Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 20

 

CHAPTER XX

A RACE WITH SPINSTERHOOD

BEFORE she had been at Eastbourne twenty-four hours Patricia was convinced that she had made a mistake in going there. With no claims upon her time, the restlessness that had developed in London increased until it became almost unbearable. The hotel at which she was staying was little more than a glorified boarding-house, full of "the most jungly of jungle-people," as she expressed it to herself. Their well-meant and kindly efforts to engage her in their pursuits and pleasures she received with apathetic negation. At length her fellow-guests, seeing that she was determined not to respond to their overtures, left her severely alone. The men were the last to desist.

She came to dislike the pleasure-seekers about her and grew critical of everything she saw, the redness of the women's faces, the assumed youthfulness of the elderly men, the shapelessness of matrons who seemed to delight in bright open-work blouses and juvenile hats. She remembered Elton's remark that Fashion uncovers a multitude of shins. The shins exposed at Eastbourne were she decided, sufficient to undermine one's belief in the early chapters of Genesis.

At one time she would have been amused at the types around her, and their various conceptions of "one crowded hour of glorious life." As it was, everything seemed sordid and trivial. Why should people lose all sense of dignity and proportion at a set period of the year? It was, she decided, almost as bad as being a hare.

All she wanted was to be alone, she told herself; yet as soon as she had discovered some secluded spot and had settled herself down to read, the old restlessness attacked her, and fight against it as she might, she was forced back again to the haunts of men.

For the first few days she watched eagerly for letters. None came. She would return to the hotel several times a day, look at the letter-rack, then, to hide her disappointment, make a pretence of having returned for some other purpose. "Why had not Bowen written?" she asked herself, then a moment after she strove to convince herself that he had forgotten, or at least that she was only an episode in his life.

His sudden change from eagerness to indifference caused her to flush with humiliation; yet he had gone to Galvin House during the raid to assure himself of her safety. Why had he not written after what had occurred? Perhaps Aunt Adelaide was right about men after all.

Patricia wrote to Lady Tanagra, Mrs. Hamilton, Lady Peggy, Mr. Triggs, even to Miss Sikkum. In due course answers arrived; but in only Miss Sikkum's letter was there any reference to Bowen, a gush of sentiment about "how happy you must be, dear Miss Brent, with Lord Bowen running down to see you every other day. I know!" she added with maidenly prescience. Patricia laughed.

Mr. Triggs committed himself to nothing more than two and three-quarter pages, mainly about his daughter and "A. B.," Mr. Triggs was not at his best as a correspondent. Lady Tanagra ran to four pages; but as her handwriting was large, five lines filling a page, her letter was disappointing.

Lady Peggy was the most productive. In the course of twelve pages of spontaneity she told Patricia that the Duke and the Cabinet Minister had almost quarrelled about her, Patricia. "Peter has been to lunch with us and Daddy has told him how lucky he is, and how wonderful you are. If Peter is not very careful, I shall have you presented to me as a stepmother. Wouldn't it be priceless!" she wrote. "Oh! What am I writing?" She ended with the Duke's love, and an insistence that Patricia should lunch at Curzon Street the first Sunday after her return.

Patricia found Lady Peggy's letter charming. She was pleased to know that she had made a good impression and was admired—by the right people. Twenty-four hours, however, found her once more thrown back into the trough of her own despondency. Instinctively she began to count the days until this "dire compulsion of infertile days" should end. She could not very well return to London and say that she was tired of holiday-making. Galvin House would put its own construction upon her action and words, and whatever that construction might be, it was safe to assume that it would be an unpleasant one.

There were moments when a slight uplifting of the veil enabled her to see herself as she must appear to others.

"Patricia!" she exclaimed one morning to her reflection in a rather dubious mirror. "You're a cumberer of the earth and, furthermore, you've got a beastly temper," and she jabbed a pin through her hat and partly into her head.

As the days passed she found herself wondering what was the earliest day she could return. If she made it the Friday night, would it arouse suspicion? She decided that it would, and settled to leave Eastbourne on the Saturday afternoon.

As the train steamed out of the station she made a grimace in the direction of the town, just as an inoffensive and prematurely bald little man opposite looked up from his paper. He gave Patricia one startled look through his gold-rimmed spectacles and, for the rest of the journey, buried himself behind his paper, fearful lest Patricia should "make another face at him," as he explained to his mother that evening.

"She's come home in a nice temper!" was Miss Wangle's diagnosis of the mood in which Patricia reached Galvin House.

Gustave regarded her with anxious concern.

The first dinner drove her almost mad. The raid, as a topic of conversation, was on the wane, although Mr. Bolton worked at it nobly, and Patricia found herself looked upon to supply the necessary material for the evening's amusement. What had she done? Where had she been? Had she bathed? Were the dresses pretty? How many times had Bowen been down? Had she met any nice people? Was it true that the costumes of the women were disgraceful?

At last, with a forced laugh, Patricia told them that she must have "notice" of such questions, and everybody had looked at her in surprise, until Mr. Bolton's laugh rang out, and he explained the parliamentary allusion.

When at last, under pretence of being tired, she was able to escape to her room, she felt that another five minutes would have turned her brain.

Sunday dawned, and with it the old panorama of iterations unfolded itself: Mr. Bolton's velvet coat and fez, Mr. Cordal's carpet slippers with the fur tops, Mrs. Barnes' indecision, Mr. Sefton's genial and romantic optimism, Miss Sikkum's sumptuary excesses; all presented themselves in due sequence just as they had done for—"was it centuries?" Patricia asked herself. To crown all it was a roast-pork Sunday, and the reek of onions preparing for the seasoning filled the house.

Patricia felt that the fates were fighting against her. In nerving herself for the usual human Sunday ordeal, she had forgotten the vegetable menace, in other words that it was "pork Sunday." Mr. Bolt on was always more than usually trying on Sundays; but reinforced by onions he was almost unbearable. Patricia fled.

It was the Sunday before August Bank Holiday. Patricia shuddered at the remembrance. It meant that people were away. She did not pause to think that her world was at home, pursuing its various paths whereby to cultivate an appetite worthy of the pork that was even then sizzling in the Galvin House kitchen under the eagle eye of the cook, who prided herself on her "crackling," which Galvin House crunched with noisy gusto.

Patricia sank down upon a chair far back under the trees opposite the Stanhope Gate. Here she remained in a vague way watching the people, yet unconscious of their presence. From time to time some snatch of meaningless conversation would reach her. "You know Betty's such a sport?" one man said to another. Patricia found herself wondering what Betty was like and what, to the speaker's mind, constituted being a sport. Was Betty pretty? She must be, Patricia decided; no one cared whether or no a plain girl were a sport. She found herself wanting to know Betty. What were the lives of all these people, these shadows, that were moving to and fro in front of her, each intent upon something that seemed of vital importance? Were they——?"

"I doubt if Cassandra could have looked more gloomily prophetic."

She turned with a start and saw Geoffrey Elton smiling down upon her.

"Did I look as bad as that?" she enquired, as he took a seat beside her.

"You looked as if you were gratuitously settling the destinies of the world," he replied.

"In a way I suppose I was," she said musingly. "You see they all mean something," indicating the paraders with a nod of her head, "tragedy, comedy, farce, sometimes all three. If you only stop to think about life, it all seems so hopeless. I feel sometimes that I could run away from it all."

"That in the Middle Ages would have been diagnosed as the monastic spirit," said Elton. "It arose, and no doubt continues in most cases to arise from a sluggish liver."

"How dreadful!" laughed Patricia. "The inference is obvious."

"The world's greatest achievements and greatest tragedies could no doubt be traced directly to rebellious livers: Waterloo and 'Hamlet' are instances."

"Are you serious?" enquired Patricia. She was never quite certain of Elton.

"In a way I suppose I am," he replied. "If I were a pathologist I should write a book upon The Influence of Disease upon the Destinies of the World. The supreme monarch is the microbe. The Germans have shown that they recognise this."

"Ugh!" Patricia shuddered.

"Of course you have to make some personal sacrifice in the matter of self-respect first," continued Elton, "but after that the rest becomes easy."

"I suppose that is what a German victory would mean," said Patricia.

"Yes; we should give up lead and nickel and T.N.T., and invent germ distributors. Essen would become a great centre of germ-culture, and——"

"Oh! please let us talk about something else," cried Patricia. "It's horrible!"

"Well!" said Elton with a smile, "shall we continue our talk over lunch, if you have no engagement?"

"Lady Peggy asked me——" began Patricia.

"They're away in Somerset," said Elton, "so now I claim you as my victim. It is your destiny to save me from my own thoughts."

"And yours to save me from roast pork and apple sauce," said Patricia, rising. As they walked towards Hyde Park Corner she explained the Galvin House cuisine.

They lunched at the Ritz and, to her surprise Patricia found herself eating with enjoyment, a thing she had not done for weeks past. She decided that it must be a revulsion of feeling after the menace of roast pork. Elton was a good talker, with a large experience of life and a considerable fund of general information.

"I should like to travel," said Patricia as she sipped her coffee in the lounge.

"Why?" Elton held a match to her cigarette.

"Oh! I suppose because it is enjoyable," replied Patricia; "besides, it educates," she added.

"That is too conventional to be worthy of you," said Elton.

"How?" queried Patricia.

"Most of the dull people I know ascribe their dullness to lack of opportunities for travel. They seem to think that a voyage round the world will make brilliant talkers of the toughest bores."

"Am I as tedious as that?" enquired Patricia, looking up with a smile.

"Your friend, Mr. Triggs, for instance," continued Elton, passing over Patricia's remark. "He has not travelled, and he is always interesting. Why?"

"I suppose because he is Mr. Triggs," said Patricia half to herself.

"Exactly," said Elton. "If you were really yourself you would not be——"

"So dull," broke in Patricia with a laugh.

"So lonely," continued Elton, ignoring the interruption.

"Why do you say that?" demanded Patricia. "It's not exactly a compliment."

"Intellectual loneliness may be the lot of the greatest social success."

"But why do you think I am lonely?" persisted Patricia.

"Let us take Mr. Triggs as an illustration. He is direct, unversed in diplomacy, golden-hearted, with a great capacity for friendship and sentiment. When he is hurt he shows it as plainly as a child, therefore we none of us hurt him."

"He's a dear!" murmured Patricia half to herself.

"If he were in love he would never permit pride to disguise it."

Patricia glanced up at Elton: but he was engaged in examining the end of his cigarette.

"He would credit the other person with the same sincerity as himself," continued Elton. "The biggest rogue respects an honest man, that is why we, who are always trying to disguise our emotions, admire Mr. Triggs, who would just as soon wear a red beard and false eyebrows as seek to convey a false impression."

Patricia found herself wondering why Elton had selected this topic. She was conscious that it was not due to chance.

"Is it worth it?" Elton's remark, half command, half question, seemed to stab through her thoughts.

She looked up at him, her eyes a little widened with surprise.

"Is what worth what?" she enquired.

"I was just wondering," said Elton, "if the Triggses are not very wise in eating onions and not bothering about what the world will think."

"Eating onions!" cried Patricia.

"My medical board is on Tuesday up North," said Elton, "and I shall hope to get back to France. You see things in a truer perspective when you're leaving town under such conditions."

Patricia was silent for some time. Elton's remarks sometimes wanted thinking out.

"You think we should take happiness where we can find it?" she asked.

"Well! I think we are too much inclined to render unto Cæsar the things which are God's," he replied gravely.

"Do you appreciate that you are talking in parables?" said Patricia.

"That is because I do not possess Mr. Triggs's golden gift of directness."

Suddenly Patricia glanced at her watch. "Why, it's five minutes to three!" she cried. "I had no idea it was so late."

"I promised to run round to say good-bye to Peter at three," Elton remarked casually, as he passed through the lounge.

"Good-bye!" cried Patricia in surprise.

"He is throwing up his staff appointment, and has applied to rejoin his regiment in France."

For a moment Patricia stopped dead, then with a great effort she passed through the revolving door into the sunlight. Her knees seemed strangely shaky, and she felt thankful when she saw the porter hail a taxi. Elton handed her in and closed the door.

"Galvin House?" he interrogated.

"When does he go?" asked Patricia in a voice that she could not keep even in tone.

"As soon as the War Office approves," said Elton.

"Does Lady Tanagra know?" she asked.

"No, Peter will not tell her until everything is settled," he replied.

As the taxi sped westwards Patricia was conscious that some strange change had come over her. She had the feeling that follows a long bout of weeping. Peter was going away! Suddenly everything was changed! Everything was explained! She must see him! Prevent him from going back to France! He was going because of her! He would be killed and it would be her fault!

Arrived at Galvin House she went straight to her room. For two hours she lay on her bed, her mind in a turmoil, her head feeling as if it were being compressed into a mould too small for it. No matter how she strove to control them, her thoughts inevitably returned to the phrase, "Peter is going to France."

Unknown to herself, she was fighting a great fight with her pride. She must see him, but how? If she telephoned it would be an unconditional surrender. She could never respect herself again. "When you are in love you take pleasure in trampling your pride underfoot." The phrase persisted in obtruding itself. Where had she heard it? What was pride? she asked herself. One might be very lonely with pride as one's sole companion. What would Mr. Triggs say? She could see his forehead corrugated with trying to understand what pride had to do with love. Even Elton, self-restrained, almost self-sufficient, admitted that Mr. Triggs was right.

If she let Peter go? A year hence, a month perhaps, she might have lost him. Of what use would her pride be then? She had not known before; but now she knew how much Peter meant to her. Since he had come into her life everything had changed, and she had grown discontented with the things that, hitherto, she had tacitly accepted as her portion.

"You're fretting, me dear!" Mr. Triggs's remark came back to her. She recalled how indignant she had been. Why? Because it was true She had been cross. She remembered the old man's anxiety lest he had offended her. She almost smiled as she recalled his clumsy effort to explain away his remark.

She had heard someone knock gently at her door, once, twice, three times. She made no response. Then Gustave's voice whispered, "Tea is served in the looaunge, mees." She heard him creep away with clumsy stealth. There was a sweet-natured creature. He could never disguise an emotion. He had come upstairs during the raid, though in obvious terror, in order to save her. Mr. Triggs, Gustave, Elton, all were against her. She knew that in some subtle way they were working to fight her pride.

For some time longer she lay, then suddenly she sprang up. First she bathed her face, then undid her hair, finally she changed her frock and powdered her nose.

"Hurry up, Patricia! or you may think better of it," she cried to her reflection in the glass. "This is a race with spinsterhood."

Going downstairs quietly she went to the telephone.

"Gerrard 60000," she called, conscious that both her voice and her knees were unsteady.

After what seemed an age there came the reply, "Quadrant Hotel."

"Is Lord Peter Bowen in?" she enquired. "Thank you," she added in response to the clerk's promise to enquire.

Her hand was shaking. She almost dropped the receiver. He must be out, she told herself, after what seemed to her an age of waiting. If he were in they would have found him. Perhaps he had already started for——

"Who is that?" It was Bowen's voice.

Patricia felt she could sing. So he had not gone! Would her knees play her false and cheat her?

"It's—it's me," she said, regardless of grammar.

"That's delightful; but who is me?" came the response.

No wonder woman liked him if he spoke like that to them, she decided.

Suddenly she realised that even she herself could not recognise as her own the voice with which she was speaking.

"Patricia," she said.

"Patricia!" There was astonishment, almost incredulity in his voice. So Elton had said nothing. "Where are you? Can I see you?"

Patricia felt her cheeks burn at the eagerness of his tone.

"I'm—I'm going out. I—I'll call for you if you like," she stammered.

"I say, how ripping of you. Come in a taxi or shall I come and fetch you?"

"No, I—I'm coming now, I'm——" then she put up the receiver. What was she going to do or say? For a moment she swayed. Was she going to faint? A momentary deadly sickness seemed to overcome her. She fought it back fiercely. She must get to the Quadrant. "I shall have to be a sort of reincarnation of Mrs. Triggs, I think," she murmured as she staggered past the astonished Gustave, who was just coming from the lounge, and out of the front door, where she secured a taxi