Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 3
THE ADVENTURE AT THE QUADRANT GRILL-ROOM
THAT evening as Patricia looked in at the lounge on the way to her room, she found it unusually crowded. On a normal day her appearance would scarcely have been noticed; but this evening it was the signal for a sudden cessation in the buzz of conversation, and all eyes were upon her. For a moment she stood in the doorway and then, with a nod and a smile, she turned and proceeded upstairs, conscious of the whispering that broke out as soon as her back was turned.
As she stood before the mirror, wondering what she should wear for the night's adventure, she recalled a remark of Miss Wangle's that no really nice-minded woman ever dressed in black and white unless she had some ulterior motive. Upon the subject of sex-attraction Miss Wangle posed as an authority, and hinted darkly at things that thrilled Miss Sikkum to ecstatic giggles, and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe to pianissimo moans of anguish that such things could be.
With great deliberation Patricia selected a black charmeuse costume that Miss Wangle had already confided to the whole of Galvin House was at least two and a half inches too short; but as Patricia had explained to Mrs. Hamilton, if you possess exquisitely fitting patent boots that come high up the leg, it's a sin for the skirt to be too long. She selected a black velvet hat with a large white water-lily on the upper brim.
"You look bad enough for a vicar's daughter," she said, surveying herself in the glass as she fastened a bunch of red carnations in her belt. "White at the wrists and on the hat, yes, it looks most improper. I wonder what the major-man will think?"
Swift movements, deft touches, earnest scrutiny followed one another. Patricia was an artist in dress. Finally, when her gold wristlet watch had been fastened over a white glove she subjected herself to a final and exhaustive examination.
"Now, Patricia!"—it had become with her a habit to address her reflection in the mirror—"shall we carry an umbrella, or shall we not?" For a few moments she regarded herself quizzically, then finally announced, "No: we will not. An umbrella suggests a bus, or the tube, and when a girl goes out with a major in the British Army, she goes in a taxi. No, we will not carry an umbrella."
She still lingered in front of the mirror, looking at herself with obvious approval.
"Yes, Patricia! you are looking quite nice. Your eyes are violeter, your hair more sunsetty and your lips redder than usual, and, yes, your face generally looks happier."
When she entered the lounge it was twenty minutes to eight and, although dinner was at seven-thirty, the room was full. Everybody stared at her as with flushed cheeks she walked to the centre of the room. Then suddenly turning to Miss Wangle, she said, "Do you think I shall do, Miss Wangle, or do I look too wicked for a major?"
Miss Wangle merely stared. Mrs. Hamilton smiled and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe looked sympathetically at Miss Wangle. Mr. Bolton laughed.
"I wish I was a major, Miss Brent," he remarked, at which Patricia turned to him and made an elaborate curtsy.
"That girl will come to a bad end," remarked Miss Wangle with conviction to Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, as with a smile over her shoulder Patricia made a dramatic exit. She had noticed, however, that Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe were in hats and jackets. They, too, were apparently going out, although she had not heard them tell Mrs. Craske-Morton so. Mr. Bolton also had his hat in his hand. During the day Patricia had thought out very carefully the part she had set herself to play. If she were going to meet her fiancé back from the Front, she must appear radiantly happy, vide conventional opinion. But she had admonished her reflection in the mirror, "You mustn't overdo it. Women, especially tabbies, are very acute."
It had been Patricia's intention to go by bus but at the entrance of the lounge she saw Gustave who ingratiatingly enquired, "Taxi, mees?"
With a smile she nodded her head, and Gustave disappeared. "There goes another two shillings. Oh, bother Major Brown! Soldiers are costly luxuries," she muttered under her breath.
A moment after Gustave reappeared with the intimation that the taxi was at the door. A group of her fellow-guests gathered in the hall to see her off. Patricia thought their attitude more appropriate to a wedding than the fact that one of their fellow-boarders was going out to dinner. "It is clear," she thought, "that Patricia Brent, man-catcher, is a much more important person than is Patricia Brent, inveterate spinster."
She noticed that there was a second taxi at the door, and while her own driver was "winding-up" his machine, which took some little time, the other taxi got off in front. She had seen get into it Miss Wangle, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, and Mr. Bolton.
As the taxi sped eastward, Patricia began to speculate as to what she really intended doing. She had no appointment, she was in a taxi which would cost her two shillings at least, and she had given the address of the Quadrant Grill-room.
She was still considering what she should do when the taxi drew up. Fate and the taxi driver had decided the matter between them, and Patricia determined to go through with it and disappoint neither. Having paid the man and tipped him handsomely, she descended the stairs to the Grill-room. She had no idea of what it cost to dine at the Quadrant; but remembered with a comfortable feeling that she had some two pounds upon her. With moderation, she decided, it might be possible to get a meal for that sum without attracting the adverse criticism of the staff. It had not struck her that it might appear strange for a girl to dine alone at such a restaurant as the Quadrant, and that she was laying herself open to criticism. She was too excited at this new adventure into which she had been precipitated for careful reasoning.
As she descended the stairs she caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror. She started. Surely that could not be Patricia Brent, secretary to a rising politician, that stylish-looking girl in black, with a large bunch of carnations. That red-haired creature with sparkling eyes and a colour that seemed to have caught the reflection of the carnations in her belt!
She entered the lounge at the foot of the stairs with increased confidence, and she was conscious that several men turned to look at her with interest. Then suddenly the bottom fell out of her world. There, standing in the vestibule, were Miss Wangle, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, and Mr. Bolton. In a flash she saw it all. They had come to spy upon her. They would find her out, and the whole humiliating story would probably have to be told. Thoughts seemed to spurt through her mind. What was she to do? It was too late to retreat. Miss Wangle had already fixed her with a stony stare through her lorgnettes, which she carried only on special occasions.
Patricia was conscious of bowing and smiling sweetly. Some sub-conscious power seemed to take possession of her. Still wondering what she should do, she found herself walking head in the air and perfectly composed, in the direction of the Grill-room. She was conscious of being followed by Miss Wangle and her party. As Patricia rounded the glass screen a superintendent came up and enquired if she had a table. She heard a voice that seemed like and yet unlike her own answer, "Yes, thank you," and she passed on looking from right to left as if in search of someone, unconscious of the many glances cast in her direction.
When about half-way up the long room, just past the bandstand, the terrible thought came to her of a possible humiliating retreat. What was she to do? Why was she there? What were her plans? She looked about her, hoping that she did not appear so frightened as she felt. She was conscious of the gaze of a man seated at a table a few yards off. He was fair and in khaki. That was all she knew. Yes, he was looking at her intently
"No, that table won't do! It is too near to the band." It was Miss Wangle's voice behind her.
Without a moment's hesitation her sub-conscious self once more took possession of Patricia, and she marched straight up to the fair-haired man in khaki and in a voice loud enough for Miss Wangle and her party to hear cried:
"Hullo! so here you are, I thought I should never find you." Then as he rose she murmured under her breath, "Please play up to me, I'm in an awful hole. I'll explain presently."
Without a moment's hesitation the man replied, "You're very late. I waited for you a long time outside, then I gave you up."
With a look of gratitude and a sigh of content, Patricia sank down into the chair a waiter had placed for her. If there had been no chair, she would have fallen to the floor, her legs refusing further to support her body. She was trembling all over. Miss Wangle had selected the next table. Patricia was conscious of hoping that somewhere in the next world Miss Wangle's sufferings would transcend those of Dives as a hundred to one.
As she was pulling off her gloves her companion held a low-toned colloquy with the waiter. She stole a glance at him. What must he be thinking? How had he classified her? Her heart was pounding against her ribs as if determined to burst through.
Suddenly she remembered that the others were watching and, leaning upon the table, she said:
"Please pretend to be very pleased to see me. We must talk a lot. You know—you know—" then she turned aside in confusion; but with an effort she said: "You—you are supposed to be my fiancé, and you've just come back from France, and—and—— Oh! what are you thinking of me? Please—please——" she broke off.
Very gravely and with smiling eyes he replied, "I quite understand. Please don't worry. Something has happened, and if I can do anything to help, you have only to tell me. My name is Bowen, and I'm just back from France."
"Are you a major?" enquired Patricia, to whom stars and crowns meant nothing.
"I'm afraid I'm a lieutenant-colonel," he replied, "on the Staff."
"Oh! what a pity," said Patricia, "I said you were a major."
"Couldn't you say I've been promoted?"
Patricia clapped her hands. "Oh! how splendid! Of course! You see I said that you were Major Brown, I can easily tell them that they misunderstood and that it was Major Bowen. They are such awful cats, and if they found out I should have to leave. You see that's some of them at the next table there. That's Miss Wangle with the lorgnettes and the other woman is Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, who is her echo, and the man is Mr. Bolton. He's nothing in particular."
"I see," said Bowen.
"And—and—of course you've got to pretend to be most awfully glad to see me. You see we haven't met for a long time and—and—we're engaged."
"I quite understand," was the reply.
Then suddenly Patricia caught his eye and saw the smile in it.
"Oh, how dreadful!" she cried. "Of course you don't know anything about it. I'm talking like a schoolgirl. You see my name's Patricia, Patricia Brent," and then she plunged into the whole story, telling him frankly of her escapade. He was strangely easy to talk to.
"And—and—" she concluded, "what do you think of me?"
"I think I'd sooner not tell you just now," he smiled.
"Is it as bad as that," she enquired.
Then suddenly the smile faded from his face and he leaned across to her, saying:
"I'm afraid you must call me Patricia," she interrupted with a comical look, "in case they overhear. It seems rather sudden, doesn't it, and I shall have to call you——"
"Peter," he said. He had nice eyes Patricia decided.
"Er—er—Peter," she made a dash at the name.
Bowen sat back in his chair and laughed. Miss Wangle fixed upon him a stare through her lorgnettes, not an unfavourable stare, she was greatly impressed by his rank and red tabs.
After that the ice seemed broken and Patricia and her "fiancé" chatted merrily together, greatly impressing Patricia's fellow-boarders.
Bowen was a good talker and a sympathetic listener and, above all, his attitude had in it that deference which put Patricia entirely at her ease. She told him all there was to tell about herself and he, in return, explained that he came of an army family, and had been sent out to France soon after Mons. He was then a captain in the Yeomanry. He was wounded, promoted, and later received the D.S.O. and M.C. He had now been brought back to England and attached to the General Staff.
"Now I think you know all that is necessary to know about your fiancé," he had concluded.
Patricia laughed. "Oh, by the way," she said, "you have never given me an engagement ring. Please don't forget that. They asked me where my ring was, and I told them I didn't care about rings, as they were badges of servitude You see it is quite possible that Miss Wangle will come over to us presently. She's just that sort, and she might ask awkward questions, that is why I am telling you all about myself."
"I'll remember," said Bowen.
"I'm glad you're a D.S.O., though," she went on, half to herself, "that's sure to interest them, and it's nice to think you're more than a major. Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe are most worldly-minded. Of course it would have been nicer had you been a field-marshal; but I suppose you couldn't be promoted from a major to a field-marshal in the course of a few days, could you?"
"Well, it's not usual," he confessed.
When the meal was over Bowen looked at his watch.
"I'm afraid it's too late for a show, it's a quarter to ten."
"A quarter to ten!" cried Patricia. "How the time has flown. I shall have to be going home."
He noticed preparations for a move at the Wangle table.
"Oh, please, don't hurry! Let's go upstairs and sit and smoke for a little time."
"Do you think I ought," enquired Patricia critically, her head on one side.
"Well," replied Bowen, "I think that you might safely do so as we are engaged," and that settled it.
They went upstairs, and it was a quarter to eleven before Patricia finally decided that she must make a move.
"Do you know," she said as she rose, "I am afraid I have enjoyed this most awfully; but oh! to-morrow morning."
"Shall you be tired?" he enquired.
"Tired!" she queried, "I shall be hot with shame. I shall not dare to look at myself in the glass. I—I—shall give myself a most awful time. For days I shall live in torture. You see I'm excited now and—and—you seem so nice, and you've been so awfully kind; but when I get alone, then I shall start wondering what was in your mind, what you have been thinking of me, and—and—oh! it will be awful. No; I'll come with you while you get your hat. I daren't be left alone. It might come on then and—and I should probably bolt. Of course I shall have to ask you to see me home, if you will, because—because——"
"I'm your fiancé," he smiled.
"Ummm," she nodded.
Both were silent as they sped along westward in the taxi, neither seeming to wish to break the spell.
"Thinking?" enquired Bowen at length, as they passed the Marble Arch.
"I was thinking how perfectly sweet you've been," replied Patricia gravely. "You have understood everything and—and—you see I was so much at your mercy. Shall I tell you what I was thinking?"
"It sounds horribly sentimental."
"Never mind," he replied.
"Well, I was thinking that your mother would like to know that you had done what you have done to-night. And now, please, tell me how much my dinner was."
"Yes, ple-e-e-e-ase," she emphasised the "please."
And then Patricia did a strange thing. She placed her hand upon Bowen's and pressed it.
"Please go on understanding," she said, and he told her how much the dinner was and took the money from her.
"May I pay for the taxi?" he enquired comically.
For a moment she paused and then replied "Yes, I think you may do that, and now here we are," as the taxi drew up, "and thank you very much indeed, and good-bye." They were standing on the pavement outside Galvin House.
"Good-bye," he enquired. "Do you really mean it?"
"Yes, ple-e-e-ase," again she emphasised the "please."
"Patricia," he said in a serious tone, as the door flew open and Gustave appeared silhouetted against the light, "don't you think that sometimes we ought to think of the other fellow?"
"I shall always think of the other fellow," and with a pressure of the hand, Patricia ran up the steps and disappeared into the hall, the door closing behind her. Bowen turned slowly and re-entered the taxi.
"Where to, sir?" enquired the man.
"Oh, to hell!" burst out Bowen savagely.
"Yes, sir; but wot about my petrol?"
"Your petrol? Oh! I see," Bowen laughed. "Well! the Quadrant then."
In the hall Patricia hesitated. Should she go into the lounge, where she was sure Galvin House would be gathered in full force, or should she go straight to bed? Miss Wangle decided the matter by appearing at the door of the lounge.
"Oh! here you are, Miss Brent; we thought you had eloped."
"Wasn't it strange we should see you to-night?" lisped Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, who had followed Miss Wangle.
Patricia surveyed Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe with calculating calmness.
"If two people go to the same Grill-room at the same time on the same evening, it would be strange if they did not see each other. Don't you think so Miss Wangle?"
"Did you say you were going there?" lisped Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, coming to Miss Wangle's assistance. "We forgot."
"Oh, do come in, Miss Brent!" It was Mrs. Craske-Morton who spoke.
Patricia entered the lounge and found, as she had anticipated, the whole establishment collected. Not one was missing. Even Gustave fluttered about from place to place, showing an unwonted desire to tidy up. Patricia was conscious that her advent had interrupted a conversation of absorbing interest, furthermore that she herself had been the subject of that conversation.
"Miss Wangle has been telling us all about your fiancé." It was Miss Sikkum who spoke. "Fancy your saying he was a major when he's a Staff lieutenant-colonel."
"Oh!" replied Patricia nonchalantly, as she pulled off her gloves, "they've been altering him. They always do that in the Army. You get engaged to a captain and you find you have to marry a general. It's so stupid. It's like buying a kitten and getting a kangaroo-pup sent home."
"But aren't you pleased?" enquired Mrs. Craske-Morton, at a loss to understand Patricia's mood.
"No!" snapped Patricia, who was already feeling the reaction. "It's like being engaged to a chameleon, or a quick-change artist. They've made him a 'R.S.O.' as well." Under her lashes Patricia saw, with keen appreciation, the quick glances that were exchanged.
"You mean a D.S.O., Distinguished Service Order," explained Mr. Bolton. "An R.S.O. is er—er—something you put on letters."
"Is it?" enquired Patricia innocently, "I'm so stupid at remembering such things."
"He was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, too," bubbled Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe.
"Was he?" Patricia was afraid of overdoing the pose of innocence she had adopted. "What a nuisance."
"A nuisance!" There was surprised impatience in Miss Wangle's voice.
Patricia turned to her sweetly. "Yes, Miss Wangle. It gives me such a lot to remember. Now let me see." She proceeded to tick off each word upon her fingers. "He's a Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Bowen, D.S.O., M.C. Is that right?"
"Bowen," almost shrieked Miss Wangle. "You said Brown"
"Did I? I'm awfully sorry. My memory's getting worse than ever." Then a wave of mischief took possession of her. "Do you know when I went up to him to-night I hadn't the remotest idea of what his Christian name was."
"Then what on earth do you call him then?" cried Mrs. Craske-Morton.
"Call him?" queried Patricia, as she rose and gathered up her gloves. "Oh!" indifferently, "I generally call him 'Old Thing,'" and with that she left the lounge, conscious that she had scored a tactical victory.