Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 17

 

CHAPTER XVII

LADY PEGGY MAKES A FRIEND

ONE Sunday morning as Patricia was sitting in the Park watching the promenaders and feeling very lonely, she saw coming across the grass towards her Godfrey Elton accompanied by a pretty dark girl in an amber costume and a black hat. She bowed her acknowledgment of Elton's salute, and watched the pair as they passed on in the direction of Marble Arch.

Suddenly the girl stopped and turned. For a moment Elton stood irresolute, then he also turned and they both walked in Patricia's direction.

"Lady Peggy insisted that we should break in upon your solitude," said Elton, having introduced the two girls.

"You will forgive me, won't you?" said Lady Peggy, "but I so wanted to know you. You see Peter has the reputation of being invulnerable. We're all quite breathless from our fruitless endeavours to entangle him, and I wanted to see what you were like."

"I'm afraid you'll find I'm quite commonplace," said Patricia, smiling. It was impossible to be annoyed with Lady Peggy. Her frankness was disarming, and her curiosity that of a child.

"I always say," bubbled Lady Peggy, "that there are only two men in London worth marrying, and they neither of them will have me, although I've worked most terribly hard."

"Who are they?" enquired Patricia.

"Oh! Goddy's one," she said, indicating Elton with a nod, "and Peter's the other. They are both prepared to be brothers to me; but they're not sufficiently generous to save me from dying an old maid."

"I must apologise for inflicting Peggy upon you, Miss Brent," said Elton; "but when you get to know her you may even like her."

"I'm not going to wait until I know her," said Patricia.

"Bravo!" cried Lady Peggy, clapping her hands. "That's a snub for you, Goddy," she said, then turning again to Patricia, "I know we're going to be friends, and you can afford to be generous to a defeated rival."

"I must warn you against Lady Peggy," said Elton quietly. "She's a most dangerous young woman."

"And now, Patricia," said Lady Peggy, "I'm going to call you Patricia, and you must call me Peggy. I want you to do me a very great favour."

Patricia looked at the girl, rather bewildered and breathless by the precipitancy with which she made friends. "I'm sure I will if I possibly can," she replied.

"I want you to come and lunch with us," said Lady Peggy.

"It's very kind of you, I shall be delighted some day," replied Patricia conventionally.

"No, now!" said Lady Peggy. "This very day that ever is. I want you to meet Daddy. He's such a dear. Goddy will come, so you won't be lonely," she added.

"I'm afraid I've got——" began Patricia.

"Please don't be afraid you've got anything," pleaded Lady Peggy. "If you've got an engagement throw it over. Everybody throws over engagements for me."

"But——" began Patricia.

"Oh, please don't be tiresome," said Lady Peggy, screwing up her eyebrows. "I shall have all I can do to persuade Goddy to come, and it's so exhausting."

"I will come with pleasure," said Elton, "if only to protect Miss Brent from your overwhelming friendliness."

"Oh, you odious creature!" cried Lady Peggy, then turning to Patricia she added with mock tragedy in her voice, "Oh! the love I've languished on that man, the gladness of the eyes I have turned upon him, the pressures of the hand I've been willing to bestow on him, and this is how he treats me." Then with a sudden change she added, "But you will come, won't you? I do so want you to meet Daddy."

"If the truth must be told," said Elton, "Peggy merely wants to be able to exploit you, as everybody is wanting to know about you and what you are like. Now she will be a celebrity, and able to describe you in detail to all her many men friends and to her women enemies."

Lady Peggy deliberately turned her back upon Elton.

"Now we are going to have another little walk and then we'll go and get our nosebags on," she announced. "No, you're not going to walk between us"—this to Elton—"I want to be next to Patricia," she announced.

Patricia felt bewildered by the suddenness with which Lady Peggy had descended upon her. She scarcely listened to the flow of small talk she kept up. She was conscious that Elton's hand was constantly at the salute, and that Lady Peggy seemed to be indulging in a series of continuous bows.

"Oh! do let's get away somewhere," cried Lady Peggy at length. "My neck aches, and I feel my mouth will set in a silly grin. Why on earth do we know so many people, Goddy? Do you know," she added mischievously, "I'd love to have a big megaphone and stand on a chair and cry out who you are. Then everybody would flock round, because they all want to know who it is that has captured Peter the Hermit, as we call him." She looked at Patricia appraisingly. "I think I can understand now," she said.

"Understand what?" said Patricia.

"What it is in you that attracts Peter."

Patricia gasped. "Really," she began.

"Yes, we girls have all been trying to make love to Peter and fuss over him, whereas you would rather snub him, and that's very good for Peter. It's just the sort of thing that would attract him." Then with another sudden change she turned to Elton and said, "Goddy, in future I'm going to snub you, then perhaps you'll love me."

Patricia laughed outright. She felt strongly drawn to this inconsequent child-girl. She found herself wondering what would be the impression she would create upon the Galvin House coterie who would find all their social and moral virtue inverted by such directness of speech. She could see Miss Wangle's internal struggle, disapproval of Lady Peggy's personality mingling with respect for her rank.

"Oh, there's Tan!" Lady Peggy broke in upon Patricia's thoughts "Goddy, call to her, shout, wave your hat. Haven't you got a whistle?"

But Lady Tanagra had seen the party, and was coming towards them accompanied by Mr. Triggs.

Lady Peggy danced towards Lady Tanagra. "Oh, Tan, I've found her!" she cried, nodding to Mr. Triggs, whom she appeared to know.

"Found whom?" enquired Lady Tanagra.

"Patricia. The captor of St. Anthony, and we're going to be friends, and she's coming to lunch with me to meet Daddy, and Goddy's coming too, so don't you dare to carry him off. Oh, Mr. Triggs! isn't it a lovely day," she cried, turning to Mr. Triggs, who, hat in hand, was mopping his brow.

"Beautiful, me dear, beautiful," he exclaimed, beaming upon her and turning to shake hands with Patricia. "Well, me dear, how goes it?" she enquired. Then looking at her keenly he added, "Why, you're looking much better."

Patricia smiled, conscious that the improvement in her looks was not a little due to Lady Peggy and her bright chatter.

"You've become such a gad-about, Mr. Triggs, that you forget poor me," she said.

"Oh no, he doesn't!" broke in Lady Peggy, "he's always talking about you. Whenever I try to make love to him he always drags you in. I've really come to hate you, Patricia, because you seem to come between me and all my love affairs. Oh! I wish we could find Peter," cried Lady Peggy suddenly, "that would complete the party."

Patricia hoped fervently that they would not come across Bowen. She saw that it would make the situation extremely awkward.

"And now we must dash off for lunch," cried Lady Peggy, "or we shall be late and Daddy will be cross." She shook hands with Mr. Triggs blew a kiss at Lady Tanagra and, before Patricia knew it, she was walking with Lady Peggy and Elton in the direction of Curzon Street.

Patricia was in some awe of meeting the Duke of Gayton. Hitherto she had encountered only the smaller political fry, friends and acquaintances of Mr. Bonsor, who had always treated her as a secretary. The Duke had been in the first Coalition Ministry, but had been forced to retire on account of a serious illness.

"Look whom I've caught!" cried Lady Peggy as she bubbled into the dining-room, where some twelve or fourteen guests were in process of seating themselves at the table. "Look whom I've caught! Daddy," she addressed herself to a smart clean-shaven man, with beetling eyebrows and broad, intellectual head. "It's the captor of Peter the Hermit."

The Duke smiled and shook hands with Patricia.

"You must come and sit by me," he said in particularly sweet and well-modulated voice which seemed to give the lie to the somewhat steely and searching appearance of his eyes. "Peter is a great friend of mine."

Patricia was conscious of flushed cheeks as she took her seat next to the Duke. Later she discovered that these Sunday luncheons were always strictly informal, no order of precedence being observed. Young and old were invited grave and gay. The talk was sometimes frivolous, sometimes serious. Sunday was, in the Duke's eyes, a day of rest, and conversation must follow the path of least resistance.

Whilst the other guests were seating themselves, Patricia looked round the table with interest. She recognised a well-known Cabinet Minister and a Bishop. Next to her on the other side was a man with hungry, searching eyes, whose fair hair was topped so closely to his head as to be almost invisible. Later she learned that he was a Serbian patriot, who had prepared a wonderful map of New Serbia, which he always carried with him. Elton had described it as "the map that passeth all understanding."

It embraced Bulgaria, Roumania, Transylania, Montenegro, Greece, Albania, Bessarabia, and portions of other countries.

"It's a sort of game," Lady Peggy explained later. "If you can escape without his having produced his map, then you've won," she added.

At first the Duke devoted himself to Patricia, obviously with the object of placing her at her ease. She was fascinated by his voice. He had the reputation of being a brilliant talker; but Patricia decided that even if he had possessed the most commonplace ideas, he would have invested them with a peculiar interest on account of the musical tones in which he expressed them. He was a man of remarkable dignity of bearing, and Patricia decided that she would be able to feel very much afraid of him.

In answer to a question Patricia explained that she had only met Lady Peggy that morning.

"And what do you think of Peggy's whirlwind methods?" asked the Duke with a smile.

"I think they are quite irresistible," replied Patricia.

"She makes friends quicker than anyone I ever met and keeps them longer," said the Duke.

Presently the conversation turned on the question of the re-afforestation of Great Britain, springing out of a remark made by the Cabinet Minister to the Duke. Soon the two, aided by a number of other guests, were deep in the intricacies of politics. During a lull in the conversation the Duke turned to Patricia.

"I am afraid this is all very dull for you, Miss Brent," he remarked pleasantly.

"On the contrary," said Patricia, "I am greatly interested."

"Interested in politics?" questioned the Duke with a tinge of surprise in his voice.

Gradually Patricia found herself drawn into the conversation. For the first time in her life she found her study of Blue Books and her knowledge of statistics of advantage and use. The Cabinet Minister leaned forward with interest. The other guests had ceased their local conversation to listen to what it was that was so clearly interesting their host and the Cabinet Minister. In Patricia's remarks there was the freshness of unconvention. The old political war-horses saw how things appeared to an intelligent contemporary who was not trammelled by tradition and parliamentary procedure.

Suddenly Patricia became aware that she had monopolised the conversation and that everyone was listening to her. She flushed and stopped.

"Please go on," said the Cabinet Minister; "don't stop, it's most interesting."

But Patricia had become self-conscious. However, the Duke with great tact picked up the thread, and soon the conversation became general.

As they rose from the table the Duke whispered to Patricia, "Don't hurry away, please, I want to have a chat with you after the others have gone."

As they went to the drawing-room, Lady Peggy came up to Patricia and linking her arm in hers, said:

"I'm dreadfully afraid of you now, Patricia. "Why everybody was positively drinking in your words. Wherever did you learn so much?"

"You cannot be secretary to a rising politician," said Patricia with a smile, "without learning a lot of statistics. I have to read up all sorts of things about pigs and babies and beetroot and street-noises and all sorts of objectionable things."

"What do you think of her, Goddy?" cried Lady Peggy to Elton as he joined them.

"I'm afraid she has made me feel very ignorant," replied Elton. "Just as you, Peggy, always make me feel very wise."

In the drawing-room the Serbian attached himself to Patricia and produced his "map of obliteration," as the Duke had once called it, explaining to her at great length how nearly all the towns and cities in Europe were for the most part populated by Serbs.

It was obvious to her, from the respect with which she was treated, that her remarks at luncheon had made a great impression.

When most of the other guests had departed, the Duke walked over to her, and dismissing Peggy, entered into a long conversation on political and parliamentary matters. He was finally interrupted by Lady Peggy.

"Look here, Daddy, if you steal my friends I shall——" she paused, then turning to Elton she said, "What shall I do, Goddy?"

"Well, you might marry and leave him," suggested Elton helpfully.

"That's it. I will marry and leave you all alone, Daddy."

"Cannot we agree to share Miss Brent?" suggested the Duke, smiling at Patricia.

"Isn't he a dear?" enquired Lady Peggy of Patricia. "When other men propose to me, and quite a lot have," she added with almost childish simplicity, "I always mentally compare then with Daddy, and then of course I know I don't want them."

"That is my one reason, Peggy, for not proposing," said Elton. "I could never enter the lists with the Duke."

"You're a pair of ridiculous children," laughed the Duke.

In response to a murmur from Patricia that she must be going, Lady Peggy insisted that she would first come upstairs and see her den.

The "den" was a room of orderly disorder, which seemed to possess the freshness and charm of its owner. Lady Peggy looked at Patricia, a new respect in her eyes.

"You must be frightfully clever," she said with accustomed seriousness. "I wish I were like that. You see I should be more of a companion to Daddy if I were."

"I think you are an ideal companion for him as you are," said Patricia.

"Oh! he's so wonderful," said Lady Peggy dreamily. "You know I'm not always such a fool I appear," she added quite seriously, "and I do sometimes think of other things than frills and flounces and chocolates." Then with a sudden change of mood she cried, "Wasn't it clever of me capturing you to-day? As soon as you're gone Daddy will tell me what he thinks of you, and I shall feel so self-important."

As Patricia looked about the room, charmed with its dainty freshness, her eyes lighted upon a large metal tea-tray. Lady Peggy following her gaze cried:

"Oh, the magic carpet!"

"The what?" enquired Patricia.

"That's the magic carpet. Come, I'll show you," and seizing it she preceded Patricia to the top of the stairs. "Now sit on it," she cried, "and toboggan down. It's priceless."

"But I couldn't."

"Yes you could. Everybody does," cried Lady Peggy.

Not quite knowing what she was doing Patricia found herself forced down upon the tea-tray, and the next thing she knew was she was speeding down the stairs at a terrific rate.

Just as she arrived in the hall with flushed cheeks and a flurry of skirts, the door of the library opened and the Duke and Elton came out.

Patricia gathered herself together, and with flaming cheeks and downcast eyes stood like child expecting rebuke, instead of which the Duke merely smiled. Turning to Elton he remarked:

"So Miss Brent has received her birth certificate."

As he spoke the butler with sedate decorum picked up the tray and carried it into his pantry as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world for guests to toboggan down the front staircase.

"To ride on Peggy's 'magic carpet,' as she calls it," said the Duke, "is to be admitted to the household as a friend. Come again soon," he added as he shook hands in parting. "Any Sunday at lunch you are always sure to catch us. We never give special invitations to the friends we want, do we, Peggy? and I want to have some more talks with you."

As Patricia and Elton walked towards the Park he explained that Lady Peggy's tea-tray had figured in many little comedies. Bishops, Cabinet Ministers, great generals and admirals had all descended the stairs in the way Patricia had.

"In fact," he added, "when the Duke was in the Cabinet, it was the youngest and brightest collection of Ministers in the history of the country. Every one of them was devoted to Peggy, and I think they would have made war or peace at her command."

When Patricia arrived at Galvin House, she was conscious of the world having changed since the morning. All her gloom had been dispelled, the drawn look had passed from her face, and she felt that a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders.