Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 21
THE GREATEST INDISCRETION
IN the vestibule of the Quadrant stood Peel, looking a veritable colossus of negation. As Patricia approached he bowed and led the way to the lift. As it slid upwards Patricia wondered if Peel could hear the thumping of her heart, and if so, what he thought of it. She followed him along the carpeted corridor conscious of a mad desire to turn and fly. What would Peel do? she wondered. Possibly in the madness of the moment his mantle of discretion might fall from him, and he would dash after her. What a sensation for the Quadrant! A girl tearing along as if for her life pursued by a gentleman's servant. It would look just like the poster of "Charley's Aunt."
Peel opened the door of Bowen's sitting-room, and Patricia entered with the smile still on her lips that the thought of "Charley's Aunt" had aroused. Something seemed to spring towards her from inside the room, and she found herself caught in a pair of arms and kissed. She remembered wondering if Peel were behind, or if he had closed the door, then she abandoned herself to Bowen's embrace.
Everything seemed somehow changed. It was as if someone had suddenly shouldered her responsibilities, and she would never have to think again for herself. Her lips, her eyes, her hair, were kissed in turn. She was being crushed; yet she was conscious only of a feeling of complete content.
Suddenly the realisation of what was happening dawned upon her, and she strove to free herself. With all her force she pushed Bowen from her. He released her. She stood back looking at him with crimson cheeks and unseeing eyes. She was conscious that something unusual was happening to her, something in which she appeared to have no voice. Perhaps it was all a dream. She swayed a little. The same sensation she had fought back at the telephone was overcoming her. Was she going to faint? It would be ridiculous to faint in Bowen's rooms. Why did people faint? Was it really, as Aunt Adelaide had told her, because the heart missed a beat? One beat——
She felt Bowen's arm round her, she seemed to sway towards a chair. Was the chair really moving away from her? Then the mist seemed to clear. Someone was kneeling beside her.
Bowen gazed at her anxiously. Her face was now colourless, and her eyes closed wearily. She sighed as a tired child sighs before falling asleep.
"Patricia! what is the matter?" cried Bowen in alarm. "You haven't fainted, have you?"
She was conscious of the absurdity of the question. She opened her eyes with a curious fluttering movement of the lids, as if they were uncertain how long they could remain unclosed. A slow, tired smile played across her face, like a passing shaft of sunshine, then the lids closed again and the life seemed to go out of her body.
Bowen gently withdrew his arm and, rising, strode across to a table on which was a decanter of whisky and syphon of soda. With unsteady hands, he poured whisky and soda into a glass and, returning to Patricia, he passed his arm gently behind her head, placing the glass against her lips. She drank a little and then, with a shudder, turned her head aside. A moment later her eyes opened again. She looked round the room, then fixed her gaze on Bowen as if trying to explain to herself his presence. Gradually the colour returned to her cheeks and she sighed deeply. She shook her head as Bowen put the glass against her lips.
"I nearly fainted," she whispered, sighing again. "I've never done such a thing." Then after a pause she added, "I wonder what has happened. My head feels so funny."
"It's all my fault," said Bowen penitently. "I've waited so long, and I seemed to go mad. You will forgive me, dearest, won't you?" his voice was full of concern.
Patricia smiled. "Have I been here long?" she asked. "It seems ages since I came."
"No; only about five minutes. Oh, Patricia! you won't do it again, will you?" Bowen drew her nearer to him and upset the glass containing the remains of the whisky and soda that he had placed on the floor beside him.
"I didn't quite faint, really," she said earnestly, as if defending herself from a reproach.
"I mean throw me over," explained Bowen, "It's been hell!"
"Please go and sit down," she said, moving restlessly. "I'm all right now. I—I want to talk and I can't talk like this." Again she smiled, and Bowen lifted her hand and kissed it gently. Rising he drew a chair near her and sat down.
"You see all this comes of trying to be a Mrs. Triggs," she said regretfully.
"Mrs. Triggs!" Bowen looked at her anxiously.
Slowly and a little wearily Patricia explained her conversation with Elton. "Didn't he tell you he had seen me?"
"No," replied Bowen, relieved at the explanation; "Godfrey is a perfect dome of silence on occasion."
"Why did you suddenly leave me all alone, Peter?" Patricia enquired presently. "I couldn't understand. It hurt me terribly. I didn't realise"—she paused—"oh, everything, until I heard you were going away. Oh, my dear!" she cried in a low voice, "be gentle with me. I'm all bruises."
Bowen bent across to her. "I'm a brute," he said, "but——"
She shook her head. "Not that sort," she said. "It's my pride I've bruised. I seem to have turned everything upside down. You'll have to be very gentle with me at first, please." She looked up at him with a flicker of a smile.
"Not only at first, dear, but always," said Bowen gently as he rose and seated himself beside her. "Patricia, when did you—care?" he blurted out the last word hurriedly.
"I don't know," she replied dreamily. "You see," she continued after a pause, "I've not been like other girls. Do you know, Peter," she looked up at him shyly, "you're the first man who has ever kissed me, except my father. Isn't it absurd?"
"It's nothing of the sort," Bowen declared, tilting up her chin and gazing down into her eyes. "But you haven't answered my question."
"Well!" continued Patricia, speaking slowly, "when you sent me flowers and messengers and telegraph-boys and things I was angry, and then when you didn't I——" she paused.
"Wanted them," he suggested.
"U-m-m-m!" she nodded her head. "I suppose so," she conceded. "But," she added with a sudden change of mood, "I shall always be dreadfully afraid of Peel. He seems so perfect."
Bowen laughed. "I'll try and balance matters," he said.
"But you haven't told me," said Patricia, "why you left me alone all at once. Why did you?" She looked up enquiringly at him.
During the next half an hour Patricia slowly drew from Bowen the whole story of the plot engineered by Lady Tanagra.
"But why," questioned Patricia, "were you going away if you knew that—that everything would come all right?"
"I had given up hope, and I couldn't break my promise to Tan. I convinced myself that you didn't care."
Patricia held out her hand with a smile. Bowen bent and kissed it.
"I wonder what you are thinking of me?" She looked up at him anxiously. "I'm very much at your mercy now, Peter, aren't I? You won't let me ever regret it, will you?"
"Do you regret it?" he whispered, bending towards her, conscious of the fragrance of her hair.
"It's such an unconditional surrender," she complained. "All my pride is bruised and trampled underfoot. You have me at such a disadvantage."
"So long as I've got you I don't care," he laughed.
"Peter," said Patricia after a few minutes of silence, "I want you to ring up Tanagra and Godfrey Elton and ask them to dine here this evening. They must put off any other engagement. Tell them I say so."
"But can't we——?" began Bowen.
"There, you are making me regret already," she said with a flash of her old vivacity.
Bowen flew to the telephone. By a lucky chance Elton was calling at Grosvenor Square, and Bowen was able to get them both with one call. He was a little disappointed, however, at not having Patricia to himself that evening.
"When shall we get married?" Bowen asked eagerly, as Patricia rose and announced that she must go and repair damages to her face and garments.
"I will tell you after dinner," she said as she walked towards the door.
"It is only the impecunious who are constrained to be modest," remarked Elton as the four sat smoking in Bowen's room after dinner.
"Is that an apology, or merely a statement of fact?" asked Lady Tanagra.
"I think," remarked Patricia quietly "that it is an apology."
Elton looked across at her with one of those quick movements of his eyes that showed alert his mind was, in spite of the languid ease of his manner.
"And now," continued Patricia, "I have something very important to say to you all."
"Oh!" groaned Lady Tanagra, "spare me from the self-importance of the newly-engaged girl."
"It has come to my knowledge, Tanagra," proceeded Patricia, "that you and Mr. Elton did deliberately and wittingly conspire together against my peace of mind and happiness. There!" she added, "that's almost legal in its ambiguity, isn't it?"
Lady Tanagra and Elton exchanged glances.
"What do you mean?" demanded Lady Tanagra gaily.
Patricia explained that she had extracted from Bowen the whole story. Lady Tanagra looked reproachfully at her brother. Then turning to Patricia she said with unwonted seriousness:
"I saw that was the only way to—to—well get you for a sister-in-law and," she paused a moment uncertainly. "I knew you were the only girl for that silly old thing there, who was blundering up the whole business."
"Your mania for interfering in other people's affairs will be your ruin, Tanagra," said Patricia as she turned to Elton, her look clearly enquiring if he had any excuse to offer.
"The old Garden of Eden answer," he said. "A woman tempted me."
"Then we will apply the old Garden of Eden punishment," announced Patricia.
Elton, who was the first to grasp her meaning, looked anxiously at Lady Tanagra, who with knitted brows was endeavouring to penetrate to Patricia's meaning. Bowen was obviously at sea. Suddenly Lady Tanagra's face flamed and her eyes dropped. Elton stroked the back of his head, a habit he had when preoccupied—he was never nervous.
"You two," continued Patricia, now thoroughly enjoying herself, "have precipitated yourselves into my most private affairs, and in return I am going to take a hand in yours. Peter has asked me when I will marry him. I said I would tell him after dinner this evening."
Bowen looked across at her eagerly, Elton lit another cigarette, Lady Tanagra toyed nervously with her amber cigarette-holder.
"I will marry Peter," announced Patricia, "when you, Tanagra," she paused slightly, "marry Godfrey Elton."
Lady Tanagra looked up with a startled cry. Her eyes were wide with something that seemed almost fear, then without warning she turned and buried her head in a cushion and burst into uncontrollable sobbing.
Bowen started up. With a swift movement Patricia went over to his side and, before he knew what was happening, he was in the corridor stuttering his astonishment to Patricia.
For an hour the two sat in the lounge below, talking and listening to the band. Patricia explained to Bowen how from the first she had known that Elton and Tanagra were in love.
"But we've known him all our lives!" expostulated Bowen.
"The very thing that blinded you all to a most obvious fact."
"But why didn't he——?" began Bowen.
"Because of her money," explained Patricia. "Anyhow," she continued gaily, "I had lost my own tail, and I wasn't going to see Tanagra wagging hers before my eyes. Now let's go up and see what has happened."
Just as Bowen's hand was on the handle of the sitting-room door, Patricia cried out that she had dropped a ring. When they entered the room Elton and Lady Tanagra were standing facing the door. One glance at their faces, told Patricia all she wanted to know. Without a word Elton came forward and bending low, kissed her hand. There was something so touching in his act of deference that Patricia felt her throat contract.
She went across to Lady Tanagra and put her arm round her.
"You darling!" whispered Lady Tanagra. "How clever of you to know."
"I knew the first time I saw you together, whispered Patricia.
Lady Tanagra hugged her.
"And now we must all run round to Grosvenor Square. Poor Mother—what a surprise for her!"
Elton's medical board took a more serious view of his state of health than was anticipated, and he was temporarily given an appointment in the Intelligence Department. Bowen's application to be allowed to rejoin his regiment was refused, and thus the way was cleared for the double wedding that took place at St. Margaret's, Westminster.
Patricia was given away by the Duke of Gayton. Lady Peggy declared that it would rank as the most heroic act he had ever performed. Mr. Triggs reached the highest sartorial pinnacle of his career in a light grey, almost white frock-coated suit with a high hat to match, a white waistcoat, and a white satin tie. As Elton expressed it, he looked like a musical-comedy conception of a bookmaker turned philanthropist.
Galvin House was there in force. Even Gustave obtained an hour off and, with a large white rose in his button-hole, beamed on everyone and everything with the utmost impartiality. Miss Brent, like Achilles, sulked in her tent.
"The only two men I ever loved," wailed Lady Peggy to a friend, "and both gone at one shot."
"She's a lucky girl," said an old dowager, "and only a secretary."
"Some girl. What!" muttered an embryo field-marshal to a one-pip strategist in the uniform of the Irish Guards, who concurred with an emphatic, "Lucky devil!"
At Galvin House for the rest of the chapter they talked, dreamed and lived the Bowen-Brent marriage. It was the one ineffaceable sunspot in the greyness of their lives.