Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 13
A TACTICAL BLUNDER
" I OFTEN think," remarked Lady Tanagra as she helped herself a second time to hors d d'œuvres, "that if Godfrey could only be condensed or desiccated he would save the world from ennui."
Elton looked up from a sardine he was filleting with great interest and care; concentration was the foundation of Godfrey Elton's character.
"Does that mean that he is a food or a stimulant?" enquired Patricia, Elton having returned to his sardine.
Lady Tanagra regarded Elton with thoughtful brow.
"I think," she said deliberately, "I should call him a habit."
"Does that imply that he is a drug upon the market?" retorted Patricia.
Bowen laughed. Elton continued to fillet his sardine.
"You see," continued Lady Tanagra, "Godfrey has two qualities that to a woman are maddening. The first is the gift of silence, and the second is a perfect genius for making everyone else feel that they are in the wrong. Some day he'll fall in love, and then something will snap and—well, he will give up dissecting sardines as if they were the one thing in life worthy of a man's attention."
Elton looked up again straight into Lady Tanagra's eyes and smiled.
"Look at him now!" continued Lady Tanagra, "that very smile makes me feel like a naughty child."
The four were dining in Bowen's sitting-room at the Quadrant, Lady Tanagra having decided that this would be more pleasant than in the public dining-room.
"Can you," continued Lady Tanagra, who was in a wilful mood, "can you imagine Godfrey in love? I don't think any man ought to be allowed to fall in love until he has undergone an examination as to whether or no he can say the right thing the right way. No, it takes an Irishman to make love."
"But an Irishman says what he cannot possibly mean," said Patricia, with the air of one of vast experience in such matters.
"And many Englishmen mean what they cannot possibly say," said Elton, looking at Lady Tanagra.
"Oh," cried Lady Tanagra, clapping her hands. "You have drawn him, Patricia. Now he will talk to us instead of concentrating himself upon food. Ah!" she exclaimed suddenly, turning to Elton. "I promised that you should fall in love with Patricia, Godfrey."
"Now that Tanagra has come down to probabilities the atmosphere should lighten," Elton remarked.
"Isn't that Godfrey all over?" demanded Lady Tanagra of Bowen. "He will snub one woman and compliment another in a breath. Patricia," she continued, "I warn you against Godfrey. He is highly dangerous. He should always be preceded by a man with a red flag."
"But why?" asked Bowen.
"Because of his reticence. A man has no right to be reticent; it piques a woman's curiosity, and with us curiosity is the first step to surrender."
"Why hesitate at the first step?" asked Elton.
"Think of it, Patricia," continued Lady Tanagra, ignoring Elton's remark. "Although Godfrey has seen The Morning Post he has not yet congratulated Peter."
"I did not know then that I had cause to congratulate him," said Elton quietly.
"What mental balance!" cried Lady Tanagra. "I'm sure he reads the deaths immediately after the births, and the divorces just after the marriages so as to preserve his sense of proportion."
Elton looked first at Lady Tanagra and then on to Patricia, and smiled.
"Can you not see Godfrey choosing a wife? demanded Lady Tanagra, laughing. "Weighing the shape of her head with the size of her ankles, he's very fussy about ankles. He would dissect her as he would a sardine, demanding perfection, mental, moral, and physical, and in return he would give himself." Lady Tanagra emphasized the last word.
"Most men take less time to choose a wife than they would a trousering," said Elton quietly.
"I think Mr. Elton is right," said Patricia.
"Then you don't believe in love at first sight," said Bowen to Patricia.
"Miss Brent did not say that," interposed Elton. "She merely implied that a man who falls in love at first sight should choose trouserings at first sight. Is that not so?" He looked across at Patricia.
"An impetuous man will be impetuous in all things," said Bowen.
"He who hesitates may lose a wife," said Lady Tanagra, "and——"
"And by analogy, go without trousers," said Elton quietly.
"That might explain a Greek; but scarcely a Scotsman," said Patricia.
"No one has ever been able to explain a Scotsman," said Elton. "We content ourselves with misunderstanding him."
"We were talking about love," broke in Lady Tanagra, "and I will not have the conversation diverted." Turning to Patricia she demanded, "Can you imagine Godfrey in love?"
"I think so," said Patricia quietly, looking across at Elton. "Only——"
"Only what?" cried Lady Tanagra with excited interest. "Oh, please, Patricia, explain Godfrey to me! No one has ever done so."
"Don't you think he is a little like the Scotsman we were talking about just now?" said Patricia. "Difficult to explain; but easy to misunderstand."
"Oh, Peter, Peter!" wailed Lady Tanagra, looking across at Bowen "She's caught it."
"Caught what?" asked Bowen in surprise.
"The vagueness of generalities that is Godfrey," replied Lady Tanagra, "Now, Patricia, you must explain that 'only' at which you broke off. You say you can imagine Godfrey in love, only——"
"I think he would place it on the same plane as honour and sportsmanship, probably a little above both."
Elton looked up from the bread he was crumbling, and gave Patricia a quick penetrating glance beneath which her eyes fell.
Lady Tanagra looked at Patricia in surprise but said nothing.
"Can you imagine Tan in love, Patricia?" enquired Bowen. "We Bowens are notoriously backward in matters of the heart," he added.
"I shall fall in love when the man comes along who—who——" Lady Tanagra paused.
"Will compel you," said Patricia, concluding the sentence.
Again Elton looked quickly across at her.
"What do you mean?" demanded Lady Tanagra.
"I think," said Patricia deliberately, "that you are too primitive to fall in love. You would have to be stormed, carried away by force, and wooed afterwards."
"It doesn't sound very respectable, does it?" said Lady Tanagra thoughtfully, then turning to Bowen she demanded, "Peter, would you allow me to be carried away by force, stormed, and wooed afterwards?"
"I think, Tanagra, you sometimes forget that our atmosphere is too exotic for most men," said Elton.
"Godfrey," said Lady Tanagra reproachfully, "I have had quite a lot of proposals, and I won't be denied my successes."
"We were talking about love, not offers of marriage," said Elton with a smile.
"Cynic," cried Lady Tanagra. "You imply that the men who have proposed to me wanted my money and not myself."
"Suppose, Tanagra, there were a right man," said Patricia, "and he was poor and honourable. What then?"
"I suppose I should have to ask him to marry me," said Lady Tanagra dubiously.
"But, Tan, we've just decided," said Bowen, "that you have to be carried away by force, and cannot love until force has been applied."
"I think I've had enough of this conversation," said Lady Tanagra. "You're trying to prove that I'm either going to lose my reputation, or die an old maid, and I'm not so sure that you're wrong, about the old maid, I mean," she added.
"I shall depend upon you, Godfrey, then," she said, turning to Elton, "and we will hobble about the Park together on Sunday mornings, comparing notes upon rheumatism and gout. Ugh!" She looked deliberately round the table, from one to the other. "Has it ever struck you what we shall look like when we grow very old?" she asked.
"No one need ever grow old," said Patricia.
"How can you prevent it?" asked Bowen.
"There is morphia and the fountain of eternal youth," suggested Elton.
"Please don't let's be clever any more," said Lady Tanagra. "It's affecting my brain. Now we will play bridge for a little while and then all go home and get to bed early."
In spite of her protests Bowen insisted on seeing Patricia to Galvin House. For some time they did not speak. As the taxi turned into Oxford Street Bowen broke the silence.
"Patricia, my mother wants to know you," he said simply.
Patricia shivered. The words came as a shock. They recalled the incident of her meeting with Bowen. She seemed to see a grey-haired lady with Bowen's eyes and quiet manner, too well-bred to show the disapproval she felt on hearing the story of her son's first meeting with his fiancé. She shuddered again.
"Are you cold?" Bowen enquired solicitously, leaning forward to close the window nearest to him.
"No, I was thinking what Lady Meyfield will think when she hears how you made the acquaintance of—of—me," she finished lamely.
"There is no reason why she should know," said Bowen.
"Do you think I would marry——?" Patricia broke off suddenly in confusion.
"But why——?" began Bowen.
"If ever I meet Lady Meyfield I shall tell her exactly how I—I—met you," said Patricia with decision.
"Well, tell her then," said Bowen good-humouredly. "She has a real sense of humour."
The moment Bowen had uttered the words he saw his mistake. Patricia drew herself up coldly.
"It was rather funny, wasn't it?" she said evenly; "but mothers do not encourage their sons to develop such acquaintances. Now shall we talk about something else?"
"But my mother wants to meet you," protested Bowen. "She——"
"Tell her the story of our acquaintance," replied Patricia coldly "I think that will effectually overcome her wish to know me. Ah! here we are," she concluded as the taxi drew up at Galvin House. With a short "good night!" Patricia walked up the steps, leaving Bowen conscious that he had once more said the wrong thing.
That night, as Patricia prepared for bed, she mentally contrasted the Bowens' social sphere with that of Galvin House and she shuddered for the third time that evening.
"Patricia Brent," she apostrophised her reflection in the mirror. "You're a fool! and you have not even the saving grace of being an old fool. High Society has turned your giddy young head," and with a laugh that sounded hard even to her own ears, she got into bed and switched off the light.