Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 19

 

CHAPTER XIX

GALVIN HOUSE AFTER THE RAID

THE next day and for many days Galvin House abandoned itself to the raid. The air was full of rumours of the appalling casualties resulting from the bomb that had been dropped in the next street. No one knew anything, everyone had heard something. The horrors confided to each other by the residents at Galvin House would have kept the Grand Guignol in realism for a generation.

Silent herself, Patricia watched with interest the ferment around her. With the exception of Mrs. Craske-Morton, all seemed to desire most of all to emphasize their own attitude of splendid intellectual calm during the raid. They spoke scornfully of acquaintances who had flown from London because of the danger from bomb-dropping Gothas, they derided the Thames Valley aliens, they talked heroically and patriotically about "standing their bit of bombing." In short Galvin House had become a harbour of heroism.

Mrs. Craske-Morton, who had shown a calmness and courage that none of the others seemed to recognise, had nothing to say except about her broken glass; on this subject, however, she was eloquent. Miss Wangle managed to convey to those who would listen that her own safety, and in fact that of Galvin House, was directly due to the intercession of the bishop, who when alive was particularly noted for the power and sustained eloquence of his prayers.

Mr. Bolton was frankly sceptical. If the august prelate was out to save Galvin House, he suggested, it wasn't quite cricket to let them drop a bomb in the next street.

Everyone was extremely critical of everyone else. Mr. Bolton said things about Mrs. Barnes and her clothes that made Miss Sikkum blush, particularly about the nose, where, with her, emotion always first manifested itself. Mr. Sefton had permanently returned to the "women and children first" phase and, as two cigarettes were missing from his case, he was convinced that he had acquitted himself with that air of reckless bravado that endeared a man to women. He talked pityingly and tolerantly of Gustave's obvious terror.

Mr. Bolton saw in the adventure material for jokes for months to come. He laboured at the subject with such misguided industry that Patricia felt she almost hated him. Some of his allusions, particularly to the state of sartorial indecision in which the maids had sought cover, were "not quite nice," as Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe expressed it to Mrs. Hamilton, who returned from a visit the day following.

At breakfast everyone had talked, and in consequence everyone who worked was late for work; the general opinion being, what was the use of a raid unless you could be late for work? Punctuality on such occasions being regarded as the waste of an opportunity, and a direct rebuke to Providence who had placed it there.

Patricia did not take part in the general babel, beyond pointing out, when Gustave was coming under discussion, that it was he who had gone to the top of the house to call her. She looked meaningly at Mr. Bolton and Mr. Sefton, who had the grace to appear a little ashamed of themselves. When Patricia returned in the evening, she found Lady Tanagra awaiting her in the lounge, literally bombarded with different accounts of what had happened—all narrated in the best "eye-witness" manner of the alarmist press. Following the precept of Charles Lamb, Galvin House had apparently striven to correct the bad impression made through lateness in beginning work by leaving early.

It was obvious that Lady Tanagra had made herself extremely popular. Everyone was striving to gain her ear for his or her story of personal experiences.

"Ah, here you are!" cried Lady Tanagra as Patricia entered. "I hear you behaved like a heroine last night."

Mrs. Craske-Morton nodded her head with conviction.

"Mrs. Morton was the real heroine," said Patricia. "She was splendid!"

Mrs. Craske-Morton flushed. To be praised before so distinguished a caller was almost embarrassing, especially as no one had felt it necessary to comment upon her share in the evening's excitement.

"Come up with me while I take off my things," said Patricia, as she moved towards the door. She saw that any private talk between herself and Lady Tanagra would be impossible in the lounge with Galvin House in its present state of ferment.

In Patricia's room Lady Tanagra subsided into a chair with a sigh. "I feel as if I were a celebrity arriving at New York," she laughed.

"They're rather excited," smiled Patricia, "but then we live such a humdrum life here—the expression is Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe's—and much should be forgiven them. A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think. It moves in a vicious circle. If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about."

"Didn't you do that?" enquired Lady Tanagra slily.

Patricia smiled wearily. "I take second place now to the raid. Think of living here for the next few weeks. They will think raid, read raid, talk raid and dream raid." She shuddered. "Thank heavens I'm off to-morrow."

"Off to-morrow?" Lady Tanagra raised her eyes in interrogation.

"Yes, to Eastbourne for a fortnight's holiday as provided for in the arrangement existing between one Patricia Brent and Arthur Bonsor, Esquire, M.P. It's part of the wages of the sin of secretaryship." Patricia sighed.

"I hope you'll enjoy——"

"Please don't be conventional," interrupted Patricia. "I shall not enjoy it in the least. Within twenty-four hours I shall long to be back again. I shall get up in the morning and I shall go to bed at night. In between I shall walk a bit, read a bit, get my nose red (thank heavens it doesn't peel) and become bored to extinction. One thing I won't do, that is wear openwork frocks. The sun shall not print cheap insertion kisses upon Patricia Brent."

"You're quite sure that it is a holiday," Lady Tanagra looked up quizzically at Patricia as she stood gazing out of the window.

"A holiday!" repeated Patricia, looking round.

"It sounded just a little depressing," said Lady Tanagra.

"It will be exactly what it sounds," Patricia retorted; "only depressing is not quite the right word, it's too polite. You don't know what it is to be lonely, Tanagra, and live at Galvin House, and try to haul or push a politician into a rising posture. It reminds me of Carlyle on the Dutch." There was a note of fierce protest in her voice.

"You have all the things that I want, and I wonder I don't scratch your face and tear your hair out. We are all primitive in our instincts really." Then she laughed. "Well! I had to cry out to someone, and I shall feel better. It's rather a beastly world for some of us, you know; but I suppose I ought to be spanked for being ungrateful."

"Do you know why I've come?" enquired Lady Tanagra, thinking it wise to change the subject.

Patiicia shook her head. "A more conceited person might have suggested that it was to see me," she said demurely.

"To apologise for Peter," said Lady Tanagra. "He disobeyed orders and I am very angry with him."

Patricia flushed at the memory of their good-night. For a few seconds she stood silent, looking out of the window.

"I think it was rather sweet of him," she said without looking round.

Lady Tanagra smiled slightly. "Then I may forgive him, you think?" she enquired.

Patricia turned and looked at her. Lady Tanagra met the gaze innocently.

"He wanted to write to you and send some flowers and chocolates; but I absolutely forbade it. We almost had our first quarrel," she added mendaciously.

For the space of a second Patricia hated Lady Tanagra. She would have liked to turn and rend her for interfering in a matter that could not possibly be regarded as any concern of hers. The feeling, however, was only momentary and, when Lady Tanagra rose to go, Patricia was as cordial as ever.

From Galvin House Lady Tanagra drove to the Quadrant.

"Peter!" she cried as she entered the room and threw herself into an easy chair, "if ever I again endeavour to divert true love from its normal——"

"How is she?" interrupted Bowen.

"Now you've spoiled it," cried Lady Tanagra, "and it was——"

"Spoiled what?" demanded Bowen.

"My beautiful phrase about true love and its normal channel, and I have been saying it over to myself all the way from Galvin House." She looked reproachfully at her brother.

"How's Patricia?" demanded Bowen eagerly.

"Fair to moderately fair, rain later, I should describe her," replied Lady Tanagra, helping herself to a cigarette which Bowen lighted. "She's going away."

"Good heavens! Where?" cried Bowen.

"Eastbourne."

"When?"

"To-morrow."

"Damn!"

"My dear Peter," remarked Lady Tanagra lazily, "this primitive profanity ill becomes——"

"Please don't rot me, Tan," he pleaded. "I've had a rotten time lately."

There was helpless and hopeless pain in Bowen's voice that caused Lady Tanagra to spring up from her chair and go over to him.

"Carry on, old boy," she cried softly, as she caressed his coat-sleeve. "It's your only chance. You're going to win."

"I must see her!" blurted out Bowen.

"If you do you'll spoil everything," announced Lady Tanagra with conviction.

"But, last night," began Bowen and paused.

"Last night, I think," said Lady Tanagra, "was a master-stroke. She is touched; it's taken us forward at least a week."

"But look here, Tan," said Bowen gloomily, "you told me to leave it all in your hands and you make me treat her rottenly, then you say——"

"That you know about as much of how to make a woman like Patricia fall in love with you as an ostrich does of geology," said Lady Tanagra calmly.

"But what will she think?" demanded Bowen.

"At present she is thinking that Eastbourne will be a nightmare of loneliness."

"I'll run down and see her," announced Bowen.

"If you do, Peter!" There was a note of warning in Lady Tanagra's voice.

"All right," he conceded gloomily. "I'll give you another week, and then I'll go my own way."

"Peter, if you were smaller and I were bigger I think I should spank you," laughed Lady Tanagra. Then with great seriousness she said, "I want you to marry her, and I'm going the only way to work to make her let you. Do try and trust me, Peter."

Bowen looked down at her with a smile, touched by the look in her eyes. For a moment his arm rested across her shoulders. Then he pushed her towards the door. "Clear out, Tan. I'm not fit for a bear-pit to-night."

The Bowens were never demonstrative with one another.

For half an hour Bowen sat smoking one cigarette after another until he was interrupted by the entrance of Peel, who, after a comprehensive glance round the room, proceeded to administer here and there those deft touches that emphasize a patient and orderly mind. Bowen watched him as he moved about on the balls of his feet.

"Have you ever been to Eastbourne, Peel?" enquired Bowen presently. Just why he asked the question he could not have said.

"Only once, my lord," replied Peel as he replaced the full ash-tray on the table by Bowen with a clean one. There was a note in his voice implying that nothing would ever tempt him to go there again

"You don't like it?" suggested Bowen.

"I dislike it intensely, my lord," replied Peel as he refolded a copy of The Times.

"Why?"

"It has unpleasant associations, my lord," was the reply.

Bowen smiled. After a moment's silence he continued:

"Been sowing wild oats there?"

"No, my lord, not exactly."

"Well, if it's not too private," said Bowen, "tell me what happened. At the moment I'm particularly interested in the place."

Peel gazed reproachfully at a copy of The Sphere, which had managed in some strange way to get its leaves dog-eared. As he proceeded to smooth them out he continued:

"It was when I was young, my lord. I was engaged to be married. I thought her a most excellent young woman, in every way suitable. She went down to Eastbourne for a holiday." He paused.

"Well, there doesn't seem much wrong in that," said Bowen.

"From Eastbourne she wrote, saying that she had changed her mind," proceeded Peel.

"The devil she did!" exclaimed Bowen. "And what did you do?"

"I went down to reason with her, my lord," said Peel.

"Does one reason with a woman, Peel?" enquired Bowen with a smile.

"I was very young then, my lord, not more than thirty-two." Peel's tone was apologetic. "I discovered that she had received an offer of marriage from another."

"Hard luck!" murmured Bowen.

"Not at all, my lord, really," said Peel philosophically. "I discovered that she had re-engaged herself to a butcher, a most offensive fellow. His language when I expostulated with him was incredibly coarse, and I am sure he used marrow for his hair."

"And what did you do?" enquired Bowen.

"I had taken a return ticket, my lord. I came back to London."

Bowen laughed. "I'm afraid you couldn't have been very badly hit, Peel, or you would not have been able to take it quite so philosophically."

"I have never allowed my private affairs to interfere with my professional duties, my lord," replied Peel unctuously.

For five minutes Bowen smoked in silence. "So you do not believe in marriage," he said at length.

"I would not say that, my lord; but I do not think it suitable for a man of temperament such as myself. I have known marriages quite successful where too much was not required of the contracting parties."

"But don't you believe in love?" enquired Bowen.

"Love, my lord, is like a disease. If you are on the look out for it you catch it, if you ignore it, it does not trouble you. I was once with a gentleman who was very nervous about microbes. He would never eat anything that had not been cooked, and he had everything about him disinfected. He even disinfected me," he added as if in proof of the extreme eccentricity of his late employer.

"So I suppose you despise me for having fallen in love and contemplating marriage," said Bowen with a smile.

"There are always exceptions, my lord," responded Peel tactfully. "I have prepared the bath."

"Peel," remarked Bowen as he rose and stretched himself, "disinfected or not disinfected, you are safe from the microbe of romance."

"I hope so, my lord," responded Peel as he opened the door.

"I wonder if history will repeat itself," murmured Bowen as he walked through his bedroom into the bathroom. "I, too, hate Eastbourne."