Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 16

 

CHAPTER XVI

PATRICIA'S INCONSTANCY

PATRICIA'S engagement and approaching marriage were the sole topics of conversation at Galvin House, at meal-times in particular Bowen was discussed and admired from every angle and aspect. Questions rained upon Patricia. When was she likely to get married? Where was the wedding to take place? Would she go abroad for her honeymoon? Who was to provide the wedding-cake? Where did she propose to get her trousseau? Would the King and Queen be present at the wedding?

At first Patricia had endeavoured to answer coherently; but finding this useless, she soon drifted into the habit of replying at random, with the result that Galvin House received much curious information.

Miss Wangle's olive-branch was an announcement of how pleased the dear bishop would have been to marry Miss Brent and Lord Peter had he been alive.

Mr. Bolton joked as feebly as ever. Mr. Cordal masticated with his wonted vigour. Mr. Sefton became absorbed in the prospect of the raising of the military age limit, and strove to hearten himself by constant references to the time when he would be in khaki. Miss Sikkum continued to surround herself with an atmosphere of romance, and invariably returned in the evening breathless from her chaste endeavours to escape from some "awful man" who had pursued her. The reek of cooking seemed to become more obvious, and the dreariness of Sundays more pronounced. Sometimes Patricia thought of leaving Galvin House for a place where she would be less notorious; but something seemed to bind her to the old associations.

As she returned each evening, her eyes instinctively wandered towards the table and the letter-rack. If there were a parcel, her heart would bound suddenly, only to resume its normal pace when she discovered that it was for someone else.

Of Lady Tanagra she saw little, news of Bowen she received none. Her most dexterous endeavours to cross-examine Mr. Triggs ended in failure. He seemed to have lost all interest in Bowen. Lady Tanagra never even mentioned his name.

Whatever the shortcomings of Lady Tanagra and Mr. Triggs in this direction, however, they were more than compensated for by Mrs. Bonsor. Her effusive friendliness Patricia found overwhelming, and her insistent hospitality, which took the form of a flood of invitations to Patricia and Bowen to lunch, dine or to do anything they chose in her house or elsewhere, was bewildering.

At last in self-defence Patricia had to tell Mrs. Bonsor that Bowen was too much occupied with his duties even to see her; but this seemed to increase rather than diminish Mrs. Bonsor's hospitable instincts, which included Lady Tanagra as well as her brother. Would not Miss Brent bring Lady Tanagra to tea or to luncheon one day? Perhaps they would take tea with Mrs. Bonsor at the Ritz one afternoon? Could they lunch at the Carlton? To all of these invitations Patricia replied with cold civility.

In her heart Mrs. Bonsor was raging against the "airs" of her husband's secretary; but she saw that Lady Tanagra and Lord Peter might be extremely useful to her and to her husband in his career. Consequently she did not by any overt sign show her pique.

One day when Patricia was taking down letters for Mr. Bonsor, Mr. Triggs burst into the library in a state of obvious excitement.

"Where's 'Ettie?" he demanded, after having saluted Patricia and Mr. Bonsor.

Mr Bonsor looked at him reproachfully.

"'Ere. ring for 'Ettie, A. B., I've got something to show you all."

Mr. Bonsor pressed the bell. As he did so Mrs. Bonsor entered the room, having heard her father's voice

With great empressement Mr. Triggs produced from the tail pocket of his coat a folded copy of the Illustrated Universe. Flattening it out upon the table he moistened his thumb and finger and, with great deliberation, turned over several leaves, then indicating a page he demanded:

"What do you think of that?"

"That," was a full-page picture of Lady Tanagra walking in the Park with Mr. Triggs. The portrait of Lady Tanagra was a little indistinct; but that of Mr. Triggs was as clear as daylight, and a remarkable likeness. Underneath was printed "Lady Tanagra Bowen and a friend walking in the Park."

Mrs. Bonsor devoured the picture and then looked up at her father, a new respect in her eyes.

"What do you think of it, 'Ettie?" enquired Mr. Triggs again.

"It's a very good likeness, father," said Mrs. Bonsor weakly.

It was Patricia, however, who expressed what Mr. Triggs had anticipated.

"You're becoming a great personage, Mr. Triggs," she cried. "If you are not careful you will compromise Lady Tanagra."

Mr. Triggs chuckled with glee as he mopped his forehead with his handkerchief.

"I rang 'er up this morning," he said.

"Rang who up, father?" enquired Mrs. Bonsor.

"Lady Tan," said Mr. Triggs, watching his daughter to see the effect of the diminutive upon her.

"Was she annoyed?" enquired Mrs. Bonsor.

"Annoyed!" echoed Mr. Triggs. "Annoyed! She was that pleased she's asked me to lunch to-morrow. Why, she introduced me to a duchess last week, an' I'm goin' to 'er place to tea."

"I wish you would bring Lady Tanagra here one day, father," said Mrs. Bonsor. "Why not ask her to lunch here to-morrow?"

"Not me, 'Ettie," said Mr. Triggs wisely. "If you want the big fish, you've got to go out and catch 'em yourself."

There was a pause. Patricia hid a smile in her handkerchief. Mr. Bonsor was deep in a speech upon the question of rationing fish.

"Well, A. B., what 'ave you got to say?"

"Dear fish may mean revolution," murmured Mr. Bonsor.

Mr. Triggs looked at his son-in-law in amazement.

"What's that you say?" he demanded.

"I—I beg your pardon. I—I was thinking," apologised Mr. Bonsor.

"Now, father," said Mrs. Bonsor, "will you come into the morning-room? I want to talk to you, and I'm sure Arthur wants to get on with his work."

Mr. Triggs was reluctantly led away, leaving Patricia to continue the day's work.

Patricia now saw little of Mr. Triggs, in fact since Lady Tanagra had announced that Bowen would no longer trouble her, she found life had become singularly grey. Things that before had amused and interested her now seemed dull and tedious. Mr. Bolton's jokes were more obvious than ever, and Mr. Cordal's manners more detestable.

The constant interrogations levelled at her as to where Bowen was, and why he had not called to see her, she found difficult to answer. Several times she had gone alone to the theatre, or to a cinema, in order that it might be thought she was with Bowen. At last the strain became so intolerable that she spoke to Mrs. Craske-Morton, hinting that unless Galvin House took a little less interest in her affairs, she would have to leave.

The effect of her words was instantly manifest. Wherever she moved she seemed to interrupt whispering groups. When she entered the dining-room there would be a sudden cessation of conversation, and everyone would look up with an innocence that was too obvious to deceive even themselves. If she went into the lounge on her return from Eaton Square, the same effect was noticeable. When she was present the conversation was forced and artificial. Sentences would be begun and left unfinished, as if the speaker had suddenly remembered that the subject was taboo.

Patricia found herself wishing that they would speak out what was in their minds. Anything would be preferable to the air of mystery that seemed to pervade the whole place. She could not be unaware of the significant glances that were exchanged when it was thought she was not looking. Several times she had been asked if she were not feeling well, and her looking-glass reflected a face that was pale and drawn, with dark lines under the eyes.

One evening, when she had gone to her room directly after dinner, there was a gentle knock at her door. She opened it to find Mrs. Hamilton, looking as if it would take only a word to send her creeping away again.

"Come in, you dear little Grey Lady," cried Patricia, putting her arm affectionately round Mrs. Hamilton's small shoulders, and leading her over to a basket-chair by the window.

For some time they talked of nothing in particular. At last Mrs. Hamilton said:

"I—I hope you won't think me impertinent, my dear; but—but——"

"I should never think anything you said or did impertinent," said Patricia, smiling.

"You know——" began Mrs. Hamilton, and then broke off.

"Anyone would think you were thoroughly afraid of me," said Patricia with a smile.

"I don't like interfering," said Mrs. Hamilton, "but I am very worried."

She looked so pathetic in her anxiety that Patricia bent down and kissed her on the cheek.

"You dear little thing," she cried, "tell me what is on your mind, and I will do the best I can to help you."

"I am very—er—worried about you, my dear," began Mrs. Hamilton hesitatingly. "You are looking so pale and tired and worn. I—I fear you have something on your mind and—and——" she broke off, words failing her.

"It's the summer," replied Patricia, smiling. "I always find the hot weather trying, more trying even than Mr. Bolton's jokes," she smiled.

"Are you—are you sure it's nothing else?" said Mrs. Hamilton.

"Quite sure," said Patricia. "What else should it be?" She was conscious of her reddening cheeks.

"You ought to go out more," said Mrs. Hamilton gently. "After sitting indoors all day you want fresh air and exercise."

And with that Mrs. Hamilton had to rest content.

Patricia could not explain the absurd feeling she experienced that she might miss something if she left the house. It was all so vague, so intangible. All she was conscious of was some hidden force that seemed to bind her to the house, or, when by an effort of will she broke from its influence, seemed to draw her back again. She could not analyse the feeling, she was only conscious of its existence.

From Miss Brent she had received a characteristic reply to her letter.

"Dear Patricia," she wrote,

"I have read with pain and surprise your letter. What your poor dear father would have thought I cannot conceive.

"What I did was done from the best motives, as I felt you were compromising yourself by a secret engagement.

"I am sorry to find that you have become exceedingly self-willed of late, and I fear London has done you no good.

"As your sole surviving relative, it is my duty to look after your welfare. This I promised your dear father on his death-bed.

"Gratitude I do not ask, nor do I expect it; but I am determined to do my duty by my brother's child. I cannot but deplore the tone in which you last wrote to me, and also the rather foolish threat that your letter contained.

Your affectionate aunt,
"Adelaide Brent

"P.S.—I shall make a point of coming up to London soon. Even your rudeness will not prevent me from doing my duty by my brother's child.—A. B."

As she tore up the letter, Patricia remembered her father once saying, "Your aunt's sense of duty is the most offensive sense I have ever encountered."

One day as Patricia was endeavouring to sort out into some sort of coherence a sheaf of notes that Mr. Bonsor had made upon Botulism, Mr. Triggs entered the library. After his cheery "How goes it, me dear?" he stood for some moments gazing down at her solicitously.

"You ain't lookin' well, me dear," he said with conviction.

"That's a sure way to a woman's heart," replied Patricia gaily.

"'Ow's that, me dear?" he questioned.

"Why, telling her that she's looking plain," retorted Patricia.

Mr. Triggs protested.

"All I want is a holiday," went on Patricia "There are only three weeks to wait and then——"

There was, however, no joy of anticipation in her voice.

"You're frettin'!"

Patricia turned angrily upon Mr. Triggs.

"Fretting! What on earth do you mean, Mr Triggs?" she demanded.

Mr. Triggs sat down suddenly, overwhelmed by Patricia's indignation.

"Don't be cross with me, me dear." Mr. Triggs looked so like a child fearing rebuke that she was forced to smile.

"You must not say absurd things then," she retorted. "What have I got to fret about?"

Mr. Triggs quailed beneath her challenging glance. "I—I'm sorry, me dear," he said contritely.

"Don't be sorry, Mr. Triggs," said Patricia severely; "be accurate."

"I'm sorry, me dear," repeated Mr. Triggs.

"But that doesn't answer my question," Patricia persisted. "What have I to fret about?"

Mr. Triggs mopped his brow vigorously. He invariably expressed his emotions with his handkerchief. He used it strategically, tactically, defensively, continuously. It was to him what the lines of Torres Vedras were to Wellington. He retired behind its sheltering folds, to emerge a moment later, his forces reorganised and re-arrayed. When at a loss what to say or do, it was his handkerchief upon which he fell back; if he required time in which to think, he did it behind its ample and protecting folds.

"You see, me dear," said Mr. Triggs at length, avoiding Patricia's relentless gaze, as he proceeded to stuff away the handkerchief in his tail pocket. "You see, me dear——" Again he paused. "You see, me dear," he began for a third time, "I thought you was frettin' over your work or something, when you ought to be enjoyin' yourself," he lied.

Patricia looked at him, her conscience smiting her. She smiled involuntarily.

"I never fret about anything except when you don't come to see me," she said gaily.

Mr. Triggs beamed with good-humour, his fears now quite dispelled.

"You're run down, me dear," he said with decision. "You want an 'oliday. I must speak to A. B. about it."

"If you do I shall be very angry," said Patricia; "Mr. Bonsor is always very kind and considerate."

"It—it isn't——" began Mr. Triggs, then paused.

"It isn't what?" Patricia smiled at his look of concern.

"If—if it is," began Mr. Triggs. Again he paused, then added with a gulp, "Couldn't I lend you some?"

For a moment Patricia failed to follow the drift of his remark, then when she appreciated that he was offering to lend her money she flushed. For a moment she did not reply, then seeing the anxiety stamped upon his kindly face, she said with great deliberation:

"I think you must be quite the nicest man in all the world. If ever I decide to borrow money I'll come to you first."

Mr. Triggs blushed like a schoolboy. He had fully anticipated being snubbed. He had found from experience that Patricia had of late become very uncertain in her moods.

They were interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Bonsor.

"'Ere, A. B.!" cried Mr. Triggs "What do you mean by it?"

"Mean by what?" enquired Mr. Bonsor busy with an imaginary speech upon street noises, suggested by a barrel-piano in the distance.

"You're working 'er too 'ard, A. B.," said Triggs with conviction.

"Working who too hard?" Mr. Bonsor looked helplessly at Patricia. He was always at a disadvantage with his father-in-law, whose bluntness of speech seemed to demoralise him.

"Mr. Triggs thinks that you are slowly killing me," laughed Patricia.

Mr. Bonsor looked uncertainly at Patricia, and Mr. Triggs gazed at Mr. Bonsor. He had no very high opinion of his daughter's husband.

"Well, mind you don't overwork 'er," said Mr. Triggs as he rose to go. A few minutes later Patricia was deep in the absorbing subject of the life history of the potato-beetle.

"Ugh!" she cried as the clock in the hall chimed five. "I hate beetles, and," she paused a moment to tuck away a stray strand of hair, "I never want to see a potato as long as I live."

That evening when she reached Galvin House she went to her room, and there subjected herself to a searching examination in the looking-glass. She was forced to confess to the paleness of her face and dark marks beneath her eyes. She explained them by summer in London, coupled with the dreariness of Arthur Bonsor, M.P., and his mania for statistics.

"You're human yeast, Patricia!" she murmured to her reflection; "at least you're paid two-and-a-half guineas a week to try to leaven the unleavenable, and you musn t complain if sometimes you get a little tired. Fretting!" There was indignation in her voice. "What have you got to fret about?"

With the passage of each day, however, she grew more listless and weary. She came to dread meal-times, with their irritating chatter and uninspiring array of faces that she had come almost to dislike. She was conscious of whisperings and significant looks among her fellow-boarders. She resented even Gustave's cow-like gaze of sympathetic anxiety as she declined the food he offered her.

Lady Tanagra and Mr. Triggs never asked her out. Everybody seemed suddenly to have deserted her. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of them in the Park on Sunday morning. Once she saw Bowen; but he did not see her. "The daily round and common task" took on a new and sinister meaning for her. Sometimes her thoughts would travel on a few years into the future. What did it hold for her? Instinctively she shuddered at the loneliness of it all.

One afternoon on her return to Galvin House, Gustave opened the door. He had evidently been on the watch. His kindly face was beaming with goodwill.

"Oh, mees!" he cried. "Mees Brent is here."

"Aunt Adelaide!" cried Patricia, her heart sinking. Then seeing the comical look of indecision upon Gustave's face caused by her despairing exclamation she laughed.

When she entered the lounge, it was to find Miss Brent sitting upright upon the stiffest chair in the middle of the room. Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe were seated together in the extreme corner, Mrs. Barnes and two or three others were grouped by the window. The atmosphere was tense. Something had apparently happened. Patricia learned that from the grim set of Miss Brent's mouth.

"I want to talk to you, Patricia," Miss Brent announced after the customary greeting.

"Yes, Aunt Adelaide," said Patricia, sinking into a chair with a sigh of resignation.

"Somewhere private," said Miss Brent.

"There is no privacy at Galvin House," murmured Patricia, "except in the bathroom."

"Patricia, don't be indelicate," snapped Miss Brent.

"I'm not indelicate, Aunt Adelaide, I'm merely being accurate," said Patricia wearily.

"Cannot we go to your room?" enquired Miss Brent.

"Impossible!" announced Patricia. "It's like an oven by now. The sun is on it all the afternoon. Besides," continued Patricia, "my affairs are public property here. We are quite a commune. We have everything in common—except our toothbrushes," she added as an afterthought.

"Well! Let us get over there."

Miss Brent rose and made for the corner farthest from Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe. Patricia followed her wearily.

"I've just snubbed those two women," announced Miss Brent, as she seated herself in a basket-chair that squeaked protestingly.

"There were indications of electricity in the air," remarked Patricia calmly.

"I want to have a serious talk with you, Patricia," said Miss Brent in her best it's-my-duty-cost-it-what-it-may manner.

"How can anyone be serious in this heat?" protested Patricia.

"I owe it to your poor dear father to——"

"This debtor and creditor business is killing romance," murmured Patricia.

"I have your welfare to consider," proceeded Miss Brent. "I——"

"Don't you think you've done enough mischief already, Aunt Adelaide?" enquired Patricia coolly.

"Mischief! I?" exclaimed Miss Brent in astonishment.

Patricia nodded.

"As your sole surviving relative it is my duty——"

"Don't you think," interrupted Patricia, "that just for once you could neglect your duty? Sin is wonderfully exhilarating."

"Patricia!" almost shrieked Miss Brent, horror in her eyes. "Are you mad?"

"No," replied Patricia, "only a little weary."

"You must have a tonic," announced Miss Brent.

Patricia shuddered. She still remembered her childish sufferings resulting from Miss Brent's interpretation and application of The Doctor at Home. She was convinced that she had swallowed every remedy the book contained, and been rubbed with every linament its pages revealed.

"No, Aunt Adelaide," she said evenly. "All I require is that you should cease interfering in my affairs."

"How dare you! How——" Miss Brent paused wordless.

"I am prepared to accept you as an aunt," continued Patricia, outwardly calm; but almost stifled by the pounding of her heart. "It is God's will; but if you persist in assuming the mantle of Mrs. Grundy, combined with the Infallibility of the Pope, then I must protest."

"Protest!" repeated Miss Brent, repeating the word as if not fully comprehending its meaning.

"If I am able to earn my own living, then I am able to conduct my own love affairs."

"But——" began Miss Brent.

"I am sorry to appear rude, Aunt Adelaide, but it is much better to be frank. I am sure you mean well; but the fact of your being my sole surviving relative places me at a disadvantage. If there were two of you or three, you could quarrel about me, and thus preserve the balance. Now let us talk about something else."

For once in her life Miss Brent was nonplussed. She regarded her niece as if she had been a two-tailed giraffe, or a double-headed mastodon. Had she been American she would have known it to be brain-storm; as it was she decided that Patricia was sickening for some serious illness that had produced a temperature.

In all her experience of "the Family" never once had Miss Brent been openly defied in this way, and she had no reserves upon which to fall back. She held personal opinion and inclination must always take secondary place to "the Family." The individual must be sacrificed to the group, provided the individual were not herself. Births, deaths, marriages, christenings, funerals, weddings, were solemn functions that must be regarded as involving not the principals themselves so much as their relatives. Her doctrine was, although she would not have expressed it so philosophically, that the individual is mortal; but the family is immortal.

That anyone lived for himself or herself never seemed to occur to Miss Brent. If their actions were acceptable to the family and at the same time pleased the principals, then so much the better for the principals; if, on the other hand, the family disapproved, then the duty of the principals was clear.

This open flouting of her prides and her prejudices was to Miss Brent a great blow. It seemed to stun her. She was at a loss how to proceed; all she realised was that she must save "the Family" at any cost.

"Now tell me what happened when you came in," said Patricia sweetly.

"I must be going," said Miss Brent solemnly.

"Must you?" enquired Patricia politely; but rising lest her aunt should change her mind.

"Now remember," said Patricia as they walked along the hall, "you've lost me one matrimonial fish. If I get another nibble you must keep out of——"

But Miss Brent had fled.

"Well, that's that!" sighed Patricia as she walked slowly upstairs.