woman."

"What do you want me to say?" enquired Lady Tanagra. "I like these cigarettes," she added.

"If you are not careful, you'll make me scream in a minute," said Patricia, with a smile. "I showed you those letters and now you don't even so much as say 'thank you.'"

"Thank you very much indeed, Patricia," said Lady Tanagra meekly.

"You don't approve of them?" There was undisguised challenge in Patricia's voice.

"I think the one to Miss Brent is admirable, specially if you will add a postscript after what I tell you."

"But the other two," persisted Patricia.

"I do not think I am qualified to express an opinion, am I?" said Lady Tanagra calmly.

"Why not?"

"Well, you see, I am an interested party."

"You!" cried Patricia, then with a sudden change, "Oh, if you are not careful I shall come over and shake you!"

"I think that would be very good for both of us," was Lady Tanagra's reply.

"Tell me what you mean," persisted Patricia.

"Well, in the first place, the one to the editor of The Morning Post will make poor Peter ridiculous, and the other will hurt his feelings, and as I am very fond of Peter you cannot expect me to be enthusiastic with either of them, can you?"

Lady Tanagra rose and going over to Patricia put her arm round her and kissed her on the cheek, then Patricia did a very foolish thing. Without a word of warning she threw her arms around Lady Tanagra's neck and burst into tears.

"Oh, I'm so wretched, Tanagra! I know I'm a beast and I want to hurt everybody and everything. I think I should like to hurt you even," she cried, her mood of crying passing as quickly as it had come.

"Don't you think we had better just talk the thing out? Now since you have asked my view," continued Lady Tanagra, "I will give it. Your letter to The Morning Post people will make poor Peter the laughing-stock of London. He has many enemies among ambitious mamas. Never have I known him to be attracted towards a girl until you came along. He's really paying you a very great compliment."

Patricia sniffed ominously.

"Then the letter to Peter would hurt him because—you must forgive me—it is rather brutal, isn't it?"

Patricia nodded her head vigorously.

"Well," continued Lady Tanagra, "what do you say if we destroy them both?"

"But but—that would leave The Morning Post announcement and P-Peter——"

"Don't you think they might both be left, just for the moment? Later you can wipe the floor with them."

"But—but—you don't understand, Tanagra," began Patricia.

"Don't you think that half the troubles of the world are due to people wanting to understand?" said Lady Tanagra calmly. "I never want to understand. There are certain things I know and these are sufficient for me. In this case I know that I have a very good brother and he wants to marry a very good girl; but for some reason she won't have anything to do either with him or with me." She looked up into Patricia's face with a smile so wholly disarming that Patricia was forced to laugh.

"If you knew Patricia's opinion of herself," she said to Lady Tanagra, "you would be almost shocked."

"Well, now, will you do something just to please me?" insinuated Lady Tanagra. "You see this big brother of mine has always been more or less my adopted child, and you have it in your power to hurt him more than I want to see him hurt." There was an unusually serious note in Lady Tanagra's voice. "Why not let things go on as they are for the present, then later the engagement can be broken off if you wish it. I'll speak to Peter and see that he is not tiresome."

"Oh, but he's never been that!" protested Patricia, then she stopped suddenly in confusion.

Lady Tanagra smiled to herself.

"Well, if he's never been tiresome I'm sure you wouldn't like to hurt him, would you?" She was speaking as if to a child.

"The only person I want to hurt is Aunt Adelaide," said Patricia with a laugh.

Lady Tanagra noticed with pleasure that the mood seemed to be dropping from her.

"Well, may I be the physician for to-day?" continued Lady Tanagra.

Patricia nodded her head.

"Very well, then, I prescribe a dinner this evening with one Tanagra Bowen, Peter Bowen and Godfrey Elton, on the principle of 'Eat thou and drink, to-morrow thou shalt die.'"

"Who is Godfrey Elton?" asked Patricia with interest.

"My dear Patricia, if I were to start endeavouring to describe Godfrey we should be at it for hours. You can't describe Godfrey, you can only absorb him. He is a sort of wise youth rapidly approaching childhood."

"What on earth do you mean?" cried Patricia, laughing.

"You will discover for yourself later. We are all dining at the Quadrant to-night at eight."

"Dining at the Quadrant?" repeated Patricia in amazement.

"Yes, and I have to get home to dress and you have to dress and I will pick you up in a taxi at a quarter to eight."

"But—but—Peter—your brother said that he was coming——"

"Peter has greater faith in his sister than in himself, he therefore took me into his confidence and I am his emissary."

"Oh, you Bowens, you Bowens!" moaned Patricia in mock despair.

"There is no avoiding us, I confess," said Lady Tanagra gaily. "Now I must tell you about your charming aunt. She called upon mother yesterday."

"What!" gasped Patricia.

"She called at Grosvenor Square and announced to poor, un-understanding mother that she thought the families ought to know one another. But she got rather badly shocked by Godfrey and one of the soldier boys, whom we call 'Uncle,' and left with the firm conviction that our circle is a pernicious one."

"It's—it's—perfectly scandalous!" cried Patricia.

"No, it's not as bad as that," said Lady Tanagra calmly

"What?" began Patricia. "Oh! I mean Aunt Adelaide's conduct, it's humiliating, it's——"

"Wait until you hear," said Lady Tanagra with a smile. "When Peter ran in to see mother, she said that she had had a call from a Miss Brent and could he place her. So poor old Peter blurts out that he's going to marry Miss Brent. Poor mother nearly had a fit on the spot. She was too tactful to express her disapproval; but she showed it in her amazement. The result was that Peter was deeply hurt and left the room and the house. I am the only one who saw the exquisite humour of the joke. My poor darling mother had the impression that Peter has gone clean off his head and wanted to marry your most excellent Aunt Adelaide," and Lady Tanagra laughed gaily.

For a moment Patricia gazed at her blankly, then as she visualised Aunt Adelaide and Bowen side by side at the altar she laughed hysterically.

"I kept mother in suspense for quite a long time. Then I told her, and I also rang up Peter and told him. And now I must fly," cried Lady Tanagra "I will be here at a quarter to eight, and if you are not ready I shall be angry; but if you have locked yourself in your room I shall batter down the door. We are going to have a very happy evening and you will enjoy yourself immensely. I think it quite likely that Godfrey will fall in love with you as well as Peter, which will still further increase your embarrassments." Then with a sudden change of mood she said, "Please cheer up, Patricia, happiness is not a thing to be taken lightly. You have been a little overwrought of late, and now, good-bye."

"One moment, please," said Patricia. "Don't you understand that nothing can possibly be built up on such a foundation as—as——?"

"Your picking up Peter in the Grill-room of the Quadrant," said Lady Tanagra calmly.

Patricia gasped. "Oh!" she cried.

"Let's call things by their right names," said Lady Tanagra. "At the present moment you're putting up rather a big fight against your own inclination, and you are causing yourself a lot of unnecessary unhappiness. Is it worth it?" she asked.

"One's self-respect is always worth any sacrifice," said Patricia.

"Except when you are in love, and then you take pride in trampling it under foot."

With this oracular utterance Lady Tanagra departed with a bright nod, a smile and an insistence that Patricia should not come downstairs.