Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 14
GALVIN HOUSE MEETS A LORD
THE effect of The Morning Post announcement upon Galvin House had been little short of sensational. Although all were aware of the engagement, to see the announcement in print seemed to arouse them to a point of enthusiasm. Everyone from the servants upwards possessed a copy of The Morning Post, with the single exception of Mrs. Barnes, who had mislaid hers and made everybody's life a misery by insisting on examining their copy to make quite sure that they had not taken hers by mistake.
Had not Patricia been so preoccupied, she could not have failed to notice the atmosphere of suppressed excitement at Galvin House. Many glances were directed at her, glances of superior knowledge, of which she was entirely unconscious.
Woman-like she never paused to ask herself what she really felt or what she really meant. Her thoughts ran in a circle, coming back inevitably to the maddening question, "What does he really think of me?" Why had Fate been so unkind is to undermine a possible friendship with that damning introduction? After all, she would ask herself indifferently, what did it matter? Bowen was nothing to her. Then back again her thoughts would rush to the inevitable question, what did he really think?
Since the night of her adventure, Patricia had formed the habit of dressing for dinner. She made neither excuse nor explanation to herself as to why she did so. Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, however, had covertly remarked upon the fact; but Patricia had ignored them. She had reached that state in her psychological development when she neither explained nor denied things.
With delicacy and insight Providence has withheld from woman the uncomfortable quality of introspection. Had Patricia subjected her actions to the rigid test of reason, she would have found them strangely at variance with her determination. With a perversity characteristic of her sex, she forbade Bowen to see her, and then spent hours in speculating as to when and how he would disobey her. A parcel in the hall at Galvin House sent the colour flooding to her cheeks, whilst Gustave, entering the lounge, bearing his flamboyant nickle-plated apology for the conventional silver salver, set her heart thumping with expectation.
As the day on which Bowen was to dine at Galvin House drew near, the excitement became intense, developing into a panic when the day itself dawned. All were wondering how this or that garment would turn out when actually worn, and those who were not in difficulties with their clothes were troubled about their manners. At Galvin House manners were things that were worn, like a gardenia or a patent hook-and-eye. Patricia had once explained to an uncomprehending Aunt Adelaide that Galvin House had more manners than breeding.
On the Friday evening when Patricia returned to Galvin House, Gustave was in the hall.
"Oh, mees!" he involuntarily exclaimed.
Patricia waited for more; but after a moment of hesitation, Gustave disappeared along the hall as if there were nothing strange in his conduct, leaving Patricia staring after him in surprise.
At that moment Mrs. Craske-Morton bustled out of the lounge, full of an unwonted importance.
"Oh, Miss Brent!" she exclaimed. "I am so glad you've come. I have a few friends coming to dinner this evening and we are dressing." Without waiting for a reply Mrs. Craske-Morton turned and disappeared along the passage leading to the servants’ regions.
At that moment Mr. Bolton appeared at the of the stairs in his shirt sleeves; but at the sight of Patricia he turned and bolted precipitately out of sight.
Patricia walked slowly upstairs and along the corridor to her room, unconscious that each door she passed was closed upon a tragedy.
In one room Mrs. Barnes sat on her bed in an agony of indecision and a camisole, wondering how the seams of her only evening frock could be made black with the blue-black ink that had been given her at the stationer's shop in error
Mr. James Harris, a little bearded man with long legs and a short body, stood in front of his glass, frankly baffled by the problem of how to keep the top of his trousers from showing above the opening of his low-cut evening waistcoat, an abandoned garment that seemed determined to show all that it was supposed to hide.
Miss Sikkum was engaged in a losing game with delicacy. On her lap lay the Brixton "Paris model blouse," which she had adorned with narrow black velvet ribbon. Should she or should she not enlarge the surface of exposure? If she did Miss Wangle might think her fast; if she did not Lord Peter might think her suburban.
Mr. Sefton was at work upon his back hair, striving to remove from his reflection in the glass, a likeness to a sandy cockatoo.
Mr. Cordal was vainly struggling with a voluminous starched shirt, which as he bent seemed determined to give him the appearance of a pouter pigeon.
To each his tragedy and to all their anguish. Even Miss Wangle had her problem. Should she or should she not remove the lace from the modest V in her black silk evening gown. The thought of the bishop, however, proved too much for her, and her collar-bones continued to remain a mystery to Galvin House.
The dinner-gong found everyone anxious and prepared. All had a vision of Bowen sitting judgment upon them and mentally comparing Galvin House with Park Lane; for in Bayswater Park Lane is the pinnacle of culture and social splendour.
A few minutes after the last strain of the gong, pounded by Gustave in a manner worthy of the occasion, had subsided, Miss Sikkum crept out from her room feeling very "undressed." The sight of Mr. Sefton nearly drove her back precipitately to the maiden fastness of her chamber. "Was she really too undressed?" she asked herself.
Slowly the guests descended, each anxious to precede to others the pride of place, all absorbed with his or her particular tragedy. By the aid of pins Mr. Cordal had overcome his likeness to a pigeon, but he had not allowed for movement, which tore the pins from their hold, allowing his shirt-front to balloon out joyfully before him, for the rest of the evening obscuring his boots.
Miss Wangle looked at Miss Sikkum and mentally thanked Heaven and the bishop that she had restrained her abandoned impulse to remove the black lace from her own neck.
Mr. Bolton's attention was concentrated upon the centre stud of his shirt. The button-hole was too large, and the head of the stud insisted on disappearing in a most coquettish and embarrassing manner. Mr. Bolton was not sure that Bowen would approve of blue underwear, and consequently kept a finger and thumb upon his stud for the greater part of the evening.
As each entered the lounge, it was with a hurried glance round to see if the guest of the evening had arrived, followed by a sigh of relief on discovering that he had not. Mrs. Craske-Morton had taken the precaution of deferring the dinner until eight o'clock. She wished Bowen's entry to be dramatic.
Mrs. Craske-Morton had asked a few friends of her own to meet her distinguished guest; a Miss Plimsoll, who was composed in claret colour and royal blue trimming, and Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Ragbone. Mrs. Ragbone was a stout, jolly woman with a pronounced cockney accent. Mr. Ragbone was a man whose eyebrows seemed to rise higher with each year, and whose manner of patient suffering became more pathetically unreal with the passage of each season. Mrs. Craske-Morton always explained him as a solicitor. Morton, Gofrim and Bowett, of Lincoln's Inn, knew him as their chief clerk.
The atmosphere of the lounge was one of nervous tension. All were listening for the bell which would announce the arrival of Bowen. When last he came, everybody was taken by surprise. Mr. Bolton's stud eluded his grasp, Mr. Sefton felt his back hair, whilst Miss Sikkum blushed rosily at her own daring.
A dead silence spread over the company, broken by Gustave, who, throwing open the door with a flourish, announced "Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Peter Bowen, D.S.O." Bowen gave him a quick glance with widened eyes, then coming forward, shook hands with Mrs. Craske-Morton.
Miss Sikkum was disappointed to find that he was in khaki. She had a vague idea that the nobility adopted different evening clothes from the ordinary rank and file. It would have pleased her to see Bowen with velvet stripes down his trousers, a velvet collar and velvet cuffs. A coloured silk waistcoat would have convinced her.
Mrs. Craske-Morton was determined to do her work thoroughly. She had taken the precaution of telling Patricia that dinner would not be served until a few minutes after eight, that would give her time to introduce Bowen to all the guests. She proceeded to conduct him round to everyone in turn. In her flurry she quite forgot the careful schooling to which she had subjected herself for a week past, and she introduced Miss Wangle to Bowen.
"Lord Peter, allow me to introduce Miss Wangle. Miss Wangle, Lord Peter Bowen," and this was the form adopted with the rest of the company.
Bowen's sixth bow had just been interrupted by Mr Cordal grasping him warmly by the hand, when Patricia entered. For a moment she looked about her regarding the strange toilettes, then she saw Bowen. She felt herself crimsoning as he slipped away from Mr. Cordal's grasp and came across to her. All the guests hung back as if this were the meeting between Wellington and Blücher.
"I've done six, there are about twenty more to do. If you save me, Patricia, I'll forgive you anything after we're married."
Patricia shook hands sedately.
Mrs. Craske-Morton bustled up to re-claim Bowen. "A little surprise, Miss Brent; I hope you will forgive me."
Patricia smiled at her in anything but a forgiving spirit.
"And now, Lord Peter, I want to introduce you to——"
"Deenair is served, madame." Gustave was certainly doing the thing in style.
At a sign from Mrs. Craske-Morton, Miss Wangle secured Mr. Samuel Ragbone and they started for the dining-room. The remainder of the guests paired off in accordance with Mrs. Craske-Morton's instructions, written and verbal, she left nothing to chance, and the procession was brought up by Mrs. Craske-Morton herself and Bowen. Patricia fell to the lot of Mr. Sefton.
As soon as the guests were seated a death-like stillness reigned. Bowen was looking round with interest as he unfolded his napkin into which had been deftly inserted a roll. Miss Sikkum, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe and Mr. Bolton each lost their rolls, which were retrieved from underneath the table by Gustave and Alice.
Mr. Sefton, also unconscious of the secreted roll, opened his napkin with a debonair jerk to show that he was quite at his ease. The bread rose in the air. He made an unsuccessful clutch, touched but could not hold it, and watched with horror the errant roll hit Miss Wangle playfully on the side of the nose, just as she was beginning to tell Bowen about "the dear bishop."
Patricia bit her lip, Bowen bent solicitously over the angry Miss Wangle, whilst Mr. Bolton threatened to report Mr. Sefton to the Food Controller. Gustave created a diversion by arriving with the soup. His white cotton gloves, several sizes too large even for his hands, caused him great anxiety. Every spare moment during the evening he spent in clutching them at the wrists, just as they were on the point of slipping off. Nothing, however, could daunt his courage or mitigate his good-humour. For the first time in his life he was waiting upon a real lord, and from the circumstance he was extracting every ounce of satisfaction it possessed.
In serving Bowen his attitude was that of one self-convicted of unworthiness. Accustomed to the complaints and bickerings of a Bayswater boarding-house, Bowen's matter-of-fact motions of acceptance or refusal impressed him profoundly So this was how lords behaved. Nothing so impressed him as the little incident of the champagne.
At Galvin House it was the custom for the guests to have their own drinks. Mr. Cordal, for instance, drank what the label on the bottle announced to be "Gumton's Superior Light Dinner Ale." Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe favoured Guinness's Stout, Miss Sikkum took hot water, whilst Miss Wangle satisfied herself with a claret bottle. There is refinement in claret, the dear bishop always drank it, with water: but as claret costs money Miss Wangle made a bottle last for months.
The thought of the usual heterogeneous collection of bottles on the occasion of Lord Peter's visit had filled Mrs. Craske-Morton with horror, and she had decided to "spring" wine, as Mr. Bolton put it. In other words, she supplied for the whole company four bottles of one-and-eightpenny claret, the bottles rendered beautifully old by applied dust and cobwebs. To this she had added a bottle of grocer's champagne for Bowen. Gustave had been elaborately instructed that this was for the principal guest and the principal guest only, and Mrs. Craske-Morton had managed to convey to him in some subtle way that if he poured so much as a drop of the precious fluid into any other person's glass, the consequences would be too terrifying even to contemplate.
Whilst Galvin House was murmuring softly over its soup, Gustave approached Bowen with the champagne bottle swathed in a white napkin, and looking suspiciously like an infant in long clothes. Holding the end of the bottle's robes with the left hand so that it should not tickle Bowen's ear, Gustave bent anxiously to his task.
Bowen, however, threw a bomb-shell at the earnest servitor. He motioned that he did not desire champagne. Gustave hesitated and looked enquiringly at his mistress. Here was an unlooked-for development.
"You'll take champagne?" enquired Mrs. Craske-Morton ingratiatingly.
Gustave breathed again, and whilst Bowen's attention was distracted in explaining to Mrs. Craske-Morton that he preferred water, he had a delicate taste in wine, Gustave filled the glass happily. Of course, it was all right, he told himself, the lord merely wanted to be pressed. If he had really meant "no," he would have put his hand over his glass, as Miss Sikkum always did when she refused some of Mr. Cordal's "Light Dinner Ale."
Gustave retired victorious with the champagne bottle, which he placed upon the sideboard. At every interval in his manifold duties, Gustave returned with the white-clothed bottle, and strove to squeeze a few more drops into Bowen's untouched glass.
The terrifying constraint with which the meal had opened gradually wore off as the wine circulated. Following the path of least resistance, it mounted to Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe's head; but with Miss Sikkum it seemed to stop short at her nose. Mr. Cordal's shirt-front announced that he had temporarily given up Gumton in favour of the red, red wine of the smoking-concert baritone. Mrs. Barnes seemed on the point of tears, whilst Mr. Sefton's attentions to Patricia were a direct challenge to Bowen.
Conversation at Galvin House was usually general; but it now became particular. Every remark was directed either to or at Bowen, and each guest strove to hear what he said. Those who were fortunate enough to catch his replies told those who were not. A smile or a laugh from anyone who might be in conversation with Bowen rippled down the table. Mr. Cordal was less intent upon his food, and his inaccuracy of aim became more than ever noticeable.
"Oh, Lord Bowen!" simpered Miss Sikkum, "do tell us where you got the D.S.O."
Bowen screwed his glass into his eye and looked across at Miss Sikkum, at the redness of her nose and the artificial rose in her hair. Everyone was waiting anxiously for Bowen's reply. Mr. Cordal grunted approval.
"At Buckingham Palace," said Bowen, "from the King. They give you special leave, you know."
Patricia looked across at him and smiled. What was he thinking of Galvin House refinement? What did he think of her for being there? Well, he had brought it on himself and he deserved his punishment. At first Patricia had been amused: but as the meal dragged wearily on, amusement developed into torture. Would it never end? She glanced from Miss Wangle, all graciousness and smiles, to Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, in her faded blue evening-frock, on to Miss Sikkum bare and abandoned. She heard Mr. Sefton's chatter, Mr. Bolton's laugh, Mr. Cordal's jaws and lips. She shuddered. Why did not she accept the opening of escape that now presented itself and marry Bowen? He could rescue her from all this and what it meant.
"And shall we all be asked to the wedding, Lord Bowen?"
It was again Miss Sikkum's thin voice that broke through the curtain of Patricia's thoughts.
"I hope all Miss Brent's friends will be there," replied Bowen diplomatically.
"And now we shall all have to fetch and carry for Miss Brent," laughed Mr. Bolton. "Am I your friend, Miss Brent?" he enquired.
"She always laughs at your jokes when nobody else can," snapped Miss Pilkington.
Everybody turned to the speaker, who during the whole meal had silently nursed her resentment at having been placed at the bottom of the table. Mr. Bolton looked crestfallen. Bowen looked across at Patricia and saw her smile sympathetically at Mr. Bolton.
"I think from what I have heard, Mr. Bolton," he said, "that you may regard yourself as one of the elect."
Patricia flashed Bowen a grateful look. Mr. Bolton beamed and, turning to Miss Pilkington, said with his usual introductory laugh:
"Then I shall return good for evil, Miss Pilkington, and persuade Lady Peter to buy her stamps at your place."
Miss Pilkington flushed at this reference to her calling, a particularly threadbare joke of Mr. Bolton's.
"When is it to be, Lord Peter?" enquired Mrs. Craske-Morton.
Miss Sikkum looked down modestly at her plate, not quite certain whether or no this were a delicate question
"That rests with Miss Brent," replied Bowen, smiling. "If you, her friends, can persuade her to make it soon, I shall be very grateful."
Miss Sikkum simpered and murmured under her breath, "How romantic."
"Now, Miss Brent," said Mr. Bolton, "it's up to you to name the happy day."
Patricia smiled, conscious that all eyes were upon her; but particularly conscious of Bowen's gaze.
"I believe in long engagements," she said, stealing a glance at Bowen and thrilling at the look of disappointment on his face. "Didn't Jacob serve seven years for Rachel?"
"Yes, and got the wrong girl then," broke in Mr. Bolton. "You'll have to be careful Miss Brent, or Miss Sikkum will get ahead of you."
"Really, Mr. Bolton!" said Mrs. Craske-Morton, looking anxiously at Bowen.
Miss Sikkum's cheeks had assumed the same tint as her nose, and her eyes were riveted upon her plate. Miss Pilkington muttered something under her breath about Mr. Bolton's remark being outrageous.
"I think we'll take coffee in the lounge," said Mrs. Craske-Morton, rising. Turning to Bowen, she added, "We follow the American custom, Lord Peter, the gentlemen always leave the dining-room with the ladies."
There was a pushing back of chairs and a shuffling of feet and Galvin House rose from its repast.
"Coffee will not be served for half an hour, and if you and Miss Brent would like to—to——"
Mrs. Craske-Morton paused significantly. "My boudoir is at your service."
Bowen looked at her and then at Patricia. He saw the flush on her cheeks and the humiliation in her eyes.
"I think we should much prefer not to interrupt our pleasant conversation. What do you say, Patricia?" he enquired, turning to Patricia, who smiled her acquiescence.
They all trooped into the lounge, where everybody except Patricia, Bowen and Mrs. CraskeMorton stood about in awkward poses. The arrival of Gustave with coffee relieved the tension.
For the next hour each guest endeavoured to attract to himself or herself Bowen's attention, and each was disappointed when at length he rose to go and shook hands only with Mrs. Craske-Morton, including the others in a comprehensive bow. Still more were they disappointed and surprised when Patricia did not go out into the hall to see him off.
"Oh, Miss Brent!" simpered Miss Sikkum, "aren't you going to say good night to him?"
"Good night!" interrogated Patricia, "but I did."
"Yes; but I mean——" began Miss Sikkum. "Oh, you know," she said with a simper, but Patricia had passed over to a chair, where she seated herself and began to read a newspaper upside down.
Miss Sikkum's romantic soul had received a shock.