Patricia Brent, Spinster/Chapter 6

 

CHAPTER VI

THE INTERVENTION OF AUNT ADELAIDE

SUNDAY at Galvin House was a day of bodily rest but acute mental activity. The day of God seemed to draw out the worst in everybody; all were in their best clothes and on their worst behaviour. Mr. Cordal descended to breakfast in carpet slippers with fur tops. Miss Wangle regarded this as a mark of disrespect towards the grand-niece of a bishop. She would glare at Mr. Cordal's slippers as if convinced that the cloven hoof were inside.

Mr. Bolton sported a velvet smoking-jacket, white at the elbows, light grey trousers and a manner that seemed to say, "Ha! here's Sunday again, good!" After breakfast he added a fez and a British cigar to his equipment, and retired to the lounge to read Lloyd's News. Both the cigar and the newspaper lasted him throughout the day. Somewhere at the back of his mind was the conviction that in smoking a cigar, which he disliked, he was making a fitting distinction between the Sabbath and week-days. He went even further, for whereas on secular days he lit his inexpensive cigarettes with matches, on the Sabbath he used only fusees.

"I love the smell of fusees," Miss Sikkum would simper, regardless of the fact that a hundred times before she had taken Galvin House into her confidence on the subject. "I think they're so romantic."

Patricia wondered if Mr. Bolton's fusee were an offering to heaven or to Miss Sikkum.

On Sunday mornings Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe went to divine service at Westminster Abbey, and Mr. Cordal went to sleep in the lounge.

Mrs. Barnes wandered aimlessly about, making anxious enquiry of everyone she encountered. If it were cloudy, did they think it would rain? If it rained, did they think it would clear up? If it were fine, did they think it would last? Mrs. Barnes was always going to do something that was contingent upon the weather. Every Sunday she was going for a walk in the Park, or to church; but her constitutional indecision of character intervened.

Mr. Archibald Sefton, who showed the qualities of a landscape gardener in the way in which he arranged his thin fair hair to disguise the desert of baldness beneath, was always vigorous on Sundays. He descended to the dining-room rubbing his hands in a manner suggestive of a Dickens Christmas. After breakfast he walked in the Park, "to give the girls a treat," as Mr. Bolton had once expressed it, which had earned for him a stern rebuke from Miss Wangle. In the afternoon Mr. Sefton returned to the Park, and in the evening yet again.

Mr. Sefton had a secret that was slowly producing in him misanthropy. His nature was tropical and his courage arctic, which, coupled with his forty-five years, was a great obstacle to his happiness. In dress he was a dandy, at heart he was a craven and, never daring, he was consumed with his own fire.

The other guests at Galvin House drifted in and out, said the same things, wore the same clothes, with occasional additions, had the same thoughts; whilst over all, as if to compose the picture, brooded the reek of cooking.

The atmosphere of Galvin House was English, the cooking was English, and the lack of culinary imagination also was English. There were two and a half menus for the one o'clock Sunday dinner. Roast mutton, onion sauce, cabbage, potatoes, fruit pie, and custard; alternated for four weeks with roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, cauliflower, roast potatoes, and lemon pudding. Then came roast pork, apple sauce, potatoes, greens with stewed fruit and cheese afterwards.

The cuisine was in itself a calendar. If your first Sunday were a roast-pork Sunday, you knew without mental effort on every roast-pork Sunday exactly how many months you had been there. If for a moment you had forgotten the day, and found yourself toying with a herring at dinner, you knew it was a Tuesday, just as you knew it was Friday from the Scotch broth placed before you.

Nobody seemed to mind the dreary reiteration, because everybody was so occupied in keeping up appearances. Sunday was the day of reckoning and retrospection. "Were they getting full value for their money?" was the unuttered question. There were whisperings and grumblings, sometimes complaints. Then there was another aspect. Each guest had to enquire if the expenditure were justified by income. All these things, like the weekly mending, were kept for Sundays.

By tea-time the atmosphere was one of unrest. Mr. Sefton returned from the Park disappointed, Miss Sikkum from Sunday-school, breathless from her flight before some alleged admirer, Patricia from her walk, conscious of a dissatisfaction she could not define. Mr. Cordal awoke unrefreshed, Mrs. Craske-Morton emerged from her "boudoir," where she balanced the week's accounts, convinced that ruin stared her in the face owing to the tonic qualities of Bayswater air, and Mr. Bolton emerged from Lloyd's News facetious. Miss Wangle was acid, Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe ultra-forbearing, whilst Mrs. Barnes found it impossible to decide between a heart-cake and a rusk. Only Mrs. Hamilton, at work upon her inevitable knitting, seemed human and content.

On returning to Galvin House Patricia had formed a habit of instinctively casting her eyes in the direction of the letter-rack, beneath which was the table on which parcels were placed that they might be picked up as the various guests entered on their way to their rooms. She took herself severely to task for this weakness, but in spite of her best efforts, her eyes would wander towards the table and letter-rack. At last she had to take stern measures with herself and deliberately walk along the hall with her face turned to the left, that is to the side opposite from that of the letter-rack table.

On the Sunday afternoon following her adventure at the Quadrant Grill-room, Patricia entered Galvin House, her head resolutely turned to the left, and ran into Gustave.

"Oh, mees!" he exclaimed, his gentle, cow-like face expressing pained surprise, rather than indignation.

Gustave was a Swiss, a French-Swiss, he was emphatic on this point. Patricia said he was Swiss wherever he wasn't French, and German wherever he wasn't Swiss and French.

"I am so sorry, Gustave," apologised Patricia. "I wasn't looking where I was going."

Gustave smiled amiably, Patricia was a great favourite of his. "There is a lady in the looaunge, Mees Brent, the same as you." Gustave smiled broadly as if he had discovered some subtle joke in the duplication of Patricia's name.

"Oh, bother!" muttered Patricia to herself. "Aunt Adelaide, imagine Aunt Adelaide on an afternoon like this."

She entered the lounge wearily, to find Miss Brent the centre of a group, the foremost in which were Mrs. Craske-Morton, Miss Wangle, and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe. Patricia groaned in spirit; she knew exactly what had been taking place, and now she would have to explain everything. Could she explain? Had she for one moment paused to think of Aunt Adelaide, no amount of frenzy or excitement would have prompted her to such an adventure. Miss Brent would probe the mystery out of a ghost. Material, practical, level-headed, victorious, she would strip romance from a legend, or glamour from a myth.

As she entered the lounge, Patricia saw by the movement of Miss Wangle's lips that she was saying "Ah! here she is." Miss Brent turned and regarded her niece with a long, non-committal stare. Patricia walked over to her.

"Hullo, Aunt Adelaide! Who would have thought of seeing you here."

Miss Brent looked up at her, received the frigid kiss upon one cheek and returned it upon the other.

"A peck for a peck," muttered Patricia to herself under her breath.

"We've been talking about you," said Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe ingratiatingly.

"How strange," announced Patricia indifferently. "Well, Aunt Adelaide," she continued, turning to Miss Brent, "this is an unexpected pleasure. How is it you are dissipating in town?"

"I want to speak to you, Patricia. Is there a quiet corner where we shall not be overheard?"

Miss Wangle started, Mrs. Craske-Morton rose hurriedly and made for the door. Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe looked uncomfortable. Miss Brent's directness was a thing dreaded by all who knew her.

"You had better come up to my room, Aunt Adelaide," said Patricia.

As she reached the door, Mrs. Craske-Morton turned. "Oh! Miss Brent," she said, addressing Patricia, "would you not like to take your aunt into my boudoir? It is entirely at your disposal."

Mrs. Craske-Morton's "boudoir" was a small cupboard-like appartment in which she made up her accounts. It was as much like a boudoir as a starveling mongrel is like an aristocratic chow. Patricia smiled her thanks. One of Patricia's great points was that she could smile an acknowledgment in a way that was little less than inspiration.

When they reached the "boudoir," Miss Brent sat down with a suddenness and an air of aggression that left Patricia in no doubt as to the nature of the talk she desired to have with her.

Miss Brent was a tall, angular woman, with spinster shouting from every angle of her uncomely person. No matter what the fashion, she seemed to wear her clothes all bunched up about her hips. Her hair was dragged to the back of her head, and crowned by a hat known in the dim recesses of the Victorian past as a "boater." A veil clawed what remained of the hair and hat towards the rear, and accentuated the sharpness of her nose and the fleshlessness of her cheeks. Miss Brent looked like nothing so much as an aged hawk in whom the lust to prey still lingered, without the power of making the physical effort to capture it.

"Patricia," she demanded, "what is all this I hear?"

"If you've been talking to Miss Wangle and Mrs. Mosscrop-Smythe, Aunt Adelaide, heaven only knows what you've heard," replied Patricia calmly.

"Patricia." Miss Brent invariably began her remarks by uttering the name of the person whom she addressed. "Patricia, you know perfectly well what I mean."

"I should know better, if you would tell me," murmured Patricia with a patient sigh as she seated herself in the easiest of the uneasy chairs, and procceeded to pull off her gloves.

"Patricia, I refer to these stories about your being engaged."

"Yes, Aunt Adelaide?"

"Have you nothing to say?"

"Nothing in particular. People get engaged. you know. I suppose it is because they've got nothing else to do."

"Patricia, don't be frivolous."

"Frivolous! Me frivolous! Aunt Adelaide! If you were a secretary to a brainless politician, who is supposed to rise, but who won't rise, can't rise, and never will rise, from ten until five each day, for the magnificent salary of two and a half guineas a week, even you wouldn't be able to be frivolous."

"Patricia!" There was surprised disapproval in Miss Brent's voice. "Are you mad?"

"No, Aunt Adelaide, just bored, just bored stiff." Patricia emphasised the word "stiff" in a way that brought Miss Brent into an even more upright position.

"Patricia, I wish you would change your idiom. Your flagrant vulgarity would have deeply pained your poor, dear father."

Patricia made no response; she simply looked as she felt, unutterably bored. She was incapable even of invention. Supposing she told her aunt the whole story, at least she would have the joy of seeing the look of horror that would overspread her features.

"Patricia," continued Miss Brent, "I repeat, what is this I hear about your being engaged?"

"Oh!" replied Patricia indifferently, "I suppose you've heard the truth; I've got engaged."

"Without telling me a word about it."

"Oh, well! those are nasty things, you know, that one doesn't advertise."

"Patricia!"

"Well, aunt, you say that all men are beasts, and if you associate with beasts, you don't like the world to know about it."

"Patricia!" repeated Miss Brent.

"Aunt Adelaide!" cried Patricia, "you make me feel that I absolutely hate my name. I wish I'd been numbered. If you say 'Patricia' again I shall scream."

"Is it true that you are engaged to Lord Peter Bowen?"

"Good Lord, no." Patricia sat up in astonishment.

"Then that woman in the lounge is a liar."

There was uncompromising conviction in Miss Brent's tone.

Patricia leaned forward and smiled. "Aunt Adelaide, you are singularly discriminating to-day. She is a liar, and she also happens to be a cat."

Miss Brent appeared not to hear Patricia's remark. She was occupied with her own thoughts. She possessed a masculine habit of thinking before she spoke, and in consequence she was as devoid of impulse and spontaneity as a snail.

Patricia watched her aunt covertly, her mind working furiously. What could it mean? Lord Peter Bowen! Miss Wangle was not given to making mistakes in which the aristocracy were concerned. At Galvin House she was the recognised authority upon anything and everything concerned with royalty and the titled and landed gentry. County families were her hobbies and the peerage her obsession. It would be just like Peter, thought Patricia, to turn out a lord, just the ridiculous, inconsequent sort of thing he would delight in. She was unconscious of any incongruity in thinking of him as Peter. It seemed the natural thing to do.

She saw by the signs on her aunt's face that she was nearing a decision. Conscious that she must not burn her boats, Patricia burst in upon Miss Brent's thoughts with a suddenness that startled her.

"If Miss Wangle desires to discuss my friends with you in future, Aunt Adelaide, I think she should adopt the names by which they prefer to be known."

Patricia watched the surprised look upon her aunt's face, and with dignity met the keen hawklike glance that flashed from her eyes.

"If, for reasons of his own," continued Patricia, "a man chooses to drop his title in favour of his rank in the army, that I think is a matter for him to decide, and not one that requires discussion at Miss Wangle's hands."

Miss Brent's stare convinced Patricia that she was carrying things off rather well.

"Patricia, where did you meet this Colonel Peter Bowen?"

The question came like a thunder-clap to Patricia's unprepared ears. All her self-complacency of a moment before now deserted her. She felt her face crimsoning. How she envied girls who did not blush. What on earth could she tell her aunt? Why had an undiscriminating Providence given her an Aunt Adelaide at all? Why had it not bestowed this inestimable treasure upon someone more deserving? What could she say? As well think of lying to Rhadamanthus as to Miss Brent. Then Patricia had an inspiration. She would tell her aunt the truth, trusting to her not to believe it.

"Where did I meet him, Aunt Adelaide?" she remarked indifferently. "Oh! I picked him up in a restaurant; he looked nice."

"Patricia, how dare you say such a thing before me." A slight flush mantled Miss Brent's sallow cheeks. All the proprieties, all the chastities and all the moralities banked up behind her in moral support.

"You ought to feel ashamed of yourself, Patricia. London has done you no good. What would your poor dear father have said?"

"I'm sorry, Aunt Adelaide; but please remember I've had a very tiring week, trying to leaven an unleavenable politician. Shall we drop the subject of Colonel Bowen for the time being?"

"Certainly not," snapped Miss Brent. "It is my duty as your sole surviving relative," how Patricia deplored that word "surviving," why had her Aunt Adelaide survived? "As your sole surviving relative," repeated Miss Brent, "it is my duty to look after your welfare."

"But," protested Patricia, "I'm nearly twenty-five, and I am quite able to look after myself."

"Patricia, it is my duty to look after you." Miss Brent spoke as if she were about to walk over heated ploughshares rather than to satisfy a natural curiosity.

"I repeat," proceeded Miss Brent, "where did you meet Colonel Bowen?"

"I have told you, Aunt Adelaide, but you won't believe me."

"I want to know the truth, Patricia. Is he really Lord Peter?" persisted Miss Brent.

"To be quite candid, I've never asked him," replied Patricia.

Miss Brent stared at her niece. The obviously feminine thing was to express surprise; but Miss Brent never did the obvious thing. Instead of repeating, "Never asked him!" she remained silent for some moments while Patricia, with great intentness, proceeded to jerk her gloves into shape.

"Patricia, you are mad!" Miss Brent spoke with conviction.

Patricia glanced up from her occupation and smiled at her aunt as if entirely sharing her conviction.

"It's the price of spinsterhood with some women," was all she said.

Miss Brent glared at her; but there was more than a spice of curiosity in her look.

"Then you decline to tell me?" she enquired. There was in her voice a note that told of a mind made up.

Patricia knew from past experience that her aunt had made up her mind as to her course of action.

"Tell you what?" she enquired innocently.

"Whether or no the Colonel Bowen you are engaged to is Lord Peter Bowen."

Patricia determined to temporise in order to gain time. She knew Aunt Adelaide to be capable of anything, even to calling upon Lord Peter Bowen's family and enquiring if it were he to whom her niece was engaged. She was too bewildered to know how to act. It would be so like this absurd person to turn out to be a lord and make her still more ridiculous. If he were Lord Peter, why on earth had he not told her? Had he thought she would be dazzled?

Suddenly there flashed into Patricia's mind an explanation which caused her cheeks to flame and her eyes to flash. She strove to put the idea aside as unworthy of him; but it refused to leave her. She had heard of men giving false names to girls they met—in the way she and Bowen had met. He had, then, in spite of his protestations, mistaken her. In all probability he was not staying at the Quadrant at all. What a fool she had been. She had told all about herself, whereas he had told her nothing beyond the fact that his name was Peter Bowen. Oh, it was intolerable, humiliating!

The worst of it was that she seemed unable to extricate herself from the ever-increasing tangle arising out of her folly. Miss Wangle and Galvin House had been sufficiently serious factors, requiring all her watchfulness to circumvent them; but now Aunt Adelaide had thrown herself precipitately into the mêlée, and heaven alone knew what would be the outcome!

Had her aunt been a man or merely a woman, Patricia argued, she would not have been so dangerous; but she possessed the deliberate logic of the one and the quickness of perception of the other. With her feminine eye she could see, and with her man-like brain she could judge.

Patricia felt that the one thing to do was to get rid of her aunt for the day and then think things over quietly and decide as to her plan of campaign.

"Please, Aunt Adelaide," she said, "don't let's discuss it any more to-day, I've had such a worrying time at the Bonsors', and my head is so stupid. Come to tea to-morrow afternoon at half-past five and I will tell you all, as they say in the novelettes; but for heaven's sake don't get talking to those dreadful old tabbies. They have no affairs of their own, and at the present moment they simply live upon mine."

"Very well, Patricia," replied Miss Brent as she rose to go, "I will wait until to-morrow; but, understand me, I am your sole surviving relative and I have a duty to perform by you. That duty I shall perform whatever it costs me."

As Patricia looked into the hard, cold eyes of her aunt, she believed her. At that moment Miss Brent looked as if she represented all the aggressive virtues in Christendom.

"It's very sweet of you, Aunt Adelaide, and I very much appreciate your interest. I am all nervy to-day; but I shall be all right to-morrow. Don't forget, half-past five here. That will give me time to get back from the Bonsors'."

Miss Brent pecked Patricia's right cheek and moved towards the door. "Remember, Patricia," she said, as a final shot, "to-morrow I shall expect a full explanation. I am deeply concerned about you. I cannot conceive what your poor dear father would have said had he been alive."

With this parting shot Miss Brent moved down the staircase and left Galvin House. As she stalked to the temperance hotel in Bloomsbury, where she was staying, she was fully satisfied that she had done her duty as a woman and a Christian.

"Sole surviving relative," muttered Patricia as she turned back after seeing her aunt out. And then she remembered with a smile that her father had once said that "relatives were the very devil." A softness came into her eyes at the thought of her father, and she remembered another saying of his, "When you lose your sense of humour and your courage at the same time, you have lost the game."

For a moment Patricia paused, deliberating what she would do. Finally, she walked to the telephone at the end of the hall. There was a grimness about her look indicative of a set purpose. Taking down the receiver she called "Gerrard 60000."

There was a pause.

"That the Quadrant Hotel?" she enquired. "Is Lord Peter Bowen in?"

The clerk would enquire.

Patricia waited what seemed an age.

At last a voice cried, "Hullo!"

"Is that Lord Peter Bowen?"

"Is that you, Patricia?" came the reply from he other end of the wire.

"Oh, so it is true then!" said Patricia.

"What's true?" queried Bowen at the other end.

"What I've just said."

"What do you mean? I don't understand."

"I must see you this evening," said Patricia in an even voice.

"That's most awfully good of you."

"It's nothing of the sort."

Bowen laughed. "Shall I come round?"

"No."

"Will you dine with me?"

"No."

"Well, where shall I see you?"

Patricia thought for a moment. "I will meet you at Lancaster Gate tube at twenty minutes to nine."

"All right, I'll be there. Shall I bring the car?"

For a moment Patricia hesitated. She did not want to go to a restaurant with him, she wanted merely to talk and see how she was to get out of the difficulty with Aunt Adelaide. The car seemed to offer a solution. They could drive out to some quiet place and then talk without a chance of being overheard.

"Yes, please, I think that will do admirably."

"Mind you bring a thick coat. Won't you let me pick you up? Please do, then you can bring a fur coat and all that sort of thing, you know."

Again Patricia hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps that would be the better way," she conceded grudgingly.

"Right-oh! Will half-past eight do?"

"Yes, I'll be ready."

"It's awfully kind of you; I'm frightfully bucked."

"You had better wait and see, I think," was Patricia's grim retort. "Good-bye."

"Au revoir."

Patricia put the receiver up with a jerk.

She returned to her room conscious that she was never able to do herself justice with Bowen. Her most righteous anger was always in danger of being dissipated when she spoke to him. His personality seemed to radiate good nature, and he always appeared so genuinely glad to see her, or hear her voice that it placed her at a disadvantage she ought to be stronger and more tenacious of purpose, she told herself. It was weak to be so easily influenced by someone else, especially a man who had treated her in the way that Bowen had treated her; for Patricia had now come to regard herself as extremely ill-used.

Nothing, she told herself, would have persuaded her to ring up Bowen in the way she had done, had it not been for Aunt Adelaide. In her heart she had to confess that she was very much afraid of Aunt Adelaide and what she might do.

Patricia dreaded dinner that evening. She knew instinctively that everybody would be full of Miss Wangle's discovery. She might have known that Miss Wangle would not be satisfied until she had discovered everything there was to discovered about Bowen.

As Patricia walked along the hall to the staircase, Mrs. Hamilton came out of the lounge. Patricia put her arm round the fragile waist of the old lady and they walked upstairs together.

"Well," said Patricia gaily, "what are the old tabbies doing this afternoon?"

"My dear!" expostulated Mrs. Hamilton gently, "you mustn't call them that, they have so very little to interest them that—that——"

"Oh, you dear, funny little thing!" said Patricia, giving Mrs. Hamilton a squeeze which almost lifted her off her feet. "I think you would find an excuse for anyone, no matter how wicked. When I get very, very bad I shall come and ask you to explain me to myself. I think if you had your way you would prove every wolf a sheep underneath. Come into my room and have a pow-wow."

Inside her room Patricia lifted Mrs. Hamilton bodily on to the bed. "Now lie there, you dear little thing, and have a rest. Dad used to say that every woman ought to lie on her back for two hours each day. I don't know why. I suppose it was to keep her quiet and get her out of the way. In any case you have got to lie down there."

"But your bed, my dear," protested Mrs. Hamilton.

"Never mind my bed, you just do as you're told. Now what are the old cats—I beg your pardon, what have the—lambs been saying?"

Mrs. Hamilton smiled in spite of herself. "Well, of course, dear, we're all very interested to hear that you are engaged to Lord Peter Bowen."

"How did they find out?" interrupted Patricia.

"Well, it appears that Miss Wangle has a friend who has a cousin in the War Office."

"Oh, dear!" groaned Patricia. "I believe Miss Wangle has a friend who has a cousin in every known place in the world, and a good many unknown places," she added. "She has got a bishop in heaven, innumerable connections in Mayfair, acquaintances at Court, cousins of friends at the War Office; the only place where she seems to have nobody who has anybody else is hell."

"My dear!" said Mrs. Hamilton in horror, "you mustn't talk like that."

"But isn't it true?" persisted Patricia. "Well, I'm sorry if I've shocked you. Tell me all about it."

"Well," began Mrs. Hamilton, "soon after you had gone out Miss Wangle's friend telephoned in reply to her letter of enquiry. She told her all about Lord Peter Bowen, how he had distinguished himself in France, won the Military Cross, the D.S.O., how he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and brought back to the War Office and given a position on the General Staff. He's a very clever young man, my dear."

Patricia laughed outright at Mrs. Hamilton's earnestness. "Why of course he's clever, otherwise he wouldn't have taken up with such a clever young woman."

"Well, my dear, I hope you'll be happy," said Mrs. Hamilton earnestly.

"I doubt it," said Patricia.

"Doubt it!" There was horror in Mrs. Hamilton's voice. She half raised herself on the bed. Patricia pushed her back again.

"Never mind, your remark reminds me of a story about a great-great-grandmother of mine. A granddaughter of hers had become engaged and there was a great family meeting to introduce the poor victim to his future "in-laws." The old lady was very deaf and had formed the habit of speaking aloud quite unconscious that others could hear her. The wretched young man was brought up and presented, and everybody was agog to hear the grandmotherly pronouncement, for the old lady was as shrewd as she was frank. She looked at the young man keenly and deliberately, whilst he stood the picture of discomfort, and turning to her granddaughter, said, "Well, my dear, I hope you'll be happy, I hope you'll be very happy," then to herself in an equally loud voice she added, "But he wouldn't have been my choice, he wouldn't have been my choice."

"Oh! the poor dear," said Mrs. Hamilton, seeing only the tragic side of the situation.

Patricia laughed. "How like you, you dear little grey lady," and she bent down and kissed the pale cheeks, bringing a slight rose flush to them

It was half-past seven before Mrs. Hamilton left Patricia's room.

"Heigh-ho!" sighed Patricia as she undid her hair, "I suppose I shall have to run the gauntlet during dinner."